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Nancy Brar

He stared unseeingly into the eyes of a young man. The rifle was pushed at his chest in an obvious bluff but the old man said nothing, only watched quietly, his expression blank and emotionless. The young man was trembling, holding a rifle too big for his childlike hands. Feeling that dangerous power, a shudder coursed through his body. Sweat lined his brow, fear showed in his eyes as he tried to meet that unwavering gaze. He frowned sternly, and said a bit too loudly, "Who are you and what are you doing here?" His voice quivered a little, showing his tough, ruthless front as it was: a lie, a shadow.

The old man nodded curtly and stood silently, as if he was deep in thought, but the young man could detect no fear in him. It was as if all the feeling had been sucked out of him and had left behind this shell of a man. Then impatiently and none too gently, the young man poked him harder with the rifle, a threat inside itself. His hands became sweaty and clammy under his nervousness, and he was worried the gun would slip from them.

"Answer me, damn you!" The innocence returned to the young soldier, as he stared at his supposed enemy, hating that he was as human as himself, as lost as he was. His nemesis smiled then, a queer sort of smile, wiped of all emotion. The soldier wondered if he'd stumbled upon a madman. He and his group had been assigned the task of leafing out the camping grounds, making sure the enemy hadn't followed them. Now the young soldier wondered at the instructions issued by his leader.

Finally the man spoke in a flat voice, his black eyes still scouring the young man's face. "I am a man." The soldier felt as if he'd been shot, by the simple truth of his words. Something that was forgotten in war, the queer old man had reminded him. His enemy had reminded him. The young soldier finally noticed for the first time that the man wasn't armed although he was wearing the enemy's colors. His white hair was matted with dirt, his weathered, tough face burned by the scorching of the sun, and hard, endless battles. Scars ran all over his cheeks, long ones, little ones, but oddly now the solider wasn't afraid of the man. Just of himself.

"Stop your riddles," he yelled harshly, taking out his uncertainty on the man who had created it. "State your business before I kill you!" And he ended that threat with another sharp poke at the man's chest.

To his surprise and fear, the man grabbed the rifle and placed it firmly between his eyes. "If you are to kill me," he said in a calm voice, "Don't bother to shoot me in the heart. I've already learned to stop using it." The statement made the soldier start shaking.

"Come now, old man," he said in a quiver of fear, "You don't really want to die, do you?" The old man continued to stare at him, and the soldier wondered why he didn't just pull the trigger. It would make things much easier if he did, yet he couldn't compel himself to do it.

"I see no reason to live, and the alternative is to die," the old man answered in that calm voice of his again.

The soldier stared at the man, not knowing what to do. The man could be an asset in their battles with the enemy, a supply of information, but how could you threaten a man who had no fear of his own destruction?

"You are my enemy," the soldier stated aloud, as if trying to convince himself of that fact. He hadn't thought of killing a man, when he'd joined the army. He had been lead to believe that the enemy wasn't even human and wondered at his own stupidity.

"Yes," the man agreed. "I am your enemy. That is why I ask you to kill me." Then the man gripped the soldier's shoulder almost painfully, and said in a desperate voice, "Pull the trigger, son. Come on, do it."

The soldier jerked out of the man's grasp, and froze in terror of what he was hearing. Would he become like this old man too one day? Desperate for death because there was nothing to live for? The man was pleading now, "Don't you understand? I am dead inside, yet I continue living. I cannot erase the images of those men, dead in fields, their blood flowing from their bodies like a river. Just kill me, son. Pull the trigger. Set me free."

"Stop it," the soldier yelled, unsure of what was happening to him. He felt so damn uncertain all of a sudden, and just because of some queerly fearless old man. Because of a man who had no life inside of him. A man who warned him of his own fate at the end of this war, if he lived through it, that was.

Anguish burned in the old man's eyes. "Set me free," he repeated softly, and waited. The soldier backed away a few steps, knowing that this was exactly what the old man wanted. Yet he couldn't bring himself to do it.

Before the soldier could stop him, the old man grabbed the gun and shot himself right between the eyes, the soldier catching him as he fell. Instant Death. The war was different and the same in a way. It was a lingering and slowly destroying one.

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