1st Place Fiction
Excerpt from Fifty Common Years
All his life until that summer, Johnny had never slept in a bed by himself. His cot was too cold and roomy without the company of another sibling, and he lay awake that night watching the darkness beyond the porch. In one of the cabins across the path was Ben, probably sound asleep the way he wore himself out so completely each day, and a mile off in the estate was Marianne. The screen porch of their cabin faced towards the estate, and when Johnny squinted he thought he might have seen a pinprick of candlelight way off in the distance. Or maybe it was one of the lightning bugs he and Ben had caught so many of already that summer. Ben always insisted on letting them fly away after a few seconds because he couldn’t imagine trapping any living thing, not even a bug, which was an idea Johnny had never considered.
He laid restlessly once more against the cool white sheets. He started to think of going home, even though that was months away, and then he couldn’t stop. For an hour he lay still on the cot and felt worse and worse. Now that he had thought of it, he couldn’t take it back. Each day would become a countdown to leaving.
“Henry,” he whispered into the darkness. “Henry?”
Whether Henry was a light sleeper or if he never really fell asleep until all of the others had, Johnny never knew. But Henry lifted his head from his pillow. Their cots were separated by Sybil’s in between. She slept with her face tucked into the pillow so tightly that Johnny wondered how she breathed. On the other side of the porch, Anna slept half-draped off her cot, and Liam had Edmund against his chest.
Henry’s green eyes glowed in the blue around them. “It’s alright, Johnny boy.”
“Do you…are ya friends with a lot of girls back home?”
Henry propped his head on his elbow. “I guess. I dunno. All the same girls you know.”
“I don’t know many.”
“I guess not, then.”
“Why you talkin’ about girls, Johnny boy? You in love with Ben’s sister? She’s older than us, older than Liam.”
“No, not her. I ain’t in love with any girl.” Johnny wound a loose thread from the bed sheet around his finger.
“But say if I was. Or if you was. Or Liam.”
Johnny scoffed. “He’s too little. He don’t even know numbers.”
“He won’t always be little,” Henry said.
“Yeah. That’s what I’m sayin’, I guess. We gonna just keep gettin’ older and…I dunno. It ain’t always gonna be the same.”
Henry smiled, breaking up the darkness. He said, “Why you thinkin’ bout these things, Johnny boy?”
They were both quiet for a while. “Are you scared or somethin’?” Henry asked at last. His voice was gentler. “What’re you scared of?”
“I don’t want anything to change,” Johnny murmured against the edge of his cot. He looked up at his brother’s face, and for the first time in his life, he felt not comforted by Henry’s presence but gripped with the fear that Henry might not always be there. Henry’s calm voice, as placid as the lake, had coaxed him to sleep every night, had soothed nightmares, and had reassured tear choked questions. And he had done it often, because Johnny never fell asleep easily, and sometimes when he did it was too much for him and he woke up crying. Henry was better than anyone at comfort, better even than Mama.
“Oh, you don’t worry about that, Johnny boy. Nothing’ll change. Maybe we’ll be back here next summer, you’ll see.” Henry nudged Sybil’s shoulder a little so that she rolled onto her back, eyes still closed, but Johnny knew she might be listening. “Summer always comes again.”
“Winter always comes again, too.”
“And then we’ll all pile together like foxes in a nest and stay warm till it’s over. We always do.”
Johnny glanced at Sybil and then at the other three a few feet away. They had all taken turns sleeping with Edmund, and right then, Liam’s head was tucked protectively against the toddler’s. Johnny looked back at Henry and was more afraid than he had ever been. Even getting caught out in the woods after dark, listening to the wolves howling and wondering if a mountain cat was nearby, was not like this. Johnny knew what to do in the woods and how to be as silent as a mountain cat, but he didn’t know how to run from fear he couldn’t touch. “But are we always gonna be together?”
Henry looked at Johnny and then beyond him, past the screen where they could hear the nighttime sounds of frogs and crickets in the long grasses. They listened to the breathing of the other four and at last he said, “It’s like how we’re here and Mama and Daddy are at home. You keep seein’ things you want to show ‘em, you know? Like the lake or the ocean or the wildflowers or wherever. And you can’t ‘cause they ain’t here, really, to see it, but you sort of feel like they ain’t as far away as they are.”
Johnny laid back and listened. The air was cool and the wind blew in the last wisps of wood smoke from the bonfire their uncle had built that evening.
“You know what I mean? I been thinkin’ about that, too.” Henry paused. “I don’t know why it’s like that. But remember the first person who ever took you to pick wildflowers was Dad on Mama’s birthday, so we could all give her more flowers than she could fill the whole house with.”
Johnny smiled a little. He could still remember, years and years earlier so that it must have been one of his first memories, the way the house had smelled sweet like a meadow for a week.
“You remember that. And how the first time you ever shot one of the rifles was when Mama shot a coyote in her garden and when it was dead, ‘cause she’s the best shot in all Tatum County, she said to you, All right, Johnny boy, now’s as good a time as any. You were four then, the gun was bigger than you.” Henry was smiling now, too, and he continued, “Or when Dad took us to the creek up by Sinner’s Pass and we caught fish with just our hands.”
How far they were from the fields of wildflowers, from Tatum County and Sinner’s Pass and the cold mountains in Tennessee. It didn’t seem like the same world.
“And now this summer’s different,” Henry said, staring up into the dark. “Because they ain’t here but we’re always doin’ things they taught us. I look at all the daisies on the path near the lake and I still think of Daddy carryin’ more ‘n he could hold just to make Mama happy.”
“He’s good at that,” murmured Johnny.
“At carryin’ things?”
“At makin’ Mama happy.”
Henry nodded. “So even though they ain’t here, it sort of feels like they are sometimes, you know?”
“I think so.”
“And I hope that’s how it’s always gonna be. That when I ain’t here with you, you’ll still know I sorta am.”
“Are you ever gonna leave?” Johnny’s voice filled the stillness.
Henry looked at him, and the corners of his mouth lifted in a gentle smile that Johnny would keep with him for the rest of his life. “I ain’t ever gonna leave you, Johnny.”
“And Liam? And Sybil and Anna and Edmund?”
“We ain’t ever going to leave each other,” Henry whispered. “Even when sometimes we’re apart.”
“I don’t want to be apart.” Johnny’s voice had grown softer, more tired.
Henry said, “We all gotta be, sometimes. But I ain’t ever leavin’ you.”
“Are you gonna get married someday?”
“I might. I dunno. Have to find a girl who wants to marry me.”
“All the girls would wanna marry you.”
Henry smiled again, and they were silent and the woods outside sung softly.