23 Jul What a Lovely War
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"What a Lovely War"Written by Len Lye
Estimated reading time — 25 minutes
I hate it here.
It seems redundant to say so, I realize this. Everyone hates it here… well actually I don’t know. Maybe except Len, but he’s a freak so whatever. Shit… where are we? I keep forgetting. France? We’re still here? Shit, have we made no fuckin’ ground since last year? Why are we here? Why am I here? I haven’t seen a German in weeks. They should at least put us where we’re needed. But no I’m stuck here in my own shit and everyone else’s shit ‘cause everyone keeps shitting in the holes ‘stead of a lavatory! I really hate it here. And now I’m stuck crouching like a jackass waiting for one kraut head to pop out ‘cause we’re supposed to be on watch or somethin’ and I haven’t seen one fuckin’ German in weeks! My back hurts my feet hurt my head hurts and it smells like shit! I just wanna-
“Yo Fisher shut the fuck up!”
“I know you think you’re havin’ your cute little inner monologue there, but we can hear every fuckin’ word. Jesus Christ you’re loud!”
“Oh uhh sorry Len”
He laughs, “I’m a freak huh?”
“Well ‘scuse me for tryin’ to enjoy my little vacation here! Y’know you should be grateful, everyone dreams of seeing Europe once in their lives”
“Real funny Len”
He suddenly becomes stern, “Hey… Fisher, asshole, look at me!”
“Some of us have to keep watch Len”
“Krauts ain’t comin’ for a thousand years now look at me!”
Reluctantly, I actually do. There he was, little freak, just sitting in the shit-filled trench supposed to be keepin’ watch. But instead all day he sits by his little cave – we’ve been in this one particular trench for the better part of two months, stuck in a stalemate with a kraut platoon several hundred yards ‘cross the no man’s land. Not a single one has been even heard from in weeks, meanwhile we’ve been yelling our asses off givin’ them every fuckin’ scrap of a plan we’ve been able to piece together. We haven’t even heard from Pershing or the main force ‘round two weeks now… orders to “maintain position” without once considering we’re low on troops, ammo, and a place to shit! Nevertheless we’ve cozied up our trench here complete with little caves carved out of the mud for each soldier. Shit, are we that low on troops that we can fit in a cave for every one? Even then lot of these caves are empty… been empty a long time.
“Hey, yo asshole! Finished bitching?”
Now I was certain I was just thinking that.
“Fisher, asshole, listen to me. Callin’ me a freak is like callin’ the Germans our fuckin’ enemy. Guess what? No fuckin’ shit. I take what I am with stride, and I encourage you kids to say it straight, ‘cause if you say it any other way, it’s bullshit. What I’m really insulted at is that you called me a freak in the same breath as your adorable little rant there. We all know, it smells like shit, we feel like shit, Germans haven’t been here for weeks. That’s shit. Believe me I’m more hurt by that than anyone, see my initial desire was to apply my unique talents in liberating the European oppression for the sake of the free world, but the reluctance of both sides to actually do something has robbed me of that luxury. In that respect I hold Pershing in the same light as I do our kraut neighbors, the fuckin’ enemy-“
As much as I despised Len with every fiber of my being and knew everything he said and ever will say is absolute bullshit, I couldn’t deny that he was one of the best soldiers I had ever fought with. Most of our platoon was just kids, sorry little brats who shot up at their chance for their fifteen minutes of fame; I at least had the luxury to be above the twenty mark. But for people like Len, you knew they were meant to be soldiers from their first whining breath. People who fight with no compassion or mercy, pitiless for their adversaries, unrelenting, and above all else unconcerned for their own well-being; the day his balls first dropped and he held a knife in one hand, a pistol in the other, he knew – always knew – what he was going to do with himself, and jumped right when the shells started flying ‘cross the borders. Shit, he probably started the war himself.
