Dead or alive, ghosts of the past haunt two men who have more in common than it appears on the surface.
As the setting sun dipped behind the rolling hills, families piled into their cars, chattering excitedly. From his vantage point near Union Headquarters, Victor Stonefield could not make out what the Living were saying.
But he could guess.
Vaguely, he remembered what it was like to talk with loved ones, enjoying one another’s company. To share a meal. Stories. Laughter.
Floating in disjointed memories, Victor was oblivious to the mist curling across the ground.
The white tendrils spread throughout the field. From the mist appeared soft, golden orbs. They winked in and out, like fireflies. Echoes of marching songs, war cries, and shouts spilled from the orbs as they gently grew.
In the field, a few yards from where Victor languished in thought, an apparition of a clapboard structure appeared. The door creaked and slammed shut as one of the largest orbs pushed through.
The sound jolted Victor awake. His head turned.
“Sixteen thousand,” the orange orb flashed as it spoke in a Yankee accent, “and no reinforcements!”
The orange glow morphed into various hues of blue and brown. Instead of a sphere, the shape shifted and stretched until there appeared the ghostly form of General Samuel Curtis, leader of the Union Army of the Southwest.
Striding towards the line of trees, General Curtis began barking orders at the other blinking lights, gradually transforming into Union soldiers.
Quickly, Victor released his own ghostly form, collapsing into a small, reddish-orange orb. His handspun grey coat and patched breeches were a dead give away. Being caught behind enemy lines was not something he desired to experience again.
Steadily bouncing along Telegraph Road, Victor Stonefield fought a shudder. One hundred and forty years reliving the same Confederate defeat each night was not the afterlife Victor Stonefield had imagined. The one spark of hope he held onto happened roughly sixty years ago, when he managed to reroute his experience in the Battle of Leetown. Instead of dying from a musket ball in the neck, he was captured by Union soldiers and held as a prisoner of war. That is, until the sun came up and burned all the mist away.
Ever since, he found a way to change his outcome in the ghostly battle reenactment. Each time, he gained a little more control over his ethereal form. Each time, he learned more of the geography of Pea Ridge.
Eventually, Victor Stonefield would find a way out.
Flipping his collar against the chill, T.J. tried to ignore the creeping fog. It swept around his well worn combat boots. The wind hissed gently in his ears with an eerily human quality.
Darkness was quickly falling. He’d been out too long scavenging and checking his traps. Stepping up his pace, T.J. hummed a cadence beneath his breath.
It helped him focus. Rooted him in reality. For a moment, it kept the ghosts of his past away.
A fallen branch caught T.J’s boot, twisting his ankle. Training took over and he fell onto his side before neatly rolling. With a pained grunt, he dusted himself off and stood. A twinge of fire from old wounds shot up his leg.
The mist was up to his waist. All around him, spheres of golden light floated between the trees. One zipped past, the sound of galloping hooves emitting from the glowing source.
Beads of sweat sprouted on T.J.’s brow. Not only had he stayed out too late, he had strayed too far onto the grounds of the battlefield. Now the air was filled with the spirits of the Dead.
Swallowing back his fear, T.J. tried to run. He could only manage a limp. Eyes fixed straight ahead, he fought to ignore the reports of musket fire, cannon booms, and the wails of men as they lay bleeding on the unforgiving earth.
Between the trees, he could make out a dark lump that sat against a hill. Scrambling over the property fence, he tripped down the bank, splashing through the creek before finally stumbling through the door of his shack.
Heart racing, T.J. peered through one of the larger chinks in the wall. The field was blanketed in white, ghostly specters of Civil War soldiers moving seamlessly.
The only release for his anxiety was the knowledge that the spirits of the Dead had never crossed the property line.
Ducking and weaving, the fiery globe that was the essence of Victor Stonefield made its way to Elkhorn Tavern. Occasionally, it swooshed through the forms of other soldiers, and for a brief moment, the orb forgot it was Victor and instead saw into the hearts and minds of other men. He mostly registered adrenaline. A few repeated simple prayers. Others were blank.
Once past the Union ranks, Victor lengthened into his full ethereal form, his musket held tight in his grip. Turning, he fired a blind shot before vanishing behind a tree.
A new thought sprung into his mind.
What am I doing?
He was trying to find a way out. Why was he firing? He didn’t have time for that.
Without bothering to reload, Victor pushed further into the treeline. He was glad to see other Confederates of the 2nd Missouri.
They paid him little attention. Their focus was solely on reliving this same battle.
Finally, a fence came into view, dimly illuminated by the pale moonlight. The mist curled into a thick blanket against the wooden beams, like dust bunnies in the corner.
