Don’t Tell

by Jonathan Gensler

From CHM #46 April 2024

Cosmic Horror Monthly, a collection of cosmic horror lovecraftian and weird fiction short stories april 2024

A thousand cadets in gray, where there should have been a thousand and one.

A cadence of drums spilled through the darkness. A bagpipe wailed, and the instruments wound around one another, echoing off Gothic towers and across a grassy plain. A mass of uniformed youths came to attention in a singular movement. A second bagpipe joined the first, and the requiem crawled towards and enveloped the horde.

“Cadet Johnson, Timothy!” a voice shouted, cutting off the pipes and drums.

“Present, sir!” came a reply from deep within the ranks.

“Cadet James, Sarah!”

“Present, sssi…sir!” The response shaking, quavering.

“Cadet Jones, Victor!”

Emptiness.

Then again, “Cadet Jones, Victor!” The mass of youth in gray stirred not.

After a moment of tranquility, a final command, drawn down to just above a whisper, “Cadet Jones, Victor…” followed by absolute silence.

The midnight moon bared its blade of light; the granite-faced barracks shimmered. Three notes rang out from a hidden bugle and the mournful melody of “Taps” floated across the assembly, slipped into muted echoes, and then stillness. The Corps melted back into the safety of the barracks.

A single young man remained, staring across the field. Tears streamed down his stony cheeks. He dropped his long-held salute as drops hit the pavement at his feet.

His stoic facade crumbled and his knees buckled. The cadet jerked with a cough before a splash of watery vomit hit the pavement. The smell of PBR and fried food laced with stomach acid overran his senses and the young man hacked until his chest was ragged with dry heaves.

His eyes, inches from the ground, found a reflection in the beer-tinged bilge.

A face, and not his own.

Its features were blurred, a pallid inverse of himself, a nightmare. He felt the breath of someone standing over him, with the damp foulness of the grave replacing the acrid stench of stale lager.

He scrambled backwards, his eyes glued to the stain on the otherwise pristine ground.

He felt eyes upon him and looked up and around, wary. Had he seen movement out there?

No. He was alone. Totally alone.

With a snap of his heels, he made an about-face and marched back through the arched sally port to rejoin the living.

* * *

A few hours later, through the short tunnel and around the corner, two cadets remained awake.

“Thanks for covering for me here, Sam,” said Tim, the young man from earlier, dark brown hair cropped close.

“Of course. I don’t know how you managed it, man. Those things give me the… I don’t know. I remember the last one, and they are just too damn hard.”

“Anyway, I appreciate it. I was supposed to be here with you.”

While he was still looking at Sam with wet eyes, an old phone rang on the desk between them. 

“Bat-phone, your turn, Tim,” said Sam, nodding over to it.

Tim hopped up from his seat. “Central Guard Room, Cadet Tim Johnson speaking. How can I help you?”

An earful of jabbering came through the handset. Tim responded, “Slow down, ma’am. Please tell me that again.” He rolled his eyes at Sam, circling his finger around his ear, mouthing “Crazy.”

“Yes ma’am, I heard that. Down at the First Class Club? Are you sure?” Another pause. Tim’s eyes winced. “Yes of course you are. We will head right down and investigate. Thank you, yes ma’am. Goodnight.”

He looked up at Sam. “You will never fucking believe this. That was the Supe’s wife.”

“What did she want at oh-two-thirty? Can’t be anything fucking good.”

“It’s weird. Thought she heard someone prowling around over the hill by the Firstie Club.”

“Probably another fucking raccoon.”

“Yeah, likely. Log that she called and reported some strange noises down at the Club. It’s probably nothing, but I need some air after that vigil, so I’ll head down to check it out.”

“Don’t forget comms. Go ahead and make the full round, too. Might as well knock it out now instead of waiting another thirty minutes.”

Tim picked up the brick and clipped it to his belt. “I have Number Nine. I’ll give a radio check when I get over to the Monument before I head down the hill to the Club. See you in a bit. And seriously, thanks.”

* * *

Tim walked out of the guard room into the concrete- and granite-bound quad of the cadet area and turned to walk through the sally-port tunnel and onto the parade ground, where a few hours earlier the Corps gave their final respects to Tim’s late roommate, Victor Jones.

Tim emerged from the tunnel and glanced left at the pale stone form of George Washington on his horse, looming over the plain ahead, the commander of an army long dead.

