Nights like these still keep me awake.
The raindrops pelt against the pavements like angry bullets. The sound, however, is muffled by glass and curtains, and the shadows chased away by clinical lights. If I close my eyes, I can smell moss and rust, and picture in my head the shadowy stain of death. In life, there are certain chills you can't shake off.
It was in Vietnam then. There were only three of us left. The only thing in each of our minds was to go back.
The mosquito-infested waters, the rain so heavy they fell in sheets, the deafening gunfire that couldn't drown out the sound of human suffering; we got through by diverting our thoughts to a safer land. Burned flesh was bacon, names became numbers, and those dreaded uppers, they called them Skittles. One guy on it had emptied his entire clip into his bunkmate; it supposedly made you indestructible but skittish. Of course, it was outlawed. But on certain corners of the streets, you see shivering red-eyed men and you knew to lower your head and walk away.
When the smell of smoke and flesh became suffocating, the three of us settled in an already bombed out shophouse. The place was too big for us, even half the size it used to be. Wariness had caused us to sleep in different corners, with our guns beside our heads. These days, they're saying we're our own enemies. This wasn't a military zone. There were no Vietcong to kill, no holy battle to be won. You either turn your wrath onto the civilians or turn it in on yourselves.
Days when the wind blew upfront, or the rain lapped at my feet, I carried my belongings to the upstairs room and slept on its bed. It was a queen-sized bed, the mattress threadbare but the frame steady. We could have rotated. But general consensus had steered us away from that room. Respect for the privacy of the dead, or something like that. I didn't believe in gods or ghosts. Not even justice. And we had gotten rid of the corpses right away. So when the cold drove me to the warmth of the room, I convinced myself that the blood was rust, and imagined I was back at home. When I wake up, I would see pine trees and sun.
That night, same as ever, the rain and wind was pouring in. The air smelt like salt, and I remember thinking that if heavens did cry, this must be what their tears smelt like. I walked up the stairs, the careworn wood creaking beneath me. The door to the room was open.
My gun was with me, but I did not reach for it. Somehow, my mind was calm and silent, as if someone had soundproofed it. I walked into the room, and the darkness enveloped me. When the light from the window slowly gave the room some definition, and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, it was too late.
There, in the middle of the room, was a rope. Beneath it, a girl standing on a stool. For a long moment, we both stood motionless, just staring at each other, as if the track was set to pause. Then finally she reached up for the noose and wound it around her neck.
The only thing on my mind was that there was no moon that night.
I could have said something. I could have moved. But as the stool fell, I turned my back. Wood clattered against wood. The rope tightened against flesh. I walked away.
When I returned in the morning, rain dripping from my hair, my partners were graven-faced but the girl was gone. I didn't say a thing, but I never went into the room again.
I don't believe in God or ghosts, and justice even lesser. But some nights I lie awake praying for avenging ghosts.