CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

June 28, 1971

4 Months, 26 Days

Sleep was something they did a lot of now.

When Kyle had first arrived, he thought he'd go hoarse talking. Any time the guards weren't around, Face would ask him a question, and then another question, and then another. He found himself telling his whole life story, from growing up in New York State, to his mother's death, to finally joining the Army...It seemed as though the man couldn't get enough of a human voice. Then Kyle realized it was an American voice that he wanted to hear. No.

Needed to hear.

He was shocked to find out who Face was. Made him feel weird. Not only was he sitting across from a legend - who didn't know about Colonel Smith's team? - he was sitting across from a dead legend. But then Kyle saw the look in his eyes when he was told everyone thought he was dead. That was the last time Face would talk about the war or Smith. The last time he would talk about himself.

The gooks were bringing more and more prisoners into the camp now. No Americans. The Hmong. The guards seemed to get a sadistic pleasure out of torturing them. The more prisoners they brought in, the harder it was for Kyle to ignore the screams. He should've known better. He did know better. Face had warned him not to react. Not to anything. But yesterday, for some reason, he broke down. Yelled at the guards outside to stop.

He could've cut off his tongue. He stared at Face, who had gone pure white. It seemed like only seconds before a handful of guards came in. Walking slow. Smiling.

They both got clubbed before their shackles were released and they were dragged out. Kyle thought they were both dead, but instead they were shoved to the ground, a few feet from the fire. Just opposite was the poor bastard the gooks were working on. One of the guards stood beside him, holding a small piece of burned meat on a stick. Other guards pulled Face and Kyle's heads up, forcing them to watch as the guard grinned and shoved the meat into the man's mouth.

At first Kyle didn't understand. How was feeding the guy torture? Then they cut out the next piece of meat.

When the man finally died, Face and Kyle were shoved back into the small grotto and shackled in. Face immediately went wherever it was he hid in his mind; Kyle sat for a long time, seeing it over and over again. Finally, he closed his eyes and, silly as it seemed, started counting until he fell asleep.

It started the new phase of their existence.


*****

February 14, 1972

1 Year, 12 Days

The three men sat quietly, each deep in their own thoughts. Occasionally one would cough, and then all eyes would turn to the front.

Scared eyes.

It was the third day now that no one had come in. No food. No water. No release from their shackles. No relief from the stench. But they would rather be left alone, in the cave, than pulled out there. Not until the guards had calmed down.

Three days before, there had been a huge commotion outside. The guards had come into the cave, dragging with them another American. They had been angry, very angry, and had taken it out not only on the new arrival, but on the two already shackled men as well. Finally they left, the new man secured next to Kyle, opposite Face. He reached over, helping Kyle to sit up, then waited anxiously until Face sat up, leaning tiredly against the stone wall.

His name was Mathew Arnhold, but everyone, he said, called him Arnie. He'd been shot down a few days ago, and rescued by a band of Hmong. A young man, barely more than a teenager, had volunteered to guide him across the mountains to the Thai border. Apparently he'd done it many times before.

The kid's luck ran out this time.

They'd been discovered a few miles from the caves, and practically dragged all the way. The PL soldiers had tried to get the teenager to tell them where his camp was, and he refused. Arnie had been beaten, but not nearly as badly as the teenager. He felt badly that Face and Kyle had gotten caught up in the barrage, but he was scared for the boy.

"I never should have let him come. He's just a kid."

"The kids grow up fast here, Arnie. He's a man in the eyes of his tribe. In his own eyes. There's no way he'll give up his people." Kyle looked toward the front of the cave. He could see a good share of the main cave, only a sliver of the outside world. "The best you can hope for is they kill him quick. That one of them gets angry enough to just shoot him and be done with it."

"And if they don't?"

Face frowned. "Forget him, Arnie. And don't say anything to the guards; don't act like you care. It'll just be harder on him."

Arnie glared at him, but further conversation was cut short by movement at the mouth of the cave. All three looked, but only Arnie had a clear view.

"What are they doing?" Face's voice was low, tense.

"Gathering up wood, like for a fire." Arnie looked at him, puzzled. "What...?"

"Just try not to listen." Again, Arnie started to argue, but Face spoke over him. "Trust me, Arnie. You can't change anything, so try to save yourself the nightmares. Focus on something else."

Face closed his eyes, again resting his head against the stone wall. Arnie looked at Kyle, who shook his head, glancing at Face. He leaned closer to Arnie, and spoke softly.

"He's not as cold as he sounds. He's just...learned how to cope."

"Cope? Is that what you call it?"

