Thua Thien

Sunday, 21 June, 1970 — Thua Thien Province, Republic of Vietnam, and Tuesday 7 June, 2017, Grass Lake Charter Township, Jackson County, Michigan

The foothills on either side of the Ashau Valley in the province of Thua Thien are marginally less disgusting than the lowlands, especially in the month of February when it doesn’t get much above the low 70s in the daytime.

Sergeant First Class Patrick Leonard sits on a C-rations case that hasn’t been broken open yet, and lights a cigarette. Using a rations case as an improvised chair is arguably not ideal, but since the case’s marking indicate that it is filled with lima beans and ham meals, he expects that nobody will care. And it’s nice to get his ass off the mud.

Overall it hasn’t been nearly as rainy as it was a few months ago, but it has nevertheless rained for three of the last four days which is why he has an entire platoon still parked near the LZ he had the men clear on Saturday. He was expecting to get resupplied, reinforced and back on their patrol westward within 24 hours. Instead they’ve spent four nights here getting wet.

Now, thankfully, at least this episode appears to be drawing to a close. As he draws on the smoke he can hear the sounds of the approaching Chinook, its staccato roar echoing in the triple-canopied jungle. It’ll be another couple minutes before it can set down in the LZ and get unzipped. Until then, SFC Leonard has decided to relax, have a smoke. He has tried very hard not to think about it until now. New LTs can be trouble, very easily. Their previous LT, who was a good young man with a reasonable grasp of reality, took a piece of shrapnel in one eye from a satchel charge attack by NVA sappers two weeks ago and had to be medevacced out. Word came back a week later that his vision in that eye was not expected to recover, and that the LT was being sent home.

So! Patrick puffs on his smoke and wonders what the new LT will be like. Another decent officer? A West Point nutjob who will get the whole platoon killed in a week? Something in between? And what will the new troops, the ‘cherries’ be like? Patrick requested ten to fill empty slots in the platoon, but realistically he knows that he can’t expect more than five—

Patrick looks into the green barrier of trees toward the LZ and frowns. It sounds like the Chinook is already leaving. It seems like it never full sat down, but it would have needed to, to let the men and the LT out. He knows they could have made a bigger LZ, but the other Chinook got in here yesterday OK!

Or, Christ! Did he simply miss it? Was he so lost in thought just now that the chopper sat down, unloaded, and took off again without him even noticing? Is he getting senile already at the ripe old age of twenty-six? Leonard curses, drops his smoke on the wet loam, and groans as he stands up. He’d better get over there quick if—

Some guys who’ve been in the boonies for a while say that a man can get a kind of second sight about when trouble is coming, and that it’s reliable enough so that their squads get to rely on it. Well, maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. One thing Leonard knows is that you can’t spend three years out in the Dark Green like he has and still be able to dismiss such things out of hand.

Another thing he knows, however, is that a platoon sergeant like himself does not need to have any second sight to know when trouble is coming. Not if half the grunts in his platoon are individuals who make trouble, and enjoy it. The gang hurrying toward him on the trail from the LZ is composed of the ringleaders who are always at the center of any practical joke or off-color gag that is ever pulled. Saunders, Towner, Krapf, and a few of their buddies to make a nice crowd. Krapf and Towner are grinning like idiots, while Jackson Saunders, who is black, is doing his wide-eyed innocent look. That’s a very bad sign.

“Hey, Sarge,” Saunders says as the group comes to a halt.

They are sticking too close to each other. They are hiding something. A man, in the middle of them. Is it the new LT? Impossible. The most laid-back Lieutenant in the Army wouldn’t allow his new men to make some kind of practical joke using him as the centerpiece.

“What the fuck is going on, Saunders?” Leonard asks.

“Well, Sarge. See, the way I see it, is, you know, when you ask for reinforcements, it’s kinda like—” he blinks comically and Towner actually giggles. The idiot can barely contain himself. “It’s kinda like askin for a nice big dessert, you know what I’m sayin Sarge? Like a nice big hot fudge sundae dessert, back in the world, you know? Mmm, mmmm!”

Saunders, god damn it. Is there something wrong with the reinforcements? Is the new LT still back there?”

“Ain’t nothin wrong with the reinforcements, Sergeant,” Saunders says. “Why no suh!”

Oh crap. He’s using his southern accent. Saunders does not have a southern accent, except what he learned from movies. Saunders is from Sandusky, Ohio.

