by AJ Lavery
A first person examination of the human psyque when subject to war, separation and death.
August 14th 1968 - Over the North Pacific Ocean
I opened my snakeskin wallet and looked at the faces within. My beautiful wife Anna smiled back at me with those deep, mysterious brown eyes of hers. Ben had only turned 2 seven days ago... I missed his birthday. I had to be briefed for the upcoming mission, to obtain a file containing important co-ordinates of the major heavily armed Vietcong outposts. But I didn’t care about that, I cared about my son. The guilt I felt. “I’m sure she’s very proud of you Simon. Anna always did see the world in you. Don’t worry; it’ll be over in no time.” Captain Steven Reynolds said.
I knew It would be over in no time, whether that meant quick death or a swift victory, was entirely with God. Now I’m not really a religious man, but war can change anyone. The feeling you get before walking into war is somewhat similar to that of facing an examination you did no revision whatsoever for, except somewhat more intense. It’s probably more like walking into a trial after being suspected of raping and killing seven schoolgirls, that bad. Lose everything in an instant, depending on how you react. No second chances.
“I don’t see why we brought fresh fish here; he looks like he’s gunna kick the bucket.” That’s John ‘Fishhook’ Britchens, your regular stone-cold patriot. The kind of guy that’s in every helicopter, on every boat and in every squad in this war. I guess he’s an essential element to the war; his searing pessimistic realist approach brings everyone back to life, but there are a lot of times in war when you want to be as far away from life as possible. They call him ‘Fishhook’ because when he was a kid, out fishing with his step-father, some idiot swung their rod in Johns direction, caught the side of his face. He didn’t shed a tear, or that’s how the story goes anyway. “Keep it quiet Fishhook, he’s with me. And he’s the best engineer we have.” That wasn’t true, but I didn’t say anything. The truth was, If I wasn’t with Reynolds, I’d be running wildly into some god-forsaken village only to get shot down by your average 8 year old Vietnamese kid with an AK. Reynolds was an old friend of my mother’s, at 46 years old he was still as young and brave at heart as ever. He was offered an off-field desk job, but to him, that would be punishment unrivalled by death. He had made a promise to my wife, and to my mother, to bring me home safely. I felt really bad about missing the birthday.
The helicopter rumbled violently, the nettings at the top of the roof shaking wildly and the ammunition sliding around in the back, my wallet slipped from my hands. Reynolds picked it up, “Keep that safe, you’ll need it for when Ben goes to college.” Bullets whizzing past my window, the horizon engulfed in flames and the bamboo huts below ran amuck with men running wildly away from machinegun fire. Like a child stamping mercilessly on an anthill, the war never made more sense to me. Over the roar of the blades, I heard someone shout “We’re going down.” Everyone around me grabbed onto the hand grips… I copied them.
Chapter 1 – Vigilance.
‘Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything that you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but toward hell.’
-Umberto Eco 1932
Somewhere In Vietnam.
Breath rushed into my lungs like a crowd of homeless people at a soup kitchen.
It felt like an Ice-cold Iron clamp around my head, slowly getting smaller, ever timidly.
My skull was numb. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t think about anything. Was there anything to think about? How did I get here? A wave of red hot pain was searing my skull and face, like a thousand tiny daggers puncturing my skin. My skull was splitting, tearing, and the contents of which bursting to get out. Dizzy, nauseous and aching I focused on my objective. Silence is what they don’t want to hear. It’s all I’ve got, the only thing I can give, is to not give.
Like I'd tried to kiss the 8am express train, my face hurt unthinkably. Through all the confusion, I saw a large man, about 6 ft, wearing an open buttoned shirt with coconut trees on it. The shirt was yellow… with the purple trees. Why was I thinking about his shirt? Well, it was a nice shirt. For what felt like the hundredth time I was hit, this time, at the chin, by what felt like a baseball bat. Although, it must have not been because my jaw remained, although somewhat shattered, attached to my face relentlessly. How did they expect me to speak with a shattered jaw? That thought obviously didn’t cross their minds.
