‘Now,’ the voice said. ‘The time is now.’
It was heavily disguised, he knew that, and as such, there was not a trace of accent. His heart sank a little at the words, but he knew it was coming, this call. He had been paid, and paid well, and God knew he deserved the money.
The desert blew in sandy twists around his feet, and when he opened the seventh and last packet, the wind threatened to dislodge the dark powder nestling there. He cupped a gloved hand around it, and breathed deeply of the desert air.
‘Christ, man! What the fuck?!’
Armitage pushed back on his bunk, his right hand clamped across his brow. He felt absurdly like a film-noir heroine about to faint, but couldn’t stop himself. His right hand held a bottle of beer, and he felt the slow pulsing of its contents escaping over his lap. The TV high on the wall in the corner blared banality. It served to add a level of normality to the surroundings. The humid clench of the air, the muted pops and stuttering chatter of distant gunfire dispelled it.
Donnie sat across from him on a ratty chair. Threads of stitching had popped free all across the upholstery on both arms. It would scratch your own arms unrelentingly if you sat there, which was why Armitage always opted for his bunk. This was Donnie’s lucky chair, or so he claimed. It didn’t seem so now. Donnie’s arms, for the most part, lay in his lap. The hand holding the chef’s cleaver drooped between his opened legs. His other hand, the one he had just severed, rocked gently to stillness at his feet, tendrils of blood threading the hardwood floor and the big toe of his left foot.
‘What the fuck have you done? Ah, fuck!’ Armitage almost screamed. Donnie was silent except for the tight inhalations of hot sour air through his clamped lips.
The beer finished its pulsing escape and Armitage let the bottle fall to the floor. He stared at the hand. He thought it was the very one that not five minutes ago has passed him the beer that was currently soaking through his jeans. He tried to speak but could not.
‘It’s ok, man,’ Donnie whispered. ‘I’ll be ok in a minute.’
He raised his head and looked straight at Armitage. His eyes were wild and white, red-rimmed and brimming with wetness. Armitage thought that they looked like they were brimming with insanity, and why not? What else could it be?
He had not seen the cleaver pushed down between the chair and the seat cushion. He had only vaguely seen Donnie pull it out, but had thought nothing of the gesture because his head was tipped back, swigging deeply from his beer. He had heard the whistling smack as the cleaver came down through the air and buried itself into the arm of the chair. He had heard a soft thump that only now did he sickeningly associate with the fall of a severed hand. Donnie’s hand.
Donnie’s jesus-fucking-christ-almighty left hand!
‘Why, Donnie?’ he whimpered. He could barely take the breath for these words and they left him panting, his chest tight.
‘I don’t think it was mine, man. The hand, I mean. I don’t know.’ He looked confusedly at Armitage.
‘What?’ Armitage asked, stunned and feeling foolishly like laughing.
Donnie shifted so that he could look down to his feet and prodded at the hand with his big toe. It rocked, looking like a dead spider, still leaking redness at its wrist. He looked at his abridged arm, leaking more copiously. A smile began to tweak the corners of Donnie’s mouth. Armitage felt cold wash through him.
‘Better,’ said Donnie quietly, and nodded.
‘Donnie, man, we gotta get you to the doc, something, you’re gonna bleed to death.’
Armitage stood in panicked jerks, his knees feeling like someone had taken a sledgehammer to them. He fought the urge to vomit, but lost as Donnie absently kicked his hand across the hardwood in a series of strangely balletic tumbles. Wiping strings of drool from the corners of his mouth, he fell back onto the bunk. He clutched his head in both hands so that the bends of his elbows formed a tunnel through which he stared at his friend, and implored him.
‘Come on, man. We gotta do something! You just cut off your fucking hand, for Christ’s sake!’
Donnie put down the cleaver, a circular smear of red bisecting the blade, and reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a plastic tie-wrap, and threaded one end through the other, clumsily, holding it in his teeth. He looped the resultant noose around his ruined wrist and ratcheted the tie closed, forming an absurd collar of puckered flesh at the arm’s end. The bleeding slowed and stopped. Donnie raised the stump and gestured to Armitage. It looked as though he was proffering a wet red rose to his friend.
‘Ok?’ he asked, petulantly. Then, more to himself, ‘It’ll be ok, man.’
