Howdy folks. I have completed day 4 of my personal November writing challenge. It’s a bit of a weird tale about dead folks today, with some dark humor thrown in. It’s a complete story, maybe something I’ll come back to and expand on after November is over. Let me know what you think because, as always, I love getting feedback.
Valkyrie (working title)
By E. W. Morrow
Word Count: 2190
Every time Jackson thought that it might be safe to poke his head over the top of the foxhole another shell would land nearby. Occasionally the explosions were so close that they showered Jackson with dirt and shrapnel. The shelling had been going on for nearly three hours already and it showed no signs of relenting any time soon. Jackson covered his face his hands and did his best to lie even lower in the hole.
The bastards had shelled their own men. As soon as the line had faltered and Jackson’s company had begun to push forward into the valley the first wave of artillery fell from the sky. The initial salvo had been earth shattering and it was only blind, dumb luck that had saved Jackson’s life. His squad had taken point and had pushed ahead after the enemy retreat with extreme speed. Most of the shells landed behind them, squarely in the midst of the rest of the company. As far as Jackson could tell by the rate of fire since that first withering firestorm, the gunners must have lobbed several shells into the air at different angles, timing it just right so that the third shells they fired hit at the same time as the first and second rounds. He’d seen it done before on a test range and had theoretically known about the psychological impact it could have on an enemy force, but living through it was something else entirely. Of course, what it also meant was that the first shells had most likely been fired at the exact moment that the line of infantry faltered, if not slightly before. Jackson, and the rest of 3rd company, had walked right in to the trap.
It was little comfort to know that some of the shells had fallen off target. Jackson saw a few strays land on the men he had just a few heartbeats before been pursuing down the gentle slope on the western edge of the valley. A few strips of charred cloth and some pulpy red bits scattered on the ground were all that was left of most of the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were only maimed. As Jackson rushed back to one of the smoking craters that one of his squad mates was already at and started helping dig it deeper for his fox hole, he heard them screaming in pain and horrified realization. It took them two more salvos to get the hole deep enough to provide adequate cover, and by the time a few more had hit the already blasted landscape, most of the screaming had stopped.
“Pretty lucky we found this hole here, eh Jacky boy?” asked Wilson, the squad mate he’d dug and subsequently shared the foxhole with. “I mean, just lying around. Perfectly good hole. Why would anyone throw away a perfectly good hole?”
Jackson huddled down deeper but kept his mouth shut. He refrained from answering the man for two reasons. Firstly, because he had never understood gallows humor, especially not during an engagement. There was nothing amusing about the situation and he couldn’t bring himself to play along.
And second, because Private First Class Wilson Whitman had died three hours ago.
Just before the hole was complete a shell had landed nearby. Jackson had been shielded from the worst of the blast by Wilson’s body. Lucky for Jackson. Wilson had keeled over and rolled down into the nearly finished hole, a twisted and charred scrap of metal protruding from the base of his skull and smoking slightly.
“Hey, Jacky, you know any good jokes about holes?”
“No, Wilson, I don’t,” Jackson shouted over a fresh wave of explosions.
“Oh,” Wilson said in the same cheery voice he’d been using for the last several hours. “That sucks. Hey, what do you think they’re gonna do with us when we get back?”
“I don’t know, Wilson. Please just stop talking.” Jackson was growing very tired of listening to the dead man speak.
“I mean, there can’t be much of us left out here, right? So, like, does that mean we just get shipped out to some other company that needs more bodies?”
“That’s a very poor choice of words, Wilson.”
“True.” said Wilson. For a second he almost sounded a little sad, but then he seemed to recover and went on talking. “I hope we don’t get sent back to base and forgotten about. They’d have us doing latrine duty for the rest of the war. I need more latrine duty like I need another hole in my head. Hehe.”
Jackson whimpered slightly as he shoved his face into the dirt. He wondered, not for the first time that day, if he’d been wrong all along. Maybe it hadn’t been Wilson who’d been killed by the blast, but him. Maybe he was dead and this was Hell: sitting in a fox hole, trapped by artillery fire for all eternity, forced to listen to the body of his very dead squad mate make lame jokes about holes. Exhaustion rose over him like a wave of molasses, slow, sticky, and suffocating. Jackson closed his heavy eyes and tried to block out the sounds of the explosions. And then he blacked out.
It wasn’t really sleep, because when he awoke several hours later he didn’t feel like he had rested at all. His brain had merely shut itself down. The sky was dark now. Not dark like before, from the columns of smoke and dust that had risen during the shelling, but properly dark due to a lack of sun entirely. The sounds of shelling had stopped and the silence of the crisp night air seemed as fragile as glass. Apart from himself, the fox hole was empty. Wilson’s body was gone.
Jackson poked his head up over the lip of the foxhole and surveyed the area around him. It was almost pitch black, but there was a faint shimmer of light from the moonlight that was edging it’s way past a cloud that had drifted in front of the Moon itself. The same stillness that lingered in the air had draped itself over the landscape. No wind buffeted the hill side, no pebbles shifted in the craters. No animals skittered over the ground or flew through the air. Jackson found that to be the strangest thing of all. He’d seen the aftermath of enough battles to know that this place should be teaming with scavengers by now. Crows and feral dogs at least. Judging by the fact that none of the craters were still smoking, the shelling had ended some time ago. Probably as night fell, but maybe just after he’d lost consciousness. But the hillside was as still and quiet as a photograph.
