Raw red and stinging, the bite mark hurt Gavin more than any of the many wounds he’d been receiving. It seared through the small, perfectly round, puncture mark and spread through his arm the way wildfire spreads in forests: first in a way that makes sense, treetop to treetop, then in a sudden burst appearing a hundred yards away in an unexpected spot, signalling that it’s out of control. His entire arm was now inflamed, including the shoulder, which was sending bolts of sticky white pain down his back, through his spine.
Gavin sat silently, alternately sucking and biting on his lips. He didn’t intend to make them bleed – he was in enough pain already – but the motion calmed him. He could almost imagine that his own lips were another’s, a woman’s. He’d never kissed anyone before. Unless you counted his mother, which he emphatically didn’t. He hadn’t let her kiss him full on the mouth since his tenth birthday, when his friends had seen her kiss him goodbye before going to play and had made fun of him all day for it. He’d never forget that day. He’d felt stuffed with chalk and stone all day, both heavy and so fragile that the lightest scratch would make him crumble.
He hadn’t written his mother in over a week. Now was a good time. It would take his mind off the awful bite, and Lord only knew what terrible insect gave it to him, and off his belly, which was gurgling with emptiness. There was a ration van on its way to replenish their supplies, but it was running late. No one knew way, not even the commanders, and Gavin and the others were trying not to panic. Some fights had already broken out, though. It was going to be a long afternoon if the van didn’t get here soon.
Gavin pulled his pack closer to him and spread his legs to settle it between them as a kind of writing desk. But even the small strain of keeping the pack balanced with his arm was too much. It was ridiculous, but there he was, lying awkwardly sideways, kicking his pack out of the way. He found a block of wood among the detritus spread around him and used it as a surface to keep his atrocious handwriting more in check than it would have been on the uneven ground. His mother’s letters, when he got them, were usually full of complaints, and one of the repeated ones had to do with her inability to decipher his scrawl. It made the process of writing to her all the more frustrating for Gavin. He wanted to assure her that he was safe, but it seemed that he could never get the message across.
Then again, he wasn’t entirely safe. There was a war on. He and his unit were moving from one camp to another, and none of them knew when they’d face actual combat. But they all knew they would, eventually. They’d reach a field, a valley, a dale – somewhere – where they’d dig trenches and face the dreadful others. The enemy. They’d pull out their guns, and they’d keep their tomahawks handy, just in case anyone got close enough and needed a last minute blow, even though everyone knew the knives were really mostly for show, and they’d kill people. He, Gavin, would kill people.
It wasn’t until he finished writing the letter to his mother that he looked up and realized that the ration van, meaning food, had arrived. His mouth went dry, his stomach gave a leap and a particularly strong gurgle before trying to convince him that, in fact, he wasn’t at all hungry – it often did this when he was excited – and his lips rested softly together, tired f their kissing practice. Food was more important than the idea of killing a man, or many men, more important than a pretty girl, more important than writing home. He got up and ran to join the other latecomers, praying to God that he wouldn’t miss out on anything.