I can't drown my demons; they know how to swim
She had been home for four days, when a man came walking across the gravel road early in the morning. It was a confederate soldier, that she knew, because she saw his gray uniform clearly. He walked slowly, very slowly, and his gray cap was dark with dirt and blood. Annabelle studied him carefully, from her window, always on guard. His blonde hair glistened like soft gold in the morning sun’s light, and the rifle hung loosely on his back.
Although he walked slowly he walked nobly, with a straight posture and arms still along the sides. There was something about it, with the way he walked, that made Annabelle recognize him somehow, even though the feeling was too weak for her to be sure. There was something about him that felt familiar.
She shook her tired head and stepped away from the window. It had been her turn to keep watch at night, as usual, and now sleep began to catch up with her. Her eyelids felt heavy as she slowly walked down the stairs, and then continued towards the door. Even though the stranger wore gray, she couldn’t be sure.
She gently pried up a part of the wooden floor behind the wide kitchen door, and pulled out her old rifle, thanking herself for having brought it. She had hidden it under the floorboard because she wasn’t yet ready to reveal her secret, and in the same time, she wasn’t ready to let go of it. The shaft of wood was dark and hard, and she had missed the weight of it in her hand. She had a few bullets left, just in case. She double-checked it anyway, and then put back the wooden board with her rifle in a firm grip.
Then she hurried to the hall, and stopped with her back against the wall towards the ballroom, so that she looked straight at the entrance door and those who went in there, but they couldn’t see her.
Annabelle cocked the gun and held it in front of her, ready to fire. She counted silently the soldier’s steps as he walked up the stairs outside. She clenched her jaw when she heard the door handle being pressed down. Quiet, she heard someone enter, his face hidden in the shadows, and without hesitation she stepped forward to meet the stranger. With steady arms she held the rifle in front of herself, and took aim at his head.
“Answer me now.” Her voice was hard and dark, but she didn’t scream. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” She had her eyes on his hidden face, and furrowed her eyebrows in surprise when she heard his voice.
“I came home”, he said, because he didn’t recognize her. Slowly, Annabelle lowered her weapon, and took a deep breath as she stepped out of the shadows. “Annabelle”, he gasped, and she breathed out.
“You came home”, she whispered, breathlessly, and he nodded.
“It was supposed to have been a surprise.” He smiled, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. She tried to smile too, but it was too hard. He took a deep breath. “Get mother and father, Annabelle.”
“Sam! Oh, Sammy, is that really you?” He laughed; a laugh that sounded like golden bells, a laugh that reminded Annabelle of her childhood.
“Yes, Mother, it’s me, I promise!” Charlotte pressed yet another kiss on her youngest son’s dirty cheek, while shimmering tears ran down her face.
“Oh, dear God! Oh, how I missed you!” She laughed, but her laughter wasn’t happy, and you could hear that it came from a broken heart. She stopped suddenly, as if she couldn’t allow herself to feel good anymore. “Dean, my Dean, is he-” she began suddenly, but her voice wasn’t able to carry the words. Sam lowered his head, and took the worn gray cap off of his head.
“Yes, mother”, he whispered, almost as if it was his fault, as if he should have taken better care of his brother; that he didn’t deserve to come home alone. Charlotte turned her head away, and her chest rose and fell faster and faster. “Mother, how are you?” Sam began, now standing, with a helpful hand stretched towards his mother. Charlotte dismissively waved him away, and blew her nose silently in an embroidered handkerchief.
“It’s okay, Sammy”, she whispered through her tears, and Sam lowered his arm.
“The Battle of Atlanta.” His voice was calm, but it was noticeable that he too was affected by grief. Charlotte sobbed loudly, and Annabelle, who had been standing behind her all the time, put a soft, comforting hand on her shoulder. Annabelle herself had winced when her brother mentioned the Battle of Atlanta, but didn’t dare to say or show anything for fear that her secret would be revealed. She had already decided to let it follow her into death.
Sam took deep breath, as if he hesitated whether he should continue or not.
“It was an ambush”, he murmured, “everything happened too fast. One minute, I remember how Dean smiled at me, you see, we had just talked about going home on leave, and seconds after we were attacked. There were only two of us, and some more, and they were too many. They shot, and I remember how Dean pulled me down on the ground, shielding me with his own body. It’s ironic, really, how he always would be the one to save me. My big brother. I guess that’s what family’s for, after all. We- we managed to get away from the battlefield, but he had been shot.” Sam’s voice was trembling. “We didn’t even make it to the field hospital.”
Annabelle suddenly became aware of the tears in his eyes. He is just a child, she thought, and he has just watched his brother die in war. Sam continued.
“He died in my arms. Mother, I’m so- I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to, forgive me, please, I- “Annabelle quickly walked over to her brother, because Charlotte was too broken to even talk.
“It is going to be all right”, she murmured comforting, soothing, and embraced him in a warm hug. She herself felt tears burn behind her eyes. “It wasn’t your fault.” She took his hand. “Our brother was a hero. He fought as one, and he died as one too. I promise you, it wasn’t your fault. I know that, mother knows that, and so does Dean. I promise.” Sam shook on his head, and Annabelle could hear the tears echoing within him, crying to be released. “You can cry, Sam”, she murmured, “how ever much you want.”
And he leaned his head against her shoulder and let his tears fall freely.
"Dear diary“, she began, and the feeling of the old book in her hands brought her back to the light. John had given it to her; how he had got hold of it, however, remained a mystery, but she didn’t care about it.
