by Mar Prax
Mark's been in Vietnam for 15 months, but can he do what it takes to get home?
Time itself tended to freeze as the first bullet flew. Flew. Flew is a word much too delicate to describe the true destructive force of a bullet. A bird flies, a bullet does not. A bullet runs. It runs through the air. It runs through men. It runs through women. It runs through hearts. It runs through brains. A bullet is impartial in its choosing. It runs faster than any human or animal. It races. It races to its target, eager to meet its mark. It releases a horrible sound, a great loud boom. Time comes to a halt and the fatal sound of the boom is all you can hear. The sound of a gun. The last heartbeat of its victim. Yes, these must be the same. Time stops and so does a heart.
I, myself, carried a gun. I was quite familiar with the weapon. Long before I boarded the ship to Vietnam, I would shoot cans and bottles with my childhood friends. Childhood friends. To think that was only two years ago when I last stole my father’s small pistol to shoot the cherry soda bottle collection my friends and I had attained over time. No longer did I carry the small gun that could be concealed in my large coat pockets; instead, a sniper rifle was slung over my back. A swordfish compared to the guppy of a gun my dad used to have. My dirt colored sniper rifle had a long nose and deadly precision.
Another soldier, a draftee like me, carried a monster of a gun. The bullets were huge, but you’d have more accuracy shooting out of a straw. The lieutenant took one look at the man, hulking in stature, and handed him the largest gun in the arsenal. They nicknamed him skull-crusher and spine-snapper, but the man was a nice fellow. He was the young age of nineteen and towered over those both his junior and senior. The young ones, aged around eighteen, stuck together like a pack of small dogs. They had concocted a story that the “skull-crusher” was actually a 37-year-old veteran. This, of course, was not true. The man was young and had plans of playing major league baseball, but as of two weeks from that day, the plans were terminated by a bullet lodged in his brain. It was a sad example of history: assumptions, rumors, misconceptions, fear, and the death of the American dream.
Two hours before the final battle, the sun hung low in the sky as if it penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere to take a closer look at the little people fighting on the noisy green planet’s surface. The ocean’s water seemed like a mirage; as if the sun was evaporating it before our eyes and all we could see was water particles rising into the sky. I had learned long ago in school that when the sun evaporates water; the water turns into clouds. I didn’t know where those clouds went because in those five months I was in Vietnam, there were none. There was no shade from the beating sun. The sand only made the heat worse. The torrid weather already felt unbearable, but the sun’s rays reflected off of the sand and came back for seconds to make sure the sultry air was able to scorch skin. Beer cans were lined up in a row on the beach. We weren’t allowed to shoot guns so the noise wouldn’t compromise our position. The soldiers made makeshift bows and used whittled sticks as arrows. It was hot that day, most people donned tank-tops that clung to their chests from sweat. Some men cut their pants with machetes and small blades. Quite a few uses were found for the cut fabric. Some used them as sweatbands, others as hairbands, but the majority tried to wipe away their perspiration with the rough fabric and wring it out on an afflicted part of the body as if they were treating their swelter.
“Come on, can-shot!” the soldiers chortled. “Stop writing letters to your sweetheart and shoot the damn can!”
I was given the nickname ‘can-shot’ on my first day when the lieutenant asked if I was good at anything and I responded with, “I can shoot cans.” I was forever dubbed the name can-shot. It didn’t seem very creative to me, but morale was low so I decided to let them have it.
I tucked my pen and letter into my pocket then picked up a bow and arrow. The can was only about twenty feet away from me. I raised up the bow and drew back the string. I took a breath in and let go on the exhale. The arrow sailed through the air with a glorious whistle. It punctured the tin of the can with a pleasurable thump. The can fell over from the weight of the arrow, but it had met its mark.
“Whoo!” A quieted cheer erupted from a few of the soldiers.
It wasn’t the best shot I’ve taken, not with a bow and arrow and certainly not with a gun. I was a perfect shot with pinpoint accuracy; though, no one at the camp knew it. I didn’t have a single kill. Despite my status as a sniper, I hadn’t ended a single life.
Before I was drafted, I was studying to be a doctor. I wanted to help the war effort by helping injured soldiers so I studied all about bullet wounds and their effect in certain parts of the body. Before I could help with the war effort medically, I was drafted and had to help physically. With extensive medical knowledge and shooting precision, I sought to find a way to get through the twenty-one months without killing. I knew the exact spots to shoot to not kill someone, but still wound them enough they’d be out of the fight for at least a small while.
The lieutenant marched up to me, a fat cigar pressed between his cracked lips. The lieutenant smelled of rotten onions and tobacco. Wherever he went, his own personal smoke cloud followed. His eyes examined me carefully and then the can. They then lazily drifted over to the bow in my hand. He pointed sternly at the bow.
