The rest of their class had left the makeshift hospital, leaving Paul and Franz as alone as they could be. Occasionally Paul’s eyes would be drawn to the stump of what was once Franz’s foot.
They talked of little, avoiding the elephant in the room as Kemmerich shared his thoughts on the other convalescents surrounding them, bemoaning the loss of his watch, occasionally mentioning a sharp pain in the phantom appendage. Occasionally, Bäumer would interject with news of the new recruits, letters from home, and anything exciting that had happened since Franz’s incapacitation.
After a short while, Kemmerich was breathing faster and seemed less and less present, causing the other to call for a doctor, panic rising in his voice at each passing minute.
“Well go hiking again, in those beautiful mountains, remember?” Paul pleaded as he watched the man beside him breathe laboriously.
“Give him the boots, won’t you Paul?” Kemmerich choked out. The muscles in his neck spasmed, and he let out a terrified whimper. Bäumer shot up and wove around cots, shouting for a someone- anyone- who could help his friend.
But it was no use. By the time they had arrived at his side, an unnatural paleness had washed over Franz’s face. The cold stench of death and infection enveloped them, and the nurses moved quickly to cover his stiff form.
And just like that, Kemmerich was gone from this world, any trace of his body promptly removed to make way for some other poor sod injured in a fool’s war. Oh how things had changed since last spring. He cast his mind back to that May, remembering it in perfect clarity. The way gentle breezes wafted the sickly sweet scent of cherry blossoms over the courtyard, petals dropping from the trees and onto the picnic tables where they sat on breaks. Classes had ended at that point, but the group of them sat in the gorgeous weather. Müller and Leer laughing over something silly one or the other had said, Albert running nervous hands through his hair waiting for final exams to be graded. And Paul, back to the whole group, keeping vague tabs on conversations almost not worth having. For you see, the most beautiful woodpecker perched on an outstretched branch, passing judgement on the world below him, and the charcoals his father had bought for him last Christmas would capture the beauty and regality of the creature. Paul sketched intently, lulling in and out of his daydream land and the gorgeous spring day before him.
Pleased with the illustration, he went to shut the notebook, and noticed Kemmerich peering intently over his shoulder. Unsure of how long he’d been there, he quirked an eyebrow in his direction.
“What say you to an afternoon hike?” Franz suggested lightly. “Sounds lovely, does anyone else fancy going?” Paul addressed the group behind them. With resounding disinterest, they went back to their conversations.
Paul stood, offering down an arm for Franz. He took it, and the two scholars left to hike in the woods nearby. The gorgeous aroma of the flowers in the courtyard was diluted as they walked further away and down the dirt road to the forest.
Bäumer and Kemmerich joked and laughed until they had reached the tree line, where they searched for the makeshift path through the brush. Paul didn’t remember many specifics of the afternoon, a wild doe and her baby fawns just a few metres away from them, the awe and wonder that bloomed on Franz’s face as he pointed them out. Paul stopped to pull out his sketchbook, as carefully as he could so as not to disturb the mother.
The babbling brook that ran underneath an old dead log, which they balanced and teetered on until one fell and dragged the other down with him.
Laughing, tired, and soaked, they resolved to trek home. Slinging their arms over one another, they stumbled, tossing their heads back with laughter at the slightest comment.
A drop of water fell from one of the younger’s tendrils, landing on his cheek and staying there stubbornly even as they clomped through the forest.
Something, though he’s not sure what, compelled Paul to reach over and brush it off for him. “Hey, wait a minute.” He said softly. Franz paused, mid sentence, and the sun glinting through the trees gave a pleasant aura around him.
Reaching over, he brushed the droplet off with his thumb. They stayed there like that for a minute, hand on his cheek, just staring at eachother. A twig breaks in the distance, snagging no Paul’s attention.
And the spell was broken. His hand returned to his side as he saw the mother doe, who had made the offending noise, trot back off to her babies.
They walked the rest of the way home in silence, knuckles brushing as their hands swayed. Glancing down, he saw Kemmerich’s pinky stretched, almost touching his. He allowed a small smile for himself, and linked pinkies with him.
Things were easy like this. Easier than school, easier than working, better than being alone.
It was easier before they left the forest and went home, sleeping peacefully with pastel dreams.
It was easier before they enlisted.
Easier before they had cold feet sinking into putrid trenches.
Easier when he was alive.