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Clouds

Author’s Note

This is the re-release of my debut that I initially published in 2012. Even after all this time, I still feel it is a story that can speak to a certain group of people, but it will never be “commercial friendly”. CLOUDS was written from a grief stricken place after losing my father when I was thirteen. As time has passed I see that I had to write it to get rid of a very real, and very damaging poison that was trapped inside of me.

My hope is that I can say something very real to those who are dealing with the limbo that grief leaves you in. If this dark, raw debut of mine can reach even one person in some profound way, it will be worth every minute I put into it.

Thank you,
Nate Allen

CLOUDS

By Nate Allen

Copyright 2017 Nate Allen

Shakespir Edition

Chapter 1

It was August 15th of 2000. Grant Smith was seven, and content. It was raining in sheets of iron outside. His mother stood in the kitchen, washing dishes from the dinner she had just served. Hannah Smith sat in her womb, barely a seedling yet.

Grant Smith sat in front of the TV, coloring in a coloring book, and humming. Life was good. His dad would be coming home soon, bringing hugs and kisses: love wrapped in a bundle of masculinity.

“Grant?” his mother called from the kitchen.

“Yeah.” he replied, continuing to color.

“Do you want to help me bake some cookies for when dad gets home?”

“Sure. Let me just finish coloring.”

“Okay, I’ll get the chocolate chips out and ready.”

“Okay.” Grant continued to hum, occasionally brushing his brown shag of hair from his eyes. After another few minutes of coloring—relatively—in between the lines, he closed the book and smiled a crooked-toothed smile. “I’m ready now!” He got up, turned off the TV, and ran out to the kitchen. His mother was cracking eggs with one hand, while grabbing the flour with the other.

“What should I do?” asked Grant.

“You can stir in the chocolate chips, and lick the batter off of the spoon.”

“Okay!” Grant was excited. He hadn’t seen his dad in three weeks, though he had spoken to him over the phone only a few nights before. They had exchanged I love you and definite plans for when he returned.

The batter was now ready. All it needed were chocolate chips. Grant got up on a step stool, grabbed the bag from his mom, and poured them into a big bowl. Grant grinned and gazed into their creation. His daddy would love them! He was sure of it.

Though a stormy day, the atmosphere around him couldn’t have been brighter. Grant looked up to find a mother smitten with life, awaiting the return of her dearly beloved husband and friend. Her green eyes glistened.

“When’s daddy coming home?” Grant asked.

“We should be hearing from him anytime.” she replied as she brushed her light brown hair from her face, and sucked a glop of batter from her finger. “He might be home in time to read you a story, and tuck you in. But, if not tonight, tomorrow.” she rubbed the top of his head, and then turned toward the counter. Grant walked away, rolling his eyes impatiently. It was already late into the day. When would his dad call? He had waited long enough. Grant wanted to hear the door open. He wanted to be scooped up by his six foot father, pinch the edge of his trucker cap, and smell semi-truck exhaust lacing his flannel shirt.

Without speaking another word, Grant got up on the couch, nestled in, and closed his eyes. He slept until being awoken by a frantic mother’s scream:

“What?!” The plate in her hand dropped, and crashed against the floor. Grant opened his eyes, wiped them clean, and then stumbled out to the kitchen.

“What’s wrong, mom?” he yawned.

“Grant.” her eyes were a bright red, and her hair was matted with cookie dough. “Ga-go get your coat and poncho.” she was noticeably distraught.

“Why?” he said softly.

“Because I said so!” she yelled, grabbing the bowl of cookie batter, and throwing it against the wall. “Go!”

“Why did you ruin the cookies?!” Grant now screamed. “Those were for dad!”

“Don’t scream at me! Go get your rain boots and poncho!”

“No!” he was hurt. “Not until you tell me why you threw daddy’s cookies against the wall!”

“Shut up and go upstairs!”

“I hate you!” Grant ran out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and to his room. The warmth of the bright atmosphere was now cold. Grant knew something had happened, but didn’t know what. “Dad’ll be home soon. He’ll love me. He won’t be mean like mom.” He opened the drawer, and pulled out his blue poncho. Tucked beneath his bed were his black strap-on rain boots. After putting both on over his pajama bottoms, Grant stepped heavily through the hall and down the stairs. He came back down to the kitchen to find his mom picking up thick shards of glass from the shattered cookie bowl while crying. His heavy presence became light, and Grant walked slowly out to the kitchen, hesitant, but curious.

“I’m ready.” he said sharply, folding his arms, and tensing his pouty lip.

“Come here.” she said, while pulling her pointer finger back, and sniffling. Reluctantly, Grant stepped forward.

“No.” he said quietly, inching farther away.

“I’m not going to bite. I just want someone to hold.” Still reluctant, Grant took a few steps forward, and then ran into her arms. “I’m sorry baby.”

“Wh-why are you mad?” he calmed a quivering bottom lip.

“I’m scared.”

“Why?”

“Daddy’s hurt.” Immediately, Grant’s eyes widened, sinking far into his face. A tear rolled down his cheek.

“What?” he understood, but not to the full extent.

“We have to go see him.” she sniffled once more, and then wiped tears and mucus from her top lip. “He got in a car accident.”

“Where is he?” Grant now stared ahead, feeling a tingle crawl into his body and linger.

“He’s at the hospital outside of town. You know the one where you go and get shots, and check-ups?”

“Uh-huh.” he nodded quietly, thinking about the last time he talked to him on the phone.

Grant’s mom picked him up and rubbed his back as she opened the door between the kitchen and pantry. She did her best to comfort him, now walking down three steps and over to her black SUV. After buckling him in his seat, she got behind the wheel and started the vehicle.

With the push of a button the garage door opened. She put it in reverse, and backed out. Grant sat in the back seat, blankly staring out the window. The town of Miles wasn’t large. It was a small, irrelevant town in Minnesota; it was nothing but a town for a worried wife, and a quiet seven year old to pass through in an SUV.

Wide eyed but calm, she drove through Miles. Grant’s mom feared Hannah would be born into the world without a father. She feared she would be just like the widow down the block: a single mother of two. All Grant could think about though was if he would ever again hear his father read him a story before bedtime, or kiss his forehead with his prickly cheeks.

The ride was one of realization. Grant couldn’t help but feel sad about the loss of a happier time. His seven year old mind was a sponge that soaked up everything. He had always understood more than most of the kids his age. He understood the possibilities, but decided to wave them away like a cloud of mosquitoes on a hot day. His conscience was there in the car with him on that rainy August night. Though, hope still was sitting next to him, in the form of biblical teachings. He had to believe that the God his folks had fed him along with baby food and cereal was real.

It was all he had: a belief in something good, a man who could heal the sick, and bring sight back to the blind. Even though it had been fed to him since he could remember, Grant only thought of them as bedtime stories. Ironically enough, God had been fed to him by the very person he now prayed for. Yet, some food doesn’t please. Grant was finicky. They tried to feed him faith, only to find it spit up later on. He didn’t like the taste.

“Please save daddy.” he whispered, while folding his hands. “I love him—thank you.” At this moment, Grant still believed in God.

“Grant?” his mother said silently, while clenching the steering wheel, and crying a tear.

“Yeah?” he replied softly.

“Know wa-whatever happens God will always be there, to help you through it.”

“Okay, mommy.” he nodded his head with honesty.

“He’ll never leave you.” every word that came from her mouth seemed like an act. Grant already knew that this God both his mom and dad had spoken of was gone. Maybe He had never been there to begin with.

After driving for another few minutes, the SUV pulled into a relatively empty parking lot. It wasn’t packed as usual. Once his mom parked the vehicle near the entrance, she turned off the engine.

“God,” she sighed. “I don’t want to go in there.” Following two more long sighs, she opened up her door and then Grant’s. The rain had subsided for the moment. Yet, the air was wet and sticky. The sky was thick, shrouding them in a watered down red.

Without his mother’s help, Grant unbuckled himself, and got out of the SUV. His small feet and the boots that covered them touched the ground, only to sink into a four inch puddle of rain. Every step toward the dimly lit two story building was one filled with worry. What would he find when entering the hospital? Would Grant find his father bloody, with bone protruding from skin? Or would he be smiling, saying, “God saved me kiddo.”?

Grant rubbed his arms against the sticky plastic of the poncho, and then folded them.

“I’m cold, mom.” Grant said while beginning to shiver. “Can we go inside?”

“Ya-yeah, baby.” she replied hesitantly while rubbing the back of his head. And so their pace of hesitance soon became a jog. Before Grant knew it, he and his mom were pushing a pair of revolving doors around, and entering a drafty hospital. The first thing Grant saw was a man with long, greasy curls sitting in a wheelchair, peeling off bandages from recently sutured wounds.

Next thing he knew, his mother grabbed his hand and pulled him through a few long halls holding gurneys freshly made, like beds for the soon-to-be-departed.

“Wa-where are we going?” asked Grant.

“To find daddy.” she said.

After passing through two long hallways, and by a set of bathrooms, they arrived in a brighter room. It was small. A TV was screwed to the wall in a far corner, with an infomercial playing. There was a table covered with scattered toys. It was a waiting room, as plain and dull as they come.

It was the first time that night that Grant didn’t feel pressured or pushed. He took a seat in one of the gray padded chairs, picked up a magazine with a cartoon mouse on the front, and flipped to the mazes page. His mom made sure he was okay, and then went up to the front counter, asking about her husband and the condition he was in. Grant glanced over to see the nurse say, “He’s in surgery now, we’ll let you know, when we know.”

It was something they left his mom to ponder as she walked back to her curious, wide eyed son. Grant sat quietly with eyes that displayed knowing. He knew what sat behind the swinging silver doors by the front desk. He knew that his father was critically injured. Though, the details were still something to be explained.

His mother took a seat next to him, brushing her greasy hair from her green eyes, and sighing. By pure impulse, Grant took her hand, and rubbed it softly.

“I love you, mom.” he said with a smile.

For a moment his mom only looked at him, and then replied. “I love you too, Grant.” Silently, they sat next to one another, both treading through a field of jagged thoughts that would stay thoughts until becoming truths.

Grant’s interest with the maze pages ended quite quickly, leaving him to sit and stare, until falling asleep five minutes later. He slept awkwardly, with one hand lying across his face, while the other one sat in his pocket, groping his crotch. Grant was asleep, yet fully aware. His dreams were picking up signals from the outside. He could hear the voices, smell the smells, feel the fear, and taste the anxiety settling in his saliva.

After forcing himself out of a stagnant dream, he awoke to his mother reading People. Grant stretched his arms out in a yawn, finding his body slouching out of the chair. From what he could tell, it hadn’t been all that long since closing his eyes. Not long at all.

“Ha-how much longer?” he asked while stretching once more.

“I don’t know, Grant.” his mother replied. “We’ve been here for almost two hours now.” she looked at her watch.

“Oh.” even though he wasn’t able to grasp the full perception of time, Grant could see impatience digging a crinkle in between his mother’s brow.

After another hour and a half of waiting, a man in a white coat came from the silver swinging doors, and walked over to Grant and his mother.

“Mrs. Smith?” he asked, while putting out his hand.

“Hi.” she replied, standing up, and shaking his hand. “Ha-how is he?” from the sound of the question, Grant knew it was something she didn’t want to ask.

“Well,” the doctor scratched a thin patch of gray hair sitting atop his head. “The surgery was a success… for the most part.”

“Most part—wa-what does that mean?”

“We helped stop the internal bleeding, mended his broken bones, treated his burns—”

“But?” his mother inquired.

“But his blood pressure continues to drop.”

“And what?” she was near tears again.

“If we can’t get it up, his heart will stop beating.”

“Can we see dad yet, mom?” Grant interrupted, pulling at her pant leg.

“I don’t know.” she replied while staring at the doctor.

“Yeah,” he nodded his head. “But you need to understand he is in bad shape. Be careful with your decisions, Mrs. Smith. Don’t expose him to this.”

“He has a right to see hi-his dad.” she defended.

“Alright.” he nodded his head with reluctance. “Follow me.” Grant grabbed his mom’s hand, and they followed the doctor through the silver swinging doors. Grant held her hand with slippery palms, and a staggering step. He found himself hesitant while walking through a well-lit hall holding doors on each side. It was the same as that hospital always had been: strange. Grant remembered getting shots, and check-ups in the rooms he now passed.

This time though, the strangeness of the hospital had morphed into something else: FEAR. And Grant could feel it clenching onto his body, beginning to squeeze. Every step he took brought more scenarios, more thoughts for him to tread through. Grant feared that he would arrive in the room holding his father, only to find that he had forgotten everything about him.

The small voice in his head began to pull on his feet, saying, “don’t look.” Grant knew what it meant, but his hand was clenched by an emotional mother. There was nothing he could do, except follow her. He continued walking forward, now sweating and cringing. Wincing with anticipation of what waited in the room. What would he find?

After many more steps, ascension to the second floor by steps, and another hallway, Grant and his mother arrived at the room. She let go of his hand, clenched the handle, and turned it.

Beeep! It was all he could hear. Grant stood back, breathing erratically, feeling his heart begin to pound at his skin. The voice inside told him what he already knew, but didn’t want to know. He backed up a few steps, watching his mother stop at the doorway, and then stumble in. What had she found?, he wondered, now feeling empty.

“Son.” the doctor said candidly. “Don’t go in there.”

“Wa-why?” Grant asked with wandering eyes.

“He isn’t what you remembered.”

“I have to see him!” exclaimed Grant as he averted his eyes from the doctor’s and ran into the room. It was now as the voice had said. His father lay on the bed with blank eyes. Slowly Grant inched over to his father with a distant stare—a distant presence. Once arriving he found him wrapped in gauze, with only a peaceful face exposed. Grant stared at him with tear filled eyes, senseless whispers, and aimless thoughts.

“Come he-here.” his mom called softly from over by his dad.

“No.” he shook his head, and began to back away.

“Pl-please, Grant. Ya-you’re all I have now.”

“Uh uh.” Grant turned toward the door, and ran out of it, entering the hall with leaking eyes. Even though the hallway continued on for many more feet, his thoughts stopped at one realization: his father, his best friend was dead.

“I hate you—ya-you killed him.” he whispered while looking up, cursing the God his father once fed him. There was no God. He finally sat down next to the door, hugged his knees with his chest, and hung his head in between…

Three days later a funeral occurred. Grant buried his loving father—along with the God he had been fed—in the ground on August 18th, 2000, a Friday. With nothing but a helpless stare, he watched the casket lower into a hole, and be buried beneath six feet worth of dirt…

After many countless nights of wailing uncontrollably, and enduring a series of grotesque dreams, Grant awoke to an anniversary. Exactly one year had passed from the day his father died. It was a day to ponder the past. It was a day to try and savor the good memories, and discard the bad. It was easier said than done though. Grant was finally healing from the shock of losing his father. He was now able to comprehend the thought of leaving his room, walking down the stairs, and entering the kitchen, only to find his mom sipping coffee from her mug. He was able to comprehend it because it was the way it had been for so long.

Seeing his father at the breakfast table had been something rare. Even before his father’s death, it had always been Grant and his mother; his dad had been nothing but a visitor whom he had loved.

With sleeping extremities, Grant stumbled out of bed, walked down the stairs, and entered the kitchen. He saw his mom breast feeding little Hannah Smith: his new baby sister, his mom’s light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

“Hey, baby.” she said to Grant as he entered the kitchen with a yawn.

“Hey, mom.” he replied. “How’s Hannah doing?”

“She’s hungry.” his mother said while laughing. “That’s all I know.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I’m hungry too.” His hunger led him to the cupboards. He poured a bowl of Grape Nuts, ate them with sugar, and then went back upstairs. It was a day just like any other: bright, warm, inviting… It was Minnesota at its most beautiful. Not a cloud sat in the sky.

Grant walked back to his room, closed the door, and dove beneath his covers. What was this sadness that he wore every day? And more importantly, how could he fill it with happiness? The answer for the moment was sleep.

Three hours had passed. He awoke to a noon sun shining through his window, birds whistling, and a few cheerful yelps from dogs running about outside. He awoke to the same bright atmosphere to find he felt the same way. A few hours of sleep had been his pain medication: nothing but something to numb him from the reality of the day.

Grant threw off his blankets, and walked to the door. The pain had faded. But, had the memories?

Grant walked out of his room, entered the hall, and descended the creaking steps. It was as if he had rewound time. Something was different about his surroundings. They weren’t so cold and broken. Grant didn’t know why, but he felt his father’s presence waiting for him down in the kitchen. Though, he was hesitant. Each step down the creaking stairs brought something warm, yet false feeling. As if he was in a dream that had dressed itself in a memory.

After several seconds of stopping and then starting again, Grant walked down the remaining stairs. As soon as he set foot on the hardwood floor, he felt his toes shrivel up, and crumble. Grant looked down at his shriveling feet, and then back up. Voices grew from something indistinct, to something clear.

He continued stepping toward the sounds, until finding himself in the kitchen. Suddenly, urgency overtook him. A fear grew into his being, and spread like a virus. His dad and mom stood in the distance, hugging one another.

“Dad!” Grant screamed, now running. “Stay with me!” His father’s ears stood at attention, but his head did not turn. His steps were futile, like he was running on a treadmill. He was chasing the life he wanted, but only found himself stuck, stagnant, paused… running toward an infinity he couldn’t reach. That life wasn’t his, not anymore.

Soon, he understood the futility of running toward his father, and stopped running. But, the urgency grew stronger and stronger. The room was now quiet; the cupboards were gutted; the fridge was empty, and the walls were stripped of memories. Grant swung his head from side to side, and when he looked forward again he saw nothing but mannequins hugging in the far off distance. It was no longer a pursuit, but a chase. Something guttural lunged into his spine, knocking him on the floor.

Grant struggled to stand, being held by petrifaction like a straightjacket. The outside stayed bright, but the kitchen and the lights surrounding it shut off, leaving Grant in darkness. His eyes bulged from their sockets, and his heart beat out of its chest. He could hear footsteps above and behind him. It had to be a nightmare. It had to be! A voice inside told him to muster up the strength, and run for the door. It told him to escape, or die.

But, part of him wanted to let this Thing take him away in the darkness. Part of him wanted this pain to end. It was his decision to make now: live or die. After some speculation within a claustrophobic mind, he chose life. Internally, he gathered every ounce of will and strength he had left. He only had one chance to escape, one opportunity to leave the darkness, and enter the light.

He tensed up, breathed deep, and pushed his small body a few inches off the floor. Now or never! Grant took one more breath, jumped up, and ran. It was getting closer! Grant reached out his hand, and grabbed onto the door. Frantically, he tried to turn the handle, but it fell off and landed in his hand. Grant smacked his palms against the kitchen door, only to watch the outside darken as well.

“Help me!” he screamed. “Please!” Suddenly something dropped from the ceiling, landed in front of him, and opened it’s mouth wide…

With a gasp, Grant awoke wet with sweat. The room was lit; the day was bright, and his mind was wiped clean of wonder. It had been some time, but finally he felt understanding. Something inside knew that his dad died happy, simply because he was happy. This day, August 15th of 2001, Grant Smith accepted the reality of his father’s death…

Chapter 2

Grant sat in class, tapping all ten fingers on his desk, and shaking his head. Had it been eleven years since burying his father? Had it been that long?

The years had passed, only to prove that time heals nothing. Still, when the wind blew through his voids, it burned. Though, the pain wasn’t as sharp. It had dulled.

He could hear the fat and balding teacher talking up front, but he wasn’t listening. Instead, Grant was closing his eyes, and digging for a memory. He was looking for something to tie him to the father he had lost almost exactly eleven years and one month before.

But, there were no images waiting within. The only memory he could ever find was the hospital and the ever-lasting Beep. All Grant had was the present moment, and the future that sat not so distant, not anymore. The American Dream was on the horizon: college, marriage, kids. Yet, Grant was stuck in the same place he had been for the last eleven years: empty. He was in twelfth grade now. It was September 16th of 2011, a Friday.

As he sat at his desk, Grant pondered the meaning of a future. What would come in a world with a temporary war now entering into its tenth year, a failing economy, and talk of the end of the world just around the corner? Did he have a future, or was it a futile thought to begin with?

The minutes on the clock ticked by; the moronic teacher up front spoke of irrelevant things; life was a dead end, just like that stupid town with the cemetery by the lake, and thirty three hundred some odd souls. Grant wanted to be able to sit at his desk, smile, and say the future holds bright things! But, he couldn’t. He had no aspirations. Every day was just another day to stay alive. But, this wasn’t living. This was just surviving, in a shell of a human who had never found the happiness that left when his dad died.

After another four hours of mindless teaching from different teachers, school ended for the week. Grant left the high school with his books in his bag, his car keys in his hand, and his mind trapped in the Mundane. It would be like every other day in this stupid town, and he knew it. He knew he would get in his forest green Sable, drive home, do whatever homework he had, and then live with a mind that desperately wanted a reason to continue. He had thought about ending his life many times. But, something always stopped him: fear. Though, it wasn’t of death. It was of the possibility of something more.

Ten years before, Grant had come to a place where he accepted his father’s death. And for the shortest of time, it made him feel okay. It didn’t last. It proved to be just as brief as a sweat after a nightmare.

Everything was changing around him. His mother was now dating; his little sister was now ten and only growing; his best friend, Bobby Jackson, was now just a son of a father with terminal cancer. He had been a class clown. He had been a joyous person. Now, he was just pieces of the friend Grant knew.

Grant sat in his idling Sable, waiting for the red light to turn green. He tapped the bottom of the steering wheel, situated his rearview and side mirrors, and then hummed impatiently. Another ten seconds passed, and the light turned green. He drove home. After shutting off his car, Grant stared at his steering wheel for a moment, and then walked inside. He thought he knew what he would find when entering, but it wasn’t what he had expected.

Grant opened the front door.

Standing tall, ensconced in shadow, was his father. A wide grin sat on his face, and his eyes shone like dark diamonds.

“Hello, Grant.” he opened his arms wide.

“Dad?” Grant asked while stepping forward, seeing only an empty home lit by candles.

“Why did you stop believing?” his father started walking forward. “I told you to never stop believing.”

“I never did believe dad. It’s a stupid thing to believe.”

“Why is it stupid?” his steps became faster.

“God isn’t real!” screamed Grant.

“What about the devil?” his father asked, now guttural.

“What?”

“I said what about the devil?” Grant looked left and right slowly. The atmosphere had changed; the house was empty; his father had now been absorbed into the shadows.

“Dad?!” Grant yelled. “Are you there?”

“Yes.”

“Why aren’t you showing yourself?”

“I’m a monster.”

“No you’re not.”

“Ye-yes,” he trembled. “I am.”

“I miss you, dad.” Grant was near tears. “It isn’t the same without you, it never will be.”

“Run, kiddo.” his father whimpered, growling pervasively.

“Wa-what?”

“Run.”

“Why?”

“I’m going to eat you.” Suddenly the door swung shut, and all but one candle went out. Grant blinked twice, breathed deep, and tried to calm a hectic heart. A deep growl sat within the shadowed house, bouncing from wall to wall.

“Da-dad?” whispered Grant as he fell to his knees. “Save me.”

“I can’t.” he answered. “Not anymore…”

HONK! Grant’s face was pressing against his steering wheel. Sweat dripped down his face; his eyes were wet with tears. Grant sat and stared. He was a wrecked, broken young man, abandoned by the God he had one time believed in.

He dug deep down only to find that he was empty. He knew that he couldn’t stay in this sad life anymore. Something had to happen soon. Happiness had to find him. Or Grant knew that soon he would be just like his father: dead and buried.

“Why do you still haunt me?” Grant sniffled. “What do you want?” His father didn’t appear next to him, smile, and say that everything is going to be alright. His answer was a quiet voice calling him to the cemetery. He couldn’t avoid it anymore. It was slipping out in dreams. It was threatening his very existence.

Grant put the car in drive, and took the first left. He drove by several blocks worth of homes, and then parked outside of the gate. In the eleven years that his father had been dead, he had visited his grave only twice. The last visit had been ten years before, with his mom. She had brought flowers to lie on his grave.

From his car, Grant looked out past the gate. He remembered the finality of that day. He remembered standing in a suit, being a strong boy as they lowered the casket into the ground. He remembered the last words his dad ever said to him: “love ya, kiddo.” A stroke of sadness brushed across his being, and then went away. Like alcohol on a cut, it burned while cleaning. And when the pain faded, he felt different.

He sat in his car for a few moments more, now taking deep breaths and wiping his eyes dry. He had cried years worth of tears, and now was a calm soul. Grant grabbed the door handle and opened it, only to find himself in a haze of memories. For a moment, he was not eighteen, but a seven year old boy walking through the gates to bury his father. It was a walk of memories that seemed to mirror what he remembered. He heard the sniffle of his mom’s cry behind him, though he was walking alone. He heard the preacher blessing his father’s body, although the cemetery was empty. Grant relived the burial of his father eleven years and one month after he buried him.

Clouds littered a light blue sky; the sun was a bright light shining down on a man who felt child-like once again. Grant glanced up with his palm covering his squinted eyes. “Jonathan Smith was a great man,” the preacher’s voice sat next to him as he walked through an unkempt yard of green. “But, we should not mourn his loss. The Lord has called His child home.”

His father’s grave sat below a weeping willow, in a peaceful, shadowed place. He was just a child, now once again hearing the quiet cries from his mom behind him. The grave still looked new. It was a clean marker for a death that had made him the broken man he was. And for some reason the preacher’s words played over and over in his head, taunting him. It was a mockery of his pain. It was a reminder of just how much he had lost on the day they buried his father.

Grant had never actually stopped believing in the idea of a God. He still thought that maybe his father was in heaven. But, he also thought that there was nothing after life. His father’s death wasn’t a calling home to heaven. It was simply a mistake made that put him six feet under. He stared down at those words: Jonathan Smith, Loving Father, Husband, and Friend. Sitting in a basket next to his grave were freshly picked red roses, with a card attached: You will always be my love. He bent down to find it was from his mother. Even though she was dating again, it didn’t mean she had stopped loving him.

He looked up from the card, and then back down. “I’ll never forget you, dad.” it was quiet and controlled. He closed his eyes and stood up. The lake was a clear bed of crystal reflecting a color filled sky. He looked up and then down. And then without saying anything more started walking back toward his car.

A girl five inches shorter than his six foot self, stepped into his view. She was dressed in tight faded blue jeans, and a white t-shirt. Grant glanced at her, and then turned his head away. She hadn’t noticed.

She looked broken, much like him. Grant wanted to hug her, kiss her… marry her. As he looked at the girl with reddish blonde hair and eyes like the sky, he knew she was the one.

Grant stopped walking. He could only stare. She glanced over, looked away, and then glanced again. Her pretty eyes, though sad, craved life. There was a sparkle of personality. It was a personality Grant immediately connected with.

They now observed one another. They contemplated an immediate attraction and then each took a step forward. It seemed poetic that two lost souls were finding each other in a cemetery.

Neither Grant nor the girl said a word. They didn’t need to. Their eyes expressed feelings that their mouths couldn’t. The girl’s pain seemed to drip away the closer she came. And little bits of life were crawling into her eyes. They both now smiled. Grant had never been a believer in such things as love at first sight, until now.

“Hi.” Grant said softly.

“Hi.” she answered shyly.

“What brings you here?” it was all he could think to say.

“Pain.” she whimpered, mid-sniffle. “You?”

“Pain.” he answered hesitantly.

She nodded her head, and then looked down at the ground.

Grant could see her reluctance; he felt the same way. It was quiet as he shuffled thoughts around in his head. He was being careful. She was fragile, maybe even more than him. “What’s your pain?” he asked with sympathetic curiosity. “I’ll tell you mine.”

“Can I hear yours first?” she asked candidly.

“Yeah,” he nodded with a sigh. “Um, when I was seven m-my dad—god this is hard to say out loud.” he paused, and grinned while shaking his head. “He died from a car accident. His injuries were irreparable. I remember the way the doctor looked at me when his heart monitor flat lined. He had this cold understanding, like he was in on some joke I wasn’t. Maybe it was just my perception, I don’t know. I remember the funeral like it was yesterday. All I can think about now is the preacher blessing his body. I don’t know why, but it makes me angry. He died eleven years ago, but it’s only just become real. That’s probably stupid.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Grant.”

“It isn’t stupid, Grant. Not at all.” she reached for his hand, and grabbed it. “I know that feeling.”

“How do you handle it?” he took her hand as well.

“… I don’t know. I guess I don’t, that must be why I’m at her grave on a random Friday.”

“Who?” he asked.

“My older sister’s.” again, she looked ready to close herself away, but instead she opened up even more. “In certain ways I envy you, Grant.”

“Why would you envy me? I’ve been an empty shell for eleven years, a sad, pathetic shell.”

“You didn’t kill him. I killed her. It was my f-fault.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Sh-she was at a party almost three years ago. It was like any party: drinking, drugs, sex. But, my older sister had never been one to fall into that scene. She was there with friends. They were all drunk, unable to drive. They hadn’t designated a driver,” she sniffed, and ran her thin fingers through her thick hair. “Not this time at least. So early that morning, she called me and asked to get a ride home. I was fifteen, not yet old enough to drive legally, but she was my sister. Dad is a military man and he would have torn into her, and mom would have sided with dad. After she called, I snuck out of my room, stole the keys from mom’s purse, and drove out to where she was. It was a country house out in the middle of nowhere. I drove wary of cops, and finally arrived out at the house. Theresa stood outside, out of it—um high, and drunk, maybe more. It wasn’t like her, but I didn’t judge. She climbed into the backseat, curled up into a ball, and said thanks. It was th-the last thing she would ever say to me. The next thing I knew, a deer stepped out into the middle of the road, I panicked, and jerked the steering wheel left. When I woke up, I was in a hospital, staring into my mom’s eyes. She had this pain in them, this hate toward me. The questions, the blame… I killed her.”

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Chelsea,” she was quiet.

“That was not your fault, Chelsea. It could have happened to anyone.”

“But, it didn’t happen to anyone. It was me.” she said softly. “Maybe if I had done something different, m-maybe she would be in college now, instead of there.” Chelsea pointed at her sister’s grave.

“What could have you done differently?”

“All I can ever imagine are the words she’d say. The memories of her are good, but they are overshadowed by everything else. She’d have so much to say. My parents still blame me. I am ugly and worthless.”

“Do you know what I see when I look at you?” Grant smiled. She didn’t reply, instead she blinked and shook her head from side to side. “I see someone who doesn’t know how beautiful she is. You have sadness, but I can see the life in your eyes. I’m just a stranger, and all you know about me is my pain, but I can honestly say you are the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.”

Chelsea’s cheeks were streaked red as her eyes smiled. But, her immediate impulse was to hide away. He was getting too close. She tried to close away, only to find Grant’s finger rubbing softly against her cheek. His lips touched hers, once and then a second time. Without saying it, the message had been conveyed. Grant knew her heart was his. Chelsea knew his heart was hers. Two shy souls had met in a cemetery, united by pain. Or maybe it was hope…

Chapter 3

That Friday passed, bringing a stormy Saturday morning. Clouds draped the town of Miles like curtains on a stage. Rain showered, thunder clashed, lightning cracked; the storm began at 8:15 am. Grant slept heavily, until being woken by a loud clash, and a shaky rumble of the house. He woke up with his short brown hair matted to his flat forehead, his taut lids covering sleepy eyes, and his heart full. It had been a long time since Grant was able to wake up to happiness. In fact, as he blinked his eyes wearily, he couldn’t remember a time happiness filled him. Even though the atmosphere had taken a sick day, Grant was anything but.

After many years of emptiness, Grant felt full. Maybe it was just love fixing it for the moment. Then again, maybe it wasn’t a temporary fix. Maybe this beautiful girl was the solution to emptiness. Of course he was skeptical. What if she wasn’t the happiness he had longed for? What if she wasn’t what she appeared to be?

All he could think to ask himself were questions of doubt. It was as it had always been. But, deep down Grant knew that she was the one for him. He knew she would be there to love, and care for. Sometimes he just had to take somebody’s word for what it was, instead of dissecting the smallest of details.

Ultimately, the decision to get out of bed, shower, and feed a famished self were one of his easiest. Even though Grant had always been one to test the water before jumping in, his approach on Chelsea wasn’t to be careful. It wasn’t to listen to the pessimistic poltergeist presence. No! For too long Grant had been distrusting of so many people, that only one stuck. And even that friend was beginning to slip. Chelsea was Grant’s renewal to the outside.

Both were deeply wounded people, searching out an anecdote for happiness. Chelsea was swimming in a sea of guilt over the death of her sister; Grant was facing demons wearing memories as costumes. But, maybe together they would make each other full. It was a big maybe, but it really was Grant’s last hope. He had been standing over a cliff, ready to plummet into a dark abyss. Grant hadn’t jumped yet because of his reluctance. Death didn’t scare him. Death was easy to grasp onto. What did scare him was the possibility of something after.

Now though, he wasn’t standing over a cliff. Grant was happy. The abyss that had called him was lurking in that deep dark chasm, nowhere near him. Not anymore. For once in a very long time, he was able to look at the clouds and see the silver lining everyone spoke of. Happiness showered him, frenetic thoughts filled his head, and a smile crawled onto his chapped lips.

He now sat in his car, listening to rain pitter patter against the window, and watching it seep through a wearing sill on the passenger side. After a few soft beeps, Grant’s pocket vibrated. He dug in and pulled out his cell: [_ What r u up to? -Bobby- _]

After reading it once, Grant flipped his phone shut. He couldn’t send text messages. Bobby realized this, and about a minute later the phone rang. Grant let it ring twice, and then answered:

“Hello” he said while yawning.

“Hey.” Bobby answered. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing really.” he tapped his hand on the steering wheel. “You wanna hang out?”

“Sure. I gotta get out of this house for a while. Dad just shit himself.”

“God,” Grant allowed a moment of silence. “Um, I can pick you up.”

“Alright, thanks, man.”

“Sure.” replied Grant. “I’ll be over in a minute or so.” And within a minute, he pulled the tires of his ‘94 Mercury Sable up to the house on Three Roads Ave, and Maple Point. Grant sat outside of the house, idling. After a few minutes, Bobby ran out quickly. His eyes were in a fester and his cheeks were powdered in red. He opened the car door and entered.

“Hey.” said Grant. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not gonna bug you with it, Grant.” Bobby said under his breath.

“I really don’t mind, man. Anything I can do to help?”

“It’s everything. Every time I look at my dad’s face, I see humiliation. I want him to die, just so he doesn’t have to hurt anymore.” Bobby shook his long hair into individual wet strands.

“Do you really want that though? I mean isn’t it better to have a dad, than to not have one at all?”

“I thought so,” he paused. “But now I’m not so sure. I mean, he’s not here anymore. Every day he moans in agony and it makes me want to renounce God. But, I don’t, because He’s the only one who can save him.”

“I felt the same way on the drive to see my dad. I pretty much gave Him an ultimatum. But, I’ve never believed, Bobby. You have for a long time.”

“Time changes things, Grant.” Bobby said softly, while pulling his thick rimmed frames from his face, and wiping raindrops from the lenses. “I can’t say how I’ll feel when that day comes. I want to say I’ll continue believing, but I can’t say that. It feels like I would be lying.”

“Yeah, I don’t know.” Grant rubbed his face, and then began driving. “So, yesterday I met someone.”

“What do you mean?” Bobby glanced over at him.

“I mean I have a girlfriend.”

“Wow.” he widened his eyes. “That’s great, but I didn’t think you were interested in dating.”

“I know I used to say that, but when I said it, I didn’t know how it felt.”

“Are you smitten, Grant?” asked Bobby while smiling.

“Yeah, I think so.” he nodded his head, and smiled as well.

“Then when do I get to meet this girl?”

“Right now,” Grant pulled up to Chelsea’s house, and stopped the car. “You’ll like her. I know you will.”

“Okay,” Bobby furrowed his brow, and shook his head. “So I’m meeting her now?”

“Yeah,”

“But, I’m having a really bad day, man. It’ll be awkward as hell.”

“You’re awkward in front of everybody, Bobby. You’re my best friend. She is my girlfriend. It’s kind of important that you two meet each other.”

“Alright,” he sighed. “Next time warn me or something.”

“Okay, but I didn’t warn her” Grant opened the door smiling.

“What?” Bobby asked discreetly. “What do you mean?”

“She doesn’t know you are coming. Surprise.” Grant shut the door, using his arm as an umbrella, and ran up to her white house with red shutters. Bobby followed, not as quickly. In fact he dragged his feet, hung his head, and sighed. Grant didn’t know all of the reasons why Bobby had quit school; he assumed it was his father’s terminal condition. And that it was, but everything branched out from there. Even though his father hadn’t died yet, something that had made Bobby, Bobby, had.

Grant walked onto the porch. Bobby followed. He knocked a couple of times, put his hands in his pockets, and waited for her to answer. After twenty seconds of standing in the storm, the door opened, and Chelsea stood there smiling.

“Hey.” she said mid-blush.

“Hi.” Grant answered smitten. “This is Bobby.”

“Hi, Bobby,”

“Hello.” he answered with a clenched jaw, and a slight head nod.

“So, what do you want to do?” asked Grant.

“Well, daddy is in the den, mom is baking cookies. We could watch a movie or something.”

“All right,” Grant looked over at an awkward Bobby, shook his head with a grin, and then stepped in the house.

“You can come in too, Bobby.” Chelsea said while running her fingers through freshly weaved hair.

“Ok.” he answered quietly.

All three walked up the stairs, down a hall, and into her room.

“So,” Grant said. “How are you doing today?”

“Better.” she answered. “I’m happy.”

