When I Die: An Exclusive Short Story from Barry Lyga!

by Barry Lyga

Waking from the dream, the good dream, the dream of an adumbral Asian night, the fume-swaddled sky carved into drifting patches of gray-white by the sharp, bleeding tracer bullets, screams and booms and shrieks and thunder and the whup-whup-whup of a Huey overhead, the wind rubbing ashes and sparks into his eyes, the taste of bile so hot on his tongue, the good dream, yeah, the M-16 with its plastic casing barely even jerking in his hands while he fires, you could hold the goddamn thing against your nuts while you pulled the trigger, the dream, waking he—

He squeezes his eyes tight, willing himself back to sleep, back to the dream of hell that he prefers. Awake, he can hardly remember the details now, despite his promise to himself never to forget, never ever fucking forget what happened over there. But in the waking world, the mundane world of the everyday, the ARVN and Charlie seem like figments of his imagination, thirty-two years gone, just an old man’s memories, and when the hell did he become an old man? Go to the video store and see Robin Williams and Sylvester Stallone playing guys in ‘Nam and they sure as shit don’t look 54 years old, do they?

He sits up in bed, careful not to waken Maude. The bedroom window faces the front lawn with its flagpole and the three big halogen lights that keep Old Glory lit all night, filtering through the Venetian blinds to cast the bed, the furniture, Maude, and him in a yellow glow that they’ve both learned to sleep against.

Like gooks, he realizes, looking at the sallow skin of his hands. We look like fucking gooks.

He wants to sleep again. He wants the dream. So much better. So much better than—

He sighs and eases himself out of bed, noticing for the first time that he grunts quietly under his breath in doing so. His old man did that, too. Every time he’d sit down or get up, that little oof, like it’s getting to be too much effort to move…

Picture on the wall, framed in oak, faded black and white, to the point that it’s patterns of gray now. His old squad. He remembers Bobby-J climbing on his lap one day when he’d taken the picture down to look at it, pointing, saying, “How many of them came back, Daddy?”

Remembers lying. “Most of them.”

Oh, Christ, he wants the dream, he thinks as he touches the picture lightly, stroking the outline of the younger man he once was. Even the part with the teeth would be fine.

But instead he heads for the door, catching a glimpse of himself, puffy and gray and loose in the jaundiced light. When, he wonders again. When did he become so old?

He knows where he needs to go; he walks quietly down the hall of the little split foyer, then down the stairs to the kitchen, where the angel is waiting for him again.

The first time he saw the angel was three days after Bobby-J’s funeral. The sergeant who eulogized him had called him “Robert,” which sounded so strange. The family had called Robert Jr. “Bobby-J” since before he knew his own name. But the men in his battalion all knew him as Robert or Rob, so that’s what the sergeant called him.

Later, he shook the sergeant’s hand and they did that abrupt history exchange that military men do:

“Sergeant Crowley? Robert Ogilvy. Corporal, C Company, Third Battalion, First Marines. Quong Luc, 1967.”

“F Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines. Basra, 1993. Good to meet you. Sorry ‘bout the circumstances. Rob used to talk about you all the time.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Used to tell the other guys ‘My dad was in ‘Nam, in the shit. And most of his guys got out, so this fucking desert ain’t anything to be scared of.’ If you’ll pardon my language, sir.”

Most of his guys got out.

Three days after the funeral, he couldn’t sleep. He wandered the house like a man in a maze who couldn’t find the way out. Pictures of himself in dress blues on the wall. His sword mounted in the hallway, his Purple Heart under glass in the living room, next to the letter of commendation and the bullet that “Blacktop” Smith made him keep for himself, “just in case.” A Marine Corps flag and an Ohio flag hanging from the banister over the living room. Yellowing, ragged photos of his old man in his uniform, faded like old blue jeans.

He ended up in the kitchen, which fronted on the yard and its flagpole, bathed in brilliance. A beer. Maybe a beer would help…

And then the kitchen erupted in a glare that made the halogen lights seem the vaguest pinpricks of light from the furthest star. Like looking into napalm. Like phosphor exploding just behind the eyes.

The angel stood in the center of the kitchen, its wings made of light, its body glowing with a pure, unwavering effervescence, like the brightest, hottest center of a light bulb.

“Robert Ogilvy,” it said, without moving its lips, without gesturing, the words drifting like a breeze, and he froze, terrified, and his lips trembled, and his world blew apart into a million pieces.

“Robert Ogilvy,” it says, watching him with pupil-less eyes the color of the sky just after lightning. Its body coruscates, throwing off pale reds, oranges, glimmering yellows that remind him of the sparks in the steel mill, the liquid metal pouring out, throwing up clouds of dancing embers, like the tracer bullets, bleeding like blood, oh God he’s getting confused again, the steel mill, the jungle, the kitchen. All one and the same. Most of his guys.

Most of his guys got out.

“Your son is waiting,” it says, and with an effortless shrug, one wing peels back, brightening the kitchen like morning haze, reminding him of the steamy fog after the rainy season.

“I know. I know.”

“Cries out…” It fixes him with its unblinking gaze, long, flowing hair floating around its head like it’s under water, locks the color of rain, the color of bullets. So beautiful that he wants to wet himself. So terrifying.

“Most of them,” it says in his voice, firing the words at him like spears.

And he just wants to go back to sleep now. So that he doesn’t have to think about it. So that he can dream again of the jungle that day—

“Cries out, and you can answer it.”

