Word of caution: this week's story contains strong language and violence.
Charlie, his son, could not come because he was dead. His wife, Claire, was sick and the journey would tax far too much out of her. That left only person: his college-bound granddaughter, Omega, who had been given her strange name as a result of an overly-artistic mother and father. The trip was to Vietnam to tour some of the battle sights. These sights are places Tim should have been. When drafting began for the war, he answered the call by fleeing to Canada. This is his greatest regret. Decades later, the guilt finally overcame him and Tim at last answered the call to Vietnam.
The first day was nothing but museums and overpriced tourist spots. Where Tim was cathartic and saddened by it all, Omega seemed bored. Was she feigning interest? She asked questions and kept conversation, but Tim knew the truth. Or at he least his supposed truth. He could not know for sure, but this was his impression.
The most memorable museum piece was a dedication to the many prisoners of war. There was a mock-up of a Vietcong prison, the conditions of which appeared absolutely excruciating. When Tim walked inside the small cell, he felt this strange sense of belonging. Tim imagined, in his mind, the poor soldier being stripped naked and shoved into the cell. The cramped conditions were mind-numbing. Tim belonged in there. It should have been him and not the thousands who actually endured these trials. Then again, no one should have to endure such cruelties of the human heart.
Omega was always a smart one. She was given the trip as a graduation present. Tim wished he had just given her money instead. She tried to convince him that she was enjoying spending time with him, but Tim remained unconvinced.
The second day was far more important. After a tiring bus ride, Tim and Omega found themselves in the Vietnamese jungle. They were taken to this spot because it was where a standoff had taken place. Tim pictured it in vivid detail. The Vietcong militia forces holed themselves up in the foliage just before a large, brushy clearing. The United States soldiers crossing the brush suddenly found themselves being gunned down. The Americans had minimal cover and no support. Their lieutenant was first to die. Cut off the head of the snake....
Tim bent over and picked up the shiny thing he saw in the grass. It was a brass shell casing. The markings identified it as 5.56 NATO, meaning that it had come from an American M16 assault rifle. Omega quietly uttered, “You fired that shot.”
After a beat of thought, Tim replied, “I should have fired this shot. It should have been me out here dying.”
“If you had died, where would I be?” Omega asked.
Tim reckoned that her point was valid although flawed. Tim remained convinced that he had done the wrong thing.
His ruminations resumed. The American soldiers reflexively dove to the ground. They shouted, but Tim could not understand them over the gunfire. He could pick out a few expletives, but nothing concrete; no complete sentences or thoughts. Tim knelt in the grass. He wanted to know the experience. And he did... he felt the Vietnamese heat and humidity, smelled the burning of the gunpowder, heard the shouting and booming... his vision was as both a memory and a nightmare.
Suddenly the blasts and screams ceased. One of the dead American soldiers pulled himself up to his feet. He was a young man, no more than twenty. There were two bloody bullet holes on his fatigues and he held an M16 in each hand. The young soldier approached the now-standing Tim and told him, “We could use some supporting fire.”
“I should have been here,” Tim said to the soldier. Omega kept quiet.
“You are here,” the young soldier held out an M16 for Tim to take. “Help us.”
“You're a fiction,” Tim replied. “I can't help you.”
“Why are you here?” Omega asked her grandfather.
“Because this is where I was supposed to be. I ran from here. I ran from duty; from my country. But I'm here. I'm here and I'm sorry. I want to atone.”
“Then atone,” the young soldier insisted. “Atone and take the rifle.”
“I can't,” Tim argued. “If I could back and change things, don't you think I would?”
“The men are dying.”
“The men are dead.”
“Can't you save them?”
“I can't fix the past.”
“So why are you here?” Omega asked.
“Because I have to be,” Tim answered slowly, not quite understanding his own words.
“You're here to do nothing,” the soldier said bluntly. “Some trip.”
“I don't understand it,” Omega added. “Do you, papa?”
“No, I guess I don't.”
“If you can't understand why you're here, then why do you have to understand that you must take this rifle and fight?”
“You- you're right,” Tim stammered as he took the M16. “This is atonement.”
“No, this is duty,” Omega corrected.
Tim nodded as he took aim. It seemed natural to him; as if he had been trained. But he paused; he hesitated.
“Well?” Omega asked impatiently. “Aren't you going to shoot, papa? Aren't you going to kill?”
