This short story was a highly commended finalist in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.
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“Mr Porter… Mr Porter?” the interviewer tries to call Charlie back to his fractured reality. “You were telling me about My Lai”. No reaction. “The massacre… 1968, your platoon led the attack.” Charlie’s eyes glaze over as he remembers.
“Yeah, I was there,” he mutters. “I was there”.
MOVE PORTER, MOVE, the Captain barks as I stand motionless before the dying village. Blood floods out of the huts, crawling up my legs and seeping into my bones. Charred remains of houses, people, animals… Death is inescapable.
My friends run around like predators, possessed.
Man, I’m hungry for them! Dan yells as he charges towards a peasant girl.
Imma win boys! Imma kill ‘em all! Tommy lets out a wolf howl. It echoes through my mind amongst the screams of the innocent. It destroys what we should stand for: freedom, democracy, peace.
What are we now?
Disillusioned, drugged up soldiers programmed to just kill. Kill. Kill.
My gun sits cold in my hands. Cold like the people it’s killed.
“I didn’t kill anyone that day… Captain snatched my gun and killed them for me”. Charlie bows his head. “I saw huge six foot Americans murder tiny, tiny little children”. His hands mimic the sizes. “No one else questioned our orders, no point… they’d just send new guys in.” Charlie starts to shake, his bony hands clench into fists, “Why were we even there?” Slowly he releases his fingers and looks at his hands. “Murderer,” he whispers bitterly.
The interviewer looks cautiously at Charlie. She sees his scrawny arms which used to be powerful, muscular. Marks and scars engulf his body; war has trapped him in a prison of cries and gunfire. Messy hair, vacant eyes and a trembling lip; nothing left but nightmares.
Kill ‘em Charlie.
Kill ‘em, easy, c’mon, grab the gun.
Fine I’ll do it, Godsake.
Tommy points the gun at the mother and her two children. Obviously innocent.
We got us some VC, he smirks.
No we haven’t.
Shut up Charlie! Just shut up! Tommy’s eyes blaze with anger and hatred. He angles the gun at the weeping girl. She trembles, her eyes helplessly flittering from her mother to the gun. Suddenly the woman jumps up, screaming in Vietnamese and lunges at Tommy. A moment later her corpse hits the ground.
Then my vision goes blurry. The drugs. A cloud of snowy white seems to float from the corner of my eye. My head starts to pound; sounds amplified.
Tommy’s gun swivels towards the boy. With a defiant look the boy closes his eyes and holds his wailing sister.
Another two down.
A drowsiness overtakes my alertness, the frenzy of images before me blur into one, my head rocks… side to side; a ragdoll falling asleep.
The scene melts away, the children’s bodies lie drowning in their blood.
A distance voice echoes through the jungle… do you regret it?
“Do you regret it?” she asks Charlie
“I wish I had never left San Francisco. The changing lights. The warmth of the evening sun and the foggy mornings. The sea air was so cool and fresh.” His eyes fill with tears which dance down Charlie’s cheeks. “Vietnam had little air. The jungles were stagnant graveyards breathing out contagion.” He shivers at the memory “No space. We were trapped in that godforsaken jungle, trapped like stupid geese or something, I dunno. No one is made for Vietnam, only the Vietcong.”
The interviewer watches the veteran in front of her. He was only thirty one, yet war had crippled him far beyond his years. Haunted. That was the word that sprung to her mind as she gazed at him. Haunted, not by monsters or ghosts, but by men.
“Who do you blame for the war in Vietnam? Who do you think started it?”
“The war started a long, long time ago” Charlie sighs, “wars are all the same, all you need is ignorance and greed. War feeds off power.” He pauses, thoughts tumbling through his head. “Vietnam was inevitable.”
Like a rose, dawn blossoms across the sea, a wound spewing out blood from the ocean depths. I awake delirious, my body and mind shaking. Panic. I see Tommy, I see Dan, but I don’t see them… I realise I don’t really know these men. They are but soldiers and soldiers are not humans, soldiers must be void of feeling. Soldiers follow orders. I can’t remember what Tommy and Dan told me about themselves. I know they’re both young, but war has messed with their ages. Sometimes they look like little boys, wide eyes staring at the crimes the generals order them to commit. Their lips trembling, their hearts flying back home, longing for peace, for love, for silence. Yet on other occasions they look like weary travellers, with years and years piling on their weakening backs. Eyes that have seen a world no god should allow a man to witness.
Tired, hopeless, mournful, the US army is wilting.
I see a window and I want it painted black, I hear Dan singing to himself as he packs up his gear. No colours anymore I want them to turn black. I call for him but he doesn’t hear me. His hair is matted, the beginning of a beard hangs from his rough chin; Dan is only nineteen. Like mine his hands are stained with Vietnamese blood.
I scrub my hands, viciously trying to clean the blood off. The tears fall onto my palms, mixing with their blood.
It won’t come off.
It won’t come off! I shout out loud. I scrub and scrub but the blood only increases. Skin scratches off, flakes gather on the floor. GOD. I cry to the heavens, but only a fiery sun replies. Rain, God, wash my hands, please, God almighty, please! I begin to howl at the sky.
Dan runs over and grabs my hands. It’s your blood Charlie. It’s not theirs’. Charlie, Charlie man calm down…
I look inside myself and see my heart is black.
The words crawl up my spine like a snake, hissing the truth in my trembling ears.
My heart is black.
“We were living, but at the same time we weren’t. We lived in our fantasies, hallucinogenic nightmares. We had no purpose, no ache for independence like the Vietnamese. It was not our war. We didn’t belong there and we knew it, every man knew it, every man just wanted to go home.” Charlie gasps for breath as his words end, he sighs again, breathing slowly, carefully.
“Thank you for your time Mr Porter” the interviewer smiles as she helps Charlie up from the chair. He clings to her arm like a child. “Goodbye now”. She hands him over to his parents and Charlie glances back to the interviewer, to all the cameras surrounding him. Black, vacant eyes which see everything; capturing a little girl’s birthday or a bombing of a school. Charlie had been in front of those eyes many times. He had smiled at them after graduation, kissed before them, pointed his gun at them and killed in front of them. Those judging eyes.
“Well done son,” Charlie’s dad pats him on the back.
“Yes darling, we’re so proud of you,” his mum gushes.
Charlie’s ears ring. “Proud”. “Proud” of their son who has killed people. Is war really an excuse? He smacks his hands over his ears and hums. At the beginning of the war Charlie would sing. He would drunkenly shout out the words to the dirtiest songs with his friends. As the war went on and on and on, Charlie sang childhood songs. He’d march through the jungle, “We’re following the leader”, his hands mimicking drums. He’d try to send himself to sleep with “Kum ba yah my Lord…”
Someone’s crying Lord, kum ba yah. I gaze up at the sky, black arms imprisoning the people. Stars flicker in the dark like gunfire. Wishing for silence in Vietnam is pointless. Men sing tunelessly to the Stones… you can’t always get what you want…
We’re off boys, Captain shouts.
Man Charlie, I’m trippin’. Tommy wobbles over to me, his eyes puffy and red.
Tommy get off, we need to go.
Up! Up! Up! Captain claps his hands then catches my eye. Porter, you haven’t been very productive lately, get your act together. How many have you killed this week?
None! None! His voice crescendos. Christ Porter, this is a war of attrition. He thrusts my gun into my chest. I’ll be watchin’ you today.
Yes sir. He pushes me forward.
Another bomb explodes on the horizon as the blazing sun tries to enter our nightmare. We walk wearily towards it. The unreachable light…