by Dan Grace
It took several attempts to get back up.
He wasn’t sure if he’d got every last piece. The light was fading fast and the single bare bulb had blown leaving only the caustic glow of the television to guide him.
His eyes returned to the screen.
There they stood, shoulder to shoulder in the rain. A regiment of ghouls. Withered old men towered over by generals and other assorted dignitaries who solemnly strode between the ranks.
And there he was again, third from the right. Older, much older, but definitely him.
It couldn’t be him.
Albert removed his glasses, wiped the lenses on his tie and settled them back across the bridge of his nose. The world shifted its focus, the camera had moved on. Other men filled the screen now.
The kettle finished on its familiar note of bubble and click. Reaching for the last mug, Albert tried to conjure up his face, the way it had appeared back then. Other images drifted up and settled on the surface of his mind.
Placing his mug down carefully, Albert settled into his chair and picked up the remote. He clicked the buttons but nothing happened; the batteries were dead. His eyes were drawn to a small cut just below the knuckle on the index finger of his right hand, blood welling up and spreading across the surface of his skin. His chest tightened, an anxious reflex he couldn’t suppress.
As he watched, a gentle light began to flow from the wound. Stumbling up from his chair, Albert slung a kitchen drawer open searching for plasters, tissue, anything to dress the wound, to stop the light.
The sun burst over the mountains. It climbed to its zenith far faster here than back home. Albert took the final drag of his cigarette and raised his hands to warm them in the day’s new light. It had been another quiet night, his carbine rested cold against the trunk of a tree. As the sun swept through the olive groves he smiled to himself.
“Alright Al, go get some kip.”
“Oh, David! Don’t creep up on me like that!”
“Good thing I’m not one of them. You’d be dead.”
“Ain’t none of them for miles and you know that you bastard, so don’t go giving me that.”
David grinned and slapped Albert on the shoulder.
“You never know with those buggers Al, you never know.”
“Yeah well, don’t do that. Makes a man jumpy. If I’d o’ had my carbine to hand…”
David shifted his pack from his back to the dirt floor, rooted around in it for a minute and pulled out a pair of sunglasses.
“Course it has. Been kicking my heels all night long, singing songs over and over, standing on one leg, all that, trying not to nod off.”
David put the glasses on and looked out across the farmland and shivered.
“Haven’t got any ciggies have you? Just a couple until my next parcel.”
Albert rolled his eyes and reached inside his pack.
“There, but that’s the last you’ll get from me.”
“Cheers Al, you’re a good pal.”
David lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.
“Better. Night watch, eh? Getting used to it now?”
“Do you ever get used to it?”
“No. Not really. Not like back home, eh?”
“Nothing like back home.”
“You go get some sleep now, you’re on the Ward this afternoon.”
As Albert walked back to the camp men were already out of their tents sprawling shirtless in the sun, soaking it in. One of them stood, mirror propped on the branch of an olive tree, razor swishing in a water-filled can. His jacket hung from a higher branch, two stripes on its arm, patches covering the holes that had worn in its fabric.
There was simply more light here, Albert had decided. It penetrated everything, even the bombed out farmhouse glowed. If only it were possible to collect it, he thought, just put it in your pocket and take it with you. They wouldn’t miss it here, there was so much of it.
The television was still on. Albert couldn’t make out what the program was. His back hurt. This seat wasn’t designed for sleeping in. Half a mug of cold tea sat on the arm. He found his glasses and put them on. The plaster on the ceiling was peeling. He’d been thinking about something, something important, before he’d drifted off. What was it?
The light in everything.
It was gone eleven. The night was young. Albert pulled himself up and refilled the kettle.
The television repeated the day’s news. There was the footage from the parade, the newsreader moved rapidly from one topic to another, short bursts in a tone meant to convey a leaden, head-shaking seriousness. Two minutes for a war in a distant place long past, two minutes for a never ending war in an equally distant place, two minutes on why we should be using our credit cards more.
“So you actually seen one of them?”
David dropped his cigarette, ground the stub out under his boot and smiled at Albert.
“What do they look like?”
“A bit like you or me. From a distance anyway. Never seen ’em up close.”
He laughed sharply. Albert watched him pick up a clean towel and fold it onto the trolley.
“How d’you mean?”
“Listen, mate. Why are you here, fighting?”
“It’s a war, ain’t it? For home, freedom, same as you right?”
“Yes. Right… Look you’ll see things…well, might make you think twice about it all. I mean just keep it straight in your head. Why we’re here, why we’re fighting.”
“Why we’re folding towels?”
That sharp laugh again.
“Yep. Why we’re folding towels.”
Albert shook his head and grabbed another towel. At least the patients were quiet today. The silence of the ward was broken only by the squeaking of rubber soles on the polished floor. Large windows allowed light to pour in and saturate the amputees and wounded.
“What were you before?”
“All this. The war. Before you signed up.”
“Hmm. The war. Feels like this is all I’ve ever done some days. Well, let me tell you my young friend, I was training to be a tailor.” David stepped back and pulled at imaginary braces. “Just like my old man.”
“That what you wanted to do?”
“I guess. What about you?”
“Didn’t think ’bout it much, figured like you, I’d follow my dad into the trade. He’s a carpenter.”
“I suppose, but this is better ain’t it, fighting for home and all that? Beats making another bloody wardrobe anyway. This is an adventure, right?”
“Wardrobes are important too I would say.”
Albert folded another towel. An ambulance roared up in a cloud of dust outside.
“Not that important.”
