A WHISPER IN THE WIND spoke the names of lost souls and flowed icily across the land, like wind chills of a thousand winters that surged onto a summer’s hellfire, and slowly faded with the memories of the dead. It traveled the land as a specter’s voice and went over the highest mountain and through the lowest valley. Salvation did not ring in the hymns of the scorned gusts, only sorrow and dissonance, and with it, the crackling of an eternal flame that resounded throughout the ages. There was no peace here, and the far off trees all rustled from an unseen carnage with murmurs of retribution that grew heavy on the land. It was the mark of a devastating war that left the world a barren place, one that lingered in death and decay and sent out its Mistral messengers until they clashed with the southern sands and rattled every bone in the misfits of the Western Wastelands.
Wind woke Chase with an eerie macabre, almost as if a dark angel had breathed life back into his body, and he gasped like the rising dead. His eyes and lips were parched and he was face down in the sand with ripped and bloodied clothes. The weight of a thousand worlds fell upon his neck as he tried to look around with a cough as dry as the desert’s day. The wasteland’s golden dunes drew the unpredictability of the world on and endless canvas—a world Chase no longer knew.
Distant vultures screamed and gathered to the scent of carrion. A buzzard landed a foot away from his blistering face and stared back at him through beady eyes. It watched as the breath escaped his soul, ever so boldly inching closer, waiting for him to die. Several more landed over a carcass and a flurry of sand brought with it the scent of fetid meat.
Chase tried to stand and pain coursed through his body as if a raging river of needles flowed through his veins. He faltered through the sands while the scavengers hissed and took flight; the dead animals littered the ground as far as the eye could see, but the path ahead of him was clear. The stench made him nauseous and breathing felt like crushing blows to his ribs—enough to make him dig his nails into his sides and wish for his death—and he hugged himself and staggered through the sands. Dark bruises filled his legs and wounds riddled his body; the spinning of his head and his mind shattering pain made him grip his forehead with both hands. What the hell happened?
Chase strode through the vindictive mid-day heat. Sand continuously blew into his face and kept his breathing contrived with an insatiable thirst that overpowered his reason. Benumbed by the heat, he zigzagged and began to think, but nothing could enter his mind. Not a memory of what happened, nor pain, nor fear, and far worse: he held no recollection of himself. The sun cast down demons that led him toward his demise, but he shook the darkness from his eyes and took a deep breath. He had to move, or death would surely take him, and as much as he yearned for it, he needed to know: by what design was he condemned to burn in the inferno, who had the power to cast such a sentence—and why? He glimpsed a small shelter through the haze of heat at the base of a crescent dune. A mirage and nothing more, he thought, but anything was better than the burning decay behind him, and so it was that with the last of his strengths, Chase pushed forward.
A hazy figure exited the shelter and he desperately cried out. The wind grew strong and knocked him down; his arms wavered, but they were no match for their growing speeds, and the light blue sky came back into view with the echoing thud of his head hitting the ground. A cloaked man stood above him with nothing showing but the bridge of his nose and emerald eyes that stared down with avid curiosity. Chase lifted his hand and muttered, “Water ...”
A hand slipped under his neck and tilted him toward the tip of a small bottle. It contained murky water that tasted like dirt.
“Drink,” an old voice said.
The man dug his hand into a torn backpack and brought out a ripped blanket and helped him to his feet.
“Put this on your face,” he said, “it will make things easier.”
Chase took the cloth and pressed it over his mouth and nose.
“Come with me.”
The shelter’s door shut behind them and the sound of wind diminished. He sat Chase down on a wooden chair and a clatter of metal pots rang behind him. Muddy water poured into a bowl and torn pieces of cloth dipped into it, and then he sat in front of Chase and wiped his bloody arms and legs.
“What the hell happened to you, son?”
The damp rag passed over his nose and mouth, and then it made its way down his neck and over his shoulders. His arms left it full of blood and sand and he watched as it rinsed away in the bowl, merging the brown water with a reddish hue. He took Chase’s leg onto his lap with fragile hands and cut the pants with a blade to reveal further wounds.
“Who did this to you?”
He moaned at the touch of the cold cloth.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it was no animal, I can tell you that. Had it been so, you’d be dead.”
The old man pulled the pants further back and found a stab wound. “This here was knife is what it was,” he carefully cleaned around it.
“Whoever did this to you wasn’t tryin’ to kill you themselves,” the old man grew silent as he continued tending the wounds, “they must have lacked the courage; they just left you to the mercy of the desert,” he said.
Chase glanced around the shelter. To a far corner, there were metal pots and pans overflowing from a large barrel and the scent of rust lingered in the air. Old linen hung from a short line tied at either side of the room and several buckets of water with lids were lined up against the wall.
Chase watched the old man. Wrinkles littered his face and his bright green eyes donned the wisdom of his years. Although his hands were rough, old, and fragile, they had the healing touch of a saint. He stood up and tossed the bloody water outside and poured some more from a jug.
“Think, son; why would anyone do this to you?”
