By Jael Haney
I leaned against the rough wooden storefront of my family’s cigar shop. After two weeks of Nico stuck soldiering, desperation to spend a day with him absorbed my mind. The last time I saw him, he proposed and asked me to leave Italy when the war ended. After giving a strong “Yes” to the first of those questions, I spent every spare moment debating the second with myself. Though not entirely sure I wanted to leave home, I knew I would if Nico really wanted to.
As I turned to check my appearance in the dirty window of the shop, I watched the reflections of passersby in their tailored suits and wide brimmed hats move together, some stepping briskly and others leaning on the arms of suitors. Sadly, the war raised the cost of fabrics, so the bright summer colors were replaced by utilitarian browns and Prussian blues with the occasional autumn red of a rich woman. A quick moving man crossed the street while I brushed a few flyaway strands of my bobbed hair back into place. Grinning, I whirled around just as the man pulled me into an embrace.
“Ciao, Nico.” I said, my eyes crinkling as Nico kissed my cheek. “It’s about time. I’m just wasting away in this heat, all so you can get your leisure time in.”
Nico gave me a serious look, “Josephine, I can’t stay long. I wasn’t given leave.”
“Oh.” A slight fear began to nag in my mind. “You could have just sent a note to my family’s shop, I would have understood. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“I wanted to be with you today.” Giving me his cockiest grin, Nico’s hand tangled with mine. “Besides, I’ll be back before they know it.”
Nico stepped out onto the cobbled street and I took the cue to fall into step beside him; copying the other young lovers I spied on earlier, I rested my cheek on his shoulder. The olive green of his uniform jacket actually smelled of olives. I laughed silently, he must be helping the army cook again, hiding some snacks in his pockets when his shift ended.
Looking up at him, I watched the sunlight bounce off of his sleek black hair, wanting to tousle it to release the curls. The shadows created by the buildings as we passed the open-air shops danced over his cheekbones, taunting me. On his way back into the shade of his cool shop, the town butcher, my father’s closest friend, called out to us and waved, winking at me. The men sitting in the tavern, eating their lunch, also greeted us with friendly “Ciao!”s.
Every time Nico came into town to see me, people would wink and tap the sides of their noses. The whole town looked after us because of the way our courtship began. Nico would stand outside the cigar shop while I worked, playing his guitar and singing, sometimes getting others to join in, until I finally agreed to walk with him. After that, he came every other day and bought me cigarettes that we would smoke in the park.
Nico pulled me to a stop at the corner lamppost. The spiral curve of it dropping a shadow onto his shoulders, he spun me around to face him and, laughter bubbling, I wrapped my arms around him. Eyes gleaming, he leaned in. Our lips met and I felt the warm glow of a smile spread over my face.
The muscles of Nico’s neck tensed. I craned my neck, looking over my shoulder. Three men, carrying rifles and outfitted with the uniform and identification of the military police, were marching down the street, beelining for us. Nico took a step back.
“Dominico Scannella.” The man on the right said, “You need to come with us.”
“Nico, don’t -” I gripped his hand tighter, trying to plant him next to me.
Nico turned on a heel and bolted. The man in the middle of the trio set his rifle against his shoulder, taking aim.
My stomach plummeted. “NO!” I cried, jumping in front of the three men. The speaker of the group pushed me aside roughly as I beat my fists on any part of them I could reach. “Stop! Please! He didn’t do anything wrong!”
Everything became a daze as a thunderous crack filled my ears. Nico roared, collapsing onto the street, clutching his stomach. The uniformed man calmly lowered the gun and looked to the leader. The air thickened and splotched over. Shouting from the tables outside the restaurant rang in my ears, adding to the panic. A woman wearing the same dark skirt as I fainted and for a moment, I thought that she might be me. A man ran outside and carried the woman inside, unfreezing me. I sprinted to Nico and fell to the ground.
“Oh my God.” Rivulets of scarlet ran beneath Nico. I pressed down on the wound that spouted blood, eliciting a cry from him. I looked up and cried for help, my eyes searching the gathering crowd, begging them. The boy who worked at the fishmongers dropped the box he carried, spilling ice and herrings, and ran down the way we came.
The blood continued to pour from Nico’s torso. “Josephine…” He lifted his hand to my forearm. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come today.” He started coughing.
The butcher kneeled next to me and gently moved me aside, putting his heavier weight on the bullet hole. I looked at my hands, covered in the crimson of Nico’s life, and bile rose up into my throat. Throwing myself to the side, I vomited, the smell burning my nostrils. The emptying of my stomach only left more room for the dread to settle. My whole body shook as I clutched at my best cotton skirt, now stained, and torn.
Trying to be courageous, I looked at Nico. A few other men had gathered around, shouting their limited experience at each other, doing what they could before the town doctor arrived. Some were those we passed in the tavern; one was a man who had joined in Nico’s singing the first time he got me to walk with him. I crawled to Nico’s side, caressing his face.
A firm hand rested on my shoulder. Helplessly, I peered up and found Father’s kind face through the haze. He crouched as he slid his arms around me and lifted me from the ground, holding me like a baby. When I tried to wriggle out of his arms, he held me closer and whispered in my ear, telling me the doctor was there and there was nothing more for me to do. Someone leaned in and told him to take me inside and away from the scene, as if I couldn’t hear. Father nodded and as he turned, I buried my face in his chest.
I can’t stay here anymore, Papa.” I murmured, not just meaning the street. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I stayed in Sicily, the looks of pity and feelings of shame would never stop. “I can’t live here anymore.”
–Jael Haney’s short story is based on why her great-great-grandmother immigrated to America.