Summary: Word Count: 8050
Whisper The Damp
France – October 1944
Mason Rousseau had stood deserted for over twenty years. Quiet. Dark. Decaying. Inside, unseen behind ragged curtains, the furniture, walls, floors and ceilings of the house were deteriorating with age and from long years of disuse and neglect.
Outside, untended vines tenaciously embraced much of the stone framework, creeping into cracks, entryways and windows not boarded over, defying even the crumbling mortar to impede their progress. Once brilliantly painted shutters, their wood now bared to the elements, clung precariously to rusting hinges; others, long since surrendered to gravity, lay strewn upon a ground overwhelmed by tall grass, weeds, and twisted foliage. The slate tile roof of the house was buried beneath a thick carpeting of dark green moss.
Though laden less with the non-flowering growth than with piles of decomposing leaves and broken tree branches, the rooftops of the collapsing barn and outlying sheds fared no better. The stone perimeter wall, once carefully constructed to enclose and protect both residents and livestock, was crumbling into ruin, no longer a safe refuge for the living. What remained of the abandoned farm equipment and gardening tools was barely visible beneath the same tangled overgrowth that surrounded the house. Protruding like fragmented monuments, these lonely sentinels held vigil in a place where no one walked and only silence remained.
Near the edge of the thick woods to the east of the seemingly deserted manor house, Caje balanced his MI in the crook of his arm and peered through his binoculars. Virtually invisible between the tall, moss covered roots at the base of a huge tree, he anxiously scanned the barn, outlying sheds, and springhouse for some sign of his squad mate’s return. But the fog was so thick he wasn’t certain he could tell a tree from a man.
As his gaze fell upon the house itself, a shiver spidered its way along his spine. The reaction surprised him, but he had no time to think about it, for he suddenly caught sight of movement to the right of the house, barely discerning the figure of Billy Nelson making his way warily along the crumbling wall of what may once have been a garden. Caje could not be certain; the area was so overgrown. He clenched his jaw as he saw the younger GI halt abruptly and stare at the ground. Then the young man seemed to relax, crouched down, and inched his way toward the cover of the trees.
In moments, Nelson met up with Caje. “All clear in the outbuildings and barn,” he reported. “I didn’t see any signs that the Krauts have even been around here at all.”
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s been around this place in a long, long time.”
“It’s almost sad,” said Nelson, still looking at the house. “This place must have been a nice home at one time.”
“Just like a lot of places over here.”
“Yeah, but this one seems, I don’t know…lonelier.” Nelson didn’t mention the remnants of an old toy, a doll he’d nearly stepped on right before he’d headed back to meet Caje. The vacant eyes had seemed to stare right at him, making him feel very unsettled.
Caje rose. “Yeah. C’mon. Let’s get going. It’ll start to rain again soon, and Hanley and the Sarge will be wanting to move the squad in here for the night.”
They moved silently, keeping to the cover of the woods and the thickening fog.
Off the winding, forested lane leading to Mason Rousseau, Sergeant Saunders glanced at his wrist watch. “Five minutes,” he said, eager for Caje and Nelson’s swift return.
Hanley nodded and Saunders caught the concern he shared for the squad.
The lieutenant glanced toward the men. “They’re a little jumpy.”
The sergeant noticed the unnaturally tight grip Kirby had on his BAR, Brockmeyer’s shoulders were bunched, Doc seemed a bit nervous, and Littlejohn kept biting at his lower lip. “It’s probably the weather,” Saunders offered, “not to mention this damned fog.”
Seasoned soldiers, the squad’s usual, relaxed demeanor — which normally masked their readiness to spring into action — was missing. Something was definitely making them all jumpy. Like Hanley, Saunders was a practical man, so chalking it all up to the recent prevailing bad weather made sense. The rain and the incessant damp made a deadly combination, resulting in everyone suffering through soggy meals, wet clothing, and lack of sleep. It was a bad mix, one that could cost lives.
The hairs on the back of Saunders’ neck prickled as the thick layer of fog off to his right shifted and swirled. The men noticed it as well and aimed their weapons in that direction. Seconds passed all too slowly before a soft whistle finally announced the scouts’ return.
Saunders responded with a low whistle of his own, signaling Caje and Nelson to come on in.
“Well?” Saunders asked, pushing his helmet back a little as the two scouts joined him and Hanley.
“The house seems to be deserted,” Caje reported.
“The barn and sheds, including the springhouse are clear, too,” added Nelson. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s lived there in a really long time.”
“According to the locals,” Hanley informed, “no one has, not for over twenty years at least.” He looked the squad over, “Alright, you’ve all been in abandoned places, so be careful when we get inside. The last thing we need is someone falling through any loose flooring or stairs.”
“You sure you didn’t see any Germans around?” Saunders asked Caje. He was worried; as troublesome as the rain and fog were, they did create the perfect cover – no matter what side a man was fighting on.
