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The young soldier awoke in a bed, uncertain of where he was. It took him a few moments to regain his senses. He looked around and noticed he was dressed in a gown, patterned like a sky-view of a forest and tied together around the back of his neck. A faded-blue curtain was drawn around his bed, with a pale wall against his back. A buzzing fluorescent light dangled from above him, threatening to break at any moment. A small pouch, filled with some translucent liquid, was suspended from the ceiling and hooked into his arm through a tube.
He was reaching to pull the tube out when the curtain was drawn aside. A doctor approached his bedside and closed the curtain behind him. The doctor was dressed entirely in a blue that matched the curtain perfectly. He had properly trimmed brown hair and a pair of glasses that seemed to reflect every bit of light, revealing little. The young soldier held his grip on the tube, but did not pull. The doctor stared at the clipboard in his hand, looked at the young soldier, studied the board again, and made a small check mark with his pen. “I would tell you not to touch the tube,” the doctor said as he clicked the pen and pocketed it, “but it is not helping much anyways.”
“What happened? Why am I here?” the soldier asked.
The doctor was silent, but he watched the young soldier with fascination. As his awareness developed, the young soldier felt something on his chest brushing against his gown. He ripped the gown open. A cotton bandage was wrapped multiple times across his ribcage. The young soldier’s fingers traced the lining of the bandage folds, and he could feel his heart thundering in his chest.
“You were killed,” the doctor uttered without any hints of sadness, “Do you not remember?”
While scouting Route 9 as a part of the early preparations for Operation Pegasus, the young soldier’s squad had come across an out-of-the-way village of friendly South Vietnamese farmers. Following a series of suspicious PAVN offensives, the squad was assigned to the farming village as part of an “outreach operation”. The village’s proximity to Khe Sanh and Route 9 made it valuable for monitoring North Vietnamese activity.
They had visited the village almost daily for the past few weeks. The soldiers had been tasked with bringing them basic provisions like water, and giving them assistance. The villagers were always very tense and suspicious of the soldiers, frightened by stories of American war crimes.
The young soldier would occasionally make unscheduled trips at dusk to bring the villagers surplus water from the Qu?ng Tri River. On one of these visits, he met a young boy, a son of one of the shepherds. He had messy black hair, and always wore a tattered button-down shirt and brown shorts. His skin was tanned from long hours of working, and he was doused in sweat. The young soldier struck up a friendship with the boy. Occasionally, the young soldier would assist the boy with his tedious farming, as he did not seem to have any other aid. The soldier would offer stories of his home in America, and in return the boy would give him samples of his crops. The other soldiers watched him enjoy his integration with the villagers, and some attempted unsuccessfully to form their own relationships.
“I—I’m dead?” the young soldier asked the doctor.
“Mostly,” the doctor said in his monotonous voice, “But you seem intent on living. That prolongs business. Now, if you would come with me, we may hurry this along…”
“Come…come with you? Where?” the young soldier stammered, still groggy.
“Afterlife. Upstairs. Heaven. The hereafter. However you would like to think of it.”
The young soldier gaped at this doctor, who was apparently not, in fact, a doctor, but something else. It took a little while for the young soldier to take in all of this overwhelming information, then, after regaining himself, he asked, “Who are you?”
“I am an angel. Or a valkyrie, if you prefer, or…”
The bed sheets curled in the young soldier’s clenching fists. His heart continued to pound in his bandaged chest. “No…” he whispered, “No, I can’t go with you yet. I have stuff to do. I have to get back home, I have to finish college, I have to see my girlfriend again…”
“You are lucky,” the angel said.
The young soldier looked at him quizzically. “Yeah? How d’you figure?”
“Your companion has remained faithful while you have been here. Three separate instances she has been tempted, each in the same tavern she now goes to. But she has yet to succumb. Instead, she has chosen to wait for you. Therefore, you are lucky.” The angel removed a yellow envelope from his doctor’s coat and mechanically handed it to the young soldier. “This was to arrive for you in the mail tomorrow morning,” the angel said.
The young soldier flipped the envelope over in his hands multiple times, never taking his cautious eyes off of the angel. He slipped his fingers underneath the fold and broke the seal. He looked at the letter concealed inside, written in his girlfriend’s handwriting. He skimmed quickly over the note, switching his narrow focus back and forth between it and the angel. There was nothing interesting in the letter aside from a small photo of his girlfriend and his mother in front of their church that was taped to the bottom.
The young soldier sat reading his girlfriend’s last message by the illumination of his lighter. It had rained that morning, and his squad had been unable to start a fire with the drenched wood. He sat on a log that they had carved into a bench. His outfit had been soaked for hours, but he didn’t mind much.
Aside from the flickering flame of his lighter, the only source of illumination was the crescent moon. It cast a heavenly glow over the trees, giving them a white-blue tint. The air was incredibly humid that night, adding another complaint to the soldiers’ running list. After finishing the message, the young soldier carefully pulled off the picture and pocketed it.
Another soldier came and sat down on the log. He pulled out a box of cigarettes and offered one to the young soldier, who accepted it. The young soldier raised his lighter as a strong wind rolled through the trees. The lighter was blown out and the young soldier accidentally dropped his cigarette. The breeze grew into a gust that began to howl as it whipped through the foliage.
“There’s a storm rolling in,” the other soldier shouted. The young soldier looked to the sky and saw thunderclouds swallow the moon. The other soldier then pointed below the moon. “Does that look like smoke to you?”
The young soldier followed his gaze and saw what he was referring to. Plumes of smoke billowed into the sky like the pillars of an ancient building. They appeared to originate from the farmers’ village. “That’s not good,” the other soldier said.
