It’s not a gunshot that jerks Craig awake. It’s the moans.
Then he hears the dull patter of rain against the window and thinks: again? Fuck.
That low, unending keening that echoes through the walls and sets his teeth on edge. Punctured with jagged gasps, that agonised whimper of a trapped animal, choked-off, like Rob’s trying so hard to bite down on his screams and stop them spilling out from clenched teeth.
It could be the growl of thunder melting into the booming roar of howitzers, or the pounding rain that echoes the death-crackle of rifle fire, or the howling of the wind dissolving into the screams of dying men – it doesn’t matter, really. Craig knows the nightmares always come crawling in the dark; shrieking ghosts dripping red with clawed hands and pale burning eyes. Walls splashed with the blood of his friends. He’s spent many a long night whimpering into the darkness, whenever the storms sweep overhead.
The first time, it’s the short bitten-off cry that rips him from his fever dreams. Leaves him staring at the ceiling on the wrong side of midnight, watching the cockroaches scuttle across the flaky walls.
Ten minutes later, it’s the footsteps. Rob paces his room next door, making the floorboards groan. He passes by Craig’s door, softly muttering to himself in the stairwell. But no matter how quiet Rob thinks he is, Craig still wakes up.
Then, barely an hour later: the moaning. He waits. Finally: a soft, hesitant tap on his door.
Because Rob…Rob doesn’t ask for help. Ever. But his face is chalk-white, every corner etched deep with tension, hands trembling, and the request couldn’t be more blatant if he’d screamed it aloud. His eyes are wet and haunted, face sunken and tired in the way Craig remembers being tired. Hollowed out, like a gnarled tree stricken with rot. The ghosts of long miserable nights hunched beside guttering fires in the pouring rain, ice shivering through your bones and mud seeping into your socks, nothing but gruel churning in your hollow belly. Acrid smoke choking the lungs, flaming shadows howling like demons under a black sea stinking of charred flesh. Or braced shoulder-to-shoulder in the broken earth while the enemy guns sweep away the friends beside you, butchers’ meat splashed to the four winds, and afterward an ash-grey sky full of diving vultures.
Blood. Mud. Stabbing beaks. Hooked talons. Ripping. Tearing. Craig blinks away the memories.
‘Bed too soft?’ he asks. Rob flinches.
‘Sorry,’ he shrugs, carefully avoiding Craig’s eyes. ‘S’all right, just…damn pillow keeps me up nights. Like I’m sinkin’ right through the floor.’ A brief flickering smile. It’s bright and jarring and fools Craig for exactly zero seconds. Because he knows that pleading look in Rob’s bleak eyes, that crack in his mask that screams ‘please don’t leave me.’
‘Hey, c’mon,’ he beckons, and leads Rob downstairs. Rob follows, fists clenched. Rusty meets them at the front door with a joyful bark. Craig passes Rob a stout blackthorn stick. The darkness outside is streaked silver with rain.
Rob blinks. ‘What’re you…?’
Craig just nods at the open door. ‘Go on. Trust me. Take your time. No rush.’ Rob hesitates, then grunts and trudges out into the drizzle, Rusty dancing around his legs.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Liz joins him, leaning against the doorjamb and gazing after them. ‘Bad dreams again, huh?’
‘We’ll be okay.’ Craig watches until the blackness swallows them up, then slips upstairs to the kitchen.
He heats milk whisked with nutmeg and honey, sweet and warm. Then bubble and squeak with greens, fried in butter. The potatoes sizzle and hiss in the skillet, crispy and gold. The carrots look very small and tender. Tiny pearl onions. He likes small veg. A rich earthy smell. For Rob, the friend who reached out first. For Rob, the captain who led his men through the choking fires of war, and still brought them safely home.
The rain drums against the window. Five minutes. Ten.
The door creaks downstairs. A frantic pattering of claws before Rusty skitters into the room, tail thrumming against his legs. A minute later Rob shuffles in, trailing the cold like a shroud, face pale and jaw clenched.
But his hands aren’t shaking.
‘Sit there,’ Craig orders. Rob slumps into the armchair, staring fixedly at the floor. Rusty curls around his ankles, looking thoroughly pleased. His fur is matted with mud. He stinks of the river.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Craig brings over the steaming mug, and Rob’s eyes widen and widen like this is nothing he ever expected.
‘What-’ he tries, and Craig just shrugs. Rob doesn’t rely on him. Never has. He shouldn’t rely on him, that’s okay. But Rob’s body deserves soft things, Rob’s body deserves comfort, Rob deserves comfort.
‘It’ll help,’ he says, and hopes it’s true. He brings the plate over, Rusty’s eyes tracking his every move. So many gifts, and the way Rob never stops being surprised when he eats something good, something Craig cooked just for him. He hopes this feels like a gift for Rob, maybe, this patchwork mess of steaming leftovers, but he’s not sure –
‘Oh, fuck,’ Rob groans, slumping back against the wall, eyes closed. ‘I always hated collards when I was a kid. Mum used to boil the hell out of ‘em.’ He chuckles wetly. ‘We ate ‘em like four times a week, and I hated ’em.’
‘I can make something else,’ Craig offers, but Rob just smiles, pulls his plate closer.
‘Don’t you dare,’ he mutters, and sniffles as he eats, but he’s grinning through his tears. And after, Rusty curled up against his chest, Craig hears Rob quietly weeping in Liz’s arms as she murmurs soothingly to him.
‘I miss her,’ he hears, soft and cracked, ‘I miss Mum, so damn much,’ and Craig thinks, god, Ma, do I miss you too.
© 2017 Tom Burton