My name was Private Charles Lee Locod, I enlisted back in ’67 for the U.S. Army. I traded my fiancée for a rifle, my home for a tent, and three years of my life for someone else. Some men kill to live; I was one of those men. Though I don’t think I ever actually killed anyone, at least I did my best not to. Then there are men who live to kill, men like Sergeant Stevens. He was a back woods Carolina man who took pleasure in each gruesome act. The last I saw him was a few days ago when he waved me goodbye as I got on the bird. Good riddance.
After a year of crawling through the jungle dirt I finally earned my way home, I was one of the lucky ones, unlike so many others that fought in that country but didn’t make it back. I’m just so glad to finally be rid of Stevens. That man was a psychotic, gun-ho, and high-speed death machine. He told me when I first met him, “Son, my count is 23 and all I felt was the recoil of my rifle.” Like I said, psychotic.
To his credit, after two years of killing, it finally got to him. Three weeks before I left ‘Nam, he told me he wished he could be more like me. He wished he could undo the things he had done. He wished he could go back in time and stop himself. I told him, “Look Stevens, I know you hate yourself, but there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” If I remember correctly, I told him that right before he ordered me to storm that tunnel. All I really remember from that is a loud bang and watching Stevens pull me out with tears in his eyes.
After I got myself off base, I made my way to the bus depot in Tenino. I was supposed to wait for a ride to take me back home to New York. Why didn’t I just ride a bird to New York? Don’t ask me, ask Uncle Sam.
So I get to the bus depot and find out my ride is running a few hours late, I hadn’t a bite to eat since I left country so I made myself across the street to a small diner. I ordered a big steak with a side of eggs. The waitress took my order and gives me a strange look. “Would you like a different chair?” she asked. I must have been fidgeting a little, it isn’t a great feeling when sharp war mementos are moving around in your pockets.
After I finished my steak and eggs, the waitress comes over with a bottle of coke, she says, “I want you to have this, for your service.” My mind flashed back to ‘Nam when we came across this piss poor village along the Perfume River, a little girl runs up to me, smiles, and hands me a bottle of coke, she says something in her native tongue and walks off. I pull off the cap and am about to take a swig when Stevens slaps the bottle out of my hand. It then falls and breaks against the rocky road.
“Why’d you do that?” I ask. Stevens replies, “Buddy, I’ve seen this trick before, there’s glass shards in that coke. One drink of that and you’ll be bleeding inside.” He then lifts his rifle and aims it at the girl, flips the safety switch, and fires. What happens after is hard to recall, Lieutenant Higgins screams, “Stevens what the hell is wrong with you?” The young girl’s mother rushes to her bloody corpse with tears streaking down her weathered face. Stevens then raises his rifle again and fires at the women.
I snapped back to reality and the waitress is looking at me with a puzzled expression. “No thanks ma’am.” I say in urgency. She then motions me just to take the bottle. “Damn it, I don’t want your fucking coke!” I screamed. She then walks away still looking confused and now a little sad.
After that little incident, I paid for my meal leaving a generous tip for the lady I insulted and headed back to the bus depot. Within a half hour, my bus arrives and I step aboard. The gray haired driver stands upon seeing my olive drab fatigues and greets me with a firm handshake. “Welcome home son.” he says in a thick southern accent. I took my seat at the end of the chrome charter bus. I tossed my duffel bag in the seat in front of me and reclined with my legs across the cushion hoping to catch some sleep.
