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Red Roses, White Flags – Pete Clark

HorrorsofWarcover1
Featured in March to the Grave

‘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.

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Read for Free Week!

No matter who you are, no matter where you were, 9/11 was a devastating and soul shocking moment. The fact that the destruction was allowed to take place revealed just how vulnerable the West really is. The twin towers shattered and collapsed like our confidence and sense of security. Battered, bruised and with angered hearts, just about everyone demanded revenge. We sent our brave men and women into a warzone that was created through broken promises, failed deals, and resentment.

Honestly reflecting on 9/11 is a sobering experience. In recognition to the dreadful terror attack that reshaped the world into what it is today, Deadman’s Tome is giving away free ebooks of March to the Grave – the horrors of war themed issue all week (from 9/11 – to 9/17).

Download your free copy of March to the Grave!

 

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Veteran Loves March to the Grave

Back in May, Deadman’s Tome released a war focused horror anthology called Deadman’s Tome March to the Grave. This collection of short stories reflects the absolute horror of life on the frontline much like Metallica’s Disposable Heroes and One. But the horror that a soldier experiences in combat doesn’t go away when they survive long enough to get the ticket home. PTSD is very real. And I was in an odd position of receiving an email from a combat veteran, a marine to be exact.

I did my time as Marine. I’m a veteran that’s served in the Iraq war. I’ve been shot at, and I’ve shot back. I’ve been to close to IED a few times, but I’m alive to talk about while some of my guys aren’t. They died serving. Their deaths haunt me, man. To this day, I cannot shake off the feeling that it should’ve been me. As bad as that is, no of that compares to the time a kid came at me. I’m not a monster. I’m not some hateful monster, but all I saw was a gun aimed at one of my squad mates. In that moment, Jesse, in that moment you don’t have time to wait. You act. You engage. You take action. You can’t even imagine how that has fucked with my head.

I was hesitant to read this [March to the Grave]. Someone shared it to me, and it had that Masters of Puppets style to it, which is nice, but it I thought it would’ve been a bunch of bull. I don’t know if the writers had real experience are knew someone with real military experience, but hot damn was this shit believable. I hope that people read this and become reminded of the horror that soldiers go through. It’s not the glorious thing that a lot of people say it is.

Anyways, I wanted to say thanks and keep it up.

The man requested that his name not be revealed, and I respect that. I asked him to leave a review on Amazon. Hopefully, he’ll come through.

Check out March to the Grave for Kindle 

 

 

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March To The Grave!

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Read Today

The warmongers are beating on drums, rattling sabers, and thirst for blood. A terror attack hits us at home, hits our allies, hits our friends. Fear scorches the flesh of a wounded heart, and anger grows inside, infecting, corrupting. We’re marching towards war, another world war, yet we’re actually already at war. Military forces are active in foreign lands, bullets are fired, bombs are dropped, and bodies… the bodies of men, women, and children collect.

Don’t contort my words, I know why we fight. I know why we feel that it’s right and even justified. I understand the complexity and not defecating on those that serve. Those that believe that in sacrificing their lives, they can make other lives better. To them, I say, I hope that one day it does, too. March to the Grave is not anti-war, it’s not pro-war, it’s a grim reminder of the horrors that follow, a reminder that war is a destructive all consuming beast of man’s creation that can, if left unchecked, devour all that is living.

Pete Clark, David J. Wing, Gary Robbe, Gerry Huntman, Phoebe Reeves-Murray, Deborah Sheldon, and Christopher Pulo all did a wonderful job illustrating the horrors of war. Because of that, March to the Grave is the darkest and most cynical issue of Deadman’s Tome, yet.

March to the Grave is available on Amazon Kindle and can be read for free through Kindle Unlimited. March to the Grave goes for $2.99 but will be available for Free Memorial Day weekend (Sat – Mon).

If you’re a veteran and want a copy, contact me using jessecdedman@gmail.com for a free digital copy.

 

 

 

 

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The Blackout – Gary Buller

 


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Enhance your coffee today



The Blackout

by Gary Buller

 

London had been his candle as the man plied his trade into the early hours of the morning, the prolonged wails of the sirens ensuring that he remained alert and awake. Business had been booming, but he marked out the plots and sunk the spade into the damp clod with burdened shoulders, one of his recent clients had been his wife.

His toil was disturbed by another sound that vibrated the darkness. Machinery purred overhead extinguishing the stars, and he was raising his spade in a futile gesture when he realised that the sky was falling. Before he could dive for cover the shell ploughed into the icy soil, not twenty yards from where he stood, and he felt the impact vibrate through the thin sole of his boots. He braced for an explosion but none came.

He returned to his shed tired and shaky- he would visit the warden under the safety of dawn.

Inside the diminutive retreat with a mug of tea warming his leathery hands the man’s eyes drooped as low as the blind that covered the single window. The September winds of nineteen forty were frigid and brought with them lung scratching dust and the odour of destruction. However, it was a strangely fetid stench that prompted the man to rise and pull the blind aside.

A thick unnatural mist clung low to the grass out of which the stones rose like teeth. In and around them he could see movement- silhouettes backlit in the miasma by a city on its knees. Heads emerged from the ground like poison mushrooms craving the darkness and marionettes rose on unsteady legs with arms outstretched.

The air grew heavy with a fusion of sweet decay and chemicals. Gravel scattered underfoot as the strangers encroached.

“I know it’s you, Jerry bastards!” the man cried, failing to cloak the tremble in his voice.

He picked up his trusty spade and listened for a response but received none. Fingers explored the walls like autumnal leaves scraping across granite. They tapped on the windows and pushed eagerly against the doors.

“You’ll not scare me, I’ll chop your heads off- you see if I don’t.”

With suddenness the window imploded and peeling hands explored his space from behind the undulating blind, probing the space eagerly. One of them had a gold ring into which a ring of sapphires was set.

The man wasn’t religious but he sank to his knees, dropping the spade with a clatter that only served to increase their efforts. The blind was ripped free and fell to the floor.

Framed in the jagged teeth of broken glass the Luftwaffe flew in formation over a sky that flickered amber. Beneath this his wife stood, reaching out to him with her mouth agape and white pupil-less eyes boring into his soul. The right-hand side of her face was caved in where the debris had collapsed on her, and she was biting at the air with a mouth of cracked and shattered teeth.

