Wolfgang hadn't seen the old man since the day before when he caught him early in the morning sneaking away from the camp, gun in hand, all by himself. Wolfgang refused to think he had deserted but instead insisted that he had gone to single-handedly save the lives of his platoon. This old man was the commander of the desperate pack of soldiers. Wolfgang missed him dearly as a son grieves over the loss of a father, but since he was the only one to witness his disappearance he had to keep it quiet. In the place of his commander, Wolfgang stepped in, and he was a handsome fit for the role. Courage that was frightening, strength that was undeniable, and a contagious coolness that was evident through those around him. No man could complain under his leadership which was much needed.
It was the night of the twenty-first of April 1945 in Northern Italy, Wolfgang was squinting through the blanket of smoke that rested on the battlefield, carelessly dodging the bullets that it shot at him.
"Alright this is it, men," he whispered to the formation of bodies beside him, "the Americans have sent in more reinforcements, but they are no match for German manpower!" as he said this, a shower of bullets was unloaded on the building to their left which was visible to the opposition through the smoke which either sunk into the ground or departed the earth for the heavens. Wolfgang raised his hoarse whisper to a smooth, clear voice to explain the plan of attack, but as he did a bickering voice called out,
"Those American's have a hundred men for every one of us, when are you gonna give up this game, Wolf?" It was a threatening, booming voiced, barrel-chested, stocky man called Peter. A grenade burst into flames fifty yards in front of them as their blinded enemies tried in vain to blow them apart, and Wolfgang raised his voice once again.
"Why don't you just waltz over to the other side and get your brains blown out, Peter, you might as well catch some of those grenades they're throwing on your way over there, but true German soldiers stick to their duties and help their allies!" Wolfgang began shouting at his full capacity to compete with the plane that flew above them. The plane was a bomber, and as some of the soldiers realised that, they ducked for safety. Wolfgang, however, sat firmly without a movement as he calculated with his eyes the threat that this bomb would pose to their mission, and decided that it would be a waste of energy to defend against it. As the bomb crashed through the roof of another deserted building, this time to their right, the men shuddered, but Wolfgang did nothing more than blink as he mourned the death of another Italian architecture, sorrowfully watching the flames engulf it. Peter slowly looked up at the collapsing pile of flames, it was far enough to be safe but close enough to see that their enemies' intentions had remained unchanged. He then shifted his gaze to Wolfgang and observed him with a mix of hate and admiration. Ever since the German soldiers were called down to Italy to defend against the allies, Peter had disliked Wolfgang. Everything Wolfgang did, Peter would do the opposite, but everything Wolfgang did was right.
"Peter you're right," Wolfgang broke his contemplation, "their next blow will be targeted right here, so we've got to get everyone back to camp". With that, everyone was running from the battlefield where the outlines of allied soldiers were just appearing, and Peter was left standing there with the words "Peter you're right" lingering in his ears. A slimy grin spread across his face but was cut short when a bullet pierced his arm at which he simply flinched then frowned at, and he ran to join the others. Wolfgang was grateful for Peter’s service in his squadron but hoped to make an ally of him instead of an enemy.
Peter arrived, limping lifeless into the buzzing camp, groaning with each step until he was noticed. Everyone looked in horror at the several bloodstains on his uniform.
Before anything could be said or done, Peter collapsed into one of the men standing nearby who caught him with a coolness equal to the embarrassment of when he then dropped him, and Peter's groaning had stopped.
"Quickly, get him into the tent!" Wolfgang shouted as he ran over to help, "We can't lose him yet!"
In all of the commotion, a pale soldier trembled alone while he choked his gun, searching frantically around him, looking with panic at the face of each soldier. Eventually, he sprinted down the hill towards the battlefield screaming hysterically,
"Where are you, Hans? I'm coming for you! You're going to be alright!" These ghastly cries disturbed the men so much that they dropped Peter's unconscious body suddenly and rushed out of the tent to catch a glimpse of the action. The only one who did not stop at the top of the hill was Wolfgang who charged after the panicked soldier with an air of responsibility and urgency. His path was cut short only when a gunshot could be heard, at which point the relieved huddle of soldiers witnessed Wolfgang slowly shuffle into the camp with an immeasurable melancholy upon his shoulders. There was nothing for anyone to do but sleep with the expired screams lingering in their ears, and envy Peter for his half-dead state of bliss.