The Cajun swallowed a swig of water from his canteen and shook his head. “There’s good cover from the woods on the east side, even across the drive at the front entry.”
“Yeah,” said Nelson, “There’s not even a cow up there, much less anything else.”
From his place of cover, Kirby made a wise-crack that maybe the Krauts had eaten everything around. One look from Saunders and he turned his attention back to the road and the fog, but not without muttering, “I’m just sayin’…”
Hanley’s expression hardened. “I don’t care if the place hasn’t even got a roach crawling around inside it anymore. There’s a whole division waiting to move up the line and we’ve got about a half hour to reach the objective, set up an observation post and report to HQ.”
Caje related in more detail what he could of the condition of the house and what areas would provide good cover on their way there. “The tower should give us a good view of most of the area, but there might be a blind spot or two at the opposite end of the house.” He took one more draw of water and looked at Saunders. “It’s really quiet up there Sarge. Too quiet.”
Hanley peered at the darkening sky. “Once we get there, we’ll take cover in the trees opposite the front entry to the house. I want two teams to check out the house, one will go in from the front, the other the back. Check out every room, every nook and every cranny. I don’t want anything overlooked. For all we know the place might be booby-trapped, got it? Anyone not in the house remains outside until there’s an all clear.” He turned to the corporal. “Brockmeyer, that’ll include you, and I want that radio fired up and ready to relay anything in case of trouble.” His gaze went to the medic, “Doc, you’ll stay outside too. If anything goes wrong, you two be ready to high tail it back home.”
He gave the order for the men to fall in and Saunders motioned for Caje to take the point. For his own part, he took up the rear. Everyone was beat and although he trusted his men, this time he wanted to keep his own eyes and ears on their back trail.
Hanley waited until the others were a few yards away. “Something’s got you worried. Spit it out.”
“This rain and fog makes for awfully good cover, even for the Krauts.”
“You think we’ve been followed?”
The NCO took his helmet off and scrubbed at his hair. “I don’t know, Lieutenant, but something isn’t right. I figure I can hang back a little to find out.”
“All right, but be careful. In this fog it’s too easy to get lost.”
With a nod, Saunders turned to go, placing his helmet back on his head as he peered up at the sky; the rain started again, pattering in a hard sprinkle. The fog seemed to thicken even more, quickly obscuring all trace of his presence.
As Caje had reported, the woods and foliage surrounding a good portion of the manor provided adequate cover. Crouching in the shadows of the trees, the squad waited in silence as Hanley viewed the house with binoculars, but the thickening mist was making it difficult to see anything, even with the woods and the gravel drive being all that separated them from the front of the house.
Caje crept over to the lieutenant. “Sir, you want me to go back and find the sarge?”
From behind them, a familiar voice answered directly. “You stay put.”
Hanley, like the rest of the men, breathed a silent sigh of relief as the fog separated a little as Saunders came forward.
“Find anything?” Hanley asked.
The sergeant shook his head. “This pea soup doesn’t make things easy. A couple of times I thought I heard someone whispering, but when I tried to get closer, it seemed to be coming from a whole different direction.”
“Well, the fog’ll make sound bounce around like that.”
“Yeah, and it’s getting worse.” Saunders leaned forward, fixing his gaze through the cover of the foliage and tried to make out the front of the house. “How are things here?”
“Quiet,” Hanley replied, “Just like Caje and Nelson said.” He handed the binoculars to Saunders and grinned. “We were just waiting for you to join the party.”
“I thought I’d be fashionably late.”
Like Saunders, Hanley welcomed the bit of levity. “Don’t go high society on me, Sergeant.”
“And give up cold beer and a fat burger for champagne and caviar? No chance.”
“You wouldn’t believe how good a fat burger goes with champagne. I know a place back home that serves them that way.”
Saunders trained the binoculars on the second story windows. “That’s a pretty high brow burger.”
“Don’t knock it ‘till you try it.”
“Only if you’re buyin’,” Saunders replied dryly. Passing the binoculars to Brockmeyer for safekeeping, he did not take his eyes off the house. “What about the entry at the back of the house?” he asked.
“Accessible.” The platoon leader looked at Kirby,” You and Nelson will go in through the back. Caje says it’s a single door, in a direct line with the front entrance.” He turned his attention back to his NCO. “Saunders, you, Caje and Littlejohn will head through the front.”
“Yes, sir.” Saunders pointed off the right. “I figure if we all head off that direction and keep to the trees, then that and the fog should let us all get into position without being seen – even if there’s someone up in that tower.”
Hanley agreed. “One more thing,” he added, “There ought to be a staircase leading up to that tower, it’s probably on the second floor.”
“We’ll find it.”
Hanley checked the time. “Ten minutes, no more. I’ll bring Brockmeyer and Doc in after you give the all clear.”
The sergeant’s eyes squinted a fraction. “That’s cutting it a little thin.”
“Tell that to HQ.”
“I would, except I’ve been in the Army long enough to know it wouldn’t do any good.”
