Friday, January 18, 2008

Live to Tell: Part III

I was born an asshole. It seemed like a telling comment, one that was intended to advance a conversation. Alison wasn’t sure whether to laugh with him or just ignore him. She looked back at the man in the seat next to her, his green eyes steadily alternating their penetrating gaze on the road and her face as he continued to laugh.

She hesitated before plunging ahead. “Okay. If you were born an asshole, that probably explains a lot. But it doesn’t explain why you’ve been singling me out. Do you just not like women journalists?”

Keith’s laughter faded and his voice took on a more serious tone. “It’s not that I dislike you. I don’t know you well enough to dislike you. But I do think you’re stupid.” The laughter had stopped, but continued to look at her, smiling crookedly. “Look. It’s just that you’re not the first woman who’s come out here. In fact, we had two other ones besides you. They seemed to think it was just a big joke. I don’t remember where they were from. I probably should, but I don’t. Probably because I don’t really give two shits where they were from. But anyway, it was all about their attitudes. They didn’t take us, or this war seriously. They were living it up in Saigon, sleeping in soft beds and having drinks on that big fancy terrace. They only came into the field about once a week. They came out, they took their pictures, then hightailed it back onto the closest chopper to get back to Saigon and beat the other reporters to the wire. So, I guess I have to give you some credit for that. You’re pretty much living out there with us, though I’m guessing you’ll cave in eventually and run to the hotel for a hot shower and some decent food. But those other gals, they were just so clueless. Even worse, they made us out to be either wimps or bad guys.

“The other thing is, I’m not singling you out. You’re green, as green as the jungle that’s all around us. I treat anyone who’s green just like I’m treating you. Doesn’t matter who it is. Me? I haven’t been here too long. But I’ve been here long enough to know that it’s the new ones who fuck up and get killed, or worse, get people around them killed. These new guys come in to replace other guys who’ve gone home or been injured or gotten blown away by a sniper's bullet or a landmine. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.”

He paused for a moment, fumbling in his pocket for a cigarette. He drove expertly with his knees while he cupped his hand around the cigarette to block the blowing wind so he could light it. He took a drag and offered it to her, but she politely shook her head. He took another long drag and his voice became pensive. “My personal rule is that if they make it here for a month without getting themselves or me blown away, I’ll say hi. If they make it three months, then I’ll shake their hands." He shrugged, giving her a curious glance. "Obviously, I’m breaking my self-imposed rule by having this conversation with you.”

“No problem,” Alison interjected. “You haven’t shaken my hand yet.”

“You’re a smart ass. You know what I mean,” he replied, his tone of voice lighter than it had been. “Look kid, you really have no idea what you’re doing. At least not yet. Like today. You go running toward the action instead of away from it.” He shook his head, drawing hard on his cigarette, giving her a hard, appraising stare. “You got a death wish or something?”

“Hold on,” Alison interjected. “There’s no death wish. You’ve got to be the fifteenth person to ask me that since I got here. Everyone thinks I’ve got some kind of bone to pick, an axe to grind. That’s not it. I’m not here to do anything but tell the truth. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s nobody to avenge. No lost father, no dead boyfriend, nobody I’m trying to save. I’m doing my job out here, okay? Combat photographers usually need photographs of combat. That’s what I was doing.”

Keith's eyes met hers, holding them for a moment before returning his attention to the windshield and mulling over her statement. “Could be, could be. Maybe it is your job, but you need to be smarter about it. Don’t ever go bolting out there. Never, under any circumstances, should you get separated from the group. Never. And that doesn’t just go for you. It goes for everyone, green or not. But when you’re green, you need to be extra careful. Look, the way I see it, most new people don’t make it here. They either go crazy, or they just go, period.”

“That won’t be me.”

“Whatever. You’ll see what I mean. You have no idea what this place does to you. It gets in your blood. Makes you do stuff you wouldn’t normally do. Think stuff you wouldn’t normally think. It pushes you to your limit.” He paused before grinding out his cigarette and adding in a terribly thoughtful voice, “Then it pushes you past your limit, just to see how far your mind can go before breaking into a thousand little pieces.”

