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Running Through Fire
Author's note: Shell shock is serious and people need to understand the serious after-affects of war.
“We’re under fire,” he says.
I stare at him in wonder.
This is the moment we have all been waiting for: since we loaded on the busses to be shipped out into the battlefields, as we waited, motionless, in the mud, and as we stared into the fields, ready to fire at the first sign of life. Instead of the excitement and the feeling of patriotism that the posters back home promised, my entire being is filled to the brim with fear. Nothing like the fear of getting my test scores back after an exam. Not at all. This is something I have never felt before. It makes me nauseous. I am sick to my stomach.
“Willy?” Annie whispers with a look of concern.
I had forgotten my audience and become lost in my thoughts. As I look at the expectant faces staring up at me, their blank expressions remind me of. . .
“Um…,” I stammer as I bring myself back to reality. “Haha, sorry everyone. I seem to have lost my train of thought.” I smile sheepishly.
The people sitting in a circle around me laugh, but Annie cannot hide her concerned look. I smile reassuringly at her, and in the corner of the room, I see my mother frown.
“I think that is enough story telling for tonight William,” she says.
“But mother, I just got started with”-
But she cuts me off with the look on her face. It is a mix of worry and disappointment and horrified wonder and a million other things that I can’t quite place. In short, I know I have done something to upset her. I know not what, but I’ve done it.
“How about I make some coffee for everyone?” she says cheerily, and then, without looking at me, she softly says in a cold voice, “William, come help me.”
It is not difficult to make coffee and she certainly does not need my help. She usually forbids me to enter the kitchen because of my habitual clumsiness. However, she has not been herself since my return, so this strange behavior only slightly surprises me. I obey without question this time for fear of receiving an icy look to match her tone.
As I walk into the kitchen, my mother starts going about her usual work with an unusual stiffness. I wait until a murmur starts in the living room before I begin to speak.
“Mom, you aren’t yourself. What’s the matter?” I croon, trying not to upset her.
She ignores me and continues to go about her work.
“Mom? You aren’t yourself. Maybe I should do this,” I say while trying to coax the coffee pot from her hand.
“Me?!” She violently yanks the pot away from me, spilling water on the floor. “Not myself?! How could you say such a thing when we don’t hardly know you anymore?” She collapses on the floor, overcome by sobs.
The coffee pot shatters as she falls. I watch its movements in slow motion. I see it shatter into a hundred pieces as it makes contact with the floor. I can rewind it and replay it a million times in my head. Again and again. Over and over. Her angry words echo in my ears like a broken record.
I am back on the battlefield. I am crawling towards the commander. He is lying on the ground, motionless except for the movement of his chest up and down. Up and down. I know why he is on the ground; how he has gotten there. A bullet has gone straight through his chest. I have seen it penetrate his body in the middle of his chest and I have seen it leave through the middle of his back. I can rewind it and replay it a million times in my head. Again and again. Over and over. His unidentifiable moans echo in my ears like a broken record.
“WILLIAM!,” my mother shrieks.
I have done it again. I have become lost in my recollections.
“Mother, there’s no need to make a scene. I’ll clean up the pot and get you a new one. No need to cry over broken glass,” I try to say as calmly as possible as I contemplate the words that had just come out of her mouth.
She doesn’t know me anymore? Well, I’m the same person that walked through the front door not a month ago that they had seemed so happy to see. How could her feelings about me have changed so suddenly?
Before I know it, the kitchen is filled with unwanted bodies. How long have they been there? How long have I been standing here with my mother in a bundle on the floor?
“Will, it isn’t about the glass,” says a tear filled voice from behind me.
“It wasn’t about the car that you wrecked either,” says another, stronger voice. It’s about”-
“Car? What car?” I say before the strong voice can finish.
“Don’t you remember Willy? It was only last week,” says a small voice near the door. It must be Annie, my kid sister.
