Author’s note: I had a lot of trouble writing this. I hope this resonates with you as strongly as it did with me.
The young man was dying. He lay on the beach, clutching his side where the vicious staccato of gunfire had ripped indiscriminately through flesh, bone, and organs alike. Behind him, one of the troop carriers exploded in the shallow water, screams echoing off the concrete fortifications that lay ahead of the soldiers. Through the haze of pain and red, he could feel himself fading away.
As the other men stepped over his body, their rifles issuing oddly muted cracks, the young man felt himself pull away, rise back up until he was gazing down at himself. The feelings of pain and agony peeled away, to be replaced by a deep and suffusing sense of loss and abandonment, sinking to his soul.
“It will pass.”
The shade of the young man turned, trying to see from where the voice came. Unlike the other sounds, now all but background, the voice cut through reality like a tolling bell.
Behind the man, hovering just above the churning surface of the water, a dark shape faced him. Although its features were indistinct, it resembled a man in a black cape, a hood drawn over his face. “You have a choice,” spoke the spectre, the words ringing and distinct.
what is my choice? asked the young man.
“You are permitted one glimpse. The past, or the future.” The figure waited.
The young man didn’t have much of a past. He had fond memories before the split, before his mother had refused to leave her bed and his father took out his rage on the liquor bottle, and then on those around him. He had tried to fight back, had failed, had run away to the Army to escape. The past held nothing for him.
the future, the young man chose.
He had no way to know, but he thought that the hooded spectre smiled. It spread its arms wide, and white light, blinding light, streamed from the cloak.
…the white stones, each identical save for the names and dates carved upon them, stretched out over the hills. He could see no end to them, rolling on and on into the distance. Nearby, a young woman held the hand of a small boy as she choked back tears.
“Mommy, why?” the boy asked plaintively, tugging at the woman’s hand.
Through clouded eyes, the woman smiled down at her son. “For us,” she replied, her voice hoarse. “He gave his life for us, so that we could be free..”
The young man shook his head. No! This wasn’t what the other soldiers had talked of, what they had been looking forward to after the war ended. The dark shape said nothing, but light continued to flow from its core.
…there should have been cheers, but the crowd was oddly silent. Standing on the shores of Cape Canaveral, watching the brilliant white dot at the head of the plume of smoke rise into the air, there were a few waving flags, a few cries of happy patriotism. But most of the watchers stood silent, as if they were waiting for what would come next.
At the explosion, as the brilliant point of white light suddenly burst into a cloud of gray and a spray of fragments, there was a murmur in the crowd. Nothing more. Was this supposed to happen? It wasn’t until one child’s arm rose, pointing at the falling cabin, that the shouts and screams began.
The broken body of the shuttle plunged into the ocean. Nobody knew how to react. Some ran, some cried, while others simply flopped down on the beach, their legs no longer able to support their weight. The plume of smoke still hung in the sky, a smooth arc that ended abruptly in a jagged splash…
The young man tried to scream, but nothing came out. Another failure! Is this all that lay ahead? Were all of our aspirations, our goals, for nothing? Were we always doomed to fail? He raged at the dark shape that floated in front of him, filled with impotent fury. The shape merely hung, waiting, as the next wave of light washed over him.
…he really didn’t need the coffee, and was now late for work. Glancing up through the crowded streets, he could see his building ahead. If only he could leap up to the 93rd floor in the North Tower, to his office!
A glint of light from an adjacent skyscraper caught his eye. He stared upward, watching as the scene turned to horror. A massive airplane, far too close to the ground. For a moment, it intersected the tower, a bizarre growth of glass and metal. Then the image was gone, replaced by smoke, fire, and a hail of debris.
As dust and chunks of masonry rained down on the streets, the man dropped his coffee and briefcase, breaking into a run. He didn’t know why he ran towards the destruction, against the tide of bodies and into the smoke and confusion, but he ran, and would not stop…
By now, the rest of the world was quiet, dark, silent and faded into gray obscurity. The young man slumped down on the beach. He had given up on hope. As his fellows still fought onward, all around him, he knew that it was in vain. All that lay ahead, all that was to come, was darkness, failure, tragedy, pain. He did not look up as the dark figure drew closer.
“Look once more.”
He could not resist. The young man raised his head and gazed into the light.
Celebration. He saw men in camouflage uniforms, the United States flag embroidered on their shoulders, smashing through the gates of Auschwitz. Young boys, gathered around a wooden table, cheered as a tiny black-and-white television showed them grainy pictures of a man in a bulky white suit carefully descending down a ladder from his landing craft. Thousands of people, all clutching each other, watched a glittering crystal ball descend to mark the end of a millennium. Political leaders across the globe, standing before cameras and pledging to offer aid to the United States in its time of need. Everywhere, after every tragedy, the people coming together to grieve, to offer help, to stand strong.
Everything was faint now, even the shade of the young man. is this the truth? he asked, with the last of his energy.
The figure hovered impassively above him. “This is a truth. Happiness and sorrow are two sides to the same coin. There cannot be one without the other.”
As he faded, reflecting on what he had seen, the shade of the young man felt peace. Not joy, not sorrow, but balance.