I. The Pawn
They called us the Golden Hour 7. They said we were the forgotten youth with wasted potential. So, we lined up like ducks in a row ready to prove we were worthy of glory. They gave us grey wool with seven gold-plated buttons, a uniform sewn just as hastily as the war began. Seven buttons for seven men. A sense of pride would uplift our posture adorned in the scratchy uniform. The gold-plated buttons stitched down the middle used to glint when the sun hit them just right. Now, we barely had any left. The empty spaces where they once sat only elicited a reminder of all the ways we lost them.
The sky was weeping the day Alden showed up to camp, like the Earth knew it would soon fold him into its arms. Alden was fourteen. The youngest of us. We all still remembered his mother’s grief-stricken face as she dropped him off at camp because he was too young to drive. Her face, sunken with hunger and years, had haunted us all. But her face has been replaced in our nightmares. Now all we saw was Alden’s face, frozen in agony. What used to be a round, youthful face filled with wonder was now but a husk of a human being with eyes dead to this world. His face so covered in dirt we could trace the path of his tears all the way down his neck. There was no time for us to mourn the boy who met death too soon, who shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. We continued on. Alden added to a long list of people that would join our nightmares.
They told us we would be respected—tunnelers always were—but we were the lowborns. They put us where we couldn’t be seen, ashamed that the likes of us could win them a war. We crawled beneath the Earth, where they thought we belonged. The wails and thudding of shovels could still be heard, waking and dreaming. The walls of our manhole-sized tunnel glistened with promises of blue skies and fresh air, but they never seemed to come. We entered as the Golden Hour 7, but left as four—and soon after, even fewer. The voices in our head and obsidian Tether in our soul were rooted deep. At first, the tether was small, breakable even, but the more we disobeyed the more it grew. The obsidian splintered off, taking control of everything. Not just our arms and legs, but our lungs and stomachs too. We fought the tug and the sharp pull of the instructions from Command, but the Tether would just dig deeper causing our vision to black out from the pain. It wasn’t the only thing we fought. The grey wool started killing us all on its own, suffocating us with heat and mud. We started counting the hours, the days, the weeks until they would allow us to claw our way out into the sunlight. Scratching tally marks into our skin like prison walls. At golden hour on the eve of New Year’s, the voices urged us forward, the timers were set, and the explosives went off. The Tether pulled our puppet bodies through the motions of our final attack.
We had heard the stories of units pushed to the brink of exhaustion with the sole purpose of making it harder for them to fight Command when they sent them into the enemy’s hands. The enemies that remain faceless and nameless, so when we look them in the eyes, we don’t see their families when they’re finally embraced by the Earth once more. We were sacrificial pawns, unable to even move without their okay. So, as we rushed forward against our will, we were bathed in mud, blood, and the last rays of a violent sunset. We never allowed ourselves the comforts of being grateful we were alive. We knew we were all already dead.
Sara used to say, “It’s a necessary evil.” At least that’s what they told everyone. The streets of our town were littered with posters telling us our country needed us. The posters were always colorful with catchy slogans that pulled us in, like the promise of a good warm meal. They lied. And it wasn’t just a simple white lie that rolled off the tongue. This wasn’t a lie told between friends to keep the balance neutral, or one told from mother to daughter to preserve her dreams about how the world could be. No, this lie was heavy. It burned the tongue and throat of the speaker and swirled around in their gut, churning unpleasantly. It clung to the speaker like an oily second skin. They swallowed it down and spun their straw into golden words that were whispered into the ears of the vulnerable, into the ears of the powerful, into the ears of the masses. And soon enough, the lie became the truth. It started to burn less coming out, and just like snakes, they eventually shed their oily second skin. We were told what we were doing was honorable. We came from the home of the brave, didn’t we? The brave and free. That’s what we were, but they lied. They took us away, broke us down, and whispered, “It’s all for the greater good.” We preemptively strike, thinking we’re in charge of this chess game, except we weren’t even playing. We were just the pawns and they were making war for fun.
They spoke through a personification, trying to disguise themselves as one of us. “We want you!” They wanted bodies in the field to wield destruction. No responsibility, no consequences in this life. Men sat lavishly, equating lives to green dollar signs, leaving the role of dying to the poor. Our blood was made of diamonds to be sold. Everything slow and heavy, made ready for extraction. Shuttled like cattle onto the kill floor. Whether it was jungles, deserts, beaches, the field always ended up shining red. Once our bodies were no longer of use to the lavish men, we were thrown out. Our blood no longer precious. We went from invaluable to expendable. Our lives were valued by how well we could die. How well we could kill. There was no after, only before. Whether dead or not, we were ghosts either way. They lied to us and we paid the price.
II. The King
We lied. It was a simple lie, really. One to keep the cogs oiled and moving. It used to keep him up at night until he realized how simple it really was.
Knowledge isn’t power.
Money is power.
Supply and demand is power.
Power is in resources.
We advertise, and it’s distributed to the brainwashed masses in the form of motivational slogans. It’s a fair exchange, preferable. He used to want the credit, the glory that was brought to kings and emperors when they won a war, but times were different. So, we hid our work in plain sight. We targeted the weak within our own country, telling them exactly what they needed to hear. They were the most loyal when their will was finally broken. It was simple really.
