Loyalty was a hard earned commodity in those times. It had once been freely given just on the basis of service. A man entered the ranks and was immediately loyal to commanders and superiors. It had changed quickly when the muck of reality had splashed upon them all. It had turned out that many who had silently demanded respect and loyalty due to the sole sight of bars and stars upon shoulders and chests were not worth their salt when things got dirty. They showed themselves as idiots – or worse, cowards.
Bombs and bullets revealed the true leaders. Those who could command a battalion with confidence even if he knew failures and losses previously. Men who would not blindly order his troops just because direction had come down from on-high. Men who would stand up to other men who might have enjoyed a higher pay rank, but who had not seen the ugly face of war first hand. Men who got into the fight still, got their uniforms filthy, despite field promotions.
Alex Ross had watched his friend Stanley Wright become one of those men. They had met at boot camp, green and unsure. Willing, but afraid and scared to admit that fear. They had made it through, past the time when others washed out,, past the difficult trials and long nights of enduring punishment because of somebody else’s screw up. They had endured terrible jokes at the expense of Stanley’s last name, and even worse mess hall food.
For a time, they’d become separated by AIT – and then assignments to posts located on opposite sides of the country. But they kept in touch through letters and occasional phone calls. When threat of war came, both of their units were brought to a central location to ready for deployment. They were still full of eagerness, then, and vastly unprepared for what they would witness.
They were assigned to the second wave of soldiers sent out, and by the time their hour drew near, the beach landing had begun to weed out the stupid and the unlucky from their ranks. The second wave was far more somber on their flight than their predecessors had been, aware as they now were that this was not going to be a simple task.
Days stretched into weeks, then into months, as the war raged on. Soldiers were lost to death, severe injury, and complete mental break. Living conditions were beyond deplorable, supplies woefully lacking, and morale flagging as the minute hand revolved around on the few working watches remaining. But through all of it, Stanley had shown strength and determination. He had kept their remaining squadmates focused and fighting. He’d formed his own small regiment from the strays they picked up as they advanced the line. Men who were the only ones remaining after the rest of their fellows had been killed, and men whose previous superiors couldn’t inspire enough faith and loyalty to keep their soldiers fighting by their sides. Stanley rose from private to sergeant in the blink of an eye. He’d worried briefly about Alex and resentment, but Alex assured him that he was happy to follow orders given by his friend. Alex knew that there was no way he could hold up the way Stanley had. Though they’d been a source of strength for one another, Stanley had been the more solid of the two. That and his inherent charisma made him the natural choice for a leader position.
Their group was never very large, and they became a family. There was none of the incidental betrayal that other, assigned divisions endured. They were hand-picked, forged in the midst of blood, pain, and loss. Even the new boys sent to them were chosen by Stanley. His steadfast dedication granting him the allowances few others received. He took them on mission after mission, holding onto the best track record of success and boasting the fewest personnel losses in their area of the country. It netted his boys a few vacation days here and there, allowing them some time to become human again before they were tossed back into the dregs. During these times, they always stuck together as a group, deepening their bond through the tired exploits of young men attempting to forget the atrocities of war. Stanley always waited until the last hour of their leave to tell them to pack it up, wanting to make sure the illusion would hold for as long as possible. It occasionally resulted in soldiers returning to the line still drunk and approaching hungover, but he felt it an acceptable trade.
The truck bounced them around an unpaved route that day. No one spoke, all looked at their feet or walked through half-hearted equipment checks. Two, almost two and a half, years of relentless violence had taken their toll on the men. They could no longer keep a light mood during the journey to the front. They would lighten in time, but the thoughts of lost compatriots, sickness, injury, hunger, and pain haunted all the corners of their minds as they rolled along. This was the time for prayers and introspection, as they’d discovered the need to focus to dire for much serious contemplation once they exited their transport vehicle.
Alex stayed by Stanley as they rode, then as they stood listening to the details of their new assignment, as they met the three new recruits, and as they marched out of base camp into the ruined forest. That night they dug out their foxholes, and Alex placed his near his friend’s so they could whisper during the night when neither of them was able to sleep.
Morning brought usual morning routines, careful and elaborate to assure the safety of everyone involved. Alex parted ways from Stanley for the first time to conduct his business, a green kid at his side as his partner. The newbie was tense, jumpy. He started at every shifting leaf, at the wind blowing through the tops of the trees, at shadows.
Alex rolled his eyes, but understood. “At least point your gun at the ground so you don’t accidentally shoot me.”
The first explosion took them by surprise, the second was a mystifying occurrence that Alex had to physically recover from. It bowled him over, leaving hair singed one one side and half his body covered in wet mud, uniform torn. He stood and discovered the only remaining part of the kid – who had a name, surely, but Alex couldn’t recall it now – was a hand clutching a distorted gun.
Ignoring his personal condition, Alex found his own weapon instinctively and took off running toward the foxholes. The third explosion occurred in front of him, a hundred feet away, directly at the position he was headed toward. His pace picked up, his feet flying at speeds Alex hadn’t known himself capable of.
“Stanley?” He called, well before his destination, forgetting training, forgetting that he was in the middle of enemy territory. Wanting only to find his friend. “Stanley!”
Devastation awaited him. A crater where the foxholes had been. Thick red stains where his fellow soldiers had been. Desperate, Alex dropped his gun and frantically searched the debris. Felled trees lay broken and burnt, making an obstacle course Alex had to maneuver through. His feet tangled in a small branch, sending him hard to the ground. As he began to pick himself up, Alex spied Stanley’s helmet. His head turned, his eyes seeking. The branch he’d tripped over was connected to a portion of tree that pinned Stanley to the earth. Alex returned to the prone position that gravity had introduced him to in order to be level with his friend’s gaze. He could see blood. On skin. On uniform.
“Stan?” Alex’s voice was soft. As calm as he could make it. There was nothing for a moment, then Stanley reached his hand out from under the tree. Alex took hold of it immediately. “Hang on, buddy. I’ll get you out.”
He made to move, but the hand held him tight. The tree couldn’t be that heavy, it was just a broken chunk. He’d move it and get Stanley out. They’d get to cover. He pulled at his hand again, but Stanley wouldn’t let go.
Alex smiled a bit, teasing. “C’mon, pal. You just gotta let go for a minue, then we can hold hands all you want.”
Still Stanley held.
The smile fell from Alex’s lips as his brain finally registered what his eyes had seen. The bomb had caused damage, sure, nothing that looked like it would knock Stanley out of the fight for too long, though. It was the tree that was the issue. Alex had thought his friend pinned only, but the truth was worse. A series of blast-shattered branches had actually punctured flesh, impaled Stanley at the leg, hip, and shoulder. All healable wounds, if not for the ones through his chest and the back edge of his neck.
“No.” Alex shook his head as if the refusal would cause a different outcome. His own grip became stronger. The realization sent a tear rolling through the dirt on Stanley’s face.
“No.” Alex repeated. This man, his friend, couldn’t leave him alone now. They’d seen too much. They’d survived too much. “No, Stan, please. I can’t do this without you.”
Stanley blinked slowly once, twice.
“Tell me what to do, man.” Alex pulled himself closer, trying not to jostle anything. “Tell me what to do. What do I do?”
Another slow blink, Stanley opened his mouth. Blood instead of words spilled out from between his lips. Alex’s slow sorrow became harsh sobs. For so long he’d followed his friend that he was entirely lost without him. He lay, face down in the moist dirt and plant matter, with an iron grip on a hand that had gone lax.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” he repeated the words until the night arrived and his voice crumbled to gravel.