He could feel the night chill gnawing at his flesh, debilitating in its cruelty, even as he tried to find shelter from the cold wind. There was little to be had underneath the old highway bridge, forcing the man to retreat back into the shadows, drawing the threadbare blanket tight around his shoulders with shuddering hands. Far above, vehicles raced across the causeway, a constant drone quenching all other sounds in the night, even the rivers rush seemed weak in contrast.
The voice caused him to jump in surprise, the abrupt motion causing the man to stagger across the gravel strewn ground. A purple tongue ran across cracked lips as he gazed into the darkness, spinning around in confusion, searching for the hidden speaker.
“What happened to you George?”
At once the tone was familiar, an echo from memory, and at the same time it was distant, cold and judging, like a disappointed teacher. He had heard the voice before. It had followed him, always, ever since the end.
“Who are you? What do you want?” he glanced side to side, eyes wide with fear, fingers dancing nervously across his blanket.
There was no response. Not a soul stirred beneath the bridge. Only the continued thrum of traffic far above, the increased pitch of the keening wind. George Moss fumbled his way into the shadows, searching for a place where the wind couldn't reach, where he could find the slightest semblance of shelter. Old combat boots slipped and slid across the stones, small pebbles finding their way through the worn out soles, pressing into his skin. Like grains of sand, they seemed to find their way in, a constant irritation of which one could not be rid.
Taking a seat upon the rocks, the man drove his hands deep within the folds of his clothing, balling them up tight within his pockets. Fingers clenched firmly around the small steel plates there, the metal feeling warm to the touch, reassuring in its presence. Perhaps a cigarette would help, to steady the nerves, to push away the frigid darkness.
George's heart leaped as his palm found the familiar shape of a lighter, a gift, a reminder of his grandfather. The man he had so admired, who he had sought to emulate, in whose footsteps he had done his best to tread. All that remained was for a cigarette. If only he could find the carton, hidden, somewhere, in the depths of his pockets. With frantic energy he scrambled through the haphazard collection of items on his body. He nearly smiled when his hands finally closed around the small box.
It crumpled, empty, and George froze. Disbelief touched his eyes, the tip of his tongue barely protruding from his mouth as he stared into the darkness. Gone. All gone. Why? Why now?
“Oh, what I would give for a pack of smokes Georgie.”
The man screamed, scrabbling backward into the darkness, eyes alight with terror as he searched in vain for the speaker. As ever, he wasn't there.
“Is this really what you've become George? We died for this?”
“No! Leave me alone! Please, just leave me alone!” Moss clawed at his ears helplessly, desperately trying to shut the voice out.
“Why Georgie? Why should we?”
“Please. Just stop, stop!” he wailed into the night, screwing his eyes shut, face contorted in pain.
“Eight of us dead. For this?”
“It's not my fault! Why won't you leave?!” his cries echoed from the bridge supports, unheard amidst the bustle of the traffic above.
There was no response. Only silence. Slowly, cautiously, George Moss pulled his hands back, wiping the thin trail of snot from his grimy beard. His mind strayed to the pistol holstered at his side. The one he had taken from his home after the divorce. When Clarice had left him. Where was she now? Where had she taken his daughter?
Somewhere halfway across the country, back with her parents. It wasn't her fault. How could he blame the woman, with his outbursts, his rage, his anger. The screaming in the night. The need for the pills, to dull the pain he told himself. The deluge of drink. The inability to hold down a job for more than a few months. It had all been so unfair.
Perhaps there was still a way to make amends. To recover, to overcome. Yes, it was all still possible, he just had to pull himself together. To be strong. And everything would be alright.
“Eight of us died in that ambush, and where were you Georgie?”
Once more the voice spoke, cruel and mocking. No longer did it judge, it simply laughed at the pitiful figure huddling beneath the bridge in rags.
“Leave me be! I'll change! I'll change! I'll be a new man!” he cried over and over, pulling his blanked close.
He had to persevere, to hold out. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't. There was nothing he could have done. Once day came, he would find his bearings.