I was undeterred and resolute in my goal. Yet, there’s always that ‘What if…’ factor. What if I tell them what they want... would they let me go? No matter what I do, it seemed, I would end up dead. I might as well do what I can against them while I’m alive. For as long as they want the information, they will have to keep me alive, as they know I have what they want, or at least they think I do. “Where is it!? Answer me you American scum!” What did he want? I can’t remember. When the skull is put into a tub filled with ice and water, it is mostly wiped clean of any short term memories. What happens Is, the skull contracts suddenly, due to the coldness, and so forces the brain inwards, causing a period of memory loss. Theoretically, they were forcing the information out of me, but in reality, they were erasing it. Whatever they wanted though, whatever it was, they weren’t getting it. Why should I make my life meaningless by giving him all he wanted from me? Anna wouldn’t want me to do that…
The tall man, an officer of some sort, signaled another man with a shotgun closer, to whom he whispered something in Vietnamese. This man then approached some soldiers at the door, who reached into a black bundle at the door and pulled out a large knife. My mind raced… that was my combat knife, which is never a good thing in a hostage situation unless I have it. He walked towards me, a few steps in front of me… I considered the situation. Could I do anything? Could I turn the knife against them? I was bound to my chair it seemed, at both the legs and the arms. The man gave his shotgun to another soldier, the officer wasn’t getting his hands dirty, and he was leaving the others to do it. He had a pair of amber sunglasses, smoked a cigar, with short cut black hair and a black goatee. He looked quite intimidating and was about to do sick and inhumane things to me.
With a nod from the man, a few soldiers from behind tore the bindings at my shins and forced them up off the chair. They held my feet at the ankles, and waited for the man to make his next move. I tried to move my legs and suddenly realized I was paralysed. Perhaps the fact that I was tied up had prevented me from knowing this. This was one evil concoction too; it immobilized me yet still let me feel pain. Only man could create something so sinister. It did not prevent me from giving information from the mouth, however slurred and incoherent, the perfect substance for their desire. He took the knife out of its sleeve and inspected it, saying, In a heavy Vietnamese accent, “Do you like to walk Mister...” He was thrown my tags, “Dowling”. With a shiver down through my core, I realized what he was hinting at doing. He was circling me, at this stage, behind me. “Answer me!” He hit me with a strong left hook that put the stool on two legs and I slumped pathetically off to the side. The soldiers picked me up again by the hair. I felt a thin burning sensation of pain through my skull; I assumed it had been cracked.
My heart wrenched in pain, not through injury, but the sight of my open wallet on the floor. The soldiers handed it to him. It felt as though my heart had been ripped from my chest. “Ah.. She is very pretty, shame for anything to happen to her Simon. And little Ben, why he looks about three. Do you want to see him grow up Simon? Do you want to play soccer with him in the park? How do you expect to do this without the ability to walk. All that guilt, that you didn’t just give us the information. How bad Ben would think of you.” All I wanted to do was attack him. My barbaric instinct to kill him and cause him pain was just too much to bear while paralyzed. He was twisting my heart like a cloth, causing the most pain imaginable. All I could do was think about my family.
There was a loud bang from the hallway. The two doormen rushed out to inspect. The officers’ radio started buzzing, someone talking on the other end. He called over the man with the knife, with furious wide eyes he indicated to hurry up with the torture. “That’s a shame Mr. Dowling, I thought you loved them. Now they will die by your hands.” He bent down and placed the knife under my thigh. He was going to paralyse me, this time, permanently. The knife was placed beside my hipbone, where the hamstring tendons were attached to the bone. It tore in, incontrovertible pain swept through me like I’d licked a car battery.
Incomparable to anything that had happened to me before this, it was exponentially painful. My leg jolted up to its furthest limit, locked and writhed wildly to avoid the cutting ridges of the knife. Three repetitions, cutting through my leg like a steak. The natural tension and straightness of my hip and leg was dilapidating. All I could think about was Anna, I had made a promise.. and promises are meant to be kept.
