by Stephen Minchin
Captain Edward King lay on the bed, breathing raggedly through his moustache as his family moved quietly around him. He saw them come and go, and watched the nurse with the fake smile, try to keep him alive, although he no longer had the will. Edward would have given anything to get out of there, out of the tiny room and into the fresh air, the wind and rain and sun that were only a few meters distant and yet a lifetime away. He was trapped, pinned between the white sheets as his life was drawn out by the machines humming gently beside him
There were flowers all around the bed, old photos dotted between them like ghosts staring out from the edge of a forest. There was a picture of Edward's wedding, with him standing there beside a wife he had barely known, and who was now ten years dead. There were photos from the Second World War, his platoon, and his friends who had died somewhere in France. On the nightstand was a photo of the family, taken when they'd gathered for Edward's birthday last summer.
But he was tired now, cold after his eighty years. His life had been so full that he felt an anger that it had come to this, a slow running down instead of an end he could be proud of. Finally, after months in the hospital, he felt heaven calling him, and he heard the angels' voices in his dreams. Edward knew that he was fading away and he wasn't fighting it any more.
"It's his time," someone had said, a stage whisper as though he wasn't even there.
But the voice was right.
When he died there were few tears. His sons clustered around his bed, their wives and children silent. Even the youngest could feel Edward's death in the stillness of the room.
As he slipped away from his body Edward heard the voices, and felt fingers beckoning. For a moment he was overjoyed, buoyant when he realized that he was finally moving on. But when the hands clutched at his soul, holding him tight and dragging him down, Edward was afraid for the first time in years.
When Edward woke he was screaming, overflowing with raw memories of claws catching at him as he was dragged down a lightless tunnel. His world had become full of howls and a hot breath on his face, and a stab of pain into the root of his being.
He stopped in mid-scream as his eyes twitched open. There was a moment’s nausea as he felt himself heaved back into a body again. Edward raised a hand, shielding his eyes from the blazing white light that filled his vision, the sun glaring down on him as gray-blue clouds whipped across his face. He was lying on his back, stretched out on the rocky ground.
Sitting up tentatively, he could feel his heart still beating hard as the memory of fear and pain slowly faded. He had left his body, he knew that, but had it been seconds or hours ago? He felt disorientated, like waking up after an operation, or a hard night's drinking.
He looked left and right, taking in what little scenery there was. All around him was desert, a plane of endless sand and gravel fading into the featureless horizon. There were no trees that he could see, no dunes.
Despite the white sun, the air was cool, bringing a shiver to Edward’s body. He looked down, suddenly realizing that he was naked and as young and tanned as he’d been sixty years ago. He stared at himself for a moment, then reached up and touched his face, feeling the soft skin, freshly shaved. Edward glanced around, suddenly embarrassed at his nudity, but there was no one there to see him.
He stood slowly, feeling his joints moving with a smoothness he hadn't known in years. He'd never forgotten what it was like to be young and strong, and when he laid trapped in bed these last months and remembered how he could run a mile in four twenty, Edward had often wished that he had gone senile. This was the first time in God knows how long that he could actually stand upright, with no walking frame or nurses standing next to him. It was the greatest pleasure he had felt in years.
Edward took in the vista, but even standing, there was nothing to see. The world was almost colorless, featureless and dead, and apart from his breathing, absolutely silent. He could smell nothing. Despite the clouds tearing past overhead, he couldn't feel a breath of wind. Whatever this was, it wasn’t the heaven he had hoped for.
He started walking. There was nothing else to do.
Edward had no way of tracking time, the sun sitting motionless in the sky as he picked his way slowly across the desert. His feet were soon cut and bloody, torn open on the jagged stones that covered the ground. He clenched his teeth and kept walking.
With only the blank horizon in front of him, he had nothing to walk toward, and nothing behind him to walk away from.
Edward walked on.
