DEATH WISH
By Jeff Robinson (3,000 words)
(published The Martian Wave, July 2002)

July 21, 2011 the high mountain deserts of the Middle East

Corporal Lewis waited behind the base of a dead tree, while two enemy soldiers spoke to one another in hushed voices in the dark. He had spent nearly an hour crawling toward them and, while he was only a few dozen feet away, he hadn’t even glimpsed them yet. Tonight the moon had been a mere sliver in the sky and had disappeared just after sunset. With the slight overcast, the night was as dark and deep as it would ever get.

Carefully controlling his breathing, he listened to the sibilant hisses of whispers a few feet away. Lying motionless on his stomach, he closed his eyes and visualized his surroundings.

The two men shuffled uncomfortably in their shallow, hastily-dug foxhole. Faint metal clicks revealed their movements, as they fumbled with their ammunition clips, and the rustling of the pebbles rose like a sigh, as they sought comfortable positions on the hard cold ground.

Actual combat in this most recent police action by the U.S. had been infrequent and sporadic. Military forces had only recently established themselves here in the mountainous high deserts of the Mideast. Actually, Lewis wasn’t sure exactly what country he was in right now. Skirmishes and missions had dawn his unit back and forth across the unmarked border so often he couldn’t tell. The two sentries that Corporal Lewis had approached were complacent and bored. They didn’t expect trouble, particularly from behind them.

Lewis waited for them to grow tired. He would not move until they stopped talking and the sounds of their breathing slowed.

For a moment he considered letting the two enemy sentries live. It’d be easy to sneak past them without being seen. They’d never know he was there. Then he remembered the others, the rest of his platoon, and the cold anger that had been his only companion for a fortnight washed over him again.

Three reinforced squads had been out on a reconnaissance patrol nearly twenty miles behind enemy lines when they were ambushed. Everyone in the platoon, thirty close friends, had died in that trap. The only reason he survived was because he’d left the group, as they rested, to attend to a call-of-nature.

When the gunfire broke out, he had literally been caught with his pants down. Hidden from view by the walls of a nearby ravine, he hadn’t even witnessed the slaughter. He’d saved himself by scrambling quickly away and hiding in sparse groundcover in nearby gully. Enemy soldiers, searching for survivors, had walked within inches of him without detecting him. Lewis cowered quietly in shame as the enemy had methodically killed the wounded survivors. He couldn’t even help, since he’d left his rifle with his comrades when he’d gone seeking privacy.

After long torturous minutes, the enemy left and Lewis crept out of the brush only to find the bodies of his companions. The Arabs had stripped them of everything of value. All the radios and weapons were gone. The only thing he found useful was a half-canteen of water. The closest thing to a weapon left behind was a rifle one of the Arabs had abandoned. It had no magazine or bullets, but it had a bayonet, and Lewis had hoped to find ammunition later. Unable to do anything for his friends and afraid for his own life, Corporal Lewis fled back to the ravine to hide and make plans.

In two weeks since the ambush, he had moved only at night and had followed a long meandering path back toward the base where his platoon had been stationed. He managed to make his way past large encampments of enemy soldiers and evaded numerous enemy patrols.

Pushing his memories of his squad mates aside, and with the cold anger still burning within him, Lewis rose to his hands and knees. Then with aching slowness, he stood. Carefully placing each foot to make sure that no stone stirred and no sound signaled his movements, he approached the foxhole.

One of the sentries was asleep and snored softly. The other was oblivious to the silent shadow that loomed behind him. Lewis crouched and punched deliberately with his bayoneted rifle, using it as a crude spear. The point penetrated the base of the lookout’s skull, and the soldier convulsed even as Lewis withdrew the spike and turned to the sleeping companion. The second soldier stirred and looked up, but had no time to react before the bloody blade entered his throat and pierced his spinal cord.

