Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Phantom Pain

He was in the library. It was quiet. No guns. No mud. He could crawl in peace, as long as he didn’t make any noise. Mrs. Dientz, the librarian, wouldn’t allow noise.

Ed was worried that he would get dirt in his wound, and it would get infected. The library is full of fungus, like a locker room: You can get athlete’s foot in places you would never put your feet. Wet, too. It was raining, a hot tropical rain, but he was cold and it didn’t warm him. In the library, there was a bamboo umbrella stand that always had a couple of umbrellas in it, no matter what the weather, and a mahogany rack with a pair of rubbers. Maybe he could borrow them. He’d return them. He needed them right now, that was all. The jungle was always so wet. He had forgotten his rubbers, and he needed to get home.

The rain stopped, and steam rose from the dirt. He kept crawling. The mud, thick as peanut butter, smelled like chocolate and skunk cabbage. Large, leathery leaves brushed wet against his head and shoulders as he pushed through them.

His leg was broken, he knew it, and it was chewed all to hell. Bullets from their own gun, captured by the Japs, in one leg, shrapnel from somebody’s mortar—Jap? Yank? Who knew whose?—in the other. His fatigues were torn up and soaked with blood, and there were little ants crawling on them. The jungle wouldn’t even wait for him to die.

• • • •

The library was cool and quiet, and Ed was talking to Katie. He was whispering, because they were in the library, but he was all muddy because they were in the jungle. He was asking her a question. Had she ever wondered what it would be like to have all the money she could imagine? Just squander it, spend it wildly on everything she wanted? He used to wonder about money, before he joined the Marines, before he shipped out. How did you ever get enough, and what did you do when you got it? Katie was looking at him very seriously, and she nodded her head a little, not like she had ever wondered such a thing, but like she was encouraging him to keep talking. “Well, darling,” he said to her, “this leave I have is our fortune. Let’s spend it like we’ve never spent thirty days before, and just as though we’ll never have thirty days to spend again.”

Did he make that up himself, or did he hear it in a movie? It didn’t sound like a movie with a happy ending. In movies, the soldiers who said things like that always got shot. He hadn’t even said that to Katie, but he got shot anyway. If he ever got another leave, he would be spending it in Australia or New Zealand with a bunch of other leathernecks, not in the South Weymouth public library with his girl.

He sure wanted to see Katie again. He wanted to see his dad and his sister and his librarian. He wanted to tell Katie the things he had never told her except in letters from halfway around the world. He hadn’t even told her that he loved her. It’s the kind of thing you want to say in person.

• • • •

Ed wouldn’t have gotten shot, except that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t his job to carry ammunition to the guns, but sometimes there’s things that have to be done, and you do them. The day before, the company had cleared an area of underbrush, leaving the tall trees as cover against air attack, and dug themselves in for their first night on the island. It was raining, of course. It rained and rained in this place. Ed dug himself a hole, shared rations with the guys in the holes on either side of him, hunched under his poncho, and managed to get some shut-eye before his watch.

The next morning, the captain and Ed and Johnny Dahn had left the camp to check the position of the left flank of the Third Battalion: The company was due to tie in with them later in the morning. They found the Third, checked their position, made arrangements for later. Then they started back, taking an inspection tour of the lines.

They were just finishing the first platoon when a volley of enemy fire broke loose. They hit the ground fast—it sounded like it was aimed right at them. Marines in the line behind them answered with M1s and machine guns.

The call and response of gunfire was like the responses at Mass: first the priest, “Introibo ad altare Dei,” then the altar boys, “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” You could count on it, and you knew all the voices: the heavy, adult voice of a water-cooled gun, then the chatter of light machine guns; quick, sharp automatic-rifle bursts, followed by flat rapid fire from the Japanese guns, all of it against a staccato drone of grenades and mortar.

When the volley was over, the jungle went as quiet as death. The rain had stopped. In front of the platoon, there was a green wall of trees and brush. Nothing moved there. In the foxholes, marines held themselves immobile, guns in hand, watching the jungle for the slightest movement. Occasionally the sound of a ricochet rang through the trees.

The three marines waited in the silence. Maybe it was five minutes, but it seemed like an hour. Then, dripping wet, like the jungle itself, they made their way back in the rain to the Command Post. They moved cautiously: They didn’t want to startle anyone.

