Twenty-Eight Minutes

by J.T. Dawsom

April 6: 6:30 a.m.
They hadn't eaten for days, the two soldiers we captured. We'd roped them by a tree, kept them there. No one watches them. Who needs to watch dead men? During the early morning, half past six a lieutenant limps over towards the soldiers. He drinks from his flask. He is drunk, shaking his pistol at them and laughing. They don't move. They don't beg. Not once. There is nothing left. They don't want to live. Then he shoots one of them down into the tree. The other man lowers his head against his knees. Lets his hands fall empty to the dirt. That stops me. My stomach tightens. I can taste the bile in the back of my throat. I watch the smoke curl out of the hole, the thinnest part of him and into nowhere. I think about reaching out for it, grabbing it and putting it back into his chest, but I don't. I simply watch it float away. So much blood. It gathers in puddles under the wet leaves.

April 6: 6:32 a.m.
I watch the captain and the lieutenant argue by the fire. One points to the forest then points to me and the other men. I rise, rifle loose in one hand, and slip on my cap. Take a sip from my canteen. Let the water run down my chin and sink into my collar. I can barely hear the shivers of the trees. I look up. In the blue sky clouds collide and there are no birds. It is quiet. The man with the beard next to me smiles. A boy behind him shakes. I know at once, after this day, he will not return. I look down. Blood has dried on my boot. A leaf sticks to its edge. We set off for the woods. There are twelve of us, the ground soft under our feet. Ten minutes into the woods I watch the forest move.

April 6: 6:42 a.m.
There are eleven of them, like ghosts from behind the fog. They come through the trees like gray sheets. I watch them troll through the tall wheat grass. Their boots sink into the ground, leaving footprints in the mud. They are carrying rifles, all of them. Some of them are killers. The others, they are too frightened. The guns look heavy in their hands, as if the rifles were made of men they put into the ground. One of the men stops. He spits tobacco beyond his boot then raises his rifle. The others come toward him. While they huddle together they whisper to each other then raise their guns. A deer tears out of the brush and disappears into the fog. I see its breath lip through the air. One soldier steps forward. The light shines down through the trees on his face. It is sweaty and dirty. I hear the first shot. A metal punch tears through the leaves.

April 6: 6:43 a.m.
Death screams at the wounded. I sink to my knees against a tree, prop my rifle between two ruts and fire. I shoot a man. Watch the sluggish lump pass through smoke and screams and into his shoulder. He falls to the dirt. The forest falls around him. Another man shoots me back. I feel it settle in my chest. I wonder if he hesitated as I had.  I smell powder. The leaves are still wet. The procession came. There is no beginning and no end. Just animals with their guns, shooting each other into the ground. The air tastes black with smoke almost up to the sky. There is a boy huddled against a tree holding his gun against his face and crying. The sun shines down on it all.

April 6: 6:45 a.m.
Everybody is screaming. Black clouds follow the dead. A fat soldier walks up to the boy. He smiles and spills powder over his rifle. He winks from behind his sight. One eye closed. The boy begs 'please God,' bloody and broken. There is no reply. The boy looks at me. He knows he is going to die. He wants to live. He is a soldier, not a killer and he wants to live. We all want to live. I don't know what to do. The soldier holds his rifle to the boy's chest, smiles, and pulls the trigger. He stands there quietly. His face doesn't change. A smile soaked through with blood and dirt. I hear him laugh. The boy falls to his knees, hand outstretched as if reaching out toward something. His eyes are still open. His blood gathers in puddles beneath his chin, the last trace of a boy left long after he's gone and wiped away. I wonder what he saw through those eyes. If he saw anything at all I do not know. The ground is made of men, bodies stretched along my eyes. They all wanted to live.

April 6: 6:48 a.m.
I weep against the tree, my rifle hard against my hand. I stare with watery vision, fix my eyes to the ground. I try not to look again, but the crumpled body of the boy creeps into the corner of my eye somehow, and my insides sink to my feet. I want to die. He is still clutching his rifle, his left hand forever reaching out toward me. The boy was not a killer. He died ten feet away from me and I did nothing. Just sat there stuck to the back of a tree.  It was then that I felt something creep after me along the leaves. Perhaps it came from the boy's outstretched hand or drifted in through the smoke or the trees. Something that measured and fit me, slipped its fingers beneath my skin and filled the brittle spaces between my bones. Something I've never felt before. I had no name for it, whatever it was.

April 6: 6:50 a.m.
The wind inside the leaves sounds like rain. I sit in silence for a bit. I look up and while the leaves fill my eyes, I think about dying and the different ways to die. I am alone. The world stops. As I close my eyes, my heart squeezes a thousand tiny knives. I think it might pop, push itself through my chest. Then another thousand cuts my chest into slices to let the air out. I can barely breathe. Across the way, the man with the beard smiles at me as if to say something. I wait for words to take shape from behind his eyes, but they never do. His eyes close. He is still smiling. I swallow hard and it hurts. The weight of the boy lays itself across my shoulders, slips in through the hole and into my chest, across my lungs, tons of it on my heart. It drifts up onto my eyes where I see a fox peep from behind a log. The last thing I expect to see. He takes a drink from a puddle and looks toward me. His eyes cover me. Steal their way into my heart as if to look for something. Whatever it was I did not know. Or if what he wanted was even there. I wait for him to move. But he lowers his eyes to the leaves. And as he walks away, I swear, he shakes his head.

