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The Devil's Photograph
by Jonas Micah

A funny thing happened two nights ago. I saw the Devil's photograph. And ever since, I've been restless, on-edge and waking up with strange thoughts. Right now, it's half past 3am. I can't sleep...again. So instead of beating my brain dead with another round of pixilated violence, or finding some porn to distract me, I'm actually going to write about it. Maybe it'll exorcise this demon humping my head. Yeah...just maybe.

I like to think of him as 'The Devil'. All capitalized and formal. It's more comfortable for me that way. But it's been nearly five years since I've laid eyes on him, so I should know better by now. He's not really 'The Devil'. Not in a true, biblical sense. Although if you talk to me on a bad day, I might insist he's at least a minor bureaucrat in Hell.

You want to know the truth? That reality that exists beneath the layers of self-delusion and trumped-up justifications? Fine. He's my former Drill Sergeant. The man who represents all that is evil, soulless and will-destroying in my nightmares. I won't bother mentioning his name. Hell, in my dreams he never has one anyway. He's always, "DRILL SERGEANT!...YES, DRILL SERGEANT!"

Sure, I know what you're thinking, lot's of guys have bad memories about their Drill Sergeants. But this is a special case. Because you see, my experience didn't follow the Army-movie formula. In the movies, the happy-go-lucky recruits always show up for basic training like a bunch of long-haired, pot-smoking, rejects of society. They butt heads with their Drill Sergeant, but eventually he whips them "into shape" and they can't help but develop a reverential respect for him by the time they have to say good-bye. Funny, but it just didn't work that way for me. My Drill Sergeant destroyed me. Period. I washed-out of Basic Training in disgrace. With my dreams of a military career stomped beneath his boots.

It's funny how much can change in five years. These days, I look a lot more like one of those long-haired rejects than I ever did when I first joined-up. In fact, I was always a very clean-cut, disciplined guy back in the day. It was pretty common for people to ask me if I were in the Military, or if I ever had been, and this was way before I actually signed-up. I was never in ROTC, or anything like that. I just had the look. People would ask me if I were a cop sometimes too. But no one does that anymore. I guess I just don't have the look these days.

I won't bore you with the details of my Basic Training experience. That's not what this is about. Suffice it to say, it was a horrible collection of events that involved abuse, physical beatings, the suicide of a close friend, and my eventual mental break-down. A year after my discharge, I was still drinking myself to sleep each night. Because without being drunk enough to drown-out the memories, I couldn't sleep a wink. But like I said, that's not what this is about. I'll save all that heavy shit for another time. God knows I think about it enough already. Tonight...or should I say, this morning? Tonight, it's about me finding a picture of my old Drill Sergeant online.

Strangely enough, I stumbled across his photograph while trying to look-up information about my old High-School buddies. I saw an advertisement for one of those Classmate database websites, and found myself brimming with good-natured questions about how the old gang was doing. Out of curiosity, I signed-up, filled out some survey questions and gained access to their listing of classmates.

Sure enough, I found a couple of my old buddies listed through their service. I didn't actually make contact with them. Heck, they might not even remember me, right? But I still got a kick out of reading their profiles and catching a glimpse of what they're up to these days.

Along with the listing of High-School classmates, they also had secondary databases you could access. You could look up former Grade-School friends, College Alumni, or even Military personnel. And that last one is what got me in my current predicament of sleepless nights chained together. A database of Military personnel, complete with personal profiles and photographs. Of course, the only people listed would be those, like me, who stumbled across this service and signed-up with it, filling out their own survey questions. So what were the odds that I would find HIM? Turned out the odds were pretty damn good.

Maybe it was morbid curiosity. Maybe I wanted to see if any of my buddies from Basic were listed. Maybe I just had the sick urge to pick at old wounds. Whatever, I looked. I didn't find any old friends registered, but to my disbelief, I did find my old Drill Sergeant.

They have a unique way of displaying photographs on this website. They don't just ask for a picture, they ask for two. A "Before" shot, and an "After" shot. Presumably so your old High-School pals and the like can see just how bald and funny-looking you've gotten since the old days. But the feature was available for the Military listings as well, and my old Drill Sergeant was one of the people (and I use that term lightly) who made use of it.

