Category Archives: War

Steve

DAMN! THE OCEAN…coming up fast!

Steve grabbed a few belongings from the side tray and stuffed them into the pockets of his flight jacket. He barely had time, but that picture of Lisa…how silly to think of anything but survival now! His jet plummeted toward the ocean. Eight hundred feet, six…

One minute before, the enemy round that took his jet out of the sky had made a round hole in two parts of his cockpit, drove through his helmet and creased him at the hairline. Way too close! Blood immediately began to run down both sides of his head followed by shock and pain!

Bastard scalped me.

No more time! He hit the eject button. The cockpit blew away and his breath whipped out of his body as the bomb they put under the seat kicked his ride up two G’s.

He blacked out but came out of it quick. Thank God the hatch had gone the other way. Steve didn’t like the idea of a broken neck.

The seat dropped away and his chute billowed, caught screaming air. It pulled him up with a jerk just in time. He crashed into the salty water and bellowed.

“GODDAMN THAT HURT!”

Wrong choice. His mouth filled with water. He gagged and coughed. He opened his eyes now. It couldn’t get any worse, right? Salt water stung but the blood leached away and he began to get a hazy picture. Island off to the left as he came down.

“Where?” Somehow the sound of his voice gave strange comfort, made things real.

He looked around as the shroud settled over him into the water. Kicking told him he was a hurtin’ unit, but luckily nothing major broke. Then another sharp pain!

“Damn!” Finger or wrist on left.

He pulled on the shroud cables with his right hand and got out from under. Treading water, he yanked the cord on his life jacket, which obligingly filled with air. Better. Now he turned in a circle until he could occasionally see a green top appear and disappear in the chop. Then he looked at the sky. Clear. He’d been low on gas.

Probably the same for his airborne enemy, he thought.

Situation serious but not urgent. The islands nearby were uninhabited according to his earlier briefing. Hope the Commander kept track on radar. They’d know when they lost him. Would they send a search party? Probably not right away. Navy Lieutenant Commander Steve Greco guessed Admiral Maynard had orders to beat feet, get his carrier the hell out of there. Still, they’d check back as soon as they found relative safety. They’d send low level recon when they could.

“Meanwhile, Stevie baby, it’s you and the elements.”

He judged he had about a half mile to swim. He’d have to be real careful of the coral breakers. All these islands had them. Coral had to live, too. And sharks. And octopi. His survival manual said warm waters were well occupied. He’d have company, all right.

His head cleared rapidly. Blood would draw the varmints and he didn’t fancy becoming a meal. That would spoil his whole day, not like it wasn’t screwed up enough already. How many guys drop forty million in the ocean?

“Okay, Steve, you made them pay. You got two of them suckers before they ganged up on you. Two for one.”

The “why me” thing didn’t work. Stretch and Charlie coulda taken it same as him. Hope they got away. He’d had no time to look for them.

“Swim, you moron. You like being in a puddle of blood?”

He ducked under, now that he could see. The salt ocean didn’t hurt like it did before. Either numb or body compensating. Looking around carefully he didn’t see anything near, but the experts said sharks can smell blood two miles away. They’d be coming.

He disconnected the harness and buoyed by his life jacket, swam tentatively toward the white foam he could see at the top of an occasional swell.

A strong swimmer, Steve paced himself, gradually moving toward the surf. He found it tough to swim with flight boots, but he gave no thought to dropping them. He’d need them over the reef, and walking barefoot in the sand sounded nice, but not inland. Fine way to pick up something like snakebite or a disease. Instructional vids at the ship showed jungle rot’s not nice, either.

The sun dropped low over the horizon. He squinted. Still two hours before it would get antsy. Plenty of time! He ducked under again and peered around. Did he see a shadow to the right? He looked and looked while treading water. He couldn’t be sure.

Another half hour. He hadn’t been attacked. A wary shark? Nah, no such thing.

Swimming stronger now, Steve began to feel cross currents. The reef, very close. He had to find a sluice way. He cut to the left. After five minutes he thought he saw it. Narrow and fast. Not much depth. Beggars can’t be choosy. He inched up on it, tested limbs and endurance. He wished he’d cut away part of the parachute to wrap around his flight gloves for extra protection.

“Dumb, Stevie!” His brain worked okay now but he still railed at his earlier stupidity.

There! The waves beat back and forth over it like a saw blade. Steve put his body in the middle of the sluice and when he got that extra push from what he knew to be the proverbial “seventh wave” he pushed with all his might. He kept an eye on the coral below. Over! Get over! Watch out! He tried to grasp the coral on any nub he could see and watched for spines. The sea urchins in this island chain were poisonous.

Razor sharp coral ripped at the flight jacket. Buffeted by changing currents, his gloved fingers tore away from the targets his hands sought more than once. He couldn’t ignore the pain in that finger, either and he couldn’t look too closely just yet. He’d rather hope that no bone stuck through the skin and find out later.

Ahh! Deeper water. He swam through, ignoring the pain. Multi-colored fish scattered when they perceived the invader. He made directly for the shore, three hundred feet away. Ten minutes later he arrived, dragged his body onto the sand and gratefully collapsed. At the moment he couldn’t care less if natives surrounded him.

Ragged breath, raw throat. Salt water didn’t help. Not exactly a triumphant entrance, but he’d landed.

Minutes later, after his pulse slowed and he’d caught up to his breathing, he got onto his knees and looked around. Small island, maybe twenty-five acres from what he could see. Rounded green top. At least it had a little elevation. Not bad. Might be longer, he couldn’t remember from the maps. He’d find out. The greenery looked promising. Might be banana trees, mangoes or papayas. Plenty of tropical palms.

Steve inspected the beach. No footprints. Did he think there would be? Just as well. The commander who’d done the pre-flight briefing said that weather in the area had been stable pretty near forever and that it would continue that way. What, exactly, would he think?

They called it Doldrums. Funny how the word seemed to fit the place. Doldrums…dulldrums…ho-hum… There’d be weather either side of ten degrees north and south, but it couldn’t decide what to do here.

He smiled. Astronomy had been his childhood predilection. With that came knowledge of the Earth and how it fit into the cosmos. He remembered it all, Coriolis force, weather patterns, they way things spun in the north being opposite from those in the south and the equator being the dividing line. Had to be a line somewhere.

Storms would be rare or nonexistent where he’d crashed. Gravity did it all and speaking of gravity, he’d better get started finding some food or he’d starve to death.

Steve didn’t want that. He’d just spent half a day surviving. He didn’t want to ruin his record.

Moving initially caused him to reassess his condition. Knocked down and dragged out fit best. Unfortunately, for life to go on until the U. S. Navy found and returned him to the pleasures of non-combat required that he discover a way to stay alive.

“Succinct. Guess my brain’s okay.”

He removed his helmet. He felt his head for the first time since he’d arrived.

“Ow!”

How could something so numb as his head felt suddenly become all nerve endings? Okay, major loss of skin. A nice crease started above his left ear and dug in. A new part? Not sure he liked that. Salt water had helped stop the blood, that and his natural hemoglobin, but he needed his first aid kit.

He felt his side. Blood, oozing, slowing. He unzipped his pants and pulled them down. Open wound, thankfully superficial. He left it uncovered.

Reason having returned along with some strength, he unzipped a left lower pocket and removed his first aid kit. He peeled away the plastic seal and dove into the contents. Holding the kit with thumb and first finger he went about bandaging his broken left third finger.

Everything had survived. He decided, how lucky. Steve patched his injured parts over the next twenty minutes, being particularly careful with the antibiotic ointment. He finished with gauze and bandage strips, checked his inventory and put everything carefully away.

His waterproof watch said twenty-one hundred hours. The huge red sun sat on the horizon. It would disappear soon. With what light he had left he made his way to the tree line. The nearby palms had no coconuts. Maybe in the interior?

Steve kept his eyes open and stayed wary. He penetrated about one hundred yards, saw no wildlife, discovered a stand of date palms and decided that now he needed rest and he’d better get it on the beach.

Before leaving the tiny jungle he picked up a few short sticks and dumped them where he planned to settle for the night. Arranging them like a tripod, he undressed to his skivvies and tee shirt. His clothes were still wet, but he wouldn’t strip down before he felt relatively safe, like now. He laid them over the sticks to dry.

