Signifying Everything

Submitted into Contest #231 in response to: Write a story about hope.... view prompt

3 comments

Christian Contemporary

The scared camo-clad woman shuddered in her foxhole as enemy lasers screamed overhead.


Even as she closed her eyes behind her thick military-issue goggles, the reflected glare of the lasers burned through her eyelids in a bright red haze. She thought: so this is what Moses saw when God hid him in the rock.


Except, this time, she would not come down the mountain with her face blazing with reflected glory. Any blaze in connection with her face would result in horrible disfigurement, if not death. The pictures of soldiers who’d been “fried” flashed through her mind now: perfectly beautiful faces turned into ashtrays, all the features melted and caved in like fruit rotting in the summer heat. Those who survived were living sculptures of pain; noses melted into nonexistence, mouths shriveled in a forever grimace, melted skin hardened like lava – a still-life of unimaginable agony. 


She chanced a look. The sky overhead was a pristine, cool blue emptiness that swallowed the eye in its vastness. She felt the same vertigo that she felt as a small child when she would lay on the grass and stare up into a cloudless sky, or look at it upside down through her legs, reveling in the feeling of gravity being reversed, of falling into the “big blue”. As awful as the lasers were, they were blissfully carbon-neutral. The sky was her only comfort on days like these, even as hell rained down from above. 


“You doin’ okay over there, Sarah?”


Enoch, the only member of her platoon who shared the foxhole with her, flashed her one of his preternaturally upbeat, gum-munching grins. His teeth stood out whiter than ever against his dirty, sweat-shiny face and matted black hair. As usual, he had taken off his helmet. 


Another laser screeched overhead, and Sarah jammed her hands against her ears as the sky turned blinding white and everything was drained of color, like the photos she used to overexpose during her photography days. She had tried to carry the hobby onto the battlefield, with limited results. After seeing her first corpse and suffering under the laser-bleached skies for eight-seven days, she dumped her camera in a puddle, all her cares reduced to survival and maximizing the carrying efficiency of her rucksack.


Enoch cursed loudly, uncharacteristically, smacking his gum with fresh fervor.


“Sorry,” he said. “Never get used to that.”


He took out a plastic bag of rice and began to pour some into his helmet. The uncooked rice rattled as it hit the steel, a strange, surprising sound under the circumstances. 


Sarah raised her goggles. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna eat!”


“What?” Enoch shot back, eyes like white orbs in the grubby mask of his face. “They’re zapping us to ash and now I’m gonna let them keep me from eating too?!” 


Sarah just said “Whatever” and clutched her rifle closer to her chest.


“Hey.”


“What?”


“I got this.” He puckered his lips in a passionate air-kiss.


If she wasn't so scared, she might've laughed. He was like a brother to her. 


Shenanigans over, Enoch freed his canteen from a cloth pouch on his belt, unscrewed the cap, and poured the water until it was just level with the rice. He shook the last few drops down his throat. Tossing the empty canteen aside, he pressed a button on the back of his helmet, and the soaked rice hissed and sputtered as it began to cook. Sarah’s stomach growled despite herself.


“Did you even wash that?” 


He took out a foldable spoon from his mess kit, which was now open in front of him.


He smiled at her contentedly.


“Nope.” 


Another laser cracked the sky, turning deep blue into a lifeless desert brightness that did not fade for three whole seconds.


“Enoch,” Sarah said with a rising note of hysteria, “Put your goggles on.”


“Oh Sarah-bear, calm dow—”


The next second, a great force threw Sarah like a rock from a sling and she was hurtling, hurtling ahead of a blinding blaze so white-hot she thought her skin would burst, but as soon as the thought materialized it was gone, gone into thick, inky blackness. 


***


She was flying. A hurtling comet was a slinking sloth compared to her as she soared through time and space. She was aware of nothing, not even herself, only of the sensation of light — dancing, shimmering light like the reflection of sun-dazzled water against a ship’s hull, but the reflection was more than molecules releasing energy. It was not a reflection at all. Whatever laser-scarred hellhole that nibbled at the edges of her memory seemed as real now as a bedtime story about a decaying rag — more like a dream than a memory. Even that word, hell, felt like vomit in her mouth. 