Beside the weathered, double door, Saunders positioned himself opposite from Caje and Littlejohn. Thompson tucked close against his left side and his back flat against the stone masonry, he gave an almost imperceptible nod to the privates, then reached cautiously for the handle, fingers stretching, meeting the cool metal of the loose hanging latch with the barest touch.
The faintest ‘click’ broke the absolute silence. All three men instantly froze and watched as, on ancient, rusted hinges, the doors yielded just enough to allow a sliver of pale daylight to illuminate the darkness within.
Saunders used the barrel of his weapon to open the doors wide, and heard Kirby do the same an instant later at the back entrance. But no weapon’s fire erupted from within the house. At the end of the narrow hall along the staircase, Saunders could see Kirby silhouetted in the dim light from the back door. The BAR man indicated there was a room off to either side of him, and the sergeant signaled that the same was true from where he stood. In order to cover as much space as possible in the time allotted, he gestured that they split up. After motioning Littlejohn and Nelson toward the rooms on the north, and signaling Caje to join Kirby in a search of the ones nearest the BAR man, Saunders headed toward the remaining front room alone.
Shadows kept company with shadows. What daylight passed through the broken glass of unprotected, or partially covered windows, provided little radiance. Wherever the NCO walked, particles of dust floated on the air. Here, in the darkened, dank rooms where the sounds of family activity had long since ceased, the air seemed heavy, but the temperature was much colder than he’d expected.
Nelson and Littlejohn met where the two chambers connected by a doorway on an adjoining wall. On the south side, Kirby searched the kitchen and caught a glimpse of the sergeant in the open pass connecting with the dining area.
Saunders searched the room, stopping short as one boot toe connected with something that scraped slightly against the stone tiles. Closer inspection revealed an entire set of silverware. A few feet away, lying face down was the velvet-lined box that had contained the service. Apparently, someone had tried to make off with the items. Looters, the sergeant thought. But how long ago had they been there? Were they civilians looking for something to trade for food? Or Krauts trying to make off with abandoned belongings they could eventually sell on the black market?
He could just make out footprints in the thick dust. But who had prevented the thief from taking the silver? To Saunders knowledge, no allied troops had been in this sector before now. He wondered, why hadn’t the former occupants taken more of their possessions with them, or why had no one looted everything long ago? He rose, stepped carefully around the scattered items and proceeded into the kitchen.
With Caje checking out the cellar, Kirby searched the large, walk-in pantry, cupboards, and any other place in the kitchen where a person could hide. A sound, like the rustle of clothing, followed by a creaking floor board behind him caused him to whirl around, weapon aimed — right at Caje! Le May stood at the top of the cellar stairs several feet away, looking wide-eyed at Kirby until the man let the barrel of the BAR drop away from him.
“I could’a swore I heard someone right behind me!” Kirby whispered. His shoulders sagged as he ran one hand across his sweat beaded brow. As welcome as a dry place to hole up for a night would be, Kirby didn’t like it here. He looked hopefully at Caje, pointing to the cellar and then making a gesture of holding a bottle to his lips; he regretting it as soon as he saw Saunders come in from the adjoining room. The scout rolled his eyes at Kirby and mouthed, ‘Sorry, no wine’, to which Kirby returned a sour expression – there’d be no spirits to help keep a weary, rain-besotted GI warm tonight. He shivered, grumbling, “Nope, I definitely don’t like it here.”
“It’s awful quiet in there, Lieutenant.” Brockmeyer was normally patient, but as the minutes dragged by, the corporal could feel his resilience beginning to unravel.
“Take it easy,” Hanley told him and then had to take his own advice when something moved against a faded, tattered curtain in an attic window. Through the gloomy mist he’d been unable to tell if the person there had been one of his men, or someone else. He gripped his rifle tighter, anticipating the sound of gunfire. But it never came, and he breathed a little easier.
Another quick glance at his watch and he said, “Saunders ought to be giving the all clear in a couple of minutes.”
On the second floor of the house, the sergeant and Littlejohn searched the bedrooms, while Caje and Nelson headed up to the attic. A way to the tower been discovered, but they were leaving that for last.
Saunders gestured for Littlejohn to remain by the tower stairs while he checked the last room on the floor.
The private watched as the NCO rounded the corner, then looked forward, and stared at the dust motes swirling in the dim light from the partially draped window at the opposite end of the hallway. He became aware of an odd sound, muffled bumps coming from the bedroom off to his right. Stiffening, he slowly raised his rifle. Sarge had already checked that room. Surely, he thought, there could be nothing amiss there. Nevertheless, he very cautiously approached the open door…and the hair on the back of his neck and arms prickled. A child’s ball emerged from the room, rolling slowly across the threshold into the hall to gently strike the wall opposite the doorway. Littlejohn instantly looked up to see Saunders emerging from around the corner at the opposite end of the hall. From his other side, Caje and Nelson had just come down from the attic. They had all witnessed this strange event as well.
