126 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO “So let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re dead. Your brother is dead. Everyone is dead.”
Sure. Perhaps it was a bit of an overreaction. But my head was still spinning from that particular revelation.
Unfortunately, he seemed to rather take me at my word. “Everyone isn’t dead. Just the two of us.”
“What does that even mean though. You look perfectly fine.” I reached out and poked him in the arm. Completely solid, although a bit cool. Not zero body heat cool though, just a regular cool natured person sort of cool. There was that slight smell though that I had first noticed back when I’d first met him. Back when all of this mess had started up again. It felt so very long ago.
Something like wet leather and dog fur. Still strange and just a bit on the disgusting side, but not enough that I would have even bothered to look for it on a crowded bus had I smelled the same. But now that I noticed it, I realized just how often I’d smelled it before. Just how often it seemed associated with the strangest of things.
“I get that,” I said, a bit of an edge making its way into my voice. “But why does it just so happen to be both you and your bother that are all no-longer-dead? Shouldn’t that sort of thing be rare?” Come to think of it, counting Private Jackson, why did I personally keep bumping into these sorts of things. Was God trying to tell me something?
John just shrugged though. “I have no idea. It wasn’t exactly my choice in the matter. I never intended Alex to go through…” His voice trailed off.
“To go through what?” I prompted.
“To go through this.” He gestured vaguely at the room all around him, at the gun in his hand, down at himself. “To have to keep on living well past your appointed time.”
“I would have thought that most people would be thrilled with the opportunity not to die,” I said. “To have just one more day with their loved ones.”
I saw his face fall. “Well that’s just the problem, isn’t it. It isn’t a matter of one more day. One more day is great. It’s the days after that. The weeks. The months. They can tell you know, they can always tell.”
I blinked at him. He was getting harder and harder to follow. “What can they tell? And who are they for that matter?”
“Everyone,” he answered, abruptly standing and walking across the room. “They can always tell.”
“Tell what?” I asked again, following him. He’d set the gun down on a counter and appeared to be staring at some sort of abstract painting on the wall.
“That I’m dead.” Just as suddenly, he spun around, closing the distance between the two of us before I could so much as react. He got right up in my face, bringing a fresh whiff of that scent right into my nostrils. At this distance, I almost gagged, the smell was even more obvious and cloying. “How would you like it if one by one, everyone you’d ever cared about, everyone you ever knew, one by one, they left you?”
His eyes were bloodshot. That was really all that I could think about with his face so close to my own. That and the smell.
“I guess I wouldn’t much like that,” I said finally, my brain catching up with what I’d heard.
“No,” he said. “I guess you wouldn’t like that at all.”
“But what about your family.” If he’d died so long before Alex, then that meant that when he’d realized that Alex had come back he’d already been dead. But he’d been with his family then. “Surely they don’t mind.”
He just shook his head though, “oh, they’re nice enough about it. They pretend not to notice. But I know. Deep down, I always know.”
Honestly, it sounded to me like he had problems running more deeply than simply being dead. If I hadn’t been so sure that I’d just seem him shoot himself in the head to absolutely no ill effect, I wouldn’t even have believed that anything was physically wrong with him at all. But that… that was something that I couldn’t easily explain away. There had to be another explanation though.
“That’s why, you know,” he abruptly went on. “That’s why I wanted to do it. That’s why I still want to do it.”
I shook my head slightly. “To do what?”
“To send Alex back.”
“To wherever he was. Back to the grave. Even if he was in Hell itself, it has to be better than being stuck back here.”
127 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO Either our commanding officer was a tactical genius–or someone up there really was on our side.
Only moments after we were surrounded–with guns inside the building ready to tear us apart if we went in and a dozen guns or more keeping us from going back out–there was a sudden chatter of gunfire from one side of the building. Even better, the cadence of these guns sounded blessedly familiar. These were the guns I’d trained with even when they knew that I would never use them on the field of battle. These were the guns that my fellow soldiers used day in and day out around our makeshift base.
These were our men.
