This story is dedicated to my Father Vincent Sr.,
who fought in that awful war and let me borrow some
of his actual exploits in those jungles for this tale.
who fought in that awful war and let me borrow some
of his actual exploits in those jungles for this tale.
Chapter 1: (Beach Party) Vietnam
Victor Marks’ tour through the dense and hateful jungles of Vietnam had been among the worst imaginable, a blood soaked Hell on Earth since day one. His name and number quite literally drawn from a greasy government hat, Victor had been ripped away from a fairly good, simple life of his own creation. His beautiful and leggy girlfriend Charlene, with her loving turquoise eyes and soft hay-colored hair, velveteen lips and brilliant charisma; Vic’s own fuzz-tone driven, 13th Floor Elevators inspired garage band Vulture Breeze; his stoned Bohemian lifestyle of art and love and music, freedom, peace—now just faded distant memories. Music he could no longer hear through machine-gun fire deafened ears. Apparently, just being a free citizen had obligated him to some bizarre generational doctrine of patriotism that he did not possess, and a code of ethics that was not his.
The day that inevitably grim piece of paper arrived in the mailbox, his mother howled and cried, wailing “Unfair!” to the Roman Catholic God within her whom she so blindly placed her faith. She wanted to empty their savings, give her son the money, and tell him to run, though it was something she dare not ever do. Vic Sr. would have been furious, as he’d been prodding his one and only son to go G.I. Joe since before the damned affair had officially began. The Old Man himself had served in both WWII and the shady "police action" known as the Korean War, intrusively enforcing his deep seeded hatred for all things with “sloped eyes and yellow skin” severely upon his son and daughter both. From Vic Jr.’s early childhood on he used a particular brand of bloodline-brainwashing guilt on the boy to “...just do the right things...for your country...your family...for God.”
Victor Jr. had meant no disrespect to his great white lineage of mighty Roman Catholic patriot warriors, but he held none of their beliefs. For starters, he had nary a racist bone in his body. In fact, much to his father’s fury (and even more so to his mother’s secretly silent admiration) he had taken many a beating for the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Concussions, blackened eyes, snapped ribs, a broken wrist and a busted jaw even. He could clearly see through the napalm thick veil of media propaganda, monotheistic moral rhetoric, and the simple hatred of mankind unto itself. It was not even remotely in his nature, and he could not buy into any of it.
In the end though, he caved. Never ran to Canada. He knew the Old Man would take it out on his mother and sister if he really were to have dodged. The guilt and concern for the well-being of his family against the old bastard forcibly violated his own personal ethics. It hung ‘round his neck like a razor wire noose tied to a PCP enraged albatross.
A rattling resentment of this guilt-prodded decision whirled around the inside of his skull like the Viet-Cong bullets just outside of it. He felt the intense heat as they whizzed by his filthy, sweat-soaked face, sweat that trickled fast and salty-hot into tired, traumatized, sun-cooked eyes. Every time he’d attempt a quick wipe with his forearm, dirt and detritus would further cake with the sweat and the tears of anguished exhaustion to create a blinding runny brown mud. The relentless hail of Viet-Cong gunfire continued as Victor dove to his belly, crawled like some panicked insect through the mud of the stink-mulched jungle floor. The tormented cries of the rest of his platoon could be heard even over tumultuous gunfire and exploding mines. It had all happened so fast...there was nothing they could do but scatter like disrupted little camouflage work ants. Hell, that’s essentially all they really were anyway.
Things had been quiet for a few days as their platoon made its way from village to village, doing weapons searches and confiscations. Victor bore witness to some seriously questionable moral/ethical behaviors on the part of his fellow troops, but also felt that he (for lack of a better word) understood. One of the more distressing things that he had learned about humanity, as well as himself, was that in adrenaline and madness fueled fight or flight situations, stress and anger can become almost contagious, and even the most cultured, meek, intelligent and/or God-fearing individuals can and invariably will fall to the most primal base instincts of human animal survival, the ultimate savagery of eat, fuck, kill.
