The Dissapearing Man [Part 1]
by Andre Infante
concept credit to Ezra Stallings
A dozen severed Iowa cornstalks fall onto the dry Russian soil. The traveler notes the barbed-wire and trenches with a practiced eye, and dives for the ground. A handful of anti-personnel rounds scream over his head. The dog, which is used to this sort of thing, keeps low, and follows his master as he crawls between the craters and dead grass. He moves towards a red barn on the top of a nearby hill. Bullets cross back and forth from the Russian and German lines. A grenade lands near him, and he lobs it over a nearby hill.
He pushes aside a tuft of scrubby grass, and rolls into a dry ditch with irregular stone sides. He lays there for a moment, on his back, the dog standing on his stomach. He takes the brief moment of peace to regroup and collect his thoughts. He removes a small Beretta pistol from a pocket in his greatcoat, flips the safety, and makes his way carefully along the ditch on his hands and knees.
“It does have a certain charm, you know, this ditch,” he told the dog as he crawled, “I mean, it’s nothing fancy, but it is warm, and dry, and I’m sure it’s geopolitically fascinating, if we were to stop and think about it.”
A rifle round passes over his head. He ducks. Crawling isn’t easy, since his pack weighs about thirty pounds, all told. He hopes nobody shoots it. He’s gotten sick of patching the bed. After a crawl of about fifty feet, he reaches the end of the ditch some distance behind and to the right of the barn. He climbs up the back of the hill, finds a hole that has been blown in one of the corners by a stray shell. He switches the safety on his berretta, tucks it into a pocket of his coat, and climbs inside.
A dozen Russian soldiers turn and point a bewildering array of firearms at him. They’re standing around a table with a radio and a map on it. Overhead, in the loft, two or three snipers draw a bead on him. The traveler freezes.
One of the Russian soldiers says, “- ---- --- -- ------ ---- -----?”
The traveler gingerly raises his hands, and pulls the earplugs out. He can suddenly hear the dog growling behind him, which would be a lot more helpful if the dog were, for instance, a Doberman, rather than a kind of lopsided terrier mongrel.
The Russian officer looks annoyed.
“Я тебе, кто ты, должно быть, мудак?”
The traveler sighs, glances at his watch, and recites the only phrase he knows in Russian.
“Я солдат союзников. Я не говорю по-русский.”
This means ‘I am an allied soldier. I do not speak Russian.’ He knows similar phrases in German, Japanese, and French.
At first glance, this is hardly a believable claim. He is wearing a battered, stained British greatcoat, and speaks with an unusual accent that certainly has traces of British in it, but any plausibility ends there. There is the matter of the dog, for instance. Then there is his pack, which contains a rolled up oil cloth sack with a pump sticking out of the end, a small cook stove, a portable still, a German first aid kit, and what is very definitely a Japanese katana. Then there are the cat food cans clearly visible poking out of the pockets of his coat. Then, again, there are the wide array of highly suspect bulges under his greatcoat, which hint at other irregularities in store. The Russians confer hurriedly amongst themselves, not lowering their weapons. The traveler sighs, and sits on top of a crate of ammunition, waiting for them to sort it out. After a while, a tired looking Russian man with wire frame glasses comes forward and talks to him.
“Spreken ze deutch? Francais? English?”
The traveler nods, warily.
The man gives him a long, hard look. He looks more like a vagrant than a soldier. His coat is wet at the bottom, his hair is a mess, he has an ear of corn stuck in his pack, and he looks like he hadn’t had a proper bath in some time.
“You’re a British soldier?”
The traveler flips him a salute. Absently, he says
“Paratrooper, RAF 43rd, at your service. Got dropped behind enemy lines, had to fight my way back. Is it okay if I go sit over there?”
He gestures towards a pile of hay towards the rear of the barn.
The translator relays the conversation briefly to the others. After a few seconds, he turns back and shrugs.
The traveler nods, walks to the back, and flops down on the hay stack. The dog comes and sits to his right. He pulls a can of cat food and an army knife out of his pocket, opens the can, and splits it with the dog. The can happens to be in Russian, so the others, all tactics forgotten, watch this with a kind of clinical fascination. After finishing the can, he wipes his mouth, and glances at them.
“You chaps happen to have any fruit? Citrus, maybe?”
