AN: I wrote this for English class. The assignment was to pick a photo from a book on the Civil War and write a story to go with it. The picture I chose was of two soldiers taken before they went off to war. (It's described in more detail in the story.) The picture was labeled 548 so that's where the title comes from.
It gets a bit graphic in the blood and gore department, but I don't think it's too bad. It is a war story after all.
I had lost him. He said this would be so brave and noble, like one of those tragic romances my sister was always reading back home. He was so sure this would be the greatest adventure of all, fighting in dramatic hand-to-hand combat for our dear nation, evading death by a hair on a daily basis, and now I've lost him.
I suppose I should begin at the beginning, though I'm not sure that it's important anymore. We were born in small town, David and I. It doesn't matter where; it's the same all over: the young men leave full of life and they come back in boxes if they're lucky enough to be found in few enough pieces to bother putting in a box. At any rate, we were inseparable for nearly our whole childhoods. We spent countless hours – countless days – together simply exploring the world around us. One couldn't count the number of times our mothers scolded us for coming home late for dinner, covered in mud from the river or with tears in our clothes from running through the woods. Those adventures were the soul of childhood, of freedom.
And then came the "real adventure," as David put it, enlisting to defend our country from men who were our bothers only weeks before, our fellows turned to our deadliest enemies by political chess-masters we had never known or seen. It was so perverse. But David had said it was "noble" and so, just like always, I followed him on his next thrilling adventure. One would think that after having my mother scold me for trekking through the woods after him all of my childhood, I would have learned that David's plans tended to be bad plans, but no, I went with him because he was still almost my whole world. We were yet a bit too young and free to care much for girls or learning to run our families' businesses and though we no longer spent our all days roaming the woods, many people still mistook us for brothers. And so I stayed by David's side where I felt I belonged and we enlisted to fight and kill and die. We did not just sign away the time we had enlisted for; we signed away our futures, our hopes, our dreams, our lives.
Before we left, David wanted to get our picture made. I thought it was foolish; a plate of glass could never truly replicate the nuances of the human face and the emotions that could flicker so subtly across it. However, he insisted that if I would not get my own picture taken, I should at least stand with him in his. And so I did. I suppose it did seem right that we should be preserved in this way, side by side as always. I stood beside him and we held as still as we could while the camera digested our image. David stood strong and tall in his new uniform that he was so proud of, hand on his hip, ready for action. I stood close to him in one of my better suits, my hat shading my face a bit, one hand on his chest as if to put one final, futile barrier between him and his vain "nobility."
At first, I suppose it was a bit like David had envisioned. We were a brotherhood of sorts, but then again, what band of men is not? But we were as close to happy as soldiers are ever allowed to come and, before we entered combat, it was, in a way, the adventure that David had always hoped for.
But then we marched. Then we died.
I did my best to look after David, to stay with him, but, despite my efforts, the volleys of shots tore us apart just like the tore apart the bodies of the men and boys around us. But I precede myself.
I've heard it said that every great war hero has his great battle and I doubt that's true; I have never seen a "great battle," only ones more bloody than the ones before. However, I am no war hero so perhaps I don't know what I'm talking about. I suppose there is one battle that does stand out in my mind: the worst one. The last one.
They lined us up as they had done before and marched us out onto the field of death. Across the empty space that would so soon be running with blood, we could see them – our brothers turned fatal enemies. They were men and boys just like us. I am sure that had we been closer we would have seen that they had that same expression we did – that look of fear in the eyes that shatters the fierce determination a soldier plasters onto his face. They looked no bolder or stronger than ourselves and through the early morning haze it was impossible to tell who was had the advantage of a greater force. We were just men and boys, just human beings, just animals marching towards the slaughterhouse. The waste of life was sickening. At least the slaughter of animals does someone some good.
When the order came, the two sides began to move forward just like the little toy soldiers we had all pushed across rugs and floorboards as children. Except when the small metal men fell they could be righted again and marched onward. Once we had fallen, we would lie in the mud until death took us or some miracle brought us to the medical tent to die instead of infection or neglect.
