15th Annual Popular Fiction Awards Winning Short Story: "A Life Measured in Moons"

Congratulations to Alexandra Hill, winner of the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here is her winning short story, "A Life Measured In Moons."
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Congratulations to Alexandra Hill, winner of the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here is her winning short story, "A Life Measured In Moons."

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[See the complete winners list.]

A Life Measured in Moons

A young woman invites a young man for a walk in the woods. Their feet whisper and crunch through fallen leaves, and barren branches sway above them, but little else moves in the forest. Animals don’t venture so close to civilization, and people don’t usually wander so far.

“You know, they say a monster lives in these woods. Sometimes, people go walking out here, and they never come home.” Margaret’s voice runs away from her, loops around the thick trunk of an oak, and disappears into the night.

Ben’s chuckle, low and rich, follows it. He’s heard the story before, like every soldier passing through Baker City. A little boy may have offered it in exchange for tales of the Germans or Japanese. A working man, excusing his civilian clothes with the danger he faces at home. A widow, grieving a husband dead thirty years, giving tacit permission: You, too, can disappear.

“Monsters aren’t real, Margaret. Besides, I won’t let anything happen to you.” He smiles down on her.

She clutches his uniformed arm. The khaki is rough against her fingers, and his arms are corded with muscle. Strong enough to sweep her up and away, maybe.

They walk onwards.

The forest comes to life with each step, a cacophony of cracks and ticks and chitters. He regales her with stories of home: a flock of sisters, a best friend with whom he’d enlisted. She imagines herself in the golden fields behind his parents’ farmhouse, arms spread wide to the sun.

He tells her he is on leave, that tomorrow’s train will bring him home. That he’s a week late, and his best friend’s already waiting. That he’ll be back in November, in just a few weeks. That he wants to see her again before he returns to the front.

When he tries to kiss her, she lets him, then pulls him deeper into the forest.

“There’s no path this way,” he says.

“It’s buried by leaves. The marker’s here, see?” Her lantern illuminates a blue ribbon tied to a branch, fluttering dejectedly. “My brother found this shortcut.”

He allows himself to be led.

“I didn’t know you have a brother.”

“It’s nice to forget him, sometimes. He’s almost thirteen. A handful. Your sisters sound sweet.” Ben falls back into memories, and her ears cling to his stories, his laughter. She wants to turn back, to pick somebody else.

“Is this a graveyard?” He asks, interrupting his own story mid-sentence.

Margaret watches him take in the black fence, the tilting gravestones glowing with moonlight. An ancient oak stands at the graveyard’s center, shadows pooling at its roots.

“It’s a shortcut.” She presses herself against him. “We’ll be there soon.”

“You live all the way out here?”

“No. It’s our hunting cottage. My father built it. We’ll have it to ourselves.” She attempts a coy smile. She’s practiced it in the mirror, tilting her head and curling her mouth until she’s sick of her own reflection.

“I’d like to meet your father,” he says. There’s a promise in his voice.

“Maybe someday soon.” Margaret kicks at the shadows that spread themselves across the dead grass. His fingers try to close around hers, and she pulls away, walking deeper into the graveyard. The wind picks up, scattering leaves in its wake.

“Margaret?” He hastens to catch up, lays a hand on her shoulder to slow her. “I just meant I like you.” The full moon paints a halo around his hair, and she blinks hope from her eyes.

A branch cracks.

Ben whirls, stepping forward, reaching for his gun and aiming it into the darkness.

“Who’s there?” He pulls a Colt from his belt with practiced movement. He transforms: boy into soldier, and her heart tightens.

A growl crawls out of the darkness, rough and rolling, refusing to be caught or carried away by the wind.

“Stay back.” Ben throws a protective arm in front of Margaret, but she’s already creeping away, towards the gate. The growl comes again, vibrating through her bones.

An owl hoots. Then, all at once: Ben’s shout to run; moving limbs; crunching branches. A body heavy with muscle and fur lifts from the ground. The revolver bangs as she stumbles to the gate and swings it closed. Her fingers grapple for the padlock, drop it on the first try, fasten it on the second. She rips down the path.

Ben’s scream follows her through the trees.

