Helicopter blades whirred overhead making the trees shake as if the jungle were alive, the setting sun projecting quivering shadows across the clearing. The constant plink of gunfire forced Vick to squirm against the rock he was using for cover, and his hands were shaking as he attempted to light a match. One tumbled uselessly to the dirt, the next he tore in half—finally the third brought a flame to the joint in his lips.
Vick pressed his back to the rock and crossed his legs, looking back toward allied lines. Almost no ARVN soldiers were left, he could only see two, firing wildly into the foliage while shouting curses in Vietnamese. Vick took a long drag and closed his eyes, humming “Susie Q” and nervously fondling a patch of dirt with his free hand. His eyelids fluttered like hummingbird wings while the sweet smoke burned his throat; when they finally opened the world was basked in a white glow as the opium flooded his senses and slowed his breathing.
Ricocheting bullets were muffled and the angry shouts of the Viet Cong no longer seemed jarring to Vick. Smears of blood decorated the trees behind one ARVN troop, and the other ran to his aid. A plume of fire erupted from the ground beneath them and heat bathed Vick’s face, followed by the foul stench of charred flesh and hair. He heard a thud as something landed on the ground next to him and he looked down. It was a black rubber boot with a shin bone and strands of muscle dangling from it.
Vick spied a grenade hurtling through the air and watched it land nearby in a patch of grass. He lay flat on his stomach and crawled until the explosive rested inches from his nose. His vision blurred and tears streamed down his cheeks.
Orion leaned back in his chair and yawned deeply then rubbed his eyes with his two index fingers. He took a sip of coffee and cleared his throat while reading over the agenda for today. Pulling the microphone closer to him, he tapped it with his finger to make sure it was on.
The air was humid and stifling, making his hair frizz out in random directions, his shirt glued to his chest. The distant drum of troops marching wafted in through the open windows with the breeze. Orion reached out and began turning knobs, adjusting the audio levels. When everything was ready he pulled the mic in close and pressed a button on the radio. “Hello Vietnam,” he said with his usual silky tone, “today is April the fifth, ‘68, and we—”
A soldier busted into the room and motioned with finger over throat for Orion to end the announcements. The radio host angrily twisted a few knobs and slammed the microphone onto the table. “What is it?” he asked furiously. The man solemnly clutched a bundle of papers to his breast and his eyes were stricken wide with fear. The intruder tread up to Orion’s desk and set down the dossier.
Orion’s face was a scowl as he glossed over the paperwork. He gasped and slammed his fist onto the table. Lies! This is fake, he thought, No… no it must be real, I can tell. He read and reread every passage, eyes darting from word to word, taking apart the letters and trying to rearrange them in any way that made sense. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated, rioting in the streets, mobs tearing up draft notices. It didn’t make sense. This couldn’t be true. He glanced up to ask the soldier a question but the man had already left.
The radio host fumbled with a desk drawer, refusing to lift his eyes from the document, removing a bottle of gin from its hiding place. Orion took a gulp big enough to make a horse choke on water and puckered his face before returning full attention to the papers.
He scooted the microphone closer to him and awkwardly held his hand on the knob while taking a long pause. A lump welled up in the man’s throat and for the first time in his life he found himself unable to speak. Slowly, he turned the appropriate dials and readied the broadcast. The radio hummed as it sprang to life and Orion’s show resumed. His voice cracked as he stuttered out the usual greeting. “H-hello Vietnam,” he said.
Moira was feverish and sweat beaded on her brow as she pushed the needle through her patient’s skin. When the wound was finally sealed, she exhaled a long sigh and took a step back to admire her work. The man lay unconscious with rows of stitches crisscrossing his chest like a Frankenstein monster sewn together with random bits of flesh. The sight was horrid yet her work was phenomenal, and she knew it, but Moira did not rest.
Within seconds, the surgeon pounced on another broken mess of a bloodied man who was moaning in unintelligible agony. His arm was a stump and a bayonet had gouged out chunks of his stomach. The smell of infection clung to the air and made her stomach churn, but she bit her lip and persevered.
Moira took a break from her work to visit Lynn, the woman in the far corner of the tent, unattended and ignored by the medical staff as if she were a barrel of bricks. Lynn had been a fixture in the field hospital for over a month and the physician had grown attached to this unusual survivor. Burn marks mutilated Lynn’s facial features and the hair had been fried from her scalp, but viridescent eyes bulged from her skull like apples dangling above a charming smile.
The healer sat by her patient telling stories about her childhood, occasionally pausing to adjust Lynn’s blankets or to brush off a mosquito. The pair laughed and sang, a pair of blue jays on a fence in the maw of perdition, sadness and canvas ceilings melting away like distant memories.
A flurry of screams abruptly sounded out from every direction around the hospital, gunshots rang out like thunderbolts and an explosion rocked the tent. Moira squeezed Lynn’s hand and sprinted back to the operating area. Doctors swarmed out the door but the surgeon slipped her hands into a pair of gloves and ran to the side of a wailing man who had been abandoned mid-operation. Moira soothed him and resumed the clumsy stitchwork of her colleague.
Engines revved and footsteps boomed as scores of soldiers stormed through the encampment outside the paper-thin walls. The physician clenched her teeth and removed herself from the chaos by thinking about Lynn. Imagining that wispy skull as a young beautiful girl, hair flowing, unmolested by the throes of war.
From the corner of her eye Moira noticed shadows creeping in through the door. All at once a stranger stuck a rifle in her face and bellowed something indecipherable. More strangers surrounded her, copper-skinned jungle warriors with dark features, faces hardened into grimacing masks of hatred. Before the surgeon could react, the butt of a gun struck the side of Moira’s jaw and her head slammed into the ground. Her vision went black.
Vick opened his eyes to an onyx jungle framing the pristine outline of the grenade. Insects and birds chirped pleasantly as the soldier lifted himself from the ground and picked up his rifle, slinging it over his shoulder. The American grinned and whistled as he carefully weaved over emaciated remains, his heavy footfalls prompting an occasional crack or squish as he misstepped. Thoughts of his home in San Francisco flooded Vick’s mind and his pace quickened, his smile stretching wider the further he distanced himself from the sickening scent of decay.
Moira awoke sprawled across the earth with a mouth full of dirt and dried blood. The tent was barren and the cold darkness gave the place a sinister air. The surgeon tried to stand but her legs wobbled and collapsed, so she crawled using only her arms, constantly grunting in pain as the icy soil numbed her fingers. She was dizzy and nauseous, shivering from the chill of the night.
Finally she reached the corner of the tent and heaved her upper body onto a stool. There on the table lay Lynn, unharmed by the invaders, faintly smiling. Moira spent forty minutes pulling herself up while Lynn grasped desperately at her arms. Her body hauled onto the table at last, still panting with exhaustion, they held each other close and kissed, a pair of swans floating down the river Styx.