Summary: This is what comes after.
I die outside of Kandahar, near a field filled with date trees and a crumbling wall held together by creeping vines. A one legged boy stares at me as I kneel in the red dirt. His eyes are dark and huge, his face pointed and smudged. He scratches his stomach and hits one of his goats with his staff. I don’t smile at him, and he doesn’t smile at me. He just watches, bored.
He doesn’t look away, not even when I fall. He is the last thing I see with my living eyes.
I don’t go to heaven, and I don’t go to hell. I go to Smallville. I go home.
My house is empty – my mother sold it after I left, and it sits still and shuttered at the end of our long driveway. A film of dust hangs over it, like a shroud, and the field grows closer and closer in. No one lives here now.
In the hallway before the kitchen, there are loops of color on the wall; a green dinosaur drawn as tall as I could manage at four. I remember the snout of my marker crushing against the wall, the ink running down like juice.
The window in my bedroom is cracked. I look out of it, standing in the closed dark of the empty house, and time passes. But not for me.
My bones lie beneath a jagged, black rock on the top of a hill. They are bleached a clean white, and piled neatly. The one legged boy passes me in the morning and in the evening, leaning heavily on the gnarled, dark staff as he urges along his goats. They are as thin as he.
When the sun comes up, it reaches red fingers out toward the far mountains. When it goes down, it pulls those fingers back, and leaves only the thick purple night, and the cold colorless starlight.
I am nineteen years old when I die, and I am alone. Being angry about that is pointless.
I am not the only ghost in Smallville.
There are pictures of me and my father littered across my mother’s new apartment like confetti. She sleeps until it’s dark outside, and sits beside the window, crying and touching her fingertips to the glass.
She still hopes that I’ll come home. She waits for a body to bury, to put into the ground beside my father.
When she sleeps, she curls into a ball and takes up the least possible amount of space in her bed. She pulls the covers over her. She hides, even in sleep, afraid that what little she has left will be taken away.
I sit with her sometimes. I think it helps her sleep better.
Lana doesn’t mourn me for too long. This is as it should be.
I watch her at school, and at the Talon, and I remember how it felt to dance with her. I could lift her up with both arms, over my head, if I had wanted to. She was so very, very light.
She cries over me, once or twice, and when she does, she wears my letter jacket. I gave it to her before I left. She pulls the collar up, toward her nose, and inhales deeply, and before she goes to sleep, she puts it away in the back of her closet. She doesn’t look at it during the daytime, and after a few months, she pulls it off its hanger, and folds it into a box.
She puts her last reminders of me away, and moves forward. This, too, is as it should be.
She whispers Clark Kent’s name in her sleep, and when her cheeks turn pink as she dresses herself, it’s because she’s thinking about him. Once, I know, she must have done this for me.
It surprises me how young she is. How young I would have found her, if I had come back. I think that maybe, I would have been jealous.
It doesn’t matter now, though. Lana deserves to be young. She has not seen what I have seen. I don’t want her to.
I wasn’t the youngest boy in the platoon, but I was close. Dewey was two weeks younger than I was. He slept in the bed to my left in the barracks, and on the wall above his head, he taped pictures of his girlfriend. Her face was white, and round, like his.
Dewey is alive, but still hasn’t come home to her. He writes her emails every morning. He isn’t honest in them. He doesn’t want her to worry.
After our first fight with live fire, I was sick. I knelt in the dust, and tears ran down my face, and I threw up until there was nothing left inside me.
Dewey held my helmet, and after, he wrapped one arm around my shoulders.
“It’s all right, man,” he told me, clutching at my shoulder as one wrenching sob after another contorted his thick body. “It’s fucked up, but it’s all right.”
That night he shook in his thin bed, a picture of his girlfriend clenched between his fingers. He shook so hard he ripped it, and pinned it back to his wall crumpled and with a corner missing.
He knew I was dead when I didn’t come back from patrol. He thinks that he’ll be next.
I don’t know for certain whether he is right or wrong.
I have seen explosions. I have seen hunger. I have seen blood spilled. I have seen it done by my own hand. I have seen my blood pooling around me in the afternoon sun, catching and reflecting light like a slick of red oil.
Now, I watch the lake stir with the wind. I watch the rushes bend, and the high corn sway. I watch the quick neat dart of a bird’s head into the ground as it tugs out a worm.
I watch kites diving and soaring in the breeze over Kandahar. I watch figs fall from their trees, dark and ripe, onto the rocky ground beneath them. I watch the twitch and swish of the tails of goats, and the way dust rises beneath bare feet.
I watch, because that’s what’s left to the dead. It isn’t so bad.
I used to be afraid that I would never leave Smallville. I know now there are worse things.
I don’t regret anything. My life is complete, and full, and it is done. I am done.
I walk the close-cropped grass of the football field. I walk the long empty hallways of my high school. I sit beside my mother as she sleeps. I watch Dewey hunker down before blue and red flames that stretch out toward him. I see Lana smile as she touches her pink lips, and I am at peace.