What Lies in Ambush

2nd Lieutenant Woody Bullock sat with his back to the wall, watching two old soldiers converse near the picked-over catering table. To his nine o’clock, a set of double doors led to the hallway and its bank of elevators. Near the doors, Bullock’s old friend, 1st Lieutenant Dan Johnson, greeted new arrivals with the same booming voice Bullock remembered from Nam, neat rows of nametags and a sweaty bottle of Coors arrayed before him. Bullock had shaken his hand and talked with him for perhaps two minutes before retreating. That’s two minutes more than I’ve managed since I last saw him, Bullock had thought, but still, we were close once. Or did I just make all that up when I got back to the world? Johnson seemed more sympathetic and supportive than anyone else; that much seemed certain. Others who recognized him scowled like they had smelled something foul and turned away. For them, the passing years had done nothing to lessen the enormity of his crime, and so he had done most of his talking with the woman tending the cash bar, a thirty-something brunette in a tight button-down shirt who dispensed beer and hard liquor and smiles that looked painted on. Why do I even come to these reunions? he wondered, but in truth, he already knew.

He liked sitting against the wall, the conference room called The Top of the Riv spread out before him. Clear lines of vision, handy routes of egress. Two tours in Vietnam had instilled in him a deep dread of borders—doors, windows, ditches, holes, any kind of tunnel. He distrusted blinds, like canopies and trees and buildings. You never knew what might be lying in ambush behind them.

Trin Mahn stood next to Bullock’s chair. Look at these assholes, he said.

Nobody asked you, Bullock replied. No one heard them talking. That was good. Earlier, their conversation had drawn some odd looks. Go to hell, you old farts, he had thought. You ain’t in such good shape either. Now, speaking more to himself than to the boy, he said, Half of them hate me.

Maybe, Trin Mahn said, but probably not that many. We’re all killers here, right?

After forty-seven years, the kid’s hair still looked like his Mama-san had stuck a bowl on his head and hacked off the excess with a pair of dull hedge clippers. His eyes were still the color and shape of almonds, his face as smooth as a bowl of fine cream. Sometimes he wore black pajamas, sometimes a white shirt open at the throat, more often the light, blood-spattered pants he had died in. He was nine or ten years old and always would be, and his perfect fucking English drove Bullock crazy.

Talk right, Bullock snapped. You sound like some American’s grandson.

Unblinking and expressionless, Trin Mahn watched him for a moment. Then he said, So solly. You no numba ten. You numba one, GI. Make boom-boom with Mama-sans long time. Is that better? Is that the kind of shit you want to hear?

Bullock turned away. Yeah, he thought. It sounds more like you talked back then. And if you sound like you used to, it means there’s a chance you’re really hauntin me. A chance I’m not crazy enough to put my own words in your mouth.

When he looked back, Trin Mahn was gone.

Now that’s what I really wanted, Bullock muttered. Some peace.

A man with a gray mustache and one glass eye looked up from the buffet, where he was piling crudités onto a Styrofoam plate. Huh? he said.

Bullock shook his head. Nothin, he said. Talkin to myself.

The man shrugged and walked away, passing through huddled Marines whose numbers never seemed to deviate much as one war’s survivors replaced another’s. A banner listing the company’s taxonomy hung on the wall behind Bullock.

2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, USA
9th Regiment
1st Battalion

1/9 had been killing America’s enemies ever since March 1942—in Guam, at Iwo Jima, and in some of Vietnam’s nastiest dogfights, where casualty rates neared 94%. Those numbers earned 1/9 its nickname, The Walking Dead, and did not even account for post-war deaths from suicide, from illnesses you could not afford to treat, from VA hellholes where heroes rotted in their beds. Bullock doubted if 1/9’s surviving Vietnam vets could man a full-strength platoon. In twenty years, you might cobble together a couple of squads, and five years after that, perhaps a fire team. The World War II and Korean veterans were dying off, too, so this year, there was no banner, no writing, no fanfare, no DJ playing Hendrix and Dylan and Creedence and the Stones. Just men, chairs, food, and the gray specter of age, aches and pains that their nineteen-year-old selves would have laughed at. Even now, the men his age limped and hobbled from groups of six or eight to pairs who would then break off, find a quiet spot, and talk. Often they wept. They wore camo and slacks and POW-MIA ball caps and Oxfords. They drank whiskey, or water, or water and whiskey, and they ate little. The whole place had taken on the aspect of a large family sitting shiva.

