A SHORT STORY BY MATT DURAND
Tiny specks of stars sat distant in the dark Pennsylvania sky. Beneath their dim glow was a wide field surrounded by woods. William Keaton leaned against a tree peering out into a clearing. He was looking for any signs of movement.
The crunch of a stick caught his attention before he saw the figure sneaking amongst the tree line.
“That you, Thomas?” William whispered out into the darkness.
He watched as the figure stopped abruptly at hearing his voice.
“William?” Came a hushed reply.
The two men cautiously approached. They took a few steps forward to close the distance between them. William offered his hand to be shaken as an attempt to break through the scar tissue of the old wounds that divided them.
“Still alive I see, little brother.”
“There’s a few breaths left.”
Thomas hesitated a brief moment longer before accepting the momentary ceasefire of a handshake.
“I don’t have a lot time before someone notices I’m gone. What’s this all about?”
William began to recede back to the coverage of the treeline.
“Smoke with me” he said.
A small leather pouch and a worn pipe appeared from a pocket in William’s gray uniform.
“I managed to get this tobacco coming up through Virginia. Some of the best I’ve ever had. Made me think of you. I wanted you to try it.”
Thomas scratched his eyebrow in disbelief.
“You realize we can both be shot if we’re found here?”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
William began sprinkling some of the brown and tan flakes into the pipe chamber.
“Do you still have yours?”
Thomas shook his head slightly at his brother’s lack of concern at the situation they were in. It was typical of him. He considered turning around and leaving, but thought better of it. He shrugged his shoulders and reached into his chest pocket, pulling out a pipe of similar design.
“I still have it.”
William produced a small matchbook from the pouch before passing the tobacco to his brother. He struck a match. The flame cast his face in swirling shadows as he began his initial light. His face looked hollow and his eyes were distant, Thomas thought to himself. It wasn’t the face he had remembered. He wondered how many men he had killed? Was the blood he spilt responsible for the face he now looked at? It was a question he’d never ask for he knew he couldn’t escape asking the same thing of himself.
They were silent except for the quick inhaling sounds as they attended to lighting their pipes. Once lit, they leaned against opposing trees and puffed quietly, releasing tiny plumes of smoke into the night air like slow moving locomotives.
And for that moment life felt familiar. Almost like home. Memories flooded back to when they first discovered smoking behind their father’s barn. To when they spent a whole Saturday carving and whittling their ugly but effective pipes together. For that brief moment, they both almost forgot their sins.
Thomas took another puff from his pipe. The warm smoke filled his mouth.
“Can I ask you something?”
William nodded without saying anything.
“You ever get tired of carrying all that hate around?” Thomas asked.
The question hung suspended in the smoke. William looked up at the stars and spoke more to them than his brother.
“Sometimes. Sometimes it’s more than I can bear. And then other times, it doesn’t bother me at all. Then I think, even if I was tired of it, aren’t I past the point of coming back? So what’s the point?”
“I don’t know. I always thought change was a choice.”
”Maybe, but that’s not what this is about. I’m not here to open old wounds.”
“So what’s this about then, William? I know it took some doing to get word to me and get me here. What do you want?”
William lit another match and stoked the coals in his pipe.
“I’m not sure how many battles I’ve been in at this point. I’m starting to lose track. After each one though, there’s been this...this feeling closing in. Closing in to the point where it feels like I can’t breathe anymore. Each skirmish I walk away from I get more suffocated. I feel it, brother. I feel death coming for me. From what I hear, this scrape that’s shaping up tomorrow...I don’t think I’m coming away from it. Do you know what I mean?”
William finally broke his gaze on the stars and finally gathered the courage to look at Thomas.
“Have you felt that too?”
Thomas looked towards his brother. He took his pipe from his mouth slightly and gave a gentle nod as he spoke back softly.
“I’ve felt it.”
William took a thankful puff from his pipe and looked back to the stars with a relieved heart that he wasn’t alone.
“I know we don’t agree on most things, but…I just...I just wanted to be brothers one last time.”
Thomas’s response was slow to form.
They sat for a spell quietly smoking. Thoughts of war faded into the night air with the smoke.
“Well, I should get back,” Thomas said as he tapped out the contents of his pipe. He casually brushed off a few flecks of ash from his navy blue uniform. William followed suit.
“So what’s the town tomorrow?” Thomas asked.
“Well, if you see me out there, aim high.”
They shook hands one last time. Without another word, they went their separate ways. Thomas to the North and William to the South.