Author: Cruelest Sea PM
The burden of command weighs heavy in the midst of war and the years beyond. Connected one shots, post-series.Rated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Tragedy - Capt. Benedict & P. D'Angelo - Chapters: 4 - Words: 7,697 - Updated: 08-16-12 - Published: 08-15-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7290374
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"We saw the lightning and that was the guns and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."-Harriet Tubman
They spend the last five days of the war in a mud-splattered foxhole in an unnamed field that the veterans of the last war would have called no man's land, with a broken radio and not enough ammunition to hold their position half that time. There's only three of his men and Conley left and they haven't had a square meal or a full night's sleep in longer than he can remember. They're worn to the bone and pushed beyond the point of endurance and he finds himself strangely hardened to it all, no longer able to even flinch as the bullets strike closer or bother to wipe his hands clean of the grime that stains them.
Sometime in the middle of the second day D'Angelo tries to heave a grenade into the bunker and he watches with the resigned detachment of a commander who has already sent too many men to their deaths as the soldier falls. Lucavich drags him back and Conley tears aside his uniform. It's a bad wound, with the bullet resting against his heart, and a single hard jolt will drive it deeper, rupturing the fragile organ. There isn't a chance in the world and his first thought is a fleeting hope that Conley's meager grasp of Italian will be enough to see them through the next town.
He hears Gibson shouting his name, hands already slick with D'Angelo's blood, and he drops his eyes to the man's face, the chalky white of his skin beneath the grime. Gibson's eyes beg him and he realizes with a sense of shock that he hadn't even thought of him as one of his men dying, as D'Angelo who crawled onto Salerno with him, but only as an interpreter, like he'd been angered over the loss of the radio, a piece of equipment and not a human being.
There's no hope and they all know it but he orders the retreat anyway, and puts his own hands over the wound as they carry D'Angelo between them as gently as they can. The blood spurts between his fingers and he thinks vauguely that it would have made him sick just a few short years ago when he was a young man and not so callous. A college education and a war and he still can't remember exactly how much blood the human body contains but he knows that at least half of it must be on his clothes, far too much with every step they take.
Somehow, he'll never know how, D'Angelo is still breathing when they reach the hospital, rattles of air deep in his throat. The doctors go to work on him and he gives his own blood to help replace some of what's been lost. It's a habit by now, opening veins for each other until the blood or the life runs dry into the mud of Italy.
None of them expect D'Angelo to live. They've seen enough dying soldiers to recognize the clammy grasp on the men who can measure what's left of their lives in a handful of gasps, but the others are comforted by the knowledge that they tried, that they carried a dying man six miles and held the life in as long as they could. They look in on him one last time, not speaking, only looking at him, before slipping away.
Three days later the war is over.
He gets his discharge papers shortly after, crisp white and cold between his fingertips, sterile words releasing him from all that's happened as if it never existed, and returning him to who he was before. He enters the office a captain and leaves a civilian, broken off from the orders and salutes, letters and papers of the day before, free to return home like a bird who's lived too long in a cage and forgotten how to survive on his own.
America is strange to him. It's too quiet without the sound of bombs and he can't explain why the undamaged buildings seem strange to him. Here everyone speaks his language, from the girl who smiles at him and he averts his eyes, to the music on the radio, shrieking horns that hurt his ears and makes him long for the quiet sound of a guitar or an old victrola whispering an Italian melody. There's no need for an interpreter but he can't seem to read anymore, starting countless books and never reaching the second chapter. The words feel trivial, running blindly off the pages like blood dripping from his fingertips as he holds down on D'Angelo's artery and feels the pulse flickering beneath his own, blurred, a memory buried beneath the weight of others.
He dates a few girls, one date each and nothing more. None of them are comfortable around his silence and the moments when his gaze wanders into the past and his ears fill with the screams of the dying and wounded instead of the melody the band is playing. In those moments he forgets the girl in his arms, the one who smells of Evening In Paris and rustles in satin, and his hands grasp rough uniform as he clings to an injured man and watches him choke his life away and he can't retreat, can't tell them to leave, because they have to hold this hill, a worthless stretch of land nobody will even remember. It's then that he doesn't see a pearl necklace around her neck but a chain of dogtags, the names stirred together until he can no longer remember who was who, the ones who lived from the ones who died. He takes her home early and sits up all night, staring out the window and into the street lamps and the darkness beyond.
Holding down a job is nearly impossible and he drifts from one to the next. He could have stayed in the military, perhaps should have since it's all he knows now, but he had to get away, instinctively knowing somehow that another month, even a week longer, and he would have forfeited his sanity.
