Captain Samuel Whiting removed his gloves and sat on the cot in his tent. It had been a long, grueling day of battle, and his clothes were soaked through with sweat. He’d lost more men, good men, family men. Men who would never return home to their wives. Boys who would never again cross the thresholds of their parents’ homes.
He leaned forward, removed his boots, and stretched his legs. The air in the tent was still and muggy. At least outside there was a light breeze to carry away the stench of the wounded. In here, the smells hung in the air like a haze. Beyond the canvas walls the sounds of soldiers—heroes—in the throes of agony wandered through the camp like the souls of dead men looking for rest. But there was no rest in a place like this.
A single oil lamp sat on the floor, casting an orange glow about the tent’s interior. Samuel turned the knob on the lamp, giving more wick to the flame. The light brightened and the shadows darkened. From a writing box he removed a leather-bound journal, the one his mother had given him before he left to join Mr. Lincoln’s army. At the time he thought he was doing the right thing, thought he was fighting for a noble cause.
Now he thought differently. There was nothing noble about this war, nothing honorable about the way it was being fought nor the reasons for which it was being waged.
After dipping the tip of his quill into an inkwell, he put the tip to the paper and began to write. The words flowed from his hand, though they were not born of him but of something else, something dark and sinister, something to which he had finally given himself.
In the corner of the tent a shadow moved. He saw it from the corner of his eye. It was a shadow cast not by the oil lamp’s flame but by some other source, a source Samuel did not fully understand but felt.
The shadow glided along the canvas, following the angles of the tent, and came to a stop beside the cot. There it seemed to lurk, to hover, as if curious to see what was being written on the pages of the journal. A chill blew over Samuel, penetrated his clothes and flesh, and settled into his bones.
The shadow began to throb in rhythm with Samuel’s beating heart. His quill moved across the paper more rapidly now, the point carving words—vitriol—at an alarming pace. His heart rate quickened and, with it, the pulsations of the shadow.
At once a strong wind ruffled the canvas and brought with it a low howl that sounded more like a moan. It did not originate from outside the tent, from wounded and homesick boys, but rather from within, from the shadow. The wind circled the tent’s interior, stirred the pages of the journal, Samuel’s hair, his clothes, and finally, as if in one final great sigh, extinguished the light of the lamp.
Captain Samuel Whiting was engulfed by darkness.
Sam Travis awoke in the middle of the night, cold and terrified. The dream had come again. His brother. The shot.
You did what you had to do, son.
He sat up in bed and wiped the sweat from his brow.
Next to him Molly stirred, grunted, and found his arm with her hand. “You OK, babe?”
“Yeah. I’m gonna go get some water.”
He found her forehead in the darkness and kissed it. “Yeah.”
The house was as still and noiseless as a crypt. Sam made his way down the hall to Eva’s room, floorboards popping under his feet. He cracked the door and peeked in. The Tinker Bell night-light cast a soft purple hue over the room, giving it a moonlit glow. Odd-shaped shadows blotted the ceiling, like dark clouds against a darker sky. Eva was curled into a tight ball, head off the pillow, blankets at her feet.
Sam opened the door all the way, tiptoed to the bed, and pulled the covers to his daughter’s shoulders. She didn’t stir even the slightest. For a few hushed moments he stood and listened to her low rhythmic breathing.
The past six months had been hard on them all, but Eva had handled them surprisingly well. She was just a kid, barely seven, yet displayed the maturity of someone much older. Sam had never known that her faith, much like her mother’s, was so strong. His, on the other hand...
He left the door open a few inches. Farther down the hall he entered the bathroom, where another night-light, this one a blue flower, reflected off the porcelain tub, toilet, and sink. He splashed water from the faucet on his face. Remnants of the dream lingered and stuttered like bad cell phone reception. Just images now, faces, twisted and warped.
After toweling off, he studied himself in the mirror. In the muted light the scar running above his ear didn’t look so bad. His hair was growing back and covered most of it. Oddly, the new crop was coming in gray.
From downstairs a voice called Sam’s name. A chill tightened the arc of his scar.
He heard it again.
It was neither haunting nor unnatural, but familiar, conversational. It was the voice of his brother. Tommy. He’d heard it a thousand times in his youth, a hundred ghostly times since the accident that had turned his own brain to mush. The doctor called them auditory hallucinations.
Sam exited the bathroom and stood at the top of the staircase. Dim light from the second floor spilled down the stairs into the foyer below, and the empty space looked like a strange planet, distant and odd. Who knew what bizarre creatures inhabited that land and what malicious intentions they harbored?
He heard that same voice—Tommy’s—calling to him. “Sammy.”
Sam shivered at the sound of his name.
A dull ache had taken to the length of the scar.
Descending the stairs, Sam felt something dark, ominous, present in the house with him. He stopped and listened. He could almost hear it breathing, and with each breath, each exhalation, he heard his own name, now just a whisper.
He started down the stairs again, taking one at a time, holding the railing and trying to find the quiet places on the steps.
From the bottom of the stairway he looked at the front door, half expecting it to fly open and reveal Tommy standing there, with half his head...
You did what you had to do, son.
He looked left into the dining room, then right into the living room. The voice was coming from the kitchen. Turning a one-eighty, he headed that way down the hall.
At the doorway Sam stopped and listened again. Now he heard nothing. No breathing, no whispers, no Tommy. The kitchen held the aroma of the evening’s meal—fettuccine Alfredo—like a remote memory.
