I clutched my rifle to my chest, hopping crater to mud-slicken crater, running for dear life. Brimstone erupted in hot flashes. I struggled to keep standing as my footing slipped and slid from the forceful waves of air. The only thing I could hear under the thunderous crashes were the bolt-action clangs of spent rounds ejected from rifle chambers, dispersed between deafening machine gun fire. The pressure from whizzing bullets slapped me across the face, as the man to my right slumped to the ground.
Uphill, Corporal Pattem shouted and waved me over. He sheltered behind the bombed-out concrete shell of who knows what.
“Still alive, private?”
“I can handle it,” I said between spurts of coughing up dirt. I hated when they said that. Just because I was a private didn’t mean a stray bullet would kill me five seconds into battle. I spat out a clump uglier than the buck-toothed rodents hiding in every third meat paste can at mess hall.
“Good, but don’t get cocky. Squad’s covering our flank, and we’ve got a bunker right ahead of us. Where’s Gramm?”
“He didn’t make it.”
“Goddammit, just you and me then, Doran. Fine. We’ll make do.” His face middle-aged face wrinkled in frustrated improvised planning. “Distract them.”
“Distract them?” I said, moments before a mortar shell crashed beside the adjacent wall, whipping a foggy rain of dust and pebbles into the air. Pattem charged into it.
“Distract them! Give me cover fire!”
I fumbled my rifle into position, blind firing around the corner, as their buzzsaw slung a hail of death pellets my way, chipping away the wall inch by inch. Sure, suddenly now he thought I could handle a machine gun just fine. It was fine to make me the bait, but he got all the glory. Real swell. I considered stopping my cover fire. Then what? I imagined his face and how he would have regretted leaving me behind.
“Mr. Doran?” a voice next to me said.
I looked up at the mysterious figure. He wore one of those fancy dark suits like a lawyer or something. He even had right necktie for it too. He stood with perfectly straight posture and a stern and unemotional face. Very cold, still. Not a hint of personality.
“Mr. Doran, I am here to remind you that the proposition you are considering is in direct violation of your conditions of service to the United States Army.” He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a bulleted list – it might as well have been a scroll for how long it was. He pointed to such small fine print that no amount of squinting could read it. “It says right here that no soldier shall abandon or betray a fellow serviceman in the field of duty, for to do so would be an act of treason.”
“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. If you can’t tell, I’m a little busy, so let me get back to this.”
“As you should. I do not hope we will have to meet again,” he said, shortly followed by a mortar falling twenty yards behind him. While I gripped my helmet and braced for the shower of debris, the only thing of his that moved were his clothes fluttering in the wind. Not even the slightest flinch. Just him reaching to adjust his tie and saying, “Good day.”
That had to have been the second weirdest thing to happen that day, only beat by Pattem capturing the bunker. He got close and shouted something like “Ist bombe im bunker,” and the Germans tripped over each other as they tried to escape. Pattem chopped them in the throat, one by one, as they ran out the backdoor tunnel, stacking neatly into a pile. I think he got a promotion too, but whatever, anyone could have done that.
After the battle, we set up basecamp in the newly liberated town. Medic patched me up. I only had minor internal bleeding – shockwaves as he explained it – but nothing that could stop me. My next objective was to stuff those blood holes with grub. The officers took the biggest building, after the barracks, as their office, so that left us with a small shack as one of the few standing structures. That was where we set up lunch.
The rest of my squad was behind me in line, and we sat in a circle of makeshift wooden objects. If you were lucky, you got a chair. That was me. I was lucky enough to snag one. And you know what? It was one of the few times we weren’t subjected to constant blasting and could spare half a braincell for things like the chirping birds returning to their ravaged homes. A chair and some birds. Perhaps things weren’t so bad. After all, it was the little victories that counted, right?
And then along walked Sergeant Pattem.
“Sorry to interrupt, boys, but we’ve got a new member to our group. This is Private Kennedy,” he said. Out from behind him stepped the new guy. The kid was shortest soldier around and scrawnier than a twig. A stiff wind could deliver a knockout blow. It was a miracle he could carry a rifle. The draft must have gotten desperate.
“H-hello,” said Kennedy, giving what had to have been the most awkward little wave I had ever seen. He just never stopped breaking records.
“He’ll be filling in for Gramm. Any questions? No? Good. Now wrap it up. We’re moving out in five.”
