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The Building in the Woods

by cnkguy
The Building in the Woods

building in the woodsReading Time: 34 minutes

A week ago, if you had asked me if I believed in things that went bump in the night, I would have looked at you as if you’d just escaped the nearest psychiatric ward and given you a terse, derisive response.

“No.”

I’ve never believed. Not in ghosts, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, haunts, haints, or any other explanation for things heard, yet unseen; glimpsed, but never identified. Oh, how content and ignorant I was in my disbelief.

I realize how difficult this will be for you to believe. That is, if you are anything like I was just a week ago. I’m not going to sit here and swear every word of it is true, because you probably won’t believe me anyway (it would be a waste of your time, and mine), but it is. I want to tell my story, if for no other reason than to get it out of my head. Maybe by writing it down, putting it into some tangible form, separating myself from it in some way, it will become less real and more dreamlike. More story-like. And then maybe, I can read it and enjoy it – be disbelievingly amused by it – as if it didn’t happen to me, but to someone else.

I’m scared, though. If I share what I know, where will that leave me? Where will that leave the human race? What if I tell, and as a result of my telling, everyone I’ve ever known and loved is wiped out? After already losing so much? Can I risk that?

I think I must.

Firstly, if I do not say something, I’m going to need to be permanently confined to a straight jacket and a padded room because that will be the only way to stay alive. Maybe. To say nothing of the giant clumps of hair which have already fallen out – or been torn out – of my head due to fright, anxiety, and trauma.

Secondly, if I do not say something, the human race will be wiped out, slowly, one by one, and no one will ever be the wiser. Oh, well, maybe that’s not entirely true. Eventually some poor soul will figure it out – just like I have – and begin hollering from the mountain tops what he knows. To his own folly. They will find him, and silence him, before anyone has truly heard a word he has said. It’s a cycle. And it will not end.

They will find me, too.

But I think I’ve made my peace with what I’m about to do. I believe now. And in believing, I’ve also had to face the fact of my own death. By telling you this story, I know I’m signing my own death warrant. But it doesn’t matter. Death? Over insanity? Over the fingers of dark knowledge wriggling inside my brain? Knowing that by telling what I know, all I have seen, that I might save the lives of others? Yes. I believe it’s worth it.

I believe.

***

The building stood, ugly, squat, and long, alongside a seldom-traveled back road, about ten or so miles outside the city limits. It was an old building, maybe at one time it was a barn of some kind, but now, it was hard to tell. The wooden façade now sported a blazing, blood red with black trim.

I happened to travel this road on a semi-regular basis because my parents still lived in the country and the shortest route between where I lived in the city, and where they still lived on the small farm of my childhood, was this twisting, turning, narrow back road. So, I was familiar with the building. Enough to know that it marked – for me, anyway – the half-way point between my home, and my parents’.

I’d never really paid much attention to it before. In fact, until recently the wooden sides of the building had been severely warped, weathered, and mottled brown, forcing it into the general surroundings of trees, brush, and large boulders. There, but not there. Just an old building like any other old building in the well-established woods of rural Tennessee.

But, on one such trip out to visit my parents, engrossed in my own thoughts, I rounded the gentle curve in the road to see the newly-painted, garishly red building and caught my breath. I was surprised. More surprised than I can really express to you. But from what I could tell, the building had virtually been remodeled overnight.

It hadn’t been more than two days since my last visit to my parents’ home. The only reason I was going back was because I had left my iPad there and wanted to retrieve it. Mom had said, “Well, since you’re comin’, you might as well stay for dinner. I’m makin’ a roast.” No one turned down my mom’s roast.

I pulled quickly to the side of the road, across from the newly-painted building, and just sat there for a minute, looking at it. The wood was still warped in places, but it looked like someone had shored it all up; that it was structurally sound once more. Further, the very few windows the building actually had, were – from what I could tell – painted over with the same black as the trim. “Odd,” I said aloud, looking at the windows.

One other odd thing. There was a neon “Open” sign flashing next to the black-painted door. Open? What could that mean?

I didn’t have time to mull it over as I was already going to catch grief from my mother for being late and making her wait. So, I guided my little silver car back onto the road and continued on my way.
The building was forgotten. For now.

Over the next few weeks, I made several trips to and from my parents’ house, and it seemed as if each time I passed the long building in the woods, something new had been done to it. A corrugated metal roof. A little portico over the entrance. A gravel parking lot bordered with huge boulders. Other than the red color, the building seemed to establish itself as both new, and yet also a well-loved, aged part of the natural surroundings.

It became a matter of some interest to me during my back and forth drives. A small pleasure watching the establishment – whatever it was – transform itself. Transform itself, yes, because I never saw a single person doing any kind of work there. Maybe I just didn’t pass at the right times? But I never saw any equipment, either. I tried to imagine how heavy those parking lot boulders were. No way those were moved without heavy-equipment.

But mostly, it was a curiosity to me. Nothing more.

I got up every day. Showered. Dressed for work. Spent eight hours sitting at my desk mindlessly keying data into my computer. Some evenings I’d go out to a local place for a brew with a few work buddies. Other evenings, I’d go home, turn on the tube and suck on a beer, then hit the sack. My life didn’t change much, and honestly, I was kind of bored.

So, when, on one of my visits out to mom and dad’s, I saw cars, pick-up trucks, and motorcycles in the parking lot of the red building in the woods, the “Open” sign flashing garishly in the gathering evening gloom, I began to speculate on what type of establishment might now be housed in that ugly old building.

My parents and I discussed it at dinner that night (scratch-made fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and sautéed veggies from mom’s fussy vegetable garden) but neither one of them knew anything about it.

“I saw it enough to notice it,” Dad said idly, “but that’s it. Ain’t heard nothin’ about it, though. You ask me, it’s a biker bar. Sure and shootin’ we’re going to see a lot more trouble in those woods.”

“Bill,” Mom said, a warning tone in her voice. “You don’t know that. Wouldn’t matter anyway. I’m just glad someone found a use for the place, is all.”

I had nothing to add to the conversation after that, so we finished our supper in silence and, after I’d helped clean up, I went home.

That night, on my way home, I felt something was…off…about that building. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Not right away. But it gave me the jitters as I drove by it in the deep dark of full night. Wary, I kept watch on it as I passed, the building receding away behind me, eerily illuminated by my car’s tail lights, finally lost from sight at the curve in the road.

When I got home, I felt foolish. In the bright light of my own small apartment I chastised myself. A building couldn’t be…whatever I’d thought it was. Stupid. Stupid. I called myself several names before I finally gave up and got ready for bed.

The next morning, my mother called me at the office, which she never does. “Joey, you know what? Your father might be right about that place in the woods,” she said. “This mornin’, as I was comin’ back from the market, there were police cars all around that place! Buzzin’ like flies. That yellow tape up all over the place. I don’t know what happened, but it can’t be good.”

“Wow, that’s…um…a little scary,” I said haltingly. “You okay?”

“Oh, Lord, honey! Yes, I’m fine. Whatever happened has got to be bad, though, for all those nice officers to be out there in such numbers. I’m tellin’ you, Joey, I’ve never seen the like. At least, not outside the television.”

She told me to be careful the next time I came out to their place, told me she loved me, and hung up. I knew she’d be picking the receiver right back up again to call Gladys and Meryl – her two best friends – to gossip. I refocused on my work, the conversation shortly forgotten.

Another week went by and again, mom called at work. “I’m makin’ your favorite tonight for supper. Why don’t you come over and share it with us? It would be good to see you, sweetheart.” She sounded a bit edgy, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no, so I accepted the invitation gladly, looking forward to her baked bar-b-que spare ribs.

Dinner was amazing, as always. I could never understand how mom could get her baked ribs to taste like they’d just come off a smoking charcoal grill. Those, along with her special scratch-made macaroni and cheese, and a helping of more veggies from her garden, was as satisfying a meal as I’d had in a long time. I loved my mother’s cooking.

But mom herself looked pale, with splotches of red in her cheeks and deep, dark circles under her eyes. She seemed almost unwell. She assured me multiple times she was just tired, saying, “I done too much this week with the ladies’ auxiliary. Once the fall fundraiser is over, I’ll rest some.”

But even her eyes looked watery, paler than her usual bright and sparkling blue.

I pulled dad aside to ask him about it. He echoed mom’s story about the fundraiser and how she’d not been sleeping well. She’d been having bad dreams, he told me.

“If this continues,” I said, looking him straight in the eye and using a stern voice as if I were the parent and he were the child, “she should see a doctor.”

“I know son. I know. I’ll keep my eye on her.” He seemed weary, too.

A day later, the police were gathered around my parents’ home, yellow police tape surrounding the property, my father sobbing in the back of a squad car, the coroner wheeling my mother’s lifeless body out to his van.

Dad was questioned by the police, but they didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. They were just trying to figure out what had happened. I stood, with my hand on dad’s shoulder, trying to reassure him with my presence, but barely able to keep myself together. “She just didn’t wake up!” Dad sobbed to the questioning officers. “We’d gone to bed just like always, but she didn’t wake up! I knew she wasn’t feelin’ right, but she just said she was tired. I wasn’t gonna argue with her. You didn’t argue with Joanna. You just didn’t. If she said she was fine, by God she was fine!” He stopped talking, hitched a breath, and began to cry again, unashamed and broken.

“I was here night before last,” I offered, and proceeded to tell the officers about how she’d looked. How she’d acted. My personal observations. The brief discussion with dad about trying to get her to see a doctor. I was as baffled as my father was. As aggrieved, too.

Finally, one of the officers said, “We’re sorry for your loss, Bill. Yours too, Joe. You’ll holler if you think of anything else, okay?”

We nodded at them as they walked away, and then turned to embrace one another, crying on each other’s shoulders.

The loss of my mother was enormous. I felt a hole in me so vast it could have held the entire universe and then some. And if I felt this way, I could only imagine how my poor father felt. Without discussing it with him first, I decided I’d move back home for a few days. At least until I could get a handle on myself, and on my father. On the situation. We had a funeral to plan, and it would be easier on both of us if we were together. Dad seemed grateful for my presence, though he never actually came right out and said it. He was a man of few words.

I was allowed to take three days off from work for bereavement leave; a meager offering from the corporate machine. So, I worked until the day of the funeral, and then took time off to grieve with dad.

I don’t want to talk about the funeral. I can’t. It was the most horrible day of my life. Suffice it to say between dad and myself, along with a sea of mourners, mom was buried with an ocean of tears and a field of sunflowers. Afterward, the little farmhouse was inundated with well-intentioned folks bringing casseroles and pies, and offering assistance wherever, whenever. We numbly accepted the offerings, held awkward, wooden conversations, which, afterward, were not remembered in any great detail, if at all, and took comfort in one another.

