Old Wounds

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

The thought rolled around in his head and came to a rest in the forefront of his brain.  He wondered for a minute why he would even have to remind himself of a fact he knew was as solid as the ground beneath his feet.  Then it came again, a sound from the broom closet at the end of the hall, like one of the mops being bumped in its bucket.

 

Probably rats.  Persistent little bastards.

 

It didn’t seem to matter how much bait he put out for them, there was always one more, or maybe, two more.  It took two to tango, after all.

 

He finished mopping the last section of hallway and placed the mop back into the bucket with a wet plop.  He started to roll the bucket down the hall, his knee only protesting a little as he walked past rows of lockers and classroom doors.  On his way to the broom closet, he would stop once in a while to wipe a smudge of marker from a locker door or fingerprints from a classroom window.

 

He had been a janitor at the school for twenty-six years, and though the kids didn’t always respect him, and sometimes the teachers less, he felt no shame in what he did.  His father had always believed that if you took pride in what you did, no matter what it was, it was easier to love what you did in the long run.  He supposed some of that had rubbed off on him as well.

 

A memory flared up in the back of his head like they sometimes did when he was alone, and he squashed it.  He reached the broom closet, and opened the door, flicking the switch on the inside.  The light sputtered, then sparked to life, and he was looking in on the past.

 

Lush jungle, green on green with touches of brown was laid before him.  He could see the trail ahead, that same thin strip of packed earth in the underbrush that they had walked several times before, trailing away into the preternatural darkness.  Overhead, birds and primates called from the canopy.  He stared off into it, the M-16 already growing heavy in his hands. 

 

            “You gonna start moving, Brooklyn, or we gonna have to push you?” 

 

            He looked over his shoulder, and shot the speaker an annoyed look, then turned back.

 

            “Hold yer horses, Bingo.  Don’t want to walk into a fuckin’ punji stick, do ya?”

 

            He looked for a minute more, took a deep breath, and then a step forward, and –

 

            He was in the broom closet, cradling the mop.  He set it back in the bucket with a sigh and looked around.  Mops and brooms, tile floor, fluorescents overhead, and a utility sink and drain against the wall.  For a moment, he thought he could still smell jungle – a moist, earthy smell – then it passed, and all he could detect were the smells of disinfectant and pine.

 

He rolled the bucket to the drain, wrung the mop out and set it in its corner, and tipped the bucket.  He watched the muddy water swirl down the holes, and when it was done, he put the bucket in its place as well.  He turned, and walked out, flicking the light switch off behind him.  Something in the dark bumped a bucket, and it clattered in its place.  He didn’t turn around, and instead, shut the door and locked it with his key.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

*

 

The return walk down the hall and to the parking lot was always the longest.  After a day full of bending and lifting and twisting and walking, his bad knee was throbbing at best, screaming on the worst days.  Tonight it was halfway between, a persistent dull ache that refused to go away.  He was looking forward to going home and taking a couple of Advil with a whiskey chaser.

 

As he walked down the hall, turning each row of lights off behind him, there was a bang, of metal on metal, like someone slamming a locker door closed.  It echoed in the hall and set the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck on end.  He turned back and squinted into the dark, and

 

Harley was lying in the path, bleeding.  Brooklyn’s ears rung from the explosion, a dull bang like metal on metal, and he had his rifle up, looking for the source.  Bingo ran to the body and knelt, shaking it.  He looked up and was yelling something at Brooklyn, who moved closer, the ringing in his ears giving way to the shouting.

 

            “…fucked!  He’s completely fucked!  Leg’s blown clean off, man!”

 

            Brooklyn reached down and grabbed him, and shouted back.

 

            “Get your ass in the brush – someone’s gonna hear that, and come runnin’.”

 

            He turned back to the remaining members of the squad – Austin and Red, who were still standing in the path – guns ready, but half-gaping as well.  They looked at him.

 

            “Move it, shitheads!”  He shouted.

 

            They started and double-timed it into the bush ahead of him.  He made his way over to Harley, who was no longer breathing, grabbed the spare ammo off the body, and after one last look around, followed the others into the brush.

 

            Once in, he signaled to the others to keep low and fan out.  They were going to wait out whatever might be on its way, and if he had his way, shoot the ever lovin’ shit out of them.  They waited in silence, once in a while one of them shifting to get the pins and needles out of a foot or leg.  Brooklyn stared out of the brush and across the path, but all he saw was more

 

            Black.  That’s all he saw at the end of the hall.  After a minute, he shrugged and turned, and continued his slow walk down the hall.  At the end, he flipped the last set of switches, and stood there for a moment, listening.  Not a sound aside from a low hum from the boiler room below.  He shrugged to himself, zipped his coat, and opened the glass door to the entryway.  Another door and two locks later, and he was done, standing in a cool October night.  He looked back one more time, and the thought came to him again.

