Men in Green

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MY BODY LURCHES, JUMPING like a cat hit by water. Irene bolts from the back room, tattered dress swooshing above her ankles. "What was that?!"
    No one answers, each jaw slowly dropping in a chilling mix of realization and fright.
Oh no. Please, God, no.
     I act quickly, shuffling to the doorway in a state of confusion. My voice trembles over my shoulder. "M—Michael, stay here!" I reach the aging door, fumbling with its wooden handle. It swings open with one forceful pull, despite the shakes starting to run down my bare skin. I'm a hundred yards away from town, but I see it easily through squinted eyes.
    The cannonball hits, it's paralyzing poundage ripping through the corner posts of a store as the roof caves in an instant. My legs move naturally, ignoring the voice in my mind that's saying something else.
     This can't be happening. Why? How? We were . . .
     I quicken my pace, leaving the opened door and Michael behind. The dust and debris rising from the partially collapsed store draws me closer, beckoning my help and courage that's been waiting for a chance to act. The damage to the store more apparent, causing a deep moan to rise and settle deep in my throat. Another cannon booms.
     We were supposed to have more time!
     Suddenly I'm running as fast as I can, my body in motion on the familiar path. A crash sounds, and my head jerks to the closest corner of town as wood and iron collide.
     My sprinting body stops short, breath catching with a sharp gasp. The side of Annie's shop becomes nothing but scraps of a fallen wall. I bear the sight of the entire side of the shop destroyed, the debris burying whatever life happened to be there under its heap of wreckage.
     Miss Annie . . .
     My jaw tightens, my eyes narrow, and I run. Distant screams echo off every shop, hollow and empty as my ears tune out and focus on the sound of my pulse.
    Fast. Intense. Ready.
    The center of town grows closer as the fiery burn from running starts in my abdomen and moves to my legs. I feel it's ache, and I let it feed my hungry desire to move. Annie's shop is just a few yards away, pulling me nearer to it's once lovely interior design, variety of colorful treats, polished and fresh smell. But it's the thought of the body possibly buried underneath that forces my aching muscles to move like never before.
    I approach the shop, dodging hunks of wood and debris. My throat dries out, an almost incomprehensible croak coming from my voice. "Miss Annie!" Whirling dust forces me to cough into my sleeve, lick my lips, and squint through the devastation. My boots trail through rubble, kicking up dust that layers my dress in a fine layer. "Miss—" I hack again, the cloud of dust engulfing the air. "Annie!"
     My burning legs stop in the middle of the damage, eyes moving quickly. They sweep over the scattered remains of what was once beautiful wood. And my breath holds, as if it doesn't know how to do anything else.
     So much destroyed. So much gone.
     Miss Annie dedicated her life to this shop. Now what? Two more cannons sound, but I hardly even seem to notice. Is this how everything will be in the end? Damaged, fallen, broken?
Dear God, please. Help me find her!
     A voice—so faint, just loud enough to be heard. It sounds again, to my left, muffled through the nearby screams.
    I shout out, voice becoming stronger. "Miss Annie! Call out again!" A new strength appears, thoughts un-jumbling as my eyes anxiously run over piles of dispersed objects. "I'm coming, I'm coming." It comes back, this time more distinct. The voice is weakened, mumbling under the confinement of wood. I trudge through the clutter along the ground, spotting a—
     Hand.
     It waves, motioning through an opening in a pile of ruins stacked high. I fumble through debris, making my way to the moving limb.
     "Miss Annie!"
     All the remaining strength I have gathers, surging through my arms as I lift pieces of shelves with a grunt. A large piece, taller than myself, conceals most of Miss Annie. She seems to push as I pull, the remains of the wooden countertop sliding to the ground with a loud thud.
     "Miss Annie!" My eyes widen, knees bending down to scan for injury. "Are you alright?"
     She sits up, seeming to grip the back of her head with a slight wince. "Yes, dear. I'm quite alright." Her voice is soft, not strong as it usually is. "Thank you."
     I sigh a breath of relief. "Can you stand?"
     She nods quickly. Her gaze changes, tired eyes turning to the scene behind me. "I don't understand." Her voice lowers, near to a whisper. "How could this be happening?"
     I turn to the chaos in the street, my heartbeat louder than the screams. People run in fear, rounding shops and street corners though not sure where to go. Some shops have only minor damage, others are now reduced to what seems to be nothing but a pile of wreckage, littered across the ground where the business once stood. I sense the dreaded truth of what is happening. A surprise attack. What nobody was prepared for.
They were supposed to be in Salisbury!
     There's something in the way the people are running, a queer sense of shock lying in every terrorized shout. They've never seen this before, never even heard of this kind of barbaric attack on citizens.
     Because it was never supposed to happen!
     And they have no way of knowing how to respond.
     I turn, regarding Miss Annie with a new sense of urgency. "We need to go." My voice holds haste, and my eyes dart around with an air of desperation. The streets grow more awfully crowded by the second, buzzing with chaotic commotion and disorder. I silently thank God for the stories Papa told all those years. The ones I still dream about hearing. I realize now, in my spot on the ground, surrounded by the fallen beauty of the shop, that they prepared me for this very day.
     I lick my dry lips, Miss Annie nodding along in agreement as I speak. "My house. It's far enough from town that we should be safe for awhile." I notice the loss of color in her face. "Are you sure you can stand?"
     She's hesitant, but nods, rising from the rubble. "Yes."
