Heading Home Again

In Issue 59 by Cory Essey

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Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash

Ethan’s head was humming. A nest of bees could have taken up residence inside his brain, and he doubted that it would feel less uncomfortable. The constant buzzing, the absence of a peaceful mind, was the hardest part of his job – he had decided that long ago. It wasn’t the ungodly hours or the constant stress of working under strict time limits that could mean life or death. It wasn’t even existing under the isolating and lonely veil of complete secrecy. No, those things he could deal with, he could compartmentalize. Those things meant that he was doing his job, he was saving lives, he was making a difference in the war even if he had never touched a gun. Those things meant that he was a part of it all, he was helping to end it.

It was when he got home, when it got quiet, that the heaviest blow was dealt. He couldn’t stop the tumbling thoughts of his mind, the vibrating nerves that ran through him even when he was in a state beyond exhaustion and wanted nothing more than to sleep. His brain couldn’t comprehend his body’s need for rest and simply wouldn’t relent.

If he had been rested enough, he thought that perhaps he could have deduced what had been plaguing Violet. She was restless and weary, that much was obvious. Ethan and Violet had been engaged for over a month now, and she was showing little interest in planning the wedding. She smiled when people asked about it, showed her ring obligingly, but Ethan could tell that her heart wasn’t in it. He knew she was tired, trying to take care of that huge house on her own, he knew the sadness that she tried to hide from him about her parents. He knew how desperately she missed them, how strong she felt she had to be, and he wished there was a way he could ease that for her. His long hours at work rendered it nearly impossible to know when he would be able to see her, let alone give her the consistent support he knew that she needed.

And her brothers...well her brothers were adding to it all, at the moment. The bare truth was that he wasn’t the fiancé he wished he could be, the one that he had intended to be, the one he knew that Violet deserved. He supposed that was the nature of living through a war. Sacrifices were made by all.

He tried to make himself comfortable as he lay in bed, the dark surrounding him but not encouraging sleep. His eyes burned with exhaustion, but he continued to stare at the ceiling. He squeezed them shut, trying not to calculate how long until he had to leave his small apartment for the compound to start his next twelve-hour shift. Instead, when he shut his eyes, he was met with a familiar face.

James.

It had been weeks since he showed up at Violet’s place. Ethan knew that he was friends with Tristan and Henry, that when they all came back from the front lines Violet’s had been the first place they had gone. He knew there was a bond between the four of them that he would never be a part of, and in his waking moments he was content with that. He had always been friends with them, too, running with them as children, raising hell as teenagers, but his was a looser bond. It never bothered him, that different type of friendship he had, especially with Henry and Tristan. James was practically the third brother, a part of the family. Ethan floated a bit on the outskirts, right where he was comfortable. It had always worked between them.

This war had changed them all, touched everyone in a way that they perhaps wouldn’t understand for many years to come, but he couldn’t help the twinge of jealousy he felt when he saw James ambling easily up Violet’s drive. The familiar way he greeted her, the comfortable way he navigated her home, twisted something inside of him that left an uncomfortable lump and led to hours of staring at his own ceiling in the dark. They weren’t children anymore.

A stronger man would have perhaps been grateful that someone was at the rambling estate with Violet, that it wasn’t just her and her housekeeper, Mary, who was getting on in years. He should be thankful that someone was there in case of an accident, in case Violet tried (again) to move a piece of furniture that she couldn’t possibly budge on her own or climb the tall cherry tree in the backyard in order to trim some dangling branches. Yes, a stronger man, indeed. Instead, Ethan’s burning eyes squinted at the crack in the ceiling and remembered the last phone call he had with his fiancée.

“I’m sorry, darling, I won’t be able to make dinner tonight.”

“That’s okay, I figured it would be the case.”

He had winced at that, the callousness in her voice. She was used to being let down by him, that was certain.

“Next time, okay? I have a day off coming next week.”

“That will be lovely.”

The stilted tone of her voice made him squeeze the phone tighter. When did it become this difficult? He loved her — wasn’t that enough? Did this bloody war have to take every remaining pleasure from his life?

“Vi, are you alright? I worry about you out there alone.”

“I’m not alone.”

That made him pause. Who did she mean? Mary? No, she would have gone home for the day, she had her own family. He knew Tristan was nothing but a burden, Henry was pure heartache, so that left…

“James.”

“Hm?”

“James is with you, isn’t he?”

“He’s in the garden now, the roses need trimming.”

“Yes, I’m sure they do.”

She sighed heavily at this.

“I’ll let you go, my darling. I’ll see you soon.”

“Goodnight, Ethan.”

“I love you.”

She hadn’t heard him before she rang off. That’s what he told himself, that’s what he needed to believe. She hadn’t heard him, and she still loves him, and everything will clear itself once they could breathe again. Once this war ended, they could have their lives back.

“Yes,” he whispered out loud in the dark, “we’ll all be okay.”

*

When Ethan imagined playing his part in the war he thought of heroics — soldiers in foxholes and victory with a weapon in hand. When his maths professor approached him about an opportunity to do his part in a different way nearly a year ago, he realized rather quickly that his chance to help his country would be behind locked doors, with a pencil in his hand and pages of seemingly unbreakable code. Soon after, it was obvious that he was exceptional at breaking what others deemed impossible. All the heads for GC&CS knew Ethan’s name. They knew to come to Hut 8 with what others simply couldn’t manage, for what others couldn’t see.

