North Vietnam, 1963
“Jackson Lee Irving, Corporal, 2129978.”
How many times had he said that line? He had lost count. If he were to guess, it would number in the hundreds, thousands maybe. At this point, the words had been stripped of any and all meaning other than the idea that those words identified this weak, dirty, starving human shell as himself.
He had lost nearly every sense of his real self by now.
Every morning, when he was dragged from his cell–no, his own personal hole in the ground–he forced himself to remember the little things about himself.
Where home is.
Who his family is.
What his favorite ice cream flavor is.
How his favorite book goes.
Little things like this kept him from going insane, or worse, losing his will to live, which was incredibly easy to do in this hellhole. Men were broken everyday, reduced to nothing more than shivering hunks of withering flesh with thousand-mile stares.
His routine had been the same ever since he had arrived here at this jungle prison: Wake up. Be questioned. Be tortured upon refusal to reveal any information other than his name, rank, and serial number. Perhaps be given some food at some point, usually later in the day. More torture. Return to his cell to nurse his wounds and try to sleep. Repeat.
This cycle had become his ordinary routine. A sort of twisted and demented normal, but a normal nonetheless.
He knew exactly where he was, despite never actually having seen the room. He had been blindfolded just like normal. Always blindfolded. If he went anywhere outside of his cell–hole–then he was blindfolded. If he thought about it, he would have to really think to remember what sunlight looked like, or what it felt like on his skin. That didn’t do him any good right now, so he concentrated on the damp soil below his bare feet and the musty and earthy smell of the room. This told him that the floor was dirt. He knew where the walls were as well, he had been thrown against them more times than he could count. The fading smell of sweat, blood, and human waste told him that he was back in his old torture cell. Few places here didn’t hold onto this trio of smells that painted a horrific picture of the lows of humanity, but this room always managed to hold on to a stronger concentration of them, which made it so easy for Jackson to pinpoint and recognize.
He listened to two of his captors as they paced in front of where he stood waiting patiently just inside of the threshold of the room. They took turns speaking in rushed Vietnamese, while the third, which spoke from a few feet away across the room, would translate everything said into English. They were ordering him to give a statement about how well the Vietnamese were treating him, and also to condemn America for the war. All lies for propaganda, to sell the war.
It was absolutely ridiculous, but yet, absolutely tempting. A statement like this could serve as a temporary safe haven and get him out of this room, maybe into a better part of the compound.
No, it was impossible. Insanity. How could he betray his country like this, and for what? A couple of day’s respite only to return to normal a few days later?
Every time the statement was mentioned, Jackson shook his head, and every time he did, his captors steadily grew more irate.
“You will say the statement,” they screamed. “You will condemn America! Say the statement!”
Again, Jackson only shook his head. He knew what he was getting himself into, but there was no way that he was going to allow himself to give in to them. Maybe eventually he would, when the weeks and months weighed too heavily on him and became too much to bear, but that day was not today.
The threats began to pick up and become more severe. They always did. He was used to it by now.
This time, they were threatening him with something new, slender bamboo wedges. He had heard other prisoners whisper about this torture through the walls when no guards were around, and he knew that he was about to join their ranks thanks to his refusals.
His hands tied tight enough behind his back to make his hands numb and his wrists bleed, he tried to wiggle his fingers to get some feeling back. He also wanted to remember how his fingers felt before they were skewered and mangled beyond recognition.
The guards were screaming at the top of their lungs. The statement was long forgotten, just as the questions that they asked every single day were tossed to the wayside after they had outlived their usefulness. The guards only cared about questions for a few minutes before they turned their attentions to what really concerned them. Jackson had a sneaking suspicion that they actually enjoyed torturing helpless prisoners.
Two of the guards were on either side of him now, merely an inch away from his ears, shrieking in frenzied Vietnamese. The third guard had moved closer from where he was originally and now stood directly in front of his face. His breath reeked of rice, booze, and rotting teeth.
Jackson tuned all of this out. He was used to it by now. It was time for him to escape into the far recesses of his mind.
Amid the clashing voices, he drove his thoughts back, back, back to a simpler time, a better time, to a place thousands of miles away from where his skeleton stood rooted in the Vietnamese dirt.
He flung his mind, with all of the willpower that he possessed, across the Pacific ocean and into the one bedroom home that he shared with his new bride, Ashley.
His body was shoved down hard to his knees, knocked over onto his side, and brutally kicked with steel toed boots everywhere it was possible. Face, ribs, stomach, back, legs. His breath was snatched out of his lungs by the force of the kicks, and he struggled to breathe. His face was shoved into the dirt and held there. His nose was smashed into the ground, and dirt filled his mouth. He couldn’t draw in a breath without sucking down a lungful of earth as well.
Bored with this, his captors dragged him forward painfully by his arms, which were still bound fast behind his back. His arms rotated further backward than they should as the guards pulled and lifted. His shoulders protested by sending shockwaves of pain through his arms and back, but he didn’t let out even a grunt. He was used to it by now.
A knife slit the rope that bound his hands and they were wrenched forward and slammed onto a splintery wooden table, where they were bound against the wood again, this time tighter. Jackson wasn’t sure how that was possible, but his nerves were screaming to him that as a matter of fact, it was indeed very possible.
His fists were pried open and his fingers spread as far apart from each other as they would go. A boot slammed down onto his right hand with enough force to break it. The tread on the sole of the boot ground thick splinters deep into the palm of his hand. A whimper slipped from Jackson’s lips. His stomach flipped around in his gut nervously like a fish on a dock. He gritted his teeth and steeled his brain for the coming onslaught of pain that would set his nerves on fire.
