A short story
Content Warning: Graphic Horror and Disturbing Language
I don’t sleep well anymore . My own fault. Trying to write certain projects, being a workaholic, night-owl — call it what you want. Last Friday night was different because as I was nodding off, I swear, an entire short story unrolled as a horrible nightmarish movie in my head. It was didactic and simple, and its message was nothing new, but as some author greater than me said somewhere, “Everything has been written before, but we have to write it again because no one was paying attention the first time.”
And so, my imagination attacked me. It had plenty of raw material because now I’ve seen bodies, and I’ve interviewed IDPs and walked through landscapes of devastation, and that is still a Lonely Planet holiday compared to the daily grinding reality of those I waved goodbye to in 2021–2022 as I got into a Land Rover and rode away. I’m trying to figure out the cognitive mechanics of it myself. As I wrote above, it’s not a very good story, but my gawd, it was vivid. It came to me in fragments, like shrapnel from a mental grenade. I have collected the pieces, and here they are.
They showed up at the village about an hour after the regular army quietly melted into the forest and abandoned it.
It was the standard protocol. The Soldier heard his commander on the old-fashioned radio with the stubby rubber antennae, and the word was given, the silent bargain renewed for another afternoon. Their regional forces could move in and do as they pleased… and they would. “Time for donkey herding!” joked the commander, and the men laughed, and The Soldier laughed, and one of them even spit up his Cola, even though they had all heard the joke before.
And so the hunt began. It started with their rifles picking off the “strays” — the folks on the outskirts of the village lugging water cans and firewood who might run and warn the others. But sometimes no one minded if the others were warned because otherwise, what fun would that be? Just to find their prey all cowering in a single huddle, ready for slaughter? Run, donkeys, run!
Soldier had taken a cup of liquid courage in their camp earlier that afternoon, and nothing so far was very different from all the other raids he had been on. Brains cracked like melons. One of their horde played with intestines after slashing open a child’s belly, giggling as he unraveled them. Soldier had seen rape and heard rape, and he had dragged his own share of screaming women into a shack time after time. After five raids, his commander had noted his sluggishness and lack of “enthusiasm,” and he had pulled his man to the side for a pep talk.
“You think if they were anything, we could do all this to them?” asked the commander. “They bring it on themselves.”
Soldier didn’t ask then what exactly they did to bring it on. The proper response was to nod and assert his loyalty.
Today was no different. Begging followed by splatter. Defiance earning a reply of fists. Soldier trudged past one of his friends and ignored what the man was eating, the flecks that were in the corners of his mouth and what dribbled down his chin. Someone was supposed to save him a girl for later to relieve his urges because he was on “remaining stray” duty. Kill the ones who might still slip past their perimeter.
Soldier spotted a boy, about ten years old, running up the hill through the trees. He fired a burst of his assault rifle on a tree about thirty feet ahead of the kid to make him startle and veer right, and then he sprinted up to cut the boy off.
“Where you think you’re going?” he laughed.
The boy had nowhere to go as Soldier closed the distance. He stood there, skinny and trembling like a deer about to bolt, his eyes wide and now glistening with tears as he sensed the end. Soldier was bored by his fear. There was no sport in this. He could gut the kid, he could make him strip and humiliate him, but he wished he were more creative. Maybe he should just drag the kid back and hand him over for one of his comrades’ amusement —
“No,” said the boy. “Please do it now.”
The shock of the words infuriated Soldier, and he flipped his rifle around and drove the butt into the boy’s head, but it was a glancing blow — not enough to make him unconscious.
The boy’s temple streamed blood down past his ear, around his cheek and along his neck, but that’s not what caught Soldier’s attention. It was as if the boy himself were gone, and a whole new personality inhabited those childish features. The eyes were dark and accusing, and they held him steady, the mouth slightly parted as this fresh presence gathered its dignity and said with gentle yet malevolent force:
“I will see you again.”
Soldier leveled his assault rifle and fired in a burst of panic. The boy’s chest ruptured and bloomed red, and he dropped to the fallen leaves and soil like all the others.
Soldier swore a string of epithets, furious at being spooked, at being robbed of his chance to decide a more interesting fate for his victim. Fucking donkey. Fucking arrogant… He undid his fly and urinated on the boy’s corpse.
Then he rejoined the others. Yes, they had saved him a woman. He dragged her off to a shed but found he couldn’t get aroused, and so he killed her in case she told others of his failure. He was quiet on the way back to their base. That boy… That stupid, insolent boy.
