War and the Supernatural
An Anthology by Wesley Julian
For my grandfathers:
Donald Julian served the United States Marine Corps
W. Wayne Allen served the United States Army
The Ghost of Passchendaele
All darkness passes, does it not?
Is there not light
that ends all night?
May this darkness fade
Pray this darkness fades.
Nearly a century ago, harrowed night filled this field. Luminescence burst from the guessing blasts of four million terrorizing shells. Death rained from the sky; death blasted from the furious guns. Piercing eyes gazed from the trenches, longing for hope, but meeting only calamity. Both sides prayed: May God relieve this scathing horror. Desire found them not, for to do this was sin; unforgivable, bloody sin. This night brought the cursed, sleepless nightmare. To wake is to die, for on the morrow, they would either harbinge death or they would meet her.
Death move onward.
Death I am not ready.
Death move onward.
The field is plain now. The ignorant might set foot here and never know the fates decided. A lone man stands on the field, searching for something- — not an object, but a place. He compares aging landmarks until finally he knows. With outstretched arms, he closes his eyes and knows precisely where he stands. His face bears gain, but not triumph; this is not a place he wishes to be. Not again. He looks back at you, the pain in his eyes transparent. This is a tale that must be told, for we cannot forget.
He begins, “This is it. This is where my foxhole was. I remember it was here because of that tree over there. It’s so much bigger now. You didn’t see many trees. Most of them got hit by artillery or were shot, but this one got through alright. I mean, it got shot and all, but it stood. And it’s green now. Everything was so brown then, so colourless. Nothing grew at all. War isn’t a time for sowing; it’s a time for reaping. It’s not a time for life; it’s a time for death. It’s a time to kill.”
Swallowing, he continues, “It was on October the 12th, 1917 when our commanders finally blew the whistle. The war dragged onward slowly. Neither side made progress because trench warfare is built on waiting. You build and dig as deep as you can because sometime or another the other side has to try to come and kill you. But there you are with your riflemen, and your snipers, and your barbed wire, and your landmines, and your machine guns, and you — and your—” he draws a flask containing whiskey and drinks from it. “There’s so much. It’s hard to keep it all in perspective. Back then, though, we had to know it all because any which part of it could kill you whenever it pleased. Death mocked us by all her means.”
The soldier puts his whiskey away and with a trembling hand, wipes his mouth. “You know, there’s a time when you sit down and forget what you are. You know you’re scared and you know you want out of there, but then comes the part when you stop asking why. You stop looking for purpose in the nightmare and soon, even you refer to yourself as ‘private.’ Sometimes the officers threw in our last names, but that was only if they knew it. When I figured this out, I remember pretty clearly that I had this notebook; very small, I don’t remember exactly why I brought it. Maybe to draw. But I started writing my name and I did it every day. I wrote down my name with all that I could remember:
Private Thomas Shane Holdsworth, 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, from the Upper East Side of London. Father is William Thomas Holdsworth and mother is Bridgett Shane Holdsworth. His sister is Lillian Holdsworth. Private Thomas Shane Holdsworth: dead man.
“Sometimes I’d put down more than that, like the name of my dog or my address. I held onto something though. Everybody had something. Some guys had some stupid good luck charm or a picture of their girlfriend. I just had my goddamned notebook.” He shrugs and reaches into his jacket for a cigarette. He lights it and takes a few uneasy puffs.
His smoke break and his tangent end. “Our trench is over there. I thought they were crazy when they told us to go over in the rain and mud. But we did. And they were. Nobody in my company was going to disobey orders. We were good men, all of us. But pushing on was slow and hard work. There was so much mud, so much fucking mud. The shell holes were the worst though. Because of all the rain, they were more like pools; brown, slimy pools. If you wanted to be in cover, which you would unless you were barking mad or had a death wish, you would have to be waist deep in murky water to be fully covered. That deep and you’ve got to make sure your pack and your matches stay dry. A lot of gear was wasted because it got wet.
“The Jerries blasted bullets at us as we advanced on them. The further we got, the more scattered we were, and the easier it was to pick us off one by one. One by fucking one.” He pauses and thinks it over. “I remember it was Turner who I saw shot first. It’s unforgettable seeing a friend die. Suddenly he’s there and then he isn’t. I mean, he’s there, but he’s empty. He’s dead. Shit, I don’t know. You don’t know either. You don’t unless you were there and even then you still don’t really know.” Tom stops and smokes some more. It calms him.
“You can’t be in this and not know you’re going to die. You also have to know that your friends are going to die too. Think yourself dead and there isn’t anything left for Jerry to kill. But there isn’t any amount of mental preparation that can get you ready for this. I suppose it helps making yourself somewhat prepared; as much as possible, I suppose. Even just the noise would have scared me off if I wasn’t at least a little ready. A gun is a loud thing. At basic training, it scared the hell out of me when I fired my Lee-Enfield for the first time. It scared me so bad that I dropped it. The sergeant had it in for me after that!” Tom laughs. “But the battlefield is different. There’s our rifles and there’s their rifles. And then there are the grenades and the artillery and the machine guns — oh, God, the machine guns. One of my greatest fears was to be on the front end of a machine gun.” He stops and sips more of his whiskey.
“We charged and I got to my foxhole already sopping wet and dirty. There was another man with me, Private Wolsey. I didn’t know Wolsey very well, but he got mud in his receiver and his rifle gave him fits of trouble I had to help him with. I remember how he died. He stood up to take a shot, but his gun misfired. When he tried to fix it, I suppose he forgot to get back down in cover or something. His blood fell onto my face like the rain, but I could hardly tell the difference. And then he fell straight back into the water. Lost. I never saw his face again. He was totally under. It kills me now that I think about it too because what if he was still alive and the poor bastard drowned in there?”
