The death room

It had been happening for about eighty years, but no one wanted to talk about it. All that could be found out about it was little more than gossip and urban legend.

All the stories spoke of young men who were visiting someone in the hospital. Then, they were gone, vanishing without a living soul seeing them…until their dead bodies were found.

The bodies were always found in the same room, an out-of-the-way little room in the oldest part of the hospital. Once, it and the rooms surrounding it had been a sanitarium for TB and cancer patients. That corner of the building had been selected precisely because it kept those patients out of sight, and their disease separated from the rest of the patients.

How the men got to the room no one knew. They were always found in the same spot, lying either in the bed, or after the room was quietly abandoned, on the floor where it had once stood. There was never a sign that the men had been forced into the room, no drag marks or scuffed show prints. No, it seemed they had walked into the room of their own free will.

What they found there, no one knew, but their twisted faces spoke of the sort of terror that might be felt by the condemned as they enter hell itself.

Then the first security cameras were installed, and the strange tale became positively unworldly. At first, it was grainy images of a shadowy figure walking with the men. Later, as the cameras and their recording technology improved, the images became sharper, showing the form of a beautiful young woman walking with the men. Always the men smiled as they engaged in their silent conversations with the figure, for she was clearly not human. Objects, even people, could be seen through her. How other people could walk past the odd couple without noting them no one ever understood, but it happened many times on the recordings.

In every case, the hospital came up with a convincing story for how these men came to die. Sudden heart failure was an early favorite. Later, it became drugs. But no matter what explanation the hospital put forth, and despite their efforts to keep employees silent about the strange deaths, word got out. Families complained, even after they were silenced in court. Employees, no matter the non-disclosure agreements they might sign, still talked. In modern times, that chatter made its ways onto the Internet, to conspiracy theory sites where it was offered as ‘proof’ of secret government programs to control the human mind. Or as evidence of a secret alien holding facility buried somewhere in the oldest section of the hospital for security purposes.

The theories were as mad as the people who believed them, but I didn’t care. The more I researched, the surer I was that some spirit, some evil presence, was causing the deaths. And with the conviction, I knew I must go to Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. I needed to find the truth of what was going on, and more importantly, to put an end to the deaths.

But what in that hospital could be stranger than me? An undead young man, a spirit trapped on the earthly plane by his regrets at not having lived the life he’d hoped for. I had killed the spirit that had ended my life, but that had not released me. With an existence that seemed likely to be unending, I had decided to give myself a purpose, to try to spare others my fate. What an outside observer might have found almost laughable was me riding a Greyhound bus across the frozen Iowa countryside. But hey, even the undead can panhandle, and bus ticket is easier to afford than a car. Besides, how would I explain my lack of a drivers license to a cop if I got stopped? Somehow, ‘Sorry, officer, but they took my license when I died.’ didn’t sound like an excuse a cop would buy.

Carswell’s Corner was a podunk place in the middle of nowhere, too big to be a village, and too small to be a real city. It didn’t even have a taxi service, forcing me to schlep down often-unshoveled sidewalks through neighborhoods of ticky-tacky houses to reach the hospital. Being undead had one advantage: while the locals huddled inside, struggling to keep warm in the near-zero temperatures, I walked without feeling discomfort in a light coat and tennies.

That appearance was my ‘in’ when I arrived at the hospital. After I offered the excuse of needing a place to warm up, I was allowed to ‘warm up’ in one of the waiting rooms. That I would never warm up again, the helpful nurses could never understand, but I thanked them and took advantage of the opportunity to begin stalking my prey.

An fruitless hour in one waiting room, then I moved to another…and another. My left-over pocket change bought a can of soda. It wasn’t that I needed to drink it, but the familiar experience of sipping it was oddly calming. I could see outside from my most recent perch. The Sun had disappeared from the sky, and the sky was taking on that inky dark appearance you only saw away from big city lights.

That was when I saw her. I had no sense that she had walked into the room, no, it was as if she had appeared out of nowhere. She looked young, hardly more than a teenager, and she wore a loose white dress that hid the shape of her body. Her face was thin, with the emaciated appearance of someone who hadn’t eaten in a very long time, but it was still strikingly beautiful. A perfect oval, framed by a flow of blond hair so light it might almost have been white. Her full red lips stood in stark contrast to gauntness of the rest of her face.

It was her eyes that gave her away. They didn’t to fix on me, they looked through me. Even as she approached my seat, her eyes never met mine.

“You look lonely…would you like some company?”

The feeling that voice brought into even to my dead heart was amazing. I wanted nothing more than to be with this woman. I motioned to the seat next to me, and when she sat down in it, I felt happier than I had ever felt in my life.

“Are you waiting for someone, or are you here to see someone?”

The question broke the voices spell, reminding me of why I was here. “Both actually. I’m waiting for the chance to visit someone. What about you? What brings a beautiful women like you to the hospital? Hopefully nothing serious.”

Her smile was warm and bright, almost enough to make me forget she might be a murderous spirit that had haunted this building for decades. “Oh, I’m a patient here…but I won’t be for long. They’re just keeping me for observation. My sister should be here soon to pick me up.”

I smile at her, doing my best to appear charmed but wondering what part of her story is true, and what part is just to get me to go with her. “Well, I hope your sister arrives soon. I bet she’s just as good looking as you are.”
The smile disappeared, replaced by a serious frown. “As a matter of fact, my sister looks just like me, we’re twins.” Then the smile came back, slier now, almost teasing as her eyes scan me up and down. “Don’t you find it awful chilly here? I do. I’m going back to my room where it’s warm. Do you want to join me?” She leaned close, her mouth near my ear, but there was none of the warmth of a human in her presence. “Maybe we could…warm up together? Would you like that?”

