Panphobia

Airplanes.  Flying.  Heights.  Spiders.  Insects.  The dark.  Germs.  Thunderstorms.  Highways.  The list went on.  Harry tried to think back on when he hadn’t been afraid of all these things, and why, but all he got was nostalgia without reason.

He hardly watched the news anymore, or read it, for that matter.  Floods, fires, war, and rumors of war.  Murder, envy, and greed.  It was as if every time he picked up the paper or flipped on the tube, he gathered a new phobia to himself, and he already felt full to bursting.  He knew the ridiculousness of it, knew the news catered to sensationalism.  He knew there was enough good in the world to balance out the bad, yet another part of him sat in its corner and scowled out, and refused to believe it so.

That part of his mind had always refused to behave.  When he was younger, it held less sway over his life, though no less pessimistic; no less sour.  It came out in bouts of dour humor and cynicism, and occasional anger at the ridiculousness of the world.  The older he got though, the more that part of him took hold, entrenched itself in his way of thinking.  It reminded him that there was always a catch, always a downside.

When he finally grew to the point he could fight the pessimism, he found that the cynicism had turned into a dour fatalism that insisted the world was a dangerous place, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.  As a matter of course, the rest of his brain reasoned that must mean the world was to be feared.

For the most part, he was able to suppress his fears.  He found a job that let him work from home.  He had his groceries delivered.  He meticulously cleaned his home every three or four days, and himself every night.  (Not without making sure the adhesive ducks on the bottom of the tub were firmly in place, though.  Wouldn’t be right, being cautious, only to be done in by a tub faucet.)

He had considered therapy, maybe medication, but that would mean leaving the house.  It would mean exposure, both physical and mental.  He didn’t know that he was ready for that.  Until he found an MD willing to diagnose via internet, he was content to stay put.

*

The day Harry found the spider in his shower drain was the day that changed his mind.

It had been an ordinary day, as far as days went for him.  He had done some work for a client, a simple piece of freelance code for a website, and managed to wrap that up before noon.  The rest of the day he spent cleaning the house, since it had been three days – making sure the surfaces were wiped down, the floors swept and vacuumed, and the tub scrubbed of soap residue.  After that, he sprayed everything with sanitizer, and waited in his office while the fumes dissipated.

As he waited, he read a bit of news, though he couldn’t get much past the first story, an article about death squads in the Congo.  He wondered for a moment if such things were exclusive to third-world countries, and decided not to leave it to chance.  You never knew who was watching, and what they might deem punishable.  Maybe just visiting a global news site rather than local had already dropped him on a watch list.  He took a moment to dump his browser history, and then turned the computer off.  He should probably have alarms installed, just in case.

He walked to the bathroom, and dropped his clothes in the basket by the door.  He turned the faucets on, tinkering with the hot and cold until it was just right, and tested the ducks on the bottom by trying to slide his hand across the floor of the tub.  It stuck, and he was satisfied.  He got in, and wet his hair, humming to himself.  There was a song stuck in his head, ‘Fall Down’.  He thought it was by Toad the Wet Sprocket.  A part of his brain checked off the coincidence, and carried on.

He turned to grab the soap from the ledge by the showerhead, and stopped, mid-reach.  He had looked down, to make sure the drain wasn’t clogging with hair (though his wasn’t long, and he wasn’t balding).  A clogged drain meant soap and water build-up, and almost guaranteed slippage, no matter how many adhesive ducks you had in the bottom of your shower.  His gaze was frozen on the drain, still clear, water still swirling down.  Despite that, he could see two long legs poking from the holes.

His heart skipped a beat, and he took a step back, trying to make space between himself and those legs.  As he did, they began to move, as though they sensed his fear, trying to gain purchase on the wet surface of the tub.  Harry stood frozen for a moment, then with a curse, shoved the shower curtain to the side, and stepped out while watching the legs squirm.

