Earl Harris took a deep draw from his cigar and blew a wraith of smoke that floated out his open window. Life was peaceful after being retired for some forty-plus years now. He sat on his porch and took a sip of his favorite whisky. He listened to the birds fly and jeer, circling their mates or teaching the young to fly. The old union jack flag stood proudly on its aluminum pole flapping in the wind. Plush, green grass filled his lawn.
After the war, he had bought his humble abode for a mere two pounds. That was one perk of being a veteran, at least. Though the great war had cost him a leg, long since replaced with a wooden contraption. Earl went on after the war to marry, had a son and a daughter. He took a job at the local Chrysler factory where he assembled automotive engines up to his retirement.
Life was good. He had all needed and had done everything a human should do in their finite lives. Now he awaited death, and when it came, he would greet him as an old friend. Earl Harris still enjoyed drinking and smoking and playing chess with his old war buddies.
Aaren appeared on his porch suddenly as a light wind blew the wind chimes. The brass tubes clanged together, creating a peaceful melody. Aaren approached him, his steps resounding through the porch’s hollow floors. He took off his porcelain mask and took a seat next to Earl.
Earl sat back and took another deep draw of his cigar.
“You know that’s not good for you old man…”
Earl scoffed. “Boy, I’m a hundred years old. Let me enjoy myself dammit.”
In some ways, he resembled Earl, with their light ebony complexion, pointed nose, and calm black eyes. In fact, one could say Aaren was a spitting image, but with fewer wrinkles. However, age had taken its toll on Earl, but his fighting spirit still burned strong.
They watched a flock of birds pluck seeds from a feeder and fly off. Earl’s neighbor mowed the lawn next door. A group of kids rode along the sidewalk on their bikes. Earl flicked the ashes from his cigar into a glass tray.
“What’s the visit for today boy?” Earl asked.
Aaren sighed. “Back in the day. You talked about a man you saw. A man with striking blue eyes who almost killed you. He fought for the Germans, right?”
“Old man, tell me. Tell me what you saw that day. Tell me more about that man…”
Earl grunted and propped himself on the chair. His cigar fell to the floor, leaving wisps of tobacco. He took a sip of whisky and closed his eyes. Then he heard a blood-curdling scream. Then another and another with the sound of tearing flesh. Blood flew with the angry roars of men.
A blade sliced through the air. Was it a scythe or a sword? He couldn’t remember. But he remembered watching it cut down waves of men in one stroke. Some of them his friends. The molten blade glowed as if it was forged in the depths of hell itself. A blade he knew only as Acheron. A blade that only a demon favored…
He saw himself as a young man again, laying amid no-man’s-land where death’s touch surrounded him everywhere he looked. Two massive armies collided that day, turning boys to men in a crucible of blood, steel and iron. Smoke and embers consumed him and sparks ignited and fell like a scene in revelations. He heard moans of dying men crawling through the mud. A piece of metal protruded through his leg sending a searing pain.
A man shrieked as a figure in the smoke pounced on him, crushing his face with its hand. Earl blinked and saw a gap in the smoke. That was when he saw him for the first time. Drake.
Through the ash and embers, Drake glared at him, his blue eyes shining. Blood covered his face and his black cloak. He held a massive scythe in one hand and a rifle in the other. Earl froze as fear wormed its way into his gut. A warm wash trickled down his legs and his hips shook. Drake snapped the neck of the man beneath him with cold deliberation. It was Earl’s friend, Rodney Blake.
He tried to raise his rifle but dropped it as Drake stood, smoke shrouding him like a ghost in the mist.
I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!
Earl Harris described Drake like this: “He was beautiful, like a carnivorous flower. The kind that attracts its prey and springs its trap. He was an iron rose that cried blood. I don’t know why he didn’t kill me that day…”
Drake growled like a lion and then vanished in an instant. Dirt and sparks fell from the air, smothering Earl’s uniform. That was the last time he ever saw a demon. Which is why he always kept his little crucifix fixed to his neck.
Earl gasped as he relived the moment. Aaren rushed to grab the inhaler from the house and brought it to the old man’s mouth. He took a few deep puffs and his breathing steadied. Guilt cast over him like an old coat, tight but still fit. Aaren held his hand as tears loosened from Earl’s eyes.
Earl wiped his eyes with a sleeve. “I should have died that day, boy. Why did they die and I didn’t?”
“Pops,” Aaren said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You’re one of the bravest men I’ve ever known.”
Earl inhaled deeply. “Thank you, boy…”
Aaren settled his gaze on the group of children on the swing sets across the street. Joyful laughter filled the air with love and harmony. They brought a smile to even a hardened soldier. Aaren stood from his chair and clenched his fists into tight balls.
“I’ll kill that bastard if it’s the last thing I do.”
Earl raised a brow. “You got a death wish boy?”
“There’s nothing more to fear than a man that’s lost everything…”
A grin formed beneath Earl’s hardened expression. He watched his grandson walk away and for a moment thought it was his own son.