He closes his eyes, sits under the shade of the tree, and starts on a second cigarette. “I killed three men that day. I don’t remember their faces; they were just men with helmets. I wish I did though. Some part of me wants to believe that I killed human beings. It’s sad to me that I have to convince myself of that because that other part of me wants me to think that I was killing those animals on those bloody posters. The Huns. They aren’t mindless Huns though. I think it’s just the part of me, or maybe, I don’t know. I suppose it’s just some kind of stupid honour. Don’t tell me it’s better to think of my enemy as Huns; I know that. I should absolutely want to kill them and never let myself over think it. I can’t just erase them though. Some poor Jerry bastard has a stupid notebook like I do where he writes his name. This Jerry has a family and a sister and they’re all going to cry when they hear he’s fucking dead.
“Do you see where I’m going with this? I can’t help but keep thinking about all of that. What if I didn’t have a family back home to cry for me? Who would cry for me then? Nobody!” He sighs and throws his arms into the air. “I can’t explain this well enough. I want to cry for that poor Jerry sod over there because maybe, just maybe, nobody else will. But war is no place for such humanity. War is fought for humanity, not with it. I suppose I just want to remember what I’m fighting for out there, you know?”
He sighs again, “The saddest part about all of this is that it doesn’t matter. For all the times I wrote down names in my notebook, or said prayers on my rosary for myself, my company, my family, and my enemies, it still doesn’t matter. I remember how it happened, but I try so hard to forget. I had just reloaded my Enfield and popped out to take a shot. I heard the sergeant shouting something or another and men dying and screaming shells and guns roaring over it all. I remember looking down my sights and taking a bit longer than I should have. I remember crimson splattering everywhere before me and then I couldn’t see anymore. I couldn’t feel anything. There wasn’t pain. I couldn’t feel. Everything faded away. They told me that there’s a light, but it’s only dark. It’s only dark and it’s cold; so cold. I fell back into the water with Wolsey.
“I died that day. October 12th, 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele. I took a rifle round straight to the head. The bullet went right under my helmet and killed me near-instant.”
Remorse fills the tears he cries. “Now I’m here. I’m forever here on the plains of Passchendaele. We wound up winning that battle but I can’t help but feeling that I died in vain. You know when you look at it, every last man who has ever died in any war dies in vain. I’m not saying they aren’t heroes or whatnot, but I am saying that their lives were wasted. Look at me. I could have lived past nineteen and led some kind of life, but instead I died for a war that we still can’t understand exactly what it was about. War is an atrocity. It shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen at all, but it does, and men like me die over it. Some of us die horrible, agonizing deaths with mustard gas or a bleed, some of us are lucky like me and die fast. But we’re dead. We’re proud to be dead because we died for our countries.
“The question that bothers me though, ‘did we have to?’ Wars happen and none of them are ever for the right reason. The good guys fight to stop the bad guys, but the bad guys always think they’re the good guys. I don’t know. It’s irritating to think about that, but the point is that war is inevitable, but in good theory, we could have prevented it and nobody would have to die. I could be alive and probably have a wife and some kids by now.
“But some politicians out there decided it was time for young people to die. If there was any justice in the world, the politicians who damn us would take up rifles and fight with us, but there isn’t justice. There are only dead men lying in flooded foxholes.”
He puts out his cigarette and stands again. He looks out onto the horizon and takes a deep breath. His is time is short, so he finishes, “Don’t let people forget what happened here. Don’t let the world forget places likes Passchendaele. Maybe one day people will learn the hell that happens. I know they won’t. It’s like this war, ‘the war to end all wars,’ which is the biggest load of shit I’ve heard all my life. There will always be another war. It’s a battle that’s always going to be fought and never won. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though, because I’d like to believe that my life is worth trying for.”
The Ghost of Passchendaele sighs one last breath before fading back into forgotten memory.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Nay, tis sweeter to die not at all.
* * *
“The Ghost of Passchendale” is dedicated to the memory of the late Harry Patch, whose life spanned greater than a century before telling his story of what happened at that harrowed field. He passed away in July of 2009. True memory of the battle dies with him. Harry Patch was the last survivor of Passchendaele. God rest his soul. God rest all the souls who saw even a glimpse of those horrors.
There are no marksmen without superstition. We all have something, whether it be a rosary or a rabbit’s foot. Some say a prayer, some load their bullets a certain way, and a few even abandon a perfect shot because something quite ludicrous is off. You will hear from all of us that our superstitions matter and, as such, you may wish to write me off, but I assure you that my own superstition is very real and she makes all of the difference.
I saw her the first time I killed. In a bell tower at the south side of Amsterdam, I hid with my sergeant, Gregor Schalkwijk, the fat old man who trained our cell in guerrilla warfare. He kept us wound tightly and his berating never ended, but we respected him. Below, about a hundred yards away, marched a small patrol of Nazi soldiers led by a youthful lieutenant: my target. I thought of my target as nothing more than the pheasants I hunted growing up. His head was truly no larger than the birds and it would not fly away, but this did little to cool my nerves. My crosshairs trembled over my target.
“Breathe,” Schalkwijk whispered. “Your time comes. Breathe. Let it come to you. Breathe.”
Standing behind my target I saw a young woman, a girl. She was a young woman, not a child. She was out of place, but also she was not. She wore dark clothes matching her black hair. At my prey, she stared in just the way I felt. She waited. She looked up at me and she nodded. I knew. I exhaled and pressed the trigger. The rifle roared. I did not see where the bullet went. I opened my eyes again and watched the soldiers scramble, their lifeless lieutenant bleeding on the cobbled street.
