He used to wonder how he ended up this way. He used to question the fading sensations and what they meant. He used to gaze around at the world around him, trying to understand the shades of light that signified life.
But no more. Now there is only silence even as the world spins on, the numbness of his body no longer creating distraction to his tired mind, the once vibrant colors muted and dull.
He walks the gas-lit streets as though a ghost, touching but not feeling, causing ripples that quickly fade from existence as he turns the corner and disappears from sight. No one tries to approach him. Why would they? They know what he has done, or rather, what he hasn’t done. And though they try to despise him, they cannot, so they simply ignore him. And that is worse.
As so often happens, he finds himself at the edge of the graveyard, staring through the links in the chain surrounding the area, watching as yet another hole is dug in the frozen earth, another soldier laid to rest. He knows he should feel something, perhaps grief for the person, but there is nothing, not even guilt at not feeling. He turns and walks away, back to the crowded, noisy streets.
He doesn’t blame them for what he has become. Their empty gazes as they stare through him is their way of coping, of learning how to live with the suffering he reminds them of. If disappearing will make them happier, then he is – not glad since he doesn’t know how anymore – but content to abide by their wishes. Perhaps one day they will heal. He will not be there to see it.
As he approaches home, the coldness spreads even further, sinking even deeper. He doesn’t even flinch as the screams of anger and hate wash over him, merely hangs up his coat, slips off his shoes, and places his hat on the stand before ghosting past the arguing adults and up the stairs to his room. They don’t bother him if they don’t see him enter the house, so he makes no noise as he avoids the squeaky step that should have been repaired long ago and slides across the heavy carpet that mutes his footsteps. The dull thud of the closing door behind him is the only audible sign that he has returned from his daily wanderings. The shouting doesn’t stop.
It’s his fault, he knows, that they are fighting. They made a sacrifice a year before, fully united in a wish that would become the very thing to tear them apart. Perhaps it is sad or strange or ironic that such a sacrifice has taken away what they had tried to protect, and they didn’t even notice as he faded away. Perhaps it would have been better if they had let him go, if they had let him seek the glory he was called to. But they didn’t and now they have forgotten him.
The glass of the window is fogged. The lines he makes on it do not have a pattern, do not have meaning except to the one who makes them. Draw straight down then turn to the right, swinging down, back to the left, complete the loop. Pause and start another from the bottom left corner, straight up then across the top of the window. Pause again.
The shouting has died down now, but a monster lurks in the silence. There are footsteps outside the door, someone walking past, but they do not stop. He pulls away from the window and lies in bed, eyes tracing the small cracks littering the ceiling. The house is falling apart and no one notices except him. He turns on his side, facing the wall. It is safe here, nothing to distract him, nothing that reminds him that he is not normal, not human. He stays here until morning but does not sleep.
He walks through the town again the next day, just as he has every day for the past year. He sees the tell-tale signs of hardship and loss everywhere he goes, but he does nothing. His help would not be accepted even if he does offer. He finds himself in the park, snow unmarked except for the footprints he leaves behind. Even those will be gone by morning if the heavy clouds above him have their way.
There is a tree that he used to play in as a boy. The branches hang low enough for him to grab and drag himself into. The bark is hard and cold beneath him, but he nestles himself further into the crevice he has found and lets one leg swing down. His arms rest gently by his sides, for once the strained tension absent from them. Here, his only companions are the ravens who decided to brave the cold winter. He wonders why they didn’t follow the warmth. Do they prefer the solitude and silence that winter brings?
They give him no answer, simply flap their wings and settle their feathers. The sounds of the city are muffled, and he finds that his thoughts are too loud without the noise of other people to drown them out. He shifts, now uncomfortable in the cold and solitude. But the ravens chirp at the sudden movement as though admonishing him for disturbing them. He sits back and watches as they seem to nod in satisfaction at his returned stillness.
And yet, there is an urge, a need to go back to the blank stares and empty spaces that are so familiar. There is too much silence, too much pain that wishes to drown him if he dares let it out. Better to hide it, hide from it, in the anger and emotion of people. But again the birds protest. They sputter and squawk as he slips from the tree, shoulders hunched and tense. They fly around him in a black swarm as he stares at the ground, the white flakes seeming to blur as he hurries through the park and towards safety. The ravens summon him back to the trees, to the silence, to the solitude, and he ignores them.
One of them drops a ribbon in front of him, sacrificing the precious material from its nest to hold his attention. He hesitates a moment then stoops to the ground, fingers poised above the red decoration, red like blood. He cannot touch it, it would break him if he does, but he can’t stop staring at it. The words glisten clearly against the bright fabric, the only thing he has been able to see clearly for a year, a full year of cold and numbness and gray. They beckon him to glory, to honor, to freedom from the winter. And he cannot accept. His parents made sure of it.
And suddenly he is angry. He grabs the material and tries to tear it to shreds, screaming in fury as it refuses to give, the letters glaringly bright, accusing him, blaming him. That grave should be his. Why isn’t it his? Why hasn’t he freed everyone from him and his cowardice?
