- 2014 Community Novel Project of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library
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Read Online: Superimposed Chapter 8 by Diana Marsh
May 12th, 1945
91st General Hospital, Oxford, England.
The man formerly known as Pesha turned 21 in the ward of a US Army hospital in England. He didn’t have a party; he didn’t tell a soul. He wished himself a silent baxtalo rodźendano — “happy birthday” in the language of the Romani — and went about eating his breakfast of powdered eggs and bacon as if it were just another Saturday. He listened to the groans of the men in the beds on either side of him and the squeaky wheels of the medicine cart as it made its way down the hall and thought to himself how fitting it all felt. This was Pesha’s very last birthday, and that it was miserable seemed fitting. He had been miserable most of his life. For that life to end this way? It made sense.
He glanced down at the dog tags lying flat against his chest. Calo, Salvatore T. That was his name now. That night in the woods, he had repeated the name over and over to himself as he had stripped the uniform off the dead soldier — to burn, not to wear, since it was covered in the man’s blood. The name had to become his. It was his. He’d dug the hole and rolled the American’s body into it, and as he covered it with dirt, he’d said, “Goodbye, Pesha. Go with God, Pesha.” He’d left that clearing with a dead man’s wallet and ten marks in his pocket, the dog tags hanging around his neck. He left it as Salvatore T. Calo.
Salvatore Calo did not turn 21 today. There was nothing whatsoever for the Lieutenant to celebrate. “Except runny powdered eggs,” he muttered to himself as he stirred the concoction with his spoon.
The squeak of the approaching cart grew louder, and Salvatore straightened painfully in his bed. The medicine cart meant the arrival of Nurse Lewis which always brightened his day. Isabelle Lewis had a smile that made sinners repent and praise the brilliant existence of God. It warmed Salvatore’s soul every time she turned it toward him. It was a kind smile, capable of turning down at the corners in the saddest frown when one of the men hurt. When Isabelle felt playful, it tipped at one corner as if that side of her mouth held a secret it refused to share with the other side. When she laughed, Salvatore remembered what music truly sounded like.
“How are we doing today, Sal?” she asked as she stopped the cart at the foot of his bed. Someone had told him her accent was Midwestern. He only knew it as sweet and soft and warm.
“It hurts. Always does, though.” He struggled to sit upright in bed, the movement bringing the usual wave of pain. They’d told him he was lucky. The bullet missed his spine, but made a mess of some nerves in his lower back. He might always have a limp. It might always hurt a little. Maybe, they’d said, it wouldn’t hurt so much when he put a bit more weight back on it.
The plan hadn’t involve getting shot at all. Stupid plan. Stupid him.
Isabelle dropped two pills into a small paper cup and handed it to him. While he tossed those back, she also handed him a cup of water. “These’ll help,” she said. Then she sat him upright and tucked the pillows behind his back.
“Will you come by at lunch again today?” He tried not to sound or look as hopeful as he felt.
“Twelve o’clock on the dot, just like always.” She leaned a hip against the railing of his bed and pinned him with a stern look. “Someone’s only gotten me as far as stumbling across the escaping German officers and their mysterious truck, after all.”
“Ah, yes. We’re getting to the good part.”
Isabelle reached up to run a hand over the unruly mess that was Salvatore’s hair. It needed a trim. It needed a brushing. It needed a lot of things. Mostly, it needed her to keep doing just exactly what she was doing.
“They’re all good parts. You tell a good story, Sal.” She smoothed a rabid section of curl down with her hand, then yanked it away, straightening as one of the doctors walked past. “See you at noon, Sal.”
“Meatloaf today. Try not to get too excited.”
Salvatore had come to appreciate lunch in a way that defied logic. It wasn’t that the meal prepared for them was any better than what they got at breakfast or dinner — “There’s a war going on out there,” they were reminded frequently, “even if Germans are surrendering left and right by the battalion-full.” It was the company. Isabelle came every day with two trays and pulled up a chair next to his bed. While they both ate their subpar meal, Sal told her stories. Some of them were complete fiction, of course — battles he’d seen, missions he’d flown, things he had done. Some held a small portion of truth — he talked about his family a lot, even if he had to transplant them to another country and alter the details now and then. The ones Isabelle loved most were the stories of his time on the run from the SS after his heroic escape. Those stories were true, mostly. He didn’t have to elaborate or alter them at all. Mostly.
When he’d put the body in the ground and walked away from that clearing, he had thought that waiting out the war would be easy. There were deep forests and mountains to hide in, even small villages not afraid to shelter a Yankee GI for a night or two. He’d hidden in those forests for months before the wreck. He’d thought could do it as easily after. But he was wrong. It became harder to avoid the battles or the battalions marching through from one skirmish to the next. Maybe he should have left Germany, but he kept thinking about his plan. If the Army knew Lieutenant Calo went down somewhere in Germany, they would expect to find him there.
