Author's note: A special thanks to Jay Ten and Ecuinach for helping me with my story in the Writer's Workshop and on chat. A special thanks to Barnabas Deimos for the excellent narration and Shadowswimmer77 for the (long overdue) corrections.

"Ashes A Soldier's Story" by EmpyrealInvective feat Lupus Creepus

"Ashes A Soldier's Story" by EmpyrealInvective feat Lupus Creepus

The park was bustling with life. Old couples went on walks and affirmed their love, young lovers picnicked amongst the trees and whispered sweet nothings, children walked dogs and played on swing sets. A young man walked amongst them, but he wasn’t enjoying the scenery, weather, or atmosphere. He didn’t even see these things. It could have been raining and it wouldn’t have fazed him. He sat down on the bench and set the notebook in front of him. He began writing amongst the pleasant scenery.

I have no clue how to open this. Do I introduce myself? I mean, I am the only one that’s going to read this. The therapist that suggested I use this journal as some form of catharsis is sure as hell not going to read it. He was more than happy to shove me out the door. He was only getting paid for one month of therapy by dear ole Uncle Sam. The recruiter that enlisted me talked so much about all of the great benefits and how they’d take care of me when I got back after two tours. Two tours would have turned into three had I not had a complete mental breakdown and was deemed unfit for the job.

I’m getting ahead of myself. My name is Joseph Yossarian, my rank is First Lieutenant in the bomber squad of the Air Force, my social is 478-17-2052, and I was born July 9th, 1985. Some old habits die hard I guess. That information just spilled right out of the pen without any provocation or thought. It is the information we are allowed to give out if we have been captured. (Name, rank, social security number, and birth date.) Hopefully this venture will not be as unpleasant as I’ve heard interrogations are.

I am writing this in a busy park. There are lovers having picnics, old men feeding birds from park benches, kids playing in the playground. Shit. All that’s missing is a dog catching a Frisbee midair and we have a fucking Norman Rockwell painting. I had hoped that a change of scenery from my dusty, dreary apartment would lift my spirits some, but it only seems to make me feel worse. Being surrounded by all these happy people without a clue only makes me angry. They don’t know. They’ve never been scared shitless that the next breath they take could possibly be their last.

Screw them. I don’t really mean that, but I kind of do, if you can understand that. It isn’t their fault that I feel this way, but the fact that they don’t even care enough to ask me how I am doing just pisses me off. People walk around me on eggshells like I’m a bouncing-betty just waiting to go off and blow everyone and everything around me to shit. As you can probably tell, my therapy sessions went just swimmingly.

I ended my tour six months back. There was no sending off party, I got on the plane and I felt the resentful stare of Snowden, burning into my back. I got off the plane to see my family holding signs and my girlfriend, Vera waiting for me. They ran into my arms and for that one ephemeral moment, I forgot that I had spent the past half an hour crying to myself in the bathroom.

I held it all together so nicely for the first few weeks. I moved in with my girlfriend and we were happy. I joked, laughed, told stories, (Only the pleasant ones, I kept the rest to myself.) and yes, we were like rabbits. Every corner of the apartment, every inch of the floor. I lost myself in her, forgot myself in her. She was the river of Lethe and I kept trying to plunge back in.

It all started unraveling when she asked me a question while we were having breakfast. She off-handedly mentioned that I had been talking in my sleep the night before and mentioned something about an old man looking for something. She was interested in knowing what he was looking for. I didn’t answer that question; I never answered her question. Not even when she told me that I had to open up or she would leave me.

We later went to a movie and that’s when it started. It wasn’t the movie as far as I know. It was about a Dracula owning some sort of hotel for monsters. It was a kid’s movie and there were literally nothing sad happening at that moment. It was during the closing song, an auto-tuned pop-ish/hip-hop conclusion that it started. The CGI characters were hitting their final note and their mouths were agape and cast towards the heavens and I couldn’t stop it. I started crying. Loudly.

My girlfriend pulled me out of the theater, with my choked sobs and sniffling disrupting the other patrons. She tried to get me to talk about it. I told her I was fine. That was the truth I wanted desperately to believe. My veneer of self-deception and lies was starting to crack. We went home later and made love in the shower, through the cascading water she couldn’t see that I was crying again.

We tried to hold all the pieces together, but the rift between us was growing. She kept reaching out to me and I kept tearing away. She’d catch me crying while we laid in bed trying to sleep and would ask what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, everything was wrong. I had just finished up my free month with the shrink and he told me that I would be fine. So I lied and told myself I was fine. So I lied and told her I was fine.

It was when the dreams started that everything broke down. I dreamt of the old man running down the street, looking for something. He was panicked. I didn't need to see his face to know how terrified he was. It bleed through the way he scrambled and frantically moved through the street. As I swooped down on him, dropping my payload for the carpet-bombing, I wondered if he was looking for an RPG to shoot my plane down. It didn’t matter, I cremated him with the incendiary bombs. As he was swallowed up in the flames, I awoke with a start. I slipped out, trying not to wake Vera, onto the balcony and cried. I was trying my best to keep quiet, but she heard me.

Vera came out and we fought. She said that I wasn’t the person she knew. She shouted at me to tell her what was happening, what had happened. I kept quiet. She told me that I couldn’t keep pushing her away. I didn’t respond. She snapped that we couldn’t work this out. I was silent. She left the apartment and didn’t return. A few weeks ago, I heard through the grapevine that she was dating someone.

