Author : Kristin Kirby

I caught him in my arms as the others ran for safety in the shelters. The fires began to die around us. I sat on the ground and held him while the sliver rays took their inevitable toll. An agonizing way to go, the rays. They moved fast and deadly through your insides–too fast and too many to remove or repair.

“Did it…work?” He could barely rasp out the words.

“Yes, you did it.” I swiped tears from my eyes so he wouldn’t see them. “Everyone made it.”

He nodded, relieved. The snow fell in light, cold whispers that melted to nothing. It made promises we all needed to believe: more seasons, more time.

“Remember…” he started, and then he was racked with coughing.

I grasped his hand. Mine shook badly. “Yes?”

“Remember our drive…in the mountains?”

I nodded. It had been last fall, a warm day with only the hint of chill. We’d met the month before, new recruits unsure of how bad the invasion would become.

On a day leave, our last, we’d changed into civilian clothes, run through the rain to his solar truck, then driven east toward the snowcapped mountains. Only an hour from the city, the highway had risen higher, the towns had become smaller, and the rain had stopped.

We’d seen a bald eagle high in a fir tree, and when we’d driven past, it had flown up, great, dark wings arching and white head dipping as it glided over the nearby river.

“Wouldn’t it be great to move up here,” he’d said. “See, this is something real, something you can touch. There’s an eagle. There’s the river. There are mountains. Concrete things, beautiful things. Not like death. That’s a concept. You can’t see it or touch it. It only becomes real in the absence of something.”

He hadn’t talked about it before–the impending war and what it might cost us. Driving on, he’d looked steadily at the road and become silent. I’d taken his hand and he’d squeezed mine back, and we’d found a motel, and when we had undressed and come together, his body had been warm and relaxed and strong.

“This is real,” he’d said, our eyes locked, his hand on my face.

By that evening when we’d returned to the barracks, our orders were waiting for us.

“I remember,” I said softly. I smiled and put my forehead against his cheek. So many things to say, and now they’d be lost. “I remember.”

I felt his face contract. A smile of love, I hoped, and not a grimace of pain from the sliver rays. I pulled away to look. It was neither–a twist of his mouth. Regret. Sorrow.

“Sorry for…being stupid,” he said.

“No, don’t. You saved–”

“We should’ve had a…lifetime.”

He coughed again, hard, blood at his lips. It would happen now. I would lose him.

I held his face and willed my hands to be steady. In the moment my eyes met his, we lived a thousand years. Ten thousand. Still not enough, but they would have to do.

“I’m here,” I said. “I won’t let go.”

I felt his warm skin. The rough sleeve of his uniform. The ground beneath us, safe for now. These were real, concrete things. You could touch them. Goodbye was a concept. It only became real in the absence of something. Of someone.

He closed his eyes. I sat with him. Bombs went off in the distance, but I heard only the whispers of the falling snow.

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