“I promise I’ll be back soon, darling, then we can finally get married,” I say to her while I wipe a tear off her cheek. She sadly smiles at me, and I gently place my lips on hers. I pull away, “I have to go now”. “Be careful,” she whispers. I look at her intently, attempting to take in every detail of her face and brand it into my memory. I reluctantly turn around and board the train. When the train comes alive with a roar, I wave her goodbye with pain in my heart until I can no longer see her. I find a seat, sit down with a sigh and start mentally preparing for the war that is about to come.
I startle awake when someone shakes my arm. “Hey, wake up!” I look up with sleepy eyes and my gaze meets a pair of blue eyes. “Are we there already?” I ask, sleep still audible in my voice. “No, but we have to walk from here on out,” the man replies, his voice friendly. I take a deep breath and slowly get up, trying to shake the slumber from my muscles. I grab my luggage and when I turn around I find myself looking into those blue eyes once again, “You ready to go?” he asks. “Yeah, I think I’ve got everything,” I look back at my seat and the baggage rail above my head to make sure I didn’t forget anything. “Good, then let’s go.” I am not sure what this blue-eyed fellow wants from me, but he seems friendly enough, so I decide to follow him.
“What’s your name?” my new friend asks me after we’ve walked for a bit.
“It’s Guillame. What’s your name?”
“Serge. How old are you?”
“I’m 23. What about you?”
“I just turned 21”
We continue walking in silence and my mind starts to wander. My thoughts are soon consumed by her, I miss her so much already.
After a while Serge starts talking again and I appreciate the distraction. He talks about nothing in particular, but his ramblings are rather enjoyable. I am starting to like this guy; he keeps my mind off the hell that awaits us.
After a long and gruelling walk we finally arrive at the battlefront. I am unsure of what to do next, so I just follow Serge. We are assigned to a spot where we try to settle in as best we can. It’s not exactly homely, but I am too exhausted to care.
My feet are cold, wet and painful; I hope I don’t get trench foot. Many of the other soldiers already suffer from it due to the dampness. We’ve been in the frontline trenches for five days now, and it has been awful. The smell in the air is a combination of faeces, rotting food, blood and decaying bodies. But what’s worse is the hunger, causing the muscles in my stomach to painfully contract. A lot of the soldiers around me look skeletal, and I wonder if I resemble their physique.
The rats are driving me crazy, those disgusting creatures have started nibbling on the bodies now that we are running low on food.
It’s about one in the afternoon and Serge is sleeping. The action only really starts when it gets dark. During the day, most try to get some sleep, but today sleep refuses to take me, so I decide to write her a letter.
I gaze intently at the invisible enemy in the distance. “Fire!” immediately the deafening sound of machineguns being fired fills the air. “Halt,” and for a minute it’s frighteningly silent. My heart beats in my throat and fear rages through my soaking body. The silence doesn’t last long. Shortly after our last gun is fired, the earth somewhere to my right explodes with a loud bang, making me jump. The grenade was aimed well, limbs and bodies are propelled through the air. I swallow the bile that rises up, threatening to spill out onto the soil by my feet. BANG! Another grenade, awfully close this time. I feel myself starting to panic, my heart beating painfully in my chest, I feel like I can’t breathe. I try to supress it and I take a deep breathe. I’m starting to get a grip on myself, then BANG!, louder than any of the previous ones, right next to me. An invisible force throws me back several feet, until my head collides with something hard. My vision is blurry, I see black spots growing and growing until all I see is black.
I feel a throbbing pain in the back of my head. Where am I? What happened? I try to open my eyes, but my eyelids don’t listen. Slowly I become aware of pain throughout the rest of my body. I take a deep breath. I’m not doing that again; I think something is wrong with my ribs. There’s a strong scent that I can’t quite place. Then I notice that it’s weirdly quiet. Before I can think more about that, I fall back into a slumber and I dream of her. Her beautiful smile, her bright eyes…
I’m awoken by pain, more intense this time, strongest in my left shoulder and back. I try to open my attempt to open my eyes again, now with more success. I can just make out a filthy grey ceiling through my lashes. I squeeze my eyes shut and open them once more, fully this time, and look around. A single bulb hangs from the ceiling, barely illuminating the room. I carefully turn my head and I’m shocked when I see rows of beds with wounded soldiers, with doctors and nurses tending to them. I see their mouths moving, but I hear nothing. A nurse comes up to me and I can see her mouth moving, but I can’t hear her. “Help!” I yell desperately and I realise I can’t hear myself either. Again the nurse talks to me, now with a worried look on her face. “I can’t hear anything!” I exclaim, or at least I think I do. This gets me a reassuring smile, before the nurse turns around and walks away. “Hey! Come back!” The nurse seems to have heard me and walks back to my bed, still smiling. Before I can ask her about what is going in a feel a slight sting in my wrist, then a cool fluid runs through my veins and again, everything goes black.