He poured every drop of his mental fortitude into envisioning home. If he focused hard enough, then he could pull himself far enough away from the waves of pain and the torture to make it almost bearable. He had found that once he retreated far enough into the corners of his mind he could in some meager fashion escape the pain, Vietnam, the whole war. Watching it all melt away like snow was the only beautiful thing in this place, and it was only for him.
A second later he could see that tiny white house with the thinly papered walls, inhale the smell of soap and his wife’s favorite perfume, and he could just remember how when the sheets were brought in from the line outside they were warm and smelled like sunshine. Ashley’s melodic voice drifted into his ear, but he was no longer in a jungle prison camp in Vietnam. He was standing in his kitchen listening to Ashley call to him through the kitchen window from the backyard. Some kind of bird that he couldn’t quite name was singing down the street. A lumbering bee buzzed lazily in the tulip bed below the windowsill.
“Jack! I need your help with something, could you come outside for a minute?”
Jack took one more bite of his sandwich, a thick and juicy pastrami heaping with Swiss, sauerkraut, pickles, and Russian dressing, all on rye bread. He wiped the pickle juice from his chin and licked his finger as he set the half-eaten sandwich down on a plate. His mouth was so full he could hardly chew. “Coming!” he tried to say, but it came out more along the lines of, “Corrin!”
He strode through the kitchen and down the hall as he chewed on the meaty sandwich in his cheeks, then out the screen door and into the backyard. The creaking of the door was announcement enough for Ashley, who stood and turned to face him when the sound reached her ears. She had been bent low over a back corner of the rainbow of flowers that had, after only a few months, engulfed roughly half of the small backyard. This sea of color was her pride and joy, and if she was anywhere at all during the day, she was tending to what she laughingly dubbed as her ‘flower children’.
Jack jumped down the three steps from the screen door down to the freshly cut grass of the backyard in one jovial leap before he glanced up and caught sight of his wife. She was wearing a plain white t-shirt, faded jeans smudged with dirt on the knees, and her gardening gloves. Her red-painted toenails dug absentmindedly into the dark soil. Her strawberry hair was swept up in a knot on top of her head with little pieces sticking out in all directions. He could glimpse the freckles that peppered the bridge of her nose and flushed cheeks. He always fancied that it looked as if someone had lovingly sprinkled cinnamon sugar onto her face instead of freckles. He loved seeing her without makeup on, because he adored trying to count every one of those freckles so much. Ashley would claim that she hated them, but always would collapse into a fit of giggles whenever he tried to count them, planting a kiss on each one as he went with a boyish grin.
Standing there in the myriad of colors, Jack swore that he had never seen her so beautiful.
This woman was his bride, his best friend, the woman that he would spend the rest of his days on this earth with.
Jack whistled low and long. “Did I ever luck out,” he said, half to himself and half to no one.
“What was that? Did you say something?” Ashley called back at him from across the yard. A confused look on her face left Jack grinning as widely as his mouth would allow. “You’re going to have to come closer, I can’t hear you.”
Jack laughed to himself as he jogged leisurely across the lawn. He came up behind Ashley and wrapped his burly arms around her slender waist, then planted a kiss on her ear. “I said, ‘Did I ever luck out’, because I was just thinking about the fact that somehow I managed to convince the most incredible woman on the face of the planet to marry me, and she said yes.”
He could practically hear her smile, but she swatted at his head playfully with a glove to downplay her suddenly much-redder cheeks. “Alright casanova, could you do me a favor?”
Jack bent his head down and kissed the skin of her shoulder gently, then rested his chin on top of the spot. “Name it.”
Ashley gestured with a nod to a bare patch in the center of a ring of crimson poppies. “What do you think of putting a birdbath there? Or maybe a feeder or something? You like birds, right?”
Jack nodded and glanced at the location in question. “Yeah, birds are nice. Especially when they crap on my windshield, then they’re just peachy.”
“Oh, you’re no fun!” Ashley whined.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Jack laughed, “Get the feeder. Or the bath. Heck, get both and then you’ll have twice the birds to watch and I’ll have twice the crap to clean.” The poisonous look Ashley shot back at him made him laugh even harder, but he kissed her on her cinnamon-dusted nose three times to make her smile again. “I’ll pick them up from the hardware store tomorrow.”
She kissed Jack on the cheek and smiled. “Thanks.”
Jack squeezed her once before he let her go and turned to head back into the house. “Anything for my Ash,” he called over his shoulder. “Absolutely anything!”
“Hey, where are you going?” Ashley exclaimed.
Jack turned to face her but kept walking backwards toward the house. “I’m getting some lunch, I’m starving. Want anything?”
“No, I’m fine–Wait a second, didn’t you just eat?”
Jack paused for a moment to think, then frowned. “Huh. Yeah, I guess I did.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Still hungry though. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I was this hungry. Oh well, nothing a burger can’t fix.” He crossed the last few feet to reach the steps that led into the house.
Jack turned to his wife with a smile. “Yeah?”
“I love you,” she cooed, “I love you more than anything in the world.”
Jack’s heart swelled inside of his chest, and he beamed. “I love you too, Ash. I love you too.”
Jackson’s words of love twisted into screams. He couldn’t beat reality back for a second longer, and the stink of sweat, blood, and human waste flooded his nostrils and chased away the airy scent of the flowers that flooded his backyard. Come to think of it, what he was smelling was himself more than anything. He had been in this hellhole for nearly ten months now, and not once had he been able to wash away the raw evidences of humanity from his skin.
He was imprisoned in Hell, and he hadn’t the faintest idea how much longer he would be.
The words tumbled out of his quivering lips on their own accord.“Jackson Lee Irving, Corporal, 2129978…”