Bullock recognized almost no one from his time in Nam. He had rotated back to the world in September of 1967, but he had truly left the war on July 2nd of that year, when most the men he had been close with had died or been maimed in Quang Tri Province. Everyone here knew the story.

And they hate me for it, he thought. I shouldn’t have come. I wonder who picked this room, or this hotel, or this city. Reunions ought to be restful and happy. Instead, Las Vegas assaulted you every single second with lights and celebrities and thick clouds of cigarette smoke and homeless people sprawled under the brain-baking sun like corpses. The constant tinkle and plink of slot machines was inescapable, even in the airport. On the Riviera’s ground-floor casino, you could play poker or Keno or slots named after television shows. You could drink in the bars, eat at the steak-and-seafood joint, or wander onto the Strip, where the buildings and relentless pixelated signs seemed to loom over you like eavesdropping strangers. Out there, the summer heat could melt the flesh from your bones, and a man with a strong credit rating could lose himself for months at a time. Bullock had heard that the Strip’s street corners swarmed with day-laboring unfortunates who handed out cards advertising escort services. Pick your flavor—blonde or ginger, white or black or Filipino or anything else. Las Vegas invited you to open your wallet and be your true self.

This room’s windows faced southwest. From here, you could see the Trump, the Wynn, Paris, Caesars Palace, the Bellagio, the MGM Grand, the New York-themed place, the Luxor and the Mandalay. At night, Las Vegas Boulevard looked like ground zero of some enormous airstrike, bombs and napalm and Willy Peter. And the people—from his window, Bullock had seen the crowds swarming like army ants. So much humanity would choke him, crush him.

And so, not counting the airport, Bullock had gone exactly two places—his room and this room, The Top of the Riv. I’m just a simple fella from Pinedale, Arkansas, he thought. Open spaces, yards full of green grass, chain-link fences corrallin kids and blue-tick hound dogs—that’s my world. Vegas might as well be Mars.

He closed his eyes and hoped that Trin Mahn would leave him alone.

Bullock’s platoon marched into the village two clicks south of Con Thien, the heat already beating down on them like a mailed fist. Certain that Charlie was on the move in the falsely named DMZ, the muckety-mucks had sent down orders to assess and contain the threat, never mind that the village had already been searched, cleared, searched, cleared, searched, and cleared again. It was maddening how the war kept repeating itself, like a song you could never get out of your head, but Bullock guessed you could never be too careful. The village you ignored today might be the one you die in next week.  

 

Dinks toiled in the nearby rice paddies. Water buffalo lay about in the mud. Women spit red betel-nut juice and prepared food and ignored the Marines. An ARVN interpreter scampered back and forth among villagers, barking questions and gesticulating like a madman. Bullock watched the farmers in their paddies and wondered if he should round them up. He decided against it. They had already answered the same questions a half-dozen times, and unless you were beating them, their faces remained as expressionless and as patient as the mountains. Plus, though they might be Communist sympathizers, they were all too old to fight.

Some kids ran about in bare feet, kicking up dust that hung in the dead air as if painted there. That’s Vietnam, thought Bullock. If the monsoons ain’t drownin you, the dust chokes you to death and the heat cooks your brains like a pot of beans.

 Some of the kids wore versions of the adults’ black raiment. A few wore lighter clothing, made out of what Bullock could not have said. It all looked too hot for the climate. He almost envied the naked and dirty and carefree toddlers. Unlike the stoic adults, the kids talked with the Marines.

You, GI, one pre-pubescent boy said to Private Torres. Gimme cigarette. Just one.

Piss off, Torres said. He was big and mean and wore his Texas machismo like a Silver Star.

Numba ten, the kid spat, and ran off.

Torres raised his weapon, as if he meant to waste the brat in front of God and everybody. Pop-pop-pop, he muttered, and lowered it again.

What the fuck, Torres? Sergeant Proudstar said. Give the kid a cigarette. The goddam things are stale anyhow.

Aw, Sarge, Torres said. I can’t afford to share with no dink. I’m just a poor grunt. My Daddy picks crops for gringos and still smells like the Rio Grande. But you—you’re a rich Indian chief back in the world. You oughta spread that shit around.

Hell, said Proudstar, a Coeur D’Alene who talked about the reservation as if it were the edge of the world. My rez looks just like this fuckin village, only poorer. Less food, too.

Bullock smiled. He enjoyed the men’s good-natured banter. He had to watch them, though, because it sometimes turned ugly. He had heard tales of a private who zapped his best buddy for falling asleep on watch, of another who tried to frag his CO with a claymore. The war had done terrible things to some good kids.

