Copyright Rachel L. Ohlendorf, 2004. All rights reserved. No infringement upon the rightful owners of “Combat!” and the characters thereof is intended. This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.
by White Queen
"For in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness." --Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2.
Caje paced back and forth outside the hovel Hanley called his headquarters at the moment. Littlejohn and Kirby should have been back hours ago. He just couldn't figure how they could have gotten lost--Saunders gave them the map, it shouldn't take them this long to get back. And why hadn't they found Billy? Caje cursed the fog and continued pacing anxiously.
"If it wasn't for that cursed fog--" Inside Hanley's HQ, Saunders unknowingly echoed Caje's thoughts.
"It's not your fault. I'm getting reports from all over that are exactly like yours. Squads split up in the fog. Men disappearing. Krauts coming out of nowhere. We had no idea this fog would become such a--" Lt. Hanley paused, searching for the right word.
"Lieutenant, I want to go back and look for my men. Once this fog lifts, Caje and I could--" Saunders was interrupted by a static-y message on Hanley's radio.
"King Two, this is White Bishop, over. White Bishop to King Two. Come in, King Two. Over."
Hanley held up a hand to signal Saunders to wait, then picked up the radio receiver. "King Two here, come in, White Bishop. Over."
"King Two, the fog has started lifting. Over."
Hanley raised an eyebrow toward Saunders. "Great news, White Bishop. Over."
"We captured one of them. We're bringing him back to you. Over."
"Good work. King Two out." Hanley put down the receiver and turned back to Saunders. "That was Sgt. Pryce. Why don't you wait until he and some of the others come back in. We'll see if they've got any information that can help you find your men."
Saunders opened his mouth to reply, but Hanley shook his head. "No. I know what you're going to say, and the answer is no. Wait until we know more before you go charging out there trying to find them." He looked Saunders straight in the eye. "That's an order, Sergeant."
Saunders nodded. "I'll wait. But not for long."
"Are you Sergeant Saunders?" The corporal squinted down at the dozing figure propped against a stack of ammo boxes under a tarpaulin that tried to keep the rain out.
"Yeah, why?" Saunders didn't even bother opening his eyes. With as little shut-eye as he'd gotten lately, he didn't want to waste one moment.
"Lieutenant Hanley wants to see you."
"Thanks, Mack." Saunders was on his feet so fast, the corporal started back in surprise.
Caje bounced up too. "I'm comin' with you."
Saunders glanced at Caje, then realized it would be useless to try to convince him to stay there and get more rest. "Alright, come on."
The two soldiers made their way through the outskirts of the rain-soaked village to Hanley's HQ. Once there, Saunders rapped impatiently on the frame that once surrounded a door, a door now long gone after all the shelling the village had sustained.
"Come in, Saunders." Hanley didn't even have to look up to know who was knocking. He continued to shuffle through reports as Saunders entered. Caje remained in the doorway, not quite in or out of the building, the rain running off his poncho and forming a puddle under his drenched feet.
"What'd you learn, Lieutenant?"
Hanley shook his head. "I'm sorry, Saunders."
Saunders took off his helmet and scratched his head. "What do you mean?"
"According to the information from that prisoner Pryce brought in, the Krauts have pulled back."
"Pulled back?" He settled his helmet back where it belonged.
"They've abandoned the entire area. Why, we're not sure yet."
"Well, Sir, I don't see how that's a problem."
"They pulled back because they captured over twenty of our men during the fog. Our boys have been all over the area since the Krauts left, and they've found every man that was left. Every man." Lieutenant Hanley paused and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Kirby, Littlejohn, and Billy are still missing."
"Lieutenant, let me go out there. They could've missed my men--do you know how thick that fog was?"
"Missed all three of your men? No. I'm sorry, Saunders. Your men must've been captured."
"Where are they taking the prisoners?"
"They're being transported deep within enemy territory. Where, we're not sure. Our information is still sketchy, but we know the Krauts aren't wasting any time getting those prisoners deep into their territory, where they can be interrogated without interruptions."
Saunders shoved his hands into the pockets of his field jacket. "Sir, request permission to go behind enemy lines and find the prisoners."
