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The Final Encounter
The old man opened his eyes, directly at the demons that had haunted him for years.
They were children. The children, the ones whose deaths he had been responsible for.
The images of them never left him, attacking him ruthlessly in quiet moments and in the middle of the night. He could not get it out of his head. Their wide, fear-stricken eyes set on their small, pale faces. Their frantic little legs running to escape the skirmish. The blast and the shots fired afterward. And then...
After all this time, he was now face-to-face with all of them. The hundreds and hundreds of children who had died that fateful night.
He looked around There was no gravity where he was, nothing to support the legs that threatened to buckle from under him. No ground, no sky, nothing. It was just endless white, and the children that surrounded him.
One of the girls from the crowd approached him, walking over to him with careful, dainty steps.
She was about eight years old, he figured, with dark brown eyes that flayed his soul (it was her eyes that he saw peering from that window before the building was blasted into a myriad of pieces, the lives of fifty children falling with it).
She was naked, too, so that he saw the full extent of the atrocities committed against her.
Her brown skin virtually had been melted off of her by the blast; her hair was singed, leaving angry welts on her head. The angry red whip lashes on her skin stood out garishly on her skin, as well the ribs and stomach on her emaciated form.
She did not look at him with daggers in her eyes and questions bubbling on her lips like he thought she would. Instead, she smiled sadly as she wearily examined him, and there was a tenderness in her eyes that he knew he did not deserve.
''I'm sorry,'' he choked out.
''We know,'' she said, her voice resigned. She shrugged weakly, her shoulders sagging as if under the weight of the world.
He didn't mean it. It might have been all of his fault but at least he never wanted it to happen. They had to know that at least, they had too. ''I tried to help you,'' the man said, his voice breaking more with each word, ''but... they didn't listen to me. Wouldn't listen to me.''
''They didn't care," said another boy.
This came from a boy who randomly appeared beside the girl. He was about three years younger than the girl. He had her same brown eyes, and his skin was scorched in a similar fashion.
Her brother, he thought. He must be her brother. Oh God, their parents had lost two children that night. And it was all my fault.
''We weren't supposed to hurt children,'' he said.
''No, but they did anyway.''
This comment came from the green-eyed boy next to the brother and sister. This boy looked levelly at him while he spoke. Bullets covered his pale chest, like lurid lily pads on a pond.
''They wanted to win,'' this boy said simply. ''They took down all who stood in their way. We were all in their way. You would have been in their way too.''
''I would have rather died bravely in the name of justice than to have lived a life knowing that I did nothing in the face of justice because I was afraid,'' the man said, clenching his fists.
If only he had stood up for those children that night. If only he had yelled at the commander how mad it was what they were doing, how inane it was to bomb a community center full of innocent children and then to proceed into killing all the other children in the village that happened not to be there.
It wasn't like he had anything to lose. He had nothing to come home to when the war was over, just as he had nothing to leave when he left to go to war. He had lived alone and he had died alone, all because he was afraid. Too afraid to let anyone into his life, too afraid of commitment. And, of course, too afraid to speak up that night for something that he believed in.
These children were different, though. They were the essence of promise and possibility; they brimmed with opportunity and with life. Many of them, he knew, would have accomplished great things if they had lived. Yet they had died, and he had lived to accomplish nothing at all.
''Maybe,'' the girl who had first approached him said, ''but you'd probably have ended up here then, too.''
''We lost,'' he said. "We lost anyway."
Like that would have consoled them. Either way they had all died and all for a stupid "cause" that had meant nothing in the end.
''No one wins in war,'' another girl said. She had blue eyes and blonde hair. She was barely a girl; if she were a year or two older he would have considered her a woman. The cause of her death was not visible. ''People die. Other people suffer. Yet no one really wins.''
''War happens because people don't feel like taking the time to work out their problems,'' this blue-eyed girl continued, shrugging. ''It's much easier to kill another human being than to talk with them.''
He mulled over this. How could that girl have known so much at such a young age? She had died at such a young age, yet she all ready knew what had taken him years to discover.
''That's true,'' he said. He cast his head down, unable to face her. "So true."
''I was planning on being an author when I got older,'' she said.
The old man felt his heart tear in his chest, could hear it fraying in his ears. Her words were yet another thing he had taken from the world. ''I'm sure you would have been.''
''Thank you,'' she said. ''That means a lot to me.''
There was a silence, a silence that pierced through him like the knives he had stuck through so many men in his life.
''Am I going to Hell now?' he asked.
''No,'' another girl said. ''Heaven and Hell don't exist. It's just... this. You meet your loved ones, face the crimes you committed while you lived.''
''I have a lot to face then,'' he said.
The old man looked down then to find himself in the blue-and-white uniform that he had donned years before to find it cleaned, ironed and pressed as if it had never been worn before.
''Yes you do,'' said yet another grim-faced boy at the head of the crowd, covered with grime and soot. ''Follow me. We've all ready wasted enough time.''