Evening. The end of another boring day, spent listless in this torturous place, he thought to himself. In his bed, he lay, aging, tired, weak, and frail. Eighty three years old. His once strong body, capable of hiking for miles carrying more than his own bodyweight in extra gear, now so bent and fragile that a mere walk out into the day room left him tired and out of breath.
He flipped through the tv channels. Useless shows flitted past. News, not that he cared. There was very little left in the world that interested him. Occasionally, a documentary or some old movie from younger years would peak his interest. But more and more, he'd taken to spending his days on his back, in bed, wheezing and slowly going blind.
Tonight wasn't so bad. The wheeze that was usually present has left his chest, and his vision was much clearer today. He mused that it must be new air filters clearing up his allergies, or maybe, miraculously, some retinal problem has resolved itself without further intervention from doctors or nurses. He was so tired of them. They meant well, but their unintentional condescension, especially to someone who was as old as he was, was insulting. Just because he was eighty-three didn't mean he was mentally feeble. Just...physically frail. Sure, he forgot things on occasion. He wasn't AS sharp as he'd once been, but he still knew who the President was, which party held the congressional majority, the day, month, year, and the names of all nine Supreme Court judges. He wasn't handicapped when it came to cognitive abilities, so why did they speak to him like he was deaf or mentally slow?
He glanced around his small room. A few pictures here and there. An electronic picture frame, supplied with material from a memory stick, leisurely changed pictures from his life, fading into the next one and the next one every so often. Pictures of him and his wife, now departed. Pictures of their kids, who were too busy many days, to stop by for a visit. Not that he minded. He hated being seen like this.
Goddamnit! He thought bitterly, I used to be able to run for miles and miles. I was young, handsome, physically fit. I was SOMEBODY! I'd fought through a war, TWICE! People remembered me. "Oh hey, aren't you that Marine?" "Oh, I heard you were in the war..."
I was, he thought. He glanced at the picture frame. It had just changed to a picture of himself and another Marine, dressed in tan camouflage, carrying black rifles, posing in the bright sunlight. The memory came back to him like a faithful dog returning the stick to be thrown again.
Two young men, lean, heavily tanned, uniforms bleached by the searing Afghan sun, posing with their rifles, a Marines best friend, behind a berm.
I remember this, he thought. That's me and Mike. That's in the wadi right behind post two. We'd just survived a hellish firefight. Must have been an hour. Bullets cracked in overheard like a staccato drumbeat. Constant death hunted us. We survived. He remembered vividly, leaning back against the dirty sidewall of the canal, and lighting a cigarette as the sweat dried on his face, the exhausting process of coming down off an adrenaline high beginning. Mike had plopped down next to them, and they shared the cigarette, as was their ritual. What one has, the other has. They shared everything. Cigarettes, books, water, ammo.
He missed Mike, who had been closer to him than his own brother, who he hadn't heard from in over a year. Mike has passed on the year before. The news had crushed his spirit. A man so full of life and vigor, they had kept in touch right up until his death, talking at least weekly for sixty plus years. Both families got together every few years for a while, until the kids grew up and went off to start thwir own lives. Even then, the two old Marines would get together some summers, so smoke cigars, dip tobacco, and drink whiskey, while remembering the best times of their lives, living like animals in a dusty, dirty, deathly country ten thousand miles and an ocean away.
Footsteps brought him out of his reverie. A younger looking doctor walked in. Young to him, at any rate. When you're eighty-three, everyone is young to you.
"Ah, I see you're up." He quipped. His face and eyes were brown, his hair jet black, and slightly longer than his, also much fuller. Middle-eastern, he'd wager a guess. Still, something about him looked SO familiar.
"Yeah. Just...lost in thought." He replied, still racking his brain. Where had he seen that face before. The doctor looked new...what was it that was nagging him, almost like he couldn't possibly recognize him-
"I killed you." His horrified whisper came out like the hiss of a snake slithering across pavement.
The doctor looked up from his chart, and smiled.
"I was wondering how long it would take you. You're pretty sharp, I'm impressed."
The old man stared at the younger one, his eyes fiercely burning holes into the face of the Taliban fighter hed killed sixty-three years ago.
"You're dead. I killed you. I shot you in the chest. I WATCHED YOU DIE!" The last words came out as less of shout and more of an exclamation, a forceful statement of fact.
"Well...sort of." The doctor replied smirking.
The old Marine stared, uncomprehending.
"Sixty something years ago, I shot and killed you in a bazaar in Helmand Province." He said, again in utter, stunned disbelief. As though he couldn't accept that this man was standing before him, unaged, six decades later.
