The Cost of Living
rating: +21+x

19 February 1945 | Iwo Jima

I did not know fear until this day.

Blood from when Davis’ body had exploded was splattered all over me. The sand and ash soaked up the rest as I crawled forward. The smoke and smell of death barely registered to me at this point. I stopped thinking. Worries for my safety, thoughts for my family, and prayers for my God were all kept at bay by the whine of bullets zipping all around me.

“The Twenty-Seventh has seen better days, Gunny,” spat out a brown-haired boy to my left. He could not be older than nineteen, and yet here he was, at the front lines of some of the deadliest combat America had experienced in this war.

“Focus on the mission. We can still turn this around,” I said in a bitter tone. My eyes burned from the smoke, but I held them open anyway.

“Davis said the same thing a few minutes ago.”

“Shut the fuck up and crawl, Andrews.”

“Aye, Gunny.”

We stopped just beneath the lip at the top of the slope. The black ash made it bitterly tough to march up and standing upright was too dangerous. Three spare magazines for my M1 were nestled against my chest. I pointed my weapon up over the lip, waiting for the enemy to show itself. Instead, another series of mortar rounds flew overhead.

I turned to watch them land. A few more comrades vanished into bursts of smoke and sand. One body flew up into the air before raining down in pieces. The whole beach was littered with craters, and every crater had the remains of at least one Marine in them. The beach foam was pink with the hopes and dreams of those that had fallen in battle.

My eyes snapped over to the bottom of the slope. Our thirty strong squad had been reduced to six, and then augmented with the fragments of other squads. Those other Marines were preparing mortars of their own for a counterattack. I called out to them.

“I need the top of this slope battered before we can take it, Samuel!”

“I can’t see how far they need to go!” Samuel yelled back, his eyes wide with shock.

“70 yards out, 20 yards up!” I shouted down.

“Aye, Gunny!”

I turned back to face toward the top of the slope. It was just me and seven other Marines there. Other squads were making their way up the slope on other stretches of the beach. As we waited for our own mortars to be fired, a stream of machine gun fire farther down to our left caught my attention. I watched as another squad that had rushed the top of the slope was annihilated by streams of bullets from a nearby hill.

“I can see reinforcements out in the sea, Gunny,” Andrews said absently.

“They’ll be slaughtered like we were if we don’t drive the Japanese back. Get ready.”

Us eight Marines, myself and Andrews included, dug in our boots into the ash. We waited as seconds dribbled by. Another round of enemy mortars slammed into the beach behind us. Screaming tore at our backs, but I did not react. I merely laid there in silence, not thinking and barely breathing. Then, Samuel’s voice rang out loud and clear.

“Cover!”

Hands went over our ears. The explosive concussion shook us as our own mortars flew past. Then again, another concussion made the Earth tremble as they detonated beyond our sight. I lifted my head up and screamed.

“Forward!”

All of us surged over the lip with our M1’s raised. There were only a few enemies alive within sight, and they were all wounded. Some were missing limbs while others were trying to pull shrapnel out of their bodies. We fired upon all of them. My own bullets took the life of a young man lying in a crater, his left shoulder blown apart. The image of the malice in his eyes was etched into my soul as I shot him.

Streams of machine gun fire flew out from out of cave entrances in hills that dotted the island ahead of us. The other Marines threw themselves into craters, but I was a second too late. Three bullets slammed into my torso, and I collapsed into the crater ahead of me. My body felt heavy as it laid atop the enemy combatant that I had just slain.

“Gunny, get up! They’re coming at us!” Andrews yelled. I groaned, feeling the pain ebb away until I could move again.

“Hold this position no matter what!” I hacked out.

“Aye, Gunny!” shouted back every Marine as the enemy sprinted up to our craters. We all fired our M1’s at them as they fired back down at us. I felt nothing as more bullets passed through me. Within moments, this squad of enemy soldiers lay defeated all around us.

I heard the crunch of footsteps behind me and turned to behold Samuel and the other Marines making it to the top of the slope. I crouched against the side of my crater and beckoned them over. “They have metal doors on their caves. We’ll need the flamethrower tanks. We must maintain our hold here and wait for reinforcements to make roads up and off the beach!”

Samuel and the others took up positions in craters without acknowledging me. I stood in confusion, unable to feel anything. Then I looked down at my own crater, where Andrews was cradling my corpse. My body’s torso and face were littered with holes. Yet here I was, staring down at myself. As I struggled with this, my surroundings began to stretch and pull apart.

