3 Moments

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

3 important, abrupt moments in a particular man's life, from teenager to adult. All of which revolve around a single woman.

~~3 moments 

I'm going away when I’m older. I’m going to climb back up that mountain, and this time I’m not going to just see the view. I’m going to live it…

I stared at the computer screen, hardly able to believe my eyes. My mouth was wide agape as I stared at the picture. The picture which showed three girls, all smiling at the camera as they stood in the courtyard of their school, the dusky sun setting judging by the lighting of the photo. They’re school uniforms were rumpled, and their neckties hung loosely around their necks. I couldn’t avert my gaze. I scanned all three of them, before my eyes settled on the girl at the left side of the picture. My throat felt constricted, my heart was hammering and hands were on fire. And it wasn’t even 10pm yet.

That girl. Her hair was a wavy brown, falling on both sides of her face like long, flowing rivers. A strand crossed her eyes, and her eyes, oh her eyes…They were dark brown, as were mine, and had a happy glint in them as she smiled radiantly. Her skin was pale, and the contrast between it and the evening sun made it all the more attractive. My mind was going into overdrive, fixating on every minor detail, and then adding it all up. Like a jigsaw puzzle. My Facebook page was at a standstill as I continued my staring. Messages came and went by, as did notifications. None of it mattered.

This girl. I knew her. I still do, I suppose. I spoke to this very beautiful girl 6 months ago, face to face (I feel obliged to say that), in Vietnam. I had been there on a school trip, and had loved every moment of it. The prawns, the air, the smoke, the grass and the cows, Halong Bay and the floating villages. Nothing failed to astound me, whether it be a POW prison or the traffic there, which suffice to say, was a certified deathtrap. I saw all sorts of people, from simple fisherman to witty tour guides to a street-side prostitute (and was, ashamedly, aroused and disgusted by her). The people of any country define the nation as it is, and Vietnam was no different. The citizens were kind and polite and ultra-nationalist. But the females there, they were the cherry of the ice cake. They stole my heart, so where throbbed an organ was a hole ready to be filled by compassion.

They always appeared to be delicate, fragile beings. That was my impression. Perhaps a skewered one, considering that I was a foreigner there, but it was how I saw them. We went to several schools, and at every one we delighted in the pleasantries of male-to-female exchange. This girl, I felt, was special. I met her at the third school I had the pleasure of visiting. The first thing I noticed about that school was that the females outnumbered the males by a 3:1 ratio, which to 32 testosterone filled 15 year old boys, was like a feast waiting to be devoured. Only later did I find out that this was done on purpose, that the host school had deliberately released most of their girls to greet us, figuring that this would make us more outgoing and confident. We were seated in a hall, and on either side of us there would be a girl. By chance (or fate, or destiny or by God) I sat next to this girl. Her name was Minh Hanh. I engaged in deep conversation with her, and the day proceeded by. Chatting, flirting and the works ensued as we males scrambled to get phone numbers and Facebook accounts. I was approached by so many of them, each wishing for a chance to talk to an alien from the south. I cannot describe the satisfaction, the feeling of completeness during that day. I talked to her for perhaps 30 minutes, but after that thirty had passed I spent the next 1410 thinking of her.
She left, she went upstairs, beyond my reach. Back to her classroom, where I was forbidden from approaching. I remember her going up, and me staring dumbfounded. Trying to find the courage to ask for her number. I never found out what it was, and only on Facebook do I still know her.

Cruel, is it not? To engage in flirtatious desires one day, then spend the rest pining for a girl on the internet. But I digress. This girl, I hadn’t thought of her for so long. So many months had gone by, and yet now when I see this picture I feel…I feel lost. I’m like a villager in a hidden valley. That trip, that was me climbing the mountains and finding that not only was there another village on the other side, but entire cities and towns. It opened my eyes in so many ways. And yet, when the plane touched off from the airport in Vietnam, I took one last look at those cities, those towns and settlements, before descending the mountain and back to my village. Back to isolation.

The screen has faded. Seeing that photo, I cannot do anything but to resolve and aspire. To resolve to leave this 45 kilometers of dirt, to find something better. Today, I’m going to write down on this paper, that I’m going away when I’m older. I’m going to climb back up that mountain, and this time I’m not going to just see the view. I’m going to live it.

