I think that getting the past few weeks events in my life out in the open, and onto “paper”, as well as some much needed family time this weekend helped me. I was able to finish Part 8 of this story. I have no idea where I am going with this… I’m having so much fun letting Barley and Nessa make their own decisions. But my creativity was stirred a little, and I hope you enjoy the next installment.
Where I’ve Been – Part 8
Barley sat quietly with his back to the large maple outside the officer tent in the meadow. The day was heating the ground, and a knoll just big enough to sit on had bared off, dried, and was perfect for sitting. He watched the activity around him through half-closed eyes and his hat tipped down, attempting to pretend he was catching some rest. The sun beamed down onto the dark material of his pants and his hands as he sat motionless, absorbing the much needed warmth.
Far from napping, he was watching the buzz of the camp around him, and thinking. It had been three weeks since the group had arrived, and soon, they would be packing up and leaving. He was struggling with that realization, avoiding the decision of what he was going to do.
He was home, he wanted to stay here, and just have a normal life, be with his father, his sister, his friends. Maybe even have a family someday. No traipsing through bush, struggling to pass on blocked roads, dodging bullets and gas bombs, travelling at night. No upheaval, scrounging for food, and sleeping in mud. He didn’t want to go into the South, and he didn’t want to fight or kill anymore. He had enough blood on his hands.
He also didn’t want to break his father’s heart again, not now.
But part of him also had the notion of loyalty to all the people in this rag-tag army that were assembled here. In a way, they were worse off than when he’d left them, if that was possible. It was less like an army, and more like a travelling mob with little to no chain of command or order. There was a lot of new faces, and he’d learned a lot about some of them since they’d arrived.
Like Lisa. She was a small wisp of a girl, barely sixteen. He’d seen her hefting a pack twice the size of herself across the camp one day, and lengthened his stride to catch up to her. When he’d offered to help, she’d pushed him off.
“Don’t need no help, Sir.” She’d said, her small voice edged with steel. “Do it m’self.”
“That pack is going to give you a backache.” Barley had protested, but she’d shook her head and kept going. He followed her to her tent, and when she hefted it down, he could see how wiry she was for such a small woman. So he asked her where she was from. They’d sat for a time outside her tiny pup tent while she polished her threadbare and almost worn boots. What followed, through the rhythmic whoosh whoosh of her polish brush, was a story that made him thankful he’d been raised where he was, and ashamed for wanting to walk away from it, arrogant and hurt.
She was a runaway from another walled commune in what was once Pennsylvania, one where the religious law was upheld to a strict bar. She was not allowed to read or write or go to school, and was not allowed to have shoes, even in winter. All she had was a small cloth doll to play with, and her daily prayers, recited to her for memorization. Her brothers, to a one, had sexually molested her when she started to adjust to puberty, and when she fought them, they beat her. Her mother, when she told her about the abuse, told her she was likely wicked, and they were punishing her for her sins. Her father beat her for telling lies, and she was humiliated in their worship services, with many of the elders in the community turning their backs on her family until she had pleaded forgiveness in church for her wicked ways.
When the army came by recruiting one fall, she had waited until they were about to muster and file out, and she hid amongst them, a pair of her brothers cast-off shoes stuffed with cloth to fit clunking on her feet, her doll, a stolen paring knife, and a knob of bread tied in her cap. She still had the doll today, and the dinged up wooden handle of the paring knife always protruding from a set of boots she’d picked up as they travelled. Her prized possessions were those boots, and she polished them every day. She told Barley she’d left when she was thirteen. He’d not been surprised at her story, but told Lisa she should be proud of how well she was doing. He asked her what she wanted to do after the army, and she had simply said “I want to have a pair of pretty shoes, and wear them while I read books in my own house.”
The next day, Barley had cajoled Jessica into visiting Lisa with her old beat-up copy of The Wizard of Oz, some of her outgrown Sunday shoes, and a request to teach her to read. Jessica had said Lisa didn’t know what to say, just cradled the black patent Mary-Janes and stared widely at the book, running her fingers over the pictures of the tin man, the lion, and Dorothy. Jessica said she was a nice girl.
Barley had seen them a few days later sitting, Jessica showing Lisa the book, reciting words, Lisa repeating them. They would be good for one another, he’d thought at the time, and kept going without disturbing them. A day after that, a few of the other younger children who had tagged onto the army were sitting around Jessica as she read them the story.
As he watched the bustle of the camp around him, he wondered how many more Lisas there were, huddled amongst the snow, and the damp. He wondered how awful their stories were, to make them choose this life over being at home, with their families.
