Out of the fire…

The smell of smoke coming from the cigar was incessant and unnerving. Whoever else was in the building, damn did they ever have one hell of a smoking addiction. There it was, every single time of the day, someone smoking on their balcony. I went around asking anyone if they could tone it down, but it turns out it was actually no one; would you believe that? No one was a smoker in my building. Figured it came from the building in front of us, but, even then, I couldn’t see one living soul smoking by the balcony at any time of the day.

I vividly remember that crusty old apartment: the half-torn-out bed; the cheap wooden furniture that cricked and cracked for every little movement just slightly too sudden or violent; the walls with visible cracks and plaster crusting off. If I looked hard enough, amongst all the rat nests and webs, I could even find nail-marks. Human nail-marks. Especially by the bed area, alongside little stains of blood that stood the test of time. Visiting some friends in the unit, I saw these things were there too. Figured this building was either full of serial killers or a brothel which used to get very, very hands-on.

All I did most days was sit on a dusty chair and listen to some music from those cassette readers, which no one has ever bothered improving since the eighties, by the way. On that day, it was no different. The melody was calm, weirdly upbeat I’d say, but there was some uncanniness that made it feel otherworldly and alien, unfathomable, unsettling. After one final puff, I put the cigar in the ashtray, and looked out the balcony as the giant, cold, speeding beast carried all the saltiness from the sea across the city, along with some occasional watery wires falling from the sky.

The loud bangs coming from the door could have easily been mistaken for distant cries of the sky, but luckily for me, I’ve always had a good ear.

"Come in: door’s open."

I didn’t even bother looking at the door, thinking it was just the guy who was going ‘round the apartments of the nearby buildings to finally give them their new employment call, but when I heard that voice… I turned around indeed.

"Looking mighty fine, Seamus." He said, cheeky and ironic as he ever was.

"Robert."

He stepped inside, hands inside his coat’s pockets, either because of the cold or the fear of accidentally touching and breaking something. He didn’t even sit down when I brought the only other decent chair I had from the balcony. "What do I owe for this visit?"

He shrugged. "Just wanted to see a friend." He gave me a pat on the shoulder, with a grin on his face that made him look like he was carrying some good news. "I’ve been promoted, Seamus. Lieutenant of the fifth battalion." He said that last part with a hint of veiled irony.

"’S gonna be hard putting up with all them bureaucrats up in there, eh?"

"Oh, I’m so thrilled, whoopy-fucking-doo."

Not gonna lie, I remember cackling at that. There wasn’t anything particularly funny about it, but Robert’s mannerisms were worthy of a cabaret comedian sometimes.

"Also, I’ve got this for you." He started looking around the inner pockets of his coat and took out a letter. I was hesitant about opening it, but maybe that was just me getting anxious over a letter. Didn’t get many as a kid. When I opened it, I couldn’t help but smile.

"Assigned to the fifth SecForce battalion, uh?" I felt like I was holding in a laughter, like some kind of… overwhelming joy, I guess.

"You really thought I was gonna let my buddy go to the tenth battalion and serve with Heyes as your lieutenant?" He grinned, looking proud of himself.

"You asked them to put me in the fifth?"

"First and last time. Figured you’d prefer staying in a place with known faces instead of moving to another."

I stood up, and gave him a friendly punch on his shoulder, as I walked towards that old and decrepit kitchen to make some coffee. I remember there not being much talking at all that evening, but then again, anytime me and Robert meet we only exchange a few words, but there’s something else linking me and that man that I’m sure goes beyond words. It didn’t take much for me to understand that under those grins, chuckles and jokes, he was afraid of something.

I handed him over a cigar, but he just shook his head.

"Seriously, Bob?"

"Ain’t feeling it."

He crossed his arms on the table, making it crick. I put away all the useless bullshit I had in my hands and figured it was time to speak up.

"What’s botherin’ you bud?"

He sighed. "Nothing."

"That’s bullshit. C’mon, Bob, you know you can’t lie to me."

He took off his sunglasses and narrowed his eyes. "You heard about what’s going on up North, right?"

"Aye, what about it?"

"They wanted to assign the fifth and seventh battalion to take care of that."

"That’s great: you’ve got a chance of proving yourself!"

He glared at me, with the eyes of a tiger who just found you stepping into its territory. "What if I mess up? I can’t just do that on my first assignment, now can I?"

"You’re anxious about it. That’s a good sign that you’ll do your best at not messing up, and I know how you are when you do your best."

He looked at me again, definitely calmer than he was a second ago. I looked at the clock, surprised by how early it still was.

"I think I’m gonna go rest now, Bob. Tomorrow’s gonna be tough, won’t it?"

"Yeah, I guess." He pursed his lips, his shoulder now relaxed. "If you need help packing things up, just whistle."

And there it was. I gave him a hug, and I walked him outside. Once the door was shut, I flopped down on the bed and closed my eyes. I’ll spare you the nightmares and all the times I woke up during the night, just know that the following day, I rushed to pack up all my things and finally go for a trip to the North of Skye. There wasn’t much in my bag, aside from the usual SecForce equipment, a diary and a bandana.

