Gary Braunbeck is a much-anthologized writer who lives in Columbus, OH. Over 150 of his stories have appeared in magazines such as Cemetery Dance, After Hours, Eldritch Tales, and The Blood Review. His serial, "Mr. Hands", is appearing in Cemetery Dance. His critically-acclaimed short story collection Things Left Behind was published in 1997, and his novel Time Was (co-written with Steve Perry) came out in 1998. "But Somewhere I Shall Wake" was first published in the 1996 DAW anthology White House Horrors.
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But Somewhere I Shall Wake
by Gary A. Braunbeck
"That which is most unendurable in war, the awful, ordinary daily routine of war, is relegated to those dim regions where men hide all bad memories. But those memories survive, no matter how deeply buried, and sometimes they emerge."
The soldier standing in the entrance of the East Room of the White House removed his helmet, ran a trembling hand through his long-unwashed hair, then set aside the rusted M2 Carbine rifle and pulled open his battle-ruined coat. A wave of unspeakable foulness filled the air.
A few feet away President James Albert Ryan, eyes wide and unblinking, blanched as he covered the lower half of his face with his right hand, clamping closed his nostrils and breathing through his mouth.
Beneath his coat the soldier's flesh had rotted off his lower ribs and belly, and the clotted skin that still clung to the ribs and hipbones bordering the chasm was in a state of gelatinous putrescence. The President could easily see the soldier's spine through the hole, as well as shadowy clusters of internal organs. There were sutures on the soldier's intestines, and jagged paths of hasty, field-hospital stitching that almost, but not quite, drew your attention away from the groups of burned and discolored organic vessels bound together with translucent plastic strips in order to keep them from spilling out. Whenever the soldier drew in a breath the black-tipped strips of flesh hanging from his ribcage fluttered like the ends of hair ribbons caught on a summer's breeze.
Wordlessly, the soldier reached into one of the pockets of his coat and removed a folded newspaper, brown and brittle with age, and tossed it at the President's feet. The paper fell open as it hit the floor, revealing the banner:
71st Infantry Division
RED CIRCLE NEWS
Volume 1, Number 6 September 2, 1945
"Does that mean anything to you, Mr. President?" asked the soldier, his voice grating, full of dirt.
"My father was part of the 71st in WWII."
"What about the date, sir? Do you recognize the date?"
"...yes..." choked Jim Ryan, slowly kneeling down to pick up the paper, which nearly came apart in his hand. "It was the day my father died in a hospital in Munich. I w-was...I was three years old. I only knew the man through pictures my mother had, and the stories she'd tell me." Pulling in a deep breath and holding it, he removed his other hand from his face and gently opened the front page of the paper to full size, his mind barely registering some of the headlines--Division May Lose Four to Eight Thousand Low Point Men Shortly; Move of 14th Infantry Canceled; 5th Choir Set to Sing at Salzburg Fest; Polish DPs Leave Dilligen Lagers--before a small, badly focused photograph in the lower right hand corner caught his attention.
Behind him, lining every wall, sprawled across every rug and stretch of grandiose carpeting, crammed into every corner, sitting or lying upon each step on each flight of stairs, were others as forever dead and lost as the soldier before him; wretched and worn people who had never known any of the good things in life, who'd ended their days in fear and desperate discomfort as war fell on their heads like a curse from heaven; bundle-up, patched-up, used-up people with lined faces too full of pain and minds too full of dim memories of a lifetime that had been too bleak; many of them were children, bleeding and starving, trembling hands reaching out from emaciated bodies as from outside came the cry of shells chasing each other across the sky, making sounds like cold wind through leaves on a winter's night; and, of course, there were the soldiers themselves--spirit-dead, grenade-blown, strafing-riddled, some with cigarette stubs hanging from the corners of their ruined mouths as they sat, arms crossed over knees, sightless eyes staring futilely at a the hopeless night as they waited for the radio to sqwuak with new orders to take the next hill, push back the next line, hold the next position: from Manassas and Bull Run to Ypres and Messines Ridge, from the fall of Pusan to the Quang Tri Offensive, and from the delusional glory of Desert Storm to the tragedy of Bosnia, all of the dead--military and civilian--were represented.
They had come to speak to the President about matters of conscience.
They had come to speak of personal responsibility.
And they had come to talk about war....
It started with the smell in the Oval Office.
Even someone who has never been close to a decomposing body can recognize the stench of a rotting animal without actually having to see the thing, and Jim Ryan was no exception; he'd come across enough dead mice in his time to know what they smelled like, and it was obvious to him that at least one--and possibly several--of the things had had the poor taste to expire inside the walls of the Oval Office near his desk. He urgently requested the General Services Administration to do something but his request was declined because the GSA's responsibility (he was told) ended at the inside wall. Contacting the Park Service, the President was informed by a verynervous office clerk that the PS's responsibility ended at the outside wall.
"It's the same wall," shouted the President into the phone.
"Well, sir, no--it's actually not. When the Executive Wing was rebuilt in 1952 the wooden frame of the Oval Office was replaced by concrete and steel, and the overall circumference increased by something like fifteen or twenty yards. They made it bigger, but no one ever bothered to, uh...to re-zone the boundaries that both the GSA and the Park Service are responsible for."
"So you're telling me that I've got about, oh, four or five feet of hollow space in parts of the wall that no one's responsible for maintaining, is that it?"
"So if I want these dead mice removed from the wall, I'm either going to have to hire a private exterminator or go at it myself with a sledgehammer?"
"I don't know what to tell you, sir." The kid sounded almost in tears.
"It's all right, Carl, it's not your fault. You've been very helpful, not to mention informative, and I'll write a letter telling your supervisor just that."
"Th-thank you, Mr. President. It'll mean a lot."
"Well, it should; I am the boss, after all." Or I used to think so, he silently added.
Hanging up, he leaned back in his chair, looked at the pile of paperwork on the desk, then took a deep breath and immediately felt like dry-heaving; Christ, it smelled like a slaughterhouse in here!