To my surprise, as soon as I laid down the bus took off. I drew a deep relaxing breath and quickly drifted off to sleep. I had a nightmare. I was back home. Stevens and I are pulling night guard in the tower over-looking the gate. He pulls out a cigarette out and lights it. “That’s a nice lighter, mind if I look?” I ask. He hands it to me and I study it with my flashlight. It was a little hard to read the engraving with the red lens filter, but I was able to make out the phrase, “I fear not the shadows as I venture through the valley of death, for I am the most evil thing there.” I laugh a little and ask, “Fear not the shadows? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Stevens lets out a big plume of smoke and asks, “You read the Bible boy?” I shake my head. “You see, there’s a verse in Psalms that tells believers not to worry as they fear for their lives because God is with them. I changed the words a little to say, ‘Yes, don’t fear the shadows, instead you should fear me for I am the most evil’ if that makes sense.” I look at him quizzically, “Do you really believe that?” He lets out a cloud of smoke and responds, “I like to say it to myself in a fire fight, gives me courage.” From down below the tower I hear Higgins yell in a hushed tone, “Stevens, shut up you crazy idiot! Do you want the entire NVA coming down on us?” Stevens shrugs his shoulders and readjusts himself on the M-60 as if to act like he’s doing something. “Prick” he murmurs. “What did you say Stevens?” Higgins yells back. “The jungle is thick!” Stevens replies. Higgins now more upset then he was before yells, “Stevens I saw what you did to that girl! Don’t think you won’t end up in Leavenworth when I tell the Colonel about it!” Stevens clenches his teeth and mumbles, “Don’t think I won’t kill you Higgins.”
After a half hour of quiet boredom, there was an eruption of gunfire in the tree line. Stevens lays down on them with a continuous bursts of fire. I hunker down and call out targets, “Hit ‘em at 2! Half dozen at 11!” Stevens yells, “RELOAD, RELOAD!” I grab a fresh belt and slam it in the receiver. Off in the distance I hear a rumble and some squeaking.
One of our tanks is rushing to the gate at full speed. From the tree line two long streaks of black smoke stream its way. They hit the tank and explode into a ball of flames. “HOT TUBE, HOT TUBE!” Stevens yells to me. I put on my Asbestos glove and change his 60-barrel. “LINK THEM ALL TOGATHER!” he yells.
I do so with the belted rounds as fast as I can in cover and yell, “WHAT’S HAPPENING?” I then hear what sounded like thousands of people screaming in unison. I look up and see what looked like an entire battalion of Vietnamese running right for us, guns blazing. Stevens patiently waits for me to finish the task and mumbles, “Fear not the shadows.” as he squeezes the trigger and doesn’t let up.
I grab my rifle and start firing a few well-aimed shots. Spent brass soon lined the floor of the tower. Calling out targets became pointless; they were coming from all directions. I change my magazine and I see Steven’s barrel glowing red-hot as his last rounds are shot off. He then grabs me and throws me over the ledge of the tower.
He jumps over and lands on top of me. Before I can understand what’s happening, he picks me up and we’re running away. I take a glance behind me and the attacking Vietnamese are bum rushing the gate. Stevens and I then run into the jungle where we see Higgins running a few yards ahead of us. Stevens then aims his rifle and fires.
I woke up screaming at the top of my lungs and it startled the old bus driver. He swerved a little. “Dear Lord Son! What’s wrong?” he asked. I took a few deep breaths and wiped the cold sweat from my brow, “Just had a nightmare. “I responded. The driver gently parked the bus, walked back to me and asked, “Is there anything I can do son?” I shook my head, “No, unless you can make me forget all the war crimes.”
“You did something you shouldn’t have?”
“No, there was a guy in my platoon, he was a murderer.”
“Why do his crimes upset you?”
“I could have saved a few innocent lives had I just killed him.”
He nodded his head, “I understand why you feel guilty, but I’m going to tell you that you did the right thing by not doing it.” I wiped away a fresh batch of sweat on my head, “Why was it the right thing?” He gently placed a hand on my shoulder and says, “Son, I’ve seen the ugly face of war once, and I can tell you that some people just go crazy when faced with death. You did the right thing, it’s best to give people a chance to face their mistakes and change the wicked road they’re on.”
“That guy was a contained psychopath, war just drew him out. I just hope the people I’ve failed don’t come back to haunt me.”
“Did he ever show any remorse?”
“Yeah, he broke down one day and told me he wished he hadn’t did the things he had done. He told me he wished he could be more like me.”
“If I were you, I would take that as a badge of honor. You went to war, saw the faces of evil, and you didn’t come home a murderer. You came home a man, a man that evil envies.”
I unsuccessfully, tried to hold back the tears from his words, I start crying pathetically. The driver gave me a pat on the shoulder and walked away. He resumed traveling down the heavily wooded road through the Washington darkness.