Without turning the water off, he edged to the side, eyes still on the drain, and flipped open the cabinet under the sink.  He groped around for a moment, feeling his fingers brush a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a block of soaps still in their cardboard boxes and cellophane, and a container of disinfectant wipes.

The legs seemed to notice he was up to something (maybe it was his imagination, though he didn’t care to make a distinction at this point), and seemed to be scrabbling harder for purchase.  He saw another set of legs worm their way through the drain, and he choked his fear down.

His fingers finally found the handle of the bleach bottle he kept under the sink, and he pulled it out with a triumphant grunt.  He spun the cap off, and without any ceremony or hesitation, poured it into the drain.  The legs fought for a moment against the added flow from the bottle, then lost the battle, and slipped away.

Harry let the water run for another minute, until the smell of bleach started to dilute with the steam in the air, and he was sure the spider wasn’t going to try again.  He hoped the damn thing burned all the way down the drain.  He dried off, deciding that was enough shower for one day.

He lifted the lid of the toilet – he really needed to pee after all of the excitement – and let fly.  He watched the stream hit the water, and looked down.  Legs the length of his pinky sprouted under the water, coming from the siphon hole.  They disappeared into darkness, though as he watched, they squirmed, as though trying to pull the rest of the thing attached to them to the surface.

His flow cut off like someone had kinked a hose, and he slammed the toilet lid shut.  After a second, he picked up the laundry basket and placed it on top.  He flushed once, and then twice, holding the lever down for longer than was strictly necessary, then left the bathroom.

He could hold it until he got to the therapist’s office tomorrow.  He looked at the toilet, and considered checking it.  Nope.  He could hold it.  He had to.

*

The therapist’s office was cool, white, and nearly sterile.  Harry liked it.  Two rows of two chairs sat across from each other in the waiting room, and an indoor waterfall babbled against one wall.  It was all very soothing.  The door to the therapist’s office was frosted glass, with stainless handles.  Stenciled on it in small neat letters was the name ‘Havel Patel, PhD’.

Harry was reading a paper someone had left on one of the small tables between the chairs.  It was, admittedly, a rare occurrence for him, but he figured he was already taking the right steps, surely another couldn’t hurt.

The news itself was surprisingly benign.  A new study had come out; revealing murder rates had dropped to all-time lows.  To Harry, that just meant his odds were better than ever to be killed by some psychopath or idiot with a gun.  As far as he was concerned, smaller odds for everyone else meant a higher rate for those within the target demographic.  He had left the house today, after all.  Surely that meant he had dropped himself into the likely target lottery.  He reminded himself again to check into an alarm system.

He moved on to another story.  Disease rates were down – better antibiotics, better treatment, and a greater knowledge of how disease worked were all collaborating to decrease why people got sick, for how long, and how severe a sickness could last.  Harry figured most of those people didn’t go out of their way to catch a bug.  Not like him, sitting in an unfamiliar office, holding a used newspaper, with a fountain sending unfiltered mist into the air.  He tossed the paper on the side table and brushed his hands on his legs.  He hoped Dr. Patel was coming soon.

As if on cue, the door to Dr. Patel’s room opened, and the man stepped out.  He was on the short side, a bit stocky, his head shaved to baldness, and a pair of glasses in rectangular frames perched on his nose.  He smiled at Harry.

“Mr. Dora?”

Harry nodded and stood.  Dr. Patel waited for Harry to enter his office, then closed the door behind them.  He hadn’t tried to shake Harry’s hand.  That was good.  There were two overstuffed chairs in the room, bracketed by walls of books, and a small window that looked out at the therapy center’s grounds – rolling lawn and trees that led to a small creek.  Harry took one of the chairs and waited for Dr. Patel to sit.

Patel sat, digging his backside into the chair for a moment before pulling up a notepad that had been nestled between the cushions.  He smiled over at Harry again.

“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Harry?”  He said.

Harry hesitated for a moment.  Could he tell a stranger all of the things he thought?  What about the things he felt, the things that frightened him, even in the warm light of day; especially in the cold dark of night?

