Dear Ma and Pa,
I am almost at the front lines now. Some of the guys are still smiling and cracking jokes, but not so much now as we can smell the battlefield up ahead. They say a hundred thousand or more have already died there. I don’t want to make you worry or nothing, but some of the other guys are writing their last letters home just in case, and I thought I would do the same. We are still quite far back, so who knows? Maybe there will be a breakthrough and we won’t get to see any action at all. Part of me hopes not, thought. I intent to take at least one Jerry for you and Mary before I come home, so you’ll be proud of me and know I did my part. Hope all’s well at home,
‘Just imagine what kinda stuff we can dig up! If we find a skull I get first dibs!’
Dougie had never seen Eric so wild eyed and excited before, and that was saying something. He was a wild boy to begin with: he hadn’t climbed a tree until he was right out there on the tiniest, topmost branch with the wind in his face, hadn’t played a game of soccer until he was bloody and covered in mud. Right now, he was gunning the pedals of his bike so fast Douglas was pushing himself to the limit just to keep up, eyes watering, both of them laughing with excitement.
Thankfully, it wasn’t far, though they had to get off their bikes at the base of a grassy hill and push them up to the top, where a thin line of pines kept the field out of sight of the road. No wonder Dougie had never noticed it before.
Not that he would have known what it was, in any case.
‘It just looks like a muddy old field,’ Eric said, still huffing from exertion.
‘Well… It’s a battlefield, anyway,’ Dougie said, although he could see what Eric meant: the field, stretching for acres and acres in either direction and ending in another hill lined with pines about a kilometre opposite them, amounted to little more than an enormous mud puddle. Dougie wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Big bomb craters with rusted helmets and bones sticking out of the muck, he supposed. According to one of the letters in the suitcase – he’d only read two before he’d found the map and recognized some of the place names and run off – over a hundred thousand people had died in this area. It seemed incredible that there could be so little left. He shivered.
‘I guess we might as well check it out, anyway,’ Eric said, though he sounded somewhat disheartened.
‘Yeah. There’s gotta be something cool. There’s gotta be.’ Dougie said.
Eric had managed to cram his father’s gardening spade into his backpack, the handle sticking out and comically knocking him on the back of the head as he rode. He took it out now and they started down the long slope. A slope which, a hundred years ago, men had raced down, screaming, guns in hand, while shells erupted all around them and bullets flew and death waited at the bottom.
‘There’s gotta be something cool,’ Dougie said again.
Dear Ma and Pa,
I am a little worse for wear but still all in one piece, you will be happy to know. It really is rough out here, and we’re not even all the way at the front lines. Close enough, if you ask me. There’s mud over everything, all the time. Our uniforms were shining new a month ago, now you can hardly recognize any of us. No one is getting any sleep, because the shelling is so loud. I didn’t know that many bombs existed in the world, they’re going off a hundred a second all day long, it seems. I think I will feel a lot better when we are all up there and firing our guns instead of marching and marching with dread in our hearts. Got to go, Will Carraway just got in with some rations and even wine. Cheers, hope you all are ok.
Despite his reluctance, Eric was the first to start down the slope, spade hefted over his shoulder and his other hand outstretched. Dougie watched him, chewing his lip, not understanding the sour dread that welled in the pit of his stomach. He felt nervous – almost as nervous as the time they made everyone do speeches in class and he dropped his notes. He had a powerful urge to run behind one of the tall trees and squat, sure his lunch would emerge in churning liquid form.
But instead he cracked his knuckles and followed his friend down to the grassy field. Scaredy Cat. Though why he should be afraid of something that a minute ago had been nothing but a source of excitement, he didn’t know. It was just a feeling, that was all.
They made their way about a quarter of the distance to the opposite hill, to where the mud was thick and deep enough to suck their boots in past the ankle, and then began to dig around with their spades. They hadn’t been there long before a large cloud passed in front of the sun and the wind carried the first drizzling drops of a light rain their way.
‘Bloody hell,’ Eric said, staring up at the sky, dismayed. ‘It was sunny a second ago.’
‘We’ve got to go deeper, that’s all,’ Dougie said. He believed it, too. Just like the gambler who’s sure to win the next big hand, he felt a keen hope with each shovelful of sludge he tossed aside, squinting into the little holes he made for the white gleam of bone or, perhaps the grey of rusted metal. A hundred thousand dead, he thought, not for the first or last time. A hundred thousand. They kept digging.
