(Hover over the French words for a translation.)
Cliff knows the Train’s near the kid’s stop when he starts shaking again.
Cliff blows on his hands and rubs them together. The fucking boxcar is always freezing, but his sweat never dries. His hair is wet, his skin shiny and itching with sweat beneath the grime. He can feel it sliding down his chest and back beneath the flak jacket.
Maybe that’s part of the punishment. Who the hell knows? One of the very few things Cliff is sure of is that the Canuck’s trembling has nothing to do with the cold, even though his breath mists with every exhale. He’s sitting with the butt of his rifle on the floor between his knees, knuckles white from gripping the barrel. His eyes are fixed on the car door, just like always. Sometimes he murmurs prayers to himself, but tonight he’s silent. His dark brown hair flops across his forehead. The kid’s eyes are dark brown too, and way too innocent for whatever he’s seen. He’s about twice as pale as Cliff is tanned, mostly from fear.
He looks as delicate and pretty as a girl, despite the uniform and the gun between his hands. It makes Cliff think of Georgie, and he tries never to do that. Georgie wasn’t nearly as fragile as this kid seems anyway, but at the end the fear in his eyes was the same.
“Here.” Devon, on Cliff’s right like usual, offers him a cigarette from the pack he keeps in one of the pockets of his vest. His fatigues are covered in camouflage made of tiny squares in tans and browns, and his gun is something sleek and more deadly than anything Cliff’s ever seen. His gear looks like it came out of a sci-fi movie.
“Thanks.” Cliff takes the cigarette with a nod, puts it in his mouth then waits while Devon lights it, ignoring the bloodstains all over the paper. He’s never asked what Devon did to end up here, but he always comes in with blood all over his clothes and a fixed smile on his face, like he’s seen so deep into hell all he can do is laugh about it.
Devon doesn’t look like the kind of guy who’d deserve to end up on the Train, but for all Cliff knows he doesn’t either. It’s not like any of them can see each other’s souls. Hell, even the Nazi at the very end of the bench doesn’t look like he did anything. All he does is stare down at a thick braid of blond hair he twists in his hands. But the hair came from somewhere, and when the Nazi gets off there’s always the sound of people moaning and crying, and the stench that comes back into the car is unbelievable.
The Canadian looks like he deserves to be here the least of anyone, but he’s always sitting on the bench when Cliff gets on, wordless and trembling.
Cliff takes another drag on the cigarette, then nudges the kid’s ankle with the side of his foot. “Hey.”
The Canadian jumps about a foot, staring at him wildly. “What?” It’s the first time he’s actually said anything out loud for someone else to hear. He sounds so fucking young.
“Relax, I’m not going to bite you.” Cliff offers the cigarette. “Here. It’ll help.”
The kid looks wary, especially when he sees the blood, but he still reaches for it. His hand’s shaking so badly that Cliff takes it in both of his without thinking, making sure the cigarette isn’t going to fall before it gets to the kid’s lips. His fingers are cold as ice, and his eyes go even wider at Cliff’s touch. But he doesn’t pull his hand back.
“That’s it.” Cliff keeps his smile steady. He figures he can’t get punished for anything he does anymore, but he can’t help glancing back at Devon anyway. He’s lucky: Devon’s got his eyes closed, singing under his breath to whatever song’s piping into his ears through the wires attached to that tiny TV in his pocket.
Cliff lets the Canadian go, then watches him inhale around the cigarette like he needs it to breathe.
The kid nods woodenly, though not one bit of the terror has leached out of his eyes. He yanks the cigarette out of his mouth to exhale, then stuffs it in again.
Cliff wants to ask what the hell’s waiting for him at his stop, that he’s still this fucking scared. You don’t ask, though. Not in this car. Maybe the other passengers do, but in this car they know better. He couldn’t stand anyone prying into his skull; least he can do is return the favor.
So instead he holds out his hand. “Clifford Reilly. Corporal,” he adds a second later, because he feels like he should.
