An Alternate Beginning

Rian eased the tip of his charcoal pencil over the heavily pocked surface of the page in front of him. His mother had made the sketch pad for him; a few leaves of paper bound by spare twine. He listened to her singing in the kitchen as he drew with as much precision as he could. Having watched his mother draw before, he mimicked her, drawing with one hand and smearing the charcoal with the other.

He was happy with the dark tones. He couldn’t see in color yet, unless the color shown brilliant, vivid enough to stand out against the different shades of grey and washed out blues.

He listened to the words his mother sang:

“Then pretty Jane, my dearest Jane,

Ah! never look so shy,

But meet me, meet me in the Ev’ning,

While the bloom is on the Rye.”

He followed her notes with the charcoal, trying to mix his art with his mother’s music. Every now and then, he’d stop drawing to pace in front of the page, then begin drawing again. When he finally finished, Rian took the sketch book to the kitchen where his mother was cleaning.

“Mum,” he said, voice low. He didn’t want to disturb her, but his desire for her to see his masterpiece lie a weight in his stomach.

“What do you have there, dear?” She dried her hands on the rag across her shoulder and sat on one of the chairs, pulling Rian into her lap. He scrambled back down to stand in front of her, thrusting his sketch book within an inch of her face. She took it from him and held it so she could see. She stayed quiet for an unnaturally long time, Rian thought.

“It’s you mum,” he said.

She took in the squiggled lines and laughed.

“It’s quite lovely, dear. A masterpiece, isn’t it?” she said.

Rian felt his chest swell when his mother asked if she could keep it.

With the war winding down, Rian knew he wouldn’t be sent back to Okinawa. He rubbed at his bandages. The infirmary held a quiet that muted the world. Rian waited for the nurse to make her mid-night rounds, checking on the soldiers. His leg itched where the new skin was blossoming over the wounds from shrapnel.

“You should be sleeping,” Effie, the nurse, said.

“I can’t sleep until you answer,” Rian said.

“What if I don’t have an answer?” Effie carefully took the dressing off Rian’s hoisted leg and administered a saline solution before redressing the injury.

“Then I’ll waste away from sleep deprivation,” Rain said.

“If I wanted theatrics I’d have gone to the theater.”

“Marry me,” Rian turned the question he had once asked into a demand.

“And why should I?” Effie asked, arms folded under her breasts.

“Because I love you, because I stayed alive so that I could come home to you. I’d take on an entire army for you, though I may be lost doing it.”

“You always were the romantic type and silly with it. It’s the morphine no doubt.” Effie pursed her lips in thought while Rian seemed to hold his breath, waiting for her answer. “I’ll give you an answer tomorrow,” she said.

“You told me that yesterday.”

Rian sat at Effie’s bedside, her frail, clammy hand wrapped in his. She slept, hooked to machines and barely breathing. Health was always something that Rian had seen value in. The less health someone had the less life they could sustain. Effie was in poor health most of her pregnancy. She couldn’t afford to carry more life than her own, and now it seemed she couldn’t even afford that.

Rian had thought long about what the boy’s name would have been. Michael. He had argued for Gabriel, but Effie had said it was Michael who had died for Gretta and for whom her love was always alive. So, he decided, perhaps it would be Michael. Michael would have been a good boy, strong, and maybe a little stubborn. Maybe he would have been a soldier, too. It takes a certain amount of health to be a soldier, though.

It didn’t seem reasonable for Rian to leave the boy there. The boy was, after all, very young and very much an orphan. Rian’s house was large and mostly empty and he knew he could provide for the boy, Felix. And if nothing else, Rian could groom Felix to be a fine employee. Rian had a fatherly quality about him, and ultimately he wanted to give Felix a home and something like a family.

Rian thought of the son he’d lost. While Michael had never had a chance at life, Rian could make sure Felix did. So, that was that, then.

“You don’t want to lean into it,” Rian said. “You’ll lose your balance that way. Close the distance by stepping in.”

Felix nodded and moved toward the man holding the focus mitts.

“Don’t move in on a straight line, move in at an angle,” Rian said.

“Too many rules,” Felix said between grunts. Rian laughed

“If you can’t get the form right, you won’t be able to get as much power behind your hits. Here, boyo, let me,” Rian said. Felix stepped back, Rian taking his place.

The man with the focus mitts yelled numbers between one and four, Rian throwing punches that corresponded to the numbers. The man hit the mitts together in a deafening slap and Rian threw a combination jab-cross-hook-uppercut. Pop pop pop pop. Each hit sounded louder than the last. With each throw Rian stepped in on an angle and back out immediately after the hit, except on combinations. During the combos, Rian became the aggressor, backing the opponent up and keeping him overwhelmed. Rian’s shoulders stayed hunched and his chin tucked. When he wasn’t throwing a punch, his hands were by his face, prepared to block.

“Once you start sparring you’ll have to learn to be faster and more aggressive. You want your opponent overwhelmed, but before you do that, you must learn good form,” Rian told Felix.

It seemed colder than it should be in October. The wind gave the cold a bite that managed to sink into Rian’s bones. He rarely drank, but on this occasion, he tried to enjoy the bitter taste of the black stuff. It didn’t taste the same as it had back home, the dark liquid much less palatable. Rian threw the bottle, heard it crash against a tree, then went back inside. The house was much warmer, and staying sober felt better.

In his office, Rian flipped through paperwork, trying to focus. He had a deal to cut with a client. There was a way to keep the client happy while still enabling Rian to get his profits. He just had to figure out how. He ran a hand through his hair, suddenly tired.

Rian was in the audience when Felix walked for university graduation. Rian knew Felix wasn’t going to do much with the degree. Rian, having played the role of father, knew it was time to play the role of employer. He had groomed Felix for a specific job, and he trusted Felix.

Rian—preparing to pull Felix into the world of business, politics, and maybe a little extortion— watched Felix walk across the stage.

“You have to use a modicum of diplomacy,” Rian said.

“It’ll start that way, I’m sure,” Felix said.

“I mean it, boyo. This isn’t a game. We need Sano to understand the rules of how we operate.”

“He won’t listen,” Felix said.

“Then make him listen. Take Seth with you; at least he can be persuasive. If Sano won’t be reasoned with, then make sure you put him out of business. I won’t have a war on my streets.”

For several heartbeats, Felix held Rian’s gaze. Then, his expression broke into a smile that had a shiver running down Rian’s spine.