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Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow . . .

by Earl Carlson 3 months ago in Short Story
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The Walking Wounded

The booming and the clanking and the screaming chorus of dying men faded from his consciousness until only a single scream remained − echoing and reinforcing his fear − as he fled down the long and brightly lit hallway. He burst at last through double swinging doors into a large room filled with lounging old men and overseen by a wasted and weary nurse.

The nurse looked up at his frenzied arrival, and, as he caught himself in mid-stride nearly losing his balance, she raised an eyebrow and brought an index finger to her lips, blowing a silent “sh” through her teeth, but saying nothing. The old men continued to lounge, ignoring the disturbance. And Private Billy Bindleshaft looked around the room, utterly bewildered by the incongruity of it all.

Where in hell was he?

Through the broad window at the far end of the room he saw fat feathery snowflakes falling and the grotesquely barren limbs of dormant maple trees. How could this be? Could he have been somehow transported from the Pacific island where he had been only moments before to this beguiling wintry vista? He didn’t know these people. He didn’t know any of these people. How did he get here? And where was his rifle?

Glancing down, he saw that he had shed the torn and bloody uniform and muddy combat boots that had been like a second skin to him ever since they’d hit the beach. Though the hospital garb he now wore clarified his present circumstances, it did not restore his troubled faculties. He tried to recall the order of events that had delivered him so unexpectedly into this quiet sanctuary.

He remembered now, watching from behind a sheltering rock, as Hezzy slid down the muddy mountain¬side. Hezzy, his best buddy in the outfit, had been acting squad leader since Lavender had caught a mortar round. And now Hezzy was sliding down a muddy mountainside on some miserable island in the middle of the ocean. He had climbed up above Bindleshaft’s position. But then he came sliding down again. He flowed like a bag of Jell-O down the precipice, offering no resistance, making no effort to control his course or slow his speed. His helmet was gone, and he’d left his rifle behind. His right ear and much of his face were missing.

“Did Hezzy make it?” Bindleshaft asked the unfamiliar face that suddenly appeared before him.

“Hezzy’s fine.” the nurse replied, holding a small blue pill to his mouth. He extended his tongue to accept the pill, and she held a paper cup of water to his lips. “He’s gone into town on pass, and he’ll be going home tomorrow.”

She dropped her eyes, informing him kinesically that he was free to leave, and he drew himself to attention. He was about to salute, when the nurse suddenly added, “By the way, a girl named Talulah Deuth called while you were resting. She said she’d come by to see you after lunch.”

“Talulah’s my girl.” he told her, forgetting his military courtesy. “we’ll be getting married now that we’re both eighteen.”

Talulah had finally relented the night before he shipped out, and they’d made love in the back seat of his Chevy. He’d have to marry her now even if he hadn’t really wanted to. But privates don’t discuss such matters with officers. The nurse was about thirty-five − probably at least a captain − though she wore no identifying insignia.

Where was he?

He could see a nurse, so this must be a hospital. Maybe he’d been wounded. The other patients were watching a movie projected against a box in the corner of the room. It was in Technicolor, but he didn’t recognize the actors. It was probably a training film. He couldn’t tell where the projector was.

He closed his eyes and tried to remember how he’d been wounded. He’d seen Hezzy get it − shot in the head just a moment ago. He’d come sliding down the mountainside and stopped right beside Bindleshaft. Then all that loose dirt came sliding down and partly covered him up. And then the flies found him − as though they’d been waiting. They blanketed the wound until it was a living, squirming thing.

And Private Bindleshaft had finally had enough.

He’d seen them all die − his whole outfit, he wasn’t going to allow it any more. He’d put a stop to it right now.

He reached over and patted Hezzy’s shoulder. “You and me are getting off this goddamn mountain.” He didn’t care that the Japs were shooting at him; he had to get Hezzy back on his feet. He wrapped his arms around his friend’s chest and lifted him to an approximately erect position, then tried to get his legs under him.

Where in hell was he?

He opened his eyes in a place he’d never been before. And he had no idea how he’d gotten here. Maybe this was the aid station where they’d taken Hezzy.

“Does anyone know if Lance Corporal Hezekiah Flinck was brought here?” he called out to no one in particular.