Thompson at the ready, the NCO put his finger to his lips and then motioned for the other men to remain where they were while he and Littlejohn carefully entered the room. But the room was empty as before. They were about to leave when there was a tapping at the window and instantly both men swung around, ready to fire their weapons upon a twisted tree branch haphazardly whipping against a broken window pane. Breathing a sigh of relief, Saunders quickly surmised that the ball must have originally been resting on the window sill, and the vibration knocked it to the floor. He gestured as much to the others, and the incident was quickly forgotten.
With the second floor rooms and attic secure, Saunders ordered Littlejohn and Nelson to go downstairs while he and Caje checked out the tower. But before they could split up, a movement in the darkness on the staircase caught the attention of them all. They raced after it, with Saunders alerting Kirby, “We got one heading to the first floor!”
Kirby, positioned halfway between the front and rear door, was immediately ready, but saw noting in the dim light as the other men bounded downstairs and fanned out into the other rooms. Their search, however, proved totally fruitless.
“Kirby!” Saunders called out, “You sure no one got outside?”
“No one came this way, Sarge. I’d of seen them if they did.”
Saunders frowned and stepped to the front entry to wave Hanley in.
The platoon leader, radio man and medic gained the front steps quickly. “What’s going on?” Hanley asked.
Saunders explained that they had seen someone going down the stairs. “I don’t know if it was a German or a civilian. It was too dark to tell. Kirby was in the perfect spot to see anyone coming from up there, but…” he shook his head.
“Other than some movement against the old curtain in that attic window on the right,” said Hanley, “I didn’t see a thing from out here.”
Caje exchanged a perplexed look with Nelson. “Sir,” Caje interrupted, “Excuse me but, I never touched any curtains.”
“Me neither, Lieutenant,” said Nelson.
Hanley rubbed at the dark stubble along his jaw. “Well, it was probably just a little bit of wind moving it around.”
“But,” Doc began, his brow drawn down and furrowed, “There isn’t even a trace of a breeze mixing up this fog, Lieutenant, and the drizzle that started when we got here’s been comin’ down straight as an arrow.”
Silence followed the medic’s statement, until Hanley asked, “Caje, was there a door leading into the attic?”
“Yes, sir, there were two. One opens to a staircase leading up there, and the other opens to the area itself. That one was closed so tight, I had to put everything I had into it to force it open.”
“Opening it would’ve caused some amount of suction,” Hanley deduced, “At least enough to stir a small curtain.” Still, he thought, there was the matter of someone eluding the men on the main staircase.
Saunders shifted the weight of his weapon to his right shoulder. “I don’t know how anyone could have gotten on those stairs after we went up to the second floor.”
Nelson shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe there’s some sort of secret passage…“
“Right,” Kirby huffed, “and maybe Dr. Frankenstein’s got a laboratory tucked away in a secret cellar somewhere around here, too.”
“Can it, Kirby!” Saunders ordered.
Hanley turned to Caje. “Check around outside for any tracks. Kirby, give him cover. The rest of you, go through these rooms again.”
As the men executed their orders, Hanley stepped to the staircase with Saunders. He peered upward into the darkness at the landing and beyond. “Could you tell if it was a Kraut you saw?”
Saunders shook his head. “Too dark to tell. Whoever it was, they aren’t very tall. My guess is it’s a kid.” They’d all seen boys younger than fifteen in German uniforms. “If it is, and he’s a Kraut, he could be a deserter.”
Hanley nodded. “Let’s hope so. Otherwise, if he got out of here, he’s on his way to report to his outfit. What about the tower? Did you find a way up to it?”
“On the second floor, just like you thought. Caje and I were just about to check it out when we all saw that movement on the stairs.”
Hanley called to his radio man and told him to contact HQ. He turned to Saunders. “Let’s have a look at that tower.”
Complete with an enclosed room below the crenellated roof, the tower proved to be in excellent condition. The widows were narrow, but they provided a decent view of the general area with the only blind spot being a high section of roof at the opposite end of the house. Hanley and Saunders both agreed that this would be the one place a watch should be posted at all times.
Meanwhile, the second search of the manor revealed no clue as to the whereabouts of the elusive fugitive, or even the means of escape. Even more perplexing, nothing was discovered to ascertain where that person could have hidden within the house. With no other avenues to investigate further, Hanley and Saunders concluded that it must have been a looter, probably a kid scavenging to stay alive, or feed a family.
Hanley ordered his squad leader to split the men into two teams, with watches in two-hour shifts; one man would be posted in the tower, one on the opposite end of the second floor, and the other two covering the downstairs rooms and also manning the radio.
The kitchen, where the lieutenant ordered the radio be placed, had well boarded windows and access to the cellar, which provided for an emergency exit if needed. The stove still worked and Hanley allowed for a small fire, just enough for coffee to be kept warm. He also decided that the adjoining dining area, which also had well boarded windows and a modest hearth, would be the best place for those men not standing watch to get some rest. Since the squad was already fighting fatigue and the dampness that seemed to saturate everything from clothing to a man’s frame of mind, the lieutenant allowed a small fire there as well. Experience had taught him that even the smallest of comforts could go a long way toward keeping up morale and everyone’s senses alert.
