Shrapnel - A Short Story
Corporal John Kearney jolted awake in the darkness of the old barn. The cold, damp surroundings of the attic were momentarily startling. His dream had been a pleasant contrast to reality - he had been on a beach, with his sweetheart Vera by his side.
She had been holding his hand, her delicate fingers intertwined with his as they lazily made their way along adjacent to the surf. Up on a grassy hill overlooking the ocean, there had been a tiny cottage just for them, waiting for when they would come in with cheeks red from the salty English air. Vera had begun to playfully beckon him up the path to their cottage, when the dream seemed to spiral away and consciousness snatched him up.
Sitting up, shaking off sleep, Kearney looked around the dark loft. His two fellow soldiers were still asleep. He was thirsty, and needed a smoke. He grabbed his rifle lying next to him and got to his feet, holding back a gasp as pain shot through his abdomen. Instinctively, he clutched the small shrapnel wound he had sustained a day prior. It had bled briefly, but he decided to not bring it to the attention of his buddies. It was nothing. He’d dig it out when he could get his hands on some alcohol.
He inched down the ladder, occasionally creaking a board or two, a sound that was terribly loud in the quiet of the early morning. The young corporal came to stand in the doorway of the barn. It was nearing sunrise. The farmyard had a quiet, eerie appearance, with smoky haze hanging over the French countryside. The peaceful surrounding seemed strange existing in the middle of the war. A day prior, when Kearney and the two corporals with him had been separated from the rest of their unit, they’d been immersed in chaos.
Kearney scratched his chin, stretched, and slung his rifle over his shoulder. After taking a few moments to appreciate the silence, he took out a cigarette and lit it, inhaling deeply. Letting it dangle between his lips, he reached into his pocket to withdraw a photograph of Vera. A small smile came to Kearney’s lips, as he gazed longingly at the dark-haired woman in the photo. Her face was bright, with large expressive eyes with long lashes. Her cheeks were sprinkled with freckles and her smile had a contagious quality. He missed her – he hadn’t seen her in months.
The shrapnel wound throbbed. Kearney grunted in discomfort, tucking the photo back in his pocket. Glancing down, he saw there was a spot of blood seeping through his shirt – it was nothing, he told himself. With one last look around the farmyard, he retired back into the barn and up into the loft.
On the last board of the ladder, his boot caught, and the wooden floorboards came rushing up to meet him. The thud of his body falling echoed throughout the dead silence of loft, waking up corporals Durham and Hawthorne. Kearney cursed, feeling the pain throbbing from his wound.
“Jesus!” Durham’s obnoxious voice came through the darkness. Rustling could be heard as both he and Hawthorne scrambled to their feet and grabbed their rifles, “Who goes there?”
“Hey, hey, hey! Easy guys! It’s me, Kearney!” he forced himself up from the floor. He didn’t need to see to know he had two rifles pointed at him. Upon this announcement, Durham and Hawthorne sighed in unison, lowering their rifles.
“Chrissake, Kearney, what are you bloody-well doin’?” Durham demanded, as Kearney – more carefully this time – made his way to his blanket, “We coulda shotcha!”
“I just went out for some air. Everything’s fine. It’s another hour or so before sunrise, try to get as much rest as y’can.” Kearney lay down, fighting back a grimace. His abdomen felt like it was on fire. Clutching the wound, he ignored the damp feeling of blood on his fingers and forced himself back to sleep.
When Kearney awoke, he felt cold. Surprisingly cold. He moved his hand up to his chest and was surprised to discover that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. When he opened his eyes, he startled when he saw Durham and Hawthorne leaning over him.
“Whoa, Kearney,” Durham said, “There’s nothing wrong, mate. Calm down…”
“Where’s my shi…” he trailed off as he looked down to his chest, and saw his wound clearly exposed. It looked worse than before; there was dried blood that had caked to his skin surrounding it. It appeared to be swollen, red, infected. His first instinct was to try and hide it, but as he reached for his shirt, he looked up to his two buddies, who were clearly concerned.
“It’s a nasty one,” Hawthorne remarked.
“Must have happened when I fell last night,” Kearney croaked quickly, but Durham gave him a daring look that made him take his words back.
“I’m not an idiot, Kearney,” he spat, “You didn’t get that last night. I noticed you’ve been actin’ a lil’ funny for a while now, and the reason’s right in front of my face. How long were you gonna keep this from us, huh?”
“It’s infected by the looks of things,” Hawthorne observed, “There’s somethin’ in there, shrapnel’d be my guess, whaddya say?”
“I’m fine,” He said it, but now was beginning to doubt it.
“That’s not fine, Kearney. Look at it!” Durham pointed, “It’s grisly.”
It felt like the shrapnel was burrowing a hole right through him. The impact from his fall, Kearney realized, must have driven it further into his chest. The pain, being ignorable before, seemed to be now quite unbearable. His breaths were deep, as he looked up at the rafters of the loft. He grimaced, hearing Hawthorne going for the portable radio, and in his frustration, Kearney slammed his fist against the floorboards, knowing he’d been stupid to think that such a wound could be ignored.
