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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-six BLACK WITH THE BURN



he distant sound of explosions was muffled by the pouring rain and the sloshing of mud as soldiers waded through the flooded trenches. The air reeked of smoke, decay, and disinfecting lime meant to alleviate the spread of disease. Massive rats scuttled amongst the grime, picking through choice corpses. Within the trenches, Peter Glenn leaned against the muddy wall and worked the cap from his flask in order to chug down several swallows. No one had seen a cigarette in two weeks; the pleasant burn of alcohol was the next best thing. He was not sure what exactly he was drinking anymore, having raided the bodies of his companions for their flasks and combined his discoveries. Rum was distributed in teaspoons each morning, but other supplies were smuggled through the lines. Craftily wrapped packages of chocolate bars and jam secretly held whiskey—sometimes wine or brandy. Whatever Peter could find he put into his flask; it was all his. They did not need it anymore. The alcohol helped him think, helped him cope, and helped him ignore the sights of blasted head and flesh caught up in the barbed wire of no man’s land.

Soldiers huddled within the trench, trying to keep to its slippery slopes in order to avoid the mote running through the middle. A few half-submerged bodies could be seen amongst the water, but for the most part, the rainy veil kept its horrors concealed. It was a peaceful moment; the sound of machine guns replaced by steady rainfall on his metal helmet.

War in the east had brought him here. Drafted, he had been given the national promise that this Great War would not last, that it would be but a brief stint abroad for glory and country. He left with strangers and colleagues alike. He kissed his girl and with humor he told her to keep dinner warm—that he would not be long. Those strangers and colleagues had blurred, many forgotten, none the same. It had been eight months and counting since he had left Des Moines.

Peter wiped his grizzled chin and tucked the flask away. He ached for real food. Rations were down to hardtack and thin soup; he missed slum for the sake of beef and vegetables. Mostly he missed Des Moines. He missed working at the little bike shop on the corner before returning home to his wife and her cooking and the feel of red lips kissing his cheek. He wanted the weight of his wife in bed, to be reminded of how well they fit together, and to smell the rose perfume caught up in her hair. Let the Europeans deal with their war.

“At attention, men!” Captain Roy Alton called as he approached. He looked just as mud-drenched as the rest of them. Somehow he managed to retain a sense of authority. He surveyed the company. “We’re going over the top at my count. God have mercy.”

“Damn,” the man beside Peter muttered as the captain marched through the slop. “We were told tomorrow.”

“Not that going over is pleasant at any point,” Peter said. His chest felt tight as his mind attempted to process this sudden shift in schedule. His companion, Carl, snorted. Bruises contorted his face.

“I noticed you stopped writing back to your wife, why’s that?”

“I’ve run out of things to say.”

Carl spat into the mud. “I’ve seen the picture you carry of your woman; fine girl. She writes often enough to you. No harm in doing the same.”

Peter turned his gray eyes to the man. “I want to tell her something beyond ‘I miss you’ and ‘I hope I come home alive,’ but I can’t, so I keep quiet.” He kept the letters inside his jacket pocket alongside his flask. At the mention of his wife’s letters, her worries, and the image of her smile he could practically feel her handwriting burning against his breast. “What will you do when you get home? Presuming we make it through the next ten minutes.”

“I’m going to find myself a knockout,” Carl said. He grinned with yellow teeth. “A floozy. Blonde, blue-eyed and always dolled up for me.”

“The pretty ones tend to be foolish.” Peter subconsciously clawed at his coat pocket where the flask lay. Another swallow would help him ease the hunger in his stomach and damper the rats and perfume in his brain.

The order was called, and the soldiers crowded together near the lip of the trench, their knees poised and hands sunk deep into the muck. Peter tried to ignore his speeding heart. He’d survived two runs over the top thus far. He could do this. Just another sprint. Just another sprint through death’s beehive.

“Ready?” Carl said beside him, his smile unwavering. Peter sucked in a long, measured breath and tried not to gag on the stench that slipped over his tongue.

Captain Alton yelled, his voice a detonation through the air.

The taste of blood pervaded Peter’s mouth as he bit the inside of his cheek. He threw himself over the lid of the trench and a startled hailstorm of gunfire slammed into the company. Barbed wire clawed at their boots, and his legs strained through the slop. Something whirled by his ear, and he instinctively ducked. Ahead he could see the next trench. Just a few more paces and he would be out of no man’s land. Back into the pit, back into the pit.

Underground. Underground.

Besides him, Carl’s head snapped back, his neck bending as a bullet crunched into his skull. Peter kept running. He all but fell into the next trench as he slid through the mud and allowed momentum to suck him down. Mud splashed him from head to foot. Others followed suit; one rolled, screaming and clutching his leg. The air was electrified with ammunition. For a moment he flashed between the reality of machine guns and the memory of hail on a tin roof, the cacophonies momentarily synced in his mind. Carl’s presence at his side was replaced by a much younger man, clean shaven with youth, and other desperate souls quickly joined them. Peter threw himself against the wall of mud, cocked his gun, and fired. Smoke wafted from the discharge of their guns.

