Welcome to our first story time! This one is a sad one, and contains discussion of parental death and grief. Please take care of yourselves.
Lydda felt like a ghost.
She was sort of used to being the responsible one at this point. Meltyre had been gone for four years. It was always kind of nice when he came home, and she could take a break from being a mother hen and let him do it for a while. He was really good at it. She was okay, but it wasn’t something that came naturally to her.
Except for today, when it had.
She was still feeling sick. Not feverish anymore, but definitely ill. Seri and Min were almost better. It was lucky they were, since they’d all had to pitch in as the fever sapped what was left of their parents.
Yesterday, her mother and father had died. She had stopped thinking except in purely mechanical terms. The farm wouldn’t run with just the three of them, not enough hands. She knew her parents were paying for Meltyre’s school, but she didn’t know where they were getting the money and she couldn’t keep that up. And Meltyre needed to know anyway.
So like an automaton or a golem, she’d written a letter, rode into town to hire a messenger with what was left of the market money, and then came back to do the things one did for the dead. Wash the bodies. Hold a wake. A couple of neighbors had come by to pay respects, asking what she planned to do next, as if she was an adult and not thirteen years old. She had answered them respectfully. Her brother was coming and they’d figure it out. She’d accepted notes that turned out to be offers on the land and the farm.
One of the neighboring farmhands came at the end of the wake, early in the morning, and helped her dig a large joint grave on the hill overlooking the orchard, beside the road. Make sure it’s plenty deep, the farmhand had said, and Lydda made sure of it. And then she’d buried her parents, her sisters sobbing in the background while she stared at the grave, floating through their paltry little funeral like a ghost.
And then it was daytime, and her sisters insisted she go to bed while she insisted they do their chores because the animals didn’t wait for anyone. They managed to follow her directions while she tried in vain to follow theirs, staring at the ceiling for hours.
And then night fell again, and her sisters were fast asleep, but Lydda was still awake, floating through the darkness. At least ghosts belonged here, in the dark.
Now she sat and watched the night go gray with dawn, wrapped in a blanket on the porch. She had the blanket less because she felt the cold and more because she knew her father would have suggested it. It wasn’t cold. At least, she didn’t think it was cold.
A distant sound, a horse’s whinny, made her look up. A cart was coming over the hill where her parents were buried, via the road. The cart stopped, and one figure hopped off, pausing for just a moment to talk to the driver before taking off down the hill.
Lydda stood up. The figure was holding a pointy hat on his head.
Meltyre arrived out of breath, gasping like a beached fish, but he didn’t stop running until he reached the porch, where Lydda had hopped down to meet him and was enveloped in a hug.
“I came as quick as I could,” said his voice behind her head.
It was as if her soul poured back into her all at once, and she was no longer a ghost, she was a girl, and she wasn’t alone anymore, but she had had to bury her parents this morning.
“I’m sorry,” she said, barely choking out the sentence past tears that were suddenly bubbling up from her like a spring. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“Hey.” Meltyre released her most of the way, still holding onto her shoulders as if he was afraid she’d float away again. “You shouldn’t have had to deal with this in the first place. It’s okay.”
Meltyre was here. It was going to be okay.
“Where’s um…where are mom and dad?” Meltyre asked.
Lydda pointed to the hill. “We buried them this morning.”
“Okay, okay, and where’s Min and Seri?” She could hear the knife edge of anxiety in his voice, but it didn’t matter, because he was her brother and he was here.
“Asleep,” Lydda said. “In bed.”
“Okay, and did you sign anything or agree to anything with anyone?”
“No.” Ghosts can’t make legal agreements.
“Good.” Meltyre pulled her in for a hug again. “You did everything right, Squirt. I mean it, everything.”
“What are we going to do?” Lydda asked into his shoulder. He smelled like library dust and campfires.
“I don’t know, but we’re going to figure this out together.” He released her again. “I promise.”
Gods, he was so sad. But his face was mechanically blank, his assurances more confident than anything Meltyre could sincerely give.
“Don’t be a ghost, okay?” she said.
He frowned. “What?”
“We need you here, every part of you,” Lydda told him. “Even the part that is too scared to do anything but cry.”
It took him a minute, but he figured out what she was saying. He always did. And then he nodded, his face collapsing in a grimace of despair. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“It’s not fair,” Lydda agreed, tears leaking out of her again.
They stood there, leaning on each other. They were not alone, not anymore, as the color seeped back into the world.