Proudstar, take your squad and search the east side, he said. Corporal Robbins!

The corporal was a tall, thin kid from Iowa. His red hair looked like a wound, his fair skin like a cooked lobster’s shell.

Yes sir? he said.

Your squad’s got the west. Search everything big enough to hold a clip or a bag of rice.

Aye, aye.

Robbins trotted off. Bullock turned to the remaining squad leader, Corporal Szekely, a man built like a fire hydrant and hued like one, too, as if he were terribly embarrassed to find himself in Vietnam, doing the things that a squad leader had to do.

Police the perimeter, Bullock told him. Nobody enters or leaves this village until you search them.

Yes, sir, said Szekely. The corporal turned to his men. You heard the Lieutenant. Fan out.

The men deployed. Already Bullock could hear Proudstar’s and Robbins’s squads deconstructing the hooches from the inside and the interpreter’s chattering as the expressionless Mama-sans watched him. Everything smelled like animal musk and rotting fish and shit. Overhead, the sun rose toward noon, no clouds, the sky the color of blue jeans that had been washed too often. And everywhere, green—trees, rice paddies, jungle, elephant grass.

Anything could be out there, Bullock thought. A division. A whole army. Hell.

Still, he heard no choppers, no big guns firing at unseen targets, no sniper’s bullets smacking into the ground. It was as peaceful as wartime got, and he prayed it would stay that way.

A kid dressed in loose-fitting pants and an open-throated shirt approached him. The boy was nine years old, ten at the most, with an uneven bowl haircut and a big dumb grin. Bullock gripped his rifle. He had seen grenade belts hidden under shirts like that.

GI, you gimme peaches, the kid said, miming the dipping of a utensil into his cupped hand.

Ain’t got no peaches today, Bullock said.

Bullshit, the kid said. GI got peaches. You gimme.

Bullock laughed. What’s your name, kid?

Trin Mahn. You gimme peaches.

Yeah, yeah, said Bullock. He unshouldered his pack and dug through it. He came out with a chocolate bar. No peaches, he said. You want chocolate?

Yeah, yeah, Trin Mahn said. Choklit. Numba one.

Bullock handed it over. The kid ripped into it and ate half of it in one bite. When he grinned, his teeth were brown.

Brush your fuckin teeth, Trin Mahn, Bullock said, laughing.

GI numba one, the boy said. NVA numba ten. No NVA here. You bring peaches next time?

Maybe, said Bullock. Now vamoose. Didi mau.

But as Bullock’s platoon searched every inch of the village, Trin Mahn sat in the shade of a nearby hooch and chattered away about peaches and chocolate. Then he got up and disappeared for five minutes before returning, improbably, with a Frisbee. Private Conall, a third-generation Marine from South Carolina, wandered over and tossed the blue disc back and forth with the kid for half an hour. Bullock knew he should have driven Conall away, but instead he just watched them play, feeling peaceful and happy, as if the place had never known war and the horrible precision and efficiency with which a body could be blown into a thousand pieces.

When the platoon moved out, Trin Mahn ran out to the road with them, reminding them all to bring peaches next time. Proudstar told him that if God loved the Marines, they would never come back to that shithole. Trin Mahn just kept on smiling and walking. After a while, Bullock realized that the kid had disappeared, as if the countryside had swallowed him whole.

Now Trin Mahn wore billowing pants, no shirt, a sandal on his left foot, the other bare and dirty. His upper body was riddled with bullet holes, and Bullock knew that the enormous exit wounds in his back would be big enough to stick your fist in, flecks of white bone freckling the churned red meat. Bullock turned away, as he always did when the kid came to him like this.

Near the buffet tables, two men in their late sixties discussed their stock options. One even looked like somebody’s broker—thinning salt-and-pepper hair trimmed close, clean-shaven, a banker’s dark suit. The other sported faded camo and a Detroit Tigers ball cap that might have been new during Watergate. They seemed untroubled by conscience or ghosts.

Look at them, Trin Mahn said. Talking like they never shot anybody.

Maybe they didn’t, Bullock said.

No. They are killers, just like you. Do you think they dream about the faces of their dead?

How the hell should I know?

As they walked away, Bullock noticed someone watching him—a grizzled, tatted-up Marine, flames and skulls and women with bare breasts covering both arms and creeping up his neck, what looked to be an M14 on his right hand. He made his way through the chit-chatters and stopped directly in front of Bullock, unsmiling, his handlebar mustache billowing when he exhaled. He carried a bottle of Coors Light.

