I Want to Be Your Hero
The universe is insistent on making John Felix “Puss” Trellia hero. He doesn’t think he is, or ever could be. Yet every time he winds up in danger, he acts like the hero he thinks he cannot be.
The universe is insistent on making John Felix “Puss” Trelli a hero. He doesn’t think he is, or ever could be. Yet every time he winds up in danger, he acts like the hero he thinks he cannot be. From the first pages, where he is attacked by a “mad” dog, he freezes, but the people around him see him as standing between them and the danger. He believes he’s given the St.George Medal for Valor under false pretenses, but he goes along with the War Bond tour with his handler, Corporal Svetlana Andreyevna Bergman. When he gets dragooned into taking Sveta to a wedding as her date, the rumors fly that they are an item. Will love blossom between these two? How can it, when Puss is stationed in a variety of foreign places. Can a relationship be made by mail? This exciting novel by the co-author of the Doctor Gribbleflotz books will give you an answer you might not expect.
February 1635, Wietze
John Felix “Puss” Trelli didn’t know why it always seemed to happen to him, but here he was, on one of the coldest days of the year, walking patrol around the makeshift enlisted housing near the village of Wietze, the current oil capital of the USE. One advantage of the cold was that most of the garrison was staying indoors. A disadvantage was that they were likely to be bored. Unfortunately, bored soldiers tended to find ways of relieving their boredom that negatively impacted the quality of life of military policemen, of which Puss was one.
Puss adjusted his hat. It was a classic up-time military surplus fur-lined hat with flaps that could be folded down over the ears and tied under the throat. Not that he had his tied under his throat. That was a recognized choking hazard if you got caught in a fight and someone pulled back on your hat. Right now, Puss wasn’t so sure that the improved levels of safety justified the painful cold affecting his ears.
“Keep moving, Puss, otherwise we’ll freeze to death,” Dietrich Fischer said.
Puss glared at his patrol partner from the down-time garrison’s equivalent of the military police. The man had been a soldier for most of his life and he took a veteran soldier’s interest in his own personal comfort. Dietrich’s fur hat covered most of his head and face, and he was wearing a heavy cape that just about trailed on the ground — unlike Puss’ heavy woolen field coat, which barely reached his knees.
Puss shoved his gloved hands into the pockets of his coat to try and keep them warm and continued walking. The going was reasonably easy, as the heavy freeze of the last few days had frozen the previously muddy ground. One had to be careful of the wheel ruts now that they were frozen, but at least you didn’t pick up half the field with every step.
They were passing the road that headed north from the village of Wietze to the ford across the river of the same name when Dietrich broke the silence. “How’d you get a nickname like ‘Puss’ anyway?”
There were a multiple of possible answers, but Puss picked the least embarrassing. “It’s just something the kids at school used to call me because my middle name is Felix.” Puss saw Dietrich smile and he was sure he was about to say something, but there was a loud scream from just behind them.
Puss spun toward the source of the call. He could see a man running toward him with a dog in pursuit. Not just any dog. A big dog. Puss had chosen not to tell Dietrich a less flattering way he’d earned his nickname at school. It hadn’t been just the association with the cartoon character “Felix the Cat” that had led to the nickname “Puss.” When he was very young, he’d been terrified of dogs. Especially big dogs. He’d grown out of the habit of running from dogs — one of his teachers had explained that dogs were predators and that any running animal tended to be viewed as something to chase — but he’d never really lost his fear of the beasts.
The man who’d called out the warning managed to get to the safety of a building and slammed the heavy wooden door shut before the dog could catch him. The dog hit the door at pace and bounced. After pawing furiously at the door for a while it turned its attention toward Puss and Dietrich.
Puss stared at the animal. He knew the cry of “mad dog” implied rabies — one of the most lethal diseases known to man. Other diseases might kill more people, but usually a good proportion of those infected survived. That wasn’t the case with rabies. Even back up-time, Puss had heard of people dying of the disease — from bat bites rather than dog bites, but that was more a case of the dogs mostly not having rabies while lots of bats had it — and that was with the benefit of modern medicine and vaccines, which were sadly lacking down-time.
