Joshua gazed down at the weighty gun in his hands and felt a heavy feeling settling in his gut. It looked absurdly disproportionate, held in his spindly, pale fingers. “Girl’s hands”, the other men liked to tease.
He walked over to the other side of his bunk and reflected on his damp surroundings. He had never been to France before, and he doubted he would again if he survived, not that he’d had time to visit the “tourist spots”. He spent his days covered in dirt, and at night, he’d lie awake, feeling that weight pressing down on his gut get heavier.
These terrible, thankful trenches both suffocated and saved him.
He scratched his chin nervously and realised he still hadn’t shaved that morning. Joshua placed the gun down, and walked over to the dingy trench mirror. He picked up his lathering brush and begun slathering the cream onto his face. It was only when he had brought his blade to his chin that a shadow fell across his reflection.
Joshua turned to see the brawny mass that was Casper Olsson, striding towards him. His best mate.
Casper was a callous brute, with quick fingers and a strong moral compass. War suited him well.
Joshua sighed and glanced at his reflection again, he was an unstable rum drinker with red rimmed eyes, framed by spectacles that constantly slid down the bridge of his crooked nose. War had not been kind to him.
The other men adored Casper and couldn’t understand why he’d hang around with such a pasty-cheeked coward like Joshua.
“I once jumped into a river to save a cat from drowning. I haven’t killed enough people, that’s my problem”, Joshua mused.
As Casper marched up to him, Joshua could see the uncooked glint in his eye and knew he was coming to tell him it was time again.
His big hand clapped around Joshua’s fragile shoulders and shook him roughly, laughing heartily at the cream covering his face.
Casper handed Joshua a cloth. “Don’t let the side down today, eh?”
The light drizzle that had defined that morning became downpour as the men crept up to the edge of the trench.
The next few minutes were filled with smoke and gunfire as the battle commenced. Men left the safety of the trench, only to be gunned down mere yards away.
A sudden, bright explosion beside him had Joshua seeing stars, and he abruptly tripped and landed halfway over the trench wall into no man’s land.
Panic rising, Joshua struggled to get back down into the cover of the trench.
Abruptly, he felt capable hands grab hold of his skinny body and pull him forcefully back down. He landed roughly, sent sprawling across the dirt.
Looking up, from his vantage point in the mud, Joshua could see Casper, lying a few feet away, unmoving.
He crawled over to where he lay and, with shaking hands, he turned Casper’s shaved head to gaze into his lifeless eyes with horror. Casper’s body was riddled with bullet holes, each one adding up to the value of Joshua’s life.
Another explosion blasted Joshua across the trench and his vision went black as he slammed into the wall.
. . .
Joshua awoke to the sound of rustling sheets and harried whispers. He opened his eyes and they were immediately met with harsh, fluorescent lighting.
A pretty woman came into his cubicle, dressed in a starchly-pressed, crisp white uniform, a small smile on her face.
Oh. This was a Hospital.
Her smile never wavered as she placed a newspaper in his lap. The date read “November 11th 1918”.
“You don’t know yet, do you?” She asked him, her lips quivering in excited anticipation.
Joshua read the headline: “Whole country goes wild with joy over news of peace. WAR OVER”
He stared back up at her, blankly. After several moments spent searching his face, she sighed sympathetically and tucked him in before leaving to report back.
Casper was dead, he knew that. Poor, courageous, ruthless Casper.
He turned his head to gaze out the window, into the bright, sunny day.
He also knew it was down to Casper’s moment of heroism that he was alive to witness the world at peace again.
He was free.