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The Crossroads

I’m still alive.

Well.

I’m not quite sure what to make of that.

I blink at O, who is apparently beating out small, smoldering fires from my vest and pant legs as I lie sprawled in the mud, blood, and muck on the tunnel floor.

“That,” O tells me as I move to sit up, “was neat.”

I cough once on my shock.  “Neat?” I parrot back.

He winks.  “Next stop, steamy jungle and unending rain.  You coming?”

He doesn’t have to ask me twice.  I’m running out of bullets and I’m all out of toys that go boom!  Ears still ringing and skin feeling slightly crispy, I fumble after him.  For once I’m glad that these passageways are so freaking claustrophobic.  I can more or less bounce myself from wall to wall as long as my feet are still moving.  I cease and desist with that pretty quickly when my brain wobbles between my ears and a headache roars to life inside my skull.

Great.

We struggle – well, OK, struggle and O, the bastard, charges – up the incline in the tunnel .  We hang a left at the next intersection and from there—

Yes!

I see the third bunker we’d taken on our way down.  I try not to notice the bodies in favor of glaring desperately at the hatch O’s working at opening.  I glance at his twiggy arms and snort.  If I wait for him to bust our way outta here, we’ll be late for our own funerals.

Crack!

I gape at O – skinny, pencil-thin O with his dumbass long hippie hair – as sunlight pours over him through the now open, um, opening and is that a choir of angels singing as dirt sprinkles down like pixie dust?

Oh, man.  I think I’ve finally lost it completely.

I continue gawping, no doubt catching all sorts of Vietnamese flies in my maw, as O levers himself up, pokes his boney head out of the hole and takes a look around.

“Right,” he says, dropping down.  “C’mon, man.  I’ll give you a boost.”

I snort.  Like, seriously?  Seriously?  This poster boy for the Egyptian mummy look is going to give me a leg up?

O’s expression turns wry.  “Or do you need a breather?” he mocks me.

Normally, I’d appreciate that.  Mockery and Sarcasm are friends I know well.  However, at the moment, I’m busy realizing that O hasn’t needed a break since we’d met.  He hasn’t eaten, hasn’t gotten winded, hasn’t complained of a muscle cramp…  Combining all that with the mouth-to-mouth he’d given his target, his exceptional hearing and unexplainable strength, I’m starting to wonder about this guy.  Like really wonder.

That probably means I should stop thinking and just go with the flow.

“Whatever,” I say, stepping forward and placing my right boot in his laced hands.  With a bit of squirming (hopefully the last bit for a good long while), I level myself out onto the somewhat mushy jungle floor.  I reach a hand back to help O and I marvel at how a guy as light as he is could manage to boost me up.

Shit.  I’m thinking again.  I put an immediate stop to that.  “So, where the hell are we?” I grumble, glancing around and trying to get my bearings.  I consult my wristwatch and note the fact that it’s dinnertime.

“You got a map?” O asks.

I produce one.

“And a pen or something?”

“Christ, shall I get down on my hands and knees next so you can use my back for a writing desk?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

“Keep dreaming, pal.”

With a snort, he gets down on one knee, spreads the map over his lifted thigh, and starts scribbling with speed born from knowledge.  Shit, how does he know where all these places are?  He even manages to draw out the rest of the Cu Chi tunnel system.

“Here,” he says, reviewing his work with a nod of satisfaction before handing the map back to me.  “That should be self-explanatory.”

I stare at the hastily scratched out “x” that is me and the sketchy blob that’s meant to represent basecamp.  It’s a long trek.  More than a day.  I highly doubt I’ll be able to make it on my own without a really big infusion of luck and ammo.

“Where are you headed?” I ask to postpone the inevitable parting of ways.

“North.  To Phong Nha.”

“Phong Nha,” I muse, frowning in thought.  “That’s the NVA military base on the Son River.”  The river where JT’s older brother had supposedly been shot down.  If the NVA is bothering to hold onto prisoners of war, the military base inside the caverns of Phong Nha is where he’d probably be.

Well, that sort of clinches it, doesn’t it?

“Need a hand?” I offer as casually as I can manage as I continue staring at the map.  It doesn’t really matter if I head south to basecamp or north to the DMZ.  I’m pretty sure I’m dead either way.

“Nope,” O replies.

Jaw clenched and guts churning at the thought of trekking something like fifteen miles back through the jungle without backup, my grubby, muddy, blood-smeared fingers tighten on the map, an instant away from crumpling it up and stuffing it into the nearest pocket.

O’s hand on my wrist stops me.  “I don’t need a hand, but… the question is could I use one?” 

I look up in time to see him shrug.

He gives me a half-assed smile.  “Sure.”

And just like that, hope blossoms in my chest.  It’s too late for me to save JT, but maybe – maybe – I can do the next best thing.

“Lead on, O-man,” I say, gesturing grandly.

He smirks.  “Change that last bit to a W-E-N and you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Huh.  So his name is— “Owen,” I drawl with a wry grin.  “Couldn’t you have just told me that from the start?”

“Maybe,” he says.  “But if I had, I would’ve had to kill you.”

He’s smiling, but I’m pretty damn sure he’s serious.  Yet another thing to add to the pile of shit I’m not supposed to be thinking about.

$#*@&!

Works by K. Writerly

 
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In Print & eBook


 

 
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