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This is The Corporal, age twenty-one, a paratrooper, who is secure in his own mortality, held together only by the thin thread of his memories. But in a few moments a Japanese sniper’s bullet will hit him in the wrist and knee, bringing him into a reality that he’s been trying to escape from since leaving Cayuga Lake. He’ll be brought back to face an enemy he’s never met, nor ever wanted to. His small-town upbringing and loving family will work against him. He can recall in detail a simpler, easier existence, which his wounds will erase from his life as if it never existed. The Corporal, demolitions expert, who in the next seconds will move into the Twilight Zone—in a desperate search for survival.
It was fast approaching night when the oppressive heat of the day would be replaced by the oppressive humidity. The only good thing about the darkness was that the tracer rounds could be seen walking toward their positions. And the Japanese were proving to be an even tougher, more accurate, and certainly more tenacious foe than MacArthur had warned they would be. This was Leyte Island, in the Philippines, a place that The Corporal and the others in the 11th Airborne Division’s 5llth Parachute Regiment had come to hate and fear after only the first few days of the fierce battle that would never end—except for the ones who bought it, and there were a lot of those. Too many of them.
A heavy mortar round struck about twenty feet from where The Corporal and a half-dozen other paratroopers were hunkered down behind a jumble of boulders that looked as if they’d been dropped into the middle of the jungle. After the initial concussion, a rain of black dirt, chewed-up vegetation, and something else that smelled strongly of copper and something sweet and horribly sour at the same time fell down on them, peppering their helmets.
A young man, even younger than The Corporal, and slighter and shorter than The Corporal’s slender five-four, suddenly leaped up and tried to run. His helmet, face, and shoulders were covered in blood, and a long, twisted rope of intestine that had fallen from the sky was plastered down one arm from his shoulder to his elbow. He was screaming, his words not recognizable in the almost constant din of battle because the noises coming from his throat were not human. Only the desperate sounds of a frantically frightened man.
"Down!" The Corporal shouted. "Get down!"
But the private didn’t or couldn’t hear; it was as if he had turned to run for home and nothing in the world could make him look back, nothing would stop him, until a Japanese Type 92 7.7-mm machine-gun round slammed into the back of his head, exiting out the front of his helmet, and he was thrown forward onto his face, dead before he hit the ground.
The Corporal, his mouth slightly open, knew that he shouldn’t be affected by this—just the latest death in the dozens, probably hundreds, that he had personally witnessed since New Guinea in June—but he had a vivid imagination.
Ernie Pyle or someone like that, he thought, had written something to the effect that a moron died only once but a bright guy died a thousand deaths because he could think out ahead and figure the odds, figure his chances. Probably had something to do with cowardice versus heroism, but right at this moment The Corporal wanted to be anywhere but here, because he’d been figuring the odds for a long time.
He hunkered down a little lower into the jungle mud and gore, into his own sweat and the foul body odors of the other grunts packed around him like untidy sardines in a can, and allowed his mind to drift into a fantasy world.
Like the war and Leyte, the errant thought intruded in The Corporal’s head, the intense noises of the heavy machine-gun fire and mortar rounds they were taking from the Japanese who were steadily sending in reinforcements from Luzon, inescapable.
He could see a man aboard a train hurtling down a track somewhere back in the States. He was an ordinary man, maybe in some business that he’d grown tired of; a job and very likely a place from which he wanted to escape.
The man was looking up at the conductor who’d come around to collect tickets, and it was clear from the expression on his face that he wasn’t happy. That he might have wanted to take off into a dream world. That he would be hurtling down some other track, for someplace else, for a place where he could be happy, could be at peace with himself.
Maybe it would happen in his dreams.
The Corporal opened his eyes, and he could see pretty much the entire scene. The man was wishing for a better life, not in terms of money but in terms of no stress, and he would fall asleep during his daily commute and dream of such a place. Small-town USA.
Only on this day, he gets up in the middle of his dream and sleepwalks to the end of the passenger car, opens the door to the connecting platform, and then without hesitation, with a smile on his face, opens the outer door and, still sleepwalking, steps off the speeding train to his death.
• • •
Maybe it’s wishful thinking nestled in the hidden part of a man’s mind, or maybe it’s the last stop in the vast design of things, or perhaps for this man it’s a place around the bend where he could jump off.
• • •
Someone was calling his name, but for a moment it didn’t register. When his time came, he wouldn’t jump up and try to run away, nor would he sleepwalk off a speeding train. It would be different for him. He knew it, could feel it in his gut. There was more for him, more life, more dreams, more everything.