‘Tell you what, if I don’t get at least a – ’ The words caught cold in his throat.
He’d stopped for a second to wipe the sweat from his brow and straighten his back, but when he’d turned his head to the hill from which they’d come he’d caught sight of a dead man.
A long dead man. A soldier. He had his rifle right there, loosely couched against his hip, and a helmet that hung lopsided on his head. His head was lopsided, too, his skull sloping to one side and the flesh seeming to hang loosely from the other, making his empty eye sockets droop and his black half rotted lips droop down at the corners. A cigarette hung from them. His uniform was muddy rags hanging from a skeletal body. He did not move.
‘What?’ Eric said, still digging.
‘Eric.’ But Dougie’s voice came out whisper thin and anyway it was drowned out by a roll of thunder. No, not thunder, a nasty thought struck him: Shells. The soldiers called them drum mortars because they landed so fast and heavy it was like a drum roll. Rolling across the land, turning living breathing men into so much minced meat. All true, he knew, and it was a truth that was coming to him straight from the black eyes of the soldier on the hill. Not completely black, though… they had a point of light in them, far far back inside, like the pinpoint of light you might see from the very bottom of a deep well. But there was so much in that light, so much…
He looked away, and it was a good thing, too, or he wouldn’t have seen the hand reaching up out of the hole he’d dug a second ago. It reached for him with yellow nails, some of which were bent backward in the beds, and soft green skin covered in blisters. It touched him for a split second and he felt the skin on his shin, just above the boot. It was too soft, sliding, blisters bursting and pus leeching out when he pulled away, mind blank with terror.
He stumbled backward two steps and then came down on his rear, eyes wide and staring at the hand which was still groping blindly in the mud where he’d just been. Finally, he found his voice. ‘ERIC LOOK!’
But Eric was already looking. Not at the hand, but in the other direction, across the countryside where the heavy sound of drum shelling came, clearly disturbed by the way it didn’t let up, and how it shook the air in a way thunder did not. He had not yet seen the soldier.
Then Dougie saw the other one, a thing more mud than man, half swimming and half dragging itself through the mud towards his friend, one arm now outstretched, and he sucked in the deepest breath he could manage and screamed so loud that afterward it would feel like his vocal chords had been rubbed with sandpaper: ‘ERIIIIIIICCC!’
And his friend spun around, surprised, and saw the groping hand that had missed Dougie and, a second too late, the thing that was coming for him.
The hand closed around his ankle.
Eric assaulted the dead thing with his spade, or what he could reach of it that wasn’t already submerged in mud. He turned its head to mash, snapped its spine with an audible crack, and cut deep trenches in the arm even as it continued to pull at his leg, forcing him to hop on one leg as he fought.
Dougie rolled aside and picked up his spade, scanning the mud all around him for possible others, seeing nothing but knowing they were there. Eric let out a scream and Dougie turned to see that a second hand had got hold of him. It pulled on his grounded foot and, together with the first hand, upended him. A second later the two hands pulled his feet into the mud, submerging him to the top of his boots. He flailed around on his back, trying to twist over and find purchase.
Dougie felt sloppy heat slide down the backs of his pant legs and knew that his lunch had come after all, and he realised in a moment that he was going to leave his friend.
Dear ma and pa.
Today I saw a lot of men die.
I watched them come in waves, first the enemy and then us. I remember grandpa telling me the story about the bravery and glory of the light brigade and the final charge. I saw it today. I saw hundreds of brave men stand up and run right at the enemy across no-man’s land, right into a hail of bullets and shells that tore them to pieces before they could get anywhere close to the other side. Then the sergeant called out for the next wave. And then the next. The glory and bravery isn’t much left after the first few. After that it’s all just dying.
I am sorry if I’m scaring you. But as Will said to me the other day, any letter might be the last, and tomorrow I go over the top.
Pray for me. Send my love to all and Mary.
He kept his eyes on the ground a few feet in front of him. More were coming up out of the ground every second. He zigzagged to avoid grabbing hands, jumped over legs like twisted tree roots, the mud sucking at his heels with every step and threatening to pull his boots right off. The shelling was so loud – and it was shelling, now: fountains of mud exploded here and there where the bombs landed – that he saw the gunshots rather than heard them as they raised pillars of mud in their wake beside him.
