A chill ran up Stewart’s spine. His butt and lower back were soaked from sitting in the mud. The heavy cloth shirt stuck to his skin, weighing him down. He shifted his weight with disgust. The cold air nipping at his lungs forcing him to cough.
He rubbed his eyes with both hands, hoping to cleanse his vision, but all he accomplished was wiping mud in his eyes. His stomach ached, asking for permission to vomit. The “transfer”, as he’d come to call it, always made him feel disorientated. He hated it. He wondered if everyone who subscribed to the box service experienced the same initial nausea, or if this was something unique to his weak constitution.
“Probably just me,” he mumbled to himself.
When in his own body, Stewart was a mouse of a man. In his youth, his small size had filled him with self-doubt and sorrow, leaving him on the outside of every social circle. Asthma and a complete lack of athleticism had kept him from sports. His sullen disposition and quick temper had kept him from building relationships with girls. His shy grumpiness often interpreted by others for arrogance, kept him at arms length from the rest of the outcasts. The social isolation use to bother him, but acceptance of his fate settled as he’d reached middle age.
Stewart decided to try and stand. Stretching had helped clear his head after previous transfers. He pushed his hands into the ground for support. Cold, wet mud oozed between his fingers and found its way under his finger nails. He gagged. Stewart detested the feel of filth. Wiping his hands on his pants, he took deep breaths. After a moment his stomach stilled. He tried to stand again, but to Stewart’s shock two strong hands pressed down on his shoulders, pushing him back into the mud.
“Are you nuts?” a high pitched, male voice demanded. Stewart looked up and noticed the man sitting across from him for the first time.
“You trying to get your head taken off?” the man barked. “What’s wrong with you?” He stared into Stewart’s eyes with curiosity. “You feeling okay, Bill?”
“Oh, um. Yeah. Sorry,” Stewart said. Bill’s strong, resonant voice coming from Stewart’s mouth surprised Stewart every time. Bill was not mousy. He was a moose of a man. His hands were strong and calloused from years playing baseball in college. He was tall with broad shoulders and a strong jaw. The farm boy was the epitome of hard working, mid-western stock: tired and true, honorable, the best middle America had to offer the world, the sort of man small mousy guys like Stewart couldn’t help but envy. Stewart rubbed his eyes again with Bill’s meaty hands.
“Seriously Bill, You feeling alright?” the man asked Stewart a second time. The man’s southern accent accentuated the concern in his voice. He was strong and fit with bright blue eyes. He wore a dark green army uniform. Stewart looked at the soldier’s helmet, trying to decide if it was the one he’d seen in the package. The large dent on the right side was missing. Stewart pursed his lips in disappointment, deciding it was not the same one. He wished it had been. He would have snatched it off the man’s head and immediately escaped the filthy cold mud hole.
Stewart wasn’t enjoying the adventure this time. He longed for the Paris café trip he’d received a few weeks ago. Now that was a great experience. When the plain brown box had arrived at his front door, he’d taken it to his kitchen table and torn it open with excitement. Inside was a small, white mug, placed perfectly on a white saucer, filled to the brim with steaming espresso. He’d picked the cup up gingerly, intending to sip from it; but suddenly he’d found himself sitting outdoors in a comfortable chair across from a beautiful woman. Her name was Virginia. Her lips were full, her hair was blond, and her skin was fair. Stewart quickly discovered she was Bill’s fiancé. She and Stewart, pretending to be Bill, chatted for hours. They laughed together, held hands, and people watched on the Champs Elysees. It was a perfect day. Stewart cursed himself when, caught up in a conversation with Virginia about automobiles, he forgot the rules, picked up the small white cup and took a sip. As the warm, brown liquid touched his lips, he was propelled back to his boring, bland, cheap apartment, once again alone and small.
But another box had come the next day and the adventure continued. The boxes came every morning at eight, just as the advertisement had promised. Each transfer had been incredible. A manila flyer sent Stewart on a four hour trip looking at paintings with Virginia at the Rijks Meusum. An aged marble block sent him to spend an afternoon at the Coliseum with her. A black bow tie place Stewart in front of a crowded church at Bill and Virginia’s wedding. A gold key sent Stewart apartment hunting with Virginia in New York. A white sock took him to a hotel room where Bill and Virginia were celebrating their honeymoon.
When the green, blood stained, army helmet with the dent on the right side had arrived, Stewart wasn’t sure if he should if he should pick it up. He let the open box sit for three hours on his kitchen table. He looked at it, trying to hypothesize what it might mean. The blood on the helmet looked fresh. He couldn’t imagine a scenario in which this object would come in contact with Virginia.
She was all Stewart was interested in now. He had to see her again. In the end, that is what led him to put the helmet on. He knew if he there wouldn’t be another box until he’d spent the one he had. “Make the transfer, find the damn helmet, and get back,” he’d told himself.
“Hey. Bill,” the man with the southern accent across from Stewart said, while snapping his right thumb and middle finger repeatedly in front of Stewart’s face. “Wake up. Seriously, you okay? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m feeling fine,” Stewart said, again taken back by the deep tone of Bill’s voice. “Just tired. Did you know today is my birthday?”
“No shit,” the blue eyed man said. Then he laughed and gave Stewart a brotherly shove. “You picked a shitty place for a birthday.” It wasn’t Stewart’s birthday. Nor was it Bill’s. This was a game Stewart had invented to find out where he was in Bill’s timeline. So far all the transfers had all been linear, but there seemed to be no controlling how much time would pass between experiences.
“I know right?” Stewart said.
“How old are you?” the soldier asked enthusiastically.
“What year is it?” Stewart said slyly.
“It’s nineteen-forty-four,” the man laughed. “I think living in this hole is getting to you.”
“Then Bill’s twenty-nine,” Stewart muttered to himself.
