The golden rays coming through the grimy window glimmered and shattered into fractals of light that bounced off the shabby furniture, the dirty couch, and the stained walls as he spun in a circle, arms spread wide with a tilted head. The robe’s threads of brown and blue shined, the fabric catching the light easily because that’s what its faux silk was designed to do. He bought it at the thrift store, digging for the robe through rough jeans, tight T-shirts that were one solid color except for the edges of the sleeves and the collar, and thin dress shirts with patterns made magnetic to eye by their swirling greens spotted with purple outlined in mahogany. He loved the way the robe sank its hooks into his eye, shouting over the frowning fabrics draped over themselves like camo-couched bodies stacked up against each other in the mud. Her hands pressed together as her eyes opened to swallow every detail of the magnificent robe whose luminescent fabric draped across his bare abdomen—his only article of clothing on was a pair of pants far too small for any boy his size to be wearing, regardless of how thin he was. The colors swam, twisting and twirling and tugging at each other, brought to life, gasping and heaving, by the tablets they swallowed that morning with their coffee. Bare feet shuffled around the apartment floor that was desperately in need of sweeping, turning in a slow circle. “Ta da!” he cried when he finally came to a stop, arms splayed to further celebrate this great find. She gave one round clap. “It’s amazing,” she breathed, “it’s so nice.” And she was right. For $1.40, it was the nicest thing either of them owned.
The jungle was humid. Hot, thick air breathed down his neck, rolling off the leaves in wet clumps and attaching themselves to the nearest body. He tried to breathe with it. Slow moving pants clung to his teeth and lips at best. Stuttering whistles popped out like bullets at worst. His eyes wandered, rolling away from his unit to the sweltering corners of the wilderness, sauntering down burnt-out paths made of frazzled dirt that bled orange. They searched for distractions in the mundane. His thoughts scattered in the brush. He counted them. Ten thoughts that guided him from Taps to Taps. One shock of a curling green petal that hung between scared bodies waiting for him to pass. Two boots with huddled mud that was avoiding being scraped off the map. Three bikes moved in tandem into no-man’s land, bells hollering, hooting, howling on their way to school. He saw her four times, in starving women that could not bear to look at him and rowdy boys that martyred themselves and smoke rolled between calloused fingers and dirty jokes. It rained amber five times. There were six unlatched helmets that perched on the skulls of soldiers, the final cradle of a bloody job well done. Seven joints slouched together for safety in a carton. She sent him eight letters, each one written in righteous napalm, signed, sealed, and delivered from a country shredded by politics that seemed so far away. Nine of her sentences asked him to please write her back, tell her he is not angry at her for trying to bring him home with an armband. The barbed wire swayed in the breeze 10 times. He counted again.
The cigarette smoke curled around his fingers, dancing and weaving through his knuckles, caressing his skin before evaporating into thin white tendrils, the living room washed out from gray fog that clung to their hair, the furniture, their clothes. He was sprawled across the sofa, head lolled against the back of the couch and arms draped dramatically; he could be dead if not for the bob of his throat and the sucking of his lips around the cigarette. She was much the same—as lifeless as the chair she occupied—though at least she was sitting upright, dozing with open eyes at nothing but a chipped wall, exposed brick, the most mesmerizing thing in the whole world. They passed most of their days like this, silence for long stretches, no movement but the slow shuffle of their breathing and the weighted drags of nicotine. “Fucking bastards,” he muttered, his words absorbed by the quiet, sinking into the solid air before suffocating between them. He isn’t talking to her nor himself, but at those not present. The person who picked his number from the clear cylinder, one of a sea of unassuming capsules waiting for wrinkled fingers. His mother for birthing him the day she did. The nameless face that printed the digits September 14th on a notecard, declaring him 001 to die. She didn’t respond, simply taking another long huff, letting the smoke fill her lungs and burn her from the inside out, before releasing it slowly. There was nothing to say.
Author’s Note: The Vietnam War was an American foreign conflict that stretched from 1954–1975. A manifestation of Cold War tensions, the United States fought alongside the South Vietnamese government against the Communist North Vietnamese government and its southern Vietnamese allies, the Viet Cong. The U.S. military was fueled by a massive draft; roughly 2.2 million Americans were drafted to fight in Vietnam by both conventional means and a lottery, established in 1969, that attempted to equalize the type of men being called to serve. The war was massively unpopular, spawning a large anti-war movement and the alienation of soldiers domestically. The embarrassment of losing the war and its societal stigma meant that most veterans did not receive societal support when discharged. Significant physical and psychological struggles after the war were exacerbated because of this, leading many veterans to fend for themselves. Almost 250,000 veterans were unable to find jobs when they returned home and a quarter of veterans were arrested within 10 years of their return, most charged for drug-related offenses. These prose pieces attempt to shed light on this overlooked aspect of American history. Each piece highlights a different aspect of the characters’ experiences and growth during the war: the draft in 1969, military service in 1971, and homecoming in 1973.
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