Jim sat on a scratchy seat in a long train car. The red sunlight coming through the windows hurt his head. It sliced through the trees that flashed past, split apart like a drop of blood in a glass of water. The carpet felt odd under Jim’s boots—too soft, as if he was standing on nothing. The carpet was grey. It stretched throughout his train compartment, covering every inch of the floor.
Jim shifted his weight. The green jacket across his shoulders was hot, and too heavy. Sweat pricked the inside of his collar like needles. His hat was too tight. A sickly-sweet smell filled Jim’s nostrils. He looked up. There was a woman in a grey dress, looking at him. She had red lipstick on.
“Sorry?” Jim said.
“…I was asking if you’d like anything to drink, sir,” the woman said. She smiled. She was pushing a shiny cart before her, laden with various dented metal cans.
“No,” Jim said. “No, thank you.” He tried to smile back, and looked away. Her perfume was making his head hurt. He took his hat off and put a hand to his temple.
Jim looked out the window. The train was gliding past a field covered in red flowers. Poppies, Jim thought. There was something about poppies he remembered, some old rhyme he’d heard once…“In Flanders fields the poppies blow…” He couldn’t remember the rest.
Jim rubbed his eyes, and looked out the window again. There was a large house in the middle of the field. It was the only house for miles around, painted white. Even from the window of the train, Jim could see the colossal steel fence surrounding it, peaked with barbed wire and punctuated by towers, their great spotlights turned off in the glow of day.
Jim looked away from the window as a flurried breeze brushed his shoulder. A young man stooped uncomfortably towards him, the navy blue jacket of his uniform hanging loosely from his thin shoulders. His flat-topped conductor’s cap was askew. He was several year younger than Jim. More than several years.
“What?” Jim said.
“…Sorry sir, I was askin’ for your ticket,” the young man said, squinting at him.
Jim reached inside his pocket. His hand felt stiff and clumsy; the little slip of paper felt tiny in his grip. He pulled it out and handed it to the conductor.
“Thank you, sir,” the young man said. “I wouldn’t ask, of course, you bein’ in uniform and all. I’m mighty proud of you men out there, sir, I am. I wouldn’t ask, but you never know what those terries’ll try next, eh? Always prepared, we’ve gotta be. So I gotta check your ticket, sir, so as to make sure you’re who you say you are.” He took the ticket and slid it through a device in his hand. The conductor looked at the device for a moment, his tongue sticking through his teeth.
“…Seems to be in order, sir,” the conductor was saying. He handed the ticket back to Jim. “Mighty proud to have you on board, sir. Mighty proud, I am.”
Jim felt the viscous paper between his thumb and forefinger. “Hey,” he blurted suddenly. His voice cracked slightly from the phlegm in the back of his throat. It sounded high and reedy to his own ears, like a nail on slate. “What happened to those old tickets, the ones they used to use, back…back then? The orange ones, made out of cardboard?”
“Got rid of ‘em, sir,” the conductor said. “Long time ago. Expensive to make. More expensive than the polyfiber membrane they use nowadays, anyhow.”
Jim looked at the ticket. It was colored a sickly pale white, almost translucent, stamped with a barcode.
“…How long you been gone, sir?” the conductor asked.
“I…” Jim shook his head staring at the ticket. “A while, I guess.” He crumpled it in his hand and shoved it back into the pocket of his heavy jacket. Outside the train, the poppy field had disappeared, now replaced by an impenetrable forest, its depths dark and mysterious, inscrutable. The tangled vines of the tree-line had been hacked mercilessly, or perhaps desperately, back from the edge of the railways tracks, and kept at bay with a wire-topped concrete barrier.
Jim looked up. The conductor was standing on the grey carpet, speaking into a microphone.
“—have a special passenger,” he was saying. He grinned maniacally at Jim. “This here on my right is an officer fresh back from killing terrorists in the wild East! This man here’s been in the barbaric outlands safe-guardin’ our liberties so’s as we could all enjoy the comforts of our lives back home! Give him a big hand, folks!”
Jim looked around. His train compartment was not crowded, filled sparsely with a motly arrangement of sullen occupants, each of his fellow passengers careful to separate themselves from the others with at least two empty seats. There was a smattering of applause.