The doctor closed the screen on his pad and set it down.
"Well...again, sort of. You shot and killed this man-" he gestured down his own body, "...but you didn't kill ME."
The old man still didn't quite get it. Something tugged at the corner of his memory. Something was wrong.
His silence hung in the air like an acrid cloud. The doctor looked on, patiently, seeming to wait for some sign before proceeding.
"I've seen your face every night for a long, LONG time. You never forget your first. The second, third...they all eventually fade. But you, I never forgot you."
Sixty-three years ago, ten thousand miles away, on the other aide of the world, the Marine traveled in his mind. A sunny, hot day, like every other. His squad had to patrol. Up the main supply route from their patrol base. To a bazaar where the Brits has been horribly ambushed a few weeks before the operation began in earnest. The bazaar always gave him the creeps. Too many possible hiding places. Too many unknown dangers. Open spaces in the avenues winding through the bazaar, defilade, cover, and concealment in the brick-and-mortar stalls, with their flimsy aluminium roll-down doors. If you wanted to be theatrical about it...death waited around every corner. Marines weren't theatrical, they were professional war fighters.
As per usual, the entire squad met for a pre-patrol brief at the squad leaders hooch, a tarp stretched across a two adjoining rows of HESCO barriers. The squad leader, a tan, muscled, twenty-three year old sergeant with a sandy brush cut and a Sam Elliot mustache, sat in just shorts and flip-flops, going over an aerial map of their area of operations.
"Ok, gents, fuckin' listen up! This is a fuckin' patrol like, fuckin', any other. We've done this shit a hundred fuckin' times, fuckin', nothing too fucking crazy, rah?" The Marines nodded, a few return rahs and yuts responded.
"Ok, so, fuckin, 1300 step-off. Fuckin' head up the fuckin' MSR to the fuckin' bazaar. Fuckin' interdict traffic,fuckin' vehicle and fuckin' personnel searches, goodtago?" Again, a chorus of grunted affirmations of comprehension. They didn't waste time for the formalities of full words. These men had been together, so close, through so much, for so long, that they could tell one another in the dark by their silhouette and the smell of their sweat. Normal human communication was superfluous, they practically read each others minds.
"So, we fuckin' set up, fuckin' stick around...fuckin' do our thing, look for fuckin' Taliban. Then we come back here, rah?" Everyone nodded. They knew the basics already.
"Rob, I want your fireteam to satellite patrol as we get about a hundred yards or so from the bazaar, take the loop road, meet us at the main intersection."
I was in Rob's fireteam, he remembered. A few more details were gone over, contingencies, special equipment assignments, different scenarios speculated upon and dealt with. The squad broke up and went off to do their pre-patrol checks. Check ammo, fresh mag inserted. Lube the bolt, make sure your weapon will run properly, no jams. Check water, make sure you have enough. Make sure you have something to stick in your cargo pocket, in case you get hungry. He would have checked his cigarette situation, but he knew the pack, the only one he had, stayed here with Mike. He'd take one to smoke on their way up there. The pack stayed on the patrol base, in case the carrier got killed, so he wouldn't inconvenience the other guy. He quickly grabbed one, and stuck it, unlit, between his lips, and headed to the gate.
The squad assembled, and stepped off. Business as usual. Tactical column, fifteen meter dispersion between men to prevent one IED from killing half the squad. The Marine usually walked point, but since his fireteam had been tasked with the satellite patrol, they walked drag. Last team in line. The patrol up was uneventful. Hot, light tan, dusty countryside, with sparse patches of green here and there, denoting small patches of stubborn weeds, scattered trees, and hardy shrubs, perfectly comfortable surviving in this austere environment. The infrastructure was...non-existent. Small huts, all one story, with a no glass windows, and flimsy tin doors, dotted the scenery. The Marines eyes roved across the landscape, taking in everything, settling on nothing. Getting sucked in caused you to miss other things. It's how you died. It's how you got people killed, which was worse.
