OUTPOST

By Katelynn Northam


Rabbit flicks a fingernail clipping away and exhales. His breath escapes up into the clear blue winter sky and he watches it go, longingly. I watch it too as it curls its way past navy blue leaves and into the bleakness of the winter sky. Then we lower our eyes and stare at each other, both smirking self-consciously.

It’s cold, but then again I can’t remember a recent night when I haven’t been cold. It’s Bastogne, December of ’44, and Rabbit McDonnell and I are sitting out on outpost duty, freezing our asses off in the middle of a snow bank. We just went on duty and it’s getting dark, the worst time to be on O.P. on account of the fact you can’t see your own hand in front of your face, let alone enemy infiltrators. Gets pretty nerve wracking after a few hours. Besides, it gets dark real fast here, and there’s nothing much to do but sit and freeze and wish you were dead.

We huddle together for warmth and cross our arms. We’re not really too watchful tonight. Activity’s been pretty minimal. A couple of shells hit the 3rd battalion this morning, but overall the trees have been as quiet as a tomb.

I wince as the analogy rolls around in my head. Quiet as a tomb. It’s funny how you start thinking after a few days of literally freezing your appendages off in the woods.

Rabbit's teeth are chattering. “What’re you thinkin’ about?”

“Nothin’.”

“Quit lying you shit head. C’mon, what’re you thinkin’ about?”

I sigh. “Turkey. And mashed potatoes.”

A soft moan escapes his lips. “Pie. And beer, real beer."

“And Lucy.”

"Best goddamned combination in the world.”

I thwack him on the chest. He giggles. “C’mon, lemme see it again.”

“No!”

“C’mon, just one peek to get the heart beatin’ again. It's freezing as hell out here.”

“Fine, but you can’t touch it.” I reach into my pocket and draw out the picture of her in her bikini at the beach. She’s playing in the waves and her hair is long and wavy and sets off the glow of her skin like sunlight against snow. He moans again.

“If you ain’t the luckiest sonofabitch…” He wriggles his nose as he settles down to think. That’s how he got the nickname Rabbit. It’s like a tick he’s never grown out of. Finally he rolls over. We’re sitting against a tree, huddled together to beat the chill, and his breath smells like cold coffee and his three day old stubble is scratching the side of my face. His voice, only a whisper, still betrays his trademark raspiness and his eyes are blue and thoughtful. “You wanna know what I’m thinking of?”

“No,” I reply sharply and quickly, and it’s the truth. He wasn’t nicknamed Rabbit just for his wriggling nose.

He laughs and his breath tickles my neck. “That's not it. I was just wonderin’ if it’s as bad for the Krauts over there as it is for us.”

“Well they got food, which we ain’t,” I reply slowly, “and they got ammo, which we ain’t, and they got winter clothes, which we ain’t.”

“Yeah.” He chews his lip. “But do you think they’re doing what we’re doin’? Like sittin’ together and talkin’ about home?”

"No, Rab, I’m sure they stand around all day saluting the swastika.”

“But it’s hard to imagine them doing this. Isn’t it?”

I have to agree with him. It is hard to imagine. I grunt and readjust myself. “Let’s keep our thoughts on this side of the line, okay?”

He nods. “Mm hm.” And we go quiet.

A gunshot sounds from a few hundred feet away, and a crack somewhere down the line signals where a bullet hit a tree and splintered the wood. We instinctively flinch and turn our heads in the direction of the sound, but then look away, grumbling. The Krauts do that every once in a while, fire a couple rounds into our trees, and we reply with a couple rounds ourselves. I’ve seen a couple of guys get hit down by those sporadic barrages, but you gotta be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, it’s mostly the artillery you gotta watch for. When those shells hit the trees they send shards of wood flyin' every which way and a guy could get a worse injury from that than the actual shell. But like I said, they've been pretty quiet tonight.

"How long you think they'll keep at it, Tom?" Rabbit murmurs as our machine gunners vigorously reply to the affront.

"Until they get bored I guess.”

We’ve been saving up the last of our cigarettes for outpost duty, and we finally pull them out as the sky begins to dim. We smoke for a couple of minutes in silence, watching the shadows on the trees grow as the world slips into darkness again.

"Don't think I can take much more of this," Rabbit mutters, breaking the silence. I turn my head to study him, my heart is pounding. God, I hope he’s not saying what I think he’s saying. We can't afford another guy lost to these woods, especially not a good guy like Rabbit.

