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Chirps in the Night
They sat inside giant, sandy ditch with their heads down. A radio sat next to them and it only gave out a static noise. It was a few hours after the battle and the sand bags that surrounded the ditch had bullet holes on them. A fire had been built in the middle of the ditch and its light flickered on their faces. Different sized bullet cartridges were scattered everywhere on the ground and there were black, burnt marks where bombs had exploded. Beyond the ditch were dead bodies that lay across the battlefield, hushed, decaying. There were a few patches of grass and they were stained with the blood of the dead men. It was dark and the moon shone brightly overhead and a few stars twinkled in the night sky, and a cloud or two floated aimlessly every now and then. Then suddenly a plane emerged from one of the clouds and for a few moments its lights stayed on and it continued to fly in the darkness. But then there was an explosion and the plane fell towards ground and left a trail of smoke behind it. A few seconds later it was gone.
John saw the plane crash but did not say anything; he had seen many of those lately. He was about thirty years old and a long scar ran down the middle of his neck, a scar he had gotten when the war first began: A small “souvenir from the damned Krauts” as he liked to call it. Pete and Rick sat next to each other a few feet away from John. The two were in their mid twenties—young and inexperienced. They were all wearing green uniforms and black boots, and their guns lay next to them, almost buried in the sand. Mud and sweat and blood covered their faces. No one said anything, and the only thing that could be heard were the faint sounds of gunfire in the distance.
Pete looked down at his boots, then at Rick. “S***,” he said quietly. “They’re loosin’ out there…Losin’ to the damned Krauts.”
Rick was silent for a few moments. He shook his head and said in a shaky voice, “Yeah…” He tried to control his voice; he was a man, a man at war, and during times likes these fear was something that slowed you down. “Mustn’t show fear,” his grandfather had told him when he was young. And it had stayed with him until now. But as hard as he tried, it was no use. “Gue—Guess so.”
Pete picked up a stick that lay next to him and began drawing something on the soft ground. Rick turned to look at what he had drawn. It was a sketch of the United Sates. Rick smiled as he thought about home; about his old house up in Michigan; about the sound of children playing outside every morning, and the fresh air that blew through the mountains and towards their house; about his wife.
Then suddenly another explosion echoed in the distance, then more gunfire. All three men looked up. They turned to each other, looking at one another’s eyes, breathing hard. Pete threw the stick and it landed next to an empty bullet canister. The canister was green and it bore several bullet holes as well, and on its side, engraved on the metal were the words, “To Martha, Bob.”
“Damn this,” Pete said. “Damn this…”
They were quiet again. Pete stared at the fire and it glowed in his eyes. John continued to sit there quietly on the side, not saying anything, while Rick looked up at the sky. A faint smile crossed Rick’s face, but the smile disappeared as quickly as it had come, and Rick was again engulfed by the thoughts of the house in Michigan, and of the children. He sighed, then looked at John, then at the ground.
“We gonna lose this war,” Pete said. His voice was calm, as if he had said this several times before. “We gonna lose it, and them damn Krauts is gonna sail ‘cross the ‘Tlantic and march straight them states.” He shook his head and ran his dirt covered hands across his hair. Shots rang out in the distance and the sound of a tank firing thundered in the darkness, but the three men did not flinch. They were used to it, the firing and the loud noises and the cacophony of gunfire and men screaming.
“Stop saying that Pete,” Rick said. “I’m tired of hearing all that bull crap. We’re not gonna lose this war.”
“Jesus Christ. Listen to that!” But he did not go any further. He reached with shaking hands for the water canteen that hung by his belt, and for a moment he almost dropped the canteen, but he was able to catch it in time. He felt his heart beat faster and faster, rhythmic, the sound of drums, and his breathing quickened. He opened the canteen and took a sip.
Rick turned to John. “Hey…you haven’t said a word since you stumbled into us back at that town…” John didn’t move. “We’ve been sitting here all night and none of us even know your name.”
John stirred and moved his head a little to the right and he glanced at Rick with the sides of his eyes. He did not say anything.
Rick shook his head and shrugged. “Just tryin’ to start a conversation.”
The silence ensued. Crickets chirped in the dead silence and a few birds flew across the sky and cawed. Clouds covered the moon and only its silhouette could be seen. More plains emerged behind the clouds, but unlike the first one these weren’t shot down and they continued to fly until they disappeared into the distance.
It was John who broke the silence. He sighed and said, “Name’s John Manor. I..I …” His voice faltered. “I was part of the 22nd Boston Division.”
Pete and Rick’s eyes widened and they quickly looked up. “Jesus! 22nd? Christ,” cried Pete. “Warn’t they the ones sent first. The ones that got…” He stopped.
John gazed at him. “Yes. The ones that got massacred.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He took a deep, long, quivering breath. “We never saw them coming…It was like, a minute they weren’t’ there and everything was quiet…and the next…” His voice faded.
