Brian shoved Bob down onto the snowy ground. He heard the injury given to Bob by the hard rocks of the frozen soil. Brian panted heavily. Heat flashed through his body, and a line of sweat formed down his spine. Bob rolled over. He was gasping for air as well.
“Stand up,” Brian said. He pointed the pistol at him. His hand trembled with anger and exhaustion and fear. “Now!”
Bob rolled onto his side and pushed himself up. His shoes were badly worn. The seat of his pants were frail and torn. He stood in a slumped defeat. His face was gaunt and thin, his lips blue. He raised his hands and stared at Brian with empty eyes. “Go ahead.”
“I have to,” Brian said.
“I know,” replied Bob.
“You’re a deserter!” Brian shouted.
“And I’ll desert again,” Bob said immediately. He made no apology and showed no remorse. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “This place. This war. I’m done with it.”
Brian steadied his hand. He stood up straight and felt the air return to his lungs. “If you refuse to fight, I’m ordered to kill you.” He pointed the German Luger. “I need every man I’ve got. I need you.” He let out a shallow sigh. “But I will kill you.”
The icy wind whipped through them. Their faces were pelted with frozen bits of snow that felt more like gravel. The dead bushes that surrounded them stirred their fingering limbs. In the distance, machine gun fire was intensifying. The next fight was getting closer.
“Don’t make me do this, Bob,” Brian said. “After all that’s happened. We’re so close. This war will end.”
“It was close eighth months ago!” Bob yelled. His voice strained with weakness. His balance faltered and he staggered and leaned against a nearby sapling. Snow fell into his open collar. He didn’t notice. “I don’t know if I’m living or dreaming,” he said. “I can’t tell when I’m awake or asleep.” He waved his hands at the nothingness around them. In the distance, atop a small hill, stood the shadowed figures of the rest of their squad. It was from there that they stood and watched.
Bob shrank to the ground. The needles of the sapling pine slapped at his face. “I can’t go on,” Bob said. “From here on, I only escape.”
Brian took a long breath and held the cold air in. He cocked the Luger in his hand. “Bob. This is your last chance.”
“I’m sorry, Brian,” he said. “I surrender. I surrender my life and my fate.”
“What about Susanne?” Brian asked. “What about your children?”
Bob’s face shattered like a pane of glass on broken pavement. His mouth trembled violently, and his dead eyes wept. He shook his feeble head. “I can’t go back to them,” he said. “I can’t go back.” He mumbled the words over and over to himself. “Please,” he said. He crawled forward on his hands and knees. “You’ve got to let me go, Brian. Let me go or set me free.”
The wind whipped between them again and Brian felt a shiver. The sweat on his back was already trying to freeze. He looked at Bob and no longer saw a man but a terrified animal. “Alright,” he said. “Roll over.”