Every week we feature essays, poems, or comics from our posse of young writers. Some are from current students, others from our published anthologies. Either way, you’re in for a treat.
Special thanks to this week’s contributors, helping us celebrate Memorial Day – thanks for sharing with us, Miles and David!
Union Boy by Miles Blumenthal
I was no more than 16 when the war started. I was living at my father’s farm in Maryland at the time. My dad was shipped off to who knows where and that left me and my mom to fend for ourselves. It wasn’t his fault and none of us blamed him for it, but the minute he left we had less food and less protection. Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember much about him except his shining black eyes. A few months after he left my mother caught yellow fever and was put in quarantine. I never saw her again. I had nowhere else to go but to Washington and the Union army.
I packed a bundle of clothes, 25 cents, and a compass, then I started towards the train station. But when I got there, I found I had no more money to spend, so I snuck into one of the baggage compartments. It was a long trip, more than a day. As the day slipped into night I let the train lull me to sleep.
When I awoke, sunlight seemed to be everywhere. I closed my eyes to mere slits until they adjusted to the light. When they did I stole a glance at the compartment. The door was wide open and sunlight was streaming in all around me. Most of the trunks were gone and I realized that we weren’t moving anymore. I peered through the open loading door and glimpsed a rundown country station. I instantly registered that I was not in Washington.
I could make out three men talking with each other: the train driver, a spiffy businessman, and a police officer.
“What do I pay you for?” yelled the businessman. “I thought you were supposed to check these compartments!”
“I checked them, I swear,” said the driver in a raspy voice. “He musta’ grabbed on just as the train was leaving.”
I pretended I was still asleep. Just then the police officer reached over and patted me on the shoulder.
“Son, you can’t sleep in here. Son!” I brought my foot around in a short arc and hit the policeman square in the face. He fell backward into both of the other men.
I scrambled to my feet and jumped out of the compartment and onto the station platform.
“Hey kid, stop!” said a second officer but I was already running. I spilled out onto the road and spotted a wagon drawn by two jet-black horses. I hopped into the back and covered myself with an old blanket just as the policemen burst out of the station. I noticed that they weren’t in shape and all I could do was hope that they didn’t like searching.
“Punk kid got away. Come on, let’s get back to our post.” The policemen walked back into the station. I was about to hop out of the wagon when two Union officers in full uniform walked out of the station, chatting quietly. They were dressed in dark blue and had medals glinting off their broad chests. One hopped in the front of the wagon and drew up the reins while the other got onto a horse beside us. The man in the cab whipped the horses into a trot and the wagon was pulled out of the station and onto a dirt road.
We rumbled on for quite some time before I had the nerve to take a glance at the surrounding cart. Lining the walls were rifles of every sort. Sacks of flour were piled in heaps. Bread and corn were stashed in boxes.
Why go so deep into enemy territory just for some food and guns? I thought to myself. According to the compass I stashed in my boot we were heading north right towards the border. I knew that once we got to the border they would search the wagon so I’d need to jump out before we reached it.
I would need my strength so I rested my head up against a sack of flour and closed my eyes. I thought about my father. I wondered if he were still alive or if his tombstone already had moss growing on it. When I finally fell into slumber my father haunted my dreams. I watch him die over and over again, a bullet piercing his chest until I couldn’t take it anymore.
I opened my eyes, sweat running down my face. Something was wrong — the wagon wasn’t moving. I thought I was still in my dream. I pricked myself and felt it. That meant I was really hearing gunfire.
I shot up into a sitting position and looked out the wagon back and what I saw nearly killed me: Confederate soldiers were everywhere. I noticed that some Union cavalry had joined us but many of them were already lying on the road. Shots were being fired from every direction. Men were screaming in pain. I saw that nobody was at the reins anymore, furthermore there weren’t anymore horses for the reins to fit onto.
I got up and grabbed one of the rifles from off the wall. I had no idea how to use one so I just hoped that I looked intimidating.
A man in a gray uniform ran around the wagon and screamed his head off. I pulled the trigger of the gun and hoped for the best. A skull-rattling bang sounded and the man fell to the ground, blood gushing from a hole in his side. Before more could find out I was there, I dropped the rifle and grabbed as much bread as I could carry, then jumped out of the back of the wagon. Luckily there were forests surrounding the path and I bolted right into the trees.
I kept on running until I was deep into the brush. My heart was pounding like never before. I jumped behind a tree and squatted as far down onto the ground as my screaming side would allow. I didn’t want any stray shots to find a mark. I lay there for what seemed like hours, hearing gunshots and screaming. The mossy ground smelled heavily of pine.
