Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2022 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “The Night Before.” This, the fourth of our ten finalist stories, made it to the final round of judging with our guest judge, Laurin Jefferson. Today, enjoy Greer Hotaling’s story, “Beetle and Bombs.”
I see her face every time I close my eyes. Her almond eyes, glazed with excitement, her soft cheeks, looking up at me with immense trust. She had trusted me to protect her. But I had failed. I watched her, silent tears pouring down my face as she fell upon the ground. As life left her eyes, I saw her look over to me for help. I had failed. I had failed my own goddamn daughter. Since then, all I can ask myself is why, why couldn’t I save her, seeing the look she gave me, desperate for me to do anything to help her, to take the pain away, anything. My wife, she was not as strong. She took her own life shortly after the death of our daughter. After seeing her, lifeless, I knew that I had lost all that was important to me. Tomorrow, they will cry just as I do. They will see their loved ones fall. And they will be helpless to do anything. Of course, I am far from the only one with these feelings. The war took many from us, and we have never stopped grieving. I will never forgive. The only thing that will bring me joy now is seeing them suffer.
It was my responsibility to get the explosives. I had smuggled them into town, brought them into the old air hanger. Not once the entire trip did I regret what I was doing. I had no second thoughts, but as I sit and watch tonight, I wonder if maybe this isn’t the right thing to do. As much as I have been hurt, the murder of my daughter was not personal. The soldiers had no idea who I was, or who my daughter was. They shot her because we were at war. A time of death and despair. They had no personal connection to the muder of my baby. This, however, my vendetta, my plan for revenge, is personal.
There’s no time for sleep, as much as I need to rest my head and think. We will take the plane to America at the light of dawn tomorrow.
“We need to load the plane.” A voice comes out of the dark. A man, whom I’ve never seen before, walks toward me, eyes locked on mine. He’s a very large man, larger than myself. He has a dark beard, and a scar crossing his right cheek. He pushes open a large sliding door, revealing the small plane that the six of us will be boarding soon. He opens a hatch near the bottom, where there is a large enough space for two people, or twenty-seven kilograms of explosives. I stand up, and he picks up the large crate that was beneath me. He places it in the space, pushing it back as I pick up the other crates and bring them over to him, placing them at his feet.
“Be careful. Don’t knock into them, they’re touchy.” The man says to me after I plop the last one down.
“Sorry sir” I reply. I don’t really understand why I called him sir, because I don’t know him, nor do I know of him, and so I don’t actually know if he deserves the respect of me calling him sir. But I do it anyway, perhaps because I’m slightly intimidated by his sheer size, towering over me.
Between his belt and his torso is a small black remote. I don’t need to ask him what it is, as my inference was most likely correct. He notices me staring, removes it from his waist and places it in the bottom pocket of his cargo pants. I say nothing more, and with a low gruff, he retreats back into the darkness, where I lose sight of him.
I lean my back into a wall, and slump to the floor. I place my head between my knees. I notice a small beetle on the ground, and begin to watch it as it crawls across the dusty cement floor. I begin to become intrigued with it, watching it climb over pebbles as if they were mountains. However, I guess they really are mountains to him. They may not seem like it to me, but I haven’t lived his life. This pebble, it’s his fight. It’s not one I’ve ever had to fight, but I suppose the beetle has never been awoken to gunfire and screaming. I suppose the beetle has never had a gun thrown at him by some man, and told to shoot at people he has never seen before. I suppose the beetle has never seen his own daughter be shot and cry only one tear as she bleeds out on the ground. But to be fair, I don’t know. I’m not that beetle. Maybe he has lost his family too, to a bird or perhaps a careless step. I look at him, as he struggles to climb up a larger rock, falling down on his back again and again. I reach down, pick him up with my pointer and thumb, and place him on the very top of the rock. He climbed down the other side with ease. I smile to myself, knowing that I had just changed his life for the better, even if it was just a miniscule action in comparison to the world outside.
I watched that beetle for at least two hours, and he had finally traversed the room when a door opened, letting in dim light. The man was back, with four others. I recognized two of them, we had grieved together. They had lost their families to the Americans as well.
