by Layn Palmer (Univ. Mount Union)

First Place

We were sitting in the foxhole, me and Alex. Bullets flew by overhead, tearing through trees and ripping up the snow like little white volcanic eruptions. The choppy, rhythmic sounds of machine gun fire filled the air. I couldn’t even hear Alex breathing with his face inches from mine, but he was. I looked over at him.

“You ready Alex?”

We had been sitting there all day, just talking the way old men do. Alex was staring at the TV now, the Yankees had just batted in another run. His skin was pale and spotted. The hair on his head had lost its color and he had lost his motivation to tidy it, leaving him with a mess of greasy silver hair. There was a tube sticking out of his wrinkled arm. The years had treated me better, but not by much. We were both shadows of the men who had once fought side by side.

“You remember Tommy?” His voice came out slow and strangled. I almost couldn’t hear him over the sound of cars driving down the wet streets several floors below.

“Course.” I said.

“Helluva man that one.”

“One of the best.”

Alex struggled to roll over in his bed. He reached down, over the edge of the bed opposite from me, with the arm that didn’t have a tube in it. When he came back up he came with an old brown box. He blew dust off of the box lid and opened it, revealing the wine bottle inside.

“Bustin’ out the good stuff, huh Alex?”

“Yeah,” He held it up to the window and spun it around slowly in his hands, watching the way the deep red changed as the moonlight rippled across it. “Can’t believe how easy it was to sneak in here.” And with that, he began to cough a cough that came from deep inside him and tore its way up and out his throat. His hands began to shake as he lowered the bottle.

Alex was shaking as sweat rolled down and left trails through his dirty face. He nodded, even though he looked as far from ready as I had ever seen a man. Few men were ever ready to make that last move, a move of inches that would put them onto Death’s path. I wasn’t ready either but, I went first anyway.

I moved up, my head slowly cresting over the foxhole. I could see them, still a distance away. But not as far as I had hoped. They wore white coats and gray helmets, grenades and ammo pouches clattered against their bodies as they moved towards us; running from tree to tree. I laid my arm and rifle across the ground and fired, pulling the trigger so fast that I left myself no time to aim. Eight shots, and not a single one hit its mark.

I came back down to reload while Alex went up. The sound of each shot he fired slammed into my head until the pain made it seem as though he had been shooting at me. Deaf and disoriented I went back up. The men I was supposed to be shooting were blurs, nothing but outlines against the white background. I fired, missing as they hunkered down behind trees. I felt a bullet brush against the hairs on my neck.

I went down and Alex went up. He fell back down in an instant, screaming.

“You know you’re not supposed to have that.” I said. “It’s for your own good.”

Alex continued to stare at the bottle.

“Ah to hell with that.” He said, as he uncorked it.

Two glasses had sat in the box along with the bottle. Alex set them down on his bed side table. His body creaked and moaned as he rolled over and drew his eyes level with the edge of the glass. He held the bottle above the glass. His hands shook, but he somehow managed to steady them more and more as the bottle slowly tipped and let the wine fall out of it.

He stopped the flow of wine as the first glass filled, not a single drop was spilled. As he moved to the next glass, his hands began to shake again in idleness. But they became still again as he poured the next glass, once again without wasting a drop. Alex sat the bottle down and took one of the glasses. He reached out to hand it to me and I rushed to save him the trouble, to meet him halfway. His grasp was slipping and I managed to reach him before he could drop it. I quietly moved my chair nearer to the bed as he rolled back.

I watched my glass, got lost in the reflection, and tried to ignore Alex’s struggle to reach for his own glass. When he had it, he raised it up to me.

“To Tommy.” He said.

“To Tommy.”

He lifted the glass toward me, but stopped halfway.

“And Dan, and Toni, and Rich.” He paused, with a furrowed brow and dark eyes. “And all the rest I’m sure I’m forgettin’.”

“All the rest.” I said.