“Goddamn lucky to be alive.
Rick and Pete gave a few slow nods. “Sor—sorry to hear that…” said Rick in a low voice.
“Yeah…” Pete said with a deep sigh. He grabbed his gun and stood up. He walked towards the edge of the ditch and stood close to one of the sandbags. He could see the outlines of mountains in the horizon, and the mountains were covered by smoke and fire. He tried to think about something else, to blot out the images of dead bodies and of mutilated men and friends. And so like Rick, he thought of home. His family owned a small ranch in Louisiana, and he had very few friends there. Most of those friends were drafted when the war first began. Probly’ same time as John there, he thought. He turned his head towards Rick. Rick had been an old family friend, and they were “just damned lucky” to end up at the same camp together. He shook his head and gave a small laugh. “Damn lucky…”
Rick faced John and said, “So…you uhm…you from Boston?”
John nodded. “Yeah. But I was born in Virginia. Went to Harvard, became a lawyer, ended up living there for fifteen years. I was supposed to start my own firm, but then this damned war started.”
“Yeah…” He paused for a moment, looking at the ground. “Her name’s Martha. Two years old.” His daughter’s image entered his mind and he steadied his voice and tried not to let the tears fall. “Promised her I-I’d get the bad guys. That I’ll keep her and her mother safe,” he said with a weak laugh. His voice shook. “I…I promised her I’d come home.” His right hand moved towards his pocket and began digging inside. He brought out an old, wrinkled photograph and handed it to Rick.
Rick’s eyes went from John’s tired face to the photo. It was the image of a ten year old girl. She had long straight hair that went down to her shoulders and in the photo she wore a red dress. “Cutie.” Rick said, and for a split second he wondered how the children that played outside his house were, the children in Michigan. He never had his own children, and he planned to have some when the war ended. But his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of another explosion.
A few feet away from them Pete shouted, “JEYSUS CHRIST!”
Rick handed back the photo and John placed it inside his pocket. “Don’ worry,” Rick said. You’ll get home.”
Another bomb dropped in the distance, and this time they felt the ground give a slight shudder. For a second the bright sky in the distance glowed a faint yellow then the three men are surrounded by darkness again. Pete walked back to where John and Rick were.
“I just want to go home,” John whispered.
“Yeah…” replied Pete. He sat there and the fire’s light warmed his face. And they were silent. And the night wore on and more explosions and gunfire echoed in the stillness, getting louder and louder. The sky lit up again a few times. But like before, none of them said a word.
Suddenly a gurgled voice came out of the radio. “Two—request—two req—“
Rick jumped up and placed his head close to the radio. The other two twirled to his direction.
Pete squinted his eyes. “What the hell was that?”
Rick raised a finger. “Shh…command’s broadcasting.”
John scratched his head with his fingers. His eyes wandered to Pete, then to Rick. “What is command doing broadcasting in open lines?”
“Shh…” repeated Rick.
There was more static, then an unclear voice: “This…co-and…This—ommand.” Tick moved his hand on the side of the radio until he felt a small knob. He turned it first to the right, then to the left. The voice became clearer. “Repeat. This is command. Request all scout teams evac to Bravo Base in 0300. Repeat. Scout…evac to Bravo Base…300. Eagle is a go. Repeat, Eagle is a go.” The voice died away, and there was only static again, and the faint sounds of bombs dropping. And the crickets. The three looked at each other.
Pete grabbed his gun and stood up. “Well, that’s us boys.” He grinned. “Looks like command’s gettin’ pretty tired and is sendin’ RAF boys to do some dirty work. An’ ‘bout time too. We finally getting’ outta this shithole.” He laughed and his voice boomed. “YANKS OUT!”
“Yeah, finally,” said Rick with a sigh. He grabbed the radio and slung it to his back. He then took his gun and held it with his right hand. “Let’s go…Bravo Base is ten clicks from here.” He turned to his right, towards the narrow part of the ditch. He could see the faint and peaceful shape of the Atlantic. He turned back, then began to walk.
Pete looked at John. “We’re finally getting’ out!” He then ran up to try and catch up to Rick.
John stopped and hesitated. He gazed at the fire and he felt weak. “No we’re not…” Deep down he knew, and he knew that Rick and Pete were aware of it too and they were just trying to hide the fact, trying to be men. He knew that the chances of them getting home were close to nothing. They were going to die there, like the rest that have already died, and the ones that will die. Subconsciously he knew that their bodies will stay there and will rot as time passes, and they will eventually be forgotten like the multitudes that have already perished—a distant memory. “Bye Martha,” he whispered, and a tear fell from his eyes. He felt tired. He quickly wiped the tear away and walked towards Pete and Rick.
A few minutes later it began to rain, and the sound of bombs dropping in the distance halted. But they kept walking.