Baby steps he thought.  One at a time.

He took a breath, and began to talk.

*

He told Dr. Patel about his childhood, and his adolescence, his drift from fearless to phobic as he moved to adulthood.  He found himself talking about his belief in the degradation of safety in society.  He talked about how he knew his fears to be irrational, knowing what was versus what he felt, and not being able to reconcile the two.

Dr. Patel listened, taking notes through the entire session, and when Harry was done, he set the notepad down.  The room seemed more still than it had when he started, as though filling the air with his fears had hushed even the air.  The doctor glanced at the clock on the wall, and then leaned forward.

“This is a good start, Harry.  I want you to think about the things you’ve told me, and come back in two days.  Specifically, I want you to think about that cognitive dissonance you hold – the idea that your fears are irrational, and yet you cannot banish them with rationale.”

Harry let out a breath, and nodded.  He was a little disappointed.  He had built up a good head of steam, and it felt like he needed to get some things out.

Doctor knows best, he thought.

He stood to go, and Dr. Patel stood with him, leading him to the door, and opening it for him.  The doctor must have seen the look on his face, because he laid a hand on Harry’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Harry, we’ll get it all out.”

Harry nodded, and stepped out of the office.  The door closed behind him.  He waited to hear the click of the latch in the doorframe, and walked out.

*

Night found Harry lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.  His nightlight cast a dim yellow glow into the corner of his room, bright enough to comfort, soft enough to not stab his eyelids with light.  He wondered for a moment where the spider in his toilet had gone.  He’d taken the time earlier to move the laundry basket, and lift the lid, and found the bowl was blissfully empty.  He had bleached it anyway, and then flushed it for half an hour, just to be sure, and he felt he could use the toilet tomorrow with a reasonable amount of confidence.

He thought about what Dr. Patel had told him – that he held a cognitive dissonance, a fracture in his mind.  He knew the statistics and the facts.  Spiders were rarely venomous enough to kill (more people were killed by champagne corks than spider bite every year), flying was safer than driving (redundancies on redundancies), and you had a higher chance of dating a celebrity than you did of catching the bird flu.  Still, they remained.

It was almost as if his fears were the symptoms of a virus he had contracted, a malignant strain that invaded his mind and rooted itself there with iron barbs.  He could talk all he wanted about the rational, the real, but when it came down to it, when the fear took hold, his body betrayed him.  Sweating, heart pounding, short breath, and an anxiety that drilled into his gut like an electric wire all drove him to avoid the things that caused those symptoms, forced him into a corner where avoidance was preferable to confrontation.

He was snapped away from his thoughts when something in the house creaked.  He knew it was probably just the place settling, but his mind immediately went to the things that lurked at the dark corners of his imagination – great misshapen furred beasts, and thieves with knives and little to lose.  He cast a glance at his bedroom door, and saw it was still locked.  He considered flipping on his light, and reading a bit more, but pushed it away.  With effort, he closed his eyes, and tried to calm his breathing.

He still listened with half an ear to the hall outside of his room, but the noise never repeated.  Sleep started to claim him, and for a moment, he thought of all the things outside, all the things in the world that could shake a man to his core.  He let it slip by, and fell into darkness.

*

Two days slipped by quicker than Harry expected.  He spent them much as he usually did – cleaning, writing code, and wrapping himself in the comfort of his home, away from the fright of the outside world.  There were exceptions.

In the morning, he opened the paper, and saw two stories that interested him.  The first, a short piece in the nature and science section, was about the decline of poisonous spiders and subsequent fatal or near fatal.  It went on to say that due to climate change and aggressive pesticides, several species were either dwindling or migrating to climates that weren’t hospitable.

The second article was in the same section – a piece about new avionics.  It was said to be so reliable, the planes nearly flew themselves.  Even the pilots were happy about it – far less micromanagement involved in the general workings of the cockpit.  Further down in the article, one of the engineers was quoted saying what the article had already stated.  “The planes practically fly themselves.”