In a right pocket he found a soggy energy bar. He spent inordinate time devouring it.

Supper over, Steve settled down at his spot ten feet from the tree line and twenty feet from the ocean. Finally, he laid his side arm next to his body within hands reach and allowed exhaustion to overcome him. Tomorrow would take care of itself.

His last thought was of Lisa.

The End

I PUSHED THROUGH the thinnest part of the brush, unaware of what loomed ahead. I couldn’t see more than a few feet, but right after I parted the last of it I saw the house. It blended into the background. It surprised me. I’d found an intact structure, a two story affair with a peak roof. Covered with green painted clapboards the identical shade of the greenery surrounding it made the owners’ intention clear.

I eyeballed the place for several minutes before moving. It appeared no one had been in the house for a long time. It stood alone in overgrown forest miles from anywhere. The narrow strip of waist high lawn surrounding the place lent credence to its sense of privacy. From where I stood, no paths led to it.

I muttered under my breath, “But what about the other side?”

I’d taken to quiet conversation in the past two years, ever since I realized how few peopled the Earth after the war. How did I know? Hundreds of miles of walking with few encounters, that’s how.

Occasionally I saw a person at great distance bumbling crazily, mindlessly, through overgrown vegetation, sick with radiation plague, on the verge of death. Other encounters had come out well for me, so far.

I discovered I needed to hear my voice. I needed humanity, in other words,  me.

So I talked to myself. Sure I got depressed. Who wouldn’t? Survival instinct be damned, accepting the challenge of staying alive kept me going on. Whenever I closed my eyes to get needed sleep and opened them at some later time, I counted it as success.

Hope? I had little. I thought maybe someday I would have a reason to and I couldn’t have any—dead.

Right after the hostilities stopped, the bombs having wiped away the seats of government, leaving a decimated and rudderless remnant of the population to survive or die; no one to care, the rule of law became survival of the fittest. It required cunning, the ability to hide and the ability to act fast. To overcome without the niceties of a rule book kept the remainder alive…maybe.

The other thing, those who initially saw only horror and deprivation ahead chose suicide. The coward’s way out? I don’t think so. They made a choice. What they knew, the comfort of their lives disastrously yanked from them left them facing a hard, maybe impossible life and the promise of death from any corner, radiation, wild gangs of men and women trying to create individual power bases, the lone wolf like me; not a pretty picture.

With wide swaths of America and its enemies destroyed directly by titanic blasts, clouds of radiation moved across populated areas west to east, jumping continents, poisoning everything, what reason would many have to continue. Millions must have made that choice in the weeks after the bombs stopped raining from the sky.

“I don’t blame them,” I said in sound that didn’t carry much beyond my lips.

I approached the house with caution. One never knew in the latter day devastation what anyone would find and often things were not as they seemed. A few sane ones lived. They’d become predators and killers. The law of the land? Kill or be killed. Most were soldiers like me, probably a few hunters or other clever people who had picked up on the coming war and prepared to live off the land. No compunction about murder, any of them. Them or me, like I said.

The two story structure appeared much older close up than from a distance. With the sagging porch and ornate filigreed lattice work also painted the same flat green, clear evidence of post-war painting with purpose, I put it in the 1920’s construction era. It had age, but did not appear damaged beyond its chronology. Unusual, the first one I had come across unburned or otherwise destroyed.

Not being familiar with this part of what used to be Connecticut made it dangerous. I knew a few people still lived and I knew that whoever I came in contact with would try to kill me. I considered me sane, but automatically accepted that anyone I would come across would be insane, either from the sickness I had avoided so far, or from loneliness.

Trained to it, being alone didn’t bother me. I reached inside my worn fatigues and scratched an itch on my chest I didn’t feel good about. The war got rid of all but a few people, but the insect population proliferated. They carried many diseases and didn’t seem bothered by radiation. My med kit almost depleted, I needed to find an antibiotic salve to treat it. Maybe here?

I emoted in a whisper at my thought, “That’s a laugh.”

I approached the green porch and mounted decaying steps. I noticed the front door ajar. I stood to the side and pulled out my cell phone. I held it low so I could see inside by the reflection on its face. No cell service anymore, no infrastructure, no people to talk to, I grimaced at the thought of the use I put it to now.

I could see hardly unexpected shambles. I sniffed the air. No telltale odor that shouldn’t be there. I took a step in and pasted my body against the inside of the outer wall. Think defense, always defense. I’d stayed alive that way.

Acclimating my eyes to the darkness, I inspected the interior. I could see that someone had lived in it recently. It put me further on guard. I reached down to grab my five cell flashlight. The batteries had died months ago, but it made a great bludgeon.

Almost too late I caught a flicker of movement to my right. Clever, the man, holding his breath, now came at me. I didn’t have time to raise the flashlight, so I brought it up from my belt position hard and caught the man under his chin.

Not good enough! His desperate roundhouse caught the side of my head and we both went down. My eyes tunneled and blackness appeared around the edges. The man had powerful arms and snatched for my flashlight. If he could wrest it from me, it might be all over. I kept the heavy thing for a brain buster. I twisted and he missed his grab.

We rolled over and he got on top of me. His hands reached for my throat. One chance! I brought up the flashlight again, but the savvy man released a hand and knocked it away. Up for grabs, he went after it. That gave me a second chance. I shook the cobwebs out of my head, lunged over the top of him and pummeled his back, neck and head as my closing argument.

He stopped moving, momentarily stunned. I retrieved my flashlight and bashed in his brains. When I got my thought processes back to normal I knew he would be alone. The kill or be killed world demanded it.

I wiped the blood and brain matter on my flashlight off on his clothing. Now to check out the house. I went through it systematically. I found nothing of value until I descended the rickety stairs to the cellar.

Rummaging through piles of discard, I found a book. Wrapped in plastic and preserved from whoever else had gone through here and buried deep, the family Bible contained a sheet of paper with the names of the owner, his wife and the names of his children. At the bottom of the page I read its one cryptic handwritten note, dated January 26, 2031, eighteen months after the war ended.

It said, “We are leaving this Earth. You will find the cemetery plot in the woods behind the house. My final duty to my family is to send them to God. You will find me on the ground above. We have witnessed the end of civilization and expect the end of all human life. It goes back to the bugs. They will survive. Maybe in ten million years, another intelligent race will appear. It will know nothing of us and the mess we made of the world through greed, corruption and self-interest. Although we believed deeply, this book did not help. The lessons it taught were not learned.”

At the bottom of the page in flowing cursive…it seemed an afterthought, i read, “The height of my folly is a belief that someone would find these words and read them and be moved by them.”

“I read them,” I told the book. I pocketed it. I found the cemetery and the bones of the owner. I gazed at the scene for a time…and then I moved on.

Where? Didn’t matter.

Requiem for America

I REMOVE MY glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash outlines my little cellar window. I’m on the edge of my seat watching TV in my basement. My wife is upstairs, probably sleeping. Did I care?

The dazzling light comes through the sunken window-well from outside through bars I welded onto the metal frame to discourage burglars. They outline the other side of the room with surreal, distorted shadows. What the hell?

As I begin to panic my mind reviews why I put the bars in. My area of town hasn’t had a problem in years, but an ounce of prevention never hurts.

This picture of Marge blows into my face and I hear her say, “Cover it with a privacy curtain. I don’t want to look at bars.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it,” I grumble, but I only finished the room two weeks before and I by God want a break. So I don’t get around to it. She goes away fuming.

By reflex, I dive for the floor while my brain is still in its blame scenario. You want it done quicker; I think at her maliciously, I’ll show you where I keep the screwdriver and the screws. Put it up yourself.

She’s been pissing me off lately. I know I have an old rod that’d work in that spot in the workroom someplace. Damned if I want to spend any more money on this project and I don’t feel appreciated, so she wants me to do it, she can wait!

The incredibly brilliant flash twists my reason around. I wish I’d done what she asked.

Lately I go down cellar to watch TV at the end of my shift.  Better than sitting upstairs to stony silence. Tonight I sit in my recliner all antsy watching bad news on TV get worse, my third vodka martini all but forgotten.

Bad news, lousy political climate, fear abounding, but no warning? Could our government be that lax? I listen to TV politicians, our “intelligent” representatives on their soapboxes scream at each other, half for war, half for appeasement. Overload lights and doubts crash through my brain.

