Kat pitches forward. Blood splatters my face. I think I scream his name, cry out in horror and in panic. Shells explode all around me, their fragments tearing up the ground behind me, before me and to either side, yet nothing touches me here, in this haven of stone and mortar. Only Kat.
I rush to him, scrambling on hands and knees. There is so much blood and so it was a shell and not a sniper. Shrapnel has torn into Kat’s neck just below the hairline and above his shoulder blades. I ease him onto his side while I apply a bandage. He groans.
“Kat,” I say, desperate to believe him well, that this is nothing but a scratch that looks so much worse than it is. I want him to sit up and laugh and tell me it’s fine, not to worry. He does none of this.
“Can you hear me? Kat, Kat!” I am shouting, even as the shells scream by, their explosions stealing my words. My face is suddenly warm, wet. I reach up, terrified that I am hit but they are only tears.
Our own artillery opens up. I feel their vibrations through the ground even before I hear their booms and crashes. Kat’s wound soaks through the cloth, the bandage unable to keep him from losing more. He stirs enough to open his eyes.
“Kat!” I shout again. “Kat, talk, please!”
“Just at the last,” he says, his voice nothing more than a rasping whisper. “Just at the last.”
“No Kat, you’re going to be okay. Can you stand? We’ll get to the surgeon. C’mon Kat, come on!”
I pull at his arm, childish in my impatience, in my desire to make everything okay if only we could leave this place. The surgeons will fix him. He will be saved.
He cries out when I move him and the bandage bursts. Blood runs over my fingers as I try and staunch it again. “God,” I say, “please.” Another bandage, my last one, and the blood slows. I secure it with a strip of cloth I tear from my shirt just to make sure.
“My legs,” Kat groans. I check them but there seems to be no damage. I tell him I see nothing and he shakes his head. “I can’t move. God damn it, they won’t work!”
I pale. The wound at his neck must have damaged his spine. Getting back to the surgeons is impossible for him now. “Kat,” I say, coming very close to him. “I’ll carry you, Kat.”
It comes to me that I am saying his name over and over needlessly. I am saying it for myself, perhaps to memorize it, to keep him here with me. I can’t allow him to go where I can not follow.
“Too heavy,” he says. His face breaks out in a sweat and he winces, then takes the letter out and hands it to me. “Take it,” he says. I shake my head and raise him up to sit. “Wrap your arm around my shoulder.”
Despite holding firmly onto me, we both topple back into the torn earth as explosions test our balance. Kat cries out in pain and I quickly get him righted again. Time is running out and I must hurry.
“Take it!” he growls and I do so, angry that this piece of paper has now caused so much pain. My anger gives me resolve, wrapping his arm around my shoulder and lifting.
It takes me two tries to get off my knees. Kat is not so heavy, but he is dead weight. I take him up onto my back, supporting his useless legs beneath my arms while his own wrap about my shoulders. Breathing heavily, we lean against the wall debris for support while the bombardment rages around us.
“We’ll have to make a go of it,” I say, though the sight of the shells throwing up fountains of dirt unnerves me. How can I make it through such a storm? How might anyone? Yet Kat and I did so just minutes before, but that was Kat showing me where to go. This time, he is not showing me the way.
Suddenly the barrage lessens and lifts and our cannons open up in full. I don’t think. I run with all that I have into the field. The weight on my back slows me but adrenaline and need pushes me. I lose any sense of exhaustion, hunger or pain I might have had. Kat needs me and we must run or die.
The enemy guns open up again and I throw myself into the nearest shell hole. We land awkwardly and Kat falls from me, crying out as we roll away from one another. I crash into a single chair and a pair of bloody legs and scream, kicking them away.
Kat’s voice brings me back. He calls my name and I open my eyes then find my way to him. He’s braced himself against the wall of the crater, looking yellow and sick. “An attack,” he says, his voice hoarse and cracking.
I look over the edge and see it coming. Johnnies rush toward our trenches. Our rifle and automatic fire cuts into them while our cannons destroy entire sections of their line, yet they come. Wave after wave of them run and die. They are desperate, urged on by some invisible timetable. The end is coming and we all feel it.
An explosion hits nearby and a dark cloud of dirt falls over us. I throw myself across Kat’s body to shield him from it and when we straight up, my heart sinks. Occupying the shell hole with us is another soldier, dressed in gray with their weapon trained on us.
My own weapon is gone, left back at the generator. I did not even think to carry it and Kat both. It seemed so much less important then.
Kat breathes slowly. He looks at me and I look at him in turn. We talk in silence and he places his hand on the handle of his spade. I reach for my knife but the soldier shifts his aim.
We have no time to respond as the attack comes near. Shells land all around us and we duck down, cover ourselves in the vain hope the flying splinters will pass us by. I feel them strike the earth all around me, hear their buzzing, whirring death whisper to me, but none call me to that final rest.
The bombardment begins to lessen and we hear frantic shouting as the Johnnies are driven back. I see them pass through the smoke of the shells.
