Alfred: Fog in the Mirror
It was too late when I realized I was coming in way too fast, the parachute had opened too late to really slow me down in time for the landing. With no time to even make a sound, I hit the ground, and boy was it hard. At that speed, my foot I stuck out to catch my fall disappeared into the marsh. In a brief moment of panic, I tugged my leg. Perhaps I tugged it too hard and it caught on something under the muck, bush roots or something, but the next thing I knew I was hurled face-first into the mud, the blackened, bitter mud clinging to me and sucking me in, like the earth wanted to swallow me whole. Slamming my hands down, I tried to push myself up, but the ropes of the canopy had tangled me up in the fall and resisted my moves. For an honest minute, I truly thought that I was going to suffocate to death in rancid mud.
“Did you see that?”
“See what? There fog here is thicker than pea soup.”
“There it was again, a shadow.”
“Bloody idiot.” Someone grabbed my hair roughly, wrenching my head from the mire as I coughed out muck, someone else cutting the rope, and more importantly me, free. The mud was everywhere, caked on my face and uniform, seeping inside my boots; I quickly wiped it from my eyes only to be met with Arthur’s dark glare as he still held me hostage by my hair. “I should shove your face back in there for your stupidity, but then I’d have to explain it to your mother.”
I spat out the bitter grime before swatting the Englishman’s hand away, “I get it, I did something stupid. Goddamn, I almost died.”
“Not that you’ll learn your lesson,” the Englishman sniffed, reaching for the sub-machine gun slung across his back.
“Al, check your gun, the mud might have damaged it,” a voice suddenly whispered in my ear. I wheeled around, staring at my brother who had been kneeling beside me this whole time. He had his knife in one hand, gun in the other, having been the one to apparently cut me out.
It left a bitter feeling in my mouth, not having some retort to make back to Arthur, so I begrudgingly got to my feet, pulling my pistol from my hip holster, pretty certain my own rifle was fine. I landed on my face, not my back, a fact made even more obvious by the chill of the bog’s air seeping through the soggy wetness left on the whole front of my uniform. “It looks fine to me,” I mumbled, wiping the butt off on my clothing. Why not, I was already filthy.
“Didn’t you hit him!?”
"Didn’t you see him fall?”
“Arthur,” Matthew suddenly spoke up, jolting the two of us, “What exactly are we looking for?”
We had split up into several smaller groups and we had been trudging around the marsh aimlessly in a tense silence. Perhaps Arthur was honestly expecting something bad to jump out of the dense fog, but I was more intent on being bitter towards him. There was no information about this mission, just some basic recon.
“Above my pay grade,” he spoke softly. Only then did I start getting worried. Arthur was always a stern person, even when we met as kids he was the hard-nosed type who always had to be in control. Looking at him now, his green eyes seemed to glow through the gloom, flitting every which way with a tight grip on his gun. “Because of the weather here, we aren’t sure what to be looking for, just that something strange is happening and some important people want to know what.”I shrugged my rifle off my shoulder as well, honestly not too sure of my muddy Colt now that a firefight was a possibility.
“What sort of strange?” I asked, immediately regretting it as Arthur sneered at me over his shoulder.
“Getting anxious love? Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to return you to mommy dearest in one piece.”
“Dammit Arthur, just answer the damn question,” I growled through gritted teeth. Even if I was the youngest out of us three, I didn’t need the mocking.
He breathed a short laugh through his nose before turning away from me again, “Rumor has it a Russian unit wandered their way in here and vanished. No one has seen or heard a peep from them since.”
“Great, we’re here looking for some Reds, all you had to say.”
“I heard something about that,” Matthew interjected again, concern etched in his violet eyes, “Didn’t they disappear almost a month ago?”
“They did, since then there have been a few other oddities; none of our spies have been able to make it in here, regardless of infiltration, and several planes crashed in the area over the past couple months. This place is a vortex, things come in and nothing comes out.” I looked to Matthew, he looked afraid. He turned to me and, in the reflection of his eyes, I looked afraid too. Arthur had apparently glanced back at the two of us in our silence, quickly he spoke, turning his back to us once more, “I told your mother I’d bring you back safe. I meant it, so get that look- . . . “ His voice trailed off as he stopped, the two of us almost running into him from the suddenness of it. Peeking over his shoulder, his eyes scanned the mist. “Did you see that?”