Running, Victor dropped his musket, gripped the split rail fence and vaulted it.
A strange rush flooded him.
He looked over his shoulder. Was he free? Did he actually escape from Pea Ridge?
A twittering bird caught his ear. If the birds were already waking, there was not much time left. The sun would be up in a matter of hours and Victor had no way of knowing if he would dissolve like he normally did.
A shelter. That’s what he needed.
Following the gurgling waters of Big Sugar Creek, Victor marched. Dead or alive, he was good at marching.
Sleeping fitfully, T.J. was plagued by his usual nightmares. His own screams woke him.
Sitting up bolt upright, he kicked off his sleeping bag.
The air in his squatter’s shack was ice cold. At the foot of his makeshift bed stood a young man. His body was translucent, yet solid enough to make out his grey Civil War uniform, a floppy cap, and a bullet hole through his neck. But it was his eyes that held the source of the chill. Looking down at him, the dead soldier’s gaze chilled T.J. to his very core. A fiery orange hatred filled the ghost’s eye sockets. T.J. knew that in this ghost’s eyes, he wasn’t even considered human, simply because of his skin color.
With a disgusted snarl, the ghost swept towards T.J.’s face, his hands outstretched. Icicles pierced T.J.’s cheeks and eyes, slipping into his nostrils and choking his throat.
Flashes of the dead Confederate’s life filled T.J.’s mind.
Son. Brother. Uncle.
Victor’s nephews and nieces laughing at his silly faces. Taverns filled with booze and artfully crafted speeches as his brothers, friends, and neighbors argued with one another. His mother holding him tight, crying before he left to join the war.
Marching. Hardtack. Musket loading. More marching.
A bullet in the neck.
And then emptiness.
T.J. understood this soldier’s emptiness. In response, he ceased struggling against the icy hot pain in his skull.
Tavon Jackson, or T.J. blossomed inside his mind.
He saw a boy, raised by a single mother. A boy who was bullied for being small, but grew into a running back on his high school football team. Now he was tall and lean. He had friends of all colors, shapes, and sizes.
Not everyone liked that.
Victor witnessed T.J. being thrown out of the house of a white man holding a shotgun. Behind the man, a white girl in a satin dress was crying, begging him to stop. T.J. dusted off his tuxedo and slowly backed away, his hands in the air.
The scene changed, and T.J.’s hand was raised as he swore to defend the United States of America.
Another shudder ran through Victor’s body.
How was this allowed? How was this man worthy of mingling with whites, much less holding a weapon?
Suddenly, the scenes came in a blurr.
Training. Marching. Push ups. Drills. A familiar cadence hummed beneath it all – words that Victor himself still chanted.
Ceremony. More training. Friends.
T.J. and his fellow soldiers in the desert.
Operation Desert Storm.
An explosion. Even louder than the cannons.
Blood. Limbs. Shrapnel.
T.J.’s hands covered in the red life of his closest friends.
Then he was home. Like nothing happened.
Lost job. Lost house.
Utter and complete loss.
Then a screen. On the screen planes collide with towers.
Startled, Victor released his grip on the Living.
With an exhausted breath, Tavon Jackson shakily reached up and touched his face. “You
know. You know the cost.” T.J. pointed to Victor’s neck. “The cost of war is not simply blood. It’s memory too. Do you remember your family? Your brothers who died by your side?”
It was a question Victor could not answer. Even the snatches he’d shared with T.J. were starting to fade.
Crossing his legs, T.J. looked up at him. Early morning sunlight was beginning to peek through the cracks in the walls. The man’s dark skin glistened.
“I don’t know if you understand the modern world and how wars are fought now, but I know you understand loss. I can’t take anymore losses. That’s why I’m here, trying to survive the nightmares. To turn over a new leaf and put my life back together.
“So please, I know you don’t like me, just because I’m black, but please let me be. Let me be free.”
That was a concept Victor knew all too well.
And for the first time, he realized it was a concept that he – a white man – and a black man could both comprehend.
Pale yellow beams danced across Victor’s ethereal legs. Typically, he would feel a burning sensation.
Today was different. With the light of dawn, he was different. A changed man.
Instead of a stinging burn, he felt the cold melting, even as his form began to waver and fade.
Gazing back at the Living, Victor Stonefield raised his arm in salute.
As an author, Alexandra Rexford enjoys writing stories with wit and romance, including a dash of danger. In a perfect world, she would spend all her time writing, reading, sipping hot cocoa, and snuggling with her dogs.
Featured Image by Mark Holloway.