This story is one of the few that is actually inspired by a real person, and thus I hold it very dear. You can read this story along with a few never before seen stories like Last Look, Circus Freak, After The Fire, and a post apocalyptic flash fiction piece Underground Railroad in the upcoming collection ‘Everyone Dies: Tales from a Morbid Author’.
by Melissa Algood © (2015)
Ben thought about the war a lot.
It was on his mind twenty-four hours a day. He’d been unable to fully get back into the swing of normal life, so his parents had him move back home until he ‘got on his feet’ they’d said. His siblings tried to help him forget by bringing him to parties they’d been invited to, out to a movie, or just for a drive. But it only made things worse.
At parties, some idiot would inevitability ask him if he’d killed anyone when he was deployed. What was his answer supposed to be? If it was no, then he was a pussy. If it was yes, then he was a murderer. How could anyone explain that after three tours in the ‘sandbox’, he couldn’t stop checking the crowd for enemies? Or that he never felt relaxed because he was always at attention?
Movies weren’t much better. They were too loud, and he’d concentrate on the people around him rather than the film. Every gesture people around him made was suspect even though his sisters promised, “They’re just goofing off.”
Once, he was stupid enough to go to stay at home and watch a rented movie his older brother recommended that involved guns and a car chase. It brought the war back in vivid detail from the death of his partner, to the sirens waking him at night. Ben’s dug his fingernails into the fabric on the armrest of the couch until the credits rolled. The shots that fired rung in his ears, and he would be covered in sweat; not out of fear, but out of memory. When a body dropped on screen, it reminded Ben of everyone he’d seen fall in the sandbox. He wished he could say that their faces weren’t burnt into his memory. That their empty eyes didn’t haunt him. But they did; all thirteen of his brothers who died in the sandbox were with him. Always.
And the long car rides were the worst. Ben had spent most of his time guarding the convoy. No matter if he was protecting soldiers, or artillery, Ben was on high alert for the entire journey. Now, back at home, the long way back proved anxiety ridden rather than calming. Can’t really be comfortable in a car when you dodn’t have a grenade launcher within arm’s reach, he thought as he looked out over the trees that lined the highway.
Everyone went on with their lives the four years he was gone, but Ben’s had stopped. They didn’t understand that he wasn’t really Ben anymore, he was a Marine.
* * *
He’d only been home a couple of months before he sat his parents down in the living room. Ben’s mother wrung her hands; she wore her apron stained with bacon grease from making breakfast. His father leaned back in his recliner, covering half his face with his hand; maybe he already knew what his son was going to tell them. That he needed to be free.
Ben had never been described as loquacious, even less so after his deployment. He was unaware how to articulate that he needed to do something deemed impossible by most. He thought that nature might prove to be a cure to the haunting of his past, so he got right to the point. “I’m going to walk the Appalachian Trail.”
His mother chuckled. “Oh baby, you just got home.”
He didn’t know how to explain that he’d never really come home. “I need to.”
“Why?” Her dark eyes glistened. “Who are you going with? How long do you want to leave us?”
Ben sighed. He thought she might cry, but he still didn’t want to be the cause of it. Again. “I’ll go alone. It will take as long as it takes.”
“But it’s so far away… bears… rain…” She went into a tizzy, and Ben let her, although he didn’t necessarily imprint her worries in his gray matter.
He was going to hike the Appalachian Trail, and that was literally the only thing he cared about. The fresh air, strenuous exercise, and new experiences were what his soul craved. The hike would be a reset button on his life and was much needed because he was tired of being an unemployed, twenty-five-year-old single guy who lived in a rural, Southwest Texas town.
The trail would help him recover the parts of himself he’d lost to the war. He’d get back meaning in his life.
“Now, Sarah.” Ben’s father leaned forward and took his mother’s hand. He sandwiched his wife’s wrinkled hand between his own age-spotted ones. “Our boy really isn’t a boy anymore.”
“He’ll always be my baby, and I want him safe, at home, Joseph.”
“I understand that, but if he can take care of himself over there in the desert, then he’ll be okay taking a little hike.”
Ben didn’t feel it was the time to add that it would take at least five months to hike from Georgia to Maine.
Joseph continued, unaware of his son’s thoughts. “He’ll be fine. No bear can get our son if those terrorists can’t.”
He grinned and smacked Ben on the back, which made him flinch. Being touched was still something he wasn’t completely okay with even if it was his father giving him a ‘thatta boy’.
A few weeks later, Ben kissed his mother on the cheek, shook his father’s hand, hugged his sisters, and gave his brother a high five before he boarded the bus to Georgia.
“Call us when you get there, Ben,” his mother said.
Ben nodded. Although he wasn’t taking a map since the trail was marked so well, much less a cell phone. He’d promised his father he’d send a letter addressed to his mother every time he crossed a post office.
* * *
It was green, so green. If he were a poet instead of a solider, Ben would be able to describe the drops of water that clung to the leaves, or that each plant reminded him of the foliage he saw in movies about dinosaurs. The sky was majestic with shades of orange, red, and finally a deep purple as the sun set. The clean air invigorated his lungs. Basically everything he experienced in nature he found to be the opposite of everything he’d seen during his three tours in the sandbox. Birds chirped in the morning and evening; frogs sounded like fog horns as he lay in his sleeping bag, staring up at the ever-expanding stars. Although he knew the most important rules of the trail were to not take anything off of the trail, not to leave anything behind, and not to harm any of its creatures; thus when he came across the occasional snake, he left alone.
Ben became part of every living creature he came in contact with. The trickling river washed away the constant noise in his head and the nightmares. With each step forward, he propelled himself closer toward peace.
For hours he watched a mourning dove build a nest using twigs and leaves it gathered from the forest floor. In the sunshine, the feathers on its chest were snow white, while its tan wings camouflaged the bird in the tree. Ben realized that it was building a home, something he wanted to do one day as well. Although he’d never contemplated it before, as he watched the bird create its future, he decided that he wanted one of his own. Ben wanted a strong woman by his side. He’d buy her a beautiful house where they could raise their kids. He laughed to himself as he pictured a couple of kids playing on the tire swing that he’d put up for them as his wife finished up the chicken fried steak for dinner.
Ben’s story isn’t over yet-to read the rest of her wild night download ‘Everyone Dies: Tales from a Morbid Author’ on Amazon here