Chapter Four

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Tommy

This was worse than the year my mother died, alone in her plantation house, her ragged shawl pulled tight around her shoulders as she sat in the rocking chair before the fireplace in her room. The war had been over for twenty years, but it still seemed to echo in the walls of our home, the ghosts of her family shouting at each other. Father had fought for the Confederates, disowning me when I signed up as a Yankee.

"Why would you do this to your mother, boy?" he growled at me, looking at my blue uniform and the solid look on my face. "Are you trying to put her into an early grave?"

"I can't rightly fight for what I believe to be wrong," I replied evenly, resisting the urge to fidget under his heated gaze. "No matter how many times you say it's right."

Mother promptly burst into tears at that, covering her mouth with the back of her hand as she stumbled into the closest chair. Kida, our kitchen slave, had been quietly watching from the doorway, but backed away quickly when Mother came closer, not wanting to be seen.

"It isn't just about the slaves and you know it!" His voice was shaking with anger, his hand trembling as if he wished to strike me. "We have rights! They can't change our entire way of life, from economics to demanding that we are part of the Union, no matter what! Will you just roll over and let them dictate how you should live?"

"We are a part of the Union." My voice was as even as I could make it, though I felt like immediately bowing to his opinions. "The world is changing, Father. If we don't change with it, what will become of us? And I can't live here knowing that many of the people in my life, whom I've grown to love and respect, are forced to be here, torn away from their families, and living a life of fear. I will not let you dictate how I live my life."

Father died first. He'd been hit by a canon, they said, and didn't suffer. Mother didn't write to tell me until almost a year later. Six months after I received the dreadful news, I was shot myself and died from the ensuing infection.

It was an interesting thing, dying. Someone had been waiting for me on the other side, naturally, but the stranger wasn't what gave me pause. I'd died on a battlefield, along with many other soldiers. I could see them all, the dying and those waiting to receive them. There weren't enough spirits to help the soldiers, not by a long shot. Those who were assigned to the battle looked tired and worn, their duties never ending. As soon as they'd successfully saved one soul from being trapped in its body, another one would need them. It was watching the momentary panic on all sides, the fear at what would happen once death had swallowed everyone that made me decide to stay and help.

There was no school for me. Not at first, anyway. Once I'd chosen to stay, I was sat down next to a bloody cot and told to wait. For twenty years, I did just that. I waited alongside, grasping them by the hand and leading the way when darkness would finally come to collect them. But none of them were as bad as the night my mother died.

I wasn't assigned to her, which was frustrating, but I'd managed to talk the boy who was into switching with me for the night. It'd been so long since I'd seen her; I wasn't prepared for the shell of a woman I came upon.

She'd never recovered from the loss of her husband and only son. There were no slaves to care for her, having all been freed and told to do as they wished. Only Kida remained, heavily pregnant and obviously pitying of the woman who had ordered her around for the first twenty years of her life.

"Eat, Missus," Kida murmured, holding a spoonful of pale soup to Mother's lips. "You need to keep your strength."

She didn't even blink, staring into the coals that barely glowed in the darkness. She was old and sick-I could smell the nearness of her death in the air. The sensation made me balk, but I was excited at the same time. I would be here to help her through the transition, to talk to her, to hug her and kiss her cheek once more.

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