When I went down the stairs of the building, with that bag on my shoulders which made me feel like I was being pulled down the staircase by some gravitational hazard, I didn't know what I was expecting. When I did finally step outside onto the sidewalk, dazed and blinded by the sun, I could make out the silhouette of a couple of APCs. Outside one of them was Robert waiting for me.

"Seamus, you dumbass, it’s late!" He said that playfully, so I got the wrong idea.

"You tried to pull off the ‘it’s late’ joke many times already and you never succeeded, Bob."

He came up to me and handed me a pair of sunglasses, as he tapped my wrist to prompt me into checking my watch.

"Shit. It really is late. Alright then."

We rushed to our assigned APC, and while we did, I took one final look at the block; Buildings, all close to each other, pretty tall, about ten stories each, so old they had started to grow some sort of salty crust on them that you could not just see, but feel too. Hell, the outsides were better than the insides. The people going around looked at us ‘big boy soldiers’ either with lazy eyes or a lack of respect, but then again, the trash that was laying all around the neighbourhood and all the stuff the two-cent crooks could get away with was our fault.

I took one last look at the building I had been staying in for two weeks before closing the door of the APC and sitting next to Robert. The ride was unexpectedly quiet, a final moment of peace. Had we known what was about to occur in the span of the next two days, we would have appreciated it much more.

So there I was, boots on the ground again, all geared up and looking like I could take over monsters from some fevered dream. Of course, I actually couldn’t, not alone at least. There was almost no talking at all during the whole thing, we just regrouped at some old base sinking in the freezing cold and Robert gave us our orders. Met up with my new teammate, a scrawny Irish lad, patrolling Skye’s white highlands.

There wasn’t much to do on patrol, aside from driving around in a four-by-four off-road slipping in the snow and enjoying the white beast that was hounding over Skye that day. The most annoying thing-and the most pleasant at the same time-was probably that Irish lad, Cillian.

"So you were in Saragossa, aye?"

I just nodded.

"And what’d you do there mate?"

"Same thing I’m doin’ here."

He laughed and tackled my shoulder. "That’s a bag of shite if I’ve ever seen one."

"Can you shut up and let me drive? I’m having a hard time seeing through all the snow already."

He shrugged and held onto his rifle, looking outside the window. "Sorry mate." He looked ahead of himself and took a quick peek towards me.

"Look, you better learn not to ask certain kinds of questions." I sighed, and turned my eyes towards him, the guy looked guilty as charged. "It was bad, alright? It’s stuff I’d rather not think about. Stuff you’d live a better life not knowing it happened, but we pulled it off. We’re Central, we always win in the end." He nodded to me, and retired in silence. I stopped the APC, took my hands off the wheel, and gave him a good look. "Listen, kid: don’t give me the battered dog look, ‘aight? You messed up now, don’t do it again."

"I just wanted to know mate."

"But why?"

"Me brother was there."

I can distinctly remember my eyes widening at that. "Oh… I see. What was his name?"

"Patrick. Patrick Gallagher."

"You’re Gallagher’s brother?"

"That’s what I just said."

"He used to talk about you sometimes."

The kid lowered his stare, and sighed. "How’d he go?"

"With dignity, that much I can tell." I gave him a pat on his shoulder, hoping it would get the boy’s mood a bit lighter. He just straightened his shoulders and looked ahead. "We have a patrol to do, don’t we?"

"We sure do."

After about another ten minutes of driving in the open, I opened the door and got off the vehicle, boots on the snow, as the chilling cold got through my gear deep into my skin. Cillian would be by my side soon after.

"What’s the problem mate?"

I raised my hand and signed him to be quiet. He was clueless, but I knew I saw something. It was whiter than the snow, no wonder Cillian didn’t notice him, but I could tell it was moving and that was enough for me.

"Put on your mask." I whispered, eyes locked on that… thing. No matter how good my senses were, by that point I couldn’t tell if it was gone or if it was still there. I took slow, steady steps, but no matter what, the snow was too tall for me to not make any noise at all; I stopped to put on the mask, that uncomfortable, hot, sweaty mask that, despite being so terrible, at least helped with the cold. I held the grip of my weapon and aimed towards the white nothingness, hoping whatever I was aiming for wasn’t just snow. I heard some steps behind me, even slower than mine, which made me assume that the boy was following.

I stopped, and there was dead silence for a moment. "Open fire when I do." I knew Cillian was listening, because he immediately turned the safety off. When I saw two little, green swampy lights in the vast whiteness, I didn’t even think twice. Good thing we were wearing the masks, because the sound of two fully automatic rifles unloading in the middle of absolutely nowhere is not kind on your ears.

There was a screech, followed by a raspy, quiet yelp throughout the bullet rain. By the time both our magazines were empty, I ran to where we had been shooting. I just stood there, looking at the ground.

"What now, Seamus?"

I turned around to the boy, who had already taken his mask off. I just shook my head.

"Call command, Cillian, tell ‘em we found something."

We had just fired two entire mags on a bunch of snow on the ground, but I knew there was more to it.

I didn’t get out of psychological rehab only to still have hallucinations.

« | Prelude | …Into the frying pan »

tagnone

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