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Pieces of Roy
The air is thick and humid, filled with the horrid smell of hot, dead flesh. The jungle is loud with the sounds of distant gunfire and screaming men. I slap a mosquito away from my face, and its blood trickles down my cheek. My eyes are watering from the stench; it probably looks like I’ve been crying, but I don’t care. I cradle my gun with dirty fingers, a mixture of grit and blood has forever implanted itself under my fingernails. I’ve tried to get the nasty combination out, but non-drinking water is limited, and we don’t have much soap. I shake my head at my soot-covered hands, biting my lip and trying to drown out the constant sound of gunshots.
The jungle is slowly growing dark, it’s right before nightfall, which is always the worst. We still fight, even when it’s night and pitch black, even when the snakes can come from behind and bite us. Being able to see the man who will kill you is bad enough, but not knowing if he might suddenly appear from out of the darkness is even worse.
The jungle is made of green, bushy plants and tall narrow trees that provide good camouflage, for us and our enemies. The soft, spongy ground is tattooed with footprints, the wavy grass imprinted from soldiers attempting to rest.
My platoon set off on a surprise attempt earlier today; and I volunteered to stay behind and guard our camp, which is about half a mile away. A few men are scattered around our camp’s border, but I can't hear or see them. I observe my surroundings, like I do every other day, the tall bushy trees and stalky grass that the Vietnamese can hide in.
As I look over the foliage, something happens that’s never happened before. The jungle begins to slowly grow silent. The birds stop cawing, which I’ve noticed in my time here, is their favorite and most annoying activity. The occasional rustle of leaves and plants by the larger mammals is put on pause. The gunfire I hear in the distance dims. It’s the kind of silence that means something is coming, something bad. I stiffen, and sink farther into the soft, muddy ground. I duck my head behind a leafy tropical plant, trying desperately to slow my breathing.
I sit on the soggy ground and wait.
The cracking of a branch and the peeling of a leaf finally breaks the silence. A footstep, a falter in someone’s mission to be impossibly silent. Who it is, I don’t know.
I scan the foliage, only seeing green plants and thin, long tree trunks. No enemy, just green plants and tree trunks. I squint and try harder, but I still see only green plants, and the occasional tree trunk. Everything surrounding me is a maze of green plants and narrow tree trunks. I sink deeper into the ground, trying desperately to see anything, foe or friend. Anything but green plants and tree trunks.
I grip my gun in a handy position: if it’s enemy approaching, I can shoot quickly. My knuckles are turning white, I’m holding the gun so tightly. I feel my heart beating loudly in my chest, and I will it to quiet so the Vietnamese won’t hear.
A small crunch of boot-on-branches makes me stiffen. I bite my tongue and hold my breath. The person, whoever it is, slowly comes closer. It seems as if they’re hesitant to approach, like each step could mean the difference of life or death. I raise my gun a few inches, preparing to shoot. For the longest of seconds, it seems as if the whole world had gone quiet, like someone has clicked a big mute button. What finally breaks the eerie silence takes me by surprise. It’s not a footstep or thump; it’s something completely different.
“Dale?” the man says, so quietly I wonder if I’ve imagined it. I know this voice, I’ve heard it many times before. It's the voice of someone I’ve sat next to while eating meals nearly every day since I’ve been stationed here. It’s someone who loves to joke and laugh even when everything is so serious. I know this voice, I’ve grown to love this voice. I like to think it is what's kept me sane.
“Roy?” I say, barely above a whisper. I shift in my position, peeking my head above the plant sheltering me. I see Roy standing a few feet away, partly hidden by a thin vascular tree trunk, his gun aimed in my direction. I can see his scuffed boots and his worn pants, covered in soot and plant leaves to blend in with the jungle habitat.
“S***, Dale, you scared me half to death!” he says, grinning widely as he emerges from the tree. His face is covered with dark dust, which makes his bright blue eyes stand out.
“I scared you half to death?” I ask in disbelief, standing up from my hiding place. “I was sittin’ down there, nearly shittin’ my pants thinking you were the enemy.”
“Dale, you know they ain’t gonna come one by one. They like their big fuckin’ surprise attacks and ambushes,” he says, laughing, even though those surprise attacks have killed many of our fellow soldiers.
“Yeah, well I just wasn’t sure. The way you were walkin’, like somebody was gonna jump outta the shadows and shoot you,” I say, picking up my gun and walking toward Roy.
“I knew there was somebody where you sitting, I just didn’t know it was you!” he says, slinging his small brown pack over his shoulder.
“At least it was me, right?” I say, reaching down to grab my own pack. When my hands only grasp warm air, I realize I’ve left it where I was stationed earlier today. I open my mouth to say something, but Roy speaks before I have a chance.
