I’m Not Afraid

I started writing this for a short story competition but I don’t like it so I’m afraid it’s been relegated here for you unlucky souls to read:

“Omens be damned. Life is an adventure and you’ve got to live it to the fullest!” said Danny when stepping off the bus.

The five of them were like brothers, and they walked with their arms round each other’s shoulders, swaying and laughing as if they were drunk.

“ARMY!!” they shouted together when they saw the recruitment office.

It might have sounded like a joke to those working inside, seeing five youths walking up singing and laughing. But it wasn’t a joke to any of them. They were serious about serving. Danny and Jo had plans of becoming officers some day. Ryan had some high flying plans to become a Lawyer or something. They teased him endlessly for that. Ricky and Aaron meanwhile had no idea what they were going to do. It was actually they who’d suggested signing up, seen as they couldn’t think of anything else.

The force of the explosion carried for miles. It was exactly the sort of thing the boys had wanted to see when they signed up. Smoke billowed out sideways from the wreckage, and flames licked the sky in jealous envy of its peace.

But they hadn’t really thought about the downsides of such explosions. They imagined the practice ones, and maybe cars exploding with no-one inside, or a terrorist base exploding after being hit from a thousand feet up in the air. Always someone else.

They didn’t count on military casualties. It’s not something that’s very healthy to dwell on.

Danny was a frequent visitor of Ram’s Head, a local pub just down the road from where he lived. His dad had gone there as well in his youth. And it was where he’d last seen all of his mates before the war. They were a raucous lot in general. But at one point in the night Ryan had started one of those serious talks; the ones you normally have only at the end of the night when you’re both completely wasted.

“Are you afraid to die Danny?” he’d asked.

Danny was caught off guard by the question, and screwed up his face in reaction to what he expected would be some sort of crude joke. But when he looked up at Ryan he saw that he was deadly serious. He wasn’t smiling. His eyes had an intensity about them that Danny had witnessed only once before, when Ryan’s mother died of cancer.

“Don’t ask me that” said Danny.

“We go off tomorrow Danny…” he looked down to the floor as if he was ashamed of what he was saying, and Danny was thankful that the rest of the guys were at the bar. “I can’t stop thinking about it. I think I am afraid Danny.”

He looked up into Danny’s eyes with that same, enduring intensity. And Danny didn’t know what to do.

“Don’t talk crap Ryan!” he finally said. It was the only thing he could think of saying. “We’re not gonna die. It’s not gonna be us… Besides, it’s like the movies say… think it and it just might come true. So stop thinking it.”

Danny sat in a small glen between the trees. It reminded him of home. A gentle stream trickled by somewhere just out of site. And the sun cast an orange glow on the setting. Danny loved the woods. They were his favourite place in the world; the one he felt most relaxed in.

He lay nestled in the grass, with his head propped upon a soft bed of moss that covered the tree stump behind him. As he looked upwards into the trees, watching the myriad of colours flicker and dance their way to the ground, he began to smell something cooking.

‘Mum’s cooking’ he thought. ‘I must be closer to the house than I realised.’

He tried to prop himself up on his elbows, but felt warm moisture underneath his back as he moved.

‘I must be lying in the stream’ he thought. ‘It’s incredible how warm it is with so little sun able to get through the trees. This really is a great place.’

In training they’d drunk even more than they had before. It was hard though, so they did need it. Even little Ricky had started to bulk up under the weight of all those constant exercises.

Time-wise, they had most of their training at Catterick in North Yorkshire. They thought the instructors were pretty tough there. But there was little talk of fear or death. Danny’s favourite instructor had this saying.

“Fear fucks. So make sure you’re the pimp, you’re in control, and you do the fucking. Coz if you let fear get the better of you out there, then you’re the whore!”

And that was pretty much the only mention of fear in the whole time they were there. When someone got scared he’d say:

“Are you gonna let fear fuck you without a fight?”

Surprisingly simple as it was, it actually worked. Danny never feared death. At times he thought he was afraid; but no more than the average man. He believed in the cause, and he was proud to fight, so that people like Ryan could go on to achieve great things in peace.

He brought his hand up in front of his face, and saw thick red blood staring back at him.

He looked around the wooded glen and wondered why he was there. A minute before he’d been checking for IEDs with his friend in Afghanistan. He was sure.

‘Am I dead?’ he thought. ‘… No. I wouldn’t have a memory then… I’m dying.’

It was almost without emotion that he realised his imminent fate, and as he lay there feeling his energy trickle away, he lay in peace.

‘I guess it’s not always those who talk about it who do the dying. But I’m glad it was me, and not my friend.’

A ragged sob reached his ears, and unveiled the truth of his situation. It was strange to realise. But in that time he lay in two places. His mind, his sight, and his ability to feel were all far away, in the woods. And yet each of those things he experienced there echoed something real.

The stream was a distant road, and the sound of army vehicles driving towards them. The country air which carried the heat of the sun was in fact the force of the explosion, and the heat that went with it. The moss beneath his head was the lap of someone who cradled him close, rocking him back and forth in despair. And the scent of cooking meat… was unfortunately him.

Death has finally caught up me’ thought Danny. ‘But at least fear stays away. I can embrace one as a friend so long as the other doesn’t come along.’

As he lay there thinking how glad he was that it was he rather than Ryan, he realised how calm and tranquil the place was. He knew a wreckage lay in front of him, that parts of his body may no longer be attached, that scant inches from his face flames were spreading out before him, and that there would be an almighty sound of helicopters and army vehicles surrounding his position. But despite all of that he was at peace.

“Ryan” he said, barely sounding more than a whisper.

Ryan heard his friend, but was struggling to speak. He held Danny in his arms, not caring about the blood pooling over him. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and his mind was in an animal like state of denial, confusion and frustration. All he managed to do was nod to his best friend.

Understanding his friend’s inability to speak Danny continued. “I’m still not afraid of death Ryan” he said.

He could sense Ryan there at the last. But his eyes were useless, and he still saw only the woods and stream in his mind.

“If you could see what I see Ryan… death is just as beautiful as life. It’s just the final leg.”

Ryan found his voice at that moment.

“No.” He shook his head. “You’re not dying Danny. God please don’t die on me. You’ll be fine.”

“Don’t be sad Ryan. We did good here these last years. Besides, there’s a reason you need comforting and not I. You have to be strong now. Have fun. Live my adventures for me… I’m not afraid.”

This story is a tribute to the honour and bravery of those who fight, and risk their lives on behalf of the citizenry of the free world.

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