Friedrich did not think this was how he would die. He had always imagined that he would die in his sleep as an old man with Margarethe at his side. Perhaps dying for his country was not the worst way to go. Still, his stomach turned as his bi-plane fell from the air.
Friedrich turned around in his seat to see Josef's distraught face. Josef grabbed Friedrich's shoulder and held on tightly as if they could survive this together. They both knew that if they were to use their parachutes that they would only be shot down in the crossfire. Silently they rode as their crippled plane fell to the ground; another victim to the Allies. Friedrich pulled down on the stick at the last moment so that the plane would land on its belly instead of nose first.
The setting sun was the last thing Friedrich saw before the aircraft was engulfed by the long billowing grasses of the German plains.
When Friedrich awoke there was a sharp pain in his head. He tried to touch his head but his arm refused to move. He slowly opened his eyes and regarded the scene before him. The plane had fallen apart. A piece from the right side of the fuselage that had fallen across his lap was cutting off the blood supply to legs. With the gaping hole on the right side of the plane, he could still see the airborne battle above.
"Josef?" Friedrich gasped and turned his head to observe his friend.
Josef broke apart into a smile and tears started to make clear paths down his dirty face.
Friedrich felt tears threaten to fall as well. He looked down and saw that blood was starting to seep through the abdomen of Josef's blue uniform.
"Are you alright?" asked Friedrich.
"I don't know," Josef replied, his German faltering, "It hurts to breathe."
"You're going to be okay. You...You have to be okay. We survived this long," Friedrich said with a laugh remembering all the situations his best friend had gotten out of. "You will live. You must live."
Josef was silent for a moment. His face looked defeated as he ran a shaky hand across his lips. He coughed and crimson stained his hand.
"I will be okay," Josef whispered, "Can you grab the medical kit?"
Friedrich turned to the left of his seat where they had always stored the kit. He tried to grab it but his left hand remained unmoving. He tried again with his right hand but only his fingers seemed to move. He tried to wiggle his toes but they too remained still.
"I can't," whispered Friedrich as a terrible realization struck him.
"What do you mean you can't?"
"I'm paralyzed. I can't move my arms either. Only from my neck up and my fingers on my right hand can move."
Josef was uncharacteristically silent for a while before he reached for the medical kit between the seats and let out a sigh of frustration. Friedrich looked forward again trying to pretend that he didn't hear his friend's laboured breaths as Josef tried to stop his bleeding. Friedrich didn't like being helpless. He tried to think of how they could get out of here. If they won this air battle then his people would arrive and save them. Or the British could arrive any second now and end both of them. Or worse . . .
"Are you bleeding?" asked Josef weakly as he passed the medical kit into Friedrich's lap, "If you can't feel your legs you might be bleeding."
Friedrich craned his neck as far as he possibly could to see if there was any visible blood. He couldn't see any but that didn't mean that there wasn't a cut that the embedded metal was keeping from bleeding while it got infected.
"I can't see any," Friedrich whispered as the impending sense of doom started to fill him.
There was a pause for a moment before Josef mumbled, "Talk to me; keep me awake for the night."
And so they talked. About everything. Nothing. Just anything that tuned out the sound of gunfire in the background. They saw one of their planes fall from the sky in a halo of flames into a neighbouring field. Friedrich prayed that they would live as well. Josef grabbed the food kit and started to feed Friedrich.
"So," said Friedrich, chewing on a piece of bread, "you were going to marry Frieda before we were conscripted?"
"Yes," Josef said pausing to adjust himself into a more comfortable position, "and you were going to marry Margarethe as soon as you turned eighteen."
Friedrich smirked at the memory of being with Margarethe. He hoped that she was alright and well. She had volunteered to be a nurse as soon as she found out he was to fight.
"If I don't make it back, tell Frieda that I love her," Josef said his voice growing more and more defeated.
"You will make it back, Josef. I promise you that you will make it back if just to see Frieda again."
It was early morning when Friedrich finally fell asleep. It was a fitful sleep. It was that time of year when the wind near the German-French border could chill someone to the core. When Friedrich finally awoke the sun cut across his vision.
Friedrich awoke in a panic. This wasn't just a nightmare; he was actually living this hell. Slowly he bent his head and really looked outside for the first time. The sky was a magnificent blue without a single cloud or plane. The temperature had just dropped enough so that his shallow breath caused swirling clouds around him.
The trees were just starting to turn a magnificent gold, the wind causing them to wave to him. There was an old farmhouse not too far away. If they could make it there they could probably get more food.
