Hutchinson sat on the cot in the field hospital, his leg throbbing. He wanted desperately to sleep, to shut out the noise of the war for a little while, but it was at least an hour before the doctor would allow him another shot of morphine. Merciless, the pain in his leg would keep him awake. He clung to the thought that he would be transported back behind the lines tomorrow, the only hope he had, and tried not to think about the fact that his wound wasn’t so severe, that he would be back on the front lines in three weeks.
It was the wet and the cold that was the worst. Huddling, almost panicked, in a trench, as bullets and shells whistled by, shooting at men who looked just like the guys in the pub back home - he could withstand that, he thought, if his uniform wasn’t soaked through with mud and blood. In equal parts, he imagined. The cloth stuck to his body, chilling it through, rendering his muscles stiff and unresponsive: can’t move, can’t fight, can’t flee. His mind wandered back to his school days, training with machine guns on the lawn, shooting at dummies. They used to cheer when a target was destroyed. They were fighting for king and country, and it was glorious! This wasn’t glorious. This was madness. He wasn’t sure what he was fighting for anymore, but he knew he had to keep fighting. That’s what he was trained to do, right?
The flap of the tent was yanked open, and two medics supported a limping soldier with a splinted leg, depositing him on the bed next to Hutchinson - Carter, a new recruit in his regiment. Fresh out of school, he was eighteen, three years younger than Hutchinson. The medics made sure he was secure, then dashed, leaving him to arrange his own bedclothes. Hutchinson watched silently as Carter slowly and painfully settled onto the cot.
Finally sitting as comfortably as he could, Carter threw a look at Hutchinson. “This is embarrassing. Fell into a trench and broke my leg. Not exactly inspiring.”
“Better than shrapnel.” Hutchinson pointed at his own leg. “I’d take any reason to get out of here.”
“Quite right. I won’t be writing home about this, though. Had to be dragged back here. Latimer splinted my leg and almost carried me all the way. I owe him one.”
“We all do.” The name Latimer rankled him. A schoolmate back at Farringham School for Boys, Timothy Latimer had been too clever for his own good, and cheeky, spouting off weird things and… just knowing things he shouldn’t know. Hutchinson and his mates made sure that Latimer knew his place, at the bottom. Latimer never took to the military training, nearly useless during exercises and target practice, but when they both joined the army and were assigned to the same regiment, Latimer shone. Though he obviously disliked and objected to the violence, he was a brilliant strategist, and the officers made it no secret that they consulted him. His preferred method of battle was outmaneuvering the enemy to force a retreat, rather than victory through attrition. He was also courageous to a fault, risking his life time and again to rescue wounded comrades (and the occasional enemy) from under fire. They both had not been in the army long enough to be promoted yet, but Latimer was the obvious choice. And he saved Hutchinson’s life. He wasn’t sure how, but Latimer knew when a shell was going to fall on them and got them under cover just in time. Hutchinson had taken shrapnel in the leg, and Latimer kept him going, getting him to safety. Hutchinson had been the top boy at Farringham, but here, it was all Latimer. Hutchinson was just another soldier.
A medic bustled in with a syringe. "For you, Carter. Morphine. You'll want to sleep, makes tomorrow come faster." After he administered the morphine, Hutchinson begged him for a shot, too. "You know you don't get any for another hour. You'll have to wait. Sorry." He left the tent without looking back.
Carter drifted off to sleep. Hutchinson cast about for something to while away the time and take his mind off his leg, and was just contemplating reaching for some paper and a pen, which was placed inconveniently, and painfully, far away, when the tent flap opened again, and the flame-haired Tim Latimer stepped through.
He was covered in dirt from the thighs down, and the rest of his uniform was bespeckled. His hair was relatively clean, having been shielded from the elements by his helmet. The thing that always bothered Hutchinson, though, was his boyish face and frame. He must be twenty now, but he still looked like sixteen, and back when he was sixteen, he looked fourteen.
"Uh, Hutchinson?" They'd never been good friends, and Latimer was always nervous around him. "I hope you're doing better."
"To be expected, I suppose. I just came to say..." He wrung his hands. "They're transferring me to another regiment, closer to the front, so, I suppose, I'm not going to see you again."
