A SHORT STORY BY MATT DURAND
My addiction is going to cost me.
I can tell before he even speaks.
“I want the knife,” he says.
He’s trying to extort me.
“The knife?” I say.
“Yeah, the knife.”
I’d gotten the knife three days after we landed. We were clearing a bunker. Three soldiers came out. He was a captain I think or whatever the German equivalent of that is. I shot him as he ran out. Bullet hit him towards the base of his neck. Think it might have clipped his spine. He crumpled to the ground instantly.
“Come on, I shot the guy. It’s only right that I keep it. What about one of the watches I got?”
“No. I told my Dad I’d bring him home one. And to set the record straight, I would have shot that Kraut if my gun didn’t jam.”
“Well, it did jam, so that’s my fault now?”
He shrugs his shoulders casually.
“How many packs can you get me for the knife?” I ask.
“Probably can get you two more.”
“Two more? How is that a fair trade?”
He looks at me with that shit-eating grin. He knows I’m not going to say no.
“Well, you can take it or leave it. That’s your call, but I doubt anyone else will give you that kind of a deal.”
“I’m gonna be out here for God knows how long to keep your ass safe and this is how you treat me? Two isn’t going to be enough. If you can get me four packs, then the knife is yours.”
“All right, fine. Give me five minutes.”
We shake on it. He turns and shuffles out into the crowd of soldiers. As I wait for him, I gather up the rest of my supplies. Canteen, five food rations, flashlight, two grenades, a hundred rounds and Benson’s old rifle. I’ve got my lighter, so if Miller gets me the smokes I should be good for the next day or two.
I go over the details in my head and what they’re asking me to do. Sit and wait. Shoot anything that crosses the bridge. I’m not meant to stop their advance. I’m meant to be a magic trick of sorts. An illusion that makes the Krauts think there are more troops here than there are. If I can stall them long enough, the thinking goes, it’ll buy enough time for all of our wounded to get some distance and resupply. Then hopefully our reinforcements will catch up from the rear and we’ll be able to hold the town.
I’ve heard rumors that the Krauts have riflemen that can hit a guy from almost eight hundred yards. Jesus, I hope that’s not true. Benson was the crackshot around here, but he was killed two weeks ago. Not many of us left at this point. I’m a decent shot, which is why I was picked for this job, but I’m not eight hundred yards good, nor was I trained to be. But that’s the way it goes these days.
Miller returns. He’s smiling and holds the four packs of smokes in his hands.
“I’ll take my knife now,” he says.
I pull the knife from my pack and hand it over to him as he gives me the smokes.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a bastard?”
“Everyone since I was old enough to talk,” he says with that same shit-eating grin. He walks away, the grin growing bigger as he looks down at the knife like a kid holding a present on Christmas morning.
“Good luck,” he says distractedly over his shoulder as he falls in line with the rest of the beat up band of troops beginning their slow limp out of the town.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. Captain Deleo is standing there. He’s dirty and worn like the rest of us. His voice is resigned.
“Remember the plan. Keep it simple. Hold them off for as long as you can and then fall back to the rendezvous point on the map. You set on supplies?”
“I think so, sir.”
“I know what we’re asking of you. It won’t be easy, but keep your wits about you and let’s pray it works. If you can buy us half a day that should be more than enough.”
“I understand. Thank you, sir.”
“Give ‘em hell, son.”
He drops his hand from my shoulder. He turns away and barks a few orders towards the soldiers in the rear. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified as I watch them leave. I get that lonely sinking feeling in the pit of my gut. More than likely I’ll never see any of them again. I try not to think about that as I grab my gear.
I make my way to one of the bombed out buildings that has the best vantage point of the bridge, but isn’t overly obvious. I meander through the rubble until I find a room that will fit my needs. I spot it on the fifth floor. It’s small, but mostly intact. There’s a window and a table I can lay on. I drop my gear and start prepping the room. I go mostly off of instinct and what I’d seen Benson do when he’d get set up.
I center the table up with the window. I set it a few feet back into the room. The contents of my pack I dump out and line up on the table. Then I fill the pack with debris and set that towards the end of the table as a makeshift rifle rest. I load a few rounds into the rifle and lay it down like a newborn. Lastly and most importantly, I open a pack of smokes and then arrange the rest in a neat stack for easy access. I take a swig of water and make my way onto the table. The butt of the rifle fits nicely into my shoulder. I get the front end of the barrel situated on the rest so that it’s stable, but I can still quickly move it around. I tilt my head slightly to look through the scope until I have a clear site picture.
Satisfied, I tap out my first smoke of the day. I grab the lighter. Click. Flick. Click. The smoke is lit. I inhale deeply. The taste is strong and rich. I exhale. A true thing of beauty.
I remember when Travis gave me my first smoke back in basic. I’ve been hooked ever since. I love the smell. I love the taste. I love the design. I love how they calm me down.
I hope four packs is enough.
