5 Chapter 15 The End and the Beginning
The grass beneath their feet had a deep, emerald bright green that seemed almost unnatural, just like the trees that showed their brightest colors, dotted around the border of the cemetery. It was natural beauty at its finest. Birds chirped somewhere in the distance giving the entire graveyard a sense of peace and tranquility, one that was almost unnatural due to the turbulent state of the world. The graves were arranged in neat rows of ten, five rows filled, the sixth row now almost completely filled as well with two dug graves with attendant caskets, and six headstones
What struck Cameron the most was the headstones. Each was a heavy solid single block of stone. The name and dates were all engraved with hammer and chisel by hand. The letters were poorly formed but in spite of it or perhaps because of it, the words on every stone were carved with the best intentions that only comes with true friendship, and camaraderie in a world where a look, smile, and gesture made friends and built relationships. Mixed wild flowers decorated many of the graves as did personal touches. One headstone in the second row was wrapped in a leather jacket. Another had a foreign flag and what looked like military service medals. All the graves had been personalized.
Cameron blinked and caught a fragment of Peter's words, "...for the smiles and happiness that they brought in to the world with them, that enriched both this place, their home and ours and also our lives." He glanced at his watch… that had been a fast hour. The armband felt too tight for him, cutting off circulation as he turned his attention to it, he felt it, the breeze, and the hint of a fragrance, a scent. Cameron blinked as the light around him intensified for just a second and stared at a woman. She was close enough to touch, to see the twinkle of mischief in her eyes. Her shoulder length hair twirled and danced in a nonexistent breeze. He shook his head. It couldn't be real. She was buried half a world away; it had been more than a few years since her funeral. She could not be here.
Cameron took a step back, adrenalin coursing through his bloodstream as his body, and his brain suggested that he run. He took another step back and the phantom before him seemingly took a step forward towards him. Now his brain screamed at his body to run, which he did, not caring where he was going as he ran in fear, passing through the cemetery gates as he took a random left, followed by a right turn down an alley between two buildings as he took another right. He kept running, not looking back as his lungs threatened to explode in his chest, sweat soaking him as he felt the apparition close upon him without any effort. Heart pounding he collapsed against the Fortress. He had no idea how he'd made it here, but he didn't care. The vehicle seemed to radiate a quiet menace, but he didn't care as he threw himself aboard, not bothering to close the door as he collapsed in to his bunk, scrambling along the shelf until he found the small wooden black box that he emptied out, scrambling amongst the photos, letters, and ticket stubs until he found the hotel mini bar sized bottle that he snapped open and drained in a single gulp as he reached for the second one and did the same.
At room temperature, the Vodka burned his tongue, and set his throat and empty stomach aflame, but he didn't care, as the spirits had helped keep the haunting spirit at bay. The apparition glided through the armored side of the fortress to settle on the bunk next to him. Cameron did the only thing he could do frozen by her presence, staring at the woman who gave him a smile of sadness, "What do you want?" he asked.
It waved its hand, and the scattered items, and mementos of a broken heart danced back in to the small box with a wave of her hand. The same hand then tapped the pocket of his vest. He shook his head, "I can't do that." he snapped. The apparition gave him the same sad smile as she shook her head. A gentle breath of wind pushed her right through or maybe in to him. She radiated heat, a warm that suffused him straight to the core, his own heartbeat was loud, pounding in his ears as a voice with the same melodic lit he remembered and recognized whispered "Let me go so that we can both be free, and happy with what we shared even if eternity is not ours to share."
He blinked, and suddenly found himself standing alongside his comrades as Peter words reached him, "and so we lay our comrades to rest in peace, where they can be remembered for the happiness they brought in to our lives, and honored for their sacrifice. We lay them to rest upon what is hallowed ground," and with that the service was over, but Cameron stayed rooted to the spot as he blinked and shook his head. Had all of that been nothing but a bizarre day dream? He turned, and stopped as something clinked against his foot. He looked down and his eyes widened, as he bent and picked up the small glass Smirnoff bottle.
"What the hell?" he hissed. Fortunately, nobody heard him, or seemed to think much of his behavior as he straightened up in time to catch watch the sunset over the graves, as Jaira called to him. He turned and picked up his pace, catching up to the rest as they made their way following the crowd towards the Redding Inn, where dinner was a fairly lavish affair as the Spartans relaxed and indulged, rediscovering foods that they had almost forgotten the taste and texture of such as freshly made bread. Cameron kept turning the small bottle over and over in his pocket, as he looked around the crowded room as his crew mingled and got to know the locals. He slipped away from the gathering towards the fortress but not unnoticed.
