My good friend used to tell stories of something he referred to as the “Unalive.”
“Isn’t that just like vampires or zombies or somethin’?” everyone in our troop in the army used to ask, “Or just a regular dead person?”
We all knew the story by that time, I think, but we never really got tired of hearing it again. It passed the long, sweltering nights and gave us something to think about besides the bleak situation at hand.
“Course not!” he responded to our queries each time, “That’s the undead, idiots, and they don’t even exist!”
And without fail, someone would reply, “Well if you’re so smart, Jack, why don’t you tell us about the unalive?
I remember Jack looking almost wraith like in the orange glow of our campfire. He was older than the rest of us, and it was showing in his greying beard and tired eyes that had seen too much in their time. He would wait for us to settle in; uncomfortably warm around the fire but unwilling to leave the illumination it provided. And Jack would begin.
“My grandfather fought in WWII. He went missing in action long before I was born. Or at least that’s what the official reports said. I don’t think they really knew how to explain what happened and they didn’t want to go through the trouble of trying. ‘Course his friends told my father what they had all seen, and my father in turn told me when I was old enough. Warned me.”
“As soldiers, it’s pretty much in our line of duty to kill. We pretend like it isn’t sometimes, and I don’t think any of us really like that fact, but that’s how it is. Doesn’t matter if we went willingly or were pulled from our homes to come fight, we’ve got to protect our country now. But sometimes aiming and pulling the trigger isn’t the end of it.”
“Sometimes these people that we’re forced to kill have an entire life waiting for them. Fate, I guess you could call it. Destiny, maybe. Had you not cut their lives short, they may have had a family, held an important job. The unalive are a product of that. Little ones who were meant to be born, who God or the cosmos or fate, whatever you want to call it, had a whole life planned out for them. The unalive are sort of like ghosts, I suppose, not dead, but not alive, either, but definitely real and wanting to make their presence known. They might be created if a young mother has an abortion, if someone young commits suicide without the thought that everything will straighten out soon, and yes, when someone who would one day have become a parent is killed.”
“It doesn’t happen every time, and I guess nobody knows why. Perhaps some not-yet-people are more persistent than others. Or perhaps they can’t find a way to wherever those who never will be are meant to go. Either way, the phenomenon is more common than one may think.”
“Despite being young souls, it seems they already know how to hold a grudge. They go straight for the one who caused their predicament. The person who bullied and tormented their future father into swallowing poison, the man that left his pregnant girlfriend with no hope and no source of income, leaving abortion as an only option. The unalive seem to know who is to blame, and they exact revenge for themselves and for their parents. I suppose you’re wondering what my grandfather has to do with all this, but I’m getting there. “
“My grandfather had never killed, never even injured someone too severely, until the day a gun was pulled on his traveling companion. He showed no mercy and no fear. He left the other man lying in the dust. He was shaken by it after the fact, though. He was quite the shot, and hit the man directly in the head. It wasn’t a pretty sight; I’ll just leave it at that. When my grandfather fell asleep in his bunk that night, he dreamed of killing again, in incredible detail. He felt the sun hitting his neck, the kick of the gun as it fired. Some object flew through the air on impact, but he snapped awake with adrenaline coursing through his body before he could tell what it was.”
“Every night for a week he had this dream. He began to sleep less and less, and when he did he woke up the rest of the bunk screaming. Everyone was beginning to worry for his health. He was pale and frail looking, a shadow of the man that had completed training with them. His mind was constantly elsewhere. Every night at about the same time he snapped awake in a cold sweat and lay staring at the ceiling until everyone else rose.”
“One night he had no more than drifted off when he heard the sound of an infant wailing. He sat bolt upright, unsure of what to think. He lay still for a moment listening, and then jabbed the person nearest to him until they woke up, swearing and threatening to murder him.” “The room dropped dead silent as soon as the other man was awake. He assured my grandfather that he was dreaming, and then rolled over and fell back asleep. “
“Every time he was alone after that, He would hear the cries of an infant, though he was never able to find one. He and every one he confided in began to fear for his sanity, though he made them swear to everything dear to them they wouldn't tell anyone in authority.”
“A few weeks after everything had begun, his sleep was interrupted once again by the dream. Only this time, after the gun had been fired he got a chance to look at the object he had seen in his peripheral vision in so many dreams. And he screamed. And screamed. It took a man wrapping his arms around him and holding him like a child to make him stop, and it was hours before he stopped trembling enough to explain what had upset him so badly.”
“Apparently, his dream had been playing out as usual until the shot fired. The object that had always fallen just out of sight landed at his feet. It was the infant, he was sure the same one he had heard crying for several days now. He had put a bullet straight through its head, in the same spot he had shot the man several weeks ago. Despite this, the baby stared directly into his eyes, never stopping its wailing. It was not the cry of a typical injured child, but angrier, somehow. It grabbed at a handful of roots on the ground and began pulling its self forwards towards him. It seemed unfazed by wounds that would have killed any grown man.”
“Grandpa could not be consoled. He insisted again and again that he had been murdering the child night after night, and he expected that he would continue to do so, forced on by his subconscious. He begged for someone, anyone, to put him out of his misery, but nobody would.”
“Next day it was decided that he was no longer fit for duty and would be shipped home and given psychiatric help as soon as possible. Everyone was rather upset about it, my grandfather was a hard working and well liked man, and people were sad to see him go.”
“That night was the worst. He had been put in a tent by himself to avoid keeping awake the other men. He was to be taken away in the morning. His tent was close enough, however, to hear him crying out for help and screaming as soon as darkness fell. The other men were under strict orders not to leave the tent and not to bother him, and so his cries went unanswered. This went on until just about midnight. Abruptly, his screams grew louder, more frantic. A sound as if he were thrashing against the canvas walls of the tent was heard, and then silence. Not even the night animals dared make a sound. Needless to say, nobody went back to sleep that night.”
“The next morning, they found the tent he had been sleeping in half torn apart. There were marks in the muck surrounding it as if there had been some sort of large struggle, and then marks as if something large had been dragged through the mud. These ended abruptly in the middle of a field with no indication of tracks leading to or away from where the object should be. The only sign that there had been any life there that night was what could have been animal tracks around the tent. But the people who were witness? They say it was the perfect imprint of a tiny little human hand. And though a search party combed the area, no sign of anyone or anything ever turned up.”
As Jack ended the story, a dead silence always fell over me and the other men around the campfire. A group of grown men struck dumb with fear like little kids. I don’t know about the other men, but the story has stuck with me long after it was last told. Every time we set out walking, guns strapped to our backs I gave a silent prayer that I would never have to shoot. I don’t want to make the mistake of taking a life before it even begins. I don’t even know how true the story may be, though Jack seems unshakably convinced that every word is fact.
I believed, well, still believe, that there are certainly fates worse than death. Maybe Jack’s grandfather knows that, maybe better than all of us.
I, for one, don’t care to find out.