Esprit de Corps
The autumn rain drummed heavily on the tin roof of the abandoned farmhouse. Inside, four soldiers sat around a battered wooden table playing poker. Alvarez studied his hand for a moment, then stood up and threw his cards on the table. “This is bullshit” he said.
Edwards grinned and leaned back in his chair. “That bad, huh? I guess Lady Luck’s not on your side tonight.”
Alvarez scowled. “I’m not talking about the hand, I’m talking about our whole situation: the mission, those assholes back at the lab, everything. It’s all bullshit.”
Over in the corner of the room, Grant’s headless body sat up from his bedroll. His arms fumbled around blindly for a moment, then picked up his head and fitted it into the metal collar around his neck. “Will you idiots keep it down?” he said, “Some of us are trying to get our beauty sleep.”
Edwards snorted. “Grant, you could sleep from now to judgment day and you’d still be the ugliest sonofabitch I ever saw.”
“Guess you never looked in a mirror, then.”
“Shut it, your two!” said Fredrickson. He put down his cards and turned to face Alvarez. “Alvarez, what the hell are you talking about?”
Alvarez began pacing back and forth. “It’s just… I never signed on for any of this. Sure, I enlisted and everything, but then I wake up in a lab with a detachable head? They study us for a few weeks, then they stick us in a squad and send us off on some secret mission? Why should I trust these assholes after everything that’s happened? Are we really fighting for the good guys here?”
Fredrickson gave him a disgusted look. “You think we’re the bad guys? You know who we’re up against. You’ve heard what goes on in those camps. You think we’re worse than them? You’re outta your goddamn mind.”
Alvarez stopped pacing and spread his arms wide. “Are we really so much better? Experimenting on our own soldiers? Turning them into headless freaks?”
“That’s as maybe” said Behr, looking up from his cards, “but at least we’re alive. Last I remember before the lab, I was lying in a trench with a bullet in my gut. From what I heard, you all have similar stories. Weren’t for those experiments, we’d be worm food by now. Now I get another chance to go home to my wife and kids after all this is over.”
“If they still want you” said Grant. “My old lady can’t even look at me no more. Says I give her the creeps.”
“You always had that effect on the ladies, Grant” said Edwards, “only difference is now you have a better excuse.”
“All I know is I’m tired of it” said Alvarez. “I’m tired of being a soldier, and I’m sure as hell tired of being a damn lab rat. I’m done.”
A loud thud reverberated through the room as Sergeant Wilkes closed his book and stood up from a tattered armchair over by the fireplace. His voice was barely above a whisper when he spoke. “Care to elaborate on that, private?”
“The way I see it” said Alvarez, “I done my duty already. Behr’s right: all of us shoulda died already, and the army can’t ask more of a man than that. Anyone says otherwise can kiss my ass. I’m outta here.” He turned and began walking toward the door.
“Restrain that man!” Wilkes snapped, raising his voice.
Behr and Fredrickson jumped up from the table and each grabbed one of Alvarez’s arms. Alvarez glared at them and tried to pull his arms free, but they held him fast. “Let me go!” He shouted.
Footsteps sounded from the second floor, and a moment later Davis came down the stairs to investigate the source of the noise, with Simmons close behind him. Davis paused at the bottom step and surveyed the scene, his gaze lingering on the struggling Alvarez. “What the hell is going on down here?” He asked.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Alvarez managed to pull free of his captors and lunged towards Wilkes. Wilkes swung a fist at him, and Alvarez’s head was knocked free of its collar. As the swearing head of Alvarez bounced across the wooden floor, his body continued to grapple with Wilkes. Wilkes managed to shove his assailant back, but when the two men separated Alvarez was holding the revolver he had taken from Wilkes’ belt. Alvarez’s headless body raised the gun, blindly seeking Wilkes. Before he could fire, he was tackled from the side by Behr. Both men staggered back towards the door, fighting for control of the gun..
The gun went off. Behr gasped and collapsed to the floor. In the stunned silence that followed, Alvarez’s body opened the door and sprinted outside.
Davis knelt down beside Behr. “Is he dead?”.
“No way” said Grant, “those guys back in the lab said bullets can’t kill us no more. Said we was immortal.”
“He’s not moving” said Edwards, “he looks pretty dead to me.”
Simmons crossed himself and muttered a brief prayer..
Grant became visibly agitated. “This is some bullshit” he said, “you think a guy lives through getting his head cut off, but one little bullet kills him? No way. I ain’t buying it.”
“It’s true” said Wilkes. “He’s dead.” He turned and stared at Alvarez’s head where it lay under the table. “You killed him.”
Fredrickson reached under the table and grabbed the head by the hair and lifted it up to his face. “We’ve got you now, you traitorous piece of shit. What’s your body gonna do out there without no head?”
