Immersed in the stifling heat emanating from the sweltering sun above and rising up from below, bathed in sweat, a much younger Preston and an equally youthful and uniformed compatriot made their way towards one of the hanger like structures that housed beneath its roof the sand colored vehicles of various models, each with their own purpose.
“It’s been quiet. Too quiet if you ask me. You think they’ll give it another go?” the young man matching Preston’s stride asked.
“They’d be crackers if they do but I don’t doubt they will sooner or later.” Preston replied.
“I heard they’ve got their hands on some proper artillery. Nicked it from the Americans.”
“Bollucks. Who’s talking that rubbish? The Yanks aren’t giving those up without a fight. Do you think they could just walk in and cart them off?”
“Why not? They filched those planes, didn’t they?” Whitby said.
“True that, but they had them they wouldn’t be pissing around...but then it seems that’s all we’re doing. Damn, you’re a mug, Whitby. You probably believed it when they said all this would be sorted in a month.” Preston said, sounding irritated.
“You’re in a nark today.” the young soldier said.
“We didn’t sit on our asses waiting for Hitler to come to us. No one knows how to fight a war these days.” As the last word escaped his mouth, too late Preston heard the sound of an object cutting through the air on a direct trajectory to their location. “Shi-!” before Preston could finish, the mortar exploded only a few yards from where they stood, soon to be followed by another. The sharp rat-a-tats of gunfire filled the air, the bullets whizzing by in what seemed to be every direction accompanied by more explosions.
Preston’s ears ringing, all seeming to now begin to pass in slow motion, he looked to his companion facing him to see nearly half of the young man’s head had been blown away, blood and brain matter splattered over Preston’s own front and face. The soldier before him slumped to the ground like a heavy sack, the rest of what remained of his brains splattering out onto the dusty ground.
Looking down at his torso, Preston saw the hunk of metal protruding from the right side of his chest. Lifting his hand slowly, as Preston wobbled on his feet, he touched his fingers to it, staring unblinkingly down at it.
“Alan!” a much younger Robert called out, Preston’s brain only half registering the voice of his boyhood chum, barely hearing it through the ringing in his ears, the cacophony of the noise of battle and shouts of others sounding as if his ears were stuffed with cotton. Robert quickly moved Preston to the ground as the chaos continued around them. “Medic! I need a medic over here! Now god damn it!” Robert called out. “Alan! Don’t move, mate! Stay down!” Robert commanded Preston who was struggling to sit up, still staring at the shrapnel that extended from his chest cavity.
“Robert?” Preston asked in a daze, staring up at the man who st on his knees beside him gripping his hand, Robert’s other placed in the center of Preston’s chest, holding him down.
“It’s me. I’m here. Keep your eyes on me, slow steady breaths, that’s it….where the hell are they?! Bastards….” Preston’s breathing became more labored. He coughed, ejecting a mist of blood. Two medics arrived at last. “You’re going to be fine, mate. They’ll patch you right up.” Robert said as he released Preston’s hand and moved aside to allow them to do their work.
Preston’s eyes shot open and he sat up in the darkness. As the dream replaying that long ago day faded, he turned his head to look over at Anne who continued to peacefully doze beside him. Shakily, quietly, Preston slid out of the bed.
Preston made his way down the hall to the bathroom, stepping inside and flipping on the light, squinting his eyes as they adjusted. Stepping over in front of the sink, he stared at himself in the mirror of the old medicine cabinet above it for a moment before turning on the faucet, putting his hands under the flow of chill water and leaning over the basin, splashed it over his face. Straightening, he stared at his reflection once more, water dripping from his chin and cheekbones, running down his neck. A pallor had fallen over him and his body still slightly trembled.
His eyes came to rest on the scar, around three inches long, just above the nipple of his right chest. It had faded a great deal over the years but was still visible. He lifted his right hand, running his fingers over it.
It had been quite some time since he’d had such a nightmare. Unlike some, he hadn’t dwelled too much on his brush with death and had moved on from the ordeal not long after he’d healed and been certified fit to return to duty. It wasn’t long after he’d found himself on a plane back home where after reuniting with his beloved Nan, he’d gone on with his life. Not that it hadn’t changed him. In many ways he had been grateful it had happened.
As he began to turn from the sink, he suddenly found himself face to face with a sight he hadn’t seen since the dark day he’d just relived in his dream. The young soldier, Whitby, his head half gone, the side of his skull gaping open and empty, the front and left shoulder of his uniform crusted with blood, stared at him blankly, the pupil of his remaining eye that had once been brown, now milky like moonstone.
