Off-limits, 1917

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The barbed wire was a warning.

I thought the presence of barbed wire around an unexploded piece of ordnance was fairly self-explanatory.

Some of our higher-ranking officers failed to understand the significance of the barrier.

Either that or they just didn’t care. Regardless of the reason, they approached the barbed wire and the shell with an extreme amount of indifference.

We watched the group of five men, three colonels and a pair of generals walk directly toward the shell. I could see that the men were Americans and that they hailed from a New York national guard unit. Their uniforms were in impeccable shape and appeared to have been tailor-made.

One of my boys called out to the officers and warned them away from the shell, but a general threatened to report his behavior to our commanding officer.

I rolled my eyes at the man’s idiocy, then I led my squad out of the shell’s blast radius, and we settled down to watch the show.

As the officers gathered around the barbed wire, some of my squad began taking bets as to who would set off the bomb and how many would be killed. Money was changing hands when one of the colonels squatted down, reached through the wire and touched the shell.

For a split second, nothing happened, and then it was as though all the sound was stripped from the world. I could not even hear my own breathing.

From where I sat, I saw the expressions of terror flash across the officers’ faces, and then there was a great rumbling as the ground opened up beneath them, and the officers vanished.

Swearing, I got to my feet and brought my rifle to my shoulder. As I nestled the stock into place, the barbed wire was slowly pulled into the ground, leaving the shell exposed.

I adjusted my sights, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger.

My shot was true, but the shell didn’t explode.

Instead, it shuddered and collapsed upon itself. There was a terrible shriek followed by a sucking sound, and the shell vanished in the morning light.

None of my squad spoke as they stood up and adjusted their equipment. I motioned for them to head back toward our lines, and I glanced once more at where the shell had been.

Finally, I shook my head and followed my boys.

I’d been in France for almost four years, and I was getting damned tired of it.

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Nicholas Efstathiou

Husband, father, and writer.

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