Even as the body twitched and trembled on his bayonet, Lewis paused and listened. No cry had sounded. The night remained undisturbed. He pulled back on his empty rifle, withdrawing rusty bayonet blade, and let the corpse fall. The cold that held him lifted slightly, as he completed the ritual he’d performed each night since the ambush. He whispered the names of two more of his dead companions, one for each soldier he had just killed. Smiling, Lewis reflected that only two members of his dead platoon remained unavenged.

With unwavering determination, he had methodically ambushed and slain at least two Arabs each night since the attack. Hiding during the day, he had traveled only at night. Scavenging food and water from those he killed, while living day-to-day with no plan except revenge. Using skills he never even knew he possessed, he moved like a shadow, killing with a savage efficiency that would have once terrified him. His objective of returning home had long since been replaced with the obsession to kill one enemy for each of his slain friends. After fourteen days, with his mission almost complete, he was only a couple miles from home.

Making no more noise than the wind across the sand, Lewis disappeared into the night, heading toward the faint glow over the hill where U.S. forces camped.

Hours later, well after midnight, Lewis crested a small ridge and peered down at the distant lights of the U.S. military base. Below him was a final listening post manned by two insurgent soldiers. Both were both sound asleep. With only two friends left to avenge, the convenience of a final pair of victims seemed providential. Smiling grimly, Lewis gripped his empty rifle and steadied the black-bladed bayonet, a symbol of his revenge.

However, as he approached the sleepers, a different sort of cold washed over him, which froze him in place. Every hair on the back of his neck stood erect, as if someone had just walked across his grave. Without anything to justify his feeling, he knew someone was behind him. Spinning quickly but without the slightest sound, he turned and found himself facing a ghost.

The specter was translucent, floating several inches above the ground. It was tall and thin, resembling a frail-looking man with deep sunken eyes and a scraggily, unkempt beard. Dressed in a formless white gown, it wavered as if no more substantial than mist on the air. The gaunt face and pain-wracked expression it wore reinforced Lewis’ impression that death had arrived.

The spirit’s appearance, however, did not frighten Lewis. Indeed, it seemed almost appropriate for the dead to haunt a battlefield. Lewis, who had become too comfortable with death, watched the shade dispassionately, holding his rifle before him.

The ghost ignored Lewis’ aggressive stance and seemed nearly overwhelmed by grief. It gasped and whispered in a soundless voice, “Don’t kill them.”

Lewis didn’t reply, but stood as now guarding the two soldiers behind him.

Again, the shade warned, “Don’t kill them.”

Lewis frowned. “Why not?” he whispered softly, almost subvocalizing the words on the cold night air. “They’re the enemy. They deserve to die.”

The old man shook its head slowly. “If you kill them, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

“Do you really think I care?”

“Yes,” said the specter whispered. Its inhumanly clear despite the fact that it could hardly be heard at all. “You care. That’s why you’ve been killing so fervently. You’ve been trying to assuage your guilt for letting your friends die. So far, the men you’ve slain have all been soldiers, even though you killed them by stealth and slew them when they were unarmed or asleep. You avenge your dead friends, because you care.

“The two behind you, however, aren’t soldiers. If you murder them, it’ll be the biggest mistake of your life.”

Lewis glanced over his shoulder at the two sleeping forms then turned back to the interfering ghost. “They’re armed agents of the enemy. It doesn’t matter if they don’t hold rank or wear uniforms.”

The apparition shuddered as if overcome by despair and grief. “The two in the foxhole are an old man and his grandson. They have weapons, but neither the training nor will to use them. They’re local villagers who take turns watching both the Americans and Arabs, because they’re afraid of everyone in this unholy war.

“If you kill them the way you plan, they’ll offer no resistance. When you return to your own troops, however, and your anger fades, you’ll discover the truth when others find their bodies. Locals will be outraged, the enemy will be blamed. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to admit that you committed an atrocity, so you’ll convince yourself that it doesn’t matter. The part of you that still cares, however, will be suppressed and will wither and die. Murdering these two civilians will taint the revenge you sought. Instead of admitting shame or grief, you’ll hate the enemy even more and feel that somehow fate spoiled the perfect revenge you’d planned.