As he stared at the landscape Jackson suddenly realized he was feeling very dizzy. Reeling from sudden vertigo and weak from the days events and the sapping chill of the knight air Jackson staggered to his fox hole and sat on it’s edge, letting his feet rest on the bottom. Now that he was in no danger of falling over where he stood he took a moment to listen to what his body was telling him.
His arms and back were incredibly sore. No surprise after the frantic digging followed by several hours lying in a fetal position in the dirt. His legs were almost completely numb. That was unsettling but at least they didn’t hurt. What was really bothering him now was the slight dizzy sensation he was feeling. The vertigo had solidified into a mass of tension and pain in the front of his head. It was one of the worst headaches he’d had in a long time and it was actually interfering with his ability to accurately perceive the world around him. Everything was slightly out of focus and had a stretched or distorted quality about it. Objects looked superficially normal, but somehow seemed farther away than they actually were. He tried to close his eyes but that only made it worse. He got lost in the black gulf of space between his eyes and his eye lids. He wanted to hurl but his stomach was painfully empty.
As he opened his eyes again the moon came out from behind it’s cloud. It was almost full and the silvery light it shone down added new depth to the darkness around him. Now there were shadows that took on suggestive shapes if not looked at directly. Jackson couldn’t stop thinking about Wilson’s missing body and how easily he could be out there in one of those shadows. He kept throwing glances over his shoulder as he waited for his headache to go away.
And that’s how he managed to be taken completely by surprise by the appearance of the truck. One moment the hillside was empty except for him and a bunch of holes, and then Jackson glanced back over his shoulder briefly, and when he turned around the truck was there. It was a huge, battered vehicle painted in the drab olive most military vehicles seemed to be. The bed of the truck was about twelve feet long and above it arched metal rods like some giant rib cage. Apparently the truck bed could be outfitted with some sort of canopy but was left bare tonight. Bare, but not empty.
Packed in to the back of the transport were men. Or what had once been men. They had been soldiers. Most of them looked like they had been in the enemy force that had broken rank and been gunned down just before the artillery strike began, but as Jackson watched new figures came in to view and increasingly they wore the same uniforms that Jackson did. They formed a meandering line at the back of the truck and clambered in one after another. Some of the soldiers looked relatively unscathed, with only a few patches of blood marking them as the recently deceased, but the greater in number were the less whole. Men who had lost limbs in the shelling picked their way slowly forward, often carrying what remained of whatever limbs they’d lost. Jackson saw a charred figure clawing it’s way out of one of the craters close by him. Ropy entrails still glistening with blood trailed behind the figure as it crawled forward. Jackson felt something brush his side and nearly died of fright when he looked down and saw a severed arm inching its way past his hole.
Through it all the nagging, unpleasant sensation of skewed proportion reigned. Everything seemed like it was happening so much farther away than it possibly could have been. His temples and sinuses throbbed and he had begun to hear a faint sound he could hardly describe. It was like the loudest sound he could imagine heard from the greatest possible distance, like standing on a mountain and listening to the ocean, given voice, roaring in bestial fury. It was primal. Elemental. Hungry.
“It’s okay,” came a sudden voice behind him. Jackson jumped in fright and tried to stand but his legs gave way and he tumbled into his fox hole. When he turned around he saw the grinning face of Wilson Whitman. He looked pale but genuinely happy.
“I get what happened now,” he said as he chuckled at Jackson. “I just couldn’t face it before.”
“Pro…probably because it…it hit you in the back of the head.” Jackson stammered. Wilson gave a roar of laughter.
“See, you do have a sense of humor after all.” Wilson reached back and scratched his head, feeling the shrapnel sticking out from his skull. “Well, at least it was quick. Didn’t feel a thing.”
“What’s happening?” Jackson asked.
“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t be seeing this.” Wilson said. “Guess you got so close to dying today you’re just more open right now.”
“Yeah. Just…open. To everything. Reality, the universe, all that shit.”
“But wha…” Jackson began.
“Big battle like this, lots of dead guys, you can’t expect them just to haul us away on horseback, can ya?”
“Guess you’d call them…..oh, what’s the word. Valkyries? Yeah, I think that’s right.”
“But…” Jackson was interrupted by the sound of a blaring car horn. Wilson looked over to the truck and wave.
“Look, Jacky boy, I gotta go. You’re a good guy. Just…lighten up a bit and you’ll do fine.”
And with that, Wilson made his way over to the transport, hoisted himself into the bed with the other soldiers, and took his seat. He waved to Jackson one final time as the truck turned around and started driving away. Jackson barely even registered the fact that it didn’t swerve around the craters but just seemed to float right over them. A few more trucks wheeled into view and fell in line behind the first, creating a caravan of the dead driving up the hill. Jackson watched the tail lights for a while and then, as suddenly as they had appeared, they were gone. Jackson sank back down into his hole and slept until the sun rose and then made his way back toward friendly territory.