It was dawn when Peter recovered his senses. He was awoken by the first rays of the new day which pierced through the worn tent cover that embraced the rusted tent poles, contorting under the extra weight of heavy morning dew. Peter stumbled out of his hospital with the aid of two wooden crutches and paused to admire the one time of day when the sun’s caresses warm the skin, and the gentle whispering of the breeze cools the body. The camp sat atop a hill which led down to a charred battlefield, and a far way past the field were the streets of Italy occupied by Americans. Looking straight down this path, Peter speculated something in his head, furrowing his brow as he did so. Eventually, he gave in to his nagging fatigue and took advantage of a nearby log that bathed in sunlight which he flung himself onto, matching the grace of a falling tree. A gust of wind like the fluttering of a butterfly crept through the empty streets, swept over the blood-stained field, and climbed the hill into the camp to lift some stray blonde locks of hair off of Peter’s forehead. There was peace. He was so deeply submerged in his thoughts that he was completely oblivious to his companion who had seated himself on the dirt beside him.
“It’s Beautiful,” Wolfgang broke the silence. “Sunset is the devil on war’s shoulder, but sunrise can bring peace everywhere.” He turned to Peter unsure, “You feeling better?”
“Well, I can sort of walk,”
“Alright, sort of then!”
“Wolf,” Peter stammered, “thanks for saving my life.” Wolfgang looked at the ground with feigned distraction.
"It's everyone's duty to save as many people as possible, anyway I need you to help me with my new plan"
"Well, let's hear it then!"
"Alright, so half of us sneak into the American base with all of our remaining explosives and blow up their radio tower so that they can't call for backup, then we give them all we've got!" Wolfgang, stirred with determination, stared into Peter's eyes awaiting his approval.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Peter blurted out, "we haven't got a choice, but it's about as solid a plan as any."
The pair helped each other up and after exchanging a respectful nod, shook hands in a friendly manner. When the whole camp was woken, they stood in a drowsy formation waiting to receive the same orders they received every day, except always with one man less than the day before. They were sixteen despaired and desperate half-pints all up, although they had been forty bright and fighting warriors. Apart from Wolfgang and Peter, the other fourteen were Ralph, Michael, Walter, Fred, Alfie, Herbert, Tom, Frankie, George, Joe, Paul, Christian, Hoffmann and Sandy. Hoffmann and Sandy were actually both named Karl, but it became too confusing so they decided to go by surnames. This worked for Hoffmann but Sandy's surname was Wolf, and Wolfgang eventually became fed up with that name too, so they decided on Sandy because of his sandy coloured hair, although all of them but Alfie had sandy coloured hair. Alfie had reddish-yellow hair which whenever referred to as sandy, he insisted was "strawberry blonde". Another thing Alfie insisted on was that being short was far more beneficial than being tall. Alfie was very short.
“I'm telling you, one day when you all get shot in the head, I'll be the one who is laughing down here!” He chuckled in his suiting high voice, laughing until his face grew so red that all of his freckles disappeared. Alfie couldn’t stand anyone in the squadron, but the one he couldn’t stand the most was Christian. Christian was the tallest soldier with sandy coloured hair and blue eyes, like everybody else except for Alfie who claimed to have “azure” eyes. He always had a clean-shaven face with a square jaw, deep-set eyes, and blonde eyebrows that protruded from his smooth skin slightly lower than usual so that he constantly appeared as in thought or anger. This didn’t bother him as it meant that others didn’t bother him as much. He was muscular and broad-shouldered from doing push-ups with one hand and holding his beads in the other while muttering the rosary every morning for as long as he could remember. Christian was a Catholic, and this confused people as they tried to figure out if he was a Christian called Catholic or a Catholic called Christian. Every day he prayed to get home safely but every day he meant it more sincerely than the last.
“Looks like Catholic is off praying again,” Joe whispered cautiously.
“I wonder what he’s praying about?” Frankie innocently inquired. George shoved his glasses even further up his nose and squinted at Christian,
“He’s probably asking forgiveness for killing one of us, I did notice Eric hasn’t been around for days. Last time I saw him he was arguing with Hail Mother Mary here!” The last time George had seen Eric was when he was shot in the field. Frankie looked at George in disbelief then at Christian’s clenched fists, and he crawled away to his tent in silence.
George, Frankie and Joe were inseparable. George and Joe were dependent on each other as partners in crime, and they relied on each other to keep pretending that Frankie was their friend. Frankie was inseparable from anyone, and so they became the inseparable trio. Their favourite group pastime was to exclude Herbert from their group, who wanted nothing to do with them. No one wanted anything to do with them, least of all Paul. Despite Paul being only nineteen, he held a respected stature of maturity and was feared most severely by George who cowered at his glance. Paul had no idea why this was but laughed heartily to himself whenever the chance arose to send George away with his tail between his legs. This fear of Paul caused George to sleep in Joe’s tent, where Frankie was supposed to sleep, but ‘as part of his initiation into the group’ Frankie had to sleep one night out on the battlefield.
