Unknown Soldier, by Robert J. Mendenhall
Annie felt her heart stop, her lungs relax. She had vague impressions of shouting and panic.
“We’re losing her—”
“She’s gone into cardiac arrest—”
In a blur of practiced motion, an ER nurse ripped open her blouse. Another squeezed cool gel onto her bare chest. Another thrust electronic paddles into the gel.
“Full charge. All clear…”
The machine fired and every muscle strand tightened. Every nerve, every cell shrieked. Her body arched from the voltage, then fell back to the hospital gurney, lifeless.
“She’s still triple zero…”
“Again. Clear.” clear clear clear
And again the awful, spasms.
But on the third attempt—release. Annie burst from her broken body in an intense, celestial orgasm.
All the suffering, all the pressure left her. Just like that. A consuming warmth oozed over her. Energy saturated her from everywhere, then radiated out from her core, expanding her presence. She was a wisp, hovering without substance or constraint.
And, oh, such awareness. She couldn’t see as she once could, organically, but she was keenly aware of everything going on around her. Her new perceptions made her giddy and even more so when she discovered she could shift her focus and the world would rotate to meet her perspective.
She hovered above the emergency room. It was softer now, less urgent than when she had regained consciousness for that horrible moment following the auto accident.
Below her, the harried medical staff labored over her shattered body, injecting and electrocuting it in a vain effort to revive it. She watched them with both amazement and endearment. The steady tone of the EKG told them plain enough she was dead, but they labored on.
She knew she was dead. And yet, she felt no remorse or fear. This was right. She accepted it with no desire to return to her corporeal existence.
The warmth was all-consuming and self-sustaining, and the freedom was euphoric. She was pure now, distilled and sterilized to the very essence of herself.
She sifted her awareness to the hospital’s waiting room and her young children. Lisa and Mindy huddled together, confused and sobbing in disbelief, pleading for her to be okay.
They don’t know. They don’t know I’m gone and how beautiful it is. She looked down on her children with love.
The warmth intensified, but she had no desire to go back.
And there, close to the girls and cradling their infant son was Jeremy. His pale, limp face and reddened eyes were tragic testimony to his grief.
“Annie,” he whispered. “Don’t go.”
The warmth swelled further, but still, there was no wanting to return.
She pulled back. The hushed weeping in the waiting room blended with the electronic chatter elsewhere in the ward, then with the collective murmurs of the hospital complex, and again with the chaotic din of the entire world. It was music from her new perspective.
Then the light appeared before her. The light she eagerly anticipated.
When she was alive, Annie had read accounts of near-death experiences and in almost every one, there had been a bright, beckoning light. But had it been real? A dream? Or was it just a hallucination brought on by severe trauma?
No one alive could truly know. But Annie knew. There it was. As intense and appealing as she could endure, there it was. Compelling. Promising. Forgiving.
Was it the way to heaven? The heaven she had been raised to believe in? Would there be angels there? God? Or maybe it was just someone else’s afterlife. No matter. She was going home.
She drifted toward the light, feeling its pull like gravity. Anticipation overwhelmed her and if she could cry in this form, she certainly would.
She searched the astral surroundings with her unearthly sense of awareness. As she drew closer, she sensed other forms like her. But so hard to focus… where were—
There! In the light itself! A presence so familiar…
From within the light, an image developed. It folded in on itself, and molded into the most intense visage of her father she had ever experienced. His features, sculpted of pure light, were sharp and defined. She could feel his character emanating from the vision. The scent of his favorite, spiced cologne and the coarseness of his face, even freshly shaved, made her giggle with nostalgia.
Hearing his deep voice and the special pet-name only he used, humbled her to what was happening. He reached a light-drenched hand to her.
She sought to embrace him, but realized she had no form. Not anymore.
And then another presence formed in the light, this one as potent as her father’s. It coalesced into a timeless image of the best memory she had of her maternal grandmother. Not the ragged, boneless mass she had been when the cancer finally struck her down. But the vibrant, handsome woman of strength and dominance Annie had adored as a child. Waves of her grandmother’s personality inundated her.
“My little Annabelle.” The rich tone came from all around, from everywhere, filling Annie with such delight she felt her own essence expand.
She moved closer to them–closer to the euphoric nature of the light.
And as she did, she experienced more arrivals, those she had cared for and loved, those who had influenced her thinking and affected her life. Even, to her astonishment, those that caused her pain and suffering. They welcomed her to the light and she forgave them and accepted them with all the warmth she now radiated.