I followed his gaze, not seeing anything and scowling, not in the mood to be jerked around. “See what? The fog is thicker than pea soup?”
He stayed quiet, making me more nervous and, in turn, angry. I opened my mouth to say something else when I saw it, or I thought I did. Just out of the corner of my eye. Arthur jumped as well, aiming his gun in the direction, “There it was again. A shadow.”
I held my tongue a moment longer, squinting into the haze when I saw it, a definitive shape meandering through the bog. “It looks like a person. They’re headed towards us.”
“Do you think he knows we’re here?” Matthew whispered, his voice steady, “Maybe he hasn’t noticed us quite yet.”
“I’d rather not take any chances,” Arthur muttered under his breath, “Alfred, deal with him.”
“Why me!?” I balked at the order, “What if he’s one of the Reds?”
Arthur turned on me, a dark look settling in his eyes, “Do you want to walk up to him and find out? Be my guest, but don’t come to me when he blows off half your skull. I, on the other hand, would like to save my bullets.”
I hesitated a moment, not liking either of these options, so I settled for not making the call. Shrugging Arthur out of the way, I raised the Enfield so as to look down the sight. I had never shot a person before, and while I had known I would have to sooner or later, I think the reality of it finally hit me in that second. Just for a moment, I questioned if I should be doing this, but at the end of that moment, I pulled the trigger.
The gunshot rang out and the definitely human-shaped figure crumpled to the ground, my palms were clammy and I hadn’t realized I was suddenly breathing hard, as if I had gone for a run. The rifle slowing lowered, the barrel facing the ground as it sunk in. I had just shot a man. Arthur clapped my shoulder, “Snap out of it lad; it won’t be your last. Don’t know how many are out here and who that might have alerted. Let’s keep moving.” I heard him starting to walk away, but I felt grounded in that spot, staring at where the man had fallen. Was he really someone I should have shot? We weren’t even really sure if there was anything particularly dangerous happening here. I might have just killed my first man in friendly fire. I took a step forward, compelled to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake when my blood suddenly ran cold. He began to stand back up, a guttural moan echoing across the empty marsh.
“What the fuck?” Immediately Arthur was by my side, hissing, “Didn’t you hit him?!”
“Didn’t you see him fall?” I’m not sure what was going through my head; thoughts, feelings, all of it is a massive blank. All I remembered was the distant sound of gunfire, closer to us the shouts of our friends, then the screams. All the while, a chorus of groans slowly rising in the background. Shadows began appearing all around us through the fog and multiplying quickly.
Arthur shoved me out of my stupor, the bark of his machine gun deafening as I covered my ear closest to him. “Matthew, take your brother and fall back!”
“But they’re unarmed,” Mattie shouted back. I glanced up at him, his violet eyes staring blankly as the growing hoard, not quite understanding what was going on. Looking back, he was right.
“Did I ask for your observations?! Now get your brother and get out of here - Fuck!” The bodies he had dropped began standing back up.
One didn’t look right, the way it was wavering side to side as it balanced stuck out among the other lumbering shapes, it didn’t look right as its arms flailed awkwardly, the shape growing darker, larger, much more quickly than the rest. “Arthur! He’s charging!”
The smell hit me first, rotting and festering meat. At first I thought maybe he had gone mad from an infection. Arthur turned just in time as it lunged at him; a man dressed in a long coat, his jaws gaping, the bottom one half hanging off his face as muscle and bone was exposed and any flesh left was blackened with muck and decay. I might have still considered it a man if not for the eyes; they glowed red. Arthur turned just in time, whipping out his own Colt and firing three bullets into the thing. They seemed to have no effect, the creature shrugging off two shots to the chest as nothing, it wasn’t until the third pierced its skull did it crumple to the ground. Arthur stood over the body, unloading more bullets into the corpse for good measure, it didn’t move to rise again.
“Matthew take Alfred and go! Now!”
I looked to my brother, waiting for him to do something, but all he could do was look between Arthur and me, conflicted. That’s when I realized that the only liability was me. “You help Arthur, I’ll get out of your way.” Before either of them could say anything, I ran in no particular direction, weaving between the lumbering figures.
