“Blood and destruction shall be so in use And dreadful objects so familiar That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war; All pity choked with custom of fell deeds: And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war; That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial.” ~Antony, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
It’s easy to let rage rise up and swallow you whole. Mark had spent half his life, regretting what he had done in the other half. The imagery permanently etched in his mind of deeds that, at the time, seemed to flow so naturally from his hands, haunted him–the faces don’t fade. Old soldiers never heal.
He limped along the narrow avenue. Though his body ached from decades of abuse, his guilt inflicted more pain than was there, causing him to hunch over like a man much older than his own years. He was alone for the first time in a long while, having lost the only connection with whom he felt completely at ease–his wife of twenty years, passed only three short months earlier. The grief he carried made his body ache that much more.
The smells and sounds of Paris seemed to do more in reminding him how dead he felt than how to accomplish his task. His wife had asked him, begged him in her last pain filled moments, to take her ashes to France. She had never been there, and despite his deep feeling of mourning he could not bring himself to feel reverence for her last request. She had placed a hollow burden on him on top of the grief he carried. You’re dead, he thought of her bitterly. You aren’t looking down on me smiling. You aren’t feeling more at peace, and you aren’t here to help me deal with it…you’ve only made my life that little bit more miserable.
He carried her ashes in a bag slung across his shoulder. “A little here, and a little there,” she had said. He shook his head as he reached in for another handful of her dusty remains before flinging them across the cobblestone.
He had just replaced the lid of the canister and closed the flap on the bag when a familiar sound greeted his ears…gunfire.
After the initial pop, there were more, then even more with a rapid report. His first instinct was to rush to Grace, to sweep her away and out of danger, but then it struck him…he was alone. Without another thought his blood lust woke and rose up in his gut, like a drug long forgotten had suddenly been rediscovered–he ran toward the violence.
Ahead of him, young people fled into the street, disgorging from a building as if they were ants spilling from a disturbed nest. Screams greeted his ears and when his old legs finally carried him close enough, he saw many, many of the faces in the swelling crowd were covered in burns and blood.
Inside the building, over the shrieks of pain and fear, the sound of gunfire continued. He pushed through the tide of bodies rushing away, brushing against the hot sweat and blood soaked victims as they fled. The crush of flesh became too great as he neared the doors and he pressed himself against the wall to avoid being carried away or knocked over. He kept a close eye on the entry and when a break in the flow of bodies occurred, he squeezed through the brief, small opening and flattened himself against the inside wall.
An explosion further away thumped his chest and concussed his ears, the pressure leaving a dull, hollow echo of new frenzied screams from deeper within the structure.
Then he saw the flashes of light, reflected off the walls around the corner. He shoved his way through the fleeing souls and caught sight of an assailant. The attacker’s face was twisted in rage and lust, lit by the muzzle flashes of his rifle as he fired into the departing crowd. Mark had seen that face before…not that particular man, but many hundreds like it. Contorted in raw emotion, shaped by pure adrenaline and a need to feed the demon that had slipped lose from within. This was a face he knew very well–he had worn it himself as a younger man.
Without thought of anything but closing the distance between them, he shoved his shoulder through the screaming crowd, fighting against the bodies that pressed against him. The scent of their fear didn’t raise dread in him–it brought about a calm, emotionless drive forward. Like the hand of a surgeon, slicing through all that was required to reach the offensive target, he shoved through the bleeding, screaming, escaping wounded to reach his goal.
His hands stretched out and he drove toward the attacker. The momentary flash of confusion on the man’s face elicited pure joy in Mark. He felt his blood lust rise up as he grabbed the hot barrel of the weapon and shoved it toward the ceiling of the cavernous enclosure.
It was then that Mark saw the explosives strapped to the belly of the menace. His eyes flashed to the hand of his adversary, to the switch cupped within. Their eyes met briefly and Mark saw fanatical resolve there. He reached up and grasped the man’s thumb, twisting it violently away from the switch. The man pounded at Mark’s ribs with his knees and tried to wrestle Mark to the ground, but Mark was no wilting flower to be propelled to the ground in submissive fear…he would kill this man or he would die in the attempt.
The burning flesh of his own hand wrapped around the rifle barrel had at first been of small benefit, helping him hold the weapon away from the crowd, but as his skin ripped away, his grip became slick with blood and blister.
Behind him, other attackers continued to fire into the fleeing victims. A sudden hammer blow to his ribs knocked the air from his lungs, and as he took a breath to refill them, he could feel the deep, bubbling rattle of blood in his chest.
Still he held onto to the thumb of the attacker, twisting cruelly in an effort to prevent detonation.
“You are going to die, old man,” the younger man hissed at Mark through anger twisted lips.
“I’m already dead,” he muttered, gurgling blood rising up in his breath.
A young woman smashed into the pair as she attempted to escape the shots from another, and Mark used the impact to throw the man to the ground. She fell on top of them, her wide eyes locking with Mark’s briefly. Her face was bloodied and the flesh of one ear dangled, burned, against her matted hair.
The impact loosened the grip the attacker had on the switch in his hand and Mark quickly pried it away from him as he looked into the face of the girl.
“Go,” Mark said quietly, calmly to the girl. He shoved her to the side as he rolled on top of the attacker. When she didn’t move immediately he screamed, “Go!”
She scrambled to her feet and ran to the exit as Mark, with all his strength, lifted the attacker from the ground and began pushing him backwards toward the other rifle wielding men.
Their shots quickly shifted to Mark. He twisted in agony as hot metal ripped through his flesh but still he pushed the man forward in an embrace of pure determination. The floor was slick with blood and as he slammed his reluctant prisoner into another attacker, he lost his footing and they fell into a heap. His neck was pinned beneath the arm of one of the men, twisted in a manner that brought his eyes to rest on the bag he had slung across his shoulder.
The ashes of his love, spilled from the open satchel, mixing with the blood of the victims on the floor. He took one, deep, rattling breath before placing his thumb on the switch he had ripped from his enemy.
“I see what you did there,” he rasped to the urn. “Well played.”
He pressed the button and ignited the explosives belt under the heap of attackers. He felt no pain, saw no light…there was only a momentary feeling of freedom as gravity seemed to evaporate.
Outside, hours later, as police and federal officers interviewed witnesses and victims, a young woman of twenty three years sat while medics treated her wounds. The female officer spoke gently to her as a bandage was placed on the young woman’s ear.
“You were one of the last ones to get out,” the officer said.
“I wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for that man,” she said, staring straight ahead glaring at nothing. “He sacrificed himself so that the last of us could escape.”
The officer nodded solemnly. “We’ll be sure his sacrifice is remembered.”
The girl turned to the officer, a shadow of anger descending across her beautiful though now scarred features. “I’ll do that myself,” she replied, a rage welling in her quiet voice. “Who do I speak to about joining the military.”
The officer shook her head. “You are traumatized and in shock, there’ll be time to figure these feelings out after you are healed.”
The girl shook her head. “There’s nothing to figure out. It’s time for war.”
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