Conversation obviously finished, Alison focused her eyes on the scenery that was rushing past them. They were approaching the outskirts of Saigon now, and Alison looked around, amazed at the history of this place. When she had flown in, she had expected a mysterious, Oriental delight. In some ways, it was. But the battle against Communism was taking a harsh toll on the country. The countryside was pitted with craters and acres of burned foliage. It was the city, though, that spoke of the true tragedy that had befallen it. Saigon was old and falling apart, and even though she could see remnants of its previous French glory, Alison couldn’t help but think that any beauty in the city itself was long gone.

In spite of herself, she shuddered. French glory or not, she wasn’t sure if she liked Saigon. It was crowded, and the stench of the fish markets turned her stomach to the point that nausea and fear of vomiting were constant companions. She was actually glad that she was planning to stay in the field more often than not. She’d been given a room at The Continental Palace Hotel, which she agreed to as part of her assignment, but other than her first day when she was jet-lagged and badly in need of sleep, she hadn’t been in it. The owner of The Daily Star was furious when he found out and had threatened to make her come home, but she was undeterred in her decision. Eventually, she was able to convince him that her writing would be better if she was out in the field as opposed to taking brief day trips, and ultimately, he relented.

Now she was glad she was staying away. The smells were dizzying and her lungs felt clogged. She knew she could handle the physical discomfort, but there was so much at stake. The guys she’d met and spent time with hardly respected her as it was. If she’d been living what they thought was a “cushy” lifestyle, she would have zero respect from them. At least being out there with them, seeing them live their lives on a day to day basis, she had a chance to get to know them and hear their stories. And there were stories to tell. Sad stories, happy stories, ‘Dear John’ stories, horrible, tragic stories, and they were all intertwined, connected by a thin thread that united all of them in this tiny country.

And while Alison couldn’t have known it in that moment, her own story, by Fate or another power, was being slowly woven together to become part of the bigger fabric of stories all around her.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Live to Tell: Part II

Alison had never planned on going to Viet Nam. It just sort of worked out that way, she told herself. Crawling on her belly through the dirt, she attempted to bring her camera into focus. It had only been six days, but she was frustrated because she still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of snapping pictures and dodging bullets at the same time. She really needed to get a hang of it soon, or she would run the risk of losing this assignment. A grenade exploded somewhere behind her and small pieces of flying shrapnel bit into left arm. “Damn,” she muttered as she fumbled with her Nikon, ignoring the little flashes of heated pain that trickled over her skin.

More gunfire erupted from her right and someone tripped over her. A blinding light flashed in front of her. Suddenly, everything was happening at once. Loud cries of, “Pull back!” rang in the air around her. Alison rolled over, camera in hand. From her prone position, she could see men scrambling away, firing their M-16 rifles behind them as they ran, some falling as they hurried along. Thick, black smoke poured from the surrounding area. Disregarding her own safety, she began scurrying toward the smoke, sure that beyond the haze, she could get some excellent action shots. Only a few feet away was First Sergeant Anthony Greenfield, screaming hysterically into the RTO’s phone. “I know our position is critical! The whole goddamn platoon is getting wiped out! We can’t fight off the whole fucking NVA by ourselves! I need airstrike assistance, now!”

Alison was just snapping his picture when a bullet exploded into his neck, sending up a gusher of blood from his carotid artery. As he crumpled to the ground, Alison froze for a second, then lurched toward him, covering his wound with her hands and pressing down, doing her best to control the shaking that rattled her fingers. She could hear blood gurgling in his windpipe, and she felt faint. “No, no, no,” she murmured. “Don’t die on me. You can’t. Not now, we have to go.” Blood seeped around the wound and she saw his eyes glaze over.

