Exactly four months and eleven days after receiving his notice, Jonathan Bailey was on his way to kill people he'd never met and knew nothing about.
Two buses, three planes, one helicopter, and twenty-seven hours later, he thumped to the ground on the other side of the world. He had scented sunscreen—four squeeze bottles of Coppertone, tearfully provided by his mother at the Greyhound station—smeared on his exposed arms and face. He reeked of coconut.
He piled off the chopper with the rest, a dozen tired-looking boys identical in their fatigues and fright. The large seabag he carried over one shoulder seemed heavier. Dust swirled, forcing him to squint. He spit to clear the taste from his mouth. He watched the chopper rise, and it was as though he'd swallowed a block of ice. It sat in his gut, leaking ice water into his veins, chilling his bones and making him shiver. The chopper faded to a dot and disappeared over the trees.
An efficient young marine lieutenant quickly directed traffic, porting off the new arrivals to the various squads. Jonathan knew enough not to salute in a war zone.
"Private Jonathan Bailey, Sir. Casper." Casper was the nickname he got stuck with during basic training. He was as pale as a ghost, his complexion courtesy of a very tall English family tree.
The Lieutenant's face gleamed with sweat. He wrote something on his clipboard.
"Lucky you, Private. Damn lucky. You're in the Fourth." He pointed to a large canvas tent off to his right. Casper noticed the slight trembling of his hand. "That's Sergeant Wills out front. You listen to him, hear? This isn't Pendleton. You remember that if you want to go home wearing clothes instead of a flag."
"Go on now, Casper. Good luck."
"Yes, sir." Casper almost saluted, but stopped himself in time. Leaning against the weight of his seabag, he tottered over to the tent. Wills, a barrel-chested man with a ruddy complexion, sat on an oil drum, whittling.
"Uh. . . Sergeant?"
Wills fixed him with an appraising stare.
"I'm supposed to report to you?"
"Asking or telling?"
"Telling, I guess."
"You in the Fourth?"
"That's what the Lieutenant said."
Wills slid off the barrel. He towered over Casper by half a foot. Casper made to back up, but Wills grabbed his shoulders. Casper stared into Wills' black eyes, pinned by the intensity of the man's gaze, feeling. . . something. A smooth slithering in his head, a twisting behind his eyes that made the air shimmer. A warm flush spread through his body, making his skin tingle, chasing away the chill. The moment passed and Wills let him go and stepped away, breaking eye contact. Casper blinked and swayed. It was like waking up.
"Grab a cot," Wills said, jerking his thumb at the tent. He sat on the barrel and resumed whittling.
Casper stumbled inside.
His first patrol came three days later; three hard, sweaty days spent filling sandbags and digging latrine pits. He would have been thankful for the break if he weren't so scared.
He stood outside the tent with the others, waiting for Wills, not understanding why everyone was so cheerful. He thought he'd been frightened when he'd stepped off the chopper, but that was nothing. They were going to hit the jungle. Reassurances about Wills' ability to keep his men safe hadn't gone far. He felt short of breath and twitchy, as though he'd drunk a dozen cups of coffee.
Hound—nickname courtesy of his droopy, basset hound eyes—saw him and homed in. "You doin' all right there, FNG?"
FNG stood for Fucking New Guy. It would remain Casper's position in the totem until someone newer showed.
"Ain't scared, are you?" Hound grinned and winked at some of the others, who grinned back.
Casper didn't want to admit his weakness. He shrugged, adjusting his pack. "I'm not scared."
"That's good," a chunky guy called Donut said. "No reason to be scared."
"Sarge'll take care of you," Keeper said. He was a soccer player from California. He played goalie. "He takes care of us all. Nobody dies under the Sarge's watch. Nobody."
It wasn't the first time Casper had heard that assertion. He hoped it was true. At first he'd chalked it up to chatter, a way to keep the fear at bay, but lately he'd begun to wonder if there wasn't more to it.
Wills strode up. Over the last three days, Casper had learned some facts and formed opinions: Wills was the son of a West Virginia coal miner; his mother was a full-blooded Cherokee. He was a quiet man who kept his black hair shaved to a stubble and didn't like to be called sir. He could drink vast quantities of warm Budweiser and never slur a word. He was fiercely devoted to his men. All the officers, even the puffed up self-important ones who thought their shit smelled of roses, treated him with respect.
"Take off the pack," Wills said.
