Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tuesday Teaser - No Crayons On The Front Line

No Crayons On The Front Line is available for preorder and will be released on Saturday. If you took part in the Shades of Pink fundraiser last fall, you know that was the name of my short story in the anthology. I'd ended that story when the characters first meet, but they demanded that I give them a bit more time together, so I reworked the story and tripled the wordcount!

Here's the blurb, and the first few letters...


When Samuel gets his class of elementary students to write letters to soldiers fighting on the demon invasion front line, the children coax him into doing the same. Lieutenant Williams soon answers his letter, and it’s only the beginning of a long exchange of thoughts, anecdotes and feelings. This long-distance relationship is bound to change when they meet in person… Will they each be true to what they showed through their words?

***

http://original.kallysten.net/2015/no-crayons-on-the-frontline/
Dear soldier,

Only two words in, and here I am, confronting a feeling of oddness as it occurs to me I don’t know to whom I should address this letter. I have written few letters in my life – and by letter, I mean actual letters, the kind where one puts ink and thoughts onto paper to share with another person – and every one of those actual letters went to someone I knew beforehand, someone whose face I could picture, someone who I was sure would be able to hear my voice when they read my words, who would know when I was trying to be humorous or understand references to a shared past. And so, I find it difficult to write to you today without knowing your name or age, or even whether you like long missives or will already be bored by the time you reach this point.

All I know about you, really, is that you are serving on the front line of the demon invasion. You protect me, along with everyone inside our city, and for this, for the danger you choose to face night after night, for the wounds you may have suffered, for the grief you may have experienced upon losing comrades, you have my sincere and heartfelt thanks.

It seems far from enough; I can only give you words on a page and not even a handshake to remind you that those you fight for are living beings made of flesh and bone rather than the abstract concept you might have in mind. That is, unless you fight for someone specific, for members of your family or friends, and it’s their image you keep in mind every time you raise your weapon on the battlefield. Either way, please believe that there is at least one person tonight who will send their best wishes toward the battlefield in the hope that you will remain safe.

Warm regards,
Dr. W. S. Sherridan


*


Dear Dr. Sherridan,

First, let me thank you your letter. While we (soldiers on the front line) do not fight every single night as civilians often believe, it certainly feels like we do. Even when there is no attack underway, we’re always aware that every moment of calm is only a brief respite in the storm. And while we don’t need or expect thanks, it’s great to know we are appreciated for what we do by those we try so hard to keep safe. We, myself as well as all the soldiers in my unit who were lucky enough to be handed a letter, were quite happy to receive them.

Receiving letters was even more special because they came in the day after the end of a long, bloody fight against demons. I’m not sure how much people in the city are told about the siege, I’m not even sure whether this letter will be read and possibly censored before it reaches you, but let’s just say that this was one of the most brutal demon attacks I’ve ever seen. I escaped my turn outside the walls unscathed, but many others were less lucky. It was a sad day in the camp, but the letters and the reminder they gave us that we’re not fighting in vain made it easier to continue. As you pointed out in your letter, we’re fighting for very real people, made of flesh and blood like we are. People who sometimes pick up a pen to write a few words to us.

But I have the same strange feeling you had when you first wrote to me: I don’t know who I am writing to either. Your words and handwriting alone tell me that your letter is different from those my men were sharing with each other, in which misspellings, cute questions and unsteady handwriting give away that the writers are children. I knew you were an adult right away, and your signature only confirmed it. But that same signature told me very little. No first name, two initials, a last name… and those two small letters, a badge of pride to all those who earn them. Here I am, writing a letter to a doctor, wondering why he (she?) participated in a letters program involving elementary school children. That is a puzzle, and while I have a couple of theories, I would be pleased if you would reply and tell me.

Until then, I will continue making up lists of what those initials might mean. My first thought for W was William, for reasons that will become clear when you read my signature. Am I anywhere close?

Regards from the front line,
Lieutenant Angel Williams


*


Dear Lieutenant Williams,

I was pleasantly surprised to receive your reply. I penned my first letter while my students were writing their own missives; they encouraged me to, if I am completely honest. I have run a ‘letters to soldiers’ program ever since I started teaching at Lincoln Elementary two years ago, but it had never occurred to me before that I, too, might express my gratitude. In retrospect, and given the tone of your reply, it seems like an unforgivable lapse.