“Andrews? Samuel? What’s going on?”

No one said anything as they disappeared, Andrews’ somber expression being the last thing from that day that I remember. I reached for him, but he vanished before my eyes. There was only darkness for some time.

Then, a dirt road appeared before me.

—-

20 February 1945 | The Road

"Where are you?" I called out into the darkness. No one answered. There was nothing in this black void except for the dirt path that stretched onward. I looked over my shoulder and was greeted with more of the same.

Apprehension rooted me for what felt like hours before I finally set out. I thought it odd that most of my senses felt blunted. I felt neither cold nor warm, neither hungry nor thirsty. My M1 was missing, my pockets were empty, and my magazines had no bullets in them.

My confusion blossomed into terror when the first mirage formed. Smoke came out of the nothingness and shapes formed in that smoke until they were recognizable to me. This first scene was from my childhood. I saw myself from when I was barely ten. The boy stood beside my mother and a large congregation of people, all dressed in black.

"Why am I seeing this?" I asked shakily. On que, a long line of caskets was carried into view. My town had sent twelve men to fight in The Great War, and only two had returned alive. The remaining ten were laid to rest one at a time by soldiers and Marines. My mother wept openly, hugging my younger self.

That version of me had no reaction. He stared at the nearest closed casket, which read 'Duncan Lee Burwick: A Marine, A Husband, And A Father'. The casket was lowered into the ground and my mother wailed loudly. The boy's face was hardened steel, unflinching and unrevealing. The scene began to dissolve rapidly.

"Wait! Mother-" I reached for her, but she was gone. I swore that I had felt her hair in my fingers. My hand felt warm as I looked up to see more smoke appearing further down the road. I started to run, and my inability to feel myself breathing caught my attention. Yet, I swore that I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as I stood before the smoke again.

The second scene was my enlistment into the Marine Corps as a young man. My younger self saluted the flag and made his pledge. I watched myself promise to die for his country and never surrender. Anger burned intensely within my younger self's eyes. The sight of it made me feel like sobbing but no tears came.

"This isn't real. I'm not dead. This can't be it."

I continued running down the road, my gait erratic. My spirit trembled as I stood before the next scene: The day that I had met Mary. She had been the seamstress who made adjustments to my uniform. She had straight blonde hair and striking blue eyes. Her beauty that day had kicked the wind out of my chest, and it still affected me now.

"Private James Burwick. That's a common name. Do you have a nickname?" She asked in a voice that made me shudder.

"No," my younger self said sternly. The muscles in his face were tense. I had always been guarded toward others. "You may meet many men named James, but I am the greatest that you'll ever know."

"Is that so?" Mary leaned forward, resting her elbows on the ebony wood table between them. "What have you accomplished so far?"

"It isn't about what I've done, but what I will do," my younger self replied. "My legacy will shine too brightly for anyone to ignore."

I turned away violently. The truth made me recoil and a deep ache settled through me. Mary's voice chased after me as I sprinted down the road. I ignored it. I ran by a multitude of scenes that I did not want to watch. My first deployment. Mary and I's wedding. The birth of our only child, Joyce. My second deployment. Numerous promotion ceremonies. The other funerals that I had attended, too many to count. Too many friends who had died for no good reason.

And now here I was.

When I finally came to a stop, I was faced with that day. The second Great War had been raging for years, but the enemy had attacked us. America had finally joined the fray. I saw myself about three years younger than I am today. I stood at the front door of my home, hugging Mary tightly.

"I'll never stop waiting for you," she said softly.

My younger self said nothing. He broke the embrace and crouched to embrace Joyce. Her body was small, but she knew that he would not be coming home the next day. She cried and my younger self comforted her for several minutes. I felt bile welling up within me, but none came up as I stumbled away.

"No. I want to go back."

I turned around and saw that the road behind me had vanished. The emptiness had crept after me, erasing the path that I had previously walked upon. I walked to the edge and held my foot out. There was nothing. I leapt backward, the fear of falling forever and ever gripping me.

"I have to return and make things right! I won't let things end this way!"

My words were loud, but I did not believe them. Hopelessness chased me as I ran further down the road. The smoke followed me, showing me Andrews when we had first met in Hawaii. His uniform was pressed and clean, but it would not stay that way for long. He was grinning as my younger self stared him down.

