As promised, here is the new Matt Archer short story. Based on votes, it sounded like you wanted to hear about Greenhill Graduation. While the story has some comedic parts, it turned out a little more bittersweet than I anticipated. For anyone who read REDEMPTION, you probably can expect why. Now, if you haven’t read REDEMPTION, don’t read this story–major spoilers ahead.
Also, if you have any additional “wants” for short stories for the compilation, give me a shout in the comments and/or email. Your idea might just make the cut!
All righty–here we go. Happy Reading!!
* * *
THE LIGHT OF A THOUSAND STARS
Mom checked her purse one last time. “Okay, I have my phone. I want pictures of everyone.”
So did I, but I’d let her take them for me. I wanted my focus to be on watching the back of Ella’s head. That was a really great pastime. “Is my tie straight?”
I was wearing the suit she’d bought me for the Congressional hearings last fall. After getting dressed, I’d spent a long time staring at myself in the mirror. Even though I could walk—and even jog—without a limp now, my injuries had taken a toll. The suit was loose through the shoulders, and I’d had to tighten my belt a notch.
Still, a tiny voice deep in my head kept telling me it was time to start training more. Since I knew that voice wasn’t mine, I tried to ignore it. I was kind of done letting them tell me how to live. Maybe someday I’d get back with the program, but I wasn’t ready to forgive, or forget. And for the time being, the world didn’t need them…or me.
I blinked, realizing I’d been standing there, staring into space, while Mom watched me with sad, tired eyes. “It’s straight, honey.”
I nodded, and closed my eyes for a second. She and I were having a really hard time filling up this house. Dad moving back in had helped a lot, but it still felt so damn empty without my sibs here.
We’d sold our six-seater kitchen table in favor of something smaller—that was my life now.
“Thanks,” I mumbled and followed her out to her car. We’d sold the minivan, too. She drove an Acura instead.
She drove us to Greenhill High’s stadium. The parking lot was already filling up, and near the tunnel entrance, a sea of green robed graduates milled and mingled. Even from here, I could see Ella’s red hair, turned the color of flame from the hot early June sun. And it wasn’t hard to miss Will. His head stood above the crowd’s. Only tiny Penn was completely invisible…until Will jumped back a foot laughing. A fist shook at his face—a very small fist. I finally saw her when Will picked her up and swung her around. She was laughing, her curly brown hair streaming behind her.
A pang hit my heart. Will had committed to USC, and Penn had fought her parents tooth and nail to go with him. I was going the opposite direction—to the east coast and West Point. Ella was going to Rutgers, so she could be close to me. We’d be more than three thousand miles apart from our best friends. How was that going to work?
“We should go find seats,” Mom said, sounding vaguely worried. “Are you sad you didn’t wait to graduate with the rest of them?”
“No.” And I wasn’t. Graduating by myself in Mrs. Stevens’s office had been great. “Enough people are staring at us now. Can you imagine what it would’ve been like if I crossed the stage?”
Her laugh sounded strained. “The media would’ve shown up for that. It was hard enough for Mitch and Arianna to keep them away for Will today. You’re right; it was better your way.”
We went into the stadium, and bumped into the Cruessans. Mr. Cruessan gave me a bone crushing handshake, and Mrs. Cruessan actually—gasp—smiled at me.
“It’s a big day,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re here.”
While she and Mom boo-hooed about their babies leaving for college, Mr. C and I stood around awkwardly. Ever since I’d left a blood stain on their entryway rug, he hadn’t seemed to know how to talk to me. I didn’t blame him for that.
“So,” he said, “You training hard for West Point?”
I nodded. “Got my two-mile run times down into the required range. Still working on getting my pushups back to the right number, but it’s coming along.”
“I should send William to the gym with you. He’s in for a rude awakening when he meets the conditioning coaches at USC.”
I thought about saying that Will had been through enough “very bad things” not to give one crap about any coaches, but I just smiled and nodded. “I’ll give him a call. I like working out with a partner.”
We went up into the stadium, blinking in the bright sunlight, and found seats in the lower bleachers just off the forty yard line. The stage was centered on the fifty, so this was a prime spot. Strange that it was still empty.
“Let’s see,” Mr. C said. “We have C, M, and S…we’re going to be here a while.”
I was pleased he remembered to add the Mitchell to the tally of names we were listening for. “There’s only four hundred seniors,” I said, grinning. “How long could it take?”