"Request denied." Hanley did not mean to speak as abruptly, or loudly, as he did--the words seemed to speak themselves. He rubbed his eyes again, wondering when he'd slept last.
Hanley shook his head. "Saunders, by this time those prisoners are probably hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. There's no way you could find them even if you tried."
"Sir, we don't know they were captured. Now, my boys are smart. They know when, where, and how to hide. If there aren't any Krauts left in that sector, why not let me search it?"
"Because I need you for something else. We lost a lot of men in the last few days; casualties and prisoners make our losses enormous. Repple Depple is sending us dozens of replacements, most of them new recruits. I'm giving you a whole new squad, and I need you and Caje to have it in working order in time for the offensive we're beginning in a few days. We don't have time for men like you to be out searching an area our men have already cleared."
Saunders glowered. "So that's how it is."
"That's how it is." Hanley raised his voice and called, "Caje."
"Yes, Sir?" Caje straightened up.
"Come in here."
Caje advanced until he stood beside Saunders, but said nothing.
"You heard what I told the sergeant just now?"
Caje nodded. "Yes, Sir, I heard."
"Good. The replacements are arriving tomorrow at 1500 hours. I'm giving you each an overnight pass. Go into town, relax a little, find a place to get some sleep. I'll see you both back here at 1400 hours." Hanley handed them their passes. "I suggest you get as much rest as possible. You're going to need it."
"Yes, Sir." Saunders and Caje headed for the open doorway.
"One more thing," Hanley called after them.
Saunders glanced heavenward before turning around again. "Yes, Sir?"
"You missed mail call. Better go see if Cassoto has anything for you."
Saunders nodded, and he and Caje went back out into the rain.
"Hey, Soldier, there anywhere a guy can get a decent night's sleep and stay out of the rain?" Saunders asked a patrolling MP, his voice flat and dull with fatigue and worry.
"Sure, Sergeant. Fourth house on the right there--we've got sleeping quarters set up. You can't miss it, it's the only house in town that's not missing a roof or a wall or something." The MP pointed to a two-story building up the street. "Funny how one house can get totally demolished, and the one next to it's not even scratched, huh? If you want food that ain't army issue, try the joint across the way."
Saunders and Caje nodded their thanks. Once inside the building the MP had shown them, they were issued beds on the second floor. Saunders wanted to turn in immediately, but Caje said, "I think I'll try that place across the street--I could use some real food."
"Want to read that letter you got in private, huh?"
"Right. See you later." Saunders headed up the stairs as Caje turned and walked back out the door and across the street.
The little café was still fairly crowded, mostly with soldiers. A few townspeople clustered around tables toward the back, while others mixed with the Americans. Caje found an empty table by a wall and ordered a bottle of wine and a meal.
As soon as the waiter left with his order, Caje pulled out his letter and opened it carefully, not wanting to ruin the slightest scrap of it. He knew her hands hadn't actually touched it--after all, it was V-mail; her original letter had just been photographed and the image sent over from the States, and this was just a print from that image. But it still seemed like a holy relic of some sort, and he wanted it to remain as pristine as possible.
At last it lay open in his hands, and he eagerly began to read, his initial joy rapidly turning confused and bitter:
I hope this finds you fit as a fiddle. Because I'm afraid what I'm about to write is going to knock the wind right out of you. I'm seeing someone else. I can't bear to hide it from you, because that just wouldn't be fair to any of us. I met him only a couple weeks ago, and at first we were just friends, but it's starting to be more serious, and I feel I must release you from any sort of ties you might feel for me. He's a really swell guy, and I think if the situation were different, you and he might have been friends. I never thought I'd be writing you a letter like this, and I'm awfully afraid I'm hurting you terribly, but I know if I didn't tell you, you'd find out from someone else, and that would be worse. I hope you'll find another girl soon that you can feel about the way I feel about Michael. I know you've been thinking about staying over in France after the war, so maybe now that you don't have any ties to me, you'll be able to do that.
Please understand, Paul, that this has nothing to do with you or your being away. Even if you had still been right here in N.O., I'd have met Michael and started seeing him.
