Grief is like the ocean,
it comes in waves,
ebbing and flowing.
Sometimes the water is calm,
and sometimes it is overwhelming.
All we can do is learn to swim.
- Vicki Harrison
December 1, 1917
Will expected to send his letter off with a lick of the flap, a stamp in the corner, and have that be the end of that. It’s not as if he had anything to offer. Blake’s rings and tag, Blake’s name and keepsake, all of the evidence that he’d once existed in this world, were safe in Lieutenant Blake’s hands. What could Will possibly add that would help ease the heartache? Nothing. All he had were excuses—I’m sorry—and lies—It was very quick.
Tom Blake deserved better than any lie. Which is why Will was surprised to be handed another envelope with the familiar handwriting that greeted his eyes the day of the mission. It takes him a while to understand that the courier is talking to him and not past him to the spot where Blake used to lie.
“You must be mistaken.” Will feels a surge of panic upon seeing that neat handwriting adorning the paper. “That must’ve been for…”
“Says here, William Schofield. Unless you know another Schofield in the Eighth, I presume that’s you.”
“But—But I—” He’s not ready. “It can’t possibly—”
The courier takes pity on him. “Take it, Schofield.” He places the letter in Will’s lone hand and closes his fingers around it. It feels heavier than the dead weight of Blake’s body.
“Thank you,” Will lies.
“Of course.” The courier turns to leave, then hesitates. “Do you need help with…” He gestures to the flap.
It’s been long enough that the skin has healed over the flesh and bone at his shoulder joint, but Will still feels the pull of his phantom limb from time to time. An internal urge to reach out that’s now been denied. A punishment that’s nowhere severe enough. Will deserves to be damned, to be struck down by lightning, to suffer more to atone for his crimes. Then again, perhaps that’s God’s plan, to make him beg for the end.
“No,” Will says. “I can manage.”
After the courier bids goodbye with a gentle pat on the back, Will steadies himself against the tree. It feels much different than before. For one, the leaves have long dried and littered the ground with their corpses from the frostbite settling in. The bark is tougher, but not by much—it’s rough to the touch, and Will traces the damage with a press of his forehead against the trunk. He hopes it lives through the winter to see the spring again.
He takes in a deep breath, fills his lungs, then lets the air out twice as slowly.
He crouches down, holds the letter between his knees, and rips the flap open. He pulls out the letter, expecting it to catch fire and burn his remaining arm off. When he unfolds it, however, all he sees is that familiar handwriting.
I’ve sat at my bedside table and burnt through two candlesticks wondering what to write. I wanted to tell you something, but I did not know what. In the end, my mind settled on the following.
As you can probably imagine, I did not take the news well. To be honest, I am not certain if I ever will. However, this does not reflect judgment upon you. My Tommy was young, to be sure. I do not need to see your face to know that you once had the same youth reflected in your features before this war took it from you.
From the way you described him, it appears he was happy. Lord knows if anybody could find happiness in wartime, it would be Tommy. I don’t know whether this was Tommy forcing it on you or a result of your effort, but I appreciate it either way.
I hope this makes it to you. I hope you make it home. One of you deserves to.
P.S. — If you manage to come upon those cherry trees again, please let me know if they’ve bloomed.
Will crumples the letter in his fist, drops to his knees, and cries until he tastes the entire ocean on his tongue.
December 10, 1918
Martha’s words must be mightier than the Lord’s, because Will finds himself standing amidst a sea of homesick soldiers at the edge of the beach, waiting his turn to board the ship.
I hope you make it home. Maybe the lightning will strike after his foot hits the metal boat, splitting the vessel in half and taking down everyone with him. After all, Blake is worth more than the whole bloody lot of them put together.
Will’s gotten used to the balance of his body by now. It’s as if all the times Blake has pulled him up managed to transfer a bit of strength into the arm that’s left. Maybe that’s why Blake was so quick to bleed out, because he didn’t keep any of that life for himself.
As Will stares out into the water, the tide coming in and out like the loud chatter of voices around him, his ears pick up a particularly distinct echo.