April 6: 6:51 a.m.
I huddle against the tree, watch the sky close and shut tight. The wind splits open the leaves above my head. They fall like rusty feathers. Scrape against the bark and down onto my face. Gunfire grows distant, though I can still hear footsteps scatter amongst the leaves. I bend my face around the tree to the boy, hoping that he has moved. That he has somehow pushed himself out of the dirt and simply walked away into the woods. My eyes find his hand and he lays there, still, a crumpled boy, amongst the leaves. My face spills quietly into my hands.

April 6: 6:52 a.m.
My head fills with rain, like pouring the ocean into a teacup, and my thoughts drown. Sink to the bottoms of my feet into the spaces between my toes. I breathe; a flicker of sound through a silent forest of still bodies. Of wooden men, limbs left bent at their sides, absorbing words, glances, and movement like sticks on water, bloated with the burden of lost moments. My chest is numb. I watch the wind slide through the yellow grass and slip into my hand. Blood has gathered in my palm, a hard blotch left on the barrel of my rifle. It is my father's. His father gave it to him. Faces still stuck to its end. I wonder what my father would say if he saw me right now, a grown man, sitting here by myself. Alone, looking out into the woods. Staring past what was in front of me into blank thoughts behind my eyes. I would say nothing, as there were no words that would fit his. Though I know what my father and his father would say if they were here, sitting by my side: 'William, this is your war.' I am surprised to find myself weighing these words. Let them break open onto my skin and pad along my veins like ants down into the hollow spaces between my bones. Let them settle there. I breathe them in. My breath swept up the words, rolled them into a lead ball that sat beside my heart.

April 6: 6:53 a.m.
Sometimes my mind fills fast with thought and overflows into my eyes. I sit against the tree, thinking of anything I can to keep my mind still. So it won't wander.  Though thoughts of the boy soon drift about me, unable to free themselves from behind my eyes. I had watched him fall like a stone to the ground and melt into the landscape, part of the trees, the leaves, and the ground. Watched the yellow grass fall into his ears, his mouth, and cover his face. Silence and stillness lay beside him now and under all that weight I know he feels nothing, sees nothing, and hears nothing. My ribs stiffen, like I'm made of iron. A tiny knife slips its way into my heart. I feel it peel the top like an orange and sink to the bottom, a blade with absence at its end. It slices into my frame and I think I might disappear. Vanish, as if shot through a gun. He will never move again. The wind inside the grass almost erases him from my eyes and I fear that he isn't there anymore, though I know he is. That stops me. At that moment I knew, I could not let that stand. I curl my finger to fit the trigger and wait for him. That man who put the boy into the ground.

April 6: 6:56 a.m.
The silence is heavy, sticks like sap to my ears. Collects on my skin and covers me like a coat. I stare down at the grass next to my hand. Hope that time will fill up through the cracks and into my fingers, so that I may squeeze it, drawing him, that man, across my eyes. My body sags against the tree. I wait and nothing arrives. I close my eyes. I dream I stand beneath an orange tree. Watch time peel away against the green leaves and fall like shriveled grains to the yellow grass. My father uncurls from the branches, like a naked arm and untwists to the ground. He watches me for a moment and then he laughs, and as he smiles at me, I see the crease marks stretch along the corners of his eyes. Then I wonder if the boy is in the leaves too, and if so where and what he is doing, and if the boy I hardly knew would know me. I wonder if I would ever see him again. A deep echo of gun thunder resonates in my chest. The orange tree falls around me into a man who lays crumpled against a tree. And then I hear my father whisper: 'William Harper, wake up. Wake up. Wake up.' I open my eyes. Hear the leaves fold against the grass, and shadows go like ghosts across the sun.

April 6: 6:58 a.m.
Two grey soldiers walk past me and spill into the grass. Leaves crackle beneath their boots. I sit quietly against the tree and close my eyes. The wind rattles my frame; a silent ghost, breathing heavy with fear. Working its way to the surface of my skin, as if it were trapped behind a mask. I hear a man's scream for mercy and I open my eyes. He lies bent against a log. One leg is broken. The other dangles awkwardly at his knee. He yells, 'Jesus Christ. Christ save me.' He cries, spit dropping from his lip. It catches like a web on the grass. Pulls a bible from the pocket of his coat and holds it to his chest and then close his eyes. I hear one soldier laugh then fire his rifle. My eyes press shut. Silence slips its fingers into my thoughts and I feel what's left of me pour down into my fingers. I squeeze my rifle. The two men walk over to me. He's dead, one says. Tommy, says the other, get that gun. He pokes me in the chest, grabs my rifle. I don't hesitate. I open my eyes. 'I am William Harper and you are dead.' The fat one has a smile. I shoot him. Watch the ball pass through his cheek and out the other end, as if swallowed by the trees. He didn't laugh anymore. Just fell to the ground, and as he fell he wrapped me in those wild, green eyes. I let my reflection sink into the back of his eyes. Watched his pupils narrow and catch my face. They knew me now. Then there was nothing. My rifle was heavy in my hands. Yes, I killed him. It happened. Then I laugh. The other drops his rifle and runs into the woods. He wants to live. I take a breath and let it out, a light whisper that wanders through the leaves.

BIO: J.T. attended Eastern Illinois University for both his B.A and M.A. It was there that he uncovered his ability to put down into words the simple scribbles of his imagination. Thus began his career as a writer. He never looked back, not once.