My cursor hovered above the link to his picture for a few moments with indecision. I wasn't sure if I wanted to see his face again after all these years. But once again, that inexplicably morbid need to pick at old wounds won the argument and I clicked to take a look. I was prepared to be angry. I was prepared to feel disgust at the sight of him. But I wasn't prepared for the actual sight of his face, glimpsed for the first time in five years. It hit me like a cock-punch. I nearly vomited.

I'd never had such a strong, physical reaction to an inanimate object in my life. I was shocked by how hard his face hit me in that moment. It were as if, for just a few brief seconds, he were standing right there in front of me again, screaming and beating the shit out of me. It took several minutes for me to shake-off the waves of nausea. I had to leave my desk and take a walk. Anything to distance myself from that photograph long enough to get my head together. But eventually, I did come back. A little more prepared, and much more steady.

I looked at his picture for a long time. It was one of those simple military studio shots depicting him in his uniform. Steady-eyed, even-mouthed and decked-out in his medals. Just like a good robot.

I stared for a long time, just letting the old emotions well-up from where I'd hidden them for so long. I got angry. I cussed-out his picture on my screen. I got sad. I rehashed old regrets and toyed with the remnants of broken dreams. But eventually, I got tired of that. I'd done it all before in the past. Hell, I'll probably be doing it again a few years from now. What caught my curiosity, was the link to the "Before" picture. Yeah, he had one of those too. I wondered what on earth he might have used. Maybe something from his own Basic Training days? I had to look.

The image that pulled-up when I clicked on the next link was a complete source of surprise. It wasn't a snapshot of a younger, uniform-clad version of my Drill Sergeant. Oh no, I wouldn't get off that easily. It was a picture of him from High-School. Hell, he looked so young, it might have even been Junior-High. There was no way to tell. But in either event, I was confronted by a picture of 'The Devil' as an innocent, wide-eyed teenager. I didn't know how to process that information.

I think we're all in agreement that Satan, Jack the Ripper, and Hitler just shouldn't have baby pictures. Period. Or if they do, we at least shouldn't have to look at them and be forced to realize that they too were once innocent. I mean, come on! It's comfortable hating Hitler. I don't want to sympathize with a psychopath like that. I don't want to look at the Fuhrer's High-School photo and wonder if he would have been someone I'd eat lunch with. But that's exactly the situation I found myself in.

My Drill Sergeant's picture from his teenage years was a very disturbing sight for me. I didn't quite know what to make of it. I tried to connect my feelings of hatred and resentment to both images, but they just wouldn't stick. Sure, it was easy to hate the image I remembered. It was easy to build that picture up into the portrait of a monster. But this snapshot of him as a kid was different. I didn't have any horrific memories to associate with that young, innocent face. It was like looking at two different people.

I found myself trying to imagine what he must have been like as a kid. Did he pick-out that shirt in the picture, or did his Mom get it for him? Was that his favorite color? Had he been out on his first-date yet, or was this a glimpse at his pre-backseat days? Was he a bully back then, or was he just another guy, struggling to make good grades and get enough sleep?

Then I went a step further. I brought up both pictures at the same time, and made myself look at them together. I tried to connect my nearly-instinctive, primal hatred of his military image, with the casual musings I'd experienced while gazing at his High-School snapshot. It was bizarre. Like the analogy I used earlier, it was kind of like comparing a snapshot of Hitler saluting, with one of his baby pictures. I was filled with a strange mix of emotions, and I could swear I almost felt new connections being tunneled in my brain. It was like I was learning something new.

It occurred to me that all men who do evil things, were once themselves an innocent child. A child standing on a plain of unfettered directions. They could have been anything. They could have turned-out to be anyone. And then I realized that we are the same. That I too could have become a man of brutality and viciousness, given the right circumstances. I began to see him less and less as a mythical monstrosity on the far side of a moral gulf, and more as a reflection of my possible self. It was uncomfortable, but also somehow liberating. For the first time in a long time, I actually began to see a light at the end of that tunnel of bad memories. I began to entertain the notion of forgiveness. Not yet, mind you. But maybe, just the future. It's a possibility now.

Jonas Micah is a 26 year old writer who spends entirely too much time working in Broadband Technical Support. But hey, that's what you do when the scribbles don't pay the bills, right? He is a highschool drop-out, an Army wash-out, and a fool who strives to be less foolish with each passing day.


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