Major Jesse Thomas Fletcher was almost certain that he should be the first, if not the only one, to die. Standing just inside the flap of the slightly grubby, but accommodating, tent, he sighed.
About him were some of his fellow men in arms. To the right was his best friend, Colonel Andrew Houghton; 30 years of age, eight years of service, two angelic daughters, and one beautiful wife. To the left was Major William Jackson, a fast friend from their first day of military school together; 25 years of age like himself, five years of service, and one lovely fiancée. The others inside the tent weren't much different. The group of men ranged from 23 to 30 years of age, all with at least three years of service and a patient girlfriend, fiancée, or wife and family waiting at home.
Jesse ran a hand through his short hair. It was getting long, he noted absentmindedly. Not that his hair mattered, anyway. It wasn't like he had a girlfriend, wife, children, or even parents to return to in England.
"You in there, Major Fletcher?" Will asked, slapping his shoulder. A wide grin stretched across his face.
Jesse managed a half-hearted chuckle. "Yeah, yeah… Just thinking…"
"It's no good to anticipate," Will replied, his smile faltering.
"I can't help it," Jesse admitted. This sinking feeling usually didn't happen to him. But something between last night and this morning had irked him. From the moment he opened his eyes this morning at 5 A.M., he'd had a strange feeling in his stomach.
"Well, shake it off, Major," Andrew joined in. "Until our orders come in, might as well sit for a spell."
Jesse forced himself to smile. "Sure."
Just as the three friends gathered by Andrew's corner of the tent, yelling rose from the surrounding camp. Not even Andrew, who usually was on top of any rising crisis, had time to respond before it hit.
A fiercely whistling wind rushed past the tent, and a burst of heat exploded about them. The men barely had time to throw their arms up to shield their faces before the missile's blast.
Jesse felt a sharp pain course through his leg, and suddenly everything went black.
Pain. Heat. Pain. Hot. Pain.
Jesse blinked hard, the vision before his eyes swimming and spotting with huge smudges of black. His head spinning, muscles aching, he groaned and rolled onto his front. Jesse squinted around him. If he'd had the strength to drop his jaw in shock at the destruction about him, he would have.
Everything was gone. The tents and tanks and makeshift outhouses were now piles of rubble, charred belongings, and mangled bodies. Everything was still smoking and dust was settling about him, causing his vision to haze again.
Shifting his weight onto his arms, Jesse slowly pushed himself into a standing position. He hissed in pain and collapsed, catching his fall on the remnants of a bed frame.
His head spun again as he looked down to assess the damage. His left leg was bruised. His right leg had several deep gashes crisscrossing all over; fresh and dried blood coated his dark pants. Jesse gritted his teeth and tested out his wounded leg. No broken bones; just a lot of surface pain.
He allowed himself to let out a grunt as he rolled over a few times to take hold of a rifle sitting a few feet away. Using the newfound object as a crutch, Jesse hoisted himself up and began to hobble through the destroyed camp.
There was no one to greet him. No one calling for help. Not a soul was in sight or sound.
Jesse looked down, throat constricting tightly as he caught sight of the edge of a photo frame. With much effort, he leaned down to pick it up, clamping his top teeth on his bottom lip immediately afterwards. The grime on his face washed off in rivulets.
The charred, broken object in his hands had stood proudly on Andrew's bedside table for the past few years. One side of the double photo frame displayed Andrew and his family: he, his wife, and his two daughters were sitting on a bench together, the picture perfect family on a Sunday afternoon. On the opposite side was Andrew, William, and himself, Jesse, standing on the Houghtons' front porch. It had been a rare instance when they had gotten a month away from the battlefield, and the three friends had taken advantage of it, spending their free time together and away from constant stress.
Broken glass tinkled like tiny bells as his hands shook. A brilliant sparkle fell to the ground, and Jesse wasn't sure if it was a tear or just a shard of glass.
Everything he had once known was gone.
Gone were the men he called his best friends.
Gone was the life he once lived proudly, serving his country.
Major Jesse Thomas Fletcher winced as he stood before the front door. It wasn't the dulled pain in his leg from his recently patched up wound, nor was it the bright sunlight of the California sunshine shining into his eyes. His gut felt as if it were filled with bees. Angry bees.
In his mind, he ran through various lines. Each seemed more fake and scripted than the last. He wanted to laugh. The last time he was this tongue-tied was the first time he ever asked a girl out on a date in the 7th grade. Her name was Helen Macarthur.
Jesse squeezed his eyes shut as his right hand knocked heavily on the door before him. Nothing could be worse than this. Everything had to go downhill from here.
"Jesse!" Anna Houghton threw open the door desperately. It was as if she had been hoping for a miracle. That when she opened the door, she would see Andy. "The bombing! They – Andy?"
His mouth opened, but no words came out. His mind went completely blank, and no matter how much he wished he could make just one sound, there was nothing.
"How did you survive?" Anna's lip trembled. "Why not him?" Her voice was urgent now, demanding.
"…I'm sorry," Jesse finally managed, his voice cracking at the effort and his own emotional buildup. "I'm so sorry, Anna."
The woman in front of him, a woman who had stood strong since her boyfriend had bravely chosen to join the military, collapsed. Jesse managed to catch her before she hit the floor.
Anna's sobs filled the air. They weren't the usual sobs Jesse was used to seeing back when he dated. No. These were the heart-wrenching, nothing else is worth living for sort of tears. His own breath grew ragged from just listening.
"Anna, who -?"
Jesse lifted his head, his eyes meeting the warm brown ones of Will's fiancée, Kate.
"Jesse …" Kate didn't seem to know how to continue. He understood. He would give anything to be dead. To have Will and Andy standing before their loved ones right now. "Um…come in?" Her voice wavered as her eyes pooled with tears.
Jesse nodded and closed the door behind him, throat too constricted to speak again.
"How did you survive, but not them?"
He lowered his gaze to the hardwood floor before him, unable to find the right words. The floor blurred below him. Sorry seemed to be the only word in his vocabulary to fit the situation, but it just didn't cut it.
Nothing could ever make up for the words he had to say.