It's hard to pull off a story solely on the strength of its language and the mood it evokes, but that is just what Mr. Pierce does here, poetically and poignantly inviting us to peer into the ugly, tender heart of war.
Dead Soldiers by Rob Pierce
I lay on the house’s wooden porch and looked out with a rifle I’d grown too used to, a rifle that may have shot one of the dead German boys. All three of us who faced that way had shot and there was no saying who hit what or whom, only that at least one of us killed the boy. Hell, the whole war killed the boy.
We lay there and waited for more Nazis. Behind us on the porch two other Americans lay, facing the opposite direction. Our communications had been cut off and we were in a foreign country, didn’t know how many enemy might still be coming or what lay beyond if the attacks stopped and we moved forward. We didn’t know what forward meant—if we followed the main path we’d be moving east, but we’d retreated from the east. To move forward to the east was to go back to where we’d been.
We lay there and held our guns, embraced them. They had kept us alive till now; they were our comfort. We did not speak to each other because sound might give us away. We did not need to talk to each other; we already knew each other exactly as much as we needed to. We had remained silent for hours and silence had kept us alive.
I smelled smoke, looked back. It eased its way out of the house behind us. It must have been going awhile. It was already hot. I sweated as I breathed. The smoke came from behind our feet. We crawled rapidly down the half-dozen steps off the porch and down to the walk, two by two.
I was the fifth; I went alone. I saw the bodies ahead of me crawl down the stairs without hesitation. Each drop down to the next step hurt, but I didn’t hesitate either. Behind me a house burned. The unknown cities of the enemy lay ahead; alongside me were the dead bodies. I stopped for a moment to look in the face of the boy I may have killed. Empty as a mirror. I resumed my crawl.
There was no gunfire, just the smoke of the house burning slowly behind us, a fire that must have started at the beginning of this minor conflict.
We all five stood as one, no words needed, and ran down the rest of the path that led from the house. We ran past corpses, we ran from fire. We ran toward certain death, our hands on our weapons. We would kill for a greater cause than we would die for. Not for love of country, not because our God was greater than theirs. We would kill because we did not want to die.