“Good.”

“Yeah,” she smiled. “So Bobby, tell me a little about yourself.”

“Um,” he was confused. “Well I really don’t do much.”

“Neither do I. I mean I draw some, but not very well.”

“Yeah, I draw too. It’s fun I guess. But, I dropped out of school, so I’m not very active.”

“I just graduated, taking online classes. I didn’t like school. I tried high school for a few months—eh, wasn’t for me.” she said while biting her lip.

“I’ve never seen you in the high school,” Grant said.

“I was only there for like maybe two months in ninth grade. I was really quiet.” she answered. “It doesn’t matter. It’s the past.”

Bobby nodded his head in agreement, “Yeah, I got my G.E.D a couple of years ago. It wasn’t for me either.

Grant changed the subject. “So guys,” Grant clapped his hands once. “What do you wanna do?”

“Doesn’t matter.” answered Bobby. “I’m fine just sitting and talking.”

Not much more happened that day. After a little while Bobby crawled out of his shell; he liked Chelsea. Grant found her to be even more beautiful the second day through. Finally, things were starting to look up. Brighter things were in the future, he just knew it.

Every day brought a same monotony: school was endured, a job at The Family Restaurant was found, and his mother’s personal life had been accepted. Grant was happy. Why shouldn’t his mother be? Soon, days turned into months. Everything grew, including Grant and Chelsea’s relationship. What started as smitten eyes, love laced sighs, and infatuated thoughts, were now intimate moments, sexual productivity, and long talks beneath a starry sky. They were closer than ever. Neither Grant nor Chelsea were shut away emotionally, not anymore.

This day, which was a very bright Thursday in December of 2011, was just another day. The wind was harrowing; the clouds were pieces of torn fabric strewn about; the ground was covered in twelve inches of snow, and Christmas was on the mind. Grant had been working at The Family Restaurant for a few months now; he was a busboy. Little did Chelsea know that his future plans were much more than being something with her. From day one at the job, his priority was that one ring, the one that sat behind a plexiglass window at Hal’s Diamond store, the ring with a 14k setting and a diamond sitting in the middle, with smaller ones lining the edges. It was the PERFECT ring!

The PERFECT ring would have to wait though. Grant had only begun to scrape away at the $3,000 dollar price tag; mostly because he had to pay the cable/internet bill and car insurance monthly. It was a goal involving gradual accruement. But, it would be worth it, right? Grant had no doubt that when the time came, she would shed a tear, hold out her pretty little finger, and say yes within a gasp.

It was like any other day that Thursday. Grant had just returned from a seven hour shift at work. He entered his house, said hello to his mother and sister, slipped off his shoes, and went to bed. For the first twenty minutes or so, he was aware of the light above him, the blaring TV next to him, and the blanket across him. But, after those first twenty minutes, his awareness slipped into an ongoing illusion of the mind:

“I’m happy!” his thoughts announced to open air. “I’m happy!” Grant had not yet opened his eyes to the verbal jubilation his mind exclaimed continuously. But, when he did, he found himself standing in his candle lit house. “I’m happy!”

“No you’re not.” his father answered, stepping from the shadow. “You never will be.”

“I’m happy.” Grant now stood aware of the senseless frenetic thoughts. He had no control over it. “I’m happy!” it blurted out just the same, but every time he said it, it became more apparent that he wasn’t.

“I’m proud of you, kiddo. You escaped your loneliness, and self-loathing. Hell, you’ve escaped the memory of me.”

“I’ll never escape the memory of you. You haunt me every day. You’re dead, why can’t you just die?!”

“You keep me alive, kiddo. Your guilt only feeds this memory. I told you to run, but you didn’t. You never listened to me. You renounced God when I said to believe in Him. You came back when I told you to leave.”

“I tried.” whispered Grant, now able to control the erratic voices.

“Not hard enough!” Suddenly his father’s head split open, and horns grew. “I told you to run!”

“I’m trying.” his feet were stuck to the floor. “Please, dad, help me.”

“No!” The monster that had been haunting him since his father’s death stepped out of the shadows. From his temples came blood tinged horns, his chin and neck were now a bloody mouth with teeth jutting out of pale skin; his father’s head sat atop lifelessly.

“Da-dad?” he asked helplessly. “Please help me.”

“Sorry, kiddo.” the head atop the bloody mouth spoke candidly, breaking through pervasive growls. “This is your demon, not mine.”

“What do I do?”

“Survive.” Several tongues flailed about, odors engulfed the air; after ten years his demon had taken form in the body of an abstract nightmare. It took one step after another, until standing a foot above his six foot self.

“H-h-how?” he stuttered.

“Forgive yourself.” The abstract demon brought it’s hand up to his face, and caressed his cheek lightly. “Grant?” the voice had grown feminine.

“Leave me alone.” Grant pushed it’s hand away.

“Grant?” the feminine voice called again as It placed it’s hand back on his face…

He awoke with the side of Chelsea’s hand brushing across his cheek. At first, Grant was tongue tied. Was it that easy? Would it all go away if he could just forgive himself?

“Hey,” she smiled. “Are you okay?”

“Ye-yeah, I just had a nightmare.”

“Was it bad? You looked really scared.”

“I was just facing old demons, guilt over my father’s death.”

“How can you feel guilt? What could have you done differently?”

“Sometimes people feel guilt for what they didn’t do. It goes both ways.”

“I guess.” she sighed.

“Have you forgiven yourself for the death of Theresa?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself completely.”

“Yeah, I think I understand.” Grant lifted his head off the bed, only to find his lips meeting hers. She crawled into bed with him, rubbed his chest with her fingers, and soon they found themselves naked and satisfied. “What time is it?”

“Um,” she pulled her phone from her pants on the floor. “Like 9:00.”

“Alright,” Grant sighed relief, while wrapping his arm around her, and kissing her forehead “That was good.”

“Keeps getting better and better.” she laughed. “Apparently Christmas sex is the best.”

“Maybe it’s just the jolly spirit of the season.” Grant smiled. Life was good. Though, did that mean bad things wouldn’t happen? Grant couldn’t escape his belief that happiness is only temporary. He didn’t want to believe that bad things were coming. But, they were.

Finally, after countless hours of working at The Family Restaurant, and another year and a half’s passing, Grant had saved up enough to buy her the three thousand dollar ring.

Meanwhile, Bobby’s dad had been healed: a lasting remission. Bobby tried to obtain the faith he once had, but couldn’t. He knew the day was coming. It was inevitable. God tended to wave happiness in front of his face, only to pull it away again. Even though his father was looking healthy and feeling better, it didn’t mean he was better. It was only temporary.

It was May 14th of 2013, a Tuesday. Grant was standing outside, cupping his sight into tunnel vision, and pressing his face against the plexiglass window of Hal’s Diamond store. He couldn’t help but smile. It sat encased in a plastic box, shimmering, winking purity. Eagerness led Grant into the small store, over to the plastic box, and up to the counter. It sat in his hand, provoking subtle jubilation within.

“Finally got it, huh, Grant?” Hal said with a smile as he rubbed his thick goatee.

“Yeah, Hal.” he answered. “Thank you so much for saving it.”

“Don’t mention it. You’re a good kid. And that girl of yours is a keeper. You be good to her.”

“I will,” he glanced up while pulling a credit card from his wallet. “I promise, Hal.”

“Good.” Hal grabbed the credit card, slid it through the machine, pushed a few buttons, and gave him a receipt. “Keep me posted.” he gave the card back, and pulled the ring out of its plastic casing.

“Alright, thanks again.” with his head held high, Grant left the store, placing the wine colored velvet box in his pocket. It didn’t matter how high Grant stood. No height was high enough to leave reality behind. Happiness was nothing but illusion. He couldn’t be happy; life wouldn’t allow it. All it did was allow glimpses of someone else’s happiness.

Grant was no longer the wary, touch-my-toe-in-the-water-before-jumping-in kind of a guy. He had learned to trust, despite the voices telling him different. This was his life; it was time to start living it. Spontaneity led him to happiness; wariness led him to seclusion, and loneliness. A large portion of his life had been lived in loneliness. But, finally his future was looking bright.

Grant opened his car door, and started it. After driving by the high school, coming to a four way intersection, and taking a right, Grant arrived in front of his house. There was a lot to do before the day became night. The first thing was to grab the mail from his mailbox out front. Grant stepped out of his car, pinning the secret in his pocket, and smiling.

He hummed while opening the mailbox, pulling out the mail, and sorting through: bills, a Hallmark card, and the LETTER. Sitting quietly at the bottom of eight pieces of mail was the LETTER. Instead of humming, Grant found tears building up in his eyes.

“You can’t be doing this to me.” he said, closing his eyes. “Not now!”

America was at war, and the younglings were called:

URGENT! OPEN IMMEDIATELY!

Something inside broke as he slid his finger into the top of the envelope, and pulled out the LETTER:

Grant Jonathan Smith

20 year old male, born April 5th, 1993

You have been selected to serve in the United States military.

Your task: repair the Middle East, stop terrorism, rebuild their economy.

Estimated time period: unknown.

Report date: Friday, May 17th, 2013.

Training spot: Highland, Arizona.

This is a great country. A free country, now it is time for you to fight for your freedom.

The President of the United States

The man who had promised change had been re-elected to a second term. The war was now branching off into smaller wars. The Draft was put back into effect; change required sacrifice—ultimate sacrifice.

Chapter 4

With cold flesh, and wet eyes, Grant stuffed the letter back into the envelope, finding a plane ticket leaving from Minneapolis, Minnesota airport at 8:00 am Friday the 17th. One minute he had been ready to propose, looking forward to his future. But, now it had been decided for him. He was free until 8:00 am that Friday.

Slowly, Grant grabbed the wine colored velvet box from his pocket, and opened the lid. It sat snug, just waiting to wear her finger (not the other way around). But, now that his freedom was limited to less than seventy hours, Grant didn’t want to propose. What would be the point? She’d say yes, cry, wave him away, and then mourn his “freedom sacrifice”.

His love for her had not died. It hadn’t even digressed. Grant still would have done anything for her. The only thing that had changed was everything, including the world. A future that had looked bright was now bleak and dull. Like a blue sky fading to gray.

All he could do was take two steps, and then sit down on the top step. Everything he had been working toward was ruined. Not just marriage and kids, but happiness. It had taken him years to crawl out of his crumbling rut. Yet with one letter and a command, he watched the walls close him in darkness once again. The process had proved futile, and now the deep chasm and cliff side were growing closer. Grant had escaped, only to realize there is no escape.

He sat on the top step, hanging his head, and staring at the ring. Somehow it seemed darker and less special now. Grant closed the box, and put it back in his pocket.

“Typical.” he mumbled, shaking his head, and clearing a tear filled throat.

The day was quiet, the sky was bright—the town progressed through usual routine. But, Grant sat stuck. His mind was replaying his doubts as if they had been recorded. In that moment his contemplation led him to a decision. Nothing was set in stone, but his immediate decision was to leave without a word. It was to avoid her until Friday, leave, and never return. But, could he do that? Was he capable of such betrayal, even if it did have pure, selfless motive beneath?

More than anything, he wanted to run to her house, grab her by the hand, and propose his everlasting love to hers. Grant wanted nothing more. He wanted to plant his seed, watch it grow over 3/4 of a year, and name it Kali Marie. With only an impulse, Grant stood up, grew a grin, and ran to her house. His car sat in usable condition, but his impulse didn’t allow driving. It wanted something special.

As Grant ran from his house, and into the clutter of homes behind it, thoughts didn’t fill his head. Nothing filled his head but the want of something better. It was all he had now. His faith had shriveled up like his father. All he had to hold onto was the hope sitting snug in its velvet box. Maybe he wouldn’t die fighting for a corrupted country. Maybe the President wasn’t as corrupt as he had seemed.

All Grant had to hold onto were maybes, small, hopeless maybes. His whole life was based on the concept of maybe. It was the word of uncertainty. A word he knew all too well.

Finally, after many long steps, heavy beating of a smitten heart, and labored breaths, Grant arrived in front of Chelsea’s with sweat running down his face. He took one moment to gather his composure, and then ran up to her door. After knocking loudly three times, her father came to the door.

“Grant.” Mr. Hart bellowed.

“Sir.” replied Grant to the military man. “Is Chelsea here?”

“No, she and her mother are out.” he clenched his jaw, and cleared his throat.

“Oh,” Grant said softly. “Okay.”

“Is there something you want?”

“Yeah.” he paused, in an attempt to gather courage.

“What?”

“I have something to ask you.”

“I’m listening.” he rubbed his balding skull with fat sausage fingers, while taking a sip of hard liquor from a clear glass.

“This is completely unorthodox probably,” Grant smiled awkwardly, and laughed. “But I want to ask Chelsea to marry me.”

“I’ll be honest with you, Grant.” Mr. Hart closed his eyes to beady, and flared his nostrils. “You have been good for her. Ever since meeting you, she has been happy. She’s so sure w-we blame her for Theresa’s death, but we don’t. I love her.”

“I know.” whispered Grant.

“I’m a retired military General. I never gave Theresa the love she deserved… If I blame anybody for her death, it’s me.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.”

“To get to the point, Grant, I will give you my permission. You’re a good kid. Don’t prove me wrong. So you ask her.”

“I plan to, Sir, but just today I received draft papers.”

“I may be a retired General from the military, but it all started with the draft to ‘Nam. It was hell. I watched my best friend step on a grenade. He showered us in his innards. That day made me the man I am now.”

“Why are you telling me this, Sir?”

“I’m telling you this ‘cause I want you to turn out differently. Promise me you won’t let it change you.”

“I can’t promise, but I’ll try.” Grant swallowed his fear.

“Come back to her.”

“Okay.” Grant shook Mr. Hart’s hand, and then walked away. Grant had permission, the ring, and a little less than three days. He had many ends to tie into neat little bows before the seventeenth. Not only Chelsea, and a marriage proposal, but the family and friends he would be leaving. Less than three days was not a lot of time to wrap up loose ends. In fact, it was not nearly enough time. Grant didn’t only have to tie up loose ends with the people around him, but he had to coax his inner self out to the open. He had to find peace in a hectic, bleak situation.

His once fast pace had digressed to dragging steps. He walked away from the white house with red shutters, hanging his head. On the surface everything was picturesque. But, that was just the surface. Below the surface that was Grant Jonathan Smith, there sat pain and a renewed sense of hopelessness. He now looked at the world with tainted sight. Everything he saw was irrelevant. The idea of marriage was no longer contemplation. He would marry her. It was all he was sure of at that moment. It was all he had to hold onto.

Although his head hung low, and his eyes leaked tears, Grant wasn’t broken. Instead, he was lost. He was just a child walking in men’s shoes. At twenty, Grant was no more a man than he had been at eighteen. The world was rotting from within. War was only a stepping stone for something far worse.

After another ten steps forward, Grant stopped in place, and took a deep breath. Sometimes the world seemed to slow down, but not on this day. In fact it only sped up, bringing a shrill scream through the clouds. He swung his head left and right, darting his eyes to their edges.

“What was that?” he asked in a whisper. “Hello?!” he looked around, only to find silence. The chirping birds still sat on their branches, the yelping dogs still ran about, and the few humans out walking still walked. Yet, somehow Grant was nothing but an audience to the world around him. After years of feeling disconnected, it finally was more than a feeling. His mind world and the world he lived in had met, made love, and spurted forth a demented child.

He took one step forward, and then several more. The shrill cry spread pervasively throughout a darkening sky. It was a cry of desperation, something aimless, but not senseless. It cried for Grant.

Every time he heard it, Grant cringed, clenched his nerves, and then unleashed tears from tight ducts.

“I can’t help you.” he said within gasps. “Lea-leave me alone!”

“Grant?” the voice softened to a raspy call. “Save her,” it dissipated into a black sky. Grant swung his head side to side, seeing Chelsea’s house sitting on the corner with a dull streetlight out front. He turned around, finding the creature with a horned head sitting atop a bulky neck with teeth protruding.

“It’s coming!” a deep voice exclaimed. “It’s near.”

“D-dad?” stuttered Grant.

“It’s inevitable, kiddo. Follow me.” Suddenly, a black night sky faded to a neon white room. The man he had known as father stood in front of him, still the monster with horns.

“Wa-what?” he sniffled tears dry, cleared his throat, and sighed. “Where are we?”

“This is the room.” the head atop a bloody mouth spoke mockingly. “The room where they cut you open, distribute your innards to those in need, and then hand you over to me.”

“Who are you?” he was scared, yet curious.

“I live in you.” the horned creature touched Grant’s heart.

“No you don’t.”

“I am your father, finally complete.” maybe the words this monster spoke were true. Grant had started to realize inner monsters. Hell, he had many that had yet to manifest. What if—on the inside—he looked like the creature standing in front of him?

“You were a great man. Is this what you were beneath it all?”

“Like father like son, kiddo. Your monster will tear through your skin like mine did. Christian or not, I still had demons to battle.” Grant didn’t answer. Instead, he stared attentively. It was an abstract monster, with proportions in line, yet unlike any other monster. The horned creature was the result of an angel and a demon having a one night stand. Good and evil clashing, only to find themselves embracing.

“Why are we here?” he asked.

“Just look.” suddenly, a table draped in a bloody sheet appeared in front of him. “Lift the sheet Grant.”

“What’s under it?”

“Just lift it.” It said. Grant studied his father, staring at his lifeless head sitting on top of a bloody mouth that had been his neck. He stared at four thin tongues aimlessly flailing about. He watched a reptile eye peer at him from within a cheek-full of scales. And then finally, Grant grabbed the bloody sheet, and lifted it.

“Where am I?” he asked, now cold and weak.

“I told you,” his father answered candidly. “This is where they cut you up, disembowel you, and hand you off to me.” Grant felt his stomach churning, and his nerves numbing. It was him lying on the table. His left arm was nothing but a nubby shoulder blade; his right eye was hanging out of its socket; his bottom half ended at his knees, and Grant’s chest was sliced open. It revealed a motionless heart, rotting innards, and a word written on a piece of paper: TURN AROUND.

Slowly, he followed instruction, and turned his body away from the table. Midway through his turn he heard his father’s soft breathing turn into guttural gasps of air.

“Who a-are you?” asked Grant softly.

“Mrk Frong Dore. Cos Legk Nith.” It said fast, as if It had recited it.

“Wa-what?” Grant stopped midway through his turn, gulped fear down with a blink, and then turned fully.

“I am going to eat you, kiddo.” Grant caught a glimpse of the head atop the mouth, seeing red tinged eyes. There was no father left, none whatsoever.

“Who are ya-you?!” screamed Grant, while shuffling his feet, and running the small of his back into his hollow corpse.

“One decision,” the head talked coldly. “One choice, choose.”

“Choose what?” Grant pleaded ignorance, but he knew exactly what.

“It’s the only choice that matters.”

“I don’t believe in this. None of this is real!” Suddenly, the room split open, revealing a bright blue sky, chirping birds, yelping dogs, walking humans, sound—life. It had been meant to make him face the monster inside once and for all. But, one thing about dreams is they can be escaped. All Grant had to do was tell himself that the bright morgue he stood in and the abstract monster he faced were all part of a dream. There were no consequences, and so no reason to choose between good and evil.

When he opened his eyes, Grant was lying in the grass, using his hand as a pillow. Every dream seemed to leave him wondering when he actually entered dream. This time was no different. The last thing he remembered was taking a deep breath, and then being welcomed with silence. Grant looked around, finding himself beneath a colorful dusk. While he slept, the sky had murdered a rainbow, dismembered it, and spread its pieces about.

“How long was I sleeping?” he yawned. He pulled out his phone, waited for the screen to light, and then saw the time: 8:52 p.m. “That’s not right.” he rubbed his face clean of drool, and dried tears. The time only added onto his confusion. When Grant arrived at Chelsea’s earlier that day, it had been just minutes after 3:00 p.m. Right then, it hit him that maybe dream and reality weren’t something separate. Maybe they were just different versions of the same thing. Time had never passed that quickly with his other encounters.

After smacking his lips, and yawning once more, Grant looked right. Her house was lit brightly by the porch light, and the streetlight out front. Her small white car sat out front. Grant got to his feet, staggered until finding solid ground, and then walked back the way he had come. Maybe it wasn’t the most romantic way to propose, but Grant knew it wouldn’t matter. He knew that as soon as he asked for her hand, the words would blurt out like vomit. They would come with no warning. They would come coldly and to-the-point.

It only took thirty seconds for him to walk those several steps back to her house, pull the ring from his pocket, and knock on the door. He knocked twice, waited for a few moments, and then was answered by Chelsea.

“Hey.” she said brightly. “What are you doing out here?” she stepped onto the porch, and closed the door behind her.

Grant fell to one knee. He displayed the box, and flipped the lid. “I know we are still young. But, my love for you is years ahead of my age. We met in a cemetery, at our saddest place, and from that found love. I have thought about this since the moment I laid eyes on you. You have always been the one for me.” Grant smiled. “Chelsea Elaine Hart, will you marry me?”

He caught her in a gaze of shimmering eyes. “Ya-yes,” Chelsea put her hand out; Grant placed the ring on her finger, stood up, and kissed her. The next feeling he felt was something he hadn’t expected. Instead of blurting words of his future to his fiancé, all he could feel was happiness. A poltergeist peace clothed him with a sheath of content. Nothing had changed. He still would be the government’s army doll that Friday morning. But, at this moment he was nothing but a man claiming love for a woman.

Chelsea smiled, and shed tears of happiness. Grant smiled, kissed her, and laughed… only to sigh.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, still smiling.

“Um,” Grant bit his lip, trying to the best of his ability to hide the truth. “I have to tell you something.”

Chelsea’s smile faded to a clenched frown. “Wa-what?”

“I can’t lie to you. I wanted to spare you, but I can’t.”

“Just tell me.” she pushed away. “What did you do, Grant?”

“Nothing.” he hung his head. “I got a letter today.”

The look of betrayal smothering her face drained into worry. “A letter?” as soon as Chelsea asked, she knew.

“I have to leave.” Grant nearly whispered.

“Why?”

“Today I—I received my draft papers.”

“No.” Chelsea buried her face into her palms.

“It’ll be—” she cut him off.

“Do you know where I was today, Grant?”

“No.”

“I was at the doctor. We are having a baby.” happiness and sadness were mixed within her words.

“Typical.” it was the second time that day he had uttered that word. Grant looked into Chelsea’s blue eyes, rubbed her chin softly, and kissed her once more. “I’ll come back.”

“What if you don’t?”

“I promise.” he lied. “I will not die. I will come back. I will marry you. We will live a happy life. Right now is just the time to get past Chelsea. But, our day of happiness is coming.”

“Come back to me.” Chelsea latched onto his neck with her arms. “Be here for your family.”

“I will.” Grant rubbed her wavy reddish blonde hair back. It was his promise to her. A promise he wanted to keep, but wasn’t sure he could…

It had been an intimate night. Wants inserting into needs occurred time and time again. In many ways it was their closest goodbye to one another. Nothing in their relationship had been more intimate, more loving, more needed. But, now that the night was over, more loose threads were in need of tying.

The morning was early; dew still sat on grass blades, and flower petals. It was Wednesday now. He only had two more days of freedom. Grant had yet to tell Bobby, inform his boss of obligatory resignation, and ease an oblivious mother and sister.

“I have a lot to do today.” said Grant as he rubbed Chelsea’s hair.

“I know.” she nodded. “Does Bobby know yet?”

“I’ll tell him today. It’s kinda funny though—at least I think he’ll find it kind of funny.”

“What?” Chelsea looked up at him.

“When Bobby and I were nine, or maybe it was eight—anyway, we watched footage of 9/11 over and over again. Almost in sync we told each other that one day we would ‘kill those rat bastards.’ I guess I get to g-go kill them.” once again, Grant found himself in a state of realization. The night before the gravity of the situation hadn’t weighed on him like it was now.

“Are you okay?” asked Chelsea as she lifted her head from his chest.

“It’s just heavy. I can’t imagine being in a group of carbon copies. You know best. I am not very sociable.”

“Neither am I, Grant. But, you’re strong.” Chelsea kissed his forehead and then crawled out of bed. She dressed in her thrown-about-clothing. Grant did the same a minute later. They both walked through his hall, down the stairs, and to the door. “I’ll call you later.” she kissed him once more, and then left.

For five minutes, Grant stared blankly at the door in front of him. It meant so many things. Not only was it him leaving the haven his house had been, but it was him leaving the happiness he had obtained.

“Grant?” Hannah asked, walking from the kitchen.

“Hey, Hannah.” he turned his head.

“What’s going on with you and Chelsea?”

“We’re getting married.”

Hannah’s face lit up as her recently braced teeth shone brightly. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks.”

“Does mom know?”

“Not yet.”

“Oh.”

“Where is mom by the way?”

“Sleeping I think. Why?”

“Just wondering, I haven’t seen her much lately. Really, I haven’t seen her much since she started dating that guy.”

“Todd?”

“Whatever it is.”

“He isn’t bad, Grant. Mom is happy.” said Hannah defensively.

“That’s good I guess. I’m sorry, Hannah. I just have a lot on my mind.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve been drafted.” he paused. “I don’t know if you’ve learned about that yet. But, this Friday I have to leave and go fight in the war.”

“I don’t want you t-to go. We were just starting to get to know each other.” her green eyes filled with tears.

“I know, but I’ll be back.” Grant was tired of wearing the strong mask. His whole life he had worn masks. But, he couldn’t let people see what was beneath them, because not even he truly knew what they would see.

Chapter 5

Another loose end had been tied, two actually. Grant knew Hannah would cry the news to her mom almost immediately after she knew of it. It was one less thing occupying his mind.

After staring with wet eyes for a few moments more, Hannah ran upstairs. Grant tried to force steps, but his feet wouldn’t move. Suddenly in a moment of fate tying the knot, Grant’s phone vibrated. With a sigh, he dug it out of his pocket, and looked at the screen: Bobby calling (the words swayed back and forth).

“Hello.” answered Grant softly.

“What’s up, man?” Bobby answered groggily.

“Nothing, you?”

“Nothing, just waking up,” a long awkward pause ran on for ten seconds, finally being broken by the same word clashing.

“I am—” both Grant and Bobby said at the same time.

“What?” asked Grant.

“You go.” said Bobby.

“I don’t know how to put this, Bobby, but I’m leaving Friday.”

“Me too.” his voice seemed to nod with understanding.

“Where are you going?”

“To get a haircut,” Bobby laughed nervously. “And a gun,”

“What?”

“I’ve been drafted.” Bobby said.

“Me too.” whispered Grant. “I le-leave—” he cleared his throat, “I leave Friday at 8:00 am.”

“You know, man, as soon as I received my papers all I could think about was the promise we made to one another on that day. That we would—”

“—kill those rat bastards.” Grant finished the sentence.

“Yeah,”

“Where do you train?” Grant asked.

“Someplace called Highland, Arizona.” his voice lowered.

“Bobby, you and I are going to be training together.”

“It’s a small world after all.” Bobby sang with a lisp.

“Yeah,” Grant rolled his eyes while smiling.

“Man, I’m hungry. Let’s go eat at The Family Restaurant. I’m really in need of a Reuben.”

“Alright, should I pick you up, or are you driving?”

“I’ll just meet you there in like five minutes.”

“Alright.” said Grant. “I’ll see ya then.”

Instead of running up the stairs, showering, and dressing in something clean, Grant threw on an old brown cap, and ran out to his forest green Mercury. He opened the door, started the car, and drove six blocks straight from his driveway. As suspected, Bobby’s car wasn’t sitting in the parking lot. He had always been one to run late. The five minutes he had said turned into twenty.

Finally, his red neon pulled into The Family Restaurant parking lot. Bobby parked his car next to Grant’s, and then came in.

In those twenty minutes, Grant had resigned with full explanation. The owner Leon understood fully, thanked him for his service, and said the meal was on him.

When Bobby arrived in the restaurant, he found Grant sitting at their booth, sipping on a straw.

“Hey.” said Bobby as he took his seat. “What’s up, man?”

“I got some news, Bobby.” Grant grinned.

“What?”

“I’m engaged.” he now smiled.

“Wow. She said yes, huh?”

“Yeah, she cried it actually.”

“Exactly as I said she would right?”

“Yeah, you can read girls pretty well.” said Grant. “You just can’t get any.”

“Shut up.” Bobby smiled while shaking his head. “Dick.”

“Sorry.” Grant paused. “I got down on one knee and said words I now don’t remember.”

“Does she know about the draft?”

“Yeah. After asking her to marry me, she told me that I’m gonna be a father.”

“God, that sucks. It’s kind of like with my dad.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Um,” a tear lump grew in Bobby’s throat, only to be swallowed. “Yesterday he was going to the bathroom, and collapsed. Mom took him to Mayo Clinic today. They don’t know about me being drafted. I really don’t want to tell them.”

“You’ll have to.”

“I know!” he answered sharply. “I know.”

After another fifteen minutes, food was brought on plates, and beverages in glasses. Two famished friends ate, drank, and then left…

Friday morning came. It brought an emotional fiancée, a confused sister, and a sad mother. It was a small gathering. Grant laid on the couch alongside Chelsea for only another moment. It was just minutes before six. The bus to Minneapolis Airport would be pulling in front of The Family Restaurant in just minutes. It meant Grant only had minutes to say goodbye, possibly forever.

Another minute passed and Grant got up from the couch. He hugged Chelsea and made a promise: “I’ll come back.”

Without saying a word, she nodded her head, sniffled tears, and let go of his neck. Grant walked over to Hannah, knelt down, lifted her chin with his finger, and smiled.

“It’ll be okay.” he said. “I love you, Hannah.”

“I lo-love you too, Grant.” she hugged him longingly. It was something she didn’t want to let go of. But, the truth was hitting everyone, especially Grant: he might die. After hugging Hannah a moment longer, he let go of her, and walked over to his mother. She stood strong, her eyes were green orbs sitting on top of a bright red base, her light brown hair was draping her forehead, and her motion spoke volumes. Even though she was smiling, her eyes said something different. Grant saw that her strong faith was dwindling. She was walking down his road. What would her outcome be?

“Bye, mom.” said Grant, smiling.

“Come back to me, baby.” her lip quivered. “I need you.”

“I will, mom.” Grant’s lip stayed taut and calm. He had cried his tears the night before. Today, his ducts were dry, and his mind sat in a place somewhere between dream and reality.

After another moment, he walked away from the three women in his life. “I love you all.” It was something for Chelsea, Hannah, and his mom to ponder as he left the house on Twelve Twenty Two Main. He didn’t speak another word. Grant opened the door, and left. It was official: Grant was no longer free.

Like clockwork, the bus pulled up to the bus stop at 6:15 am. Grant had arrived a few minutes before, as had Bobby. They stood shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the doors to open and engulf them. And like always, the doors slid open; Grant and Bobby entered, took a seat, and remained quiet. Grant pressed his flat forehead against the window, and sighed. Bobby rested his head against the seat, and closed his eyes. Though they were sitting next to one another, Grant and Bobby were worlds apart.

At that moment they were two strangers. Neither acknowledged the other. It was a time of reflection, fear, and acceptance. Maybe they were grieving their lost childhood. Maybe they were searching for the truth lingering in the clouds. Maybe it was everything rolled into one sloppy, emotional package. Whatever it was, Grant and Bobby had been called.

When the war had started twelve years before, things seemed effortless. The plan: go in, kill terrorists, come home (and maybe take some oil in the process). It was a plan that seemed conceivable, even logical. But, something wasn’t expected: They were smart! They were prepared! America had guns, twelve grades worth of education, and white flesh. It was grounds of superiority… so they thought.

Unexpectedly, and much to their surprise, years passed. Every year brought a glimpse into a future promising brightness, but only turning bleaker. A war that had started as a goal became a trap. And Bobby and Grant now found themselves being brought to the feeding cages with only a gun and white skin: superiority!

As they sat shoulder to shoulder in that one seat on that one bus, neither knew of their future. They expected death, lost limbs, and impaired functions from shrapnel. They expected the war to be the way it was when it started. What they didn’t expect is what they got.

An hour on the bus soon turned into an hour on the plane. They were no longer in the small, sheltered world of Miles. Grant and Bobby were now nearing a monster’s land. They would soon see what lay behind that thin sheet of skin.

“It just seems to go faster when it’s something you don’t want to do.” said Bobby, following a sigh.

“Yeah.” agreed Grant.

“How are you doing?”

“I don’t know, Bobby. I’m scared.”

“Me too, man.” Bobby shook his head, and ran his hands through his dark blonde hair. “But, who knows. Maybe this is good.”

“How?” asked Grant as he turned away from the window.

“I don’t know.”

“Where is the good in this, Bobby?”

“What do you want me to say, Grant?”

“I want you to say where the good is in this terrible situation.”

“I won’t have to see my dad die.” Bobby became quiet. “They found three tumors in his brain. They can’t do anything about it. They sent him home. So Grant, I’m sorry that you have to leave your happy life. But, you don’t give a damn about my situation. You lost your dad over twelve years ago. I’ve been losing mine for three. I’ve had to watch it happen. I’ve had to watch it every day! Why do you think we aren’t close like we used to be?”

“Because of your dad,”

“No! It’s because you’ve proven time and time again that my situation is nothing compared to yours. You’re still drowning?! You’re still broken?! Every day I break a little bit more, and that God in the clouds doesn’t do a fuckin’ thing about it. He just watches as I become pieces. My mom feeds me this crap about how everything happens for a purpose. She doesn’t believe it.”

Grant’s reply was quiet.

“The good in this situation is what I want it to be. And right now leaving that withered man is better than watching him take his last breath. I really don’t care about if there is good in it for you. It’s not always about you!” Heads had started to turn. The fight had escalated to interruption. People glanced with annoyed yet curious eyes. A flight attendant had turned her head as well. But, the fight was over.

It ended with an awkward silence and time to ponder words unsaid that had finally been said. Grant stared out the plane window, perching his chin on his palm, and breathing deep. A weight had been lifted, a fight had ended, and now silence lingered. It had come out like vomit, bile and all. Though the words stung like an injection, Grant knew what Bobby said was true. And that in itself hurt. He knew how lost he was. He had all the happiness allowed, only to have it taken away by the Draft.

The plane ride was bleak, quiet… lonely.

Bobby still sat in a thought. He imagined his father running free and remembered the good old days. But, now Grant and Bobby were two people trudging through reality. Maybe the tunnel they walked in was lit, but all they were getting now were promises of light. It was nothing substantial. God was nothing but a tape recorder voice in the darkness: a repetitive voice claiming truth, but offering nothing.

The plane ride lasted two more hours. In that time, more silence lingered, sighs ensued, and glances were given. Grant and Bobby were not fighting, they were in thought. The words had been said, pondered, and forgotten.

The plane landed with a screech, scattered clapping, and a few jumping from their seats. It landed, only to verify their future. It was no longer just words on a piece of paper labeled URGENT. All of the scenarios passing through their heads were now put into place. It all started with two rusty school buses painted forest green waiting at the entrance of the Phoenix, Arizona airport. Somewhere near the end of the airport, a man stood and held a sign: DRAFT. Bobby and Grant followed it, treading through the jungle that is airway transportation.

Soon, they found themselves outside, staring at the two buses. Black smoke puffed out the exhaust pipes in thick rolls. The air was filled with the sound of planes taking flight. Two men stood outside of each bus. From strict presence alone, these men were not mere trainees. They had the marking of experience carved into their faces. Two men were white, two were black. They stood in equal measure. Yet, somehow each face resembled the other, as if in a hall of statues of the same man. When their faces changed, they looked military made. The movements were stiff.

“Draft,” asked a white man who stood on the right side of the door, with a voice that was crisp and commanding.

“Yeah,” Grant and Bobby replied, pulling out their letters.

“Get on the bus. Take any seat available.” he glanced at their letters.

“Alright,”

“You say Sir here, kiddos.” the black man still resembled a statue.

“Sorry, Sir.” Grant and Bobby got on the bus, and took the fourth seat on the left. They sat and listened to the talkative men around them, and then sighed once more. For five minutes they sat in a bus that smelled of aftershave masking body odor before the men from outside stepped up and in. They stood tall in the aisle. Between the two of them height differed by less than two inches. The black man was the tallest, but not by much. And then he sat down, leaving only one standing.

“I am the talkative one,” with this little ice breaker, life came from a man Grant had expected to be statue like. Everything about him was military made, from his haircut, to the tough tan skin that had once been a pale white. But, he had the personality of someone different than the military made. “I am Patrol Sergeant Ricks. I am one of four Patrol Sergeants who will be training you for what’s to come. The other three are Patrol Sergeant Hetel,” the black man nodded his head. “Patrol Sergeant Liese and Patrol Sergeant Scott are on the other bus. You will meet them when we arrive. I like to talk. It gets all the shit out in the open. Sergeant Hetel is a man that talks when he has something to say.”

Patrol Sergeant Hetel nodded his head with eyes of stone, and then glanced up at Patrol Sergeant Ricks.