 

            There are no such things as ghosts.

 

*

 

He stood at the side door of the school, beside a small patch of grass from which a tall elm grew, its last few leaves clinging in hues of red and orange desperation.  The parking lot stretched out before him, tall lights on poles shedding yellow light in fuzzy halos around them.  A cool breeze had sprung up, and he zipped his coat up a bit tighter before fishing out his cigarettes and lighting one.  He eyed the sign warning him about smoke-free facilities and ignored it.  It wasn’t like he just flicked his butts wherever he felt, and it wasn’t like there was anyone around to catch him out anyway.

 

He took a couple of puffs, letting the smoke make him light-headed, then lifted his shoe and stubbed it out on his heel.  Once it was out, he slipped the rest of the cigarette back in his pocket, and started across the lot, grimacing a bit as he did so.  His knee was threatening to become a raging pain, and he was looking more and more forward to that whiskey.

 

The walk across the lot was quiet, aside from the soft sigh of the breeze and his footsteps occasionally crunching on loose asphalt.  The breeze was starting to chill the tip of his nose, so he kept his head down and his hands in his pockets, and walked at a steady pace.  He had had the same parking spot for a long time now, and he was more than capable of walking the distance without looking up once.

 

Behind him, a sound like leaves skittering on pavement, or something being dragged, echoed in the night, and made him stop his step.  He threw a glance over his shoulder but saw nothing.  The sound came again, muffled this time, and he turned his eyes toward it, finding the elm and the shadow it threw over the school walk.  He stared into it and saw

 

Nothing.  They had been sitting in the bush for twenty minutes and hadn’t heard or seen a damn thing.  Nothing moved in the spaces around them, nothing made a sound.  Brooklyn gave it a thought for a minute and then sat back on his haunches.  Bingo looked over at him, and Brooklyn shook his head.  Another five minutes couldn’t hurt.

 

            When it passed, he gave the signal, and they all began to creep out towards the path again.  Brooklyn and Bingo looked at each other, and Brooklyn shrugged, and then stood.  He held his breath, waiting for the shot, for a shout from the enemy.  Nothing came, and he waited.  A minute ticked by, and he could feel each second like a grain of sand in an hourglass dripping through.  Finally, he let out the breath he was holding, and signaled the all-clear.

 

            The squad crept out of the brush one by one, each waiting as well, waiting to see if the enemy would wait for them all to be visible before attacking, or if the enemy were there at all.  When no attack came, they all stood and walked over to Harley’s body.  Bingo looked over at Brooklyn.

 

            “Fucked up, man.  Next time you want to tempt fate, take point don’t just fuckin’ stand up outta nowhere and wait for Charlie to shoot yer ass.”

 

            Brooklyn just nodded and looked back down at Harley.  The flies had started to settle on his skin.  He reached down and shooed them away, then closed the young man’s eyes.  When that was done, he stood back up and re-shouldered his weapon.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a map, unfolding it in front of the others.

 

            “We’re here.”  He pointed to a spot on the map.  “There’s a village about 2 klicks from here.  We’ll head up there, check it out, and pick up Harley on the way back.  Austin, Red, bag him and slide him into the bush over there.  Let’s keep the bugs and fuck-knows-what-else offa him.”

 

            They moved to do as he said while he and Bingo kept a lookout.  When it was done, they started down the path again, Brooklyn taking point.  Overhead, the sun was reaching noon, and he could feel sweat sliding down every part of him, though the path ahead was nearly as dark as night.

 

            A fly buzzed by, and he swatted at his neck-

 

            The stinging sensation brought him out of the memory.  Goddamn, but they were thick tonight.  He turned away from the tree and its shadow and finished the walk to his car.  Inside, with the door closed, he started it, and turned the heater up while he let the engine warm.  He fiddled with the radio before he found a station he liked, and then settled back in his seat.

 

  ‘Hey Jude, don’t make it bad.  Take a sad song, and make it better…’

 

            They heard the Beatles before they saw the clearing at the end of the path.  Brooklyn signaled a halt, and they stopped short, crouching low and bringing weapons up.  One by one, they moved to fan out, until they were covering all angles.  When they were in position, Brooklyn motioned them forward.

