by Maurice X. Alvarez
Copyright © 2001 Maurice X. Alvarez
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
“Farewell, old commander, soldier of war and soldier of peace, conqueror of battles and the hearts of men. […]
Farewell, dear friend, tried and true. Soldier of love and soldier of faith, your battles are ended and your victory is won. You have fought the good fight, you have finished your course, and you have kept the faith.“
The Fifty-seventh regiment of Massachusetts volunteers in the war of the rebellion: Army of the Potomac
— Captain John Anderson, U.S. Army - 1896
The rumble of the trucks was swallowed by the sand and vastness of the desert they trundled through. In the sky, a sliver of moon pointed in the direction they were heading, the only marker that would ever be visible here, the only indication that they were still somewhere. For around them was only endless darkness.
Soldier John Abasson shook his head at the darkness, then ducked back under the tarp that covered the back of his truck. Within the tarp were wooden crates of various sizes containing all kinds of ammunition. They were on their way to the front lines, to re-supply the soldiers already there. Sitting on one of these crates, reading from a small book by the light of his standard issue flashlight, was Soldier Avery Fed.
“It's like were traveling through outer space out there,” said Abasson, rubbing the cold from his hands. He inhaled deeply through his long hooked nose and exhaled with an “Ah”. “But at least it's cool.”
He moved between the crates to the back of the truck and lifted the flap to peer out. Nothing. Theirs was the last truck in the convoy. Only stars and very black darkness and the rumble of the truck. He closed the flap and took a seat by the mesh screen that connected with the cab where two more soldiers sat, one driving.
“How's the view from up there?” he spoke sideways to the screen.
A muffled voice came back, “Not much better. We're hanging back far enough, but I keep thinking we're gonna smash 'em from behind.”
Abasson snorted. “You do and you'll never live it down.”
“Blow off, Abasson.”
Chuckling, Abasson turned to Fed who was still reading from his book. Now his lips were moving as he read.
“What're you reading, anyway?”
Fed looked up. “Hmm. Oh, the Book of God.”
“Again? Say, how many times you need to read that before you're saved, anyway? What if you die before you've read it the right number of times? You go to hell, or something?”
Fed shook his head slowly. “It's nothing like that. But what would you know about it?”
“Nothing. Not a thing. God ain't nothing but fiction. Bullets, shells… those are real. They're what's gonna save your ass out there, not some spirit.”
“God guides your hand and that of your enemy. It protects those who believe.”
Abasson snorted. “Brains guide my hand and keep me from gettin' shot, Fed. If I don't stand out in the open, I don't get shot. See, it kinda works out just as nicely without your God, doesn't it.” He pulled out a cigarette.
“Just let it lie, Abs.”
“Sorry, boy. God just can't seem to keep my mouth shut.” He lit the cigarette and puffed it a bit. He probably shouldn't have been smoking around all the live munitions, but they were driving blind in a convoy deep in enemy territory, and he'd be damned if he wasn't gonna have himself a nice calming smoke.
The truck started bouncing heavily at that moment. A small box crashed down from atop a large crate, and Fed's flashlight was jounced out of his hand. He put the book in his shirt pocket and looked about for the flash while steadying himself on the crates.
Abasson grabbed the end of an anchoring rope and shouted over his shoulder at the screen, “Hey, what're you guys doin' up there? Sleeping?”
There was no answer.
Fed had found his light. Abasson looked up and Fed was staring at him, his wide eyes shining in the flash's light.
Abasson spit out his cigarette and peered through the screen. But it was too dark. “Guys?” He waved to Fed when there was no answer. Fed passed him the flash.
One soldier was slumped across the cab, his head behind the driver's back. The driver was slumped over the wheel; the right side of his head was missing.
Then they heard the rattling they hadn't heard before. But there was nothing they could do. The truck lurched to one side and rolled over and over, then there was nothing, not even the rumbling of trucks.
Abasson blinked against the bright morning sunlight. He had only a moment to remember where he was and what had happened before stabbing pain made him cry out. He breathed quickly, each breath shooting pain through his chest to the very tips of his fingers and toes. He forced himself to take slower breaths, but it was an effort and a very long time before he could bring himself to try moving.
