(DISCLAIMER: Horrors of the Battlefield is a series of fictional short stories written by an author (me) with no intimate knowledge of the military or its inner workings, with only small research available. These stories are not meant to paint the military or its servicemen in any way.)What happened has never affected how much I loved my job. What happened never affected my performance afterward. Sure, it was quite startling, even for me, sort of a giant compared to most, but I will never forget what I saw.
I was in the United States military, Army to be exact. Nothing too glorious, I guess, just regular army. These days, though, the standard combat infantryman in the U.S. Army alone is a pretty well-equipped combat unit, so I guess that's something. I was a light machine gunner, and I loved working in the squad, even in the relative unease in the Middle East. You may think we had it easy having the firepower we did, but all that doesn’t calm you much when the enemy could show up in any doorway, where there could be a bomb in any car, a sniper on any hillside, crazy shit like that. Most of us just got used to it, but me not so much. I hated not being able to trust anyone, but at least I had the others. Those are the guys you can trust, your brothers. It’s times like that which make you grow really close to your buddies.
I guess I did get used to it after all, and so did the others. We must have because we were caught so off guard that day.
My squad had worked a number of different assignments, but mostly vehicle escort. Even a tank cannot see all the roadside bombs, or defend itself from whoever may come out of hiding. It’s what they call a mutualistic relationship; we’re the tank’s eyes, and the tank's our biggest muscle.
That day we were walking with a small column of three two-and-a-half ton trucks and some Humvees. I think, if I recall, that they were carrying munitions, and we were headed to another base to drop them off. We were walking down several miles of what seemed to be a deserted road somewhere in Afghanistan. It was so quiet there, not a sound in the air. That’s what should have kept me on edge.
I recall seeing the pothole long before the trucks could pass it, and we are to assume that anything could be a potential IED. But, when we inspected it seemed to be just that: a pothole. No loose dirt, no signs of anything buried there. Squad leader okayed the trucks to move ahead, and we started walking again. My guess is that the pothole was actually some kind of decoy, a blatantly obvious distraction because no sooner had that truck moved forward that the world exploded all around me.
It’s not really like you see in the movies, where the explosion gently lifts you into the air and throws you several yards, then you where you can just get up again. Please, as if a bomb going off next to you is some trivial shit you can just shrug off. It’s more like getting hit by a truck, and you just go sprawling like someone decked you. The blast slammed into my back, and everything went black before I even had a chance to think the words “Aw, shit!”
When a bomb or grenade goes off, or an RPG hits really close by, a lot of times your ears will ring and you feel all this pain from the concussive force of an explosion. I didn’t have any of this when I came to. In fact, when everything came into focus, I was still standing somehow. I rubbed my eyes and tried to look over my body for wounds. However, for some reason I could not move, just stand there and look around in confusion.
Everything looked colorless and fuzzy like it was all filmed with a really old camera. Smoke billowed everywhere; it was kind of like being underneath a hovering chopper where all the dust is kicked up by the rotors. I could hear the crackling of flames and a couple men were screaming and moaning in agony. I stood there, taking all this in, and that’s when my head cleared enough to see it all, or at least all I could see beyond the ring of smoke that clung around the area like a wall.
Three other men were standing shock still like I was. They were each standing over a body, but they did nothing. They just stood there helplessly like me. The bodies at their feet were limp, bloodied, and motionless. It almost brought a tear to my eye, as I knew that we were standing ankle deep in our fallen brothers. But other than those three, and the bodies, I saw no one else around. Not the squad leader barking orders, not medics tending to the wounded, the trucks, no one. We seemed to be all alone.
I looked down and saw that there was a body at my feet as well. This one laid flat on its front, with the weapon underneath him. Trying not to cry, I leaned down, and pushed on the body, rolling it over, trying to get one last look at one of my buddies. When the body flopped onto its back, my jaw dropped. The body at my feet was relatively untouched, and the face was instantly recognizable. I had woken up every day with that face in the mirror, on my driver's license, in my family photos. Even in my horror, I recognized the face as my own.
It was impossible, it had to be, but there it was. I was standing over my own body!
I looked around at the others, and their eyes met mine. They all showed the same horror, the same sorrow that filled my own eyes, and my heart sank. Each man was standing over his own lifeless, battered corpse. I patted my chest, my gear, everything felt so real and alive, but there we were. We were all dead, and nothing feels worse than what I felt in that moment, something you cannot describe. It’s grief, it’s regret, it’s anger and it’s sadness all rolled up into one awful mix.
Looking down at my own chest, I saw something amidst the grayness. Even after all I had just witnessed, I still could not believe what I was seeing, and my eyes widened, while my brow furrowed in confusion. There, leading from my chest to that of my body was something long, thin and red. Almost like yarn, a string. I tried to touch it, but my hand went through it. I looked and saw that each of the others had found the same thing. I cried, unable to do anything else. I wanted to curl up in a ball there on the ground, not ready to accept what I knew now had happened to me. I had been killed in action.
I don’t know how long I stood there, the tears running hot on my cheeks when this feeling came over me. It’s kinda like when you’re waiting for that other shoe to drop, and you know that what that person is going to say is going to terrify you. A building despair leaked into my heart and I froze in place. In the corner of my eye, I saw something else move in the smoke.