Len continued, “We all have the same concerns Fisher, but the fact that you have to remind us of it every single day is not exactly appreciated. And I especially don’t appreciate the fact my name was held in the same light as your whiny little bitching. So some advice-“
After eight straight hours of crouching in this same fucking position since two a.m., I was in no fucking mood for a pep talk, “I never asked for your advice Len, so shut the fuck up”
Our sergeant was walking through. I and the rest of the company – who were rather awkwardly watching our little altercation – stood straight despite our cringed and deformed figures, courtesy of the rather uncomfortable positions involved with keeping watch. Three, however, did not stand. Two we’re Pvt. Laurel and Pvt. Harding, who understandably so had feet enlarged three times due to waterlogged bacterial infections. The other was of course Len, asshole as he was just continued to sit with his pristine collection of German helmets, always somehow managing to fit in some sort of faux drum recital at the most inappropriate of moments.
“Quiet Fisher, we can hear you”, the sergeant said, just as exhausted as we were. He then noticed Len, “Private Lye!”
Len stood up with a smirk grin, “Yessum Sergeant Sassoon?”
“Why are you not keeping watch?”
“I was just chattin’ with my friends here”
Sergeant looked at me, “Sounded more like a fight, save it for the krauts”
Len smirked wider, “Sir I didn’t mean Fisher there I meant chattin’ with my real friends”
Asshole as he was, gestured to his helmets. The sergeant sighed, exasperated; aside from me I believe serge was the only one who disliked Len, though he did clearly respect his combat expertise, something that has – I will reluctantly admit – saved both his and my ass. Rest of the company were in love, really, by my guess jerked off to him every night more than their own special someone’s they left behind. I don’t understand what it is about kids that make them flock to absolute douchebags… common heritage I suppose. ‘Course I can’t blame them, they’re good kids, but stuck in the shit – literally – for too long now; can’t have everyone be depressing and cryptic and overall unpleasant to talk to, something this war makes out of a lot of people. But something about Len, he crosses the line. Not just for the sake of clear lack of boundaries for his manner and vulgarity, but just in how he leeches into people and doesn’t let go. Keeps hammering ‘till they snap, and eagerly so; it just comes with people like Len. I’m just not going to drool over it, if these kids want to, let them be. Whatever gets them through this… anything to get them through this.
Serge then went on with his report, “Pershing has ordered the 5th Riflemen Battalion to assault the German positions at the Somme River, aided by a joint coalition of the US II Corps, Canadian and Australian Corps, and the British Third and Fourth Army!”
“Hey serge want to say that louder for the krauts to hear?”
“Don’t complain Private Lye, I’ve heard you bitching for some kills for weeks now”
He smirked rather deviously, “You know me serge, I can’t live a day without a kill”
“Since we’re closest to the basin we’ll be spearheading the charge with several Canadian battalions”
“Can Maple Leafs even fight?”
“Let’s hope so. We’re moving at 1400 hours!”
At that he marched back to his cave and we followed to our own, packing any and all of our few essentials into these shitty knapsacks that can hardly hold a lunch. Time for the breakdown, same inventory check I’ve been making every day. Canteen, check, ration, check, disinfectant, check, flask, check, extra clips, check, knife, check, pipe grenade, check, mustard gas, check. Feather … funny. I almost counted the feather. I couldn’t help staring at it for the better part of a minute.
… Wait a minute. It’s-it’s supposed to be right under it. Right here… where-where is it? Jenny, Jenny where are you? Where the fuck are you! Shit shit shit… okay, okay think. Where could it have gone… who could’ve…
At that I ran out of my cave, shouting, screaming, “Len! Len you sonofabitch!”
I stormed into his little alcove; there he was on his cot. Just staring at the picture, staring at her. Smiling.
“Y’know Fisher I got to hand it to you, she ain’t bad”
He laughs while licking his lips.
I never considered myself an angry man, never had a temper, never made a threat, never even really got into a fight (besides the obvious). But at this moment, a hollow disk stood where my eyes were, veins bulged out of my head, and something inside broke through-
“Give that back in three seconds or I’m going to take it off your corpse”
“Nice titties too. Bet you sampled that, eh?”
I could hardly hold myself back, “Now”
“Aww look at this, ‘To my dashing sergeant’”, he chuckled, “what bullshit have you been writing her?”
“I just feel bad she got stuck with you eh? Where does she live I think she needs a real man”
At that I clocked him in the face with the fist I unknowingly made; it was without a doubt the hardest punch I ever threw. He fell backwards and straight into a disgusting puddle of mud lingering in the middle of his cave; sporting a large welt where I decked him. Unfazed – in fact amused – he simply kept laughing and looking at the picture, still licking his lips. I grabbed him on the ground, but he would have none of it.