Something about the angle of these struck him wrong, some deep instinct warning him that he was not running away from danger but towards it, and he stopped to look up ahead.
The soldier was standing on the opposite hill: down on one knee, rifle tucked under one arm, skinless finger on the trigger. Dougie stared, blank with terror, for one second, and in it he saw a puff of smoke rise from the barrel, the soldier jerking backward from the kick.
Then Dougie was spinning around, the impact hitting his left shoulder so hard his feet left the ground and he was face down in the mud before he even felt a thing.
And the first thing he felt was a mouth pressing up against his, rotten teeth clamping down on his lower lip and pulling.
He lurched backward instinctively, not caring that his lower lip was now stretching like chicken skin, tearing and bleeding. When he broke free, all the pain of the bullet and the lip and the fear all hit him at once and he screamed, scrambling back and away. He saw another corpse trying to pull itself above the surface, and he turned, leapt over the head and shoulders of another, and then fell to his knees.
Clasping one hand over the bullet wound dribbling blood in his left shoulder, the whole arm completely numb, he looked around at the soldier who had shot him. He fully expected him to have his rifle at the ready for the final shot, the one that would land right between Dougie’s eyes, but it wasn’t so. The man – if that’s what he was – had lowered the weapon once more, and was staring at Dougie intently.
Dougie met his deep, deep eyes. He looked into the bright points like stars a thousand light years distant. He saw the truth, read the message, and it said: You haven’t done enough, yet. It said: You don’t understand.
And Dougie knew what he had to do.
Dear Ma and Pa,
I am still alive.
I don’t know how, but it’s true. Ben Donohue is not. Red Adler is not. Bill Sexton. Warren Smith. A thousand, a hundred thousand others I don’t know. Will Carroway, too, all my best friends for all my life. And here I am, alive only because a Jerry happened to aim his bullet a foot or so to the right where it hit Will instead of me. I held his head in my arms for six hours and felt his blood pour into my lap. I saw Bill catch shrapnel in the gut and hold his own intestines steaming in his hands. He was begging for his mother.
The shelling never stops, and I haven’t slept in three days, nor eaten in two. Please send food if you can. The army is not doing so well at getting us what we need.
The mud is worst of all. It’s in everything, everywhere. It’s in our eyes and mouths and nose all the time. Me and some boys passed a poor lad, no more than eighteen, bogged in up to his knees. We tried to get him out, but there were no footholds for us in the mud, and soon we were called up ahead. Went back that way later and found he was still there, only now he was in all the way up to his neck and quite out of his mind. We had to leave him.
God save us all, for I don’t think anyone else can.
I will do the best I can to get back to you.
Please send love to all and Mary.
Eric was buried to the chest. He was screaming and out of his mind, his eyes rolled so far back in his head the whites were visible, arms beating madly against the mud and clawing at it. His fingernails were broken and torn back from the force of his efforts.
‘They’re bitingme! Helphelp! They’re bitingeating meeeeeee! Heeeeellllp! DOUGIE!’
That last when Dougie skidded through the mud to his side and grabbed hold of one of his arms. Everything was chaos. It was impossible to know what was going on anywhere else in time or place: The universe had been reduced to the space of one square meter inhabited by the two boys, and everything else was rain, bombs, mud, bullets, bodies, screams, death, horror.
Dougie wrapped his good arm around his friend and dug his legs into the earth. He pulled, but all it did was sink his feet deep into the soft mud. He felt dead fingers groping his legs. He pulled harder.
In the wake of some monstrous explosive which raised a tidal wave of mud and flesh just meters away, all sound was replaced by a high pitched whining in Dougie’s ears. He saw men come swarming down the hill on which the soldier stood, though whether they were to his aid or for his death he didn’t know, only that they were equal parts terrified and enraged and had their bayonets fixed. Only when they passed him and collided with the unseen enemy behind him did he realise there was a war going on that didn’t include him at all.
‘THEYRE EATING ME DOUGIE! I CAN FEEL THEM EATING ME HELP!’