At times like this, Jim Ryan remembered something Nietzsche was purported to have said: That there were times in life with things got so bad you either had to laugh or go crazy. And here he was, the President of the United States, faced with a country whose post-World War II utopian vision of endlessly rising incomes, stable jobs, declining racism, vanishing poverty, unlimited personal freedom and a generously compassionate government had been mocked, compromised, then beaten and thrashed until all that remained was a perpetual, shapeless anxiety. At times it seemed as if each and every last person in the country felt overwhelmed by a roving discontent about threatened living standards, embattled social programs, selfish special interest groups, and race relations which were, at best, turbulent. If that weren't enough, the third Election Year of the new century was just beginning, the polls showed that his popularity was slipping, and--as the icing on the cake--American troops were now engaged in a "military action" in east-central Africa. With all of this waiting to greet him upon waking every morning (when he was able to sleep through the night, that is), he'd just pissed away an hour of his time arguing with nine different people over a dead mouse.
So you either laugh or go crazy.
Jim Ryan opted for the former.
He buzzed his secretary and she came through the doors a moment later. "Any luck, sir?"
"No," he said, rising to his feet and putting on his jacket. "I thought if I made the calls myself someone would spring into action -- if for no other reason than to win brownie points."
"And you were wrong?"
"I was wrong."
She made a note on her pad. "I'll have the Press Secretary alert the media."
"Are we through with the witty banter now?"
"I didn't realize that we'd started."
"This is not respect," said the President, straightening his tie, then taking a few folders from his desk. "I am going to my study. Please have my lunch sent there."
"What about the wall?"
Jim Ryan rubbed his eyes and exhaled. "Have someone go to a hardware store and buy a sledgehammer--no, make that three sticks of dynamite."
Gina laughed (but not all thatmuch, he couldn't help but notice), then offered a sealed folder to him. "I hate to ruin your lunch before you've even had it, but this arrived from William MacIntyre's office a few moments before you buzzed me."
The President's face grew noticeably more solemn. William MacIntyre was the Assistant Secretary of Defense, and a sealed folder from his office these days meant only one thing: Casualty updates from Zahirain.
As soon as Jim reached for it, Gina's grip on the folder tightened slightly so that, for a few seconds, both of them were holding it. "I've got some friends over at Belinda Robertson's office; so don't worry about...you know."
"You're going to get someone from the Secretary of the Interior's Office to come over here and pull rodent corpses out of the wall?"
Jim Ryan nodded, then gently but firmly pulled the file from her hand. "I'd appreciate it, Gina. That smell is making me sick." He looked down at the sealed file, then--without looking at her, asked: "Just between you and me, Gina, what do you think about this Zahirain situation?"
"I basically agree with the steps you've taken, Mr. President. The rebel forces over there have killed almost half-a-million people, and there's something like--what?--four million others who're starving to death in migrant camps because they can't get help."
Jim Ryan nodded. "Eighty million dollars' worth of food and medical supplies were either stolen or destroyed by the Rebels in the last two months. The UN Peacekeepers couldn't keep them at bay, and every goddamned main port is in their hands." He looked at her then. "Do you think I was right to send in ground troops?"
"Yes, sir, I do. And I really hate that you had to practically beg for Congress's support, and now they're pressuring you to withdraw the troops. No wonder you haven't been sleeping well--oops, I'm sorry, sir. That was out of line."
"No, it wasn't. You understand, don't you, Gina? This hasn't got a thing to do with politics or a show of muscle at the start of an election year. It's simple human decency."
"Yes, Mr. President, I understand. And I think it took a lot of guts to push for military intervention."
"It's easy to be courageous when you're not the one who's going to have to do the fighting." Then, putting on his best Chief Executive Yes-I've-Got-A-Lot-On-My-Mind-But-Can-Still-Be-Courteous smile, made his way through the offices.
The stench was in his study, as well.
If anything, it was even stronger here than in the Oval Office.
Still, at least it was Spring and he could crack open a few of the windows and let in some fresher air.
His lunch tray was brought in, along with the day's newspapers, and for the next fifteen minutes, alone in his private study, Jim Ryan allowed himself to feel more like an Average Joe. He glanced around the room, savoring the moment. When he and Karen had moved in after the election, they agreed that it was vital to have some sense of normalcy to their lives, some way to escape the hectic Washington lifestyle of excess and pretense, and so they'd gone to some expense (at least a third of it out of their own pockets, to keep Congress happy) to remodel the second floor so it was more homey, the type of place where an Average Joe would feel comfortable; no Empire furniture, no Georgian ceilings, no gold damask draperies, no ornate chandeliers.
He wondered where Karen was, then realized that she'd said something about a speaking engagement at Georgetown University this afternoon--the Psychology Department, no less.
He smiled. One of the nice things about being married to a First Lady who also happened to be a licensed (but currently non-practicing) psychiatrist was that no one dared play any head games when she was around, which was why Jim made it a point to have her present at all Cabinet meetings: Her bullshit detector was flawless.
Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he shuffled through the newspapers, making it a point to ignore the headlines and op-ed pages. Today, he felt like the comics, or maybe a crossword puzzle, perhaps even--if he could muster the courage--an anagram or--
--he paused, staring at the newspaper at the bottom of the pile.
That it was old was easy enough to see; brown and brittle, many of the edges ripped and discolored, dark stains (water or coffee?, he wondered) obliterating a column in the lower left of the first page--yes, old, no doubt, but the smell...God!
The thing reeked of death and decay, as if it had been pulled from a pile of rotting, burned bodies.
The President held his breath as he unfolded the paper--The Red Circle News , the official newspaper of the 71st Infantry Division.
He suddenly felt very cold.
With Veteran's Day less than two weeks away, it wasn't unusual for people to start hauling out their military memorabilia, but items from World Wars One and Two weren't so predominate anymore, seeing as how everyone who'd participated in both wars were long dead and gone, his own father included.
Frank Henry Ryan, who'd been part of the 71st.
The entire country knew that Jim Ryan had never met his father, that the man had been killed in Germany when the President was only three. Frank Ryan's death had emotionally crippled Jim's mother, who spent the rest of her life going in and out of various hospitals for treatment for severe depression. She had finally committed suicide three days short of Jim's twenty-first birthday. By then, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was moving into the limelight, largely because of problems suffered by Vietnam vets, but almost no one had thought to address the problems being suffered by veterans of WWII and Korea, let alone the trauma inflicted on their families.
