by Ara Crae
Michael was always there for him. And he had to watch him die. Newly updated and revised!
He was swimming in a searing pit of fire. Thousands of knives seemed to stab his side, unending, unyielding. He could feel the blood streaming in crimson tendrils down his side-pulsating over his hip and cascading down his leg. The chatter of artillery and the hiss and whistles of flying shrapnel contrasted jarringly with the screams of pain and fear. Dust and smoke filled his throat, strangling him.
He couldn't breathe! He couldn't see! He was going to die! No! No!
Cool hands caressed his forehead, poured something bitter down his throat. The pain lessened a little-and then lacerated him as the internal fire returned. Trench walls filled his vision. Walls lined with thousands of wooden ladders, slimy with mud and grime. The gun felt heavy in his hands, the metal of its stock cold against the pads of his fingers. His insides were empty but for the iron knot of terror that pulsed somewhere in his throat.
Someone was speaking to him, his voice reassuring.
"Hey, Jase, have you fallen asleep on your feet?"
It was! Michael was alive! His sun-browned face was split in an easy grin. He was moving confidently-fearlessly-toward one of the trench walls. He followed Michael progress with his eyes. Fingers of eyes gripped his insides as his gaze swept up to the top of the trench. Someone was crouching there. A man in uniform who was clutching a grenade in his huge, powerful hands.
Fear locked inside him. He opened his mouth to warn Michael, but a volley of agony ripped through him cutting off his voice in a harsh gasp. Michael was still moving-still smiling-ready to greet his killer as his friend.
Why couldn't he see the grenade?
Again, he tried to warn Michael; again agony bowed him in half so that he could only watch helplessly.
The man extended his hand. The grenade sparkled in the cruel sunlight. Michael grasped it...
Oh dear God, no! Please don't let Michael die! Please God!
And then Michael body exploded. Blood spurted across the trench, raining down on him, and the agony seemed to triple in its menace.
Michael. Michael! Dear God, please, no!
Soothing voices; another gulp of bitter liquid, followed by something sweet and syrupy; and then darkness....
Faces in the darkness.
Figures in the shadows.
Running, pursued by Michael's murderer.
One stumbles and could not regain her footing. As she glanced back, Jason saw her face.
Lara! No! Not Lara!
They were losing ground, stumbling, gulping for air. Their pursuer was relentless. He was gaining ground, closing in, taking aim...
Please God, don't take her away from me!
He struggled to lunge forward, but his legs did not obey him. Tongues of fire engulfed him, coupled with the pain that insisted on holding him prisoner. He tried to cry out, in pain, in warning. His tongue remained immobile. His mouth wouldn't open. He tried to close his eyes against the horrific sight. They remained stubbornly open, as though his eyelids were held up by invisible hands.
The soldier fired.
The report of the shots tore the air apart.
One by one, they were gunned down.
And all he could do was watch.
Please God, no! No!
Gentle hands encircling him. Drying the tears that streamed from his eyes and the sweat that coursed down his limbs. Cool water down his throat, across his forehead. Bitter liquid; sweet liquid; water; and then a thick, rich substance that seemed to fill the great empty hole that was his stomach.
The fire inside him fading, cooling.
Voices, spiraling around him in a dizzying pattern.
Blackness, opaque and dreamless...
Jason opened his eyes to a world of white. His throat felt like sandpaper; his eyes stung from the tendrils of sweat that flowed from his temples. He clenched his hands, forcing his eyes to focus. A blank, sturdy ceiling loomed over him. Opaque curtains veiled the remainder of his surroundings. Something soft was attempting to cradle his throbbing body. He struggled to get a better look at where he was, rolling his head form side to side.
A fresh wave of agony attacked him as he moved. Lines of fire shot up his leg and curled around his side, berating his restlessness. He tried to cry out, but only a soft moan, like the cry of a dying animal, escaped his lips. Voices tangled together above him, soft yet distinguishable through the haze of pain.
"He should survive an amputation." A masculine voice, strong and authoritative. Jason struggled to sit up, working his elbows gingerly against his sides. What amputation was he talking about? Who's amputation?
"Is that really necessary?" Another voice asked. A female this time, low and sweet.
"It could be was have no choice." The first voice was firm. "Better to loose a leg than to die of gangrene."
"At least he's still alive," the third voice was brusque and emotionless. "If he survives, perhaps he can be sent back to the trenches-or home, if he loses his leg."
"He's lucky that is all he could lose." replied the first voice. "He could have lost a lot more."
"That's true." The emotionless voice agreed. "He could have been like his friend."