When he was finished reading, Harry put the paper down and frowned for a moment.  He was jealous of these people.  Every day, less things to be afraid of, and he still couldn’t force himself to see past it.  He tossed the paper down with a grunt, and went to clean the bathroom.  The spider still hadn’t appeared, but he’d been bleaching the bowl and the shower every day, just in case.

A plane passed overhead while he was cleaning, and he imagined, just for a moment, the landing gear tearing free, or an engine working itself from its moorings, and smashing through the roof of his house, leaving him a broken mangle of flesh.  It passed after a moment, and he shook the vision off, and finished scrubbing.

Later that day, he was finishing up some chores, and had the television on for background noise.  He happened to look up just when the newscaster started to speak.

“A new study shows that violent crime – specifically murder – has dropped in the past few months.  It is now at an all time low, nationwide.”

The television cut to commercial, and Harry stared at it for a moment, not really seeing it.  Murder was down?  What was happening to the world?  The things that haunted him, that frightened him to the core, were slipping away.  It was as though the things that were real dangers, no matter how irrational the fear, were leeching from the world, and into him.

As soon as he had the thought, he shook his head, as if to clear it.  Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough, as far as Harry was concerned.  He was starting to worry for his sanity.  Fear welled up in him, and he tried to quench it by pinching himself.

No, this is real, I am real, and I am NOT crazy!

He pinched until he bruised, and then pinched a little more.  When he was finally able to calm himself, he wandered to the bedroom and lay down.  Tomorrow he would see Dr. Patel.  Tomorrow it would be better.

I’m not crazy.

*

Dr. Patel’s office was the same.  Sterile, white, and soothing.  Even with only two visits, Harry was starting to feel comfortable.  He listened to the waterfall tinkling in its frame, and took a deep breath of cool air.  He ran his finger idly up and down the white fabric of his chair, making idle patterns in the fabric.  Generally, he tried to think of nothing.

The door to Dr. Patel’s office opened, frosted glass giving way to an inviting interior, lit by sunlight and lined with bookshelves.  Dr. Patel stood in the doorway and smiled.

“Mr. Dora.  Glad to have you back.”  He gestured toward the room.  “Come in, come in.”

Harry got up and entered the office, sitting in the same overstuffed chair he had last time.  Dr. Patel closed the door behind him, and sat across from him, picking up his notepad as he did.  Once settled in, the doctor crossed his legs and rested the pad on his knee.

They exchanged pleasantries for a moment – words about the weather for the most part, and when that died down, Dr. Patel began the conversation.

“The last time you were here, we talked about your fears, the irrational versus the rational.  How have you been doing with that?”

Harry sighed.  “Honestly?  Terrible.  It seems like the harder I try to convince myself that there’s nothing to be afraid of, the more afraid I become.”

He took a minute, and told the doctor of his new fears.  Dr. Patel listened, nodding and making notes on his pad.  When Harry finished, the doctor sat back and regarded him.  He looked concerned.

“Harry, I want to try something.  It’s a bit different, but if it works, we may be able to halt this…degradation…you’ve been dealing with.”

Harry could feel a pit of anxiety starting to worm its way into his stomach.  It must have shown on his face, because Dr. Patel’s tone changed; became soothing.

“I won’t lie.  What I have planned, you’re probably not going to like, Harry.  But it is effective.”

Harry swallowed, hard.  It felt like there was a lump in his throat.  He could already feel his heart rate trying to climb.  Dr. Patel set his notepad aside, and leaned in.

“It’s your best hope, Harry.  Ask yourself – do you want to live like this anymore?  Do you want to get worse?”

The answer was no.  It was easy enough to answer.  At the same time, that trickle of anxiety was working itself into a river, and he was starting to regret coming.  What if the doctor wasn’t a doctor?  What if he was trapped with a madman?  He started to push himself off the chair, and Dr. Patel held up a hand.

