Your Loyal Soldier

There was a doorway in the middle of the junkyard, cracked and covered in peeling white paint. Its two windows had been reduced to jagged pieces of glass clinging to the frame. It stood, wall-less, on a small plot of dirt surrounded by mountains of thrown away things. There were tires, microwaves, boxes overflowing with scraps of metal and plastic, weeds sticking out from the rubbish and reaching for the harsh sun. Where there was space there were stacks, but the door had its own carved out spot in the dirt.

“Why hasn’t anyone taken it?” I asked Henry. He was leaning against a pile of tires, arms crossed and eyes narrowed. I walked around it – I should have been walking through walls, but there were none. The door had no house. It was just a frame sticking out of the ground with the words ‘Do Not Pass’ spray-painted on the wood.

“Posterity?” he said.

“No one around here gives a rat’s arse about posterity,” I said.

He pushed off the tires and stood in front of the frame, eyeing it like it was his opponent. He flexed his hands, before lunging towards the doorframe and pushing, probably expecting it to fall like a domino. His face turned red. The door stood still. Henry started skidding over the dry ground, all his weight pushing against the doorframe. The veins on the backs of his hands stood out and he was shaking. The door didn’t budge.

“Jesus Christ,” he breathed out.

His hands slid off the frame as he hunched over, using his knees for support. There was a cloud of dirt surrounding him and he was heaving into it. I was laughing in time with his coughs as I strolled over and pulled him up by the collar of his shirt.

“You need to do more cardio,” I said, patting him on the back.

“Meredith…that door… is ridiculous,” he sputtered. I looked back at it, standing defiantly. It would have been smirking, if it wasn’t a door. The sun caught the silver of the doorknob, which hid behind patches of rust. It glinted like a tear of amusement.

“We could chop it down,” I said. “You know we could use the firewood.”

“But Mere…” he whinged, looking up from his hunched position and jutting out his bottom lip. I mimicked his expression.

“Oh Henry…” I said with fake sympathy, “Where’s the axe?”

His eyes shot over to his backpack where the wooden handle stuck out. I moved before he could stop me.

“I know it’d be great to have a skateboard, or table, or… what else did you say?” I asked while trying to dislodge the blade of the axe from Henry’s canned lunch, being careful not to crack it open and spill corn over his school books.

“A chessboard,” he sighed.

“Right, that,” I shook my head. “You might have to give up on your dream buddy,” I yanked the axe free and water drippled from the can. “Quick, catch,” I said, tossing the can towards his unsuspecting face.

“AhhhhGod,” Henry yelled when he caught it, shaking his dripping hands. “Meredith, we’ve talked about this. A warning would be nice.”

“Is that why you want the door so badly? I told you, your mum let me in. How was I supposed to know you were –”

“– Cut the damn door down already,” he shouted, his cheeks burning. He was still trying to balance the dripping can between his hands, avoiding my eyes. I shrugged and heaved the axe to my shoulder.

The wind had started to pick up, blowing tendrils of hair in front of my narrowed eyes. I felt like a warrior with the sun shining on the crown of my head and heating my cheeks, with the sharpened blade resting by my shoulder. I took a step forward and raised the axe, feeling the dirt shift under my feet. I focused on the centre of the door, on a spot where the wood was unsplintered and whole. I gripped the axe tighter, ready to slice the air and interrupt the sauntering stillness of the door. There was a creak as the door opened inwards. Instead of seeing wood, I saw the neckline of a grey cardigan.

“Hello. Sorry, it takes a while for me to get to the door these days.”

Henry dropped his can of corn. It rolled in front of me and stopped before the old man’s slippered feet, leaving a trail behind it. The axe sliced my knee on its way to the ground. I felt it tear my skin in a short neat line, and the blood pushing past, stinging with everything pulse. It trailed down my shin and pooled at my sock. The old man grimaced before I did, his scruffy moustache curling in shock.

“Oh dear! I have some bandages inside, why don’t you two come in?” the man smiled. Behind him was a dim hallway leading to an equally dim living room.

“Uh..hm. Could you give us a minute?” Henry asked, polite as always.

“Sure!” the man chimed. He shut the door. When the wood replaced his round figure I watched to see if it would move again, would swing open and reveal something else; a forest, a city, fucking Mars. I felt like I’d seen Mars. I fell to the ground.

“Fuck,” I said. “What the hell?”

“Are you okay?” Henry asked. He was still standing with his hands held out, as if he were holding something. They were dripping.

“No! No, I am not okay,” I yelled. I watched the red slowly pool over my leg. The pain followed the blood, spreading across my leg in dull thumps.

“That was not what I was expecting.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. What in the hell were you expecting?” I asked.

“You almost hit that guy with an axe,” he said, staring past me.

