At the Front
by William Michaelian

The young man didnít want to kill people, so they put him in prison. After that, every day, they sent someone to ask if he was ready to fight. Each time, he told them no. To make him comply, they stopped giving him his meals. You can eat all you want, they said, when you join our effort to rid the world of evil. Dazed, he looked up at them. Without blinking, he said, To rid the world of evil, you must first rid yourselves of evil.

The statement earned him a violent beating that left him unconscious. When he came to, there was a stranger sitting beside him in the cell. Iím a doctor, the stranger said. Iím here to help you. The young man managed a smile. Thank you, he said. Then the doctor gave him a shot, and the young man lost consciousness again. Heís ready, the doctor said to a guard waiting outside. Do you have the uniform? The guard nodded. Together, they stripped off the young manís clothing and replaced it with a soiled military uniform.

The doctor gave the young man another shot. Wake up, he said, slapping his face. Come on. Wake up. You have work to do, remember? The young man opened his eyes. What am I doing here? he said. What happened? The doctor smiled. Youíve been sick. But donít worry, youíre all right now. The doctor gave him still another shot. This will help you regain your strength, he said.

The young man sat up. I feel stronger already, he said. He looked at the uniform he was wearing and asked if it belonged to him. The doctor said it did. This is what you were wearing when we found you, he said. And then he told the young man that he had been very brave, and had saved the lives of a whole platoon. Iím sure this will earn you a medal, he said. Doesnít that make you proud? The young manís face was quiet, thoughtful. I donít remember, he said. Are you sure that really happened?

To prove he was telling the truth, the doctor told the guard to bring in one of the young manís platoon members. A few minutes later, they were joined by another young man dressed as a soldier. Hello, Jim, he said. Glad to see youíre feeling better. Then he thanked the young man for saving his life. We never would have made it without you, he said with a great deal of emotion in his voice. Youíre a real hero. Iíve already written home about you. Someday, Iíd like you to meet my sister. I think sheíd make you a good wife.

The young man smiled. He didnít remember being a hero, but it gave him a nice feeling to be treated as one. One thing he did remember, though, was his desire to find a pretty girl and get married. Since he was fifteen, he had wanted to love someone and raise a family. But the girls heíd known had said they werenít ready. Now it looked as if he would get his chance. Just thinking about it made him feel good. A minute later, however, when he was shown the girlís picture, he knew something was wrong. She was pretty enough, but her face seemed to be hiding something.

I guess youíre anxious to get back in action, the grateful soldier said. I know I am. Action? the young man said. Yes, the solider said. Only this time, weíre going to take that hill. And weíll kill every one of those bastards if we have to, right? The soldier grinned. The young man took another look at his sisterís picture, then handed it back to him. No, no, you keep that, the soldier said. Keep it. Itíll bring you luck. At this point, the doctor intervened. It sure is nice to see you boys together, he said. It warms my heart. When I see this kind of spirit, I know our country is in good hands. He gave the young manís shoulder a hearty pat. Jim, he said, Iím proud of you. We all are. Keep this up, and Iíll bet you could run for congress.

Jim looked at the doctor, then at the soldier whose life he was supposed to have saved. He got up and stretched. The uniform he was wearing was covered with dry patches of blood and dirt. He tried to picture the battle that had made him a hero, but couldnít. His brain held no memory of it whatsoever.

It looks like you need another shot, the doctor said. Youíre still a little weak.

No, Jim said. Please. I just need to think.

But there isnít time, the doctor said. Youíre needed at the front.

Once again, Jim said no. He sat on the edge of his bed. Please, he said. I appreciate all youíve done. Canít we wait just awhile? Iím trying to remember something.

Iím afraid that wonít be possible, the doctor said. The longer you wait, the more innocent people will be killed. You donít want to be responsible for killing innocent people, do you?

No, Jim said. I donít. And then, all at once he remembered. No, he said again. No.

The doctor nodded at the soldier. Hold him, he said. The soldier grabbed Jim from behind and held him tight while the doctor administered another shot. It looks like this one will take a little longer, the doctor said as he slowly withdrew the needle.

Jimís eyes closed. He fell backward onto the bed. When he woke up, he was alone. All alone.

William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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