Illlustration © 2009 Kevin Hurtack
The Bravest Soldier
© Michael C. Keith
Courage is the thing.
All goes if courage goes.
-- J. M. Barrie
The high point of Julio Marcos's 17 years was taking the oath for entrance into the U.S. Army. All his young life he wanted to be a soldier and to be one in what he considered the greatest fighting force in the world was the ultimate fulfillment of his dreams. In addition military service would allow him to achieve another goal— U.S. citizenship. It was everything he ever wanted and his parents, both immigrant laborers working the artichoke fields of the Salinas Valley , could not have been more proud of their eldest child.
“You are the best son in the world. Mi soldadito!” proclaimed his mother affectionately as he boarded the bus for the induction center in Oakland , and Julio was bursting with pride.
Immediately following his swearing in ceremony, Julio was transported back down the California coast to Fort Ord for basic training. He was the youngest recruit in his company of 20 fellow soldiers and often the object of gentle teasing from them because he looked even younger than his tender years. In fact, he had yet begun to shave and his slight though taut physique only added to his boyish appearance. Nonetheless, his easy-going manner and good nature endeared him to everyone, and what he lacked in bulk and beard he possessed in spirit and audacity. No one doubted his claim that he would become the best soldier the army had ever seen, or at least no one doubted that he believed he would. Still his team leader, Drill Sergeant Mosely, felt he needed seasoning and toughening up, and he was determined to make that happen, because he, too, saw the potential the youngster possessed and genuinely wanted him to succeed.
One of the sergeant's ideas involved assigning Private Julio to guard duty at what was mythically known as the morgue but in reality was a power plant at the edge of the base. The remoteness of the plant combined with the whirring and whooping noise of its generators fed the legend that the site was where the bodies of fallen troops were kept before continuing their final journeys home. When his fellow soldiers learned of Julio's assignment, they made the most of it to try to frighten and rile him, but he brushed aside their attempts saying he knew full well what it was.
“It's no dumb morgue, man. Them big machines out there don't cool bodies. They give the base electricity. You think I'm estupido ?” he responded to their cajoling with his characteristic bravado.
“Yeah, you gonna' find out when one of them flesh-eating zombies out there eats your sad butt,” needled the enlistee, a fellow Mexican, who had the bunk below his.
As was standard procedure Julio was issued an M14 rifle and one bullet, which he was told to use only in the most extreme of circumstances. He was then driven to the site of his guard duty and informed that his relief would show up in exactly two hours. It would be his first of two shifts that night. Two hours on and four hours off was the routine sequence, and during the eight weeks of basic training, recruits would face two rounds of guard duty as well as two assignments of KP. Julio much preferred the former than the latter. Cleaning the mess hall kitchen was far less preferable to him than walking the perimeter of an empty building in the moonlight for a couple hours.
It was about a ten-minute drive out to the site that Julio would watch over. In the darkness loomed the shadowy outline of a large non-descript brick building with windows covered by metal grids. A single dim light was visible inside the unmanned facility. It did give Julio the creeps, but he would be the last to admit that to his sergeant who dropped him off.
“Keep an eye out for the enemy, private,” said the sergeant as Julio climbed from the jeep.
“Enemy?” asked Julio.
“You never know what's out there, kid,” the sergeant answered nodding in the direction of the power plant.
Julio thought he detected a grin on the face of his superior, who then drove off into the night. Once the sound of the car's motor faded the only thing that broke the stillness was the pulsating hum that came from the building. He had been instructed to walk the well-worn path that encircled the bleak structure. At different points in the trail's trajectory it weaved through clumps of scrubby trees that blocked his view of the structure. Yet he could still hear the pulsing drone of the plant, and when he emerged from the thicket, the building seemed to stare at him as if awaiting his reappearance. It made his spine tingle, but he laughed off the effect girding his resolve as he passed the edifice.
“You're just a dumb building, man!” he shouted at it as much to diffuse his growing apprehension as to alert any lurking foe that he was prepared to do battle. “ Edificio tonto!” he spit in defiance, and then he detected movement inside one of the plant's windows.
This stopped him in his tracks and the tingle that had run up his spine now felt like a thousand cold fingers dancing on his skin. At first he thought his imagination was playing a nasty trick on him, but then he could make out the silhouette of a figure in the window. In the same instant he heard deep raspy breathing, not of a human variety, but of something feral and otherworldly. His hand fumbled inside his pocket for the lone bullet he had been issued. This was an extreme circumstance he thought as he nervously loaded it into the rifle's chamber. To his further chagrin, he noticed it was not silver like the kind made to kill werewolves in movies.
The light inside the building went dark as the grid fell off the window that separated Julio from whatever it had contained.
“An extreme circumstance,” Julio muttered over and over as he pointed his weapon in the direction of the disturbance, the source of which was still unclear to him. Then to his extreme dread he knew all too well what it was, and the knowledge shook him to the core.
From the window leapt a zombie, and it staggered toward him gurgling and gasping, arms outstretched and grabbing at the space before it. Then it bellowed Julio's name and the effect was like blunt force trauma to his brain.
“ El Diablo ,” he moaned as he took aim at the creature.
While his hands shook his determination remained steady. There was no way he was letting it devour him as it did its victims in “The Night of the Living Dead.” At the very least he would disable it so he would have time to get reinforcements.
When the lurching cadaver was twenty feet away, he fired his rifle and it slumped to the ground. For a moment the grotesque scene paralyzed Julio and when he was about to bolt, the depraved object rose up. Out of the window from which it had sprung came several other undead. In a feverish panic, Julio took his bayonet from its scabbard while the reanimated ghoul issued a series of ghastly howls in his direction.
“Hey, Julio, Take it easy! We played a joke on you,” laughed Sergeant Mosely. “The bullet was a blank, son. No one gets issued a real bullet in boot camp. I'm okay, buddy. See, no holes in me.”
But Julio only heard the gruesome sounds of the beast closing in on him with bloodthirsty intent.
“ Bastardo !! You ain't chewing on this soldier! No way! Not while I'm alive!” shouted Julio, raising his hand high in the air triumphantly and then plunging the bayonet into his chest.
“No! No!” screamed the sergeant and the other members of Julio's company in on the hoax.
Several of the men crossed themselves when approaching his crumpled figure, which gushed blood on the ground around him. As his breathing grew thin and his vision blurred, Julio took satisfaction in watching the zombies circle his body knowing he had acted before they could get him.
Cradling Julio's head in his lap, his sergeant sobbed a whisper in his ear. “You're the best soldier in the army, Private Marcos. The best damn soldier ever!”
As the last ember of his brief existence flickered out, the words of his beloved mother echoed in his head and carried him into the next world.
“Mi soldadito. Mi valiente soldadito.”
Michael C. Keith is the author of several books, articles, and short stories. He teaches Communication at Boston College.