“It’s no use, Rutherford. Let’s go.” She felt herself being snatched up into huge hands and dragged away from the bloody scene. Her head hung low as she was pushed into the waiting Dustoff by the young soldier. She looked at her hands as they made their way out of the hot spot. Blood was drying and caking into the folds and creases of her knuckles. What’s the point? she kept asking herself. She knew she had been hanging around this hellhole for only six days, though it seemed agonizingly longer than that. As much as she tried, she just didn’t seem to be making any headway with these guys. “You’re too green, Delta Delta” they would tell her. Delta Delta, she thought. What an insult. The first time they called her that, she thought it was a cute name, just because she was a girl. By the end of her first day, she had found out that Delta Delta was a nickname for the Doughnut Dollies who in truth did a lot for morale, but Alison didn’t consider it a compliment. She was a journalist. A serious journalist, a serious journalist and an aspiring combat photographer to boot, and she didn’t want to be mistaken for a sweet young lady serving tea and cookies.

She shook her head and stared off into space. Eventually, she would get the break she was looking for. She wouldn’t be green forever. Writing about Viet Nam was nothing like the writing she had done for her little college newspaper, or even the big newspaper where she’d done her internship. This was the real thing. She thought about the surprised look on Anthony Greenfield’s face as the enemy’s bullet entered his neck. She wondered if he even felt it or if he knew she had tried to help him. That’s what I’ll write about, she thought. Brightened, she sat up straighter. Suddenly, the day’s losses didn’t seem so bad.

Later that afternoon, Alison sat on the damp ground with a small group of soldiers, her legs folded uncomfortably, staring at the blank piece of paper balanced on her knees. She’d been trying to write her article for over an hour. She knew what she wanted to write, and yet, she just couldn’t find the words. Though it had been less than a week since her feet had landed on the red earth of this country, she had learned quickly that sometimes, there were no words to describe the violence and beauty she saw around her. Alison wondered how she was supposed to tell the world about the things she was experiencing so far in Viet Nam. She was twenty-one years old and this was a dream assignment for her. An assignment of such magnitude typically went to seasoned correspondents, but she had begged and pleaded with the owner of the paper, resorting to bribery and threats in a manner that would have done any three year old proud. Rather than deal with her hounding him day after day, and secretly because he wanted to see how she would handle it, he finally threw his hands up and agreed to send her. He was well aware of her writing talents, and knew that if he didn’t send her, she would find someone else who would.

She laughed to herself as she remembered him saying, “Three months. That’s what you have. That’s it. You’ll send in stories weekly, and after three months, you’re coming back here.” The poor man had actually stood there, quaking with anxiety about sending her, but smug at the thought of the phenomenal publicity she could bring to the paper. Good Lord, she thought. If I don’t get my act together soon, he won’t have to worry about waiting three months. I’ll be home in three more days!

Alison was startled from her reverie by a booming voice. “Get it together, Rutherford. I’m going into Saigon later this afternoon and if you want to submit your stupid article, you better be finished and have your ass in gear by the time I leave.” A young man stood in front of her. From his appearances, he was hardly more than a boy, but this place made people grow up fast. Alison bristled at his tone, but by the time she came up with a smart response, he was already ambling away. She shook her head and looked down. Focusing on the paper in front of her, she took a deep breath and began to write.

An hour and a half later, Alison reviewed what she had written. For her first attempt at a real article, she didn’t think it was half bad. She hoped the folks back home in Chicago who would be reading The Daily Star would agree. She scanned over it, smiling at some parts, frowning at others. It was hard not to smile and grow wistful over the description of the lush, green beauty around her, the smell of the wet earth or how the red dust of the roads settled into everything, giving it a hazy glow. On the other hand, part of her was worried that the paragraph detailing the death of Sergeant Anthony Greenfield was too gory. But she also felt that the people back home deserved to know the truth about what was happening in Viet Nam. She knew that a lot of people supported the troops, mostly because they didn’t want the Commies to take over anywhere, even if it was halfway around the world. After all, if it could happen in Viet Nam, it could happen anywhere. However, Alison was still uneasy. She had seen some anti-war demonstrations before she left, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was only the beginning of what would be a very long and unpleasant anti-war movement.

“Hey, Delta Delta. You ready to go? I’m leaving in five.”

Alison looked up at the soldier towering over her. It was the same jerk that had been snotty to her earlier. He’d been rotten to her since she arrived, calling her names, going out of his way to annoy her. What was his name? Ken? Kevin? She couldn’t remember. “Don’t call me that, and yes, I’m ready to go.”

