Page 3 of Picture the Dead


I open it. The paper of the telegram is creased and blotchy, but the writing is legible enough to see what matters. The message is signed by a Captain James Fleming.

I refold it and return it to Quinn, vowing to come back for it later. I’m not stealing; I need it for my scrapbook. It’s evidence, a dossier fit for the spy that Toby had so desperately wanted to become. In the months since his death, I’ve been honing my skills. Toby was an astute observer. He never got lost; he could see like a hawk. Now it is up to me to adapt these habits. If I’d been his brother instead of his sister, I’d have stepped firm into Toby’s boots and charged out the door in a heartbeat to join the infantry, becoming the Union scout he wanted to be.

But this telegram, which I’ll tuck alongside Will’s dog-eared letters home, are mostly evidence of a life cut too short. I hold my spine straight. The least I can do is not break down in Quinn’s presence when he’s had to carry the burden of this news.

Still, my mind is spinning back through time. My last letter from Will had been postmarked the third of May. He has been dead all these months. How could I not have sensed it? How could I be so vain as to presume that I would have? Inexplicably, I’m furious with my twin. Why does Toby shadow me if he can’t serve as a messenger between worlds?

“Was he in terrible pain?”

“Not so much as shock.”

“And you were with him in the end? Or did he die alone?”

“I was with him. Of that I can attest.”

“Did he…did he have any last words?” For me, I add, silently. I feel tears and blink them back.

“He went pretty quick, Jennie.”

“What of his things? Things he carried ” I’m thinking of the necklace that I’d given to Will before he’d left, a silver chain and heart-shaped locket, inside which his miniature faced mine. Will had promised that he’d wear it next to his skin every day and that, dead or alive, the locket and chain would one day return to me. But I don’t quite dare speak of it particularly, lest Quinn think me even more selfish than he already does, utterly absorbed in my own loss.

“I’ve got nothing,” he says. “Other soldiers stole us blind before we’d got to the Wilderness…our watches, my belt buckle, my spurs. It happens. We all joined up so dumb and green, nobody thought… nobody expected ” His voice breaks off.

On impulse, I reach out and smooth his hair, gingery brown and long enough to curl around his ears. It’s uncommonly soft, like kitten fur. I don’t think I’ve ever touched him before. His skin burns under my fingers, as though with fever. Quinn flinches but doesn’t move out of reach.

“There’s a new kind of quiet in this house,” he says softly. “It bothered me all last night. It kept me up, and when I did sleep, I dreamed myself back into other times, like last Christmas. Remember last Christmas, Jennie? The four of us together skating on Jamaica Pond, and all our cracking-fun snowball fights, and how we carved our initials in the bark of that butternut tree?”

I smile. “Of course.” The memories warm me like a sip of brandy in an ice storm. “And you’re right. It’s been too quiet here. And so lonely,” I confess. “I’ve missed you all of you a thousand different times a day. All of these months with only Aunt and Uncle have been enough to drive me mad.”

Suddenly Quinn’s hand wraps hard around my wrist. He grips me tight, his bones shifting around mine. I wince, but he won’t let me go. “Jennie, promise not to listen to gossip.”

“What gossip?” His hand doesn’t loosen. Fear holds me in place. “What do you mean? Is there something else I need to hear? Because I’d rather it come from you than the servants.”

“Only what I’ve said. War changed us. We always meant to be decent. We meant to do right. The dead cannot defend themselves, but surely they have paid enough.”

“Of course,” I murmur.

He releases me, but Quinn has a secret he’s not telling.

The dead cannot defend themselves. It’s hard to imagine William Pritchett being less than absolutely decent, or doing anything that he needed to explain. Boisterous, spirited Will, who loved nothing better than camping and fishing and sleeping under the stars, was tailor-made for military life. Could he have changed so much?

“Don’t say anything to Mother. Let me be the one to give her the news.”

“She’s not a fool. She and Uncle Henry know as much by what you haven’t said.”

Quinn nods. “Send her up as soon as soon as she’s ready.”

I nod, but Quinn’s eyes are closed again. He has dismissed me.

4.

Goodness. If I didn’t know better, Jennie, I’d think you suffer from club foot.” Aunt Clara doesn’t take her eyes off her toast. Her delicate jet earrings tremble as her knife scratches at the toast like a cat’s paw, buttering every inch. Strange how even the most mundane habits of dislikable people can strike such harsh chords. I even hate the way Aunt butters.

“I’m sorry, Aunt.” I tiptoe to my chair. It’s all I can do to keep up a pretense of normalcy. The idea of food and polite conversation is very nearly unendurable.

Will is gone. Will is gone.

“Don’t be sorry to me. It’s Quinn you’ll wake.” Her eyes are silver, like a wolf. They are Quinn’s eyes, but cruel.

“He’s already awake,” I return. “I took him some blooms from the garden.” I unfold my napkin as Mrs. Sullivan bustles through the dining room with the sausage and eggs and offers the tray to Uncle Henry. The yolks of the eggs glare at me. I swallow the bile in the back of my throat.

“Perchance your billy goat’s trot is even more effective than Hannibal’s wake-up call.” Aunt poses it as a witticism, but I feel the lash of her thought. I’ve never been Aunt Clara’s ideal specimen of niece, with my flat feet and too-curly black hair and wide-lipped laugh though there’s been no reason for laughter these past months, and certainly not this morning.

Aunt Clara has alternately thrown her thunderbolts of disdain and rained down her indifference on me from the day Toby and I arrived at her door, nearly four years ago. Uncle Henry’s half sister’s orphaned children. Not only were we barely blood relations from the bottom of the social heap, but we were willful youngsters at that, prone to speaking without thinking and doing without asking permission. If it hadn’t been for our doting eldest cousin, Aunt probably would have turned us away within that first month.

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