It was a rush for Ethan to figure it out when the letters came fast and smooth and it all unraveled in front of his eyes. When a location was clear in the jumble, and he knew that lives had been saved because of what he saw in the mess of code. He knew then that what he was doing was important, whether he had a gun in his hand and mud on his boots or not.

But no one else knew. Not even Violet, and certainly not James. Station X was the most secretive of secret locations in England, and as much as Ethan loved Violet, he knew that he wouldn’t even trust her with any information about his work. It simply was too important to take chances. The quiet nights were lonely, but he knew the shame would follow him for the rest of his life if he let any of his secrets go.

No, those were for the long days spent inside unremarkable buildings in a sprawling campus in Milton Keynes, the secrets shared between endless cups of terrible coffee and exhaustion so thorough it felt possible that he would never recover. The type of secrets that take root somewhere inside and grow into an entity all their own, into a new part of you that twists your life into an unrecognizable path. Secrets that change the way you relate to people who weren’t privy to the same information, that made your conversations with people on the outside vague and unsatisfying, and yet the secrets were still kept between the codebreakers. As heavy as they were, it was a burden Ethan was willing to carry and keep for the exchange of fewer lives lost in a tragedy that relentlessly pursued their days.

*

Ethan got out of the Hut earlier than anticipated that night, just after eleven. He knew sleep wouldn’t come anytime soon and more than anything he needed to see Violet. Things were slipping, and he wanted to touch her again, to remind her why she had said yes. He hopped onto his bike and hoped that the exercise would help his body later when he tried to sleep. The night was chilly, but the cool wind felt exhilarating on his face after the hours he spent in stale air as he worked. He stretched his arms high overhead, his feet moving him forward, grateful to be in the clean night. He peddled faster, and he could smell the rain in the air, could hear the thunder in the distance, and he knew he had to hurry. He hoped to make it there before midnight, before Violet was asleep. He wasn’t sure what time she went to bed these days, a detail that wasn’t lost on him. Those tiny cracks that added to a collapse, that small bit of code that nagged his mind until it found its place in the scheme of things.

He was passing Violet’s family’s small cemetery on the outskirts of her property and slowed when he saw a tall figure bent in the shadows. The wind had picked up as he stopped completely and watched as someone bent over Henry’s grave with their head bowed. He knew it was Henry’s even from this distance — he had spent enough time there to know exactly where his friend lay. Who would be here at this time of night? A gust caught his hat and as he bent to retrieve it, a chill shivered through him.

James.

He dropped his bike and was across the dark road before it clattered to the ground. The small gate creaked when he opened it, and he knew immediately that he was too late. Henry’s grave sat as still and quiet as every other time Ethan had been there. He knelt at his friend’s head for a moment, noticed nothing had been left behind, but an uneasiness filled him in the quiet. He reached for a handful of wild daisies and laid them carefully above the etched name.

“Hey, Henry.” His voice carried in the wind whipping around him, and the streaming sound of it made him jump. “Jamie come to talk to you?” Ethan nodded in response to his own question. It always felt like he was closely trailing James these days, always a step behind, a shadow of sorts. “We’re doing okay here, pal. We’re hanging in there.” He traced the “H” with one finger, as he always did, and patted the stone before he stood. The pain of missing his friend hadn’t dulled. Neither had the guilt of being away from Violet as much as he had been while she dealt with the death of her brother. So many small cracks.

He was exhausted walking back to his bike, his legs heavy and slow as he peddled toward Violet’s house. He glanced at his watch again but the rain finally came, soaking him completely. He kept peddling, a knot in his stomach forming with the notion that he was in control of absolutely nothing.

*

They couldn’t see him standing close to the window. The rain was a sheet now, his blonde hair dark from the weight of it, the drops falling into his eyes. He cupped his hands around his face and stepped closer to the glass. He had seen James at the top of the drive, had seen him run full tilt toward the house. But he had known before that, hadn’t he? He could see them now, sitting on the third step of that wide staircase, huddled together in the low light, and he knew that he had lost. Ethan had waited, waited, waited and it was too much. It wasn’t enough.

He strained to see Violet’s left hand, wanted to see the small diamond sparkling there, wanted to know that he wasn’t completely forgotten, but James leaned closer and blocked her from Ethan’s view. He fought the urge to punch a fist through the glass of that old house, to use the same fist to hurt his old friend, the same fingers to snatch back the ring he had given to the only girl he had ever loved. He wanted to scream into the rain, to run his nails down his own face, to feel some sort of pain to remember his beating heart. He wanted to sleep and pretend that things would be better in the morning. He wanted to pretend that the woman he loved would love him back. He wanted to play more tricks, piece more puzzles together to make it all fit.

Instead, he watched Violet and Jamie a moment longer with their heads close together in the warmth before he quietly climbed back on his bicycle, pushed his hair from his eyes, and began the long ride home. He breathed deeply in and out as he pushed the pedals slowly, reminding himself the world goes on. In and out, and the sun would eventually cast away the rain and people would find their way home again and again. In and out. In and out and the night would be over quickly. He had things to do in the morning. One needed a clear head to keep all the demons at bay.

About the Author

Cory Essey

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Cory Essey lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been published on The Write Launch, Discretionary Love, and Two Sisters Writing and Publishing.