I place the smoke down near the edge of the table. I exhale and look through the scope again. I focus on the bridge. I find a patch of bricks that stand out. I put the crosshairs on a center brick and pull the trigger straight back. The recoil and sharp crack in my ears wakes me up. The blood is pumping now. From what I could tell the shot was low and left. I lift my head and grab my smoke. Inhale. Exhale. I look at the scope dials and make a two click adjustment. I fire one more shot. The small cloud of dust kicks up from the bricks. Close enough to center. Not perfect, but it’ll do.
I pick the smoke back up again and take a long drag. I hold it in my lungs. I guess I’m as ready as I can be.
Now I wait.
I finish the smoke and grind it out. I reach to the pack and light another one. I scan the area for any type of movement and occasionally look through the scope to see if I can spot anything in the distance. Nothing yet. I start to calm down. The inactivity of the day begins to set in. I light another smoke. I burn through that one quickly and light another. I choke down a food ration and take a gulp of water.
A few hours go by. I’m finished with my first pack of smokes. I gently peel up and tear the corner of a fresh pack. I start to try and calculate when the Krauts should arrive. As more time goes on, I start to question if they are even going to get here? What if another battalion intercepts them? What if they change course and don’t even come this way? How long should I stay here? I start to get lost in my own head. I burn through another smoke in five minutes. What happens if I get surrounded? What if they have a tank and level what’s left of this building? I wonder how long it would be before my own regiment assumed I was dead? I wonder what the letter would say to my parents? They probably send the same letter to everyone.
Another hour passes. The sun is starting to set. I get up from the table and stretch. I light another smoke and pace the room a little. I start formulating my plan of attack if they come. I’ll hold them off until it’s fully dark out. Maybe fire off a few shots to keep them guessing and try to slip out at dawn. I don’t know. It could work. Wish I knew how long it was going to take for reinforcements to arrive.
I flick the spent smoke and tap out another, when I hear something. A faint noise in the distance. I get back on the table and pull the rifle back into my shoulder. I look through the scope. I can feel my fingers starting to sweat. I hear my heart beating in my ears. I don’t see anything at first. Maybe it was just a plane going overhead. Then something catches my eye. Just a tiny glint of light. I swing the rifle to the right and I see them. A few Krauts approaching. They are spread out and walking slowly. The soldier in the front stops a few yards back from the bridge. I see the rest of the troops continuing to come up in the rear. It’s not a tank, but they definitely have some armored vehicles. I count a total of three vehicles and take a guess there’s roughly forty soldiers.
I watch and wait. It feels like an eternity before the point soldier starts moving again. He begins walking on the bridge. He’s cautious. Four other soldiers follow him a few feet back. I center my crosshairs on his chest. My heart is pumping. Breathe.
The trigger goes straight back. The sharp crack destroys the silence I had started to become accustomed to. I bring the rifle muzzle back down after the recoil. The point soldier is down. Soldier Two and Three drop to the ground at the sound of the shot. Soldier four and five scatter. I quickly rip open the bolt backwards. The casing ejects. I slam the bolt back forward. I try to control my heartbeat, but it’s going wild. It takes me a few beats too long to get back on target. Soldier Two has found better cover. Soldier Three is still exposed. He’s scared. He’s frantically aiming out into the town. He begins letting off a couple rounds. I aim towards his shoulder. I catch him in the neck. A spout of blood coats the bricks of the bridge behind him. As I eject the casing, Soldier Two retreats back to safety.
I feel like I can barely blink as I scan the whole area. I see a soldier on the armored vehicle with binoculars. He’s looking for where the shots came from. I stay steady on him and watch. Without looking, I feel my fingers over to the smoke on the edge of the table and bring it to my mouth. I take a quick drag and set it back. I don’t think they’ve spotted me yet. They pull back a few yards from the bridge. I’m sure they’re deciding what to do next. The bridge is the only way into town. I’m guessing they’ll send the armored vehicle and use that for cover.
It feels like I’m counting seconds now. Every second they stay back is another second that my squad gets further away and reinforcements get one step closer. This is what I keep telling myself.
They haven’t tried another attempt at crossing yet. It’s getting darker and harder to see them. The questions start to swirl in my head again. What are they waiting for? Should I relocate? Should I leave? Is this mission accomplished? Do I push my luck and try to pick off a few more?
Another hour passes with little movement. I light another smoke. I’m tired. The adrenaline is starting to fade. I look through the scope again. Can’t make out much. I hear the armored vehicle start to move. I can see hints of its shape nearing the bridge. I fire a shot towards its general direction. The engine keeps going. I think I’m out of time. I bunker down for a few minutes longer. I light another cigarette and listen. I fire one more shot. Still the engine churns forward.
I’m considering leaving when I hear the faint, but familiar crack. A beat later, I feel a dull thump into my head followed by a sharp ringing. A second later, I see the small stream of blood trickling down onto the table as my head goes slack. My smoke hits the table just before my face does.
In that last instance of life, I discover my betrayer.
The tiny orange ember at the end of my smoke burns bright before turning gray. It must have stood out like a sun against the blackness of the night.
I knew my addiction would cost me.