Dad and I had always been close. He’d shown me how to use each piece of equipment on the farm. Taught me how to milk the few cows we’d owned. Kept me busy, occupied with chores and other things. And every time I’d complain he’d say with a wry grin, “Just buildin’ your character, son. You’ll thank me someday.”

He’d taught me how to drive when I’d been twelve. Just a few turns around the barren back field, but I’d felt as if I were floating on cloud nine. None of my school friends knew how to drive yet. Thereafter, I drove the tractor, too.

Dad never said much, but when he did speak, I listened. He was gentle and kind and though he never said the words, “I love you,” I knew he loved me. Every action spoke of his love for me. I never once doubted. I knew how lucky I was to grow up with two loving parents the way I did. These days, so many people I knew were the product of broken families.

We got along fine out there in the little farmhouse. But about four or five days after the funeral, Dad said, “Joey, you go on home now. You got to keep livin’ and you don’t need to babysit your ol’ dad.” I argued with him, saying it was fine, I wanted to be here (because I did), but he all but shoved me out the door.

“I didn’t argue with your momma,” he said as I stepped out on the front porch, “and you sure as heck ain’t gonna argue with me. Now git.” That was it. I was dismissed. And, though I honestly worried about him out at the farmhouse alone, I had to admit I was glad to be heading back to town. To my boring life. Because every minute I spent at the farmhouse, another hole was carved out of me. Grief was, quite literally, beginning to eat me alive.

On the way home, I passed the old red building as usual and…once again…felt something not quite right about the place. I dismissed it, though. I was too absorbed in my grief.

Life returned to normal, or, as normal as it could get. Dad and I talked on the phone every day. He played his part and I played mine, but we both knew our lives were lies right now. Both of us just going through the motions. The loss of wife and mother simply too huge.

Then one day, about two months after mom passed, I couldn’t get in touch with dad. I tried for our usual morning phone call and he didn’t answer. I assumed he must be outside working in the barn; there wasn’t a phone out there. I tried again an hour later; no answer. I tried several times throughout the day, growing increasingly concerned with each unanswered call, until at five o’clock, I leapt up from my desk and practically raced for the exit. An uncontrollable urge driving me to go to the farmhouse. Call it a gut feeling.

I guess I don’t need to tell you what happened. Not really. But I buried my father next to my mother less than two months after she’d died, with his favorite pair of work gloves and a rustic bunch of wildflowers, instead of, as it had been with mom, tears and sunflowers. I stood, blindly watching the gravediggers refill the hole in which my father’s casket now rested, and allowed grief to overtake me. When I’d sufficiently recovered, the hole was filled, the cemetery workers were gone, and it was nearly full dark.

I am not going to regale you with the day by day stuff. I inherited the farmhouse, and my parents’ meager savings, plus all the equipment, land, and animals. As much as it pained me to let go of so many pieces of my childhood, I, alone, could not take care of the farm and keep my job. So, I sold off some parcels of the land, along with most of the farm equipment, animals, and other things, until I’d managed to offload enough that I felt I could live there, take care of the place as mom and dad would want me to, and continue to commute into the city for work. It was only a 30-minute drive after all, so it was doable.

After a conversation with my landlord, I was allowed to break my lease without issue, and moved into the farmhouse permanently.

My first night alone in the farmhouse was bittersweet. Memories of childhood welling up, mixing fondness and joy along with the sadness. I wandered through the house, touching the banister and remembering the time I slid down it on my butt, managing to break my ankle on an awkward dismount. I fingered the wooden paneling in the front hallway, the angular door to the small closet under the stairs, remembering how I’d made that little closet my fort for many years. My parents always knew where to find me, tucked away in there among stashed pillows and blankets, reading or playing with my action figures, immersed in a world of my own making. Opening that small door, I saw where I’d carved my name on the back of it when I’d been ten. The little room smelled the same. Just exactly the same. And memories overwhelmed me.

I spent a lot of time wandering the house as I began to remember what it was like to actually live there, permanently. Slowly, I began to make plans to update a few things. Time went on.

And then one night, about four months after my father had passed, and about six months after mom, I was in bed (I’d taken over the master bedroom, the windows of which looked out onto the front yard) reading a book on coding and nodding off, when I heard a commotion down in the yard. The chicken’s I’d kept were squawking and making fluttering sounds, flapping their wings in distress. I peeked out my window, expecting to see a fox or a coyote (we had both in the area) worrying the chicken coop. But instead, I saw a man! A man wearing dark clothing, standing right below my bedroom window, staring up at me! His eyes were…impossibly…glowing!

My heart thudded hard in my chest in shock. I blinked, hard, and hoped when I opened my eyes he’d be gone. He was.

But that night, the nightmares began. They were relentless, recurring, and awful in every aspect, full of blood and death, yet sweet and seductive. I’d wake, sheathed in cold sweat, shaking from head to toe, both horrified and yearning. I could never remember what the dreams were about, specifically, just that they were terrible things. And the red building in the woods. Somehow, I remembered the red building in the woods. I began to lose sleep.

I would force myself to stay awake only to drift away on a cloud. On a light, beautiful cloud, with music and a voice beckoning me in the mist. Mom’s voice.

“Joey,” she’d say. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew her voice.

“Joey. Everything is going to be alright. Your father is here now, too, and everything is going to be alright.” Sweet. So sweet to hear her voice again. But it bothered me, too. Something about it bothered me.

Every night I’d try to stay awake and drift off only to hear mom’s voice again.

One night, I snapped upright out of sleep suddenly understanding what was making me uncomfortable. Mom didn’t talk like that! She clipped her words. Everythin’, instead of Everything. Gonna, instead of Going to. She’d say fine, instead of alright. I was immediately angry with myself. My mind, my stupid, college-educated mind was messing with my memory of my mother! It was her voice, for sure, but not in the way she’d speak to me. She was a born and bred country girl, raised on cooking lard, butter biscuits, hard work, and prayer. And I wanted, desperately – so desperately – to hear her voice speaking in the way she should speak. But that aspect became just another part of the terrible nightmares. And I couldn’t fight it.

Soon, the dream would change. I would climb out of my bedroom window, jump from the second storey of the house to the brown grass below, lithe and agile, and run – miles and miles – to the red building in the woods. Once there, I would walk up to the front of the building, look at the flashing “Open” sign, and see my hand reach out to open the door…and wake up, sweating and shaking, in my bed.

I attributed these dreams to grief, and for a very long time, I let them slide. Folks at work began to comment on how tired I looked. I’d gotten used to it, myself. It was many weeks before I made the connection. My current, pale face with red splotches and dark circles under my eyes, was the same face my mother had two days before she died. I hadn’t seen my dad for a few days before I’d found him dead, but I suddenly suspected he, too, would have had the same pasty complexion with sickly roses in his cheeks and charcoal ashes under his eyes.

Sleep deprivation. It had to be.

There wasn’t another explanation for it.

I went to the doctor and he pronounced me ultimately healthy, though slightly anemic, and prescribed a pill to help me sleep.

“Anemic?” I questioned him.

“Yes. But only very slightly,” he’d responded. “It’s quite common. Especially if you aren’t sleeping, or eating well.” At this, he pointed at my chart indicating the twenty plus pounds I’d lost since my last visit just before mom passed.

“Look,” he said matter-of-factly. “Just try the sleeping pill. I’ve prescribed a very low dose so you can see how you do. Some people don’t need any more than this. If this helps, then great! If not, well…make another appointment to come see me again in two weeks anyway and we’ll just do a follow-up. Okay?”

“Okay,” I responded, taking the prescription from him.

“Oh, and Joe? Make sure you eat some more, you really are getting a little bit too thin. Iron-rich foods, too; that will help with the anemia. Spinach, beans, stuff like that. You can look it up or…hang on…” he reached behind him. “Here. Take this,” and handed me a brochure called The Iron Rich Diet.

I didn’t like the idea of the sleeping pills. And, tired as I was, I felt like taking them would be a bad idea. I wasn’t sure I was quite that desperate yet.

But that night, in my dreams, my mother’s voice said to me, “It is going to be okay now, Joey. Your father is here, too. He agrees with me. Take the pill, Joey.” Needless to say, I was awake for the rest of the night.

When Kevin, my supervisor, called me into his office a few days later, he told me he thought I ought to take some time off. Maybe go to the beach or something. Get some rest.

I resisted. I was fine. Of course I was fine.

“You’re not fine, Joe, and you know it. I didn’t want to have to pull this card, but you’re making it kinda hard not to. Your work is starting to get sloppy. I need you in top form. Every account here relies on your data and if that data can’t be trusted…well… Let’s not go there yet. Just go get some rest. Somewhere not here, okay?”

I was stuck.

“Okay,” I mumbled, feeling hollow.

“Joe?” he said as I turned my back and started for the door.

“Yeah?” I responded.

“You’ll be okay, you know. Grief…well, it’s a tough thing. Makes us feel all kinds of things. Makes us do stuff, or forget stuff, we wouldn’t normally do or forget to do. Grief sucks. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Just…I…I wanted you to know that if you need anything, anything at all, you can call me. Boss or not, I’m still your friend.”

In an odd way, I felt better.

“Thanks,” I said. And left.

I felt at odds with myself. What did I do? Just take off and go to the Bahamas for a week? I could afford to do that, after selling off so much of the farm in order to make it manageable for me. It wasn’t a question of money. It was a question of…what? What was holding me back? Something was, that was for sure. For reasons I could not explain, I understood I could not simply go to the beach, catch some rays, drink a few beers, and come back refreshed. A new man. Something was holding me here.

“Is it grief?” I wondered aloud.

Maybe, I answered myself silently.

I drove home from work that day in a daze. It was just barely past noon, sun still shining brightly overhead in the cloudless blue sky of early September. I took the curves in the road easily, nearly by rote, thinking about my options; distracted. I rounded a curve in the road and was startled out of my self-evaluation by the sight of the red building. Neon sign flashing “Open. Open. Open.” Almost without thought, I found myself pulling off the road and into the gravel parking lot.

There was a car, and a few burly motorcycles parked in the lot. I’d seen it busier on other occasions, but now, it was probably deserted. I sat in my car for a few minutes, wondering what I was doing there. I didn’t even know what this place was, for sure, only the suspicion my father voiced at the supper table those many months ago; that it was a biker bar. A bar. Which meant beer. And I had never wanted a drink more badly than I did right at that minute.

So, without further thought, I left the car and found myself walking slowly up to the entrance of the red building in the woods. I saw my hand reach for the knob on the door, and turn it, giving the wooden barrier a slight push to open it. What I saw on the other side of the door had me stopping in my tracks.

Six men sitting side by side at the bar all turned to stare at me simultaneously. It was very disconcerting.