“I know most of you are scared.” the talkative one continued. “I’m not going to fill this speech with words meant to taste good. They will taste bitter. They will cut. But, they may keep you alive. I have served three tours stationed in Baghdad. There are things I never bring home with me, things my wife and kids know nothing about. They are my nightmares that they shouldn’t share. It was in my second term that I realized just what kind of things these men are capable of. I saw it first hand on a day that I will never forget. I always remember the sun being the first thing I saw. It’s been a few years now, and I’m sure false details have leaked in, but I always remember the sun. It flickered, as if I put a kaleidoscope up to my face for that one moment.” the man paused, “It’s strange that all of my nightmares begin with the sun. They all begin with light. This is the most frequent of them though. It plays over and over in my head, as if on a loop. There was this man we were working with. His name escapes me, but his face never will. He knew things about dangerous men. He wanted to help us take them down. He was an Iraqi man, as kind as the word itself. He was a father to a small boy and a smaller girl. His wife wore the garments where only her eyes could be seen. But, that was all you needed to see to know she was beautiful. Her eyes were filled with life.” he paused again, this time swallowing a large lump. “And then one day they weren’t. With the man’s help we caught a small section of a much bigger operation. The men that escaped visited his family, removed their heads and dangled them from hooks in his front yard. And then the man’s kindness became screams that lingered long after he took his own life. When I close my eyes I only see their heads. They just sway. “Patrol Sergeant Ricks cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his eyes were flat and hard. “War brings out the beast in men. What will it bring out in you?”

Grant sat wide eyed. This Patrol Sergeant spoke of things that mirrored his deepest fears, finally bringing them to the surface. He looked at Bobby, took a deep breath, and said a silent prayer: “Let me return.”

Patrol Sergeant Ricks continued. “This is not the army that it was when the Iraq war started. The truth that we didn’t want to admit to is we thought it would be simple. We thought it would be short. We were wrong. A new system is among us. I will explain the best I can. There are eighty four men that will be training in Highland, Arizona. Forty two are on this bus, forty two are on the other. Each Patrol Sergeant will take his pick of twenty one men that will become his trainees to see over. We get three months to prepare you for what’s to come. I began by talking to you about the brutality of these men, because it’s growing. And the only way to prepare you for what’s to come is to prepare you for what you’ll see.” he paused as if to clear his train of thought, and when he begin to speak again the subject was back on track. “It is Plan B. Twelve years in and we finally make a change.”

Patrol Sergeant Hetel suddenly grunted. It was a message that none of the trainees understood. But, Ricks understood it immediately. It was a grunt meant to keep him in line. He played the role, but it was clear to see that the mask was slipping. And a man damaged by the terrible things he had seen was beginning to show through.

Patrol Sergeant Ricks continued, with Hetel’s eyes now focused sharply on him. “I’m sorry, men. We all have monsters that haunt us.” he paused. “Patrol Sergeant Hetel can finish explaining,” and with that he sat down.

Hetel stood up. “Sit and think. We will be there shortly.” he took his seat, and the bus began to drive away from the airport. Grant looked out the window Bobby was sitting by, and watched the airport fade into an Arizona mirage.

As it had been for the whole trip, Grant and Bobby sat next to each other. And as it had been, both were deep in thought. Neither was thinking about the fight earlier. It was irrelevant.

Something about Patrol Sergeant Ricks’ speech awoke a dormant fight in Grant. Mr. Hart had told him not to let the war change him. It was now a challenge, instead of a statement. The promise he made to Chelsea had been sincere. He meant to return the way he had left.

But, Bobby wasn’t so fortunate. He sat in the seat, contemplating suicide. Returning from the war would only bring a funeral, tears, grief, and more pain. Did he want more pain?

Grant put his hands in his pocket, finding a small notepad, and a note attached:

Hey Grant,

I know you aren’t one to write, but sometimes just putting my thoughts on a piece of paper helps. So, I bought you a small notepad. Think of it as your unofficial journal.

Love always,

Chelsea

Grant smiled, and opened up the first page. Wrapped in the spun wire spine sat a pen. He grabbed it, clicked the tip into being, and began to write:

I am Grant Smith,

Day 1:

I am told that writing my feelings helps. I guess I’ll listen. Chelsea is the smartest person I know.

So, what to say… Um, feelings… What the hell am I feeling?

I can only feel the tingle in my fingers and toes spreading toward the center of me. I don’t know if it’s fear. I can’t explain it.

Patrol Sergeant Ricks is a man I don’t want to become. I don’t want to share his nightmares. I am already haunted.

I will not die. I promised Chelsea that I will return. I will not be like dad. I will not leave her by herself to raise our baby. She will not be alone.

I had happiness in a town that I used to hate. I had things worth living for. I still do. The town of Miles was something constricting, but now I am sure it is the only place for me. I think I am destined to be a small Minnesota town man. I don’t need anything more. As long as I have Chelsea, that’s fine.

Grant shut the notepad, tucked it back into his pocket, and then glanced right. He saw Bobby resting his soft pale chin against the palm of his left hand.

“Hey about earlier on the plane—”

“I said things I didn’t want to say. It was my fear talking. It was the bottled up things coming out all at you. I’m sorry, Grant.” Bobby said.

“No. You were right. I am selfish. I’ve just been trying to keep my head above water for so long, that I haven’t considered your situation. But, I’m sorry.”

“I want to tell you something.”

“What?”

“I am not the fun person I used to be. Something has changed. Sure I’m happy at times, but today isn’t that kind of day. And I only have today. What if we don’t come back? Or what if I don’t? Or you?”

“I don’t want to think like that, Bobby. I have to believe that maybe God does care. I have to believe He’ll let me return.”

“You’ve never believed in God, Grant. Why start now?” Bobby situated his thick frames.

“I’ve come to realize that belief in something provides hope. I know I am not an example for when it comes to hope, but maybe it’s time to start. He didn’t save my dad, but maybe He’ll save me. I can’t die. I can’t leave Chelsea and my baby by themselves. If asking God is what it takes, then I’ll ask Him.”

“Remember when I was younger? I had those stupid blonde spikes, and ridiculous round frames. Remember how I preached about God? I was so passionate, so sure of what was right. I would feed you God as much as I could.”

“Yeah,”

“I wish I could feel that way again. But, life is a lot harder now. I’m just so sad. Every day I walk down the stairs and see him lying on that couch. He’s always wearing those ugly blue sweatpants that bunch up at the ankles. The TV is always on with either some stupid preacher, or the Beverly Hillbillies. You don’t know how sick I am of the Beverly Hillbillies.” Bobby smiled briefly, and then continued. “For a while he was better. For a while we were father and son again. And for a while I thought the God I had served without question would save him. I found myself praying at night again, reading the bible again… trusting Him again. As soon as I found myself with hope again, he collapsed. He went to Mayo and came back with a death sentence. How can I believe anymore?” Bobby swallowed a large tear lump and cleared his throat.

“I don’t know, Bobby. I wish I could tell you the answers you want to hear. But, I can’t. This newly found faith is me grasping at straws—it’s me desperate.”

“You’re not the only desperate person, Grant. When I said that you were the problem, it’s not true. I am my own problem. I just wear masks everywhere I go, even for my dad. He wears them too. He never shows all of the pain. But, I can see it sitting in his eyes behind a forced smile. I can’t let anyone see the pain.”

“Why?”

“‘Cause they’ll turn away. Pain changes you. And I’ve been changed.”

“We’ve known each other for twelve years, Bobby. It’s time we tell each other the truth.”

“And what is that?”

“I have a monster that was born from my pain. It has horns, flailing tongues, jagged blood tinged teeth, and a father sitting on top of it all.”

“You know of your darkness. You can even describe it. I can’t. All I can say is that somewhere deep down something is waiting to get out. It’s poisoning me.”

“We are more alike than you think. We are two men with monsters, but that’s not to say we are dangerous. As Patrol Sergeant Ricks said, we all have monsters.”

“I guess so,” Bobby looked out the window and closed his eyes.

“We all have monsters.” Grant said it quietly enough that only he could hear it. It was a truth he didn’t want to acknowledge. It was a truth that was beginning to become his reality.

Chapter 6

A falling friendship had been reconciled with complete understanding. Sometimes Grant found Bobby more understanding than even Chelsea. He sat in the seat, finally understanding what closer-than-skin-to-bone actually meant. It had been something indescribable until now: warmth. They were completely opposite people in appearance. Bobby had long dark blonde hair, and thick rimmed glasses. Grant had short brown hair, and perfect vision. But, inside they thought the same thoughts, got the same jokes, and understood the others’ mind.

For another hour, the bus drove on a dirt road until coming to a small deserted town: a sign saying HIGHLAND, ARIZONA was tipped askew, and a ghost town sat beyond it. The men thought about the Arizona heat plucking them dry of hydration. It was all too quiet.

The bus drove another two miles, passing a church shrouded in dying Palo Verde, a fire station with shattered windows, and the charred remains of a grocery store that had been on fire. The bus passed through, took a left on Palo Street, and continued on for another mile until the town of Highland was behind them.

As soon as it came into sight, all minds stood at attention. The training camp now sat in seeing distance. Every moment brought it closer, until the bus stopped, and the door opened. Patrol Sergeant Hetel stood up. He brought attention to himself with nothing but strict presence. “This is where you will train. In a single file line get off the bus,”

Grant and Bobby stood along with the others. And just as Hetel had commanded, they lined up in a straight line, and got off the bus. The second bus was parked behind the first. Forty two came from each, becoming one line of eighty four.

They remained in a straight line that was beginning to separate. The quiet of the bus ride melted away with the desert heat. For the forty two men who had heard it, the shock of Patrol Sergeant Ricks’ speech had withered into mind static.

At the front of the line, the four Patrol Sergeants stood shoulder to shoulder. Between the four of them, height differed by five inches. Hetel was the tallest at six two. At the other end of the four men, Patrol Sergeant Liese stood. He was the shortest, at barely five nine. But, his strength made up for whatever else he lacked. Patrol Sergeant Ricks now had a face that was pure stone. Whatever emotion had been shown on the bus was gone. Patrol Sergeant Scott was the thinnest man, with a face of clean black skin, and brown eyes three shades lighter than Hetel’s.

“Quiet down and listen up!” Hetel commanded, as the other three stood with their hands behind their backs.

The talking stopped.

“One by one you will enter the tent in front of you and get your hair buzzed off. After that, you will get your uniforms on, and wait for further instructions under this hot sun. Is that clear?!”

“Yes!” they all said.

“Yes what?!”

“Yes, Sir!” the group answered.

“For anyone who doesn’t know who I am, my name is Patrol Sergeant Hetel. This man next to me is Patrol Sergeant Ricks, next to him is Patrol Sergeant Scott, and at the end is Patrol Sergeant Liese. In the near future one of us will be the only Patrol Sergeant you work with. But, for now we will have an evaluation period. Patrol Sergeant Ricks covered some of it on the bus. You don’t need to know the in depth working of this new system, only the things that affect you. And what affects you is this: there are no beds to sleep in; there are no other chains of command. The four Patrol Sergeants you see are all there is. If you get out of line, you will be disciplined. And I assure you it will not be pleasant. The Arizona heat is dry. If you need discipline, we know just how to keep you in line. Now proceed!”

They proceeded forward one by one. Grant found himself somewhere in the middle of a line of eighty four men. Bobby stood behind him, and the tall Timothy Fane stood in front of him. He was a quiet black man. His eyes were dark brown. He stood six and a half inches over both Grant and Bobby.

Timothy Fane cast a shadow, long and thin. Grant and Bobby stayed quiet for the most part. They continued, until each of them sat in a chair, and watched their hair fall to the ground in clumps. Each uniform was in its own plastic, with the name of the trainee marked on the outside. They dressed and waited for further instruction. Their war costumes had been fit, shaved head and all. But, they were just children playing war with real guns in place of tree branches. It all was for nothing. They would come to realize this soon enough.

It wasn’t the town of Miles. It was empty desert, with a ghost town somewhere in between. Even though the Arizona heat was scorching, Grant’s blood was cold. His new lease on life was fading back into a blank existence. On the bus ride there, it still was only his mind painting possibility pictures. But, now it was real. His head was shaved, and his casual jeans and t-shirt were now fitted camouflage. His possibility pictures had included some desolate Arizona desert, shaved heads, and fitted camouflage. It was as he had thought it to be, but still something was different. He wasn’t prepared.

Another thirty minutes passed. It was time to proceed with further instruction:

“Evaluation begins today.” Sergeant Liese was a raspy man, with a voice that didn’t fit his face. “Line up behind Patrol Sergeant Ricks and Hetel. Patrol Sergeant Scott and I will monitor from the sides. Follow!” The Patrol Sergeants began to jog, as did the line of eighty four.

Grant jogged without knowing his destination. All he knew was to follow.

“I should have known we would be running the first day.” Bobby said while glancing at Grant.

“Yeah, I thought it would be different.” replied Grant. “I guess I was wrong.”

“At least Tim here is a giant.” Bobby smiled.

Timothy Fane looked back. “What?”

“Oh nothing, man,” said Bobby. “I just want to thank you for shielding me from the sun.”

“No problem.”

They continued their pace. The long line of men ran below a scorching sun and a dry heat for an hour, until finding themselves back in Highland.

“Just a little bit farther,” Liese informed.

And like he commanded, the men ran a little bit farther, until being told to stop. Heavy breaths, sweaty skin, and a beating heart all increased when Grant stopped. He was wet from head to toe. Every man breathed heavily, hacked up accrued phlegm, and felt faint.

Grant stood in front of the singed grocery store, finding shade beneath Tim Fane’s cast shadow.

“These are war games!” Liese said loudly, grabbing the attention of the fellow men in front of him. “In no way will they be fun like hopscotch or hide and seek! These are meant to teach you survival! Pick a group of six people each.”

Grant and Bobby chose Timothy Fane, Charles Prate, Michael Sertch, and Leon Trale. They shook each other’s hand, gave names, and became a group.

“There are eighty four of you here. I should see fourteen groups of six.” said Liese. He counted, and then nodded his head. “Alright, the building in front of you is lit by two road flares. Your objective is to successfully work as a team, and pull out three mannequins trapped beneath fallen shelves. Easy enough right?”

“Yes, Patrol Sergeant!” they replied.

“Each group will be given a different colored rag. Tie it around the mannequins’ arm, carry it out, and place it on the ground. Each time you come out, we will give you another rag, and you repeat. Is that clear?!”

“Yes, Patrol Sergeant!”

“Does a group volunteer to go first?”

Grant looked at Bobby, Tim, Charles, Michael, and Leon. They thought with wandering eyes, and then nodded their heads in agreement.

“We’ll go, Patrol Sergeant.” said Grant with a raise of the hand.

“Good. Follow me.” the six of them followed Liese over to a table holding surgical masks. “Put these on.”

“Yes, Sir.” they replied. Each put on the masks, and waited further instruction.

“Enter when ready.”

“Are we going to be timed?” asked Bobby.

“No, just finish.”

The six of them gathered up. “Alright,” said Grant. “When we get in there, no matter what, stay together.”

“Alright,” they all agreed, and stepped forward. Grant breathed heavily behind his hospital mask, blinking his eyes erratically with preparation. Before taking another step, Grant looked both ways. He stared at the gaping hole in front of him, and clicked on the flashlight.

“Let’s go.” he said softly. Grant stepped in until finding himself surrounded by darkness. The light from the road flares was already fading back by the entrance. The only form of light was being cast from his flashlight, and the five behind him.

“Where do you think it is, Grant?” Tim Fane asked quietly.

“I don’t know.”

“Save her!” something shrill screamed. “Please!”

“Do you hear that?” asked Grant.

“Hear what?” Bobby inquired. “It’s silent.”

“Save her, Grant!” it only intensified. The voice was constant, and sharp. Grant grabbed his head, only to shake it away.

“What is that?” he asked again, almost desperately.

“What are you talking about, Grant?” asked Bobby again, now with wandering eyes.

“The voices—she needs my help!”

“There is no voice! Get ahold of yourself.”

“She needs me.” Grant ran ahead, passing tipped over shelves, and burnt displays. “I’m coming. Tell me where you are!” the light cast from his flashlight unveiled a rainfall of dust from the ceiling. Grant breathed erratically. His lungs were expanding, only to find a shrinking rib cage.

And then Grant found himself surrounded by silence. The calls of his fellow five men were lost in a realm of deafness, until it was broken by something soft:

“You keep running, Grant. You keep running, only to find yourself closer and closer.”

“Closer to what?”

“Hell.”

“Shut up.”

“It scares you doesn’t it?” his father asked. “It scares you to know every word I say is true. My son is in the army. My son will die in the army.”

“Why can’t you die? I hate you!” Grant yelled into the darkness.

“I’ll eat you in hell. I will eat you over and over again. And yes my son, it will hurt!” the horned figure appeared within the cast light. His father’s lifeless head smiled. “Hell is fun. Trust me. It’s like a game of hopscotch or hide and seek.”

“This isn’t real.” whispered Grant, while tripping back the way he came. “I can leave.”

“One of these times, Grant, it will be real.” he smiled as he disappeared into the darkness.

Grant opened his eyes to the men yelling. All around him it sounded like a swirl of snakes hissing. Something then crawled up his face and burned his eyes. It seemed to strip the skin around and in his mouth clean off, and then slipped down into his stomach where discomfort became Sick.

He could hear the men scatter as their voices spread thin. They were running back toward the entrance. Through a stinging squint, he saw only Bobby left with his shirt pulled halfway over his face, eyes still exposed.

Grant saw lights fleeing from him, as his own rolled across the floor. And then a cloud ate the things around him, leaving him alone. He could hear Bobby coughing. He could feel that the Sick in his stomach was now nearing the back of his throat. He took deep breaths into a hospital mask that was already moist throughout.

His eyes were red and swollen. When opened further than a struggled squint, they burned. When closed, they seemed to burn even worse. He cried out only to find an uncontrollable cough. His lungs felt shriveled within a rib cage that seemed to be shrinking. Vaguely, he could hear Liese speaking into a megaphone, though the words were just sounds within the cloud.

Grant’s steps were slow and disoriented when he tripped over something that felt like a pair of legs. He fell to the floor, finding eyes staring back at him. For only a moment they were his own dead eyes, and then they were the eyes of a mannequin.

“The rag,” he whispered, digging in his pocket. “The mission.” it was a statement that quivered out of him, as his Sick soaked hospital mask broke from his face and fell to the floor. He could only taste bile. He could only feel the sensation of suffocation. The cloud was dissipating, but the effects remained.

When Bobby called for him, it sounded far away, even though he was nearly next to him.

“Ma-move towards the light!” Grant’s sentence was already stronger, as the effects began to wear away. “I have the first ma-mane—” he began to cough. And then it stopped. “I have the mannequin.” it was the strongest his sentence had been. Grant grabbed the flashlight, tied the black rag around a plastic arm, and dragged toward the light. He could hear Bobby behind him, crawling without reply.

The sunlight revealed them to be red faced men with Sick dripping from them. Bobby’s hospital mask was off as well.

“Good!” it was somewhat distorted coming from Patrol Sergeant Liese. The other eighty two men were in their groups of six, forming a circle. They looked down with wide eyes at both Bobby and Grant. The skin on their face was swollen to a point that it bulged out around the eyes; the bile dripping from their lips was clear and rank. They could smell it from where they stood. It almost made them sick. They looked into the entrance, knowing that before the day was done they too would look like Grant and Bobby.

“Two more!” Liese said. “The worst is over. Two more and your day is done.” The words were enough to push them back inside and find two more mannequins. When they did, the applause was scattered from men that were preparing for the same struggle.

Two bottles of water and a word of congratulations were provided from the Patrol Sergeants.

Hetel simply nodded his head with a good job attached. Liese said roughly the same thing. Scott was more expressive than Hetel, attaching a very impressive with a pat on each back. Ricks made a claim that created a bond: you are men the world needs more of. It had an air of sadness to it, as if he were saying, “What a waste.”

“Thank you, Sir.” they said with their eyes closed, taking one deep breath after another.

“You deserve a rest. Find some shade, and drink your water. You did well.” Liese said, as Ricks slipped back inside of himself.

“Sir, yes, Sir.” Grant found himself blinking the blur away. After sitting for another minute, Grant and Bobby got to their feet, walked over to a dying Palo Verde, and sat against the bark.

The effects were wearing away. It was temporary, but blinding when in effect.

“Day one.” said Grant in a tone of disbelief.

“Yep.” Bobby answered with his eyes closed.

Grant took a few deep breaths as he watched the next group of six enter the grocery store.

“Tell me something, Bobby.” said Grant softly.

“What?” Bobby replied with his eyes still closed.

“Do you think we’ll die?”

“I don’t know. How can I know that, Grant?” his eyes were now open. His face was still pale. “I can’t help but think about it. But, I can’t know. I think we’ll die when we give up on living.”

“I don’t think it’s in our control. If it was, no one would die over there.”

“You and I know better than anyone that masks are meant for the public. Here, masks aren’t worn. We are all bare.” Bobby paused. “Even though in a few months we’ll be walking into the war, I feel free. It has been so long since I have been able to present myself without masks. These people don’t know me, and I don’t know them. It’s a new start.”

Before replying, Grant thought about Patrol Sergeant Ricks. That man was nothing but a mask beginning to fall apart. “Do you want to die?” asked Grant while scratching his shaved head.

“It all really depends on the day.” Bobby smiled as he scratched his head. “I feel like a cancer patient.”

“You mean without your hair?”

“Yeah, my hair was part of my personality… but hair grows back. Everyone back home knew me as the freak with long hair, and thick rimmed glasses. I was a clown. It was part of my daily ensemble. And I guess right now having a shaved head just lets me escape from the monotony of life back in Minnesota, you know?”

“Yeah, I guess it’s that way for me too.” Grant looked at Bobby with understanding. These were moments he had missed, moments that had disappeared with Bobby’s seclusion. But, now they were close like they had been before. Not only was the surface friendship being reconciled, but the layers beneath it as well. They had never felt more like brothers, than on that Friday in May, sitting beneath a dying Palo Verde…

Chapter 7

Now thirty days into training camp, Grant found himself in usual routine. Every day he woke up in a sand hole two feet deep and two feet wide. And every day brought more questions of impending doom. What sat in his future exactly sixty two days away? Grant contemplated with a pen and paper:

I am Grant Smith,

Day 30: June 15th, 2013; monotony ensues.

Every day I wake up lying in my sand hole. I use my bag as a pillow; a blanket is not needed usually. When it is, I curl myself up, and shiver until warm. Every night I find myself reflecting on the past day. It is no different tonight. All I have is a flashlight, a pen, and my notepad. The day was tiring as usual.

Weapons have become a livelihood for me. They have become routine. We shoot at men made of fabric. They are filled with stuffing, but dressed like a man. Sometimes Osama Bin Laden’s face is even stapled to the front. He is the only one I recognize. There are many others though, crudely cut from pictures.

As I lay in my hole tonight, it dawns on me how futile this war has become. Maybe in the beginning there had been a goal: oil, and safety (in that order). But now, what are we fighting for?

I can’t help but think we are being fed to these people. While on the topic of feeding, I now know of my monster. I dreamt last night that I was in the town of Miles digesting small children. Is my monster a cannibal? Am I? The war hasn’t answered my questions, in fact it has only made more pop up. I am being led into a land where monster’s rule. In Sixty two days… the inevitable is coming. But, what is the inevitable?

Grant shut his notepad, tucked it away in his pocket, and laid his head down against his pack. The moon and its beautiful, demonic self, sat in a dark, cloudless sky. Sitting high, crossing her legs, and summoning the dead once again. All while leering at Grant through the thin tent above him. He already felt like a fresh corpse about to be buried.

Though vaguely present, hope sat beneath Grant’s self-reflection. Much of him feared death and almost expected it to happen overseas. But, a small glimmer of light, a calm voice, told him everything would be alright. Grant was like any human: indecisive. One moment he was optimistic, standing atop mountains, flirting with the sun. And the next moment he was staring into that black abyss, cursing life and cursing hope. It is human nature to be born with faith only to lose it as a result of life experience.

Even though Grant was surrounded by his “brothers”, he felt completely alone. Silence sat like a presence, bringing only a mind numbing ring into his head. Grant shook his head clean of ringing, sighed, and closed his eyes. He closed them, only to have them yanked back open by wariness. The danger he feared didn’t surround him, but instead lingered inside. It was starting to crawl into his dreams, infecting them with a contagious truth that Grant knew, but was too scared to face.

The night was passing quickly. Dawn was beginning to strip the sky of darkness, replacing it with a Technicolor oil leak. Certain days came bringing a dream to their feel. This starting day was one of those days. Grant knew something was going to happen, but he didn’t know what. All he knew was his perception would change drastically, but maybe not in the way he had hoped.

After another fifteen minutes of staring at the seductive sliver in the sky, Grant fell asleep, only to be woken twenty minutes later by the Patrol Sergeants. With pasty eyes, and a few consecutive yawns, he crawled out of his hole, slipped on rank smelling boots, and stood at attention. Only moments later the other twenty in the tent he was in stood, and stretched away a dream.

“Grab your packs, and line up outside.” Ricks said.

Grant grabbed the pack from being used as a pillow, threw it onto his back, and left the tent held up by one pole in the center. He stood in a line, soon met by Bobby on one side and tall Timothy Fane on the other. Patrol Sergeant Ricks stood out in front the other three Patrol Sergeants. They stood with their hands behind their backs, statues once again.

“On the first day you arrived, we had evaluation, which has continued until this day. Today your groups are final. Each Patrol Sergeant will read off twenty one names. I will begin with my twenty one.” Ricks said.

And so he began. Grant’s name was called three or four in. And then Hetel read off his twenty one. Bobby’s name was called first. Liese read off his, and then Scott. There were four groups of twenty one men each, and two friends now separated.

Ricks began speaking after Scott finished his list. “The buses we came in on will now take three of the four groups to different training locations a number of miles away. My group will stay here.”

Bobby looked at Grant, shook his head, and smiled awkwardly. Words were not said. Their connection was strong, and their eyes conveyed things their mouths couldn’t. Without saying it, Grant and Bobby were saying goodbye. They knew that things were about to change. Bobby began to walk toward the bus behind Hetel and his group.

As Patrol Sergeant Ricks started to speak, Grant glanced over at Bobby. He was already walking toward the bus with his group.

“I understand this is hard, but these are hard times. The people I have now are many good men, and good soldiers. I’m proud to have you in my group.” Ricks said.

Grant still found himself overwhelmed by the sudden change. It was official: everything had changed, not only his friendships, but his life. Chelsea was growing his baby in her womb at home, his mother was in love with Todd, and his sister was blooming into womanhood. It had been his fear for years. And now it had all crumbled into the loneliness he knew awaited him in the near future.

Blankly, Grant stared at Patrol Sergeant Ricks, saw his mouth produce a speech, but he only heard an inner ringing. For the next five minutes, he only stared blankly. Before he knew it, Grant was running with his group of twenty one, shooting guns, doing push-ups, and coming back to the tent to sleep. It all had been experienced in a bubble of silence. Commands were not heard, gunshots were quiet, and workout pains were not felt. Grant truly was numb.

Every day the twenty one of them did the same thing: ran, shot guns, worked out, and slept. But, it amounted to nothing. It didn’t matter to him anymore. Grant was looking through eyes painted in hopelessness, and dirtied with pain. Suicide had never been a more clear thought. It came with morbid possibility pictures. Grant imagined his head painted in brains, his eyes wide and gone, and everyone around laughing at his death. Why would they care? Who was he? Questions of hopelessness filled his head…

Soon the days turned into a month and a half. It was July 27th, 2013, a Saturday. Grant’s routine had been endured as usual. Quietly, and alone, he entered the tent, walked over to his hole, and found a small white envelope. He furrowed his brow while rubbing his head, dropped his bag, and grabbed the letter. Something about the way it was written brought lost familiarity to him. As soon as he saw the loopy G, Grant knew it was Chelsea.

Finding himself smiling, Grant tore open the top, and pulled out a letter holding a small picture. It was a sonogram. Blurs wrapped the image of his baby. Grant smiled, kissed the photo, and then read the note:

Hey Grant,

The sonogram you are looking at is a picture of our daughter. I wish this letter could be long and heartfelt, but it’s too hard. It almost seems like a final goodbye. I can’t write a final goodbye. I won’t. Even though I am scared I’ll never see you again, I know I will. There is a peace I haven’t felt before, and I know that we will see each other again.

There isn’t much more I can say. I’ll leave you with this. I love you more than anything. Come back to us.

Love always,

Chelsea

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Grant folded up the note, put it back in the envelope, and looked lovingly at the photo of his daughter.

“I’ll come back for you, Kali Marie.” he said quietly, laying his head against his pack, and holding the photo against his chest. “I’ll protect you. I promise.” it was the promise that kept him fighting.

His mind needed to talk. Grant dug in his pocket, pulled out his notepad, and wrote:

I am Grant Smith,

Day 75: July 30th, 2013

The routine continues daily. But, strangely something always reveals itself before I fall asleep. I never know what to expect. And lately I have found myself not giving a damn either way. It’s only seventeen days away. I leave, and don’t know when I will return… if ever. Even as I write now, I am having a hard time finding words. I have a lot waiting for me at home, but it’s so far away.

My mind has taken a morbid turn. Whenever I shoot a gun, I imagine turning it on myself, and blowing my brains all over the ground. Does the fact that I think this way now make me closer to the monster inside? And if it does, what does it mean?

Chelsea wrote me today. She showed me a picture of a developing daughter. I can’t yet see her as mine. What If I’m not there to raise her? It doesn’t matter how hard I try. Every day I wake up wanting to die, but I am too scared of what comes after. I cower in every aspect of my pathetic little life.

I am man enough to admit the possibility of hell, and I guess for that same reason heaven. But, what does it matter? What good does it do? Heaven is galaxies away, and hell is here. Life is hell. It isn’t some middle ground. This can’t just be a test! If it is, what kind of God is up in the clouds anyway?

Bobby is gone. It’s like he never was. He’s somewhere near, but not here. Not anymore.

I can’t help but feel pathetic. I mean I have a journal. Real men bottle up their tears. They bottle up everything, until it comes out in more damaging ways. I can’t wait to kill them. All of them.

You may hear from me again journal, but for now I am done…

Grant stopped writing, and laid his eyelids over his eyes. Dreams were not had, only a silence…

Soon, monotony brought sixteen more bleeding sunsets. Grant woke up realizing that today was the day. August 14th was here. He awoke to something pleasant, and unexpected. Patrol Sergeant Ricks was in the tent, standing tall, looking ready to speak. Grant rubbed his eyes clean of sleep sand, yawned, and gave his attention to his superior.

“Today is the day, men. You have done well, and I am proud to lead you into battle. I know you will not disappoint me, if anything you’ll exceed my expectations. I know it’s been hard, and today I reward you.” he pulled out a cell phone. “Each of you gets to call one person from home. Keep it to five minutes.”

“Yes, Sir.” they replied. Grant smiled sincerity.

After a few men of the twenty one in his unit called home, Grant was given the phone. He looked at it with a temporary contemplation. It was either call Chelsea, or his mom. The answer was simple: Chelsea. She was his one true love. Of course he loved his mom and sister, but not in the same way he loved Chelsea. Her love kept him fighting.

Grant held the phone with slippery palms. He looked at the buttons, finding his skin quivering with glee. Yet, he was hesitant. Grant had imagined this phone call a million times. What would he say to her? Would he reassure her of his return or would he say goodbye? He couldn’t decide tone, or disposition. All he could do was dial seven numbers, and be completely honest with her.

Within one breath, Grant quickly dialed her number. It rang four times, and then she answered.

“Hello?” she was quiet.

“Chelsea?” asked Grant softly.

“Yeah?”

“It’s me.”

“Gr-Grant?” her voice smiled.

“Hey, baby.” smiled Grant, along with his voice. “It’s so good to talk to you.”

“I can’t believe I’m talking to you. I’ve dreamt it, but didn’t think it would happen.”

“I dreamt of coming home, seeing you, and our baby at my house. I woke up happy.”

“Name her, Grant.”

“Kali Marie.”

“That’s cute. I love it.” Chelsea said softly. “I love you.”

Grant heard it in her voice. Chelsea was preparing a final goodbye. He either had to reassure her of his return, or say goodbye as well. Within a moment of long contemplation, Grant asked himself if he wanted to live longer. Maybe Bobby had been right when he said “You die when you give up on living.” It was now Grant’s choice. Did he want to find his happiness again? Did he want to fight to live for brighter days?

When it came down to it, the decision was easy: Grant still wanted life.

“This isn’t goodbye, Chelsea, it’s just temporary separation.” he said truthfully, with reassurance lacing his tone. “I will come home. We will raise our baby, get married, and live happily together. It is my choice, and I will not leave you.”

“Please, Grant, come home.” she was near tears. “You are my happiness.”

“You’re mine too, Chelsea. I love you with all I have.” he said. “See you when I get home.”

“Okay.” Chelsea whispered. Grant hung up, and handed the phone to the next soldier waiting. Grant had a promise to see through. He had a developing daughter who would need a father, and a fiancée who would need a partner. Soon, the phone calls had been made. The tent was left standing for the next trainees, and Grant and his group of twenty one entered a C-23 Sherpa aircraft.

As he walked up the stairs, and entered the plane, Grant shuddered. He felt his flustered skin, and breathed heavily. It was happening! M-16s hung from hooks sticking out of the wall. Patrol Sergeant Ricks entered the plane as the men strapped themselves into seats attached against both walls of the plane.

“In about fifteen hours, this becomes much more than something to prepare for. It becomes real.” Patrol Sergeant Ricks remained standing as the plane began to move. He grabbed a gun from the wall. “You know your guns piece by piece. They are yours. They can either be a friend or an enemy. It all depends on how they are treated. This is your safety.” he held his close, as if it were nothing more than a teddy bear. “You will encounter monsters. You will encounter brutality that only your nightmares can imagine. We all have monsters. These men have let them free. And this war we fight is futile for that reason. War will always happen, because inside we have darkness, and some of us let it take control. But, they cover their darkness well. Children carry bombs in school back packs.” he paused. “Good still lives there. I’ve seen it in its purest form. But, I’ve also seen evil at its darkest. I don’t trust them anymore. And maybe that’s why I am not dead yet.”

It was something he let the men ponder as the wheels retracted, and the plane lifted into the air. It was quiet, except the buzzing sound that filled the pit. A large shadow blanketed the soldiers, leaving them with only questions. Grant couldn’t face the continuous questions. He laid his head against his pack, held his helmet in one hand, and rested the M-16 near his chest. Soon, his eyelids fell over his eyes, and pictures came:

“We are gathered here on this day to mourn, and celebrate, the life of Grant Jonathan Smith.” a deep voice said softly. A cloudy gray faded into clarity. A singed cemetery still ensconced in flame appeared. The day was cloudy and black, the sky rained blood, and wails rang throughout a desolate land. Lightning clashed, and thunder rumbled.

No one was there. It was an empty cemetery, burning along with the chapel next to it. Grant swung his head from side to side, seeing a white casket propped up by a table lined with memories in little boxes. He walked with silent steps. The world was hectic and cold. They were gone. Every single person he had known was not there. He was alone. After several more steps, he came to the casket.

Grant lifted the lid with reluctance, only to find it empty.

“The time to choose is coming, my son.” his father said, walking behind him. Grant turned.

“Just let me live my life. If I die, and go to hell what does it matter to you?” he asked softly.

“‘Cause I’m your father.” the lifeless head laughed. “I love you.”

“Shut up!”

“When you do die, you will be all alone. No one will come and mourn you. Why would they? They never knew you.”

He awoke, realizing that for once his conscience pointed out his fakeness. It was a fakeness he knew, a fakeness he wore by choice. But, it was the first time that it dawned on him that it would drive everyone away eventually. Masks can only be worn for so long, before the truth peers through. Grant did not yet know his full truth.

He laid his head against the wall of the plane, sighed, and reflected on life. If he were to die, would anyone care?

Chapter 8

Somehow the question didn’t seem relevant. If he were to die… what would it matter if people mourned him or not? He’d be dead.

For the second time, Grant closed his eyes to find a memory of a happier time. A time before his life fell to hell. And that was given to him:

“Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday, dear Grant! Happy Birthday to you!” his mother and father sang. “How old are you, kiddo?” his dad asked with a smile as he curved the rim of his dirty trucker hat.

“Five, daddy.” replied a frenetic Grant.

“Blow out your candles, buddy.”

Grant blew out his candles, smiled, and then found his father scooping him up.

“You know what I got ya?”

“Uh uh,” Grant shook his head.

“No? No?” he began to tickle him. “Well it’s in that box over there, but I also got you this.” his father handed him a card.

“What is it?”

“Two tickets to see the Twins.”

Grant’s face lit up. “Really?!”

“Yeah, we go tomorrow.”

“Thanks, dad.”

“I love you, kiddo. You know that right? I love you more than anything in the whole world. I’ll be here to guide you through the good and bad. You’ll never be alone.” his father smiled, kissed him with chapped lips, and rubbed his prickly face next to Grant’s. “You’ll never be alone.” his father’s face dissipated into a blur, and Grant woke once more.

This memory had stung worse than any dream meant to scare him. Grant had forgotten about his father’s promise. A promise he broke just two and a half years later. He had forgotten how his little five year old self had taken it to heart, and put his father on a much deserved pedestal, only to watch the promise die along with him.

No matter how hard he tried to stick to a decision, Grant was indecisive. He tried to care enough to see a choice through, but never could. Nothing ever seemed to matter enough. Not even his deepest love. Grant needed something more, something brighter… something better. Chelsea and the promise of a baby was enough to keep him going when he was living in that small, obscure Minnesota town. But, it wasn’t enough now.

His life was constant contemplation that amounted to unanswered questions filling an already full mind. As he sat in the plane, Grant knew he would never achieve knowing. He knew he would continue to run from any truth, until it finally found him. That had yet to happen. But, it was searching diligently.

Grant hated questions and contemplation, because it always led back to the same answer. The same conflict: God or the Devil, Heaven or Hell.

It was a question he never fully understood. It was so simple, yet unfathomably complex. Grant didn’t want to choose. What was so wrong with that? Wasn’t life enough hell to make up for it in the afterlife?