My eyes were shut with pain when I heard a distant chime. Through the insides of my eyes, I saw a bright light. It filled my eyes, flooding through my lids, unavoidable. The bright light, light of pain, light of death, the light of freedom.
Chapter 2 – Salvation.
‘My God, my Father, and my Friend,
Do not forsake me at my end.’
Torn, twisted and conflicted, my mind pulled with all its might against my heart. I knew there was little chance in hell, of getting him out of there with no casualties. Was it worth it? Would I spawn more death than I saved? One man’s life for the salvation of many. But it was still a life. He had so much to live for, I’m a washed up Captain, I’ve served my time, had my kids, who have grown up and passed me by. I was swallowed whole by life, chewed up, and spat back out again. I would have to go alone. There was no need risking the lives of the others for Simon’s sake. I remember, Simon was all Mark ever talked about. I remember, calling at his door, on that beautiful Sunday afternoon of his birth, invited in to see him playing with Simon. He loved him so. We were amazed how small his fingers were, one of ours fitting the whole of his palm. The sun shone through the windows, God so pleased with his creation, and rightly so. I left the house at 6pm, I’d had dinner with them. As I walked down the lawn with a grin on my face, so happy for him, three men walked past me. Did I think much of it? No, possibly some other friends wishing him all the best. Mark died protecting his son. Simon was the essence of life, in a deathly dark cave of death and despair. This time was different.
I would have liked to be able to think of what happened had I gone back… back to the helicopter that is.
It was supposed to be easy, quick in, quick out, done. That’s one thing you learn about war, your perspective of the mission changes so much from the briefing that it’s almost a different mission you’re carrying out. Life never turns out as planned, there’s always these little intricacies and factors that only god has power over, usually. In this case however, our fate was in the hands of the devil, and his mercy. I took out a map of the area and a marker from my satchel and put it up against a nearby tree. The facility that was holding him was the very one we had just dropped 10,000ft onto the roof and stolen the documents from. It had to be, it was an abandoned field hospital for the Vietcong, guerrilla troops would have been brought there from nearby villages defending against attacks on the area. Fortunately, most of the troops that would have been defending the base originally were now searching the area looking for us; with only officers and their personal escorts present we might just stand a chance.
“What are you doing?! You aren’t seriously considering this? He’s gone bloody mad…!” Britchens said to me. Too much sanity may be madness, but maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be. I didn’t reply to the comment. Silence Speaks words.
As a threat, as a place of refuge and an unspoken friendship between man and his brother. Hearts are where they are meant to be, when they are needed. I walked away from the helicopter. The pilot was to stay just off the coast, over the South China Sea, land back at the beach in exactly eighty minutes, wait five minutes, and leave with or without us. I heard the sand crunch under my feet, not once, but many per step. Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished. My squad followed me. To heaven or to hell, to death or to salvation, they were going with me, whatever my decision. I now knew why Brtichens was annoyed. My decision had silently signed their fates also, good or bad. Maybe it was through fatigue, or maybe it was simply the look in their eyes, but I knew undoubtedly, that they were not taking no for an answer. They were going to face death, toe to toe, spit on his face and throw dirt in his eyes.