The moon painted a pall on concrete, granite, and glass alike. Shadows cast in the window wells above him turned the long rows of barracks rooms into an array of eye sockets peering down.

Washington glared as well, the statue’s soulless eyes seeming to follow Tim as he strode past the monument’s base. Tim shivered in the growing cold, felt as if everything was watching him, judging him, bringing his mind back to that moment of weakness earlier. Washington’s stony countenance seemed to accuse the cadet of failure at every turn.

Dark swirls floated in the haze above the parade ground.

Tim froze, captivated by the whorls of shadow taking shape in the void. As if the darkness itself was reaching out, to grab him and size him up, to find him lacking.

Tim closed his eyes and shook his head. “Get on with it, Tim. There’s nothing there.”

The residual taste of mud and vomit in his mouth told him otherwise.

He stole a moment to pause, to repeat in a whisper one of the old pieces of knowledge, “But an officer on duty knows no one…”

He skirted the apron at the base of the barracks and passed by Quarters One Hundred, where the Supe’s wife had called.

Walking absentmindedly, Tim thought only of Victor, and how his roommate had up and disappeared the week prior. For everyone else, this was out of the blue: gone from the barracks, no note, not a clue of why he left or where he had gone. He had left only secrets, puzzle pieces shared with Tim over a few weeks of shocked emotion.

Yeah, we all knew it was a hard road, boundless stress coming from all directions, but we were thriving, thought Tim. Victor was thriving. He’d been selected as captain of the team handball club next spring; he was near the top of his major, if not the whole class, academically. Everything seemed to be going right for him. Why would he leave?

Of course, that was before the body washed up on the banks of the Hudson halfway to New York City. The autopsy would say he’d broken more than half the bones in his body, his lungs full of water when he died.

Witness reports started coming in. A young couple had seen him walking down Route 9W from West Point at oh-two-hundred. They stopped to offer help, and he seemed fine, they reported. Said he was out for a walk and wanted to go watch the river.

Another man reported seeing him at Bear Mountain Bridge, hiking across the walkway closer to sunrise. He’d noticed Vic was stopped and looking downriver. He thought it must be just another hiker. This didn’t look out of place, he wasn’t staring down at the water, but looking downstream, as the sunlight crept up over the mountains and began streaming down into the river valley itself.

“But yes, that was definitely him. He was wearing that uniform. Not sure why I thought he was a hiker… I was in a hurry. You know how it is,” he told the police.

Everyone soon found out he was wearing his full-dress uniform, even his saber still attached to his belt as he tumbled through twenty miles of the Hudson’s plodding current before getting caught on the rocks just north of Tarrytown and the Tappan Zee Bridge, at Sleepy Hollow.

* * *

A week earlier Tim had been called to the brigade commander’s office to discuss the missing cadet, and if he could provide anything that might help them understand what happened. Everyone remained convinced he had simply gone AWOL, maybe on a drinking binge, now laid up somewhere hungover for a day or two.  It certainly wasn’t unheard-of for a cadet to drop off the face of the earth and show up sleeping it off down in the City at the Soldiers and Sailors Club, where a shared bunk room cost a scant twenty-five dollars with a military ID.

That hopeful outlook didn’t last long. While Tim was walking through the prior weeks and months of recollections of his roommate, trying to eke out any pertinent details (while maintaining his neutrality on Victor’s sexual orientation, per official Army policy), they got The Call.

The Garrison Military Police had received word that a body had been found down river, wearing cadet full dress, and it was waiting at the morgue in Sleepy Hollow. As there were no other cadets unaccounted for, the MPs assumed it must be Victor, and had worked the academy chain of command until they got the Brigade Commander.

As the cadet commander took the call, Tim sat not quite still, feeling a rush of blood to his hands as he balled them up into fists and then released his fingers, over and over.

“I understand sir, yes. He is here with me now. Yes, we can do that. Right away, sir. Thank you for calling us so quickly.” The look in the cadet commander’s eyes went blank as he listened and responded with quiet professionalism.

“Tim, we need to go see the Colonel… I am… I’m so sorry. They’ve found a body.” As the knowledge of the death firmed up in his mind, the commander’s poise slipped. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The ranking cadet stood and walked to the door, automatically motioning for Victor to follow, and suddenly sat back down. Glassy eyed, he looked at Tim and said, “He’s dead.”