A German grenade – potato mashers as they called them, had gone off about twenty meters from where Kearney and several other soldiers had been. One soldier, a private, had lost a leg. Kearney, in a panic to drag the screaming man to cover, had been so unaware of his own injury until later in the evening when sitting down had caused him pain. He hadn’t thought much of it – a simple shrapnel wound had paled into comparison of what he’d witnessed happen to the young private in his platoon. Just a couple of meters’ distance had differentiated between losing a limb and getting a piece of shrapnel stuck in the abdomen. The situation had been jarring. Kearney could close his eyes and still see the mangled leg lying in the dirt, blood everywhere.
“We’re trying to get ahold of somebody, see where the nearest medic is, Kearney, everything will be okay mate.” Durham encouraged.
In the background, Kearney heard Hawthorne on the radio, having achieved contact with someone. His voice sounded positive as he rustled with their crumpled map, determining their location, “sir”-ing whomever he was speaking to.
Durham patted Kearney on the shoulder,
“We’re gonna getcha where y’needa be.”
“And you, can’t get over you, keepin’ that a secret,” he gestured to the wound, “Whaddya think it’d look like tomorrow? Hopin’ fer it to jus’ disappear, eh?”
Maybe keeping the shrapnel wound from his two fellow soldiers was a worse idea than he thought, after all, they could possibly help him. Possibly. He knew that they had little or no medical skills for dressing a wound.
"As you prob'ly know, Kearney, we can't do much to help ya," Durham blabbered on, looking at Kearney with almost a frightened expression as one would look at a wounded and dying animal, "Wrappin' it up n' hopin' fer the best would be the best bet right now til we can getcha to a medic."
Kearney nodded, forcing back a grimace.
"Then look around for the cleanest rag or cloth you can find," he told them, "It'll have to do until then."
"Nearest medic station is in a little village not far from here," Hawthorne had gotten off the radio, "We'll haveta get to 'em, they said."
They both got to their feet and began puttering around the attic, looking in every corner and crevice for something to use as a bandage. Kearney let out a sigh and let himself relax – or get as close as possible to a supposed relaxation, although he found it was a nearly impossible feat. The shrapnel bedded deep inside of him smarted every few seconds, not about to let itself be forgotten.
He stared up into the rafters of the attic, letting his mind wander towards forming an image of Vera in his mind. He truly missed her– the short time that he had been able to see her when he had been on leave in London, to meet her for tea, had hardly been long enough. If he had his way, he would be with her every moment of every waking day, but like a lot of things, it was impossible.
"Got somethin'," Hawthorne announced, and Kearney looked over to see the tall man holding up a checkered piece of cloth. It could be worse.
"Give it to me," Kearney waved him over quickly, forcing himself into a sitting position. Hawthorne knelt down and handed him the cloth, and Kearney quickly tore it into a strip. Hemanaged to wrap it around himself, tying it in a knot right over the wound itself to apply pressure to keep it from bleeding.
"Din' you say that you's wanted to become a doctor, Kearney?" Nettle questioned as he watched Kearney take the remaining cloth and weave it around the knot for extra cushioning.
"I did, yes," Kearney answered, gritting his teeth as he felt the wound protest to the care.
"How bout now?"
"I don't know," Kearney took a deep breath, allowing the pain to subside before he pulled on his shirt and began buttoning it up, "All I want to do is to make it home…"
And see Vera, he thought.
"With your wound – well, it's your ticket outa here," Durham said, "Gots an idea, too," he looked to Hawthorne, "We make him a gurney, y'know, carry 'im the rest o' way, so he don't hurt 'imself anymore – and then they'll really pay attention to him. And it ain't really lyin', so to speak. Kearney's wounded, probably can walk, but we just don' wanna take the fuckin' risk, right?" Hawthorne nodded agreeably, and Durham looked quickly to Kearney, "You don' wanna make things worse, right?"
"Right." Kearney answered, easing himself back down into a laying position. He exhaled deeply. All of a sudden, things didn't seem so horribly negative. He remembered it wasn't an hour ago that he'd gone out for a smoke in the early morning, gazing out upon the farm land with thoughts of Vera and wondering when he would see her again, not an hour ago he'd tripped and aggravated the wound – and things had been so negative. However, now, things could possibly change.
As Durham and Hawthorne headed downstairs to begin looking for supplies to make the gurney, Kearney gently pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket. It wasn't broken, that was good. Lighting it quickly and tucking the lighter back into the pocket, Kearney took a long drag on the cigarette – the smoke calming him. There was a greater possibility for his survival, for his returning home. Perhaps he could get out of here. As hopeful as it seemed, a part of him doubted it. He didn't want to get his hopes too high, but be damned if he made it to the village and someone told him he couldn't go home. He'd punch the bastard who said it.
