Disclaimer: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Will was out walking the streets. There was a large park in the centre of the small downtown area, little more than a patch of ground containing a swing set and a small war memorial. The courthouse, the town hall, a library and a church surrounded this park. It was, in Will's mind, a beautiful, if desolate part of town at three a.m..
He had found an increasing need to be outside lately as it drew ever closer to Christmas. He felt a heightened sense of solitude that kept him awake at night. Not that he had any rules about when he should be in bed anymore. He was responsible for himself now. If he wanted to wander the streets at an ungodly hour of the morning alone with his own thoughts then he was permitted to.
He was wrapped up in a heavy winter coat he had borrowed from the hall closet, his own were just not up to the task of dealing with the extreme temperatures. By all rights he should be huddled up warm in his bed, but he had to just walk.
They would all be breaking soon for the Christmas holidays, school would relax its death grip on their lives and allow them some free time. Lisa had already made it clear that Will was expected at her house for the big day, and as flattered as he was that she had insisted, he really wanted to duck and hide.
He kept his hands squarely in the deep pockets of the coat, glad of its warmth as he soldiered on across the square of white that was the park, he was on the return trip after making a loop of the town and he was retracing his own footprints.
He barely noticed at first the car that trundled along the road parallel to him, black like most Government Issue cars were, and it had white numbering on the front fender. M-0234. When Will finally noticed it, his heart went cold. M...military...
He swallowed and tried to keep walking, his head turning to stare at the car now that was gently rolling along opposite to him. The driver was in no hurry, and why should he be? He was exactly where he wanted to be.
Will considered walking over to that car, but that thought was replaced by an irrational fear of what would happen. He stopped in the dead centre of the park, surrounded by a barrier of white snow on all sides; it was all that was between him and the road that ringed the park. In some ways he felt safe there, it made no sense, but just felt safe out in the open, standing in front of a courthouse.
The car drew to a halt just down on the main street, and the door opened allowing the broad-shouldered man to step out of it. He reached down into the car and pulled out his peaked cap, setting it on his head. It was as if he wanted Will to know exactly who it was.
There had never been any doubt in Will's mind. The military car instead of the Bronco, Will's father was making a very clear point.
He thought about making a dash for it, if he could make one of the side streets maybe he would lose him. But that stuck in Will's throat, he wasn't about to run from this man. He had been afraid of him his entire life.
He remembered when they had first come to Canada; the Major had insisted that Will was changing his clothes too often. Fresh shirts every day, and a clean pair of trousers, in Will's mind no big deal. To his father it was excessive, and he had padlocked the wardrobe. Will had been furious; his Father hadn't made any sense... But then the man seldom had.
Defiantly Will had walked to the wardrobe and unscrewed the handle, something the Major hadn't anticipated, and when the lock had fallen uselessly to the ground his father had been embarrassed at the futility of his gesture. That had only enraged him further.
The argument had fired back and forth between them and kept escalating. Will had been deliberately provoking his father, pushing him to the very edge, challenging his intelligence. And when he had struck, Will had barely noticed. He had been knocked from his feet, and he should have felt pain, but he was too far into the argument for that.
The Major had been surprised the first time Will had stood back up, not even missing a beat and continuing to verbally fight back. The second fist hadn't been as restrained, the force behind it hadn't been controlled, it had been meant to put Will down permanently. When Will stood for the second time he again hadn't stopped. A combination of shock and adrenaline had fuelled him past the point where he felt anything, and he had remembered the look of shock on the Major's face. It was the only fight he had ever won with the Major.
Though I am wounded I am not slain, I'll lay me down to bleed awhile, then to rise and fight again...
The words of the ancient poem rang in his ears; he had discovered it by accident one day when he had been digging through a book. It had been sound advice. Everyone got knocked down; it was those that got back up who weren't beaten.
They were staring at each other, a wide expanse of white separating them. But the tension between the two of them could be felt. The history between two men who were as alike as they were different. Will fought with words, the major with his fists. But the difference this time was, Will no longer had to play by the Major's rules.
That realization washed over him like ice water. He didn't have to face that man; he didn't have to settle one last argument with him. There was no point, no need. The Major had ultimately won what he wanted, his new life bereft of the past, and Will had won the freedom he had so craved growing up. Any more battles would serve no use; there was no point to them. The Major was a sad and bitter old man haunted by the past. He felt pity at that moment, and it must have shown on his face.