It was stupid, I heard Arthur calling to me before it was drowned out by gunfire, the fog muffling the noise some. I wasn't crying, my eyes just stung from the smell. It wasn't that I was angry at my brother, that I felt like dead weight, that I felt that they were going to get killed because of me and I was scared. It wasn't that at all. I swiped at my eyes, the fog was too thick to see through, I couldn't see the ground fall away until it was too late. Yelling in surprise, I tumbled down a steep ditch, my rifle flying off somewhere and supplies from my bag scattering. I hit the bottom with a splash. I flailed, gasping for air, having landed in a puddle that tasted of death.
Once more wet, covered in slime and now seriously unsure of where I was. The fog had crept down into the hole, forming a thick curtain that surrounded me on both sides. It was colder, my breath puffing out in small clouds as I got to my feet, my boots quickly soaked through, the water sloshing with every step. I glanced to where I had fallen from, the walls of the ravine closed in, about an arm's length on either side, a rickety ladder half-encased in mud disappeared upward into the mist. Sighing, I slumped against the muddy wall, my breath coming out in a quivering cloud, my nose and ears burning from numbness, but feeling more safe than I had been. In the trench, I couldn’t hear anything going on above me and that maybe it hadn’t really happened. Maybe the bog was driving us crazy.
Then I heard the sloshing.
My head whipped towards the sound, but the mist kept me from seeing too far down the trench. I reached for my gun, but was met with dense air, the rifle still missing somewhere in the water. Even if I did find it, there was no guarantee it was going to work. Then there was my Colt. Having been caked in mud and now drenched, I was seriously starting to question if I should make a run for it. As the splashing got nearer I could make out the sounds of gurgling, but still nothing appeared out of the mist. I decided I really should get out of here, but as I made to take a step back, something caught my ankle in a vice-grip, pulling it out from under me.
I landed in the water again, this time face-up as I sputtered, mildly dazed as to what had just happened. That’s when I saw the eyes under the water, glowing red. I screamed, my entire body trembling as I flailed, kicking at the thing that had not let go of my leg and now seemed very interested in keeping it. The bubbling from under the water became more violent as I fought to get away, finally kicking the thing’s hand off and scrambling backwards away, the red glowing eyes following after. I just managed keeping out of what I figured was its reach, not having time to properly right myself as my feet slipped in the mud in my panic. I couldn’t name one person who wouldn’t have pissed themselves in this moment, except maybe Arthur, not that I’m admitting to pissing myself.
Then my hand landed on something solid. Confused, I pulled it out to see my rifle, stunned that it had suddenly appeared at this moment. It was all the distraction it needed to catch me, clawing at my pants now, tearing them, cutting my skin. Its head breached the surface, the flesh swollen and black with those red eyes. I raised my arm to beat it away with the butt of the rifle, swinging wildly to try and make space between us. It was only then I realized my arm wasn’t moving. Mattie, mother, even Arthur; their faces flashed through my mind. It lunged at my thigh, water dripping from its jaws like saliva.
Explosions echoed around me and I instinctively ducked down, the strange trance I had been in crumbled instantly, but I had forgotten of the water. Choking, I sat back up, sputtering as I blindly wiped away at my face. The click of a gun cocking back and the sharp bite of metal pressed against my forehead woke me up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what was happening, just that I didn’t want to die.
Knee-high boots splattered in mud straddled with side of my waist, between them, the corpse of the thing that had tried to . . . eat me. Its skull was half blown away, a black sludge seeping out from the wound and into the water. Looking up higher, and I mean much higher, this man was like a giant as he loomed over me, the barrel of the gun aimed directly between my eyes. His clothes looked worse than me, torn and soaked through, half a sleeve missing and frayed threads unraveling the long jacket. I couldn’t see half his face thanks to the gun, but I could see his eyes, cold and dark, guarded as he scanned me over. They were this weird color, almost purple. On his head was a fur cap, a red star in the center.
I had never been so happy to see a communist in my entire life.
“You’re . . . You’re the Russians.” My hesitance was still from trying to catch my breath, not that I was cold, or even that I was scared. I had almost drowned myself damn it!