Like his friend. Reality slammed into Jason like a grenade. His mind clicked into focus; he was in a hospital. He had been sent to the trenches. Michael had been with him then. Michael should be here with him now. But he wasn't. Michael would never be near him again.
Because Michael was dead.
The voices were talking again, floating over him like mist.
"He could be honorably discharged, couldn't he?"
"Is there a vacancy in another hospital? He could recuperate there."
"Probably best if we sent him home...Lucky to escape with his life."
Jason closed his eyes. He wanted to forget; escape this bitter reality he was being forced to live through; to die; anything to get away. They could say what they wanted. He didn't care.
The brusque voice was closer now next to his bed. Jason didn't move. He kept his eyes closed. Perhaps, if he stayed still, they would leave him alone.
"Private Jason Frazier," The voice was quietly insistent. "Can you hear me?"
Reluctantly, Jason opened his eyes. The man staring down at him was broad, both at his shoulders and his waist. He was dressed in the uniform of a field medic, his sleeves streaked with blood. His face was agate hard and grizzly with stubble, but his tired eyes were kind.
"Yes?" His voice sounded strange to his own ears, hollow and rough, as though his throat was coated with rust.
"We removed what shrapnel we could from your leg, and patched up your side the best we know how. But there is a possibility your leg will have to be removed. If that possibility becomes a reality, then you will be honorably discharged and returned home. If not, you will be returned to service after you recuperation."
"Where?" The word came out of Jason's mouth before he could stop it. The medic blinked in surprise. Jason swallowed and made himself repeat the question.
"Where-will you send me?"
"That decision is not up to me," Was the medic's brisk answer.
"You could be sent anywhere from the trenches to another hospital, depending on your condition. But you go where they send you. You are expected to do your duty and follow orders."
The medic allowed himself a grim smile, perhaps for Jason's benfit. "No heroics. Do you understand, private?"
Jason's nod was automatic. He wasn't going back no matter what anyone said. Not to the trenches; not home. Not without Michael.
Michael was gone.
Michael blinked the sweat out of his eyes, maneuvering his feet in one smooth, fluid motion. He rolled the ball between his hands, keeping his eyes locked on his opponent. Jason grinned at him, tensing his own body in defense. Michael feinted right; then twisted his body away from Jason He leaped into the air and releasing the ball in one fluid competent motion. The ball performed a full circle around the rim before dropping into the basket.
Michael grinned at his best friend.
"We need to work on your defense, Jase. Either that, or figure out what distracted you this time."
Jason grinned back.
"Distracted, my foot! I'm just not the athletic type."
"Right." Michael retrieved the ball and passed it to Jason. "Here."
Jason caught it, looking confused.
"What are you doing?"
"Free throw." Michael grinned. "I won't get in your way. I promise."
Jason bent his knees, gripping the ball in both hands. He wriggled his nose to push his glasses back into place, trying to focus on the net, and not Michael's body, swift enough to knock the ball out of his hands before he even began his jump shot.
Michael was watching him closely, looking for the slightest hesitation, the merest stumble. But Jason wouldn't allow it.
He cleared his mind of everything but the ball, the basket, and his own two feet. Michael ceased to exist. And then Jason was moving. He could see Michael closing in on him out of the corner of his eye, and slammed into him with all the force he could muster. Michael dropped to the ground as Jason threw himself into the air, shooting the ball toward the basket. It swished through the net with hardly a sound.
Michael got to his feet, breathing hard. He was grinning.
"If you're not the athletic type, I don't know what you are."
"It was a lucky shot."
"Of course it was." Michael threw an arm around Jason's shoulders. "Watch your defense though. If you slam into someone like that on a real court, you'll get kicked off the team."
"What team?" Jason grinned. "I'm not getting on a team."
"Oh for Pete's sake, Jase! You're a senior in high school, and you're still not involved in anything."
"Why should I be? I'm not athletic, I can't play anything short of the drumsticks, and--"
"You don't have to go out for sports or music Jase. You just have to do something impressive enough that you'll catch the attention of the ladies."
"Or else I'll leave the school as a nobody, right?"
"Exactly." Michael threw himself onto the lawn, his eyes gleaming up at him.
Jason shook his head.
"I don't know Michael. Maybe I like being a nobody. "
"Aw, come on. At the very least, you could submit some of your writing to the paper."
"Right. And I'm sure people would love to read it. Get real, Michael, nobody likes my stuff."
"You're my best friend; you don't count."
Before Jason could answer, the door across the street opened and a girl of about fourteen came out onto the porch. She was Jason's little sister, Lara. She moved across to the end of the lawn.
"Jason! Dad wants you home."
Jason's body tensed. He turned to Michael. "See you tomorrow. I gotta go."
