He heard the sound again. Long, jagged claws tapping into his mind, the sound rang through James’ head as he tightened his grip on his rifle, finger tensed over the trigger. His rifle stuck out through the small gap in his bunker, serving as his only means of protection from the beast. He raised the sight to his eyes, steadying his breaths as he waited for it to cross his sight. But everything was silent and still, like nothing had happened at all.
His regiment arrived in Nantes a week ago, making quick work of the land around them as they dug their trenches and readied the front lines. He sang Christmas carols as the troops loaded their rifles with ammunition, preparing themselves for the inevitable German assault. This was the first battle his troop would experience. But where he had expected anxiety, he instead felt an almost eerie anticipation. Many joked about their lives back home, speaking about their sexual conquers and their financial successes. They talked of their desire for glory, a desire to be the hero they always wanted to be. To them, this was just another stepping stone to their seemingly inevitable glory. And even as James grew weary and the days grew darker, the shadow of the enemy looming ever closer, they kept their cheery disposition, so sure of their legacy that nothing could stand in their way.
The sound shocked James back to reality, digging into his psyche and trying to rip it apart. He had to take his eye off the sights for a moment, and he took the time to survey his surroundings. As darkness started to fall, the sunset painted the metal garden stretched out before him in a pinkish hue, like flesh torn and shredded beyond repair. Metal flowers covered the landscape in lead, brushed with all shades of red and black, adding decoration to the tattered corpses scattered over the ground. Iron hedges lined the field, their thorns dripping red, adorned with the limbs of souls lost like a twisted garnishment. Craters dotted the garden, gifts from far up above. As night fell, it began to rain, tears mixing with his own as the Earth grieved with him. James couldn’t help but stare as the tears streamed down his face. So many people, so many lives, lost in pursuit of the metal garden. He wondered why he wasn’t one of them.
He remembered the first rounds of fire. His squadron took their positions, eager to prove themselves, and eager to fight. It was nearly Christmas, and with the Lord at their side, what could go wrong? This would simply be the stepping stone on their way to fame. But that changed when the bullets started flying. Screams of horror and terror filled the air, replacing the sounds of cheer and joy that were present minutes earlier. James remembered the first casualty vividly: An older gentleman named Mark, who always talked about how proud he was of his son Jake graduating from elementary school. A man who liked to joke around and play cards, and a man he had sung “Deck the Halls” with just a few hours before. A man who had everything to live for, and a man who was now lying on the cold wooden floor of the trenches, screaming as he slowly bled out. The bullet had pierced his eye, leaving shards of bone scattered on the floor as he stared through James, begging for help. But James had a mission, and there was no time to help others. So he just kept shooting.
He remembered the assault. The Germans charged like buffalo on the open plain, storming the field in a futile attempt to gain ground. As they charged forward, they were met with a wall of lead, and the bodies fell, a black corruption spreading through their bodies as they piled on top of each other. Soldiers tripped over their fallen comrades as they marched blindly to an inevitable death, with nothing but the words of their sergeants to give them hope. He remembered when the first soldiers made their way to the barbed wire lining their trenches. They climbed the wire-like wild animals on the hunt, running on pure adrenaline as their fingers dug themselves into the barbs, flesh ripping from flesh like a knife cutting through butter as they furiously continued their ascent. James remembered shooting round after round into their bodies, stopping men dead in their tracks, leaving them hanging limp from the wire as their skin hung onto the wire-like decoration for the gates of Hell. And as James fired round after round into the enemy, tears streaming down his face, he wondered which side of the gates he was on.
That sound. James could never forget that sound. It was the sound that woke him up that night. The sound that got him out of his bed and made him grab his rifle. The sound that made him walk through the trenches, shaking in fear and disgust in fear as he saw the bodies that littered the floor around him. The sound that stuck inside his head as he ran, tears in his eyes, trying not to look at his friends, their eyes gouged out with a surgical precision, their empty sockets staring into the abyss as he ran faster and faster. It was the sound he heard behind him as he whirled around, firing a shot into the beast. It was the sound surrounding him as he ran as fast as he could, trying to erase memories that could never go away. It was the sound that haunted his mind as he built a bunker underground, gathering what little rations and ammunition he had, clinging desperately to the hope that God would bring him out of this alive. And now, it was the sound he heard as it hunted him. A tapping of nails against his mind, haunting him as he slowly lost his mind. A tapping that was getting closer, and closer, and closer. It was almost upon him.
