“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” Tom’s best friend grunted from the back seat where he lay on his side, a hand clutching a bleeding wound in his abdomen.
“Dude!” A quick glance from the highway to the rearview mirror removed Tom’s eyes from the road long enough for the car to drift into the other lane. “This is a rental! You’re bleeding everywhere―shit!” He jerked the wheel as the car he nearly drifted into honked furiously at him.
“Good.” Tom’s best friend, Ben, grinned through his obvious discomfort. “I hope they keep your deposit.”
Tom shook his head before recklessly weaving through a set of cars, passing everyone on the highway who drove the speed limit.
“You’re gonna get pulled over.”
“I’m fine.” Tom changed lanes again. “I’m getting you to the hospital. This is not how the grrreat Benjamin Reed dies!” He spoke with bravado, his fist pounding into the steering wheel.
“This is all one big joke to you, isn’t it?” Ben shook his head weakly, his eyes closing. “If I don’t die from this gunshot wound, I’m gonna die in this car.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Sergeant Basilone,” Tom grinned wickedly. “I’m an excellent driver.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have taken you with me.” Ben shook his head again, eyes pressed shut to ward off a new wave of pain. “I knew you were going to make fun of me.”
“Hey, I would never piss all over your passions, even if they happen to be terribly gay.”
“World War II Reenactment is not gay!” Ben argued defensively, his breathing ragged and his face pale. “It’s honorable! And with Old Man Henderson retiring this week, I was finally going to be promoted from First Sergeant to Master Sergeant.”
“What!” Tom feigned excitement, gasping delightfully, and poorly hiding the hysterical laughter that threatened to bubble up from his chest.
“Oh, shut up, dickhole! It’s important to me! And you ruined it! You had me shot, you piece of shit!” Ben stammered around his last insult, his body trembling as he groaned miserably. “Fuck, this hurts.”
Tom watched his friend from the rearview mirror and pressed his foot harder into the gas pedal. “You’re right, it is cool! It is the coolest fucking thing! Sign me up for the next rehearsal!”
“Go to hell.”
“I’m serious! And, hey!” Tom raised his voice to a desperate new level of volume to keep Ben’s fading attention. “Just so we’re clear, I am not responsible for you receiving a shit ton of buckshot in your gut.”
“You said you would take a bullet for me.” Ben rasped furiously, meeting Tom’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah, I said I’d take a bullet for you. I never meant it literally. Had I known real guns, and real bullets were going to be firing, I wouldn’t have agreed to come along and embarrass you in front of all your history nerd friends.”
“It was an accident.” Ben’s head dropped to the seat. “That’s why Old Man Henderson is retiring. We were all a little worried he might be getting too old to keep a clear head during these things.”
“You gave a loaded weapon to an old man with dementia…” Tom shook his head. “Jesus Christ, Ben.”
“I didn’t!” Ben’s head shot up defensively. “Eddie did.”
“Well, fuck Eddie,” Tom growled, half-tempted to return to the battlefield and throttle Eddie by his pale, scrawny neck.
It was quiet in the car for a moment, apart from Ben’s ragged gasps for air and the accelerating of the vehicle as it darted through traffic. When Tom’s eyes shifted back to the rearview mirror to find Ben’s eyes closed, he started cursing anew; reaching behind him and whacking his friend’s leg until some sign of life stirred in his pale, trembling body.
“C’mon Ben, stay with me!” Tom grabbed a limb, garbed in some ridiculous green attire, and shook.
“Gah!” Ben’s body curled up in pain as he clutched his stomach. “Cut it out, man!”
“Then don’t fall asleep! I’m gonna shake you awake every time I see your eyes close.”
“I hate you so much right now,” Ben rasped, wiping sweat from his eyes with his free, unbloodied hand.
“That’s fine, buddy. The good news is, we’re at our exit.”
“’bout time…” Ben grumbled, and Tom snorted, offended.
“I got here ten minutes faster than I should have, you ungrateful shit. That means I went at least fifteen miles over the speed limit. You’re welcome.”
“I’m bleeding to death, you psycho!”
“Yes, you are. You are bleeding all over the car that doesn’t belong to me!”
“Tough luck, shit stain.” Ben grinned a bloody smile, and Tom responded with a frown, eyeing his friend for the long moment where they were stopped at a stoplight.
“Why is there blood in your mouth?” Tom asked coolly, focusing very little attention on the cars in front of him as he followed the signs for the nearest Hospital. “Did Old Man Henderson punch you too?”
“Why would he punch me?” Ben brought a trembling hand to his mouth. “I didn’t do anythi―TOM, LOOK OUT!”
Tom’s eyes darted back to the road in front of him to find himself facing the front of a red truck that was going as fast as he was.
There wasn’t enough time to react.
Tom’s eyes fluttered open at the sound of his name.
“Ben?” He responded hoarsely in reply.
“We crashed, didn’t we?”
