I wake up, my eyes wet with tears. It’s dark and the place feels unfamiliar, but I am alive. Another day, the same nightmare.
I stretch my limbs and look up from my cot. The ceiling is low and grey, patches of rust and soot marking it here and there. I get up and grab some stale bread to munch on as I browse through the night’s reports. Two attacks, nine casualties and twelve wounded. A few more weeks like this and there won’t be anyone left to hold position. There won’t be anyone left at all.
They are winning and we are losing. We are losing everything. Our homes and our loved ones. Everything.
My wife is gone. My friends are gone. I am alone in a battered land of strangers. I don’t even know why I keep fighting. Perhaps because it’s what my soldiers expect of me. Yes. I do it for them, even if I know it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any difference. We have no hope left, but only few are strong enough to admit it to themselves.
I dwell for a moment on the dream still clouding my thoughts. I know it too well, but its meaning drifts away from me.
The glass surface of the tall building reflects the sun, urging me to avert my eyes. The street is empty and the air is cold, but I am sweating slightly inside my clothes. I proceed on the sidewalk with a steady, fast pace, sure of my intentions.
I push open the large wooden door that leads inside. The hall is crowded and noisy and I must slice through the mob with my arms, working my way to the door in the corner. Shoulders hit shoulders, and I grunt before reaching the steel door to the staircase. I turn the big, black handle and pull. The door is heavy but moves smoothly, its hinges properly lubricated.
I start climbing the stairs, floor after floor. My calves ache, but I don’t stop. I focus on the soothing rhythm of my feet on the steps. It is surprisingly pleasant, swiping away all my thoughts until there’s just a constant thump-thump.
I ignore the signs hung at each landing. I don’t know how high I am, but I don’t care. I have to go the top. I will know when I am there. I just wish my pain could end like this stairway does.
I think about my life. I am beyond sad. I am resigned, aware that nothing will ever change, in an endless sequence of repeating voids. Sporadic illusions of hope engulf me with energy, only to stay with me for the blink of an eye. I am almost euphoric now, but perhaps it’s only a wicked version of a runner’s high. I want to question my feelings.
I reach yet another landing. I turn to my right, but a steel door lies in front of me. I push it open, the sun coming inside and instantly warming the grey air of the concrete staircase. I take a few tentative steps outside, thin gravel crunching beneath my feet. The cold air freezes the sweat on my face and turns my breath into smoke.
There are people outside on the rooftop. Who are they? Why are they here? Why am I here? They turn their blank expressions to me. I walk forward and a thud tells me the door has closed behind me.
The sky is impossibly blue, and the air is terse, without a hint of haze on the horizon. I see other buildings in the distance. I walk slowly and reach the end of the rooftop, just air between me and the streets below. I turn my back to the void.
I try to focus on the reason why I am here, but it still fails me. I can’t think straight. The others are just a few meters away when I move backward and my heels hit the outer ledge. I step onto it without turning back, only shooting a glance over my shoulder. I stand on the edge, arms slightly raised on my sides. I feel my heart racing fast in my chest.
There is something in the back of my mind, something that doesn’t work, something wrong. Damn. It’s only inches away and I can’t grasp it. The others are almost on me, and the door to the staircase is closed. I am defeated.
Will I jump one day? In my dreams? Perhaps.
I walk outside and distant gunfire welcomes me, as if to remind me of the world I live in. My lieutenant gives me the salute. She’s the formal type and keeps doing it even if I’m not military.
“No incoming fire, sir,” she says with proud voice.
I nod and walk forward to have a look at the battlefield beyond the trench line. We’re fighting a twentieth-century war a century too late. We are slaughtering and being slaughtered. Steel against flesh. Those who knew what happened are no longer around to tell us. We only know war. We only know death.
The battlefield is foggy, and the low sun makes it look ghostly. With my eyes I follow confused footsteps in the mud until they disappear in the fog. Whose are they? Is the person who left them dead? Are they mine? I look at my boots, old, black and dirty, fooling myself that it does matter.
I scan the horizon from east to west. Everything looks quiet, but the fog conceals the harsh reality of what lies in front of me. Hundreds of dead bodies, their dreadful stench defeating the winter.
I turn back and watch my lieutenant march down the trench. She has purpose in her movements. I wish I could get some of it for myself. Some strength. Other soldiers are scattered twenty yards behind the line, chatting and joking just outside their rusting barracks. One of them nods at me, and I nod back. What’s his name? Dan. Yes, Dan. Just another fool.
The slight breeze coming from the battlefield covers my skin in goose bumps. I stare through the mist for a few moments. I am missing something, like when I used to leave home for work without my wallet. That peculiar sensation telling me something is out of place, not where it ought to be. I look down, and I picture my assault rifle near my cot, inside the barrack. I like it being there, away from me. I like being away from it. I am free.
I take a couple of steps back, and then I lunge forward to the other side of the trench, walking briskly into the mud, into the fog.
“Sir?” someone calls behind me. “Sir!”
I don’t answer, mist already hugging me tight. I smile to myself and walk toward the end.
This short story also appeared on Medium.