Vera returned to the apartment to collect her stuff while I was out working at the VFW. She couldn’t even bear to see me. Maybe it was too painful or maybe she just wanted a clean break. It didn’t really matter as other issues distracted me when I came home that night. The apartment was half-emptied and felt lonely. Well lonely wasn’t the word as I wasn’t in complete solitude. It was there with me.

He stood in the center of the room. He was wreathed in the ashes of what were once his clothes. His flesh had turned obsidian from where the firebombs had swallowed him whole. His eyes had boiled in his head and I imagined that the slightest movement would cause him to crumble and be reduced to ashes. He stood there regarding me.

We stood there for a few moments. He never moved and I never blinked. I walked through him and went into the kitchen. He appeared by the refrigerator, silently stalking me. Looking at him robbed me of my appetite. I went into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed. When I woke up, he was still there.

I called Snowden a few weeks ago when the dreams stopped and I started seeing him. I bought an international calling card and gave him a call. We talked for a little, he was doing well. He had been promoted and was still running the same bombing routes they had when I was there. He asked how I was doing and I evaded the question. We reminisced a little about life overseas and he asked again if I was all right. I told him I was fine. I hung up the phone and looked at the burnt man who stood in the frame of my doorway. I knew what or who was coming next and that thought horrified me.

I need to explain this while I still have the guts. It was a few months into my service. I had been given coordinates and orders to carpet-bomb the area. They had intel that the area was training insurgents and had a stock-pile of weapons. Apparently this was some right of passage amongst the airmen. Upon running your first solo-bombing mission, you would return to base for a night of free drinks and celebratory claps-on-the back on joining the fraternity of airmen. I went on my mission excited to return.

I still remember the feeling of shrieking through the skies carrying death. The sound of my jet bearing down on the rural community must have sounded like the zipper of God’s fly being unzipped. (Kurt Vonnegut at his finest.) I swooped in low. In a fiendish moment of bravado, I wanted to see the destruction I would visit upon them. I got what I wanted.

I saw him when I first triggered the payload to drop. He stumbled around on the street, desperately looking for something. I thought he was trying to reach the weapon stash so he could shoot me down. I continued to firebomb the street and knew that he would be swallowed up in hellfire like the sword of Damocles dropping on him from above. A few seconds later, I saw what he was looking for.

He stood in the middle of the street. I couldn't see him clearly, but in my memories and dreams he is as clear as day. I imagined him looking up into the sky as I tore past him in awe and horror with his mouth agape and his eyes wide. He was watching me as I bore down on him. He was in the incendiary’s area of effect. It was too late to pull away, the firebombs had already been deployed. He was as good as dead. He tried to shield himself from it, but it enveloped him like a mother’s embrace. I could have sworn I heard him scream, but that wasn’t true. The screaming had come from me.

The old man was looking for the boy—his son? He was trying to help him get to safety. I incinerated them both. I would love to say that as soon as that happened, I returned to base, resigned, and faced my court-marshal. I didn’t. I completed deploying the incendiary payloads on my targets and then I returned back to base for the drink. A few days after that, I flew a different route and did the exact same thing. I didn’t see any more children in the streets, but who knows if they were there or not.

I have something bumbling around in my brain like a moth trapped in a lampshade. The same verse keeps repeating. I was once religious and one quote from the Bible drew my eye when I used to read it. Matthew 23:27: “You are like white-washed sepulchers, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones.” On the outside I am a airman, and inside I am a monster. I am dead inside. I am full of unclean things. I am full of rage directed at myself and those around me.

I thought that if I could only get away from there, get back here that I could try to piece together what remains of my conscience. I could find some sort of balm that would heal my mental scars and give me the strength to forgive myself. That is not going to happen. I thought I could forget, but I know it is too late. I see him everywhere I go. He’s with me the instant I wake up in the morning and he is there when my head hits the pillow at night.

He is not a ghost, the only type of ghost that exists is the memory of what we have done and what we have failed to do. I’m afraid to go back to my apartment. I know what is waiting for me there. It is the old man, but more importantly it's the boy, almost burnt beyond recognition. I know that the sight of that boy will shatter the mental barriers I have built to mask my trauma from the world. I know what will happen once that mental mask is eroded and that terrifies me.

I have been carrying the guilt for the death of those two for months. I carry them with me as I try to mask my instability from the world. I carry them as I try to bury my pent-up anger deep down inside myself. I carry them despite the fact that I am ready to explode like a bouncing betty and shred all those around me to shit. I can’t carry them much longer, it is too heavy.

Joseph Yossarian closed the journal and stood up from the park bench. Dusk had fallen and the park was almost completely empty, save for one boy playing with a toy jet. He swung it and swooped it around in the sky while pantomiming explosions with his free hand. Yossarian could almost hear what the boy would say if he told him that he was in the air force, “I wanna be like you.” Yossarian hoped from the bottom of his heart that the boy would never know what it was like.

Joseph walked back to the apartment as the light rapidly faded. By the time he reached his building, it was dark. Yossarian opened the door and the brief illumination revealed two figures in the room standing in front of a rifle laying on the coffee table that was waiting to be assembled and put to use. Yossarian wasn’t sure if he planned to use it on himself or others. The last of his resolve crumbled away like cinders and left an ashy taste in his mouth.

The old man was almost completely ashes while the boy had severe burns over most of his body. One of his eyes had burst and was dribbling down his cheek. His eyes were cast up towards the ceiling and his mouth was open like the maw of a monster preparing to swallow his sanity whole. He didn’t bother to turn on the lights. Yossarian stepped into the apartment that was filled with darkness in every sense of the word and shut the door.

Written by EmpyrealInvective
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