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Death Shall Spareth The Willing
Death is kind of a funny thing. Not funny ‘ha-ha’, but funny in an ironic way. How it takes the unprepared and spares the willing. Dead is the eleven year old boy who chased his ball into the street; alive is the old, alcoholic man who stares at his pistol every morning, wondering if he has the courage to do it.
Death always chooses the curve-ball.
We never allow our minds to dwell on the thought of someone we love dying. It’s like our love is their armor, and death’s arrow bounces off. They are safe as long as they are with us. We allow ourselves to trick our brain into thinking we can protect them from disease, famine, or a speeding bullet. Just with our love.
Like the moment a rifle round cut a path through my best friend’s skull, and he slumped against my shoulder like only a dead man could, my thoughts turned to mush. The realization that he was no longer there wasn’t reaching me. I couldn’t let myself even think of that as an option.
He’s hurt, is what I thought, Tony’s been hit and he’s hurt.
No way - there is no way - that my best friend is dead. It’s impossible.
“You hit?!” I shout over the din of battle, into his dead ear. He didn’t respond.
An artillery shell landed near me; showering me with clumps of German soil and burnt grass. I wiped the grit from my eyes with the filthy back of my hand. Every part of me was dirty, and I don’t think I could ever scrub the feeling of being covered with foreign soil and other man’s blood from my skin. I don’t even remember what it’s like to be clean.
When I think of cleanliness, I remember the smell of popcorn and hotdogs at the state fair. I remember a girl in a yellow dress twirling ahead of me with a big, goofy, dizzy smile on her face. Her name was Daisy, I think. With her hair the color of my grandma’s butterscotch candies and eyes that were as deep and green as the swimming hole back home. I remember her grabbing me by the front of my freshly iron shirt and tugging me into the shadow of the ferris wheel. I can still feel her warm breath on my ear when she whispered that she wanted to give me something to remember her by. Then she kissed me full on the mouth. My first kiss with a girl tasted like blue cotton candy.
The weight of Tony’s head on my shoulder brought me back to myself.
I slid down into the shallow dip me and Tony dug for cover. Tony slid down with me, his face in the dirt. Another artillery round landed near by, and I shielded Tony with my body. While blocking him from the rain of dirt, I saw the clean hole on the back of his head. Blood oozed out of it lazily. I watched a drop of his blood roll down his neck and onto the back of my hand.
Even with the evidence in front of my own eyes, I still couldn’t piece it together that he was actually dead. “Tony?” I shouted, rolling off him, pressing my cheek to the dirt to see his face.
Tony’s eyes stared into the ground as if he was having a contest to see who would blink first. He died so fast he didn’t even have time to close his eyes. So fast, he couldn’t even wipe the surprise off his face.
I reached out with a shaking hand and turned him onto his side. The realization that my best friend was dead hit me like a tidal wave. I held his head in my hands, shaking with moans and sobs.
My Pa used to tell me that real men never cried. That they faced everyday with a stiff upper lip and an even stiffer back. My Ma would roll her eyes and tell me that sometimes, everyone needs to share a tear. She said that if you just bottled everything up like my Pa did, eventually you’d just burst.
Thats the only way I could describe how I felt at that moment: I was bursting. Everything just spilt out of me like an uncorked wine bottle. My tears traced lines down my grimy cheeks, landing on Tony’s still face. I rested my forehead on his and squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could. When I open them, I told myself, Tony would be blinking up at me and calling me a girl for crying. On the count of three.
I stopped before three. I knew I couldn’t trick myself into thinking everything would be alright.
Its an odd thought to come too - that your friend is dead. Like the air goes ‘whoosh’ and suddenly there’s nothing to breath. And while you’re gasping like a fish on land, you can’t stop thinking about all the things you’ll never do with that person again. Suddenly, the world gets all gray and blurry around the edges.
I’ll never hear Tony laugh again. Already I’m forgetting the way it sounded. How it boomed outward, coming right out of his belly. I’ll never see the way his eyes light up when he talks about the future. Saying to me only how he was excited to be a father one day. He didn’t care if it was a boy or girl. He just wanted it to be small enough to fit right in the crook of his elbow.
I won’t be the same. A little piece of me died here, right next to Tony. The part that kissed that girl under the ferris wheel just as strong as she did because that’s what he would do. The part that smiled sheepishly when he clapped me on the back and told me good job when I told him about it later.
The part of me that was me with him, died.
All around me, the sounds of battle grew louder. Men shouted orders or screamed in pain. Someone nearby yelled in english to fall back. I couldn’t move to follow them. What kind of a friend would leave the other behind?
I collapsed to the dirt next to Tony; both of us staring at the canopy of trees above us. Our platoon leap over us in a mad scramble to get to cover before they feel the bite of a bullet tearing through muscle and bone. A few are killed in mid jump, their limp bodies crashing to the ground around me. I’m soon covered in their blood before the guns stop firing.
In the silence that blanketed the forest, I swear I was the only man left alive on the whole earth.
