I wish I’d known he was five minutes away from heaven.
Backs facing the frigid dirt wall, we sat together in a damp war trench, half a meter below the ground. The snow above our heads was melting all over my jacket, and all over Roman’s ushanka fur hat, but the guy didn’t care one bit. Most of us should have been familiar with the feeling when the freezing water crept through our shirts and penetrated our skin, but it had bothered me ever since we got down here. The amalgamation of mud and melting snow smelled and felt horrible, and being a good twelve centimeters taller than the average grunt, I couldn’t even move to get rid of that crap inside my undershirt.
A bullet seemed to have found its way into Roman’s shoulder. The fucker should have been dead the moment he bit the bullet and dove headfirst onto the ground. But by some miracle, the sounds of rifle shots had stopped just as I dragged him back.
At least we were safe. For a while.
First Lieutenant Petrov had just communicated to us that the initial wave of adversaries had been repelled. The sound of anti-tank missiles as they exploded on cold, hard metal sank, lulled almost to a halt. I could hear footsteps squelching through the sludge before the soldiers glided from the battlefield to the trench underneath. Snow clung to their uniforms but didn’t cover them all the way, making them look like green leopards with white dots. Some soldiers were healthy enough, but I noticed traces of blood spattered on the snow as a couple of guys who had their legs blasted away tried to crawl down into their safe place.
The calm didn’t last long. A soldier threw a corpse in the trench, and his immobile body fell to the ground. As the guy who threw him jumped down to follow, he caught me looking at them and cried. “Couldn’t leave the mal’chik dead up there! The kid’s body’s gonna be riddled with holes!”
Why am I even here? I asked myself. Not once. Not twice. At least five times every day. What business did a cave dweller who was ‘produced’ in the backwoods of Murmansk have, being three thousand kilometers from home? I shouldn’t have even been Russian. If I had dropped from the military truck transferring breeding specimens and rolled a few meters to the left I would have been Finnish, adopted a Finnish name, and lived a peaceful life in the forestry industry. The Finnish couldn’t fight—except for that one time back in 1940, but we don’t talk about it—and they wouldn’t resort to fighting even if you placed their testicles under a guillotine blade. A life without cracking explosions every three seconds. . . that should have been my life.
But here I was, fifteen years later, questioning every single life choice leading me to become a hunting dog, wading across the country, and slaughtering for others. One didn’t last long in our profession, and for me, seven years was quite enough.
It seemed that Roman had spotted my fatigue. “Yo Alexei, ya good? Are ya hurt anywhere?”
“Yeah, what is it? Mud on my face?”
“You ain’t looking like yourself.”
“I always look like shit. Now can you shut up and hold still? Trying to save your life here.”
He was still dead lucky that it was one of the least likely spots to be fatal, but the wound itself was no joke. Most likely an artery had been hit as blood was gushing from it like a stream before I ripped a piece of cloth, pressed on the wound, and started patching it up.
“Heh, ya know—” He wiped the dirty water off his lips. “—you coulda been a medic if you weren’t a sniper.” His attentive eyes scouted my expression, and I tried to hide my discomfiture with my nagging.
“Stop. Fucking. Moving!” I yelled as a shrieking explosion erupted right next to my ear. “Did you even know you were shot? Freaking airhead!”
“Oh, this? This ain’t nothing but a scratch.” Roman didn’t mind my insults—he never did—and kept peering at my face with those deer-like eyes of his. It used to annoy me a lot, but once I learned it was Roman’s unique way of showing me he cared, I had come to terms with it.
Roman tried to lean forward to run his finger across my cheek, but I pressed him back against the wall. He had always tried, but it had been something I couldn’t tolerate. There’s a limit to how much you should care for someone.
If I had known it would be the last conversation we would have together, I would have let him do it.
“Hey, I know how ya look, dumbass. Ya might look like a lot of things, but ain’t never looked like ya head been bashed into a sack of shite before. Ya got a problem, pal.”
“What do you mean I have a problem? Those assholes just poked a damn hole through your shoulder!” I exhaled, “You know. . . you must’ve noticed you’re the only one around here who’s like they’re in heaven all the damn time, right? Has it ever occurred to you that you might be the odd one out here?”
For all I knew, Roman might have had an actual problem. There was no reason for him to be so bubbly. It disgusted the hell out of Commander Dzyuba, who sentenced him to one-week latrine duty. And the even more disgusting thing was that the guy smiled and hummed through the entire week while wiping off other people’s shit.
Only a fool smiles all the time, they say.
