The Reserve (Short Story)

A War World Two patrol comes upon an odd part of the forest.

[[Author’s Note: The three books are available at Amazon under my name. The short stories are free and available at Smashwords.com.  I’ve tried to model my short stories in the vein of Ray Bradbury, simple, fun, and unpretentious. In other words, they don’t have meaning, the don’t deal with anyone’s struggle in life, they have nothing to do with social justice, they don’t justify anyone’s anger, and they don’t have an agenda. They are meant to be like a cookie or a cup of tea. a simple moment of pleasure for midday relaxation.]

The Story:

Before the Krauts spot us, my patrol rushes into the fog that crawled up from the marsh. Like an amoeba ingesting prey, it absorbs us.

Its heavy air deadens the sound of weapon fire and wraps us in silence. The vapor thickens. The terrain dissolves into gray, smothering my sense of direction. My balance teeters. My muscles tense, unsure of every step.

I can’t see my feet. To get my bearings, I glance at Sergeant Stowski. He’s suspended in the cloud, his legs bicycling in vapor. It is unnerving.

The mist shoves icy fingers down my collar and chills me to my tailbone, but I put one foot in front of the other, churning like Stowski, only sensing progress when an oak materializes out of the haze and slides past me, its twisted anguished limbs disappearing, leaving me again suspended in dimensionless space.

The fog thins, sliding back toward the swamp. We are in the open, bare as babes to Kraut snipers. Without a word, my men find cover and await my orders.

“Lieutenant, it’s all wrong,” Stowski whispers.

“Yeah, Stow, it is.”

He doesn’t have to explain. He’s got the instincts of a street dog. It keeps him alive. It keeps me alive.

Now I sense danger too.

I shove my helmet up against an oak’s gnarled roots. The sound of grinding and scraping bangs in my ears. Helmet jammed in place, I tilt my head and check out Stowski.

On his belly, he wiggles himself up between the bullet-stopping tubers of another ancient tree. Eyes wide, nose moving back and forth, he’s on alert.

It’s morning, and we’re soaked in mud. Every day we are soaked; soaked sometimes all day and all night. Socks soaked, feet numbed to clubs. Fatigues soaked; wet, itchy, wool underwear are stuck to us and are cold as ice. But the Heinie is out there, waiting to kill us, so we stay down, pressed into the mud.

I raise my fist, signaling the patrol to hold position. Though I don’t see them, their faces pass through my mind. Reynolds grins sarcastically. Brown’s terrified, his eyes wide and dancing over the brush. McWilliams’s lips move in silent curses, but his ears listen for movement. Adams lies on his side, watching to the right, calm and waiting for anything to show so he can kill it. Finally, Rubens, backed up against one of these trees, scans our rear, his rifle swaying left to right and back like a branch in a breeze.

But there is no breeze, no sound. It is dead silent.

Call Cutillo off point, I signal, pressing a fist to my helmet.

Stowski nods and makes a weird sparrow warble that only he can do. Tiny but shrill, it knifes through the haze like a bullet.

I glance about without turning my helmet. My heart bangs against my rib cage, and I think, Hell, my heart’s too loud, the Krauts can hear it. Then I catch myself, Calm down. Calm down.  No jitters, not now.

Stowski peeks around his tree, sticking his head out, daring Heinie to take a shot.

Slowly, so slowly, you wonder if he’s crazy, he pulls back into his oak fortress and shakes his hands, palms up, at me. “Bobby, that ain’t like Cutillo. He hears that whistle, and he’s back in a snap,” Stowski says. “Think he didn’t hear?”

I shake my head. “It’s dead as a graveyard here. If he’s there, he heard.”

“Last I saw, he’s up by that tree.” Stowski points with his rifle barrel. “Had to hear. Want me to send Reynolds to check?”

Stowski runs his finger over his throat like a knife and mouths, “S.S. ambush?”

“Nah,” I whisper back. “We would of heard the tussle.”

“Too quiet, Bobby,” the sergeant says. “Look at these trees. They’re all wrong. We’re in the middle of a war, but no artillery since we moved into the fog. No gun shots neither. Nothing.”

I look up at the trees, medieval oaks, twisted and gnarled. An hour ago, we were in a splintered forest, topless sticks poking out of the earth, pruned by T.O.T., time on target artillery, dozens of shells exploding together in one spot, shredding lumber into mulch, and every other living thing into mush.

These druid oaks here are untouched—not a broken branch, not one twig broken.

“At least one stray shell had to wind up here,” I whisper to myself.

“Yeah, that’s it, that’s what’s wrong. It’s like a reserve or something,” Stowski says and grins. He’d found the words to pin down the wrongness he feels in his gut.

I ponder a second then ask, “We walked through the fog for how long, you think?”

Stowski goes adventurous, like now he is sure there are no Germans, no S.S. ambush, just us, and he pulls himself up out of the roots and pushes his back against the tree.

I know he’s right, but I stay low anyway. One thing war taught me: never trust the obvious.

“Time seems longer in a fog,” he says. “So—an hour?”

“How far do you think we came?”

His shoulders jerk as he expels a perplexed, “Huh?”

I guess, “Maybe a mile?”

“Not even—you move slower in a fog. Ain’t no way we wandered out of the action.” His statement, half question, echoes my thoughts.

“Yeah,” I say. “This front is forty miles long. How does this place go unscarred? Like you said, ‘a reserve—or something.’ Krauts should be here, or have been here, but no sign of ’em, not even a sheet of ass-wipe.”

Stowski stares up at the twisted branches, bare and black against the sky, and then says, “Garden of Eden, maybe? Guess we got lucky, stumbled our way out of the war. Maybe I should celebrate with a smoke.”

“Not yet,” I warn.

He chuckles and scans to his right, still suspicious, still tense.

I thrust my thumb forward and say, “Give Cutillo another whistle.”

We wait, but Cutillo doesn’t come. It makes me edgy. Stowski’s finger slides to his trigger, and he waits for my order.

“Maybe he’s pissin’,” he says. I know it’s a half-hearted lie meant to calm us both.

Then his eyes go dog wild.

Seeing that, I tell him, “Call the men up. I want them in here close—real close.”

Stowski waves his arm in a circle, a signal that will be passed back through the patrol until everyone gets it. Then he juts his chin toward the tree where Cutillo was.

“Hey, Bobby, the fog’s blowing in again. You think it’ll bring the war with it?”

“No—something else.”

I stand up and yell back through the woods, “Everybody get up here! Fast!”

There is not a sound.

I turn to Stowski. He’s gone. His rifle lays there, its barrel against a root. Then I see him stalking forward, a grenade in each hand. He’s intent on something on the ground. It looks like water, but it lifts up and flicks to the right, its tip, jelly-like, takes the form of fingers and gropes a tree root. It forms back into a single tip and whips toward Stowski. It stops a few yards in front of him.

I see another one by the tree where Cutillo disappeared. It slides across the ground, a shimmering pool of gel that stretches another tentacle toward Stowski. He lobs grenades to each, gently, like softballs to six-year-olds, then he races back and presses himself against me and the tree. Inches away, his wolfish eyes gleam into mine.

“We need T.O.T.,” he says.

He yanks my elbow, and we run.

 

 

The End

 

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