Jim had won the last election (according to analysts) largely on the basis of his proposed programs to aid "both financially and spiritually" the families of vets diagnosed with PTSD. Karen had been central to shaping his proposals, and his campaign had, in a backhanded way, been aided by the fact that the last five presidents, either by choice or compromise, had steadily been cutting veteran's benefits.
Vets turned out in record numbers to support Jim Ryan, a man who had never been in the military, let alone endured the horror of combat.
"He understand what it's like for our families," one Vietnam vet had said. "That should count for something."
The words of that vet had been the catalyst for one of Ryan's strongest campaign slogans:
JIM RYAN FOR PRESIDENT
Understanding Should Count
He caught a glimpse of something in the middle of the far right column, gasped, then turned to one of the middle sections, coughing as bits and pieces of the aged paper flecked apart in his hands.
And there, halfway down page 5, just where the brief highlight box on the first page said it would be, was an article by none other than Ernie Pyle, the most widely-read correspondent of WWII and the first war correspondent to win the Pulitzer Prize, entitled:
Jim Ryan slowly and calmly placed the paper on top of his tray, then sat back and stared at the words.
FRANKLIN RYAN: A Tribute
71st Division, Darmstadt, Germany
Sometimes it's too easy in war to become numbed to the sight of cold dead men scattered on hillsides and lying in ditches; it's too easy to look at a soldier who has seen his closest friend destroyed by a grenade or land mine or machine-gun fire and say, "You'll get past this, son." We have seen too many dead men the world over, dead men in winter, dead men in summer, dead men by mass production, dead men in such familiar abundance they become monotonous.
At a special ceremony held outside Darmstadt Castle this past Sunday, Members of the 71st Infantry Division paid tribute to their fallen soldiers, and as I stood there listening to the chaplain read off the names I was struck by the expressions on the faces of the soldiers present there; to many of them, the names were just that--names; but the chaplain had gone to the trouble of finding out something about each of the dead men, some little, insignificant, even forgettable detail about the man that might burn itself into the memories of those attending the ceremony so that a part of the dead men might live on. This is understandable, because a man dies twice when people forget he was here.
Of all the names read this day, only one stood out for me; not because the names of the others were less important, but because, unlike the others, this name was only a name: Franklin Ryan. No little anecdote about him, no insignificant bit of trivia, no forgettable detail: only his name.
No one seemed to notice; no one seemed to care.
And for the first time since this war began, I wept openly for a fallen GI.
And while I wept, I saw in my memory the faces of all the dead men I had encountered, saw them parade before me in such monstrous infinity I could almost hate them.
You at home can't hope to understand this, but of all the cold dead men of this war, I think I will mourn most the loss of Franklin Ryan, for no one knew him.
I was allowed a glimpse of his record. Before he died, Franklin Ryan had fought in Regensburg, Straubing, Reid, Lambach, Weis, and Steyer; he had crossed the Rhine, Danube, Isar, Inn, and Enns Rivers; and he had helped to liberate the concentration camps of Strubing and Gunskirken Lager. He was a loyal soldier. He was born and raised in Ohio. He never made it past the eighth grade because he had to go to work in the mills to help support his ailing mother and three younger siblings after his father abandoned them during the Great Depression. He worked at a dozen different factories before he married Mary Virginia Hards in 1936. The two of them lived in the same three-room apartment over a neighborhood grocery store until Frank was called to duty in '42. The only information of an intimate nature in Franklin's record was a brief, two-sentence notation made by the chaplain at Fort Bragg a few days before this man no one knew shipped out to war: "He wants to raise chickens for a living after he returns home. He feels bad he can't leave more behind for his wife and mother."
I imagine he was a man accustomed to making sacrifices. I imagine he wasn't a saint (who among us is?), that he probably drank with his fellow infantrymen whenever liquor was around to be shared, that he smoked, and could easily curse a blue streak when his temper got the better of him. I imagine that he wrote to his wife when he got the chance and paper and pen were available. I imagine I can hear his voice as he talks with dreamy pride about the chicken farm he wants to start when he gets back home.
I imagine all of this, but I will never be sure, nor will anyone who didn't know the man. And it seems that no one really did, except for the wife and mother he left behind in Ohio.
The details of how he died are unclear. What is known is that a small detachment from his unit disappeared in the mountains of Eberstadt five months ago, and that Franklin--barely recognizable as human, but alive--was discovered by a group of Darmstadt children who were hiking up to Eberstdadt to visit the famous Castle Frankenstein. If it had not been for his dog tags and fingerprints, Franklin Ryan might very well never have been identified.
He spent the last months of his life in a Munich hospital in a coma. He died without regaining consciousness. What happened to him and to the other men in his detachment will never be known.
When I get back to the States I will go to Ohio and see if I can't find Mary Ryan. I hope she'll understand why. And I hope if there is a son or daughter that I will be able to look them in the eye and say, truthfully, "I knew your father about as well as anyone. He was a good man and you should be proud."
The war is over. In the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish to be a millstone of gloom and sorrow around our necks. Franklin Ryan probably wouldn't want that, either; he would want to be remembered with warmth and affection. I am reminded of part of poem by WWI soldier Rupert Brooke; I like to think Franklin Ryan would have enjoyed it, would have understood what Brooke was getting at, would even perhaps want it to be read over his grave as his widow's tender hands placed roses at the base of his headstone:
--Oh, never doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what's left of love again, and make
New friends, new strangers...But the best I've known
He felt so very, very cold.
He blinked, wiped his eyes, and reached for the sealed envelope.
The stench of death was heavy in the room.
The afternoon briefing (held in the Cabinet Room because of the stink in the Oval Office) did little to ease the President's anxiety.
Not only had the U.S. ground forces lost another twenty-seven soldiers to Rebel attacks, but sources inside the Zahirain capital were reporting that a large shipment of arms intended for government forces had been intercepted by the Rebels
and that U.S. soldiers were facing the very real prospect of being fired upon by American-made weapons as well as Kalashnikov rifles of Russian, Eastern European, and Chinese manufacture, Soviet RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, AT-3 "Sagger" anti-tank missiles, Chinese "Red Arrow" anti-tank missiles, and mortars ranging from 82-millimeter to 102-millimeter. Though possessing far less manpower than the combined U.S. and NATO forces, the Rebels were now nearly as heavily armed, and had blown up no fewer than three ports, making supply drops even more dangerous than they had been in the first place. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases in the migrant camps had wiped out nearly all the medical supplies; even basics such as bandages and peroxide were scarce. Another supply drop was scheduled for Thursday, but whether or not U.S. military vehicles would be able to get safely through the blockades Rebels had placed on the road which linked Zahirain to the Uganda-Kenya railroad system--the only viable option, since the port of Mombasa had fallen--was still to be seen. It didn't look very promising--unless, of course, U.S. soldiers staged a full-scale offensive to take back the main supply road--an action that would leave, conservatively, at least two hundred American soldiers dead.