He sat still, glancing left and right, seeing the men who claimed to be his brothers when they were anything but. The only brother he had was Bobby, and he was on his own plane, asking the same things as Grant. Grant and Bobby were people who had—at one time—believed in God, but now questioned it all. They both knew that the choice was coming though. One way or another, they would have to choose a side.

The plane had been flying for a few hours. It had set itself into a comfortable purr, leaving Grant in a state of thought. For once in a long time, questions weren’t piling on top of more questions. He was just thinking. There were no restraints to his thought, no worry. Yet, at the same time Grant was building himself up for the war they would enter in a little more than ten hours.

He was clenching the M-16 tightly, and breathing himself content…

Soon, several hours passed. The plane quivered within a harrowing sky. They were entering the monster’s land. In only another 3 hours or so the C-23 Sherpa would open its mouth, and regurgitate twenty two men onto the sand.

The closer it got, the tenser Grant became. But, somehow the fear was melting away. And anticipation was taking its place. He wanted to kill them. He wanted it to end. Part of him wanted to kill them for no reason other than the satisfaction it would bring. Though it was a small part of him, it was still there. Who was Grant Jonathan Smith beneath it all? Was he a good man with a monster for a conscience? Or, was he a monster with a good man for a conscience? Maybe there was some gray area, but his time to choose was creeping closer.

All throughout his life he had avoided choices like the plague. Not just ones having to do with faith, but choices pertaining to the person he was. Ultimately, it all tied in together, but in its own way each choice was separate, and had a separate consequence. Some may have left him in a world with no one; others may have left him burning.

Serenity slept with delusion, causing a pleasant daze to hover above the men. Grant looked around, seeing the faces made from stone. Their eyes sat cold, and concentrated, yet, somewhere within deep thought laid peace. Everyone felt it from time to time. It came in spurts, until disintegrating back to the reality they had to face.

Time sped forward, turning three hours into one. The atmosphere reeked of danger. There was no turning back. The content and serenity they had felt disappeared, leaving them with one more hour of preparation. Grant was only one of the twenty one other men who worried of death. They knew some would hardly even make it off the plane. Some prayed, others reflected, pondered, and accepted. This was the future they were fighting for, something that would prove ultimately futile in the grand scheme of things.

Grant didn’t know that very soon the world he knew would disappear. The future he waited to see wouldn’t come to pass. Instead he’d see man at it’s very truest: monsters that were hungry.

He sat trying to tell himself that he was fighting for something. He was fighting for Chelsea, Kali, his mother, and sister. He could have said it all day long, but that didn’t change the fact that his horizon appeared bleak because it was. They were fighting a war that would soon branch off into an apocalyptic state. It was coming. The world was soon going to fall… fast.

Grant held his gun closer than ever before. He wore his helmet, and sewed his love for those he cared for over the many voids riddling his heart. That early August 14th Wednesday morning, a healing took place. Grant’s voids were packed full of love only because he had no other place to put them.

Patrol Sergeant Ricks stood up, trying to rally his men one more time:

“I want to tell you a story.” he said. “When the Iraq war began, I was like you. I joined the war mostly out of desperation. School hadn’t been good, so I thought what the hell, I’ll join the Army. I joined before 9/11, and when I heard that a war was starting I was petrified, absolutely petrified. In that one moment, every part of my life flashed before my eyes. What did I amount to? I asked myself that all throughout training camp, and finally when I rode this plane for the first time, I realized the answer: it’s what men do. We have our wives, girlfriends, mothers, and sisters at home. It is our job to protect them. I’m not saying there won’t be casualties. I’m saying you won’t have died for nothing. I have tried to be completely honest with you all from day one, but there is something I haven’t told you.” he paused.

“What is that, Patrol Sergeant Ricks?” Grant asked.

“I am still just like you. I may have a higher ranking, but I’m still just a boy in a uniform, holding a gun.”

“What do you mean, Sir?” asked Grant.

“I still have no idea what I’m doing.” he laughed. “I have prepared you boys the best I can, but there is no way to prepare you entirely. I have taught you to shoot, and live in the sand. I have given you many tactics, but as I stand here I cannot describe what it is like… because it’s never the same. After seeing what still haunts me, I’ve never been able to return to the man I was before. I’m done after this. I’ve served my time, and I just want to spend time with my girls. Maybe the nightmares will fade. Maybe they’ll even die in their company.” his face lit up with what can only be described as hope. “We land in an hour. If you trust anyone, let it be these twenty one men around you. Differences aside, they are your brothers. They will watch out for you. As will I. I will do my very best to get you all home alive. Now give me your word.”

“I will do my very best, Patrol Sergeant Ricks!” the men said loudly in variations different but close to this.

“That’s all you can do! And if you die, you will have died doing your very best. There will be no regrets, no cowering! We touch down in less than an hour. The ramp will drop, and you will leave alert. The base is half a mile away from the plane.”

“One question, Sir?” asked Grant.

“Yeah, Smith?”

“About the other three groups we trained with for the first month. Will we meet up with them?”

“Yes, definitely. Each Patrol Sergeant is part of a squadron. Patrol Sergeant Hetel, Liese, Scott, and I make up one squadron. We answer to our Company Commander, who you will meet once we get into Baghdad. But, it may not be for a day or two.”

“That’s okay. Thank you, Sir.” said Grant.

Next thing they knew, the plane dropped its wheels, and landed on sand. The door opened, the soldiers stood and held their guns closely. Grant took one step after the other, until finding himself on the sand, staring at a rising sun. For the moment it was quiet. Guns were held, but weren’t fired.

“It’s quiet. Come with me.” whispered Patrol Sergeant Ricks.

The men followed him away from an idling plane, keeping wary eyes on a shadowed horizon. There weren’t silhouettes scurrying, or jeeps emerging from a mirage. After four or five slow steps, they ran.

Suddenly, shots echoed against empty air. Grant kept his eyes focused on the base one half mile away. It was all that mattered. Soon, the shots came closer and closer until sand was kicked up next to them.

“Keep running!” screamed Patrol Sergeant Ricks. “Do not stop!”

Grant kept his gun close, and his senses closer. The shots were getting closer. It was continuous gun fire from a mirage covered horizon. They didn’t look. They ran. It was all they could do. The shots continued coming from the distance. It was all they could hear. Bullets landed in the sand like raindrops falling from the sky. But, no one was struck.

They kept running until reaching the base, and taking cover.

“In situations like that,” Ricks paused. “You don’t stop to shoot. You just run. If you can’t see them, you don’t shoot. Got it?!” his anger had a film of fear covering it.

“Yes, Sir.” the men answered.

“Now that we are under a temporary cover, all of you stay quiet, and keep your weapons close.” Ricks pulled a walkie talkie off of his belt, clicked to a usable station, and began to speak. “Come in, Company Commander Bishop. Come in, this is Patrol Sergeant Ricks.”

“Ricks?”

“Is that you, Commander?”

“Yes, Ricks. Have you landed safely?”

“Yeah, we were under fire, but I got my men safely to base.”

“Good. Stay there for the moment. I’m gonna send a few jeeps with ammunition to you. Where are you exactly, Ricks?”

“We are about twenty miles from Baghdad.”

“Ricks. When the jeeps come, you are to bring yourself and your men into Baghdad. I have a group waiting for you there, who will brief you on progress, and missions.”

“Yes, Commander. How long do you think it will be until the jeeps come?”

“A few hours,”

“Thank you, Sir.” Ricks said as the transmission cut out. “So, as you heard we are going into Baghdad. The danger there is far worse than the danger out here. Here we can do something, but in a city of hundreds of thousands of people we have to be discreet. Riots start from one soldier firing one bullet. The men we are after are no longer just men. They are children carrying explosives in backpacks; they are women with minds poisoned by their husbands. Because you are good men, you’ll try to see the good in these people too. But, I’ve learned that they use kindness to kill. If we trust them, then it’s easy. Trust what you know. Be cautious of what you don’t.”

They waited quietly, keeping their rifles cocked, and pointed at the entryways. Grant was pondering the war he now found himself in. It was surreal. He had just outrun bullets. Part of Grant had wondered if Patrol Sergeant Ricks’ words were over exaggeration. But now that he had been shot at the first minute in the monster’s land, he knew that if anything he was being discreet on details. It was just as dangerous as the Sergeant Major had said it was, but somehow Grant had expected something of a nightmare.

He had expected men with hooks holding severed heads. Grant had expected nothing short of a nightmare. Maybe it was that beneath a sandy, sunny surface. But, all he saw were sandmen with guns and a hobby.

For the next three hours the unit spoke candidly. They reminisced about past events, and smiled themselves calm. Soon thereafter, two jeeps followed a winding road into the desert, until pulling up next to the tent. Two men from each jeep got out, ran into the tent, and brought the men with them. Grant piled into a jeep along with ten other men, sat low, and aimed his gun outwards. Within just minutes, the tent disappeared within a growing density. The wind tore a hole in the sky, and filled it with a storm.

Soon, both vehicles found themselves wrapped in sand. They rolled along slowly; Ricks ordered the men to cover themselves with a blanket and to stay low. Without question, they listened.

“Smith?” Charles Prate asked beneath a blanket, breathing heavily.

“Yeah, Charles, what is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s really loud. This way were not gonna get sh—”

“What? What did you say? Charles?!” after a moment of wariness, Grant popped up from the blanket, and uncovered Charles Prate. “Charles?!”

“Smith?!” Ricks asked loudly, while cocking an M-4, and assembling an M-2 machine gun. “What is it?”

Grant stayed low, pulling Charles up to find blood dripping from his mouth, and wide, blank eyes.

“What is it, Smith?!” Ricks asked again.

“Charles is dead, S-Sir.” he said softly.

“Get down!” he commanded, while propping up an M-2 machine gun onto the side of the jeep. He lifted his head barely above the side of the jeep, pressed his eye against the sight, and began to fire into a growing sandstorm. Bullets replied, pelting the side of the jeep.

Grant stayed low, shut Charles’ lids, and laid him down. He looked around at his other men, seeing sad eyes, but silent voices. They didn’t say words. Instead they mourned him within silence. Something small and white stuck out of his uniform pocket. Grant grabbed it, and found a picture. On it was a happy Charles Prate, hugging a petite blonde haired girl. They looked smitten, and love struck.

“Damn it.” whispered Grant while shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Charles. I’m sorry you won’t see her again.” it only made Grant’s happiness float farther and farther away. That small picture had been him and Chelsea in different bodies, living different lives. Love was love. Sadly, Charles Prate died before he knew what it fully was.

After another minute of silence, Grant put the picture back in Charles’ shirt pocket, and covered him with the blanket they had been covered with.

The ride into Baghdad was one of petrifaction. Grant held his hand over the trigger, clenched his gun tightly, and reduced his eyes to a beady squint. He glanced up at Patrol Sergeant Ricks, seeing him rapidly firing into a sandstorm. It was a display of a man ready to break. Just another death to pile on top of the many others he had seen. He had been responsible for Charles’s safety. He had failed. And now he could only fire into a growing sand storm.

Grant didn’t try to dissect his reasoning. He knew better than most that some actions don’t have an explanation. They just happen. Something had snapped inside of Patrol Sergeant Ricks, brought on by pent up anger blooming into hate and becoming rage.

The storm was intensifying. Winds were picking up. Sand was spinning into a fluid wave. The driver pushed down the accelerator. Baghdad was still five miles away. Each minute the winds kicked up, jumping from twenty five to thirty five. The jeeps were nothing when it came to a wall of sand, nothing at all.

Patrol Sergeant Ricks had now let go of the gun, and ordered his men to cover up for the second time. Although reluctant, they listened. Grant covered himself up with that itchy green blanket, seeing the other ten men beneath it. Once down there, they couldn’t help but look at their dead friend. To Grant he had not yet been considered a friend, but more of an acquaintance aspiring to be more.

The jeeps pulled into Baghdad. From the way the city presented itself, it was empty. People were not walking the streets. It appeared to be a city of buildings with no one in them.

They drove another half a mile into Baghdad, parked, and began to take ammunition from the jeeps. They carried them into a small, white brick building just feet away. After one trip to carry the ammunition in, and another to carry Charles in, they locked the doors, and found themselves in a dimly lit home. The floor was stone. The whitewashed walls were plastered in blood. And voices came from somewhere farther in.

Grant followed his unit, until finding a large table with a map, and a group of men around it. They noticed him noticing, nodded their heads, and then went back to what they were doing. Patrol Sergeant Ricks saluted them, and then shook their hand. They replied with the same motions.

“Company Commander Bishop.” Ricks said.

“Welcome, Patrol Sergeant Ricks.” a man turned from the table.

“Pay attention, men.” Ricks said.

“I saw some of you looking at the blood on the walls.” said the Company Commander. “I am Company Commander Bishop. In the last two weeks we found a few terrorists making bombs in this house. The blood on the wall is theirs. We have many units spread across the city, some by the river, the museum, the bridge, everywhere. Lately, attacks have been down, but you always stay wary. I’m supposed to brief you on missions, but as of now your only mission is to watch over the city. Anything that looks suspicious or strange, you report to either Patrol Sergeant Ricks, or me. What did your draft card say?”

Silence lingered until Grant spoke: “Sir, it said that our mission was to stop terrorism, and rebuild the economy. Pretty much the same as when it all started.”

“Don’t get smart with me—” he looked at the name on Grant’s uniform. “—Smith, it isn’t a joke.”

“I didn’t say it was, Sir. I just said that it is the same goal from when it all started. I meant no disrespect.”

The Company Commander looked at him and then brushed it aside. “Since there is a storm today, you will stay in and wait it out.”

“Yes, Sir.” the men replied nearly in sync. After being dismissed, Grant and the other men turned around, and gathered around Charles’ body. It was a small funeral, before shipping him back to the States. The men who knew him best said a few words, honored the memory of him, and then covered him up with the green blanket from the jeep.

Grant sat on the floor, propping his back up with the wall. He sighed, wiped his face clean of sand, and closed his eyes…

Two days passed. Grant was walking down the streets of a busy Baghdad, seeing women and men with wide droopy eyes, blotchy brown skin, and ragged clothing. In a nation as such, poverty wasn’t wrapped into the cliché of third world countries. It just happened to be that way. Baghdad had its rich and its poor, just like America. Except poverty was a vast majority.

Grant glanced at them, holding his gun with the barrel pointed at the ground. The people looked back at him with a loathing stare, something that told him to leave without saying it. He had known from the beginning that he wasn’t going to be welcome. But, now that he saw the hate in their eyes, Grant was thrown. He wondered if they sensed his hate toward them.

They were at war. Grant didn’t expect happy smiles, and thankful notions. He expected what he received. The hate between the two countries was mutual; it always had been.

He took step after step, passing stop lights, idling cars, and even singed remains of soldier material: the result of roadside bombs. Soon, Grant’s steps brought him a few miles into the city, and into a growing group of soldiers. It was happening. The squadron was completing itself once again. Grant would no longer be alone. He found himself running the last five hundred feet, and within a group of soldiers wearing matching helmets, stood Bobby Jackson.

“It’s you, buddy!” Grant said happily, coming up behind Bobby and grabbing his shoulder.

“Grant?” he was surprised.

“How are you doing, Bobby?”

“I’ll be happy when it’s over.” he smiled.

“I like the glasses.”

“Thanks. Yeah, apparently if you wear glasses they make you wear these big round frames instead of the ones I had. I was pissed until I realized that the only people who would see me were these people. In comparison, I fare better than them in the long run.” Bobby laughed, as did Grant.

“Yeah, that’s arguable.”

“I guess. I mean I am one ugly son of a—”

“It’s good to have self-awareness.” Grant laughed. “Anyway, man, what have you been up to?”

“Probably the exact same as you: just trying to survive.”

“Yeah, same as me, but, it’ll make it easier being together again. Training camp was boring without you.”

“Did you miss me, Grant?” Bobby asked with a lisp, and puppy eyes. “That is so nice.”

“Ye—”

BOOM! Suddenly two explosions on opposite sides of them happened. At most they were two miles away from the nearest one. Fire clouds lifted into the air, and painted the sky in black swirls.

“What the hell?” Bobby asked while swinging his head slowly from one explosion to the other.

“You two follow me.” Patrol Sergeant Ricks appeared before Hetel could take Bobby. Much of the unit was spread around a couple of miles of city. Hetel was nearest to the other explosion.

Grant and Bobby looked at the other for a moment with eyes that were pulled open wide, and then followed Patrol Sergeant Ricks with a sprint. Their hearts were pumping fast, their minds were clouded with the image of an explosion fading to a black stain in the sky, and the city of Baghdad was frantic. Grant and Bobby kept their M-16 rifles pointed at the ground, still sprinting.

After running for two miles, they arrived at a blazing fire holding screams. The building that had been there was now just bricks on top of bricks, debris forming a mound, or maybe a tomb.

“Let’s go.” said Patrol Sergeant Ricks.

Chapter 9

Another set of fast steps brought Grant, Bobby, and the Patrol Sergeant up to the blazing flames.

“What happened here?” asked Ricks to a man standing by with watery eyes.

“Mie dat-datr ent wife in there!”

“What?”

“Mie datre ent wife!”

“It’s his daughter and wife! Let’s go, Smith and Jackson!”

“Yes, Sir!” they followed him into the remains of the building. The air was black with smoke, and the flames spurted out violently. The cries intensified.

“Where are you?!” screamed Grant. It was a dark, unstable mound of remains. He was answered by desperate cries. Grant found himself crawling in darkness. Bobby and Patrol Sergeant Ricks had disappeared from sight, but he could hear them. They seemed close. They had to have been. The building had been small.

Halfway through his crawl, Grant pulled out his flashlight, clicked it on, and found himself in a familiar situation. The air was raining dust, and confetti of debris. His lungs were filling with smoke. He felt the sensation of suffocation, as every breath gave him a little bit less air. He found his body shaking. But, Grant couldn’t give up. He pulled himself forward. The scream was fading. Whoever he was pursuing was dying. Grant crawled faster, feeling his stomach tighten and make a jumble out of his intestines.

All he could do was keep crawling. Shards of glass cut his forearms, and a flame’s glow was rubbing skin off the small of his back. But, he kept crawling. Finally, he came into a dark room, and shone his light on a small girl covered in burns. Her eyes were barely open, and her hair was burned from her head. But she was breathing. Grant attempted to grab her, only to find that she was held by a rope around the waist.

“Wa-what the hell?” he whispered. “Why are you tied up?”

She didn’t answer. She barely moaned as he cut the rope with a knife he pulled from his belt. Grant slung her over his shoulder, shining the light in front of him again. At first it was just a shedding blackness, but soon his eyes focused and he found a woman burnt skinless. She was just an ash statue. Even with the flame roaring around him, he heard a sound of snapping. It was the woman. She fell into two pieces, and then became many as she hit the floor. A cloud of gray spread toward him.

“Bobby?” Grant called.

“Grant? Where are you?!” he replied.

“Go back! I have the girl. The m-mom didn’t make it.” Grant began to cough as he walked through the black air. It seemed endless, until finally he broke free and found himself in the sun. Bobby and the Patrol Sergeant appeared next to him within only a moment. Maybe they had always been that close.

“You did well, Smith. I’m proud—” BANG! A shot was fired and a Patrol Sergeant was lost. He fell to the sand, dead on impact. Grant looked up, seeing the man they had tried to help, smile, drop his weapon, and run away. For a second, he looked back down at the Patrol Sergeant, seeing his eyes glistening over a dead stare.

“Stay here, Bobby,” Although, blood ran down Grant’s arms, a first degree burn stamped the small of his back, and his lungs were filled with smoke, Grant pursued this man with murderous intent. He coughed the faster he ran, and his eyes stung from the lingering sensation of smoke. But, untamed hate for this man fueled him.

“Allah!” the man screamed proudly, as he ran away. Grant became faster with every passing moment. He ran down the street, passing wondering eyes, and judgmental folk. It didn’t matter what happened for his actions. Grant was going to kill this man. He chased him for another minute, and then lunged into him, knocking him down. The man began to chant while smirking.

While coughing, nearly uncontrollably, Grant flipped him around so he could see his bulging eyes sitting within a mask of wrinkles covered with a crinkly beard covered with dust.

“Allah Saves!” the man screamed. “Allah Saves!”

“Shut up!” screamed Grant, punching the man in the face once, and then grabbing his robe collar with both hands. “You shut up!” his coughing subsided.

The man smiled. “Allah Saves!”

“Shut up!” he smacked him again.

“He’ll save me! He’ll kill you!”

“No! I’ll kill you!” Grant picked up the M-16 rifle, and smashed the man in the face with the butt of the gun twice. “Why do you have to be a monster?!” he screamed as he continued to hit him in the face. “Why can’t you just die?!” Grant kept hitting him with the butt of his gun. Skull was breaking, and blood was spilling.

“Ok-okay.” the man whispered behind a throat filled with blood, and bits of broken teeth. “Sto-stop.”

“No!” Grant continued until hearing skull become emptiness. He stopped hitting, and looked down at the man. His head was now nothing but a bowl wrapped in skin, drenched in blood. Grant looked around while wiping drops of red from his face, and spitting. The people looked at him as if he was a monster—maybe he was.

After two minutes of hanging his head over his kill, Grant stood. He grabbed his rifle, and walked away, leaving the man to rot in the streets. He left feeling like he had just experienced an awakening. Grant left smiling. He walked back over to his dead Patrol Sergeant, looked at Bobby with a blood smeared face, and then grabbed the Patrol Sergeants’ legs. Bobby grabbed the arms.

Grant had expected a mob. He had expected death threats. But apparently people in Baghdad didn’t like men who used their little girls as bait to kill Americans either. After all, these had been the people who tore down Saddam Hussein’s statue, and had he been there, they would have gutted him like a fish. For one moment, Grant had been an executioner.

Bobby and Grant walked slowly, reflecting on the events that had just taken place. They looked down at a man made of inspiration, only to see his potential gone. Patrol Sergeant Ricks hadn’t only been a leader to them, he had been a mentor, and somewhat of a father figure. But, now, he was gone. Grant could only think about how this was going to be his Patrol Sergeant’s final tour. It made the tears filling his throat drop into his stomach like a stone.

Slowly, they walked those two miles. Traffic stopped and the people stared, sending subtle condolences with soft eyes and head nods. Not everyone was bad it seemed. They did care. After all, these were people just like Grant and Bobby. But, as Grant walked, all he saw was disease calling itself human. They weren’t human. They were anything but.

Grant found the tears brimming. He imagined a family that never got to experience the man Patrol Sergeant Ricks had been before the heads on hooks. It made him think of Chelsea and Kali Marie. Don’t let it change you, but it already had.

Grant didn’t know how to feel. At first the kill had made him feel invigorated, filled with something he had been missing. But, soon that feeling became shame. He had killed someone. And the feelings now filling him were regret.

Though, the man deserved to die. Did that still make it right? The answer to the question didn’t seem relevant. Grant was righting a wrong. The fact that it made him feel good for the moment could have implied a monster. But, when push comes to shove every man will kill if pushed far enough. Grant knew it was justifiable. He knew that Patrol Sergeant Ricks would have seen it that way too.

The walk back to the others seemed everlasting, but eventually they dragged their feet into a group of soldiers alert and ready.

“What happened, Jackson?” asked Hetel.

“It was a trap, Sir. The man set off an explosive with his family inside. When we came out, he shot Patrol Sergeant Ricks in the head.” said Bobby softly. “He died on impact.”

“What happened to the man?”

“We killed him.”

“Where is he?”

“Sir, sometimes it’s just better to not know everything. Trust me.” said Bobby with implications in his voice.

“You have a good point, Jackson. Enough blood has been spilled. You did what you had to do.” he said. “Were there any survivors from the fire?”

“When Grant brought her out, the little girl was breathing. But, she died not long after. A lady took her from my arms. As for the mom, we weren’t able to get her out of the building. She was already dead.”

“I’m sorry. Ricks was a good man. I had trained with him when starting out. He used to be livelier. I never saw the things he did. I’ve seen my share, but nothing like him. He had always been the one to go above and beyond.” Hetel smiled with eyes that were sad stone.

“Yeah.” whispered Grant.

“Clean yourself off, Smith.” Hetel gave him a cloth. Grant wiped his face. “Go get bandaged up. Those cuts look dirty.”

“Sir,” Grant walked away from Hetel and over to a man sitting in a jeep. “I have some cuts I need cleaned.” he said quietly.

“Alright, we’ll get you fixed up.” the man pulled out a first aid kit, doused a rag in alcohol, and began to clean Grant’s cut. “Does that sting?”

“No,” replied Grant blankly.

Before he knew it, his forearms were wrapped in gauze. There was only one thing Grant needed at the moment: to talk. He walked over to shady spot, sat against a tree, and pulled out his notepad:

I am Grant Smith,

Day 92: August 16th, 2013

I know that I said I was done writing, but I’m not. Don’t judge me! I need this. It’s the only thing keeping me sane. And as of now, I don’t consider myself sane as it is.

I killed a man today. I didn’t just pull the trigger and end his life. I beat him in the face until there was nothing left to beat. I left his stupid body in the middle of the street, blood filling the bowl that his head now is. I expected people to run after me, throwing stones. But they clapped without clapping. They thanked me for taking out the garbage.

He killed him. Patrol Sergeant Ricks is dead. That bastard tied up his wife and girl in the back room of that house, and set off an explosive. He knew we would come to help. I thought I was doing good. The man seemed heartbroken, and truly worried about his wife and girl. But, it was just a trap. I pulled her out practically skinless. I risked my life, coming out with Bobby and Patrol Sergeant Ricks by me. He told me he was proud of me, and then died. I looked into his eyes, seeing real care, before a bullet took it all away.

He had a wife and kids. He was almost done. He was a man the world needed more of. But, apparently this world is too dark to hold good people anymore. I don’t even think I’m a good person anymore. He deserved every bash to that hideous face. If I were to do it again, I’d shoot him in the throat, and then jab out his eyes with my fingers. I don’t regret what I did; in fact I wish I could have made him scream like he did his wife and daughter.

I am not a good man. When I look at these people, I want them to die. So many innocent people are dying so they can live their lives in poverty. Why can’t we just wipe them out? All it would take is one big bomb. Their skin would come off like clothing. We still could do that. We still could kill them all.

Maybe the darkness is talking, or maybe it’s me. Sometimes I can’t tell…

August soon became a Friday in December, the 20th to be exact. The war had proven useless time and time again. Many more men had died, drenching Grant in the blood of their memory. Nightmares had wrapped themselves around his thoughts, and began to squeeze out paranoia. Grant was no longer able to walk up and down the streets without turning his head every few feet. He was sure a sniper sat in an upper window, holding his head in his sights.

Every death had made him more wary, more fearful of the world around him. They were heartless beings. The man he had killed four months before had only been a small taste of a monster’s capability. Grant knew nothing of demons, not yet.

Even the war had grown monotony. It was usually just walking the streets, keeping his gun close, and his eyes alert. But, in that monotonous routine sat the nightmares of war. It was a study of man at its barest, it’s darkest. They were people just like you, just like Grant. Yet, somewhere along the way, the humanity had been lost. Maybe it had never been there to begin with.

They wore skin to warm cold bones, and clothes to warm cold skin, and somewhere in between sat a costume of humanity. They smiled their dirty toothed smiles, and claimed innocence with their mouths. When it comes down to it, all men are the same. They all have monsters that peek out of their hiding spots at one time or another. These men (women included) were finally fitting into their skin. They were embracing their darkness, inviting hate to become chains, all so it could bind them into a chosen slavery.

As Grant walked the streets of Baghdad that December 20th evening, he wondered if any of the people he saw were truly good. Did everyone wear decency for a costume, or were there actually good humans?

Grant walked with Bobby, knowing that the answer would never present itself. They would stay walking disease to him. Grant couldn’t see them as people. He hadn’t been able to since he bashed the man’s face flat. Every day he walked his usual walk, thinking about his still developing Kali Marie, and his ever expanding reddish blonde haired fiancée. The thought of kissing Chelsea again, and raising his daughter was the only thing keeping him going.

Bobby was no longer enough. It was like it had been in the town of Miles, except it was different. Every death they had witnessed had caused both Grant and Bobby to seclude themselves from reality. They dug a deep hole, and sat alone at the bottom of it.

The walkie talkies hanging from their belt slurred electric static, until becoming a voice. “Smith, Jackson?” the voice asked.

“Yes, Sir.” they replied into separate walkie talkies.

“Get back to base!”

“Is there any reason, Sir?”

“I’ll explain there. Just go!” Bobby and Grant stopped patrolling the streets, leaving the Iraqi police to fend for themselves. After running through busy streets, crossing intersections, and taking a few lefts, they came back to the base. Grant and Bobby opened up the door, latched it shut, and entered the house with blood stained walls.

“You wanted to see us, Sir?” said Grant.

“Things have taken a turn.” said Company Commander Bishop. “The President of the United States has been found dead.”

“What?” asked Grant.

“It happened earlier today.”

“What does that mean for us?”

“I don’t know yet.” replied a confused Commander. “We await orders. Alright?”

“Yes, Sir.” they replied in sync. Grant found himself wandering into the dimly lit living room, and joining a group of soldiers watching the TV:

“The President of the United States has been shot and killed.” said a red haired newswoman. “A maid and a body guard found him in his bed with a fatal gunshot wound to the right side of his head. Sources tell me that he was laid out with flower pedals strewn about his bed. There has been major speculation over the last few hours. Some believe he took his own life. Others don’t know what to believe. His promises—his plans—were beginning to come to fruition. A light was at the end of the tunnel. What will happen now that our hope is dead? Only time will tell, and channel ten news will keep you updated.” the woman blinked her eyes blank, and then put down the microphone. The white house sat in the background, crowded with a wave of people.

The volume on the TV lowered, and soldiers began to debate. Grant walked away, not caring either way. What did it matter how he died? He was dead. The one hope that the future had rested on was now lying dead in a bed with a hole in his head. Grant’s future had never been more uncertain. What would the world become now that America’s hope had been found dead?

No one knew. The Commanders found themselves tongue tied; the soldiers found themselves sitting in a stagnant mindset; and America’s hopeful few watched their hope die time and time again on the news broadcast. On that Friday evening of December the 20th the future darkened.

Bobby looked at Grant, Grant looked at Bobby. Without saying anything, they conveyed the same hopelessness. Somehow, everyone affected in that moment knew that the world was beginning to fall

Everyone in that small house with the stone floor and blood stained walls looked at the other eventually. They asked only with blinks: what did it matter? The futility of the fight had been sitting in front of a brightening horizon. They had tried to tell themselves it was all worth it. They had tried to justify a war amounting to only more death. But, it no longer mattered. The war and its goals had died along with the President. They had tried to achieve peace and liberation through lending a helping hand while holding a loaded gun.

It dawned on them that the last twelve years had been wasted lives. The brightness that new voices promised was now bleak. Only the most optimistic of people were able to see silver lining in the dark clouds, and even they found themselves feeling helpless (and for that matter hopeless).

“What do we do, Sir?” asked Grant softly, staring at the bloodstained wall.

“I don’t know.” Company Commander Bishop whispered.

“Guess!”

“How can I know?!” screamed the Company Commander. “We wait for word.”

“From who, the President?”

“Shut up, Smith. You are out of line!”

“I’ll ask again. What do we do?!”

“Stop asking. I don’t know.” a once bold, and tough Company Commander was now reduced to a confused boy, scared for his own life. Even the strict black man Hetel could not find words. When it came to the future, no one was a man. They were just little boys waiting to be told what to do next.

For the next several hours, no one spoke. The TV was on, but the volume was low. They didn’t need a constant reminder of their impending doom. This day of December the 20th of 2013 saw people at its purest. It humbled a prideful country, all until the shock of the events wore off. Then they found themselves back in the same state of selfishness, and pride. The good in man will always be temporary.

The shock of such a devastating event wore off within two days. It was Sunday, a day for God to come first. And He did on that day. Not since 9/11 had churches been packed full of hopeless souls searching for answers. But, they did on that Sunday in December.

The word that the Commanders had been waiting for finally came in. They were told to do what they had been doing. So, Grant and Bobby went back out onto the streets, patrolling a usual busy city. In Baghdad, not much changed when it came to the news of the President’s death. The people were continuing on with daily life, as were Americans. Even the soldiers soon found themselves back in a regular routine.

Grant and Bobby once again walked the streets with their guns pointed down at the ground, looking at the people, protecting them. Somehow, the President’s death had just been a burp in their usual routine, a detour from monotony. And now that the news had sunken in, it was time to proceed like nothing happened.

Life in the city that day continued. They prayed to Allah, children ran about, groups gathered into a clutter, and became growing conversation. All while Grant and Bobby stood next to each other, keeping a wary eye on the city surrounding them. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Children weren’t carrying abnormally large backpacks, or firearms. It seemed like a celebration of something. Soon though, smoke rose from inside the group.

Grant and Bobby squeezed their way through laughing folk, finding a burning mannequin with the President’s face stapled to the head.

“They’re monsters.” Bobby said

“They’re animals, Bobby.” replied Grant, feeling anger filling him again. Grant and Bobby found themselves surrounded by a group of celebratory Iraqis. By impulse, Grant pulled out his walkie talkie, found the right station, and got a hold of his Company Commander.

“Company Commander Bishop, this is Smith with Jackson! You need to come down here!”

“Say again, Smith.” said the Commander.

“We need backup down here now!”

“Where are you?”

“By the river—just follow the smoke!”

“We’ll be there ASAP.”

“Alright, Sir!” Grant shot a burst of bullets into the sky, trying to shut up a growing celebration of the death of America’s leader. “Settle down!”

“Get out of here!” some people screamed, flaring their eyes, tensing their jaws, and swaying senselessly. “You aren’t welcome.” they laughed.

“That’s fine.” he replied softly, trying not to say something that would get him and Bobby killed. “Just stop what you are doing.”

“No!” the group only seemed to be gathering. It seemed a mob was forming. Soon, Iraqi Police broke through the group, and stood next to Grant. They yelled things in their language, and threatened by smacking hit sticks against their hands. The people replied with hostility.

Without warning, multiple shots were fired into the air by their arriving backup. One Commander and two Patrol Sergeants screamed, and their translator translated. The group began to dwindle, until becoming a fading crowd. Even though it hadn’t escalated past threats, Grant could tell that it was becoming more dangerous daily. They hated Americans, proudly stating so by burning the figure of America’s hope.

Chapter 10

The hostility of a mob soon became the ambivalence of a poverty stricken nation. They were walking contradictions, fluctuations with feet. As soon as it had started, the mob’s celebration became daily life. The Iraqi folk walked back down into their dirty suburb, drove their rusty cars, and rode their two story buses: life continued. It continued on day by day, rarely becoming more than a mirror of uncertainty.

The rarity that Grant had not yet seen were true monsters. He had only caught second long glimpses of something lurking inside them. On December 23rd, demons became more than just bad thoughts. They grew faces, something to tie to their attributes…

Grant found himself running through Baghdad, searching frantically for Bobby and the other twenty one men that had disappeared the night before. He ran senselessly, trying to navigate his way through a vast city. He was searching for a needle in a haystack. Where in the hell did he even start? At that moment, it didn’t matter. All Grant knew was he couldn’t stop running. It was all he could do.

“I’ll see you soon, buddy,” were the final words Bobby Jackson said before disappearing with his group. They ran throughout Grant’s head in an endless loop. He wouldn’t face the possibility that he would never again see his best friend. He couldn’t!

The sun shone down heavily. The air was wet. And Grant was exhausted. He took a drink from his canteen, and swung his head aimlessly, looking in all directions with heavy eyes, and a throbbing headache. Ever since getting the news of Bobby’s disappearance, Grant had been out on the streets, searching senselessly. In that time of twelve and a half hours, not one clue was found. There were no leads, no hints, not but a busy city.

His walkie talkie became static holding voices, but Grant shut it off. This was his search, no one else’s. They were looking too, of course, but all that mattered to Grant was Bobby. The others were expendable. They had never become the brothers Patrol Sergeant Ricks had said they were. In fact they hadn’t even been friends, some not even acquaintances. They had never been more than people Grant tolerated. In no way did he want them dead, but if Grant had to choose Bobby or twenty men to live, he would have chosen Bobby. It was that easy.

The pursuit of sanity pushed him into the heart of Baghdad, and then to the edge of it. Grant stopped to catch his breath, and observed life around him. Suddenly, caught in his periphery was a man dressed in a Santa suit. He knew it was a clue. Without even thinking, Grant walked up to the man, only to watch a card fall from his suit. Without saying it, the man implied truths on the card, and walked away.

Grant grabbed the card, tore open the top, and pulled out a sheet of paper:

The truth you seek rests in a house lit by commercialistic tradition. Ho! Ho! Ho!

”What the hell does that mean?” asked Grant out of breath. “Commercialistic tradition—Christmas!” the clue hit him like a pillow filled with feathers. It was a realization that lit him up inside, a realization that filled his famished self with food for the soul. Everything would be alright. But, it was one clue. The city was vast beyond compare. Thousands walked the streets. Buildings protruded from the cement like stalks of corn. Yet, somehow the task seemed meant for him. It was his puzzle to complete. With the prize being: finding those who were lost.

Grant looked around the city feeling insignificant, like a speck of dust in a shedding air, or a star in an endless night sky. After staring with awe for a moment more, he began running once again, first tucking his M-16 beneath its strap, and hanging it from his back.

Not knowing which way to run, Grant started by going straight. Even though he had been in Baghdad over four months, Grant hadn’t yet scratched the surface of the city. He still was in a poverty painted suburbia, looking at buildings riddled with graffiti and wear.

