It had to be nearly midnight by now. James couldn’t see his watch between the pouring rain and darkness, but he knew as he ran to Violet’s house that he was close to breaking his promise. Yet again. He quickened his pace, his feet slamming onto the wet pavement underneath him. He turned the last corner, his feet sliding from under him, and he had to put a hand down to stop himself from falling.
He made himself run faster, his lungs burning inside his chest, remembering, for some reason, the day of Violet’s riding accident. He skidded to a hard stop at her driveway, sucking in great gulps of night air. He straightened up and looked at the house that had become so familiar. A strange, comforting, intimidating place that he had somehow found to be a touchstone since he had come home.
He breathed deeply, in through his nose, out through his mouth, just as he’d been taught, as he thought about the day – again – that he was sure Violet had died.
Her beloved stallion, Benjamin, had been spooked by a cat and had tossed his rider nearly two meters, clipping her shoulder as she lay on the muddy earth with his massive hoof as he ran for safety from a damn cat. James couldn’t stop imagining if the horse’s heavy kick had landed more squarely, or somewhere more precious than her shoulder.
He had stood motionless at her bedroom door that day with a disgusting tightness in his stomach, fear in his throat. He had knocked gently, half hoping she wouldn’t hear him, and the door opened before he could turn the handle.
The first thing he had seen was the deep cut along her temple that had been carefully stitched. Five stitches, he counted. He hadn’t known she’d been cut. He moved his hand as if to touch it, before he thought better of the gesture. She held her left arm close to her body in the awkward angle that indicates a shoulder injury. He could see the strap of the sling around her neck digging into the skin under her dressing gown. Her face was pale, her dark hair hanging long and shiny. He wondered if someone had brushed it for her. He could tell that she had been crying. Despite how tenderly she was holding herself, she smiled at him.
“I’m sorry,” he had said, unsure of exactly what he was apologizing for, and also knowing it wasn’t enough.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” she lied, “Mary shouldn’t have worried you.”
“Of course she should have,” he said, taking a step closer to her into the threshold of the doorway. Mary, Violet’s housekeeper, had called James about Violet’s accident. He had heard no more than a few words before the phone clattered loudly on his desk and he began to run. Violet is whole, he reminded himself as he had watched her carefully, she’s safe.
He thought inexplicably of Teddy, the kid from Manchester in his platoon, as he looked at Violet cradling her arm. Just a scratch, eh, mate? Teddy had touched his face, saw the small smear of blood on his hand, but not the bullets that rained down on them moments later. James had been the one to write to Teddy’s mother.
“Are you okay?” Violet had asked him quietly. He shook his head, saw her face again instead of Teddy’s.
“Of course, yes. Yes, I’m sorry, Violet...I...”
“Please stop apologizing.”
Her hands were shaking, even when she pressed them together like she always did when she was nervous. She looked down at her bare feet, and he saw the tears slipping down the bridge of her nose. Without looking up, she stepped forward and wrapped her right arm tightly around his middle, the way a child would. She clung to him fiercely, and it took him a shocked moment to gingerly return the embrace. He could hear her muffled voice, her face pressed into his chest, that awful cut facing upward toward him.
“Thank you for coming,” she said in a voice small enough to break his heart, “I was waiting for you.”
The thing about fighting in a war that no one tells you is the waiting. Waiting for the bullets, waiting for the screams, waiting for the noise that tells you that it’s the last thing that you’ll hear on this earth. Waiting for the letter that tells you that you have no family to come home to, for the letter telling you that you have no home to come back to. The suffocating feeling of that uncertainty, the combination of total exhaustion and unending raw nerves was something that he had never once anticipated when he left for the front. He knew Violet’s waiting tonight hadn’t been the same, but the thought of his absence wearing that uncertainty into her gave him a swooping sensation in his stomach that he wasn’t ready to acknowledge yet.
His hand landed gently on the top of her head and he smoothed her hair, resting his chin there, letting her lean against him. He had forgotten what this felt like – this feeling of holding someone. Of being the one someone was waiting for, of being the one who could help, who could give comfort. He had been prowling Violet’s house for so many weeks now, a ghost of sorts, a shadow looking to make amends for things that he couldn’t speak about, while knowing that being near her was both the worst, and yet the only thing he could do now.
His days in the war, the bullet that was still in his right shoulder that sent him home, had stolen the simplicity from his life. He owed Violet so much more than he was able to give her, so many words that were stuck cowardly in his throat every time he saw her, but this he could give her. If she allowed him to, this was something that he could do for her. He could be a steadiness as she cried, a gentle force to keep her upright, if she needed.
He had been a soldier, he followed orders, he went from one task to the next, he didn’t have the quiet moments of human contact. He hadn’t been a comfort to anyone, he had forgotten what it was like to be needed this way. He had forgotten what it was to lead an ordinary life. Survive, survive again and again. He hadn’t known how much he missed the ease of it. His life had veered off course, like so many other young English men, because of the raving rhetoric of a madman and a nation that allowed him to come to power. It would be a long time before James could find any peace in knowing that, for some reason, he had survived it all.