“Serves ‘em right, filthy bastards!” one ruddy faced man behind Jim roared. He reached forward to slap Jim heartily on the shoulder. “Good on you, sonny.”
“Hey!” the conductor said suddenly to a pale-haired man. The man’s head was hanging, his forehead pressed to the seat in front of him. He raised his eyes slowly.
The conductor glared at him suspiciously. “Why aren’t you clappin’ for this soldier here?”
“I…I was asleep.”
“Then why don’tcha clap for him now?”
“Go on,” said the conductor. His eyes were wide. “Clap!” The other passengers craned their necks to catch a glimpse at the offender.
“Yeah, go on and clap,” demanded the ruddy-faced man.
“But…why?” The sleepy man looked confused.
The conductor face turned white. “Terrie!” he croaked. “You’re a terrie! You’re gonna slit our throats, or blow us up, or somethin’!”
In an instant, the train compartment burst into pandemonium before Jim’s eyes. A woman screamed. The conductor dropped his microphone and fumbled in his jacket for a moment before his hand emerged, clutching a revolver. He pointed it at the pale-haired man, his hand shaking.
“Admit it!” the conductor shrieked. “You’re a terrorist in disguise!”
“Filthy bastard!” the ruddy faced man had leapt to his feet, his fists clenched, but Jim could see terror in the whites of his eyes. Whether his stance was in preparation of fight or flight, Jim couldn’t tell.
The pale-haired man sat up as if he’d been struck by lightning. “No, I’m not, I’m not!” he cried. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the revolver.
“Show us your bomb, terrie!” an old woman screeched.
“Admit it!” the conductor screamed. Spittle flew from his mouth. The revolver trembled.
“Admit it!” roared the ruddy-faced man. Jim clutched at his ears.
“Admit it!” screeched the rest of the passengers in a wild cacophony, like a murder of crows around carrion.
“I’m not!” wept the pale-haired man. He brought his hands together fervently, over and over again. “See?” he said. “See? I’m clapping!”
The scene dissolved. The ruddy-faced man sat back down behind Jim, his breath coming out in great gusts of hot air. The conductor sighed in relief and put the revolver back in his jacket his hand trembling.
“Good,” he said. He spotted Jim again. “This man here, folks!” he cried. “Workin’ day and night to protect us! Let’s give ‘im a hand!” The next round of applause was far more enthusiastic than the first.
The sickly smell of perfume invaded Jim’s nostrils once again. He looked up to see the attendant in the grey skirt, smiling down at him. Her cart was gone.
“Excuse me?” Jim said.
“…I was saying that you’re so very brave, sir, going out to fight those terries in the East,” the woman said.
“Oh,” said Jim. The woman watched him expectantly. “…Thank you.”
“…It must’ve been terribly frightening,” she said. “fighting those terries. I’ve heard all sorts of terrible things about them.”
“I’ve heard they eat human flesh!” the conductor had been listening. “Raw!”
“Really?” the woman looked horrified. “Oh, how terrible.” She smiled at Jim again, her lipstick flashing bloodily in the afternoon sun. “You’re so very brave, killing them.”
“Did you kill many?” asked the conductor with relish. He sat in the seat in front of Jim and twisted around to look at him with wide eyes.
“Yes,” said Jim. “I suppose.” A pain behind his eyes was building, like water behind a dam, the rain of words filling his mind until it could barely contain itself…
The conductor’s face split into a delighted grin, baring a mismatched phalanx of teeth.
“It must have been terribly frightening,” the woman repeated. Another wave of her perfume hit Jim, accompanied by nausea. “…fighting those brutes,” she was saying. “It must’ve been terrible. Weren’t you frightened, being in the East so long? I’ve heard it does terribly strange things to people, deforming them and everything.”
“No…I…” Jim brought his hand up to his temple. It felt as if a rusty nail was being pounded through his pupil. “No. I…was decontaminated.” There was a sour taint in his mouth; the bitter taste of bile. Trees were flashing by the window, dragging at his gaze. Jim could feel the heat of attendant’s shadowed eyes above him. His hairline was damp with perspiration.
“You were what?” the woman asked.
The pressure in Jim’s skull just kept building, the pain becoming almost unbearable.