“Are you sure?” Frankie questioned them, his huge blue eyes searching them for a way out, “I’m not afraid of doing it or anything, but what if they think I’m a corpse?”
“Of course they won’t! Joe and I both did it. But of course, no one is forcing you to join this group...”
“Hold on just let me take a gun and I’ll do it!” And Frankie was out of the tent before he could even properly stand up.
Still lying on his bed, Joe lifted his head to look through a hole on his side of the tent at Frankie bolting down the hill.
“So how are we going to kick him out of the tent tomorrow night?” He distractedly asked George.
“Ah we’ll think of something.” Luckily for George, Frankie had tried to sleep in George’s old bed after realising that George had taken his, but woke up to the terrifying screech of Paul sharpening his hunting knife. Paul only had to look at Frankie with a menacing grin and Frankie slept in the shrubs just at the bottom of the hill from then on. Ralph was the only person that knew about Frankie’s sleeping place, and the only person that Frankie trusted. Ralph was the only person that everyone trusted, and everyone believed him to be their close friend. When asked who his friends were, he would reply,
“I have no enemies, so I must be friends with everyone.” But everyone who heard this interpreted that they themselves were his closest friend. Ralph would always have time for everyone, he would never speak a mean word, and he would always be first to hear news from Wolfgang. Most afternoons Ralph would play cards with the older men, Herbert, Michael, Fred, Walter and Tom. They enjoyed playing Kwartets with Ralph because he taught them how they could play with a standard deck of cards after the Kwartets deck was blown up along with its owner in the field. Fred and Walter shared a tent and would occasionally wake up early to play Skat with Ralph, who was always up before everyone else. Fred insisted that he be called Fred by everyone except for Ralph who would call him Frederick, anyone else who tried addressing him formally only received a tantrum of shouts in reply from a red-faced Fred. Whenever one of these outbursts happened, Michael, Herbert and Tom could be heard guffawing suddenly as they quite often did. The three were considered old by Walter and Fred, who were considered old by almost everyone else. Nobody knew how old Hoffmann actually was because he had a mature face and hoarse voice, but his speech was still youthful and he had an athletic body. The most puzzling of his details was his hair which, like everybody else’s, was sandy coloured, but could also easily be seen as white. Sandy once tried to ask him how old he was to settle a debate he had with Alfie, to which Hoffmann replied,
“The best age to be is nineteen.” A new debate argued whether the vagueness of what Hoffmann had said was the cause of elderly deafness or youthful wit.
There on that beautifully grim morning, Fred lumbered away from the cards barrel to the formation of soldiers, leaving Ralph and Walter to pack up their game of Skat.
“It’s alright, I think you were going to win anyway,” Ralph reassured Walter’s apologies with a pat on the shoulder. Wolfgang’s expression was as straight as he was standing, and his usual solemnity carried a frightening severity on that morning which seeped into the soldiers’ minds uncomfortably. Wolfgang whipped his eyes around to the cards barrel impatiently which caused Walter to drop the cards he was sorting and stiffly waddle to the formation as quickly and naturally as possible. Ralph had already heard the plan so he remained to sort the cards calmly, and because Wolfgang had told him, he started speaking without waiting for Ralph to join them.
”It has been brought to my attention that we will not survive if we continue our current plans as before and therefore, as your acting commander, I have thought up a plan.” Some downcast faces in Wolfgang’s audience looked up suddenly, confused as to whether or not they were to believe what they had just heard. A murmur arose among the soldiers and Michael let out a hearty laugh, promptly followed by Tom and Herbert, creating a roar of laughter among the old men. Straining to keep his eyes open, Herbert handed Tom an insignificant amount of money as part of some bet that he had made. Wolfgang lost the determination in his eyes and turned to Peter who, understanding this nervous gaze, cleared his throat in a loud and exaggerated manner, disrupting the excited voices. Hearing that everyone’s attention was once again on himself, Wolfgang continued after a sharp inhale of the cool air.
“We haven’t received any supplies since last fortnight. Our food is scarce, we have barely any weapons and only enough ammunition to last approximately two more attacks. I have been told that the battle down in southern Italy is losing, and four more German divisions plus one Italian division will be crossing the Po river and retreating north to help us defend Bologna. Unfortunately, all of the bridges across the Po river have been destroyed by allied bombers, and it may take the reinforcements up to four days to get here. Obviously we can not wait that long, and therefore our goal is to make things easier for them when they arrive. We are going to take our remaining explosives and attempt to disable their radio tower so that they can’t call for reinforcements or supplies. We will then try to weaken their forces and push them back as far as we can. If we succeed, we hold out until reinforcements come. If our plan is unsuccessful...” Wolfgang’s words drifted off as he stared past the group towards the rising sun. Wolfgang did not need to finish his sentence, the sinister air spoke for him, and the soldiers all crawled away solemnly to their tents as the atmosphere reeked of the imminence of their endangering feat.