“You shouldn’t have done that Fisher”
In a split-second (and I do not exaggerate, a literal fraction of a second) he shot up and twisted my wrist, with me completely off-guard and incapacitated he threw me to the wall; swiftly meeting me there, he grabbed my throat before I could even react. From what I’ve seen of Len in combat, I knew he was near-unstoppable, unashamedly far more adept than I’ll ever be. But this was… supernatural, almost. I at least should’ve been able to sport a small sidestep, maybe even a clumsy swing; but he was moving faster than my brain could comprehend and react to. In fact, the moment he pinned me to the wall was the moment my brain told my body to throw a punch, believing it was the moment he first got up from the ground. After a few seconds stuck to the wall, meeting Len’s admittedly horrifying stare, I finally recovered from my daze and slowly began to realize the mess I just got myself into. Managing to break my eyes away from his, I finally noticed the axe he held to my head. Not some hatchet, a legitimate war axe straight from medieval days; I wouldn’t be surprised actually to find it was from that time. I knew of it, and I knew Len had the uncanny ability to produce it at the most convenient and unexpected moments in less than a flash, but never would I have guessed it would be held up in the direction of my pathetically soft skull. I remained there, incapacitated, weak, defenseless, completely at the mercy of the man I hated the most.
At that moment I had one of those moments of… premonition or enlightenment or whatever you call it. Took me back to a few months ago; just after we occupied this particular trench from the German positions, one of our first significant advances since we got our orders to advance towards the Somme. Krauts were pissed to a number and didn’t wait long for a counterattack, and they rushed us fairly unexpectedly. Due to part exhaustion-part laziness, not all the guns were situated precisely at our most vulnerable points, and since it was the German’s trench they knew exactly where to strike. They swarmed us and into our ranks with a vengeance, even worse, they were smart about it. Our first relief wave was absolutely torn apart by well-placed and well-timed grenades, shredded by rusted shrapnel of what I assume were nails and scrap. It seemed almost too well-timed; I suppose after several run-ins they recognized our general placement strategies. Me, Pvt. Owen, and about a dozen others were the second wave. We were gearing for a charge; same routine, fly in the shrapnel, then charge in the riflemen with the machine gunners offering cover from behind. ‘Course we were delayed; somehow the Germans not only recognized the exact timing and placement of our first wave, but the relief positions of the second. Instead of slicing us apart with the generic shrapnel, they were cruel… several canisters of mustard gas – or possibly phosgene, I’m not entirely sure – were thrown in. After several seconds of listening to the demented orchestra of the sizzling of gas seeping out of their containers, the men scrambled in a display of near-psychotic hysteria. Much like the guns, our masks weren’t properly lined up either – in that case due to pure laziness, as gas masks don’t weigh nearly the better part of two-hundred pounds – instead strewn about the general area like clothes scattered among the floor of a seventeen-year-old’s bedroom. It was pathetic, really, the state we as men in a split-second managed to devolve into, instead becoming the kids we were at heart. The krauts were no longer the enemy; the new enemy were the several hands reaching out to the same mask several feet away. The new enemy were the men those hands belonged to. What a fucking sight it must’ve been; the crudest of unarmed combat between kids desperate for their next breath, reaching for their salvation, for their possible means of returning to their mothers, kissing their loved ones. At least that’s what I liked to believe were the thoughts racing through their heads as they psychotically bashed in each other’s bodies, tore at each other’s eyes, and screamed as they squeezed the life of each other’s necks.
Ironically only four of the masks were actually reached in time; me and Owen were the few lucky ones, managing to store our masks in a safe place in the event of the worst-case… well, this. Just in time we got on our masks, even then my eyes were burning up a little, but I could manage. One of our mates, Lt. Spiegel, was not so fortunate. It was a fucking sight, his eyes seemed like they were rolling to the back of his head, foam was gurgling out of his throat; the sound he made was… well let’s just say a sound like that sticks to you. A half-scream half-guttering, like he was drowning in air. I never saw mustard gas with this kind of effect, and phosgene wasn’t visible, so I’m still not entirely sure what exactly the krauts dropped on us; however it’s safe to say it did the job well. In desperation and half-insanity Spiegel charged at one of our boys, Boyle I think. Spiegel tackled him to the ground and with all his remaining strength tried to pry off Boyle’s mask. He succeeded, but it was too late to get it on. Both men succumbed as their eyes – almost literally – melted out of their sockets and the foam in their mouths turned into a stream of blood. Owen and I couldn’t spare the bullets to put them out of their misery.
