It’s like a jungle in the clouds and there’s this fog — like rain, except it’s not raining. Everything is wet and tangled, and the angles of vision are slightly distorted. Walking point, I can hear sounds that come from somewhere in the past. Ghosts moaning in heartbreaking harmony.
When Drake Thomas opens his eyes, the traffic light is green, and the man in the car behind him is sitting on his horn. He waves an apology to the world and drives slowly through the intersection.
How long was he gone this time? He is disconnected — adrift in a netherworld of old times and new drugs. He knows he must find a way to shake this thing — uncover something tangible that he can depend on.
Everything he knows is falling away.
Drake has let things slide. “Squalid” might be the word to describe his living quarters. He has gone past the point of ordinary caretaking… housekeeping, basic hygiene, regular eating habits, sleeping — all things of the past.
When the phone rings in the bedroom, he makes no move to answer it. He doesn’t even glance in the direction of the sound. To him, a ringing phone means exactly nothing. Drake is worried — certain that someday soon he will wander into a realm of incoherence from which he will never return.
Nights are the worst. That’s when the voices come. They hover around his bed, whispering into his ear — angry and accusatory. They want to know why he has waited so long to pay a debt that’s long past due. Over and over they chant the same names — a mournful roll call of souls.
Icy fingers are starting to pull at his shirttail. He must get away from this place.
Drake stands at the end of his driveway and looks in both directions. He decides to head for the woods. The road is empty. Dead leaves blow in swirls across the asphalt. He sets out along the highway under a cloud-filtered sun.
A quarter-mile down, he leaves the blacktop, crosses over a drainage ditch, and onto a narrow trail that leads into the woods.
Drake walks until he reaches a dry creek bed. This is the spot where he usually turns for home, but today, he cannot will himself to start back toward that “house of waiting.”
He pushes on, losing track of time. Eventually, he comes upon a clearing divided by a barbed-wire fence. The fence runs the length of the clearing and disappears into the tree line. There’s a sign tacked to a rotting post that reads: “Cross At Your Own Risk.”
In the distance, he can see a narrow river that he’s never seen before. Something about this newly discovered river fills him with an excitement he hasn’t experienced for many years — a glimpse of something from the past.
Ignoring the warning sign, he pushes down the top strand of wire and steps over to the other side.
He walks along the edge of the river until he comes to a spot where he can see the rocky bottom. He steps in and wades across.
As soon as he reaches the other side, the wind picks up, and it begins to rain. With every step, he notices a dramatic change in the terrain. The trail begins to lead uphill. The short grass gives way to tangled masses of elephant grass. The foliage becomes lush — a deeper shade of green. The trees start to take on an exotic, tropical look. They grow so close together that they overlap and form a canopy that blocks out most of the light.
What is it about this place that seems so familiar? Everything. The look. The smell. The heavy air, making it almost impossible to breathe.
Drake feels more alive than he has in years — adrenaline rushing through his body — every muscle taut — every nerve on edge.
And suddenly, he knows where he is — Dong Ap Bia, “the mountain of the crouching beast,” a mythical spot in the jungle-covered highlands along the Laotian border of Vietnam. In the summer of 1969, a whole platoon had walked in — he was the only one to walk out.
A shiver tracks his spine. It’s right here — the unbroken line that cuts between nightmare and reality. He has to recall everything — exactly as it was then…
He is walking point, about a hundred meters in front of the platoon, when behind him, all hell breaks loose… trip flares, machine guns, AK-47s, RPGs. The jungle is lit up like midday. He can see the men trying desperately to find cover — disoriented — running directly into sheets of machine gun fire. He watches them drop like unstrung puppets — dead before they hit the ground. Should he go back and join the fight? Drake knows it would be suicide. So, he turns and starts to run. He runs and doesn’t look back. He runs as fast and as far as he can. He runs until he drops, out of breath, exhausted. Then he pushes himself to his feet and runs some more…
Now, Drake Thomas is back in the land of ancient legends and lethal apparitions — the ultimate truth seen only in dreams. He feels a horror tempered by a curious joy. He knows the hour he has waited for has arrived — retribution that is at once both poetic and cruel.
He is triumphant at last, here in this remote country, where his soul has lingered. He has returned to a world that exists outside normal boundaries and he is ready to pay the price.
Drake doesn’t see the shooter. He doesn’t hear the rifle that fires the fatal bullet that bores into his chest. Sergeant Drake Thomas is driven backward, into a sitting position, against the base of a tree. Enshrouded by the wind-driven rain, he drops his head to his chest and does not lift it again.
DB Cox is a Marine Corps veteran and blues musician/writer from South Carolina. His poems have been published extensively in the small press, in the US and abroad. He has published five books of poetry: Passing For Blue, Lowdown, Ordinary Sorrows, Night Watch, and Empty Frames.