Seven-year-old Isabella Thompson pressed her hands into the cool, moist dirt of her grandfather's garden. She peeled away the surface like an old scab. Beneath, a reddish-brown earthworm squirmed ... [+]
He wakes with a veil of fading orange sunset falling over his face. Slowly, he raises a hand, twisting it through the shards of light. There are no callouses. No dry cracks of peeling skin. It is softened and gentle.
He lifts himself to stand, gaze lazing over a thick stretch of wild grass. It is silent. Trees line the burnt colored horizon in blackened, writhing silhouettes. Begonias litter the green in sparks of liquid red. He looks away, thoughts passing through his mind in a brush of shadow: he wishes he could stay. He doesn’t remember why he can’t.
The quiet carries an edge now—the kind that makes his skin prickle and his heartbeat echo in his throat. Smoke curls into his nose, and ahead he sees the grass pressed down to the earth. Atop are bodies. Bodies burned. They are laid neatly: side by side, arms crossed over chests, the weight of permanent slumber amongst their ribs. Butterfly weed strings through the gnarled crevices of singed bone and flesh, still smoking. He kneels, leaning closer.
“Medic!” The haunting cry rustles through the grass, chilling his skin with a kiss of frost and ill tasting bile.
He wakes—really, this time; at least he’s as certain as he can be in this world of white, red death—a breath mingling in crystalline snowflakes. The hole he’d dug to settle in for the night is as cold as it was when he first fell asleep. He lifts his heavy eyes up.
The others—soldiers—they’re cowering in holes dug into the frozen earth, hiding underneath the tall trees that surround them, biting into their knuckles with tears in their eyes. It’s then he notices that some of the trees are smoking, fractured stumps. Splattered chunks of charcoal-black smolder in the cold, specking the white forest floor.
He swallows dryly. How long has he been asleep? Snow layers his lashes and quaking lips. He reaches up through the frosty air with pink tinged hands. Calloused. Dry. Cracked. Peeling. There are no gloves. He’d given his away. And he’ll give and give and continue to give, toeing the line of survivability because it’s what he volunteered to do.
There’s a rumbling of the ground. A shake of the trees. His eyes close. He knows—another shake of the ground, another shaky inhale—he knows there’s sun through the dove-gray clouds and thick night.
“Medic!” echoes with a shrill hint of death.
He reaches for the bag cinched by his side—gauze, scissors, syringes. He blinks once, twice, and is on his feet in the third—running, stumbling in the dark with a hand pressed to his helmet, the other to his pack—chasing that distant echo on numb feet.
A fizzing crack pops, and a flash of light arcs through the night, reaching high above the trees. It hovers in the sky, winking wickedly, and explodes. A whistling shriek shatters the quiet. Light falls in all directions like death-bound comets. The streaks collide with the trees, the ground, the soldiers. Smoke tears through the air, poisoning lungs with how thick it hangs. Another flash of light claws upward, slicing through darkness, and a set of wallowing cries follow:
Medic. Medic. Medic.
He hears it from all directions. All people. Too many. Too loud. He’s got two hands and two hands only. Two badly shaking hands. But there’s one, the one he heard at the start. It’s a wet scream, all throaty and guttural. He knows what it means. But if he can get there—
A set of trees explode beside him in a shock of splinters and light, knocking him to the ground, forcing out a choked grunt. He gets to his feet with wood chips and cold dirt thick in his mouth and keeps going. Sweat sticks to his forehead. His breath is harsh in his own throat.
“What are you doing, Deimos? Get to cover!”
The shout comes from Deimos’ far left, and he spares a glance. Protius. He had said something the other night to Deimos while they suffered the frost together, shivering in a hole in the ground trying to make it to morning—something about Protius’ daughter. He had a picture of her: bright brown eyes and gap-toothed. It kept him alive, he’d said. His good luck charm.
Protius shoves another soldier forward toward a nearby, half-dug hole. He waves wildly. “Come on, Deimos!” In a flash of thunderous light, he’s gone. They’re both gone.
Deimos’ breath stutters. He knows this because he watches it come out gaspy in the frigid air. But he doesn’t weep. He only blinks and keeps going. Wipes a stiff hand across his face and moves on.
The call is weaker, but close enough that he can hear it.
A soldier lies in the snow, a mess of burgundy smears all around him while he squirms, kicking up white powder. A stake of wood juts from his belly.
Deimos reaches for his pack with fumbling fingers—gauze, scissors, syringes—but stops.
Begonia red. There’s too much.
He kneels, leaning closer anyway, taking the soldier in his arms and pressing his hands to the wound around the wood. The hot scorch of blood stings his frozen hands, but he doesn’t move. It seeps through the cracks of his fingers.
“Can you—” the soldier starts to blubber. He stops to muffle a choking sob, jerking uncontrollably, and tries again, “Can you take the wood out?”
It loosely translates in Deimos’ head to, Can you stop the pain. Not really a question, but a want for a state of being. It’s what they all ask.
He presses his hands down tighter. A vain effort. “No.”
“Oh,” the soldier whimpers in a cold, shuddering inhale. The heels of his worn boots scrape furrows in the snow. Oh. A point of singular realization. Just reconciliation with what’s there and what’s true and what’s staring him in the face. His next words are hush and intimately mumbled through his lips. “Doc, I’m gonna die.”
“Yes.” Deimos doesn’t lie. Not about this. “It’ll be better than here, though.” He wants to say more, but the words stop somewhere halfway up his bowed spine. Really, he doesn’t know. But it’s enough.
The soldier gives him a small laugh. “A favor, Doc?”
“Write to my brother?” Blood specks the soldier’s lips. He steels himself enough to utter, “He’ll need it. I know he will.”
“I always do.”
The soldier gives him a wobbling and wavering smile as he goes; as he fades and slips.
Whistles, pops, and cracks stop. Though, it still snows—insufferably gently.
A slow patter of footsteps sounds nearby. Someone’s coming, but the dead deserve more mourning than they’re given. More remembrance squeezed into a few, lingering, honey-sweet, slow seconds. He continues to press his hands to the cooling flesh and thickening blood, like he was still doing something relevant to crudely staple life to the snow.
A throat clears. “Doc, the lieutenant needs you back at the line.”
“He can wait.” It’s short and tart, like soured pomegranates on the tongue and teeth, sticking to the back of the throat.
Deimos turns, staring at the skinny, little messenger whose uniform is too big for him. His helmet nearly falls over his eyes. He’s a kid. Well, more of a kid than the rest of them are anyway, which is more of a kid than Deimos. And there’s probably a look in Deimos’ eye, because the kid shrinks under his gaze. There’s something hollow there. He knows. It’s why the others no longer meet his eyes, and why he doesn’t catch his reflection either.
“Fine,” he says, tongue darting out to wet his lip. “But you send someone back for him. Got it?”
The kid nods, helmet bobbing on his brow.
Deimos lifts himself to stand—with bloodied, calloused, dried, cracked, peeling hands neither soft nor gentle—gaze lazing over the thick stretch of wild snow. It is silent.