“Decontaminated, he said,” the conductor broke in knowledgeably. “It’s what they do to them soldiers who go to fight in the East, to keep ‘em from going strange when they come home. They say the air over there’s too hot for normal people. And all sandy too. And there ain’t any trees over there, I’ve heard. It’s what drives them terries nuts. Makes ‘em into monsters, it does. I’ve heard,” he said, leaning over the seat, “that some terries’ve got hoofs instead of feet, so as to walk on the sands an’ everything.” They both looked at Jim.
“Is that true?” asked the woman. “Oh, how terrible.”
Jim looked into her eyes, innocent brown eyes, their borders blackened with mascara, like the ash of a burning house. He tried to answer her question, but the pain in his head was like a barbed-wire fence, through which no thoughts could pass. He blinked as she stared at him.
“Did you ever see any terries with hooves?” the conductor prompted.
The dam broke. An image flashed before Jim’s throbbing eyes. The woman’s face was replaced by a simian grimace, broad and barbaric, lips pulled taut over canines sharp and shockingly white against the dark countenance, bared in a look of primeval wildness. Jim saw an apelike arm draw back, like an osprey before the dive, then plunge toward him; Jim felt the rusted bayonet sinking into his shoulder; felt the agony as muscle and sinew split apart. Jim saw his own arm rise, pale amidst the clouded murk; saw the Beretta M9 in his hand, the standard issue officer’s sidearm—black metal, slick with sweat and dirt and blood, pointing at the remorseless, bestial face; Jim felt the willing trigger give beneath his finger.
Jim blinked. The conductor was still watching him, the attendant still hanging anxiously at his elbow.
“…Sir?” he heard the conductor say.
“No.” Jim said. “No.”
Jim looked away, out the train window. The sun stabbed through the wreckage of a building as the train slid by; an old wooden house with empty windows, the glass stolen long ago. It had the remnants of a little fence around it; small slats of wood, barely four feet high, placed upright with tasteful delicacy. The fence had been slashed viciously away with machetes, its feeble promise of security executed with bitter malice, decades before. Fence posts lay rotting on the ground like bodies.
The conductor was speaking again, the incoherent words falling on Jim’s ears like artillery shells. The sweat around Jim’s collar felt like a knife to his throat. He pulled his flat-topped, tight green hat back on, and sat with his elbows on his knees. He closed his eyes and pressed his hands against his ears. The grey carpet beneath his heavy boots felt as insubstantial as a cloud.
The train came to a screeching halt as the steam rolled out onto the platform. The doors opened with the creaking hiss of old hydraulics. The voice of the conductor seared once more through Jim’s migraine: Thank you for choosin’ Trackbus A9100. Jim stumbled out of the train onto the platform.
His mother wouldn’t stop crying. She was frailer than Jim remembered, her hair turned a dead white, like a piece of driftwood tumbled across the ocean. She clung to his great green jacket. Jim held her, but his hands felt stiff and cold. Terribly cold. His mother lifted his thin face in both his hands and Jim looked into her eyes, green eyes, overflowing with tears. There were tears falling from Jim’s own eyes, as if his body had fallen prey to some grief he could no longer feel, that he had forgotten to feel.
Jim’s father barely looked at him. The man was thick-necked and short, shorter than Jim remembered, his bare cheeks red and contorted into what Jim thought was supposed to be a smile. His nervous eyes didn’t rest for long, but darted around the desolate station, from the lonely crowds of polyfiber-tickets blowing across the cobbles, to the cracked clock on the faded brick wall, whose three hands hung limply down in a state of eternal dejection. They reminded Jim of something, those eyes…rats, he thought, scuttling down dark alleys, but more than that, fear; the fear of a hunted beast.
Finally, the hunted eyes strayed to Jim’s own, but darted quickly away, as if regretting their decision. His father chuckled nervously, and stepped toward Jim in a great awkward rocking motion, like a ship plunging over the crest of a waterfall. Jim waited at the bottom, sole witness to the vast, pathetic spectacle.
“Good to have you back, my boy,” his father said, clapping him on the shoulder with a sweaty palm. He didn’t meet Jim’s eyes again.
“Now Linda,” he pried Jim’s mother off his chest. “Let go of the boy. “Let’s get away from this wretched place. It just stinks of sabotage, I’m sure of it. You wait, in a couple of days this place’ll be blown up, or gassed, or something. Those terries always think of something.”