At the blue ribbon, she throws herself left, skirts hiked to her knees, deeper into the trees.

The forest suddenly resolves into a clearing, a cottage crouched low in its center, its thatched roof glowing silver. Margaret falls through the door and sinks to her knees. The darkness shudders with her breathing. When her pulse slows, she lets the tears fall.

Just a minute, she thinks. A minute to mourn a boy who’d wanted to be a hero. A boy whose sisters and best friend will wait at the station tomorrow, expectation fading into confusion as the train comes and goes without him. A boy who could have been hers.

He would have died anyway. At foreign gunpoint or in the forest. It doesn’t matter.

Margaret stands on shaky legs, wiping her eyes. She focuses on the necessities. A fire for warmth; a stale heel of bread for supper; a hard bed on which to sleep.

#

She wakes before sunrise and sets out, grabbing the pack by the door, not bothering to straighten her rumpled dress. October hangs heavy in the air, and the persistent autumn wind has brushed away the mustiness of fallen leaves, leaving the forest clear and bright.

When she arrives at the graveyard, her legs carry her to the boy sleeping by the ancient oak. His thumb is tucked into a mouth ringed with dried blood. A steel collar and heavy chain joins him to the tree, and gooseflesh pebbles his naked body. A gun glints in the dead grass.

She unfastens the collar, covers him with a blanket from her bag, rubs his arms for warmth.

“Margaret?” His eyes bat awake.

“I’m here,” she murmurs. She pulls a washcloth from the bag and wipes the blood from his face. He winces in protest, but doesn’t pull away.

“You were sucking your thumb again,” she says.

“I wasn’t,” he mumbles without much conviction.

“You were. Men don’t do that, Daniel.” Margaret tucks a finger under his chin, pulling his shining, green eyes to hers. “And men don’t mumble, either.” She smiles, and shoos him toward the pack for fresh clothing.

Margaret focuses intently on the chain as Daniel dresses, uncertain around his newfound desire for privacy. She rolls up the steel links and hides the chain under the oak’s gaping roots. Her eyes stray to a patch of fresh-turned earth nearby, the kind a dog would make for a bone. She tamps it down with her foot, not thinking of what’s below, and scatters dead leaves to conceal it.

“Ready!”

Margaret turns to see Daniel pulling on his coat, its taupe fabric frayed at the hem. He’s grown again; the sleeves are too short by an inch. He hands her the backpack, and she stoops down to pick up Ben’s Colt. She checks the safety, then drops it into the bag.

“It might come in useful,” she explains, though Daniel hadn’t spoken. When he doesn’t respond, she shrugs. “Let’s go.”

Just before they enter the forest, Margaret turns back to look over the graveyard. There’s no indication Ben was ever there. There never is.

They wind their way through the trees, silent until the first windows of the town appear.

“Thank you.” He doesn’t meet her eyes.

She stops, turns him to face her.

“You’re my brother,” she says, as if that explains everything.

“I don’t have to be. You could let me go.”

“I can’t let you roam free during the turnings, Daniel. It’s too dangerous,” she says. She has a responsibility. To him. To their town.

“That’s not what I mean,” he whispers, and her heart tightens. Boys grow into men, she knows, and men make their own way in the world. He stopped speaking of becoming a doctor after the first turning, but she has seen his eyes clinging to the soldiers. He hasn’t stopped hoping for the future, in spite of what he’s become.

Margaret pulls him into a fierce hug as the thought crosses her mind. He’s not a monster. He’s her brother, and still a child: a boy with a crown of brown ringlets, large green eyes, a soft slope of a nose above a girlish mouth, who smells of autumn wind and fresh-turned earth.

“It’ll be okay,” she says into his hair. “We’ll figure it out together. We’ve made it this far.”

She herds him home, through the still-sleeping town. The front door is out of the question; their neighbors have a surplus of inquisitive charity. She boosts Daniel through her bedroom window and follows him inside. He slips away to get ready for school.

Margaret unpacks her bag, thinking of the man that she left behind in the moonlight, just before… just before. She shakes the hint of a future with him from her mind. Ben’s train will leave today. His family will miss him and wonder; his battalion will think he’s fled. The world will go on without him, disappointed but unquestioning, like it did with the others.