“I’ll be seeing you soon.” the soldier said through half a mouth, his voice seeming to echo as if he were speaking in a cave. Preston’s eyes wide with terror, back peddled from the specter until his heels hit the bottom of the bathtub and shower combination. Preston fell backwards into the tub, grabbing at the shower curtain, the rod and curtain falling over him, the metal clanging loudly against the old metal tub. The water with which he had splashed his face now replaced with beads of sweat, panting and paralyzed with fear, Preston stared wide eyed at the spot where Whitby had appeared to have once stood.
“Alan?!” Anne exclaimed with shock and worry as she stood in the doorway of the bathroom before quickly rushing to the tub, tossing the rod and shower curtain aside and struggling to pull Preston from the tub. “What happened? Are you alright?”
“I….I don’t know….I saw...he was..but he’s...Whitby...” Preston babbled, shaking as Anne finally managed to get him to his feet. He sunk to the floor, his back against the tub continuing to stare at the spot where he had last seen his deceased comrade in arms. Anne crouched beside him, putting a hand to his pale cheek, then his forehead, his body shaking.
“You’re burning up!” she exclaimed. Taking hold of his arm and putting it around her draping it over her shoulder, she put her arm around him, moving him once again to his feet, leading him out of the bathroom.
As the two returned to the bedroom and reached the bed, Preston somewhat regained his composure as she lowered him to sit on it before lifting his legs up into it, gently pushing him down to a lying position before leaving the room, quickly returning with a cool, wet washcloth and holding it onto his forehead.
“I’m alright…” he said as she sat down on the edge of the bed beside him. “I had a nightmare, that’s all. I must have still been dreaming.”
“Hallucinating more likely. You have a fever, I’d say at least 102, probably 103. Is there a thermometer around here? I couldn’t find one. I thought there might be one in the medicine cabinet.” Anne asked.
“I’m sure Nan had one somewhere...not sure where she would have kept it. Don’t worry about it. Probably just picked up a bit of a bug.”
“How can I not worry about it? Your brain will cook! I’m going to call-”
“No! No...I just need to sleep it off. I’ll be alright by morning. I feel fine, really.” Preston said reassuringly. Anne stood, pulling the blankets back over him before once again pressing the damp cloth to his forehead. He raised his hand and took hold of her wrist, moving her hand to his lips. “Thank you.”
“Come back to bed.” Preston said to Anne, She lifted the cloth from his forehead, pressing it against his cheeks, one then the other before leaving the room with it, shortly returning and getting back into the bed beside him, covering herself and once again nestling up against him, laying her head on his chest, wrapping her arm around him.
“You scared the hell out of me.” Anne said, fear still evident in her voice.
“What was your dream about?” she asked.
“’I think I’d rather just forget it.”
“You know you can talk to me…”
“Yes, I know. Maybe tomorrow...not now.”
“When we get home I think you should see Dr. Waller. Something’s not right.”
“As I said, it’s just a bug. Nan, everything...just knocked me low for a bit.”
“You’re probably right, but I still want you to get checked out.”
“If it will make you feel better.” Preston relented, though he wasn’t about to admit to her that he had been having the same thoughts and had already planned to see Dr. Waller upon their return. The fatigue, the dizzy spells, the short bouts of chills all pointed to a typical minor bug as he’d stated, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that as she’d said, something wasn’t quite right.
“I don’t know what I’d do…” Anne trailed off without finishing the thought.
“I’m not going anywhere, I promise you.” Preston said, stroking her hair.
“You can’t promise that. No one can.” Anne replied.
“Whatever it is, I’ve survived far worse.” said Preston, moving his hand from her hair to the scar on his chest.
A young Anne around the age of 8 stood on a step stool at the divided sink in the small kitchen of the old, run down house in which she’d grown up, her hands thrust into the soapy water, one holding a plate, the other a dishrag. Finishing with the plate she lifted it from the water, moving it over to the other side of the sink. A woman, her mother, around the age of thirty, her brunette hair shoulder length and permed in waves approached the sink, a ceramic platter in her hands.
“This belonged to my grandmother. Be careful with it.” her mother said in a terse voice that was almost threatening.
Young Anne took the platter in her dainty,soapy wet eight year old hands, anxiety overwhelming her. Placing it under the water, she washed it as she had the rest of the dishes before lifting it out of the water. The platter, larger and heavier than the dinner plates, its surface slick from the soap before being rinsed, slipped from her hands, crashing to the worn linoleum floor, breaking into fragments. Anne stared at the mess in horror.
