For once, the fields were quiet.
Lanterns were strung up in lengthy intervals, their little golden halos sputtering in the constant, miserable drizzle, too pitiable to offer much in the way of comfort against the pitch black. Helena thought that maybe the dark was the better bargain, devouring from sight the artillery-scarred wasteland that stretched on just over the trench. But even still she could see it, the vision of it burned onto the back of her eyelids whenever she would blink, bleak and lifeless and haunting her like a ghost.
No man's land.
Her hands, pale and half numb from the damp chill, shook as she pulled the tobacco case from her breast pocket, withdrew one of the last remaining cigarettes, and stowed it again. It took a moment or two, but her body remembered how to move, trudging lethargically through the shin-high, murky rainwater to the nearest lantern. Lifting the guard, she lit the cigarette and slid to the side again, leaning back against the buttressed dirt wall with a grateful drag.
It had been three months since her batallion first arrived at the trench. She remembered the day before they got there, when they were still a few miles' march away, and they were surrounded on all sides by lush, overgrown pastures painted with wildflowers. She remembered how clear the sky was, so blue it almost hurt to look at. She remembered walking by a group of burly men, maybe four or five, two of which were hammering wooden crosses into the ground while the remaining were digging holes. A soldier beside her spoke up, "Been rainin' steel out here?"
One of the men holding a cross looked up, squinting at them under the noonday sun. He had a mustache, thick and black and wiry, so overgrown that it hid the sparse movements of his lips as he rumbled in response, "No. Here it's pretty quiet."
The soldier had stopped now, quizzically eyeing the worker. Several others followed suit and soon their straggling line had ground entirely to a halt. Without the marching beat of hard soles meeting packed dirt, the sounds of the world gradually filtered in again like hearing returning to the deaf, and Helena could hear the dry rasp of cicadas scattered through the grasses. Otherwise, everything was peaceful and hushed.
Except the soldier. An unremarkable brown-haired, brown-eyed boy hardly older than twenty. Most of them were hardly older than twenty. "What're those for then?" He gestured toward the gravemarker with a jut of his chin.
The other man who had been hammering them to the ground had stopped now too, and both looked wary. The mustachioed one spoke again. "You lot are headed to the front." Silence. He shrugged, a gesture that lacked the decency to even be half-heartedly apologetic. "Gettin' a head start."
Helena imagined she could hear the pulse of every one of her compatriots, rising in a unified voice to thunder in her ears. One by one they turned and started walking again, jostling past those who were not so fortunate yet to be numbed. The workers watched them go for a bit, and then carried on digging and driving the gravemarkers into the ground that would belong to them some day soon. Maybe even one would belong to her. Once again the tread of so many boots surrounded her, tugged and urged at her until she joined the tide, but this time its tempo was a death march. There was no way to go but forward.
She did not remember what a birdsong sounded like; every time Helena would close her eyes and try to imagine, envisioning a spritely little songbird opening its beak to chirp and trill, all she could hear was the keening whistle of falling shells.
An explosive impact jarred her fully awake again, rattling her bones, eyes wide open, heart hammering in her chest like it was trying to escape her ribs. Her head jerked to one side and then to the other, and only once she saw that none of the leaning statues of her fellow soldiers had stirred did she dare to believe that it hadn't been real. And only then did she wrestle with her nerves and attempt to calm them. Already a quarter burned, a fragile column of ash clung to the end of the cigarette, and she knocked it free with a deft flick. Her hands trembled again, so violently that she was forced to clasp them together and fumble like that to get the guard on the lantern up again to re-light the smoke. The butt met her lips and she inhaled deeply, savouring the faint burn in her lungs. Exhaled.
Then she positioned the white stub securely between her fingers and stared at that glowing red cherry a moment or two longer. Slowly, as if it had a mind of its own, her hand lifted until it was higher than the lip of the trench. It wasn't shaking anymore.
The crack of a single shot split the night air, and suddenly everything was warm, too warm, burning blood spilling down her arm and soaking her uniform. Helena did not cry out; she simply sank to the muck as a couple of the nearest statues jolted to life and sloshed toward her. Rough hands grabbed at her, shook her. It took a moment or two for her to realize they were yelling something, but comprehension was even farther off as she cradled the half shredded appendage to her breast. She had wrongly assumed there would be pain. Instead it just throbbed in a steady rhythm as the euphoric cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins flooded her body, and she closed her eyes and imagined it was Myka's heart that beat in her hand, each palpitation bringing them closer together.
"What's wrong with your eyes?"