She rises, as do I. I follow her out of the room and down a hall that will take us towards the old part of the hospital.

“I’m glad you wanted to join me, it can be so lonely here.”

I wonder if this is how she entices her victims to their deaths. Did she appear to them as a lonely wanton, willingly offering herself to them to draw them to their doom? I know she expects me to talk to her, so I ask her the question I want the answer to the most. “How long have you been in hospital? Were you sick, or were you injured?”

Her glance at me is sudden and sharp, as if she wonders why I would ask such a question. Then she gives me another sly smile. “You ask a lot of questions, don’t you? I’ve been here a while, but I won’t be here much longer. They’re going to let me out soon.”
So she knows to be wary, to not give away too many details. But is she cautious enough to keep secret the information I need? “Sorry if I pried. Would it be impertinent of me to ask the name of a beautiful woman like you?”

Her smile is sweet, she doesn’t know why I ask. “Alice is my name, Alice Preston. My family has been in Carswell’s Corner since it was founded. Father is on the board that runs this hospital, it’s why I have a lovely room to myself. Come, let’s get there so we can…warm up.”

Alice picks up her pace, threading the confusing maze of corridors with the surety of someone who’s walked them many times. I follow her into the oldest section, down a dimly-lite hall lined with empty rooms. Or so they seem at first. As we progress, I hear coughing and moans, like the people who had died in these rooms still remained in them. Or was I just reliving her memories of this space as we came closer to the room I was now sure she had died in? She stops at a doorway, hands behind her back and her hips swaying slightly. Does she think the display will further spur my desire for her? Another beguiling smile, her most beautiful feature, and she stretches a hand towards the door.

“Here’s my room, let’s go in before someone sees me sneaking you in.”

I enter, and my eyes behold two scenes. The reality of the room is a small, dark box with a sliver of a window giving the only illumination. The walls are covered in peeling paint and the floor looks as if it hasn’t been cleaned in weeks. But as I see this, I see the room as she knew it. In that ghostly image, the window is the same, but the walls are brightly painted and small paintings hang everywhere. A hospital bed of antique design stands facing the window. I pull out my cell and type her name into the web browser while beside me, she whispers.

“Come, let’s get in bed together so we can warm up. You want to do that, don’t you? You don’t want to play with that silly little thing when you have the chance to play with me, would you?”

The browser comes back with a long list of names, so I narrow the search by adding the town name. A shorter list comes back, topped with a link to the local newspapers web site. The link takes me to an old obituary, and I begin to read it out loud.

“Alice Jean Preston died April 14, 1925 of tuberculosis at Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. She is survived by her twin sister Anna Jane Preston, her father…”
“No! I’m not dead! It’s not true, it isn’t! My sister, she promised she’d come get me out…she promised…” The face before me is a shell, skin stretched tight across the skull beneath, the full lips like two thin, pale lines. The hair that had once been a flowing mane is now thin, and the hands that she cradles her cheeks with are more like jointed bones than a living person’s hands. She stares at me, her eyes fill with hatred. “Why would you say such a hateful thing? Why did she promise to come for me and never do it? Why would she steal the only man I ever loved? Why are men so unfaithful, why?” Bony hands frame my face and the hatred in her eyes seems to become a living flame, intent on burning her anger into my soul.

So this is how Alice kills her victims, by letting her anger out, by scaring them to death.

But I am dead already, and after staring into my eyes for a long moment, the malice in Alice’s eyes fades, replaced by bewilderment.

“Why aren’t you dead? All the other men, all those cheating, unfaithful…creatures, every one of them died, as they should. Why aren’t you dead?”

“The dead can’t die again, Alice. I was killed by a vengeful spirit, but I came back to make sure no one else had to suffer my fate. You died here, thinking you had been abandoned by your family. They didn’t abandon you, they were just scared of catching the disease you had.” I look at the screen of my phone and follow the second link my browser had supplied. “On July 23, 1927, Thomas Loweden Preston dedicated the new sanitarium at Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. Named in honor of the daughter he tragically lost to the disease, the Alice Preston Memorial Tuberculosis Clinic is intended to treat patients suffering from the deadly malady…”

I stop speaking as Alice buries her face in her now ghostly hands. Then her face rises, filled with anger again. “But Johnathan…he should never have married Anna, and she should never have tempted him away from me. She wrote me, she told me about their courtship, about their wedding night, about the thing she had taken from me, the only thing I ever wanted.”

“But Alice, how are you punishing either of them by killing young men who’ve done nothing to you. How is tempting them here and killing them justice? Your sister was cruel to you, but was your Johnathan wrong to fall in love with your sister? Would you rather he married you and died of your disease? Is that what you think justice is? Give up your anger, let go of your hatred..or I’ll have to kill you myself.”

“You say I can’t kill you because you’re dead, so how do you think you can kill me?”

She started to laugh, but the sound died in her throat as my fingers wrapped around her throat. Alice’s eyes bulged as her finger tried to move my wrist. She couldn’t, and after a brief struggle, she subsided.

“Alice, I was killed, so I don’t want to kill you or anyone else. Accept your death. Let go of your anger, your obsession with what you wanted, and leave.”

