We are back on the front line. I sit on the firing step with my back to the reinforced support of a dug out. I’ve smoked the cigarette of my life and enjoy the feeling of calm it settles on me. My lungs are burning but after the pain of my wounds, I hardly notice it.
Kat is whittling a small figure out of some wood that’s blown into the trench. The lines are crude but shaped with such delicate care that I imagine he’s thinking of his sister. She wanted to be a racing champion, even though she wasn’t old enough to ride. When Kat and I used to play cards of any sort in his room, she would come in and announce she was going to be champion of them as well.
“Do you think they’ll come?” I ask, surprising even myself with the sudden topic. “Europe, I mean?”
Kat’s shoulders rise and fall without stopping his work. He goes on for a few moments and says, “Suppose we’ll see.” I lean my head back against the dugout support and feel the sun caressing my face. Europe. The very idea of it is so far as to be all but fiction to me.
“Brandy,” Shiod says, tromping up to us so loudly I expect shell fire to begin landing on his position. He hands me a mug of it and sits down, handing one to Kat. This is Shiod’s apology and we forgive him by drinking down the foul-tasting liquid. I doubt it’s real brandy, but it’s warming.
“Word is the Johnnies are going to push again,” he says without looking at either of us. He pulls out a cracker and eats it noisily, the crumbs falling onto his chin and catching in the thin growth that’s begun. I’ve never known a boy to grow a faster beard than Shiod. He wipes the crumbs off and licks his fingers.
“Makes sense,” Kat says, finally putting down the little carving. “I doubt they’re ignorant of the negotiations overseas. The treaty talks are going on right now, so I understand.”
Shiod snorts and spits into the mud between his boots, then scratches at his chin. “Waste of time. Da always said you could never trust the Prussians.”
Kat grunts and opens his mouth to say something when there’s a shout down the line. I grab my rifle and slap my tin helmet on my head. Shiod reloads his rifle and checks his bayonet.
“What’s this?” Kat asks, and two men down from us make a motion towards No Man’s Land. “Attack?” he asks, and then turns to peek over the top.
I turn too and slip my rifle into the sniper’s hole at the top of the trench. It’s a small slot just wide enough to fit my rifle’s barrel and scope into it. I can fire into No Man’s Land and to the enemy trench without fear of being exposed from this position.
At first I don’t see anything. The blasted area between the lines is barren except for blasted mines, slip-wire and corpses. Some of them may have been alive before sunrise, but snipers pick off anyone trying to get to them.
“Cruel,” Kat says almost too quietly for me to hear. I’m about to turn away and ask him when I see it too. A figure is moving in No Man’s Land, crawling on one hand and his knees. The other hand is clutching his stomach, which has his guts spilling from it. It’s not until the poor wretch cries out that feel my whole body go cold.
“Momma!” Vanmere wails over and over. My hands are shaking on the rifle but I can’t look away. I flip down lens after lens, magnifying in on him. His eyes are gone. Where they were is just black, scorched pitch. A mine must have caught him just above his belt. What spills between his fingers brings my recent drink to the back of my throat and I heave it onto the trench wall in front of me.
I hear it so clearly now. The wail is pitiful, like a wounded animal’s death cries. It comes again and again and I swear it’s aimed at me. It’s telling me to come get him, that I’m leaving him there to die, blaming me for all of this. Tommy you’ve killed me! Tommy you’ve done this to me!
I clamp my hands over my ears but it does nothing to shut out the sound. He’s dead, there’s nothing I can do. He’s dead. He’ll be dead very soon. He’ll die very soon. He’s dead. He’s dead.
“I’m going to get him,” Shiod says and my eyes snap open. No! A sniper will get him! It’s a trap. They want us to go out there, to find where we are. I reach for Shiod but Kat is faster, hauling him down onto the firing step and clutching him, holding him while Shiod screams to be let go.
“Finish it,” Kat says to me. At first I don’t understand, can’t comprehend what he could mean but then he raises his chin towards my rifle. Any blood left in my face is gone, I feel it escape. My fingers go stiff and cold around the rifle. I feel its metal chill and nearly drop it, sickened by the feel of it.
“Don’t, Tommy! Don’t! He’s our friend, we have to help him!” Shiod is mad, wriggling out of Kat’s grasp and scrambling for the top of the trench. It takes three men to keep him inside, but even with that a Johnny sniper blows off two of his fingers. He falls backward into the bottom of the trench, screaming in pain and shouting for Vanmere.
I stare, transfixed by the scene until Kat slaps me. “Do it, Tommy. Do you understand? You’re the best shot in the unit. If I try, I might hurt him worse. Give him a peaceful death, we owe him that much.”
We owe him that much. I know these words are true. The chaos around me feels so unreal to me that these simple things are enough to get me moving. I return my rifle to the sniper’s hole and sight in on Vanmere.
“Stop it!” I shout. I can’t do it. My knees are made of water, my fingers have no bones in them. The sight of him makes it all too horrific.
“It’s a mercy,” Kat says, holding my face in both of his large hands. His eyes are so clear and they hold mine. Kat who has been here for me since we arrived. Kat who saved me from the shells, from the raid, from myself. I trust Kat. I must do this because Kat knows I should.
“Okay,” I say.
Vanmere is on his knees, trying to stuff pieces of himself back inside. His whole body is shaking and he must be crying though tears are impossible. I sight in on him, aiming for the bullet to strike his temple. At this angle I know it will be swift. It must be swift.
He turns toward me, the ruins of his eyes seem to stare at me, find me in my hiding spot. His mouth opens, building the words to condemn me when the front of his head explodes. He falls slowly forward into a shell hole and is at once gone from my sight.
I lower my rifle and go to my knees, shaking to the point where drop the weapon. I failed him. Vanmere was my friend and I left him to die out there in No Man’s Land and when I found him, I did nothing. I couldn’t even give him peace.
Kat’s hand is on my shoulder. He offers me a cigarette and I take it, lighting it without thought. For a long time we say nothing. Then Kat gets up.
“Someone over there,” he says and walks away. His words mean nothing to me until I put a meaning to them. I think of the boy Len saved. I think of how he might have died, gasping for air as he choked on his own blood. Len saved him, gave him mercy. Someone over there did what I couldn’t.
They gave mercy to Vanmere.