Barley wanted to protect Lisa, and anyone else like her in the group. If it meant going South and finding reinforcements, or even being able to let them start a new life past the border, part of him was willing to leave and do just that.
He was conflicted.
He raised his hat off his nose as he saw Nessa headed towards him between a row of tents, her hair bouncing about her shoulders, a basket with a cloth over it on her arm. She smiled and waved to various people, the men tipping their hats, the women nodding. The coat she wore was unbuttoned in the warmth of the day, showing her simple-knit sweater and trousers underneath. His heart thumped. The sun was lighting her face, her smile wide, her eyes bright. These past few weeks she had found a new purpose in her life, and he had watched her transform into one of the best doctors he had ever seen. She’d put herself on the line for these people, again and again, working by candlelight, sitting all night with feverish patients. If she wasn’t treating, she was reading up in the massive tomes she’d found hidden away in the back of the old library. He was amazed by her stamina and ability. It was as if he’d finally figured out she grew up.
Nessa was another reason he wanted to stay. Her presence made him relax, her smile made him feel better. If he was tired, a visit with her would give his body new-found energy to keep moving. He missed her when they couldn’t see one another. She was a good friend, one he was glad for. They’d become close again, like before he’d left. They could talk for hours, sit in silence, it didn’t matter.
“Hungry?” she said as she reached him, and he scooted over on the knoll to give her room. She sat beside him, put the basket on his lap, and pointed to it.
“Eat. It’s from your sister.”
Barley smiled and lifted the cloth and inhaled the scent of fresh cheese and oregano bread with chicken salad. His stomach grumbled in appreciation.
“Share with me.” He said as he handed a half sandwich to Nessa. She took it and bit, and they settled to watching the camp again.
“How are things over at the motel?” He asked, breaking the silence. “You mustn’t have many patients left.”
“No, only two. Our friend with the missing toe, and that one fellow who had that awful leg gash.” She replied, brushing hair out of her face, and smiling at him. “It will be good to get them on their feet fully.”
Barley itched to tuck her hair back behind her ear for her, but restrained himself. Ever since he’d helped her when her father had fallen, he’d just felt the need to touch her. They had an easy friendship now, but it was different too. That in itself was confusing, but he’d pushed it aside as he had more important things to oversee. He only let her take over his thoughts when he was idle, or when he was able to watch her without her knowing.
“Good.” He said, and reached into the basket for one of the shiny apples he’s spied hiding underneath the sandwiches. A young boy walked by, his army cap down so far on his head his ears were bent out, and Barley whistled and then chucked the apple at him. The boy caught it, gave a big grin that dappled the freckles covering his cheeks, and showed off his missing side tooth. The boy bit into it as he kept going, juices on his chin.
“Who’s that?” Nessa asked, as Barley handed her another of the apples.
“I don’t know his real name, they call him Peanut. David says he was hiding under a bridge when they were travelling, and he just started following them, stealing food from them at night when they were gathered around the fires. Eventually they gave him a hat from one of the long-dead soldiers, some proper socks, and kind of adopted him into the troops. He’s barely into is double-digits. David heard that he told another of the men he was alone, that his mama had died when they were travelling, and he never had a father.”
“He should stay here with us when the army moves on. He’s too young to be in an army!” She remarked. “But likely he won’t, will he?”
“I don’t know. Mikaela has taken a shine to him, says he reminds her of her son Fraser when he was that age. She brings him food, she gave him some of Fraser’s old clothes. But he’s also part of this army too. He may decide he wants to keep going with the only family he’s known for the last little while.”
Both Barley and Nessa went silent, the crunch of their apples the only sound for a few moments. Barley watched Nessa sigh, her shoulder’s droop, and she placed her apple core back into the basket. He reached out and put his arm around her, and gave her a sideways hug.
” He will be ok.” He said. “This army has quite a few children that had tagged along since I left, and they all seem to be doing fine.”
“Oh! No, its not that. I was just thinking about all the boys who left, all who would be men now. I wonder where they all are.” She replied, and gave him a half smile. “I wonder sometimes what their stories are. We are so lucky to know about yours, and to know you are alive.”
Barley nodded. He understood. He’d told London about Yannick, London’s only son, whom Barley has served with when he was first brought into the United Continental Army. London and his wife Madeline had been so grateful to Barley for telling them, and Quisita, who was just a young girl when Yannick had left, had sat with him for an hour quizzing him on her brother in detail. Barley had told them funny stories about Yannick’s sense of humour, or how good a soldier he was, how he’d shaved his long blonde hair off, and gotten his tattoo the same day as Barley. He’d gone off with the Mid-Westers when they’d parted, and he’d never seen him again.