The first thing he noticed was that his arm was asleep. The panic hit: I've lost an arm! He moved his shoulder and his arm popped out from under him where it had been pinned. Between his relief and the pain sparked by the small movement, he almost cried. The pins and needles that followed were the best thing he'd ever felt in his life. He looked about and found he was lying at the base of a high dune. The truck, or what was left of it, was not far, and around it were strewn broken crates, supplies and rope. And Fed.
Abasson twisted himself onto his side and ground his teeth to keep from crying out a second time. He felt his chest in a few places, then hit upon the soft spots. Two ribs, maybe more. The swelling made it hard to tell. He had no way of knowing if he was bleeding inside, though he doubted he'd be breathing at that moment if he was.
Very very slowly, he crawled to where Fed lay. He collapsed beside him, exhausted. “Fed, buddy.” He shook the bloodied uniform. There was a hole in it. It was in the chest.
“Fed! Come on, man. Don't leave me here like this.” He felt Fed's neck and got a fairly strong pulse. He laughed nervously. “Yeah, man. You're gonna be okay. Yeah.”
Abasson looked around again. They'd left him… them, behind. Sure the convoy had been under radio silence, but the others must have noticed something. Dammit, but it had been so dark! He wondered, had there been a truck behind his, would he have even seen it?
No. Even if they hadn't noticed, they'd be back for him and Fed. They had to. They couldn't just leave them behind.
He had to set up camp, shelter from the sun until the others could come and pick him and Fed up.
He crawled back to the truck. It had been ransacked but for a few weapons. And another body. Its leg was trapped at a funny angle beneath one of the trucks canopy-supports. Abasson figured the guy had been caught by the tumbling truck then left behind by his own. Abasson grabbed the sandy rags and flipped his enemy over, purposefully twisting the leg further. The man cried out in horrible pain.
“You sonofabitch!” Abasson pulled his knife from his belt. “You killed my friends.” He drove the knife deep into the man's solar plexus, ignoring the pain that flared in his own chest.
Behind him, Fed cried out, “No!”
Abasson pulled the knife out and wiped the blade on the body's rags. Then he crawled back to Fed who was on his side.
“Why?” said Fed before Abasson could say anything. “He was hurt. Wasn't going anywhere.” He broke into a racking cough and spit up some blood.
“What? Take a look around you, man. He's the damn enemy. You're lucky you're alive.”
Fed closed his eyes. “What happened?”
“Those bastards hit us at night. They never done that before, but they picked last night to do it, and they did it to us.”
“What about—” He broke into a cough again.
Abasson put a hand on Fed's shoulder. “You take it easy, buddy. The guys were shot, probably so we'd go off the road. The rest of our convoy didn't notice. Most of the big stuff we were carryin' is gone. Either we were tossed and they didn't see us or they left us for dead.”
“It's so hot.”
Abasson grunted. “We're in the desert, boy. How badly you hurt?”
“My chest is like it's on fire. I can't feel my legs.” He closed his eyes.
“Now don't go doin' that. Keep your eyes open. You gotta stay awake.”
“Yeah. I'm gonna do something about that. But you gotta promise me you're not gonna go to sleep on me.”
“Yeah. I promise.”
Hours later, Abasson had cut up the shredded tarp that had covered the truck and fashioned a bandage for his chest and Fed's. With the remainder of the tarp he had made a tent in the shade of which he had laid Fed. It didn't make it any cooler, but it took the bite out of the sun.
He had smothered Fed's wound in antiseptic that he had found in the medkit that had also been left behind. A bullet had entered through Fed's chest on the right side. It hadn't come out. Possibly it had embedded itself in his spine, seeing as how he still couldn't feel his legs. Abasson joked that he was going to shake Fed around a bit to see if he rattled.
Too soon he made the discovery that there was no food and only two canteens of water. There had been four, one for each man in the truck, but two had been smashed open in the crash.
“Why did you kill him?” asked Fed, his voice low, weak.
Abasson raised his eyes to the skies. He let his head fall back against the back of the tent and wiped sweat from his eyes. “'Cause he's the goddammed enemy. They kill us, we kill them.”