“I… Yes, sorry. I didn’t think to check if there was a person behind the doorway leading to nowhere!” He blinked, looking back at me, then to my leg.

“You’re bleeding,” he noted.

“… Jesus Henry, I know.”

“I think I’m in shock,” he said. The man cleared his throat.

“Sorry for interrupting but, I have bandages,” the man said in a quiet voice. He waited politely by the door with the neatly folded gauze held in front of his round stomach. The toes of his slippers didn’t cross the clean line his carpeted floor made with the dirt.

“Some help, Henry?” I asked. My blood had started to spill over onto the ground.

“Uh…” he hesitated.

“I’m bleeding out over here,” I said. Henry shuffled over to me and pulled me up.

“This,” he whispered, “is how stupid people die, Meredith,” I dug my elbow into his ribs. “Ah… Okay, jeez. Should I bring the axe?”

There was something about my glare that got him moving. The old man stepped aside, holding the door open for us as we trailed dirt inside. He didn’t seem to care. There was already a broom by the door. Had he gotten used to strangers ruining his carpet?

There were pictures half illuminated in the hallway, tacked onto the wallpaper at crooked angles. Most of them were of a young woman with pin curls and dark lips. The old man traced the frames idly as he walked past.

“Who is she?” Henry asked. He had stopped us at one of the pictures. It held a black and white photo of the woman wearing an oversized cap and smiling, with a man’s arm reaching for it. The rest of his body was out-of-frame.

“Who?” the old man asked.

“Her,” Henry said as he pointed. The old man shrugged and shook his head.

We stopped at a room filled with bloated couches and wooden cabinets. It was cramped – not cramped as in two inches wide cramped. It was small and homely, a claustrophobic hug from an old relative. His cabinets were stacked with boxes, each one spilling over with relics. There were lanterns on every surface that made the room dance with shadows. The flickering flames warmed the room, but I could still see my breath fog in front of my nose. It was like the sun didn’t reach the house, which would make sense, since we were in some weird alternate dimension, in which an old man could fit an entire house within the two inch width of a doorway.

The man fell into an armchair. There was a large trunk by his feet that took up most of the floor room. Henry helped me sit and I rested my leg on it, glad the blood was clotting and not splattering over the carpet. Henry looked around while the man leaned over and cleaned off the blood.

“He looks like you,” Henry said. He was studying a small frame that had been resting on a flat cabinet with pages and pages of letters over its surface. He turned the picture to the old man, but his eyes flitted away as soon as he saw it. It was a portrait of a boy. He wore the same cap as the girl in the hallway, and a tightly buttoned jacket.

“Oh, no. No pictures of me in this house,” he said, wrapping my leg tight in gauze.

“Are you sure? It looks really simil –”

“ – All done,” he said, ripping the bandage and tucking it in. I pulled my leg away and watched Henry carefully, shaking my head at him. He placed the portrait back on the desk, but picked up one of the letters. The old man stood up. I thought he was going to smack Henry for rifling through his things, because that’s exactly what I would have done, but he reached for the letter slowly. When Henry passed it to him he pinched the paper gently.

“Wonderful handwriting,” the man mused, scanning the page. “I read through these sometimes. They’re tragic stories.”

“They’re letters,” I said, watching from the low couch. The man looked at me confused. I was worried I’d said something wrong, but he just shook his head. He looked like he was trying to shake cobwebs off his eyelashes, trying to stop something creeping up on him.

“Wonderful stories,” he said to himself. “This one is my favourite. So much mystery,” he handed it back to Henry.

The old man shuffled over to his trunk and opened it carefully. He tucked the left over bandage between a deep green jacket and a cap. They were the same one’s we’d seen in the photos, only in colour. Henry leaned against the cabinet holding the page he’d been given. His face scrunched as he read.

I sunk further into the chair. The bandages were smothering the sting of the cut, but it was still seeping past. If it weren’t for the pain I would have rested my head on the back of the seat and let the plump couch consume me in comfort. Henry leaned harder on the tiny writing desk, lowering the letter to look at me. His mouth hung open slightly, like he was going to say something. The old man was still sitting by his trunk. He was refolding the uniform that lay neatly inside.

“We were supposed to have school today, right?” Henry asked, finally settling on something to say. I nodded at him lazily.

“Teenage deliquents, we are,” I said.

“…Hm”

“What?” I asked.

“Just… couldn’t remember,” he said.

He stopped reading the letter, but kept hold of it. There was a frown pulling at his face. I watched it deepen into his skin as he watched the old man continue to refold his uniform.

“Henry,” I waved a hand in front of his line of vision. He turned to me and smiled, but it wasn’t enough to counteract the frown. It must have been something in the letter. I tried to change the subject.

“Why’d you bring your school books? You knew we’d be skipping?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“You brought your Maths and Geo books.”