All that was left of the second-wave was me, Owen, and Martinez. Len was supposed to be with us, so I just assumed he was a goner. I fucking wish. As it appeared to be the end for us, we mutually agreed it would be better to die fighting than crouching in the fetal position, and at that we charged into the cloud of gas towards the German positions. It appeared the Germans flooded the entirety of the trench complex with gas, although it would seem odd every single kraut was equipped with an individual mask; unless this was such a well-coordinated assault that they prepared for every single scenario that somehow perfectly impeded our own defense at every level. Of course we never considered it then, as we were charging through the mist prepared to die fighting, take in a barrage of machinegun fire at any moment… but it never came. Looking back at it I realize there should’ve been more shots in the background, there were hardly any, no evidence a battle was even commencing. Even stranger I realize the Germans never charged where my platoon was. Normally gas is thrown as a prequel to a charge, but this time they just let us go to them. In fact they only stayed concentrated in one area of the trench throughout the entire attack, like they were after something specific. Guess it didn’t matter then, we were just fighting for our next breath (if breathing through a mask counted).
We three stormed through the thick of the cloud, didn’t seem like it was subsiding yet. Just as well, there wasn’t any wind that day. By this time me, Owen, and Martinez were at a slow pace, looking in every direction, listening for even the slightest footstep. It was so bizarre; there were no more gunshots, no more shells. Just silence. Like this godforsaken war killed every last human being on this fucking planet, except for us three. In those few seconds I entertained many scenarios through my head of what occurred. Among them were: the flu, mass suicide, rapture, divine judgment, and simultaneous masturbation; the last at least made me smirk. Eventually we all stared at each other in a daze, puzzled on how exactly this sudden peace came to be. At least for a moment serenity lasted.
The next moment two Germans jumped at us from above the trench walls. One landed right on top of Martinez and stabbed him through the neck. The other landed right next to me and bashed me to the ground with his rifle. Still holding onto my gun I reacted quickly and shot the kraut through the leg. He fell to the ground and began tackling me; both pinned we kept rolling in a stalemate. The other was already in a knife-fight with Owen, his gun jammed (of course). Looking back it probably looked fairly comical; Owen and his adversary simply posed at each other waiting for the other to make a faulty move, whereas me and my new friend rolled on the ground in a half violent-half homoerotic embrace, all the while cheered on by a gurgling Martinez seizuring on the floor. Eventually me and my kraut rolled close enough to be in reach of his rifle; we both grabbed for it, he reached it first. As he was about to turn the barrel towards my head, I played dirty and swiftly pulled off his mask, suffering him the same fate as my squad. I stared and witnessed his agony for a few moments, sadistically smiling as his eyes bulged out of their sockets like a Jim Crow. Quickly I got up and looked towards Owen; he already had his knife up the kraut’s neck. We continued onward leaving Martinez to rot, not once looking back at him to even scavenge his precious equipment. Without any more incentive to do anything else but slaughter Germans, Owen and I marched through the gas cloud up to the other side.
Expecting a fight, we found nothing. Not a body, not a shot, not a single German. The cloud dissipated enough that we could partially see across out of the trench. Looking above the walls out to no man’s land we saw it; the entire German battalion retreating, legitimately sprinting back to the other side, like they were scared. Looking at Owen and me it couldn’t have been us they were scared of, as much as we liked to entertain that notion.
Suddenly another kraut charged from one of the caves; I suppose he didn’t get the memo to leave us the fuck alone. Just as well though, we were all dead men anyway. Unfortunately for Owen he was a dead man long before I was, and with the element of surprise the kraut made quick work of turning Owen into Swiss cheese. I was next; he aimed his barrel at me, I couldn’t run away or charge. Like a deer in the headlights, I was beat with no way out.
