Ghost Voices

Brothers in Arms and the Two Sisters

'...life isn't hard to manage when you've nothing to lose.'
Ernest Hemingway/A Farewell to Arms

*

Graham Calder closes his eyes. When he opens them again the man is still there before him, kneeling in the dust.
            You'd think it'd be hot, for there to be this much dust. But it's cold, damn cold, and dry.
            There are just three men. Two of them are soldiers and have weapons. The third man is in front of Calder, his clothes a faded and worn black, long and flowing, but coloured with the dry dusty earth and mud from down by the river. The man's skin is dark, his skin creased so deeply his wrinkles look black. Calder sees dust in the man's beard, which is long. White strands and one long, brilliantly bright spot to the side of the Afghan's mouth, which is quivering.
            The kneeling man probably only sees the yawning barrel of the rifle.
            Graham, 'Gray' to most of his squad, holds the rifle steady, two feet from the man with the dark, lined skin and shining black eyes and those pure white whiskers. The rifle's a piece of shit, but Gray knows his is working fine. Mostly, the L85A1 that Gray's unit still uses is being phased out. It's prone to jamming, either due to dirt or dust or maybe it's just because some cheap bastard made a deal behind doors that's saddled the army with a shit weapon.
            In thirty seconds, the L85A1 is going to save Gray's life.
            Gray isn't any kind of idiot. He knows how this is supposed to play out. His weapon works, so does Simon's. Simon is the third man. There are three dead women who could swear testimony to the efficacy of the weapon they both use.
            They're dead, though, aren't they?
            So am I.
            Calder wonders how long the women have been dead. He wonders, too, how long Simon's rifle's been at his head. Simon Bussey, the fucking lunatic who just killed two of the women, holds his own rifle at Graham Calder's temple. It doesn't take much aiming.
            Calder's seen what the standard issue assault rifle will do to flesh and bone if there isn't a bit of dirt in the firing mechanism, or the magazine, even. The fact that he's going to kill the man on his knees is foregone. But he's thinking hard.
            Thinking, is there a way out of this? Is there a way that ends with me still standing?
            He doesn't think there is.
            Three women are dead. Three men alive. Some kind of symmetry in this, he thinks.
            'Shoot him, Gray. He's just a sand-jockey, brother. Just a mutt in the dust.'
            Gray says nothing. Simon's tag is Si, but Gray always thinks of him like the word, 'Sigh', rather than just a sound. A word, a thing people do when they're dying, maybe. Like a corpse, giving out a puff of breath when the soul or whatever resides inside gets free.
            They were out a way from the village, just the two of them on a simple recce, when Sigh killed the women. Three women up ahead and from 100 yards or so Sigh shot two before the third ran. Afghans, down by the river. Maybe washing themselves, or clothes...Gray didn't know. It doesn't matter now anymore than a mattered then.
            Sigh's bullets hit the two women in the back. One fell into the muddy water, sliding down the bank and into the water like a penguin off an ice-floe. The other caught maybe three bullets, back and hip, and staggered on a couple of steps and dropped. The third woman ran.
            Gray wanted to join her - just up and run like fuck for the hills. But they're on a recce and his squad's down the other side of the village, checking it out before they're supposed to move on.
            The third woman wasted her breath to scream and wail while she ran. Gray wanted to run so badly, but he didn't. His first shot was wide and hit the opposite bank, barely kicking up anything - the bullet lost in the mud. He tapped twice more, hit twice, and she went down. That's when the man came up from the river shouting something, hands in the air, waving, like he'd given in and knew if he didn't they'd just shoot him down anyway.
            Now, that same man kneels in the dust.
            Sigh pokes Gray in the side of the face, not gently, not fucking or fooling.
            He'll do me and cover his arse.
            The man kneels in the dust with his hands behind his head and his fingers laced and Gray shoots him in the face from two feet away. The bullet tears through and out the back and takes a couple of those laced fingers away.
            Gray watches the man fall back against the dirt and dust. He folds back from the knee, all motor functions gone when his brain exited behind him. The guy's hands are a mess. Might have caught his own brains, thinks Gray, if he'd had some fingers.
            'Good man,' says Sigh. His voice isn't hot or heavy, not like a man might get when he's turned on by death. It's not cold, either. It's just conversational and easy - as though Gray just made a good pool shot in the local pub.
            Sigh flips his rifle and hits Gray hard enough to knock him insensible. The blow breaks Gray's skull for good measure. Graham eyes rolled around, everything hazy, like being ten-pints drunk and on drugs at the same time, looking up at wavering lights approaching, wondering if he's on a road or just chilling with the TV on. He waits for the killing blow, but it never comes. There's a click.
            He's fading, but he swears he hears Sigh's voice, one last time.
            'Lucky day, brother,' says the psychopath beside him. 'Shitty fucking guns, eh? But then...got to think on your feet, right?'
            He hears Sigh's boots in the dust, moving away.
            Graham opens his eyes and the memory drifts away. He's on his bed, still. Sweating in his pyjamas, shaking in the cold, too. He knows he won't be sleeping this night, so he slips out and into something warmer, moves to his armchair by the window. He flicks on the lamp beside him and picks up a book.