Casper did. Wills rooted through it, separating things into two piles. When he was done, he pointed to the bigger pile and said, "Put that stuff back on your bunk."
The pile contained his mess kit, bedroll, a Bible, his field manual, a roll of toilet paper and other toiletries, the small folding shovel, and most of his extra clothes. The smaller one didn't have much more than a few pairs of socks and underwear and six cans of rations.
"Think you'll need that junk in the bush?" Wills slapped Casper's back to take the sting out of his words. "Go on, son, you'll be better off traveling light."
When Casper emerged from the tent, Wills had stuffed the smaller pile back into Casper's pack.
"You wearing your vest?" Wills asked.
"It's damn hot. Slows you down, too."
"And you won't need it," Keeper said.
"I'd rather wear it," Casper said.
Wills shrugged. "Make sure you drink plenty of water. Got your iodine tablets?" At Casper's nod, he said, "Okay, let's go."
They humped out, headed north. Hound walked next to Casper.
"Hey FNG, how'd a pale little runt like you get in the Marines?"
Casper thought a moment. "I slept with your mother."
Ahead of them, Ju-Ju, a tall black man, laughed. Hound stared, looking as though he didn't know whether to be insulted or amused. Amusement won and he grinned. "That answers that. Balls big as cantaloupes."
Casper returned the grin. Hound knuckled his shoulder. "Welcome to the Fourth, Casper."
"Where we going, anyway?"
Hound shrugged. "We go out, hike around for a few days, and shoot bad guys. Then we go back."
Casper hefted his M-16. He'd shot it hundreds of times in training, had even earned the Marksmanship ribbon, but the only thing he'd ever had in its sights was a target. The thought of sighting down on a man made his knees weak. He pushed the worry away and concentrated on keeping up.
It was closing in on four o'clock, and Casper was hot. Sticky-nasty-wet-and-hot. The kind of hot that started in his shorts, climbed up over the top of his head and dripped down the front, back to where it started. His vest chafed him through his soaked undershirt. The straps on his pack rubbed his shoulders. He thought about how good a chocolate milkshake would taste, remembered swimming in Hunter Creek—swinging out on the rope with a Tarzan yell and dropping into the cool water. Would he ever be cool again?
The shot sounded like a whip crack, rapidly followed by the stutter of several weapons firing at once. Hound was already on the ground. He grabbed Casper's arm and pulled him down. The air grew thick, and Casper found himself panting, trying to catch his breath. The ice was back, making him shiver, when moments before he'd been sure he was melting.
Hound's words got the world started again. "First rule: don't give them something to shoot at. Sarge don't tolerate sloppiness. Now watch him."
Wills was crouched behind a tree. He held up his left hand, making gestures with his fingers.
"Three of them," Hound said, interpreting. "We got the right. Come on."
He began to slither through the undergrowth. Bullets snapped through the leaves over their heads like angry hornets. Casper followed because he didn't know what else to do.
Hound stopped. He pointed and mouthed, There's one.
Casper followed the direction of Hound's finger, barely detecting a muted gray shape among the speckled green. The shape moved: Casper caught a glimpse of black hair and wide-set eyes.
Shoot him, Hound mouthed.
Casper's grip on his weapon tightened until his fingers ached. Shoot him?
Hound elbowed him. Shoot. Him.
Casper swallowed, trying to moisten his suddenly dry mouth. Staring into Hound's eyes, he saw that this was his defining moment. Either he was an FNG or he wasn't, either he could be counted on or he couldn't. He raised himself to one knee and sighted. He could feel Hound's gaze on him, expectant. The whole world quieted, waiting. His father had fought in Korea. Casper thought about what he'd said when the draft notice came. You do what you have to do and you come back to us, understand?
Casper pulled the trigger.
The man jerked and dropped.
Inside Casper, something broke, and he knew he would never be able to fix it.
That evening, after they'd pitched camp and settled in, Wills came over to Casper and crouched down, speaking in a low voice. "Anybody can pull a trigger and say to himself, 'I shot a gook.' For some, that's all it ever is. But for others, it's like being born and dying at the same time. That's what makes them special. If that's the type you are, and I think it is, don't be afraid of that. Don't be afraid to care."
Casper stared into Wills' dark eyes and said, "I won't."
He kept a calendar where he marked off the days in red pen. Once a week, he wrote his parents and told them not to worry, that he was fine. Every now and then, he would count and find himself amazed that another twenty days had gotten behind him. New faces appeared, familiar faces vanished. There was always an FNG. The weather went from hot and wet to cold and dry and back again. Time swirled away, lost in a haze of warm beer, cards, and the jungle.