Alice’s form becomes more transparent, and I feel my grip on her become more tentative, less like grasping flesh and more like holding a balloon. Her mouth opens, and like a whisper out of a vast empty room, I hear her ask her final question.

“Will I be free at last?”

“You were always free, Alice. The only thing that held you here was you.”

Alice’s smile is the last thing I, or anyone else, see of her. I wonder what will happen to her next. Will she see heaven? Did hell await her for all the young men she has killed? Or will she have what I hope for some day, the peace of oblivion?

I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I make my way towards the main part of the hospital and the exit looking at my phone. There are other stories to investigate, and more spirits that are tormenting the living. They are my business in this world now, and my next task awaits me.

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Who are you?

“I’m going to kill you.”

The voice came from everywhere, like I was standing in the middle of a crowd, all speaking in one voice at the same time. There was no one in the small, dusty room but me.

“I’m going to kill you, and I’m going to enjoy killing you.”

The temperature dropped. A small puddle, the last remnant of a pool that must have formed and evaporated many time from the rings on the floor, went from murky liquid to slushy mush to solid ice in front of my eyes. Then I saw movement, a thickening of the shadows in one corner, like the darkness was taking form. The shape of a man, if such a rough outline of of a man could be called a man, stepped away from the wall to stand in front of me.

“I’m going to tear you apart, disassemble your body piece by piece like a cheap watch. I’ll listen to your screams and smile as you beg me for mercy. I haven’t had fun with a human for years now, not since I messed up and let that kid escape after he caught me ripping his friend apart. So you’re going to have to make up for all the fun I’ve missed in the mean time.” A crescent-shaped glow, like the a smile shaped of hell-fire, appeared in the upper part of the shape where a head should be. “Do you want to beg for mercy, fool? Do you want to try to run away? Please, do! It will make what follows just that much more enjoyable for me.”

The shadow slid across the room so fast it might almost have vanished before rematerializing in front of me. A rough arm-shaped projection sprouted from its side and swept down at me…only to pass through my body. A moment’s pause, and the shape did the same thing again…then again, and again before stopping.

“What is this? Why can’t my power effect you?”

The voice conveyed none of its former arrogance, only puzzlement. My own hand shot out, fist balled, to hit the shadow where its stomach should have been. The form shot backwards like some cheap Hollywood stunt. Before it could move, I was on top of it, a hand where the neck should be, pinning it to the floor.

“What….how can you do that? Humans are at my mercy, I am all-powerful compared to them. How?

I lean down bringing my face, or what appears to be a face, almost in contact with my victim. “Do you not know me? Look on my face, and remember.” I let my form change, taking on again the shape of the scared boy I was before I died in this accursed house. “You took my life from me, killed me on the day I confessed my feelings to the girl I loved. You killed me and enjoyed tormenting me. But you didn’t hear what I said as I died, did you? I swore to myself I’d come back, that I’d kill you. Now, I’m here to fulfill that promise.”

The shadow take form, becoming a child even younger than I once was. Now, the voice has none of the menacing, hollow boom it once had. It is a scared young boy’s voice, crying in the face of his doom. “No, I’m sorry! I just killed you, killed all of them, because I had nobody to play with. No one ever played with me when I lived here. My parents kept me locked in a room because brothers and sisters weren’t supposed to have children. Don’t kill me, please!”

You might ask, ‘Can those who are already dead fear death?’

Yes, they can. I killed him, grinding my hands down on what should have been his throat until he stopped struggling, and there was nothing but fear in his eyes as he died. He lost definition, then the very shape dissipated, leaving nothing but me, kneeling in the middle of a filthy room in an abandoned house. My purpose for staying was gone, the task I’d wished to accomplish, the reason I’d never been able to pass to whatever awaited me, was done. Yet I remain.

Why?

Were my regrets still so strong that I could not give up on the physical world? And if that were so, what would become of me? Would I become like this hollow shadow-child, condemned to torment the living for my own pleasure?

No, there had to be other places like this, other vengeful spirits that preyed on the living. If I couldn’t go to the afterlife, I could at least spare others what I had suffered. I would become a hunter of those real monsters.

“Where to next?”

I pull the smart phone from where I stored it inside myself and begin searching the Internet for tales of destructive spirits.

(Strange) Physic and Laundry

People don’t usually associate the words “physics” and “laundry” with each other. But if you think about it for a few seconds, there’s quite a lot of applied physics going on any time you do a load of laundry. The fluid dynamics involved in how the agitator stirs the wash water to help the detergent remove dirt. The way the centripetal force generated by the spinning tub helps squeeze excess water out of the clothing. The airflow calculations needed to optimize drying when warm air is forced through a dryer. There’s a lot of physics going on every time you throw a load of dirty clothing in.

Then there’s the ‘strange’ physics that seems to randomly happen when we do a load of laundry. How many of us haven’t speculated about the possibility that a random worm hole opened inside our dryer to swallow a missing sock? Or that a space/time dilation is why a load of laundry to seemingly taking forever to dry?

Then there’s the truly strange physics of the stuff that happens and just does not make any sense…like what happened to me recently

I had a load of colored clothing to do, and like I usually do, I started loading by spreading my jeans out around the bottom of the tub. After they were in, everything else went in on top, again spread around to try to avoid the dreaded ‘heavy spot’ that can set a washing machine to rattling all over the floor. Last, but not least, was the liquid detergent, a circle of darker color atop everything else, complete with the cup that held it (both to clean out the cup for the extra use, and to get the maximum amount of detergent out of it possible). Down went the lid, ’round go the setting knobs, and the final press of the start button to set everything in motion. With everything churning away, I adjourn to my computer to add to my current novel. An hour later, my subconscious reminds me that, yes, I have to stop writing and tend to my laundry. Now, things get truly strange.