The translator confers this to the others. After further debate, one of them walks to a burlap sack in the corner, and tosses him a rather soft orange. He bisects it with his knife, and eats it. Then, discarding the peel, he removes an American GI canteen, takes a swig, and leans back into the hay.
After a bit of further discussion, the translator approaches him, and peers at him nervously over his spectacles.
“Okay, they want me to ask you, all bullshit aside, who the fuck are you, and who do you work for?”
The traveler glances at his watch. He still has nearly twenty minutes. He really hopes they aren’t going to shoot him before then.
“I don’t work for anyone. I’m a deserter, okay? Saw my whole platoon get mowed down. Traumatized me. Just wander around now.”
He smiled genially.
“I’m not going to kill you guys! We’re on the same side. Go on, don’t mind me. I think I saw the Germans trying to sneak up the back way.”
That provokes a brief panic. One of the Russians ducks outside and there is a brief exchange of gunfire, followed by some distant yelling. The traveler pitches the can against the wall, and tucks the dog inside his coat, which has a flak jacket sewn into the lining. Another shot.
More shots. Silence. Finally, the Russian comes limping back inside, bleeding from a bullet to his shin. The traveler pumps his arm in the air triumphantly.
“Yes! Stick it to the German bastards! Fight the good fight, that’s a good man.”
A shell explodes somewhere close. The Russian soldier collapses against the wall, crying and swearing. A Russian medic hops down from the loft. The traveler closes his eyes. He hasn’t slept in ten hours; first the ocean (three times!), then that cornfield, now this. He’s getting so sick of this shit. The dog whines as another shell goes off outside. He pets it, absently. A bit less than fifteen minutes, now. He sighs. He hates Russia. Backward swamp of a country at the best of times. These were not the best of time. The last time he was here, he got shot! He shakes his head, and rubs a deep purple bruise under his coat. He hates getting shot. He can’t wait to get out, and doesn't much care where he goes next. Even the Sahara is better than Russia.
He hears the doors slam open. The traveler opens his eyes. A dozen German soldiers are standing in the doors, pointing machine guns at the Russians, who swing their rifles back towards them. The traveler shrugs the dog into a pocket behind his arm, and reaches into his pocket slowly for the Beretta. There is a long, taught moment of silence.
One of the snipers in the loft fires. Ten seconds later, all of the Russians and most of the Germans are lying on the floor. The translator lies in a heap near the traveler's feet, half of his head gone. The only survivor, a scrawny German kid with some bad acne walks over to the traveler, and points a gun at his face. The traveler smiles up at him. He recites the only phrase he knows in German.
The butt of the rifle comes down on his head.
He wakes up. He’s marching, or being marched between dark green tents on the German side. He checks his watch surreptitiously. Five minutes now. His head hurts, but it's not too bad. The bigger concern is the weird, slick feeling that's building up in the air around him. The horizon pulses uncomfortably around his head. He checks the pocket, trying not to make it obvious that he’s lucid. Yes, the dog is still present and accounted for. They took the berretta, though. The sword was still there. The German kid probably didn’t have a pair of bolt cutters on him to get rid of the padlock. He shifts forward, under his own power, now, mostly. He can feel his skin starting to buzz. The ground feels different, too. It feels like he’s walking on soft slush instead of hard-packed clay and rock. The kid behind him must be able to feel it, but doesn’t know what it is.
He is pushed into a tent, and shoved heavily into a chair. His pack digs uncomfortably into his back. The kid passes the berretta to the officer, over the desk, who pockets it. A Nazi officer sits behind a desk. The name tag on the desk proclaims him to be Colonel Rudolf Schmidt. He’s wearing a heavy black jacket, black leather boots, and a black officer’s cap. The traveler takes a moment to appreciate the look. Say what you will about the Nazi’s, they have style.
He smiles at the German officer, and hopes like hell he speaks English. He doesn’t have many rules, but one of them is as follows: Smile at everybody. You only have to deal with them for forty three minutes, and it makes everything go smoother. The air around him has taken on a certain glistening quality.
“Hello, I’m a British intelligence analyst, and I’d like to defect.”
The officer peers at him over the desk. When he speaks, it is in heavily accented but understandable English.
“You are not British. You are also, unless I am much mistaken, very far from being a spy.” He glances at the German kid. “Schießt ihn.”
The German kid produces a pistol from somewhere in his coat.