The light was so close her spirit resonated from its potency. And then, vivid memories played out in her consciousness. She relived the terrible auto accident that killed her, experiencing all the horror and pain of the incident and yet remaining aside of it.
Little, forgotten moments replayed around her, incidents of no apparent consequence. Fixing Mindy’s ponytail before school, sewing a patch on Lisa’s baseball jersey, picking up Jeremy’s poorly aimed laundry. And she relived important moments, too, like the birth of little Danny, the girls’ first ballet recitals, Jeremy’s promotion and, before that, their marriage.
Tragedies, like her father’s untimely death and the fire that destroyed her childhood home, were relived, each with the same intensity of the moment, but now experienced from a higher perspective.
She went back further, to her teen years. Her first car. Her first kiss. Her first dance. Her first period. Her first bra.
Further still, repeating the flute solo she did so well in junior high band and that nauseous night behind the school when she thought it would be cool to smoke. She remembered her locker, of all things, even the combination, and chuckled at how messy the inside was.
Ahh. 7th grade and Mr. Peter, her math teacher and first crush. And UGH! Acne!
Grade school and the Brownie Girl Scouts. Soccer. Nap-time in kindergarten. The clarity of the memories was explicit.
She was three. Her first puppy, Ouch! Get down, Scruffy! Mommy!
Joy! She experienced her birth and those first, terrifying seconds she had never before recalled. Going from the protective warmth of the womb to the cold glare of the world. But, oh! Her mother’s sweet face! She felt her tender caress.
There was more. She felt the presence of other souls, others she had met and loved, and then blackness. Cold.
She was a frail old woman in the fleeting moments of a coma. Her mahogany skin was blotched and wrinkled with age.
She knew she was in a hospital by the crisp, white crisp sheets and the pungent smell of clinical disinfectant. The instruments surrounding her were bulky and loud. The black and white tiled floor looked out-of-date. Everything was out-of-date.
She was alone, this old woman. There was no one here to be with her as she died. Annie felt her desolation, the bitter loneliness, and she realized those feelings were her own.
This was her. Not Annie, no, but this woman was her in another lifetime.
She was back in the light, but all the loved ones of Annie’s life had dissolved. Another figure formed and his features were as clear and precise as Annie’s father. She was washed over with recognition and longing.
“Dorthea,” the man said.
Other figures formed and she experienced the same intensity of happiness and acceptance as she did for Annie’s homecoming. But the events of Dorthea’s life were dark and depressing next to Annie’s. The hatred and bigotry Dorthea endured as a black woman in the 1950’s had riddled her earthly character with despair. The most tragic, Martin’s racial murder, had devastated her. But as she relived that moment, she accepted the event with the understanding of her new perspective.
She experiencing the few joys, the many endearments, the throng of tragedies–removed, but with clarity and completeness. Her children and their sad life of poverty, her parents and their struggles during the Great Depression, the unexpected crib death of her baby brother, her own painful birth…
And then, another death from another life. She was a man, now, much to her initial surprise. She took stock of her essence and realized in this form she was neither male nor female, but a union of both. The feminine thoughts and inclinations she still felt were lingering effects of her most recent life as Annie.
She relived this life as vividly as the others. She was reacquainted with the souls she had interacted with and recognized many as souls she shared other lives with.
Backwards she regressed, through this life as a settler in the Oklahoma Territory; then the next life as another man in mid-19th century France. Back again as a woman in late 18th century Spain, an English woman in the 17th century, a Norseman in the 16th century. Back she went, life after incredible life, each memory as precise and clear as the moment it occurred.
She was present as Napoleon fell. She saw the first stone laid of the Great Wall of China. She helped haul huge blocks up the steep incline of the first Great Pyramid. She was a Cro-Magnon woman who first defended her virtue by slaying her attacker.
Emptiness. Absence. The regressions simply stopped.
Was the cave woman her first incarnation? Was there nothing before? So many questions filled her consciousness. In her life as Annie, the notion of past lives was a popular, yet faddish, concept denounced by many religions, including Annie’s own. Still, Annie often questioned what was before and what was to come.
Now, in her soul-form, she was filled with many of the same wonders. What came before the cave woman? And what was to come after Annie?
Suddenly, without warning or reason, she stopped moving toward the light. She was so close to it the energy vibrated her soul. But she had stopped. She was engulfed by foreboding.
The warmth she had become accustomed to cooled. Her joy degraded into anxiety and she feared she wouldn’t be allowed in.