What happened next I’m still not sure of, I don’t know why either. It was just so surreal, a moment in itself so abstract I couldn’t fully comprehend it at the moment it occurred… still can’t. The kraut aimed his rifle at me for what seemed like an eternity. I’m not sure if it was either reluctance on his part or an absolute breakdown on mine. It was as if time froze in itself; I was trapped in my own eternal purgatory of looking down the barrel of a Gewehr 98, reflecting on what little life I had left and the even smaller life I had before. But the strange thing is, I didn’t think of the entire usual flowery bullshit people associate with life. I didn’t think of my home in Springfield, Vermont, I didn’t think of my ma, baking me and my neighbor Suzy another batch of chocolate chips, or my pa, coming home late again drunk to violent drool. I didn’t think of those nights when my ma told me to hide in my room, and not come out, even when it sounded like things were breaking and my pa was yelling and my ma was crying. Not in 1905, Suzy giving me my first kiss after I won her a stuffed elephant at the annual block party. Not the time I was with Charlie and the boys and for the first time laid eyes on Suzy’s ma and her perfect pair of D-cup breasts. Not my first car, a shitty recycled Ford my pa gave me the day after my ma died; didn’t get me as many girls as I thought it would. Not that time when I was eight and I hit that softball right out of the park, the only time pa ever said he was proud of me. Not my first date with Suzy, out to the Roaster’s across town, bought the most inexpensive meal in Vermont; still managed to get me five minutes under the bra. I didn’t think of August 4, 1912, the day I first laid eyes on the greatest girl I ever knew. I didn’t recall our first conversation; she was reading a Tale of Two Cities, her favorite book, I pretended it was mine as well. I didn’t remember that first time we… I didn’t think of Jenny. Why didn’t I think of Jenny? Why didn’t I?
None of my life seemed significant to me at that crucial moment. The only thing I thought about – the only thing I deemed significant – was why I came here, to this piece of shit continent in flames. To fight a war that wasn’t mine to fight. To save people I didn’t know and never would. Why did I come here? Why can’t I remember…?
Needless to say the kraut didn’t fire, at least didn’t fire in time before Len charged at him from behind armed with nothing but his prized axe. His axe… soaked in blood. His uniform… splattered with enough crimson to fill ten men. Still in a frozen daze I could hardly make out as Len swung the German at his gut and let his entrails spill out. He was so fast I could hardly make out his movements. I blinked once; the kraut’s head was off. Twice, both arms. No man could go that fast; at least I thought it was just Len. Maybe it was me; maybe the gas was getting to my head. I don’t know, I don’t fucking care. By the time the German was on the ground he was already in pieces; Len didn’t stop swinging. He kept chopping and chopping until the corpse was mash and bone. Not one day did he go anywhere without his axe; it never dulled, never failed.
And now his axe was on my head.
“Fisher, asshole, I tried to tell you before. I was going to give you some advice, you didn’t want it. Trust me… you did. But just to be nice, I’ll say it again, more clearly this time. Some advice-”
“Some advice, Fisher, asshole. You listen to every… single… fuckin’… word I say,” he flashed Jenny’s picture in my face, “When I say I want to know where she lives, you tell me. When I say I killed every single one of those krauts I said I did, you believe me. And when I say to shut the fuck up, you shut the fuck up. Comprende?”
“Fuck you Len”
Suddenly we heard the distant sound of an artillery shell. Then we heard it again, closer. And another, closer. Then the sound of dozens of voices wailing at the top of their lungs.
We heard Pvt. Laurel, “Krauts movin’ in three o’clock!”
I panicked. I tried to move or run or get my gun but Len was still holding onto my throat.
“Len, let go! Let me go!”
His eyes were stern and cold, “No, we’re not done”
“Len! Jesus Christ Len get offa me we need to fight!”
“Not yet Fisher, asshole. We still got this to finish”
The relentless sounds of our machineguns were drowning out our voices. I heard Sgt. Sassoon screaming out orders from the top of his lungs. I heard our boys crying out in terror while unloading their clips and belts on the approaching enemy, whose cries were now more distinct, more numerous.
“Very poetic Fisher”
Despite the ear-numbing noises on the outside, Len spoke the same volume, a near-whisper. Yet I could hear every word, as if it was coming from inside my own head.