He made a face and started to walk away, but turned and looked back at her. “You make sure you wear your helmet and flak jacket. It’ll be close to dark when we’re coming back.” He headed back toward the jeep.

“Gee, thanks for caring,” she said sarcastically.

He whirled around, glaring at her. “Listen up fucking Miss Prissy. I don’t really give a shit what happens to you, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to get blamed for it later. You don’t care about getting shot up, that’s your problem. I make sure my ass is covered!” He stomped back toward the jeep. Alison gathered her papers and her gear. It was going to be a long drive.

They rode the first forty-five minutes in total silence. Finally, in an effort to ease the painful tension, Alison broke the unbearable silence. “Is there a particular reason why you’re being such a jerk? If I’m doing something wrong, you could tell me, instead of just constantly screaming in my face.” She watched as his jaw tightened, but he didn’t respond. She made a split-second decision and changed her tactics. Instead of riling him further, she gave him a wan smile and sweetly said, “C’mon Ken. I’m sure you weren’t born an asshole.”

Color rose into his face and Alison was sure he was going to pull over and make her walk the rest of the way to Saigon. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye and realized he wasn’t flushed with anger. He was stifling laughter, which only served to infuriate Alison. “Do you mind telling me what’s so damn funny?”

He broke into hearty laughter and brushed his sandy-colored hair off his forehead, his green eyes dancing with merriment. “My name’s not Ken. It’s Keith. Keith O’Malley.” His next words were callus, but they were softened by the beginnings of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, you little shit. And according to my baby sister, I was born an asshole.”

Alison raised her eyebrows at him. No doubt the rest of the drive to Saigon would be interesting.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Live to Tell: Part I

Alison woke with a start. She was disoriented, trying to clear the fog of sleep from her head. She blinked several times before realizing that it wasn’t imaginary fog she was seeing. Smoke billowed into the room, and she gasped at the sudden onset of stinging her eyes and burning her throat. From somewhere in the sanctuary of her home, she heard the all too familiar hollow popping of a Soviet AK-47. Her insides turned to liquid ice and a sheen of sweat slid over her forehead. She reached over to the other side of the bed, trying to awaken her still sleeping husband. His flesh was cold and stiff under her fingers and she recoiled from the wax-like nature of the body that had been as warm and soft as her own just a few hours earlier.

Relying on a deep survival instinct, she rolled out of bed and dropped to the floor. Scurrying across the floor on her hands and knees, she made her way out of the bedroom and into the hallway. From there, she could hear the barely audible moans of her children coming from behind the door at the far end of the hall. Knowing she couldn’t leave them in whatever this hell was that had invaded her home, she flattened herself on the floor and clawed her way over the carpet to the door. Just as she reached it, another round of AK-47 blasts erupted from behind it.

“No!” she cried, springing to her feet and swinging the door open. Her eyes bulged and the air in her lungs came out in a loud whoosh as she took in the sickening sight. There on the floor were her two precious sons, Keith and Joshua, pools of blood forming dark, wet pillows around their angelic faces. Their heads had been blown wide open and their unseeing eyes were rolled back looking at what was left of their brains.

Alison recognized the prone figure standing over them. It was Mihn Li, AK-47 in hand. As Alison watched, seeing but not believing, Mihn Li turned toward her. It was hard not to recognize her. There wasn’t anything unique that made Mihn Li recognizable except the calm way in which the young woman stared back at her. She looked at Alison so directly, so intimately, that it startled her. In the pale moonlight pouring through the window, Mihn Li looked almost beautiful—her black hair, which hung in a straight sheet to her waist shone like a raven’s wing, her flawless skin was milky and pale, and her eyes, almost as black as her hair, sparkled with a flicker of insanity.

Making a split-second decision, Alison dropped to the floor, rolling toward Mihn Li’s legs. The sudden movement took Mihn Li by surprise and she was knocked to the floor by the impact. The AK-47 dropped to the carpet and Alison lunged for it. Just as she reached for it, a searing pain shot through her left Achilles tendon. Looking behind her, she saw Mihn Li swinging the razor sharp Marine Raider stiletto knife toward her right Achilles. Alison made a feeble attempt to kick Mihn Li away, but Mihn Li was too quick. The blade slashed through the tendon, rendering Alison helpless. Mihn Li brutally kicked her in the ribs, causing Alison to cry out in pain. The AK-47 was within Mihn Li’s reach, and she swept down to retrieve it.