Schalkwijk exclaimed, “Good shooting!”
I lay frozen, scanning the road for the girl. My suppose was that she had run away, but I was wrong. She knelt beside the lieutenant and held his dead hand. I did not understand.
One of the Germans pointed right up at our position and shouted.
“We must leave!”
I did not want to. I wanted to see the girl. Nevertheless, I dropped my rifle and crawled away with Schalkwijk. Using a rope tied the night before, we rappelled down the far side of the tower and slipped away into the city.
I saw her again for my second kill. In a mill outside of the city, I hid alone in wait for a Nazi patrol. A field of tulips and shell holes lay before me. The contrast of hellish war and natural, colorful beauty confused my senses. The pandemonium reminded me of her; a beautiful girl surrounded by evil and death. But I focused on my task. My prey was to march two-hundred yards away perpendicular to my shot. My target was their sergeant, a tubby man who frequented the bars around Amsterdam. We knew him for his outspoken hatred of my home.
For two hours I waited, anticipation looming over me. It was not for the coming kill or the escape, but because I knew, somehow, that I would see her again. And I did.
The patrol of nine men came. Their sergeant marched behind them. I put him in my scope and there she was. I did not see her come; she was simply there. Her shadowed presence and noir beauty contrasted greatly the glowing pastel of the flowers around her. She stared at me stolidly and nodded. I fired and my target dropped. I found her again. She had moved to the dead man’s corpse and whispered something to him. The Nazis scrambled. I wanted to watch, but I had to leave. I took my rifle and ran; nothing but the girl on my mind.
Upon my return to Amsterdam, I asked about the girl. No one knew her. No one knew the haunting girl I saw. No one called me crazy for seeing her, but they could not verify that she existed.
The third time I went out to kill, I did not see her. I took position in a window by the river to eliminate a Nazi captain. It was dark, dreary, and the wind fired unpredictable blasts. The shot was two hundred yards away. I scoped my target. I searched for the girl, but did not find her. This worried me. She was not there to give me her deathly nod. I knew that I would have to do this myself, so I thought through the mathematics and adjusted my aim to the wind. In a sharp exhale, I loosed the bullet. The shot dove wide and missed; no time to try again. I dropped the rifle and bolted.
Each time I killed, I saw the girl. I could not explain her, but I did not want to. She was my good luck charm and I did not want to spoil her. When she revealed herself, I felt a rare pleasure, and my targets died. When she did not, I did not even fire my rifle. Schalkwijk demanded to know why I would not shoot, but I dared not reveal my secret. He berated me, but I ignored him. He did not understand. He could not. He did not have to. I killed more Nazis than anyone else.
After the death of a dozen officers, renown spread for the mysterious marksman. They posted a bounty for even a hint of who I might be. I became a legendary thorn in the Nazi backside. They called me the Whisper; I heard them speak of me. As much as I hated them, I loved to sit near the Nazi guards and listen to them. The rumors were ludicrous. Some said that I was a riflemen brought in from the orient, others that I was the precursor to an American invasion.
I am none of these but, to them, I am all of these.
But it did not last. My biggest target came as one Colonel Hans Heinrich Hemmelstoff, an expert on extinguishing movements such as ours. Hemmelstoff proved himself repeatedly, He brutally eliminated resistances across northern France and, finally, they brought him in to the Netherlands. They brought him in to silence the Whisper with the deafening eagle’s call.
He needed to die and it was my duty to harbinge his death.
The first task was to plan the kill. Information is power and we needed all we could get. Our agents placed themselves around the city to learn as much as possible. It did not take us long to learn that Hemmelstoff stayed at the hotel on the north side of the city where he had also set up his command center. Occasionally, he ate at one of the nearby restaurants, but mostly he kept out of sight. Each night, however, he had the nerve to frequent the Tipsy Bride, my favorite bar. The bartender and I were good friends and he gave us clues vital to my hunt. We established a routine. Problem was, Hemmelstoff kept himself well-guarded and finding opportunity for a hit proved difficult.
After a week, he hardened his patrols. We lost two safehouses and eleven men in just five days. All of them were executed without trial. Two of the men killed were not even with us. Hemmelstoff rewarded any who ratted us out and many did. There were some, like me, however, who only took this as a challenge. We worked with redoubled efforts to be the deepest dagger in the heart of the darkest evil. There was no window to target Hemmelstoff himself, so we hunted down and murdered his subordinates. And each time I did, she was there. Luck held fast. I eliminated three lieutenants and a major without missing. Each time I killed, she was there.
Finally, we caught our window. An informant revealed that Hemmelstoff planned to inspect a barracks outside of his normal routine. To do this, he would have to pass through an area overlooked by the same southern bell tower from my first kill. It was perfect. The night before, I set up a rope and climbed to the top of the tower. All night, I waited.
Rarely did my thoughts leave the girl. I realized that I did not know her face, but I knew her. I would recognize her anywhere. In a way, I loved her, but not in the way you are thinking. It was not that I was infatuated by her or enraptured by her beauty. Believe me when I say that she truly was beautiful. She was beautiful in a fantastic noir and irresistible shadow. In her, I saw the death of my enemies, the hope of freedom for my country, my family, and I saw the chance that I might live despite the danger. So to her I clung, for I loved her as I love my life.
When the sun fixed to the morning sky, Schalkwijk gave the signal from below that Hemmelstoff was on his way. I then made sure all was ready to kill. I opened the bolt on my rifle and saw a brass tube; the spit of death lay in wait. The scope was set exactly as it should be and I did all I could in mental preparation. There was nothing left but to wait for the colonel and for the girl.
