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Somewhere Between Reality and Death

by A.M Cooper about a month ago in psychological
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A Short WWI Inspired Story

The world seemed to shake around me as I crawled my way through the mud and filth of the trench. Each inch a stark reminder would ring throughout the walls of my head: Don’t stand up, don’t stand up, don’t stand up. The dirt walls that surrounded me were my prison and my salvation. It was if my drill sergeant had seared the words into the side of my brain. The words that would come to define my existence seemed so simple, yet so complex. With each inch I crawled the pain would sear in my knees and elbows. Days of rubbing my body against the dirt had resulted in my skin being rubbed raw over and over. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

Every few feet, a rat would cross the path in front of me scurrying off to some unknown destination. I tried to make myself believe they weren’t carrying off some piece of clothing or worse, but the thought always crossed my mind. It was a known fact they were only attracted to us because of our dead. The rotting flesh of those who had long perished pestered the fields around me. Every few feet the overwhelming stench of rotten flesh would fill my nostrils. I finally picked myself up from the mud and crouched over the scene in front of me. The trench was completely empty besides myself and my thoughts. The echoes of artillery fire and machine guns were constant. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

I reached a part of the trench where the walls were higher. I was safe for a moment. An artillery shell landed a few yards in the field above me, shaking the ground all around me. The silence of my day had been broken in an instant. My ears rang as I stared up at the cloudy sky. Each second that passed, I prayed that the ringing would stop. I had to bring myself back to reality. I looked down at my hands. They were cut and bruised, covered in mud and other unknown substances. Colors of red and black and brown were there in the mud, mixed into a beautiful medley of color. It was at that point I noticed where the red and black were coming from. Sunken there in the mud was an English soldier. I would only see the side of his head, hiding his face from my view entirely. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

But what if it was someone that I knew? My friends from boot camp. My captain. Anyone who I had known in the past few months could have been here rotting in the mud. My morbid curiosity seemed to peak its head out from my clouded mind. I reached my hand down slowly. In one quick motion I grabbed the side of the man’s head and turned it up towards me. As I pulled the skin of his face began to come off. I yelled as I released the head. My voice echoed throughout the trenches around me. The face sat there and bobbed in the mud as the seconds passed. His pale white eyes and bloated face stared right into my soul as it sunk back under the surface of the muddy water. His muddied coat and uniform showed me he was someone of great importance. Was someone. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

Death has its ways of spreading a certain type of fear in the hearts of men and beasts alike. To be on deaths door is one of the most revitalizing aspects of our existence. I have realized that as I have periled through the many lives of the war. Infantryman. Machine gunner. A gunner working on the big guns firing shells the size of a man’s leg. But nothing could prepare me for my latest job. Scouring the trenches for the dead and dying was a fool’s errand. One that I took to be something of the highest importance but here I am trudging between the world of the living and the dead. Its different when you are firing at men hundreds of yards away from you. If they die, it doesn’t matter. We are simply firing at shadows that cross the field, nothing more. Nothing less.

But then this begs the question why. Why should humanity waste its time killing and butchering each other for the old men in their golden castles? Distractions. Thoughts like these are distractions, my drill sergeant used to tell me. Distractions that will cost you your life when you are given the chance to make the real decisions. Those that matter in war. Life and death in a constant dance to see who wins. Such thoughts are unpatriotic. Across those fields is the enemy. Do you think they enemy thinks in hypotheticals like you Wilson? No, they do not you maggot. The words echoed throughout my head space. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

Enough distractions. We could talk about the intricacies of life when I reached my end goal. The dead man in the rotted water had nothing that I needed. He was just a stark reminder of what remained on the other side of the bullet. The dark red started to leak into the puddle below me. Its bright contrast was negated by the dark brown of the mud. The cloudy mixture I stood over began to turn into a disgusting mix of reds and blacks and browns. The smell of the mixture finally made its way to my nostrils. There were few words to describe it. It was as if someone had taken the smell of a farm and thrown it into a lake. Then the lake had been left to soak in the sun for weeks, slowly evaporating into the air. It was something I could never get used to. Even trekking through these wastes for months as I have cannot prepare you for the smell. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

I had to get back to reality. The man was gone. The blank stare and ghostly eyes gave that away. I had to keep moving. There wasn’t much time left for me to linger in the shadows of the trenches. The sun was almost at midday and the bodies would start to rot at an accelerated rate. The enemy would no doubt be sending men over no man’s land soon to push their advantage. The German war machine took no prisoners and us brits were no exception. They would scour every inch of a trench before moving into it, killing the rats and other filth as they went. Every time the sky would light up at night, we knew what no one was willing to say: the dead were being burned. Step by step I creeped along the trench a foot at a time. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

Each step was a constant reminder. The pain from my shoulder would sear throughout my body every time my heel hot the ground. It was a slow pulse that reverberated throughout the entirety of my diaphragm. Each step a reminder that I was the sole survivor of the slaughter that had happened in the hours before. We weren’t prepared for the shells or the men or the death around us. Its why I had to get to where I needed to be. I had to let others know what had happened to us. The shoulder wound was nothing more than a flesh wound in the days to come. Such amounts of death and destruction were all around me. I had to prevent some of it.