“I’ll come every time, Violet. I’m here. I’m never far.”
Survive, survive again and again.
He stood at the front doors of Violet’s estate now. He lifted his face to the sky, closed his eyes, let the drops hit him, cooling his skin and calming his mind.
He had talked to her brothers. They both knew what he intended to ask her, what he had to tell her, but it still scared the hell out of him. This place had been the only salvation for him since he had been back. Violet herself had been a reminder that life went on, the world kept churning, no matter how many nights James woke in a cold sweat in anticipation of another bullet, or more death.
He had bought a small place down the road and began showing up daily to help Violet in any way he could. She refused him at first, her stubborn streak that he had known since childhood still firm in the adult version of her, but it hadn’t taken many days of insistence from him until she finally relented.
“I have to do something, Vi, I can’t stand being stuck in my head. I have to move.”
She looked at him, her straight posture and squared shoulders revealing no weakness.
“The roses need trimmed in the side garden. The thorns are a nightmare, and I detest the task with every ounce of my soul.”
“I have thick skin.”
She nodded again, and he had found shears in the outbuilding and went to work, trying to figure out if it had been a smile that he had seen on her face as he walked away.
After some time, he was surprised to feel comfortable here. She felt comfortable. There weren’t many places that James felt like he could take a deep breath, where he didn’t hear that phantom gunfire, but Violet’s place was a pocket of peace. The irony of that wasn’t lost on him.
Violet had suffered too. Her parents were killed in an automobile accident right before the start of the war, her brothers sent away to fight before their parents had been a week in the ground. Violet had been plunged unfairly into a lost life, a lonely existence inside the beautiful stone walls of the old manor house that had been in her father’s family for generations. The lady of the house Mary called her. Violet scoffed at the title.
“The place shouldn’t have ever been mine,” she told James once. Her shoulder had healed by then, but he noticed that she still held it close to her body sometimes, especially when she was tired. It was tight against her when she said, “It should have been my brothers’, not me.” She shook her head, held that arm tighter still. “Shouldn’t have been me, Jamie.”
Who else, though? Her parents had clearly thought she should be the one to look after the place. They couldn’t have known about their sons. Henry and Tristan had been strong and fit when their parents had seen them last. Their twin boys, Tristan three minutes older, with their wide shoulders and wider grins, had the world in front of them, the pampered existence that would allow their intelligence and charm to take them wherever they wanted to go.
Where they ended up was the front.
Now Violet was alone.
But James had come back. Hadn’t he? He was here now, he reminded himself, as he stood sentry in the rain still staring at that heavy front door and thinking of Violet waiting inside. He was here, he had survived. He hadn’t thought he would, if he were being honest. He hadn’t planned on what it would be like coming home. He had talked about it with his fellows, had imagined his warm, safe house, his parents sitting down for dinner, his dad’s booming laugh, but in the back of his mind he knew that it was like thinking about a dream you had – it seemed real, it even felt real, but you couldn’t have it. He would die in this war, like countless others, and he had made an unsteady peace with it. He survived each day, a relentless pursuit of an impossible goal, but he knew his end would be a flagged-draped box.
When the bullet hit him, he remembered thinking, here it is, here I go. He closed his eyes and felt his blood warm around him. He had a letter to Violet in his pocket; he hoped someone could get it to her. He had tried, goddamn it, had he tried. He wanted her to know that, knew it wouldn’t help or fix anything, but she still deserved to know.
Except he hadn’t gone.
His army medic had stitched that damn bullet wound right there on the battlefield with nothing more than a needle and a stinging bottle of vodka and that letter stayed folded neatly in his pocket.
“Bullet’s still in there, mate, but nothing to do for that. Take it with you when you go home.”
He had wrapped the arm, pressed it against James’ body and saved the life that James had no idea how to live anymore.
The rain was still falling when he finally steadied himself enough to knock. He heard her footsteps almost immediately and he checked his watch. Midnight.
“Come in.” She pulled him by the elbow and out of the rain with no other greeting. He stepped over the threshold and into the quiet house. The small light on the foyer table was glowing softly, and James had wondered where Violet had been sitting. The rest of the rooms were dark.
“You must be freezing, do you want me to check for dry clothes? I’m sure Tristan still has some things here, or Henry...”
“No, Vi, thank you. I’m fine.” He ran his hands through his soaking hair, slid off his shoes to not track water over the marble tiles. “Can we sit?”
She nodded quickly and turned toward the stairs. He wondered where she could be leading him when she sat on the third step. She motioned for him to sit down next to her on the wide stair, and it was impossible for him not to smile. He should have figured that she would wait on the stairs – conventions of any kind simply didn’t suit her.
He tried to stay far enough away to not get her sleeve wet, but she ignored his attempt and sat shoulder to shoulder with him, leaning a little against him. Her weight felt warm against his cold skin.
“I talked to your brothers.”
She turned her head toward him so suddenly that it startled him. Those honey-colored eyes of hers were wide and bright, her lashes dark and mercifully dry tonight.
“What did you say?” she whispered. He could hear the rain hammering outside, but it felt more like distant hum now. It was so quiet in this house. How had she managed it all this time?