Settling in, the men shrugged out of their rain coats and ponchos, and moved the table and chairs to one side in order to have room to sleep near the hearth. Kirby discovered, first hand, that any cushioned seating had suffered greatly from years of neglect and partial subjection to the elements – he’d flipped a coin with Brockmeyer for the use of a chaise lounge he’d pulled in from the sitting room, only to have it completely collapse the moment he stretched out on it. Disgruntled at not having a soft place to sleep, the private settled on the floor before the hearth with the others. As expected, he groused about it, but was just as quickly reminded by Nelson that, ‘At least it’s dry’.
Nightfall came quickly, and the rain showers continued. Not long after the first watch began, the rest of the squad had barely begun to dig into their rations when the floorboards in the attic, where no one was posted, creaked with a succession of fast footsteps from one end of that area to the other. Instantly, the entire group galvanized into yet another hunt for the elusive ‘looter’, but to no avail. The only reasonable answer Hanley could offer was that they all knew how old places often made sounds due to foundations shifting and weather conditions. Littlejohn was quick to relate how the stairs in the farmhouse he’d grown up in would creak and pop in the winter, especially during blizzards. “If my sisters were here,” he said, “they’d say it was the boogie man.”
“Well, thanks a lot,” Kirby grumbled. “That’ll make everyone sleep real well.”
Just then the radio spewed a steady stream of static, sending the tension in the room higher. Brockmeyer immediately adjusted the volume and the frequency. Everyone was silent, hoping there’d finally be contact with HQ. But the effort failed and for a moment the only sound was that of the rain.
Kirby ran one hand along the stock of his BAR, a reflex that betrayed both his frustration and anxiety. “First we see someone we can’t find any trace of,” he whispered, “then there’s someone walkin’ around upstairs…“
“You don’t know that,” remarked Caje.
“I do so, ‘cause there’s just somethin’ weird goin’ on here!”
“’Oh, ‘c’mon, Kirby,” exclaimed Doc. “It’s probably just some kid.” But his attempt to bring some reason to the issue was for naught.
Kirby turned to the medic, nearly nose to nose with him. “Don’t ‘c’mon Kirby’ me,” he hissed. “That radio was off until a second ago, an’ I know it was off, ‘cause I’m the one that checked it last!”
His complaint ignited several responses, causing Saunders to emphatically tell them all to, “Take it easy!”
In the meantime, Brockmeyer reported that he wasn’t getting anything on the radio. Hanley told him to keep trying, then turned to the others. “I suggest the rest of you get some sleep while you can.”
Eventually, the rain stopped, but the fog persisted, even thicker than before, if that was possible. It made everyone uncomfortable, some even nervous. None of the guards posted at windows, or outside, could see two feet in front of them. But Hanley reassured them if the fog hindered their vision, it would also hinder anyone outside trying to maneuver through it. He knew it was small comfort at best, but it was all he could do under the circumstances. Everyone had to take a turn on watch, so each man might as well know what he was up against.
About an hour into Hanley’s team taking the first watch, Saunders rolled from his left side onto his back with a half mumbled, ‘What?’ He sat up, but the other three men in the room were fast asleep. Dragging one hand through his hair, he gathered up his utility belt, holstered his .45 and went to the kitchen where Doc was manning the radio.
“What do you need, Doc?”
The medic looked at him curiously. “Nothin’.”
“You didn’t just try to wake me up?”
“No. I’ve been in here the last fifteen minutes.”
It must have been a dream Saunders thought. He gestured to the radio. “Anything yet?”
Doc shrugged. “No, just the same static we’ve been getting’ since we got here. HQ is probably wonderin’ if we’re still alive. Lieutenant Hanley’s been having us try to call in every quarter of an hour.” He picked up the handset, clicked it to get a connection and hoped that King Company would respond. But as before, there was only the constant static. “I thought these things worked better sometimes with this kind of weather.”
“Only sometimes.” Saunders rubbed at his eyes.
Doc could have commented on the sergeant’s lack of sleep, but he knew better than to be an obvious ‘nursemaid’. Instead, he nodded toward the coffee pot on the stove and said plainly, “That’s fresh if you want any.”
“Thanks.” Saunders poured some into a tin mess cup and took a swallow of the strong brew. “Where’s Hanley?”
“In the tower. Littlejohn’s covering the other end upstairs. Caje is making a perimeter check outside. “
The quiet that lay about the manor seemed to seep into everything on the property and even the very air itself. As Caje checked the perimeter, the atmosphere of Mason Rousseau reminded him of something his grandfather Le May, who lived on the bayou, told him a long time ago: at dusk, and right before dawn, there was a certain silence that came over the swamp. It ain’t no ‘ting you kin hear, Caje remembered him saying, It’s a ‘ting you feel. No doubt the old man would say this place, too, had a certain feeling. He shook his head. He was not his grandfather. He had no time for feelings; he had a job to do.