The bartender, a tall woman with long, sleek, black hair and cat eyes also turned to look at me, stopping in the middle of swiping her grungy towel around the inside of a freshly-washed glass. I was clearly an outsider, and my father had been right. Biker bar.

The men all wore black leather pants, some wore leather jackets or vests, some wore jean jackets. Each staring face had not seen the blade of a razor in months. The bartender, clearly as taken aback by my entrance as her patrons were, was the first to break the silence.

“Easy, boys,” she said. Her voice like warm honey. Then to me, she said, “Come on in, stranger. Want a beer?” Her eyes sparked with vague amusement.

Haltingly, I said, “Yeah. More…more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my life.” I stepped in and closed the door behind me, walking carefully over to the bar.

The guys were still watching me, but with far less hostility than a moment ago, before Ms. Voice Like Honey spoke to them; to me.

She had already poured me a beer and had it ready as I chose a seat a couple stools away from one of the other customers. Instinctively keeping my distance.

“So,” Ms. Voice Like Honey said, “What brings you to The Red Barn today?”

“The Red Barn?” I asked, stupidly.

She opened her hands, palms up, and gestured around her indicating the building. “You’re sittin’ in it, Slick. The Red Barn.”

Feeling stupid, I said, “Oh. Well…” Not really wanting to spill my guts in front of seven total strangers.

The man just to my right, one stool away, said in a deep, gravelly voice, not looking at me, “This is where we come to share all our secrets, son.”

Something about the way he said it was hypnotic, and I suddenly found myself telling these seven people all about the last few months. Mom’s death. Dad’s passing. The farm. The lack of sleep. The nightmares. The forced vacation from work. I told it all while staring into my untouched beer.

When I fell silent, I took a deep breath and then downed my entire beer in one go. When I glanced up, the bartender was already sliding another glass in front of me, and each man at the bar had leaned around to gape at me. To a man, their eyes seemed almost hungry. I saw not one iota of sympathy from them.

“Geez, Slick. Hella rough time you’ve had there,” Ms. Voice Like Honey said. But even she had a look of hunger in her eyes.

I was suddenly more nervous than I’d been when I’d first opened the door to the place. What the heck was I feeling?

“Yeah,” I said with a nervous chuckle.

The dude to my right got off his stool, came over to me, slung a beefy, leather-clad arm around my shoulder and said, “Sorry man. That just…well, it fuckin’ sucks. Let’s get drunk.”

Nerves gone, his stone-like voice once again hypnotic, I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get drunk.”

Before I knew it, tequila was flowing, faster than I’d ever drunk it before, and I was completely wasted in less than thirty minutes.

“Man, you’re a lightweight,” the bartender said, amused.

Slurring my words, trying to stop the room from spinning, I grinned stupidly at her and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Vanessa,” she said. “Though folks usually just call me Nessa.”

“That’s,” I paused, trying to remember how to speak. “That’s a nice name, Nessa.”

“My name’s Stone,” Gravel Voice offered.

I laughed.

He looked at me accusingly, somewhat offended.

“No,” I tried. “No. It’s just…your voice. Your voice makes me think of gravel. So, your name fits.” Speaking was getting hard. Language was beginning to evade me. English. I spoke English, right?

Stone relaxed a bit. Grinned.

Did I imagine it, or, were his teeth sharpened to wicked points?

Didn’t matter. Drunk me was happy.

“You’re my new best friend, Stone,” I slurred. Then passed out, my head on the bar.

When I awoke, I didn’t know where I was or how long I’d been out. I had a killer headache and my stomach felt oily and wavy. I knew if I moved much I’d vomit up my spleen or another vital internal organ. I groaned. Ugh. I’d never gotten that drunk ever in my life. If I never did again it would be too soon. I fell back into unconsciousness, not caring where I was, just wanting to sleep it off.

The next time I awoke, I felt marginally better. Still headachy and nauseous, but I felt like my internal organs might stay put, even if I did vomit. Still, it was not time for me to even attempt to get out of bed. Was I even in a bed?

Finally, after who knows how long, I woke for good. Feeling mostly like myself and desperate for a glass of water and a shower. I opened my eyes gingerly, taking in my surroundings. I was more than a little surprised to find myself at home. At the farmhouse. In my own bed!

When I looked out the window, the filtered light of early morning feeling like ice picks to my sensitive eyes, I saw my car was parked out in the front yard!

I didn’t drive myself home, did I? I mean, I wouldn’t have! Couldn’t have. I was too desperately drunk to even attempt it. Stone or one of the other guys must have driven me home. I felt both embarrassed, and genuinely grateful.

But…something in the back of my head niggled at my thoughts. Something squirmy and uncomfortable. Something I couldn’t remember. I wrote the feeling off to drunkenness and tentatively got out of bed, testing my footing carefully before I attempted to walk to the bathroom.

I stood under the pounding stream until the water ran cold. Then stood there a bit longer until I felt nearly human. When I stepped out of the shower, I wrapped a towel around my waist and grabbed the big plastic University of Tennessee cup I kept on the sink and downed three straight glasses of water.

“Okay,” I said aloud. “Now what?”

I dressed in sweats and a tee shirt, kept my feet bare, and wandered down to the kitchen. Food was…impossible, but coffee was necessary. So, I set about dumping an uncounted number of heaping spoonsful of grounds into a filter, splashed an unmeasured amount of water into the carafe, and flicked the switch. While the brew percolated, filling the small kitchen with it’s life-affirming scent, I leaned against the counter, the heels of my hands pressed to my eyes. It was so bright. Even without a single lamp on inside the house, and a good amount of pre-rain cloud-cover in the sky outside, it was still too bright. As if someone were shining a multi-hundred lumen flashlight into my eyes. But, with my hands pressed to my face, the pain was lessened.

I heard the final gurgle of the coffee maker, which sounded like in animal in the throes of choking to death, and gratefully poured an unsteady cup of the brown stuff. It was awful; too strong. I didn’t care. I burned my tongue and esophagus thoroughly by downing the entire first cup without pause. I was more patient with the second cup, which tasted much better considering I’d fried my taste buds on the first round.

Barefoot, I went outside to collect eggs from the chicken coop, feed them, and make sure they had water. I opened my car to check to see if I’d left anything in there from the night before, but it was clean. Almost too clean. Did Stone pick up after me? That just seemed…weird.

I went back into the kitchen for a third cup of coffee and brought it out to the front porch to sit and sip for a while. It was definitely going to rain.

I heard the phone ring inside and it startled me slightly, making me slop coffee on my tee shirt. “Dammit,” I exclaimed as I rose to answer the phone.

“Hello?”

“Joe? It’s Kevin. Just checking in on you. You looked pretty bad when I kicked you out yesterday.”

“Oh, hey Kev. I’m hungover as hell, but I’m okay.”

“Hungover? You serious, man? You hardly ever drink more than one or two,” Kevin chuckled.

“Yeah. My car wound up steering itself to The Red Barn out past the park, toward my parents’…I mean my…house. It was a serious tequila fest, man. I barely remember it. The bartender was hot, though.” I played it cool. Though as I talked about the red building in the woods, I got that squirmy feeling again.

“Well, okay,” Kevin said. “Just…seriously, take care of yourself. I wasn’t kidding about a trip to the beach, you know.”

“I know. I don’t want to go to the beach.” I was mortified to hear the whine in my voice.

“That’s fine, I guess. Just take some time off. Call me when you’re ready to come back, okay?”

“I wonder why it is that when someone is grieving, people think what they need is time off. Time alone. When really, the truth of it is, we need to be busy,” I mused aloud, not expecting Kevin to answer. “Bye, Kev. I’ll call you in a week or so.” I rang off.

Nerves raw, and not knowing what I should do with myself, I decided to start on some of the updates I’d been toying with. So, I went upstairs, shoved my bare feet into ancient and scarred work boots, then went out to the barn fired up the old Ford pick-up my dad used to drive. The cab of the truck smelled of the Old Spice my father used to use. I used to hate that smell. Now, I loved it, though it made me sad.

Home Depot was crowded. It felt strange to be walking around Home Depot in the middle of a Tuesday morning with a still present, though receding, hangover. I looked at paint, chose a color I liked for the foyer, front hallway, stairwell, and upper hall. Got a bunch of other stuff: brushes, rollers, tape, drop cloths. And, once home again, I put it all in the little closet under the stairs and promptly forgot about it.
I spent the rest of the day restless. Wandering the house and the yard. When I wasn’t wandering, I washed my little silver car, and dad’s pick-up. I cleaned the chicken coop. I dumped a bunch of stuff in mom’s old crock pot, not really paying attention. Not caring if it would be edible that evening. It was a long day.

That evening, I flicked through channels on the television, but found nothing of interest to watch. I felt nearly out of my mind with loneliness and grief! These meager distractions were doing nothing for me. And out of nowhere, I got a flash of the red building in the woods. The Red Barn. I could go there, I thought to myself. At least I’d be able to have a drink. Maybe Nessa would be there.

Energized with the vague outline of a plan, I went upstairs to put on jeans instead of sweats and change my coffee-stained tee shirt. I found a mis-matched pair of socks and put the scarred boots back on. When I looked for my wallet, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I spent nearly a half an hour looking for it – I even looked in the freezer, though God knew why I’d put it in there – with no luck. Maybe it was in my car? But, I halted that thought almost immediately. My car had been cleaned out.

Well, I wanted to drive over there anyway. Maybe I’d left my wallet at The Red Barn last night? Surely Nessa, if she’d found it, would have stowed it behind the bar, right? And, driving more carefully than usual since I was operating a motor vehicle without my license in my back pocket, I steered my car to the red building in the woods.

This time, when I opened the door to the place, it was full night, had a full crowd, and much, much louder than the night before because a live band was playing at the far side of the building. I wasn’t noticed the way I’d been yesterday; there were simply too many people for me to stand out that much. But I did feel eyes on me. I glanced toward the bar. Nessa’s gaze caught mine and she lifted her chin in quick, silent greeting.

By the time I’d forced my way to the bar, she’d poured me a drink and, before I even had time to say anything, slid my wallet coolly across the heavily-lacquered surface. “I was hoping you’d come back,” she said smoothly. “You left this here last night.”

“Thanks,” I said, my voice ringing with relief. “I’ve been looking for it everywhere. It’s actually why I came back tonight.”

“I had it in the safe,” Nessa said. “It’s here, under the bar.” I heard a vague thump as she kicked it with the toe of her boot. “Stone drove you home last night. Hope that was okay.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I said again, staring at my beer.

She was so pretty, it was hard to look at her. Her cat eyes were green and slanted upward with thick black lashes. Her hair was long and sleek, tonight pulled back in a messy pony tail. She wore a red tank top and black leather pants. Her upper right arm had a tattoo, some symbol I didn’t recognize, but I didn’t know her well enough to ask her anything about her skin alterations. Plus, it was none of my business what she did to her skin.