That hole, whatever it was, was only a half-remembered dream. She closed her eyes, struggled to hold on to it, but the light did not dim when she closed her eyes. It surrounded her, pressed in on her, filled her entire being until tears were streaming down her cheeks without her knowing why. She laughed.


The laugh tumbled out of her like an avalanche, the cause of which was as mysterious as the dancing light. It bent her double, the bubbling brook of giggles mixing with the torrent of tears, and soon she was on her knees, convulsing, shaking, lungs clawing for air. She reached for support. Realized she was sitting in the nucleus of a metaphysical laser. Laughed even harder. 


“Your body cannot handle it here.” 


The voice rang out from nowhere and everywhere at once: the deafening roar of waterfalls crammed into a single whisper spoken in a dark room. 


Immediately, she stopped laughing, or, rather, the laughing stopped by some internal logic she could not not understand. She felt exhausted, her energy sapped by the convulsions. Her cheeks were drenched with tears.


When she looked up, Enoch was walking toward her, walking in the light. 


His face was fresh and clean, the sweat and grime replaced by the soft shadows of his cheekbones, the healthy gleam of his straight black hair. He was grinning from ear to ear. Suddenly he stopped and waved at her from a distance, still smiling. 


She found that she could cry, but the tears were ones of regret, the overflow of a deep, dammed-up longing. Longing to stay in this place, to be where Enoch was, to talk to him. But Enoch was silent as a deaf-mute. Bright eyes penning their silent words, he slowly turned and began to walk away, until the light took him. 


Sarah began to cry. 


“Daughter.” The voice echoed inside her skull, loud and not loud at the same time.


She felt a Presence behind her. 


Beautiful. Terrifying. Powerful. 


With rising terror she felt how other it was, how completely unlike her. It was of a different substance than the universe she had called home for twenty-five years. 


It was overwhelming, uncontrollable, infinite; something far bigger than the universe was standing behind her. 


In past times, humans worked from dawn to dusk, and if the sun were to stop shining, to stop in its course, nothing would grow and they would grope around in the dark, as helpless as a baby abandoned in the woods. So they sowed when the sun was still full and bright, and stayed inside during the long, dark winter. What was planted yielded nothing if the rain did not come. Sarah suddenly realized that the air in her lungs, that perfect mixture of gasses without which all conscious experience would cease, and which humans breathed as if it was their birthright, came from a place she did not know. 


But the Presence knew, and saw, and understood. 


The Presence did not suffer from exposure or hunger or tiredness or sickness or weakness or random chance, or bouts of unluck or ill fate. It did not recognize the existence of chance or luck or fate. These were concepts created by humans to explain a self-contained world, a world that did not exist. 


Somehow, she knew with utter certainty that the simultaneous detonation of every nuclear bomb ever built would, next to the Presence, amount to nothing more than a struck match. The same was true of human achievement. Every human being in history who reveled in their own celebrity – every gloating gladiator and exultant emperor, raging revolutionary and pretentious pope – was to the Presence a sad joke. The Presence saw them as they were: floating dust motes that caught the light of a sunbeam, and then disappeared, forever.  


All of these thoughts flashed through her mind in a moment of time. Inexorably drawn to the voice as a magnet is drawn to its twin, she turned around.


A man stood in the stream of light. Dressed in a woven white garment, His face was meek and unimposing, with a thick, prickly beard spreading down to His Adam's apple, and a mane of sun-streaked brown hair, curly and wild. The moment Sarah looked at His eyes, she lost control of herself. 


Those eyes. Fierce with the light of a thousand suns… yet big and green and soft with understanding. They understood everything. They held the grief of her days as a soldier, her lonely childhood – every day she looked at the sky and longed for something that would finally explain what she was feeling. But what shook her to her core was the burning passion the eyes radiated, a passion that seemed ready to explode into violence… if only to protect her. 


“Who…” she choked. 


“You don't know who I am, though I have known you for a very long time.” 


A tight-lipped smile crinkled His eyes, as if she was the most tragic and beautiful thing He had ever seen. 


“But—”


“It’s alright, Sarah,” He said. His voice was steady and reassuring, like a steady rain. “It’s alright.” 


She believed Him. 