“Hezzy’s fine.” several people answered without turning. “He’s gone into town on pass, and he’ll be going home tomorrow.”

He approached a nurse who was working at a desk across the room. “Ma’am?”

“What is it, private?”

Bindleshaft thought for a moment. He’d forgotten what he’d come to ask. “Could you tell me where the head is?”

“You have facilities in your room.” she assured him, pointing. “Through the swinging doors . . . first room on the left. Your name is on the door.”

He followed her directions and looked in on a room he’d never seen before. It contained a small dresser, a wardrobe and an unmade cot. A toilet and sink occupied a recess in the far wall, but the mirror over the sink was missing and only the frame remained. He reflected briefly on the disarray before returning to the hall. He didn’t want to get caught in someone’s room with no explanation or excuse for being there.

But, where in hell was he?

Just a moment ago he’d been on the side of a mountain trying to get Hezzy on his feet. His helmet had fallen over his eyes, restricting his vision. That buzzing all around him might have been flies − or bullets streaking past. Hezzy’s blood flowed down his arm and chest.

Then, through the commotion, he became aware of an isolated sound: a single rock rolling down the mountainside, unlike the sounds of war and strangely divorced from all he had experienced here. Yet he felt that the course of this particular rock intersected his own destiny, and that it carried a message for him if he could only decipher it. He managed to shake off his helmet so he could see. And he turned to face the rock.

Long and cylindrical with a handle-like projection on one end, it had a strangely manufactured appearance. It resembled those dud Japanese grenades that were scattered around the island. The projection repeatedly caught on protuberances and outcroppings causing the rock to skip into the air, turning end-over-end, or to skitter sideways across the face of the mountain. Finally, it bounded high into the air and hung there, suspended against the blue island sky.

Where in hell was he?

The island dissolved and he was in a long hallway with open doors along either side. He had no idea how he’d gotten here, or what had happened to the rock − or to Hezzy. Perhaps someone in one of the rooms could tell him what was going on. He went from door to door looking in and, finding no one, proceeding to the next.

The rooms were identical, spare accommodations for two: two cots, two dressers, two wardrobes − with toilet facilities recessed into the far wall.

He had need of those facilities.

Seeing no one to petition, he entered a room and relieved himself in the toilet. But, reaching for the lavatory faucet, he saw that the hand at the end of his arm was not his own. His hands were callused and tough and tan. This was an alien hand − all bones and no meat − all knuckles and twisted fingers − with gray, translucent skin. Private Bindleshaft was a healthy eighteen years old, so why in hell was this disgusting stump of a hand protruding from his sleeve? As he turned it over to examine it he had to fight the impulse to hurl it to the floor and step on it, as if it were a living thing and capable of breeding.

A motion, half-perceived at the periphery of his vision, caught his attention, and he glanced up to see that what he had taken for a mirror was actually a window into the next room, in which a very old man, startled in the act of washing his hands, retreated from Bindleshaft’s intrusive presence.

The nurse looked up from her work as the scream echoed down the hall. Bindleshaft had seen himself in a mirror again. She retrieved an already prepared hypodermic syringe from a desk drawer, and, as she rose, she nodded to an orderly, who wearily followed her through the swinging doors.

Bindleshaft burst from the room still screaming. His face reflected the horror − that unspeakable horror that over the decades had grown progressively more horrible with each passing year − the horror from which he would find momentary surcease, but that would return to haunt him again and again for the rest of his life.

Bindleshaft − the horrified youth − the horrid old man − shuffled down the hallway as fast as his arthritic legs could carry him. Then, catching himself in mid-stride and with his scream still ringing in his ears, he stopped and looked around.

Where the hell was he?

Why had he been running down this hallway? Who were those people ahead? And what had happened to Hezzy?

“Could you tell me if Lance Corporal Hezekiah Flinck was brought here?” he asked.

“Hezzy’s fine.” the nurse replied. “He’s gone into town on pass, and he’ll be going home tomorrow.”

the end

Short Story

About the author

Earl Carlson

My stories/essays have appeared in the Eunoia Review: the Blue Lake Review: Firewords Quarterly, the Beorh Quarterly, and The Mensa Bulletin, Buried Letter Press: and Novella T, among others.

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