The man thought that he could hear the air raid siren again, but it was all too loud. Then he understood-

the sound came from his own throat.

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Hellfire Pass by L. L. Hill

 

“More rice. Please.” Stafford added the courtesy word as a reluctant and unwarranted afterthought as he held his dented empty tin bowl towards Sergeant Anzai. The stench of old sweat, outhouses, machinery grease, dust, and wet jungle lay in an unnoticed pall over the prison camp.

Lieutenant Stafford still covered his bald spot with his lank brown and greasy hair hand combed over. Unshaven, his uniform khaki shirt hung down from gaunt shoulders and covered a waist cinched with a belt three notches smaller than his prewar size. A dirty big toe showed in one of his sockless dress uniform shoes. A heavy brow ridge with long eyebrows shadowed his light brown eyes and their ring of crud. He looked down into the snapping brown eyes of the Japanese sergeant.

The sergeant did look rather like a snapping turtle he had observed on his uncle’s Ontario farm in a pond. Mean, vicious, and ready to bite. Stafford blinked his long lashed eyes and wished for enough water to wash the crusty build-up away. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he located a last grain of rice stuck in a tooth, worked it out and swallowed. A fly buzzed down and he jerked away.

Hands behind his back, Sergeant Anzai glared up at Lieutenant Stafford as if the black hatred emanating from him could vaporize the officer and all that he represented in opposition to the Japanese Empire on the spot. The fly dashed past him and landed on the rim of the rice pot with a dozen others. Silent spectators, the prisoners of war around the nearly empty pot watched the confrontation escalate like a tropical boil. One of them slipped away between flimsy bamboo huts to get the Major.

“No more rice,” Sergeant Anzai spat out.

“I need more rice, I am sick and hungry.” Stafford did not want to sound petulant but did. Rather like pleading for more birthday cake when he was ten, he thought.

“You think you get more food than me?” Clenched into tight fists, Anzai dropped his hands to his hips.

“I’m bigger than you. I need more.” No point in rationalizing with the dictatorial pricks, but dogged persistence occasionally produced results, and today Stafford was very hungry. Perhaps he really was sick, he thought. His stomach felt completely empty after eating a cup of rice and his bones ached.

“You bigger make you more man? You surrender! Disgrace self!” His spit landed on red soil and dissipated in the morning heat.

“I surrendered in Singapore on orders. Per the Geneva Convention…”

“You no even learn to speak Japanese! I have to speak English to you!” White spittle formed in the corners of his lips. “My uncle had his store stolen from him. He in jail for being Japanese. He no soldier. You man to put family in jail for being Japanese!? You man!?”

The half-ring of soldiers behind Anzai laughed at Stafford’s now red face even though they likely understood little but the emotion of the exchange. At a gesture from their sergeant or officer, they would beat any prisoner into submission. Some had never returned from beatings.

“I should like sufficient food to eat, per the Geneva…” As he spoke, Stafford thought that he felt a rat gnawing its way out from his empty stomach and then Sergeant Anzai interrupted with a virulent flood of Japanese that had his soldiers laughing.

“That’s enough then Stafford, old chap, you did your part,” said Major Jennings striding in as fast as his gimp leg allowed. “Stand down there, man. Have another go another day. Jolly good show,” he finally whispered. A young lad that pushed too hard, thought the veteran.

Jennings slapped Stafford’s back as Anzai’s tirade continued with the sergeant pointing to his groin and miming penis size. Behind the jeering guards, a black and gold hoopoe with a long, curved beak landed on a patch of grass. Transfixed, Stafford watched the bird find an insect and work it up the long bill to swallow.

Anzai, observing that he had lost the attention of the target of his audience, shifted his position so that he could see what Stafford was looking at. On seeing the bird, he rushed at it with a kamikaze yell. In a whirring blur the bird fled.

“You have time to watch bird, you no need food!” Anzai began miming an officer walking with a cane as his continued his Japanese oration on the evident evil of the British, bird watchers, and surrendering.

In a fugue of starvation, Stafford had been wondering if there were any small nets to catch birds available during the loud display. Jennings pulled him back and steered him back to the mess with a hand on his shoulders.

“Have a seat, old man,” Jennings said pushing him down onto a broken cane stool.

Sergeant Anzai’s eruption dissipated into the occasional flare of a magma laden comment as the prisoners of war pretended to focus on clean up and the Japanese withdrew to the scant shade of some trees.

“Did your part to get the Japs riled up there Stafford, old man. Now we need to get out and get some blasting done.” The blond hairs of Jennings stiff, thin moustache appeared to be glued onto his parchment yellow skin. A fly landed to drink in the tear dripping down the side of his nose and he waved it away with a flick of his long, tapered fingers. “Remember, push the limit, but don’t go over it,” he said in a tone just loud enough to carry around the mess.

Jennings was looking at the red and black dirt that had accumulated under Stafford’s ripped and torn fingernails, and worrying about his mental state when Stafford asked, “Do you know where I could get a fine mesh net?”

A tin mess cup dinged against the water pot in the silence that followed Stafford’s question. In a babble of jokes and laughter, Jennings gasped out of white lips, “Good God man, you’re not going to start collecting tropical birds are you? They’re just feather and bone man, not worth the effort.” He was now very worried about his junior officer and gazed at the other men for support.

“I think that three or four would be the size of a quail,” blinked back Stafford. He then closed his lips and pouted, feeling his idea as disregarded as that of a child.

Jennings knuckles were white on his cane. Another gone to battle fatigue, he thought. “Look man, plucking small feathers would take ages even if you could find a net to string between trees. And how would you stop the Japs from finding it and taking it away?” He stopped talking as he reflected that talking to a mule would be a more effective expenditure of energy. “Right then. You’ve already missed the morning medical so you’ll have to come out and help blasting that damn pass! Can’t think why the Japs had to put a line here. I’ll send you to the doc’ as soon as I can. Mess crew, carry on. Blasting crew, with me. Maybe we’ll find some fruit on the way.” He limped towards some Japanese guards followed by the blasting crew in loose formation.

