A House Off The Road

A House Off The Road by Orren Merton
A House Off The Road by Orren Merton (Other Fiction ISBN: 9780990693642) published on August 4, 2016 by Darkling Books.

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“Captain Strickland speaks well of you,” Captain Orland says. “Did he mention that this mission would be outside the scope of Operation Overlord?”

“No, sir. He just made me promise not to get myself killed and gave me permission to volunteer.”

I hold my head high, shoulders back. All I know about Captain James Orland is that he’s in charge of the Fourth Infantry Reconnaissance Troop; my unit, the Seven Hundred Fourth Ordnance Company, serves under Captain John Strickland. I didn’t even know that our company would be assigned to the Fourth Infantry Division until we joined them in battlefield maneuvers in Florida back in ‘43. But if Captain Strickland said I could trust him, that’s all I needed to know.

So I wanted to impress Captain Orland; I needed him to pick me for this.

“How rough was it? Your landing at Utah, I mean?”

“Fucking insane, sir. The channel was so choppy, my stomach was empty but still found something to puke up. The chains didn’t hold the trucks and they were slip sliding across the transport. But the trucks didn’t spill over, none of us were crushed, and we didn’t get shot when we drove onto the beach. So all in all we were lucky.”

“Sir,” I add quickly.

“I hear ya,” he nods as he begins to pace in front of me. “Strickland tells me you run munitions?”

“Yes, sir. To the front. I was driving guns and ammo to the outskirts of Sainte-Mère-Église before the Eighth Infantry captured it.”

“Take any fire?”

“Yes, sir. Thank God I was behind the truck at the time, helping to unload. Windshield got wasted, not me.”

“Glad to hear it,” he pats my arm, and nods again. “You got the skills and I think the nerve to drive this mission. But this isn’t behind the front lines—it’s past ‘em. Your partner will be…unique. This rescue will be risky, and nothing like you’ve ever experienced. And this is beyond classified—nothing you see ever gets out to anyone. Nothing.”

“You can trust me, sir.”

Captain Orland continues pacing around the large entry room we’re in. His men have loosely furnished this office building to be a staging center, probably right after we reclaimed it from the Nazis a few days ago on June sixth. Maps are strewn over every available surface and wall, stacks of folders and papers litter the tables, and a huge radio hums at the side of the room.

The captain paces toward the rather nervous looking soldier some distance away from me at my right. Then he paces back to me.

“Reuben, is it?”

“Yes, sir. Ben Reuben, Staff Sergeant.”

“How old are you, son?”

“Twenty-two, sir.”

“Same age as those five kids…” he closes his eyes and slowly shakes his head.

“I know one of them. Well, sir. Corporal Sam Denny. Gunner with the Eighth. We grew up together.”

“Ah,” he exhales slowly and nods. “That why you’re here.”

“Yes, sir. He’s my best friend.”

“You understand it might already be too late…”

“I do, sir. But I have to try. He’d do the same for me.”

He nods and pats me on the arm again.

He pivots on one foot toward the other soldier.

“Hurley, give him your keys.”

I turn to the soldier to my right. He marches over and pulls a set of keys out of his pocket. “It’s the WC51 to the right of this building. Gassed up, M2 loaded.”

“I’ll have her back to you in one piece, don’t worry,” I say, trying to keep it light in case the soldier is upset because he thinks I’m gonna wreck his truck. I hold out my hand.

He holds his hand over mine, but before he drops the keys in it, he looks at me with near panic in his eyes. “Do you know? Have you seen it?”

“Just hand him the fucking keys, Hurley,” The captain huffs.

“Sir, yes sir,” Hurley salutes. He drops the keys in my hand, pivots, and speed walks out of the building.

I close my hands around the keys and shove them into my pocket. I look up at the captain, hoping he’ll give me some insight into Hurley’s outburst.

“Gonna have to ask him to wipe that one’s memories,” the captain mumbles, shaking his head ruefully.

“Sir?” I have no idea what the captain means, but it sounds worrying.

“I made a mistake. Hurley’s a good kid, but the wrong guy for this job. Thankfully, it’s one that can be corrected without hurting him. Am I making a mistake with you, Sergeant?”

“I’m your guy, sir,” I say, hoping my bluster covers my growing concern.