The doors swung open and a trolley squealed in, the light catching its sharp metal edges. A body was curled on its surface. Unfamiliar curses clattered from its mouth. They stood and watched him pass.
“Well…got to see your first one there then,” said David, and he turned back to the towels.
Albert stood at the window. Rain smeared red lights the length of the street. He let his head rest against the cool glass. So many lives, all moving in different directions.
It wasn’t him of course, on parade with all those other relics, he’d been mistaken. Wishful thinking that was all. At night strange thoughts got into your head. Traffic lights became your whole world, red amber green, red amber green, over and over and over, illuminating the room. He rubbed the colours from his eyes, felt the rough edge of the plaster on his finger against his eyelid.
Always raining here, he thought.
Why they’d brought him here Albert had no idea. Weren’t they supposed to be killing them, not fixing them? He asked David, but he’d just shrugged and went back to folding towels.
As in any situation where information is scarce, rumours began to circulate. He was a deserter, shot by the sentry as he tried to hand himself over. He’d been captured while spying on the base. He was the last of a group sent behind their lines to sabotage equipment, but they’d been discovered and wiped out by our boys.
Men in plain clothes came to question him.
Albert was assigned to the rota for guard duty on the prisoner’s room. Nausea gripped him, twisted him this way and that, set his heart beating so fast that he felt that blood might seep from the pores in his skin.
Face to face with the enemy at last.
When he arrived for his shift David was standing outside the door. He yawned, pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and smiled as he saw Albert approach.
“Right, I’m off to bed.”
David stopped and turned.
“What do I do?”
“What do you do? Well, just stand there and make sure he doesn’t make a run for it, maybe pop your head round every half hour or so. Right? Oh, and take these.”
He handed Albert his sunglasses.
Albert watched him leave and then turned the door handle as quietly as he could and peered into the tiny room.
The enemy sat smiling in a narrow cot, his arm in a sling bound tight to his chest. His skin was pale, black hair cropped short and stubble beginning to show on his chin. He could have been anyone.
He nodded at a bag hanging besides his head.
He gestured at the bag again. Albert stepped towards him, tightening his grip on his gun. Light streamed in through the window ricocheting off the buckle of the bag. Inside was a pack of cigarettes, a brand that Albert didn’t recognise. There were two left. Albert lit them both and gave one to the enemy. They sat in silence as smoke slowly filled the room, its unpredictable curls trapped by the day’s harsh glare.
Albert wondered how many memories an old man’s head could hold. Quite a few it seemed, but a bit like those extra channels they’d convinced him he needed, his mind repeated only the things he didn’t want to see again.
It was cold outside. The rain had turned to a fine mist that penetrated every attempt to keep it out. Albert stepped off the street through whooshing doors into the bright neon lights. Fellow insomniacs drifted from aisle to aisle, wearily searching among the brightly packaged goods. The till was manned by a boy, pale skinned and sickly looking. Albert stepped up to the counter.
“Twenty Superkings please.”
As the boy reached for a packet from the shelf behind him Albert rummaged through his pockets and slowly counted the change out. The boy pulled the change across the desk and dropped it into the various chambers of the till drawer.
Stepping back through the doors into the rain Albert lit a cigarette and smiled. It was good to get out, to talk to people.
They were picked by drawing lots. David hadn’t said a word, just handed the sunglasses to him. Albert stepped out of the barracks into the morning gloom. Vast anvil-shaped clouds sat in the distance like gods atop the mountains. His hands shook in the chill morning air.
An officer arrived and led them down to the ward. The enemy was dressed and ready, hands tied behind his back. He stared at each of them in turn as they formed up around him. The officer gave the order and they marched him down to the olive grove.
Don’t think, Albert thought. And yet he saw the way his enemy’s eyes fluttered shut and his mouth moved in a quick prayer. The small scar below his lip.
As one they lifted their guns, hands and arms all moving together with a mechanical precision. Albert felt the carbine nestling into his shoulder. His mind continued on its own trajectory, free of his body, thoughts rattling and rebounding against the edges of his awareness like dice in a tin mug.
The heart? The head? Over his shoulder?
The gun went off in his hands and the enemy slumped to the ground.
Albert’s hands had stopped shaking, a calm had settled across everything. From beneath the dead body a gentle light had begun to seep.
The officer was saying something, but Albert moved towards the body, towards the light. He rolled the dead prisoner onto his back. Four bullet holes, two in the chest, one in the leg, the other in his arm, each spilling yellow light, no blood. He pushed David’s sunglasses back on top of his head.
The officer was shouting something now.
“What…” was all Albert could manage.
The holes stretched, snapping open and folding back at impossible speed as the body dissolved leaving nothing but bright yellow light pouring in through his eyes, saturating every part of him.
The streets were dead now, not a soul moving in these odd hours before dawn. Albert moved away from the window and crossed the worn carpet to the medicine cabinet above the sink.
The pock marked mirror showed a face past its best. It surprised him every time he saw it if he was honest. He always half expected to see that other, younger him staring back, asking questions, curious and gullible.
He washed the tablets down with a glass of yellowish water. The television was still on. He’d never found any batteries for the remote. Twenty-four hour news spun its circles on the screen.
“Same old rubbish,” he muttered and pulled the plug to turn it off.
The room fell silent.
His chair turned to face the window, Albert sat and watched the bright yellow light of the sun as it climbed above the tower blocks and burnt the world clean.
“The Light in Everything” © 2012 Dan Grace
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
(Image credit: NPS Photo, Wikimedia Commons)