“Wait.  I know you’re feeling it again.  Sit down for a moment, and give me a chance, Harry.”

Harry did so, reluctantly, and Dr. Patel studied him for a moment more.

“There, behind you.”  He said, gesturing at the wall behind Harry.  “Would a madman have those on his wall?”

Harry turned to look.  Arranged in a loose square were several diplomas and certificates.  Harry leaned closer to get a better look at the largest one, decorated by flowing text and a gold seal.  As he did so, something pricked his finger, and he jerked it away from the chair, instinctively sucking on it.  For a moment, his vision blurred, and he gave up trying to read the diplomas.  He turned back to the doctor.

Dr. Patel was just leaning back in his chair, tucking a syringe into a small black case Harry hadn’t noticed when he entered.  Panic tried to well up in him, but it was felt distant, disconnected from him somehow.  He knew the doctor had stuck him, but he was having trouble caring.

“How do you feel, Harry?”  The doctor asked.  The lenses in his glasses reflected the overhead lights, making them look like white panels in wire frames.  Harry couldn’t see the doctor’s eyes.

A part of Harry screamed for him to run, to get the hell out of the office, and run until he was safe at home.  That part too, felt disconnected, and distant.

“Fine.”  Harry lied.

“Good, good.  You’re going to feel a little fuzzy for a bit, but when it wears off, everything will be fine.  You’ll see.

Now, I want you to listen, and think about what I’m going to tell you.”

Harry nodded, and felt a stupid grin creep across his face.  He fought it back, but not before he saw himself in Patel’s lenses, looking like an idiot.  Didn’t matter, he didn’t care.

Dr. Patel leaned forward again, and the illusion of shuttered windows in his glasses disappeared.  His eyes were intense, and held Harry’s own.

“The universe does not care.  This is the thing you must remember.  There is no vast conspiracy, the world is not out to get you, you are not statistically more significant than anyone else; you are not beholden to predestination.

If a thing happens outside our realm of choice, it does not boil down to fate, or destiny, it does not mean a damn thing other than that thing happened.  Move on, recover, and grow stronger.

Most importantly, remember this: you are not special.  You are not singled out by the machinations of world, and never will be, aside from the decisions you make directly impacting your own life.”

Dr. Patel finished speaking, and Harry felt the words sink in.  Combined with the disconnection he felt from his fear, and the intense gaze of the doctor, the way his gaze seemed to hammer home every word, Harry felt a weight lift from his shoulders.  Harry felt his eyes grow heavy, and they began to droop.  He felt Dr. Patel pat his knee.

“You can rest here, Harry.  Go home when you wake.”

Harry let his eyes close fully, and took a deep breath, then another.  In a moment, he was asleep.

*

He woke in darkness, the only light in the office a desk lamp the doctor had left on.  Harry stood, and stretched, then ran a fingernail over his tongue.  It felt like a cat had slept in his mouth.  He looked around, but saw no sign of the doctor.

“Dr. Patel?”  He called.

He stopped.  The desk lamp was on, and outside, he could see the neatly manicured lawn of the clinic, lit by carefully placed lights in flowerbeds and shrubs.  He wasn’t afraid.

He wasn’t afraid.

He felt a mix of emotions at that – elation, anger at Patel for tricking him, and an odd serenity.  Nothing mattered that he didn’t do to himself.  It was an odd kind of comforting thought, but there it was.  He made to step out of the office, and stumbled when his shoe bumped something.  He frowned and looked down.

A dark shape lay on the floor, but he couldn’t quite make it out in the dark.  Harry reached over and flipped the switch on the wall, flooding the office with warm light.  He looked down again, and stepped back.

Dr. Patel lay curled in the fetal position, his face swollen and blue.  His eyes protruded almost comically, and his tongue jutted just slightly from his mouth.  Harry nudged him with the toe of his shoe, and the body rolled slightly, exposing a lump the size of a Clementine just above Dr. Patel’s collar.  He bent down for a closer look, then straightened as a spider, black and swollen with venom, crawled from under the collar.