When they got to the CP, however, all hell was breaking loose. The radio was on the fritz, and the men were quickly organizing a circular defense in case of a breakthrough in the lines. While they were busy with that, a wounded kid crawled in on his hands and knees. Ed and Johnny helped him turn over and lie down. He’d been shot three times, once in each thigh and once in the pelvis just below the beltline. No blood, just little round holes, blue at the edges. He was very pale and breathing shallowly: in shock, probably bleeding internally. None of the medical corpsmen were at the CP: The kid needed to be at the battalion aid station, four hundred yards away. Ed and Johnny laid him on a canvas stretcher, and, following the telephone wire, carried him through the heavy warm rain, struggling to keep their feet in the mud.

They’d only gone a short way when they met a party of marines bringing ammunition to the CP. “That was where we got ourselves outfoxed,” Johnny would say later, retelling the tale, “when we met those guys bringing in boxes of ammo. Quickest shuffle I’ve ever seen. All of a sudden, they were carrying the stretcher away from the lines, and we were headed back to the front, carrying the ammo.”

When they got back to the CP, the captain didn’t even say anything. He just grabbed a couple of boxes and started to the lines. “They were pretty heavy,” Johnny would say. “It seemed like the right thing to just grab a couple myself and follow him.” Ed never talked about it.

Carrying the boxes, they moved up into a haze of gunsmoke and a stench of sulfur. There was an opening in the trees, and they could see one of the guns.

• • • •

Katie was Irish, of course. Katie Kelly, what else would she be? Not Boston Irish: She was from Pennsylvania and California and New York. Katie liked the Boston Bruins, though. She liked to drive cars, and she liked to drive them fast. She was a fashion-design student, tall and glamorous, with a mass of dark brown hair. Her letters came in Kelly-green envelopes, so he always knew right at the beginning of mail call whether he had gotten anything from her. Sometimes she would send packages, brownies or chocolate chip cookies, direct to the jungle from Dorchester, Massachusetts.

His mother, rest her soul, had never met Katie, but his father liked her, his brother liked her, his little sister liked her. If he didn’t make it out of the library, maybe he would get to see his mother: He had been to Mass last Sunday, every Sunday, even in the jungle. He had to get to Mass again. Just needed to keep crawling.

• • • •

You can know only your own pain. This ought to be obvious. You know what’s hurting you, and you try to keep quiet about it—or maybe not. Maybe you wince, maybe you yell—maybe you make a big fuss about nothing. But it’s your own pain, it starts inside you, it is part of you. Only you know what it really means, what it says to you when nobody else is around. You know it like a friend, like a member of your family, like a fraternal twin.

Somebody else’s pain, you’d think you’d have enough sense to know that you don’t know it. But almost everyone has an idea of the appropriate display of someone else’s pain. You say, “You’re being very brave.” Or, “You’re making an awful fuss about nothing.” You say, “That doesn’t hurt so much, now does it? ”

• • • •

For no reason Ed could figure out, he was lying in bed, an ordinary bed in a nice house. No jungle, no rain, no library. He smelled ether. A blonde woman was rubbing ether on his left foot. It was icy cold where it hit the skin, and the heavy, sweet smell of it cut into his head. It hurt like hell, or maybe it was his leg in the jungle that hurt like hell. That’s Katie! he thought, looking at the woman. That’s Katie, but she’s blonde. A thin little boy and a round-faced girl were watching silently. He was not in his proper body: He had only one leg. Why is Katie rubbing ether on it, he wondered. What happened to the other one?

Ether is an antiseptic. Maybe Katie was cleaning some wound he didn’t have yet. Ed was pleased at the thought that there were wounds he didn’t have.

The medic was dead, killed by the same shrapnel that had shredded his leg, and Katie had taken the medic’s place. If he died here, he would just sink into the mattress and feed the trees and the bugs. Mud thou art, to bugs thou shalt return. Ed was muddy, but he would not return to bugs, at least not as long as he could crawl.

• • • •

When you’re shot, you might feel the pain or you might not. If you need to move quickly, to jump out of a burning plane, for instance, you might not even notice that you are injured until you are, fortunately, safe. Maybe you are so busy trying to survive that you are pain-free until you’re dead. Or maybe not.

If you survive, the cause of your pain will migrate as your condition changes. Before your leg is amputated, your pain is caused by trauma or disease in the part that will be cut off. Afterward, your pain, at first anyway, is caused by the new damage to your flesh and bone that is the amputation. Your body quickly gets to work to repair itself. It knows what to do: local pain first, then a widespread area of pain and tenderness, to keep you still while you heal. Barring infection or gangrene, the inflammation recedes, the wound and stitches heal, the stump forms properly, and the rest of your body gets on with its life. But the major nerves that served your leg have been cut, and they don’t heal in the same way as muscle and skin.