“Good answer,” Captain gives me a half-smile. “Hurley’s right about one thing—you should know who you’re driving. Ambrose is…He’s…”

The captain looks at me for what seems like a long time, then curls his mouth and shakes his head slightly. “You won’t believe me if I tell you. Let’s go.”

Captain Orland turns toward a door off the main room with a soldier stationed in front of it. He takes a step toward it, then stops and turns toward me. “No, just stay…”

He turns back to the door, then turns toward me again. “Ah, fuck it, come with me,” he says, a weight on his words.

The soldier tips his head in salute and steps away from the door. Captain Orland pulls a key out of his pocket and sticks it into a deadbolt above the door knob. He unlocks the door and walks in, keeping the door open for me. I enter the room and close the door behind me.

A defiant looking German soldier sits in a very large, heavy chair across from the door. His hands are handcuffed behind the chair, his ankles shackled behind the chair legs. To our right, a very long rectangular table against the wall has a long, weathered pine box on it. The box looks almost like a coffin.

The German stares at me with piercing blue eyes that dare me to look at him without breaking. “Was ist—”

“He’s not a translator,” Captain Orland interrupts as he approaches the prisoner. “I know you speak English, so let’s cut the bullshit, shall we?”

The prisoner snorts and turns to the captain. “Fuck you.”

“There, much better,” the captain smirks. “Now then—we caught you kidnapping five American boys this morning. My boys. I’m gonna get them back.”

“You try to scare me?” he sneers. “Put me in box if I don’t cooperate, ya?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but the box is already full.” The captain bends down in front of his prisoner so they’re eye to eye. “I’ll make you a deal. This can be easy, or this can be ugly. You tell me where my soldiers are and what we’ll be facing when we rescue them, and you get to sit out the war in a POW camp. You’ll be treated fairly, and you’ll get to go home after the war. You don’t tell me…I open the box.”

The Nazi locks eyes with him for a moment, then spits right on his nose.

Captain Orland closes his eyes, exhales slowly, and wipes his shirt sleeve across his nose.

“Just remember—I gave you a chance,” Captain Orland glares before walking over to the pine box. He inhales deeply, then heaves the lid off the top and lays it on its side against the wall. Then he steps away.

For a moment, all that happens is the German snorts and shakes his head, mocking the captain.

Slowly, four fingers of a pale hand stretch out of the open box and grab onto the side of the coffin. The fingers themselves don’t look very old but the nails look thick and yellowed and sharp. The fingers tighten their grip on the pine box and a man’s torso slowly rises. He’s wearing what looks like a long navy blue wool coat with a standing collar, old style military gold buttons, and military boards on the shoulders. The coat looks old—like the coats I’ve seen Union soldiers wearing in pictures and war museums. He has a fresh, crisp white shirt underneath, buttoned but without a tie.

The man doesn’t look quite middle-aged, but I am not sure if he’s in his thirties or forties—he seems like he’s older than the captain, but I can’t tell how much. He runs his hand through his thick brown hair while his piercing red eyes scan the room. I’ve never seen anyone with red eyes before, but then I’ve never seen anyone sit up in a coffin before, either.

He stares at me for a moment. I involuntarily shudder, like he’s gazing into my soul and learning all my secrets. He pivots thin legs in dark blue trousers out of the coffin and then pushes himself into a standing position on the floor as smoothly as if he was a gymnast.

“Evening, Ambrose,” the captain says.

“Captain,” he tips his head.

“Five of our men—boys, real young, the age of Sergeant Rueben over there—” Captain Orland waves toward me, and Ambrose’s head follows, “were kidnapped this morning when they were patrolling the Southeast quadrant of town. This one’s motorbike backfired, and our soldiers got him. Here’s the thing—one of the soldiers spoke German, and heard them talking about taking our boys to ‘a house off the road.‘”

Ambrose turns to the prisoner with a cold, blank expression. “Doesn’t sound like a prisoner of war camp, does it?”

The prisoner squirms, trying to look tough and unmoved but not fooling anyone, least of all himself.

“No,” the captain lowers his head. “Sounds like your specialty. That’s why I’m asking…”

“Of course,” Ambrose nods almost imperceptibly.

Then he turns to me, his eyes practically burning through me. I try to look tough, not to break his gaze, but I feel the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand on end. A cold chill runs down my back.

“And this one?”

“Staff Sergeant Ben Reuben? He volunteered. The mission needs a driver. I spoke briefly to his captain, he said good things. Knows one of the kidnapped boys, too.”

