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I hate this place. The rain never seems to stop, and combined with the smothering heat, it feels like you're slowly rotting in your boots. Then there's the mosquitoes eating us alive every day, and that's not even accounting for the enemy. The weeks of waiting at this outpost near the Cambodian border have been nothing short of torture, so it was with something close to enthusiasm that I volunteered for this latest mission.
We're briefed in the command tent by Sergeant Braddock, who will be leading the mission. He's a good man, at least for an NCO. Some of these fuckers won't miss an opportunity to remind you that you're little more than cannon fodder, but Braddock usually hangs around with the enlisted guys and gets us better rations, or smokes whenever he can, so we all agree that he's alright. Anyhow, he tells us that our objective is a Viet Cong outpost about 50 kilos to the Northeast, near a certain village far into the jungle. We heard that a patrol went missing around there last week, so we're to clear it out and, if possible, find out what happened to our guys. Myself and six others volunteered. We're unsure of how many Viet Cong we'll be up against, but it was decided a small group would be ideal to slip through enemy lines without being detected, with the unspoken implication that, if something goes wrong, at least losses will be few. I heard a couple of the guys in my platoon saying it was suicidal to go out there, after we'd lost so many to ambushes in the last few months, but anything was better than the endless monotony of daily patrols and work detail in that stinking, muddy shithole of an outpost. That was what I told myself at least. But, somehow, I felt a cold lump of dread growing in my stomach as the day approached, which only grew worse when I saw that he was joining the mission.
More of a constant threat than the presence of the enemy, or the bugs as big as your thumb, or the choking humidity of monsoon season, was that man, Private Richard Bowen. Ever since we were assigned to a sniping team in the Tet Offensive, that man has followed me. That yellowed grin of his, that swaggering gait, the satchel where he keeps his "trophies" after every battle, every detail is etched into my mind. He spits a wad of tobacco juice and phlegm into the dirt as we trudge through the underbrush.
"So, Callahan, you ready to kill Charlie? Think I'll add a few more trophies to my collection."
I pretend not to hear him and keep my eyes on the jungle around us, but then a rough hand jerks my shoulder and I feel his stinking breath on my neck. Bowen whispers,
"Don't fuckin’ ignore me, you little shit. You know what we've been through together, you and me. The things we've done. We're in the same boat, buddy."
He immediately releases me as Sergeant Braddock and Private Mosher return from scouting the trail ahead. The other men, who I've noticed by now keep their distance from Bowen as much as possible, look up as Braddock takes out a map and motions for us to gather around. He points to a section of the map,
"Well, we've located the village, saw a valley through the trees about half a mile down the trail, so the enemy lines are close. We might have to clear it out if the Viet Cong have established an outpost there, so be ready."
With this, we trudge through the brush, following that miserable cattle-path until the trees start to clear out and the land slopes downward. In the jungle, you are painfully conscious of your every move, of every twig snapped underfoot, as the enemy could be watching you at any moment or a booby trap could lay straight ahead.
Donahue and Ellery, who are ahead of the rest of us, suddenly stop in their tracks. Ellery motions to the rest of the patrol,
"Hey, you smell that?"
As I stop in my tracks just outside the clearing, I notice as the stench almost immediately. It hangs heavy in the sticky jungle air; the smell of decay is unmistakable. We ready our weapons as the Sergeant signals to us to move in.
The forest opens up onto the side of a hill. Below us, as the undergrowth thins out, stretches a clearing, mostly occupied by a few ramshackle huts and a sluggish trickle of a stream. We've reached the village. However, our attention is on the hillside, maybe ten meters away. I can see them crumpled on the ground, surrounded by a cloud of black flies. Bodies. As we approach cautiously, Bowen and Vasquez bend down over a few of them.
"They're V.C., alright"
Vasquez says, turning over one of them with his foot. From the way the heat was bloated the bodies, I can tell they've been here for several days. There are five laying on the hillside and a couple more crumpled heaps near the stream at the village's entrance.
"Think some of our boys got em?" Ellery wonders aloud.
