The Pitchfork Option

And now, a randomly generated scene …

Nouns: bomber, craftsman, cucumber, patient, polo, sunshine, tyre

Adjectives: cowardly, sharp, nine, high-pitched, quickest

Verbs: compare, combine, contract

Adverb: madly

Tablets

Thunk

Mallet struck wood and the ball sailed down the field. Horses galloped, hooves tearing up grass as their riders pursued.

Another thunk and a cheer. From his armchair on the patio, Will squinted, but it was impossible to tell who had scored. Whether James or Clive, he now waved his mallet madly as his teammates thumped him on the back.

Nnnneeaaooooowww

Will’s weakened body tensed. His eyes flew skyward, raking the light cloud. The source of the propellers soon cut through the wisps. Bombers. Nine of them soared north over the estate.

A high-pitched gasp and a rattle sounded as Lottie nearly lost the tea-tray she carried.

“Are they ours?” she whispered, clutching her apron. “Theirs?”

“I’m not sure.” Will couldn’t make out the symbols on their rudders. He compared the bombers with pictures he’d seen in the papers, trying to identify them without success. On the shadowed field, the polo game had stalled, riders turning grim gazes to the sky.

To Will’s relief, the bombers flew on, taking with them their haunting shadows. Praying they’d hear of no raids on the evening news, Will collapsed back in his chair. The summer sunshine was cheerful, his friends’ laughter invigorating. He’d almost been enjoying himself, outside again after nine months.

“Nasty fright those bombers give, eh? How’s the patient?”

James, the quickest of them, was first to arrive on the patio. He sat up on the arm of Will’s chair and grabbed a cucumber sandwich.

“Fine, I suppose,” Will said with a shrug. He was alive, at least. Most who contracted tropical viruses died in a week; Will had his family’s wealth to thank for flying him home in time. “Boredom is my chief complaint.”

“There’s plenty you could do with yourself,” James declared, taking a platter of cold meats and cheese from Lottie. She was very pale; near as pale as Will. “You could paint, write poetry. Why not take up clock carving and become a master craftsman?”

“Well, I certainly have time to think about it.”

Will sipped his soup, listening to his friends’ talk of racing odds and enemy towns obliterated by their own bombers as they ate. His doctor then arrived, a signal for his friends to disperse. They left with encouraging farewells and promises to visit soon.

After he’d swallowed his medicine and his doctor went to speak with his parents, Will slowly rose, furtively checking no one was nearby. A cane to support his diminished form, with timid steps he made the short journey to the stables. He meant to return to the saddle as soon as possible now that he’d made it back to his feet. Then he’d be the one brandishing his mallet in triumph.

Ignoring his trembling limbs and the gentle sense his parents’ and doctor’s combined efforts failed to make him see as he petted her warm brow, Will had decided to saddle his mare and ride – slowly – around the back of the house when he heard a sob.

And another. Lottie was inside. All the stable hands were taking lunch. But there was definitely someone else there.

Frowning curiously, Will followed the sound to a back corner. A few massive, worn tyres were stacked there; he’d once liked jumping his mare over them. Resting a moment against the sturdy stack, he peered around them.

The young man huddled there didn’t notice his company straightaway, sniffing heavily to himself. When he realised his refuge was no longer secret he cried out and brought a pitchfork before him, levelling it at Will’s chest.

“Stay back,” he warned hoarsely, eyes very wet. “I won’t go back! You can’t make me!”

Advancing, his broad shoulder knocked a tyre askew. The stack wavered, throwing Will off balance. Feebly fumbling to catch himself, Will hit the ground, cane clattering out of reach.

“Get up and go,’ the young man ordered, desperate and frightened. “Don’t tell anyone. If you do…”

“I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

An armchair was one thing, but Will realised he was stuck down there until someone helped him up.

“I can’t get up. You’re a deserter,” he realised with mingled pity and disdain – as much as he could feel of either with that pitchfork hovering over him. “Who are you?”

“I can’t go back,” he whispered, but eventually muttered his name. Michael.

“War’s a terrible thing,” Will agreed, thinking it best not to aggravate Michael, call him cowardly when Will would have taken his chances on the front line in exchange for his health in an instant. “But there’s still much to be thankful for. Be grateful you’re still healthy.”

“Be grateful you’re not,” Michael shot back.

“Easy!” Will exclaimed, Michael thrusting the pitchfork threateningly towards him.

“You know nothing!’

“I was there.” Despite his position, Will’s pride was hurt. “I’ve seen what war does to men.”

“How long?”

“I was taken ill barely a month after crossing the equator. They sent me home and now I’ll never be well enough to…”

“Nine times they’ve sent me back! Nine! I’ve had it!”

Eeeoooeeeooo

“No,” Michael muttered, quaking as sirens wailed. “No. They won’t take me.”

His frantic eyes bounced across the stables for inspiration. After a frantic search, they locked on Will splayed helplessly below.  Slowly, haunted by worse than shadows, his eyes burned with realisation.

Michael flipped the pitchfork and drove its wickedly sharp prongs down, aiming to cripple, pierce his own feet.

“Wait!” Will cried in alarm. “Stop!”

Michael froze, mindless resolve shattered by Will’s shout. The prongs floated tantalisingly close to Michael’s thin boots.

“Help me up and we’ll see what we can do.”

Will reached out his hand. It shook with weakness and fear for the other. What Michael must have seen for that pitchfork to even be an option… perhaps Will truly knew nothing.

“Michael.” Will tried to speak calmly as  sirens blared nearer. The pitchfork wavered in Michael’s hands. “Put that down and help me up. Help me.”

Eeeoooeeeooo

Clang

“Help me.”

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