The minutes rolled on by agonizingly slowly. British boys in the trenches squatted in silent huddles with dim hard eyes and shaking limbs, occasionally taking a listless swipe at a louse-ridden rat that would scurry over through the stinking sludge and puddles of rosy blood. Harsh and bitter wind swept through the barracks with its icy howl, chilling the soldiers to the core. The sun hid its would-be-welcome face from the ugly scene, taking refuge behind the thick duvet of swirling storm grey cloud. The stench of waste and mouldy meat wafted around the dead pan men, enveloping them in a sickening embrace. The home-sick soldiers stared into space, caught up in wistful dreams of a peaceful home, trying desperately to ignore the death black crows satisfying their hunger pangs by filling their bellies by gorging on the rotting flesh of fallen friends. The silence of the churned up land between them and the enemy hammered in their heads, reminding them that soon, whenever, it would shatter into the thousand shards of gun fire and inhumane screams.
One soldier of eighteen years of age sat apart from his comrades, unintentionally scrutinizing the wall of thick clay before him with blank eyes, fiddling with the Identification tags around his neck, imprinted with the name Charles J Whitaker. The brunette closed iron lidded eyes to day dream, letting his mind lead him away from the filth that threatened to swallow him whole. Memories of home bathed him with golden summer rays, the scent of autumn apple pie, hot from the oven, almost causing him to moan with delirious desire. The faces of his family, slightly blurred due to the months since they'd been together as a whole, swam in and out of sight, smiling encouragingly, lovingly.
"Hey come on Charley boy! Wake up there!" Charles awoke suddenly, a hand jostling his uniform clad shoulder. His older brother Christopher beamed down at him, somehow managing to keep his Sergeant's uniform crisp and clean despite the muck surrounding them. "You can't kill Germans asleep silly! Come on, up and at 'em!" and he yanked the eighteen year old to his numb feet, then handed him his rifle "We're over the top in five minutes, so be ready," the twenty year old explained, righting his hat in an important, matter-of-fact way, but his excitement blazing eyes let his true emotions show, the way they did whenever the opportunity to kill the Germans arose.
"Chris, why do you enjoy this? All of this killing and death? Yeah I know that we hate the Germans and all that but," Charles paused, searching for the right words that wouldn't anger his officer "They're human too, and in this hate crazed mission, we're losing friends Christopher, good friends that could have made something of their lives! I mean look!" he pointed frantically at a mangled corpse a few feet from the trench, a stinking mass of old blood and disintegrating muscle, "How are we going to be able to look at Johnny's mum in the eye when we lived but he didn't! It's not fair Chris!" his brother stopped, and he suddenly looked exhausted, older than his years. He raised heavy eyes to his brother's tear filled ones, and gripped the younger man's arm tightly.
"Charley boy, this killing is necessary. No hear me out," he said, raising a gloved hand in front of his brother's astounded face, "We do this to protect those we love. If we didn't kill those Germans, they'll kill all of us. You, me, mum, dad, everyone. This is the only way we can ensure that those we love are safe, do you understand? And right now," he ruffled his brother's hair with a light hearted laugh "I have to keep my kid brother safe right?" Charles looked away, sullen. He hated it when Christopher joked like that. A sharp, tinny whistle pierced the silence, bursting it like a balloon as the first grenade exploded feet away, forcing a mass of earth of forgotten bodies sky high. Christopher gave a whoop, clapping Charles around the back, "See ya on the other side little brother!" and he handled his gun, grinning wolfishly to the fellow soldiers now scrabbling like the rats they lived with for their weapons, wide eyed and desperate. "Come on boys! Kill or be killed!" Christopher bellowed, whilst leaping straight up out from the 'safety' of the trench and into the start of a nightmare, watched by his little brother with his saucer like eyes. The men soon followed, cheering and hooting, putting on a brave face, and with a wheezy sigh, Charles joined them.
As his helmeted head popped up from the ground, he was thrust into hell on earth. Already, the skies were a devilish black, dominated by the smoke from the cannons, and craters large as entire mansions pitted the earth, hideous pox marks. Charles began swiftly darting forward, gun at the ready, panting with tormenting fear as he witnessed the fall of innocent men. The heart wrenching screams rent the air, ringing in Charles's ears, deafening him more effectively than the shooting of metal bullets or the boom of canons. Mud and dirt soared in the air, in attempt to touch the smoke ridden clouds but failed to defy gravity, falling to the battle below. On occasion, men joined the slime, their arms and legs either flying by themselves, or flailing in a way that seemed cruelly comical. Their ruby blood rained down on the men, splattering Charles on the face, on his gun. Flashes of light burst in the sky, fleeing the bloodshed below. Decapitated, mutilated corpses blocked his way, their faces stuck for eternity in shock and unimaginable pain. Mud as thick as quick sand and just as deadly dragged him down with every fervent step, forcing him to pause for breath, sweat streaming down his red face. He couldn't see Christopher anywhere. Terror clasped his heart, refusing to let go. He couldn't tear his gaze away from the shimmering blood and the glistening guts, from the men that writhed in blinded pain, almost tearing their voice boxes with their animalistic howls.