He visits the graves, all of them, every man whose tags he tore from their necks, the ones who died screaming, calling for loved ones, and clutching crosses, crucifixes, Stars of David, or photographs, and those who died quickly, put out like a candle in a breath of wind, a slip on a landmine, a bullet to the head, and silence. Eventually he even visits the wounded, Hansen in the veteran's hospital with a plate in his head and a brain injury that will never heal, Saunders with a stiff leg that will never straighten. He looks them in the eye, without blinking, searching for hatred and finding none. It leaves him hollow as if their bitterness would have been more bearable, some punishment, as if drinking from the wormwood cup and swallowing the gall would be more tolerable than to have it sitting in front of his lips at all times.
Once a week, every Saturday evening, he calls the hospital, a ritual like the prayers he murmured as a child, the ones he's forgotten. He tries to pray at first, but all he can remember is Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray and snatches of the Rosary, broken fragments echoing as he hears D'Angelo praying over Hansen and watches the cross drawn over his chest.
At first the phone calls are waiting for D'Angelo to die, for the moment when they'll ship his body home and he'll do another duty, standing beside the grave like the commander he used to be as the casket lowers into the earth. Slowly he turns to wondering, daring to hope as the tired voice on the end of the line brightens and tells him that the soldier is getting stronger, that he seems to be beating the infection and the odds. And finally there's the day when he calls and the nurse tells him, smile brushing the words, that D'Angelo is going to live. It's one soldier, a single face among all the rest. He's lost countless others like him, kids just past eighteen, husbands and fathers of four, battle-scarred veterans only a few days away from going home. He wouldn't even have bet a dime on D'Angelo's chances of surviving the war the day he first saw him. It's a frail victory but he can't explain why it doesn't ease the pain.
There's no contact with the others after that. He keeps his distance from veteran's hospitals and the occasional letters and wedding invitations. He takes a job and holds onto it by his fingernails, and he's surviving, he thinks, day by day but surviving.
It's been a year and a half since the war and he's walking down the street when he bumps into someone and mumbles an apology without looking up until he hears the quiet "Captain?". He's wearing a plaid shirt and brown pants, and his hair has grown beyond the shorter cut of soldiers, wind-tousled without a helmet. He's thinner than he was, with the look of a man who's had a slow and hard recovery. But the eyes are the same, dark and fathoms deep.
"Pete." The name tastes of muddy earth and constant rain, K-rations and the metallic taste of fear in his mouth, memories he's tried to bury. D'Angelo smiles widely and reaches an arm around the woman at his side, pretty with a thick Italian accent and a gold band on the hand resting over the slight swell beneath her clothes.
The envy tastes bitter in his mouth and he hates himself for it. D'Angelo paid for his happiness in far too much blood to not deserve it. They say little to each other beyond a few words and his forced congratulations, and he hurries away as soon as he can, unable to keep looking into his eyes lest all the memories of battlefields and dying men come flooding back and swallow him whole.
There's a reunion later on and they all but force him to come. In the end he finally gives in and stays on the outskirts. D'Angelo is there, of course, with his wife and the baby, a tiny thing that all the others make a fuss over and all he can see is the Italian children in the farmhouses, twisted little forms shot down by German soldiers because they couldn't find the partisans in this house or there wasn't the escaped American prisoner in the next. He takes her in his arms when D'Angelo hands her to him and the baby's wide and deep set eyes look into his, look deep into his soul and strip it bare. She smells of warm milk and talcum powder and innocence and he wants to rupture wide open, to scream as he never did all those other times, to recoil from life as he once did from death before lying in a trench beside the dying or digging a grave with his bare hands became a way of life. The others talk and share some memories, some even weeping as he stands stoic, eyes dry and jaw clenched.
It takes him a few years to cry. Time marches on and the men he served with find a patch of life that hasn't been entirely destroyed and rebuild it brick by brick. There's jobs and plans, dreams and buying their own homes, wives and children. Gibson heads to school on a GI bill, Lucavich looks after Hansen, and D'Angelo's little girl takes her first ballet lesson. There's skinned knees and birthday candles, photographs and ABCs, and a hundred more things that have become their worlds as his remains still, coping and not moving beyond, still water with sharks lurking beneath.
When he does cry it's on a summer day, in the car, and it's over a sentimental tune he once loved, a record he hasn't thought of in years, an oldie and never a hit, a jagged fragment of when he was young the day before Salerno, before he killed a man, before he saw a man die, before orders and commands, mud and blood, discharge papers and whatever he is now. He doesn't even like the tune anymore, he's so changed, but he remembers the words, some part of him retaining them after this time as if they were important. The first sound comes out as laughter, a watery, hysterical laugh that borders on a sob as the dam bursts.
And when he finally starts crying he doesn't stop for a long time.