Authors: Wesley Julian
Despair came easily to the bitter man in the cramped prison cell. The tight, moldy walls beckoned his claustrophobia and the putrid floors raped his senses. Before the door even closed, Tim wanted out. The bars slammed; the lock latched. The jailor laughed when Tim panicked. “I don't want to be in here! Let me out!”
It was not real. Tim was no prisoner. The holding cell was nothing more than an attraction at a Vietnamese war museum; a tribute to the thousands of POWs taken and abused during the war. “I can't- I can't breathe!”
His teenaged granddaughter, Omega, said, “You belong in there, papa.” She leaned against the wall beside the door; his panic did nothing to alarm her.
“Please let me out.” He wrapped his fingers around the iron bars and shook. At last, the tour guide complied and unlocked his cell. Tim wanted nothing to do with his cell. He did not deserve it and he could not imagine anyone ever deserving such a horror.
“Are you alright, papa?” Omega asked stolidly.
“Yeah, I'm fine, I just- I couldn't do it.”
“It's alright,” Omega said. “It isn't yet time to accept.”
“You might have been in that cell, papa. It could have been you and not whatever poor soul they actually put in there.”
“Just imagine the men who had to stay in there,” Tim said. “You're right, what if it was me?” When the government instituted the draft, he answered the call by fleeing to Canada. Decades later, guilt finally overcame him and Tim at last answered the call to Vietnam. Tim belonged there. It should have been him and not the thousands who actually suffered. No one should endure such cruelties of the human heart.
After a sweltering bus ride, Tim and Omega found themselves in the lush Vietnamese jungle. Their tour group visited this spot because a stand-off took place there. Tim imagined it in vivid detail. The Vietcong militia forces holed up in the foliage just before a large, grassy clearing. The United States Marines crossing the brush suddenly found themselves ambushed by fire. The Americans had minimal cover and no support. Their lieutenant was first to die. Cut off the head of the snake....
Tim bent over and picked up the shiny thing he saw in the grass: a shell casing. The markings identified it as a 5.56 NATO round, an American bullet. Omega whispered, “You fired that shot.”
“I should have fired this shot. It should have been me out here dying.”
“If you had died, where would I be?”
His ruminations resumed. The American soldiers reflexively dove to the ground. They shouted, but Tim could not understand them over the gunfire. He picked out a few expletives, but nothing no concrete; no complete sentences or thoughts. Kneeling in the grass, he tried to grasp the experience. And he did. He felt the humid Vietnamese heat, smelled the burning gunpowder, heard the booming and shouting; his vision was both a memory and a nightmare.
Suddenly, the blasting and screaming ceased. One of the dead American soldiers rose to his feet. He was a young man, no more than twenty, with a pair of bloody bullet holes in his fatigues. He held an M16 rifle in each hand. The soldier approached Tim and told him, “We could use some supporting fire.”
“I should have been here,” Tim said to the soldier. Omega kept quiet.
here,” the soldier held out an M16 for Tim. “Help us.”
“You're a fiction,” Tim said. “I can't help you.”
“Why are you here?” Omega asked her grandfather.
“This is where I was supposed to be. I ran from here. I ran from duty; from my country. But I'm here. I'm here and I'm sorry. I want to atone.”
“Then atone,” the soldier insisted. “Atone and take the rifle.”
“I can't,” Tim argued. “If I could go back and change things, don't you think I would?”
“The men are dying.”
“The men are dead.”
“Can't you save them?”
“I can't fix the past.”
“So why are you here?” asked Omega.
“Because I have to be,” Tim answered slowly without understanding his own words.
“You're here to do nothing,” the soldier said.
“I don't understand it,” Omega added. “Do you, papa?”
“No, I suppose I don't.”
“If you can't understand why you're here, then why do you have to understand that you must take this rifle and fight?”
“You- you're right,” Tim stammered taking the rifle. “
“No, this is duty,” Omega corrected.
Tim nodded and took aim. It seemed natural to him, as if he had been trained. But he paused; hesitated.
“Well?” Omega asked impatiently. “Aren't you going to shoot, papa? Aren't you going to kill?”
“It- it doesn't feel right.”
“I don't- I don't think I should be doing this.”
The soldier said, “Private, this is war. You shoot and you kill. Pull the trigger.”
“It isn't right.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, I never shot a gun. I never pulled the trigger. And I never,
“But you regret not doing these things. Do them now; it's your chance.”
Tim lowered his rifle. “No!”
“No? So it's just like before,” Omega scoffed. “Still a coward.”
“I'm no coward!” Anger welled inside him. “I don't want to do this. I didn't want to do it then, and I don't want to do it now. So
“Why the language?” Omega asked innocently. “You told me--”
“Fuck what I said! Fuck everything I do! It's meaningless! Worthless! I'm a coward! A nothing!”
“Give me back the rifle.” The soldier kept his calm. “You don't need it.”
“No!” Tim clenched his teeth.
“If you won't shoot, then you don't need a rifle.” The soldier held out his hand. “Give it to me.”
The bloodied soldier reached for the rifle and snatched the barrel. Tim yanked it away and trained it right at the young man's chest. “You'll shoot me?”
“Stay away!” Tim backpedaled.
“Either shoot me or shoot them!”
“Do it, coward!” Omega snarled.
“You're worthless, you--”
Tim opened fire. The soldier's gut burst in glorious gore. Just as he seemed to speak, blood filled his mouth and ran down his chin. The look in his eye was either approval or horrible acceptance. Tim did not know which.
