DINNERS IN WARTIME
Pour me some of that. I'm going to tell you something. You were the first person I really saw on the train on the way to the front. You, in your kit just like everyone's kit. You, in your beret just like everyone's beret. You, with your face that barely showed a beard, your eyes lightless and bleary like the eyes of a starved roadside dog.
We were all eighteen and they told us we could win this. I already knew they were lying, because of my kid brother. Never wrong, that kid. You reminded me of him right away, with your lightless look.
You, yes, you, with your name stitched over the pocket: Valdemar, like a half-dozen other Valdemars in our battalion, only I recognized the defeat in you. It made me shoulder into you when we lit our smokes from the same match, you and me and Rikardo, all of our coats caped out to hide the light.
It made us go together over the top.
Once you've gone over the top with someone there's no going back. We were forged together then, in the crucible of shellfire and tracer-lights and pillared smoke. You were my new brother, just like the other one but less dead.
Maybe I never even saw you before that. Maybe I'm just remaking the past in our image, because I'm a storyteller. I'm telling you this story right now about how we met. You aren't going to stop me, not until we run out of drink.
Would it have been different with any of those other Valdemars? How many of them are still around?
The first we'll hear of our army's utter rout will be a few seconds of crackling speech on the radio, in between the nostalgic waltzes they've been playing all winter. We'll miss it because we'll be drunk and talking bullshit, you and me and Rikardo.
The radio will repeat it though. Repeat it until we all hear it, even the drunkest of us.
If we miss it tonight, we'll find out in the morning, in the ash-grey dawn.
There's no way we'll be allowed to miss it for good.
We'll gather again after that, like we always do. You'll be silent, and you'll drink. You've been that way since I met you, and now you'll be that way even more.
Rikardo, he'll be louder. We'll all double down and be more of what we've always been, right? I wish we could be different. We'll keep being what we are, even though it isn't working out for us.
Anyway, Rikardo will tell us it's not over while there's one of us above ground. He'll tell us how he's heard of these guys, these secret guys with a bunker somewhere, and we can join them, and we can still fight.
We'll waste a lot of time getting drunker and drunker before we finally agree with Rikardo. But we will, because come on, it's Rikardo. He made us both hang panties off the busts of the Heads of State that one time, remember? He got us to steal that parachute we still sleep under. We'd follow Rikardo fucking anywhere. Even down the rabbit hole of our defeat.
Here's a bit I can't figure. Will it be just the three of us? I mean, you know Rikardo, always showing up with some guy in surplus kit, some flute player from the conservatory, some kid so young he barely needs to shave. Anyone with a story. Anyone without a dime.
I'll bet he shows up with a woman this time. Even odds: you'll take it? I'm calling her Tasmina. She'll have lipstick she's made herself from fish-scales and lard and beet juice. She'll get me to come to the bathroom with her so she can try to figure me, and I'll go with her, and I'll hang back while she dolls up. Maybe splash some water over my bare scalp.
She might give me advice about how to do my eyebrows. If she does, I might spit in the sink.
You can make up whatever you want about what will happen if Rikardo shows up with a man instead. I'm sticking with Tasmina, because now I've made her up, I'm making her someone I could get to like. She might be the kind of woman who has a flask in her purse. When we're in the bathroom, she might share it with me.
So here's the next bit. We'll all be suffering the fucking hangover of all hangovers. Our defeat will seem even worse like that, in the ash-grey morning, with bile burning our assholes and crawling up our throats. We know it makes everything worse, and we fucking do it anyway. We deserve our defeat, losers like us, the whole fucking Army of us, even the ones who haven't yet had their dishonourable discharge.
By the time you were sent down, you told me, half your squad was Restricted to Quarters and the other half was on Extra Duties. I was an early adopter, me; got my discharge before it was popular. I waited around for you, though, Valdemar. And we ended up here together again, you and me and Rikardo.
And we'll make some room for Tasmina.
So we'll wake up by degrees, have a puke. We'll roll out of our moth-eaten blankets, out from under the draped folds of our parachute. We'll wipe our asses with the pages of old novels. Rikardo will tell Tasmina to make some coffee, and if she's worth anything at all, she'll throw her square-heeled shoe at that shithead.
So you'll make the coffee. Right? Come on, Valdemar, don't be a prick. Say you'll make the coffee.
We'll drink it and wince at the way it wrenches our guts, and... look, shut up. I like making fun of people with hangovers, even when it's us.
Rikardo will have his bag packed. He probably has it packed right now. Me, I don't have much anymore. I'll pack my quadrant and my spirit stove and whatever food we have kicking around the cupboards. I'll scour the place for socks, if I can get upright before you do. I don't care whose name is on them, once they're in my pack they're my fucking socks.
Rikardo won't give us the directions. He'll say he's got them all in his head, but I'll catch him sneaking a peek at a map drawn on a torn book-cover or the wrapper of a rations pack.
He'll lead us north through the empty part of the city, and it will take us fucking forever to walk over all those broken-up roads in our broken-down boots. It will take us days, or maybe nights, depending on how thoroughly the enemy occupies us.
If we have to sneak around at night, Rikardo will have some kind of half-assed plan to darken our faces and hands. Maybe we'll use Tasmina's lipstick.
I'll try to take the map off Rikardo while he's sleeping one time, but he'll roll over and sigh and I'll back right off. Rikardo looks like a kid when he sleeps, like my kid brother, the one who died the night before he was supposed to report for duty.