As long as she and Daniel make it through the day, they’ll be fine for another month.

One month.

Her body sags. One month, then another, then another. A life measured in moons.

She screws her eyes closed, pushing away tears, and forces herself to straighten.

One moon at a time. Despair will help nothing.

#

The first time, it was July. They were in the cabin, and the soft shick, shick of Father sharpening his hunting knife cut through the tense silence. Margaret had just been forbidden from seeing a young soldier who’d taken a shine to her and Daniel; her brother could continue to see him, but it was inappropriate for Margaret to do so.

It was then Daniel fled the cabin with a cry, tearing at his clothing. Their parents followed, not knowing what was wrong. When the screams started, Margaret ran to the door and stood paralyzed, ear against the heavy wood and hands on the deadbolt, too scared to venture out.

The quiet was sudden and shocking, pressing against the wooden walls and thatch roof. Then: the snuffle and scratch of a heavy animal moving outside.

Margaret threw the bolt and huddled in her bed.

Eventually, the world stilled, and she slept.

The next morning, she found Daniel curled up against their mother, soundly asleep, his thumb tucked between pouting lips ringed with red. The dark red pit of their mother’s abdomen was already swarming with flies. Their father was a few paces away, unrecognizable but for his clothing. Margaret had mended the shirt just the day before.

It was unsalvageable.

There was no time for horror, nor mourning. Daniel was her baby brother. Protecting him was never a question; she had been told it was her duty from the day he was born. What else could she do? She bathed him, coaxed him into fresh clothing, rubbed his back as he emptied his stomach, fetched him a new shirt. When he was safe, she ran to town, screaming about a bear attack, her dress spattered with blood. Nobody noticed her hands were clean.

That was fifteen turnings ago. Now, October slips into November in a blur of routine: pre-dawn chores; days tending what had been her mother’s library, watching soldiers wander between bookshelves. Afternoons walking Daniel home from the schoolhouse, dejection settling on his shoulders as the moon grows older. Evenings by the fireplace, mending soldiers’ clothing and supervising Daniel’s homework. Her seventeenth birthday passes without notice.

“It’s tomorrow.” Daniel huddles beneath his blankets, gaunt-cheeked and morose.

“I know,” Margaret says. She will save him again, arm in arm with a soldier planning on leaving Baker City the day after.

Soldiers are ready to die; they know what they’ve chosen. She has watched them this past week as the trains have come in, let her gaze linger long enough to be noticed. There is a promise in her look, small enough to avoid gossip, large enough that they expect her to approach. They are only surprised that she waits till the night before they leave.

She doesn’t let herself think about what will happen when the war ends. They will find a way to keep Daniel alive, somehow, or maybe to cure him.

One moon at a time.

“You can leave me there,” Daniel says, as if reading her mind. “Alone.”

“You need your strength.” The month she’d trapped a fawn through sheer luck, hoping it would be enough, he’d almost died.

He takes a steadying breath. “I don’t want this anymore.”

“You’re thirteen. You don’t know what you want.” She walks to his bedroom door. “Sleep. We leave after supper tomorrow.”

Daniel’s voice, small and bitter, stops her.

“I remember all of them, Margaret. I can’t stop myself and I can’t forget. Last night… he cried. August called for his mother. July… fifteen soldiers, Margaret. And Mother and—”

“Enough!” Her shriek is wild, a panicked bird’s, unrecognizable. They stare at each other, startled into silence. When she speaks, it is with the cold voice her mother used to ban Margaret from seeing the young soldier with the kind smile.

“And the one who did this to you? Do you think he shriveled away and died of worry?”

Daniel shrinks under the covers.

“I have no one left but you, Daniel. Don’t take that away from me, too.” She throws the words over her shoulder and steps into the hallway, closing the door behind her.

#

Margaret sleeps fitfully; her body drags through morning chores and to the library. The shelves are laden with Armed Services Editions, tattered covers sandwiching flimsy paper.

A soldier comes in not long after opening. He arrived two days before, heading for re-deployment; he’s one of the dozen she’s considered for the month. She watches his slow circuit of the shelves: the close crop of blonde hair, hinting at curls if allowed to grow long; the strength in his back; the spryness of his fingers as he plucks a book of the shelf to read the back.