I got to my feet. I could hear no more sounds of battle. Suddenly my brain snapped back to the situation at hand: I was in the forest. I had no water and no hope of finding shelter. I had dropped my compass back in the wagon so I had no idea where I was or what way to go.
I walked around until I had collected a reasonable amount of dead leaves. I set them down only to remember that I had no idea how to light it. I didn’t know how to make a shelter so I settled down in the leaves, pulling them over me like a makeshift blanket.
It was cold but it was something. Eventually I fell into a slumber. My dreams were filled with Confederate soldiers. Bullets were flying through the air, people were screaming and in the middle of it was me. I was holding a rifle and shooting anyone I saw. Then I turned around and what I saw horrified me. I was smiling, I was smiling as I shot soldier after soldier after soldier.
I sat up wide awake, sweat running down my cheeks, then I froze. There was a pack of wolves were advancing on my camp.
I kept my position as the pack sniffed and snarled around me. I could feel their hot breath against my face. I started wishing I had never dropped the rifle back on the road. There were five wolves — four of them were jet black but the fifth was different. It was a brilliant bright white, the moon shining off its glistening coat. Unlike the others it was completely calm.
It strode forward, black eyes shining. As it passed the other wolves their barks and yawls ceased. It stopped at my feet and looked down on me. I stumbled to my feet but the wolf gave a sharp growl and I fell backwards again. It stared at me as if to say “Why are you here?”
I sat there unsure of what to do. We stared at each other until I thought my eyes would pop. Then the white wolf gave a low growl and the jet-black wolf ran over to me and swiped one of my loaves of bread. I didn’t dare stop it. The black wolf ran back to the pack, the bread in his mouth. The white wolf he waited patiently although the other wolves’ mouths were watering. The rest of the pack followed, occasionally glancing back at me to growl or bark. Soon they were out of sight.I sat there for a minute, stunned by what had just happened, then I jumped to my feet and ran from the camp.I stumbled through the heavy brush, tripping over roots and scratching my ankles on thorns. I kept looking behind me, thinking every time I turned the white wolf would be right there, black eyes shining. I was almost completely oblivious to the world but then I heard voices coming from behind the next few trees.
I jumped behind a bush, trying to still my thumping heart. The mere sound might give me away. When it slowed to a steady beat, I crept forward to the edge of the bush.
There was the border. It was a vast wall of fence and gun turrets,positioned every twenty feet. Confederate soldiers lined the wall talking to each other. Lanterns covered the gate lighting up the star filled night . I knew my best chance was to sneak through at night and my supplies were running low.
I started creeping backward away from the border when I heard a snap behind me. I whirled around but not fast enough; a pistol barrel was against my head and a hand over my mouth.
“Say a word and I’ll blow your brains out,” said a rough voice.
The man slowly turned me around to face him and I recognized him as one of the drivers from the wagon. His clothes were tattered and ripped and he had a nasty gash across his forehead. He wore a soldier’s hat so I couldn’t get a clear look at his hair. He slowly took his hand from my mouth.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Timmy, Timmy Barnes.” I said. “Okay Timmy, you’d better run home now before someone decides to take a shot at one of the ‘trees.’”
“No sir, I just want to get across the border,” I squeaked.
“No kid, you’re going to turn right around there’s about to be a lot of fighting.” He started pushing me back from the border.
“No!” I was surprised at my own force. Was I really that excited for action? “I don’t have a home anymore, I want to join the Union,” I whispered.
He seemed temporarily sympathetic but then his face snapped back to it’s tough expression. “And how exactly do you plan on doing that?” he said.
“Uh,” I stuttered.
“I don’t have time for this,” he muttered. He gave me a suspicious look and then spoke. “Well you’re in luck because I’m crossing the border too, but before we cross you know that we won’t be able to cross without a fight.”
“I know,” I said, but fear still quavered in my voice. “If we’re going to cross the border together you’d better take this.” He handed me the silver pistol.
I weighed it in my hand. The moonlight glinted off the barrel. It was perfectly balanced but it felt strange in my grasp.
We crept up to the bushes closest to the wall. He pulled out a rifle of his own and turned to me. “See that lump of dirt near the far side of the wall?” The dirt was a bit overturned and there were mounds along the side of wall. “That’s dynamite I planted two days back. When the shot goes off they will explode, I want you to run through the gap. I’ll be right behind you.”
“But there’s hundreds of men on the wall, how will we get through?”