I silently sipped my beer for a while, as Nessa continued to work the bar, taking and filling orders with a rhythm that was hypnotizing to watch. I hadn’t been there very long when I felt that familiar leather-clad arm clamp around my shoulders in a squeeze. Stone.

“Thought ya might come back, Joe. Feelin’ alright?” he asked in a friendly manner.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Definitely drank too much last night. I think I’m still hungover. But, yay for me, I didn’t vomit up any internal organs and I’ve managed to be semi-productive today,” thinking of my trip to Home Depot. “Thanks for driving me home, by the way.”

“No problem!” Stone boomed. “Wanted to make sure you got home safe. Chuck followed me to your place so I’d have a ride back.”

“Chuck?”

“Yeah! Chuck,” Stone boomed again, pointing a finger to the other end of the bar to one of the guys who’d been there yesterday. Chuck grinned, nodded at me in greeting, raised his glass, and drank deeply.

“Right,” I said, weakly. “Thanks again.”

“So, you up for round two?”

“No freakin’ way!” I told him with earnest, and had him laughing so loud the whole room turned to look at him. I felt my cheeks go pink with embarrassment.

“No worries. No worries, friend,” Stone said. “Another time.” And, after a quick glance and nod at Nessa, he stalked off to another part of the room to talk with a redhead who’d hailed him.

I finished my beer and left enough money on the counter to cover both drink and tip. I caught Nessa’s eye and sent a wordless thanks her way. She understood and sent back a wordless goodbye. I went home.

That night, the nightmare was stronger than ever. I woke up at two o’clock in the morning with a scream on my lips, the sheets wrapped around me in a restrictive cocoon, sweating like I’d been hiking the desert at high noon. My heart was thumping out of my chest. I didn’t understand what had woken me; couldn’t bring the dream to mind. It was vague. Bloody and terrible, yes, but seen through a mist of shadows. The only clear part being the red building in the woods.

Just as my heart was slowing to a regular rhythm, I heard the chickens out in the yard. Squawking and flapping in fright. I peered out the window and saw, once again, the dark figure standing in the yard staring up at me. Silver eyes glowing.

I didn’t squeeze my eyes closed this time, but took time to register the casual stance, the dark clothing, the pale (too pale) face, half hidden by the hood of what was probably a sweatshirt. A male figure. Some vague recognition tugged at me, but I just couldn’t get there. My head began to hurt.

“Joey?” my mom’s voice said.

Was I still dreaming?

I flipped around and saw the shadow of both my mother and my father, standing at the foot of the bed.

“Joey?” mom said again.

“Mom! Dad! What’s going on?” I asked, frantic and confused.

“Everything is going to be alright, Joey. Your father and I are both here now, Joey. Will you come with us? We have something wonderful to show you.” And, without waiting for an answer, she and dad both turned and practically glided out the bedroom door. I scrambled out of bed, frantic to keep up with them. Confused. Scared. They were dead, for God’s sake. How was it possible that I was following them now, seemingly both alive, out of my bedroom, down the stairs, and out the front door? The figure in the yard forgotten, remembered only when it rushed at me the moment I set foot on the front porch.

That was all I knew.

When I came to, I was in a darkened room, laying on a cot. The room stank of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and vomit. Groaning, putting my hands up to support my acutely aching head, I tried to sit up. I had no idea where I was, but judging by the smell, I was not the first person to find myself here. There was enough light for me to tell the room was no larger than a prison cell, maybe four by six feet. There was a toilet, a sink, and a cot. That was it. The walls were concrete block, painted black, and the faint light was coming from a blacked-out window where some of the paint had been scratched off. Probably by the frightened fingernails of the rooms’ previous occupants.

There was a knock on the door, which startled me and made me yelp in surprise. The door swung open, revealing Nessa.

“Good, you’re awake. Come with me, Slick.” Her voice still honey-like, but with an icy edge I hadn’t heard before.

I stumbled to my feet and followed her.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

She didn’t answer me. She didn’t respond to any of my queries at all. Just kept walking briskly until we were standing in the middle of The Red Barn.

The huge room was empty of patrons, but sitting in a darkened corner, was Stone. I couldn’t really see his face because he was lurking in the shadows, but I knew it was him. Further, I suddenly understood he’d been the figure lurking in the front yard, staring up at my bedroom. I was disconcerted, confused, frightened, and several other things…angry, being one of them.

“Aw, Joe,” Stone said gravelly from his shadowed seat, “Don’t get all puffed up on me, you’ll just piss me off. And we’re friends, right?”

I didn’t respond, just watched him, trying also to keep Nessa in my peripheral vision. She seemed to be slowly creeping around behind me and that made me exceedingly uncomfortable.

“I’ll bet you’re wondering why you’re here,” Stone grumbled. “And, I could tell you. But, then I’d have to kill you.” He laughed mirthlessly at his own joke. “Actually, I’m going to kill you anyway, but since you’re here, and since you seem so willing to be my friend, and Nessa’s, I thought I’d explain before I off you.”

“What did I ever do to you,” I asked, suddenly brave. I mean, if he was going to kill me anyway, I might as well piss him off.

“Oh, you didn’t do anything, Joe. I just like you is all. You’re fun. And I’d like to keep you around for the next millennia. Nessa would like to keep you, too.” He grinned wickedly in her direction, his sharp teeth glinting in the poor light. (They had not been a hallucination.) I could hear Nessa’s irritated sigh off to my left. She was nearly behind me now.

“So, here’s the thing, Joe. I want your house. Me and Nessa and Chuck and the others. It’s close to this place, and…well, it’s just perfect for us. So we’re going to take it from you. See, first we offed your mom. She was easy. A little mental suggestion, a few bad dreams, and she basically offed herself, really. She had a bad heart…” He trailed off at my look of surprise.

“You didn’t know, did you. Well, I’m sure there were a lot of things your parents never told you. You can ask them later. They’re in the back.” He grinned again, making me break out in gooseflesh. “Anyway, mommy has a heart attack during the night and simply doesn’t wake up the next morning. Daddy was upset. So upset he pined away for your mom until he, too, was ours for the taking. Again, a few bad dreams, one wickedly fun hallucination, and whoops! Those stairs just jumped up and tripped him. Too bad for you. But I like your dad. I like your mom, too. They’ll be good company for you when you join us.”

“Why would I join you?” I asked critically. Hatred seething, barely contained, just beneath the surface of my skin.

“Why? Because I want you to, that’s why,” Stone answered, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. “I want your house. I want you to hang around for a while. Nessa chose you and she wants you to hang around, too. Among other reasons.”

“Not good enough,” I growled at him through clenched teeth, amazing myself at my bravery. “Tell me the real reason.”

“Ok, you got me,” Stone said, good humoredly. “See, years ago, when your mom and dad bought the farm, they didn’t know the value it really holds for me and mine. There are catacombs underneath that property that have been part of my family for generations on end. So far back you could not even calculate it. We’ve been gone for a long time, but now I’m back, and I want what’s mine. It was never yours. Never your parents’, either. And it never belonged to anyone else who falsely held a deed,” he sneered at the word, “to that house and the surrounding lands.”

“I sold most of the land,” I said.

“I know. You sold all the land to me and mine. We are everywhere, now. Taking over you useless humans one by one. Your parents can tell you all about it later. But for now, I want you to say yes. Just say yes. And I’ll make your death quick and painless. Fight me, and you’ll suffer for weeks before you finally join us.”

“Who is ‘Us’?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Nessa said from directly behind me. “All you need to know, Slick, is we’re not vampires.”

I laughed then. Real amusement echoing in the darkened room. “Vampires? Seriously? You want me to believe in vampires?”

“No,” Nessa said. “I want you to believe we’re NOT vampires. But if it makes it easier for you, you can think of us as one of the undead. That does apply, in a weird way.”

“Nessa…” Stone grumbled in warning.

“Sorry boss,” she said, and came around to my right side to stand beside me. Immediately, I felt less cornered.

“You’re out in the light,” I said.

“Light? I like light,” Stone said. “I like the sun, too, though I have to admit it does slow me down some. I like the night life. I like to boogie.” He sang the last part and grinned at me, silver eyes glinting malevolently.

“I told you, Slick, we’re NOT vampires,” Nessa said wearily. “Are you really that thickheaded?”

“What are you then?” I asked.

“Ancient,” Stone replied. “Ancient and not something you want to fuck with. So, are you in? Or, are you out? Either way, let’s get started.” He rubbed his hands together in clear anticipation.

“Wait,” I said. “I want to talk to my parents first.”

“Nope. Not until afterward. Already told ya that,” Stone said evenly.

I thought long and hard. I wanted to live. I wanted to live more than I’d wanted that beer when I’d first set foot inside this awful place. I wanted to go back to my dull job and my boring life no matter what it took. But if I couldn’t have those things, I did, desperately, want to keep my life my own.

I began to look around, trying to think of a way I might escape. I was too far from the external door. I didn’t think I could make it. But just as I began to contemplate escape, a shrieking ululation came from the back room. High pitched and awful. Worse than nails down a chalk board. I covered my ears automatically in response. Glasses on the bar began to shatter and both Stone and Nessa lost their focus on me.

“Dammit!” Nessa said, and left my side to run toward the back room.

“SHUT THEM UP!” Stone hollered after her.

I didn’t think. I just ran. Ran for the door and barged out into the bright sunlight thanking God it was still bright daylight outside. There were no cars in the parking lot, so, I just took off at top speed, grateful for all the monotonous hours in the gym. The Red Barn was six miles from the farm, and I knew I probably wouldn’t make it, but I had to try!

I pushed, hard. My legs pumping under me, screaming at the effort. I didn’t stop to look behind me and was just on the verge of stopping, just on the cusp of breaking down and giving up, when I rounded a curve and saw the farmhouse off to the right. It was less than a quarter mile away. I had to make it. I HAD to!

I ran again. As fast as I could, my strength fading quickly, my heart pumping hard, my breathing becoming ragged, and made it to my little house. I dashed inside, grabbed my wallet, my passport, took time to stuff a few random pieces of clothing into a duffle bag, snagged my keys and was back outside running for the barn less than five minutes later. I wanted the truck. It wasn’t much for gas mileage, and it was more than familiar to the locals, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be as familiar to Them…whatever they were.

The truck coughed to life and I screeched out of the barn, pushing pedal to the metal, my only thought to get as far away from the farmhouse as I could. Knowing I’d never be able to go back, but not able to spare a thought for the loss of that, too. Somehow, I got lucky.

***

I’m in Rio right now. Things have been quiet. Stone and Nessa almost caught up with me in San Diego two months ago, but luck stayed with me and I managed to slip away from them again. They’re pissed at me and they’re not going to stop. They’ve made that abundantly clear. I don’t know what I’ll become when they catch up with me, because they will. Especially after I publish this. Like I said, I’m in Rio right now, and I’m staying in Rio. After two years of looking over my shoulder, I’m tired.