When the morning was melting into noon the German camp was bustling with anxious movement, and an unsettling heat, unfamiliar to the cool spring of that year, stifled the scene. Paul marched off towards the battlefield for reasons people did not know, and Hoffman, after receiving a quick gaze from Paul, followed behind him in the same firm manner. Paul passed Frankie’s hidden abode where Frankie, having slept through the entire meeting, had just woken up to see the grim determination on Paul’s face and the knife he clutched relentlessly. The whole image pulled straight from his nightmares convinced Frankie to retreat deeper into the shrubs where he again fell asleep. A few people wondered where Paul and Hoffman were going and what they were doing. “They’re not taking any chances of running out of ammunition,” Ralph replied to their whispers as he casually walked past, “all of the bodies out there carry an ammo bag and maybe a magazine if you’re lucky. It’d be a waste to leave it there.” Meanwhile out in the field, Paul and Hoffman crawled to the nearest body they saw and Paul freed the ammo bag from its rigid owner with a quick draw of his knife. Hoffman snatched the gun from the cold grasp and trying not to think about the fate of its previous owner, he inspected the magazine in a mechanical motion. It was empty. The pair crept a little further to reach the next body. Their face was buried in the dirt, made muddy by the blood which had gushed from his forehead. Hoffman tugged at the gun under him, causing the whole stiff frame to turn over. Under the bits of mud that clung to his face, Paul recognised him as Hans, and behind them was his friend who had run after him the day before. “He’s got a full magazine!” Hoffman triumphantly whispered.
“He had a full magazine” Paul replied bitterly.
“Now we have a full magazine, what’s your problem?”
“We can’t be doing this to our own soldiers, it doesn’t feel right. Why don’t we loot off of the American soldiers?”
“It’s not looting, it’s survival. Anyway, we’re not even sure if the Americans use the same bullets as us, why risk it?” Paul’s eyebrows nervously furrowed as he raised his hand to bite his right thumb nail, an action he rarely did, only when he was nervous.
“Load one of those guns,” he said, unnaturally wide eyed with fear, “we’ll need some defence on the German side.” Watching Paul thoughtlessly run forward, Hoffman sighed in frustrated disapproval, then eventually followed more cautiously than the former.
There was a different feel on the other side of the battlefield, a tranquil security that didn’t belong to them. The eerie sensation caused Hoffman to glance back every few seconds, but he didn't know where "back" was. He would look towards the Ally occupied streets for an enemy, and then turn threateningly towards his own side for reasons he couldn't explain. Fear surrounded him. Paul distracted himself with the task of searching for ammunition. He came across a face down corpse of an American, almost twice his own size, and leaned into them in order to turn them over. After some struggling on Paul's part, the giant flopped onto it's back, revealing to Paul a ghastly secret.
“Hoffman,” Paul stammered before gulping to keep his composure, “what were those pistols we were promised but never received?”
“Some Italian scrap metal, Glitani? Gletensi?”