Jim Ryan's advisors made it clear to him that there were now only two choices; he must either withdraw ground forces from Zahirain or "escalate considerably" U.S. military presence.
When the briefing was finished, the President buzzed Gina and asked if Larry Seagrove had gotten back yet.
"Yes, sir; he's waiting out here."
"Send him in."
There was a knock on the door, and a moment later there entered a lanky man in his mid-30s whose steady, quiet control, red hair, freckles, and boyish grin might cause one to dismiss him as a computer geek or CPA, an office gofer, meek as lamb, harmless as fly. You couldn't be more wrong. Larry Seagrove, friend and White House Secret Service agent, was easily one of the deadliest men ever to be allowed near the President. Rumor had it that he knew over sixty ways to kill a person without leaving a mark on their body; he was an expert marksman, first-rate bodyguard (who on many occasions seemed to possess eyes in the back of his head),
electronics expert, computer hacker (read: former geek), avid Buster Keaton fan, and had no qualms whatsoever about performing any task the President asked--including those other agents would consider "flunky" work.
"Mr. President," said Seagrove, closing the doors behind him and standing there as if someone had just stuck a gun in his back and told him to act natural.
"Anything on that damned paper?" asked the President.
"Yes, sir." He made no move to either open or present the folder he was holding.
Jim gestured for Seagrove to take a seat. "I gather from the pallbearer expression on your face that the news is going to upset me?"
Clearing his throat as he sat down, Seagrove blinked and said, "I think it's safe to say that, yes."
Jim rubbed his eyes, took a deep breath (Jesus--was he going crazy or was the smell spreading over here, as well?), poured himself a glass of water, and said, "Let's have it."
Seagrove opened the folder and began. "The paper itself is authentic, sir. The lab results confirm that it's at least seventy-five years old but they won't speculate as to why it hasn't deteriorated worse than it has. That particular stock of paper was highly acidic and almost none of it is still in existence."
"Fine, so they've established that it's a newspaper. What else?"
"The 71st Infantry Division did have an official newspaper, and it was The Red Circle News, produced in Ausburg, Germany. We cross-checked all of the information contained in the various articles with everything in the Pentagon's computer, as well as the FBI's and other--"
"--yeah, yeah, yeah," said the President, his impatience growing. "I know about the paper, all right? My father used to send his old copies to my mom when he was overseas before he was...was killed."
Seagrove nodded his head. "There's a lot of information in here, sir. Maybe it would easier if you told me what you specifically want to know."
"The stains on the first page."
"Blood. O-negative. At least seventy-five years old."
"How did the paper get onto the tray?"
"We don't know. We've questioned all the staff members twice and will be questioning them again in the--"
"--absolutely not. I won't allow it. Twice is enough. If no one knows how it got there, no one knows."
"We examined videotape from all security cameras, Mr. President. As far as I was able to see, there were only the usual four newspapers placed on your lunch tray."
Seagrove stretched his neck as he slightly loosened his collar. "It's about the article."
"The basic information in it is the truth. That's all Mom or I ever knew about how Dad died. You know what's been bugging the shit out of me, though? She never showed me that article. She showed me all the other old editions of the paper that she had, but she never--"
"--she couldn't have shown you that article, sir."
"We contacted the Weil Journalism Library at Indiana University in Bloomington. All of Pyle's wire copy, every last dispatch, is housed there in its complete and uncensored form. The article about your father is not part of that collection. It couldn't have been. Ernie Pyle was killed at Ie Shima, Okinawa on April 18, 1945. He'd been dead eight months when the 71st held that memorial service in Darmstadt."
Jim Ryan made a fist and pulled in a deep breath, his eyes watering at the ever strengthening stench. "So it's a phony?"
"I don't know."
The President glared across the table at Seagrove. "Why don't you unclench, Larry, and just tell me what's on your mind?"
"I don't understand how it could be possible for someone to fabricate a piece like this. The paper, the ink, the style of typeset used, all of it's authentic, and all of it's as old as it should be if it was published during WWII--except there's no if to factor in here. This is from 1945, there's no doubt. But Pyle's death was major news that year; it would have been impossible for another correspondent to fabricate an article by him." He closed the folder, then leaned forward.
"Not only that, sir, but I personally scanned the 71st's CD files for a complete set of the Red Circle News editions, then located Volume 7, issue 3."
"The article about your father never appeared, not in that edition or any other Red Circle News published in 1945. It would seem that the only copy of that article in existence is the one you read this afternoon."
"Do you...do you know where it is?"
"Yes, sir," said Seagrove, reaching to the back of the folder and removing the article, which had been carefully cut out of the paper, then laminated. "I thought perhaps you'd like to keep it."
"I would, even if it isn't supposed to exist," whispered Jim Ryan, taking the article and reading it once again.
"It sounds as if he was a good guy, your father."
"Does, doesn't it?" Jim placed the article on the table and stared at it. "He never saw me. I always used to wonder what he'd think of me now. Still do, sometimes."
"I think it'd make any man proud, to see his son grow up to become President."
"I can hope. Maybe he'd have some opinions about what I should do." He looked at Seagrove. "What about you, Larry? This has been my day for soliciting opinions about Zahirain. Do you have one?"
"It's not my place to--"
"--oh, for chrissakes, I'm not going to have you reassigned or fired if you don't agree with me. I just want some opinions that're free of PolitiSpeak. I'd like to hear what you have to say."
Seagrove thought for a moment, then said, "It seems to me, sir, that the same people who're screaming for your head, who say that we've got no business being over there, are the same ones who go to dinner parties and in order to show that they're deep thinkers ask questions like, 'How in the world could people back in WWII allow something like the slaughter of six million Jews to happen?' That's all I care to say about it, if you don't mind."
"You're not a political person, are you, Larry?"