“Eventually, you’ll feel compelled to kill again. Indeed, you’ll become dreadfully efficient at killing, but the lives you take won’t sate your need for revenge. Over time, your cold-bloodedness will cause your fellow soldiers and superiors to fear you. You’ll be sent home with medals and glory, but you’ll be discharged, still feeling cheated.

“Once home, you’ll grow even more uncaring. With hatred consuming you, you’ll become a racist and a bigot. You’ll blame your dissatisfaction on those you didn’t have an opportunity to kill. Others, who don’t share your hatred, will become targets for your rage. Your obsession will consume you and will cost you everything you value. Your hatred will drive away your wife and relatives, your remaining friend. You’ll lose your reputation, your job, the respect of your children, and the trust of everyone you know or meet. The more you lose, however, the more you’ll blame others and the more you’ll hate the world around you. Eventually your world and life will have nothing left but hate You’ll blame others for all your woes and attribute your growing loneliness to nameless and faceless enemies.

“Only after many decades will the passage of time provide perspective.

'When you’re old and alone, you’ll find no one left to blame. Only at the end will you reflect about how your life might’ve been, if you’d acted differently this night.

“At the end, you’ll die forlorn and forsaken, unloved and forgotten, all because of what you do here tonight. If you don’t abandon Death here today, it will become your constant companion throughout your life and it will kill everything in your future that would have had value.”

The old ghost looked as if it would weep if it could. Its horror and pain were palpable.

Corporal Lewis listened, but the passion, which had sustained him since the ambush, did not burn hot with anger and rage. It was cold, calculating and uncaring. The last two names he’d saved to invoke over dead enemy soldiers were those of his two closest friends. Closing his eyes, he tried to summon their ghosts to drive away this interfering shadow, but they did not appear.

“I don’t care,” he said. “They killed my friends. They deserve to die.”

The ghost shook his head sadly. “No, these two haven’t killed anyone. They huddle here in the dark trying to defend their homes, afraid of all the soldiers in this war. They cower here, fearing friend and foe alike. If you slay them, you’ll be no better than those you hate. You may even be worse, for you will murder the innocent. If you avenge yourself this way, you’ll never find the satisfaction you seek. You will find only Death.”

For the first time, doubt touched him. Lewis turned and briefly studied the two sleepers in their grave-like foxhole. A chill touched the hairs on the back of his neck again and he spun around to confront the ghost once more, but found it gone.

At first he felt frustration that his opponent had fled, but then he grew angry that he hadn’t defended his case more strongly. As a burning rage rose within him, he raised his weapon and turned back toward his last two victims. Then, he stopped. Recalling the pain in the old man’s eyes, Corporal Lewis glared down at the two, wondering if anything the ghost said were true.

Finally, he swore aloud and one of the forms stirred. It was the boy.

Rubbing his eyes, the youth raised his eyes and, seeing the American soldier, cried out waking his companion. Both of them sat up and raised their weapons, pointing them at him. Corporal Lewis, however, remained as motionless as stone and glared down at them.

Unexpectedly the boy cried aloud, dropping his weapon, he scrambled backwards out of the shallow hole. The old man held steady for a second and then threw down his weapon, as well. Backing out of the foxhole, he invoked prayer of protection against the devil and turned to flee into the night.

Lewis watched them run, disappointed. Uncertain whether their escape was a loss or not, he shivered. The look of horror in the eyes of the old man and the boy was the same as that of the ghost who’d confronted him. Shaking involuntarily, he hugged himself against the cold night air he hadn’t noticed before.

Glancing toward the distant lights, he headed downhill toward the compound. However, instead of feeling excitement at returning, he felt numb and empty. With a weariness that increased with each step, he shuffled toward the tiny military base a mere mile away.