A troop of Nazi soldiers marched down the road in parallel formation. At least a dozen passed before I saw Hemmelstoff. There was no girl. He suddenly cried out in German. The soldiers stopped. He stood still. The shot was perfect, but I did not fire, for she was not there. The colonel turned and faced me. He looked right up at the bell tower. The bastard knew I was there, but I did not fire because she was not there. Smugly, he grinned. Anger coursed through me at his arrogance. I met his challenge. I had to. Without seeing the girl, I squeezed my trigger and the rifle clicked. My rifle refused my commands. I looked back down the scope and watched a pair of soldiers drag Schalkwijk to the colonel. Hemmelstoff looked back up at me, drew his pistol and, without removing his gaze from my position, put a bullet through Schalkwijk’s brain.
I made not a sound. I set down my rifle and crawled to my rope. The colonel shouted orders and boots shuffled. They came for me. I threw down the line and descended, but I moved too quickly and slipped fifteen feet and slammed onto the cobbled street. My foot hit first, but it surrendered and twisted away at the ankle. I may have screamed, but I would rather say that I did not. I needed to keep my silence unbroken.
I tried to stand, but fell on my face. My ankle shot in pain. It denied all weight. But I had to move. Using the wall, I balanced myself and hobbled forward on one foot.
I looked ahead. Before me was a large building: a bakery with three floors of apartments above it. I knew I could hide there. As I limped, I glanced to my left and saw the Nazis; still about two hundred yards away. They saw me and they fired. Bullets sliced the air around me. One struck me in the shoulder. I lost balance, but managed to push myself forward until my body collided with the wall by the bakery door. I screamed in pain.
To my surprise, the bakery door opened for me. A voice from inside, a shadowed feminine voice said, “Come in! Quickly!”
I obeyed without reservation. I pulled myself inside and came face to face with the girl from my kills. Her hair and clothing were both dark, as I described before, but finally I saw her face as well. She was gorgeous, but indescribably so. I gasped, “You!”
“Yes.” She helped me move through the bakery towards the back of the store. “Come, we must hurry.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. I followed her lead and dared not challenge her. She kept me alive this long.
“Up,” she said. The girl opened a door, revealing a flight of stairs. “You need to climb.”
“I — I don’t know if I can.” I put my hand on my loudly throbbing shoulder.
“You must,” she insisted. “I will help you.”
I put my arm around her shoulder and she supported me. I grabbed the railing with my free hand and used it to pull myself up the stairs. Her strength surprised me. Her frame was slender, but certainly not frail. One would not expect a girl of her stature to sustain a grown man as I. But she did. I asked, “Why were you not there? I could have killed him!”
“It is not his time,” she said quietly.
“I don’t understand.” We rounded a corner to the second floor. We emerged at a vacant and trashed hallway. It smelled of must and distant warfare. The whole city ranked of that stench.
“Don’t try.” She opened another door, revealing more stairs.
“I — I can’t.”
I nodded. I readied myself for the pain of pressing on and grasped the railing. The girl did more good for me than I could. The rail creaked until it snapped. I collapsed, but she stopped my fall. I wanted to scream, but kept my composure. She shifted me and carried me on.
When at last we finished the first flight, she set me against a wall facing the stairs and said, “This is far enough.”
I fought for breath. Even the slightest gesture hurt. I asked again, “Why weren’t you there? Where were you?”
She sat against the wall beside me and said, “I was here waiting for you.”
“For — for me? Why?”
She did not answer.
“Who are you?”
“I am that which you love.”
“I — I love you, but-”
“What do you love?”
“I love-” I stopped. I thought. I could not find an answer for her.
But she said, “You love the kill, you love the culmination of patience and precision. You love me. And you love the fame. You love to be feared. You love that which I give you.”
“You are the kill?”
“No.” Her cold, black eyes met mine. “I am the Whisper.”
“No, I am the Whisper!” I protested. “It is me they hunt for! I am the one who-”
“And apart from me, what are you?”
“I — I am-”
“I am that which they fear. And now, you will know their fear.” She took my hand and held it, not tightly, but not loosely. It was enough.
“I — I’m cold,” I said. The world darkened.
“Yes,” she said. “Be at ease.”
“You are death, aren’t you?” I asked. “You’re the Reaper.”
“I am known by many names, but to you, I am the Whisper, for your world ends not with a bang, but a whisper.”
From below I heard shouting and shuffling boots. “They’re here to kill me.”
“So, I live?”
“No,” her voice quieted. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t — I won’t want to die.”
“Hush,” she said, her voice finally a whisper. “It’s all fading away. Let it go.”
All I could ponder was her and her swarthy beauty: the black hair, the black eyes, the black clothes, but the pale, ghostly skin, and her cool, gentle touch. The Whisper was everything to me in that moment. From the back of my mind, the boots marched closer, but it was as an echo without the sound.
I looked into her eyes once again. She was the last I saw. My eyes closed. I lost the strength to hold them open. Still I saw her in my mind. Slowly away she faded. She disappeared into the shadows of death until there was only darkness. And with the Whisper, so my life ended….
The Train of Soldiers
When soldiers die on the field of battle, they are not judged. So long as they remained true, that being that they did not betray or desert, all soldiers go to the same place upon death. It does not matter on which side they fought, only that they performed their duty. All warriors are placed aboard the Train of Soldiers where they ride for the greatest battlefield of all. They ride the Train of Soldiers bound for the gates of Hades, where they will join in the great siege. They are armed with the weapons they bore when they left the land of the living and with them they will fight demons.