Great, Bullock thought.

Your lips were movin, the man said. You talkin to your dead?

Bullock looked around, but Trin Mahn had disappeared, so he shrugged. Maybe I was just prayin.

A 1/9 Marine from the Nam prayin? Nah.

Some of us do.

The Marine drank, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Does it help?

Not really, Bullock said, thinking, Nothin does. Not whiskey. Not pills. Not church. No matter what I do, Trin Mahn’s always here.

The Marine drank again. He nodded. My dead talk to me sometimes. Mostly at night. Sometimes I even answer. So don’t feel like the Lone Ranger or nothin.

Bullock shook his head. I think it’s worse here. That casino downstairs—everybody smiles at you while they’re takin your grocery money. Go outside and the natural light will fry you up like a slab of bacon. At night, it looks like somebody napalmed a Christmas village and nobody’s got sense enough to be dead.

Yeah, the Marine said. Lots of walkin, talkin ghosts around here.

Bullock sighed. He wants to talk. He probably goes to group therapy five days a week and spills his guts until snot trickles down into that mustache. But what the hell. He ain’t wrong, and nobody else is listenin.  

His name’s Trin Mahn, Bullock said. I killed him outside of Con Thien.

The biker whistled, long and low. Con Thien. I rotated out before that shitstorm.

Not me.

So you’re one of The Walkin Dead.

Bullock grimaced. I hate that goddamn nickname.

I reckon I would too. The Marine swallowed the last of his beer. You from Louisiana?

Arkansas, Bullock said, wishing he had another beer of his own. Little town called Pinedale.

The biker sat down. I’m Drabble. He stuck out his hand.

Bullock shook it. Name’s Bullock, he said.

Drabble stiffened and yanked his hand away.

Hell, Bullock thought. I should have kept my mouth shut, or told him my name was Dan Johnson, or Proudstar, or William Childs Westmoreland. Anything but the truth.

Woodrow Bullock? Drabble said.

Yeah, Bullock said. I reckon you heard of me.

Drabble stood up. His jaw clenched, the cords in his neck bulging. You’re goddamn right. After what you did, I couldn’t wear my uniform in public. You know how many of us had to eat shit because of you?

Bullock looked away. Every Marine he met fell into one of two categories—those who understood what had happened to him out there, and those who would never forgive him.

I know what it’s like to be an outcast, he said.

Difference is, you earned it, said Drabble. He loomed over Bullock. Whatever your dead are sayin, I hope it hurts.

He turned and walked away, huffing and grousing. Bullock watched him go. Those he passed turned to look at Bullock. Some glared.

They know you, too, said a voice to his right.

Bullock kept watching the Marines. Thought you’d left, he said.

I will never leave you, said Trin Mahn. When you shot me—

Fuck off. You woulda cooked my ass if I hadn’t.

Maybe, Trin Mahn said. But I guess we’ll never know.

 

They had humped up Highway 561 and made it as far as the Market Place before the snipers opened up.   

Take cover, goddammit! Bullock shouted as bullets buzzed by his head and dug divots in the Earth at their feet.

His men dove for the hedgerows lining the highway and returned fire. Bullock crawled in beside some of them and searched for Sal Sartarelli, the radio man, who had hunkered down near Proudstar twenty meters forward. How he had gotten all the way up there, Bullock would never know. Sartarelli held the receiver to his ear, his other hand on his helmet. Sniper fire churned the foliage all around him and Proudstar. Everyone was firing blindly and shouting at each other, at the snipers, at Bullock.

Szekely’s squad had been on point, Robbins’s guarding Alpha’s rear.  Captain Coates and Dan Johnson’s Bravo Company had saddled up sometime after Alpha moved out. Maybe Sal’s talkin to Coates right now, Bullock thought, but we can’t wait. We gotta take out them snipers.  

But before Bullock could move, blood and gristle exploded from the back of Sartarelli’s neck. He fell onto his radio pack, where he lay like an upside-down turtle, his eyes and mouth open, his hands clawing at his throat. Another bullet smashed into his leg. Proudstar dragged him further back into the bushes and rolled him over, trying to get at the radio.