The Canadian blinks, startled again, then seems to figure out what Cliff’s doing and returns the handshake. His hand trembles in Cliff’s like a trapped bird. “Private Silvio Fortin.” His accent makes it sound like ‘pree-vatt’, but it’s nice. Reminds Cliff a bit of some of the Cajun boys in his unit. He likes it.
“Where are you from, Private Silvio Fortin?” He plucks the cigarette from Silvio’s hand and takes a long drag, then hands it back. “Besides Canada, I mean.” He runs his fingers over the ‘Canada’ patch on the kid’s shoulder, touching a little longer than he should, maybe.
“Quebec,” Silvio says.
Cliff grins again, though he’s not sure where in Canada that is. Somewhere with accents, obviously. “Well, how about that? I’m from Detroit. Guess we’re neighbors, then.”
Silvio nods distantly, takes another pull of the cigarette.
They settle into silence for a while. The Train clacks and rumbles. Devon’s sleeping, his cigarette rolling back and forth along the floor at his feet, trailing dying sparks. The Nazi has his head in his hands, holding the braid against his cheek. Next stop they’ll pick up the African kid with the dripping machete, and then Silvio’s stop will come.
The Train slows. Silvio says something under his breath, low and fervent. His fingers twitch around his gun.
“Hey.” Cliff bumps him with his elbow. “You’re gonna be fine. Tomorrow night I’ll get on this train and you’ll be sitting here just like always. Nothing out there can kill you anymore.”
Silvio inhales around the cigarette like his life depends on it. It’s almost gone. He pulls it out of his mouth and grinds it out on the floor. “The pain.” He rubs his chest. “If I run, if I stand…It is always just pain.” He swallows, wipes his eyes with the side of his hand. “I hate this. I hate this train!”
“Don’t say that!” Cliff snaps. Devon snuffles awake from the noise. “You want the conductor to hear you?” He glances around, but no one’s appeared with an immaculate uniform and hot coals for eyes. “You know what’ll happen if he throws you off?”
“You die?” Silvio sounds hopeful, the fucking idiot.
“You wish,” Devon snorts, then frowns at his burnt out cigarette. He snags his pack out of his pocket. There are three cigarettes left; tomorrow night there’ll be five again.
“We screwed up too bad to get to die,” Cliff says. He wipes the same sweat off his forehead. There’s the same grime on his fingers when he looks at them. Sometimes he wonders if that’s part of the punishment too, how nothing changes. Boredom as its own kind of hell.
“Speak for your fucking self. I just did my job,” Devon says.
Cliff clenches his jaw. “I did too.”
That’s why he’s here, he knows that. He knew it when it was happening: how much of a fucking coward he was. How he always did whatever Sarge wanted, instead of standing his ground. Too afraid of what else he might reveal, if he didn’t toe the line.
Georgie was the brave one, the one who threw his gun down and said no.
Cliff is never going to see him again, but he’s so glad Georgie’s not on the Train.
“I ran,” Silvio says, looking straight ahead. He pats the ‘Canada’ on his shoulder. “There was no one else, when the Algerians break. The lieutenant yelled for me to stay. My friends also. But the gas…I cannot breathe. It hurts. So I ran. And behind me, they die.” He shudders. The word he says sounds like “lash”, but it’s a lot worse than that, from his expression.
“Is that what you go back to?” Cliff asks quietly.
“‘Fuck’s sake, Cliff. What’s your problem?” Devon mutters. He’s right—that’s another thing you don’t ask here. They all get to keep their horror and shame to themselves. It’s the only thing they have anymore.
Silvio nods anyway.
The Train rolls to a stop and they all go silent, listening for the heavy, confident footfalls before the doors of their car slide open. The conductor ushers the boy in, then gives them all a tip of his hat and a pleasant smile before he slams the doors shut again.
The boy barely glances at them before he goes and leans against the wall. In the silence right before the Train starts they can hear the tick of the blood dropping from his machete.
