III (896

She shifted her weight uneasily in the bed, pretending to herself to be asleep. Her skin was crawling with beads of sweat. She suppressed a shiver, turned the cushion over and buried her face in its cooler side. Outside, the low cloud clung to the tops of the buildings, refusing to be moved on by the dry breeze that still prowled the deserted streets. Slowly opening her eyes and she sighed to herself. She had been dreaming of a past where she had not lain alone. She had had the reassuring arms of a lover and a father around her. He had been gone for nearly a year, but she was still getting used to being on her own apart from her little boy. He had left on one of the few mornings where the smog lifts enough to hear the birds sing high above in the elevated parks. Nothing green survived below the chimneys and a thin coat of dust had settled over the years like a thin dusting of snow might fall on the upper levels of the over city in winter. “I won’t be long; you’ll see us all before next spring – just wait and see!” He had said. Crying into his shirt sleeve her eyes pleaded with him not to go. To somehow escape the injustice that saw the closest thing she had to family sailing out of her life, and into the furnace of gunfire. “Come on, come on! Some of us have a schedule to keep to!” Shortly after, he blew a whistle and the train driver responded with three short pips on the engine whistle. Slowly at first the train pulled out of the station yard, taking with it half the heart of every woman left watching the coaches fading west into the orange smoke on the horizon. Every week her heart was choked at the thought of not getting a letter from him. She walked miles to the closest post depot where she had a friend, who would look out for her letter-lifeline on the first morning of each week. Every letter she got from him was like his last. What it said was unimportant. It meant he was still alive and each week she allowed herself a little more hope that he would be coming home… …He threw himself behind the mound of earth a shell had kicked up and checked the breach of his rifle. He knew he had checked and rechecked his weapon all afternoon and every time he had had time to stop. Mentally he shook himself. There was no time for mindless thought. He must concentrate on the task in hand. Officially they were to put a remote watch team out of action and set off an avalanche but unofficially they were to return to camp in one piece. “We need to push forward, we’re getting left behind. Let’s go!” “Let me catch my breath a second pal,” wheezed the older man. The Motley Bunch (as they called themselves) picked themselves through the blue-gray snow firing from the hip into the tangle of barbed wire in front of them. The wind roared in their ears, like a whip at their heels it spurred them onwards into the very eye of the maelstrom. He crouched onto one knee and snapped off a shot into the distance and grunted as he heard the dull thud of a man hitting the floor. He cocked

the bolt and prepared to fire again when he looked up into the face of one of the defenders. The boy could’ve been no older than sixteen. Too young even to be declared fit to work, too young to be a registered citizen. There was terror in his eye as he squeezed the trigger. The man didn’t scream. He didn’t feel a thing. He saw the metallic crimson stream flow out of him; it was warm to the touch, melting the numbness of his fingers. Beside him there was a gnarled bestial cry as his comrades redoubled their efforts. They seemed to flash past him faster than his eye could follow. His other knee fell to the floor with a sound that thundered through his brain louder than any howitzer, louder than any klaxon blast. With half his mind and half his heart he wondered what they would be doing, had he not been stolen away to fight this foreign power. He remembered holding his child up, beaming from ear to ear with his mother in the background smiling proudly to herself. A simple pleasure; one he began to realise he would never have again. The other half of his mind and heart fought on through the clear, dry twilight. Joining the cries of his men as they fought towards their objective – realising the only way home lay forwards, towards their enemy and towards death… …She pulled herself upright, and took a sip of the water beside her bed. Her hands were trembling and she held the small cup in both hands to stop it spilling and looked out across the multitude of streets and houses. Her mind going out to all those who sat upright with hearts searching for something it had long lost, but not lost hope for. In the east the burning sun had risen enough to battle with the shadows on the street corners and in the doorways.

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