Tim’s life blurred into a whirlwind of dread, sadness, and sleepless nights. Of answering endless questions from the chaplain, some random psychologist, his other friends. He had been willing himself through it, living in a daze, making it through each twenty-four-hour period by drawing on the reserve of strength that wells up in all soldiers, hell, in all people, when faced with the choice of living in sadness or finding a way to drive on and charley-mike.

* * *

The evening before the funeral, Tim dashed into a building with a run-down Victorian facade, slashing in through sheets of rain. In the alcove, a man in a midnight blue suit greeted him with a nod, motioning for him to head down the hallway to the left.

“Thank you, sir.”

“We are sorry for your loss, mister…?”

Not responding, Tim lowered his eyes and removed his gray cap. The dress gray uniform and its rain-soaked wool constrained his movement as he tried to hurry past the sparse flower arrangements to the double doors at the end of the hallway. A young woman had her hands pressed to the doors, her head bowed down.

“Michelle,” Tim said.

She turned with a forced smile, tears streaking down her cheeks.

“Tim. Mom and Dad wouldn’t come. God, they never even wanted him to go to that blasted place to begin with, and now they won’t come to see him like this?”

Tim placed a hand on Michelle’s shoulder. “I’m glad you are here. I know it wasn’t far, but Victor would be happy to know you made it.”

“If Vic could be smiling at anything, we wouldn’t be here like this.” She choked on a tear- and snot-filled cough and clutched Tim’s shoulders. “I can’t go in to see him yet. Please, you go first. Tell me it’s gonna be ok.”

“Sure, but first, what is this place, Michelle? Why here? It seems an odd choice.”

“This is where Vic would want it. We buried our grandpa here just a few years ago, before Vic started training. Though the place seems to have let itself go a bit.”

Tim held Michelle close. “You’re his big sister; you sure you want me to go in first?”

“I just can’t. If our parents wouldn’t do it, then how am I supposed to… you go in first. I’ll follow in a few minutes.”

Tim nodded, steeled himself, and pushed through the swinging doors.

The room on the other side was too large to be so empty. A dozen or more empty rows of pews led up to the casket. Tim hesitated, and felt a shiver run up his feet through his back.

He took a step towards his friend’s body. Rain lashed against the windows, driven by an unholy wind. “Go. See him,” Tim told himself.

He took step after dreadful step. Driving rain battered the stained glass, distracting Tim as he tried to remain calm and focused on his task.

“No one else is here. You can do this. Don’t be a chickenshit.” He walked. Closer and closer, as the coffin took up more of his vision and focus. It loomed impossibly large in front of him, dark cherry, minimal adornment.

“Oh Vic, I am sorry,” he whispered. “I knew what you were going through, and I never said anything. I…”

With his eyes closed and his hands holding the edge of the casket, he could see Victor sitting there in front of him, smiling, reading to him the latest letter from his friend stationed outside Kabul, Afghanistan, the two roommates wondering if the war was still going to be there when they got to their Army assignments in a year or so.

Tim knew that Victor was in love with that same lieutenant fighting in Afghanistan, and that his love was forbidden to talk about. Tim bowed his head, and ran his hands down the lines of the closed encasement when he heard a soft tapping emerge underneath the sound of rain on glass.

Tap.

Tap.

Tap.

“What the?”

Tap.

Drip.

Drip.

Then his hand felt a splash of water coming from the coffin, and he saw a heavy drop of water roll down the wood. He glanced up just as the large watermark in the ceiling let loose another series of droplets directly above the coffin.

“Fucking hell. This place is a dump, buddy.” He tried to put on a joking face as the drips of water kept coming, splashing his face.

He closed his eyes and lowered his head towards his dead friend.

Then the tapping got louder.

Not just water dripping from the ceiling. TAP. TAP. TAP.

Louder. He felt the lid of the coffin vibrate, then tremble.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!

Tim opened his mouth to scream, but found it to be full of dirty, muddy water.

The upper half of the coffin flew open; inside a raging torrent flowed from nowhere to nowhere. Tim couldn’t breathe, his mouth and lungs full of the same.

