By: Adriel Morton
Blood stained Mama’s good hand towel in the kitchen as I tried to keep my left ring finger from falling off. Well, maybe not falling off, but it was cut so deep I could have lost my arm for all I knew. I had been underneath the house in my hiding spot—that’s where I read his letters— and I mashed my finger in between a brick and a bit of siding. I’d tell Mama I got it caught in the water pump. Otherwise, I’d have to explain to her why I was underneath the house. Then she would tell Pa, and he’d swear that he was gonna make that sonuva gun swallow his hunting rifle the second he hopped off the train from the war. And if the warfare killed him, why he’d march over there, raise him from the dead and send him to hell in a hand basket all over again just for speaking to his precious Elizabeth Mae.
I always knew Ben O’Neal. He went to school with my older brother Ed, and sometimes I’d see him playing ball in the yard on my way back from shelling Miss Rayborn’s peas. We didn’t talk much until my 16th birthday. He passed a note to me in church with some flowers drawn on it. I wrote him one back, and we kept on. We wrote each other for about six months before Mama and Pa found out. It was too late. I already loved Ben, and he loved me. We’d sneak out and see each other, and I’d tell Mama that I was going to see Ray McConley, the boy she was going to have me marry when I turned 18.
Ben got drafted to war the summer I turned 17. I cried for what felt like days. The war didn’t stop us, though. I doubt the second coming of Jesus Christ could have stopped us. For a year, we kept on writing letters. I would sneak them from the post office and tuck them into a pocket I sewed in the lining of my dress. Once I was safe under the house, I’d light an old birthday candle and read his tiny handwriting. It was in that very spot I read his letter asking me to elope with him. He was coming home in two weeks.
I arose early the day his train arrived. I had carefully packed a small bag, and slipped out of my window. I waited at the station for an hour before I saw the coughing pillar of smoke in the distance. It felt like every organ in my body suddenly got twice as big. I wondered what a year at war had done to that young, happy face of his.
The train sputtered into the station, and immediately people spilled out. I clutched my bag, but as I pushed closer to the passengers, I noticed the panicked look on everyone’s faces. I realized what I had thought to be yelps of happy greetings were painful sobs. I grabbed a man by the arm. Before he finished telling me about the exploded boiler, I saw Ben. Two men carried him from the car.
* * *
The ceremony was breathtaking. The fall colors in Oakdale were in full. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. I thumbed the scar over the ring that made me Mrs. McConley, and stomached the wedding cake.