“Let me show you somethin’ asshole”
He threw me to the ground flat on my face. He then turned my head to look under his cot, and stepped on my head so I stayed there. There I saw under his cot was a massive ditch, filled to the brim with heads. Rotted, skeletal, months old. The most recent however still had their flesh, they were fresh. A week old, max. Bile filled up to my throat, I’ve seen some fucked up things but the entire nature of the situation hit me at once; the smell, the sight, I nearly vomited. How could I have not have smelled this? Am I that accustomed to the smell of death? After a few moments of analyzing I noticed something; I thought it strange he had such fresh heads, as we hadn’t seen a German in weeks until now. Slowly it came to me as my mind was clearing up. I finally realized. Every head, every single one, had our helmets. Ours, not German.
Len was no longer stepping on my head; he was no longer holding me down. I just couldn’t move. I simply kept staring and staring; dozens of them, more. I never realized until now how small our current ranks were, I never wondered where they went, or how they were. I never ceased staring out to no man’s land, simply reasoning they died on the front. That they for some reason just up and left our trench walking to the German fronts, never to return. None of us thought different; it’s been a year now. We stopped caring what happened. We’ve seen every possible death a man could possibly endure. Men we knew for minutes, men we knew for years… gone in the same instant. To say they simply died on the front is just the easiest way to think now, never once considering what really happened.
Len then spoke directly into my ear, “I get what I want. No matter what. When I want a kill… I get a kill. I always did at home, it was easier at home. Funny right? It’s harder to kill here, because they pay attention to who’s missing. But me, I don’t care who, even if it’s you”
He grabbed my head and plunged it straight into the mud puddle in the middle of his cave. I didn’t fight back, I don’t know why. But right as I went under, I started to think; a thought that’s been beating at my brain for the last several hours and, indeed, the last few months. Why did I come here? Why the fuck did I honestly come here?
Suddenly, however, Len unexpectedly let me go; I heard gunshots. Immediately I picked up my head, breathing heavily and coughing up pieces of mud and shit. I looked at what stopped him.
There in the entryway was a sight I’d never forget. Those words in particular have a major significance, as I’d seen just about every variation of “fucked up” in the one godforsaken year I’ve been trapped here; enough terrifying images to fill ten thousand photo albums, able to make even the most hardened civilian Joe shit his pants. But this sight in particular, it’s to be expected – even embellished – in a combat setting… a dead enemy.
Two, in fact; one dead kraut, and another standing right above him. He looked no older than sixteen, probably younger. He had his gun aimed high, smoking from the barrel, shaking. He was shaking. His eyes, they were, wide, tearing. Afraid. I never saw fear so distinct, so… traumatized. I turned around to whatever reckoning he sowed. He was looking straight at Len. Len had a bullet wound in his arm where he was still holding his axe, the other arm aiming his prized Lugar at the German; another weapon he always managed to produce at a moment’s whim. Len was breathing heavily, his sleeve gradually becoming saturated in red. But he maintained a stare. What a stare; brow ruffled to near-vertical stance, mouth contorted to the most twisted of positions, eyes pure malice. If there was an official look for evil, that’d about take the title. I honestly think I pissed myself; I didn’t know it then but I was as frightened as the kid was.
Len simply said, in the most malicious but retained of tones, “Leave”
The German kid seemed to be trying to say something. He kept stammering, unable to keep a straight face. It looked as if he was trying to stutter a surrender, or an apology. Or something. I don’t know.
“I… said… leave”
With actual tears in his eyes, the kid quickly nodded and ran off. Len maintained his stare, remained looking through the opening of the cave. Suddenly I could hear the kid shouting, screaming really. Something in German I couldn’t understand. But as he screamed, something happened I never thought would happen again since that fight in the trenches… the gunfire ceased. Gradually, rifle by rifle, each and every gun became silent; and all at once the shooting stopped. Everything stopped.
It was strange, even a photograph of the silhouette of a couple dancing in the moonlight, surrounded by a majestic myriad of glistening stars, wasn’t quite so serene. To this day I will never recall a more peaceful moment. I will forever be haunted by the piercing wail of oncoming shells, the popping and stuttering of a machinegun barrage, the gurgling of a suffocating comrade. Not once will those horrific sounds ever leave my head, not ever again will I have a silent night or a peaceful sleep, as long as I live, as little as I live. But that one moment, that last moment, was perfect silence. Serenity, purgatory, peace. I don’t know what silence is anymore, but every time I look back to that memory (if it even is one, if I even have a life ahead of me that warrants me to “look back” at all, I don’t know anymore)… not a shot, not a shell, not one shout of terror or carnage. Not one sound of suffering and decay. The last time I ever heard nothing.