A strange look passed between the Cruessans, and I got the feeling something was up. I didn’t have a chance to ask, because Pomp and Circumstance started playing over the PA speakers. Lines of green-robed seniors started marching out of the home-side tunnels. Group by group, they found their folding chairs on the field, waiting for the direction to sit. When Ella’s line passed by, she looked up into the stands. I waved and she caught my eye. She touched her lips then her heart. It was a quick gesture, but I saw it.
God, I loved that girl.
Once they were seated—and the poor girl who sat behind Will had moved her chair so she could see around him—Mrs. Stevens took her place on the stage. Her hair was even more gray than when I’d started at Greenhill, but she’d had a rough four years.
She wore a black professor’s robe and smiled proudly at the seniors gathered before her. “Welcome Greenhill’s senior class! Not seniors much longer—in just a minute, you’ll be leaving us to go on to great things. But for the next few hours, you’re mine for just a bit more.”
Cheers and laughter from the grads made my throat constrict. I’d known most of these people since elementary school. Even though I didn’t feel like I belonged with—or to—them any longer, it was so cool to be here.
There were a couple of speeches. The valedictorian went on about five minutes too long. The StuCo president lost his place in his notes and decided to ad lib. He went dangerously close to a very inappropriate place…and it was awesome.
Finally, Mrs. Stevens took her place again, but instead of saying something about having the seniors stand to go through commencement, she said, “Before we proceed with graduating these fine seniors, I want to take a moment to address some trying circumstances surrounding our student body.
“Two of our own alumni—one an elite athlete, one a great scholar—were killed during the school year. Extraordinary circumstances, and incredible bravery, took them both from us much too soon. They are survived by their mother, and their brother, a senior from this class, who also redefined what it means to be brave in the face of terrible evil.
“Another senior in our class was also a part of the story that unfolded throughout our world. I am so proud to call these young people students. Would Mr. Archer and Mr. Cruessan please stand?”
So much for avoiding the stares. Mom was already in tears, and my eyes stung, but with four hundred families looking my way, I shoved them back and got to my feet. Will did, too, but he didn’t face the stage—he turned around to look at me. We held each other’s gaze for a long minute, and not a single person made a sound.
The thing is, we’d grieved…both together and in private. But this really put a beating heart on everything we’d lost. I had to believe that my sister and my brother could see us, but I didn’t know.
And they weren’t the only dead I missed. I just missed them most.
“Thank you, thank you both,” Mrs. Stevens said, her voice hoarse with emotion. “And thank you to the Archer family, who gave so much for all of us.”
The applause was immediate and thunderous, and I hated every second of it. I took my seat and hunched down, hoping Mr. Cruessan’s bulk would hide me from the stares. Will dropped into his seat like a weight had fallen on him. We never did any of this for the recognition. Getting a Presidential medal of honor—and other awards from eighteen different countries—was embarrassing enough. This, though, this smacked my loss right in the nose.
But Mrs. Stevens had a surprise. “In honor of Mamie and Brent Archer, the Mitchell and Arianna Cruessan Foundation has created two scholarships, to be awarded to two outstanding seniors. The Brent Archer Memorial Scholarship will be awarded to a student athlete who plans to continue on with a college education. The Mamie Archer Memorial Scholarship will be awarded to a student who exemplifies both a passion for learning, and a high moral character.”
God, now these seats made sense—they’d been saved for us. I turned to stare at Mr. C. He smiled sadly in return.
Mom gasped and gripped his arm. “You…you didn’t tell me.”
“It was a surprise, Dani,” he said, patting her hand. “And we’re grateful to have the chance to do it.”
“The teachers met with Mr. and Mrs. Cruessan to review recommendations and determine who our inaugural winners would be,” Mrs. Stevens said, “It is our honor to award the Brent Archer Memorial Scholarship to Braden Collins.”
During the applause, as Braden went up to accept his award, I found it kind of ironic…Will was the poster boy for that scholarship, but it would look weird for his parents to give it to him. A little smile twitched at the corners of my mouth, because it would’ve been kind of funny and awesome if he had won, and some random parent got pissed off about it. Then there would be a shoving match, and some name-calling…
Brent would’ve loved that.
“The winner of the Mamie Archer Scholarship is a young lady who has conducted herself with a great deal of dignity and strength during a very difficult time. She has a strong moral compass, and is an exceptional student as well. The award goes to…” Mrs. Stevens paused to scan the crowd. When she found me, she smiled. “Ella Mitchell.”
And just like that, I was totally done in.