“Saunders—!” It is possible to say his name through clenched teeth.

They’ve all stopped now, and the group has fanned out so that everybody can see the platoon sergeant.

“It’s just that sometimes, sarge, when you ask for a hot fudge sundae,” Saunders steps aside with a flourish to reveal his secret. “All you get is the cherry on top!”

There is a new guy standing behind Saunders. He’s so new that he’s not dirty yet. And the bastard looks like he’s about fourteen years old.

“You can’t always get what you want,” Towner sings softly from one side of the new guy.

“What—” Leonard says brilliantly. “What are you—”

“But if you try sometimes,” Krapf continues from the other side of the new cherry, and then the two of them alternate lines.

“You might find.”

“You still don’t get what you need!”

Everyone facing Leonard is grinning, except the cherry, who looks like a deer in the headlights. Sharp features, earnest dark eyes with that look cherries always have that says Holy crap, I’m in Vietnam!

“This can’t be—”

“Oh, it can, Sarge, it sure can.”

“—our reinforcements?”

“One cherry,” Towner says, grinning. “No hot fudge sundae.”

“And no lieutenant,” Krapf adds helpfully. “This is it. We did get ammo, though! Maybe we should just shoot ourselves! Hey,” he elbows the cherry. “That’s your platoon sergeant there, boy! What did we tell you?”

“Sir!” the cherry says. “Private William Geisler reporting for duty, sir!”

He salutes crisply, and everybody except Leonard laughs. You don’t salute when you’re out in the Shit unless you’re trying to get somebody targeted.

“Jesus,” Sergeant First Class Leonard says, looking at his lone reinforcement. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”

~

“Paddy? Hey, Paddy?”

Leonard blinks, and looks at the bright, open end of the truck. He’s helping clean it out because, if they do manage to find anyone who can sell them some plants or at least seeds for next year, he wants to be able to go pick the stuff up immediately if not sooner. For a moment he can’t recall the name of the young man who has called his name and is now looking at him expectantly, and maybe just a shade worried.

Don’t worry, kid. I was just in a different world and a long time ago.

“Yeah. Curtis,” he says, bringing himself back to the present. “What-up?”

Seeing Curtis framed against the light of a beautiful June day in Michigan in the year 2017, Patrick Leonard remembers the highlands of Thua Thien province half a century ago, and thinks I sure hope you never see a world like that, kid. I sure hope it never comes back.

“Your, uh, friend is here. He’s in the house.”

Patrick takes a breath.

“Ah. OK. Thanks.”

Patrick steps to the back of the truck and hands Curtis his broom.

~

When Leonard walks into the big front room of the main building, Geisler is pacing in front of the row of couches that have their backs to the big south-facing windows. He has just stepped between one of them and its end table to approach the windows themselves. His back is turned three-quarters and he doesn’t hear as Patrick walks in. That’s good because it gives Patrick time to halt in surprise at Geisler’s appearance. Leonard prides himself on having a good poker face when he needs to, and he quickly composes now himself as Geisler hears his step and turns. There is no way in this case that Patrick would have been able to hide his shock at his old partner’s appearance. In the six months since they last saw each other, Geisler has lost at least ten pounds, even though he didn’t really have it to lose. He looks like a grayed and dried-out version of the young idiot cherry who first saluted him in Vietnam.

But he actually grins as he comes out again from behind the sofas—they are set far enough away from the windows so that there’s a kind of walkway there—and steps quickly forward to shake hands. Leonard is still mostly trying to make sure that his face does not telegraph his feelings about how much weight Geisler has lost. Of course since the War there are not nearly as many overweight people as there were at one time, but most people lost weight in the first few years after the conflict and the Collapse, not just in the last few months. Geisler has apparently done both.

“Well, Paddy,” he says. “It actually came. It hit Gandy Town. Five dead, just like ’87. Which means that was the climax kill, you know? My big theory. Which, uh—” Geisler’s face is animated and his eyes bright. Leonard could easily believe that he is drunk or high on something, but he knows that the reality is worse. “Which means that, uh,” a flicker of emotion passes over his features so quickly that Patrick is aware of it only subliminally, but that’s enough to know that it isn’t good. “It means that, you know, that would mean it’s going away again. Going to sleep again.” His eyes flicker over Patrick as he turns to walk to the far edge of the big threadbare area rug that covers the center of the room.

