The mud-soaked man opened his eyes. For a few seconds, he could not see, though his eyes were open. There was a high, ringing sound reverberating within his ears, like feedback from an old speaker. His vision began to clear, slowly, and steadily, until it had reached the point where he could guess at his surroundings from the blurry watercolor shapes his eyes were feeding to his brain. His hearing, too, had reached a point where he could hear some of what was going on. What he saw and heard was heavily disconcerting. He thought he heard screams in the distance, true, signs of life. Not screams of joy, or screams of excitement. These were screams of pain, anguish, and loss. But the silence was heavier, almost completely suppressing any sounds. As though someone had placed a huge plastic cup on top of him, and all he could hear were sounds from outside.
Less than a foot from his face was a hand. He poked at it (which was difficult because throughout his extremities he was experiencing extreme spasms) and realized seconds later that there was no body attached to the hand. He quickly drew his own hand (which thank god was still attached) back to his side. He resolved to try to stand up. He pushed himself up onto his elbows, drew a knee forward, started to support weight on it, brought his other knee up, and finally rose to his feet.
He looked around him. His vision had cleared substantially in the time it took him to stand. It was now almost back to normal. All about him were strewn bodies, dead and torn apart by the force of the artillery barrage that had apparently been called on their position. It was a wonder he could stand without any help. He knew what he must do. He must look for survivors. He was out on recon, after all. He began to make his way (carefully, as there was sharp debris everywhere and the field was carpeted with mines) toward the nearest scream he could hear.
As he walked he passed scenes of gore that would leave a man of weaker constitution vomiting and in the fetal position. One man’s arm had been blown off (He recognized the arm by the watch it was wearing. The watch was still ticking.) and was resting in the entrails of another man who was the unfortunate victim of one of the first blasts. It exploded less than a foot from him. He was lying down to try to protect himself. In a way, he did, the blast only took his legs and lower abdomen, leaving him alive and in extreme agony until he died of blood-loss and shock. Ten feet away were the man’s legs. They had been nearly liquefied and were currently plastered all over the side of the foxhole the rest of the man’s body was in.
He suppressed a gag reflex as he looked over this. He willed himself to keep moving. The voices were still screaming. He knew he was not the only survivor. As he stumbled over the masses of wire that had been so carefully strung over the battlefield, he heard slight grunts from people slumped in the trenches with fatal wounds. The slight grunts of those doomed to die. He forced himself to stop thinking about it. If there was one thing that being in the war had taught him, it was that the more you ask or wonder about why things are the way they are or how things might be if they were different, you find yourself wishing you hadn’t, for usually, the less that gets questioned, the better.
His pondering had taken up the time it took him to reach the screaming voices he had heard. There was one private, a greenhorn most likely as he was only 18, screaming bloody murder. His face was covered with the entrails of another soldier who had been blown to pieces by a claymore.
“Kid. Hey, kid.”
The kid continued screaming.
“Listen when I’m speaking to you!” He took the kid’s shoulders and shook him until he stopped screaming.
“Who are you?”
“The name’s Tom, but that’s not important. What’s yours?”
“My name is Frank. This… I mean, what’s left of this… is what used to be called Harry. He was a good soldier, and a great friend. He’s saved my life at least three times.”
“He’s gone now, you need to move on.”
“I just can’t believe he’s actually dead.”
“It’s war, Frank. You got to know that people die here.” Frank’s head drooped in a reluctant nod of agreement. Tom continued.
“I got to find the rest of my group. I’m in Golf Company, 347th Infantry Division.”
“I was in Kilo Company, same division as you. But that last barrage took out our CO. I don’t know if anyone else in my company survived.”
“Come with me, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one from Golf that survived. Last time I saw my CO he was squatted down in a trench we just finished digging, along with the rest of us; and he sent me and two other guys out on recon.”
“Do you think everyone in the trench ended up okay?”
“Can’t say for certain, that barrage took out the other two guys for sure, and the rest of my group most likely thinks I’m dead.”
“Did you see the bodies?”
“I saw the arm of one of them in the entrails of the other. The arm still had the guy’s watch on it. It was still ticking. Damn good watch.”
They started the walk back to Tom’s Company’s trench. As far as Tom knew, his company was still squatted in that trench.
They walked side by side in a grim haze of silence, until Frank finally spoke up. “So… How long you been in the army?”
“About 4 or 5 years, I’m 24 now.”
“So you joined the army when you were about 20?”
“Well now! The kid can count!” The grim silence returned.
They walked back through the scorched, torn-apart area where the barrage took place. The kid, who was apparently of much weaker constitution than Tom, retched at the sight of the sprayed corpses. He spat out the bile that had risen into his mouth as they continued onward.
They walked past the foxhole with the ticking watch. Tom walked over to the arm, removed the watch, and put it on his own arm. Frank looked on in horror.
“You’re just going to take his watch?”
“Do you see the rest of his body anywhere?”
“Isn’t that disrespectful?”
“He’s never going to have use for this watch ever again. If I didn’t take it, someone else would have. Like I said, damn good watch.”
Finally, Tom’s trench was within sight.
“Hello!” yelled Tom.
“You alive up there?” a voice from in the trench answered.
“Do I sound alive to you?”
“That you do.” A head rose from the trench, followed by a neck, shoulders, and a chest. A pair of arms rose from either side and lifted the rest of the man out of the trench. “So what happened to Kerry and Mitch?”
“That barrage killed them. This here’s Kerry’s watch. The thing was still ticking while it was on his blown-off arm.
“Huh. Damn good watch.”
“Glad to see you alive again, Dave.”
“You too, Tom. Who’s the kid?”
“This here’s Frank. He’s from Kilo. Those poor bastards took most of the hit.”
“Yeah. That’s what the kid said.”
“Kilo’s stationed about 50 miles east of here. You walked that far?”
“No, I walked about a half-mile at best.”
“Then what the hell is that ki-”
Frank spoke up. “Sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen. But I’m afraid you all die here.”
“What? What kind of nonsense are you talking, soldier?”
“I’m not from Kilo. I’m with the resistance. You’ve been had, men.” Frank pulled out a grenade, pulled the pin, and tossed the grenade into the trench. As an afterthought, he followed this with a second grenade. He heard a groan from one of the men in the trench. The groan was silenced mercifully by a flash from the muzzle of Frank’s gun. He pulled out a radio. “This is lone ranger to base, lone ranger to base, do you copy, over.”
“This is base, reading you loud and clear. And for the last time, Frank, stop calling yourself Lone Ranger. It’s silly, over.”
“Frank to base, reporting golf three, five, niner has been neutralized, repeat, golf three, five, niner has been neutralized, over.”
“Good work, Frank. Once again, you never fail to astonish. Return to base immediately, over.”
“Frank reading you loud and clear, returning to base, over and out.” Frank took one last look at his handiwork. He kicked what was left of Tom’s body into the trench. It looked less out of place there, he decided.
Tom’s arm was blown off and came to a skidding rest in the midst of Dave’s entrails. This arm wore a watch. The watch was still ticking.