And so, we marched. We marched beside armored transports on a pale dirt path guarded by forestation. The rumbly engines only insulted my aching feet, but the ones with room were already taken. At the very least it gave time to work the dirt crust out from under my fingernails. My squadmates passed the time by acquainting themselves with Kennedy.
“So, what happened to your squad?” said Watts.
“They wiped,” said Jones matter-of-factly, to which he was swiftly met on both sides with sharp elbows to the chest. Kennedy stared at the ground and remained silent. Watts jogged up to him.
“If it helps, you can watch our back if you don’t want to dive into the heat.”
There it was. Assuming the new guy can’t handle the job. Given, they were probably right with the whole lack of physical prowess and possible dead friends, but still! At least it took the heat off me for once. Kennedy didn’t seem to know how to respond. He looked as if he might squeak.
Our lieutenant rode passed us in the officers’ car. I imagined how that could have been me soon enough. No more droning marches, just lounging in automated transportation. A little achievement, work my way up the ranks, and some officer training was all I needed.
I enjoyed the daydreaming while it lasted until I heard a pop. Jones held a newly unsealed can and out scurried a rat. Shortly after, I heard the soft scrapes of spoon against tin as he tried to slurp the meat paste anyway without us noticing. God, I hated that food.
We had made it to a meadow clearing when it happened. The fourth truck ahead exploded. And then another. And then the air riddled with bullets and down went Jones. Pattem acted first.
We threw ourselves onto the ground and lay prone in the shrubby grass cover. Artillery rained on our position. Bullets zipped over our head and clinked against steel chassis. When I came to my senses, Watts pointed me in the direction of the enemy. He mounted his machine gun on a mound of soil. Except Kennedy, the rest of our squad was missing. They must have jumped in the other direction in the confusion.
“Help me set this up. Where’s the ammo?” he said. We looked toward Jones’ limp corpse on the raised path above. “Shit. Shit! It’s too exposed.”
“Well, we’re toothless without it. We’ve gotta do something,” I said. We then looked at Kennedy. He looked shellshocked. He didn’t respond much to our prodding. Muttered something under his breath.
“I’ll get the ammo. You get Kennedy out of here.”
“Just do it!” he said, crawling away.
I tried to shake Kennedy out of it, dispersed between shots of cover fire. Always the cover fire. Watts made it to Jones and stacked belts of ammo over his shoulder, dodging bullets all the while. Though his skills were impressive, the artillery did him in. One blast four yards from his side launched him and a tide of sediment back in our direction.
I scavenged what ammo I could off him, loaded it into the gun, and sprayed in the enemies’ direction. A nearby bunker was my first target.
One belt down. No results. Two belts down. Some cracked and torn up concrete. Three belts down. Not a single casualty. I looked from Watts to Kennedy to the bunker and then to my final belt of ammo.
With all my strength, I picked the machine gun and charged the bunker. Only then did Kennedy snap from his stasis.
“Where are you going? Don’t leave me!”
Not for a second did I look back. No. Then was my time for glory. Bullets came flying my way, and I embraced them. Forearm, leg, kidney, shoulder. I wasn’t stopping until I got the victory I deserved. All the while, Kennedy kept shouting, but I wasn’t listening.
When I got to the bunker, I closed my eyes, took one deep breath, and ran in. I held down the trigger, I spun in circles, I shot up every last inch of the place, and when I ran out of ammo, I threw the gun at them, I kicked at their chests, and pulled their hair, and punched their jaws, chopped at their throats. And when I opened my eyes, no one was there.
I took a good look at the crumbling, led-ridden place and realized it was abandoned. They had been attacking from somewhere else. I looked at my wounds and collapsed, catching myself on a square window hole. I took one good long look back at Kennedy. Someone must have taken notice of his shouting. A shot rang out, one to the head, and he was gone.
“And here I thought we understood each other, Mr. Doran,” said that same mysterious voice, that same lawyer man. “You know what this means.”
My consciousness started to slip as much as my blood, but I could still focus on him and his same cold expression. He opened his briefcase and pulled out a square, black as night, and unfolded it into the shape of a door. I nodded and crawled into the portal of unknown void.
Nathaniel Dyer is a senior studying Computer Science with a minor in Creative Writing. He lives with a passion for arts and entertainment, particularly through animation, video games, and storytelling, and he likes to pat puppies and kitties on the head. He would like to thank Professor Geoffrey Schmidt for teaching slipstream writing.