So, it has finally happened. Patrick takes a moment to process this, but it’s not as though he hasn’t had any warning. Geisler has been bending his ear about it for most of thirty years. But it’s something else again to have him finally say that it’s really happened.

“You’re sure?” Patrick says. “You’re sure it was—the same thing?”

“Oh yeah,” Geisler says, remembering blood sprayed on the tent walls and ceiling. He looks at Patrick with those memories still showing in his eyes. “Yeah. It hasn’t changed a bit. And,” he smiles faintly, “I missed it.”

“I was looking into some other things,” Geisler says. He moves around the room randomly as he speaks. “And I think they’re good things! They’re

very interesting. I even went out of state for a while. I thought I had time, you know? And I thought—hey, nothing’s happening. I still have time. I thought I still had months yet. Maybe if I had stayed around, I might have—” Geisler stops talking and exhales a long breath.

“Yeah, maybe maybe maybe,” he says, turning back towards Leonard. “Anyway, you know, I guess I got kind of—upset about it last night.” He laughs, after a fashion. If a plate glass window could talk, and if you slowly bent it just to the verge of where it was going to explode into a thousand flying pieces, and if it decided to laugh out loud in its final moments, it would sound like Bill Geisler does right now.

“I sat down with a bottle of really good booze last night, and I guess I polished most of it off.”

Oh, Jesus, Leonard thinks. Oh holy Jesus Christ. Thirty years you’ve been hunting this thing, thirty years you’ve been giving up your whole life to hunt this thing, and now you’re telling me you fucking missed it? And you’re laughing about it? You want me to believe that you sat down with a bottle of booze and got drunk and that’s all there is to it? What else did you sit down with, William?

Leonard can’t stop his eyes glancing down momentarily at the 9mm that Geisler carries on his hip.

Geisler notices, and laughs again.

“I’m OK!” he says, holding Patrick’s gaze briefly with fever-bright eyes.

“William,” Leonard takes a step forward, holding out one hand the way he imagines he might do to calm a wild horse, “how about if you calm down, and sit down, and tell me what you want to tell me. OK?”

Westbrook’s face looms out of the darkness, his eyes bright with anger and fear.

“The fucking cherry just split!” He shouts to be heard over the roar of massed AKs only a hundred yards away. “The fucker just boogied!”

“OK?” Leonard blinks away memories.

Geisler stops, already half turned already to pace away again, and looks at Leonard. Breathing as hard as though he’s been running, although Leonard knows he’s done nothing of the sort. He hasn’t seen Geisler this worked up in a long time.

In fact, it’s probably been thirty years.

“OK, OK.” He moves haltingly, as though he’s forgetting every couple of seconds what he’s doing and keeps needing to remember. Geisler manages to sit down in the ratty old easy chair that Leonard has indicated. Even then he leans forward like he might want to hop up again at any moment.

“All right, look, fucking relax, OK?” Leonard surprises Geisler by laughing, and he looks up and gives him a what’s so funny kind of look. “I was just thinking, William,” Leonard tells him. “I guess I should give up thinking that you’re ever gonna learn to settle down.”

~

At midsummer the sun is setting too late for them to keep moving till dark, so Leonard halts the platoon to take an extended smoke break and wait for twilight. Then he sends the ambush party—three guys that he crosses off of a handwritten list he keeps, so that everybody gets an equal chance at the duty—up ahead half a klick so they can scout out the trail before it gets too dark and make sure there’s nothing really unfortunate. They will set their claymores and settle down for the night to act as an alarm in case Charlie should happen by. Then, after full dark, Leonard will roust up the remainder of his twenty-three man ‘platoon’ and move another few hundred meters down the trail, so that Charlie, in case he should be watching, will not know exactly where they are, and they end up a hundred or so meters from the ambush team.

The reason Leonard is scrupulous about keeping a list for ambush duty is that it always feels like sending men out to die. In theory, if they ever detect Charlie moving down the trail they can blow their claymores and haul ass back to the platoon, thus giving the platoon a couple minutes’ warning time in which to wake up and get ready for an attack, or else to didi mau the fuck out of there. But that’s theory. In actual practice, Charlie does not march single file down trails in the middle of the night whistling the theme from the Bridge on the River Kwai. If they’re moving at night, they’re moving quieter than the lizards, line abreast and looking for trouble. By the time the ambush team knows that Charlie is out there, most likely they’re already as good as surrounded, and as good as dead. The idea of recovering back to the platoon is a convenient little fig leaf so everybody can hold onto a happy fantasy, just like every soldier always believes that there’s a 100% chance he will get back home in one piece in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary.

