By Ethan Smith | Posted: Wednesday September 12, 2018
Fairy lights cover the plaza, reflecting on the fountain with a vivid orange glow.
The moon shines bright in the clear night sky, projecting its image onto the waves as they crash into the shore. The flames from the firepit below illuminate the houses on the side of the cliff. These homes remind me of the villas my grandfather used to speak of. Sandy colours and old but smooth rock create a base for most of them. I watch from my balcony as people dance, feast and drink the night away. But not me.
Five days ago, the letters arrived. I remember it clearly. The grooves on the envelope had a textured feel to it, a very expensive feeling. I could tell that this was important. No one uses a material this premium for anything less than your undivided attention. I flipped the letter over. Once again the highest of quality was in my hands. The scarlet wax seal reflected the sunlight that shone over the town. It wasn’t greasy like a cheap wax. It was balanced the way a good wax should be, the type of wax your Grandmother would look for when searching for some high-quality candles. But then I saw it. The logo branded into the wax, the United States military. My stomach dropped. I didn’t have to open the letter to know what was inside. I had been drafted for war.
Tomorrow we all leave to become nothing more than a casualty of war. Everyone I know is in that plaza below. Young men like myself celebrating their last night with their families and the community, trying to distract themselves from what the rising sun tomorrow will bring. I must admit they are handling it pretty well. I watch through my binoculars and see smiles, laughter, happiness, a feeling I’ve longed for since those letters arrived. But I am different. I know what tomorrow will bring and, as far as I can see, I am the only one who is facing the grim reality that lies ahead.
My Grandfather fought in the Second World War. In the battle of Monte Cassino. According to my Grandmother, he returned a completely different man. He suffered from nightmares and flashbacks for months on end before he was diagnosed with PTSD. Triggers ranged from a simple sound to events depicted in media. It took control of his life. He couldn't be the man he had wanted to be. He couldn’t live the life he had dreamed of living. Instead, he became an empty shell of a man, another one of the “products of war” people talk of.
My Grandfather passed last year. These past few days have helped me accept his death because I know he wouldn’t have been able to handle this. He wouldn’t be able to handle seeing me board that train. He wouldn’t have been able to handle the thought of another war. It would only make him suffer. It would only make his PTSD worse. It would just be a world of nonstop triggers for him.
The stories he used to tell me of war horrified me. No detail was too graphic; no detail was spared. From the blood and limbs of fellow soldiers hitting the ground to watching civilians being executed, every painful memory he had was shared with me. No matter how many people told him to stop talking for the sake of my mental health he wouldn’t. He was like a record stuck on replay with no stop button. In my younger years, his depictions of war haunted my dreams like demons clawing at my mind and dragging me to hell.
I managed to drive his war stories out of mind a few years ago. I had control of my mind again. I could sleep normally and I could my live my life without the paranoia of his stories.
But when the letter arrived it all came back. I've woken up every night drenched in a lake of my own sweat and staring into the cold darkness that seems to never end. I’ve been hyperventilating for extreme periods of time trying to calm down. As my Grandfather would have said, “You’re breathing faster than Hitler’s buzzsaw could mow through an entire division.”
I walk back inside and sit on my Grandfather’s old rocking chair. A photo of him in his uniform sits on a table. I stare into his grainy black and white eyes and a single tear rolls down my cheek. “He did this to you,” I whisper to myself, but in my mind I know that it’s not his fault. It’s war’s fault. War did this to him and there was nothing I could do about it.
I drift towards the table his photo sits on. The light feels like it’s fading but it is entirely focused on him. The wooden floorboards creak under my feet. I open the lone drawer under his photo to reveal his old war mementos. His medals for being the only surviving member of his division, Division 16. His old felt cap. It’s covered in mud and has been beaten to a point where it is mostly useless. There is a shiv he made out of a random piece of shrapnel and a spare handle grip he had at his camp. The only two things left in the drawer are a 1911 handgun and a single round of .45 ammunition. (I remember his stories about these last three items very clearly).
On the side of the gun’s wooden grip are 15 tally marks, carved with his makeshift shiv, one for each kill with that gun on the battlefields of the Monte Cassino. He always used to joke that he was one kill off matching the number to his squadron number. And finally, there is the lone round of .45 ammunition. The last round that was in his pocket when he was saved by Allied forces. It sits there in pristine condition, staying clean, waiting to rip through flesh and be coated in blood. To finally fulfil its purpose.
I pick up the gun from the drawer. The wood is warm and chipped and the metal is cold and scratched. When I hold this weapon, I can imagine my Grandfather on the battlefield fighting for his life and turning into the troubled man he was for the rest of his life. I rotate the weapon and see a quote carved into the side, the very same quote my Grandfather looked me in the eyes on his deathbed and said to me. “War, war never changes.” That quote has stuck with me ever since, not because it’s one of the last things he said to me, but because it was the only time I could remember him being able to speak of war with a clear mind.
That quote rings in my mind and then it hits me like tank breaking through the trenches. If war never changes then I either die on the battlefield or become the same man my Grandfather was. I know what I have to do. I refuse to contribute to this inhumane act. I take the shiv and carve a 16th tally mark onto the gun’s grip then I load the last bullet. It moves into place with a sharp cold snap. I look at the photo of my Grandfather one last time. I let the tears flow down my cheeks and give him one last salute. I know I’m about to join him.
I walk back out onto the balcony. The party is over. The sun begins to peek out from over the hills welcoming me. The waves still crash into the shore, the only sound around me. I put the gun to my temple. The cold metal sends a shiver down my spine. My index finger waves over the trigger before it confirms my choice.