7 years later…

I closed the book. The diary that contained what now seems like the wishful thinking of a 15 year old boy, written in a very fanciful manner. I take a long, final gaze at it. A black, leather-bound cover stares back. Carefully, I place the book in my back pocket. The sound of rotors grating brings me back to reality.

“How long till touch down?” I ask, wary of my queasy stomach.

“2 minutes to lovely Hanoi. Well, the rubble that we call Hanoi. Jesus, man, you ain’t never been in a chopper before?”
To that, I could only grimace. I love helicopters, but my nerves are really killing me. I look around the helicopter bay, trying to take my mind off my stomach. To my right, the squad rookie, Charlie, is fast asleep. He looks like an angel, his face completely innocent. He’s only been fighting for 3-4 months, so I guess it’s no surprise. Opposite me sat Noel, reading letters from back home. His eyes were scrunched up in concentration, as if he was memorizing every word from his mother. To his right sitting at the helm of the door gun, sat Zhao, or Corporal Zhao as he preferred. His eyes were droopy, but he held onto the chain gun like it was a newborn babe. All four of us formed Kilo-7, of the 1st platoon of the 362nd battalion within the 15th ‘Death’s Head’ division.

Bombed-out Hanoi was not a pretty sight. Shell holes pockmarked its landscape, corrugated iron wiring was twisted all over the area and many buildings had collapsed. There was an ever-present haze, a smog that seem to settle on the city, giving it a brown and grainy look. It looked like many other cities around the world, and a mirror image of what my hometown could look like. The ground became ever-closer as the helicopter began its descent. Zhao tensed, as did all of us. The moment we touched boots on the ground we would be in a danger zone, where bombing raids and artillery attacks were a commonality. After all, the frontline was only 72 kilometers away, and it was a stark reminder of what awaited for us.

The helicopter landed roughly, and the bay doors creaked as they slid open. I stepped out gingerly. I took a deep breath of the polluted air. Minh Hanh could be here, in the remnants of this city. Last I knew she was part of the relief effort in the outskirts of the city, where they supplied needy troops with the equipment they needed. I looked around at the rubble, and realized the magnitude of the challenge of fighting. I spun around and thanked the pilot for the ride.

She cracked a grin, and promptly said ‘Welcome to Vietnam’. After which I fell to my knees and heaved my guts out.

Dear Carol,
My dear friend, it’s been four days since I’ve arrived here. I’m writing this to you from a hastily dug foxhole in the undulating hills near the Red River. I can’t say much, army sensors and all, but suffice it to say that we’ve had many… engagements with the feds. They’re sneaky buggers. The weather here is cold and dry, rather pleasant in comparison to the hot and humid of home. I saw your previous letter, and I hope Michael is on his way to recovery.

I haven’t found her, Carol, and it’s scaring me. I know it’s been only four days, but I thought I…well I thought I would have found her by now. Sitting here, near the heart of the relief effort, I search. I’m running on fumes buddy, and if it don’t happen soon, I fear it might not be meant to be and all that. I remember her face and name crystal clear, but they don’t have a registry here.  The past conversations between me and Minh have kept me going, that she may still be alive and well. I hope I’ll have answers the next time I write.
Keep safe,
Rishan

I quietly gave the letter to the company runner, on his weekly run across the company to deliver and receive letters. He took it and sped off. The words of what I had written weighed heavily on my mind. They were all true. My goal here was to find this girl. Beyond that I didn’t care. The war still rages on. The 3 guys lying on stretchers a few tents away can testify to that. Tomorrow I continue my search. A DP (displaced person) may have a lead on her whereabouts.

Why? Why do I frantically search for a single woman, in the midst of so much chaos, where the principal goal is to live another day? Because this war has to have meaning. It can’t be all killing, all death and destruction. I can’t just fight for survival, if not I’ll end up like Rajesh. Unfeeling, cold and emotionless, a machine. No love, no humanity, no life. You hold onto the things you love, the people you lay your life down for. The problem is, I’m awfully short of such people. My darling sister, my cousins all gone. My parents, emotional wrecks. You’re comrades don’t count, because they go through the same things as you. So I hope…I hope this woman can turn my life around.