 

            They moved quick and silent, hand signals flashing between them, steering them in different formations and directions.  Before long, they were at the edge of the village, and Brooklyn could see where the music was coming from.  Someone had set up a battery-powered radio on a log and had tuned it into AFVN.

 

            Bingo was nudging him in the ribs, short sharp jabs with his elbow, and he turned to look.  One of the village women was walking across the open area between huts, her rear switching back in forth in a kind of rhythmic sway under her long dress.  He grinned at Bingo and turned back to his inspection of the area.

 

            He was just considering popping up for a second to peek in the window of the hut they were hiding behind when he heard Red yell ‘Shit!’, and all Hell broke loose.  From that side of the village, someone started shouting in Vietnamese – “Anh là ai? Anh là ai?” – and Austin replied with “Shut the fuck up!”

 

            To his right, Bingo was rounding the side of the hut, rising up, rifle at the ready.  He came face to face with a short man who froze, then began screaming the same phrase as the other – “Anh là ai?”  Brooklyn followed, flowing around the hut, thinking to defuse the situation, and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the woman who he and Bingo had been eyeballing earlier. 

 

            She was coming out of one of the bigger huts on the other side of the village and halted when she heard the yelling and saw the soldiers.  Her eyes went wide, and she lifted her hands.  Brooklyn saw something in one, small, round, and green.  He reacted, the rifle coming up and sighting in almost of its own accord, and he shouted over his shoulder.

 

            “Grenade!”

 

            The Beatles were still singing into the silence, “na na na na na ,na na na, hey Jude…

 

            The woman was backing up, eyes still wide, and he was trying to figure out what to do when the man Bingo was holding broke free and began to run to her, shouting in Vietnamese, and waving his arms.

 

            “Stop that fucker, somebody stop that fucker!” 

 

Bingo was shouting, and Brooklyn could see the whites of his eyes, just beginning to bulge in fear.  He tracked a single drop of sweat as it rolled down the man’s face, and then a rifle coughed, and he turned back to the running man.

 

            The shot caught the old man in the back, just right of his spine, and though he couldn’t see the exit wound, he saw the mist that exploded out toward the girl, just before a red spot bloomed on her chest.  She started to sag and then everything went full-speed again.  The top of her head exploded in a red mist, and Brooklyn could hear the ‘pop-pop-pop’ of rifles on semi-auto.  Around him, villagers were running and screaming. 

 

            He turned, just in time to see another woman run at him, a keening sound like a high wind in November coming from her mouth.  Fear instinct took over, and he pulled the trigger on the M-16.  His shot was low, and her knee was vaporized in an instant, the leg disconnecting, and her momentum sending her ass over teakettle.  Blood fountained in an arc from her tumble, and some hit him in the fatigues.  He looked down, at the red, at the woman still screaming in the dirt, and pulled the trigger again, and again, then again, until the only sound in his ears was the click of an empty chamber, and his own ragged breathing.

 

            He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned.  His eyes felt too wide, too full of the world, and he saw

 

            Something dragging itself across the concrete.  The radio had moved on from the Beatles and was playing ads, something about storm windows and doors, and he turned it down.  He was staring the rear-view, and saw it plain as day – something was dragging itself across the asphalt under the warm yellow light of the sodium arcs.

 

He watched as it moved in slow deliberate motions, stretching out, then pulling itself forward, stretching out and pulling itself forward, and behind it, it left a slick red trail.  For a minute, he tried to figure it out.  Was it a cat?  Nah, too big.  Dog then?  Hit by a car, and left to bleed out?  It passed under a light, and he saw white cloth and white skin.

 

Oh, fuck.

 

            It stretched out again and moved just a bit closer, and he heard it.  It was a sound like a keening wind in November, and it was coming from the thing grinding its way across the parking lot foot by foot.  His stomach clenched, and his bowels tried to loosen.  Instead, he clamped down, put the car in drive, and pulled away.  Slow at first, and faster, until he was doing fifty through the lot, and when he reached the spot where it met the road, he didn’t slow or look, and instead just hauled ass onto the blacktop.

 

A mile from the school, his heart was hammering in his chest, and sweat had begun to drip from his hair into his eyes.  He pressed shaking hands into the steering wheel and blinked back stinging tears.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

*

 

A few miles down the road, with the radio turned back up, and the sound of the tires whispering on blacktop in the background, he started to believe it again.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

            He was breathing easier, and the sweating had stopped, leaving him with a bit of a chill despite the car’s heater blowing away.  He was getting close to home, and he began to slow a bit, making the left turn that would take him onto his street.  A wrench on the floor, loose from some odd job he had done a while back, slid and clinked, and he jumped a little.  He turned the radio up, and hummed along, forcing everything else out his mind.