“Whaddya mean?” He grinned from ear to ear, “Everyone ’round here deserves a lil bit o' sunshine and sparkles, if you catch my drift. I’m just giving them some.”
“Don’t you have men yelling in your face that we were born savages and should act like savages?”
“Savages, eh? Yea nah, comrade, they told me we’re warriors.”
“Which means savages, Roman.” I shook my head. “Warriors are savages who know how to fight.”
“That ain’t true, ya know. It’s all just labels. Don’t let those bullocks get into ya head. Ya free to do what ya do. I do what I do and I’m living dandy, ya see?” He patted his head with his uninjured arm. “Deep within, we’re just little teddy bears. Folks ain’t fighting because they’re keen.”
Of everything Roman had ever been wrong about, that was something he was wrong about the most. Why would people fight for generations if they didn’t like it? Maybe most of them slashed throats as a hobby, who knows?
There was nothing commendable about this hellhole; about this city; about this whole country. Russia was just an expanded coliseum, crammed with mass-produced war clones. We were just gonna keep killing until there was not another person to kill anymore.
Another loud bang resounded from over the trenches and our exchange of glances communicated, Shit, there’s the second wave of foes. Without another word, I ripped another piece of cloth from the hem of Roman’s trousers and used it to cover his wound. He grimaced just a little, but that was a bad sign. He never winces.
“Stay still, you damn idiot! Stay still while I hold your blood for you!” I growled.
“Don’t worry, comrade, you’ll be my eyes on my back and I’ll be yours! We’re gonna be a o-kay, and no one can tell me otherwise!” Roman kept on babbling as if I was the one who was losing blood, not him. “Whatcha gonna do when we see the Supreme Leader again? I bet he’s gonna give us those shiny gold medals! I’d love to have one hanging on the walls of my bedroom! Oh wait, then I gotta grab me my own room first . . . Do ya know when we’re gonna be granted our accommodations, Alexei? About time we got something, ya think? We’ve been fighting for years now!”
“We have to not die first.”
“We’re gonna walk out o’ here in one piece! Just ya see! Then we gon’ take you to get that taimen fish o’ yours. Your favorite dish, ain’t it?”
I thought I was used to Roman’s hopeless optimism. But that day, I burst.
“Can you just shut the fuck up and listen to me? You’re only like this because this is the first proper battle you’ve ever been in! You’re the only fucking reason I’m down this trench! You’re not going anywhere!” I pressed his other shoulder onto the dirt wall and bared my teeth, threatening him like a hungry wolf. But that move had never worked on Roman, and it didn’t work then.
“Yer a sick cunt!” He clapped his hand on my hand, giggling as if I had made an exemplary joke, “I ain’t a toddler inside a glass cage. I ain’t need ya to dictate my life, ya hear? If ya really care, let me go, will ya? I never told ya what to do.”
“Zip your hole! You won’t care shit about medals, and soon you won’t care shit about houses near the rivers. When the bullets fly right in front of your face, you will want to live! You will regret every single life choice. To hell with your idiotic ideals! You’re staying here, dickhead! You hear?” Those were what I wanted to say.
But when I looked into Roman’s eyes, they were brimming with enthusiasm. Unwavering optimism. The flash of a nearby explosion only bathed his visage further in its terrible light. As the light surrounded him, his very essence seemed to have transformed, painting him with a glow like that of a benevolent celestial being.
I didn’t say anything. If I had screamed into his ears, if I had begged him not to move an inch, if I had pleaded with him that I didn’t want to close the lifeless eyelids for people I cared for ever again, maybe. . . just maybe, he wouldn’t have died.
Over the trench and behind the defensive sandbags, we heard the voice of Vice Commander Smolov over the loudspeaker.
“Great Russia calls you to action, comrades! Time to strike! Get outta there and push them back! Now, now, NOW!”
Roman shook his shoulder to push me away and grabbed onto his rifle. His grin didn’t leave his face the whole time. “Ya hear? Let’s go!” It baffled me how he still had enough strength to get up. Either his injuries weren’t as worrying as I had anticipated or his rush of adrenaline had overshadowed all the pain.
“Please,” I begged him. He ignored me.
Roman sprang up from the trench. It was at that moment, I finally sensed danger. The sound of ammo leaving the muzzle. The smell of death. I knew when a bullet was coming. I have always had the ability to detect when danger was one inch too close for comfort.
“Duck! DUCK!” I screamed. But it was too late. A split second too late.
Bang. The damned bullet hit. The metallic taste of fresh blood permeated the air and clung to the tip of my tongue; a taste I would never be able to forget.