“We’ll head up the Vinh Lang River; it runs along the back of the Hospital with a half a click of forest in between it and the side walls. We’ll then breach the north wall, bring the cutters, the C4 and two stun grenades, we’ll need them. Everything else needs to be left behind, we have to travel light and fast. John, once we’ve cut the wire and jumped the wall you need to set the charges on the east side of the building whilst we watch your back. We won’t blow them yet, Private Sanders; you need to take a stun.” It was hard speaking now; my gut was up in my throat. I handed the private a stun grenade. So fresh faced and supposedly willing to die for his country. Foolhardy… this boy is someone’s son, someone’s father and someone’s friend. How can any human now that they are ready to die. Life is all you have, all you can give and all you can take from any one thing. The ultimate sacrifice. “You need to go around to the back of the building; there will be a maintenance ladder on the outside wall which will take you to a catwalk which runs around the second floor. That’s where the wards are, Simon must be held there. I need you to work your way around the building and find which room he’s in, radio us in his location when you have it. Go now.” He was pale; apparently even being addressed by the Captain was enough for him to cack himself. He thought he was going home, you could see in his eyes. I saw it in all of them, the guilt I felt. They thought they could see their wives and children again; tell the story of their brave storm of the fortress and unfathomable courage in the face of death. The story would still be told, I’ll make sure of that. I started to doubt my abilities, could I pull this off? Had I just been lucky in my previous ventures? My squad could feel my anxiety; I saw it in their faces. The captain must be strong, or morale will break, and men will die. John’s eyes were set, he’d rather be out here fighting for his country than be back home, he had no one to go back to. Is this selfish? Am I doing the right thing? Mark would have come back for me, I know it, and so I have to come back for his son. He’s not dead, I know it. I picked up some vines near my foot and tested their strength for the raft.
I had to say something, something special, something inspirational, something to make these men want to roll the die of death and know they will get double sixes. “However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.”
Chapter 3 – My Deliverance.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“…I thought you loved them. Now they will die by your hands.”
US Military Instructions: To use a stun grenade the soldier grips it firmly with his/her throwing hand, ensuring that the safety lever is firmly held in place with the thumb. This is called the 'death grip' by many soldiers, because letting the lever go could (and probably will) cause the grenade to detonate, killing the thrower. Left-handed soldiers are advised to invert the grenade, ensuring that the thumb is still the digit holding the safety lever in place. The pull ring of the safety pin is then grasped with the index or middle finger of the non-throwing hand and the safety pin is removed using a pulling and twisting motion. The grenade is then thrown towards the target; an over-arm throw is recommended but may not be suitable for an actual combat situation.
Slivers of glass tinkled in harmony off the floor bringing with them furious angels, white light to salvage what left of me. The knife hung in trepidation. Time stood still. It was as though I was experiencing some divine intervention. Seconds passed my life, independent of time. There were shouts outside, I heard gunfire and panic. A great bang reverberated in my ears. All around me was immersed in gunfire, bullets invisible to me, lighting up the insides of my eyes, closed in pain and in hope. I felt dizzy and sick, the apparent side effects of the make shift tranquilizer were obviously taking effect. A force grabbed my arm, I heard footsteps around me and everything was distilling from those brief moments of tranquility. With effort I opened my eyes to see those bloodstained purple trees staring back at me, the shirt had lost its divinity. I heard a particular comfort, the voice of an old friend. “Simon…” Reynolds wasn’t looking at me, rather at my legs. “Simon… We’ve got to go now, can you walk?”
Like I was reborn I was pulled up into a world unfamiliar and unrecognizable. Britchens had his shoulder under my arm, Reynolds supporting my other side. I tried, as they brought me forward through that cold stone doorway, to aid my walk, but failed. I tried with all my might to start walking, like a friendship you don’t treasure it fully until it’s gone. There stood, four or five other men I remember only from a helicopter ride. I never knew them, but the silent grief saw in their faces made me feel like they knew me.
“Were going to have to take the emergency stairwell, the elevators were disabled years ago.” Reynolds said to me and these men who were risking their lives for me. I can’t understand their compassion. Reynolds was speaking almost distantly, his mind sounded elsewhere.
My life is but a burden on these men. These men have families and children to go back to and I may well have signed their death warrant. “Steve…” I didn’t know what to say. How can I sum up this inconceivable act of humanity? “Save your energy Simon, this isn’t over yet.” As I passed dead or unconscious men on the way to the stairs, I was glad. We were moving slowly, yet still moving, away from that room of torture. That room which seemed distant from all which was reasonable and humane. That room which I was in for reasons not known to I but to the men who declared war, thousands of miles away from its dominion. They took my weight, helping me down the stairs, maneuvering my legs was proving to be very difficult. It felt like hot liquid steel had been injected into my leg; it was stiff yet limp and stinging with heat, my eyes watering. My legs were being dragged clumsily over each ledge; it felt like there was someone holding my leg being pulled by it. I let out a suppressed gag of pain; the motion of going down steps was extremely painful. Gravity’s effect, normally unnoticeable, felt like a child was swinging from my torn leg, back and forth. Come on Simon, you need to keep thinking positively… “You should have left me for dead Steve… why’d you come back?”