“I see,” he nods. “Trustworthy?”

Captain Orland turns to me.

“Of course, sir. I won’t say fuck all about anything to anyone.”

Ambrose offers a thin, smug grin, then turns to the captain. His brows furl quizzically.

“Captain?” Ambrose points to the bridge of his own nose, mirroring where the captain still had a tiny bit of the Nazi’s spittle.

“I made him an offer…”

“Ah,” Ambrose nods slowly. “I can take it from here captain, thank you. Mr. Reuben should stay—he should know what I am, before he agrees to this mission.”

The captain nods, and takes a long, almost sympathetic look at the prisoner.

“Enjoy your dinner,” the captain says, then walks toward the door.

“Stay here until he asks you to leave,” the captain whispers in my ear, then opens the door behind me and exits the room, closing it behind him.

I turn to Ambrose and swallow nervously.

Ambrose regards the German prisoner dispassionately. The German appears more nervous by the second.

Ambrose twists his head toward me and offers a another slight, smug, closed-mouth grin—this time with a wink.

After that, faster than my eyes can follow, he’s standing over the prisoner. I back up against the door to steady myself, clamping my mouth shut so I don’t gasp out loud.

“The captain made you an offer, and you spit on him. He didn’t deserve that,” Ambrose says in a calm, almost bored tone. He lets his words hang in the air while the German underneath him squirms.

Suddenly Ambrose grabs the Nazi with both hands and tosses him and the chair across the room. All the air is knocked out of the prisoner as his side smashes against the wall. The chair splinters and the prisoner falls to the ground.

Holy shit!

I grab the door knob to catch myself as my knees give and a trap door opens in my stomach.

Ambrose ambles toward the crumpled prisoner, slowly but with determination. His red eyes glow brightly enough that they’re reflecting off the walls.

I start trembling. I open my mouth to gasp for air but shut it fast so I don’t retch. I white knuckle the door knob with both hands, both to hold myself vertical and so if things go south I can try and save myself fast.

Ambrose lifts the German off the ground. The prisoner grunts in pain. Ambrose reaches a hand behind the German’s head.

“My turn to make you an offer,” Ambrose says, his eyes glowing. “I can pull out all the information I need from your head…but I’m hungry. Make this easy for me and you have my word that I’ll be merciful. You won’t feel a thing—you’ll just drift to sleep, and then your war will be over.”

Ambrose clenches the hand behind the prisoner’s head, making the prisoner squeal. “But if you make me work for it…the torments of Hell will be sweet relief after what I put you through…”

The German is practically in tears, looking into Ambrose’s eyes with sheer terror. “He…he’ll t-t-tear you…apart….”

“Possibly—but too late to save you,” Ambrose snarls.

He turns to me, his eyes glowing as bright as candles, all of his teeth sharper than nails. “Please leave us, Sergeant. I shall rejoin you and the captain when I’m finished here.”

I don’t nod, or open my mouth. I can’t. It takes all my determination not to bolt out the door as fast as I can. I turn the knob in my hand and back out of the room, squeezing myself out the door as soon as there’s a space almost wide enough for me to wiggle out. I shut the door as soon as I’m on the other side, holding the knob closed and resting my head on the door, sweating and trembling.

“F-fuck…” I whisper.

A blood-curdling shriek from the German shocks my head off the door. I flip around. The soldier stationed at the door looks at me with an expression of sympathy. He gently reaches out to me, placing his hand under my elbow to help steady me.

“He won’t hurt you,” the captain says quietly, sitting at the large table, a cup of coffee next to him as he pores over a map.

I try to say something, but no words come out.

“Latrine’s around the corner, if you need it,” the captain doesn’t look up, but waves his arm toward the hallway to indicate the direction.

“Thank you, sir,” I pant, my words drowned out by the continuous screams coming from the door behind me.

I half-stumble, half-run down the hallway to the open washroom. I stand over one of the toilets, my hands on my knees, breathing hard. But I don’t throw up, and I manage not to shit my trousers either, although probably not by much. I piss, flush, and then prop myself up on the sink. I slowly run water over my hands, then pat water all over my face. It feels good. I watch the droplets of water stream down my face and drip into the sink and try to make sense of what I just saw.

