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Grade
8

Afterburn

The sky, which alternated between a cloudless, crystalline blue and an unpleasant lead-like tint following the cycles of day and night, had reverted back to a gentle cornflower. It was as if the flat pewter had been scrubbed away by an impossibly large and unseen washer man, revealing a stunning azure that burned his eyes with its brilliance.

The man scowled involuntarily, remembering the young washer man that, with the miscalculated motion of a bony elbow, knocked his bucket of grey washing water on top of the man’s head. The water had thoroughly soaked the man’s clothing, forcing him to retreat back inside the damp inn and exchange the wet cloak and tunic for a frightenly bright colored rain jacket. When he returned the man was sure to yell his throat hoarse at the poor boy, who bracketed the man’s tirade with stuttered apologies.

The frown slipped from his face as the man remembered Calliope’s numerous lectures on “Kindness”, “Forgiveness”, and the occasional “Kellen would you give it a rest you’re scaring the children”. It was replaced soon by a bitter smile that pulled uncomfortably on his cheeks, to point where the man hoped he would not be sore when morning came in the form of pale sunshine, washed out by the dirty windows that plagued the small tenements within the inn.

Slipping out of the brief moment of nostalgia, the man cast his eyes over his surroundings for possibly the millionth time since he had first arrived at the clearing. It was the same as when he and their troops had been first blinded by the dazzling light, when he had been naive and young, head bursting with visions of peace, unaware that such a prospect was as delicate as his mother’s century old china.

Over his left shoulder a fully visible sun blazed, casting a short, light shadow that stretched only a metre in front of his polished boots. From this, the man could tell it was once again midday, though due to the consistent blocking of the sun by thick, slate covered clouds it was impossible to distinguish the first midday, save for the clanging of the clock in the town’s square.  The radiant sun illuminated his surroundings, displaying a massive meadow that was sprinkled with wildflowers like splatters of multicolored paint on a green canvas.  

Even after the years that had passed since he had first stumbled across the meadow and gazed out on the immense stretch of color, the man could still see the wonderfully bright hues in stunning clarity. The meadow, the morning itself, having been burned onto his eyelids, to replay every time he closed them in an effort to push out the stagnation that plagued his current situation. But, after countless nights of blazing light the sun began to sting the delicate tissue of his eyes and the colors of the meadow left a stale taste on his tongue.

 

Every night, his surroundings changed, yet stayed the same.

The walls around him had changed as night fell, having been flattened to the ground and covered in earth sprouting with thick smelling greenery.

His bed frame and uncomfortable blankets disappeared, only to be replaced by a messy pallet that stunk of unwashed bodies and smoke.

His nightclothes, which were worn thin enough to tear at the lightest abrasion, were exchanged for a pair of cobalt trousers and a loose fitting undershirt emblazoned with their insignia.

The man felt a cool breeze flutter his baggy, stained tunic as he shifted to a sitting position, raising gooseflesh on his uncovered arms, and allowed the pleasant chill to fill his lungs. The heavy scent of the forest, coupled with the glaring light and impossibly colorful meadow made his chest burn, having already sensed what was to come next. But for once, the overwhelming crash of nostalgia over his consciousness that accompanied the dream merely lapped at his senses like a mellow wave.

Even as he and the rest of their troops awoke and milled about, lighting a fire in their small pit and repacking piles of blankets, he felt a detached calm seep through the pores of his skin.

The man could feel Calliope’s honeysweet soprano mingling with Vin’s rumbling tenor, calling back and forth like sections of an orchestra, yet keeping to the same pitch.  He had not heard words escape their mouths in decades, so they prickled in his ears, making the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

The man repacked his cot, having gone through the motions every night for over eight years making his movements robotic, but none of his comrades noticed the difference. The other troops in his section were blurred at the edges, as if the man were looking through warped glass, and their voices blended to form a cacophony similar to that of a forest filled with life. Only Calliope and Vin’s voices floated above like a small boat on a gently rocking sea, and the man savored them like a final piece of hard candy.

The bizarre calm remained long enough to ease down the man’s guard, pulling gently on the rotting bricks, but it was as they marched in lines of dirty clothing as barely masked nervousness through the immense forests cutting the boundary between the swampy south, and the frigid north that he felt the shift.

It was as the sunlight, sliced into thin slivers by the tree branches above their heads, shone on their backs like prison bars that he could taste the iron of oiled guns on his tongue. Within a moment, the steady rumble of men trudging forward like diseased and bandaged cattle was shattered by a crack like the gods themselves had split the earth in front of them.

The man knew what happened next, he had relived the moment so many times that the only feeling he could conjure was slight annoyance, akin to that felt a scratched record that repeated the same note until the needle was lifted.

The man knew he was in no real danger. Even as his comrades fell like pushed dominos, struck through with bullets he could not discern, even in the clutches of sleep, he only experienced a twinge of uncomfortability. The man could see the opposition, dressed in pressed cobalt uniforms with faces unmarred by any trace of dirt. He felt the physical pain as a small spherical piece of iron ripped its way through the muscle of his shoulder, and within seconds, another shattering the bone in his thigh. The man crumpled, letting out of sharp gasp as his vision was clouded with black, clutching at his leg and setting his wounded shoulder ablaze with the movement. He curled on the ground, dirtying his formerly white undershirt further, and took in large, harsh breaths to combat the excruciating pain that spread through his body like cold wind through thin clothing. He could hear familiar screams beyond the ache, and guns boomed like the gods’ own wrath was upon them.

The booming of guns and shrapnel pinging off metal armour like rain off a tin roof filled the silence left by the fleeing birds, but the melody was much crueller.  