* * *
“So, this is the last day Dad’s letting me eat cake. He’s putting me on a protein extreme diet starting tomorrow. So, everyone kiss Millicent for making four desserts for us,” Will said, cramming a big bite of chocolate bundt cake into his mouth.
“Don’t talk again until you finish that,” Penn warned, pointing a plastic fork at him. “Seriously, Giant Will. We can’t keep having the ‘no see food’ discussion.”
In answer, he scooped up a fork full of icing and dabbed it on her nose. To my surprise, she calmly wiped it off. I wondered where Mighty Penn had gone—then she sucker punched him in the ribs.
Okay, everything was right with my world again.
“Ouch!” Will said. “Good grief, Destroyer. You’re going to injure me before I even get to my first practice at USC.”
She made a face. “Suck it up, big guy.”
He snatched her out of her chair and plunked her in his lap. “Suck…what?”
“Oookay,” Ella said, grabbing my hand. “We’re going for a swim. You two keep it clean up here.”
She pulled me down the flagstone patio to the Cruessan’s ginormous pool. No one ever really swam in it, which seemed like a huge waste to me. Now, though, having it to myself with Ella and her bikini didn’t seem so wasteful. Especially when she flashed me her daredevil grin and did a cannonball right into the deep end.
I dived in after her, and when we surfaced, I said, “Have I told you I loved you today?”
“About seven times, but it doesn’t get old,” she said. “I love you, too.”
We swam over to the edge of the pool to hang onto the wall. She reached out to wipe water off my face. “Are you okay?”
I stared across Will’s backyard, to the tree line. From here, you could just see the trailhead that he and I used to take to hunt monsters in the state park. Such a long time ago. “Not really, but I’m getting better. It’s going to take a while.”
“I want you to know that getting Mamie’s scholarship was the most beautiful thing that could’ve happened today,” she murmured. “I know that had to be hard for you, and I’m sorry.”
“It was hard,” I admitted. “But don’t be sorry. I’m so glad it was you. I think being made to stand up in front of all those people was the hardest thing. I’m so tired of the attention, you know? I want to walk into a store or a restaurant and not be recognized, but that won’t happen for a while, will it?”
“Probably not.” Ella rested her hand on mine. “Do you want to go see them today?”
I shook my head. “There’ll be a crowd. News crews, too. ‘Seniors of Greenhill High Graduate and Mourn,’ or some crap like that. I’d rather go in the middle of the night sometime. That’s when I’ve been going. I sneak out of the house at one and drive over there.”
“How about tonight, then?” she asked. “Will and Penn could go, too, or it could be just us.”
I looked over at the patio. Penn was feeding Will cake, and he watched her like he still couldn’t believe she’d agreed to go out with him in the first place. I knew how that felt. “Yeah. I’d like all of us to go.”
We swam and ate for hours that afternoon. My appetite had come back, and Millicent seemed determined to make sure I gained five pounds today.
“Mr. Matthew? There’s one piece of coconut pie left,” she called from the patio door. “Do you want it now, or can I send it home with you?”
Ella, who was sitting curled up next to me on the porch swing, giggled against my shoulder. “She really likes feeding you.”
“She likes feeding all of us,” I whispered back, smiling. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll take that pie to go.”
Millicent beamed, then went inside to pack it up. Will groaned from the patio sofa. He was stretched out with his head in Penn’s lap. “If I never eat again it’ll be too soon.”
“Says the guy who’s going to eat a six-egg breakfast tomorrow,” Penn crooned. “But I’m glad. You both needed some help getting your weight back up…after.”
There was a slightly awkward pause. Will had lost weight due to exertion and, later, worry. But I’d flat refused to eat for nearly a week on top of being physically ruined, and there were days I still found it hard to choke down meals around my pain. In one way, I was really grateful to have Dad back in my life. He’d been through some pretty hellish things, and he’d been able to sneak calories into my diet without me really noticing, always picking the exact right moment when I’d been most likely to eat. I honestly thought that might’ve been the biggest reason Mom let him move back in—because he was better at dealing with me than just about anyone.
“What time do you want to go?” Ella asked.
“Eleven? It should be clear by then,” I said.
Will yawned. “Sounds good. Think I’ll take a nap.”
“What about you?” I asked Ella. “You want to hang around here, or go somewhere?”
She was staring at the trees. “I want to go for a walk. And I think you need one, too.”
* * *
The trail had overgrown some since Will and I tore through here on his four-wheeler. The skull that had been staked on one of the trees near the trailhead was gone now, too. Last fall, the park rangers had been forced to close off part of the park because tourists and thrill seekers had wanted to see the famous “Archer/Cruessan” trail. I was glad they closed it. These woods had seen too much—they needed time to heal just as much as I did.