“Because we’re not the only ones here. Instead of fighting us they will be too busy fighting -”
A shot rang through the air bursting the gate apart. “Them!” he yelled. I started running. An army of dark blue erupted from the brush yelling and howling: Union soldiers.
Shots rang out all around me as the Confederates screamed in surprise. I sprinted as fast as I could towards the hole in the gate. I ran straight through and kept running.
When I finally stopped the sounds of battle were in the far distance. I turned around to see the Union soldier running towards me. He stopped in front of me, winded.
“I know this is a bad time, but what’s your name?” I asked. “Shawn,” he panted. I glanced around. We were in a large field. I noticed there was a barn and a small house. There was someone standing outside on the porch. He started to walk over to us. When he reached us I saw that he carried a small lantern and a rusty shotgun. He had black greasy hair and wore a tattered hunting coat.
“Who are ye?” the farmer asked. “Shawn Brown, first regiment in the Union army,” Shawn said, raising his hands.
“Oh, so yer’ from the Union are ye? And who’s this laddy here?” He gave me a stare and I saw that he wore a patch over one of his eyes.
“Timmy,” I stuttered.
“Well, you’re in luck,” he said. “I got an extra bedroom upstairs.” “Thank you,” Shawn said. The farmer led us into the house and up some rickety stairs. Upstairs he showed us through a birch door into a room with two beds. It was a beautiful room. Paintings lined the walls and the beds smell heavily of pine. I hopped into one to test it. It was as soft as lying on a mound of silk. Before I could kick off my shoes, I was asleep.
I woke to someone shaking me.
“Get up, I want to leave before sunrise.”
“What time is it?” I mumbled.
“Three, get up.”
I shook myself out of bed and rubbed my eyes. We were in a small wood bedroom. The world rushed back to me. I looked around. Shawn was standing at my bedside, fully dressed. I grabbed the silver pistol from the bedside and tucked it into my pants pocket.
We walked out of our room and tiptoed down the steps. I could hear the muffled snores of the farmer upstairs. We passed through the kitchen and I was tempted by the fresh smell of bread.
We opened the front door and walked out of the house. Outside there was a chestnut horse with a note strapped to the saddle. I unhooked the note and read it aloud: “Safe travels.”
Shawn grabbed the reins and hopped up onto the horse, then lent his hand to me. I grasped it and he pulled me up onto the horse. He whipped the reins and the horse galloped away from the house. The jumbling hurt my side but I paid no attention. I was grateful for the soldier’s willingness to have me along. I was grateful for everything.
As we trotted down the road, I couldn’t help but wonder about the Shawn’s past. Did he have a family? Where was he from? All these question bubbled around in my head but I didn’t dare let them out.
We traveled for hours and the road seemed never-ending. I was about to nod off when I noticed that Shawn had a smile playing across his lips.
“What’s so funny?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Oh nothing,” he said. “Only that I just realized that the Union camp is right around this corner.”
My head shot up. “What?” I said.
“The camp’s right around the corner.” I thought my head might explode. We’d made it. My body felt like it had just been drenched in ice cold water. I started shaking.
The horse trotted around the corner and I stared at what was in front of me. A giant log wall surrounded hundreds of blue tents, littering the valley like flowers. Thousands of soldiers were running around the camp. I heard gunshots and turned to see soldiers shooting at straw dummies.
“Welcome home,” Shawn said. We dismounted from the horse and walked over to the entrance of the camp. A scrabbly gate was placed in the wall guarded by two foot soldiers.
“Halt!” one soldier shouted. “Papers and registration please.”
“Commander Shawn Brown, first regiment of the Union.”
“Commander!” the soldier shouted. “All of us thought you were dead when you didn’t show up. Come on, the captain’s going to be thrilled.”
“Wait,” Shawn said. “This young boy wants to join the Union.”
“Well you got to be registered in the captain’s tent anyway, come on.” He led us through the gate and towards a huge tent in the middle of the camp. I looked around. One soldier was leaning up against the wall, a knife in his hand, but when he saw Shawn his face lit up like a lightbulb.
“Shawn! Look everybody, Shawn’s back!” A crowd formed around him. Soldiers were shouting and screaming. The foot soldier pushed the crowd back.
“The commander needs to see the captain, clear out!”
The crowd dispersed and we continued towards the tent. The foot soldier pushed the tent door open for us and we ducked in.
The tent was covered in war trophies. A luxurious pine wood table was placed in the center of the tent. A map of the United States covered the majority of the wall. Two men in dark blue were looking at the map. One of them spotted us and whispered something in the other one’s ear. Both men turned to face us and I was surprised by what I saw: the captain looked like he’d aged 20 years from the posters I’d seen. He had gray hair and a long gray mustache which curled at the tips. He ran over to Shawn and threw his arms around him.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” the man said through his sobs. “I heard that your supply wagon was attacked and…” He couldn’t finish.