“Yeah, at least it was you,” he says, turning to head toward camp. “You comin’?” he asks, jerking his thumb behind him, his smile showing his crooked front tooth.
“I forgot my pack where I was sitting earlier, so you go ahead,” I say, starting to head back in the direction I’d been for most of the day.
It’s darker now, but as I look back, I can still see Roy as he walks toward camp. I see him take another step, his gun swinging along with his long, muscular arms. And then I hear a big, thunderous boom.
I startle awake, sitting abruptly up in bed. The cotton sheets I bought long ago stick to my sweaty body. It’s dark in my bedroom, too dark. Dark like it was the night Roy died.
My breathing is ragged, even though I try to take deep breaths.
Roy, walking toward camp.
His gun swinging by his side, his helmet covering most of his thick, greasy hair.
His clothing covered in dirt and somebody’s blood, probably the enemy’s.
My breathing grows heavier; I can’t get the image out of my head.
Roy, walking toward camp. Turning back to wave in my direction, his goofy smile showing his yellow teeth. His pant leg riding up, revealing the nasty snake bite he’d gotten a few days before.
Roy, going ahead because I told him to.
I shake my head, as if the memory will just come right out. I grasp the sweaty bedding, letting out a helpless cry.
“Roy!” I scream weakly, hot tears running down my cheeks. “Roy, don’t go ahead. Don’t go ahead!” I scream louder, crying harder. It doesn’t seem to be loud enough, he doesn’t seem to hear me. Roy is still walking ahead, he’s still walking toward camp. Towards the mine. Towards the mine rigged by the fucking Vietnamese.
“Roy! There’s a fucking mine! Don’t put your foot down!” I scream at the top of my lungs, even though my throat is already growing sore. “A mine,” I say, quieter now, weaker.
And then it all falls apart.
Roy doesn’t hear me, he doesn’t stop walking. He steps on the mine, just like every other time this memory comes back to me.
Roy dies. He steps on the mine. There’s a loud boom! and pieces of flesh scatter up, down, everywhere.
It’s pieces of Roy, of what he used to be.
Boom, boom, boom. Over and over. The pieces of Roy keep raining down; they never seem to stop.
Boom, boom. Pieces of Roy: blood and flesh and burning hair.
I lie in bed, watching the pieces of Roy fall and hearing boom! for what feels like an endless eternity. When I look at the blinking lights of my clock, I see that it’s only been five minutes.
An insistent pounding at the door breaks the raining of flesh and repetitive booming replaying in my mind. I slowly sit up in bed, wiping my sweaty gray hair off my forehead. I slip on my ragged cotton slippers and wrap an old blue robe around my shoulders. I grab the old wooden cane resting on my bedside table and push myself off the bed. I slowly limp to the door and down the dark hallway. I stare at the set of wooden stairs that winds down to the first floor, my left leg already pulsing. I dread the climb down, even though I have yet to start it. Going up and down the stairs has always been a challenge for me ever since the war. Tonight, I know it’s going to be extra difficult. I stare at the stairs, knowing I’ve got no choice but to slowly descend them because the loud knocking continues.
In the war, I sustained a serious leg injury that put me in the hospital for a week. This happened after Roy died, and at that time, I didn’t care about anything but fighting. Fighting for Roy, as if killing all the Vietnamese men I could would get him back. It didn’t get him back, nothing did.
I wince, remembering his face covered in soot and his brilliant blue eyes the night he died. I wince, putting my right leg and cane down on the first stair. My leg is on fire, icy hot fire. As I remember that day, I can already hear the rain falling on the jungle floor.
It was about six months after Roy died. I had been in fighting mode ever since, leading my platoon on many attacks. That day, I had lost my fellow troops in a tricky diversion attempt, and the rain was pounding down so hard I couldn’t see five feet in front of me.
It happened very quickly. I was standing in the jungle, the warm rain matting my hair to my head when someone grabbed me roughly around the neck, and started to whisper profanities in my ear. They had a knife and it was pressed against my throat. I could feel my hot blood running down my neck and staining my shirt.
And yet, my heart didn’t beat like it had when I watched Roy blown into pieces. I didn’t cry out, didn’t fall to the ground with pure despair. I didn’t feel anything; not like when Roy died.
Instead of feeling, I reacted by stabbing the man in the stomach with my elbow, and turning swiftly around to face him. He had red eyes, cold red eyes and a sick, yellow smile. I crab-walked clumsily away from him, scrambling in the muck for my gun. The mud was thick, but I found my gun, and was about to aim it at the man when something sunk numbly into my leg.
