The loudspeaker rang loudly as the Commander’s voice boomed through the hall.
“On the ground in 10 minutes.”
The cadets, who had been in deep sleep, woke up as if they had been attacked by an angry swarm of bees. It was 4 am, and the chilly winter breeze pricked at their skin-like icicles.
Amar and Jay had become the best of buddies at the intense training camp of 1999. Both had joined the Army with the sole purpose of securing a government job. Their families had been poor, and they needed the money.
Amar kicked his best friend awake, “The devil has summoned us. Get up, you fool!”
Jay usually slept deep, and Amar often joked that even a tank’s explosion would not wake him. Amar finally poured a bucket of ice-cold water on Jay, who woke up screaming as Amar howled with laughter, “Wake up, sleeping beauty!”
Jay growled in his sleep, “What the hell?! I was dreaming about my mother’s home-cooked food. She was feeding me my favorite dish. I can still taste the flavor.”
Amar smiled wistfully, “Well, I’d love to lie, but I don’t have a family to visit. Anyways, we’ll apply for a leave and go see your mother soon.”
Jay yawned as he straightened his hands, “She’s planning to show off her son to the potential brides in town. I’m the first person from my village to make it to the Army.”
Amar’s face turned grave, “Alas, you’ll have to fight that battle on your own.”
The Commander’s voice boomed through the loudspeaker. Everybody rushed outside to the marching ground as their training commander, Mr. Fernandez, wore a grim look. As the sleepyheads tried their best to stifle a yawn, the Commander turned to them and said something that truly shook them, leaving them all staring at him in shock.
“Well boys, I’ve got some bad news for you. The enemy has been closing in on the border, and our brave comrades weren’t able to block them. The standoff turned bloody, and some of our fellow soldiers were martyred.”
The standoff between the two armies had been raging for over a month. The latest report the day before had, however, confirmed an abatement in tension as peace talks had finally bore fruit. This sudden development had come as a surprise to most of them. The Commander continued, unmindful of his men’s bewilderment, “At 100 kilometers, we’re the closest training and artillery center to the border. We’ll be leaving in an hour with weapons and rations. The center will also be sending the Air Force to consolidate our position. The situation should be under control by tonight. Any questions?”
“No, sir,” the group chorused.
The Commander nodded, and the group dispersed, packing their stuff and helping load rifles and cartridges into army trucks.
Jay glanced at Amar, “Scared, are we?”
Amar waved his hand away, “Nah, I’ve been waiting to get on the battlefield since the day I enlisted.”
Jay knew Amar was nervous; he could tell, for he was going through the same jittery emotions. “Don’t go running around in the field, okay? Let us poor fellas also get a chance at showing off.”
Exactly fifty minutes later, everybody had assembled. The army trucks were loaded with rifles, other ammunition, and ration supplies. Jay and Amar had been eager to get a seat in the ammo truck. However, they were disheartened when the Commander ordered them to sit in the ration-supply vehicle.
Jay tried to lighten his friend’s mood, “C’mon, I bet everyone will be swarming around food rather than guns. They can’t chew bullets for dinner!”
This made Amar laugh as the two friends jumped into the truck’s backside. The Commander had stationed four soldiers each in every truck for food and weapons.
On the other hand, a single truck carried a handful of soldiers consisting of paramedics and cooks along with the Commander himself. The trucks formed a line and began their journey toward their destination. The troops made it past the rocky terrain and were an hour away from their destination when they heard a commotion followed by a series of loud bangs. The two boys huddled in a corner, hiding behind the big crates of ration when the voices subdued. They were too scared to venture outside their haven. They stood debating their next course of action when Jay heard whispering voices outside their truck. He signaled for Amar to stay quiet and strained his ears to listen in to the conversation. Out of nowhere, gunshots prized open the lock securing the back door. With no guns on them, the only option Amar and Jay had was to hide.
They huddled behind the same large crate of ration as two enemy soldiers climbed into the truck. Amar peeked out of his hiding spot to see two men, one with gray hair and a gruff voice, while the other was leering smugly.
The gruff guy inspected the truck, “How much do these folks eat?”
The other man guffawed, “thickheads.”
A voice called them out to ask if they found anything valuable, to which the gruff guy replied, “Negative. Don’t think we left any survivors.”
This voice sent a chill down Jay and Amar’s spines and their eyes began trembling with fear. They had only recently joined the Army. They had been under the illusion of being brave in the battlefield, but their eyes turned as wide as saucers as soon as they realized that they were the only survivors. They had been brutally ambushed by the enemy.
Out came the voice again, “Then get down right now. We have no time to waste.”
The two guys jumped down the truck before firing aimlessly once again. Jay and Amar covered their ears and ducked their heads down, praying that no bullet would hit them. Luckily for them, their prayers did not go in vain.
After thirty long, excruciating minutes, the voices faded out. Another thirty minutes later, the two worked up the courage to step out. They were shocked to see the corpses of their comrades amid trucks that bellowed a stifling mixture of fire and smoke.
Jay’s voice was choked, “So, what do we do now?”
Amar looked around and spotted the Commander lying at the base of a large tree. He was trying to signal them to come over to him. He rushed at him, with Jay close on his heels, “Sir, what happened?”
The Commander tried to speak, each word requiring a tremendous effort as blood oozed from his stomach, “We were… attacked. Alert the training base. Now.”
Amar went to retrieve a water bottle from their truck, but the commandant shook his head, “If you run, you can make it in about five hours. The enemy is encroaching. Go… now.”