Michael nodded and watched him cross the street. Jason's back was tight with apprehension. When he reached his sister, he put an arm around her, pressing her protectively against his side. Michael watched them go in to the house, then turned and tried another jump shot. The ball bounced off the rim and plopped onto the cement in front of him.
Michael tossed his ball into a corner of the garage and went into the kitchen. It was spotlessly clean as usual. A small smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. Amalia had been at it again. She had run the house ever since her marriage, when Michael's mother had decided to devote her time to the war effort. His father had left when Michael was little, and so it was Amalia and her husband, David, that Michael spent the most time with.
He moved over to the sink, taking a cup from the cupboard on the way. Like the rest of the kitchen, the sink had been bleached white. A bowl of fresh apples stood next to it. The late afternoon sunlight played across their polished skins, inviting, enticing. Michael reached out to take one.
"Don't be dirtying dishes before we eat, Michael."
He jumped guiltily and turned. His older sister stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips. Amalia Wright stood at least a foot shorter than her brother. But what she lacked in size, she made up for in spirit and discipline.
At her best, she was exceedingly generous and in danger of spoiling her younger brother. She loved Michael with a fierceness that was rivaled only by her rigid rules. Michael let a guilty grin play over his face.
"Why Mellie, I didn't expect to see you here-at this time."
Amalia's eyes glittered with mock anger.
"Don't you try and use that on me, Michael Wright. I am not one of the girls you can sweep off their feet; only David can do that."
Michael's grin widened.
"Now Melli, whatever gave you the impression that I'm trying to sweep you off your feet?"
Amalia raised her eyebrows.
"You're my baby brother; that's reason enough. You can eat and drink when it is time. Not before; not after."
She moved toward him, holding out her hand. Mischief twinkled in her eyes.
"Now be a good little boy, and give me the apple."
Michael retreated from her, hiding the apple behind his back.
"Michael." Amalia's tone held a note of warning.
Michael blinked innocently at her.
"I'm not your mother." Amalia grinned at him. "Give me the apple."
Michael sighed, continuing to play his role as guilty little boy.
He pulled the apple out from behind him back and took a large bite before handing it to his sister. Amalia glared at him.
"Dinner is in half an hour."
Michael threw her a mock salute.
"I am not your mother!"
Amalia's retort followed him as he went out the door.
Jason was visibly limping as he wheeled his bike out to join Michael. Michael looked at him with concern.
"It's ok," Jason answered his cousin's silent question. "I'm just a little sore from last night, that's all."
Michael didn't believe him, but he said nothing until they reached the school bike rack.
"Basketball tryouts are tomorrow."
Jason rolled his eyes at his cousin as he lifted his bag out of the back of his bike. "Michael, I told you, I'm not going out for sports."
"Why not? You've got the talent for it." Michael gave Jason a playful slug on the shoulder.
Jason winced aloud. His face pulled tight in a grimace as he lifted his schoolbag higher on his shoulders. Michael stared at him.
"You're sure you're ok?"
"I told you, Michael." Jason looked defensive. "It's nothing; I'm fine."
Michael scrutinized Jason's body. At the base of his neck and just below the sleeves of his shirt, Michael could see dark, discolored imprints on Jason's skin.
Michael lowered his voice so that passers-by wouldn't hear. "How much did your father drink last night?"
Jason said nothing.
"Enough to beat you again?" Michael pressed.
Still, Jason was silent. That was enough for Michael.
"Jason! Why do you let him do that to you?"
Jason sighed, pushing his glasses back up on his nose. He looked at his watch, avoiding Michael's eyes. "Listen, I'll see you after school."
He moved swiftly away, still favoring his left foot. Michael kept his gaze on him until he was out of sight. As he readjusted his pack on his back, something rattled beneath his foot. Michael stooped down to pick it up. It was a piece of paper, crumpled and torn, covered with an untidy scrawl that he recognized as Jason's. Carefully, his smoothed it out. The letters were smudged and hastily scribbled over the ruled lines, as though they had been written in a hurry. There were also several puncture marks, as though the pencil had jabbed through the paper in haste or anger.
The words were simple enough, but the emotion behind them hit Michael like a physical blow. They stayed with him throughout the rest of the day, worming into his head, curling inside his brain determined to plague him until we was able to see Jason again.
Except that Jason wasn't there after school. Michael biked home alone. As he pulled up in his driveway, he gaze flicked to Jason's house. Lara sat on the porch, her chin cupped in her hands. In the sunlight, her hair gleamed like mahogany. She looked up as he approached her, her face lighting in a brilliant smile. The sight of that smile did funny things to Michael's stomach. He sat down beside her.
