Nobody could like Corporal Lawrence. That's not to say that nobody tried, or that he was somehow unfriendly, merely that he was one of those few that seemed to be “wired” differently. However, in the trenches of World War I, normalcy was at best a relative term, and one that had minimal relation of life, such as it was. Lawrence fought, listened to orders, and didn't disrupt the other soldiers, and that was all that was required. So what if people felt increasingly uncomfortable around him? In a place where the flesh rotting off your bones while you were still alive was the base-line of concern, a little personality conflict ranked several levels below a paper cut.
Lawrence, for his part, dealt with it as he always had. That is to say, remained totally unaware of the avoidance. The same way a man blind from birth cannot mourn the memory of color, Corporal Lawrence couldn't bemoan a lack of company. He was quiet, as he had nobody to talk to, and still, as he had nothing to do for long stretches of time. The enemy trench, less than a mile away, had gone silent for several days, letting boredom and nervousness sink in even more than normal…coupled with the unease that seemed to radiate off of Lawrence like heat waves.
The worst part was that there was no distinct reason to dislike the corporal. He was a plain man, average height, average build, bland of voice and action. Nobody could recall him raising his voice in joy or anger. He did have the occasional odd mannerisms, however. He tended to stare a beat or two longer than was acceptable at people. He rarely slept as well, and bunkmates said he would mumble in his sleep almost constantly. The content of those nocturnal ramblings, when they could be understood, were often odd, and potentially unsettling. One private moved to another barracks when he heard the name of his daughter pass Corporal Lawrence's lips, followed by a bubbling, muffled giggle.
It was strongly theorized that he was sent over the trench by his commanders more out of a desire to have him away than for his minimal combat skill. He and fourteen of his fellows were sent across the nightmarishly scarred waste of the no-man's-land between the trenches, to reconnoiter the enemy trench, and secure it if possible. Many seemed to hope that Lawrence would have the opportunity to prove his devotion to his country by making the ultimate sacrifice for it.It was while he was gone, that three-day gap as the men held their breath, waiting for a surprise volley of shells, that someone started asking questions. Where as before, it was almost taboo to speak of Corporal Lawrence, since the departure of both him and his “aura”, rumor seemed to descend with the passion of the denied. Nobody remembered him ever talking of home. No sweet-smelling letters came, no soggy, dirt-streaked letters left. He mentioned his dreams often, and griped sometimes with the men over missed foods or pleasures, but never with any real passion.
Questions started to float among even the higher levels of the command. Nobody was able to actually find his station orders. He'd come in with a squad of reinforcements transferred from France…but there was no paperwork. The rest of the reinforcement squad had never seen the man before he'd been lumped in with them the night before the trip, along with the snips and scraps of other squads decimated by the Germans. Whispers filtered among the grunts of the corporal being a curse. Nearly every man who'd shared a bunkhouse with him had gotten trenchfoot, and the rooms he haunted always seemed to smell more musty and sickly-sweet, even for the trench.
The men sent over the no-man's-land with Corporal Lawrence heard and cared for none of this. Just another man among many, all with death certificates waiting a stamp that could fall at any moment. They moved fast and low, from crater to crater, slipping over slick mud and barbed wire, the only thing that seemed to grow in that blasted waste. Charging the last spurt and into the trench, they were greeted not with the harsh bark of German orders and rifles…but a dense, close silence. Preparing for ambush, the men started to filter out into the tunnels and halls of the trench.
The men, already nervous, were not calmed by their investigation. The trenches stank of mold, sweat, and a thin undertaste of rotten fruit. A vile, cloying slime seemed to have pooled in every divot and crack, sticky as glue and itchy on the flesh. In a world where rats and insects would try to snatch food from your mouth even as you ate, they saw nothing alive, not so much as a fly. An armory lay in chaos, munitions spilled on the ground, rifles tossed like pick up sticks. A mess hall had been reduced to ruins, the tables and chairs piled in the center of the room, charred and twisted, the rations seemingly stamped into the dirt by many feet. And still, nothing, alive or dead, was found by the increasingly anxious solders.
Private Dixon found the first body, and managed to cry out before vomiting.
They knew it had been a man only because nothing else of that size could have been there. It lay on the floor of a barracks. The entire floor. The flesh of it had been…smeared, somehow, spread like butter over the rough dirt floor. Bones, already looking pitted and rotten, stuck out at random angles, like dead trees in a still swamp. The skull rested on one of the highest bunks, facing the doorway, ten gleaming white fingertip bones crammed into the cracked eye sockets. As one man went to examine it, he found the back of the skull had been crushed open, the rotting, sagging sponge of a tongue stuffed into the otherwise dry cavity.
The men quit the trench with all speed. Half-dragging the corporal, they ran with no thought to cover or death, only escape. They crossed in record time, falling into their home trench like so much cordwood, gasping and shivering, one man known to have bludgeoned a German to death with a brick curled on the floor in a sobbing heap. The commanders moved quickly, isolating the men and trying to calm the most lucid for a report. What spilled out would have been immediately dismissed as lies and hallucination were it not for the earnest, pleading stares of those reporting. Command calmed them with explanations of battle fatigue and strange gas weapon tests…and shared silent, focused stares as the cowed men were ushered out.