 

Another minute and he was in front of his drive, turning in, and watching the lawn roll by as the headlights lit it like rolling spotlights.  In the backseat, the wrench clinked again, and he reached back to grab it and bring it forward so he could put it away.

 

His hand met something cold and wet and smooth, and he looked back.  Dark Asian eyes met his own, and he screamed and snatched his hand back from where it had been resting on the bare flesh of the woman’s leg.  Beneath those eyes, a delicate nose ended just above a red ruin of a hole that was once a mouth, the top row of teeth suspended in bone and gore.  The bottom half of her jaw was missing and a long tongue lolled from the wound.  Red-tinged drool stained the front of her white blouse, and as his hand scrambled to slam the vehicle in park and grab the door latch, those dead eyes rolled towards him and a sound came burbling from her throat.

 

He didn’t wait to hear what she was saying.  His hand finally found the door latch, and he popped it, and slammed the door open and spilled himself onto the rough dirt of the drive.  His knee screamed in protest and

 

He looked down and saw the wound, a neat hole in his leg where the kneecap had been.  Across the village, Austin had emptied his rifle, and had drawn his sidearm, and was still firing.  Rage filled Brooklyn – that was his knee, a perfectly good fucking knee – and he flipped his rifle at the other man. 

 

Pop-pop.

 

  A look of surprise crossed the other man’s face, and then he crumpled.

 

            Bingo was shouting, and Red was screaming, and then Brooklyn was down, but still moving, crawling across the dirt toward

 

            The house.  It was a dirty white in the dark, looming over lawn and drive like judge and jury, and right now, it looked like Fort Knox to him.  He knew if he could just get inside, it would all be okay, all this would go away, and he could drink and forget, and maybe call in sick tomorrow, and it might even be a good idea to call Dr. Mitchell and get some of those little blue pills that made you happy.

 

From behind him, he could hear the sound of dragging, of something moving slow but deliberate, and he lurched to his feet, ignoring the pain in his knee.  It almost brought tears to his eyes, but at this point he didn’t give a good goddamn.  He shoved a hand into his pocket, and his heart almost stopped.  His keys were in the ignition still.  He looked back, and saw the half-human slobbering mess shambling towards him, and made up his mind.  He wasn’t going back that way.

 

He started towards the house, limping and listing a bit to the right, but the knowledge that he was moving faster than the thing behind him gave him a little boost of speed.  In no time, he was on the porch, holding onto one of the posts that supported the little roof above it.  He tried to stand on tiptoe to reach the small box he hid under the eave, and pain shot through his knee again.  He fought it down, and stretched again, his fingertips first brushing, and then gaining purchase on the box.  He brought it down with a small cry of triumph and snatched the key out.

 

He risked a glance behind him and saw the crawling thing had only made it half the distance he had.  Still shaking, he turned toward the door and managed to get the key in on the third try.  Behind him, that gurgling sound had started again, and he risked one more glance back, to where the thing had been.

 

The lawn was empty.  He stopped trying to open the door and turned to look.  No body, no marks on the grass, and no marks in the drive.  He stood for a minute, listening to the sounds of his own breathing, and his heart thudding against his ribs.  Nothing moved in the light thrown by his headlights.

 

There are no such things as ghosts.

 

            The thought came again, defiant.  He shot back at it.  Yeah, well, fuck you.

 

            One more look around, and he took a deep breath and turned back to the door.  He grabbed the knob, and turned it, pushing the door open.  It opened easy, on quiet hinges, and he stepped over the threshold and flipped the light.  Something small and round and green rolled from down the hall and bounced against his shoe.

 

He bent down and picked it up, a frown forming on his face.  It was soft and had a distinct smell.  He squeezed it, and

 

He had made it to the woman in the dirt, the one with the grenade.  He crawled beside her and looked for it.  It had rolled a little ways and was lying in the dirt, undisturbed by the chaos around it.  He reached over, and picked it up, a strong smell wafting from the soft green skin.  His stomach dropped.

 

            “Oh fuck.”  The words were quiet.

 

Overhead, the light flickered once and went out with a dull ‘tink’.  Something moved in the dark.  Something wet, and cold.

 

There are no such things as ghosts,  he thought, and knew it for a lie.

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