Jebidiah Clancy trudged along the sodden road. Large raindrops fell from the swirling grey sky above. The soles of his boots flopped with a slap after every weary step. Each footfall pulled the soles a little further backwards. Coarse leather stitching stretched taut and broke from the strain. His boots no longer offered protection from the rocky roads he treaded upon. His toes poked from his woolen socks through holes opened by his thick, untrimmed toenails. His once blue uniform was sun-baked and faded to Confederate grey. As if the colors, or anything else, mattered to him anymore.
He used his rifle mostly as a walking stick. That was just about all it was good for. The un-oiled mechanisms had broken down long ago and ammunition was too hard to come by. He maintained the bayonet's razor-sharp edge, and that was all he needed. The blade stained black by the blood of an uncounted legion of lives. He enjoyed releasing souls from this hell.
Underneath the tight grey locks of his shabby chest-length beard, a necklace rattled. Strung along a leather cord like beads were a number of small sun-bleached bones. The bones struck against each other as he walked. They rang out a sound as empty as his heart.
He thought of the eyes of the dying. How they gloss over after that final breath. A hint of a smile colors their faces as their facial muscles relax. Once the body lets the soul free, it can rest, no longer burdened by the battles of this world or the unceasing internal struggles of humanity.
His own struggle had ended long ago. He had made a deal with Old Scratch. When that old devil had come calling, Jebidiah hadn’t given it a second thought. Not after what the old goat had offered him.
One more night...
One more night and even after all he'd experienced since, he felt it was worth it. He had been widowed young and lost all feeling without her anyways. Just one more night with his sweet Betty and one chance to make amends, for leaving her to go off to fight in the infernal war, leaving her to die alone in childbirth alongside the son he'd never see. He had talked about duty and honor when he signed his papers to fight. Caught up in the patriotic swell, focused on what he thought were the bigger, grander things he lost sight of what mattered most to him. The one thing worth fighting for: love.
He had one more night of tenderness with Betty. One night to tell her he was sorry, and then the morning broke through the mist. He found himself alone with nowhere to go except forward.
So he walked forward into an eternal daylight, never to know the solace of night again. Rain pelted him eternally, globules of concentrated goosebumps splashing down in a chilling torrent. He walked through his life down a road with no beginning or end -- an unchanging nowhere.
The sun set and rose, but night remained elusive, just out of his weakened grasp. He had his one night and understood he'd spend eternity paying off the tab.
Like any worker, even in the most menial of task, he was able to find some pleasure. He found it in that final moment, watching the soul float away like a red leaf in November pulled free from a tree to be caught up in a dust devil dancing across a dying field while the promise of winter blew a soft whisper warning of the chill to come.
Yes, Jebidiah found some pleasure in his labor, but it wasn't that he liked the killing. It was quite the contrary. However, he did enjoy helping others find that something he was damned never to experience himself: release.
He walked past battlefields, beyond cannon-blasts, felt the searing heat of musket balls and bullets whistling past -- and sometimes directly through -- him. Bayonets clashed. The war raged on: a wall of sound, a cacophony of chaos to all of mankind, but music to the unseen demons dancing through the carnage.
The dying wounded saw the spiritual battle transposed over the physical. They saw the angels singing for mercy while the demons prodded those fighting with prongs, encouraging the bloodshed.
Jebidiah worked here, between worlds with one foot in the grave. He collected the souls of the dying in a knapsack, paying an unshrinking debt, parcel by parcel.
Copyright: © 2009 T.J. McIntyre
Copyright: © 2009 T.J. McIntyre
----------------------------------T.J. McIntyre has seen his short fiction and poetry published in numerous publications including recent appearances in Everyday Weirdness, Ruthless Peoples Magazine, and Scifaikuest. He is a member of various writing organizations, including the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), and serves as a moderator for the Lobo Luna writing community on LiveJournal. Until earlier this year, he published Southern Fried Weirdness, an anthology and web zine celebrating speculative fiction and poetry with a Southern perspective. He lives in a busy household in the muggy heart of rural Alabama with his wife, two young sons, an aging Doberman mix, five tiger barbs, and three salt-and-pepper catfish. The anthology, Toe Tags, includes his short story, "Grief."