As usual in the Pacific North West, It started to rain. I stared out the window as the thick rain drops rolled down the window. I flinched when I saw what looked like a person walking on the side of the road. At first I thought it was just some drifter, then I saw it again, and again, and again. Something wasn’t right, why would there be so many people walking down a quiet road in the middle of the night? In the rain?
The bus came up to a lighted intersection and stopped. I gasped when I saw someone running towards to bus door, it looked like a black silhouette, just like a shadow. I was about to yell to the driver, but he started moving again, and the shadow slammed into the side of the bus with a thud. I desperately hoped I could have drawn this up to me just going insane and seeing things, but I know I saw the driver flinch a little when the shadow man made impact. I tucked my head below the window and closed my eyes, which was my biggest mistake. I fell asleep again.
It’s the morning after the attack, we were tasked to go out and take account of casualties. After the gun bunnies on the hill filled the sky with beehive rounds, that is, artillery shells that shoot tiny arrows everywhere, the hoard was either killed or repelled. It was a slaughter to say the least. There was friend and foe alike literally nailed to the trees from the tiny flechett arrows. I kept a rag to my mouth to filter out the scent of smoldering burnt flesh from when the planes came over and ‘napped the entire area.
After some time of collecting ash covered dog tags, I find Stevens knelt over the body of Higgins. To my horror, Higgins was still alive and conscience. Stevens had him pinned to the ground with the muzzle of his rifle prying open Higgins’s mouth. Stevens then stabbed his knife into his mouth. He then picked up a large rock and swung it at the knife handle. I can still hear the crack and Higgins scream as each of his teeth were being pried out. “Dear God Stevens! What the hell are you doing?” Stevens looks at me after popping another tooth loose. “Hey pal, Gold is worth money. And this guy had a lot of fucking cavities.”
I shout in anger, “Does he really have to suffer through that!” Stevens rolls his eyes and grabs the pistol at Higgins’s waist. He points it at his forehead and fires. A spray of blood covers them both. “That’s not what I meant! I ought to kill you right now you disgusting pig!” Stevens shakes his head and goes back to popping out Higgins’ teeth. He stops for a moment as if he suddenly feels disgusted with himself; he picks up the pistol again and throws it at my feet. “Then do It.” he commands.
I pick up the pistol and aim at his head. I start to squeeze the trigger and stop. He’s not even looking at me. It’s at that point I realize he doesn’t care. Either he feels remorse and wishes to die, which I doubted, or he truly believes in his Fear Not the Shadows nonsense.
I then see Stevens shimmy himself away from Higgins’s chest. I thought the horror was over, that was until he stabbed his knife into Higgins’s chest. “What the Hell!” I scream. Stevens looks at me and says, “He swallowed a couple.” He then rips the blade across the chest and the corpse splits open.
Upon awaking, my screaming made the driver swerve violently. The wheels slip on the wet road and the vehicle goes head on into the road ditch. The bus slammed into a tree; I was sent into the air and crashed into the seat in front of me. I lied there on floor for a moment, feeling ashamed for what I caused. I heard the driver call out, “Are you okay?” I sat up and replied, “Yeah, I’ve been hit harder.” The driver nods to me and attempts to back up; the tires turned rapidly and eject mud into the wheel wells.
The driver stops trying to back up and exited the bus. I followed him with my eyes as he examined the situation with a flashlight. I saw a shadow casted before the light. I thought nothing of it at first, and then I realized shadows are casted away from light, not behind it. I started pounding my fist against the window trying to get his attention. He acknowledged me and shakes his head. The shadow remained as he walked back towards the door. I look closely and the shadow is still there in the darkness, staring at me.
I hadn’t noticed, but the driver came up to me as I stared in fear out the window. “I need to get to the next town and call a wrecker. We aren’t getting out of this ditch without one. Damn near sunk two feet into the mud.” I quickly turned my head to him in surprise, “No, please don’t leave me here with those things!”
“What do you mean ‘things’?”
“Those shadow people, didn’t you see them?”