When you have a leg amputated, you may sometimes feel that your missing limb is still there. At first, the sensation may not be painful. It may tingle or tickle or itch. Then it may start to hurt. Your missing toes may be twisted or cramped, and you can’t uncramp them. Your brain is looking for sensation from your foot, and it turns up the volume in search of it. It picks up noise and tries to make sense out of it.

At first, this doesn’t hurt, but as time goes by, the cut nerves in your stump try to grow back down into your leg. They send out tiny fibers, and these fibers have nowhere to go. They get all tangled up. They send impulses to your brain: an itch here, a tingle there. For the rest of your life, your nerves will try to grow into your leg, and will be unable to, because it’s gone. You may interpret these commendable efforts as pain.

• • • •

The jungle ahead looked as though something heavy had been dragged through it. There was a gunner, Ed remembered. The guy had been covering Ed, running right alongside of him. He had been hit first, before Ed, and that must be him, dragging himself through the jungle, crushing leaves into the mud. Ed was following his path. Where are we headed, he wondered.

The funniest thing about the jungle was that it was made up of giant houseplants. Ed’s mom had worried over her philodendrons, pinching them, watering them, feeding them, and here they were all over the trees. The damn philodendrons had trunks, for Pete’s sake. They were holding him back as he tried to crawl forward. Houseplants holding him back. You had to laugh, really.

You also had to keep your head down. Keep moving. It had been so hard to start crawling, mustn’t stop. Get rid of anything that keeps you from crawling. Ed unhooked his cartridge belt and pushed it to one side. Pack long since gone. He had had it that morning, hadn’t he? He had dug himself a foxhole last night, and he was still covered with mud from that, and mud from crawling, and mud from mud.

He still had his canvas wallet, with his pocket sketchbook and a colored photo of Katie. Yesterday he had lost the silver Sacred Heart medal that Katie sent him. He and his buddy Dick were washing at the beach: a saltwater bath, but better than none. He noticed right away that the medal had slipped off, and he and Dick dived for it for an hour. No luck. It was just a piece of silver, it held no protection in itself. But he had felt awful about losing it, and here he was, shot. He could feel the wallet still buttoned into his pocket. He was not going to lose that picture. He was not going to lose his sketches. He was going to crawl out of there.

Ed wasn’t crawling now, though. He was sitting at a table in a big, warm kitchen, eating dinner, and his leg, the one he didn’t have, was acting up. It seemed to have a life of its own, but it wasn’t even there. When he needed the leg—to run, to jump, to dance, to play football—it wasn’t there, but when it hurt and gave him trouble, it was all there, hot as molten metal, and it wouldn’t hold still. It jumped, it ran, it danced by itself. He grabbed it and tried to hold it quiet. The table shook.

None of the other people at the table looked at him, as he shook and held onto the stump of his leg. Was he even there? Katie was sitting at the table. She was blonde: Maybe she was coloring her hair. She kept getting older. She must have been nearly forty. Still beautiful, he thought, but she looked . . . weathered. There were children, four of them now: the two older ones that he’d seen before, plus a little girl with a Dutch boy bob and a baby in a high chair. Mrs. Kelly, Katie’s mother, was there, too. They were aware of him, he knew, but they looked elsewhere—at the baby, at the dog, at their plates. One of the kids had her nose buried in a magazine. At the dinner table. Times change: His dad would never have allowed that.

Ed pulled himself through the pain on his own. On the table in front of him was a cold glass of Pepsi. Ice all the way up to the top, and then the Pepsi poured over it, that was the way to do it. Let the foam settle, and then fill the glass right to the rim, a tiny fountain of carbon dioxide bubbles dancing briefly in the center. The Pepsi was really cold, and condensation ran down the side of the glass. It sat there untouched. He couldn’t drink it now, because the pain made him nauseous. He would drink it when his leg stopped shaking. He would get an ice-cold drink, he promised himself, when he stopped crawling.

• • • •

Pain is not the same as damage to your body—just as you can be injured and feel no pain, you can also feel pain even though you have no detectable injury. Pain is just one small part of what’s happening to you. You’d be so much wiser if you could see the whole picture.

