Just as Sarah predicted, a storm passed through the town during the early hours of the morning, but as I stood in front of the shed, the afternoon sun’s heat beat down on my back. My uncle kept several garden tools over the years and there seemed to be at least two shovels sufficient for the job of digging the graves. The very thing I dreamed of doing before I even arrived in Sunny Harbor could get me killed, but I would grant the suicides a proper burial before my life was through.
“Alfred,” called Matthew.
I blinked and forced my foggy brain to focus on the present. I turned to him. He seemed as tired as I felt.
“Hi Matthew. Have you spoken to Sarah?”
“No, but I saw Caleb yelling at a couple of his inferiors earlier this morning. How did last night go? I noticed that a few of his men were missing from the group.”
“Mrs. Thomas shot two of them.”
“Believe it. Two of Caleb’s friends must have been following us for most of the night. The handgun that you lent me wouldn’t have stood a chance, so thankfully, Mrs. Thomas had also been watching us from a distance.”
Matthew shook his head. “This is getting out of hand. I should have gone with you.”
“You should have, but it’s too late for all of that now. I need to grab a shovel and start digging the people’s graves.”
Matthew’s wide eyes mocked me. “You are really going to take all of them out of there and bury them?”
“Yes. That is what I said.”
“Alfred, they’re already watching you like hawks. This will get you killed! It may even get me killed. I can’t let you do this.”
“Listen to your friend,” called my aunt, who emerged from the gardens.
“Please, you both need to listen to me!” I said, glaring at them. “They deserve to be buried. I am going to give them at least that.”
“Listen to me,” said Aunt Carol. “Your father is on his way here. I wrote to him three days ago and I am glad for it after seeing you punching the side of my house in the darkness.”
My face heated up as I tried to see past the black dots that flecked my vision. I was going to go mad again.
“Perhaps it is for the best that you do some resting at home,” said Matthew.
“I thought that you were on my side,” I said, shaking my head to hold my sanity together. “You’re talking to me as though I am some sort of invalid.”
“I am still on your side, but a friend will not stand by while you willingly go ahead and get yourself killed.”
“This needs to stop,” interjected my aunt. “All of it. You can go home and write with the information that you have.”
“I cannot leave yet,” I said, feeling as though I was entering a nightmare that I would never be able to leave. “There is still much for me to do here.”
“Clearly, you have already done too much,” said Aunt Carol.
Her misty eyes bore into whatever was left of my soul.
“Why don’t we go for a short walk to the pond, old boy?”
“Please,” called my aunt. “Do not go far.”
Matthew had to pull me by the hand to get to me to follow him. My thoughts pulled me into their noisy depths. It was like mental torture for me to walk. I did not want to talk to anyone, let alone to someone who did not understand my reasoning. I wanted to act and if I could not go to work, I would become unsound.
“Snap out of it, Al!”
“Snap out of what? The very passion that has been keeping me alive all summer?”
“What in the blazes are you talking about?”
“Never mind. You do realize that we still need to locate Jeremy. How am I going to help him get out of there? I promised Sarah that I would find him.”
“Maybe this is not the job for you.”
“I am not going to allow him to be forgotten! He is still alive!” I yelled.
Matthew glared at me. “It is really hard being your friend right now, you know.”
“Then why don’t you leave me alone if I am so difficult to be around? Go find other people to smirk at and make jokes with. I have a job I want to do.”
“Just go. I am sure that you do not need to waste anymore vacation time on me.”
I turned my back on him and closed my eyes, willing for the universe to grant me the solitude I so desperately needed. No one would ever be on my side. I was always going to be the idiosyncratic one that no one wanted to follow or listen to. My father would take me away from here; we would return to the city that had already sucked most of the life out of me.
I sunk into the long, soft grass as a horrible wave of fear collided into what remained of my lucidity.
“I can’t leave. If I go back there, I’ll die.”
I longed to sink into the ground like rainwater and never be aware again. I curled into a ball, oblivious to the weeds and insects tickling my skin. I must have fallen asleep, for when someone finally patted me on the arm, I shot up straight up to a sitting position.
Wide, tear-stricken eyes met mine and for a moment, I wondered if I had died and met a spirit.
“Alfred, dear, we must go to the town.”
I recognized her voice to be my aunt’s, but for some reason, the only thing that I could focus on were her sad eyes.
“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“Alfred, please, you need to come with me.”
She burst into a surprisingly fast run. My legs clumsily started into a run. I thought of what could have possibly happened, and my coordination improved.
“Run ahead of me!” she called. “They need you.”
My stomach knotted as I ran. Sarah’s soft, porcelain face infected my thoughts. I begged God that she would not be harmed. Men’s voices rose above my heavy breathing and shook me to the core. I slowed to a walk so as not to arise any panic from the crowd. There was no sign of Sarah.
I caught sight of Matthew and his father and then several angry faces turned to me. I recognized Caleb, among other vaguely familiar faces.