Yeah, I read the pulps and comics when I was a kid. Sammy and I went to the movies and saw Bela Lugosi when we were eleven. Everyone did. It scared our pants off. Thing is, Dracula was just a horror story, an undead villain to scare us. There’s a real monster a couple rooms away, eating a prisoner of war. And I’m going to be alone in a truck with him, for hours, with no friendlies around. What if he gets hungry again? What the fuck am I getting myself into?

I close my eyes and swallow, waiting until my breathing is normal. I inhale deeply and return to the main room.

“You alright, Sergeant Reuben?” the captain asks.

“That—Ambrose—he’s a…a monster…” I squeak out, trying to be heard over the high-pitched cries of agony coming from behind the door.

“But he’s our monster,” Captain Orland answers. “Worst he’d do is make you forget him.”

“Like he’ll do with Hurley?”

“Yeah,” he confirms. “Look, now that you know what you’re dealing with, there’s no shame in begging off. It’s not too late.”

My mind screams beg off! Beg off! But we’ve got five soldiers behind enemy lines. And Sammy…would Sammy do this for me?

“I…lemmie just clear my head,” I fish in my pocket for the keys I was handed. “I’m gonna go get used to the truck.”

I salute the captain, he waves me on, and I leave the building. The cool, dry air evaporates the water left on my face, giving me a bit of a chill, but it feels good, focuses me. I turn the corner and find the Dodge WC51 light truck just like Hurley said. I pat the hood and walk around the vehicle. Its canvas cover is wrapped up and shoved in the bed of the truck between the two wooden bench seats. The main feature of the bed, besides the seats, is the Browning M2 machine gun mounted on a huge pole facing forward, with an ammo box secured to the bed next to it.

I can’t see too well under the dim street lights, so I rub my fingers over the tires—the tread’s not shredded or worn too low. I slide my hands along the sides of the truck. The metal chassis got some lumps and bumps but nothing that indicates the truck is being held together with string and chewing gum.

I hop in the driver’s seat and open the glove box on the passenger’s side. Flashlight, check. Manual, check. Old gum wrappers and trash, check. I close the glove box, insert the key into the ignition and twist. The engine shudders to life. She sounds tired, but healthy. Just what I’d expect from a light combat truck that’s been regularly maintained. I shove my left foot down on the clutch, put the WC51 in first gear, give the accelerator a little tap and she responds willingly.

I take her down a few blocks on the dimly lit, cobblestone-paved streets, getting to know her. I’ve always felt comfortable behind the wheel of any kind of automobile. When I can’t make sense of the world, or of this war, at least I can make sense of an automobile. I listen for the engine revs getting higher and faster, and practice shifting up to second, then third gear. I practice coordinating my left clutch foot and right foot like a dancer coordinates steps. I do the same for downshifting. Once I know the sound of the engine, I concentrate on the feeling the pitch of the revs, and practice shifting by feel alone. If there’s gunfire or hell breaking loose around me, shifting by feel might just be the difference between grinding gears and getting shot up or making it away.

I take a few turns to get a feel for the play of the wheel, how far I have to twist my arms to steer the thing. She’s got some serious oversteer, but a few corners and I’ve figured out how to gently nudge her where I’d like her to take me. Overall I gotta say, she’s a beauty. Better than the dull, light cargo truck I’m used to driving.

Spending fifteen minutes behind the wheel calms me down. I still got the willies, but I’m able to think. Captain said that Ambrose won’t hurt me, that he’s our monster. And Sammy would go to Hell and back to rescue me. Now’s my chance to do the same for him.

I park the truck right in front of the main doors to the captain’s staging center and walk inside. Ambrose and Captain Orland are both standing over the maps at the central table. Ambrose wipes his mouth with a handkerchief that used to be white before he used it to wipe the blood off his face.

“You’ve returned,” he says, an almost surprised but pleased expression on his face.

“I’ll do it,” I exhale. “I needed some time to clear my head and familiarize myself with our vehicle.”

“Does it meet your satisfaction?” Ambrose asks.

“She’ll dance,” I nod. “She’ll get us there and back. I just need to know where ‘there’ is.”

“There,” the captain points at the map between the two of them, “is gonna be an unmarked house off the D15 near Bernaville. Not too far, but you’ll be out there alone with Fritz.”

“As long as Ambrose doesn’t eat me we’ll be good,” I try to joke, but I think it comes out more like a plea.

