BURNER: From the Adventures of H.B. Fist
by R. Scott Bolton


    The way I see it, it must have happened something like this:

    Corrin Nethers was only four years old when her father was sent off to fight the Zombie Slave War. Although she loved her daddy dearly, Corrin wasn't afraid or even very sad when Kevin Nethers shipped out. Kevin had promised her that he would see her soon. And Corrin knew that daddy always told the truth.

    Even though Mariann, Corrin's mother, was trying bravely not to cry when her husband made their daughter that promise, Corrin knew that she'd see her daddy as soon as he finished fighting the bad guys.

    It was only four months later that the man with the tan uniform and dark sunglasses showed up at the Nethers's doorstep. Corrin had answered the door and smiled up at the stoic gentleman with the smooth skin and sharply angled jaw. Corrin had been dazzled by the shiny gold medals that clung to the manís chest in clusters.

    "Hello, honey," the man had said in a voice as smooth as his skin. "Is your mommy home?"

    "Yes," Corrin replied, standing still, staring at the man's crisply pressed pants and eyeing his chest full of glittering metal.

    "Can you get her for me, honey? It's kind of important."

    "Yep." Corrin had skipped away, leaving the front door open, and ran to find her mother. Mariann was in the kitchen, making a peanut butter sandwich for her daughter.

    "There's a man here to see you, mommy," Corrin said.

    "A man Ö?" Mariann began. And then her voice closed up and, years later, Corrin would understand that it was then that her mother knew. Mariann dropped the knife onto the table, pressed the sandwich into Corrin's hand, and walked quickly to the front door. She didn't run, Corrin remembered, but she walked rapidly toward the door as if hoping to see a Bible salesman there instead of a man in a military uniform.

    But it was a man in a military uniform. And he didn't smile when Mariann approached the door.

    "Yes?" Mariann whispered.

    "Mrs. Kevin Nethers?" the man asked kindly.


    "I'm Sergeant William Spano from the Global Alliance Military Forces," he said softly. "I'm afraid I have some bad news."

    Sitting at the table eating her sandwich, four-year-old Corrin Nethers stopped chewing when she heard her mommy sob out loud from the front room. She put down her sandwich and crept to the kitchen door, where she peered secretively at the man and her mom.

    Corrinís mommy was on her knees, her head in her hands, her body wracked with sobs. Corrin could see that her mother's apron was already wet with spilled tears. The man with the crisp uniform and dark sunglasses was bending over her, his hand on her shoulder, offering a handkerchief and his best sympathetic support.

    Later that night, as Mariann tucked Corrin into bed, she told her four-year-old daughter that Daddy had been unable to keep his promise. She cried softly as she told Corrin that she would never see her Daddy again.

    Five years later, with the war won and a new age dawning for the re-organized Galactic Alliance, Corrin Nethers and her mother stood near a wall of the ZSW Memorial in Washington, DC and read their father/husband's name etched in the stone there. There were nearly a million of these names but it had taken them only a few minutes to find "Kevin Nethers." The Memorial's extensive database and navigation system saw to that.

    Corrin, now nine years old, was finally able to understand why her father had been unable to keep his promise. He had put his life on the line to keep the world safe for Corrin, her mother, their neighbors and, in fact, everyone on the planet. Even everyone in the universe. And he had given everything he had to give in the battle of good versus evil. The war had eventually been won and today the galaxy was a better place. Corrin understood now that her father was at least a little part of that improvement and, although she would have given anything to have her father back, she understood that his life was not taken in vain.

    Corrin watched as Maryann reached up and ran her fingers across her husbandís name. Corrin followed suit, touching the edges of the etched letters with her fingertips. She marveled at how they felt; rough and yet smooth-edged. Finally, looking at her mother for approval and for strength, Corrin slid the tips of her first three fingers toward the center of her fatherís etched name. Mariann placed her fingers on those of her daughter and pushed gently.

    Their eyes closed involuntarily. The world seemed to fade around them as their fingertips began to buzz with a slight electrical charge.

    Then, the voice was in their head. A voice Corrin remembered from some five years ago.

    The voice of her father.

    "Hey, guys. Itís me, dad. If you get this message, I guess that means I didnít make it. Iím sorry I couldnít keep my promise, Corrin."

