Sunlight made him blink. The warmth flowed through every cell, thawing him. He was the first crocus of spring, awoken from winter’s slumber by the persistence of the glowing orb in the sky.
He sucked in the air. It tasted fresh, pure, clean. For someone who’d been buried alive for months, it energized him as much as the sunshine.
Although the brightness hurt, he wouldn’t shut his eyes. Couldn’t. He needed to soak in every sight, imprint it on his memory, because winter would come again. Too soon. The memories would keep him alive while other prisoners died.
A gurgle of laughter tickled his ears. He swirled toward the sound, aware his limbs were unweighted by shackles. On a nearby rise of billowing grasses, a copse of evergreen trees, most not as tall as him, shook.
In the still air, the movement gave away the presence of something else. Something alive. On such a bright day, there could be no menace.
The melodic trill came again, slightly muffled. A glimpse of something sparkling made him wonder if a creek frolicked among the trees.
His bare feet sank into the tender earth. Verdant blades flicked across the soles. Had he ever paid attention to the wonder of cool earth and friendly brush of grass before? He couldn’t recall. But he soaked up each sensation, a sponge, saving it for later.
When he came within reach of the first bristling fir tree, one that came only to the center of his chest, another trill sang out before hissing into sudden silence. A branch on the next tree jerked, waved and returned to stillness.
He knew what this was. Although it had been months—or perhaps years?—since he’d been on this stretch of ground, each detail imprinted on his heart, soul, and mind.
Needles crunched beneath his feet. He sidled between the trees, ducking so his height didn’t reveal his presence too soon.
Behind the tree, a girl crouched. Her lavender tank top made the blue of her eyes sparkle. Pink, white and purple flowers dotted the coordinating shorts which hardly covered her tanned thighs and the grimy knees that made her seem more part of the earth than his flesh.
“Daddy!” Her pout devolved into a giggle as he pulled her into his arms, swinging her so her sandals brushed against the nearest limbs.
His mind registered the words but couldn’t identify the speaker. The rumbling, playful tone hadn’t been stored with the same intensity. He hadn’t thought it was something he’d forget. But in the silence of a grave, hearing stopped as surely as sight.
“Not yet.” The girl said. “You have to find Dev first.”
“And you’re making as much noise as possible to distract me.”
He tickled her sides. The soft cotton soothed the calloused skin of his fingertips. Her burst of laugher touched soul-deep.
She buried her face against his shoulder. The warm moisture of her breath on his arm stilled him. It felt like trust. His heart swelled.
He traipsed through the trees, stooping to look beneath them. Her light brown hair brushed over his hand at her back before trailing on the ground. Each dip brought fresh bursts of healing laughter.
A branch snapped to his right.
“I think I’ve spotted my prey,” he whispered before burying his lips against her smooth neck.
She squirmed, chuckling in cadence with the raspberry he blew into the soft spot where her neck joined her shoulders.
“Dev!” Her warning gurgled to a stop as he tossed her up and she squealed.
A loud grinding grated against his ears. He knew the sound didn’t belong in this happy place.
He tried to rush ahead, eager to see his son pressed on his belly beneath the tallest of the trees. His heart yearned to see that smile twinkling in eyes as brown as those of the woman he loved.
The world quaked.
The solid feel of his daughter faded. Fresh fir scents soured with a gust of sweat and sewage. Warmth called to him, invited him into an embrace of endless peace.
A jerk on his left arm yanked him out of the sunlight. He fell, but only for a moment. Hard, dry dirt cushioned him.
His eyes opened to darkness. A line of illumination cast from beyond an open door banished the last vestiges of the bright, sunny world of his dreams.
“Up!” The snarl accompanied a jab from a black boot directly in his ribs.
He curled his fingers, remembering the gentle caress of pale lilac fabric, and pushed himself up. Pain lanced through his hip and up his spine.
His teeth chomped the cry of agony. If he let his emotion out, the well stored deeply inside could diminish. His memories of the life before would fade. He knew it because he’d seen it in the blank stares of fellow prisoners.
Hope could die. When it did, it stranded a person in eternal winter. A bulb that would never feel the sun’s strength so it could grow toward the light. Spring might only exist within his mind, but as long as he could visit the place of love, he could hold onto his sanity.
His bare feet shuffled over the packed dirt. At the door, the leg irons clamped around his ankles. But he recalled the weightless sensation of walking without them on that day long ago when he played a game with his children.
Laughing Meg and sneaky Dev.
He would survive another day. Chains dragging against stone taunted, “I will make you forget. This is the sound of reality.”
He shuffled behind the hunched form in gray coveralls. The red hair on the man’s head identified him as the co-pilot of the chopper that had crashed to strand them behind enemy lines. Newman. He was the only one of the prisoners of war who knew the secret.
There were a dozen others. Some from countries allied with his home. All had been here longer than he and Newman and the corporal who’d been at the gun when they’d tried to evacuate the paratroopers.
He blanked out those thoughts and ignored the stench of unwashed bodies. A cup containing his morning ration slapped against his palm. Metallic water sluiced down a throat that hadn’t uttered a word in days or weeks. Probably months. Except in the dream.
He imagined the steady thunk of the pickax he swung against sandstone was the pounding of running feet, his son dashing away, refusing to be caught.
Imagination kept him sane. Dreams restored his hope each night.
In the dank mine, darkness prevailed.
But the sun ruled supreme. Someone would unearth this grave and revive these prisoners.
Spring always defeated winter.
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