Student or Learner
Please would you take a look at the seventh part of my short story, "The Nineties", and correct my mistakes.
Suddenly someone called out my name. A man with an olive-green helmet on his head and a brand-new combat uniform beckoned me. “Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to kill you,” he shouted. It took me a few seconds to recognize Nenad. It felt surreal to see him in the uniform and with an AK-47 on his shoulder. Beside him were his mother Olga and his wife, their faces swollen with tears. Nenad tilted his helmet back and gave me a wide smile. We shook hands and exchanged greetings and hugs. “You’ll see me again in a few months. If I don’t have at least one medal on my breast, you can spit in my face. Maybe I’m mad, but I’m not a coward.” He laughed again, his eyes sparkling mischievously, just as I remembered them from our college time. I hugged him, wishing him good luck, and I walked away. When I turned my head, I saw Milena and him embrace. He kissed her on her forehead and stroked her long black hair. I hurried back home because I felt tears gathering in my eyes.
The next day my father returned from his habitual stroll, he took daily with his friends. His face was dark and wrinkled. I could not remember seeing him in such a sombre mood ever before.
“Nenad has been killed.” His voice was hardly audible.
“When? How?” I felt a knot forming in my stomach. I did not want to believe the news.
“Yesterday. Apparently shot dead, but I don’t know the details.”
He told me he met Olga’s neighbour, Jasna, who today saw two officers entering Olga’s flat. Immediately after that, Olga started crying hysterically and banging with her hands at the walls in desperation. Other residents rushed to her flat, believing an accident had happened, but when they heard the sad news, they started crying too.
I would not find out the truth about Nenad’s death until three months later, when I bumped into Danilo, whom I had known since my childhood. We played basketball together when we were teenagers, but later on our ways parted, although we would talk to each other whenever we met. He had just returned from the frontline, and he was eager to relate his experiences to me. We sat in a pub drinking beer, and he told me how on that fateful day he saw Nenad arrive with hundreds of others soldiers. He was attached to his unit, and from the first moment, he started cracking jokes and amusing the others. There had been an unofficial ceasefire for 48 hours, and the soldiers were spiritless and apathetic after months spent in trenches. They warmly welcomed someone who could alleviate their boredom. It was so calm that birds could be heard singing in the nearby woods. At the rear, a cassette player was blasting turbo folk, and a group of soldiers roasted piglets on a spit. It felt more like a holiday than a war.
After telling dozens of jokes, Nenad became silent and restless. Before anyone could have warned him, he rose above the parapet with the words, “I just want to see how it looks like on the other side.” The next moment he was dead, killed by a sniper bullet in the heart. “If you want to hear my advice, “Danilo said wiping the foam from his lips with his hand, “first, don’t volunteer for anything, and second, don’t be too curious.”
After Nenad’s death, I did not enjoy the river as I had done before. I could not sit on the bank or swim without thinking of him and ponder over our discussions. He was still present in my subconscious, and I expected to see him come out of the river holding Milena in his arms, their bodies covered in drops of water sparkling in the sun, their lips pressed together in a long kiss. He could be lying somewhere among the bathers or squatting behind the rushes and reeds, inventing jokes and plotting mischief. Soon I was going to see him walk with his child, play with it and teach it the first words. But in reality I saw only his mother Olga, walking like an old woman, her body sagging, her eyes never looking up at the passers-by. I did not dare to approach her to offer her my condolences.
Summer was nearing its end, but the sound of artillery fire did not stop. It started early in the morning and went on for hours until the late afternoon. Only on a few occasions, when the ceasefire came into effect, the guns were silent, but just for a day or two before the pounding started again. You could feel a change in the atmosphere in the town. Coffins arrived one after the other, sometimes several at once, and the mothers dressed in black walked the streets like ghosts from another world. They had come to remind people of suffering humans inflict upon each other. I walked the streets and stopped to read the death certificates - sheets of white paper framed in black and stuck on the lamp posts and walls all over the town. I looked at the pictures of these young soldiers and was filled with sadness. Such a waste of life, I thought, so many young men dying for a mad project, which did not belong in this century. There was nothing to be proud about, as the certificate proclaimed. It was rather a great calamity.
To be continued