Then this brilliant flash and I know in my soul this is it. It’s here. My God, Armageddon!

What should I expect, maybe a high-pitched whistle like the one the phones made when a B-52 bomber penetrated the Soviet air defenses and annihilated Moscow in the movie “Fail Safe?” Maybe a low, ground-shaking wave like an earthquake? Will the house above me disappear in a tornado of manmade destruction seconds from now? Will I look up and see a starry sky above me, a huge gaping hole with me at the bottom, hands over my head, my house, my wife, my children atomized above me? Will I start to glow?

It didn’t happen.

I struggle to get to my feet and then I guess I woke up, because my eyes open and I am sitting where I’d been since I got home, slouched on my easy chair. Must have dosed off. Only a dream? Liquor befuddled my brain again. I do a self-assessment.

Gotta drink less in the evening after work. Yeah, my stinking job, hated it. The thought comes with that acid, pit of the stomach feeling. My corporate job evaporated. Downsized; nice word. I’d like to upsize them! Good money gone, no prospects, played the job market for months; nothing. Finally I took this job I got.

Nobody in his right mind would deliver pizza for a living; maybe a high school kid who needed some jingle to impress the chicks, maybe that, but not me, forty-eight years old with one foot on a financial banana peel.

“So you could stop buying the booze, right, Frank?” she said during one of our recent heated arguments.

Uh-uh, not that. Gotta have something. Oh, jeez, twelve-thirty. In that moment the local TV station, WGJD went off the air. The color bar came up and audio went to hiss. Marge didn’t wake me up for bed again.

Tonight I can relate. I lost a really good job and if people don’t think losing your level of living based on a big paycheck doesn’t cause strain in the family, I can tell you, it does.

Feeling contrite after my dream I move slowly to the stairs. We have an extended ranch style house. I like living all on one floor except for the room downstairs I just cobbled together, but there’s a cellar stair that creaks pretty good. With the bedroom close to the cellar stairs the sound could wake Marge. Have to fix that, one day. Anyway, I avoid the squeak by stepping on the outside edge of the stair and climb carefully the rest of the way and tiptoe into the bedroom.

The state of our relationship is evident. Marge left me plenty of room in our king-sized bed. She’s asleep over near the edge, like she could fall off if she moved wrong. I get the message and it brings me back totally sober.

I have to do something soon or this marriage will dissolve like my job and deep down I don’t want that. I love her. The strain worked its nasty magic on us. I knew it in my more lucid moments, but delivering pizza? My God, how far down I’d come!

I look at her sleeping form, the mound of her hip and the gentle slope of her legs under the covers, the slight bulge made by her small feet. Our sex life went down the toilet a couple of months ago after I announced that I had to take something, anything, that we couldn’t survive on nothing and my unemployment checks were about to stop. I tried to make working for Pizza Hut sound like an opportunity, but she saw through it as quick as I did.

I crawl in, trying not to shake the bed and resolving that I would somehow get better work. I need it for me, too. I’d married late. We still had two at home, Justin, the fifteen year old and Mark, our late love child, only nine. I owe it to them, and yeah, I owe it to Marge, too. She stuck by me through thick and thin. We had some rough shoals to cross, but we crossed them together. I warm the hollow I made under the covers and go to sleep.

We live in the nice suburb of Alington outside of Cliffside Park in New Jersey, a river and a stone’s throw across from that fat target, Manhattan Island.

I don’t live far from work and in the morning I have nothing to do. Marge makes breakfast quietly and avoids any more blowups. I sit at the table and just as quietly thank her for it. Work doesn’t start until eleven.

I turn on the TV in the living room and the events that caused my dream the night before come crowding back. I hear Senator Pacifier and Congressman Inflamer’s words being rehashed over the news. The professional newscaster reporting the news doesn’t look nervous. I have to admire that, but I’d bet the two nickels in my pocket that behind his eyes he fears like I do, like most of us.

From the news and the stuff coming out of Nigeragua-the corrupt African country that announced a year ago it had the bomb and a nice delivery system, thanks to some fifty surplus ICBM’s the Russians willingly sold them thinking they’d never be able to use them and no skin off their nose, anyway-it sounded like the hawk had the upper hand.

The Africans had a lot of support in America for obvious reasons. Thinking about it, I also detected a bit of black pride on the streets lately, too, more than usual. Most African Americans didn’t get that if push came to shove and Nigeragua shoved first, they’d suffer right along with the rest of us.

The world seemed to be heading into another mess, with the U. S. bullying and threatening and posturing. This time the Nigeraguans wouldn’t back down. Matter of fact, the announcer just said something new. I concentrated on his words; Washington had received an ultimatum and the Executive and Pentagon were studying it in closed session. He said an announcement from Fred Dingle; the President’s press secretary would be forthcoming.

A chill crawls down my back.  A dream’s a dream, but this sounds too real. I’ll fight if I have to. I’ll fight to the last for my kids and for Marge, but the TV brought possibilities into my home I never thought I’d have to face, right here, right now.

How do you fight an atomic bomb? How do you do that? I wouldn’t think for a minute that if a hydrogen bomb exploded over the Empire State Building we wouldn’t be seriously affected across the Hudson. Are you kidding? We’d be devastated. I mean, for years I enjoyed looking across the river at the bustle of humanity, usually being glad I didn’t have to live so tightly packed, that I had space. Suddenly Manhattan’s way too close.

I go into work and work the day, even get fifty in tips-it helps-and when I get home at eleven, I go right downstairs to watch the night news staff rehash the day’s events. The news, if anything had gotten worse and America’s military had gone on Def-Con 1, which frightened me. The fear I’d held earlier came back. We’re all in a big pickle!

A thought comes to me and I slam my forehead with my palm. I didn’t kiss Marge when I came in. Funny, as I thought about it, I hadn’t done that in a long time. With the internal upset in our lives, I’d stopped. I couldn’t remember when it happened. It comes to me as a revelation. I realize I need her desperately.

I run back upstairs and into the bedroom where she sits up reading, her pillow behind her supported by the headboard.

“Marge?”

She looks up. I feel anguish come into my voice and I have trouble starting. She gazes at me curiously.

“I love you, Marge.”

She stares at me and in a little hurt voice, she says, “What brought that on?”

“America’s going to hell, Marge. I just realized I’ve been responsible for all the crap we’ve been going through I the past few months. I’m so sorry.” Tears leak from the corners of my eyes. I remove my glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash…

Soldier’s Return

I STOOD OFF to the side out of the jumble of people. Dangling from my hand on the Government Issue breakaway chains they gave us, my dog tags jingled flatly. Cheap metal, I thought. I stared at the train.

It stopped to let me off with a few other people and now began to move again, its job done. Now I had to do mine. I had to get a place and find a job. How would I do that? I knew how to kill, but that’s not very useful in civilian life, on the right side of the law, anyway.

Though the only soldier who got off, my GI drabs failed to call me to the attention of others on the platform. People, probably family, greeted those others, threw their arms about them and lead them happily away.

I’d taken my long coat off in the train for comfort and didn’t need it now. It draped from the crook of my left arm. Pretty warm day for two days before Christmas. My duffle bag sat by my feet. I looked down at the hand that held a nine by twelve manila envelope. In it fourteen pages of material, my DD Form 214, discharge papers, voucher stubs for transportation and the familiar “Misc.” reflected the sum total of the past eight years of my life, courtesy of the U. S. Government. The few other papers in the miscellaneous category, all military, all-important to them but not to me had mustered me out of the Army. The doctor told me to forget about “Nam.” Oh, sure.

Eight years getting shot at, saving lives, saving my own on numerous “fronts” distilled down to fourteen pages. Didn’t seem like much. A few hours ago some freshly shaved company clerk who still had a job said “Good luck,” but it sounded like “Sayonara, baby!” Twenty-six years old, back in the city of my birth, and for what?

A feeling of dread, the sense of choking on something I couldn’t dislodge lived in me for most of the day. They’d made me into a killing machine. They’d made me very efficient. I had physical scars and more in my head. Four months ago I caught a little shrapnel from a land mine my best buddy took. Superficial for me, killed him.

