A Close Shave With Death
"I wish I had a good description of fear."
My ears were ringing and my breath comes in ragged gasps as I try to figure what just happened. I was lying on the ground on a pile of rubble, the brick digging into my back. My uniform was dusty and filthy more then ever and I couldn't move for several moments.
So why was I on the ground? I think I hear someone shouting. Am I wounded? Is that why I can't move?
I was having breakfast with the boys then we went forward through the city to attack the Germans. Next thing I knew, an arty shell landed near me and I was thrown through the air like a rag doll.
I raise a hand and feel my torso for any wounds. There's nothing there and no blood appears on my hand. From what I can see, everything is where it's supposed to be. I breathe a small sigh of relief.
But I'm sore all over. Groaning I manage to get up and crouch down. I survey my surroundings and realize very quickly that I am caught in the crossfire of a very ferocious fight between my platoon and some Germans. There's a dead body of a Canadian several feet away from me but I can`t see his face and I don't bother checking to see who it is.
Frantically, I move behind the cover of a wall and try to find a familiar face. I see Flynn and make a mad dash towards him. He gives me a bewildered look. "Jesus Christ Hartigan we all thought you were dead!"
"You were with Wright, Grayson, and Taylor when an artillery shell went off nearby. It threw all of you through the air. You weren't moving so we assumed it killed you instantly."
I feel panic slowly ebbing its way into my mind. "What happened to the others?"
Flynn grimaces. "Wright's dead but Grayson and Taylor got out all right with a few bruises. It's a miracle that not all of you were killed."
First Lenny, then Hastings, and now Wright was dead too. Wright probably didn't even know what hit him and that sounds like the best way to die out here. No pain, no nothing. Just alive the one moment then dead the next. It makes me wonder why people at home have to romanticize war. There's nothing romantic about a boy my age being blown to bits by an artillery shell.
In anger and outrage I aim my rifle to the German lines and fire at any flash of gunfire I see in hopes that I might hit them. Several bullets hit the wall next to us and we instinctively reel back.
"What a bunch of assholes." I curse.
Flynn nods. "I can think of better words to describe them."
I take a grenade and lobe it over to their side once I pull the pin out. I hope they don't throw it back but luckily for me it explodes before they have the chance. When no soldier emerges from the explosion, I can only assume that whoever is there is dead or wounded.
"I think you got him." Flynn pants.
Good. I think to myself.
The fight rages on for a few hours more and by the time both sides quit I feel jumpy and ready to go into action again although I simultaneously feel a little tired. Flynn pats me on the back says "good job Hartigan" then moves on.
I see Taylor and Grayson standing together and go to them. "Who else did we lose?" I say quietly since I don't want the others to hear my question.
Grayson, for once, is not his usual cocky and arrogant self. He looks deflated with his shoulders slumped. "We lost Wright, Collins, Fox, Bishop, Burton, O'Neil, Silvera, and Harper from our platoon and about five other replacements. About a dozen guys are wounded rather severely but it's no one we three know personally."
I don't know everyone that had died this day or all the wounded (Grayson was right about that) but I still feel awful. None of us say anything for quite awhile. We stare at our feet as if our army issue boots are the most fascinating thing we have ever seen.
Flynn comes by. "Get some rest." He tells us.
Since misery loves company we three sit together on the steps of an old hotel. Grayson proceeds to chain smoke while I stare at the ground and Taylor alternates between staring off into the distance and gazing at a photo of his wife and kids.
I usually pick on Grayson for his awful smoking habits but I today I don't feel like it. I'm in too much shock to put forward the effort.
No one admits it but we are all devastated. Today we didn't lose as many men as we usually do but the constant tooth and nail fighting we've endured throughout this campaign has even the toughest soldier feeling shaken.
Taylor looks at me. "We thought you were dead with Wright."
"Well I fucking made it.'' I say bitterly. I know now that the corpse I saw was none other then Wright himself.
Taylor frowns and goes back to staring at nothing in particular.
Physically, I am tired from constant action and a poor diet. Mentally, I am close to having a break down and that worries me. I'm no coward or weakling.
I glance at a Taylor and suddenly realize that he is the only friend I have left. Lenny and Wright were the other two remaining friends. With them dead and gone, all I have left is Taylor. This revelation worries me.
I look to the sky. I just want to go home, I think. Is that too much to ask?
Grayson starts hacking, startling me out of my train of thoughts. ''You okay there?''
Grayson nods as his coughing dies down. ''I'll be fine.''
Oh will you? I sneer internally. I feel shocked at my own wickedness. I shouldn't be acting superior to Grayson. However, seeing someone who has tormented you for a long time crack gives you a sick sense of pleasure.
''I'm tired of this bullshit.'' I say.
''Ditto.'' Grayson replies.
Taylor nods and puts his photograph away. He looks at me. ''This war will only stop once Hitler and his Nazis are destroyed.''
''That could take a long time.'' Grayson grunts.
Taylor shakes his head and seems hesitant to speak. ''We have to keep at it.''
I cast Taylor a look of disbelief. ''Why?!''
He seems to be choosing his next words carefully. ''We have to because there are people depending on us. We have to believe that our cause will win it out. This war is being fought for something; I have to believe that.''
When neither Grayson or I say anything, my friend gives a frustrated sigh. ''Look around you!'' He suddenly bursts out. ''Look at the French people. Do you not see how their children have to live? When I look at them all I can see is my own wife and children and I sure as hell wouldn't want them to live this kind of life.''
Taylor was really upset now. ''I have to tell myself I am here for those people. The Germans took everything from them and we're the ones who are pushing the Nazis back.''
His voice drops down to a whisper. ''I have to believe this will all amount to something in the end. I have to believe this won't be all for not.''
We lock eyes and it almost seems like Taylor is trying to tell me something in his expression but I can't pick it out so I look away.
I don't know how to feel about his words. Will this all be worth it in the end? I do not know and I don't want to find out.
Now does that make me a coward?