Michael Thorne could spend all summer listening to the sounds of The Doors and The Stones through the tinny speakers, the basslines reverberating under his feet and through his body. Every so often, a chant would rise above Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison, the voices of the protesters coming together as one to call for peace in Southeast Asia. The steps of City Hall were hidden under a tier of multicolored shirts and placards made with cheap cardboard and felt-tip pens. Although their numbers may have appeared intimidating – Michael had counted the majority of his graduating class over the past three hours, and it was only 6pm – the people were peaceful, made all the more mellow by the marijuana passed from one to the next with startling ease, a toxic layer of intermittent smoke clouding the landscape.
It was Michael’s fourth such rally in as many days, and he knew from previous experiences that once the police came along or it grew dark, they would take their music and their joints and their beer to the beach, where a fire would roar and he would be dragged back to consciousness when the sun peeked over the horizon to find himself under a blanket with a girl whose name he couldn’t remember (or hadn’t been told to begin with). The plan was to go home, sleep off the unavoidable headache, and then do it all over again that afternoon.
War wouldn’t stop itself.
* * * * *
To many, the three-story house with its white picket fence and neatly manicured lawn was the epitome of the American dream. It was terrifyingly stereotypical and picturesque, sitting primly on a street of identical buildings that could never be personal enough to call ‘home’. All the mailboxes were painted the same color – Desert Sienna – and the flowerboxes looked like clones of each other. Although there was no regulation stating it had to be so, it was an unspoken rule among the inhabitants of Wrenwood Avenue that things would stay as they were.
Then the war rolled around and changed everything.
Michael often wondered what the neighbors would think if they knew what happened behind closed doors. Sometimes the thunder of his parents’ arguments would crash and bang as he lay in bed; once, he’d woken to find a fist-shaped hole in the plaster of one of the walls near the staircase. He hadn’t said a word at breakfast, afraid to do or say anything to shatter the illusion of peace. He’d left for school and the hole wasn’t there when he’d returned. He doubted the Stanleys next door were aware of the fights that took place once twilight fell; his parents didn’t need the cover of darkness anymore, couldn’t wait for it. The shroud of waning light was enough.
Luckily, it was a good ten hours or so until dusk, and his shadow was a mere infant as it trotted obediently by his side. His cheap sunglasses plotted against him and sharp rays filtered through, burning his eyes and causing the tribal drummers in his head to pick up the rhythm, never relenting. The walls of white in all directions were too bright and he almost wished for night to arrive early so he could gain a reprieve, but then he sorted through the murky haze of a few too many beers and a joint or two and remembered what happened in the evenings, and the thought quickly sobered him.
The long driveway felt like a walk of shame. He knew the routine: a couple of dozen occasions was more than enough rehearsal time. He had to command his feet to put one in front of the other. Hell, he was too tired and too hungover to tolerate any bullshit he might receive on the other side of that eggshell-white door (a satisfactory choice made by Wrenwood Avenue – not too gloomy but not too attention-seeking, either).
As soon as the door closed, John Thorne, ex-General, boomed, “Where have you been?”
“Out,” Michael replied irritably, pushing his way around his father, heading for the stairs.
“Out? At one of your protest rallies?” He could practically taste the bitter tang of the ever-present sneer.
“I’m tired. I just want to sleep. Can we talk about this later?”
John said, “You’ve left school. We need to discuss your options.”
“I told you a thousand times, I want-”
“To be a writer, I know. Face reality: you can’t always get what you want.” Michael felt the flush creep up his neck. His weariness only added to his irritability, and there was nobody who could burrow under his skin like his father. Towering over him on the fifth step, he bristled and shouted, “If I’m ‘facing reality’, as you put it, I should face up to the fact that you want me out of here! You only talk to me in order to see the back of me!”
“Enough!” John roared loudly; the clock nearby was scared to tick-tock in case it offended him. “I don’t like that attitude, boy. A period of time in a boot camp might change your mind. I know people who could put you there faster than you could curse me over it.”
“Boot camp?” Michael echoed in disbelief. “You can’t make me fight in that war! It goes against all my beliefs and-”
“You’re not old enough to understand.”
“But I’m old enough to die?” he asked incredulously.
The vein in his father’s forehead throbbed warningly. “Go to bed,” John said finally, “and sleep, smoke your cigarettes. But we will discuss this later and you will like it.”