Charlie, a good man, sharp-eyed and careful…except this time. All it took. Now he’s in Heaven or wherever, in the ground anyway. They pieced him back together and shipped him home so his relatives could cry over him. I cried when it happened, but not for long. Not in a fire fight. No time.

I remember the lieutenant yelling, “Medic!”

After that, a blur. Suddenly someone hit me hard on the shoulder and pushed me to the ground, “Matt, what the hell…?”

I came to my senses and the blur cleared. “I just saw Charlie go up.”

“Yeah,” he said, “We all did. Pull it together!”

I made a conscious effort. After a few moments of lying in the dirt, it came back. Charlie’s gone, gotta go on. Made killing those bastards out ahead of the platoon personal.

I refocused back to the train station, but I couldn’t get the vivid images out of my mind. My release said “CCD. Chronic Clinical Depression.” I knew every word. Medical discharge. What the hell! No use to the government and no use to myself, no use to anybody. I tried to smile but it failed before it reached my lips.

What would I do, now that Uncle Sammy didn’t want his trained killer anymore? I’d gone in right out of high school to avoid the Draft. Thought it would make a difference. It didn’t. I’d make some rank…whoopee! Didn’t help.

If I’d learned anything in high school I’d forgotten it. What would I do? Security guard? Work in a bowling alley? Bet I could wash cars. Only not many places around used people to wash cars anymore. Spray tires, maybe. The thought made me want to retch. I’d tried that a couple of weeks during the summer before I enlisted. The mindless work matched the people around me. No thanks.

Getting a job with the problems I’d brought home would be hard. Mom used to say, “It’ll all work out, Matt. Just put your best face forward.”

Mom died three years ago in the car accident with Dad. No sisters or brothers. Yeah, right, things’ll work out. Sorry, Mom…can’t see it. I hadn’t seen any evidence since I got back in the States that anybody cared about anybody. Couldn’t even figure why I’d come back to my hometown. Any city would do. Got no relatives, no in-laws, no friends, got nothing.

The train station cleared out. A porter loaded his cart with the last of the bags left on the platform, chatting amiably with a young woman dressed in business attire. I saw her glance in my direction. I could have thought her beautiful; certain I would except for my black mood. That took the color out of everything.

I couldn’t seem to move from my spot. I didn’t feel comfortable standing there, but moving seemed a less comfortable alternative. What would I do? I couldn’t stay on the platform. Pretty soon someone would come out of the terminal and ask me to move along or ask me why I stood alone, unmoving. How would I answer?

Finally I dragged my duffle bag to one of those wrought iron and plank chairs that seem to be a permanent fixture in train stations. I sat down, not exhausted, but dejected, done, the end of my road and no clue what next. My brain turned off.

Lost in blackness, I started when a voice spoke softly near my ear.

“Soldier?”

I looked up. The woman who’d glanced at me peered as if trying to read me. I didn’t smile. I couldn’t, but I said, “Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m sorry to bother you. Are you waiting for someone?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Just arrive?”

“Yes.”

She looked at me astutely. “You have no place to go.”

“No.”

After a few moments of deliberation, she said, “It’s going to get cold again tonight. You could use a good meal and some pleasant conversation.”

I left the ball in her court.

Undeterred, she said, “Do you have a place to stay?”

“I’ll find a rooming house somewhere in town.”

“And you have no job waiting, either.” The woman read my thoughts.

“Just discharged.”

“My name is Pat Birch. I am part-time pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church in town. What’s yours?”

Some of the past began to return. “I remember it. Matt Billingsly.”

“Hello, Matt. This evening the congregation is having a potluck sit-down dinner at the church. Would you like to come as my guest? I can’t think of a better way to reintroduce one of America’s soldiers back into society. You might be able to network a little while you’re there, too.”

Who said hope springs eternal. My black mood melted and I began to hope for the first time in so long I couldn’t remember.

“I’d be honored, ma’am. I’d love to,” I said.

Pat hesitated, looked me over again as if seeing me for the first time, and maybe it was like that. Evidently she decided that she liked what she saw, because she said, “There is a rooming house not far from the church. I know that it has at least one room available. Can I offer you a ride there?”

Finally I could smile. Weight came off my shoulders. “Yes, you can. And thank you, more than you can imagine.”

“Follow me, Matt. Merry Christmas, soldier.”

Bubbles

I LEAVE NORFOLK, VA on U.S 13 in an Army truck and head for Cape Charles. In my mind I see the three bridges and two tunnels connecting this magnificent twenty-three-mile feat of highway engineering over and under the Chesapeake Bay ahead of me, scary miles, not for the distance, but because of my mission.

I’m carrying U. S. Government Issue ADY. It’s ten times more explosive than dynamite. I’m talking high grade, kid glove, super volatile stuff.

Every part of the route has been checked out by the Secret Service. Now, I know no commercial truck can carry explosives or other hazardous materials through any tunnel in America. Government says it’s an invitation to terrorists.

I can, though. I’m in the middle of an Army convoy, one cog in a larger wheel. Ahead and behind me serious minded military personnel escort me. They don’t appear scared, but they should be.

Bizarre? Yeah. You read history and you’re going to know that strange things happen, but people mostly forget in the crush of trying to get through their own lives. If it doesn’t touch them or family, it’s not important. Sure, something hits the front page; they’re interested. Who wouldn’t be, but for the most part, it’s business as usual and somebody else can figure it out, put it out or fight it. Know what I mean?

I’m driving a twenty-four foot straight truck, no markings except for the olive drab camouflage paint the Army likes so much. It sure as hell doesn’t say “Explosives” on it, but it’s heavy duty rigged and specially sprung so’s not to catch a pothole hard. I’m to avoid them. Humpty-Dumpty…all the King’s horses…you know?

You’ve seen the movies. Fill a truck like mine up with dynamite and plan out a scene with cameras at different angles and they can use the same scene over and over. The Director says “Action!” and off they go. Some daredevil stuntman starts the truck and at the right moment bails onto a soft air-filled pillow out of camera range and the truck goes on and suddenly there’s this tremendous explosion and the truck disintegrates and there’s fire and commotion and the leading lady faints-you know-and then you hear, “Cut! Print!” and that’s that.

It’s fun for moviegoers-what, they spill their popcorn-but in this convoy you got to know the soldier I can see behind me in my side mirror hanging back as far as his lieutenant will let him.  He doesn’t know anything, but he thinks he knows something.

As for me, Uncle Sam is persuasive. I’m the inventor, the explosives expert who knows this particular nastiness my company sold to the Army. It’s why I got this gig.

We’re going thirty. Colonel tells me it is regulation speed.

Regulation! Good God! All you can think of?

He’s the boss. He’s thinking, GD civilian…are you a MAN! I see it in his eyes.

All they tell me is it’s my job to get the stuff to the new hush-hush site twelve miles over the line south of Oyster today. It has to be today, not tomorrow when I say it’ll be safer, but today.

After that I guess they’ll wipe my memory or something. National Security…? What the hell are they up to?

I’m to cross the bridge, shoot up Lankford Memorial Highway, pick up Seaside Road off Plantation and turn off when the Army tells me. Side roads mostly. Keep the public safe…or in the dark. One of those.

The plan’s easy, but I gotta get there first and I’m sweating it. Here’s why. I told the Army brass that ADY goes through an unstable period forty-eight hours after it’s manufactured. I explained that the mix settles down in about an hour, but that during that hour it heats up and it doesn’t take much to set it off. I say it’s a delayed chemical reconfiguration and once that’s done it’s as good as C-4 until you fire it off. The Colonel doesn’t want to hear it. He looks at me with disdain.

I cough up his words; I hear him say, “We have a schedule. You will drive at thirty miles per hour. You will not deviate. Nothing will happen.”

Thinks he knows more than I do. Well, Colonel Smart-ass, I made this stuff two days ago and guess what? Two days is the same as 48 hours. You knew that. What the hell’s your rush?

Anyway, what’s he care? He’s riding way up front. If the truck goes up, I stop worrying. I stop everything. I sure won’t give a damn about how the Colonel tries to explain it to his superiors. Those silver leafs must suck brain matter from your head.

