They both had nightmares after the war.
Jeff’s came more frequently. He tossed and turned in his bed, gangly limbs throwing his blankets into a mess around his ankles. Sometimes he would try to whimper out a name, something incoherent that caught in his throat before he could make it clear.
In his dreams, Jeffrey saw blood. Miles upon miles of blood, snaking through the battlefields like rivers on fire flooding the hills with the taste of copper and the smell of death. He saw limbs detached from their owners reaching out to him from the depths of the bloody rivers. They clawed their way towards him through the thick, crimson waves crashing across the grass. The bodies crept towards him, too, riddled with holes and gashes and wracked with disease and decay. They weren’t safe from the blood either-- it poured out of bullet holes and stumps of arms and legs and out of their mouths and their eyes, drenching them in the sickening red and adding to the ocean flooding the battlefield.
Jeffrey would try to run, try to fend them all off with his gun, anything to stop their advances, but nothing worked. His feet stuck to the ground, maybe from the blood sticking to his shoes, maybe from the fear slowly enclosing its icy claws around his heart. He was all out of caps, he was always out of caps. His heart pounded as he stood surrounded by dead men on all sides, not a living soul in sight except for himself. Jeffrey began to recognize the faces of the horrifying dead bodies encroaching on him. Walter… Collins… Billy… Billy, his little buddy from back home who just wanted to join the fight and prove himself, who died screaming on a battlefield with his leg half cut off. Jeff could hear the boy’s screaming again, a screech of pain that tore right through him. They kept coming, the screaming and the blood and the bodies with the faces he remembered but couldn’t save and they wouldn’t stop coming--
Until he woke up. With a cry caught in his throat, Jeffrey sucked in a breath as if he’d been held underwater. He shot up in his bed, barely noticing the small figure crouched beside him.
Albert cracked an eye open when he first heard Jeff shuffling around. Jeff tended to be a heavy sleeper, so Albert knew something was wrong when he heard the disturbance. He watched the other boy roll around in his bed, panting heavily. Besides the creaking of the bed frame and the shuffling of the sheets, Jeff’s nightmares were usually a silent affair, a change from his usual personality that would be welcomed if not brought on by nightmares. The real signs of distress showed themselves when Albert crawled out of his bed to kneel beside Jeff: his skin was clammy, his eyes flitted frantically beneath his eyelids, and his expression was anything but peaceful with his brow furrowed in pain and his lips ready to break out into a scream.
“Jeffrey.” Albert leaned in and spoke into his friend’s ear, gently shaking his arm. “Jeff, wake up. You’re dreaming. Jeffrey!”
Jeff woke with a start, gasping for air and shaking as he sat up in bed. His eyes still anxiously searched the room for the bodies that had tortured him in his dream, but he was met only with darkness. His eyes adjusted slightly and he looked over to see Albert next to his bed, illuminated faintly by moonlight through the small window in their room.
“Bad dream again?” It wasn’t a question. Albert slid onto the edge of the bed to get a better look at Jeffrey, who was hunched over and still breathing hard. Jeff nodded his head quickly and began to stutter under his breath in an attempt to calm himself, but to no avail. He still trembled hard enough he thought he could hear his bones clattering together under his skin. Albert reached out and tilted Jeffrey’s face up to meet his. Jeffrey hadn’t even noticed he had begun to cry until Albert swiped his small, calloused thumbs against his cheeks.
Albert readied himself just as Jeffrey pitched forward into his arms, the sheer force of the man nearly knocking him over. Jeffrey buried his face into Albert’s neck and he felt the tears begin to come faster and soak through his nightshirt. Albert still heard the anxious rambling coming out in gasps between Jeffrey’s hiccuping as his shoulders rumbled beneath his hands.
Many people wouldn’t believe it if they ever saw Jeffrey N. Davis, but despite his towering figure, the boy could become incredibly small sometimes. Nightmares were one of those times. Fear was a monster that would destroy even the most formidable-looking boys if they weren’t careful.
Albert let Jeff cling onto him for dear life, nearly crushing the breath out of him as he wrapped his arms around his torso. Jeffrey clutched desperately at his friend’s shirt, wanting to assure himself of the realness of the things around him and forget the things he had seen in his nightmare. The smaller boy leaned his head against Jeffrey’s, turning his head to whisper softly into his ear.
“Shh…” Albert soothed his friend, closing his eyes and slowly beginning to rock them both back and forth on the small bed. His lips gently grazed the shell of Jeffrey’s ear and Jeffrey shivered at the warmth of the boy’s breath, leaning towards the comforting touch. “Hey, it’s okay, Jeff. It’s just a dream. None of it’s real.”