He stopped being afraid, because the rumors were true. No one in the Fourth died, or even got so much as a scratch. It went like this:
Hound stepping through the covering on a pit, dropping in among sharpened punji sticks—sharpened pieces of bamboo coated with human shit—and hauling himself out with no more than a few smears of crap on his pants. . .
Ju-Ju stepping on a land mine and walking out of the cloud of smoke smiling. . .
A grenade landing right among them, shrapnel shredding the leaves all around. . .
Bullets buzzing through the air, thick as flies on watermelon, brushing their clothes, their hair. . .
Casper stepping around a tree to find himself facing the black hole of a rifle barrel, big as a tunnel, pointing right at him from not more than two yards away. The look of surprise on the man's face after he'd squeezed off four rounds and Casper had just stood there a moment before raising his rifle and putting a triple burst into the man's chest.
Pits, grenades, bullets, knives, stakes, mines—nothing could so much as prick the tender flesh of the Fourth.
And the days blurred into one long smear of jungle-green and blood-red.
At night, the faces of the men he had killed haunted him, and sometimes he wished he could stop caring.
Mist rose off the leaves in twisted streamers of vapor that clung like fingers as Casper pushed through the bush. The heat wrapped him like a wet towel. With any luck, this would be his last patrol. He'd been in country ten-and-a-half months. Two weeks to go, then home for thirty days stateside leave. He glanced at the corporal's stripes on his sleeves. One more year at a home post to finish his term. Casper felt dazed by how close he was to leaving. He didn't have a year's worth of memories. Maybe a few months at most.
Wills ranged ahead. He always took point. When he reached the edge of the clearing, he held up his hand, signaling everyone to stop. Casper and the rest crouched, while Wills forged into the clearing, thigh-high saw grass tugging at his faded fatigues.
Halfway across, he tripped the claymore. It exploded with a thump that resonated in Casper's chest. A claymore mine was basically a stick of dynamite stuck in a pile of ball bearings. Steel bearings whacked into trees, tore their way through the leaves. Bits of dirt pattered down on Casper's helmet. He heard them whine past his head.
Voodoo, a gangly black man from Alabama, picked up a bearing that had landed by his feet. He chucked it at Casper, and it plinked off his helmet.
"Cut it," Casper said.
The smoke cleared to show Wills still standing. He waved the rest of the platoon through. They hit the jungle on the other side of the clearing, marched another two miles, then stopped for a fiver.
"What the fuck, Sarge," Tex said, plopping down. He was a gangly Texan with red hair and a drawl. He cracked a ration and scooped out corned beef hash with two fingers. "This a boondoggle or what?" he said around his mouthful.
"Yeah," said Sully, a Mick from Detroit. "Thought we were gonna see some action."
Wills didn't reply. He looked tired, done in. He tugged at his pack. Casper went over to help him and that's when he saw it.
A dent the size of a dime, with a shiny, circular mark right in the center.
"Sarge," Casper said, tasting fear in the back of his throat, "your helmet. . . there's a—"
Wills' warning look made Casper snap his mouth shut. Turning so the rest of the platoon couldn't see, Wills took off his helmet, examined it, then scraped mud from his boot and smeared it over the dent. He set the helmet back on his head as though he were driving a stake.
"East," he said, jabbing a finger into Casper's chest.
"But it ain't my turn to watch, it's—"
Casper knew better than to argue. As he worked his way to a lookout position some thirty yards from the group, he heard Wills assigning others. Tex and Sully got picked, of course. Still hadn't learned the lesson of keeping quiet. Casper guessed he hadn't either. Invulnerable or not, Wills played the game for real. He ran the Fourth tighter than pages in a book.
Casper found a good spot against a huge root of a banyan tree, closing his eyes. Hearing was more important than sight. The jungle was full of sounds—birds calling, monkeys chattering, insects buzzing. The jungle getting quiet, that was the first sign of trouble.
A voice called out softly, "Casper?"
Wills appeared from behind a stand of bamboo like some sort of jungle spirit. "We need to talk."
Casper was suddenly struck by how old Wills looked. Deep lines furrowed his face, and the flesh surrounding his eyes was loose and dark. Twenty-three going on sixty, that's what he looked like. Casper remembered what his mother used to say about Mrs. Malroney, the ancient woman who'd lived next door. One foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
A flash of insight connected the dots, and Casper suddenly realized what Wills was sacrificing to keep them safe.
