Tu me manques
Some nights I wake up because I have forgotten how to breathe. Panic overtakes me. Sweat covers my body. Lungs aflame in their need for air. Every neuron is convinced I’m being suffocated by the blanket of nothing covering my face. But it’s not nothing. It’s a lack of something that smothers me. I never mention this idea, of course, because that would mean the shell shock is winning. According to my handlers, what I experience on these nights is too deep of sleep. My mind drifts so far from consciousness, it shirks its new responsibility of drawing my each and every breath. This explanation is more actionable than mine, so I go with it. Solution: I do not allow myself to sleep soundly anymore.
God, I miss you.
Eating is the easiest thing to overlook. A year after you, when my handlers finally feel comfortable enough to let me try handling myself, I fail to eat for over a month. This isn’t done out of any direct choice. I never had to be bothered by something as pedantic as feeding myself when I was with you. I don’t notice my unintentional hunger strike until I wake up back in a sterile bed, surrounded by hospital and military uniforms. The lead doctor sticks the long needle of an IV in my arm. I was apparently mere hours from starving to death. A nurse tells me I’m lucky my main handler arrived three days early for our monthly chess game.
Truth be told, I haven’t felt lucky in a very long time.
Other bodily functions are even more troublesome. It’s not that I don’t feel them coming. I just don’t want to break away from whatever it is I’m doing, and my decades with you made me lose the ability to hold it. I’m learning, though. Not fast enough. My handlers put me in diapers to reduce the mess. What’s more embarrassing than a grown man in a diaper because he can’t bring himself to go to the bathroom when he needs to? Me, the star Pilot of the Foreign Legion’s 221st Mechborne, reduced to a diaper-wearing simpleton.
Life was so simple with you.
Basic motor functions are basically gone. I’ve recently graduated to holding cups without assistance. The paper cone ones, mind you, just to be safe. Regular cups are still too dangerous, because now that I’m without you, broken glass can hurt me. Plus, the sound of their shattering pulls the trigger of something deep inside me that doesn’t stop firing for hours. I can’t hold a pencil or strike the keys of a typewriter with any accuracy. I must dictate all my correspondences to this beautiful orderly who has the loveliest handwriting I’ve ever seen. He types twice as fast as I can speak, but I ask him to write as often as he feels up to it, so I can watch my words sprawl out from the tips of his fingers. I make him to bring such beauty into this world.
The artistry we used to make together: my commands; your hands.
My short-term memory is fried. I lose myself in the middle of sentences, the topic of conversation completely forgotten. I ask for a gramophone and some of the Moroccan records I remember from my boyhood days before France conscripted me into the 221st Mechborne. I get a fancy radio set instead, along with the promise that all of the music I could ever want is on the various Parisian stations. I can’t remember any of the dial numbers. My main handler tapes a note to the side of the radio. On it are the numbers for the more popular stations and what plays on them. None of them are labeled ‘marocaine’. She says she penned the list because music has proven beneficial in severe cases of shell shock. It’s a pretty lie. One I let her get away with. In truth, she is tired of walking into my apartment to the chattering gunfire of radio static and me whining on the floor, in the throes of another episode. I forget about the note immediately and start ignoring the radio set. When I want music, I sing to myself. Snatches of songs I recall floating from a gramophone’s horn and filling a house time has nearly erased from my mind. These half-remembered lyrics tremble from my lips as I sit in the wooden rocking chair by the big window overlooking the Pont Neuf and the lazy Seine flowing beneath. I pretend I’m performing a concert for the men, women, and children who are enjoying a stroll across my bridge.
You would sing to me in the most vibrant vibrato every time I wanted a song.
My long-term memory, however, is fine. Too fine, apparently. My main handler loves talking about the War. She’s convinced having me relive my good times with you will help lessen the severity of my bad times with myself. It doesn’t, but I try to humor her. She always avoids Verdun, though. I get curious about her eschewal of the topic, so I sneak a look at my file while she is in the bathroom. It is difficult, but I manage to turn the pages. My first feat of close-to-normal dexterity since you. The 221st is convinced I have no memory of my last deployment. I’m the only Pilot who made it back, so they have no other cases to compare me to. I’ve been willing to talk about anything asked of me. But not once have I come close to mentioning Verdun. I thought my reasons were obvious. My main handler’s working theory is that the trauma I sustained during my extraction was enough to wipe those ten long months from my mind.