*

Lochyside, Scotland
17th October, 2013

Autumn on the river Lochy and the water's fast and cold, crisp and clear. Red in the trees, gorse and heather and the Highland air. Sometimes, when Graham Calder's head hurts bad enough for tears, he walks to the river, away from Lochyside and his cottage and sits. This is one of those mornings.
            In October, the water's cold enough to chill the air by the rough, shallow banks. Graham walks out on the rocks in his heavy boots and find one large enough to sit on so that his feet dangle but stay dry. The water runs through the rocks below him and the sound seems to still the pain. The burble and hiss of the water whispers to something in Calder's head. Shh, it says, and sometimes the pain listens and quiets.
            The pain's a precursor. Like, for some people, it'll be a smell, or a sense of jamais vu, or deja vu, or tunnel vision. When the pain comes, so, too, do the voices.
            Not today, though.
            There is no one around. A light rain that's little more than mist drifts on the air. This early in the morning it always feels damp, and the air around the river and the banks is full of the soft haze of droplets just above the water, too. A hint of darkness lingers.
            Beside Graham a flask of coffee perches at a shallow angle, because it's a rock he sits on, not a chair or a table. Caffeine makes no difference to the headaches, nor do the pills. Often enough for it to be habitual, Graham rises from his sleepless nights filled with memory and whispers. Around five or six in the mornings (later, as winter comes, because it's too dark to find his way and only fools and tourists wander the Highlands in the dark) he brews his first cup of coffee. He makes the coffee strong and thick, and then he puts double cream in his flask and waits for the coffee to cool before pouring in the coffee (so it doesn't curdle the cream) and lastly, he adds six sugars. Fuel for his morning walk.
            Routine suits Graham these days. A life in the army, ten years in military prison. Sometimes he wonders if he changed himself or his habits, might not the voices get lost?
            But he's tried it, of course he has.
            Ten years in prison ingrains - hardwires - a man's behaviours. You can fight it, but it's there, in your head. Get up at ten in the morning, say, and you'll feel weird for the rest of the day. Maybe not guilty, but the kind of out-of-sorts feeling people get when there's a hard, dry wind. In prison, Graham's known hard men and soft men both. Nobody makes it out without their scars. But then he came to love his frequent trips to the hospital, if only for the change in pace. Inside, in his DNA, though, there's that need for something regular. A life that's military. Precise.
            In prison, he protested his innocence, because he was innocent.
            But they had their man. The military's not just rigid in its routines, but its thinking, too. An organisation which grows large enough develops a hive mind, kind of like ants. Even outside of the hills where they breed, they still bustle, they still follow their orders and stick to the path whether there are obstacles in the way or not.
            There's a plate in Graham's head, and he has a slightly lopsided right eye. The vision in his left eye is 20/20. His right eye can't be fixed with glasses, or surgery, or any modern miracle. The shoulder stock of Simon Bussey's warm rifle (metal, not shitty plastic) fractured Graham's skull. More accurately, he supposes, it fractured the sphenoid and temporal portions of his skull, and the zygomatic bone that formed his cheek. The cheek bone had been displaced. His eye probably rattled around a while, maybe, as he lay in the dust beside a dead man. The dead man, missing brain and skull and a few fingers, had been worse off than Calder...but not by much.
            The stock of Simon Bussey's gun did a fine job. He knocked Calder silly enough that he hadn't been able to form most words, let alone a sentence. If Graham had been halfway coherent during testimony, things might have been different. But they weren't, they hadn't been, and they never would be.
            For a time, he wondered why Simon hadn't killed him right alongside the Afghan. But he knew. Soldiers were killers, yes. Simon was a murderer, and not a stupid one. Questions would have been asked, of course they would, and Simon was far from an idiot.
            Calder, it seemed, was good at falling. First to the dust in Afghanistan, then right into military prison. Sigh, the hero, putting down the worker ant who went off the path and murdered three Afghan women and shot a man in the head.
            Now he has a plate holding him together because of his shattered bones and rattled brain, and the echoes of ten years of voices in his head. Some of those voices told him he deserved to die, some that he deserved to live. He was never entirely sure which he should listen to and which voices he should shut out. All that time, dreaming in words and pictures whether he was awake or asleep and never being able to stand the radio or the television, with nothing but books for company. Now, this isolation, living far from anything or anyone he used to know. Alone in a small house and sitting by the river Lochy for three or four hours, sometimes, and always drinking coffee from a plastic cup in the rain or sun.
            Words on paper are fine for Calder. Words on paper speak to Graham Calder in a language he understands. The radio, the television, even people...these thing make Calder uncomfortable. That's when his wires cross, when he can't tell red from green any longer.
            Every conversation Calder has feels like playing with an IED. It's not post-traumatic stress...it's fucked-brain. Doctors call it what they like. Calder knows it's fucked-brain. Good enough. Fancy words and names for things don't make them better. Nothing does.
            So he sits and lets the mist on the river cool his head and his heart while with his right hand he feels for the letter in his pocket, just to make sure it's still there. The pocket's zipped closed, but he's like a best man checking on a wedding ring. Still there, he thinks. Still there.
            The letter in his pocket is signed 'Simon Bussey'.

