It seemed impossible that the war had left a single thing untouched. And yet, here she was, familiar boards creaking under her bare feet, familiar smell of hotcakes and burnt coffee wafting from the kitchen. And in front of her, corn swayed in the summer morning breeze, just like it always had. If she closed her eyes, she could almost hear her brothers shouting at each other.
But she could also almost hear injured soldiers moaning and horses screaming, and see the purple haze of magic staining the western sky. She shuddered and opened her eyes.
The war was over, and her home was still here. And the memories would fade, with time.
She leaned against the doorframe and winced as the stump of her left arm caught against the rough wood. She scowled down at the thick bandages wrapped around the stub of her elbow joint. The constant pain had faded to a dull ache, but the ghosts of sensation remained.
Last night, she had reached out both hands to take her dinner plate. Her father had been unable to meet her eyes ever since.
“Teddy, come on in here. The food’s ready.”
Her father had set two places at the too-large table, and she sat in what had been her brother Toby’s chair, next to their father’s place at the head of the table.
None of the boys had come home from the war. Teddy imagined their bones bleaching in a field, and wondered if corn grew around their scattered remains.
“I hear there’s a man in town selling prosthetics,” her father said.
Teddy had to put her fork down to pick up her coffee. “Doc says I’m not ready for a prosthetic yet.”
“You ought to go take a look anyway. It’d be good for you to get out of the house. He’s set up at the old Methodist church.”
After breakfast, Teddy stacked plates and carried them to the sink, but her father waved any further help away. “Get on with you.”
She struggled out of the clothes that she’d managed to get herself into—a pair of Danny’s old trousers and her mother’s old sleeping shirt—and tried to make herself presentable.
All of her old things had too many buttons. She managed to fasten a skirt, but it slid right off of her hips. She ignored her growing frustration. She’d never have two hands again, and getting angry about it accomplished nothing.
Resigned, she pulled on her uniform. The hems on the pant legs were worn through, and the bloodstains refused to wash out, but the left sleeve was already tied up, and it was the only thing that fit. The nurses had replaced all of the buttons with snaps, so she could get into and out of it herself. Even now, the uniform felt right. Even now, when all that it stood for was defeat and ashes. There was nothing she could do about her hair—it was growing out around her face, uneven and split at the ends, too short to braid even if she’d had the use of both hands. She supposed a hook could be useful. She wondered what options the vendor would have.
She had a bit of money—the Western government had offered to handle all the back pay that was owed to the defeated Eastern soldiers. Maybe it was time to invest in a new wardrobe—she could head to the store after she stopped in at the church.
It felt good to be dressed, to get out of the house. The sun was warm on her face, the path familiar under her feet.
She pushed the church door open and froze.
The prosthetic vendor was a Western dandy, pale-haired and wire thin. His wares glowed with an eerie purple light. Teddy’s stomach turned. This dark magic was what they’d been fighting against—what her brothers had died in vain trying to destroy.
The dandy hit her with a charming smile that looked out of place on his narrow face. “Good morning, miss. You must be the Rhodes girl.”
He, and his wares, made her skin crawl. She chastised herself for being irrational and reminded herself that the war was over, but took a step back as he approached. “Look now, I don’t know who told you what, but I’m not interested.”
She stepped back again, but he grabbed her shoulder before she could escape. His hand was cold and soft. “Now, now,” he said in a hearty, earnest tone. “Let’s not be hasty. My prices are very reasonable, and you can’t really want to be a cripple for the rest of your life. I know that’s not what your father wants for you.”
She shrugged his hand away. Anger and shame and bruised pride mixed uneasily in Teddy’s belly. When had he talked to her father? “I’d be happy to explain just what I’d like you to do with yourself, but that’s not a discussion for polite company.”
He stepped close—too close, and Teddy almost choked on the the lightning-strike scent of magic that clung to his skin—and lowered his voice. “Do you really intend to let fear and ignorance destroy what is left of your life? What are you going to do with yourself, Miss Rhodes? The back pay that my government is so generously providing won’t last forever. How will you support yourself? With one hand, you’re a burden on your poor father. With two, you’d be able to help him, to support him in his twilight years. Maybe even get yourself a husband to help with the farm. I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m here as a friend.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” Teddy snapped. “Don’t pretend that you do.” She turned away and let the church door fall closed behind her, then headed back home. She didn’t have it in her to try to do any shopping today.
