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Walter's Purple Heart (Excerpt)
By Catherine Ryan Hyde
April, 2005, 16:49

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Usually when the hero dies the story is over. Until I get half my head blown off, this story can't even begin.

Don't think I have an ego, just because I call myself a hero. Anybody can be a hero after they're dead, even me. So, you see, there's an upshot to being found dead at the opening credits. There's also a price tag.

But, anyway, I'm holding up the story. I should hurry up and die.

Before I do, I need to stress a point. None of this was my idea. I was minding my own business, from the word go.

This first small part I'll blame on the radio. After that it all falls squarely into Andrew's court. Andrew masterminded the whole disaster. I'm the kind of guy goes along for the ride.

People say I should break that pattern in me, and maybe they're right, only I won't live long enough to try.

Here's where a good life fell down.

It's the coldest part of the year, December, with a wind like dry ice across the boardwalk, and Andrew and me, we're leaning on my Daddy's Ford. Nobody out but us and the seagulls, because honestly, who else would be so much the fool?

Andrew spins the dial on the car radio, settles on a station playing String of Pearls. Cranks it up full blast. Me, I'm busy trying to get my damn Lucky lit against that high, cold wind. Working with these fingers I can't even feel.

And then the music stops, and then the man comes on the radio and tells it.

Then I'm as good as dead.

Now most folks, they wouldn't blame that part on the radio. They'd likely blame it on the Japs. Me, I like to put things in a real perspective. Tragic stuff happens every day, all over the world, but if you don't tell me, I won't know. Andrew won't know. Then Andrew won't need to run off half-cocked, and I won't have to go along for the ride.

Some people say I don't have to do anything unless I want to, but they're them. They don't know what it is to be me.

I'm holding up the story again. I should get on with the dying.

I could tell you where I am and how I got here, but I'd only be wasting your time. The real people, the live ones, the ones who own this story once I'm gone, they'll get to that soon enough. And get to it, and get to it. Live people get real into wheres and hows and whats. It's like a hobby with them.

Did I mention that this all happened decades ago? Sometimes I forget to mention the most basic things. And I know when I talk about it, it doesn't sound decades old. I know I talk about it like I'm in it, right now. Like it's happening. And there's a reason for that. But it's hard to explain to anybody who isn't dead. Think of it like this: You know how there's time, and you have to be one certain place in it? Well, that's you. That's not me.

Anyway, that radio thing, that was the beginning of a good life falling down. Here's how it ends.

This is where I am.

I'm wading in a swamp in a jungle. Andrew's there, plus about ten other guys from my outfit. One goes ahead, one behind, to watch for crocodiles. If they see one, they shoot it. We also got scorpions, wasps, some giant mosquitoes, but nobody to protect me from them. Every man for himself.

The swamp stinks. The whole goddamned island stinks, like something used to be alive under there, only not recently.

We stumble up onto dry land.

We got our rifles over our shoulders now, nice and easy, and I'm lighting up a smoke. Because, see, we just heard that the Tokyo Night Express came and stole the last of our Japs.

We're on a cakewalk.

We're headed back to Henderson field, relieved of the worst duty known to man, flushing well-armed Japs out of caves on Mt. Austen. You never really know how awful a job is until that magic moment when you get to stop.

Morale is way up.

We walk in clusters, talking, laughing, somebody chews on me about something but I'm too happy to listen or care.

It's the first time I've been happy since I got out of the hospital, no, since Hutch lobbed the mortar round that put me there. No, since I took the action that put me dead center on that round, but I forgot. I don't talk about that. Most things I'll tell you, but I'm not so sure about that.

I'm sorry if I come off a little bitter.

Then the shot.

I take it. I'm always the lucky guy.

It tears through the sleeve of my jacket and burns into my arm like a trail of fire. The impact of it spins me a quarter turn. Maybe. Or maybe it's the surprise that turns me, or some kind of knowing that I wouldn't believe until just now.

It feels like the bullet.

Now that I'm turned, I'm staring down the muzzle of an American Browning. Trouble is, the boy on the ground behind it's not an American. Not even close.

I'm dead, only I don't know it yet.

It might take me forty years or so to figure it out.

Maybe you're wondering at this point, like, how did a Jap boy lay hold of an American made weapon, or how did he happen to miss the Tokyo Express. Here you have the advantage of me. They are very good questions and I'd like to wonder them myself, but I'm busy dying.

Everything after this happens in slow motion.

A round leaves the muzzle of the gun, aimed at my forehead. I watch it fly.

I send a short message to my feet. It's garbled in panic. I'm afraid when it finally gets there, they won't understand.

I decide it doesn't matter, because whatever my feet do with the information will be better than what they're doing now.

I wonder how long a message takes to travel from a brain to a pair of feet. I never had to wonder before, because the world has never moved so slowly, never broken down into such obvious and specific and carefully planned sequences.

I decide that if it's longer than a round of ammunition takes to travel from the muzzle of a Browning M-2 to a forehead some thirty feet away, the answer will come up moot.

Then I decide the bullet is winning.

I'm sure you think there isn't time to know all this in the flight time of the bullet, but excuse me, you're alive. You'll have to trust me. I've been places you think you haven't.

The best news I can give you is that it doesn't hurt. Death never does. Sometimes the moments leading up to it can be painful, but the dying is always easy.

I feel it as impact.

It feels, actually, like an inside job. Like some pressure within my head causes it to explode.

It throws me over backwards.

I'm flying back through the air now, thinking I will land. Because, you see, I still think I'm alive, and that the old laws of inevitability will have some meaning for me.

I have to land.

I don't.

Because somewhere on the way down there ceases to be Walter, so who is this person I think must land?

Then I sit up.

Am I confusing you? Well, I'm sorry, but at this point there's no reason for you to be any clearer on all this than I am.

Okay, here, I'll sketch it out for you as best I can: Somebody sits up, and it's me, but it's not Walter. And this body on the ground does not sit up. Because that's Walter, and he's dead.

Better? Good. I knew I could clear things up.

Ordinarily, I think, souls are not commonly known to sit up. They like to float, fly, that sort of thing. They are not often found acting body-like. I think my soul is experiencing a moment of confusion. Some sort of final identity crisis.

I look around at the body. Who was this poor fool again? What on earth happened to the rest of his head? I can't imagine.

I watch Andrew as he tries to pull the body to cover. Watch him risk his life for an empty.

It hits me, what I am. What I can do. What I don't have to do. There's a special kind of freedom to that moment. I could never in a million years describe it to you.

I watch Andrew pretend this boy with half a head will make it, I watch him wade through a line of fire, unhit, empty body in tow.

I see his guilt and rage and pain, not just now, but stretched to infinity. It's not a disturbing image. In fact, it's strangely beautiful. It's something he needs to do, and even the most painful aspects of it -- especially the most painful aspects--are just exquisite.

Me, I'm free.

I take off flying.

Over the jungle, which no longer stinks orthreatens. Over the tops of millions of palm trees. Over a blue-green ocean too perfect to host violence.


Now we can get on with it.

Now we are at the beginning.

It makes no difference whether you believe all this or you don't. It not only makes no difference to me, but to anything. Things don't wait for you to believe them. They happen.

God is not Tinkerbell.

He does what he does whether you clap your hands or hide behind the comfort of your disbelief.

P>Besides, you know all this. You just forgot.

Read IN's interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde about life and writing.
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Excerpt from Walter's Purple Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Courtesy of Simon & Shuster.

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