=l * l=
“I don’t know why I did. But I know your father would have done the same for me. We’re getting through this all together or not at all.”
Simon looked awful. I watched him wincing in pain through the corner of my eye, grimacing at the sight of his blood soaked trousers. It was my fault; he shouldn’t be on this squad. I should have told Anna what he was in for with this mission. I thought I had it under control, I thought this was all going to go to plan. But of course, things never go to plan, do they. There were footsteps echoing up the stairwell shaft from below. I motioned to my squad to proceed through the heavy double doors at the bottom of the stairs; another soldier took my position supporting Simon. Obviously we couldn’t have done this operation stealthily, there was too much coverage. In a large empty building like this those at the other side would have heard us drop a pin. I did, funnily enough. I pushed through the door, turning and placing the grenade in-between the two doors, keeping the lever pressed and the door slightly ajar. I picked up a nearby clipboard and placed it over the grenade, hiding it. We were in a GP’s corridor. I ran after my men, looking at all the names of doctors on the doors, scratched and faded. “They will have a ladder escape in case of a fire by the entrance; it should be in one of the end rooms.” I said, taking my position again supporting Simon. The solider was doing a fine job of it, but I felt that if anyone is to be burdened by their choice of coming back, it should be me.
I looked to either side of me at the men wandering aimlessly ahead. They were tired and weary, and it seems the sight of Simon had just broken their morale. “Go ahead! Go! Check the rooms!” I shouted at the lingering soldiers. We kept shuffling forward; passing doors of long deceased doctors, long forgotten but still hath made their mark on the world.
Simon’s forehead was covered in sweat, his eyes dilated and wandering. I needed to get him back to the helicopter, he needed urgent medical attention. Blood was seeping through his trousers leaving a trail of blood up the hallway; our pursuers would know exactly where to find us. I needed to call the helicopter, check it’s ready to land for us as soon as we get to the beachhead. I put my hand in my jacket for the radio, my jacket still wet from the river. Turning the receiver knob, the radio made a strange whirring noise and with a slight hiss stopped completely. It was bust; there was no hope of reinforcement if we don’t get out of here, no last chance.
=l * l=
I could barely put the effort into moving my legs anymore. My legs dragged heavily behind me, my upper body straining forward independently almost as if someone was holding onto my feet. “Sir, I found it!” one of the soldiers called from an end room. It looked like the consultants office with an ebony wooden desk, model skeleton and grand bookcase. There was a certain surreal grandeur about it, like it was a safe haven from the deathly sick hospice. The musky perfumed fragrance of the room hit me as we entered. There was a soldier by the window at the back corner, left of the desk. The window was smashed already but I watched the soldier put the through the rest of the glass with the butt of his rifle. There was no way I could get through that window. It was at least four foot off the ground and lifting me through that small space free of glass would be extremely time-consuming. I gave Steve a look that could only have said “Leave me behind.” He kept shuffling me towards the window. At this stage my mind was running completely autonomous of my body. I think at the stage where my mind and body were tortured simultaneously to the extreme, the ultimate link between their actions had broken. Now it was as though I was merely sitting at the back of a large cold empty dark room watching my own self-contained burden unfold upon my friends. There was a faceless demonic conductor at the front, with cold reserve orchestrating what was left of my life. Utter torture.
John clambered through the window and I heard the metallic crash as his boot hit the steel catwalk outside. Reynolds and another soldier lifted me up to parallel with the floor. The solider had a hand around my waist with another rather unfortunately close to my gash. It stung in agony as blood soaked trouser grazed against it, like someone had bathed my leg in vinegar. I was carried towards the window headfirst, John guiding me through carefully.