Jeff slowly began to calm down and slip back into sleep in Albert’s arms as the boy whispered over and over to him. As Albert attempted to guide Jeffrey back to laying on the bed, Jeffrey grabbed sleepily for Albert, not ready to let him go.
“Stay?” It was the shortest sentence he’d said all night, but it was also the most coherent. Albert looked at the impossibly large, deep green eyes staring up at him with all the hope in the world and Albert couldn’t tear himself away. Not that he would have, anyway. Not when Jeffrey needed him.
So Albert laid down next to Jeffrey and let him lay his head on his shoulder while Albert pulled the blankets tightly around them both before wrapping his arms around Jeffrey’s broad shoulders once again. Jeff’s weight was surprisingly comfortable against Albert’s body. Jeff still had one hand wrapped tightly in Albert’s nightshirt where he slung his arm across his friend’s waist. Albert pressed his face into Jeffrey’s hair, reveling in the scent he couldn’t quite place but was undeniably Jeffrey.
The two began to quietly drift off to sleep. They didn’t talk about the dreams--they were well aware of each other’s nightmares by now. The war had changed them, made them see too many things for boys as young as they were. They were both grateful for the feeling of safety the other brought on nights like this nevertheless. Albert watched Jeffrey succumb to unconsciousness, the worry and fear fading from his face and replaced only by a soft smile at the edge of his lips as he felt Albert’s heart beating through his chest. Albert’s eyes fluttered closed as he watched their breaths come in and out in sync with each other, and Albert finally fell asleep lazily rubbing circles on Jeffrey’s back.
Albert’s nightmares came less often than Jeffrey’s, but when they did, they came with unspeakable intensity.
Albert dreamed of the blood and the bodies on the battlefield just as Jeffrey did. What soldier wouldn’t? But Albert dreamed of more than just the horrors of war. He was haunted by much more than battle. He saw the starving bodies filled with disease and death from his childhood in Ireland. He saw his mother and father just out of reach, nothing more than walking skeletons and gaunt faces. They moved agonizingly slow, stumbling and tripping over their own feet as they tried to touch him. But they fell in a pile at his feet before they could reach him, disintegrating into piles of dust. Albert shuffled frantically away from the piles in horror, bits of the dust sticking to his shoes.
But the worst thing he saw, worse than the starvation and the blood and the dead, he saw every kind face that had ever crossed his path turning their backs on him in disgust. They hated him. Every single one of them. Every soldier who’d fought by his side, who’d laughed and cried with him, who’d sat around campfires at night pretending there wasn’t a war on and they were all just old buddies sharing stories around a fire in their own yard. They knew about him. He didn’t know how, but they did, and now they hated him. They hated him so much they wouldn’t even look at him.
He pulled at their arms, trying to get them to turn around. They all violently ripped their arms out of his grip, adamant about showing him their disdain. Albert began to panic, his heart pounding as fast as it would in the heat of a battle. He yelled their names, pleading for them to look at him, not to hate him. He apologized through tears, though he wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for. For lying? For being like this?
The worst was Jeff. He saw Jeffrey’s towering figure among the faces of the people who hated him now. Albert brokenly walked towards him, keeping one shred of hope in his heart that Jeff wouldn’t act as all the others had. Jeffrey had always been there, his eyes filled with love and his smile warm and giddy any time Albert walked into a room. Surely he wouldn’t hate Albert, not after everything they’d been through together. But he was just the same. Albert tried to pull at his shirt, tried to take his hand in his own and lead him away, but Jeff wouldn’t look at him.
“Jeff…” Albert whimpered, crying so hard that it was all just one big stream down his wet face. “Jeff, don’t do this. Don’t hate me. Jeff, I’m sorry, Jeffrey, you’re my possum, you’re my brother in arms, don’t hate me, please…” The sick feeling in Albert’s chest eased a bit as Jeff looked down at him, but it wasn’t with love. It was all anger and burning disgust that tore through Albert like a thousand Confederate bullets.
“You ain’t my brother, Albert.” Jeffrey spat at him. Albert kept trying to pull him away from all the others, but Jeffrey shook his arm away just as everyone else had. Albert fell to the floor and felt the sting of Jeff’s words break him. “You ain’t never been my brother or my possum.” Jeffrey turned away from him again, walking off into the darkness surrounding them with the rest of the people refusing to acknowledge Albert. The boy called after his friend, letting out heart-wrenching screams as he laid on the ground.
Jeff woke slowly, not entirely sure if the sounds he was hearing were in his dreams or in real life. But once he saw Albert thrashing violently on his bed in the pale moonlight, he was as alert as he was during a battle. He threw the covers off and ran to Albert. By that point, the boy had rolled off of his bed and was pressed against the wall as hard as he could. His eyes were wide open in fear but Albert was still dreaming, seeing people that weren’t there, screaming and crying in panic. He’d seen Albert scared, but never like this.