Will turns. He immediately notices the owner of the voice from his tall stature. “Jondalar?”
Jondalar gently weaves in between the knots of bodies, swift and silent, until he’s standing there with an automatic hand to Will’s arm. It’s kind to the touch, just like that day after...after.
“How are you?” Jondalar asks. He doesn’t look at the missing space on Will’s other side, doesn’t even seem to register it. Will always had a feeling Jondalar was the wisest one of the lads he met that day.
“Been better,” Will says truthfully. “But I shouldn’t complain.”
“You’re only human.” There’s a sincerity in Jondalar’s eyes that’s neither mocking nor pretentious, unlike the countless officials that debriefed Will after he returned from his mission. Thank you for your service, those lips muttered. We’ll do anything to win this war, their eyes said.
“Being human has its limitations,” Will says. Being kind has its limitations.
Jondalar grips Will’s shoulder harder, as if attempting to expel all of those thoughts from Will’s mind. “You’re only human,” he repeats. “Don’t waste it.”
Perhaps Will is imagining it, but at that moment, a bit more strength is added to his arm. If Blake had gotten the opportunity to meet Jondalar, Will thinks that they could’ve changed the world with their combined kindness alone.
“Where are you headed?” Will asks. “Not planning to go back home?”
“Not quite yet. Thought I would take the chance to explore the world before it goes to hell again.”
Jondalar smiles mischievously, and that’s when Will decides—yeah, he and Blake definitely would’ve gotten along.
“Got a pencil?” Will digs out the piece of paper that his notice was printed on, then turns it around. He borrows Jondalar’s shoulder to scribble his address. “Feel free to visit if you’re ever in the area.”
Jondalar skims over the address, then smiles again. “You don’t know what you’ve done by offering me to come inside your home.”
Will laughs. It feels like the rumble of a storm stirring up in his stomach. Until it transforms into rain again, he’ll enjoy it.
December 25, 1918
Eleanor leans all of her weight onto him the moment she opens the door. Her curves fit against his harder bones and her wisps of hair tickle his scuffed cheeks as he drops the single bag he owns to wrap his arm around her. He breathes her in and smells the aroma of freshly baked bread and lavender perfume around her neck. It’s almost like an artifact from a bygone era, of when people’s only worries were indeed whether the grocer’s would have enough flour in stock or what type of scent to wear on a given day.
He’s forgotten how much he misses this.
“Welcome home,” Eleanor says into the tattered lining of his jacket.
“I’m back,” Will says, wrapping his arm even tighter around her slim waist. That’s one good thing about missing an arm—they’re pressed together more closely than before. Maybe it’ll eventually be enough to erase the heartache that’s left a void in his chest.
Eleanor begins patching it up little by little. She cooks him his favourite meal, a beef stew that he pretended he tasted every Friday night in the mess tent and tried to not spit out onto the dirt. She takes off his jacket and his braces and his trousers and pushes him into the bathtub, dumps a pail of lukewarm water onto him, and kneads soap suds into his back. She wraps him in a fresh towel and dries his ears and combs down every tattered knot in his hair, all luxuries that have evaded him for three years.
That night, they lie side by side, amidst the bed that Elizabeth and Grace were conceived in. For some reason, this is what makes the void rip open again, undoing all of Eleanor’s hard work. He tries to sew it up himself, to close the gap and cauterize the wound, but his secrets spill out faster than he can make work of his thoughts.
“Your mind’s not here,” Eleanor says against his shoulder. She traces a finger up his side and settles her hand against his bandage. “Where have you gone, love?”
He thinks about how much to tell her. How much to say about blue eyes and pink cheeks and sun-kissed smiles. How much to explain that he’s only able to lie here safely in bed because Blake sacrificed his life for his, for everyone’s, so that the entire world can sleep without worry.
“I—” He closes his eyes. “You know that I love you, right?”
“Do you think it’s possible to love more than one person in a lifetime?”
The hand on his shoulder doesn’t flinch, not even a bit. “What are you trying to say?”
