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September 19, 2022

Life Among the Wraiths

By Dan Mulhollen

It was another hot July night. I was lying flat on my back, naked, the covers pushed aside. Sweat trickled down from my forehead as I stared blindly at the ceiling. The fan rattled in the window, and I cursed myself for having decided we didn't need an air conditioner.

I turned onto my side. Sheri was lying there sound asleep. The heat never seemed to bother her. There was little that ever seemed to bother her. She would be up at seven, cheerful, all ready for another day. Meanwhile I would be stumbling into the kitchen, incoherent, wanting just to feel the pillow against my head.

I glanced over at the clock; 3:05. Ten minutes ago, or so it seemed, it had been 3:04. I thought about the stories nuns tell first graders about Purgatory. I guess even nuns have sleepless nights, catching the joke of that thought a moment later..

A gust of cool wind blew through the window. The thought of rain made me feel a little more optimistic. Then I realized there were footsteps coming from outside. I became paralyzed as I heard the screeching of the screen being ripped from its frame. There was a loud thump as the fan fell onto the bedroom floor. I was able to turn my head, and saw Sheri looking at me, her jaw hung open. Suddenly it seemed as if my body was floating, now several feet off the bed.

Sheri screamed and rolled herself onto the floor. I looked down and saw a decaying, skeletal hand holding onto my right wrist. Another held the left wrist and there was one at each ankle. They carried me from the bedroom, downstairs, and carefully guided me through the front door.

A glass-walled hearse, pulled by a team of decrepit horses was waiting in my driveway. The four creatures pushed me inside and slammed shut the door. They then took their stations. The driver cracked his whip, and we started down the street.

We were suddenly on a bumpy dirt road. It must have been near sunrise as there was a faint glimmer of light on the horizon. I looked out at the countryside. The road wound through a forest of bare trees. There was very little grass. The only thriving plant life was the patches of moss that clung to the rocks.

We stopped halfway across a bridge. I could hear somebody talking. Another of these figures, this one wearing a red caped tunic and brass helmet, approached the hearse. It looked inside as though examining me. Then it threw its arm forward, signaling the driver to proceed.

We entered a wooden encampment. The hearse stopped and the glass door opened. "Out," one of the figures commanded. As I climbed from the hearse, I looked around and could see dozens of these creatures, all doing various tasks. The driver pointed to a hut. "In there," he said.

I was surprised to find nearly sixty men inside the hut. Some were also naked. The rest were either in pajamas or their underwear. Those near the door were sitting at tables, the rest were seated on bunks.

One of them, a slightly overweight, balding man in green pajamas, motioned for me to sit down and join them. "Leo Kendall," he said, extending his hand. "I'm from Seattle. These two gentlemen are Eric O'Connell, from Chicago, and Ross Lomax, from Tulsa."

I shook Kendall's hand. Then O'Connell's. He was wearing boxer shorts and a T shirt. Finally I shook hands with Lomax who only wore briefs.

"Jeff Parker ... from Cleveland," I said.

"Told ya," Kendall said, pointing at O'Connell. He turned to me. "I was the first to get here. Then Lomax, O'Connell, and then you. Seems there's a pattern to the way the ghouls are picking their recruits."

"Their what?"

"I figure that's the only thing that seems to make sense. Look at this place. Barracks, guards -- I figure we've been shanghaied"

"You seem to be taking it well."

"We don't know what's going on yet, so why be down? It can always get worse."

One of the red-caped creatures entered the room and ordered everyone outside. Leaving the hut I was surprised to see the same dim light as before. One of the figures, this one in blue with a silver helmet, approached. It stepped onto a platform and turned to face us.

"I am Captain Turrell," it said in a flat, stern voice. "It is my honor to welcome you to this place. By the King's command, you have been brought here. You will be trained in the art of warfare."

He walked over to me and touched my shoulder with his index finger. I shivered and moved back a few feet. He began laughing, and stepped back onto the platform.

"Don't be alarmed by us wraiths," he said. "We were all once like you. We breathed air. Blood pumped through our veins. By your reckoning, I was brought here in 1953. For my service, I was given a captain's blue, and the privilege of training recruits.

He stepped off the platform, and walked over to a side gate. A guard unlocked the gate and opened it. Turrell pointed outside. "This will be your first test. Some two miles outside this wall is a village. There's a tavern, a restaurant, and the only food to be found here. All you need to eat is to make it there. But be forewarned, a minefield lies between you and sustenance."

Someone behind me shouted "What if we're killed?"

Turrell smiled. "Things like that do happen."

We slowly left the camp. As we proceeded, we started coming to small mounds, about six inches high. Someone cleared the dirt away from one of these and found a small explosive device. Despite the ease with which most of us spotted the mines, one man was killed. He would be buried that evening. The rest of us arrived in the village muddy, tired, and hungry.

We were startled, and embarrassed, to enter the restaurant and be greeted by a young woman; naked like a lot of us, but without the mud. She took us to our tables and brought us some excellent-tasting food.

