The Smoothness of Alabaster
Jake stood before the rows of faded headstones, evenly spaced and identical slabs of alabaster dressed right across the spacious lawn. He breathed in the damp, earthy smell hovering above the Veterans Cemetery’s well-tended grounds and touched the stones’ smooth crowns. He silently read off the names as he walked past. Jack felt he knew them all, even though they fought in different wars and different times. All he knew was they had fought for the same reasons.
Even now, thirty years later, Jack still relived battles in his dreams. He frequently wrestled with the painful memories of buddies shot or blown up, as well as the hideous results of air strikes and torched villages. He smelled the stench and felt their presence everyday. Most of those resting here fought in previous wars, and came home to a hero’s welcome of parades and parties. They died, respected by friends and family, and proud of their duty to their country.
Those who died in Jack’s war, Vietnam, either came home in body bags to bewildered families, or were laid to rest after lives filled with anger and pain. The only gratitude shown them was an obituary caption, a military burial, and an American flag.
In the distance, a military funeral neared completion. Jack wandered over to a small stand of pines. He stood among them and watched. A Marine detachment stood on each side of the coffin wearing Dress Blue uniforms. Brightly polished brass buckles glistened in the sunlight, and spit-shined shoes clicked in unison as they snapped to attention.
They folded the American flag draped over the coffin, into a tight triangle of blue background and white stars, taking great care to hide the red stripes that represented the blood of the fallen. The Officer-in-Charge then presented the flag to the next of kin, “On behalf of a grateful nation.”
In the distance, a bugler played Taps. Its plaintive notes echoed over the headstones, piercing Jack’s sense of detachment. Tears welled up in his eyes, and the sharp sting of emotion grabbed his throat. He wept openly, something he hadn’t done in years.
The burden of guilt and pain carried within for so long lifted, and a sense of calm ensued. Perhaps the time had come for the “Valley in the Shadow of Death” known as Vietnam to release its grip on him.
He returned home that afternoon, feeling more relaxed than he had in years. Perhaps he could once again take great enjoyment in life and pursue his dreams.
The nightmares returned however, and he sat in the darkness with tears streaming down his face. Once again his hands trembled as he slid the blue-steel barrel of his shotgun into his mouth. It was a ritual of war he followed often, to challenge the enemy within for the right to see another dawn.
BIOGRAPHY: Harold ‘Hal’ Kempka is a former Marine, and Vietnam Veteran. His poetry has appeared in Leatherneck Magazine, and short stories published in Many Midnights, Black Petals, Dark and Dreary, Horror House, Long Story Short, Microhorror, The Shine Journal, and the Fiction Flyer, among others. He is a member of the FlashXer flash fiction workshop, and lives in Southern California.
Motivation:Memorial day brings back the memories of fallen comrades and those who continue to succomb daily to the mind monsters of their yesterdays. Hopefully they will continue to win their internal wars.