He wanted to move, to run, but he couldn’t. He was frozen to the spot in terror. The dog was staring back at him now, and then it started walking toward him. Puss felt for the revolver that he wore in a cross-draw holster. There was a problem. The holster he was wearing was an up-time cavalry design. It had a flap that served to both protect the weapon and prevent it from falling out.
Puss’ near frozen hand was fumbling with the closure when the dog launched itself at him and knocked him to the ground. He only managed to stop the animal sinking its teeth into his throat by the simple expedient of letting it chomp down on his left forearm instead.
Once it had its teeth into the sleeve of Puss’ coat the dog didn’t seem interested in letting go. Instead, it tried to tear Puss’ arm off. With his body being pulled around by the dog, Puss couldn’t grab his revolver. In desperation, he tried to beat it off with his free hand. That wasn’t very successful.
Fortunately, the good people of Wietze hadn’t just been standing around watching. Someone grabbed the dog’s tail and hauled back on it, pulling the dog free from Puss’ arm.
The dog swung around and snapped at the man who, quite naturally, let go of the dog’s tail. Free, and with townsmen with various expedient weapons in hand charging to Puss’ aid, the dog turned and took to its heels.
Puss nestled his abused arm against his chest as he watched the dog run away with armed townspeople in pursuit. As they disappeared into the nearby woods, he decided that it was safe to get back to his feet.
That was a mistake. The effort needed to stand pushed his poor abused body too far. He blacked out and collapsed in a heap.
Leahy Medical Center, Grantville
“Some reporters to see you, Corporal Trelli.” The overly cheerful nurse pushed Puss forward so she could fluff up his pillows.
“Why would reporters want to see me?” Puss laid the book he’d been reading on the bed while Nurse Lise Gerbauer played with his pillows.
“It seems you’re a hero, and you didn’t tell me.” Lise waved a forefinger remonstratively under Puss’ nose.
Puss jerked back from the finger, landing on his fluffed-up pillows. “Hero? But I haven’t done anything heroic.”
“That’s not what they say. I’ll just show them in.”
Puss was slow to react and before he could call out for her to wait, she was closing the door behind her.
He lay back in his bed and stared at the closed door. He didn’t understand what was going on. He’d recovered consciousness quite quickly back in Wietze when a medic poured antiseptic solution over his arm before bandaging it. He’d sort of slept for a couple of hours after that, to be woken by Dr. Rivera-Sullivan jabbing an enormous needle into his abdomen. Then he’d been bundled onto an airplane and flown to Grantville. That had been two days ago. And although his parents had visited daily, this was the first he’d heard anything about people calling him a hero.
The door opened and Lise let in the reporters or, more precisely, some reporters and Dylan Pence.
Dylan carried none of the normal accoutrements of a reporter. Instead, he looked like the insurance salesman he’d been at the time of the Ring of Fire. He was carrying a laundry sack, which didn’t go with the smart three-piece suit he was wearing.
Dylan strode towards Puss and dumped his laundry sack on the bed. “It’s good to see you looking so much better than when I last saw you. How’s the arm?”
Puss almost got to ask when exactly Dylan was supposed to have seen him, because he certainly didn’t remember the meeting, but one of the reporters got in first.
“Ernst Schreiber; Grantville Times. How badly were you injured, Corporal Trelli?”
“The dog …”
“Tore up his arm real bad,” Dylan interrupted. He pulled a field coat out of the laundry sack and held it up so everybody, especially the television reporter’s cameraman, could see it. “Look at the damage to that sleeve. And that was all the protection Corporal Trelli had against a large rabid dog.”
Puss watched several supposedly intelligent reporters record the barefaced lies and half-truths Dylan was spouting with mounting horror. Heck, he’d been told that his old field coat had been incinerated with the rest of the clothes he’d been wearing as a public health measure, so he didn’t know where Dylan had got the coat he was showing them.
“So the dog did infect Corporal Trelli?” Ernst asked.
Puss was so engrossed by the outrageous lies Dylan was telling that he failed to react in time to prevent him removing the loose bandage on his left forearm to reveal massive bruising — from the crushing of soft tissue by the dog — and the mass of inflamed wounds where the dog’s teeth had broken the skin. He rescued his arm from Dylan’s grip, wincing with pain as he gathered it protectively against his body. “What’s going on?” he demanded.