His search brought him far, only to reveal a dead end… or maybe a new beginning. As he had been most of the day, Grant was out of breath. He swung his head back and forth, left and right, seeing road signs with Iraqi words strewn about. They were fluid Arabic strokes connecting to form a sense of direction: useful for fluent readers of the language, useless for the others.

He looked back down at the card, flipped it around, and sighed. There was nothing but a name in front of numbers: Belshazzar 816

”Belshazzar 816?” asked Grant with heavy breaths. For a moment he thought it pertained to a book in the bible, until he realized that Belshazzar was not a book in the bible. Next, Grant found himself wondering if it was a room number in a hotel named Belshazzar. Maybe it was a street. Then again, maybe it was just a name followed by numbers.

No! It couldn’t have been. It hadn’t been an accident that an Iraqi man dressed up like Santa Clause, gave him a card with a clue, a number, and a name. The answer was staring him in the face like a monster leering through a window. Without knowing it, he knew the answer. For five minutes, Grant sorted between possibilities of a hotel, a room, a street, or coincidence. He still was unsure, but it all was pointing to a room number.

Grant tucked the card away in his pocket, and began walking. He walked for another mile until coming to a phone booth holding a phone book. Grant picked it up, only to find that it was all in the same foreign writing

“Do you know where the Belshazzar hotel is?” he asked a passing crowd. “Does anybody know where the Belshazzar hotel is?!” after countless folks passed, a small girl approached him.

“Sir.” she said softly.

“Hi, do you know the Belshazzar hotel?” asked Grant, enunciating each and every word.

“No, we do not have a Belshazzar hotel. But, we have people.” she grinned beneath a dirty face.

“What about a street?”

“I don’t think so, just people.”

“Thank you.”

“Bye.” she skipped back to a beckoning man, and then walked away, glancing back at Grant every once in a while, until disappearing behind a building.

“A name?” he sighed. “How does that help m—” Grant paused, caught speechless by an epiphany holding him by the throat. In that moment he knew exactly what it meant. It wasn’t a room number, a street, or a book in the bible. It was as she had said: a person. Grant didn’t want to face the consequences of loosening his monster, but he knew exactly who Belshazzar 816 was. It was a man followed by the day he died, the man who had killed Patrol Sergeant Ricks… the man whose head Grant bashed flat.

It became clear to him that his actions had resulted in revenge. There is always a consequence for your actions. Grant faced his on Monday, December 23rd, 2013.

Now that he knew that Belshazzar 816 was Belshazzar 8-16-2013, Grant had a heading. He no longer was wandering aimlessly through a city populated by millions. Grant now found himself running back the way he came. He ran back through the city, taking long strides, but finding his body rejecting everything he had. All at once his legs broke hold beneath him, and Grant fell to the ground. The sun shone down heavily, plucking him dry of energy, and leaving him cold at the feet. Desperately, he tried to bring himself back up to a stand, but his legs quivered like the inside of a bell after being hit.

With fatigue growing in his labored breaths, Grant unscrewed the cap off of his canteen, and poured water down his throat. It burnt like dry ice, but soothed him nonetheless. For an hour and a half, he sat on the sidewalk with his back resting against the wall of a building. After a time of rest, he was able to stand only to find his legs shaking. Grant grabbed the wall, and stepped forward one step at a time. Soon, he was able to walk without the holding onto the wall, and soon after that he was able to jog.

Five miles separated Grant from the end of this game, five long miles beneath a hot, sweaty sun. His steps had digressed from frantic sprinting to light jogging. It was all his exhausted self could muster. Every time Grant swallowed it seemed like his lungs were pierced with shards of glass. Nearly every breath was accompanied by a wheeze, followed by a heavy cough.

His body was rejecting his process. It needed rest. Grant hadn’t slept for over thirty hours now. It needed a clean slate to build its day on, but Grant wasn’t providing (or allowing) it. Step by step was his process. Slow steps that dragged across rough, cracked ground beneath him. Five miles of progress took Grant another three and a half hours.

The sun had disappeared from the sky, leaving the city dimly lit by a pale moon, and dull stars. It had taken him all day to arrive at the end, but he finally had. Grant pulled the card out from his pocket once more, verified his epiphany, and then walked away from the mound of bricks that Patrol Sergeant Ricks had died in front of.

As he walked down the declining street, Grant remembered his hatred, and pain. He remembered bludgeoning the man to death with the butt of his M-16 rifle. And once again, he felt his monster poke at his conscience, leer at his impulses, and speak softly in one ear. It wanted out like before. It wanted to kill more. Part of Grant wanted that too.

Each step was one reeking of memories, and past sins. Grant pulled out his flashlight, and shone it down the pathway in front of him. Sitting lopsided in the street between rundown homes there sat a present. It sat dull and dark in the flashlight’s cast. Grant picked it up, and tore open the box. Lying inside was another sheet of paper:

Your search ends, where your sin’s blood trail stops.

No longer was it a mystery to him. It was spelt out in a deducible riddle. It translated into: Your search ends, where Belshazzar’s blood trail stops.

It all was in front of him now. All Grant had to do was descend down the path lined with dirty suburbia. Somewhere close, his blood trail ended. Grant put the second card in his pocket, and shone the flashlight on the darkness in front of him. He took steps laced with a feeling of success. Yet, something told him it wasn’t right. Why a game, if it was going to be a happy ending? It was honestly something he hadn’t thought throughout his search. He hadn’t suspected a bad end. Grant had taken it as a warning. But, was it?

Every step brought him closer. He descended farther and farther into a growing darkness, glancing at pitch black houses on each side, and a moon covering up with a cloud. But, sitting at the end of blackness was light. Something he wasn’t able to say about his walk through a dark tunnel.

After taking ten more steps, Grant found himself at a one story house holding a smoking chimney, and a various array of lights. Warily, he glanced left and then right. He pulled his M-16 rifle off of his back, cocked it, pointing the barrel out in front of him. Something wasn’t right about it. Something hadn’t been right from the very first moment Santa walked the streets of Baghdad.

Although reluctant, he stepped forward as if in a mine field. Grant shone the light down on the ground, picked his steps carefully, putting his foot down where it looked clear. Eventually, he was standing at the door, looking at a wreath with three red bows tied around it. Hesitantly, he grabbed the handle, and turned. It swung open with a screech, provoking a cringe, and a sniff. Grant walked into a calmly lit home, closed the door, and sneered. Something smelled rank beneath the smell of eggnog and cinnamon. He looked around with a brow furrowed into cringing eyes.

The fire in the fireplace crackled; the star atop the highest bough shone brightly, and the atmosphere seeped nostalgia. Grant looked left and right, and took two steps farther forward. Stacked neatly beneath a shedding tree were presents wrapped in shimmering paper. He looked around, ignoring the smell of warning, and the scent of common sense.

Although reluctant, Grant found himself soon grabbing a present from the bottom of the tree.

“Bobby!” he yelled loudly, hearing his voice slipping into the walls. “Where are you?” it wasn’t right. Something strange was happening. The game wasn’t over. Grant feared that it had only just begun. The house was nothing but a room decorated with warmth and draped in happiness. One room. One night. One event.

After straightening out wandering eyes, Grant directed his attention back on the shimmering green box sitting in his hand. Grant set down his gun, clicked his flashlight off, and pried his fingers beneath a piece of clear tape. A perfectly wrapped gift requires only three pieces of tape. The box in Grant’s hand had three pieces of tape: one on top and one on each side.

His hesitation grew into shivering skin, soon becoming quivering bones. The three pieces of tape were off, and the wrapping paper slid off the box like a dress off a mannequin. Written in marker, doused in glitter, and sitting on top of the box was the word Hetel.

“Not more notes.” Grant sighed. “Please, just help me find him.” he prayed. After sighing a few times through and calming a sour stomach, Grant pulled the lid off the top of the box, only to find himself shattered to a point beyond full repair. His eyes bulged wide. He drooled bile, and his heart dropped to the bottom of his stomach. Demons became something more in that moment. They grew a face, something to tie to their attributes:

Sitting lifeless was the severed head of Patrol Sergeant Hetel. His eyes had been cleanly removed from their sockets, and filled with ribbon candy. His mouth held four unwrapped candy canes. Grant tried to find words to say. He tried to scream, cry, or even grab the gun to kill himself with. But he was frozen. He could only stare down at a man’s head being used as nothing but a candy dish.

Instead of loosening his grip and plunging into a realm of insanity, Grant breathed. He licked bile from his chapped lips and glanced over at the mound of gifts. It hit him like a freight train: they were all dead. He didn’t want to tell himself that Bobby’s severed head sat in a box, being used as nothing but a candy dish. It was something Grant couldn’t comprehend. Though low in comprehension, he realized that his brother, his best friend was dead.

The realization took breath from his lungs, made his hands shrivel into claws, forced his body to fall to the ground and curl up like a baby in a murky womb. The box smashed against the floor, the head slightly bobbled, and a tape began to play:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.” No one sings Christmas songs like Bing Crosby.

Grant found himself cold and alone—more alone than he had ever been. The air was warm. But, it felt like needles stabbing his skin, like hot water hitting frozen hands. His breath was labored, and his mind was quiet. There were no voices of contemplation, no questions. There was only pain that had been hollowed out by realization, by reality.

For twenty minutes, Grant curled his knees up to his chin, and stared at the crackling fire. An aroma unlike any other filled the air. It was both sweet and sickening, both warm and incredibly cold. The pain felt by Grant would never be explainable and he would never know the full extent of it. It was a message meant just for him and he was the only one that would experience it entirely alone.

After two long blinks and one single tear, Grant sat up, and grabbed hold of his gun. He wrapped his lips around the barrel of his M-16, and held his finger over the trigger.

“I-I can’t go o-on.” he whispered with leaky eyes. “I can’t!”

“Listen to me, kiddo.” his father said, appearing in front of the fireplace without his monster. “It is not your time. Do not do this. Chelsea needs you. Kali needs you. Your mother needs you.”

“Wa-what is there?” he asked quietly, still wrapping his lips around the barrel of his gun. “What am I good for?”

“I left you, Grant.” his father said while resituating his hat, and wiping his thickened five o’clock shadow. “I left you to fend for yourself. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay. I wanted to teach you how to be a man. But you are a better man than I ever was.”

“You aren’t there, dad. You never were.” Grant began to pull his lips off of the barrel while sniffling. “You left me alone. God left when you did.”

“He’s still there, kiddo, just look.”

“No, not anymore, I buried Him when I buried you.”

“But, you never buried me, Grant. Maybe that was all a dream. Maybe this is all a dream.” his father smiled warmly, and then disappeared…

He woke up, hugging his knees, and looking at a glowing fireplace. It hadn’t been a dream. Hetel’s head still sat severed in a box, being used as a candy dish. Twenty other gifts still sat beneath the tree, promising the same morbid surprise inside.

By a strength unknown, Grant was able to stand, grab his gun and flashlight, and walk out the front door. He closed it behind him. Sitting next to the house he propped his flashlight up at an angle, and then pulled out his notepad:

I am Grant Smith,

Day 221: late December 23rd 2013

I come to you tonight, broken. I am fighting to even care. I am fighting to even live. The danger Patrol Sergeant Ricks had warned me about wasn’t so much physical, as it was mental. I am insane.

Hetel’s head is nothing but a candy dish wrapped in skin. And it’s my fault. By unleashing my monster on Belshazzar, I killed twenty men, and one best friend. He was my only best friend, my only friend. I’ve come to the conclusion that God me to feel shame day in and day out. He wants me to surrender myself to the idea of him. He is nothing but a dictator with a God complex.

I’ve been told time and time again that all I have to do is believe, but dad doesn’t seem to understand that the world is not the way he left it. It is Godless. I am Godless. Any faith I had, any hope I felt, it’s gone now. I’m not sure it was ever there to begin with. It was only me hoping for something better. There is nothing better, it’s only temporary happiness. It always is.

I have nothing to say, nothing to tell you. I just need someone close, someone who holds all my darkest secrets where I keep them. You journal, you have been that. Tell me what to do now. Lead me somewhere, anywhere. I am in darkness, being stripped clean of skin by my own urges. I want them dead. I hate them all. Am I capable of love? Do I really love Chelsea, or is she just part of my ensemble? Is everything about me fake?

At this moment, as this pen touches this paper, it doesn’t really matter either way. Maybe I will make it through the night. Maybe I will marry her, and be a father to my daughter. Maybe I won’t…

Hopelessness had never been darker than it was at that moment. Hollowed out and cold, Grant only stared at a dark sky. Heaven had never been farther away; hell had never been closer. All he could do was take one breath after another. He had to keep going. As much as Grant wanted to escape life and its hardships, he couldn’t. Kali Marie was coming, and Chelsea needed him.

Hesitantly, Grant grabbed the walkie talkie from his belt, clicked it on, and spoke:

“Commander Bishop, this is Smith. I found them.” he said with blank eyes…

Chapter 11

Soon, a day passed, and Grant found himself sitting in a window seat with an honorable discharge to his name: suicidal tendencies, and personality disorder. It was a mark that would stamp itself onto his permanent record, proving that he was a veteran. No matter what Grant thought, he was a hero. As he sat in the seat, and rested his chin on his palm, he sighed.

He sat silent, and still, staring at dark clouds painted in a darker sky. Grant closed his eyes, thought about home, and grinned slightly. He thought about Chelsea waddling with Kali Marie in her stomach. He thought about his mother and sister. As hard as it was for him to admit, Grant knew that there were things still worth living for.

Ever since meeting Bobby, Grant had affiliated the town of Miles with their undying friendship. But, there was no friendship, not anymore, just a love and their growing seed. Grant couldn’t help but anticipate his slide back into safety. It was something he didn’t know anymore. Iraq had been bullets, blood, and death—repeat. Miles was the exact opposite. It was schedule, but in a completely different way. Iraq had been schedule based on survival; Miles was schedule based on the mundane.

Even though Grant had officially left the war, and the Army that fought it, he knew he would never really be out of Iraq. The fear and wariness had been branded into his flesh, stamped into his being. Even as he sat in the window seat on the plane, Grant imagined men pulling guns out, and firing his brain free from his skull. Iraq was a strip of horror images that would play throughout his head over and over again. It was a reminder of the pain he had felt, and the monster he had become.

Hours passed, the plane sliced through thin atmosphere, and entered a free man’s land. Grant kept his mind clean of voices, and soon found himself walking off the plane. He entered a bus at the Minneapolis, Minnesota Airport. The sky was now dark, and would soon be fading back into day. It was early Christmas morning. The clouds sifted snow, and held hands with the other, becoming a fog of gray blanketing Minnesota.

Grant rested his head against the window, and glanced around, seeing people old and young, fat and short, putrid and clean. It was regular life continuing. Grant found himself in the middle as nothing more than an observer: a zoologist in a zoo full of wild animals. He had become an observer of the species. Grant no longer considered himself to be part of the life around him. It was so fake.

The war had been people at their darkest, their truest. With the few glances he made, Grant saw darkness beneath civil skin, and polished smiles. Everyone was the same. Grant hadn’t escaped the danger; he had only entered a world not yet brave enough to be what they were.

The bus rolled on down an icy road, soon skidding along. A few swerves were followed by a few churning stomachs, and then the bus straightened out, and continued toward Miles. It was still an hour away, but every mile brought Grant closer to his home.

It brought him closer to a pregnant fiancée, a mother and sister, and security. It didn’t matter if the bus was quiet, and the atmosphere was calm, Grant couldn’t help but feel frantic. Maybe it was because every mile brought him closer to a town without Bobby.

At that moment, Bobby’s absence only had the weight a dream has on a coherent mind. It didn’t seem real that he would never again see him. In many ways, it didn’t seem definite. Grant had never actually seen Bobby’s severed head in a box wrapped with shimmering paper. Hetel’s unit had twenty two when he was included. There had only been twenty one boxes. And that fact kept him hopeful. Experience had shown him time and time again that hope is for fools, but it was all he had. When it is all you have, letting it go is the choice of a fool.

Hidden beneath justifiable hate and resentment, was a belief in God, or at least the idea of Him. You cannot be angry at God without believing in Him. Grant knew this too. He knew God was somewhere in the clouds, lingering with a promise He had yet to fulfill. And maybe it was that small belief in God that made Grant hope for a miracle. Whatever it was, Grant found himself anticipating his return. He knew that deep down the Grant Smith that had left Miles wasn’t returning the way he had been. He was changed. But, the person he had been was not dead. He still had things to live for. He still had desires. Men who are dead inside want nothing. Grant wanted the happiness he had left.

Bobby’s death had cut Grant like a paper cut. It was a surface, and shallow realization. But, as dirt and dust got in the wound, it burned. Grant couldn’t yet accept his death. He had to believe that he was waiting for him in Miles. He had to believe it, even though it seemed impossible.

The sun began to rise, and the bus stopped in front of The Family Restaurant. Grant grabbed hold of his army bag, walked down the aisle, and then got off. The doors closed behind him, and the bus drove away. From where Grant stood he could see his house, and a clean sidewalk wedged in between drifts of snow. Without warning, he found his skin shiver beneath army wear.

Though raised in the cold Midwest, Grant wasn’t used to it anymore. Iraq had been like living near the surface of the sun. His skin was tan, and tough. He was no longer a pale, white boy. If the Army had given him one thing, it was color to a pale suit.

After swinging his head left and right, Grant took a few deep breaths, and then began to jog toward the house on Twelve Twenty Two Main. His steps were fast. Grant kept his mind quiet, and his thoughts down to a dull roar. He passed The Family Restaurant, the tire store, and three blocks of houses until finding himself standing on the sidewalk, staring at his house.

It was Christmas day: a holiday that for Grant would always be affiliated with severed heads beneath a full Christmas tree. He stared with soft eyes, seeing a dark house. It was something cold and lonesome, something secluded and uninviting. It wasn’t the warm place it had been. The house on Twelve Twenty Two Main was lacking something. Grant just didn’t know what yet.

Slowly, he walked the slick sidewalk, stepped up three steps, and clenched the handle of his door. Grant closed his eyes. While taking two deep breaths he turned the handle. It released with a click, and swung open. The lights were off, but the Christmas tree was glowing. Grant closed the door, setting down his bag, and stepping in quietly. Maybe they were sleeping. Maybe they were dreaming.

Grant averted his eyes. The tree shone brightly, the star atop the highest bough radiated, and presents cluttered beneath.

“Hello?!” he yelled loudly. “Mo-mom? Hannah? Is anyone here?!”

He was answered only by the low humming of the heater kicking in. Grant ran up the stairs, and threw open their doors. He found freshly made beds, and empty closets.

“Where are they?” asked Grant frantically as he ran his hands over his head, and brought them down to his face. “What is going on?”

After another five minutes of searching senselessly, Grant ran down the stairway, and left the house. Carefully he slid down the sidewalk, and ran over to the large light blue house next door. He knocked loudly twice, and then waited. Soon, Mrs. Johnson came to the door in a pink robe, and curlers, holding her little sweater-wearing poodle.

“My Lord.” she said softly, combing her freshly painted nails across the dog’s head. “Grant?”

“Hi, Mrs. Johnson, um, do you know where my mom and sister are?” asked Grant.

“Oh, honey. Your mom and sister left a few days ago. They packed their things in the car, and drove away.”

“Where did they go?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t tell me.”

“Will she be back?”

“I don’t know.”

“Alright.” he took one deep breath, and sighed. “Thanks.”

“It’s great seeing you, Grant. I was worried about you. The news shows such awful things. It’s a relief to see you safe at home.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Johnson.” he smiled, and walked away. They were gone, it seemed. Grant didn’t know why they had left, but they had.

His stride was slow and dragging, as he walked back up his three steps, and grabbed the handle of his door. He entered the house, closed his eyes, and sighed deeply. Grant was scared of doing anything else. He was scared of seeing Chelsea. He was scared of life continuing, only so it could leave Bobby to be nothing more than a memory.

Grant swung his eyes left and right, and then slid to a sit. His back rested against the door, and his head nudged the handle. Grant contemplated for only a moment, and then stood up. Grabbing the keys from the kitchen, he ran out to his car. After a few congested coughs, the car started. Grant let it idle until—relatively—warm, put it into drive, and drove to Chelsea’s. After taking a left and driving straight for six blocks, he took another left, and pulled up to the white house with red shutters.

For only a moment did Grant sit out in his car. He sat and thought. He imagined her smile sitting behind thin lips, and her blue eyes shining like a sky after a fresh rain. Grant soon found himself smiling, and happy. As usual his happiness was temporary, but it was happiness nonetheless.

He pulled the keys from the ignition, left his car, and walked up to her door. Reluctantly, he held his finger over the doorbell. With deep breaths and silent self-cheering, he pushed down. Immediately a ring ran throughout the house, bouncing off walls, and finding its way back to Grant. Every second waited caused sweat to run down his face, and his heart to beat fast.

The door opened.

“Grant?” Mr. Hart asked while yawning. “My God, look at you.”

“Hi, Sir,” Grant replied proudly.

“What are you doing back?”

“I’m out, Sir. Um, I saw some really b-bad things, and—” he paused and cleared his throat. “—and was discharged.”

“Oh, well I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I am happy you are back. Chelsea has been worried sick, crying into her pillow. She’s had Bobby over t—”

“Bobby? What do you mean?”

“Uh yeah, he came back two or three days ago.”

“What are you talking about, Sir? Bobby’s dead.”

“Grant. He is upstairs.” Mr. Hart smiled, and moved aside. “See for yourself.” no longer reluctant, Grant entered the house. He took off his shoes, sped up the stairs, and entered Chelsea’s room. Like a dream coming true, Bobby laid on the floor. Chelsea slept soundly beneath a blanket on the bed. He wasn’t dead. The reasoning still didn’t make sense, but he was lying on the floor… drooling.

“Chelsea? Bobby?!” Grant ran through the doorway grinning ear to ear. “Bobby?”

“Gra-Grant?” Chelsea uttered, wiping her eyes, and lifting her head. “Sweetie, is that you?”

“It’s me, Chelsea.” he kissed her forehead, and then met her lips. “I’m here now. Where is Kali?”

“She’s not here yet, Grant.” Chelsea smiled while lifting the blanket. “She’s right here.” Grant looked down at her stomach, and placed his hand on top of it. He felt kicks. He felt life. One moment he had been desperately grasping for hope, and the next he found himself rejuvenated. The war and its trauma no longer mattered. Bobby wasn’t dead. Chelsea and Kali Marie were safe. Life was good. Life hadn’t been good for a very long time.

“I can’t believe you are home. I dreamt it every night. I imagined it would happen this way too. God brought you home. He answered my prayers.”

“Mine too.” Grant smiled, and kissed her again. “I love you so much, Chelsea. You kept me alive when I wanted to die.”

“You kept your promise.” she sat up in the bed, and rested her back against the wall. “I knew you would. Do you have to go back? Please don’t tell me you have to go back.” her bottom lip quivered.

“No, I’m done. I’m home. We can start our life together, our happiness. I can be here for you, and see the birth of Kali Marie. I never thought I’d say it, but maybe God really is watching out for us. Maybe He does care.”

“He must, Grant. There is no other explanation.” said Chelsea quietly, rubbing her stomach.

“I’m not going to analyze the idea of faith. He brought Bobby back from the dead.”

“What are you talking about, Grant? He never died.”

“You don’t know what I saw over there, Chelsea.”

“What?”

“There are some things I will never speak of to you. I will never repeat the horrible things I saw to you. It would be cruel. All I’ll say is this. Bobby’s unit was kidnapped, and I found them dead. I thought Bobby was with them. Why did he come home?”

“His dad died, Grant.” Grant looked down, seeing Bobby sleeping. He saw red cheeks, and pain carved into crinkles above his brow. “We’ve been a comfort to the other.”

“Nothing is coincidental.” said Grant softly. “Had his dad died any later, Bobby would be dead. God is in the details. I believe that now.”

“Yeah.” she looked up at Grant, and gleamed content…

For two hours Chelsea and Grant laid with each other, finally able to hug the other, in place of their own arms. Bobby woke up with a moan. He looked up to see Grant, and blinked until finding his glasses.

“Grant?” he yawned. “What’s up?”

“Nothing, buddy, I’m just happy.” Grant grinned, wrapping his arm around his resting fiancée.

“Yeah? That’s good.”

“I’m so sorry about your dad, Bobby.” said Grant softly. “I don’t even know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything, Grant. What can you say? I know that I’ll never see him again. What else is there to say?”

“I don’t know.” Grant shrugged while shaking his head. “When my dad died I told myself it wasn’t real. He was a trucker so it was easy to make myself believe that. I just told myself he was on a really long trip.”

“I really don’t know what to do, Grant. All three of us have lost somebody, but, all in different capacities. Chelsea lost her sister; you lost your dad, so did I. But, now that he is gone I miss seeing him. Even if it was the worst way I could see him. I miss just being able to sit on the couch with him, watch a movie, or talk. I miss him, Grant.”

“I know, Bobby. And I don’t know what to say to make it better.”

“I don’t expect you to, Grant.” said Bobby. “‘Cause truthfully, no one can do anything. I have to try and get through it. That’s all you can do, right?”

“Yeah, but, buddy I’m just happy to see ya.”

“Same here, Grant. I hated the war, but this seems almost worse. At least in the war, I knew he was still alive. I guess I can be happy he’s not suffering anymore. But, the thing is, I’m not happy. I’m selfish. I’d rather have him here suffering with me, instead of being happy somewhere else.”

“That may be selfish, Bobby, but it’s exactly how I felt after my dad died. I think it’s how everyone feels after death.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. I just can’t be happy. I try, but I feel a hole bigger than my heart. Maybe even a hole in place of my heart.”

“It hurts, Bobby. It hurts like a bitch and then some, but it gets better.” empty words from a man that didn’t believe them.

“How, Grant? How does it get better?”

“Time heals everything… eventually.” Grant rubbed his hand on Chelsea’s stomach, and kissed her forehead. “You’ll make it, Bobby. Chelsea and I will be here whenever you need us.”

“I know… thanks. You’ve got yourself quite a girl there, Grant. She listened to me for hours last night. She sympathized with my situation, and made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

“That’s nice.”

“Yeah it was.” Bobby smiled slightly. “She is so soft and tender.”

“Are you describing a turkey?” asked Grant.

Bobby looked up at him, shook his head, and smiled.

Bobby was hurt, but he would be okay. Life was continuing; Bobby was included, and the future appeared brighter than aluminum reflecting the sun. His family was forming, his friend was still alive, and the war no longer held him. The happiness Grant had left didn’t disappear when he left. It only stayed still, like a dog waiting for it’s master to return. When he did return, it welcomed him with a warm tongue licking his face, and a few cheerful yelps.

That Christmas day, Grant, Bobby, and Chelsea ate a turkey dinner with her parents, gave thanks for a brighter life, and then ate. They smiled, laughed, told stories and jokes; they were one big family. Maybe, just maybe the future was bright.

Christmas soon became New Years. The ball dropped at midnight, and the world welcomed 2014’s birth with confetti and frenetic jubilation. Grant and Chelsea celebrated the beginning of something better, something more. They celebrated the year as the start of a family finally beginning.

Though, unknown to the world and its inhabitants, 2014 was the beginning of the end. The failing economy would fall, the sun would sleep beneath a dark sky, and man would succumb to their monsters. It was coming. Pages of apocalyptic predictions would finally take form…

Kali Marie was born on February 15th, 2014, a Saturday. She was born after Chelsea pushed for eight hours and squeezed Grant’s hand until bones felt fractured. Kali Marie cried loudly, allowing a clutter of seconds to pull her lids up, and reveal dark blue eyes.

Grant smiled. It was his daughter. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

“Hi.” he said, rubbing a calloused finger against her soft cheek. “I’m your dad. You are so beautiful.” Grant looked up at Chelsea, seeing her gleaming proudly beneath wet hair, and labored breaths.

“You did so good, baby.” Grant said, kissing Chelsea’s wet forehead.

“Thanks.” she sighed exhaustion.

“Bobby, come and see her.” said Grant.

Bobby got up from sitting, and walked over to his best friend’s new born daughter.

“Hey.” he waved awkwardly. “I’m Bobby. I’ll be the one to tell you plenty of embarrassing stories about your father when the time is right.” he smiled, looking at Grant.

“I have plenty to reciprocate.” Grant whispered with a knowing look.

“What do you think Bobby?” Chelsea asked softly.

“She’s beautiful, and I am very happy for you. Who knew Grant here could plant a seed, and produce a result so stunning.” he smiled.

“Thanks, Bobby.” Chelsea smiled with a deep breath, and brushed her hair from her face. “I feel disgusting, Grant.”

“You are glowing, Chelsea. And you look beautiful.”

“Yeah?” she resituated herself on the bed. “Thanks, baby.” Both Grant and Chelsea found themselves infatuated. They couldn’t pull their eyes off of their creation. God had never been closer to Grant than on that day. He took shape in the form of mercy, and understanding.

Kali’s cheeks were plump and soft; her hair was thin and dark strawberry blonde. It was only shadow with texture attached, but eventually it would become something.

After spending one night in the hospital for observation, they left with a family—not one aspiring to be. Bobby sat in the back seat, resting his chin on the window. He watched the sun fade into a darkening sky. He brushed his short shag from his ears, glanced up at a glowing Grant, and then looked back out the window. The car they were in rolled for two miles, stopping at the stop sign by The Family Restaurant, and then continuing on straight until pulling into Grant’s driveway.

Grant parked the car, helped Chelsea out, and walked her to the house. She cradled Kali Marie like a little girl would a doll. They walked up the three steps, and entered the house…

Happiness had come in the form of a daughter a little less than two months prior. But, this night Grant was going to find happiness at the bottom of a bottle. It was April 5th, 2014, his twenty first birthday. Bobby knew of Grant’s vice. He bought alcohol.

That night Grant and Bobby were happy and hammered. They laughed, and joked, enjoying a state of mind they rarely found themselves in: neither had one care in the world…

Chapter 12

It was April 15th of 2014, a Tuesday. As of this day, happiness would become a sought after memory. The sun had been buried beneath a black sky, only peering through with rare dawn light. The town of Miles, and the country it sat in, was impatiently awaiting the announcement. On the day the President was found dead, the country had never been more lost. A week later a mysterious man took his place after the Vice President and the many men next in line were unable to take the job. He was known as the faceless leader. There had been two announcements in the last six months. Each time the faceless leader spoke, it was through a silver voice box in a small, well lit room. But, on this day, he was going to reveal himself to the world.

At 7:00 pm, the announcement would begin. The people of the world found their breath being held in anticipation. Maybe he was the man who would pull them out of the darkness. Maybe he was the light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel.

No one could know. No one would know until 7:00 pm.

Grant was walking up and down the street, shining a flashlight at the sky. Caught in the flashlights cast were vague blurs of clouds, of normality. It was all gone though. The sun was nothing but a dying memory. The moon was no different. It couldn’t be explained scientifically. The town of Miles (and from what it seemed, the world) was staring up Mother Nature’s gown, only to find she was made from shadow… just like them. When it came down to it, God looked at man with cynical eyes just the same.

It was just minutes after 3:00 pm. Cars were parked in their driveways, TVs were blaring with news channels, and the townsfolk sat idly by in their homes, awaiting their answers, awaiting their light.

Grant walked up the street, passing The Family Restaurant, and then coming back. The town had never been quieter. The people of Miles were buried deep in their own wants, their own needs. What they wanted were answers. What they needed was a Savior.

Grant walked up and down the street a final time, and then came home. He grabbed his keys, and drove over to Bobby’s, leaving his porch light glowing, and his doors unlocked.

He drove away from his house, taking the first left presented and driving for three blocks. Bobby’s house sat on the corner, shrouded in bare trees and dead bushes. Grant parked his car, idled quietly, and then took the key out of the ignition. He sighed, and closed his door.

Grant walked up to Bobby’s front door. He knocked a couple times, and awaited an answer. With his face pressed against the glass window, he saw neon light and anticipation wrapping Bobby’s mom’s face. And then the door opened. Bobby was wearing a black button up shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Nothing, I was just walking around.” answered Grant. “I was shining the flashlight at the sky. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s still warm out, but the sun hasn’t been in the sky for more than a month.”

“I know,” Bobby nodded his head. “Darkness without explanation.” he shrugged. “All we have going on here is watching TV. My mom has been counting down the minutes until the announcement.”

“Forty five minutes, Bobby!” his mom yelled loudly.

“I know, mom.” Bobby rolled his eyes.

“She’s excited.” smiled Grant.

“Yeah, like a stupid kid waiting for her favorite cartoon. What happened to the mom she used to be?”

“Grief hits us all differently, man.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Bobby shrugged. ““Anyway, come on in. Get a pop if you want. You know, make yourself at home.”

“Alright, thanks.” Grant stepped in, while glancing behind him. Bobby shut the door. Grant took off his shoes, and walked into the living room. Bobby’s mom sat silently, and flat eyed in a rocking chair.

“Hi, Mrs. Jackson,”

“Hi, Grant.” she answered quietly, keeping her eyes on the TV in front of her. “It’s good to see you.”

“Thanks. You too,” Grant glanced back at Bobby awkwardly.

“So where is Chelsea?” asked Bobby, leading Grant away from the living room and into the kitchen.

“She’s at her parent’s house. They got to watch Kali today, so she is picking her up, and probably talking with her mom for awhile. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her since she left.”

Forty five minutes passed. Bobby’s mom called them to the living room. Whenever talking about the announcement, her voice would raise in anticipation. Both Grant and Bobby left the kitchen, and entered the living room. Finding their eyes drawn to a television set with a clock counting down the announcement: 3-2-1… It clicked to a fuzzy white, until finding clarity. There was silver voice box in a well-lit room.

After a moment of complete silence, a man with dark brown hair dusted in gray stepped in front of the box, smiled strangely, and straightened out a silky red tie.

“My fellow humans, I come to you today humble, and whole. This is the beginning of something long awaited, the beginning of truth. As you can see, I am not a monster, I do not have a deformity—I am only a man meant to lead you in the right direction. Believe in me, as I believe in you. This darkness is only the beginning of something better. I can save you. I will save you.” he paused. “Mrk Frong Dore. Cos Legk Nith. Codor Sie Fore.” his eyes darkened, as his pupils dilated until his eyes were without white.

“Weird,” Bobby looked at Grant. “What’s he saying?”

“I don’t know, Bobby.” But, Grant had heard it before, in his dreams.

“Mom, this is strange. I’m gonna turn it okay?” Bobby grabbed the remote from her lap, and turned the power off. He glanced at the rocking chair to find her eyes closed. Her eyelids shuttered, and her tongue rolled wordless sounds. “Mom, are you okay?” Bobby got down next to her, and nudged her shoulder with the tips of his fingers.

“Mrk Frong Dore. Cos Legk Nith. Codor Sie Fore.” she whispered softly. “I am saved.”

“What, mom?”

“I am saved.” it slipped out in a whisper, sliding down thin lips, and over pale skin. Bobby bent his ear down near her chest, touched her face softly, and sighed.

“Call 911, Grant.” said Bobby. “Tell them she is—”

She awoke with black eyes glaring, and a cloud of foam frothing at the mouth. “Fear!” she stared strangely, baring her teeth, and growling.

“Watch out, Bobby!” yelled Grant. Bobby stepped back with eyes wide, falling down. And then, he watched his mom follow. She grabbed her dark brown hair with spread fingers, and pulled, until it came out in clumps. Blood began to drip from her wounds.

“Mom,” Bobby continued to push himself backwards. “Stop this—please.” After walking lopsided with a tilted head, she swung left, seeing Grant staring, and then looked back at Bobby with blood running down her cheeks. Like a child slurping up the last of a sticky mess, she wiped her hand across her face, and licked the blood clean.

Bobby was unable to get to his feet. Grant was unable to move.

“Stop this, m-mom.” said Bobby. “Come back!” tears filled his eyes as his tone sounded despondent. It was as if he thought he was dreaming.

For a moment, his mom stopped, tilted her head once again, and stared at him.

“Fear!” she lunged forward, grabbing hold of Bobby. A much lighter woman pinned her son to the ground, pressing him against the wall and slowly extending her neck. Her teeth were near his face. Blood dripped out like drool from a dog in heat.

“Stop!” Bobby pushed her face back, freeing both of his hands.

Grant was in the kitchen, grabbing a knife from the block. A tingle of adrenaline pumped into him, causing the fear to become something different¬—something controllable.

She was relentless, now lurching, only to find his hands pushing her back. Stabbing her nails into his gut, she ripped them free. Bobby screamed. With a cock of the fist, he punched her in the side of the head. Like it was attached to a spring, her head sprang to one side, and then sprang back straight. She snarled. Near her temple was a bleeding bruise.

Bobby was in tears, looking into her eyes. His mother was gone. She had been replaced by something animalistic. With teeth painted in blood and eyes blacker than freshly burnished stones, she clamped onto his leg. As she was about to bite down, Grant stabbed her in the back of the neck.

Immediately her mouth loosened. She shrieked, and dropped to the floor. With a whimper, she reached for Bobby, as if for one final moment, she knew who he had been to her.

Grant pulled the knife out of the back of her neck, and dropped it to the floor. Blood began to spill out of her.

Bobby looked up at Grant with flat eyes, as he sniffled. “What did you do?”

“She wasn’t your mom anymore, Bobby.” Grant paused. “I don’t know what she was, but she was going to kill you.”

“I-I know,” he sniffled. “This is a dream. I’m just dreaming. Pinch me so I can wake up.”