Michael opened his mouth to protest but a door opened upstairs and his mother’s form appeared over the railing, a half-empty bottle of vodka clutched tightly in one fist. “What’s going on?”
Father and son stared at each other for a long moment before Michael sighed, ran a hand through his shaggy hair, and said, “Nothing.”
* * * * *
He was lying on the thinnest mattress in the world, and he wasn’t a man prone to hyperbole. Sleeping on the cold floor may have been preferable – at least then there wouldn’t be a spring sticking up his ass.
The dormitory-style room took some getting used to and Michael suspected he needed more time. He had never been a heavy sleeper at home but a natural instinct of self-preservation kicked in when he was suddenly surrounded by scores of men – boys – from all walks of life. Some found it funny to pour water over others while they were deep in unsuspecting dreams; Platt, a few mattresses down on the left, had come in from a training exercise one day to find a dead rat underneath the sheet. There had been raucous laughter but he had only picked it up by the limp tail and carried it outside before stretching out over the skeletal excuse of a bed. He hadn’t said a word. Still, Michael had noticed a couple of fellow recruits inspecting their already-stained mattresses for new unwelcome additions before settling.
The first few days had been the toughest, when the night air was permeated with the grunts and snores of strangers. Each rustling of the sheets, like crunchy fall leaves, had him jolting awake with the unfamiliarity of it all. Soon, the physical activity began to take its toll, and sleep came easier. Some days he ran until his muscles screamed ‘uncle!’ and he collapsed onto the under-stuffed slab, his exhausted body recuperating in less-than-ideal conditions. He pulled his weight so he was left alone, for the most part, and he could rest easier at night.
He was aware of the tips of his toes sticking out from the bottom of the standard-issue blanket, and he could smell a stale fart (probably one of Hill’s; he really knew how to let one rip), but he was still dozing and his thoughts and dreams mingled into an impossible reality. In some far-off, dusty alcove of his conscious, he heard a loud bang, some muffled shouting, and then the sheet was ripped from his body by an angry hand. “Thorne!”
Michael shot to his feet too fast, tripping over his own limbs as the blood rushed to his head, and stood shivering in a thin t-shirt and boxer shorts, saluting with a quivering arm.
“Are you deaf, Private?”
“Sir! No, sir!”
“Nice of you to finally join your fellow recruits. You kept these men waiting forty-six seconds, you lazy f****r, and now your platoon have been assigned forty-six push-ups, one for each second it took you to get your idle ass out of bed.”
The recruits grumbled but lowered themselves to the ground all the same. “You’re going to pay for this, Thorne,” a muscular blond with a skull and crossbones tattoo muttered.
Welcome to the Army.
* * * * *
Michael stepped off the helicopter amid a whirlwind of Vietnamese dust, the jungle less than half a football field away virtually obscured, and what was visible was masked in a haze of dry soil. The humidity pressed on his chest and lungs, heavier even than his pack, and dankness enveloped everything with a greedy, clenched fist. Stood in the shelter of the chopper’s rotors, he could see uniformed men shouting and pointing, their mouths moving but the sound too weak to reach his ears. It was almost comical, like one of the Charlie Chaplin silent movies he enjoyed watching, except there was no laughter either.
He wondered if this place was actually Hell in pitiful disguise.
Jostled away from the helicopter by a myriad of other recruits, he stumbled to the tree line and watched with old eyes as the blades made their rotations, soon so fast as to be nothing more than an indistinguishable blur, and it took off without regrets. Michael was tempted to chase after it, to catch it and beg the pilot to take him back home to his proud parents and forlorn girlfriend, grieving like a widow at his departure to a foreign land where so many had lost their lives. But he stayed where he was despite every natural instinct screaming at him to move. He was a soldier now, and soldiers didn’t make their own orders: they followed them, sheep in khaki camouflage, just another number obeying to the letter.
Surrounded by a sea of green (a color he would quickly learn to hate), occasionally marked with one pale face or another, he barely noticed a platoon jog past on a practice drill. He definitely missed the smirks and nudges as they placed bets on which of the newbies would survive the longest. Nobody picked him.
