By Chris Wright
Following on from Andy Wright’s The Walk of Shadows – Footsteps, today I am bringing you an excerpt from my own novel. More specifically, here is the first chapter of my wartime epic Wartorn. I’d love any feedback comments and reviews.
He was lost again, drifting in the ether. It was becoming ever easier, he noted dully, to escape into the unfeeling bliss of nothingness and ever harder to return to the harsh realities of life and war. In a way it was good, he thought, a coping mechanism to release him from the torment and pain, from the endless exhaustion. But it disturbed him too, the thought that he was losing his grip on reality. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was irrevocably broken.
“You still with us Sam?” a voice cut into his thoughts, stealing him back to the present. “Or do I have to go fetch a straightjacket and bucket for you to drool into?”
Jimmy’s southern drawl was as jovial as ever, as if they were chatting casually over a beer at a bar. His ever-cheery demeanour irritated the platoon in the same measure that it raised their spirits and it had earned the golden-haired young soldier his share of bruises in the darkest days.
“No worries on that score for you Jimmy, you’ve never had a mind to lose,” Sam replied, his English accent tinged slightly by months spent in a mostly American unit.
Jimmy smiled easily, the grin lighting up his clean-cut features. Smiling like that, he looked to all the world to be nothing but innocence and cheer. It was a misapprehension that many young women had once held to their cost.
“Ya seen Psycho?”
“Not recently, why?”
“Son of a bitch owes me money. We were playing poker with Marty and Bugs, he said he was gonna fetch his wallet.”
“Well in that case, we’ll probably never see him again. Wait, Bugs? Bugs doesn’t know how to play poker.”
“Yeah, I know. Why do you think we were playing with him? He’s gone AWOL too by the way. If you see him, let me know.”
“He’s probably climbed in a hole somewhere,” said Sam.
Jimmy looked at him blankly.
“You know,” said Sam. “Bugs, rabbit hole.”
Jimmy shook his head.
“Come on Sam, you’re better than that.”
“That’s gold mate, you just don’t know comedy. Can I expect an invitation to one of these poker meets anytime soon?”
“You?” said Jimmy, incredulously. “I don’t think so buddy; you actually know how to play. I didn’t wanna let Marty in, but I owe him a favour for helping me out of that trouble in Austin.”
“You mean the incident with the Colonel’s daughters? I helped too.”
“Yeah ’cause you and Psycho were in more trouble than me. If Marty hadn’t showed up and distracted the old man, the three of us woulda been up on treason charges.”
Sam rolled his eyes.
“You’re exaggerating. It would’ve been gross misconduct and public indecency, at worst.”
“You didn’t see where Psycho put the American flag,” said Jimmy. “I’m gonna go look by Charlie Squad. Cheap motherfucker; he only owes twenty bucks.”
Sam held up a hand and couldn’t help but smile as he watched his friend leave. Jimmy had a way about him; he could always cheer him up, him and Psycho. It had probably saved Sam’s life when he’d first joined up with the regiment. Without the two of them, he’d have been liable to put a bullet in his own head.
Jimmy was one of the lucky ones, always with a joke at hand and a fantastic tale on his lips. He managed to get into some adventure or another wherever he went and he usually dragged Sam and Psycho along with him. But the suffering was with him as it was with everyone else, lurking beneath the surface. It whispered its presence by the small slip of his smile when he thought no one was looking and the hardened, distant stare of his eyes. Sam’s gaze swept over the rest of his platoon, family in all but blood; the men and women with whom he entrusted his life and whose lives were entrusted to him. Looking at their pained, exhausted forms, he felt a twinge in his own gut that was not his own. Why? The question occurred without direction or reason. Why?
His wandering eyes stopped when he reached Screamer, who was sat as silent as ever, eyes unfocused and bulging from his gaunt visage. He had been handsome and strong when Sam had first met him, but war had slowly chipped away at his body, as it had his mind, and he now looked closer to forty than twenty three. Screamer had once been called Frank, but was named for his propensity to screech out terribly in the night, as loud in sleep as he was silent in his waking hours. To call what remained of him Frank would be to do a disservice to the man he once was. In truth, he had no right to be anywhere but a hospital but, with the war gone to hell, anyone who could hold a rifle had to stay and fight. And Screamer could still fight with the best of them.
