THE LEAN AND LANKY RYAN CONNOR jumped out the back of the 4-ton truck and landed in the wet mud with a soft thud. It sucked at his wellies as he moved off toward a large pit, and the reason they were all there. He turned just in time to see his Corporal, Jack Blase, a man in his late 20s, man-handle himself out of the truck like a 60 year-old. Working bomb disposal did that to a person.
“Come on, Old Man, you’ll be late for the party.” Jack flashed him a look that said, ‘don’t mess with me.’ Ryan cocked his head to one side, fixed his Service-issue woollen hat further back on his head at a jaunty angle, and grinned. He waited for Jack, William ‘The Bagman’ Herschel and their lieutenant, Sandy ‘Shingle’ House, to catch up with him. He turned back toward the gapping maw of the pit. Workers had been hand digging the area up until yesterday when, as happened all to often in this area of Hanover, a perfectly preserved unexploded 1000 pounder had been unearthed.
It was one of theirs, that much was for sure. Someone had taken the time to write on the pointy end, ‘a gift from Ol’ Blighty’.
Connor pulled out a pack of smokes from an open top pocket and made to light one.
“Not here, you bloody idiot.” Connor turned just as Herschel dumped two bags and a couple of shovels at his feet. Connor shrugged and slid the smoke back into the crumpled packet and re-pocketed it.
“You really are dumber than a spud,” the man continued bending to retrieve something from one of the bags. Connor made a sour face at the man’s back and walked off toward the lip of the pit, scrambling over loose earth, cracked brick and rubble. It was ten years plus since the war had ended but still, people were unearthing unexploded ordinance. It was their job, as part of the British Royal Air Force’s bomb-disposal task force, to clean up the mess. Connor wondered why there were no German teams scouring London doing the same thing for them, and shook his head. He would, of course, ask Jack.
“Jack, you’d better survey what the construction workers found up there,” the Lieutenant asked as he hauled on his regulation grey duffle coat. It was only early autumn but already the mornings dawned brisk with a definite chill in the air and this morning, a fine mist coiled its way over everything. He felt it seeping into his bones and shivered.
Blase just nodded to his junior lieutenant, eyes fixed on Connor. The young man was green, brash, and prone to being rash. He needed to knock some sense into him, and quickly, otherwise he wouldn’t last long at this game.
Turning to the Lieutenant, Jack saw he was more nervous than usual. This, Jack knew, was the young officer’s first command. Training was all very well in a classroom, but out here, in the field? It was life or death if you made a bad decision.
“Maybe you want to set up on the other side of the truck,” he suggested, “I’ll get the kid to start a brew going, how does that sound?”
The officer, blowing in to his cold hands, smiled and nodded. That sounded just dandy to him. “Thanks, Jack, this damn weather gives me the creeps.”
It was true, the whole place was beginning to look like a scene from some Hollywood movie. He watched as the grateful officer went off to sneak a smoke with the truck’s driver and Jack knew, it was up to him.
“He off to grab a fag?” It was Herschel. He looked liked he rather go do the same but still, he stood next to Jack waiting for orders.
“It’ll keep him out of our hair,” Jack qualified as both men turned, as one, and looked about them.
“It’s like a blood cemetery round here,” Herschel pulled his collar up, “were is everyone?” It was a question Jack had asked himself the moment he had hit the soil. At least two of the construction company workers and a German official should have been there to meet them. But, as far as he could see having done a three-sixty already, there wasn’t even a local to be seen. Though, it was true, it was still only seven thirty in the morning.
“All still in their cosy beds, I guess—” Herschel added without waiting for Jack. “Shall I get the greenhorn to start a brew?” He asked moving off toward Connor.
“No, I’ll send him your way, offload the truck with him, I’ll go take a look-see first.”
Any excuse. The man nodded and walked off toward the grey four-ton truck. Jack watched his back for a second, turned, and thought he saw something off to one side. He peered at the coiling mist, shook his head at imagining something lurking behind a broken wall, and headed toward the greenhorn before he fell in the excavated pit. Not that it was all that deep but, Jack thought to himself, it was just the stupid thing a twenty-something like Connor would do, as an excuse, to go down there and kick the 1000-pounder and see if it started ticking.
“Get away from that bloody hole—” Jack called out and, too late, watched as the young man turned, grinned and slipped backward on his damn arse down and out of sight. A pair of dirty wellies was the last thing Jack saw as the hole swallowed Connor.
Then, he did something he never did. He ran. Not away from the pit, but toward it.
“Shit … shit … HERSCHEL!” Jack yelled at the top of his lungs. He squelched to a halt at the lip of the pit and looked down at the spread-eagled Connor grinning up at him.
The lad lay across the bomb covered in mud, his face showed his rising panic.
“Stay where you are we’re coming down to get you.” Jack yelled down and turning saw Herschel racing toward him fear etched into his face. A step behind him were the Lieutenant and their driver, Marshall.
“Is it ticking?” Jack heard Herschel call out. He turned back to the stricken Connor and asked.
“Can you hear it ticking, lad?” Jack held his breath. All he could hear was the pounding of his own heart in his ears.
“I … I don’t know, I—”
“Don’t move, be quiet, listen!” Jack ordered the young man. He could not decide if the stain spreading between the man’s legs was from the puddle of standing water, or if Connor had peed himself. Jack did not ask, he crouched down and held out a reassuring hand.
“Just take a breath, be calm, and listen.” He tried to calm his own voice as he spoke. The other three behind him had stopped short. They knew the drill. No one moved. Hell, no one breathed.
Jack watched as Connor tried not to move, but panic was against him.
“I think, I think it’s okay.” The young squaddie offered up, unsure if he was hearing anything other than the sound of his own shallow breathing filling his ears. He hadn’t got a clue what a ticking bomb sounded like outside of the classroom. Not really.
“Okay, just stay put,” Jack teased with what he hoped was a smile, “we’re coming down to get you.” He stood, and turning, took two steps toward the waiting group who tried not to look like they were ready to run in the other direction.
Those two steps were all that saved Jack that day from being the bomb’s intended victim.
The 1000-pounder exploded up and out showering everything within several hundred meters in thick, viscous mud, shrapnel and shredded body parts that would never be recovered let alone identified. The thunderous noise was deafening. The compression wave, flattening.
Death was not pleased, not pleased at all.
The man named Ryan Connor though he would never marry and have children, was not scheduled for a visit from Him for another seventy-two years. Jack Blase, on the other hand, was meant to depart three minutes and seven-seconds from now.
Death stood to one side of the fallen Jack Blase as Time hung between heartbeats. Continents shifted, stars whirled across the dark void, eons came and went. The ethereal shadow asked in a sonorous voice that no human ear could hear.
Why? Death turned toward the glimmer. A brief light that teased the edges of the mist, played upon the foundations of time and reality.
Not I. Was the reply.
Then who? But Death heard nothing. The glimmer had gone just as quickly as it had appeared. He was left lingering between one realm and another, unable to reach out and take Jack Blase at the appointed time and place.
Like the mist, Death swirled, coalesced then dissipated and was gone.
Time resumed. Divergent.
Jack would live.
And on this day, this weird, miraculous day, he would go home to his wife still covered head to foot in mud, and not just regale her with a terrifying tale of how he had missed death by a few yards, but go on to create new life with her. A child that, nine months later, they named Ryan even though she was a girl.
A child that should never have been.
A child that Death could not see. Her soul just a tantalizing glint He could sense but never quite grasp.
She was, the impossible girl.