Dougie pulled harder, the pain from his shoulder screaming through his chest, everything inside him feeling like nails on a chalkboard. Hands peeled off his shoes and socks. Teeth bit into him, soft teeth that bent back with the force of their bites, yellow-black teeth that stripped his flesh with desperate hunger, and he screamed.
But he didn’t stop pulling. Eric came free inch by agonizing inch, the mud sucking at him with supernatural force. He wrapped his hands around Dougie, weeping as his body emerged slowly from the thick mud, until they rolled away from the pool and the clutching fingers of the dead and pulled each other to their feet.
Dougie dragged his friend as fast as he could for the hill, sure the solider would let them through. Shells slammed with unimaginable force into the earth on all sides, bullets flew by their ears. They pushed passed other men, brave soldiers who seemed to be rushing to their own deaths as eagerly as Dougie and Eric were rushing to safety. They fell on all sides, bullets smacking into their faces, chests, ripping muscle and tendons into red tentacles that splayed out in the mud and were buried.
Only when he reached the foot of the hill on which the soldier stood, slamming into it and then sliding a little, did Dougie let go of his friend and allow himself to rest. Bombs fell with shocking force and noise, guns fired at a thousand bullets a second, men screamed and killed and died – or worse, didn’t die – all around, and yet somehow beneath all this madness Dougie still heard Eric’s yelps of pain. Yelps, just like the heartbreaking whimpers of a dog that had been beaten to within an inch of its life.
Eric had been eaten down to the bone. Now that the rain was clearing some of the mud away, Dougie could see large round patches of red meat, many of them two or three times larger than any mouth Dougie could imagine. Eric looked around at Dougie, his eyes wild and unseeing. His crotch and lower abdomen had been clawed so badly that his intestines were leaking out and Dougie smelled the putrid stench of half digested food and urine.
Eric gripped him by the collar and pulled him so close that their noses were almost touching. Dougie pulled at his wrists but he had a grip like fused steel.
‘It hurts so bad, Johnny it huuuuurrrrrts.’
‘I know, I know, it’s gonna be okay’ but Dougie couldn’t hear his own words because he was crying too much, and he didn’t believe them anyway because Eric’s left foot was nothing but clear bone and he was losing so much blood, so much blood. There was only one thing he could do for his friend, now.
He looked up the hill to the soldier, and once again an understanding passed between them.
The soldier raised his rifle once more.
Dear Ma and Pa,
This is my last letter.
We have just received orders to go over the top at dawn. None of us are under any illusions. There is a thirty foot distance to the enemy trench, and they have machine gunners and artillery. Word has it they know we are coming.
Last time this happened to one of our companies, Reggie O’ Donnell stayed in the trench while the others went. The sergeant shot him as a coward in front of all of us. So we all know, there is no way out. For king and country, and all that.
Don’t weep long for me. Know that I did my part for England.
Send love to Mary.
Just yesterday he and Eric had been playing Xbox together, and now Dougie was holding him and Eric’s eyes were rolled back in his head and his brains were spread across the hill.
Dougie had to leave when a black hand snaked out of the mud and took hold of Eric’s foot. He didn’t wait to see what happened. He just started up the hill, slipping now and then in the mud but otherwise unperturbed by the chaos around him.
The soldier raised the rifle again, but Dougie walked on, deafened by noise, half blinded by mud and tears, exhausted, hollow. Yes, that was it, he was hollow. Whatever had made him who he was, whatever essential soul that had lived inside him only hours ago as he’d ridden so gleefully with the wind in his face and his best friend at his side was gone. He was a ghost.
He walked until he was stopped by the gun barrel pressing into his forehead, right between his eyes. It was still hot from the last firing.
Dougie looked past the barrel, and into the deep eyes of the soldier. Dougie looked down into the wells to the points of light a million miles away, and then he looked past those, too.
The soldier’s finger tightened on the trigger. Dougie did not react. There was nothing inside him left.
The soldier lowered his rifle and stood aside.
Dear Ma and Pa,
I am sorry it has taken me so long to write to you. I suppose you’ve been thinking I was dead all this time. I thought I was, too, but tomorrow I will be officially discharged from the infirmary. I had a rough time, they tell me, and had a few close calls, but as of today I am a healthy young man again.
You will never know the things I’ve seen and done, but at last it is all over, and there is no need to worry, as I will return to you all in one piece.
Powerful. Well done.