He took his own life, my kid brother. Didn't even start to fight. He was the king of accepting defeat, that kid. Set an example for us all.
You know what? All the travel stuff, I'm going to skip it. Pretend I just made up months of shit about hiding in cornfields. Pretend we were helped by a sympathetic widow or something, and she gave us fresh-churned butter and flatcakes. Pretend we hid in her barn while the enemy questioned her. Make it as brutal as you want.
It doesn't matter what we find on that road. We'll keep going forward until that road ends.
Hey! It will end at the secret bunker. Rikardo will turn out to be right, for once in his misbegotten life. Let's drink to that! The secret people running the resistance will be there waiting for us, right where he said they would be. Right where his hand-drawn secret map said. Because Rikardo will have held onto that thing through all our travels, and it will be drawn right, and it won't get wet and no one will bleed on it.
And Rikardo will still be alive to carry it. Neither of us will have to take that secret map from the inner pocket of his coat, off his cooling body, after we get strafed hiding in a hedgerow.
The secret resistance people—okay, Rikardo said they were guys, but he's not telling this. I am. And I say there will be some women there. Maybe some like me. Anyway, the secret resistance people will be there, and they'll have something, like a munitions depot. Or no, I know, one of those big guns that never made it to the front. That would be fucking amazing, right? They'll have one of the big guns that got decommissioned, and they'll have some kind of gun genius to fix it back up. And this lady—come on, yeah, she's a lady—this gun genius lady will get that big gun all ready to fire.
And we'll bring them the firing solution, you and me and Rikardo. And Tasmina. Maybe it will be Tasmina, maybe that's why Rikardo brought her along in the first place. She'll be the one who knows the coordinates of the enemy base where the generals all live, where they relax underground and drink their cognac and move around miniature horses on a table of maps.
So it won't end at the secret bunker. Maybe it won't end at all. You and me and Rikardo and Tasmina will just keep going, hedgerow to barn to ruined house. We'll learn to boil spruce tips in melted snow. Maybe lose a couple of toes.
You'll get thin, thinner than you are today, even. I'll be able to see the gristle through the skin when I see you without your shirt, when we're breaking the ice in a cattle-trough together, and you're splashing the salt off the hair beneath your arms. We'll press our shoulders together against the chill, only it won't help, because the chill will be everywhere.
We might make it all the way to the northern border. Maybe then Rikardo will admit he lost the map.
Here's what I really think. It's too late in the day to bullshit any more. I can't even pay for this, I hope you know.
Here's what it will be. It's not going to look any different from how it looks right now.
You getting this? Defeat isn't going to change anything for us. You, Rikardo, me. Tasmina too, if she ends up existing.
My kid brother, he knew. He wrote me a letter on the torn cover of a novel. I still have it. Imagine that. All these years I've carried it with me, and it didn't get wet and no one bled on it.
I know it by heart, anyway.
King of accepting defeat, that kid. Has us all beat.
He put a bullet through his own heart. Hard to do, right? But he hadn't had his gun long enough to know that, so he just went ahead and did it.
Said in his letter he knew the enemy would've done it for him if he just waited a few weeks, but he had this bullet already in his hand and he liked the colour of its jacket better.
That kid, right?
All these years of war I've carried him with me. Next to my own heart. Mine started beating funny right about that time, only it wasn't enough to get me a discharge—that took me a few years and a bunch of fuckups.
My heart still beats funny. I guess it never meant anything.
I don't know why we're all waiting. My brother had it right, way back at the beginning of the war, and here we are, still getting up in the morning like losers. I mean, come on, Rikardo's secret resistance guys? Does he even remember where he heard that?
And you, you just keep filling your glass.
I know what that look means. You're waiting for me.
You've been waiting for me since the beginning. Haven't you, Valdemar? You were the only Valdemar in our battalion already wearing that tired stare on the morning we left for the front.
It reminded me of him, of my kid brother. In those early days I was afraid I'd forget his face. That's probably why I went over the top with you.
I already know why you went over the top with me. You just didn't want to go by yourself.
I don't know how long I'll make you wait. It's been this long, right? We keep gathering here, night after night after night. We keep ordering drinks and potatoes and anonymous meat.
Rikardo and I tell stories and you listen. You keep your glass full and you only open your mouth to pour drink in it.
Here's the thing about our defeat. It hasn't happened yet.
I mean, it will. My kid brother called it. He must have been right, because if he wasn't right, then he killed himself for nothing.
Only I'm waiting to hear it on the crackling radio, in between songs from fifty years ago. I'm waiting for them to say the actual words. We won't miss it. If we do, they'll put it on again.
We'll have time, before the occupation forces come. Before Rikardo gets dragged out and shot for mouthing off. Before Tasmina, or whoever, has to take a job washing floors in a manor house full of enemy generals.
Before you and I finally meet each other's eyes and go over the top together one more time.
I don't have my brother's grace. I'll make you wait a while longer. Until the announcer comes on between waltzes and there's only one story to tell.
For now it's just us at the scarred table, accordion music on the radio, blackout curtains, lamplight and another bottle of wine.
CLAIRE HUMPHREY is the author of Spells of Blood and Kin (St Martin's Press, 2016). Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Crossed Genres, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle. Her short story ''Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot'' appeared in the Lambda Award-nominated collection Beyond Binary, and her short story "The Witch Of Tarup" was published in the critically acclaimed anthology Long Hidden.