"Is it bad?"
Wills' shoulders slumped. "It's like driving a jeep with the gas gauge broke. You don't know you're running low until the engine starts to sputter." He sighed and rubbed his face. "Should've spotted that wire in the clearing. Something like that uses up a lot of juice."
"Call it short and let's go back."
Wills chuckled without humor. "We're fighting a war, boy. This ain't no Boy Scout camp outing. What're we gonna tell the boss? 'Sorry, Cap, old Wills ran outta mojo so we packed it in.' You'll be reading about my court martial in the Stars and Stripes."
Casper picked at a torn nail. "Sarge?"
"Why are you still here? You done your year. You done your year and more." It was a question he'd long wanted to ask.
Wills took off his helmet and ran a hand over his head, flicking the sweat off into the bushes. He stared at his helmet, turning it over and over in his large hands. "I made a promise to someone," he finally said, as he used the banyan root to pull himself upright. He put his helmet back on.
"Take it back, Sarge. Whatever you gave me and the other boys, take it back."
"No," Wills said with a slow shake of his head. "It doesn't work that way," he said before he melted into the green shadows of the jungle.
Five turned into a ten and then stretched to over an hour as Wills napped in the shade. Casper had swapped watch with Big Bob. Wills twitched, and Casper started thinking about how he hadn't noticed how much Wills had been sleeping lately.
The rest of the platoon lounged, dozing or lost in thought, keeping silent because that's what you did in the jungle. Casper found himself thinking about some of the men who'd been here when he'd arrived. They were gone, back to the world. He gazed at the new crop; Sully and Tex, Red Foot, Milkman, Bones, Rock, Voodoo. How much did Wills have left?
Wills stirred and opened his eyes, blinking. He glanced at the sky and scowled. Casper took the brunt.
"Why didn't you wake me, Casper? Think we can snooze all day?"
"You look like you needed the rest."
Understanding flickered in Wills' black eyes, but he put on a hard face. "Worry about yourself, Corporal." He stood. "Gather 'em up."
They found a tunnel entrance just before evening. The dirt around the opening appeared fresh and showed boot prints too small to be GI. Wills set the watch and stripped off his pack. When Casper tried to talk him into waiting until morning, Wills shrugged and said, "It's dark down there anyway. Keep 'em straight, Casper. Could get hot in an instant."
"I'm going with you."
"The hell you are." Wills read his expression. "Stay here, Casper. I ain't dried up yet." He gripped his forty-five in one hand and his flashlight in the other, and slithered through the narrow hole.
An hour and forty minutes later, the feeling hit the base of Casper's skull like a well-swung bat. Wills needed him. Wills was calling him. He looked at the rest of the boys, but they hadn't stirred.
"I'm going in," he told Big Bob. "You're in charge." The night was dark, the tunnel entrance darker.
"You oughta stay. Sarge'll make it back."
"He needs help, Big. Don't ask me how I know, but I do."
Big soaked that up for a second.
"Be careful," he said at last.
Casper heard something in Big's voice he'd never heard in a veteran member of the Fourth: fear. Casper was feeling some himself. It made him feel alive, like when he'd stepped off that chopper almost a year before. Like the first time he'd crawled the bush.
"We gonna be all right?"
"Do like Sarge taught us. Keep your watch, keep hot, and keep quiet. You know the rules. If we ain't back by morning, head in. Understand?"
Big Bob nodded. He was at a loss for words. Or maybe he was too scared to speak.
Casper stared at the small opening. The road that ran by the house he grew up in had a culvert underneath it. He and his friends used to crawl through it, pretending they were invading the enemy stronghold. Not to do it was to be branded a coward, to be called yella' and chicken and have dirt clods thrown at your back. So Casper did it. He hated it, but he did it. And every time he'd emerged from the other side, knees and elbows covered in mud, he'd been surprised that he'd made it through. He tried not to think about how crawling through that culvert made him feel as he slipped into the tunnel.
The red lens on his flashlight cast everything in a ghoulish tint, as though he was looking through glass covered with a thin sheen of blood. The dirt walls of the tunnel pressed close, brushing his shoulders, making the air thick. It was like sucking honey into his lungs. At a crouch, he shuffled along, trying to keep his breathing even, to calm his pounding heart. He felt the tons of earth crouched above, pressing down, teasing him before it crushed him. The weight of his pistol was small comfort.