“I managed almost a year,” he said to Isabelle when she’d settled in her chair after situating his tray across his lap. She set her nurse’s cap on the table beside his bed. Sunlight filtering through the dusty window warmed the soft red of her hair and highlighted the fine row of freckles across the bridge of her nose. He momentarily lost track of himself, staring at those freckles and counting them. “Avoiding the SS, trying to make my way to an American detachment without drawing unfriendly attention. Then, my luck ran out.” He paused to take a bite of his meatloaf and frowned. “Kind of like the flavor of this meatloaf. Are you sure it’s not rat?”
Isabelle laughed. In fact, she nearly choked on a mouthful of her own lunch — also meatloaf. “I’m pretty sure it’s not rat. But I’ll ask the cook next time if you want.”
“No, I think that might just give him ideas.” He shuddered and loaded his spoon with mashed potatoes instead. American cuisine left a lot to be desired, he’d decided. At least, American cuisine cooked in a military hospital in the middle of England.
“Your luck had just ran out,” Isabelle prompted, still snickering over her plate.
“Right. My luck ran out about a mile outside a very small village near Aachen. It looked empty for the most part, except for a German military truck parked outside a small house off on its own. Three soldiers were carrying boxes out of the house and loading them up into the truck. At first I couldn’t see what it was they were hauling. I wished it was food, to be honest.” He speared another spoonful of potatoes and fed them to the sudden gnawing in his stomach, as if just the mention of that time could bring back the hunger attached. He’d lived on squirrels and the occasional plumpish songbird when he could catch them. Real food only came about if someone took him in or he happened upon an abandoned house whose pantry hadn’t rotted yet.
“What was it?”
Salvatore looked to his left, then to his right, then leaned toward her as much as he dared. His back complained if he shifted too far. His voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “When one of the officers came out, he tripped over a rock on the path and dropped his box. When it hit the ground, the contents exploded out, clanking and clanging and shining in the light from the headlights.” He repeated the glance around the room to make sure no one else was listening, then waved Isabelle forward. She leaned closer, and he grinned. “Gold. Piles and piles of bright, shining gold.”
Isabelle gasped, then covered her mouth to mute the sound.
“That’s what I did. One of the officers must’ve heard me, because suddenly they were yelling in German and drawing their weapons. I still had my revolver and a half a handful of ammo I’d scavenged off a corpse a few days before, so I looked for cover and tried to figure out what to do. I didn’t want to draw too much attention, in case they weren’t alone. I also didn’t want to use up what ammo I had. I managed a lucky shot or two and saw two of the Krauts go down. I didn’t hear anything from the third, so I figured I either winged him, or he hightailed it out.” Salvatore took a good-sized scoop of the mashed potatoes and spread it over the meatloaf. Maybe it’d make it taste better. The pause made Isabelle squirm in her seat. Anticipation made the little freckles on her nose stand out more and made her clutch at the small gold cross that hung over her uniform blouse.
“Well?” she asked, almost breathless. “Did he hightail it?”
Salvatore shook his head and chewed a mouthful of potatoes and meat. No, it didn’t help.
“Nah. He was hiding on the other side of the truck. When I got up and looked back to see if the gunfire had drawn any attention, the no-good fink shot me in the back! I tell you, there’s no honor with those Krauts.”
Isabelle tsked softly under her breath and shook her head as if she couldn’t believe such cowardice. Salvatore shook his as well, for the same reason. That wasn’t quite how it happened, but Isabelle didn’t need to know he’d been shot trying to escape with one of those boxes of gold. Or that, bleeding and limping, he’d dragged what he could of it into the woods and buried what he couldn’t hide on his person to return for later. He’d made quite a fuss about nobody handling his things when they brought him in. There was a reason. A good one.
This sweet angel with the redemptive smile didn’t need to know anything about any of it. It had only taken a week, but he already knew he was in love. His sweet Isabelle. His Bella Mia. He just had to convince her she was, too.
Down the corridor, he heard excited murmurings and hushed whispers start to build. Then the approaching click of expensive shoes on hospital tile – what the other men called “standard issue dress shoes”. He’d come to recognize their step as sharper and harsher than the soft brush of a nurse’s crepe soles. As Salvatore looked up, he saw a man in a Captain’s uniform approaching, hat tucked under his arm and a look of bored determination on his face. Salvatore hoped and wished and begged that the Captain had any other destination but his bedside. They kept sending men to ask him questions about his time with the SS. “What did you tell them?” “What did they want to know?” “What do they know?” They asked him questions about things he’d never heard of, things with random letters and numbers for names that he knew Salvatore T. Calo should recognize, but that meant nothing to him. He was running out of ways to try to stall them. Nearly a week into his stay and the men in charge were getting restless.