“Did I?”

“Uh… yes. They’re outside, in your bag,” I told him. I could feel my heartbeat pounding in my leg every few seconds, but I tried to ignore it and focus on his answers.

“Outside?” he said.

“Jeez, Henry. You sure you aren’t the one suffering from blood loss?”

He looked down at my leg. The blood had started to peer through the gauze.

“You’re bleeding.”

“We’ve been through this already, Henry,” I said.

“Have we?” he asked. I laughed at him half-heartedly, but stopped when I saw his blank face. It didn’t look right. Henry was horrible at dry humour. So horrible he wouldn’t even try it.

“We should probably go back,” I said. “We’ve been out for a while.”

“Go back where?”

“Uh… home,” I said. There was a pause where Henry’s expression should have changed. He should have broken into a smile; a chuckle should have finally broken through tightly sealed lips. “You okay Henry?”

“Who?” he said. The question hung in the air. I could see it in his eyes, and his brows. They were knitted so tight they could make a scarf.

“Okay, time to go,” I said. It came out quiet. The words left my throat dry. I felt like I’d been winded. I watched Henry carefully. He was still holding the letter; it was like he’d forgotten it was there. I got up from the couch too quick, my head spinning and leg aching at the weight.

“We’ve-gotta-go,” I repeated, blurring the words into one.

“Go where?”

“Help me to the door,” I reached for him and he helped me stand, still clutching the letter in his hand. The man didn’t even acknowledge us, just sat by his trunk refolding his uniform over and over. “Thank you, Sir,” I said to the old man’s back.

I had to push Henry into the hallway. It was happening to me too – I was forgetting. With every shoot of pain up my leg I made sure I said his name in my head – Henry, Henry, Henry. By the time I’d dragged his deadweight to the middle of the hallway all I knew was that it started with an H.

The flames faltered as I rushed us past, and the greyscale pictures looked more like nightmares of lost hope than afternoon entertainment. I found myself clinging to them, though. Like they were the only photographs I’d ever seen.

The junkyard was at the end of the hall, unfamiliar and uninviting. Why was my leg hurting? I’d cut it. With a knife? Why would I do that? We were so close to the edge of the carpet. It looked like a cliff.

“Where are you going?” the old man asked from behind me. I didn’t think, just pushed the boy as hard as I could. He fell through the doorway and thudded onto the dirt. I turned to see the old man framed by the light of lanterns. He had his military jacket on.

“Who’s jacket is that?” I asked him. He looked down at himself, holding his arms out to watch the cuffs ride up – it had gotten too small for him.

“I’m not sure,” he said, watching the material shift over his arms.

“What did you do, before you came to live here?” I asked him. His eyes snapped back up at me. He looked past the pictures scattered over the walls of the hallway like they were nothing, and at me, like I was the only person he’d ever seen.

“I…” he struggled. He started fidgeting with the badges pressed into the fabric above his heart. “I… I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember?”

“No. Is the world bigger than this house?” he asked. There was genuine curiosity there. I always wondered what it would feel like to be told there was more than one planet, or more than one galaxy. I glanced over the walls of the hallway. I felt like I knew the people in the portraits more than I knew… anyone. Or even myself. The pain in my leg was alien. I sunk into the carpet, letting its gravity pull me in.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Oh,” he looked down and pulled at his cuffs.

Something grabbed my leg and I looked down at the fingers that had curled around my ankle. I fell to the carpet, grasping at the wine red threads as I was pulled from my world back onto the dirt. The old man watched me go, standing in the hallway framed by candlelight and shadows. A lone soldier. Alone. The sand scratched my stomach as I went. When Henry let me go the man shuffled towards the door in his slippers. I watched him walk slowly to the door and then stop in front of me.        He swung the door closed, clicking it into place with finality.

“Meredith?” Henry said.

“Now you remember me,” I breathed, sitting up. “Great. Wonderful.”

“Here, read it,” he crouched beside me and handed me the scrunched up letter.

     My Dearest Love,

You won’t understand how I found this place or why I’ve done this. I just can’t stand remembering. I can forget in here. This place will help me forget.

This letter won’t reach you, but I needed to write it.

Thank you, for everything.

Your Loyal Soldier.

I folded the letter tight. Henry sat beside me, both of us cross legged in front of the towering door. I slipped the letter underneath, not bothering to check whether it had made it through, or if it was just sitting in the dirt on the opposite side. Henry picked up his can of corn and cracked it open. We passed it between us.

“Should we do something?” he asked, mouth full.

“If he comes out he’ll remember,” I said. “I don’t think he wants that.”

“Mm,” he mumbled.

“Mm,” I mimicked. Together we looked up at the door. It stood in the middle of the junkyard like a soldier at attention.

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