“Of course not—I need you to drive our boys back home. Then I’ll eat you,” Ambrose winks and chuckles as he walks up to me and pats me on the shoulder, then continues to the door.

I turn to the captain, hoping to God that Ambrose was just getting my goat. Captain Orland shakes his head and rolls his eyes. I feel slightly better. Slightly.

“Shall we?” Ambrose waves at the closed door.

I look at the Captain.

“Godspeed, Staff Sergeant Reuben. You’re doing a man’s job. I look forward to seeing you and Ambrose with our five young soldiers in a few hours.”

I salute him, and he salutes me back. I open the door. Ambrose stops when we walk outside, inhales deeply, and closes his eyes. He exhales slowly and opens his eyes, a satisfied grin on his face, and we continue to the truck. Ambrose and I climb in. I start it and we head out of Sainte-Mère-Église in the direction of the D15.

“Kill the headlights,” Ambrose instructs when we leave the town.

“I have to see to drive,” I insist. “Without the light I—”

“I’ll guide you,” he says. “Let’s try it. I’ll tell you what small adjustments to make. Besides, I know it will take us longer, but we need to run as silently as possible, so we’ll be going slowly. You’ll feel the edge of the road if you go too far.”

I sigh heavily and shake my head, but dutifully turn off the headlights.

“Now, small correction to the left,” Ambrose says, holding his hand out between the two of us and twisting his wrist slightly left. I nudge left.

“Slightly right,” he twists his wrist the other way and I nudge to match.

In no time, we get a rhythm going. I watch the movements of his wrist and nudge the wheel in unison. How far he twists his wrist determines how much I turn the wheel. It’s not long before I’m able to navigate just by watching his pale hand alone.

“So…um…are you some kind of vampire?” I ask, trying to make conversation.

“Some kind,” Ambrose chuckles. “Not what you’d think.”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“In Iceland we’re called the Draugur.”

“You’re from Iceland? Or were you, when you were alive?”

“We were never living beings; we are spirits that inhabit dead, abandoned bodies. My…fellows, let’s call them—have been inhabiting the bodies of Icelandic jarls since the twelfth century. I did as well, until that body was destroyed. Now I inhabit the body of a former Union officer, who died in the battle of Gettysburg, in July of 1863.”

“Lemmie guess—his name was Ambrose?”

“Precisely,” Ambrose nods. “His soul had departed, so I entered his corpse, and chose to keep using his name as a measure of respect.”

“But why are you helping us?” I ask. “Aren’t we just food to you?”

“A shepherd may feel affection for his flock, and still partake of lamb,” he smiles smugly.

He doesn’t take his eyes off the road so he can keep navigating, but if he could, he’d see me squirming.

“America has been good to me,” he continues. “There have always been law enforcement officers willing to deal with me—I’d catch the villains, in exchange for one or two of them going missing.”

“So you really think of yourself as a shepherd of humans, even though you’re…from Hell or something?”

“Is that so hard to believe? I need human blood to sustain this body, but my purpose is not to murder your kind, I assure you.”

“I don’t know what I believe,” I admit. “I mean, I was brought up Jewish, but Jews don’t have a Hell. I guess we always figured that Earth could be Hell enough.”

“None of the religions have it all right, and none of them have it all wrong. Believe what makes you feel comfortable. It will not be held against you in the end. And trust me, Sergeant Rueben, you have no idea how right you are. This war is Hell on Earth in more ways than you know. That’s why we’re involved.”

“I don’t know if that should comfort me or scare the shit out of me.”

“Both, I’d imagine,” his tone is clearly amused with himself.

“Now the road bends here,” Ambrose swings his arm wide and shows his hand curving inward to the right toward his chest, reflecting the curve of the road.

“Got it,” I nod, and I mirror his twisting to the right with the steering wheel. At one point I feel the truck touch the left edge of the two lane road but I’m able to compensate without us jumping the blacktop.

“Well done, Sergeant,” Ambrose says, his hand back to twisting for small corrections. “You are under no obligation to ever accompany me again, but for my part I appreciate both your skills and your company.”

“Thanks. And you can call me Ben.”

Ambrose leans forward, pulling back his open hand and clenching it into a fist. Instinctively, I understand. I put the truck in neutral and brake. We drift to a stop in the middle of the road and I turn off the engine, killing what little light I had coming from the instrument panel of the dashboard.