"What're you smiling about, Private Andrews?"

"This is the first time that I've stepped foot outside of Oklahoma, Master Sergeant Burwick."

"I'm a Gunnery Sergeant. And stop being so happy. There's nothing to be happy about."

"Understood, Gunnery Sergeant B-" Andrews began before my younger self waved a hand in his face. He pulled back the aggressiveness in his tone, visibly relaxing as he spoke calmly.

"Just say 'Aye Gunny'. And you'll need to toughen up fast, Andrews. This war will not be easy, and I need you to keep your head on straight through it. Follow everything that I say, and you will be the best goddamn Marine in the Twenty-Seventh Regiment."

"Aye Gunny," Andrews said. He was still smiling warmly when I swept my arms through the smoke and dispersed it.

"No! This is all wrong! I shouldn't be here!" I screamed into the void. No one answered me. Several more scenes passed as I sprinted down the road, every single image of the past causing my heart to throb with pain. Time was a falsehood here, impossible to track. I believe that half an hour had passed by the time I had given up on running. It was only at the moment that I stood still that the final scene appeared beside me.

Smoke gave way to the innards of a ship. Four men sat around a table bolted to the bulkhead. Each one held cards and slapped them down, money passing across the table at the end of every game. My soul stirred as I watched Davis speak.

"There's no way that this island is going to give us trouble. The command is overreacting."

"The Japanese have been giving us the fight of our lives. It's warranted," Samuel said. His eyes were warm here, far from how they had looked the last time that I saw them.

"Even so, this is overkill. How many Marines does it take to capture a rock?" Davis said. He was Hispanic, his tan skin and accent making him stand out. As I stared at him from the dirt path, a strange feeling came over me. I thought that I could feel his blood and viscera sizzling in my hair and on my face again.

"Everyone wants the war to end. If we overwhelm them quickly, maybe we'll get to go home before next year," Samuel replied. He slapped down two cards and Davis scowled. Andrews yawned. Now more than ever, he looked like a high school student. The thought made my chest ache as he spoke up in a hopeful voice.

"That'd be nice. I want to be home before Christmas, finally."

"Aye," we all said. The smoke began to fade, and I stared at myself. I was only a few days younger at this point. I had been a dead man walking, his cheekbones protruding and his posture rigid. Where there had once been rage, there were only embers of regret in his eyes as the scene vanished.

"I refuse. I can't accept this."

My voice trembled with every word. I could not bring myself to believe any of this. I kept walking, but smoke never appeared before me again. The memories haunted me anyway. The voices of loved ones rumbled all around me for what felt like miles and miles.

The eventual change in scenery was abrupt for me. In one moment, I was walking on a road surrounded by darkness. In the next, the road was full of people. There were buildings and lights all around us, the highest of them barely visible against the orange sky. At a glance, there must have been at least a thousand people standing around me.

Yet, they were all deathly quiet.

—-

23 February 1945 | The Afterlife

The souls were from all walks of life. People from all corners of the earth stood in long lines in this wide street, facing forward. No one spoke or looked around. There were no cars or any other vehicles in sight. All of it caused dread to manifest within me.

"Hello? What's going on?"

In response, a nearby sign hanging above a nearby doorway lit up. The wires changed shape to read out: 'Rule #3: No talking. Follow the rules or action will be taken.'

"What the fuck," I said. The wires inside the sign unraveled before repeating the same message. Ignoring it, I stepped out of line to approach a fellow American. His blue eyes settled onto my brown eyes as I continued. "I need answers, fast. Where are the angels? Where are our families?"

The soul said nothing. I noticed that his eyes were wide with horror. The man looked to be far older than I, the wrinkles in his face like the ridges of a mountain range. After several moments, that man suddenly looked forward and became still. None of the other souls moved.

"Hey, I'm talking to you, buddy-" I began in an irritated tone. I reached out to touch him. Suddenly, the ground no longer supported me, and my soul fell through the street. I tried to yell but no sound came out, darkness dominating me as I flew downward. I could not tell how long I fell, but eventually, I tumbled through a well-lit room and crashed into its floor.

"Wait! WAIT!" I shouted as my body slipped down into the ground again. I stopped halfway without warning, the upper part of my soul sticking up as if I were in quicksand. No matter how much I struggled, my legs and hips would not budge.