Charles's chest rose rapidly, unable to think. Kill or be killed, his brother's voice rang in his head. But what if there was another way? Charles didn't want to die, but he didn't want to be a murderer either. His dreams were already haunted by enough corpses. Run. It was so simple he wondered why he hadn't thought of it before. Run. At home, he was famous for his speed and stamina. RUN his brain yelled at him, and he took his own advice. Dropping his weapon, he tore across the destroyed field, hurtling his way over shrieking bodies, dodging the bullets that pursued him. His heart thundered in his chest, his feet slipping and sliding in the mud that reached and grabbed for his feet. He couldn't see, he didn't want to, the stench of hollers of death were plenty to keep him running. With a cry, he fell, and rolled down a gulley, where he lay winded. Something landed heavily on his chest. It was the ragged, bleeding, torso of a man, no, make that a boy. James Day, son of a baker. Sixteen years old, hadn't even started shaving. With a yell of fright, Charles shoved the body away from him, and scrabbled frantically away, coated in the young boy's blood. He continued to flee, body racked with hysterical sobs, tears unashamedly flowing down his taut face, stumbling every now and then, desperately trying to ignore those dying around him. Suddenly, someone grabbed his shoulders, forcing him face down to the ground, and instantly Charles's mouth filed with the mire and he chocked, heaving what little he could out.
"On my command, stand with your hands raised above your head, and slowly turn to face me deserter," Charles's heart jumped for joy as the pressure lifted from his back. Christopher! "Get up! NOW!" his brother roared, kicking Charles's boot roughly. Slowly, Charles did as instructed, raising his hands above his head, and turned to face his brother. Christopher stared at him, horrified, bleeding from a gash on his shoulder.
"Charles? Oh please no, don't tell me," he let go of his weapon, his dirt, blood streaked face pleading "Please don't tell me you were deserting. Please don't Charley," Charles hung his head, and said nothing. Christopher held his head in his hands, finally broken. He knew the rules, deserters that were caught had to be killed, no matter who they were, and as a Sergeant, and this meant he had to bring Charles in. From between his fingers, he watched his younger brother cry, and almost sobbed himself.
"Christopher? Chris? Please just let me go! I don't want to do this anymore! I don't want to die!" the younger man cried, and he took a step back, "Hey, pretend you never saw me! I can get out of here, and you won't be blamed! It's simple Chris!"
"No it is not simple! Charles, I'm a Sergeant, I HAVE to bring you in! If not and someone finds out, we'll BOTH be killed! Think of Mum and Dad, what would that do to them! They're sons, traitors! Charles, I have to," now his little brother was crying in earnest, on his knees, begging. Crazed. They all were. This war had turned them all mad. Christopher examined the facts. He let his brother go, and risk getting them both killed as traitors, letting him go, and maybe never hearing from him again, or bring him in, watch him die alone, scared, and live with the guilt. Or be there for him, forever. In an instant, he knew what to do. Picking up the gun from the ooze, and advanced. Charles began to give little screams, petrified, a rabbit in the headlights, and crawled away backwards, face contorted with misunderstanding. Then the gun was in his brother's hands. Charles stopped, chest heaving, confused, staring at his older brother. He let Christopher manipulate his right hand to take hold of the weapon, wrap his finger on the trigger, and then Christopher brought that gun to his forehead, eyes holding Charles's steadily. Christopher then brought out his own revolver, and held it to Charles's forehead, just as steady, and it dawned on Charles what his brother was planning.
"Christopher no! YOU can't die!"
"You haven't done anything wrong! You can't just throw your life away like this! Just let me go and it'll be alright!"
"No it won't Charley, we both know that. You'll be caught, killed, and I'll most likely be killed for helping you run away. If I let you go, and you don't get caught, I may never see you again, and I couldn't just kill you flat out, it would kill me over time. This way," he took Charles's left hand, keeping it from shaking, smiling gently "I can watch over my little brother forever, and you won't have to die alone. I'll be here," Charles couldn't help but start crying again, his gun rattling on his brother's forehead. Death was inevitable, he did know that, and what his brother was offering, was a chance to die with one more comfort than those other dead and dying. He wouldn't be alone. Christopher gave a boyish grin, though fear lurked in his gaze, "Ready Charley boy? Ready for another adventure?"
"Y-Yes," Charles gulped, adrenaline pumping in his veins. Christopher smiled again, showing off somehow dazzlingly white teeth.
"At least this one's going to be better than this hell hole," he joked, even barking a little laugh. Charles gave a frown of mock annoyance, trying to mask his now great fear of death.
"Can we just get this over with?"
"Ah sorry, sorry," his brother apologized, and they tightened their grip on the guns, staring each other down, "On the count of three, we shoot, ok?"
"Not really, but alright," and Christopher gave an understanding nod, and they let out deep, calming breaths, oblivious to the war going on about them. "One,"
"What is it Chris?" Christopher shook their clutched left hands, beaming softly.
"I love you little brother," Charles returned the shake, and the smile.
"I love you too big brother," Christopher nodded, and they readjusted their grasps on the weapons, testing out the trigger. A minute passed. A silent goodbye.
"Three," the bang that followed was lost in the screams and booms of the battle, and the corpses that fell, still connected by their hands, were never recovered from the mud that swallowed them into its depths. No funerals, just a sad, regretful glance from friends, and the war carried on, claiming more men, many who died alone.