The news hit Hutchinson harder than he expected. He realized that not only was Latimer a link to back home, but they knew each other well enough to be friends, if only they had let themselves. His voice caught in his throat, and he sputtered. "Uh. Oh. You're going? I had thought..." He let the sentence trail off, not wanting to display his disappointment.
"Guess I must be. No choice, really."
"Yeah." Hutchinson looked anywhere but at Latimer.
"Well, I won't keep you. Be leaving later today. Got lots to do. Um. Goodbye." He turned to leave.
"No, wait..." Hutchinson reached towards him with a hand.
Latimer turned back. "Yeah?"
"Stay a bit. If you have the time." He motioned to a nearby chair.
Latimer looked uncomfortable, but said, "All right," and sat down, perched at the edge of the seat.
"I, uh, I never thanked you for saving me, Latimer."
Latimer looked down at his hands. "I was saving myself, really. You just happened to be there."
"No. That's not true. You've always known this was going to happen. Back in school, on... on that night" - he didn't like to think about that night - "you said you knew we'd both survive, because we were going to fight together again. And then last night, you looked at your watch and said it was time, then you pushed me out of the way of the shell. You knew. How do you know these things?"
Latimer shrugged. "I just do sometimes. I told you back then, sometimes I just say true things."
"No. There's more to it than that. Something happened that night. Before that, you were just saying things that had happened, like you knew my father was posted to Africa. But this... You knew about last night four years ago. Tell me."
Latimer scratched the back of his head. He was clearly reluctant to talk, and he was silent for a few minutes. Finally, he exhaled heavily. "I don't know if I can explain it all so that you'll believe but, okay, for you, I'll try." He pursed his lips, then began.
"You remember Baines, right?"
"How could I forget? The murdering crazy bastard."
"He wasn't crazy. When he did all of that, he wasn't himself. He was something else, a different creature, a monster. He just looked like Baines." He grinned at Hutchinson's disbelieving expression. "I told you this would be difficult to believe."
"Okay, okay, I'll try harder."
"These creatures, they took Baines and Mr. Clark, and that maid Jenny, and that little girl, and they were looking for Mr. Smith. Do you remember him? The history professor?"
"Yeah. He was the one who started it all, got us out of bed to defend the school. He died when they bombed the village."
Latimer nodded. "Yes, that's him, though he didn't die."
"His name was on the list of the dead."
"That's because he was never found, so they assumed he was dead. Did you ever wonder why they were looking for him?"
"Honestly, no. I just thought they were crazy."
"It was because... Well, it was because he wasn't what he looked like, either." Hutchinson tried to hide his skepticism. "This is going to sound completely crazy, but Mr. Smith was sort of a god."
Before Hutchinson could tell him to shut up and go to hell, Latimer held up his hands to forestall it. "Yes, I know, I know, but hear me out. You're the one who asked."
Hutchinson smirked. "God with the face of Mr. Smith."
"I really shouldn't have said 'a god,' but that's the idea. He wasn't just Mr. Smith. He was..." Latimer's eyes had a faraway look in them, as he remembered. After a moment, he wrenched himself back to the present. "You see, those creatures were hunting him, so he made himself one of us, hid himself away in his watch. This watch."
Latimer pulled out his pocket watch. Caressing it with his thumb, he handed it to Hutchinson. Made of dull brass, its cover was etched with an intricate design of interlocking circles and lines. Hutchinson popped it open. The watch face itself was unremarkable, pure white with black numbers, and three yellow circles by way of design. It was a sturdy device, weighing heavily in his hand. He closed the lid with his thumb.
"So you're saying Mr. Smith is in here?"
"No, he's long gone. But back then, I went to his office to get a book, and the watch spoke to me, told me to take it. And when I opened it..." His eyes unfocused. "It showed him to me. He wanders the stars. He is majesty and compassion and righteous anger. He watches the whole of the universe, and yet cares for each one of us. He is magnificent."
Hutchinson bit his lip. He'd never heard Latimer express any religious beliefs. This was far more personal than any conversation he'd ever had with him. He struggled with the concept, not knowing what to say. When it comes to religion, it's too easy to offend people.