Proudstar, Bullock cried. Tell the Captain we need—

The hedgerows turned orange, licked by long tongues of flame that seemed to burst from the brush itself. Men screamed and scrambled out of hiding and rolled across the open ground, where snipers and small-arms fire chewed them up. Engulfed in flame, Szekely ran toward Bullock through a storm of bullets. A moment later, his grenades ignited and the explosion disintegrated him. The ground shook, the shrapnel wounding a dozen other men, including Robbins. Shells started dropping out of the sky, smashing trees and hedges and men. Bullock gagged on smoke and dust and the acrid smell of burning meat.

The fuckin dinks got flame-throwers! somebody yelled.

Observe your interval! Bullock roared as he stood. Don’t bunch up! I want grenades on those goddam snipers—

Two more Marines came running back toward him as rifle fire cut them to pieces. One landed face up not ten feet away. It was Proudstar, deader than shit. The second Marine groaned and tried to crawl away. Torres, Bullock thought. Sniper fire perforated Torres from knees to shoulders, and he shuddered, flopped, and lay still. You bastards! Bullock shouted, shaking his fist. He raised his rifle. Can’t see anything, he thought. Please, God, don’t let me hit my own men.

And then Bullock saw them twenty meters ahead—two black-clad dinks dispensing fire and murder like dragons, one tall and one short enough to be a child, their shapes distorted by smoke and shimmering heat,. Private Connal, the kid from South Carolina, rose up and sprayed the dinks with rifle fire. The taller one spun and fell, flames pirouetting about him, but the little one turned and roasted Connal where he stood. The private shrieked, ran a few steps, and fell over.  

Son of a bitch, Bullock said as he sighted in and fired a short burst. The dink flew backwards, limbs jerking, flames arcing over his head and then sputtering out.

Bullock ran forward, crouched low, sniper rounds hissing overhead. He had to be sure.

A shell exploded nearby, and something hot tore into his right leg and arm, driving him to the ground. He moaned and crawled onward, his ears ringing, the sounds of battle muffled. Where is everybody? he thought. Are they all dead?  

Finally, he reached the dinks. The taller man lay on his back, his eyes open but unseeing. Connal had shot away most of his throat and turned his chest to hamburger.

The younger lay on his side, still breathing. His black shirt lay on the ground a meter away. Perhaps Bullock had shot it off him. Blood stained the grass underneath him. His arms and legs twitched.

Bullock put a hand on the young man’s shoulder and shoved. The dink fell over onto his back.

The almond eyes, the bowl haircut—the stupid grin that had nothing to do now with delight. Bullock had seen them before. The kid from the village. Trin Mahn. Like his companion, like Sartarelli before him, he lay staring at the sky, eyes wide.

Another shell exploded nearby. The heat was intense, as if someone had cast them all into a furnace.

The boy looked up at Bullock, recognition dawning on his face. You give water now, he sputtered.

Fuck you, Bullock said. Connal played Frisbee with you. You shouldn’t have burned him.

The kid grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. Numba ten, he rasped.

You should have stayed in your village, Bullock said.

Numba ten, the boy whispered. Then his eyes closed and he lay still.

Later, Bullock learned that Bravo’s command group had bunched up like a pack of dumbass recruits. NVA artillery killed Captain Coates and most of the others. I never asked Johnson how he survived or found me in all that smoke and thunder, Bullock thought. Now I wonder what it cost him.

Now, in the Top of the Riv, veterans orbited the buffet, stopping in, loading up, and moving out as they had in country, wandering all but directionless from place to place, attaching themselves to other units, detaching again, redeploying, reconnoitering. As he watched them, Bullock remembered how, by the time Charlie Company pulled him out with the rest of the survivors, he had been delirious and incoherent, half-dead from smoke, bleeding from a dozen minor wounds. Most of his men were dead. Amidst all that gore, how could anyone have seen him shoot the boy?  Why would they blame him?  That anyone pretended to care was its own kind of travesty. The boy had carried a flame-thrower into a combat zone. He had killed Americans. But somehow the story got out, and when The New York Times article ran, Trin Mahn’s death somehow became the whole story, illustrative of Bullock’s conduct and command, representative of an American military turned savage. In time, it overshadowed Bullock’s career. It eclipsed what should have been the greater tale of Operation Buffalo and the incredible casualties that 1/9 had suffered, Proudstar and Torres and the all the rest. No one considered how many men Bullock’s actions had saved from the fire or how he had fought wounded. It was if he had shot an unarmed boy on the streets of twenty-first century America.

Trin Mahn stood beside him again, still covered in blood and wounds. Bullock clenched his fists. You were killin us, he said. It was my job to stop you.

Nothing’s that simple, said the boy.