Chase pondered in silence. The more he tried to remember anything, the deeper he’d sink into a void of forgetfulness. The walls of his memory were black and absent of all familiarity. Not a thread that could lead him to a single memory remained, but one thing began to materialize among the dark mists of his broken mind: it was a face; unclear, but a face nonetheless, and one that struck an odd sense of vague remembrance.
“I can’t remember anything at all,” Chase murmured.
“No,” he said, “nothing.”
The old man paused for a moment.
Chase closed his eyes and tried to calm his breathing.
“Yes, I think I remember my name. I just can’t remember anything else.”
A heavy sensation fell over him and his eyelids grew heavier by the moment.
“Well, that’s a start; what’s your name, son?”
“Chase,” he said, “and who are you?”
The old man laid him down.
“Barnsley,” he said, “Obadiah Barnsley. Listen to me now, Chase, the worse is over. Get some rest.”
His eyes rolled back and he fell asleep.
Darkness filled the room and rendered his vision useless. Chase felt around the blackness and found nothing but an infinite void that took the place of Obadiah’s shelter, but he was nowhere to be found. He tried to speak, yet his voice could not escape his lips.
What is this place?
A flicker began in the distance that lit the ground with every quiver. A coffin stood before it of dark gray stone with a window nearby, nothing could be seen outside, and the sounds of vultures pierced the deep silence and faded. The sound of his footsteps carried through the solemn hallway and echoed far ahead. A rush of cold sweat encompassed him mixed with waves of heat, but cool and unseen strokes passed over his skin and relaxed him. The tomb came closer with each step and the flickering light became a mature torch fire that illuminated a circular pattern around it; an eerie chill crawled up his spine to see the tomb’s lid was missing. The stone slab leaned against the black wall near the burning light, though it did not reflect on or around it, instead, it seemed to have been consumed into a black hole.
Chase inched closer. He set his hands on the ledge of the tomb and looked inside. There, a woman in a red silk dress laid gracefully still with her hands peacefully folded at her waist. Her skin was as dark and gray as the stone of her enclosure, if not darker, and her hair was thin and white and hung from her mummified scalp. Both cheeks were sunken and her eye sockets were deep; a small gap between her softly parted lips revealed straight teeth that were as white as powder. A pair of gold earrings hung from her withered ear lobes accompanied by a matching necklace of equal value. No gust existed here, yet her hair seemed to flow at times, as if trapped underneath an invisible stream of water.
Beauty lingered upon this woman despite her putrefaction. Chase could not resist placing a hand upon hers. She felt as cold as ice, but the longer he felt her, the warmer she became. The heat surged through his body—soft at first—and grew with an intensity that swallowed him whole. What felt like flames of a wildfire consumed his body and his skin began to glow like ember; it started from the tip of the fingers and spread with great haste, and no matter how hard he tried, Chase could not pull away. He screamed, but all his might fell in-audible. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and his body convulsed where it stood; the fieriness of his skin gave off a sickly aura. His right hand tried to break his other hand loose of the woman’s touch, but instead, his body levitated in a weightless realm and his arm felt like it pulled against all the burdens of the world.
Chase’s skin fell like molten lava to the darkness below. His mouth gaped like an onyx depression on his face and the dimension flowed with pure magma. A single tear escaped the inevitable will of evaporation and landed on the ground, instantly solidifying everything around him.
“I know what you did,” she said.
The woman’s voice shattered the silence in the obsidian world and Chase woke up screaming and tossing beneath his sheets.
Obadiah stood from his wooden chair and rushed over to him. He held him down and tried to calm him, but he continued thrusting and his breathing became erratic. The cold rag ran over his burning forehead and dipped several times into the bowl of water. “It’s alright,” Obadiah’s voice soothingly fell upon him. “It’s okay, Chase.”
He continued rubbing him down with the rag until his breathing calmed and his body stopped thrashing. Chase could feel his sheets being tucked in to make sure that the evening breeze did not beset him.
“The tomb,” Chase uttered under his breath, “the fire; everything,” he tried to swallow saliva, “it burned everything; what did I do?”
“Relax, Chase. It was just a dream; it will all be fine soon.”
“The lady in red …”
“What’s that, son?”
“In red,” Chase reiterated.
“You don’t worry yourself over any of that. Get some more rest. I will bring you some more water,” Obadiah said. Chase heard Obadiah grimace as he walked back to the bed with a mug of water.
“Come on now,” he said, “drink; you need to drink.”
Chase drank of the water and continued to mumble as he drifted away.
The morning sun rose and light filtered through the cracks in the aluminum walls. He opened his eyes to the smell of meat stew. His body did not feel as heavy as the nights before and he was able to sit up. Fresh bandage covered most of his legs and an old cloth wrapped his head.
“You’re awake,” Obadiah said.
He handed him a lid with a clear gel and walked back to stir the pot.
“Put that on your face,” he said, “it will continue to help with the sunburn.”
“What is it?”