“Imagine that’s a gun,” he said, gnawing at the cigar and letting it roll across the bottom ridge of his teeth. He walked over to the can and picked it up by the arrow sticking out of it. Then he shouted, “And this is a Charlie.”
“Sir, with all due respect,” I began, “I do manage to shoot the soldiers.”
“But I ain’t seen one drop dead,” the lieutenant growled. “They just hobble off to fight us tomorrow.”
“Again sir,” I continued, “I don’t think they ever got back into fighting condition that quickly.”
The lieutenant’s eyes narrowed and he snarled, “It was a hyperbole. I was hyperbolizing! Just kill the damn bastards.”
“And I thought you were the next Alvin York,” the lieutenant muttered. He re-gathered himself then demanded, “Everyone get your boots and guns, we’re going on a walk.”
A groan rippled throughout the camp.
Two hours later and we were all hiding behind bushes.
“Are you sure you heard something?” Billy, a twenty-year-old who could barely even hold a gun, asked.
“Certain!” Jish snapped back. Jish wasn’t actually his real name, I didn’t know it. Everyone called him that because of his inability to say his THs and Ss correctly.
“How can you tell it wasn’t us?” Billy continued to question.
“Because it was Vietnamese!” Jish barked in reply. “I know Vietnamese.”
“You barely know English,” Math cut in with a quip. A chuckle became audible.
“Shut up,” Jish sneered. “I’m not getting shot because of you.”
I laid flat on the ground, my gun tucked under my armpit. I looked through the scope, but I didn’t see anyone. A rustling noise came from behind me. Electricity shot up my back as I whirled around. I was met by Billy. He was nearly standing.
“Get down!” I ordered. Billy quickly crouched down.
“Can-shot,” he breathed. “I thought you were going to kill me. I’m not exactly the person the Lieutenant wanted you to kill.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, relaxing just slightly. “You’re not a sniper.”
“No,” Billy said with a hum, “but you’ll be the first to see them.”
“The first to warn you so you can run away?”
“It’ll be more like hiding. Look, I can’t shoot anyway, no one will even notice.”
“Billy, shut up and stay low.”
Billy lied down on the ground next to me.
Not by me, I groaned in my mind.
I took out a slip of paper and a small photo.
“Who’s that?” Billy asked me. I wasn’t as bothered by that question.
“That’s my girlfriend,” I replied. “High school sweetheart. Her name’s Kimberly. She’s waiting for me back home.”
I stared at the picture. You couldn’t tell in the photo, but Kimberly had red hair. It was long, frizzy, wavy, and almost always a mess. She wore a threaded crown woven with roses. Her bell-bottomed jeans ended in a flower pattern and covered part of her knee-high go-go boots. She wore a frayed tunic with sleeves that flared. Her face was always formed into an expression of joy, but I would always remember the broken expression she wore when I told her I was drafted. She looked happy in the picture, which in turn made me content. Her eyes were the greenest green on the planet. They were neon and captivating. Her face was pale and her thin lips were spread wide into a smile. Freckles littered her face and intensified around her nose. Scrawled across her cheeks in bubbly letters were, “End War To Forge Peace.”
I almost laughed. “She’s a real hippy.”
“Is she?” Billy responded as though he hadn’t already come to that conclusion.
“Told me before I left to not to kill anyone,” I said with a sigh. “She looked at me with the stern look of hers and said, ‘Mark, you hear me now, I don’t want you killin’ anyone. Killing, it’s a scourge on the soul. I know it gets tough on the other side of the world, but if you can, don’t kill anybody. No man or woman should be able to kill someone without looking in their eyes.’ Then I laughed and I asked her why. She told me, ‘The eyes are the windows to the soul and no sane person would be able to kill another after seeing their soul.’”
“Almost sounds like poetry,” Billy said with an irritating laugh.
“She always talked like that,” I continued. “She had opinions on everything. Real good ones too. She tells me about them in her letters a lot. Stuff like deception. She always pleads to never shoot a man in the back because that is the most terrible thing you can do.”
“Yeah… yeah,” Billy muttered, trying to sound interested, but I could tell he has already lost interest in the conversation. “Dishonorable and all that.”
I sighed, and scribbled down on my paper,
Five more months until I get to see your face in full color. I enjoyed your last letter, strongly agreed, and can’t wait for the next. I hope you’re still well. The days seem to stretch out with the sun. In Philadelphia, the sun was never so close to the Earth. I’m alright, though. I miss you dearly. I’ve done what you said. I take everything you say and write to heart. I just want you to know
I sighed and folded up the slip of paper then put it back in my pocket with the picture. Five months had never seemed so long.