He leans over me, his red eyes dim but still frightening. “Draw your sidearm,” he whispers. “Anything moves toward you, shoot it.”

“What if it’s you?”

“Shoot anyway,” he smirks, revealing his fangs. “The bullet won’t hurt me. I’ll be but a moment….”

Ambrose flashes a creepy, razor-toothed grin, then disappears into the air. Or maybe into a mist or something, the air seems thicker around where he had been leaning but it’s hard to tell, there’s practically no moon and I can barely see the outline of the truck.

My heart pounds so hard I think it’s about to burst through my chest as I sit in the driver’s seat, my forty-five semi-auto in my hand, listening for anything. Pretty soon I hear rustling leaves in the foliage just past the road. Then what sounds like a muffled scream. More rustling, a loud thud, and I hear what sounds like a metal helmet roll onto the road not far from the truck.

“Ambrose,” I whisper, almost frantic.

“A moment, please,” he says calmly, in his normal speaking voice.

I exhale, figuring that means he took care of whatever was out there.

Eventually, I see his outline carrying a body in his arms. Ambrose walks around the truck and tries to lower the man into the bed but stops. I can’t see his expression, but I can hear him huffing.

“Yeah, we can’t really fit a body in back,” I explain. “The roof canvas and mounted gun takes up most of the bed. And we should save the benches for our guys.”

“Of course,” he agrees, clearly disappointed. “I’ll just have to remember where I leave him.”

Ambrose carries the man back into the dark, then comes out again empty handed and returns to the passenger seat.

“None of them had time to radio,” he says.

“Glad to hear it.” I replace my sidearm in its holster.

“This is where we leave the road behind. I’ll need you to drive onto the embankment, and down into this field,” Ambrose holds his arm past me, pointing off the road. “We’ll have to drive through two fields, and we should come to a stone house that has no business being there.”

“Let’s get our boys,” I say, and start the motor. We bounce around like nobody’s business as soon as we leave the roadway and drive through the bushes. The truck shoves the foliage out of the way and crushes branches under its heavy treads, but it’s rough going.

I still can’t see anything but Ambrose’s hand, but he keeps me on track until we get to more bushes at the end of the field. Even the point of least dense bushes that Ambrose directed me too is still pretty damn heavy growth. But we eventually clear it.

Ambrose was right—in the middle of the next field is a tall, wide stone house or barn of some kind. There’s a single window, and while the tempered glass obscures my view, I can see a thick red glow coming from inside, and it seems to be moving around. Ambrose guides me forward until I can tell we’ve stopped driving over plants and started driving over dirt. Or maybe dead plants. But nothing living. He pulls back his hand and clenches it, and I stop. Other than the truck’s engine, it’s dead silent out here.

I turn toward Ambrose. In the glow of the dashboard he looks worried.


He turns to me, red eyes bright as flashlights. I can’t see anything but his eyes. They seem as deep as the world. Maybe deeper. I can’t look away.

“Turn the truck around. Stay in the truck, no matter what you hear. When the survivors are in the back, drive. Even if I’m not back, just drive.”

“Just drive,” I hear myself repeat automatically, like I’m not in control.

He vanishes out of the passenger seat, just like he did before. I swing the wheel as far left as I can, let out the clutch and slowly turn as tightly as a Dodge WC51 can turn, which isn’t all that tightly. But it’s not long before I’ve turned around. I crane my neck around and face the door of the house.

A loud crack pounds against the wall of the house, and the window shatters. I try to look inside, but all I can see is a huge jet of flame shooting across the house.

Then I hear a massive roar. I jump in my seat and fumble with my pistol; it’s pitch black, my hands are shaking and it flies out of my hand onto the dirt. I want to step out of the truck and get it, but I can’t. Stay in the truck, no matter what you hear. When the survivors are in back, drive. Even if I’m not back, just drive.

I jump again when the door of the house explodes off of its hinges. Four American soldiers run out—the third soldier holding up the forth, who is hobbling on one foot.

I’d recognize the soldier in front anywhere.

“Sammy!” I yell.

He and the other men stumble toward the back of the truck and climb in as I hear another crack inside and see flames shoot by the open front doorway.

I look at the soldiers. They’re all shellshocked and shaking. One of them has a jagged, charred anklebone sticking out of his left trouser leg where his foot should be. Another soldier is missing a hand, just charred bone sticking out of his left shirt sleeve.