I can't imagine how difficult this must be for you to read, and I only hope that you know I'm telling you this because I do hold you in such high regard. I won't try to fill the rest of this letter with happy chatter about your family and friends back here, because I know it won't help ease the blow anyway. Please forgive me.
Caje read the letter twice, just to make sure he'd understood it. Vianne had found someone else. His Vianne. Some guy named Michael. How could it happen? A cold feeling of despair started in his gut and slowly spread throughout his body, leaving him numb. Instinctively, his fingers crushed the letter into a tiny ball and thrust it deep into his pocket. Caje stood up, all desire for food suddenly eliminated. He needed to move, walk, do anything but sit there helplessly. First, three of his buddies disappeared, and now Vianne left him too. Caje had never felt so alone, yet so anxious to avoid people.
The waiter brought his meal just then, and Caje paid for it silently, then took the bottle of wine and made his way through the café and out into the quiet street.
Once outside, he realized the rain had stopped, although clouds still filled the sky, and the moon and stars remained hidden. The darkness matched his mood, and he uncorked the wine and drank straight from the bottle, savoring the feel of the cold glass pressed hard against his lips almost as much as the contents. The numbness inside him seemed to lessen a little, and he started walking through the quiet town, his memory wandering back to New Orleans.
Vianne. Caje took another drink from his bottle. Vianne. He'd known her as long as he could remember--she'd lived just down the street from his family. Ostensibly she'd been his younger sister's best friend, but Vianne had spent most of their childhood playing with Caje and his buddies, not with his sister. She'd never cared for dolls or tea parties or playing dress-up; Vianne loved playing cowboys-and-Indians and stick ball.
Caje found a deeply shadowed doorway and sat down in it, cradling his wine bottle. Vianne had loved playing cowboys-and-Indians best. She'd wait in an alley until there was a good battle going on between the two sides, and then swoop down into the fray, shooting wildly with her cap gun, and help rescue the cowboys. And she always insisted on being Caje's sidekick.
Caje sank so absorbedly into his reminiscences he set the bottle down beside him and forgot about it. Back when they'd all started growing up, and suddenly the other girls in the neighborhood began experimenting with makeup and hairstyles and acting all strange and mysterious and exciting, Vianne had stayed the same as she'd always been. She still loved going to see cowboy movies and baseball games. All through high school she'd been just the same old Vianne, and been more or less accepted as just one of the fellows. The boys chased after the newly-interesting other girls, with their makeup and hair and fashionable clothes.
But shortly after high school had ended, Caje realized that all the other girls were practically carbon copies of each other, and it was same-old Vianne who was different and mysterious. One day asking her to go to the movies with him was easy and natural, and the next it was a erculean task requiring great preparation. They started 'seeing' each other, and right from the start he referred to her as his 'best girl.' She knew he saw other girls at the same time, but she also knew that she was number one, and seemed content to wait for him to settle down.
Then came the war, and he got drafted. At the station when he left for boot camp, Vianne had staunchly seen him off, never crying or carrying on like the other women saying goodbye to their men all around them. She'd just lightly punched him in the shoulder and said, "Give 'em what-for, Paul."
"I'll have this war over in no time," he'd promised. There was so much he'd wanted to say at that moment, to tell her, but all he could think of was: "Write me?"
"Every day, like a good girl," she'd laughed. "So long, Darling." And she'd written him every day all through boot camp. Once he got shipped overseas, she'd just written once a week, but he hadn't had much time to read letters then anyway.
Caje found himself back in the present, and noticed the bottle beside him. He picked it up and took a good slug from it. The warmth of the wine sliding through him made him realize he'd gotten pretty cold just sitting in the damp doorway, and he rose slowly to his feet and started wandering aimlessly around the mostly-blacked-out town again. Here and there a sliver of light spilled out of a door left ajar or a window carelessly shaded, but this did little to illuminate the street.
Caje welcomed the darkness. It asked no questions and offered no answers, but simply enfolded him and allowed him to wander. On and on he trudged, trying to quell the lonely ache that kept thrusting itself into his consciousness. If only he could forget the fog, his buddies' disappearance, Vianne's letter. Even for a little while, if only he could forget, just completely stop thinking. That was it--just stop thinking.
"Bonsoir, Monsieur." A quiet feminine voice intruded upon Caje's solitude, addressing him in her native tongue.