Why can’t I remember? I search and search through my memory for the wreck with no success. How can I have forgotten something like that? Then I realize that I have no recollection of last week, or of the previous week. I can only remember bits and pieces. I remember coming home and Annie giving me a big hug when she came home from school, but I can’t remember the wreck. Why can’t I…
“Will,” says a yet stronger voice from behind me. I try to see who it is, but I can’t turn around. My feet are made of lead.
“What happened out there?”
“Why wouldn’t you tell us the truth at first?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Why are you acting like this?”
Voices. Voices. They are everywhere. They are closing in on me. Visions of carnage run through my head. I am back on the battlefield. I am alone with the bodies of my comrades strewn about me. Someone is screaming my name. Then everything is black as I fall into a sea of darkness.
“I’m going up to check on him,” I say with resolve as I grab the keys lying on the table.
“Do you really think that’s a good idea Margie? I mean, with what happened last night… I mean wow…What a nut,” Zoey says with a giggle and a smiling voice. “Besides, Al-pal won’t be very happy when he finds out that you went to visit crazy Willy again.”
“You know Alex hates it when you call him that and Will isn’t crazy,” I say with a frown, “and Alex won’t be angry because no one will tell him that I went to see Will.”
“Fine Marge, but I really don’t think it’s a good idea. You could get hurt or something.”
“Will won’t hurt me. He’s my friend and I’m going to see him,” I say stubbornly as I walk out the door into the driveway. Zoey follows me and stands in the door way.
“Maybe he sees you as more than a friend. Maybe he wants a crazy buddy to sit in his padded room with him,” she teases. “Al-pal will hear about this, you know, and he won’t be very happy when he learns you’re replacing him with a crazie.”
Well Alex will just have to deal, I think to myself as I turn the key in the ignition. He’s been way too over protective lately. Will is just a friend. I’ve known him forever. It is true that we were dating before he left, but that’s over and we’re just friends.
I continue to contemplate this matter as I pull into the driveway at Will’s parent’s place. I know it very well. The brick walls of the warm home welcome me in. I just hope that Mrs. Thompson is feeling as welcoming today. I can understand her stress because of Will coming back not so long ago, but she really needs to lighten up.
What happened here last night? I wonder as I walk up the front steps and ring the doorbell. What exactly was Zoey alluding to earlier?
An exhausted looking Mrs. Thompson answers the door.
“Margaret?” she says with a look of surprise.
“Yeah Mrs. Thompson, you look awfully tired… Would you like help with anything?” I say with concern.
“Help? Yes. That would be nice. You always were a sweet girl Margie.”
“Um, thanks Mrs. Thompson. Where’s Will? I came over to see him.”
“Come right in. Would you like some tea? I’ll make some tea.”
“I am really fine, honestly. Where is Will? I need to see him,” I say a bit louder, hoping to get her attention.
“You can’t see Will. You will have to come back later,” Mrs. Thompson says as she begins to usher me towards the door, “Goodbye Margaret.”
“What? I just got here. I need to see Will. I promised him that I would see him as soon as I got back from visiting my parents.” I start to push my way towards the stairs.
“Well tell your parents hello for me,” Mrs. Thompson says as she pushes me not very gently out the door.
Well that was strange, I think to myself. She knows that my parents don’t live here anymore. She was that one that threw that going away party for them last summer. I guess I’ll just have to come back later to see Will. I wonder why she wouldn’t let me see him and was reluctant to talk about him. Very strange.
I get back to the house and see Charlie’s red car in the driveway. Wherever Charlie is, Alex is. Now I’m in trouble…
“Look who the cat dragged in,” booms Charlie’s voice as I try to sneak in the door. There’s no getting past him.
“Hey,” I say without looking at Alex. I don’t need to. I can feel his look of disapproval boring into me.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were back? We had to get the information from Zoey,” says Alex. “I thought I asked you to wait until all of us could go to see crazy Willy.”
“He’s not crazy!” I retort.
“Oooo, someone’s touchy.”