And in this terrible alien land of lush green hell, the heat and humidity will play tricks on the mind. The bad diet of ancient rations and sketchy jungle village food occasionally offered (though usually just taken) from village residents was barely enough to keep one going. It didn’t help that there was also an omnipresent fear of, and complete inability to, trust the ones you are supposed to be protecting. After the horrendous visual of the first exploding baby basket bomb...what do you do? Exhaustion from constant movement, readiness, anxiety and fear, running, hiding, waiting for an invisible enemy that functions on a plane far beyond reason, who will torture you, quite cruelly, for a very long time, if you don’t kill them, or get killed first...what does one do?
An unexpected tsunami of searing blood washed over Victor as he slithered along, stopping him dead on his belly like a fear frozen newt. Knowing he shouldn’t look, Victor did just that to see who it was and if they were...salvageable. It only took a moment for Vic to realize he was now soaked in the steaming gore of his best friend, Willy Abrams. Willy lay on his back, his head intact, but most of his jaw missing. He was still alive, in the most abstract sense of the word, glassy eyes shock-wide as he struggled, silent but for little tortured puppy-like whimpers, trying to raise his head and gawk at his condition. His body looked as though it had been torn in two. Willy’s entire left side, his arm, leg, and into the direct center of his torso and belly, had been blown out completely, becoming the simmering flesh-mush jelly which scalded Vic’s right arm and cheek.
Nausea boiled deep inside Victor and he felt about to shit himself, a knot of distress deep in his gut, churning his guts like fork-spun spaghetti. His gaze held on to and watched Willy’s eyes intently, watched what was left of Willy’s jaw struggle to emit those ghastly whimpers. Certainly, had there been more of him, Willy would have shrieked a dead dog’s howl up into the firefight. Instead he wore a frozen, unblinking stare. Victor hoped beyond reason that his friend was so deep in shock that none of this registered. Hell, he couldn’t even figure out how the poor bastard was still alive.
Victor went for his pistol, no longer able to witness Willy suffer and fade away in this condition. Fighting tears, sickness, nausea, and emotion, Vic shakily raised the pistol, realizing he had perfect aim. True humanity is never letting a sick animal suffer.
Astonishingly, Willy’s eyes seemed to suddenly register and shifted, all wide and gawky, making direct pupil to pupil contact with Victor. Willy’s face now bore an awkward Harpo Marx-like ogle. It would have been somewhat humorous, had this situation not been what it was.
Amid the chaos and screaming and clatter of bullets and splattering blood and raining innards and mind-shattering decibel-levels of noise, a total silence fell over all around Vic. He felt he could hear Willy communicating through the terror stricken pupils of his moribund eyes. Time seemed frozen. He heard nothing. Vic tried to breathe, but felt suffocated by the soupy hot and cream-thick air—rife with sulfur and putrescence—pulling into his lungs.
Above all the other hypersensitive stimuli, Vic could feel every fine hair, every mud and blood caked pore, every last microscopic skin cell actually move. He could feel how every atomic particle in his hand worked, its natural dynamic. The silence faded into a deep, kettledrum fierce pulse beat deep in his ears.
As Victor Marks pulled the trigger, he could feel his pineal gland tingling. He was seeing spots, little tack-welder firework burns dancing like machine elves on his cornea.
As Victor Marks pulled the trigger, he felt a bullet slam into the gun in his hand, felt the bullet go through the palm of his own hand.
Now, Victor did shit his pants.
The affliction of the wound caused time to crash back hard, along with all the all-sense destroying rages of this foreign war around him. The stray bullet from Vic’s misfired pistol caught another of their platoon, Raymond Davie, right in the head.
Victor again caught Willy’s eyes, locked, and Willy was home, and the light was on. The poor half-bodied bastard shrieked a death cry louder than even the roar of the violent chaos exploding now from the jungle in virtually every direction but one: straight ahead.
Another rush of adrenaline burst throughout Vic’s body, agony induced, inside and out, physical and mental, spiritual. He forcibly, guiltily broke the deadlock with Willy. It was just too much, and he resumed fleeing from the relentless pursuit of their invisible enemy. Victor sobbed hard as he just left Willy there, having no real other choice. This was fight or flight...this was eat, fuck, kill.
Balling his wounded fist white-knuckle tight, Vic could hear Willy off in the distance now, trying to shriek himself to death. He began to vomit as he ran, and could feel the diarrhea streaming out his searing asshole like a broken faucet from his heat-sick, dehydrated body. His eyes blind from mud and sweat and Willy’s blood.