Although this operation was done with utmost care and skill it was performed with hastiness known only to those who have been in danger of death or of impending abandonment.
John pulled me upright and my body came down hard on the raw bloody flesh that was my legs.
Reynolds handed me a small green cloth. “Bite on that, it’ll help.” He told me as he himself maneuvered through the shattered window. We were on a very small catwalk, about one meter of the wall by two meters wide with the emergency ladder going off the far side. He walked over the edge of the rails and glanced down. We had two stories to go. The catwalk railings were rusted and weathered, and looked quite honestly ready to collapse at any sudden movement. With that thought I also considered; there was going to be 6 grown men, plus equipment, around 650kg of weight on this thing built for one lonely consultant whose fortunes bestowed him the courtesy to be alive.
=l * l=
“Simon, you’re going to have to hold on tight, we can’t use ropes, it would take too long.”
John lifted Simon up onto my back, who despite his sunken face and slight figure still weighed down hard on my lower back. It was difficult to breathe, his arms around my upper chest, I could feel the cold, damp trouser leg press against my calves. John had begun to descend the ladder. There was no time to waste. All of a sudden an explosion erupted from inside, shaking the walls and the rusted worn steel we stood on. The grenade at the doorway had detonated. Seconds later an enormous gust of air erupted from the small window hitting me square in the chest. I slumped onto the rails, Simon’s extra weight putting my balance off terribly. The railings made an ominous groan as the weakened steel writhed and bent out of shape with the weight. Hastily, I prepared to descend the ladder after John and the other men. I put my hand on the cold ladder and stepped down to the first rung. As we descended, Simon’s blood soaked through my own trouser and trickled coldly down my leg.
We dropped with a loud crash onto the next level, my knees nearly buckling with our combined weight. The deafening cry of the catwalk was becoming higher pitched. The screws were being forced out of the wall at the holds. I moved across the last catwalk as quickly as I could. I shifted our weight off the last platform, desperately trying to get off this certain death trap. I climbed down the ladder as fast as my anatomy would let me, but it wasn’t fast enough. I could feel the world turning. The catwalk was collapsing. I had to jump.
Chapter 4 – The Iron Curtain.
“Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
- William Butler”
Ice cold deathly water thrashed past our bodies as we waded up the murky Vinh Lang River. There was no time to build a raft. The water took the weight off my legs and so I almost floated through the river held by two soldiers. All around us we were surrounded by dark cloudy water which ever so often would sprout a glimmer of white, being either a simple trout or else the ghastly floating remains of a Vietnamese mother of four from a village nearby. Every now and again one would emerge from the cover of darkness only to show its pale white face, with unforgiving leeches draining blue veins dry near glazed stone eyes locked in a state of shock. The smell was unreasonably pungent and intruding, smelling somewhat like rotten sewage and sick left to fester. The soldiers, taught to be cold and resolute, were clearly struggling to deal with swimming through liquid death. The weakness had spread, I felt limp and lifeless all over. I could just as well have been a faceless corpse floating by, apart from the burning desire to see my son once more shining bright in my struggling heart.
My mind was a cruel conductor with no remorse. The cut stung, but I had been separated from pain long ago. Pain was but a mere ball and chain having given up pounding my brain to make injury disappear and had deserted me with a broken and destroyed body. We were wading through a corpse-filled river and my cut uncovered. It was infected, without a doubt. I know that even if I do get home, anyone with half a mind could take a look at my legs and tell me they needs amputated. What’s the point going on? My son will feel nothing but disgrace as I see him watch his friend’s father and son playing football and running around together. It wasn’t noticeable behind the tears of pain but there were tears of guilt scraping down my face burning invisible scars into my skin. Every thought was a nail in my coffin, a knife in my chest.
“There it is, hurry.” Reynolds gasped, he sounded under immense pressure. A further 20m up the river was a large arch of light preaching an escape from this valley of darkness. There was a ramp of rare trodden dirt up into the open arch, the landscape on the other side of the arch undistinguishable due to the light contrast. As we emerged from the black water with vines, shredded clothing and leeches stuck to our bodies, we could see a sight that would drive joy and will to live into any suicidal heart.