Dear Carol,

It’s been awhile, yes? Nearly 2 weeks have passed since I last received your letter. I’m sitting in a hut, 2 kilometers from the barn house I’m bunkered at, taking a dump. The sporadic fighting is getting more intense every day we go north. Soon we’ll reach the frontline. But you needn’t worry about that. The thing you need to know, the only possible reason for reading this letter is this: I found her .
I’ve found Minh. After days of searching, I found her unloading a truck stocked with medical supplies in a nearby village. I cannot tell you how I felt Carol…Elated? Nervous? Surprised? I suppose all at the same time. I walked up to her, heart in mouth, and when she spun around after I nudged her in the back, I tell you Carol she took my breath away. She’s still very beautiful. Her skin is still pale, and her hair is still long. It took over a minute for her to recognize me, but she did eventually. I spent hours talking to her. And now days. Carol, I think I’ve connected with her.
Keep safe,

Rishan

“We’re leaving. In 2 days we’re flying home.” Zhao relayed the news, his calm demeanor not breaking. I, on the other hand, was stunned. We had been in North Vietnam for 34 days, which was a long time for any assignment. Assignments lasted anything between a week and 40 days. Anything more and we would have to buckle down for a long-haul campaign, which could last for year. But still, I thought I would have more time.

“2 days?” I spluttered.

“Yeah…2 days. Scuttlebutt says we’re going to the Solomons or Taiwan next. But we’re pulling out, and 37th battalion’s coming in. Ah come on Rish, this is the frontline. We’ll be back here soon enough. We always have been.”

He was right, but I realized the larger implications. I had 48 hours to broker a future with Minh. That was a scary thought. We had connected very well over the last month, talking to each other regularly. But was that enough?

Charlie came running in, and nearly knocked the hut’s door off its hinges. He was panting, and paused to catch his breath.
“Echo-7’s been hit. We’re deploying. Commander needs us and Alpha-2 to plug in the gap.”

I leaped off the ground, and grabbed my assault rifle off the ground. Minh could wait.
“Grab your shit and let’s roll!”

~
“So… what’d ya think?” I ask tentatively.

“Think about what?” came the reply.

“I-want-you-to-come-back-with-me-to-Singapore.” Funny what nerves can do to you. After all, it is a big moment. My heart hammers against my ribcage, and my arms shake in anticipation. What if it’s a no? I can scarcely contemplate the possibility.
“You’re asking me to come back with you? To Singapore?” Her poker face gives nothing away. If there was any way to look uninterested, she was nailing it. A hint of desperation entered my voice.

“Singapore is the heart of the relief effort. C’mon, the HQ is in Greater Singapore itself...so why not? It’s safer, and more removed from the conflict. Me and 600,000 other soldiers have made sure of that.”

Her face remains unchanged, but her eyes pierce my mind. She’s unsatisfied with my response, for sure.
“That’s not the real reason, is it? If not you’d ask every other volunteer to go to Singapore,” she takes a step closer and with a leery grin, says “Why me?”

I gulp. I’m lost for words. I stutter slightly, then decide to simply lay all before her and attempt to salvage some of my dignity.
“Why you? Because you’re special. You really are, Minh. You’re nice, pretty and smart. You make me feel like a better man, like I’m not just some guy who kills for a living. And…and I guess I want to be with you, both here and home,” I take a step closer, till our bodies are but a breadth apart. I gently take her hands in mine, and then I go for the closer. “I need you. Every year I lose someone close, and it kills me to see others die and somehow, I still live. This war, we fight it because we have something to hold onto, something to give our lives for. I want that something to be you.”

The world seems to freeze around me. All I see is her face, her delicate features in the low morning sun. Her eyes, I can stare into them for hours. Her face, devoid of any expression, still espouses warmth and care. The long hair that cascades down her back and front touch her wrists. Her breasts are heaving, as if I’m about to pop the question. Perhaps this does warrant that sort of seriousness. After all, I’m asking her to take a massive leap of faith, to jump into the unknown. But I’m asking her to do it with me.

Her hands caress mine. Then she reaches up and strokes my cheek, feeling the 3 week old stubble of my chin under her soft fingers. My eyes fall on her blood-red lips. I await the word of rejection. It seems almost a certainty. Yet we just stand there, no words spoken. My hands are at her hips now, but no thoughts of lust cross my mind. I’m too steeped in anticipation to care. Minh reaches up and puts her face next to mine, before whispering into my right ear.