Kearney was aware of the risk his two fellow soldiers were taking by making him a gurney, but couldn't be more thankful. As he lay in the attic of the farmhouse, he sipped at the last of the wine that they had found in the attic. The buzz from the alcohol took away the pain from his wound, which seemed persistent in its annoyance.
He was torn from his thoughts when he heard Durham clambering his way up the wooden rungs of the ladder, letting out a curse about something, as usual.
"It's all made up for ya," Durham informed him, reaching the top of the ladder and getting to his feet, slinging his rifle more comfortably over his shoulder. He gestured down to where Hawthorne must be, "'e's just puttin' the finishin' touches on 'er for ya, makin' sure it'll hold yer weight 'n' all."
"You're taking a huge risk for me," Kearney told him, his voice soft, "The both of you. I'm sure some lads would just leave me behind. I appreciate it."
"Notta mention it. Least we can do, you practically kept us 'live the last few weeks. Without ya sure as shit we'd be dead." He shrugged, taking a couple of steps towards him, "Look a' you, int' the wine, gettin' fuckin' pissed!" He scoffed in amusement, "'elps with the pain I suppose though, eh?"
Kearney smiled slightly.
"There's hardly enough here to get me pissed," he answered, quoting Durham in his choice of words. He was feeling warm in the cheeks, and the pain was lessened. And for that he was thankful.
Hawthorne was next to come up the steps.
"All done," he announced.
"A'right, let's get you down on yer feet and down that bloody ladder," Durham said. He and Hawthorne walked over to him, one on either side. The men wrapped their arms around him, "On three, apologies if we hurtcha Kearney."
They got Kearney to his feet, not without him letting out a groan of pain. Once he was on his feet, he was steady, but it was obvious his shrapnel wound was hurting him. He clutched it instinctively, doubling over for a moment. He let out a curse beneath his breath.
"Think y'can make it down the ladder on yer own?"
"Yes, I'm not that bad," Kearney nodded insistently, pushing aside the pain, being first to climb down the ladder, slowly but steadily.
"Like 'ell you are." Durham commented.
The pain was there, but the wine definitely had helped matters. When Kearney reached the bottom rung and stepped onto the floor of the barn, his wound was throbbing profusely. He pivoted, and saw the gurney that they had built, lying in the straw. Wood, rope and burlap sacks were what they had used. He had to hand it to them, it looked pretty solid.
"Impressive," he remarked, looking from the gurney to his two fellow soldiers as they clattered down the ladder, "Thank you."
"Lie down," Hawthorne told him.
"Do we know where we're going?" Kearney questioned, doing as he was told. He eased himself gently onto the gurney, letting out a sigh as the shrapnel wound protested slightly against such movement.
A folded, tattered, muddied map was dropped onto his chest. Kearney picked it up, and began unfolding it.
"You tell us," Durham said with a shrug, "Jus' cause yer wounded don't mean y' can't read a map. You did well so far to keep us away from the bloody Germans, jus' keep it up, Kearney. We'll find our way to the village."
Kearney nodded in defeat, happy that he could be somewhat useful, even from lying on a gurney. He began to study the map, trying to figure out where they were, and how far it was to the ocean. He looked at the English Channel on the map, and realized, once he hit the beaches, it was all that stood between him and home, him and Vera. It was a thought that willed him to live, to push aside the pain, to be determined to make it back. He let out a sigh. Back to reality. He hadn't even noticed that Durham and Hawthorne had picked up the gurney and had begun making their way out of the barn. It was still early in the morning, and it appeared like it was going to be a cloudy day. Kearney studied the map,
"I think I've got a general bearing," he stated, clearing his throat. Pointing across the field that was still sparkling with dew, in the direction of low-lying forest, "That way, stick to the trees. I do believe we actually aren't that far."
"How far?" Durham asked.
"About ten kilometers, if I'm reading this right," Kearney tried to sound convincing. He saw the "x" he had marked on the map indicating where they had been during their last battle, before he had figured he had lost the map. From there, when they had gotten separated from the rest of their soldiers, they had travelled maybe a couple of kilometers east until they had found the farmhouse and taken shelter there. That meant they would have to double back. He hoped that the area where they had run into the Germans would now be clear, that they would be able to sneak through undetected.
"Ten kilometers," Durham said with a scoff. Much to Kearney's relief, he didn't sound labored from carrying him on the gurney, not yet, at least, "Well I've fuckin' heard worse, considerin' all the walkin' we've been doin', that's nothin'."
He was right, Kearney realized. This was hopefully, the last leg of their journey. They could get the hell out of here.
Kearney thought of Vera in London, which right now seemed so far away. He got an image of her face in his mind and realized with pure determination, he wouldn’t let this wound stop him. He wouldn’t let it kill him. He had to get home to England, home to Vera.
He just had to.