"The Counting" by Joanna Campbell
Never thought much about numbers before.
Sixteen, the age I met Shirley. Twenty, the ciggies in a packet, if I'm lucky.
Safety in numbers? That rings hollow now.
The sun's rounding out nicely. My eyes are shut. The heat is on my face.
Are the other men looking? Are they counting?
I want to see the sun again. I want to remember Shirley lying in the maize. Purple poppies were stirring. Then the wind dropped, waiting for the goodbye.
My eyes open, but I can't see the faces beside mine. Every soldier stands stock still. The commandant yelled at us.
I hear the kind of quiet that falls with an overnight quilt of snow, or the first time you look at your girl and you both know something. But this is a different silence.
Every fourth man.
That's what the commandant said. I can feel the fear of us twenty men in line, comrades who tried to scarper.
I'm in the middle somewhere. Could be the ninth. Eleventh maybe. If not, then a friend is. If I'm an odd number, then I'm wishing a friend to die. I pray for myself, the same as the rest.
The rifle clicks. It's time.
Two clear words beside me. Jack's straining to work out his number.
Three more words. Thank God. I'm seven.
The first shot fires. I think of Shirley's eyes, bluer than poppies, eclipsing the sun.