“Shut up Charlie, you idiot,” Alex mutters. He is obviously unhappy about my response to seeing him for the first time in a month and a half.
“Oh stop moping Alex. It isn’t Margie’s fault that she’d rather go see her ex instead of give you a hello kiss,” mocks Zoey.
Feeling a little guilty, I walk over to Alex and give him a kiss on the cheek. I know that’s not what he wanted, but I’m not in the mood right now.
“Well, you shouldn’t be worried Alex. Margie didn’t spend too much time with her ex-lover so don’t be too jealous,” says Charlie as I walk into the kitchen of my parent’s old house that Zoey and I now share.
“Shut up Charlie,” Alex mutters. “Why did you come back so early Margie?”
“I um…” I couldn’t decide whether to tell them the truth or not. “He’s sleeping so I’ll go back later.” Lies.
“And I’m awfully tired. I think I’ll go upstairs to bed.” More lies. I have to see Will.
“Can Alex and I accompany you?” Charlie says with a smirk as I head for the stairs.
“Shut up you stupid lard.” I turn around to see Zoey give Charlie a punch on the arm and then a smile and then a kiss. Always the same with those two.
“Sorry Alex. You can crash here tonight, but I really am tired.” Just because we have a house and don’t live in dorms, it doesn’t mean that Alex and Charlie can crash over here whenever they want, but they still do. Their parents are wasting their money spent on college dorms for the boys.
I head up to my room and close the door. I wait for the conversation to pick back up and walk towards the window. There is a tree there that is easy to climb down. Wow, I can’t believe that I’m really going to sneak out of my own house. But I have to see him. There is something the matter. And I fully intend on finding out exactly what it is.
I awake in my room, only illuminated by the soft glow of the late afternoon sun coming from beneath the heavy curtains on my window. It is the same as always except for the glass of chocolate milk on the bedside table. Mom. She doesn’t realize that I’m not five anymore.
I don’t really feel like getting up. I never do. I could just lie here forever in the dark peace where nothing can trigger the memories. The terrible flashbacks that have been haunting me the entire time I’ve been home.
But I know that I must rise. I have the sharp feeling that there is something I should be doing. Something that I’m forgetting. But I dismiss it. I forget lots of things. I probably just didn’t do my laundry or something like that. Something trivial. Something that doesn’t differentiate between life or death. Surviving or not.
And here I go again. Getting lost in my thoughts. When will I finally get a serious grip on reality? Oh well, I just need time, I guess. At least that’s what everyone says.
I swing my legs over the side of my bed and stand to make my way out of the room. The doorknob is cold in my hand as I slowly turn it.
As I walk towards the stairs, I hear voices in the front hallway:
“Where is Will? I need to see him.”
“You can’t see Will. You will have to come back later. Goodbye Margaret.”
“What? I just got here. I need to see Will. I promised him that I would see him as soon as I got back from visiting my parents.”
“Well tell your parents hello for me.”
The door slams.
Well one voice was my mother, and the other one was someone I was once very close to, but I can’t quite remember who. No matter, I don’t feel like seeing anyone right now anyhow.
“Mom, who was that?” I ask as I make my way down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Oh it was no one. Nothing you need to worry about,” she says with a smile.
I get that tugging feeling again. I’m forgetting something. I dismiss it, again.
“What can I make you? You must be hungry,” says the ever-smiling mouth of my mother.
“I’ll just have some coffee, thanks Mom.”
“I’ll make some tea,” she replies with a strange, determined look in her eyes.
“But Mom, you know I don’t like tea, can I just have some coffee please?” That’s strange, she usually isn’t insistent about these sorts of things.
“We’re out,” she says a little forcibly.
“No we aren’t. I can see the tin of coffee sitting on the counter. I’ll just make it if you really don’t want to Mom.” I approach the coffee maker, but the pot isn’t sitting in its usual spot. I look in the sink, but it isn’t there either.
“Mom, where is the coffee pot?” But she is no longer in the room.