Fed was silent for a moment. Abasson looked over, but Fed's eyes were on him. “He was hurt. There was no need to kill him.”
“Dammit, boy. You gotta stop talking like that. We're soldiers. We kill the enemy, that's what we do. We don't make the rules; someone makes them for us and we follow them. They're not open for interpretation. How the hell did you make it through training anyway?”
Fed was quiet, but his stare was louder than words.
“It's that God mumbo jumbo again, isn't it?”
“It's wrong to kill. I had no choice getting into this war, you know that. If I kill, it's because I want to survive. But I don't kill because I like it.”
“Life ain't always roses either.” He wiped the sweat from his face more fervently. “Damn this heat.”
Fed's lips were moving.
“I wasn't talking to you.”
That worried Abasson. “Your lips were moving.”
“For God to deliver us from this place, if it's his will.”
“Phish. The others'll come for us, man. You'll see. They're probably already on their way. Maybe they're just being careful not to get ambushed again.”
“Prayer is also to keep relaxed. It keeps my mind off things.”
“Whatever keeps you awake, man. Just stay awake.”
Abasson threw the empty canteen at the wavering horizon. The heat had begun playing games with his eyes, making him see water where he knew there wasn't any. It's just the heat, he thought to himself over and over. It's just the damned heat.
The convoy hadn't been heading too far into the desert. The others could not have been so far away that it would take them this long to come searching for them. Unless they had gotten bogged down by the enemy. That had to be the explanation.
Thoughts of fashioning a gurney for Fed and walking the stretch to the convoy's destination crossed Abasson's mind, briefly. But reason kept him from doing so. He might never find his way, and they'd be easier to spot by a search party if they stayed with the truck.
But Fed was not doing well at all. He had passed out once already, and Abasson had been afraid his buddy had bit it. But with smelling salts, Fed had opened his eyes again. Death lingered in the narrow pupils. But Fed kept right on praying as if nothing at all had happened.
“Shit. Of all people I could've gotten stranded with, why did it have to be you.”
Fed said nothing.
“You say nothing for hours. Just move your lips quietly, praying. I'm going insane.”
“What would you like to talk about?” asked Fed, softly, calmly.
Abasson stared at him then turned away. “Shit.”
Fed went back to praying.
“You still believe we're gonna be saved?”
Fed looked back, but Abasson was still turned away. “You don't think they're coming for us?”
Abasson was quiet. “I don't know, man,” he said softly. “I don't know.”
“I still believe.” And he went on praying, silently.
Abasson looked out over the dunes at the golden sand wavering under the heat. He stared at the brightness hard until his eyes teared. Then he turned to Fed.
“So, uh… could ya teach me a prayer?”
As the sun fell low toward the horizon, Abasson was strapping Fed to a gurney he had fashioned from the remainder of the tarp and bits of crate and truck. He had drunk from the last canteen sparingly, certain now that no one was coming for them, though not certain why.
He had already found where the road was and the direction they had been heading the night before, and he now grabbed the handles of the makeshift gurney and trudged on. He kept himself busy chanting march songs with Fed joining him feebly from behind. His side was torturing him severely, and sweat kept rolling into his other smaller wounds stinging almost everywhere. He ground his teeth and kept pushing on.
He stopped when night first fell. He rested in the coolness for what felt like an hour, sipping the water and giving some to Fed. Then he pushed on again.
Fed had long fallen silent. Abasson had ceased chanting. He couldn't anymore. It had cooled down too much, and his joints and muscles had cramped. He was in too much pain to do much more than what he had been doing for hours which was a slow shuffle, onward through the darkness in what he could only hope was a straight line.
“Can't stop,” he kept repeating to himself, gasping the words. He knew that if he stopped, he would never get up again.
“Let's pray, Fed,” he gasped, unsure if Fed could hear him anymore, but unwilling to give up hope. He tried remembering the words Fed had taught him earlier, those calming words. Because that's exactly what they had been. Fed was right in that, if nothing else. Abasson needed calming now; he needed those words to give him the strength to keep going. He was desperate to remember, and when he couldn't he started crying. “I wanna pray, Fed. I do. I wanna pray. It's not my fault I can't remember. I wanna pray.”
