by Dean Moses
“For King and country,” Vincent said aloud, imagining the medal he would receive upon returning home.
The bombardments ceased, the smoke evaporated. Somehow twilight lingered, longer than it ever had before. Vincent gazed at cherry clouds gliding over a lavender sky. The sun seemed to remain stationery on the horizon, half-obscured by the trench he helped dig.
“Over the top!”
The command echoed throughout the burrow, stinging men’s ears as it went. Vincent flung his riffle over the bank before taking hold of a nearby ladder. He felt no such sting.
“For King, country, and me.”
The thought of serving King George V willed him onwards, upwards. Retrieving his weapon, he charged forward — encompassed by his comrades — the way lit only by the dying light’s embers. The ground — a mire of sludge — battled the soldiers’ ankles. Gunfire tore through a tree line ahead — the noise: deafening. Bullets ravaged flesh and bone, men tumbled to the dirt, their faces morphing into masks of anguish. Vincent glanced back, at a trail of death. Sustaining an unwavering pace, fighting muck and lead hail, he left dead friends far behind. Next came the mortars, hurtling from the purple sky, lifting the ground with great explosions, leaving unnatural craters in God’s earth and an abnormal white mist above it. Wails zigzagged on the air, the sound of grown men pleading for their lives danced between the eruptions and gunfire.
Vincent carved his way through the white blanket. Nothing on earth could look so much like heaven but sound so much like Hell, he thought. He spun on his heels, an automatic motion after months of fighting — the cogs of war — thrusting his rifle into the pearly smog, at a passing shadow. He felt his bayonet snag something, no different than catching a fish on a hook — now to reel it in. A German fell at his boots, with blood stained teeth he jabbered something in that language.
“Shut it,” Vincent said, his voice smooth. “Shut your filthy mouth.” He yanked his riffle back and stuck the German again, and again — tearing the man’s uniform, fraying it into tatters, and collapsing ribs. Vincent stabbed and prodded until his adversary jabbered no more. Proud that he withdrew another German from the world, he continued onwards.
He emerged from the mist, gaining eyes on the tree line. Movement amongst the thicket — German helmets — Vincent eagerly took aim, pulling the trigger… something went wrong. He collapsed, dropping his rifle. A large puddle cushioned the sudden fall. Water rapidly turned red around him, confirming his suspicion — he had been hit, although, he did not know where. Quickening breath, flailing arms, and legs… unresponsive. He waited, reclining in the bloody pool, hoping, and praying for rescue. A melody of whizzing bullets and dwindling screams played away the seconds, minutes — hours. The water ran cold, chilling his bones. He could not comprehend why this was happening to him, for this was not a hero’s death. He was fighting for his country, in a foreign land, defending the people of England. This was not how he visualized his life coming to an end.
“For King and country,” he whispered once more.
“You’re in quite the pickle there, old bean.”
The war had grown quiet, and then this: A high-pitched voice shattering the air, startling the soldier after what seemed like an eternity alone.
“Who speaks?” Vincent asked, his speech raspy.
“I do,” the voice replied.
Vincent turned his head about, dirt and grim washing over him, the bloody water oozing through his chapped lips.
“I don’t see you, friend.”
A hand grasped his submerged trouser leg and yanked, hard. “Straight ahead, old bean.”
Vincent dug his pruned fingertips into the puddle bed and forced himself to a sitting position, howling in pain at the slightest movement. He could not believe his eyes.
Surely I have succumbed to my wounds or fatigue. This man, no, this creature I see before me can only be a result of exhaustion.
Vincent sat inches away from a skeleton — missing all but torso, right arm, and skull — grinning a toothless grin. Even now the twilight loitered, making the talking carcass appear crimson. The two beings remained silent, neither flinching, nor speaking. The skeleton’s blackened eye cavities took hold of Vincent’s senses, akin to that of a gas attack. A spider web of tiny cracks ran across each socket, which made the skull appear to be squinting. Blinded by those harrowing hollows, yet unwilling to show fear, the soldier stayed firm. I have been through worse than this, let the corpse gander, Vincent thought. Like two swirling black voids they drew him in. His breath accelerated even more, he could feel his heart palpitate, trying to burst through his chest. Gritting his teeth, wrinkling his nose, he felt as if he were falling into the great abyss, into those ethereal eyeholes. At long last, the empty sockets finally drove him over the edge. He tried and tried to get to his feet, exhausting the little energy he had left — but it was to no avail.
“Yes,” the skeleton somehow said, despite lacking tongue, teeth, and a beating heart, “You’re in quite the pickle there, quite the pickle.”
“This is preposterous! How are you able to converse? You are dead, and by the state of what’s left of your rotten body, you have been that way for some time.”
The skeleton did not respond for a few moments “…I don’t know, I just am. How are you able to?”
Vincent was stunned. “I should be fighting a war, earning a medal, not talking with a corpse. How did my life come to this?”
“I don’t know. Life’s a funny thing, isn’t it, old bean?”
It could have been the irritating creature he sat across from, it could have been his wounds, perhaps the stress. Whatever the reason, the soldier’s struggle to breath grew more challenging even still.
“What would you know of life, creature?” Vincent scoffed.
The skeleton swayed gently in the wind. “Why not tell me of life. Moreover, tell me why you are here?”