Bloody waste of another good man, he thought as he marched through a mixed crew of Malays, Tamils, and island Chinese already at work carrying steel rails in 120 degrees before they became too hot to touch in the afternoon. Rain or shine, this railway was a killer; one rotted and the other cooked any laborers. The Asian slave labor all wore loin clothes, Jennings noted as he turned to look at his tattered crew. His lot looked like blast survivors in threadbare and ripped uniform remains, he thought. At least the natives were used to the heat, he thought as Stafford tripped on a loose rock at the tail end of the group. The hospital today for that officer, thought Jennings as he resumed his trek.

Stafford stopped and looked at the pale red blood that oozed from the scrape on his ankle. It should feel sore, he thought, but it felt numb. He looked up and saw that Jennings and the others had continued on.

One of the guards cracked a whip across the bare back of a coffee brown slave. The small man fell to the ground pleading and was whipped again. Then the guards began kicking him where he lay on the gravel rail bed. No other prisoners tried to help.

Stafford stepped back into the shadows of some drab olive leaved trees and looked down at the ichor that now welled out of a bone-like lump that appeared under the wound. With a bump he sat on the ground. He would have to go to the hospital, he thought. That was a blooming infection already yet bloody Jennings would have to clear it first. What a pest that man was, thought Stafford, forms and orders for everything. If there were an order for nets for birds, Stafford would have had them. At least his stomach had settled its demands to a throb.

With a ping-clang, sledges almost as tall as the men that heaved them began to hammer in nails around the rails. Stafford had just decided to get up before the guards found him when he saw a red patch peeking out from the cover of a branch of leaves in the crook of a tree.

His sluggish heart skipped a beat as he raised the branch to see a plump, juicy mango that had been placed there until someone had time to eat it. Saliva began to lubricate his mouth. Stafford jerked around looking back and forth and saw none of the slave crew nearby. ‘Wogs,’ he thought as he grabbed his red treasure as he scrambled away into the trees.

Used as a fence by the Japanese, the tangled jungle that clad the steep hills of Siam usually killed those that tried to escape into it. Snakes, spiders, scorpions, tigers, and mosquito born disease were additional deterrents to the rugged landscape to any attempted flight.

Stafford could still hear the slave crew when desperation drove him to sprawl heedless of venomous snakes and spiders on the ground. With shaking fingers and tartar coated teeth he peeled a strip of skin and sucked the fibrous orange interior. Not since Singapore had he had one and this one was sublime.

He had rolled onto his back to suck the juice more easily when a small brown man ran up and leaped down on him. Spitting and growling, they thrashed together into and around creepers and thin barked trees. Stafford whimpered as he pushed the thick, spice laden greasy hair away from his nose with a punch. Digging his knobbing fingers in around the large seed, he ripped the fingers of his other hand through the welts and bruises on the Malay. The heart thudding shock of the attack over, Stafford began to truly fight for the succulent fruit, blocking the blows of the shorter man while inflicting pain whenever possible. If he wanted the mango so badly, he should have held onto it, thought Stafford as he pressed his thumb into an eyeball and felt a pop. His assailant reeled away screaming with fluid dripping down between his stubby fingers. Stafford was aware that the Malay’s grimacing in pain displayed teeth filed to points at the same time both men realised that Sergeant Anzai and three soldiers with fixed bayonets had quietly become spectators.

Muted by quaking trees, a blast shook the ground – Jennings had blown a hole near completion last evening thought Stafford. Gazing at Anzai, he raised the mango to his gaping mouth almost as slowly as the fruit had grown. The clangor of the sledges continued below. As if drawn up by a string, Stafford’s arm lifted its treasure as he watched the slave and the soldiers, noting every sweat bead on Sergeant Anzai’s thin moustache, that his thick lips were open with curiosity and anticipated cruelty, aware of the whimpers of the desperate brown man who still protected a destroyed eye and ignored a toe nail hanging by a strip of skin. Even minor injuries killed as the Asian slaves had no hospital or access to medicine, but Stafford was indifferent to anything but the tasty fruit.

“Stop, you stop now,” barked Sergeant Anzai.

In reply, Stafford sank his teeth into the orange pulp as the Malay attacked him screaming and flailing uselessly with limbs that knew their lifespan was short. Curled up with his long boney back to the blows, Stafford continued to eat, stuffing his mouth with large bites. He heard Anzai snap an order and felt the soldiers pull the Malay away. Then he heard the thumps of boots and rifle butts breaking the man. Sergeant Anzai stepped on Stafford’s wrist with one foot and wrenched his sugar prize away with long nailed fingers as the prisoner cried out in desolation over the loss of his mango.

“Stan’ up!” ordered Anzai.

Awkward, Stafford lurched to his feet and swayed as dizziness assaulted his balance. The man on the ground had been silent though blows still rained down on his pulped, broken, and bloody body. Looking from Stafford to the Malay without moving his head, Anzai gave an order in Japanese and his men stood at attention.

Still holding the remnants of the mango, Anzai led the way back to the railway. None of the men looked back at the ruined wreck. On the embankment above the Malay crew, the sergeant stopped and waited for the sniffling Stafford to stumble to a stop. He flinched aside from a last push with a rifle butt by a blood spattered soldier.

Stafford looked down into a sea of black hair and bodies shaded yellow and brown. ‘Inscrutable’ was the word Jennings would use, thought Stafford as he swayed transfixed by the raised gaze of the men below. With ill yellow and red eyeballs, they looked just as desperate as their deceased comrade and he was alive, he thought. ‘I am British,’ he said to himself.

“Now,” Anzai said grinning. “Now you fight for mango,” and he tossed the fruit into a lunging, jumping, grabbing, punching, kicking melee of hunger and rage.

Stafford licked the dried syrup around his lips as the now grit filled fruit kicked into view in the scrum. He began to lean forward to assess his chances and stepped back when he realised that his shaky legs would not hold him from falling into the writhing pit below.

Stafford looked into the grin folds that held black eyes in a face whiter than his own. “I think that I must return to my work party now, Sergeant Anzai.” I will find another mango, he thought.

“Yes, I tink so to. An’ you no leave again or ‘accident’ happen you.” The sergeant continued to grin. “You no want to be fight again.”

On wobbly knees Stafford took short steps between the immobile soldiers and walked around the curve cut into grey and brown rock. A bamboo grove on the lower side had been logged for building supplies and material. Morning and night work parties cut the section they now called ‘Hellfire Pass’ into the side of a steep hill. Exhaustion and starvation pitted against solid rock and hatred had won due to British ingenuity and courage thought Stafford as he shuffled up to his fellow prisoners.

