Private in a Dead Army

"You must turn back," said The Man in the gray suit.

The private hated it when The Man appeared. It always made him feel like he was going crazy. He kept a journal and was always mindful of keeping it up to speed with everything... but he never mentioned The Man in it. How could he be here out in the middle of No Man's Land with not so much as a spec of dust on him, no look of fear in his eyes and not even a darned weapon on him? It made no sense. Maybe the soldier was being affected by the effects of the sun's rays?

"Why would I do that?" he asked.

"Because I told you to."

"I don't appreciate being given instructions by a civilian, Sir!" snapped the old soldier.

The Man sighed.

"All right," he said, "because I asked you to. The Ushtons are eating their lunch; the Carstars are doing the washing up and the Stelvios are watching television. I'd like them to continue with those activities without you appearing and frightening them, Private Keppleman."

The old soldier stopped in his tracks. How did The Man, a civilian, know his name?

"Go back to your trench, Private Keppleman. Your battle finished a long time ago."

A thought crossed his mind: could The Man be a Reb, here to sow confusion in his mind?

Somehow, though, The Man's patronising manipulation of him always worked and he found himself going back home to promises that the Secess were coming sometime soon and he should be prepared.

On his way back the soldier was struck by how well the grass had regrown since his army had first engaged the enemy in this area over two months ago. So well that he couldn't find his trench. Some darned fool was entering the barn to do some milking! He went to warn her... and the scream from her lips was truly dreadful as she ran away from him. He had clearly impressed upon her the need not to be in No Man's Land in the middle of a battle. A pretty young thing she'd been. Ordinarily he'd have asked her for a date... or would he? There was the woman in green, of course, and she'd be mad at him, wouldn't she? He shook these thoughts out of his head: he had to focus on the real issue - the imminent arrival of the Confederates and his need to get back to his trench. To his relief the barn and the dwelling places of the Carstars, the Stelvios and the Ushtons disappeared along with the greenery. The gray was back. A scar opened up across the landscape once again. It was ugly but real. This was the world as he understood it. He just hadn't been looking properly before was all.

Back in the trench Doug and Phil were waiting to welcome him back. They smoked, sang and laughed the night away. It was such a glorious night - one that would last with him forever. Who could have known it was the last night he'd ever see them alive?

The Confederate guns started pounding the next morning and, to Private Keppleman's horror, his two closest friends were blown to pieces in front of him. He buried them shortly after in the mud. The Man came to watch, as unbothered as ever, as if he'd seen it all before.

"That's right, Private Keppleman," he said approvingly, "You stick to your trench. Forever and ever."

The soldier pretended he couldn't see him. Phil and Doug would think he'd gone nuts. He mustn't mention him in his letters to Sandra, either.

"Forever and ever," continued The Man as he turned to go. "Forever and ever."

The End

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