Some days, Schofield could be strong. Other days, he was as fragile as paper... maybe even weaker than that.
He woke up, opening his eyes. He tried to not move, no, he needed to not move. Not so much as a blink or a breath. Because if he did, the world would come crashing down on him with all of its harsh realities and he didn’t want to have to deal with it. Not today. Not ever.
His eyes itched and his reflexes betrayed him. He blinked. And life came tumbling down on him. He started to feel every single bruise and mark from his head to his toes and he breathed past the debris in his chest made up of tears already trying to build up.
He’d barely been awake for half a minute but he knew that today was not going to be a strong day. No, it wasn’t. It was going to be a day of fragility. And he already knew that he was going to hate it. He moved then, sitting up, shaking out his tired, stiff limbs. Massaging his neck, he glanced around the dugout, hearing the shuffle of other people, some still asleep, others already awake same as he was. Judging by the light coming in through the dugout’s entrance and exit hole, it looked like early morning. Checking his watch, he saw that it was close to 5:30. He stifled a yawn as best he could. There were quite a few groans as well, of wounded soldiers that hadn’t been seen to, just shoved out of harm’s way into the gloom of the dugout. Schofield moved himself closer to the wall then, propping his back against it, in an attempt to be out of the way as some soldiers slipped in and out of the dug-out. Laughter went up in one corner but he took no heed. For need of comfort, he felt for the tin that he kept in his pocket, running his fingers over the outline of it. He wasn’t going to take it out. It would just bring him closer to the brink. Looking at the ground around him, he noticed Blake was still curled up on his side. He would have smiled to see it, if it was a normal day for him but it wasn’t a normal day. His fragility meant that it was anything but. Already, he could feel the tears start to spring up.
He shouldn’t have joined. Blake shouldn’t be here. He should be back at his home. I shouldn’t be here. I should be back ho- no, I can’t think of there. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. Shut up.
Schofield sniffed and rubbed at his eyes, trying to tell himself that his eyes were watering from want of sleep, not tears. He wasn’t sure it helped. At all. He looked down at his hands but just looking at them made him feel weak. These were hands that killed. He sighed heavily and looked up, his gaze meeting the corrugated iron roof. Listening past the idle chatter and moans of pain, Schofield could hear the sound of rain lashing itself down. Cats and dogs. Schofield shuddered at the memory of rain back in the Somme.
The rain had been so heavy on June 29th. It was when they should have launched the attack, not July 1st. He could remember the day well. Some of the trenches had been faultily built, the mud and dirt not secure to hold up against the onslaught of rain. He hadn’t been in one of them but one of the platoons in his company had been. Their dugout had collapsed on top of them. 20 had drowned, engulfed by mud. Rain, not the Boche, had been their enemy that day.
What a dreadful way to die... but considering what had come after, the blood, the death, the destruction, how everything went to shit... maybe it would have been better. Maybe, he should have died that way too.
He focused on the iron roof above his head and almost found himself wishing that the rain would bring it down. Smother them all with it. He’d probably get knocked out at least from the roof first, then he’d feel himself becoming squashed as the weight of it set in. Maybe the surrounding mud would pool in, suffocating him and then drowning him.
Then again, it wouldn’t be fast. Or maybe it would be. He didn’t know. It wasn’t like he could ask the dead very well, could he? He hadn’t been there to watch, had only seen the corpses or what would soon be corpses; legs sticking out of dug-outs, mud collapsed all around their heads, the extremely muffled sounds of screams for help as mud and dirt fell through into their open mouths. He could already feel it, the pressure digging into his chest. At any moment, his ribs were going to splinter, fracture his lungs maybe. Maybe even worse. Maybe he should welcome it.
“Scho? Are you alright?”