"Yeah. He's caused problems for them, and they don't like that." Arnie frowned, and Kyle quickly went on. "He's not a hothead. Mostly he does it to draw attention away from other people." Kyle looked down.

"You?"

"Yeah, when I first got here. I didn't know what to do, and that makes them mad. So watch for my cues."

"So he protects you?"

"He did, until I learned. And any women they'd bring in. He used to go ballistic when they'd bring women."

"You're talking past tense. So now he just zones out? Doesn't give a shit? How long's he been here, anyway?"

"I got here in the spring, he'd been here a little over three months before that. So maybe if you last that long, you'll understand. He hasn't given up. Like I said, he's just learned how to cope." Kyle sighed. "Then again, I still haven't gotten the knack of it. And he takes the brunt for that, too, so watch yourself. You can't care. You can't care about anything. Understand?"

Tendrils of smoke were starting to drift into the cave now. Arnie sneezed, then coughed. Face opened his eyes, stared at him for a moment, and then closed them again.

"They do this a lot?"

Kyle hesitated. "Once in a while. If the bombing's been heavy, and during the rainy season, they'll bring the fire right inside there. Just try not to cough too loud."

Arnie looked at him.

"Anything that brings their attention back here, we don't want."

Arnie nodded, silently, wide-eyed, and watched the smoke trailing in..


*****

Face looked up at the new guy when he started coughing. Didn't need that. Not now. Which was probably why those assholes out there had built the fire so close. Waiting to see who had trouble, who dared complain. As long as that didn't happen, they'd concentrate on that kid.

And that was one thing Face was not going to think about. He drifted back to his daydreams. Dao Quy, at home in LA. Waiting for him. How many kids did they have now? Two? Yeah. Two. Two boys. Didn't seem fair, really. He'd like a daughter, too. Have to work on that.

He'd been working in real estate, but that was getting boring. He needed something...exciting. Something that made his adrenalin flow. Making up real estate deals made him tired. Couldn't be tired. Had to be wired. Ready. Ready because any minute, those gooks would come bursting through the door...

Then it came.

The first scream.

It died into cries. The kid was pleading with them now.

Might as well save your breath, kid.

The screams started again. Over and over. He wondered idly what they were doing to this one. Shouldn't think about it at all. That just made his mind go into dark places he didn't want it to go. Couldn't afford to. Didn't want to end up like Murdock.

Murdock. What had he done, when Face didn't come back? When the others disappeared? That was a puzzle. Where had the guys gone? Kyle only knew that one day they showed up in Khe Sanh, and then they were gone. Some said they got on a plane for the World.

Could be.

Hero's welcome. Ticker tape.

He'd kept thinking someone would come looking for him. Sometime. Then Kyle had said everyone figured he was dead. They didn't know, because no one had actually talked to Hannibal. But that's what they figured. When he wasn't with them.

So no one had ever come looking for him.

Hannibal should've told them. Somehow.

He opened his eyes then. Something different. The smoke...smelled like cooking. His mouth watered. Pork? He swallowed. No.

Where was he now?

Oh, yeah. Secret mission. Heroes. The three heroes.

They wouldn't get ticker tape. No. Not with a hush hush job like that. Have to be secret heroes. Maybe they'd given him a secret medal.

Posthumously.

He frowned as the kid started screaming again. Frowned deeper when it suddenly choked off.

Hannibal.

Hannibal had probably gotten his promotion by now. What was it came after a colonel? Brigadier general? Maybe. Strange. Brigadier Smith. Wonder where he'd end up.

No doubts as to where BA would be. His cousin had a garage back in Chicago. Face had made the mistake of asking if BA was really going to be a grease monkey when he got out. Had to do some fast-talking out of that one. Guy didn't know Face at all.

Wiley was probably back on the farm by now. That's all he ever talked about, that farm, and hunting. He wondered if Wiley would feel like hunting again. Or if he'd had enough of it.

There. The kid was screaming again. So they hadn't killed him yet. If he was lucky, maybe his heart would give out. Or maybe they'd mess up and kill him.

Damn. There was that smell again. He opened his eyes, looked through the haze of smoke filtering through. Kyle and Arnie were staring out to the front.

Kyle looked sick. Arnie was pale, mumbling something.

Bastard's going to get us all killed.

Kyle leaned over to Arnie, said something. Arnie shut up.

Face closed his eyes. Tight. So tight he saw sparks.

Dao Quy. Dao Quy and two little boys. No, two little girls. And they were going to have another. Yes.

Three little girls...


*****

That had been three days ago. How long the screams lasted he had no idea. Sometime into the night. He only knew the kid was actually dead when they threw the rest of his body on the fire. Their little grotto filled with a pungent smoke, a sweet, sick smell. They had to cough, to gag, there was no getting around it, but, ironically, it was the very smoke that choked them that kept the guards from coming in.