A low buzz creeps from her stomach to her ears when he approaches her, a book in hand. It reminds her of the last Christmas her parents were alive, when she was allowed to try mulled wine for the first time.

“I’m sorry to ask, but… did you know Benjamin Miller?” His voice is kind.

Margaret’s mouth goes dry. “Ben? Who came through last month?”

“Yes... He wrote home, mentioned a beautiful librarian in town. Said he couldn’t get her to talk with him to save his life.” He smiles crookedly. “Was that you?”

Fear and pleasure twist together in her stomach.

“We went for a walk the night before he left. He was sweet.” Margaret pauses, bites her lip for effect. “He said he’d write me, but he never did.”

The young man sighs, raking a hand through his hair. “He was supposed to come home last month. We thought he’d just missed the train, but… He didn’t say…?” He doesn’t want to speak the words, but he doesn’t have to. It’s what she needs them to think. Absent without leave. Boys with bluster and bravery until they learn of their mortality by watching friends die.

“No, never…” She lets her voice trail off. “Are you his friend? The one who enlisted with him?”

The man smiles tightly, extending a hand. “I’ve been rude. Yes. Billy McRae.”

“Margaret. Margaret Adams.” His palms are warm against her skin, and his fingers are calloused. “He talked a lot about you.”

Billy smiles sadly, and the silence stretches taut between them until he breaks it.

“Margaret… Would you go for a walk with me? Tonight? Not like that,” he adds quickly, seeing her expression. His eyes are deep brown and wide with honesty. “I just want to talk to someone else who knew him.”

“Of course.” She hides her relief with a nod. He’s made this easy for her; his absence will stop any more questions about Ben. “I can’t get away till dark, though. Seven?”

“That’s perfect. We can enjoy the full moon.”

Margaret blinks, her stomach dropping again. “Sorry?”

“The moon… it’ll be bright. Good for walking. Don’t tell me you’re superstitious?”

“Oh! Yes. I mean, no,” she says, laughing. “Meet you by the eastern gate?”

“Seven at the eastern gate.” He smiles, tips his cap, and disappears through the door.

Margaret watches the door swing shut after him. She likes the look of him. His smile.

But it’s not a question of liking, she thinks. There is no question. Just the answer: Daniel.

#

The day passes in fits and spurts. Margaret collects Daniel from school and rushes him through the evening, burning supper in the process. Neither of them cares. She asks him about school as they eat, the questions as mechanical as his answers. He mentions, briefly, a girl named Anna in his class; she files the information away for later. It’s too soon for him to think about marriage, but she can start laying the groundwork for a happy life, at least.

When they arrive at the graveyard, the sun is beginning to set.

“Who are you bringing?” Daniel asks as she fastens the collar around his neck.

“A soldier. Like always.” Her hands, pausing at his question, continue adjusting the collar.

“What’s his name?”

“Billy.”

“That’s a nice name.”

“It’s not,” she snaps. “It’s ordinary. Like the others.”

Daniel’s shoulders slump, and her heart softens.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” she says softly, patting his cheek. Autumn leaves swirl by the gravestones and around her feet, ushering her away.

#

Margaret considers taking the gun with her, but she leaves it in the cabin along with her backpack. She takes the long way back into town. Billy is already at the gate when she arrives.

“Shall we?” His smile envelops her.

“We shall,” she says, setting her hand into the crook of his elbow.

Sixteen uniformed arms; sixteen sets of butterflies in her stomach. What it would be like, to take them into the woods for herself? Would his lips be soft? Would he lay her softly down among the leaves and the moss, or push her against a tree, rough with passion?

She thrusts the thoughts away. They are not for her to have. He is not for her.

Billy’s lantern bobs queasily in front of them, throwing stark shadows into the trees. She hears Ben’s story again, in Billy’s words: two boys who left home, bright-eyed and hopeful and unprepared for the world’s cruelty.

Margaret hadn’t been ready for it, either. But Ben and Billy had volunteered; she’d had no choice. No brothers in arms to help her, nor training. Just the brief respite of the waning moon.