Upon opening the lid, I see not the usual neat layer of clothing, pressed hard to the sides of the tub. No, part of the load is as it should be, but the rest is a confused jumble that has resisted the forces of spin to remain stubbornly around the central agitator. I begin trying to sort out what is before me, but the clothing is so intricately intertwined that finding a place to start unraveling the mess temporarily eludes me. After several minutes and more than a few aborted attempts to divine what has happened, I managed to find a loose item I could disentangle it from the rest. Its removal reveals another item, then another, until the picture become clear. Somehow, a pair of gym shorts had managed to not only float free of everything else, it had settled over the central agitator, with the column passing through one of the leg holes. Once that had occurred, it seemed to have become entangled with several other items to form the twisted mass I’d beheld. But that is not the strange part.

Somehow, in that churning mass of water and clothing, not only had this pair of gym shorts contrived to effectively dock with the central agitator, it had managed to swallow the detergent cup with one of only two pockets on it. Even more bizarrely, the opening of the pocket is barely wider than the widest diameter of the cup.

How all this happened, I have no clue. Every time I think back on the event, the logical part of my mind stops, scratches it’s head, and mutters “What the….”. The creative part of me, though, wonders if Chance decided it was time to play the Mother Of All Practical Jokes on me.

Whatever the reason, I think I can safely say it is a moment that will stick with me for years to come.

Welcome to your new world

“Why the hell won’t they just go away?”

I hit the release, dropping the empty clip before slapping another into the modified AR-15. A quick rack of the bolt, and I pop above the concrete rim of my improvised fighting position to shoot into the crowd trying to force the gate. I see two people drop, but I had to fire two three-shot bursts to accomplish that. They’ve gotten smarter I think to myself

Where they found it, I don’t know, but the people are crowded around an old Mercedes. Working behind the now-open doors and open trunk lid, they alternate between pulling it back and pushing it forward, using it as an improvised battering ram. With every impact, I see the gate to my home sway a little more. I’d built the posts they hung from myself, but the heavily reinforced cast concrete posts weren’t designed for this sort of punishment. The hinge is already flopping loosely at the top of the right gate, and I can see a gap between the second hinge on that side and the post.

I fire at the space where the front windshield once was, but it has no effect. Twenty minutes ago, when the most recent assault had started, a young man had been behind the wheel, making sure the car hit its mark. I’d killed him without any problem, and the next three people who’d taken his place. Now, a child sat in the seat, their head only occasionally visible as they rose up enough to correct their aim. I rise up, hoping to stop the oncoming rush, and missiles of every sort rain down on me. Rocks, pieces of brick, hunks of concrete, bottles, even the occasional bullet comes whizzing past me.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

I’d made my money, done my work, prepared for the possibility that the lazy moochers might one day rise up. It wasn’t my fault that the government had collapsed. I’d warned them. Told everyone I knew that it would happen, that they should be like me and refuse to pay taxes. When it had happened, I’d locked the gate on my compound and brought out the weapons I’d stockpiled to defend what was mine.

They should know better, those stupid idiots outside the walls. They’d tried going over it, and died on the electrical wires atop it. They’d thought I was getting power from the collapsed power grid and wasted time taking down all the wires in the area. Now, they were concentrating on the gate, and I killed them by the dozens. But still they keep coming.

“You’re not getting in! It’s my food, my medicine! Go somewhere else, you bastards!”

My shout does nothing but make the people pushing the Mercedes push harder. The middle hinge squeals as it pulls from the post, and the right gate begins to topple. More people rush towards the car, and I spray the growing crowd with death. I don’t know how many fall, but more come running to take their place. Now, there are people all around the beat-up vehicle, and it moves forward as fast as the people pushing it can run. The impact rips the last hinge on the right gate free, and the crowd surges through the gap. I grab the remote that has been in my pocket since the first person arrived and press the button on it as I dive for cover.

In front of me, my last line of defense, four improvised Claymore mines, explode. I hear the shriek of the metal fragments I’d loaded them with, then the screams of the injured, the dying. I jump up, ready to fire, just as another shower of missiles pours down on my on my location. Something hits the side of my head, and my world goes black.

I awake because someone is tugging at me….no, tugging at the strap to my weapon. I manage to roll over, and find myself facing a boy, one so small and skinny he could have passed for a grade school student if not for the hardness in his eyes. He has my AR-15 tucked under one arm, and his finger is around the trigger.

“Why’d you try to hoard so much?”

I’d expected him to shoot me, not to ask me a question.

“It was mine, it is mine. Why did you come to take it? Why didn’t you leave me alone, go find someone else to rob?”

“Why? Because no one else has anything! Are you stupid, or what?”

“But why charge in when I made it clear I’d fight to keep what was mine, that I’d kill to keep what was mine?”

Someone walking past, walking away from my house, stopped and sat a package down next to the boy. I recognize it, one of the MRE’s I’d stocked up on. He doesn’t even turn to look at them, his eyes are fixed on me.