“It... doesn't feel right.”
“I don't- I don't think I should be doing this.”
The soldier said, “Tim, this is war. You shoot people. Pull the trigger.”
“It's not right.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, I never shot a gun. I never pulled the trigger. And I never- I never killed.”
“But you regret not doing these things. Do them now; it's your chance.”
Tim lowered his rifle, “No!”
“No? So it's just like before,” Omega scoffed. “Still a coward.”
“I'm no coward!” Anger welled inside. “I don't want to do this. I didn't want to do it then, and I don't want to do it now. So... fuck off!”
“Why the language?” Omega asked innocently. “You told me-”
“Fuck what I said!” Fuck everything I do! It's meaningless! Worthless! I'm a coward; a nothing!”
“Give me back the rifle,” the soldier kept calm. “You don't need it.”
“No,” Tim clenched his teeth.
“If you won't shoot, you don't need a rifle,” the soldier held out his hand. “Give it to me.”
“I said no.”
The bloody soldier reached for the rifle and grabbed the barrel. Tim jerked it away and trained it right at the young man's chest, “You'll shoot me?”
“Stay away!” Tim stepped back.
“Either shoot me or shoot them!”
“Do it, coward!” Omega snarled.
“You're worthless, you-”
Tim opened fire; the soldier's gut burst open in glorious gore. Just as he seemed to want to speak, blood filled his mouth and ran down his chin. The look in his eye was either approval or horrible acceptance. Tim did not know which.
“So that's what you came for?” Omega asked, unfazed by what had just happened.
Tim dropped the rifle, “He's right. I'm worthless. I'm a worthless cowardly traitor. I'm terrible.”
“What happened to atonement?”
“There's no atonement for me-”
“No,” the soldier grunted as he pulled himself back up to his feet. His wounds, and the blood on his mouth, remained, “there's not. There is no atonement. There is no absolution. There is no amnesty. There is no forgiveness The only thing left is punishment; justice.”
“You ran and then shot your own man,” the soldier hammered his words. “This can't be just forgiven. Someone must pay. It's you.”
“No, I- this isn't real.”
“Yes, it is,” Omega argued. “This is reality. Think, papa. Think.”
“What is real?”
Suddenly, images flashed in Tim's mind. He was in the jungle. Night had long fallen, but it was bright. Muzzle flares, explosions, and whizzing bullets illuminated the death-tainted scene. The brave fell, but the cowards remained. The true gave their lives, the false hid away. Tim hid behind a great tree, clutching his rifle. Next to him was Billy Conklin, one of his friends. There was an untold number of Vietcong just a few dozen yards away. Conklin popped in and out of cover, taking shots at his enemies. But Tim hid.
Tim sweat and panicked. He gripped his rifle tightly with wide-open eyes. He shook; mortified of the sudden death all around. He did not shoot or fight. He hid.
“Hey, Tim, the hell are you doing?” Conklin asked. “You gotta shoot, man!”
“Tim,” Conklin shook him. “Man! We could use some support fire! We're in a war here! Help us out!”
Tim looked square into Billy Conklin's eyes. He swallowed, sweat, and trembled. A blast shook the earth beneath him. That was enough. Tim pushed Billy Conklin away and then bolted into the jungle. He just ran. Where? Fuck where.
Tim ran until he could take no more, until the horror was far away; until the flashing lights faded to the heart of darkness. He panted and struggled to keep his footing. When the fatigue subsided, Tim felt suddenly so alone. But he was safe. He found a large rock and sat down upon it. The blasts and death were both far off; no more than a distant whisper. Tim did not yet feel guilt.
Over him was the starry Vietnamese sky. It had been far too long since he had just... looked to the stars. There is no beauty in war. Tim wanted to believe that he had left the war. War... what war? Nevermind the uniform, nevermind the rifle. Damn the rifle lest it damn you.
Billy Conklin suddenly limped out from the jungle. Tim stood. Conklin was bloody, two bullet holes in his fatigues. Tim dropped his rifle and ran over to his friend, “Oh, God, Billy, what happened?”
“The hell do you mean, 'what happened'? You happened, you bastard! You bastard you pushed me out of cover and right into enemy! You bastard! You fucking bastard!”