It began slowly, imperceptibly, a gentle murmur at the edge of his hearing. He didn't notice it at first, but it grew to become the sound of voices, distant and faint, but unmistakable. Edward stopped and turned a full circle, his head cocked. There was no one to be seen and for a moment he was disconcerted, spinning quickly around as he tried to catch a glimpse of whatever it was he could hear.
Edward stood still, then, and listened to the faint voices. He could almost make out what was being said, but it was as though he listened through a long tunnel, the words broken until they were unintelligible.
After a moment's pause, Edward began walking again.
Gradually, they became clearer. He began to make out syllables, almost picking out words as he walked and listened to the gentle voices.
Soon he caught the occasional word, someone murmuring infantry as they passed invisibly by his shoulder. A moment later he heard a whispered krieg.
He kept walking. There was nothing else to do
As Edward's feet grew numb, the words grew into snatches of conversation. The voices had become his companions now, moving with him across the desert so that he was no longer alone in this wasteland.
Edward stopped, suddenly knowing that this voice had spoken to him instead of just being overheard by him. There was something in the soft voice that he almost recognized.
“Captain, is that you”?
He turned a full circle, but there was still no one to be seen.
"Hello?" he called tentatively.
“Captain, it's Private Walken, sir”.
Edward froze, a puzzled look on his face as he remembered the name, the voice. He shook his head, and started walking again.
Edward walked faster, striding across the stones, feeling fresh blood flow from his feet.
As far as he could remember, it sounded like Walken's voice, Walken, one of the men from his platoon. One of the men who had died in France.
Edward covered his ears with his hands and started to run, cutting his feet even more as he fled the voice from too long ago. He ran until he was exhausted, his breath burning in his throat and his feet covered in blood. Worn out and breathing hard, he collapsed to the ground, his head in his hands.
The voice was still there, though, waiting for him.
“Captain, you can't leave us again”.
Edward looked up as tears ran down his cheeks. Walken stood in front of him now, a transparent ghost in his dirty uniform, his helmet missing and a bloody gash down the side of his chest. He looked exactly as he had years ago, the hint of a smile just as Edward remembered. He'd still been smiling when they found him, dead in a roadside ditch.
"I didn't leave you," Edward whispered, his voice hoarse.
“Splitting hairs, sir. You outlived us.” The voice had a hint of laughter in it. “That's close enough”.
Walken paused, frowning for a moment as he studied Edward.
“We're all here, sir”, he said, crouching down with a look of concern on his face. “Everyone's here now. You were the last”.
"Why are you here? Why am I here?" he shook his head. "God, Walken, where are we?"
The young man shrugged and smiled crookedly. “I couldn't really say, sir. I've been here a while, though, since I left you all back in France. We've been waiting for you, me and Rogers and everyone”.
"Leave me alone." Edward's voice was flat, hollow.
“You can't mean that, sir. We've been waiting for you”.
"Leave me alone."
He pushed himself up onto his feet again, and starting walking.
The ghost of Walken stood and trotted to catch up. He walked beside Edward, concern on his face as he sunk his hands deep into his pockets. Edward glanced across at him, scowling slightly. It wasn’t right; this wasn’t right. There’d been a mistake.
As the pair walked in silence, other ghostly figures gradually faded in like steam coalescing around them. Pale clouds would thicken to gray pillars, growing limbs and a face until a man was formed. These figures walked slowly across the desert, the color seeping into their bodies. Some were missing a limb, some carried scars and bloody wounds that would have turned any soldier's stomach, but none seemed to notice. The faces of these ghosts were drawn, blank but for a sadness in their eyes.
Edward didn't recognize any of them, nothing more than countless, unknown soldiers spread around him as he, Walken and the ghosts all walked on. It looked as though every nation was there, a parade of different uniforms, English, American, German. There were others too - the Great War, the Boer War, a few young men naked as he was, and others in modern uniforms, carrying modern weapons. Most of the men were silent, but some, those with the most horrific injuries, talked to themselves as they marched.