Bullshit.

Trin Mahn looked sad. Did you ever ask yourself why I was out there?

I don’t give a shit. You were there. I did what I had to do.

Trin Mahn was silent for several moments. Tears welled in his eyes. One dripped onto his chest, mixing with blood nearly half a century old.

I was there for my father, the boy said.

Something sunk its claws into Bullock’s guts and squeezed. He could barely breathe. You’re lyin, he whispered.

No, said Trin Mahn. The people of my village wanted nothing to do with your war. But you came anyway. Your ARVN interpreter slapped my father and threatened to shoot him. Some American sergeant stopped him, but six months later, that same sergeant smashed in my father’s knee with a rifle butt. He did not recognize us. I don’t think he even remembered the village. When the Marines left, the NVA took their turn. They demanded that some men from my village join them, to replace those that the Americans had killed. My father could not walk, so they took me. If I had resisted, they would have shot us. They melted my Frisbee and gave me a rifle. Then they made me carry a flame-thrower. And so I burned. I set fire to bushes and to men. I dodged shells and sniper rounds, and I fought for my life, just as you did. So tell me. Was I your real enemy? And was anyone ever my friend?

Trin Mahn’s tears were gone. His expression impassive as the moon.  He looked even  younger than the nine or ten years he had spent with family and friends, chores and Frisbees, water buffaloes and mosquitos big enough to carry you off. Bullock did not know the details and never would, but they existed somewhere just the same, in a village’s collective memory, in a family’s grief, in Bullock himself.

That future that would never be, the enormity of all that blank time, pounded into Bullock’s chest.

No, Bullock whispered. If you’re a ghost, you would have told me that shit a long time ago. And if you’re just in my head, there’s no way I could know.

Trin Manh shook his head. The facts don’t matter, It feels true, doesn’t it? Maybe we both did what we had to do, only I died and you did not. Or maybe we’re both still there on that blasted ground with those fires still burning, those men still screaming, and all you have hoped and loved and hated since then is no more than a fevered dream. Maybe your life is as false as your friendship was.

No, Bullock said. He put his hands over his ears.

Hey buddy, somebody called. You okay?

Who gives a shit? said Drabble. That’s Woody Bullock. He shot kids.

And who the fuck are you? Were you there? Did you see how they were cutting us to pieces? How that kid roasted our men like meat on a spit?

That second voice, so gruff and familiar—Dan Johnson, who had led his own men at Con Thien, who had somehow stumbled across Bullock in all that human wreckage, who had dragged him away from Trin Mahn’s body and walked him through the fire, whom Bullock had not seen since rotating back to the world.

He’s still holdin me up, Bullock thought. Or tryin to.

But forty-seven years of Trin Mahn’s voice, of men like Drabble who had never had to shoot a kid or a pregnant woman or a grandfather to keep his own men out of the grave, of correspondents and scholarly articles and goddamn Wikipedia entries that kept that day festering—it was finally too much. Bullock closed his eyes and shoved his hands over his ears as hard as he could.

But still Trin Mahn’s voice broke through. You are dead, it said. You died as soon as you shot me. You are just too stubborn to fall over.

I’ve tried to be a good man, whispered Bullock. Goddammit, I’ve tried hard.

My cousin lost an arm at Hue, Drabble was shouting, and he comes home and gets shit on because of assholes like Bullock.

Get away from here before I put you in the hospital, said Johnson. He still sounded like that young man at Con Thien, like the older man who had left Bullock a voicemail ten years back, hoping the two of them could meet for a drink. Bullock had been too ashamed to call back. A harsh, graveled voice, and yet it would never be as harsh as Trin Mahn’s soft, almost feminine one that never stopped accusing, hounding, prying like the tip of a bayonet.

Everything ached. Bullock’s ears rang.

You’re dead, said Trin Mahn. Numba ten, GI. Time to didi.

Bullock screamed. He fell forward and crashed onto the floor, where he lay in the fetal position, hands clasped over his ears, the word no spilling from him like pus, high above the retirees playing slots and blackjack gamblers calling for a hit and the dense Strip crowds with attitudes as sharp as elephant grass. The world went dark and all the voices, all the sounds, finally faded away, even Trin Mahn’s. Bullock curled up even tighter, embracing the silence, and when a pair of hands shook him and someone spoke, he pretended that the words were only wind moving through a triple canopy, the wetness on his face the remnants of monsoon rains, the darkness only the banal and innocent sky of evening in a time before he had ever heard of Con Thien.

 

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