We received the box of replies from the fighting camp while we were in class, and it was obvious right away that the students wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else until they’d read their letters. For most of them, it was the first letter they’d ever received. So I interrupted the lesson, gave each child their envelope, and that was when I realized there was one for me too. It had been a while since I’d received a handwritten letter. I’ll admit I found myself quite as excited as my students.

Some volunteers read your fellow soldiers’ replies to the rest of the class, and then, if you’ll forgive the term, they ambushed me, demanding that I read my letter as well. I hope you won’t be cross when I tell you I had to yield and share your words with them. They all send their love to the one they decided to call their ‘guardian Angel.’ You’ve probably been called that often enough to be sick of the pun, but they’re children, and they mean it without a trace of irony.

Yes, I am indeed proud to call myself a doctor, perhaps inordinately so, I now realize. In my defense, it took quite a bit of hard work to earn that right, and it is the only accomplishment to which I have any claim. In the troubled times we live in, studying and working toward a degree can sometimes feel a little foolish, and more than once I questioned my path and wished I could have been more useful to my fellow men by joining in the ranks of fighters, like you did. Unfortunately, health issues would have disqualified me without a doubt had I tried to enlist. It sounds like an excuse, doesn’t it? And a feeble one at that. It is nonetheless the truth. My body is at fault here, not my mind or courage.

As for my name, no, it is not William, though I’d have much preferred it if it was, as I hold no affection for my first name. I usually go by my middle name, Samuel, and if you cared to write to me again, please do feel free to call me so.

Yours in friendship,
Wynn Samuel Sherridan


*


Dear Lieutenant Williams,

A month has passed since I last wrote to you. As I didn’t receive an answer, I just wanted to send this short note of apology. I feel my last letter might have taken a wrong turn. In my defense, I wrote it while my students were at recess and finished it more quickly than I should have, without rereading it since I wanted it to be sent along with my students’ replies.

In that letter, I dared to talk about courage, and I now realize it was quite a misstep on my part. It’s one thing to claim I would have fought demons if I could have. Actually doing so, I imagine, is different. I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to someone, hiding behind the walls of the city and a line of soldiers, wax lyrical about imagined heroic acts.

Again, you have my apologies, and my continued wishes for your well-being and safety.

Samuel Sherridan


*


Dear Samuel,

If an apology is needed, then it should come from me.

I was not offended or put off by your letter, not at all. You tell me you would have liked to serve if you’d been able to, and I can only praise you for it, and be glad you understand how important it is for us to be standing here on the front line. Too often people think they’re not suited for the task because they’re not strong, or skilled, or because they don’t feel they’re ‘bloodthirsty’ enough to combat demons. Or they think it’s too dangerous, and they don’t want to risk their lives.

I should know. My own family tried to discourage me from joining the ranks of the Defending Forces. They repeatedly told me I was too young, too soft, too precious to go waste my life on the battlefield. Even now that I’ve fought for five years, advanced in rank and gone through almost a thousand battles with only scratches and bruises, they still try to convince me I should quit and find a ‘normal’ job. Have a ‘normal’ life. Find a spouse, have children. And never worry about worse things than using my ration tickets or allotment of electricity wisely. As if living under siege and never knowing whether demons might push into the city and how I’d protect my family if they did was normal.

As you can imagine, those family discussions turn more often than not into full-blown arguments, and sometimes even shouting matches. Just thinking about it now makes my blood boil again.

That’s the reason I didn’t write to you any sooner. I received your last letter shortly before going on a week-long leave. I meant to write back to you upon my return, but my family complaining about my life choices left a bad taste in my mouth, and little desire to talk to insiders, as we soldiers sometimes call those we protect. And that is something my family just doesn’t want to understand. We protect them, along with everyone else inside the city. If I hadn’t joined the DF, if every other soldier who has a mother, a father, grandparents, or siblings who worry for them hadn’t joined, then who would be left to keep all of us safe?

They don’t understand this, but I feel that you do. So again, thank you for your letters. It’s odd how words from a stranger can mean so much more than words from my own family.

There was a question I wanted to ask you, if I can be nosy. You’re a doctor, but you teach elementary students. How come? With the city under siege, I thought anyone with medical knowledge would be working in the city’s hospitals. Unless it is your health troubles that keep you from it?

Please say hello to your students from me, and let them know that this Angel, along with every soldier on the front line, will do their very best to keep them safe, with or without the support of their families.

