This article is part of the That Insidious Beast series.
The air in my lungs stinks of popcorn. It is a gross, stifling smell that is overwhelming the medical antiseptics and the stench of so many open wounds. I'm in some sort of factory, sitting in an old folding chair next to the rows of cots.
This is now. The now. I am not a child anymore.
I am afraid, but I'm not afraid the same way.
I am afraid of what they will do to me. The traitor. The coward. The survivor. Why am I here? I have been unconscious for a while. How long? A strong soldier moved me from a cot to the folding chair. They needed it for someone worse off than me.
Only my ear is really hurt. Bandaged up and throbbing with exposed nerves. I can hear a bit out of the other ear.
"You're awake," a man in a bloody apron says to me. "Do you want something to drink?"
I am thirsty. I realize I have fluids dripping into an IV in my arm.
"Yes," I croak. "Coffee."
"I don't think so," the man shakes his head at me. "Water for you. How is that head feeling?"
"I had a dream," I say.
"I bet," the man checks a beeping monitor. "If you can, get up and walk around a little. You've been sitting in that chair for three days. Not too good for your circulation."
"Three days? Is that how long I've been here?"
"No, they brought you in with day two casevac," he points to a purple paper band around my wrist. "You're first wave. Pleasant Plain?"
"Yes," I say.
He helps me to my feet. My legs are terribly stiff. My calves throb as the flow of blood slowly returns.
"You boys got the worst of it," he says. "With the angels we kicked their asses. Retook Huntington. We did it, but..."
His voice trails off and he glances at the hundreds of cots full of groaning bodies. He leaves the rest unsaid. We paid a price.
"I tell you what. Walk around the whole room. Twice. I'll get you a can of Coke. Don't think there's any coffee."
He starts to turn and then remembers something. He turns back with a clipboard out.
"By the way, real quick, what is your name?" he asks.
"Your name," he says. "No tags. Your uniform was torn. We only know your unit."
I think back to the trench. Sgt. Shoemaker's headless body. The corpse baked in its mechanical oven. My cowardice, cringing in the filth, staring up at that awful sky.
"Dan," I lie. "Dan Harding."
He writes it down and pats me on the shoulder.
"I'll go get you that Coke, Dan. You take your walk."
The unit chaplain wrote TRUST IN HIM in blue pen across the top of that morning's orders. I can see hundreds of copies covered in mud outside our mess tent. Thrown away. Ignored. No one had to be told which way to shoot.
I read the orders. Full corps and reserves committed for Operation Persephone Gray. "Strategic assistance will be provided by The Host."
None of us needed confirmation, but there it was. Angels.
We could feel it in the air the night before. Feel them, I mean. Five of them come up from Oklahoma and Tennessee. They had fancy codenames. Conjurer, Revenant, Archangel, Weeping Maiden, and Hierophant.
A Haitian in the unit said they sounded like tarot cards. He just said it to me. He knew I wouldn't report him as a moral threat.
"Excuse me," I say as I brush past a nurse pushing a cart stacked with bedpans.
I wheel the IV stand with me, out into the cold air. It's just before morning. You can see it on the horizon. The crump of artillery is far away. Just a distant rumbling to the north. Huntington is ours again.
My breath comes in steaming clouds. I feel tired and a little like I'm going to puke. I tear the IV from my hand and run.
I am stumbling and weak, but with purpose. I won't stand in front of a goddamn firing squad for this army.
Incredibly, I find our unit billets. Deserted. Am I the only one left?
I recognize mementos and pictures tacked to the cheap walls. These were built quick off the backs of trucks. Stacks of prefab boxes. Motels for the damned.
There are a few pictures and a spare uniform in my footlocker. A trophy sidearm I took from a dead Russian in New Hampshire. I'm about to leave when I see a guitar case leaning against a wall. I'm not good with a guitar, but it belonged to Reyes. I saw him blasted to bits.
No point leaving his guitar for the clean out crew.
After years of being misunderstood, I had hoped we finally had "our" story. I was wrong.
He had a yellow inflatable tube around his waist, the kind with a comical duck head. There was a tiny fish in one of his hands, and a trident in the other. In the background a squirrel wearing shades was water skiing.
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