At first it appeared that Doug was alone in the room. The sunlight lit the better part of the room, but made the areas untouched by it seem darker still by comparison. There was a chair on either side of a coach which faced the fireplace, which contained a fire, and in the chair that faced away from Doug, he could see a head above the chair’s backing.
Doug walked towards the coach before turning around and facing the figure in the chair. Fearing the worst, Doug was relieved to find the man in the chair did not appear too damaged, at least not noticeably so. There was a certain unevenness to his facial features, a certain tilt to the head that was somewhat disconcerting. His shoulders were covered by a blanket, so that Doug was unsure of what damage might have been hidden underneath.
“George Laderoutte?” Doug asked. Getting no response, he continued. “My name is Doug Slattery. Thank you for meeting with me,” he said, and reached out his hand to shake with the other. But no hand came from the blanket, the unbalanced stare not really telling Doug if the man had even heard or understood him.
Doug sat himself on the edge of the couch closest to the other, trying his best to appear comfortable and genuine. There was something about the appearance of the other that made Doug look away. He found his gaze instead focusing on the mantel above the fireplace, where family pictures were displayed. He saw one that must have been George, only slightly younger and lacking the glasses he now wore. Doug turned his gaze back to the man sitting in front of him, the shadows he was sitting in more pronounced due to the bright fire beside him. Still, the unexplained unevenness of his appearance made Doug’s gaze unable to maintain eye contact for long. He shifted his stare back and forth between the man and the picture of who he had been.
“I’d heard you were in the same battalion as Peter Rothary,” Doug talked, filling the silence the other was unwilling to break. “As you know, his is missing. Anything you could tell us of him would be much appreciated.”
“Peter,” said the other, the voice coming as if through a filter. While his face appeared undamaged, as he spoke the normal facial movements were lacking. He spoke from lips that barely parted, the words somehow formed from somewhere deeper inside him
“You wish to know what happened to Peter,” his voice sounding as though it were coming through a telephone. “There is only one way to know what happened to Peter, what happened to me. What happened to all of us.”
“And what might that be?” asked Doug quietly.
“To know what happened to Peter you must see through Peter’s eyes, experience what he and I and a generation of young men have experienced. You must live in the trenches, you must know war before you can hope to know what happens to the soldier.”
Doug remained quiet for a while, wondering about the best way to approach his next question. But George continued.
“You…you are not much older than I am. Why were you not sent to the trenches?”
“I am an American,” Doug began, knowing that wasn’t an answer. The U.S too, was now at war. But the other did not bother to question his response.
“I do not judge you.” He was perhaps younger than Doug and yet he spoke to him as if an old man to his grandson. “You are better off not knowing. You are better not looking too closely at the truth. You have your health, you have your illusions. Live the life humans are meant to live. Do not go searching for madness, for that is all you will find, madness and death.”
“I am only looking for the truth.”
“Madness and death are the truth,” he said, the words coming out of him as from a dusty tomb. “All else is a façade. We paint over the unpleasantness, it is only natural. Man is not meant to live with the truth, any more than any other animal. We are meant to go through the motions, perform all the duties encoded in our genes. But there are abysses that are never intended for human sight. And when those such as myself are forced to gaze into it, we are not permitted to speak of it.”
“And yet I ask you to. Whatever affect it might have on me is not your responsibility but my own.”
George shifted in his seat, a hand that had been hidden by the blanket now gathered it about him. “My position in the war for a time was as a censor, you know. It was my duty to scan all the correspondence written by the soldiers to their family, to make sure the truth did not make it back to people such as you, who could not have accepted it.”
Doug did not wish to deny the truth George had been forced to see, yet he could not accept the answers he had come to. “Perhaps the truth would have helped put an end to the war.”
“That is what I thought. I couldn’t live with myself anymore, could not live with the idea that I was keeping the truth covered. And so I gave up my position behind the lines and was sent instead to the front lines to fight.
“But I was wrong,” he continued. “The fragile façade was all that mattered, and it has been irreparably shattered. We see now what we are, killers unable to control the machines we have created. We were too smart to be content, and yet not smart enough to grasp what it was we sought.”
“So you say. I do not deny what you have seen, what you have experienced. And yet your perspective is altered by it the way any other person’s perspective is limited by their experience.”
“If you had such courage you would have been to the front and seen for yourself. Then you might have the right to question me, but you would not. No one I have ever talked to has come back unchanged.”
Doug had until that time avoided staring too directly at the other. There had been something about him that assaulted his sensibilities. And Doug wished to respect what George had been through. But he made sure now to stare him in the eye, as if to directly confront the dark vision that was truth to him. Doug had not lived through the war, but he had peered deeply into the darkness that was inside of humanity and had survived and perhaps even become stronger because of it. He would not accept the other’s answer, would not look away merely because he feared the answers.
“I do not willingly look into the darkness,” said Doug. “I look for the light, it is only natural to do so. But the light I search for now is somewhere amidst the darkness. You may deny that any such light can exist, but it is my choice to believe otherwise. Will you not help me in finding what it is I seek?”
George unwrapped the blanket from his shoulders and arose from his chair. Doug had been concerned that he had been wounded in the war, was pleased to see he still had his limbs and the use of them. He walked to the mantel place, his back towards Doug. He picked up the picture of himself that sat there, stared at it for a moment as if trying to remind of himself of who it was he once had been. Then he removed his glasses, set them on the mantel, and turned back towards Doug and the sunlight.
Doug did not immediately look at George, looking instead at the glasses sitting on the mantel. It was far more than the glasses that sat on the mantel, and at last Doug understood. They sat in front of the picture of the younger man who wore no glasses. When George had removed his glasses he removed with it a nose, an eye, and part of his cheek. Doug looked now at the man in front of him and saw something he could not understand. How could such damage be done to someone and still permit him to speak? Doug could not put the pieces of the puzzle together, could not see how such a thing could have been created from the remains of what once had been a human face. How could the war have taken it apart in such a fashion? What blueprint were the doctors who operated on him working from when they attempted to reassemble it?
Doug stared without regard or awareness, unable to make sense of what it was he saw. Where before he could not seem to stare directly at the former soldier, now he could not look away.
“You wish to look at the truth. Then let us put aside the lies that try to make the truth more appealing.” The voice still sounded as though it came from elsewhere, but Doug now understood why. How he was able to speak at all was not something Doug could understand. He could not perceive of anything that seemed to be a mouth. “Where is your light in the darkness? What do you see in me that speaks of some deeper truth that is worth scratching beneath the surface?”
“I’m sorry,” said Doug, finally able to avert his gaze.
“It is nothing. It is but the surface, and yet you would wish to look beneath. You would explore the darkness, but you will find nothing.”
“I do not do so lightly. I have questions that need answering. The evil that manifests itself on the battlefields does not end there.”
“I will tell you what I know, but it will do you no good. Sooner or later you will turn your eyes from the truth. I have seen it so often, from men far braver than you, men who were willing to go to war and face their fears. When the war became too great, they looked away, refused to see any further. Something inside them flickered out so that they would not have to deal with the truth.”
“I'll take my chances,” said Doug. “Do you know where Peter Rothary is?”
“He is among those whose mind could no longer endure the light, who live instead in the darkness.”
“What does that mean?”
“He has found himself a bunker inside of himself which provides safety. He has discovered a shelter from reality. The world calls it madness, but they know nothing of it. The doctors who try to heal men up only to return them to war are the mad ones.”