Jim looked around him as he followed his parents out of the decrepit train station. There was no one else there. None of his fellow passengers had gotten off with him; the train bolted scarce before its door had hissed shut. Garbage overflowed from a trashcan leaned against the brick wall. The ticket booth was unmanned, replaced by an automated dispenser. In front of him, Jim’s father was speaking in a forcibly hearty tone, one hand clutching something beneath his jacket, but the drip, drip, drip of a leak in the ceiling broke the stream of words to pieces in Jim’s ears. Red graffiti glared at Jim from the walls, and he shut his eyes tight, trying to feel the uneven cobblestones beneath his thick, heavy boots, the stone ground sucking at his rubber soles, pulling him deeper into the earth.
The car bumped over cracks and potholes in the road. In the front seat, his father drove with one hand on the wheel, not speaking. His hand still clutched at the inside of his jacket as he scanned the road intently, the whites of his eyes glistening wetly in the red sunlight. In the back, Jim looked out the tinted, bulletproof window. The blunted sunset stabbed desperately at his eyes through cracks in the landscape, concrete buildings standing side by side like grim sentries–not too close, and separated by high fences. The wealthier houses were fortified with tall grey barricades and armored guards walking the perimeter. Poorer homes, their windows shattered and framed by tattered drapes, paint peeling from the walls, had spent the little they still posessed on rusting barbed wire fences. The streets were deserted except for the crows, who scattered into the sky before the oncoming car. Jim craned his neck to catch a glimpse of them as they wheeled above, cackling inaudibly, their coal-like plumage bathed in the blood of the sun. “The larks, still bravely singing, fly…” Jim rubbed his eyes as the line fell into place in his mind. The ash-clad larks laughed, high above.
…His body felt like fire, intangible, limbs burning with energy. He couldn’t hear; his ears were ringing, but he saw the snarl in those pale white canines, bared in hatred, as the desperate grapple for survival ensued. He was unaware of his body; saw nothing but those bright white teeth before him, felt nothing but dumb bloodlust, that hateful fury so particular to mankind. And then the shine of steel, speckled with red rust like a field of poppies, rising high above him. The moment between time, between thought, between hope and fear. And then the pain of the wound, burning like a brand of agony.
Jim blinked as the car went over a pothole. He sat up groggily. Outside, the private fortresses were gone, replaced by rubble. Demolished houses lined the grey street, great blocks of concrete lying about like dice cast for a game with no rules. One building remained standing–just barely–a church, its lofty parapet brought down upon the barren earth beside the lonesome structure. Shingles had cascaded from the roof onto the street. Stained glass littered the ground, lit bloodily by the sunset–the only droplets of color on a grey, dark scene. Jim realized with a start that he was looking at the street he had lived on.
His house still stood, separated from the rubble of its neighbors by a thick grey wall. A heavy steel mesh gate was dragged aside before the car with the protesting blare of a klaxon. Jim had to crane his neck to see the grey wall as they passed, to see how broken glass had been stuck into the wet concrete before it had dried, to see the rusted steel spikes sticking out of its side like bloody thorns, to see that even that was not enough; to see the coils and coils and coils of razor wire that slept atop the wall like dormant vipers.
The driveway was no longer concrete—just dirt, crunching beneath the wheels of the car. The house was white, or it had been—now it was grey, covered in a coat of dust and smog, the paint peeling, the rosebushes by the door unkempt, the hedges overgrown. The grass on the lawn had withered into sand. Jim looked away from the window, his eyes burning. There was pain in his head, but now in his chest also. He brought his head between his knees as the car rumbled onward.
…The gun in his hand, how had it gotten there? He didn’t know. He could feel the hot blood flowing from his riven shoulder, he could feel pain…but it was drowned out by rage; a great roaring hatred, a pressure in his chest that welled up until the blood was pounding in his ears, and his index felt numb on the trigger of his Beretta M9, and the metal felt slick, the grip hard and cold; he pointed it into the brutal face, at those pale white teeth and tugged, adrenaline pumping through his veins, blood roaring in his ears like the sound of thunder; no, like the sound of waves crashing upon jagged rocks, the overwhelming strength to crush ships into splinters wielded in his index finger…
The car door was open; his mother was shaking him, her hand on his shoulder.