Armitage moved his hands from his head and squeezed them tightly over his eyes. He could hear Donnie’s ragged breathing, hear his own.
‘What are you gonna do, Donnie?’ he asked without looking. ‘I mean, you gotta do something. You are a fuckin’ soldier, what are you gonna do?’
‘First I’m gonna cut off my foot. It’s this whole side,’ he said, waving the dripping cleaver up and down the whole left side of his body. The honed blade chimed on the leg of his jeans. ‘It’s not mine. I don’t know how or why it was changed for….this….fucking thing…but it’s not mine. I have to be rid of it. I have to, man.’
‘Donnie, no,’ Armitage moaned through his hands. ‘Come on, man, let’s talk about it. What’s got you like this? You sick? You worrying? It’s getting to us all you know, this fuckin’ war.’
Donnie looked up momentarily, just long enough to speak two words. ‘Less, now.’
He hefted his left leg up onto the arm of the chair. Armitage began to rise, but the look shot him from Donnie’s crazed eyes stopped him cold. He sat roughly back down onto the sofa, amid cooling vomit and beer stains.
‘Please, Donnie,’ he said. ‘Don’t.’
* * *
‘How long?’ he murmured into the mouthpiece on his cheek. ‘Till this is over?’
The voice chuckled. ‘You will be home by Christmas, Fallon. Your part in this war has begun, and for a few nights work, you will have saved countless lives.’
‘But please, is there no other way? I don’t want…..’
‘Just do as I have instructed you. The powder is untraceable, and is perfectly formulated. You have used six sachets so far. One per night? It will do as I have told you, and your men can go home. You…can go home. There need be no further death, my friend.’
The cleaver whined through the air and a meaty thump marked its progress through the tough meat and bone of Donnie’s ankle. Donnie whimpered softly as he wrenched the blade free, a little jet of blood following the blade’s edge, as if desperate to cling there. Armitage fixed on the arcing droplets. He shut his eyes and did not see the second swing of the cleaver. It met less resistance this time, and in a soft crunch of bone and tendon, the foot fell free and came to rest, sole down in perfect companionship to his still attached right.
Armitage screamed. He launched himself to his feet and rushed to Donnie, who was convulsing slowly on his chair, blood jetting from the end of his leg, still raised onto the arm of the chair.
‘Tie it,’ Donnie said, weakly. Without thinking, Armitage reached into Donnie’s shirt pocket and found a second tie wrap. He noosed this around Donnie’s leg and pulled it tight. His hands were slick with his friend’s blood.
‘Why are you doing this, Donnie? Why, man? Please, talk to me.’ He was crying now, and as he wiped the tears a thick smear of blood painted across his cheek. The tears cut through it slowly.
Donnie appeared to think. The convulsions had stopped, and his ashen face was turned up to the ceiling in beatific smiling blankness.
‘Those…things…’ he said, ‘weren’t mine. They just weren’t, ok?’ He said this last defiantly. ‘I don’t know. When I woke up today I saw the truth. That hand wasn’t my hand. The foot wouldn’t fit in my boot any more. You getting that, man? My fucking boot wouldn’t fit anymore!’
‘But Donnie, that can’t be right! You can’t cut off your own fucking hands!’
Donnie nodded. ‘Not both, of course,’ he chuckled, sounding weak. ‘But this one is ok. This one’s still mine. I can see it is. Can’t you see that?’
Armitage looked at the remaining hand, blood speckled and living, then looked across to the severed hand. Already greying, it rested against the leg of another bunk. It was curled into a half fist, as if it had tried to grab the leg. Armitage shivered and reached into his jeans pocket. He brought out his mobile phone. In a flash, Donnie swung the cleaver and sent the phone across the room. It broke into pieces against the floor. Armitage just stared at the fragments.
‘I’m ok, man!’ Donnie said again. ‘No doctor. I’m ok.’
‘Look, Donnie. You’re gonna have to explain this. You can’t hide what you’ve done, and if we don’t get this stitched up or something, you’re gonna fucking die.’ Armitage shook. He felt dangerously close to hysteria. He could hear a hitching in his breathing, a tight clipped tone to his words. ‘Talk to me, man. Explain why you’ve done this.’
Donnie dropped his head and appeared to sleep. Armitage started towards him, and was reaching for his shoulders when Donnie raised his head. His eyes showed none of their previous madness. Armitage made an involuntary noise deep in his throat all the same, and sat back.