Sometimes Cliff wants to ask what the boy goes to when his morning comes around. Is he forced to hack apart the same victims over and over again? Or does he have to clean up the mess he made?
Probably it’s just whatever’s worse.
The Train chugs out of the station, picking up speed. Next stop is Silvio’s.
“I ran too,” Cliff says, over the grunt and sway of the car. Silvio looks at him in shock, like he would never have accused Cliff of that kind of cowardice.
(Cliff didn’t run, though. Not in the end. He just walked right up to the Train where it waited for him.)
“Oh,” Silvio says. “I am sorry.”
Cliff shrugs. “Just saying, it ain’t only you.”
The kid doesn’t answer. The Train is slowing again. Shorter time between stops, now.
“You’ll be okay,” Cliff says. He puts his hand on Silvio’s back. “I’ll see you again in a few hours, all right?”
Silvio shakes his head mutely. He wipes more tears off his face, starts murmuring words Cliff can’t understand, but has heard so many times he’s memorized them: “Notre Père qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié, que ton règne vienne, que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel….“
Fuck it, Cliff thinks. He knows the kid’s name now, and he’s sick to the teeth of watching this every damn night. He throws his arm across Silvio’s shoulders. “You’re gonna be okay. You’ll come right back here and it’ll stop hurting.”
Silvio doesn’t let go of his rifle, but he leans into Cliff and rests his forehead against Cliff’s temple as he cries. Cliff cups the back of Silvio’s head with his free hand, telling him he’ll be all right over and over again.
Cliff doesn’t realize the Train’s stopped until he’s startled by the boxcar doors opening. The conductor stands on the top step, expression mild beneath his hellfire eyes. “You need to get off, Fortin,” he says, not unkindly. “You’re holding everyone up.”
Silvio jerks out of Cliff’s hold and scrambles to his feet, frantically wiping his eyes. He grips his rifle in both hands and walks to the door. He glances back once, then follows the conductor out into the cold mist of early morning.
The conductor sticks his head between the doors. “Next stop’s yours, Reilly.” He smiles before he ducks out again. The doors shut. A minute or two later the Train starts moving.
“It’s a fucking shame, that kid ending up here. What kind of idiot stays put when he’s being gassed?” Devon scowls at the door, arms crossed over his vest. “I tell you, none of us should be here. We were doing our jobs, that’s all. What the fuck else were we supposed to do?”
Cliff thinks about Georgie, standing at attention with his gun in the dirt. The sadness on his face when he looked at Cliff, right before Sarge shot him. It’d taken the death of the one good person Cliff knew before he had the balls to do something, and it was too late by then anyway. He’d fragged his own team for Georgie, and in the end all he could do was watch the village burn.
“Nothing, Dev,” he says to him as he stands. “Not a damn thing different.”
He waits by the doors, swaying for balance when the Train slows down. He’s not scared, but he shivers a little. He hates the fucking cold.
The Train stops and it’s no time at all before the conductor’s back, opening the doors. “Have a good day, Reilly.” His teeth are sharp and bloodstained when he grins.
“Thank you, sir.” Cliff steps into the oppressive humidity of late afternoon. His shovel’s sticking out of the dirt, right where he left it. He can already smell the burned flesh among the dirt and green.
He starts walking, one foot in front of the other. He has a ways to go yet, before he reaches the village, and lots of bodies to bury.
“Forty-and-Eight” was the name given to the European boxcars that were used to transport soldiers or cavalry mounts beginning in World War I. You can read about them here.
The Battle of Ypres was one of the most bloody conflicts of World War I. It was also one of the first times the Canadian Expeditionary Force was tested in battle, when they were forced to hold back the advancing German troops after the Algerians (reasonably) fled from chlorine gas. The Canadians suffered incredibly heavy casualties: at least 75%.
The flat, ‘Tommy Hat’ helmets weren’t available until the summer of 1915, which is why Silvio dosn’t have one.