It was a warm, humid day, but a slight breeze blew through the grass on the cliff and white, puffy clouds rolled through the sky. A slender boy with blonde hair made his way to where a raven-haired girl was sitting in the grass.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey Orca." He sat beside her on the cliff and stared at the sky, his bangs fluttering in the wind.
"Something on your mind, Aaron?"
She turned to look at his lightly freckled face. "You're lying."
"Yeah." He pulled a piece of paper out of the pocket of his tattered pants and handed it to her.
She read it and sat there thoughtfully for a moment. "The draft." They were both silent after she said that.
"I've dedicated my whole life to keeping our farm," he finally said. "My whole life. If I'm drafted, my mother will lose everything she owns."
"No she won't. She's strong." Orca placed a hand on her friend's shoulder.
"Not that strong." Orca had no reply. More silence.
"My family's leaving the island," Orca told him. "To avoid the draft."
Aaron stood up quickly, his loose white shirt whipping in the breeze. "You can't leave Serenity Island! How will we ever see each other again?"
Orca avoided his eyes, focusing instead on ripping up blades of grass and braiding them together. "Serenity Island is no longer serene. My father is too old to fight. We cannot let him be drafted. Besides, we will come back when the war is over. It cannot last forever."
"It's already lasted fifteen years." He hesitated, then continued, "Do you ever think there's a connection between me and the war?"
"What are you talking about? That's crazy."
"Fifteen years since the war started, fifteen since I was born, fifteen since my brother and father disappeared."
"It's not like it all happened on the same day. It's all just coincidence."
In a back room of Orca's house, a girl with short blonde hair stripped off her shirt and winced as she removed the tight binding around her chest, then sighed with relief. It was torture having to wear that thing all the time, and her throat was sore from always disguising her voice.
She put on a nightgown and returned to the bedroom. "It's my turn to get the top bunk," she reminded Orca, climbing up the ladder.
"Alright, if you say so," Orca teased.
The blonde girl watched Orca brush her long black hair in front of a mirror on the wall. She wished for a moment that she could grow her hair out as well, but then she remembered what her mother always told her. Wishes are pointless. Hard work is not. That had been the motto since day one of this masquerade, when her mother first gave her the alias Aaron and dressed her as a boy. There had to be a male heir to keep the farm, after all.
Orca climbed up the ladder to join Erin on the top bunk, interrupting her daydreaming. "I'm still allowed to hang out up here with you, right, Erin? Seeing as it is my bed?"
Erin smiled. "Of course." Sleepovers with Orca were the only thing that kept her sane amongst her life of constant work, hiding her identity and dodging the draft. The last of which had apparently not worked. And now Orca was moving back to her home island, Pacifica. Her family had moved to Serenity when she was only six, and she and Erin had been best friends ever since.
"So… the draft," Orca began. Neither had wanted to bring it up, but they had to some time or another.
Erin felt as though the letter was burning in her pocket, making her suddenly feel hot and dizzy. She tried to ignore it. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said. "If I stay, I get in trouble for not following the draft. If I go, my mother will have no one to work the farm, and I'll have to fight in the army."
"Then stay and avoid trouble for as long as you can."
"It's not that easy. The government takes draft dodging very seriously."
"But at least you have a shot. If you go…" She stopped.
…you wouldn't last one day, Erin finished in her head. She wanted to take offense, but she knew it was true. All she said was, "I know."
Orca changed the subject, and they talked for the rest of the evening until Erin finally said, "Tomorrow's errand day. I better get some sleep."
"Okay. Good night."
"G'night." But sleep did not come easily. Her thoughts were filled with losing her home, her best friend and her life.
The next morning, Erin returned home from Orca's, sneaking into the small cottage as quietly as possible. She had to get her errand basket to take to the market, but she didn't want to attract her mother's attention. As she crept across the room, the wooden floor creaked under her boot and she flinched.
A shrill voice came from the kitchen. "Aaron, is that you?" A moment later, Erin's mother was standing in the doorway, a thin woman with gray-streaked hair in a disheveled bun. "What are you doing here when you should be at the market? It's a shame to the family when an old woman like me has to do all the work when she has a perfectly able son."
"I know; I only came to get my errand basket." It was hard to be patient, but she reminded herself that her mother had not been in her right mind for a long time now. She had been losing her sanity ever since Erin's father and older brother had disappeared when she was just a baby.
"Alright, but please hurry. You have to get back to the farm and do your other chores as soon as possible. I'm feeling sickly again today, so I can't do all the work on my own."
"Get some rest and I'll be home as soon as possible." Erin gritted her teeth. Her mother was old and sick, but not that old and sick. And she definitely didn't do all the work on her own; Erin wasn't sure she'd worked a day in her life.
Erin picked up her errand basket, then went to town in search of fish in the village market. She stopped at one kiosk with a wooden, fish-shaped sign and was examining the catch of the day when a group of five guys her age walked up.
One with scruffy red hair walked over to stand right next to her. "Well, if it isn't Aaron. Where's your girlfriend, Aaron?"
Erin blushed. "Orca's not my girlfriend."
"Yeah, Chip," another of the boys joked to the red-headed one. "There's no way Aaron could get a girlfriend. He looks too much like a girl himself!"
Erin rolled her eyes. Real original, guys. If only you could see the irony in your insults. This is what she had to put up with on a daily basis. She paid for the fish she'd selected and began to make her way home, ignoring more jokes from Chip and his gang.
