The first thing he’s aware of is pain. Incredible, debilitating pain that has him crying out, fingers scrabbling across the bandages over his eyes. It hurts everywhere; the dull ache in his bones that he’s had since the moment he left home is the least of his worries. He’s in a bed somewhere, blindfolded, hurting, and his first thought is, they’ve got me. The Germans have got me.
He screams louder and tries to rip off his bandages, but there are hands on him in an instant, gripping his wrists tight and holding him down.
“You’re going to make it worse if you struggle,” a male voice tells him. He’s British. A traitor. Edward fights more. “Stop, stop it – give him some opium, would you?”
He fades out after that.
The next time he stirs, it’s quieter. There are soft, distant moans, but there’s no gunfire, no yelling, no noise whatsoever. It’s unsettling for Edward, who had just spent almost two years out on the front lines. The skin around his eyes sears with pain and his fingers and toes are cold, but he doesn’t so much as grunt.
He tries to get some sort of bearing of his surroundings without drawing too much attention. He leaves the bandages alone for now. He’s dressed in some sort of scratchy, bedclothes-like material. The bed they’ve put him in is sort of lumpy, but better than the mud and dirt. His dad’s ring is gone from his right hand. He’s not wearing any stockings, either.
Edward draws himself upright into a sitting position and purses his lips. He whistles a long tone of one note to gage the size of the room. Somewhere down to his left, someone shouts, “Shut up!” He ignores them. The room is long and the sound doesn’t echo; he’s not in a cave or a dungeon or any of the other horrible places that his commanding officers promised he’d see if he was ever captured.
He reaches up to start unwrapping the bandages around his eyes, but a hand appears and grips his wrist to stop him.
“You don’t want to do that,” the voice whispers. It’s the same man as before – English, working class. Edward tries not to let his fear show.
“What have you done to me?”
“You were hit with some tear gas,” he says. “We’re just keeping it clean for now.”
“Why would you want to help me?”
“You’re in York,” the voice assures him. Edward relaxes the tiniest bit. “You’re in England. Don’t worry. The Germans are far, far away.”
Edward feels the tension draw itself out of his body. He reaches out and finds the man’s hand – it’s gloved, but he squeezes it anyway.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
“You should get some rest now, sir.” The man presses Edward’s hand back into the blankets, but his fingers linger there. Something unfurls inside of Edward – he thinks of Sophia back at home, waiting, worrying. It’s been two years since he’s seen her. She writes to him now and again, but he hasn’t found the time to write back.
The British man – Corporal Barrow, he’s been told – is arrogant and rude in the daylight. He snaps at the nurses and speaks harshly to some of the men. Edward doesn’t like him, but when he asks for a new caregiver, he’s told they’re too short-staffed to give him anyone else.
“Do you want to write to your family?” Corporal Barrow asks one day as he’s setting up Edward’s lunch. It’s bread and stew, just like usual. Not bad; he just misses jams and steak and puddings like his mum’s maid makes. He misses home, even if he doesn’t exactly miss home. “You could dictate, I’ll write.”
Edward ignores him.
“No family to write to?” Corporal Barrow goes on, softer than before, like he sympathizes.
“I’ve got family to write to,” Edward rebuts. “I just don’t want to write to them through you.”
“So who do you want to write to them for you?” he asks, affronted. “One of the nurses?”
“Anyone but you.”
Barrow goes very quiet and still. Then, “Eat your stew, sir.”
He learns to appreciate Corporal Barrow’s frankness. After a week of nurses and doctors alike dancing around the subject of whether or not Edward’s actually going to go blind, Edward’s had enough. Sybil, one of the night nurses, is sweet, but she gets the brunt of his frustration. He shouts at her until one of the other nurses begins to cry.
“I think that’s quite enough, Lieutenant Courtenay,” she tells him gravely.