Quisita had fallen asleep, resting on her mother’s arm when he’d finished sharing his memories of Yannick with them. London had hugged him as hard as his father had the day he came home, before he’d left them for the night. Barley knew that London was really hugging the memory of their son, and he’d wrapped his arms about the man, wishing he could be Yannick for just one moment for his father’s friend. Barley had sat by the pond near Nessa’s house for awhile after that, throwing pebbles into the moonlit water, coming to an understanding of just what his father had gone through, not knowing. What Jessica had gone through, trying to remember what her brother looked like and reconciling him to the memory she’d had.
Barley wished he knew where Yannick was now, or if he was still alive.
He felt Nessa snuggle deeper into his arm, and put her head on his shoulder, and he looked down at her as she looked up at him. He smiled, and she poked him in the ribs with her elbow.
“What are you thinking about now?” She asked. “I’ve seen that look before. You are lifting some heavy weight up there in your head.”
He couldn’t fool her, could he? he sighed and leaned his head back against the tree, looking up into the cloudless sky.
“There is a lot of heavy weight right now.” He said soberly.
“You can share it with me, you know.” She said quietly, and carefully removed the basket on his lap to the ground on her other side. She took his free hand in both of hers, and as he watched, she played her fingers through his, running along the length of them, finally linking their hands in a Gordian knot of fingers and thumbs.
When he looked back up to her, she was watching him, her eyes searching his face for some understanding, some recognition of her offer to him. He couldn’t breathe. Their hand entwined, his arm around her, he pulled her closer to him slowly, and lowered his forehead to hers. He felt her brow wrinkle as she kept her eyes on his.
“That serious, huh?” She whispered. He nodded.
“I don’t want to go when these people leave, but they need me, Nessa. I don’t know what to do.”
“We need you, Barley.” She replied, then blurted out quickly. “I need you.”
Barley leaned back. “You need me?”
He watched as Nessa’s eyes flickered emotion, and then the dam burst as tears began forming. She nodded, and hitched her breath, looking away. He pulled her back to him, breaking their hands and wrapping both arms around her.
“Shhh, don’t cry.” He murmured. “Its alright.”
She broke away and turned to him again, blinking back the wetness from her eyes. “I know whatever decision you make, it will be the best one. But I don’t want to lose you again. Barley, it was so hard the first time…”
Barley felt his insides tearing apart. He couldn’t stand to see her cry, her anguish and her heartache so visible in her eyes. As he searched her face, so close to his, it hit him. He couldn’t leave her. He needed her too. He loved her.
“Nessa.” He breathed, his own control gone. He swallowed once, lowered his head to hers, and kissed her.
Nessa felt the warmth of his lips on hers, and the simple, earnest emotion as he kissed her. She wanted this, and yet, the surprise of it was shocking, and she let out a small, muffled “Oh!”. He deepened the kiss at that sound, holding her tightly, gathering her up against him, her slightly open lips giving him permission to take more. She lost all strength, and felt her bones leave her body, letting him hold her up as a pleasant, warm sensation flooded her. Somehow, she knew what to do, and since she had never been kissed before, this seemed strange, and delightful all at the same time.
She heard him groan from deep in his chest, and felt her her abdomen warm in response. Curiously, it made her want more of him, and she arched herself into him, opening her mouth further, letting him invade her, devour her. Her hands found their way to his chest, and he groaned again when she splayed her fingers on the fabric of his shirt, then grabbing fistfuls, pulling him closer, if it was even possible. She wanted to be part of him, absorbed into him completely. It was overwhelming her.
Suddenly, he broke the kiss, his hands moving to cup her face, holding her, and she lazily opened her eyes to him. He looked fierce, almost angry, and she didn’t understand, suddenly wary. She’d wanted him to kiss her, it had felt wonderful, and she wanted more. But something stopped her from leaning in to kiss him. He took a shaky breath, and looked away at the camp. She focused on his Adam’s Apple, watching it bob as he swallowed, and knew he was working up to say something. So she waited, with his hands holding her face, her own still fisted in his shirt, unable to break contact and let the close bond they were sharing fade away.
“Barley?” She finally whispered. “What…”
He shook his head, the fierceness gone, replaced by tenderness, and wiped the wet tears from her cheeks with his thumbs, studying her face, as if to always remember it.