The first segment of the long complex is fine. We get to South Thimble Island, pass the fishing pier and dive just after the Chesapeake Grill. This part I dread. I don’t like the idea of millions of gallons of water over my head. I keep it at thirty as we head down the ramp. The lights seem dim, but I accommodate quickly. After some eternal moments we’re heading up the ramp and back into the sun.

The second segment is like the first and the three vehicles ahead and behind me seem part of a dream because I’m concentrating and I’m listening and I’m sniffing the air. So far okay. I see the second tunnel ahead. More water over my head coming, but you don’t do explosives if you’re a wimp, so I keep it shut and drive.

I glance at my watch for the fortieth time. Sweat’s pouring off me now. When the long ramp levels out I’m a hundred feet under the damn ocean. I’m trying to think of something pleasant when a hot chemical smell wafts in through the window grate behind me. It’s starting to cook. I want to stop but I don’t dare. First, I’m in the tunnel and second the military has no sense of humor.

I key my radio. Nothing. I try again. Nothing. With a curse I throw the radio on the seat. The road is smooth, but I slow down. Anything could set it off now. Horns begin to blare. The message is keep going. Bastards!

I ease back up to thirty. The up ramp is gradual. I watch for any ripple in the road. I play the wheel gently, like a musician, anima delicato. I’m in third and I don’t care what they say, I’m not going to jolt the truck by changing gears. Let the transmission whine.

Steady…steady… I keep going and see light ahead. Maybe I’ll make it…maybe I will. The smell gets acrid. It’s going critical. There’s one sound I haven’t heard yet. Maybe…

With a sigh of relief, my truck clears the tunnel and I’m in bright sunlight again. Then I hear the hiss. It grows and I know I have ten seconds to live.

To hell with it! I’m Reserve. I have a family. They can keep this chicken Army. I ease to a stop as fast as I can, drop it in neutral, open the door and bolt toward the opposite rail. I dive over it and head for the dark blue water below.

As my feet leave the ground I yell, “It’s gonna BLOW!” I imagine I see open-mouthed soldiers just beginning to grasp the idea that something’s gone as wrong as it can get.

Just as I clear the roadbed heading down, a huge explosion arches over my head. I feel the heat, but I’m not going to incinerate. I’m falling, falling, end for end, trying to remember how skydivers right themselves. I’m fifty, forty…ten feet above the cold water and I’ve got my feet under me. I slam into it and it feels like cement. I go under, deep.

I’ve knocked most of the breath out of me, but I open my eyes and I can see bubbles rising toward the light. In the bubbles I see fish-eye glimpses of my life.

In my moment of panic, I forgot I can’t swim.

Last Day

THEY’D EVACUATED THE office building in Kabul and called Al and me in to disarm the IED. Business as usual, except for the sixty second timer Al accidentally started when he jostled the bomb. Taliban sense of humor. I had to go to work fast at that point.

I’d grabbed my bomb kit and headed out with Al. He’s my second. He drove and could hold a flashlight, but I got the fun job. I assumed my kit had all the issue I’d need. Never assume anything.  I discovered on the scene that I had no tongue depressors left, not the kind of mistake a bomb man’s supposed to make. Sure they told us to hot-foot it out here, but…

Sixty seconds! Sweat ran into my eyes. I had no time to blink. Removing the first three screws took too much time, so I put my screwdriver under the lid and pried up the access door and bent the thin metal up and out of the way.

With seconds left, I grabbed my alternate non-conductor, a ceramic tea cup I’d found nearby. Using pure adrenaline, I jammed it into the cramped space with hysterical force. The bomb’s clock read two seconds.

Zero!

The trigger mechanism clicked. The spring-loaded firing pin snapped toward the bomb’s hot contact. The cup shattered in its own small explosion. For a second I waited for oblivion, but debris from the broken cup stopped the onrushing pin. Now that pieces of my ceramic cup jammed the firing device, I began to hope.

The Taliban had started to distribute these deadly mechanical bombs in the last few months. They looked primitive and we guessed they needed electronics and couldn’t get them from their sources. Earlier the bomb boys captured a similar one that didn’t go off and I’d had a chance to study it or I wouldn’t have gotten close to the one in front of me.

Already my hands sought the inside of the IED to make sure the non-conducting cup’s substance stayed in place to prevent contact. The situation remained deadly dangerous, but maybe we had a chance.

“Quick, Al!” I called to my partner, “Can’t see. Wipe my eyes.”

Al reached up with a cloth and took a nervous but adequate swipe. His flashlight wavered. I didn’t look at him but I visualized his face a ghostly white. I didn’t need a mirror to know about mine. His life and mine were up for grabs and I didn’t figure with my history that we’d be meeting in the same place if we ended up dead.

I gave up on pearly gates long ago, but Al had a good-looking wife and two small tow-headed twin boys and went to church and he didn’t fool around. Couldn’t say the same for me, but we both wanted to live.

Peering into the mickey-mouse ramble of wires and C-4 explosive, I could see how precariously we all hung onto life. The cup had mostly crushed into small, razor sharp shards. Less than a quarter inch thick, the earthenware cup had a glass-like interior and exterior glaze, impervious to wear and dishwasher safe, as the ads say.

I couldn’t work with gloves, too sensitive. Now I needed them. This stuff could cut me and blood conducted electricity. It’s the salt. Bleeding all over the contact could make the bomb go off. Al and I’d be leaving the area in different directions on this side, and we’d never stop on the other.

I could see a flaw in the debris pattern and already the mess had started to compress under the pressure of the firing spring. Our nightmare wasn’t over. I had no time to do anything else, so I reached for a large, sharp piece that ended up in a corner of the box and gingerly felt for its flat surfaces. Got ‘em. Now to force it into the flaw before the firing devise powdered more of the shard that held the two contacts apart. Jabbing downward with force, the piece in my hand slipped and sliced my thumb.

“Oww!”

More frightened than me, Al yelled “What?”

I yanked my hand out. Blood poured freely from the gash. “Give me that rag.”

Al handed it to me. I had to use the bloody hand because of the awkward position. I wrapped the rag around my thumb and two fingers with my left, and then stuck my hand back into the opening to finish the job. There! Better. Life is choices and my brain told me I’d made a good one. Our training included getting the job done the best way possible. Let pain slow me? No option.

The ridiculous thing appeared stable. Now to work out the wiring and make sure the Taliban hadn’t left any more surprises. I knew we couldn’t pull out the detonators in the blocks of C-4. We’d discovered the month before that those clever bearded men would put a contact switch into the plastic mass of the explosive. It would go off if I removed the detonator, no matter how carefully.

We learn the hard way, as we Americans seem to for everything, and learning that particular lesson cost us a couple of good men, friends of mine. We do learn, though and I wouldn’t pull the plug on those babies. There had to be a way. Bomb makers always had a fail-safe, some way they could arm their bombs, but transport them without worry before they laid them out for our soldiers to find.

The wires were multi-colored, just like you see in the movies. However, our Army bomb squad had already discovered that their bomb makers would switch the wire colors to fool us. I played chess. I studied it for a moment and grabbed my wire cutters. I laid out a diagram in my mind, traced it and when the pattern completed itself, reached past two tempting wires and snipped the one below it.

“Okay, Al, let’s get this thing out of here.”

“Good going, Mack,” he said, “I thought…” He stopped.

No point. I knew. “Yeah.”

We hefted the forty-pound object and carried it to our military truck. My mind went to the ravaged land, the fear surrounding every dark place, and how these people who couldn’t go anywhere else could live like they had to.

I sensed darkness in the minds of these war torn peoples. We didn’t belong here. We came at the invitation of the Afghan government, however legitimate that makes it, but we’re invaders just the same. It made sense we’d be hated by most of the population, despite the spin the U. S. Government put on it.

Al got behind the wheel. He started the engine, switched the lights on and headed back toward camp, twenty dangerous miles to go.

“Nicely done, Mack.”

“Keep a sharp eye, Al. War has a way of reaching out, you know?”

“You worry too much.”

“Taliban don’t stay in those little lines we draw.”

“True, but…”

⇔⇔⇔

In a ball of light and fire the IED some nameless insurgent buried in the dark, desolate sandy road exploded. Their truck lifted five feet off the road. Mack and Al were dead before it came down.

War is hell!

The Decision

SHOULD I HELP her or should I move on?