I wake to an ear-splitting beep in my ears. I press my hands against my ears in an attempt to drown out the terrible noise, then suddenly it’s gone. The beep is replaced my soft murmuring. My eyes fly open and quickly scan the room before landing on the bed next to me, where a patient and a doctor are having a conversation…and I can hear it! My hearing is back! A wave of relief washes over me. “Are you feeling better?” I turn my head and see the same nurse that gave me the injection standing by my bed. “Yeah”, my voice sounds soft and weak, “what happened?” I ask. “You were lucky, you hit your head pretty hard. Your shoulder and a part of your back were damaged quite severely. It will probably bother you for a while, but we can’t keep you here much longer. We need every soldier.” I nod. “How long have I been here?” The young girl furrows her brows, apparently thinking about my question. “Two weeks I’d say, though I’m not entirely sure.”
Three days after this conversation Serge, who made it through the attack in one piece, Edgar, Dion (two soldiers we met yesterday) and I are in the trenches again. There’s another attack planned for tonight so we are trying to get some rest, but none of us are having much luck falling asleep. I think about the night I got hurt and my hand involuntarily goes to my wounded shoulder. The “mailman” brings by a letter from her. Eagerly I start reading. It has been difficult for her, many products are hard to come by and her father has fallen seriously ill, it looks like he won’t live much longer. She tells me she loves me and wishes me luck. I press the letter against my chest before slipping it into a pocket of my jacket.
BANG! BANG! BANG! Projectiles smash into the ground all around me, each one claiming the lives of many soldiers. I pull the trigger of my weapon when I’m overwhelmed by a strong pain in my shoulder. I groan and slump down a bit. I have to take a few deep breaths before I can get up and shoot again. Because of the rain dripping into my eyes I can barely see, so I just shoot randomly in the hopes of hitting someone. This chaos goes on for what seems like an eternity, I try to ignore the pain, try to empty my head and not think about the people I’m killing. Whether they were married, or had children. I hear loud bangs and people screaming in pain everywhere. Suddenly I hear a bone chilling scream right next to me. I turn to look at the source of the noise and my heart stops when I see Serge collapse. No! Please not him! I rush over to him, he’s covered in blood and barely breathing. “Serge! Say something, buddy!” I yell desperately while I gently shake him. His eyelids flutter open and his blue eyes meet mine. He grabs my jacket and pulls me closer to him. “Hang on! It’s going to be okay!” I tell him with tears in my eyes. “Liar, ” he whispers. “No, you can’t die,” tears are streaming down my face now. “It’s too late. I want…” he falls silent for a moment. “You…are…a…good…friend,” he chokes out, blood is dripping from the corners of his mouth. He gives me a weak smile, then his eyes get a glassy look in them and I know it’s over. Carefully I close his eyes and fold his hands in front of his chest. The rest of the fight that night passes by in a blur.
It’s been two years since the night Serge lost his life and even though I hadn’t known him very long, I miss him. Last year the Germans started throwing gas at us. It dazes the soldiers and then the Germans throw explosives at them. They say it’s more humane. Yeah right. Fortunately, there is also good news. America is fighting with us. Right now we are getting ready to run onto no man’s land, because this isn’t working. We shoot at each other, but it’s as if nothing is happening. We aren’t making any progress. “Two minutes!” I’m getting scared now. I try to calm myself down. “One minute!” I make sure my gun is loaded. “Attack!” We scream as we run onto the field. Not even ten steps in and half of the men have perished. We fire wildly back at the enemy. Suddenly I feel a bullet pierce through my leg and I stumble. I quickly get up, trying my best to ignore the pain. Shortly after I’m back on my feet I feel another flash of pain in my leg, and in the other one as well. Still, I keep running. It’s raining bullets now. One in my shoulder, one in my arm, another in my shoulder, my legs, my side. The pain get to be too much and I fall to the floor that is covered by blood and mud. “Retreat!” I hear someone yell over all the noise. I want to give up, but then I think of her. I can’t leave her behind. But it hurts so much. No! I promised her. I want to see her smile again, smell her hair, kiss her lips. I try to drag myself to the trenches, I’ll be safe there. BANG! I keep crawling, but I feel my body go weak and I can’t keep going. I feel lightheaded. A gas attack! I’m still trying to get to safety but I know I won’t make it. This is the end. The last thing that goes through my mind, is her name.
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