Tom’s eyes struggled to focus on his surroundings. He couldn’t see past the concrete, and the broken glass. The car had flipped to its side.
“Yep. Nice driving, dick.”
“Thanks, man.” Tom grinned before his eyes fluttered shut, the faint sound of a distant ambulance echoing in his ears.
When Tom opened his eyes again, his world was dark. The concrete beneath him was gone, replaced with mud that squashed in his ears. And where the body of a car had once protected him from the elements, he now laid out in the rain. But the steady shower that slowly drenched every dry bit of his clothing wasn't the only noise that bounced recklessly in his head. Something else filled his ears―a lot of something elses―and because he ached from head to toe, he listened with his ears in lieu of sitting up and looking for the noise himself.
Feet, he determined was the sound of countless squashing and splattering smacks in the mud.
Voices, he determined was the sound of numberless baritones bellowing, wailing, and roaring.
Canons, he determined the final sound that crescendoed repeatedly in his head along with a constant pattering, like fistfuls of gravel hitting a piece of plywood. Unable to properly decipher the sound himself, he almost came to the conclusion that he was lying in a World War II battlefield.
Bodily discomfort forgotten, Tom shot straight up, sinking his lower half further into the mushy mud that was on its way to slowly swallow him.
People were running. He watched people―men―running towards―and away―from the deafening boom of canons; dressed in green, dressed in brown. Some with guns, some without arms, some dragging behind others, weak, before their bodies jerked and pitched forward, defeated and dead, to the ground.
“What the fuck!” screamed Tom, scrambling to his feet, utterly terrified. “What the ever-living-fuck!” he gasped. He spun in a circle. He slipped in the mud.
Someone shouted, but Tom couldn’t locate the direction of the voice. Where was Ben, he thought? Was he here too?
“Ben!” he bellowed into the rowdy night. “BEN! Where are you?”
Something barrelled into him―a person―and together they crashed to the ground. The impact in which Tom’s back slammed into the mud jarred his senses.
“Sorry,” he muttered, assuming he had been in the way of a retreating soldier.
“ARSCH MIT OHREN, AMERICAN!”
That sounded German, Tom thought to himself, but it wasn’t until the man who crashed into him―who also spoke a foreign language―started thoroughly pummeling Tom with his fists, did Tom really put forth any effort to see the man’s face.
“Ben?” Tom cried, relieved, at the sight of his friend’s face, no matter how distorted with rage it was. “Ben! It’s me! Ow!” Tom growled as Ben’s fist pummeled at any surface of Tom’s body that could be reached. “Ben! What the fuck! Cut it out!”
When his friend refused to relent, Tom fought back, and he was bigger and quicker than Ben. In less than a minute, he had achieved one blow to Ben’s jaw and then rolled him through the mud until it was Ben who lay on his back.
“Ben! It’s me!”
“I don’t know who you are!” Ben replied, his American accent thick with German pronunciation.
“Yes, you do! We’ve been friends since third grade! I rolled you your first joint! I talked Abigail Stevens into sleeping with you after Homecoming! I transferred from Columbia to NYU for you! And I was driving you to the hospital before this nightmare, you ass hole!”
“Hosenscheisser, kotzbrocken, heissluftgeblase!”
“When the fuck did you learn how to speak German!”
“Goddammit, Ben! What the fuck is happening!” Tom cried, desperate for answers, and desperate for his friend.
In his desperation, his grip on Ben loosened, and Tom’s friend launched him several feet away. With a hideous splat, Tom found himself, once again, in the mud.
“I forgot,” Tom gasped, “What a fucking piece of shit you are.”
“You are out of luck, swine.” German-Ben seethed after rising from the ground. He stood over Tom who decided to stay put in the mud for a little longer. “Your people have retreated, and you have been left behind. I suggest you accompany me, and you can tell me all about this Abigail Stevens.”
“Dude, if you are, somehow―in some royally fucked up way―a real German soldier, I’m not going anywhere with you.” Tom lifted his head and offered his friend a grin, bloodied after the several blows German-Ben had delivered to Tom’s face. “I’ve seen Saving Private Ryan. You’re on the bad guy’s side, pal. I don’t think Old Man Henderson will think too highly of your newfound sympathy for the German side of the war. You better kiss that promotion goodbye.”
“You talk just like you look―ugly.”
“Rude!” Tom’s head dropped back into the mud.
“Let’s go, American.”
German-Ben reached for Tom, but before he could get a decent grip, a lone shot rang out― the closest gunshot to go off near Tom since he woke up in the mud―and German-Ben jerked at the sound of it.
German-Ben went still above Tom. Tom observed, confused.
“You OK, man?”
“Scheisse,” German-Ben whispered, and his hand left Tom’s shirt to cover a hole in his own uniform. He looked down, and then he rolled, defeated, off of Tom, and into the mud. Tom sat up, studying his friend who just sat there, staring at nothing.
