The boy trembled as the guards led him down the dark hall to their commander’s bunker. From fear or cold, he couldn’t say. Certainly the dampness that had seeped into his very bone marrow since the final strike all those months ago contributed, but he was loathe to think about that just now. He had more pressing matters. “It is urgent that you get this to our friends as quickly as possible,” his father told him, days (or was it weeks, months?) ago. His father’s final words. A plea.
One guard rapped sharply on the wooden, makeshift door.
“Come in,” she said, and they all entered.
“Jefferson’s son has arrived with this month’s shipment of food. We got a watermelon…”
Though tinged with pain from the knowledge of the death of her old, dear friend, she faintly smiled at her confederate. He remembered.
“But the boy also wanted to give you something. In person, privately.”
As the guard said this the boy stepped from around the tall soldier, shyly, not sure what to do with his hands, feet. He shuffled around, fumbling with his shirt hem. Surprised, the commander stood slowly, mouth open.
“Of course……leave us.”
The guards left, and the two stood in silence. The boy’s eyes darted around the room, noticing the old maps, rifles, and other military paraphernalia, the dust falling from the ceiling as some large truck rolled by on the street above their heads. He seemed nervous to meet the commander’s eyes, though she evenly surveyed him, curious, pained.
Finally he looked at her. He might have thought she was beautiful, if he knew what beauty was, but instead he merely presented a small, slip of paper. She received it slowly. Without opening it or even taking her eyes from the child, she asked him, “What does it say?”
“I don’t know, I can’t read.”
The commander bowled over imperceptibly, as if the slightest kick had hit her square in the chest.
“Would you like me to read it to you?”
“NO,” the boy shouted quickly, loudly. Nervously.
The commander cocked her head to one side, searching, still not taking her eyes from him.
“No…I…I don’t want to know what it says. Not until I’ve finished delivering it to everybody. Father…my dad…he said everyone along the trade route needed to know…and…I have to do this quickly…or…I don’t know. I don’t want to know until the last person knows…”
The boy seemed ashamed of this, but the commander smiled warmly. She understood such hopes, fears.
“Uh…so…that’s it. I…well….see ya later.”
The boy turned back and forth several times, uncertain, finally deciding on a poorly executed salute. The commander stood straight, lock step, returned his salute with a quick, perfect one of her own. The boy scrambled to the door and tried unsuccessfully several times to grip the handle. The guard opened it from the other side, meeting the commander’s eyes before closing the door, his hand on the boy’s back. They gave each other the briefest of nods.
Once alone, the commander sat back down, the slip of paper still folded in front of her. She stared at it for some minutes and then slowly opened the message. She read and reread the single line over and over. Placing her head in her hands, she stared at it for a long, long while. Until finally, as if holding her breath the entire time, her whole body collapsed around a sigh. Closing her eyes, a single teardrop escaping.