Daniel remembered them all, the ghosts from his past. His mother, his father. The siblings he hadn’t spoken to in decades when he had heard of their deaths. Worse were the comrades who had fallen in battle while he had survived. Especially one.
Why had he survived? He wasn’t stronger or braver. He hadn’t been a better shot. He remembered lying on his stomach behind piled sandbags, firing blindly at an enemy he couldn’t see, shells and bullets whistling all around him.
Aiden, his forbidden love, lay next to him, his own rifle belching bullets Daniel knew he prayed didn’t find a mark.
Aiden had always been the softer of the two. He had cried when, at thirteen, they found a dead cat on the side of the road, hopelessly tried to save her litter of kittens. Cried for them too.
Childhood friends, their love had grown slowly. Aiden had recognized it first, but always shy, waited for Daniel to ask. And he did. They hid their love through teenage years spent pretending interest in girls.
Against Aiden’s wishes, Daniel, at sixteen, told his sister, believing she would understand. She went straight to their parents. Outraged, they threw him out on his ear, told him he was lucky they didn’t have him arrested. Aiden’s family followed suit. Having learned a bitter lesson, they moved to the big city, Aiden, as always forgiving him no matter what his stupid choices cost them both.
War arrived before the boys could do more than find a hovel to live in and hire themselves out as day laborers. They posed as roommates, rather than lovers. Nazi Germany’s tanks rolled across Europe. Daniel made another rash decision and, with falsified documents, enlisted, with an always accepting Aiden following suit.
Hiding their love became survival during the war. The threat of death from an enemy bullet was a never ending threat, but discovery of homosexuality brought swift retribution from one’s own troops. Secrecy held their only meager hope of safety.
Then, that awful day, behind those sandbags, he stole a glance at his childhood friend, his love. At eighteen they had already survived countless firefights, laughing and drinking with comrades as they all hid their trauma.
One glance changed Daniel’s life forever. Aiden lay flat on the ground, facing the sky, a gaping hole in his chest. His eyes stared, unseeing at a sun half-obscured by smoke and cloud.
Something broke in Daniel. He crawled to his love, heedless of the bullets whizzing past his head. Tears pouring in dirty tracks down his cheeks, he pulled Aiden to him. An anguished scream tore itself from Daniels’ own chest, leaving a wound that would never heal.
Daniel, still holding Aiden when the medics found him, hadn’t noticed his own injuries. They were enough to disqualify him from further service. He went home, and buried his best friend — his love.
They called him a hero, one of the few to survive Aiden’s last battle. But he knew better. He had killed the only person who really knew him, really loved him. Had he not enlisted, they would only now be old enough for service. Instead of being on that battlefield, they would have been on a base somewhere beginning their training.
Daniel’s ghosts haunted his dreams, dogged his daytime steps, none more so than Aiden. Aiden who still smiled that crooked smile at him, who still forgave him everything, even the marriage to a woman and the raising of two boys, one of whom bore his name.
An old man, now, dying of cancer, Daniel sat on Aiden’s grave and wondered what he would have made of this new world. A world in which they could have openly loved and married. A world in which Daniel would not have made the decision to hide. He wanted to ask Aiden, but the ghost of Daniel’s crushed dreams never answered. He only smiled and blew a kiss.