“I wish it was.” Grant said. “I’m sorry, Bobby,” Grant looked down at Bobby’s mom. She was no longer moving. Her eyes were sharp and glaring, but dead.

On Bobby’s right thigh, red teeth marks stained his jeans. Grant couldn’t yet tell if he had been bitten, or if it was the blood from her mouth.

“What is happening?” Grant asked himself quietly enough so that Bobby didn’t hear him. He walked back into the living room, turning the TV back on. It was now just snowy static. “What was she?”

When Grant glanced over at Bobby, he saw him lifting up his white t-shirt beneath his black button up shirt, finding three cuts shaped like crescent moons. They weren’t deep, but they needed to be cleaned.

“I’ll get you some band aids.” Grant said, turning off the TV. “Where are they?”

“Above the stove in the kitchen,” Bobby answered quietly, now closing his eyes. “In a plastic white basket—there’s probably some alcohol swabs too.”

“Alright,” Grant went out to the kitchen, and found the aid items. When he brought them back, he saw Bobby shutting his mom’s eyelids with his pointer and middle finger.

Bobby looked at Grant, and then back down at his mom. He kissed her forehead, and then stood up. “I’m sorry,” it was whispered.

“So this is what it’s been leading to?” Grant shook his head, and bit his lip in disbelief.

“I guess.” Bobby agreed with a whisper.

“I wonder if your phone works.”

“She’s probably dead too, Grant,” Bobby looked back down at his mom.

“No, she’s fine.” Grant calmed a quivering lip. “She’s fine—maybe it isn’t everywhere.”

“It was the announcement!”

“If it was the announcement, then why didn’t we turn the same way?”

“I don’t know.” Bobby sighed, and pulled off his glasses. “Does it matter how it happened? It happened, and m-my mom’s de-dead.”

“I know, Bobby,”

“Shut up, Grant! You know nothing! It was my mom that died, not yours! Had you given me a little bit more time, I could have reached her! But, ya-you killed her!”

Grant shook his head, and held his tongue.

“I could have saved her!”

“She would have eaten you alive, and you would have watched. You would have watched her eat you!” Grant looked down at Bobby’s blood stained thigh. “My mom left too. I don’t even know if she’s alive.”

“It’s just not fair,” Bobby quieted his voice.

“Nothing’s ever fair.”

“Your self-righteous—” he was interrupted by a shrill scream. It sounded childlike.

Grant and Bobby walked over to the window, and peeked out. A young girl appeared out of the dark, now standing beneath the streetlight in front of Bobby’s house. On each side of her, an older man crept closer, as if they were tiptoeing—hunting. Her head swung from side to side, as she began to back up. The men lifted their heels, screeched fear, and lunged forward.

The girl tripped on the curb, and was knocked down. She wouldn’t get back up. Instead, the men each clenched onto her with their mouths, and began to feed. She screamed something blood curdling, calling for help. But, help wouldn’t come. If it still existed, it wouldn’t for long.

“The Insane.” whispered Grant.

“What?” asked Bobby calm, with mortified eyes.

“They are The Insane. I thought I knew what insane entailed, hell I thought I was insane. But, I am sane in comparison. At least I think I am.”

“Uh,” Bobby calmed a festering mind. “You and I are both cynical,”

“Yeah,”

“Well, what if we weren’t affected, because we are good?”

Grant looked at him with listening eyes.

“Even if we claim we are insane, or permanently damaged from the war.” Bobby continued. “What if we are actually good, Grant? I mean I hate to think my mom was a monster deep down. But, what if she was?”

“I don’t know, Bobby. Maybe it was your dad dying. She was different after that. It was like she checked out, like she was just existing. I think that everybody has a monster though. Maybe they just switched roles. Maybe deep down in The Insane rests a calm soul.”

They looked back out the window. The men continued to feed, until lifting their noses into the air. Soon, five or six more gathered out front, and began to walk toward Bobby’s house.

“What do they want?” Bobby asked while running away from the window, and pressing his face against the window on the door. The question answered itself with a putrid smell. Bobby looked back, seeing his mom’s corpse lying lifeless. The blood around it was sticking to the floor.

“They want her, Grant!” Bobby said hectically. “Why do they want her?!”

“We can’t stay here, Bobby.” said Grant. “You know we can’t.”

“Yeah, but I can’t leave her.”

“You have to. She’s dead, Bobby. Just tell yourself she’s somewhere better.”

“But, she isn’t. If it really was all about choices, she chose this.” In that moment, something in Bobby changed. He no longer looked at his mom with the same kind of love. Instead he looked at her with disgust. “If she chose this, she deserves what happened.” Bobby internally discarded his mother at that moment. He would still have the memories of her before she changed, but she would never be seen the same.

“We have to go, Bobby,”

“Where?”

“Chelsea’s,” Grant answered.

“Assuming that she is good deep down,”

“Just stop, okay, Bobby? I know her. She is not one of them. She can’t be.”

“I hope you’re right, Grant.” Bobby looked down at his mom. “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to make sense of all this.”

“Have you ever thought that maybe it doesn’t make sense? Maybe there isn’t an explanation. Maybe it just is.”

“There has to be a reason you and I are still here. There has to be a reason that some are The Insane, and others are running from them.”

“Well you can’t know that, Bobby. You don’t know that. Maybe it’s because we weren’t waiting for it. We didn’t care.”

“Character has something to do with it, Grant.” Bobby and Grant were now in the kitchen, pulling food from the fridge, and stuffing it into plastic grocery bags. They grabbed pop, pre-sliced package meat, a block of cheese, and bread. Within moments, The Insane were peering through the windows, and pounding their hands on the glass.

Grant grabbed the last of the food, stuffed it into a bag, and then ran toward the front door.

“They aren’t in the back, Grant!” informed Bobby from across the house.

“But, I need to get my car.”

“Just leave it!”

Grant shook his head, and ran back toward the kitchen.

“Fear!” The Insane screeched as their fists pounded against the windows, cracking the glass into a strewn about webs.

Bobby dug two flashlights out from the cupboard, handed one to Grant, and kept one for himself. He also grabbed a first aid kit, tossed it in the bag, and closed the cupboards.

“Bye, mom.” said Bobby while clenching the door handle. “I loved you.”

A window broke, and The Insane stepped through. They lifted their noses into the air, smiled satisfaction, and cluttered around her corpse. Mortified, Grant and Bobby watched. They looked down at her, got on their knees and began to feed. Grant and Bobby couldn’t move. They were petrified. The Insane soon found their scent, looked up with rabid, dark eyes, and darted toward the kitchen.

“Go, Bobby!” screamed Grant, throwing the door open, and running outside. Bobby followed, tripping over himself. Grant ran back to help him up only to find a group of them dashing out the door. Bobby looked with wide eyes, found his footing, and stumbled away. Grant and Bobby clicked on their flashlights, finding the night to be a haze of confusion. The air was thick with fog, and the streetlights shone dimly, now fully enveloped in the apocalypse.

The flashlight’s cast got lost in the surroundings. The Insane yelled loudly, growling, searching frantically. Grant and Bobby ran by the garage, entered an alley, and turned right. The air was cold. The ground was wet. And the sky was leaking. Grant looked over at Bobby, seeing him constantly wiping his lenses clear of water.

For the moment, growing screams had faded into the thickness. Grant and Bobby looked back the way they came, seeing rolling fog. They turned left at the alley’s end and ran beneath a line of streetlights. They stopped, holding their sides and breathing deep.

“I think we lost them.” Grant said within a gasp.

“Yeah, but not for long.” replied Bobby quietly. “We have to keep going.”

“Chelsea’s is only another two and a half blocks. We can make it.”

“Yeah,” Bobby paused. “But what if it is a waste? What if she is li—”

“Don’t say it, Bobby. Just stop,” they continued walking. Grant didn’t want to face the possibility that Chelsea was dead, or one of them. He knew it was possible, because he didn’t know the reasoning behind this seemingly random event. For all Grant knew, it had been a pick-and-choose event. Maybe he was no better than anyone. Maybe just certain people had been chosen.

A thought hit him in the head, causing Grant to grab his phone and dial Chelsea’s number. It rang twice, and then took him to an automated voicemail: We’re sorry that your call cannot be connected. We are experiencing a problem right now. But, we will have it fixed as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.

”Damn it!” Grant hit redial again.

“What?”

“It’s not working.”

With another set of rings, the same voice said the same thing.

“I doubt the phones work now anyway, Grant.” Bobby looked back. “If The Insane are everywhere, the survivors will be in a panic. They’ll be calling like you are. I’d be calling too, if I still had somebody to call.” Bobby’s face became sad as the realization of just how alone he was hit him.

Grant heard it, but didn’t reply. It was the kind of thing that he nodded his head at with a sense of condolence—with a sense of guilt. It was entirely true. Bobby—much like Grant—had been a closed away person. With his parents now dead, he only had a best friend. And even that relationship had begun to tear at the seams.

“I’m not getting through,”

“Try mine,” Bobby offered his phone, “I’m on a different network.”

Grant took the phone, and dialed the number. The result was the same.

“No,” Grant shook his head.

“I’m sure Chelsea’s safe,” Bobby was selfless in that moment. With the death of his mom still crushing his mind, he was only thinking about his friend. Even though the relationship was tearing, it didn’t mean it didn’t exist. Grant was all he had left.

“Thanks, Bobby,” with a slight smile, Grant began to run. Bobby followed. Before they knew it, two and a half blocks passed, and her white house with red shutters sat in front of them.

Grant looked at Bobby, and then began to walk toward her house. It seemed calm compared to the world they walked in. With every step Grant took, he made himself believe she was okay. He knew that the good he saw in her wasn’t a mask. Grant knew her too well.

Soon, his steps brought him and Bobby up to her door. They looked in through the small glass window on the door and knocked.

“Chelsea?!” Grant called. “Chelsea! It’s Grant!” he shone his light at the window, seeing only darkness.

“Fear!” they came from the surrounding yards much faster than before. Bobby and Grant looked back. On the street, silhouettes were becoming clarity. The Insane sprinted toward the house with their arms in a senseless flail. Grant knocked harder, feeling the door vibrate, and shoot shocks back into his body.

“Someone come—pl-please.” he hung his head, starting to think Chelsea was dead.

Every second brought The Insane closer. They were running up the grass, nearing the stairs—

Suddenly, the door opened, and the barrel of a shotgun stared Grant in the face.

“Get in the house!” Mr. Hart demanded as he cocked the gun, and pulled the trigger, pelting the side of the house in blood soaked chunks of brain. He shot twice more, shut the door, and latched it closed. Grant and Bobby walked into the house, finding a candle lit living room with the furniture arranged to encircle a sleeping Chelsea and Kali Marie. For only a moment, he smiled. Bobby sat on the sofa, and closed his eyes. Grant remained standing.

Mr. Hart came back in the living room, sitting down next to a pile of wood with a heavy sigh.

“Just like the war. Pick the bastards off one by one.” he said.

Grant answered with an awkward scoff, and smiled. “Yeah, I guess.” he shook his head discreetly. “Where is Mrs. Hart?”

“I killed her, Grant.” Mr. Hart swallowed hard. “She changed. She became one of those Things. She was watching the announcement, then started chanting something. Next thing I knew, she had Chelsea pinned against the wall. She was going to eat her. As crazy as it sounds, my Lisa was going to eat her.”

Bobby looked up at Mr. Hart and then away.

“I’m sorry.” said Grant softly. “Bobby’s mom is dead too.”

“Shit. What the hell is going on?” Mr. Hart scratched his head, and picked up a hammer. “One minute I’m drinking my nightly scotch, sitting in the den reading the paper, and the next, my wife has my daughter pinned to the wall… growling.”

“That’s life.” Bobby whispered.

“I guess, Bobby. But, it even hurts my hardened heart. I shot my beautiful wife. She bled out and whimpered until she died. She stared at me with these eyes. Never, even in my worst nightmares, have I seen eyes that have made me turn cold. But, hers did.”

“Is Kali okay?” asked Grant, glancing over at his daughter sleeping beneath Chelsea’s arm.

“She was terrified for a while, but she fell asleep. Chelsea cried herself to sleep. She looked at me with hate. I didn’t want to kill her! Why would I want to kill my wife? I love—loved her.” Mr. Hart swallowed a tear lump as he stood up to continue placing wood scraps over the windows. He began to nail nails into the outer edge, leaving nothing but jagged, crooked teeth for a window. Soon, any light, any communication with the world surrounding them was cut off. But, it didn’t matter anymore. The phones were down. The people they would usually call were either in the room with them, or one of The Insane.

The small group consisting of Grant, Bobby, Chelsea, Mr. Hart, and Kali Marie were the sole survivors. Maybe there were more at that moment, but soon they would be nothing but food for famished friends. The world had become a monster’s buffet. It had become what it always had been.

There was nothing they could do but wait. As they sat in Chelsea’s house, they didn’t know what that meant, or entailed. And the realization of waiting, and forced seclusion brought up questions in Grant. What were they waiting for? Were they waiting for God to change the light bulb, clean the sky, and restore normality? Grant didn’t know. All he knew was the four people surrounding him were all he had left. Maybe his mother and sister were out there somewhere. But, somewhere at this point was another world away.

All Grant could do was savor the moment. He lay down next to his two girls, rubbed their cheeks, kissed their foreheads, and smiled.

Bobby lay quietly, shedding a tear that he wiped away, and then closed his eyes. Outside of the house, they screamed, feeding on those that remained. There was still food for The Insane. But, not for long…

Chapter 13

A few hours passed that night. Chelsea woke up and looked at Grant with pasty red eyes, and a sniffling nose.

“Grant?” she asked quietly. “You’re sa-safe?”

“Yes, sweetie. I’m safe. I’m here. I’m so sorry about your mom.”

“She at-attacked me—daddy had no choice. He killed her, and then p-put her body out back.”

“It’s going to be okay.” Grant lied.

“Don’t tell me that, Grant. Please, don’t tell me it’s going to be okay. You don’t know.” she argued softly, still stricken with shock.

“You’ll be okay.”

“I don’t want to be okay. I-I—I don’t know what I want.”

“I only want to know why.” sighed Grant. “I know it won’t change anything, but I want to know why some are The Insane, and others aren’t.”

“I don’t care. All I know is my mom is dead. Nothing else matters. Answers won’t bring her back.”

“I know, but answers can lead to solutions.”

“What solutions, Grant? All we are doing is surviving.”

“We are surviving so we can once again live, together, as a family.” again, he lied. He was trying not to face the truth. The fact was it was ending. His happiness had only just begun, and now it was being taken away. It proved his point again: happiness is only temporary.

Grant stared intently at his sad love, seeing pain dig lines into her face. He reminisced internally, thinking about rare moments where a smile covered his face because it belonged. Those memories were few and far between.

As soon as Kali woke up, she was crying.

“Quiet, baby girl.” said Grant with serenading sounds as he picked her up from the floor, and rested her head on his shoulder. “Daddy’s got ya.” Kali’s cry gradually softened until stopping entirely. She knew she was safe. She knew her daddy wouldn’t let her go.

After a while the house became quiet. No one spoke. Instead they thought things their mouths wouldn’t say. Although it was a dark, bleak world, Grant could only shake his head at the irony. He had always been cynical of man, and now he knew why.

The days passed and countless more became food for famished friends. Grant and the others waited for something. They waited for hope, for answers, for the will to continue on.

Their wait soon brought them into May 15th, a Thursday. It had been a month since the Change happened, a month where the five of them learned each other’s dark thoughts, and related with their own. It had been a month to ponder, and self-reflect. They had been safe, hiding in the living room, sleeping encircled by furniture. It had been safe because there had still been food for The Insane to eat.

Now, their supply was gone. The bodies were picked clean, leaving only smears of blood to cover the roads and buildings.

Grant awoke early this morning of May 15th, sweating. His dreams had formed a friendship with his nightmares. They were growing darker, and more grotesque in presentation. He dreamt he was one of them, feeding on Chelsea; he dreamt Kali was a nothing but a lifeless, pale blue doll that he carried around beneath his arm.

The urge was growing stronger. His monster wanted free. But, Grant just wanted normality. He wanted his small family, a cabin in the woods, and years to grow old together. But, as he lay there, it became more and more apparent that this was not just a burp in the timeline. It, in fact, was the end.

He awoke early that Thursday morning, feeling different, feeling darker. He lifted his head, seeing Chelsea’s arm draped across his chest with her face frozen in a contented sigh. It seemed her dreams played out happier times.

Grant got to his feet without waking her, seeing Bobby glancing through the holes in the wood.

“Hey, buddy.” he said within a yawn. “What’s up?”

“It’s funny, Grant.” smiled Bobby. “In life I had chosen to seclude myself away from the world. We both did. We took the sun, the brightness, and the routine for granted.”

“I know.” Grant walked over to Bobby, while rubbing his thickened five o’clock shadow and sighing. With his other hand, he lifted up his gray hooded sweatshirt to scratch his stomach.

“And now, we can’t go outside. There is no more sun, no more life. The Insane may still be breathing, but they aren’t people. As soon as they bit into another human, they became animals.”

“They always have been.” said Grant.

“That may be, but being cynical and being stubborn are two different things. I chose to see men as bad. I chose to hide away. And although I was right in the end, I still wish I would have taken boring, bright days for what they were.”

“So do I.” Grant stood next to Bobby, looking out a small quarter sized hole in a piece of plywood, seeing only a dull streetlight glowing within a blanket of black, like a flashlight beneath a sheet.

“We’re not gonna live to see the end are we?”

“I don’t know. I want life. I want to marry Chelsea, raise Kali Marie, and live together happily—”

“Happiness doesn’t last. You know that, Grant.” Bobby said as he glanced over at him.

“I know, Bobby. But, if there is an end to this, I think we’ll all be okay. We can pick up the pieces of a bleak world, and restart. We could do it together, the five of us: one family. All we have to do is wait. There is more than enough soup, water, and saltines. Eventually they’ll die.”

“Eventually is vague, Grant… I want to see my dad again. I want to be at peace.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in God.” argued Grant.

“I have to believe in something. If I don’t, then dying is just the end. The idea of being buried beneath six feet of dirt forever is too dark. But, if I believe that death is only the beginning of eternity, I have something to look forward to. Maybe God is to be blamed, but men are the reason the present is what it is. They have always been open doorways, nothing but prideful, egotistical, self-serving beings. It finally caught up to them, and now they are the result of it.”

“So are you saying you’re giving up?”

“Maybe, I don’t know. I can’t just wait here forever.”

“Don’t gi—” Kali began to scream loudly. Grant looked back, seeing Chelsea open up her eyes immediately and run to Kali’s call.

“What is it, Kali?” she asked, brushing messy hair from her face, and tucking it behind her ear. She smiled, grabbing hold of Kali. She lifted her up to her shoulder, and rested her head against it. Grant walked over to Chelsea, kissed her on the lips, and then rubbed Kali’s head.

“It’ll be okay, baby girl.” he said silently. “You’re safe.” Grant wrapped his arms around Chelsea’s waist, and swayed from side to side. “Have I told you lately that I love you?”

“No.” Chelsea blushed.

“Have I told you, Kali?” he kissed her little button nose, and stared deeply into her dark blue eyes. “I love you both.” Grant continued to dance with his family, smiling. But, beneath his smile there was heavy guilt. As he looked at them, his dreams seeped into reality, and visions pervasively flashed.

Grant closed his eyes as he let go of them. Without saying a word, he walked into the black hall, and closed his eyes.

“Are you scared, kiddo?” his father asked, appearing next to him, wearing his monster.

“Don’t do this. Not now.”

“What will happen when you shed your humanity? Will you eat your fiancée, and kill your daughter? Will you be just like them?” he smacked his lips mockingly. “They don’t know you. Not like me. You are my son. You see my monster.”

“Shut up.” Grant grabbed his head, and pulled his eyelids upwards.

“Go ahead, look at her.” said his father sharply, grabbing his face and turning it toward the living room. “Eat her.” he laughed as he walked away.

Grant rested his back against the wall, slid down, and buried his face into his palms. “I am not a monster.”

“Grant? Honey, are you okay?” asked Chelsea, walking away from the living room, and entering the dark hall. “What are you doing out here?”

“I-I’m just thinking.” answered Grant quietly.

“About what?”

“The future.” he smiled with wide, flat eyes.

“Yeah.” she nodded her head with understanding.

“Whatever it holds, at least we’re together.”

“Yeah,” Grant shook away his guilt, stood up, and walked out to the living room. Bobby laid on the couch with the palms of his hands holding up his head. Mr. Hart held Kali Marie, and scratched his thinning hair, while glancing at the window by the front door.

“Fear!” The Insane’s call was still far away but it was getting closer. They weren’t off in the distance. They were close, and gathering.

“They found us.” said Grant softly, looking at Bobby as he lifted his head.

“Grant, Bobby,” said Mr. Hart. “Grab my tote bag from the den, fill it with soup, crackers, and water. Do not turn on the lights, use flashlights, or the candles.”

“Alright,” Bobby got up from the couch, grabbed a flashlight from the carpet, and followed Grant into the dining room that led into the den. Once there they kept the lights dim, cupping brightness in their hands, only releasing it when not by a window.

Mr. Hart’s army bag sat buried beneath two boxes filled with papers, and one stereo. Grant clenched onto the handle, and pulled. It came with ease. They cupped the light into their hands again. They brought the bag past the dining room, through a narrow corridor, and into the kitchen. After walking over a pattern of white and black tiles, Grant and Bobby pulled open the pantry, seeing soup cans neatly stacked on top of other soup cans, twenty four packs of water being barricaded by a wall of saltine crackers. With haste, they grabbed the essentials and zipped the bag closed.

They shut off the flashlights, feeling their way to the candlelit living room.

“We got it.” said Grant, while putting the bag on the ground.

“He ran upstairs, Grant.” informed Chelsea.

“For what?”

“I don’t know. He just said to stay here.”

“Okay.” Grant glanced into the darkness surrounding him, seeing blurry outlines of a doorway, and the stairs it led to. Grant ran over to the window, and peeked out the hole in the wood.

“They’re coming.” he said, turning his head toward the stairs, and then looking back out the peephole. Caught in his sight was the road, the streetlight, and a horde of them walking slowly toward Chelsea’s house. “Maybe they don’t know though.” Grant closed one eye, and concentrated his sight to near perfect. They were still many yards away, but they were coming for them. The Insane walked with tilted necks, and a lopsided drag. They walked like zombies, yet they were anything but.

Though flesh-eaters, The Insane were something far different from the undead. They were living. An infection was not coursing through their system, tainted blood was not dripping from their mouths, and an epidemic was not present. They were the result of a choice being made.

Grant peered through wide eyed while breathing deep.

“We can’t stay here.” said Mr. Hart, walking down the stairs. Grant turned his head around, seeing Mr. Hart appear from within the darkness, entering the candlelit living room with a shotgun, and two M-16 rifles. “These are still guns the Army uses, right?”

“Yeah.” said Grant. “It had either semi-automatic, or burst.”

“Yeah.” agreed Bobby. “We never actually used burst though.”

“Use burst.” Mr. Hart nodded his head. “It shoots three bullets with one pull of the trigger.”

“I know.” Grant found the selector on the M-16, switched it to burst, and checked his safety. Mr. Hart handed both of them two mags and tucked three boxes of shotgun ammo into his coat pockets. “I think I might know someplace safe.”

“Where?” asked Mr. Hart.

“Uh,” Grant scratched his head. “When I was working at The Family Restaurant, we had a tornado—”

“Just get to the point, Grant.” said Mr. Hart with constant glances at the wood covered windows.

“Anyway, behind the counter, there is a door that leads down to a storm. It has a steel bolt lock, and a door that is nearly impossible to break. At least that was what Leon told me.”

“That should do.” Mr. Hart said while putting two bullets in the barrel, and closing it. “It won’t be anything permanent, but it gives us time to form a plan.”

“Yeah,” Grant nodded his head with haste, darting his eyes to the shrill sounds coming from outside. Bobby slipped on his converse, and walked back over to Grant.

“Are we running, driving, what?” asked Bobby.

“I have a jeep in the garage. It should do fine, but I’m really low on gas.” Mr. Hart said.

“What about you, Chelsea?” asked Grant. “Where’s your car?”

“Your house, Grant.” she replied. “It’s in the driveway.”

“Mine’s in front of Bobby’s.” Grant rolled his eyes in hectic thought. “How much gas do you have?”

“The needle isn’t even above empty.”

“Could we siphon gas from the mower? Or do you have extra gas in a gas can?”

“No, Lisa never filled the gas tank.” his eyes watered.

“I guess we’re running.” said Grant with a shrug. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.

“Fear!” they were just outside now. Grant clicked off the safety while cocking his gun and peeking out through the hole. The Insane were on the sidewalk outside, pacing back and forth. Grant could only shake his head in confusion, “What are they doing?”

They walked slowly, as if planning amongst a growing group. From what Grant could see, there were at least twenty idling on the front lawn, glancing at the house with beady black eyes.

“What are they doing?” he asked again, though this time much louder.

“What, Grant?” asked Bobby with wary eyes, and a twitching left hand.

“They are standing out front pacing.” he said softly. “I think they are planning something.”

“What do you mean? Planning is what humans do.” said Bobby as he brushed his bangs from his face, and resituated his glasses.

“Maybe they are more human than we think. We have been hiding in here for a whole month. How do we know what they are?”

“We don’t.” replied Bobby softly. “We only know that we’re hiding, and they’re coming. Maybe they know what they’re doing, but that doesn’t change the situation we’re in.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Grant agreed

With quiet steps, Grant walked over to the door.

“Don’t open the door, Grant.” demanded Mr. Hart. “You don’t know what you are doing.”

“Neither do you.” he argued, while unlocking the door, and wrapping his hand around the knob.

“Stop!” Mr. Hart ran from the living room, and over to the door.

“Go out the back.” said Grant with a head nod.

“Grant?” asked Chelsea. “What are you planning?”

“Just go with your dad out the back. Get Kali safely away from here. Bobby and I will hold them off.” Bobby nodded his head in agreement. “Go!”

Kali began to cry. Chelsea pressed her face against her shoulder, and shushed her.

“Trust me. Your father will get you there. My only worry is protecting you, now go.”

Mr. Hart began to pull her away, first grabbing a flashlight, and the bag of supplies.

“We’ll meet you at the restaurant.” soon, Chelsea was pulled into darkness. The sound of a door opening was heard, and Grant and Bobby found themselves alone. “Remember what we did in the army?”

“There was a lot we did, Grant.” said Bobby.

“I mean when we taped our flashlights to our guns.”

“Yeah, we tape it to the bottom of the barrel.”

“Yeah,”

“Get some duct tape. It’s probably in the kitchen.” Grant relocked the door, and walked back over to the peephole in the slab of wood. Without arguing, Bobby grabbed a flashlight from the living room, ran into the kitchen, dug through some drawers, and came back out with a thick roll of duct tape. Both placed their flashlights at the bottom of their barrels, pulled out a few loops worth of tape, and stuck it firmly in place.

They stood, looked at the other, and took one more peek outside, still seeing The Insane gathered in a large group.

As Grant unlatched the deadbolt, and wrapped his hand around the doorknob, he took a deep breath. “Whatever happens, Bobby,”

“Yeah,” Bobby nodded his head.

And then the door was opened. Grant stepped onto the porch, looking down the street. The streetlight one and a half blocks down shone dimly. There were silhouettes beneath it that then fell to the ground. A second grouping of Insane cluttered around, and got down, beginning to feed.

“No!” Grant screamed. “Chelsea! Kali!”

“Why are you calling them?”

“They fell beneath the first streetlight,” but when Grant looked again, he saw nothing. The second grouping of Insane was gone. It was as if he had seen a thought vividly portrayed. There was nothing beneath the first streetlight.

“You’re seeing things,” Bobby looked down into the yard. The Insane were emaciated and pale. Livid spots blotched their faces; blood crusted around their mouths with chunks of human stuck in chipped and rotting teeth. They came forward with slow dragging, some weaker than others.

Grant kept looking down the street, seeing the vivid imagery appear and then dissipate. Fear began to climb onto him, as he imagined Mr. Hart running away with his shotgun in hand, as his girls were fresh meat he left behind.

“Fear!” the voices were clotted and a rasp of growls. The dragging became a sprint. Bobby began to fire at their heads. They fell into a yard of brown grass that became a pool of red.

Grant continued to imagine bad things happening beneath the first streetlight. As Bobby had now dropped down into the yard, he remained standing in the doorway, staring down the street. An Insane man was running up the sidewalk. Grant lifted his gun as the man trampled up the three porch steps. Grant pulled the trigger. The man lunged forward, knocking Grant to the ground. The shot had missed his head, and aimlessly continued on into a dark sky.

The gun had been knocked out of Grant’s hands, now lying beneath a rocking chair at the corner of the porch. Grant was being pushed against the edging of the doorway. The Insane man was tightly grabbing hold of his arm, as his ugly neck extended and a mouthful of gaping holes and bleeding gums tried to nip at his neck. Three other Insane wandered from the line of Bobby’s bullets, and dashed up the sidewalk.

With his face beginning to press against Grant’s, The Insane man shifted his feet while trying to nip at him again. In the short moment of shifting, Grant was able to grab hold of the man’s head and twist it away from him, pushing him to the ground.

On both hands and heels, Grant backed up toward his gun. Four Insane sped toward him. He dropped to the ground and aimlessly kicked his feet, striking a man in the face. He screeched, being knocked against the house and dropping down.

The gun was only feet from Grant now, in a position that was all at once awkward yet easy to grab. They got down to a creepy crawl, cornering him. The man who had been knocked against the house was now on all fours with blood dripping from his mouth. Four of his teeth had been kicked free.

Grant’s fingers felt behind him, running into the slick legs of the rocking chair. He turned for a moment, seeing the gun’s barrel pressed against the wall. The Insane were crawling on top of him, like a grouping of animals preparing to feed. They seemed to savor the moment.

The barrel was in his hands. He pulled the gun free, unable to pull the trigger because of the positioning. Two of the four Insane were prying their fingers into his stomach, trying to pull his innards free. With the butt of the rifle, he bashed them in the face. The sound was ugly. Noses broke. And a second trickle of blood began. One fell on its back screeching. The other was relentless, throwing its head forward, only to meet the butt of Grant’s rifle for a second time.

They weren’t as forceful on the return. Grant turned his gun to the proper position, found the trigger, and pulled. At that distance, the heads came off clean, only splashing the side of the house with red.

A second clutter of six Insane appeared at the top of the porch steps, glancing at him with a leer, and then dropping down on all fours to feed on the newly-dead. Grant grabbed hold of the rocking chair sitting behind him, pulled himself up to a sit, and grabbed hold of the armrests. He turned his head to the sound of the gunshots, seeing Bobby managing quite well.

Grant stood up. Suddenly, as his finger sat on the trigger, one of the feeding six stood up, and turned toward him. He recognized her to be his poodle-loving, nosy next door neighbor Mrs. Johnson. The last time he had seen her was on the day he returned from the war, to discover that his mother and sister had gone far away. She had been grooming her little poodle. But, now clumps of flesh hung from her mouth, as she stepped toward him.

As he tilted the barrel down toward her gut, he stepped closer to her.

“What happened to you?” when he tilted his neck horizontally with somber eyes, she did the same. BANG! He shot a burst of bullets into her body. She was torn to the ground. “Sorry,” Grant put the barrel over her face, and pulled the trigger. The sound was ugly. It was the sound of him realizing that his mother was most likely one of them. Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Hart, and now his strange but innocent poodle loving neighbor Mrs. Johnson had all been changed on April 15th.

Something grew in him in that moment. From the realization came callousness, along with a tickle of fear. Five remained feeding on the porch. The sole Insane man feeding on Mrs. Johnson suddenly looked up at him.

“Fear,” his scream was muffled by the mouthful of her flesh. The sound of quiet feeding growls became an off cue choir of “fear,” as they looked up at him. The attack once again was violent. They shot forward, leaving the newly-dead fresh meat to sit untouched, now sensing what they hadn’t before—now seeing what they had been blind to. The Insane had been waiting for what they now had. They had been waiting for sight, waiting for a scent. And now that it was found, they were malicious.

The man feeding on Mrs. Johnson sprang up, and lunged forward. Before reaching Grant, his face was torn in two by a burst of bullets. As he lay on the ground dying, a terrible croaking came from him. It almost sounded human…

As the remaining four tore toward Grant, his sympathy for them proved to be as brief as that Insane’s human cry. They may have resembled humans. But, the neighbors, the townsfolk, the citizens they used to be were no more.

The barrel of his gun aimed. He stood still, firing their flesh free from their bodies. As they fell, they croaked the same. But, as soon as it crawled out of them, it stopped, and Grant could hear nothing but the sound of blood dripping from the dead onto the porch.

With a sigh, he wiped a misting of blood from his face with the back of his forearm. When he looked down in the yard, The Insane were dead, and Bobby was wiping blood from his face as well.

Chapter 14

As they walked away from the white house with red shutters, they looked back. Blood. Bodies. Hopelessness. Life was this…

Grant imagined that in some other yard out there, Chelsea and Kali Marie were dead. He couldn’t imagine anything else.

When Bobby looked back, he thought about his mom. He thought about how she reached for him before dying—how she tried to connect with her son one last time. That human sound that spilled out of the now-dead, made him think that she died knowing what she was. It made him well up to a point of near overflow. He wiped his eyes clear, and continued walking.

They walked next to the other, both reflecting on the events that had just taken place. But, neither said a word.

The town seemed desolate. The air was thick. All that could be heard was the sound of their feet meeting the pavement as they quietly walked toward The Family Restaurant. They were continuing on, but not knowing why. This was the world now—

this dark place with used-to-be humans inhabiting it.

Blood smeared the roads in sloppy paint strokes. The air smelled of old meat. Hollow bodies littered the sidewalks, yards, and street. A month before, they had been the hopeful in the town of Miles. But, now they were nothing but clean picked bones.

Eleven blocks. In looking up, Grant saw blurred stars thinly sprinkled across the black sky. It was oddly quiet. But, it wasn’t peaceful. They were walking through the remains of what used to be a close knit community, where the townsfolk had known each other and socialized in that comfortable knowing. It had been a town of close bonds— bonds that neither Grant nor Bobby had understood, or made with anyone else except each other, and the few that remained.

Yet, regret lingered above them the way a storm cloud would sit above a self- loathing man—regret for not having lived when life was available…

Ten blocks. The silence continued, as their walk seemed to become a drag. Both held their guns out in front of them, shining their lights ahead. Some things lit up on the street, like reflective diamonds. But, they were just the eyes on the dead. Some bodies were still in tattered clothing; others were naked and dried out. The flesh was welted, like the way plastic wrap gets when briefly meeting a flame. And then there were some bodies that were merely remains. Their eyes were gone.

Soon, Grant and Bobby just pointed the lights at the ground. Above them, random streetlights were on, displaying the dead in such a simple way, that the orange tinted glow seemed to replace the sun for the few yards it was in effect. But, then darkness came again.

Nine blocks. On Bobby’s street, only the streetlight at his corner home shone its simple orange glow. Bobby’s house was now in sight. It was different than when they fled from it a month before. Despite the heaviness of the world they were now passing through, something about Bobby’s house was even more haunting. After all, it was where it had all begun for the two of them. It was where Bobby’s mom changed; it was where Grant killed her in order to save his best friend. And seeing it now was like looking at what had been… and now… what was. Bobby’s mom was now nothing but a clean picked body in the house he grew up in.

As they came up to it, Grant’s car was sitting out front. Blood stained the street like oil stains in a parking garage. His car was nothing but a smoking, blackened carcass.

Bobby shone his light forward, until it climbed the porch steps. They looked at one another. Bobby thought about the night his mom died; Grant thought about when he killed her. Whether or not it had been admitted, he was haunted by the night he killed Bobby’s mom. And sadly, it had changed the friendship. Everything was beginning to unwind at the seams. The undeniable truth was this: everything that Grant loved was slipping away.

As Bobby’s light climbed the house, and passed across the broken living room windows, he saw the same glimmer that they had seen on the streets. Something was in there, looking at them. But, it wasn’t dead. Suddenly, many sets of glimmers appeared behind the first set.

“Run,” Grant whispered.

But, Bobby didn’t run. He saw something in there that made him walk toward the house. Maybe his mom was back from the dead, and she was beckoning him to join her. And maybe for a moment, Bobby strongly considered it.

“Bobby,” Grant was tugging at his arm. “We need to go,”

No reply. Bobby just continued staring forward as his feet slowly pulled him toward what he saw.

“Bobby!” Grant now looked around, with his eyes moving as frantically as he was. “Do not get scared, Bobby. They can sense it.”

Despite what was being said, Bobby continued walking forward, until suddenly what he saw caused him to become as white as the bodies on the street.

“Fear!” with a dash, and the sound of thunderous steps, The Insane came from many places all at once. Half a dozen came from the house. Many more came from the surrounding darkness.

Grant fired into those spilling from the house, as Bobby backed away slowly with his eyes now flat.

“What did you see?”

“Nothing,” in saying it, he swallowed a lump of tears. He had seen something incredibly sad—something Grant would never entirely know. Much like how Bobby didn’t know of Grant’s dreams, Grant didn’t know what Bobby saw that night that made his skin go whiter than a dead body’s.

But, just like the night he watched his mother die, Bobby wiped emotion from his face. Whatever he saw was now buried deeply. And as an Insane man barreled toward him, he lifted his gun, and blew his brains all over the sidewalk.

The Insane were now coming from many different places. The six from Bobby’s house were dead. The chase had begun.