When he reached the base perimeter, a guard barked a traditional challenge. Corporal Lewis replied, with his name and former unit number.

“That’s impossible,” replied the sentry. “That detachment was wiped out weeks ago.”

Lewis said nothing.

The sentinel raised his rifle and hesitated, as he examined the intruder. Then his eyes grew wide and he shouted loudly for his sergeant.

Lewis, his decrepit enemy rifle slung casually in the crook of his arm, strode past the guard toward the tents and buildings within the perimeter. The sentry and the sergeant hurried along beside him, directing him to a tent where the Junior-Officer-of-the-Day stood watch. As Lewis entered, the lieutenant on duty demanded his name, rank and serial number, but the sergeant whispered in hushed tones. The JOD’s eyes widened in awe and he stared at Corporal Lewis with the same horrific expression the two enemy lookouts had worn.

The lieutenant dispatched a runner to wake the unit Executive Officer and directed the sergeant to lead Corporal Lewis to the camp infirmary.

Heading in the direction the sergeant pointed, Lewis ambled into the small clinic. The doctor on duty demanded information, but the NCO explained the situation in whispers once more. Lewis heard the words “sole survivor of Second Platoon” and the doctor blinked in surprise.

The Corporal Lewis offered no objection when orderlies gently took away his rifle, but stared at his hands as if he didn’t know what to do with them. He cooperated as another medical technician removed his shirt and began an examination. As they continued, Lewis’ eyes seemed fixed on distant unseen images. The fact that he was back hadn’t fully registered yet.

As orderlies fussed over him and draped a hospital gown around him, Lewis sighed with relief that he hadn’t killed those last two civilians. Maybe there had been enough killing, after all.

Finally, those tending to him stopped and withdrew to consult to the opposite side of the room. It was then that Corporal Lewis turned and noticed his reflection in a nearby mirror. Staring back at him was the face of a stranger.

Two weeks of facial hair made him look much older than his twenty-two years. Dust from the blowing sands had turned his hair and beard gray. Exposure had leathered his skin and lack of food had sculpted deep circles beneath his eyes. Blinking in surprise, Lewis recognized the face in the mirror. It was nearly identical to the old man, the ghost that had confronted him on the hill overlooking the camp. The hospital gown even looked like the shroud the ghost had worn.

Tearing his eyes away from the mirror, he shuddered. Could it be true? If he had killed those two civilian lookouts, would it have really changed his life? Would he have suffered regret or remorse at murdering them and would he have buried those emotions and lost the ability to care? Over time, would he have succumbed to hatred to cover that shame, losing all sense of compassion as the old man claimed?

Corporal Lewis glanced back at the mirror and saw once more the visage that had haunted him earlier that night. Was it possible, he thought, for someone to grow old and die, wishing with all his heart that he could somehow go back in time and change a pivotal moment in his past? Is it possible, Lewis thought, for a man to be haunted by his own ghost?

Staring at himself, he saw in his reflection the same look of horror and pain that had been in old man’s eyes. Yanking his gaze away from that horrible visage, he clenched his eyes tightly shut. Sighing deeply, he whispered the names of his last two friends and said a prayer on their behalf. Moments later, he began to cry. Unexpected tears crawled down his face and carved dark lines in the dust on his face. Soon the tears became a torrent and he sobbed with grief for his dead friends wondering why he had been left alive.

An orderly watching from nearby went over to the doctor. Whispering, he asked whether a sedative might be appropriate.

The doctor shook his head and said. “His reaction is actually pretty typical. If his story’s true, he may be the only surviving member of his unit. God knows what he’s been through over the past two weeks. This may be the first chance he’s had to grieve.”

Shaking his head, the doctor continued. “Burying emotions like that can have long lasting or permanent effects.” Watched Corporal Lewis weep, he said, “Sometimes, tears are the best medicine.”

 

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