I’m infected. Chewed up by an army of secrets, I’ve felt a thousand sets of viral teeth feasting on me over the years. I shouldn’t have let it happen, but there really wasn’t much I could do.
The noise surrounding me is deafening. It’s a tremendous ringing in my ears that pushes the memories of the many things I’ve done first into, and then out of, focus. At times, it seems almost a blessing that remembering has become difficult.
From somewhere far away, a woman’s voice calls out.
The veil of clarity parts, and I realize who I am.
My name’s Gabriel Merchant — of Hastings, Nebraska. I was a small-town, farm boy who once played wide receiver for the Kenesaw High Blue Devils. On the outside, I was popular — at least for all those things I allowed people to see. But on the inside, I couldn’t have been any more alone.
“Gaaaaaabe! C’mon in! Supper’s on the table…”
I see Mama. She’s standing on the back porch. A grease-spattered apron tied around her waist covers the house dress she’s worn most days since Daddy’s departure. Her sad eyes search the yard and periodically gaze into the cornfields as she nervously dries her hands on the filthy dish towel she keeps by the sink.
At my feet, the body of the dying calf convulses, belching its fluids onto the dirt floor of the barn. The slit I’ve opened in its belly is a jagged line connecting groin to gullet. Blood, bile and bits of undigested food create a stew of filth on the ground, while layers of exposed flesh, splayed open, begs me. It will need to wait. Mama’s calling…
I drop the still-warm carcass into the hole I’ve dug. It lands with a heavy thud atop the pile of rotting animal skins and maggot-scavenged bones of the others. Anticipation stirs my groin, promising more pleasure than any unfulfilled romance I’ve contemplated. And my insides quiver with the knowledge of what’s to come, feeding my illness.
Mama’s urgent calls echo in my head as I drop the cover on my secret grave. Before the plywood slams shut, I reflexively avoid the empty gaze of the human skull that stares up at me.
With Rusty my Pointer at my side, his tail battering my leg, I leave the barn. The mare in the corner stall snorts her approval of our departure.
Mama’s face fades. Rusty’s no longer there. Instead, I’m lying in the mud. It’s dark. It’s still raining. I’m back on the island. And there’s so much blood on my hands…
The clouds have been open for hours. And a cold wind blows across the field. The frayed leather chinstrap on my helmet tickles my right ear as heavy droplets of rain fall from the sky. They slap at my face and bounce off my helmet – a tinny metal drum that beats inside my mind.
Bullets whiz past my head. Incoming artillery fire spits mud into the air. It splashes in great chunks around me as I listen to the roar of the propeller-driven engines on a squadron of planes flying overhead. The earth rumbles, shaken by the impact of the payload dropping through the night sky. In the distance, explosions draw a hellish orange line that stretches across the horizon as far as my good eye can see.
My situation’s clear. I remember who I am. I’m Private First Class Gabriel Merchant, 4th Marine Division. It’s Wednesday, March 7, 1945. I’m on Iwo Jima. And I’m dying.
Tap…tap…tap…goes the drumbeat of rain on my helmeted skull.
My left eye looks out into a hazy world of liquid red.
There’s so much blood on my face…
I know its blood — I’ve tasted it so many times. What most people don’t know is that’s quite different depending upon how it’s drawn. Mine is warm and oily on my tongue, laced with the familiar notes of fear. It streams into my throat, and I feel it dripping out again through the hole in the back of my skull.
My disease is killing me.
This isn’t how I’d imagined my end would come. Not that I ever gave it much thought. But it never crossed my mind that I’d die alone, lying in the mud, in a place I’d never heard of, somewhere in the middle of ocean I’d never seen, and with my right arm holding my stomach tight to keep my bowels from escaping their rightful place inside my gut.
I didn’t see him coming. His first strike entered my body just beneath my right eye and continued on until it shattered bone at the back of my head. As he withdrew his weapon, my spine shuddered, his blade scraping against bone much like fingernails on a chalkboard. He offered only a momentary pause, before plunging it in again, this time deep into my abdomen.
Slamming me onto my back, he drove me into the mud with a force that ripped the M1 from my shoulder, shearing its leather strap in two. Now, my only weapon lay somewhere off in the darkness out of reach.
Amid the barrage of gunfire and the shouts of the others in my platoon frantically barking orders back and forth, a familiar odor assaults my nostrils. It’s the smell of cinnamon, or what I know to be the scent of death.