“Bloody hell! Stafford old man, where did you get to? You look like you’ve been in a fight,” said Jennings in concern.

“I think I was, can’t remember…” Stafford trailed off as he knew that he could not explain his actions, as Jennings would note that it was ‘not cricket’ to take a wog’s fruit.

“Was it one o’ the wogs, Lieut’nant?” asked a Scottish corporal.

“Well, I’ll make sure Sergeant Anzai knows…” Jennings began and was interrupted.

“Already knows, told me to stay with group, remember that…” Stafford fainted.

“…maybe we can trade with the Thais for a chicken,” suggested an American private as he waved a shirt over Stafford’s recumbent form. “Obviously we’re not getting enough to eat.”

“What do we ‘ave to trade, mate?” asked an Australian officer. “Japs keep takin’ our Red Cross parcels.”

“Right, he’s awake,” said Jennings.

Stafford’s eyelids fluttered as he woke to a babble of consternation. He winced as a shirt blew sand into an eye. As tears flooded the eye he covered his face with his hands and turned away. When he saw the Malay’s face again, he began to bawl in great gulps as if each breath that he took would bring the starving man back.

“Alright then, give Stafford a moment then,” called Jennings. “There’s four holes to be drilled. Let’s get at them, lads.” Tears were not shed or shed in private.

There was a scuffing, shuffling, muttering as the prisoners of war dragged themselves back to their tasks. Stafford wept on, thinking about the Malay’s eye and wondering how he found the fluid to weep. Jennings would decide to say nothing if he was told, Stafford thought as his bubbling dwindled, but then he would be excluded from officer’s duties.

A boot kicked him to writhing pain in a kidney. Then a flurry of kicks reminded him that he was as mortal as the brown Malay. He heard Sergeant Anzai order the beating stopped and lay choking and gasping for breath.

“Look, no cry Ingrishman, look what I give for you,” jeered Anzai with a plump red mango perched on his manicured fingertips. “Look, look, you go get.”

Stafford’s stomach growled and an arm betrayed him by reaching to bring the juicy fruit to his lips. He was kicked in his boney buttocks as the prize remained out of reach.

“Ger up! Ger up!” ordered the corporal.

“See, for you we find. Now you go get,” said the sergeant as he sidestepped to the recently blasted wall.

A cloud loosed a caul of rain that misted down on the cut as Stafford got up and took one small step. His tongue wiped the moisture from his lips with the taste of dust and cordite. He should call for Jennings, he thought.

“Come. I no tell. Come,” urged Anzai who ignored the fine rain.

Stafford stepped forward again, thinking that Jennings was a good sort but would not understand after all. He was really close to the fruit too, so close that if Anzai were careless then he could grab it. He thought to feint a half-step stumble but Anzai stayed put. In the shadow cast by the cloud and the wall, he could not see the miasma of hatred in Anzai’s eyes yet felt worry needle his brain.

A tremor began in his knees. By clenching his jaw, Stafford found that he could stop his knees from shaking. He felt the soldiers behind him step closer and stepped forward to get away. Their breath carried the odor of horseradish and Stafford wrinkled his nose as he again stepped forward.

“Come, come,” said Anzai, shaking the mango like a treat for a dog. “Come, come.”

Anger made Stafford stop. He swallowed and glared down at the shorter man. A rifle butt connected with a kidney. He groaned and sagged forward. Anzai had a plan to disgrace him, Stafford now knew in the fog of his starved thinking. How he planned to do so near the freshly blasted wall, Stafford could not see, so he decided to fight.

In the thin soles remaining to his shoes he rushed forward and smacked into the wall as Anzai called out in Japanese and the mango lifted in a net tied to a rope above his head. Almost had it, thought Stafford touching a bloody nose and listening to laughter. He had felt the net brush against his hair as it rose.

“You try again. Go, climb and get mango,” directed Anzai as three bayonet points connected with Stafford’s back.

Hungry, tired and with the tendrils of terror beginning to wrap his body, Stafford thought again of calling for help. The prisoners had heard the Japanese guards and were making more noise as they pretended to work harder.

“No call Jennings, you climb,” ordered Anzai as he observed Stafford’s head shift. “Now.”

The bayonets pushed and Stafford began to climb the sloping wall. He had half a mind to climb to a ledge and call for help, but he could just see the plump red fruit bounce up the wall. If he could get it, he could embarrass Anzai too. With that excuse to fortify himself, he climbed hard and fast on rain slicked rock watching the prize bob just ahead of him.

A foot slipped and he held on shaking. Anzai called from below, “You climb more,” and laughed.

It then occurred to Stafford that the rope itself, a thick hemp used to secure railway ties, was now the prize. If he could grab that then he would be away from Anzai and not clinging to a ledge. He shifted his weight and waited. Jeering Japanese voices announced the dropping of the prize.

Stafford watched it pass and eyed the rope for a spot that passed over a gap in the rock face so that his hands had space to grasp the rope. Someone shook the rope like a cat’s tail from side to side. Stafford shifted his weight one more time to the tips of his toes and jumped. His hands slid on the harsh fibres and held. Then pain spread in his arms and shoulders as his weight stressed his weak sinews and muscles. His feet scrabbled on the rock to take the load off.

Toes caught on a ledge, he leaned out with a smug smile at his achievement. The sun returned and showed him Japanese soldiers very close above and well below him on the glittering rock face. He was planning to climb up when Anzai called an order and the rope was loosed from the top. Stafford fell with the rope and landed on the rough cut rail bed. Next to his sightless eyes, the mango had split open.

Anzai barked an order and the rope whipped upwards. His giggles were shrill cackles.

“What happened?” asked Jennings drawn down finally by the thud. “Stafford!” he exclaimed.

“Most unfortunate accident. He fall from rope while checking rock wall. Write report.” Anzai walked away from the shocked officer giggling.

“You bastard!” spat Jennings, enraged.

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Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre fiction, classic horror literature or erotica. The darker the tale the better. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.

 

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Over The Threshold by Jim Lee

 

The Nation was in turmoil—felt simultaneously threatened and neglected, from within and from without. To some it seemed it had always been and always would be so.

 

But for now the four young people allowed themselves pride in their accomplishment and hope for the future. They all came from the same poor rural District; had been friends since childhood. And now they were cadets no longer, but had just graduated—these three young men and one equally young woman.

