3. Cloud Memory

It looked like a commie missing a quarter of his head, his brains spilling out. Either brains or blood, but his first instinct was brains, and first instincts are hard to shake. Instincts were what kept him alive long enough to last the war. Long enough to watch every friend he’s made tagged with the three dreaded letters: KIA.

And eventually, long enough to return home and look at the clouds.

He was 19 when he joined the war, fresh-faced and excited. He was 23 when it ended a lifetime later. In 4 years, war had changed him in more ways than ordinary life ever could, in any number of years. Hell, most people didn’t learn how to spell correctly in 4 years.

He’s learned how to shoot a man’s head from a hundred yards. He’s learned how to shut out the awful sound of death and destruction while dragging a wounded man away from gunfire. He’s learned how to spot the light glinting off a sniper rifle’s scope. How to rip his lungs apart screaming a warning to his comrades.

How to duck and dodge the high-caliber bullet that would have taken his head off, if he had been slower by one-tenth of a blink. But he has always thought of that as more dumb luck.

Winning a war was probably about strategies and mathematical calculations for those seated safe in their underground bunkers, hunched over a map full of dots and lines and with little figurines, representing troops, standing over the designated areas. But in the trenches, ankle-deep in the mud that made it simply impossible to move, winning a war just meant surviving long enough to get home. And that – surviving – was dumb luck.

She came into his field of vision, blocking his view of the busted commie’s head- no, the clouds. Smiling. The sun couldn’t match her radiance.

What are you thinking about? He heard her ask.

What was he going to say? How could she ever understand? How could he say it all and pollute her soul? The commie’s scattered brains were visible behind her head, and he understood why instinct told him brains, not blood.

The man had been defenseless, his rifle jammed with mud and small stones. He had begged for his life in his own language. Begged to be spared. He was making some gestures – I have children, three of them.

He never managed to complete his sentence. The first bullet struck his left ear, taking it off in a drizzle of blood and small bone fragments. The second went into his eye, and it was brains, not blood, that flew.

Well? She asked.

Nothing. He gave her a perfunctory smile, and tucked her auburn locks behind her ear. Just you.

She smiled again – and for a moment, the war was far away.

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