I am one such soldier. My name is Sir Frederick and I fought for the Holy Land of Jerusalem during the Great Crusade. I was killed by a one of the Islamic soldiers. I was stabbed through my heart. My flesh is healed, but my armor still bears the wound. In my hand is my longsword and on my back is my shield. Curiously, I am not surprised by any of this. I sit on a bench in one of the cars of the Train of Soldiers. Somehow, I know all that I need to know. That car is made from steel, there no windows, and it is illuminated in red by a pair of overhanging oil lamps.
All around me stand warriors from other times. I recognize a Norse Viking from folklore and I spy a French knight. And there are other men I cannot recognize armed with weapons I cannot identify. Next to me is a man wearing a tattered cloth uniform, a helmet that resembles a pot, and a stick made from both wood and steel. I ask, “What is your name?”
“Private Nigel Turner of His Majesty’s Army,” he tells me with a proud grin.
“So, you are a Briton?” I ask.
“And from when do you come?”
“1917, from what we keep calling ‘The Great War,’ though there’s a Yankee chap in the back who insists his was bigger. You look like a Crusader, is that right?”
“I am, yes. I come from the order of the Knights Templar.”
“Please to meet you — eh, what’s your name?”
“I am Sir Frederick,” I replied, unsure if I should grant him my trust.
“Sir Frederick, then. Are you excited?”
“About the battle! We’re going to storm Hell itself!”
“I know not what to feel,” I replied truthfully. I looked at his stick and asked, “I am curious, what is that?”
“What, this?” He laughed. “Of course, how could you know! It’s a Lee-Enfield standard-issue rifle! It’s a bit like a bow that, eh, shoots small bits of metal at very high speeds. Very deadly and very long range.”
“Fascinating.” I stroked my beard as another man sat beside me. This man was dressed head to toe in cloth and he wore a great object of steel, not unlike Private Nigel Turner’s ‘rifle.’ I assumed it was a similar contraption, though this one was more fearsome. I asked, “Who are you?”
“I am Faddel bin Solamin, soldier of Allah.”
Remarkably, I felt no hostility towards him. This man, somehow, was my comrade. So, I kept up the conversation, “I am Sir Frederick, a Knight Templar. From when do you come?”
With nervousness to his voice, he answered, “To your western mind, I am from the beginning of the second millennium. I committed Holy War against the Americans.”
Turner answered, “From well after your time, Sir Frederick.”
“Ah.” I was unsure where to proceed from that point, so changed the subject. “Do you know when we will be arriving? I am eager to disembark.”
“Eh, I, uh, I don’t know.” Turner removed his helmet and scratched his head. “I suppose we should ask, but I haven’t got any idea of who we should bother.”
I stood and glanced around, but saw no one who looked any less confused than we were. “I see no one free of our own predicament.”
“Perhaps we should be patient,” Faddel suggested.
“Yes, we should,” I agreed.
But this did not satisfy Turner, who stood and walked over to the far wall. “Here, a ladder. We can climb up and look for answers!” He climbed, but once he reached the trapdoor and pushed, he told us, “It’s bloody locked!”
“Then sit down,” I told him. “We will know soon enough.”
We sat for a long time without speaking. I cannot tell you for how long. It seemed as though more joined us in our car during the passage of time, but I cannot recall ever stopping. There were no more from my time, but I saw a man dressed like Turner, but I could not tell if they were from the same time. Instead of satisfying my curiosity, I sharpened my sword. Until, finally, Turner broke the silence, “I’ve got a thought.”
“Let’s think about this for a minute.” He licked his lip. “Time. Apparently, time has no meaning here, right? I mean, look around. You’ve got soldiers from all time waiting for the same thing and everyone knows exactly what they’re doing here; exactly what this is. There are even people who shouldn’t have any idea what a train is, but they aren’t questioning it.”
“This is true. I did not know what a ‘train’ was before my arrival.”
“So, if time hasn’t got any meaning, what if there isn’t a question of ‘when’ we’ll arrive?”
“I am not sure that I follow.”
“Maybe it’s a question of ‘how’ or ‘why.’”
“I still do not follow.”
“Look, since time’s got no meaning, then waiting around won’t mean anything either.” That made more sense, I supposed. “I’m not waiting around. I’m going up there and I’m going to find some bloody answers.”
“Did you not say that it was locked?”
“That’s why I’ve got this!” He flaunted his rifle at me. I only shrugged as I followed to try and discover just what it was he intended to do. Turner jogged his way to the hatch and pointed the end of his rifle at the hinges. Without hesitation, he squeezed a lever on the rifle and the front end exploded. I recoiled in fear! He pulled a handle on top and then a small brass tube flew from the rifle, and then he fired again. After again pulling the handle, he used the back end of his weapon and forced open the hatch. “Got it! Come on, let’s go up!”
I watched him climb. The other soldiers stared, but did not seem willing to follow. Before I could climb the ladder, Faddel went ahead of me. I let him go and then followed. What I saw up there I will never forget. All around was fire. There was a great wall at our side and looking to the distance on the other side, I could see yet another wall. It was then I noticed that we were surrounded by these great walls! There was a smell of pungent sulphur and burning flesh. Turner looked to me and shouted, “Look! We aren’t going to Hell! We’re bloody in it!”
“By Allah,” Faddel said in awe.
“This must be some sort of deception.”
“Look! I see the front of the train! Let’s get on up there and get this whole thing sorted right out!” Turner pressed onwards. Faddel and I exchanged glances and then followed him.
“That man must be fearless,” Faddel said to me quietly.
“Fearless or foolish. Perhaps both.”
“Agreed, but I must know. I was promised many virgins as my eternal reward, not this. Not Hell.”