He was snapped back into reality. 1917. Not 1916. He hadn’t realized what he was doing, holding his breath, his legs tucked in under his chin. He’d created a cocoon, curled himself into a ball. Now self-conscious, he stretched his legs out to a normal sitting position and let himself breathe. It felt like heaven for his lungs. How long had he been like this? He looked up in the direction of the all too familiar voice. Blake.
Worry creased Blake’s smooth, otherwise unlined face. A frown sat on his lips, twisting his face in a way that Schofield didn’t want to see. He should have been smiling.
There were many should have beens. There were many wants.
Schofield then nodded. He noticed Blake had offered him his hand and he took it, pushing up from the ground. Blake mentioned something about food and the two began to walk out of the dugout. Schofield had barely acknowledged what he said, concentrated on at least appearing normal. He shouldn’t have gotten himself caught up in his thoughts, not let himself be weak in front of the other men. Vulnerability was not accepted, not wanted, not needed.
The rain was very heavy, close to drenching them as soon as they stepped out. He glanced back at the mud dugout. Maybe it would bring it down on top of them. Shut up.
“It’s pissing,” Blake commented.
Schofield didn’t reply verbally, only nodding. Blake was used to that, well... should be. His fingers picked at something on his left sleeve cuff – dried mud. He should just leave it on. He knew what was there, sewed on, reminding him of the Somme almost constantly. Wasn’t like he could change out of this uniform.
Blake had asked him about it once. The brass wound stripe to be exact. Blake had asked him many things in the beginning, trying to figure him out. It had been very early into what could have been called the beginning of their friendship. Or, well, whatever they were, but that didn’t matter right now.
Schofield remembered that they’d been digging up a trench, close to the front line. He could remember the pain that came from bending and lifting, a burning sensation across the spine and neck and a numbing tingle that spread along his arms, they’d been at it for a long time. The weather had been agreeable but working with layers upon layers of uniform wasn’t. Sweat had drizzled down his neck and forehead, dampening his hair. But he had shoved all that aside, setting the pain and muscle cramps for later. Not many words had been ushered from him on that day, half-listening to Blake’s wild and almost far-fetched tales. He was sure that at least half, if not most of them were made up, though the raconteur begged to differ. Blake had leaned against the shovel, exhausted and had stared at Schofield wearily as he took another shovelful of mud.
“Do we not get a break?”
Schofield had shrugged. “Not sure.”
Blake had puffed and then shoved at his hair, one of his dark ringlets refusing to budge from his forehead. “They should, I’m exhausted. And thirsty.” He then dropped the shovel, letting it fall into the dirt and mud and then reached for the canteen at his side. Schofield, continuing to work, watched him out of the corner of his eye. Blake tilted the canteen up, like you do when there’s almost no water left, and he scowled at it as he brought it back down, screwing the cap before shoving it back into place. “Out.”
He wasn’t exactly sure what had compelled him to ask, even though Schofield was prone to not sharing with other people. Not because he was mean but more because he hadn’t wanted to develop any relationships here. Nothing, no contact. But either way, as if forgetting, he’d asked, “Want some of mine?”
“If you have any. Don’t need much.”
Schofield nodded, again, and passed him his canteen. From the weight, he guessed at least three quarters full. He tried to not expend it. “Here.”
Blake had grinned at him then, a smile not short of light as brilliant as the sun. Back then, Schofield had wondered how long it would take for the younger man then to lose that happiness, that smile. After taking only a gulp, Blake’s eyes had fixed on his cuff, his eyes narrowed as if squinting at it.
“What’s that on your sleeve there?” he asked, gesturing at it.
“That stripe there.”
Schofield had stared at it then, the offending stripe. He wished that stares could burn, then he’d incinerate it right off. “It’s a wound stripe.”
“Oh...” he had quieted but only for a moment, Blake being Blake. He handed him his canteen back. “What happened?”
“The Somme. Thiepval.” Schofield took it, stowing it away. He used it as an excuse to not look at the boy’s face.
“Was it bad?”