Moving toward the back entrance to the house, Caje felt the layers of the mist move around him, almost like a curtain wrapping him within itself. It was a peculiar sensation and he was absolutely certain that he was being watched. But he could see nothing. Then the air surrounding him turned extremely frigid and seemed to actually settle, like the palm of a hand, unnaturally against his right shoulder. He shivered, then suddenly held his breath tight as something sigh against his right ear. Frozen to the spot, he felt helpless. Dread overwhelmed him as the sighing became a plaintive cry. With every ounce of strength he could muster, Caje jumped away.
“Who’s there?” he asked weakly
But there was just the mist, still drawing in around him, thick, heavy, and unmoving. He strained to hear everything, anything, but there was only the odd silence. He knew he hadn’t imagined that cry or the breathing; it was like nothing he’d heard before. The rain was coming down again, and suddenly, whatever had seemed to be holding him there, was gone. He had to get back inside.
When he entered the house, Caje did not expect to see Saunders coming from the kitchen. Without being asked, he quickly volunteered, “I didn’t see a thing out there…”
Saunders canted his head to one side. Though Le May tried to hide it, he was clearly on edge.
“This God damned fog is everywhere,” Caje finally replied tersely. “You can’t see anything.” He took a breath and let it out, rubbing at his eyes. “As far as I could tell, it’s all clear out there, Sarge.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.” Setting his M1 aside, the scout shrugged his rain coat off. “Maybe I’m going crazy with all this rain and no sleep.” He looked askance for a moment, then brought his gaze back to the other man. “You know me pretty good, Sarge. I don’t make things up and I don’t get jumpy, but I gotta agree with Kirby, there’s something not right about this place.”
Mindful of the strange events they’d experienced thus far, coupled with the certainty that someone had tried to rouse him from sleep, Saunders could hardly disagree with him. But he chose to keep his opinion on the matter private. “Take five. I’ll tell Hanley you have nothing to report.” He gestured with a nod toward the kitchen. “Doc’s got a fresh pot on in there, maybe you ought get some.”
“I could sure it.” He took up his rifle and rain gear and as Saunders started down the hall, said, “Sarge? You think this weather’s gonna clear by sunrise?”
Saunders paused just long enough to look over one shoulder. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”
In the tower room, Hanley rested against the frame of a window. He’d witnessed nothing outside except the intermittent showers – until a moment ago. The fog had stirred a little and he’d noticed Caje heading toward the back entrance. He expected him to report immediately, but was surprised instead when Saunders came up the winding stairs.
“He’s got nothing to report. I told him to take five, get some coffee.”
“Looks like you should do the same. Can’t sleep?” Hanley asked.
“I managed a little.” Saunders didn’t mention the nudge he’d felt earlier, chalking it up to nothing more than a dream. “Doc just tried the radio again. Nothing’s changed.”
“This weather is really socking everything in. I’d like to think that any Germans out there are holed up and taking a break from the rain, but…”
Hanley’s gaze returned to the view, such as it was, from the window. “About that figure on the stair case? Don’t get me wrong, Saunders, I’m not discounting that someone was here, but I can’t understand how they got out so fast. As you said, from where he was, Kirby would have seen them heading outside.”
“Maybe they didn’t go that way.” Saunders had learned a lot from his experience in the war. “As dark as this house is, maybe we missed them.”
“What’s your point?”
“I’m just saying that people can learn to hide in places you’d never figure on.”
Saunders took up a watch at an opposite window. “That silverware we found on the floor,” he continued, “Whoever was trying to get out of here with it obviously got scared off.”
“By the same person who might be hiding here?”
“I don’t like ‘maybes’.”
“Sometimes it’s all we have to go on.”
Hanley couldn’t disagree with that, but the fact that they had not found whoever had been eluding them upstairs bothered him. It bothered him even more that the men were feeling more and more unsettled. “The men are getting too edgy about this place. We can’t afford that.”
“They’re beat, lieutenant.”
“I know, but this is just an old house, Chip. Old structures make noises, like floors and framing that creak and doors that don’t stay open or shut.”
Saunders nodded, reminding himself about how, as kids, he and his brothers occasionally tried to avoid the ‘Judas step*’ whenever they wanted to leave, or return to their bedroom undetected by anyone else in the house. “Yeah, I know.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Hanley speculated, “Could be there’s a draft coming in from somewhere we don’t know about. That could at least account for some of the things we’ve experienced.”
Saunders made no objection to that reasoning. He was a practical man, not given to unnecessary or wild conjecture. Nevertheless, his gut feeling told him that someone had to be hiding here and unless there were passages between the walls, he simply could not figure how they were moving from one spot to another.
“If there is anyone here,” Hanley offered, “Then I think you’re probably right that it’s a kid.”