Without even realizing it, she was walking with the Man, walking for what seemed like millenia across vast sunlit reaches until, gradually, the shifting light slowed to a muted pulse. They walked across a vast plain lit by straight shafts of golden light — like the morning rays pouring through the trees, but there were no trees, and the rays were really one ray, shining continually. Unlike the sun, the light on the plain would never dim. Eventually, the light ended, and beyond that: blue emptiness, sunless and bright and void, without the slightest wisp of cloud or gleam of water to mark its boundaries. She looked down into it, and the earlier vertigo returned – but with a sharp rush of glee. Standing on the edge of the world as she knew it, she felt an irresistible urge to a dive into the blue depths. A sheer drop with no parachute and no ground. The Man looked at her knowingly, lovingly, as a father looks at a daughter who has just seen her first snowfall.  


“It’s alright if you want to go,” He said. His eyes were like emeralds when you hold them up to the light.


“But I don’t want to go.”


“That is what I brought you here to do.”


She could not imagine going back. It was as if she was supposed to reenter a nightmare after just waking up. She shuddered at the thought of lasers burning white-hot trails in the sky, of her platoon members getting fried. She looked behind her. The light was fading. 


“Enoch said you might want to stay. We get people like you ‘from time to time’, as you say. People caught in the in-between place.” He chuckled ever so softly. “And now you.” 


Sarah found that her tongue was useless.


He went on: “Very few people have seen what you’ve seen. But everyone sees it eventually.”


“How,” she said through tears, “How can you be so cruel? To give them something real and true and just take it away like that?” 


“Cruel?” He sounded hurt. “Showing you that hope is real, that life is not, as one of your poets has it, ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’… that’s cruel?” The yellow flecks in his eyes shone like liquid gold.


“I’m sorry. If you want me to go back just get it over with.”


She looked at Him through her tears and was astounded to see tears in His own eyes.


“Alright. If that’s what you want.”


He raised His hand. For the first time, she noticed a gaping hole in His wrist; a patch of blue in the front of His wrist. Before she could ask what it was she was falling, falling into the blue sky.


*** 


When they found her, she was scorched naked with burns covering 40% of her body.


The scene was a wreck, they had told her. The blast threw her thirty yards before her limp body crashed against a blackened tree stump. She was wearing the charred remains of her boots and rucksack. Enoch was nowhere to be found. Vaporized. Gone. Her battalion, weakened from casualties and exhaustion, managed to make one final push up the hill in the early-evening darkness, hampering the enemy’s ability to sight their lasers. The first laser emplacement was overrun at 2200. The final emplacement fell at 0500, just as the last stars winked out of the morning. 


When she finally woke up, she was given a glass of water, which she gulped down thirstily before spilling some on the dressing and throwing the nurse into a panic. The first skin grafts were laid while she was still unconscious. She would require several more, on her back, her right flank, on the outside of her right arm and leg. The slightest movement was a torture. Flash burns left any exposed skin red and tender. The first time she saw the ugly “tan line” on her wrists she started to cry, and then stopped when the nurse told her the tears would aggravate the burns.  


When she was better, she told the nurses about what she saw. They told her she was delirious and that many people see visions when they are near death. That it could not be proven scientifically. She asked if Enoch had been religious. They said they did not know. 


But she knew what she had seen was real, even if the nurses and everyone else thought she was insane. She knew, as sure as He had known her.


The next day she died. She was looking out her bedside window.

January 06, 2024 04:53

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3 comments

David Sweet
14:31 Jan 10, 2024

Loved this story. Great vivid descriptions of the afterlife. I felt the end was a little abrupt, but that may have been because of the word constraint. Good luck pursuing journalism in these weird times. I was a journalist for a short period in my life. Some advice: don't give up the creative writing. I set mine aside for too long and just now am picking it up again. Don't let life get in the way. Just keep going and keep the faith. Thanks for writing your story.

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Ben LeBlanc
19:07 Jan 13, 2024

Thanks for the ecouragement. I’m not sure I write stories that are popular (in the sense that they win contests) but I will keep writing. :) No sense going against your calling.

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David Sweet
21:07 Jan 13, 2024

You don't have to win, just keep doing it for yourself. You will find an audience. Not everyone will become a bestseller, but I have read so much outstanding writing by those who aren't big names. Check out Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, David Joy, Barbara Kingsolver, Silas House, etc. You're young. Just keep faith in yourself and don't quit. That's the advice I would give myself if I was your age again. If I hadn't quit, perhaps I would be listed among those names! Hahaha.

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