The first streaks of morning caused the LT to stir. He was back in the outpost. He really hated the outpost. Wait a second. He’d fallen asleep on watch again. Anderson wasn’t sure if it was the medication or if his discipline was slipping. He’d have time later to kick himself. Hopefully the private had stayed awake.
He looked around and saw a figure slumped in the corner. “Private, what’s the time?” No response. “Hey, soldier. Wake up!” Still nothing. Anderson went to push himself up and his left arm gave out on him. He really wished his arm would heal up. He tried again with his good arm.
He made his way toward the sleeping soldier when his left foot sunk into a hole. He pitched forward and landed hard. It took a few moments for him to stop seeing stars. He had landed in some kind of muck. It was all over his arms and chest. He’d clean up in a minute. “Soldier, wake up,” yelled Anderson as he shook the soldier by the shoulder. Chills ran down the lieutenant’s back as he flicked on his flashlight.
Empty, hollow eyes, reflecting the light, stared back at him. He passed his light over the soldier’s body. He stumbled backward and dropped his light. The macabre sight was seared into his mind. The enemy had attacked Preston, disemboweling him and mutilating the rest of his body. It looked as though something had gnawed on his body.
Anderson heard a growling sound coming from the corner behind him. He slowly pulled his sword and turned to investigate the sound. Those two glowing eyes stared back at him. The thing screamed and pounced on him. There was that familiar surge of pain and then he blacked out again.
Anderson bolted awake, soaked in sweat again. “At ease, soldier,” came a familiar voice. “Hey, Captain. What brings you down here?”
“So I need a reason to come see my friend in the hospital,” questioned Captain Augustus sternly.
“No, but I figured you had more pressing matters,” Anderson said sheepishly as he laid back down. “I keep having this nightmare. I’m usually alone on the line and then these two red glowing eyes appear. Then whatever is attached to those eyes attacks. This time Preston had been mutilated.” The LT looked up at his friend. Augustus’s face had gone pale. “What’s wrong, DT?”
“They brought in Preston earlier this morning. He bled out on the operating table. Seems like a cruel joke. He survives the first attack with nothing more than a paper cut and then gets mauled to death a few days later. I’m guessing he fell asleep on watch again.”
“DT, I need to get back to the line and my men. They need me. I don’t want anyone else to end up like Preston.” Anderson was seething inside. This enemy was becoming more and more dangerous and just as brazen. The idea of Preston dying like that just infuriated him.
“Slow down, Silas. You still can’t use your arm and you came close to bleeding out from that gash to your leg. You need to recuperate. I’ve got Talbot in command of the platoon for the time being. I’ve got to get back to the command post. So rest up and I’ll check back in with you later.”
As the weeks passed, the LT become more despondent. His wounds weren’t healing fast enough for him and he wasn’t getting any sleep because of those nightmares. The locations and circumstances changed, sometimes there were people and sometimes he was alone. But what never changed were those God-forsaken eyes. Always hovering there in the darkness. They sent chills down his spine in his dreams and in real life.
The Doc had given him some basic rehab exercises to gain back strength in his injured arm. He had done them for the first few weeks but the pain got worse and he wasn’t getting back anymore feeling in his arm.
DT had come by a few other times right after the attack, but it had been a few weeks since his last visit. The number of attacks had steadily risen since the one that had landed him here. So DT was busy with the troops trying to keep them alert and on guard.
And Anderson was powerless to help his men. He was just a deformed soldier with a bad arm and a limp. He’d seen a lot of his men come through the field hospital. Sgt Talbot received what look like bite marks on both legs. It put a hobble in his stride, but he was back on the line a week later. Hawthorne had taken a swipe to the back that severed his spinal cord. And Preston’s vacant eyes staring back him were there each time Anderson closed his eyes.
“Silas. Snap out of it solder!” The LT shook the cobwebs from his head and realized Captain Augustus was talking to him. “So how’s it going?”
“Not so good, Captain. My arm still hasn’t healed and I can’t sleep at night because of these nightmares. To be honest, I’m sick and tired and just want to go home.”
Augustus took a deep breath and sat down beside Anderson. “I understand. I get tired of all this too. Tired of seeing my men maimed and killed. Sick of writing their families to tell them they died serving their country. Weary from the long nights filled with terror. But I signed up for this. I knew enlistment was for life. I know I’m standing in the gap. You, I, and our men are putting ourselves in harm’s way so this same terror doesn’t befall our families, our children. I would rather lose a leg to this enemy than see the same thing happen to one of my kids.”
The LT felt embarassed. Every soldier here had sacrificed a lot. DT had left a wife and three kids at home. His youngest had been born a few days after he and Anderson had shipped out for Basic.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it, Silas. I don’t see this getting any better, but we’re doing a good thing here. So rest up, the men need you.” Augustus stood and turned to leave. “Oh, and by the way. I’ve got a souvenir for you.” He threw a trinket to Anderson.
It looked like a claw. Augustus continued, “Sergeant Lee found that while trailing the beast that attacked Hawthorne. We at least know they are corporeal, even though skewering them doesn’t seem to kill them.” Augustus turned and ducked through the tent doorway.
Anderson sat in silence staring at the claw, turning it over and over in his hand. At least they weren’t a ghost, he thought.
The next morning, Anderson got up and got ready the best he could with one hand. He grabbed his ruck sack and walked, with a great deal of effort not to limp, back to where his platoon was positioned. After a few clicks he crested the edge of the trench and yelled, “Sergeant Talbot, front and center.”
Talbot poked his head out of a supply tent. “LT, glad to see you back.” He jogged over and shook Anderson’s hand. “Permission to be relieved of duty, sir?”
“Permission granted.” Anderson started making his way down the line checking in with the men. There were many new faces and several familiar ones were missing. The LT came to the end of the trench and looked out over the horizon. The sun was beginning to sink below the distant hills.
“Alright men, check your gear and get ready for night. Sergeant Lee, you and I will take the first watch.” Anderson fished the claw DT had given him from his pocket. It was now attached to a loop of cord. He placed it around his neck and headed up the ladder and toward the outpost.