(Casualties, part two)
He'd seen the look before; of course he had. In this place, the look was almost common: the blank stare, the black circles, the roadmaps of redness insomnia imprints on your eyeballs. Yeah. If you looked closely, you could watch young men - boys, really - turn into old men right in front of your eyes. You couldn't do anything about it. This place ... it haunted a man, got under your flesh until you could feel it writhing there. For awhile, you could escape into sleep, but soon enough even that refuge was blown to bits. This place followed you, creeping slowly. Anderson was afraid it had finally caught up to him.
The need to be alone in this desolate place ... well, it didn't make much sense. That was okay; nothing made sense over here. Anderson ate his slop far away from the mess tent, far away from his platoon. He could tell they were getting worried about him, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Since the raid, the fucking botched raid, nothing seemed to matter anymore. Him being off alone was bad for morale? Well, fuck morale. He didn't want to be here anyway. Footsteps approached, and he turned away from then, wishing suddenly to be invisible. Maybe whoever it was would simply pass by. But he didn't. "Hey Sarge," Percell called in a jovial tone, hunkering down to eye level. "Whatcha doing out here?" "Eating." Simple. To the point. But he still wasn't leaving. "By yourself?" "I want to be alone at the moment, Percell." As if underlining his point, he dunked his spoon into the bowl and shoved it in his mouth. Jesus, this stuff tasted like dog shit. Percell's boots moved, and relief briefly lit Anderson's brain ... mixed with an odd twinge of regret he didn't understand or credit. Then, instead of standing, Percell hunkered down next to him, grinning into his face. "Tastes great, huh?" Percell asked, nodding at the bowl. "I believe I told you I want to be alone," Anderson grumbled. "I don't think you do," Percell told him, his grin shrinking and becoming more serious. "You don't think I've seen it, Sarge? Think all of us haven't seen it?" "Seen what?" Anderson barked angrily. "What the fuck are you talking about." "Your eyes, Sarge. That's what you notice first. You've got the hundred-yard stare, and you've had it for weeks now. Since the raid." Anderson had half a mind to smash his bowl against the private's head. Something in Percell's stare made him stop. "I don't want to talk about that, Percell." "Ah, see, you're lying there, too. Maybe you can do it to yourself, Sarge. But you can't do it to me." "Oh, gee, thanks Freud. You know what? You can take this shrink shit and shove it up your ass!" He stood, anger breaking out all over him in a sweat, and flung his bowl away. Slop flew everywhere. Not looking back, he stormed off toward his tent, wishing he had never talked to Percell in the first place, praying that Percell would just forget the whole thing. But he didn't. Not by a long shot.
The dreams haunted him at night: haunted, it always came back to that. The raid, sure. The monumental fuck-up of his life. But if that had been it, been all, then things might be different. In war, you can move past things. Forget things. The suspension of belief was high over here; if you didn’t want to remember what you’d done, you didn’t have to.
But they came back anyway. Revenants. Human faces of misery, shot dead in a land Anderson had never even heard of as a boy. The carnage, the bloodshed, the endless monotony of this war, and he was most afraid that one day he’d stop seeing the faces of boys with guns who’d once been alive and start seeing his own.
He awoke with a start, clutching at his sweat-drenched face and gasping for breath. It seemed impossible to find in the humidity. Then, he glanced up and there was a figure silhouetted in the doorway.
“The fuck out,” Anderson grunted, swinging his feet out onto the sickly-warm floor and attempting to stand. Another botched mission. Fuck.
“You came to me first, Zeke,” Percell said. “I want to know why. Was it for me? Or for you?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Percell,” Anderson said, finally making it up and going to his footlocker. That’s where the forgetting was, in the form of an outrageously priced bottle of Jack Daniels purchased on the black market in Saigon. Daniel Percell. One of those young boys with guns who haunted his dreams. Only Percell wasn’t dead. Yet.
Percell shut the door behind him and stalked into the room. “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. I don’t know what to think anymore, Sarge. One day you’re coming up to me and saying you owe me for saving your life, the next day…”
Ah, the Jack! One swig down, and already things seemed better. They weren’t better, that was how Nam worked … but they seemed better.
“Are you hearing me, Anderson? I said…”
“I heard what you said, Percell. I guess I’m just coming around to the idea that maybe yours truly wasn’t a life worth saving.”
Head down for another swig, and that’s when Percell’s fist connected with his jaw. The Jack flew across the room. For a wild second, Zeke saw the bottle as a grenade, and wondered if this wasn’t some crazy déjà vu. If they had to do it over again, would Percell save Anderson’s life a second time?
“That was prime stuff!” he growled at Percell. Focus on the booze. Better that way. “You know how much that cost?”
“Can it, Anderson. What the hell’s going on with you?”
“You want to rumble? Is that it? C’mon, let’s take this outside!”
“You know what I think?” Percell asked, stepping closer. “I think you’re scared.”
“Of you? Hardly.”
“No. Scared of yourself. Of what this place is making you. And so you come to me, the man who saved your life. Now you want me to do it again.”
Zeke’s rage bubbled, fired … then settled. He clenched his aching jaw and turned away. “Fuck you, Daniel.”
“Fuck you, Zeke. How did it all come to you? Oh, jeez, I’m fucked up, so let’s find the only guy around here half as fucked up as me and see if I can’t get some sympathy? Well, sorry Sarge, I can’t do that. I don’t have any left to give.”
“No.” Anderson sat back down on his bunk. Things were better when you didn’t have to stand.
“No, that’s not how it was.”
“Then how was it?”
Things were also better when you didn’t have to put it into words. How do you look at this guy, this kid, and say, Here’s how it is. After the raid, I shut down. Okay? Blanked out. Far out. Haunted. Nothing penetrates these walls. And then you. You with your Dear Dan letter and child’s blood on your hands. You who saved my life. You’re wounded, same as me. So I go to see you. Maybe to help you. Maybe to help myself. And for the first time in this endless stretch of days, I finally felt something again. Felt something more that this blank shell I’ve been hauling around. Let in sorrow. Let in grief. And now maybe I don’t want it so much anymore.
But how do you say that to someone?
He looked up at Percell, wanting to shade his eyes so he might not see what was lurking behind them. Percell took three deliberate steps toward him and rested a hand on Anderson’s shoulder. Zeke looked at the hand for a moment, then back up into Percell’s face. The man had strong hands. Suddenly, that seemed important.
“You figure it out, Sarge,” Percell said, “You let me know.”
Then, without another word, Percell turned and walked out of the hooch, closing the door quietly behind him. Zeke stared at the closed door for long minutes.
“Shit,” he whispered, crossing his arm past his chest and settling it on his shoulder, where Percell’s hand had sat. Figure it out? Figure what out?