(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during my obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are short and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. This third story was inspired by one of the few rules in military that is actually endearing: if there is an odd number of soldiers out in pairs, the second-to-last is required to fall back to walk beside the last. The second-to-last walks on his own, but there always needs to be a pair of soldiers bringing up the rear. I hope you like it!)
The Last One is Never Alone
At the end of the world, and during it, too, there was a place near the sea that the bullets and blood had not yet reached. It was built from the rough dark stone of the nearby cliffs, and had a steeple and high wall. It used to be a cloister, but now its ancient sides were scarred and blackened, the roof torn open to allow the smoke to leave the mess hall. Iron guns bristled along the top of the perimeter wall. Tarps and crates of ammunition sat among piles of furniture and relics. Golden boxes – centuries old – held toothbrushes nestled next to holy thigh bones. Tapestries were used as extra bedding. The vestry was the officer’s retreat, the crypt our meagre cold storage. This was a place for remnants and scraps of things, bits of equipment, bits of soldiers, too, whatever was left of us.
The lieutenant said all seven of us should go on the bicycle patrol. The rumor spread ahead of his arrival at the guardhouse, the way it always does in barracks. The slightest whisper from an officer, a half-formed thought, and everyone down to the cook’s help knew within minutes. What we didn’t know was why all seven of us were going; but then, we never knew the reason for anything we did, only that if we didn’t do it we would be shouted at or forced to hold ourselves up on our elbows in the courtyard until we never thought to question anything again. So, just past 3 o’ clock on a bitterly cold morning, we found ourselves drowsily saddling up the bikes and heading out under the battlements, a curling snake of privates, helmets clipped under chins, radios strapped to our backs.
The patrol that night was a mixed bag: Beaker and Allmand, Porky and Masterson, Graft, Hillam and me. Normally only two went out on the bicycles while the rest sat drowsily in the guardhouse, or wandered along the walls, their chins tucked into their collars to keep warm. But orders were orders, and now there were seven of us wheeling away into the dark. An odd number, an uneven formation. A rag, a tatter, like everything else here.
The patrol route was a five mile loop, a country road skirting the cliffs and the sea and then rounding back through long-abandoned fields toward the cloister. “Pay special attention to the sea,” the lieutenant had told us, wiping his forehead wearily. He was bedraggled, his uniform in desperate need of a wash. It looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. “There’s a possibility our location has been made known. I want a full report of any activity along the route, enemy or civilian.”
The front had long since moved away from these parts, disintegrating in the west into skirmishes and firefights. It was bad luck, being stationed here. We were cut off from support, and cut off from escape. We were living off canned beans and tack. An enemy fleet had been reported a hundred miles from the coast a week back, so there would be no rescue from the sea.
We didn’t speak to each other as we pedaled into the night. It was horribly cold, and our breath rose in white plumes from under our helmets, regular and steady, but each in a slightly different rhythm.
Beaker and Allmand were first. As soon as we were out of sight of the ramparts, Beaker stood up on his pedals, pumping them wildly. Beaker was a bug-eyed dolt. He was tired and wanted to complete the route as quickly as possible so he could return to sleep, never mind that if the enemy reached the shores and we failed to inform the command there would be a much longer, colder sleep than the hard bunks in the guardhouse. He was one of those people you could scream at or be kind to, and it would make no difference at all; it would all wash across his dull, hard-nosed face like water. Orders were nothing but small interruptions in his pursuit of food, sleep, and leisure, and if one could carry out a task halfway without punishment, it never occurred to him not to do so.
Allmand was a stolid, silent soldier and kept pace with Beaker. Porky did, too, or tried, though he should have been with me.
I was in the middle, where I liked to be: not good enough to be promoted to positions of responsibility and less sleep, but careful not to fall below that invisible bar of mediocrity where one might become the target of ridicule. Behind me was Masterson, and in the rear Hillam, who was weedy and short, and had never managed to pedal the patrol route in anything under an hour. Masterson should have fallen back to parallel him. But Masterson, like most of the soldiers at the cloister, held a subtle disdain for Hillam, and so he didn’t.
Eventually Masterson pulled in beside me. I glared at him as he passed, but either he didn’t notice or he didn’t care. The formation blurred and fell further and further apart. He peddled on after Allmand and Beaker, his red tail-light vanishing into the fog like an angry, bloodshot eye.
Hillam was breathing hard when he reached me, struggling against the pedals. His glasses hung crooked on his face, already fogged to the rims from his breath, two opaque ovals where his eyes should be. I cast a quick look forward. The red lights of our comrades were quickly receding up the path.
A part of me was angry at Beaker for being so stupid and hurrying the patrol, and another part of me was angry at Hillam for being so slow. That part of me wondered spitefully if maybe Hillam deserved everything he got.
I thought about that as we began to pedal again. The lieutenant back in Spanish Cove used to say that most people had either brains or looks. You only needed one to be reasonably happy in life. If you had both, the world was yours. If you had neither, God help you.
Beaker had neither, and yet somehow the world was no more closed to him than to anyone else. Hillam had brains, and it hadn’t done him any good at all here. He had arrived during the draft, quiet and clever but three heads shorter than the rest of us, clumsy and half blind behind his thick lenses. He couldn’t run more than five minutes. He was always the last in formation, always the slowest, but no one ever dropped back to walk beside him like they should have. The lieutenant never made them either, just because it was Hillam. Once, when he was the slowest yet again, the lieutenant ordered him to stand in the court at attention for hours, his bare hands full of stale bread for the birds to pick at. If the ache in his arms made him drop them, sergeants would come by and set the pieces on his head and the birds would land there with their sharp talons and pick at his hair. He never complained during the torment, only stood there with an expression hovering between bewilderment and amusement at the vagaries of the world.