It was the last raid before they were all due for leave for a couple of weeks. The government thought nothing of their ranks blending in with the regular population and coming and going as they pleased. The regional army was its accomplice in solving what the politicians labeled an “extremist” problem — extremist because these people insisted on still living. Thank God, we’ve managed to keep the donkeys out of the capital, thought Soldier. They can’t flee here.
There was a new atmosphere in the largest city of the land. Soldier and his friends didn’t ever feel embarrassed by their lack of education anymore. The elites were being put in their place. It’s our time now, they said. The liars are being shouted down, the donkeys herded. Our time, our time!
Soldier kept an apartment on the top floor of an apartment block off one of the major shopping streets of the city. What the regional army paid him wasn’t enough to live on, let alone stay comfortable, so he had his sideline businesses. His whole second bedroom had stacks of boxed drugs that should have gone to the IDP camps. He would see that they reached more deserving recipients… eventually. Some of the drug cartons were stamped from a year ago.
Sure, there were others who were far bigger players, but he didn’t get greedy. Shit, you could run much of this by remote control and if you could rope in folks who could be trusted. People called him “Soldier” here because they knew what he did. They didn’t fuck with him. No one did. In his head, he was Soldier, and he could go days without thinking of himself under his own given name.
He had two weeks now to unwind and maybe find some new buyers and reconnect with friends. He placed a call on his cell and the girl came promptly, but she couldn’t get him hard and refused to give him his money back. He gave her a lesson and tore her purse apart while she lay on the floor, nursing her swollen lip. She wouldn’t ever step into his place again, but to hell with her.
Something was off. That raid. That boy.
He went about his business over the next couple of days, but things happened that… Well, they disturbed him. Not in a way he could articulate even to himself but then he was never that introspective. But they bothered him. At a store in the mall, he treated himself to a new pair of trousers and a sports jacket, and after the salesman rang up the purchase and handed him the paper bag with the shop’s logo, he said casually, “I will see you again.”
“We’ll see you again.”
Stupid. Paranoid. It meant nothing. But in the next day or so, he couldn’t help but notice people were saying the phrase to him all the time. It made no sense. He stood in a market, near baskets of mangoes and asparagus, apples and spinach, and a young woman twenty feet away stared at him with a faint, expectant smile. He thought at first she was flirting with him but then she said abruptly, “I will see you again.”
He yelled at her, making a scene, demanding what the hell are you talking about? But she walked away and all eyes were on him, and he knew it would do nothing to follow her or challenge her in the street. And then she was gone.
He went to visit his pal, the one forced to hobble around on crutches now for the rest of his life. Weeks ago, a bad raid. A villager had come out of a house, daring to level a rifle at them, the barrel of it shaking with his fear, and he let off a round that caught his pal in the leg. A through-and-through shot. His buddy had tried to be brave about it, their camp medic bandaging him up, but the leg got infected. Amputation below the knee — had to be done.
Soldier did his best to cheer his friend up. “You can still use your hands, your arms. You got no face scars or… Look, if that stupid bastard had shaken any more and dropped his aim, you could have lost your balls!”
“Yeah, I’m real lucky,” muttered his pal, staring out a window.
“He’s dead, the one who shot you,” said Soldier. “We’ll be rid of ’em all soon enough.”
And his pal gave him a look, a grimace that made him feel small and ridiculous. Soldier made an excuse that he had to get going. He’d come around for another visit maybe in a day or two. His pal said there was no hurry. As he hustled down the stairs, Soldier decided yeah, his next visit could wait after all. Maybe give it a whole month.
He went to a nightclub and got drunk and abusive. They tossed him out. On the street, a tout called out road names, attracting business for one of the shuttle buses, and he shoved a wad of bills into the man’s hand, wanting to go home but someone whispered I will see you again in the cramped and darkened space, and he lashed out and punched and kicked, and the bus patrons ganged up to evict him from there, too.
He woke up the next day in his apartment with a hangover that felt like someone had parked the bus on his head. He missed an appointment to sell some of the stolen cartons.
He stayed in that day. If he stayed in, no one could talk to him. No one could say the phrase.
In the middle of the night, he tried to summon the features of that boy, thinking he could banish whatever this was. But he couldn’t recall his face. All he saw in his mind’s eye was the thin body, limp like a doll in the forest, its chest red. And it was even more disturbing that he couldn’t bring it back, as if this child would select his own moment to return but would taunt him relentlessly with advance warnings that he was on his way.
