by Eddie Jeffrey
A couple of hours before dark the platoon stopped in a spot indistinguishable from any other it had been that day and dug in. They were resupplied by choppers with the usual and necessary: ammunition, grenades, claymore mines, C-rations, sand bags, malaria pills, etc. The choppers brought along some niceties, too: letters from home, cigarettes, soda, beer, and a crate full of ice. After everything calmed down, they took up their positions, cleaned their weapons, washed their balls, aired their feet out, and settled in for another long night.
Whelan was sharing a hole with Fontaine.
“I’ll take first watch, kid. Catch some Zs if you can,” Fontaine said.
Whelan, who by now could tell Fontaine’s state of mind like an animal senses a shift in the weather, obliged him with a sullen shrug and curled up at the bottom of their little trench with his poncho pulled over his head to keep out the worst of the mosquitoes.
For a while it was almost peaceful. There wasn’t anything nice about sleeping in a hole out in the bush, but Whelan found some comfort in the sounds coming from the other holes around them: Zippos pinging open and shut; grunts, moans, and curses; the rustle of shifting, uncomfortable limbs. And just as he was about to drift off, Fontaine nudged him with a boot.
“You hear that?” Fontaine hissed.
Whelan stayed silent. He was new, but he wasn’t that new.
“Ears up, Whelan. I’m serious. Listen. You hear that?”
Whelan grunted. He was getting fed up with the hazing.
“Come on, country boy. Don’t you hear that? That pulsating jungle sound? All those insects and frogs and things you hope you never see slithering around and going bump in the night? It’s dinner music for a bunch of hungry fucking cannibals, man.”
“You’re plumb crazy, you know that?” Whelan finally said.
Fontaine laughed and took a pull off his beer.
“How long you got again, Whelan?”
“I don’t know. Three hundred something.”
“Practically still a cherry.”
“We can’t all be short timers.”
“You pull anymore John Wayne maneuvers like you did today outside that ville, you’re going to be a no timer. Don’t you be jealous, though. I may be short, but all it means is I’ve been awake longer. I get home? I’m going to sleep for a month.”
“You know, sometimes–especially when I’m in a hole with you–I feel like I ain’t never going to sleep again.”
“Xin loi, my man. Xin loi. Don’t you worry, though. You will. You’ll awake one day no more for fucking ever.”
“I said you’ll sleep when you’re dead.”
“In that case, Oh, Death, where is thy sting?”
“Listen to you pulling that King James Bible shit out of your ass. You’re not as dumb as you let on.”
“You love me, man. You know it.”
“I’d love you more if you’d shut the fuck up.”
Fontaine started to laugh again, but stopped short.
“Listen. You hear that?” he asked Whelan through his teeth.
“For Chrissakes, Fontaine, I’m gonna beat your ass you don’t leave me alone.”
“Shit-can all that. Get up off your ass,” Fontaine said and this time he didn’t nudge Whelan, he kicked him. “There’s something out there. Trip flare! Look!”
Fontaine wasn’t pulling his leg this time. A flare had just shot up, illuminating the perimeter. Whelan got up and peered out into the jungle.
“I don’t see…wait…THERE!” Whelan said and flicked the safety off the claymore detonators and BANG! BANG! BANG! Fire and smoke and then the rest of the platoon lit the whole night up with tracers.
After God knows how long, the call to cease fire went out. Cordite hung in the air. The silence was absolute.
“Where the fuck are they?” someone yelled.
“Keep quiet. Anybody hurt?” the LT asked.
They all checked in. Nobody was.
“OK. Every other man out of his hole. Check the perimeter. The rest provide cover,” the LT said.
“You go, Whelan,” Fontaine said. “It’s your show, buddy.”
“You’re a real pal. Number-fucking-One,” Whelan said and loaded a flechette canister into his Blooper. He crept out of the hole and edged out past the perimeter looking for a body or a blood trail, something, anything, hoping for nothing, praying all the while that his eyes had been playing tricks on him.
He made it out about twenty meters and saw a dark heap of something on the ground a few meters in front of him that wasn’t a rock or a tree stump. He stopped short and pulled the blooper tight to his shoulder and crouched down. He inched forward, finger on the trigger, sweat dripping off him like he’d just stepped out of the shower.
Whelan moved closer. He was right on top of it now.
Nothing continued to happen.
It was covered in brush. He still couldn’t quite make it out, so he nudged it with his boot. Whatever it was had give, but showed no sign of life.
Whelan knelt down and took a deep breath like he was about to jump into the deep end of a pool and reached out to roll the thing over. The instant he made contact he pulled his hand back. The thing was furry.
He kicked at it again and when it still didn’t move, he put the grenade launcher down and grabbed hold of the thing with both hands and pulled it into the sliver of moonlight knifing through the tree tops.
“Goddamn it,” he said and let it go. He snatched up his weapon, angry with himself, at the no account fool he was, and started to head back, but then another kind of feeling seeped in and he stopped. For a brief moment, he felt like he had lost his whole context. How had he ended up right here, right now? Then it all snapped back, and he knelt down and hurriedly covered what was left of the little barking deer over with leaves and a few large rocks like he was trying to cover up evidence at a crime scene, but instead of fleeing, and for reasons he could never explain to himself, he sat down next to the makeshift grave and lit a cigarette. When he was done, he patted the mound and said he was sorry and went back to his hole.
“You get lost or something?” Fontaine said when Whelan climbed back in. “I thought you country boys were all direct descendants of Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett or some shit. We were about to send out a search party. You get anything?”
“There ain’t nothing out there,” Whelan said, avoiding Fontaine’s face and the smirk he knew was pasted across it and those searching, judging eyes. He wanted to tell Fontaine to go fuck himself over that Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett swipe, maybe even punch his face and wipe that stupid grin off it for him, but he didn’t have it in him at the moment. All he felt was embarrassment and shame and guilt and something else he couldn’t put a name to. It was like a pit had been hollowed out of his guts and now was being filled back in with things that made him want to puke. And all over a goddamn barking deer. The country was lousy with them. And how many deer and pheasants and rabbits and squirrels and hogs and sheep had he killed and dressed and cooked up back home? He should have draped the thing over his shoulders and brought it back to camp with him. They’d have had a real fine barbecue. But he’d buried it instead. And now he’d never forget and that’s the one thing burying was supposed to do was help you forget. And tomorrow something invisible would be tattooed on him, something inescapable. They’d all know. Not what, exactly. But something. He was in The Club now. A real vet. And all he’d needed to do was cross a line within himself he hadn’t known was there.
Once upon a time, Eddie Jeffrey was a cemetery groundskeeper. Now he works for University of Maryland School of Medicine where, in 1807, a mob destroyed an anatomy theater for fear the cadavers used for instruction there were provided by grave robbers. He has been an editor of Baltimore Review and his work has appeared in/at Three Quarter Review, Thrice Fiction, JazzTimes, The Alexandria Times, and O-Dark-Thirty. His father retired from the Army in 1987 and served two tours in Vietnam with the 18th Engineer Brigade.