She shrugged. "I thought he was with you."
Michael shook his head. He pulled Jason's poem out of his pocket.
"Have you seen this?"
To his surprise, Lara nodded. "I saw him writing that last night." she bit her lip. "Dad harangued him pretty hard."
"He do that often?" Michael tried to keep his tone nonchalant as the words form Jasons poem played across his brain.
"Not very," Lara wasn't looking at him. Her eyes were veiled, as though she was reciting at state of fact, and one she accepted. It astonished Michael how calm she could be about her father. There was no anger in her voice, no fear, no resignation. Just acceptance and an understanding. And her eyes were extraordinary.
"Does he ever beat you?"
Her mouth pulled tight in a grim smile. She didn't answer.
Michael shook his head.
"I don't see how you can stand that. Why do you stay here? Couldn't you and Jason go somewhere else?"
Her eyebrows rose. "Where would we go?"
Instead of answering, Michael was furious to find himself blushing. This was ridiculous. There was no need to go all morkish over something as simple as a simple offer of help. Why was he behaving like such an idiot? This was Jason's little sister for Pete's sake, not some coquettish doll intent on being swept off her feet.
"Why stay here?" It was a stupid thing to ask. Michael knew it was before the question was fully out of his mouth. If they did leave, for all Michael knew, Jason's father would not only take his rage out on Jason and Lara, but possibly Michael as well.
Lara looked at him.
"Because he's our father." She said simply.
They sat in silence for several minutes. Lara's gaze went back to the street, while Michael's eyes flicked between her face and Jason's poem in his hands.
"Does Jason always write after your father beats him?" He asked cautiously.
"Sometimes. But he writes other things two, not just that poem. Has he shown you any?"
"Has he shown you any of his stories?"
"Stories?" Michael looked surprised. "Jason writes stories?"
Lara's nod was enthusiastic. "I'll show you, if you like."
Without waiting for his reply, she rose and darted into the house, returning a few minutes later carrying a leather bound notebook in her hands. Michael stared at it. "What is it?"
"One of his stories. I think it's his best. He doesn't write his stories and poems in the same notebooks," she continued at the sight of Michael's puzzled face. "He likes to keep them separate.
"I don't think he'll mind if you read it, though." She sat down, a little closer to Michael this time. "He's been working on this one for ages."
Michael took the notebook, squinting as the sun's rays flashed against the white paper, nearly blinding him. Jason's writing was tidier than it had been on his poem. The words were smoothly formed, curving easily from one letter to another.
The words in the story had the same powerful effect on Michael as the words in the poem. They grasped his imagination, guiding him into another world. He could still feel Lara's presence beside him, and the weight of the notebook in his hands, but they seemed inconsequential. All that seemed to matter was the fictional life being played out before him.
Which is why the sounds of Jason clearing his throat startled him so much. Michael's head jerked upright and Lara scooted away from him, her face flushing. Jason moved toward them, dropping his bag on the pavement.
"Did Lara give you that?" His voice sounded forcibly casual.
Michael had the grace to look guilty. Lara spoke up.
"I didn't think you would mind, Jason. Michael likes your poems, so I thought he'd like to read one of your stories, too."
Michael held up the notebook. "You write all this?"
"Where'd you get the ideas?"
"Out of my head."
"Really?" Michael looked incredulous. "You gonna submit any of it?"
"To the paper you mean?" Jason shook his head. "Heck, no."
"Who-other than you-would want to read my rot?"
Lara looked up at him. "Jason, your stories are wonderful."
Jason grinned and put an affectionate arm around her shoulder. "Maybe to you. My little sister and my best friend are bound to think anything I do is 'wonderful'."
Michael was staring at him. "So you're not going to submit this to the paper?"
Jason shrugged. "Why should I?"
"Because it's that good!"
"Michael, be serious."
"I am being serious. I can't think of anybody in their right mind who wouldn't want to read this." Michael's voice softened. "Look Jase, I think I know why you won't do it. It's because of your dad, isn't it? You been told every day of your life that your worthless. You and I both know that that's bull. And you can use this to prove it!"
"Yeah," Jason's voice was tinged with sarcasm. "Piece of cake. They'll love it."
"Why do you care so much about what other people think?" Michael waved the notebook at Jason for emphasis. "Most people don't know a thing about writing, so if some dingbat hates your stuff, who cares?"
Jason hesitated. Michael sat back, and there was determination in his eyes.
"If you don't submit it, Jason, I will."
Jason's fingers were sweating as he approached the closed door. All around him, he could hear his fellow students rushing out toward their bikes and cars, eager to get out of school. Michael would be one of them.