“I just want to know,” he begs quietly, tears soaking the bandages still covering his face. They’ve been changed once or twice, but Edward had shaken and cried whenever they’d done so (he couldn’t see a thing – not a goddamn, blasted thing) so they left him alone more often than not.
Nurse Sybil walks away.
Corporal Barrow is the one who takes off the bandages for good. He’s surprisingly gentle, in spite of how Edward’s treated him in the past. His burns sting against the fresh air; when he reaches up to touch, Barrow pulls his hands away.
“Leave it be,” he says. “You’ll make it worse if you’re not careful.”
“Worse than behind blind?” Edward asks, half-laughing. “Corporal Barrow, please…”
Barrow is silent for a moment; then, suddenly, he’s up in Edward’s space.
“It’s unlikely,” he whispers, “that you’ll ever see again.”
He hovers, smelling like smoke and witch hazel, as Edward starts to cry.
“Thank you,” he chokes. “Thank you.”
On a rare day the patients who are well enough to be moved are taken outside to enjoy the sunlight and fresh air, Corporal Barrow drops down in the chair next to Edward and offers him a cigarette. Barrow lights it for him and Edward takes a deep drag on it.
“I haven’t had one of those in a long time,” Edward says, turning his face as if to inspect it as he blows the smoke out through his teeth. His eyes are squinted against the sunlight he feels on his face, more out of habit than anything.
Barrow reads him the letters from his mum and Sophia. There’s no letters from Ralph, because Ralph is dead somewhere in the muddy trenches of Arras, hundreds of miles away from home. He misses his best mate. They used to talk about the girls they’d marry, how their boys would be best friends – if Ralph had a girl, perhaps Edward would’ve let her pursue his son. That’s all a pipe dream now, anyway, just a silly boyhood fantasy.
“So you’re going to marry this Sophia, hmm, sir?” Corporal Barrow asks a little bit distantly. Edward sorely wishes he could lounge out in the grass, feel the blades between his toes; but he knows it’s improper, especially in such company. He lets out a heaving sigh.
“I suppose,” he answers. “We’re more friends than lovers. I do need an heir, though, to take over the estate once I’ve gone.”
Corporal Barrow starts to say something, but cuts himself off. Edward tilts his face slightly in encouragement.
“Please, speak to me as a friend would. My best mate died over there. I miss pissing around.” He sucks on his cigarette for a moment, then twists his mouth and says, “Stand down, Corporal.”
Barrow laughs a little bit. “I’m sorry you rich folk have to marry out of obligation,” he says in an undertone. “We working class – we get to marry out of love.”
“Are you married?” Edward asks. Barrow doesn’t say anything and Edward feels bad. He didn’t mean to offend him.
“Not sure many people would want to marry me,” he says finally. Edward quirks his mouth into a smile because, yes, he can see why not. But the smell of tobacco and witch hazel has grown so familiar to him; he’s scared to imagine what’s going to happen once they decide he’s fit enough to be sent home. Suddenly, inexplicably, he can’t imagine a life without Corporal Barrow.
Some nights, he jerks awake and scrambles for the gun he still thinks is there, tucked away somewhere just out of his reach. Others, he dreams of bloodied men being shot down in front of him, Ralph always knocking into him as he collapses. Sometimes hands reach out and strangle him and he gasps awake and shouts and shouts until a nurse comes running, just like they used to when he was a child.
Most nights, he lays awake in bed, half-curled on his side. He aches everywhere, but he also doesn’t feel a thing. Except – fear, he feels fear, a near-constant thrum beneath his skin that leaves him paralyzed in the darkness that will never, for him, fade. He wishes he could see something, anything, even just the occasional color to break up the endlessly vast and lonesome nothingness.
Sometimes someone will quietly pull up a chair and sit next to him. Edward supposes it’s the middle of the night – maybe three, or four; he doesn’t count the hours anymore because it makes his heart race with anxiety – so he’s not sure why, exactly, someone would take time away from precious sleep or leisure to sit beside a wounded soldier.
