Jack finally understood pain. No longer was it the annoying twang of a tooth being pulled or the slight ache of a scrape. Pain, true suffering only occured when one began grieving for himself. The pain when he realised that this is where he, the war hero, would die.
He felt himself being dragged across a void, as if the skeletal hand of Death himself had decided that he no longer yearned for the young man’s soul. The strength of that bony hand increased and increased until finally Jack opened his eyes and realised that the bony grasp had instead been the metal of his airplane closing in around him.
Scenes flashed before his eyes. The sound of his frantic breath in his oxygen mask. The faint shadow of the other plane in the dogfight against the hot sun setting along the horizon. The rattle of the wind as the plane fell faster towards the light brown of the Sahara desert. His plane had been hunted like a bird and plucked from the sky by bullets.
Jack tried to control his panic with large breaths that struggled into his lungs, but there was only one thought that rushed to the front of his mind.
He was certain of his death, having witnessed the countless demises of his friends had only confirmed its inevitability. However, he always thought that there would have been someone else with him when the time came.
Jack slowly felt the feeling ebb to the rest of his body. He looked down at his right hand, only to realise he was in complete darkness. One of his fingers was bent backwards from holding too hard onto the dash. His left hand shakely found his harness and he started to feel along his body for injuries. As he reached down, his body screaming in protest, he prayed that his fingers would remain dry, that they wouldn’t be coated with red.
As Jack painstakingly felt along his body his mind automatically was taking stock of his injuries. A broken right rib, a ruined right hand, bruises along his neck from the harness keeping him in the cockpit.
Then the smell hit him, pungent and sharp. Gasoline.
Swearing Jack snapped his harness open and fumbled around in the broken plane for his survival kit. He knew that he should have listened to Norman two days prior and actually packed more supplies. Once Jack had one of his hands wrapped around the rucksack he turned to his next problem, getting out of the plane.
He remembered what his father had told him the day he enlisted. The wisdom the elder thought a First World War veteran should tell to a son off to fight the Second.
“Remember, you deal with whatever comes your way. Death is constantly waiting for you, but avoid his attempts until he finally gives up.”
Jack didn’t know how the plane had broken apart. Didn’t know which way was up. If only he could see, if only there was light. He found the tie on his rucksack and fumbled around until he found his matches. As he lit one of the matches he was acutely aware of the bitter smell of gasoline. He held up the match, the pale light flickering for a few seconds before burning down to his fingers. Jack resisted the urge to drop the flame, which would result in his fiery death, and instead stuffed the burnt wood in his wet mouth, his tongue screaming in agony.
Again Jack lit a match and saw the orange light bounce off the windows. He saw a faint twinkling star out of the front sealed window. A window to the outside; to life. Shoving the new match in his mouth Jack began to kick hard against the glass ignoring the aching protests of his right leg. Again, and again, and again until finally Jack heard a crackling sound and sucked in a breath.
The sand ran down towards him, attempting to fill his lungs. Jack continued to push against the brown wave until he was finally free. His lungs stopped spasming as he finally took in a fresh breath of air. Jack wanted nothing more than to just lay down on the sand and continue letting the air fill his lungs while his grip tightened on his supplies. But he knew that he had to move. Had to get away from the plane.
Pushing himself off the sand he stumbled, his eyes trying to adjust to the darkness of the desert. It seemed as though clouds had begun to block out the bright stars. Jack continued to fight against the pain in his aching limbs, looking back every so often to see the distance he had put between himself and the plane.
Then he heard the first crackles of fire begin, and the Spitfire, his home as for the past three years light up. The circles of the Allied symbol almost looked like the aircraft’s eyes pleading with him to stay.
Jack heard the low hum of a Spitfire engine again however there was more than one. His breath hitched. The fire was a beacon to them. They could find him.
Swift and unwelcome anger rushed through Jack. He knew the flyer of the plane leading the formation. Knew that it was the same person that had taken him out of the sky only, what he presumed was moments before. That was the face of a man who had shot him down. Why wouldn’t they just let him go?
Jack’s stride increased and he looked down at his pack. He remembered Norman’s voice scolding him, telling him that he should pack something other than cigarettes. Cigarettes that had already been smoked. He dropped the bag and ran faster ignoring the pain that arched through him.
Quickly Jack began digging a hole, and covering himself with the sand, still warmed from the sun. He wondered what he looked like to his enemy. Could his attackers see him, did they laugh at his disguise thinking it was no better than when a child sat on a bed with a blanket over his eyes trying to keep the monsters away? Jack scrunched his eyes tighter, resisting the urge to wipe at the gritty sand. He knew that just because he couldn’t see the monsters didn’t mean that they couldn’t see him.