His best friend's words had stuck in Jason's head. He had said Jason had talent before, and he'd read his stuff, but he'd never threatened Jason into submitting anything to the paper. Michael had never threatened Jason with anything-friendly or otherwise.
Jason swallowed. The paper in his hand was damp and stuck to the pads of his fingers. He raised his free hand to turn the handle, and paused. What if they didn't like it? What if he humiliated himself in there, handing them a pile of rubbish that they would throw away as soon as he was out the door?
He quashed the image of his story at the bottom of a rubbish bin. He was being stupid. All he had to do was walk in there, hand whoever was in the room his stuff, and high tail it out of there. Or-
Jason dropped to his knees, tapping the stack of papers lightly against he thigh so that they were even. He took a breath, then stuffed them under the door before he could think better of it. He levered himself to his feet and dashed down that hall without looking back.
Michael braked and leaped off his bike it one fluid movement. Automatically, his eyes flicked to Jason's house. As usual, the curtains were tightly drawn across the windows, and the porch was bare. Lara ought to be sitting on the porch waiting for Jason. But she wasn't.
Michael felt a strange mixture of emotions welling up inside him. Confusion, because Lara was not outside, waiting for Jason; anxiety for the reason why she was not there; curiosity as to where she was and why; and a mounting self frustration for all of the above mentioned emotions.
For heaven's sake! She was Jason's sister! The target of thousands of pranks committed by both Jason and himself; the pesky shadow of Jason during the summer; the little waif that didn't so much as say boo to him the first few months after Michael moved in. Why the heck did it matter so much to him that she was not where she was supposed to be?
Michael realized with a start that he had crossed the street without realizing it. He was standing directly in front of Jason's house. Well, since he was here, he might as well see if he could find Lara. After all, he rationalized, he had nothing else to do. Logically, if Lara wasn't on the porch, she would be inside. He moved silently along the side of the house toward the back door.
Unlike the front, the back yard of Jason's house was a study in light and shadow. Thick trunked oak and maple trees formed a natural boundary between the neighboring houses both on either side and in the back. The shadows cast by the thick foliage of the trees were thickened by those cast by the wide eaves of the house, which extended out over the back porch. Could Lara be back here?
Michael halted, softly calling her name. When there was no answer, he tried again, a little louder this time. Still no response. He was just about to go around the other side of the house when quite sound made him pause. Michael hesitated, turning back around. He narrowed his eyes against the shade of the yard, squinting into the shadows. And then he heard it again: a quite sob hastily muffled. Michael moved forward half a step, and stopped. Lara sat huddled against one of the trees, hugging her body as though for warmth, her face half hidden from view.
"Lara!" Michael moved swiftly forward, his face tightening with concern.
She lifted her head, and Michael started. Her eyes were red rimmed, and he would see trails of moisture down her cheeks. Her hair was disheveled, and she cradled one arm in the opposite hand. Michael knelt beside her.
"Are you all right?"
She swallowed hard. "I'm-I'm all right."
"Let me see," Michael reached out toward her, taking her arm in his hands. Lara pressed her lips together as Michael brought her arm into the light. Even in the semi-darkness, he could see several distinct patches of darker skin, each in the rough outline of fingers. They were bruises. Michael raised his eyes to meet Lara's.
"Where did you get these?"
She didn't have a chance to answer. There was a clatter from the other side of the house and Jason bust into the back yard, his face flushed, his hair windblown, gasping for breath. He skidded to a halt at the sight of Lara and Michael. Michael was holding one of Lara's arms, which he dropped like a hot iron at the sight of Jason. Odd. This was the second time he had caught them alone together. He moved toward them, a wide grin spreading across his lips. The grin faded when he saw Lara's face.
"What happened?" Lara didn't answer. Automatically, Jason reached forward, taking the arm that Michael had dropped. His entire body tensed at the sight of the bruises.
"Dad do this to you?"
Lara nodded. Jason let out a growl like a threatened animal. "Where is he?"
"Inside," she whispered.
Jason nodded. "I'll be back. You stay outside, do you hear me?"
Again, she nodded. Jason got to his feet, almost running toward the house. Michael followed him. When they were out of Lara's hearing range, he spoke.
"That's why you let him do it, isn't it?"
Jason glanced up, a distracted look in his eyes. "What?"
"That's why you let your dad beat you." Michael repeated. "So he won't hurt Lara."
Jason relaxed slightly. He nodded.
"If I don't d it, who will?"
Jason lay flat on his back, his fists knotting the sheets. Someone was speaking to him again, her voice low and comforting.
"Jason? Private Frazier?"
