The sun was exceptionally angry. Or, Scoggins noticed it a lot more today.
One could hardly tell sometimes.
The ground was cold. It was the only thing cold in the goddamn jungle, and the slick mud felt good against his sunburned cheek. He closed his eyes, for a moment, and felt himself falling into the dark. He couldn’t fall into the dark. Not right now. Not when he needed to save Alvarez. He opened his eyes and slapped frantically at his cheeks, allowing himself to feel the sting.
He rolled away from the mud. He rolled away from the comfort and the cold. The sun was still glaring at him through the tops of the ironwoods and oaks. Some of them had to have been centuries old. If they could withstand the sun’s anger, Scoggins could hold out for another day or two, when help would arrive.
It had to arrive. Sometime.
It must have been what, five-thirty…maybe six? Soon the sun would fall behind the horizon and be replaced by the moon and stars. The moon was much kinder. The moon didn’t hurt. And Alvarez smelled better once the sun went down. Scoggins looked over at his friend, lying lifeless in the far corner of the foxhole. They had flown in on the same C-130, they had been bunkmates during basic, best friends in high school. They had shared everything. Girls. Cars. They had even shared the first flask of whiskey, stolen from Alvarez’s grandfather’s nightstand; the one where he kept his teeth, booze and porn. And Scoggins wasn’t about to let his friend rot in some godforsaken jungle in the middle of Vietnam.
He deserved better than that.
They all deserved better than that.
It was an ambush. Mortar fire as far as Scoggins could tell and possibly some friendly fire too. During the melee he thought he had smelled napalm, that chemically burning smell – that burning oil smell – that attaches to your lungs and sinks in like a hard whiskey. He could just imagine what it must have looked like from the sky as they were dropping it carelessly, with no regard for the friendlies on the ground. Black clouds, building and rolling as they crawled across the jungle. It must have looked spectacular. It must have looked like freedom.
Scoggins thought it smelled like shit.
And even now, hours after they called in the raid he could still smell it, lingering in the air like bad cologne – the cologne of your lover’s lover. It clung to everything. The air felt like a machine shop…just…greasy. This added to the overwhelming heat and humidity.
“Jesus Christ, Alvarez!” Scoggins shouted; the sound of his own voice startled him. It had been…he honestly had no idea the last time he had spoken aloud. It felt alien. It felt wrong. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “When was the last time you showered, brother.” He laughed at this; at his own humor.
The sun had dropped below the horizon. Soon, after the purple and blues had faded, the moon would appear. Then the stars.
And then the noises. Those nighttime noises that crawl inside your head and claw at your brain. The worst thing, though, was that the noises were real. And Scoggins wasn’t sure what he feared most after the sun went down; the Viet Cong or the wildlife. He had spotted a tiger once. Fleeting. One second it was there, as he was turning his head to speak to Alvarez, the next it was the tip of a tail. They had never even heard it. Add on top of that the cobras, scorpions and pit vipers. But at least the animals weren’t out to kill you intentionally.
The Viet Cong were a different story.
Every snapping twig. Every moving vine or leaf sent Scoggins into a spiral of anxiety. Three goddamn days and three goddamn nights in this foxhole just waiting to die.
The entire jungle was fucking with him.
He closed his eyes for a moment.
He was lost in thoughts. He was lost in fantasies. He was on the beach back home. The sun was high and the waves crashed against the sand, pulling shells and small children back into the ocean. There was a girl; her brown hair sun-streaked and wet with the salty waters of the Pacific. She was calling to him. Her smile was easy. A little too easy. She ran to him. Scoggins ran to her, like one of those cheesy movie scenes you take the girl to so you can loosen up her inhibitions. Her hair bounced in unison with the rest of her. It was perfect. A little too perfect. They were within feet of each other; arms outstretched and open to anything.
She stepped on a twig.
She looked down in horror.
The beach was covered in twigs. Every step she took snapped a twig like a broken dream. She opened her mouth. There were no words. She kept repeating the same thing over and over, becoming more agitated with every attempt. Scoggins focused on her perfectly formed mouth.
“There are no twigs on the beach!”
Scoggins shot up. The moon was high overhead. How had that happened so quickly? How long had he been asleep? He scrambled to the opposite side of the foxhole. Alvarez sat opened mouth. He must have been in complete shock. Scoggins knew exactly how he felt.
The breaking twigs were louder. Closer. Scoggins held his breath; pulled his helmet low over his brow. His M-16 was leaning against the opposite side of the foxhole. He moved silently to the opposite end and wrapped his hand round the rifle’s barrel, still hot from the daytime heat. Another twig snapped. Very close this time. He froze. He could hear heavy breathing. He wasn’t sure if it was man or beast. He wasn’t even sure if there was a difference anymore.
He prayed, unsure if God could even hear his prayers through the jungle’s canopy. He prayed for his mother, back home caring for his father, stricken with cancer. He prayed for his sister in her first year of college. He prayed for his brother, still two years from graduating high school. He prayed the war would be over by then. He prayed for Lyndon Johnson, that he would go screw himself. He prayed all these damn Viet Cong would just die already.
He never once prayed for himself.
It had been quiet for a moment. Only for a moment. Whatever was out there…moving…was either gone or waiting. There was only one way to find out. He looked over at Alvarez. A scorpion was crawling into his mouth. He didn’t think Alvarez cared too much for that. He reached across the foxhole and plucked it from his mouth by the stinger, dropped it on the ground and crushed it silently under his heavy boot.
He crept to the other side of the foxhole; the side where he had heard the cracking sound. He reached up to the top of the hole. It felt like a grave. He suddenly felt every ache in his body. He felt the night air burn his lungs. He felt the cool sweat drip from his brow. He felt the heaviness of his helmet and flack jacket. He had ignored all of this until this moment.
It felt good to feel something.
He closed his eyes and raised his head above the muddy ridge of the foxhole. His eyes burned as he strained to see into the dense jungle. A branch cracked ahead of him. He swallowed hard and realized it had been at least a day since he had taken a slug from his canteen.
A mouse-deer stuck its head out from behind a tree. Scoggins breathed relief. He allowed himself laughter. He smiled at the deer; watched it scavenge the ground for whatever it was they ate. The deer moved silently; stepping easily over twigs as it scavenged.
It never made a sound.
Scoggins swallowed again; felt the familiar pangs of fear in the pit of his stomach. He never took his eyes off the deer. The way it moved made him feel at peace; even through the fear that grew in his stomach. He felt the cold muzzle in his neck; heard the familiar Vietnamese language from behind. He heard their laughter.
He watched the deer and he prayed.