     BOOM!
    We jump simultaneously. Our heads jerk upward, unable to see the iron agent of destruction we know is hurtling our way. My eyes shut, bracing for the crash, and I cringe as the sound of another shop falling echoes through our fractured, breaking town.
    I steady myself, giving Miss Annie an anxious nudge. "Go. My house."
     She stares at the full streets ahead, as if in a daze from the destruction of the cannonballs. I glance to the side, catching the remnants of another perished shop. These cannons . . .
     They're so powerful!
    I look through the circles of whirling dust again. My burning eyes land on a child. My throat tightens as I itch to run. Someone has to help.
Just get to one . . . save one.
     I bound off the wood beneath my feet, barely feeling the hand behind me graze across my sleeve.
    "Maddie! Wait!"
     Her shout withers into nothing behind my back. I leave with the assumption she will make it to the house, dashing off as fast as my throbbing legs will take me.
    "Maddie!"
     The sound of chaos grows along with the ringing of screams in my ears.
     "It's Michael!"
     I freeze, panting and briskly turning. Miss Annie stands further away with hands hanging loosely at her side, as if she started to run towards the house, but something stopped her, leaving her dead in her tracks. I follow her gaze, looking to the house. Then my heart drops to the pit of my stomach as I hope desperately that what's in front of me is not real.
    Michael's short form stands in our doorway, flanked by two men dressed in a uniform I've never seen. Dark green vests and striking red jackets, swords ready at their sides. Black feathers bundled together at the top of dark helmets. It's something about the men, twisting my insides as I stand frozen to the ground.
    These aren't normal soldiers. Papa told me—
    I'm jerked backwards, the end of my flapping dress tugged from behind. I whip to the left, jumping sideways and falling into a pair of limbs, a hand sliding around my waist.
    "I should have known to search the crowds for you when a battle calls, eh?" Liam does not smile, though his eyes are calm in the midst of the smoke and turmoil surrounding both our touching forms. His hand remains wrapped tight around my side. He pulls me further before I can process what is happening, dragging me backwards as his hand takes mine. We stop in between two buildings suddenly, hidden from the chaos.
    He searches my eyes, fervent, voice raised above the cannons. "You need to leave with me! Immediately!"
     My head shakes without even a second thought, only a fumble coming out as I try to say something that makes the least bit of sense. "I—Liam, you—you were, I thought—"
     "Thought I left you?" He shakes his head from side to side, sweat dotting his brow, and my thoughts finally clear. Quickly, I feel a panic rise in my chest, only able to remember Michael's small frame being led out by two strange men. A dreaded lump forms in my throat.
    "Liam, it's Michael, it's Michael."
    I slip my hand out of his, but he grips my wrist, pulling me to him.
    "I know." His grip tightens as a warning from within me that I must reach that front door thunders to even the blindest part of my conscious.
    "You have to let me go, please—just please let me go, Liam! Please!" Desperately shoving against his chest and the strength of his arms, a groan rises to my throat.    
    Michael.
    Reach Michael.
    "Let . . . go!"
    "Miss Holt!" Suddenly his eyes snap to mine, fiery stare keeping me in my place. "You can't. If you go over there, they will only take you too. Don't you understand?" His voice is barely audible above the loud noises around me. "I can't let that happen."
     I inhale a shagged breath, looking away in frustration, feeling the weight of defeat. Though I push away from him still, a part of me relinquishes.
    "I promise, you will see him again." His breath grazes my ear in winded pants, the words being just barely enough to pull me along with him. He steps backwards, pivoting in the dirt as his hand grasps mine firmly. I stagger as I move, choking back sobs that I don't want to feel. We run, our shoes kicking up dust, and I don't dare look back, except for the moment that I do. I have to squint to see through the commotion I am hardly able to process, and past it all, I see him.
    Through the foggy lens of tears, I still see him. A flicker of red, tousled hair. My own hair whips across my eyes as I barely make out my brother's small frame now forced onto a horse with one of the strange soldiers. They're quickly riding off with several other men in green vests as if they've accomplished their mission. I almost turn away, but I catch something else. Two other forms.
    S—Sarah . . . Irene.
     They lurk in the back, behind the house. I watch the two as Liam's hand still drags me along; Irene pausing by the house, careful not to be seen. Sarah hurrying nearby, backing further away from the house and seeming to beckon to her daughter. I still move, but my eyes dart between Michael and the people I'm not sure I will ever find the strength to forgive. Irene joins Sarah and they run, disappearing into the forest behind the house.
     I turn from the image and silently wonder if any of this could really be real.
     I'm sorry, Michael. I'm so sorry.
     "Come on, through the trees." Liam's voice reaches my ears but fades just as quickly.
    Stumbling into the woods, I realize Sarah and Irene are not the only ones leaving Michael. I do the same, and now I'm not sure I can forgive even myself. We move behind something rough, but I don't care to know what. My body is growing numb at the realization of what is happening. Bushes rustle, but I don't even fully hear it. The hand holding mine still pulls relentlessly, never stopping, still leading me further away to where light grows dim.
    We only run. I have no idea for how long or how far. Then all of light is slowly gone, and I find myself growing still, hand slipping out of his, falling slowly, as if in a dream. The ground is suddenly a bed, tears that I didn't even know were there wetting the dry soil.
     I'm so sorry, Michael.
     My eyes shut like a prison door, a hole in my heart consumed by the sounds of distant cannons.

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