This week marks the last in my series on grief. The timing on this is perfect for me, and oddly enough, the character I chose (weeks ago) for this installment is one whose general attitude about life is one I aspire to. She’s Ever, the heroine of my upcoming steampunk/alt-history romance novella Badlands.
Acceptance: Just a Man
Ever paced the length of her mother’s rooms, a faint cloud of dust from her clothes following in her wake. Her eyes flicked to the window, judging the length of the shadows outside, and she clenched her jaw. She had work to do. Whatever this was about, it had better be important.
At last, her mother swept into the room in a swirl of sheer skirts, her face a stoic mask. “Everette, your clothes. Could you not--"
“I was on duty, Mother.”
A sigh shuddered from her mother’s mouth and she laid her palms on her dresser and leaned against it. “Close the door, please.”
Ever sucked in a deep breath to hold back the irritated retort threatening to escape her lips as she strode over and sealed the room. “All right, Mother, what is it that requires such secrecy?”
“Not secrecy, dear,” she said, her voice tired and quiet. “Privacy.” She squared her shoulders and crossed the room to take Ever’s hands.
Ever stared at their entwined fingers, hers rough and callused from years hunting on the borders, her mothers soft…beautiful.
“It’s about your father.”
Jerking her hands back, Ever narrowed her eyes as rage bubbled up inside her. “He’s back?”
“Do not make that face. Your father is…was a good man.” Her mother raised a trembling hand to brush Ever’s long waves back from her face. “He’s dead.”
“Tell me what information we have on his murderer.” She strode toward the door. This at least made sense. She hunted criminals every day. One more would be no different. “I’ll get one of my squads on it immediately.”
Gentle pressure on her shoulder stopped her before she opened the heavy door. “Child, he was not murdered. His horse threw him. He hit his head on a rock and…” The words were strangled by a sob.
Ever shook her head, confused. “And you wish me to…kill the horse?”
Her mother stepped in front of her, blue eyes searching hers. For what, Ever didn’t know. “He died, Everette. I want you to stay with me. To mourn with me.”
“Men die in the Badlands every day, Mother. Many of them by my hand. Why should I mourn this one?”
“He was your father!”
“And still just a man. One I barely knew. He was never part of my life.” Not a complaint, merely a statement of fact. Like other men not residing within the confines of prison cells, her father had worked in the fields or the mines, or…somewhere. Ever didn’t care. She hadn’t wanted anything from him since he left.
Her mother’s hand caressed her cheek. “But he is part of you. Isn’t that reason enough to mourn his passing?”
Pain rose in Ever’s skull as she frowned and stepped toward the door. “You may do what you wish with his memory, Mother, but I am still here and whole. I have lost nothing with his passing.” Wood scraped on wood, protesting as she yanked the door open. “I have work to do.”
As she rode her horse over the rough, desert terrain, Ever’s mind drifted back to her childhood.
She was playing with a pair of wooden horses when a shadow darkened the doorway and drew her gaze. “Papa!
Her father opened his arms wide, and Ever raced to him, throwing herself against his broad chest. His arms wrapped around her, warm and strong as he kissed her hair. “I cannot stay anymore, child.”
Ever’s face scrunched. “What do you mean?”
His voice whispered like a breeze through her hair. “I told you one day I would have to leave, that I couldn’t stay with you and your mother forever. It is not the way things are done.”
Balling her hands into fists, Ever shoved against him. “No”
“I am sorry, Ever. I didn’t want to go without saying goodbye.” He leaned down to kiss her again.
“No!” She raced back into the room, certain if she didn’t say goodbye, he wouldn’t leave.
Sadness darkened his face as he backed out of the doorway.
Ever tried to shake off the memory, but her head began to throb. She pressed the heel of one hand against it; she needed her wits about her. One of the criminals sent across the border had been terrorizing a group of settlements. Her troops had been searching for him for two days, and he was far more likely to kill her than surrender. At last, a familiar shape caught her attention and she swung from the horse, urging it toward the others with a swat on its hindquarters.
The curvy brunette she had spotted stepped from between the boulders and strode forward. “Commander.”
Ever nodded at Catherine, her second-in-command. “Has he been captured?”
Catherine shook her head, tendrils of hair catching in the desert breeze. “No, but we are closing in on him. The women should have him flushed out of hiding by nightfall.”
“Good. We have wasted too much time on this one already.”
Before the last word had left her mouth, Ever caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Bulk, moving fast, with something raised overhead. Without thought, she pulled her pistol, whipped around and fired.
The man’s eyes were wide as the axe tumbled from his fingers and he fell backward, blood pouring from the hole in his face.
Ever crossed the ground between them and kicked at the fallen man’s body. “This is him?”
From the other side of the dead man, Catherine said, “He matches the description. I will fetch someone to confirm.” With that, the brunette was lost in a swirl of dust.
Her head throbbing, Ever examined the man. Perhaps fifty, with hair graying at the temples, tall, muscular build—much like her father would have had by now. He stared back at her with pale green eyes that mocked her darker ones.
Hands pressed to her temples, she backed away as something wet formed a path down her cheek. She glanced at the bright, clear sky, blinking against the sunshine.
Another wet trail blazed down her skin and she wiped the teardrop away, staring as it evaporated in the heat. The pain in her skull abated slightly as another tear fell. She glanced at the body lying in front of her, seeing not a criminal…just a man.
She squared her shoulders, the ache in her head abating. “Goodbye, Father.”
Then she turned to await Catherine’s return. Her heart at peace.