Survivor’s Guilt

a short story by   RICKY GINSBURG

The war started and ended on his first day at work. While it was the President’s order that initiated his actions, it was his command, and his alone, that launched the missiles. Twenty-four years of the best military training in the world had made his body react without thinking. He spoke the words in his calmest and most even tone; he could have been ordering lunch. However, all the years of training did nothing to ease the feelings of guilt and horror that had haunted him for over a decade once the last word had left his lips.

Millions survived, billions perished; among them his wife and child, close enough to New York City that they were vaporized in the first wave of the enemy’s nuclear cleansing. Death was dropped from the sky at the peak of the morning rush hour. A dying newscaster said it was as though the sun had fallen through the clouds and erased the city in a flash of heated pressure.

He’d traveled from the safety of NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain control center a month after the war to view the devastation from a thousand feet in an Air Force jet. A futile but necessary trip for verification of his loss. It was his last official junket before moving into the cabin in the mountains twenty miles north of his final billet. Ironically, the cabin had been purchased as a refuge for his family in the event of war. Had he not been ordered to Colorado so suddenly… it was the beginning of a thought he refused to finish, no matter how many times a day it hit him.

Over the years, the cabin had become more of a living tomb than a home. In the smallest of the three bedrooms, he’d constructed an impromptu shrine to his lost family from photos he found in one of the boxes he’d never had the chance to unpack in his new office. The picture of his wife, his college sweetheart, who had been preparing the last of their possessions for the move to Colorado on the day of the war, was surrounded by candles and evergreen wreaths that he made fresh as needed. Hanging from the slender branches were photos of his son: as a baby in his crib, on his mother’s lap, wrapped in a blanket with only his face exposed, waving to him from a floating tube in some neighbor’s pool. The boy had just finished kindergarten and there were nearly one hundred of the boy’s drawings, colored in crayon and framed with twigs carefully selected from the forest around the cabin, hanging on every wall.

He visited the shrine twice a day – first, in the morning after he’d shaved and dressed, and second, in the evening, just before he ate dinner. The rest of the day, if he was in the cabin or not, the door to that bedroom was closed and locked.

At first, sleep had only been possible with military-issued pills, a supply he’d used up six months after moving into the cabin. Since then, he’d learned to meditate and push his body into a deep, restful coma. Yet even then, the nightmares of the war he’d only seen as blips on a wall of computer screens exploded in his mind and he awoke in the darkness drenched in sweat. Many nights he’d sit outside the cabin on a canvas chair, loading and unloading his service revolver, spinning the cylinder, and then suddenly taking aim at some indistinguishable shape in the forest. Hours would pass as he sat wondering if the enemy he’d never met was looking for the one man responsible for so many deaths.

With the help of a tutorial he found in the local library, he not only taught himself to read and comprehend his enemy’s language, but to study their version of the world in their native tongue, as well. The fact that he could find nothing that would make him consider those people a foe was both unsettling and then equally frightening.

For years, he made the trek into the small town, several miles from the cabin, once or twice a month for supplies or to drink in the only tavern still operating thanks to a cobbled together array of solar cells on its roof. As the social hub of the mountain community, a gathering of locals was common at any hour of the day or night. The intricate barter system for homegrown edibles, handmade clothing, and available labor was lubricated by cheap beer and high potency moonshine brewed in the tavern’s basement. With the exception of the proprietor, a stout, balding woman at least a dozen years older then him, who had also worked at NORAD but had never met him until after the war, no one in the town knew he was the one who launched the war, although everyone referred to him as the “Colonel” despite his actual rank.

Order in the town was kept by a retired Colorado State Trooper, a gruff, acne-pocked giant of a man with a short temper, who had executed a looter in front of a crowd of cheering witnesses just days after accepting the position of sheriff. While crime in the small mountain community was limited to the occasional poaching transient or a drunken domestic dispute that was usually settled with a night in jail, the tavern had a reputation for brawls and thus the sheriff occupied the majority of his time in one of its high-backed leather chairs.

As one of the younger residents of the area, the Colonel managed to attract the attention of most of the single, and at least a couple of married women. However, his lust for love and any need for passion had ended in tears with his finale in the fighter jet over the ruins of suburbia. In the ten years he’d lived in the town, a decade after walking out of NORAD in full dress uniform, no compassionate moment had spurred him to anything beyond drinking or escaping to the seclusion of his mountaintop refuge.

Over time though, he met a woman he’d taken a liking to – a waitress at the tavern, a former high school teacher from Denver, who had accepted the job after the city was destroyed while she was on vacation in the mountains. She offered both conversation and companionship, but hadn’t aroused his interest in developing much beyond a friendly relationship. He’d cooked her dinner and she’d reciprocated, but there were no nights spent together yet. They’d gone for long walks in the woods, fished in the myriad of fast-running streams, had even ridden horses into the wreckage of her hometown in search of some memento of her past. However, the walks were merely exercise, the fishing a necessity for food, and the fruitless trip just an excuse to get away from the incessant monotony of their lives.

She in no way resembled anyone in his past. Stern and sarcastic when she was in a good mood, melancholy and morose – much like him – when the clouds gathered in her mind. He took her as a kindred soul, someone else who couldn’t shake the anguish any more than a bullet could be stopped, once the trigger had been pulled.

He longed to break free of his hideous past, the nightmares, the agonizing remorse, and the fear of reprisal from a faceless enemy he could no longer imagine as a threat. Although she’d asked him once or twice about his job in the military, he’d never said more than he felt comfortable revealing, lest she would see him as the monster he felt he’d been in issuing the most devastating command of his short career.

