After, when we leave Shiod behind and make our way back toward the line, I resist the urge to think of home. Kat is looking at me and I wonder if he can see the resignation I feel. Still, he says nothing and we walk on through the lines of men on medical pallets, blood pooling and dripping. Some of them are already dead, others still clinging to a half-life of delirium and hope.
Our batteries open up, creating a cacophony so loud it shakes the ground we walk on and the walls that pen us in. Kat and I have to stop in a dugout to keep from falling over.
“What’s going on?” Kat asks a sergeant, the only man in the dugout. He’s older, a lined and bearded face half hidden behind a helmet and mask. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Does it matter?”
“No,” Kat says and we wait it out with this old man. Boom. Boom. Boom. The cannons are so loud I hear them in my head even after the shots fire. They go off every second, all down the line in unison. I have never heard such a roar.
I remember the fear I’d had when I first arrived here as that first shell struck the steel and iron of Baltimore’s walls. It seems like such a small thing now, that single shocking moment when compared to the nightmares I’m used to now. In a small way, I feel sorry for the Johnnies in their trenches. The barrage I had lived through the night before was as bad or worse, but I don’t think I’d wish it even on my enemy.
Finally, it ends and Kat and I leave the dugout. The shelling went on for only a few minutes and when Kat questions a communications man, we learn that a scout spotted a squadron of walkers.
“Do you think that got them?” I ask.
“We’ll find out,” Kat says and snatches a loaf of bread from a passing supply litter. We split it with a spread of jam he’s saved from the raid on the Johnnies. We are back on the firing line now and waiting.
“Do you remember the way Jeff wrote those poems?” Kat asks, his mouth full of bread. He has a grin that lifts only one side of his face. It’s Kat’s smile and he gives it to me now. We speak of him now with his first name. I wonder if this is perhaps the first time. In death, I think of Jeff, not Vanmere. I sniff and nod.
“Yeah, they would never rhyme right because half the words were made up.”
“You used to correct the words for him.”
“Only when he wasn’t looking,” I say and bite into the crusty bread. It’s still warm inside and the cold jam seems almost a sin.
“He never could see when he was doing something wrong.” Kat says this while looking toward the top of the trench. My gaze follows his and I see him, crawling in the mud.
“No,” I agree and wipe tears from the corner of my eyes with the palm of my hand. His words echo in my head. Mama. Mama. Mama. Oh, Jeff, why did we ever come here?
I motion to Kat.
“Give me the paper and pencil,” I say. “There’s still time.”
New recruits have come to us. It is both a relieving sight and a somber one for we have suffered heavily and taken many losses, but these new troops are mostly boys and old men. The boys are a just versions of me from less than a day ago. Each one could be a Jophrey Vanmere as well, scared and ignorant of what will come.
I feel instantly for them because they are such a sorry sight. Their uniforms don’t fit and most of the armor is shoddy. Not a single one has a helmet and I only count a score of gas masks among them.
It is worse with the old men. The boys that come up to the front now are full of fear, but it’s because they hope to live. The old men that come have no hope. They have volunteered so that others did not have to. I’d seen it many times before I volunteered, these fathers and grandfathers shouldering their packs and heading to the front. They shuffle by me and their looks are neither grim nor fearful, but resigned. They sit on muddy shelves and wait.
Not all is grim, Kat points out that with new recruits comes fresh food. In short order it arrives in the form of cold bread and colder soup. Still I eat it without thought or ceremony, careful not to spill a drop.
“We should take some to Shiod,” I say. “He’ll be hungry.”
“He’s always hungry,” Kat says and we share a grin. It is then that I am aware of someone standing over me. When I look up I’m surprised to see a boy just a little younger than me. I recognize him instantly and frown.
“Hey Tommy,” Worm says and sits down without asking. He fidgets with his weapon, a rifle too big for his skinny little frame. His jacket is too big and hangs loosely, like sagging flesh on old bones.
“What are you doing here?” Kat asks, his eyes narrowing. I’ve taken a bit of my bread and broken off a piece to share with him. He eats it without a thank you and his hands shake as he holds it to his mouth.
“Why are you here?” I ask, repeating Kat’s question. “You’re not old enough to volunteer.”
Worm is just sixteen and from a farm not far from town. No matter what manner of things we got up to, he always found a way to try and join us. We’d never been friends yet there he was. I feel suddenly angry that he’s followed me even here, to this hell I share with Kat and Shiod and Len. He’s come to share what shouldn’t be shared, thinking that if we are doing it, it’s worth doing.
“I lied,” is all he says and stuffs another bite of bread into his mouth. Kat and I exchange a look before I tilt my soup container back and drink it down. My stomach gurgles for more but there’s not enough left to spare. I tear off another hunk of bread and give it to Worm.
I recognize other faces as they take their place on the line. I see Richard Kirney, my old letters teacher standing with an older model musket and tattered uniform too small for his bulky frame. There is Teddy with his thick framed spectacles and impossibly thick beard. Further down I even spot Adam, a boy who used to chase me with sticks if he caught me without Kat or Shiod around.
Our past is meaningless. Even Worm bothers me little as I stand and take the rest of my bread to Shiod. They are noise, blades of grass in this great field of reaping I’ve come to know as intimately as a lover. The mud and dirt of the trenches pass as easily through my fingertips as Lia’s hair and I touch the stone and earthworks as softly as I might her cheek. I found solace in her arms as a schoolboy and I find solace in the earth’s embrace now.
Shiod is happy for the bread and we talk a while. Worm joins us but Kat makes himself scarce. Our newest companion chatters on annoyingly until Shiod tells him that he is tired and must rest. I glare at him with humor and leave with Worm in tow.
On our way back to the firing line, Worm asks an impossible number of questions, foremost being where he can go to the bathroom. It is a practice I’ve hardly had the need for and pass him off to a sergeant who looks like he needs something to do. I walk away wondering when I’ve developed such a casualness toward rank. It is the front, I am sure. The front dissolves us all into men and animals and worse.
I find Kat in a dugout smoking with two other boys I don’t recognize. I come in and sit with them. Shortly we play cards and I win two fistfuls of smokes for my trouble. The boy we call Pox tells me I must be a cheat but congratulates me as he leaves. The other is a short, dour youth who says nothing and simply stares at the wall.
“If the attack comes we’ll knock him senseless,” Kat says, indicating the door. I frown and ask him what he means. “Worm you damned fool. He’s too stupid to be up here. He’ll be killed in a second.”
Neither of us want this of course. No matter how annoying he is, Worm shouldn’t die by shell fire or rifle fire or any other kind of fire. He should grow up and become an annoying man with a wife and annoying children. Otherwise what is the point?
“Do you think Shiod will really go?” I ask, half-hopeful of the answer. I don’t know why this has become an obsession but I can do nothing to dissuade it. Shiod must live. He must get home and tell everyone about us. Vainly, I think he must tell Vanmere’s mother than I didn’t kill him.
“Who’s to say?” Kat shrugs. “They could load him onto the train that brought the new boys up.”
“Those are one-way,” I say and we go silent. The words fill my ears and spill into my heart with unease. I hope they aren’t true, after all.