We were forced to leap over the car separations, but it was an easy journey. As we pressed on, I saw mine shafts and I thought that I saw souls suffering in the distance, but I could not be sure. In my mind, I knew we were truly in Hell, but I did not want to believe it. The fires burning around us, however, spoke otherwise. At last, we arrived at the engine of the train. It appeared to be a steam locomotive, but how I knew that, I do not know.
Faddel was first to jump down and then Turner. With a degree of hesitation, I followed. Something in me sensed that something dire was at stake. I was correct.
When I arrived with them, I found both Faddel and Turner pointing their weapons at nothing less than a demon. There was no room for doubt. He was a red beast with great horns and a mouth full of snarling, flaming teeth. He laughed at us.
“So, this is Hell!” Turner exclaimed.
“By Allah! Demon!”
I raised my sword, “What say you, creature?”
He laughed. “Yes! Yes! This one is correct, you are in Hell! You are here for your punishment, the only punishment fit for soldiers! You prepare and fear for a war you will never see and you are confined as prisoners! But you do not know it! So perfect!”
“Then how did we escape?” Turner asked.
The demon laughed again, “Because you are chosen. You have come here to me where you are to accept a greater fate.”
“Greater fate?” I asked tightening the grip on my sword.
“Yes. You are the bravest of the soldiers here. Does that not deserve some kind of reward?”
“Do not listen to him!” Faddel cried.
“Of course you do!”
“What is this reward?” I asked.
“Purpose,” laughed the demon.
“Purpose? I’ll bloody show you purpose!” Turner pulled his trigger and Faddel quickly followed. Their weapons roared to life.
The abomination mocked them, “You think your weapons can hurt me?! Ha!”
“Then what are we doing here?”
“What did you think to do, kill me? And then escape?”
Turner threw his rifle to the ground and curled fists, “Bloody right! I’m gonna kill you and then I’m gonna derail this damned train and free everyone on board!”
“You would fight for an impossible cause?” The demon mused. “Such a thing is noble. But foolish.”
“No, not foolish. It is right,” I told the demon. “But you would not now such things.”
“I know more of right than you could ever know!” The demon barked. “But you have passed the test.” The demon turned and pulled a lever. The train stopped. I looked out and saw a barren plain. The fires, death, and suffering all passed.
“What is this?” I looked out. I saw blood and soldiers fighting in the distance. I watched one be cut down, but then a great angel descended and carried him away.
“This,” the demon softly laughed, “is Valhalla.”
“Valhalla? From Viking Legends?” Turner asked.
“Yes, yes, indeed! Only the bravest and most noble of warriors will go here after death. You have passed the test, have you not? Valhalla is yours to walk.”
“How do I know this isn’t some other test?” Turner asked, picking up his rifle.
“You would prefer to ride my train for eternity?” The demon laughed. I grew tired of his mockery. “This is no test. You will fight with just purpose during the day and drink in the night. You will all fight in the most glorious eternal army. Now, go!”
I looked to the men with me and together we mustered our courage, just as we had in the train car before. These are my comrades. We are brothers in arms in eternal war. And as my brothers charge ahead, I stop and look behind me. The train is gone. I wonder still if perhaps this is not some other Hell, yet at the same time, I cannot think of a better reward. Here will be eternal glory and never death. I look at my blade and raised it to the sky. This is my fate. So be it! Glory!
Despair came easily to the bitter man in the cramped prison cell. The tight, moldy walls beckoned his claustrophobia and the putrid floors raped his senses. Before the door even closed, Tim wanted out. The bars slammed; the lock latched. The jailor laughed when Tim panicked. “I don’t want to be in here! Let me out!”
It was not real. Tim was no prisoner. The holding cell was nothing more than an attraction at a Vietnamese war museum; a tribute to the thousands of POWs taken and abused during the war. “I can’t — I can’t breathe!”
His teenaged granddaughter, Omega, said, “You belong in there, papa.” She leaned against the wall beside the door; his panic did nothing to alarm her.
“Please let me out.” He wrapped his fingers around the iron bars and shook. At last, the tour guide complied and unlocked his cell. Tim wanted nothing to do with his cell. He did not deserve it and he could not imagine anyone ever deserving such a horror.
“Are you alright, papa?” Omega asked stolidly.
“Yeah, I’m fine, I just — I couldn’t do it.”
“It’s alright,” Omega said. “It isn’t yet time to accept.”
“You might have been in that cell, papa. It could have been you and not whatever poor soul they actually put in there.”
“Just imagine the men who had to stay in there,” Tim said. “You’re right, what if it was me?” When the government instituted the draft, he answered the call by fleeing to Canada. Decades later, guilt finally overcame him and Tim at last answered the call to Vietnam. Tim belonged there. It should have been him and not the thousands who actually suffered. No one should endure such cruelties of the human heart.
After a sweltering bus ride, Tim and Omega found themselves in the lush Vietnamese jungle. Their tour group visited this spot because a stand-off took place there. Tim imagined it in vivid detail. The Vietcong militia forces holed up in the foliage just before a large, grassy clearing. The United States Marines crossing the brush suddenly found themselves ambushed by fire. The Americans had minimal cover and no support. Their lieutenant was first to die. Cut off the head of the snake….
Tim bent over and picked up the shiny thing he saw in the grass: a shell casing. The markings identified it as a 5.56 NATO round, an American bullet. Omega whispered, “You fired that shot.”
“I should have fired this shot. It should have been me out here dying.”
“If you had died, where would I be?”
His ruminations resumed. The American soldiers reflexively dove to the ground. They shouted, but Tim could not understand them over the gunfire. He picked out a few expletives, but nothing no concrete; no complete sentences or thoughts. Kneeling in the grass, he tried to grasp the experience. And he did. He felt the humid Vietnamese heat, smelled the burning gunpowder, heard the booming and shouting; his vision was both a memory and a nightmare.
