A World War II veteran recalls the day he lost his best friend on the battlefield
Full of regret, heavy clouds mask the gloomy sky. The war veteran, now frail and old, enters the cemetery. In front of him, perfectly lined headstones stand to salute him, and among them . . . among them is the soldier he will never forget. A path leading to the fallen—steps acting like a stairway to heaven. Tom walks gingerly, taking in his surroundings. In the distance, birds sing songs to honor the fallen. Branches bow, and their leaves rustle like sobs.
Guilt fills him with each step—the more he takes, the heavier it becomes. Sorrow leaks out along with his tears. Slowly, the elderly man staggers toward the grave he wants to see most. The one he needs to see.
First step: the scarred battlefield.
Second step: bombs, bullets, planes. Complete destruction.
Third step: the last time, the last moments with Private Shield, Joseph. His best friend.
Tom stands by the grave; his fingers trail along the inscription. A jet roars past, and memories flood his head. With nothing to stop them, he falls back into his past . . .
* * *
He stood amid the dense jungle, catching his breath. The leafy, cobweb-like canopy spread out above him. Gnarled roots, rotting leaves, and dead branches littered the mossy floor. The jungle was a maze of trees, a maze that possibly had no end. Scrambling to find a place to rest, the young soldier slumped against a tree. The more Tom thought about his friends, the more he worried about them. Staring into the distance he tried to reassure himself, when through the deafening silence, Tom heard something. The sound of leaves crunching. The sound of twigs snapping. Tom tensed and unconsciously reached for his pistol. Someone was approaching. Fast.
Then, the click of a gun. Tom spun around, holding his pistol up to the face of the silhouette.
“Show yourself!” he hissed, not wanting to draw any other attention.
The person stepped forward and, through the dirt and grime, Tom saw. . . “Joseph?”
“Tom!” Joseph said.
Tom smiled happily and crawled closer to greet his friend. They wrapped their arms around each other, and Tom realized that Joseph was flanked by two of his fellow soldiers, Private Jefferson and Private Stone.
“You guys all good?”
“Yeah, for now.” Joseph chuckled under his breath. “We’ll stick together. Stay strong. Hopefully, we can survive this.” He gestured around at the thick forest.
“Yes sir!” William, Private Stone, joked.
They all laughed. A nice, warm feeling that felt too good to be true, thought Tom. Not under these circumstances.
Then: “What was that?” asked Private Jefferson.
“Probably just the wind,” Joseph said. Yet he backed up and looked around apprehensively. Branches broke. The four privates huddled together, forming a defensive circle. Their guns were out.
Terror coursed through Tom’s veins. His heartbeat reverberated throughout his body. Branches and trees concealed everything around the group, but the young soldiers could still see the dark shadows around them. The enemy knew where they were. They were coming.
“Stone! Jefferson! Albans!” Joseph whispered. “On three, we split up and run!”
Tom took a deep breath.
He stood up.
He put his bayonet away, swapping it for his pistol.
Branches and trees concealed everything around the group, but the young soldiers could still see the dark shadows around them. The enemy knew where they were. They were coming.
Not knowing where he was going, not caring where, Tom sprinted into the mesh of leaves. Ducking in and out of trees, he dashed to the closest thing he could call safe—a wide, tall tree, the type that made Tom think it was made for hiding behind. Gunshots ricocheted off trees around him. Screams echoed. “Joseph!” Tom spotted his friend and ran toward him.
“Tom, what are you doing?” Joseph said quietly. “You’re gonna draw more attenti—” Joseph broke off.
A bullet pierced the air, hurtling toward them as two Japanese soldiers approached. Tom tried sprinting back to his cover, but then he heard it.
The bullet had met its target.
He turned. Lying on the ground, barely breathing, blood pouring from the side of his chest, was Joseph. Tom sank to his knees and checked his friend’s pulse. Joseph was still alive, for now. His face was ashen, and dripping with sweat.
“Take care, Tom,” Joseph managed, weakly. His last words.
Exhaustion, blood, fear—which one had killed him? Tom wanted to shout for help, but he couldn’t risk anyone else finding them. Tom looked back at Joseph’s limp body. Tears streamed down Tom’s face.
“Why?” he murmured “Why Joseph? Why me?”
Tom’s eyes were blank, as if he were staring into the future, a future that Joseph, unfortunately, could not experience with him.
* * *
Dazed with grief, the elderly man blinks hard, trying to clear his vision. He looks at his friend’s name.
“Thank you, Joseph. You did more for me than I ever could have done for you.”
Standing up, Tom salutes the white stone.
“You stuck with me your whole life, and you still do now. The light may have gone out inside of you, but it continues to live in my heart. That light has guided me my whole life. Thank you, my friend.”