The snap of a twig somewhere above my head made me stiffen in fear. My whole body shook and I knew I was going to die. Was this what Tony felt before that bullet made him stop feeling? Was he scared?
I grasped Tony’s still warm hand in mine - like I always did when we were kids playing Cops and Robbers. Tony and I would always hide together, and he'd be the look out. If one of the ‘Cops’ were by, he’d grab my hand and squeeze until they were gone.
I crushed his still hand in mine until I heard footsteps retreating from where I hid.
I released a shaky breath and closed my eyes. Maybe, I thought, I could just lay here until the war was over. I’d wait until everything got better, then I’d go home and find that cotton candy girl and kiss her as hard as I could. I promised myself right then that that’s exactly what I would do if I lived.
When I finally opened by eyes again, there was a bayonet barely an inch above my left eye.
The man holding the rifle - which the bayonet was attached to - looked down at me with cold grey eyes. I expected my heart jump to my throat, or maybe, for me to start crying. But instead, I just focused on the quivering end of the bayonet and waited patiently.
Let me be with my best friend, I thought, just send me with him.
The man didn’t strike though. He took a hesitant step back, looking over his shoulder a few times before jerking the end of his rifle towards the denser forest to our left. I was paralyzed in fear and my brain was sluggish and I just couldn't put two and two together. The man whispered something angrily in german and jerked his rifle towards the forest again.
He’s letting you go idiot, I could almost hear Tony say.
Suddenly, my brain started working again and I was on my feet and running before I could think of anything else. I heard shouting behind me and a few bullets went whizzing past, but everyone was too worn to give chase.
I don’t know how long I ran almost straight downhill before my legs gave out beneath me. I tumbled head over heels until I hit a tree hard enough to feel the bone snap in my left shoulder. The pain blinded me for a few moments and I could do nothing but gasp for air and fight back tears.
I left him behind, I kept thinking over and over. I left him and didn’t even look back.
A sob racked through me, stripping my insides raw.
War wasn’t suppose to be like this. War was suppose to be crushing the enemy under your boot and saving people from the bad-guys with bowler hats and curling mustaches. War was suppose to be glory and celebration and wealth. No this. Never this.
I wasn’t suppose to lose my best friend.
I was there when they lowered an empty casket into the ground back home. By the time someone had gone back for all the bodies, Tony and the others were too far gone to be sent back home. They were given a mass grave in the middle of a german field, with nothing but a pile of stones to show they were there. That they even existed.
After laying in the forest for a day or two, I got up and walked until I stumbled across the border into Switzerland and collapsed on the steps of a hospital. No one spoke english, and it was a week before some English soldiers came through and brought me to a base. While there, they told me I was the only one left of my platoon that walked out of that forest.
By then, I was fresh out of tears. All I could do was moan as it felt like my chest was being crushed.
After they got my shoulder set and in a sling, they just sent me home. “Go home boy,” the captain of the base told me, “war’s not meant to be fought by those as young as you.”
So home I went.
The train, then the boat, then the train back to England was too quiet. I was given a new uniform, and everywhere I went, everyone watched me with wide eyes. Little boys ran up to me and asked me what war was like. Their mothers would drag them away, apologizing, but I could tell by their eyes that they wanted to know just as bad.
I didn’t have time to call ahead to tell anyone I was coming home, so I stepped onto the train platform alone. When I pictured coming home, every imagination had Tony bouncing on his toes next to me. But every time I glanced over to where he would be, my lungs squeezed painfully.
Walking down my street, old memories rose up around me like ghosts. There was where Tony and I took swings at each other. There was where Tony picked me up after a bully chased me home and I hid in the neighbors rose bush. Here was where I met my best friend for the first time.
My Ma was pulling weeds from the garden when I walked up. I watched her work for a moment, seeing her being her made me blink back tears. I called softly to her, and when she spun around, she looked like she saw a ghost. “They told us your whole platoon -” she whispered. Then she rushed forward and flung her arms around my neck, pulling me down to her height. We just held each other and cried for the longest time.
A few weeks later, I stood in the manicured grass of the local graveyard and watched that empty casket sink into the ground. I stood away from everyone else, towards the back. Ever since I got back, I’ve always stayed in the back of things, just in case I had to run. I don’t think I’ll ever break out of that habit.
Soon, the funeral crowd broke apart, drifting in different directions like seeds off a dandelion. I stared at my feet, not seeing a girl in a black dress approach until she spoke.
“Are you alright?” she asked quietly, as if I might bolt if she spoke too loudly.
I looked up at her, blinking in surprise. It was the girl from the fair - the cotton candy girl. Daisy, I think.
“No one has asked me that so far,” I chuckle, scratching the back of my head. “I think... I think I’ll be okay.”
Daisy grinned softly. She extended her hand toward mine; an open invitation. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
I looked at her slim fingers for a moment, wondering what Tony would do. He’s probably box my ears for taking so long to take her hand in mine. Daisy and I slowly made our way away from Tony’s grave. I glanced back over my shoulder.
For a moment, I saw him giving me a thumbs up.
Have fun buddy, he said.