He ain't the same guy I went through basic training with. His eyes are deeply set into their sockets, giving his face a skull-like appearance, and the fatigue has drawn thick circles of black around them, eradicating their usual twinkle. His face, naturally thin, is so gaunt that his cheeks are craters and his mouth is a strange, pink, protruding orifice that doesn’t seem to match with the rest of his ghoulish appearance. He's exhausted, physically and mentally, and I'm startin' to suspect he's got that new disease they're callin' 'battle fatigue'.

But I don’t let on that I’m worried. "And you think I’m enjoying myself?" I tease in reply, nudging him playfully. But he ain't in a joking mood any more.

"It's up here,” he mumbles, tapping his head absently, wriggling his nose, "in my head. I used to feel things, you know? Like when we’d jump I’d feel fear, and when we’d get assigned something we didn’t deserve I’d feel angry. And now I just feel numb all the time. It’s like I could be busted back to private and kicked out of the Airborne and not give a donkey’s balls. It’s like I could see you and all the others die right in front of me and just not feel a thing. I don’t like it, Tom. Goddamned winter's got me all froze up inside.”

I turn my head away. “It’s the cold is what it is." But I know how he feels. I'm starting to feel a little numb too. We all are.

“ Tom, I think I would feel fear if I was able to, but I can’t.”

I stare at him a moment. “Sorry. I just get worried sometimes about what feeling like this means.”

“ Yeah. I used to too.” He blankly stares into space and flicks his last cigarette butt into the snow, his nose wriggling vigorously. "You ever hear stories about those guys who snap?" he finally says, shattering the silence.

I’ve gotten out my last K ration and I’m carefully opening it up. "What’re you taking about?" I mutter, poking my spoon around at the half-frozen food.

"You know, the guys who can't take it any more and just sorta…break. Go crazy.”

I glance at him. “Yep." It happens all the time these days.

He clears his throat and exhales, watching his breath again. “Don’t you remember hearing that story about those guys who went nuts and started killing everyone? Got their NCO and a couple o' privates."

“Yeah, I heard it. Wasn’t that in your brother’s battalion?”

“ Don’t know. Some guys say it was an Airborne division, some guys say it was artillery, some guys say it was infantry, maybe it was the goddamned Air Force for all I know. Story’s different every time.”

“ You should write Gord and see if he’s heard about it.”

“ I did, a while back. Haven’t heard from him yet,” Rabbit says, his nose wiggling furiously.

“ Well you know what they’re like with mail. It’s slow even between divisions.”

Rabbit nods and stares longingly at the cigarette butt he just threw away.

“ Yeah, but you can’t help worrying anyway.”

“ They’dve let you know by now if something happened to him.”

“ I s'pose.”

“ It’s a pretty wild story just the same,” I say, changing the topic back.

Rabbit snorts and wriggles his nose. “Jesus, the way scuttlebutt travels in this man’s army...the story’s got no truth to it. No one could get that desperate without somebody noticing.”

“ Yeah. I guess.” I kick the ground and admire the imprint my foot makes. The story is pretty ridiculous. Probably fabricated to keep guys like us from going insane on O.P. duty. But it’s a chilling thought just the same.

We huddle a little closer as the silence closes in. I shovel a little snow into my mouth. “Those guys who killed everyone, in the story, didn’t they get away?”

“Yeah, supposedly they never got caught. Just up and vanished. Crazy, eh?"

"Uh huh," I mumble, shivering as I watch my own breath escape in puffs, swirling upwards before finally dissipating on the breeze.

He’s poking at his own ration now. “Don’t you worry sometimes that it might happen to you too? Like you might be the one who snaps like that?”

“I do. Everyone does.”

“I did too, but it seems like it’s been getting worse since we’ve been here. I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone, Tom.”

“You won’t, Rab, you won’t,” I reassure him. “If I think you’re shaky I’ll get the major to take you off the line.” I can’t think of anything else to say to him, so I say nothing. I finish off my ration and he watches me in silence. Finally, a rueful chuckle escapes his lips.

“Man, what I wouldn’t give for a big ‘ole t-bone right about now. I can’t remember the last time I had real meat.”

“I’m a poultry man myself,” I say, thankfully grasping the change of subject. “Turkey and mashed potatoes.”

We drink some melted snow for a bit.

“Some guy over in 2nd battalion took his boots off to get frostbite.”

“That’s nothing. One of D Company’s NCO’s tried to blow his ear off so he could go home.”

I stare at Rabbit. “He did what?”

“ You heard me right.”

“ But his ear?”

