We lay low in the shell holes for there are no proper trenches any longer. The continuous bombardments reduced their depth in some areas to less than three feet. It is enough to lie down and close one’s eyes and wait for the next shell to claim him.
Kat and I never stay in one place too long. We move from hole to hole, crawling beneath wire and leaping over pools of dirty water and blood. We survive by our swiftness and luck alone.
The sun is well up and we are clearly seen by the enemy. Snipers shoot at any hints of uniform or helmet and too often their bullets find flesh and bone. A sergeant lost his hand when tossed out his cigarette.
I assume our lack of wounds means we are fast or lucky or both. Kat knows where to go and we are both keen to finding cover now. Presently we rest in the broken bits of an old dugout. Stone and mud are piled high on all sides though the trench it once occupied is nothing more than broken mounds of dirt.
We do not smoke and barely talk. When we do it is in hushed whispers and low, guttural sounds. The enemy is listening, watching, waiting. We wait too but I do not know what for.
There are rumors of peace among the pockets of soldiers we come across. They speak of a Treaty acknowledging the Confederacy. Kat chalks it up to nonsense and rumor until we hear that Washington DC is fallen.
Strangely that takes the wind from us, even now as Kat and I sit huddled against a bank of earth that is both our salvation and our prison. Washington. Washington the capitol of the Union is fallen. The words sound foreign and awkward in my mind and on my tongue. I can not get the words out, to mouth even a single syllable to Kat. No, no it is not true, it is madness. Without the Capitol, there is no Union and no relief.
Yet still the bombardments roll on and on ceaselessly. There is an attack during a lull but even then the shells rain down, killing Johnnies as well. They are mad and we are mad. The whole world has gone to splinters of sense and reality. A shell, an explosion, a scream, and a hole. These are the only things. They are almost holy.
I have lost track of time but the sun is rising over the city walls. Soon, soon our time will end and Germany will come. It will come, it must. Without it we are all dead men waiting to lie down and rattle out our final breath.
I don’t think about Shiod but he comes to me in these moments of silence. I see him sitting across from me, a skinny boy in big boots and a jacket too large for him. He holds a rifle that looks so comical I would laugh if it were any other circumstance. Something is missing from him. It is his smile, his warmth, his life. The image fades and I am alone with Kat again.
Is it madness? Have I broken finally, now at the last? Will I see ghosts the rest of my life? Will I leave here and walk with Shiod’s memory wherever I go? I catch myself and am surprised. I am thinking of after, of surviving the war. I shake my head and spit.
“Time to move,” Kat says and there is no hesitation. We are up and running as the bombardment begins to come our way. Rock and dirt and bodies are thrown into the air ahead of us, to our right and behind us. We turn to our left and Kat drops to the ground. I am right behind him and narrowly avoid a shell fragment that rips through the air over my head. Had I not dropped to the ground it would have decapitated me.
I crawl down into a shallow dugout where Kat is kneeling with others. Kat curses. “The whole damned line is broken,” he says but the rest is drowned out. The barrage thickens, intensifies to the point where I can no longer hear individual shells. They rain down continually, one after another. The world shakes, unceasingly, uncontrollably. It groans with explosions, screams in pain and agony as it is split open, torn wide, bled of its rock and soil.
Kat drags me out of the dugout and into the open trench. It is safer here. The dugout could collapse under the concussion alone. I hold my head low, my cheek sinking into mud. The dirty water gets into my mouth and nose and I sputter but don’t rise. Eventually I find a way to reconcile it, to breath with the left side of my mouth and shut the water out.
It goes on and on until I feel I’ll go mad. Hours, days, years pass under that onslaught. I lose track of time, lose track of where I am and what I should do. Yet I don’t lose sight of Kat. I reach out and grab hold of his pant leg. I anchor myself here with him, an island in this unending storm.
Kat, I can always count on and without him life here holds little meaning. I do not think of Baltimore, or home, or Lia or the Union. I think of Kat and the next shell hole he must lead us to. I think of that and nothing more.
And then, quite suddenly, it all falls silent. The shells cease falling. The guns no longer roar and men do not scream but moan and cough. Is it finished? Have they given up?
A shell rips through the air and flies straight overhead. With an enormous, deep thump it strikes Baltimore’s massive walls. For a moment the wall holds, standing tall and proud. And then it crumbles, collapsing under the sheer power of the attack. There must have been cracks, the metal and mortar giving way under the stress.
“God,” Kat says. We say nothing more. I crawl up to him as another shell punches through the wall and collapses a building. It falls like a cascading waterfall of rock and debris onto the roof of another and another.
Kat is up and drags me after him. We find the dugout, which is still intact and we find an officer there. He is speaking to another man with officer bars, but I can’t distinguish any ranks. Fear and numbness has made me blind.
“The wall is failing,” Kat says.
“Katzin, is that you?” The officer turns, and it is the lieutenant from earlier. “Nevermind, I see it is. You did the mortar op, correct?”
“Yes,” Kat says, narrowing his eyes.
The lieutenant doesn’t seem to notice the lack of title. “Good, I need a man like you Katzin. The General must be told, carry the news to him at the eastern watch.”
“That’s straight across open ground,” Kat says but the lieutenant is already scribbling onto a paper. “Take this to him, Katzin. Good luck. The eastern watch is near where—”
“I know where it is,” Kat says and turns. I look from the lieutenant’s frowning face to Kat. He looks to me and I shoulder my rifle again. We look at the other riflemen in the dugout but they avoid our eyes. It matters little, for we move faster alone.