He thought the tunnel would never end, but he finally came to a room, the dirt floor packed smooth. Empty. Crates lined one wall. A bucket reeking of urine occupied a corner. On the opposite side of the room was the opening to another tunnel. Casper pressed on.
Ten feet into the tunnel, he found the body. Adrenaline knotted his stomach. It was too small to be Wills. The man's throat had been cut. The blood on the dirt floor was black and sticky. He stepped over it and continued, coming to a four-way intersection. He chose the tunnel directly ahead, knowing it was the right way without knowing how. More rooms, two more bodies, more tunnels with twists and turns.
The air grew even more stale, his breath rasped in his ears. He felt trapped in some sort of strange world made up of dirt and dark and stopped time. How long had he been gone? He might have lived his whole life here. What if he never found his way out?
The tunnel opened into a large room, the far walls lost in shadow. Casper stepped down, shining his light. There were tables here, bunks along the wall. Three bodies slumped to the floor by the bunks. Another body by—
"Casper." A wet whisper of a word that made Casper's heart clench. He focused his flashlight on the fourth body, the one against the wall not far from where he stood.
"Sarge?" He hurried over and knelt.
Wills was a mess, his shirt soaked with blood and plastered to his chest, each shuddering breath accompanied by a wet gurgle.
"Hang on, Sarge. You'll be all right." Casper set down the flashlight and fumbled at Wills' shirt. Find the wound, stop the bleeding. . .
"Thought. . . I had enough. I was. . . wrong," Wills said in a ghost's voice. He grabbed Casper's wrist. "Too late for me."
"I'll get you out of here," Casper said. "They'll fix you up. You can't die. None of us can die!" He was crying.
"Up to you. . . now. Gotta take care. . . of them. Let me. . . tell you." He drew a shuddering breath. A trickle of blood ran from his mouth, dripping off his chin into the soggy mess of his shirt.
"Took over. . . from Edison. You. . . take over from me. Keep them safe. Promise."
"Promise! Keep them safe!"
Casper knew what Wills was asking. He knew what his fate would be if he accepted. But if he said no. . . How would he live with himself, knowing that men would die so he could live? He nodded.
Wills hooked a hand behind Casper's neck, pulling him down. Sparks the color of a Fourth-of-July sky brightened and began to dance and swirl in Wills' eyes. Casper began to feel a strange, swelling warmth in the center of his skull.
Wills arced, body spasming. A great, wet cough sprayed blood in Casper's face.
Wills went slack.
The swirl of lights faded, the warmth in Casper's head with it.
And the man who couldn't die, died.
It took him three hours to get Wills' body back to the entrance. A marine didn't leave one of his own behind, alive or dead.
The boys outside had seen some heat not a half hour back. Sully had taken a hit in the leg. Bones had patched him up, but he needed a real doc. Their fear was thick and reeking as hot tar, but Sarge had drilled them well. They knew the game, even if they'd never played it for keeps.
The half-moon had risen, casting a pale, washed-out light. They gathered around Sarge's body.
Big Bob's voice was hopeful. "Did you. . . ?"
"No," Casper said. "Whatever he had, he took with him."
"So that's it," Big said, sagging like a deflated balloon.
"That's it. Now let's get these boys home, Big."
He pointed as he passed out orders. "Big Bob, you get Sarge. Red Foot and Milkman on point. Voodoo, help Sully. Tex and Bones drag. The rest spread, five yards between. I'll range. Move it."
The stink of fear faded as they rushed to obey, glad to have someone in charge.
As he helped Big get Wills' body up into a fireman's carry, he thought about home. About hamburgers, French fries, and milk shakes, about working on his Ford Falcon and the smell of his mother's cooking, about the proud yet frightened look in his father's eyes when Casper had been called up.
He thought about his promise to Wills and how he would feel about it when he was sitting in his tent—if he made it back to his tent—with a trip home in his hand.
How he'd feel about it sitting home at Joe's slurping on a shake.
If he'd only been a few minutes earlier. . .
They set out for base.
David currently resides in Odessa, Florida, where he works as a Software Engineer. A retired Air Force Reserve officer, he's had the opportunity to travel to a variety of locations, including San Antonio, Texas; Miami, Florida; Tokyo, Japan; Tucson, Arizona; Montgomery, Alabama; and, Goldsboro, North Carolina. He's the owner and webmaster of SFReader.com, a popular website for fans, writers, and publishers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.