Alvarez’s head smirked. “So what are you gonna do, shoot me?”
“I’m strongly considering it” said Fredrickson.
Wilkes shook his head. “It wouldn’t work.”
“What do you mean, Sarge? It sure as hell worked on Behr.” said Grant.
Wilkes sighed. “You were right before, Grant. Ordinary bullets won’t kill us.”
“Ordinary bullets? So what the hell kind of bullets will kill us?” Edwards said.
“Silver bullets? We ain’t werewolves, Sarge. Why silver?”
“I don’t know!” shouted Wilkes. “Those boys in the lab said something about it disrupting whatever it is keeps us alive. Gave me the gun in case something ever went wrong.”
“In case you haven’t noticed” said Davis, “something did go wrong. Those magic bullets of yours only made things worse.”
“So what now?” said Edwards.
“We capture Alvarez” said Wilkes. “We bury Behr. We wait for Able to return from recon, then we continue the mission.”
Fredrickson dropped the head of Alvarez on the table and gestured towards it. “I think we can scratch item #1 off that list.”
“The rest of him is still out there” said Edwards, “and he’s got the gun.”
“With five more bullets” Wilkes added.
Grant shrugged. “Do we care? He ain’t got no head!”
Wilkes nodded. “He’s still a potential threat, and a valuable military asset. We can’t let him fall into enemy hands. Fredrickson, Davis: go get Tan and McDougall. I want the four of you outside looking for Alvarez. Be careful: he may be deaf and blind out there, but it only takes one bullet. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.” The two men nodded and headed up the stairs to wake their sleeping squadmates. Wilkes continued: “Edwards, Grant, Simmons, you stay here with me. Alvarez will probably try to take his head back, so arm yourselves and watch the doors and windows. You can’t kill him, but a well-placed shot could disable him long enough to take the gun back.”
Edwards nodded towards the head on the table. “You know he can still see and hear us, right? Won’t that be a problem?”
“Good point.” Wilkes walked over to the kitchen counter, and rummaged around in the cabinets until he found a dusty old potato sack. He returned to the table, picked up the head, and stuffed it into the sack. Muffled profanity emanated from the sack for several moments, then it grew quiet. “Problem solved” said Wilkes.
The men retrieved their weapons and took up defensive positions covering the kitchen window and the front and rear doors. Moments later Fredrickson, Davis, Tan, and McDougall came down the stairs and headed out into the night. Minutes passed in tense silence.
“Hey Sarge” said Edwards, “why didn’t you tell us about those silver bullets before now? Seems like an important bit of information.”
“I was instructed to keep it a secret. Need-to-know only.”
Grant laughed bitterly. “I don’t know ‘bout you, but anything can kill me is at the top of my list of things I need to fuckin’ know.”
“Watch your tone, Private.”
Grant stood up from where he had been crouching beside the kitchen counter. “You know what? I’m tired of watching my damn tone. If you ain’t had those bullets, none of this would never have happened. Why’d they give you those things anyhow? They don’t think they can trust us?”
“Of course they don’t!” Wilkes shouted. “Alvarez notwithstanding, they have no way of knowing what any of us might become. The don’t even fucking know what we are now!”
“Uh, Sarge?” said Edwards. “Shouldn’t they know? I mean, they made us like this.”
“Not on purpose they didn’t! You think they meant to invent the headless infantryman? They needed heads for one of their rituals, so they borrowed some off some dead soldiers. Something went wrong, and they wound up with us instead of whatever they were trying to conjure up.”
Stunned silence filled the room. Grant spoke next, in a shocked whisper. “We… we was dead?”
“God save us” said Simmons.
“I always thought we was just wounded real bad. You know, like this was the only way they could save us or something” said Grant.
Simmons shuddered. “We are abominations. Revenants. We are all of us damned.”
Edwards shrugged. “What’s the big deal? A guy’s heart stops, people say he’s dead. Start it back up, he’s alive again. The way I see it, this is no different. It just took a little longer to bring us back is all.”
“We have defied God’s will” said Simmons. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die.”
“So maybe it’s just not our time yet.” Edwards said, “God’s a patient guy, he can wait a little longer to collect our souls.”
“I’M A DAMN ZOMBIE?” shouted Grant.
“Settle down, Private! We’ll deal with this later” said Wilkes.
Grant slammed his fist against the countertop. “No, goddamnit! Let’s deal with this-” A loud bang interrupted his outburst. The kitchen window shattered, and Grant gasped and clutched his left arm. Several men could be heard shouting outside the window, punctuated by two more gunshots.
Edwards ran over to Grant, who was leaning heavily against the counter and gasping in pain. “Grant! You okay?”
“Fucker winged me” said Grant, through gritted teeth. Edwards gently rolled up Grant’s sleeve to expose the wound. The bullet had pierced his upper bicep, but there was no blood. The edges of the wound were strangely blackened, like charred meat.