The empty gazes, the streaks of tear on the mothers’ faces, the innocent children who cannot understand the absence of their brothers, the fathers who try to stand strong even as their hearts break, the guilt and shame in his parents’ eyes. It is too much, too painful, and he collapses, body, mind, and spirit too broken to hold him up any longer. That grave should be his.
He doesn’t realize the passage of time as he simply lays there, body slowly becoming numb once more in the icy cold of the approaching evening. He doesn’t realize the fading light until the colors are muted and dull once more. He doesn’t try to stand until there is emptiness and nothingness and dark.
The birds are still there, watching him, guarding him, but he no longer cares. He is a ghost again, nothing more than a shadow to be seen then forgotten. He halts for a moment at the blinking crossing light, the colors only shadows. He looks around him, but at this time of night there are few cars that will brave the ice and darkness. Hands shoved in his pockets and head bowed, he continues on.
This time he hears the shouting even before he opens the door, but the numbness has so overtaken him that he doesn’t care, only fumbles with the doorknob and pushes the door open.
The shouting stops.
It takes a long time, far too long, for his tired mind to realize that something is different, something is changed. He blinks up from where his trembling hands struggle with the buttons on his jacket, and sees them, man and woman who have been destroyed by their choice, their wish, standing with each other, not arguing, not fighting, afraid. And he doesn’t know why.
Then they are right in front of him, talking, shouting, crying, touching him, pulling his wet jacket off him, pulling him to sit at the kitchen table where a stray blanket is thrown over him and a hot mug thrust in his hands. He can’t hear them, can’t understand them, can’t feel the warmth surrounding him though he knows it is there.
They must realize this because they stop rushing, stop talking, and just sit down and look at him, look at him! They see him, they don’t look through him, they don’t look away. And he sits there, wondering, frightened, longing. And they see that too.
His mother is there, pulling him to her, whispering in his ears words that sound like I’m sorry. His father stands awkwardly behind her, hands rising then falling, unsure what he needs to do, unsure what he wants to do. Uncertainty looks strange on the man who fought so hard to keep his son from following the others to battle, to glory, to death, he thinks.
Feeling begins to return to his hands still clasped around the steaming mug. It is strange, he muses, that warmth can bring such pain, needles running through his stiff and blue fingers. It is strange, he decides, that the pain doesn’t hurt.
He can hear again, hears his mother asking him if he feels okay and if he would like another blanket, hears his father gruffly demand where he went and why he would do such a stupid thing. He is confused, the numbness in his mind not worn down yet, the words not clear. He is fine, he wants to say, he just needed some time to think.
His father shouts and he flinches at the thunderous sound, hot tea splashing onto the back of his hand as his hand shakes. There is no more shouting. He looks up. His father looks guilty, his mother is glaring at the man. He wants to tell them that it’s not their fault, that they don’t need to feel guilty or angry because it is his fault, and then he is crying and he doesn’t know why, and his mother is crying, and his father is crying, and he doesn’t understand why they are looking at him like that.
They don’t try to talk to him anymore, just bring him to the couch and sit on both sides, as though to guard him from the darkness, the cold, and he is glad, but he shouldn’t be glad because the grave should be his, should be, should be, but isn’t.
He falls asleep to his mother’s hand running through his hair and his father a steady presence by his side, and he dreams of red and blood and ribbons.
The morning comes with sun and quiet mutterings around him as he struggles to escape the heavy darkness of sleep. He is confused because his father should have already left for work and his mother gone on errands, but they are still there, still holding him, still holding off the cold, the numbness, the pain that he hadn’t realized he feels, has felt for the past year. The pain jolts the last threads of sleep from his mind and he panics.
He wants to run from the warmth and the pain, run from the guilt and the shame and the grief, wants to make everything go back to how it was before this all started, before the colors faded. But he can’t. It is too far away and he is too tired, too broken to chase after what could have been, what should have been.
And then he sees that ribbon outside the window, the gift from the birds, the splash of color in a world in shades of gray, sees it fluttering beyond his vision as the wind takes it, taunting him, daring him to chase after it, to follow wherever it leads. He sees that ribbon and he hates it and he loves it and wants to run to it and wants to hide from it, from the color, from the brightness. His parents are talking, shouting, but he can’t hear them, because that ribbon is gone from sight, the edge of the window only letting him see so far into the world the ribbon belongs to.
And he is angry again, pulling away from the hands that try to hold him down, hold him back from following the ribbon, the color, the warmth. He needs it, needs to feel again, needs to breathe again. He is drowning, and the hands want to pull him down, down to the deepest reaches of the ocean, down to where he will never breathe again. It hurts, and he runs, and he cries, and there it is in front of him, always in front of him, never letting him catch it, hold it, take it. Always running, always chasing, out into the snow, out onto the slippery street, ignoring the danger as he reaches out, his fingers just barely brushing against the fabric.
Bright lights, screeching tires, darkness.