They never talk, so Edward doesn’t quite know who it is (though he has a sneaking suspicion) until he startles awake from a dream one night, whimpering and scratching needlessly against the sheets with his stubby fingernails, and a gloved hand wraps itself tight around his.
Edward wants to say I am so, so sad or I don’t know how to live anymore or what do I do when I have to go home? but instead he uses that courage to press his mouth against the harsh seam between the thumb and index finger of Corporal Barrow’s glove.
Sometimes he wishes he could ask Barrow to stroke his hair until he falls asleep, just like his mum used to. But he suspects the Corporal might chuckle and say, “Go to sleep, sir,” and Edward will drift off feeling foolish.
(Some nights he skates his nails across the veins on his wrists and catalogues it as a solution to all of his problems.)
Edward stays inside more often than not, even if Nurse Sybil does pull him out of bed and push a walking stick into his hand. At first, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it – he’s already made up his mind; he’s not going to be around to walk if they try to move him away.
But then Corporal Barrow joins them, hands steady on Edward’s shoulders, anchoring him as always, and Edward tries.
“I’m kind of a baby all over again, you know?” he comments on afternoon while Corporal Barrow cleans his eyes. It stings a little bit; when it hurts too badly, he reaches up and squeezes Barrow’s elbow. Eventually, he just leaves it there. “I need to relearn how to walk and how to – how to live, you know? I thought I had it all figured out.”
“You did, sir,” Barrow says. He tilts Edward’s face away with two fingers to reach the blisters around the joint of his jaw. “Sometimes things just change.”
Sophia, Ralph, Jack, Oxford, fishing, farming, hunting, living – a lot of things have changed. The twisting feeling in his stomach when Corporal Barrow gets too close. He can’t imagine going home to Sophia – marrying her, having children, not being able to see them grow. He doesn’t doubt Sophia would take care of him. She’s a sweet and gentle girl, but not – she’s not what Edward wants. She’s not what Edward needs.
“Change isn’t always bad,” he says finally, and lifts his arm so Barrow can check the bruises on his ribs.
The night after Doctor Clarkson tells them Edward’s set to leave come morning, he swipes a pair of bandage scissors from one of the nurse’s carts. He acts like he stumbles into it and everyone is too busy checking to make sure he’s all right to notice that they’re gone.
Corporal Barrow sits in the chair next to his bed and eats with him. They don’t say much; neither of them wants to talk about the truck tomorrow, especially not Edward.
“Fancy one last walk?” Barrow asks once they’re finished. Edward hands off his bowl and nods.
They stroll around the short path surrounding the hospital. Edward uses the cane, but Barrow’s hand rests on his arm, warm and safe. He wishes he could feel something, but he’s just numb inside and unsettlingly calm.
“Corporal,” Edward says their third time around. “Would you kiss me before I go?” Barrow starts to laugh a little bit, like maybe Edward’s just teasing, but Edward says, “Please.”
“Sir,” Barrow says uncertainly, but they stop and Barrow rests the thumb of his right hand against Edward’s chin. He leans forward a little bit until his breath is ghosting across Edward’s mouth before resting a gentle kiss on Edward’s top lip.
Edward has only ever kissed Sophia, and that was years ago now, and he – he craves this. He craves human touch and contact and this man right in front of him. When Barrow goes to move back, Edward makes a noise in the back of his throat and pulls him back in.
“Sir,” Barrow says unconvincingly. Edward cuts him off by pressing their mouths together again.
Eventually, he lets Corporal Barrow lead him back inside and deposit him in his bed. Barrow grips his hand tightly before stepping away.
“Goodbye, Corporal Barrow,” Edward says tiredly. He leans back into his pillows and closes his eyes.
“Not goodbye just yet, Lieutenant,” he responds. “We’ve still got tomorrow to say our goodbyes.”
Not me, Edward thinks, and listens to his footsteps fade off.
Long after the ward goes quiet, Edward untucks the scissors from beneath his thigh, takes a deep breath, and lets go.