"O’Connell, wake up,” the voice insisted. “It's your shift."
Stifling a groan, Mike blinked several times against the darkness until his eyes adjusted, and then he sat up. A young man was squatting in front of him, leaning on his rifle. The smile on his face was a rare sight; sleep was one of the few things either man got excited about. Mike nudged past the eager rifleman. "Go and get your reward, Thompson," he muttered.
"You don't have to tell me twice." Thompson took Mike's spot in the tent, placing his helmet over his face in an attempt to smother the relentless sounds of the jungle. Mike scooped up his rifle and helmet and crawled over to the foxhole a few yards away from where their platoon was bivouacked. He lowered himself into the ditch and leaned his rifle across his knees and within seconds wished that he was back in the tent.
It was another sweltering night, and Mike resisted the urge to remove his helmet.
Sarge had chastised him enough times already. But Sarge was picking off dream-sheep right now and he was the one keeping vigil over the camp. He tipped his helmet back and mopped sweat from his brow.
A fly buzzed near his neck and he took an absent swipe at it. Mike settled onto his butt and gripped his rifle in both hands and stared out into the dark, trying to drown out the incessant cricketing and chirping and stirring of the jungle by singing an old show tune in his head.
No matter how many times he pulled guard duty, he got the shakes the moment he dropped into the foxhole. No sane man could survive in this dark raucous reality forever, which was probably why there wasn’t a sane man in this country, at least not on their side of it. Mike wished he’d bummed a cigarette from Thompson.
Sarge said they weren’t supposed to smoke in the foxholes, but Mike figured if a Viet Cong could see the tiny flare of a lighter sparking up, then he was close enough to have figured out he wasn’t alone anymore. But the way he saw it, all the secrecy and silence wouldn’t amount to anything if the VC launched an attack from the other side of the river.
If that ever happened, it wouldn't matter if he was smoking a cigarette or lighting signal fires in the middle of their camp. He often imagined the whipcord snap of bullets racing past his ears, tearing through branches and kicking up spurts of dirt where they landed.
He imagined the bright pink flares of mortars being launched over the black river that snaked through the jungle, and the dusty blue smoke rising to the night like souls escaping from the flames. Mike shifted again and scratched angrily at his neck.
A branch cracked off to his right and Mike whipped his body in the direction of the noise, jerking his rifle up but careful not to squeeze the trigger. One shot into the jungle could bring an entire platoon down on their heads. With exhausting patience, he kept his rifle pointed in that direction for an eternity that sprawled itself out in long, nauseating minutes. His eyes were glued to the barrel and he sat and waited for something to appear from the darkness and prayed that it never did. The steady chirrup of the jungle continued its relentless indifferent melody, but nothing emerged.
Mike let a shuddering breath escape his lungs. He leaned his rifle against the edge of the foxhole and dusted off his hands. Goddamn, he wished he’d palmed a cigarette from Thompson. The jungle was getting to him again…the sounds never stopped. And all he had to look forward to was the sad promise of a few hours sleep or the occasional release of a cigarette. He wiped his eyes; sweat had dripped into them.
There was nothing he could about it, surrounded by dirt and bugs and enemies that watched from the shadows of the forest and waited for him to make a wrong move. He rubbed at his neck vigorously. He counted the minutes and tried to recall the show tune that he’d been singing to himself earlier, but couldn’t dredge it from the canals of his memory. He wanted to shove steel wool in his ears.
When three hours had passed he rose from the foxhole, a phoenix from the ashes of another night with his life on the line. He yawned and stretched and made his way back to the tent. Although the jungle was never quiet, the noise seemed to recede to a fading symphony as he left the foxhole behind.
He reached his tent and watched Thompson’s chest rise and fall in the steady cadence of sleep. Mike reached over and grabbed Thompson’s foot and shook it roughly. The young man jerked his head up. “Whuzz…what is it?” he asked.
“Guard duty, round two,” said Mike.
“Oh…yeah, that’s right,” replied Thompson. “Damn, I forgot all about that.”
“I didn’t,” replied Mike. The two men shifted positions once again, and Mike crawled eagerly into the tent and handed Thompson’s rifle to him.
“Do you have a cigarette, Thompson?”
The young man fished through his pocket and brought out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and tossed them to Mike. “Knock yourself out.”
“I will, thanks.” He heard Thompson move across the jungle floor, leaves crunching under his boots. Mike slid a cigarette and lighter out of the pack. He popped the cigarette into his mouth and lit the end and sat back watching the smoke curl to the top of the tent, where it morphed into a cloud and hovered over him.
He sparked the lighter again, watched the tiny flame dance in the darkness, a candle in the night surrounded by smoke. He leaned back and sighed.