Last Dying Breath

“Shut up, Kev! You’re lying!” Tom laughed, pocketing the small shaving mirror he had in his hand. The cold of the trenches, with the rusted barbed wire being all that protected them from the Alim forces beyond no man’s land, had few places for humor. And yet they found it wherever they could.

“I’m not!” He insisted, raising his hands up defensively. “I swear, Abe looked down at his cock, and there were little bugs lookin’ back up at him. That Ushar whore gave him crabs. He’s been bitchin’ ‘bout his itchin’ all day.”

Tom shook his head, chuckling. “Fucking idiot, that Abe. He’s spent—”

“Hey guys!” Fredrick emerged from one of the entrances to their shared dugout, the wooden steps of the fifteen-year-old structure creaking with every step. A rat, holding a piece of bread in its mouth, scurried out from behind him. “What’re you up to?”

“Absolutely nothing. You got a cigarette, Fred?” Kev asked. Fred patted himself down for a moment, before producing a box and handing out cigarettes. Fred kept the entire squad’s cigarettes, because he didn’t smoke. Saved the others from themselves. Kev lit his as Fred spoke.

“You hear about Duggar?”

“No, what happened?”

“They heard splashin’ and shit, y’know? People looked over, and he was sinking into a flooded part of the trench.”

“He’s dead?”

“He’s with the fishes now, apparently” Everyone nodded solemnly.  After a few drags on his cigarette, Kev peered over the trenches, looking for something across no man’s land.

He couldn’t see a damn thing. “Thank the Lord,” he mumbled to himself, turning to his comrades. “It looks like the Alim have calmed down. There’s not been a single shell all day.” He took a drag from the cigarette, and sat down in a little alcove dug out into the clay of the trench. He drew his bayonet, and from a small bag slung across his shoulder, he took out his ration of cheese. It was more a grinding off than slicing. The local rats, in particular a big, fat, white one they had all decided was named Pete, scurried over to catch what small pieces didn’t land in Kev’s palm.  Kev gave him a little pat on the head, whispering something about it being a good lil’ rat.

“That means they’re just getting bigger guns, you know,” Tom mumbled.

Fredrick scowled. “Fuckin’ hell, Tom, do you really need to be such a–”

The sounds of five-nines roared from across no-man’s-land. The cacophony of screams and gasps of shock, of shells whistling through the once-calm air and exploding, all came together to be those all-too-familiar sounds of warfare.

One shell landed less than ten meters away. It was a lime green thing, a bullet the size of Kev’s head. Everyone backed away, their muscles growing tense and their voices barely a whisper as they looked at the shell. A few more fell around, exploding as they should. It was a dud. Kev relaxed, observing the shell stuck in the mud. It had to be a dud.

A few more fell around them, the explosions shaking the clay walls around them. Kev rushed to a ladder, climbing up to get a look of what was happening. Maybe it was an assault, with men rushing over the shell-pocked land between the trenches, or a show of power, or something else altogether.

The noxious smell of chlorine informed him of what it was. The sting in his eyes, the burning scent, and the cloud of gas drifting over by the wind, made it all too obvious. He turned to his friends, screaming in abject terror.

“Gas! Get your fuckin’ masks on, there’s gas!” He jumped from the ladder, stumbling on to the ground and trying to pull his mask up over his face. He forced it over, the cold rubber pressing against his face and his vision blackening save two little port holes. And there was that small crack of light. Why was there a crack? Thoughts raced through Kev’s mind, each of them worse than the last. Every fear was confirmed when the burning smell of chlorine leaked through the crack. He gasped in horror.

His lungs lit up like kerosene thrown to a candle. Animal instinct, illogical and basic, sent his mask flinging off into the mud of the trenches. His head snapped to look behind him. Everyone was gone. Clamored away, like rats in a sewer. The wall of chlorine surrounded him, choked him, drowned him. The toxic sea of searing flame tore through his body with such force, such unbridled rage, that every bit of exposed flesh screamed as if boiling oil had been poured over him. Blistering skin grasped at the wet clay. His tongue felt swollen, the metallic taste of blood was thick and heavy in his mouth. The sounds of exploding shells became dimmer and dimmer, softer and softer. Tunnel vision overtook his sight, everything getting blurrier and blacker.

And then it ended. Not peacefully, not quietly. Choking on his own dissolved lungs, still clawing at the clay walls of the trench, trying to get out, Kev succumbed. Into the soft mud went his last, desperate, dying breath.

Light flooded his eyes. How long had it been? An hour? A day? He didn’t know. All Kev could register was the burning sunlight directly in his eyes. Then the next thought hit him. I’m alive. He sat upright, coughing and wiping the dried blood and spit from his mouth. He spat out a few fleshy chunks of…he didn’t even want to know what it was. Pete jumped off of his chest. How the bloody fuck am I alive? That one question burned in his mind as he wandered throughout the trenches, counting the dead and the injured. He called out for help, for anyone to come to him.

There wasn’t any pain. His breathing was strained, wheezing. But there was no pain. He heard someone walking through the trenches. Kev’s hand instinctively went to his knife.

“H-hello?” He stuttered. A croaking voice replied.

“Kev?” It…it was Duggar. There must have been no gas in the area anymore. It would have clung to this fish’s gills. The large-eyed, soaked Waterlogged before him blinked. Clear eyelids slid over constantly staring eyes.

“Duggar! They told me you went with the fishes, I thought you would have been transferred to another division by now,” Kev shook his head. Then, the creeping realization hit him. His last clear memory…no. No. No! He ran over to a puddle, much to the confusion of Duggar. He stared deep into the still water, hoping, begging, that it was an optical illusion.

His face was gaunt and pale. Blisters from the gas attack marred the sallow skin. And his eyes were the toxic yellow of chlorine gas.

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