Yet he probed his only female companion incessantly for her past, for her life before he’d changed the world. The children she’d taught, her neighbors, the man in the grocery store downtown. He wanted all of her memories, everything that made this woman alive. From her words, he built a fantasy kingdom in his dreams of a city he’d never seen except as a pile of rubble in the aftermath of the one-day war. In his mind, he put the two of them in her house – cooking, and then eating a steak dinner. He watched her teach, shop, fill her car with gasoline, and use a credit card that you had to slide at just the right angle in order to make it work. There was a life before this one and if he could live it in his dreams, perhaps he could banish the demons that haunted his nights.

Seeking to maintain his youthful weight, he always ate a hearty breakfast and considered a light dinner to be best for what restful nights he could procure. Lunch, however, was his most essential meal of the day; made even more so as his need for her companionship developed. The meal was at its best when it was at the tavern with a cold beer and his friendly waitress and recently, it had begun to pain him to eat it alone in the cabin. He made it a point to dine in town at least three days a week, bartering a few hours of dishwashing or beer bottling in exchange for his midday feast.

He’d come to town late that morning to trade several cords of fresh split logs for shingles and a large bag of roofing nails to repair a portion of his roof damaged in the previous winter. By the time he got to the tavern, most of the tables were full so he took a seat at the end of the bar next to the wait-station. Having ordered lunch and agreeing to work the dinner shift as payment, he was deep into a conversation about wind-driven well pumps with the local sitting next to him when the fight broke out.

The disagreement revolved around a load of oranges and grapefruit one man had hauled by horse-drawn wagon from Arizona. Apparently, a deal had been struck to exchange the fruit for an equal value of timber. Upon unloading the citrus, the timber merchant discovered that a large portion of the fruit had rotted and told the man he was going to give him only half the amount of wood promised in trade. The citrus peddler claimed the fruit was only damaged on the outer layer of skin and insisted the timber merchant either give him the full amount or reload the fruit so he could travel on and strike a deal with someone else.

Ignoring the citrus peddler’s threats, the timber merchant walked into the bar and was standing next to the pool table when the man came in screaming and waving a small handgun in the air. He shouted at the timber merchant, insisting that he come back outside and make good on the trade. The timber merchant, in a show of bravado, dared the man to shoot, dancing from left to right as though shadow boxing. Then, in what appeared to be a slow-motion ballet, the two men circled the room, hurling verbal threats over the heads of lunchtime patrons, until the citrus peddler came to a stop next to the wait-station with the timber merchant partially crouched behind the sheriff’s chair.

Seated less than a few feet from the gun-waving man, the Colonel held his breath, hoping the sheriff could put an end to the crisis without bloodshed. That thought came to a crashing halt as his waitress backed out of the kitchen, a loaded tray of food balanced on her shoulder. The citrus peddler grabbed her, knocking the tray to the floor, and put the gun to her head, threatening to shoot if he was unable to get satisfaction.

Slamming his beer mug on the table, the sheriff drew his automatic and took aim at the hostage-taker, ordering the man to drop his weapon. From where he stood, just to the right of the gunman, the Colonel could see the barrel of the sheriff’s weapon as though it was the open mouth of death poised to swallow life into its darkness. His waitress stood frozen, just beyond his reach, with the citrus peddler’s gun pressed so tightly against the hair on the side of her head that part of the barrel had disappeared beneath it.

The sheriff repeated his warning, taking a step closer to the gunman and switching his own weapon to full automatic with a soft click. Standing behind the sheriff, the timber merchant pointed at his adversary, again daring him to shoot. Turning quickly, the sheriff barked at the merchant, ordering him to shut his mouth before returning to face the armed man across the room.

The Colonel could see the beads of sweat dripping slowly down the gunman’s forehead, the quivering tremor in the man’s hand holding the gun, and knew that even the slightest movement could prove fatal for his waitress. With the gunman’s gaze now locked on the sheriff, the former soldier carefully put one foot on the floor, shifting his weight to it and sliding off the barstool in silence.

He might have been able to grab the gun, might have been able to draw the man’s attention, if the tavern’s proprietor hadn’t come barging out of the kitchen at that moment, unaware of what was taking place in her tavern, why food was burning on the stove, and who was shouting loud enough to draw her out of the restroom in back. The citrus peddler, in a second of confusion, turned to face her and, in doing so, let his gun slip away from the waitress’ head.

There were three shots, so close together with the sheriff’s weapon in full automatic that it sounded like a single loud metallic cough. The first bullet struck the citrus peddler center mass in his chest and threw the man backward so hard that his head smashed against the bar, crushing a bottle as he fell. The second shot went wide and blew a hole through the old Coors sign big enough to slide an ear of corn through without touching the sides.

In the milliseconds between shots, the Colonel had leapt toward the waitress in an attempt to throw her to the ground, out of the line of fire. The third round struck him in the shoulder, spinning him around to face her, spinning him around to see the bullet that passed cleanly through his body strike her in the chest just above the pocket on her apron. She let out a soft moan and slid to the floor, blood spurting from the wound as though it was water from a ruptured garden hose.

Ignoring his own throbbing pain, he knelt between the dead gunman and his dying friend and tried to staunch the flow with his hand. Her breathing slowed and became forced as the gusher of blood sprayed through his fingers. She tried to speak, tried to raise her hand to touch him, but the lethal bullet had already sealed her fate. In a last wrenching gasp, he thought he saw her purse her lips and try to kiss him, but a trickle of blood from the side of her mouth was all that she could muster. With a final gurgled sigh, she closed her eyes and died.

He left the tavern without a word and walked the long, lonely miles up the mountain to his cabin. Not a single tear fell from his eyes. Not a single faltered step. He took his loaded service revolver from the kitchen table, unlocked the shrine to his long dead family, walked into the room, closed and latched the door behind him. The last sound from the cabin – a single gunshot – echoed through the trees and then there was only silence.

 

© Ricky Ginsburg, 2018

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