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Dark Refrain by Alexis A. Hunter

November 30, 2013 Paranormal 10 Comments
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Dark Refrain
by Alexis A. Hunter

I get a letter from my brother every day. He’s been dead for seventeen years.

The first one came the day after his funeral. A dozen pastel envelopes packed the mailbox — condolences from family and friends who couldn’t make it to the service. I clutched these piles of empty words and tucked my head down against the drizzling rain. It peppered the back of my neck, a cold kiss that made me hunch my shoulders up further.

As I stepped onto the porch, a gust of wind snatched away his letter and it stuck against the railing. A single white envelope. So plain. Abnormally small…

…and so achingly familiar.

The condolence cards flipped to the wet grass and lay forgotten. My fingers found the coarse white envelope and gripped it tight. I could not tear my gaze from his name in the upper left corner: PFC Michael E. Colt.

I fought to breathe. My world spun. I sank to the porch, my back pressed against the railing’s wet boards.

His last letter. His last words.

But the date on the envelope read September 5th. It had been mailed the day after the officers came in their dress uniforms to tell us the news.

Trembling fingers. Hunched over the letter to shelter it from the drizzle, I worked slowly to avoid tearing the rain-splotched paper. A furtive glance toward the front door. Mom was asleep. She’d been sleeping a lot since my brother died.

Thin sheet paper. I could still see the outlines of his scrawled handwriting tucked between the folds. I used to tease him — told him that he wrote like a five year old. I brought the paper to my nose and inhaled. Mildew and sand. Or maybe that’s just how I imagined it.

I unfolded the pages.

        Sorry I haven’t responded to your last letter…

I dragged my gaze from his words to the date he’d written near my name: September 4.

I pressed one hand against my mouth as my heart rapid-fired in my chest, so fast it hurt. I couldn’t feel anything else — just my racing heart and the thin paper in my hands.

A mistake. Surely. He just got his days mixed up.

I let myself believe that for a while. I had to. I didn’t show the letter to our mother. Or to Dad. I kept it in a little tin box that used to house his Army Men.

But the letters kept coming. Every day. I became possessive of the mailbox. Wouldn’t let anyone else retrieve the mail. No one bothered me about it. Mom had withdrawn even more. Taken to sitting on her bed and staring at his picture on the wall. Dad worked more. I don’t think he knew how to cope.

None of us really did.

Me, least of all.

Each envelope was the same. The paper was always thin and covered in his scrawled handwriting. The stamps and dates marched right along with me through time. He spoke of his fellow soldiers — the young men I’d met at his funeral — always with a funny anecdote about their misadventures or the latest prank they pulled. He spoke of the weather and the life overseas, how it differed from everything in America. He talked about sand sometimes and how it stuck in everything. He also mentioned lush vineyards and some of the greenest places he’d ever seen. I leaned over these letters, soaking up every word as my tears stippled the pages.

He always asked about me. Just as he had in life. How was school and my best friend Jenny? Did I pass English 101 or was he going to have to help me when he came back for his leave? He encouraged me to pursue my love of film. Asked what projects I was working on at the moment.

At the end of every letter, there was one line set below his name. Darker ink, letters almost embossed from increased pressure on the pen. A slight slant that didn’t line up with the rest of his writing: Honor the Fallen. Never forget. Unease rose inside me every time I saw that particular refrain.

As the days trudged past, those embossed words began to invade the letters. A first, it was only a line or two added. Scattered, bitter sounding words: Cursed and forgotten. While the world moves on. These fragments didn’t sound like Michael – not the Michael I knew anyway. While I let my fingers trace the rest of his words, I refused to touch those imprinted lines, as if in doing so I could avoid the cold touch of a dead hand.

I didn’t know how to move on. How to grieve for my brother when he seemed so alive. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the letters. For a while, I tried to find an answer. The Marines down at the local recruiting office probably thought I was insane with all the weird questions I asked.

But I had to know.

What was worse — we didn’t bury his body. They said his remains had been scattered by the IED. Not enough to bring home. If there had been a body, I would have clung to it. I would have looked into the lines of his young face, seen the echoes of his boyish grin and realized fully that he was never coming back. That I needed to mourn and let him rest.

Michael was dead, but he wasn’t resting.

He was all life and all passion in his words.

Eventually, I tried writing back to him. The letters came back unopened and he didn’t mention them when he wrote.

This continued on through my college years. The people in his letters changed and moved on, and tales of new Marines filled the pages. And still the letters came. As if he was still there, still serving in a foreign land day after day, year after year.

Time ground off the sharpest edges of the pain, but every new letter brought it all back. A knife jabbed deep under my arm, between my ribs. Reaching for my heart.

When I met Daniel, life picked up its pace. Marriage, a house, and a child on the way. Despite the move, the letters followed me. I tried to confide once to Daniel, but he gave me a look as if I’d lost my mind. I quickly shut up and kept the letters to myself.