My heart froze and my blood turned to ice when I saw the black figure step into view. It was huge, maybe ten feet tall but stooped like an old man. A black cloak billowed and waved about it like the thrashing waves of the ocean. It was not walking towards us: it was gliding towards us. It stopped, towering above like a dark tower, the emptiness of the hood glaring into us, chilling my bones and freezing my body. Nothing moved, not me, not the others, not the figure.
Finally, it turned to the man farthest from me and glided over to him. My comrade made no attempt to run, but I don’t think any of us could move if we wanted to. His tether glowed so brightly; it looked like it was on fire. The figure stood over him, looking at him, and then looking at his body, and finally at the string.
It reached its vacuous sleeve into the folds of its cloak and pulled out a sinister object. A long curved blade attached to a short handle, all black, but gleaming with a dark sheen. A sickle, a harvesting tool. It took hold of the sickle in one unseen hand somewhere within its sleeve, and I saw another hand slink out to take hold of the string. The fingers were long, bony, almost skeletal. It stooped to say something in his ear, words that I never heard.
When it stood up, it gave one last look at my fellow soldier, who managed to look me in the eye. To my surprise, I saw that his face was so calm now, serene, and fearless. I had not seen anyone look like that since I had left the states. He gave me a small smile, a sad one but with joy just behind the veil, and a tear fell from his eye.
The thing reached back its arm with the sickle and swung it down across the string. The string broke easily, with a clap of thunder. My friend closed his eyes, and he faded before my eyes like smoke from a dying campfire. His body remained where it was, the solemn reminder of his passing.
The figure glided over to another comrade. Almost the exact same thing happened, the fear turned to calm, the string was severed, and the fellow apparition faded away. This happened to the last remaining fallen brother, this big black guy who had mentored me through basic. He looked at me with a look of genuine sadness in his eye, and I knew just how much I would miss him. Finally, only two figures remained standing, me and the creature.
It turned to me, three red strings glowing faintly in its left hand. I looked it dead in the face if it had one. I felt the thing looking back, but now I was unafraid. I knew what about to happen. I was about to move on, to a better place, maybe even see my brothers again. The emotion was overwhelming as the creature moved to stand over me, looking down. I felt no malice or evil in its presence, in fact, I almost felt pity, empathy, something I never expected from such a specter.
It leaned down to put its hood next to my head, and I heard the softest, smoothest voice that I have ever, and will ever, hear. It said, gentle as a summer breeze and comforting as a mother whispering to her dear child; “Do not be afraid. Prepare yourself, dear warrior. You have fought, and now you may rest. Are you prepared?”
I nodded, tears glistening in my eyes as I prepared myself with a deep breath. It took the string in its hand and held aloft the sickle, to cut the final string holding me to this world. I closed my eyes, pushing more tears onto my cheeks, and I watched as the sickle swung. I was so ready. I wanted to go home.
My heart stopped when the sickle was stopped on the string as if it were steel cable, and this beautiful sound, like a small bell, sweet and soft, rung clear in my ears. I was so confused, and I looked up to the thing that towered over me like an oak tree. It tilted its hooded head and looked back to me. Then I heard it speak the most shocking words I ever expected to hear.
“It’s not your time… not yet.”
Suddenly, the smoke enveloped us, and it laid a hand on my shoulder. There was this blinding light like the sun breaking through the clouds. It was so warm, almost scaldingly hot. I felt my heart pounding in my chest, and I was shaking. It removed its hand and stood to its full height. I reached out for it, so scared, but it glided backwards into the smoke before the light swallowed me up.
That’s when I woke up, with a combat medic pounding on my chest, and another one withdrawing an epinephrine shot from my neck. I sat right up and felt my chest, my stomach, a wall of bruises all over my skin. But my heart was beating, my head pounding from a serious concussion. I looked around and saw the bodies of my comrades being loaded into trucks. I cried in the arms of a combat medic; me, a six-foot, 210-pound beast of a man bawling in the cradling embrace of some little five-foot-tall woman who must have looked very surprised.
What I went through, what I saw, it never affected my service. I still went on to serve another year. All I got from the event was a lot of bruises across my back and a minor concussion; I had somehow dodged all the shrapnel and fire. They told me that I was the lucky one, but... I don’t know about all that.
Almost every day I think about my three buddies who were killed by that roadside bomb. Two of them had families to go back to, and the other had a girl waiting for him. I’d like to say that I was that kinda guy, who’d go all the way back to the states just to talk to the families, but I didn’t. I’d rather not be there when they open the War Department letter telling them why their brother, son, father, and sweetheart isn’t coming home. I still grieve, but looking back, there’s a strange comfort in remembering the event.
That look each man got on their face when the… I guess the reaper himself, sent them onwards to whatever place we’re going, back then remembering that look evoked a lot of sadness. But now? I smile like they did. It’s comforting, you know? Knowing that they were going somewhere good, a better place. They just looked so certain of it. Every one of them deserved it. Who knows, maybe we’ll all stand together again someday. I owe those three a lot, in a way. Their memory, the memory of their passing, gives me hope that there is somewhere better than this. Maybe death isn’t such a bad thing after all...
Written by Evan.dollarhide