Last December

“So. Zombies or ghosts?” said Granddad.

“I like ghosts best,” I said. “They’re scarier.”

“How about The Haunting?” He flashed me a gummy grin.

“What’s it about? Is it scary?”

“Oh, it’s a classic. It’s about a group of guests investigating a haunted house. And it’ll scare your socks off!”

“But Granddad, I’m not wearing socks.” He chuckled at that.

“That’s for the best then. Here, go fish it out.” He gestured over to the corner where he kept his VHS collection and I bounded over to find the tape. Our attic was once a dark and dusty place full of heirlooms, stacks of my dad’s vinyl records, old toys and broken furniture. It had changed completely since my grandfather moved in. My brother Graham had worked tirelessly for two weeks and converted it from a family museum into a homey bedroom; complete with windows, a radiator and even a working sink.

Granddad could barely walk when he came to live with us and I’d asked how he would get up and down the newly built staircase to the attic. My mother told me he wouldn’t need to, that he would have everything he’d need to live out the rest of his days up there, cosy as you like. Twice a day a nurse came to care for him and he seemed quite happy to while away the hours in his little haven. It smelled funny up there sometimes before the nurse had come to empty his commode but I didn’t care. I’d always loved spending time with my Granddad. Besides, he never seemed to use his commode anymore.

New Year’s Eve was extra special because it was also the eve of Granddad’s birthday. And this was our tradition. Every year for the last three we would watch horror movies until well after midnight. I would wish him a Happy New Year and a Happy Birthday and then I would curl up and fall asleep on the couch next to him, safe from the ghosts or the monsters or the demons that danced in my imagination. I looked forward to it all year round, even more than Christmas or my birthday.

I fumbled the tape into the VCR and hit play. The old TV crackled to life and I bounced onto the couch. Granddad put his arm around my shoulder.

“Let’s just hope your mum and dad don’t get home while this is on. They’ll have my guts for garters for letting you watch it.”

“They’re never home for New Year’s.” My parents owned and operated three nursing homes and they were always working. Granddad had practically raised me. Nanna had died when I was just a toddler and I once heard my dad say that I filled the hole that she’d left behind. But eventually he grew too infirm to look after a five-year-old and my sister Grace was deemed old enough at seventeen to take on the task. A year later he’d fallen and broken his hip. My dad had refused to put him in a home and I was over the moon when I learned he’d be moving into our house.

“They work hard. Don’t think too badly of them. Besides you’ve always got me.”

“What about when you’re gone?”

“Don’t you be worrying about that now. That’s a long time off. Still plenty of life in the old dog yet.” Satisfied, I nestled into him and we watched The Haunting in silence. He squeezed me tight through the scary parts and I felt as safe as it was possible for an eight-year-old to feel.

“Granddad?” I said, as the film’s credits rolled. “Are ghosts real?”

“Some people think so.”

“Do you?” He smiled, but it was tinged with sadness.

“No. But that’s the beauty of life. There’s only so much of it. And once you’re gone, you’re a memory. So you better make sure you’re worth remembering.”

“But if ghosts were real, you could see nanna again.”

“I see her every day, son. In here.” He pointed to his temple. “Now look. It’s after midnight. We’ve gone and missed the countdown.”

“Happy New Year granddad. And Happy Birthday too.” He pulled me in for a hug and I felt his warmth envelop me.

“You’re my mate, you are,” he said into my ear. And I felt complete. It was a moment that I wished could last forever.

It was shattered when I heard footsteps marching up the stairs behind me. I broke the hug, twisting around to see my sister Grace appear in the landing.

“What are you doing up here?” she said, sounding cross.

“I was watching The Haunting.”

“You know you’re not allowed to go through Granddad’s stuff. Dad’ll go nuts.” I looked at Granddad. He was smiling at me but his eyes had filled with tears.

“But Granddad told me to put it on.”

“That’s not funny. Bed, now. It’s 1 o’clock in the morning.”

