The Skeleton’s Scrapbook
by John Mara
“Neeext!” the sergeant barks to the high heavens, and another resurrection begins.
Sarge commands Skeleton Mountain, a sky-high uber-morgue that warehouses the skeletons of war heroes killed in action. They lie at semi-rest in an in-between world, surely not alive but not fully dead, either.
“On my way, Sergeant. It’s me, Slim!” The drowsy hero clangs his way down the fog-shrouded mountain and yawns away another year of comatic rest. Slim awakens with a jolt when he fingers the hole in his helmet that matches the one in his forehead. I remember it all now. He salutes the sergeant.
“At ease, private,” Sarge says. “It’s 2020. Welcome to your annual resurrection day, courtesy of the U.S. Army.”
“Any news on my girl Jo?” It’s Slim’s top-of-skull question at his every rising. “And what about my buddy Boomer?”
“Hey, that’s not for us to know,” Sarge says. “They’re in the real world.”
“I’ll find out one way or another.” What Slim really wants to know is whether Jo ever got married after he took the bullet.
“You’re on the clock, soldier!” Sarge says. He flips over an hourglass and checks off Slim’s name in his census book. “Congrats, pal! Says here it’s your tenth resurrection.”
Ten years ago, during the war in Afghanistan, Slim was killed when he stepped in front of a bullet aimed at Boomer. Slim’s valor earned him a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross and a ticket into the army’s in-between world.
Sarge hands Slim a scrapbook: What Would’ve Been. The army keeps the scrapbook current and lets Slim read it every year. “Happy reminiscing.”
As a preamble to his life that would’ve been, the scrapbook begins with a 2010 newspaper account of Slim’s real-life demise. The Springville Sentinel features a photo of Slim’s flag-draped coffin. Then, Boomer, Slim’s best buddy in his unit, describes for the reporter:
The Taliban forces ambushed our outfit as we maneuvered back to base camp. When Slim rose up to pull me down into our foxhole, he caught one from a sniper’s high-powered rifle right between the eyes, helmet and all.
The article later tells of Boomer’s fate:
Because Slim pulled Boomer to safety, Boomer took only a glancing blow off his helmet. But that same bullet killed Slim.
That moment snuffed out Slim’s future with Jo, a neighborhood girl back home. Boomer returned home with a dented helmet and a war story to tell.
“Enjoying the ride, private?” Sarge asks.
Slim turns the page. “I just read about my own assassination and funeral for the tenth time!” Slim laments. “And you call that some kind of annual military honor?”
“Remember, the fully dead read nothing,” Sarge says.
After the scrapbook’s gruesome preamble, Slim’s life that would’ve been starts with a letter from Jo. He never got to read it in real life, because the hole in his head arrived before the letter did. The letter’s finale would’ve stopped Slim’s heart, had it kept on beating:
I want us to start the rest of our lives together, from the day you come home, because
I will love you always,
Slim broods over the engagement ring he still hides in his uniform pocket. He would’ve slipped it onto Jo’s finger the next day. “I was heading home to you, Jo,” he reminds the ring. “One godforsaken day short of heaven.” Jo’s letter torments him every year.
The scrapbook carries him further into his life that’s not going on: announcements of his 2011 marriage to Jo and the births of their two children. Slim takes a somber interest in the latest year of updates, and Sarge angles in for the news, too. “See here, Sarge? Paintings by Little Jo! And Slim Jr. He plays my trumpet now!” Slim is engrossed in the new mementos, when suddenly the scrapbook slams itself shut. “Aww, Sarge, I always want to see just one more page.”
“Private, never fear,” Sarge says. “That book will be a whole year fatter for your 2021 rising.”
Slim drops the scrapbook on Sarge’s desk with a bang.
“Your time’s racin’ by like a freight train, soldier!” Sarge says. He signals two lifeless forms hovering in the fog. “Let’s just stick with the army’s program.”
The spectres drift toward Slim. They look like disembodied copies of the photos of Little Jo and Slim Jr. in the scrapbook. The spectres recoil when they see the hole in their father’s forehead. They were on a glide path to join the living world. But the hole intervened, and they landed in the would’ve been world instead.
Slim remembers the vacant look in their eyes. When he strokes their cheeks, he finds clammy vapor. His arms flail right through their mist when he tries to hug them. My children always look and feel like cold death!
But Slim notices something different this year: a lock of hair that floats with Slim, Jr. as part of his spectre. He recognizes Jo’s scent in it. He palms the hair as best he can to conceal it from the ever-vigilant sergeant. Sarge watches Slim closely, because Slim is always on the lookout for a path like this one off of Skeleton Mountain.
“Time’s up! Your rising’s over!” Sarge brandishes the empty hourglass. A sudden breeze whisks the spectres away, and they evaporate into the fog.
