" Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"
(Casualties, part four)
There was a light on when he got there. Not the lamp by Percell’s bed; that would be against regulations. No, a flashlight. As Anderson watched, it switched off. Switched on. Off. On. Some bastardized form of Morse code, or just another sign of a guy who couldn’t sleep?
Anderson paused at the door, and the pattern of the on-off glow hesitated. He raised his hand to knock at the door ... but no, that’s stupid. I’m the sergeant. I can come and go as I damn well please.
Then why was it so hard to go in?
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Closed it, but that didn’t help much either. This was stupid, right? Go back to bed, Anderson. Go...
But then there was movement inside the barracks. Springs squeaking. Footsteps, thumping through the thick air like heartbeats. Anderson sucked in heavy air, and felt it catch in his throat.
Then Percell’s face at the door. “Sergeant?”
“Yeah,” Anderson said, as if in agreement. “Nice night, huh?” He affected a laugh and wondered if it sounded as false to Percell as it had to him.
“I guess,” Percell said, grinning slightly. “If you like locusts.”
“Was wondering if you’d be interested in pulling some KP duty.”
“Now?” Percell asked. Insubordination. But, Anderson thought under the circumstances, forgivable.
Anderson tried on a grin himself; a real one. “Or guard duty. Or whatever, you know?” Did his voice sound this conflicted when it was out there, or was that just in his head?
Incoherent grumblings shattered the stillness behind Percell: “...sleep here!...” “...can it!...” “...barn door’s open...”
Anderson whispered, “You up for it?”
Percell hesitated. “Why? What’s going on?”
Suddenly, the humor in him broke. It’s like Napalm City in here, isn’t it, Anderson? All the fear and frustration he had packed inside rose to a near-boil. “Look, maybe we both know what’s going on, and maybe we don’t. It doesn’t matter to me.” Oh, but that was a lie. He forced himself to calm. “You coming with me or not?”
Percell watched him for a moment that spun out like hours. Finally, slowly, he said, “Yeah, sure. I’m coming.”
They entered the night like thieves, swathed in sweaty darkness.
“The bunker?” Percell asked doubtfully, lowering himself in after Anderson. The flashlight was still in his hand. He flipped it on. The mute glow lit sprawling vistas of sandbags, and Percell’s face stood out in relief to all this monotony. Jesus.
“It’s dark. Quiet. Empty.”
Percell chuckled. “Unless there’s a bombing. Then we’ll have some company.” He leaned back easily against the reinforced wall and smiled down at Anderson, hunkered down a few feet away. Anderson wondered at that smile. Wondered if he’d made a mistake. Then Percell spoke, spoke softly but firmly, and the tone erased all doubt.
“What are we doing down here, Sarge?”
Zeke, crouched on the ground and drawing randomly in the dirt with a twig, looked up at Percell and smiled that same enigmatic smile back.
“Figuring things out.”
“Do I need to spell it all out for you, Percell?” He was amazed that his voice wasn’t angry, just inquisitive. After all the rage and confusion pervading his mind lately, this was a change. Maybe not the best change, but a change nonetheless. “The raid. The kid. Your letters. My letters, Danny, they all add up. I thought you ... I thought you knew that. I mean, weren’t you trying to tell me something back in my hooch? Weren’t ... weren’t you...?”
He looked back down to the dirt floor and saw that he’d stopped drawing and started digging. A rut. That’s what it all came down to, didn’t it?
“What do you think I was trying to tell you?”
Anderson looked up at him sharply. “Don’t do that. Don’t answer my questions with questions. I need a straight answer, Percell.” Nice choice of words, Anderson thought, and tossed the twig away.
“But what’s the question, sergeant? Was I ... was I coming onto you? Is that what you’re asking?” So incredulous the tone. So narrow the eyes. This was wrong. This had been so wrong.
Anderson stood and headed toward the opening of the bunker, brushing past Percell defiantly. If that’s how it was, then fine. If that’s what all this was, just questions and problems and mistakes, then he didn’t need it. If...
Then Percell’s hand was on his shoulder. That strong hand.
“Where are you going?” Percell asked. His voice was lower now.
“I’m leaving,” Anderson told him, not daring to look back. Didn’t want Percell to see the anger there. Anger ... or was it weakness? “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Percell’s hand left his shoulder. “I don’t know, sergeant. I don’t know.”
Anderson turned and saw Percell leaning against the wall. No, not leaning. Slouching.
Anderson approached him, his hands shaking and his breath stuttering out. “It’s cold, I think.”
Percell looked down at Anderson’s hands. “Not cold. But you’re shaking.”
“I can’t stop.” He stood in front of Percell and reached out toward him.
Anderson couldn’t tell whether it was a question or not, but he answered anyway. “Yeah.”
He found the top button of Percell’s shirt and slipped it through the hole. Whether it was an answer or simply agreement, it didn’t matter. His fingers shook as he slipped open the next button. And the next. Percell closed his eyes and turned his head away. Anderson paused.
