As Than finished his story, I was licking melted chocolate and marshmallows from my fingers. Smores are one of my favorite things to make around a campfire. I decided to have another one, and as I leaned forward to grab some marshmallows, Artemis stopped me. “Nike, surely you have a story you can tell us.”
“Come on, Nike,” Than said encouragingly. “You always tell great stories.”
Reluctantly, I put down the yummy, white gooey marshmallows and thought for a minute. “Well, there is a story I could tell, I suppose. One that I don’t talk about much.” I looked around the campfire and noticed that everyone, mortal and immortal, was looking at me. “I’ll do my best.”
It was near Christmas, 1944, in the forests near Bastogne, Belgium during World War II. Ares and I had been driving around, visiting soldiers and trying to bolster their spirits. But it was so hard to do because they were low on supplies and were ill-equipped for the cold weather. Many of the men were suffering from frostbite because they didn’t have thick socks or gloves, nor heavy coats to wear. Hopes of being home by Christmas had long since faded.
We came upon a small band of soldiers who were huddled around a modest fire, which was a feat unto itself because of all the snow on the ground. But they had somehow managed to get one started. Parking the jeep, we walked over to them and asked if we could join them for a bit. They agreed a bit reluctantly, and we found a place to sit.
“Hey, it’s a woman!” one soldier said as he got a good look at me. “We don’t usually get no women up here on the front lines.”
“I’m a nurse,” I explained, “and this is my escort. We’re headed to an aid station near Flamenge.”
“Heck, lady, I don’t care why you’re up here, just glad to see a beautiful face!” the man replied. “I’ve been lookin’ at these mugs for months, and they just get uglier every day.”
“Aw, screw you, Mac,” one of the other men said. “It’s not like we enjoy listening to your snoring every night.”
They all laughed. “Hey, lady, have you heard anything about when the fighting might be over?” Mac asked me.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Everyone we’ve met has asked me that.”
“Looks like another Christmas on the front lines, boys,” Mac said wearily.
“They canceled my furlough,” another man said. “I was hoping to go to Paris for a few days for a little ooh-la-la. Instead, it’s bah-humbug.”
“Surely they’ll give you a special Christmas meal,” I said.
“HA!” Mac snorted. “Them fat cats at HQ ain’t gonna send us no turkey. Hell, I ain’t sure what they’re going to give us to eat for supper tonight. We’ll be lucky to get bread that ain’t moldy.”
I looked at Ares, who nodded and got up. He went over to our jeep, grabbed a couple of diddy bags from the back and brought them back to the fire. “It’s not much,” he said, “but we have some MREs (that’s meals ready-to-eat) and some chocolate bars. We’ll be happy to share them with you.”
“Those MREs taste like…well, they ain’t the greatest things in the world, but we’ll take ‘em and be grateful,” Mac said, taking one of the bags from my brother.
I watched as the food and candy bars were handed out. A movement to my left caught my eye and I turned my head in that direction. A man sat by himself, leaning against a tree, looking very sad. “Why is he over there and not here by the fire?”
“He’s on guard duty, ma’am,” Mac explained. “Plus he’s a new replacement, still green around the gills. We don’t usually get too close to the new guys.”
“Because they don’t last very long around here. They’re usually killed within three or four days of joining us. Most of us here have been around at least a year. We’re the lucky ones, if you want to look at it that way.”
I grabbed an MRE and a couple of chocolate bars, stood up and made my way over to the man. As I got closer, I realized he was just a boy, no more than eighteen. I sat down next to him and handed him the food. “Here, I bet you’re hungry.”
“Thank you,” he said, placing the food on the ground next to him.
“Are you going to eat?”
He shook his head.
“Scary out here, isn’t it?”
“What would you be doing right now if you were back home?”
“Well, my mom would be baking pies, and my brothers and I would be trying to sneak one of them out of the kitchen to eat it. Every once in a while, we get lucky, but most of the time she catches us,” he laughed.
“Yeah, I don’t think I could do that with my Aunt Hes,” I giggled. “She’s pretty strict about letting us into her kitchen when she’s cooking. I think she’s afraid one of us might steal her recipes or something.”
A whistling sound flew overhead right before our jeep exploded. “Get down!” Mac yelled.
The men around the fire scattered, and the young boy grabbed me and pulled me behind the tree. He knelt in front of me to protect me, scanning the area. I looked around for Ares, but I didn’t see him, not that I was worried about him. He was immortal, after all.
A few bullets whizzed around us, and the boy returned fire. I heard a yell from the other side, and I guessed that he had hit someone. Placing my hand gently on my guardian’s back, I could feel him shaking. “Don’t be afraid,” I told him. “I won’t let anything happen to you while I’m here.”
“You don’t have a gun.”
“No, I don’t,” I agreed. “But I promise you’ll be safe.”
The fighting went on the rest of the afternoon, and my young hero protected me until nightfall. Once we were able to leave the safety of the trees, we found the rest of the men hunkered down near an overturned transport truck. “Where the hell y’all been?” Mac said.
“Stuck in the trees, sir,” the young boy replied. “Every time we tried to move, someone took a shot at us, but he never hit us. But I got a couple of them.”
“Good for you, boy,” Mac said, slapping him on the back. He handed him an MRE. “Sit down and eat; you’ve earned it.”
Ares came over to make sure I was all right, which I assured him I was. “We need to go,” he said quietly.
“How? We have no jeep.”
“We’ll walk for a bit until we’re out of their sight, then we’ll pop out.”
“I want to do one thing first before we go, okay?”
“Hurry up,” he said impatiently.
I walked back over to the boy, and knelt down in front of him. “I have to go, but before I do, I want to thank you for what you did for me today. That was a very brave thing.”
He blushed. “You’re welcome.”
“What’s your name?”
“Kyle Murphy from Iowa City, Iowa.”
I pulled on a chain that was around my neck, took it off and placed it around his neck. “I want you to have this.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a pendant of the Goddess of Victory. As long as you are wearing it, no harm will come to you. I want you to make it home to steal one of your mother’s pies again.”
“Wow,” he said, “I don’t know what to say. I love the Greek Gods. This means a lot. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek before standing up.
“Wait, you never told me your name,” he said.
“My name is Nike.”
He looked down at the pendant, then up at me. “Wait…you’re…”
I winked at him before I walked away.
“Wow, that was a great story!” a woman said as she shoved a toasted marshmallow in her mouth. “Do you know what happened to the boy?”
I nodded. “He made it home, got married, had children, who had grandchildren of their own. He named his first daughter Nicole after me. In fact, Nicole’s daughter is sitting next to you right now,” I replied, pointing to a woman with raven hair.
“I brought someone with me,” the young woman said. She got up and walked away. A few minutes later, she came back with an older gentleman, and I gasped, my hands covering my mouth in surprise. Jumping up, I ran over to him. “It’s so good to see you again, my friend,” I said, throwing my arms around him.
“It’s been a while since you’ve come to see me, so I thought I would pay you a visit,” Kyle said, a twinkle in his eye. “I also brought a pie. I didn’t swipe this one, but I figured we could sit down, eat some of it, and catch up with each other.”
“Absolutely!” I said, clapping my hands with joy.