Suddenly, the blasting and screaming ceased. One of the dead American soldiers rose to his feet. He was a young man, no more than twenty, with a pair of bloody bullet holes in his fatigues. He held an M16 rifle in each hand. The soldier approached Tim and told him, “We could use some supporting fire.”
“I should have been here,” Tim said to the soldier. Omega kept quiet.
“You are here,” the soldier held out an M16 for Tim. “Help us.”
“You’re a fiction,” Tim said. “I can’t help you.”
“Why are you here?” Omega asked her grandfather.
“This is where I was supposed to be. I ran from here. I ran from duty; from my country. But I’m here. I’m here and I’m sorry. I want to atone.”
“Then atone,” the soldier insisted. “Atone and take the rifle.”
“I can’t,” Tim argued. “If I could go back and change things, don’t you think I would?”
“The men are dying.”
“The men are dead.”
“Can’t you save them?”
“I can’t fix the past.”
“So why are you here?” asked Omega.
“Because I have to be,” Tim answered slowly without understanding his own words.
“You’re here to do nothing,” the soldier said.
“I don’t understand it,” Omega added. “Do you, papa?”
“No, I suppose I don’t.”
“If you can’t understand why you’re here, then why do you have to understand that you must take this rifle and fight?”
“You — you’re right,” Tim stammered taking the rifle. “This is atonement.”
“No, this is duty,” Omega corrected.
Tim nodded and took aim. It seemed natural to him, as if he had been trained. But he paused; hesitated.
“Well?” Omega asked impatiently. “Aren’t you going to shoot, papa? Aren’t you going to kill?”
“It — it doesn’t feel right.”
“I don’t — I don’t think I should be doing this.”
The soldier said, “Private, this is war. You shoot and you kill. Pull the trigger.”
“It isn’t right.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, I never shot a gun. I never pulled the trigger. And I never, ever killed.”
“But you regret not doing these things. Do them now; it’s your chance.”
Tim lowered his rifle. “No!”
“No? So it’s just like before,” Omega scoffed. “Still a coward.”
“I’m no coward!” Anger welled inside him. “I don’t want to do this. I didn’t want to do it then, and I don’t want to do it now. So fuck off!”
“Why the language?” Omega asked innocently. “You told me—”
“Fuck what I said! Fuck everything I do! It’s meaningless! Worthless! I’m a coward! A nothing!”
“Give me back the rifle.” The soldier kept his calm. “You don’t need it.”
“No!” Tim clenched his teeth.
“If you won’t shoot, then you don’t need a rifle.” The soldier held out his hand. “Give it to me.”
“I said no.”
The bloodied soldier reached for the rifle and snatched the barrel. Tim yanked it away and trained it right at the young man’s chest. “You’ll shoot me?”
“Stay away!” Tim backpedaled.
“Either shoot me or shoot them!”
“Do it, coward!” Omega snarled.
“You’re worthless, you—”
Tim opened fire. The soldier’s gut burst in glorious gore. Just as he seemed to speak, blood filled his mouth and ran down his chin. The look in his eye was either approval or horrible acceptance. Tim did not know which.
“So that’s what you came for?” Omega asked, unfazed by the murder.
Tim dropped the rifle. “He’s right. I’m worthless. I’m a worthless cowardly traitor. I’m terrible.”
“What happened to atonement?”
“There’s no atonement for me.”
“No,” the soldier said, pulling himself back to his feet. His wounds, and the blood on his mouth, remained. “There’s not. There is no atonement. There is no absolution. There is no amnesty. There is no forgiveness. The only thing left is punishment- — justice.”
“You ran and then shot your own man,” the soldier hammered his words. “This can’t be simply forgiven and forgotten. Someone must pay. It must be you.”
“No, I — this isn’t real.”
“Yes, it is,” Omega argued. “This is reality. Think, papa. Think.”
“What is real?”
Memory of reality broke into his mind like a thief. He was in the jungle. Night had long fallen, but brightness abounded. Muzzle flares, explosions, and whizzing bullets illuminated the death-tainted scene. The brave fell, but the cowards remained. The true gave their lives, the false hid away. Tim cowered behind a great tree clutching his rifle. Next to him was Billy Conklin, one of his friends. An untold number of Vietcong rained hell from only a few dozen yards away. Conklin popped in and out of cover, taking shots at his enemies. Tim panicked. He tightly gripped his rifle with wide-shot eyes. He shook, mortified of the sudden death all around. He did not shoot or fight. He hid.
“Hey, Tim! The hell are you doing?” Conklin asked. “You gotta shoot, man!”
“Tim!” Conklin shook him. “Man! Man we could some supporting fire! We’re in a war here! Help us out!”
Tim gazed squarely into Conklin’s eyes. He swallowed, perspired, and trembled. A blast shook the earth beneath him. That was enough. Tim pushed Billy Conklin away and bolted into the jungle. He ran. Where? Fuck where.
Tim ran until he could take no more, until the horror was far away, until the flashing lights faded to the heart of darkness. He panted and struggled to keep his footing. When the fatigue subsided, Tim felt suddenly alone. But he was safe. He found a large rock and sat down on it. The blasts and death were far off, no more than a distant whisper. Tim did not yet feel remorse.
The starry Vietnamese sky watched over him. When Tim looked up to the heavens, he saw the beauty of the infinite expanse. He could only wonder at the cosmos; only ponder its unending mystery. When Tim looked beyond the jungle, beyond the planet, and even beyond the galaxy up to the beauty of that untouched by war, he forgot why he fought. There is no beauty in war. Tim wanted to believe that he had left the war behind. He wanted to see beauty again. War, what war? Never mind the uniform, never mind the rifle. Damn the rifle lest it damn you!