This time we knocked the glasses together. The sound hung in the air, caught in the small room. I sipped the wine and watched Alex. His head was turned toward the TV again, the Yankees had won.

I could barely see the scar anymore. After all these years it was nothing but a dark strip of skin, hidden under gray hair and wrinkles.

Alex was down screaming in the hole, blood trickling down his face I grabbed him and shook him. “Alex. Alex!” I shook him harder. “It’s just a scratch.” But he couldn’t hear me. The guns were too loud, his screaming was too loud. An explosion came nearby, showering us in dirt and pulling me back into the fight.

I had to leave Alex. I reached for my gun and went up over the edge again. They were close now. Before I had been firing at shapes and shadows, now I was firing at men. I saw my bullets rip into the first one, tearing the flesh and blood out of his body. Blood began to pool in the snow where he fell.

The second man was scrambling for cover behind a tree not thirty yards from me. My next two shots hit the tree, cracking the bark and burying deep in the trunk. Other men were fanning out around our foxhole. I didn’t know which one to fire at first, so I fired at them all in turn. I went down in the hole to reload.

“Alex, get your ass up here!” He couldn’t have heard me, but he figured it out anyway. This time we went up together, firing our rifles at the fastest pace we could manage. Several of the Germans fell over, they had gotten so close we could hardly miss.

I heard the clang that meant my rifle was empty. The man I had missed earlier came out from behind his tree. I looked at him, he was young, more of a boy than a man; probably fresh out of high school. They probably taught him how evil the Americans were. We might have even killed his father, or his brother.

I felt my chest open up. The wind sucked out of me. My rifle fell out of my hands and I landed hard on the frozen ground beneath me.

“Whatever happened to Sarah?”

I looked up. We had gone through a bit more than half the bottle without saying a word.

“Well, I suppose she just got tired of me.” I said.

“Yeah. That’ll happen.” Alex said, nodding his head slowly. He took another sip from his glass. “What was she, the second one? Lots of women got tired of you Johnny.”

“It’s the drinking.” I said.

“’Course it is.” He said.

Alex looked at me and smiled as we each took another sip of wine. “That Amelia though.”

I watched my wrist. I couldn’t look at Alex right now, I knew his eyes were on me though.

“I always liked her Johnny. She was a good woman.”

“Yeah, Alex, she sure was.”

“It’s just too bad the others weren’t.” He said.

I could only laugh at that. There wasn’t anything else to do about it now.

“Would’ve never bet on you to outlive her though.” Alex said.

“I wouldn’t have either. Her and I both figured I’d do myself in if I was left alone.”

“We’ve both outlived a lot of people, haven’t we Johnny?”

“I suppose we have Alex. I suppose we have.”

I heard Alex firing off shot after shot above me, the sound ringing in my skull. Darkness was sitting just on the edge of my vision. I could feel myself fading. But the shots gave me something to focus on, I needed to help Alex. I reached for a grenade, my hands rattled all around it as I fumbled for the pin. It came off with a click. I counted slowly; one, two, three; then threw it up and over. A second later the explosion came. I don’t think it’s possible to throw a grenade far enough that it doesn’t rattle your bones when it goes off.

Alex was still shooting on his own. I lay there, with one hand pressed to my chest, the other grasping for my rifle. Alex came down to reload, saw me struggling, and handed me my rifle.

That was when the German tumbled into our foxhole.

There was a second where the three of us looked at each other in confusion, then the German’s hands were around my neck. Alex scrambled and got caught on the abundance of limbs in the small space. I was pushing, one hand on the German’s neck, the other on his chest. Alex swung at the German and hit his hand off of the man’s helmet.

My breath was coming slower, my grip loosened. I looked up at the German. It was the boy who had shot me. My eyes were closing, I was choking. The pain was too great, I couldn’t get him off me.

I heard a shot. My throat opened up and the darkness at the edge of my vision began to retreat. I opened my eyes to find that I was covered in the German boy’s blood.

