by Michael Kingswood
The shell landed three feet away from me.
I was crouched—really pressed prone into the dirt with my hands thrown over my head—in my pitiful attempt at a foxhole, but we’d had so little time to get on station and then prepare to repel the oncoming attack that I’d only been able to dig maybe two feet down into the earth. And never mind putting any logs or other overhead cover in place.
So when the bombardment started, I did like the rest of my platoon: hunkered down and covered my vital areas, and prayed that random mischance would treat me well.
Lying there with my nose full of earth, practically tasting the worms and crawlies that made their home deep into soil that was supposed to be used to grow crops, listening to the crump of artillery and mortar shells exploding all around me, feeling the concussion of their detonations through every twist of my intestines as the shockwaves passed over me, and trying not to listen to my friends’ agony as first one then another then a dozen or more within ears reach found their hastily and insufficient shelters no protection against the enemy’s assault, I couldn’t muster even the courage to lift my head.
I just lay there, praying wordlessly, terror driving me to reach out to the Divine despite not having any notion of what I would say to Him even if he deigned to answer.
Time seemed to stand still. Even the pounding of my heart in my ears—somehow louder even than the impacting artillery and the screams all around me—seemed just a continuous rhythm, unconnected to anything except its own existence.
It could have been a minute, an hour, even a day, since the assault began.
Then the shell landed.
I felt its impact as much as heard it. An almost wet thud into the earth in front of me that shuddered through my body like a hammer-blow.
I hadn’t been able to raise my head before, but hearing and feeling that impact, so close, I couldn’t not look up.
The long, aerodynamic shape of the instrument of death just in front of me, its tip buried into the earth that I had so recently tried in vain to craft into a shelter, seemed to laugh at me as I looked at it, wide-eyed in horror as I waited for the explosion that would send me into eternity, to learn whether what they told us in church was true or just a lie to make us feel good about our limited time drawing breath.
But it didn’t go off.
I don’t know how long I lay they, staring at it, expecting it to explode sometime within my next breath.
I heard the shouts around me as the barrage let off and the enemy closed to engage with infantry, and all around me the counter-roars of my comrades as they rose from their meager defenses to meet the attack and throw it back. Again, and again.
It all washed over me, and I knew I should get up to join my brothers in their struggle. But the shape—the deadly, entrancing shape—in front of me would not let me out of its spell.
Some time later, after all the sound and heat and sweat and terror and joy of battle had faded, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
The touch roused me with a violent jerk, and I heard a voice say, “You ok, buddy?”
Then I screamed, and I didn’t stop for a long, long time.
* * * * *
A doctor called it traumatic stress. But everyone else called it shell shock.
No one ever said anything to me about it. No one gave me any sh*t. But when the time came for my unit to receive its commendation for gallantry, having single-handedly repelled the enemy’s main assault against all odds. When the President herself got up behind a lectern and praised us, and then General officers walked down the line to pin the unit commendation on each and every one of our breasts….
When they came to me, I wanted to scream and run, refuse the honor that I knew I hadn’t earned. Everyone else had fought; I hadn’t. I had just lied there, looking at death and…had I welcomed it? I couldn’t remember now. But I hadn’t pitched in.
I should have laughed in the General’s face as he congratulated me, told him that I’m a coward and then left the ranks of better men than me, on all sides.
But when the time came, I remained silent, didn’t respond to the General’s praise. Let him pin the medal on my chest. Then I went back to drink beers with the other surviving members of my platoon that night.
And no one said a word against me.
But I knew they all were thinking it.
How could they not?
* * * * *
Honorable Discharge and a Disability Rating—a pretty good one—and then I was out. Back to “normal” life. Back home.
But home wasn’t home any more. Mom put on too many kid gloves, and Dad…
No one in my platoon ever looked askance at me, or openly thought ill of me. But he did.
He denied it, of course, put a good face on it. But always I could see the judgment, the disappointment. The self-incrimination. His thoughts reverberated through the ether between us: “My son is a coward. What did I do wrong?”
Echoing my own, but more gently. If he only knew.
Time passed, some little bit more or less than I paid attention to. And then I was gone from them again, and feeling the relief of being out from under her smothering and his disapproval.
But then where was I?
One day I looked up at unfamiliar buildings stretching up into the sky all around me, and the question lanced through my brain loudly enough that it broke my focus on the blessed aerodynamics I’d met all those unknown days or minutes before in the foxhole that wasn’t.
Uncertainty forced the shell from my mind, breaking my meditation on its mystery for a full afternoon as I wandered.
Long and aimlessly I walked, through thronging crowds that parted before me without effort. Part of me noticed their looks of discomfort, or pity, or alarm, as I drew near and they saw my state. Smelled it. And hurried to give me easy passage.