On the spur of the moment, I make the decision. As a human being she doesn’t impress me. Disheveled and dirty, her clothes torn and her face haunted, she lies in the middle of the street, kind of bunched up and folded, like a dirty rag negligently thrown on the ground. She’s moaning and seems in pain.

I look down the dusty city street, if you can call this crummy mud-hut-cement-block-sun-baked place a city. Nothing moves. I can’t rely on that. Snipers live in rubble and I won’t live if I don’t stay sharp-eyed and alert. I squint against the brightness of the noonday sun. Dirt, trash, broken things, bad smells all over, not a nice place to be. I keep my M-16 at ready.

My immediate guess puts her on the short side of the angry mob we’ve been chasing. I’ve seen it before. War is lousy business! Maybe the ghosts of this ancient place are invisibly tugging at her, tugging at us all, playing their serious and silly games. I wonder briefly if she has family, how hurt she is. I wonder how much time I dare take away from the cover of the buildings.

I don’t think much of myself, either, just at this moment, but that’s another story. I might tell it if I come out of this with all parts attached. Being in the Middle East with a company of Army buddies has its comforts. We have each other’s backs. Even though we’re not Marines, it’s Semper Fi all the way.

Yeah, we act and react the same way. It’s something that happens when men are thrown together and have to face an enemy. They get close or they get dead. Some of us get dead anyway and that’s the luck of the draw. God’s will, if you’re a believer. Plain bad luck if you’re not. Doesn’t change a thing. You still get mashed, smashed, hashed, mutilated and rendered like so much meat, or like I say, plain dead! I think death’s a relief, after some of the partial people I’ve seen leave here on the light side of a body bag.

I, like, go away for a moment. I picture me arriving home minus a limb. Suddenly I’m home.

Little Bobby, my kid brother is looking me over and I hear him saying, “What happened, Mike?” and I reply, “Land mine.” And my lip begins to quiver and I feel like I’m going to lose it again, and I turn my head, and I know everyone is watching and I can’t help it and oh damn, why didn’t I die? How can I live, a piece of a person?

 And I lose it and everybody is embarrassed and Dad says, not unkindly, “Son, get through it. Life is worth it, all the same. We’ve got you back and you’ve got your family and you always will…” and he stops because he can see it’s not helping and everyone is wishing they were someplace else, especially me.

 And all the family who were just congratulating me for returning home from Walter-Reed, they start to leave the room because they can’t take it either. My sister Jenn’s got a big heart, but she goes away cursing the government and the enemy and my bad luck and I don’t want to be here. Why can’t I go away? This is so hard!

 I snap back. I’m in Tikrit and I’m in the middle of a dirty street, grid point alpha, and I’ve got to help this woman, this poor casualty of a lousy, stinking war! My company has been ordered to retake it from the insurgents.

Where the hell did these people come from? Don’t they understand? We liberated them from a bad man, a bad ruler, a dictator who built palaces on the backs of its citizens. Yeah, you people out there who are giving us all the trouble, I’m talking to you! Don’t you understand? All we want to do is to go home! Why don’t you be nice and let us go home?

I call back to my corporal, “Get a couple of men and give me a hand with this one. Let’s get her off the street.”

“Okay Sarge. Murphy, Smitty, give us a hand. The rest of you men, stay down!”

We gather around the woman and bend down to help. She looks up at us with hate-filled eyes. Her hand moves under the dirty rag she’s wearing and she does something…

ÛÛÛ

April 24, 2009. An impeccably dressed Major, stiff and erect, rings the doorbell at 560 Whilley Street, New Preston, New York. In a few moments, through the lace-covered oval glass of the door, he sees a curtain draw briefly and fall back. The door unlatches and opens, ever so slowly. Without preamble, the Major says in a modulated but businesslike voice, “Mrs. Emily Granger?”

Taking the Hill

SARGE SAYS GO like hell and keep your head down…think I’m nuts…crawl on my belly like a snake and like it…oh, yeah…me so cocky back at mess…they won’t hit me…I’m too lucky, I told Joe…wonder how he’s making out…I seen him last about fifteen yards to the right…not much cover…shell holes, blasted grape vines…Mom and Dad see me now they’d have a heart attack…bullets screaming over my head and I’m scared shitless…can’t see ‘em but I can hear ‘em…one could have my name on it…the Kaisers horde hopes so…Sarge says I try coming back I’m dead…he’ll shoot me himself…think he means it…Dad didn’t teach me to run…that whine past my ear…bullet spinning…FOOF…I hear it, I’m okay, right…dirt don’t taste good here in French wine country…taste like wine it’d be better…Laurie likes wine, that chardonnay kind…gonna marry that girl I get out in one piece….hold up, John, rifle caught a root…slow and easy, John….that’s right, blink away the sweat and bring your arm back slow…okay, John, you got it…now lay still a sec…breathe…remember what Sarge said, movers are targets…hope the Hun didn’t see me…GI body ten, twelve feet ahead…It’s cover…OUCH…something skinned my butt…I just got shot…ignore it, John, so it burns like hell, don’t go back and feel it…you nuts…want to lose an arm…why not stand up…don’t be an idiot…voice in my head…“Be one with the earth, my son.”…Dad…you there…where’d you come from…don’t distract me, Dad…got this job I got to do…Hun machine gun’s got the high ground, Dad…focus, John…maybe he’ll get interested in somebody else that’s moving…that son of a bitch tried to kill me…bring down the fear, John…fear will kill you quick as a bullet…what am I doing here…is this my war…stupid volunteer, that’s me…my chance to get killed…real brainy…recruiting office, snappy sergeant in clean dress browns, name of…what…Cleaver, yeah, clean shave, piercing eyes, ramrod straight, real poster material, glowing story about patriotic duty; the Hun is coming for America and with my help we’ll stop him…America needs its brave boys to fight for freedom, he says…okay, Sarge, you convinced me; pumped me up…I bought it then; now it looks like I might buy it…don’t think that way, John…don’t be two kinds of an idiot…Laurie, your face…no…stop…please, not here…I’ll fill in behind the dead guy’s butt…I’m gonna look around his upturned boot…gotta do it quick…Ahhg…bullet spatter…dirt in my eyes, too close…blink, John, and leave Laurie home, you want to ever see her again…okay, I’m safe and I’m closer…now breathe and listen hard…wait…shooting stopped…what gives…gun jammed or he’s reloading…I think reloading. I’m gonna bet my life on it…yeah, foxhole up ahead…two dead guys lying out the front…GO…go now, John…move your ass…made it…how far is that gun emplacement…can I use that heft I got pitching for the Red Sox farm team here…no, too far and I get one chance…maybe…Sarge knows about my arm, the bastard…he says…“You toss a grenade, Brayton?”…I say “Yeah, Sarge,”…I tell him before I think…he says “Here’s your chance!” I get stupid for a second…focus…okay, by the numbers…take a quick look and duck…butt burns…damn lucky shot…blood running down my left butt cheek but I’m alive…makes me madder than hell…I want that Hun…where’d that angel on my shoulder come from…“John, you’re about to take a chance, ain’t you?”…goddamn right I am…two more dead soldiers, one piled on top of the other up ahead…they’ll make a good barricade…sorry fellas…another twenty feet there’s a gully…I’ll slide in there…can I make it…yup…that machine gun’s sweeping…time the sweeps, John…okay, company’s crawling up…lots of targets…head down…more spatters…random, not concentrated…okay John, go for it…Dad again, urgent…“Son, wait until the next sweep!”…what’s with the voices in my head…okay, I’m listening…machine fire, not from ahead…what the hell…thanks, Dad…another nest of vipers off right, huh…and a lot closer…I’ll edge up behind the two dead guys and flatten out alongside…they’re target practice for the Hun, but they can’t get any more dead…thank you, guys…I owe you…maybe you’re still helping win this rotten war…that burst from the closer nest just went right over my head…this ain’t in the text books but I’ll pull out two grenades…I got an idea…judging from the position of the crossfire, I’ll time the next swing…okay, I’ve pulled both pins, two iron fistfuls of death…wait for it…wait for it…Dad, what’re you doing back looking over my shoulder…and Laurie’s looking too…you’re both smiling…you wanna watch…okay…first the nest on the right…here you go, you Hun bastards…now the second one, my farm team peg…now eat dirt, John…good, two sharp blasts…message delivered…ah…beautiful silence…think you did it, John…thanks you guys, thanks again for taking the heat for me…now to reconnoiter and dive…yup, got ‘em…okay, fix bayonet, time to clean up, make sure…yell and run like the wind, John, low and fast into the second nest…hey, Yanks, don’t shoot me now…I’m not looking for punctuation from behind…two dead gunners… I’ll use my momentum to check the other one…oh shit…German lieutenant, face covered in blood still alive, raising his sidearm…get him before he gets you, John…YAAA!!!…take twelve inches of cold steel, Hun…wonder if I get a purple heart for getting shot in the ass…that’ll be tough to live down…lookit that…there’s Dad, Laurie, and Mom standing at the lip of the machine gun nest, beaming…they’re proud of me…what’ll I tell the guys…not that…they’ll think I’ve gone stark staring…Chet’ll laugh and say, “C’mon John, you been smoking rope? Gimme some.”…and Sarge, he’ll be thinking of more ways to use me…now ain’t I the cat’s meow…better wave my buddies up the hill…ain’t suppertime yet.