The Major read it like a slap, realizing it for what it was, he slowly rested a hand on the door handle of his car, staring at Will once more before he pulled the door open and stepped inside. When it roared away, Will was once again alone standing in the snow.
Morning rituals were always the same for Andrew. His mother had been up at the crack of dawn every day since his father had died. She sat alone at the dining room table wrapped in her pink robe, hands curled around a mug of coffee as she greeted the dawn. The carafe was always in front of her, and she drank it always black with no sweetness to it.
He would always find her like that and it saddened him to see her alone each morning. She had borne the brunt of the loss hard. Once a vibrant and charming woman, she had become a different person. She was stronger in some ways; the formidable force of nature one of his aunts had described her as. But in others she had grown weaker.
There had been plenty of gossip at the church over what had happened to Mister Highmore. The accident had been work-related, and the conclusion had been `death by misadventure' a generic term used when no one knew exactly what had happened. And like most things that could not be explained, it was a popular topic for the hens who gathered at the church.
Andrew knew that his mother hated the gossipmongers. She wasn't about to be ground beneath the rumour mill; she had too much personality for that. And Andrew often wondered at those women who viewed his mother as a shrew. If they could see the sad woman staring out of the patio windows at the fields behind their house, would they still dislike her?
"How are your exams going?" she asked, surprising him as he poured a bowl of cereal. She rarely got into a conversation with him this early.
"They're going well," he said joining her at the table and pouring milk into the bowl, "Last one is this morning."
She nodded at him absently, turning her head back to the sunrise. She was a beautiful woman, thin with natural blond hair that was almost white, cut short against her head that brought out her pair of striking blue eyes. Andrew had inherited her eyes, and his father's looks, a lucky combination.
"What's her name?" Micheline asked, offering a slight hint of a smile as she looked over the table at him.
He was startled, and he looked down at his bowl of cereal trying to regroup.
She saw that she had guessed correctly when she looked at his shy reaction. It was so unlike him, he was like his father in that as well. Strongly confident in everything. That, more than his looks, would get him far in his life. And lately there had been a warmth about him that she had recognized as well. Again, like his father, love showed on his face. The mystery girl, whoever she was, was very lucky to be loved like that.
"No one, Mom." Andrew said nervously as he hurried through his breakfast, looking for a viable escape before she questioned him further.
Micheline gauged his reaction to her question with the measure years of watching him grow up had afforded her. Her curiosity was definitely aroused now, but she wouldn't let it show, let him have his kisses in secret; let him enjoy himself - he needed it.
"I'm working at the Church dinner tonight," she said as he got up to drop his bowl in the sink, "I want you to be there to give me a hand."
Andrew nodded his head in assent as he began to pick up his books and stuff them in his backpack, "Sure thing, what time?"
She pursed her lips, "Come by there after school and I will put you to work setting up the tables." She watched as he pulled on his beloved jacket, remembering how proud her husband had been when Andrew had first earned the right to wear it.
"Okay, I'll be there..." he said scooping up his keys and heading for the door.
"Andrew," she said stopping him one foot out the door, "I love you."
He smiled at that as he left to go to school.
The Catholic Church was one of those old buildings that had withstood the test of time. It had been standing upon the same foundation from the time Merrickville had been nothing more than a small farming community. It was an old stone building; the original builders had felt they owed something more than wood to whatever deity watched over them and their crops. And the stained glass windows had been a gift from an old church that had been torn down nearly fifty years ago in Ireland, a gift that had tied the town to its Irish roots.
Andrew had parked the car and had ducked inside to find his mother. As usual she was in the church hall beneath the main church directing the small group of volunteers to set everything out for the Christmas dinner. The pungent aroma of roasting turkey filled the air, making his mouth water.
He reported to his mother who directed him to assist in setting up the folding tables so that a couple of the other male volunteers could set out the chairs. Manual labour was for the boys to do, and his mother wasn't about to go easy on anyone.
It was good to see so many of the Church regulars about, Majella and her husband Arthur were present, Majella hard at work in the kitchen area baking up some fresh dinner rolls. Arthur was busy rigging Christmas lights. It reminded Andrew of Will, and he felt his cheeks getting warm again and he bent back to work.
He had caught Will earlier in the day, on his way to his exam. They had exchanged shy smiles, but what worried Andrew had been Will's tired eyes, like he hadn't been getting sleep lately. He reminded himself to say something the next time they were alone.
