Jacob watched, not his mother, but several soldiers dressed in WWII uniform enter the room. Their faces were sullen and expressionless and accentuated by empty eye sockets. That emptiness stared at Jacob.
His grandfather was among them. He was the leader. He was shorter than most and held Jacob’s attention.
“Don’t fight this, boy.” His grandfather’s voice was hollow, but menacing.
“Fight what?” Jacob stammered. He was tired and confused. This was a side effect of some drug in his body after the car accident. He tore his eyes from his grandfather’s specter and searched for the emergency button to call the nurse.
Jacob’s grandfather was by Jacob’s side and in his face instantly. “Do not fight this, boy.”
Jacob could see into the specter’s mouth. It was black, toothless, and tongueless. It was a vague hole of nothing. Jacob began to tremble.
“What am I fighting? What have I done to harm you so?”
“Nothing. But you will, your father did. He wanted too long to pass on the jacket to you.” The specter let out a sigh, carrying a rotting stench.
“He still did it,” Jacob replied. “He still made me your puppet.”
The specter rested his hand on the wall above Jacob. “As he should. He needed to pass on the jacket to you. He needed to pass on the truth. He needed you to understand your doom.”
“That I’m born to suffer?”
The specter nodded slowly. “Yes, you and those who follow. There is no escape.”
“There is one. I could end it in suicide, like Dad, and stop this curse dead in its tracks!”
“Really?” The specter moved closer. “Do you think that will stop this curse?” The specter leaned in, Jacob wanted to vomit from the stench. “You are a small piece of the puzzle, but you are my piece. I will have my vengeance sated.”
The specter pulled away and stood at the front of the troops again. It spread its arms wide to those behind him. “These are the many others, many others, who will see our vengeance answered.”
“Vengeance for what? We’ve done nothing to you.”
The specter pointed an accusing finger at Jacob. It shook with vehemence. “Wrong! You are guilty of our crimes. Those crimes have been passed down from generation to generation.”
“What crimes?” Jacob was bewildered, pained, and tired. He just wanted all of this to end.
“Survival.” The specter let its hand fall to its side. It stood and glared.
Jacob dropped back to the bed. “Survival?”
The specter nodded. “All of these soldiers witnessed the devastation we wrought through the war. Another war, another generation. All of them survived. They survived the bullets, bombs, and bayonets of their enemy. They ended lives with their own bullets, bombs, and bayonets.” The specter’s eyebrows lifted, its cheeks softened. “Those killed had loved ones, children, dreams. We ended all of that, but survived to embrace our dreams and our loved ones. We did not deserve such gifts.” The specter’s face hardened. “And neither do those who follow in our stead. You never deserve to be safe or happy. Suffering must be your curse. You must be the continuation of the symbol of how sick we are.”
The curse of survivor’s guilt? Jacob was shocked by this revelation. This seemed so ridiculous.
“You will live knowing this terrible hypocrisy. To be cursed with the will to live and dream, but to know that suffering is all you will bring in the end.” The volume in the specter’s voice lowered. “It’s all any of us ever bring to the world.”
Jacob’s injuries made it impossible for him to move beyond the bed. All he could do was shout. “This cannot be the grandfather who raised me!”
“I raised you to be strong, because you will need it. To walk through this accursed world and to eventually tell your son or daughter about this pain. To know that until Judgement Day we will carry this curse: the curse that we survived and dared to move on.”
The military specters began to leave one at a time. Jacob’s grandfather only stared at him through empty eye sockets. The gaze carried a deafening silence.
“Remember that you must pass on the jacket to your son and remember that we will always be watching. The curse must remain unbroken. I will make certain of it.”
Jacob’s grandfather vanished, leaving an empty hospital room.
The lights flickered and Jacob’s mother came rushing in. She reached out to hug him tightly. “Oh Darling, are you all right? You look absolutely terrified. I heard you screaming and came in here as quickly as I could.”
Jacob only nodded slowly and held his mother. He was uncertain how long she would be with him. He wanted, needed, to hold on to this moment.
It was raining and Jacob walked close to his son, Jim. There was a distant rumble of thunder. A storm front was definitely moving in. But the funeral was over. Jacob had laid his father to rest. To think that he made it through ten more years after the events when he tried to take his own life. He survived, but Jacob and his father were never close after that. In some ways his father was bitter that Jacob rescued him from the suicide attempt. His father was even less pleased that Jacob had burned the flight jacket, the symbol of their family’s curse. Jacob’s mother never understood the situation and Jacob never talked about the curse again.
Sarah had dropped the entire issue and moved back to California. Three miscarriages later she finally gave birth to a little girl, but had not married. Jacob did marry and lived in his home town ever since. He had pursued the career of an emergency medical technician. He had learned to save lives, similar to his sister. They talked often, but never about the night of the accident or the curse. And Jacob certainly never talked about his hospital hallucination. But he remembered that traumatic vision, he remembered it every time he ended up holding the hand of a dying person. A person he failed. Some, even his sister, would say he worked too hard and for too long. But he was hoping to find a way to redeem his grandfather, his family. Every life saved was another dream saved, another child that could be born. Jacob found some comfort in that.
Jacob opened the door to his home and stepped in. He closed his umbrella and hung on a bucket’s rim near the door. His son rushed into the front foyer and charged into the living room and jumped on the couch, laughing. His laugh always brought a smile to Jacob, even on a night such as this. His wife reached an arm around him and gently kissed him on the cheek. There was peace in that moment.
“It’s your turn to make dinner,” she whispered.
“Really?” Jacob smiled. “I cooked dinner last night.”
“You burned dinner last night, paying for takeout doesn’t count.”
She gently tapped the back of his shoulder and walked into the living room. “Get to it, manservant.”
Jacob nodded with a smile and headed toward the kitchen.
A hallucination waited for him alone in the kitchen. The specter of his grandfather. And it was holding a pristine flight jacket: the jacket Jacob burned years ago. The brown-haired pinup girl on the back of the jacket sat mockingly on a rock surrounded by flames. Jacob’s vicious angel.
The specter nodded. “It is time.”
© 2017 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.
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