"Thank you, Tajudinn. May your existence lack suffering and tragedy," came a voice from beyond the desk. I looked up and saw what looked like a statue of a generic human. Its flesh was grey, and it sat unmoving. Its hands were clasped around a glass orb that sat atop the wooden desk.

"And may fortune bless you with wisdom, Ishtar," said a voice behind me. I craned my head to behold a wax-gold figure standing a few feet away. It was tall and muscular, with the head of an ox but the body of a man. Its left hand held onto a staff and its ruby eyes carved into my soul like knives.

"Where am I?" My lower half could not move. I strained against the floor, but nothing would give. The stone creature behind the desk spoke in a smooth, clear voice without moving its mouth.

"You find yourself in The Low Garden, the grand realm of Sei, the Sovereign of Chaos. She rules over the unruly."

"This isn't where I belong. I should be in Heaven right now."

"That is yet to be seen," it stated simply. Papers rose from its desk and circled around Ishtar's unmoving face. "It is understandable to be traumatized after one's death. However, that is no excuse for not following the rules, especially after numerous warnings. You have now been marked for expedient judgment."

"Expedient? Are you rewarding me?" I asked in confusion.

"No," it said simply. Its voice was almost melodic, dancing off the marble walls and stone floor as it continued. "You shall be judged without consideration for the norms of your religion, culture, or era. You shall instead be judged by the moral codes of those you wronged the most. The strictest interpretations of those codes will be used to make my decision. That is expedient judgment."

"W-What?" I felt even more claustrophobic than I already did. The walls appeared to bend and twist all around me as I stopped struggling. I could barely speak. "I was a great man, so that shouldn't matter."

"Far from it, actually. You're directly responsible for 12 deaths and indirectly responsible for 149 deaths," it said as the papers around its face returned to the desk.

"They were my enemies. It was war," I growled out.

"Expedient judgment isn't concerned with that, James Burwick," it calmly said. "Given that you are primarily a killer, we will process your minor crimes later."

"You don't know shit!" I was trembling, my mouth struggling to form words. "You don't know anything about me!"

"For the deaths that you are directly responsible for, you shall be punished for 738 years."

My heart sank and my vision blurred. Ishtar continued. "For the deaths that you are indirectly responsible for, you shall be punished for 581 years. This brings your total for today to 1319 years."

"This isn't real. None of this is real," I said in disbelief. Everything that I had once thought about death and the afterlife was coming undone. My mind began to unravel at the timescale being presented before me. "I didn't even make it to 40, but you want to punish me for over 1000 years. Where the fuck is the justice in that? Why don't I get to plead my case?"

Ishtar patiently waited for me to finish. Then, without responding to my objections, it continued. "You are assigned to The Low Garden Punishment Zone. Your punishments shall be decided by the executing officials of The Punishment Zone, but can include induced terror, hallucination torture, and forced labor."

"I'm not the monster that you're making me out to be! I'm a hero who protected his country!"

"Your sentence begins… now."

Tajudinn raised his staff and tapped the ground with it. I began to sink again, the ground swallowing up my midsection. My attention was drawn up toward the ceiling where I had come from. I reached up toward it, arms outstretched.

"Jesus Christ, save me! Please, God! Don't let these demons take me!" I screamed.

"I am given authority to judge souls by Sei. You should have followed the rules. You will have a chance to submit a formal appeal at a later date."

"Fuck your rules and fuck your formal appeals! I'll say it to your false god's face myself! Bring her to me!"

My body was dragged deeper into the floor. I desperately clawed at it until my arms were drawn in. I strained my head upward in vain, yelling incoherently. Everything- my empty M1 magazines, my green military uniform, my body- phased through with ease. As my mouth was forced under, Ishtar's face appeared to almost have a smile on it.

"Well, Sei is only a supervisor. She would just tell you the same thing. So, you really want Management." It paused. Although its body did not move, I could swear that it was looking down at me, mocking me with its indifference. "If I could get Management to show itself, though, then I wouldn't have to deal with discarded trash like you."

Unable to respond, I could only glower up at the statue until my entire body had fallen through the floor. Darkness consumed everything again and I tumbled down and down until I could not fall any lower.

—-

7 June 2063 | The Low Garden

I do not remember how long that I had been building this wall. I was periodically interrupted to experience some other torture, but this was my main task. The last time that I had been brought elsewhere was some years ago. Since then, I had worked without end. I did not sleep nor rest in any way. Every hour, every day, for many days in a row, I worked.