“Come on inside, Jimmy,” she said. “You can sleep inside.”
Jim’s hat was askew. He straightened it with one hand as he pulled himself unsteadily out of the black car, into the dwindling sunlight.
“I’m not tired,” he heard himself say. “I’m fine.”
The dinner table was long, heavy mahogany, just as Jim remembered, though it was now marked and scarred by drops of hot wax and burns from fallen candles. The crystal chandelier was gone, the wallpaper peeling and lying on the ground, showing the bare grey sheetrock behind. His father had revealed the object he’d been clutching so fervently beneath his jacket—a Glock 19, now lying prone on the table.
Food was put before Jim. Tomato soup, from a tin can. His mother and father ate with him. The sounds of their aluminum spoons upon the inside of their bowls were like grenades, stabbing through Jim’s ears and into his skull.
“…Re-did the entire security system,” his father was saying, gesturing expansively with his spoon and looking everywhere about the crumbling room except at Jim. “…Got the wall built before the Masons left, just in case, you know.”
Jim looked up. “The Masons?” A tan face swam into his vague memory…a smile… Jim blinked, cursing himself for not remembering. It was almost as if a wall was in his mind, keeping him from his memories. He pushed at, and suddenly pain burst like before his eyes like a splash of napalm.
“…That Mr. Mason always had a shifty look, I thought,” Jim’s father was saying. “I never liked the looks of him. Got the look of a terrie, you know? You can see it in the eyes. Anyway, we installed the blast gate later, after the wrecking ball came in for the neighborhood, to keep them damn vagrants out. More room for us after all, eh? And just in case any of those terries make it past the wall, I’ve got this,” he patted the Glock on the table, “as well as an M4 in the bedroom, mind you. And a whole lot more downstairs. You know, I’ve been thinking of hooking up the car battery to the door-knob at night, just so as those bastards can’t take us by surprise, though I suppose everybody knows terries like to go through the windows….”
Jim looked down at the red liquid before him, his vision blurred by the screaming migraine. He had taken off his hat, but his hair felt sticky, sweat prickling his forehead. The window had been nailed up inexpertly with boards, but a red glow still burned angrily through the slats of wood. “To you, from failing hands, we throw the torch…” the black letters of the line leapt before his burning eyes. Where had he seen it? He felt the wall there, in his mind, but more memories slipped through, like streams of water shooting through cracks in the bulkhead of a sinking ship. Suddenly the usual scene drilled into his brain, but it felt artificial, like a movie. There was the bayonet, the rusted blade, rising high above him, glowing like fire…and suddenly it was fire, like a torch; suddenly Jim’s mind was filled with clouds, and even the dark, hateful face was blurred, the hideous white grin dissolving into a grimace of terror…
“…Are you alright, Jimmy?” his mother’s voice drifted lazily into Jim’s ears. “You’re awfully pale.”
“I can’t…remember,” Jim said. He looked up. “I can’t remember. I don’t think I want to.”
“Jim?” Jim’s father looked at him at last, from across the table. Brown eyes, Jim noticed, like the girl on the train. They were framed by a round, red face, twisted by worry and fear, but the eyes were as clear as a newborn calf’s. For a moment the face was replaced by the simian grimace, broad and barbaric, as if the old memory was trying to make itself heard, trying to convince him…but the image was warped and faded in Jim’s mind, like a picture dropped in water. Jim stood up unsteadily, his chair toppling to the floor behind him. He clutched at his head as the sound of its impact on the wooden floor shook the room. His mother was coming towards him, but her outstretched hands became claws in his mind, reaching for his throat; Jim stumbled away from her.
The porcelain toilet in the bathroom was cracked and leaking. Jim locked the door and sat down heavily on it, his head in his hands. Sweat cascaded from his throbbing brow, into his eyes, mixing with tears.
He rose violently from his seat, tearing at his heavy green jacket, buttons bursting and pinging off the linoleum tiles with a sound like machine guns. He threw the green jacket into the corner, medals and pins clashing together like cymbals.