I grab my knife and sit up, ready to strike. He stands over me, and I let my knife fall. Kat’s lost his spade as well and we lay with our backs to the wall of the crater.
Then, he lowers his weapon and reaches up to remove his helmet with his free hand. I can not believe what I see before me. It’s the Johnny Lenmerer saved, looking tired with eyes no longer full of hate.
It is an eternity that we stare at one another, unsure of what to do and yet so sure that simply being together again is an impossibility that can not be impossible. Unspeakable things hang between us, atrocities accused and forgiven. I see a man that I stab in the mud of our trenches. I hear his gurgles, his screams of please, please no. I look out above the crater walls and see Vanmere crying for his mother with his guts snaking out between bloody fingers.
What inhumanities can be forgiven just because we are told to commit them? What possible reason exists that made any of this sensible? Vanmere, Len and Shiod all died for what? Baltimore? The Union and freedom?
This all passes in a heartbeat. The bombardment increases on all sides. At once it is pandemonium. Men and weapons scream. The earth shakes and bucks. The Johnny falls to his knees. He screams words at me and for a moment that is all they are, words, words, words…
“Go!” This word reaches me. I nearly hesitate, suddenly full of the need to tell him about Lenmerer. I do not and at once Kat is lifted again. He helps us over the crater’s edge and we are running once more into hell.
The shells fall everywhere. No longer do we dive into every shell hole, it is pointless. The splinters tear at my arms, my face, my legs but nothing drives home. Kat’s weight becomes nothing to me, I could carry him forever.
And then, without ceremony, we are through it. I land in the deepest trench we still have and fall to my knees. My body collapses beneath Kat’s sudden weight and my own exhaustion. I tip to the side and am conscious enough to let Kat down gently. I must not aggravate his wound more than I have already.
I lay still while a surgeon’s assistant comes. He stands over me, his expression one of confusion. Behind him I see sprays of dirt and rock as shells continue to fall. He says something but I do not understand. They are too horrific.
“You could have saved yourself the trouble,” he says, kneeling down to check my wounds.
“Trouble?” I ask. My head throbs. With each beat of my heart, a shell lands inside my head.
“He’s dead,” the man says.
I rip free of him and turn to Kat. He lies in the mud where I let him go. His eyes are closed. “Fainted!” I shout. “Simply fainted. I was just talking to him. He took a wound to the spine.”
“I know a dead man when I see one kid,” he says but I go to Kat anyway. I shake his shoulder, call his name but there is no response. He has fainted, that is all. This is the lie I tell myself when I lean down to listen for his heart.
The world goes silent. The bombardment ends. The wind dies. There is no intake of breath from anyone and I hear no heartbeat. The whole world bows before the passing of Stephen Katzin. A splinter has blown open the back of his head. I find the wound when I reach to feel for a pulse and my fingers come back covered in blood.
Overhead, engines whine. I look up and see ships with an iron cross. The Germans have come, at last, but too late. I look down into Kat’s face one last time. I smooth his hair from his eyes and then reach down to close them.
“Sleep,” I say. “Goodnight, Kat.”
* * *
We are being evacuated. The German airships that land behind our massacred lines are empty. They do not carry reinforcements but empty seats. I follow others as we are herded through the decimated trenches, past our swollen dead, to where soldiers in clean uniforms stand next to waiting ramps.
I shuffle with my head down. My body aches from half a hundred wounds brought on by scrapes, cuts, burns and worse ones that are not external but internal. I am shattered, enfeebled, and aged. Men whisper of rescue but rescue implies we are going somewhere away from here. Part of me knows I will never leave, even if my feet never again touch Maryland soil.
A soldier stops me, glances at my rank patch and at my face. I do not meet his eyes, nor could I if I wished to. He wears a helmet with an iron faceplate, gas filters fitted on either side. The dark eyeslits stare blankly, inhumanly.
“Are you Adkin?” the modulated voice asks. I nod.
“Scheiße,” the man says. “Just a kid.”
I walk up the ramp. Words whirl around me. I catch them in snippets but in the end, the story is clear. A treaty has been signed.
Baltimore is to be given to the Confederacy.
I stare beyond the door. In mute witness I watch men shuffle onto the airships. We are being given a window to evacuate our front lines, an act of mercy I hear. I do not see mercy, or an evacuation. I see the hope of childhood fade away as gray lines of graying men disappear behind steel doors. I feel hope leave me.
I stand up and am very quiet. Beyond the doors, down in the trenches, I see them still. Vanmere turns toward me with his child-like grin. Lenmerer looks off into the sun, blushing. Shiod sneaks a bite and laughs about something I’ll never understand. Kat follows, hefting his rifle. He herds them on, careful to point out where not to step. He looks back at me one last time and nods.
Take care of them Kat, because I can not. I am now so alone and so without hope that the future no longer holds anything over me. I will face it without fear and without hesitation. The war’s toll is complete.
It can take nothing more.