Ten of them, separated from the others, slogging through the wet and the green. The fucking jungle was an enemy, too, worse than the goddamn slants. Fucking jungle eat you up, spit out your balls. Hide an ambush, like the one they walked into, “Blacktop” in the lead, talking about some fucking Beatles song, can you beat that?, and then there they were, all around them, and crossfire and tracer bullets, fuck!

“Answer it,” the angel insists. “Answer it, extend your hand, and he can return.” But Robert’s back in country already, retreating from the vision. He sees the tripwire, but it’s too late. He tries to cry out, but his voice is swallowed by the Huey, just their goddamn luck that the helicopter catches up to them at the worst fucking moment, and “Blacktop” and Can-Man break the line at the same time, and the Huey’s whup-whup-whup goes away for a minute, just a minute, and the jungle vanishes into white light, then darkness, and he figures he’s been blinded by the explosion, but no, his eyes are just closed, and something…

Pebbles. Showering down on him, pelting him. Pebbles kicked up by the mine, and when he opens his eyes they aren’t pebbles, they’re teeth. Some small and white, others larger and yellowed, or browned with chewing tobacco, some filled with silver. Blacktop’s and Can-Man’s and whoever else was unlucky enough to be standing there.

Most of them.

Most of his guys

Most of his guys

died.

Six months in Japan, healing his body while the shrinks and the chaplains tried to heal his soul, then back home to the steel mill, where his father had worked until he finally coughed up something important and necessary. Military burial for the old man, a Marine in the Big One, Iwo Jima, and no one spit in your face coming back from that one.

Not that it mattered. He marched in the parades, he raised his flag over his house, taught his son to say the Pledge and stand at attention. And when Bobby-J didn’t take to the military at first, he took him to the old man’s grave and told him about bullets and Japs and the flag and the rest. Proudest day of his life when Bobby-J signed up. He left space on the foyer wall next to his commendation and the old man’s.

Six weeks. Nothing more. Six weeks and a visit from a Marine chaplain. Bobby-J’s first tour of duty. A misfire on a testing run.

Your son’s spirit cries out.

“I know.” For months now, almost every night, the angel, coming to him, tormenting him. Ever since the funeral.

Your son’s spirit cries out and it’s your fault! You killed him, but you can bring him back.

He’d rather have the jungle. Anything but that knowledge. Anything but remembering himself at his old man’s grave, shaming Bobby-J into joining the service. Anything but that one lie, that one lie.

(Most of them.)

Love it or leave it, they told the hippies. Love it or leave it. Love it more than your son.

Oh, God, back to the jungle. Anything but this. Blacktop’s teeth in his hair, fine, but not Bobby-J’s blood on his hands.

“Repent,” the angel says, like it always says, and this time he does, this time he will, as a cry rises up from within him, a raging, abused bellow that started more than a quarter century ago in Quong Luc and only now has managed to claw its way out of his belly. “Repent your sin of pride and he will be returned to you. Repent your elevation of country above God, and he will be returned to you.”

He wheels about on unsteady feet, finds his way into the living room, where he upends the display case. Only a moment’s hesitation before he snatches the poker from the fireplace and beats the Purple Heart into a twisted hunk.

Then the letter of commendation, shredded, cast into the fireplace, just as a bolt of lightning rips apart the sky outside and rain tumbles down. Yes, let the rain come. Let it purify, let it clean, let it do the things it needs, the things he requires, as he starts the fire, pitching in the scraps of the letter, the broken medal, the photos from the wall, even the photo of the old man from 1946, yes even that. Even the uniform he keeps pressed and clean in a drawer.

The Marine Corps flag. The Ohio flag. Graven images. Icons before the Lord. Repent. Love your God more than your country. Repent.

The angel is with him, drifting soundlessly, its face expressionless as it watches him rip and tear and smash. When will it be enough? When?

“When?” he asks it, tears streaming down his face. “When does his soul stop screaming?”

And the angel merely turns its head, those smoky eyes directing him out the front window.

To the flagpole.

Bathed in light and rain.

And he charges through the front door, fumbling first with the locks, then rushes out into the storm, his bare feet sloshing through the muddy yard. The rain is white paper cuts on the night, thrown into relief by the halogen lights. The angel twirls above him, gliding up the pole.

And he grabs the rope, pulling, hauling down the flag, yes, yes, he’ll do it. For Bobby-J. For all of them. For most of them.

Hauling it down, it’s close now, a wet standard, his pride. And he tears it down and without hesitation hurls it to the ground, stomping it into the mud, and he hears himself screaming “Leave it! Leave it! You killed my boy!”

And he can’t stop. Red, white, blue, ground into brown, the rain mingling with his tears, leave it, leave it. You killed my boy. I killed my boy. Oh, God.

God.

And he hears laughter. From above.

Tilts his head up, receiving the rain in his face, in his eyes. Does not blink as he watches the angel rise higher and higher.

Laughing.

Only the angel is no longer glowing. No, the angel’s skin is as crimson as heated coals, with hair the shade of dried blood. And its wings of light…

Are made of black leather.

And its laughter is beautiful. Beautiful in its joy. Beautiful in its accomplishment.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” the thing whispers, whispers from thirty feet in the air. “A secret. Now it’s as though none of you came back.”

And he drops to his knees next to the fouled flag, then falls to one side. If only. If only he’d been closer to the mine. If only his life had ended in that fast, bloody thunderclap half a world away. Then he would not be here, giving up the last of his soul for a lie.

And he lies there in the mud, weeping, thinking When I die, oh God, when I die don’t take me in your arms. Just send me back to where I belong. If you love me and if you have mercy, send me back to hell.

Barry Lyga is the author of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, which SLJ listed as one of the best books of 2006, Boy Toy, Hero-Type, and Goth Girl Rising. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.

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