My soul was fully committed to the task at hand. I pulled up clay from the ground and pressed it into the wall. I did this mindlessly, never interacting with another being unless it was for punishments. There were times where I would blink, and it would feel as if months had passed without me thinking a single coherent thought.

"James Burwick."

Tajudinn's voice called out to me. I stirred, barely conscious. I looked up to behold the wax-gold figure, its bull head looming over me. Its ruby eyes bore into my own dead ones.

"You have been summoned to appear before The Low Garden Court. Please step forward."

I did as I was told. My body moved without me thinking until I was standing before the worker. The wall that I had been packing clay into stretched out into the distance, vanishing into a sea of fog miles away. It stood higher than Tajudinn as he tapped the ground with his staff.

I blinked and found myself standing in the marble room with the stone floor. It had been many years since I had last stood here. I did not immediately recognize it as Ishtar's voice rang out from behind its wooden desk.

"Welcome to The Low Garden Court once again, James Burwick."

I looked around at the viewing stands at the far end of the room. They were full of souls, but I could not discern their identities. I had previously been tortured before large audiences, and this felt no different. No emotions showed on my face. I merely closed my eyes and waited to endure another punishment. Instead, Ishtar continued speaking.

"Your case has been appealed by The Justice Union. Their members successfully reduced your sentence and then paid off your remaining balance with their excess years of service," Ishtar's melodic voice spoke. My eyes widened, and for the first time in many years, I felt confused.

I did not believe that this was real.

"All of your dues have been paid," the stone statue continued smoothly. "Thus, you are free to leave the Punishment Zone and The Low Garden. May you find pleasure in your future endeavors."

I stood in silence for several moments. I did not know what to do or say. The concept of freedom was so foreign to me that no particular action came to mind. All I could think about was returning to the wall. That was all I had ever thought about for years.

After a while, a single figure stepped out from the stands to approach me. He was brown haired with streaks of grey, and he wore a pristine dress uniform. The two purple hearts in particular caught my attention among all of his ribbons.

My own Marine uniform, covered in dirt and clay, had not changed much after all these years. It was the uniform that I had worn into battle. Thus, I had no ribbons or accomplishments to boast of on it. This man looked me up and down before grinning ear to ear.

"You look like shit, Gunny."

Shock rippled through me. My mind, decayed from years of underuse, strained to grasp the fleeting embers of recollection. A name came to me.

"Andrews?"

He nodded. I stepped forward and embraced him, disbelief making my head spin. It was all so sudden and random. "What's going on?"

"A bunch of us came together to free you."

"Why? I don't deserve this."

"Well, you're wrong. We couldn't just let a hero of the Twenty-Seventh get fucked over like this. And for a lot of us, there's no way that we could move on knowing that you're stuck here building a damn wall."

Andrews pulled away from me and gestured to the crowd behind him. "For the people that don't know you, they're here because we helped free their families and friends, so they're paying us back. Everyone here pitched in and put in about a decade of labor to make this happen."

My throat tightened and it felt hard to breathe. All of this was so overwhelming. I looked at Andrews with an amazed tone. "You were a boy when I knew you. Now… you look older than I was."

"Ah, well, I had to beat you in at least one area of life, right?" The fellow Marine laughed. He hugged me again, his joy radiating from him and into me. "Because of you, and the lessons that you taught me, I was able to survive and become a man. I raised a good family and led a good life. All because of you. Thank you, James."

I could not find any words to say. All I could do was hug him back and breathe. We stood there for some time until he leaned back. He thumped my back. "Go. There are some people who you need to see right now. We'll talk later."

I followed his instructions as if he were my superior. The irony was lost on me as I walked past Andrews to behold the crowd. Their faces gradually came into focus as I came closer. A woman reached out to tightly hug me, and her name erupted into my mind without her having to speak.

"Mary. You're my Mary!"

"Yes," she replied gently. "I'm yours."

My heart became heavy with grief. I struggled to think at all, having not done much thinking in so long. It was then that I saw another two women and two men standing very nearby. I only recognized one of the women, her eyes standing out to me. I could hardly speak.

"Joyce. Oh, Joyce!"