“Glisenti.” Paul corrected him, staring down in front of him. Hoffman peered over Paul’s shoulder and sighed a low whistle as he laid his eyes on the Glisenti M1910 in the grips of the American corpse. “How would the Americans have managed to get our guns?” Paul wondered aloud,
“Stop thinking and just take them back!” Retorted Hoffman as he spotted another Glisenti. At this Paul went pensively quiet, and the pair kept the silence between them for an hour. That is not to say that they did not communicate, for they easily managed to collaborate with each other through means discovered only when one can not, or in their case, do not want to talk. At times, Paul despised the silence so bitterly that he opened his mouth to say anything, and his jaw remained uncomfortably ajar as pathetic conversations that would never suffice the situation ran hurriedly through his mind. They could not discuss the situation they were in because both had thought too much of it already, and both knew the disheartening ending it had in store, but any attempt at a casual conversation would highlight the saddening seriousness of the danger they faced. The morning breeze died subtly and unnoticed, introducing a tense languor, heavy with heat, so that nature was as silent as Paul and Hoffman. Paul’s ears started to make up sounds he had never before heard so intensely, the blood rushing in his head playing a deathly march, and a ringing of a million tones each competing for his attention. Hoffman was the one to finally break the excruciating silence with an awkward clearing of the throat, hesitantly followed by his wavering voice. “We’ve collected twenty-three of these pistols, that’s more than we need for one each. I say—” A gunshot cut Hoffman off, then his towering structure collapsed pitifully to the earth, as if trying to avoid what had not been avoided, and landed with a lifeless thud on his back revealing to Paul the bullet hole between his eyes. It was all too quick for Paul who sat fearfully frozen, and he too would have been targeted if he was not sprawled haphazardly amongst the dead. As a droplet of his friend's blood slid down Paul’s cheek in a tear-like trail, the events of the past few seconds began to form in his memory, and spotting the murderer in the waking town of Italy he fired at him just as carelessly as his enemy had fired at Hoffman. This trigger pull did not satisfy Paul, and he vigorously discharged three more shots. To the best that Paul could see he had hit the American’s arm, who grasped at it uncomfortably, leaving Paul a small window to make his escape. First he crawled to Hoffman, and then he ran back towards the camp with a solid hold on Hoffman’s collar, dragging his deceased companion, along with thirteen of their captured pistols, through the muck of war. Sensing he was on our side of the battlefield he changed his sprint to a walk, and then his walk to a crawl, until eventually he threw himself on the ground with fatigue. Paul let out a deep, painful sigh as he rolled onto his back to stare at the sky. The clouds tried their best to cover up the azure canvas behind them while also displaying themselves ostentatiously, but no matter what they kept moving along. They didn’t grow tired. The sun, pushing through the clouds, also was soldiering on, making its way past the halfway mark to where Paul was going, and it seemed to taunt “it may take me all day, but at least I will make it there!” Paul was almost offended by this purely made up remark of the sun, and pushed himself up once more holding onto his ally like a child drags their irreplaceable doll, and began trudging resolutely on his way. He was almost at the end of the battlefield when he caught a glimpse of Hans again, his face, now fully drowning in sunlight, appeared to glow terrifyingly.
Hans was the husband of Paul’s sister, and apart from nods of acknowledgement, neither of them had anything to do with each other in the army, though they had discussed so much back in Germany, which Paul’s sister always enjoyed but never understood. They only talked to please her, for it would break her heart if the two men she adored most were enemies. “It looks like the allies have backed off of Germany... I’ve heard that Churchill may not be leading Britain any more... Have you seen the price of eggs recently?” They would exclaim excitedly to one another, because they found more joy in pretending to be friends than in seeking a true bond. They only cared that she was happy. Then at that moment Paul fretted how he could tell his sister about this news, and was despaired but slightly relieved upon realising that the responsibility would most likely be someone else’s to read his own name to the puffy-cheeked, weeping widow who was his sister. He decided to assume his fate required him at home to comfort his sister, and in a way almost to reassure himself he would live, he stripped Hans of any items he imagined his sister to sob over sentimentally, and stuffed them into his pockets with a faked disinterest. Paul wanted so badly to give Hoffman and Hans a proper burial, but without a shovel it would be near impossible. Looking around himself, but only near enough so as not to see the loss surrounding him in its colossal amounts, he spotted a mass of rocks at the foot of the hill which could mostly be carried effortlessly. Using these rocks Paul smothered the top half of the two bodies, trying also to smother any lasting painful memories of their short lived existence, until the only rocks left refused to be heaved. The two pairs of legs jutted from Paul’s rock formation as a reminder of his failures, not just in succeeding to properly bury them, but for some reason this image brought to mind all of his major failures in life. For the first time in his life he sat down against the grave with the intention of crying, but was unable to. He had prided himself in having no emotions, and even now he saw no benefit to crying, but no reason not to. Only thoughts he imagined pouring out in tears of emotions colluded in his head stubbornly, resilient against any effort to remove them. They tortured Paul until he gave up his mind to the peace of unconsciousness, and he slept temporarily amongst his allies who slept eternally.
Frankie had not received so much sleep as he had that morning for longer than he could remember, but the effect was scant, causing nothing but a sluggish daze interrupting his customary alertness. Struggling to accurately guess his whereabouts, he felt his way through the bushes to where his body told him the path was, but due to instinct he came to a jolting halt of fear. Frankie scrupulously examined the outside world for any sign of his apparent predator, Paul. There was no sight of him so Frankie, holding his breath as a precautionary measure, listened intensively for something he did not know the sound of, because at that moment it occurred to him that he had never heard Paul utter a word, only seen the evil intent in his eyes. Instead of the haughty laughter he expected, the sounds rolling down the hill were of casual chatter, none of the voices could be individually identified by Frankie, not even one word was clear to his ear poking out of the gap between the bushes. Suddenly it registered to Frankie that the chatter was in English, not German. “What events could have possibly occurred in one morning that lead to our camp being taken by Allies?” Frankie thought anxiously. Had all of his friends been killed? Was the platoon practising their English? Had he been asleep for longer than one morning? These questions, one by one and all at once, begged for Frankie’s attention and Frankie himself sought for the answer.