But then, on the other hand, there is also one other important countervailing fact of life in the highland forests of Vietnam.

Nothing Ever Happens.

You can go for weeks, maybe months, and nothing ever goddamn happens. You get attacked every night by mosquitos and leeches. You get rained on day and night. You often get too hot, sometimes get too cold, you use a chunk of C4 to heat up your meal of Beans and Dicks—and nothing ever goddamn happens.

Until, of course, it does.

This night, Leonard comes awake to the sound of at least four claymores going off a hundred yards up the trail, immediately followed by what sounds like a goddamn hundred AKs opening up, their deeper booming sounds easily distinguishable from the higher pitched chatter of American weapons.

The first thing Leonard knows, he’s coming awake rolling out from under the little cover he had staked out, his M16 already in his hand.

Westbrook’s face looms out of the darkness, his eyes bright with anger and fear.

“The fucking cherry just split!” He shouts to be heard over the roar of full-auto fire way too near at hand. “The fucker just boogied! And took the thumper with him!”

“God damn it,” Leonard says as the other two squad sergeants arrive. “OK, we’ll worry about bugouts later. Right now—”

He looks toward the firing with a moment’s indecision, and Westbrook speaks up.

“Paddy, that’s a whole fucking NVA company up there! Ambush team’s gonna be overrun in one minute no matter what we do.”

As Westbrook speaks, the sound of the ambush teams three lonely M16s add their chatter to the sound of the firefight. All four of the sergeants look inadvertently toward the sound and then back again.

“Make that 30 seconds.” Westbrook says.

The use of their rifles is a desperation move, meaning that the three men know that they have been surrounded and cannot bug out silently after having expended the claymores. The flash of the rifles will shortly give their position away, once Charlie calms down enough to notice, and then the team will die. The only thing Leonard can do by attacking with his understrength platoon is lose more men for no purpose.

“All right,” he shouts to the squad sergeants, “get them moving—”

A new sound adds itself to the nearby firefight: the distinctive hollow sound of a ‘thumper’ firing—an M79 grenade launcher—and the resulting explosion only a second later. The weapon fires again and again.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Leonard says.”Your cherry didn’t run away from the fight, Westie. He ran toward it. Jesus.”

Westbrook’s mouth hangs open as he stares in the direction of the fight. It sounds like the cherry is trying to use the grenade launcher like a pump-action shotgun, firing rapidly at an enemy only tens of yards away even though he has to break open the weapon after every round and load it from the breech. In the ten seconds since they heard the first explosion he has already fired three more times.

“All right, god damn it, I’m not losing all four of those guys. Neary and Caver, your squads right of the trail, Westie I’ll come with you on the left. Line abreast and have at ’em like maniacs, maybe we can spook the bastards. Fuck, I didn’t want to retire anyway. Go, go go!”

The sergeants leap up to run toward their squads shouting orders. Leonard stands and looks toward the firefight wondering what kind of idiot cherry runs without orders toward a cataclysm carrying nothing but his thumper and no doubt staggering under a load of every round of ammunition he has for it.

As the men start to jog through the underbrush, Leonard actually laughs. If they both live through this, Sergeant First Class Leonard is definitely going to kick the cherry’s ass for running off without orders like some kind of idiot. But Patrick thinks, grudgingly, that he kind of likes the kid’s style. Whatever kind of idiot this kid may be, he has decided that he doesn’t want the kid to die tonight.

~

“You know,” Geisler says, facing away from Leonard and looking out the room’s big picture windows. The guy just will not sit still. Some things never change. “You know, they say how generals are always fighting the previous war?”

Down on the highway a lone car passes by, going fast.

“I guess for us,” he says, “back in Nam, they weren’t even doing that. I think they just forgot all about Korea and they were kind of going all the way back to World War Two. You know, air power! If you can’t see what to bomb, well heck! Just use ten times as many bombs!”

Geisler turns back to look at Leonard who just watches him.

“And I’ve been doing the same thing. The same damn thing.” Geisler comes out from behind the sofas near the wall of windows and walks aimlessly in the middle of the room.

“William, would you goddamn sit down?”

“Yeah. OK. Sorry.”

Geisler walks slowly over to one of the 1950s-vintage chairs and finally takes a seat, the manic energy leaking out of him like water from a cracked vessel.

“You know, I had all my contacts here and there around town. Security guys, a few cops, you know, some of the older ones who remember us. Around town!” He laughs. “I had people I could talk to at small-town newsrooms and HomeSec offices from Lansing to Toledo and from Coldwater to Detroit, and I’ve been telling them what kind of stories I wanted to hear about. And paying them to keep me posted. I was thinking that I would get word the moment something happened. I figured I was ready, by golly. And you know? Thirty goddamn years ago, I woulda been right! I just kind of glossed over the fact that places like Gandy Town happened! It’s half a mile from where I live,” he glares at Leonard, the fevered look returning to his eyes. “It’s been there since the freaking War, and it didn’t occur to me that hobo towns don’t have HomeSec offices. They don’t have hometown newspapers! And the people who live there don’t goddamn talk to the cops!” Now he’s raising his voice to the point of shouting. “It didn’t goddamn occur to me that they would be perfect targets! That he would—that he would—” Geisler blinks, takes a breath, and lowers his voice to its normal register. “That it would target them.” He takes a long slow breath. “I blew it Patrick. I just blew it. Thirty years, and I took my eye off the fucking ball.”

Leonard looks at Geisler with a skeptical expression.

“Is that right? So, what were these ‘other things’ you were looking at?”

Geisler nods, frowning.

“Patrick, it’s the weirdest damn thing. There are these people.”

And he launches into a long description of the people he has started to call the ‘volunteers’: how he stumbled across them in Whitmore Lake, how they have apparently been coming from all over the country, abandoning their cars and disappearing untraceably into the wilderness. He tells Leonard what happened when he tried to follow one of them—and how he later found some of their bodies.

Encouraged by Patrick’s interest, Geisler continues with how he lost his night watchman job in the old CoMerica building, the distinct impression he received when he glimpsed the rich man from Chicago who has moved into it, and the strange certainty that entered his thoughts as he was drinking last night that he should investigate the man.

“That idea about this big wheel, it came to you last night? While you were—drinking?”

“Yeah,” Geisler replies. He knows that Patrick has guessed what he was contemplating last night, and he expects Patrick’s expression to be hard. Instead, what he sees in his old friend’s face is something less obvious.

“Well, you always thought I was crazy,” he says to Patrick. “I guess you’re gonna tell me I’ve finally really gone around the bend.”

“Well, it’s quite a story,” Patrick says. As he looks down at the old rug that their chairs are arranged around there is a kind of tension in his face that Bill Geisler doesn’t understand.

“No,” Patrick says, looking up at him. “No, William, I don’t think you’re crazy anymore.” He grins. “I mean, I don’t think anymore that you’re crazy.”

Leonard’s smile fades and again Bill Geisler sees that his old friend has changed somehow. “I know this might be a big disappointment to you, William. But,” Patrick shrugs. “Maybe I’m getting less sure of myself in my old age. Or maybe I’ve just seen—”

I’ve seen an angel since the last time I saw you, and she took me flying and gave us a shitload of silver.

No, Patrick thinks, that does not seem appropriate at this juncture. God knows what effect it would have on William, and it just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing to bring up at a random moment. Anyway, Arias expressed an interest in William, after she saw some trace of him in Patrick’s thoughts. If she went to find William last night—and she did not seem like the kind of woman to dither—then she found him in the middle of some pretty dark thoughts. Yet William does not say anything like that happened. Well, if she can show up in the living room not five steps from this spot without anybody seeing her arrive, then she can probably do a lot of things to conceal herself. If she wants William to know about her, she will appear to him as well.

He smiles again, realizing that the first words she spoke, upon appearing in this room, were Don’t be afraid. And isn’t that what angels always say when they show up? Fear not!

He shakes his head. “Maybe I’m just finally admitting that the whole damn world is getting weirder every year. Every day!” He looks out the window toward the tops of the trees across the highway. “Sometimes I think Thua Thien was easier than this, you know what I mean?”

“Oh, yeah,” Geisler laughs, his eyes shining. “I sure do.”

“All right, don’t get all weepy on me, William. Anyway, you will be relieved to know that, while I no longer believe you to be a raving lunatic, I would nevertheless like to point out that you still have a few screws loose.”

“Oh!” Geisler laughs louder. “Thank God! Please enlighten me, Master Yoda!”

“Consistent you are not,” Patrick says drily. “Honest with yourself you are not.”

Geisler frowns. “I already admitted that I blew it, right?”

“Yes, William, that’s right. And why is that? Because of your theory about the climax-killing idea. Right? Which is still just a theory. Or did you find some authoritative source that you forgot to tell me about? Something like Dr Van Helsing’s Big Book of Modern Vampire Behavior, Illustrated?”

“No,” Geisler says quietly. “I think I’m pretty much the world expert on that.”

“OK, so it is your theory, but it’s one you believe in. Good, fine.” But Patrick looks upset while he’s saying this, like he does not think this is good or fine. It’s the look he gets when he thinks that young William is being an idiot.

Geisler realizes with a kind of rollercoaster feeling that this is exactly what he came for, and if he didn’t want it he should have simply stayed away. But it’s one thing to stand in front of the booth and buy the ticket, and something else again to be at the top just before the plunge.

“And so how about your idea that these ‘volunteers’ are important? That’s a theory too, right? That’s just as much a theory as the other theory, right?”

“Yes.” Geisler looks at him cautiously.

“But you’re discounting that one. With no more or less evidence to prove things one way or the other, you’re endorsing the theory that says you fucked up and lost everything beyond hope of redemption, while you are simultaneously simply ignoring the theory that says you haven’t. Now, let me see, why would that be, do you suppose?”

“I, um,” Geisler frowns and leans back in his chair. “You know, this thing about the ‘volunteers’,” he says. “I can’t be really certain yet what it means—”

“Oh, bullshit,” Patrick says. “You find a dozen bodies in a barn up by where these weirdos are going, and now you’re not certain? But you see something for five seconds in the dark thirty years ago and you are certain?”

“What you are, William,” Patrick holds his gaze, “is scared shitless.”

Leaning back in his chair, Geisler frowns. Down on I-94 there is the sound of a convoy of semis with their motorcycle escort going by, moving fast on the way to Detroit.

“That is not—something you normally accuse me of.”

“Well this isn’t normal, is it William? You’ve been going after this—whatever the fuck it is, for thirty years. You’ve been thinking about what happened at that house on Waldron Road. You’ve collected data, you’ve made theories, you’ve laid your traps. You know what? You’ve been on a quest. Isn’t that right?”

It takes him a while but eventually Geisler nods.

“OK. I guess you could call it that.”

“You’re damn right you could call it that. That’s what you’ve been after ever since that night, William. You want to go out there and find it again. You want to look that monster in the eye and shoot it dead, and then come back and stare out the window and say ‘I did it’. And then you want to retire! That’s a standard quest, my friend, and the return home is a big part of it. You go see the scary things and you come back changed, but you come back. And then, at last, you’ve found the Meaning of Life and you are done, done, done. That’s what you’ve been planning for thirty years, my friend.”

Patrick’s gray eyes are cold.

“And the problem is,” he continues, “that now, when the thing has finally come back—just like you predicted, you definitely got that one right—But now that it’s finally come back, things are happening that you never expected! All of a sudden you’ve got a guy in town who sets off your vampire radar, but he’s a rich businessman, or a crime boss or something. You’ve got well-to-do people from all over the country pulling up stakes and going up to Whitmore Lake and abandoning their cars and—doing what? Getting dead, it looks like. Except it’s not the same kind of dead you’re used to.”

“It’s no worse than what we saw—”

“It is worse!” Patrick leans forward in his chair. “Because all of a sudden you don’t know the rules, buddy. You thought it was going to be a replay of Waldron Road, and it’s not. It’s turning into something you don’t understand, and it’s bigger. You see that, right? It’s much bigger. These people are coming from all over. Why? This guy in Ann Arbor is a big businessman. What’s going on with him? What does he connect to? All of a sudden—” Patrick spreads his hands, “it starts to look like maybe you can’t just find the right house out in the backwoods and go kill your personal demon and come back and sit by the nice warm fire for the rest of your life. It starts to look like this time, if you start chasing these new things? Maybe it feels like this time there isn’t any coming back.”

Patrick once told Geisler that he was susceptible to being immobilized, even in the middle of a firefight, if somebody would just shout out loud to him: Hey wait a minute! There are some really interesting philosophical and ethical issues here!

Geisler has been staring at him but now he stands up out of his chair and walks over to the big windows again to look down at the highway.

“So you pay attention to the one unprovable theory that says you’re all done, washed up, finished—and ignore the other equally tenable theories that say you could keep going. You even,” Patrick continues quietly, “think about ending it all with a fifth of good scotch and a bullet in the brain, because even that—” Patrick has to stop and take a couple of calming breaths. “Because even that, god damn it, is less scary than what you’re afraid might happen if you keep going.”

Geisler turns around and puts his hands on the old window’s sill.

“That doesn’t make sense,” he says. “Get killed out there, or do it myself at my desk. How are they different?”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Patrick says as he also stands up. “I didn’t mean you’re afraid of getting dead. I meant you’re afraid there’s no coming back this time because what you’re starting to see now is so much bigger and so much stranger even than what you’ve been thinking about these last thirty years that you’ll just—get lost out there. A jungle so big and so strange that you’ll end up just staying forever, and forget the way back home. Or not care about it anymore. That’s what you’re scared of with this new stuff you’re telling me, William. And you know?” Patrick turns his palms outward. Even at his age, he still has obviously strong hands. “You might be right to be scared. I don’t know. And you don’t know. I do know that you’re not a guy who ever took the easy way out. I don’t think you will this time either.”

Geisler stands with his back to the window for a good minute before he looks up and gives Patrick an embarrassed flicker of a smile.

~

Sergeant First Class Leonard hits the dirt with both knees simultaneously and winces. He isn’t 18 anymore, unlike this idiot cherry. In fact the cherry isn’t 18 yet, Leonard would be willing to bet. The kid is startled as Leonard lands next to him.

“Calm down, goddammit!” Leonard snarls. “You still alive?”

“Ssergeant?” the kid looks up at him, his eyes and sweaty face reflecting the yellow muzzle flashes from Westbrook’s men as they continue to advance. To the right of the trail Neary and Caver’s squads are already ten yards ahead. The NVA troops bugged out as soon as they realized they had resistance more significant than a single fire team. Unknown to Patrick, the North Vietnamese Army troops are under strict orders to avoid significant engagements as they gather for what is to be a major effort: the siege of Fire Support Base Ripcord several miles away. It will be the last major battle of the war between American and North Vietnamese troops.

“Yep, that’s me,” Leonard fake-smiles. “You know, the guy whose orders you’re supposed to follow, so you don’t get your ass shot off while stampeding me into risking the whole platoon for nothing? Yeah, I’m that guy.”

Two of Westbrook’s men break cover and run forward in a crouch. A few more rounds are being fired every few seconds, but Patrick thinks that he has not heard anything from the other side in the last half-minute. Westie, Caver, and Neary have undoubtedly realized the same thing. They’ll get the men to cease fire when they think it’s appropriate.

But now the jungle is dark again, without the staccato lightning of two dozen M16 rifles. Unhooking his anglehead flashlight, Patrick puts his palm over the lens to just let a sliver of the light through and turns it on.

“I’m sorry, sergeant,” the kid says, looking up at him. His dark eyes are wide and shocky, his slightly-curled dark hair plastered to his head with sweat.

“Not as sorry as you’re gonna be. Now, are you hit anywhere? You oughta have twenty holes in you after a stunt like that.” He plays the sliver of red-filtered light over the kid’s chest and face.

“I think” the cherry says. “I think” He pats the air gingerly in the direction of his right leg.

Patrick plays the light there and sees blood.

“Oh, shit, yeah, you’re hit. Something just nicked you, it looks like.”

Working quickly he gets his pack off and extracts from its large back pocket a Dressing, First Aid, Field, Individual Troop, Camouflage.

Wow, Patrick thinks, I’m sure glad it’s camouflaged!

It really is just a nick, but the kid will go into shock for sure if he doesn’t keep talking.

“All right, this is gonna sting,” Patrick tells the kid. “So tell me—what’s your name again?”

“Private William Geisler, sir!” The kid winces as Patrick cuts his pant leg open wider.

“I’m not a ‘sir’, boy. I work for a living.” This response is so standard that Patrick thinks it must appear in a manual somewhere. “Tell me, William, why did you take off running up this trail without orders?” He dabs antiseptic cream from the little squeeze tube onto the wound, and the kid winces again but visibly controls himself.

“Well, they needed help, sir. It sounded real bad. We couldn’t just leave them out here!”

“No, private,” Leonard smiles as he works the bandage around the kid’s leg, “I guess we couldn’t.”

“I won’t do it again, sir.”

“Yeah,” Leonard laughs as he cinches the bandage and ties it off. Looking at the kid’s face he thinks maybe they are going to get through this without shock after all.

“Yeah, I just bet you won’t.”

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