How could her father have sent her here? What had he said to the dandy that made him so determined to strap one of his abominations to her arm?
Her father tried to hide his disappointment when he saw her still-empty sleeve. Teddy tried to hide everything she was feeling, too.
Her father invited the dandy for dinner that night. “Teddy, I believe you met Mr. Duncan.”
“In passing,” she said. Her fingers itched for her repeater, but it was gone, surrendered on the battlefield along with her pride, in exchange for her life.
Her father served bland stew and hard biscuits, and had the dandy sit in her mother’s chair.
Her father looked tired. And old.
Teddy dunked a biscuit in the stew and watched it closely. It was hard to look at either man’s face.
Her father leaned forward. “Mr. Duncan was telling me about a new model of prosthetic—”
“No,” Teddy said.
She slammed her single fist against the table. “I said no, Dad. Absolutely not. I will not attach myself to one of his monstrosities.”
“I am offering a significant discount to all veterans, on either side,” Mr. Duncan said.
“So the cost would be something other than my soul?”
“As I said, my prices are reasonable. You can have a state-of-the-art prosthetic for the cost of a single memory. You won’t get that deal from anyone else.”
“I’m not interested,” Teddy said.
But Mr. Duncan reached across the table and placed one hand on her wrist. The touch was gentle, but his eyes burned into hers.
The smell of blood and cordite, the sound of ragged screams and hopeless moans. The doctor’s face looming over her, exhausted and pale. The taste of harsh whisky, the cold, ragged edge of the saw pressing into ruined flesh. The endless rasping against bone before the darkness came.
Teddy jerked away, and she was in her father’s kitchen again. Her biscuit had dissolved in her stew.
“It’s not one you’ll miss,” Mr. Duncan said. “Or you can choose another. It can be any memory, willingly given.”
“Please, at least think about it, Teddy.” Her father took her one hand between his. “I just want to know that you can take care of yourself.”
Teddy stood up, shaking with her bottled rage. “I already know that I can take care of myself, Dad. I was a soldier, and I know what I’m capable of. I learned it over and over again, these past five years. And I’d rather have no hands at all than make the very thing I fought against a part of myself.”
She stormed out of the dining room. She’d never bothered to unpack her kit, so there was no need to take time to toss necessities into a bag. She grabbed her cash and slung her rucksack onto her shoulder.
Her father stood in the doorway. “What are you doing?”
“Leaving. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. But I can’t stay here, not after this.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s because you haven’t seen what their magic can do, and what it costs. Their factories will keep churning out products—there’s nothing I can do to stop that now—but I will never, ever use one.”
More memories flooded her mind, of purple-tinged mist creeping over a hillside, of fallen men getting back up, their eyes and fingernails and gaping wounds glowing that same purple, turning and shambling back toward their own line. Of rain that ate through tents and blankets and flesh, of cannons that shot jagged purple lighting that cut men down like a scythe through wheat.
“Some of our methods have been regrettable, but that doesn’t make everything we touch evil,” Mr. Duncan said. His earnest tone grated on her nerves. “We were at war. There were atrocities committed by both sides. This technology proves that we can harness our magic for the good of mankind.”
“I hope you’re right,” Teddy said. “I really do. But I’m going.”
Her father didn’t move. “Please don’t. You’re all I have left.”
“I thought I was a burden,” Teddy snapped.
“I never said that. I just want what’s best for you.”
“But you can’t trust me to know it for myself?”
Her father sagged. “I’m sorry. Please, just—just stay, Theodora.”
Mr. Duncan held out his hand. “My offer stands, Miss Rhodes. If you ever change your mind—”
“I don’t think that’s likely, son,” her father said, his voice still tinged with regret. “And I know myself that my cooking isn’t anything to stick around for, so you’d best be going.”