There’s a hallowing wind building up inside his chest, slowly increasing speed to a hurricane.
“I think—” He stops. “I—”
The hand leaves his shoulder to touch his face instead, turning him until he’s looking into those dark green eyes. He’s reminded of the first time they met, a shy glance across the market when they fancied the same apple at the grocer’s that turned into a deliberate look, dinner at the cafe, and a night’s walk next to the docks—and eventually into a life built together.
“Tell me,” Eleanor says. Her voice pushes against the hurricane, against the wind and storm, and quiets the eye of his mind.
So, he tells her. About the boy with blue eyes and pink cheeks and sun-kissed smiles. About the boy that saved his life.
It takes the entire night, all the way until sunrise. Eleanor doesn’t leave his side, and neither does Blake, and Will thinks for the first time that things might turn out alright.
March 21, 1919
Will collapses against the wall of the pub, pint half-drained and arm already raised to signal for another. It’s become a talent, the ability to flag down the barman while a glass is still in his hand.
The cherry blossoms lining the road outside are in full bloom. Blake would’ve turned 21 today.
He remembers the day he had to endure Blake’s 20th’s birthday by himself back in the trenches. It was also a sunny day, as if the Lord was making mockery of Blake’s death. See what you get in exchange for his life? See what you get in exchange for a bit of tin?
He begrudged the lack of access to alcohol back then, but now, he’s wondering if that might’ve been the only reason he didn’t fall into oblivion until now.
At some point, he makes it to a table in the corner, though he’s not sure how he gets here. Mind is hazy and all that. Doesn’t matter, though—all that matters is that his heart is still empty, and his glass is still full.
Large, warm hands stop his arm before his lips can swallow down the last of the whiskey. He blinks, tries to reach out after the glass when it’s taken away from him, but the full length of his arm leaves him just a few centimeters short. Typical—his arm was never useful without Blake around to pull him up with.
“Think you’ve had enough of that, Lance Corporal.”
Will squints up at the sudden address of rank.
Smith places the glass on the bar counter before coming back and sitting down across from him. “Not anymore.”
“What—What are you—” Is he hallucinating? Is he back in that truck? Is he back on that muddy road, back in that abandoned farmhouse, back in that dreaded field, with—with—
Smith lays a finger against his wrist. “Stay with me.”
The action stifles the next bout of panic welling up inside him. Instead, Will finds himself staring down at Smith’s hand. Scar tissue covers it from finger to finger.
“Barbed wire,” Smith explains, when Will looks up. “Rookie mistake during training.”
That explains the gloves. Curiously, it makes Will feel a little bit better. Even someone as elegant as Smith can be clumsy when first starting out. Nobody’s immune to sharp thorns, it would appear.
“Me too.” Will gestures to his shoulder. “But not during training.”
“I got the better end of the bargain, then,” Smith says with a raise of eyebrows.
Will barks out a laugh. It sounds snider than he intended. “You want to help a man out, then?” He hears the venom hanging in the air, then sighs. “I’m sorry, Captain. That was uncalled for.”
“Like I said, not anymore.”
Will watches Smith lean his cane against the table. He wonders how Smith got the wound to warrant it, but instead of asking, he says, “Not Lance Corporal anymore, either.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Smith’s face is unreadable as always. “You’re sitting here, aren’t you?”
Will looks down to escape into his glass, then remembers Smith took the bloody thing away. “You’ve seen this a lot, then?”
“Not just. Been there myself.”
Even without meeting Smith’s gaze, Will knows that those eyes are saying the same thing that Smith told him that day after they parted: It doesn’t do to dwell on it.
“How do you do it?” Will asks. How do you not think about it every minute, every hour, every day? How do you not let it consume you from the inside out? How do you not let it destroy every good thing that’s left in your life?
Smith’s finger is still on his wrist, Will realizes, when tears begin streaming down his cheeks from anger, from frustration, from the inability to do anything but dwell on it.
Smith presses his finger into Will’s skin more firmly. “Not dwelling on it doesn’t mean never thinking about it.”