He turned his head. A girl was standing beside his bed, her dark hair pulled back behind her face, dark gray eyes gentle with concern. Jason's heart skipped a beat. Lara! What was she doing here? She should be at home, not in a hospital. She should be safe, not so close to-Jason's eyes abruptly focused. She wasn't Lara. She was a nurse, the same one who had spoken to him earlier. He could see the bloodstains that marked her uniform and her peaked hat, like a snow capped mountain on her head. She bent over him, her voice filled with the same concern that was reflected in her eyes.
He turned his head toward her, but said nothing. He didn't trust his voice.
"They're going to remove your leg." She whispered. "They want to prevent gangrene. It's the only way to ensure your survival. Do you understand?"
He stared at her. What made her think he would want to survive? Why would he want to go on without Michael? He felt her hand on his face, cool against his skin. She was smoothing his har back.
He flinched at the sound of his name. Her voice sounded so much like Lara's. She was looking at him now, waiting for his response.
"Yes?" It came out little more than a breath.
"Is there anything I can do for you? To help you?"
He didn't say anything.
"Can I make you more comfortable?" she pressed. "Or is there anyone I can write to? Anyone who'd like to hear from you back home?"
Jason's body went rigid. His breath caught hard in his chest. The sheets bunched out around his stiff fingers. His hand whipped out and grasped her wrist. She flinched but did not step back.
"Yes!" his voice was a desperate whisper. "Lara. Write to her. Tell her-"
What? The truth? Or simply that Michael was dead, and not the reason why? Surely she would need to know that much? Would she blame him if she knew? Of course not! She needed to know Michael was dead. Michael would want that. Lara needed to know.
Lara had loved him.
It was not until the draft came out that Michael feeling for Lara-and Lara's feelings for him-became blatantly obvious. Surprisingly, both Jason and Michael were assigned to report to the same location. They had been assigned the same company; they were both to be sent to the trenches. Naturally, Lara accompanied them to see them off. As they reached the station, Michael and Lara pulled ahead, leaving Jason to make his way across the platform alone.
He had been all for catching up to them when Michael stopped. He turned to Lara and began to speak to her in a low voice. Intrigued, Jason moved closer, pressing himself against a nearby wall, straining his ears to hear over the general hubbub on the platform.
"I'll kill one for every hair on your head," Michael was saying, quietly.
"Don't say that." Lara's voice was equally soft.
"Isn't that what you want?"
She shook her head. "I don't want you to end up like my dad."
Michael's hand brushed her cheek.
"Lara, you know I won't-"
She put a finger to his lips. "I just want you and Jason back safe."
Michael moved closer to her, his hands moving from her shoulders to her face.
"Lara," his voice was a mere thread of sound. And then he was kissing her, long and hard. Lara's body tensed in surprise, then relaxed as she responded just as enthusiastically as the kiss had been offered. Her own hands traced their way up his shoulders and into his hair.
Jason forced his mouth back into its properly closed position and beat a hasty retreat. Once he'd gone a sufficient distance down the platform, he did an about face and returned to the place where Michael and Lara still stood. Jason cleared his throat.
Lara sprang away from Michael like a scalded cat, color flooding up her face. The movement was so fast that she almost lost her balance. Michael put out a hand to steady her, his face as white as hers was red. Before either of them had a chance to speak, the train let out a piercing whistle. Looking relieved, Lara stepped hastily toward Jason, giving him a quick hug before disappearing into the crowd. As Jason and Michael moved up the platform to board the train, Jason turned to his friend. He was grinning.
"I don't think I can allow you to make passes at my sister, Michael."
Michael's face went-if possible-even whiter. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
Jason raised his eyebrows. "Unless that kiss meant something, I want you to keep away from her."
Michael started. "Kiss? What kiss?"
Jason's eyebrows threatened to disappear into his hairline. "What do you mean 'what kiss'?"
Michael dropped his eyes. "You saw that."
"Hard to miss on a crowded platform."
"I asked her to wait for me," Michael's face had gone deadly serious.
"And I take it from the kiss that she said she would. "Jason grinned. "she'd be an idiot if she said otherwise."
The scratching of the nurse's pen ceased. She was looking at him.
"Are you all right?"
Jason found it very hard to breathe, as though an immense weight rested on his chest. He nodded. Footsteps echoed in the hall: a man's footsteps. The nurse looked up from Jason's bed. She nodded once, and then her gaze went back to Jason.
"They're ready fro you now," she whispered.
"I know." Jason forced the words out. He fought to stay calm. Sweat began to cascade across his forehead and down his back, cold against his skin. He could feel the terror mounting again, rising like vomit in his throat. He closed his eyes, bracing himself for the inevitable...
