An infected soldier struggles to return to his home.
|Home Sweet Home
Charlie had been dying for several days before he realized how sick he was.
There was a thick reek he could smell upon himself, like the stench of gangrene oozing its way through stagnant air, and he knew instinctively that something was terribly wrong.
Even as he climbed another steep hill hoping to discover where he was and how he had gotten there, he began to realize he had turned; like all the others he had flown home with, he'd contracted the virus and was fast becoming ripe with rot.
They told him the enemy had developed a new germ, and even though everyone was immediately pulled out of harm's way, many returning soldiers had already been infected. Charlie could recall only brief images of what had happened during the long flight home: the confusion, the soldiers sick and shouting at each other . . . the killing, and then the plane went down.
Everything else he tried to remember was broken, and he was losing more all the time; his mind felt empty of the words he used to know. As he wandered the maze of his memories, he knew there was something he was supposed to be doing, something that meant more to him than anything else, but there just wasn’t enough of him to hold it. His eyes were hollow and fatigued, his cheeks sunken and pallid, and the twinned lines running from his nose and into his mouth glistened with never-ending snot.
He stumbled to the top of a hill, his feet dislodging clots of dirt and rocks that resembled scurrying beetles, and then stood upon the crest scanning the area like a wounded animal.
Nothing looked familiar, and his location was now as useless as the thoughts that bled out of him. Again he staggered around, heading this way and then that, stopping in mid-step and turning like a crippled dog going to ground because it can't quite figure out that it is dying.
But through it all he carried one nagging thought that he worried like the loose teeth in his mouth, and he kept at it until it finally dripped into the fissures of his dwindling mind. He had a family and a home, and it was out there somewhere. He promised himself he wouldn’t give up, he wouldn't stop trying to find it. But even as he grasped the thought, the memory quickly tried to seep away again like lost blood.
He searched the foothills for days, and as his illness continued to weigh upon him, his mouth drooled at the thought of returning home. Home, he thought. Home Sweet Home.
He bit his lower lip, swallowed curses, and then sucked at the blood that congealed there. The dull pain helped sharpen his sense of purpose--kept him in focus.
Dad’ll know what to do. He’ll help me get better. I just need some rest and something to eat. Yeah, that's it, something to eat, something good and bloody. What? Where'd that come from? Charlie didn't know anymore. Without realizing it, he was losing the battle, and time was running out.
Eventually his thoughts became as alien to him as the speech of the mountains he attempted to climb. He forced himself to keep going, tried to stay alert, to rely upon his urgent need to find his way. But like a melting candle, the need dwindled with his new hunger for blood. And with every moment he delayed, fractures spread deeper into his soul; fractures that could not be endured, and simultaneously, his need to locate his family and to rend flesh, became as one.
As his self-command crumbled, the night filled him as though he were a vessel of darkness. A fresh storm of tears gathered in his eyes, and he wept as if he were being torn out of himself by the roots.
Standing at the top of the hill, his voice thrumming with intensity, he screamed into the night sky the one thing he could still remember: “Home!”
His voice echoed back from lost stars. It was the stark cry of a man whose wracked heart had been denied. Balling his fist, he pounded at his chest as shards of pain cut at his core, and then gnawed their way out of him like worms.
Lowering his head, his face a smear of tears, he shook with the effort of stifling his sobs, and he fought back the whimper that he was barely able to contain.
“Home . . .” he said again, beaten and gasping for breath. But even the frozen air became an ache in his lungs, and the wind was like fingers of ice that tore through his tattered clothes.
He prayed for some unforeseen wonder, but realized he no longer believed in them. He had nothing left but a twisted thought of going home.
A spasm of grief gripped his heart and his despair plunged toward hysteria. The one thing he lived for now was to eat. And he couldn’t deny or resist the urge any longer. His need for blood was too great to allow comprehension. Held upright and active by only the fierce pressure of his need, he walked numbly down the hill.
In the valley below sat a farm, and the lights blazed from the windows of the place like a beacon. Charlie was drawn to it like a moth.
“Home . . .” he mumbled to himself.
He staggered through the wheat fields on deadened feet, his boots kicking up the dust of the earth until it clogged his nose from his body’s own stench. The virus played havoc with his cell tissue as well as with his mind. Something was gone from him. Something important had been transformed or eradicated, and he knew he had failed at his one chance to remember it.
As he jerked and lurched his way through the farmstead, he stopped abruptly at the front door of the house. Reaching out, he turned the knob, but it was locked. He put his shoulder to it and pushed. The door creaked and then suddenly gave way.
As he entered the house, a man inside grabbed a shotgun that rested by the fireplace, and then leveled it at him. “Get out of my house or I’ll blow yer ass away!” he shouted.
For an instant Charlie hesitated, afraid of the farmer and his gun. But no fear marked his voice. “I’ve come for you, old man. I’m going to eat your heart out.”
Deliberately, desperately, Charlie continued forward as if he did not realize he had gone past the brink. His face was contorted like a demon; mucus drooled from the corners of his mouth. His eyes were decayed and cruel, rabid with disease and desire. Insane laughter gurgled from his chest. It sprang from his corded throat like gibbering. Then his lips drew taut, and he bared his teeth.
Horror momentarily locked the farmer’s limbs, but then the shotgun spit fire and the blast caught Charlie full in the stomach with a sickening thud. It hit him so hard that he slid backward across the floor and lay there bent and twisted.
The old man stood over him and looked down, saw the uniform. Then his brow furrowed and his face contorted with pain. “Charlie?” Recognition finally filled his mind. “Charlie!”
Quickly he dropped to his knees. “My God, son, is it you?” He bent and cradled the man’s head in his hands. “Oh, Charlie, no, God forgive me, God forgive me!”
Charlie’s eyes fluttered, and then opened wide. For a moment he had returned to himself. He tried to talk, but coughed up phlegm as rank as putrefaction; it bubbled from his lips even as he spoke, “My whole life, Poppa, I’ve always tried to fight for what I loved. I love you.”
His mouth continued to move like a fish starved for water. Mutely he kept saying something he could not say and his father could not hear.
The old man drew his son’s dead body to his chest and rocked him for several hours. He felt something break inside like a crack through stone that followed its flaws to his heart.
Gently lowering his boy’s body to the floor, the old man stiffly stood and walked outside. He grabbed a can of kerosene from the front porch, and then returned to douse the room with it.
The farmhouse was fully ablaze when another gunshot cracked the stillness of the night. And in Charlie's dead eyes the framed and hand-stitched message of 'Home Sweet Home', gleamed brightly.