Bullets rushed near him head, and he could feel the sand around him displace with each lead penetration.
Jack didn’t want to stay still. The darkness made it too easy for his mind to project terrible memories. Made it too easy for him to remember that the planes attacking him were spitfires, wait no the, expert Nazi fighters.
In an attempt to calm his nerves Jack found himself repeating the same words over and over in his head. It was from a chant that Norman and him had screamed over the radio whenever they were approaching an enemy formation, the verses changing depending on their mood. He found himself mouthing their latest one. The song they had chanted before that fateful raid, in an attempt to calm Jack’s frazzled nerves.
If I die I’ll leave you with honour My lass, my love I part upon her And she’ll tell the stories of her lad With whom she would be forever glad That when he died he died with honour
As the song rang through Jack’s head he felt the paper in his breast pocket burn. His last pay notice. Would he have sent it to Lacey or his father?
The bullets rained down again whizzing near him, but not close enough to show that they knew where he was. Then when Jack was sure that his ears would hear the third spray of fire, he was instead overcome by the vibrations of an explosion, the ripples of which he could feel arch through his body. His plane was gone, and with it, Jack felt like some of his memories were destroyed with it.
The rational part of his mind was glad however. They had been shooting at the plane, thinking that he was still inside. That he had perished in the explosion. They were no longer looking for him.
His ears continued to ring, an unrelenting metronome that pounded with every beat of his heart. He relied on the vibrations through his abdomen. Then waited for the sounds to return. When he was sure that the planes were gone Jack began to slowly uncover himself.
The only sight that sparkled down on him were the stars. They seemed to be twisting slightly in the sky, a view that he had never seen once growing up in London. He crawled to his feet and tried to brush the sand from his clothes. The itchy sand still stuck to his skin, his sweat having acted like glue.
Jack looked up at the stars again, he couldn’t help but laugh a little at himself. The laugh grew larger and larger until there were tears running down his face. He had done it, he had escaped. The absurd giggle abruptly stopped, the man bringing his fingers to his lips.
How was he going to get out of this desert. This was not a place to live, resembling Limbo more than the hells of the battlefields. Most importantly, thought Jack, which way to go? He knew that if he walked South-East for long enough he would eventually reach the base, and past the walls of the base the small village outside of it.
Jack’s stomach dropped. For the first time since he had regained consciousness he had time to think. A break from death’s constant assaults. He would have to cross the desert alone.
He knew that if he walked South-East he would reach the base, but also the village just past it. The other way would only guarantee his demise. The desert was not the place to simply wandered about until one found their way.
Jack looked behind him and saw the burning embers of his plane. There was barely any light left but he could still make out where the nose of the beauty had been pointing when she went down in the sand. He wondered if the explosion had thrown the nose far away, the nose that had been inscribed with a sentence that Lacey had sent him.
Keep your nose down Jack, xoxo
He knew that she would have liked the fact that he had written that on the plane. That he had indeed kept his nose down. Jack almost felt something like hope rush through him, but he quickly shut it down. There would be a time to think about the future, a time that would only come if he thought solely on the present now.
He double checked the direction that the nose of his plane had been pointing in and set off in the other direction, painstaking climbing the large dunes until he had no recollection of time.
Eventually as Jack saw the sun rising over the horizon his body fell from exhaustion. Jack could see the image of himself, driven to madness by the vast emptiness of the desert taking the gun and placing it in his mouth. It wouldn’t take much to pull the trigger.
He wondered if Norman was looking down upon him. What would his friend have been thinking? Would his ghost pull the trigger for him?
As a little boy Jack had been curious what his father meant when he said, “protect yourself.” At the time he no longer believed in the monsters that hid in the dark. Now he truly knew who the monsters were. People. And he was perhaps the scariest monster of all.
Jack saw a black shadow slowly creep towards him, but was useless against the unrelenting tide of exhaustion that dragged him under. He was helpless in preventing the dark, smokey creature from curling up beside him and watching.
Jack finally awoke to the sound of Lacey’s voice, and the ache of his skin from the hot sun. Her voice sounded so real that she was with him instead of the sound being a dream still echoing in his ears. Jack scrambled to his feet and looked out over the dune.
Jack saw rolling dunes and wind covered his entire world in brown particles, he was reminded of Dante’s Inferno. His mouth was parched, his body warning him that he needed water, reminded him how stupid he was to refuse the drink when the guards offered it. There was no life to be here. Nothing was meant to survive is such a hostile land. Just like the inferno, there was no way he should be able to survive here. This was a pale inferno, and it would take everything in his being pass through it.
Jack looked into the distance. He squinted his eyes. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was seeing but it looked like a figure moving. He could also make out the shape of what looked like an oasis.