"Josef?" Friedrich asked turning around.
His stomach dropped.
Josef's eyes were glazed open and unmoving; his face frozen in a happy grin. His brown hair matted with sweat. Both hands were clenched at his side. Tears started to fall down Friedrich's face.
"Come on Josef," Friedrich pleaded, "Please wake up, please... please... Frieda, you were going to marry her remember? Please...Please."
And there Friedrich sat. Alone in a broken plane, with a dead friend and nothing more than losing faith in God and a broken heart. He felt numb. Everywhere was numb. He hated himself for joining this war. It had been a naïve young, boy who had signed up in 1914. Now all that was left was a broken shell of a man that had seen so many lives lost.
He wished that he could reach for the pistol that was merely an arm's length away and just be down with it.
Friedrich paused when he heard a scurry. His whole body stiffened at the thought of an attacker but then a small twitching, pink nose poked through the twisted metal of the fuselage next to Josef. Slowly a snow white mouse pulled itself out of the metal and crawled over Josef's body.
"Get off him you rodent!" Screamed Friedrich, his voice already so worn that he barely made a noise.
The mouse, noticing the bread that sat on Friedrich lap, hesitantly crawled onto Friedrich and started to nibble at the bread. There was something so innocent about the field mouse that Friedrich reached out to stroke the mouse between its ears with his fingers. The mouse panicked and scurried away from him jumping onto the wing. Sighing Friedrich flicked the rest of the bread towards the mouse. Slowly, the mouse approached him again. It dragged the bread onto the wing and began to eat it.
"You have no idea what's going on. You don't care that people are dying for a cause of a country wanting land," Friedrich laughed without humour. His eyes were lost of all warmth.
The mouse paused its eating for a moment to look at him; its head tilted to the side before it went back to finishing off the rest of the food. Then it curled up into a ball on the wing and absorbed the heat as it lay in the sunlight.
"You remind me of my cat, Else. Can I call you Else? Not that you really care. I'm talking to a mouse so I must be going crazy," Friedrich whispered as the mouse turned to face him.
Friedrich knew that it was crazy but he spilled everything to Else. All of his fears, his sadness. How he was losing hope that anyone would find him. How he was going to die in a field without anyone ever knowing his name. Whom he had wanted to be. How he had lost everything.
That's when the gunshot sounded.
In the distance, there were muffled voices near the other plane that had crashed. Friedrich's mind immediately went to a very dark place. Images of a British soldier placing a gun against his head; pulling the trigger. The soldiers taking him, keeping him as a prisoner of war. He waited for the rustling sound of trees, waited for the shouting.
Would they murder him or just leave him be to weaken his country? After all, it cost more to heal a man than to bury him. Friedrich waited and waited. He knew that he was only seconds away from his own demise.
The sun was starting to set again and Friedrich had already lost all his pride. His mouth was parched as he hadn't had water in days. He sat in his own urine and waste, vomiting all over himself when the flies started to arrive.
The temperature dropped and although Friedrich wanted to shiver, his body was unable to do so. He felt like he was toeing that thin line between life and death. He could see his father's and Josef's face looking down at him. Tears started to fall from his face. He was a bird with broken wings.
As if noticing his distress, or just cold herself Else padded off the wing of the plane and squeezed herself into the crook of Friedreich's arm. His heart broke. Animals were the only innocent things left in this destructive world.
That night, Friedrich thought he would die. Tiny flakes of snow fell from the sky dusting everything in a light frosting of white; removing all colour from the world. Maybe that was a good thing. Friedrich had seen enough red for many lifetimes.
Just as the sun was rising Friedrich heard muffled voices from his left. He was sure that the British finally come for him. He closed his eyes, waiting to see Josef again.
"Soldier?" The man asked in German.
Friedreich's eyes flew open as he observed the five men that had come to save him. Else ran out of his arm and sat on the wing. The medics pulled him out of the plane and onto a board; two others carried Josef.
"Else!" He screamed wishing he could reach out to the mouse that had been his friend.
"What is he talking about?" a medic asked frantically.
"Else!" he screamed again as he was taken away from the mouse. "Please bring her with me. She-She saved me."
As a white cloth slid over his mouth he struggled against it. Else had to come with him. That mouse was the last thing he saw before he slid into darkness.
The first thing that Friedrich saw when he awoke was the forest green eyes of Margarethe. She helped him up and wrapped her short arms around him; his face buried in her brown hair.
"The war's over," She whispered quietly in his ear.
Friedrich began to cry.