November 28, 2016
In the Pockets of Soldiers
by Evan Massey
by Evan Massey
Two soldiers await the end of the war -
a letter is written, another is burned
They took guard outside of their camp and built a small fire to try to keep warm during the night. The fighting had died down and the gun shots in the distance began to cease. One of the soldiers pulled out a cigarette and lit it with the fire. Both of them sat on the ground, leaning on fallen trees with their legs sprawled. It felt good to sit after a long march. The youngest of the soldiers had untied his boots. Their rifles were laid across their laps.
Both soldiers were part of the same company, but did not know each other. The youngest was from a small town in the Midwest and the other was from somewhere in the South. A box of rations sat in between them. The younger one was hungry. He wrestled his hand in the box every 15 minutes. The other soldier only sat there and smoked and watched.
“You ever pull guard before?”
“Once. Back in the rear.”
“The key is to not eat so much. You’ll fall asleep.”
“I’ll be good.”
The one who only smoked, shook his head. “Alright.”
Footsteps came from the trees. They reached for their rifles. The two soldiers quickly looked up and saw their First Sergeant walking towards them. They attempted to stand. The short, but intimidating man put out his hand. He scanned them over before speaking, with eyes that had seen more war than many.
“At ease, soldiers.”
“Roger, First Sergeant.”
“Keep an eye out tonight, soldiers. Don’t fall asleep.”
“Roger, First Sergeant.”
“We’re too close to going home for something to happen.”
“Yes, First Sergeant.”
The soldier who ate too much began to smile. The First Sergeant glared at him and looked at his boots.
“Have a good night soldiers.”
“We will, First Sergeant.”
He walked back off into the trees and back to camp.
“What did you do?”
“Why did First Sergeant look at you like that?”
“I only smiled. We’re about to go home.”
The smoking soldier picked up his lit cigarette and took a drag. “Don’t smile in front of the First Sergeant. And tie up your boots.”
“Why not?” The younger soldier asked while tying.
“Oh, so you’re not excited to get home?”
“I am. First Sergeant just doesn’t like when his soldiers smile. Especially out here.”
“I understand. I’m just ready to get home.”
The smoking soldier took another puff. “You gotta gal waitin’ for you or somethin’, what’s your rush?”
“Either she’s waitin’ for you or not.”
“She is, I think.”
The one with the cigarette shook his head. The young and hungry soldier reached his hands in both of his pockets and pulled out folded pieces of paper. “She’s been writin’ me.” He sat the folded up letters on the ground next to him.
“You write back?”
“Of course! Well, I don’t know how to write. But Coleman writes what I tell him. She says she can’t wait to see me.” “Hows she look?”
“I think she’s beautiful.”
“Sure do.” He grabbed some of the letters and began unfolding them. He tossed two to the side. The third one he opened had a picture tucked in between the folds. He grinned at the picture then passed it to the other soldier. “Here.”
The other soldier looked at the black and white photograph. The girl in the photo was pretty, but not quite beautiful and she kept her mouth closed as she smiled. He nodded his head and handed the picture back.
“I can’t wait to see her,” the hungry one said. He bit into a chocolate bar that had lost it’s sweet taste.
“She in school?”
“No, but she wants to go. She works at her father’s store now.”
“Does she know you don’t know how to write?”
“She does. She said she’ll teach me.”
The smoker nodded.
“Say, you got a gal back home?”
“Two? Oh, man.” The hungry one chuckled and patted his rifle. He noticed what appeared to be a wedding band on the other soldiers finger. He got a glance of it as the other soldier took the cigarette from his lips.
The smoking soldier took one last drag and blew out the smoke. He flicked the cigarette into the woods. He reached in his pocket and took out another. “I’m glad you can laugh about it. They drive me up a wall.”
The hungry soldier searched the box of rations and chuckled some more. “Man I couldn’t handle two gals! I’d be drivin’ Coleman crazy writin’ all those letters.”
“Yea.” The other soldier said.
The hungry soldier wrestled his hand in the box and finally pulled out a stick of beef jerky. He cracked open the package and devoured the jerky. They heard faded gunshots in the distance. Their eyes met and their hands touched their rifles. They didn’t want surprises. They were so close to going home.
An hour passed, and the hungry soldier was now rereading the letters from the girl who he thought was waiting for him. He tried to hold back his smile while he read them. The other soldier was smoking another cigarette and watched him over the small-flamed fire. He then looked up at the sky that showed no stars. He blew out the smoke and watched the cloud float and vanish. He looked back down at the young and hungry soldier across the fire. He was no longer smiling. He was asleep.
The soldier put his cigarette down and reached for the box of rations. There was nothing left in the box but a packet of crackers. He slid the box back. He sat there and watched the fire. Then he reached down into his pockets and pulled out folded pieces of paper. He unfolded the pieces of paper, letters to his wife he had not finished. All of the letters said the same thing, but in different ways. He read over them.
At the end of most of the letters his last sentence was incomplete. He did not have a pencil so he tried writing the rest with his mind, but he could not form words. It was all too much to write. He wanted to tell his wife in person. He then began thinking about how he was going to explain himself. The letters had no use now, he thought. He didn’t want to finish them. He looked back at the fire.
He then took one of the letters and held it out to the fire. One of the flames caught it and the bottom half burned. He drew it back and shook the letter and the burnt pieces of paper fell slowly. His incomplete sentence had been burned off. He threw the rest of the letter in the fire and put the second one to the flames. He sat there watching the letters curl up and disintegrate as the fire grew.
The hungry soldier awoke. He saw the other soldier putting the letters in the fire.
“Told you you’ll fall asleep.”
“What are you doing?”
“The fire was getting low so I’m putting paper in it.”
The hungry soldier quickly looked down. All of his letters still appeared to be on the ground next to him. His rifle had slid off of his lap while he dozed and he picked it back up and set it on his thighs. “Are those your letters from your gals?”
“Nope. I wrote them.”
“You not sendin’ them?”
“No. We need them for the fire. You can add yours if you want.”
“Why aren’t you sendin’ them?”
“I’m not finishin’ them. And plus, we goin’ home soon.”
“Well I’m holdin’ on to my letters. I’m not burnin’ them.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind.”
“It’s not that. I just don’t want to burn them. And you never showed me a picture of your gals. I bet they’re drop dead gorgeous!”
The other soldier threw his last letter in the fire. “I only have one picture.”
“Of which one?”
The soldier put a cigarette in his mouth, but did not light it. He then reached in his back pocket and pulled out a separate folded letter. This one he could not burn. Attached to that letter was a small, black-and-white photograph. He looked at the photo, studying the small picture before he handed it to the other soldier.
The hungry soldier’s face lit up as he held the picture of an infant child who stared back with a blank look. “Is this your daughter?”
“Apparently it is.” He lit his cigarette.
“Man when you said you had two gals, I thought you meant somethin’ else. I didn’t know you had a wife and kid!”
“Yea. But me and my wife don’t have children.”
The hungry soldier peered up at the other who was looking up at the sky while he blew out a cloud of smoke. The fire was dying and it made their faces look darker.
“Cute kid though.” The hungry soldier handed the photo back.
“Thanks. You think she looks like me?”
“Yea. She’s got that same serious face.”
The soldier who smoked put his head down, looked at the picture and fought a smile.