He gripped the side of the coffin, his hands sliding along the wet silk lining. Out of the unbelievable depths within, a clammy hand emerged and grasped Tim’s forearm. This time he managed to howl in both pain and terror. The grip held fast, while the current pulled it down and under the head of the coffin with such strength that Tim couldn’t fight it.

He managed to hack up enough water to steal a final breath before being yanked into the current. He tumbled into the dark watery depths.

Tim kept his eyes closed as he felt his body bashed and smashed into rocks, large and jagged. The water was cold, frigid, arctic. Time lost its meaning, and the bruising and breaking of his body numbed his senses to everything but the singular wish for it all to end. To be released from this torment at last.

And as quickly as the drowning had begun, he felt the current slow and stop, and his body rise toward a light. He opened his eyes, and rising with him, the broken and twisted body of his friend.

Victor clutched a book in his stiff hands. A journal: his journal, Tim knew. The missing journal he’d been asked about. The one he’d seen Vic scribbling in for several weeks. On the cover in large angular black letters, it read DON’T TELL.

Vic’s eyes opened, his normally gray irises now an electric blue. His mouth opened wide to shout, but lungs full of water made no sound. Reaching out, he grabbed Tim, struggling to pull him back into the depths. His lips gurgled the same words over and over in a last fading gasp of life: Don’t Tell. Don’t Tell. Don’t Tell. Don’t T—.

And then light. Fresh air. Gasping and floating in the river’s waves towards a rocky shore.

Tim tried to rub his eyes, but his arms didn’t respond to the effort. Victor’s dead grip held fast to his right arm as Tim’s own body was beaten, battered, and broken. The pain in his arm consumed everything. He screamed.

* * *

Tim awoke in a strange room. His head throbbed and he had no idea where he was or how he had gotten there.

An unfamiliar woman walked through the door. “Hey there. Glad to see you up. How are you feeling?”

She called out to the hallway, “Deb? Room nineteen is awake. Let the on-duty know?” and turned back to the bed. Tim’s eyes adjusted to the light, and he noticed her light blue scrubs.

He was in a hospital bed. His whole body shook as he spotted his uniform hanging in an open closet, still a shade too dark from being soaked.

“What’s going on? Wha…what…what happened?” Tim continued to shiver.

Reviewing her clipboard, she said, “Well, sir, you likely suffered from an anxiety or panic attack. Collapsed and knocked your head pretty hard.” She glanced up at Tim with soft eyes. “We can get you a counselor, or someone else to talk to.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. What about the water? The…”

“You were muttering about the water in your sleep. Kept saying his name, the boy who died… I am so sorry for your loss. You poor thing.”

Tim ran his hands over his body and arms, feeling the freezing burn on his right forearm. “What’s this on my arm? Where’s my watch? What time is it?”

“Your limbs are all fine, though you have a nasty bruise on your head.” She glanced at her own wrist. “And it’s noon. You’ve been out for about eighteen hours.”

His eyes opened wide. Did she just ignore the burn mark?

“Noon? I have to get out of here. Did anyone call the Academy?”

“Don’t worry, cadet. We got in touch with them. In fact, someone from the Army is outside waiting to hear how you’re doing.”

“The funeral. Victor’s funeral was at oh-nine-hundred today.”

“Oh, I am so sorry, dear. You must have missed that. The shock of it all. Let me go get the officer.”

Tim’s legs were a bit wobbly after such a long sleep, but he was up and out of bed, throwing on his uniform by the time the major came through the doorway. As he zipped up the front of the damp dress gray top, he felt a slight bulge in the inner chest pocket. Reaching in, he could feel the soggy wet pages of a small book, just the size of Vic’s missing journal.

“How are you feeling, cadet?” Major Harmeson peeked his head in through the cracked doorway just as Tim pulled his hand out from the pocket.

“Sir? What the… what happened? I was at the funeral home, went in to see Vic’s casket, and woke up here.”

“The doc says you likely just collapsed from all the stress. After Afghanistan and then a death like this, all in just a couple of weeks. Term end exams coming up. Sometimes pressure can make a man crack.”

“That doesn’t seem right, sir.” Tim could taste the remains of muddy water in the back of his throat, his teeth covered with a film of dirt and debris. He choked down a spurt of stomach acid.

“Look cadet, are you squared away? The doctor has given us leave to get you back to the academy. It took a minute for them to find your ID and let us know what happened. But we can set everything straight when we get back home.”