He climbed aboard, and was pulled the door shut, plunging the interior of the Fortress in to absolute darkness. When the lights were snapped on suddenly, he went blind and stumbled, spinning with the grace of a one legged ballerina, but managed to land on the sofa. His eyes adjusted and he found Jaira grinning at him, "I'm glad you don't fight zombies or raiders like that."
He glared at her and she laughed at him for a moment before sobering up, "You still prefer your own company to anyone else don't you?"
"Yeah," he replied as he pulled a bottle and a glass from the cupboard, pouring a generous measure of whiskey. He sloshed the contents of the bottle and Jaira nodded. He slid the first glass across the table to her and hesitated before taking a pull from the bottle itself… no sense in washing another glass.
"Going to that ceremony was hard for you wasn't it?" she searched her pockets and found the squashed packet of cigarettes and lighter. She fished one out and lit it, taking a long slow drag on it, she exhaled and threw the pack and lighter towards him.
"So what if it was?" he said, testily as he took a sip before lighting a cigarette, "Funerals, memorials, people crying and mourning, trying to but not sure how to say good bye," he said bitterly. He tapped his cigarette in to the ashtray and they said nothing for several long minutes. Jaira reached across the table for the pack and lit her second smoke of the evening. Finally, the silence was too much for him as distaste marred his features, "How old are these?!"
"From the roof top of a parking garage," she said, "So you want to talk about it?"
He shook his head, "Do I have to?"
"That depends on you. Not showered yet?" she knew him, and it was one of the few indulgences that he had. The fortress did have a water heater build in, but they didn't have the water storage for long showers, the kind that Cameron loved. She knew that he had taken the room at the end of the corridor on the fifth floor of the hotel for himself. She stubbed out her second cigarette and rose, "I'll stop by later," she said with a smile that would have melted other men with its delicious promise. Standing, he stubbed out his own half smoked cigarette and emptied the ashtray on to the ground outside. He secured the door behind him, taking a walk to try and sort out the junkyard in his mind.
It was the middle of the night by the time Cameron was finished with his walk, and figured it was late enough to avoid any entanglements. He climbed the last flight of stairs, preferring them to the elevator, he paused in the corridor, the dim lighting enough to outline the hallway but hide the intricate patterns upon the carpet as he slid they key in the lock. The door swung open without a squeak as he stripped off his clothes and wandered in to the bathroom, turning up the water as hot and high as possible, clouds of steam billowing around him as he let the water hammer his face.
The door to his room clicked, someone trying to close it without making any noise and failing. The Beretta was in his hand and he was half out of the shower when she stepped in to view, "I've been looking for you," she said, throwing her towel across the sink as she reached up and kissed him, pushing him and then joining him under the shower. He stiffened in more ways than one, holding out against her first, second and third kisses before giving in to the urge and desire he'd kept bottled up for months, since their one encounter months ago. Under the driving beat of the water, the steam and mist and raw heat, she came to a shattering climax, twice before he could withstand no more, her final climax and his own burning out of control, leaving them out of breath, curled up against each other on the floor of the narrow shower room. His eyes were closed as he seemed to relax, and for the first time she saw the lines upon his face, lines that marked responsibility, weariness, and pain, all gone leaving a look of childish innocence and peace. She just knew that as a little boy, he would have been adorable.
Her wandering figures brushed across it and doubled back, and he tensed as she traced the first of them, from the top of his left shoulder blade diagonally down across to the right. The second intersected and followed the curve of his spine, intersecting with several more, all across his back. Her fingers followed them with a morbid curiosity he felt. She opened her mouth to speak but he was out of the shower and shrugging on a bathrobe.
"Did you just teleport in to that?" she asked. He cursed quietly as he opened the bathroom door a crack, struggling to get a bathrobe on at the same time the narrow crack sucked out the steam and suddenly, she could see the full extent of the carnage: His back was a spider web of scars, her sharp breath didn't surprise him, and told her why he always kept a shirt on. The scars crisscrossed, some like jagged lightning, others almost a centimeter wide. Interspaced between the lines were deep punctures and pock marks like furrows
Her question was on the tip of her tongue and he answered it, "In Portland I told you I was damaged goods," he half turned towards her, and in the light she saw the scars that decorated his chest and it was all she could do to nod, "A lifetime or two ago, I was with somebody I loved, I cared about. I don't remember much but I do remember a sidewalk," it took him a minute to push the words out, "Police reports say it was a bus that swerved to avoid some idiot who'd wandered in to the street. The driver lost control," she opened her mouth and he nodded, briskly, cutting off the obvious question, "We had about three seconds to react but spend two and half staring."
His voice shook, "Eye witnesses claimed that I turned myself in to a human shield as the bus broadsided both of. Sent me spinning through some shop window, glass like knives, flying everywhere, tore my back up," he shrugged, "as you saw. Life is not without a sense of irony."
