He felt a familiar warmth on his hand. Blood. It was everywhere. He could no longer tell whether it came from the bodies that littered the area around him, from one of his injured or fallen comrades, or whether it came from himself.
Bang! Another bomb fell. He could hear clinking and clanging around him, as the shrapnel launched itself at whatever surface it could. Lifting his head, as soon as it quieted, he stood. Slowly, he stepped through the bodies discarded throughout the trenches, before recognizing one of the faces. Kevin. A man he’d come to respect. A friend he supposed.
“Remember, there’s always an out clause.” He could remember the man telling him, when he just arrived at the army. “Our country doesn’t send the wounded back into battle.”
“What do you mean?” He recalled asking.
“If you ever want to get out of this shit hole, your easiest ticket out is to get injured.” The man had taught. “Best do it yourself. Less risk of dying. Worst case, you go to prison, a national traitor. But, make it look like you got hit by something. By accident. And you’re a freeman.”
Over the course of the year, the man had taught him how to use the knife, the rifle, even throw grenades. He became skilled enough to not only harm himself, but also others. He became familiar enough with healing, such that he could distinguish the causes of wounds, and reproduce new ones in similar manners. He felt a tear fall from his eye. Despite all that the man had taught him, he hadn’t escaped the costs of war either.
Kevin had known of the out clause, and had enough mastery to use it. He put a hand over his friend’s empty eyes that were left permanently staring into the sky, closing them. Yet, even with knowledge of how to escape, he stayed. Even with the skill necessary to carry it out, he chose not to use it. Even in face of his deteriorating mental health, and the constant trauma of seeing his students die one by one, he still chose to teach.
In the end, he still chose to sacrifice for the country. A hero. But the man’s death only brought the reality of the war closer to home. Although he’s been stationed in the field for over a year, he’d learned not to get too attached to others. Up until now, he hadn’t lost anyone that he personally cared about. At least, not anyone that he felt like he knew. For once, the lessons the man gave started feeling relevant.
Suddenly, he couldn’t help but question whether staying to fight in the war was truly a good idea. Even if he stayed, how much could one person do? How much could he contribute to bringing back peace? How long would he have to stay till the war officially came to an end? Even if it did end, would a conclusion to the war really bring about peace?
His family still waited for him back home. But if he left, who would get revenge for Kevin? And if he left, who would give him the grave he wanted and deserved? The man had wanted to die at home, and get buried with his family. Not here. If he injured himself, how could he carry the body back with him? Too many questions spiralled in his head. And he hated being the one that had to decide.
But that’s life…wasn’t it? From one’s birth till one’s death, decisions needed to be made. Sometimes shared decisions. Sometimes independent decisions. Since coming to the battlefield, it felt like this was the first time that he was truly alone. The first time that a significant choice fell into his hands. He looked up, for the first time, noticing the shared fear contorting the faces of his fellow soldiers.
For the first time, he understood Kevin’s decision to stay. He wasn’t the only one afraid. He wasn’t the only one that wanted to be at home. His eyes lingered on the new recruits that joined them, Kevin’s most recent students. A pungent odor of urine came from their direction. What were they going to do without someone to teach them? He could already imagine the sorry sap that would replace him if he chose to take the easy way out.
With Kevin always present, these questions never occurred to him. But now he understood. His family might miss him, but the men were in desperate need for someone to teach them. In Kevin’s absence, he was going to be that someone.
“I’ll watch over them for you.” He whispered to his friend’s corpse. “And thank you.”
Death would come one way or another, but he would choose the way that it came. He, alone, would choose the way that he would live.
This story was inspired by the writing prompt from the “Promptly Written” Publication.
Nothing anyone can do will shorten or extend their own or someone else’s exit date — just the circumstances are the product of the chaos of everyone’s free will. — Marcus