“Yes.”

 4 years later

Kneeling on my knees, I stare ahead, my face emotionless. My squadmates kneel beside me, and 8 guards surround us. They seem untouched by the cold. But then again this is like their home, and the winter must be trivial to them. They seem to be awaiting a signal, these gun-toting brutes. My uniform sticks to my skin, and I can see my own breath as I exhale with deliberation. Occupied Germany is a nightmare.

An officer walks by, his sword swaying jauntily at his side. He has a haggard look on his face, as if he has done this several times before. I bet he has. He barks an order at one of the soldiers, before striding out of the holding room. The soldier turns to the other seven, nods and suddenly I’m being dragged across the room along with my three companions. I have knelt for 5 hours, and can hardly stand. Two soldiers roughly drag me out of the room. The sun greets my eyes, and the sudden light brings tears to my eyes. I hurriedly blink them away; I don’t want to look weak.

A massive courtyard lies before me. All four of us are kneeling at one corner. There are several doors along the rectangular corridor, which all leads to different areas of the prison. In the centre is a large quadrangle, with 3 distinctly marked spots. Behind the spots is a truck, its engine revved and ready to go. The winter is unforgiving, it seems. The air bites into my skin, making it prickle with goose bumps. The abundant snow continues to fall, several flakes touch my face. The snow won’t let up, and the cold reaches into my bones. I find myself wishing for a bath, for some respite. I feel tired, tired of all of this. I look at my comrades, my brothers in arms. Each one with a blank face, not giving away any weakness. I’ve never been more proud of them. 

The officer comes back, and barks out another order, before pointing at Zhao and raising his index finger. Zhao is the first one, he is indicating. The soldiers nod. I wonder what’s going on in their minds. Have they done this before? Do they have any pity for us? Or maybe they see us as scum to be eradicated. They lock and load their rifles, and suddenly it becomes all too real.

I’m going to die today.

Two soldiers wrap their hands around Zhao’s shoulders and lift him up. The other six proceed to form a line at the centre of the quadrangle, roughly a few metres from the centre mark. The two soldiers, half-carrying, half-dragging, proceed to haul him to the centre mark. Zhao has streams of tears pouring down his face. He cries out for his mother, for his sister in strangulated sobs. His face is contorted in despair, and my heart breaks to see his eyes settle on me, as if I have a plan to save him. Zhao’s hands shake violently, and he wrestles with his captors to no avail. It’s like trying to save a flooded ship with a bucket. They pin him at the centre mark, and hold him there for a few seconds.

Then they get up and join the line of soldiers. They know their captive won’t run, for he has nowhere else to run to. Zhao, on his own two knees turns his head slowly to me. His eyes pleading, his mouth begging. I cannot stand it. A single tear runs down my face as I force myself to turn away. His fate is sealed.

They execute him Federation style, with the first soldier firing followed by the second man and so on. It maximizes the pain of the sufferer, to feel every bullet strike his body. I turn back and see Zhao’s crumpled body. His suffering is over. A soldier walks up to him and carries his body into the back of the truck. Their grisly work is shown on the bloodstains on the mark.

Two more soldiers run up to us. It’s Noel’s turn to leave this earth. He turns to me, and surprisingly nods at me. I nod my head back at him. That silent agreement means the world to me. It means that he does not blame me for getting them killed, and that he has accepted his fate. His boots scrape across the ground as he is hauled to the centre mark. He cusses and swears at his captors, espousing his unconquerable spirit in the face of an imminent death. It befits him. One of the soldiers cuffs him around the back, before they both rejoin the line. Noel stares defiantly at his executors, daring them to send him over to the other side. With a bit of apprehension they lift their rifles, before firing in order. Noel’s body crumples like a ragdoll. Noel… the guy who had fought with me from day one, his ever reassuring presence and his spirit sustaining me when mine failed, was gone. His life had been taken away from him in a split-second, in such a violent manner.

They repeat the process, with one disposing of Noel’s body and another two marching over to us. It’s just me and Charlie now. He’s no longer the rookie of the squad. He’s earn the right to call himself a soldier. They wrap their arms around him, but before they drag him away I lean in and say “You’ve been a damn fine soldier Charlie. The best I’ve known.” Charlie’s eyes light up, and they shimmer with respect and admiration. They show no fear of what is about to happen to him. They bring him across the quadrangle.

