Early morning in the Santa Rita Mountains, Armando sat upon a rock and watched the dawn break. As the sky grew rosy, he could hear the Trappist monks sing the antiphon for Lauds. The arid, rocky desolation and the distant chanting drew his mind back 15 years to the hard memory of Anbar province.

Johnson sometimes passed by, a strange thing considering the lance corporal has been dead for these past 15 years; an IED tore apart everything below the waist.

Armando would wait for him. Different desert, but his desert.

He still wasn’t sure if it was a PTSD delusion or a glimpse of something else.

At first, Armando avoided this path in the early morning hours after he saw Lance Corporal Johnson.

In time, it bothered him, until a certain peace came to Armando, and he came back.

Armando sought Abbot Michael’s advice.

“Go every morning before you’ve broken your fast, and wait. See if it is truly your friend.”

“How would I know?”

“You’ll know.”

Lance Corporal Johnson came again, still in his desert MARPAT, M16A4 at patrol ready, always patrolling west to east.

Armando jumped off the rock and stood waiting.

“Yo, Johnson!” he called out. “How you doing?”

Ghost or delusion, Johnson never spoke to him.

“Mind if I walk with you for a bit?”

Johnson, silent, walked and scanned the ground ahead.

“The monks have been good to me. Folks back home write often. They’re glad to hear I’m doing well. They checked up with your ma; she is doing well and all that. Still working at Macy’s. Your lil’ sis is still a bit wild.”

The dawn climbed higher, lighting the mountains on fire.

Armando and Johnson walked side by side. Armando put his hands in his pockets against the early morning chill.

“The abbot and brothers, we say prayers for you, for all you guys. Semper Fidelis. I’m getting better; daily prayer, work. I mainly help out doing handyman shit around the monastery.” Armando let out a chuckle. “Keeps me away from the drinking. All that hell-raising. I guess I’m getting too old for all that.”

Armando looked at Johnson, still all of 22, 15 years later.

He stifled a sob and sucked in a breath, “I guess you don’t know, do you? Getting older, though sometimes, I’m not sure. Remembering; every year or two it is like a whole new world. You wouldn’t even recognize things…wasn’t like when we were kids. I mean, sometimes I think nothing has changed. Especially before I came here, but now, I guess they is why I came up…to the mountains, the monastery. I was losing time before like walking in place.”

And something different happened. Johnson stopped and cocked an ear.

Armando stopped, too, and listened.

Just the wind sighing through the pines and sagebrush. Far off, a coyote’s yodeling note sounded.

“…like I said, the world has changed. I was dating this gal, maybe about ten years younger than me. But I could never quite get her. It was like her whole personality came from her iPhone and TikTok. I just couldn’t get so absorbed into my smartphone and the Internet. She couldn’t get why I was so against pedophilia being legalized. I lost it when she yakked about ‘love is love, as long as they are consenting.The few people who have answers are shouted down or drowned out. I mean, how can I be an extremist? How can I be a bigot?”

At the last part, Armando was shouting; the shade of Lance Corporal Johnson paid no heed.

Armando calmed down.

“I used to believe in God, country, and family. There’s only one thing I believe in anymore. It’s like the world’s being run by psychotic twelve-year-olds. No, that’s not right; it’s just evil. Sick…people don’t make sense. The people who run shit don’t make sense.”

They stood facing the east to wait for the sun, whose rays would soon dispel this specter of the night.

“They’d make sense if you let the truth be told. I think you have. If only to yourself.”

Armando started at Johnson’s sudden speech when Johnson turned to him.

The lance corporal went on, “Don’t say anything. Just listen; my time is short. Your fight is not over and it is not here. Him who you seek asked me to find you and give you this message: Armando Joseph Gutierrez, your place isn’t among the monks of the desert praying, but back east. Head to D.C.; along the way, guides will find you. But beware; the Devil prowls the land seeking whom he may devour, especially you, Armando Joseph. Trust in Me as you’ve learned to recently. There, in Georgetown, you will find a priest. This priest will help you and you will help him. Your faith has been rewarded. Prepare yourself.”

Armando reached into his pocket, “How do I know this is true?”

“Only ask and it shall be revealed,” Lance Corporal Johnson said.

Then Armando understood how he could tell if the shade was in the service of God or the Devil. “Lance Corporal Johnson always wore something around his neck, he never forgot it because his grandmother gave it to him for protection.”

Johnson reached into the neck of his BDU and pulled out a detailed stainless steel crucifix. “No servant of Satan would dare wear it. Though it’s no comfort to my family now, it did protect me.”

Tears came to Armando’s eyes, “How? I remember you being blown to bits, bleeding and dying, screaming.”

Johnson smiled. “You remember all the wild shit we got up to in the corps; fast women and hard liquor ain’t good for the soul. I’d sinned enough to buy me a one-way ticket to the pit. But your faith shows you that one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“You know what. Ol’ Satan didn’t get my soul on that day. Before I died, I asked for forgiveness, truly sorry. Now in purgatory, I patrol the night, so I walk until that final day.”

They stood silent as the moments passed.

“The sun is almost above the horizon and I must go back. I’ll be seeing you around, brother. They destroyed our world; now we’re going to destroy theirs. Oooorrrrrah!”

Others filed past Armando; in full battle rattle they accompanied Johnson, a battalion of holy souls of purgatory. All marines, devil dogs in brodie helmets, paramarines, aged looking Khe Sanh leathernecks gaunt and still tired, force reconnaissance in tiger stripe, marched with Johnson to disappear once the sun broke over the mountains.

“Good luck, buddy.”

“Semper Fi!”

“Go with God,” some said.

Other just nodded an acknowledgement and mustered on.

They faded with the night as the sun broke over the mountains.

Before noon, Armando had packed his things, said a good confession, and drove his truck east.

Dedicated to my father, USAF veteran Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Requiesce in pace.