Another order came and the fighting began. Shots ripped through fabric and flesh alike. Screams rent the air. Blood spattered everywhere. We marched on. It was all too much and as I try to recall the memories of the fighting it seems as if the morning haze has obscured the details to spare me some tiny measure of pain. As I think on it, I have only flashes: seeing a man fly backwards past me, thrown through the air by the canon ball ripping out his stomach; reaching down to pull up a fallen comrade only to find it was just an arm with no body in sight; realizing I had no idea who was friend or foe and that I was firing at random with a gun I had not loaded in some time; feeling someone's blood splatter across my face; looking to my right and discovering David was no longer there.
It is that which I remember most, that moment of horror when I realized I had lost David. I felt my stomach drop away entirely and I looked around frantically for him. There were people everywhere and I could not see any of them clearly yet somehow I knew none of them was David. My eyes darted across the ground, which was strewn with bodies, limbs, dropped weapons, and wet globs that used to be on the inside of men now dead. I could find no sign of him nor had I any idea of how long he had been absent from my side. I felt my lips forming his name and my throat clenching to cry it out, but my shout was not even audible to my own ears over the blasts of guns and the screams of dying men. David was gone. I had lost him.
I was so engulfed in panic that it took me a moment to grasp what happened next and even longer to understand what it meant.
I felt my knees hit the blood-soaked ground before my panic-stricken brain comprehended what had taken place. My chest heaved and my throat contracted, hauling blood up from somewhere inside of my body to pour out of my mouth. My hands hit the wet earth and I toppled onto my side, my horror at losing David swept away by waves of pain crashing over me with such force that I could not quickly identify their source. At last my groping, numb fingers found the wound and I clutched at my abdomen in a futile attempt to keep what should be inside from falling out.
Already the haze was slipping into my mind and the world around me was beginning to fall out of focus. Feet pounded around me. Bodies fell and bullets exploded from barrels, but everything was turning to haze. The sounds of battle seemed far off and the images that I could see whirled and did not make sense. Even the absurdity of war was lost to me. There was pain and there was blood and entrails between my fingers and there was haze.
Some part of my mind vaguely registered cold mud splashing onto my arms as something hit the ground near me. Perhaps it was that same part that was almost aware that I needed to hear something. I tried to tune in to this part and slowly I was able to bring something of the sounds around me into focus. There was something important somewhere if only the haze would clear. I searched through the haze for the important something that I somehow knew I had to hear.
The clash of weapons? No.
Things hitting the ground? No.
A voice? Yes. Yes, that was it. A voice.
A voice saying something, calling out, crying a word out into the haze—or at me. I couldn't tell. If I could hear the word then maybe I would know why this voice cried it out so desperately.
"—ler! Tyler! Tyler, can you hear me? Tyler?"
Who was Tyler and why was this voice calling out to him in such a frenzied tone? So much panic in that voice.
I had been panicking.
The pain had turned my brain into a lead weight and I could not think.
My eyes opened, like windows that had been painted shut and left closed for centuries being forced open.
The face that belonged to the voice hovered over me, out of focus, but familiar.
"David," I croaked.
"Tyler! Oh God, Tyler, I thought—." He shuddered. "But you're going to be all right. I'll get you out of here. Don't worry."
His presence seemed to clear my head to a degree and I was able to form the thought, "No David, it's far too late for that," but now I found that the connection between my brain and my dry mouth had broken.
"It's going to be all right," he said, though the words were probably more of a comfort to him than to me.
"David," I whispered again.
"Shh, don't talk."
I felt his hand on my head, stroking my hair, sweeping my blood-matted bangs from my eyes.
"I'll get you out of here, Tyler," he assured me. "Don't worry; I'm here."
My eyes were closing again and no matter how hard I fought it, I could not keep them open; I could not keep David in my view. I was going to lose him. My eyes were allowing me only a slit of a view and in a few moments I would lose him again.
"No. Tyler, no! Hold on, Tyler, hold on!"
My hearing was fading away now as well and it seemed someone was dragging David away from me. His desperate cries were becoming farther and farther away.
I held on to his image a moment longer and then my eyes slipped closed and he was gone.
My David, how could I lose you like this? How could I allow myself to go somewhere you are not? I am sorry and I hope you will forgive me for leaving you. And as much as I love you, I must beseech you not to follow me. I know I promised never to leave your side, never to break the bonds of friendship that have held us together since childhood, but, in my defense, I did tell you this would end in pain and death. Go home, my David, go home. There is no nobility in this war and you perhaps you know it by now; you should. Leave me in this blood-made mud and go home. Your life is worth the shame. Give up and go home. I do not want to see you here.