In firing, they swept their guns from side to side. The struck Insane bled as if they were living fountains. But, they did not fall to the ground, and writhe in pain. They regained their footing.

Nine blocks became eight as the chase now continued. Up ahead, the sound of single gunfire appeared.

There was someone else out there. Immediately, Grant feared the worst. He feared that Mr. Hart had been unable to get them to The Family Restaurant safely, and was now trapped in this world. He feared that his girls were already dead: just food for the Famished.

In looking over at Bobby, he saw that they were thinking the same thing. Their pace changed from fleeing to pursuing—pursuing all that was left for the both of them. The Insane fell back as the scent faded.

Two blocks passed. As Grant’s house came into view, the sound of gunfire was pervasive. There was only one person firing, only that much was for sure. And it was close, to the point where it seemed to almost echo against the emptiness of the sky.

As they were now sprinting down Grant’s street, they heard one single shot. Grant looked at his house, and then down toward The Family Restaurant. The sound came from that way. And in looking, he vaguely saw a single silhouette approaching.

Hunched over and coughing, it came toward them. At first it seemed to be an injured Insane man, but as it came closer they found it to be something different. It was a man who neither Grant nor Bobby recognized, a man who was still Sane, a man who was severely bleeding, with chunks of flesh torn from him. In one hand he held a black pistol; in the other was a severed hand clamping tightly onto his. It was small enough to be a child’s.

Tears were streaming down his face as he staggered forward. He walked as if he didn’t even know that Grant and Bobby were in front of him. The closer he got, the clearer it became. The man had tied a rag around his eyes. Did he even know that a child was no longer attached to the hand he was holding?

Suddenly, he stopped. “Susan!” he called desperately. “You’ve gotta stay with daddy, honey. Never let go of my hand.” As he got on his knees and dropped the gun, he reached for a daughter’s face he wouldn’t find. “Where’d you go honey?! You have to stay with daddy. Don’t wander… it isn’t safe.” When he was unable to find her face, he reached down to rub her hand. In the process, his hand rubbed against the bloody slime coating the severed wrist.

Immediately, he began to scream. Grant and Bobby watched like a horrified audience. Neither was going to interfere. Somehow it didn’t even seem like an option. Despite knowing what was about to happen, they didn’t kick the gun away from the man, or let him know that he wasn’t alone. His daughter was now just a severed hand he was holding. Trying to keep him alive felt merciless.

Keeping the blindfold on, the man, still holding onto his daughter’s hand, felt around on the ground until gripping the gun. By the way his hand rested around it, relief was conveyed. It was going to be all over very soon.

“Forgive me Susan,” he whispered. “Daddy couldn’t keep you safe.” He pulled the gun up to the side of his head. He pulled the trigger, finding only a click for sound. No pop. No bullet ending his life. The gun was empty. “No! Come on!” He pulled the trigger again: another empty click.

As he began to sob, now wrapping his second hand around his daughter’s, Grant closed his eyes, lifted his gun eye level, and fired. The man immediately fell to the ground. His daughter’s hand fell with him, and then rolled away.

They left him nothing but another body to litter an already riddled street. Now walking past, Grant grabbed the hand by the finger tips, bent down, and nestled it in between the man’s palm. If there was nothing that came after life, all this man had left was his daughter’s hand.

Now, Grant could only think about his girls. But, he didn’t fear for them like he had when first hearing the gunshot. He knew that Mr. Hart had gotten them safely to the cellar.

As they continued walking forward, he wondered if he deserved to be back with them. If they were to die, like the way that man’s family did, would he be a delusional wreck? Or would he be just another Thing feeding on them?

It was an ever present question. No matter how deep he buried it, it crawled back to the surface over and over again—in dreams, in visions, in manifestations of his dead father. And they had slowly worn away at him, now leaving a man who knew nothing real about himself.

If he truly loved his girls, why did he think about hurting them? Why did he dream about feeding on them? Why was he not one of The Insane? If it really was about the heart of a person, why had Bobby’s mom tried to feed on her son, when Grant was certain that she had been a much better person? She had believed in God. She had been a woman of integrity, and honesty. But, on the night that the world changed, this good woman became something different. Yet, a man who had bashed another man’s face flat, and felt free afterwards, remained the same.

Suddenly, the darkness swallowed them. For a moment, The Family Restaurant had been in vague sight. But, the streetlights lining the road shut off in succession, leaving only a world of sounds to surround them. The Insane were out there. They were feeding. It was an unnerving sound. It was wet and loud—the sound of sloppy chewing followed by an almost gleeful smacking of the lips. The growls were muffled.

Then suddenly, it became quiet. He could hear very soft crying. Hesitantly, he shone his light toward the sounds. Caught in the cast light, was an Insane woman down on both knees. She was shoveling handfuls of guts into her mouth. It soon became apparent that she was eating a small girl who had a missing hand, with intestines sticking out of her split open stomach, tangled and torn. She was feeding on the blindfolded man’s daughter. In seeing the light, The Insane woman turned her head to Grant and Bobby. “He-help,” it came from her. Holes from bullets were oozing red, and her eyes were leaking tears. She knew what she was doing. “Kill me,” it was raspy, and barely audible. The blood from the guts was crusted onto her face, and her eyes were empty. “Pl-please,”

Nodding his head in a nearly numb state himself, Grant lifted his gun. Aiming at her head, he fired. Blood came from her lips in a sputter, and then nothing. She had been feeding on a small girl, while completely aware.

They were less than five blocks away from the rest. But, Grant remained without motion, just staring. An Insane woman had talked to him. She had begged for death, while still eating the innards of a small girl. Yet, she had returned to some form of Human. When the reality hit him, he felt only regret. She could have told him what they were and why they existed. Instead, he killed her without a word.

“Did she know she was trying to eat me?” Bobby’s eyes were glossed over in realization. “Did she know I was her son?”

“I don’t know,” and Grant didn’t. But, he wondered the same thing. If The Insane were aware, why were they feeding on fellow humans?

“Something has changed. They are different than when it began. With your mom, she didn’t answer when you called. She didn’t do anything but try to eat you, Bobby.”

“I could have reached her,”

“Will you listen to yourself?! Even while this woman was talking to us, she was eating a small girl. Instead, should I have let your mom feed on you, while you tried to bring her back? Even now, she was still gone—still feeding on someone else. She begged for death.”

“Why did she reach for me then? If she didn’t know it was me, why did she reach out to me?”

“Maybe—” Grant stopped himself.

“What?”

“Maybe they come back before they die.” he paused. “Maybe the nearly dead know what they are doing before they die. But, they can’t stop themselves. They’re now just aware.”

Suddenly, the streetlights came back on all at once. The path to The Family Restaurant was lit, as was the sight of what remained. Now looking at The Family Restaurant tucked beneath distant darkness, he looked down at the base of the streetlights.

Four blocks. The closer The Family Restaurant got, the deeper his worry became. Whether or not he was a good man was a question he feared would answer itself. There was darkness in him. What if it got out and destroyed everything he loved? Was it beyond his control? Grant only knew one thing. He loved his girls. It was this knowing that kept him from fleeing. It kept him from dying.

Death was around them in every form. The Insane were lurking, and the dead were rotting. The streetlights lit enough of the street, that even some of the houses were lightly sketched back into place. Vague silhouettes stepped from different parts of the darkness, and began to gather. Bobby was a putrid wearer of fear. Grant reeked of worry. And The Insane were beginning to group, preparing to feed once again.

Growls and clotted coughs came from the yards. There was no sound of suffering humans. There were no tears. It was just the sound of used-to-be-humans coming to feed. There may have been an Insane woman who was aware of things. But, they were not.

“Fear,” it was quiet and wet, as if the words had been soaked in saliva. And then, for one brief moment, they perched on their heels, and came forward.

In firing, Grant and Bobby ran toward their destination. The bullets coming from both guns caused a few to fall, but there were far too many. They were coming in waves. Those that fell provided a feast for a few; the rest followed Grant and Bobby.

The Family Restaurant was close, now in a distance where its sketched in appearance filled in. There was dark color. There was the neon OPEN sign dangling from its chain, swaying as if it could have fallen at any time. Grant imagined his girls sitting safely in the cellar that at one time had protected him from a Minnesota storm. He thought about the first time he met Chelsea, and how he still felt that way about her.

Three blocks. They ran—both sets of they. Firing shots sporadically caused the same croaking sound to rise from the dying. It sounded human because it was. Before they died, The Insane came back. They knew what they had done, and what they had been before the change. For a moment they returned to the life they had known. They were just mothers, and fathers, and sons, and daughters once again. But, they were still different. They still fed on human flesh, because something in them wanted it—craved it.

From behind, Grant and Bobby could hear very raspy calls for help. They had returned, now aware that they were just food (for a horde-of-what-they-had-been) to feed on. The helps were muffled. Coming from dry, clotted throats, it sounded like laryngitis victims trying to scream. Yet, it was loud enough to be heard by both Grant and Bobby. They didn’t turn.

The Family Restaurant continued to form, now presented with blood smeared brick siding. The OPEN sign had a missing letter: O EN. It still dangled, swaying back and forth through the shattered side window.

Two blocks. As they progressed, Grant’s bones seemed to become rubber-like beneath his quivering skin. It had taken a lot out of him. Not just the chase, but the things he had seen. And in some way, the things he had done. Or hadn’t done, but feared would come. The Restaurant got closer and closer. He could almost smell Chelsea’s scent; he could almost see the smile his daughter would give. They kept him human, despite his ever-growing concerns.

The final block became nothing but a game of keeping on their feet. Both were men with shaky steps, running toward a restaurant that couldn’t seem farther away. The Insane pushed forward, having gathered many more layers to an already thick wave. What called them was a hunger. What kept them was something neither Grant nor Bobby knew. The Insane remained steady, seeming to pick up their speed as Grant and Bobby’s drastically declined. Their bloody hands reached out in claws, trying to snag the food they were chasing.

The Family Restaurant appeared closer, with Grant and Bobby now running through the parking lot. It was a building of shattered wide windows. Booths were bloodied and singed. The white tiled floor was coated heavily in accrued gunk and drippings of red. Through a maze of high boards sectioning off a large lounging area into three parts, and past a counter dirtied with pieces of human, the floor held a metal handle that blended into the tile.

One block became a mere matter of feet. They ran through the parking lot, and jumped through a shattered window. Grant landed on a booth table with his stiffened legs that buckled and threw him to the floor. Bobby landed on his feet, only to stop himself before falling over.

The Insane were less than a hundred feet behind, beginning to infest the restaurant as they came through the shattered windows.

Grant was now pulling himself toward the counter, able to kick his legs like weak propellers against the tile floor. Bobby pulled Grant up to a stand as they stumbled toward the counter. They could hear the rasp of growls beginning to surround them.

Grant and Bobby got behind the counter and grabbed the metal handle. It was locked. Desperately, they knocked.

“Please—someone op-open up!” Both continued knocking, once again feeling fear clench hold. “Open up pl—” Suddenly, the door opened, and Mr. Hart held a cocked shotgun.

He fired the gun into what soon became screeches. Wearily, they walked down the steps, and fell to the ground. Grant looked up with his eyes in a blur, seeing Chelsea cuddling Kali, and then collapsed.

Sometime later he awoke to pain in his chest and his sweatshirt beneath his head. He looked up, seeing Chelsea looking down at him with soft, red eyes.

“Hi, Grant.” she said softly, with a sniffle.

“Hi,” in looking at her, he felt warm. “What’s wrong?” he asked, taking a deep breath.

“Nothing.”

“You don’t have to lie to me, Chelsea. I can read your eyes. You’re sad.” Could she read his?

“You’re worried.”

“No,” Grant lied. “Why do you think that?”

“You’re not the only one who can read eyes, Grant. You seem frightened.”

As if pulling the shutters down over the window that displayed his secret room, he smiled. Could she see the inner conflict—the monster clawing at the seams of his being?

“I’m fine. Just tired,”

“You’ve been sleeping for a while, Grant.”

“How long?”

“A couple of hours at least… you got in here and collapsed.”

“Where’s Bobby?”

“He’s sleeping. Daddy is holding Kali; they’re sleeping too. We’re the only ones awake.”

“And what are you thinking about?”

She shrugged.

“Please just tell me.”

In Chelsea’s hand was a bottle of water, unopened. She unscrewed the cap. “Take a drink. You are dehydrated.” With her hand stroking his forehead, she put the bottle to his lips. Grant lifted his head. It was warm, and stirred his already upset stomach.

“Be honest with me,” she whispered.

“Anything,”

“We’re gonna die… aren’t we?”

“No,” he licked his lips in thought while closing his eyes.

“Don’t lie, Grant. You know what’s out there… you know what’s left. It’s just dead people, and those things.”

“There are others.” he looked up into her watery eyes. “We saw someone else. A man,”

“What happened to him?”

“… He died.”

“Why are we still fighting?”

“What did you want with our future? I mean before the world became this way.”

“I wanted to grow old together. I-I wanted a life with you. We were hap-happy once.”

“We are fighting for that future: to grow old together, to raise our daughter.” it all was a lie that tasted bitter coming from him. Despite what he said, despite what he desired, Grant knew that they would not grow old together. They had been happy at one time. But, that was gone. And now they were left with this…

Grant sat up. He grabbed hold of her hand, and kissed her cheek. His head pounded. His stomach stirred with discontent. He felt like a man void of bones.

The door above them shook. They were safe for the moment. It locked them away from The Insane, who screeched like closing doors as they tried to claw open the cellar door.

Grant found his eyes wandering around the dimly lit cellar. Bobby was wrapped in lingering shadow, resting his head against the cobwebbed, stone wall. His eyes were closed. Mr. Hart was holding Kali closely. They both seemed peaceful. Chelsea rested her head on his chest, and sighed deeply.

“I love you.” she whispered.

“I love you too.” And he did.

Chelsea closed her eyes, and softly rubbed Grant’s chest until falling asleep.

Grant sat and pondered. He had asked himself the same question countless times before, but he couldn’t help but wonder how the world had become what it was. Why had The Insane come to be? What were they? Why was he not one of them? The one question he was scared to face continued to find him: “Am I a good man or am I a bad man?”

For five minutes Grant sat in silence, rubbing Chelsea’s matted hair, and caressing her cheek. His gun lay next to him; the flashlight was off. He turned it on, and shone it in the corner. Two dead bodies were lying on top of each other. Grant calmly lifted Chelsea up, slipped out, and crawled over to them.

“It’s Leon.” whispered Grant. He knelt down next to the two bodies, and touched Leon’s face finding cold flesh. “You were a good man, Leon.”

Tucked beneath Leon’s shirt were notes:

I am human. They aren’t. What should I say about what I saw last night? Should I sweeten it up for you, or tell you the truth with all the gory details? I don’t know what to say. Last night I saw something I never thought possible. Judy and Tom Johnson were sitting in a booth by the bathrooms. They were holding hands, and smiling. They loved each other—I know they did. But, 7:00 pm came, and her eyes closed. Tom tried to wake her, telling me to call 911. But, then her eyes popped open, and she dove across the table, tearing apart his face. There was so much blood.

Throughout the restaurant, many closed their eyes, only to wake up different—Jenny and I barely escaped with our lives. But we did, and now we are down in this cellar, waiting for them to leave. I pray for God to save me and Jenny from this hell. I pray for him to protect my Frankie, and Diane. Faith is all I have left.

April 16th 2014, 8:35 p.m.

According to my watch, three days have passed. It seems that they are only gathering above. They shriek louder. They know we are down here, and They want to eat us. What is happening, oh God what is happening? I still don’t know about my Frankie and Diane—I fear I never will.

Jenny only sleeps. When she speaks, the words come out in slurs. Her body is still here, but her spirit is fading. I fear I am going to lose her. Our food is gone. There is still a little water left, but it will soon be gone too. Help me, God, if you care, save us from this.

I am hungry. Anything would quench my hunger right now. But, another part of me just wants to die.

April 19th 2014, 5:39 a.m.

If I can trust what my watch says, then I have been down in this cellar for a week. They are still above me from the sound of it, but I don’t care. Jenny died in my arms last night. She smiled, saying she loved me. Her eyes were glossy, but peaceful. I still have faith… I don’t know why.

I am hungry, cold, and thirsty. Pain shoots throughout my body in spurts. My stomach aches, and my head throbs. I can’t help but look at my hand. Skin is wrapping meat, covering bone. Maybe if I were to tell myself it’s chicken…

I know I will die. But, it won’t be as bad with something in my system. Most of my body is already pretty numb. I think I’m in shock. I hope it doesn’t hurt—if it does, I hope I die quickly.

April 23rd 2014, 10:57 a.m.

Two more days have passed. I think They are still up there, but everything is now just a shrill ringing. Even if They are gone, I am unable to stand. But, They will not get me. I will not let Them down here. This is where I will die. My time is soon.

I ate my pinky and ring finger a couple days ago. It didn’t hurt like I thought it would. But, it didn’t taste like chicken. The blood was salty and warm, and the meat was like raw fish. I wasn’t able to make myself crave human flesh. I am not one of Them.

I am numb—everywhere now. The only sensation I feel is like someone is soaking my chewed up hand in water.

Soon, very soon I will take my last breath. I want to die lying on top of her—becoming one, entering heaven side by side. She’ll be waiting for me at the gate, I just know it.

April 25th 2014, my watch has stopped working…

Grant put down the notes, and glanced over at the last people he had left. He found himself in the same situation: waiting. But, when it came down to it, what was he waiting for? Was he waiting for answers to his unsolved questions? Did he want the world to begin again? Or was he waiting to die just like them?

The others were sleeping. Grant looked down. Leon lay on top of a wrinkled skin Jenny. Blood was crusted on his mouth. His left hand had five dirty fingers, his right had only three.

The bodies smelled of rotting flesh buried beneath an old, musty air. Grant covered his nose and looked at the notes once more before crawling back over to the others. He sat next to Chelsea, grabbed her hand and closed his eyes. Bangs knocked against the door; feet ran across the floor. Growls came in sudden rasps.

With his eyes closed, Grant pondered. He pondered life, death, and the places that may come after. Although, stuck in someplace dark, with only a flashlight to lighten it, Grant knew that his inner darkness was mirroring those that he ran from. He couldn’t deny that deep down, he was Insane. Maybe he didn’t want to eat flesh or crave fear. But, he did want something that a good man ran from.

His mind was foggy and in a haze, just like the room he sat in. In no way was anything certain. Maybe he was a monster. Maybe he was a man. The one thing he wasn’t was both. When it came down to a decision determining his true self, there was no gray area. Grant Smith was either a good man or a bad man.

The hours passed slowly, like a snail wrapped in double sided tape sliding across glass. But, eventually mid-afternoon became late evening. The only way to tell time was the wristwatch on Mr. Hart’s wrist. The sun still buried its head beneath coal black night, making those around wonder if it had died peacefully, or slept in turmoil.

Grant and Bobby had seen a survivor: a man holding only the hand of a once whole daughter. There were probably more survivors elsewhere. But, what was their condition? What was left of their mind? If all were like the man they had seen, there weren’t survivors. They were just poor souls who had yet to die.

“Grant, when you woke up, you said that there was someone else out there.” Chelsea broke a quiet air.

“Yeah,” Grant said quietly. Bobby looked at him, saying nothing. They both thought about the child’s severed hand.

“But, he died?”

“Yeah. There may be people left. But, we have to face the possibility that we are alone, the possibility that we won’t make it.”

“We already have faced that, Grant.” Chelsea said. “But, maybe this is a new beginning.”

“To what?” Grant asked.

“A life together.” she smiled plainly.

“What quality of life is this, Chelsea?” Bobby interjected. “What are any of us holding onto?”

“This life, Bobby,” Grant defended, “We are holding onto this life because there is only one place we go when we die: the ground. Heaven, hell, believe what you want, but don’t be shocked if when you die, you don’t see a light, you don’t see gates, you don’t see God.”

“Why do you have to argue and try to prove me wrong, Grant?”

“Because it’s affecting your decision now. You want to give up living because “heaven” is the far better option. That isn’t right, Bobby. It’s too early to give up the fight when there could still be a future worth fighting for.”

“I’ll take it one day at a time, man. That’s all I can promise you right now.” It was clear that Bobby wanted the far better option.

“I’ll agree with one day at a time.” Grant responded. “Do we all agree to choose life today?”

Mr. Hart nodded his head without saying a word; Chelsea smiled as she agreed to the same.

That day had been a day where everyone wondered if life was still worth living. But, ultimately, all five of them chose life. They followed that last glimpse of hope like a mirage of water in a dry desert. Hope was all they had left.

A pact had been made. Even though Grant believed it was ending, he promised to do everything he could to stay alive. And his promise was based on honesty. In that day of pondering, and self-reflecting, he had decided life. They all had…

Chapter 15

The hours of the remaining night slid by. They reminisced about past times, and talked about future plans. It involved a wedding, a second child, and a cozy cabin in the woods.

By morning, the sound of Insane above them had lessened. It was Friday, May 16th. And for the first time since the change happened, they felt optimistic about the future. Grant could now picture his wedding day, in a chapel decorated with white veil, populated by humans that were no more. It was a vision of picturesque things. It was what it would have been had the change never happened. But, it had happened. And this very joyous vision of the future was nothing but a reason to leave the cellar.

Their guns lay in an organized pile, with the barrels pointing toward the far end wall. They were conserving the flashlights, sitting in absolute darkness. Each one of them could hear the other’s deep breaths. They said nothing.

Above them, the footsteps were near and far. The count had dwindled. But, how many remained was still unknown.

Last checked, the time was 6:02 am. Mr. Hart’s wristwatch quietly ticked away the time. And soon, an hour and a half passed. It was silent above them now. No footsteps. No animalistic screeches. There was nothing but the sound of their quiet breathing.

“Now is our best chance,” Mr. Hart whispered. “There can’t even be a fraction of what there was. This is the plan. When I open the door, get out as quickly as possible. Chelsea close yourself in here, and latch the door closed. If we die, don’t open that door. I’ll leave a pistol for you. If we die, don’t hesitate to do it. Don’t be here alone. Promise me.”

“I-I promise,” her voice cracked, “but, you’ll b-be back.”

“I hope so,” his voice smiled reassuringly.

Grant flipped on his flashlight. He needed to see his girls one last time—if it was the last time. On immediate sight of them, he saw Kali tucked in closely to Chelsea. Her eyes were closed.

Chelsea looked at Grant, “Come here,” she said, calling him with a roll of her extended index finger.

“Okay,” Grant answered, crawling toward her.

With their eyes staring into the others’, and a soft kiss, I love you was exchanged between them.

Mr. Hart grabbed his shotgun from the floor, taping the flashlight back onto it. Bobby and Grant grabbed their rifles and did the same thing.

Above, it was still quiet. Now, all three flashlights were on. Chelsea curled Kali up in her little blue blanket in the corner farthest from the door, now directly across from the bodies of Leon and Jenny.

“See you soon,” Grant smiled at her as he turned toward the door.

She rubbed her hand up his back, “I love you.”

“I love you too,” he turned to her, brushed her hair from her face, and smiled. “See you soon?”

She nodded.

When he came full turn, his smile became an expressionless line. He looked at Bobby, who was resituating his glasses, and gave a nod of the head: a gesture that said a thousand words. They were words that Bobby understood.

Mr. Hart turned to his daughter. “Be strong, Chelsea. Think good thoughts.” It was a placebo for a situation that needed a cure. But, Chelsea took the medicine her father offered, and became quiet. Good thoughts could drown out everything…

He cocked his shotgun, wrapping his fingers around the latch. “Ready?”

In reply, Grant and Bobby nodded their heads, while looking at the other.

“Okay,” Mr. Hart pulled it out. “Remember, Chelsea, if we don’t make it, don’t hesitate.”

“I know,” now like Grant, she was without expression.

Mr. Hart opened the door. They emptied out as fast as possible, hearing the door slam closed behind them. The cast light of the three flashlights duck and dove into each other’s path, lighting the far wall, highlighting The Insane that stood in front of it.

Grant surveyed the room. There were at least two dozen, if not more. Immediately, Mr. Hart and Bobby began to fire their guns. But, Grant was reluctant.

He stared with wide eyes out into The Insane. Their eyes were rabid stones. They growled, moving forward with slow steps. Out of his periphery he saw Mr. Hart reloading his shotgun, and Bobby shooting constant bursts into the horde before them. But unlike before, he didn’t get the sense of urgency. He didn’t feel the need to pull the trigger. And so he didn’t.

Slowly, The Insane cluttered into smaller groups, and attacked with furious force. Grant focused on a corner where five gathered, and swayed within the cast light coming from his flashlight. He heard gunshots from behind. Bobby groaned. Mr. Hart yelled out of frustration, summoning the General he had been earlier in his life.

“The time is coming, Grant.” his father’s voice came at him from nowhere in particular. “What will you choose?”

A sudden darkness overtook everything else, leaving Grant entirely vulnerable.

“I will keep fighting for them.” he assured himself in his reply.

“What happens when the fight ends?” his father wasn’t there to torture him like in the past. “What happens when the days run out? You can feel it closing in on you. What will you choose?”

“One day at a time.” his answer made him feel warm. Grant closed his eyes and opened them to a bright light.

“What is wrong, Grant?” asked Bobby, shining the flashlight in his eyes.

“Did we fight The Insane? Or was it just a dream?”

“No. We fought them, you were fighting too, but then stared straight ahead, said something, and fell to the ground.” said Bobby while shaking his head from side to side. “Are you having black outs?”

“I don’t know. I must just panic.” Grant lied.

“Kind of a bad time to faint, Grant,” Bobby said smiling.

“I know.” Grant smiled too. “Where are we now then?”

“Behind the counter,”

“You killed ‘em?”

“Look around.” he lifted his head, and swung his eyes from side to side. Puddles of blood lay shallow and dark. He saw Insane people lying lifeless, scattered throughout the restaurant. It smelled of recent mutilation: a battle won.

“What now?” asked Grant.

“Now,” Bobby pulled out an empty mag from his rifle, and put a full one in. “We leave.”

“More running?”

“No.” Bobby shook his head with a grin. “We’re driving.”

“With what?”

“Leon’s truck. The keys were on his body downstairs. Chelsea is down in the cellar breast feeding Kali, and her father is outside. Grant, when we found the keys on Leon, we also found something else.”

“What?” asked Grant, widening his groggy eyes. Bobby pulled three notes out from his pocket, and handed it to him:

Leon,

I am leaving for a while. I can’t stay. I fear my Grant is dead, and the stress has worn holes into my health. Hannah and I are staying with a friend in Virginia. I have to leave the worry and fear behind. God will bring him home. I just have to be patient.

Love, Audrey

December 27th, 2013

Leon,

I have taken up smoking again, and the lump is back. Grant didn’t know of it neither did Hannah. I’d like to thank you for being such a close friend, and want you to know that Todd may not stick. Ever since Grant went to war, I’ve been missing Greg. I realize how much Grant was his father’s son. He was a younger, softer skinned version. Maybe that is why I can’t accept Todd, because he’ll never be Greg. He’ll never make me feel the way he did. Honestly Leon, if anybody could, it would be you.

But, I am aware of the horrible inappropriateness in that. You are special, and I love you. You are a friend; you care.

If you want to visit me, I am in the hospital outside of town. I just got back into town. The doctors biopsied the lump: cancer. I think I’ll get treatment, for Hannah and Todd’s sake. But, know that I do miss you. I miss feeling close to you. I miss those talks we had when you made me fresh blueberry pie, and read me your writing. Jenny is lucky to have you; I wish Todd could care like you do.

Love, Audrey

April 8th, 2014

Leon,

Just to update you:

It looks promising. I took treatment; it hasn’t spread, and I may be able to finally leave in a day or two. Part of me feels like Grant is safe, and happy. I hope he is, and if I can summon up the courage to go back home, I feel I will see him there. God has left for a while, but I think He is coming back. We just needed a break from one another. He needed to neglect me. I needed to hate Him. But, I don’t anymore.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say in this letter. Okay, yes I do. Leon, I want to be the way we used to be. I want you to read me your writings and make me fresh pie. I want to sit up late at night, and reminisce about our past. I want to be friends again.

Love, Audrey

April 13th, 2014

Grant looked at the notes with only a blank stare. It was a moment made up of a dream-like quality. Somehow his mother had only been three miles down the road, suffering in a bed, battling a hidden cancer she had fought once before. It hit him immediately what her words implied. The letter implied unfaithfulness. It implied marriage promises being broken. It implied his mother becoming a hypocrite in more than one sense.

But, what it didn’t imply was her safety. She had written the last letter two days before the birth of The Insane. Was she safe? Was she dead? Or was she one of them? Grant didn’t want to imagine his mother chewing on flesh, but he couldn’t help but imagine it. The last month and the many morbid moments it had carried showed him that even the purest people can be dark deep down. He in no way considered himself pure; he didn’t even consider himself good. More than anything, Grant was someone scared of decisions, and so he didn’t make any that had real consequences.

“Grant?” said Mr. Hart, poking his head through the shattered window. “Are you alright?”

“I think so.” Discreetly, he folded up the three notes, and put them in his pocket.

“Good.” Mr. Hart nodded his head. “Then get Chelsea, and we’ll get the hell out of here.”

Quietly, he agreed, nodding his head. With a wince, and a pounding sensation in his left eye, Grant got to his feet. He wasn’t yet strong enough to step without stumbling. But, he got to his feet, and stepped down the three steps, entering the cellar.

Chelsea sat in the corner, looking down at Kali. She was not moving. Grant stepped lightly, still finding his feet to be obstacles in the way of one another. He wiped his head clean of blood, looked down at his palm, and then back around the room.

“Hey, Chelsea.” he said. “How are you doing?”

“Grant.” she whimpered. “Kali is burning up. She can hardly feed.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s sick.”

“Give her some water.” Grant stepped toward the bag.

“I have.” Chelsea lifted a half empty bottle. “It only slides out of her mouth, and onto her shirt.”

Grant looked over at Chelsea and Kali, and then looked around. He closed his eyes, wondering what it was all worth, wondering why he continued to fight.

“Grant?!” shrieked Chelsea. “Grant?!”

He opened his eyes to the sudden burst of emotion, only to close them again.

“What do you want me to do?” he sighed. “What do you expect from me?”

“I expect you to save her. I expect you to protect us.”

“How do I do that?! Do I find her medication? Really, tell me what to do, because I am not the man you need. I don’t know how to save her! I don’t know if I can!”

“Try! You are her father, try!”

“Fine.” he paced nervously around the cellar. “Bobby?!”

“Yeah,” Bobby replied from the Restaurant.

“Get Chelsea’s father, and come down here.” Grant said. A minute and a half passed. Mr. Hart came down the steps first, Bobby followed.

“What is it, Grant?” Mr. Hart stepped eye level with him, bending his brows into a short lived cringe.

“Kali is sick.”

Mr. Hart’s eyes widened, as if they were put up to a magnifying glass.

“With what?”

“I don’t know.” His reply was shameful. Mr. Hart walked over to Chelsea, got down on one knee, rubbing his finger against Kali’s cheek. He inspected his granddaughter with care and affection. When he was done, he nearly cried, realizing how close she was to death.

“What?” Grant whispered.

“She is burning up. Her body is shivering, but her skin is hot.”

“What can I do?!” screamed Grant, nearly tearing skin from his skull as he grabbed hold of his unkempt, matted mess of hair, and pulled. Spit dripped from his mouth, and soaked into his thickened five o’ clock shadow. “How can I save her?”

“She’s only three months,” said Chelsea. “She didn’t get her shots.”

“She’s dehydrated,” answered Mr. Hart. “She needs an IV bag of saline solution. We need to get her hydrated again,”

Grant pondered the possibility of losing his only daughter, only to feel numb.

“How long does she have?” asked Grant despondently.

“I don’t know.” answered Mr. Hart with a cracking voice. “You better hurry!” Grant ran up the steps with only a hopeless will. He didn’t look back or contemplate. Instead, he ran from behind the counter, jumped through the window, and opened the driver’s side door of the idling red truck. Without even knowing he was behind him, Bobby jumped into the passenger seat. Both had hold of their guns. Grant put the truck into drive, and sped out of town. The hospital sat two miles away on the right.

“She’ll be okay.” Bobby said, trying to be a comfort.

“You don’t know.” replied Grant, barely audible within his sighs. The truck sped down the road, and soon had traveled two miles. Grant glanced right, seeing a parking lot with a few vehicles parked beneath dim streetlights. The hospital seemed large. It seemed insurmountable, even though the building was only two stories tall. Grant stared with a quiet presence.

Bobby rearranged his position in the seat, stared out the window, and glanced back at Grant. He saw what Grant didn’t: a gray SUV… Grant’s mom’s SUV. The Insane were not a threat at that moment. They didn’t stand in front of the hospital door with frothing mouths, and beady eyes. In fact, the night was quiet, leaving room for Grant’s worries to grow into something far more dangerous.

Both men were fighting their own battles. They were standing at the edge of sanity and staring down, seeing chaos. Grant pulled next to the streetlight closest to the front doors, and parked the truck.

“I need you to stay out here, Bobby.” said Grant, loading his rifle.

“Why?”

“Because we’re not gonna have time to run out to the truck, start it, and drive away. It will be easier if you stay.”

“…” Bobby paused in preparation to argue his side, but decided to listen. “Alright, but what if they get you?”

“Then I die. It’s inevitable really.” Grant opened up the door, clicked on the flashlight taped to his gun, and got out of the truck. Without saying another word, he looked back, nodded his head, and walked toward the doors. Bobby turned the lights onto bright before shutting them off completely.

Grant walked for a few feet, and then began to run. The doors were soon in his reach. He grabbed hold of the handle, and pulled. With a screech it opened. The air was heavy and warm. It smelled of death. Grant shone his light ahead, seeing the elevators in the blood smeared corridor. In that moment, he remembered the last time he walked the halls of that hospital. He remembered the fear in his mother’s eyes, the haste in her steps, and the pain in her voice. It was the day his father died, leaving him confused and indecisive: a boy scared of decisions.

His view was clouded. Kali Marie became a vague memory. She faded into the chasm of his mind, and got lost in his contemplation.

The sound of doors shutting, and screeching open broke the air. Grant looked around, and began to step toward the hall holding the elevators. There was an open lobby on his left. Chairs were thrown about, and bodies lay a scattered mess. Grant covered his nose, and began to jog forward. The doors shut louder, and opened with a higher shriek. Footsteps seemed to follow his own.

His skin grew goose bumps, and his heart beat faster and faster. Grant passed the elevators. There wasn’t any sign of The Insane. Growls didn’t linger in the air, but sounds began to grow louder and louder. He ran through the corridor, and to the pharmacy, first passing the gift shop. Shelves were tipped over. Teddy bears were bloody.

Grant came up to the pharmacy counter. Pill bottles were unscrewed, and emptied. A fattened woman with gray skin and hair like bleached tumble weed lay behind the counter, dead in her own blood. She was covered in maggots, with chunks of her gone.

Suddenly, the loud pounding sound of doors opening and closing, and the pitter patter of footsteps stopped. Warm vapor clouded around his head, and a growl came from behind. Slowly Grant turned, cocking his gun, and resting his finger over the trigger. They stood shrouded in the darkness. Their eyes shone like dark diamonds when caught in the flashlight’s cast light. Grant pulled the trigger; it had no effect. The bullets didn’t penetrate. The Insane didn’t scream or cringe. They didn’t lunge forward. They only stood with hunched spines, and elongated arms.

Grant fired again, backing away from the pharmacy counter, nearly tripping over the scattered souvenirs on the ground.

“Why aren’t they dying?” he asked himself, backing up while keeping them in his sights. There were five of them. Each one stood a foot and half taller than Grant. They glared down at him, and smiled. They were different from the others.

“Mrk Frong Dore. Cos Legk Nith. Codor Sie Fore.” Slowly, they stepped forward, speaking guttural.

The lights began to turn on. Grant looked around. The doors all shut at the same time, and then opened together. His heart beat faster and faster. Grant began to run. He looked back; they stood tall and dragged forward like sloths.

Grant continued to run, entering the waiting room, and breaking through the steel doors. Visions of his past began to flash before him. He felt his mother hold his hand. He heard his father speak softly. But, it all felt like a dream. It all felt like a mockery of his past and the pain it held.

He looked back. The five creatures weren’t standing in the hall, or dragging forward. Grant blinked his eyes to realize that they had never been there to begin with. And as quickly as they turned on, the lights began to shut off. Had it all been in his head? Grant couldn’t know for sure.

His goose bump skin softened. His mind cleared. And he finally felt the urgency. He didn’t feel in danger, but he felt fear. Kali was dying, and it had finally been realized that every second that passed was one less he had to save her. His memories were obstacles in a maze he wasn’t sure he even wanted to navigate.

She was dying…

Grant ran faster than he ever had, passing the examination rooms, arriving at the stairs, and sprinting up them. Nostalgic nausea hit him. It was the hallway he had walked down, being pulled by his mother on that cold, rainy August night.

Desperately, he fought the paralyzing memories, and treaded forward. He passed the room his father died in, and burst through a door labeled ONCOLOGY WARD. The room was large. The floor was white tiles peppered in gray, and the beds held the deceased. They were not eaten. Five people lay in separate beds: two women, three men.

Grant squinted his eyes, and walked over to a woman in the second bed. Her hair was hard and matted, her green eyes were clouded, and her cheeks were sunk into her face. It was his mother. She hadn’t died chewing on human flesh; she had been good. Grant smiled, blinked a tear, and kissed her head. She didn’t smell rotten. She seemed freshly deceased.