“Home, huh?”

“What’s that, cadet?”

“Nothing, sir. I’m ok. A bit… I missed Victor—Cadet Jones’s—funeral this morning.”

“I know. I was there. With his sister, not his parents. Some folks can’t handle a suicide.”

“It isn’t that sir. I saw Michelle last night, too. I wish I could have been there for her.”

The major stopped and faced Tim.

“Let me know right now if you need more time. But this is an opportunity to show what you’re made of, cadet.”

“Yes, sir. I am good to go.” No hesitation.

“You need to remember—you need to know it—in here,” the major said, tapping his own chest. “Death isn’t merely a small part of what we do, cadet. It is who we are. We deal death to others, and we get our share in return. Might as well get used to that now. The war waiting for you on the outside isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Trust me. These Taliban and Al Queda fucks aren’t just going to up and surrender.”

The Major didn’t hold anything back, but he didn’t seem to be wrong, at least about this.

The academy had a special relationship with Death.

* * *

Tim couldn’t sleep. His barracks room remained full of Victor’s belongings: uniforms neatly hung, bed taut as ever, shoes dressed squarely under Vic’s bed. His desk had been searched and Vic’s computer taken to the IT department to be searched for hints of what happened, but Vic’s books and pictures were still up on the shelves.

Well past midnight, Tim found himself sitting at his roommate’s desk, staring at a picture of Vic and Dan Simpson, the cadet who had graduated two years earlier: camouflaged faces, arms around one another’s necks, and holding their rifles up in a celebratory pose. Both cadets were now gone, dead, buried.

“This hurts so much,” he said in a broken voice, clutching the frame to his chest. In front of him lay the combat journal he’d discovered in his breast pocket—Army green with nominally waterproof pages, yet still wet and bulging. He reached for the journal, and his eyes caught the handprint-shaped burn wound on his right forearm.

Gently prodding his arm as the cold seeped from the burn, Tim breathed in, breathed out, and accepted it with poise. What else could he do? Don’t tell.

Yet, how did he square that with the Honor Code that dictated no cadet lie, cheat, or steal (nor tolerate those who do)?

He moved back to the journal, shaking off drops from the frigid waters of the Hudson, and opened it with trepidation, but soon found he couldn’t put it down if he’d wanted to.

Death had stalked Victor. What started off as amateur philosophical musings and bad poetry soon descended into a deep fear, an obsession, a battle with himself and his place in the Long Gray Line.

He had become mired in questions of his own morality, his sense of belonging, with the pain he felt spreading from his heart to every extremity of his body and soul. Scrawled in sections that rambled backwards and forwards, upside down and in spirals, Vic wrote about ghosts, spirits, and the West Point cemetery calling out to him.

And the start date of these entries lined up with the date of an attack on American forces in Afghanistan where twelve soldiers were injured, and three lost their lives, including the late First Lieutenant Dan Simpson.

Tim knew Victor had loved Dan, and the feeling was mutual. He also knew they were all walking a tightrope. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the law of the day, and he never did ask, but he knew all the same. Victor would get letters, and Dan would share his exploits as an infantry platoon leader, the manliest and most desired role in the Army, its heroes held on high, the glory emblazoned via the Combat Infantryman Badge and blue cord.

And now Tim knew the whole truth, and still, he couldn’t tell. If it came out why Victor ended his own life, the damn government would strip away anything left of his honor. A man loving another man in the Army was somehow more dishonorable than taking his own life. The loss of a loved one, and not being able to mourn that loss, to share in the absolute sadness of it, proved too much for Victor.

“He couldn’t even tell me,” Tim whispered, tears rolling down his face.

* * *

Crackling noise brought Tim back to the present and his patrol. He had walked past the Supe’s house, down the hill, and found himself standing in front of the First Class Club.

“Damn this place…”

“CGR to—read me?” came a broken voice over the radio. How was he out of range for these pieces of shit?

“CGR this is Papa One, I am at the Firstie Club, you read me, over?”

“Not loud and clear, but good enough. What happened, over?”

“Papa One was lost in his own head for a few minutes, CGR. That’s all. I’ll report back with a SITREP in five. Out.”

Tim brought his mind back into focus on his patrol, with both Major Harmeson’s and Victor’s words still echoing in his head.