A dark eyebrow twitched up in, I think, interest, but not once did the gun waver as he stood over me. “Did you get bitten?”
“Bit . . .?” I looked back down to my legs without moving my head, not wanting to be any closer to the barrel of a gun. My legs stung, but I just figured it was from the scratching. Had it bitten me? I normally would have stood, but I was pretty sure he’d shoot me if I so much as wiggled my big toe. “I don’t . . . . think so.”
His grip tightened on the hilt and my blood ran cold. We were on the same side, weren’t we?! I went cold for a second, looking away with my eyes screwed shut, waiting for the bullet. What I got was an awkward clearing of his throat. Opening my eyes, his open hand had replaced the gun in my face. “We cannot stay here. Come with me, my friend will view your health.”
I don’t know what I should have been thinking as I took his hand and he pulled me up. Surprised? Surprised this guy had survived this long, that he had let me live, that he had thought about shooting me? Surprised that there were cannibals waltzing around a bog in various stages of decay? All I could feel was a wave of relief that I wasn’t alone anymore.
“Quiet,” he hissed for the hundredth time as my footing gave out and and splashed in a puddle of sludge. I also glared at him for the hundredth time. He was tall, perhaps a little thin, but he moved through the swamp so easily, it shouldn’t have been humanly possible. Even Arthur hadn’t looked so graceful, and I admit even he made me feel like a village idiot. Muttering under my breath, he gripped me hard under my arm and practically dragged me after him. “For having been just rescued, you are quite ungrateful.”
“We were actually sent here to rescue you,” I bit back. Actually we thought they were all dead, but still, I was here because of them.
The right side of his lips twitched in a rueful smile, “I suppose you do not need to know how well you are doing.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so envious about his ability to practically float over the marsh. The fog was still thick, though it had lightened some from when we had first arrived, and it felt like hours that we walked aimlessly in a sea of clouds, but it all seemed much shorter once I saw the shape of a building not too far in the distance. Pushed against the side of a slope, it’d be impossible to see from above and hard to find on foot unless one knew where they were going. Even with the second floor of the building having a gaping hole in the top, the concrete scorched as if shot by a tank or something, it looked relatively sound in structure. The wall closest looked like it was made out of bars, a small flickering light seeping through. We got nearer when the Russian forcibly turned my head to a hole near the ground.
“I’m not going to fit.”
“You are smaller than me, yes? You should fit just fine. Now, as much as I would enjoy to bicker with you, you can either stay here, or come in.”
He let go of my arm, and that was when I realized how tightly he had been holding me, I had lost some feeling in my fingers and I winced. He definitely bruised me. I went to shoot a glare in his direction, but he was already halfway through the hole, sliding in on his stomach. I couldn’t tell if he was being helped in by his “friend” or if he was crawling with his elbows, and like hell I was going to admit that getting stuck inside a little hole was actually more terrifying to me than staying out in this hellish swamp. My nose scrunched in disdain and I reluctantly got to me knees, then my stomach. After all, what was the worst that could happen, I’d get stuck. I sort of hoped the Red wouldn’t just leave me if I did.
The walls were thick, it was more a tunnel than a hole, which did nothing to ease my anxiety. A good three feet of solid concrete, my arms pushed straight out as the hole was too narrow to extend them much farther than my shoulders, using my toes to try and push me through. A two hands took each of mine as I was pulled the rest of the way through, more grateful than I would have admitted that I was out of the hole.
“You could have just told Ivan you’re claustrophobic.” My head whipped up at the heavy accent. Not that the Russian, Ivan I guess, didn’t have one, but that this one was distinctly German.
The man was just taller than me, but shorter than the Russian he stood beside, each of them having one of my hands. He was dressed in a long coat that had been torn into something more practical for the marsh, the white fabric stained a murky brown, except for the inside sleeve cuff. His blonde hair had attempted to be slicked back, but stray strands fell over his forehead, almost long enough to cover his blue eyes that regarded me with more interest than anything else. Rather, they made me feel like a bug under a magnifying glass. The red band on his left arm being the sun. I recoiled away from them both, my back pressed against the wall and the hole. I was totally unarmed and now, more or less, trapped.
