by Ken Roy
The last time Warren killed fish he and ARVN soldiers tossed grenades into the river, and the ARVNs giggled and chattered as the stunned fish, bladders blown, bobbed belly up to the surface. Now his neighbor Andy was inviting him to kill fish again. Andy, red-faced from a few beers as they relaxed on the patio in the falling afternoon sun, stood before him with arms raised like he was reeling in a massive fish.
“How about it, Warren? Let’s walk the girls to the river to fish.”
Warren didn’t want to go to the river in the forest preserve that bordered the neighborhood. Rarely did he even drive the road that ran past the preserve, and when he did, a recurring, painful memory crawled into his chest and squeezed the air out.
He was in the boonies of Quang Tri province with his squad of Marines cradling M16s and humping with heavy packs knee-deep and close to the bank in a shallow, narrow river of quick-flowing water. The riverbed was paved with rocks, surfaces worn smooth by the flowing water and anchored unevenly on the riverbed so that each step was a probe to maintain balance. Warren’s struggle to stay focused and alert competed with a sickening apprehension caused by the squad’s erratic movement and loss of discipline—they were clustered in a tight line and noisy, some cursing when they stumbled or got slapped by a branch brushed aside, then released by the Marine walking ahead. The gooks concealed in the trees on the opposite bank of the river opened fire.
“Hey, Warren, old man, snap out of it,” Andy said. “You seem like you’re in la-la land. Come on, there’s plenty of sunlight left and besides”—he lowered his voice—“my girls won’t last that long before they’ll want to come home.”
Warren blinked and took a breath, his mind recovering.
“We don’t have fishing gear,” he said.
“Ha,” Andy exclaimed. “Neither do we really. I bring string and tie it to long sticks we find. If I can find crickets, I’ll tie the string around the crickets for bait. And if not, I tie the string around leaves. I’ve told them that fish will eat anything, and at their ages, they still believe me. Come on, let’s go.”
Andy was already walking toward his house to rummage through the garage for the string. Warren, empty of objections, motioned to his girls to follow him.
Warren, Andy, and their daughters walked through the neighborhood to the forest preserve, and Andy found the footpath that led to the main trail. There they hiked in the shadows of walnut, oak, ash, and maple trees. As the girls ran ahead, Warren was wary of the thick limbs that arched over the path, like bony arms with gnarled fingers ready to clasp around them and pull them into the wells of the shadows. He closed his mind to the wall of trees on the edge of the trail and focused matching his steps to the imaginary stones formed by sunlight dappling through the trees. Still vaguely uneasy, he nevertheless fell into a familiar cadence.
They arrived at the fishing spot, a narrow meadow that joined the river to the tree line. The girls romped in the grass, while Andy and Warren collected stick poles for them. Andy tied a length of string to each pole. True to his boast he then scrambled through the grass and was quick enough to capture five crickets, and to each line, he knotted a cricket. The girls, giggling with anticipation, ran to the bank and dropped the lines in the water.
Warren and Andy watched the girls and made small talk, but Warren’s attention wavered. He sensed something that he could not see, and his attention turned to the tree line. His eyes moved from the tree line across the meadow to the river and back to the tree line. It was a good spot. Not perfect, but a good spot.
He left Andy, walked to the tree line, and stepped into the shade. His intuition was confirmed: good spot for Victor Charles to set up an ambush. If there was a higher piece of ground that would allow for a rifle to be aimed downward, even better. It appeared that the ground did swell a few yards away, and he stepped in that direction to further inspect.
“There you are,” said Andy. “Did you come over here to take a leak, too? Man, the beer is going straight to my kidneys.”
“What? No,” said Warren. “This looks like a good spot for an ambush.”
He immediately flushed with self-admonishment, having realized what he said. For a moment in his head, he had been someplace else, in another time, talking to someone else.
“An ambush? What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I’m not sure why I said that.”
Andy leveled his gaze at Warren and pressed his lips together, nodding.
“Flashback, huh? It’s okay, man. Sharon told me you’re a Nam vet. Flashbacks come with the baggage, right? You guys went through hell, I bet.”
Warren was both surprised and annoyed. He and his wife, Sharon, had discussed this a number of times. He did not tell people he was a Nam vet, and she was not to tell either.
“You know, man, I wanted to go over there myself and kill a few gooks,” declared Andy. “I planned to sign up right after I graduated from college.”
The sun’s rays shot like tracer rounds through the gaps in the leaves of the trees, and Warren stood exposed to the line of fire.
“I would have, too, but I talked it over with my parents, and we decided I could do more good in the Army if I had a master’s degree so I went to grad school and kept my deferment.”
Warren stepped to the right to use Andy’s bulk to defend himself from the volley of incoming light and heat.
“Then I got married, and the war ended so I never got to go. Hey, you okay?”
A passing cloud draped the sun and extinguished the assault.
Warren started to speak, but Andy, mindful now only of his bursting bladder, turned away to unzip his jeans. Aware of the absurdity of talking to a man while he urinated, Warren left Andy chattering to himself, and he returned to the river.