“There you are,” said Caleb. “We were about to rise your good friend to an old-fashioned duel.”
“A duel?” I asked.
My heart raced as I stared at Matthew to explain.
“Stupid boy with his head always in the clouds,” sighed Caleb. “You have no idea how real men settle things, do you?”
“If you’re implying that a real man settles his issues by putting his life or the life of another at risk, then I despise that satire.”
“Listen to him,” Caleb laughed along with the other men, save Matthew and his father.
“Alfred,” began Matthew. “He has accused both of us of having improper relations with his wife, Sarah.”
“That is ridiculous!” I cried.
“Yes, it is. I have assured him that there has been no untoward behavior from either of us, but he does not believe that you have not attempted to steal her away.”
The dread in his eyes made me feel ill. The nightmare was not going to end anytime soon.
“He is right,” I said, staring at Caleb. “In that he has not done anything dishonorable toward Sarah.”
I took a step forward and locked eyes with Caleb.
“I, however, wrongfully put Sarah’s life and her honor at risk last night. I will never forgive myself for that. I only asked her to join me on a walk to show me where a site is for my research. I am sorry for my selfishness.”
“What sort of a man goes for a walk with another man’s wife in the middle of the night?” said Caleb flatly. “We will settle this through a duel.”
I shook my head. I had only fired a bullet twice in my life and my aim was much to be desired.
“There has to be another way,” I said.
“There is not,” said one of Caleb’s friends. “You will meet us in one hour by the harbor docks.”
“Oh, and knives aren’t allowed,” said Caleb with a grin.
He turned to leave along with half of the men in the town.
Matthew rested a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s all right, Al. We need to put our heads together on this one. We need to get you out of here before the duel begins.”
Matthew’s father nodded, clearing his throat. “We need to start walking. Come on, lads. Alfred, we will send you off for home in a carriage.”
“I will keep watch until you are well out of sight,” said Matthew. “Al, are you listening?”
The situation sent an odd sense of relief through my insides.
“Thank you both,” I said. “Matthew, you are an amazing friend and I thank you for defending me against that mob, but I am going to take part in the duel.”
Matthew’s hands grabbed me by the shoulders. My mind went numb as he shook me.
“Stop!” shouted his father as he pulled him away.
“I need to find my aunt before I make my way over to the boardwalk,” I said, ignoring Matthew’s dramatic objections.
“Alfred, we just told you how you could get away from this. Why aren’t you listening to me?”
My friend’s reddening eyes struck a terrible chord in me.
“Please, please allow me to do this.”
“You don’t have to die!”
I shook my head, forcing a grin.
“It is my turn to smirk at the unfortunate turn of events. I have wanted to die for the past two years, Matt. This is my chance.”
Matthew and his father threw me bewildered looks. Light footsteps signaled someone’s approach.
“Alfred,” breathed Aunt Carol. “Where did they go? Have they finally left you alone?”
“Your nephew has agreed to a duel with Caleb,” said Matthew’s father.
I could not look at her. Hearing her terrified gasp was more than enough.
“No! We need to get you out of here,” she wailed.
I shook my head. “I need to face him. I have to do it.”
I hated to look in her petrified eyes, but once I did, they held me in their blue depths.
“What about your writing?” she whispered.
Her question slammed into me like a baseball bat. I flinched. Writing was what had kept my sanity mostly intact for the last several years, yet as I stood there in a place I once loved, I wanted nothing more than to take Caleb on.
“Caleb already expects me to leave,” I said. “He probably has some of his men watching us. They would kill me and Matthew for certain if they caught me trying to get away.”
“God, I really was too late when I wrote to your father. I cannot let you die. This is insane!”
“It is, but no one else is on our side. Caleb knows this.”
Matthew kicked the ground.
“You should have killed him when you had the chance.”
“I wouldn’t kill him even if I could relive that moment. I was a writer, not a killer.”
I was the one who needed to die. My ideals did not belong anywhere in the world. What good was a caring, passionate heart in a world where people despised such a thing? I blinked rapidly as tears tainted my vision of my aunt, who still stared up at me in disbelief.
“Will you keep my stories?” I asked her. “And Sarah’s stories? Will you attempt to publish them?”
“I cannot accept that this is the only solution to Caleb’s jealousy.”
“I have made my decision.”
I wrapped my arms around her. My tears poured onto her shoulder as I held her frail, trembling body.
“I am so, so sorry.”
“This is not your fault. It is mine. I should have protected you better. I-I have failed you.”
“There was no stopping me from finding the bodies or inquiring about Jeremy. I chose to talk to Sarah knowing that Caleb might find out. I wanted to get to the bottom of the suicides. This was my choice.”
My aunt helplessly threw her hands in the air. She wiped her eyes and held my hand.
“I love you, Alfred. I’ll be praying for you. God will have his hand in this. I know it.”
“I love you, too.”