The New Coat
This short story was written for the January Furious Fiction challenge run by the Australian Writer's Centre. This story is made available to subscribers of my mailing list only and is subject to copyright. No part of this work may be reproduced in any way without the prior written permission of the author.
New name, new coat, new life.
The words rolled around his brain like a mantra. New name, new coat, new life. He listed them over and over. It kept him sane. The ricochet of gunfire shattered in the distance. It had started raining last night and the mud gripped at his ankles, more than once pulling him to his knees until he thought he’d have to hack his own leg off to get free.
The rain still fell. Fat drops that stank of death and sunk through his uniform to chill his bones. With any luck, the rain would thicken and cover his tracks out of this godforsaken hell hole.
Somewhere above his head a bird let out a strange, haunting call. So different from the chattering laughter of the birds back home. Birds. How long had it been since he’d heard their music? When the company marched into the fields and began to fire, the birds had fled. Woods and fields filled with wildflowers that sang and buzzed fell silent, turned to red-stained mud, running thick with blood and broken lives.
He slid to a halt and pressed his back up against an old oak tree for a moment and squeezed his eyes shut against the pounding in his ribcage, turning his face upwards to the rain as another burst from the tommy-guns fired. Dread choked his throat. He needed to get away, as far away as the winds could take him. If he was caught, it would be over. It wouldn’t matter who found him. The dead man’s jacket he wore wouldn’t stop the bullets that would slice their way into his heart. He didn’t intend to die here today.
Thick mud grabbed at his boots and he fell, his face pressed up against a dead man hidden in the mud, skin already oozing with maggots and purple-black bruises of decay. The mud would bury him in the woods as surely as a mama would bury her child in a grave. He stared at the face, unable to tell if the man was friend or foe. It was all the same now. He’d seen enough death to see him to his grave.
A noise broke behind him and he turned, peering through the mud to see the barrel of a rifle pointed at his chest.
“Where do you think you’re going, boy? Present yourself.” The voice spoke low and clear as he recognised the officer from his own company.
“Where’s your coat?”
Tucked around the shoulders of a dead man.
The man’s voice grew quieter, softer than the rain. “Nineteen is too young to throw your life away. You know what they do to soldiers who desert.” He raised the rifle higher. The boy nodded. The salty terror that leaked from his eyes disappeared into the sobs that heaved as he closed his eyes and waited for the darkness to come.
“Get lost, boy. Don’t get caught.”
He ran. New name, new coat.... New life.