 

Each now wore upon their shoulders the bars of a Sub-Lieutenant in the Nation’s Army—the self-ordained bulwark of their Homeland’s ongoing Defense against its many enemies, foreign and domestic.

 

Ideally, Military life would not have been the first career choice for any of them—though for Nelka, it might well have been the second or third. She had always been the Patriot of the four. But the Nation’s situation was anything but ideal. The Army at least promised steady employment, not to mention a real chance of advancement for this quartet of newly minted Officers.

 

All four felt certain that, at the very least, he or she would now be in a position to have a measurable impact on the lives of their People.

 

#    #    #

 

Blood and pus filled the Prisoner’s swollen mouth. The surviving eye blinked and teared; the bare socket adjoining it oozed a colorless, thick jelly-like substance. This jelly crawled, in slow globs, past a broken nose and across a shattered cheekbone to the lopsided perpetual grin of a badly fractured jaw.

 

To one side of her in the humid darkness, the creak of a wooden chair informed the Prisoner of another Presence. And then, in her ear: A familiar, sneering Voice.

 

“You are a trained Biologist, correct? You know of Pheromones?”

 

Head lolling, the Prisoner would have shrugged—if only she could. But the straps did not allow such movement. She was held upright, almost naked upon the unforgiving metal of the modified electric chair. Wrists, ankles, upper arms, thighs and neck—all were securely bound.

 

Strobe lights flashed in series. They glared into her blurring ‘good’ eye: Red light then blue then on to gold, white and orange, in turn. Then back to red and the cycle persisted—endlessly, mindlessly.

 

“Pheromones,” her Chief Tormentor’s whisper was as insistent as ever. “You know about them?”

 

A stooped shoulder was now clasped, shaken savagely.

 

And the Prisoner moaned. “Y . . .yah. . . yeh . . .yes!” The struggle to force an actual word from between her ragged lips exhausted the Prisoner. Smoke-scarred lungs rebelled and the resultant coughing fit caused the general dull ache in her chest area to grow more pronounced and localized.

 

Dimly, the Prisoner tried to remember how many ribs the human body contained. She wondered how many, what percentage of hers were broken.

 

“Pheromones,” she repeated with dull resignation.

 

And the strobe lights cut-off.

 

As abruptly, the white overheads snapped on. They stayed on as the Prisoner blinked, rolled her single eye. The red-and-purple sore that was her tongue set a row of rotting teeth wobbling as she studied the bare room and her Interrogator.

 

He wore Army fatigues, of course—though neither hat nor coat. Still, she saw the pips on his collars. That made him a Major. With Internal Security, no doubt—though at this point such distinctions hardly mattered. The Ruling Junta’s poisonous and paranoid influence had long ago spread generally throughout all branches of the Army, the Air Force, and the National Police and finally even the Nation’s once-proud and outwardly-focused Navy.

 

This Major was balding, his face moderately wrinkled. But in his way, he was a handsome man. He sat companionably near the Prisoner’s side, grinning. “What do you know, Darda?”

 

“T . . . Told you!” Despite the jungle warmth and suffocating moisture, the Prisoner’s loose teeth chattered. Another coughing fit erupted and the Major waited patiently, studying his nails. At length the hacking subsided; a flow of discolored drool escaped one side of her mouth. It carried down her chin a jagged, crimson-tinted fragment of enamel.  

 

“Not the names,” the Major corrected, still seemingly enthralled by his manicure. “Not this time. That part’s over, remember?”

 

He leaned closer to the recipient of his recent handiwork. “Though you were helpful, of course—in the end. And after all those difficult weeks! So now you see that I was right: Being a stubborn little Bitch accomplished nothing. Correct?”

 

In silent agony, the Prisoner considered all the names, the faces, the individual histories. Old, cynical and ill-mannered Ba Win. That soft-spoken, outwardly cultured bastard of a Lieutenant-Colonel of Police. The grim-faced onetime University Professor. Distantly, she wondered if any of them had in fact been part of an actual cadre of the Opposition. They’d all finally confessed under torture and named names—if only to make the suffering end and thus to be allowed to die. But hadn’t she done the same?

 

And had not naming her brother, their older cousin or her long-crippled artisan friend and former lover Sein Lat saved any of them?

 

Probably not. They were all perhaps too obvious candidates for membership in her Resistance Cell. Yet in the perverse universe of lies and deception, of terror and counter-terror that the Nation had become, who could tell?

 

Perhaps what was sensibly so obvious was now the best, most absurd protection possible!

 

Her friends and relatives—her Comrades. They were, she’d discovered at this very late date, really who she had been fighting for, all along. The People? If she had the energy, she would’ve snorted. Who in Hell were they, anyway? The faceless, grubby, apathetic and anonymous millions!

 

She closed her one ‘good’ eye.

 

That earned her a careless slap. “Look at me, Darda!” Another, harder blow followed. “Don’t you even want to know if you die today—or how?”

 

Oh, yes—that, above all else, the Prisoner wanted to know!

 

Her solitary eye opened, focused as best it could.

 

The Major nodded, offered his winning smile. “Better,” he cooed then he swung his head around. Over his shoulder, he gestured at the tiny camera mounted in the upper corner of the wall, scarce centimeters below the ceiling.

 

A hard-faced Lieutenant in crisp full uniform entered the room, followed closely but with obvious reluctance by four much younger junior officers—one of them female. From useless habit, the Prisoner struggled to fix identifying details for each in her memory. Two of the younger ones held large boxes in outstretched arms. The full Lieutenant and the other youngsters held one clear plastic squirt bottle apiece. The liquids inside the three bottles were each a different shade of amber.

 

Pheromones, she thought with vague foreboding. She noted that, in contrast to the stone-faced Lieutenant, all the youngsters reacted—visibly appalled by her condition. None could be more than 22 or 23, and none showed much desire to meet her gaze.

 

Oh, lads, the Prisoner thought wistfully, without consciously excluding the girl among them. Should’ve seen me ten years ago! Or five—or maybe even last year. . . .

 

Something was moving, rustling minimally around inside the reinforced cardboard boxes. Her one moist eye narrowed.

 

Yes, she thought. “Pheromones,” the Prisoner managed to repeat aloud, her voice as rusty as an old gate.

