The pristine paper trembled in Devon’s dirty hands. He struggled to grasp the letter with fingers that refused to respond. All he could focus on were the last two sentences of neat, tidy script that covered the sheet. His eyes burned painfully, but he couldn’t blink to release the building tears. How could she? It would have been ten years this December. How?
A clatter of tin on the far side of the campfire startled him from his numb daze. Tears finally broke free and trailed down his cheeks, and he hurried to wipe them away as his closest friend shuffled over. Kamp plopped his lanky frame onto the end of Devon’s log, making Devon bounce.
“So she find out the sex of the baby yet?” Kamp asked as he lit a cigarette. Devon nodded but his gaze was glued to the grass between his booted feet as the paper trembled in his hands.
“Are ya gonna tell me?” Kamp asked as he lightly pushed Devon, who shook his head.
Kamp was quiet for a moment before leaning forward to peer at Devon’s face. “Are ya okay?”
Devon’s jaw ached from clenching, so he forced himself to relax and slowly inhale. The cloud of smoke masked the body odor and rotting leaves smell he could never get used to. He turned to Kamp, his closest friend in the world and someone he had gone on four tours with. How can I explain this? What would he think of his sister?
A warning rang through the camp, and Devon stuffed the letter into his coat pocket and jumped up seconds after Kamp. He grabbed his rifle from the ground and ran towards their captain, who was motioning towards the trees.
The air vibrated as a bomber flew low overhead. Devon pushed himself for more speed, and Kamp easily kept up. After rounding a large tree, Devon looked over his shoulder to see his friend suddenly dropping back beside another staggering soldier. Without hesitation, Devon turned around and ran back as gunfire erupted from their camp and their left. He slid to the ground as Kamp threw himself over a fallen Jamison.
Bark flew off of the trees as a heavy gun cut into the forest with ease. Devon had never been one to memorize the enemy’s weapons by sound; that was Kamp’s special skill. Devon looked over as the grass and trees absorbed the impact of the big gun. Kamp was staring at Devon from over Jamison’s body, and the question about making a run died on Devon’s lips.
Kamp gurgled and spluttered as blood poured from his mouth. His wide blue eyes never wavered as he reached over and grasped Devon’s arm. Devon couldn’t form words as he watched his friend struggle to breathe. He grabbed on tightly to Kamp’s arm in return as the gunfire ceased. Oh no. NO!
“Jamison, Connors, Kampson, get your asses out of there!” the captain yelled from their south. Devon looked over but couldn’t see where the voice had come from. He looked back at Kamp, but he had slumped over. Devon reached for a pulse even though he knew his friend was gone. He cursed and glanced down at Jamison, who hadn’t made a sound since they dropped for cover. He scooted back and shook the younger man’s shoulder.
“Jamison, let’s go,” he said thickly. I have to lose all my family today? Really? When he received no response he rolled the man over and cursed again. Jamison’s right eye was just a bloodied socket with grass clinging to it. Devon felt for a pulse but found none. He took a few hard, quick breaths to prepare himself before he pushed himself to his feet and took off into the trees.
As he ran, trying to be stealthy but quick, he braced himself for the moment another bullet would tear into him. Would it come from his sides? Behind? He caught sight of his captain waving before continuing into the trees. Devon ran after him and was almost within arm’s reach when his world exploded. His back hit a tree so hard he had no air, and the world dimmed for a while. When he returned to consciousness, he tried to make sense of the mostly dark, searing world. Why is it dark?
He realized he was sitting at the base of a tree. He reached up, and his fingers made contact with a flap of skin that hung over one eye. He fumbled with it until realization struck him, and his blood turned to ice. The flesh flap was his scalp. How? He couldn’t understand as his pain receptors started working, and his shattered femur and ribs screamed at him in agony. Devon tried to put the flap back over his skull but vomited into his lap instead.
He gasped at the amount of pain that the forceful motion had caused. Once he was sure he was done, he pressed the flap to his scalp with his hand and looked around. His gaze froze on a booted foot with an attached lower leg. He looked down at his own legs, confirming they were attached, then closed his eyes as he pictured the captain’s two little girls at home, waiting for their father who would never return.
Devon let his head fall against the splintered tree and sucked in a painful breath before realizing how hard it was to do. He wheezed as his chest began to feel weighted down, and instead of fighting, he accepted this as the end. He had served his country. Loved a girl. It had taken years to make it work, but they had started a family. Tears rolled down Devon’s cheeks as he thought of his family. What would my girl look like in a year? He coughed, and blood splattered his uniform.
This is drowning. I’m drowning on dry land.
He struggled to draw in air, any amount. He didn’t care. He looked around for help, but there was nobody. Nobody whole, anyway. Devon wanted to sob and punch the tree and rage, but all he could do was struggle to inhale air as blood filled his lungs.
He looked down and saw a perfect, bloodied hand print on his jacket sleeve. He placed his hand over it as his mouth involuntarily frowned. His head fell against the tree again, and he wheezed until everything went black, except the final lines of the letter he had read over and over again.
It’s a girl. I named her Devon after her bio dad, but the father she’ll know is Jared, because he’s been here with me. Goodbye Devon.