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Cold Days

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His toes are cold. The scratchy field blanket they’ve issued him is small, but he’s small too, and by all rights it ought to fit him. The issue is that it’s cut as a square, and no human being is square-shaped. Either his toes must face the cold night air or his head must do it. Covering his head will cause him no harm. Most people like it — the fresh air, the cool draft kissing their skin. For most people, keeping one’s head beneath the blanket sounds stifling, uncomfortable. 

He covers his head. 

Nights are fitful. Always, someone wants to talk. Someone else wants to hear himself talking. And always, some third someone — usually multiple someones — takes issue with it, tells the second fellow to stuff it and go to sleep. After five minutes of bickering, Parsons the ex-sailor pipes up and tells them all to stuff it so everyone can get some sleep. Then, naturally, it’s Higgins’s turn, Higgins who’s having trouble adjusting, and he’ll give a strained and somewhat tearful speech about unity, and the stresses of training, and how they all must pull together if they want to get through this mess. 

Ross stays silent. It’s the least he can do; God knows that when this bickering ends and everyone falls asleep, it’ll be his turn to wake them. That’s why he keeps the blanket over his face; have to muffle the noises somehow.

“—if we all just stick together, now—”

“Piss off, Evans, now that’s your final warning,” says Parsons.

Evans. Not Higgins? Oh, of course not. There is no Higgins here. Ross closes his eyes, the darkness made more complete by the blanket over his head. Higgins, he can place that name to a face if he tries — in the desert after the train incident at Hallat Amar, he remembers. 

Odd spot in your report, sir, Higgins said, one finger tracing a sand-dusted page. It seems to almost imply you killed him.

I did kill him, Lawrence said. 

So that’s all it is. Fancy remembering a face and name all these years for a simple encounter like that. The boys are quiet now, breathing heavily, settling down. Quiet footsteps and a brush of air as someone pads barefoot across the floor; from the gait and heft, it must be Dickson. He pauses, must be glancing at Ross’s bed. The weight of his gaze lands on Ross’s exposed feet.

Christ, Ross,” he whispers. 

Whatever it is that offends him, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t seem to think he needs to specify.

Body aches. How unfair to have a body and be reminded of it every day. He’s on the worst fatigues today, the shit truck — the truck that goes around the camp all day so four poor sods, himself included, can jump from the back and grab bin after bin of refuse to be dumped farther down the road. The bins are heavy, each one nearly as tall as him; by the end of their first station, he’s already struggling for breath, and there’s still twelve hours left in the day.

Nobody likes fatigues. Easy to guess why; spend all the day working, getting one’s uniform dirty, missing meals. Come back and peel the soiled clothes off, just to ball them up beside your bunk to wait for laundry day. The smell hangs over you like a miasma; he already has trouble enough sleeping, but after a day of truck duty, he knows he won’t sleep for a week. 

It’s the smell that bothers everyone else. And he won’t pretend he likes the smell, but that’s not what makes him face the daily fatigues with distaste. 

Every day starts with PT.

The other men like it. He tells himself it’s because they’re younger than him — only not all of them are. Parsons and China are of an age with him, Parsons two years older, three stone heavier. They like PT as well. They bounce on their toes in anticipation; they grouse and glare during the exercises, but they show off, too; they make sure to jog back to the barracks afterward, to prove the measly hour or so of exercise hasn’t affected them.

Inside his chest, Ross’s broken rib seems to be moving. He feels it beneath his skin, never quite healed right. A dull, hard ridge that nobody else ever seems to see.

He showers after PT, with the other men. He showers after fatigue, accepts help from Dennis, lets the younger man scrub the grime from his skin with a bristle brush. 

He has a body. The very idea of it leaves a sour taste on his tongue.

He tries to breathe.

He eats facing the wall, and he eats alone. Here, he doesn’t have to speak to anyone, and he’s comfortable passing his mealtimes by himself when he can. There’s plenty to keep him occupied; the wall is decorated, every centimeter of it full up with photos of officers and war heroes, Prime Ministers, portraits of royalty. Queen Alexandra stares back at him from the wall, her photograph twenty years old and nothing like the desiccated mummy he knows her to be in real life. He remembers how she held her hand out to him, how she opened her mouth to greet him and he tasted decay.

His eyes shift left. He sips his tea. His eyes shift right.

There, tucked discreetly between a general and a politician, is his own face. He wears a head scarf gifted to him by Ali, not long after Deraa. He remembers the sun beating down on them as they said goodbye. He remembers giving Ali half his wardrobe, and Ali giving him half of his, helping him dress, fingers lingering on his arms and hips but never touching the still-healing wounds on his back.

Ross sips his tea again. It’s worse than water; neither bitter nor sweet enough to be worth drinking. He remembers Ali grabbing him by the tunic. He remembers kissing him, as David kissed Jonathan. Ali’s lips — warm, chapped from the desert heat, still soft. 

He waits until the mess is mostly empty and then, as he’s taking his empty tray to the cleaning trough, he grabs his photo from the wall and throws it away. 

“You’re shaking, mate.”

The way Ridley says it is almost respectful. He’s nearly two meters tall, with the dark, sad eyes of a hunting dog, and gives the air of having a mustache even though they’ve all been forced to shave. He looms over Ross as he lays in bed, belly up and gasping for air.

“Touch of malaria,” Ross says. 

Ridley only eyes him. Ross’s undershirt is soaked through with sweat; his hair is damp; he can’t quite manage to breathe through his nose, so his lips are parted, and every time he hears his breath whistling in and out of his lungs, his skin grows more heated with shame.

“They hit you with extra PT?” asks Ridley, voice doubtful.

“Touch of malaria,” Ross says again.

In the distance, through the open door of their barracks, he can still hear the men singing The Sheik of Araby. He closes his eyes and feels his broken rib again; it seems almost to be stabbing him in the heart.

He can tell Ridley still doubts him. He can feel himself shaking.

“Just a chill,” he says. 

At night, he cannot sleep. It’s all the noise; noise breaks his endurance unlike anything else. It claws its way under his skin and rests there, snug against his muscle and bone, and settles in so deeply that he starts vibrating with tension if he cannot get away. 

Their hut has thirty men inside. 

He cannot sleep.

He walks the grounds; it’s a grey area, whether or not recruits are allowed to do this, especially when they’re not squadded yet. He’s been spotted now and then by corporals who bark at him, ask him what he’s doing, then get confused when they try to search for a regulation he’s broken and can’t find one. They leave him alone.

Cold wind. Clear air. Stars.

The sky’s the same no matter where on earth you are — that’s what they say. But it looks different here, undeniably. He stares at the north star for so long that its pale light burns into his eyes and leaves his vision warped.

Dickson tried to help him undress today. After PT. Dickson saw him struggling with his jacket and came up behind him, put his hands on Ross’s shoulders, tried to help him pull it off. Brushed his palm over Ross’s back when Ross jerked away.

Dickson touched him. 

It’s too noisy in the barracks, and he cannot sleep.