I re-tucked my gun under my armpit and hugged the ground.
I looked through the scope. The tall grass was rustling. It could have been wind, but it was a windless day and the rustling was haphazard. Billy seemed to have noticed too.
“Is that them?” Billy asked, his voice high-strung. I promptly shushed him.
There. One man had his whole head above the grass. Perfect. A shot to a specific point on his neck and he’d be unable to talk, silenced by the air unable to climb up his throat and reach his mouth. He would probably gasp for air, like a fish out of water, but he would be alright. It was a quick enough fix, like patchwork, but the shock would make the wound seem much worse.
I took my aim and rested my finger on the trigger.
“I see him!” Billy gasped, and in his struggle to scramble away, he kicked my arm.
Like a heartbeat.
No, raced is wrong. Kids race their friends to the stop sign after school. Teenagers race to finish their homework. Soldiers race home to see their families; at least, the soldiers who survive their own shred of the war. Race is a word too pure to describe what my bullet did.
The bullet tore. It tore through the air and the flesh, bone, and brain of the Vietnamese soldier. It tore through my soul as it became plagued with regret and an unpayable levy. The sound tore through my ears and my brain with the loudest sound in the world. The sound of a heart’s last beat.
The heat of Vietnam was unnoticeable behind the freeze of time. The Vietnamese soldiers were in disarray, their faces bore fear and confusion. The US soldiers readied their weapons, their fingers on triggers. One wore his helmet so that it covered most of his face. He was ready to blindly shoot into the air. Billy crouched above me, shock on his face.
Another boom erupted, and I wondered if it was the beat of my heart or another mortal bullet. Time began to resume then sped far past its normalcy.
“Nice shot!” Billy applauded.
I felt vomit climb up my throat. My heart sank into my chest and my ears pounded. I lurched over and clutched my chest then forced myself to swallow the vomit that was filling my mouth and dripping off of my lips.
Billy tripped as he tried to get away. Gunshots flew in our direction.
“Run,” I told him, trying to stop my stomach from launching more attacks of upward speeding bile. I slung my gun over my back then got up and began dizzily stumbling away from the bullets. A bullet penetrated my shoulder and I fell to the ground. I coughed up more vomit and struggled to stand up. I crawled forward. With the world pulsing and spinning around me, I was unsure of which direction I was going.
I was vaguely aware of Billy hiding behind a low bush. He was crouched down, bleeding, and clutching his stomach.
I was able to get up a few times and maintain a run, but without a proper sense of direction, it was useless.
I fell down and rolled down a small hill. Dirt clung to my face and I began spitting up blood. I pressed my palm against the hole in my shoulder. The blood-soaked my clothes and dyed my hand red. It was thick, sticky, and unnervingly warm. I took my gun and positioned the butt against my hip. I looked up and was met with a Vietnamese soldier about ten feet away, pointing a gun at my face. His hands were shaking. His eyes were fragile and full of fright.
“Oh god,” I breathed and rested my finger on my gun’s trigger.
I couldn’t kill that man. Before… before it was an accident. I couldn’t actually murder someone. But I felt as if I already did. My stomach twisted itself into a thousand knots. I couldn’t kill him. I wouldn’t. But there he was, with a gun. He was going to shoot me if I didn’t kill him first, wasn’t he? He certainly didn’t look like it. His hands were trembling so greatly I wondered if he was going to drop the gun.
“I don’t think you can speak English,” I said to him with a sigh. “I don’t want to kill you and I don’t think you want to kill me. I know what it’s like to kill and I don’t think you do. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done, but I don’t want anyone to feel the burden I do now. I don’t want to feel it either.”
I took my gun and placed the barrel under my neck. It jutted into my skin and made it hard for me to breathe. I let out a strangled cough. The Vietnamese man’s eyes widened and he repositioned the gun in his hands.
“Get out of this damned war,” I yelled at him, my voice strained. “Not the way I am either. My girl back home, she might understand, but it’s either I kill another man or you kill what looks like your first. I don’t like those options so I’ll go with a third. You’re more innocent than me.”
He muttered back a response, but I didn’t understand him. My hand inched into my pocket and pulled out a small silver ring with a small sphere of faded topaz. The ring was worn and anyone could tell it had a history, or at least it would have. I clenched my fist around the weary ring and it pressed tightly against the small bones inside my fingers. A tear trickled down my face and my finger tensed on the trigger. More tears began flowing at an unfathomable rate. I gulped and could feel the gun even more so on my throat.
I closed my eyes and held my breath.
One last heartbeat for the soldier who refused to kill all but himself.