The others, those that were all but holding us hostage turned to face this new threat, almost as one. It would have been impressive had it not also been such a tactically poor decision. I even realized it, no more than a fraction of a second after the Sergent did as well. They hadn’t actually disarmed us, so why in the world did they think we were the lesser threat.
“Open fire,” the Sergent yelled, but he didn’t have to. The men knew what to do.
It was a slaughter.
A part of me hated every moment of it. I had applied for and been granted the position of a not only a chaplain because I thought I could do some good. I thought that perhaps I could save even one soldier’s soul from the irreparable damage that wartime could bring. Even so, I knew that death was going to be a part of the job. But this was just brutal. Our weapons were designed for one thing and did that one thing very well–to kill.
Yet, I’m ashamed to say it, another part of me reveled in the violence. They say that there’s the deeper, more reptilian part of our brains from long ago that are hardwired to violence. I don’t know about all of those stories about coming from apes–the Church’s viewpoint was that evolution occurred, albeit guided by God, but there was just something about mankind…–but I knew what I felt. And what I felt was a thrill at seeing my side come out ahead. To take back what was ours and to strike back for truth, for justice.
All of the words that I’d shared with the young soldier back in the medic’s tent were going right out of my head. A part of me knew that these were fellow human beings–but a part of me didn’t care. A part of me knew that the vast majority of them were just following orders, the same as we were–but another part of me didn’t care.
A part of me looked inwards and was sickened by what it saw.
But another part of me looked outward and thought of all that I’d been put through in the past weeks. All that Amira was surely having to face right now.
And that part of me rejoiced.
128 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO If John were still dead set on helping his brother, then at the moment his reasoning was less important.
One problem at a time.
I knew that John needed help, but so did Alex.
And Mrs. Claire.
And I was bound for Rome in only a few days time, on the orders of the mysterious man with the silver hair–who come to think of, I could barely make out any more. That was strange.
But the important part was that John was willing to help me.
As mercurial as he was acting and as crazy as it sounded, he was willing to go to his parent’s house and procure the urn that held Alex’s remains–for since he’d committed suicide, he could no longer be buried in the Catholic cemetery.
I knew there was a chance that something had gone horribly sideways and that Alex’s remains weren’t actually there, but that was another bridge to put off until we came to it.
One problem at a time.
I made the arrangements; he would collect the ashes and meet us back at Mrs. Claire’s, as soon as possible. I figured that it would take at least a few hours, but that would give me the time I needed to make any other arrangements. Amanda was collecting supplies for me, but Sister Kat’s instructions had been precise and there was more than enough preparations that had to be done.
I made sure to ask John to leave the gun behind. I had a feeling that just him showing up again at Mrs. Claire’s was going to be enough of a problem–even if Mrs. Claire herself didn’t quiet remember all of the details of our prior visit–but every little bit would help.
In any case, I did manage to convince him that a gun wouldn’t do him any good anyways. He’d already tried it.
Unfortunately, mentioning the gun only seemed to agitate John and he spent the rest of the time I was there with the gun back in his hand, using it as a pointer and gesturing wildly at times. I had no way of knowing if it was loaded, so I fell back to the old saying to treat all guns as if they were loaded–even if you’d personally checked just a minute ago. So I ducked and waved, trying to stay out of John’s way as he talked emphatically.
I had a feeling the gun was going to be a problem, but it too went on the list of things that were going to have to wait to be dealt with.
One problem at a time.
That left actually learning a bit more about what I was about to attempt. Sister Kat had made is sound like a prayer with a bit more in the way of physical talismans than I was used to, but the more I read over it, the more it sounded like some sort of pagan spell.
Even knowing what little I knew about Sister Kat’s background, that was a touch surprising.
Where in the world could she have learned such things?
And just how certain was she that they were going to work?
But I had to have faith in her. She wouldn’t let me down, she never had. If she said that the spells–there really wasn’t anything else to call them–would work, then that was just what I was going to have to do.
The ends may never justify the choices one makes, but sometimes there just were no more good choices to be made.