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Tollense

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Part 1: 1993-2003

1

1993

Professor Liam Beyer was born a decade after the deaths of the last soldiers to fight in the US Civil War. Thus, he was not expecting to meet a Union Army veteran in his 4 o’clock symposium on the Battle of Antietam. 

Liam noticed the man as soon as he walked in, and not just because it was odd for a member of the public to show up for a faculty lecture at the university. No, the man caught Liam’s attention because he was distractingly handsome. Literally, Liam was distracted enough to drop his pen onto the overhead projector, causing a giant shadow to loom over the map of Maryland on the screen behind him, as if a third army had materialized there in a dense offensive line. 

The man was of average height, with a slender build. He had dark hair in a short, modern cut and wore a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt with a faded label. He looked like he might be thirty, which was about the age Liam was, and so Liam did not immediately assume that the man had seen action in the Civil War. But there was something faintly strange about him, just in the way that he walked, light on his feet like a dancer, but stepping firmly, without a dancer’s well-practiced grace.

“General Lee,” Liam continued, in a slightly strangled voice, “of the Confederate Army, was, of course, outnumbered, but the battle was Union General McClellan’s to lose. Had he understood how superior his force was, had he taken more risks, he might have been able to deal a decisive blow to Lee’s army as it retreated. In fact, McClellan’s performance at Antietam was part of the reason that President Lincoln later removed him from duty.” 

Liam put up a transparency of a white church with peeling paint, standing alone on a grassy rise. “On September 17, 1862, 7,650 soldiers died at Antietam, making it the bloodiest day for Americans in history. Two days later, a man named Alexander Gardner took some of the first widely-seen battlefield photographs of dead soldiers. Some were awaiting burial, and some were still lying where they fell. It was very difficult at the time to take photographs of battles themselves, as the technology involved careful treatment of glass negatives, and that was nearly impossible under battlefield conditions. But the dead do not move, and these photographs were so clear that when displayed in New York, family members recognized their fallen sons.”

Liam put up a transparency of one of Gardner’s photographs, young men lying on the ground in an oddly perfect line. The unknown man looked away.

oOo

Liam had grading to do after his symposium, but he walked to the campus union to grab a sandwich first. He was definitely not expecting Handsome Unknown Lecture Man to appear out of the crowd and drop into the seat opposite him. Liam was very proud that he did not choke on his bite of ham and swiss.

“I hope you don’t mind,” said the man. “I enjoyed your lecture. My name is Kurt.”

Liam put his hand out to shake. Kurt’s touch was faintly cold. “Liam,” he said.

Kurt cocked his head slightly to the side, as if assessing him. “I know. Liam Beyer, 27, assistant professor of history, specializing in battles. Is Antietam your favorite?”

“Um— one of them. I did my dissertation on it. On McClellan, specifically.” Liam felt slightly odd about the fact that this stranger knew who he was, but of course, it was all publicly accessible information. “Are you a Civil War buff?”

“Somewhat.” Kurt leaned back in his chair. “Antietam, god. I remember Bloody Lane— that’s what they called it after. The road was sunken in because so many wagons had gone by over the years. It was like trying to fight your way out of your own grave trench.” Kurt spoke with a faint accent that Liam could not place, something that seemed to shift from one place to another.

“You talk like you were there,” Liam said, smiling. “Are you a reenactor?” 

Kurt gave a sharp laugh. “No. You?”

“I’ve been a technical advisor. It’s nice to meet other people who share my strange obsession.”

“Those pictures you showed,” Kurt said. “Photography is such a bewitching art. Those boys are long gone, but remain ever present in death.”

“You know, the war helped make Spiritualism popular,” Liam said. “It was so hard on the families back home to lose contact with their soldiers, not knowing what happened to them, or when, or where. They couldn’t bear it, and turned to mediums.” 

Kurt smiled, and it made his bright green eyes sparkle with amusement. “Have you ever been to a seance?” he asked. Liam shook his head. “Most I’ve been to were quite boring,” Kurt said. “But every once in awhile—”

“That sounds like a good story.”

“I’ll tell you sometime.” Liam’s brain was already far too occupied with how attractive he found this poor man, and that was probably why the sentence sounded more like a salacious promise than it really was.  

“So what do you do?” Liam asked faintly, crumpling his empty sandwich wrapper. “Are you a student?”

“Not at the moment. Just a fan of history. Of battles, actually.” Kurt leaned forward a little. “Liam, would you mind if I came to your office tomorrow to talk more? I have some questions and I think you might be the one to help me answer them.”

“I— of course.” Liam told himself that he agreed solely because he liked to talk about history with people, and that it didn’t matter whether or not said people were ridiculously attractive.

Kurt smiled at him again. “Until tomorrow then.”

On his way out of the dining hall, Liam was stopped by a student with a question about an assignment on Gettysburg. “I didn’t want to interrupt your dinner,” she said.

“Oh, it would have been fine,” Liam told her. “We were talking about the Civil War ourselves.”

The student gave him a confused look. “Dr. Beyer— weren’t you eating alone?”

oOo

In the end, Liam decided that as he’d never dreamed up a handsome man in quite so much detail before, that the student had been mistaken and simply had not noticed Kurt’s presence at Liam’s table.

And yet. There really was something very strange about the man. Liam couldn’t quite pin it down, just that there was a disconnect between what Liam was seeing and what he was feeling about him. For example, Kurt appeared to be thirty, but Liam would swear he was older. Kurt had looked perfectly natural at dinner, but it had also seemed like he didn’t quite fit in with his surroundings. Like if you’d taken a photograph of him at the table, he would have been slightly too bright, out of focus, or without a shadow. 

Kurt’s knock on Liam’s office door finally came around eleven, and Liam was, he realized, far too happy to see him again. At first, nothing about the visit seemed terribly odd. They discussed Antietam again, then traveled forward to the Somme, and then much farther back, Megiddo and Kadesh. Kurt seemed to know less about those battles, Liam noted, but he was quite familiar with things taking place after Thermopylae in the 5th century BC.

It was easy to talk to Kurt, especially about interests they had in common, and as the conversation went on, Kurt seemed to relax a bit, which made Liam do the same. The day before, Liam had thought Kurt moved without grace, but that wasn’t exactly right. Kurt had a different kind of grace, a fluidity of small movements instead of large ones, an artistry shown in the fluttering of fingers while the rest of the man kept entirely still. The emphasis on such small motions seemed to draw Liam in, narrowing his focus away from his surroundings and onto his visitor. But at the same time, Kurt had such an air of other about him, that it was almost like Liam was looking at him through beveled glass, never quite getting the whole image at once.

However, Liam’s sense of ease around Kurt vanished entirely when another student knocked on Liam’s door with a question about an assignment. That in itself was perfectly normal, but during the whole time that the student was in Liam’s office, she didn’t speak to Kurt or apologize for interrupting their conversation. She didn’t give a single look to the chair that Kurt occupied beside Liam’s desk.

When the student had left, Liam leaned back in his chair, trying to fake the calmness that he no longer felt. “All right,” he said, watching his visitor carefully. “You want to tell me why I’m the only person who can see you?”