The call came in the middle of the night.
“We need you.” The voice spoke through the phone in a tone that was far from desperation.
Frederick hesitated, “For what?” Frederick knew the answer. He knew the call would come eventually. He just didn’t want to believe he would have to go back. Not after the Great War. No one was supposed to fight again. There were too many deaths, too many men that suffered.
Frederick had seen it all fifteen years ago. He was the top general on the northern front for all five years of the war. Not a single soul thought they would go back. But they all did. And Frederick was going to be no different. I was wrong, Sterling, Frederick thought as he listened to the radio every night.
“Wake up, Corporal Sterling!” Frederick’s voice always sounded deeper in his memory. He was now sitting in a small forest, surrounded by five troops. “We have company. The opposition is moving towards the bridge.”
It was December 1918 again. Frederick and his troops were advancing on a vital position in the northern hills. They had moved through the mountains and villages and were near their final hurdle, St. Vincent’s Bridge. They traveled over the last thirteen months, with only two minor incidents. One involving a food service truck, and another with a small ammunition factory. Frederick knew that the enemy was growing desperate, and that it was time to take the bridge.
“I’m up,” Sterling didn’t move. “Just been waiting for you.” Sterling was sitting down, leaning his upper body against a tree, peering around the corner towards the bridge. The white-blue moonlight seemed to disappear in his dark brown eyes. “What’s the plan, General?”
“The plan is simple. We take the bridge, at any cost,” Frederick retorted. He had always found Sterling’s laid-back attitude comforting throughout their thirteen years of friendship. That was the main reason Frederick kept Sterling around, because he knew that he needed someone to bring some levity to situations. Even if Sterling said Frederick’s military title with a hint of sarcasm.
“But we’re the only ones here,” Sterling shot back as he waved his hand around. “A grand total of five troops and one general, who isn’t a good shot, I might add.”
It was true. Frederick was an average shot at best and they were short on men. The army had lowered the amount of troops stationed with Frederick. He knew why, the war was being fought in the south, and the enemy hadn’t made a legitimate push for over four months. It seemed that every time Frederick radioed, there was a request for twenty more troops to report back to base. Frederick had advised against it.
Frederick laid out the plan simply: they were to move in pairs, and take out the four posts stationed at the ends of the bridge.
“Sterling, you’re with me,” Frederick had said.
“Oh joy, just like our times at the academy,” Sterling said. “Except the broads we’re charging now don’t have breasts, they have bayonets.” Sterling kicked the dirt and snow off of his boots. “For glory and the gates of Hell, boys.”
“For glory,” they all responded.
As Frederick and Sterling approached the first post, they saw flashes forty yards to their right. “Damn it,” Frederick whispered. “They know we’re here.”
“Maybe it’s that aftershave, General,” Sterling said as the sirens started to wail.
“Focus. We need to take this post. It has valuable radio codes,” Frederick remained unchanged, he still wanted the element of surprise, or whatever was left of it.
Sterling and Frederick approached the door, and Frederick signaled for Sterling to kick it down. Frederick readied his gun, and as Sterling lifted his leg, the door swung open. Sterling dove left, and in a split second, Frederick shot the man twice in the head.
“Sweet Mother Mary,” Sterling yelled as he climbed out of the snow and grasped the door. “You’re a better shot than I gave you credit for. I wonder why that guy was in such a-”
In a hot flash of light Frederick was knocked back thirty feet. He rolled onto his stomach, checking his body to make sure he was still in one piece. His left pinky finger was gone, and the ringing in his ears was unlike anything he had ever heard. He wiped the mud and snow from his face as he tried to stand up. His ankle gave and he fell.
He should have known the enemy would blow the bridge before they ever surrendered it. “STERLING!” he yelled. Frederick looked left and right until he saw a large lump. He began to crawl towards the object in the snow. He could see the red blood against the white snow, and knew his answer before he arrived. Sterling was 15 feet closer to the blast than Frederick. Frederick turned the limp body over and saw the damage done to the right half of Sterling’s body. Frederick laid with his slain friend until morning, when reinforcements arrived. It was supposed to be Frederick’s last day in battle.
Frederick was pulled back to the present. He stood, alone, forty feet in front of his men. He stared at his company, with his back to the enemy. Then, he slowly raised his arm, and a weight much greater than that of his rifle was suddenly upon him. As if Sterling himself was pushing down on Fredrick. After a few seconds, he gave in, dropped his hand, and signaled his men to charge.
As the soldiers yelled and stampeded towards the fight, Frederick felt the chilling breeze of legs and shoulders brush by his body. Fredrick froze. The weight was still on him. He continued to gaze at the mud and grass where his men had just stood, the vast desolation and destruction stretching back miles until it became tangled up with the horizon.
Then he saw the land for what it was: Home. Not just for those who had inhabited the brick and wood houses, but for Frederick and his men as well. This place of smoke and fire had once been a thriving town, with women, children and husbands. Just like Frederick’s hometown, they had bakeries, pubs and grocers. His men had turned this town into a battle station, removing stores for “strategic positions.” Frederick paused. “I’m coming, old friend.”
Through tear-filled eyes, Frederick now had clear vision. He was witnessing what many would never glimpse again and he found it beautiful. The sun shined bright in Frederick’s face as it began to crawl beneath the land. It was making one last push to give the earth some warmth and light. She needs it, Fredrick thought.
A sudden chill sprinted down his spine as Frederick finally pulled his eyes away from the glow and turned to join his family in battle. He felt a shadow creeping over his shoulders as he strangled the neck of his rifle.
It was at that moment Fredrick began his charge toward the gates of Hell.