"I share your views, sir. Do you remember a speech you made back in 1998 when you were running for Governor in Ohio?"
"Good God, Larry--I can barely remember what I said to the First Lady at breakfast this morning, let alone a speech I made--"
"You said, 'All problems confronting the human race are and always shall be at their core moral ones, matters of conscience, human decency, and compassion; they only become political issues when someone or a large group of someones can gain wealth, power, fame, or real estate--preferably all four--by exploiting them.' I never forgot that one."
"I said that?"
"Yes, you did, sir."
"Karen must've written that speech."
"That's what the First Lady claims, sir."
"Thanks, Larry. For everything."
"You're welcome, Mr. President."
In the haze he thought he heard the screaming.
He knew he felt the tingling; the soft, almost pleasant tingling sensation right between his eyes that quickly spread, becoming painful: a box of needles thrown into his face.
That's when he knew it was coming.
The corkscrew, as he'd come to think of it.
It was 3:47 in the morning and for the fifth night in a row Jim Ryan was afraid he was going to die in his sleep.
Wake up, come on! some part of his mind cried, but like all the other nights the rest of his brain failed to heed the command.
Not this, God, please, not again, not--
Twisting, turning, drilling through his forehead until it broke through the bone and hit the grey matter, eating away at every nerve in its path, cramping his body into a tight ball, knees against his chest as the pain gripped and squeezed until he could feel something seeping from his ears, running down his cheeks, staining the pillows, always constant, hungry, insatiable, and he tried to move, tried to open his eyes and force it away but he couldn't make it stop as it snarled and chewed and ravaged its way to the back of his skull where it paused, teasing him, before probing like a dentist's tool against the exposed pulp of a tooth, scraping, clawing, snagging against a nerve-ending and locking him rigid as it rammed forward to explode out the back of his head, vomiting out bits of skull and clumps of his brain, leaving him--
--on that damned snow-covered mountain road in Eberstadt, crammed in the back of the transport truck with the other GIs in the unit, a few of them passing around bottles of some cheap wine, and as the tarpaulin flap snapped against the wind he caught sight of that decrepit castle looming in the distance, then he looked toward the front and saw through the grimy windshield that there was a dog sitting in the middle of the road staring at the truck as it approached and he shouted something at the driver, Lou, who was too busy chugging on a bottle of his own to notice the animal, so the President rose to his feet and made his way through the men, stuck his head out one of the side flaps, and banged a gloved fists against the driver's door, trying to get Lou's attention--
--tingling, hot, hard to breathe--
--but Lou just laughed and told the President to sit his ass down, then looked out and saw the dog and laid on the horn like it would do any good--
--another blast of pain, another box of needles tossed into his face with the force of a stormwind--
--and the truck skidded, then fishtailed and lurched sideways, hit a patch of ice, flipped three times and soared over the edge of the cliff , everyone screaming at once, helmets and gear and mussette bags and stray cans of C-rations flying all over the damned place as the truck plummeted downward, slicing through the air upside-down, wind howling through the flaps before the whole tarpaulin was ripped away by the force, bodies slamming against one another and glass shattering--
--"Jim? Jim, c'mon, honey, wake up."
He rolled over, shuddered, and opened his eyes.
Karen was there, sitting on the edge of the bed, a glass of water in one hand, two small white pills in the other.
Jim Ryan smiled at her. "How did you know?"
The First Lady sighed, smiled, then handed him the water and aspirin. "For the last four nights--five, now--you've woke at the same time from the same nightmare with the same headache. Will the aspirin be enough? I could call for some Tylenol 3--codeine, your favorite."
"Oh, right; kill the headache and leave me looking hungover. I can see the headlines now: 'Your President, The Morning After: Is This Leadership?'"
"You can't be feeling too bad if you can come up with a pithy reply like that."
"Pitiful would be more accurate."
Karen leaned in and kissed his cheek. "How far did it go this time?"
"The truck had just gone over the cliff."
"Thank God!" She saw the look he gave her, then added: "At least they hadn't started in on the bodies yet."
Jim shrugged. "I suppose."
They looked at each other. A silent parade of memories passed between them, warm and comforting, momentarily making the President forget the bitter taste of terror coating the inside of his mouth.
Karen waited while he took the aspirin, then she reached over and squeezed his hand. "Tell me the whole thing again. Start wherever you want."
"You've heard about it enough already."
"No, I haven't. You just think I have. Whether you've noticed it or not, every time you've talked about the nightmare you've brought up something you didn't remember before. So tell me about it."
The President said nothing, only sat on the edge of the bed staring at the doors which led to the second-floor terrace of the South Portico; it might be nice to slip on his robe and slippers and go out there for some cold fresh air, to stand in winter silence and see the Jefferson Memorial and the Potomac in diffuse 4 a.m. light. Harry Truman had had the right idea when he added the balcony in 1948; the President needed a place that was both open and private where he could collect his thoughts and be reminded that there was more to the world than violence and duplicity and a Congress that wanted your head on a platter and a nation that didn't much like you at the moment and starving children trapped in disease-ridden camps and newspaper articles that shouldn't exist written by a famous war correspondent three months after he was killed...
He was still lost along these lines of free-floating anxiety when Karen put a hand on his shoulder and said, "I take it from the silence that we're have a Marcel Marceau moment?"
"Working on my Boo Radley imitation, actually." He turned and kissed her, then lay back, his head cradled in her lap. "All right, here goes: I'm crammed in the back of this truck with a bunch of other soldiers and we're driving along a mountain road somewhere in Germany--"
"--Eberstadt," prompted the First Lady.
"Right, Eberstadt. We've got these bottles of some godawful wine that we're drinking, passing around, and I look over and see that this dog's sitting in the middle of the road up ahead. I get up and move toward the front and try to get Lou's attention but he tells me to sit my ass down--only it's both me and not me he's talking to; I'm there in someone else's body but everyone still thinks I'm this guy, whoever he is."
"I think we both know who it is."
Jim sighed, shaking his head. "I know you went through the textbook explanation for it, but I still find it hard to believe that I've invented this scenario to explain what happened to my dad."
"Do you have any guesses?"
"Yeah, but they all sound like ideas Rod Serling would've used on 'The Twilight Zone.'"
"Go back to the dream. I don't want you to lose anything because I sidetracked you."