However, the Sergeant looks uneasy as he surveys the scene, and I begin to notice the strangeness as well. Several of them are slumped over each other; though frozen in rigor mortis, it is obvious that they died struggling with something; no, with each other. One man still clutches a knife sticking out of another's neck, caked with dried blood. Another lies with a garrote around his neck, blue tongue protruding grotesquely from his mouth.
Bowen chuckles darkly. "Looks like Charlie’s doing our job for us, eh?"
No one replies. Finally, the Sergeant tells us to move out and keep our guards up, as there could still be enemy in the village.
We split up to search the huts just as the sun begins to set, casting long shadows across the clearing, which gather into deeper pools of darkness at the edge of the small valley, where the trees begin. The place appears to be empty of people, alive or otherwise. Raising my rifle, I walk towards the doorway to one of the buildings, which is little more than a lean-to scraped together from leaves and clay. I squint into the darkness at the far wall of the hut, near what appears to be the remains of a hearth. Suddenly, I feel the hairs on my neck stand up as I realize that there's something there.
The dying rays of the sun filter through the cracks in the hovel and illuminate a vague figure standing in the corner, facing away from me. A realize that it's a girl, dressed in a long, white robe that appears stained with dirt and debris; tangled black hair hangs down her back. I take a step forward, intending to call out to her, when she begins to turn around slowly. My voice dies in my throat.
Her features are obscured by the lank hair that hangs over her face, and wordlessly, she gestures with one bloodless, white hand. I begin to back towards the entrance. Something about her movements is wrong; the way her limbs jerk and twitch, like a marionette with its strings cut. One shaking finger on the trigger of my rifle, I quickly duck out of the hut, only to nearly collide with someone in the dark.
"Somethin' spook you, Callahan?"
It is oddly relieving to hear Bowen's familiar sneer. I shake my head, trying to ignore my racing pulse, and the sweaty hands that I grip my gun with. I dare to take one look back at the entrance to the hut. I don't see anything in the gloom, but I am all too eager to rejoin the others and simply tell the Sergeant that the place was deserted. That night, we camp in the jungle just beyond the treeline. Braddock tells us that the village is too exposed a position, but I think he feels the same way we do. No one wants to sleep near the hillside, where those bodies lay, or in the huts. Regardless of any signs of recent occupation, it feels like nothing has lived in that village for a very long time. It's no surprise then, that I have that nightmare again.
"Targets confirmed at your four o'clock. No crosswind. About twenty meters. Wait-"
As I crouch next to Private Bowen in the underbrush, I focus in through my binoculars. From our position on the hillside overlooking an encampment, the enemy seem almost like miniatures in a child's hobby set, running about in the chaos as shells whistle overhead, and the ever-present pounding of the artillery vibrates in the chest. It is the Tet Offensive, 1968. Our targets are a Viet Cong special forces unit that has occupied a village near a river that forms part of a crucial supply chain for the Army. We are to clear it out and, as a sniper team, we have orders to take out the leaders before they can slink back into the jungle, as the enemy always does. I desperately gesture to Bowen to hold his fire.
"Hold it, hold it. Don't shoot!"
I can see several men and women running towards the treeline, the leading soldiers pointing rifles at their backs. One of the smaller figures stumbles, and a soldier drags her to her feet roughly, screaming something. It's a young girl. The Viet Cong are using human shields.
"What the fuck is it, Callahan?"
Bowen stares coldly down the barrel of his rifle, which is hewn with dozens of notches. I swallow nervously,
"What do you fucking think, use your eyes! They've got civilian hostages, if you shoot now you might hit them!"
A sneer breaks across Bowen's face.
"They're the enemy, Callahan. The enemy."
Before I can say another word, he chambers a round. The bullet cracks through the air and I through my binoculars as one of the soldiers' heads is blown apart. His comrades keep running, looking frantically to the sides for the source of fire.
Another shot resounds through the clearing over my screams to Bowen to stop. I can only watch as the girl in the white dress stumbles again and then as her face disappears in a spray of crimson and she is thrown aside like a rag-doll. I can only scream as artillery rounds roar overhead and Bowen turn his face to me from his crouched position.
A broad grin splits across his face.
"That's twenty-two, motherfucker. Twenty-two!"
