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by Lee Hamblin

Frank: Downy haired and tenor voiced, astride the cusp of manhood.

Sat in the dining hall, at the end of a long wooden bench.

As naked as the day he became.

This the price paid for insolence, so he was told.

One hand covers his crutch; the other supports his chin. He grinds his elbow into the table.

Welcoming the pain, he presses harder, and then harder still.

There is a bowl of soup and a pockmarked spoon opposite him. It belongs to H. H is as close to a friend that Frank has, that Frank has ever had.

The small boy sat next to Frank, Frank doesn’t know. He is ignoring Frank, fervently spooning up the grey-green soup like he hasn’t eaten for days.

Frank hasn’t eaten for days.

The small boy dunks a rustic cracker — again and again and again, licking it dry after each immersion. Errant drips are sleeve-wiped from his pointy, hairless jaw.

Frank moistens his lips.

H slides his half-eaten bowl towards Frank and gives him a nod.

It resembles the taste of smoked ham and peas, though he knows that meat would never be wasted on them. He manages two spoonfuls before the bowl and its contents are propelled to the floor by the swinging arm of Colonel Grant.

Grant is a beast of a man in both size and thinking.

The room falls silent.

At least until Frank has been frogmarched from sight, that is.

***

The night has come, and light snow is falling.

Frank is clothed now, but still cold-boned. He has no overcoat. He is made to stand outside the colonel’s hut. Waiting. After what feels like hours, Grant summons him inside.

Grant asks Frank where the hell his coat is. There is glee in his voice. He is flushed-faced from whisky and the roaring fire he stands in front of, gloating at the pathetic sight stood trembling in his lee. Grant tells Frank he can purchase a coat from the store; that there has been a fresh supply delivered.

Frank states that he has no credits, sir.

Frank has never had credits.

Grant laughs, and says that the store-master is always open to negotiation. He laughs again; it wields fear even mightier than his bark.

Frank bites hard on his cheek until he can taste blood.

***

Frank closes his eyes, closes his ears.

In his dream he is ten years younger, stood in the centre of a room. It’s a dilapidated, long-abandoned room. The windows are bullet-cracked and shrouded with ash. Curtains ripped into slivers sway like half-sleeping ghosts.

The room is unfamiliar, yet familiar. Not home, yet home.

There is a song playing on a record player. The lady singing has a beautiful voice.

Frank knows the voice. Frank knows the song.

There are little stones scattered on the floor, stones shaped and smoothed by waves. They are rounded and blue and green. Frank remembers something of a beach, the sea and a smile.

There is a book, or a photo album of sorts, lying closed on the ground. Frank opens it to a random page. The picture is in black and white. It is of the lady singing the song.

Frank recognises the face in the photo.

***

Frank opens his eyes.

He is in a deep trench on the southern front. Not dreaming anymore.

He’s wearing his new, thick coat. But he has no gloves.

His fingers are senseless and he struggles to feel the trigger. H is standing beside him. There are many others with them, all waiting; faces fear-etched into bravado. The enemy are close; the sound of gunfire is becoming louder, becoming closer.

H shakes his head at Frank.

The coast is definitely not clear.

If Frank shuts his eyes, he can hear her song again; he can see her face again: a beach, the sea, and her smile. Home.

Shrill whistles are being blown.

Men are shouting.

Colonel Grant is shouting loudest of all.

Frank un-shoulders his rifle and removes his coat.

He has one more request of his friend.

H cups his hands. Frank plants a foot in the clenched palms and launches himself up and out of the trench.

He opens his arms and runs, as fast as he can, screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m coming. I’m coming.”


Lee Hamblin is originally from London, now living in Greece. He has had stories published with F(r)iction Online, Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Frontier, Platform For Prose, Sick Lit Magazine, STORGY, and some other places. He occasionally tweets @kali_thea and puts words here: https://hamblin1.wordpress.com.

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