“It’s been an honour sir!”

I look him straight in the eyes, and shout back “The honours been all mine, private.”

The two soldiers force him to kneel in the pool of the blood of his two fallen friends. Charlie looks ahead, a satisfied look on his face. His arms at his back. There’s a glint in his eyes as the Fed soldiers fire. Every bullet that enters him sends a shockwave through mine, it hurts that much. Poor Charlie. He, of all people, didn’t deserve to die like that. So far from home, so far from his flesh and blood. To die in such a cold and desolate place, seen only by his commander. I don’t think anyone deserves that. The two soldiers approach me now. The rest of my squad’s dead. It’s only me now.

One last time, they wrap their hands around my shoulders. Their hands are rough. They try to drag me across, but I refuse to. I struggle, with whatever last scraps of my energy, to stand on my own 2 feet. If I am to die, then I shall not perish like some beggar. I shrug off their hands, and for the first time in hours, stand. They both back off in alarm, and one raises his rifle. But they see the resigned look on my face, and proceed to show me the way to the centre mark. One of them leans into the other and whispers, “At least this one knows how to die with dignity.”

I stand still at the centre mark. I will not kneel. I am about to die. My thoughts turn to Minh. Oh darling, how I wish I could see you one more time. To feel your hands in mine, to kiss your lips one more time, to hold you in my arms. Another tear travels down my cheek. I think of the last picture I saw of her. She lying down on the couch, cushioning her heavily pregnant belly. She carried a little girl, my dearest daughter in her arms. Her face, a little strained, a little tired-looking, smiling for the camera. Her radiant smile, the same as when I first met her. Her brown eyes twinkling. I’ll never see those eyes again. And that thought leaves me shattered. Not even the thought of death is as devastating. I think about the night I asked her to marry me, the happiness in the face as she exclaimed my favourite word in the English dictionary. I’ll never hear extraordinary laughter, her shy giggles and her encouraging voice again.

The two soldiers slowly make their way back to the line. Everything is in slow-motion now, every move an infinite moment. I wonder what death will be like. If there is a God, I shall meet him soon enough, so perhaps there’s no point in worrying about it. It will be a relief, to be rid of this burden of violence, of this burden of fighting for my nation. I have done my part, I think. Others will carry on the torch.

I look beyond the line of soldiers. Beyond the walls. I see an eagle, flying in the distance. Its majestic wings spread, soaring through the air with a freedom which I envy. And I am reminded. Reminded that there is something beyond this moment, beyond this death. Just as there is a whole world beyond those walls. Hope surges within me, and a calmness settles over me as the soldiers raise their rifles.

I will not die emotionless I think. I will not allow my final image on this good earth to be a blank face, uncaring and unloving. I think of Minh, of her smile, and then of that eagle in the distance. I think of my family, of my friends who have passed. I think of all those childhood days I spent playing, I spent studying. I think of those moments of intense emotion between me and Minh, whether it be love or hate. My eyes centre on that eagle in the distance. And as the first rifle fires, my face splits into a grin.
The bullets hits me square in the centre, right below my heart. It goes right through me, but I feel no pain. Just peace. I am allowed a single splutter, before the second bullet enters my lower left side of my chest. I fall to my knees. The end, it’s so close…that light at the end of the tunnel, it’s there. It awaits me. Minh, darling, I love you. My only wish is for you to be happy. The love that we had, that was the best of me. And you deserved all of it.

The third bullet hits my right thigh. My vision blurs and blackness tinges the sides of my vision. There is a sudden explosion, and the line of soldiers fall apart. I fall on my back, greeting the dirt with open arms. A cacophony of noise is all I hear. Explosions, gunfire and screams. Eventually they fade away. The pool of blood around me spreads ever so slowly. It mixes with the blood of my fallen brothers, deep red.

I’m aware of two men crouching beside me, checking my body. They have the badges of resistance fighters. They’re too late. I know my time is up. One of them shouts at me, “Don’t close your eyes! Stay with me!” But it’s over. I know it is. There’s still a smile on my face. A warm light blinds me and I actually laugh.

Then death embraces me, as if I were his oldest friend. 


Submitted: September 18, 2014

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