He nods solemnly. “Figured a foot wound would be too obvious. But an ear, well who’s dumb enough to shoot their own ear off?”

I snort. “So what happened?” The wind is starting to pick up as the light dies down. I can see the Krauts just through the trees across the meadow, scurrying about like little ants in their warm winter clothing.

Rabbit shoves some food into his mouth. “He missed.”



I fall asleep for a while. Exhaustion has plagued me for days and it is the first time I have fallen into a deep sleep in a week.

I usually dream whenever I sleep, but now I dread it. I used to dream of home and my girl Lucy and playing baseball with my brother Harry, but ever since we’ve been in this forest my dreams have been different. More dark, more vague. I dream this particular evening of walking down the main street in Redford with my grandma and grandpa, only it is night and all the streetlamps are turned off. Everything is shadowed. We are talking about the World Series and Grandma was holding Grandpa’s hand. And then all the streetlamps come on and we are blinded by the sudden light. I see people emerge from the buildings around us, and they surround us in a circle, and somehow I know, I just know that they aren’t happy to see me. And I look down and see why. I am holding my rifle and it is red and sticky with blood, and beneath my feet lies…lies…

“What the holy hell…”

I jerk awake.

“Tom! Tom, goddamnit, wake up.” Rabbit is hissing in my ear and shaking me. “Jesus, what a goddamned time to sleep on the job. Look!”

I stumble to my feet, slamming my helmet back on my head. “What?” I peer through the trees in the direction he’s pointing.

Three shadows have emerged from the woods and are struggling through the deep snow towards us. They are holding their rifles above their heads and waving at us, and I hear a faint call from the man walking in the lead. “Ahoy!”

I glance at Rabbit. He glances at me. This don’t feel right.

They come close enough that we can see their faces, but in the dim light of the dusk it’s difficult to see their ranks.

“Hello there gentlemen,” says the leader as he trudges nearer to us. He’s grinning to beat all hell. “Boy, are you two a sight for sorry eyes on this night. Whew! It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a polar bear!”

“Moretti?” Rabbit suddenly says, stepping forward a little, his brow furrowed and a tiny grin on his face. “Paul Moretti? Is that you, you old bastard?”

A short, hearty laugh from the leader affirms this, and Rabbit lets out a glad cry and steps forward to embrace the man. “Moretti, you dumb shit, why would you sneak up on us like that? Jesus, we’re on outpost, we coulda taken you for Krauts and shot you!” He turns and leads Moretti over to me, his hand on the man’s back. “Here, meet my buddy Tom. Tom, this is Captain Moretti.”

I salute apprehensively. “You two know each other?”

“Goddamned right we do,” says Moretti cheerfully. “This brat’s older brother’s my best pal. Ain’t that right, you little twerp.”

Rabbit laughs loudly and nods. “Jesus, Moretti, this is a helluva surprise! How’s Gord doing?”

“Fine, fine, sends his love I’m sure,” Moretti replies, rolling his eyes. “O’ course, I ain’t seen him in a bit. I got transferred up to battalion HQ.”

I’m still standing there, confused as hell. Rabbit must’ve caught my expression because he steps a little closer to me and faces Moretti. “Moretti and me grew up in the same town. He’s in the 463d Field Artillery, same as my brother. Straight legs, the both of ‘em.” Rabbit snickers and glances down proudly at his bloused pant legs and his Screaming Eagle arm patch. I can’t help but feel a similar glow of pride, despite my uneasiness. It’s not easy feat to be in the Airborne, that’s for damn sure.

I then notice the two men standing behind him. Moretti follows my gaze. “Oh, right. These two guys are Corporal Westhaver and Private Jones.”

The two are shadowed by the tilt of their helmets, and due to the ensuing darkness I can’t see their eyes. They hold their rifles cradled in their arms at exactly the same angle and they stand rigidly, as if they are at attention. Moretti laughs. “They ain’t talkers, the two of them. Great shooters but not great talkers.”

Rabbit laughs again and I glance at him. Either he’s a helluva good actor or Moretti’s appearance has cheered him up immensely. He’s almost bubbly, the way he’s laughing at every goddamned thing that comes out of the captain’s mouth. The twinkle in his eye seems to be returning. Or perhaps it’s more like a glint, I ain't so sure. I just hope he really knows this guy because I’ve got a bad feeling forming in the pit of my stomach.

“ C’mon, pull up some snow,” Rabbit orders as it gets darker. We all plop down in the snow and grin idiotically at each other for a while until Rabbit speaks again. “So what the hell are you doing out here? You’re a helluva long way from where you’re supposed to be.”