Edward stopped and turned around slowly, taking in the sight of the thousands of ghostly men. They milled around aimlessly, each heading in a different direction like an ant nest in disarray. One or two looked at Edward as they passed, fixed him with their sorrowful eyes, but most ignored him and ignored each other.
"Who are they?"
Walken shrugged. “They're just soldiers, sir”.
"I can see that, Walken." he snapped. "But what are they doing here?"
“Your guess is as good as mine, sir. Everyone's here, though, I've even bumped into my uncle a few times. Everyone's here”.
"I can remember you telling us about the brother you left back home…"
Walken shook his head. “He's not here, sir. Not my father, either”.
“No, sir. I met your brother a while back, though”.
"Richard? Is he here somewhere?" Edward glanced around, looking at the faces that surrounded him.
“He had some fantastic stories about the desert campaign, sir”. Walken offered.
Edward smiled at him. "I can imagine. God, the stories we told when we got back to New Zealand. It must be like a school reunion here."
“Yes, sir. Just a shame that we're missing so many people”.
"Everyone from the platoon's here, though?"
“Yes, sir. Just a few people from home who didn't make the cut”.
Edward nodded slowly. "Where are we, Walken?"
He took a deep breath, shutting his eyes for a moment.
“Come on, sir, there's no point worrying about that now. All of the boys are waiting for you. We've been waiting forever, it seems”.
Walken half turned, lifting a hand to point into the distance, across the crowd.
“Everyone's waiting for you. It's not far”.
Edward sighed softly and fell in behind Walken.
“We've been waiting forever”, the younger man repeated, keeping his eyes ahead as he picked his way through the crowd.
They walked past hundreds, thousands of figures. Edward's strength was beginning to fade when the platoon appeared, a small clearing in the throng of ghosts with a row of men in New Zealand uniforms at its center. It was as though a cordon kept the others out of this circle, but Walken stepped straight through and walked across the bare ground, shaking hands as he joined the group. Edward passed through behind him, stopping a few meters in from the edge of the crowd.
He instantly recognized the faces in front of him. Thomson was there, Rogers and Marsden. The whole platoon, as though the photo Edward had kept the last sixty years had sprung to life in this desert. For a moment, the sight of all these men he had seen dead or dying was too much for Edward, and his head spun as though he were drunk.
Walken turned to him again.
“Come over, sir. The boys haven't seen you in years!”
Edward reached up to rub his eyes, and took a slow breath before he looked at his men again. They watched him intently, and he knew that they were welcoming him back, that they were glad to have him there.
This was his home, his family, and he smiled as he began walking toward them. Everyone was together again, and his brother was here somewhere, too. It was just like a school reunion, but with people he'd never thought he would see again. He held out his hand to shake Thomson's, everyone's, hand.
With no warning the sky changed, a bloody sunset blooming at the horizon and flowing overhead in an instant. Edward looked up and saw the deep red glow, but more than this, he felt a surge of fear so strong that he could taste it in the air. Behind him, a scream rose from the crowd of ghosts, a million voices celebrating their pain. Walken was grinning, his teeth flashing as he watched Edward's face.
“You made it just in time, sir.”
The platoon surged forward as one. Edward barely had time to turn before they were on top of him, their fingers clutching at his back as he tried to run but felt his legs forsaking him. Their hands were around his throat but still he tried to leave the circle as the ghosts formed a wall as though around the edge of an arena. The ghosts faced him, shoulder-to-shoulder, and howled.
Edward fell to his hands and knees, a stab of pain as the stones cut into his skin. He felt his men around him, their hungry breath against his skin, and heard a soft voice as they drove their claws into his flesh.
“Some of us have waited sixty years for this, sir, so you'd better make it worth our while”.
Even as his men tore at his body, Edward could hear the screams of the ghosts in the crowd. With all the strength he could find, he gave his voice up to their chorus.
There was nothing else to do.