Will lets his mind wrap around those syllables, but they don’t make any sense. He tries to rearrange them until they do, but he can’t.
“Schofield,” Smith says. “Will.”
Will raises his head. “Sir?”
“You can mourn without forgetting,” Smith says. His eyes are dark with all the sadness in the world. “I know how it sounds. It’s not easy. But I promise it will be better.”
Will doesn’t know what to say to that, so he stays silent.
“If you ever need a friend,” Smith says, taking a card out of a tin and placing it on the table, “I’ll be a ring away.”
Then, Smith taps his finger against Will’s wrist once more before picking up his cane, rolling a few coins onto the table, and walking away with a wave of his hand.
When Smith exits the pub, Will picks up the card.
Smith & Richards Tailor Shop
He tucks it into his tin along with Martha’s letter.
April 6, 1919
The Blake farm is a lot smaller than Will imagined it. For instance, he pictured an entire field dedicated to cherry trees, not just the one small quarter patch in the corner, but he supposes that was one of Blake’s powers—to make the world feel like a bigger place than it really was.
Lieutenant Blake is wearing Blake’s tag along with his own when he appears by his side.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Will says, before Lieutenant Blake can say anything. Why would they let him step foot onto their property? It doesn’t make any sense to him. In fact, nothing much in the world makes sense, anymore. But, Eleanor had urged him to go when the invitation came, and he’s only so strong against her words.
Lieutenant Blake hums, then stuffs his hands into his pockets. “You’re right.”
Will appreciates the bluntness. Blake always said that his brother was like that—candid, straightforward, and to the point. It was the first thing that struck Will when he met the man. Do you need medical assistance? Lieutenant Blake asked in a tone that sounded like he could cure all injuries with his directive alone. The Eighth? What’re you doing here? he’d continued in an incredulous manner, all but demanding answers out of him. You must know my brother, he’d said, perking up with the light of a thousand suns. Tom’s here? Where is he? he’d immediately followed up with, all but ready to run off to greet Blake. Watching the realization dawn on Lieutenant Blake’s face was almost as painful as feeling Blake go cold under his touch. Maybe that’s the Blake family curse—the ability to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
“Hey.” Lieutenant Blake drops a palm onto Will’s shoulder and shakes him briefly. “Did you hear what I said?”
Will doesn’t understand how those eyes aren’t dark like his own. There are some good days, when the sun is high in the sky. Most of the time, though, the sun is eclipsed by the moon, and he has no choice but to wait in darkness until their paths diverge again. Today is one of those days.
Then again, that’s why he’s a Schofield and Lieutenant Blake is a Blake.
Under different circumstances, in a different lifetime, maybe they could’ve been good friends.
“Hey,” Lieutenant Blake says again, this time with more urgency and a furrow of his eyebrows. “Are you alright?”
“Sorry.” Whatever Lieutenant Blake has been saying to him, Will is sure that he doesn’t deserve to hear them. “Spaced out.”
There they are again, those eyes that cut right through to his core and force him to confront himself. Will isn’t sure who he’s looking at anymore, Lieutenant Blake, or Blake himself.
“You should know that both Mum and I agreed that you should be here,” Lieutenant Blake says.
It sounds like a lie. Will would think it was one if it weren’t for the fact that he knows it isn’t. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
Lieutenant Blake lets out a sigh, one of those that a teacher might use before scolding a pupil. “We’re not at war, anymore. No need for any of that.”
It’s funny how the coming of a war forces a label on a man, then strips it away once it’s over, isn’t it? Lance Corporal, Lieutenant, Captain. Private, Sergeant, General. They’re all nothing but empty words.
“Blake, then,” Will forces out. He offers a hand—the only hand he has left.
“You can call me Joe.” Lieutenant Blake’s grip is as firm as that day, but without any of the trembling from the shock. There are still traces of sorrow in it, and Will suspects they won’t ever truly clear away, but nonetheless, it’s strong. It’s steady. Not like his own.
