by Eric S. Brown
The jungle night was hot and muggy. Normally, Jack would never have risked his life by lighting up while on watch in the field but a lot of things had changed recently. His lighter flared leaving the orange glow of his cigarette as he inhaled in its wake. He couldn’t taste the smoke anymore and it took a lot of effort to breath but old habits die hard. He looked down at the tattered and bloodstained uniform covering the bullet holes in his chest. It seemed a lot of things died hard these days.
Before it had happened to himself and Nick, Jack thought the rumors were just a load of bullshit like every soldier hears in the field. Crap made up to frighten the “newbies,” but here he was: the walking dead.
Nick lay in the foxhole with him, outstretched and sprawled on his back. Nick’s gray skin glistened in the moonlight and smelled like rotten meat. At least Jack imagined that it did. His face was a mess from where shrapnel from the mine that had killed him had struck him in the mouth. His cheeks were puffed out masses of jagged flesh and his lips and teeth were almost completely gone leaving only a gaping hole. Insects buzzed about him, laying their eggs in the wounds. Nick opened his eyes and set up. He grunted an unintelligible sound trying to speak which caused black, putrid pus to spray the hole in face. It dangled like drool from his chin as Jack met his reproachful gaze.
“Oh, shut up. The smoking can’t kill me now,” Jack laughed.
Nick shrugged, admitting defeat on this point and laid back down to look up at the stars. Another muffled gargling noise erupted from his hole. Jack shook his head. “No, I don’t have any new ideas. I think it may be the only way, man.”
Jack and Nick knew they couldn’t go back to base camp. If the rumors about the walking dead were true of which they were un-living proof, then the stories about the cover up would be true too. If they marched into base camp, they wouldn’t be offered an honorable discharge and shipped off on the next chopper home. No, the special ops would descend on them like flies and most likely turn them into a nice gasoline covered bonfire. The army wasn’t taking any chances. If word got back home that the new regenerative nano-viruses now standard issue for all front line field troops were causing to American soldiers to become walking nightmares straight out of Night of the Living Dead, the American public would go ape and the big boys of the army would be in hot water to say the least. No, Jack and Nick were stuck out here behind enemy lines. Their only options were to find a way to die or stay on the run fighting the enemy until either their bodies were shot to pieces or they finally rotted too much to move. Jack wondered if even then they would continue to think and live, if you could call it that, like they were now.
Jack tossed aside the butt of his smoke and lit up another. “Nick, it’s the only way, man.”
Nick sat up again, a wheezing sound gargling in his throat and looked at Jack. Jack nodded. “Let’s do it then, man, and get it over with.”
Jack opened up their packs and dug around in them until he found the C-4 they carried for knocking out bridges. He reached down and pulled his knife from his boot and went to work on Nick first. Nick moaned and squirmed as Jack sliced open his chest and cracked open Nick’s ribs. Nick’s organs slid out slightly as Jack worked but Jack pushed them back inside as he crammed in the explosives. When he was done, Nick did the same for him. They set the detonators to go off simultaneously. Ten minutes on each. Time enough for goodbyes, prayers, and a last smoke. Jack lit what he hoped would indeed be his last smoke. Together they watched the timers tick down as Jack smoked. Just before the timers clicked zero, Nick looked into Jack’s eyes as bubbles foamed in his hole of a mouth and a string of pus flew out.
“I hope it works, too, buddy,” Jack whispered before the foxhole was filled with a searing heat and white light. The jungle shook with thunder to be replaced by silence. The only sound the buzzing of insects in the dawn. Nothing moved in the foxhole as the sun began to climb above the surrounding mountains.
Copyright © 2004 by Eric S. Brown
Author’s note: the book in which “Unnatural Endings” appears, Dying Days, is available at Amazon.com. The cover thumbnail is a link.