“Well, as you’ll know, we’re with the 463rdth…”

I instinctively glance at his shoulder, looking for the accompanying artillery shoulder patch. Nothing. It strikes me as odd. As a matter of fact, his uniform is extremely ragged and torn up. I’m not surprised, all of our uniforms look like they’ve been through hell and back, but his looks like it’s been almost cut up and patched in strategic places, giving it a carefully mutilated appearance.

But I try to concentrate on Moretti’s story. “We got hit by battery of German 88’s. It’s pretty bad down there, it’s back and forth, back and forth all day. Us three were lucky, mostly cuts and scrapes, but a lotta our boys’ll be going back home without their arms or legs."

Rabbit grunts in agreement.

" Well, my uniform was banged up more than I was,” Moretti laughs, acknowledging the strange appearance of his jacket, "but they insisted I go down to get a few flesh wounds fixed. Nothin' serious. Went down to the field hospital and we’re on our way back to our posts now.”

Well that sure as hell don’t register. I interrupt Rabbit and lift my rifle a little. “That don’t make no sense, Captain, sir. Why’re you up here at the O.P. line instead of in the rear? You’re gonna get your ass shot off by those Jerries over there.” I gesture across the field where the Germans are within clear range. "We nearly gave you a warning ourselves."

He grins. “Came to see you boys, of course.”

“How’d you know I was here?” Rabbit asks, his head tilted and his eyes eager and trusting.

The captain’s already wide grin widens. “Because I got meat, damnit! Fresh rabbit meat! Shot it myself with my own hands! Just outside of Bastogne, we stumbled across this whole goddamned warren of ‘em! Most miraculous goddamned thing I ever saw, I woulda thought the locals had cleared out this brush. We got at least five or six. I’ve got some pals at your Regimental HQ and I decided to make a gift of some of ‘em on my way back to the battalion. I knew you was in this regiment so I asked about you and they said you was on O.P. duty tonight. Well I thought you'd be lonely so we thought we'd come up and keep you company. Don’t have to be back to my regiment 'til the morning.”

“Meat?” Rabbit gasps like he hasn’t heard anything else Moretti said. “You got meat? Real meat? Fresh meat?”

He laughs again. “Fresh as it comes out here.”

Despite myself, I start to drool. The both of us haven’t had a warm or a fresh thing to eat in weeks. The fact that his story seems ridiculous at best is irrelevant, we are both staring at his bulging pack like rabid animals.

“Is it cooked?”

He nods. “Had the cooks back at HQ fry ‘em up. Maybe a little lukewarm, but-“

“We’ll take it,” Rabbit and I both say in unison.

He grins and nods to Corporal Westhaver, who almost mechanically hands his pack up to Moretti. Moretti slowly undoes the latch and the two of us almost fall over ourselves tryin’ to get a peek.

He opens the flap and we groan at the same time. There it is. Brown and moist, dripping with juice, tender little slabs of rabbit meat. All my inhibitions have disappeared, Rabbit and I launch ourselves at the pack like we haven’t eaten in years.

Moretti just keeps on laughing. It seems somehow like he hasn’t stopped laughing since he arrived. “Pace yourselves, boys, pace yourselves.”

I swallow my first piece and wipe the juice off my chin. “This how it’s supposed to taste?”

“Why? You don’t like it?” Moretti asks seriously.

“We do!” we both cry in unison. He smiles.

“Then let’s pace ourselves. We haven’t eaten yet either. You boys can tell us what it’s like up here and we’ll tell you about our neck of the woods.”

I really don’t want to talk to these three, but I keep my mouth shut for Rabbit’s sake, and the meat. The meat’s worth anything, even the uneasy feeling crawling up my spine.

So we sit and talk as the night grows darker and darker until all I can see of the others are shadows and glints. The world seems to grow quieter. Rabbit and Moretti swap stories about their hometown, and his two friends stay completely still and silent. I join in every now and then, but mostly my thoughts are on that delicious, warm, succulent meat going down my throat and into my emancipated stomach. It doesn’t matter that it tastes different, it’s meat. Real meat! I know I’m going to be sick later but I don’t care. I want it all.

I look up as I lick the last bits of juice off my fingers to see Moretti’s eyes on me. Rabbit’s still talking but the captain is looking at me. His body is still facing Rabbit and his neck is not twisted, but his eyes, oh Christ his eyes! They glint despite the total darkness and the disappearance of the moon behind a sea of grey clouds. Unblinkingly they stare as I clean my fingers, and he is still smiling. His teeth shine unnaturally white in the gloom. I shudder.