“What the hell is this?” said Edwards. “I thought those bullets were just supposed to kill us?”
Wilkes shrugged. “I thought so too. Maybe it still needs to hit something vital.”
Grant’s knees buckled and he slid to the floor. “Whatever the fuck’s happening” he gasped, “it hurts real bad. My whole arm’s on fire.”
“Literally” said Edwards. The blackened area around the wound had started to spread, and a small tendril of smoke curled out of the hole.
Simmons bowed his head and began a muttered prayer.
“So what the fuck do we do?” Edwards said, his face creased with worry.
Wilkes shook his head. “I don’t know. There’s no blood, so a bandage won’t help. I don’t know what else we can do.”
Grant moaned. Edwards grabbed his right hand and held it tight. “You hang in there, you ugly sonofabitch. You already died once.”
Grant’s eyelids drooped. “Think I’ll stay dead this time” he whispered. “Man comes back, they send him right back to the front. I’m tired.” His head slumped forward.
Edwards let go of Grant’s lifeless hand, and stood back up. He wiped his face on his sleeve, then turned around to face the others. Before he could say anything, the rear door slammed open, revealing McDougall. “Fredrickson’s down” he said, “we followed the sound of the gun and found him lurking by the window. He fired two more shots at us, one went wide but Fredrickson took the other one right in the chest. Dead before he hit the ground. He ran off into the woods after, Davis and Tan are still chasing him. Is everyone in here-” he stopped short when he saw Edwards’ face, then looked past him at Grant. “Oh.”
Tan and Davis came jogging up behind McDougall. “Fucker gave us the slip” said Tan, “for a headless guy he sure can run. What’s the situation?”
“Two casualties” said McDougall. “Fredrickson and Grant.”
“Three hits, one miss” said Davis. “Two rounds left.”
“Should we go back out after him?” said Tan.
“Fuck that” said Edwards. He grabbed the bag off the table and dumped Alvarez’s head onto the floor, then kicked it as hard as he could. The head rebounded off the nearest wall, and Alvarez screamed. Edwards walked over to the head and knelt down. “Listen up, asshole. Maybe I can’t kill you, but I can make you wish I did.” He slammed the palm of his hand down on Alvarez’s face, prompting another scream. “We all know you ain’t going nowhere without your precious head. Come back now, or I’ll start getting creative.”
“Edwards, wait” said Wilkes. “We don’t torture people.”
“Except he’s not a fucking person, is he?” Edwards shouted. “He’s a goddamn mistake! All of us are! That’s why they gave you the gun, isn’t it? In case any of us freaks got out of control. Alvarez did, and now maybe I’m out of control too. All I know is I’m not letting this fucker run free after what he did.” Edwards picked up the head, and carried it over to the kitchen counter. He set the head down, then opened a drawer and pulled out large, rusty knife.
Suddenly, a dark shape burst through the broken window and crashed into Edwards, knocking him to the floor. The headless body of Alvarez straddled Edwards and lifted the revolver towards him, but Edwards managed to grab his right hand and slam it backward into the kitchen cabinet. The gun tumbled free from Alvarez’s hand and bounced across the floor.
“Grab the gun!” shouted Edwards, struggling to restrain Alvarez. McDougall rushed into the room and picked up the revolver. He fired one shot at Alvarez, but the headless body jerked sideways and the bullet punched a hole in the wooden cabinet. The second shot took Alvarez clean through the chest. His body jerked and went limp, and the head on the counter uttered one last startled gasp. Everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief, and Edwards pushed the lifeless body off of himself and stood up.
“Thank God that’s finally over” said Davis.
“Not entirely” said Edwards, staring intently at Sergeant Wilkes. “We need to discuss a few things.”
Wilkes screamed unintelligible threats through the rag stuffed in his mouth. Edwards stopped digging and leaned on his shovel. “I’m sorry it’s got to be this way, Sarge.” He sighed. “Alvarez was an asshole, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. I refuse to serve a coutry that’s willing to experiment on its own soldiers and then put them down like rabid dogs when they step out of line. I died for my country once, but I ain’t gonna do it again. I really wish you could have seen things our way.” Edwards shoved the Sergeant’s body forward with his foot, and it rolled down into the hole. He picked up the shovel and began pushing dirt in on top of Wilkes. The hole was halfway full before his muffled screams were finally silenced.
When the job was done, Edwards dropped the shovel and walked back to where Davis, Tan, and McDougall were waiting at the rear of the house. “Ready to go?” he asked.
“What about Simmons?” said Tan.
McDougall snorted. “He’s still inside, trying to smooth things over with God.”
“Leave him” said Edwards. “Someone ought to stay behind for when Able gets back, those boys deserve to know what happened.”
The other three nodded, and then the four men turned and walked off into the night.