Suddenly, the warning of the tribal elder and Wasad’s explanation came rushing back to us. The entire, horrible truth came crashing down upon me in a rush. I realized that the body we had seen in the hole was indeed a ghoul. The images we had seen of the torture and execution were not an attempt by the Republican Guard to execute an innocent man, but an attempt to rid themselves of a scourge. We also came to the sickening realization that the reason that the body was missing was that it had come back after Sam's desecration. Whether the ghoul’s return was a direct result of what Sam did, I have no idea. I remembered what Wasad had said about the legend; only fire could kill a ghoul because fire was seen as purifying. The pistol shot had done nothing more than putting it into a state of hibernation of some sort. We had woke it with the Humvee, Sam had majorly pissed it off, and Chris was the one who had the bad luck to be walking to the head at night when the ghoul decided to go hunting.
The jumble of images we had been shown slowed and finally came to a stop. We looked it Chris standing about 15 front feet in front of us, but we now realized exactly what it was. It was not Chris, but instead a ghoul. The reason it looked like Chris was simple. The horrible truth that I wanted to deny and couldn’t was that Chris had been eaten by the ghoul. There was no other explanation for how it could look like Chris. A wave of nausea hit me as I realized this and I almost passed out, but I forced myself to stay upright.
Sam had not said a word, but with one look at his face, I knew he had realized all of what I had as well. The superstitions of the villagers of the Middle East were right all along. This was not a zombie, but a humanoid creature that preyed on the living, eating dead flesh whenever possible. However, we had done much more than simply wake it. We had personally wronged it. We had completely disrespected it. Sam may have been the one that abused this thing when we thought it was a body, but all three of us had been complicit. We had not done all we could’ve to stop Sam. We had protested, but not strongly enough. Now, we could see the desire for revenge burning in Chris’s eyes, and we knew that we were in some major trouble.
All of this had happened in seconds, but it felt like hours. As we stared at what used to be Chris, he threw back his head and gave an unholy shriek that sounded like nails on a chalkboard, only louder than anything I have ever heard. After its shriek had died away, it squatted down on all fours and looked at the both of us as of trying to decide what to do. Suddenly, faster than I would have believed possible, the ghoul came at us both. Sam and I both reacted without thinking; we began firing our weapons from the hip, adding to the din that was still continuing from the outside. I saw bits of the creature fly off as it came towards us, but I had no idea if we were both hitting it or not. The ghoul was coming straight at me, but at the last second it seemed to change its mind, and it leaped towards Sam. I saw them collide and Sam went down with a scream. I kept pulling the trigger of my weapon, not realizing that it was empty and nothing was being fired out. In a second, I saw the creature's hand flash down and with its yellowing, cracked fingernails; it eviscerated Sam
I screamed at the sight. Watching what used to be my best friend kill my other best friend. Sam turned his head and looked at me with disbelief in his eyes. His intestines slipped out of his body, but he made no move to try and hold them in. I saw Sam take a huge shuddering breath and I thought he took in a lungful of air to utter one final scream, but if that was his intention, it was cut short by the ghoul’s hand swiping in from the side and tearing his throat out. This was too much for me to handle. I vomited as I stared in horror at the scene. I knew instinctively that I had just seen the law of Sam extinguished in one horrifying instant.
I had ceased pulling the trigger of my weapon, some dim part of his brain telling me that it was doing nothing, but I didn’t realize it until later. I was reacting purely on instinct. It slowly began to dawn on me that there was nothing I could do. The creature threw down the remains of Sam's throat and slowly stood, staring at me. There was no one else left to distract it; it was just the ghoul and myself. I slowly began to back away, and, as hard as it is to admit it now, I panicked. I threw my rifle like a spear at the ghoul, turned, and ran a fast as I could.
I ran towards the gunfire, towards the cold night, terrified of what was in front of me, but even more terrified of what was behind me. As I crossed the threshold of the warehouse and sprinted across the sand towards the other Marines, I heard the sound of rapid footsteps behind me. I knew that the ghoul was getting closer and closer. I expected to feel the white hot knife of its fingernails in the back of my neck at any second. I was about 50 feet away from the other Marines, and getting closer by the step. Now 40 feet, now 30 feet, now…
The world seemed to explode all around me, and the word mortar flashed in my head for a second. The next second it felt like a giant had picked me up and thrown me. The mortar had landed behind me, close enough that I was sure I was gone. However, when I landed, it hit the sand, rolled across it, and came to rest against the wall of the command center.