“Ben?” Tom gripped German-Ben’s shoulder, and his friend looked at him. He looked at Tom as if he almost knew he was.
“Who are you?”
“It’s me, Ben.” Tom shook his friend desperately by the shoulder. “It’s Tom.”
“I don’t know a ‘Tom.’”
“Well,” Tom tried to argue but he didn’t know what to say. “I know you.”
“It means nothing now.” Ben’s head dropped, and his hand removed from the hole in his uniform. “I’m dying.”
“What?” Tom gasped. He gripped his friend’s hand and saw the blood that stained his hand. “Oh, shit. We...we’ve got to get you to a hospital!” Tom launched to his feet, and he nearly slipped in the mud. That’s when he recalled his surroundings. “OK, I don’t know where the fuck we are or how we got here, but surely there’s a medic...tent...or...something like that nearby, right?”
“I’ll never make it to my camp.”
“Then… Mine!” He turned and spotted several retreating backs. “Those guys are Ameican! So the camp’s got to be close by! Come on, let’s go.” He bent to retrieve his friend who was suddenly too weak to fend him off. When another retreating soldier passed, he stopped and stared, horrified at what he was seeing.
“Tom? What in God’s name are you doing!”
“He’s my friend!”
“Traitor!” The man retrieved his weapon and aimed it at Tom. “Betrayer!”
“No!” Tom dropped Ben. He backed away with his hands up. “You don’t understand! We don’t belong he―”
He heard it before he felt it. It was loud and his ears throbbed immediately. And then he felt it, and he didn’t know quite how to describe it. The feeling of hot lead ripping through his stomach was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
Well―there was one time with an extra spicy bean burrito from Taco Johns back in 1995―but that was different.
“Rot in hell, Judas,” the American soldier hissed spitefully, and Tom dropped to his knees, holding his stomach the same way German-Ben had held his chest.
“American Fool,” German-Ben whispered. “Why…?”
“I thought I could save you,” Tom mumbled, defeated. “Fuck, this really does hurt. Why didn’t you tell me? Wait―you did.”
“You talk like you know me.”
“I do know you.”
“You’re the enemy.”
“...I’m sorry, man.”
German-Ben fell forward in the mud, and Tom fell backward. Like a clogged sink and a leaky tap, Tom felt as if his lungs were filling with water. As a result, it became, by the minute, increasingly harder to breathe.
“Ben, I really did try,” Tom gasped. “I didn’t see the truck coming. I’m sorry,” he choked as blood filled his throat. “World War II Reenactment is not gay…”
A voice echoed from somewhere Tom couldn’t see.
“Tom, wake up.”
The voice beckoned him.
“Yeah, wake up, idiot.”
“Oh, Ben… You remember me. I knew you would.”
“Excuse me, miss?” Ben’s voice echoed elsewhere as if he had turned away. “Can I have whatever you’re giving him? He’s having a much better time than I am right now.”
“I’m sorry,” a feminine voice, clearly unamused, responded.
“Man, can you believe that?” Ben’s voice returned to Tom. “I’m the one who had a belly full of lead, and you get the good medicine.”
Tom could almost see Ben’s eyes rolling.
“Ben?” Tom opened his eyes to a bright room. A hospital. He was lying in a bed, and beside him, in another bed, laid Ben. “Ben...holy shit. You’re OK?” He tried to sit up, but Ben held up his hand to stop him.
“Whoa, stay down, dude. You had a serious head injury.”
“I did?” Tom’s hand lifted to his head.
“Yeah. Thanks for stealing my spotlight, asshole.”
“Oh my God, Ben,” Tom exhaled, closing his eyes in relief. “I had the craziest dream. We were soldiers, and you were German, and I was American, and you tried to kill me, but I was trying to save your life, and…” Tom opened his eyes and blinked into the soft white light above his head. “I thought you were gonna die, man.”
“Dude, don’t start crying.”
“I just―I love you, Ben.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ.”
“You’re my best friend, and I’m sorry I ever made fun of you. I’ll always be here for you, man. I’ll come with you to your World War II reenactments. They’re not gay, Ben. They’re not gay.”
“I just feel like you should know; the only reason that Abigail Steven’s slept with you is because I paid her to.”
“You were the only virgin left in the ninth-grade class, I wanted to do you a favor! I’m sorry.”
“Fuck you, Tom! I knew something was up that night when she kept snickering during sex. I’ve been self-conscious of my penis ever since then!”
Despite the ache in Tom’s head and the crushing weariness that beckoned his eyes shut, he laughed heartily at Ben’s confession.
“Shut up, dick!” Ben shouted. “I hope your brain fills with blood again!”
“Don’t say that.” Tom chuckled. “I tried to save your life.”
“It doesn't count if you could have prevented it in the first place!”
“Hey,” Tom’s tone grew serious.
“What?” snapped Ben.
“Let’s watch Saving Private Ryan when we get out.”
“So am I!"
“No, fuck off.”