The subject known as X was a healthy fit and tone young man of about twenty years of age. X first came to see me a week ago. He was agitated and under extreme duress. Refusing a mild sedative, he demanded he be given a complete check up, including some procedures not normally associated with a routine physical examination. When he returned to my office yesterday I had the results of those tests.
And X had a most unusual tale to tell.
“It’s good to see you again. Please, sit down.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“How are you feeling? You seem more relaxed today.”
His gaze passed through me. It was his one striking feature: his eyes, black and dull. Even as I think about them now I am filled with an unexplained dread. Hollow and empty, his eyes were those of a corpse.
“Yes, Doctor… better, calmer… for now. The tests… do you have the results of the tests?”
“I do. As I suspected and told you, they show nothing out of the ordinary. There is nothing physically wrong with you.”
He looked up at me sheepishly, as if afraid to ask. “Tell me, Doctor, please.”
“Very well, your vitals are fine. Heart rate, pulse, blood pressure and respiration… all fine. Blood work came back negative, as did toxins and other samples. The only thing which stands out is that your vitals and counts are slightly elevated; stronger than normal. This is certainly no cause for alarm.”
His voice turned anxious. “Go on…”
“Your reflexes and motor skills scored better than average; eye sight is remarkable. And I have never seen muscle tissue or bone as dense as yours.”
“And the rest…?” With the question X once again became agitated. I was struck with the feeling he knew the results before I gave them.
“Well, brain activity and function did test elevated, but normal. You can rest assured you are strong; healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if you lived to be one hundred and twenty!”
With that X began to fidget nervously. My words, which certainly should have assuaged any fears, seemed rather to trouble him. He looked at me intently, those dark eyes studying, piercing. Finally X reached into his pocket, withdrew a photograph, and presented it to me. It was the picture of a man with graying hair and other signs of aging.
“How old would you say he is?” X asked.
“Oh, perhaps forty five, I guess.” It was then I realized the figure in the picture possessed the same chilling, dark, dead eyes. “Is this your father?”
X tensed in his seat. His mouth pursed, and then slightly curled in what I can only describe as a failed attempt to smile. “No… no, Doctor. That is not my father. The man in the picture is me.”
While his words were delusional, X’s posture remained alert, attentive. “You do realize the person in this picture, while bearing a striking resemblance to you, is easily twice your age.”
This time the smile broke through the stoic demeanor. It was a half crooked I’ve got a secret sort of smile which sent chills throughout my body. Combined with those hollow, dead eyes it was a look I shall never forget.
“But it is me, Doctor,” he began calmly, with an icy detachment of fact. “This is what I look like when I… if I…”
We sat for an indeterminable, uncomfortable time studying each other. Finally X seemed to make up his mind. “It’s the curse you know… the curse...”
“Perhaps you should tell me about this curse.”
He arose slowly, his hands finding the bottom of his trouser pockets, and wandered over to the window.
And so began X’s strange tale.
“War,” he said at last, “war is the curse, Doctor. War… killing… from the moment Cain killed his brother man has been marked. Marked with the blood of Abel, and cursed with the thirst to make war; to kill his fellow man. It’s as normal as breathing. There will always be wars, Doctor. And there will always be young men to fight them.”
Those empty, hollow eyes glazed over, turning inward… seeing… remembering.
“I was a sergeant in the cavalry,” he continued. “We’d been engaging the enemy all day long, pointless hit and run skirmishes that slaughter men and gain nothing. Ironically, it was the day of my birthday. By late afternoon everyone was exhausted, the fighting scattered over quarter mile of rough ground. A shell landed nearby knocking me unconscious. When I came to it was dark. I was alone, the battle had moved on.
“Slowly, cautiously I began to make my way through the unfamiliar terrain. After a time, I became aware of something in the woods. It seemed to be following me, marking my progress, moving as I did.
“Suddenly, there was a flash of blue steel in the moonlight. Leveling my pistol, I fired twice. A figure staggered from the brush and collapsed.
“I approached my victim. To my horror he was just a boy, maybe twenty years old. And he was unarmed. Clutched in his fingers was a crucifix. It was the shiny metal cross that I had mistaken for a weapon.
“I knelt beside the lad, struck by my detestable deed. Then, without warning, his eyes flew open wide! Clutching at my shirt, his mouth contorted into a soul searing scream. He thrust the damnable silver cross into my hands.
Beads of perspiration dotted X’s forehead. He trembled and began to pace.
“… then an incredible expression, one of total and unimaginable peace settled over him. He died quietly in my arms.
“It was then and there I knew I was cursed; that I would never again find peace.”
It became obvious to me that X was suffering from some sort of severe post traumatic stress. The cause of his stress seemed obvious. “It is not unusual,” I suggested, “for a young man as you to have lingering feelings of guilt about tragic events in their lives.”
X turned suddenly, his face now ablaze with the most insipid grin. He laughed aloud. “Young man… young man, indeed! But you don’t understand, Doctor. I wasn’t a young man. I was thirty five years old! And the year was sixty-three… eighteen sixty-three! I was a sergeant in Jeb Stewart’s 16th Texas Cavalry. It was the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, what became known as our own Civil War!”