‘I have no idea,’ said Donnie.
Armitage willed himself to calm. He rose quietly, backed away from his friend, and continued backing until he almost fell onto his bunk. The soft scrape of the iron legs against the floor caught Donnie’s attention for a second, but only that. He turned for a brief moment, and then returned to his inspection of his shortened limbs. He appeared to feel nothing at the sight of the stumps, but Armitage could see a waxy yellow sheen starting to show on his cheeks, and runners of sweat were beginning to paste his hair in dark feathery fronds across his forehead.
Armitage thought Donnie would be heading firmly into shock right about now. He made as if to move for the door and Donnie spoke, almost too quietly for him hear.
‘I feel…better, somehow,’ he said. ‘That’s the funny thing about all this. After our food last night, I slept better than I ever have. The sound of the guns didn’t disturb me like it usually does. I had no nightmares. And yet I woke thinking that something was terribly wrong with me. Something that only this could fix.’ He motioned to his mutilation with a nod of his pale face. ‘So I fixed it. And now I feel better, like this is how I need to be.’
Armitage chilled, and slowed his movement. He stared at the severed hand, curling like a starfish brought suddenly into dry desert air.
‘What am I going to do, man?’ said Donnie, and Armitage thought,
At last, he sees what he has done. I can help him,
but Donnie said, ‘This is how I need to be, but this is not how I trained to be. I am a soldier, man, and now I can’t fight. What am I gonna do?’
‘I’ll go and see the doc, Donnie. He can fix you up and we can get through this. That sound ok?’
Donnie waved with his remaining hand. Armitage left.
* * *
‘But…..?’ he said. ‘Must it be this?’
‘It must, and please be realistic now. It is too late to turn back. You know cannot possibly win this war. Do this, or you will all die, and will continue to die until there are no more of you.’
There was a soft click as the call ended, and he knew that was the last time he would hear the voice. His part was done now. It was over, or would be in scant seconds time.
Armitage pushed into the medical tent. The hot smell of blood and the chemical tang of disinfectant washed round him like mist. There was time enough to see the beds, all of them occupied, and the nurses that tended there, and then all was blocked from view as a uniformed officer stepped into his line of sight and laid a hand firmly onto his chest.
‘Sir,’ began Armitage, and then stopped, convinced his words would eject from him in a flood of teary babble. ‘I…’
‘You can’t be in here,’ said the officer.
‘But Private Donald Richards, sir. He’s…ah…excuse me sir, but he’s cut off his own fucking hand.’ He blurted this last and stepped back, head lowered.
The officer was silent for fully half a minute. ‘Christ,’ he murmured, then louder. ‘Christ, WE GOT ANOTHER ONE!’
The tent erupted into action around him, nurses flocking around Armitage, their hands fluttering feather-like across his arms, and feeling his hands.
He shook them off. ‘Not me!’ he shouted and ran back towards the bunkhouse he shared with Donnie.
They removed Donnie, strapped to a gurney that looked rusted with blood. His hand and foot went with him, although whether there would be a reattachment attempt, Armitage could not guess. All he knew was that the body parts were gone, and as he sat cradling the shattered remains of his mobile phone, he was thankful for that.
The officer that had stopped him in the medical tent came to see him as the darkness fell around their tents. Armitage sat in his desert combats, as if they would afford him protection from madness as they had from enemy eyes. The situation was explained. In the hours since Donnie had begun his nightmare mutilation, in the hours since he was stitched and sedated and guarded, 16 more soldiers had suffered the same dysmorphic reactions. The medical tent was now bursting with amputees, Donnie by no means the worst of them. One soldier had systematically shot the fingers from his left hand, one by one, and had put a bullet into each knee. One had attempted to remove his own head but had passed out from shock before he could complete the deed. There was no loss of life, not yet, but fully half a hundred bleeding stumps, burst knee joints, ruptured organs. Donnie had not been the first, and listening now to the officer’s words, words of sabotage, of mass hallucinations, of hypnotic suggestions, Armitage knew he would not be the last.
