He couldn’t find him. He couldn’t sleep.
When Judah hit the ground, his mouth opened instinctually. Earth, dew, wet mud. He bit his lip as he rolled deeper into the trench. In the distance he’d heard screams, gunfire, the pulsing stomp of so many feet. He heard him.
“I’m coming with you,” Nathan had said. Judah’s jacket was too big on him, but he wore it like a second skin. The cuffs crawled down from where he’d rolled them up to his elbows, following his bad decision like baby ducklings.
“Maybe you shouldn’t—“ he’d tried to argue, tried to be the responsible older sibling he knew he should be, but he couldn’t hide his smile well enough. He was tired of being alone. “Oh, she’ll hate me for this,” he laughed as he pulled his brother under his arm, ruffling his already messy hair.
She’ll hate me for this. He couldn’t sleep.
His sister jumped into the dip in the path. A five foot drop, a somersault, two grass-stained knees. “Don’t leave me here alone!” She called from where nature reclaimed her. They weren’t supposed to go this far into the woods without an adult. “Jude!” she yelled.
“Gabby, I don’t know,” Judah hedged, but she turned away from him and began to climb over a tree root curved around the shape of a wheel.
“I’m not going to wait for you,” her voice carried her body into the dark, like every warning story he’d ever ignored. He climbed down slowly, carefully, and hoped their parents were too busy with the others to notice they were gone.
I’m not going to wait for you. He couldn’t sleep.
The Fever took the money first. The money. The food. The light in their eyes, in their voice, in their last breaths. “You stay in school,” Gabby said, a baby on her hip, a new husband in her hand. “I can keep it steady. I can do it.”
Nathan was eleven. He didn’t understand how bad things might get, but he could keep a secret. “Let me come with you!” he whispered in the night, but Judah made him promise to stay behind. He had an important duty. He’d tell her that Judah enlisted and show her the compensation figures.
She wouldn’t get mad at him. Not for long. He was still a kid. “I’m older,” Judah told him. “It’s my job to look out for you.”
It’s my job to look out for you. He couldn’t sleep.
“I can’t wait to go home,” Nathan said the night before. Judah’s jacket is torn on the left sleeve, but it finally fits him. Nathan folds it into a pillow and settles down while the wind whips their daydreaming memories into sharp focus.
Judah’s still there when it happens. In the woods, in the waiting room, in the window of the night he can’t take back. He’s at home and gone as the red seeps into the hand-me-down fabric, as it seeps out, as his brother—as Nathan bleeds out between his fingers. He urges him to say something.
Nothing happens. Judah can’t find his words. His voice fails him.
His voice fails him. He can’t sleep.
He’s given an out. He can go home with the body or sign on for another mission. He doesn’t think twice about doubling down on the distance, signing away a future destined to be buried with his old coat. All he can pass down now is a sense of accomplishment, a vindication, the relief of providing.
He won’t return without proving himself. Without honoring him, honoring her, honoring them. Something good, or at least worthwhile, will come from this. It has to. He’s sure of it.
He can’t sleep.
This piece was inspired by epiphany and a little bit of seven, both by Taylor Swift. It’s a character study of one of the main characters of my novel. I immediately thought of him the first time I heard this song and I can’t wait to listen to it on repeat as I return to revisions.
I am @LilyMeade on most social networks, but most active on Twitter.