“Come now, men! We’ve seen much worse than this. Sure, things look rough now, but I’ve said that before. We all have! If I’d known my men would turn into a pack of sniveling, red-eyed, snot-nosed children the moment things got dark, I never would have put my faith in them! We hold each others lives in our hands! … and yet, we quiver?
Yes, we might be down by over half our troop, trapped in a wooden shack surrounded by hostiles, shivering from the cold and wet… but remember why! John, imagine your children, your wife! Waiting at the door with warm, welcoming hugs and smiles. Jordan, Terrance? Are they not worth the fear of protecting? Jonathan! Have you not told me of the wonderful, loving family you, and your brothers before you, came for? Are you really ready to quit? Give up on getting them back, and without a fight? Where is your strength? Where is your spirit?
Any man who would give up his home, his family, his freedom before giving his own life willingly, is better off without it… But any man with these to fight for has a greater chance then a hundred without.
And that, men, that is what gives us hope. Not weapons, not force, not backup… No, what we can hope in is love. The love we have for them, the same love they return, that is why we can go to battle with not fear, but strength in our eyes.
And if my fate be to die tomorrow, by God it’ll be as I charge onward in the fray, not hiding, not running in fear. I pray for our backup to come quickly, as any sensible man would. But far more do I pray to see my own family’s faces, wet with tears of joy at my safe arrival.
Can any here say otherwise? Then let them run.” I speak in low tones, with a voice full of synthetic courage, and brimming with true emotion. Even the renewed hope I see shining forth from their eyes at my words cannot lift my own spirits.
I am not afraid. No, that is not why my heart is heavy tonight. When I joined up, I knew full well that there was no great chance of my coming home. Fear is not what drives the courage from me. It is the dreadful, tearing, torturous ache if my heart, so slowly being wrenched from my chest. Why? Why now? Why could it not have been a month ago? A week ago even? Why must fate have tempted us so? Bribing our joy with a promise of the end?
It was a mere three days ago that the news, the long-awaited, precious, never-dared-hope-for news came to us, and for myself with the greatest of additions. Not a one of us had ever dreamed of going home. It was just a fairytale, the touch of fate on some far away elites. I’ve been the leader of this troop for 5 of my 10 years here in this service, and outlasted, by some cursed miracle, all of my mates in one piece.
None of them were easy to bid farewell, but the worst of all was poor Jimmy, for his pain was twofold. I was at his side myself, my own hand in the wound. And it was that same hand that closed around a shovel, under cloak of night, to bury my best friend of so many years in the middle of our field of battle.
It was upon the few survivors return that Jonathan was allotted to my team, and I bore the burden myself of telling him the news of his older brother’s demise. The young man took it surprisingly well, at least in the open air. It was that night I heard a muffled sniffle in the barracks.
At risk of my own head, I went to him. As I said, Jimmy was my best friend. I couldn’t stop the blood from flowing, but I sure as the sky is blue would watch over his little brother for him.
It was that night, as he curled like a child against my shoulder and cried like only a true man with a broken heart can, that we bonded. Jonathan is such a young lad, but brave enough for the rest of us. And not here for a girl, not for a medal, not for the name of a hero. He came for his family, for his aging parents. Such a good kid.
But just 3 days ago came that heaven-sent news. The war is over, we were going home. And along with that news, the letter from my dear, faithful, beautiful wife. It had taken 6 months to reach me, but bless my soul it was worth the wait.
“Peter, you’re going to be a father!”
A tear trickles down my cheek, and my heart grows ever heavier with the thought. I am not afraid. I am a man told he would never make it, but fought on anyways. I am a man given the one thing he never dared hope for, and promised the thing he never let himself dream of. And I am the man broken by the dream stolen with gunshots, and torn by the knowledge… The knowledge that not a man in this room will make it out alive.