She joined our embrace, my only daughter patting my back. She was a grown woman, looking very much like her mother. She looked even older than Andrews. The thought that she had gotten to live a full, long life made my body shake. I coughed and gasped, struggling to not collapse from the emotions that I felt. The Burwick family being reunited was something that I never could have imagined.

"I'm sorry for not coming back. Please forgive me for being a terrible man."

They whispered quiet assurances to me, their hands warm and inviting. How long had it been since another person had touched me? Held me? I was a dry riverbed that was suddenly filled with flood waters. The fear of this being an illusion to torture me came to mind, but this was different. All of this felt like it was actually happening.

Joyce showed me her children, my grandchildren, and I hugged all of them. I shook the hands of all of the distant family members and friends who had helped rescue me. They accepted my apologies and made jokes with me, recalling how cold I had once been. These people understood me and had seen goodness in me through that hard exterior.

I was blessed to have known them.

"You should thank Asashi. This would have taken much longer without him and his people's help," Andrews said from behind me. He nodded toward the back of the crowd. I pulled away from my family. The Americans parted to reveal several Japanese people. A young man stood in front of them. This time, I needed little time to recall who this was.

It was the last enemy soldier that I had shot before my own death.

Pain ebbed through me, and I felt like I was going to fall apart. My feet carried me over to him as we stared at one another. He wore a relaxed frown, no malice in his gaze. We hugged one another and I exhaled sharply.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

I repeated this several more times, but he did not say anything. Both of us already understood that we were not at fault. We had been two pieces on a giant chess board, being moved around by forces that we could have never hoped to push back against. He held me as I wept and begged for the forgiveness that he had already given me.

—-

??? | The End

There was a river that ran along the edges of all of The Sovereigns' realms. The waters were white and hummed with power. Barriers separated most of it from The Afterlife, and I stood beneath one of the few gates leading to it.

We had made it to the front of the line, millions of souls stretching out behind us. Even though we did not immediately enter the river, there were no shouts of protest. No one was in a rush to face their turn. Just as we had, they spent their time with their families and friends. They laughed and cried and celebrated. Most of all, I could not find any sorrowful or fearful faces among the multitude of people. Everyone looked as if they accepted or welcomed their ultimate fates.

I did not feel the same way. As I turned forward, I could not help but remember the last time I had seen the sea on Earth. Ships dotting the horizon, smaller boats surging across the dark Pacific. I remembered turning away from it then and ignoring my heart, but now? I knew that I had felt sorrow back then. The bittersweet feeling swirling within me was not too dissimilar.

"Are you ready, my love?" My beloved wife asked. She stood to my left, her hand in mine. Joyce was to my right, talking quietly with her husband and their children. Many relatives and their descendants stood all around me, preparing to enter together.

"I wish that Andrews had waited for us," I said softly.

"Yes. He was a great man," Mary replied. I inhaled deeply, trying to calm myself, but that terrible sensation would not dissipate. I spoke again in a quiet voice.

"I'm scared of disappearing. I don't want to forget all of you and become someone else. I want to be James Burwick and be with all of you forever."

She did not say anything at first. Instead, Mary's hand squeezed mine and I looked at her. The beauty of her soul struck me. My spirit swelled with my love for her as she smiled warmly at me. "Me too. We all feel that way. But I have faith that we will stay together."

"There's no guarantee. We could end up anywhere and anytime. We could become anyone or anything."

"And even so, James, I choose to believe that we will find each other." Her smile was radiant. The thought of never seeing it again sent shivers through me. She continued, "And this time, I want to grow old with you."

Those words swept away my fears. I knew that we could not stay here in these realms forever. An eternity here would not be worth anything. I wanted to live again, have my mistakes and regrets erased, and get to try again. If I could truly get another chance to make things right, even if I would be a different person, I would take it. I gripped her hand tighter.

"I want that, too."

I looked to Joyce and saw that she was ready. A determined expression was offered to her and her grandchildren before I reached out to take her hand. They all joined hands with each other and their own children, some holding onto other relatives or friends. Eventually, more than a hundred of us were marching into the river together.

"I love you," I said to everyone. They all repeated it back to me as we waded forward. The water was warm. Every step made me feel heavier and heavier, until our heads were submerged. It was then that I could feel everyone's heartbeats through their hands. It was all louder than it ever could have been when we were alive. Our feet lifted away from the ground below and we drifted away from The Afterlife.