The top of the trench exploded. Blood splattered the side of Peter’s face as the young man beside him shrieked and fell. His ears rang from the blast. His head spun, his heart hammered painfully, and he wanted, wanted, wanted that drink, that cigarette. The young man remained crumpled near Peter’s feet, his body contorted with skull and ribs agape. Peter’s trembling hands sought out his flask.

His hands were slick with blood, and his grip fumbled the moment he had twisted the cap off. The flask splashed into the oily mud, and he hastily whisked it back into his grasp. Smearing the worst of the mud away, he sucked down the last of the alcohol. Acrid dirt, saturated by disinfectant lime, twisted the flavor. Nevertheless, his desperation charged him to drink. He pressed the cold metal to his forehead and took several deep breaths. Pocketing his flask, he took up his gun once more.


When night fell the rain stopped, taking with it the violence of the field. Silence prevailed beyond the moans of injured men or the squish of boots in the mud. Peter’s ears rang with the absence of shattering noise. As the privates had toiled with draining the trench of excess rainwater, the captains and corporals had looked on, made comments about the enemy, and one man even managed to find a small slice of potato from one of the food bags. Peter and his compatriots watched him gobble it down with quiet contempt from beneath the shadows of their helmets.

Hardtack had been that evening’s dinner, and it stuck to Peter’s ribs unpleasantly, churning his stomach, and more than once he had to swallow down mouthfuls of bile that bubbled up his throat. He blew against his hands in an effort to warm them as he wandered the trench line. Of the ninety-four men who had made up his company, thirty-eight were lost in the run with another eight likely to perish before dawn.

Peter ducked beneath a makeshift overhang and ventured deeper into the lines. He felt lightheaded. He needed a fix. He had slept scarcely six hours in three days, and it felt as if he were walking through a fog. Dinner had done nothing to alleviate his dizziness or dry mouth.

It took what felt like ages in the full moonlight before he found a body.

It was laid back against the trench, one leg crossed over the other, and only the man’s slack jaw and unmoving gaze distinguished him between death and sleep. Working quickly, Peter padded down the cold man’s sides. He found a knife, a few soggy letters, and an empty matchbox. Finally, he chanced upon the object of his desires. Wrenching the sealed flask from the man’s belt, he rested back on his heels and worked the lid free. Sniffing the contents, he promptly swallowed down the heavenly liquor. It sizzled over his tongue.

“Goddamn,” he rasped as the drink kicked him square in the gut. He coughed repeatedly until he thought more than bile would come up. A flashlight flickered at the far end of the trench and Peter scrambled back to his company post.

Night watch was little more than night listening, for anyone foolish enough to peer over the top of the trench was sure to meet a sniper’s bullet. Peter nodded at passing soldiers as he forced his legs to move. His eyes stun, his stomach growled. If he were home, his wife would be making a fresh pot pie, golden brown and steaming with flavors begging to be savored. He could picture the way his fork would part the top, revealing bright orange carrots and chunks of pink chicken. There would be dessert afterward, a pie bloated with cherries and a sweetness that would render him blissfully comatose on the couch. But even as he looked upon the imagined pie, it began to squirm. Worms--intestines, he could not tell--slipped through the crust. The pie caved inwards, turning black with decay and flesh bubbled from the center. The cherries popped and oozed red.

His shoulder was jostled and the image dissipated. The soldier he ran into grumbled and shoved him aside. Peter’s vision trembled. Everything blurred for a moment before becoming painfully sharp; the details were too much. He could see the paw prints of rats trekked through the mud, could see the lice and maggots intermingling through the dirt, and see where crumbs of hardtack had been sprinkled. Tearing his gaze away, he hastily sought out something to eat. An odd taste blistered his tongue.

Breathe. Breathe.

A pile of boxes and supplies, half-hidden beneath tarps, caught his attention. Licking his lips to pick up the last traces of sizzling liquor, he tugged one of the large bags free from the uppermost box and set it at his feet. Any abandoned goods had either been neglected by the current company or abandoned by the last before they had vanished into no man’s land. He ripped the bag open, and after much scrounging, his fingers bumped against something cold and solid. Withdrawing it, Peter’s mouth fell agape, drooling, as the object’s silver lettering gleamed at him through the moonlight: HERSHEY’S.

The chocolate bar, only slightly rumpled, rested like the Holy Grail in his hands. He had not seen such a treat since leaving American soil. The soldiers had been given chipped pieces of chocolate early in the war, but it quickly ran out, or melted, or was otherwise lost. With trembling hands, he peeled back the foil and sank his teeth into the smooth sugar.

Milk chocolate melted between his teeth and soothed the taste in his mouth. When he bit down, a pleasant surprise of raspberry syrup oozed from the bar. He had never tasted such a thing before. After weeks of cornmeal and biscuit, Peter could not have wished for anything better. The red dripped down his hands, and he licked his fingers clean one by one. He was halfway through the succulent when a shout rang out, “What are you doing?!