“You’re a hero,” Ernst Schreiber announced.
“But I haven’t done anything,” Puss protested.
Ernst shook his head. “Eyewitnesses have told us that you stood between the charging dog and the Bürgermeister’s wife and children and offered yourself as a target so that they could escape.”
Puss looked at the attentive faces and lens of a TV video camera. They were staring at him, waiting eagerly to hear about his heroic feat in his own words. “I stood there because I’m effing terrified of dogs,” he all but shouted, and watched in horror as the reporters carefully recorded each and every word for posterity.
“Wow! Terrified of dogs and yet you stood bravely between a rabid dog and a defenseless woman and her children. You deserve a medal.” The speaker looked across at Dylan. “Herr Pence, is Corporal Trelli in line for a medal?”
Dylan slid off Puss’ bed and stood to face the reporter. “Unfortunately, Corporal Trelli’s feat of valor didn’t happen on the battlefield, so there is currently no award to which he is entitled.”
“Not even the Purple Heart?” Ernst asked.
“Not even the Purple Heart,” Dylan confirmed.
“Well, there must be some way Corporal Trelli’s valor can get the recognition it deserves,” Ernst said.
“Yes … ” Dylan started to say.
“Dylan Pence, what are you doing disturbing my patient?” Dr. Annamarie Rivera-Sullivan stood at the door glaring at Dylan.
Instead of answering, Dylan hastily collected his reporters and ushered them out. “As you can see, Corporal Trelli is getting the best of medical care … ”
Puss missed the rest of what Dylan was saying because Dr. Rivera-Sullivan had shut the door after them. She leaned against the door and looked apologetically at Puss.
“They think I’m some kind of hero,” he told her in disbelief.
Annamarie held out a hand suggesting that Puss wait a moment and turned a baleful glare onto Nurse Gebauer. “I hope you have a very good explanation as to why you permitted that media circus to disturb my patient.”
Puss glanced in the direction she was glaring. He’d completely forgotten about the nurse. He added his glare to Annamarie’s.
“Herr Pence had a letter from Dr. Adams.”
“Did Herr Pence allow you to read the letter? Or did you just take his word that it was in fact a letter from Dr. Adams?”
“I took his word.”
Annamarie sighed. “He lied.”
“But why would Herr Pence lie to me?” Lise asked.
“Because he’s Dylan Pence. If he really had a letter from Dr. Adams, he would’ve handed it to me when I ordered him and his circus out. No, Master Dylan Pence is up to something.”
“He’s trying to make out that I’m some kind of hero,” Puss said.
“That’s what he’s doing. The question we need to ask is why?”
March 1635, Blackshire Elementary School, Grantville
Puss closed the door behind the assistant principal’s secretary and turned to face Mr. Jones, the assistant principal. “Thanks for agreeing to see me at such short notice.”
David Jones gestured towards a chair. “You picked a fine time to decide not to run from a dog.”
Puss felt instantly at ease. This wasn’t someone who thought he was a hero. This was the teacher who many years ago told him that a dog would instinctively chase anything that ran away. He slid into the chair Mr. Jones had indicated. “I would have loved to have been able to turn and run, but I was too terrified to move.”
“That’s not what the papers are saying,” There was just the hint of a question in David’s voice.
Puss slumped back in his chair. “Yeah, everyone seems to think I’m some kind of hero, but I’m not.”
David leaned forward, rested his elbows upon his desk, and interlaced his fingers. “You are doing a great service promoting the rabies treatment, and I hear the demand for war bonds has gone up.”
Puss winced. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I can publicize the rabies vaccine at the same time, I wouldn’t be part of Dylan Pence’s dog and pony show. But all the hype about me being a hero is … ”
“Wearing you down,” David suggested.
“That’s one way of putting it.” Puss sighed. “I don’t know. It’s more like, I can’t get my head around the fact that people think that I’m a hero when all I did was get attacked by a possibly rabid dog.”