Billy Conklin limped out from the jungle. Tim stood. Conklin bled, two bullet holes in his fatigues. Tim dropped his rile and ran to his friend. “Oh, God, Billy, what happened?”
“The hell do you mean, ‘what happened?’ You happened, you bastard! You bastard, you pushed me out of cover and right into the enemy! You bastard! You fucking bastard!”
“I’m sorry! I don’t — I don’t know what I was think—”
Conklin retrieved Tim’s rifle and held it out. “Take your rifle and let’s go support our platoon!”
Tim laughed uneasily, “You — you think I’m going back there? Hell no.”
“Tim, you can still atone. If you go back, I won’t say nothin’ to the sarge. Come on!”
“You ran! You fuckin’ shot me!”
“I’m not going back there.” Tim took the rifle. “Stay here with me, man.”
“No, Tim, I’m gonna do my duty! You should too.”
“If you don’t come,” Conklin winced in pain, “I will report you.”
Tim trained his rifle on his friend. “I can’t let you do that! They’ll kill me!”
“Come with me.”
“So, what, you’re gonna shoot me? No, you won’t,” Conklin shook his head. The sun slowly crept over the horizon. “You won’t shoot me. I’m going. Come with me or don’t. Make up your-”
Tim opened fire. Conklin’s gut burst in glorious gore. Without saying a word, Conklin dropped to his knees. Just as he seemed to speak, blood filled his mouth and ran down his chin. The look in his eye was neither of approval nor horrible acceptance, but of betrayal.
He stumbled back to the rock and sat. While the sun rose past the trees, Tim realized his regret; his crime. Omega came from behind him and walked over to where the murder took place. She scanned the grass and retrieved the shell casing. Tim watched her approach and she whispered, “You fired this shot.”
“It should be me. I should be the one dead.”
She sat beside him and put her hand on his. “You will, papa. You will die.”
“It’s what I deserve.”
“There is nothing left to be done, noting left but to accept. Accept what you deserve, accept your fate.”
“Yeah,” Tim sighed. “I never grew old, did I?”
“No, papa,” Omega answered remorsefully. “Your life ends early.”
“So, you,” Tim swallowed, “aren’t real?”
“What is real?”
“I never had a granddaughter.”
“No, you never had a granddaughter. You never married. You’ve never even seen Canada.” Omega let go of his hand. “Stand up.”
Tim did as he was told. “What happens now?”
She pulled his hands behind his back and bound them together. “Close your eyes.”
“Talk to me! What happens now?” Tim trembled and his eyes watered. His squinted them shut. “Talk to me!”
The knot tightened. Tim suddenly found his arms wrapped around a wooden pole. Omega gently touched his shoulder. “It’s time.”
“No, wait!” Tim opened his eyes to find only darkness. Something covered his face. “I’ll take the rifle! I’ll fight! I’ll do my duty!”
Omega whispered into his ear, “Papa, there is nothing for you to do but accept. Don’t resist. Accept.”
“I’m sorry — I’ll go back! I’ll kill!”
“Hush, papa. Make peace. Hush and die quietly. This is the end.”
“No! Stop! I’m sorry-”
The rifles raged, spitting deathly lead. Tim felt his chest pierced, his bones shattered. Blood trickled down his chest. He winced in horrific pain and his body fell limp.
The black veil was pulled off of his head. He saw Omega once again. She put her hand on his cheek and said, “Rest in peace, papa. It’s over. It’s all over.”
Tim looked into her eyes. “I could have had you. I could have had a son and then a granddaughter — I—”
“Hush,” she whispered. “Say goodbye. Don’t wish for more. Don’t hope for better. This is the end.”
“You — you’re an angel, aren’t you?”
“Goodbye, papa.” Omega removed her hand. Tim watched her walk away, leaving him behind to die.
“Please! Don’t go!”
She turned and said, “I must leave. It is time.”
“Just — just tell me what you are.”
Omega whispered, “I am that which haunts your every nightmare. I am the common thread binding every man, woman, and child. I am the shadowed specter of every end and the inevitable result of every means. I am the darkness ending all tragedy. I am the final act. I am Romeo’s poison and Juliet’s dagger. I am the setting sun and the darkening of stars. I am the assassin’s gift. I am life’s antithesis. I am Omega.”
As Omega left once more, Tim finally understood. He watched her fade away into the horizon of eternity. Tim drew his last breath. It was not laborious or painful. There was nothing to it whatsoever. Sensation, particularly pain, had long subsided. Feeling, however, remained, but not in any physical sense. Tim felt two things: peace and acceptance. It was as reaching the end of a book. All of the chapters are over; there is nothing left but to turn the page.
And so he did….
* * *
It Isn’t Over Yet!
If you want to learn about Omega or its author, head on over to www.wesleyjulian.com! There you’ll find a few extras including alternate cover designs, rough drafts, and even insight into how the stories came together. In addition to the Omega-related content, you’ll also find information about my future projects. Hope to see you there!
The works included in this anthology are the sole property of its author. Duplication, publication, or vending of any of its contents without the author’s written consent is forbidden by law.
All four stories were written by Wesley Julian.
The entire anthology was edited by James Bojaciuk.
James is also a talented author and a good friend. I could not have done this without you, James. I owe you big time.
The cover art was done by Anna Melillo.
Anna is an artist and nursing student. Anna, you are very talented and the cover is amazing. I cannot imagine anyone else making something quite so perfect.
This anthology was published independently on June 15th, 2012.