Posted on: June 10, 2014

The word moves up and down the line of men, from one to the next. They might as well be playing the game Telephone.

“Gas,” they whisper.

At least, we believe it’s gas. We soldiers of the night, brave and not long for this world, look to the west and watch the gas bear down on us. It is thick and ominous. By now, we know not what we think, but this…this…thing; this thing is death. It has no smell, and it moves with the lethargic quality of a goddamn turtle. In this way, it is not at all like death. Death for us is not slow and deliberate. Death will sneak in the night, tiptoe behind you, hold It’s breath, and then slit your throat with a 12-inch bayonet blade.

Oh, those were the days. Simple hand-to-hand combat, is that too much to ask? Is it really too much to ask to look your murderer in the eyes?

As a boy I daydreamed of combat, of the historical battles of Napoleon and Normandy (For some reason my daydreams were tres French). I longed for the romantic wars of our elders. I desired masculinity, not in the homo-way, but in the Hemingway.

Pardon me, pardon me; it’s just a joke. A little play on words. Here, laughter is more valuable than water. More valuable than shit-pots or tissues you can stick up your nose to protect from the smell of decomposing flesh. Here, bodies are stacked on top of each other. We call them The Towers Of David. Or Freddy. Sammy. The Towers Of William. There are hundreds of them and we’re starting to run out of names.

“I think the wind is changing. It’s gonna…maybe it’ll blow over.”

Parsons barks when he talks. I thought it odd until I visited his family over leave last Christmas and his father barked, and his mother barked, and his sister, who must have been only twelve or thirteen, she barked. They had their Christmas card picture held to the refrigerator door by a magnet, so I stole it. It’s the four of them in matching sweaters looking rather dour, other than the sister who is all braces and freckles. It reminds me of home, any home, and since there aren’t many homes left I think we adopt the faces and families of others. Things disappear and we try to replace them. It’s only natural.

Anywho, I stole the magnet picture and in black marker wrote The Barking Parsons on it. Now, I keep it in my pocket and look at it when I’m feeling ill.

The gas continues to waft in our general direction. I don’t know where it’s coming from, as we haven’t seen hide nor hair of the Buggies for a few days. That’s what we call them, Buggies. It’s not very technical or anything, but it’s accurate. They are bug-like creatures from another planet. Fuck, from another solar system. I’m sure the big brass band up top has a more professional term for them, but for the guys on the ground, Buggies works just fine.

“Masks Up!”

There’s a shout from down the line and in unison we all dawn our demon masks. Really, they’re just gas masks, and they look pretty much the same as they’ve always looked, right on back to the days of WWI. I used to read stories about The Great War. Whoever termed that shit was way off, obviously, as there was another Greater War just down the pipeline and a handful of Not Great Wars not far off. Though, as someone once said, it’s no use crying over spilled milk.

Or blood. Whatever.

I read stories about the mustard gas used in that not first, and certainly not last of global conflicts, and how the whole goddamned war was this giant clusterfuck of old and new technology and strategy. The part that stuck with me the most, and why I’m rehashing this shit now, was the instances of gas mask-wearing cavalry units unleashing holy hell on anything and everything. Just imagine it. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, trying to survive and not vomit your guts up (because of the gas), when all of the sudden this heaving beast of a horse bursts out of the fog like a fucking Dodge Charger, all bleeding eyes and spit. Its rider is staring down at you from behind this fucking steampunk mask, a wall of fire and gas behind him. I don’t care who are you, you’re losing your lunch. That shit is scary. That shit is demon-scary.

There’s some whooping and hollering down the line. And then…

WHISTLE. Whistlewhistlewhistle. WHISTLE.

Two hundred years removed from The Second Battle of Ypres (Belgium, 1915) and still with the fucking whistle. Still with the fucking gas masks.

Some things never change.

We rise as a mass of demons. Over the ledge and out of the pit, to grandmother’s house we go. We do not know what is on the other side of the field. We do not know where the Buggies are. You could fill an ocean with the amount of shit that we do not know. I think to my long-dead comrades, those of that Great War ilk, and the word Solidarity appears, etched in the mud at my boots.

I step over it.

The fog or gas (or whatever) is thick, though nothing compared to the cacophony of screams and shouts coming from my fellow soldiers. It would appear that there were not enough demon masks to go around.

Someone jumps on my back and I’m down to my knees. Sausage fingers pry at my mask and face, trying to rip them both off. If they must pull my head off with it, they will. This is friendly fire. War is Darwinistic in its pragmatism.

My attacker/comrade is too strong. He rips the mask off my face and falls down somewhere behind me. I am on my knees and I lift my head to the sky. I see the lights.

Not one light. Not one shining, blinding, comforting light. No, I said lights. Plural.

They are what they appear to be. Thank god for that.

The Buggy ship rises on top of us, bigger than a building, masked in a cloud of fog and smoke and night. Only the lights on the bottom of the ship are clearly visible.

There they are.

So much noise it feels like the world isn’t big enough to hold it all; like we’re going to blow a fuse.

As I fall forward, face to mud, grasping at my burning throat, the alien ship continues its ascent into the night sky.

It’s beautiful.

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Hannah Chertock

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