The traveler sighs, and glances at his watch. Thirty more seconds.
“Hold on, just, look, hear me out. I just need ten seconds of your time. It’s very important that you hear what I have to say.”
He stands up, positioning himself almost exactly five feet back from the desk. His body is humming, now. The air around him feels almost like oil. There’s a sense of incredible pressure building inside him and in the air around him, like he’s about to be flung across the world. Which, of course, he is.
He pauses as long for dramatic effect as he thinks he can get away with, realizes that he’s got nothing to say, and grabs the first thing that comes into his head. With gravitas and deliberation, he says
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”
The German stares at him, slack-jawed. The traveler is into it, now, gesturing wildly with his hands, the picture of a man delivering a message of vital importance.
“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!"
He reaches up, grabs the earplugs, and stuffs them into his ears. He empties his lungs in a dramatic exhale at the end of his oration. Then, he turns and gives Rudolph Schmidt his best, most winning smile.
The Colonel suddenly seems to snap out of it. He grabs the Beretta out of his pocket, and raises it, pointing it at the traveler’s face. The alarm on the watch dings, once, a crystal clear note. The colonel hesitates. The German kid, who, by now has backed against the tent wall, notices something very wrong with the air around the traveler. A sphere of air, ten feet in diameter, suspended at around the geometric center of his body, has taken on a shimmering, glassy quality. The Colonel’s arm protrudes into it. Inside the sphere, the traveler is still smiling, though blurred. Then, suddenly, the arm, the traveler, and a good bit of the desk are simply gone. There is rather a lot of blood.
The traveler feels a thunderous burst of freezing air, which sends him staggering. He groans and blinks his eyes open, stinging in the cold, under the suddenly bright summer sun. He definitely fell in elevation, and he's somewhere very cold and very dry. His ears pop. The Colonel’s arm lands on the ground a few feet away with a meaty sound, along with a chunk of wood from the desk and what looks like the end of the nametag. The traveler retrieves the Beretta, which has the safety on, and glances around. A few pounds of Russian soil are piled around his feet. Beneath is the hard packed permafrost: Antarctica. He sighs. He hates Antarctica, but not as bad as Russia. At least people don't try to kill you, here. For starters, what people? He does a cursory check for any convenient towns or naval bases on the horizon, just in case. Nothing but snow and ice that stretches away in every direction. The blood from the hand is already freezing to the ground.
He works efficiently. He pulls the dog out of the greatcoat. It stares at him reproachfully, hopping on the ice. He pulls the bedroll out of his pack, doesn't inflate it. There's a bullet hole, and it's worth more as a blanket at this point, anyway. He sets an alarm for thirty five minutes, rolls himself and the dog up in the oil cloth, stuffs his hands into his pockets, and goes to sleep. He's gotten quite good at going to sleep under conditions a lot worse than these. It's cold, sure, but there's dry land, it's quiet, and there's not much wind. It'd take hours for the temperature to kill him out here. He dreams of banana milkshakes. He hasn't had a banana milkshake in three months.
The alarm wakes him up. He pulls his hands out of his pockets, collects the dog, and tucks it into the pocket of the coat. It's not much fond of the pocket, but has grown accustomed to it. His fingers are cramped, and his face is rough and numb from the cold. Fortunately, he can feel the air starting to hum and pulse. He rolls up the bedroll, hooks it into place behind his shoulder. He checks the earplug, does a little dance in the freezing air, and glances at his watch. Five seconds. He takes a long breath in, and empties his lungs completely. It's a trick he learned early on. Ruptured lungs are no fun at all, if you jump ten thousand feet in elevation with compressed air in your chest. The watch dings. The bubble of greasy, crystal air around him vanishes. There's a very faint thunderclap of air slamming in to fill the void. Aside from a very shallow, perfectly smooth crater carved out of the ice, the hand, the debris, and a small amount of Russian soil, the plain is, again, undisturbed.
The traveler lands in the ocean, this time. It's either night or late evening, he isn't sure which. He starts to sink. Fuck. He should have taken the time to patch the mattress. He frees the dog from the coat. It bobs to the surface and paddles in circles in the water. He fishes a tube of model airplane cement out of the pocket of his coat, and a small square of nylon. He finds the bullet hole, patches it, and uses the hand pump in inflate the bedroll. Once it is a serviceable raft, he climbs aboard, and lifts the dog onto his lap. The oilcloth mattress dips considerably in the middle, but holds up, which is important when the water is cold enough to kill you in minutes. It's not now, but sometimes it is. Actually, it's kind of pleasant at the moment.