David steepled his hands and rested his chin on the peak. “I think that what you are feeling something psychologists call cognitive dissonance. You’re being told things you know can’t be true. It’s a bit like motion sickness, where the body knows it’s moving but the eyes can’t see any change.”
“Sometimes what I’m hearing makes me want to throw up,” Puss agreed, “but what can I do about it?”
“If you can’t get away from the source of the problem … ” Puss shook his head to indicate that wasn’t possible. “. . . then the best I can suggest is that you develop some kind of coping strategy. I’d suggest that you look for something to do that takes your mind off what’s happening.”
“Taking my mind off people treating like I’m some kind of hero while doing a tour using my supposed heroics to sell war bonds is a big ask. Do you have any suggestions? It has to be something I can carry with me, because I’m going to be moving around a bit with the war bonds road show.”
David chewed on his bottom lip and stared into the distance for a while. “Back when you were in ninth grade, didn’t you and James Warren try your hands at writing movie scripts?”
Puss’ eyes shot open. “How did you hear about that? That was just between me and James.”
“And Elisabeth Siberry, your English teacher, who happens to be my sister-in-law.”
“She showed them to you?” Puss wasn’t sure if he should feel betrayed or not. “Why would she do a thing like that?”
David grinned. “I just happened to be there when she showed them to her mother. With you liking cats so much, you probably know her. Hazel Patton. She breeds cats and writes illustrated children’s books about them.”
Puss nodded. “I’ve read them. Also, Mrs. Patton is helping one of mom and dad’s boarders write a book.”
“That sounds like our Hazel. Anyway, the whole family was impressed. Maybe you could try writing another one.”
“Those scripts were just a bit of fun, and we based them fairly heavily on various James Bond movies we’d seen.”
“John, it’s not like you have to produce something commercial. Just do it for fun. To keep your mind occupied while you travel around with Dylan Pence’s dog and pony show.
“If you were to write about your own fantasy world where you’re the hero, then the media and everyone else calling you a hero could become just an extension of your own fictional world, and you shouldn’t feel so much cognitive dissonance.”
Puss stared blankly at Mr. Jones. He’d read a lot of psychology, something Mr. Jones knew because he’d been the source of some of the textbooks he’d read, but it still sounded like witchcraft and snake oil. “You really think will might work?”
David shrugged. “It can’t be any worse than anything else you might try. Basically, I think you need to give yourself something to do that will take your mind off what’s happening to you.”
Puss stood up and held out his hand to shake the one Mr. Jones was offering him. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Jones. If there’s anything I can do … ”
“Actually, if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind talking to some of the students?”
David grinned. “Don’t worry. I expect the boys at least will be too interested in the gory details of your fight with the dog and the medical treatment that you underwent to even remember that you’re supposed to be a hero.”
“I can do gory details, and I’m more than happy to talk about the rabies vaccine. When do you want me to turn up?”
David flicked through his desk calendar. “Would Wednesday at eleven be convenient?”
Sunday, April 1st, 1635, Wietze
Today was April Fools’ Day and Puss couldn’t help but think the timing was eminently suitable. He fingered the new sergeant’s stripes on his arm. Dylan had had the audacity to feed the media the story that he was being promoted as the army’s contribution to recognizing his valor, even though Puss knew he had more than enough points to have been promoted in May anyway. Thinking of Dylan, Puss’ gaze drifted over to him.
He now understood why Dylan Pence had been so determined to turn him into a hero. It was all about money. According to reliable sources — and they didn’t come much more reliable than his mother, who had a very good ear for gossip — Dylan Pence was being paid a commission on every war bond sold through his little dog and pony show.
Dylan was the first to speak. He opened with the now almost obligatory call for people to buy war bonds. Then he described Puss’ act of valor before inviting the Bürgermeister of Wietze to say a few words. Then, with the wife of the Bürgermeister stepping up holding a velvet cushion with a medal laid on it, Puss was called forward.
