The mouth of the German bunker yawns open before Will. The darkness is terrifying.
He takes one step forward and watches as the inky blackness covers his leg.
Screams resonate from within the bunker. Faint, at first. Then they grow louder and louder. He can’t see who – or what- the inhuman cries are coming from.
He tries to step back. His leg won’t move.
‘Scho! Talk to me!’ The voice is anguished.
His heart thumps against his chest. Whoever it is down there knows him.
He flips on his torch.
Down a flight of stairs, there stands an eerie figure, melding with the dimness, frozen like a creature caught in a trap. It appears to be human…
It looks directly into the light.
He thinks he should be able to relax. It’s only Blake down there. He appears to be alive and well.
But something isn’t right.
Blake’s helmet and gun are gone. When had he discarded them?
Why is he just…standing down there? Defenseless? Staring up the stairwell as if he’d seen a ghost? Wasn’t he worried about saving his brother?
Why had he been screaming?
Blake, with sudden resolve, started stiffly walking up the stairs, eyes fixated on Will.
More details become clear.
His too wide eyes are the putrid color of algae. His uniform is covered in mud.
His hands clutch his stomach, pressing down so hard they push through the decaying flesh…
Closer he comes. The mud no longer looks like mud…
Blake is now two steps away. Will finds he can move, but only slowly…
This is wrong…
Blake has now emerged from his tomb, and it is a miserable sight.
What the torchlight failed to illuminate, the daylight now did. Blake, covered in the liquid output of his fatal wound and the resulting infection, stumbles toward him, his mouth opening as wide and as empty as the bunker below them in a silent scream. Pus runs from his eyes, his face contorted in pain.
‘SCHO!’ The shout hits him as hard as a bullet.
I can’t save you. There is no fixing this.
‘Why am I the way that I am?!’ Blake moans, his speech slurred.
No matter how far back Will moves, Blake is somehow faster. Will stumbles and Blake leaps forward, seizing him by his vest.
‘What have I become?!’ Blake shrieks, his once lovely eyes now so full of despair.
I don’t know, Will wants to say. But Blake’s hand has now cupped his throat and is starting to squeeze. What have you become… What have you become, indeed…
Blake is unsatisfied with the lack of an answer.
They have somehow lost their footing and Will is lying on the wet ground, the mud squelching as Blake situates himself on top of him.
‘Talk to me! Tell me why, Scho, please!’
Will tries to ignore the blood and spittle raining down from Blake’s mouth. A river of red has now begun to run down his chin and neck, rippling anew each time he spoke.
Stop, Will wants to plead. You’re suffering and I can’t tell you why except that I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry.
Blake’s eyes are almost translucent now, seeping a foul substance onto his cheeks, staining them yellow.
‘TELL ME, SCHO! TALK TO ME! DON’T JUST LIE THERE AND LOOK AT ME! PLEASE SAY SOMETHING!’
I can’t. I can’t save you. I keep trying and trying and I never can. This will end the same way every time!
Blake doesn’t understand.
I’m so sorry. So, so sorry…
There’s an explosion somewhere nearby. Dirt and wood burst into tiny fragments. They’re going to be shelled within minutes. Why the Hun have decided to destroy their own trenches, he’ll never know.
Blake has heard it, too. He starts to turn to look behind him.
Will finds his strength and shoves Blake off of him, pushing him to the ground and pinning him there. Blake coughs, blood bubbling up to his mouth and splattering across his face.
He looks so pitiful and so lost.
Will can’t leave him here.
There’s another explosion, this time closer.
Will lies down on top of Blake, attempting to shield him from oncoming death.
I’m sorry this is all I can do, that I wasn’t able to do more.
‘Scho?!’ Blake is frightened, beginning to squirm in panic.
At least we’re together.
Blake’s gaze softens, but he still appears uncertain.
I’m here, and we’ll be going home soon.
A hint of a smile pulls at the corner of Blake’s mouth, and just for a second, one second, Will can see the Blake that he loves, the Blake that once was.
He tries to hold onto that as they burst into a million shards of light.
Will replays the now murky scraps of the dream as he listens to his sister’s footfalls coming down the hallway.
It’s nights like these that Will wishes he could fall asleep and never reawaken. Nights like these involve constant echoes of past nightmares, endless thoughts and rising anxiety, chasing each other around in circles in his now restless brain. And all he can do is stare at the ceiling, frozen until his eyes eventually grow so weak that they shut of their own accord.
And then more nightmares begin.
One would think that even after weeks had passed since he was sent home that the pain would lessen to a bearable degree. Time is supposed to heal all wounds. Life is supposed to go on, no matter what.