The sky turned a hazy gray then quickly cobalt.
Abasson didn't even notice. He was barely walking, knees half bent, eyes closed and head lolling. He was mumbling the same thing over and over. “I'm not worthy. He is. For him. I'm not worthy. He is. For him.”
As the first rays of sunlight poked over the horizon, Abasson fell to his knees and collapsed forward under the weight of the gurney and Fed.
His head landed on something hard but buoyant so that he only felt a slight impact before whatever it was bobbed gently up and down, supporting his head. He reached up to push it away, but his tired arm fell to the sand. He tried again, and his hand landed made contact. He felt it blindly at first, a straight smooth surface, like the flat edge of a desk. Then he opened his eyes and stared at a white wall with a sky-bluish cast. A glance toward his legs told him he was still in the desert, but part of him was… somewhere else. There were voices, but he couldn’t make them out. He stared at that heavenly white wall and mumbled, “Take him. Take Fed. He’s the worthy one.”
Something grabbed him by the shoulders then, and he was jostled around quite a bit until he was on his back on something soft. And he surrendered to the exhaustion that he could no longer avoid.
Abasson realized very quickly that he was in a hospital and that it was a friendly one. His chest was neatly bandaged up and a needle was feeding him through his arm. Someone was at his side almost immediately, a woman in white. She was beautiful.
“Well, good afternoon, Mister Abasson. You've had quite a nap.” She checked his eyes and took his temperature instinctively, almost as if she didn't realize she was doing it.
“How…” The word came out as a hoarse whisper.
“How long?” She didn't wait for him to nod. “Three days.”
He shook his head. “How did I get here? I don't remember anything.”
“I wasn't on duty then. But I've heard rumors. Something about a blue doorway appearing…” She stopped being a nurse long enough to look him in the face. Then she was herself again. “Well, I don't want to perpetuate any funny stories. Doctor Welmore was there. I'd better just let him tell you.”
She started turning away, but Abasson held her arm. “I was with someone…”
“Oh, yes. Mister Fed. Things didn't look too good for a while there. But you'll be glad to know he's stabilized and showing good signs of recuperating.”
“Can I see him?”
“Well now, I don't think—”
“Please. I've got to.”
She looked frightened suddenly, but he hardly noticed. “Well, I'll see what I can arrange. Now you relax.”
Avery Fed smiled when the nurse wheeled Abasson into his room in a wheelchair. “Hiya, Abs.” Abasson nodded, unable to express his joy. “I hear you did this, somehow.”
“Me?” Abasson was taken aback. “I only dragged you till… well, till we were rescued.”
“You haven't been told then.”
“Told what?” Abasson's eyes fell on Fed's little book. It was on the tabletop beside the bed. It had a chunk torn out of it and the pages were stained red. “What happened to that?”
Fed looked over at it. “It deflected the bullet someone intended for my heart. Instead it just punctured my lung and pushed against my spine. They say I'll be able to walk again as soon as the swelling goes down.
“But you, Abs… you didn't give up, did you? In the end you believed.”
Abasson shook his head. “I still don't know what the hell you're talking about, boy. Nurse! Take this man off his drugs!” he joked.
Fed winced as he tried not to laugh. “No, no, man. I'm talkin' about the doorway.” Fed saw nothing in Abs' eyes that showed he knew. “They say a floating blue doorway opened in the ICU around three days ago. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “One minute it's not there, the next there it is.
“No one wanted to go near it, and just as someone gets the nerve to, you pop through from the other side. When they realized you were injured, they pulled you through and found me not far behind strapped to a stretcher made of stuff left over from the truck. We're the only survivors, you know. The ambush took out the whole convoy further down the road. That's why no one ever came. No one would ever have come if not for the blue doorway.”
Abasson's mouth was hanging open. “What happened to the doorway?”
“After the doctors scouted about for more bodies and called the cops, it vanished.”
Abasson's eyes were distant, staring through the window at the bright day outside. “Shit,” he mumbled.
Abasson looked Fed in the eyes. “Yeah, Fed. Yeah. In the end, I really believe.”