Light flickered through the edge of the curtains. Mitch, who had been awake for hours, watched the shudder of electric brightness disturb the silence of the room.
Years before, flashes of light had meant one thing only – gunfire.
He heaved upright, throat dry.
“Go back to sleep, Becky,” he whispered, voice cracked. She lay, eyelids kissed together, dark hair curled around her like spilled ink. Her skin stretched, rosy and freckled, into satin and lace, all wrapped up like a gift. Mitch brushed his lips across her shoulder. “I’m getting a glass of water.”
“Come back soon, my love.” Her words, feather-soft and sleepy, were words that any guy would shiver at. Should shiver at…
Mitch longed for her words to blind him to anything but her, to bring him to his knees, to destroy cities with his desire, but he had seen cities crumble, and hadn’t been able to feel much of anything since.
He inched down the stairs, missing the fourth and seven steps, which usually creaked underfoot. The kitchen was cool, and quiet, not filled with body-warmth or a soundtrack of breaths and mumblings. The electric streetlamp lit up the whole room, crackling in and out of use, sending Mitch into brief spells of abject darkness. The stars were never out. Not as they had been, when he had been on-duty. It was as though the sky had been shot into pieces, and heaven was piercing through, waiting for them.
He had watched them every night, listening to the radio crackling softly in the distance, and no matter which guys surrounded him, the stars held him in their embrace. War was a lonely place, but the stars tethered Mitch to himself.
His eyes fell on the small radio on the countertop. It was sleek cherry-red, complete with cream details, so unlike the metal boxes they had listened to during the war. He creaked the dial a notch, a whisper crawling out, filling the room with a hushed cadence of dialogue. Becky always changed it to newer songs, all growled and bluesy. Mitch twisted the dial until a softer song soared with strings and luscious brass. The jazz melody swum through his consciousness like a drug – it was the sort of thing he would have fallen asleep to before.
He closed his eyes, hearing the sounds of war crescendo around him. Through it all, a voice crawled across the back of his neck, he felt the ghost of a touch on his arm. He cursed under his breath, half-longing to stay trapped in the war he remembered, half-desperate to forget.
He pressed a hand to the door of his larder – because, Christ, he was the sort of guy that had a larder now – and after a long minute, yanked the handle. In the dark, his reach curled past cans of fruit and tins of meat, to a bottle, ice cold to the touch. He tore the lid off with his teeth, and swallowed, relishing the burn.
He repeated the process thrice more, before grabbing a beer from the fridge and slumping at the table. Everything that used to make him feel numb made no difference now. In fact, the music made him feel rawer, as though his every muscle and nerve was exposed beneath his skin, bloody and pulsing.
The singer was crooning over her darling, and Mitch knew his mind should have been on his wife, awaiting him upstairs, but it was not.
Mitch had fallen into the daydream a thousand times before, but he dipped in again, feeling dirty and guilt-ridden. He was painting the walls, singing along badly to the radio, but next to him wasn’t Becky, it was Stu… Stu... in denim and cotton, and softer without the war bearing on his shoulders, their hands brushing over the paintbrushes. Stu, touting a basket of cakes and sandwiches, beach towels tucked under his arms, smiling with a brightness that Mitch hadn’t seen since they’d parted.
Sometimes he awoke, shocked to be wrapped in rose-perfumed arms, instead of army-issued soap on rough calluses and thatches of dark hair. Sometimes he felt disgusted, but mostly the memory filled him with warmth.
On days when shame filled him, he scrubbed in the shower until his skin burned red. He tried to awaken his tired heart, with each glance at Becky, he tried, he tried, he tried to feel something. When he did feel, the shame washed down the drain, and he longed for Stu, as reliant on his memories as he was of alcohol – feeling their embraces bruise across every inch of his body. In those moments, it was too easy to feel.
He choked down another sip, drinking until his vision blurred, and dreaming became simpler, the thoughts slipping into place.
“Good evening folks, or should I say good morning?” the radio chirped, “Any early birds listening now can probably relate to our next one: Rememb’ring You. This song always reminds me of my special someone…”
Mitch crushed the empty can under his fist, eyes falling shut, but still unable to fall asleep.
Stu… he thought, a sigh filling every cavity of his chest, because once again, he was up remembering him. The song was taunting him. He had known too many restless nights, forced longer with strong, bitter coffee.
God… he was a loser.
What would Stu think of him now? Miserable, drunk, face matted with unshaven fuzz, eyes bloodshot and surrounded by purpling bruises. Stu was doing well for himself, writing radio plays – he had left a solitary telegram about five years after the war ended. Short, to the point, Mitch longed to hear Stu’s voice reading the sentence fragments.
Stu had been right all along. Mitch could never outrun himself. He was exhausted with the effort. He had no one to fight alongside anymore.
His head fell onto the cold kiss of wood, his right arm throbbing with the cry of an old wound. His eyes, beginning to crinkle together, watched the light flashing. He saw the gunfire.
He felt the ache.
His heart hurt... and for the first time in a long while, he fell asleep as soon as his eyes slid shut.
The next morning, Becky regarded the kitchen with a sigh, coaxing the beer can from Mitch’s fingers. The radio crooned a bittersweet lullaby.
“Mitch, darling,” she whispered, ruffling his overgrown hair. “Wake up... I thought you were going to look for a job today, my love?”
She started the noisy coffee percolator, and dropped the newspaper, dated May 12th 1962, by Mitch’s hand.
“I wish I knew what was going on in that mind of yours,” she said, uttering words she would never dare while he was awake. She pulled up a chair and stared into his serene face.
Still handsome. A smile danced across her lips. They had been perfect together in high school, both golden, and happy, and as giddy in love as they could be. Her heart leapt at the curve of his blush pink lips – he almost looked content.
“Mitch, honey,” she said again, hesitant to break the mirage. She curled a finger around his left thumb. “God, you’re freezing.”
She stood, placing a hand on his shoulder, discomfort roiling in the depths of her stomach. “God, Mitch,” she shook, urging movement into his arm. His head rolled back, the white column of his neck exposed under the stark electric lights.
“Oh my God, Mitch!” she shrieked, dropping his hand and rushing to the phone. “9-1-1... I have an emergency... oh my God, oh my God! Please help! Oh my God! My husband isn't waking up! Please help!”
‘And then, ‘neath starlight’s silver beams,
When you should fill my dreams,