She looked confused by his last remark, "Somehow, we got turned around, and she landed first, I landed on top of her, and the wooden spar from something, a table maybe, punched through her heart, and shredded my lung." he pointed to the scars on his chest, wiping away a tear as his heart tightened in his chest, "They said that she passed on quickly, never even felt it," he turned away suddenly all business, as he got dressed, "Now you know."
He managed one step before her arms locked around his waist, "Ever consider that she would have wanted you to move on with life?" he spluttered trying to break her grip, but she only tightened it as her head rested comfortably, just between his shoulder blades, her damp hair clinging to his skin, sending a shiver down his spine. He twisted and she let go as he pulled his clothes and gathered his trademark vest and quartet of guns. He bolted leaving her soaked and naked, "She would want you to move on farther than this Cameron," Jaira called after his retreating figure, "She'd want you to be happy with someone else!"
He ignored her, because she was right as he took the steps two or three at a time, thoughts racing at a million miles a minute, "Why her? What could she possibly want? Why her after so long? Why him? Why did she care so damned much?" The thoughts continued to stream, an unstoppable flow of consciousness that he could do nothing to stop, "My past, my ghosts, my nightmares and she wants to know it all, wants to be there, understand and help me cope. I don't understand why. How am I supposed to understand? I need to think." He reached in to the inside pocket of his vest and removed the picture, that was folded and creased, worm and turning yellow at the edges, taped together along the fold lines.
The picture was of him and a woman whose every feature he had known and never forgotten. In the picture, she had her hair down, a rarity in its own right. Her blond brown hair framed her face, resting her hand on the side of her forehead. Her eyes were the same beautiful color that they had always been, wearing the engagement ring on her left hand, the diamond sparkling gently in the low light of their living room that night. In the picture Cameron was on the right, hair cut razor short, his arm around her waist, holding her with a promise to never let go. He leaned against the wall and smacked it against the metal wall, wondering what he should do, whether he could do it. He rubbed his head and unlatched the door, sliding back in to the Fortress.
In the proceeding days, Cameron and Peter had finally had a sit down in the canteen, discussing what both of them needed. For Cameron, it was more the needs of the Fortress and his team: A place to call home whenever they stopped by for rest, fuel, maintenance and if necessary, repairs. Life had continued in the small city had continued even after the dead had risen as construction continued all around them, the chatter of voices and laughter of the other members of the Fortress's crew.
The Fortress was moved during the following days as Redding's mechanics went over the engine with a fine tooth comb, Robert working alongside them in a friendly exchange of knowledge and skills. The others mingled, helping out where they could, relaxing and just enjoying the simple life in comparison to that of the open road. However, Cameron had kept his distance from Jaira, while the reverse seemed to hold true for Jaira. Fortunately, he had found a place within where no one could find him, buried in the back of one of the empty conference rooms in a back corner, shrouded in shadow with a bottle of single malt whiskey and a carton of cigarettes.
The bottle was still full apart from the single measure he'd poured out for himself. So far, he'd stared at it, held it, swirled the glass till the ice cubes dissolved, thought about things, and then put it down to continue thinking about things as he had rested his head on his arms and stared at the amber fluid. Peter found him by following the trail of footprints on the dusty floor. He lowered his weapon, and twisted the flashlight, turning it in to a high powered lamp that lit up the darkened interior. Light shined across tables and chairs that had been setup for a banquet, with the cutlery and silverware already set with the candles sitting in the holders. The conference room, in fact the entire fourth floor of the hotel had been forgotten. He holstered his weapon, taking a chair on the opposite side of a table, "When a man doesn't drink, there is generally no problem. When a man drinks, there is usually a problem, if not several. But when a man stands on the edge of his glass, his problem is not whether he should drink but what can he do besides drink to solve problem?"
Cameron looked up, using one hand to shield his eyes from the flare like brightness, "Peter," he nodded to the chair opposite him, "What can I do for you?"
"Just to part friendly advice" Cameron hoisted the glass and started swirled the now diluted whiskey around, "First of all, you're not a regular drinker which means that you'll get drunk and then all hell will break loose." Cameron actually took a sip of the fluid, feeling it burn the back of his throat, "Second of all, Jaira told me," Cameron's glass crashed to the table, spilling the liquid over his hand, lending the stale air the refreshing scent of alcohol, "enough for me to give you advise that you don't want."
"If it's advice I don't want, why are you so eager to give it?"
"Because somebody should tell you what you don't want to hear. Then maybe you'll do something instead of sit and drink in the dark!"
"What do you know about love?" shot back Cameron as he drained the rest of the glass, smacking his lips as he refilled it.
