He could remember not being able to see anything. He could remember a hand on his forehead. He could remember the scratch of bandages over his face, the warmth and the stickiness of blood. He could remember not being able to move his limbs, wondering with panic if they were even still there.
And then he couldn't remember anything.
He opened his eyes, finally able to see. He breathed deeply, the odor of bleach stinging his nostrils. He moved his hands—they were there. He moved his feet—they were there.
The bandages were gone, replaced with a dull ache in his face, near his jaw. He lifted his hands, bringing them before his eyes. They looked normal enough; he flexed his fingers, cracked his knuckles. Even that action felt as though it took a thousand muscles. Weakened, he let his hands fall back over his stomach. He ran one hand over his chest, feeling the coarse fabric. He felt no buttons, not like his uniform.
He needed to sit up. Moving his arms back, digging his elbows into the mattress, feeling the springs underneath—how had he even slept on a surface like that?
It took all his strength to lift himself up, lifting his head, letting his eyes roam over the room. He was alone, with nothing but a bed, a dresser with a mirror on it, a small chair next to him. A window, where flowers had wilted under the sunlight, or perhaps the doing of the radiator beneath the window.
The sunlight was too bright. He shielded his eyes against it, reminded of that blinding flash, the deafening blast that had thrown him into the air…
He struggled to remember why. Why had he been there? Why had he been there? Why had he—
He sat up further, leaning forward, his arms wrapped around his middle as a searing pain ripped through his body. He gasped for breath, but breathing brought more pain, tears burning in his eyes.
He tried to think of the faces. What faces? A man…a man smiling at him. Asking him his name.
He looked at his hands. Who did these hands belong to?
The pain subsided, a dull throb, like a beast lurking, waiting to strike again. He straightened himself, stretching one leg out, then the next, slowly, so as not to experience pain like that again. Then…stand up.
It was a command he heard in his mind, one he couldn't disobey. He lowered one leg over the side of the bed, letting his foot touch the floor. Cautiously, he leaned forward, putting his weight on his foot. No pain, no weakness. He slid his other foot down, sitting on the edge of his bed for some time before putting his full weight on both feet.
His knees buckled beneath him, but he caught the bedpost, stabilizing himself. His head swam, the floor tilted beneath him, and suddenly—
He breathed. In, out. Deep, even.
Stand up, soldier! I won't have you laying about in bed all day when there's a war to be won!
He looked up quickly, his eyes wandering the room, searching for the speaker. He was alone in the room.
Just me, and the ghosts.
He could see the woman and child, their faces white, their sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling.
He shook his head. No, no. Their faces already haunted his dreams. He wouldn't let them haunt his consciousness.
He straightened himself once more, taking a step. With more confidence now, he took another step, stumbling forward to lean against the dresser for support. He swallowed, almost afraid to look in the glass, not wanting to see who stared back at him.
He looked anyway.
He clapped a hand over his mouth, shocked at his own reflection. It was a face he didn't recognize. A boy's face was reflected in the glass, but the eyes, dark and sunken, bloodshot, were the eyes of an old, old man. He moved his hand from his mouth, turning his head to look at the bright pink line that ran from the corner of his mouth to his ear. He lifted a finger to touch it. Was it a burn? Had the skin been torn open?
He leaned closer over the mirror, squinting at the boy's face, trying to see if there was anything recognizable in those old man's eyes. Who did these eyes belong to?
He turned away from the mirror, looking over the room again. On the chair by his bed, there was a clipboard, with what looked to be some sort of report on it. He stumbled towards it, snatching it up and reading over it.
Howard, Edmund. Patient #224
He lowered himself back on the bed, the shock of reading over his name somehow too much. It didn't seem right. That name didn't match his face. Why? Why could he not remember?
He returned his eyes to the paper.
Doctor's note: Patient has recovered from bayonet wounds and lacerations on the chest, arms, and face due to shrapnel. Patient exhibits typical symptoms of shell shock, due to brain trauma caused by the artillery shell explosion. However, he seems to have little memory of his past, and even who he is, because of the damage from the shell explosion.
The length of his stay at White Isle is undetermined, until some relatives are contacted. Insufficient identification found on him at the site of the explosion will make it difficult, perhaps even impossible, to trace him to any family.
The clipboard slipped from his hands, clattering to the floor. Bayonet wounds…
He reached down and lifted his shirt up, looking at the fresh bandages around his middle, tiny stains showing at random spots…
He dropped the hem of his shirt and stared at the wilted flowers. So the doctor had as little knowledge about the patient as the patient did himself. All I know is my name, and that I'm a soldier, and I must be mad.
Something wasn't right…he shut his eyes, putting his face in his hands, running his hands through the tangle of curls…shell shock. Was that what it was? He didn't feel shell shocked…whatever it felt like.
He could remember a whistle like a tea kettle. There was no time to run, no time to get out of the way. But he never remembered a German driving his bayonet into the boy's middle. Except—except what?
He thought, and he thought, and he thought, searching his brain for any memory; there was a flash of a furious face, hands wrapping about his throat, a knee driving into his stomach, the sudden burning pain of a blade entering his stomach.
But that had to have been after the blast. Why else couldn't he have moved?
He laid himself back on the bed, folding his hands on his stomach. As he stared at the ceiling, he was certain he could see a woman's face. He shut his eyes, hoping to block out the image, but he saw them again: the woman and the child, laying perfectly on the floor, their skin ghost-white, their necks bruised from where rough hands had crushed the life out of them.
He opened his eyes, holding his hands over his face. Were these hands the ones that had strangled them?
No, no…not me, I'm just a boy, not a murderer.
The images would not leave his brain. The furious face, the blank faces of the woman and the child, the stillness, the blood, the smoke…around him, men cried for their mothers, their mothers, their mothers…
He began to tear at his hair, a scream forcing itself from him; a scream of hatred, of anger, of terror, screaming at the images, begging them to leave him, begging for the peace and quiet of death. He was hardly aware that someone had burst into his room until a cloth pressed over his face, a sickly sweet smell filling his nostrils, a darkness filling his brain, a darkness that drove away the images until there was nothing but the sweet silence of sleep…