Poppies. Thousands of them.
Plucked from the earth, delicate petals woven into dozens of flower crowns piled on the ground. Children, little girls, silent, sitting in a broken meadow, weaving more.
A half-assembled crown was falling apart in my lap, abandoned. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking.
Children weren’t supposed to look like this. They were supposed to smile. To laugh. Not to cry. Not to be dirty, subdued, alone.
But I couldn’t blame them.
I was crying too.
I could feel the songs of ghosts whipping through the meadow with the wind, turning the air heaving and leaving ice across my soul.
Even though I was sitting, I staggered. My head was swimming, unsteady, too full and too empty all at once. I placed my hand on the ground to stabilize myself.
I pulled my hand back, and I gagged. My fingers were black, covered in ash.
Or it would be, if there was anything left.
Suddenly, there were broad hands on my shoulders, jarring me from my thoughts, and I jumped.
“Sorry,” Alex whispered, lips pressed against the top of my head. “But it’s time.”
I sighed, trying to clear my head, but I don’t know why I bothered. I settled for pushing the voices into the background where they were fuzzy and not quite as loud.
I stood, taking Alex’s warm, brown hand in mine so I could borrow some of his strength.
Together, we started rounding up the kids, collecting the crowns. I was grateful Alex was there to do all of the talking. Most of the kids were too young to really understand, and I couldn’t bear to break it to them. So I just stood there, holding out my arms, and trying not to crush the flowers.
And then finally we turned to face all that we had left.
Charred foundations of what used to be houses stood scattered throughout the meadow. I could still see pictures of the lives we used to have floating among the wreckage. The lives we had before.
Before the bombs that fell and burned our village to the ground and tore apart the earth. Before the war that made everything scarce and put us all at risk. Before almost everyone we’d ever known had died. Before Alex was an expert at making tombstones and I could barely make a poppy crown.
I turned to Alex, wondering how his big, brown eyes were still dry. “How did we end up like this?” I asked.
“You can’t think about this now, Gill. All we can do now is honor the dead and move forward from there.”
He took my hand and lead me through the ruins of the village across to the other side where a whole sea of wooden tombstones marked a sea of shallow graves Alex had dug because I hadn’t had the strength to.
But now it was my turn, and I stepped into the sea, one by one laying flower crowns at the head of every grave until we were standing in an all new field of bright red poppies.