(I was thinking, the other day, about the fact that every time anyone talks about war, they inevitably mention freedom as justification, so much that it becomes meaningless. The other side of that coin, of course, is peace, and often the two are confused. Anyway, read and tell me what you think)

Amulet

There's a drop of water shivering on the inside of the window. My handprint, where I cleared the glass to look outside, has already misted over again. Every time the car moves, that drop of water slides jaggedly a little farther down the glass, like a fingernail scratch. Even pushing my feet forward into the toes of my boots doesn't crush feeling back into them, so I've given up and I'm trying to ignore them now. The heating to the back seat's been broken for three weeks.

Matt looks over the back of the driver's seat and grins apologetically. This is something I will never be used to.

"Sorry," he says, "Didn't think it was going to take this long."

It's minus thirty with the wind chill factor and the roads would be dangerous if we were moving at all, but we've been stuck in traffic for almost an hour now. It's good that the base was closed today, so Matt had the day off. Otherwise we would've had to walk home in this.

Matt glances over at Janey out of the corner of his eye. I think he's probably worried, because she's mad at him and she wouldn't even answer when he asked how her math test went. She's been acting funny since our parents told her Matt had to go away for a while. She won't talk to him; she sets her mouth in a thin determined line and looks out the window instead, where there's nothing to see but snow banks and thick white air. And of course, because he's Matt, he's worried about it, and he keeps trying to get her to laugh, or something. Janey's stubborn, though. She won't back down until she's got things figured out better, and of course our parents aren't helping much because they're almost as angry as Janey, I think, only in a different way. Only a week and a half left now.

I have to stop biting my nails. They're all bloody again, and it hurts more in this bitter cold.

The car lurches forward again, and Matt curses softly when it skids on a patch of ice, which proves he's frustrated. He almost never swears, especially in front of my little sister. Janey looks up, of course, with that sort of scandalized expression only an eight- year old can really pull off.

"Matt!" She sounds like my mother.

"Oh, look Janey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

She considers for a minute, biting her lip. Matt does the same thing when he's concentrating. Finally she nods. "That's okay," she says.

Last night at dinner there was a big scene. Well, sort of a scene. You could tell that my parents were trying to make sure it wasn't a scene, but Matt's just fed up with that by now, of course, so he was being pretty rude. Everything was pretty good for most of the evening, and I was just clearing the dishes, which used to be Matt's job, but not anymore now that he's only back on leave for a little while. Anyway, I was clearing the dishes and Janey was in the living room, working on an art project, I think, when Dad looked out the window and saw the snow. Then Matt kind of laughed, and said something about how at least it wouldn't be this cold in Iraq. My mother went really white, and then Matt realized what he'd said, and there was a really long, tense silence, which I took advantage of to get out of the room fast.

When they argue like that, from the kitchen all you can hear is the occasional vicious word or phrase, things said that sound like slamming doors in another room. My mother was talking in a low, even whisper, like a blunted knife, and she kept warning Matt to keep his voice down. He wasn't really talking very loudly, but it sounded almost like he was reciting poetry. My mother said: absolute insanity, suicidal, sacrifice, lies, not worth, why. Matt said: liberty, peace, duty. But he didn't sound so sure.

Janey is still watching Matt, with a strange look on her face, like she's about to cry. Matt doesn't see, of course, because he's watching the road. Then Janey looks out the window at the snow, biting her nails.

Last night, after my parents went upstairs, the three of us were downstairs in the kitchen for a while. Janey was still working on her art project- a drawing of a bird- and I had to do some reading for English class. At least, I was pretending to read, but mostly I was just watching Janey kicking the leg of the table, because she was only pretending to draw. I think she was watching Matt, mostly. Matt was putting away the dishes and making Janey a lunch for the next day, which my mother usually does. Janey got up and went to the fridge to get some juice, kind of sliding in her socked feet on the tile. Matt got her a glass from the cupboard, since she still can't reach, but then when he went to pour the juice for her, she wouldn't let him. She stamped her foot and grabbed the pitcher back, and said "No, I can do it myself." So then Matt tried to get her to at least pour it over the sink, but she wouldn't, and he just stood there with his arms half-out, like he was afraid she'd throw the juice across the room or something. She just wanted to show him she'd learned how to pour her own juice, since he'd been gone. In the end, she only spilled a couple of drops, and she put away the pitcher on her own too, but Matt stayed right next to her the whole time, like he was worried, or like he just didn't want to let go.