"Fine. Lou looks over and sees the dog and lays on the horn and slams down on the brakes, we skid, the truck flips and goes over the side, and the next thing I know I wake up pressed between all these bodies. It takes a few minutes for full lucidity to return to me but when it does I realize that most of the bones in my body are broken, and that all the guys on top of me and beside me and underneath me are dead. It's cold outside the wreckage of the truck--ten, fifteen below zero--and the only thing that's keeping me from freezing to death is all the dead bodies. And as I'm lying there the thing that keeps going through my mind is: What were we doing here in the first place?
"Then the dog comes down the side of a hill formed by a secondary mountain road--more of a foot-trail, really--and I manage to move my head enough to see that there are men following the dog, and that they're dressed in black uniforms, and then I remember we'd been tracking a band of renegade SS officers through part of the Black Forest along the Rhine for I don't know how long--a week, ten days, maybe longer--and they'd led us right into the mountains outside Darmstadt. But that doesn't much matter now because I can see that not only are these guys bughouse crazy but they're drunk as hell and screaming for Ally blood.
"They start dragging bodies out of the wreckage and mutilating them, cutting off hands, slicing up faces, plucking eyes out of their sockets and ripping flaps of skin away from bone, then throwing everything into this...pile. I've got my eyes open and I can't blink, I don't dare to because if they knew I was alive they'd rip me to pieces, torture me to death, cut me up into bite-sized chunks and feed me to that dog. The worst part, though, is my breathing; I have to breathe slow and quietly, so they don't notice any movement in my chest area. I'm okay for a little while because they've still got a few layers of bodies to go, but then two of them grab onto me and toss my body out into the snow, and while they're looking away I blink and take in a deep breath and have just enough time to figure out they're piling everything up for a human bonfire because the rest of the bodies and body-parts are drenched in gasoline....
"A few other bodies are tossed on top of me and I can hear the SS officers laughing. It gets really quiet--it's not just the absence of sound, it's the absence of spirit, as well; like my soul has decided to abandon ship before the thing goes down in flames. Then I feel the heat and smell the burning uniforms, the searing flesh and guts--God, it's awful! I can't hear anything because of the crackling of the flames and some of the smoke is starting to snake downward between the bodies, so now I'm trying like hell not to cough or choke or throw up because a few of the more mutilated bodies start falling apart and I can see through the spaces that the SS officers are still there but that's not the thing that tells me in no uncertain terms that I'm dead because in the distance behind them I see Lou scrambling up the side of the hill and then throwing himself facedown onto the foot-trail, and I know that he's all right, that he's been hiding, waiting for his chance to escape and for a second I feel happy for him because it was a miracle he wasn't killed, let alone badly hurt, but then...then I get angry because he's going to be safe and I'm not, I want to live, too, and by then I figure there's nothing to lose so I scream, I scream for all I'm worth for him to come back and get me, to take out that pistol he always carries and shoot these murdering Nazi bastards and put out the flames before they get...get to me, and it's so loud, my screaming, I know it's loud because the SS officers are pulling me out of the pile and throwing me aside and I can hear my skin hissing as the flames are snuffed out by the ice and snow and pretty soon all I can see are black uniforms and rotted teeth, and all I can feel is something cold and sharp slicing slowly along my jaw, and all I can hear is the sound of someone screaming No! No! over and over but I don't know if it's me or not...
"...and then I wake up."
"Jesus." Karen brushed some hair back from his forehead, leaned down, and kissed him.
"Yeah." Jim sat up, put on his slippers, then crossed over to the antique Victorian wardrobe and removed his evening robe. "It doesn't take a Jungian scholar to figure this one out."
"I think you're oversimplifying it a bit," said Karen.
The President shot his wife an irritated glance. "Really? In a little under twelve hours I have to go on television and tell the country that we need to either withdraw our troops or escalate our military efforts in Zahirain. Christ, honey! Sixty-seven percent of the people don't think we should be over there, anyway, and now I have to tell them this less than a day after the latest casualty figures have been released. I'll be surprised if someone doesn't try to shoot me before the week's over!"
"Don't say things like that," whispered Karen, her eyes unblinking.
Jim realized that he'd just crossed the Line with her.
Karen Ryan was an outstanding First Lady, graceful, courteous, and--if the polls were to be believed--much more popular at the moment with American People than her husband. The role of First Lady had been greatly expanded over the last several decades; whereas the President's wife was once little more than stage dressing, the position now held a great deal of unspoken power; she not only served as an advisor to her husband, but served as the White House's #1 PR person, pushing not only its agenda but her own personal one, as well. The fact that Karen Ryan was a psychiatrist made her even more imposing in the eyes of the people, as well as nearly every member of the government. Jim was well aware that he sometimes used her as a shield when things got too hot for him, and she was always willing to stand in front of him in order to give him a chance to catch his breath--on the understanding that, when they were alone, he never make jokes about their personal safety.
Karen Ryan, at age four, had been with her parents in Dallas the day John Kennedy was shot, had, in fact, been standing along the parade route; she'd been less than fifteen yards away when part of Kennedy's skull blew backward. She'd never forgotten the sight, and her one "rule" was that Jim never make cracks about assassination.
"I'm sorry, honey," said Jim. "That was uncalled for."
"Goddamn right it was," she said, leaning back against the headboard. "All right, if you're having problems with the 'textbook' explanation, then let's go back to Psych 101 and try the sixth-grade Readers' Digest version: You don't know what to do about Zahirain, fine; you also don't know what happened to your father in Germany; the casualty reports from Zahirain have been pretty specific about how the soldiers were killed: ergo, you have taken some of those graphic details, unconsciously projected them onto your father's missing history, and have created a scenario that's manifesting itself in your dreams. Don't look at me like that--I know it's a shitty theory but you look like you need a straw to grasp at."
He came over to the bed and kissed her. "You're right, it's pretty lame."
"It's also a quarter after four in the morning and you're not being charged, so you'd damned well better take what you can get."
He looked into her eyes and almost told her about the newspaper article but decided not to; despite his more pragmatic instincts, Jim had a sense that something more was going on here than anyone could easily explain.
"I think I'm going to go to the study for a while, putter around for a bit and see if I can't relax."
"I think that sounds like a good idea. Want some company? Puttering's more fun with two."