I walk out into the dining room, and she is busy polishing wine glasses. Her cheeks are flushed, as if she was crying only seconds ago.
“Mom? Are you alright?” I ask with concern.
“Me? Oh, don’t be silly, of course I’m fine. What ever led you to think otherwise?” She says with a smile. Always that smile That same forced smile. The same smile that corpses sometimes seem to have. Like they are mocking you. As if they are the lucky ones. At least they don’t have to fight anymore. They escaped.
“William, stop that!” scolds a cold voice from behind me.
I look at the table. All of the recently polished wine glasses are stacked on top of each other creating a pyramid that seems as if it might topple at any second. I stare at it blankly. That definitely was not there a few seconds ago. I turn around to look into the face of my mother who seems to think that I stacked the glasses like that. The odd thing is that I never recall touching a single glass.
“Mom? Is something wrong with me?”
“Of course not, William. You’re my boy, my perfect boy, and you always will be”, she replies with a smile.
Always a smile. Always perfect. Perfect.
Wow, this is what robbers must feel like. I walked all the way over to the Thompson’s house, and now I’m trying to find an easy way up to Will’s window. I just hope I remember which one it is. There’s no way I’ll make it up there… Maybe the back door? I check it. It’s unlocked. As I step into the empty living room, I hear voices in the direction of what I remember to be the dining room.
“Me? Oh, don’t be silly, of course I’m fine. What ever led you to think otherwise?” That must be Mrs. Thompson.
Pause. I strain my ears to hear more.
“William, stop that!” Looks like I didn’t need to strain…
Pause. Who on earth is she talking to?
“Mom? Is something wrong with me?” Ah, William. Is there something wrong with him?
“Of course not, William. You’re my boy, my perfect boy, and you always will be.” I can hear that smile in her voice again. The same one she gave me this afternoon when she wasn’t making any sense. There really must be something wrong or she wouldn’t try to hide it with that smile…
Uh oh, footsteps are headed my direction. I duck behind the couch and peer underneath.
One set of size twelve feet in socks with holes in them; that must be William, and knowing him, he’s about to sit down on the couch I’m hiding behind turn on any sport he can find. Alright, here he goes, I see the couch quiver as he sits down and I listen for the sound of the television as it whirrs to life. Silence… I wait a total of fifteen minutes of pure silence. Nothing. I still see his feet, so he for sure hasn’t left… Should I chance a peek at him? I don’t hear Mrs. Thompson, so she must have gone upstairs. Here goes nothing…
I raise my eyes barely above the couch, so I am staring at the back of his head. “Will?” I whisper. No response.
“Will,” I say a little louder. Still nothing.
I peek around the couch so I can see the edge of his face. “Oh my God…” I say to myself.
His face is contorted in torment, his eyes glazed over. This is not an expression I have ever seen on Will’s face before. He was always such a happy person.
“What on Earth happened to you out there?” I softly croon, mostly to myself, as I reach out to stroke the side of his face.
His robin egg blue eyes snap into focus and his face switches into an expression of first calm and then shock.
“Who are you? What are you doing here? How did you get in?” He asks each question quickly and urgently with an interrogative quality.
“How do you know my name?!” He says in a raised voice, his eyes filled to the brim with panic.
“Shhh! Will, hush, your mother will hear!” I say as I cover his mouth with my hand. His eyes grow even wider. I didn’t think that was possible… Anyhow, what am I supposed to do with this? He doesn’t even remember me… Best start answering his questions I suppose.
“I’m Margie, remember? We were friends all throughout our childhood. We dated for some time. Everyone thought we’d be together forever, but then you left… I came today because I wanted to see you. As for how I got in, you don’t lock your back door.”
I relax my hold on him as I speak, seeing that he has no intention of struggling any longer.
“Margie?” He whispers, his eyes filled with wonder, as if he has never seen anything like me in his life; as if I am the breath of life itself after he almost drowned to death.
“Yes Will, it’s me,” I say with a soft smile, remembering all of our times together.