Take a look at your healed stump. Pain is useless to it. The time for action is past: It’s too late to avoid or reverse the damage. The muscles have been cut, the nerves have been severed, the bone has been sawn, above the knee in your case, and a flap of skin has been folded and stitched. When they were cut, the nerves first sent out a message of massive injury and then, after a time, they began to put out new fibers. The endings of the nerve sprouts tangle and loop, and they find themselves in a very different area, chemically, than where they used to end. The inflammation is gone. The wound has healed—indeed, it’s been healed a long time. But to the nerve endings, there is still something seriously amiss. They fire repeatedly, sometimes massively. They overreact to ordinary signals. A gentle touch to an unmarked area of skin may stab or burn or throb. Different people will respond differently, but every stump, not just yours, will have areas of exquisite sensitivity.

Look at this map of your brain. See these parts here and here that are working so hard? That one is the sensory cortex and this one is the motor cortex: Their nerve cells are especially busy when you’re feeling pain. Now look over here, and you’ll see more action going on, in other cortical areas of the frontal lobes, in the midbrain, in the anterior cingulate, in the hypothalamus, and in the cerebellum. Someone reading a map of your brain might think that you were planning to jump out of the way of something, because of all the activity here in the motor cortex, the basal ganglia, and the cerebellum. But no, you’re just sitting there, suffering the usual steady throb in that damaged nerve.

Memory is not so different. Bits of your life and thought are stored all over your brain and chemically connected to one another. You experience a memory, say the thwack of a football hitting your hand as you scrimmage with your brother in the street on a fall afternoon, and suddenly you can smell the flowers at his funeral, ten years later. The funerals all are linked together—your brother, your mother, your child. Memory gives an innocent stimulus in an unmarked area a chemistry you can neither understand nor erase.

• • • •

Ed was sitting in a chair, looking at a cartoon in a little movie box that looked like an upright radio. In the cartoon, a kangaroo sat at a table with a checkered tablecloth. A waitress came up to take his order. The kangaroo said he wanted a Narragansett lager beer. This was bizarre but familiar. He’d seen kangaroos in Adelaide, at the zoo: They really looked like that. Half human, half animal, the ideal subject for a cartoon. Ed was going to be a cartoonist when he finished art school. The cartoon waitress brought the kangaroo his beer and set it down in front of him. There was more dialogue, but Ed wasn’t really listening: He was dissecting the cartoonist’s style. Great brushwork, great command of line. This was really good stuff. Then the waitress snapped her gum and said, “Say ! How do I know you’re not just a guy in a kangaroo suit? ” Ed leaned forward to catch the rest. The kangaroo looked up at the waitress, raised one eyebrow, and said, “You don’t. How do I know you’re not a kangaroo in a girl suit? ” Then the Narragansett logo appeared. It was a beer commercial.

Ed wanted a cold beer. A Narragansett would be fine.

His right leg was broken, that was for sure. It just dragged. He could use his left leg, though it was full of shrapnel, as a prod to help push himself forward. He moved like a worm in the mud, inching along in the faint path of the guy in front, the guy who had been wounded in the neck. That guy was getting way ahead of him. Must be easier to crawl if you’re wounded in the neck.

There was no shooting here now, no mortar. The fighting was somewhere else: He could hear it move off. Maybe the mortar fire that hit him had wiped out the guys that were shooting at him. Whose mortar had it been, Japanese or American? The Japanese had captured the gun and turned it on Ed and his buddies as they brought ammunition, and then the mortar started. Maybe the Japanese had been wiped out by their own mortar, mistaken for Yanks because they were shooting a Yankee gun. Or maybe they had run out of ammunition and been taken out by the Yanks, and the shrapnel in his leg was government issue. They should have waited until I delivered the ammo, he thought, before opening fire. The joke was on them.

The joke was on him, too. As he had approached the gun, he had heard it firing, and he yelled, “I’m a Marine ! Don’t shoot ! ” The Japs had turned the gun right on him. Maybe they didn’t speak English.

Ed raised his head to see where he was going. Watch your head, he thought. There was a marine nearby, prone in the grass. So still, so quiet, he hadn’t even known the guy was there. Only the guy’s eyes were moving, sweeping from left to right. His gun was pointed in front of him. Snipers? The guy tensed and fired right past him. The shooter didn’t speak or even move as Ed crawled past, following the almost-invisible trail.

He could use a beer, he thought again. Brown longneck bottle. Cold, just pulled from a tub of ice. There probably wasn’t a tub of ice for 1500 miles. There were drops of water on the outside of the bottle, and it was starting to get cloudy from the humidity. His fingers left prints on the glass. He flipped the cap with his pocketknife. The bottle was so cold. He was about to take a gulp, but he needed to crawl just a little bit forward.