The Red giggled at me, as if he found my face the most amusing thing. “You should relax, comrade. This is my friend I told you of.”
Had this guy led the Russians into a trap? Was he secretly working for the Nazis? Why did he bring me here? What were they going to do with me?
“Stand up,” the blonde man ordered, turning his back to me easily. There was a small fire in a fireplace, beside it were makeshift beds of clothing and blankets, as well as a box the other knelt beside. I could just make out the red cross on the front of it, a medical kit.
Apparently I was taking too long for Ivan, as he grabbed me again in that same bruising grip and dragged me up to my feet. “Get undressed. If you are well, you will die of chills.”
Under normal situations, I’d make a comment, but seeing as these looked way different from normal, I complied, pulling my arm away from the giant of a man and stripping off the soaked clothing. They hadn’t even began to dry. I knelt to untie my boots and kicked them off, along with my socks. the feeling of freedom from the clothing was a relief I didn’t know I desired. Standing in my long winter underwear, Ivan kept looking at me in an unnerving manner. I glared back, “What?”
“We have extra clothing that is dry, you may as well remove those. After all, we are all men here,” he smirked again at the last sentence, making my cheeks flare up more than my temper.
“Ivan’s right. Besides, I have to make sure you aren’t bitten,” the German spoke from the fireplace. Perhaps it was just my nerves, but even the quiet tone we had taken up sounded almost like yelling in the building.
Unhappy, I complied. “What is this about getting bitten? What is going on out there? Why are the two of you here, especially together? Don’t Commies and Nazis, like, hate each other?”
The German scrutinized my naked body, my muscles trembling from the cold and, maybe, nerves. My legs were all scratched up from that thing in the trench. The marks had stopped bleeding though, scabbing over a dark red that had yet to harden. “What happened here?”
“He was in a stupid panic with a crawler and had fallen down. It got quite close to biting him, but I could not be sure it had not.”
The German grunted in a form of thanks I think, before nodding to the Russian. Suddenly my vision went black and I stiffened, figuring out if I should fight or run, not that either would be of any use when I heard that damn giggle again and I pulled at the fabric over my head to find Ivan had thrown a blanket on me.
“Sit over here, “The German motioned, back to kneeling at the first aid kit and pulling out a flask and fabric strips, “Warm up and I’ll clean your wounds.”
“Are you a doctor?” I found myself asking numbly, still not quite computing the situation, but obeying nonetheless. I was out of the swamp and had a warm place to sit. I should just be thankful.
“Yes. Ivan, cover his mouth.” The bear of a man did so before I could ask why, but the second the alcohol hit the cuts, I writhed in pain, nails digging into the fabric of the blanket, swearing into the Russian’s hand. The cuts fizzed and began bleeding again. “He’s fine. The blood is red.”
Ivan let go, and no matter what he or anyone says, I didn’t whimper. “What do you mean the blood’s red?”
“Bite wounds bleed black and become badly infected, there’s nothing to be helped about them. You’re lucky Ivan showed up when he did, or else you’d be dead.”
He wrapped up my calves with an expert hand, and I felt myself relaxing, the panic from before finally dying down into a tired haze. I didn’t even care I was naked and under an itchy wool blanket. “And who are you?”
Blue eyes flickered up to me warily before returning to his hands. He seemed uncomfortable around me, which made me awkward around him. Once he finished, he put the rest away in the box. “Get some rest, you look like you’re about to collapse.”
Ivan smiled this weird knowing smile as I laid down on a pile of fabric, also getting undressed and leaving his clothes out in front of the fire to dry. He was a large man, but if those clothes were his from when he arrived, he had lost weight. They draped over him badly, hanging off where they should have been perfectly fitted. How long had Matthew said? A month out here? The Russian’s ribs were starting to show. He glanced back at me, and I awkwardly looked away.
“He thinks you will not last, little one. You are much younger than either of us.”
I sighed, finally allowing my eyelids to droop and exhaustion to hit me like a train, too tired to even put on the extra clothes they laid down beside me, a frown pulling at my face as those words slowly sunk into my hazy mind. They didn’t want to get attached to me.
“‘m Alfred.” My own voice sounded far away and horribly slurred, but after that, there was nothing.