She nodded once and looked down at her hands before pulling that left arm in close. He watched her as she tightened it around herself and wondered how she had been sleeping lately.
“I was there when he died, Violet.”
The stillness surrounded them more completely as his words hung between them. He could imagine what it had been like when Violet and her brothers were small – the lives these walls held. The noise, the joy, the life inside. Somehow it wasn’t hard to imagine, despite the relentless silence that was in the air now.
He turned toward as she placed a hand on his forearm and held it there tightly, beckoning him not to go. She knew him well.
“I could tell the moment you came here, the first day you came back. The way you looked at me, the way you moved,” she shrugged, “anyone could tell you held that guilt, Jamie. It was wrapped so tightly around you, I was afraid it would strangle you.”
Not everyone could tell, Vi. Just you.
“Why didn’t you ask me about it?”
“Why would I? It’s not my story to tell. I knew you would talk about it when you were ready. I wasn’t the only one to lose him. He was your friend. I couldn’t begin to imagine how you felt. I didn’t want to open more wounds.”
He looked at her, in that half-light, on the third step, and hoped he hadn’t kept her waiting too long.
“I stayed with him...I didn’t want him to be alone...” She unwrapped her arm and slid it through his, sliding herself closer to him and resting her chin against his shoulder. “He didn’t suffer, Vi, I should have made sure you knew that a long time ago.” He heard her sniffle and felt her arm tighten. “I held his hand. I’m sorry I didn’t do more, I’m sorry I’m here and he’s not, that you’re alone. You never had a chance to say goodbye. I’m sorry...”
He saw Teddy again, again, again. Just a scratch, eh, mate?
She shook her head against him and murmured quickly, “Don’t you dare apologize to me again tonight, James Addison. We’re done with apologies, you and I. You were his friend, you did the best you could, of that I’m sure. This goddamn war, Jamie, it took so much, but somehow it gave you back. You came back and that is something to be thankful for, okay? Remember that.”
He nodded and swallowed hard, covering her hand with his. Remember that, remember that. He pressed his lips to the top of her head, smelled lavender and closed his eyes. She knew now, she had known all along. And still she was here, waiting.
He had made two stops before Violet’s tonight.
The first had been to Tristan’s small cottage on the outskirts of Violet’s property. He hadn’t been there before; Violet had warned him that Tristan didn’t like visitors, and he was shocked at how his childhood friend had been living. James could tell the place had once been a lovely place, but the sagging porch and overgrown yard had shown nothing but neglect.
James wasn’t ready for the sight of the man that sat in the weathered rocking chair on the porch. They had grown up together, thick as thieves, and now he was a stranger. Tristan’s once dark hair had prematurely grayed and even where James stood in the gathering darkness he could tell the amount of weight Tristan had lost was startling. He’s an old man. He rocked slowly and appraised James with a lengthy stare.
“I should have come sooner,” James said, not approaching the stairs to sit with his friend, “wasn’t sure how you felt about seeing me.”
“Don’t care to see much of anyone,” came a gravelly voice that James quite simply didn’t recognize. “You taking care of my sister?”
The question startled him, but James nodded. Violet had told him she made sure Tristan had what he needed, had tried to visit and invited him more times than she could count to come back home, but he refused. She must have told him that James had been lending a hand. James couldn’t imagine Tristan had been pleased to hear it. “He’s gone,” she had said to James one day after bringing Tristan food, “it breaks my heart to see him and know I’ll never have my brother back.”
“I’m doing anything I can for her, Tris. She’s doing a good job with the place. She won’t give up.”
Tristan stared at his old friend and rocked slower yet.
“Good. Someone has to keep going.”
James wanted to say more, he wanted to tell Tristan why he was really there, what he wanted to ask his stubborn, lovely, smart and warm sister, but somehow the words couldn’t come.
Tristan’s voice was rough as he spoke, low and purposeful.
“Keep her close, okay? I wish you two nothing but health and happiness. You don’t have to tell me, I know why you’re here, and the answer is yes, if she’ll have you. We’ve all been lucky to know you, it’s about time you’re part of the family officially.”
James stood with his mouth slightly agape before he recovered enough to walk forward and shake his friend’s hand.
James’ second stop before Violet’s was the small cemetery on the way back to the manor house. It didn’t take him long to find who he was looking for. He sat with his friend for a long time, remembering their adventures as kids, remembering the feeling of wishing to be the third brother, remembering the swift, brutal notion of knowing he was watching his best friend die.
James had held Henry’s hand and waited for him to go. The noise that normally surrounded them in the depths of fighting had quieted as James clutched at that hand until the grip slackened, as he wished that their places were reversed, as he said goodbye.
“I’m sorry, Henry. I won’t let you down again.”
Don’t keep her waiting.
James quietly asked Henry the question that Tristan had anticipated, his head bowed close to his friend. The tears gathered hot in his eyes without permission and he wished he had brought something to leave behind. Instead he pressed his palm against the cold stone and closed his eyes to a promise he hoped Henry could hear. He stood and looked at his watch as the first raindrops fell and knew that he was going to have to run.