Saunders stared out of the window. “If it is, it’s the fastest damned kid I’ve ever seen.”
From the staircase landing, Caje called urgently for the lieutenant and sergeant to come downstairs. “Sir,” he said to Hanley, “we’re picking up HQ on the radio.”
Kirby, Nelson and Brockmeyer, who took control of the radio from Doc, were in the kitchen when Hanley and Saunders arrived with Caje. The crackle of static emitting from the radio was overpowering the voice on the other end of the line.
The Corporal looked at Hanley. “It’s faint, and pretty choppy, Lieutenant. But HQ is definitely trying to contact us. I don’t know if they heard our reply.”
Hanley took the handset. “Checkmate King One, to King Six. Do you read? Over.”
More attempts resulted in silence. When Hanley had almost given up, one more reply from King Six came through. It was still unclear, with an undercurrent of something else, as if another frequency was overlapping. He gave the handset to Caje. “I’m picking up someone speaking French.”
“It’s in French alright,” said Caje, “but it’s hard to hear.” He listened intently, and then translated, ‘Please, Americans,’ and ‘danger’.” His expression drew a line of creases in his brow. “It sounds like a kid, Lieutenant.”
“Anything else,” asked Hanley?
Caje shook his head, straining to hear the childlike voice. “It keeps breaking up- Wait a minute.” The words coming through the static were almost inaudible, but there nonetheless. I can hear…‘Mason Rousseau’.
After the initial silence that befell them, the men broke into a flurry of exclamations and questions.
“Listen,” Hanley stated frankly, “There’s an explanation for everything that’s gone on here.” Aside from Saunders, he looked at each man in turn. “We have a job to do here and we’re going to get it done. Understood? Caje and Doc, you’ve got another hour on watch. The rest of you better get as much shut eye as you can.” Before anyone could respond, he turned to Brockmeyer,
“Corporal, I know you could use the sleep, but I want everything on that radio checked out so we know it’s working right.”
Hanley and Saunders left the room, and Brockmeyer set to work on the radio. Kirby, lagging behind, asked, “You’ve heard strange stuff before over these things, haven’t you?”
The corporal shook his head. “No, not really.”
Over the next few hours, tensions rose higher with each creaking floorboard, falling piece of peeling plaster, or odd sound whistling through broken window panes. When the wind picked up significantly, the clattering of shutters against the house was greeted by wide eyes and more than a few frayed nerves. And always, the rain kept coming down, incessant, defiant.
On his second watch of the night, Saunders positioned Doc downstairs, Nelson on the second floor and Kirby in the tower. Toward the last half of the second hour, the sergeant took his turn outside to check the perimeter. The mist was still in the air, even with the bit of wind that had risen. From time to time he had the disconcerting feeling that he was not exactly alone. The same whispering he’d heard on the road leading to the manor, seemed to come from the very damp of the grounds itself, but his efforts to find anyone proved useless. He searched around the barn and other sheds and on his way back to the house noticed a tiny light in the tower. It went from one window to the next. He clenched his jaw in anger, Damn it, Kirby! You’d better not be smoking!
Wasting no time, he made for the tower and arrived to find Kirby alone in the dark and not a cigarette in sight.
The private was completely taken aback by the accusation that he’d lit a smoke. “Now Sarge,” he complained, “c’mon, you know me better’n that.” He patted his pockets. “I ain’t even got any on me.”
Saunders had to admit there wasn’t even the faintest scent of a cigarette. At odds to explain what he’d seen, he chalked it up to exhaustion. Kirby was still defending himself, and Saunders waved him off. “Alright Kirby, alright. Just forget about it, huh?”
Kirby shrugged, saying he wasn’t surprised by anything going on at this place, that he couldn’t wait to leave, and for once he’d be happy to see some Krauts because at least they’d be real. Then he added, somewhat hesitantly, “Sarge, do you believe in ghosts?”
“I believe in what I can see, smell and touch. Ghosts are something to scare little kids on Halloween. They don’t have any meaning here.”
“But, this place, it just don’t feel right. All those noises…”
“It’s a deserted, broken down old house, Kirby. What do you expect? The place is falling apart.”
“What about the radio, huh?”
“What about it? We got static interference, probably from the storm. Nothing more.” Saunders eyed Kirby carefully. “Go tell Nelson to get up here. You’re switching out with him.”
While he waited for Billy to take the tower post, the sergeant looked out of the window where he’d first seen the light coming from outside. Keeping his men focused, alert and calm was part of his job, and yet, he knew he’d not been seeing or hearing things either. Although he had never been given to superstition, the thought still occurred to him that maybe Caje and Kirby were right; maybe there was something about Mason Rousseau that wasn’t normal.
Dawn grew near. The rain was only a drizzle but the air stirred with a slight breeze, enough to promise better visibility after daylight. The whole squad was now on watch. Like the rest of the men, Hanley and Saunders fought against the effects of sleeplessness throughout the night. There had been no clear contact with HQ, but neither had they seen any sign of Germans. Minutes ticked by slowly and Mason Rousseau became very, very quiet.