She remembers the first time she met Helena. The remarkable black-haired, black-eyed girl was doggedly following her down the path from school to home, as she had every day that week. She was half a head shorter than Myka, whose growth spurt had come to bless her prematurely with lanky limbs and an awkward gait, so she had to trot a bit every fifth or so step in order to keep up.
Myka said nothing, pressing forward in silence, simply pushing the thick glasses further up the bridge of her nose and hoping against all hope that the other girl would leave her alone. They slid back down almost immediately. And just as that effort was dashed, so too was her wish as the curious tag-along stubbornly kept pace. The taller girl hiked her lunchbox a bit higher so that its repetitive hits found a new spot on her lower back. She knew this strange girl didn't live down this way; why was she following her so far today?
"Your hair's so curly," she piped up again, and the marvel of it in her voice caused Myka to grudgingly glance over at her.
This was apparently all the affirmation the other girl needed to beam back at her. Green eyes flitted away again, focusing on the dusty footpath winding its way in front of her and purposefully ignoring the thatches of grass and wildflowers that might draw her eye to the side, and thereby to the classmate that was following her. They walked on in silence for most of the rest of the way, but that half-trotting presence clung to her and itched until she felt uncomfortably tense.
Maybe it was the fact that she could feel the unease radiating from Myka that kept her quiet up until they were nearly at the front of the house and she broke it with another question.
"How come you walk home alone every day?"
Myka, emboldened by being in familiar territory and thinking she could shake her off with the blunt truth, finally turned around and regarded her tormentor. "Because no one walks home with me." Except you.
The girl tilted her head to the side, straight black hair falling over her shoulder with the motion, and frowned. Myka wished her hair would be straight and black and glossy instead of curly and brown and tangled. She pushed her glasses up again. The sweat slick beneath the frame still had other ideas.
"I would walk with you."
She considered her at length, still trying to puzzle her out. Much later she would realize it was never any use trying to figure that girl out. "If you beat me to the far fence, you can walk with me."
And she did, every day of the school year after that. Myka learned that her name was Helena Wells, but her parents called her H.G. The pair became inseparable, spending long afternoons together immersed in the stories Myka would read aloud to her, tucked away in their fort made of bookstacks. Helena would lay on her back and stare up at the ceiling, a plain white tableau she could imagine the scenes play across, smiling and laughing and sobering again along with the words, along with Myka. Other days the modest house was too small to hold them and they went careening down footpaths in the steep hills, stirring up grasshoppers and beetles. They felt like they were flying, their feet hardly touched the ground.
She also remembers the day the draft came for Helena. It was arranged for someone from town to come and pick her up and Myka watched them both get into the car. They did not say goodbye. They would see each other again; Helena promised. The car pulled away and so soon as it disappeared around the first bend, Myka took off running. Abandoning the road, she tore through the grass and shrubs, making her own path.
If I beat the car to the bend, Helena will come home to me. Another game, it became her mantra, repeated under her breath over and over even as her lungs ached and her shins stung with scratches, the scraggly shrubs clawing at her, trying to keep them apart, flying over the ridges just as she and Helena had done so many times together. Myka couldn't hear anything over the pounding of her own feet, her own heart, the two seeming to be racing one another to the finish line, to her safety, to her future, and as the bend came into sight they drove even harder. She tore onto the sun-baked dirt road and came to a stop in the middle amidst a stirred cloud of dust, panting heavily, her hair swept back and stuck to her brow with sweat, but she didn't care. Her ears strained. She waited, every inch of her on edge. Nothing. The air was thick with summer heat and she had trouble catching her breath.
The faintest sound of a rumbling engine and it was growing stronger. She couldn't help the smile that began, the way her heart lifted in her chest to choke in her throat, and she didn't want to. A black hood appeared around the corner and she grinned even wider. It was close enough for her to see the passengers when she was halfway through a wave. The smile dripped from her mouth like wax melting from a candle.
This is what she remembers most acutely when looking at the letter in her hands, her mother and father standing by the table instead of beside her. That terrible, awful heartsink. The deliveryman stands in the doorway, his hat in his hands and a somber weight to his gaze. She feels it again as she wriggles the letter opener beneath the tab and slices it across in a clean motion to pull out the missive within.
Myka reads it twice. Carefully she refolds it and places it back in the envelope, every brush of her fingers over the paper sounding like nails on a chalkboard because they're all just standing there, staring at her, waiting for her to break. She can feel the three of them watching as she leaves it on the table and turns to climb the stairs, their quiet pity a palpable, oppressive weight in the room. Myka realizes with frightening certainty that, in that instant, she hates them for it. The same certainty that tells her this is all so very, very wrong.