It was over quickly. I could hear dozens of footsteps, walking away. Not a sprint, just walking. In no unison or uniformly fashion, in a simple casual moseying back from whence they came; satisfied, their mission complete. It was obviously the Germans, we have nowhere near that many. They simply kept walking away, I could hear them climbing back out of the trenches, out to no man’s land. Then gone.
Len kept staring at the entryway. As soon as the last of the footsteps ceased and were gone, never to return, Len merely stopped staring. He blinked, then smirked, then laughed. Just kept laughing, asshole that he was. He then looked at me again, still on the ground.
“Now… where were we?”
As he slowly approached to plunge me back under the mud, I didn’t resist. Not one bit. I still don’t know why. But I kept thinking, the same fucking thought that’s been knocking and beating and shitting at my head for weeks and months and almost a year. Why was I here? Why the fuck was I stuck in this mud puddle, fighting a hopeless cause? Why… why?
Then I remembered. I finally remembered.
It was morning, October 15, 1917. One year ago. Jenny and I were eating a modest breakfast of cornflakes and bananas, following a night of casual drink and sexual charades. It was only, I don’t know, half a year since Wilson declared war. By then practically every able-bodied Joe in Springfield enlisted, said it was for the good of mankind or some bullshit. I never bought into it. Not sure why, I was just never inspired, didn’t see much point in traveling to the other side of the world, risking my life in a shit-filled trench for no reason whatsoever. Apparently I was a “non-conformist” for being satisfied with my already-existing life, not eager to drop all things I loved for a canteen and a trench knife. I decided it was a more worthwhile investment to be with the person I love, so I guess I’m just a selfish prick. I didn’t fucking care. Long as I was with Jenny, we could manage the distant shouts of “coward!” and the occasional rock through the window.
But one day there was a knock on the door, nothing malicious or deliberate about it, just a simple friendly knock. Usually the neighborhood kids liked to have fun by banging the sides of the non-conformist’s house few times a week, and at an ungodly hour. But no, it was a neighborhood knock. Even then I reluctantly went to answer it; I figured it’d be another priest telling me to repent of my sins of standing idly by as evildoers took over the free world. I suppose it is my fault; after all I am benefitting from the double-standard of American freedom by choosing the way I want to live. What scum I am!
Fortunately no such figure was at my door… in fact no figure at all. Not a soul answered the hollow doorway. Just as well, I thought to myself. However looking down I noticed something.
A feather. A white feather. Wrapped in the most beautifully colored ribbons and glistening with sprinkled glitter. It was neatly placed in the smallest of toy chests, with sparkling paint and a piece of paper. Sure, I’ve gotten white feathers. Dozens, all of them either soaked in spit or accompanied by an obscene remark. But this one was different. It had no sign of malice, no ill-will, no obscenity to be found. It was… beautiful in fact. Sure, the quality of a fourth-grade art project, but beautiful nonetheless. Reminded me of something I would’ve made in my early days; I always had a habit of making something unremarkable and plain into a sight to behold. It was much easier, thinking unremarkability – and in that respect, simplicity – to be a blank canvas of sorts. Unfortunately I was never any good as an artist, little imaginative ingenuity I suppose; therefore I applied the canvas into a lifetime philosophy of sorts, even if I never really followed it.