A short, scrawny boy with shaggy black hair ran over to Erin. "Aaron, aren't you going to fight back? Didn't you hear what they said about you?"
"I didn't fight them because I was outnumbered, Crispin." It was only a half-truth. But how was she supposed to explain to Crispin that she didn't take offense to them saying she looked like a girl because she was one? Only her own mother, Orca, and Orca's parents knew that secret.
"If you say so," Crispin said. "I still think you should stick up for yourself more. Hey, me and a couple of guys are going swimming. You wanna come?"
"Sorry, I can't. My mother will have a fit." And so will everyone else when they see me for what I am. "Maybe another day."
"Aw, that's what you always say!" Crispin whined. "Well, I guess I'll see you later. Don't let those bullies pick on you anymore, alright?"
"Alright," Erin said, watching as Crispin ran off in the direction of the swimming hole. She wished she could join them, but what would everyone say when she had to wear a shirt in the water? She didn't even know how to swim because she'd never tried before.
She thought about her friend Crispin's words. Maybe I should put up a fight next time, Erin thought. Just to keep in character. That was what it was always like: like putting on a play. If I ever make it out of this one-horse town I should go into acting. But what's the chance that'll happen?
Erin was about to follow her usual path from the market to her home, but then she stopped. It's a nice day. Might as well take the long way and enjoy it a little. She found her feet leading her down a little path that winded through the countryside and led alongside the edge of the forest, then veered off the dusty road and began to walk through the tall green-yellow grass of a vast field. There was a farm in the distance, bigger than her own farm, where a very tall boy with brown hair was repairing a fence. He turned and Erin ducked to hide in the grass just in time. She watched as he finished the repairs, then left and entered the small white farmhouse.
His name was Paul. He was sixteen and if Erin went to school like some of the village kids, they would be in the same level. He was polite and good with building and repairing, and this wasn't the first time Erin had ever watched him from a distance like this. This was one of the few things Orca did not know about Erin, and Erin had never spoken to Paul. These were the facts, and Erin often rolled them around in her head. Except for the last one. She tried to avoid that fact.
She wondered again how her life might be different if her father and brother had not disappeared that day they'd gone to search for a lost pig in the woods all those years ago. But then she reminded herself: Wishes are pointless. She stood up and made her way home.
Back at the farm, Erin fed the pigs she raised there and tended to the crops. She sighed, glancing at the red and gold leaves that now hung on the trees. It was almost harvest time, they reminded her. When she was younger, Erin's mother had helped her with the harvest, along with a few hired workers. Now the money was running too low to hire help and Erin's mother no longer helped her daughter, claiming she was old enough to do it on her own.
It was backbreaking labor, and most years she didn't even get half the crops harvested before they went bad or frost covered them. Only Orca and Crispin helped her each year, and only when they could find time between their own chores.
Erin wiped the sweat from her forehead as she weeded the garden. There wasn't much transition between the weather on Serenity Isle. One day it would be hot like today and the next it would be Harvest season: cold and frosty. She splashed some water from a nearby barrel onto her face, then sat in the shade for a moment. It was times like these that made her want to give into the draft and get away from the farm for a couple of years.
Maybe it wouldn't be that bad. She could find some way to keep from being a fighter on the front lines. Maybe have an "accident" that would prevent her from having to join the army at all. But both of those would leave her mother to work the farm on her own, or hire some help. Erin thought about it a moment, but the more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea. It's not like her mother was disabled; she could do the farm work herself for a little while at least. Heck, they could pull out a little bit of their savings and hire some workers like they used to. It'd be an investment in the end because they could bring in more crops in time. Erin smiled. Now she had a plan.
Now to acquire an accident. Like she'd said before, the government was serious about the draft. She couldn't just fake an injury. She'd have to find a way to break a limb or something without managing to kill herself.
She stood and went to a cliff not far from the farm, overlooking the sea. It wasn't too high up. There were a few rocks at the bottom, but if she landed just right she would be okay. Was she desperate enough, though? She looked down and began to feel a bit woozy. She wasn't a big fan of heights, but breaking a leg was better than being killed at war. She closed her eyes and tried to make herself jump, but her legs wouldn't move.
A hand was on her shoulder. She opened her eyes and turned to see a man in the blue uniform and cap of Serenity Island's army.
"Draft dodging?" he asked.
Erin forced herself to stay calm. "No. What makes you think that?"
He held up her notification of the draft, which must have fallen out of her pocket. "I've seen it a lot," he said. "Young boys and men try to come up with an injury so they don't have to fight. I can't prove that's what you were trying to do, so I'll let you off with a warning. But I promise you, other officials are not as lenient, so I wouldn't try it again if I were you. What's your name, young man?"
She almost told him "Aaron" but then caught herself and decided to give him a fake name. Well, a different fake name anyway. "John Dory," she blurted out. Maybe he won't realize that's the name of a kind of fish.
"John Dory…" he said, writing it on a pad of paper, which he then stuffed back under his cap. "I'll be keeping an eye out for you. If you don't show up for your troop's departure I'll have them come looking for you, I give you my word." He handed her the draft paper, then turned and left.
Great. Now what?
She returned to the farm, sure she'd have to join the army, and they'd find out she was a girl, and they'd take the farm. What a stupid law in the first place. The more she thought about the whole situation, the less answers she had. She worked on the farm until the sun went down, then crawled into bed.