“You’ve never been hungry in your life, have you? I watched my mom starve herself to death so she could feed me and my little sister. I knew if I didn’t find some food somewhere, we’d die too. Everyone knew you had food. Hell, you practically bragged about it. So I came with everyone else, all of us starving to death, and you know why? Because all of us would rather risk dying getting some food then wait, knowing we’ll die of starvation eventually.” The boy hikes himself up on the edge of where I’d been fighting, keeping the gun aimed at me, and scooped up the MRE. “This, this will be enough to keep my sister and me going for a couple of days, easy.” He looks down at me, and I know he’s going to shoot me. Then he steps back, slinging the rifle over his scrawny shoulder, and turns away.

“They told me to kill you, to get rid of you for killing so many desperate, starving people. I won’t, because you aren’t worth the bullet. I’ll give you the same choice you gave us: starve to death, or help us find food to feed everyone.” He turns his back on me and starts walking away as he pronounces my final sentence. “Welcome to the world you made. Now, live in it.”

Where do we go from here? Downward, I fear.

I’m going to do something I don’t like to do in this blog: venture into politics.

A friend of mine on Facebook (yes, I know, Facebook is a total waste of time, no need to remind me) posted a link to a story about Al Franken’s resignation. The story was good, but the telling thing was the discussion about it. People responded at first fell into two camps: those who thought that Franken should leave, and those who thought he was being unfairly forced out.

The latter soon became the more vocal, and the disturbing thing was their reasoning. They blamed the women, claiming they were ‘known political operatives’, that some shadowy person (or persons) had offered financial rewards to those coming forward, etc., etc., etc.

I found these responses disturbing because I also read stories online, and one thread I’d been following was the controversy swirling around Roy Moore. Reading the responses of those defending Moore, I noted a consistent refrain: the women who were motivated by their politics, that they’d been ‘paid’ to come forward, etc., etc., etc.

I was amazed at how similar the responses of the two sides were. How they sought to blame the victims for what was happening to ‘their guy’. What was even more amazing the response I got when I pointed this similarity out to an Al Franken supporter.

I was called a liar.

I ‘couldn’t understand’ what was ‘really’ happening.

There was absolutely no similarity between what they thought and ‘those people’.

Etc.

Etc.

Etc.

What it made me see is that, on both sides of the political spectrum, the mood had become even more strictly “Us versus Them”. That you either blindly support Our Side, or you are The Enemy.

In other words, both sides are locked in a downward spiral, driven not by truth, but by the desire for Power.

Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of achieving Power.

Power to push their political agenda, no matter what.

Power to ‘stick it to’ the Other Side.

Truth? Honor? Justice?

Who cares!

They, of course, see Power as Good.

It will allow them to Do The Right Thing….or at least what their particular ideology tells them is The Right Thing.

And the saddest thing of all is that none of them can see where they are taking America. Where is that? Down a long, dark road that has no good end. A future where one side rules over the other, where ideas like compromise, reason and being able to see any value in those who do not agree with you are considered ‘quaint’, if not dangerous.

And that’s not a future that augers well for ideas like democracy, freedom and liberty…in other words, America.

Must we repeat history?

They came with the rising sun, bringing not warmth and life, but death.

Wind Rising woke, as he always did, in the dim moments before the Sun came back to the sky. His mother had told him he always woke at the hour because that was the time when he first came into the world. Now, as a father fresh from a night short of sleep due to his new daughter, he wished for sleep but knew it would not return. He slipped out from under the buffalo hide he and Lone Walker had been sharing, giving his wife’s cheek a brush of his lips as he did so. She stirred only a little from the touch, drawing their daughter closer to her before settling in to the sleep she needed.

Pushing open the flap of their lodge, Wind Rising looked out on the camp around them. None of the other lodges had smoke rising from their crowns, telling him the rest of the families still slept. Overhead, the sky was beginning to shift from the black of night to the darkest of blues. East, the He Sapa were a black outline against the rapidly-lightening sky. Wind Rising pulled medicine pouch out and poured a small amount of corn pollen from it. A pinch of this he offered to the sacred Four Directions as thanks for the blessing of another day. The tiny remainder he tossed up as a gift to the Earth as a whole for the blessing of having his family. That was when he heard it.

The Horse Soldiers always made too much noise. They talked too much, shouted at each other even more, and made no effort to approach their enemies by stealth. Now, they did something Rising Wind had heard twice before, they made a noise like some strange animal calling. One of the times he had heard the sound, he had seen one of them holding something that gleamed like the Sun itself to his mouth. His chest heaving like he were running, the Horse Soldier had made that strange sound until an arrow had struck him down.

“Everyone, wake up! Horse Soldiers!”

He didn’t have to shout, as the first wave of that sound seems to bring every man in the camp out of their lodge. Wind Rising thrust himself back into his own lodge and found Lone Walker already awake, bundling little New Moon up so she could take their child into the late Winter cold without worrying for her health. Wind Rising was lucky, he had a golden boy and many of the shells that went with it in a satchel he could sling from him shoulder. He grabbed both before rushing to his wife.

“I think the Horse Soldiers are to the East, so go West. The creek bed will help you hide.”
Lone Walker put an arm around him, pulled him tight and kissed his cheek. “Be safe, husband. Come to us soon.” He drew her close, rested his face against her neck, whispered “I will.” in her ear before leaving.

He heard the thunder of hooves as soon as his head was outside. Looking East, he saw the dust of the attacking Horse Soldiers rising behind the dimly visible line of riders. The first rifle shot rang out, then several more. He saw flashes from the dark line approaching the camp, then heard the sound of shots, and ran towards them.