“CGR, this is Papa One, there isn’t anything down here. I see some knocked-over trashcans, but nothing else suspicious. The Supe’s wife probably freaked out because they live in that old house all alone.”

“Roger, Papa One. I hear you. Head back and finish the round. See you in half an hour or so. Central Guard Room out.”

Tim began the trek up the hill, remembering the last time he walked up with Victor, Vic telling him about the dream he’d had the night before.

“I saw him. Dan, I mean. He was… over there. They were pinned down after a helicopter assault. Like with the 101st, you know? I saw him, talking on his radio, pointing to his map and giving orders to a few of his sergeants. It was dark, though it must have been almost sunrise or so in reality. So, it couldn’t have been for real, could it?”

“I don’t know Vic; I think you’re just worried about him.”

Everything Tim knew remained an unspoken thing between the two friends. 

Vic’s relationship with Dan sprouted before Vic met Tim. By Dan’s senior year, Tim and Vic had harbored a close kinship during summer training. Some things you can hide from a roommate; the intensity of youthful romance in full bloom is not one of them. Tim watched it grow in secret, and he kept it secret. Don’t ask, don’t tell, ever. Don’t even think about it. Victor was a good cadet, and Dan, well, he was at the top of his class, branching Infantry, choosing to go to the 101st, the envy of most, if not all. 

Dan Simpson was, simply put, a true stud.

“Something happened to him, Tim.”

“Don’t worry about it. There isn’t anything that anyone here can do. When did you get that last letter from him?”

“Too long ago. Why can’t they have email, so I could just know for sure? The dream was awful. I watched him… watched him die. I could see him, and I know he could see me too. No one was helping to stop the bleeding… to do anything. He tried to tie his own—”

“Stop, Vic. It’s okay. He is okay. It was just a dream.” Tim hugged his half-drunk friend, and they walked back to the barracks, arms around one another’s shoulders. They would check for updates in the morning.

Of course, everything wasn’t okay. Everything wasn’t fine.

The next day the Corps got news that two recent grads had been killed in combat. Dan’s unit had been hit hard during an assault into a Taliban stronghold, and another helicopter pilot had his Apache gunship taken out in the same fight. Four KIA, several more wounded, and it was a grievous loss for the Army and West Point community.

The hardest blow fell on Victor, who had nowhere he could otherwise turn.

The midnight vigil for the two dead lieutenants was the first the Corps had offered up since the smoke plumes had drifted over the southern horizon on 9/11. Dan’s class of 2001 was fighting a war they hadn’t planned on, and Victor’s class of 2003 was readying to follow them into the meat grinder everyone knew was waiting. The midnight moment of silence was the Corps’ way of gripping hands with the fallen, those who had gone before them in joining the Long Gray Line.

Victor couldn’t bring himself to attend. He stayed in the room, lights out, and watched it from above. When Tim made it back, Victor was still staring out the window over the plain. “Do you feel them? Out there waiting for us?”

“I wish you would’ve come, Vic. It’d do you some good to let the Corps mourn with you.”

“They aren’t mourning, Tim. Some of them worship this. They want this war. They want the glory and honor and bloodshed and their seat at the right hand of Mars. I watched him die. I felt him die. Dammit all, Tim. They are out there, waiting for us. I can feel them. I can feel… him, I think.”

“I still think you should’ve come. You aren’t alone. Some of us, we know what he meant to you.”

Victor glared back. “Don’t. I… well. I know you know, but just don’t. I couldn’t tonight. I watched the Corps from our window. It was better to be here, above you all. Down there I don’t know if I could’ve taken it.”

“I understand, Vic. Anyway, I’m glad I was down there for you. For Dan too. He was… well, everyone loved him. And I know you did too.”

Tim hugged Victor one last time before falling onto his stiff mattress, pulling up the puffy Green Girl blanket, and saying goodnight to his friend for the last time.

* * *

His investigation complete, Tim walked back through a tunnel under the road that circled the parade ground, recalling that last embrace, and felt the unhealing burn mark on his right forearm. Did he do that to himself? The shrink implied he might be at risk himself for self-harm. He could still see the dark emptiness of Vic’s eyes under water, could feel the awful, unknowable strength of death, enough to break his arm if he had tried to fight it, and could hear the underwater gurgle warning him.

Walking up to the level of the parade ground, now dowsed in the darkest hours of night, he felt welcomed back by the barracks above.

