A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

The Hero
by Beth Stephenson (Jan 2011)

        David heard Sarge yell, “Fall back!” The desperate note in the command was bile in his veins. Sarge motioned him with his arm, but his forward gesture began a long, slow motion arc into the mud as he fell on his face. Sarge didn’t know he was dead yet, since his eyes stared into the foxhole where David cowered. It would only be a matter of moments before he was dead too, he knew. The Germans drove their crushing machines and wouldn’t notice as the track mashed him.

        He screamed as a body fell from the smoke overhead and landed next to him. It rained bodies in France. He hadn’t known it before today. But this body raised its head. It was a German kid with blue eyes. His peaked helmet was a little askew and showed hair matted with mud and blood. Bloodshot eyes, but not frightened. Inexpressibly sad. He also knew the secret that David just learned. They were about to die.

        “I want to kill you not,” the German kid said. What did he mean? What did that have to do with anything? In a moment the thundering reamer would crush them and they would be no more. Did he think his desires mattered?

        The kid spoke again gesturing with the rifle he held. David hadn’t noticed it before. His own rifle gave him something to grip with his white fingers. “I not kill. I not kill you!”

        David shrugged. “I won’t kill you either. But we’re going to die just the same.”

        A grenade exploded in a nearby trench. Then another and another. A German grenade landed between the two men in the fox hole. David stared in surprise. He had expected to be crushed. But the kid screamed something in German. “Du lebst!” He flung his body over the grenade, showering David in gore.

        David leapt out of the trench and ran in the direction Sarge’s body pointed. He heard German command and machines, but the thick smoke hid him.

        “Maybe I’m dead,” he wondered. But he ran until the smoke thinned and trees and flowers and grass emerged from the death gray fog. And he heard the rumble of jeeps and marching men. Americans falling back. Running for their lives in proper order.

        He ran from the boy who cursed him, “du lebst.” “You live.” Had he learned the translation somewhere or was it instinct?

        A lieutenant tackled him as he ran past. “What happened, Soldier?”

        He could not say the words that screamed in his mind. “Du lebst!”

        The officer pulled a German uniform button out of David’s cheek and his warm, living blood mingled with the German boy’s. The officer checked David’s rifle and fired it into the air. “You’ll get a Purple Heart.” David buried his face in his hands and wept.

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