*

Maybe it's the way the words on the paper are so still that comforts him. When words get loose in the air, the words shift and sound somehow darken. Even the good-looking girl who works in the Bed & Breakfast in town sounds, to him, like some movie demon. Her voice grates inside him. She could be a rabid, growling, angry dog. She's not. She smiles at him, he likes her smile. But she sounds like Bhaal.
            If I read the letter again, will the words be the same?
            Of course they will. The words are on paper. They don't shift. He could take out the letter in ten years time and the words would be the same. The paper will be yellow, the ink faded. But the words won't turn on him.
            He won't read it in ten years. He doesn't have time.
            He drinks his coffee, warm and thick and sweet.
            The letter, he sees, is in his lap and he doesn't remember taking it from his pocket. But he does want to read it again. He needs to read it again, to make sure the magic of words on paper isn't broken, somehow.
            It's the same.
           
Gray,
           
Hey, Butty. How's the noggin? Still fucked? Man, you went down like a sack of shit.
            Watched you go down twice, and the mad thing is, it's not enough.
            You fell off the radar, didn't you? You probably don't know anyone anymore. Maybe that's my fault. Mostly my fault. I killed pretty much everyone, right?
            Thought I was clever, but things...fell apart...
            Killed everyone, even got a fucking medal or two, didn't I? You took the fall and I went right on being a hero.
           I didn't even know you got out, then when I found out, I couldn't find you. Good trick. Disappearing. But then there's this thing on the Internet, right? Nuts...serendipity. Such a simple thing - I'm looking to go on a hike, thinking Ben Nevis, autumn...look at this B&B because after so long in the army camping sucks balls, you know? And there's a picture on the Internet, nice river, and a man, staring out like he's thinking deep thoughts, in the background. Foreground, there's some cunt fishing. But I don't see him.
            I see you.
            Butty, you're the unluckiest fuck alive, you know that? Bet you didn't even know you're in some brochure. Internet...I love that shit.
            Should have written this on the computer, right? Could've got it all sweet and making sense. But fuck it. Just got to write. Got to get this out.
            You know, I fucked you over. Can't even remember how many I killed since. Whatever, right? The army basically paid for it, so they own that. But I fucked myself in the end. For a guy like me, I was always going to, eh?
            You know that well enough, though. You've got this letter. You could take this letter to some kind of tribunal. Probably get your charges reversed, a pardon, something like that. But then, probably not. Army don't admit to mistakes, do they?
            But you won't do that.
            I know.
           You can't get that back. Ten years in jail, messed up head, right? Have you got scars, where I hit you? Been ten years since I saw your face...you were a mess then. Maybe scars fade. Maybe they put your head back in the right shape.
            Whatever. You dropped off the radar, so did I. I'd go down for fucking ever if they found me. They won't, but you know - I'm just telling you, so we understand each other. I've got nothing to lose. I'm dead whatever.
            So let's have a laugh, eh? I'm coming for you. Like war games. Remember those?
            Me and you, old times, playing soldiers in the Highlands.
            They can't give you back your ten years. Can't fix your face (does it still hurt? I bet it does).
            Kill me, maybe you'll get some peace. I'm going to kill you. I'll give you a chance, though. I'll tell you when, otherwise, what? No kind of game.
            On recce, time-to-time, I'd find some raggedy cunt and give them a head start. Hunt them down, cut them up, whatever I felt like. Shot a man up the shitter once. Kind of fun. I miss that. Can't do that on a city street.
            I miss the army. I do.
            One morning, soon, we'll play. I'll leave you what you can bring.
            You'll get up, every morning. Check for my present. You'll know it when you see it. It's not going to be from IKEA or anything. Do IKEA deliver? Who fucking cares, right?
            You find the stuff on your porch (yes, I know where you live), your choice. Hang yourself, take a shit and wait around. Or, you could make some miles, hide...don't care. I'll find you. You leave the Highlands, I'll just kill you somewhere else.
            I'd kill your wife and kids, but you're a fuck-up like me. Men like us don't end up with wives and kids and a dog and all that baggage, right?
            Like I said, I'll give you a chance. But my rules, Butty. My rules.
            Looking forward to it.
           
            Si.

There's no address. There doesn't need to be, Calder thinks. Because he's already here.


*