After a moment, Harry shrugged, and walked carefully over the body.  He opened the door, and left the office.   He passed through the waiting room, noticing someone had left the door on the other end open, the waterfall still gurgling away, and through the nurses’ station.  He didn’t notice the pretty receptionist who was sprawled in her swivel chair, congealed blood crusting in her pores and orifices.

He walked out of the office, and to his car.  In the distance, he saw a jogger stopped mid-stride by a large man.  She stood there, her body language indicating she was torn between fight or flight.  The big man grabbed her, and as Harry watched, drew a long blade from his jacket and opened her throat.  He turned away.  None of his business, not his problem.

He got in the car, and pulled out of the lot, out of the neighborhood, and started to drive.  It was a quiet night, aside from the cars that littered the side of the highway, and the fires in the distance.

He looked up at the sky, and something passed overhead.  For a moment, a jet blacked out the stars, and as Harry watched, a blossom of fire bloomed on its wing, and half the fuselage ripped away.  The two halves went spinning in opposite directions, and another moment later, he saw dark shapes silhouetted against the stars as well, each the size of a man.

Harry shrugged to himself again, and continued driving.  Not his problem.  The universe didn’t care.

Someone else could shoulder his fears.

Cold

 

The trenches were laid out across the earth like a zigzag of scars, men huddled deep in them against the glowering sky and the cold rain that fell from it.  Between them, fields of barbed wire grew from the ground like a steel harvest.  Here and there, bodies bloomed on the ground and in the steel, sightless eyes staring upwards.  They wore the uniforms of friend and foe alike, victims of failed charges and successful sorties.  The sun had been down only a few hours, but already the temperature had dropped several degrees.  A chill wind had sprung up in the interim, driving the rain into the trenches and the cold into the bones.

Down below, men dug into packs and pulled out ponchos to keep the worst of the wet off, or had erected makeshift shelters with bits of canvas while mud squelched beneath their boots.  Others forwent comfort entirely, eyes or mirrors occasionally peeking above the rim of the trench, always on the lookout for any sign of movement from the Germans.

John Valentine was one of the men below.  He leaned his back against an earthen wall, the bulwark cool and hard through his uniform.  He lit a cigarette, grateful for both the habit and the cold.  Between the two, it was almost easy to believe the smells of decay and cordite were fading, and that death could be forgotten as easily as a scent carried away by the wind.

He stood in silence, watching the smoke from the end of the cigarette rise in lazy spirals, and then get torn apart in a cold gust.  To either side of him, he could hear the low murmur of conversation about home, of comforts left behind, and occasionally, of the current situation.  Somewhere to his left, someone had started up a card game under their makeshift shelter, and he could hear the soft snap of cardboard striking wood, and a quiet chuckle.  He even imagined that if he was very still, he could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the trees of the Ardennes – a long way off, but still visible on a clear day.

The fighting had gone on for six days.  Six days of fire and blood, of the Germans shelling their positions, the explosions coming so loud and frequent it felt as though the earth itself would shake and split and swallow them whole.

John was almost grateful for these moments, as well.  Fear and noise and the shouts of his fellow soldiers served to drown out the noise in his head, a constant assault of memory and vision that threatened to drown him and pull him under in its persistence.

In the cold dark though, the sounds of wind and rain his only companions, memory flooded back.

 

*

Summer, and the sun slipped across a clear azure sky, while a warm breeze stirred golden fields below.  She sat across from John on a blanket they had spread under an old oak at the edge of the field.  In the distance, sunlight shimmered on the roof of the old farmhouse, sending up mirage waves of heat, and off the windows, turning each into a silver mirror of light.  Gnats gathered in small clouds in the middle distance, boiling in the air like steam from a kettle.  John could smell wheat chaff and lilac from the bushes by the house, and closer, the scents of her hair and skin, fresh and sweet like sun-dried linen.