The young soldier ignored him and grabbed his weapon. The rest of the squad rallied to him, and they hustled through the Vietnamese forest towards the smoke.
“It has been a long day for you,” the angel said, “Why do you insist on making it more agonizing for yourself?”
“I’m not going with you,” the young soldier argued. He looked around for an escape. Leaning over the bedside, the young soldier clutched the edge of the curtain and threw it aside. Beyond the curtain was complete nothingness; there was no floor, no walls. There was no hospital, no people, no color. There was a void of sound, and he could no longer hear his own heart beating. The young soldier shut the curtain and looked back at the angel, who had not even flinched. He stuttered a bit before he could string a sentence together.
“I have to go back. I can go to college. I can get married—”
“No, you cannot.”
“Okay,” the young soldier began to bargain, “I can go back and do something big. I could—”
“There is nothing that you could offer Us that We have not seen before. We have turned down people who said they would cure cancer, or end world hunger, or bring peace to Vietnam. People who actually could have done these things. You cannot do these things. I know you cannot. If We wanted these things to happen, then they would happen.”
“I can’t die here. They drafted me. I didn’t want to come here. They made me. I wanted to live my life.”
The angel shook his head, not saying anything, not moving his eyes. The young soldier lay back and rested his head against the back of his bed. He could not escape, he could not bargain. He could only panic.
The soldiers emerged from the trees into the village. Everything in sight was destroyed or burning. Bushels of harvested crops were broken and their contents lay across the wet and burning ground. The huts were lit ablaze, sending sparks into the sky that seemed to fit in with the bright stars. The animals that had before been stabled were gone, perhaps fled or been stolen. Ashes fluttered down like snowflakes.
The wind continued to plague the forest, and swirled the smoke around the village. The blinding smog enveloped the soldiers, who coughed and choked. The young soldier covered his mouth and nose with the lapel of his wet uniform and, squinting against the airborne debris, left the struggling soldiers behind. He slowly searched the village, looking for the boy’s home. Every step was a calculated foothold against the wind.
The young soldier finally came across the hut he had so frequently visited on peaceful terms. Now it was one of only a few huts that were not up in flames. He approached the door and put his ear to the straw. He could not hear anything over the howling gust. The young soldier stepped backwards and kicked the door in.
Inside, the young soldier spotted the boy sitting against the back wall with a rifle in his hands. Everything else was ruined; the pots were smashed and the decorations were missing. The young soldier went to step out of the smoke when the startled boy’s gun kicked. The bullet punched through the young soldier’s ribcage and, after a moment of complete surprise, the young soldier fell to the floor. His vision blurred as he began to lose consciousness. He heard the boy drop his weapon, and his allies burst through the entrance, and more gunfire. Then he closed his eyes.
“It is a better life, where I am trying to take you,” the angel asserted, “It will be much more enjoyable than this world. There is no pain and no suffering. Eternal rapture is beyond this curtain. There is nothing here so worth staying for. It is logical to come with me.”
The young soldier only stared at the foot of the bed now, not even looking up at the angel. His face was as unmoving as the angel’s. He felt his lips begin to move before he actually spoke, twitching as if they were attempting to form words on their own. Then his voice kicked in.
“No. No, I’m staying here. You can take your afterlife, or your hereafter, or whatever you like, and you can shove it; and tell your…” He did not know how he could finish the sentence.
“Our Father,” the angel corrected.
They remained where they were, staring intently at each other. The angel was so still that he reminded the young soldier of a statue, like the ones he had seen lining the roof of the church in his girlfriend’s photo. Then the angel spoke again. “It appears you are not so fit for paradise. I will return you to your h***, which you seem so determined to commit yourself to, and perhaps, by the time you and I meet again, you will be better prepared.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the soldier asked quietly.
“It means you are condemned to stay here.”
The angel looked down at the clipboard again and crossed something out. Then he turned and drew the curtain aside. As he stepped out into the nothingness beyond the curtain, the young soldier saw the boy from the village, waiting for him. The angel placed a ghostly hand on the boy’s shoulder and shook his head. The two turned to depart as the curtain was closed again.
There was a thunderous noise that shook the young soldier’s bed and caused the lights to shatter. Then there was another, and another. The bag suspended from the ceiling was unhooked and fell to the floor beside the bed.
The curtain was thrown open, revealing a busy hospital room. Nurses were wheeling the injured around seemingly without purpose, while the doctors maneuvered the chaotic room to administer various painkillers to the dying. A doctor, the same doctor that the angel had taken the appearance of, approached the young soldier with a gurney. His glasses no longer seemed to reflect the light. He pulled the tube out of the soldier’s arm and lifted him by the shoulders onto the gurney.
“Hey, doc,” the young soldier said once he was situated on the gurney, “What happened to me, after I got shot?” The ceiling lights attempted to flicker back to life, but another rumble echoed across the hospital and they went out again.
The doctor wheeled the young soldier’s gurney amongst the sick and the dying towards some unknown destination. There was one more booming noise, and the room shook again. Dust descended from the ceiling, and the young soldier could see flames behind one set of doors that they passed. “Uh,” the doctor grunted, quickly checking his dossier, “The bullet got you in the chest. We weren’t sure if we would be able to get it, and you technically died for a few minutes. You’re lucky.”
The young soldier looked up at the doctor. “Yeah? How do you figure?”
“Not many people survive something like that. You’re just a lucky man.”
The young soldier rested his head on the gurney’s small pillow. His skin felt like it was on fire and he realized he was sweating. He suddenly felt he was gripping something tightly. He looked at it and saw that it was the small photograph of his girlfriend and mother standing in front of the church, the one the angel had given him. He put it down and contemplated what he had done.