Eventually, the smoke started clearing, drawn to the back of the cave by some unseen vent, and they tried to stop their coughing, tried to hide what they couldn't stop.

All the time, waiting for their turn.

Morning came. They only knew because the cave was less dark, and gradually they could see each other again. And they waited. Waited to see if the guards would come and unshackle them for their morning ritual, or to begin their own deaths.

They did neither.

Not that day.

Not the next.

Nor this, the third day.

All day long, the three men sat, tried to sleep, tried to stay quiet. Afraid of what would happen if they disturbed the guards.

The Gods.

The light in the cave was getting dim when they finally heard the footsteps. Six guards, silent, stern. Face hissed at Kyle, who quickly nudged Arnie, so he would put his hands up and look at the ceiling, never at the guards. Never look at the guards.

Three days without moving made it difficult to get up and walk, but they did it. Arnie got a clout when he stumbled, and Face held his breath, wondering if that would start it up, but they were just shoved out of their 'room', out through the high domed entrance to the cave.

Past the pyre.

They were herded down the slope, but past the small area where they usually ate. Down toward the small creek. Face and Kyle glanced at each other, quickly, knowing what to expect. They had no way of warning Arnie, and when they entered the water, he hesitated. The guards shoved him in, and he shouted at the sudden cold.

The guards just laughed. Face felt himself relax a little. Then it was concentrate on scooping up and drinking as much of the cold water as he could before they were ordered out. They all did.

They went back toward the cave, stopping by the pyre, spindles of smoke still rising from it. The guards handed them brooms made of huge leaves. To clean up the remains. Knowing full well the brooms couldn't handle everything. Then back to the creek, with buckets this time, and back into the cave, where they threw the water on the floor of their 'room', and swept as much of the mess out as they could. And then they were shackled back in their places, in their wet, cold, smelly places, in their wet, cold, and once again filthy clothes.

The next morning, it was as though nothing had happened.


*****

February 16, 1972

1 Year, 14 Days

Face had been watching Arnie the last couple of days. Closely. He was a talker. So was Kyle. Face didn't mind that. He'd liked to listen to Kyle talk. He couldn't always make out the words, because they had to watch how loud they got, but he liked to hear the voice.

Arnie changed that. Since he was only a couple feet from Kyle, they could talk softly and still hear each other. It bothered Face somewhat. He laughed at himself when that happened. Like he was jealous of Arnie. And it was his own fault, really. He didn't even try to join in. For some reason, he just didn't feel like it. Maybe because all Arnie seemed to talk about was the war.

And escape. As if there were a chance. As if Face and Kyle hadn't tried to find some weakness, some opportunity. As if they hadn't tried.

Both bore the scars of that.

Arnie was new, fresh. Healthy. So he talked about escape, and Kyle, for some reason, listened. Maybe because he thought, as Face did, that their time was getting short. Why they thought that, Face couldn't say. He just knew it. He didn't say anything like that to Arnie; didn't want him doing something stupid. Face just kept quiet.

But he had been watching them. And he noticed something. Something odd. He didn't realize what it was at first, didn't realize the significance. And then it struck him.

Arnie's hair was moving.

Not the way all theirs did, with the breeze from the front of the cave.

His hair was being blown from the back. And above.

He'd kept watching, not saying anything. It might be just a fluke. It might not. But he waited, to be sure.

Today he was. Today, Arnie kept brushing it back off his forehead.

"Arnie."

They kept talking. Was his voice really that soft now?

"Arnie!"

They stopped, surprised. Kyle glanced to the front.

"What's blowing your hair?"

The looks of surprise turned to puzzlement. Damn. What was so hard to understand?

"Your hair. It's blowing."

"Yeah, okay..."

"Not the side."

More blank looks. Face sighed. No wonder he didn't take part in their talks.

"Blowing your hair to the front. The front!"

Kyle got it. Looked at Arnie's hair, then out front, then slowly put his hand up, as close to Arnie's head as he could reach. He looked at Face, shaking his head.

"I can't feel anything."

Face frowned. "You're not Arnie."

Kyle looked warily at Face. Like he was going off his nut.

"You're not where Arnie is!"

Arnie looked at the two of them, then turned as much as he could, and reached up with his hand, moving it slowly back and forth. Suddenly he stopped, dropped his arm and leaned back, squinting up at the rock above him. Suddenly, he fell back against the wall, and looked at each of them, his mouth hanging slack. He licked his lips.

"I can see sky," he whispered.