The Assassin

THE MAN IN the dark coat stood in silence. In the darkness his black brimmed hat pulled low and collar arranged high around his neck, they shrouded angular features and ice-cold eyes. Those eyes glinted in a nearby hooded streetlight as they turned to check out a faint sound close by.

Tense but immobile he waited. The sound did not repeat. In the distance, he heard a truck approach. He waited. A searchlight flashed against the close-set buildings and into the narrow alley in which he waited and passed without stopping. The sound faded.

He relaxed and resumed his vigil with a surface thought of disdain for an enemy clearly going through the motions.

Intelligence identified Professor Bergdorf’s location. The man must die tonight. His orders: Kill Burgdorf. Get the plans. Get out of hostile territory. He could do it. He’d already bet his life on it.

He entertained a momentary thought about the link in the chain he represented. A simple act of wartime murder involved countless faceless men and women, each of whose actions within the Allied High Command had brought him to the little town where he must play his part, a part he would play gladly.

Black-gloved hands cupped carefully above his mouth shrouded his watcher’s breath and plumed it safely downward into the neck of his coat to dissipate. It would not produce a telltale cloud in the night chill; Clandestine Operations Manual, Chapter Four.

He stepped from one foot to the other. The motion kept him ready to move in an instant, but to be one with his surroundings he contained all motion within the looseness of his clothing. No local citizen, scurrying home to beat the curfew who might peer into his dark corner would see movement.

The few elite members of his cell knew him only as Red 24. He knew them also by names not their own. In the nature of what they did, they seldom spoke, but when they did, others might hear a comment on his ability to disappear without a sound from within their midst.

They would see him. There would be a distraction. He would be gone. If any humor existed within this macabre group, it would rest on his remarkable talent.

The gabled house across from him held his attention, its roofs and extensions heavy with slate and gray with age. Its diamond shaped leaded glass panes eerily reflected the streetlight. The fitted stone of its walls appeared held together with vines that snaked across its surfaces. No window, save one, gave off a soft light, and he focused on the curtained rectangle.

Quickness, cunning, and an expert twist of the knife would be important later, but patience he needed now. He stood, a waiting statute.

The light in the window went out. Senses heightened, the assassin adjusted his mindset in the blackness.

A door at the end of the building opened slowly. The assassin stopped breathing. The white hair of an elderly man and then his face appeared in the darkness for a long moment. It looked left and right. It searched dark areas. Evidently, the man saw nothing. He came out, locked the door behind him and proceeded onto the narrow laid stone sidewalk. He put his right hand in his coat pocket. In his left hand he held a thin, black leather attaché case. A chain looped loosely from the case and disappeared into the coat’s long sleeve.

Manacled! And the man held a gun. The assassin altered his attack plan.

Burgdorf looked up and down the street and then at his feet for a second as he stepped off the high curb to cross the rough cobblestone.

The assassin used this distraction to pull from his hiding place. He raced forward, soundless, a six-inch blade of razor sharp steel now in his hand. Only feet away, intent on his victim, he didn’t see a spot of oil on the road. His right foot slipped and threw him off balance. A raised cobblestone caught his foot hard, and pain lanced up his leg. His unintended grunt warned the Professor.

Suddenly frightened, Burgdorf spun toward the sound. From his right hand pocket, he yanked out a Luger, swung the gun toward his attacker and fired blindly.

As pain from his ankle exploded into his brain, the assassin desperately twisted to the side. The thunderous report from Burgdorf’s gun reverberated on the walls amidst the tightly packed houses. The bullet whined past his ear.

The assassin regained his balance on his good leg and drove forward, now desperate to prevent a second shot.

As his momentum carried him past, he grabbed the man’s coat collar, and with a violent twist, landed a fist into Bergdorf’s temple. The older man crumpled to the ground. His gun skittered many feet away.

Efficiently, the assassin slit the man’s throat, and then, with no time to search for a key, stomped hard on Bergdorf’s left wrist to break the bones. It took precious seconds to cut through muscle and tendons and to work the sharp American steel past the radius and ulna bones. The man’s hand parted his body and the assassin slipped the metal band from the mangled stump.

Ignoring his shooting pain and with the attaché case in hand, he retrieved the dead man’s gun from the middle of the street and sped away. Landmarks were difficult in the darkness, but the map he’d memorized brought him to the correct alley.

With no time to spare, his eyes still seeing spots from the gun’s flash, he bolted down the narrow cleft between two buildings, trusting that no one had moved a thing since he planned his escape two days before.

Now, with the plans for the new Nazi swept wing bomber in his hands, he became the hunted.

How quickly our positions change, he thought.

The noise of the gunshot brought many awake. The assassin pictured people coming to their darkened windows to look out. The gunshot would soon bring the police and no doubt, the SS. If he could not disappear and return to his side, it would be for nothing.

Recall said he’d reached the fence. He stopped and felt for it. His injured ankle throbbed. There! He touched it. Up and over. Again, he put down pain that arched redly into his brain.

He searched his memory map. Now to go through a park-like area and from there, woods and to the river. A fading quarter moon gave weak light to his surroundings. He did not want light and took advantage of every pool of darkness.

Limping as he ran, but with his imperative clear and his need great, he recalled his first day of training. He’d learned that day that assassins forfeited their lives the day they joined Covert Operations.

“Consider you are dead now,” his trainer said.

The assassin knew. He loved the rush. Them or him. What could be better? A natural killer, he’d found his place in life. Using his consuming hatred for the enemy as his banner, he would hurt the Nazi war machine and keep on hurting it until he met someone faster or smarter.

God, how he loved to gamble!

Dangerous Passage – Chapter II

IN THE DAYS following the Germans annexation of Austria, many landed families found their distaste of the National Socialists turn to fear, as the laws of the land were warped to fit the new Fuhrer’s preconceived notion of his thousand year Reich. Many Germans were willing to march to Hitler’s goose step, seeing in it a way to improve their lot, many times at the expense of fellow Germans and Austrians. A dark pall descended over Europe as Der Fuhrer consolidated his political position.

The Gerber family had been broken up, the father impressed into the Luftwaffe and the children about to be ripped out of their happy life and thrust into a regimented camp where they would be trained as Nazi’s. Long before the father left in a black car with the SS, he decided they must flee over the German Alps into neutral Switzerland. He prepared. He contacted the Mother Superior at the nearby abbey and arranged for his family to make the attempt.

To throw off the SS, Karl Gerber thus sacrificed himself for the good of his family.

Having left St. Stanislaus Abbey as darkness descended, the six Gerber children, under the care of Sister Anastasia, managed to get deep into the foothills. The Sister, relying on years old memory found a hunter’s cabin whose location she knew. She’d been there once as a girl of twelve before she got the Call. Bone tired, they settled down for the night. The October night chill had a winter feel to it.

They could not build a fire. Smoke would advertise their presence. They ate cold food. They stoically bore conditions they had never experienced before. The youngest, Hans, had much trouble getting to sleep. Exhaustion hit them all, but at six, Hans hadn’t developed the stamina of his elder siblings and didn’t truly understand why they had to flee. He dreaded being forced into unnatural surroundings.