Under the emerald leaves of the oak, they leaned in and kissed, his hand sliding under her hair to the back of her neck, skin as smooth as flax.  He tasted the apple they had shared for dessert, heated by her breath, and when they parted, she whispered his name.

 

*

“John!”

The voice snapped him out of memory, and he looked around, flicking away the cigarette that had burned to a nub.  He heard the sound of dirt sliding on dirt, and a soft scrabble.  A second later, a hand gripped him by the shoulder, and he turned to look at the speaker.

It was Merryweather, a slight ginger-haired private with a ruddy complexion and a smattering of freckles across his face.  He smiled, white uneven teeth shining in the moonlight.

“Hey man.  Sorry, thought you’d checked out.”

“No, no.  Just woolgathering.”  John said.

Merryweather nodded.  “Right.  Well, Sarge says it’s your turn up top.  Good luck, man.”

He patted John on the shoulder one more time, re-slung his rifle, and turned to go.  John watched him walk down the trench until his back disappeared around a curve in the trench wall.  He sighed, picked up his own rifle, and made his way up the embankment to take his place as lookout.

Up top, iron plates with slits in them had been placed in intervals along the trench line, ideally to keep snipers from picking off lookouts, but the idea hadn’t been one hundred percent, as some German shooters had taken to using armor-piercing rounds.  As a result, John had been showered with bits of skull and brain after an over-eager private had stayed too long peering out.  He could still remember the sound the bullet had made as it passed through the plate –metal on metal, making the iron plate ring like a bell – and the sound the private’s body made as it slid down the trench wall.  Because of that, John only looked out when he had to – every three to five minutes, and only long enough to be sure no one was creeping across no-man’s land.

Once at the top, John settled into the hollow behind the iron plate, making sure to unsling his rifle and have it at the ready.  From where he stood, it seemed the smells of decay and fire had redoubled their efforts to overpower the senses, and he had to fight to keep his gag reflex down.  The rain was stronger here too, driven by a wind not hindered by the earthen walls.  He shivered, and then did his best to suppress that too.  It would be hard to draw a bead if he was shaking like a puppy.

John took a deep breath and took his first look through the slit in the plate in front of him.  Scorched earth, craters, barbed wire, and bodies greeted him.  He scanned left to right, and tried not to look the corpses in the face.  When he was satisfied the field was empty, he ducked back down and tried not to think of the rotting bodies the mud and the earth were already trying to reclaim.

John looked around at the other men behind their plates, men that were for the most part, little more than teenagers thrust into adulthood by the war.  Most had come into an awareness of this, men’s minds forced into young bodies by death and cruelty; others still innocent, and wearing it on their sleeves.  He worried about the latter most of all, knowing that the ones who believed this was just a bad spot in a good life would one day wake up from dreams of fire and the clutching hands of dead men and realize a part of their souls had been burned away.

 

*

A cold December, and John had spent the majority of his time either looking for work or doing odd jobs and maintenance around the old farmhouse Emily’s father had left her.  They had been married in the fall, and her father had passed away shortly after, cancer claiming first his lungs, then the rest of his once hale body.

He had lain in the hospital bed, his withered frame barely stirring the sheets as he breathed, tubes snaking into his body like tendrils of vine.  He had held Emily’s hand and smiled, his eyes watery.  Then he drew one breath and released it, a long slow rattle that wheezed from his ravaged lungs like a rusty teakettle, and when it was over, he was gone.

Emily cried on and off for three days, the sound of her sobs punctuating the sighs of the winter wind outside.  John drifted through the house those days like a ghost, unsure of himself, or the comfort he could give.  He would go to her at times and hold her, until his chest was wet with her tears and his arms trembled with the force of her sobs.  Other times he would sit and listen to her grief, and stare into space, and sometimes he could feel a hole in his chest as though something had been lost to him too.

In those times, those dark quiet times, surrounded by grief and wind and winter, he would cry too.

