This story is by Monisha Mukherjee and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Silence is unknown to me. The constant rain of bullets, breaking burn my ears. There is never relief in the trenches, only truth. Sometimes I try to think back to before this war began. I remember my little flat and how it felt to sleep in a bed at night. Perhaps the thing I miss most is the smell of the streets on market day, when the farmers have just arrived from the countryside. I envy those who are outside this war, still living that life. On the outside, there is a tomorrow, but here there is only today. I hear the other soldiers talk at night. They say that there is no hope. That we are here till we die. Rus doesn’t listen to them. He says there is no honour in self-pity.
“It’s not over till it’s over and, we decide when that happens.” He says.
The other soldiers avoid him. They don’t want to believe in the future. I don’t want to lose the one friend I have. Sometimes I have moments when I freeze. My vision blurs and I tremble. Rus sits by me and tells me stories about what the world used to be like. He says that there used to be millions of glowing stars in the sky, and that they would shine down guiding lost souls to peace, but the smoke got so thick in 1940 that they can’t be seen anymore. The soothing tone of his voice calms me down. Sometimes when one of us has been injured, Rus and I make up stories about his past. When he first joined, he and a group of new recruits had been sent out to the front lines. Rus had been in a explosion and ended up with amnesia. He can’t remember anything about his family or childhood. I like to tell him that one day if the war ends, I’ll help him find them. But today is not that day. I stare out across no man’s land, at the opposing army. Their trench is falling apart, equally unstable as ours. Another bomb goes flying, crashing into the ground. It sprays dust into our eyes, blinding us.
“Rus, we need more ammo.” Rus runs across the trench and comes back with a crate. He loads the ammunition into the machine gun. I see him look across the desolate plain and his eyes grow wide.
“We have to go.”
“We can’t just go. What are you talking-” I glance across the field and I see what has made my otherwise fearless friend so scared. A cloud of yellow gas advances towards us, creeping at a fast pace.
“Poison gas.” I reach for my gas mask but he stops me. “Don’t bother. It’s a new strain. It’s designed to burn right through gas masks.” I drop my mask and stare out at the cloud.
“I know this kind. It is heavy and will settle in the trench!” His words fly over my head, I can only see my imminent death coming closer.
“Cole! We have to go now !” I shake off the sense of dread and nod to him. We run. He is faster than me, and I struggle to keep up. Panic ensues in the trenches. I am scraped against the wall as three soldiers push past me. I reach out for Rus’s hand. He struggles through the larger soldiers and latches onto me. We are running toward the still standing trees. Beaten and breaking, the trees are the single thing standing above the trenches. As we near them, I hear blood-curdling screams. The gas has reached the trench. I look back for a moment to see the other soldiers. They are trying to escape through the tunnels.
“The gas is heavy,” I recall Rus saying. I turn back to the trees. I am not a hero. I do not have to save them. I only have to save myself. So I keep running. Rus grabs the roots of the trees and pulls himself out of the trench. We hide behind the trees, as they shield us from the bullets.
“Keep going, there is a town not far from here, find help. We may be alive but the gas will take its toll.”
“You’re coming with me?” I ask. Rus smiles at me. His face is covered in dirt, but his eyes shine an amber light through it.
“Not this time. I have to help those soldiers stuck in the tunnel.”
“There is no saving them!” He grabs my hand.
“No, but I have to try.” I stare at him unable to process.
Rus turns and runs off toward the tunnels. His hand slips from my grasp and he is gone. I am left in his dust, frozen. I want to reach out, run after him, help save my friend. I cannot move. I stand, watching as Rus draws closer to death. Part of me aches with every step he takes away from me, the other part holds me still. I can’t go after him. So I turn on my heels and run the other way. Tears fly off my cheek as we run in opposite directions. Rus runs to death, I run to escape. I am no hero.
The town did not have a hospital. I arrived at the main road an hour after, bedraggled, and soaked in blood. I managed to tell the villagers, of the massacre in the works, before passing out. I awoke three days later, in Yistol General Hospital. I had retained a few gunshots and other wounds from my escape so after taking me to the nearest field clinic they flew me to the city. I could hear the nurses talk of the soldier who saved nearly a hundred others from the trench. My first request when I awoke was to see Rus. The nurses had begrudgingly gone to fetch him. I see the curtains across my window. I reach over and pull them open, waiting to see the life I left behind. I blink and look closer. I wipe my eyes and look again. The sky is the same dark gray, no sun there to shine. Down on the streets I watch the injured soldiers file in to the hospital. Ths street is packed and filthy. This is not the world I left behind.
“Ahem, he is here.” I snap around smiling, to see my friend. Rus isn’t moving. He lies quite still in a hospital bed. There is a mask over his face, tubes sinking into his arms. I hear the beeping of the heart monitor, slow and piercing my ears, like daggers. I did not know Rus had red hair. It had always been coated in dust. This was the cleanest I had ever seen him, yet the weakest.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He has breathed in too much of the poison gas. He is going to die.” I stare back at Rus’s limp body.
“He seems alive to me.”
“That’s the thing. We can keep him alive on life support but not wake him up. He will suffer, but stay alive.” I could not believe my fearless friend could not survive without a machine, breathing for him. “So what will you do?” I ask the nurse.
“More of a question of what you will do.”
“Rus initial file was lost after his first hospitalization. In his current file, Rus has listed you as his only family. He can’t wake up to decide so you must.” My heart skips a beat. I look back to my friend, barely alive.
“I will help you find your family.” I had told him. He had flashed me a simple smile.
“Maybe I already have.” I thought of Rus and how he was always faster than me. I had let him run right to his death. I had watched him go and run the other way. My hand begins to tremble. My vision starts to blur.
I had thought that the world was still safe from the trenches, but I was wrong. When I looked out that window the truth had hit me. The curse of the war had spread like an infection, killing everything in its way. Nothing was spared. After I returned to the trenches, I fought as I had before. But nothing was the same. When I heard the soldiers say there was no hope, the words spilled out of me without hesitation.
“It’s not over till it’s over, and we decide when that happens.”
The streets are wild today. Cheering crowds in every alleyway. The war I have spent my whole life in is over. Looking through the crowd seeing people clutching pictures of their loved ones. I smile at the thought of Rus. He was the strongest most hopeful person I had ever known. So now I hope he’s out there somewhere smiling back down at me.