Ed was leaning on wooden crutches that supported him under his armpits. He was standing in a small, bright bedroom. Twin beds, yellow walls, white trim. A girl’s room. Sunlight streamed through the windows. There was a child lying in one of the beds, covered with a cheerful yellow blanket. He’d seen her before—she was about ten or eleven now, with her straight brown hair still in a Dutch boy cut. Her face was puffy, and she was breathing in intermittent gasps. Her skin was almost transparent, and he could see the veins blue beneath it. Katie was sitting on the bed next to her, holding her hand. The child’s gasps came more slowly. Katie’s face—it was Katie, really, he knew—was desolate. There was nothing he could do. There was no way to pull himself past this, or make Katie feel any better, or help the dying child. There was no cold drink that could reward him if he made it through, and there would be no cold drink to reward the little girl.

He was so confused. How had he ended up so far away from the jungle? Could he please get back to the jungle?

• • • •

When you are injured suddenly, you may not immediately feel pain. You may have higher priorities than caring for your wound. You may need to get yourself out of the jungle, away from the people who are shooting.

This is not an unusual reaction. It is not even necessarily a human reaction. Dogs do it, horses do it, deer do it. You will have plenty of time to feel the pain later, when you’re having dinner with your family, perhaps, or working alone at the drawing board, late at night.

To feel pain, you need to pay attention to it. Pain can capture your attention, and once it’s captured, you may not be able to release it. It can hold you prisoner in this way, and force you to invent increasingly clever ways of escaping it.

You hear about people having a high threshold for pain or a low one, as if pain leaked into your body over some kind of baffle. But in fact, every healthy human being has about the same pain threshold, the point at which you notice a mildly unpleasant sensation—pressure, heat, prickling, whatever—that would be intolerable if it were stronger. What varies wildly from one person to the next is the point at which you would describe the sensation as actually painful, and the point at which the pain becomes intolerable.

Chronic pain doesn’t take you by surprise. You can plan for it, as you would a deadline, or a business trip. Will you accept the pain this time, or push it away? You can contain the pain, isolate it: This body has nothing to do with you. You can defer the pain, but it will seek you out later, and will not be denied.

What about the other pain, equally chronic? Will it keep that pain at bay if you never talk of your mother, dead of a stroke before she was forty, or your brother, shot down over the Pacific, or your daughter, stricken by a virulent infection? If you collect all their pictures and put them away, will that make the pain recede, or will pain take the place of pictures and become a way of keeping your memories alive?

• • • •

He couldn’t tell if he was going uphill or down. There had been a ridge, that’s where the machine gun was, so he must be going downhill. He blacked out, it was like falling and falling, but when he came to, he was in the same place. He had thought his leg hurt before, but he was wrong. Now it really hurt. He pushed the pain aside. It had crept up on him, but he could squeeze it down to a pellet, a seed, and store it away. He inched forward on the trail.

Ed was in the kitchen of a house he had never been in, talking to a dark-haired, middle-aged woman dressed like a G. I., in dungarees and an undershirt. She wasn’t Katie, but she looked vaguely familiar, like an aunt he had never met. He looked at his hands—they were baggy and wrinkled and freckled with age. His body was, well, it wasn’t his body. He asked the woman, maybe she knew: “How did I get so old? ”

The woman shook her head and smiled wryly. “I don’t know, Dad. I ask myself the same question.”

He didn’t really need an explanation: He was getting the hang of this. He was old, and he was getting older.

Getting old was not the real question, though. The real question was why the pain didn’t recede with time. Why didn’t it fade, just as his dexterity and strength were slowly fading? Why did a glance at Katie’s desk, at the misshapen kid-made ashtray with the naïve sketch of a horse’s head, yield a stab of pain? Why did she keep it there, when the wound reopened every time he looked at it? Why didn’t she put it away, as he had put away the photographs?

“Your mother was a beautiful young woman,” he said. “So lovely. So lovely. She let herself get old.”

Ed raised his head and peered through the leaves. There was a motionless marine lying on the ground ahead of him. The guy was wearing a combat pack, and he was soaked and dirty, and had been moving away from the front. He was facedown, his arms and legs too still. Dead, for sure. Between them ran a line of disturbed vegetation, bisected at an angle by the path that had been their goal.

Suddenly he didn’t feel as though he could go any further either. He could see the dark ahead, like a pit. It would be so easy to fall in.

