Printed from https://shop.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2293748-What-We-Fight-For
by Jeremy
Rated: 18+ · Chapter · War · #2293748
Two soldiers on opposing sides learn about the true costs of war.

Kherson Province, Ukraine
Present Day

Oleksander threw himself to the ground as gunfire exploded into the wall behind him. A plume of dust and concrete rained on his helmet like war zone confetti. Seconds later another volley of shots ate into the concrete slab he sheltered behind. Oleksander slid his back against the barrier of rubble, chest heaving in short, shallow bursts. He clenched his rifle to his chest—finger trembling on the trigger—and closed his eyes.


The outcropping of debris he hunkered behind was the ruined edifice of a bombed-out rowhouse. The facade of the four-story building had collapsed into a courtyard flanked on three sides by other buildings of similar height and style. Piles of toppled concrete and twisted rebar lay scattered amid the craters of exploded artillery shells. In every direction was destruction, shattered glimpses of lives paused by war.

Another burst of gunfire chewed into the debris.

"Pizda! Fuck you!" Oleksander coughed. Dust and smoke wafted in the stagnant air, itching and burning his throat. He opened a canteen strapped at his side and placed it to his lips. But it was empty. A primitive growl escaped his mouth, "Fucking cunt!"

He shifted to his right to try and gain a line of site for retreat but his movement garnered another salvo of rounds.

"I know you're alone!" A voice called out from across the courtyard. It was accented. Russian. "I watched your comrades leave earlier."

Oleksander hung his head. How long had the invader been watching him?

"My unit will be back soon! You shouldn’t be here when they return." Oleksander swallowed deep. "You can't win a firefight against all of us."

"Stick your head out then! Make it quick!" The Russian called out. "Then I can leave before your friends come back."

"If you stay here you will die! Just like your bastard pig brothers!"

"I will not die until this debt of blood is repaid!"

The eerie creek of a lone swing set drifted along the smokey air. Not even a year ago, on his nineteenth birthday, Oleksander remembered sitting with his younger sister on such a swing set. Then the Russians had come. As tanks roared across the countryside, he had been forced to renounce the splendor and naivety of youth as nothing more than the childhood folly of careless swinging. The dreams and aspirations he had were now cannon fodder for Russian artillery.

"They won’t collect your body when you die!" Oleksander thought of his mother. She had tried her best to hide tears as he left to join the war effort. "Your family, they'll never see you again. And your mother, she'll only know you died far from home."

There was silence.

Oleksander continued, "Your body will rot and fertilize the ground. Ukraine will rebuild atop your bones!"

A bout of laughter bubbled from across the courtyard. Olek's face flushed.

"Go home! To your home." Oleksander looked into the gray sky and watched the black smoke of destroyed tanks drift overhead. His unit had hunted down and incapacitated three earlier in the day. "If you stay, this place will be your grave. Only death waits for you here."

"But if I am here for you now," The Russian called out, "then I am death."

Two shots tracked across the ground to Oleksander's left. "You're just wasting ammunition! We've read the reports. You're all getting low!"

"Don't worry, I have one bullet left." The Russian released a foamy cough before continuing, "One I'm saving just for you."

Oleksander looked into the carcass of the building in front of him. He could make a run for it. If the Russian truly only had one bullet left, it'd be difficult to hit him. And even if it did strike him, what would the likelihood be of it hitting something vital? Oleksander began weighing the options. Maybe the reports had been wrong?

A single shot pierced the silence of the courtyard. The sound bounced and echoed off the surrounding buildings. It had been close but didn't appear to be directed at his hideout.

Oleksander listened intently for any noise or indication as to what was going on. He strained to hear anything as his ears engorged with blood, pulsing with every heartbeat.

"Oleksander!" A familiar voice called out. "Olek, you out there?"

Oleksander shuddered. The tension in his shoulders released and he bowed his head. It was Vitaliy, a friend in his unit. He heard the approach of footsteps and rose from the rubble. Vitaliy let out an audible gasp of relief.

"Good, good, " Vitaliy stated as they embraced in a quick hug. "You okay?"

Oleksander nodded his head. "Yeah. Thanks, V."

The soldier patted Olek on the back and continued, "We heard gunfire and rushed back. Glad that piece of shit didn't get you."

Vitaliy pointed across the courtyard. In the doorway of one of the rowhouses, Oleksander made out the lifeless body of the Russian he had conversed with only moments before. As they approached the building, Olek bit down on his lower lip and held his rifle at the ready as if the soldier was going to reanimate and open fire on him again.

The Russian lay face down in a growing pool of his own blood, a single bullet hole in the back of his head. He had been taken by surprise. Petro, the commander of their unit, stood over the Russian. He used his boot to roll the occupier onto his back.

Oleksander was taken aback by how much of himself he saw in the dead Russian. Like himself, the soldier couldn't have been but a few years out of his teens. His piercing blue eyes stared blankly, blood staining his cheeks. The soldier's lifeless expression was frozen and doll-like.

Aside from the different flag sewn on his uniform, he looked like a lot of Olek's friends back home in Kyiv. Perhaps in another time and under different circumstances, they could've been friends.

"Check his pockets," Petro said as he snapped his fingers to get Oleksander's attention. "Collect any intel you find."

Oleksander knelt beside the dead Russian, still overwhelmed by their likeness. It felt almost sacrilegious to touch him.

Petro looked down, his thick brows narrowing. "The cunt got what he deserved. He's one of the lucky ones to have gone quick. Both of his legs were fucked."

Petro kicked the Russian's thigh. Olek hadn't noticed it because he had been so transfixed on the soldier's face, but the legs of the Russian's uniform were in tatters. Under the frayed camo-print of the uniform was blackened and bloodied skin. The Russian had been in an explosion or fire. Perhaps he had been a crew member of one of the tanks they'd destroyed earlier in the day.

"He would've starved to death or bled out. This was more mercy than he deserved."

Vitaliy looked down at the Russian's mangled legs and then at Petro. "How'd he even get in here? We cleared these buildings earlier."

Petro shrugged his shoulders. "Probably hid like the cockroaches they are."

Petro drew phlegm into the back of his throat and spat on the Russian's corpse.

The action made Olek recoil as though he was being shot at again. Petro gave him a passing glance before walking away. Oleksander reached into the Russian's trouser pockets but found nothing. He then went into the front chest pocket of the soldier's uniform. He pulled out what felt like a crinkled piece of paper. He had been carrying intel after all.

But when Oleksander brought it closer and looked at it, it was a picture of a young girl carrying a teddy bear.

Olek turned the photo over. On the back of the black and white picture was written a single word: Katya.

Oleksander wondered if the little girl in the photograph was the Russian's daughter or even his sister. Regardless, they'd now have to grow up without him. She’d have questions that now only Oleksander could answer. To her, the Russian was real, someone who was loved, someone who's absence would be a daily reminder of the costs of war. But to the world, the Russian was no one, intangible, a vice for propaganda, a nameless and forgotten causality amassed into statistics that would mean nothing.

"Find anything?" Petro called over.

Oleksander took a moment to gather his composure. "No. Just a reminder of what we fight for."

Petro gave a nod. "Alright, men. Pack up! We're on the move to Bakhmut!"

Olek folded the photograph and stuck it back into the fallen Russian's chest pocket. He rested his hand atop it for a moment.

"You coming, Olek?" Vitaliy called out to him.

Oleksander stood and made his way to the edge of the buildings. As they passed the rowhouses, Olek took a fleeting glance back into the courtyard.

It was quiet. And beyond the ruin, the courtyard was once again at peace.

Word Count | 1,555
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