St. Michael’s Maryland, 1968

The old barn stood on a far corner of Jack Willoby’s tobacco farm. The red paint covering its exterior peeled under the hot summer sun. Jack hadn’t had any time to repaint.

“Structure’s still sound I’d reckon,” said Marvin, Jack’s nearest neighbor. “It’s too far from the house to use as an equipment shed though.”

Jack nodded, crushing out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and putting the butt in his pocket. He joined the other man inside the cool barn.

Jack’s father had converted the old tobacco barn for their small herd of cattle. Jack sold off the cattle when his father died but had kept the barn. No reason to tear down a perfectly useful building he’d figured. Looking up into the hay loft he could see chaff from the hay floating in a stream of sunlight. A pair of mourning doves nested in one of the eaves. Jack could hear their coos as they were startled by Marvin’s chatter. “Have you talked to the insurance company yet?”

Jack’s gaze traveled along the beam nearest the doves’ nest to the scorch marks left by the lightening strike last week. The marks striped the wood, leaving part of the oak beam looking healthy and part of it looking fragile. Jack knew that if he dug deep enough into the wood he’d find a healthy plank under the char.

“Not yet. Appraiser’s coming day after tomorrow.”

Marvin stuck his hands deep into his overall pockets and hawked some chewing tobacco into a nearby junk bucket. A late afternoon wind from the Patuxent River blew through the barn carrying with it the smell of salt, warm sand, and decaying fish.

“How’s Bettie doin’,” Marvin asked as he dipped into his pouch for a new bit of chaw.

Jack watched a dove fly out of the nest. It stayed suspended on a warm current of air before it flapped its wings and rushed down the aisle into the sunlight. Marvin rolled his pouch back up and shoved it into the back pocket of his overalls.

“Her folks are coming in tonight,” Jack replied, “She’s worried about how the house looks.”

“Lucy says that lightening strike coming the night before you got the telegram was a sign,” Marvin said, rocking back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet.

The wandering dove flew back into the barn. The whistling of its wings was clearly audible as it flew through to the nest. Jack watched as the bird landed on the charred beam.

“Do you think I could maybe take a look at the telegram,” Marvin asked, running his hand over his nose, “You know, just so I’ll know. In case…”

Jack felt for the slip of paper in his breast pocket as Marvin trailed off. He held it out to him between two fingers. Jack didn’t need to see it again. The words were seared into his mind. Marvin gingerly unfolded the telegram, his gnarled hands dark against the bright yellow paper.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Willoby. The President of the United States regrets to inform

Marvin’s lips moved as he silently read the remainder of the message. Something small and white fell from the rafters. Jack crossed the barn and scooped up the object. The small shell felt fragile in his hand. Overhead, he heard the sound of a newborn dove.

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