“I don’t want to do this if I have to leave Nessa.” he ground out finally, “I’m sorry, I…”
It was her turn to shake her head, within the confines of his hands. How many daydreams had she wasted sunny afternoons on, for just this very thing, a kiss from him? It was bittersweet. her first kiss, nothing like she had expected, and everything she had hoped for. And all too soon, the promise of what it held could be taken from her again.
“Don’t. I don’t know wha-” She stopped. “I don’t want you to regret it. Please Barley…” She said, tears starting anew. The bond she felt with him, all those years pushed away and left, had flown back to her since he had come home. She knew that she still cared for him just as much now as then.
He pulled her back into his embrace, and they sat, not talking, for what seemed like an eternity. His chin rested on her head, and she could feel his heartbeat through her hands, hear the hitch in his breath as he dealt with runaway emotions. She didn’t want him to leave, she wanted to have this forever, but it was his decision to make, when the time came. Nothing would stop him, not even her, although she wished she could.
His lips found the top of her head, and she shifted to look up into his face again. This time, she leaned forward, and brushed her lips on his tentatively, her eyes never leaving his own. He whispered her name and responded, returning her kiss. This time tenderly, slowly, as if they had all the time in the world. He trailed kisses down her cheek, over her neck, coming back to claim her mouth again. She’d never felt like this before, and wanted more of him. She undid the snaps on his shirt, and ran her hands over his chest, feeling his warmth. She ran them around his sides, running her hands down his back, then back to his chest, feeling the muscles bunch and shift under her touch. He groaned, and shifted in his seat.
“Nessa, stop, you’ll… do you have any idea what you are doing?” He murmured against her mouth, putting his hands over hers, stilling them.
“I’m kissing you, Barley.” She said, breaking the kiss, and gave him a strange look.
He suddenly relaxed, chuckled, and removed her hands from his chest, and held them for a moment. She saw his eyes flash something, and then, as he shifted again, realized it was lust he was barely able to disguise. She’d seen that husky look on her father’s face when it was time to retire, and her mother ran her hands over his shoulders before she went up the stairs. She knew what sex was, she wasn’t a complete fool, but it had never crossed her mind that this would lead to something like that. She glanced down for a moment, and realized just what she had done, Barley’s pants barely able to contain the result. Of course it would arouse them both, that must have been what she felt, when her abdomen had gone tingly and warm! Her naivete exposed, she blushed and slowly counted in her head to relieve some of the mortification she felt. No book she had read prepared her for that.
“Nes, you are too funny. You mean to tell me that you’ve never-” Barley said, not able to finish, a hint of humour in his voice. “I’m sorry. I just never assumed you would be so innocent.”
How could she tell him no one had ever interested her to kiss, and besides, there was a lack of men to kiss in the town. She felt like the most inexperienced buffoon ever, and she broke from his arms, irritated with herself.
“No, and what does that matter? I’m not really the type to go around kissing all kinds of men.” she huffed.”And for the record, I am NOT innocent. Simply inexperienced.”.
As Barley continued to chuckle and do up his shirt, she looked around them again, noticing that the shadows were a bit longer, and the crackle of fires and conversation could be heard in the camp. They’d been sitting here a long time, and she’d totally lost track of it. Reality was invading.
Nessa fixed him with her evil eye stare. “Barley Benson, are you laughing at me?”
He shook his head, his eyes now sparkling with mischief. “No Nessa, I’m not. It doesn’t matter. Let’s go home. I have a need to splash myself with cold water, and I think you likely want to check your patients and have some dinner?”
She nodded, chastened and a little confused about the entire afternoon. They stood, and Barley hefted the basket in his one hand, and then tucked her hair behind her ear with the other. He leaned in to her as she straightened her jacket, and she could smell his scent of soap and woodsmoke, and she closed her eyes to breathe it in, to remember it, always.
“Nessa, tell me what this means to you.” he asked.
Nessa wanted to tell him everything, about how she had held his sketch every night, how long she had cried, how much she had loved him, and how incredible it had been when she saw him again after so long. She wanted to put her arms around him and never let him go, and she wanted to scream and shout to the world how much she loved him. Truly, madly loved him. She’d never been in love before, but from what others had described it as, this was it, or at least she hoped it was. Or at least it was the feeling she got from the knowledge she had loved him for so long.
“I-” She stopped. These were heavy words. Would he be ready to hear them? She looked at her feet. “I want to be with you, that’s what this means to me, right now.”
He threaded his fingers through hers, nodded, and they walked off towards town together.