“Tommy?” His own voice sounded too loud and strangely hollow.
He had no idea why he said his brother’s name since he expected no reply. Tommy had been dead for—what?—twenty-one years. Thoughts of his death came to Sam’s mind, images from the dream. And not just his death but how he’d died.
You did what you had to do, son.
From off in the distance Sam heard a cannon blast. Living in Gettysburg, near the battlefields, the sound was common during the month of July when the reenactments were going on. But not in the middle of the night. Not in November. Another blast echoed across the fields, then the percussion of rifle shots followed by a volley of more cannons.
Sam walked back down the hall and opened the front door. He saw only darkness beyond the light of the porch lamp, but the sounds were unmistakable. Guns crackled in rapid succession, cannons boomed, men hollered and screamed, horses whinnied and roared. The sounds of battle were all around him. He expected Eva and Molly to stir from their sleep and come tripping down the stairs at any moment, but that didn’t happen. The house was as still and quiet as ever.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Sam stepped out onto the porch. Three rotting jack-o’-lanterns grinned at him like a gaggle of toothless geezers. The air was cold and damp, the grass wet with dew. Nervously he felt the bandage on his index finger. He’d slipped while carving one of the pumpkins and gouged his finger with the knife. Molly had thought he should get stitches, but he refused. It was still tender, throbbing slightly, healing up well enough on its own. Here, outside, the loamy smell of dead wet leaves surrounded him. Beyond the glow of the porch lamp, the outside world was black and lonely. The sky was moonless.
Across the field and beyond the trees the battle continued but grew no louder. Sam gripped his head and held it with both hands. Was he going crazy? Had the accident triggered some weird psychosis? This couldn’t be real. It had to be a concoction of his damaged brain. An auditory hallucination.
Suddenly the sounds ceased and silence ruled. Dead silence. No whispers of a gentle breeze. No skittering of dry leaves across the driveway. No creak of old, naked branches. Not even the hum of the power lines paralleling the road.
Sam went back inside and shut the door. The dead bolt made a solid thunk as it slid into place. He didn’t want to go back upstairs, didn’t want to sleep in his own bed. Instead he went into the living room, lay on the sofa, and clicked on the TV. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep was watching an old Star Trek rerun.
Sam’s eyes opened slowly and tried to adjust to the soft morning light that seeped through the windows. He rolled to his side and felt something slide from his lap to the floor with a papery flutter. He’d not slept soundly on the sofa.
Pushing himself up, he looked out the window. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, and the sky was a hundred shades of pink. The house felt damp and chilly. The TV was off. Leaning to his left, he saw that the front door was open. Maybe Molly had gone out already and not shut it behind her.
“Moll?” But there was no answer. “Eva?” The house was quiet. Sam stood to see if Molly was in the yard and noticed a notebook on the floor, its pages splayed like broken butterfly wings. Bending to pick it up, he recognized it as one of Eva’s notebooks in which she wrote her kid stories, tales of a dog named Max and of horses with wings.
Turning it over, he found a full page of writing. His writing. Before the accident he’d often helped Eva with her stories but had never written one himself. He’d thought about it many times but had never gotten around to doing it. There was always something more pressing, more important. Since his accident he’d had the time, home from work with nothing to do, but his brain just wasn’t working that way. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate. His attention span was that of a three-year-old.
Sitting on the sofa, he read the writing on the page, the writing of his own hand.
November 19, 1863
Captain Samuel Whiting
PennsylvanIa Independent Light Artillery, Battery E
I am full of dArkness. It has coMpletely overshadowed me. My heart despairs; my soul swims in murky, colorless waters. I am not my own but a mere puppet in his hanD. My intent is evil, and I loathe what the dAy will bring, what I will accomplish. But I must do it. My feet have been positioned, my couRse has been set, and I am compelled to follow. Darkness, he is my commander now.
I can already smell the blood on my hands, and it turns my stomach. But, strangely, it excites me as well. I know it is the darKness within me, bloodthirsty devil that it is. It desires death, his death (the president), and I am beginning to understand why. He must die. He deserves nothing more than death. So much sufferiNg has come from his words, his policies, his will. He speaks of freedom but has enslaved so many in this cursed war.
See how the pen trEmbles in my hand. I move it,not myself but the darkneSs guides it, as it guides my mind and will. Shadowy figures encircle me. I can see them all about the room, specters moving as lightly as wiSps of smoke. My hand trembles. I am overcome. I am their slave. His slave.
I am not my own.
I am not my own.
I am notnotnotnotnotnotnotno
Sam let the notebook slip from his hands and scrape across the hardwood floor. Gooseflesh puckered his skin. He thought of last night’s battle sounds, of Tommy’s voice and feeling the darkness around him—the darkness. He remembered the grinning jack-o’lanterns, the click of the sliding dead bolt. He had no memory of turning off the TV and opening the door, nor of finding Eva’s notebook and writing this nonsense.
What was happening to him?
He stood and went to the front door, barely aware of his feet moving under him. With one elbow on the doorjamb he poked his head outside and scanned the front yard, listening.
“Moll?” His voice was weak and broke mid-word. There was no answer. If Molly was out here, she must be around back.
Then, as if last night’s ethereal battle had landed in his front yard, a rifle shot split the morning air, and the living room window exploded in a spray of glass.