How I wish this were true.
At some point in each of our weekly meetings, my handlers ask if I suffer from nightmares. I don’t. As I said, I no longer allow myself the type of sleep needed to get them. Breathing’s more important than dreaming. They should be asking about daytime terrors, which I do have. All the time. A Bentley trundling over cobblestones becomes a German sturmpanzermecha crunching over a collapsed wall. A session of skeet shooting with strangers wearing friendly faces turns into a hail of anti-Mech rounds. A simple trip and fall due to the atrophy still plaguing my legs sends me plummeting down to the fields of Verdun—all turned to mud and muck by the blood soaking them—my body cradled inside an inoperable you. If my handlers won’t ask about these events, then they don’t need to know about them.
But I never kept any secrets from you.
I never ask anything. This isn’t a new development. The 221st Mechborne instills an extreme independence in its Pilots-in-training immediately after conscription. This is meant to make Pilots superior. Put us above all other conscripts who, according to our handlers, whine all the time and ask for everything under the sun. I ask for the first time in my life while sinking in that Verdun ocean of blood. They slice through your body to get at mine. Peel back your hard metal to pry out my soft meat. When I realize they mean to remove me from you, I plead to be left to drown in the steam spraying out of the fatal injuries covering your body. The poilu don’t listen to me. I can’t blame them, though. The medics who pull me away from you are trained to turn off their ears when saving Pilots from their dying Mechs. My breaking of the 221st’s golden rule of no asking is forgiven due to my suffering from ‘severe and acute psychosis brought on by shell shock’. This is how my handlers rationalize my preference of death over being separated from you. Even though they know you and I have spent nearly thirty uninterrupted years together, shell shock is their precious logic they assign to me begging to die alongside you. Because it is curable. Because I will eventually get over it.
They don’t know I still silently beg for the same thing every single day.
My heart stops beating quite often now. This is the most painful of all the changes. It occurs in moments of high concentration: reading a gripping book, playing a particularly tricky match of chess with my main handler, working through the physical fitness examinations the army likes to spring on me. Thinking of you. The doctors call it an arrhythmia. Say I will have it for the rest of my life, or at least until I pair with a new Mech who can bio-regulate me again. Every Pilot who has ever retired from the 221st has developed a similar heart condition. The doctors say it’s natural. And it is. But not in the way they think. They believe our hearts are used to being guided by complex machines and can forget themselves without the aid they have grown accustomed to. That’s too clinical for matters of the heart. I know what’s really happening. A heart can’t beat correctly when a large piece of it has been torn away.
They assign me another Mech today.
German sturmpanzermecha tear up idyllic fields all throughout the Low Countries.
The 221st demands the return of its best Pilot.
This Mech is new, top of the line.
And not you.
Some days I drop what I’m doing and force myself to stop breathing. I stay in this suspended state for as long as I can. It’s surprising how well my body does with no air. Minutes pass. I make it all the way to ten. My lungs grow annoyed, then angry, then desperate. Black spots intrude on my vision. My head swims as if I’ve just swallowed a bottle of fine champagne. An old drinking song gets stuck in my ear. My mind is so set on this task, my heart stops beating. I get so close, but I suck in a ragged breath right before I reach my goal. I want to be smothered by the lack of you, but I am nothing if not a coward without you.
God, I miss you.
D.K. Lawhorn (he/him) has stories that have appeared in Pyre Magazine and Haven Spec, with upcoming pieces in khōréō magazine and a Flame Tree Press’ First Peoples Shared Stories Anthology. He is a citizen of the Monacan Indian Nation and lives on his ancestral land in Virginia with his legion of rescue cats. He is studying Native Speculative Literature at Randolph College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Follow him on Twitter @d_k_lawhorn or visit his website at dklawhorn.com.