Grabbing his gun, Frankie loaded it with three bullets that he could scrounge from the mess of his recent living area, and crawled into the open path where he could barely spot the tips of the tents. His breaths shortened as he rigidly dragged himself towards the dominating voices which now and then broke into victorious laughter.
Frankie eventually reached a point where the enemies were in full view, and they were indeed the enemy as he distinguished the American flags proudly displayed on their arms. No bodies lay across the ground as Frankie’s nightmares had so vividly proposed, but five casually armed Americans towered around the cards barrel. One particularly lanky soldier carried no expression, and seemed to be teased for his lack of presence in the current conversation. The two on his left were older but fitter, and seemed to go off into their own conversation as the smoke from the cigar of the closest one partially hid the face of the other who appeared to be a lieutenant of some sort. The man on his right was generic in every way possible, so that even if one knew him intimately their features would not be memorable, except for his hair which was styled so naturally it seemed unnatural in its chaotic surroundings. The fifth soldier with his back to Frankie reminded him of Alfie, short in stature but large in every other way. Frankie lay frozen and level with his targets, not having the slightest clue of how the following events should or would turn out. His body twitched and trembled terribly, and the more he focussed on keeping still, the more violently he shook. Suddenly the short American thunderously cursed in rhythmic agony after a random but fatal twitch of Frankie’s finger had released a bullet into his lower back. The other Americans instantly lost their friendly manner as they spun around threateningly upon the sound, and would have instantly shot Frankie had the knock-back from his misfire not nudged him down the reasonably steep hill ever so slightly enough for him to roll into the covering shrubbery. The lanky soldier and the generic soldier ran frustratedly to the rustling bush while the other two older Americans carried their suffering comrade into a nearby tent. Frankie froze once again until he heard the bullets being planted in the dry soil directly above him, but miraculously not inside of him. He screamed tormented anyway, for he feared if he did get shot he would not have enough time to do so before it was too late. The bullets stopped, so did Frankie’s screaming. The plain-looking soldier lowered his head down to the Earth in order to perceive any sign of life, when suddenly Frankie’s scrawny hand jabbed out of the darkness and gripped the Glisenti pistol which was strapped around his leg. The soldier shrieked in childish terror causing one of the others with the cigar to bound out of the tent unarmed. This opportunity to recapture his camp did not escape Frankie who sprung up above the bushes, which clung to his waist incessantly, fixing his left foot on the back of the American who squirmed in silence except for his grunts of effort and sputtering of breathlessness. Frankie’s face bore a slight grin of excitement for an awkward second as the blood in his face rushed to belatedly fill in the white trenches scratched in his face by his quick ascension from the bushes. He fixed his gaze on the boney soldier in front of him—who tightly embraced his weapon, forgetting to use it—and let the barrel of his pistol follow in hostility. Not risking to wait for another second, Frankie squeezed the trigger close to himself. Nothing happened. Undeterred by this, Frankie pulled back the trigger once more, this time creating a harrowing spectacle to all onlookers, including Paul.
Being abruptly awoken by the initial gunshot, Paul raced towards the camp with renewed energy, arriving right on time for the viewing of Frankie’s demise. The fiery burst from the gun he held engulfed his arm, and fragments of the gun fired out towards his head and neck, becoming lost in his flesh. The soldier on the ground quit his writhing as Frankie’s body dropped to the ground to begin his own pointless squirming. The standing soldier averted his gaze each way, helplessly seeking guidance, as the soldier near the tent dropped his cigar and darted back inside to avoid his apprehensive thoughts. Paul quickly emptied the pistols of their ammunition which the Americans had either foolishly used in ignorance, or cleverly placed in cunning. He knew exactly where the ammunition they had received for the pistols in advance was kept. Joe’s tent. There were now two and a half Americans in Joe’s tent.
Paul could not think of where his platoon had gone, but only watched impatiently for the two Americans to finally duck into the tent cluelessly. No one knew what they were to do about the situation, least of all Frankie who still coughed up blood in the bushes, rotating on his back uselessly.