“Chin up, private,” Sarge says. “The army always brings ’em back, like clockwork.”
“How do they access the real world, Sarge? Jo helps them. I know she does!”
“Whoa, whoa! The real world’s not my gig.”
“And exactly what world is your gig?”
Sarge leans in confidentially. “Okay, kid, here’s what the big brass told me when I trained for this desk job. They started me out with the world that really was and the world that really is.”
“A real past and a real present. It’s not quantum physics.”
“But then the big brass sprung a third dimension on me: the world that would’ve been.”
“Where’d they find that one, Sarge?”
“A buncha physicists from the Manhattan Project discovered this third dimension during World War II. And that’s when the army built Skeleton Mountain. Since then, the army sends every military member killed in combat here. All you Afghan War heroes have your own wing, and I run it.”
“A wing? It’s a quantum physics experiment, don’t you see? And we’re the army’s guinea pigs!”
“All right, Skeleton Mountain is an unearthly place, I admit. But it’s better than being fully dead. Besides, these risings are a military honor.”
“An honor? A rising? They’re an annual crucifixion! Followed by a coma! In a murky purgatory! Be fully alive or be fully dead, I say. How do I punch a ticket outta this netherworld, anyhow?”
“How do I know? The army built it, and I just run the risings, on time, on schedule. And time’s up!” Sarge marks a new name in his census book and looks up to the heavens. “Neeext!” This time, the sergeant over-tilts his chair, and his bones spill onto the ground.
Sarge has his guard down for the first time in the ten years he’s had the job. Slim sees the chance he’s always waited for to bug out. As Sarge rolls and curses behind his desk, Slim snags the scrapbook and clanks his bones after the two spectres. “Wish me luck, Sarge. I might even find Jo!” Slim shouts. “Besides, a soldier only lives once. The army can’t take any more skin off my bones.”
Sarge waits for Slim to escape into the fog, and then he collects himself from his supposed tumble. “I just had to let that skinny grunt follow that lock of hair.” He removes the green eyeshade he wears to hide the hole in his forehead. “With the skin off my bones, good ol’ Slim never did know I was his sergeant in Afghanistan and died in his foxhole.”
* * *
In the living world, Boomer moans, “Look out! Duuuck! Oh, God, no!”
Jo sits up in bed to help calm Boomer’s sweaty nightmare. “Is it the foxhole again, Boom?”
“Ya, all of it.” His heart races, but the Boomer always keeps his macho on. “That sniper bastard, the helmets, and then, ya know, what’s left of Slim.” What happened in the foxhole in 2010 has been eating Boomer alive for ten years. After his most recent foxhole hallucinations, Jo wants Boomer to see a therapist. But he’s too much of a real man to talk it out.
Boomer rolls over and tries to sleep, but the ghastly foxhole images make his head throb. “Ah, what’s the use?” He lumbers out of the bedroom.
“Good. This year he won’t be stalking me,” Jo says. Her own images will come to her, too, right at midnight. Tonight’s the peak energy night.
Boomer retreats to the den, his private world, where Jo never sets foot. He finds the darkness soothing, so he dials down the lights. Trophies crowd all of the shelves. His “Boomer” moniker came from the way he carried the football. “Boom! Quick as a cat!” And his army munitions exploits made the tag stick.
He heads to the liquor cart and pours a tall bourbon, straight up. The bottle has been his new best friend ever since Slim caught the bullet. The whiskey keeps at bay the sniper living in his head. “A drink beats a shrink,” he says. In Boomer’s world, the bottle listens just fine.
He gets his army revolver from under the couch. He cocks the hammer and puts the gun to his forehead. He grins, and then he fills the grin with the gun barrel. He’s watched a few vets escape this way from their troubled worlds. But not Boomer. “See?” he says to the gun. “I’m in complete control.”
The sniper’s bullet deflected off Boomer’s helmet and hit Slim ten years ago tonight. Boomer recalls delivering Slim back home to Springville in a box. It was his duty. Leave no man behind. He comforted Slim’s devastated parents. He met Jo, of course, and consoled her. She became depressed, stunned into inaction. They shared stories about Slim. Boomer helped her recover, and Jo warmed to him more every day.
Boomer the city boy never left Springville. “Ten years later, here I am, married to my army buddy’s sweetheart.” Boomer wants a couple of kids, but Jo insists on birth control. “We’ve got half a marriage. But how do I fix it?” The bottle has no answers for Boomer.
Boomer’s head still pounds, but he’s exhausted. “Long day tomorrow.” He still works for the army when he’s able, helping returned Afghan War vets put aside the war demons in their heads. If they only knew about the demons in Boomer’s head.
He pours back a nightcap, and then he climbs under a blanket on the couch. The Boomer escapes into a restless sleep.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by John Mara