“I’m sorry.” he said. “Forgive me.” Grant walked away from her bed, and over to an empty one holding a small box with pills, bags of saline, bullets, and a photo. Grant grabbed hold of the box, and picked up the picture: Hannah, Grant, and his mom sat together. They looked happy.

Chapter 16

Grant left the room with a bag of saline tucked away in his sweatshirt pocket, alongside the photo from the box. He ran through the hall, down the stairs, and past the examination rooms. He pushed open the hallway doors, and found himself in the waiting room.

The last time he had come to the waiting room had been the night of his father’s death. The room was eerily the same, from the TV bolted in the corner, to the color of the gray fabric on the chairs, except everything was now streaked in red. The people were now partial pieces. The smell was less of chemical and more of rot. Yet, the feeling was the same. On the night his father died, everything had been covered in what felt like a dream. And now, after having found his mother dead, it still felt like just a dream.

The reality of his dying daughter slipped away from him again, as he now found himself just a seven year old boy walking back through the hospital with a piece of him gone. But, instead of being his father, it was now his mother. Yet, it all felt the same. The pain was sharp once again. The tears built up at the back of his throat only to fade away, just as they had after his father died.

Suddenly, growls filled the air and lingered alongside clotted sounds. The feeling of a dream disappeared, leaving him with only a pit in his stomach. He thought about Kali, and then the dream: blue and lifeless. He was not a seven year old boy anymore. He was a father with a daughter to save. His steps became fast once again, as he pulled the rifle from his back. He left the waiting room to be a bad memory as he stepped out into the main hallway.

The cast of his flashlight caught shimmers, as if many little mirrors were near the exit. But, he knew they were eyes. The Insane were trapping him.

He thought about Kali. Within a few steps, the outlines of a group appeared. When he shone his light toward the exit, he saw them form a wall three rows deep. They said nothing. They stood like eerie statues. Watching and waiting.

He thought only about Kali. He pulled the trigger, hearing their growls become screams of agony. It only made him fire faster. The wall of Insane quickly became a few of the living beginning to feed on many of the dead. Some were now aware, calling for help. Terror filled their words. Grant didn’t look at them. He walked past, letting them live the last moments of their lives facing what they had become.

He ran from the hospital and jumped in the bed of the truck idling near the entrance. Bobby pulled out and away. The Insane never came out of the hospital.

Grant could only think about Kali blue and lifeless. He couldn’t escape the feeling that it had all been for nothing. Two miles passed, and he soon found himself jumping from the bed. He ran into The Family Restaurant with his body shaking. His eyes were clouded with beginning tears. He was near the cellar.

“No!” the scream was shrill; it was the sound of someone shattering. “Don’t! Kali! Kali! Wa-wa—wake up!” Grant ran behind the counter, and down the steps. Mr. Hart was standing silently in the opposite corner; Chelsea’s head was hung, and tears were dripping onto Kali.

“I have the bag.” he said softly.

“She’s dead.” Chelsea said blankly. “You failed!” she laughed while sobbing. “You are a failure!”

“Shut up!” screamed Grant.

“No! You killed her! You coward! You failure!”

“You’re a whore.”

“You son of a bitch,” Mr. Hart grabbed hold of Grant’s gray sweatshirt, clenched his fist, and punched him in the face. “You failed! You are shit!” he punched him again, kneed him in the stomach, and kicked him while on the ground.

Bobby walked over to a corner, sat down alone, and buried his head within his knees.

Mr. Hart kicked Grant once more, and then walked up the steps. Grant spit a mouthful of blood onto the floor. He coughed with a wheeze, and hunched his spine into the air.

“God.” he whimpered.

“I hate you.” Chelsea said within a cracking voice. “You are nothing.”

He didn’t answer. Grant only lay on the ground. He coughed red and began to quietly sob. He blamed himself for everything. He was a father who wasn’t able to save his daughter; he was a son who wasn’t able to save his mother; he was a brother who wasn’t able to find his sister. In every aspect, he had failed. And the one person who was supposed to love him beat him down instead.

Grant closed his eyes, hearing Chelsea’s sobbing become a wail, and then fade to a whimper.

Suddenly, a gun was fired from outside, sending a shiver down his spine. Chelsea flinched. She looked down at Kali, kissed her head, and wrapped her up tightly in the blanket.

“You’ll be okay.” she said. “I’ll protect you.”

Grant glanced over at Chelsea. Her eyes drained of sky blue, her face lost its rosy glow; she softly hummed a lullaby to Kali, resting her wrapped up body against her shoulder. Chelsea refused to accept that she was dead, so she wrapped her up, and numbed herself of the truth.

Grant got to his feet, and crawled up the steps. He stumbled through the restaurant, walked through the shattered window, and stepped onto the street. His eyes wandered from left to right. Far onto his right, Mr. Hart’s body sat encased in the clear glass bus stop. Pieces of brain slid down the glass like water drops on a windshield. His balding head was bent over, his lips were wrapped around the barrel of his shotgun, and blood dripped from the top of the bus stop in clumps.

Without expression, Grant turned around, and went back down into the cellar. Chelsea held Kali close to her chest, talking to her like nothing had happened.

He closed the door to the cellar, slid down against the wall to a sit, and stared forward. Bobby lifted his head, and looked at Grant. Without saying anything, the message was conveyed: he was sorry. Grant nodded his head with a sniffle, and coughed once more: no more blood.

Kali may have been dead, but he didn’t have to accept it. He didn’t have to tell himself that. And even if he did, Grant knew that he, along with the others, would be dead very soon anyway. In a way that was comforting. It had become apparent early on that no one was going to survive. But, now he was beginning to accept it.

Any love he had felt for Chelsea withered away. They were no longer two lovers. Maybe they never had been to begin with. Grant didn’t mourn the loss of his future. He wasn’t sad that he and Chelsea would not live in a cabin together. He wasn’t sad that they would never marry and grow old together. But, he was broken knowing that Kali was dead. Acceptance and knowing are two different things entirely. He looked over at his daughter wrapped up in her blanket and cried a few tears.

“She’ll look adorable with piggy tails, Grant.” said Chelsea with a smile. “I can see her now, playing in the sandbox, putting on lipstick she has stolen from me. I’ll buy her all kinds of dresses… She’ll be my little princess.”

Grant closed his eyes to falling tears, only to wipe them away from his face. “Yeah,” he agreed, trying to numb himself as well. “We’ll live in my house, and grow old. Mom will come to her birthday parties; Hannah will be a great Aunt. We’ll be one big family.”

“She’ll be beautiful, Grant. She’ll be my little princess.” Chelsea stared at Grant with sincerity. Maybe to her Kali was breathing in the blanket. Maybe she was only sleeping. As heartbreaking as it was to know she was dead, Grant couldn’t hurt Chelsea by telling her that Kali was dead. She was ignorantly bliss, something he couldn’t obtain.

For an hour, Chelsea sat clouded in her delusions, looking down at her dead child, and thinking about a future that wouldn’t come to pass. Then, she fell off to sleep. Her eyes were dry, and her cheeks were pasty red.

“What happens now, Bobby?” asked Grant quietly.

“I don’t know,” answered Bobby.

“Just tell me something. If you want, give me a placebo. Tell me that my daughter isn’t dead, and that I am worth something. Lie to me.”

Bobby lifted his eyes without moving his head, and sighed. “Kali is just sleeping. You’ll see her again soon.”

It didn’t matter what he was told. Grant couldn’t become blissfully ignorant. He envied Chelsea, and her ability to escape. It wasn’t fair!

“Are you going to be okay?’ Bobby asked.

Grant could only close his eyes and shake his head. The cellar was quiet. Grant put his hand up to his face and pressed hard. His eye had blackened, his lip had swelled, and the pain was pulsating.

Bobby sat wondering how the people he had grown to love were now just shells of what they had been. He looked over at Grant, seeing a silent, sighing friend. He looked over at Chelsea. She hugged Kali closely, like a little girl would her favorite teddy bear.

Grant got up from sitting, pushed open the cellar door, and stepped up the three steps. He stepped over the bodies in the restaurant, through the shattered window, and out onto the street. Mr. Hart’s body had been torn apart. The gun lay on the ground. Grant looked up into the sky. It was lightening. He could see a puff of gray clouds hanging low like stage curtains, and hiding somewhere behind them sat a light. He fished in his pocket, pulled out his phone, and hit the power button. It came on for only a second. The time was 4:30 pm, May 16th, a Friday.

Without reason or explanation, Grant walked back down into the cellar, and threw Chelsea over his shoulder.

“What are you doing?” asked Bobby.

“We’re leaving. Grab the bag of water and soup.”

“Alright,” Bobby didn’t argue. He grabbed the bag, threw it over his shoulder, and grabbed his gun from the floor. Grant stepped up the three steps. Bobby followed.

Grant pulled the keys from his pocket while walking over to the truck. He opened the door, and laid Chelsea in the backseat. Kali still sat a lifeless doll in her arms.

He didn’t speak, or explain. Grant just got in the driver’s seat, started the truck, and waited for Bobby to get in. When he did, he put the truck in drive, pulled out of the parking lot, and went straight down Fault and Hadshall Ave: a country road.

“It’s getting lighter.” Bobby said, tipping his head up, and looking through the windshield. “What do you think that means?”

“Does it matter?”

“Not really,” Bobby said as he continued to look toward the sky.

“What do you think your dad will say to you when you see him again?”

Bobby suddenly looked confused as he turned his attention to Grant. “Are you just giving me a placebo, Grant?”

“No, man. It makes you happy. What does it matter if I believe it or not?” Grant

offered a kindness to his best friend.

Bobby slightly smiled. “I think he’ll be waiting to play a game of cribbage. I’ll get there and he’ll be at a little round table, pegs out and ready.”

“I like that your dream of heaven is simple, Bobby. If it exists, that may be exactly what your reunion with him will be.”

“Thanks, Grant.” Bobby hadn’t looked so peaceful in a very long time. “I know why we’re driving out into the country. It’s to die, isn’t it?”

“One day at a time.” Grant said it ironically with a short lived smile. It hadn’t even been a day since he last said it; it hadn’t even been a day since everyone chose life. Now, only three of the five remained.

For five miles they sat in silence. Slowly, the sky lit. Grant looked forward. The road followed a natural curve, passing dead and dying fields of beans and corn, and continuing forward into a land of nothing. If any place held solace—or at least the possibility of solace—it was the country.

“Grant?” Chelsea whimpered while sniffling.

“Hey.” he answered.

“Where is daddy?”

“He’s gone.”

“Where?”

“He can’t be here with you.”

“Wa-where is Kali?”

“She’s with you.” Grant said swallowing a tear lump.

Chelsea looked down at her hands, seeing Kali wrapped tightly. Her little face didn’t poke through. Her dark blue eyes didn’t glisten with curiosity. Her chubby cheeks that tucked her lips into place didn’t flutter when she blew a bubble. Her body didn’t move. To Chelsea, Kali was still alive. Earlier she had found blissful ignorance because of shock, but now she knew.

Grant sat fighting his own tears. Slowly Chelsea pulled the blanket loose. Kali now lay barely covered; her face wasn’t showing, only her little pale blue hands. Nearly crying, Chelsea pulled the blanket off of Kali, seeing her little daughter now blue and lifeless.

“It was a dream, Grant.” she whispered. “It was only a dream!”

“She’s safe. She isn’t scared anymore.” Grant offered his sympathy with clichés.

“But, she’s go-gone.” Chelsea wasn’t able to crawl back into a state of numbness. She had to face it. She had to face the fact that her daughter was dead; she didn’t have to face the fact that her father was. But, deep down Chelsea knew that all she had left was a loose cannon for a fiancé, and his best friend.

Trying to escape the truth sitting lifeless and cold in her arms, Chelsea laid down on the seat, put Kali’s blanket over her face, and hugged Kali tightly. She was no longer running. She was only trying to hold onto the past.

Everyone in their own way was pondering. Grant sat wondering why he was what he was. Bobby thought about his father sitting in heaven, waiting for his son to join him. Chelsea wound back the clocks to when things were relatively happy. She wound it back to before the time Grant was in her life, to before the time her sister died in the car accident she caused. Chelsea was trying to erase her problems by wiping her mind clean of memories. She regretted loving Grant; she regretted having Kali. Both pains hurt too deeply now that it had all gone bad.

”[It is better to have loved and lost, then to never have loved at all.”
—Alfred Lord Tennyson—]

A statement as such is only true when knowing someone makes the pain of losing them worth it. Chelsea couldn’t say that about her daughter. She couldn’t say that about her love for Grant, because it had been born from desperation. All they had been to the other was a final reach for help. Two damaged souls found each other in a cemetery, and created something fake, something they called love.

The rusty red truck Grant drove followed the country road, passing a long strip of cornfield, and coming up to a gravel driveway. He looked left to right, put on the brake, and turned into the driveway, following it down a hundred foot stretch of scattered tree branches, and balding bushes. And then there was a small white house bathed in pale blue light from a street pole sitting next to it. Grant parked the truck next to the light, shut off the engine, and pulled out the key.

“Why here?” asked Bobby.

“The gas is low,” he answered. “And I don’t want to drive any farther.”

Bobby nodded his head, grabbed the handle to his door, and pulled. With a CLICK it popped open. He stepped out. Chelsea lay silent. She didn’t whimper or cry. She didn’t ask about Kali or where her father was. All she did was lie on the seat with her head covered by Kali’s blanket as she held her dead child…

Chapter 17

Grant opened up the door, and stepped outside. Chelsea laid in the fetal position for five minutes, and then got up. Loosening her grip on Kali, she wiped her eyes clean of tears, and sniffled.

Grant and Bobby stood outside, wandering aimlessly. The house was quiet, as was the surrounding sky. The Insane did not growl from the corn fields, or the barn. They didn’t hide and wait. It was just the three of them.

Slowly, Chelsea crawled from the back seat, and stepped outside. She had wrapped Kali back up in the blanket, holding her loosely.

“I want to sleep.” she said with deflated eyes.

“Okay,” Grant nodded his head, and shone the light attached to his gun in front of him. He walked up to the house, pulled open the lopsided screen door, and grabbed hold of the door handle. It was locked. Calmly, he flipped his gun around, broke the window on the door, and unlocked it from the inside. The door opened, and he stepped in.

They no longer worried about the chase. No one admitted it, but the truth was simple: they went there to die. Grant didn’t enter the house with a fast beating heart, and sharply set eyes. He entered a dark house, tired and sad.

The fridge barely purred, and the air around them smelled of rotten meat. Grant shone his light around the house. The floors were stained with hamburger blood, and the counters were smeared with peanut butter and jelly.

Bobby closed the door, and the three of them wandered past the kitchen, and stopped in the dining room. The table was round, and stained maple. Sitting in between four empty plates was a pan of crusty, old macaroni and cheese. The scene perfectly captured what life had been like before 7:00 pm on April 15th of 2014.

It was heartbreaking, and placed a lump in Grant’s throat. He swallowed, sighed, and walked into a living room lit by a nightlight. Sleeping bags were spread around, and a set of brown teddy bears lay next to the other. The pictures on the walls were of a family of three: a father with thin brown eyes and glasses, a mother with a bun in her hair and bright blue eyes, and a little girl holding two teddy bears while also holding a joyful grin.

Grant heaved a sigh, seeing what he couldn’t have: a family. Chelsea was a mannequin compared to what he had proposed to, and Kali was dead because he didn’t hurry. But, now that he saw a family that almost mirrored what he, Chelsea, and Kali could have been, Grant felt the pain of his loss.

“Where do you want to sleep?” asked Grant.

“Alone.” answered Chelsea coldly.

“Alright,” Grant turned down the hall on his right, passing the basement stairs, and coming to the first room. Slowly, he opened the doors, shining his light out in front of him. The door opened, and the light caught dust shedding from the ceiling. A queen sized bed was against the farthest wall, and placed in the center of the room. Grant shone the light on the bed; it was empty, and the blankets were thrown about.

“Goodnight,” she entered the dark room without a light in her hands, closed the door, and found the bed. Grant walked away, scratching his growing beard, and rubbing his face.

“Is she okay?” Bobby asked, lying on the couch, resting the back of his head on his palm, and kicking off his shoes.

“I don’t know,” Grant sighed. “I wish I could help. I wish I could save her.” Grant sat down on the floor, resting his head against the other couch, while shutting off the light, and setting the gun on the floor.

“If you want to save Chelsea, you first have to know what you want. Maybe you don’t want to save her.”

“No. Deep down I miss what we had. But, I was never able to be the same after coming back from the war. It’s not an excuse. I just never really returned.”

“I know,” Bobby answered. “No one ever does. I didn’t. I returned to a dead father, and in many ways, a dead mother.”

“What can I do then? How can I make it okay?”

“Kali is dead, Grant. Things may never be okay. To save Chelsea, you may have to let her go.”

“What does that mean?”

“Let her die.”

“How does that save her?”

“It stops her suffering.” Bobby spoke candidly yet blank.

“… How?”

“Grant, I once had a cat. It was before I knew you, and before I moved to this town. I was just a little kid. My cat was my best friend. He was a furry black cat. We named him Senior, since he had been born with gray fur on his face that looked like wrinkles. One day I was playing in the backyard. Senior was with me, until he wandered out into the street. A car hit him, and broke his insides. I ran out to the road with tears streaming down my face, pulled him by his paws onto the sidewalk, and watched him whimper once more before taking his last breath.” Bobby paused.

“What is this about, Bobby?” interrupted Grant.

“Just let me finish.” said Bobby. “… My dad came home later that night, mom told him about Senior, and he came over to me. He said ‘Bobby, death is God’s way of ending somebody’s suffering.’ He later told me about how Senior had been sick. But, I didn’t understand it then. I do now…” another pause. “I wiped my eyes and looked up at him. He smiled, and led me to the side of the garage. Senior was lying by a pile of dirt. His eyes were hard, and flies were already buzzing around him. Dad got down on both of his knees, put his hands on Senior’s stomach and began to pray. Soon, he had me pray along beside him. We prayed for five minutes, and then left. He told me that if it was God’s will, then God would bring Senior back to me. I went to bed that night feeling at peace, and when I woke up I had a feeling that Senior was alive. I went outside and ran over to the garage. But, he was still dead. Dad told me again that if it was God’s will then Senior would come back. Two more days passed, and each day came where Senior was still dead, until the night of that second day. I sat in my room, praying, when I heard a meow. I knew it was Senior’s. So, I ran down the steps, and outside. Sitting by the garage was Senior, alive and well. We had him for another two years, and then he just disappeared.”

“So God healed your cat?”

“That was the day when I knew that He existed and cared about me. But, when my dad died, I expected him to raise the same. It turns out, it wasn’t God’s will. Death is God’s way of ending somebody’s suffering.”

“No matter what you want to believe, Bobby, God only cares about certain people, and I am not one of them. He let Kali die.”

“See, Grant, I lost the faith I had from seeing Senior rise, because my dad was a much bigger part of my life. And I couldn’t understand why he had to die. I wanted explanations, and a reason. But, there is no reason. God took my dad to end his suffering.”

“How does this apply to me?” asked Grant.

“I am explaining my faith to you. Believe, Grant. If it is God’s will to save Kali, He will.”

“Thanks, Bobby.” answered Grant, hiding his disbelief.

“Yeah,” he sighed, and closed his eyes. “Goodnight, Grant.”

“Goodnight, Bobby.” Grant replied.

Bobby stared at his feet with his lids half open as he drifted off into a deep sleep.

Grant surveyed the room, seeing shadows shape shift on the wall, and drain into the ceiling. He stared at the TV set sitting in the corner. The television acted as a mirror, reflecting the hallway behind him. Caught in the reflection was the seven and a half foot sloth like man, standing hunched over in the hall, waiting at the door where Chelsea slept with their dead daughter in her hold.

Grant blinked his eyes, and when he opened them again, the sloth man had disappeared. Had he ever been there? Or was it just Grant’s imagination?

Grant closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths and opened them again. He looked at the TV once more; the hall was empty. It was like he was being beckoned to the room. But, Grant was scared. He didn’t know if he was insane or dreaming. Any other option wouldn’t fit into his view on life. He still didn’t believe in the supernatural. It wasn’t a logical thing to believe. God was still nothing but a large man in the clouds; the devil was just his red counterpart.

Although reluctant, Grant grabbed hold of his gun, clicked on the light, and stood up. Slowly, he walked past the couch, pointing his gun at the end of the hall. The house was quiet; the air was cold and heavy. He walked past the carpeted basement stairs. A shiver shot up his spine. Goose bumps grew on his arms. He imagined something grabbing hold of him, and pulling him to his death.

No matter what Grant said, the only reason he was alive was because he was scared to die. He wasn’t scared of drawing his last breath. He was scared what would happen after. Grant was a man who avoided everything.

He passed the carpeted stairs, only being touched by fear, not grabbed and pulled away by it. The door the sloth man had been staring at was fifteen feet away. Grant stopped walking, and looked back. Bobby lay on the couch, and the night light displayed shadows growing tall on the walls.

Grant shone his light ahead into the darkness. The doorknob glistened. He walked ahead, keeping his eyes sharp, but his periphery sharper. Fear clenched hold of him, draping him in a shroud of dark thoughts, and morbid images. Grant imagined that when he opened the door, he would find Chelsea with a hole in the side of her head, or slits across her wrists.

Reluctantly, he continued. The door was in his reach. The second hall intersected with the first; it was on his left. Two doors were opened, both presenting black rooms. Grant shook away a shiver, clenched hold of the knob, and turned.

The door started to open with a slight pinch of sound. The room was lit by a circle of candles sitting on windowsills, dressers, and chairs. The closet and dresser drawers were opened. Grant looked at the bed. Chelsea was not sleeping. All he saw was the blanket Kali had been wrapped in. All at once, a thousand different possibilities came into his head.

His hands began to shake as the door continued to open. He looked right, seeing metal hangers and clothing thrown on the floor. Scared of what he would see when looking left, Grant closed his eyes, gained composure, and opened them.

Chelsea stood in front of a full bodied mirror, dressed in an elegant red dress. Her hair was flipped up into a matted bun. Her reddish blonde bangs draped her eyes. Her brows were plucked of uneven hairs, and outlined. Her eyelashes were pulled into an even arc, and painted with mascara. She turned to Grant with her lips red and pouty.

“Hey, babe.” she smiled. “Kali’s ready to go out.”

Sitting in Chelsea’s left arm was Kali. Her skin was tough and gray. Eyes that had been a dark ocean blue were glazed over. She was painted up like a beauty pageant queen. Her pudgy little cheeks were now powdered red; her dead and blue eyes were outlined in black, and her thin lashes were standing in an arc. She wore a dress that nearly matched Chelsea’s.

“What are you doing?” Grant asked, mortified.

“I know, Grant. You think she’s too young to have make-up, but she’s my little princess, and she has somewhere she has to be today.”

“Do you know what you are doing?!”

“Please don’t yell, honey, you’ll scare Kali.”

Grant blinked his eyes in mortified disbelief. His tongue was lost somewhere in his throat. It was a moment in which he realized that the Chelsea he fell in love with was no more. She was now insane.

“Snap out of it! She is dead!”

“We don’t say that word in my house.” she smiled obliviously.

“What word?”

“Dead… you shouldn’t say such things. Kali will pick up bad habits. She doesn’t need to know about… that.”

“What are you doing this for? Why are you doing this?”

“Because,” she screamed. “Kali needs to look good when we go out.”

“Put her down, Chelsea. Lay her on the bed, take off the make-up, and wrap her back up in the blanket.”

“No. She can’t breathe. She wanted out.”

“Where are you go-going with her? Why are you dressed in someone else’s clothing? Why is she?”

“What are you talking about?” she smiled, no longer even considering that she was putting make-up on her dead daughter. “This is our dress up room. Kali is a princess. She needs to look like one.”

“Come back to me, Chelsea. Please.” he was humble and honest. “We’ll bur-bury Kal—”

“Stop it!” she shrieked. “Just let us have our fun.” Chelsea sat Kali on the bed. Kali tipped over, and stared at Grant. The back of his throat filled with Sick. His stomach felt bottomless.

He stared at his dead daughter, and cried a tear. She looked so innocent, yet so objectified, like a morbid doll.

“I’m sorry, baby.” he whispered, now avoiding eye contact with Chelsea. “Daddy loved you. I did.”

Callously, Chelsea grabbed hold of Kali, and put her up to the mirror. “You look beautiful, baby.”

Grant grabbed hold of his hair, and pulled. He rubbed his pale face, and backed away from the room. Chelsea soon disappeared as he shut the door, and backed away feeling cold. His daughter had been reduced to a mannequin.

He backed up a few more feet, and then turned toward the living room. Grant was ready to leave Chelsea to be alone with her delusional mind. Quickly, he walked out to the living room, and over to Bobby.

“Bobby?” he whispered, still looking at the end of the hall. “Come on, buddy, wake up.” Bobby didn’t wake.

“Come on, Bobby. We gotta get out of here.” Suddenly, Grant realized that Bobby wasn’t breathing. “Bobby?” he asked quietly. “Let’s go.” Grant looked down at Bobby. He looked peaceful, and content. His chest didn’t rise up and go back down, but he was still warm. Grant put his head on Bobby’s chest. His heart wasn’t beating. Desperately, he pounded on his chest, trying to jump start an already dead engine. “Please don’t go. I need you.”

Every person Grant loved all died in the same way: they found solace; they found God.

Grant looked at Bobby, trying to find some delusional realm where death was a forbidden word. He envied Chelsea. Even though she was completely disconnected from reality, she was fortunate. Grant wasn’t.

He looked at Bobby, realizing that his best friend, his brother had died. He hadn’t said goodbye, or told Bobby all the things he wanted to tell him. And now it was too late.

As he laid his head on the couch, the last words Bobby had said entered his head:

“Death is God’s way of ending somebody’s suffering.” In that moment, Grant realized that there was nothing he could have done. The sad and simple truth was Bobby Jackson wanted to die.

“Grant?” the voice was deep and familiar. “Turn around.”

With wet eyes and a sniffle, he turned around to find his father sitting on the couch. He was without his monster: a warm presence.

“What, d-dad?”

“Believe.” he smiled sincerity, and then stood up. He walked to the hall, and down the basement stairs.

“Dad?! Help me! Please!” Grant followed after him, but stopped at the top of the steps. He stared down into the darkness. “Dad, come back!” Suddenly a cold chill swept up the stairs, and engulfed him. Grant became cold, and looked back at Bobby. There was nobody there. It was as if the last thirteen years of friendship all became irrelevant. And in that moment his memory began to fade. “Dad, save me!”

“I can’t, kiddo.”

Appearing from nothing, the sloth man grew before him. It grabbed ahold of his arms, and threw him down the stairs. Grant landed on his head. The floor was carpeted, but the fall had been hard.

Blood gushed from his broken nose, and his eyes felt as if they were being pried from their sockets. Grant searched desperately for his gun, but it was upstairs by the sofa.

“Dad?” he called. “Help me.”

No one answered. It was silent and dark. But a presence lurked all around. His arms were covered in goose bumps, and his body was now a broken frame. He could barely move his right arm, and his wrist popped out of place, nearly poking through the skin.

It was excruciatingly painful, but Grant didn’t cringe or wince. He felt an urgency to escape, but when he turned to crawl back up the stairs, he saw the seven and a half foot sloth man standing at the top. It looked at him with hollowed out features. Its face was thin and long. Its eyes were gone, and its arms nearly touched its knees.

Grant attempted to crawl up the stairs, but the sloth man opened its mouth wide, revealing jagged teeth. It smiled.

Nearly petrified, Grant ran his hands up and down the wall, looking for the light switch. When he finally found it, he flicked it up. The lights didn’t come on.

But, out of the darkness, a white light glided toward him. It was radiant and warm. In the center of the light was a woman with bright blonde hair: an angel?

“Dad?” he called with a cough.

“Grant.” she said as she walked over to him. “He will save you.” She bent down, grabbed his arms, and pulled him to his feet.

“Who wi-will?”

“He has heard your call. He can save her. He can save you.”

“… How?”

“Grant!” his father screamed from the darkness. “It’s a—”

“What?” he looked at the lady of light, and then at the darkness behind her. He glanced up the stairs. The sloth man stood with a wide, knowing grin. “What did you say, dad?”

It was quiet.

“Grant.” the woman grabbed his chin, and smiled pleasantly. “This is what you’ve been looking for your whole life. He can save you.”

“What do I have to do?”

“You have to choose.”

“What am I choosing?”

Suddenly, she changed. The light intensified. Grant blinked. And when he looked again, Bobby stood in front of him.

“Hey, buddy.” He smiled.

“Bobby?” Grant stared with wide eyes, and disbelief. “You died.”

“He brought me back. He can save you. He can save Kali… just believe.”

“In what?” asked Grant.

“You know what comes after death, Grant?”

“No.”

“Nothing.” Bobby smiled with a scoff. “Everything I believed was just wishful thinking. I died, but wasn’t rushed off to heaven. My father wasn’t sitting and waiting. Heaven doesn’t exist. God doesn’t exist.”

“You pledged your life to Him. You believed.”

“I was wrong, Grant. All there is… is this, this world around us, the sky above us, and the ground beneath us. Heaven doesn’t sit in the clouds. We die, and that’s it.”

Grant averted his eyes from Bobby, glanced at the stairway, and then closed them. He thought about it all. What had it been worth? What was it worth now? If it was all a trick, what was he actually losing? Did he believe in souls? Did he believe in the afterlife?

Even though Bobby stood in front of him, resurrected, Grant knew it wasn’t Bobby. Maybe it was a trick. Maybe it was all a lie. But, all that mattered to him was the result. God hadn’t answered his calls. But, this other being was. He was raising people from the dead; he was saving them.

Grant opened his eyes. Bobby grinned pleasantly, brushing his bangs from his face, and taking off his thick rimmed glasses.

“What do I need to do?” asked Grant.

“Dedicate yourself to him. Pledge yourself to the choice. Worship the idea. He will save her. The three of you will be a family again.”

Grant stood silent, staring up the stairs. He thought about his life, his family, and his choice. The failure that he had been could now be undone. He was a father who could save his daughter, and a partner who could save his fiancée. Finally, he had control over the things he loved most.

“Will you dedicate yourself to him?” asked Bobby.

“He has to prove himself to me.”

“Go upstairs. She will rise. Your family will be restored.”

Grant looked up the stairs. The sloth man was gone. When he turned around, Bobby was gone as well. The basement was dark. The presence was gone. His broken arm was repaired, as was his nose.

Without strain, Grant walked up the stairs. He looked right, seeing an empty couch where his friend had died. Was it possible that he was alive again? Was this being really the answer? No longer afraid of his surroundings, Grant turned left and walked down the hall. He grabbed hold of the handle, and opened the door.

Chelsea sat on the bed, holding Kali, still delusional. Grant looked at Kali. She was still dead. But, soon something happened. Her finger moved, and then her hand. She began to cough, her eyes brightened to a dark ocean blue, and she looked at Grant.

Suddenly Chelsea awoke from her delusional state of mind, looked down at her daughter, and then at herself.

“Kali?” She lifted her into the air. Kali smiled. “It’s a miracle.”

“Yeah,” Grant smiled, crying a joyful tear. Finally his prayers had been answered. “He saved her.”

“God?” she looked at him, and then at herself. “Why am I wearing this red dress?”

“No,” Grant said. “God doesn’t exist. Something else saved her, something real.”

“What?”

“I don’t know. But, I choose to follow him.”

Immediately, Kali began to die again. Her blue eyes faded to a glazed over gray. Her skin darkened and toughened. Grant’s eyes widened as he turned around. Sloth men stood in each doorway smiling.

“She’s dying again, Grant!” Chelsea screamed. “Save her!”

“I can’t.” he whispered, looking at the sloth men, and then back at Chelsea. “I’ve failed.” Suddenly his legs gave out beneath him, his eyes blurred, and his body began to ache.

“I have saved you.” the voice was somewhere deep inside. It was distorted. Grant looked up at Chelsea, reaching out his hand as he got to his knees.

“Run.” he whispered.

Chelsea sat on the bed, and watched her daughter die for a second time. She then looked at Grant. His eyes had blackened. They were burnished rabid stones.

“Grant?” she asked reluctantly. “Is that you?”

“Fear!” he was one of them now. “Mrk Frong Dore. Cos Legk Nith. Codor Sie Fore.” Grant got to his feet. Chelsea began to back up on the bed, grabbing hold of her daughter, holding her close like a little girl with a teddy bear.

Grant knew nothing of what he did. He stared at Chelsea, seeing only a blur. He lunged forward, grabbing hold of Chelsea’s thigh.

“Don’t, Grant. Pl-please don’t!”

He bit down. Her leg shook violently as his teeth tore it open; blood squirted free.

“Help me, God!” she pleaded. “Numb the pain.”

Grant heard her cries. Somewhere deep within he was aware of what he was doing, but he couldn’t stop. He was controlled; he was Insane.

Chelsea soon died, holding her daughter close. Maybe she found peace. Maybe she found God. But, Grant Smith was never able to. He had made his choice; he had embraced his freedom; he had been saved by a lie…

Chapter 18

Today is December 24th, 2014. Today is the end of the world. Ash falls heavily from the sky; the town of Miles is burning; the bodies lay gutted and skinless.

All that remains is one Insane man formerly known as Grant Jonathan Smith weakly crawling through the cemetery where his father is buried. His Crave is all he has. He’s hungry. He’s dying. There is nothing left. Everyone is dead.

His eyes are squinted, black, and beady. His teeth are rotten and bloodstained. And his face is squeezed tightly by pale, livid skin. It hurts. Everything hurts. He looks up to the sky. The sun is out, and snow is sifting through the clouds. It’s ending. His chest tightens, his lungs shrivel, and his heart slows.

Grant looks up to the sky, coughing up blood while screeching in pain. “I’m sorry,” it slips out with his final breath…

As if he is created again, Grant wakes up in a field of green. Chelsea is running after a joyful Kali Marie. Bobby is sitting on a bench next to his father. Both are happy. The sky is blue, the sun is bright, and the breeze is warm.

Chelsea turns around, glancing at Grant, but not recognizing him.

“Chelsea!” he yells, waving his arms in the air. “Kali!”

They don’t look at him. They don’t notice him.

Kali begins to wander over to him. Her eyes are glowing blue, and her face is lively. She puts out her arms, coming toward Grant. Her hair has grown, and she even has a few teeth. She smiles, now running.

Grant gets down on one knee, and puts out his arms, waiting to grab her and never let go. She comes closer and closer until wandering through him.

“Kali!” Chelsea calls. “There you are. Come here!” Chelsea runs over to Kali. Her hair blows across her face. She brushes it away, smiles wide, and grabs hold of Kali as she walks through Grant. “There my little girl is. Let’s go over and play with Bobby.”

They run over to the bench. Chelsea sits Kali in Bobby’s lap. He bounces her up and down on his knee. Kali giggles.

Grant turns, seeing his mother and father lying together on a picnic blanket. Hannah is with them, cuddled in between.

“Dad!” Grant yells desperately. “Mom! Hannah!” No one looks. No one notices. To them he never was. He has been discarded from their memories.

But, suddenly his father gets up from the blanket and walks over to him. “It’s beautiful isn’t it, Grant?”

“You can see me?” he nearly cried. “Why can’t they?”

“Because, son, you never existed to them. Not even I can see you.”

“Then why are you talking to me?”

“Think about it.”

“I do-don’t know.”

“You aren’t here. This is what you could have had. I told you to choose. You chose wrong.”

Suddenly, his eyes open to find that he is chained to a table in a dimly lit room. He looks around, seeing stone walls smeared with blood. Everything is silent. The air is cold. His body immediately begins to shiver.

Many doors open around him and in walk sloth men, holding long knives. They gather around the table, and slowly start cutting his skin.

“Mrk Frong Dore. Cos Legk Nith. Codor Sie Fore.” they chant gleefully. One sloth man stabs a sharp, bent claw into his gut, and pulls out his innards. All at once they begin to eat him, screeching with delight while laughing.

Grant closes his eyes, trying to numb the pain.

But, all he sees are clouds.

About the Author

Since starting off on this journey nearly ten years ago at the age of sixteen, Nate Allen has three works of fiction under his belt as well as a collaboration with M.J. Elliott nearing release. He currently lives in South Carolina with his wife of nearly five years and his two year old little girl.

His mission in life is to use the pain from his past to bring hope to as many as will listen. There is much more to come. If you want to join him on this lifelong journey, you can find (and follow) him here.

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Clouds

What Grant Smith loses at seven is much more than his father. He loses his faith, his happiness—his identity. The years turn him into a man without reason. At eighteen he is just as lost as when he was a child. All he wants is happiness. One day it is found in a cemetery in the form of a girl named Chelsea. She is damaged much like him. They fall in love. Grant is a man haunted by things he has always avoided. Despite a new sense of happiness he can’t escape the darkness that was born within him. It manifests in the form of a father now transformed by his own demons. In a dream he frenetically claims happiness. But, the father with a monster attached mocks him for it. The truth he doesn’t want to face is that he is not happy. Or if he is, he fears it is only temporary. And it is… The war that started after 9/11 branches off into others; the president who promised change is reelected; a once bright future has become something bleak. The Draft is put back into effect. On a day when two explosions paint the sky in Baghdad, Grant unleashes his darkness. Every choice has a consequence. His is unimaginable. His father’s death left him a man without reason. The war leaves him a man changed for the worse. He knows of his darkness. He let it free. And now it threatens to take away everything he loves…

  • ISBN: 9781370951864
  • Author: Nate Allen
  • Published: 2017-03-15 06:50:14
  • Words: 63425
Clouds Clouds