The light dimmed and a new figure formed. But this image was not human. It was like nothing she had experienced in all her lives. It was another soul-entity, in its purest form. But it was without definable shape or depth. It had no color, but became whatever color she chose it to be. The aura it radiated was–comforting.
Beside the entity, another formed, this one equally comforting. And beside that one, yet another. She recognized them much as she did the human souls.
The entities moved to one side as another soul form developed. Her resonance lowered and became deeper, alarming. And then another formed. She grew colder. These new entities were dark and foreboding and she gasped, despite herself. They were putrid and diseased, nothing like the bright, compelling soul-forms of light.
Light and dark.
These soul-forms before her were the very embodiment of light and dark. Good and evil.
More of the soul-forms appeared. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions. But there were far, far more of the dark forms. For the fist time since Annie’s death, she feared.
She began to regress again. But instead of reliving individual past-lives, she relived epochs as a whole. The experiences of entire cultures and civilizations; civilizations not of Earth, but of far-off worlds where the corporeal forms were varied and exotic.
Further into the past she regressed. It was always the same, a linear progression of time and life, backwards from the culture’s destruction, reliving the experiences of entire species to the beginning of that particular line. Then it began again, somewhere else, farther and farther in the past.
Understanding came to her slowly but firmly and with certainty. Each of these epochs, each of these visitations was part of a great conflict, a conflict of such magnitude it would be incomprehensible to Annie or Dorthea. A conflict of such scope it spanned not only time and universes, but dimensions as well. From the dimension of ethereal spirit to the physical plane, it was a war of benevolence and malevolence.
The forces of heaven and hell in cosmic combat.
Each culture had their own icons of good and evil. Shrouded by myth and religion, each society sought to conceptualize the ultimate conflict. Yet no corporeal race could comprehend the true nature of it, because it transcended their truth of existence and often chipped away at their religious bedrock. Only when freed of the limits of the physical plane, could the self–the soul–remember and comprehend.
She went on guard. Spiritual contact between them would result in total annihilation, as light and dark cancel each other out. And so, in a single fiery detonation, they had created the physical universe. They incarnated into matter, as beings on the lesser, physical plane of existence. They battled as living beings, generation after generation. Epoch after Epoch. Never directly, but through the subconscious mind of the species that were inhabiting.
She steeled herself for an onslaught. From the very beginning of their eternal war, the souls of darkness had swept their debauchery and influence over the benevolence of the light souls. The dark influence was always, ultimately, devastating. The battle always finished the same, with the civilization destroyed.
And then, after the end, it would begin again. With each Armageddon, with each new epoch, the forces of darkness became stronger. Her essence vibrated low with foreboding.
The images before her were representations of the two spiritual forces of good and evil and she knew that she now had to make a choice.
Annie’s contribution to the conflict had been infinitesimally small. Her conscious mind had known nothing of the terrible struggle, nor would her next incarnation. Now, the two forces were nearing their omega battle, the final conflict which could very well destroy both levels of existence.
She could not be absorbed into the light until the final battle. She had to go back to continue the subtle fight on the physical plane, to champion the light. Regret washed over her. She focused on the light, absorbing what she could of it.
The light responded. A thin tendril of it reached for her and embraced her essence.
At its touch, she expanded in a rush of pure ecstasy. For a brief moment, or perhaps a thousand years, she melded with the light and became one with all that ever was. For an instant, or perhaps millennia, she experienced the sheer grandeur of infinity.
Her soul incarnated into the fetus of an unborn child–a boy, unsuspecting and innocent, ignorant of his influence and destiny. He was a true unknown soldier, unaware that the choices he would make during his lifetime would be subtle battle maneuvers executed by his subconscious in a war so encompassing and timeless, he would never be aware of the struggle.
Until his next incarnation.
Robert J. Mendenhall is a retired police officer and a former Broadcast Journalist for the American Forces Network, Europe. He currently serves on active duty with the Wisconsin Air National Guard. An active member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, he writes in multiple genres including science fiction, crime and suspense, and horror. His short fiction has appeared in three STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS anthologies published by Pocket Books; NIGHT TERRORS ANTHOLOGY, by Kayelle Press; TO HELL IN A FAST CAR anthology by Dark Quest Books; and HORRORS OF HISTORY anthology by Fey Publishing. Visit his website at RobertJMendenhall. He lives outside Chicago with his wife and fellow writer, Claire. And many animals.
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