 

“Correct.” The Major gestured for one of the young officers to approach, to show the Prisoner his box’s contents. The lad grimaced, but obeyed. In contrast to the older men, this one had not yet excised the name stitched into the breast pocket of his uniform.

 

Hello, the Prisoner thought dryly, Sub-Lieutenant Shan.

 

“Once you were a biologist of sorts,” the Major muttered. “Ought to be able to identify these?”

 

A dozen fist-sized, dull-brown beetles milled about in the interior of the box.

 

The Prisoner frowned. “Carrion beetles,” she whispered. “Type common to . . . oh, the northwest Border States.” At times she’d wondered exactly where she was being held. Now the news came too late to be of value—perhaps it had always been too late?

 

She caught Shan’s dark, unwilling eyes. The young man’s wispy mustache twitched and she willed him to understand her silent plea. For an instant, she thought he did.

 

Then the Major directed Shan back to where the others stood.

 

“Yes, indeed.” The Major grinned. “Scavengers of the jungle, aren’t they? Cleaning up all the unsightly waste left by others. Normally quite harmless to anything still alive. But like all insects, subject to certain biochemical scent clues—known as Pheromones, correct?”

 

There was no need to answer, nor question. The Prisoner had the idea, saw the thrust of it. “Mandibles,” she wheezed, to make sure the young ones didn’t miss the point. “Not adapted to . . . living flesh!” Forcing out that many words triggered another round of hacking coughs.

 

The Major waited those out before nodding. “Yes, those wide strong jaws are meant for ripping dead, unresisting, decaying flesh. Working on live tissue, they would be most . . . inefficient. Even should the victim be . . . unable to resist. But what if the beetles were whipped into a mad feeding frenzy by doses of the right combination of Pheromones?”

 

“Which—” Yet another sustained coughing fit forced the Prisoner to break-off her reply. She drooled blood, trembled. She fought to hold herself together long enough get certain last coherent words out and make them clear. “Which you will provide, Major? Am I—what I represent—such an evil . . . such a threat?”

 

The Major snorted. “You’re nothing, Bitch.”

 

But she saw beyond him four young faces, which had their own opinions about that.

 

She made no further comments, merely watched as the uncaring Lieutenant collected the other two bottles from the youngsters and presented them to the Major. Then the Lieutenant hefted the one he held and moved into position alongside his Superior.

 

Darda braced herself, summoning what courage she still had, as her shattered body was liberally misted with a sickly-sweet combination of chemicals.

 

It must be a good death, she told herself. Stay calm, show them! Don’t scream too soon. It’s your last chance . . . last chance . . . your last ch. . . .

 

She realized with dismay that the Major had ordered the four junior officers from the room. She was alone with him and the equally unmoved Lieutenant.

 

Each man raised a boot, kicked over a box.

 

The dull-colored, great-jawed beetles stumbled over one another. The smell, the unmistakable and irresistible guide to their actions hurried them forward. The first reached a dislocated toe, bent grotesquely to one side and especially exposed. But the carrion beetle had no mind for aesthetics, no concern for anything—except for the perfect and complete and total need to fill its maw. A set of insect jaws closed with a tiny snap. The first jerk was answered by a second and a third then an infinity of others.

 

There was no point holding back now. The screams went on for a full hour.

 

The feeding would’ve gone on much longer, if the Major hadn’t ordered his young charges to recapture the beetles. “They might prove useful again,” he stated with a smirk.

 

The Lieutenant stood watching at the open doorway. He was not surprised that all four of the callow youngsters became physically ill at the sight, one after another. He knew from personal experience they would harden, become used to it and finally accepting of the necessity of such methods.

 

What did surprise him was that the Prisoner still lived—unconscious when the others began prying the beetles from her with gloved hands, yet still breathing. He withdrew just long enough to inform the Major, who was also surprised—but not unhappy at this result. And so the four young officers were alone with the Prisoner in the single moment that she fought her way back to semi-consciousness.

 

“Help me, Shan,” she whimpered blindly, though the one she directed this last plea toward happened to be Sub-Lieutenant Wu.

 

Then she passed out again.

 

#    #    #

 

Hours later, four young Officers slowly walked a path in jungle twilight. Sub-Lieutenant Shan, as usual the one in the lead, lit a cigarette and took a puff. Then he passed it on to the next in line. Kian did the same and handed the smoldering object to the woman. Nelka inhaled slowly, took the cigarette between her fingers and turned her head. She arched a questioning eyebrow when the last man nodded and extended his arm. Wu was normally a non-smoker—but tonight nothing at all seemed normal to the four.

 

He took the cigarette, drew the smoke in clumsily and gagged as twin streams of acrid vapor flowed from the nearby woman’s nostrils.

 

They continued walking. Perhaps a hundred meters on they came upon the remains of a dead bird—and two large brown beetles feasting on the corpse.

 

The youngest of the still-new Officers stepped forward and raised a quick grim boot. But Shan elbowed him aside. The middle two simply stood there, nodding. The four finished another cigarette between them as the scavengers ate.

 

“Better things to crush,” Sub-Lieutenant Shan remarked at last.

 

“Don’t even think it,” Kian warned.

 

“We can’t let it go on!” Wu said, astonished.

 

“There’s not a fucking thing we can do!” Kian shot back. He bit his lip; shook his head. “Besides, she’s . . . a terrorist.”

 

“According to Major Tang.” Shan ground the cigarette butt under his boot.

 

“She confessed,” Kian pointed out.

 

“After all they did to her?” Wu asked. “Who wouldn’t?”

 

Kian winced; looked to Nelka for support. The woman met his eyes and slowly, grimly shook her head.

 

“And how about what we did?” Wu demanded.

 

“What are you talking about? We just . . . Major Tang and Lieutenant Vonn are our Superior Officers! We only did what we were told; we followed Orders!”

 

“Making us complicit,” Shan snarled, his eyes narrowed to slits.

 

“Bullshit!” Kian whipped his head around in one direction and then the other. “We did our Duty!”

 

“Really?” the woman said.

 

“Nelka, you of all people—”

 

“Yes, me—of all people!” She sniffed, ran the back of her hand across her lips and frowned. “That was wrong and Major Tang—”

 

“He’s the Ranking Officer . . . the local embodiment of the Ruling Junta!”

 

“Exactly, Kian.” Shan sighed. “And if we go along with it . . . .”

