The Flag

Greenlawn Cemetery, Columbus OH -- © Sarah Gribble
Greenlawn Cemetery, Columbus OH — © Sarah Gribble

READ TIME: 5 MIN

A quickly written short ghost story in honor of Veterans Day. 

The rust-colored blanket of leaves crunched with each hurried step through the cemetery. Dusk was settling in fast, a hazy coldness creeping in. I pulled my phone out of my jacket pocket and checked the time. Damn. I was going to be late for dinner again. My feet shuffled faster.

I curved to the right with the path, knowing the way by heart. I had used this shortcut to get home many times. It was faster to cut through the graves, but that always gave me the willies, so I kept to the paved drive. I was passing through to the older section, the chipped stones a sharp contrast to the freshly carved epitaphs of the more recently dead. The veteran’s section was up ahead, their white grave markers lined up in formation. Tiny flags were stamped in the ground next to each one. Some had a bouquet of flowers, but most did not.

In the dying light, I could barely make out the chain link fence that marked the edge of the cemetery. There was a convenient hole behind one of the trees that would let me out a block from my front door. I hung my head to avoid the glare of the blood-red sunset, wiped my nose on my jacket sleeve with one arm as the hand of the other typed a quick message to my mom telling her I’d be there in five. Hopefully that would keep me from being grounded.

I was about to hit send, when a bugle sounded. I stopped dead in my tracks, a chill creeping up my spine. Ahead, a uniformed man stood next to the flagpole in the center of the vet’s section, a decommissioned World War I cannon behind him. He was looking up the pole at the flag whipping in the wind, the bugle now tucked tightly under one arm. No one else was in sight.

I studied him for a moment, wary. My eyes cut to the left, looking for a way around this possible lunatic. There was no path in that direction, so my options were to stumble through the graves or turn around and find a different path.

The sun was sinking quickly, only a few pink rays lighting up the graveyard, staining the white stones crimson. There was no time. Lunatic it was.

I sighed and looked back at the man, who was no longer alone. There was a group of three at each end of the wide grassy lane. All wore uniforms and side arms. They stood stock still, waiting on something.

Armed lunatics. Great.

I took an involuntary step back. My boot caught a twig and a snap rang out in the silence. I held my breath. If the men heard, they didn’t acknowledge the noise. Instead, they marched in unison up the pathway to the center mound, meeting the guy with the bugle at the base of the flagpole.

The man raised the bugle to his lips. Taps. The other men began lowering the flag.

Greenlawn Cemetery, Columbus OH -- © Sarah Gribble
Greenlawn Cemetery, Columbus OH — © Sarah Gribble

I sighed in relief. They weren’t maniacs after all. I took a couple steps forward, then hesitated. It seemed disrespectful to hurry past during the ceremony. I decided to wait it out; the flag was already a quarter of the way down, anyway.

I put my hand over my heart, then felt stupid and put it down. I shuffled from one foot to the other. My eyes were welling in the biting wind, causing me to see shimmering columns of mist around the graves. I wiped my eyes, but the columns were still there.

I stared, mesmerized, as the pillars of mist materialized into human form. I exhaled hard and blinked.

Soldiers from all eras and branches stood alert on the graves, backs ramrod straight, elbows bent in a stiff salute.

The flag was down now, the bugle silent. When the soldiers finished folding the flag, a man stepped forward in the center, clicked his heels, and saluted. I jumped as a cannon shot sounded. An impossible shot from a weapon that had long since been retired. Then another.

The sun dove below the horizon. All the men were suddenly gone.

I broke into a full sprint, tears streaming down my face and my heart pounding like a drum. I crashed into the chain-link fence and ran my hands frantically over the surface. Where was that damn hole?

My fingers brushed cloth. I squinted. It was dark now, the only light coming from a street lamp a half a block away, so I couldn’t make out what I was looking at. I pushed at the cloth and it gave. Someone had draped it over the hole. I pushed my way through, but my arm caught on something sharp. It ripped through skin and I cried out. Thick, sticky fluid ran down my arm.

I reached back for the cloth and tugged it from the fence. I pressed it to the wound. It was larger than I expected; I had to wrap it around my arm several times to keep it from dragging the ground and tripping me up. I clutched my arm to my chest as I barreled down the street, a river of tears streaming down my face.

Only when I was at the foot of my porch steps did I look down.

The cloth wrapped around my arm was a flag, now stained with my blood.

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