Mihn Li smiled then, a peaceful, beatific smile. “I told you,” she whispered in a sing-song voice. “I told you I’d come back and take everything from you. Make you suffer the way I suffered.” With that, she raised the gun and pointed it at Alison’s face. “Good-bye, Mother.” She pulled the trigger.

Alison’s head slammed back into the headboard. She looked around wildly. Another nightmare. Were they ever going to stop? Daniel lay next to her, softly snoring. Everything was okay. Keith and Joshua were safe at college, and Daniel was sound asleep. Struggling to sit up, she reached for the glass of water on the nightstand. “Damn,” she muttered, realizing it was empty. She got to her feet and stumbled toward the bathroom. Closing the door behind her, she flipped on the harsh overhead light. She peered at her reflection through sleep-heavy eyelids. The years had been kind to her, but were still catching up to her nonetheless. High cheekbones, a well defined mouth, dark, curly, red hair with a few strands of silver starting to peek through, but it was her eyes that truly punctuated her face—a startling dark brown, limpid pools, sloe-shaped, and fringed with long, dark lashes…with a few deeper lines etching their way into the delicate skin at the corners. Alison snickered at her self-scrutiny. “Practically an old woman and still worrying about my looks.” She lowered her head toward the sink to splash water on her face and fill her glass. Straightening back up, she glanced in the mirror again, and dropped the glass when she looked at the reflection.

Mihn Li was standing behind her. No nightmare now. After so much time, it finally came down to this. She suddenly saw, with unwavering clarity, that everything she had done in her lifetime had been in preparation for this, this single moment in time. Refusing to be paralyzed by her fear of the young woman, Alison stepped sideways and felt jagged shards of glass cutting into the tender flesh of her bare feet. Turning towards the door, Alison could hear faint shuffling and then the sound of timid tapping on the door.

It was Daniel, his voice thick and croaky with sleepiness. “Alison, are you okay? I heard a crash.” Alison glanced toward Mihn Li, gauging the distance between them, then lunged toward the door, ready to swing it open.

Invisible hands immediately snatched her back. “Fool!” she hissed in Alison’s ear. “There’s nothing he can do for you. Nothing. And when I’m through with you, I’ll take care of him, and your other bastard kids.”

“Honey? Are you okay?” The timid tapping on the door turned into full-blown pounding. “Alison? What are you doing? Answer me!”

Alison’s eyes pleaded with Mihn Li’s. “Please. I know why you hate me. But leave them alone. They never did anything to you. It was all me. All me.”

“You’re damn right!” Mihn Li shrilled. “Tell you what. I’ll take care of you and just let your kids live for a while without their mother. See how they handle it. Watch them agonize day after day, missing you.” She laughed bitterly. “Maybe they’ll turn out better then I did. Then again, maybe I’ll just slit their throats and put them out of their misery. Isn’t that what you did to my father?”

Simultaneously reaching down for a piece of broken glass, Mihn Li jerked Alison’s arm backward, exposing the pale flesh of her inner arm and wrist. “See you in hell, Mother.” Alison winced as the cool glass sliced through the flesh of her inner wrist, leaving behind gaping vertical cuts. Blood flowed, warm and sticky, into a widening river at her feet. Dizzy, she thought. I’m getting dizzy.

Alison looked around, disoriented. Mihn Li was gone. But was she ever really there at all? She leaned against the wall for support. From somewhere that seemed very far away, she could hear the distant wail of sirens, and the sound of her husband still pounding on the door. Her body felt terribly heavy, like it was being pulled down into some type of oblivion. She felt herself sliding to the floor. Shapes grew smaller and retreated into the walls. Her eyelids grew heavy to the point that she just couldn’t keep them open. Warm darkness flowed over her, embracing her. She felt herself sliding back, farther and farther, back to the beginning of it all…