As we finished eating, ten wraiths appeared in the doorway. We silently got up from our seats and were escorted back to camp.

After a six-hour sleep period, we began our training. Turrell began teaching us how to use a spear. As we were sparring between ourselves, a horse galloped by and a human rider dismounted. He walked over to Turrell and they began to talk. I told my partner to lighten up so we could hear the conversation.

"How do they look?" the man asked, speaking with a Southern accent.

"I have seen better, Sir," Turrell replied. "Not one seems to have had any military training. One even managed to get killed in the minefield exercise."

"Still, we need fifteen hundred more of them within ten years."

"Oh, I can give you fifteen hundred privates."

"Yes," the man laughed, "but how about three hundred officers?" He shook his head and grimaced. "Sad thing is, one of these boys is gonna make general."

"Should I gather the men to introduce you?"

"No. If they're that bad, I'd rather wait till their numbers thin out."

That night, or whatever time it was -- the sky never changed -- I was sitting with Kendall discussing what I'd heard. He called for O'Connell and Lomax to join us. O'Connell had been slightly wounded by a spear that had left a large rip in his shirt. He was now talking about escape.

"Look," he said, "I've been figuring this out. They're going to kill us all off; they got one yesterday and two today. At that rate, how long until we're all dead?"

"And go where?" O'Connell asked. "We don't even know where we are."

"It doesn't matter as long as we get away."

I shook my head. "I don't think we can take anything for granted," I said. "Even that this is Earth."

"What about that guy on the horse, and them naked ladies in town?" Kendall said.

"We have to escape," Lomax said. Look, I've noticed a part of the fence that's rotted. If we can make it there, we're out"

"I'll go," said Kendall.

"Well, Ross?" O'Connell asked.

Everyone in the hut silently watched as we left. We looked around. There were only a few guards, all of them watching the gates. Lomax led us to the fence. He was right. The wood was badly rotted and falling apart. We pushed and scraped it without much success. Then Kendall took off his pajama top, wrapped it around his hand, and punched the fence, making a small hole. Now we were able to pull the planks apart. Within minutes, we'd made a hole large enough to crawl through.

We soon found a road which we figured to be the one we'd arrived on. Maybe this could lead us back home. We followed the road for about a half hour. In the distance, we could see a light shining, and cautiously maneuvered to see where the light was coming from.

A band of wraiths suddenly surrounded by us. Lomax and O'Connell tried to get away, O'Connell lunging at one of the guards. The guard drew back his spear and thrust it through O'Connell's rib cage. Lomax was thrown into the mud, but was all right. Kendall and I stood there with our arms raised; unwilling to move until ordered.

The three of us were taken to a stone building in the village. We sat there quietly, thinking about O'Connell. We were also thinking about ourselves and what would happen to us.

The door opened and the man I'd seen earlier that day walked into the room. "I'm General MacNeal," he said.

"What's going on here?" Lomax said. "You kidnap us. You make even going to eat dangerous. Now you have your ghouls kill us."

"Wraiths, please," MacNeal said. "The backbone of this army,"

"And who are you?" I said.

"In every group, there is only one survivor." He smiled and raised his eyebrows, obviously pleased with himself. "Your escape was unfortunate, but useful part of the program; it will discourage future attempts. The deaths of Mister O'Connell and you, Mister Lomax, will not be without consolation."

Lomax paled. "Me ... why me?"

"Your companions here are married men, which gives us options. You, on the other hand, have no collateral personages. You'll be executed at first assembly."

Two wraith privates grabbed Lomax's arms and took him away. MacNeal then turned to us. "Rest assured, his will be a relatively painless death. Most are much more unpleasant."

He tapped on the door. A private entered, followed by plump woman. The only remnant of her clothes was her bra, torn apart, hanging from her shoulders. An anguished look came over Kendall's face. He ran over to her, tears flowing down his cheeks.

I saw another naked figure enter the room. As difficult as the past two days had been, I was unprepared for this. Sheri walked over to me and put her forehead against mine.

"We dislike having to resort to this," MacNeal said. "But as long as you don't try escaping, they will be treated well. Human women have the most pleasant duties. But a female wraith is another matter. They work the mines and forges; an eternity of hard labor."

"Why?" I shouted, approaching MacNeal. "What gives you the right --"

"Don't speak of rights," MacNeal hissed, stepping up to me. "There are no rights, only privileges. In the other world, politicians fool you into thinking you have rights. That is, until they decide to take a few away."

The wraith guards looked at each other and shook their heads.

"When I was a boy," MacNeal said, carrying on his tirade, "owning slaves was my right. I saw my brothers and closest friends die trying to defend that right. Here, things are different. You know you have no rights. Only through the King's grace are you given privileges. Here there are no delusions of freedom, only realistic expectations."

They hung Lomax a few hours later. It would be the start of the worst day yet. The forty of us that were left were taken to a small wooden stockade. We were armed with spears, and told to wait.