Surprised, he stopped, and turned toward the voice. It seemed to come from an alley nearby. "Good evening, Miss," Caje responded in French. He advanced toward the voice, trying to discern the speaker through the darkness.
"You speak French?" she asked.
"Are you looking for company?" Suddenly she was next to him, pressing her thin body against him.
Caje looked down at the girl. What he could see of her looked young, almost pretty. She would probably have been quite attractive if she'd had a chance.
"I have my own place, Soldier," she offered.
Caje shrugged, then nodded. Why not? Maybe she'd distract him for a while.
The rain returned; Caje could hear it through the half-open window. It slid down the window pane, drop chasing drop in a never-ending race to the sill. It splatted on the building's plaster sides, and found its way in through a small hole in the ceiling not far from the bed. This was a softer rain than the merciless attack the day before, a rain without sting, simply falling on and on, providing a gentle, soothing sound that soon became almost stupefying.
Caje lit a cigarette and let the rain lull him into a calm freedom from serious thought that he knew was only temporary. He noticed the girl eyeing his cigarette, and silently offered it to her. She took it with her bony fingers, eagerly put it to her mouth, inhaled, and her eyes widened. She tried to stifle her reaction, failed, and burst into an explosive fit of coughing. When it was over, she wiped tears from her eyes with one hand and gave the cigarette back to Caje with the other. She looked at him sheepishly, as if gauging his reaction.
Caje smiled at her naiveté, and shook his head in mock disapproval. This made her laugh, a laugh that probably was pleasant ordinarily, but now sounded hoarse from her encounter with tobacco. It reminded Caje of Vianne's laugh, but only because the two bore absolutely no resemblance to each other. Vianne laughed unselfconsciously, with happy whoops and hoots that left her panting for air. Not like the simpering noise most girls made. Not like this girl's rasping gasps.
Still coughing intermittently, the girl asked Caje to excuse her, and quickly left the room. Caje almost smiled again, then suddenly frowned. Her coughing reminded him of something besides Vianne's laugh, reminded him of someone else who'd been hacking and wheezing lately. Billy. Billy and that cold he'd been nursing.
Abruptly, memories from that morning's firefight washed over him. The persistent rain sliding down his face, a startling burst of gunfire, acrid powder smells, then fog. Fog creeping through the trees, stalking them, suffocating and separating the men. The sergeant's hoarse voice leading them, panic when Billy wasn't there. The anxiety the sergeant's eyes betrayed as he and Caje retraced their steps, only to find no Billy. Coming back to HQ, sodden and dispirited, only to learn that Littlejohn and Kirby hadn't made it back. Then a letter from Vianne, her impulsive handwriting spilling the news that he had lost her, that she perhaps even at this very moment enjoyed another man's company. Perhaps they held hands and, laughing, walked home from a late movie, as Caje and Vianne had done so often. Or maybe they sat cozy in a dim and quiet corner of some restaurant.
It all seemed so vivid, so near to Caje that he almost flinched. What was he doing? Why was he here in this rickety little room, smoking and waiting for a lanky girl with stringy hair? Even here, he couldn't escape the thoughts whirling inside his head--so why be here at all? Angry suddenly, he tossed his cigarette on the floor and ground it out with his bare heel. He yanked on his pants, socks, and finally his boots, jerkily pulling the laces tight and tying them.
When he looked up, she was standing in the doorway. "Are you going?" she asked quietly, unsurprised.
"Yes." He looked away and began searching for his shirt, dog tags clanking dully against his chest.
"But it's the middle of the night."
"You can stay here. I don't mind."
"But you're so tired. You need sleep, Monsieur." She came toward him slowly.
"Yes. But not here."
She stopped, confused. "Are you angry with me?" she whispered.
Caje paused. "Yes."
"Is it such a great sin you have committed?"
She shook her head. "It is not so terrible. Many men--"
Caje in turn shook his head. "It's not that. I just -- there's someone...." He found his damp shirt finally, hastily pulled it on.
"It's raining again. You'll be soaked. Your clothes have barely dried."
"I've been wet before."
The girl sighed. "I didn't want you to leave," she whispered, more to herself than Caje.