“I'm sorry! I don't- I don't know what I was think-”
Conklin picked up Tim's rifle and held it out, “Take your rifle and let's go support our platoon!”
Tim laughed uneasily, “You- you think I'm going back there? Hell no.”
“Tim, you can still atone. If you go back, I won't say nothin' to the sarge. Come on!”
“I'm not going back there,” Tim took the rifle. “Stay with me, man.”
“No, Tim, I'm gonna do my duty. You should too.”
“If you don't come,” Conklin winced in pain. “I will report you.”
Tim trained his rifle on Conklin, “I can't let you do that! They'll kill me.”
“Come with me.”
“So, what, you're gonna shoot me? No, you won't,” Conklin shook his head. The sun slowly crept over the horizon. “You won't shoot me. I'm going. Come with me or don't. Make up your-”
Tim opened fire. The soldier's gut suddenly burst open in glorious gore. Without saying a word, Conklin dropped to his knees. Just as he seemed to want to speak, blood filled his mouth and ran down his chin. The look in his eye was neither approval nor horrible acceptance, but of betrayal. Tim knew instantly what he had one.
He stumbled back to the rock and sat. He the sun continued its rise, Tim realized his regret; his crime. Omega came from behind him and walked over to where the murder had happened. She scanned the grass and retrieved the shell casing. Tim only watched she approached and said quietly, “You fired this shot.”
“It should have been me. I should be the one dying.”
She sat beside him and put her hand on his, “You will, papa. You will die.”
“It's what I deserve.”
“There's nothing left to be done. Nothing left but to accept. Accept what you deserve, accept what will happen.”
“Yeah,” Tim sighed. “I never grew old, did I?”
“No, papa,” Omega answered remorsefully. “Your life ended early.”
“So, you,” Tim swallowed, “aren't real?”
“What is real?”
“I never had a granddaughter.”
“No, you never had a granddaughter. You never married. You've never even seen Canada,” Omega let go of his hand. “Stand up.”
Tim did as he was told, “What happens now?”
She pulled his hands behind his back and started to bind them together, “Close your eyes.”
“Talk to me! What happens now?” Tim trembled as his eyes watered. He squinted them shut. “Talk to me!”
The knot tightened. Tim suddenly found his arms to be wrapped around a wooden pole. Omega gently touched his arm, “It's time.”
“No, wait,” Tim opened his eyes to find only darkness. Something covered his face. “I'll take the rifle! I'll fight! I'll do my duty!”
Omega whispered into his ear, “Papa, this is nothing for you to do but accept. Don't resist. Accept.”
“I'm sorry- I'll go back! I'll kill!”
Omega whispered, “Hush, papa. Make peace. Hush and die quietly. This is the end.”
Tim pleaded, “No! Stop! I'm sorry-”
The rifles raged, spitting deathly lead. Tim felt his chest pierced, his bones shattered. Blood trickled down his chest. He winced in horrific pain and his body fell limp.
The black veil was pulled over his head. He saw Omega once again. She put her hand on his cheek and quietly said, “Rest in peace, papa. It's over. It's all over.”
Time looked into her eyes, “I could have had you. I could have had a son and then a granddaughter- I-...”
“Hush,” she whispered. “Say goodbye. Don't wish for more, don't hope for better. This is the end.”
“You- you're an angel, aren't you?”
“Goodbye, papa,” Omega removed her hand and turned away. Tim watched as she walked away, leaving him behind.
“Please! Don't go!”
She stopped and turned around, “I must leave. It is time.”
“Just-” he coughed. “Just tell me what you are.”
Omega returned and whispered, “I am that which haunts your every nightmare. I am the common thread which binds every man, woman, and child. I am the shadowed specter of every end and the inevitable result of every mean. I am the darkness which ends all tragedy. I am the final act. I am Romeo's poison and Juliet's dagger. I am the setting sun; the darkening of stars. I am the assassin's gift. I am life's antithesis. I am Omega.”
As Omega stood and walked away once again, Tim finally understood. She was death. He watched as she faded away into the distance of eternity. Tim took his last breath. It was not laborious or painful. In fact, there was nothing to it whatsoever. Sensation, particularly pain, had long subsided. Feeling, however, remained, but not in the physical sense. Tim felt two things: peace and acceptance. It was the same as reaching the end of a novel. All of the chapters are over; there is nothing left but to turn the page.
And so he did....