He kissed her again. "No. Some things a man has to do alone."
"That's a lousy John Wayne."
"I was trying to do Gary Cooper."
"Oh. Thank God you never wanted to be an actor."
The first thing that hit him upon entering his study was the smell of cigarette smoke.
The second thing was the harsh clacking of someone pounding away at the keys of a manual typewriter.
Then a soft hand was placed on his shoulder and Jim Ryan spun around to see his mother standing next to him.
"Shh," said Mary Ryan, smiling. "You don't need to be afraid, hon. Now you just go over there and have a sit-down and I'll fix you some tea."
He couldn't speak. Everything within him knew that this was his mom, but not the worn-out, beaten-down, used-up emotional zombie he'd known through his adolescence; this was Mom the way she looked in all the old photos, the way she'd been when he was three: demure, almost girlish, vibrant and alive.
He moved to embrace her but she stopped him with a hand against his chest. "I'm sorry, hon, but you can't touch me. I can touch you and you'll feel it, but if you try to touch me you'll just get yourself a bunch of air."
"The word you're looking for," said a voice from the other side of the study, "is 'ghost.' You're a ghost, Mrs. Ryan, so why not just say it?"
"'Cause it sounds silly, that's why," she snapped at the unseen typist. "Not everybody has your way with words, Mr. Pyle."
"You can say that again." The feverish typing began anew.
Jim felt tears in his eyes and forced himself to not cry; if he allowed anything to obscure his vision right now she might vanish and he didn't want that; there were so many things he had to say to her, so many things he wanted to know.
"You comin' or do I have to send a written invitation?" said Ernie Pyle, crushing out his cigarette and lighting a fresh one.
Jim stood rigid until his mother pressed a hand against his back and started to gently push him in the direction of his desk. "Don't you worry," she said. "I'm not going anywhere. You can blink, you can cry if you want, you can ever take a nap and I'll still be here when you wake up."
She pushed him down into a chair opposite his desk where Ernie Pyle sat pounding out a story on an ancient black typewriter, using the two-finger method of the self-taught.
"So you liked my piece about your dad, did you?"
"Y-yes, I did. Very much." He rubbed his eyes, then said, "So you did write it?"
"Hell, yes. Damn good thing your buddy had it laminated for you. Stories don't come any more exclusive than that."
"What are you...what are writing now?"
"The speech you're gonna give on TV tomorrow night. Looks pretty good so far--ah, who'm I kidding? It's gonna be great. Hell, you'll be right popular again." He stopped typing for a moment, read a few passages to himself, then smiled. "Y'know, if they'd had TV when I was around, I could've been a star. Shoulda kept my head down in the foxhole. Ten seconds. I'd waited another ten seconds before poking my mug up, I'd've lived to be an old man."
Jim looked from Pyle to his mother. "Why...why are you here? What's going on?"
"Well, hon," said Mary Ryan, handing him a cup of tea and two Fig Newtons (his favorite late-night snack), "you're having some trouble making an important decision. We just decided to give you a little help."
"I got two version of your speech here," said Pyle, pulling the sheet from the roller and laying it on the desk. "In the first one, you tell everybody that you're pulling the troops out. In the second one, you announce escalation. Trust me on this: whichever way you go, I'll be damned surprised if 90% of the country don't rally to your support."
Jim said, "But I--"
"Don't say anything," said Pyle. "You're not on the same plane as us and we can do things you can't. Give you an example--I got three thousand dispatches I wrote about Vietnam that're being read in a world just to the side of this one. Over there, just to the side, your dad made it out of Germany alive and your mom is livin' a long and happy life by his side. Move a little to the side in that world, and you'll be in one where I did live to write that piece about your father when he didn't make it out of the war. Good thing you recognized the value of that piece, Mr. President; it traveled a helluva long way to get into your hands."
"And in the world where your dad lived, you still became President," said Mary. "I think that's nice."
"We're getting off the point here," said Pyle. "We've got to deal with what's going in this world, right now. You know full well, Mr. President, that whatever you decide, a lot of people are going to die. Can't be helped. It's the way of war, goddammit."
"People're going to die," said Mary Ryan from behind Jim's chair as she put her hands on his shoulders. "That doesn't make you their killer."
"Then why does it feel that way?" whispered Jim.
"'Cause you're the President, that's why," said Pyle. "When you took this office, you agreed to shoulder all the responsibility that comes with it, and this Zahirain business is part and parcel of that responsibility. You don't create the evil of war, but it's on your shoulders to deal with it. You just have to go back to your core, son, and see what beliefs have survived the last fifty years. Forget all the doubletalk and hot air that's getting blown up your--"
Mary Ryan cleared her throat.
"Sorry," said Pyle. "Forget all the hot air that's being blown in your face; you once said that all problems are a matter of conscience, and that's not changed one whit. What you have to do is look into your conscience without dragging Jim Ryan, the politician along with you."
"I don't know if I can still do that."
Mary patted his cheek. "We kind've figured that, so it was decided that there's something you need to see."
"Go out the door and just follow along. We'll still be here when you're done."
"We'll be around until whatever in Zahirain is over," said Mary, pulling Jim to his feet and kissing his cheek. "But don't tell anyone. They'll say you're nuts. And you're not. I know all about being nuts."
"You were so sad."
"I loved your dad very much, Jimmy. I always will. Now, get on your way, there's a lot to do before everyone else wakes up."
"By the way, Mr. President," said Pyle, rising to his feet and extending his hand. "I want you to know that it's a great honor to meet you. You're doing a fine job, in my opinion."
"Ernie," said Mary. "He can't take your hand."
"Oh, right." So Pyle took hold of the President's hand and shook it vigorously.
Jim Ryan smiled.
Pyle had a good, strong, trustworthy grip.
Beyond the study doors, the White House was clogged with bodies; Jews with flayed flesh hanging by their ankles from small gallows, Japanese citizens with nuclear-blast tumors covering every inch of their bodies, Vietnamese children with skin seared by napalm, Bosnian refugees wasted away by disease and starvation, Union soldiers whose torsos had been ripped open by 6-pounder cannon charges.
This story is dedicated to the members of the 71st Infantry Division
And the smell of death was everywhere.
One by one, the bodies of war's victims became animate, pointing the President along his way, guiding him through a White House he barely recognized any longer.