We finally made contact with the enemy today, on a ridge a few miles into the forest, we came under heavy fire in the mid-afternoon. We dug in on the side of the trail and kept up a screen of fire. Somehow, the fighting came as a relief, as the bullets tore apart the uneasy calm that had hung over us for most of the past two days. It was reassuring to know we weren't alone in this godforsaken jungle, even if we only had Charlie to keep us company.
As the rattle of automatic weapons finally died down, we quietly regrouped and accounted for our boys. I had made it off okay, and it seemed the others had too, although Donahue had taken a piece of shrapnel from a grenade to the leg, and a couple of us had to hold his shoulders as he limped. That's when Donahue spoke up,
"Hey, where's Vasquez? I could've sworn he was right next to my position."
We all exchanged grim looks. It was easy not to notice the enemy until they were right on top of you, a knife at your throat, and, despite our efforts to find Vasquez in the growing dusk, we all feared the worst. Sure enough, we found him. Several yards from the trail, in a thick stand of trees, me and Ellery saw something dangling from a branch. It was Vasquez, or what was left of of Vasquez anyways.
The man was hanging upside down from ropes, swaying slightly. His face was twisted into a mask of agony; poor bastard had only been dead for a couple hours, but his mouth was the only recognizable feature. The nose had been cut off, leaving a gaping wound that still oozed blood, and his eyes had been gouged out. From what I could bear to look at, the wounds had been made with almost uncannily surgical and clean precision. His stomach had also been split open, with the innards draped across his chest in a mess of flesh and blood. Beside me, Ellery was on his knees, vomiting.
Bowen muttered to himself. Finally, the Sergeant cut Vasquez down and, after a moment of silence, we turned to begin the trek up the ridge. As I turned to leave, I noticed Bowen stoop over Vasquez's body, clutching something in one hand.
"Hey, Bowen, what the fuck are you doing?" I called out
He looked up at me, the familiar grin spreading across his face as he began to saw at the dead man's scalp.
"Hey, I haven't gotten a trophy in weeks. One dead body is as good as another, right?"
My stomach turned. I wanted to pound his smug face into the dirt, but something restrained me. Muttering under my breath, I left to join the others as his mocking laughter echoed through the trees. Once again, I couldn't stop him.
When we finally reached the ridge, without encountering any further resistance, the Sergeant decided that we'd achieved our objective, and that we were to head back to the village the following day, having cleared it of the enemy and established a forward position. It was almost over, but none of us felt relieved. And there was still no sign of the missing patrol.
At the top of the ridge was a small dip in the land, almost a valley, with a thick copse of trees and some clearer ground that offered a view of the surrounding lowlands; an ideal observation post. The Sergeant told Ellery to radio headquarters to tell them that we had reached our objective. I was crouched in the trees a few feet away, on watch duty when I heard Ellery swear and mutter something under his breath.
"Go fuckin' figure."
"What is it?"
He shook his head and took off his headset. Calling for Braddock, he said,
"I'm getting some kind of weird interference. This area isn't supposed to be outside our range, is it?"
The Sergeant looked troubled and shook his head. "The enemy must be jamming it somehow. Keep trying."
As we began our trek back towards the village, the now-familiar feeling of dread began to creep over me. It felt like we were being followed. On several occasions, men had sworn that had seen shadowy figures out of the corner of their eye, somewhere off in the woods. The kid, Mosher, had even panicked and fired off a couple rounds into woods at something. The area was supposed to have been cleared of Viet Cong, but perhaps some other presence, one thick with malice, had descended upon us. I couldn't get what I seen in the hut off my mind, and the nightmares got worse with each passing day.
Things got worse when Donahue's wound started to trouble him.
When I had taken a look at it earlier, it hadn't seemed life-threatening. A few splinters of shrapnel had pierced deep into the flesh just below his knee and, while painful, he agreed that it was best to leave them in, in case trying to pry the fragments out severed a tendon or something.
But after a few days, he began to complain of an itching and burning sensation in his leg. Then, one night, we were all started awake by an awful scream.
"Get them off me! Get them off me!"
Someone grabbed a flashlight and we rushed over to where Donahue lay on the ground, flailing at his leg and screaming that that there was something crawling on him.