 

“What choice do we have? Shan, think about it. If we refuse lawful orders—”

 

“Lawful!” Nelka interrupted.

 

“In this situation, the way things are . . . .”

 

“Anything goes?” Wu stepped up, his face within centimeters of Kian’s. “Doesn’t that make us terrorists as much as anyone?”

 

“We just carried some stuff into a room, put it down and left when told to.”

 

“And afterward?” Wu taunted.

 

“Yes, I know. Look it’s a terrible thing. But all we did, personally—”

 

“What about tomorrow?” Shan answered. “Or the next day, next week? That’s how they work it. Drag us into it, step by step. Soon we’ll be required to take an active part in this shit. Then we’ll be trapped!”

 

“As if we aren’t already?” Kian turned, walked two steps away and faced the darkening jungle. “What do you propose we do? Desertion earns us the firing squad, just like refusing orders would.”

 

“If we’re lucky,” Nelka murmured.

 

“Yeah—and our families?”

 

“Could we get word to them?” Wu thought aloud. “Tell them to go into hiding?”

 

“How? Where? You’re all dreaming.” The misery on Kian’s face was unmistakable. “And what do we do then—join the fucking rebels in the Hills?”

 

Nobody replied. Nobody met his desperately searching eyes, either.

 

“You’re insane—all three of you!”

 

Nelka grimaced. “What other choice do we have?”

 

“Stay loyal.”

 

Loyal! To what exactly? I signed on to make my Country better!”

 

“Maybe we still can—by staying, coming up through the ranks until we can influence things—?”

 

“Now who’s dreaming?” Shan spoke again. “Look, this woman—she was a biologist?”

 

Kian nodded. “So what?”

 

“Remember a few years back, how the old Junta tried loosening its grip a little?”

 

“In response to outside criticism,” Kian said. “Yes, I recall. Things quickly got out of hand.”

 

“Right,” Nelka mused now. “People tasted a few tiny crumbs of freedom and demanded more. High Command panicked, the current bunch overthrew the old crew and clamped down even harder than before. They even shut down the State University.”

 

Wu nodded. “They purged the Air Force Chief of Staff and a half-dozen other relative moderates, mostly Navy guys.”

 

Kian turned back to Shan. “What about it?”

 

“I got to study some evolutionary biology before they banned the text books. It’s said our greatest survival skill is our ability to adapt. People can—and will—adapt to their environment in order to survive. We can literally get used to anything.”

 

“Yeah, that’s nice.”

 

“Is it? Right now, we’re at the edge—right on the threshold of something that will change our lives forever, one way or another. There’s no turning back; no avoiding it. We have to choose: Are we going to get used to this? One way or the other, we must pass over that threshold!”

 

“Do we stay?” Nelka whispered in Kian’s ear. “Become like Tang and Vonn? Or—”

 

“Or what?” Kian threw up his arms. “Run off and become guerrillas?”

 

“We can’t just leave her,” Shan remarked, his downturned eyes following the carrion beetles. The big insects finished their meal and turned, wobbled off into the surrounding jungle.

 

“So you want to do what, Shan? Indulge some romantic notion of a rescue mission? You’d have to carry her, crippled up as she is and she’d die anyway.”

 

“Along with the rest of us,” Nelka agreed grimly. “Just having her with us, she’d slow us down and we’d be caught.”

 

“Caught and slaughtered.” Kian nodded vigorously. “Glad I’m not the only one here with some brains left!”

 

“But to leave her for Tang?” Wu’s round face distorted with pain.

 

“She knew, I’m sure of it. She begged for the only help, the only mercy we could possibly provide.” Shan turned, drew his sidearm. He knew it was loaded, but he checked anyway.

 

“You’re all crazy. Look, I’m not getting shot—getting my family hurt, maybe killed too. Not in order to save some Goddamned Biologist-turned-Bomb-Thrower!”

 

“No?” Shan lifted, pointed his pistol.

 

“For mercy’s sake, Shan!”

 

“Exactly.” Shan bit his lower lip and fired.

 

#    #    #

 

Lieutenant Vonn happened to be out in front of the armory when the three of them appeared. He was about to ask what they were doing—and where was the other kid?

 

He didn’t get the chance.

 

They knocked him and the private guarding the door unconscious.

 

Shan and Wu went inside, emerged with three assault rifles and several grenades. They found Nelka standing, her face grim and the knife in her hand dripping crimson.

 

The two looked from that knife to the wide gash in Vonn’s throat. Wu nodded; Shan handed Nelka a rifle and they marched across the compound under a balefully full moon.

 

The bored corporal on guard duty out front was quickly dealt with and they rushed into the building. Wu held two astonished soldiers at gunpoint in a room with a monitor that displayed what ‘fun’ their CO was having around back.

 

Shan and Nelka burst in. Tang jumped up, turned and took a burst from Nelka’s weapon in the chest. Shan took out his pistol. He took two steps forward, met the Prisoner’s single grateful eye and fired.

 

Quickly retracing his steps, Shan told Wu, “Come on!”

 

Just behind them, Nelka gritted her teeth and whirled—took out the other two soldiers before they could reach their guns.

 

The small base was crazy with confusion from the late-night gunfire and the three made their escape with relative ease.

 

Within five years the old regime—along with most of the Nation—was in ruins.

 

Before the rebels allowed UN teams in to help guide the Nation toward some semblance of decent governance, the hard old men of the Junta came before a Tribunal of three much younger, but now equally hardened Officers.

 

Most drew long prison terms, but the worst of the Old Order faced firing squads. Yet in some ways, they were the lucky ones . . . .

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A Hero’s Welcome by Peter Indianna

 

 

 

The cobalt dress was taut around Carter Graham’s hips, the nylon thigh-hose stretched smooth and the blonde wig that he made out of Janet’s scalp fit radiantly snug over his short, salt-and-pepper hair. The pumps were far too small so he had to slit the sides of the black leather to make his feet slip into the shoes. Sitting at the dressing table, Carter fumbled about in Janet’s jewelry box, primping and fussing, trying on different pieces to achieve that distinctive look. The make-up strategy was harsh and gaudy, the scarlet lipstick a bit too thick and became smeared from his unskilled attempts to apply it. An synthetic pearl necklace was selected and Carter clasped it around his neck, followed by a pair of pearl studs which he punctured through the lobes of each ear. He stood before the full-length mirror and turned, spun and swayed, mugging at his reflection. Small plastic bottles, pills, capsules and tablets were sprinkled on top of the tawny carpet. Clozaril, Depakote, Zoloft, Luvox, Trazadone – a gathering of pharmaceuticals; slow-motion comfort and fast-frame, accelerated nourishment. A magnificent cocktail that swept your life under a national security rug and wrapped you in medicated swaddling. The simple, country songs of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline pervaded the bedroom, while hearty swigs of luscious bourbon smoothed the edges.