More shots rang out from the camp as Wind Rising came to the last of the lodges. He saw old One Buffalo lying face down outside his lodge, his bow clutched in his hand and blood spreading everywhere around him. The sound of another rippling volley, and the loud zip! of a bullet passing near his ear, caused Wind Rising to drop to one knee and raise his golden boy to his shoulder.

The Horse Soldiers were now close enough that he could make their faces out, even in the dim pre-dawn light. He picked one man out, centered the sight on his chest, and pulled the trigger. The rifle bucked, but the rider did not pitch out of his saddle, he simply ducked to one side. A quick pump of the lever brought another shell into place, and Wind Rising pulled the trigger again. This time, the distance much shorter, he saw the man’s mouth fly open as if he were going to scream, but he toppled instead in apparent silence.

More shot range out from the camp, and Wind Rising saw a Horse Soldier fall with an arrow in his shoulder, but for all their efforts, there were too many attackers for them to stop. Loading another shell, he swept down the line of soldiers, trying to find some indication of who their leader was. One man, smaller than the others, wore a hat with a bright band around it. Wind Rising took careful aim, centering the site on his chest, and fired again. He saw the man go down, but the soldiers kept coming.

He saw several flashes from the line of soldiers, and felt something slam into his stomach. He was thrown onto his back, and when he tried to set up, found he couldn’t.

He heard shouts, even screams, around him, then a horse ran past him. On its back was a horse soldier, reins in one hand, a pistol in the other. Wind Rising tried to move again, but his legs did not want to work. He tried to roll onto his side, in hopes that he could drag himself to his golden boy, which lay just out of reach. Then another horse came into view, but this one stopped. He looked up, and saw the horse soldier atop it looking down at him. He saw the other man’s mouth draw back into a snarl, and his hand go to the pistol on his belt. Wind Rising made a final, desperate effort to reach his rifle, failed, and looked back towards the soldier. He saw the barrel of the pistol pointing at him, saw the man smile, a flash…….

James White Hawk started awake, staring around the inflatable shelter. The images, the feelings, all of it had been so real it was hard to believe he was in Iraq, not America during the Sioux Wars. He saw the shadowy form of Laton Byrns moving on the next bunk, then his best friend rolled over to face him. “Yo, Jim, time to get up?”

“No, Lat, just me wakin’ up too damned early again.” James looked at the clock beside his bunk, saw the time was only fifteen minutes from when he’d expected to be woken, and gestured towards it. “Then again, you might as well get up, not gonna get a whole lotta sleep in fifteen minutes.”

Lat looked at the clock and shrugged off his covers. “Yeah, guess not. So, what woke you this time? The usual can’t sleep?”

“Nope, just one fuck of a nightmare.”

“Bad one?”

“Nope, one strange one. I was….hell with it, just a fuckin’ dream. Let’s get some chow so we can have a few minutes before the mission briefing.”

“Hey, as long as they’re willin’ to give me my coffee, I’m good. I don’t get my morning hit of caffeine, and I ain’t gonna vouch for what happens later.”

“Heard that, brother. Let’s get our shit over there.”

#

Salla brushed his wife’s cheek. He saw Amari smile in the dim light of their bedroom. He had been careful getting out of bed, wanting to give her a chance to get what sleep she could. Hassan, their five month old son, had been restless last night, and he had gotten no more sleep than his wife. But she had been the one who had risen to tend to him, and he hoped their child would sleep on for a while longer. Salla moved to the crib and looked down at the small bundle lying in it.

Hassan looked as he always did when he slept, like he had not a single bone in his body. How could something so small be so loud? He smiled as he had the thought, then he repeated the silent prayer he has said every morning since his son’s birth. Allah, thank you for my son, for my wife, for the life I am blessed with. He gave his son a final smile, then left the room as silently as he could.

It was Salla’s day to be on guard for the village militia. He slipped on the jacket that would be welcomed in the pre-dawn cold, then took up the AK-47 he had been issued. After the dark interior of his house, the courtyard seemed brightly lite, even though the Sun would not be up for nearly another hour. His gate gave a screech as he opened it, but he knew the thick walls of his house would dampen the sound. Across the street, Udi came out of his own gate, and the two men exchanged a quiet greeting before heading towards their post on the edge of town.

“So, Salla, do you think the Americans will come today? I heard they raided Burkki yesterday, looking for ‘insurgents’.”

Salla shook his head. Like most Shia, he and the other villagers had no sympathy for the fools who wanted to bring back Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government. The old government officials had been thrown out shortly after the Americans had invaded, and the village had welcomed them when they’d finally arrived. But then the Americans had come back in support of the new, equally corrupt government, looking for supposed insurgents. Salla hoped they would remember the warm reception they’d once received and leave his village alone.

Hakim, their commander, was already in the small bunker that guarded the main road. He was fat, occasionally tyrannical when enforcing his orders…but he was always early, and as the owner of the only coffee shop in the village, he always had a pot brewing for his men. Someone else, probably Saddam Ismal the village baker, had brought a cardboard box full of sweet pastries. Udi and Salla gratefully helped themselves to both while their commander told them what he wanted done.

“We’ve heard that the Americans may be here today. We hope not, but if they do come, do not provoke them! If they aren’t here by mid-watch, I want three of you to patrol the village. Salla, you’ll take Hakim and Falla and walk the main street to the other end of town. You don’t have to do anything…unless someone is stupid enough to break the law in front of you. Just show everyone that we’re doing out job, that’s all you have to do. Now, you and Udi go relieve the men in the forward trench. They’ve been at it all night, and a hot cup of coffee will be even more welcome to them than it is to the two of you.”

