Sgt. Maple studied his bloody hands in the midst of the artillery crater. That’s strange, he thought, they’re not even shaking. His life-long relationship with the bottle left him with constant tremors. He wondered whether it was the sheer force with which he gutted that young german boy, or trying to catch and stuff Pvt. Miller’s intestines back in his shredded stomach that had set his hands straight.
The sky was weeping now, a dull gray had rolled overhead. Which side does He weep for, Maple wondered. Perhaps all of us, he decided as he patted his pockets for smokes. Where were they? Oh, that’s right. He’d finished them last night on watch.
The dirt felt cold and slick under Sgt. Maple’s palm. Cold made sense. This far down the ground ought to be cold. Wet made less sense, he pulled his hand up and noticed tinges of rust smeared on his palm. The sight between his splayed fingers now came into focus. It was Pvt. Charlie Santorini. He was dead. His legs below the knees were gone and his face was the shadow of pain. Maple patted Charlie’s breasts and found some cigarettes, took one, and lit it.
“Thanks Charlie,” he said, through the Marlborough filter. He stared at Charlie’s stumps and thought about how the army could save money on the casket. He was a good foot shorter now. A shell whistled overhead.
Then there was a tumble of dirt on his neck and down his shirt. The skidding of boots on the slope behind Maple. He didn’t turn, he couldn’t. A cigarette had never tasted so good. And then it was gone– shaken out of his mouth by a frantic jerk of his shoulders. Time sped up. Shells whirred by more frantically. Tracer rounds soared through the graying sky.
“Sarge.” Pvt. Yancy’s boyish face was a few inches from his. “Sarge, we gotta go. Damn Nazi’s are all over. They’re rolling through the streets with tanks.” Another shake. “Sarge let’s go.”
Sgt. Maple said nothing and stared at the Private. Flashes of awareness fired behind the Sgt.’s eyes. They were in France, in some god forsaken city far away from home. Too far. Maple blinked and one by one looked at the faces before him. Not like Charlie, distant and cold, but real live faces. Privates Yancy, Holloway, and Wishbone. Just kids; no older than boys. Just out of highschool most like. They should be in school right now, Maple thought, not here halfway across the world fighting somebody else’s war.
Maple shot awake. “Yancy, Holloway, Wishbone. Status report.”
Wishbone was nursing a hand, Maple saw, and was rifle-less. Yancy’s eyes mimicked dinner plates as he frantically surveyed what he could from down in the crater. Holloway spoke up, his southern drawl the only sweet thing for miles around.
“Well Sarge, we’re retreatin’. We need to go four blocks a-thataway.” He nodded back. “The only way out of this fuckin’ town is over a got-damn bridge.” Another shell whirred into the building across the street and showed the boys with rubble and dust. “We should get goin’.”
Maple heard Holloway out and felt a spark of pride in his chest. They’d come far since he laid eyes on their sorry asses a few months ago. Wishbone, he remembered, hadn’t even known how to shave when they first got to Europe. Maple had to show him late one morning, stooped over a candle and makeshift polished silver mirror. He’d cut himself twice.
Maple reached for another smoke and lit it. The sounds of treads and crunching rubble started gaining, shaking the pebbles lining the crater.
“Sarge, we gotta go. C’mon,” Holloway said, reaching for Maple’s arm.
Maple shook him off. “No, you boys go. I’m gonna stay right here. You go.”
Each looked at him as if he’d sprouted another set of legs, Charlie’s legs. He puffed from the cigarette and thought about his own son. The folded flag and silver star. Send it home, he’d said, send it to his mother. Maple just realized he hadn’t cried for his son yet. He didn’t have the time.
He took another look at the boys around him, patted his side arm, and spotted the smoke grenade on Yancy’s belt. “Yancy, gimme that,” Maple said, pointing a ragged finger. “I’ll need it, if y’all are going to make it out of here.”
With the smoke grenade in his left hand, a pistol in his right, and another full cigarette, Maple stood. “When I say run, you boys make a mad dash for that bridge.” He half turned and stopped. “Make sure you go back to school when you get back stateside.”
Sgt. Maple vaulted over the edge of the crater towards the rumble of the approaching war machine. The huddled privates heard the pop of the smoke grenade then a frantic “Run.” They did and didn’t look back.