Hope started to rise in Jack’s chest but he quickly tried to push it away. It could have just been a mirage. However, the hope had already taken hold and his feet slowly dragged towards the water.
In the distance he could have water again. If he made it to the water then he could cross the desert to be with Lacey.
Little figures started to dance across the sand, and Jack could not play it off as a trick of the shadows. He saw one of the little gremlins wave at him. Jack didn’t like the shivers that went up his spine.
Then he tumbled down a dune and his head fell back against the sand. In the air he could see vultures staring down at him. They were circling around him. Like he was the prey that they so desperately wanted to consume. Jack blinked his eyes and he saw the birds disappear.
It was at that moment he came face to face with the real possibility that he was starting to grow insane. No sane person could imagine animals waiting for him to decompose.
“Hey little boy,” whispered the figure he had seen in this distance suddenly now in front of him, “Would you like to dance with me?”
Jack felt her arms wrap around his neck and he was almost certain that he could feel her trying to entice him forward. She was swinging her hips and Jack tried to pull away from her, yet she kept him frozen in place.
“Aww, does the pretty boy not want to play with me?” The shadow girl, who morphed into Lacey, whispered to him before finally letting him go.
Jack tried to push past the image of his love. He couldn’t shake the feeling of the girl’s fingers crawling over his neck. Jack looked behind him and he could see that the woman, Lacey, was still following him.
He tried to squint his eyes to make the girl go away but she only continued to follow him. He could still feel her cold hands running up his back.
“I don’t think you’re just going to be able to ignore me,” Lacey said and Jack was sure that he could almost hear the smirk in her voice.
“Stop,” he said out loud, “You’re just in my head. Just stop and go away.”
“Oh the boy does speak,” she said with a laugh before disappearing.
Jack looked all around himself to make sure that she had disappeared. He couldn’t see her, but he could still feel her presence, the cold that shot through every part of his body. He wished that he could just make her go away.
“I know you’re still here,” Jack said with more force, “Where is the oasis you showed me, that was you, right? Where is the water?”
“Don’t you know little boy,” the figure giggled, no Lacey giggled, “If you believe in something it’s real.”
In front of Jack the sand that he had been grasping at slowly turned into water. Jack knew that the creature was toying with his broken mind. However, he reached out a shaky hand and dipped the wounded limb into the water. It was cool, like the lake he had jumped and played around in as a kid. The one he and Norman had played in until he had accidentally pushed his friend under the water.
Norman hadn’t wanted to play in the lake after that.
Jack looked up at the wispy outline of Lacey. She gestured for him to drink. Jack brought a slow finger to his mouth and felt the cool liquid drip onto his tongue. The smile that Lacey gave him was so genuine, so familiar that Jack began to believe that his girl had actually come out into the desert to find him.
Jack began scoping the water into his mouth but all that he felt was the rough harshness of sand. Still, Jack refused to believe that the water he had felt only seconds ago had been nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Jack scooped the sand faster and faster into his mouth. He knew that it would turn to water, he’d do anything for it to turn into water.
When the sand had finally made it into his lungs he began to cough more violently that he had ever in his life. Then his stomach, in an act of protest, threw its contents into the sand, causing Jack to only be more dehydrated. His body began to spasm again in an attempt to expel the foreign particles. This was what death felt like.
As Jack’s body began to shut down he could hear Lacey laugh. It was a twinkly sound, but Jack wanted nothing more to wrap his hand around her throat until her pale eyes popped from her head.
As he looked down at the sand he was expecting to see little shadows continue to dance across the sand but he could only see his shadow. Her laughs also started to grow less and less until all that could be heard was a faint chattering in his head.
Jack remembered something Lacey had told him as they lay in bed one morning, right before he was sent away again. He remembered the way her soft hands had cupped his face. The way her hair smelled like freshly picked daisies.
“The world makes monsters out of the cowardly,” she whispered to him, before lightly pressing her lips to his. “They’ll push others under the water just to keep breathing.”
She had always had a way with words. She knew how to wield them. How to use them as a knife to wound, and how words could mend. How they could string together great epic stories, and how they could tear hope to shreds.
This thing was not Lacey. Nothing could ever be Lacey.
The figure appeared and seemed to recognise the harsh glare with which he regarded it. The frown of amusement that crossed its face was almost comical.
“I think what you are looking for is that way,” said the figure its elegant finger pointing off into the distance. Jack squinted his eyes. If he tried hard enough he could make out the shape of a base. He clamoured to his feet and started to run.
Jack could still taste the sand in his mouth and it felt like a knife. He had climbed so many dunes of sand that the next ascent was hardly noticeable. His brain had taken control of his limbs, the adrenaline pumping through his body wiping out all the pain that had plagued him just minutes before.