Below the stone facade, the impossible loomed.

The light of the low-slung moon pushed its way through the fog, a shroud swirling over the ancient grassy plain. Through it marched the translucent shapes of an army long dead, a field of rifles, bayonets fixed, moving in concert through the dissipating top of the mists, dead metal glinting in the darkness.

They first took the form of a traditional cadet parade— black shakos, feathers flying, the sparkle of moonlight on sabers and bayonets. The faces of individuals were a blur, but the sense of deep history pulled Tim toward the parade, sucked in by some strange gravity.

Then the eddies and whorls caught him. The parade echoed the thunder of far-off drums, as a doorway opened in his mind. They didn’t notice him, this river of ghostly cadets in their dimly lit full dress gray, moonlight still somehow sparkling off immaterial brass buckles and chest plates, the faded memory of sunlight reflected in the night’s gloom.

Time slowed to a murmuring creek. He caught one of the marcher’s eyes, and the hollow face focused in on him, with a quick and full stop, while the others parted and kept marching around it.

He sensed the scream before he heard it, and the thunder of marching exploded into cannon fire. Tim was on the ground, holding a broken, dying soldier, a captain by the rank on his Stetson, fallen under his horse. Artillery blared in the near distance; the hot zephyr of grapeshot passed through him, shredding the flanks of the fallen horse, and ripping through the face of the young man in his arms. His blue uniform in tatters, terrified eyes staring up at him, not yet gone, but fading fast.

The moment of death was quickly followed by a rabid squeal over the ridge line. Tim cradled the head and shoulders of the Union captain, and glanced up as a crazed rebel yell erupted, his position overrun by a shoeless mob of men in rags, armed with an assortment of muskets, rifles, pistols, and swords. They passed him by, shots fired point-blank into the face and chest of the captain’s body, and Tim was ripped back to the Plain, staring into the eye sockets of the otherwise faceless spirit, now moving on with the rest of the ghostly assemblage.

As he looked back, trying to stand amid the swirling mists, Tim felt an icy grip on his right hand, yanking him around to face another member of the dead army.

Again, he was pulled into its eyes and found himself stuck in barbs of concertina wire. The bank of fog twisted and turned into a yellowish-green gas, immediately burning his lungs, his eyes, his exposed skin. The body writhed attempting to escape the wire, followed by the rapidly firing nightmare of a large caliber machine gun.

His body jerked around helter skelter, shredded by the spray of bullets. Gasps for air met only with poison, his mask a worthless and broken tool in his left hand, taken itself by the next round of gunfire. The searing pain was impossible to bear as time slowed to a crawl, and he saw the corpses of the surrounding dead, caught in the wire, their skin melting and bubbling.

His breath was dragon’s fire, dissolving the lungs in his chest. His head drooped and slumped toward the ground; his eyesight dimmed; the screams grew louder.

Tim fell face down into damp grass of the parade ground. He gathered his fortitude to face whatever was next and pushed himself up gently into a crouch, and felt a hand grip his shoulder from behind.

Breathing slowly, he turned and glanced up at a familiar face, puffy and swollen, skin shimmering and translucent in the moonlight. Victor didn’t look down at him, scanning ahead.

“They came for me, Tim.” His voice came from the depths of the earth and from the stars themselves, filling Tim’s head with disallowed knowledge. “You shouldn’t be here. It isn’t your time.”

“It wasn’t your time, either!” Tim shouted, recovering from the shock of combat, tears welling up in his eyes. He gripped his right arm, where the icy burn marks refused to be ignored, reminding him that Victor was truly dead and gone, that this was…. he didn’t know what this was. Couldn’t ever explain it. He was on the parade ground, but also somewhere else, everywhere else. A place of death. Perhaps THE place of death, the junction of hell and earth, of heaven and oblivion. It felt so very wrong, as the iciness on his forearm crept up to his elbow.

“You need to go.” Victor’s voice was a death rattle.

“I—”

Victor interjected with a simple “Don’t.”

“I… I can’t…”

“They’re here for me. It’s alright.” The faintest trace of a smile crept into the corners of Victor’s blackened lips. “There he is… my Dan.”

In the direction of the ghastly parade, one shade was standing still, its jaw unhinged in a battle cry.