There was not time for guilt or mourning, only survival.
Victor’s peripheral vision had always been top notch, and out of the far corners of his grit-flecked eyes he could now actually, finally see the shadows of his enemy coming from the bushes. Each bullet grew closer, as well, but never gave Victor Marks what he craved then more than anything, ever, at that precise sliver of time: death, sweet death. Peace. He just wanted out, to die, then and there in that very moment.
Victor ran, fast and hard, forcing his way through thick and painful sharp underbrush bramble, noticing slowly and with great unease that he could hear no traces of his platoon anymore. The Viet-Cong gunfire was beginning to cease, but he could now hear (as a series of muffled and disorganized thuds in his war-numb eardrums) their footsteps behind him, gaining quickly.
Were he to be caught, they would not kill him. That much was a given. They would keep him and torture him for years, or until they tired of him. Hell, they weren’t even shooting now. They just chased, coming ever closer, ten steps to his exhausted and disoriented two, in near complete silence, a mere hush...and still near complete invisibility. He was still only seeing traces of them, like ghosts, shadow people.
Victor’s mind juggled blinding flashes of a thousand thoughts at once, but one stood out. He homed in on it: I should have gone to Canada, to Mexico, anywhere but here. He realized his father’s respect for the things he holds dear will always remain moot. They will never matter. Essentially, my coming into this vile hell-war has meant absolutely nothing.
A burst of energy overtook Victor. A furious speed involuntarily coursed through his legs, a sprint of self-preservation, pushing his body somehow momentarily beyond its near death limit. Eyes still bloody with mud-sweat and nearly blind, he charged forward, numb to the puncturing thorns and slicing bramble netting his path.
Victor quite suddenly felt light and airless then, his body in an unexpected free fall, over an edge of land he couldn’t see. The feeling lifted all discomfort from his being, the feeling as eternal as watching his best friend realize the ultimate uselessness and futility of his condition, his situation, all their situations, and the soulless ripping agony of being that end-stage kind of helpless. To know there was no way out, alone on your deathbed, merely for the full course to run itself out in stultifying misery.
Victor’s fall was (again quite unexpectedly) broken and slightly softened by a thick pool of warm and sticky stagnant mud, the stench of which was quite fetid and positively gruesome. His mental state completely dazed, the free-fall anesthetized pain returned at ten times its previous strength. Looking up, he could hazily see the drop-off point from which he fell, and he could see his pursuers standing at the edge. Victor could not tell how many there were, as their forms had been silhouetted by the thick beams of bright hazy sunlight that filtered through the lingering smoke-haloed trees and underbrush, his eyes still stinging from the stew of fluids and filth that seemed now to be permanent.
What was left of his mangled rifle slipped from his shot up hand as he fumbled clumsily with it in the vile mud. He knew the gun was now slag (there’s the good ol’ U.S. of A. lookin’ out for their boys again snarled deep in his thoughts), but just the security of having it on his person sank into the mud with the weapon itself. Looking up again, he could still see his assailants, motionless, watching him like mocking gods from way up on high.
One of the Viet-Cong yelled something to him, the rest following suit. They were acting a strange cross between what seemed like both manic elation and spiritual panic, their words now monotone and ritualistic sounding, with similarly odd accompanying physical gesticulations. One word seemed to stand out in their droning repetitive din, increasing both the intensity of this mantra and their gestures. They all pointed at Victor, intermittently laughing like truly mad men.
“Conree” it sounded like they were saying. Victor had picked up a bit of Vietnamese here and there, enough to get by in a restaurant, shop, or whorehouse, but was completely ignorant to this word, its meaning. He was convinced, however, that he had indeed heard this word before, yet familiar as it sounded, he was stumped and somewhat concerned. Are they going to capture and torture me? Christ in heaven please let them just kill me.
As quick and shadowy silent as they had initially erupted with their gunfire, they now just the same slipped back into the floral maw of the mangled vine-branch teeth of the jungle; a seamless disappearing act in harsh silence. Asian Houdini’s of war.
There was total silence now, complete and death-like; no gunfire, no landmines, no screaming. It was like everything in the jungle had just up and died. Or that the jungle herself had her vocals cords slit from behind.