Am I giving up? Hell no. Well, maybe a little, I suppose. But the bottom line is I want you all to know that there are worse things out there than debt, government conspiracies, and lab rats. Worse than losing your mother and your father and your home. And you’ve got to keep your eyes open! You’ve got to watch, people! Watch!

For eyes that glow silver in the dark of night and teeth as sharp as razor blades.

Do I regret my life? Yeah, I kinda do. I know I could have done so much more with it. I would have, too, if I hadn’t run into Nessa.

For me, it comes down to Nessa and that first beer she passed over the counter to me. I lied when I said I’d only gone back for my wallet. I’d gone back to make a go at Nessa, too. Even though I was pretty sure she’d laugh in my face. But, apparently, she wanted me, too. And now, that’s why she and Stone have been dogging my every turn for the last twenty-seven months.

She wants me. And she’ll turn over every stone in her path until she finds me.

I realize now it was my parents in the back room of the building in the woods. My parents making all that awful noise, as a distraction, so I could run. At least that’s what I think, anyway.

So, for my friends, I guess I just want to say sorry. I know you don’t believe me. That it will be easier for you to believe I’d bolted out of grief. But, though that’s partially true, I ran to save my life.

Now, I’ll die to save yours.

 

CREDIT : Jennifer Shell

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The Pain Doctor

by cnkguy
The Pain Doctor

the pain doctorReading Time: 18 minutes

I have always wondered what it would be like to stare evil eye to eye as equals. To sit across a table from and break bread with it. This lifelong desire was satisfied some days ago, and the whole experience has left me rather shaken. In an attempt to impose some sense of order on what was, undoubtedly, the most chaotic and confusing experience of my life, I’m going to try and write it all down here. Maybe it will make more sense on paper.
A few years ago, as a struggling, new reporter, I had the opportunity, or, perhaps, misfortune, to be sent to cover the war in Syria. It was at its height, and our involvement there was going over in a… less than stellar manner at home. Which horse should one back under those circumstances?
While there, I spent a lot of time among the locals who frequently kept me up to date on the gossip and urban legends swirling around the area. One name in particular was brought up time and time again: “Tabib Al’alam,” which meant “Pain Doctor.” I asked everyone if they had seen this Pain Doctor, and was pointed in the direction of an elderly woman and her granddaughter.
“She’s the only one who’s come back alive,” they told me. So, I sat down with her and asked the obvious question,
“Is it true?”
The translator took a moment to confirm her answer before relaying it. His eyebrows furrowed.
“Well?” I asked, the anticipation building to an uncomfortable degree within my chest.
“She says that she has seen things that have caused her to doubt her sanity. She says that Tabib Al’alam is real, and his laboratory is… a nightmare.”
“Okay,” I pushed forward.
“No, no, not a nightmare,” the translator interrupted. “I’m sorry. The translation is confusing. What she said was more like ‘The place dreams go to die.’”
This caught my attention. “Ask her what she means by that.”
The old woman shook her head and clutched her granddaughter closer to her side.
“She says that he steals something from them. The ones who die… the ones who die first are a source of envy. Bodies like prisons…” my interviewee broke down into tears. I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but in truth I was shaken. I didn’t know what to do. The translator said something in a comforting tone. The woman calmed down a bit.
“Is she okay?” I asked, lamely.
“She’ll be fine.”
I took out my iphone: “Does she mind if I record this conversation?”
The woman shook her head.
“Okay. Could you please tell me, in as much detail as possible about the man known as ‘Tabib Al’alam?’”
Slowly, and in fits, the old woman’s story came tumbling from her lips. The pace and intensity of her rapid-fire Arabic made me glad of having an electronic recording device. I had learned to transcribe languages I did not understand, but never at this pace.
The woman’s name was Amani. She had been a merchant at a small shop in Raqqa before the war, and fled her home town after it became the focus of some of the most intense fighting of the conflict. She and her family had lived on the road for weeks, stopping only for food and gas, and then only rarely. But, the human body and mind are not built for constant transit. We require a degree of permanency, no matter how small, as much as we require oxygen. So they settled in a small village in the countryside. This little corner of Syria had not yet been touched by war. Soon, however, a rebel army rode into their midst and declared the village under their occupation. No one had heard of them before.
Life under the rebels was not especially difficult. The everyday rhythm of routine wasn’t disrupted in any real sense, at first. But, then, the whispers started. There were rumors of a mysterious man named Tabib Al’alam. As it always does, idle gossip filled the gaps left vacant by hard fact and so it was difficult to say with any certainty the degree to which these rumors were true.
Some claimed that he was a humanitarian worker sent in from the UN, and his unpleasant moniker had been corrupted through repetitive tellings. He wasn’t the “Pain Doctor,”
rather he was the “Painless Doctor,” so called because of his gentle manner.
But, darker stories surrounded this figure. Tales of torture and medical malpractice were told in hushed whispers. These were stories of limb amputation, electrical shocks and haunting screams. Amani waived these away. How was she supposed to be able to sort the truth from the lies? There was simply no way to do it.
A month of two into the occupation, people began disappearing. When their family members complained, the rebel army denied, stonewalled and outright rejected their pleas.
There was not a frank answer to be found among the impenetrable mist of deception. Had she stayed elsewhere, Amani may well have passed through this bloodsoaked page of the Middle East’s history without personal consequence or notice. She laughed a bitter laugh that needed no translation. Human misery knows no language barrier.
One night, a group of rebel soldiers broke down her door and corralled the family (her, her daughter, son in law and granddaughter) into a small area in the front of the house. Under cover of darkness and the threat of death or worse the family was forced to their knees without protest.
It was at this point in the story that I could not help but recall a fragment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago from my Russian history class: “The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: ‘You are under arrest. ‘ If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm? But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life’s experience, can gasp out only: ‘Me? What for?’”
My primal frustration at this family’s inability to fight back, while not entirely unjustified, was nonetheless wrong and I felt guilty for having thought of it.
The family was subjected to a long wait, during which the Sword of Damocles hung suspended over their collective neck. The potential suffering to which they were about to be subjected seemed nothing in comparison to the mystery that surrounded it.
Why were they being singled out? What had they done? Were they going to be killed? Horror stories, told in whispers when the soldiers were out of earshot sprang, unbidden, to Amani’s mind. There was talk of sadistic lieutenants who often kidnapped, raped and murdered young women from enemy towns and cities. A particularly gruesome rumor about one of these incidents suggested that a soldier had once raped a girl in front of her parents and then forced her to choose one to die.
After a tearful minute of unimaginable contemplation she had picked her father. Smiling, the soldier had shot them both, and then raped her again.
Images of this sort: blood, misery and tears occupied dark corners of her consciousness as the minutes ticked by. Finally, nearly a full 30 minutes after the door had been breached, a sharply dressed man with spectacles and a prominent scar across his nose and left cheek walked into the room.
He had the posture and self possession of an educated man who was used to obedience. There was nothing forthrightly hostile in his manner, and neither was there an explicit threat in his actions, yet his presence in the room was accompanied by a distinct coldness. He gave the impression of a gracious host welcoming the family as guests in their own home.
“So,” he began, speaking Arabic with a slight but noticeable Turkish accent. “You are probably wondering what our business is here.”
The statement was designed to leave no room for response. They were, obviously, wondering that very thing.
“My name is Sayyid, though I’m known better, perhaps, as Tabib Al’alam.” He noted the shock of horror that flitted across the family’s features at the mention of the name.
“There’s no need to be concerned,” he chuckled. “It’s just a nickname. Nothing more. Gossip is such an ugly thing, isn’t it?”
No one dared respond. Amani’s granddaughter began to cry at that point. She just couldn’t handle the situation. Sayyid smiled and reached a hand out to her. The girl’s mother tried to stand between him and her daughter, but the man behind her kept her pinned firmly on her knees.
Sayyid ran a hand along the girl’s head and spoke in soothing tones, “Shh. It’s alright. It’ll all be over soon.”
He stood. “On that note, you have a decision to make. I need two volunteers otherwise I’m taking the lot of you. Sort it out amongst yourselves. Decisions of that sort pain me so.”
The family huddled together in silent conference. Amani volunteered, insisting firmly that she was old and was not afraid of death… or whatever may come. Over the family’s strong objections, she was the first choice. The family’s patriarch insisted as well with similar ferocity that he go with them. When Sayyid came back to them Amani stood to come with him, but before her son in law could join her, his wife threw herself in his path and began walking out of the house.
“Khawlah, no!” he screamed after her as the door slammed shut and the two were driven off into the dark veil of the night, swallowed up by the malevolence which had so deeply gripped their nation and plunged it into the fog of war.
***
It was several hours before the two women arrived at Sayyid’s intended destination: an abandoned, grey looking factory. It was an appropriate locale, as they would shortly discover.
A small group of guards waved the car through after verifying Sayyid’s identity. Amani recalled a chill sent down her spine by the first glimpse of that place within which she was about to be incarcerated. When I pressed her to explain why, she thought for a long time.
“Because I felt like I’d been there before. I felt like I was returning to a stable point in my life about which the whole world was turning, and into which I was about to fall… perhaps forever.”
It could be that my translator made her sound more elegant than she in fact was because this particular observation was fairly astounding and left me with a deep impression which I have pondered over for a long time since that day.
Once inside, and having passed through a second checkpoint, Sayyid led Amani and Khawlah into adjoining cells. These had been fashioned crudely out of old storage closets. The rooms were unlit and very little light made its way under the cracks of the doors into the room. The two, unfortunate women were left to think on their unknowable and potentially torturous fate until the following day.
Often, in the distance, vague screams could be made out. Soft as they were these expressions of agony struck a dissonant chord in Amani’s mind. They weren’t natural, she told me. Something about them was just out of the normal range of human vocalization, as if they were artificial… or, more frighteningly, bestial.
Amani and Khawlah spoke to each other in frightened whispers, terrified of a guard hearing their conversation. At first, they made plans to escape. Quickly, though, the two of them gave up on such things. There was no point in making plans which they had no hope of implementing.
Snatches of conversations and soft footfalls occasionally made their way into Amani’s cell. The most repeated phrase which they managed to pick up was: “Min fadlik la!” which means “Please, don’t!” Sayyid, or whomever these pleas were directed at, never seemed to heed these requests for clemency because what followed that phrase was, inevitably, screaming.
The sounds were closer now, and there was no mistaking the cries. They were distinctly inhuman. They were halfway between the creak of a rusty door and the screech of a teakettle. In order to make a sound like that, of that volume, human vocal chords would have to be tearing themselves to pieces: shattering themselves futilely in an effort to make their suffering known to an indifferent world.
The image of people, alone, forgotten and hopeless literally screaming their throats out in a dark hole at the edge of human civilization has never truly left me. I dream of them, sometimes, always as Amani described them. From a cell down the hall, not able to see what tortures were being perpetrated on their bodies, but hearing their cries and making intense efforts to record them in a secret corner of my soul.
Because, truly, there was no one else to do so. Because, in the end, I was all that stood between them and the oblivion of forgotten suffering.
***
They came for Khawlah the next day. Amani heard her yell and fight, kick and spit at them. To no avail. The two, big men simply hoisted her between them and carried her bodily down the hall. Amani pounded on the door, calling after her daughter. She wept and screamed and pounded until her hands were bloody and two red handprints were left on the inside of the door. They ignored her.
It was hours before Khawlah returned to her cell, and when she did nothing but whimpering was audible from her. Amani pleaded with her to answer, but she was either unable or unwilling to do so.
Silence was her only companion aside from those whimpers for the better part of a day. Finally, the time came for Amani to be brought into whatever horrors were awaiting her. Only one man came to escort her, and she was in no shape to resist.