Andy followed a few moments later. The girls had stopped fishing and were picking blackberries. As Andy had predicted, they were tired and ready to return home, so they did, but not before Andy’s girls made him promise to return the next day with buckets so they could pick more berries. Andy made small talk on the way back, but Warren was mostly silent, his thoughts fixed on the ambush site.
Once home Warren retreated to the garage and sat at his workbench to think about what he should do. If he had recognized that particular tree line was a good place for an ambush, someone else might have as well. Someone who might want to do harm to people in those woods, people like little kids fishing with crickets and picking berries. He determined he would go back in the morning to find the high spot that he had seen today. He would assume a prone position like a sniper might and look down on the meadow by the river to confirm that there was a clear line of fire.
He would need his Ka-Bar in the morning. He pulled the whetstone from his toolbox and placed it in a container of water. While it soaked he retrieved his Ka-Bar in a scabbard hanging from a hook in the rafters. He laid the whetstone on his workbench and ran the blade of the Ka-Bar back and forth, first against the coarse grain, then the fine. He slid the underside of his thumb gently along the blade, satisfied that the blade was sharpened. He inserted the Ka-Bar again in the scabbard and placed it on the workbench.
That night, for the first time in a couple of years, the nightmare lit up his sleep like a round from a flare gun.
The gooks concealed in the trees on the opposite bank of the river opened fire. The rifle shots cracked like whips through the air and tiny geysers exploded around him. Warren, seeking cover in the brush of the bank, stumbled and dropped his rifle. God-damn it, he cursed. God-damn it. He plunged his hands into the water, searching for the weapon, and he was incredulous that he had to pass his hands through a red, transparent film that spread and separated and joined again as it flowed with the current. What was that? He plucked the rifle from the water and was raising it to his shoulder when a heavy mass bumped his hip and caused him again to nearly lose his balance. Warren looked down and could not tell who the Marine was floating face down in the water, arms straight forward, and blood flowing from his punctured body, but he knew the Marine was dead. Warren pulled the body close to shield himself from the gooks’ fire, and it was then that he saw it was Ray. Ray what, god-damn it? He didn’t even know his last name. Ray the fucking new guy. In country less than seven days. Please, forgive me, Ray, Warren pleaded.
Warren jerked upright, his breath staggered and his skin clammy. He was alone in the bed. The first time the nightmare had tormented him, his wife had shaken his arm to wake him, and still in the nightmare’s grip, he had swung at her. Now she knew to retreat.
He arose from bed. He dressed in jeans, his old jungle boots, and a denim shirt. He removed from the closet shelf the boonie hat he seldom wore, but he would wear it today. He walked to the garage and picked up the Ka-Bar. He unbuckled his belt to run it through the scabbard’s loop, buckled the belt, and adjusted the hang of the scabbard. He pulled his shirt over the scabbard to conceal it and headed for the trail to the woods.
Returning to the ambush site, he found a long branch, much like the ones the kids had used to fish, and with the Ka-Bar, he whittled one end straight like the barrel of a rifle. The other end, much blunter, he carved into the semblance of the butt of a rifle. A real rifle would have been better, but there was no need to draw attention to himself by walking through the neighborhood with a slung rifle.
He assumed the prone position and brought the modified branch-rifle to his shoulder. He aimed this way, then that way, adjusting his imagined line of fire as he did. He confirmed his suspicion that this was a good ambush site. Someone with intent could do harm here. Shoot the proverbial ducks in a barrel.
Warren heard voices to his left. He looked over and saw two bicyclists stopped and staring at him. He was surprised he had not noticed the bike trail before.
“He’s got a gun!” one exclaimed, and hurriedly, they stood up on their bikes and frantically pedaled away.
Warren yelled after them that it was only a stick, but they were already down the trail distancing themselves. He then heard shouting by the river. It was Andy and his girls returning with buckets to gather blackberries.
Warren did not want to confront Andy again, particularly if he had to explain why he was hiding in the trees brandishing a branch like a rifle. Would Andy understand that Warren was trying to protect them from something bad that could happen here? He retreated through the trees to the trail and headed home.
At the trailhead, a few yards up from the path he had taken to enter the trail, Warren saw the two cyclists talking to a policeman and pointing to Warren. They had apparently flagged down the policeman as he drove on the road that intersected the trailhead.
The policeman waved the cyclists off and walked toward Warren. Warren stopped to meet him. The policeman told Warren that the cyclists thought he had a gun. Warren grinned and held up the branch.
“No,” he said. “It’s just a branch I made into a walking stick. I tried to show them when they saw me, but they rode off too fast.”
“I see that,” said the policeman, laughing. “Some people have a lively imagination. Have a good day, sir.”
The policeman turned and began walking back to his car.
He was some distance away when Warren called after him. The policeman stopped and turned.
“Up ahead where the trail meets the river, there’s an open area to the left that you may want to check out.”
“Why? What about it?” asked the policeman as he turned to look up the trail.
Warren raised the butt of the walking stick to his shoulder and took aim at the horizon.
“It’s a good place for an ambush.”