“Would have been nice if you were a new man then Georgie. Would have been really nice if you had found such strength back then.”
“I gave it my all for you! Everything I had! Shut up! Shut up!” he snarled into the void, spittle flying as he roared at his unseen tormentor.
“Really? You gave it your all? When Johnny was screaming for help, burning alive in that Humvee. Where were you?”
“Those were orders! It was suicide! Jonah said no!” George cried out, the pain and anger mingling in his voice.
“And where were you when Robert bled out? Did you go out to save him? Did you patch up the hole in his leg Georgie? Tell me, please.”
He could see it in his mind, a leering face, cackling madly as it taunted him.
“We couldn't! We couldn't sacrifice everybody just to save one! We had our orders!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, hot tears streaming down his cheeks, dribbling from his beard and across his clothes.
“Oh, but we did, didn't we George. And that one was you. Convenient isn't it, Georgie? And look at where you are now. This is how you re-payed that sacrifice. A washed up hobo under the bridge. That's all you are now.”
“No! No! It's not my fault! It's not!” was all he could cry out, his mind begging for the ghost to leave.
But it did not leave. He could feel its claws sinking deep into his mind, catching hold and driving deep, causing him to cry out in pain.
“Oh really Georgie? Really? Then tell us. Tell us where your job is. Or perhaps, perhaps tell us where your home might be George? Or where is your wife? Or perhaps your little girl, oh so dear to you? Where?”
“No. No. No,” it was all he could say, the only response left.
“Look in the mirror George. Go look. And tell me it isn't true.”
The voice beckoned him, urging him to move, pushing him forward, as if by some unseen force. To scramble toward the rivers edge. The water was dark, stilled and pooling in small alcoves along the bank. The street-lights on the bridge above provided a mockery of illumination. And into that void, George gazed.
A monster stared back, eyes sunken and hollow, covered in matted hair, a trickle of mucus oozing across a scraggly beard. Its tongue dashed across nicotine stained teeth, wetting its cracked lips in anticipation. Gazing back at George, deep into his soul.
“No. No. No!” he cried, scrabbling back, the small shower of gravel plinking into the water, distorting the image.
“Oh yes Georgie. Yes.”
He curled up against the pillar supporting the bridge, pressing back against the cold concrete. Searching for the voice. His hand slipped across the pistol at his side, feeling the familiar grip as he drew the weapon.
“Stop talking!” he cried, “Stop or I'll shoot you. I'll end you!”
“Go ahead George. Go ahead.”
He could feel it in his head, scratching, biting, gnawing. Rooted within. He would end it. He would end the darkness. His hand was rigid as the barrel of the handgun pressed against his temple. None saw him there in the darkness, underneath the bridge. There was no other way. With a final, shuddering sigh, his finger clenched the trigger.
“Suicide? A jumper?” Inspector Davis frowned as he strode from his car, heading straight toward the small, unnecessary cordon beneath the highway bridge, “Who found him?”
“Nope. Apparently a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Some fishermen headed toward the bay- they thought it was strange there was a man leaning against the support like this, called it in when they saw what it was,” a young officer fell in, handing the investigator a small notepad.
“Any idea on the victims name?” he inquired, approaching the tarp covered body with care.
The stones beneath his feet were treacherous, and he had no intention of falling into the cold river.
“Ex-Marine. A Lance Corporal George Moss, Purple Heart. Won the Silver Star on his second tour in Afghanistan,” the man quickly listed off what he knew of the man, leaving Davis rigid, “His squad got ambushed, he came out the only survivor. They found him bleeding out, shielding the body of a Sergeant Jonah.”
“Any next of kin?” he asked quietly.
“None, except an estranged wife and daughter,” was all the officer had to say.
“Contact them as soon as possible, make them aware of what happened,” the inspector said as calmly as possible.
“And then?” the policeman asked.
“Then nothing,” Davis responded, pinching the bridge of his nose to mask the frustration in his eyes, “We were too late, and there is no more to be said for the matter. This man's fight is over.”