The Reserve

by W. Blake Heitzman

 

Before the Krauts spot us, we rush into the fog that crawled up from the marsh. Like an amoeba ingesting prey, it absorbs us.

Its heavy air deadens the sound of weapon fire and wraps us in silence. The vapor thickens. The terrain dissolves into gray, smothering my sense of direction. It takes away up and down. My balance teeters. My muscles harden, unsure of every step.

I can’t see my feet. To gain my bearings, I glance at Sergeant Stowski. Suspended in the cloud, legs bicycling futilely, his figure is unnerving.

The mist shoves icy fingers down my collar and chills me to my tailbone, but I put one foot in front of the other, churning like Stowski, only sensing progress when an oak materializes out of the haze and slides past me, its twisted anguished limbs disappearing, leaving me again suspended in dimensionless space.

The fog thins, sliding back toward the swamp. We’re in the open, bare as babes to Kraut snipers. Without a word, my men dive into cover and await my orders.

“Lieutenant, it’s all wrong,” Stowski whispers.

“Yeah, Stow, it is.”

He doesn’t have to explain himself. He’s got the instincts of a street dog. It keeps him alive. It keeps me alive.

This time I feel it, too.

I shove my helmet up against an oak’s gnarled roots. The sound of it grinding and scraping bangs in my ears. Helmet jammed in place, I tilt my head and check out Stowski.

On his belly, he wiggles himself up between the bullet-stopping roots of another ancient tree. Eyes wide, nose moving back and forth, he’s on alert.

It’s morning, and we’re soaked in mud. Every day we’re soaked, soaked sometimes all day and all night. Socks soaked, feet numbed to clubs. Fatigues soaked, wet itchy wool underwear stuck to us and cold as ice. We just lie in it. The Heinie is out there somewhere, so we stay down. Better to shiver than to get cut in half by machine-gun fire.

I raise my arm, hand in a fist, signaling the patrol to hold position. Though I don’t see them, their faces pass through my mind: Reynolds grins sarcastically; Brown’s terrified, his eyes wide and dancing over the brush; McWilliams’ lips move in silent curses but his ears listen for movement; Adams lies on his side, watching to the right, calm and waiting for something to come so he can kill it; and Rubens, backed up against one of these trees, scans our rear, his rifle swaying left to right and back like a branch in a breeze.

But there is no breeze, no sound. It’s dead silent.

“Call Cutillo off point.” I signal with a fist to my helmet.

Stowski nods and makes a weird sparrow warble that only he can do. Tiny but shrill, it knifes through the haze like a bullet.

I tense, glance about without turning my helmet. My heart bangs against my rib cage, and I think, Shit, my heart’s too loud, the Krauts can hear it. Then I catch myself, Calm down. Calm down. No jitters, not now.

Stowski peeks around his tree, sticking his head out, daring Heinie to take a shot.

Slowly, so slowly, you wonder if he’s crazy, he pulls back into his oak fortress and shakes his hands, palms up, at me.

“Bob, that ain’t like Cutillo. He hears that whistle and he’s back in a snap,” Stowski says. “Think he didn’t hear?”

I shake my head. “It’s dead as a graveyard here. If he’s there, he heard.”

“Last I saw, he’s twenty yards up by that tree. Had to hear. Want me to send Reynolds to check?”

Stowski runs his finger over his throat like a knife and mouths, “SS, ambush.”

“Nah,” I whisper back. “We would’ve heard a tussle if someone got to him.”

“Too quiet, Bobby,” the sergeant says, again. “Look at these trees. They’re all wrong. We’re in the middle of a war, but no artillery since we moved into the fog. No gun shots neither. Nothing.”

I look up at the trees, medieval oaks, twisted and gnarled. An hour ago we were in a splintered forest, topless sticks poking out of the earth, pruned by TOT, time on target artillery fire, dozens of shells exploding together in one spot, shredding lumber into mulch and every other living thing into mush.

These druid oaks here—not a branch, not one twig broken.

“At least one stray shell had to wind up here,” I whisper to myself.

“Yeah, that’s it, that’s what’s wrong. It’s like a reserve or something,” Stowski says and grins. He’d found the words to pin down the wrongness he feels in his gut.

I frown at him. “We walked through the fog, how long, you think?”

Stowski goes adventurous, like he’s sure there are no Germans, no SS ambush, just us, and he pulls himself up out of the roots and pushes his back against the tree.

I know he’s right, but I stay low anyway. One thing war has taught me: never trust the obvious.

“Time seems longer in a fog,” he says. “So—an hour?”

“How far do you think we came?”

His shoulders jerk as he expels a perplexed, “Huh?”

“A mile?”

“Not even—you move slower in a fog. Ain’t no way we wandered out of the action.” His statement, half question, gets to my point. He knows what I’m thinking.

“Yeah,” I say. “This front is forty miles long, how does this place go unscarred. Like you said, ‘a reserve or something.’ Krauts should be here, or have been here, but no sign of ’em, not even a sheet of shit paper.”

Stowski stares up at the twisted branches, bare and black against the sky, then says, “Garden of Eden, maybe? Guess we got lucky, stumbled our way out of the war. Maybe I should celebrate with a smoke.”

I harden my frown. “Not yet.”

He chuckles and scans to his right, still suspicious, still tense.

I thrust my thumb forward and say, “Give Cutillo another whistle.”

We wait, but Cutillo doesn’t come. It makes me edgy. We both are.

“Maybe he’s pissin’,” Stowski says, a half-hearted lie meant to calm his anxiety.

His eyes go dog wild.

Seeing that, I tell him, “Call the men up. I want them in here close—real close.”

Stowski waves his arm in a circle, a signal that will be passed back through the patrol until everyone gets it. Then he juts his chin at the tree where Cutillo was.

“Hey, Bobby, the fog’s blowing in again. You think it’ll bring the war back?”

“No—something else.”

I stand up and yell back through the woods, “Everybody get up here! Fast!”

There isn’t a sound.

I turn to Stowski. He’s gone. His rifle is there, its barrel against a root. Then I see him stalking forward, a grenade in each hand. He’s intent on something on the ground. It looks like water, then it flicks to the right, its tip changing from a point to a span of fingers that gropes a tree root. It releases, turns into a point, and whips toward Stow. It stops a few yards in front of him. I see another one by the tree where Cutillo disappeared. It slides across the ground, a shimmering pool of gel that stretches another tentacle toward Stowski. He lobs grenades to each, gently, like softballs to six-year-olds, then he races back and presses himself against me and the tree. Inches away, his wolfish eyes gleam into mine.

“We need TOT,” he says. He yanks my elbow and we run.

 

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