The ocean broke gracefully over scattered rocks just off shore, collapsing into little white stallions racing over the beach towards us followed by the comforting rustling as the water retreated back to the sea only to repeat in everlasting beauty. We were speechless, so comforting the sight of light and of open space away from thick woods, deathly waters and suffer driven hospitals. My head dropped in happiness, staring at the boots of those men before me with a subtle but distinguished smile across my face. I then noticed the uneven walking of a soldier at side of me. It was Reynolds. He was prominently limping; eyes squinted in pain but visibly making an effort to remain calm and undeterred trying to show positive opinion of the situation. I looked at his feet again, there was a pearly white object jutting out from the forefront of his shin that I knew at once was broken bone. The area was soaked in blood. We were in the water so quickly after the fall that no one had noticed the injury, him suffering pain and discomfort to maintain good morale. I couldn’t speak, but he saw me looking at it. No great speech maker anywhere in the world could persuade Reynolds to take attention to his wounds, let alone give up his position under my arm supporting me. We were walking out through the last layers of jungle to the coast. Walking over fallen branches, leaves and vine was a noticeable dirt track leading into the heart of the jungle.
I could hear shouting and screaming in the distance. There was little way of me telling, but somehow deep down I knew they were heading straight for us. Noticeably the troop picked up pace but with nowhere to go; there was no transport to be seen. The shift of pace and increasing limpness of my body had caused whatever balance or support I had had on my friend’s shoulders to dissipate. I felt something which could only be described as embarrassment as I slid off their support and fell crumpling to the sand. I didn’t experience any pain and to the person in my mind it seemed as though I had simply fell over out of idiocy. My hands slapped hard on the sand and from my crumpled, disoriented viewpoint on my side I watched the rest of the squad stop in their tracks only to turn and see that their burden was going to risk their lives once more on this day.
Reynolds was getting discharged without a doubt. He had risked the integrity and success of the mission on a petit personal vendetta against his own past. I tried with all my might to stand up, to push myself up even from the sand like I had done in so many training drills. I felt so worthless, unnecessary and could not see why I was being endured, so they will endure me no longer.
“Simon, they’re coming, we have to go now!” He said through gritted teeth and squinted eyes, I could hear distant rumbling in the background. I said to him bluntly, “Why the heck did you come back from me? I have been nothing but a weight on your shoulders since you broke me out. I don’t have anything to live for. Your saving a worthless life, a life that does not want to lived or endured much longer.”
“Simon… you have every reason to carry on living. Your young, you have a beautiful wife and two kids with lives of their own ahead of them. They won’t want to tell the story of how their father just gave up on the last hurdle. Don’t be that kind of father Simon. Don’t leave them when they need you most.”
Something sparked up inside me, like a fire that had just been given oxygen and until now had been starved of it. My body was filled with shock.
“Two… kids..? What are you talking about Steven...?” I almost dared him to reply.
“Anna is pregnant Simon. She didn’t want to tell you. She felt it would distract you too much from the mission at hand.“ He limped towards me and with Johns help pulled me to my feet again. The helicopter could be seen like a little insect on the surface of my eye, swooping in a large arch towards the beachhead. I stood hanging in a mix of utter disbelief and blissful joy with a renewed will to live. Steve reached into his jacket pocket and put something into my own. “Quickly, Go! Get on the helicopter!” He shouted to all of his men, whom briskly obeyed. The soldiers’ faces were pale, weary and depressed but there was a definite impression of safety now engraved on each and every one of them.
John and another man took my arms and with a furnace of passion and joy in my heart exalted whatever energy I had left in getting onto the helicopter. As we shuffled forward with new hope I glanced behind at Reynolds. He was hobbling after us but at a considerably slower speed, his injury clearly taking effect on him. I was helped up into the helicopter, the men assisted john in pulling me up into my seat. The dust was being blown around us; we were in the middle of a cyclone of it almost creating a safe haven. It seemed as though all that was past the length of our blades was harsh, unforgiving and built on suffering and all that was inside stood for everything that was just.