    A tear slipped out of Corrinís closed eye and fell to the concrete sidewalk beneath her. Its dark stain remained for a moment, and then slowly faded away.

    Tears were streaming down Maryann's face, too, but Corrin didn't see them. Around them, thousands of others stood with their hands pressed against names on the wall, the final words and thoughts of their loved ones playing through their mind's eye.

    Inside Corrinís head, her fatherís voice seemed to bloom. The next thing she knew, although her eyes were still closed, she could see her fatherís face vividly. Exactly as it had looked five years ago.

    "This is kinda weird, talking as though Iím already deÖ um, gone," the image of Kevin Nethers said inside both Corrin's and Maryannís head, "But, according to Sarge, thatís why weíre recording these. So, I guess Iíll just keep talking. Marian, I miss you already. With any luck, Iíll be back in a month or two and youíll never see this. Whatever happens, remember that Iíll always love you and that youíre always on my mind. Cory, I love you, too. More than anything. More than the whole wide world. Right now Iíve got some work to do. No matter what happens, honey, remember this: Daddy loves you."

    The image of Kevin Nethers looked over its virtual shoulder and nodded.

    "I guess I gotta go now. I love you both and Iíll see you soon." He gave a sardonic little laugh. "Of course, if youíre looking at this, I guess that wonít be the case. But I still love you anyway. Bye!"

    The image faded and then vanished and Corrinís fingers jerked away from the wall as though sheíd been shocked. She looked up at her mother, whose cheeks were wet with tears, and they fell into each otherís arms, their embrace strengthening them both.

    Around them, the soft, quiet sobs of thousands gently filled the air.

    Corrin took a deep breath and pushed gently away from her mother. She surveyed the people around her, feeling their pain as they remembered loved ones and listened to voices of those long dead. She thought about how important this memorial was. Not only as a tribute to those who died but as a reminder of the pain that war caused. She saw mothers and fathers and wives and husbands, all of whom shared a common wound and who, with this wall and the camaraderie it brought, had found strength and support in others. They were all part of the same family here. They all seemed to fit together.

    A tiny flicker of yellow light caught Corrinís eyes, surprising her. She looked in the direction it came from and was disappointed when it faded before she could locate its source.

    Down the way, a man stood, his fingers pressed tightly against several different names. For some reason, Corrin thought it looked odd. There were plenty of people pushing their fingers against the wall, listening to the voices of long dead loved ones. Some were even taking rubbings from the etched names, rubbings that they would take home and keep in memorial scrapbooks. But this man was just leaning against the wall, touching not just one name but a group of them, his fingers working against the stone like a baker kneading bread.

    Maybe he doesnít know how to use the names, Corrin thought. Poor guy. She squeezed her motherís hand and stepped away, moving toward the man. They were all friends here. They were Family. She would show him how to do it correctly.

    But as she got closer, Corrin noticed that the man wasnít just pushing against the wall with his fingers. He was actually pushing some sort of rubbery substance, like gum, into the names thereon. The substance filled the names and oozed out of them, like some sort of putty.

    As Corrin stepped beside the man, she saw him pull a small, disc-shaped device from under his coat. He pressed it against the wall and held it there until it stuck firm. Then, he quickly looked up and down the hallway Ö

    Ö and locked eyes with Corrin.

    "Excuse me," Corrin asked with sweet, nine-year-old innocence. "Did you need some help working the memories?"

    The man's eyes widened in surprise and then he smiled. "No, hon, I'm fine." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a tiny rectangular device. "Thanks, though." He fingered the device and the yellow light twinkled again. When it faded, the man was gone.

    Corrin blinked, stunned. Where had the man gone? She glanced around quickly but he was nowhere to be seen.

    She turned back to the wall and stared at the names the man had been touching. She found the tiny disc the man had stuck to the wall and reached up to touch it.

    As her finger neared it, the device gave a menacing little chirp.

    Corrinís world flared white hot and then came to a quick and decisive end.

    In the space of a nano-second, the ZSW Memorial and more than 3,000 visitors vanished in a blast of blistering heat, violently thrown debris, radioactive fire and devastating shockwaves.

    That quickly, the last thoughts of too damn many dead soldiers and the lives of their surviving family members were cruelly and instantly extinguished.


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Copyright © 2018 by R. Scott Bolton. All rights reserved.