The query unsettled Vincent, for at that moment he realized he was unsure himself. He drew on his memories, hazy, jaded memories that remained somewhere amongst the fog of war. He recalled eagerly signing up at the behest of Lord Kitchener’s recruitment posters. He did not await the draft — he wanted to fight. Yet, he could not remember why. The young private found it odd to be where he now sat: dying in a puddle of his own blood for a purpose that eluded even him, until he thought that phrase — For King and Country. That’s why I came, correct?
“Well?” his new acquaintance asked impatiently.
With a furrowed brow he dove into the past: A weeping wife waving goodbye, proud parents standing on a doorstep, a farewell feast with old friends, retrieving the King’s shilling, swearing to fight for King and country with an upheld hand, and a cramped ferry powering across the English Channel. He could recollect all these things, the when, where, and how, but, try as he might, he could not recover the why.
“My memory escapes me.”
The skeleton shook its skull, a faint creek emanating from its neckline. “You don’t recall? Look around, old bean, you are in Hell! One would not come here for a trivial purpose, one always has a reason.”
Vincent did exactly that. He took note of the sullied water in which he lay, the surreal sky that refused to yield to nightfall, and, above all, he observed his rifle, bayonet protruding from the pool as if it were struggling to breathe itself. The blood-caked blade flung a memory to the forefront of his mind. Closing his eyes, he imagined being somewhere else, some-when else in time. The soldier was no longer a man; he was in a child’s body, laughing a cackling, cruel laugh. He was a boy of eight, feet dangling in a calm pond. A small frog sat on his palm, remaining steady as the boy gleefully reached for its reedy legs with a hand that wrenched at the amphibian, ripping limb from body. The power felt magnificent. He tossed the dead animal aside before reaching for another — this time pulling a penknife from his pocket for a novel way to kill.
His eyes burst open.
“Oh? Have you recovered your memories?” the skeleton asked.
Vincent pictured Kitchener’s recruitment posters once more, this time evoking the feeling — the power that child perceived long ago — the why.
“To kill, I came to kill. I held no heroic desires; I did not wish to serve King and country. I came for myself, to take lives… because it feels good.”
The sun plummeted from view. The unchanging horizon finally changed, losing its violet color. The clouds peppering the now opaque heavens melted, leaving a stream of red sludge behind them as they began to dribble from view. To Vincent, this skyline appeared akin to that of an artist’s ruined painting, watercolors running off canvas.
“Hold onto that feeling, old bean — hold on tightly,” the skeleton said, “for that’s the reason I send you to your eternal damnation.”
The mural, high above, erupted with shrieks, louder than thunder, brighter than lightning. Faces materialized within the cloud’s dripping tails. He saw the unarmed medic he once gunned down from behind. To the left of him, the downed pilot who dangled helplessly from a tree branch when Vincent took his life with one powerful bayonet plunge. Up from him, his most cherished kill — the boy who wept for mercy in soiled pants, seconds before Vincent carved out his innards. Scrambling for his weapon, water splattering in every direction — the soldier’s pain was miraculously gone.
“No, you’re dead — you’re all dead — I killed you all!” he cried, taking aim at the faces in the sky.
“And so are you, old bean, you died hours ago, before we ever spoke.”
The faces in the sky glared downwards, casting judgment. He knew each one, the day he took their lives, the exact time. He fired, his rifle spat out a spiraling bullet that simply vanished into the night.
The red skeleton’s black sockets ignited, becoming imbued with blue flames. It lifted its only arm and pointed with extended finger. Its jaw dropped, the once cheery accent did not emerge but instead a guttural shriek, a horrifying siren rang out, “…Old Bean. Old bean. Old bean.” The faces materialized on the water’s surface, reflecting from overhead, the rippling liquid seemingly making them smile. Through the undulating puddle they came — dirt-encrusted hands grasping at his bloody legs. “Please, good sir, I can be better — I will be better!” he howled, hammering the aggressive fingers with the butt of his rifle. “I was just jesting, I came to serve King and country… I came for the good people of England. I killed to be a hero!”
“It’s too late. You have already killed, for your own self-centered reasons. You did not arrive in these lands believing war was the only way to protect your family, like so many have been foolishly taught. You not did believe your actions were just; you relished every one of your unnecessarily brutal kills. Now your victims will escort you to your afterlife — to your punishment.”
The skeleton crumbled into a heap of bones while fervent hands pulled Vincent under the water. Even then he struggled, as his vision blurred beneath the bloodstained pool.
“For King and country,” he mumbled, bubbles fizzing from his mouth. He first uttered those words as a lie, but by the time they left his lips, he believed them. The skeleton was correct, he did not come to war believing it was for the greater good, yet he did not arrive with the notion that it was wrong, either. Closing his eyes, he relived everything he had ever killed, from the frog to the man in the fog. Maybe the world is better off without me. There was no hope of escape — the puddle had become an ocean — but perhaps he could still reach heaven. He stopped fighting; he relinquished himself to the hands. “For King and country.”
“Vincent!” a lone soldier called out. “John! Marcus! Vincent!” The medic meandered over the rough terrain, struggling to find his way in the darkness. He hated this part — gathering the dead and wounded — for one reason: he did not trust the cease-fire. He was sure they would fire at any —
The man lost his footing, falling face first into a large quagmire. Remerging, he drooled a maroon liquid. The man caught sight of something red glowing in the gloom.
“Hello, old bean, what brings you here?”
Dean Moses is the author of A Stalled Ox, entertainment contributor for the Spring Creek Sun, wordsmith extraordinaire, and hungry vegan.