He laughed again, the terrifying baying of a mad man. And yet, throughout his discourse, it became evident that he believed what he was saying.
“You said it yourself, Doctor. You said you wouldn’t be surprised if I lived to be one hundred and twenty! If only that were true! If only that was where it ended…
“But no… not at all…
“After the war I returned home. Things settled into a comfortable routine. The war was all but forgotten. Then, on my sixtieth birthday it began to happen. The changes were slow, subtle, and nearly imperceptible. It was my wife who was the first to notice. But within ten years it was frighteningly obvious – I was aging, but aging backwards… growing younger! My grey hair gave way to its natural dark color and was growing again where it had ceased. My skin seemed to shrink, smoothing itself over my body, erasing the traces of time. Old scars healed and disappeared. Even my eyes grew stronger; I put aside my glasses. And I began to feel as I did in my twenties: strong, healthy and alive again. And young! My God, I was… I was young again… a young man of twenty!”
This time his laugh was sardonic; bitter.
“Providence has its price, Doctor.
“On the day of my seventieth birthday I awoke to find myself once again in uniform. I was a new man, a different man, but with a familiar role to play in life’s capricious game. All that remained of my former life was this…”
Reaching into his shirt, X tore a metal crucifix and chain from around his neck, flinging it to the floor.
“…this cursed cross. Before I could comprehend what was happening I was charging up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. I was twenty again, Doctor, yes. But I was twenty and once again fighting a war; forced to slay my fellow man!
“Returning to the states, I tried to make some sense of this maleficent manifestation. I had a new identity, a new beginning, a fresh start at life. At first I thought myself blessed.
“How wrong can one man be? How very, very wrong… not blessed at all but cursed…
“About the time of what would have been my eighty-fifth year, although I carried the looks and constitution of a man but thirty-five, I began to regress again, to age backwards. This time the process progressed with amazing rapidity. Changes seemed to take place over night. In three short years I was back to being a young man of twenty again! This time on my birthday I awoke huddled in a mud and blood soaked trench near Verdun, France. It was the war to end all wars. Only it didn’t… and certainly not for me.”
X returned to his seat. A tormented look of determination and that of a man desperately baring his soul shadowed his grim face.
“Life became a nightmarish roller coaster ride. I would live and age as anyone for a time. Then, one morning, there’d be one less grey hair, one less wrinkle staring back at me from the mirror. And I’d know it would be just a matter of time.
“It was my one hundred and thirteenth year on earth. I was forty five again but looked not a day over twenty-one. I awoke, transported in space and time once more, an Ensign aboard the U.S.S. California at Pearl Harbor. That morning the Japanese attacked.
“I tried abandoning my conspicuous companion, dropping the insidious icon into the ocean; burning it; even burying the regenerating relic in a graveyard by moonlight. But to no avail…
“… I became a twenty-two year old lieutenant at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Next, I awoke in a rice paddy, a nineteen year old corporal caught up in the Tet offensive.
“For a time it seemed I had finally beaten the curse. Ten years slipped by… fifteen… I was aging normally again. But it didn’t last. Soon, I began to once more regress. I found myself manning the gun turret of a deadly desert tank. And then, incredibly, not long after, I was back fighting in another desert war. Each time I awoke to kill, the bewitched crucifix hung about my neck like an albatross.”
He slumped into his chair, exhausted from his startling confession. Burying his head in his hands, X began to softly weep. It was my duty to help this poor tortured being climb from the depths of his delusional mind. I touched his shoulder.
“Well,” I encouraged, “whatever it is that is troubling you, I am sure we can get to the bottom of it.”
“No!” X screamed, knocking aside my hand. Looking up, his countenance became that of a man possessed. “No! You don’t understand!” He snatched up the photograph he’d shown me. “This picture… it is me! This is how I was not very long ago. But look at me, Doctor… you said I appear to be around twenty!
“And tomorrow… tomorrow, Doctor… is my birthday!”
By now X was raving, near violent. With some assistance I was able to administer a strong sedative. I placed him in the quite ward of the hospital, taking precautions to secure him to his bed. The enigmatic crucifix, which appeared to be ancient and perhaps gothic, I locked in my safe. When I left, X was sleeping peacefully.
Arriving at the hospital this morning, I discovered X was gone. As we searched the grounds the announcement came that war had once again broken out. Further investigation revealed that the crucifix, too, had mysteriously vanished.
BJ Neblett is the author of Elysian Dreams, a romantic fantasy adventure. His newest work Ice Cream Camelot, an historical memoir about his growing up during the Kennedy administration, was released as an e book to very positive reviews. It will be available in paperback shortly. BJ hosts two blog sites: www.hereforaseason.blogspot.com for poetry, and www.bjneblett.blogspot.com for his short stories. BJ was asked to write a short memory for the Kennedy Library, and his poem Black Wall is being considered for inclusion at the Vietnam War Center. BJ’s writings have been compared to that of Haruki Murakami and Isaac Asimov.