There was some yelling in the distance. It soon grew louder. The stockade was being attacked by an army of wraiths, armed with spears identical to ours. The stockade door was still open, and a few wraiths made it inside. One man rushed to close the gate before any more could enter. Just as he began pulling the large wooden door, a wraith jumped him. The man, impaled by the spear, staggered a few feet before falling to the ground.

Despite their ghoulish looks and bone-chilling screams, the wraiths were surprisingly weak. We were quickly able to repel their attack. As the door was bolted, I took a deep breath. But I knew it couldn't be this easy.

First there was a loud crash. Then an entire side wall collapsed. The wraiths poured into the stockade. A few men, caught by surprise, were hacked down where they stood. We all began running, trying to find some place to defend ourselves.

I jumped behind a table turned onto its side. From there I could hold my ground. One wraith jumped at me. I brought my spear down on its neck. The head rolled onto the floor and stopped ten feet away. For a moment, the wraith just stood there as though trying to get its bearings. Then it got down on its knees and began feeling around. It found its head, stood up, and left the building, the skull tucked under its arm.

Leo Kendall walked aimlessly through the building. He hadn't spoken since the escape attempt. I saw a wraith was clinging to the rafters about to jump him. I tried calling him but he ignored my warning. The wraith jumped down and began thrashing at the dispirited man. I lifted my spear like a harpoon, and thrust it at the creature. The wraith's backbone shattered and it crumpled onto the floor. But I had been too late.

Kendall, along with fourteen others, died that day. As I returned to the hut, I felt acutely alone. Of the four who'd sat at that table the first day, I was the only one left alive.

After only five hours sleep, we were roused from our hut and ordered to the cemetery. Turrell told us to watch the mound where the first casualty was buried. Nothing happened the first ten minutes. Then a thin grayish-purple finger appeared. We watched in silent horror as a rotting hand emerged from the soil.

Soon, the arm, and then the head and torso were visible. The creature climbed from the mound. It looked at us, clenched its teeth and growled. Then it ran to over to Turrell, trembling as it cowered against him.

Turrell patted it gently and pointed to a sergeant. "Go with him," he said softly.

"That first moment of acute confusion," Turrell said, mostly to himself. Then he looked at us. "You see, gentlemen, we are in a world cursed with immortality. Three days ago, you saw a man die. The figure you just saw, confused, frightened, is that man. Now he's a private in the King's Army. Most of your fallen comrades will share that rank. However, two men who displayed such unusual initiative yesterday, will arise as corporals."

I stepped forward. "Why not train an army of men? Why kill us off to build your army?"

"Logistics. An army of men needs ten times the food as an army of wraiths."

Remembering MacNeal's outburst, I decided to see how Turrell would react. "What gives you the right to take men against their will and turn them into these monsters?"

"Things are not that simple. Perhaps we have no right, but we must continue."

After breakfast, a band of twenty naked men were ordered to retake the stockade they had defended the previous day. As I was approaching the stockade, I saw that I could get a better view from a donkey cart sitting on the side of the road. I climbed up and immediately spotted a break in the fence. I told that to a few of the men standing near me. I stayed behind a few moments longer to gauge the wraiths' defense.

As I was starting down off the cart, it began to move. It rolled forward a few feet and then turned over, trapping me underneath. The cart was heavier than it appeared and it took several minutes for me to free myself. By that time, the battle was already over.

Late that evening, Turrell told us that we would, at least, make sergeant. He also said that within five days there would only be one of us left.

We were allowed to eat in town that day. Sheri was now a waitress. When she saw me, she looked over at an unusually plump-looking wraith. It nodded at her, and pointed to an empty chair at my table. She sat down and stretched her neck back.

"They get by on one hour's sleep," she said, wearily "and seem to think we can do the same. It's funny though, it took me nearly a month after we were married to get used to sleeping in the nude ... now this."

"I'm sorry ..."

"Don't," she moaned. "I'm ... I'm holding up all right. The people here are nice -- at least those who are still people. And you really save on laundry bills." She took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. "Selma Kendall really took her husband's death badly. Even the wraiths seem to show some sympathy."

"What if it happens to me?"

Her gaze lowered. She slowly shook her head, and then looked up at me. "I'll survive, but ..."

Then she got up, and snatched her pad from the table. "Your order, please."

"Is that it?" I asked, angered by her aloofness.

"This isn't a place for emotion," she said, coldly. "Look at what it did to the Kendalls."

I lowered my head and examined the menu.



Part One of Two

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-03-19
3 Reader Comments
Anonymous
03/20/2012
02:34:29 PM
Interested to see where this one goes... With part two.
Alex
03/20/2012
02:51:50 PM
"There are no rights, only privileges." Resonates a little with the way things are going these days.

Looking forward to part two.
Lydia Manx
03/22/2012
02:10:02 PM
The complexities of characters and the art of 'war' seems well thought out and crafted. Like Alex I am looking forward to the next part.
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