My own life is worth nothing. I’ve done nothing that deserves respect, nothing that asks for praise, nothing beyond live and breathe. But these men? These boys? They were never even given the chance! And now my wife, just told of my returning, will go on without a husband, my unborn child never know his father but from faded photographs. And Jonathan? Why, he’s just a boy himself! He doesn’t deserve this!
“Are you alright, Peter?” His small voice reaches my ears, and I force myself to put on a smile, for his sake.
“Right as rain.” I say, giving him a casual, crooked grin. He steps aside with me, and I dread the coming question. He knows me all too well.
“You don’t think we’re going to make it, do you?” He phrases it like a question, but says it in a certain, unwavering tone. I quickly cover the grief in my eyes, forcing into them a hopeful glimmer, and place my hand on his shoulder, like so many times before.
“Whatever happens tomorrow, you’re going to see your parents again. I’ll see to it myself.” I reassure him. There’s no sense in letting them wallow in self-pity on this, their final night. If there is any way for them to die quickly, and with hope in their hearts, in place of this burning pain of defeat and sting of loss, God grant it to them!
“You mean it?” He asks, his voice a bit lighter.
“You have my word.” The taste of fabricated hope in my words is like taking a kick to the gut.
The night drags on ever so slowly, not a soul daring fall asleep. And with the first few shards of morning light, the tired souls stand straighter, the muddy, boot-clad feet begin to jostle.
But my own stay still, as I stare out the small window, gazing far beyond the horizon and glimpsing myself stepping off the bus, my son’s tiny, perfect hands extended as he topples towards me in that childish way that can only warm your heart, and my gorgeous angel of a wife running behind him, arms outstretched, welcoming me home.
A single shot cries out, and the men jump to attention, lining at the door. I continue glaring out the window, but this time in search of hostiles in the tree line.
There. And there. And… Dear God. They have us completely surrounded! I close my eyes, stand, and face my men.
“Backup can’t be too far off, lads. All we have to do is hold our ground. We’ve seen darker days, have we not? Now come, let’s show them a real American gun show!” They shout their agreement, lifting rifles in the air. God bless them.
I charge to the front, and in one pack we lunge through the door, letting out whoops and battle cries.
Instantaneously, we are hit by a focused barrage of bullets, and as one hits my knee, another my shoulder, I collapse to the ground. The others last just a little longer, falling one by one to the mud. A couple paces off, I see Jonathan slump to his knees, his face quickly going pale. He writhes in pain, gasping for breath, appearing like a fish out of water in every respect. I drag my way to his side, determined to ease his hurt in any way I can.
Time seems to slow, but the bullets keep flying, and I don’t know if I shout, or if I only imagine shouting, as another strikes my side. Only one man still stands, and then he, too, goes down. Gunshots, splashes, and ghoulish groans surround me, but I press on. I have to reach him. I have to be there for him. He has to know I never left him. He just has to feel I’m here. I grit my teeth, hardly breathing for the pain, unable to call to him.
His flailing slowly calms, and now he lies nearly limp, pale white against the dark slop beneath us. He quivers, his teeth clacking, and his breathing sounds more like a drowning gurgle. He doesn’t have much time left.
I myself begin to cough, and the arm that pulls me on quakes from the strain.
I come closer, ever closer, and at last, I reach for his hand. But just as my fingers barely graze his, his head flops towards me… eyes already beginning to glaze over. I’m too late. How could I be too late? Was one last comfort too much to ask?
I curse myself, I curse fate, I curse the very sky above as it let’s loose another downpour of icy droplets to pelt us. My body curls tighter, and I finally let loose the tears of loss. It’s over, and as I sit here, waiting to die, and dreaming of the healthy son soon to be born, and the amazing woman who will raise him on her own, only one question remains…
Will it be by these wounds, or by this freezing rain that I go?
When everything is numb, and I can feel my body beginning to shut down, I close my eyes, squeezing out the last of my tears to gently roll down my cheeks. With the last breath I can find, I let the whispered words loose from my lips, praying only that by some miracle, they’ll know.