…The face was glaring at him, just like always, but there was something wrong. The memory was faded in Jim’s mind, like an old film; there was something synthetic in the expression Jim had never noticed before. He couldn’t feel his arms, couldn’t feel the pain; but he still saw the Beretta in his hand, and, at that moment, he could still feel the trigger beneath his finger, still felt it yield…
He was standing before the cracked and dusty bathroom mirror, clothed in his white button-up shirt. He looked at the face that was his own; a gaunt specter stared back dumbly. The eyes were sunken and dark, the pupils wide, the irises colorless and grey. His lips were pale and thin, cheeks hollow and wizened, almost translucent.
…He’d seen the bayonet drawn back in the monster’s ape-like hand; seen it fall towards him, the rust glittering like burning stars. He’d felt the pain, he knew he’d felt the pain….
“I was decontaminated…” Jim said, again. He began to unbutton his shirt, one button at a time. His thin fingers fumbled at each button. His hands were trembling. At last the shirt came loose and fell from his thin frame onto upon the tiled ground. “They said I was decontaminated…”
…He’d felt his shoulder burst apart….
“Oh dear God,” Jim breathed.
In the treacherous reflection of the mirror his bony chest was bared, pallid in the dim light of the electric bulb. And adjacent to it, on his left shoulder, the bone poking out from beneath his collarbone, the skin smooth and unbroken; there was no scar to be seen.
“I was decontaminated,” said Jim, one last time. “Oh, God, what did they do to me?”
He stared into his own eyes, the wide pupils. One last time, he saw the barbaric grimace, the glowing canines bared, his own pale reflection replaced by the familiar glare. But the beast’s face blurred, even as it clouded his mind, until it too shattered, and the false memory faded before Jim’s stricken eyes. The bulkhead burst, and Jim saw the truth.
…A man, cowering before him. He was dressed in rags, curled up in the corner of a clay-walled hut, tears running down his cheeks. Jim towered over him, clad in a heavy bulletproof vest, blinding the man with his flash-light, reaching into his holster for the pistol he knew would be there. The man looked up at him, teeth flashing white in the glaring light of the LED. His eyes were brown. Dark hair, unkempt and matted, encroached on his forehead, beneath the cloth wrapped tight around his brow….
“Oh dear God,” whispered Jim. Memories flooded back, filling him, drowning him. “What have I done?”
…The Beretta M9 was in his hand, the metal slick and cold, his sweaty palm wrapped tight around the grip, his index tight against the trigger. The man looked up at him, and Jim looked into his brown eyes, and saw terror. The pistol felt heavy in his hand; for a moment Jim’s finger fell limp about the trigger, his arm lowered…but then his ear-piece whined, and the hand rose once more, the finger tightening. Suddenly there was another sound, a cry; Jim swung his light around and saw a tiny bundle on the ground, writhing in the pale white beam….
Jim picked up his green jacket, the pins and medals now all askance, and pulled it over his emaciated body. One last time, he reached into the jacket, into the inside pocket.
…The man was on his feet, the tears now gone from his eyes, though they sparkled on his cheeks; brown irises flashed defiantly in the light. Jim looked into the smooth, thin face and saw a boy no older than fifteen, rags hanging loosely from his skinny shoulders, his fists clenched. His fists clenched, facing down the barrel of a Beretta M9. His fists clenched, though the boy knew he didn’t stand a chance….
Jim felt the cold, slick metal beneath his palm, one last time. “If ye break faith with us who die…” He’d read the poem in elementary school, a century ago. He remembered now. He’d read it at his tiny desk, as the sun shone through the window….
The pain was gone from behind his eyes, but it had been replaced. He felt as if a shotgun had blasted a hole in his chest.
…The boy didn’t make a sound, he just ran straight at Jim, the tears not yet faded from his cheeks, his fists raised….
The index tugged, and Jim felt the willing trigger give beneath his finger.
As the blood red torch of the sun plunged, at last, beneath the weary horizon, the great grey clouds above burst their banks, and watered the fear-torn earth with their elusive harvest. Far below, as raindrops spattered off the rough-hewn husks of demolished buildings, only the crows still stalked the streets, their sullen silhouettes calling with broken voices into the misty gloom. And far away on a lonely field, poppies blew to and fro in the stormy wind, their crimson petals streaked with tears of rain.