He let another day pass. He got a message over WhatsApp that the unit commander was dead. It didn’t make sense. Suicide — threw himself off his apartment balcony.
Fuck him, thought Soldier. Man was weak. Giving him speeches all the time to man up and spare no mercy on their raids. And he goes and breaks and does himself in like that.
The next day, Soldier texted a prospective new buyer for the aid cartons. Time to get shit done. The meet was at a popular restaurant, and he negotiated the final price as his helpers and buyer all sat around finishing their drinks and pushing back their plates. Then he noticed a guy sitting two tables away, staring at him. The man had an air about him that would have annoyed Soldier in any setting, at any time. Well dressed but he carried himself as if he were a crown prince or something, nose slightly in the air, smug grin on his face.
Soldier excused himself from his guests and walked over to the man’s table, growling, “Say it. Just go ahead and say it. You’re all boring me now. If all you’re going to do is say a few stupid words — fine. I can put up with that.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” said the stranger. But he kept on smiling.
“Yes, you do, you donkey queer.”
“Ah. I suppose anyone can look queer to someone like you.”
“I could beat your brains out right here, and no one would stop me.”
“Maybe. But that would just bring us sooner.”
“It shouldn’t be too long now.”
He thought he understood now. “Oh. That’s what this is all about. Petty little mind games from your kind. Well, I’m a soldier. In another week, I’ll be out in the field, and you can shout your magic words all you like from the bush. It’ll help me flush you out.”
The man laughed. “You call what you do being a soldier? A soldier fights an armed enemy — ”
“We’ve faced — ”
“Farmers. With old rifles. With barely any ammunition. They beg and plead to get cartridges.”
It was Soldier’s turn to laugh. “You read too much propaganda. But nice to confirm you’re losing.”
The man stood up and buttoned his coat. “Your new family is waiting to see you again.”
“You donkeys are not my fucking family!”
He didn’t care anymore where he was. His potential buyer and his friends back at the table were forgotten. He balled his fist and swung a wide haymaker punch and didn’t come close to hitting the man. The man was suddenly… gone. Then standing again near his shoulder.
He heard his name — his proper name — shouted distantly behind him, but this was more important. It didn’t matter that his guests were leaving, abandoning him, he needed… He needed to know…
“You look ridiculous doing that,” said the stranger calmly.
“What the hell are you? I suppose you’re the devil. Or you’re supposed to be the devil. What is it?”
“You think in such limited terms.”
Soldier suddenly felt weak, drained. It was as if one pathetic, furious lunge and punch had exhausted all his strength. He fell into a chair at the stranger’s table.
“I’ve prepared quite a banquet for you,” said the man.
And now Soldier recoiled and fell out of the chair, his hands and feet lobster crawling back. There were no restaurant patrons anymore. There were no waiters or busboys, no staff, no one else.
But there were bodies. Bodies grotesquely seated in chairs, with legs folded and sometimes arms crossed or casually relaxed on the linen tablecloths, but too bloody to be identified or recognized. There were piles of organs on plates and trays heaped with limbs, glasses of blood. It was all here, all of the ugliness, complete with blue-bottle flies swarming on guts and the coppery stench and rot that comes with death. Not out in the forest where it could be left behind, forgotten, but here. Here.
The stranger smoothed down his jacket and waved a hand in the air like a stage actor. “I don’t know anything about your God or Jesus, or who’s up there and if there’s just one.” He shrugged and made a little self-deprecating laugh. “Honestly! Not my department. I just know about us. There are so many of us. I mean, you’ve been so busy creating us, over and over, that we haven’t had a chance to take a breath and chat. We told you we’d see you, but you’re such an absentee, negligent parent, so we had to stop being polite.”
Soldier worked his legs to stand, wanting to flee but feeling compelled to ask, “Why? Why are you persecuting me?”
“Huh… Persecuting.” The man chuckled. “That’s an interesting choice of words. Why you? Well, you said it yourself: It’s your time.”
Soldier heard the words and whirled around, taking it all in and trying to tell himself it wasn’t real, that none of it could be real, but he ran screaming out into the street. People said later it wasn’t the truck driver’s fault, and more than that, they felt sorry for the little boy who stood on the sidewalk, who had seen it all.