The ground quaked underfoot and he stumbled in surprise, eyes wide at the sudden and violent change in terrain. He managed to compose himself before anyone saw. Fright did not exist, his Commanding Officer had repeatedly stated, it is only a state of mind. And, to his horror, Michael had started to believe him. There was something about the authoritarian tone which made it hard to resist; as much as he tried, the propaganda was a python tightening around his neck, and despite it being so stiflingly difficult to breathe, he knew the relief would come when the defense mechanisms kicked in and he would pass out, becoming unaware of the pain inflicted upon his weak body. Someday soon, he was certain he would forget all he had marched for and become indoctrinated to a set of beliefs he didn’t subscribe to.
* * * * *
A crowd had gathered outside City Hall. From a distance, he could see the swarm of protestors, could hear the raised voices above the general murmurings. He started to walk closer, his heavy boots and military-issue pack making an all-out run foolhardy in such intense heat and humidity. No placards this time, no homemade signs of complaint. He could smell smoke, though, and broke into a trot, encouraged by the familiar scent.
He grew closer, closer still, close enough to recognize his friends and companions. He called out to them with glee, waving, smiling. A thousand eyes turned on him as he slowed before the crowd.
Insults rang like the bells of Notre Dame, loud and clear, and he felt his heart race in his chest. This was wrong. This was all wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He’d grown up with these people, had marched alongside them for justice, and now they were turning on him! Someone spat on his khaki uniform. He backed away slowly, preparing to run, spinning on his heels with his back to the mob.
He stopped, faced them, recoiled in horror. Vietnamese children, missing limbs and organs, looked back at him with accusatory eyes. The stench of smoke once again was strong but this time he knew it wasn’t cigarettes or drugs; he’d been surrounded by the pervasive odor enough to know it was burning flesh. He gagged once, twice, made himself to pay attention to the bodies lining the steps of City Hall. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. They just stared at him with blank expressions, forcing him to acknowledge what he had done.
Suddenly, and in a move so synchronized he thought it must have been rehearsed, they all looked to the skies expectantly. Michael followed their gaze. He noticed when the planes came into view, when they dropped their load, when the bombs streaked through the air and careened towards the earth below, right on target to-
He woke up in a cold sweat.
* * * * *
Rome may have burned for almost a week but the small village near Dong Hoi wouldn’t survive that long. The stilted huts lining the beach might have been able to withstand the pounding of the tides but napalm was out of its league. He’d watched the choppers fly over, their threatening messages and crude dedications clear to all in the mid-morning light, and had witnessed the bombs being dropped from a distance. He’d known the exact moment they had hit. The fire had roared up from the jungle floor, a beast awakened, and the smoke billowed after. That was how it was in Vietnam: nothing followed the rules.
He almost hoped it would rain – at least then somebody would be crying for the dead and the wounded. Screams of the injured carried on the wind like perverse birdsong; the quick blasts of gunfire from the attacking platoons soon silenced the foreign pleas and he was back to listening to the insects, his own steady breathing, and the rustle of leaves indicative of an approaching Charlie. He hadn’t moved in four hours.
The stagnant water encased his lower body, forcing his uniform to stick to his skin in a desperate act of self-preservation. It was hot and it was humid and it stank to high heaven, and yet he maintained his position because he hadn’t been given new orders. To move out of turn in enemy territory was suicide. You didn’t eat. You didn’t drink. If you wanted to piss, you did it right there and then. And if you weren’t shot, blown up, or captured during your patrol, you trudged back to camp and waited to do it all over again in a few more hours.
His eyes flickered from the flames in the distance to the leech that had started to assault his forearm before the chopper attack. It was a fat little bugger, full to bursting due to its vampirism. Survival of the fittest, he mused, only doing what it needs to do to keep on breathing. Just like he told himself he was doing when he woke in a cold sweat every night with the screams of a thousand Vietnamese innocents ringing in his ears.
Giving his surroundings a quick sweep, confident he was alone, he plucked the offending parasite from his skin and tossed it carelessly into the foliage on his right. Staring at the wound left behind in its wake, he felt no pain. Warfare had rendered him emotionless; he had long since become desensitized to the violence people inflicted upon each other. In the Government’s eyes, he was the perfect soldier, an ideal killing machine who obeyed orders without question or judgment, and who felt no qualms at what he had become. He had changed, he knew, and he was slowly losing his grip on his old self. Day by day, his self-knowledge grew weaker and a robot took his place. If he wasn’t careful, he could lose his mind.
He wondered if it was still his to give away.