The two men didn’t bother to salute. Hakim would have thought they were trying to be sarcastic if they’d done something like that. The forward trench was a left-over from Saddam’s days. Thrown up during the war with Iran, it was lined with concrete and had a reinforced concrete ridge that faced away from the village. Saddam had bee too cheap to build in steps to get in and out of the chest-high hole, so the two men took turns holding each other’s food while one of them climbed down a wooden ladder that looked older than the village. The two men on duty waited until they were down, then filed past them to climb out. Salla almost missed the fact that neither of them was carrying the ‘honey bucket’, the improved toilet men on duty had to use rather than leave their post. Udi didn’t miss that detail.

“Hey, where are you two going? Think we’re going to dump your shit out for you? Get the hell back here and take care of your own mess if you don’t want to come in tonight and find we’ve left you a few ‘surprises’.”

Osman, the older of the two night men, turned to give them a baleful stare. “We’ve been up all night, and you want us to take care of that before our morning coffee? What next, are you going to demand we scrub it out and make it smell nice for you too?”

Udi had a sense of humor. He smiled and nodded. “That would be nice…but I’ll settle for you emptying it and bring it back.” He grabbed the odoriferous bucket and sat it on the back lip of the trench “And I’m even willing to save you the trouble of climbing back down to get it. Now, am I not a nice man?”

Osman looked like he wanted to empty the contents of the bucket over Udi’s head, then with a glance towards the bunker, he returned to haul the waste away.

“Udi, one of these days, you’re going to push that man too far, and I’m not sure I’ll rush in to save you. It’s not like we have anything to do right now. One of us could have taken care of that.”

His neighbor looked Salla up and down. “And why do I suspect that you’d have volunteered me to take care of the mess?”

“What are friends for?”

As they shared a laugh, the Sun rose over the horizon, and they heard it. The clanking, rumbling sound of a tracked vehicle rolling along the pavement. Nobody but the Americans drove around in armored vehicles, so they knew the long-feared visit was about to happen. Udi climbed the first step of the ladder and waved his hands. “The Americans are coming! We can hear their vehicles.”

The shout had the desired effect. Osman, who’d been slowly trudging towards the latrine everyone in the bunker used picked up his pace. His partner stopped, turned and shaded his eyes to peer into the light of the rising Sun. There was a ripple of gunfire Salla recognized as one of the American machine guns, and the man was picked bodily up by the impact of bullets slamming into his body. Another burst of fire caught Osman as he dropped the honey bucket and tried to run for cover. His blood and the shit in the container splashed everywhere. Salla turned towards the direction of fire and saw one of the American armored personnel carriers rushing up the road, a pair of Hummers and a second armored vehicle close behind.

Why are they shooting at us? We haven’t done anything? Salla barely had time to form the thought before he saw the gun atop the lead vehicle traverse towards him. He made a grab for Udi, trying to pull him deeper in the the trench, but he wasn’t fast enough. Bullets tore into Udi’s body, one striking his head, causing it to explode. His corpse fell on Salla, knocking him down hard enough that his head struck the concrete bottom. The world faded, nothing of it coming through but the noise of gunfire and the stink of blood and shit from his friend.

How long he lay there, Salla wasn’t sure. When his senses cleared again, he pushed Udi’s body off him and started picking himself up. That’s when he saw the American. He was standing above the ladder looking down at him, his gun pointed directly at his chest. His face didn’t look like any of the Americans Salla had ever seen. It was a dark copper color, and his nose broad as the black Americans he’d seen.

Moving slowly, Salla brought his hands out where the American could see them. He tried one of the few English words he knew.

“Friend. Friend”

The weapon wavered, lowered, and the American motioned for Salla to come to him. He climbed the ladder slowly, not wanting to alarm the other man, but when he reached its top, his own anger came boiling up. Fat Hakim lay beside the bunker, his arms outstretched as if he’d been trying to surrender when he’d been killed. Osman’s partner lay nearby in a pool of blood. Another man he couldn’t recognize from where he stood lay dead in the road, and several others knelt near him, hands restrained behind their back. An American knelt beside the immobile figure of a woman, his hands pressing a dressing to her midsection as another man spoke to her in bad Arabic.

A stutter of gunfire told him the American were still not done shooting and killing people, and he hoped Amari and Hassan were safe. Surely the Americans wouldn’t shoot a woman with her child. But as he thought that, the image of Udi’s head exploding flashed through his mind, and he was not so sure. He looked at the American, who was looking towards the village as he had been. He shook his head, said something Salla couldn’t understand, then looked towards him. He motioned for him to sit down, then raised his hand and put it behind his head. Salla understood, taking a seat on the hard ground and putting his hands together behind his head. But the American didn’t restrain him as he’d expected, he just turned his attention back towards the village and grimaced when another burst of gunfire shook the early morning air.

Allah, please protect my family!

It was an unworthy prayer, with so many dead and so many more in danger, but that was all Salla hoped. He looked up at the American, and saw a tear in his eye. Did he feel guilty for what was happening? He might not understand, but Salla asked the questions he’d had since waking up under the other man’s gun.

“Why am I alive? Why didn’t you kill me?”

