By DT Mattingly
They sped a derelict car through a bleak road entangled by perched autumn trees, limp branches reminding them of their dejection—dangling for the world to see.
The route harbored an ominous silence. With their left hand, the drivers brushed their index and middle fingers together, falling deep into thought. That day, they took on the name June, to them a non-binary combination of the common names Jane and John, the middle of months, a lighthearted take on parity and bigenderism.
They glanced at their phone, the words ‘he’s gone’ staring back at them with comatose font behind a bleeding LCD display, a curtain of mockery.
“The commander,” June mumbled.
The fabric of the environment grew ethereal. June searched in the discolored hues for answers, discovering an open battlefield forming from an unknown realm, and on it a commander far from combat. The leader appeared stoic and reticent. He gazed at holstered monitors in an indigo-painted debriefing room, fingers locked behind his back.
June needed to make a decision, but nothing seemed complex about the commander. He was old—hovering over a bright, red button, his internal demons cackling as he conserved an outer façade of apathy—like a child told to behave at dinner in order to receive their long-awaited cake.
But, June knew if he hadn’t pressed it, they wouldn’t exist—that sometimes war was necessary, but not really. Hard to justify, June chose to move on.
June accelerated their car into resisting squalls. An image of the former battlefield hovered like a portal to another dimension, never leaving an adjacent position to the vehicle as it travelled.
“The soldier,” June tried.
Projectiles and explosives shared specks of copper on a map, the points traversing lands, leaving behind blood and desperation. June witnessed the battle from above, like a crow eyeing its next feast. Except June felt prey to their emotions, searching for one particular soldier, afraid of seeing the devastation along their pursuit.
June fled, and the portal to a world of soldiers projected aside the image of the commander, sounds of destruction overpowering the music, a reality too tough to stomach.
“June.” A voice called, sounding familiar and sincere. The car stopped at a swerve, the rubber of its cheap tires releasing charred fumes.
“Who’s there?” June asked.
“Withdraw from your ruminations.”
“You didn’t answer me!”
June reached for the car keys to discover them missing. Other objects individually disappeared until the land exhibited absolute whiteness, the closest of ecosystems to endless snow: a blank canvas. June’s mind fell into an avalanche of reflecting colors. Their eyes shut. The mysterious entity spoke once more as June sank further into a void, like an anchor falling into an abyssal sea, their volition no longer guided by the road, but by emptiness.
“Honey, it’s me.”
“The only war is inside of you. The commander. The soldier. These characters are mere fragments of him. He loved you so much, search for him in that light. Please.”
“Mom, is that you? It must be.” June looked away, shaking their head. “You know he never accepted me for who I am … Where are you? How can I hear your voice?”
“Open your eyes.”
Bristles of grass caressed June’s feet as air currents created ripples in a sunny meadow. They watched each strand fall between their toes, almost like grains of sand, but sharper.
“Mom,” June called, “it isn’t that easy. He was never home. He questioned my morality, disowning me while comfortably leading an army to slaughter and pillage others! Where’s the love?”
“He didn’t understand. I didn’t understand. At least, forgive him.”
A tempest advanced. Lightning loomed like serrated blades falling from the sky. Clouds covered the sun to emit a dim and gloomy gray, and the sunlight beamed in streaks, an amalgam of climates casting a crimson tone before the meadow.
Mother spoke again, “He suffered a lot for us. Regardless, he may have not accepted you, but he always loved you.”
June’s eyes closed at the rush of heartache, thoughts of his judgments wandering in her head. Afraid to look for the source of her mother’s tongue, June squeezed their eyes shut even harder, tears forcing their way out from beneath the crevices.
* * *
The storm had been vanquished. The clock read 3:00 AM, and June felt in control, only moments from the hospital, their car somehow intact and mobile again. A smile broke their face as they glanced over to the empty passenger seat, picturing their younger self—jubilant and sharing fulfilling moments with him—during a time when identity didn’t matter, at least to them.
A hospital room reeked of the decaying flesh of the thousand soldiers massacred by his hands alone. June nearly lost their balance, seeing copper stars stamped on the walls, their vision forming a maelstrom of blurred parabolas. They awaited the maternal voice, but it never arrived. Entirely on their own, June had to snap out of it.
But, June didn’t recognize him. Lifeless, his prune skin hung lower than his judgment. They recalled the moments of hatred and bigotry, the painful memories leading to their familial exile. June knew death not only waited for no one, but it also never excused a person for his or her wrongdoings.
“The Father,” June whispered.
But even when on his deathbed, the title seemed unfitting.
Delvon T. Mattingly, who also goes by D.T. Mattingly, is an emerging fiction writer and a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Michigan. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiction Pool, Scrutiny Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Red Queen Literary Magazine, MoonPark Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his two cats, Liam and Tsuki. Learn more about his work at http://delvonmattingly.com