“Let’s go. Now. The sun is rising,” said the bearded man. He opens the door to the plane again, only this time the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A smaller, lean man steps up to the front, opening the door of the pilot seat and climbing up. The bearded man opens the back door to reveal a bare floor, no seats but just a few beige pillows for us to sit upon. The bearded man sat up front in the passenger seat next to the pilot, while the rest of us sat on the floor in the back. One man pulls out a marked map, colored in with lines and notes for each section of the trip. I begin to pick at my fingers, looking around the plane, staring at each man’s face. Each and every one of them seems calm, as if they were relaxing on a beach with the sun on their face. The bearded man says something to the pilot in a language that I don’t recognize, and the pilot nods, starting the plane.
Within a couple of minutes we’re in the sky, the sun rising as we fly in the clouds. The sunlight brings me back to that day in the town, orange fire ablaze and the sand flying through the air, blurring the sky. I see her face and remember why I’m doing this.
Two of the men sitting with me in the back have passed out, leaving me, the man with the map, and an old man, no younger than fifty. The old man, looking out the window across from him, twirls his graying mustache. I don’t know who this man is, but as I look deep into his dark eyes I can see pain far greater than mine. His eyes hold secrets that I will never know. Pain of over fifty years of violence and no mercy. I wonder to myself if he is having any doubts about our mission, or if I am the only one. He looks determined, but a man like him, who has seen so much… he must be having some sort of concern for the wrath we are about to bring on many innocent people. Soon, he shuts his eyes as well, and I believe that it is safe to do the same, drifting off solemnly.
I awake to some light turbulence. The bearded man and the pilot are conversing in whispered voices, and the others are awake as well. I look over at the man with the map.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“Here.” He points to a spot along a red line on the map. I follow the line just a few centimeters and see our target circled several times in a black marker. We were close. I was not told where we were going to attack, nor did I recognize it on the map. I reach into my pocket and pull out a yellowed picture and a folded paper. I hold the photo of my daughter to my heart, and then kiss it gently. I unfold the paper, reading the note in my head. I can almost hear my wife, speaking softly, saying,
I cannot hold on any longer. I long to hold her again, to weep in her arms.
I am hopeful that when I am gone I will see her again.
But I need you to stay strong. I need you to do what we prayed about every night.
God is no longer any help to us.
It is time to play God yourself.
Spill the blood of the men just as they spilled the blood of our baby.
We will be waiting for you <33”
I read that note every single night before I fell asleep, staining it with my tears to the point where the paper was so crisp and the words were smudged. So, when I had overheard whispers around town about a group of men dead set on revenge on America, I knew that this was my chance to prove my strength to my wife. Alas, I am not a man of violence. I don’t want to take the life of a living organism, no matter how evil the man, I cannot bear the thought of murder. I wish I were strong enough. But as I look out the window, I think of all of the families, sitting together, loving each other. They are innocent.
Another bump. The turbulence is getting worse, and I notice small items jumping around the plane. The bearded man huffs under his breath, displeased. He places the remote down between himself and the pilot, and my eyes lock on it. Bump. It inches closer. Bump bump. It’s almost within my reach. I sit anxiously, heart pounding, a million thoughts crossing my mind. The turbulence slows down; I pray for just one more bump, but none come. My eyes start to tear up. I can’t breathe. I close my eyes to calm myself but all I can see are bloody children, crying, dead. It would be all my fault. I would be responsible for all of that pain and suffering.
Bump. The remote detonator falls on the floor next to me. It startles me out of my penitent state, and I look at it. Then up at the bearded man. Then at the remote again. The bearded man hasn’t yet noticed the fall, so I reach over to grab the remote, though it doesn’t feel like I am in control of my movements. It’s as if I’m a marionette, with my limbs jumbling around clumsily and with no intuition. I manage to grab the remote, and I look around at the rest of the plane cabin to see if anybody else is watching me. My eyes wander around, meeting with the old man. He maintains eye contact with me, smiles, nods, and closes his eyes, resting his head back. The old man is resting calmly, waiting for me. I smile, and my heart begins to fill with warmth. I bring myself to raise my eyes one last time, as my thumb grazes over the button. I close my eyes, and I wonder,
How many fathers below would get to kiss their daughters goodnight this evening.
As my thumb presses down on the button, I can finally see her, smiling at me, and she puts out her small hand. I grasp it and hold on tight, never letting go again.