• • • •

When you’re injured, your body uses pain to keep you from moving the injured part. Parts of you that aren’t actually ¬injured may hurt. What is going on here? The chemistry of those uninjured parts changes. The pain circuits in your spinal cord re¬adjust to produce a widespread area of pain. It makes you want to hold still, doesn’t it? It feels better if you hold still, and it’s better for you, too. Damaged tissue—muscles, joints, and ligaments—needs time to recover, even after a minor injury. If you don’t hold still and let them heal, the membranes that cover the surfaces of these tissues become chronically inflamed, and death-dealing bacteria eagerly find their way to the very marrow of your bones. Pain protects you from this. Pain keeps you still and safe. Pain works.

Lung cancer starts out small, a few cells with a reproductive imperative. At that stage, it doesn’t hurt. Your body doesn’t even recognize that it is being colonized—these are your own cells—so it doesn’t fight back, it doesn’t warn you. You have no idea that the tumor is there, but as it grows, it will block small air passages. Your body will try to remove the dysfunctional parts of your lung via inflammation. Macrophages come to your aid, the diseased tissue swells and pushes against nerve endings, and that hurts. Much of your pain, when you have cancer, comes not from the cancer itself, but from your body’s reluctance to give your cancer the room it needs to grow.

Like the pain of childbirth, the pain you feel from cancer does not function as a warning. It comes too late.

• • • •

Ed was sitting in a wheelchair, in an alien body that wouldn’t do what he wanted. It took so long to die. The doctor looked at him and said, “Goodbye, old friend. We’ve come to the end of the road.” Then the doctor looked beyond him, and continued the conversation with somebody that Ed couldn’t see. “I can prescribe some palliative measures, and I think you should make arrangements with Hospice. My nurse will give you a phone number.”

Ed understood that the doctor wasn’t an old friend, but he didn’t say anything. He was having trouble thinking. He had always been careful about taking painkillers when his leg bothered him, but now the doctors kept telling him he didn’t need to be careful. He didn’t want the drugs: He wanted his head to be clear. He wanted to be able to move, get in and out of bed, pull himself up onto the board and slide across it to the wheelchair. If the drugs were strong enough to deaden the pain, he couldn’t do that.

And if it weren’t for the pain, he wouldn’t know where the world started and the imagination left off. If he hurt, he must be alive. If the priests were right, they were all waiting for him there: his parents, his brother, his uncle, his daughter. If that was true, what was all the pain about? If he really believed in heaven, shouldn’t he just give up and die? How was pain protecting him here?

Like crawling through the jungle, or getting out of bed, dying was work. It wasn’t a matter of giving up. It was a matter of pulling himself forward, inch by inch. He wasn’t alone. He could hear familiar voices, and there was always someone sitting there next to the bed. But they couldn’t help with the actual dying part. Katie was there, but the spirit had gone out of her, and she couldn’t help either.

He heard his sister’s voice nearby, talking to somebody. “He’s still holding on. Tell him that it’s okay to let go. Let him know it’s all right.”

Someone sat down next to him and took his hand. She said quietly, “It’s okay, Dad. You can go now. It’s okay. You can go.”

Part of dying, if you had any time to think about it at all, was letting go—not an easy thing to do, after holding on for so long, after making it through all the mud. At the very center of dying was wanting to let go, and eventually the wanting comes to you, whether you invite it or not. Easy and hard are not a part of wanting.

Right now he didn’t want to let go. He heard footsteps approaching, the sound of sucking mud. Marines. He recognized the boots. They stopped in front of the other soldier.

“He’s dead.”

I could have told them that, Ed thought, if they had had the courtesy to ask. That marine was definitely dead.

Then there was someone standing over him. “This one’s dead, too.” It was Dugan from his patrol, redheaded Irish guy from Rhode Island.

That was the crowning ignominy, after all that work. He pushed himself up on his elbows and said, “The hell I’m dead.” He was sure that he was not dead. “I’m Irish,” he added, by way of explanation. It didn’t seem that he could be both.

“Hey! ” said Dugan. “That’s Eddie McMurray under all that mud.” He put a hand on Ed’s shoulder. “We’ll send a corpsman up here, Eddie.” He patted Ed on the shoulder again, and then the two marines, rifles ready, walked quickly back down the trail.

Ed twisted his head to watch them go.

Dugan was glad to see me, he thought. That’s nice.

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Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn by Francesca Myman

Eileen Gunn is a short-story writer and editor. Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Gunn was editor/publisher of the influential Infinite Matrix webzine from 2001-2008 and was for 22 years an influential member of the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has published two collections of stories, Questionable Practices (Small Beer Press: 2014) and Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon Publications: 2004).