Someone was shaking him, gently, insistently. He shivered, aware of the cold that bit into his body. His limbs were numb, his clothes damp with sweat and grime.
"Jase, wake up."
Jason opened his eyes, facing the muddy walls of the trench. Insects buzzed around him, feasting on his exposed skin. Michael was bending over him. He grinned as Jason struggled to his feet.
"What is it?" Jason passed a hand over his eyes, pressing the sleep out of them. All up and down the trench men were getting to their feet. The chatter of machine gun fire reached a crescendo as Jason moved closer to the wall of the trench.
Michael was already crouched beside the ladder. His hands gripped the stock of his gun so tight his knuckles were white. He smiled grimly as Jason dropped beside him.
Jason returned his grin. "You can say that again."
An ear-splitting whistle whipped through the air, followed almost instantly by a roar. Shrapnel and bits of earth showered down into the trench. Jason leaped up, swinging his gun into the firing position in one fluid movement. Without pausing to think, he fired. A choked scream met his ears as he threw himself back into the depths of the trench. He reloaded almost automatically, then surged back to his feet, sending another figure to the ground in a spurt of blood.
Beside him, Michael was grinning. Each time he leaped to his feet, he let out a whoop. His face was alight and his eyes danced like stars. Another explosion ripped through the air, sending more debris into the trench. The explosion was followed by a second; a third; a fourth. Jason was surprised to find himself flat on the trench floor, both hands over his head. The sound of the myriad explosions reached a crescendo, beating out a steady tattoo that added to the cacophony of the battle.
Michael let out a growl like a chained dog. "That's it!"
He surged upright, wrenching something from his pocket. His arm arched backward, poised to throw. Jason got up on his knees.
"Michael, what are you doing?"
Michael ignored him. "Fire in the hole!"
To Jason's surprise, Michael's cry was echoed by other voices, which reverberated up and down the trench. Jason clapped his hands over his ears as Michael's grenade soared over the trench. Michael dropped beside him with a yip of triumph. He grasped Jason's shoulder.
"You ready to run?"
Jason swallowed hard. He nodded, forcing a grin across his fear stiffened lips.
"Do I have a choice?"
Michael cast him a sympathetic look. "I know you're scared, Jase. Just run like blue blazes and you'll be fine."
"Good man," Michael clapped him on the back. "Ok. Let's go."
Jason charged up from the trench into a world of chaos. All around him, machine guns chattered like crazed birds, downing men like saplings. Blood spattered, turning the mud beneath his feet scarlet.
"Jason, what are you doing?"
Michael was shouting at him, his voice echoing as though from the end of a tunnel. His friend was behind him, giving Jason a hard shove.
"Move, Jason, or we're crow's meat!"
Jason tightened his grip on his gun, banishing the fear and nausea to the back of his throat. He forced his legs to move. His feet pounded toward the next trench, dodging the gunfire that rained down around him. He could hear Michael behind him, keeping pace, cursing everything that got in his way.
Michael was in his element. The screams of the downed men and the rattle of firearms lent energy to his body. He dodged the bodies that littered the mud, feeling exhilerationg well up inside him. The trench was just ahead. He could see Jason in front of him, only yards away from the lips of the trench.
Something glinted in the glare of the gunfire, almost directly parallel to Jason. Michael squinted. The form on the ground took more definite shape. It was a man. He lay pressed low to the ground, his face like newly carved marble. Time seemed to slow as Michael watched the man ooze onto his elbows, his fingers sliding back along his gun.
Michael's feet missed a step as he stumbled over an abandoned gun, half covered in the gunk that coating most of the men. When he glanced up, the man held something in one hand, aiming it in Jason's direction. And his arm was poised to throw.
The men opposite Jason were shouting, gesticulating. Some reached out their hands, other waved their arms. Jason doubled his pace, clearing his mind of everything but feet and trench. His feet gripped the muddy earth, spurring his body forward. The trench moved steadily closer, closer. The faces a head of him grew clear, their feature more distinct. Michael was shouting at him now, but his words were lost against the elation that was sweeping over Jason. He was going to make it! Almost there...
"Jason! Get down! Get down, now!"
Michael let the gun slide from his fingers so that he could use his arms to run. The sniper let the grenade fly. Michael threw himself forward just as the grenade arced toward the ground, between him and Jason. He leaped, slamming his body into Jason's.
His best friend's grunt of surprise reached Michael's ears just before his world exploded into fiery chaos.
Jason's body was thrown forward, driving the air from his lungs. Agony! He was being lacerated by liquid fire, tearing into his side. Mud filled his mouth. He could feel its acrid taste spreading across his tongue. Black dots danced before his eyes as he clung to consciousness.