“You have to get out of here!” He urges as he almost yanks my arm off while pulling me towards the door.
“Will, calm down! What’s the rush? Don’t you want to see me?” He takes one longing look at my face, but then shakes his head.
“Margie, you can’t stay. She wouldn’t like it,” he says with disappointment in his eyes.
“She? As in your mother? I don’t think she would mind. She always seemed to like me alright before… well, you know.”
I’m for sure not afraid of Mrs. Thompson, and I don’t ever remember Will being particularly mindful of her feelings before. He always seemed more interested in annoying her than anything.
“She doesn’t like it when I have visitors... You’d better go before she comes back downstairs.”
He truly does seem genuinely afraid. Maybe I should try a soothing approach…
“Will, I’m not leaving. I want to see you. Talk to you! I’ve missed you so much,” I say in the sweetest possible tone I can muster. I’m not usually a peaches and cream kind of person, so it’s not exactly an easy thing to do. I feel like I’m talking to a lost puppy. Well, but Will kind of looks that way right now, so I suppose it’s fitting.
“No, no, no, you have to go!” he says even more urgently.
“Will, I’m staying.” An ultimatum. There’s no way I’m leaving until I’ve got some answers.
“Well, fine. Then I’ll have to hide you until there’s a chance to get you upstairs. She doesn’t go upstairs much when I’m sleeping. At least I don’t think she does…”
Uncertainty? Surely he can remember something like that… “Okay, sure.”
“Here she comes! Get behind the couch!”
Sure enough, the sound of high-heeled footsteps comes from the stairs. I duck behind the couch.
What on earth am I going to do?! He can’t remember last week. Hell, he can’t even remember yesterday! All he remembers are those damned fields. The ones he mutters about in his sleep.
Imagine what the neighbors will think. Imagine what they already think! He had been doing so well. He was remembering things. He seemed alright about the crash, but then he had to go and ruin everything at the get together!
He can’t even control his actions! The way he stacked those wine glasses… It was like he was a machine! And that look. The one like he is looking death in the face. Well, maybe he is. What I wouldn’t give to see what he sees…
But my son! Mine! He was supposed to be a war hero. A hero. Instead, he comes back a loon.
I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. I make him hot meals every night. I try to help him avoid things that will trigger the memories. Anything violent is completely out of the question. I act normal around him. Well, as normal as I can. But it has been a month! A whole month! Will he ever recover?
I want my boy back: the one that liked to walk up to the drug store and get a coke with the guys, the one that took pretty girls to the drive in, the one that would say good morning to me and ask if I needed help with breakfast.
I look down and the laundry I was supposed to ironing is spread across the floor like a blanket. I… I didn’t do that. At least, I don’t remember doing that… Am I going crazy too?
This stranger that is hiding behind the couch seems to have struck something in me. The sound of her name brings me this bubbly feeling inside and makes me feel warm all over. Margie… What a beautiful name… Margie… But now my mother is coming into the room! And if she sees that I have a visitor well then she’ll blow me to bits. Just like the rest of my regiment… Blown to bits…
“William,” says an insistent voice. My mother. Oh boy, here it comes… She knows about Margie… I look at her with the most innocent looking face I can muster.
“William, what on Earth were you watching? I know you flipped the Television off the second you heard me coming down the steps, now what exactly were you watching?”
“Ummm…” Quick, I’ve gotta think of something! “I don’t remember.” There, that usually gets her off of my tail.
“Oh, William…” She gets all teary eyed again. “William, maybe you should get some more sleep.” she says with determination.
What is it with her? Tears and determination? And she says I’m acting strange? Oh well, it’s the perfect excuse.
“Sure Mom, I’ll go up in a bit.” I give her a smile that I hope is convincing.
“Alright, but don’t take too long, dear.” She walks into the kitchen.
Quick! This is our chance! I motion to Margie behind the couch and point to the stairs. She dashes up while I lumber over lazily. Hopefully my mom won’t come out to check on me or anything. Success! We made it up the stairs with Margie leading the way. She goes straight to my room. How did she know which one was mine?