Sister Anastasia gave the boy to Greta and admonished her to keep him quiet; that there could be listening ears nearby, that they couldn’t count on only distance from the abbey to feel safe. She told them of dangers they would face on the morrow and said they only differed in character from what they had gone through the previous day.

They found blankets in a chest near the door. Greta took the boy lovingly under her wing and curled up with him under two old blankets. She and Hans got the lower bunk bed. The code of the hills required hunters make certain their cabin remained livable after they vacated it. Honor required it. The nun knew the cabin would be a temporary haven.

The blankets were musty and dusty and they made the twins, Helmut and Karl, sneeze. Sister Anastasia, after peering outside the cabin for a long moment, took the blankets outside and shook them violently. Dust wafted away on a small breeze. She returned the blankets to the twins.

“They won’t smell any better, children, but they shouldn’t make you sneeze again.”

“Danke, Sister Anastasia,” they said.

The two found a corner and huddled close, only their noses showing as they lay down together on a lumpy mattress, there to share the warmth of their bodies. Rikard took nine year old Marta under his wing and snuggled her in the upper bunk of the bed. Sister Anastasia got to sleep in the large rocker someone had left in the cabin years before. With her feet on a broad stool and her blanket wrapped all around, she managed to be comfortable enough.

Before she let them sleep, she made sure they took care of their bodily needs. Finally, she told them what to expect in the morning.

“We must leave before the day becomes light. We must be well up the side of the mountain behind this cabin before I can be certain we aren’t being tracked. Now sleep well, children. We have a long and difficult journey ahead. We can make it. Guten nacht, kindern. Schlaf gut.”

Sister awoke to a scratching sound outside the cabin. Carefully she brought her feet to the floor and went as quietly as possible to the cabin’s one window. The window had an interior wooden security door that covered it in the event of sudden violent storm, typical this close to mountain updrafts. She had latched it before they went to bed so no one could peer in. She wondered if she had become overcautious, but decided that extreme hazards required extreme measures.

The Sister unlatched the door very slowly and peered through the crack. Nothing. She opened it wider. Black as pitch! Suddenly she heard a low growl that became a scream. A cat. Mountain lion. Big one from the sound. She smiled through her fear. It couldn’t get in, but she saw it as a good omen. Mountain lions were leery of Man. It smelled them and it wouldn’t hang around long. It also meant no two-legged predators would be near. She closed the window’s storm door and latched it again.

The noise had waked all five of her charges. Their fear filled voices overflowed the cabin. In a firm voice she told them all was well and they should go back to sleep. To illustrate, she returned to her chair and covered up again. Hans whimpered, but Greta soothed him and the furor died quickly.

Sister Anastasia slept lightly but restfully for two more hours. Perceiving that dawn wasn’t far ahead, she got the children up. She directed the morning meal, praying over it and doling out a large portion.

“For strength,” she said. “Now, take care of your needs. We must leave in zwanzig minuten. We are leaving fall and entering winter. Dress warmly.”

The older children assisted the younger ones in practiced fashion. Sister Anastasia looked them over from head to mountain boots and pronounced them ready. She made certain their snowshoes were lashed tightly to their backpacks. They left the cabin in the first lightening of the day and trudged away. Green fields now faded in behind them in the October morning and dense forested slopes faced them.

Marta and the twins looked back longingly at the hills and again at the cabin as it diminished in the distance and then, resigned, followed along. Greta took the rear of the troupe and Hans stayed back with her. Capable girl, Sister Anastasia thought. Resilience; much needed now.

They passed a high point and descended into a little valley beside a rill. Now bright enough to see their footing without misstep, they moved confidently ahead. Forest enclosed them. They descended another two hundred meters, looking for a place to cross the small stream that had been their company. There they found a wide place where smooth, flat rocks provided stepping-stones and they leapt across it, Marta, Helmut and Karl laughing gaily.

“Children,” Sister Anastasia called sharply, “it is a beautiful day and you feel like romping, but you must save your energy for what is to come. I am sorry to say that, but you must.”

Now they began their long upward climb in earnest, leaving the pure mountain water tumbling in small falls as it disappeared behind them. The Sister called then into a group and told them to search for a sturdy stick they could use as a staff to help their walking.

“I do not wish to cause you fear, kindern,” she said, “but there are wild animals that live in these mountains. We will stay closely together and we shall use these staffs to protect ourselves, too, so choose your stick wisely.”

Hans’ eyes grew large and he pressed against Greta. He looked at his sister for comfort, but Greta chose this moment to be stern.

“Hans, we must protect each other. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Greta.”

“Now find a strong stick and show it to me.”

Hans searched nearby and found one. Greta took it and bent it on her knee. It snapped in half.

“You see, Hans. That stick would not help you. Let me see if we can find one for you.”

Much of the forest was of pine, but a few hardy hardwoods stood nearby and Greta picked up two pieces from the ground that appeared recently blown off by wind. She tested them and gave the short one to Hans. She hefted the longer one and pronounced it good enough. The older children, with Rikard’s help, also found good staffs and soon the six continued on their way.

“Give them to me, children,” Sister Anastasia called. She removed her pack. She took her hunting knife and carefully sharpened each stake.

“Now, use them gently,” she said, “but remember, they can be a weapon if you should need.”

Moving through the trees, sometimes unable to see more than a few feet ahead, now and then sounds startled them. Once they spied a wolf and where they saw one, there would be others. Although it frightened them, no others came near. Sister Anastasia took Rikard’s staff and beat it with hers. The racket she made did not make the wolf go away, rather it seemed curious, but it kept its distance.

As the group climbed deeper it became markedly steeper…and colder. As the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too Hans slowed them down and complained most. Greta did much to cheer him and to get his mind away from the ordeal. Only once did Sister Anastasia intervene with Hans, and that occurred at the crest of a false summit when Hans looked at an even mightier mountain than the one that had just tired him to a point of exhaustion.

“I’m tired. I want to go home,” he said, stubbornly, and he refused to go further.

“Hans,” Sister Anastasia said, “there is no going back.” She shook him gently to gain his full attention, “If you want to live, take another step…and another…and another…and don’t stop.”

Hans started to cry. The Sister enfolded him and held him and soon he quieted. When she held him out in front of her again, he wiped his tears and said, “I’m tired. I want to go home.”

“Home is the way we are going, Hans,” the Sister said. “We are going to a new place and it will be home, you will see. Now, can you be brave like your brothers and sisters?”

Hans pouted, but finally said, “Yes, Sister.”

They encountered snow at the six thousand foot level. Once on an icy slope one of the twins slipped and only quick thinking on Greta’s part stopped him from going over a precipice.

“Jam your staff through the snow pack, Helmut,” she screamed. The boy heard her and turned as he slid. He poked his sharpened stick into the icy snow and it stopped him. They waited in fright while the young boy carefully regained the path they were on. Safe again, they hugged each other and the Sister’s thanked God for sparing Helmut.

As they continued on, the mountain rounded off and with their staffs and snowshoes, they trudged slowly to its crest. Other mountains showed in the distance, and in between two of approximately the same height they saw a narrow pass. This time Sister Anastasia laughed gleefully.

She pointed. “Look, children, the pass!”

They saw a place, a thing they could grasp with their minds, a destination. A weight lifted from the little group. “Beyond that pass is Switzerland?” Rikard asked.

“Yes, Rikard. Another day and we will cross the border. We will walk another hour and in the day’s last light we will build a snow fort to sleep in. We will snuggle together and we will be warm. We have food. We have our health, and we have God. God is good and He will see us through.”

Courage to go on flooded in. They began again, lightly, this time. They made the ordeal an adventure. Hans became quiet. He kept looking ahead as if by doing so he might make the pass come closer through sheer will. Greta’s heart swelled with pride, not only for the strength she saw in the frailty of Hans, but for them all, for a leader who clearly walked a path ordained by God, to the brothers and sisters who helped one another at every turn, to sibling rivalry that had completely disappeared, and to the promise of hope and the promise of a future, a real future in which they could begin to grow again.

And in Greta’s mind she quietly held a thought she had harbored since that moment in the cabin – it seemed so long ago – when she’d held Hans and told him that Papa would find them and they would be a family again. As it was Sister Anastasia’s mission to get them to Switzerland, she made it her charge to reunite the children with their father. She saw God’s plan for her, and she gratefully accepted it.