“If you want me to stop...”
Still turned away, Percell said, “Don’t... Don’t talk.”
Anderson nodded, slipping open another button. Now Percell’s shirt hung open in the flashlight’s dusky glow. Underneath, a rumpled olive-drab undershirt hung loosely from the big man’s frame. Zeke sucked in a breath, closed his own eyes, and slipped a hand underneath.
His pulse pounded in his head as his skin touched Percell’s: flesh against flesh. Man against man. Words wanted to well up, phrases from a time and place that was becoming harder and harder to capture in his head. This is wrong. This is bad. Percell is a man, Zeke, don’t you get that?
His rough hand moved up Percell’s chest. When he accidentally brushed over a nipple, both he and Percell gasped at once.
I am so scared, Anderson thought, feeling himself growing erect under his fatigue pants. Oh God, I am so scared. Now his movements were taking on the quality of a dream. Part of him felt almost drugged, dozy. Other parts felt alive, awake for the first time in so many damn months.
One hand still on Percell’s chest, he reached down and hooked a finger around the top button of his own pants. As he opened his fly wider, he tried to fixate on his wife’s – his ex-wife’s – image. She’d been so pretty, so... But his mind wouldn’t stay there. His mind was here. Of course it was.
Shaking more than ever, Anderson rubbed his calloused hand over Percell’s nipple again, and now it was only the younger man who gasped. With his other hand, Anderson gripped himself and began to stroke.
Open your eyes, Zeke, his mind commanded. No. No. That way lies madness. Inside, in the dark, he could forget what was really happening. He could let this be a sweet dream. No need for pointless reality break in and destroy these strange visions in the night.
What reality? This is war, Zeke, in case you hadn’t noticed. This isn’t about reality. It’s about you and him, and the pursuit of happiness. Now you open your eyes and see what you have to do.
He let his eyes slip open. His hand was on Percell’s chest. A man’s chest. Fine chest hairs tickled at the spaces in between his fingers. His other hand was on his own cock. Stroking. Stroking faster.
See what you have to do.
The hand on Percell slid down and stopped. I can’t.
You have to.
Just fucking do it, Zeke, for God’s sake!
His trembling fingers slid down over Percell’s web belt loops, paused another second, and played his fingers over Percell’s buttons. Slide through. Slide out. Down, one more, one more, two to go. Percell uttered another gasp ... or maybe it was closer to a moan. Anderson slid the last button open, all of it in slow motion. The erection still tucked back there seemed big, too big ... but never having seen another man’s erection before, Anderson was in no position to make comparisons.
He reached forward to widen the fly, and found his trembling hand stopping again. Not yet, he thought. This far, no further. I’m just not ready. Maybe that was the truth. But the other voice in his head, the one that coaxed, that had also told the truth. See what you have to do.
Yeah. He moved forward, and gripped Percell’s work-rough hand in his own. Moved it up, over Percell’s open fly. He thought of speaking, then thought better of it. He wouldn’t have known what to say, anyway.
As it turned out, he didn’t need to say anything. Percell began moving, unlimbering his own stiff dick and wrapping his hand around it. He didn’t open his eyes when he started stroking. Instead, he grunted, “Hand ... on my chest...”
Without thought, Zeke put his hand back on Percell’s chest, moving his fingers up over one nipple, down over the other, lightly circling his stomach and swiftly tracing the concaveness of his navel. His eyes drifted downward, and focused on Percell jacking himself off. In this light, you could almost believe you were watching a movie, or living in a dream ... but maybe you didn’t want that. Maybe you wanted to watch this. And maybe it didn’t matter what any of that meant. Not right now.
His own jacking intensified. He was close. So close.
Anderson let go of Percell’s chest and gripped the man around the neck, bringing him close. Percell faced him, eyes closed. Their foreheads touched as they jerked off, swiftly, manically, finding a rhythm that they both lived in, discovering a raw heat this war attempted but didn’t understand.
“It’s coming,” Zeke stage-whispered through gritted teeth. “Oh! Oh!”
Then it was, his dick spasming wildly in his hand. Thick rivers of semen surged out, splashing onto the front of Percell’s fatigue pants. He bit his lip to hold back the screams. He gripped Percell tighter, his body going solid, going rigid, and then Percell was coming, too, bam!, more bursts of ejaculate, but this time it was from him, from another man, from Percell. God, was he drunk? Drunk on all of this? He felt his own dick jump one last time – God, he must have been worked up – and shot a final load all over Percell’s rigid cock.
His only thought was: Yeah. FUCK yeah.
Almost at the same time, the two men lowered their hands, panting deeply in the darkness. Then, without speaking, they moved closer, their rhythms still in synch, and embraced each other roughly.
Anderson sighed, “Thanks, man. Damn. Thank you.”
They held each other like that for awhile, as the Viet Nam night passed around them, unaware.