Blood pounded in my ears in perfect time to the rapid fire of the machine guns that surrounded me. Barbed wire snagged at my trousers as I stumbled through the thick mess of mud and metal, my pack dragging me down into the carnivorous earth. I tried to pull energy from deep within, but I was clutching at straws. My laboured gasps were deafening, drowning out the outside world- perhaps that’s why I was so surprised when a shell exploded nearby. A mixture of the blast and my own pure shock sent me flying, blurs of green and brown flashing before me. At that moment I really thought that was the end- soaring through the air like a human harpoon- but I arrived at my destination with a pulse and terrible pain in my right shoulder that felt oddly different to a broken bone that I was expecting. After a brief glance down my suspicions were confirmed- a piece of glass from the faceplate of my gasmask protruded from my uniform. Raising my arm to pull it out sent out spark of agony that made my head spin. The air became thick and seemed to press against me, flowing into my nose and throat. It was choking me. I was slowly letting go, and soon everything was grey. I didn’t want to carry on, I wanted to drift off, never wake up. But something was moving. In front of me, I saw a figure laying delicately of the uneven ground- It was my wife, Emily.
“Em, why are you here?”, I tried to yell, but I couldn’t make a sound. I screamed and screamed, but there was no noise.
Suddenly, her eyes snapped open, and she help one finger up to her lips.
“Don’t move, baby, its ok”, she whispered, as she fluttered her long eyelashes at me. She did that when she was upset about something. “You need to wake up, honey, I need you to come home” She then moved her hands to her belly, holding it protectively. “We need you”
My eyes opened wider than I knew was possible. A baby? We were having a baby? I tried to swim out of my confused sleep, but each way I turned took me deeper into unconsciousness. I had to get home, I had to live.
All of a sudden, I heard someone. I moved towards the sound, taking me out of my sleep. I was aware of a voice, harsh and clear amongst the muffled blasts, which sent sparks of fear down my spine.
“Nicht bewegen” it whispered weakly. “Don’t move”.
I scrambled from where I lay quicker than a bullet, all ideas off sleep shaken from my aching head. I was in a muddy crater, and I wasn’t alone. On the other side lay a ghost of a man, all blood drained from his face. In his quivering hands sat his rifle, its barrel pointing in my direction. His spiked helmet casted a dark shadow over his pale face, but it couldn’t hide his shaking shoulders, or the tears falling from his chin. I tried to reach for my gun, but his rifle followed my every move and I knew that he, even in his current state, would not miss his target. I switched my attention to his lower body, and noticed that his right leg was stretched in front of him, almost as if it was disconnected from his body. “That’s why he’s so pale” I thought, seeing that his trouser leg was drenched in blood. I did not want to speak- I did not trust my voice anymore. Instead, I moved my hands in front of me, surrendering. I found myself crying too, my fearful tears making tracks on my dirt-caked face. His gun wavered, then fell to the ground in exhausted defeat.
I knew that he would not live for much longer if I did not help him. From what I could see, he had a gunshot wound in his thigh. My heart wanted desperately to help him, but my brain reminded me of the war we were fighting- what would people think of me when they found out I helped the enemy? I had a family to protect. Why was I risking my life for a cause that could get me killed? They won’t find out. I moved my hands slowly to my pocket, and I brought out my small first aid kit. I watched his eyes follow my hands nervously. I brought out the two identical dressings and I shuffled over towards him. He tried to move away from me. “It’s ok” I said. “I want to help you”. I pressed the two pieces of dressing on his wound, one of the entry and one on the exit. I then tore a piece on fabric from my undershirt and tied it firmly around his leg. He grimaced with pain as I did this, but did not make a sound. I wish I could have helped more, but we are not provided with much medical equipment- if you are injured, you are lucky to live long enough to use it.
I was now sitting close to him, and I could finally see his face. I guessed about my age, with steely blue eyes and shockingly white hair- well, from what I could see from under his helmet anyway. The perfect man, they would say. If only they knew that their perfect man was getting help from the enemy in a crater in no-man’s land. If only. He did not speak much English, and they didn’t exactly teach us the language just in case this situation happened to come up. So instead of silence, I talked about Emily. I told him about my dream, and about the baby, about my life back home. His eyes lit up at the thought of a child, and tried to tell me that he had nobody back at home. It brought tears to my eyes- I realised how lucky I was to have people to worry about me, to care if I came home. How could I have been so selfish as to wish death upon me? I might never make it home to my wife who loves me, to my unborn child, to my aging Mother who waited patiently for my weekly letters. To my little sister, a widow grieving her dead husband. Obliterated, he was. She would never see him again. I could never do that to Emily. When I looked back up, he was asleep. I don’t know how much he had listened to, but I didn’t care. I knew that I had to do whatever it took to get home alive.
The darkness of night time brought an icy chill to the air, penetrating my uniform. Our breath was visible in the gloom, which gave me a clear indication of how my injured companion was doing. His health had deteriorated considerably, and his desperate gasps for air came fewer and fewer, until only the tiniest plume of vapour sprouted from his quivering lips. He began to shiver uncontrollably, and nothing I did seemed to aid him. I watched him suffer in silence, helpless. He stayed that way until the sun peeked over the hills once more, warming the dank air and illuminating our pale, glistening skin. I stretched out and tilted my face towards the heat. At times like those, it was hard see where heaven ended and hell began.
If only the peace could have lasted. The next few moments that followed seemed to play out in front of me, as if I was watching a video in which I was the starring role. The voices came first, loud shouts that I struggled to understand. The only word I heard clearly was gas. It brought me scrambling across the crater, my hands searching frantically for my mask. As I grabbed it, I suddenly remembered that it was pretty much useless without the glass plate, the one stuck in my shoulder. A wave of panic and pure terror washed over me, and I glanced over at my fellow soldier to see if he was ok. To my utter disbelief, he was holding out his own gas mask. I stared at him, but he did not falter.
“You need to make it home”, he croaked, “You have a family who needs you”
After a moment of hesitation, I accepted his ultimate sacrifice. I took the mask and pulled it over my head, and observed as a gas canister rolled into the crater and breathed out a pale green fog. I sobbed uncontrollably, completely overcome with confused emotions, and watched helplessly as my friend disappeared into the deathly haze.