All the same, Sam feared that Screamer was not long for this world. Apathy had wrapped him in its tendrils and sucked the fight out of him and too often, in war, the first to die were those who didn’t care to live. These thoughts brought Sam’s mind to the approaching battle and he felt a sharp pinch of fear. It twisted painfully and raised his pulse, but he was glad for it; it meant that he was still alive, that he still cared. He had to hold on to that.
The constant waiting was driving him crazy. War, he pondered for the umpteenth time, was dreadfully dull and it was the anticipation far more than the battles that ground on his nerves. Deciding on a walk to clear his mind, he pushed himself up from the cold ground, brushed the needles from his clothes and set off after Jimmy. He wound his way through densely-packed trees, picking up his feet as the roots and brambles reached to snatch at his ankles. He breathed in the air, took in the scene, did what he could to clear his mind and forget. Night was just starting to fall, the moon rising above the trees into a purpling sky, and most of the soldiers in his squad were retreating to their olive-green, three man tents. Turning his eyes to the gaps in the trees, he saw the rest of his platoon doing the same. Forty two soldiers on the eve of battle; Sam hoped they slept well. Sergeant Harry Steele was one of the few still up, leaning against a tree outside his larger, single tent as he swigged deeply from his famous hip flask. He waved as Sam passed near.
“Nelson,” he said in his harsh, gravelly New York tone. “Pull up a seat.”
Sam complied, parking himself down onto a flat piece of dusty earth.
Steele offered him the flask. Even in the friendly, single-word offer, his voice was hard and rough, like a garbage disposal, like he was gargling with iron filings. Sam didn’t think Harry Steele knew how to speak softly.
A quick sniff of the flask told Sam that it was whisky, not usually to his taste but, under the circumstances, he accepted it gratefully and took a long drink. The liquid seared his throat but the alcohol soothed him a little and he took another swig before it was snatched away.
“Two gulps is as far as my courtesy extends, kid,” said Steele, taking a drink himself. “I don’t got much left and I’ll be damned if I’m going to die sober.”
“I don’t know how the hell you got that much,” Sam replied. “We’ve had no supplies since we left and you told me you were out weeks ago. Five hundred miles behind enemy lines and you’ve got a bloody whisky connection.”
Steele grunted and took another sip.
“I got my ways.”
There was a pause and Sam glanced across at his superior. Harry Steele was affectionately known as Nails, as in hard as, and was something of a legend throughout the division, famous for his actions at Fort Worth. That had earned him a medal but he’d quipped that he’d have preferred a ticket home. Sam knew it was just talk; he’d never leave his platoon in the lurch. They’d have to drag him from battle kicking and screaming and Sam would like to see them try.
Legend or not, though, as he sat gulping down his illicit alcohol, he looked as raggedy and miserable as the rest of them. Thick stubble spread over his square jaw and his greying hair was starting to grow out of its normal crew cut. His crooked, twice-broken nose and pale cheeks were streaked with camouflage paint mixed with dirt and his thin lips were turned down in a perpetual frown. The march to get them where they were had been tough on them all.
“New Mexico behind enemy lines,” he said ponderously. “Never thought I’d live to see that day.”
“Yeah well, you might not have to live to see it for much longer. Tomorrow’s the big day,” Sam replied, glancing back at his tent.
“Don’t bother,” said Steele. “Link’s doing the rounds. We’ll be getting them up again anyway.”
Lieutenant Joseph “Link” Ryan was the platoon leader. A young and well-liked officer, he was a little green for Steele’s taste, having only cut his teeth in the Second Battle of Chicago, fifteen months prior. He’d proven a skilled leader nonetheless and, at the start of the mission, he’d been transferred to the Allied Commando Force. The regiment Sam had called home for the past year. True to Steele’s word, it wasn’t long before Link arrived, passing carefully between the tents and greeting the two of them before rousing the rest of the squad.
“Good evening men. And women,” he added with a nod to Rachel Leckie.
Rachel rolled her eyes. She hated being singled out, but as the only woman in the squad it was inevitable. Link didn’t seem to notice her irritation and carried on without pause, his clipped, Connecticut accent whispering of a privileged upbringing.
“I’m sure you know the plan every which way by now so I’ll be brief. Delta Squad will, of course, be led by Sergeant Steele, supported by Corporal Nelson,” he nodded at Sam and Steele. “You will defend the rear of the platoon and act as sentries while Alpha through Charlie Squads take the installation, destroy the communication blocking relay and seize anything that might be of valuable intelligence.”
