The morning before he died was lovely.
The sun beamed down on him from above, warm rays caressing his skin through the thick fabric covering his body, camouflaging him into the desert sand. The breeze was balmy and soothing, running along the back of his neck and drying the sweat that formed there. The sand was cooler than usual, the scalding temperature now a gentle warmth as it found its way into his boots, and stuck to his skin. It was a warm summer day, and even the weight on his back and the gun in his hands could not keep him from smiling.
The picture of his brother’s smiling face looked back at him from the letter in his hand, as he unfolded the crinkling paper and held it out in front of him. It had been four years since he was drafted, a mere fifteen year old dragged into the army to fight for his country. He could still remember the tears on Seth’s face, and the looks on his parents’ as they realized the implications of him being sent away. But he was going to surprise them; tomorrow his contract expired.
He refolded the letter, tucking it away in his pocket and smiling as he set off with the rest of the troops in his platoon.
Tomorrow, he was going home.
The afternoon before he died was blazing.
Flames lapped at the walls of the base, their tongues reaching to the ceiling and then recoiling as they searched for what to feed on. The ceiling had large holes in it, piles of rubble lying below their original resting place, shards of glass scattered along the ground. There was smoke in the air thick enough to choke his lungs, and a thick, acrid smell of burning rubber wafting through the holes. The floor was charred, the building still shaking, and crumbling pieces of the floor above him continued to fall down around his body.
He had been cleaning his gun in the bunk as the bomb landed, but now he was facedown against the concrete, with his ears ringing in his head. The scent of the smoke flooded his nostrils and coated his tongue, filling his mouth with the vile taste of it. His whole body ached, muscles protesting as he lifted himself from the ground, forced himself to get up and move. One blast meant another, and there was no way he was going to stick around for that; the bunker was where the higher-ups had told him to go.
So he ran, feet pounding against the floor and muscles screaming for him to stop as he fled. Everywhere he looked, there was smoke and fire and carnage. The rubble was stained crimson and orange- the flames tinged the lighting, and the blood of those who had not survived stained the rest. His heart was pounding in his ears as he fought to think of something else, and continued to run through the halls. Some part of him was convinced it was suicide, but then again, part of him knew that the bunker was ensured safety. Seth was turning four next week. He wanted to be home for his brother’s birthday.
He was going to be home for his brother’s birthday.
The night that he died was foggy.
The smoke from the bombs had left a thick, gray smog hanging in the rooms, and the air around the base. Even the cold winds blowing over the sand dunes couldn’t clear the haze, and while that was dangerous, it also provided them with a sense of comfort. Shiloh let his heart settle, and set about helping those who had found themselves caught in the line of fire, and were injured, but made it out safely. He himself found a fractured wrist, that he hadn’t registered until it was noticed. But there were others with more severe, more pressing injuries, and so he helped the doctors sew, and cleanse, and comfort.
He felt sick to his stomach knowing what he was leaving the people with, but he had no choice. So he swallowed down the bile, and packed the little belongings he possessed in his duffel bag. The flight for home left in the morning, and he wanted to be ready as fast as humanly possible. He left for the last watch that night in slightly higher spirits, gun slung across his chest, and the photograph of Seth’s smiling face tucked inside his breast pocket.
That night, while he stood atop the wall of the base with the others on watch, he heard shots. Three, loud, and in quick succession, followed closely by shouts of warning- those two were cut off by fire, and it took all of another moment for Shiloh and his team to be down in the fray. A small group of fighters had gathered, and ambushed the earlier watch, which was returning for the night. By the time he and his companions reached the scene, there were already four dead, and the gunfight seemed likely to be tilting in enemy favor. At least, until Shiloh and the others involved themselves, and fought them off.
The shooting lasted all of ten minutes more, and then there was one man left, staring down the barrel of Shiloh’s gun.
“Please- please, no- I have a family- a daughter, a son- please, my wife—” The man pleaded desperately, choking on his breaths and his tears as he fought to speak, and convince Shiloh to spare him mercy. But Shiloh simply swallowed, and blinked once, pressing back his tears, and squeezing the trigger with his index finger slightly.
“Please!” The man begged, “You must have someone too- what would they do if you died!? Please! Just let me go- I will not come back!”
The man’s words gave Shiloh pause, and then suddenly there was a searing pain in his chest, and he fell. The sand was cool beneath his feet, but the burning was a blazing hot contrast. The coolness spreading through his shirt, and mingling with the sand was no relief, and he coughed, trying to keep himself calm despite the hammering of his heart. He’d been shot before, but this? This was blacking out his vision, turning the rest of it to a haze, and making every breath ache. His chest hurt, and then he was turned, and the face of the man stared down at him, the shining stars behind him contrasting the darkness of his eyes.
“You have someone like that, don’t you?” The man asked, but Shiloh couldn’t even nod. He couldn’t do anything but feel the tears beginning to slide down his cheeks as the image of his brother flashed before his eyes.
He wasn’t going to be home for Seth’s birthday.
He would never see his parents’ overjoyed smiles.
He would never laugh with them, sing with them, he would never watch his brother grow up.
He was dying.
And in another moment, he was gone.
The doorbell rang, and almost immediately, an excited little black-haired boy went running to answer. His parents followed closely behind, laughing as their son jumped up to reach the doorknob, still rather small for his age, and pulled it open. They’d been waiting- the military had informed them that their son’s contract was up, and he would be coming home. Seth’s excitement was infectious, and the grin on his face wide as he looked up at the man standing outside.
“Welcome ho—” He broke off, blinking up at the strange figure standing before him. Everything seemed to pause in that moment, his heartbeat included. “… You’re not my brother.”
“No, I’m not. May I come in? I have something I need to tell you.” The soldier outside said softly, kneeling down to smile sadly at Seth. His eyes were warm and kind, but there was a beret tucked under his arm, and a small box as well.
It was then Seth realized what was going on, and stumbled backwards into his slowly realizing parents.
He was the first to cry that morning, and the last to stop the next.