A hundred or so yards from the bazaar, the last team split off and moved at an angle to the rest of the patrol, heading toward the ring road that circled the outside of the bazaar, while the rest of the squad continued straight. No sooner had the squad disappeared from view, than the distinct pops and cracks of small arms fire started. The first two fireteams were in contact. The Marine and his team hugged the wall of a building, and hurried forward. They could have backtracked,and come out behind the squad, but that didn't put them in a better position to hit back at the Taliban ambush. They moved up the road, stopping at the end of every building to look through. The first two fireteams were unhurt, but taking cover to return the fire that seemed to be coming from up ahead, past the intersection. Robs team had yet to be seen, or come under fire. They maneuvered farther up the ring road, when from their right, in the far side buildings, came the clatter of men, gear, and the unmistakable sound of a dropped rifle. Monty, the teams automatic gunner, took a knee, instinctively training his weapon ahead, in the direction of the sound. For a few moments, all was silent. Even the fire from the Taliban ambush had slacked off. Then, two men broke from cover and started to sprint across the road. Montys M-249 opened up, catching the first two enemy fighters as they tried to make their way to assist their Islamic brothers. The first man made it across the road unscathed, but as he slowed Robs rifle tracked across him, and fired. While the first fighter slumped, the second never made it across the road. The SAW cut him down in a running tracer-string of fire, and he fell in a cartwheel, expiring in the middle of the street. The young Marine, holding rear security, had missed his opportunity to fire. The team advanced, quickly putting a few extra rounds into each fighters body to ensure their death, and continued on. The Marine advanced, keeping an eye to their rear. At the main intersection, the road curved off to the left, sharply, and Monty followed Rob around the corner to take up firing positions, radioing their movements to the squad leader. The young Marine was holding rear security when he saw him. The third fighter, saved from sudden death by his rifle falling out of his hands just before the other two broke cover to cross the street so foolishly. He stepped out from between two buildings, and immediately locked eyes with the Marine. His rifle, an old, worn, beaten AK, pointed down towards the dirt next to his feet. The Marines rifle, from a supported kneeling position, was pointed almost straight at the Taliban fighter. Their eyes locked. They both froze. The Marine had never killed anyone up close like this before. Sure, he'd shot at men during combat, but that was at distances of hundreds of yards. This man was barely fifty feet from him. Indecision was etched deeply in each mans expression. Finally, the Marine decided to act. Flipping his selector switch off safe, he sighted in swiftly and pulled the trigger. Once, twice, three times, four times, the man began to fall. He slumped against the side of the building, blood spray from the exit wounds coloring the cinder blocks as he sat, propped up, eyes open. The Marine stared at the newly dead man through his gunsite. His face imprinting into the Marines memory. Every wrinkle, every hair, every minute detail, etched forever into his young mind. mermaid wedding dress
For the next six decades, the Marine would see that face in his mind. Uncertain, afraid, accusing. Now, finally, he was face to face with him again. Or, he thought he was.
The nagging tug at the corner of his mind resolved itself suddenly, in a moment of startling clarity. His breathing issues had seemingly dissipated. His eyesight seemed better. He was seeing the enemy fighter he had killed more than half a century ago...
He looked up into the dark brown eyes of the "doctor".
"When did I go?" The old man asked.
"About fifteen minutes ago." The dark skinned visitor responded.
"So...are you...him?" The old Marine asked, unsure.
"Who...the Afghan or...?" he let the question trail off.
"No, are you HIM?" He said emphasizing the last word, leaving no confusion as to his meaning.
"Yes. I am." The visitor responded simply.
The Marine chucked. The doctor walked over to him then, extending a hand, holding a half-smoked pack of cigarettes. The Marine took one, ajd the doctor pulled out a green book of waterproof matches and struck one, lighting his cigarette.
"Ya know," the Marine said,taking his first deep drag in nearly two decades, "...I always kinda figured you would wear a cloak and have a scythe."
The doctor laughed.
"No, that's really not my style. Not exactly sure where that idea came from. I never really liked it in the first place. By the way, those cigarettes? They're Mike's. He wants the rest of the pack back, per your agreement. He's really excited to see you again."
The Marine finished the first cigarette, stubbing put the embers and lit another one from the book of green MRE matches.
"Before we go, I assume youre here to come get me, I have one question I want to ask you." The Marine said.
"Sure, fire away." Death replied.
"What was his name?" He said, nodding at the doctor/visitor...the body that Death was wearing.
Death didn't look at all surprised. He merely nodded knowingly, and said
"Been wondering about for sixty-three years." The Marine explained.
The Marine stood up, stubbing out the second cigarette.
"Can I meet him?" He asked Death.
"Sure. Pretty common request from guys in your former line of work." Death told him.
"Well...let's get goin'." The Marine said. Death motioned an after-you-sweep of his hand and a slight bow. The Marine glanced backward over his shoulder, once, to see himself, lying motionless, face calm and peaceful, almost serene, laying in his bed. His electronic picture frame still fading from picture to picture. Pictures of him, his wife, Mike...people he was looking forward to seeing again. He turned, squared himself away, leaned his shoulders back, and with a new strength he hadn't felt in decades, marched purposefully through the doorway, his surroundings fading around him as he left.