“I’m okay, Dad,” said Shawn. Dad? The captain was Shawn’s father? I gaped at him. Shawn finally broke the captain’s embrace.
“We have matters to discuss,” the captain said, and lead him over to the map. “We are going to try to take Gettysburg and we need our best troops.”
“What of the boy?” Shawn asked.
The captain surveyed me and then turned to the other soldier. “Get the boy a registration paper.” I sighed in relief. The man ran out of the tent and returned shortly after, carrying a file. He handed it to me and I looked down at it.
It asked me my name, my age, and if I had ever handled a gun. I lied about my age but jotted down the rest of the answers with ease.
“Jones, why don’t you show this soldier his tent.” The man nodded and ushered me out the door. The breeze bit at my cheeks but I didn’t take notice. When we arrived at my tent he walked me inside and sat me down on a cot.
“Here’s where you put your clothes.” He pointed to a chest near the wall. “Commander Shawn will be seeing you shortly.”
He turned and walked out of the tent. The tent was small, cozy at that. Seeing that I had no clothes, I left the trunk alone. Soon after Shawn walked in the door.
“How are you settling in?”
“Fine,” I said. “I have something to tell you. I snuck into your wagon to hitch a ride.”
“What? Did you steal that bread too?”
“Yes,” I said.
“We starved out there, my friend died,” he yelled. “I just made my way out and then I started helping you?”
“Yes,” I said, my anger starting to rise. “How was I going to survive, you had an entire wagon of it!” “I would’ve been blown to pieces if I’d stayed there!” We turned away from each other. I felt tears threatening but I kept them back.
“I’ve had enough of you, I have more to do than watch over an amateur helping him not shoot himself.” With that he turned and stormed out of the tent.
I could fix this. All I had to do was follow Shawn, tell him I was sorry, but all I did was stand there. I walked over to my cot and sat down. I wasn’t sad, I didn’t regret a thing. So what if he deserted me? I could fend for myself, I was a soldier.
Soon after a messenger came into my tent to announce that we’d be marching on Gettysburg in the morning, then he led me out of the tent.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked. “You need to be issued a uniform.” He led me out to a rather large tent next to the captain’s. I could barely hear the sound of discussion coming from the door. Inside the tent, blue uniforms covered the walls.
“Size?” he asked. I never knew my size. I had always had my clothes handed down to me by my father. I went with the size that I remember fitting the best.
“Seventeen,” I said. He walked over to the wall and rummaged around for a minute before drawing out a dark blue uniform.
“You can change in there,” he said, pointing to a small walled-off corner hidden from sight.
I walked over and slipped into the pants. They were soft against my skin and the coat felt the same. Finally I finished with the hat and walked out to join the scout.
“Very nice,” he said. “And you’re going to need this.” He placed a rifle into my arms. It was firm in my grip and I was anxious to try it out. “Come on, let’s get you started on the firing range.” He walked out of the tent and towards the growing sounds of gunfire. We turned the corner and I saw the range. It had a white line painted in the grass and straw dummies were positioned at the far end of the range. I walked over to the line and drew up my rifle. I took aim and shot.
Bang! The bullet whizzed through the air and found a nearby tree.
“You’re not concentrating. Don’t act like the weapon is a separate accessory, act as if it’s just another part of your arm. As long as your arm is straight, your shot will find its mark.”
I took these words into account and raised my rifle again. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened them I wasn’t holding a rifle, it was just my arm and me. I steadied it and fired.
Bang! The bullet found its mark and the dummy’s head snapped back as if slapped in the face.
“Well I’ll leave you to your training,” said the scout. “But don’t stay up shooting the whole night, you’ll need your strength.”
I thanked him and turned back to the range. I practiced for hours until it was all reflex and the bullet was almost always finding its mark.
I should feel sleepy, I said to myself, but I had no feeling of tiredness and there was no reason that I should quit, so I didn’t.
The sun had fallen and rose before I was done and I trotted back to my tent, rifle in arm. I had only just closed my eyes when a sergeant was shaking me awake again.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s go time.”
Entering Another World By David Nuñez
When I read,
I’m whooshed into another world.
To me, everything I read
Is the thing going on in my head.
When I’m reading,
I’m with the characters
I’m the same things as them.
Reading is entering another world,
Escaping reality to where
Magic is real and portals exist.
Reading is my portal.