“And Jimmy is twenty-eight. And Jimmy is hungry,” the solider across from Stewart said with a mocking cave-man voice. “And Jimmy think Bill need fresh air and beer ’cause Bill is speaking shit in third person.”
Stewart peered up to the top of the mud hole Bill and Jimmy were sitting in. The night sky was littered with waving pine branches. “What’s the name of this dam forest again?” Stewart asked.
“Uh, shit if I know,” the man said taking his helmet off. He laid the heavy metal hat in his lap and scratched his head with both hands. “Oh, wait,” he said looking up, remembering. “Maybe the Andes? No,” he said dismissing the thought. “The Ardeens?” he guessed again.
Stewart let his head fall back. His helmet knocked against the cold wall of mud. “The Ardennes. This is in the Ardennes,” Stewart said.
“Yeah, yeah,” the blue eyed man said with excitement. “That’s it. The Ardennes. Good memory.”
Stewart closed his eyes, fighting back panic. “Bill, why in the hell are you in Ardennes?” he muttered to himself.
“I ask myself that same thing every morning,” the man with blue eyes replied laughing. “Could be worse though.”
“No. No it can’t you imbecile,” Stewart snapped back. He wanted this transfer to end. He wanted to see Virginia. “It doesn’t get worse than the Battle of the Bulge, you moron. This is it. This is the worst it gets. Everyone dies. No one lives through this.”
The man leaned forward, drawing uncomfortably close to Stewart. His face grew grave. “I don’t appreciate your tone, Bill” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of shit together, but don’t think I won’t knock your teeth out if you call me names again. I’m sick of this hole too, but being an asshole isn’t going to help anyone. Is this shit messed up? Sure. But you’ve got to believe we’re going to see tomorrow, or we’ll never get out of here. Think of Virginia.”
“I am thinking of Virginia,” Stewart mumbled. Although Bill was an imposing figure not to be trifled with, Stewart couldn’t adjust from is sheepish ways. Inside he was still frail and afraid of being broken by larger men.
“It’s fine,” Jimmy said leaning back again, letting his hair rest in the mud. He closed his eyes and sighed. “At least we’re not on the shitty beach. Nothing was worse than that shitty beach.”
Stewart grunted, studying the soldier across from him for the first time. He wondered how many battles Jimmy and Bill had seen. If they’d landed at Normandy together in June and this was the Battle of Bulge, as Stewart suspected, then they’d survived at least seven months together. There was another five months to go before Germany’s surrender. A knot formed in Stewart’s gut. What if Bill didn’t survive? Stewart didn’t know how he would live without him. What would Stewart do if he was never able to see Virginia again? He swallowed hard, fighting back panic. He took slow, deliberate breathes. Jimmy was right. He had to believe Bill would survive this. There was no other way to stay sane.
A loud crash came from overhead. It was the most terrifying sound Stewart had ever heard. It rattled through the hole, penetrating Stewart to the bone. Stewart dove to the ground, rolling into a ball and covering his head with both hands. Through the pound of his heart, Stewart heard Jimmy laughing. Stewart’s muscles clinched again as a second crash shattered the air above. Then a third. Jimmy laughed harder each time. After the fourth crash, Stewart ventured a glance at Jimmy. The man was unmoved, but laughing hysterically at his friends fear.
“Seriously, what is wrong with you?” Jimmy snickered. “You’re cowering like a rookie. It’s like you’ve never heard tank fire before.”
Stewart unclenched, forcing himself to sit up. With each blast he couldn’t help but flinch again. “Tank fire?” Stewart said, trying to stop his chattering teeth.
“Yeah,” Jimmy laughed. “Happens every night. How is this new to you?”
“It just feels closer tonight,” Stewart said, trying to play off his fear.
Jimmy listened to the routine blasts. “I guess so,” he said closing his eyes. “I can’t tell. Don’t have to worry, man. They’ll never get us in here with those big things. I don’t know why they’re even wasting the ammo.” Jimmy folded his arms and snuggled into the mud. “Try and get some sleep. Maybe Cap will let us march out of here tomorrow.”
There was no way Stewart was going to sleep with the shelling going on. He wondered how many other holes like this one there were around him. He rubbed his eyes with Bill’s meaty hand’s again, hoping maybe he would wake up from this nightmare. White spots danced in the darkness behind his closed lids. When he opened his eyes he was still in the hole.
Another crash from above made him jump. He sighed. This was horrific. When he got back to his own life, he was going to contact the box people and complain. How dare they send him somewhere like this. Outrage gathered in his chest.
Another crash. He sighed. “There was no use getting upset now,” he thought. He just wanted this to end. Stewart took his helmet off and put it in his lap. He let his head rest in the mud as he’d seen Jimmy do. It was soft and wet, like a firm pillow fresh out of the washing machine. He closed his eyes, hoping sleep would over take him.
Another crash snapped his eyes open. His body jerked forward from the mud wall. He puffed his cheeks, collecting air in them, and then let it out slowly. He looked at Jimmy. Bill’s friend was unmoved.
Another crash exploded above them. Stewart sighed again and looked down at his helmet. The sight of it caught him by surprise. There is was — the dent. Stewart ran his fingers over it, feeling the valley in the metal. He wondered what had caused it? What had whacked Bill so hard in the head it had dented his helmet but left Bill alive?
Another crash shattered the silence. Stewart wondered why he wasn’t leaving. Here was the helmet. He was touching it. Contact with the object should have been his ticket home. Something was missing. Something wasn’t right. Stewart strained to remember the sight of the helmet in the brown box on his kitchen table. What was it? What’s not there?
It occurred to him. “Blood! The blood is missing!” he said. A terror inspired chill ran through his body. There was no blood. Where was the blood?
Another blast rang through the air and everything in the hole went dark.