I had never understood him, but we were friendly.
The cliffs were to our left now. There were no lights below, no sign of anything. All was uniform darkness. A thick, white fog had descended and wrapped around us like freezing wet cotton.
“How are you doing, Hillam?” I asked, drawing up beside him.
He looked up from under his helmet and smiled. “Time of my life,” he said. “Enjoying the weather and the view. Always did fancy seaside holidays.”
“Looking forward to leave?”
He nodded. His helmet was loose, and it clanked against his glasses. “I’ll be going back to Maryville if I can make it.”
“Farm there, right?”
“Just a garden. My parents own the farm. But it’s a good garden. Cecil Country’s 1st prize-winning hyacinths six years in a row!” He glanced over. “Thanks for waiting.”
I shrugged, as if to say, orders are orders, as if to say, it wasn’t a favour. I remembered the day we learned the rules of formation, how Hillam hadn’t even blinked when the sergeant at Spanish Cove went up to him, inches from his face, and started to hiss. ‘The last one is never alone, sure. But we got no place for stragglers and weaklings here. If you can’t keep up you die. That’s life, and that’s the army, too. You’ll get someone killed one of these days if you don’t pick up those feet.”
“I have a bike like this back home,” Hillam said after a while, cheerfully. He was pedaling so slowly. My muscles itched. “Same make and everything. I’d ride it out to the market every Wednesday, real early, when it was cold and foggy, too. Only instead of emergency flares in the front basket I had the hyacinths. It makes you wonder about things, how maybe things could be different.”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure I knew what he meant.
“But I don’t hate it here.” His voice was suddenly flat, solemn as a bell. “It’s just a blip, all this rain and cold. Then I’m gone. They can’t keep us here forever.”
I nodded, finally catching on to something I could talk about. “The big bombs are coming, lieutenant says. It’ll be over soon; for us or them, but done either way. We’ll all go home.”
Hillam didn’t say anything, just looked ahead into the fog, his expression unreadable behind the steamed-up spectacles.
We reached the way-point. Beaker would have sent a message, but I already knew what he’d said: “Private Beaker to command, come in. Nothing to report.” He probably cast a single glance over the cliffs, paused to wipe the moisture from his face and the sleep from his eyes. Now he was speeding on, back to the cloister and his narrow bunk.
So Hillam and I stopped and looked out across the waves. I extended the antennae on my handheld. I hesitated a moment, peering down the cliffs at the shore. Had that been movement I’d seen in the dark? Or just my tired eyes inventing things to keep them from closing. . .
It was nothing. I gave the report and we began to pedal again, inland, away from the cliffs.
The final stretch of the loop was much more difficult than the way there. It was downhill and uphill, the road becoming rough and narrow, winding here and there between grassy hillocks. The wind came fast and hard here, whistling like a thin, spiteful voice. A bitter rain began to lash us as we rode. At some point Hillam fell behind again, a white light shimmering in the rain behind me.
And then, up ahead, gunfire. One shot, two, a volley.
I skidded to a halt.
“Hillam!” I hissed over my shoulder. Just up ahead, splayed on the stones Masterson and Porky, tangled with their bicycles. They were dead, neat little wounds in their jackets, the rain already cleaning the blood away.
I turned in a panic. Hillam was still coming down the road, the white globe of his light bouncing along about thirty feet behind me.
I wheeled back toward him, praying the shooters hadn’t seen our lights approaching. I reached forward, scrabbling to turn mine off. Now I was pedaling blindly, rocks jarring against my tires, pebbles flying like spittle. We’d take the road back, the cliff route and then into the cloister and we’d hope they hadn’t blocked the way yet.
Suddenly I realised Hillam was driving away from me. He was ahead of me, now paralleling me, a safe distance away in the fog. his light was still on. I followed him desperately, doubling my speed. Where was he going? There was no road anymore, nothing but the fog pressing around me. But then I came around the bend, and there was Hillam’s light just ahead, hovering silently, like someone was holding it in the palm of his hand. I squinted at it through the driving rain. “Hillam?” I called out.
No answer. I peddled on, and the light was there to my left, just piercing the fog. I hope you know where you’re going, Hillam, because I sure don’t anymore. We drove this way for some time, the guns still going in the distance. I pedaled on and on. My bicycle struck a rock and bounced painfully.
I blinked and the light was gone. Only pitch blackness and freezing rain. I peddled forward, my bicycle skidding and sliding on the loose gravel, the breaks creaking. I arrived at the place the light had been.
I realised where I was. In the distance, I could make out the cloister’s floodlights. I was almost back, almost back to where we started.
And then I saw a bicycle in a break in the fog. It was collapsed by the side of the road. Another few feet and there was Hillam. He was lying on his back on the stones, the rain streaming over is face. His eyes were open. A red circle was just peaking out from under his helmet: no blood, just a hole. And down by the shore, the sound of guns, the sound of voices.
Hillam’s lips were already turning purple. He must have been dead thirty minutes, shot just after we left the cloister. A silenced gun maybe, the dry pop swallowed by the sea. He hadn’t been the last. I was. But he’d hadn’t left me alone.
Terror seized me as I thought of the light following me in the fog, the conversation in the rain. They can’t keep us here forever.
In the dark, the bullets began to crack, strange, foolish little spats, like bursts of angry conversation. I ran to Hillam and tried his pulse, then held two fingers under his nose. But there was no breath. I turned my bicycle toward the gates, tears and rain streaking my face. I headed for it, then past it, into the freezing green fields beyond.
The lieutenant said all seven of us should go. Did he know we were lost?
Goodbye, Hillam. They can’t keep us here forever, with the rags and the relics. It’ll be over soon; for us or them, but done either way. I’ll plant some hyacinths if I get home.