The flies gathered around Thaddeus’s brother without discrimination. There was no reverence for the dead. The flies didn’t see the boy that had played with Thaddeus almost every day of their childhood. The flies couldn’t understand the gravity of the moment. A life with its infinite potential had vanished as suddenly as a flame caught in a gust of wind; however, the flies didn’t care about that or any other abstract human ideology. They were only interested in the pile of flesh that was now rotting in the middle of a long-forgotten road.
The thick acrid smoke that had blocked Thaddeus’s view just a moment ago was gone, and the roaring fire that had consumed most of the wagon was nothing more than a faint glow as the few remaining pieces of his family’s possessions finished their slow conversion into ash. With the smoke cleared, Thaddeus could finally see the road. He could see the charred remains of his family’s wagon. He could see the apple crates lined up in a haphazard row. He could see his brother’s eyes. They were open, but they held as much life as the glass eyes of an animal hanging decoratively on a wall.
Beside David’s lifeless body, Thaddeus’s father was trapped in a kneeling position unable to move because of the heavy ropes that bound his hands and feet together. Three soldiers clad in light-blue cloaks were standing over him while the shadowy figures of other men loomed in the background.
One of the three soldiers was holding a blade to his father’s neck while another was fixing a rope around the nearest sizable branch. The third soldier was standing a few feet away watching the procession. He was much taller than the other men, and by the intimidating look on his face, Thaddeus knew without a doubt that he was the leader.
The man’s face was chiseled and scarred, but his gray eyes were what made his appearance truly menacing. They were cold and empty, and when Thaddeus stared at them, he felt like he was looking at someone born without a soul.
“We gave you a choice, Fredrick,” the leader said in a voice that held as much warmth as the color of his eyes. “You could have told us the location of the others. You could have saved your family.”
“I know that wasn’t a choice,” his father said, choking out the words as tears streamed down his face. “Your kind doesn’t show mercy?”
Thaddeus had never seen his father cry. The man had always been a pillar of strength and courage. He had always been the family’s protector and provider. He had always been Thaddeus’s hero—a legendary figure of awe-inspiring strength and bravery.
The sight of his father now broken should have made Thaddeus give into his exhaustion and surrender to the soldiers; however, his emotions were still held in check with an animalistic desire to survive. The same desire that had seized control over him earlier that night, compelling him to flee and abandon the rest of his family to their horrible fates.
When David had lunged at the soldiers with the family’s wood axe, Thaddeus had seized the opportunity presented by the commotion and escaped from the soldiers’ clutches. He should have fought alongside his brother; instead, he had run like a coward into the darkness of the woods that surrounded the road. When David’s shouts of pain echoed through the trees as one of the soldier’s blades finally pierced his chest, Thaddeus never turned around to avenge his brother. When Thaddeus’s mother and sister were later dragged back to the wagon as they kicked and screamed for help, Thaddeus never attempted a rescue. The desire to survive controlled all of his thoughts and emotions. The desire to survive pushed him to his current hiding spot behind the large oak. The desire to survive kept the guilt at bay.
For what seemed like hours, his mind had been successfully fighting off his emotions with the same kind of ferocity as an animal fighting with its back against a wall. His arms and legs were bleeding from where the bark of the tree had sliced into his skin like a blade peeling the outer layer of a potato. He saw the blood, but he didn’t feel the pain. He wouldn’t let himself feel the pain. He was trying to be like a rock, an inanimate object devoid of thoughts or emotions, but even the strongest rocks eventually crack from nature’s punishing blows.
As Thaddeus continued to watch his father cry over David’s body, he started to feel something stirring deep inside his belly. A slight trickle of emotion was breaking from his grasp. The dam that his subconscious had built was finally developing a weak spot, and now the whole wall was in danger of coming down at any moment. First came the dizziness that made Thaddeus tighten his grip on the tree’s bark to keep from falling over, and then all at once, every part of his body wanted to lie down as if he had just gone days without food, water, or sleep. He didn’t want to be pressed against this tree anymore. He just wanted to rest his head and be rid of this horrible nightmare.
Thaddeus yearned for sleep like a man in the desert yearns for a drink of water; however, in the back of his mind, he knew that no amount of rest would bring back what was lost. This wasn’t a dream. This was Thaddeus’s new reality. This reality didn’t include his mother, his sister, his brother, or even his childhood innocence.
Thaddeus couldn’t let himself forget what was lost. He couldn’t forget what would always be there—the memories and the love. He couldn’t forget what they had sacrificed. He had to regain control to stay alive. He had to make their deaths worth something. The smallest cough or sniffle could mean discovery and then his death. He had to push back the emotions and become like a stone again.
“Do you want to know why you’re still alive?” The leader said without a hint of emotion as if the act of torturing someone was as menial as emptying a trash can.
Thaddeus’s father didn’t reply or even act like he had heard the question; instead, he kept his gaze forward as if silence was the only act of defiance he had left.
“I didn’t keep you alive because I thought you would tell us something,” the leader continued. “I’m not stupid. If you were going to give us information, you would have blabbered like a child before you let this happen.” He gestured upward toward Thaddeus’s mother and sister.
Thaddeus refused to look up, but the horrific scene was impossible to escape. The soft glow of the fire made the shadows of his mother and sister stretch across the ground as the two silhouettes swayed to the rhythm of the creaky branch from which they were hanged.
“You’re a hero to a lot of people,” the leader said as the other two men forced Thaddeus’s father onto one of the apple crates and fitted a noose around his neck. “I don’t want you to be just another home for maggots lying on the ground. No, you’re too special to die like that. I want your death to be seen by your fellow escapees that travel this road. I want your corpse to remind the people of what happens when they forget their place in this world.”
Rather than respond to the death sentence, Thaddeus’s father kept his gaze forward.
“Thaddeus!” His father yelled, making Thaddeus’s heart skip. His father sounded stronger than earlier as if he had been mustering up his energy for this very moment. “Son, I know you’re scared, but now’s the time to run. Forget about us. We’ll be together again someday.” The noose was tightening around his father’s neck, and each spoken word sounded more and more strained. “I love you . . .”
“I don’t know why you’re bothering to shout,” the leader said, smirking. “That boy is long gone. He’s a coward just like all of your kind. I bet he didn’t even blink an eye when we killed his own mother. He probably just kept on running.”
“He’s a good boy . . . a special boy.”
“Special? He’ll be caught before sunrise. No one is going to harbor that fugitive.”
“You’re wrong.” Thaddeus’s father still had tears on his cheeks, but Thaddeus could also see a change in his father’s face as if the last bit of his hope had finally surfaced.
THUNK! Thaddeus turned away and ran as fast as he could from the horrifying sound, but no matter how fast or how far he ran, he could not escape the sight of his father’s shadow swinging back and forth in the moonlight.