At first, I didn’t feel anything, at first there was just the rain and the sound of the man who had just stabbed me running away. And then I felt it, every single way to feel pain traveled through my leg. I screamed, turning my head up to the sky, letting the humid rain fall into my mouth. I knew I had to turn my head, had to look at my leg. Reluctantly, I looked down. All I could see was rain and a knife handle, just below my knee.
Some of my troops had found me, lying on the humid ground, my clothes soaked through from the jungle rain. They had carried me, unconscious, all the way back to camp, to one of the few doctors we had on site. My leg would have been amputated, had the man stabbed me about an inch higher. But he hadn’t, at least, that’s what everyone said. I slowly recovered and returned home a few years later with a bad limp and bitter heart.
After I was recovered and back on the battlefield, the doctors and other troops always said that I was lucky to be alive, that it was a miracle that man had had a knife instead of a gun that day. I would nod my head and try to smile as they patted me on the back and said: you’ll be just fine. But I didn’t see it as a miracle, and certainly not as being lucky: Roy was still dead and I was still alive.
I reach the bottom of the staircase, breathing out in both relief and agony.
I can see the figure of someone standing on my front porch, their fist knocking insistently on the door. I take a shaky breath, walking to the door and swinging it open.
A young woman stands on my porch, her arms crossed, a frustrated look on her face. The only time I’ve seen this woman is when she comes to my door, often at late hours of the night, to complain about the regular disturbance I make after nightmares about Roy and the war. I’ve lived next to her for about four years, and after all this time, I don’t even know her name.
“Dale?” she says, squinting as I switch on the porch light. “You know we can hear you screaming, right? My kids are starting to have nightmares!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I say quietly, because there isn’t anything else to do.
“I thought you said you were getting better,” she says, a concerned look crossing over her face. Ever since I got back from the war, everyone has been giving me concerned looks, as if I’m an exhibit at the zoo, trapped in a cage with Roy’s dead body and the guilt it brings.
“Yeah, well,” I say, shrugging my hunched shoulders. I begin to close the door, but before I can, she pulls it open again.
“His name was Roy, wasn’t it?” she says in a soft, careful voice, a look of curiosity taking the place of concern on her face. I don’t answer her. Instead I just stand in my doorway in my blue robe, numb like I was the day that Vietnamese man stabbed me in the leg.
“You are always screaming about somebody named Roy, and how he shouldn’t keep walking because there’s a effing mine,” she says, putting all the pieces together in her mind. I cringe at how desperate I must sound to her. I shake my head and try to close the door once more. But she stops me again, looking at me, her brown eyes filled with sympathy.
“You know you’re not supposed to talk about my time in war. It could trigger me,” I say in a stiff voice.
“But how else are you going to let it go, Dale? How can you live your life if you keep thinking about Roy and that mine? You’ve got to confront it, and not be afraid of it. Dale, you--,”
I can’t take her yelling at me, so I slam the door in her face. She quickly stops talking and I see her shoulders go limp on the other side of the door. She’s right, and I know it. But she doesn’t understand; she doesn’t know what it’s like. What it’s like to see your best friend die right before your eyes, and not be able to do a single thing about it. What it’s like to tell someone to go forward, to head back to camp, only to watch the pieces of what used to be them rain on the soggy jungle floor. She doesn’t know what it’s like, when it’s my fault that Roy died.
I shake my head, slowly sinking to the floor, at the expense of my left leg. I let out tiny little cries, my shoulders shaking. My heart beating: thump, thump, thump. I hear her walk away, shuffle down the porch steps and up the grassy path to her house.
I get up from the sticky wooden floor, and begin to limp toward the stairs.
Before I get to the first step, I hear something and freeze.
There’s someone knocking timidly at the door.
I don’t want to answer it, don’t want to hear her yelling at me again. So I just stand next to the stairs, gripping the railing until my knuckles turn white.
“Dale,” she says quietly through the door. “It wasn’t your fault. Roy dying, it wasn’t your fault.”
I don’t know how she knew what to say, but somehow she did. Maybe it’s divine intervention, maybe it’s pure luck. Maybe it’s a miracle.
I limp to the door, my slippers and cane scratching on the wooden floor. I turn the golden door knob and the door slowly creaks open. She stands on my white porch, her brown hair rustled from sleep, her robe faded and worn from many years of wear. I smile at her because I can, and she looks back at me with a mixture of shock and delight.
I hold out my arms for a hug; I don’t know how else to thank her. She falls into me, wrapping her arms around my shoulders. I feel my shoulders start to shake; sad and desperate cries escape from my mouth. I’m standing on my front porch, comforted by a woman I don’t even know.
I cry for what feels like forever, because Roy is gone, because he’s been gone all this time.