*

His cheeks were wet.  John reached up and wiped them, and felt cold on his palm.  He looked up at the sky and saw a white star field falling slowly down.  He watched it drift and blow and swirl in eddies, dancing in the wind.

Three soft pops, and then a sizzling sound, almost like bacon in a pan, and the night sky was lit in red and orange, turning the battlefield into neon nightmare.  John looked to his left and saw a private staring out of the slit in the iron plate in front of him, his eyes wide and white.  John didn’t blame him.  He knew what came next.  He rolled over and looked out of his own opening; to be sure the flares weren’t simply a feint by the Germans.

He scanned the battlefield – bodies, wire, and snow a blur as he ran his vision over them.  He did it twice.  Right to left, left to right, and halfway back he heard it – a deep thump and then a whistle that reminded him of a train barreling down its tracks.  John knew what was next again – a bright flash and torn earth, and a shudder in the ground as though it too was dying.

Before that though, before the sound and the fury, he saw her.  Emily, barefoot and naked and pale, walking to him in the snow.  Then the tears came, moments before the whistling stopped and a white-hot flash seared her and the world from his vision.

*

He found her in their bedroom.  While he had slept in her father’s old overstuffed chair in front of the fire downstairs, Emily had found her father’s hunting rifle, pressed the barrel against the roof of her mouth, and pulled the trigger with her toe.

John had torn up the stairs at the sound, the pit of his stomach clenched so hard he wanted to vomit, sleep still clinging to his eyes.  When he got to the top of the stairs, and saw what Emily had done, he did.  He looked again, and sank to the floor, his wife painted on the wall and ceiling, and his own hopes and dreams drying on the floor beside him.  He sat there, and didn’t cry, and when the smells of blood and cordite and vomit became too much, he got up and called the coroner.

After all was said and done, they buried her in the spring, in a plot next to her father, but by then John was gone too.  The war had come calling, and he had embraced it.

*

John blinked.  He blinked again, and his vision cleared in fits and starts, white fading to orange fading to dim spots at the edge of his vision.  He stared out of the slit.  No more explosions bloomed in his view, though a haze of smoke and dirt and snow hung in the air.  The wind and snowfall had died as well, and the glow from the flames was long-dimmed.  Then the haze shifted, as though the wind was pushing aside a curtain, and she was there again, Emily, closer this time.

John stared, his eyes roaming her from hairline to ankles and back, stopping at the dark crease between her legs, and her full pink-tipped breasts.  She was more than that to him, but it had been so long, and seeing her again had pushed those tied feelings of love and lust to the surface, rose and razor bound together.  He felt himself move below the waist, that part of him defying rational thought and seeking refuge in animal instinct.  He snapped a look right again and stifled his thoughts.  The private beside him hadn’t noticed, and didn’t seem to care, instead huddled in his hollow behind the steel plate against any debris and shrapnel that might stray his way.

John turned back, and peered out again.  Emily was still there, watching him, pale skin untouched by the miasma surrounding her.  Their eyes met, and then she was moving, in stutters and flashes, first whole and perfect, then dead and rotting, as though reality were trying to remind her that she shouldn’t be – couldn’t be.  Her eyes were pitch black, the color of tar in sunlight, and when they turned on John, he could feel his bowels clench.  The pit was back in his stomach, and though he wanted to, he didn’t vomit, and then she was there, in front of that iron plate, and he could hear her breath, rasping and cold, behind it.  Emily squatted.  Perfect, rotting breasts swayed in front of her chest, her mouth a gaping not gaping wound in her skull, her eyes black pits of fever.  When she pressed her lips against the opening in the plate, the pit in John’s stomach let go, and he pissed himself.  He watched frost rime the opening of the port, watched her full lips open in anticipation.

So long…it’s been so long, he thought, and he felt something let go inside of him, like a gear stripped free of its machine.  He raised himself up and met her lips with his own, and tasted apple and cold earth.  For a moment, he thought he heard a sound like metal on metal, or a bell, then it was gone, and there was only Emily.