(Casualties, part one)
Anderson pulled back the flap of the tent slowly, and entered like a ghost. The darkness here was immense. The others were out at the mess hall or that same movie they'd been watching every night since the attack. The movies brought people back home, back to the World, but that's not what Zeke Anderson needed right now. Sometimes you could find more comfort in this place of sorrow and death than you could in the memories of the place you left behind.
The private was sitting on his cot, staring blankly at the tent walls, just as Anderson knew he would be. For a moment, he hesitated. Words were not Anderson's strong suit, and he desperately didn't want to fuck this up; he still wasn't sure if this was going to be an apology or a thank you.
Without looking up, Percell grunted, "If it's all the same to you, Sergeant, I'd like to be alone right now."
"Well it's not all the same to me, Private," Anderson shot back, almost immediately regretting it. Goddamned belligerence, goddamned anger. "I apologize, Private. That was out of line. You see, when I got that letter..."
Percell turned to him, anger burning in his eyes. "I get letters, too, Anderson! And I bet yours aren't letters that say, Dear Danny, I'm leaving you."
Anderson shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned morosely. "No. My ex-wife doesn't usually call me Danny." He thought it would elicit a chuckle, but instead Percell turned away, looking to the ground as if answers were spelled out there.
"Very funny. Why don't you just leave me alone?"
Now it was Anderson's time for anger. In a single fluid motion, he bent in front of Percell, grabbing the private's face and staring directly into his eyes.
"No, I won't leave you alone, Daniel. You know what the Japanese say about people who risk their lives to save others? They say that that person owes the other his life."
Percell batted the hand away. "You don't owe me anything. The goddamned grenade didn't even go off."
Zeke let his hand down but continued to look into Percell's eyes. "No, but it could have. It could have, and you threw yourself on it. To save me."
"It's my duty, Sergeant. You would have done the same, protecting one of us."
Zeke thought about that a moment - thought long and hard - and wondered. A few months ago, there'd be no question about it. His life for his men, that was the agreement. But since the letter, things had changed somehow. Something internal ... something he couldn't quite explain.
He stood, turning away. "Yeah. Sure I would."
"Besides," Percell said from behind him, "I'm not sure if it was heroism or duty or any of that."
Anderson looked back at him, his face set. "Just what are you saying, Private?" He thought he caught a glimpse of something - a tear? - on Percell's cheek, and now the private jumped up from the cot, clearly embarrassed.
"It's just ... you go through each day, thinking what you're doing is somehow right, somehow justifiable. Then, somehow, you kill an eight-year-old kid and you think, hell no. This isn't right at all. You know you're going to live with that face in your dreams for the rest of your life, but still you keep going, still you keep killing, and maybe sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is knowing you got someone back home who loves you, and is waiting for you."
Zeke watched the PFC's back with growing apprehension. "Go on, soldier."
Percell turned, and now there was no doubt. Tears were streaming down his face in rivers now, picking up the diffuse light coming in through the half-open tent flap. "And then you get this letter, this fucking letter, that tells you that the home you wish for every night isn't there anymore, the home that keeps you sane and alive has picked up stakes and moved on. How would you react, Sergeant?"
How would I react, Zeke thought, his mind remembering that last raid. Foolish, stupid hubris, perhaps, that's how he'd justified it. But had it been more? Sure, they'd come out winners, but winning wasn't the goal here anymore, everyone knew that by now. Survival was the only goal now, and he'd led his men into a suicide mission - literally, if that grenade had gone off. And for what? Because of some stupid letter from his ex wife? Or just everything, everything mounting?
"Probably the same, Private. Probably the same."
Fuck. Not his tears, not now. He was supposed to be the strong one.
"I know what you're feeling, Private. The blood. The carnage. It never ends, never gets better. You feel like you're fighting a losing battle but you don't stop, because the fight is all that's keeping you going now. If you pause, if you think about what you're doing day in and day out ... you might crack up, right? You might ... just ... lose it."
Percell took a step closer to Anderson, hastily wiping his own tears off, oblivious to those taking their place. "I don't want to die in this place, Sarge. But I don't know how to live here, either."
Zeke stepped closer, silently, and without thought, surrounded Percell with a rough hug. The Private stiffened for a moment, then relaxed. Zeke, not stopping, not thinking, let the hug relax a little, too.
"I think I'm broken," he said to Percell, not letting go. There was comfort here, an odd sort of comfort he didn't understand and didn't want to. "Maybe we both are."
Low, in a voice just above a whisper, Percell answered, "I need help, Sarge. I don't know what to do."
"Call me Zeke," he said, and immediately wondered why he'd said it. Then, not thinking, not stopping, he added, "Maybe we can help each other."
He felt Percell's shaky arms wrap around him as well, and relief coursed through him like mercury. This was not home, this was not the World, this was not an end to the nightmares or the screams he heard in his waking hours ... but this was something. Something new, something better than all this hell.
Zeke hugged tighter and suddenly wanted to never let go.