Alex sat with his back against the foxhole wall, with his sidearm held in a bloody hand. The German boy had slumped down into me, his dead eyes looking into mine.

Rain was drumming and dripping down the pitch black window now. The wine bottle was almost empty. I had never taken this long to take a drink before, never taken the time to enjoy it.

Alex’s ragged breath was slow and steady now, rhythmic even. It was soothing and I began to fall asleep. I woke to the sound of the door coming open. The night nurse came through with a long, disapproving scowl on her face.

“You know you can’t have alcohol Mr. Demuth.” She said, moving toward him to take the drink away. I reached out and gently put my arm in her way.

“Ma’am, I drove an awfully long way to have a drink with my friend tonight. And it might be awhile before I get to again.” I said.

The nurse put an arm down on mine. I looked up at her and she looked at me. She sighed and pushed my arm away, moving around me to check Alex’s bed and machines like she had come to do. She stopped in the doorway.

“You go drinking that, it’s your funeral.” And with that she left us.

That night, most of the fighting had died down. The planes had come in and taken down the Germans. The men in charge said we had won, at least for the day, but we kept the guards out just in case.

I was sitting next to the fire, letting its heat spread across my body. The heat helped ease the pain in my chest. The bullet had missed the important bits and I could still walk; so the medics wrapped the wound, patted my shoulder, and went on to find men who had something more than just an 8mm hole in their chest.

Tommy was sitting on my left, Alex on my right. Two young men getting their first, terrible taste of the world. I heard footsteps crunching toward us. Each of us had our guns trained on the sound in a split second.

A farmer came walking out from behind the trees. He had short hair with the first streaks of age and wore a white shirt under a black coat. He had a bottle of wine in his arms. There was a small, brown haired, boy following him.

He had come out to give the wine to us, maybe for trying to end the war. I’ll never know, the man didn’t speak any English. He left the bottle with us and left. The little boy kept looking back at us over his shoulder as the farmer took him away.

Tommy took the bottle first. His uncle owned a vineyard back in the states so he knew a bit about wine. He couldn’t believe what he saw on the bottle. I couldn’t read it, some European manufacturer, so it made no difference to me. “I’ve seen this before. My dad had one of these once. He sold it to some collector for a small fortune.” Said Tommy.

“So let’s get it out, celebrate our victory!” Alex reached across to take the bottle from Tommy but Tommy moved away, cradling the bottle in his arms.

“This is a fine wine. And it should be had on a finer occasion than when we’re freezing our asses off in the middle of a warzone.”

“My frozen ass is exactly why I want it now.” Alex tried to get Tommy, but Tommy was quick to his feet. They began circling the fire like little children as the snow danced down around them. Alex slipped in the snow and fell face first to the ground. Tommy stopped running. Alex sat up and spit out a mouthful of snow. Tommy and I laughed while Alex glared at us.

“Okay you bastard.” Alex paused to wipe snow off of his face. “What would be the proper occasion for a wine such as this?” Alex threw his hands up at the word occasion to show that he thought the proper occasion was here and now.

Tommy held the bottle up in examination. It almost seemed to glow in the firelight.

“A man should go out on a high note. Shouldn’t he?

“The hell are you talking about Tommy?” Alex asked.

“Wouldn’t you want the last thing you ever drank to be the best drink there is?”

“Yeah, I also want to be home before Christmas. But that ain’t gonna happen.”

“What I’m saying.” Tommy looked away from the bottle and to Alex. “Is that this is a once in a lifetime kind of wine. The kind of wine a man should have for his last drink.”

I laid back in my chair and watched the ceiling. It was a nice thing to watch because it never changed. It was always there, always that same dull shade of cream that was so comforting.

My glass was empty, but Alex still had a bit left.

“Well, Alex, was it worth all that waiting?”

Alex took one more sip and then set the glass down on the bedside table. The bottle was empty.

He folded his hands across his chest while letting out a long slow breath, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes.

“I couldn’t have asked for more Johnny.”