Paul ran with bent legs and back, towards where he could hear Frankie quietly choking and disappeared into the thickness of bushes. Frankie shivered upon seeing Paul, but soon realised that it made no difference what he saw, what he did, and what passed on the Earth that he would depart, yet would itself continue on much the same for as long as it pleased. Paul’s composed features began to twitch as he searched for a sole problem that if fixed would save Frankie entirely. It was not to be found. Sweat layered Frankie’s forehead, his cheeks a runway for the endless blood he salivated, his chin and nose splattered with blood that marked explosive coughs, and his eyes swum in a fluctuation between franticness and apathy. Paul did not know how to console, but he knew he was supposed to. Frankie had lost all energy to move, and so only stared expressionlessly into Paul’s pensive eyes as Paul raised his thumb nail to his chattering teeth again and threw down his bag. They stared at each other, delving into thoughts that concerned the other in some way. Frankie was dying now because he was left at camp, he was left at camp because he did not hear the briefing for the day, he did not hear the briefing because he was in the bushes, he was in the bushes because Paul had scared him from the tent. Was this Paul’s own fault? Paul parried this question with the fact that Frankie was only in his tent because George was in Frankie’s tent, but was not satisfied with this alibi as he remembered that George was in Frankie’s tent because Paul had scared off George. At that moment Paul wished George were in Frankie’s place.
Frankie found himself more mature and sagacious in death; Why had he not been before? As he stared up into the reddening eyes of Paul, occasionally covered by locks of sandy hair, he saw a friend never had. What else had he missed on Earth? These thoughts shifted Frankie into his anxious state, which was his last. The discerning gaze of pondering that had controlled his face for the first and only time returned to his known simple face of innocence. The light, almost non-existent brows that shaded his questioning eyes relaxed at last as they focussed on things past human consciousness.
Paul felt the scrutiny of Frankie’s eyes lifted off of him and respectfully rolled him down to the bottom of the hill. His plan was forming as he lowered himself down into the mud that Frankie made, trying his best to replicate Frankie. Frankie’s rifle lay forgotten at Paul’s feet, presenting a useful weapon for Paul. After cocking the gun, Paul wedged the butt under his armpit, between his arm and ribs, pointing it upwards slightly enough so as not to be seen above the bushes. There he sat, reviewing in his head the course of events that were to follow. Paul let out a constant flow of disturbed screaming that rustled the leaves and rattled the tents. Something dropped in the tent followed by murmurs of annoyance. Paul continued, and the murmurs rose to arguments, presumably about what to do about the inconvenient screaming. One of the older voices assumed authority and clearly won the debate against a younger, trembling voice. The argument ended with the sound of a gun being loaded and then footsteps which sought out to meet Frankie, not knowing he lay peacefully at the bottom of the hill. Paul, who was now not even aware of his own screaming, thought intensely about what it was he must do in the approaching seconds that would determine not only his own life, but his sister’s—and anyone else that depended on him. The number of footsteps that it took the American to get to the bushes seemed at least three times as many as it should have to Paul, but finally he saw the disgusted face of the skinny soldier squinting into the bushes to locate his target and put everyone out of their misery. The soldier raised the gun to his chest and placed his eye in line with the sight, in line with Paul. A powerful gunshot rang down the hill, and Paul’s screaming ceased to exist. The American soldier crumpled to the floor in an inanimate state, allowing Paul to examine the accuracy of his shot. The bullet entered to the left of their nose—just above the lip—but the angle meant for a quick death, thus not alerting the company in the tent.
Paul guessed he had about half a minute before suspicions would rise about the American’s mission, but before he could take a step towards the tent an intimidating voice from his destination questioned him. The subject of the words was unclear to Paul, but the intonation clearly posed it as a question.
“Yes,” Paul said in his most American accent, remembering only a few basic English words from his recent days at school. He hoped that this would be the desired answer to the question. An unnerving silence kept Paul in his position for a few moments before he hurriedly scurried behind the tent and peered through the slit that Joe so often philosophised through. The old American who had dropped his cigar was lighting a replacement as the other old lieutenant hunched over the wounded soldier who had passed out from his rage. Looking to the right of the tent, Paul spotted the soldier who Frankie had pinned to the ground was fixing his hair with a comb that he must have carried with him like Paul carried his knife. Most importantly, Paul spotted that the tent was closed on the opposite side, allowing him to stealthily cause a distraction. He trod as lightly as he could to the opening of the tent, struggling not to disturb the gravel loudly under his heavy boots, and picked up the dying cigar. After searching around himself habitually, Paul puffed the cigar weakly causing the end to flicker dimly and wisps of smoke to trickle into the air. He puffed again and the end lit up as if now fully awake, producing semi-visible clouds. Another puff resulted in a full billow of cheap tobacco, finally resembling its former smoke. Now satisfied that he had fully resuscitated the cigar, Paul puffed on it leisurely before venturing swiftly to Hoffman and Sandy’s tent, two tents down from the tent full of enemies. Upon reaching the tent, Paul flipped over Hoffman’s pillow revealing a skinny hole in the earth, hiding what Paul knew as a bottle of Hoffman’s whiskey. Picking up the half empty bottle, Paul searched the tent for a cloth of some sort. He tried to recall every forgettable detail about his father’s stories from the Spanish revolution. The most prominent memory that filled his mind was the enthusiasm of his father’s face as he proudly described the chaos of their makeshift Molotov cocktails; an enthusiasm seldom seen but in those moments where the stubble that illustrated his lackadaisical appearance vanished under the handsome face of triumph that never fully emerged since those days he described.