But as the day dragged on and the sun got lower and lower, certain thoughts began to make themselves at home in the crevices of my mind. I had walked past dozens of ghostly faces in the mud. Some young, some old and some unrecognizable beyond just a rotting mound of flesh and bone. Each body was just a confirmation of my suspicion that the slaughter was all along the line. Men and officers alike dead and scattered throughout the dirt. Men’s whose last moments were filled with fear or anger. Every moment was a snapshot in death. Men would cry and wish for their mother embrace or curse their fathers for telling them to join such a meaningless endeavor. They would pray to their gods or deities from their homeland asking to save them from the bullet lodged in their guts. Or they would yell in anger at their fellow man as the tried to save them from their impeding death. Blood, guts and tears would flow. Many would live. Just as many would die.

But words spoken from the mouth of a dying man have no real focus in the world. They are meant to harm or beg. They are not logical. A dying man will cling to the only things that he has left in this world in his final moments. His mother, his father or his brothers and sisters. He will yell their names, reaching for the sky as the life drains out of them. Pitiful really. Men never seem to mention their wives or children. In life’s final moments, it seems that your blood matters the most. Most men would see it as weakness to cry for a wife or child. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

The sun was quickly setting on the horizon as I peeked my head over the dirt mound in front of me. Dead mans land was more ominous than ever this time of the day. With the setting sun there are many things that become apparent once you glance over the side of the trenches to the other side. You see, in our training we are taught a few core ideas. One is the idea of deception. Peaking your head to look at the other side is almost a guaranteed death. The Germans are notorious for taking the heads off of those who deem themselves invulnerable to death. In reality, death would be a welcome host. The wound on my arm had begun to fester and rot. The smell I was so privy to earlier was now following me around as I roamed the trenches. Hours had passed and the sun was just about to fall over the horizon to the west. It didn’t matter. I had to reach my post.

Then I heard something. Something that shook my mind to the core. It was scurrying. Quick feet on the ground like a rat. It ran from puddle to puddle before settling a few yards in front of me in the shadows. I walked forward, slowing closing the distance. I grabbed at my patches and at my holster, trying with every ounce of strength I had left to find some sort of weapon. My hand finally found the familiar cold of steel. My knife. I slowly pulled it from its sheath and walked a few feet forward again. Inch by inch I approached the shadows. I was a few feet away when something started moving towards me in an instant.

I grabbed the warm body and shoved my knife into it repeatedly. With each plunge my hand was engulfed in more blood, till it finally stopped struggling. We were both on the ground at this point, covered in a medley of blood and mud. I pulled myself off the ground and pulled the carcass into the light. The knife dropped from my hands as the scene played itself out in front of me. In my delusion I had mistaken the clear noises of a dog for a human. As I stared over the bloodied corpse emotion flooded my body. Sadness, anger, and a crippling sense of self dread. I sat there for what felt like hours and stared at the body. The sun was gone, leaving the area is extreme darkness. Shots were heard in the darkness, causing the sounds to bounce inside the tight corridor of the trench. I held my ears with both hands and screamed at the sky.

The sky around me began to light up. Flares could be seen illuminating the area around me in the distance. I stood up, wiping the snot and blood from my face and glared over the edge of the trench. They soared up over the middle of no man’s land and landed in the mud without a sound. I could see it all. The bodies. The destroyed tombs made of steel stuck in the dirt. And more then anything the fear that I had known all along. The light disappeared as fast as it came and before I knew it, the ground was beginning to shake. It started as a slow rumble but quickly turned into a steady drum. Was it the march of the Germans? No, they wouldn’t. Why were they finally crossing the field? It didn’t make any sense. The steady drum stopped for a few moments.

This time it was different. The endless miles of trench I had climbed. The bodies with their soulless eyes. Something seemed new and strange. The noises got closer. Closer and closer they inched in my head. I heard German voices talking to each other. They were right on top of me. The culmination of everything the past few hours had been coming to an end. They had found me. I had failed what I was supposed to do. As the men circled me and the voices got louder, a certain sense of peace came over me. The voices seemed to drown out all my thoughts. Thick, heavy German accents surrounded me. And as I heard their rifles cock, I could only close my eyes and scream at the sky.

Epilogue

“Patient number 0612 seems to show signs of life but is constantly tormented by the life he knew a year ago in the Great War. He insists that he is still in the trenches searching for those lost. He talks of their ghostly white eyes and bloated faces. He shows signs of severe PTSD, but it appears that his mind will forever be trapped inside itself. He shows the signs of shellshock as well, but these are minor when we compare them to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He calls us Fritzie or Jerry, a common name for the Germans during the War. My recommendation is heavy medication and a lobotomy to remove these thoughts ourselves.” The doctor then moves the files into his filing cabinet and starts to sign the documents in front of him. “I’m sorry. The father you knew is long gone. My condolences.” A sad pair consisting of a mother and a pair of son’s stairs at the doctor in disbelief. They know it can never be the same as it was. All that remains is a memory of what was.

psychological

About the author

A.M Cooper

Teacher by Day, Writer by Night

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (3)

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  • Maurice Haeemsabout a month ago

    Excellent story, great read, really enjoyed it,

  • marty roppeltabout a month ago

    Your vivid descriptions are devastating. Fine work!

  • Kathryn Salazarabout a month ago

    Wonderful story that kept me on edge, wanting to read more. Great work!

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