Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Checkout (06/09/11)
TITLE: Pearls on a Fragile Thread
By Patricia Turner
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We'd scouted out a nearby ridge of palms and underbrush. Connelly was laughing along with the rest of us at some joke about Charlie when Charlie jumped out from behind a tree and two cracks of his rifle took out Buck and Slim Jim.
The rest of us had our rifles ready and Charlie dropped his gun, his dark dead eyes boring into ours as his limp body slid down the trunk of the palm. His arms dangled like those of a puppet when the strings have been let to go slack.
All of us were silent and wary as we walked back to the narrow troughs of base camp, the laughter stilled.
It wasn't like we'd never killed anyone. Just most of us never saw one of them die so close and personal.
I remember seeing Connelly slide down to a sitting position at one end of our trough. We were all tired so I thought nothing of it. I took a swig of water from my canteen and wished I had a donut or something for it to wash down. I reached into an inner pocket and found a cigarette and matches in their waterproof package. I smoked in silence, staring back toward the ridge. It occurred to me that the man we killed had a soul, and I wondered idly where it went.
“Kerrigan!” My sergeant strode up to me, barking. His short stocky body reminded me of a bull dog.
“You checkout that ridge? Find anything?”
“Curious”, I thought. Did he not notice we were lighter a couple of men? Had he not seen Buck and Slim Jim go out on their own two feet and come back on four others?
“Found Charlie. Actually, he found us.” I jerked a thumb toward the end of the trough where the bodies lay.
“What's with Connelly then?”
“Connelly sir?” I turned in the man's direction and saw that after half an hour he sat still as he had been from the first when he dropped there.
“Connelly. He decide to take a day off?” This was barked without humor, and the sergeant walked away, clearly expecting me to deal with Connelly's problem, whatever it was.
I moved closer to Connelly. His rifle lay on the ground beside him. His body was slack and his mouth hung open slightly. His eyes stopped me. His eyes mirrored those of the dead man back up the ridge: dark and dead.
“Hey, Connelly.” I was uneasy as I dropped to a squat in front of him. I'd heard of this sort of thing, but never expected to see it. I tried a joke, like the one that made him laugh up on the ridge, before Charlie.
“Connelly, hey. Come on buddy.” I produced a cigarette and a match and held them out.
No motion. I swear, the man never even blinked. Was he dead? I saw he was breathing, barely. A thin line of drool beaded like tiny pearls on a fragile thread.
“Soldier, snap out of it!” Sergeant stood over my shoulder, glaring down at Connelly, as if he thought the man was faking.
“Sir, I think he's sick. I...”
“Nonsense, soldier. The man was fine this morning. I'm putting him on report.”
“Report, sir?” My voice rose with the word “sir”, in disbelief and frustration.
“For insubordination.” His bark continued.
“In...sub..ord...in...a...tion?” I let the word roll slowly off my tongue as I came to my feet and turned to face my superior officer. My fists were clinched, behind my back.
His black beady eyes met mine without comment. We held one another's gaze for a moment.
“Move out!” He barked as he turned to walk away.
“Kerrigan?” The bark softened but his beady eyes flashed.
“Connelly, sir. Permission to carry him.”
“Then, permission to stay behind, sir?” The sweat on my face was cold in hundred degree heat and humidity.
A beat went by. Just a beat.
“De-nied,” :both syllables stressed.
Nine men moved. One remained, staring blankly at inward demons.
The last time I saw Connelly, I noticed someone propped his rifle up, with its bore by his cheek, and his hand near the trigger.
For weeks my dreams mingled Conelly and Charlie, Buck and Jimmy.
I'd never felt a man's soul die.
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