by Jane Turley
Caterpillar tracks. Fresh, impressed deep in the sucking mud. The enemy lurks nearby, somewhere close. You feel them in your bones, taunting you.
A stench of sickly sulphur, fetid corpses and manic fear hangs in the air. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. Your heart pounds, trickles of sweat run down your grimy face. Anxiously you glance around, dilated pupils flickering over ravaged trees, burning trucks and smouldering wreckage. You pause a second longer on the decapitated head of Sean Watts. Poor bastard.
You take another look. Fuck. Did he wink at you?
Sinking down into the mire, wet sludge clings onto your combats like curds of brown rancid butter. The heavy backpack weighs you down, pushing you deeper into the sodden earth. Stay alive, stay hidden. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. Duty calls, there’s no time for sentiment or grief. Remember your training. Block out Sean’s face stricken in macabre astonishment.
But you wonder if he knows something that you don’t.
Fight, not flight. You crawl across the slime, belly wet, face blackened with stripes like a serpent of death. You find Sergeant Hughes crouched in a shell hole. Where to now, Sarge? No reply. You push his shoulder. Now what, Sarge? Then you notice the warm stickiness on your fingers, the hands clasping a split stomach, slippery entrails protruding through bloody fingers. You slump back, breath short.
So Sean did know.
An eerie whistle screams overhead, the earth shakes, explodes. Mud rains down like a plague of locusts, consuming you. Pinpricks of rainbow lights appear before your eyes and the sun begins to shine through the wetness. Heat spreads through your limbs and torso.
Ring, ring, ring. You shake your head furiously. Ring, ring, ring. It’s 8.50 am. Your knees are grubby from the fall. Don’t get messy before school, Robbie. Clean up quickly before the teacher sees you. Hurry, before you line up. You struggle to your feet, body aching as a voice calls across the playground. Robbie! Robbie! Too late. You’re in trouble now.
But it’s not the teacher, it’s Karen. She runs towards you, arms outstretched, white veil billowing behind, the train of her dress catching on thorny shrubs. A small boy follows, thumb in mouth, clasping a toy rabbit by the foot, the long soft ears stroking the uneven ground. You drop your gun and reach out to greet them, overjoyed. Karen, Tommo, I’m here! But Karen runs past, across the pitted clearing and back into the woods. Tommo trails after her, mud squelching through his toes.
And Superman on his pyjamas winks at you.
The ringing fades as you hear the crushing of undergrowth, the tearing of branches, an unmistakable throbbing, pulling engine. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. Shouts, screams, rise above the shuddering ground. A grey, hideous monster appears, compressing debris, churning the earth. It strikes fear in you standing defenceless in its deadly shadow. Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat. You turn to run and wonder if God is on your side.
When you awake you hear gentle murmuring and distant echoing voices. You feel warmth, comfort. Safe at last. Maybe God was on your side. Slowly, you open your eyes, blurred shapes move to and fro. You begin to focus on the black silhouette at your side, the white collar, the familiar face.
And then he winks at you.