He dangles his feet in it to warm them off after the fierce Antarctic chill, and considers the weather. It's fairly warm, maybe getting to be fall, though. Must be near Hawaii. Pity he couldn't have landed on the island proper, he knows a place that serves a good banana milkshake. He catches ten minutes of sleep, and wakes up feeling better. A thunderstorm is moving in, his knees hurt, and the dog is whining.
A light ran begins to fall, and he tucks the dog under his coat. He can feel it coming. His skin prickles, and feels blurry. The sea gets choppy underneath him. His stomach clenches unpleasantly, as the bed bobs up and down under him. The waves are getting higher.
The rain is coming down quite hard now. The water drops away underneath him, and he and the raft fall three feet, which nearly knocks him off the thing. The dog yelps. Rain sleets down, getting in his eyes, soaking his hair. He looks outwards. A dark column of boiling clouds stands out on one horizon. The seas have turned the color of volcanic glass underneath him. He clings to the inflated bed with one hand, cradling the dog with the other. The air around him warps, and distorts. The sea beneath him begins to sizzle along the boundary of the bubble. The tension builds and builds and builds, and then, suddenly, he's gone. The rain fills in the hole where he used to be after no more than an instant, and the storm continues on schedule, short only a few gallons of saline.
The traveler falls. He toppled backwards about five feet, toppling off the inflated bedroll, and lands on his ass on the asphalt, hard. A fair amount of seawater tumbles down around him, running out across the pavement. The traveler climbs gingerly to his feet, pulling the dog out of his coat. He drops it onto the ground. It lands and shakes itself, hair flapping in limp rags around its body. The traveler deflates the bedroll, folds it up with practiced care, and hooks it over his shoulder. His greatcoat is still wet, but the sun is hot and all of his equipment is already drying. He brushes his hair out of his face. There are two or three layers of salt drying on it, and it's quite unmanageable.
The traveler wipes the seawater out of his eyes. The dog is furiously trying to lick the salt out of its coat. After standing there for a while, he drags his fingers through his hair, and tries to figure out where he is. He takes a few minutes consulting a homemade laminated chart and doing some arithmetic. After a minute, he looks up. A car careens around a corner in both lanes. A pretty girl turns to yell at it. He nods triumphantly and stuffs the chart back into his coat. Late spring, good climate, beautiful women and the world's worst drivers. This can only be France. He smiles at this. He likes France. The women, the climate and the food. He hasn't been to France in some time. The last time he'd managed to track down a newspaper in French, it'd said that the Germans had taken it. He can see the difference. There are some posters up in German and French, which he can't make heads or tails of, but the typography is nice. There are also a couple of police officers on the corner with swastikas. He heads in the opposite direction with considerable haste. Another one of his rules: Do not fuck around with military police.
He walks until he finds a small home with all the lights out. He produces a lock pick from a pocket, gets the door open in a couple of tries, and goes inside. He shuts and locks the door behind him. After a bit of exploration he locates a bathroom with a shower. He sits down, and carefully begins disassembling his gear. The coat, though comfortable, is padlocked onto his body in several places, to ensure that it can't be easily removed if he is arrested. He enters a different combination for each one, removing first his pack, and then his coat. He now stands wearing nothing but a nightshirt, blue jeans, and a solid pair of combat boots.
He removes even these, prying his feet out of the boots with difficulty. His body is scarred, muscular, and filthy. He has two bullet scars in one shoulder, a ragged scar down his stomach where he was stabbed by a Japanese soldier, and a number of minor cuts, burns, and scrapes. His right arm is shaped oddly from being broken in three places. His left thumb and wrist are covered in little worms of scar tissue, and his ring finger has a fused middle joint. His nose has been broken, probably more than once. His right ear is missing a piece. He's got a scar under his right eye. He notes several fresh cuts on his legs, and disinfects them with iodine from the medicine cabinet.