The chocolate bar was snatched from his grasp by Captain Roy who looked upon him with disgusted horror. The chocolate was thrown to the grown. “What are you doing, soldier?” he said again. “State your name!”

“What am I doing?” Peter yelled back. He licked his lips; the raspberry flavor did not seem as sweet as it had been a moment ago. It stuck to his teeth. “I found that fair and square!”

“Your name, soldier.”

“Peter Glenn, sir. Do the captains want us so miserable that they’ll take anything from the soldiers? Even discarded chocolate?”

“Chocolate?” Roy sputtered. His brow furrowed deeply and he rocked back on his heels. His eyes glanced to the dirtied foil and back to Peter. He took a step forward and spoke in a quieter tone. “Glenn, I think you may want to sit down.”

“Why?” Anger swarmed within Peter. He had gone through several levels of hell, and such petty orders only chipped at his nerves. He went from enjoying his first real taste of food in months to seeing it ruined by being tossed aside. His tongue worked at the thick raspberry in his mouth.

A crowd had slowly gathered, and Peter noticed how everyone was giving him a wide berth. Roy stepped closer. “Why?” the captain echoed. He pointed at the Hershey’s bar. “Take a gander, soldier.”

Peter glared and stepped towards the chocolate; his compatriots scuttled back like a school of fish avoiding a shark, bending into the space he left behind while expanding the circle before him. His vision tilted again. He saw foil, then fur, then foil, then fur the color of foil. He blinked rapidly and shook his head. The dead eyes of the ripped and bloodied rat stared up at him.

His hand darted to his mouth as he stumbled away. Everything lurched again. The traces of chocolate in his mouth curdled to fur and flesh, and he vomited. Blood stuck to his teeth, thick and cold on his lips and fingers.

“Private Glenn,” Roy was speaking again, “calm down.”

Calm. The last eight months of his life had failed to be calm beyond his dreams and even those were twisting.

Peter stumbled away. His eyes were wide, the bloodshot coloring more evident in the dim light cast by flashlights and lamps. Red spotted his jacket. His mouth and throat burned.

“Glenn, take it easy,” one of the soldiers said as he stepped towards Peter.

“Get away from me!” Peter yelled. Desperate for something to anchor himself, he looked around frantically before spotting another large bag, this time bearing the logo of one of the commissioned officers. Everything had been fine until Roy had shown up. The captains were making everyone miserable. He stared at Roy for a long time and realized the man smelled vaguely of smoke. With a snarl, he stuck his hand into the bag and pulled out a cigarette carton. He brandished it over his head. “We haven’t seen smokes in weeks, and the captains are holding out on us! They’re making everyone insane! It was chocolate.”

“Whoa, whoa son!” Roy yelled. His eyes were wide, and he held both hands before him in a warding gesture. Every soldier took several steps back, their dim silhouettes shifted in the night. “Peter, put that down and try to relax.”

He could taste the mud and lacings of chemicals from his drink hours before. His hands trembled, begging to snatch up the dirtied flask in his pocket, shaking for reasons he could not name.

“I don’t need to relax, I’m fine,” Peter snapped. He brought the cigarette pack to eye level and flicked the lid open. A treasure-trove of cigarettes was revealed, and he ran his thumb across their tops. Glancing up, he saw Roy had advanced on him. He scrambled back, scattering the men behind him. “You greedy pigs, the lot of you!”

“Glenn, put that down!” Roy said. “That’s an order.”

“Fuck you!” Peter spat. His trembling fingers picked at one of the cigarettes. “You’ve been keeping all the good food to yourself, all the smokes, everything! You send us over the top and use our bodies as shields. I’m sick of it! Damn the enemy when the devil himself walks our lines.” His voice quelled to a hissing whisper. “You trick us. That was a chocolate bar, an honest chocolate bar. I know what I saw.”

“Glenn, I will force you down if need be,” Roy said slowly. “Put that down, son. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

He knew what he was doing. He knew. He was not ill; he was tired, sick, and scared. He still could not tell if he had seen chocolate or a rat. The moonlight was playing tricks on his vision, it had to be. A smoke would calm his nerves; the nicotine would sooth his panic in a velvet embrace that alcohol could only do half-heartedly. The aroma of a cigarette, the aroma of home. The aroma of her.

Peter grasped one of the cigarettes and Roy tackled him. He was thrown back into the mud with a loud squelch with the captain’s full weight atop him. A slick chill soaked through his jacket. Roy’s hand around his wrist was like a vice, squeezing the bones together; the carton was gone from his grasp. The sole cigarette he held pinched between thumb and forefinger flickered black. Peter heard panicked yells and saw soldiers sprinting away. Something thumped into the ground at his side and Roy’s face blanched. Peter felt a flash of heat before his right ear went deaf.




Shelbie Neff is an aspiring writer of science fiction, fantasy, surrealist fiction and the blurred lines in-between. Her work has been previously published in RiverLit Magazine and Crack the Spine. She lives in the Colorado Rockies.

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