Joszik dug his gnarled hands into the dirt, savoring its cool dampness as he watched clumps of moist soil crumble and spill between his fingers. Part of him wanted to crawl beneath the surface entirely, submerge himself in the refuge from midday’s heat, and not only to keep cool and shaded. Alas, he had work to do, and dwindling time in which to do it. His guest would be here soon. He mopped beads of sweat from his forehead and continued digging, letting the sensation of the earth excavate ancient memories from his fallow mind. Memories of his youth, of Merriel, of building their first home together, of planting seedlings in their first garden. He paused again, smiling despite himself at the joy they’d shared upon seeing those shoots poking from the soil bed. Their first “children,” before they’d filled their home with the laughter and bliss of a true family.
The heat eased without warning. Joszik paused in his digging and returned his attention to the world around him. A shadow had fallen over him. Damn his daydreaming and his brooding and his aging ears. The shadow had the shape of a man.
“Hello, Joszik,” a voice said, no joy in the salutation.
Joszik’s aching shoulders slumped. He kept his grip on his trowel, though the visitor’s arrival offered a break from work—the sole silver lining of the interruption. He lifted his gaze to the bay beyond the cliff at the edge of his property, and longed to be one of the terns soaring over the water. “Afternoon,” he replied, keeping his tone stiff, wooden.
The visitor hesitated, likely flustered that Joszik hadn’t addressed him with his title or even his name, hadn’t yet made an effort to stand or turn and exchange greetings. Good. “How… how do you fare?”
“Don’t bother yourself with pleasantries, Tob,” Joszik said. “We both know why you’re here. Same as all the other times you’ve come this week. Just get on with it so I can get to saying ‘no’ and you can stop wasting your time and mine.”
He heard Tob—Tobias—sigh. “The ministers are getting impatient,” Tobias blurted. “I’ve done all I can to give you more time, but they’ve made it clear they won’t continue to send me after today. Tomorrow you’ll have armed guards on your property.”
Joszik finally placed a hand on his knee and heaved himself to his feet. “This isn’t about more time. And I don’t care who else comes here. Could be the governor himself. My answer is and always will be ‘no.’”
He turned and faced Tobias. The younger man’s receding hairline framed a brow etched with worry and something darker. The time for false smiles and placating words had passed after the deputy governor’s last visit. “Joszik, this is a matter of public health for the entire colony. Merriel needs to come to the hospital.”
“I’m not hearing any more about this,” he said, wiping soil off his free hand onto his work pants. “She lives here. She belongs here. All your other tests never helped her any. No point continuing. She’s not going anywhere.”
“The hospital admitted another case this morning—ˮ
“So run your tests on that one.”
Joszik could tell from the set of Tobias’ jaw that the normally kindly man’s patience was wearing thin. “You know we can’t do that. And time is running out for all of us. More people fall ill every day. The colony won’t be able to maintain itself at this rate. The doctors are close to figuring this disease out, but they still need more samples, and the window of Merriel’s usefulness is closing—ˮ
Tobias winced at his own poor choice of words and took a step back. Joszik’s frayed temper snapped, his fingers clenching the trowel’s grip so hard that something in his hand popped. He ignored the stab of pain up his arm as he stalked forward. “Her usefulness?” he shouted, raising the tool above his head. “How dare you! She’s not some specimen for your doctors to poke and prod and cut up at their whim! She’s a person! She’s my wife! You can’t have her!”
Tobias stumbled backward in retreat from the trowel quivering before him, colliding with a tree. “Joszik!” he cried, his hands flailing at the blade inches from his face. “Peace! I misspoke!”
Joszik loomed over the younger man, his entire body quaking with rage. “Get off my land,” he snarled, then lowered the trowel, turned away, and trudged back to his worksite.
He listened to Tobias’ heavy breaths of relief as the deputy governor straightened his robes and collected himself. Joszik didn’t care. He returned to dreams of gliding over the bay in the distance, now with tears streaming down his weathered cheeks. The confrontation had ruptured the dike holding back all the grief he’d suppressed over the past days, weeks, years. He had no strength left for stoicism, and no empathy for a short-sighted toady come to snatch away his last thread of happiness. The doctors took all his grown children as they’d fallen ill, one after another, for the damned tests. They would not have Merriel.
“I’m truly sorry it’s come to this,” Tobias said, still panting beneath the formality in his voice. “We’d hoped you would see reason and not force the governor’s hand. But he won’t accept ‘no’ from you. This matter was never up for debate.”
Joszik closed his eyes, waiting for further admonishment, but nothing came save for the rustle of robes. When he glanced over his shoulder at Tobias, the deputy governor held a small communication device in one hand, punching in an access code with the fingers of the other. Calling in the governor’s guards to do the deed, no doubt. Joszik looked down at the trowel hanging in his grip, then wiped his cheeks dry and started back toward Tobias. As the younger man began to lift the device to his ear, he met Joszik’s grim, resolute gaze. His eyes widened with horror at the flash of metal driving toward his neck.
Nighttime insects began their nocturnal chorus as twilight descended on Joszik. He stood with great effort from his labor, kneading his aching lower back while appraising his work. The soil in the newly filled hole would settle in the coming days, but he doubted he would be the one to add fresh dirt to even out the ground. With luck, though, he would have this last night to himself, whatever tomorrow might bring. “I told you, Tob,” he said, though he stood alone in the dusky glow, “Merriel lives here. And now you do, too.”
No one answered him. He made his way on shaking legs and arthritic knees to the other hole, the one he’d finished filling the day before, where he had a clear view of the bay sparkling with starlight. He read the words he’d chiseled into the small square stone at one end of the bare soil, smiled wanly, and breathed a sigh into the cooling night air. Then, carefully lowering himself to the ground, he stretched his tired body out next to the disturbed soil, rested his head in the grass, and gazed up into the night sky, like he and Merriel would do in their younger days. Recalling its long-forgotten habit, his hand rested on the dirt next to him, fingers gently digging into the soil as if to hold that beloved hand one last time.