One would think the small things wouldn’t take him back to the war, either. But the unexpected bang of a door, any sudden movement, even the smell of the rain at times… They all take him back.
Though it is on his mind constantly, Will is never one to talk about the war. He refuses to discuss it with his sister, who had been kind enough to let Will live with her for a spell, and she’s never brought it up, but there are questions in her eyes.
The unspoken questions don’t matter to Will. It’s the alone time that continues to bother him, when his thought process begins to run rampant. When the what ifs begin to bleed into his mind.
When their parents died, Will was told to remember the good times. In that case, that advice had worked fairly well. But putting that same advice into practice after what he’d experienced in the war is easier said than done.
Besides, where were the good times in a war? Even if there were good times, they were always laced with the fear that they might very well be the last good times one ever has.
Even then, it’s hard to remember the good times with a particular person when the only memory one can conjure up of them is their life spilling out red onto your hand, no matter how one tried to keep it pressed inside, and the lost look in their eyes as they realize their life was cut shorter than they had expected, their will to live draining out of them as fast as the blood...
When you lose someone that bright, who shined brighter than life itself… where does one go from there? And when you long to hear someone’s voice, but that voice has vanished from all existence, how does one cope with that?
Occasionally, a smell, a sound, or even a glance from a pair of identical eyes will make it feel as though they’d never left for that one hopeful moment. But when that moment passes, the grief comes crashing down again.
Blake didn’t deserve to die, much less in such a slow, agonizing manner…
Will’s sister pushes his door open, the light from the corridor leaking into his room. She comes to sit with him. He’s thankful that she was willing to let him stay on until he can get back on his feet, but he knows he must be a burden to her. She’ll of course tell him otherwise, and while it makes him feel better for the moment, he swears he will never let her, nor her girls, discover what kind of shadows he is harboring.
He deals with enough ghosts as it is. The horrors of war don’t wander far away from him. Even long after he has left the battlefield, Will wakes up screaming night after night. His sister will come to calm him, and though he appreciates her support, there are bad nights where it takes time for reality to settle in, that he is in his bed and not in the slick mud of the trenches, watching as his fellow soldiers explode in showers of red right next to him. He’s not in the ruined town of Écoust, with the keepers of its burning buildings raining hellfire down upon him.
It takes time to realize that the buttons on Will’s coat, reflective in the soft light, are not in fact the eyes of the German soldier bursting out of their sockets as Will strangled the life out of him. His sister’s hands are not that of the poor girl who saved a child whose parents she did not know, though in one repulsive dream, the child lay dead at their feet in a pool of blood.
There is never time enough to get over these images. They haunt him through the night, through the day, on and on for the rest of his forsaken life.
And Blake… Will swore that Blake’s blood still stained deep within the crevices of his hands, no matter how many times washed they were.
Blake should be alive. If he had only listened, if Will had not left his side and had put that damned pilot out of his misery, Blake would still be alive! He could have reunited with his brother, maybe even returned home to see his mother, his dogs and his cherry orchard.
At the very least, he would be safe.
Perhaps, he may have even wanted to see Will again. Will would give anything in this world just to look into those lovely blue eyes that seemed to hold endless wells of life inside.
But that’s not how it works. The dead don’t come back. At least, not in forms that can be recognized or even understood. That’s a harsh fact that Will cannot come to terms with.
Instead of coming home, Blake is rotting away at a farmstead somewhere outside of Écoust. His body most likely had consumed by the animals and the land, with nothing left to even show he was there. He was alone, forgotten. A nameless, faceless casualty among millions of others in this bloody war. No proper burial, no final prayers, no last goodbyes.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Blake never even existed. All the people who could have been lucky enough to be able to meet him would now never be able to. And so, everyone else’s world kept turning on and on without him.
God damn it all.
When Will’s sister leaves to retire to her room, Will curls up and lets the tears flow. He covers his face in the blankets, digging his nails down into his skin. This pain would keep him sane and alive, and if all else fails, it would make him feel something, anything other than this wretched grief.
How long could this possibly go on? It has not gotten any easier since he’s returned. Life isn’t worth living if it was to be lived like this, day in and day out.
A small thump on the floor pulls Will from his brutal thoughts. In the dark room, it is difficult to place where the sound came from. He sits up straight in bed, scanning the room with wide eyes.
On the floor next to the door is his coat.
Sighing, Will swings his legs out onto the cold floor and pads over to the pile of dark, woolen fabric. His sister had bought it for him when he returned, as something of a homecoming gift.
He hangs it up, ensuring that it was properly hooked. His sister probably brushed by it when she passed to leave his room.
Will watches it with a weary gaze until his eyes can stay open no longer.
There’s no comfort for me in thinking you’re alive when you’re not. No matter where I go, you’ll always be gone.