“But it’s New Years! Granddad always lets me stay up late.”

“Granddad is dead, Scott.”

“He’s not! He’s…” But I was alone on the couch. My eyes searched the room, but Granddad wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere. I suddenly remembered him dying. I remembered the ambulance men bringing him down the stairs and taking him away. I remembered seeing my dad cry for the first time at the funeral. But when I’d heard Granddad’s voice calling me up to the attic earlier that evening, I had forgotten all of it.

“He was here.”

“You can’t just say things like that, Scott. It’s not right. I’m telling dad.” With that she turned on her heel and marched down the stairs, leaving me alone in the glow of Granddad’s old TV.

“Granddad?” I said. But there was no answer.

Casualty of War

I pulled the trigger. The issuing discharge was so loud that it took my hearing and my ears buzzed with tinnitus. I was used to the sensation. The first tango–a foot soldier that had been patrolling the compound’s perimeter –went down in a heap. I’d hit him centre of mass, just like I’d been trained to. There was a brief moment of suspended calm as the other guards registered the shot. And then they scattered. I looked over my scope. They were like ants from this distance. But I had a marine-issue magnifying glass and I was under orders to burn them all.

I surveyed the kill zone in my crosshairs and watched as the men ran for cover, diving behind crates or into the three decaying structures that dotted the compound. I slowed my breath and waited. I knew my next shot would reveal my position. It had to count. I spotted a tango in the window of the largest structure. He poked his head over the sill and scanned the trees with a pair of battered binoculars. I had only moments until he made me but I allowed myself a few extra seconds to line up the perfect shot–a little to the left to account for the wind. I squeezed the trigger. The window shattered and the tango disappeared, leaving only a cloud of red mist where he used to be.

I heard shots and I ducked my head as a bullet zinged by me and mud erupted where it struck the hill four feet away. I put my eye back to the scope and saw that three tangos were firing blindly into the trees. They hadn’t made me yet but I knew it wouldn’t take them long to realise that this hill was the only viable vantage point in the area. I fired and hit one of them in the chest. He sprayed bullets into the air as he flew backwards. I cocked and fired again; hit another in the arm. The last man ran for cover and I followed him with my scope. The bullet tore through his hip. If he survived, he’d never walk again.

I saw a group of tangos–at least eight of them– dash out from the closest structure and make a run for the treeline. They disappeared under the canopy before I could line up a clear shot. I was on borrowed time. It would be a matter of minutes before they reached the hill and I had only basic training in close-quarters combat. I considered retreating to the LZ for extraction but I had a mission and I intended to see it through. Or die trying.

I watched the compound through my scope for what felt like hours but I knew must have been a couple of minutes at most. I heard angry voices calling to each other in the trees just down the hill. At any moment the guards would burst through the brush and open fire. I might take out one or two of them with my sidearm but I’d be dead before I could take a third. And then I saw him: Colonel Rusev, my primary target. He ran from the largest structure towards a 4×4 that was parked in the centre of the compound. I didn’t intend to let him get to it.

I heard heavy footfall ahead and I knew I had seconds to make the shot. I trained my crosshair on the back of Rusev’s head and followed him as he moved. I ignored my racing heart and steadied my breath. I felt the trigger beneath my finger, cold and certain. I exhaled. And then I started to squeeze…

“Tim. It’s time to come inside now.” I squinted up into the face of my father.

“But Dad! I’m playing snipers!” He reached down and wrenched the plastic rifle out of my arms, gesturing toward the house at the bottom of the hill.

“In. Dinner’s nearly ready.” I got up from my prone position and grabbed for my gun, but he pulled it out of my reach.

“I was just about to blow the Colonel’s head off!” He frowned at that.

“You know, I think you’ve been playing too many violent video games. Come on, I said in.” I sloped down the hill with my hands in my pockets, kicking at the grass as I went; just another casualty in the war on fun.