Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 29
Broken Table

                 

A vision invaded Tolly’s mind – the kitchen table at home, a plate of bread and cheese before him. He reached for the food but the table cracked in two, the halves falling away from each other. The plate fell through the gap and smashed. Tolly was left sitting on his chair, an empty space in front of him with the table lying asunder on the floor, its legs uselessly horizontal, the shards of the plate scattered amid spilled bread and cheese.

The image hung superimposed over the sight of Harry’s body in the trench. Harry’s eyeballs became pickles and rolled away. A black dog was sitting beside his shoulder, panting with a devil’s grin. Something inside Tolly’s head broke with a crunching snap and he lurched forward in vertigo.

He could feel Father Mack clutching his shoulders from behind. The padre’s grip became intolerable and Tolly stood up, wrenching himself free, trembling from head to toe. The acid in his veins was eating his flesh from the inside. He had a sensation of himself as a burning statue. Sound turned into the smell of violets. Its sickly sweetness was choking him.

Harry sat up.

Sgt. Dennison was behind the body, propping it up like a ventriloquist with a dummy, peering at something on its back. The sergeant turned his face up towards Tolly, his mouth opening and closing, saying something about…that it wasn’t…it wasn’t…but the words turned into puffs of purple smoke with that sweet violet smell, signifying something Tolly could not read.

Father Mack gripped Tolly’s shoulders again, trying to twist him away from what he was seeing – the broken table and Harry sitting up and Sgt. Dennison mouthing smoke – but Tolly could not stand the touch. The padre got him half turned around, trying to shout something, and Tolly discovered he was screaming into Father Mack’s face. Something about God.

Tolly head-butted the chaplain, striking as quick as a cobra, catching him on the bridge of the nose with his steel helmet, and Father Mack’s face turned into blood and shock.

Tolly could feel nothing except the burning in his veins. His hearing imploded and his vision blazed in a splitting nightmare of ghastly, jagged flashes. Everything began to revolve.

He had to get away. He had to get out. His own blood was consuming him.

He lurched towards the side of the trench, grabbing at torn wood to gain purchase. Something told him he was clambering through the wreckage of the broken table. A blue, smoke-breathing figure got in his way – Sgt. Dennison, moving slowly – but Tolly kicked him aside and trod on him.

He hauled himself out of the trench and stood upright on the parados. Someone tried to grab his ankle from behind but he shook free and took a few steps forward. There was a taste of rotten iron in his mouth.

Where was he? Behind him the lamentation of no man’s land arose like scents from a blood-stained sweetshop – aniseed, mint balls, liquorice – while in front of him coughs of sparking fire brought the yellow smell of buddleias.

There! Over there!

Tolly loped forward, accelerated into a run. He took his helmet off and threw it away. He fumbled with clasps and buckles, stripping off belts and straps and pouches, the better to run unburdened. He wrestled with buttons, possessed by a sudden obsession to be naked. He shed his tunic, his shirt, his vest and his tags, flinging them aside. He started to laugh. He flung himself down, rolling over in the wire, and took off his puttees, his boots, his breeches and his drawers. Barbs ripped his skin but he did not feel them. He regained his feet and sprinted.

Flares crackled overhead. Banging noises, the synaesthesia turning them into the smell of oranges and lemons, danced around him. Naked, insane, berserk, running towards the enemy trenches, Tolly screamed:

 ‘Kill me!’

Germans with guns looked up as his howls echoed across the wasteland.

 

 

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