“Alright Will, we need to talk,” she says as she closes the door. Talk? About what?
“What’s going on with your mother? With you? You act like you don’t remember me… What is going on?” she inquires as she sits down on my bed.
Questions… So many questions… I can’t do anything but blankly stare at her. I stare at this beautiful girl that my body wants to remember, but my brain has overlapped with memories of death. That’s all my memories are. It’s just like when you accidentally record over another movie on a tape. There are little pieces of the original picture that peep through at the pauses, but other than that, the original film is completely lost. Is that what I am? A ruined tape?
I snap back to reality. She’s got her hand on my face again with a concerned look on hers. I flinch away.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to… It’s just that…”she stammers, and for some reason, my body knows what to do when my brain is utterly and completely lost. I reach out and touch her lips with my finger.
“I know” I say in a calming voice that I don’t recognize, and I gently touch my lips to hers. Her lips yield to mine and for a split second we are in perfect embrace. She pulls away.
Not knowing what she is going to say next I, my body acting again in autopilot, wrap her in my arms. This feels right. Perfect. Her body fits perfectly to mine like a puzzle piece. My missing piece…
I have a boyfriend! What am I supposed to do! He goes and kisses me and it feels so perfect… NO! Alex! I love him. I really do. I have to… But Will… Our past… And now he just passed out! He was holding me and all was right with the world and then he just goes and faints on me! Pardon me if I’m going a little crazy, but really! What am I supposed to do!
“Will!” I whisper urgently while shaking him gently and then harder and harder as I become more frantic.
“Oh, come on Will, don’t do this to me… Please… Will please…” not knowing what to do, I hold his head in my lap and rock back and forth gently.
“Margie…” he moans almost inaudibly, “Margie… please… please don’t go…”
“Will! Will, I’m right here, I’m not going anywhere, Will please, what’s wrong?” What one earth is going on here? He just passed out and now he’s talking about me leaving? He’s the one who left…
He slowly opens his eyes and looks at me, this time with recognition.
“Margie, you’ve been away for a long time. I missed you.”
“Will, what are you talking about?” Maybe he really is crazy like they said…
“No, wait, it’s me who has been gone isn’t it. I have been away.” He sits up and looks me in the eye.
“Yes Will, you went to fight the war.” Now he’s starting to make some sense.
“No, no, not that. I mean, away. I remember going to the war, and I kind of remember coming home, but not completely. I was watching my life from the outside. Margie, I think I left a piece of me out there, on the battlefield, but I think you’re filling it in.”
Oh no, not this. I can’t do this. I can’t fall in love with him. Not again.
“Margie, I’ve been so empty. Nothing has been holding me to this Earth. I have been halfway between dead and alive, but you’re holding me here. And I want to stay here. On Earth. With you.”
The look in his eyes is crystal clear and determined. What am I going to do with this?
“Will, you can’t do this to me. My life went on after you left. I have… someone. Will, I can’t be your anchor. You have to find someone else. I just… I can’t, okay?”
And then it happens… He reaches for me with this look on his face, a look with fight and hope and promise all mixed together, but then goes as limp as a noodle. His eyes roll back in his head and he flops back on the bed.
“WILL!” I scream, completely forgetting that my presence in his room is supposed to be a secret. The pounding of heels running up the stairs doesn’t faze me.
Everything that happens next is in a sort of contorted tableau. The concerned mother starts screaming. I can’t hear her. He wakes up and starts screaming. He doesn’t know me. I can’t hear him either. They both yell at me to GET OUT but I can’t budge.
I sit still as stone on his bed while the chaos continues around me with one thought running through my mind. I could have saved him. I see the scene again. I was his anchor. I watch the scene in my mind in slow motion. I can rewind it and replay it a million times in my head. Again and again. Over and over. His pleading moans Margie… Please… Please don’t go echo in my ears like a broken record.