The weight of the chain was a surprise. It couldn’t possibly be real gold, surely not. Not a chain this big. Puss lifted the medal hanging from the chain and examined it. They were calling it the St. George Medal and it was being portrayed as the nation’s highest civilian award for spontaneous stupidity or, as the more politically correct would have it, bravery, courage, or both. The medal had a design showing St. George slaying a dragon. Puss wondered if the medal was named for the image or had the artist creating the dies to strike the medal been influenced by the name. Puss thanked the Bürgermeister. And then he took possession of the microphone and faced the waiting crowd.
A few days later, Magdeburg
It was going to be a while before the commanding officer of the USE Marines was free to talk to him, so Puss let his eyes drift around the room he was waiting in. A painting hanging on the wall attracted his attention. He approached it, taking in that it was of a fortress somewhere. He read the inscription on the frame. Hammershus, Bornholm, 1634. It didn’t ring a bell. That surprised him because the scene depicted USE Marines in combat. That was a rare enough event that news of it should even have reached Wietze.
He searched the room for his Joint Armed Services Press Division handler. Her full name was Svetlana Andreyevna Bergman. It was a beautiful name for a beautiful young woman. The combination of Russian first name and patronymic with a Swedish surname had confused Puss, until he learned that Bergman was not her real surname. It was something a German bureaucrat had given her when she enlisted in the USE army as surnames weren’t common in Sweden. Her friends got to call her Sveta. Puss got to call her Corporal Bergman.
“Corporal Bergman, do you know anything about a battle involving the Marines at Bornholm?”
Sveta turned from the window she’d been looking out of. “The Island of Bornholm is a Danish possession in the Baltic Sea. King Gustav Adolphus was supposed to have suggested making Hans Richter’s woman the Baroness of Bornholm. Some fool decided that was a good enough reason to invade the island, and another fool thought the USE Marines should be involved. It was a complete fiasco that has been comprehensively ignored by the Joint Armed Services Press Division and everyone else involved in the matter.”
That might explain why he hadn’t heard of the battle. “What about the Hammershus?” Puss pointed to the painting.
Sveta glided gracefully over to the painting and examined it for a moment. “It probably depicts the view from the hills above the Hammershus where the Marines fought a small-scale action. It was once the most powerful castle in Europe, but gunpowder changed that. It has probably remained the seat of power of whoever holds Bornholm for the Danish crown.” She waited long enough to see if Puss had anything else to say before returning to her window.
Puss couldn’t help but admire the cat-like grace with which she walked. Not that he had any hopes in that direction. Puss had few illusions as to his personal attractiveness to girls, and he couldn’t see a girl with Corporal Bergman’s looks ever being interested in him. So, he settled for admiring her on a purely aesthetic level. And it wasn’t just the graceful way that she walked that was worthy of his admiration and aesthetic appreciation.
Before she reached the window she’d been looking out of — just in case she looked back and caught him watching her — Puss turned his attention back to the painting. The Hammershus looked like a perfect villain’s stronghold. He checked his watch. There was still enough time before his appointment to speak to the Marines for him to do some writing, so he returned to his bag and hauled out his notebooks and sat down to work on his script. Mr. Jones had been right. Writing about the heroic exploits of a fictional hero had helped him cope with the attention he was getting.
It was the kick in the shins that actually brought Puss out of his writer’s daze. He looked down to see the hard object that had connected with his shin. It was a leather shoe. Said shoe was being worn by a delicate foot, which in turn was connected to a shapely leg, all belonging to Corporal Bergman. He met her eyes. “Yes?”
“What is it you are writing?”
Puss glanced down at the notebook in his hand. He didn’t really want to talk about what he was writing, and he certainly didn’t want to explain why he was doing it, most especially not to the gorgeous Corporal Bergman. “I’m just trying my hand at writing a story.” He smiled, hoping that this sudden burst of interest in his activities would just as suddenly die a natural death. “It’s just something to occupy the time.”
“Could I read what you’ve done?”
Puss stared at the hand the girl held out. Then he followed the arm up to her face. She wasn’t smiling, but then, Puss was used to Corporal Bergman not smiling. He passed over the first of his completed notebooks.
He didn’t know what he had actually expected, but he was surprised when she accepted the notebook and settled down in a chair to read it. Well, he wished her luck. His teachers had always complained about his handwriting and, as he’d never expected anybody else to read his movie script, the level of legibility had reached new lows.