Nine months pregnant, I found myself standing in the hazy sunshine next to our new mailbox. I stared at the letter. Rubbed my thumb over his name. I dropped one hand to my swollen stomach, cradling the son soon to be born.

“I can’t do this anymore. You can’t haunt me forever, Michael.”

I stood there. As if expecting a response. My shoulders rising and falling with tears. The grief felt as new as the day they told me he wasn’t ever coming home. I remembered Michael’s face — his olive green eyes always alight with mischief, that smirk that said he knew he was funny. He looked so stiff and proud in his uniform on the day he graduated from Boot Camp. But that smirk still slipped through when the cameras had been put away. The military didn’t change my brother. Not really.

And that’s how I’d remember him.

I shuffled back inside and placed his letter in another Army Men box. Still sealed. Unopened and unread.

The next day, the pain came. Labor is supposed to hurt, but this pain was an all-out assault on my womb. Grinding at first, it grew sharper, more insistent until Daniel rushed me to the Emergency Room.

Three hours of chaos and agonizing pain. The urgent chatter of nurses and the doctor. An attempt at a Cesarean, but not in time.

We lost him.

Our little baby boy.

They never let me see the body. I wanted to hold that little form I’d felt growing inside me all those months. I wanted to cradle him to my chest and look into his face and see that he was gone. Memorize his tiny features so I’d never forget.

But I never got the chance.

The next letter that came read as all the others – showing insight into my life as if he could see everything. He spoke grieved words for the loss of my son. He said he wept when he heard the news.

Just under his name, the usual dark refrain — only it was written not once, but three times.

        Honor the Fallen. Never forget.
        Honor the Fallen. Never Forget.

A spike of hot anger blasted through me and I almost ripped the letter to shreds.

I’ve honored the fallen. Since the day I lost my first born, I have read every one of Michael’s letters. The dark, imprinted lines remain. I think they come from the part of him that knows, that realizes he is dead. Caught between life and whatever lies beyond, he remains and remaining has twisted him. Part of him.

I don’t blame him. I can’t. Throughout most of his letters, he is still the brother I knew, save for the few fragmented sentences of his bitter ghost.

As I sit here, waiting for the mailman, I wonder what will happen when I eventually pass on. Will I find Michael waiting for me? Or will he still linger in the Middle East? Writing letters as he hovers over the fragments of his body, half buried in the hot sand. But not buried far enough.

I get a letter from my brother every day. He’s been dead for seventeen years.

Someone must read his letters when I am gone. That’s why I tell my daughter about her uncle. That’s why I read his words aloud to her as she snuggles against my side. She has never seen his face, but she will remember him when I’m gone.

She must. I don’t know what he’ll do if no one reads his words.

* * *

Since she was a child of nine, Alexis A. Hunter has reveled in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels. Over thirty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently in Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, Every Day Fiction, Kasma SF, and more. To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.

Currently there are "10 comments" on this Article:

  1. [...] Over the course of 2013, Alexis A. Hunter, author of “The Balance Between Us”, was delighted to have her first short story series — “By the Gun”, a four-part weird western — published in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Volumes I-IV.  In November, one of Alexis’ favorites stories, a “creepily touching” story entitled “Dark Refrain”, was published in Read Short Fiction. [...]

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  2. Scott Hughey says:

    The story grabbed me from the first line. There’s nothing like a story that makes you wish you’d written it. Thanks for keeping my interest throughout.

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  3. This disturbing little piece so wonderfully reminiscent of Gina Ochsner’s “How the Dead Live” uses sparing language to convey the base connection between death and what comes after: while we struggle to move on with our earthly lives, is it the dead who are the ones who need to let go? I also loved the subtle tension: I was sensing a threat from her brother, but I wasn’t sure if it was in my own head or not—and that made the piece impossible to put down. A fine, refreshing ghost story.

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  4. Smack says:

    Whoa. I think I stopped breathing for the second half. Really wonderful fiction, right there, holy crap, I’m still recovering.

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  5. Mcctessa says:

    I loved this story. Creepily touching.

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  6. Stone Showers says:

    Damn fine story, Alexis. I liked the fact that you never say for sure whether she is truly being haunted by her brother, or whether she creates these letters out if her own grief. Perhaps there is no difference. Can we be haunted by our own memories?

    I have read several of your stories now, and this one is by far the best. Well done.

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  7. Rhonda says:

    Fantastic story Alexis, it’s no wonder that it’s one of your favourites :)

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  8. Rene' York says:

    It is very well written. I don’t usually read this type of story, but once I started I couldn’t stop. Very thought provoking.

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  9. Molly says:

    Alexis, I do believe this is your finest work … so far. :-)

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  10. [...] am immensely excited about this particular story — entitled “Dark Refrain” — which Read Short Fiction published today.  It’s one of those stories that [...]

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Validating short fiction as the ideal writerly art form for these current jam-packed times, this article from The Telegraph on the rise of the short story is a nice overview of short fiction's coming into its own.

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