Inglam, gone and dead.
Ketcher, gone and dead.
Smith, gone and dead.
Kasotov is missing, presumed dead.
Newton is missing, presumed dead.
Bruce “Brutus” Batholemew, taken prisoner of war. He is likely dead.
I am missing. Presumed dead.
Not dead. But lost. Very lost.
What noises that are left to be heard with my one good ear -- my left having been nearly blasted entirely away by shrapnel -- are often garbled through blasted drums and broken thoughts, my mind and my movements moving ever so swiftly against the currents of things that should be done.
Shelter, and fire, and water. I’ll need food, but that can wait.
I scale a tree and see more trees; some of them are aflame, nepalm’s kiss, and others are barren of leaves, abundant in ash, having already simmered in the warzone.
Behind me I see a cleared area with emptied out tents.
No, that isn’t true. They’re filled with the dead.
But that was their fault. Throwing up such a large fire in such a horribly concealed area, not even bothering to post guards. They deserved to be raided.
My left hand merged tightly with the tree, I reach with my right into my pocket, remove a small talisman taken from the camp. It’s a small medallion engraved with a language I can’t read or speak. I took it off a man down in the camp. I don’t know if I was the one that killed him or not, but I took the talisman anyway.
I hold it up to the light. A bear clutching a flag.
The enemy’s flag.
The enemy I might have killed, might not.
The man might have earned this, might not.
We aren’t the only pillagers in this jungle.
We’re only one of many.
E pluribus unum.
I put the talisman back into my pocket and put myself back on the ground, filthy and scratched.
I head in the direction where last we were ordered to direct ourselves, disappointed that nothing more than apocalypse could have been seen from above the treeline.
Not more than a three-night passage deeper into the jungle and still I have not found any redeemable sight of my team. Enemy camps are evermore populous, and I fear the worst.
I do what I can to stop my heart from such a high pitter-patter that my enemies, as I slink by their fires at night, might hear me in the drunken darkness. With each dawn the fires are put out, and the enemies move further and further into mine own country’s territory.
I keep in front of them in the hopes of finding a group to retaliate with, but none come.
It is only enemies, and more enemies, and behind them, and in front of them, and next to them, I see enemies all around.
I find myself surprised by their presence; enemies in the trees, hanging most nimbly by the tips of their fingers on the weakest branches, searching for a displaced American soldier in the green; enemies in the dirt, or under large tree roots, waiting to grasp you about the ankle as you walk by, thinking you’re safe; I see them, too, in the skies at night, pulling the stars right down like searchlights and hunting me.
It must be the talisman that they seek. It must be.
They must know I have it. They want it.
But it is my talisman, and I may or may not have earned it with mine own gun.
As soon as daylight touches the jungle floor, I can hear the snakes and frogs and mosquitoes scampering back to the enemy camps to tell them where I’ve gone and what I’ve done. To the enemies, they whisper which of their amphibious comrades I’ve scrounged up from the puddles and eaten in order not to starve, and what insectoid others I’ve smacked to death on my arms and legs and neck as they try to pump me full of poison, trying at all times to slow me down so that the enemy may grasp me and choke me and kill me dead, and find my brothers that I can no longer keep and kill them dead, too.
They may pursue me as they please. I will persist, and will not fall by their hand, by their pawns, or by their greed for the talisman that is mine, which belongs to me, which I earned with mine own gun, and nobody else’s, and which I will keep forever and evermore until I die, where it will be incinerated with me, and buried in my grave.
I’ve been rooted in these trees for more days than I can count. The vegetation and the pawns of the enemy will not satisfy any longer. The trees, too, whisper to the winds, and carry their message to the men who seek me out. I tear off their branches and burn them and they scream at me, but I ignore them. I am not afraid of trees.
I am afraid of the eyes.
The eyes which seem to corner me at every inch of my peripheral vision, promising to finally come for me, but which do not. They taunt me, plaguing me with my isolation, laughing. They squint and I can see them lighting cigarettes in the dark.
They care less and less about hiding. They have found me.
In the dawn I will flee, not stopping until the jungle does.
A day later and I find myself on a beach, stripped naked of energy, and sanity. The enemies are too afraid of the sun to abandon their jungle home, but they watch and wait for it to stumble over the horizon, and doze.
As I near the water I find a shell; a small, glittering golden one.
I put it up to my ears, and I listen.
I drop the shell, and fish for my talisman.
I hold it to the light, and the enemies chitter among themselves from behind.
They watch as I enter the water to thigh’s height.
I step further in, and their growls clear the dimming air before them. Their ten-inch claws paw the sand out of the jungle’s shade.
I swim, and set free.
And the enemies seek their talisman.
A Shadow’s Promise.
A conglomeration of disparaged shadows slid like dribbling mercury out of the closet, and Benny was awake.
The moon had its back turned on the world tonight, and from it no light came. The stars, too, had taken it upon themselves to find less bitter darknesses to shine themselves at.
Benny, that poor off little blind boy, could not bear witness to the shadows which rose so coldly from themselves. But those shadows rose anyway, and they slunk toward him, and he could hear them chittering among themselves as they did so, that poor little blind boy, whispering of children gone lost and never found, and of tears and platonic little boys and girls getting deader and deader as their cries fled their mouths but were just a hair too dull to cut into the simple dark of it all and—
And now their hands were on his shoulders, and he flailed, and wailing drove his fists and feet and voice into the air all round himself, until his fear had coated the bed and the walls and the floor and the pillows that he spent so many warmer nights crying into when those portly shadow fragments pushed themselves into his eyes, and made his poor little lightless world that much darker, and sucked away at sanity.
Benny coiled and recoiled his body until its shape began to compress into itself, pushing out the marrow and calcium of his bones into his bloodstream, where they clogged themselves and curdled his heart. The grip and the bite and the sunkenness of the shadows were driven into him, and not an ounce of his cry could have left the room that night when they finally came, all after so many nights of cadaver-cold death promises that neither Mommy nor Daddy could wish away with their own assurances that things were alright, that even though the news was full of bad boys and crueler men, none would come for him, no sir, not this blind little Benny.
But it did not take bad men to make shadows.
And shadows . . . shadows do not take long at all to fulfill their promises.