The driver cocked his head and crunched his face in confusion. “I think when we get to New York, you should talk to a shrink. There aren’t anything out there but the rain.”
“Well, please let me go with you!”
“No, it goes against company protocol, you have to stay here.”
“No, stay here and get some sleep, I don’t want you screaming when we get moving again.”
The driver turned his back to me and walked away, I begged him to stay as he exited the buss, though it did not stop him. He did come back after he stopped suddenly in the darkness. I was hoping he’d changed his mind, but he flipped the ignition switch and removed the keys. The buss went dark. As he turned to leave he said, “Son, I really don’t want to leave you here in your mental state, but I have to. The only advice I can give you is this, fear not the shadows.”
I lied down on the seat again shaking in fear. I managed to eventually convince myself that I was going crazy. I mean, yeah, that makes sense. I’ve been to war, of course that’s going to mess up my head. That shadow didn’t attack the driver, so that means it’s all in my head. I said it out loud, “Fear not the shadows.” I gained some courage from the words. The whole situation soon seemed like I was just a man stuck in the woods.
I resumed staring out the window at the falling raindrops. The rain does something to a man, to some, it makes them depressed, others like to listen and watch it as a form of entertainment. For me, it puts pressure on my bladder. I really didn’t want to go outside still slightly fearing what I had convinced myself were hallucinations, but a man has to do what he has to do.
I cautiously exited the vehicle and find a nearby tree. As I relieved myself, I heard a noise. Like a boot sinking into silt. I told myself, “It’s all in your head, you’re just going crazy. Fear not the shadows.” I looked around as I zipped up my trousers. Off in the distance I see something moving in the trees, it looks like a dark group of people. I hear a twig snap; I quickly turned to my right and see a shadow figure running to me. I abandoned all logic and ran back to the bus slamming the door behind me and locked it. I ran to the back seat and crawled underneath it. The sound of the rain hitting the steel rooftop drowned out any sound of footsteps I heard outside. This was the worst part, not knowing if they were still coming for me or if they had gone away. I whispered to myself, “You’re just hallucinating, fear not the shadows.” I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, I would’ve rather dreamed about the war then deal with this reality I was living in.
There was a scratching along the side of the chrome bus. It came and went sporadically for an hour. Then it became a constant, nails on chalkboard like screech that made chills run down my spine. Then there were the sound of thumps, like hands or tree branches pounding against walls.
I buried my knees deep to my chest when the bus started shaking violently from side to side. I had to have been dreaming, I tried pinching my wrist desperately in hopes of awaking. I squeezed harder and harder until at last I realized I wasn’t dreaming as blood started to trickle on my fingers.
There were deafening screams, like the ones I heard the night Stevens and I experienced up in the guard tower. I whispered it to myself over and over again, “Fear not the shadows, fear not the shadows, fear not the shadows.” I began to gather courage from the words, but that courage soon dissipated when I heard the sound of breaking glass and the sound of scampering feet rushing into the vehicle. When I saw the feet coming down the aisle I started screaming, “Fear not the shadows! Fear not the Shadows! Fear not the shadows!”
I opened my eyes and the feet were gone and I took a deep breath. My little chant seemed to help. Then there was this sucking noise, like walking across a hard wood floor with wet feet. Two small, bare, and bloodied feet slowing crept towards me. My heart raced faster with each sticking, staining, limping step. I thought my chest was about to explode when the feet were only inches from my face. I whispered, “Fear not the shadow.” once more, but the phantasm refused to leave my sight.
It fell to its knees and reached a fisted hand beneath the seat. I pushed my back as far as I could against the wall. The blood soaked fist crept right in front of my face and suddenly stopped. The little fingers opened into a palm. The digits flapped back and forth beckoning me to take grasp of it. I whimpered out a “No.” Then I heard a familiar voice say, “If you fear not the shadows, take her hand.”
I did so hesitantly. The little hand gently tugs on my arm and I shuffled myself out from the seat. I stood and looked at the hand I was holding, it was the girl…the girl Stevens murdered! Blood was dripping from the wound in her forehead and down her entire body. She looked at me with sympathy and pulled me forward up the aisle.
