Final Memorial

The fall colors blurred like a kaleidoscope even with my eyes closed.  Was I dead? It was an honest question. Nowadays the dead coming back to life was old news. I opened my eyes and looked down on my wrinkles, only to see plenty of liver spots. I was still one of the living. For now. 

I surveyed the damage from the driver’s seat, observing the front of my car smashed into a tree off the wooded path. My supplies lay scattered throughout the trunk and back seat. I had no idea what kind of condition they were in. It had been stupid of me to come out here so late, so close to nightfall, when those things preyed upon the night. How could I have been so stupid, so obstinate?

Anniversary. The word brought my teeth pressing down upon my lip. 

The scent of something heavy hung in the air. Sulfur. I took a deep breath, and then I pushed myself out of the car, facing the creature that had pushed me off the road in the first place. The creature’s black wings were as sharp and as hard as obsidian. 

“Why did you stop?” the thing said, its voice raspy and guttural.

“I thought you might like the scenic route,” I said with a bloody cough.

A rumbling, leathery hum escaped from the creature’s throat in several consecutive burst. It took me a few moments to realize it was a laugh.

“Sure, we’ll go with that,” the thing said.

“I’m not afraid,” I growled back defiantly.

“Its okay, I understand,” the thing put up his scaled arms in a dismissive gesture. “I mean, its not the first time you turned tail and ran, is it, Eddy?” 

My heart stopped when the name exited the creature’s black lips. “How . . . how do you know my name?”

“Are you so surprised, Eddy?” the creature smiled. I grunted. I hadn’t been called that in a long time. “Do you really think we fell from heaven without sneaking a peek at the Book of Life?”

“Heaven—“ I stammered. I looked at the creature before him, and the scales which covered the dark creature from his leathery wings down to his talons. But they weren’t scales. They were feathers charred black.

“You . . . you were an angel?” I said with surprise. “What happened?”

“The same thing that happened to you in the sandbox,” the creature’s expression darkened. I didn’t think it was possible. “I fought in a war. I lost my way home.”

“But you’re like me,” the thing’s lips curled into something resembling a smile. “You’re a survivor. Can’t say the same for that buddy of yours . . . what was his name . . . Johnny Barlett.”

It knows. My God, it knows. This was the anniversary of Johnny Bartlett’s death. Somewhere in the car there had been a bottle of Scotch, now smashed between the floor board and the back widow in the crash, meant to Johnny’s grave. The creature continued.

“Corporal Bartlett couldn’t win a poker game to save his life, which unfortunately turned out to be the case,” the thing snarled. “But it got you out of that patrol . . . and out of that firefight. The only loser that day was Bartlett.”

“What do you want?” I said. My voice was barely a whisper.

“Eddy, I only want to help you do what you do best . . .  survive,” The thing rubbed the palms of his clawed hands together.

“What do you mean?” I growled.

“I saw the supplies in your car. I know you’re on your way to meet others. Tell me where they are and you get a free pass,” the thing said. “It’s that simple.”

“What? Can’t you just read my mind?” I said. “After all, you seem to know so much about me.”

“Don’t be cute, old man. You are well aware of what we can do,” the thing half-screeched, half-snarled. “Besides I don’t want any surprises. I don’t want to end up like Johnny Bartlett.”

“What? You want me to draw you a map?” I replied in a flippant tone.

“Just tell me where they are. Just tell me their names,” the creature said almost casually. 

“And what’s in it for me?” I tried to grin, but it only came out as a grimace when I felt my broken ribs once more. 

“You get to walk away, my friend. Live to survive another day,” The thing said with a Cheshire grin. 

I thought about it for a while. Or at least I tried to look like I was. I knew the key to succeeding with any car salesman was acting like I had the power to walk away. Not that this thing would let me walk away from this deal, at least not in one piece. Still, the creature could definitely see me hesitating. 

“Johnny Bartlett was a sharp kid,” I spoke up in a crisp and clear voice. “I was sharper.”

The creature looked confused. “What are you saying, Eddy?”

“I’m saying if I could bluff Johnny Bartlett, I could sure as heck bluff you,” I said with a grin.

“It’s hard to bluff when the other player holds all the cards,” The thing said.

“Okay, you got me,” I threw up my one good hand up in the air. “I’m not bluffing. I’m stalling.”

“Stalling for what?” the creature asked with a hiss.  “Tell me or I will cut you down and feed you to my brothers.”

“You’ve got your brothers,” I replied. “I’ve got mine.”

It was like they had always been there. The entire cemetery turned sepia-toned as a bright blue light flooded my vision. I felt a familiar presence at my side.

“For the record, I still think you cheated at that poker game,” Johnny Bartlett said. He was wearing desert camouflage with a Kevlar vest strapped with pouches. He looked just like I remembered him on the day he died.

“Still a sore loser, I see,” I said.

“Well, I was pretty sore after that IED . .  . “ Johnny gave me a mercurial grin.

“Not cool,” I said. “Not cool at all.”

“Too soon?” Corporal Bartlett said.

“Can you two quit your belly-aching,” said a soldier wearing a dark blue coat and smooth hard hat. “You’ll wake the dead.”

“You gonna make it, old man?” Johnny asked. “You’re not looking too good.”

I watched as the blue figures advanced on the thing. There were seventy-two veterans in this cemetery. The scaly monster had woken up every single one of them. 

I looked back at Johnny. “I have a few hits still left in me. Let’s make them count.”

All around me I saw spectral fabric of soldiers from wars long since past, dating all the way back to 1776. The blue lights of my long-dead brothers glowed brighter than a blue sky on a clear day. Johnny’s face, as smooth as the day he died, broke out into a full grin, and before I knew it, I was smiling too, even if it was through a set of plastic dentures. I faced down with that creature from the Pit, its yellow eyes wide with terror, the smell of sulfur particularly pungent with the sweat of fear. Even among the dead, the warmth of my bond with the soldiers was never stronger. This is where I truly belonged, among my brothers, protecting the innocents. This wasn’t the battlefield for me. 

This was home.

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