Amani walked down the long, dark corridor with the echoes of human anguish bouncing gently along the walls. Each step she took forward was like one step further from life, one step further from goodness and one step closer to hell. Inexorably, like the march of time, Amani made her way down the corridor and made peace with her God.
Sayyid was waiting for her at the end of the hallway, sitting in a small room with flickering, fluorescent lighting. He smiled at her, ever the gentleman:
“Won’t you sit down?” he pointed to a vaguely medical table upon which he seemed to suggest he would examine her. She did so.
Sayyid took out a flashlight and looked in her eyes, behind her teeth, in her ears, and up her nose. He checked her heart rate and pulse and made careful notes. The smile fell from his face and a disappointed sneer replaced it.
“I see…” he mumbled to himself.
“What?” Amani couldn’t help but ask. What could this mean? Was she to be killed? Tortured?
“You are not what we’re looking for. You’re not… robust enough for testing.”
“Testing?” she asked, hoping to get some sense, any sense, of the nature of the hell into which she had been thrust.
Sayyid’s characteristic smile returned. He straightened his spectacles and stood. “Would you like to see one?” he asked.
Amani did not respond.
“No? Not even your daughter’s?” Amani looked up, murder in her eye.
“What have you done to her?”
Sayyid broke into a positively joyful grin, “Nothing compared to what I have planned.”
He stood and took her by the arm, leading her back to the cell into which Khawlah had been tossed. A nearby guard furnished him with the requisite key and the creak of metal grating against metal filled the air.
“Have a look,” he pointed to her, stepping out of the way.
I have trouble writing this next part. I’ve even tried to convince myself that Amani made it up, that it was the distortion of a tortured and traumatized mind. But, she was calm when she told the story. As calm as anyone can be when speaking of such things. She spoke with anger, but not insanity. She spoke with total solemnity but not pathological depression.
I recall hearing a story once of an Israeli judge who, upon hearing the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, was intensely skeptical. The man claimed to have been flogged with over 70 lashes as punishment for some minor offense (as we now know the SS was wont to do), but this was shortly after the end of WWII and the truth of the Nazis’ crimes had not yet come out.
The judge turned to his colleagues, and said, in Hebrew, that he felt sorry for the man who was obviously deluded. He had gone insane and didn’t know what he was talking about. The man said to him something along the lines of “I am not delusional, and I speak fluent Hebrew.”
Maybe, after all this time, we aren’t so different from the generation which refused to believe the survivors of atrocities. Maybe I’m guilty of the same because I could not bring myself to fully believe what Amani has told me.
She said that she saw Khawlah in her cell, huddling in the corner, with the skin on both forearms peeled back and held with metal tongs. Her hands were shackled together, to prevent them from undoing the clamps.
The skin had been removed in a surgical manner, in precise measurements, and even had Arabic markings around them indicating the exact time and dimensions of the incisions. And, presumably to prevent her from screaming in pain, Khawlah’s lips were sewn shut.
Amani, as any human being with a soul would have done, became sick and vomited on the ground. She retched and retched until not a drop of stomach acid was left within her. Sayyid was speaking calmly as this occurred,
“We’re trying to determine the exact conditions under which a person develops infection, gangrene and irreversible corruption. It has enormous practical benefits for soldiers, and civilians too, I suppose. We can know how to treat wounds with much better precision. This sort of experiment has been, understandably, frowned upon, but we need not be bound by morality here. She’s a Kurd, and, as I’m sure we all know, they are not human beings.”
Amani leapt at him, and even managed to land a glancing blow before the uniformed men at the door grabbed her arms and held her back.
“Normally, you’d be tortured for that sort of thing,” the Pain Doctor informed her, rubbing his jaw. “But, as I said, we really have no use for you. But don’t think that means we can’t still have some fun with you if we so choose. Count yourself lucky that you’re of no use to us.” He said this last part in a completely reasonable tone, as if it was Amani who was the crazy one. As if it was she who was violating the norms of civilized behavior.
They dragged her out of the building, and drove to the middle of a field in the countryside. She was blindfolded and had no idea where she had ended up. The soldiers stripped her clothes from her, and, after removing the blindfold, pulled her out of the car.
“Your penance for that little act of disobedience,” the madman informed her, “is going to be this little game. I’ll give you a five minute head start, which I’ll signify by a shot from my pistol,” he showed her the weapon in question. “If you manage to make it out of the line of sight of my riflemen over here,” he pointed to the soldiers standing next to him, “you win, and I’ll let you leave.”
Amani felt like she had been dropped in the middle of a nightmare. The whole world was spinning. “Game?” What sort of madman was this Sayyid?
“Ready?” he asked, firing the gun before she had time to reply.
Amani ran faster than she thought an old woman was capable of running. Her legs carried her with such speed that the whole field through which she was running became a total blur. Her goal was a hill off in the distance. How could she make that distance in five minutes?
But, the human body under conditions of mortal danger is capable of feats that are unimaginable to the calm man. The seconds were flying past, and Amani was running out of breath. The hill was a stone’s throw away when Sayyid called out with a megaphone “THIRTY SECONDS LEFT!”
A stitch was forming in Amani’s side, but adrenaline muted most of the pain. She pushed forward, ignoring the burning in her lungs and was on the hill and halfway up when Sayyid called out “10! 9! 8!”
She put on a massive burst of speed and made it to the top just as “0!” was called. A few bullets whizzed by her ears, one coming uncomfortable close and clipping the top of her ear. She threw herself down the other side of the hill and collapsed into a heap.
After about a minute, it became clear that the soldiers were not chasing her. The danger was passed. She took a moment to catch her breath, and when the adrenaline wore off, and the pain returned, so did her rage and dejection.
She had escaped the clutches of madness, but her daughter was still firmly lodged in its jaws.
***
Amani told me this story over the course of several hours, taking frequent breaks. But, by the end of it, I was the one requesting breaks in order to calm myself. I mean, my god, a story like that, when one sees the victim before their very eyes and feels their suffering. It’s enough to drive a man over the edge.
I pushed through. This story had to be told. After a few minutes of tense silence following the conclusion of the story I stood, shook her hand and left. An unspoken agreement between us ensured that we both understood that pleasantries and farewells were not necessary. We had shared something too profound for those.
I returned to London a week after that interview, and, truthfully, did not get much other useful material. I didn’t sleep much and my mind wandered. I forgot to write down important details, I nearly got in a car crash. That experience was not something to be shaken off, and I found myself thinking about it day in and day out: at times until I wept tears of honest hopelessness.
Perhaps one day I could bring her story to light and make the world understand the horrors it had turned a blind eye to for so long.
***
I did write that story and it generated an international scandal. Manhunts were launched to find the madman known as “Tabib Al’alam”. For years, he evaded capture, and my journalistic scruples came under serious question. There were no records of a genocidal “Sayyid” terrorizing the Syrian countryside.
That man did his homework. He knew how to hide such things. But, just when the effort was losing steam, a breakthrough occurred in the bowels of the US intelligence community. I don’t know how they did it, though it had something to do with the counterintelligence work being done on the Deep Web, but Sayyid was caught and flown to a CIA blacksite and then to Guantanamo.
When the news came out, I was hailed as the man who brought down a war criminal with my pen. But, I didn’t feel like celebrating. Khawlah was never found, despite intensive efforts to track her down. She simply vanished.
Nightmares plagued me every night, despite my fame, despite my success. Images of blood, torture and disease swirled around my mind and were stamped behind my eyes. Sometimes, the smell of a roasted chicken or hamburger remind me of the stench of Khawlah’s arm, as Amani had described it. Is vicarious PTSD a real thing? I don’t really know. I don’t believe in therapy so I’ve never been diagnosed.
I made repeated requests to the US government to interview Sayyid, which were all denied. Finally, a few days ago, I was granted a visit. One hour, supervised, and after that I would stop pestering the CIA permanently.
I readily assented.
No recording devices were allowed in the cell, so I was forced to rely on the oldest journalistic tools: the notepad and pen. That was fine with me. Whatever it took to see Sayyid and look him eye to eye. What sort of malice would I see in the black expanse of his eyes? What evil would I find wrapped in every movement of his arms, every twitch of his mouth?
There was only one way to find out.
On the day that I was to meet him, I went through the standard screening procedure for entering Guantanamo, passing through the gates and putting my things through an xray machine. All was well.
I was led by two uniformed men to Sayyid’s cell, which was unlocked for me. They stood outside the room, “Just in case you need something,” they informed me. I thanked them, though the manacled man at the table didn’t seem particularly threatening to me.
I sat across from him, for the first time, and found myself rather disappointed actually. He was a swarthy man of middling height and unassuming features. Could this truly be the man who perpetrated such inhuman and disturbing atrocities?
“Sayyid, is it?” I asked, by way of beginning the conversation. The clock was ticking, and small talk couldn’t last long, but this was important.
“Sayyid, yes,” he said, in accented but fluent English.
“And, your surname is?” I asked.
“Not really at issue here, I would imagine,” he told me politely, but firmly.
“Do you really not want to tell me even that?” I asked.
“You may call me Sayyid,” he responded.
I nodded. “Can you tell me about your wartime activities in Syria?”
He smiled. “‘Wartime activities.’ We have no need of euphemisms here Mr. Daniels. We both know what you really want to ask. ‘Did I participate in torture and human experimentation against Kurds in Syria?’ The answer is yes.”
I was taken aback somewhat. “You know my…”
“Of course I know who you are. You’ve been all over the international news for months now.”
Right. Of course he knew me. Stupid question.
“How do you feel about what you’ve done, Sayyid? How can you live with yourself after having done those things? I could barely stand to listen to them, I can’t even imagine… You… You’re a monster. A fucking monster!” I shouted at him. The guards looked in, but, seeing that I was in no danger, did not intervene.
Sayyid was calm. “How can I do what I did, you ask? Well, the first thing you should understand is the history of the Kurds, and the vile scum that they are…” he began. I cut him off.
“Please, save the genocidal bullshit for the ICC, Sayyid. I don’t care what you think about the Kurds. I want to know how you, seemingly an intelligent man, could mutilate people like that? How does that not sicken you to your core?”
He smiled, and I got the same chill that Amani had described to me all those months ago. He really knew how to get under your skin.
“It’s an art, truly. Suffering for suffering’s sake. But, not just suffering. See…” he trailed off and stared into space searching for the words. “It’s archetypal. I’m sculpting a masterpiece with my hands, battering clay into meaningful form. I’m laying brushstrokes on a canvas. I’m putting words in their order, balancing and refining them to make beauty. It’s what you do all the time, I imagine, in your profession.”
“But, I’m not mutilating people!” I screamed at him.
He waved his hand. “No, no. Not mutilating. I was revealing the potential underneath the surface. ‘Wisdom comes through suffering.’ I’m a novelist with the scalpel. I’m telling a story. And every story needs a good villain.”
“What happened to Khawlah?” I asked him.
“Oh who cares about her? She’s hardly the point.” he waved his hand again. “I don’t even remember now. She was just another face in the crowd.”
He grinned at me, and for some reason, that’s what sent me over the edge, and precipitated me putting my plan into place.
I pulled out the knife which I had arranged for the guard to have waiting for me. This particular one was more than happy to help me find my peace. With wide eyes, and an animalistic scream, I drove the blade through his chest, and then through his torso twelve more times. The blood poured from him in streams, coating the floor with its red, sticky stain.
They tell me that I stabbed him 36 more times, but, truly, I don’t even remember. There was a terrible ringing in my ears and a mad tension clenching my jaw, but I wasn’t even in control any more. It was someone else bringing the blade down over and over again. Not me. Not the mild mannered reporter who’d never even been in a childhood fistfight.
A high pitched whine sounded throughout the building, and lights began flashing. A hoard of soldiers burst through the door, weapons drawn, screaming at me to put down the knife.
Coming back to my senses, I did so, flinging the weapon across the room. I raised my hands in surrender, and allowed them to put the handcuffs on my hands and pick me up.
I began to laugh as they did so, and screamed at the corpse I had just made, “How’s it feel Sayyid? How’s it feel to be ‘just another face in the crowd?’ Just another dead man! Huh? HOW’S IT FEEL?!”
The guards picked me up, and hauled me off as my hysterical laughter bounced off the walls. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter what happened to me. Justice, such a rare and precious commodity in our world of cruelty and torment, had finally come to Tabib Al’alam