When she turned her head away, I looked up and saw the multitude of feet from earlier standing in the seats. They were always there, my chant did nothing. There were mostly faces of bloody Vietnamese soldiers starring back at me. Some of them stoic, some sad, a few bowed their heads in prayer, and a few had looks of anger and utter hate. Their eyes followed me as the little girl and I walked to the front.
I gasped when I saw the face of Higgins looking at me slack jawed, teeth missing. Then to my utmost horror, I saw…ME! I was standing at the front of the bus and most of my face was missing from what looked to be a trauma wound caused by an explosion. The man that looked like me stuck out his arm and pointed to the driver’s seat motioning me to sit there.
I took a breath and asked, “Who are you and these people?” The man mimicked my movement by taking a deep breath and said, “These people are fathers, sons, brothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters. All any of them wanted in their final moments was to be home, home with their families. You are the one that cheated them out of it.”
“You’re got the wrong guy, I never killed anyone!”
“Do you recognize any of them?”
After a look around the bus I looked back at myself and answered, “Yes, a couple, like this girl, the older lady is her mother, and that man without any teeth is Higgins.” The man that looked like me buttoned his lips and asked, “What happened to them?”
“They were all killed by Stevens.”
“Where is Stevens now?” “He’s still in ‘Nam.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, he’s the last person I saw before getting on the bird.”
The man again pointed to the driver’s seat and commanded me to sit. I shakily sat down with my quaking hands at my lap. The man reached up in front of me and tilted the driver’s mirror down. He then asked, “What do you see?”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Pull out your lighter.”
“I don’t have a lighter, I don’t smoke.”
“Yes, you do have a lighter. Check your right front pocket.”
I grabbed at my chest and feel something hard in my chest pocket. I reached in, pulled it out, and paused. “What are you waiting for? Strike it!” he said now yelling. I let out a slight sob and said, “No, I don’t want to.” He screamed, “Fear not the shadows and do it!”
The lighter flipped open with a metallic click, I rolled the flint and the vehicle was slightly filled with light. I gasped when I saw what was being reflected back at me, it was Stevens! “What! How in the hell can this be?” Locod put a hand on my shoulder and said, “A month ago, you told me you envied me, you wished you could change the road you were on and become a better person.”
“NO! I don’t believe it!”
“You tricked yourself into believing you were someone else.”
“No! I am Private Charles Lee Locod!”
“Private Charles Lee Locod was killed when he was ordered by his sergeant to clear a tunnel. He stepped on a trip wire and the grenade it was connected to blow off most of his face.”
“I am Charles Lee Locod, I am from New York and I am going home to my fiancée!”
He violently grasped me by the shoulders and asked in a forced calm, “What does she look like?” I was silent, for the life of me I couldn’t remember what my beloved looked like. After what seemed like an eternity of silence he spoke, “You don’t know do you?” I screamed, “No! I just can’t remember, it’s been a year since I saw her last!”
A fist came crashing into my face, “You can’t remember because you don’t have anything to remember!” he yelled with his bloody mangled face close to mine. I then felt someone reach into my pocket; I looked and saw the little girl pull something out. She opened her palm to reveal a loose set of golden teeth. “Those aren’t mine!” I screeched. “You’re right Stevens, those aren’t yours, you pried them out of Higgins’s mouth!” “I don’t understand any of this! What are all of you trying to do?” The man released his grip from me and took a step back, “You need to remember what you did. You can go through life living the lie that you’re the innocent Charles Lee Locod, or you can face who are you are and change the road you’re on.”
“I am Locod Goddamn it. I’m just going insane!” He looked me square in the eyes and said, “Read what’s engraved in your lighter.” I shook my head, “I don’t want to.”
“Read it now!”
“No, I won’t!”
“Face the truth Stevens!”
A tear ran down my cheek as a dozen hands were placed on my shoulders and back. The little girl reached her arms around my waist and hugged me. In that moment, I finally realized it was me who killed Higgins. It was me who murdered the girl. It was me who sent Locod to his death. I spoke softly aloud, "I fear not the shadows as I venture through the valley of death, for I am the most evil thing there." I didn't even have to read it to know that.