The boundaries between our bodies and the water began to fade. We swirled about and mixed together. We felt one another's love for each other and our apprehension toward the future. In my mind's eye, I could see my wife visiting my grave repeatedly for decades. I felt her loneliness, and her resolve to be strong regardless. I saw Mary raise our family and stand tall all on her own. She had been just as brave as any Marine that I had known.

I then saw my daughter. I felt Joyce's rage towards me as she grew up, at having failed to return to her. I saw how she had to grow up quickly and assume responsibilities too early. I saw her struggle with self-hatred and anguish, until she finally found God's love. I watched her raise my grandchildren, and I saw the joy that had walked with her through the rest of her days.

And then I saw my grandchildren. I observed them looking at old pictures of me and being told stories of my heroism. I felt their reverence towards me. I saw how they carried me in their hearts as some enlisted into the military. Others applied my work ethic and devotion to duty to other careers, becoming amazing teachers and skilled engineers. I felt how my legacy had positively touched them and so many others.

I experienced all of this and more as if I had lived through it, and all of it made my own soul reverberate with exultation. Everyone else experienced my memories, too, and I could feel their reactions. At first, they felt sorrow and pity for me, but those emotions developed into understanding and compassion. They lifted me up as their feelings and thoughts melded with my own.

I felt more loved now than I ever had before.

"We'll be together forever," we said. As everyone else's consciousnesses merged, my own mind remained for a while longer. I began to see and feel other things. A babe's first cry of pain. The joy of playing games. The wanderlust of youth. The despair of seeing the world for what it is. The passion in a first kiss. The vengeful rage from incurring a terrible loss. The love for one's offspring. The solemn resignation to old age. The desperate longing for meaning and purpose.

The whole of humanity's experiences was overwhelming.

We continued to be swept away in the waters, further away from the realms and into the abyss beyond. Most of my family had become one with the river. I was the last to go, clinging onto my identity as James Burwick for as long as I could. I could no longer see or hear anything, but I could feel something beyond the edges of human experience. I pressed outward, squeezing my consciousness thin until I could touch upon the vastness beyond:

That was when I felt all of it. The screaming of stars. The dancing of solar systems. The colliding of galaxies. The nigh timeless churning of black holes. Not only as they were, but as they once had been and how they would be. The beginning and the end, and the vast nothing that permeated everything outside of those two points. Finally, there was that middle era where all that could be known was. It was both absurdly long and yet the briefest of winks in time.

It was then that I knew that none of us were separate entities. We were all the universe's way of understanding itself. Through us, the universe hated and loved itself, betrayed and led itself, killed and birthed itself. Different forms of itself interacted to create order from chaos. The unconscious will of the living had manifested to find the answers to the universe's questions. Life had been guided this far in order to make sense of senselessness.

I had been so afraid of losing myself for so long, desperately worrying and fretting. Yet here I was, at the center of everything, everywhere, everywhen. Our mortal problems were beyond unimportant. The things that had divided us, had us waging war against one another, were meaningless in the face of the miracle of existence. I realized that I was not losing anything, but instead, finding my truest form.

The last thought that I had before I finally succumbed was a simple one:

"I am home again."

I stretched too far to continue being James Burwick. I stopped feeling or thinking anything, and I simply was.

—-

30 November 1780 | Osaka

The sand was cold beneath my feet. I stood at the top of a hill overlooking a white beach. It was mostly empty. I looked out at the dark blue water beyond the beach. Something stirred in my chest, and my body stiffened. My mother's voice rang out to me from below.

"Habiki, why won't you join us?"

I looked down at her with wide eyes. She was middle aged, and her black hair was tied up in a bun. My own hair was swept back by the sea breeze as I spoke. "I'm scared."

She tilted her head in confusion. "Why? The water is beautiful. It is a gift from God."

"I don't know," I said slowly. My mother frowned. Her attention was drawn to my younger sister, who was yelling while rolling around on the beach.

"Kosuke, do not get sand into your hair!" She said with a sigh. As my mother walked away, I looked back out at the sea. I strained my eyes. I felt emotions that seemingly came from nothing. A profound sense of loss, a dire longing for something. I could not fathom what it was.

My eyes were then drawn up to the sky. The sun was directly overhead, tirelessly rolling around the Earth. As I watched wispy clouds float by, my body relaxed. The feeling in my chest disappeared before I could grasp it, and I wondered if I had really felt anything at all.

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