“A-Albert?” Jeffrey stuttered, not entirely sure what to do. But as Albert continued to scream, Jeffrey found his confidence. He knelt in front of Albert, gripping his shoulders ferociously while he yelled to him. “Albert! Albert, wake up, you’re dreaming! Albert! Come back to me, possum! You gotta wake up, Albert!” Albert slowly began to come back to reality, the inky blackness that surrounded him in his dream fading away and being replaced by the familiar sights of their dark bedroom. Albert flinched at first, quickly pulling away from Jeff’s grip. Jeffrey backed away, letting Albert get his bearings after his nightmare.
Albert tried to stop crying. He hated crying, he hated feeling like everything was too big and too overwhelming for him to deal with. But he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop seeing the people from his dream. He still felt like it was all real.
Jeff tentatively began to inch back towards Albert. He reached for the boy’s hands, gently taking them in his own and letting Albert know he was there. He leaned even closer, running his hand over Albert’s hair before cupping the side of his face. Jeffrey closed the remaining space between them when he leaned down and pressed a long kiss to the top of Albert’s head. He laid his forehead against the top of Albert’s head, running his thumb against the side of Albert’s face as he willed the boy to breathe evenly again.
“Come here,” he whispered as he brought Albert’s arms around his neck and picked him up to set him back on the bed. He wasn’t much to hold. It was as easy as all the times he’d swooped Nate or Fannie up into his arms in a spinning flurry of giggles when he came home to visit. He sighed as he found himself wishing he were holding Albert like this out of joy instead of having to hold him together.
Jeff kept Albert on his lap as they sat in bed. Albert was still deep in the memories of his dream so he didn’t object. Albert began to quiet as Jeffrey sang quietly into his ear, a song he couldn’t quite remember but that felt familiar. Jeff’s arms wrapped him in warmth and he slowly returned fully to reality. But as he burrowed his face more fiercely into his friend’s neck, he couldn’t help but remember that revolting gaze that the Jeff in his dream had thrown at him and those words that cut through his heart.
“Jeffrey?” Albert asked quietly, his voice feeling much too young and afraid.
“Yeah?” Jeffrey answered back. Albert hesitated for a moment, scared that the Jeffrey from his dream had been right.
“Do you hate me?” Albert readied himself for the rejection again, for Jeff to shove him away and tell him that he did hate him and he deserved to be alone forever. But Jeff just took him by the shoulders again and pulled away so he could look into Albert’s eyes, the bright blue even brighter against the redness surrounding them. He dipped his head low and looked at him worriedly, searching for a reason why Albert would be asking such a thing.
“No, no, of course not Albert. I’d never hate you. Why would you even think that?”
“Just… in my dream, I saw you, I saw everyone, and all of you hated me.” Albert curled in on himself at the memory, the feeling of being abandoned far too real for him to handle. “You told me we weren’t possums. We ain’t ever been possums.”
“Oh, Albert,” Jeffrey cupped Albert’s face in both of his hands and leaned in to tenderly kiss his forehead. He felt Albert gently grip his wrists and smile softly as Jeffrey rested their foreheads together and closed his eyes, hoping that Albert could feel all the love Jeffrey was trying to give him. “You’re my possum, you’ve always been my possum, and there ain’t nothing that can change that, you hear? Ain’t nothing you can ever say or do or anything that can make me hate you. I’m always gonna be here. Don’t listen to those people in your dreams. I love you, Albert. I love you and I ain’t ever gonna stop loving you.” Jeffrey pressed another quick kiss to Albert’s forehead before bringing him into a crushing hug. Albert felt a few more tears drip from his eyes, but they weren’t like earlier. Albert’s shoulders sagged in relief as all the tension he was holding in his body finally melted away in Jeff’s grasp.
“Thank you, Jeffrey.” Albert whispered into Jeff’s chest, feeling his voice rumble warmly through his body as he spoke.
“Now that we got that all cleared out, you ready to sleep again?” Albert nodded and Jeff scooted down the bed until they were both lying down. Albert laid his head against Jeffrey’s chest just below his chin, every once in a while tipping his head up to nuzzle the boy’s neck. Jeffrey kept his long arms wrapped around his friend’s small frame, gently rubbing circles up and down his back, feeling the outline of his spine and shoulders through the cloth of his nightshirt. Jeffrey soothingly ran his long fingers through Albert’s soft hair until the boy couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. Wrapped securely around each other, the two boys fell soundly asleep, undisturbed until the sun woke them the next morning.
They had nightmares after the war. But they also had each other.