Behind him, he could still see the figure following him, but continued. He didn’t want to think about what arriving at the base would mean for him. He didn’t want to think about the consequences, he was consumed by his need for water.
The man continued his slow journey to the imposing cement buildings that were hidden in the heart of the Sahara desert. The ominous figure continued behind him, appearing only when the man turned around. Finally, when Jack was close enough to see the glint of the binoculars from the men posted on guard duty.
He stopped before cresting the final dune. If he went over that final hurdle, there would be no turning back, they would see him, and he would be taken. Fear suddenly filled Jack’s limbs, then a wave of dread. Since the crash he had known that he had been marching away to his death.
“Why did you pause?” said the figure behind him, but this time it was unmistakably the voice of nightmares. “What, too afraid to look your old pal in the eye?” prodded Norman.
Jack turned around and looked his friend in the eyes, or rather the figure that had disguised as his friend. Jack had the urge to look away but forced himself to behold the damaged visage of the man. Norman, his dead friend from childhood was now abusing his damaged mind.
“Why are you doing this to me,” muttered Jack, his voice hoarse.
Norman simply took out a letter from his pocket and unfolded it. He knew what it would say. Knew that he couldn’t bear to hear the words that had been stuck in his head for so long that he needed to write them out.
“My dear, Lacey,” Norman started, “There is something I need to tell you. A week ago during a raid on a Nazi info station, I was flying in formation with Norman. I don’t know what came over me, but the terror of the last few years just shut me down. My ears were ringing, my hands shaking. I thought I was going to die, so I turned around. I just couldn’t fly anymore. I-look Norman’s dead now and it’s my fault I promised him to watch his six but I-
“Please stop,” Jack begged, “Please just-”
“But I was a coward, like you told me. I shoved Norman under the waves to keep breathing. I am a criminal now Lace. A deserter. I needed to tell someone because nobody knows, but I just, I couldn’t do it anymore. I love you. Please remember that, I love you and please don’t tell anyone,” finished Norman.
Jack shut his eyes tight but the events that unfolded after the letter sprung into his mind. Lacey when she had received the letter took it to the Sargent’s office immediately after she had read it in London. The next day his superiors had arrived at the barracks accusing him of desertion, declaring that if the martial court decided he would be killed by firing squad at sundown and that he should make amends with God before the time came. How, he had escaped the guards’ grasps as he was being marched to his death. How he had gained control of his plane and taken off, the safety flags not even removed.
How his friends, the people that he flown with before were given the orders to shoot him down and how they had. All the while he had been singing the song:
If I die I’ll leave you with honour My lass, my love I part upon her And she’ll tell the stories of her lad With whom she would be forever glad That when he died he died with honour
And then he had crashed. The first thing Jack had felt when he first awoke was not the pain of the his injuries, but the all consuming pain of mourning. The pain of knowing he could never be the man he once was.
“Who are you?” Jack finally asked, his voice hoarse.
Norman let out a laugh that caused Jack’s insides to curl.
“Don’t you know?” said the figure as he transformed into a mirror image of Jack.
“I’m your denial.”
The figure transformed again into a pilot he had flown with, one of the men that had shot him from the sky. The owl who had laughed while Jack foolishly played the field mouse. The pilot’s mouth opened. “I’m your anger.”
The pilot transformed into Lacey. Her sweet voice rang in his ears, her lips brushing his cheek as she whispered. “I am the bargainer within you, the thing that makes you want to kiss me, even now.”
Lacey finally turned back into Norman. “I am the depression you feel when you realise that you’ve already died, you are dying alone. Not as a hero, a soldier of the Commonwealth, but a deserter who couldn’t even face his punishment.”
The figure slowly disappeared but even as Jack reached out he knew that there was nothing there. Nothing had ever been there. However, he heard his own voice ring through his head one last time before the figure was fully transparent.
“I am your grief mourning over the person you once were.”
The figure was gone, and with it reality came crashing down on him. His mouth was parched his body so dehydrated that even though his eyes ached, no tears fell. He was dying. He was dying a coward. He wished in his last moments he could at least cry.
Jack looked ahead and observed the tall fences of the base that stood before him. Jack looked behind, and watched the light shimmer over the pale endless sand. Jack knew the finality in his decision, the inevitable fate of both paths. If he was destined to die he wanted his last decision to be made for himself. He smiled grimly, as if this moment had any resemblance of choice.
He was certain of his death, having caused the demise of his friend had only confirmed its inevitability. However, he always thought that he would have died with a person mourning him. He never thought that he would die alone, forgotten.
The man took a deep breath, hunched his shoulders, and slowly hobbled back into the welcoming arms of the pale inferno.
This is everything I wanted "The Bird with Broken Wings" to be but wasn't. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.