"Corporal, for Christ’s sake, get your head out!"
The Corporal looked to the left, into the eyes of Tom Hafner, his squad sergeant, not two feet away. "What?" he said. But then he had to shout to be heard over the din. "What?"
"That Jap pillbox is chewing us up. I’ll try to find some defilade around the mound at two eighty, come in from his blind side. I need covering fire."
The Corporal looked out and saw the low mound of a hillock to the left. If the Sarge could reach that far, he’d be blocked from view by the Japanese gunners from their heavily fortified position.
The others had looked up and were listening to the sergeant, and nodding uncertainly. Fear was on their faces, but determination, too. The only way this war was ever going to end was for them to take orders and to fight as hard as humanly possible. But the fog seemed to be everywhere. Surrounding a man. Making any future less than certain, even improbable.
Their platoon of two squads, eight guys and one sergeant in each, plus Lieutenant Henderson from Minnesota, was down to one undermanned squad, one sergeant, and no officer, with no replacements expected anytime soon.
"Let’s do it." The Sarge motioned toward the hillock about twenty-five yards out. He hesitated a moment, then shouted: "Now!"
The Corporal popped up and began firing his M3 Grease Gun on full automatic, short bursts as they’d been taught. The other four grunts did the same, laying down a heavy screen of fire out ahead, walking the line up toward the machine-gun slits in the Japanese position of palm logs and sandbags.
The Sarge, a heavyset man ten years older than everyone else in the combined squad, had a potbelly, a fact everyone marveled at because all they’d been eating for the past two weeks were C-rats, and looking at him no one would ever guess he could get to his feet from behind a boulder, let alone do a broken field run, in full kit, faster than any of the kids.
But then incoming rounds, which had the right-of-way, were definite motivators.
The Sarge, hunched behind the end of the mound of boulders, suddenly leaped forward, making a diagonal path toward the hill. He moved very fast, bent over at the waist, zigzagging through the sometimes thick jungle growth.
Almost immediately the Japs spotted him and moved their fire to the left, trying to cut him off. They knew what he was trying to do.
The Corporal increased his rate of fire, almost immediately running dry, but it took him only a couple of seconds to reload with a fresh thirty-round box magazine of .45 ammo, slam the bolt back, then pop up again to fire.
It was the same thing that everyone else was doing.
Larry Pechstein pulled out a grenade, yanked the pin, and tossed it overhand to hit the ground within ten or fifteen yards of the pillbox, and it went off with an impressive bang. It hadn’t caused any damage, yet the pop must have impressed the Japs, because their fire diminished, just as the Sarge flopped down behind the hummock, putting it between him and the pillbox.
He gave the squad a thumbs-up, and The Corporal and the others hunkered back down behind the boulders, and the Japan-ese machine guns opened up again on their position.
From somewhere off to the right were a mortar launcher and crew, and they began to lob round after round over the trees again, bracketing the squad’s position.
The Corporal looked over at Pechstein, who was from somewhere near Jacksonville, he thought, and at the others, Yablonski from Hackensack, Lamb from Waterloo, and Horvak from Cleveland, who’d claimed at one time or another to have owned just about every model Detroit had ever made before the war, and himself, of course from Syracuse.
• • •
Five young men, soldiers all. Florida, New Jersey, Iowa, Ohio, and New York, with the usual backgrounds, all stuck in a situation beyond their making or understanding. There is no logic here, just a seemingly endless nightmare from which the only escape might be death. In the next second we’ll begin to see the situation for what it really is—the past, the present, and, more important to them, the future.
• • •
A mortar round struck ten yards to the left and slightly behind their position. Someone from the other side of the tall palm tree began returning fire, momentarily breaking The Corporal out of his reveries.
He cautiously raised up so that he could just see over the top of the boulders, but the Sarge was gone from behind the hill. Nowhere in sight, but then the machine-gun fire from the pillbox concentrated on their position again, and he ducked back down.
In his head he could see the five of them desperately trying to get away, but none of them knew to where or what they might find if they got there. At first they made a human pyramid, climbing on one another’s shoulders, but they couldn’t reach the top.
Of the boulders?
He didn’t know. He couldn’t see that far.
Another mortar round landed nearby, and The Corporal rose up again to look for the Sarge, but machine-gun fire from the pillbox forced him back. To his imagination.
The five of them took off their web belts, linked them together, and attached a bayonet to one end. Like a grappling hook. One of the soldiers, The Corporal couldn’t see who—but maybe it was himself because his need to escape was even stronger than the others’—tossed the bayonet up over the top.