When the graveyard comes into view, Billy glances at her, eyebrows raised.

“We stopped using it after the Spanish Flu,” she explains. “But it’s good for stargazing.” They look up as if on cue. A wisp of cloud veils the moon’s face, but the sky is radiant with light.

“Is this where you went with Ben?” He presses his hand on the small of her back when she nods, guiding her through the gate. “Come on, then. Let’s look at the stars.”

Margaret smiles, but her heart stutters. Something is wrong. She’s always the one to press forward. They walk in silence until she stops, grabbing his arm. They are a few feet away from the gravestone that marks the length of the chain.

“What’s wrong?” Billy says. She looks up to see excitement painted across his face.

“I’m scared,” she says. She tries to step back, but he grabs her arm hard, fingers hard and uncaring.

“I’m not surprised. You know, they say a monster lives in these woods.”

“I’ve heard the story since I was a child.” Margaret’s laugh limps from her lips. She tries to pull away from his grip, but it’s too strong. “It must’ve gotten to me.”

“Ben would never have left. He would have died before abandoning us.”

“I don’t understand…” Margaret tests his grasp again. It is unyielding. The boyish charm of his face has hardened, too. She can see it now: he has seen the enemy. He has shed blood.

“Where is it?”

“I don’t understand,” Margaret repeats, her voice rising in panic. “Please, let me go.”

“I thought there might be some truth to local legends.”

“Billy, please, let’s go—”

“Am I getting warmer?” He steps towards the oak tree; she thrashes, too weakly to change his course.

A growl creeps from the darkness, and Billy smiles. She can see Daniel moving through the shadows, the barest hint of slick, black fur in the moonlight.

Billy draws a gun from the holster at his waist, aiming it into the darkness.

“Come on,” he whispers.

“No!” Margaret lunges towards him, but he’s ready. He shoves her, and she falls with a cry. She hears another growl, the earth shifting with an animal’s movement. Daniel lands with a thud, teeth bared, prepared to launch at Billy.

The gun bangs. Daniel yelps and launches himself away, pursued by gunshots. A gravestone erupts in clouds of stone dust off to her left; another shot, and a metallic clink rings out. Daniel runs back into the shadows, a fragment of chain trailing behind him.

Just run away, Daniel, Margaret thinks, watching him go. Don’t come back.

“You killed Ben,” Billy hisses. Margaret turns away from where Daniel disappeared to see Billy’s gun trained on her.

She flinches, then shakes her head.

Him or Daniel, Margaret wants to say. What choice did I have?

A black mass launches itself from the darkness, white teeth shining with thick saliva. Daniel and Billy tumble to the ground, growls and screams tangling together. Margaret scrambles towards the gate. She hears a wet crack, and the graveyard is silent except for her rattling breaths.

The gate looms ahead of her. Her foot catches the edge of a crooked gravestone as she runs, sending her sprawling. Air thumps from her lungs. When she looks up, Daniel stands between her and the gate, chest heaving, eyes glinting with misery and hunger.

“Daniel,” Margaret whispers, her heart swelling. He saved her. Daniel’s breathing slows, and she reaches for him. She can see her brother’s gaze in the creature’s irises. “Did he hurt you?”

The creature blinks, and Daniel is gone.

She closes her eyes as it lunges.

#

A young man invites a young woman for a walk in the woods. She has seen him around town, working odd jobs. He claims to be twenty, but she doesn’t think he’s past seventeen. There is a haunted look in his eyes, though, that confirms he served in the war.

They start when the sun is high in the sky, and she doesn’t notice how much time has passed, not until he takes his arm from her shoulders.

“I should get home soon,” she says, shivering in the sudden cold. “My parents will worry.”

“Stay with me a moment longer? The moon will be out soon, and I’d like to compare its beauty to yours.” She giggles and rests her cheek on his chest, and he wraps his arm around her again, planting a kiss on her forehead.

“You know,” he says. “Where I grew up, they said a monster lived in the woods. Sometimes, people would go walking out there, and they wouldn’t come home.”

“Stop trying to frighten me.” She swats his chest, laughing.

“I’m sorry,” Daniel says. His bones are restless with the change.