He folds the coat, which is stiff with age, patches, and salt, against the toilet, throws his underclothes into the bathtub, and climbs in after them. He checks his watch. Twenty two minutes. He stands under the hot jet of the shower, scrubbing grime and salt and some blood off of himself. By the time he gets out, he feels like a new man. He pries a window open, and hangs his clothes out to dry, taking a moment to thoroughly wash his underwear. He then stuffs his coat into the shower, going at it with a bar soap with a grudge. The dog climbs in too, and he spends a little attention on it, too, getting the larger mats out of its hair, and most of the salt and grease. The great coat gets marginally cleaner. He rinses his socks, which disintegrate to rags as he does so. He settles for washing the mud, cowshit, and rocks out of his boots and removing a pair of backup socks from his coat. He puts his shoes back on. He closes the medicine cabinet, combs his hair in the mirror, leaving the iodine bottle sitting in the sink.
He produces a battered toothbrush from one of the pockets of his coat, and brushes his teeth from a tin of baking powder. After rinsing, spitting, rinsing again, he straightens up, and put his clothes on. It's hard to do so. It feels enormously freeing to be walking around carrying only himself, without the thirty-pound dead load of the coat and gear. He sighs. This temptation is why he doesn't bathe often. He pulls the coat over his shoulders; pad locks the internal harness onto his body; puts the pack on, locks it down, puts the dog into the pocket. He into the kitchen. He checks his watch. Four minutes. He can feel the air getting tense and slick around him. Barely enough time to stock up on food. He goes into the kitchen, and finds the pet food. Just dry dog food. He sighs. He prefers the taste of cat food, and the stuff never goes bad.
He checks the refrigerator. There are a few bananas, which he takes, and half of a pork chop. He splits the pork chop, passing half back into the coat for the dog, and eating the other half with his bare hands. He decides to check the cabinets for beef jerky or canned fruit. Maybe there'll be oranges. He hasn't been feeling well lately, and is worried about scurvy. He turns. The front door is open. He steps towards the cabinet, opens it, starts scanning. The front door is open.
The front door is open.
He freezes, hand halfway into one of the cabinets. He stands very still, listening. There is a long, long moment of silence. The door hangs open across the living room, light streaming in. A fly buzzes over the stove. The floor creaks behind him. He starts to turn. There's a loud, brutal yell, and something comes charging towards him out of the corner of his eye. A glass wine bottle breaks over the back of his head, and a weight slams into him, sending him skidding. It grabs his hair, slamming his head into the hardwood floor.
"Get off! It's only your shower!"
He rolls over, and she punches him in the nose. She's quite an attractive girl, if a little thin. She's in her mid twenties, probably, and her eyes are blazing, her red hair in disarray around her face. He thinks that she looks quite pretty, and then she hits him in the face again, spraying blood, and his mind get back into the game. He elbows her in the jaw with the efficiency of someone who's spent a lot of time fighting. Her head snaps back, and she loses her balance.
She yells at him as he rolls off. The air is humming around him, now, and he can feel the floor blurring under his hands and feet as he rolls over and runs clumsily towards the door. Her voice is thick, and she sounds somewhere between pissed off and scared shitless.
"Qui etes-vous, connard!? Que fais-tu dans ma maison?"
He almost reaches the door when she lands on his back for a second time, arm around his throat in a credible choke. The tension in the air around him has reached its peak. The alarm on his watch rings. The dog in his coat, now squashed by her weight, growls. He takes one more step and, with scarcely a sound, they are gone. Somewhere, off in the distance, a cat yowls, hungrily.
The 'concept credit' is a new category I've added for when the core story concept is not mine. I have several friends who will, with minimal provocation, either say 'hey, wouldn't it be cool if...', or help me brainstorm through an existing idea. They will be credited like this from now on.
This story is an experiment on my part - it's the first time I've tried a serial. This one is about 4000 words, which'll be about par for each part. There will probably be at least six, and they'll come out every few weeks with regular stories in between. If the reader response is sufficiently positive, I may begin to develop them alongside the Thursday stories, or find some other system.
Also, I am considering creating a Project Wonderful advertising sidebar below my usual author's note, and would like to get user feedback on the idea before implementing it. Any profits would be used to hire an artist to do sketches for the stories, pay for server time, and possibly eat.
I hope you enjoy this little experiment as much as I did.
ADDENDUM: My French/Russian/German is notoriously weak. If anyone who actually speaks these languages notices any embarrassing errors, don't hesitate to browbeat me for them.