For the first time in my life, I realize how they must have felt.
There’s so much blood on my hands.
Back home, I was always the predator. Without much else to do, hunting was my life. I never tired of the comfort of a trigger or the satisfying kick into my shoulder as the bullet left its chamber. Maybe the only thing better was the heft of a knife and the satisfaction as it cut life short, shearing off the fingers that, inevitably, tried to fight back.
He stabbed at me with a fury I hadn’t thought possible. The speed and precision of his attacks were almost painless as he stabbed through layers of my flesh and into bone. The missing fingers on my left hand ache, having been sliced off, reducing my arm to a leaking stub that now spilled blood onto my chest.
Even through the din on the battlefield, I hear him breathing. While I haven’t seen his face, I imagine the look in his eyes. I sense his accomplishment as it oozes from his pores and slickens the skin beneath his clothing. Oh, the satisfaction. I know it all too well.
I became infected at the age of 10. It all began, innocently enough, with a rabbit in a trap. While only a few months old, it had so much zest for life that it nearly chewed through its own leg to escape. And, once released, it was barely able to move. But I followed it for nearly an hour as it dragged itself around the pasture. I’ll never forget the brightness in its eyes as I lowered my axe on its neck. I watched, intently, until its lights went out.
Afterwards, my disease quickly spread — my actions growing worse as each day passed. If Daddy had been basic training, the Marine Corps was my proving ground.
The bringer of my own death stands quiet. As he moves to my side, I see the outline of his body for the first time.
A criss-crossing pattern of tracer bullets strafe the night sky, cutting through the smoke from anti-aircraft fire. The shape of Death strobes in and out of focus. I find it hard to believe what I’m seeing. He’s much larger than expected. And he smells of shit.
The odor fouls the air. It takes a moment, but I realize it’s the smell of my own bowels as they evacuate my body for the last time.
In his left hand, Death carries multiple blades. They glisten with a mixture of blood, viscera and rain that courses off their impossibly sharp points.
Funny, I think, I’m left-handed too.
Thump… Thump… Thump…
My heart slows.
The rain falls harder. The bombers continue past.
How long has it been? Two minutes? Five?
Time no longer has meaning, but it’s the only thing left.
Breathing heavily, Death closes in, lowering his head toward whatever is left of mine. I can barely see him, but I smell his diseased breath. It’s sour with the same infection that feeds on me.
Thump……. Thump……. Thump…….
As my lungs drown in blood, Death kneels at my side. Rainwater streams off his contorted head and batters my face as he brings his nose close to mine. I see his eyes for the first time. They’re blue, like mine.
Thump……………… Thump……………. Thump……………..
Blood rushes into my throat. I spit it from my mouth. It splashes onto Death’s chin. An impossibly long tongue slithers from between his thick lips and licks it away.
His jaws open, revealing a maw of sharp, yellowed teeth. Their tips glitter in the darkness as long tendrils of saliva slip from his gums. The face of Death isn’t at all what I’d expected. Death wasn’t a man at all…
My heart stops. The final beat ends the symphony of rain, gunfire and battlefield shouts. Now there is only silence; and the blue eyes of Death staring into mine.
Then come the screams. They were the anguished howls and the cries of all the souls whose lives I’d ended. They pummeled me. Daddy’s was the loudest.
I’m no longer inside my body, but instead somewhere above, peering down at the wreckage of the life I’ve created.
Death calls me. I go.
Drawn into him, I’m instantly no longer alone. His eyes became mine. The talons on his hands move as my own. And he shares all of his memories with me, and I with him. There was a sense of communion unlike anything I had felt before.
Death had been the source of my disease. He was also my cure.
Looking down at my old self now, I watch as filthy raindrops baptize my broken body in the mud. I lean in closer, inspecting my farm-boy face. And with a new set of razors in my mouth, I strip the skin that was my mask from my one-time skull.
Bombs explode in the distance, ending uncounted lives and sending the fires of my new Heaven mushrooming into the night sky. With the flames dancing around me, I place upon my head the last remnants of the old me. And from behind my new, contorted features of shaved flesh and pure hatred, I howl at the rising moon.
I’d always thought I’d been infected. But after a lifetime of searching for a cure for my disease, I now realize I was always as I should have been.
I, Gabriel Merchant, am home. And along with all those who came before me, I’ve become Death. And together, we are the destroyer of worlds.