I could feel myself sinking towards oblivion, but I forced my eyes open and looked around again, determined to take one last look at life, and the earth that I was sure I was leaving behind. I could see the sand grains in the mud brick walls of the Command Center; I saw the other Marines still fighting, now driving off the larger force that had been attacking. I saw Marines running back and forth carrying ammunition and supplies. I saw our men launching mortars. I saw a hundred other small, minute details, but what I didn’t see was the ghoul. The creature was gone. It was either waiting in the shadows, watching me, or it was just possible that it was dead. The mortar hit landed a close spot behind me that I had basically thrown me across the compound. There was no way something could've survived if it was close behind me. A mortar causes an explosion, but it kind of consists of fire. A smile came to my cracked, dry lips as I sunk towards the dark abyss.
I awoke in agony, surrounded by the color white. My first thought was that this must be heaven, but then I realized that Heaven surely would not have cheap lighting. What I had initially mistaken for paradise was actually the walls and fluorescent lighting of a hospital. I tried to turn my head to look around, but a wave of agony was preventing me from moving. I tried to call out for help for a nurse, but my throat was so dry no sound issued forth except for a pitiful squeak. I experimentally tried moving my fingers and toes, which responded, so that was good, at least I wasn’t paralyzed. Just then the door open and a nurse walked in. She saw my eyes open, smiled and said “Good Morning. Glad you decided to join us. I’ll go let the doctor know you’re awake.”
She returned in a matter of minutes accompanied by a short, balding Navy doctor. He asked how I was feeling, and he realized by the pitiful squeaking that still came from my throat that I was trying to talk. He chuckled a little bit, and then assured me my voice would be returning; it was just going to take a little bit of time. He began to fill me in on what it happened. It seemed that as the base was being attacked, a mortar had indeed landed close behind me, I had been wearing my flak jacket, which had saved my life, but I had suffered some pretty bad bruising, as well as some severe lacerations to the backs of my legs. I had almost bled to death, but they had gotten me onto a medical evacuation helicopter on time. I would walk again; it was just going to take a while, just like my voice. I kept trying to talk, but the doctor got a confused look on his face, I realized he wasn't able to understand me, so I forced the words to come, sure that they were tearing my throat apart from the inside out.
The doctor asked if they were friends of mine and I nodded. The doctor shook his head side to side. “I have no idea, I’m sorry. You were the only one that was sent here from that FOB. There were many other wounded, but for some reason, they were kept at another hospital. After the bleeding was stopped and you were stabilized, you were sent here.”
I, however, knew the truth. Even as I asked, I knew it, but I was unable to accept it. I would never again see Chris or Sam. The loss hit me all over again and brought tears to my eyes. The doctor said that he had rounds to make, but he would return in a bit and give me something to help me sleep. Both he and the nurse left, slowly pulling the door shut behind them. I lay in the hospital bed, unable to move without severe pain, and continued to weep. I was weeping for Chris, for Sam, for all the other Marines at the base who may or may not have made it, and for myself as well. I knew what we had done was wrong, I knew that we should have stopped Sam from what he had been doing, but we'd not done more, we told him to stop, but didn't make him. Eventually, the doctor came back and injected some fluid into my IV. Everything grew hazy, and as I sunk back towards the dark, I forced myself to imagine the faces of Chris and Sam. Perhaps I would see them in a dream.
As I said when I began, this all happened about ten years ago. I still have trouble sleeping, and occasionally, there are memories that are crystal clear, like I had just experienced them. I have tried to move on with my life. I went to college, got a job, got married, but I still feel like something is missing, like friends that I should have shared these experiences with. Not a day goes by that I don't think with regret of Chris, Sam, and the events of that dark night. We're approaching the ten year anniversary now, ten years since they were lost when we awakened an unspeakable terror from the desert. I have never heard of any other reports, but I am starting to believe that I never really left anything behind. As I said earlier, I know that a mortar can cause a fire, but it doesn’t burn anything. The exploding metal is what kills, not fire. I have no idea what caused me to come to this realization, but lately, I sometimes get the feeling that I am being watched, that I’m not alone. I try to put it out of my mind, but it’s difficult. Just tonight I had returned from walking my dog around the block, and the feeling of being watched came over me. I glanced around the yard and neighborhood, at least what I could see from my front steps, but there was nothing. I am certain, however, that I heard a sound just out of sight along the dark sidewalk, lined with trees. It sounded like dry, skittering leaves. Like dry, desiccated skin sliding across the pavement.