Mr. Duncan tipped his hat to them. “As you wish. Goodbye, Mr. Rhodes. Miss Rhodes. I do wish you well.”
They stood on the porch and watched him go. “I do believe that he meant every word,” Teddy said. “And it might even be true. But I can’t use their magic. Can’t make it a part of myself. I—I just can’t.”
“I don’t understand, but it’s your life, your arm. Your choice. I’m sorry I pushed you. Will you stay?”
Teddy closed her eyes at the pain in his voice. “Yeah. I’ll stay.”
Teddy stared out at the corn. It was taller than her, now. She wondered if the fields her unit had watered with blood had higher or lower crop yields than normal, this year.
Or if blood didn’t change a thing.
“I was thinking of trying to plant a rose garden,” her father said, handing her a cup of coffee. “Your mother always wanted one.”
“Would they be able to survive the winter?”
He shrugged. “I dunno, we never tried it. Come on in, food’s ready.”
Teddy followed him, then poked at what she could only assume was meant to be oatmeal. “Dad, let me cook. Even one-handed, I think I can manage better than this.”
“Are you sure?”
He grinned at her. “Thank the Lord. I was starting to worry that we’d starve.”
Teddy’s arm healed, and she got a simple prosthetic with a hook. In her first week with it, she shredded four shirts and a skirt, and she dropped two plates. She kept practicing.
One of the town boys who’d lost a leg got a fancy Western prosthetic, and could walk—even run, Teddy heard—like he was whole. Teddy told herself that it wasn’t her place to judge.
He didn’t meet her eyes when they crossed paths, but he muttered, “I figured that we couldn’t beat them, so….” He trailed off and shrugged.
“Having that thing attached to me would give me nightmares,” Teddy said. “I was at Tikamat.”
“Our unit never saw any purple action.”
“Count yourself lucky.”
“I do, Miss Rhodes. Believe me, I do.”
“What memory did you give them?”
“A week in hospital, after I lost the leg. I was feverish, almost died.”
“Do you miss it?”
“You know, I do. You wouldn’t think so—I know it was a bad week, even not recalling it. But the empty space—well, it feels a bit like my leg did, before.”
The next Westerner to come into town was different. His fine brown suit was worn through at the knees and elbows, and he didn’t smile. He drove his cart to the farm and stopped. He hopped down, hat in hand. “I hear you were in the war, miss.”
“That’s right. I’m Theodora Rhodes.” She held out her hand, and he shook it. He had a nice, firm grip.
“Name’s Tim Brady. I was a photographer during the war. I worked on the front lines, and I’m looking to sell some pictures. I’ve got them on glass plate.” He patted the wagon.
“Do you still have your camera?”
He shook his head. “It was government property. I couldn’t have kept it fueled on my own, anyway. I’ve got no gift for memory-taking.”
“Did they turn you out after the war was done?” Teddy asked as she glanced through a stack of glass plates. Nightmare images stared back. Ghostly outlines of dead men, charred fields, smoking houses. Piles of corpses frozen to the ground, a horse melted by the deadly rain, a nurse tossing an amputated arm into a pile of discarded body parts.
“Not exactly.” Mr. Brady’s tone hinted at a longer story, but didn’t invite more questions.
The last one in the stack was a blurry shot of a horde of purple shamblers. Teddy shuddered. “I can see why you’re having trouble selling these.”
He pointed at another section. “These tend to be my better sellers. They’re more scenic shots of places before the battles started. I’d be happy to trade a few for a place to stay and something to eat.”
“Did you take portraits?”
“Ever join up with the 17th regiment?”
He shook his head. “No, sorry.”
Teddy shrugged. “That’s the unit my brothers were with. Anyway, come on in, I’ve got dinner on the table, and I should be able to scrounge up an unbroken plate for you.”
“Thanks, Miss Rhodes. I’ll see to my mule first, if you don’t mind.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Brady. Come on in whenever you’re done.”
Dinner wasn’t fancy, but it was hot and filling and a far sight better than anything on the lines. Mr. Brady tucked in with enthusiasm.