Grabbing her arm, her mother wrenched her angrily from the step stool and shook her violently.
“What did I just tell you? You did that on purpose! Stupid, lazy girl! You’re worthless!” her mother screamed.
“I’m sorry! It was slippery!” Anne cried.
“Get out of here! I don’t even want to look at you! I wish you’d never been born!” her mother howled. Weeping, Anne ran from the kitchen.
Anne, now grown, stood at another sink in another house, this one the one she shared with Alan. She had almost finished the dishes in the sink, rinsing the last drinking glass and moving it to the dishwasher. The slick, wet glass slipped from her hand, falling to the floor where it shattered on the tile. Anne looked down at the remnants in silence for a moment before she began to sob.
Alan, who had heard the glass breaking from the sitting room where he had been reading, appeared in the doorway.
“What happened?” he asked as he crossed the room to her anxiously. “Are you alright?” he said, noticing no obvious cuts or other injuries, he looked to her with confusion and worry.
“I’m sorry….I’m sorry…” Anne said as she continued to weep.
“It’s just a glass. We have plenty of others. The world isn’t coming to an end.”
“Maybe you should tell that to my mother.” Anne said.
“What do you mean? Did she try to contact you?” he asked.
“What is it? Tell me.”
“When I was a little girl….I had to wash the dinner dishes every night. One day she got some wild hair...decided to use this old platter. She said it belonged to her grandmother. Other than that there really wasn’t anything special about it that I saw. It was just a plain white platter. It was heavy, my hands were wet...the soap…she told me she wished I’d never been born. I spent years wishing the same thing. It just reminded me. For a moment it was like I was back there...I know, it’s silly…”
“My mother never said anything like that to me and she was a drunk that drank herself into an early grave. You do realize if it had been that important to her she would have washed it herself, not put it into the hands of a child to do it. She set you up. I’ll never understand how it is that you have to have a license to drive but anyone can have a baby.” Preston said, disgust in his voice.
“Not anyone…” Anne said, Preston realizing his mistake. Anne had confessed to him fairly early in their relationship that she would be unable to have children due to a hormonal condition that was also the cause of her struggles with her weight.
“I’m sorry….I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s ok. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. You don’t like them and it’s not like I had a great example to follow. It’d be too late now anyway. I’m forty two. People would think I was their grandma.”
“You’re only three years older than me. I think it’ll be awhile before I have to chuck you in the care home.” Preston said with a grin. “Why don’t you go paint? I’ll take care of it.”
Grabbing the broom and dustpan from the closet, Preston swept up the shards, dumping them in the bin. Just as he was finishing, his phone rang. Picking it up from the counter where it had been charging, he answered.
“Alan...hello, it’s Dr. Waller. We’ve got all the test results back and I’ve gone over them. Are you free anytime tomorrow?” Preston felt a sinking sensation. It was rare for Waller to personally call. A nurse or medical assistant was generally given those duties and would enlighten him as to the results and phone in the prescription if one was necessary.
“I have office hours in the morning, but I’m free in the afternoon, but I could rearrange my schedule…”
“No...no...no need for that. Afternoon is better for me anyway. How about two o’clock? Just let Marcy know when you get there. I’ll see you then.”
“Is there something I should know now?” Preston asked.
“No, it can wait. Enjoy your evening.” Waller said.
“You as well.” Preston said before he heard the call disconnect from the other end. Setting the phone down he left the kitchen.
Preston reached the doorway to the small room Anne had converted into her studio. She sat with her back to him, a brush in her hand, moving it over the canvas. The painting was unlike any she had done in the past, some that graced the walls of his office on campus, the spiraling circle in different hues of gray that almost looked to be the entrance to a cave or the interpretation of wormholes he’d seen in the past in various science fiction shows and movies.
“That’s different.” he said from the doorway. “I know you’re not supposed to ask an artist this, but what is it? Have you been reading Dante?”
“Just an image that came into my head...I’m not really sure what it is yet. I think I might have seen it in a dream.” Anne said as she painted. The longer Preston examined the painting, the stronger became the sense of trepidation that rose within him.
“Anne…” Preston said. Anne lifted the brush from the canvas and turned on her stool to face him with a questioning expression, hearing something strange in his voice, her brush in one hand, a palette in the other.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, concerned.
“No….nothing. I’m happy you were born...very happy.” Preston said. “I just thought you should know.” Anne smiled at him before turning her attention back to her painting. Preston watched her for a few moments before turning from the doorway.