The war was mostly over, and still they were restless.
The Captain stopped in front of his bed, and Isabelle almost dumped her tray from her lap coming to attention. Salvatore straightened as much as he could and saluted, but forgot to put his spoon down first. Isabelle saw it and nodded to it, trying to bring it to his attention. He finally figured it out and dropped it to his plate with a clang and a splat of potatoes.
“Lieutenant Calo,” the Captain said without a blink at the spoon or the potatoes. “I’m Captain Wilfred Matthews. I’m here to – ”
“I’ve told the last two all I could remember,” he said. Cleaning potatoes off his face gave him an excuse to hide momentarily behind his napkin while he thought. “I hit my head during the wreck of the truck. I have very little memory of my time with the Germans. The doctors say that’s normal.”
Captain Matthews shook his head, twice. It was a sharp, precise movement. “I’m aware of the doctor’s report, and yours. That’s not why I’m here.” Captain Matthews reached into his coat and pulled a folded sheet of paper from it, which he handed to Salvatore with another sharp, precise gesture. “I’m here to tell you that you’re going home.”
Chapter 9 will be published next week at https://www.tscpl.org/community-novel
About Diana Marsh
Diana Marsh spends her days as an administrative assistant with the State of Kansas, and her nights plotting the torment and agony of fictional characters. She has put the latter skill to use as a participant of National Novel Writing Month since 2003, an activity that has given her ten years of fun and five completed novels. If only that pesky first drafts from 2010 and 2012 would end.
An Interview with Diana Marsh
What is your writing background? What sort of work do you usually write?
I’m typically a fiction writer, though I’ve got a degree in print journalism and the first things I ever had published were poems. I tend to hang out in the mystery and paranormal/urban fantasy genres.
Who are some of your favorite authors? Are there books, poems, or stories that have inspired your own writing?
The book that absolutely made me want to be a writer was The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I fell in love with that book and with the act of forging people and worlds and lives out of words in the same instant. I am also desperately in love with Shakespeare, with Dorothy Parker, and Walt Whitman. Michael Crichton fuels my love of scientific technobabble, Agatha Christie my love of a good, well-crafted mystery.
Why did you want to participate in the Community Novel Project?
This is my third year participating, and I keep coming back for the same reason every time – the joy and wonder of creating something, something wild and insane and fantastic, with a group of creative, inspired individuals.
Have you ever written fiction in collaboration with other authors before?
Beyond my three stints with the Community Novel Project, the last time I participated in collaborative fiction was high school, when a friend and I would pass a notebook around between classes, each taking a turn at a paragraph or a page or several pages of an on-going story.
Do you usually write in a burst of inspiration, or is your work carefully outlined? Did writing for the community novel differ from the norm?
I generally am an outliner, but my process is a lot less intensive for a single chapter in an on-going project. This year, for Chapter Eight, I mostly just jotted down a couple relevant notes on the story so far, then did a little research and jotted down a couple ideas based on my research and things the previous author had mentioned an interest in potentially seeing moving forward.
What do you like about the premise and characters of this year’s Community Novel Project? What challenges you about them?
I like the idea of the two, simultaneously unfolding narratives and the potential that the one will eventually frame the other. The challenge, as with every year, is not starting to plot your chapter too soon, based on the chapters several ahead of you, because everything you’ve planned for might be undone in the very next chapter. Flexibility is key!
What was your first reaction when you saw the chapter before yours?
Initially? Shock. I’d grown attached to Sal and was looking forward to my chance to build his history further. But after some thought, I saw the challenge more as an opportunity than a road block.
What do you like most about the chapter that you contributed to the 2014 Community Novel?
I love creating characters. My brain is constantly trying to birth new and interesting people to let loose upon the world, so the fact that I got to reinvent the “main” character was a bit of a thrill. And I absolutely loved playing in the flashback portion of the story. I am a history buff and World War II is one of my favorite time periods to read about. I’m also absolutely thrilled that the author of the previous flashback chapter was happy with where I took his vision.
What do you hope happens or doesn’t happen in the chapters that come after yours?
I hope, for the sake of the writers ahead, that we don’t switch the protagonist again. It can be difficult as a writer and a reader to get attached to a character just to have him disappear and be replaced with another version. And I hope that all the characters, past and present versions, have lots of adventure and excitement and discovery ahead of them.
What sort of writing can we expect from you in future? Are you currently at work on any writing projects?
I am still in the process of shopping around a romantic comedy. I’m also in the process of reimagining my steampunk alternate history novel and finishing a paranormal mystery set in Kansas in the 1950s.