Though not really a sight to behold, it was, in comparison to some of the other packages I’ve received, quite a beautiful gift. Of course I wasn’t exactly sure if it was a gift, a message, or anything. I stared at it for a long while, not quite sure what to do with it. Eventually I crouched down to it for a closer look; I noticed the piece of paper was actually a note. I picked it up, it read,
…“Life is too beautiful to waste with those who don’t want to live it”
Handwriting unrecognizable. Signed only,
I had no friends. They were all at the front or dead. I mused over the note for a long while, entranced really. In a daze, I must’ve been out there for at least twenty minutes crouching down looking at that tiny slip of paper; what a sight that must’ve been. Jenny calling me back into the house plunged me back to reality. I took the feather inside; questioned Jenny about it, she predictably had no earthly idea who it could’ve been from. Literally, as practically no one in Springfield would give us something so nice. Who could it have been from? The entire afternoon I sat at the table, musing over the plume. I looked and I thought and I looked and thought again. I don’t even know what I was thinking of; but I think the point was to make me think. It was at moments like that I thought of my life; my baker ma, drunken pa, Suzy, first car, second base, D-cups, Charles Dickens, all that generic shit. In fact I do believe most of my life has been spent thinking, musing, and apparently saying it aloud for everyone to hear. Jenny was, at this point, accustomed to my stoic habits, and gem as she was let me be. When I looked up those few times, she seemed to have some moments of concern; she always knew just what I was thinking – even when I myself didn’t know – and always knew when it troubled me. It always troubled me. But this particular catalyst for my reflections was as disturbing as it was pretty. A single white feather, with all the amenities complete with dried up glue.
If the plan was to guilt-trip me into enlisting, it worked. Sometime during my restless night I figured I was the one wasting my life, like the note said. And upon looking into the mirror for the seventeenth time, I realized I myself was the one not wanting to live life, and thus I myself the one wasting it on. At least that was the only bit of sense I was able to grasp from the note, if any. Early the next morning I was loading my gear, essentials, to be off to the nearest recruitment station. I wanted to leave before Jenny woke up; I didn’t want that talk to happen. But she caught me. Heh, she never let anything slip her by.
“So you’re off then”
“I don’t have a choice, Jen, I-“
“Course you have a choice! We talked about this Marc, remember? We said no matter what… no matter what we wouldn’t let them”
“It doesn’t matter anymore! I-I can’t just keep living like I have a choice”
“I don’t! We don’t. This is what was decided our lives would take, the day the war started this-“
“The war will be fine without you!”
“It’s not about the fucking war! I couldn’t give a bigger shit about this fucking war. But we can’t survive assuming promises will be kept, assuming people would just understand. It’s bullshit! Complete fucking bullshit! We’ve got to get our heads out of the clouds”
At this point I had no fucking clue what nonsense bullshit I was saying, but Jenny did.
“There is nothing wrong with living life the way you want to. Our lives are our own to live, and you chose to live it with me!”
“Life is not something we can give or take! It’s something we’re part of, and witness! We have to play with the cards we’re dealt”
“There’s no shame in choosing your own way! To get a new hand”
“Jenny… p-please. I have to do this-“
“I do! Please… please…”
She knew I was resolute. Determined to be a part of a life I didn’t want to live, no matter how much I wanted to believe I did. She wanted me to figure that out for myself. We kissed, one last time, and I went off to the nearest recruitment station. Left to this, a godforsaken fucking rock they call Europe. And all because… because one person told me to go. It wasn’t all the others, spewing their hate and their spite. It was that one, who took the time to make me a pretty little plume and a pretty little note. I fought this war to please that one person, that one mind intent on getting me here. Here… in this shit-filled cave with this fucking psychopath and several dozen human heads. All of them smirking, laughing at me.
Who? Who could it have been?
“You really haven’t figured it out Fisher?”
I wanted Len to hear it all.
“That dramatic moment of climactic realization hasn’t dawned on you yet?”
I stared at Len for a long while, matching his twisted grin.
“You’re such a freak Len”
He seemed to chuckle at that, “Oh?”
“Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to, Len… asshole. When you say you want to know where she lives, I don’t answer assholes who ask rhetorical questions”
He smiled wider than ever, “Is that so?”
I matched it, “Who could it have fucking been, Len?”
“Don’t be like me Fisher,” he chuckled, “don’t ask rhetorical questions”
He began to step towards me again. I didn’t look at him. I only looked straight down, down the shit-filled mud puddle at my own face, looking back at me. Smiling, content. Because floating right beside it… was Jenny. My beautiful Jenny. Her picture wrinkled and smudged from saturation in excrement and mud. You could no longer make out the note in ink, not even most of her body. Only her face… her beautiful face. Still the same from the day I left it, always will be the same. She and I, next to each other, smiling, content at last… inside a shit-filled mud puddle.
Then down the puddle I went.
Credit: Len Lye
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