I heard a cackling of guns outside. Steven, upon entering the barrier of dust separating him from safety and freedom, was shot through the upper chest and side. I watched as red flesh was blown out of his chest spraying the sand with dark red blood, a canvass of death. He fell with great force to the ground, sand spraying outwards around his outline. It felt as though someone had just stabbed me in the stomach and twisted the knife many, many times. I could not take my eyes away from him. As I watched, semi paralysed and paralytic, unable to do anything, my limbs shook uncontrollably. I tried; with all my heart, to speak, to shout something out to him, but nothing came. He had sacrificed himself for me. It should have been me who died, but it was him. All my organs shriveled up inside me. Guilt incomparable to any emotion I’d ever experienced swept over me. Our helicopter was immersed in gunfire; bullets were pinging off the outside walls. The helicopter slowly took off away from the beach, gaining altitude, bullets beginning to go amiss. I could see the dark silhouette of my best friend get smaller and smaller and slowly fade into distance until he was indistinguishable from the beach. I reached into the pocket where Simon had placed something. It was my snakeskin wallet. He must have picked it up when we were leaving the room… Through sour pain filled tears, I glanced across at John.
A broken man stood before me and if had been a mirror would be a broken man still.
His face looked lost, as thought he was a lost child in a market tugging on the coat of a policeman. They always speak of dying for your country, but never killing for your country. What he thought was necessary… his own morals and values, had fueled the death of his best friend. “John…” I said, his watery sorrow filled eyes dashed around the helicopter and were clearly dazed by his name being said amongst the single other name reverberating through his ears. We didn’t need to ask what was on each other’s minds or if the other was ok or if indeed they shouldn’t jump out the open helicopter door to a place where they wanted to be more so than anywhere else. The only thing stopping us was the knowledge of what he would have wanted. “What happens now… where will you go?” I asked him. He couldn’t stay in the force. His values had been shattered today. Everything he believed in, or at least thought he believed in, had been twisted and demolished by the sheer force of the loss of a close friend. It wasn’t the same person I knew that replied back to me. He replied, “I can envision a small cottage somewhere, with a lot of writing paper, a dog, and a fireplace and maybe enough money to give myself some Irish coffee now and then and entertain my two friends.” It was a smooth drone of words that came from his mouth, like someone had possessed his mind or rather, freed it from its indoctrinated ignorance.
Amidst the death, the suffering and the broken hearts, there was only one thing on my mind which shone brighter than any mans hope or will to live could ever dream. The only thing that kept my heart beating, my lungs heaving and my mind willing to live. Anna, Ben and the new child on its glorious journey to this world. Did I want to bring a child into this place which has brought so much suffering to me and those I loved so dearly? I looked out over the shimmering ocean running by, unwavering and always driving forward. I took out my wallet, covered in blood dirt and grime. There was the picture of Anna, my beautiful wife Anna, she smiled back at me with those deep, mysterious brown eyes of hers. A blood stained corner of a white card could be seen behind the photo, I pulled it out. It was written in Reynolds crawly writing, characteristic of him.
"Always be hopeful Simon, life is but a river of quicksand. It can pull you down and stop you in your path, tire you out beyond belief... It can tear all life from you, all your will to go on living. But what you must remember is there will always be a ground beneath the river. Once you stop and realise what is dragging you down, only then can you truly love those around you and release yourself upwards towards freedom. For freedom is always just around the corner, you can’t see it nor can you imagine it, but that’s the way it’s meant to be. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? You should always be striving to relinquish from your own borderline freedom. – Steven."
A smile broke over a face covered in tears. Looking over the sea I couldn’t help thinking, hope isn't the kind of thing that anyone can say either exists or doesn't exist. It's like a path across the land…it's not there to begin with, but when lots of people go the same way, it comes into being. I knew wherever he was, Captain Reynolds was thinking the same thing.
“Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.”