My parents, I think, would like to ask my brother why he left. He cleared out his room and packed his bags and signed some papers to say he knew what he was getting into, and that he couldn't get out. He said a lot about liberty as well, although I'd like to think he believed it then. I know it didn't sound like someone else's poetry when he said it, before. And I know it didn't answer their question. Janey, of course, only wants to know where he's leaving for next week, and why. He hasn't been able to explain that to her, yet, although he's got verses and verses of reason and rhyme to explain the same thing to my parents. Janey doesn't want to let him leave again. I'd like to ask him why he came back.

It's cold. We could be inside one of those snow globes, swirling with glitter and white dust, except that here, what's outside the glass is what gets shaken. The scarred vinyl seats and the muddy floors of this car are the insides of a spaceship; windows white, everything outside too large and too dangerous to comprehend. Doesn't matter how slowly the wheels are turning, or that its taking twice as long as it should just to get home. That isn't where my brother is driving to, anyway, really. After listening to him last night, I'm not sure he really knows. We're in space, of course. When Matt opens the door, he'll be drawn out into infinity. I don't think my parents or even Janey can hang on to him now, and I think he knows it. I hope he knows he has to let them go.

"I found an amulet today, Matt. Magic." It looks like Janey's calling a temporary truce. This isn't backing down; it's because she has something she wants to say. And also, it's because she knows, better than most people in most countries, not to get into a fight until she knows the cause and the cost. Matt doesn't reply for a minute, because he's watching the road again. The car is fishtailing a little in the deep snow. When he answers, he sounds distracted.

"Magic, eh?"

Janey reaches into her backpack and pulls out something silver and shiny on a red string. "I found it when I was walking home yesterday. It was in the gutter. I only noticed because of the red string. Do you think somebody lost it?"

Matt looks over at the silver thing in her hands. "Don't know. Maybe. That's pretty, Janey."

"How do you know it's magic?" I ask her, and catch Matt's eye in the mirror. To Janey, it's more than just pretty, and he should know that.

Janey twists the red string up and then lets it spin out in a shimmery arc. "It just is. I can tell. Here, Matt, look."

"He can't. He's driving," I say automatically.

Matt nods. "That's right. Show Patrick, Janey."

Janey twists around and leans over the back of her seat to hand me the amulet. She drops it into the palm of my hand, and it's heavier than you would think.

"Where do you think it's from, Patrick?" she asks, looking at me with her head tilted sideways, like a bird. Matt glances over his shoulder briefly, interested. Their eyes are the exact same shade of blue.

"I don't know." Which is true. It's no coin I've ever seen before, even among the hundreds my uncle used to bring back for us from the places he was posted to, all over the world. It's big, about the size of flattened bottle cap, only thicker. There is a hole near the top, where the red ribbon is attached, and the coin, if that's what it is, is silver-coloured, worn smooth around the edges from years of handling. It's almost tarnished, and a little tacky, a little overused. On one side, it reads 'liberty' in several languages.

Janey looks up at Matt. "It says 'li-ber-ty,'" she sounds out, intent. "Is that why you're going away?"

"Why do you think that?" This time his response is sharp, instant.

"I read it in the newspaper. They said that's why you're going." Janey knows more, maybe, than Matt thought she knew.

"Yes. Sort of." But he doesn't sound sure, and Janey looks like she's waiting for him to say something more.

"Matt, look." I lean forward. The car rounds the corner and we're at the end of a long line of cars, not moving. Matt turns around, one hand resting on the wheel.

"Might as well," he says absently, and takes the coin. "Oh. A bird. Liberty- that's freedom, flight. Makes sense."

"It's a dove," I say quietly. "See the branch."

Janey takes back her amulet and doesn't say a word.

And this is how the story's going to end, of course. Next week at the airport, Janey will give Matt the amulet, strung on a red ribbon. He'll take it away with him, a silver coin with two sides, something he believes in, even if he doesn't understand.