WE’RE DEAD MEN. WE just don’t know it yet.
Dual concussive explosions leave a ringing in my ears that doesn’t go away. I’m long past caring or reacting. I want to save as many as I can.
Instead, the cacophony builds and builds until I am nothing but sound and silence at once. Deafening. Awakening. How the fuck do I get my men out of this?
“We’ll make it, Jace,” I growl at the body behind me. I’ll get him out. Send him home. He’s going to make it home. His family deserves it. He’s earned it.
Trickles of wetness leak from my ears. Blood, I’m sure. There’s so much blood everywhere. Jace is in two pieces, his torso ruined, shredded in a stringy mass that acts like a mop against the dusty road.
I should die here, too, but I am still holding his shoulders, still trying to get him to a medic, his family, anything—any place away from here. I can’t leave him. I know what they’ll do to him.
It’s useless now. He’s gone. Only his uniform holds him together. But I can’t stop dragging him toward a distant and impossible help as the wind blows grit into my face and stings my eyes.
“Stay with me, Jace. Stay with me.” I continue to murmur the mantra for several yards, willing my friend to hang onto life. I know better, but I’m stuck in the loop between knowledge and instinct. Another explosion nearby rocks me, nearly causes me to topple over. It is not so close though; I am able to stay upright.
There is no gray area in the space between conscious thought and subconscious fear. I’m a picture without detail, swiped by a great wet sponge into a puddle of muddy color. Another explosion. The bells beating against my brain chime with more force.
Then the ringing is joined by a drumming. A paradiddle of gunfire played by a master musician. There is a pattern there, interrupted only by the need to resupply.
There’s yelling behind me; I can barely hear it above the other sounds assaulting my senses. A howling and primal call in a language I do not understand. I should have paid better attention. I should have studied and learned more so I’d know what they were saying. Now it doesn’t matter. I’ll soon be dead. I’ll be like Jace. I won’t care about anything. And, what’s worse, I’ll leave no one behind to mourn me. At least he has that. At least he leaves another’s sadness behind to prove he was real once.
All the faces that surround me are frozen in different stages of surprise. All dead on the ground at my feet.
I’m the only one left. How do I deserve to be the only one left? I hold onto my friend tighter. I pull his body against my own so that I can feel him, know that...
He is real. Dammit. He saved my ass a time or two. It can’t end like this. I think I’m crying.
Pulling him higher causes the tattered leftovers of his lower legs to leave the ground and swish against my pant legs.
I do not look down. I do not want to see the gore that is being spread with every movement across the camouflage material. Jace is still real. He is still my friend. He is not my memory yet.
He. Is. Real.
But he isn’t moving. His chest no longer rises and falls. I’m in shock. I want to give up. I should not survive when so many good brothers and sisters are gone. I’ll die here. With them. I don’t deserve to be spared. Give me the honor of a good death with the only family I have.
“Stay with me, Jace.” Or let me go with you. The words spill from my lips once again, a desperate prayer. I can’t do this. I can’t live. It’s better to die here.
My reaction would be different if anyone else was still alive. I’d be concentrating, focusing on getting them to safety. The adrenaline would force me into life-preserving action. I’m the last though. Alone with the shell that was once Jace. He’s the leftover husk of a human, that fact punctuated by the spent ammo casings littering the ground.
We had no chance. We weren’t prepared. This was supposed to be a routine run, just a scout check. There wasn’t supposed to be any opposing forces for fifty miles. An ambush, bombs on the road, enemies hidden artfully against the dry landscape.
The yelling is closer. They’re excited by our devastation. I wait for the end by thinking of the beginning.
As an orphan, I’d thought the military life would give me purpose and family. But it wasn’t what I imagined. Yes, there was camaraderie and friendship, but there was also mortality and fear.
Wake up every day with the very real promise that you may be experiencing your very last sunrise.
Your last cup of coffee.
Your last good shit over a waste bag.
A shot snags me in the shoulder. It pushes me forward. The pain should be blinding, but it’s not. Too much adrenaline, so much that my pulse races until I am nothing outside the sound of my own heart beating. I feel numbness at my wound. The sensation spreads, like the web of a tireless black widow, into the reaches of my body. I feel it weaving within my toes and fingers. I am sticky with it. I am the prey. Around me is the predator.
Bullet after bullet enter my legs until I buckle forward. One leg has been hit so many times that the flesh is a pocketed ruin, sinews of skin barely keeping upper and lower thigh attached to one another. I fall atop my friend in a great heap. His lower half squishes beneath me. I’m not sickened by the sound or sensation of my friend’s malleable, gelatin-like torso against me. I’m too numb. My brain is screaming at me to try and move. Push upward. Drag myself along the ground now, leave Jace behind.
I can’t leave him though. Not here. Not in hell.
“Shit, Jace. Shit. Shit. You’re not dead. You got a wife, man. Think about your kids. Shit.” I’m murmuring the words as my head lolls toward the ground, my lips perfectly positioned next to his right ear. “Think about Amy. Think about the boys.” Each syllable expels from me like vomit. I can hear my voice again; it’s crystal clear as I beg for Jace to stay with me.
My eyelids droop. “Jace, I’m sorry man. I’m sorry I can’t get you home.” Am I still caught in a storm’s eye or have I been freed? There was a tornado of gunfire only moments ago. It is gone now. Silence like a great asp is rearing up to strike. No... that is not right. I am a house set down in ruin upon the great witch that is my enemy. But that would mean my enemy is dead, crushed, leaving nothing but a pair of combat boots behind. “This is easy.” I speak, a prayer floating through barely-parted lips. Dying. It’s just letting go. I’m coming, Jace.
Dying is easy.
LIVING IS NOT.
“We can’t save that leg. Just forget it.” A man’s voice is stern. Something jabs my arm. A needle? Cool burning seeps into my veins. Definitely a needle.
“What about this one?” Someone is tugging at my right foot. They are pulling fiercely, repositioning it. Against my other leg, I feel the pressure of something sharp. A whirring sound joins the conversation. Then the sharpness is gone. I am lost in waves of euphoria. Morphine.
I try to sit up—try to focus on what is happening below my waistline. Jesus. I never knew a femoral artery could gush so much. It wasn’t like the movies.
It was worse.
The last thing I hear as I drift into darkness is life-changing.
“This one will be going home. He’s one of the lucky ones.”
Sure, asshole. I’m lucky.