It was getting light enough to see outside when Saunders made his way from the first floor to the tower, checking on each man, making sure they were awake. Meanwhile, downstairs, Hanley tried again to make contact with HQ. Suddenly, the sound of running feet pounded along the second floor hallway, and doors started slamming shut. As soon as some of the men ran to investigate, the noises began downstairs as well, as if the whole house had taken on a life of its own.
Despite the incomprehensible commotion and everyone’s urgent desire to know why it was happening, there was still a job to do, and Hanley and Saunders did their best to keep the men focused on it. But even they had to admit, if only to themselves, that something unexplainable was happening here. To make matters even worse, in the midst of it all, the radio tuner flew from frequency to frequency, and the youthful voice that had been heard before, sliced though the static, as if demanding to be heard. But the words were still choppy and incoherent. This, and the racket throughout the house was enough to make the squad believe that Mason Rousseau was about to collapse in upon itself.
Then the clamor ceased.
Kirby, who was once again on guard in the tower during the morning rotation, felt the air surrounding him turn very, very cold. He could see his own breath, and watched, mesmerized and shivering. Suddenly, something pulled sharply on his pants leg. He looked down, but saw nothing. Within seconds, and with greater force, something pulled violently on his jacket, forcing him to look back toward the window.
There, emerging from the dissipating mist, a Kraut patrol was approaching the barn and outlying sheds. Kirby stared in disbelief, barely a second before he bolted from his position and flew halfway down the tower stairs, whistling an alert warning those below. He dare not shout for fear of being heard outside. Hanley and Saunders ascended the stairs and joined Kirby at the window.
Quiet minutes passed. The house was silent, save for the faint sound of a crying child on the radio handset. It didn’t take long for the Germans to search the outbuildings. From where Hanley was, he could see them split up, sending half of their number to flank the front side of the house. He sent Saunders downstairs to warn the rest of the men. For all the sounds of creaking floorboards they had heard in the manor, not a one made even the slightest noise as the sergeant had the men move with stealth to reposition themselves, ready for the firefight to come. Even the radio had fallen silent.
And then it came, Hanley’s order to open up as soon as the Germans were in range. An explosion of weapons fire filled the air with smoke and the smell of cordite. When it was over, only one enemy soldier, though wounded in his left arm, was alive. He was an older man, who, instead of being sent to fight a war, ought to have been home, caring for his house and playing with his grandchildren. With Nelson to cover him, Saunders disarmed the man, who continued to repeat that he surrendered. Once inside, he halted sharply and pointed toward the stairs, immediately crossing himself. Saunders, and the other’s who had now gathered around, looked in the direction the Kraut indicated.
There, before them on the stairs, was the translucent figure of a small girl. As suddenly as she appeared, she vanished and the sound of her footsteps were heard running to the room where Saunders and Littlejohn had seen the ball rolling into the hallway. The door to the room shut softly and Mason Rousseau felt light, quiet and somehow even peaceful.
“Doc,” said Hanley, “Let’s get our prisoner taken care of.”
As the medic took the shaken prisoner into the sitting room, Kirby, stared at the foyer ceiling, where the room above had grown quiet. “Who’d believe it? We had someone else on watch.”
Caje, along with the others, lifted his gaze too. “Yeah. Who would believe it?” Brockmeyer came from in with the radio and set it on a step. “Lieutenant Hanley, I have Company on the line, sir. They’re coming through loud and clear.”
Hanley took the handset and reported in. After a moment, he looked to Saunders and the others that had gathered around as he made his last reply to HQ. “That’s negative. I repeat, negative. The objective is…” he informed as he looked around at the men, “occupied.”
A short time later, the squad moved out, taking their prisoner with them. Saunders took up the rear of the patrol. Before he rounded the curve in the lane, he stopped to take a last look at the house. Caje, he thought, had been right, something wasn’t normal at Mason Rousseau, but it wasn’t necessarily something wrong.
The clouds opened up again. It would be a long, wet walk back to company headquarters.
Rain. Saturating. The constant, nearly imperceptible sound of it trickling in the uneven crevices of tree bark, dripping off branches, falling to the leaf-littered ground is almost deafening. The beads of water settle on everything, on moss slickened trunks, on roots and on trailing vines. Droplets spiral on the stems, while others lay still, pooled between the protective walls of delicate petals. It beads on blades of grass, clear pearls of reflective water that hang suspended for interminable seconds, stretching and stretching into elongated bulbs until, dipping ever lower and lower, they reach the ground. And then…suddenly release. The rain soaks into the earth. It is resurrected into the dank, fog-laden air that absorbs from view all appearances of the natural world, absorbs all sound. And yet, between the layers of mist, something sighs against the quiet, crumbling walls of Mason Rousseau and whispers in the damp.
*See my story “The Long Watch”