“So that's what you came for?” Omega asked, unfazed by the murder.
Tim dropped the rifle. “He's right. I'm worthless. I'm a worthless cowardly traitor. I'm terrible.”
“What happened to atonement?”
“There's no atonement for me.”
“No,” the soldier said, pulling himself back to his feet. His wounds, and the blood on his mouth, remained. “There's not. There is no atonement. There is no absolution. There is no amnesty. There is no forgiveness. The only thing left is punishment-- justice.”
“You ran and then shot your own man,” the soldier hammered his words. “This can't be simply forgiven and forgotten. Someone must pay. It must be you.”
“No, I- this isn't real.”
“Yes, it is,” Omega argued. “This is reality. Think, papa. Think.”
“What is real?”
Memory of reality broke into his mind like a thief. He was in the jungle. Night had long fallen, but brightness abounded. Muzzle flares, explosions, and whizzing bullets illuminated the death-tainted scene. The brave fell, but the cowards remained. The true gave their lives, the false hid away. Tim cowered behind a great tree clutching his rifle. Next to him was Billy Conklin, one of his friends. An untold number of Vietcong rained hell from only a few dozen yards away. Conklin popped in and out of cover, taking shots at his enemies. Tim panicked. He tightly gripped his rifle with wide-shot eyes. He shook, mortified of the sudden death all around. He did not shoot or fight. He hid.
“Hey, Tim! The hell are you doing?” Conklin asked. “You gotta shoot, man!”
“Tim!” Conklin shook him. “Man! Man we could some supporting fire! We're in a war here! Help us out!”
Tim gazed squarely into Conklin's eyes. He swallowed, perspired, and trembled. A blast shook the earth beneath him. That was enough. Tim pushed Billy Conklin away and bolted into the jungle. He ran. Where? Fuck where.
Tim ran until he could take no more, until the horror was far away, until the flashing lights faded to the heart of darkness. He panted and struggled to keep his footing. When the fatigue subsided, Tim felt suddenly alone. But he was safe. He found a large rock and sat down on it. The blasts and death were far off, no more than a distant whisper. Tim did not yet feel remorse.
The starry Vietnamese sky watched over him. When Tim looked up to the heavens, he saw the beauty of the infinite expanse. He could only wonder at the cosmos; only ponder its unending mystery. When Tim looked beyond the jungle, beyond the planet, and even beyond the galaxy up to the beauty of that untouched by war, he forgot why he fought. There is no beauty in war. Tim wanted to believe that he had left the war behind. He wanted to see beauty again. War, what war? Never mind the uniform, never mind the rifle. Damn the rifle lest it damn you!
Billy Conklin limped out from the jungle. Tim stood. Conklin bled, two bullet holes in his fatigues. Tim dropped his rile and ran to his friend. “Oh, God, Billy, what happened?”
“The hell do you mean, 'what happened?' You happened, you bastard! You bastard, you pushed me out of cover and right into the enemy! You bastard! You fucking bastard!”
“I'm sorry! I don't- I don't know what I was think--”
Conklin retrieved Tim's rifle and held it out. “Take your rifle and let's go support our platoon!”
Tim laughed uneasily, “You- you think I'm going back there? Hell no.”
“Tim, you can still atone. If you go back, I won't say nothin' to the sarge. Come on!”
“You ran! You fuckin' shot me!”
going back there.” Tim took the rifle. “Stay here with me, man.”
“No, Tim, I'm gonna do my duty! You should too.”
“If you don't come,” Conklin winced in pain, “I
Tim trained his rifle on his friend. “I can't let you do that! They'll kill me!”
“Come with me.”
“So, what, you're gonna shoot me? No, you won't,” Conklin shook his head. The sun slowly crept over the horizon. “You won't shoot me. I'm going. Come with me or don't. Make up your-”
Tim opened fire. Conklin's gut burst in glorious gore. Without saying a word, Conklin dropped to his knees. Just as he seemed to speak, blood filled his mouth and ran down his chin. The look in his eye was neither of approval nor horrible acceptance, but of betrayal.
He stumbled back to the rock and sat. While the sun rose past the trees, Tim realized his regret; his crime. Omega came from behind him and walked over to where the murder took place. She scanned the grass and retrieved the shell casing. Tim watched her approach and she whispered, “You fired this shot.”
“It should be me. I should be the one dead.”
She sat beside him and put her hand on his. “You will, papa. You will die.”
“It's what I deserve.”
“There is nothing left to be done, noting left but to accept. Accept what you deserve, accept your fate.”
“Yeah,” Tim sighed. “I never grew old, did I?”
“No, papa,” Omega answered remorsefully. “Your life ends early.”
“So, you,” Tim swallowed, “aren't real?”
“What is real?”
“I never had a granddaughter.”
“No, you never had a granddaughter. You never married. You've never even seen Canada.” Omega let go of his hand. “Stand up.”
Tim did as he was told. “What happens now?”
She pulled his hands behind his back and bound them together. “Close your eyes.”
“Talk to me! What happens now?” Tim trembled and his eyes watered. His squinted them shut. “Talk to me!”
The knot tightened. Tim suddenly found his arms wrapped around a wooden pole. Omega gently touched his shoulder. “It's time.”
“No, wait!” Tim opened his eyes to find only darkness. Something covered his face. “I'll take the rifle! I'll fight! I'll do my duty!”
Omega whispered into his ear, “Papa, there is nothing for you to do but accept. Don't resist. Accept.”
“I'm sorry- I'll go back! I'll