Schofield had stabbed the shovel into the mud before him, blocking what had actually happened from resurfacing and eating him whole. “Wasn’t mustard gas,” he then gestured towards Blake’s fallen shovel. “Now get back to work. Don’t want you to be given out to.”
But it resurfaced now.
Blood, blood, blood. It wasn’t his own.
Then, the shaking. The tremors. Confusion. Nightmares. His hearing having dwindled. He’d found it hard to function, reduced to nothing but a shell of William. Schofield, the shell of the man from before.
He had been lucky that the rest of the men hadn’t gotten it into their heads to shoot him before the Boche did. He was still lucky – especially on days like these.
The hand before his eyes was what brought him back from memory-land. He blinked as if coming out of a very dark place into sunlight. His eyes focused on Blake, the younger man standing in front of him, worry etched into his brow.
“Sorry, what?” he asked.
“You don’t look well. Are you sure you’re OK?” Blake questioned.
Schofield nodded. “I’m alright, Blake.”
Blake pursed his lips. “And I’m a bird. Scho, what’s wrong?”
He sighed. “I’m fine... I’m fine.” He wasn’t sure who he was lying to, himself or Blake. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep this up, the lying, the pretending. He could feel it. The edges beginning to fracture, the tears that came up. The vulnerability. When the episodes threatened to come back in, a constant hungry hole in his chest and soul. How long would it take?
It was routine by now for the two of them to end up at the tree at some point in the day. Some of the other men amongst their platoon joked that it could be considered the ‘Blake and Schofield’ tree.
Now, they were both settled against it, Schofield gazing at his surroundings around him and Blake looking upwards. Two completely different things in mind. It was drawing to dusk, dark blue hemming the horizon in like a sheep dog bringing his flock to the pen. Schofield closed his eyes, relieved that he had managed this far, what with everything probing him to remember, pushing him further, mocking him and twisting him to break out again. But he had stamped it down. So far. He hoped that tomorrow would be better. Stable. Not like this. Not where he was teetering on the edge of a very tall, chalky cliff of memories and despair.
He would have prayed for tomorrow to be better if he could find it in him to remember God was still there. God... he had believed in Him his whole life up until now. He had lost all faith in Him when the blood, red, red, red, came spilling onto his hands and the screams had strangled his throat but he had to continue moving in the rush of things, in the frenzy, the place where he lost himself. He lost William there.
He opened his eyes with a start, a gasp half submerged in his lungs. Blake’s gaze was on him now, not towards the heavens as he watched him. He wasn’t even sure when Blake had touched him but he could feel his hand on his shoulder as if to stop him from running mad.
It anchored him.
“Scho...” Blake’s first attempt was near-silent but then he tried again. “Scho.”
Schofield turned to look at him, his eyes sure to be wide with the horrors of Thiepval again. He was about say, ‘I’m alright,’ but it choked him. No, don’t break down now. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t fall back into that, you’re not there. You’re not there.
But you’re not home either.
But you’re not in Thiepval.
Not home. Not home. Not home not home not home nothomenothomenothome-
Blake’s hand moved to Schofield’s in an attempt to cover it. And that was all he needed. It felt strange but also comforting to admit that.
“You’re right,” Schofield managed to wring out of his mouth. “I’m not fine.”
Blake looked at him, the eyes that were blue as an oasis, latching onto Schofield’s own stormy, blue ones. A hint of a sympathetic smile held its own on his face. On anyone else, Schofield wouldn’t have tolerated it but Blake... he could tolerate it.
Blake squeezed his hand. He squeezed back.
No, he wasn’t William. No, he wasn’t home or what was home to Will.
But, he was Schofield... Scho. And the man holding his hand felt like a better home than Will’s one.
He didn’t need to say ‘thank you’, he just smiled at him. The smile was a little broken but it felt good. It felt like the best thing he’d done since he woke up.
And the smile that Blake returned was worth it.
Another wish granted... something to resemble home.