Jason curled his tongue forward, away from his throat. He spat the mud from his mouth, surprised at the amount of effort it took. His thoughts moved sluggishly, thrown out of order by the explosion. He forced himself to think. He was in the mud-in agony-caught between two trenches: two means of safety. He had been running toward one of them, and then Michael had-
Michael! He had been behind Jason before the explosion. Where was he now?
Something in the back of his head told him to stay down. Jason quashed it and twisted painfully around, his eyes raking the body strewn expanse around him. His worry mounted as his gaze passed over one mangled form after another. Michael was not one of them.
Keeping his body flat against the ground, Jason slithered forward, locking his jaw against the pain that coursed like acid through his body. Michael had been behind him when the explosion happened. He had shoved Jason out of the way. He had protected him. Had Michael gotten out of the way in time? Perhaps he had shoved Jason out of the way and then run ahead. Was he even now crouched in the trench, waiting for enough cover fire to bring Jason to safety? Jason halted mid-crawl. Maybe that's what had happened. Then all Jason had to do was wait. Michael would come.
Jason relaxed, lying his cheek against the cooling mud. He maneuvered his limbs cautiously, trying to imitate the limp poses of the dead. Lying on his side was a mistake. Fire sang up his body. Jason's head jerked up, muffling the scream of aguish lurking in the back of his throat. And then he saw, and the scream lodged inside him.
Michael was lying prone a few feet away from him. He was face down, his arms thrown spread-eagled. His legs were twisted at odd angles beneath him. But it was his back that drew Jason's attention. Every inch-from the back of his head all the way down to his spine-was stained crimson.
Horror welled up inside Jason like nausea. He dug his elbows into the mud, dragging his agonized body forward, toward Michael's. Voices were shouting at him again and this time, he could hear them. They were yelling at him to stop, to lie flat. He ignored them. He blocked the voices, the chaos, the pain lacerating his side. One of Michael's hands was lying within reach. Jason stretched out a hand to grasp it.
As the pads of his fingers brushed Michael skin, Jason flinched, sending a line of fire shooting up his body. Michael's hand was like ice, lying flaccid and colorless against the mud. He wasn't moving. He wasn't breathing.
Please, God, no!
A silent scream was struggling to free itself from Jason's mouth. Fiery denial swept through him as his whole body went rigid as iron. His heart careened against his ribs, fighting to tell his brain what it knew. That form, lying in front of him, was not Michael. The prone body, the limp hands, the blood, were all Michael's.
They had all been Michael's.
They were not Michael's anymore.
Michael was gone.
Michael was dead.
The darkness around him receded. Images of the bare walls and glimmering footboard of his bed filled his eyes. Pain pulsated through him; a different kind of pain, physical and agonizing. Sluggishly, his fingers moved from his side down his leg. His body stiffened. He reached further down, clenching his teeth against the pain.
Jason opened his eyes. He used his free arm to lever himself upright as his roving fingers stretched further down the left side of his body. The bandages extended from the top of his thigh down to his knee. Jason leaned carefully forward, reaching beyond his knee searching for the end of the bandages. There was nothing. In a panic, Jason thrust both arms under the blankets. He pushed them aside, staring down at his legs.
The right lay perfect and whole extending toward the foot of the bed and covered in the same panicked sweat that soaked the rest of his body. His gaze moved to his left leg. It was swathed in blood-soaked bandages from his hip down to his knee. Below his knee, there was nothing. The lower half of his leg was gone.
Jason dropped back onto the pillows, not bothering to muffle the cry that was torn from his throat as his side was jarred. He felt nothing-not even sorrow-at the loss of his leg. His brain felt numb, but his body was relaxed. It had all happened then. This room was a real as the trenches. There had been a nurse speaking to him. She had written a letter to Lara for him, telling her about Michael.
[i}Michael. Challenging him to a game of one on one in his yard. Michael encouraging him to submit his writing to the paper. Michael furious at what Jason's father did to him and Lara during Jason's father's inebriated rages. Michael with Lara, kissing her on the train platform. Michael lying face down in the mud with the back half of his body blown away by a grenade. Michael dead, because he had cared about Jason, and tried to protect him. Michael. Michael!
Jason locked his jaw, willing the moisture in his eyes to stay there. He had mourned long enough. He needed to stop thinking, start doing. He had done everything for Michael. What could he do now?
Lara. Her face swam before Jason's vision like a soothing dream. Lara needed him now. She needed someone to comfort and protect her now more than ever. Jason needed to recover; to get home and take care of Lara. He needed to pick up where and Michael had left off.
Michael would want that.