 

The Enduna’s emblem, crossed golden swords surrounded by a wreath of roses stitched with care upon the back and shoulders of their uniforms, was half consumed by a discolored stain that spread outwards like scarlett fingers. The once brilliant gold of the force’s symbol known from the fringes of the sweltering and wind-burned south to the biting cold of the north was tainted with human blood. The man peeled his eyelids back to be greeted by an officers gold and scarlet passementerie stitched to a navy blue uniform. He had not the time nor the circumstance to wonder as to the fallen opposition officer was doing so near to him, but now he let the idle thought ground him as his shoulder and leg sung at a fever pitch with pain.

The noise of it all was overwhelming and his eyes watered at heavy smoke. The man pushed himself onto his back, only to see the beautifully cerulean sky dark with the fumes of gunpowder the color of washing water.

 

The man peeled his eyelids back, the thin skin heavy with burden of sleep, and sucked in a labored breath. The air was no longer fresh and cleansing, but rather thick and oily, and felt like it was sticking in his lungs like opaque gum.

He shifted to the side of the bed and slowly sat up, joints popping obnoxiously loud.

The man then slipped tanned and wrinkled feet into the plush insides of his slippers, wiggling gnarled toes at the unexpected softness. He carefully pushed himself from the lip of bed, hands braced on the blanket-covered sides. His arms quivered with effort, the ropy muscles wrapping them weak and thin from age.

As he balanced precariously, it felt as though the dull pallor of the morning sun had awakened.  Golden light spilled from the windows, burning away frost gathered on the windowpane and chased away the harsh bite of cold that had seeped through the floorboards.

For a moment, it felt as though his outstretched arms, formerly used to preserve his balance, were transformed, the brightening sunlight illuminating golden feathers that set his body ablaze. It was as if he were on the precipice of flight, bathed in light that erased the dreariness of the morning, leaving a burning nothingness.

As quick as a snuffed candle, the moment was gone. The light faded once again to its previous dull color, and resumed straining to enter the room through the smudged window adjacent to his bed.  Even the bite of the morning cold seemed unnaturally amplified after the impossible warmth.  

The man sighed, shoulders drooping and straining muscles disappearing under worn skin like the ripples of fish back to the safety of the lake floor.  He scratched the strip of flesh revealed under his nightshirt after hours of fitful dreams, then tugged the garment back in place.  The nightshirt was once a soft blue, but had grayed after countless washes in warm, slate colored water.

Slowly, the man shuffled across the dented hardwood floor, the worn bottoms of his slippers catching on every nail and splintered slat.  It felt as though  his head was stuffed with cotton, trapping coherent thought in its spider silk thin tendrils.  This was not uncommon.  The man found that with every day that passed his head grew foggier.  His thoughts began to blur and memories faded by the scores. The man figured he should be more worried at the steady loss of his younger memories, but with growing maturity he began to realize how ridiculous fighting age was, and let himself deteriorate with the sense of foreboding linger at the edge of his rapidly shrinking mind.

As the man ambled towards the narrow stairs the fog of his mind slowly sharped, bleeding away into a cuttingache at his temples. He clutched the handrail as he made his descent, stepping carefully around the tabby cat- named “Artemis” by the owner of the Inn, due to its tendencies towards trapping mice and leaving the bodies outside residents’ doors -napping on the seventh stair.  Each step whined under his weight, making their displeasure loudly known as they bent slightly around his clothed feet.

Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, the man hobbled into the tiny, shared kitchen.  

 

The kitchen, positioned opposite to the stairs, was painted a garish yellow following the finishing of the building, but the once bright paint had faded to a dirty beige and peeled away from the walls as if seeking escape from its own horridness.  The man quite liked rich hues, but the hilariously awful mustard colored walls worsened his headache to a near splitting pain. The cabinets, in contrast, were of plain, pine wood with worn brass handles that gleamed gold in the light emancipating from the kitchen’s red draped window.  Inside the cabinets were stacks of smudged drinking glasses and chipped china plates.  

The man opened the highest cabinet and rooted through the nicked drinkware, searching for the cleanest glass.  He pulled out a squat cup with a small crack sprouting from its bottom like a silvery scar. He then retrieved a porcelain pitcher of milk from the icebox, fingertips slipping in the cool condensation gathered on the handle, and poured a hardy amount of liquid into the smaller glass.

He downed the cup and, over the oppressive silence of early morning, he could hear the rattling of carts and the clomping of horses’ hooves on bumpy cobblestone. The man peeked out the curtain-covered window to watch the street outside the tenement, watching as the few out at such an early time jogged to the closest building.

The town of Perla was located just south of the arctic lands, making it one of the northernmost ports in the world, but it was so cold most of the year that one could get frost within a few minutes, especially in the early morning. The man had grown used to the cold, despite having been raised in Foalene, a small town situated close enough to the heat waves of the east that its residents never saw fat flakes of snow cascade from bloated clouds, and rarely wore anything more than a simple shirt and breeches.

The man knew though, that Calloipe and Vin, as a two person exodus from the eastern city of Ferch, would have refused any living situation where ones breath could be seen. The man chuckled then, warm breath fogging over a small section of window at the thought. He could Calliope rubbing her hands together to kindle a small amount of warmth with wailing about the cold, while Vin, standing almost seven feet tall, would burrow into himself in an attempt to preserve heat.

At the thought of his companions bundled in layers of coats, the man felt a gentle small curve his lips. He could imagine them diving from building to building, desperate to escape the bitter cold that whipped at their clothing, whisking off hats and loose scarves. He could see them prancing over to him after an errand, only to shove freezing cold hands down the back of his neck, pulling a shriek from his throat.

 

And at the thought of Calliope and Vin riding the drooping horses of Perla like they were the stallions of their homelands, the man laughed.

 

State
MI
Zip Code
48197