Caje buttoned his shirt. "What was that?" he inquired absently, fingering his dog tags as he tucked them safely under his shirt. The warm discs felt comfortingly familiar, still just the same bits of metal with the raised letters and numbers; they hadn't changed, unlike so many other things in his life.
"I do not want you to leave, Monsieur Soldier."
Caje stopped dressing to look at her. "Why not? I would think you'd be happy to be rid of me. I'm just another one of your--"
She interrupted him. "No, no, you are not. You are kind and... and gentle. But also--you make me feel safe."
"Safe? Safe from what?"
"From everything. Please, just stay until it is light. I won't bother you. You can sleep. It is quieter here than at the American shelter."
She probably had a point there. Caje tried once more to explain why he wanted to leave. "It's just that you're not who I want you to be."
"You're not who I want you to be, either."
He hadn't thought she might also have someone she loved, perhaps as he loved Vianne. And after all, if he could sleep, he might really forget for a few sweet hours. "I do need to rest," he admitted.
She nodded, and walked toward him. "Yes, rest. It's a wonderful thing, rest."
Caje smiled a little. "Seems like I never get enough sleep, ever since we landed back in June."
She sat down beside him and nodded again. "If only we could sleep until the war is over. Sleep and not have to think about food or shelter or anything else."
Caje unlaced his boots. "I've gotten so I can't hardly think anymore, most of the time. If I do, it's like I'll go crazy. You know?"
"At first, I'd think over everything, every little decision." He leaned back against the rusty iron headboard. "Every little thing. Every shot. Do I shoot the Kraut? He's the enemy, right? But what if he's unarmed? What if he's a prisoner? Do I spend the night with a--" he flicked his eyes toward her "--stranger? Do I spend it in an alley somewhere, drunk so I don't have to think?"
She nodded, and curled up beside him, her head on his shoulder.
"Now--I'm almost afraid to think. So do I just shoot, just act on instinct? But that's no good either... you can kill innocent people if you just shoot whatever moves. But what else is there to do? I could be dead tomorrow. A couple of my buddies might be dead right now. And me, I just keep thinking."
"Maybe it is better to be dead, then," she suggested. "Better to be dead than to remember."
Caje nodded. "Maybe."
"But if we do not remember how things were before all this, how can we ever hope it will be better?"
Caje shook his head. "Maybe it won't be better."
"Then why bother fighting? Why bother living? No, I must remember. I must remember those who have left, those who might still return."
"They might never return."
"But they might! And then I won't have to live like this. None of us will live like this. It will all be gone, and things will be good again."
Caje sighed. "And then we'll remember all this."
The rain had paused again, and the clouds even let the sun peek out from behind them now and then.
Caje rolled over, and his face landed in a patch of weak sunlight struggling to shine through a window. The unexpected brightness awakened him, and his eyes opened slightly. After just a couple seconds he realized what the brightness meant. He sat straight up in one quick, smooth motion and looked around the room, noting his M1 leaning against a chair across the room, near his boots and field jacket. A quick glance at his watch told him he had three hours before he needed to report back to Lt. Hanley. That would give him plenty of time to get something to eat.
Carefully getting up as quietly as he could, Caje padded softly over the wooden floor to his gear, which lay where he'd flung it the night before. Silently he picked up his jacket, trying his hardest not to awaken the girl, who lay curled up on the edge of the bed. He felt the pockets of his jacket and found two full packets of cigarettes; she could trade them for food, probably enough for several days. He tip-toed over to the low table near her bed and stacked the cigarettes where she would see them as soon as she awoke. On top of them he placed a small bar of American chocolate. Turning away, he picked up his boots and rifle and started opening the door. To his horror, it creaked loudly. He looked over his shoulder and his eyes met the girl's.
She looked at the small pile on her table. "Thank you."
Inside Hanley's doorless HQ, the rain dripped through cracks in the roof and walls--cracks that had probably not existed until the war came to town. Saunders and Caje stood silently near Hanley, waiting for the new men they'd been assigned.
Finally, an MP rapped on the door frame and stuck his head into the room. "New men for Saunders," he announced, then withdrew. Four young men, all probably eighteen or nineteen, walked in and saluted stiffly.