The officer asked Armitage if he had felt any similar desires to mutilate himself. Armitage almost laughed at this last. Desire to mutilate? When did he ever think he would have heard those words spoken in this or any other situation? The officer had finally left him alone, content with his assurances that, no, he didn’t feel the need to cut off a limb, or thrust a pen into his eye, or into his ear drum. The officer had looked at him for a long time before exiting the room. There were orders in that gaze, Armitage knew. When we are on the other side of this, that gaze inferred, there is to be no mention of anything that has happened here. Armitage didn’t think he would have trouble keeping this to himself. Already he felt his brain slowing, bogged down with the enormity of seeing his friend knowingly cut his hand from his body and sit watching the jet of blood like a fountain in a park. Time would tell if his mind would ever work the same as it had.
He almost entertained the notion that come morning, come the cleaning of weapons and the donning of uniform, all this would be nothing but a nightmare. He expressed as much to the officer, not noticing the look of suspicion in his eyes. His own eyes felt hot with grief, and his hands shook. He thrust them deep into his pockets and followed the officer, kicking the door closed behind him. He wandered, in and amongst the dusty habitation quarters, the dry desert biting his ankles, and sending hot air deep into his lungs.
The order to surrender was given two hours later. He heard rushing footsteps along the tented corridor that flanked the dining area. Armitage followed them in. He heard raised voices, and asked Fallon, the cook, what he could see from his vantage point behind the cooker. There was no answer.
Presently, officers and the remaining unharmed soldiers trailed into the canteen. They sat, and the order was relayed. Several voices were raised in protest.
‘Let us at least wait till everyone is here!’ one such said.
There was a beat’s hesitation from the commanding officer, and then,
‘We are here. All of us left. We are here.’
Shocked silence filled the room. The scuffing of boots became deafening as soldiers moved, restless to fight, but now unable. With the officer’s last words, Armitage again thought of Donnie, bandaged and screaming insanities in the medical tent, along with two thirds of the soldiers stationed here.
* * *
He straightened, but his head dropped low into his chest. A ragged breath scorched into his lungs, and he exhaled it. He hurriedly removed the ear- and mouth-piece, and with a deft flick of his wrist, sent the sandy powder drifting down into the huge pot of bubbling chilli con carne that was tonight’s meal. He stirred it in, and raised his smiling face to the first soldier that stood in line.
‘What war is there to fight when the army you rely upon to fight it has destroyed itself in the most fundamental way? We do not understand this,’ he continued, ‘but we know that we no longer have an army here. There are not enough of us and there are too many of them. We truly have no choice but to surrender ourselves. I suspect…? God help us, I have no idea. Is it magic, or poison, or hypnosis?’ he said, looking bewildered and shocked by his own words, as if they could not have come from him. He sat heavily. ‘We have undone ourselves.’
Armitage chilled. There were murmurs and soft words but no more cries of disagreement. The remaining soldiers had seen too much, and were numb with it. To see such wounds on the battlefield was one thing, but to see them here, and inflicted as they had been? It was too much. Armitage stood with the others and queued for food. None of the remaining soldiers spoke now, and none wanted to eat, but there seemed little else to do while they waited for their captors to remove them, as they surely would.
He sat alone at an empty table. There were many. His plate was heaped high. Armitage ate greedily but without hunger, mopping the wetness with hunks of dry bread and washing it down with water. He tasted none of it.
There was time enough for one last night.
Armitage noticed the first tingle in his fingers as he sat on his bunk, restless after the night’s bad sleep. In the second it took his brain to register the feeling, and perhaps begin to formulate some hypothesis as to its cause, he thought how much better it would be if he removed that itch. He looked at his hand and saw nothing that he recognised. A wedding ring gleamed from his ring finger and it was not the one he knew. A scar, jagged and deep pink, wormed across the back of the hand, and Armitage could not place it, nor the wound that caused it. He reached nervously to the hand and touched it. The hand felt not his own. He frowned and began his examinations afresh. There was no corresponding feeling from his left hand as his right fingers pulled gently at the skin there, just a deep itch in the tendons of that wrist, and in his mind’s eye, he could see the tendons fighting the connection of wrist to hand. He turned the hand over, and was unable to make a fist. The palm was too soft, he thought, to be his, the lines too deep.
‘Oh God, Donnie,’ he said softly to no one. ‘God, man. You were right.’
The screams intensified from the medical tent, and the sound of gunfire waned in the distance. Armitage stood and walked to the ratty chair, and to the cleaver that lay blood-rusted on the floor beside it.