When his legs cramped, all he could do was shift them to the side, hope to feel the blood rush through, a brief warm sensation, his feet coming back to life. Half an hour later he’d repeat the process in the other direction, bound inside his tiny invisible box, out of sight from the world, alive for thirty minutes more.
He checked his watch compulsively, kept count of the hours with his fingers, up one hand, down the other. He hadn’t missed one, hadn’t slept the whole time. Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven…
The sounds over this wall, this crumbled wall of his, they kept him awake, kept the red in his eyes more than the dust and the dirt ever could. Tanks crunching brick and bodies, feet shuffling, marching, running, stepping through a courtyard he only vaguely remembered anymore. From the fountain, you could see his wall, but not him. Not if he stayed in his box.
The voices, foreign and haunting, traded intel and orders, jokes and curses, but none of them made sense to him. As much as he prayed for them to move on, he knew this was the perfect shelter, the best place for a camp. Their voices kept him up at night even more than the smell of their food.
By daylight, he could see the body at the other side of the room, staring at him with empty eyes. The blood on the ground was dried, caked and brown and stopping just short of the wall, wrapping around his boots, sticking him down. He didn’t remember the man’s name, but he knew he had a wife, two kids. His job was to carry the ammo, the box at the doorway, tipped over, unreachable.
A pair of rough voices sidled up to the wall, low and hushed at first, then halting, contemplative. The click of a lighter, the sweet smell of tobacco, and then the conversation began in earnest. He made up meanings to the words he heard, and none of them were good. “No prisoners.”
He shifted his legs towards the wall, and his left boot came unstuck from the blood. It made the sound of moving sand, louder than he ever would have guessed.
The voices stopped, and so did he. His finger rested on the trigger to his rifle, and he dared to flex it, see if it still moved. The sounds had been imposing, but the silence was horrible. He tried to look up, but his helmet blocked his view. The only shadows he saw were cast by the damned wall, the only sounds were the echoes of his boot in the blood.
He closed his eyes and tried to think of a prayer, of a song, of something to fill his head other than the nothing. All that came to him was a childhood tune, and the more he repeated it, the more panicked he became: he wanted back there, back before the guns and the helmets and the boots and the shots from a blackened window. He was that boy, not this. That boy didn’t deserve this. That boy ran free in the fields, singing harmless songs and loving the blue sky even when it rained.
And it rained now, too. The first mortar hit out of nowhere, blowing debris and blood over his wall. He was showered in brick and bone, and he covered his face with his hands before the second round struck, sending the courtyard into a deranged panic. Screaming, crying, shouting, pleading… he heard the guns roll away, boots racing this way and that, trying to take cover.
A boy scrambled over the wall and landed atop him. This kid, this crying, sobbing kid, was covered in blood from himself and others, and his eyes were wide in a panic that seemed surreal. He shoved the boy off him, into the room, and pushed himself against the wall a little tighter.
Opposite uniforms, identical impulse. But there was only one chunk of wall.
They stared at each other, unblinking as another mortar hit, unblinking as the black rock rained down around them. Guns fired in the distance, but they stayed dead still, waiting for the other to make his move. The boy’s pistol was on his belt, but it was a long way to reach.
The wristwatch, ignorant to the world, ticked past another half-hour. Like clockwork, his legs begged him to move, to run, to use them even just one last time.
And so he did. Slowly, carefully, he pulled them in, up to his chest. He turned his head away from the boy, looked at the space he’d made. Half the wall, at the end of the trail of blood. A tiny slice of shelter. Half of a tiny slice of shelter, but it was all he could spare.
And then, with the shells exploding all around, he closed his eyes, and he went to sleep.
This Topic Tag is for Cranmer, inspired by the request "small piece of wall."