Was it a branch this time? One last holdout felled from the burnt-out husks of the saplings that encircled the area? He was foggy, and he couldn’t remember anything. What did he need to remember? His brain was on fire with the effort of recall.
The ropes dug into his wrists. He couldn’t see their purple hue with them behind his back, but he figured as much from the tight, blinding pain. His hands were swollen to double their size. But what did he need to remember?
He looked out over the field, and it was madness. There were great shrieks coupled with the staccato of merciless laughter. There were men’s bodies beaten and bruised beyond repair, and the agents that did it, in their black uniforms. He could remember.
He looked away from the bodies of the men, repulsed. His eyes trailed the shimmering deep red of the water in front of him. It was a pool of some kind, made filthy with the blood of the men who were dumped there. It was a stinging smell, but it didn’t come all at once. It waited for the view to be taken in in its entirety. There was death here. There was destruction.
The water led to the statue. Bold in its design, it left the witness paralyzed with the fear of what it represented. A stone arm stretching high into the heavens. To dizzying, impossible heights. And at the top, a clenched fist. It could be that of God himself. But God wouldn’t support this. No, he couldn’t believe that a creator would ever support this.
But whatever Joshua thought next, he… Wait. Joshua. That was his name. His head was on fire and his wrists burned their own bitter melody, but he knew his name. Was that what he needed to remember? No, there was something else. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he did. The black shirts were making their rounds, he wouldn’t have time.
Out beyond the burnt-out sapling husks, beyond the pool of red and the clenched fist, there were the charred remains of the buildings that once stood. Now they were nothing more than hunks of stone and glass piled atop each other, but they were once assembled into magnificent shapes. In the old days, people used to live there. Not in the dirt and brambles, like they did now.
There was something else. Something about the buildings. What was it? Its shape came to him in waves, his brain on fire with the effort. There was one among them that stood. One building that the black shirts overlooked in their rise to power. It was surrounded by the trees before they were burned down, by the water before it was turned red with the blood of other men. And she lived with him there.
Who was she? She was important, he knew that much was true. Why couldn’t he just remember it all? The black shirts were coming, and he wanted nothing more than to remember before they got to him. It would set him free. Free from their death squads, from their psy-ops tactics and misinformation. He could know things as they truly were.
The black shirts set up a smoldering fire right in front of the pool. They laughed mirthlessly as they tossed the ruined bodies into it. The smoke billowed up to the heavens, to the place where Joshua thought God might be. But not God as the black shirts thought of him, as the state and as absolute power. Not the concept he defied, the reason he was tied here in front of this tree in the first place.
He thought of a cool wind on a warm summer’s day, with his lady beside him in the last building standing. Her name… Mary. That was it. It was Mary and he knew that. He knew it with as much certainty as the blinding pain in his wrists, the searing of his mind deep in thought.
There they stood in the building, as if it was yesterday. He remembered the steam against the window, how Mary spelled her name upon the glass. He remembered her flowing hair, how it smelled as it brushed against his cheek. He remembered the slam of the door as it gave way. The pounding of boots as the black shirts forced their way inside. How they made him watch her die, even after he shut his eyes and struck out at them.
And then he remembered what she told him. That nothing could keep them apart, not even this mortal coil. She told him of the stories from long ago, how even the black shirts would fade from memory in time. That they’d have their place in paradise, in this life or the next.
Joshua’s eyes filled to the brim with stinging tears. He remembered. He knew what he needed to know. The black shirts were approaching. And as they did, something else came to Joshua. That fist wasn’t always there. In the old days, before the black shirts carved it, it stood for courage, and honor, and sacrifice. It was a monument to a man. A man named Washington.
The black shirts approached, they grabbed at Joshua forcefully. But even so, he felt nothing.
Off in the distance, a gunshot left one of the other men motionless. And then it came to Joshua. His one last memory. He remembered that first CRACK, what it really was. It wasn’t a branch from the husk of a tree. It was a bullet plunging into his own brain. He remembered this as the blood dripped slowly from the wound over his right eye.
They tossed him into the fire with the rest, but the bullet prevented him from feeling any pain. Instead, he was wrapped up in the warm embrace of his Mary, ready to rejoin her in another time and another place.