“Thank you, Joe.” Will tries not to cry from thinking about the sound of that name on Blake’s—on Tom’s tongue.
“I’ve got something.” Lieutenant Blake opens his jacket and lifts an envelope out from the inner pocket. “It was part of his last personal effects that was sent back to us. Apparently they missed it the first time around.”
Lieutenant Blake twirls the envelope in his hands, three small spins, before hovering it in the space between them. “For you.”
Will stares down at the front. He knows that handwriting.
Lieutenant Blake leaves him in the field with a reassuring smile. The sun is starting to set, and the light will be gone soon. Will considers stuffing the envelope deep into his pockets, or burying it into the earth’s soil, returning it to the sender.
To Sco. To Sco. To Sco.
He memorizes the two words like they’re an enchantment, a spell, a curse that will bring Blake—that will bring Tom back to him.
He finds the closest cherry tree, the closest thing that this world has left of Tom, and leans against its heartbeat as he takes out the letter.
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t laugh. It took me a whole week before I convinced myself to do this, so I’m going to see it through. You’ll just have to sit there and read this. Or not. I suppose I’ll never know for sure. But I hope you do.
The day I met you, I was homesick. Then, I saw you sitting there, moping like a bloody idiot, and I thought, well, here’s a funny man. Let’s see if I can get a reaction out of him, hmm? But Christ, you were a tough nut to crack. It took all of my best jokes to get even a smile out of you. Then I immediately thought, that’ll be the day, won’t it? The day Will Schofield bursts out laughing without a care in the world.
I made that my mission. It was better than the other missions they sent us out on. At first, it was just a hobby on my part. I’m stubborn, you know? Joe always says so and I’d never agree with him to his face, but I am. Will Schofield was going to crack open by my hands and by God I was going to do it.
Then, that day by the river came. You were soaked to the skin with mud, and the moment you saw a hint of water, you ran into the stream and started splashing. I thought that if it wasn’t you that had gone mental, it had to be me, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. All my best efforts, and all it took was some water to make you laugh like a kid. It was hard to be angry though, when you looked like that under the sun. Without a care in the world.
That’s why I joined you in the water, soaked pants be damned. I wanted to pretend I could live in a peaceful world with you after all of this was over.
I hope that doesn’t scare you. I know you could never hate me. You’re far too good for that. But it’s still a fear I have. Maybe that’s why, for all of my talk, I could never figure out the right way to tell you. So, I decided to take a page out of your book, and write. You’re always scribbling in that notebook of yours. I don’t know what you’re doing. You never show me. But I saw a lot of words, so I wanted to try it in your language.
That’s what I’m doing—trying. Is it working? I suppose I’ll never know that, either. I just hope that one day, you will read this. If I could have any three wishes granted, it would be the following: The first, I wish that Mum will never want of money or food or shelter. The second, I wish that Joe will learn that it is alright to be true to himself.
And the third, I wish that you will live a long life, whether I’m there by your side or not. You deserve to live. I hope I will be there to see it, but if I’m not, just knowing that you are out there is enough.
In case I am not there, I want to add one more thing, and that is that whatever you are thinking right now, stop thinking it. I know you. You trouble your mind more than is needed. Please free your thoughts and free yourself.
Alright. I think that’s enough for today. I’m out of room, anyway.
April 6, 1917
Will crumples the letter in his fist, drops to his knees, and cries until he tastes the entire ocean on his tongue. He cries like the dam inside his heart has finally been broken, like the entire seven seas are flooding his body, and he doesn’t stop it.
Please free your thoughts, Tom said. Free yourself.
It’s not going to be easy, but Will is going to try. After all of his tears are spent, he flattens the letter and rereads it. He memorizes Tom’s speech, imagines every word spoken in Tom’s beautiful lilt, pictures Tom sitting there reciting it to him. He does it again, and again, and again, until the sun has set and the stars are glittering in the sky.
Then, after the moon begins shining, he lets it pull him towards the shore. He props his arm against the tree, lets the blood rush back into his legs, and pulls himself up.