The erratic, unpredictable emotional and psychological behaviors began just a few months upon his return from the unforgiving deserts of Iraq. Discharged from the stifling heat, the desiccated terrain and aggressive sunlight, Carter was tossed back into a frightening and now unfamiliar society. The slap-and-tickle life that everyone sloshed through, bickered, quarreled and moaned about, yet so coveted. There was never any comfort, no time for contemplation, just an incessant barrage of flashing, strobe-light images, blaring, yap-yap-rapping sounds and thundering bass-lines saturating the American way of life.

When Johnny comes crawling home again, hurrah! hurrah!

No parades were given, no handshakes offered and no keys to the city were ceremoniously granted. The cracks to fall through were becoming wider these days and the darkness below the grating was hostile and unmerciful.

Carter found out that he could not adjust to any of it. He couldn’t fit in and eventually caved-in and decided that he did not want to.

After the turmoil he had witnessed, the sanctioned use of brutal aggression and premeditated terror he knowingly participated in, Carter could not simply return to Wheel of Fortune after supper, Starbucks Colombian or baggy-pants adolescents. Entertainment celebrities, sports stars and corrupt CEO’s were strutting up and down the red carpet, saturated with ludicrous salaries and worshipped in their respected fields as role models. Fifteen minutes of fame became hour-long, weekly television shows where the hateful, self-absorbed, soft-headed, two hundred-dollar-hair-styled herd clamored for the million dollar prize by demonstrating to obese couch potatoes just how rugged they were by eating grubs and holding their breath under water for two minutes. Carter knew the sadness, the incongruity of it all, the pain and isolation of being abandoned and betrayed by a nation and by those he trusted and confided in.

They could never walk in his shoes, never have gone through, let alone survived the hardship and severe stress he faced on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour basis. His wife tried to understand, at first she attempted to support him but eventually sought to only pacify him then she too became an outsider, an intruder into his lost world growing ever distant and ignorant of the blight that ate its way into his soul, wormed its way deep into his psyche and obliterated his humanity. He went into the Gulf War as a confident, dedicated, clear-headed man and he returned as a damaged, slack-jointed toy prone to vicious, demented outbursts and psychopathic fantasy. All of the physicians, the medical personnel at the Veteran’s Hospital encouraged the excessive liberal use, the cover-your-ass, inexhaustible procession of eclectic anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, anti-anything-and-everything medications to try and keep his – as well as all of the other war victims – mind swerves from going off the standard charts.

They told him that his symptoms were temporary, stress-related from the field of combat and that other servicemen similar to Carter had gone through it and recovered with remarkable success. PTS-fuckin’D, but with the contemporary treatments and one-to-one and group therapies that were available today, an effective transition to a post-war life had become relatively unproblematic and quite commonplace.

The doctors persuaded him, patronized and humored him to have total confidence in their learned knowledge and trust in the established government protocols and the procedures that guided their enlightened hands.

After all the declarations that rolled off of their tongues and the axis diagnoses and the official reports that were hot off the presses, he reasoned that his medication was a vulgar, document-driven conspiratorial joke played against him and Carter eventually discontinued taking his doses.

He knew best. Theirs was nothing more than folly.

“So what do you say now, girl?” Carter screeched at the mirror and waved his fingers at the ludicrous image, shifting his hips back and forth and kicking his legs up in an awkward, barnyard dance. He pranced over to the bathroom and looked at Janet’s plump body which was kneeling and bent over the edge of the bathtub. Carter sashayed, wiggled and giggled as he pranced across the cool ceramic tiles. He stood over his scalped wife’s body,  leering, then stuck his tongue out and wagged a saucy finger at her.

“My dear sweet Janet, you are such a nasty tease!” He squealed childishly as he kneeled down behind her, pushed her dress up around her waist and pulled down her panties. His mind was spinning, soaring and roaring on the whirlwinds of a chemical climax bubbling straight to the top of the charts. No feelings of regret or sorrow encroached his domain. He became a sadistic changeling, a blazing, savage entity from a dimension of the absurd, the abstract plane of lunacy.

“OH, NO! A STRING? NOW, THIS WILL NOT DO!”

Carter screeched as he yanked the tampon roughly out of her flinging it over his shoulder where it slapped onto the white-tiled wall, then slid snail-like, downwards until it plopped atop lid of a hamper basket.

He beat out a frenetic samba rhythm with his hands, slapping her milky-white, pudgy and dimpled thighs and all the while wailing a nonsensical, improvised song. Grinding his hips and groin against her exposed bottom, Carter was overwhelmed by the satiny feel of the sheer dress material on his hard penis.

Raising the front of his costume he went in slowly, smoothly, then pushed jaggedly, sadistically and deep, then finished quickly. He fell forward across his wife’s back where his hands massaged her bloodstained shoulders. He lay his sweated head down softly between her shoulder blades and closed his eyes.

Pleasant voices once far away, now drifted closer on the slightest of air currents. The sound possessed him, gripped him intimately amidst meandering, sinuous harmonies. Unrestrained, he absorbed this primordial song as it filled his gluttonous belly with a sun-burst of dazzling and splendid jubilation.

No scorching winds blowing through dry sands. No unrestrained screams from inside burning personnel carriers. No innocent families thrown alive and breathing into improvised, bulldozer-ready graves. No malignant plumes of gas belching from concealed, concrete underground bunkers or the slow-moving, toxic, emerald mists that hugged the rocky terrain, kissing you so sweetly as if it were a cat’s whiskers.

Carter spoke very softly, his voice lethargic and slowing to a dead-man’s crawl. His eyelids fluttered over dilated pupils and the cadence of his heart diminished, spreading outwards like ripples gliding across a lake. Passionate, delicate arms urged, soothed and nurtured him as wings fluttered overhead ever so silently, lifting him from this place, from this earth.