“You’re limp is almost unnoticeable now,” Ella said behind me.
“You’re just saying that to cover up the fact that you’re looking at my butt.”
She giggled. “I have to admit, the view is pretty good.”
We hiked for a few miles before breaking into a circular clearing that had once been home to a very wily She-Bear. Grass covered the ground and evening sunlight turned the leaves overhead golden. “It looks different,” I said. “It all seemed so scary four years ago.”
She wrapped her arms around my waist and pressed her cheek against my shoulder. “You’ve come a long way since then.”
I turn inside the circle of her arms and pull her close. “Unfortunately. I hardly remember that Matt at all.”
“And that’s okay,” Ella said, sounding very overprotective. “Because I loved you then, and I love you more now.”
I kissed her nice and slow, letting my tension drain away a bit. “This is a good way to exorcise some demons.”
“I thought it might be.” She pulled me down into the grass. “Mamie was right. A little light goes a long way.”
I rolled onto my side and ran my fingers through her hair. “Mamie was right about a lot of things.”
Later, as full dusk fell, we hiked across Will’s backyard. He and Penn were waiting for us. “We’ve got flashlights and I filched a bottle of champagne from the wine cellar,” he said. “I thought we might want to have a toast.”
I just nodded, too choked up to answer. Ella took my hand and we went to Will’s BMW to make the long drive to the one place I both loved and hated with all my soul.
The monument was set up in the town gardens near city hall. The sculptor had done a beautiful job with it, carving a shooting star out of rosewood granite. The lights at the base made the glittering veins of ore dance and shine, and all around us, white roses bloomed. The air was filled with the scent that my sister had loved her whole life.
On the plaque, it read simply: To those we owe our lives. Godspeed, Brent and Mamie Archer.
Their birthdates were listed, each one cut short before they were old enough to drink. Which is why I thought Will brought the champagne in the first place.
At the base of the monument, gifts continued to pile up: teddy bears, toy footballs, crosses, Stars of David, candles…all of it given to my brother and sister from people they never knew. People who still didn’t have the full story on how they died, and never would. The funny thing—they might not know what happened, but people seemed to realize that there had been a sacrifice, and that they should respect it.
We’d agreed to the monument because we didn’t want anyone searching for their graves to turn them into shrine—which is mostly why they didn’t have a gravesite at all. Mom and I had decided to have them cremated, and after I was out of the hospital and mobile enough, we’d travelled into the mountains with Dad and scattered their ashes to the sky.
Now, as I stared at the memorial under the light of a thousand stars, I was glad we’d let them go that way.
A pop shattered the quiet. “Sorry,” Will muttered. Champagne dripped out of the bottle and down his hand to dampen the walkway.
Penn took the bottle from him. “It’s okay. We know you’re the bull in the china closet.” She smiled up at him. “Which is good, because I like breaking dishes.”
“It’s true,” Ella told me. “She actually talked me into smashing plates in her backyard while you two were deployed the last time. It really helps get rid of frustration. So we went to Target and bought some more.”
The thought of the two of them throwing ceramic plates at Penn’s back fence was suddenly hilarious and I started chuckling, then full on laughing. Pretty soon, all of us were, not even trying to be quiet. I doubled over, howling, because my sibs deserved to hear us laugh.
“Okay, okay, we need to be serious a minute,” Penn announced, handing out red plastic cups of champagne—classy. “What should we toast to?”
Will jerked his head toward the monument. “Butthead and Angel over there.”
I almost started laughing again, because those were perfect nicknames. “We need to toast you three, too. You graduated.”
“I know what to toast,” Ella said. She held up her glass and we did the same. “To friends both here and there. To loved ones near and far. And to the ones we miss the most.”
A moment passed, then Penn shot back her entire cup of champagne in one swallow. “To those we miss.” Then she burped. “Damn it. I was trying to be dignified.”
That set us off laughing again. While the girls picked a few roses—against city regulations, but who cared—to lay at the foot of the monument, I stared up at the stars. Will came to stand next to me.
“I feel like I hear her,” he said softly. “At night, when the stars are out. It’s like she’s singing to me.”
“Tink?” I asked, surprised, because she rarely separated her voice from the others anymore. “You hear Tink?”
“No.” He smiled. “I can hear Mamie.”
The breath caught in my chest, especially when a tiny whisper of five blended voices said deep in my mind, We can all hear her, William. We all can.