“Aloe. Took me a hell of a long time to find it, too, but I did. I got lucky and caught a bobcat in my trap. I was able to get to it before them coyotes did.” He went over to him with a wooden spoon and a plastic bowl filled with stew. “Here, you must be starving. I haven’t been able to give you much these days. I was able to feed you whenever you woke up, but that only lasted a few minutes at a time. Last week was rough,” Obadiah brought the spoon to Chase’s mouth and watched as he chewed and swallowed, “You must have gone at least four days without anything to eat, but I kept you hydrated as much as I possibly could. Thank them lucky stars, you should. For a moment, I thought you were going to die on me.”
“Last week?” Chase asked. He brought his hand to his forehead.
“How long was I out?”
Obadiah fed him another spoonful and handed him a rag to wipe his mouth.
“About a month and a half or so,” Obadiah stirred the stew and made sure he mashed it as fine as he could, “the heavens must have wanted you to live. I haven’t seen a rainfall here in ages, and on the day where the water had just about dried up on us, a shower came out of nowhere. I was able to collect enough fresh water for the two of us. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that had nothing to do with keepin’ you from slippin’ away, but the truth is, if the heavens didn’t rain down on us the way they did, you’d be dead.”
Chase looked around and fell into deep thought. A month and a half? It all felt like mere hours to him, and yet with all the passing of time, not a single memory had returned. He finished eating the stew Obadiah gave him and watched as he took the bowl to the far corner and wiped it clean.
“You’ve been taking care of me all this time?”
Obadiah put down the rag he used to wipe his hands and shook his head.
“I’m sorry, you must excuse my fragile mind; the years, you know? I meant, yes, Chase, I have been caring for you all this time.
“Not much of a choice, really; it was either care for you or watch you die. It’s hard enough to find sleep these days, let alone imaginin’ the karma of your death on my soul keepin’ me up through the long nights,” Obadiah uncovered the stew pot, “not somethin’ I was lookin’ forward to.” Obadiah looked back at Chase, “the sleepless nights, I mean.”
“Thank you,” Chase said.
“Make no mentions of it, it was just me tryin’ to help you come back to life while safeguardin’ my sleep,” he served himself a small plate and sat in the wooden chair, “you can help yourself to a bit more, you see, but not much of it. It’s hard to tell if I’ll find anythin’ else for the next couple of days.”
He nodded and stayed sitting upon Obadiah’s metal framed bed. Adjacent to him were some sheets tossed on the floor with a bundle of dirty clothes for pillows.
“You gave me your bed?”
“Ah, it’s nothin’. Sleepin’ on that thing is the same as the floor anyhow. I probably slept better than you most them nights, save for wakin’ up to your shoutin’.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’d wake up out of nowhere, screamin’ and thrashing about, often crying over someone. Something about a lady in red, other times, you’d call out a name I could never make out. You’d repeat it almost every night, whether you slept or woke. Must be someone important if you ask me. Coulda been Frankinson or Ferlington,” he said, “name ring a bell?”
“No,” Chase stared ahead blankly.
“Maybe it was some friend of yours,” Obadiah said.
“Maybe,” he brought his hand to his head, “I mean, I don’t know.”
“Well, sounds like it to me. Kept ramblin’ on about needin’ to find him; you’d say he was in some kind of danger or somethin’ like that, you also kept mentioning a tomb,” Obadiah said.
“I’ve had strange dreams. Dark halls led me to a grave, but I don’t know who the lady could have been.” he placed his feet on the shelter floor and felt the heat of the desert start to warm them. “I also dreamt of a man’s face; it was a familiar face, but I don’t know who that man is, I just know that anytime I was in trouble, he was there.”
“Must be a good friend,” Obadiah said. Chase tried to stand, but his wounded leg gave in and he fell forward. He was met by Obadiah’s arms and he lifted him up and back onto the bed. “You’re not ready to stand yet, Chase. It’ll take a while.”
“I have to search for him,” he said “I’m sure he can explain all of this.”
“In time, Chase, in time.”
“You don’t understand, I have to,” Chase said.
“You can’t even walk, Chase.”
“I’ll make myself walk.”
Obadiah sat Chase back down and pulled his chair close to the bedside. Chase held his hand over his head and bandages and breathed the pain away. Obadiah handed him more water.
“You have a strong will, Chase,” he said, “no doubt the roots of the soldier you once were.”
Chase stopped drinking and lowered the cup.
“Soldier,” Chase said, “what are you talking about?”
“The tattoo on your arm,” Obadiah said, “it’s the mark of your division in the corps,” Obadiah parted his shirt by the collar and revealed an eagle and the words ’2nd Squadron Air Force’, “it is our permanent reminder, even when our memory fails us.”
Chase glanced at the bandage on his arm and saw half of his tattoo showing; it was the top of a skull with red sockets on two crossed bones that jutted out from underneath the red stained gauze. Above it was the phrase ’5th Division’.
“I was a soldier?” his eyes drifted, “and you were one …”
“Just like you,” Obadiah replied, “only for me, it was a lifetime ago.”