When the guests began to arrive, the volunteers had been given a break and Father Fitzpatrick made his appearance. Like most aging Catholic priests, he had a round smile that suited him, and the kind of outwardly forceful personality that made an impression on his parishioners. He shook hands with everyone with whom he came into contact; a smile and a friendly wink and he was on to the next one. The good Father enjoyed being social and events like the dinner were his element.
Mister Greenwood put in an appearance; the New Age English teacher was a rare sight at Church functions, but his wife Katherine was a regular member of the congregation. She took a moment to hug Micheline, a silent show of solidarity and gratitude, leaving Andrew an awkward moment facing Greenwood.
Greenwood didn't hesitate, he gave Andrew that measuring look he affixed whenever he came face to face with the boy after the hallway incident, and shook his hand, "Merry Christmas." He said in a robust kind of way, and moved on to exchange pleasantries with the priest.
The rustle of whispers in the room caused Andrew to look up, and to his shocked dismay, Will's father and his new wife entered the hall. The Major was dressed in his uniform, the medals and brass seeming to shield the coward of a man that hid behind them. A British officer was supposed to be a model of gallantry, a gentleman in the darkest places of the world. The Major used it as a place to hide.
Andrew felt his resentment growing inside of him as the man marched past him to shake a firm hand with the priest.
Fitzpatrick wasn't a naive man; he looked past the Major at his wife and the young girl she carried in her arms. He looked puzzled, "Your son couldn't join us this afternoon Major Carter?"
It was the first time Andrew had ever had a true respect for the priest. The pomp and bluster of the Major had been deflated in a single question. It was a spectacular gesture, and Andrew could see his mother affixing the Major with a look of disdain.
"I never liked that man," She murmured as she sat down beside Andrew, lifting a cup of herbal tea to her lips and blowing gently to cool it down.
"Yeah," Andrew said distantly, "he's a bastard..." he realized he had just sworn in front of his mother and turned quickly to apologize.
She simply regarded him with a bemused smile, "Your dad thought the same thing when the Major first moved into town," she shook her head, "I feel sorry for the children..."
Andrew sighed as he sat down at her table, "Carter's a good guy..."
Micheline nodded, "Well it looks like he has a good friend," She was remarkably astute, and Andrew felt a touch nervous on the subject.
"Yeah... well he needs one..."
She nodded and looked up at the Major who was lecturing over some political point to some parishioners who looked like they would rather be elsewhere. She let out a low sigh, "Well I think William needs a good friend this Christmas, you should invite him to join us Christmas Eve."
Andrew was surprised, and realized that his mother was doing it more out of honest concern than any ulterior motive. She was simply thinking about one lonely soul on a day of families. He nodded, silently thanking her for her kindness. "I'll ask him."
She stood, setting her tea aside, "Good, now I need to start serving."
Andrew sat back in his chair wondering at his mother, and the one thing that made her so special in his mind, her unselfish caring for other people. She had a capacity to bring a room to life with her presence, and when she was there, there was no doubt who was in control.
"Andrew Highmore isn't it?" The Major's crisp accented voice startled him, and he stared up at the medalled chest to the craggy face of the man who had tormented Will. There was the man that had put an innocent young man through hell on earth for no other reason than to ease his own bitterness. Andrew felt his anger rising as he stood slowly. Realizing he was taller than the Major made him bolder and he met the Major's eyes with a hard look.
"What do you want?" he demanded, his tone one of barely-controlled fury.
The Major frowned, taken aback by Andrew's sudden hostility, then his shoulders squared in a military fashion and his face became a cold mask. "I had wanted to say I have heard good things about you. The Legion is considering you for a scholarship this year." His voice was clipped and his words were spoken flawlessly; he was squarely confident in a position of power.
Andrew didn't flinch; he remained standing as he did, feet loosely apart, hands at his sides. The Major didn't miss the combat stance; his eyes flickered down to gauge it, before they returned to Andrew's eyes. There was a look of humour in them, an appreciation of a spirit ready to fight him if it had to.
"I just wanted to say hello to you and tell you that I will be watching you closely. Good luck, Mister Highmore." He accented the "Mister"; it was stressed the same way he would use it against his subordinates. He respected titles, and anyone without rank was beneath him. And as quickly as he had materialized he had returned to his table and his wife.
Andrew seethed, looking over towards his mother who hadn't seen the exchange. Mister Greenwood sitting close to the Priest caught his eyes. The teacher was studying him, his fingers brushing his beard thoughtfully. As he noticed Andrew had seen him, he inclined his head and returned to his conversation.