I thought to thank them, but just as quickly put that out of my head. Might as well thank the shell for not exploding. But that was just random chance, and anyway why should I be thankful that it didn’t do its job…
A different sort of noise broke through my wandering thoughts and brought me back to focus. I realized I was still in the city—which city I didn’t know—but the crowds that had parted so easily in front of me were thinner now, almost non-existent.
The shadows were growing longer, and I realized the sun was nearing its rest; looked over my shoulder and saw the orange-red glow between two skyscrapers to confirm it.
Then I noted the dilapidated storefronts on either side of the street, every third one boarded up, out of business. And the furtive looks from the people I was passing, and those sitting on porch steps in front of apartment houses.
This was a bad part of town.
But I could have known that by the noise that broke me out of my reverie, even without seeing my surroundings.
A sharp crack, loud and quick, that lanced through the deepening gloom and into my ears like a javelin hurled by Hercules.
It brought me up short, made me come up to my full height, every hair on my body seeming to stand on end as a rush of adrenalin poured into my bloodstream.
I knew that sound. I’d heard more thousands of its repetitions on the fighting lines than I would probably ever hear again in a dozen lifetimes. A firearm being discharged, somewhere ahead and to the left.
The sound seemed to echo all around me as my brain analyzed it, seemingly rote. Small caliber. .38? 9mm? Pissant attempt at suppressing it; so not a professional behind the trigger. It wasn’t something I needed to worry about…
Except that two more cracks pierced the growing gloom of evening. Larger bullets this time, in rapid succession, and the calculations I had been making without intending it fled before the realization of what was going on.
One side was firing; the other returning fire. From the alleyway half a block up. I saw the reflections of the muzzle flashes even though I couldn’t see the combatants.
And just as with the shell on the battlefield, I found myself entranced by those flashes. I could not look away from them, could not perceive anything but their perfect majesty as they brought on the eternal. And I walked toward them.
The cacophony of pops grew louder as I approached, their staccato rhythm growing more intense and their concussions beating into my torso all the more deeply the closer I got. Before long they were no longer little pissant handguns, but well-charged rifle rounds being expended between enemies.
I heard screams, and shouts, and saw shapes flooding past me, fleeing the battle, and I saw the faces of my platoon mates. Brave men, and hearty. But this conflagration was beyond even them, and they fled before it.
But for some reason, I could not. The concussions of the firearms echoed the thumping of my heart, and as I rounded the corner from whence they came I knew this was the battle I had been born to fight.
This was the reason the shell had not gone off.
There was a man in front of me, crouched behind a trash bin that had been pulled out from the alley wall. He was dressed in civilian attire, but from his coloration and accent I knew he was not of my country. He was the enemy, who had tried to invade before but who my friends and brothers had repulsed while I sat inert.
His back was to me; he had his weapon up in one hand, gripping it like he’d never been trained in firearms before, rattling off rounds aimlessly down the alley toward his foes. My countrymen.
His neck snapped easily, and then I had his weapon. Magazine half empty, but he had a second one, which I palmed before moving forward.
He had an ally, who was just looking in my direction, his eyes growing wide with surprise, when I gunned him down.
A quick scan showed no others, except for my countrymen at the end of the alley. Standing up straight, I walked toward them, a greeting on my lips.
A hail of bullets was their response.
Betrayal. Betrayal most foul.
I saw only red from fury. Heard only my primal scream as I took their fire and returned it, then, finally, charged into the fray.
* * * * *
I bested six of the enemy single-handedly.
But there was no Presidential commendation. No General pinning a medal on my chest.
There was only flashing blue and white lights, and then a small room, and a cage. I railed against the cage bars at first, but after some time—who knows how much—a man in black robes in a bench above me said some things. The things he said were important, I knew they were, but they sounded only like muffled reports. His bench was lofty and well-made, but I only saw timbers that I could have dearly used for my foxhole that day, so I could have aided my brothers with them, instead of redeeming myself later where they couldn’t see or hear of it.
After the black-robed man spoke, the cage became a different room, more brightly lit with soft walls and and a door with a window.
Much more comfortable; more comfortable than any place I’d slept in…
Time meant nothing, so I didn’t bother to compute it.
As I curled up on the soft floor of that new place, and looked up at the window, I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me.
Blue, beneath a thinning crown of red-blond, and buried in a round face.
I flashed to Benny, from the next foxhole over. Heard his screams as the shells fell around him, then heard them cut off in a rasping gurgle.
It was Benny looking in at me; I knew it immediately. And I knew this wasn’t a place of comfort after all.
This was Hell, and I was its newest inhabitant.
The half dozen I’d taken hadn’t been enough to make up for my lapse before.
There might never be enough to make it up to Benny and the others; the accusation in his eyes made that clear.
But maybe. Just maybe. If I work hard enough, I could make it.
I’d just have to get out of this place first.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: