This story was first published in Voiceworks issue 99. The author retains copyright.
I go over to the door and lock Jim and me into my coffin-width apartment. Jim’s sitting in his fat armchair, sipping from his flask. Staring at his finger—at the wedding ring he still wears. I pull out my watch and count the seconds. Because that’s how you pass time on duty. Tick by tick. Tick by tick. And then: Boom.
My heart goes dead. My ribcage rattles on the floor, dust rising like smoke. The watch skitters away, into a corner of the room. Nestles in with McDonalds wrappers—The closest thing to home!
“This’s it Jim!” They’ve dropped another A-bomb.
“Not yet Wes,” says Jim. He takes a drink, watches me on the floor.
Silence. Then another explosion.
It takes me a moment to recalibrate. Search the night sky; find embers of dying fireworks. There’s cheering in the streets. Sounds like no one died.
Jim gets up on blitzed legs and goes over to the window. He cracks the curtains. Colours blossom through white lace.
“Whoa, thought it was a nightmare/Lord it was so true.” I dust myself off, murmur the opening lines.
Jim, still peering into the street, joins in—“They told me don’t go walking slow/The devil’s on the loose.” A pause, both of us looking up at the sky full of fire: “Better run through the jungle.”
Jim turns toward me, face stained with colours. “I’m goin’ to cut out, see what’s what.”
Alone, I stay by the window, humming Creedence to myself, like I’m back on sentry. More fireworks, burning bright—signal flares telling everyone we’re here.
Each time one blows, I get a prickling along my spine. A warning of danger, close by. Approaching fast. I imagine lying flat, quiet, training the rifle. Listening to rustling, to birdcall. Waiting for it to become something else.
In the jungle I moved point, out front and on my own. The others followed behind, outside grenade range. Mud up to my thighs, things brushing by unseen. Praying, keeping myself busy. Rule one: keep busy. Keep your mind moving. Silence leaves a hole that terror fills. Keep those legs swinging. Keep repeating the Hail Mary. Keep imagining anything. Anything at all.
We all had other things, besides prayers—when prayers weren’t enough. Marv had chocolate pieces. One piece every 10 miles. Like bread crumbs, leading him forward, toward home in 10 mile chunks. Then there was Jonah, with his list of promises. Things he’d do to help his Ma out when he got back. Recited under his breath, they had the same power as prayers. And Jim? Jim was our LT. Our Lieutenant. He didn’t share what kept him going. He had to stand twelve feet tall. That was his job.
My thing that kept me going was a beacon. The moon. I chose her because I was the smallest guy in the platoon. I was the tunnel rat. I needed her purity when I was deep underground. Roots grip, meaning to keep you. Breath sounds like sarin gas. Your mind does indescribable, horrible things to you.
Through boltholes cut through the dirt, I saw her. And she saw me. She watched over me. Through meshed bamboo rigged to blow, every hundred meters.
“It was just one—a small step,” says Jim. “Tha’s what everyone was sayin’. A man took one small step.” He’s shaking me out of half-sleep. Dawn on the window. City quiet.
“C’mon Wes. Get up.” Excitement. He pulls me out of my chair.
I put on some clothes. Ferret my watch and wipe it clean. Jim pulls out his, identical. One of the things they give to veterans. He unfurls it, kisses the picture inside. We look at it together, the likeness of a lady almost faded except for hints of pallid flesh and Irish blood.
“A body can’t let go,” he mutters. Now we’ve been back a few weeks, I’m learning what he used to keep going.
“One small step, Wes. That’s all it takes.”
I can see Jim believes in this—what he calls—small step. People don’t choose the things that keep them going. It just happens. And even though I hate the idea of going out, of being once more surrounded, I don’t have it in me to say no. He carried me back to base more than once. So I open the front door.
We head north, Jim leading. There are a few other wanderers, enjoying night’s last touches, each one alone except for a cigarette. I light one for myself and for Jim as well. He can’t—his hands shake as the flame arcs from the lighter.
Thirty-two circular scars, half a penny’s width, creep along his arm. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the monsoonal night they were etched into him. The rain coming down hard and fast, more bricks than water. Blotting out the stars. The only light, a single spot of incandescence. His torturer resuscitating it thirty-two times, before, finally—mercifully—it burns out.
We arrive at Anna’s apartment. Jim pauses, pulls out his flask.
I half-carry him up the stairs and light him another cigarette. When he’s done I pick up the knocker.
Just before I bring it down, Jim says “No.”
He’s sweating; clutching his cigarette like it’s the only thing worth holding. Irises big and brown, pupils darting around like tadpoles in muddy ponds.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “Anythin’ but today. Tomorrow.”
“Sure thing, Jim,” I say, and pat him on the shoulder.
Anna’s some lady he met in a pub a few weeks ago. Another widow of the Troubles. She had plenty of her own too, but Jim’s the kind of guy that gets drawn to this. But he’s still got that picture of his wife. It kept him going, for a long time. For too long, perhaps.
We descend the stairs and keep walking. Feels good to walk without a weapon. Though I still can’t stop my head revolving. Scanning, watching. Looking up every few steps. Out of habit, I try and keep my mind moving. But each thought ends at a closed door.
Closing the door to our family home was the easy part. The silence that came after was a relief. The hard part was before—waiting, hand poised, balanced beneath the lintel—while they cried and clung to me. Wanting to hold me close for longer. Forever.
Avoiding Lori’s eyes—the only girl I ever kissed, besides Ma and Grandma. We’d been going steady long enough for her to be there, amidst my family, without a second thought. Not free enough though, to say her thoughts aloud. The argument we’d left unfinished. I put my lips against her hand and departed, grateful for her restraint.
I watched them grow small in the bus driver’s mirror. Then I moved my eyes onto the wide bitumen road, my thoughts turning toward the future. Told myself I’d escaped the mire that should’ve swallowed me, alongside them. I had fresh clothes to wear, a sense of purpose. Self-belief grew with distance.
The night rolls out in secret, beyond the smog. Jim and I find our way to people celebrating. They’ve discovered a slice of country wedged between buildings, are packed in between trees.
Bright colours. Septic smells. A television set dangling on a leash of cables, spilling daylight onto the grass. Jim and I stand before the screen.
A familiar flag, rendered in shades of grey, dangles from a pole, never to feel a breath of wind. A voice says: “One giant step for mankind.”
The timbre and tone—perfect. Falling neatly between gravity and drama.
Jim sits on the grass in front of the screen. Human shapes spin round us. They’re grotesque: strewn with fabric, printed with slogans.
I cross my arms and wait for the hopeful voice to speak again. The man holds his breath for a moment—and here’s the intruder, walking. A grainy, black-and-white picture: the Michelin man with a fishbowl for a head. Getting down off a ladder, in a place empty as hell. Emptier than Hué after ’68. They play the scene over, without elaborating, as if it’s self-evident. I keep waiting for more. The commentators say ‘Armstrong’, with the tenor of schoolkids in prayer. The man wanders round. Doesn’t look like much at all—just a fancy dress party in a wasteland. Two things I know too well.
Who knew? She looks so barren, so forbidding, up close.
I called her my lady. Confessed to her. Whispered unmanly, unsoldierly things to her. She shone down, as best she could, through the tangle of decay. Kept me safe through most of it.
One night though, I was a long way beneath the earth, and she couldn’t see me. No boltholes. No light. Pressed tight in the pitch dark. Bathed in sweat. Listening to the scrabble and sigh of the dirt.
I reached out to haul myself along. My finger snagged on trip wire. The thin metal strand stretched tight. Charlie must’ve been up all night booby-trapping his tunnels.
I could sense her above. She held her breath, gave me the strength to pull my hand back. One of our grey-green pinecones popped out of a hole in the tunnel wall. The grenade went up.
The blast triggered the whole ammunition dump below, stuffed with clusters and daisy cutters.
They dug me out and carried me through the jungle. She hid her face in clouds and it rained.
I emerged from the aftershock surrounded by white. Thought I was done. But, nurses told me, only my time in the jungle was. My body would heal.
I was in the hospital at Chui Lai, surrounded by others, each wearing their Purple Hearts on their lapels. Their bodies stamped with the cost of their ticket home: blown up, perforated, cut, skewered, ground down to insanity. One man—Roger, a barrister from Nebraska—held on similar to how Marv did: with hits of strawberry jam. Except his platoon ran dry of the stuff. So he strangled his LT with bootlaces. Another—Dave, a college kid from the south—was a sniper. He fell into a coma-like sleep during his fourth consecutive mission. The extraction helicopter landed on his legs, crushing them like matchsticks. We shuffled around the whitewash halls, all of us waiting.
Lori sent me her weekly letter. After a few days, I asked a nurse for pen and paper. A little longer, and I had the courage to put the two together.
I wrote at night, when the hospital ward was lit up with blinding floodlights swinging in arcs on the watchtowers. The light spread though the base and out into the jungle, distant behind the scorched moat we’d cleared. It was hard to see through the glare, to see the night sky.
The letter grew into its own being. I addressed it to Lori, and wrote what I used to whisper to the moon. It was a compromise between the two.
Finally, my boat came. I packed my letter into a suitcase. I left my torn uniform behind, and the men I used to fight with—or so I thought.
When I was on the other side, I rented an apartment and sat by the window, smoking and staring out at the city. Eventually, Jim called me. His time was done, and he was back in the real world. Like me, he was struggling to find a new compromise between old lives.
The night we reached the moon, Jim remained in the park for hours, watching the television. Witnessing the Apollo’s absurd success. He returns with the dawn, smiling. Convinced once more of the possibility of man-made gods—forgetting all those that failed before the eleventh. We wait for daylight, and then walk to Anna’s apartment.
This time, he lets me knock.
I wait for him in the street. I smile a bit more each couple of minutes that goes by. I light a cigarette and look up. Through the maze of buildings, the cage of clouds. I see her, visible despite the day. I think about the man who’s up there with her. I imagine him, looking at the blue and green orb hanging above him. Knowing exactly how many thousands of miles he is from home. I wonder how he’ll make it back. Whether he will and whether he can. I hope so. I hope there’s a way back for him. No matter how far, how long, how unreal the distance.
My cigarette burns out and I throw the stub and check my watch. I decide that if Jim stays in that apartment for another hour, that’ll prove something. An hour isn’t a long time, but long enough. Life is made up of these small steps. I promise myself, one more hour, and then I’ll buy a bus ticket. Head west, follow the moon across the sky, towards home. It’ll take much longer by bus than airplane. But I’ve got time. I’ll take my suitcase with my letter; add the bits I couldn’t write before. Maybe Lori can read it all. Read it, and still embrace me.
Maybe the moon can guide me home, the way she guided me in the jungle.
I pull out my watch, light another, and count the seconds.