#

James looked at the Iraqi he’d found in the fighting position. His Arabic was non-existent, but something in the tone of his voice, the haunted expression on his face, told James what he was asking. Why am I alive?

James had been surprised when the gunner on the Bradley had opened up, and he still didn’t know why he had. His Hummer had been ordered to secure the small bunker and the forward fighting position, while the rest of the team had moved into the village, convinced that their intel about this being a hotbed of insurgent activities was correct. He’d been ready to climb down into the trench when he saw the very dead body move and realized there was another man under it. The fear on his face told Jim all he needed to know about the other man, and the village too. They weren’t hostile, they were confused and scared. The dream he’d had, the horse soldier looming over him with hatred in his eyes, had come back to him at that moment.

He couldn’t kill this man, not in cold blood. He would not do to him what was done to his ancestors. All James could do was hope his fellow soldiers would show the same restraint.

(For more of what inspired this story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX3jACSixA8)

The woods

The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”

Paul leaned against the tree trunk, silently cursing both Robert Frost and the high school English teacher who’d made him read the poem. The woods around him were dark enough, and he’d run through them for so long he’d bet they qualified as ‘deep. But lovely? Only if tripping over unseen roots, or running into low-hanging branches was you idea of fun.

Paul had been on his way to a weekend get-away, a chance to spend a couple of days at his hunting cabin in the foothills outside of Challis. He wanted nothing more of life than to find out whether he could bag an elk. The clouds had threatened snow, not all that uncommon at the altitude he was at, and evening had quickly given way to that pitch-black you only saw in the middle of nowhere. A sharp bend in the road masked the tree across the road until the last second.

He remembered the violence of the impact, and seeing the front end of his SUV crumpling, then Paul had woken up, face down on the pavement with no idea how he’d gotten there. The SUV and the tree were both engulfed in flames, and the sound of 30.06 rounds cooking off kept Paul from trying to approach. His phone had been charging, so it was somewhere in the flames. Not that it wouldn’t have been of much use. Cell coverage in the foothills was spotty at best, and from past experience, he knew this area was 100% without a signal.

That was when it had hit him. Standing there, wondering whether he’d be better off hiking back down the road in search of someone who’d answer the door this late at night or going ahead to his cabin, he’d felt it. He was being watched. Watched not by some forest creature, or even a curious human. No, he was being watched by someone, or something, was hunting for him.

Paul had hunted grizzlies in Alaska, and black bears not far from here, and a hunter always knew when they were being watched by another hunter. The cold chill down the spine, the constant uneasiness, the desire to suddenly turn, knowing if you do it quickly enough, you’ll see who’s following you…he had all those premonitions and more. That was when he’d started running.

He’d climbed the embankment the tree had fallen from and dashed into the wood behind it at close to a sprint. Paul had lost track of how many times he’d fallen, or been knocked down, as obstructions appeared out of the inky darkness in front of him. When he’d almost run headlong into the massive trunk he now leaned against, he’d known he needed to rest no matter how much he wanted to run. His lungs burned from gasping for breath, and he became aware that his legs were shaking from sheer exhaustion.

But the presence was still there. He felt it as clearly as if whatever stalked him had been shouting. Paul couldn’t run anymore, no matter how much he wanted to. He patted himself down, feeling the folding knife he always carried when in the back country, and pulled it out. A quick flip of his wrist opened it, and he felt the blade lock into place. It might be only a little over four inches of steel, but Paul intended to use it on whatever came at him, to do what he could to pay the ferryman’s fee.

Back to the tree, he scanned the forest before him, but nothing moved. It felt as though the entire forest was standing stock-still, holding its breath as it waited for the confrontation to begin. Then he saw it. A white-clad shape, standing not five feet in front of him. It couldn’t be there. Nothing could have covered the ground between him and the nearest cover that fast. But it was there….no, she was there. His eyes focused now, taking in the details, Paul realized that a girl stood before him. She was slender and couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. She was draped in an unadorned white one-piece dress the seemed to float around her in a wind Paul couldn’t feel. Her hair hung down past her shoulders, a cascade of black so dark it seemed to drink in the night itself. Her skin was pale, her face expressionless, the eyes that stared at him as lifeless as two stones. Paul knew what he beheld, but his mind refused to acknowledge what his heart told him.

“Why did you run, Paul? You know it will change nothing.”

He didn’t want to reply, but knew he couldn’t remain silent. “I ran because no one wants to face the end when it comes.”

“You, who have killed so much, fear me?”

“I do.”

Death smiled, and shook her head. “You have nothing to fear, Paul Sanchez. All that is mortal dies, something you should know. Come, it is time. Run no more, accept the end.”

Paul thought of rushing Death, of trying to strike down the apparition before him, and knew it would accomplish nothing. His fingers opened, the knife fell to the ground, and he took the two steps that separated him from Death. She took his hand, and Paul was surprised that the hand holding his was soft and warm. Was this how it had been for his mother, his father? Had they seen Death as kind when it had taken them? Perhaps Death knew all that he thought, for she spoke to him now for the last time.

“I am what will make the dying wish most to see. To you, I am the sister you lost long ago. To others, I am the loved one who has gone before them, the parent they have wished to see one more time. Come with me now, Paul. It is time for your journey to end.”

Then the forest faded, and nothing remained but the knife Paul had dropped. Weeks later, another hunter found it. He had heard of the terrible accident, but that was miles away. He wondered how the blade had come so far, but not in his wildest fancies did he imagine how it truly came to be there.