An annoyed grunt sounded from the rear of the group and Sam didn’t have to turn around to know it came from Psycho. As far as his friend was concerned, they’d drawn the short straw; he wanted to be right in the thick of the action, not defending the rear. Again, Link continued, undaunted by the interruption.
“You will be our first line of defence should reinforcements arrive and will take out any X-rays who escape the facility. Hard arrests only; we’re not taking any prisoners tonight. I know the installation is bigger and better defended than our intelligence had led us to believe, but nothing has changed.”
That was an understatement, it was more like three times the size they’d been told and it was guarded like Fort Knox. In truth, a platoon their size, even from the ACF, had no business assaulting such a place, but to turn back was not an option, not after all they’d been through to get there.
“This operation has taken months of planning. It is the first time a platoon has been able to penetrate this deep into enemy-held territory and we all know what it has taken to get us this far. If we’re successful tomorrow, we’ll be able to re-establish comm’s with the entire New Mexican Resistance and that could prove vital in co-ordinating the war effort going forward. Rest up now and, come tomorrow evening, we’ll give ‘em hell.”
The high school coach “Let’s-get-‘em” bit did manage to stir the hardened veterans just a little and there was a murmur of assent. Delta Squad didn’t need a Henry the fifth; they had all been there before and they knew what was at stake. They knew it all too well.
Sam turned his eyes over each of his squad mates in turn. Over the year he’d been in the ACF, his platoon had become an extended family to him and he could rely on them entirely, but these nine soldiers, they were his brothers and his sister. He loved every one of them, even those he hated and, though he would never admit it, looking upon them caused his heart to jolt, as he wondered how many would still be there at the same time the next day.
As they were dismissed and started retreating to their tents, chatting amongst themselves, an air of deep anxiety underlay the atmosphere of forced machismo and half-hearted banter. Sam knew he wouldn’t sleep that night. His heart had started to pound in his chest and the icy fingers of creeping dread, stirring all night, had grasped him firmly. It was pre-battle nerves, normal and healthy, but it was more than that too, it was a sixth sense, primal and base, that screamed danger. He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm. Slowly breathing in and out, he cursed himself for his superstition and headed to his tent.
When he stepped inside, Jimmy was already in his sleeping bag, looking quite happy and smug, in direct contrast to his other roommate, who was grumbling under his breath. Andy “Psycho” Stark was not happy, and the corner of a twenty dollar bill poking from Jimmy’s pack told Sam why.
“Close the fucking flap Sammy,” he said as Sam walked in. “I don’t want to go to war with bloody frostbite.”
The night wasn’t that cold but Psycho had never gotten along with chilly weather. He was a tough-talking Aussie, bearded and big, with shaggy, brown hair and squinting, black eyes. But Sam merely smiled at his harsh tone.
“Sorry mate,” said Sam, complying. “I forgot how sensitive you are.”
“Don’t mock him now, Sam,” said Jimmy. “You know how the girls feel the cold more than us. How about I come over there and warm you up, Psycho?”
“You can both fuck off,” Psycho replied. “I’m more man than the pair of you combined. You spend more time on your hair than your gun, Jimmy.”
Sam laughed but then Psycho turned to him.
“And you can shut up, you wouldn’t know a woman if one came and bit you on the arse.”
“Well presumably, if she was biting me on my arse, she’d be behind me so no, probably not,” Sam replied.
“I think Nathalie Murphy would beg to differ,” said Jimmy, looking at Sam with a grin.
He made no answer but retrieved his sleeping bag and climbed inside.
“Big day tomorrow, boys,” he said after a while. “Get some sleep.”
“Night, night sweetie pies,” said Jimmy.
“Jimmy, if I wake up and you’re lying in my sleeping bag, this knife is going right up your arse,” said Psycho.
“Don’t say that,” said Sam. “He’d probably enjoy it.”
The good-natured ribbing soothed his nerves but his worries proved prescient and, even as the snores of the others filled the tent, Sam stared up at the canvas above, unable to give himself over to sleep. For hours, he laid perfectly still, staring and thinking, reaching for whatever rest he could. It was no good, it would not come and, as the moon reached its zenith in the night sky, the bombs started to fall.
By Chris Wright
There you have it. Please do leave a comment to tell me what you think and give it a like if you enjoyed this excerpt. You can also follow us here or on Twitter to keep up to date with what we write.
For a more comedic and sci-fi twist to a short story, check out 1979*.
Struggling to start off your own story? We offer our advice, for what it’s worth, on Establishing Characters and the act of Beginning the beginning: Writing an Effective a First Chapter (Part One).