The grandfather clock struck midnight. Four dings boomed through the room, bouncing off each mahogany-covered wall and landing in his lap. His tailor-made suit and crystal glass full of Pappy Van Winkle were illuminated by the yellow lamplight that dimly shone on a table in the middle of the room. It cast shadows on the walls that curled inwards, threatening to swallow him whole. It wasn’t an unpleasant thought. The only thing properly lit in the room was the ivory carved chess board in the middle of the table, the Smith-Morra Gambit set up in full view. He always played white. It brought him a sense of comfort; after all, he was playing for the greater good. Black could set a Siberian Trap, he thought, but he knew they wouldn’t. They were weak and unskilled. The opening had begun and it would succeed. All he needed was his blood diamonds, his soldiers, his pawns. Invaluable pieces of a war machine. White must make sacrifices to open up the playing field. His tunnelers would set the stage, and their offering would ensure a successful attack. He picked up his white pawn, slowly moving it forward, feeling a Tether deep within his soul go taut. Once the ivory hit the board, he felt the Command go down the line to his tunnelers. And now, all he had to do was wait. He had all the time in the world to play.
The shadows seemed poised to strike him as he stared and stared at the endless possibilities carved into pieces of ivory. Not a single thought except the construction of destruction. The man in the tailor-made suit sat and pondered. He may have seen the ever-lumbering shadows surrounding him, but he didn’t feel their hunger. Didn’t feel the cloaked figure patiently waiting for him. As he moved his pawns around, no consequences befell him, making war just for fun. But the figure waited their turn to see him eternally burn.
III. The Queen
Good and evil aren’t black and white. What people don’t understand is that evil gathers in masses. Like bloodhounds on a scent, it gravitates towards people that sing its praises. But no one is born evil, I should know. The occasions I saw pure evil, it came in through the mind. It spread like rot, contaminating the mind first, then the heart. And when it finally stopped spreading, there was nothing left. The eyes of its vessels are always vacant and cold. Apathy written in permanent red marker across their faces. They morph their features into those of empathy, mimicking the behaviors of others to hide in plain sight. Through these experiences, I have come to understand that man is the cruelest of animals. Evil swirls around them without any interference. It infects, spreads, and triumphs while men sit and watch.
I drift through the world, noticed and unnoticed. Many wail and scream in my presence. Some are relieved, and some feel nothing at all. My job is an unpleasant one, but necessary. There isn’t one soul in this world that I don’t meet in the end. Some days I hesitate allowing them as much time as possible. On a few rare occasions, I rejoice because they deserve it—the agony that will follow. I clean up mess after mess of theirs, waiting in the shadows to finally claim them. Savoring the day when terror floods their veins.
I grant as many wishes as I can to their victims, knowing it will never make up for the pain they felt in life. Many strangled hopes whispered in my ear following the tune of, “Take them instead of me.”
This is often accompanied by a chorus of loud gunshots or explosions in the background. Sometimes there’s screaming and sometimes there’s just silence, the darkness already doing their job and clocking out before I get there. I sit on the sidelines, listening, trying my best, but it isn’t my job to help them. All I can do is grant them a little more time, but even that is never enough. War is a craven, fickle thing brought upon by craven, fickle men. If given a decision between war and compromise, they will always pick war. Never ones to pass up the easier option. So, I sit in the shadows that curl inward, ready to devour, watching the man in the tailor-made suit move his ivory pawns across his playing field. He always plays white to make himself feel better, but he knows full well that those pawns are people. People that I have had to collect. I see him pretend, playing at being me. And never have I felt hunger so consuming.
I remember the boy buried deep beneath the Earth. Tick marks carved into his arm. His blue eyes, once bright with love for the world, are now dull and decades older than they should be. His mud-splattered face interrupted by his trail of tears. He feels me coming and he turns to me with a smile that shouldn’t be as bright as it is.
“Will it stop hurting?”
I nod. His shoulders sag with relief.
“I thought I was already dead. In hell, or maybe purgatory,” he swallows, his breathing becoming shallow. “You’re less scary than I thought you’d be.” Time is up, and I do something I’ve never done. Like the cooling breeze of a fall afternoon, I whisper, “You already lived through the punishment of this life; now, it’s time for after.” His eyes close with the ghost of a smile still on his lips. The pain eases out of his body as I snap the obsidian Tether, allowing the boy to be collected in peace. Many millennia have passed and I collect without word or complaint, but even I can be haunted. And when he is finally laid to rest, I take the steps two at a time, spiraling down into my rage.
I have all the time in the world to wait. And I don’t have to wait long. The man in the tailor-made suit brings his last sip of bourbon to his lips. Not even a second later, his left arm starts to shake as he clutches at his chest, trying to suck in a shaky breath. Beads of sweat start to form on his temple as he gasps like a fish out of water. The man struggles, unable to call for help. I soak in his pain, savoring it like the last crumb of food. The terror in his black eyes like rays of sunshine poking through the clouds on a rainy day. I glance towards the grandfather clock: four past twelve. I begin to step forward, morphing myself into a depraved nightmare, wanting to taste his fear. My rage charging forward with teeth yearning to cause him the same pain he caused that boy. The shadows follow me, humming in my wake.
And when the clock strikes five past midnight, I smile. Only on rare occasions are the deserving’s time cut short, served to me on a golden platter. So, yes, I smile. Because this is one of those few rare occasions.
Meara Carlin is a second-generation Muslim American. She grew up in a small town in Virginia and recently received her B.S. degree in Geology from The College of William and Mary. Although a science major, writing was always a passion that accompanied her throughout her life, including everything from journaling, to scientific writing, to screenplays. She hopes to continue her journey into the world of creative writing.