The dead guided him through hundreds of years of war as he walked along, and as he passed each one, they whispered to him their names, names that had been recorded in no books, names lost to history under the dirt of graves or piles of rubble.
And Jim Ryan found that he was able to remember each one.
At last he found himself standing before the entrance to the East Room, facing a gutted soldier who tossed a copy of the Red Circle News at his feet.
"Do you recognize the date?" asked the soldier.
"...yes..." choked Jim. "It was the day my father died in a hospital in Munich. I w-was...I was three years old. I only knew the man through pictures my mother had, and the stories she'd tell me."
"Then it's time you two met," whispered the soldier, gesturing for the President to follow him into the East Room.
At the far end of the room stood an opened doorway, one that hadn't been there before.
The soldier handed the President a flashlight. "You'll need this, sir." Then he stood back and gave the President a salute. Jim Ryan returned it, then fired up the flashlight and stepped through the doorway and began his descent down the winding stone stairway.
Without having to look behind him, he knew the dead were following him.
He reached the bottom of the stairway and stepped into a massive stone chamber. There was light down here, but he couldn't see the source.
He couldn't see anything except his father, who stood next to a large podium upon which lay a massive ledger, opened to a blank page.
Jim walked very slowly toward the man he had never known, his heart triphammering against his chest.
"Hello, Jimmy," said Franklin Ryan. "It's nice to finally meet you."
Jim couldn't help it, he didn't care what Mom and Ernie Pyle had told him, he had to touch the man, had to know he was real, so he threw aside the flashlight and ran across the room and threw his arms around his father--
--and felt nothing but emptiness.
And for a moment it all came forward, the aching loneliness of all the years without a father there to guide him, to scold him, to take him to movies or baseball games or parking-lot carnivals in summer, and the sadness was joined by rage at the loss, selfish rage, that they should have born into a world where people were more than willing to slaughter one another for land or power or increasingly abstract ideologies, and as Jim Ryan pulled away from the ghost of his father the only thing that mattered to him was that he hated the idea of condemning children and families all over this country to the same legacy of grief that he and his mother had known, and maybe it would be easier if something called the American Spirit still existed but it didn't, it probably never really did, was just a colorful phrase written down a few hundred years ago by legislators so they'd feel better about sending men off to die but goddammit if not them, then someone else would have to do the dying and why in hell was he thinking about this when his father was standing right here in front of him and--
"Get a hold of yourself, Jimmy," said Franklin Ryan, putting his arms around his son, and this time Jim did feel his father's embrace, and drew strength from it.
"Hi, yourself." Pulling back, Franklin said, "I'm sorry about the dreams, son. But I know you've been wondering for years what exactly happened to me. It was time you knew."
"It must've been...horrible for you."
Franklin shrugged. "Actually, once that first bastard cut my throat, I didn't feel much of anything. I was unconscious for most of it. All things considered, I'm kind of glad I didn't wake up. I guess they dragged me along for a few miles before they got bored and just dumped. By the time them kids found me, there'd been another snow that caused an avalanche back by the truck. All them other guys was buried pretty deep. Funny thing is, they still ain't been found. Lou, the fellah upstairs that gave you the paper?--I thought for the longest time that he got away, but he didn't. Dumbass got to feeling all guilty about running away and come back about an hour later, just in time to run right smack into those SS soldiers. They got him with a grenade, then went at him with their knives. Poor guy was awake for most of it. Terrible thing."
"Dad, what's--no, please, don't...don't let go of my arm. Sorry, I like the feel of your hand."
"Don't apologize. Don't make you any less a man in my eyes. In fact, I kind of like it."
"What's going on here? What is this place? That book?"
"This place, son, is where War sleeps in times of peace. That book is the Ledger of the Forgotten Ones. C'mere, take a look." Franklin led Jim over to the ledger and flipped back several of the pages; each page was easily three feet wide and four feet long, and contained thousands of handwritten names.
As he read down the columns, Jim noticed that the handwriting changed every so often.
Then, on the last few pages, he recognized the handwriting.
The flowery script was that of Edward Lee Montgomery, his predecessor.
"Getting the idea, are you, son?"
"I'm...I'm not sure."
The dead were surrounding them now, lifeless eyes gaining light.
"Every President who's held office since the White House was built has been guided down here eventually," said Franklin Ryan. "It is the President's very private, very secret responsibility to catalogue the names of the forgotten dead of war. Not just the American soldiers, but the names of those soldiers they were fighting, as well, and those of war's innocent victims; the children, the old folks, the families, all of them. For every name of a dead one that's been written down, there's another one that no one's ever known about. That has to be corrected, son."
Franklin Ryan's face grew still and serious. "Because on the day that the number of names in this book equals the number of names of war's recorded dead,
then War will return to this chamber, lay down its head, and sleep for the rest of time. Pick up that pen, son, and do your duty to the dead.
"Not just these forgotten dead, but those that have to follow them in order to achieve the balance. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
"Yes, Dad, I do."
Franklin sadly shook his head. "I feel for you, son, I really do."
"There never was a choice about what to do, was there?"
"You don't really need me to answer that, do you?"
"No," said the President, taking pen in hand. "No, I don't." Then he laughed. "The country's going to want to hang me out by my short and curlies."
"Not after you give that speech Ernie wrote for you. You're gonna make history with that thing, son. Damn, son, I'm proud of you. You made dying count for something."
The first of the Forgotten Dead, a Japanese girl no older than four, stepped up to the President and gave her name: Matoko. He wrote it down.
Just as she was turning away, Jim said, "Matoko?"
"Would you mind...telling me something about yourself? Something you want people to remember?"
She thought about it for a moment, then said, "I made very good bamboo dolls. They were pretty like my mother."
Jim smiled, and wrote down those words next to her name.
"Why'd you do that?" asked his father.
"Because something like that needs to be here, Mr. Chicken Farmer."
His father smiled, clapping Jim on the shoulder. "It won't be long, son. You may not live to see it in your lifetime, but it won't be long. I'm just sorry that you'll have to keep it to yourself...and that so many people are still gonna have to die."
"I understand," said the President, turning to the next person and asking them their name.
"All of us understand," said the soldier named Lou.
"That's good," said Jim, his throat clogging with a strangely liberating sorrow.
"Understanding should count."
It was a prayer.