"So... he's your god, then? You worship him, and he gives you visions of the future?"
Latimer snapped back to the present. "No. That's not it at all. He doesn't want to be worshiped. He doesn't even want to be noticed. And he has no gifts to give. Because he's not a god. He's just a man. I mean, he can fly through all of the universe, and somehow he can put his soul into a watch and hide it away, but he is barely more than you or me. And he is mortal and can be killed. He is just a man. What makes him legend is that he seeks to always do the right thing, no matter what it is, no matter the cost to himself. And that's what makes him wonderful."
Latimer took back the watch and held it up. "When the creatures began bombing the village, Mr. Smith took himself back. He became the Doctor again. That's what he calls himself, the Doctor. He vanquished the creatures. And then he left." He smiled with wonder as he recalled the mode of his departure, but said no more about it. "He left me the watch, though it doesn't talk to me anymore. But... Ever since that night, I see bits and pieces of the future. Nothing momentous, like, I didn't see the war coming. But I occasionally see little bits. The first thing it showed me was that you and I would survive, and that we would be in danger of a shell landing on us in the trenches. That was last night. Other bits are not so clear. A little troop movement here. A soldier getting wounded there. Places I should be." He shrugged.
"Is that why you're always out on the field, bringing in the wounded? And consulting with the officers? Because of those visions?"
Frowning, Latimer rubbed the back of his neck. "No. It’s because it's what must be done. That's what it's all about, what life's all about, isn't it? What we can do to make it all better?”
Latimer looked at Hutchinson, and Hutchinson could see, deep in his eyes, a flicker of light, a tiny golden flame burning within: a mixture of hope and optimism, and a consuming need to help and protect. And behind that, behind that bit of radiance, he saw, not a face, but a presence, ancient and forever. For a single shining moment, he saw a fragment of what Latimer saw in the watch.
Hutchinson tore his eyes away from his face, looking anywhere else. It was too hard, too painful to look at him. “I suppose, yeah.” He wasn’t sure what he was agreeing to.
Latimer abruptly stood up, his hands fidgeting. “I’ve got to go. Transport to the new regiment and all.”
“Yeah.” Being immobile, Hutchinson wasn’t sure what to do. A wave would look too daft. So he saluted. “Good luck. You know, I have a feeling this isn’t the last time we’ll see each other. And, Tim? Thanks. From all of us.”
A smile broke out on Latimer’s face. He saluted back, then ducked out of the tent.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
We did see each other again, after the war. Many times. Usually years between meetings, but it was always the same: as comrades and friends.
I found out later that he had requested the regiment transfer, and done so many times. My commander told me that he had this habit of transferring just when he got comfortable in the new place, as if he was afraid of setting down roots. The story was always the same: the regiment would recognize his courage in battle, his rescuing of wounded soldiers, and his strategic brilliance, but since he never stayed in one place for too long, he never accrued enough time to be promoted. Each time, the regiment he was in would excel, and then he’d apply for transfer to the next one, always one in greater danger than the last. They awarded him medals, which he politely accepted, then conveniently lost.
After the war, he became a doctor, which I suppose was perfectly fitting. He moved around for a bit, finding the places in Britain that needed a doctor the most, but eventually settled down. Married a good woman, had two sons and a daughter. He refused to send the boys to a military school, though.
When the next war to end all wars came, he volunteered. And when they refused him, said he was too old, he stole across the channel and traveled from army to army, helping where he could. British army, Americans, French resistance. He would never admit it, but I suspect he helped the German soldiers sometimes, too - wherever there was someone hurting.
I tried, you know. After he left the regiment, I tried to take his place a little, when my leg was healed. Crawled to a trench under heavy fire to pull Miller out. He lost his arm from that, almost lost his life, but he survived. It felt good to have helped, but the next opportunity… I couldn’t do it again. To go back in under fire… I couldn’t even move my feet.
I’m not a spiritual man. I don’t understand the things that he told me that day. But I think that Mr. Smith didn’t get all of himself back from that watch. Some of him, a tiny bit of him, the watch gave to Latimer, and Latimer gave that to the rest of us. It is amazing the difference that one good man can make.