”I am home. Finally! I have returned, I managed to get home. Sam came home, too, yesterday, with the news that Dean has died as one of many nameless heroes of this damned war. Mother did not take it well; especially since I told her not long ago at all about the fate father met. She is broken inside, I know she is, for I see the empty look in her eyes. Mrs. Ericsson had it, after she found out that her family was gone; Killian had it, after he as a child was abandoned by both his mother and father. They were both lost. I had it too; God knows I still have it. I know what mother is going through. We are all lost somehow. It pains me to see her suffer, knowing that I can do nothing. I can not bring them back, no matter how much I want to. No one can. We have to move on, something I am sure that mother know. It’s just too hard, and too damn painful to even realize. The only thing that keeps me breathing right now is the thought of my family. The thought hat Killian is with me every day; I know that he will never truly leave me, as I will always carry the memory of him inside my soul. But I also know that I can end it now, end all of this misery, this painful darkness that I am in, but who would I be then?"
Annabelle sighed deeply, and a feeling of sadness spread in her heart. She did not really know the answer to the question she had just asked herself, and therefore decided to stop writing, and put back the diary where it belonged; safely underneath loose floorboard in Annabelle’s room. Then she took a deep breath, and shook confused on her head. It was time for her to wake up.
Several days passed, turning into a week or two, without new information reaching them. Sam told them, just like John had, that it was probably due to Sherman burning Atlanta, and stopping all written information. The information traveled now only from mouth to mouth, in the form of words, something that was extremely rare this deep in the woods where the family’s house was, along with other nowadays abandoned houses. People had fled, they said, but Annabelle didn’t want to believe it. The fact was, she believed it just as little as the idea that Sherman stopped all written text from Atlanta. It would have been much smarter to let the written words fly wildly, and spread terror far and wide along the country.
She shook her tired head when she came to think of how stupid it sounded. Northerners who with force took a city under siege, and thus kept innocent people as prisoners, and at the same time said that they fought for the freedom of all slaves.
She suddenly thought of the lady with the little girl that she had met in Atlanta. It hurt in Annabelle’s heart when she for the first time really understood that she had left them; she had failed them.
“Belle?” Annabelle awoke violently from her blurred daydreams, and was brought back to the darkness of reality. Katherine looked at her, with rosy cheeks and a small smile. “Belle was sleeping”, the girl laughed. Annabelle pinched her gently in the warm cheek.
“Oh but Katherine”, she said, “are you accusing me of sleeping during the day?” Katherine continued to laugh, as she nodded. Annabelle laughed, too, and was surprised at how good it felt. Then she suddenly remembered the reason why she was there.
“Katherine”, she said, and raised both her eyebrows, “how are you feeling?” The little girl pursed her lips, and cocked her head to the side. “Well?” Tried Annabelle, who terrible wanted to have an answer she could believe in. Then suddenly Katherine shook on her shoulders.
“Good”, she said, and then looked up at the ceiling. “Feel good.” Annabelle nodded, and couldn’t hide her smile, though the answer only awakened more questions within her. Had it only been a cold, or a fever? Annabelle had a very hard time believing it, as she thought back to how her sister actually had been just a few days ago. A cold would never have made Simone seriously believe it to be tuberculosis, nor would Annabelle suggested that it was typhoid fever. It wasn’t possible. Confused and tired, Annabelle put her hand to her forehead.
“Belle sick?” Katherine asked at once, looking frightened. Annabelle smiled gently and shook her head.
“Annabelle is tired,” she explained instead, while she suddenly turned cold with fear.
Killian had died of tuberculosis; a disease that was known for how easy it spread. There was no real explanation as to why she had not been affected - yet. She took a deep breath, and thought of the words her sister just uttered. Annabelle should be sick - very sick. If not of tuberculosis, at least the hole where the bullet punctured her skin should have been infected. And all the other diseases she had been exposed to while treating sick soldiers? Suddenly she seemed to feel the sick heat pulsing from her forehead, and she kept forgetting how to breathe.
It was later that day when Annabelle slowly walked in the withering garden, that Simone finally found her.
“Annabelle”, she breathed, “oh, Annabelle!” Annabelle turned around, even though she already knew who it was.
“Yes?” She replied, not overly friendly, mostly tired. Simone ran up to her, and gently put a hand on her left shoulder.
“Can I exchange a few words with you?” Annabelle raised her eyebrows, and then shrugged her shoulders.
“I see no reason why not.” Simone nodded eagerly, and then sped up her steps so that she ended up in front of Annabelle.
“Well, Annabelle”, the girl began, and avoided looking right into Annabelle’s eyes. “You don’t happen to- I mean, when you were at Mrs. Ericsson's, did I get... In touch with you?" Annabelle frowned suspiciously, not quite sure she understood. Simone noticed, and quickly added with her french accent: “Did you ever hear me talk to you there?” Annabelle became so confused that she had to stop walking.
“What?” The next second, however, she understood everything, and her face turned blank. The dream in which she saw herself, and Simone’s voice had echoed along the walls. She remembered it now, what has been so long ago. Simone had tried to tell her something, but she couldn’t remember what. “Yes”, Annabelle murmured, and placed her right hand over her mouth, “you were trying to tell me something. Something important.” Simone nodded slowly, and her voice became dark.
“The darkness is coming, Annabelle, and with it comes the evil. You can’t trust them, you can’t trust anyone.” Annabelle swallowed, and then nodded sympathetically. Now she remembered, and suddenly so many unexplained questions appeared within her. Simone began to move away from Annabelle, and her gray dress dragged behind her.
“No, Simone, wait”, Annabelle began, but Simone just put a finger to her mouth.
“They know where you are. They are coming”, she whispered, and walked away.