“You’ve arrived at an opportune time, if you’re looking for a bit of work,” Teddy’s father said. “I could use some help bringing in the harvest. Can’t pay, but you’d be welcome to stay here till we’re done.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, Mr. Rhodes. I’m much obliged.”
He had a nice smile. Small and tired, but nice.
Days slipped by. “That Brady’s a hard worker,” her father said one morning, while Mr. Brady was out seeing to his mule. “We’ll have the harvest in pretty soon, now.”
“That’s good news. Do you think the weather will hold?”
“I think so.”
“Teddy, I know you never gave much thought to marriage, but with the boys gone, we’re gonna need help around here, and we can’t afford a hired hand.”
With a fancy Western prosthetic, she would have been able to help him herself. “I understand, Dad.”
“I think he’s a good man.”
If Mr. Brady hadn’t come, it would have been one of the boys from town. But that didn’t mean he was wrong. “I think so, too.”
The next morning, Teddy got dressed and followed her father and Mr. Brady out into the field.
“I thought I’d try to help today,” she said. She was getting used to the hook, and her body was still accustomed to long, physically active days.
“Another set of hands is always welcome,” her father said.
Teddy waited for him to wince at the phrase, to apologize. Instead he just smiled at her, then turned back to the corn.
She steadied the cornstalk with her hook and snapped the ripe ear off with her hand.
It had been easier with two good hands. Still, she grinned as she tossed the corn into the wagon.
As they walked in that evening, her father nudged her shoulder with his own. “I guess you showed me,” he said, his voice soft.
“What do you mean?”
“That you don’t need anyone to take care of you.”
Teddy sat on the porch after dinner, trying to mend one of her torn skirts, but mostly staring out at the piles of cornstalks in the harvested field. Mr. Brady wandered out and stared up at the sky. “Do you have nightmares, Miss Rhodes?” he asked.
“Of course I do.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
She liked the lines of his face, liked that they didn’t need to talk about the nightmares to understand each other.
But mostly, she liked that she could like him without needing him. She wondered what it was that he needed. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Why aren’t you back West, taking pictures for the government? I’m sure they’d take those plates off your hands, too.”
“I’m sure they would. And they’d print the ones that serve them and dispose of the rest.”
“Is that why you left?” Teddy asked. “Because you didn’t want them to destroy your pictures?”
“Destroying the evidence doesn’t make it any more or less real. They can’t change what happened. But they can change the story.”
“A few pictures isn’t going to change that,” Teddy said, thinking of the boy in town with his fancy prosthetic.
Mr. Brady shrugged. “Maybe it’s a good thing. We all have to move forward together, now. Western magic is the way of the future. The past is done, and should be buried along with the dead. But I’m not ready to let it go. The things in those pictures—they’re real. They happened.”
“So, what do you plan to do? Travel around, selling off plates one at a time?”
He shrugged again. “No one wants them, Miss Rhodes. No one but the one group that I don’t want to sell them to.”
Teddy set her mending aside. “So don’t sell them.”
“I can’t cart them around forever—they’re not exactly sturdy.”
“Don’t do that either.”
“What are you suggesting, Miss Rhodes?”
“You can call me Teddy.”
“Your father calls you Teddy.”
“My brothers did, too.”
“Can I call you Theodora, instead?”
“If you’d like.”
“You’ll have to call me Tim, then.”
“Or Timothy?” Teddy said, giving him a small smile.
“Sure.” He smiled back. “So, what exactly are you suggesting, Theodora?”
“Stay. Stay here, with us. Help on the farm. We can build a greenhouse so that we can grow roses.”
He was silent for a long moment. “You want to use the glass plates to build a greenhouse?”
“The sun will bleach them to nothing, eventually.”
“That’s the way it is, with time.”
“I’d want to save some of them,” he said. “At least a few.”
He held his hand out to her, and she took it. “I’ve always liked roses.”
“So did my mother. But I worry that the winters would be too harsh.”
“I’ll stay with you, Theodora. And I’ll build your greenhouse, and let the sun bleach my photographs.”
Teddy squeezed his hand.
“Maybe they will.” His hand was warm, and chapped from working in the fields.
Teddy laced her fingers through his, and they watched the stars come out together.