Jay tried to lift the Commander up, but he could not take his weight, and his knees gave in as the Commander fell on him. Jay was still still looking to free himself when the deafening silence was pierced by some voices. The enemy had been hiding to ensure no survivor would run back. Now they would find two.
Amar bolted toward the two, but Jay motioned for him to stay where he was. Amar could not stand in plain sight, so he jumped back into the truck while nervously glancing at his friend. Jay pretended to be dead, and Amar’s heartbeat was so loud that he could swear anyone within a mile could hear him.
He prayed and begged for God to save his friend, but God seemingly had other plans. This time, a group of five enemy soldiers were cackling at the sight in front of them. These soldiers were different from the ones he had seen earlier. Just how many men had trampled his motherland?
The enemy soldiers made it to where Amar’s friend lay helpless. One of those men scratched his long beard and said, “Five hours. That’s all we need to bomb their nearest centers and delay reinforcements. In another two, we’ll be good to take them on in a full-blown war. They can’t win this time.”
One of them asked, “I think I heard voices. Didn’t we kill everyone out here?”
Another guy looked around and fired at the bodies, “Can’t tell for sure these days.” The group laughed as they walked away, having made sure that every opposing soldier was dead.
Amar bit back a scream as he saw his friend getting peppered with bullets. He went numb, and his brain began to momentarily shut down. Jay was no more! He recalled their earlier conversation, which now seemed like it had been centuries ago – of how Jay missed home-cooked food, of how his mother was proud of her son. Tears stung his eyes, and he gulped in lungfuls of air to calm himself. He had been given a mission. If he gave up, there would be many more casualties – many more mothers would be left mourning for their Jay’s.
Amar packed water bottles and some food. He barely understood the compass, but tucked it in his pocket anyway and retrieved a map of the area. It was already getting dark and he could not afford to wait anymore.
Over the next three hours, he ran as if his life depended on it. Every time he wanted to slow down, he thought of how Jay had made the ultimate sacrifice, of how he had been unable to save his friend, who had been slaughtered mercilessly right in front of his eyes. The enemy had already made considerable advances using the cover of the night, and they looked all set to rage a full-fledged war at daybreak. Time was at a premium, and he had but a few hours to convey the message. Amar sprinted toward the nearest base. He ran like a man possessed, unaware of the blisters gnawing at his legs through his torn shoe. He stumbled and panted, but did not stop as he dragged himself to the base.
It was pitch-black, and Amar was beginning to tire out as his shoulders drooped. His eyes were starting to close. “Don’t stop, just don’t stop,” he kept muttering to himself. even as his legs began to buckle. He could make out a faint glow of lights in the distance. It was his training camp. Mustering every ounce of strength left in his worn-out body, he flung himself at the gate, the metal bars rattling in the cold silence. His voice was hoarse, and even though he shouted, no sound came out of his mouth.
Amar slipped down the gate when he heard a voice ring in his ears. All he could tell was that he was being dragged inside and placed on a stretcher. He had made it. Now he could die of exhaustion in peace. He began giving in to the overwhelming drowsiness as a sharp voice pulled him back to his senses, “What happened? Why do you look so shaken?”
With half-lidded eyes, he saw his batch-mates, the ones who had stayed behind hoping it to be a routine of supplying essentials. He looked at the familiar faces and was painfully reminded of Jay.
He grabbed a boy’s hand. Was it Vinod? He was too tired to tell. “Get the Commander-in-Chief on line.”
Vinod shook his head, “We can’t simply dial the President’s office. Do you know how many permissions we need to even think about it?”
Amar was in no mood to argue. “I’ll take the blame. Please, I beg you. It’s… important.”
Something in his voice told that the others that he was not joking. The cadets grabbed the stretcher and dragged it to the telephone as Vinod searched for the telephone directory. He scanned its pages, dialed several numbers, and spoke to four people before thrusting the receiver into Jay’s hand.
It was the voice of the President’s secretary. He was fuming, “How dare you dial the President’s office at this ungodly hour?”
Amar’s voice quivered, “Sir, my name is cadet Amar Sharma. I belong to the 11 Gorkha Rifles Regiment. Please hear me out for a minute.”
The secretary replied curtly, “Your time starts now.”
Amar spoke for the next minute or so. When he was not interrupted, his monologue extended to two minutes, giving him the chance to empty everything on his mind into the receiver.
He still received no encouragement or acknowledgment. “Anything else?” asked the secretary.
“I request that the body of cadet Jay Banerjee be delivered to his hometown for his last rites.”
The secretary mouthed an affirmation and disconnected the call before Aman finally gave in to the exhaustion. He woke up two days later and learned of the nation’s glorious victory over the enemy. He was elated, but a numbing ache reminded him of his friend.
He hastily got up and ran to the telephone booth even as a nurse screamed at him to stay still. He dialed his friend’s landline number, and after three rings, Jay’s mother answered the call.
Amar could not muster enough courage to speak. Jay’s mother asked uncertainly from the other end, “Is this Amar?”
“Y… yes. How did you know it’s me?”
The response from Jay’s mother rattled him to his core, “Jay had promised he’d bring you home, but he came alone.”
Amar’s throat suddenly went dry, and he stuttered, “I… I couldn’t-“
Jay’s mother cut him off, “Will you visit me soon? I’ll make your favorite food.”
Unmindful of the tears soaking his shirt, he replied, “Yes, I will.”
He slumped down in a nearby chair. He had lost a friend, but gained a mother. He was not an orphan anymore.
…now that you’re here
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