And please, do call me Angel. Only my men call me Lieutenant, and then only when they get themselves in trouble.
Angel

*

Dear Angel,

Thank you for trusting me enough to share something as personal as the difficulties you encounter with your family. I am sorry that you have to go through such arguments, especially since they sound unending. For you to have to defend your choices repeatedly when you’re supposed to be on leave and renewing your spirit seems to add insult to injury. I am more glad than ever that my students convinced me to pick up a pen, almost two months ago now, and write to you. If I may bring a little bit of peace to your mind, then surely every word and letter is worth being written.

Your letter made me wonder what my parents would have thought of me joining the Defense Forces, had the choice been open to me. I like to think they’d have been proud of me, although I was too young when they passed to have well-defined memories of their characters, and I don’t feel like I ever got to really know them. Still, I can’t help but think that your family, whatever their arguments, must be proud, deep down, even if they won’t admit it to you, maybe for fear of encouraging you.

To answer your question, I must again offer an apology. I should have made it clear from the start that, while I am a doctor, I am not a medical doctor. My field is a much less useful one in the fight, which is why, as I mentioned before, I questioned devoting so much energy to my education. I earned my doctorate studying and comparing the ancient myths to the fiction and non-fiction written since the beginning of the demon invasion. It’s still not the preferred path to becoming an elementary-school teacher, and I envisioned myself teaching university students rather than children who are still learning to read and write. These days, however, there aren’t quite enough students in universities interested in comparative literature, while there are always openings to teach young learners. That’s how I ended up at Lincoln Elementary.

If I am completely honest, I thought I would hate it. I have never had much patience, and I occasionally suffer from a very short temper when my health is poor. To my very great surprise, I do not, in fact, hate it. Not by a long shot. Patience isn’t such a difficult thing to find with children who are, as a whole, eager to learn, and my temper, when it rises, tends to be soothed by their worry for my well-being. Also, being around children has shown me just how jaded we adults have become. Even when we avoid talking about demons, the reality of the siege and unceasing attacks colors everything we do, everything we plan. Children still dream of being pirates or explorers or astronauts, and if I can help them dream a little longer before they have to grow up, then my life has meaning. One day, the attacks will stop and the demons will leave. If by then, as a species, we have lost the ability to dream, we’ll have lost the war, too.

I just reread that last paragraph. I hope I don’t sound too pompous. It is just something I strongly believe in, and it’s one of our regular classroom activities for the children to write or draw about their dreams and hopes for the future. And now that I think about it, it’s been too long since they talked about their dreams. I think in the morning I’ll change my lesson plans and set a bit of time aside.

On that note, let me offer you, as always, my warmest regards.
Samuel


*


Dear Samuel,

I received more than your letter yesterday: I also got quite a few jealous looks. I alone received mail while my fellow soldiers have to wait another week to get notes from their little friends. I wonder just how many more dark looks I’d get if they knew my letters are longer than a few lines and better conversation than I’ve had in a long time! I was very lucky the day the letters came and yours was assigned to me at random. If it’s not too mean of me to say, I think a letter from a child might have amused me for a moment, but I’d have passed it on to another soldier rather than bothering to answer. Yours, on the other hand, I wouldn’t dream of sharing with anyone.

You didn’t sound pompous at all, no. On the contrary, I found your words about children dreaming… I was going to say inspiring, but now I’m the one who sounds pompous! It got me thinking about what it was that I dreamed of when I was your students’ age. I don’t really remember. We lived in a different city back then, one that was not quite so good at distributing resources, and more often than not I was too busy dreaming about food and wishing we had more of it to dream about anything else. Whenever my men complain that our meals are boring (the ‘chefs’ stick to the same weekly schedule just about all year long), I remind them that they could have it a lot worse if they were in another city, maybe somewhere where fighters defend their lives on a near empty stomach.

Strangely enough, I think I dream today more than I did back as a child. I dream of the night when the demons finally retreat for good. There are rumors that, somewhere in the East, a group of fighters discovered a magic spell that seals the passageways through which the demons come into our world. It’s all very unclear right now, and for all I know it’s nothing more than a rumor, sparked by someone who was dreaming a little too loudly. Still, I can’t help but hope that confirmation will come. It’s a strange thing really, hope. It can make us fight a little harder and longer while we still cling to it, but if it disappears, then it seems to take all our strength with it. That’s why I allow myself the luxury of hoping the rumor is true, but I deny it to my men. Whenever I hear them talk of that rumor or when they ask if I’ve heard anything new, I tell them not to listen to whispers on the wind and to keep their minds on the fight.

