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Battle of the Marne
Michael Flanders peered over the top of the trench and was rewarded with a bullet inches from his nose. Cursing, he stumbled backwards to slam bodily into one muddy trench wall. His head jerked to the right, to where Eric Smithee was crouched in the mud like an animal, his uniform soiled. “Them damn Germans just won’t give in!” Michael gasped. It seemed almost heresy to talk in the midst of the screams of bullets and dying men, but it seemed an almost different kind of heresy to remain silent. He had to use every second of the life he had, and use it well. It was ironic how he had come to realize the value of human life while destroying that very state for others.
“Goddamnit!” He swore again, just to give his mouth something to do. Eric was looking at him sadly from the bottom of the trench. His gun was lying in the mud. “Pick up your gun, idiot!” Michael yelled, nudging the offending instrument with a toe. Eric started slightly, coming out of whatever trance he had been in.
“It’s no use,” he said quietly, shaking his head, looking older then Michael had ever seen him. “It’s no use,” he said again, louder. “We’ll never win. The Germans will get across the river and they’ll kill us all.”
Somewhere to the right, a shell exploded into the ground. The earth seemed to shake, and Michael fell face-first into the mud. Eric regarded him, still crouching on his knees. Michael struggled to regain his footing, to regain some sense of control. This damn river, these damn Germans, this whole damn war. Pointless. All of it, pointless. Some damn Archduke gets himself killed and the next minute the world goes up in flames. And the men. So many men were dead.
Aren’t Germans men too? Michael felt a sudden urge, a need to communicate this fact to Eric, but he realized that it wouldn’t change anything. The Germans were men, yes. He was a man. Eric was a man. And they would kill each other like men, yes. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change.
“It’ll be different if I’m dead.” The words had been so quiet that Eric hadn’t heard. Audible or not, the words were still there. There was suddenly an overwhelming urge, deep inside Michael. An urge of almost primal quality; an urge to stay alive. No life was to be wasted, including his own. And Eric’s, if it could be saved.
Kill or be killed. The first law of the war. If he was to survive, others would die. But wasn’t that the whole point of war? One set of ideals killing another? One person killing another? Yes, yes it was.
The scream of a shell bursting dragged him roughly back to the gory reality he was immersed in. A tremor shook the Earth, and when it subsided, Michael was on his back, staring up into iron-gray clouds torn apart by the fiery trails of shells. Dirt was crumbling onto him from the jagged lips of the trenches, and he got the distinct feeling of lying in a grave. Heart in his throat, he grabbed his gun and jammed it into the earth, pushing himself upright on the barrel. Eric was leaning against the opposite trench wall, looking so forlorn that Michael almost felt like giving up. But now was not a time to give in.
“Eric!” Michael yelled; his words choked on smoke and the reek of blood. “Pick up your damn gun, Eric!” When Eric made no move to follow Michael’s base instructions, Michael crouched and picked the gun up himself; squelching through the mud to shove it into Eric’s unresisting hand.
Eric raised his hand and the gun with it, staring uncomprehendingly at the long piece of smooth polished metal that was so rusted and dented now. He shook his head dumbly. “No,” he said. “It’s no use. I don’t want to fight anymore, Michael. I don’t want to fight.” Michael knew that it wasn’t the Germans Eric was talking about. No, Eric had lost the urge to fight the battle that humans struggle with every day, and he had lost that urge a long time ago. Michael realized with fresh horror that nothing he could say would bring it back.
But he had to try. He felt insane, like an animal, as he grasped Eric by the shoulders and shook him roughly back and forth to the rhythm of the bombs bursting overhead. Eric wouldn’t look at him. He didn’t resist in the slightest. “Damn you!” Michael screamed, shoving Eric down into the mud. “You’re supposed to want to live!!”
Was it worth it to save someone he barely knew? What was the point? They were in the same unit, though they had barely spoken. They were acquaintances at best. What the hell am I doing? Michael thought. Why do I want this? Why?
He sucked in a breath, sick of the now familiar reek of blood and smoke that pervaded his nostrils. Eric was whimpering in the mud, his gun once again discarded. “You coward,” Michael hissed; blood on his lips. He didn’t know where it had come from.
The screams hanging in the air had made Michael’s low whisper inaudible, but Eric jerked as though he had been stabbed. Then he stiffened, snatched his gun from the mud, and began to get up. Michael was suddenly filled with a wild glee. He had felt so alone, but now he knew he wasn’t the only one. He wanted to live, and Eric did, too. They could escape this madness. They could save their own lives, at least.
Eric was standing ramrod straight, the tip of his gun dragging in the mud. “That’s it, Eric!” Michael panted. “That’s it, atta boy! All you have to do now is shoot! Come on, Eric! Shoot! Shoot!”
Eric pulled his gun out of the mud. Slowly, ever so slowly, he raised it to the lip of the trench. And then higher, until the barrel was pointing at the bloody red sky. “I’m here!” He screamed, shaking the gun. “Here! Here! Shoot me!!”
“No!!” Michael cried, grasping Eric by the middle and trying to drag him away from the lip of the trench. “No!!” Eric turned around and slapped Michael hard across the face, sending him reeling into the mud. A squealing rat wriggled underneath his back, having broken his fall. Then its squeals faltered and faded away into silence.
“Dammit!” Michael gasped, getting up on one knee, preparing to lunge at Eric, who was still screaming, now incoherently. “Idiot!” Michael snarled, and jumped, grasping Eric firmly around the middle and using gravity to drag them both down. He was fast. But Death was faster.
Even before Michael had really hugged Eric to his chest he felt the thump. It vibrated from Eric’s chest, through and up his middle and into Michael’s waiting arms. He was suddenly hugging a dead weight to his chest, a weight that dragged him to the mud at the bottom of the trench faster than gravity ever could.
Michael’s hands were shaking as he flipped Eric over. It took him almost a minute to comprehend that the figure resting in his lap was dead. Blood stained the front of Eric’s muddy uniform. It mixed with the mud and trickled from the puncture wound in the very center of his chest. It stained Michael’s knees.
Eric’s face looked very dead. He was not smiling, or frowning, or giving any indication of the last emotion that had possessed him. Nor did he look peaceful. This was not the blessed rest that Michael had been promised so many times by the Christian Church back home. Eric’s eyes were curiously vacant, empty vessels devoid of all the things that make humans human. He was gone.
It took another moment or so for the enormity of what Michael was holding to hit him. Then he screamed as a dying animal might, and hugged the bloody thing to his chest, rocking it back and forth, still screaming. The screams turned into sobs as Michael clutched the remnants of Eric Smithee desperately. There may have been men in the next resting place of the trench that could hear his screams, but no one came. No one came, and Michael continued to cry. He cried for Eric Smithee, for a man he had known only briefly, and hadn’t really known at all. He cried for the German on the other side of the no man’s land that separated them, the German that had taken a life with the twitch of a finger. He cried for the dead that lay scattered everywhere, already beginning to stink. And Michael Flanders cried most of all for the knowledge that the human life is precious, and that, like all precious things, it is very breakable indeed.