“They’ll be relieving us soon,” I saw to Rabbit, interrupting his story. My eyes cannot leave Moretti’s for some odd reason.

He stares at me. “You sure? Seems like we might have another half hour yet…”

“No, your friend is right, we oughta head off.”

“It’s the middle of the night!” protests Rabbit. “It won’t be light yet for hours and hours. You might get lost or accidentally shot. Might as well stay with the company 'til morning.”

But Moretti is already standing and closing his pack full of meat. My stomach has had its fill and it is already protesting the sudden appearance of the strange and alien substance. “No, I can see that it is time for us to be on our way,” he assures Rabbit smoothly. “We are making your friend uncomfortable, I think.”

Rabbit stares at me accusingly. “Tom!”

I hold up my hands. “I’m fine. I honestly am,” I lie. “I’m just a little cold and tired is all.”

“Body heat,” suggests Moretti in his typically smooth, calm tone of voice. “Huddle together for warmth. You’ll stay more alert that way.”

“We know,” Rabbit says.

“Be careful not to get too cold. You won’t be able to think as fast. The cold slows down more than the muscles. Stay sharp, boys. They’re around every corner, those Jerries.”

His tone of voice has lost its offensiveness and is steadily getting softer and softer. His eyes have still not left my face. I wonder if Rabbit has noticed this yet.

“We’ll be fine, Captain. It was nice meeting you.”

He nods. “Hope you enjoyed the grub.”

“We did, thanks,” says Rabbit. “Are you sure you won’t stay?”

“We’ll manage. Good night.” And they slip into the folds of the night. I stare a moment at the spot where they were. It was like they were never here.

Rabbit stares at me accusingly once I look at him. “Why’d you have to go and be such a jerk, Tom? If they get shot now…”

I roll my eyes. “I’m sorry, but they gave me the willies. Especially those two quiet ones. And didn’t you see the way he was staring at me at the end?”

Rabbit’s looking at me like I’m nuts. “Staring at you? Tom, he never even glanced at you the whole night.”

I frown but I choose not to argue. I stand up and sweep the snow off my pants, staring across the darkness at where the Krauts are set up. “That meat sure didn’t taste like rabbit meat," I say distractedly.

“You’ve had rabbit meat before?”

“Yeah, we used to go huntin' all the time back home.”

“Maybe it was a different breed.”

I smack him for being so dumb and we go back to drinking snow. Maybe it’s just the cold, but we are both shivering now. We huddle together again against the tree.

The only advantage of standing O.P. duty in the winter at night is that you can hear people’s footsteps coming. Their boots, not matter how softly they tread, will always crunch against the snow. If you are alert enough, it can be an alarm that strangers are approaching.

But despite this, we are caught off guard when Moretti and the others sneak up behind us.

It happens so fast. The last thing I remember is sitting quietly with Rabbit, waiting to be relieved, and the next thing I know I am lying on my side, my face numb in the snow. My head is aching, and I can feel something, blood probably, dripping down from my temples. My stomach and my lungs hurt and my arms are tied behind my back. And I can see them in front of me, the three of them, huddled around some black, unidentifiable form.

“Rabbit?” I moan. “Rabbit?”

One of the figures turns. Captain Moretti grins down at me, his white teeth covered with blood. “Hungry, Corporal?”

And then he moves away and I see Rabbit lying there on the ground, his hands and legs bound, his eyes wide open and his mouth gagged. Is he dead? I can’t tell. God I hope he is. The other two are overtop of him and I see what they are doing. They are eating him. They are eating Rabbit.

In my last few seconds of life everything seems to fall into place. The guys who went crazy…they killed everybody….the missing shoulder patches…the meat…oh God, the meat! It wasn’t rabbit meat at all! It was…it was…

I start to scream, but I know nobody will hear me in time. Moretti is standing overtop of me now and the blood is dripping off his chin and onto my face. His eyes are crazed as he stares into mine, licking Rabbit’s blood off his lips. His hand extends outward, shoving something warm and wet and pungent under my nose.

“Want some Rabbit?”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katelynn Northam is a seventeen-year-old high school student from the small rural community of Holland, M.B. who enjoys synchronized skating, reading, and watching endless reruns of M*A*S*H. Although she loves writing, and has been working for two newspapers for the last few years, her true passion in life is procrastination, which she excels at above all other things.


Return to Spring 2006 Table of Contents

© 2006 SPINETINGLER Magazine - All rights reserved