It’s a little unfair, I suppose, but if we all hope one rumor is true and then we all discover it’s not… well, something like that has happened before. I remember one night three years ago after such a rumor was debunked. I was just a soldier back then. Our commanding officer had been the one to tell us about something he’d heard from someone who’d heard it from someone else and so on. We were all sure the end of the fight was close. And then word came up from on high that none of it was true. That night, we lost seven soldiers just in my squadron, including our commanding officer. I was promoted right after that to fill the void. I haven’t forgotten the harsh lesson that gave me my stripes.

And now I’ve gone and thoroughly depressed myself and probably you as well when you read this. I should start over, but it’d feel like cheating. This is me, right there in those words: I still dream, I still hope, but I know quite well that dreams and hopes aren’t enough to survive or win the fight. We can’t live on without dreaming, but is it living if all we do is dream?

I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore. I should get some sleep. Sunset is in six hours, and odds are a new wave of demons will come introduce themselves.

Tell me, Samuel, when you do that sharing activity with your students, do you ever tell them what you dream of? Would you tell me?

Your friend the lucid dreamer,
Angel


*


Dear Angel,

I’ve read your last letter three times now, and every time I still feel the same pang at your description of how dreams and hopes can be both rousing and destructive at the same time. I wish I could give you something, a bit of inspiration or strength, to carry with you when your hopes crumble so that you still have something to hold on to. With all the myths, novels, and true stories I’ve studied, you’d think the words would come easily under my pen. And yet, it seems this professor is losing his words in the face of the grim reality of your life.

To answer your question, my students often ask me to share my dreams, and when I decline, they usually try to figure out what I might be dreaming of. The last time we did this activity, one of them drew what she thought was my dream: winning the city’s annual marathon. I’m including her drawing. I thought it might make you smile. For the record, however, I’d like to mention that, were I able to run a marathon, I’d choose a different attire than pink shoes, pink shorts, and a pink headband. Not that I have anything against the color pink per se, but unlike my student, I can’t say it is my favorite color. I’m also not so sure she looked very closely at her subject when she colored because my eyes are green, not blue, and last I checked my hair was not such a vivid yellow. My grandmother called it ‘dishwater blond’ but I suppose they don’t make crayons in that shade!

I, too, grew up in another city, although I never suffered from hunger. I don’t remember much of it, to tell the truth, only that I was very excited when my parents told me we were going on an ‘adventure’ to visit my grandmother and live with her. That adventure ended with a car crash after two days of driving. When I finally reached my grandmother, I was alone and broken. She did her best to raise me, and I couldn’t have wished for anyone to love me more than she did, but it was a long time until I relearned how to dream, and in retrospect it might have been through books that I found that ability again. I suppose it’s not such a surprise after all that I studied literature as long as I could.

Do you have time to read on the front line? I imagine you must be very busy, especially in a position of leadership, but I’ll admit I don’t quite know what it is you and your fellow soldiers might do in between battles. Eat boring food, apparently. Train, I suppose. Rest. Read letters sent by school children or their rambling teacher. What else? I’d very much like to know, if it wouldn’t be breaking some secrecy act for you to tell me. I seem to know very little about you even after we’ve exchanged these letters.

You called yourself my friend in your last letter, and I feel a little silly to admit how much that word touched me. After the car accident, I didn’t leave the house much. My grandmother home-schooled me for years, at my request. When she finally decided I needed to be around people my own age and sent me to high school, I was the strange kid without friends that no one dared speak to. I’d never been as lonely as I found myself when I had to navigate those long, crowded corridors. University was more of the same. I was so focused on my studies I didn’t have time for friends. I suppose by then I had convinced myself I didn’t need friends. I didn’t realize just how alone I was until three months ago when I attended my grandmother’s funeral. Her friends were there, little old ladies as frail in their old age as she was, old men in suits older than I am that don’t fit them so well anymore, all of them tired and sad, but steadfast in their friendship to give her a last farewell. I caught myself imagining who might show up for my funeral if I died tomorrow. My colleagues, I suppose, would feel it necessary to attend. Maybe some of my students’ parents would pay their respects. But would anyone be there that I could have called a friend?

Three months ago, the answer was no. Today, it is yes. You have no idea just how happy that makes me.
Although I do hope we won’t have to wait for my premature demise to meet face-to-face…

Yours in friendship,
Samuel

***

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