Three times before it finally caught on something and he climbed over the top of the boulder and tumbled down to the other side. Where he . . . ?
The Corporal opened his eyes again, confused in the first instant. He had escaped, in his mind, but he had no idea to where. He thought he might have seen snow; maybe he was lying facedown. And when he looked up he’d been seeing something, perhaps a person, but not a Japanese soldier, and not the Sarge.
Pechstein was looking at him, an odd expression on his red, freckled face smudged with grease and mud.
"What?" The Corporal asked.
"You fall asleep or something? You okay?"
It struck The Corporal that the mortar shells had stopped coming, and the machine gun in the pillbox had gone silent.
"What’s going on? What’s happening?"
"Beats the shit outta me," Pechstein said. "Maybe the Sarge got lucky."
The Corporal rose up and took a quick look at the low hill and to the right, at the pillbox, but there was no movement, no sound. It was as if the five of them had been dropped off the face of the earth, or at least out of the battlefield.
Then a mortar round dropped so close in front of them that one of the larger boulders was dislodged and came tumbling down, missing Horvak by less than one foot.
Then he had it, the place to which he had escaped by climbing up the boulders, and the figure. He was a doll, or something; the figure above him was that of a little girl, who picked him up and threw him back over the boulders. Into a barrel with other dolls being collected for Christmas.
• • •
Just a barrel where are kept make-believe figures made in the shape of human beings. Of soldiers unloved and in mortal danger for the moment. But somewhere just on the other side is a place of peace and home and love. If only they can get there, out of this dream world and into another.
• • •
But the machine-gun fire hadn’t resumed and The Corporal chanced another look over the top. Nothing had changed. No sounds of gunfire anywhere, and now the mortar rounds stopped.
He glanced down at Pechstein and the others, who were watching him.
"What do you see?" Pechstein asked.
"What about the Sarge? Can you see him?" Horvak asked. "Has he made it to the pillbox?"
"I told you, nothing’s moving out there," The Corporal said sharply. He was getting spooked. He’d been through lulls on the battlefield before, but never like this one, which seemed to have dropped over them like a thick blanket.
He eased down and sat, his back against the boulders, his Grease Gun cradled between his knees.
"What’re we supposed to do?" Yablonski asked. Like the others, he looked up to The Corporal.
"Wait for the Sarge," The Corporal replied absently. He was thinking of something, his focus on the here and now going soft.
"But what if he doesn’t come back? Fer Christ’s sake, we can’t sit here forever, waiting for somebody to show up."
Here and now.
• • •
The place is here on the battlefield, the time is now, mid-November 1944, and the journey is just about to start.
• • •
But it isn’t the jungle battlefield he’s seeing with his mind’s eye. It’s a small town somewhere, maybe in the Midwest, and he can’t remember his name, or how he got there, except that the place seems to be deserted. Nothing moves, no sounds, not the rustling of the leaves in a breeze, not a child’s laugh or a dog’s bark.
But people were here just a second ago. He walks into a diner on Main Street and a burger is frying on the grill; a lit cigarette is perched on the edge of an ashtray. Across the street, he looks through the window of the barbershop and sees water dribbling from a faucet into the sink.
He turns around and races up the street. "No one’s here!" he shouts. "Everyone’s gone!"
Pechstein was there beside him, a wild look in his eyes. "What the hell’s the matter with you?"
"What do mean?"
"You were shouting something crazy."
The Corporal shook his head. He couldn’t see the rest of it. The town, where the people had gone. The ending. But he desperately wanted to see, wanted to understand, because he felt that his life, his future, might depend on it.
Something nagging at the back of his head, something from the future-wonder stories he’d read as a boy, something just beyond his ken, wanting to take him away from this place, wanting to pull his concentration away from the struggle here to the mystery out there.
Up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits in the stars, waiting, waiting with the patience of aeons.
But he didn’t know what that meant. The thoughts were merely random snippets, popping off in his head like a photographer’s flashbulbs, clear for just an instant before nothing was left except the afterimage of a dark spot in the retina.
Pechstein and the others were watching him. They were worried. With the Sarge gone, The Corporal was all they had to lead them. He had a bachelor’s degree from Antioch, which meant he knew things none of them knew, he could figure out stuff. They were depending on him.
"Well, at least they’ve stopped shooting at us," The Corporal said.
"Do you think it’s because of the Sarge?" Horvak asked. "Maybe he took out the pillbox."
Excerpted from Twilight Zone by Carol Serling.
Copyright © 2009 by Carol Serling and Tekno Books.
Published in September 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.