The sound rang inside his skull like a bomb had been detonated inside of him. There was a pressure behind his eyes, growing in intensity. He felt like they were going to burst out of his head at any moment, but he fought it, slowly coming to his senses as he looked down his sights once again. All he could do was cling to the last bit of hope he had left. If he could only see it, then he could kill it. All he needed was one shot and he could take it out. He just needed to see it. But the longer he sat there, the louder that sound became, until it was all he could hear, bringing him to his knees and making him shake uncontrollably as he held his hands against his eyes, desperately trying to keep them inside his skull.
It was behind him. He slowly turned around, knowing he was already gone. He stared at its feet, quivering in fear as he slowly raised his gaze upwards. The creature had long, thin legs, with toes that were stretched into grotesque lengths, and attached were claws nearly the size of James’ head. The arms were similar, with curled fingers stretched into grotesque shapes and claws that could slice his head open with one swoop. He noticed ancient, archaic symbols along these claws, and despite having never seen them before, he knew exactly what they meant. As he stared at his demise, he wondered again if this was simply God’s punishment for his sins. If this was just God’s wrath against the evil he had helped to create. But looking at the beast before him, he wondered if God even existed in this world.
CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. CLICK-CLICK. CLICK-CLICK.
The sound reverberated inside his skull, and James felt as though his head was splitting apart, all of his thoughts incoherent as pain ravaged his entire body. He grabbed his head, screaming at the top of his lungs for God, for anyone, to save him, to simply put him out of his misery. But no matter how hard he screamed, nothing would come out. All he could hear was that sound. Over. And over again. Tearing him apart bit by bit.
When he finally opened his eyes, he saw the creature’s face staring back at him. He looked into its black, soulless eyes as the creature began to smile. James could see rows of teeth that went down the creature’s mouth and throat. He saw its long, thick tongue as it slowly, methodically licked its lips, readying itself for a feast as James trembled in fear. As he looked at the creature, its eyes slowly started to change. They became his eyes, and James watched as his pupils stared back at him. He saw tears stream down his face as he fired round after round at attacking soldiers, bodies piling up in front of him as he continued to fire. He saw the eyes of the soldiers as they were gunned down, tripping over their men as bombs dropped down on them, limbs flying into the air as bullets rained down like hail. Then they morphed into his mother’s eyes. She looked embarrassed, as if she were ashamed to be his mother. The eyes looked at James and he fell apart, weeping as he tried to apologize to her, tried to explain himself, but the words just couldn’t come out. Then they became his brother’s eyes, and James watched as they filled with tears at seeing his brother leave for war. He wanted to console him, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. So he just said nothing as the eight-year-old ran away, never to see his older brother again, eventually forgetting about him as he grew older. They were now his sergeant’s eyes, filled with hatred and disgust as he looked down at the miserable man James was. He wanted to scream in defiance, he wanted to yell, he wanted to do anything, but he couldn’t move. So he simply took his punishment. Then they were Mark’s eyes, and James saw the horror in them as the bullet came crashing into him. He felt the pain as Mark screamed in agony, his cries ignored by his troops as the battle raged on above him. James wanted to help him, but his movements were sluggish. He couldn't get to him fast enough, and he watched as the light slowly faded from Mark’s eyes, his body going limp as blood pooled around him. The blood continued to rise until it filled his vision, and then the eyes went blank and were now nothing more than mirrors staring back at him. James saw himself reflected in the creature’s glossy eyes, but it felt like he was seeing a stranger. He watched in silence as his eyes morphed into empty sockets, staring into the nothingness that awaited him as his lifeless body crumpled to the floor.