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By the time I realize that I am a child, I am surrounded by bullets, bullet holes, and corpses of men younger than me. They forgot to tell me a great deal about these wars. They said it’s how boys become men—if not men, then martyrs. It’s when I’m standing in a windblown field of crimson wheat left behind that I realize that martyrs are made from heroes who have happened to have died, not ordinary men, much less boys. 

The wind howls as our group treads on, passing abandon and loss, quietly mourning strangers. Our commander ensures us that we will soon learn not to waste time on such sentiments, instead growing into numb disillusionment, followed by mumbled yearning of sated hunger and cool abode. 

We walk on.

We pass bloated bodies gone ocean blue in the scorching sun, now nothing more than a bruise of a person. They’ve swelled so extensively that I am unsure where their faces ought to be. 

I turn to the boy besides me. I can hardly find his face, either, for we’re all horribly caked in layers of crusted blood and thick patches of dust. The boy has watery eyes but stands like a board, fearless and unwavering. 

“Look at the hands on that one,” I mumble to him. They’ve swelled up to the size of footballs. 

The solider besides me stays quiet, now kneeling down besides whatever’s left of the corpse. I started to think he liked the feel of it or something; I hear people go broken in the head like that. 

His careful hands travel along the ballooned chest, squishing the purple skin before grabbing a knife out of the man’s belt; the body gives a wet pop and the stench of rotting skin overcomes us both. With an ugly yelp, he squirms backwards from the leaking guts until he sticks his hand into an animal den, sending him diving into the ground. It’s nearly comical, but the scent is so morbid that I’m afraid to say anything. 

We watch as the ground is painted and listen as the sunbaked flies give wet hisses of approval. 

The soldier is still on the ground when he finally speaks. 

“They’ll dry out like raisins, you know,” he snaps. 

The group walks on without us. 

I glance down, grumbling, “Thanks for the imagery.”

He huffs, heaving himself up, uselessly swiping dust away from his military-issue uniform. Dust sticks to our clothing even when we merely stand around, laying in wait. It left us perpetually gritty and sticky, a mix of insatiable itchiness and frustration. 

“Say, Ken—”

I rip my gaze away from a bloodied blade of wheat. 

“You know my name?”

“Saw it on your boots. You thinking about yesterday?”

I hadn’t been, but images of grenades, gunshots, and hiding under the slim cover of rotting sand bags and termite-infested wood overtake my mind. 

“Yeah,” I lie, “something about seeing that guy’s arms.”

The boy begins to clean off his newest knife by wiping it on his dust-laden trousers, and now has a sincerely morbid grin on his ugly face. 

“You ever had a good turkey leg?”

“Once or twice,” I shrug, “Maybe on Christmas if my brother brought something home.” 

“Well, that boy’s arms reminded me just of a good turkey leg,” he pauses, “his skin slid right of the bones.” 

I blink at him. 

“Could you not say those things? It makes me uneasy.”

“Not my fault you’re weak,” he retorts. 

“Shut it.”

Before I know it, he’s all up in my face. He gives me a rough shove; I bump him with the butt of my gun. We both give a single, pitiful yelp. We both move to speak, but only stare at each other with our boyish eyes. 

That’s what we are: boys. 

Maybe acting like it reminded us that we’re not ready for life in all its gruesome glory simply because the world forces us to be. 

We don’t speak of the incident. We walk on, sometimes commenting on bloated bodies, sometimes talking weakly about wheat fields that reminded us of home. The group is long gone; we don’t mind. Soon, we are whispering about our brothers and sisters, then parents and grandparents. 

It’s when we discuss how we got sucked up into these battles that we first see shadows approaching over a hill in the distance. 

“Hey, we found them,” he laughs with relief. 

Our battalion must’ve been traveling silently, for they are only a few hundred yards away. 

We walk towards them, our guns loosely held besides us. 

“Reid,” I whisper, “Reid those aren’t our men—”

At once, he crumples to the ground as a gunshot rings out. 

I run.

Wind cries feverishly around me and I am newly aware of the crunch of the bloodied grass beneath my boots. 

It hits me in the back, straight through the spine. My body hits the ground with a painless thump. 

Above me, clouds race in the graying sky. 

Run faster, I urge the clouds, run before they get you, too. 

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Coming of Age, Fiction