A shock wave knocked Tim down, then sucked him in. The sudden popping explosion of a Soviet-era rocket-propelled grenade crowded out the chaos of machine gunfire and mortar impacts all around. Black diesel smoke burned his nostrils. He pushed himself off a rocky slope, inches away from what was left of a leg. Bone shards flashed white amid black mud and gristle, red spurting through the shreds of a soldier’s woodland camouflage.

SHHHHOOOOOOOF!

A rocket flew overhead, sparking through the pre-dawn shadows into the mountainside behind him, detonating into a rainbow of fire and ash.

“GODDAMMIT!” the owner of the wounded leg screamed.

Then Tim was beside him, staring into a pair of eyes losing their internal light, and unable to help. The soldier grabbed his rifle and fired wildly in the direction of the rocket fire. Through the haze, more shouting arrived somehow too late, in this liminal space, an echo of the confusion of the battlefield.

“Thompson! Grady! Anyone!” More gunfire into the void, no target other than the pain and the loss and the looming specter surely on its way.

“Not today, not today, not today,” the wounded man whispered.

In the glow of encroaching flames, the soldier’s mien finally took form. Tim’s face paled at the short cropped black curls, deep brown, almost black eyes, and stunning high cheekbones. Dan Simpson lay prone, fighting through his final moments.

Dan stopped firing, and brought the rifle close to his chest, fiddling to undo the shoulder strap.

Tim could do nothing. His hands passed right through Dan’s arms as he tried desperately to change the inevitable.

Dan had the strap undone; blood pooled on the ground below his leg; he looped it around his thigh above the wound, cinching it down.

twwweeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEE!

A blast of hellfire and hurricane winds, the scent of cordite and blood, shit and mud erasing everything else.

Tim’s thoughts faded into nothingness.

* * *

The void swirled and drifted in timelessness. Tim sensed the empty space of the parade ground, the vortex of whatever constitutes life, death, memory, pasts forgotten, futures never dreamed. Hours, days, or perhaps only milliseconds later, everything collapsed into a singularity, its limitless gravity pulling on his essence.

“This is not for you.” Victor’s voice floated to him across the infinity of the grounds.

Tim was staring dead-eyed into the shadow of Dan’s face, the spirit’s eyes alternating between orbs of pooling darkness and the living brown eyes he’d left behind.

With the echo of Victor’s voice crawling through his skull and the dead weight of Victor’s hands still pinning Tim to the ground, they both perked up as a clear voice rang out ahead.

“Jones, Victor….”

The drums of war shifted to a somber, steady beat, with a memory of bagpipes across the river, or across time, a sliver of sound carried by the shroud enveloping them both.

Again, the voice. “Jones, Victor…” and Vic’s weight eased from Tim’s shoulders.

The body snapped to attention behind Tim, and a raspy voice cracked out a simple, “Present, sir.”

Once more, now just a few yards away, “Jones, Victor!”

A tall shape emerged from the mist, initially distorted, a body writhing behind a dark veil of velvet, parting through the very fabric of reality. It called out one final time, “Jones, Victor,” Dan’s familiar face hovered over shredded combat fatigues and a missing leg.

“Present and accounted for, sir. Present and accounted for,” Victor said, his voice a whisper as Dan’s injuries blinked in and out of existence.

“Fall in, Vic. It really is going to be okay now,” Tim said, his fragile mind wrapping around the situation. “Go on. Go with them.”

Victor stepped forward without a backward glance and faded into the dissipating mists.

A crackle of noise erupted, “Papa One, radio check. Where are you?”

The clear signal yanked Tim back to the present with a vicious ferocity. “Tim, what the hell is going on?”

The marks on Tim’s arm were fading. He looked up at the retreating fog, fading and drifting back to wherever it had come from. Where his friend had been, where Victor’s fortune lay, perhaps where all cadets’ destinies lay.

“All clear, now. Papa One returning to Central Guard Room.” He paused. “You wouldn’t believe me if I tried to tell you. So please, don’t ask.”

End.

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Jonathan Gensler (he/him) is a Pushcart Prize nominated author who grew up in a haunted house in West Virginia. A recovering combat veteran and former entrepreneur, you’ll find his stories in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Creepy Pod, Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Waters, and other venues. He is an Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association and lives in the Rocky Mountains with his wife and three children. You can connect with him online at jonathangensler.com.

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