“Sammy?” He looks like he’s got all his limbs, thank God.

“Ben?” Sammy looks at my face, but I can tell he’s a million miles away.

“Anyone left?” I ask.

Nobody says a thing.

“Sammy…” I reach back and shake him. He seems to notice me. “There was a fifth solder…”

“That thing…” he whispers. “It ate him…”

“It…” The shellshocked, trembling, crying soldier next to Sammy holds up his burned wrist. “It plays with its…its food…”

I didn’t eat, but something feels like it’s coming up. I dry swallow and face forward. All the surviving soldiers are in the truck. When the survivors are in back, drive.

I put my hand on the stick shift.

But I don’t want to leave yet. Ambrose isn’t here.

Even if I’m not back, just drive.

I shake my head, trying to get his words out of my skull, but I can’t.

Just drive…

I put my foot on the clutch.

Dammit, I know he’s a monster. But he saved these boys from what looks like a horror worse than dying. I don’t want to leave him. But I can’t stop myself. My thoughts can’t seem to stop my right hand from shifting.

I turn around. A raven flies out of the house, but a jet of fire from inside the house catches it and the bird spirals down, landing on the dirt between the truck and the house.

From the side of the doorway, a huge being looks out at the raven with a cruel smile. It’s maybe ten feet tall, muscular, red, with two huge man-like arms, a bull-like head with flames for eyes, and bull-like legs. And in the middle of it’s chest it’s got a large swastika burned in.

Just drive…

The raven turns into a wolf.

I know what I can do.

“Sammy—the Browning,” I call to him.

Sammy looks at me with far away, dead eyes.

“Corporal Samuel Denny! Man down!”

Sammy’s eyes seem to snap back. He finally sees me—really sees me. He inhales, grits his teeth, and stands up. He checks the ammo belt, tilts the gun back to make sure the feed is clear then stands at attention.

I throw the truck into reverse and twist the wheel hard left, spinning on the dirt until we’re sideways. The wolf hobbles toward the truck, one leg and his stomach burnt to a crisp.

I flip on the headlights. Sammy opens up on the beast in the house, releasing not just bullets, but his pent up emotions in one long yell. It’s a cry filled with terror, rage, and vengeance. I’ve known him fifteen years, but I’ve never heard a sound like that out of him.

The side of the house and the creature gets pummeled with bullets. The beast waves its muscular arms in front of its face as if the bullets are merely annoying gnats. But it’s enough of a distraction for the wolf to climb in and collapse into the passenger seat, his legs sticking every which way. I shift into first and lurch forward toward the shrubs. I try to find an area of thinner shrubs but I’m far more worried about getting away from that thing.

Sammy fires the entire ammo belt at the house. There’s more ammo in the metal ammo box by his feet, but Sammy’s as spent as the gun. He plops down in the seat right behind me before I crash into the shrubs. Everyone holds on as the ride gets really jumpy; thankfully, nobody flies out. The truck levels out into the adjacent field.

The rough ride through the bushes was slow going. I expect that monster to be chasing us—but it doesn’t seem to be.

“Can’t leave its summoning circle,” Ambrose grunts, laying across the seat in the same position the wolf was previously splayed in. Seems he’s anticipated my question again.

“Thank God,” I sigh.

“That was quite cheeky of you.”

I glance over to see Ambrose’s smug smile.

“You knew that the spirit of my command was for you to escape with the men.”

“Yeah…but you know how it is—no man left behind and all that,” I shrug. “Besides, you were risking your life to save my buddy. That means something to me.”

“It was still foolish. Thank you, Ben,” Ambrose says weakly, sounding like he’s running out of fuel.

I turn toward him. He seems older than he did before.

“You gonna be okay?” I guide us to a break in the bushes and cross into another field.

“I’ll recover,” he answers.

“After you eat that snack we left behind?”

“Precisely,” Ambrose nods. “Turn into the next field to your right, then left through the break in the bushes.”

“So…do you know what that thing was?” I ask after I drive us into the next field.

“Oh yes…” he closes his eyes. I’ve not seen him look this tired before.

“You gonna tell me? I mean, if I’m going to be your driver for a while, I’d like to know what I’m up against.”

He turns to me. “Of course. Soon. For now—drive.”

Ambrose offers me a genuine smile, without the usual smugness. “Please.”