His face is eager, waiting for my report. No sign of hope or despair, just the muck on his cheeks, skin clinging to the sharp bones right below the dark bags.
“What’ve ya got, Ed?”
His head cocked upward as if to see over the edge. He had to be about George’s age, maybe a few months older. I finally gave up looking through the tiny spy glass. I sighed as I folded it up, placing it back in its chipped case.
“Nothin’ new to report, Johnny.”
It wasn’t so much disappointment that crossed his face as acceptance. There had not been any movement in weeks and there had not been any hope of movement in days. It seemed as if the entire world had come to a halt. Everything except the rats, the rain, and the steadily depleting resources.
I picked up the jug of water at my feet, but after feeling lift it, I placed it right back without so much as a sip. I again wondered if we could become so desperate as to drink the filth that regularly flooded the trenches. We tried to catch the rainwater, but after falling through the poisoned air, all we could taste was lead and gas.
I was brought back by the sound of Johnny’s helmet thudding against the sandbags that comprised our makeshift wall.
“Why don’t you assess the gun and ammo?”
“Com’on, Ed, I did it a few hours ago,” Johnny complained.
“Well, as it is, you’re lookin’ to send me to the sanitorium sonner’an I planned,” I said, my voice raising slightly.
We both fell into a crouch, our guns pointed straight up at the posts of the barbed-wire fence that acted like a front door.
“Sounded like it came from No Man’s Land,” Johnny whispered.
I silently slid my spyglass back out of its case. I concentrated solely on the sound of Johnny trying to stifle his chattering teeth as I stepped back onto the ledge.
Click, click, click, click…
I scanned the horizon to his percussion. The mare came into view, its side gaping open, most likely from the wire. It bolted into the yellow-tinged haze that crept closer to the trench.
“Put your mask on, Johnny.”
“Wh-why?” He asked, his body now shuttering in rhythm with his teeth.
“To stop them teeth o’yours,” I replied, taking a deep breath to calm myself, I finally turned to him. “What are ya goin’ to do come winter, boy?”
He choked down a cry.
I patted him on the cheek before pulling his mask down, sealing in the tears. In the same movement, I swerved around and secured my own mask after suppressing the urge to recoil. That fear that I would never feel the wind on my face again always found its way into my mind, no matter how many times I successfully took it off again. That same fear scars my last memory of Johnny’s face.
The mare’s frantic cries finally stopped and I was left with nothing but my own breathing echoing through my ears.
Despite the distance, I felt the vibrations ripple through the Earth, through the sandbags, through my skin and into my nerves. Johnny was in the fetal position, tucked into the wall as far as its construction would allow. All I could do was stare. Not at Johnny, that was normal, but at the long, empty stretch of trench to my right. That was not normal. We should have received orders by now, shouted from man to man or run down the line by a boy Johnny’s age.
“Wh-what — d-do?”
It was muffled, but I pieced out his question.
“HOLD. YOUR. POSITION.” I said pulling him up from the ground and into a defensive position. I gave his shoulder one last reassuring squeeze before it reached the fence. And then the fence disappeared behind the yellowish wall. Johnny had retreated to the furthest end of the trench when word finally came:
We cannot go back. We must push forward.
I nodded to the messenger, a middle-age man still weighed down by what was once a considerable gut. The frantic look in his eyes told me he would be the last man out of that hole. I went over my coverings again before pulling myself up and through the fence. I had only crawled a foot before Johnny was tossed up after me.
I could hear his cries through his mask, and it was only then that I realized he had never seen war in winter. They always assumed the war would end before the next winter. His shirt was too light, his jacket too thin. The gas would eat through them and then through him.
I pulled us both up as far as I dared, trying to keep from being the most obvious mark on the field. I pulled his mask to mine.
“We gotta run, Johnny! Fast as ya can straight to the other side!”
And I pulled him behind me as I ran in the direction I assumed to be forward. I did not stop for the screams. I did not stop for the mortars. I only stopped for Johnny.
I didn’t know what took him down. Gas, bullet, or if his spirit simply fled, in the end, it didn’t matter. When he stopped, I did, too. I stopped and I held him afloat in the muck. Watching as the gas cleared and the hill came into view.
I saw them perched in their nests. I glanced long enough to realize the truth and then turned away. I stared deeper and deeper into my own warped face, reflected back at me in Johnny’s goggles. I tried to think of some of our marching songs, but the tune was interrupted. No march was fast enough to match the rhythm of a German machine gun.
*Inspired by stories left behind in writings and artifacts found in the National WWI Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.