"I was in love... not that long ago. She knew it, just as well as I did, but neither of us had the courage to say, or do anything about what we felt for each other. Then one day, she was gone. I lost something that could have made me the happiest man alive."
"She's dead. So are a lot of people. Get with the program!" retorted Cameron.
"I had to sit there, opposite her, while she sat with her hands bound," snarled Peter, "and wait. The last thing we shared was a smile, before we exchanged our only kiss. Ever. Then she said good bye."
"You got that much!" broke in Cameron, "I lost my fiancée, and woke up almost two weeks after the fact, to find that she had been buried. I never got to say good bye, have that one kiss, and run my fingers through her hair! I got nothing but a stone slab to stare at!"
"No you didn't you idiot! What you didn't get was to pull the trigger on the woman you love because she got bitten!" snapped Peter, "I pulled the trigger! Me!" That shut Cameron up, "Your ghosts are your ghosts, but at least you've had time to accept it, to mourn, even if you couldn't let go. Look to the future! You've got someone close by who wants you for who you are. And no matter what you say or do to hide it, she knows it, and I can see it: You want her as much; if not more than she wants you!" Cameron lifted his refilled glass.
Peter snatched it from him and drained in a long swallow, "I never knew the woman you loved, but I know you love her like no other, but just think about this for a minute: If she loved you half as much as you did, as you still do... Would she want you to be happy? I don't have to meet her to know the answer to that question!" His voice dropped, taking a more reasonable tone, "Accept that she would want you happy and not the miserable mopping bastard you are, when you're not an arrogant cold distant bastard! She would want you to be happy and to get on with life, even if it was with someone else. Say good bye to her, take Jaira in your arms and move forward!" If looks could kill Peter would have turned to stone. Peter shook his head and left the lamp in the darkness for Cameron.
Later that same night, with the stars twinkling, he emerged from the Fortress. He held a shovel in one hand with a backpack slung over his shoulder with one destination in mind. IT had taken him hours to make this decision, and as he stared at the lines of neat graves, as he searched the tree line around the cemetery for those who had fallen.
Knowing he was alone in the dark of night was strangely comforting. The moon came out from behind a bank of dense clouds that promised rain as he dug the small grave at the fork in the roots of one of the trees. Doubt filled him but he quashed it firmly, like one would stamp out a bug as he lifted the black box from his backpack and placed it reverently in the grave, followed by the picture from his vest pocket, the last reminder that he had of another life. He placed it carefully in to the small grave and kneeled.
He looked up at the stars and then around him, suddenly wondering if someone was watching him. He shook his head and resisted the urge to dig everything up. He'd spent long hours convincing himself that he was doing the right thing, and he wasn't about to start second guessing as he leaned against the tree, "I know that this seems strange, perhaps even outright crazy but I could never bring myself to visit your grave when I had the opportunity. And I can't just "talk" to thin air," he took a breath, "I... I didn't know what love meant, what love was, or what it meant to be in love until you came in to my life.... I didn't know anything about a lot of things." Strangely enough there was so much more he wanted to say and it just tumbled out of him, like unlocked floodgates, "I've carried the past for too long. My life is here, and everyone has been right, over the years, that I need to get on with it, live it. I won't, can't forget you. I will always love you, and treasure what we shared."
He stood, brushing off his pants, and for the first time, he felt the weight he carried lighten. He had his responsibilities as they had been for months now, but at least, she was at peace, and he was at peace. He drew the machete from its sheath, taking time to carve his initials and hers in to the base of the tree before carving a heart around them, "You hold my heart as much as you ever did. If you're watching from heaven, think of me from time to time... I know I will."
Cameron's feet seemed to know where to take him, as he found himself returned to the fifth floor of the hotel, standing in front of an occupied room. He hesitated and finally knocked, and then knocked a second time. He wasn't sure if he felt disappointment or relief first as he turned away, when the door opened Jaira stared at him for a moment, unable to believe just who was standing in her doorway, "Cameron?"
She stood there dressed in loose fitting but eminently more comfortable pajamas, "Its four thirty in the morning. Is everything alright?"
She stood there, and for the first time, in a very long time, he smiled, a warm genuine smile that actually reached his eyes, sparkling with light, "Are you alright?"
She looked nothing like the woman he'd loved and lost, she was someone different but radiant, like the calm after a morning spring rain. Cameron's brain checked in with him and he took a hesitant half step towards her, "Everything's fine," he pulled her close "now," he whispered.
Her arms wrapped around his waist, looking up in to his eyes, "I suppose…" she asked "How long you planning on staying?"
"For as long as you'll have me" he whispered, "Just... stay with me." He held her tight and promised that he would be damned if he ever let her go.
"Always," She whispered.
In that moment, everything was right with the world.