AT THE END of a civil war, two lone soldiers remained.
General Killinger, injured, propped himself up against one of the few remaining structures. He gripped his side and felt as warm blood slowly trickled past his fingers and, eventually, to the ground. But, he was in no way dying for if Death had wanted him, he would have gone long ago. And yet, here he was, still breathing, still surviving.
The world around him had, within what seemed like an eternity, changed drastically. As he surveyed the land around him, General Killinger could only see bloodshed. For miles, there was nothing but the intense feeling of despair and dejection. How did things turn out this way? Before he could answer, footsteps.
General Killinger was sure he was the last man standing—the one that would return a hero. But now, just mere meters away, another sound emerged. For a fleeting moment, General Killinger closed his eyes and believed he was saved, that someone else from his army had survived. That is, until he heard the gun cock.
Opening his eyes, General Killinger found himself face-to-face with the barrel of a gun. Behind it, another man. A soldier.
Private Gravestone quaked with anxiety and fear as he pointed his firearm at the wounded general.
“T-tell me why I shouldn’t put a bullet through your head right now…” he managed to say.
General Killinger first stared, then looked blankly in a different direction, still gripping his wound.
General Killinger continued to ignore the soldier. After all, it was very unlikely that Death would claim him this day, and especially not through the use of a soldier like he who stood in front of him now. But, as if to show sudden interest, General Killinger began to slowly scan the one in front of him. Clean. No wounds.
“I’m going to give you one more chance!” he shouted, still shaking violently.
General Killinger opened his mouth to say something that was not an order, for the first time in almost eight years. “What would you gain?” he asked.
Private Gravestone withdrew in shock, not fully comprehending the question. Or, perhaps, understanding a little too well the implications of such a thought.
“Gain? V-… Victory. Without you, we’d win the war…” he asserted.
“We? Take a look around you, soldier. The only ‘we’ here is you and I. And if you were to dispose of me, soldier, perhaps you would be satisfied with just…’you’?”
“That’s not true.”
“It is true.”
Taken aback, Private Gravestone hesitated for a few moments, but ultimately put his gun down. In any case, he was not capable of using such a weapon. However, having accepted that he was the only one left on his side, the young soldier could not help but raise it once more.
“Is that your ploy, General?” he said through clenched teeth.
“Ploy?” General Killinger began, his breathing now becoming a bit labored. “And what ploy might that be, soldier? I don’t have an army to—”
“You’re a coward, Killinger,” Private Gravestone said, cutting off the general. “You’re right, you don’t have an army anymore, and yet, look at you. You’re done for, and here you are, still trying to fight for your life.”
General Killinger was silent.
“And your army,” Gravestone continued, waving the gun around. “Let’s talk about your army. Where is it? How can you call yourself a general—a leader—when the ones you were meant to lead are all gone, but you… You continue to cling on to life?” He paused. “How can you abandon them, just like that?”
By now, it had become painfully clear to the two soldiers that there was a sense of camaraderie between them, although Private Gravestone dared not to mention it for fear of feeling sympathy.
“’Abandon,’ huh?” General Killinger muttered. “I suppose you’re correct in saying that. I never was a great general, you must know that by now. The sheer fact that I have outlived everyone that believed in me shows my incompetency—I will admit that much. Perhaps I am what you say, a coward. But don’t think for one second that you are excluded from such a qualifier. Do you think I can’t see what stands before me? Although I have gained nothing else but lost friends, my eyes do not betray me. Are you not a coward, as well?”
Private Gravestone flinched.
“I had men to lead. I had strategies to execute. You? I’m not quite sure what it is your responsibilities were, but from the looks of it, you couldn’t even do those. You are no soldier.” General Killinger now turned his head away, as if to indicate that the conversation was over.
“Don’t use your men as an excuse.” Private Gravestone struggled to find the courage to speak up.
“Your men. Your strategies. What happened?” he questioned. “If you spent all that time leading and strategizing, then what happened? You’re a general, and yet you hide behind your men and your plans?”
General Killinger scoffed. At the same time, he knew he could not logically defend his argument. The two were at a standstill.
“So then, let me ask you again: what do you gain from disposing of a coward like me?” he asked the private. He could feel the grip of death slowly begin to tighten, replacing the confidence he had just minutes ago with a strange sense of peace, almost as if he knew that time was up. Private Gravestone had no answer.
“Do you know why this war began in the first place?”
“I see,” he said, almost dejectedly. Private Gravestone’s inability to answer the question was not odd, though. After all, the war had begun silently ten years prior. For the average person, one could assume the whole truth was never revealed, and for everyone else, the truth had been so bastardized at this point that it was difficult to distinguish between duty and desire. Most of the soldiers were fighting a war they knew nothing of—not the origin, the purpose, or now, the outcome.
“You said earlier that you would gain victory,” General Killinger continued. “What does victory in the war mean, when there is no country left to return to?” His breathing became labored at this point, and the pain had finally started settling in. “What is victory, when everything has been wiped away?”
Private Gravestone stood still, save for his arm, still shaking. Despite his fear, the young soldier could tell that the person who he had been warring against for the better part of the year he was fighting was now dying before his eyes. It was this realization that crumbled his resolve. At the end of the day, Private Gravestone was no soldier. Seeing this, the dying general spoke once more.
“I fought for something I believed in, soldier,” he began. He was one of the few who remained at the end of the war who truly understood its original intentions. “For years, I understood that it may very well bring the end of me, and here I lay, waiting to be greeted by those who left before me. But make no mistake: there is no defeat in my death. Although these are my last breaths, I assure you that in this time of turmoil, where our country has been torn to shreds and crumbled under the pressure of societal demands, the true victory lies in he who stood by what he understands as truth, even to the bitter end.”
At these words, Private Gravestone pulled the trigger. In doing so, he closed his eyes and recoiled with the force of the shot. He had no desire to see what he had done, but forced himself to do so. Slowly opening his eyes, he saw that nothing had happened.
General Killinger let out a stifled chuckle. His vision became blurry, but in his final moments, he was satisfied. Private Gravestone, on the other hand, let his arm fall to his side as he gravity of the dying general’s words finally became known to him. Although he was the last man standing, Private Gravestone felt no victory.
One last time, the general said to him, speaking with great difficulty, “So, tell me, soldier. What have you gained from this war?”
At the end of a decade-long civil war, just one civilian remained.