Hanley returned their salute, and turned toward Saunders. "Here they are, Sergeant. Privates Summers, Harris, Chase, and Rosenberg. Get them in some kind of shape in the next forty-eight hours, and ready for the next offensive." He smiled for a fraction of a second, before casually adding, "Get them used to the terrain around here."
Saunders nodded. "Right. Men, listen up. This is Acting Corporal Caje, I'm Sergeant Saunders. Follow me, and I'll show you what this war is all about." He led the way out the door, Caje and the four others following. Without another word or even a glance backward, Saunders led them out of town and down a sloppy, muddy road.
Caje realized where they were headed. Back to the forest. He almost smiled as he realized what Saunders had in mind. Neither of them had talked about it, but Caje felt sure his sergeant still believed there might be a chance that Billy, Littlejohn, and Kirby might be alive. Now he would use his new squad to search for them, and use the search to get the new men used to acting as a unit, patrolling through hostile terrain, possibly even finding a German straggler or two that had somehow escaped detection so far. And possibly finding their missing buddies.
For two days, Saunders led his squad through the forest. He'd returned them to the town at night to sleep and re-supply, but the rest of the time they spent in the soggy gloom. He put the men through their paces, making them each take the point in turn, practice throwing grenades, crawl on their bellies from tree to tree. And he kept looking for the three men he'd lost.
Caje spent the two days following Saunders' lead, showing the new men things that might keep them alive under fire, things they could never learn in boot camp. And he spent two days trying not to think about Kirby, Billy, and Littlejohn. He tried not to remember Billy coughing and coughing, sometimes for minutes on end. Kirby grinning and making some sarcastic remark about the war or the rain or the French countryside. Littlejohn giving his rations to Billy when he thought no one was looking, trying to help him get over that cold. Trying not to think that it could be he, Caje, who was dead or captured now. He could be behind the German lines, a Gestapo or SS man interrogating him. Or he could be lying dead, maybe killed by a grenade that obliterated any recognizable features, so no one would ever know what happened to him or who he'd been.
Caje tried to concentrate on the task at hand, on getting ready for the next big offensive, but whenever he managed to crowd out the memories of Billy or Kirby or Littlejohn, words from Vianne's letter would replace them. "I'm seeing someone else... he's a really swell guy... please understand... please forgive me...." He could almost hear her speak the words, see her writing them down for him to read. And when he tried to block her out, back would come the memory of his friends.
He wondered if Saunders struggled with the same things, if every time he lost a member of his squad, he spent day after day tormented with the effort to forget, to just stop thinking. Or if the sergeant had somehow learned to accept them. Eventually, he remembered how it'd been when he'd lost his buddy when they'd first landed in Normandy, how long it'd taken for him to recover. And he realized that he had eventually gotten over it, and that maybe he'd start forgetting Littlejohn and Kirby and little Billy Nelson after a while, whether he wanted to or not.
Saunders sat on an overturned oil drum on the edge of the town, staring through the darkness toward the forest. He'd covered every possible area he and his old squad had been in during that fateful patrol. He'd just have to accept that he'd lost another three men, and go on wherever the war led. In the morning, they'd be moving out, and he'd have new worries soon enough.
Nearby, Caje leaned against the remains of a tree, smoking and brooding. He too stared toward the forest, cursing its existence, its ability to swallow men. At least the rain seemed to have stopped, and the clouds had drifted away enough to let a few stars peek weakly through them. Caje looked up at them, thinking about Vianne and hot summer evenings in New Orleans, where the stars and the streetlights combined magically. He sighed, and tossed his cigarette away, glancing back toward the forest. A movement in the darkness caught his attention, and he automatically reached for his rifle.
Saunders had seen the movement too, and unslung his Thompson from its usual spot over his shoulder.
A voice in the darkness called out, "Halt, who goes there?" The sentries had obviously seen the intruder as well.
A deep voice mumbled a reply, and although Saunders and Caje couldn't make out the words, they recognized the voice instantly. As one, they rushed to the sentry post, hardly daring to believe it was Littlejohn they'd heard until they saw him in the beam of the sentry's flashlight, slumped on the ground in utter weariness.