"No, it's in my leg! I think a bug or something got into the wound."
We tried to reassure him that it was wrapped in gauze, and too small a gash for one of those centipedes to crawl inside, but he was hyperventilating and complaining through the night that things were skittering over him as he lay there. Soon, all of the strength seemed to drain from his body, and we had to take turns gripping his shoulder and acting as a crutch. It was slow going, made worse by the fact that we seemed to be going in circles.
"Where the fuck are we, anyhow?"
Mosher spat into the dirt, looking around uneasily. The Sergeant was poring over his map, brow furrowed in frustration.
"The trip back to the village shouldn't be taking this long. We were only about 15 kilos away, it shouldn't taken more than a day or two. How long has it been?"
We looked at one other listlessly. Something was wrong, we could all feel it. The dense undergrowth never seemed to change in shape, no matter how far we walked every grueling day. Ellery still hadn't been able to get the radio working.
I was woken from a vague nightmare by Donahue screaming again. I groaned, looking to the side from my bedroll as a flashlight lit up in the corner of the clearing where we had bedded down for the night. Me and Bowen were on watch duty, and had been assigned charge of the infirm, so that the others could get some rest. The man's condition had been getting worse, the wound must have been infected, because he had started to claim that he had seen shadows darting between the trees, and heard low voices whispering over the sounds of the forest. He was going nuts, maybe we all were.
"Leave me alone!"
Donahue screamed. I saw a dark shape, Bowen's, bend over him for a while, as if to say something. The man's cries were suddenly muffled, then stopped entirely. For a moment there was silence. Then, with a sudden sinking feeling in my stomach, I got up and stumbled over to Bowen and Donahue.
The sick man lay strangely quiet on his bedroll. When I looked closer with my flashlight I saw that his face was drained of blood and his eyes were staring straight ahead, his jaw clenched in agony. He was dead. I glanced over at Bowen and my mind came to the realization.
"What the fuck? You killed him, didn't you?"
Bowen turned around. Before I could react, he grabbed me by the neck and pulled me in close. I felt cold metal bite against my throat as he whispered in my ear, holding a knife.
"He must have died during the night, how unfortunate. He was very sick, after all. Got it?"
My breathing was shallow. I tensed, as if to throw the man off me.
"You won't try anything," he sneered, "You never could stand up to me. You're a fucking pussy, and you're going to stick to the story, aren't you?"
Silently, he released me and slunk back to his place, leaning against a tree. I went back to my bed; all urge to rouse the others had disappeared. Miserably, I sank back into an uneasy sleep.
It was only a matter of time before another one of us cracked. It felt like we had been wandering those woods for weeks, and we were running out of food and water. The village should have been there, the trees should have thinned out eventually, but nothing changed. Ellery had kept trying to contact someone. We should have been near our own lines by now, but nothing came. No hope of rescue. Then, one evening, Ellery sat up and motioned to us excitedly, he had picked up a channel.
"This is Foxtrot Company, we're about, 10 kilometers from the village, but we're lost somehow. I'll send you our coordinates, over."
We all gathered around to listen. I felt a sense of elation, we were finally going to be rescued, it was over at last. Then, Ellery's face went pale.
"Could you repeat that? I seem to be getting some interference, over."
My heart sank.
"What's that? I don't understand, who is this? You're Americans right? What company? Over."
He seemed to grow more and more agitated. The Sergeant motioned for him to hand over the headset.
"Who are you? None of this is right. No- stop!"
Suddenly, Ellery screamed and threw off the headset. He got up, staring around at us like a cornered animal.
"What the fuck was that?" The Sergeant exclaimed. He went to pick up the headset, but Ellery snatched it away and, suddenly, tossed it into the woods. He turned to face us, and we saw that tears were running down his face.
"No- that transmission was all wrong. That couldn't have been our guys- that couldn't have been the enemy either. Whatever the fuck that was, I know this much- we're not getting out of here. There's no hope."
He began to stagger away and the Sergeant followed him, as if to place a hand on the man's shoulder. Ellery turned around. It all happened before anyone could react, a gun was in his hand. He raised it to his temple and a shot rang out in the clearing.
