The ground was still frozen when the war started. The men tried to break the frost, scraping shovels against dirt while Beth covered her ears against the raw sound. There was talk of cairns, but Grandma wouldn’t hear it. Her boys would go into the ground proper.
Beth’s two brothers were laid out as nicely as could be in the back shed. The boys would wait, silent and patient as only the dead are, until spring thawed the family plot.
Any McCullough who fell on their lands could not expect the same courtesy. The city boys had started the whole damn thing, not content with their take under Uncle Arthur. He and Beth’s Da broke the ice over the river themselves and dumped their bloody young bodies through the hole to sink.
Beth’s sister May told her that the last McCullough was still kicking when Da pushed him beneath the ice. This gave Beth dreams of bottomless black water and an unreachable sky.
It was after her brother Jessup took a bullet deep in the stomach that Beth crept out to visit the back shed.The air chilled her night gown but her feet were warm tucked in socks and workboots.The shriek of the wind drowned out the creak of the shed door.
Beth stopped a step inside. Jessup and Andrew were there, frost ringing their lips and noses. Frozen men with her brother’s faces. There were others too. Her uncle’s soldiers and her father’s friends. She knew all of them by name, as they’d known her. Their wounds were dark with iced blood and some of them stared with open eyes, time and cold forcing them to gape upwards.
Rage warmed her throat, swelling out from the middle of her chest. So many dead lying with no place to sleep. And for money, because the McCulloughs weren’t pleased enough with their easy jobs in the city. They didn’t brave the woods or ice falls trucking the haul over mountains and past armed rangers. The McCulloughs dealt in warmed parlors and business lounges.
Beth thought of the boy May had seen and the chill seeped back into her. How quick did he die beneath the ice? Would she, hardy Avery stock, last longer than a McCullough? Beth thought she might.
Such brave thoughts were cut off as something moved in the yard. Beth turned, sucking in air so fast her nose burned and she coughed. Across the barren ground a dozen dark shapes moved over the back porch.
Beth saw the spark of flint and the torches ignite in the dark around her home.
The moment before she put workboot to ice, ready to sprint over the yard, to scream, to fight, to warn someone, the pieces of flame arced through the air like falling stars. The stars took, crashing through windows and setting curtains ablaze. Bright against the black blue of winter sky, her house began to burn. Someone starting to scream, crying out to wake the others, while Beth’s voice was frozen.
The back door crashed open, orange light silhouetting someone in a long nightgown. May had not stepped across the threshold when the shot snapped her head back. Her sister’s body crumpled in the doorway. Beth snapped her hands over her mouth and stumbled back, cutting off a cry before it betrayed her.
The fire spread until it billowed from each window, pumping black smoke upwards into the black sky. The warmth of it did not reach Beth, half crumbled against the back shed. The shadows stood, waiting for someone to flee the house. A few Averys tried. No one made it into the snow.
Beth did not move at first, her eyes too wide and stinging in the wind. It wasn’t until house’s roof started to collapse with a crack of embers did she pull her eyes from the slaughter. With violently shaking hands she pulled herself up and shuffled back into shed.
The dead within lay peaceful and silent. Her fingers were too numb to feel the shed’s rough handle, but she gripped it and tugged.
The creak was too loud, she thought. They’d come find her, they’d kill her and find her brothers. They’d push them under the ice, or throw them into the burning house. Their bodies would sink deep into the pitch colored water, or their bones would burn black. She’d die choking.
The shed door finally snapped closed. Beth waited for the sound of boots in the snow outside. They didn’t come, and after seconds stretched into uncountable minutes Beth sank to the floor.
Beth didn’t move, too cold and suddenly numb to do anything but curl up on herself. Around her the dead lay, waiting until spring.
Being a thief isn’t all merry chase and drunken spoils. I stole the first line and came up with this morose little story. Check out the original at Nine Pages and the rest of the thieves at the Legal Theft Project.