A greyish-brown sock protruded from beneath Sandy’s blanket and interrupted Paul’s reminiscing, which he now realised had cost him time that he could not afford. He snatched the sock and stuffed it in the glass bottle, soaking it in cheap whiskey, and using a small stick he fished it out so it slopped over the neck of the bottle. Paul was satisfied with this weapon. He crawled back to the tent where some chatter had begun, and while the tone sounded friendly and insignificant, Paul only feared that they questioned the whereabouts of their friend. This urged him to act faster, and so he peered into the tent through the hole to judge whether it would be safer to throw his Molotov from the hole he looked through, or to unzip the entrance and throw it there. The latter proved favourable as the ‘doctor’ firmly concentrated on the patient, facing Paul, and the general with the cigar puffed half-decent smoke rings also towards Paul. His one problem was the young officer to the right of the tent who had taken up a book and sat directly facing the entrance. Paul knew he had to act soon no matter what, and in preparation he felt for the box of ammunition he knew was in front of him. He marked it with his knife, making a small slit in the tent right above it, and then cautiously walked to the entrance.
Paul remembered that the unzipping of the tent would not be so much of a surprise for them as they expected the lanky soldier’s return any moment. With this comforting thought Paul resolutely put the end of the cigar to the dripping sock and after a moment’s sizzling the top of the sock was engulfed in a wave of flames, dancing spectacularly. The entrance slowly unzipped. No one stirred except for the smoking general who, after turning to see the cause of the sound, turned back impatiently. The tent was now open. Paul marked a spot on the ground with his eyes and raising the Molotov above his head he hurled it to the ground, landing more to the right than he had imagined. He impulsively zipped up the tent before scuttling behind it. The screams inside the tent suddenly became audible to Paul, and he now recognised the American curse words his friends had taught him years ago. He quickly located the slit he made, inserted his knife and glided it to the ground. Freeing the box of ammunition he leapt victoriously to the bushes where he had left the guns. Paul heard an unzipping as he loaded two of his pistols with ammo, and tried to steady his hands for what was to come. He cocked two guns, holding one in each hand, and crawled out of the bushes before running behind the cover of the first tent. Much sooner than Paul expected, one of the Americans inspected the back of the tent, gun in hand. It was the young one who was reading when the molotov had disrupted them, with pants charred beneath the knees and small holes around the ankle where minor burns could be noticed. This young soldier, all the blood drained from his face, had obviously received the least of Paul’s damage by the sound of ceaseless, agonizing moans that flowed from the middle of camp. Paul realized this would not be the brave and daring feat he had imagined but a piteous execution of no mercy. Nonetheless he did not hesitate to shoot the perfectly healthy soldier in front of him, he had had his chance to defend himself. Using first his dominant hand he fired the gun in his right hand, landing a bullet in the soldier’s stomach, and so as not to risk his own life or prolong the suffering of the other’s, he fired with his left hand to kill. He completely missed. The soldier clutched his stomach and stumbled backwards until his feet betrayed him, pulling out from underneath and landing himself on his back. Paul felt his victim’s suffering as his own and he knew it would only end when he had killed him. In this desperation to end suffering he dropped his left gun and gripped the other with both hands, and stabilizing his aim he pulled the trigger.
Half of Paul felt a relief, the other half—that which felt for others and himself—died with the death of his friend, his family, and his enemies.
With the emptiness that now swum in his soul, Paul walked fearlessly into the middle of the camp and, without a thought, shot the old generals who lay half burnt on the gravel. The tent entrance parted and he stood motionlessly between the flaps. He frowned in thought, tossing up what should be done with the soldier in the tent who flowed blood from his back after a mistake in his surgery. Paul looked at the ground which seemed to answer the question he asked himself. Those flames which so majestically covered the sock were now multiplied over the dying grass of the tent, with much the same majesty.
“Let it burn,” Paul answered himself, “Let it all burn.”