In an instant, the side of Ellery's face was blown away. Thankfully, he collapsed to the ground before I got a good look at the aftermath. Braddock turned to the rest of us, his voice trembling,
"Alright, no more radio contact. For any reason."
Bowen and me had been assigned to scout ahead on the trail. At this point, the enemy is less of a threat than dehydration. My empty stomach gnaws at me more and more every day as we circle the woods aimlessly. The others are despondent, rarely speaking. I've been seeing the girl in white more frequently now. I see her through the trees, gesturing wordlessly. Strangely, I am more afraid of whatever unseen presence has been following us, the thing that claimed Ellery, Donahue, and likely Vasquez as well. At least I can put an image to her and, somehow, I know that anything she would do to me now would be nothing less than I deserve.
Bowen is humming, while the satchel on his shoulder bounces in time with his swaggering gait. I try not to think about what’s inside. He stops by a tree and takes out a cigarette, casually offering me the pack.
“Want a smoke, Callahan?”
Suddenly, that all-too-familiar sneer plastered across the man’s face fills me with a burning rage. I feel his cold, dead eyes goading me on.
“Go to hell, Bowen.”
With a snarl, I grab my combat knife and lunge at the man, aiming an overhand blow at his neck. With a cackle, he darts aside and grabs my wrist, twisting it hard. He aims a kick at my gut and I collapse to my knees as he throws the knife aside.
“Your heart’s not in it, my friend”
Screaming like an animal, I aim a desperate punch at his face, but he simply knocks it aside with one hand. Before I can recover, Bowen lands a blow on the back of my neck. Stars flicker across my vision as it goes black, and all can hear is his mocking laughter.
When I come to, I immediately realize that I am not alone. Standing by the tree, several yards away is a solitary figure in white. I manage to stagger to my feet and glance at the lank curtain of hair which I know covers a blood-slicked smear, a face destroyed by a sniper’s bullet. Silently, she points towards the clearing with a small, bloodless hand. Tears blur my vision and my voice shakes as I call out,
“I’m sorry, please forgive me. I couldn't stop him.”
She merely gestures mutely and I know what must be done. Ignoring the throbbing in my head, I follow my guide through the jungle, as the setting sun casts long shadows between the trees. The forest is oddly silent, devoid of the usual sounds of life, and all the colors seem washed-out somehow in the twilight. A gunshot rings out and I break into a run to reach the clearing.
As I emerge from the trees, I see him standing there, combat knife in one hand, pistol in the other. At his feet lays a crumpled heap. On the other side of the clearing, I see Sergeant Braddock slumped against a tree, blood running from his mouth and behind his ear. He bends down over Mosher’s body, gripping the knife in one hand and holding the dead man’s scalp as he begins a familiar ritual. This is my chance. I sprint towards him, diving for the gun. He looks up in surprise. Then, quickly recovering, he aims a kick that sends me sprawling. I kneel, doubled over, my fingers desperately searching for the pistol. I turn around and see him standing over me, a grin across his face.
He is pointing the gun at me. As I stare into those merciless eyes, I begin to realize that they are the last thing I will ever see.
“Why?” I blurt out, “Why did everyone have to die? And for what? Why are we even here?”
Tears stream down my face. He just laughs, as he chambers a round.
“Don’t you fucking get it, Callahan? There’s as much blood on your hands as there is on mine.”
I sink to my knees, feeling utterly empty.
His words ring out at the same time as the gunshot flashes. I feel a sharp agony above my eye and then, darkness.
The hospital ward in Saigon has become familiar in the past few weeks. They say I can go home soon. A few officers visited and said something about a medal. From what I've gathered, a patrol found me less than a mile from the outpost, south of the village. They had received a distress signal and decided to search the jungle for the mission that had gone out three days before. A Viet Cong ambush and I was the only survivor, It all seemed to fit. Only one thing bothers me though, a nagging feeling in the back of my mind on nights when the pain where my right eye used to be keeps me awake. When I asked if they had found the body of a Private Richard Bowen, my superiors had looked confused. They told me that six men had gone out into the jungle that day and that there was no Private Bowen registered in my platoon.
Credited to Wasurete