by: Frederick Foote
When the past comes back to stalk the present — a short story about a veteran confronted by the horrors of his former life and the lengths he will go to to silence its pain…
I’m on my lunch hour, waiting to cross K Street near Dos Rios, my favorite Mexican restaurant. I see her across the street, staring intently at me.
She’s tall, thin with a long, bony face and protruding ears. She looks like she traces her lineage to the Middle East. She’s dressed in a mid-calf length heavy, black skirt that could be wool or cotton, thick, black stockings, and a heavy black tweed jacket. Below that is a dazzling white blouse and a black Mary Poppins looking hat with black shoes with silver buckles like from the Puritan era.
Why the hell’s Bony Face giving me the evil eye? I wonder. A chill freezes my spine on the warm August morning. Her presence triggers some vague threatening memories.
I finger the paper-clipped business card for the Haven Home Shelter/Service Center and a five-dollar bill in my pants pocket, but I sense that Ms. Black and White isn’t homeless and is definitely not looking for a handout.
Like a lamppost, she never moves from her spot on the corner as I cross the street. I try to stare her down, but her glare is too severe like some kind of focused lightning.
I’m sweating by the time I reach her side of the street. She steps directly in front of me.
Never taking her black eyes off mine, the woman shows her long white teeth as she speaks, “Khrushchev?”
I take a step back. My name’s not Khrushchev. My name’s Ambrose Baker, but in 1960 in high school, I earned the nickname Khrushchev and it followed me into the Army.
She closes the gap between us. I can feel her harsh, dry, desert breath as she whispers in my ear, “Ambrose Baker, you are my salvation and my redemption. Kill me again. Kill me here and now.”
There’s a sharp pain in the back of my head that drives me almost to my knees. She reaches out her left hand and effortlessly pulls me upright. In her right hand is a bone handle hunting knife with a seven-inch blade. She offers it to me. “Now! Do it now!”
There’s a furnace roaring inside of me, but my skin is freezing. I’m struck dumb and pinned to the spot, unable to move. Someone bumps my shoulder, breaking the spell. The traffic noises return. I feel the sun on my skin. I slap her hand away and stumble past her. Somehow, I make it to my restaurant. Alejandro, my regular waiter, helps me to my table. “Are you okay Mr. Baker? Did the heat get to you?”
I try to calm my racing heart as I nod yes. I ask for water and a few minutes to catch my breath.
What the fuck is going on? I don’t know anyone from the Middle East. I don’t know anyone who looks like Mary Poppins with Dumbo ears. What was that salvation and redemption shit about? I couldn’t have killed her. I have never seen her. But, but there’s something so hauntingly familiar about her.
My stomach is tied in knots. My appetite is gone. I tentatively glance out of the window expecting that she’ll be there staring right back at me. I exhale in relief when I’m sure she isn’t there.
What if she comes in here? She could come in here and sit right across from me. I start sweating and shaking. I remember the sharp pain in the back of my head and touch that spot. There’s an echo of that pain. I jerk my hand away.
Eventually, I calm down, gather my wits. I leave Alejandro a five-dollar tip. I proceed cautiously out the front door. I look left, right, and across the street. She’s nowhere in sight. I start the six block walk back to my office.
Maybe she’s not real. She could be a figment of my imagination. The August sun. The sun, the heat, work, and home pressures. Maybe I saw a mirage. The alley. I can cut through the dark passage and save two blocks and plus, the back street’s in the shadows. It may be ten or fifteen degrees cooler in the alley.
It is until she steps out in front of me again out of nowhere, offering me the knife, again. I don’t know what to do. I want to run. I desperately need to flee, but I can’t. I stand, look, and just listen.
“Kill me again, here in the soft shadows. You know how. You can do it again. It will be a painless pleasure like before. It’s your duty.”
I look away from her death-ray eyes. I study a cigarette pack crumpled by her feet. “I don’t know you. Who are you? Why’re you doing this to me?”
She takes a step closer, again offering me the knife. “Of course, you know me. You know me biblically. We aren’t strangers. You fucked me a long time ago in the shade of the jungle scented by the gun smoke breeze.”
The pain returns. It’s a flood that takes me to my knees and threatens to pull me under into its eternal black undertow.
“Your squad members spread my legs, took turns, one put his cigarette out on my buttocks. I was eleven.”
My tears flow as if a dam destroyed. I sprawl in the alley, wishing for the knife. I’ll take the knife and use it — on me.
She stoops down beside me. “No time for tears. Time to free me. You stacked us like cords of wood. Fed the flamethrowers our flesh.”
I vomit. I tremble, shake, and moan in deep despair. I sincerely want to die.
She touches my face. “Come now. Do your duty. You owe me. It’s your duty to kill the enemy, protect your family. One last person to add to the body count, Sergeant Baker.”
I can smell the smoke of the burning bodies. The children. The old women. The frail, ancient men barehanded against bullets.
“You’ll enjoy it. It might help reconnect with your past. Do you need to force yourself on me first? Is that what’s holding you back? She starts pulling up her long skirt.
“No! No! I can’t. I can’t. I —”
“Would you like me to be younger, ten, eleven, twelve? Would that —”
“I can be Asian again if you want, but I’m losing patience with you. If you malinger any longer, I’ll visit your wife, Mary, and your fifteen-year-old daughter, Matilda. I won’t do to them what you did to me. I’ll be efficient and quick. You can save their lives if you act now.”
“I can’t. I can’t.”
“Of course, you can, to protect your loved ones. You did it before in the jungle, more than once. Remember?”
“I won’t do it. If you give me the knife, I’ll kill myself.”
She gives me a hint of a smile. “I rather doubt it. You had a rifle and a bayonet back then. You’ve had over fifty years to kill yourself. Instead, you have married and fathered children. You need to protect Mary and Matilda.”
She hands the knife to me, folds my fingers gently around the hilt.
“Wait! What about Elizabeth? You haven’t mentioned Lizzy.”
“Don’t worry about your daughter the F-16 pilot. Captain Lizzy can take care of herself. In her three months in the desert, she has already killed more than your entire squad did in the jungle in a year. A competent young daughter. You must be so proud.”
“What did you do to her? What the fuck did you do to Elizabeth?”
“Nothing. You did everything. She admires your service, your medals, your adventures. She’s a chip off the old block, just like her dear old dad.”
I stab her. I strike her over and over again with that eager blade.
Even then she whispers, “I did show Elizabeth you in the jungle. In your prime with your urgent penis surging deep in me. Your hand over my mouth. Just protecting your country, your family, your way of life. I did show her that.”
I stab her and stab her until the cops take me away still beating my bare, broken fist bloody against the greasy blacktop.
I keep telling them I have to get home to save my family, but I knew it was too late for that fifty-three years ago.