CREDIT : Jacob Derin

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The Only Vietnam Story I’ve Never Told

by cnkguy
The Only Vietnam Story I’ve Never Told

Reading Time: 14 minutes

“Better Run Through the Jungle”

My name is Michael Hasford. I am seventy two years old and I have terminal bowel cancer. I haven’t told anyone this story in story in nearly fifty years, the last time being before I was made to sign the State Secrets Act and bound to silence by threat of imprisonment. My doctor says I have around five months at best and although I cannot say I have had a particularly long or happy life, I am ready to die. My life has been longer and happier that it had any right to be and now I will tell you why. I don’t care what the legal implications are, or if whoever reading this chooses to believe it or not, I just have to get this off my chest. To quote a fellow Marine, far more skilled in writing than myself, ‘what follows is neither true nor false but what I know’.

In the summer of ‘66 I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps during a fit of idealism. While my friends were tuning in or dropping out, I followed my Grandfather’s footsteps into Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children with a view to combat in Vietnam. Although I had my pick of colleges on the east coast and my Marine recruiter had repeatedly tried to convince me to attend Officer Candidate School, I had made up my mind to join as a rank and file private. I was determined to see the kind of action my Grandfather had. I was determined to make him proud.

So it was that I found myself stepping off a C130 transport plane at Da Nang in early 1967. As part of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion – Fifth Marines, I was in a combat unit that did plenty of damage to the Vietcong in the area around Da Nang and in turn took plenty of casualties. One of the first sights that greeted me as the belly of the transport plane opened and the wave of intense heat hit us were the thick, olive-green body bags that replaced us as cargo. They were all full.

My first week or so on base was tough; sleep did not come easy thanks to the scores of mosquitoes and the loud bangs of outgoing artillery. So I was relieved when I received a night’s sentry duty, I needed something, anything, to keep my mind occupied. Little did I know it was nothing but more time for reflection and I was beginning to seriously doubt my decision to enlist. Guys in my platoon on their second tours were talking about the reaction from folks back home. ‘Baby killers’ they called us, ‘Nazis’. One guy said the prettiest girl he ever saw wearing blue and white beads and a peace button spat in his space as he walked down Fifth Avenue in his combat fatigues.

At around midnight, I saw a figure approaching and just about discerned the double shoulder bars of a senior officer. Captain Espera was a legend on the base, an LAPD captain before he joined the corps he was highly respected by the men below him and an excellent combat leader.

“Nice night for it, huh?” I couldn’t make out his face in the darkness, but his warm smile carried on his voice.

“Aye, sir.” I squeaked, a kind of star struck.

“Hasford, old English name right? Where you from Marine?” Captain Espera fidgeted with a large, silver ring that glinted on his finger in the low light.

“North Carolina sir, Hubert”

“I know it, my wife has family there, we visit whenever I get time away from Lejeune. Must have been a wonderful place to grow up, I hear the fishing is spectacular in the spring.”

“Thank you, sir, but I wouldn’t know, me and my brother spent most of our time shooting squirrels with our B.B guns”, I couldn’t help but smile as I spoke.

“Ah!” Captain Espera chuckled, “my man after my own heart, I hunt buck up near Willow Creek!”
There was a brief silence and I found myself growing less and less anxious, the Captain had a reassuring presence, a true quality of leadership and something I grew increasingly appreciative of.

“Have you been in combat yet Hasford?”

“No sir,” I said, a little embarrassed “I haven’t had the opportunity”

“You won’t have to wait long,” he said, producing a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and offering me one, “but you’ll still have to wait. I’m leading a pretty secretive reconnaissance mission tomorrow night and it’s not cherries, no offence Private”

The Captain took a long drag of his smoke and looked up at the moon for a moment before returning his gaze to me. The moon seems a lot larger in that part of the world; whatever power it holds seems amplified hanging thick in the humid night air.

“Keep up the good work Marine; you make K/3/5 proud now”

“Aye sir!” I said, beaming. His mild manner had alleviated my anxieties and I was determined to make him proud to have me in his unit.

A few days went by before word began circulating about the Captain’s recon patrol. I was working in the galley with a young marine from Chicago, Lance Corporal Lincoln Holsey, self-proclaimed ‘soul brother’ and my best friend in the platoon.

“Yo Hasford, you hear ‘bout the Captain?”

“Captain Espera? What about him?”

“He’s gone dee-dee’d into the bush man, motherfuckers M.I.A”

“He’s missing? What the fuck Holsey, how?”

“What do I look like, fuckin’ S-2 over here? How the fuck should I know?”

“You got the Scuttlebutt, Soul Brother, you telling me that’s all you got?”

“Captain left for the boonies with five senior guys and some CIA spook like three nights ago. No sign of ‘em since. They been flying choppers over the area searching for they asses, but ain’t no one to be found”

“Jesus Christ, man, what do you think happened to ‘em?”, I was in disbelief that anyone as salty as the Captain could just up and go missing, least not without leaving some trace.
“What happens to anyone ‘round here? Fuckin’ Mr. Charles got ‘em. Or he got smart and he’s on his way to Vancouver as we speak.”

“Mr. Charles? The Vietcong?”

“Brother, you gotta respect your enemy, or you screwed. That’s why I call ‘im Mister, I call my enemy sir before I send ‘em back to the Stone Age. Now xin loi my boy, but I gotta go see Gunny Hathcock about my ride home next month”. Holsey laughed and swaggered out of the tent into the sweltering afternoon sun.

That night, a few of us sat around the barracks, bored out of our skulls yet incapacitated by the relentless heat and humidity. Shirtless Marines sat round cleaning their rifles, writing letters, reading or just chewing the fat. I had just eased off my new jungle boots, still uncomfortably unbroken when our platoon sergeant near booted the door open. His thick Cajun accent was almost undecipherable, but that night we heard urgency in his voice that bordered on terror.
“Gitchur cowboyass outtayur bunks, raht nah!” He screamed at us, pointing and barking at rifles, throwing boots at Marines. Through the unintelligible tirade of cursing and hurling insults we made out the undeniable cadence of “furst-fuckin-combat-mishn”. Faces paled and eyes widened.

I was still buckling up my flak jacket as we assembled at the helipads, the rotor blades of the Hueys just starting to spin as the pilot gunned their engines and the air was filled with the loud whine of moving machinery. The young Lieutenant commanding our platoon arrived, briefly exchanged words with our purple faced platoon sergeant and turned to us, shouting over the din of the aircraft.
“Marines, many of you will have heard of the disappearance of Captain Espera’s reconnaissance team a few days ago near the village of Lo Tranh.Well tonight I have some good news for you, the team’s radio set is sending out a signal, its weak but our signals guys are picking it up in bursts. Whoever’s doing it is keying the handset, trying to send a message in Morse code. Whatever their saying is garbled but we have managed to triangulate the transmission and get an idea of location. We believe the team to be alive, now hows about we get on these birds and bring our fuckin’ brothers home?!”
“OORAH!” screamed the platoon in unison.
“Embark!” screamed Sergeant DeL’eau and we raced to the helicopters, full of purpose and vengeance. It was disturbingly inspiring to see such a display of raw power as the weapons-laden helicopter rose, banked and then raced through the sky into setting sun.

After a short flight, the helicopters grouped together over a clearing in the jungle and then took it in pairs to land their load of troops before racing off back to base to refuel. We waited until the beating of their rotor blades had faded into a distant chatter and the bush, whipped up from the downdraft, had calmed and returned to stillness. The Lieutenant stood up and waved us off; the platoon of twenty six men began snaking through the bush. The Jungle is a terrible place to be at night, most of its animal inhabitants are nocturnal, so the plethora of howls and screeches that usually emanates in the daytime become all the more sinister after dark. A whole new element comes alive when the moon penetrates the canopy in silver slivers. So after an hour or so of humping our stone-heavy packs, some of the men began whispering to each other in the line. I didn’t notice anything at the time, the heat was so intense and my heavy pack caused aches in muscles I didn’t know I had, my mind was elsewhere, the fear, the sheer fucking stupidity of it all.

