Dust rose delicately from the path. Like a brown mist it ascended and slowly dissipated into the warm summer breeze.
Soldiers boots marched in step, rumbling the ground with each strike of their feet against the brown path. Their green trousers caught the dust and mixed it with salty sweat. Long grass and weeds on the edges of the road leaned inward – bowing to the soldiers as they marched. Some slapped against the men’s legs, mixing and beating the dust deeper into the fabric of their trousers.
Faces, red from the heat and from the exertions of the day, dripped with perspiration. Some of the road powdered their cheeks and the corners of their eyes. Foreheads ran with tiny rivers of mud that caked in wrinkly cracks and gunked up until the lines from every facial expression were made apparent on the men’s faces. On most, the only lines to be seen were in squiggly pairs running across their foreheads – lines of worry, surprise, concern, and fear.
Near the back of the ranks, one soldier’s pace was not quite aligned with the others’. He stepped too quickly, often scuffing the heels of the man in front of him. He’d skip awkwardly to regain his step, only to fall out of pace again minutes later. There were no lines on his face, only smudges of mud from where he’d occasionally wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
The other soldiers in the ranks around him began to get annoyed. At first they smirked and muttered jibes to the private who scuffled along so awkwardly. As fatigue set in, amusement turned to anger. Smiles were replaced by sneers. The jab of a rifle butt or a muzzle substituted for jokes. The private tried to ignore them; he wanted desperately to march in step with the company. But his mind was always lost – never present in the moment. His thoughts drifted to other places. Sometimes to battles gone by, sometimes to the rest and relief that was to come, but most often to the face of his love. To whispering trees in a green valley, shading a small picnic from the noontime sun. They lay together on a quilt spread out to protect their clothes from the ground, and they shared grapes and strawberries, laughter and musings, hopes and concerns about their future. He placed his hand on hers, trying so hard to be natural but only fumbling and squeezing too hard. Like a bear paw mauling the poor girl’s delicate fingers, he thought. But she only smiled at him, and snuggled in close. And this was it. This was all that ever mattered in the world. Right here, right now. If he could stop time and live each second as though each one were a thousand years, he would.
Another jab to his kidneys woke him from his daydream. The man ahead of him had become visibly agitated.
Then, from the corner of his eye, the private discerned a large oak tree. It was so green compared to the barren land in which they marched, that it stuck out like a flower in the desert. Like an oasis. And then he saw the shade underneath it and his legs felt antsy. A surge of energy slipped in through his toes, around his heels, up his ankles, and through every muscle and ligament in his legs, and he jumped from the formation in a dead sprint toward the oak.
Shouts followed him.
“Stop!” Cried his captain. “Private, you stop right now!” But the words were indiscernible. All he heard was her voice. All he saw was her smile.
More noises cluttered from behind him.
“Kevvy,” she said to him, “you’ve got to turn around.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I love you. I need you. I’m coming home to you now. Don’t you want to see me again? Has it been so long that you’ve forgotten how we feel about each other? Aren’t you ready for me?”
“Ready,” she said. Tears poured from his eyes, flooding out the dirt and grime of his journey, cleansing him from all the terrible things he’d seen. From the deaths of his friends, from the murders and the killings he’d witnessed. From the blood, and the piss, and the death and the fear and the torture of living every day in a world where pain and suffering are the norm. His feet felt so light that he thought he could fly.
“Aim,” she said.
“You were always my aim, honey. My only true aim. I’m sorry I left. There’s nothing else that matters to me but you.”
“Fire!” shouted the captain. The company, who had lined up abreast of one another, discharged their weapons.
Kevin sprinted above the barren trail, up above the solitary oak – running, flying home to see his beloved.