Just Before the Dawn by DB Cox
Sometimes at night, after the last light has been doused, I panic. I reach into the dark hoping my fingers will brush against something I can hold onto.
I sleep like a drug addict. I don’t know awake from asleep until the dreams start.
Twilight—an open field—pouring rain. Helicopters overhead searching for a landing zone. I am following a white-haired general in a dress uniform. In the middle of the field there’s a gigantic wooden stage, and on the stage, Jimi Hendrix outlined in a blue spotlight. He’s all alone—bobbing up and down, wrenching the tremolo bar on his Stratocaster almost to the breaking point. He’s plugged into a wall of black amplifiers as tall as the New York City skyline, and he’s pulling impossible sounds out of his guitar: machine guns, whistling rockets, bombs bursting in air— The Star-Spangled Banner from hell. As we move closer to the stage, we come upon a huge lake of brown mud covered with dead bodies. The general wades in and motions for me to follow. I hesitate. He reaches out grabs my arm and yanks me into the muck. The corpses are lying on their backs, arms straight out from their shoulders, feet together, as if they’ve been posed. I try to tell him that I don’t belong here—that I’m too old—that I can’t look at any more of this shit. But he just points to another body, and shouts, Sergeant, take a closer look. We’ve got to get a body count. When I get down on my knees, I notice that all of the dead men are marines with missing faces. Their dog tags are gone. Only the blood-spattered chains remain around their necks. I fall forward, face down in the mire. I cannot breathe.
The quiet in this place has turned my mind to stone. I am no longer a part of the picture. I sit and count the beats of my heart. I am leaking time.
Once I had a family. A silent father. A mother who wrote me long letters—messages concerning forgiveness, love, and God—well meaning lessons in something or other.
The doctors here have been exquisitely thorough. They are able to read my mind. I am convinced that my thoughts appear above my head inside a cartoon balloon.
Sometimes they take me to a private room where I am put on display like a circus animal. The doctors talk about me as if I’m not there. They make all kinds of conjectures concerning my future. I have no part in the show. The fact is I am becoming terrified of the doctors.
Morning in the day room. I am sitting in a lounge chair with my head tilted back. Directly overhead there are two spots where the paint has peeled away—unblinking dark eyes that stare down at me constantly—waiting for me to break—waiting for me to confess—waiting for me to apologize. Several times I’ve caught one of the shrinks standing quietly, looking up into those eyes as if he’s trying to communicate.
Today, I am trying hard to compose tiny sentences in my mind—an architecture of words to fuse splintered thoughts that are less tangible than the wind. The heat in here is hellish. The holy meds float like a slow boat through narrowed veins. The overhead light hurts my eyes. I let my eyelids close.
Tonight the medic handed out pills to help us stay awake. Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.
I kneel down by the riverbank and come back up wearing my muddy, midnight face. The moon glows like a white scarf thrown over a lamp. I thumb the lid of my Zippo and contemplate an enemy no longer worth hating. I look back over the collection of days chipping away at the already-lousy odds. Too many sins to know how long to pray. Hard deliberation as I try to lose myself, give up my body to whatever waits across the river—phantoms shrouded inside the napalm-stripped tree line. Dead branches rattle in a purple breeze. Back lit water moves by pulling at my reflection. Ancient eyes stare back into mine. A shiver tracks my spine—cold water over bones.
In the room where I sleep there’s a strange mark just above the baseboard. It runs all the way across the wall and disappears into the corner. I wonder how it got there. It looks like a tripwire leading to a Claymore.
When I’m in this room, I watch the wire very closely. One time, just before sundown, I saw it move—just a little. When I looked along the baseboard I spied a black-haired young boy on his knees behind the wire. He glanced in both directions then reached out and gave the line a light tug as if he were testing it. Then he crawled back into the triple-canopy shade—out of sight. Viet Cong in the perimeter.
I have now reached the point where I can only drag myself about here and there. I scarcely eat. My strength is failing me. My eyes have become so hazy that I am bruised from bumping into furniture and metal support beams that are scattered across the floor of the ward.
The doctor who takes care of me is listening to my heart. He shakes his head and says that he has never heard such murmuring and whistling from inside a human chest. He has no idea how I’m still alive. The word alive tumbles around inside my brain, striking nothing.
Slow movement forward through another day. I measure each evening by the light left in the room. When I lie down at night, I no longer have a reason, or a desire, to wake in the morning.
It’s a long time before the dawn. And when an old man dreams, he is forever nineteen—stranded in the savage days of his youth…
Twenty-six bodies are strung from the perimeter wire to the tree line. A few are so close together that they seem to be holding each other. I am mopping up. One of the bodies is separate from the rest—half in and half out of the bush—inches from a clean getaway. He is still alive. I am riding the remains of an adrenaline high—my brain still running like a wild dog. I try, one more time, to stamp some meaning on this endless game of a thousand cuts. The strategy from upstairs is all about the score—body count. The wounded soldier lying at my feet looks up at me and blinks the sweat from his dark eyes. Now his eyes are mine and my eyes are his—the same empty stare of forty years and a thousand yards of un-crossable ground. The barrel of my rifle is only inches from his skinny chest. He opens his mouth as if to speak. I pull the trigger. The explosion flushes a beautiful bird skyward.