It was silent. A dreadful silence hung thick in the air and my heart sank when I saw the looks on some of the old breed’s faces. These salty old devil dogs, who’d eat their own guts and ask for seconds, they looked like they’d just stepped out of their own graves. I suppose I didn’t even realize at the time just how impossible it could be that such dense jungle could be so eerily quiet during the nighttime, but I can tell you right now I knew it was going to be bad. Just how bad, I never could have imagined. We moved very slowly and for a while, very aware of the loud crunches our footfalls made. Most of us had switched our sixteens to rock-and-roll and when ‘8-Ball’ in second squad clipped on his bayonet, I struggled not to follow suit.

Suddenly a Marine ahead of us growled and a violent rustling began as he dragged something heavy from a patch of elephant grass. It was silently wriggling.

“Get ahta there, shitbird” he seethed with his New England twang. He had what looked like a teenage boy in his grip, the boy wore black pajamas and rubber flip-flops that looked like they could have been made from truck tires.

“Lam urn mau su chet, lam urn mau su chet”

“Shut the fuck up” someone spat, a rifle butt whipped across the boy’s cheek.

“Corporal!” spat the young Lieutenant, bounding up the line, “do not abuse that prisoner!” he turned to the platoon sergeant and asked is anyone in the platoon spoke Vietnamese.

“Ain’t nobody here spoke no fuckin’ gook L.T”, spat a wiry Texan in disgust.

“Little bastards shittin’ his pants man, I never seen anyone so damn scared” giggled a Marine near me.

“It ain’t us that’s scarin’ him”, murmured Tiny, his voice so deep it seemed to come from the earth below us.

“The fuck you talkin’ about?” a Marine said in the darkness, “you tellin’ me this motherfucker’s lookin at enough firepower to invade a European country and he ain’t scared? Get the fuck outta here, dumb fuckin mook”. The platoon shifted a little at the sleight. Tiny stood at seven foot three, had to be two seventy at least, this guy was huge. He just carried on looking off into the darkness.

“You know what I’m talking about, man” his eyes betrayed his terror, “there’s something here, something else”.

Flashes and loud cracks had us throwing ourselves into the dirt for cover. Somebody was firing a weapon very, very close to us and the bullets were travelling just inches from our ears. ‘Ambush’, I thought and braced myself to feel the cold punch of lead. Maybe it would rip out an elbow or a knee cap, maybe a glancing blow to the calf that rips muscle away from bone, or a dead center that pulverizes the jugular vein and leaves you dead in an instant.

“CEASE FIRE!” screamed the young Lieutenant, “CEASE FIRE GODDAMNIT!”
The Vietnamese boy was laid at his feet, thick, dark blood pooling beneath his limp form. The young platoon commander’s face looked pale and clammy in the moonlight.

“Wha-What did you do?!”

“He went for your pistol, Butterbars! He was about to fuckin’ waste your ass!” hissed the Marine who fired.

“You killed a child Lance Corporal!” retorted the Lieutenant with authority.

“He wasn’t no god damned kid, asshole, motherfucker was a fighting age male, if I hadn’t of acted, you’d be tiger chow. There it is!”

“Lance Corporal I will personally see that you do time in Leavenworth for this, you are gunna be climbin the walls trying to re-”

“He wasn’t tryna kill you Lieutenant Goldsmith”, rumbled Tiny again.

“Say again, Marine?”

“He wasn’t tryna kill you Lieutenant Goldsmith, sir” Tiny repeated, “he was tryna kill himself”.

We kicked some dirt over the body of the dead communist and moved on. After a while I could make out a clearing in the canopy about two hundred meters ahead of us, it’s hard to tell in the pitch blackness. The Lieutenant sent a few men ahead to recon the area, it wasn’t long before one called out. It was more like a shriek than anything.
“Sergeant!”
The husky Cajun bolted forward, weaving and bounding his way through the trees. I was near the rear at this point, with the light machine guns moved to the front and rear of the column. We were expecting an ambush any second. Any Vietcong in the area would have heard the shots that killed their comrade and were surely on their way to avenge him. So whatever unfolded between the Lieutenant and the Platoon Sergeant is unknown to me to this day, but they concluded that we were to carry on with our mission. Maybe out of some sense of duty, maybe a sense of survival, maybe a dash of both. But when my part of the line passed the moonlit clearing, shifted step and peered into the long grass. I’ve never forgotten what I saw. Torn off at the elbow, streaked with black clots of blood was a human arm. In rigor mortis it gripped a radio handset in white knuckle vice. I just kept walking.
The last place we stopped before it all fell to shit was this cave, or tunnel, it was a little of both I guess. A few guys flicked on their torches and at first it actually felt a little safer inside the ever narrowing passages. But when some of the guys started pointing out the unnatural patterns on the roof of the cave system, people started to get really fucking jumpy. The few pieces I could make out in the torch beams showed nightmarish carvings of animals and people, twisted and smiling, there were other figures in the carvings too. Now the tunnels descended incredibly steeply, with some of the platoon slipping over in the darkness.

“-the fuck Avalo? You fuckin spit on me?”

“Nah man” a voice quivered

“Then what the f-?”

“Keep fuckin quiet”, growled the platoon sergeant.

I remember my ears popping, like they did on the airplane over there, so we must have gone down a long fuckin way before we came to the crack in the rock. I’m no geologist but it looked like it could have run down into the center of the earth, like a giant knife wound in the layers upon layers of condensed rock. Impossible I know, but that’s what it looked like. Tunnel rats were summoned, small wiry men born to crawl tunnels, and they eased their way through the cracks.
We waited, for what seemed like an hour, and then the voices came. At first I thought it was the returning scouts, a faint whispering of voices echoing through the tunnels. But the sound just grew louder, the voices multiplying.
“What the fuck is that?” the other Marines were hearing it too.
“We gotta get the fuck outta here man, we gotta go, this is fuckin BAD, man!” another squeaked.
It sounded like a hundred thousand people whispering right through the cracks, that’s the only way I can describe it. The sound seemed to penetrate you, my eyes watered and my stomach cramped up, other guys in the platoon vomited. I don’t know what they were saying; I didn’t recognize the language at the time and I’ve not heard anything like it since. Besides, at the point I stopped pissing my skivvies and tried to really listen, all I heard was screams. But these were distinctly human. Of the three men sent ahead, only two came wriggling through the cracks into our torchlight. They were so scared; they seemed to lose their humanity. There was no effort to articulate themselves, just howls and breathless grunts, and their eyes, Jesus Christ, their eyes. Those men were like animals. One had his shirt ripped from his back and the other was covered in blood, but bore no obvious wounds.

The whole platoon bolted. We scrambled up the steep tunnels, some men firing their rifles into the darkness behind us. Men were screaming out that they saw things in the tunnel behind us, that they were climbing the walls, that they were everywhere. When we reached the mouth of the cave men sprinted into different directions, I remember hearing our Platoon Sergeant screaming to keep together and some of the men completely ignoring him, disappearing into the thick jungle. A few of us grouped together and took a defensive posture in a thick patch of bush, I couldn’t make out our Platoon Commander but it was definitely our Sergeant giving orders.
“Kip y’r hedson swivel nah” he whispered and turned to our radioman, signaling him to pull the plug and call in our emergency evacuation.
A few minutes went by before we heard something shuffling through the jungle. I flicked my safety catch off and aimed through the darkness at the sound. My heart began racing. Hairs on my arms and neck stood to attention. It was to my infinite relief that I heard a fellow Marine call out a name in recognition.
“Davis? Davis, that you?” the shuffling continued, Holsey reached for his field torch.
“Nah man, that’s th-” the torch flicked on; and for the brief second, before Holsey was dived upon and torn limb from limb by the attacker, a familiar yet horrifying sight was to beheld.

Every man still with us opened up on the figures rolling around on the deck, spilling blood and intestines into the grass. We were still firing blindly into the darkness as we ran towards the sound of the approaching helicopters. Branches and thorns whipped at my bare face and arms, men tripped, fell and were set upon by unseen forces, their deep, guttural screams turning into rabbit’s squeals as heads were pulled away from necks. We broke through the tree line into the moonlit clearing just as the Hueys were touching town. We dashed for the blinking red lights in the troop compartments, screaming at the door gunners to open fire. They refused, looking at us with horror and confusion.
“There’s nothing fucking there! No fucking targets, dumbass!” one screamed as we piled on. The feeling of lifting off into the night sky brought tears to my eyes, in darkness and the confusion I couldn’t work out who had made it out and who hadn’t. But I did roll over in time to catch sight of the tree line before we turned and sped away.

They kept me in isolation at Da Nang for nine days after that and I never once heard of or spoke to any of the other men on the rescue mission. Twice a day I was interrogated by two CIA agents in summer gear fit only for the beaches of San Diego. Their tourist attire made them all the more ridiculous when they began to become increasingly hostile, as I told them again and again that I knew nothing, saw nothing. After a while I was flown back to the U.S and was told I was to be honorably discharged from the Marine Corps under the grounds I was mentally unfit to serve. I put up no resistance as they placed the long forms in front of me at Camp Pendleton and made me sign them. I listened as they reeled off the conditions of my release and displayed no emotion when the potential penalties were read out, “seizure of assets, indefinite imprisonment”, it went on and on. It was a Vietcong ambush and a tragic loss of young American life, simple as that. Only it wasn’t.

I’ve had nearly fifty years to think about my time in Vietnam and the events of that night and I’ve come to a few conclusions. It’s these conclusions, and I use that word deliberately as they are definitely not just theories, that I feel I must warn you all about.
UFO sightings, Roswell, the Moon Landing, every god damn cheap assed B-movie about Martians or meteor strikes or solar flares. It’s all a distraction; the idea of Space, of life out there on other planets has captured the human imagination so much that we’ve neglected the space beneath our feet. They’re not going to come from the sky; they’re going to come from below. From the caves and caverns and underground rivers they’ll come for us and we’ll never be ready for them, never.

But that’s not what keeps me awake at night, what has me jolting awake covered in cold sweat, sheets soaked. Signing the State Secrets Act is not what’s really kept me from telling this tale; it’s what I can’t reconcile about that night that’s kept me silent. The thing that attacked us in jungle as we fled, I did catch a glimpse of it as it pulled down the terrified Maine and plunged its limbs into his chest. The face was completely mutilated; lips ripped away baring broken teeth with empty eye sockets holding shadows in the dim torch light. The ragged cloth that covered its torso was caked in dried blood and dirt but I saw something tucked away in the breast. The wrists were broken inward with sharp, jagged, broken bone protruding from open wounds. But again I saw something on one of its twisted fingers, it was a Carolina State University ring and tucked away in the rotten cloth I glimpsed a flash of red and white text. ‘Pall Mall’, it read. We had found Captain Espera after all.

See you soon Soul Brother,

Hillbilly

CREDIT : Sam Riding

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