BY NICK PETROU
I was the slow old bull of the herd. Easy pickings for the lion or, in this case, VC guerrilla. Last thing I remember seeing before I was bagged and zip-tied to that steel workbench was a light. The sun in the midnight sky, a fluorescent globe strobing under a ceiling fan. It fell on me, or I was hoisted up to it, no rope. Only sounds were my heart fighting the bars of its cage and something like a truck rushing past a cheap city apartment. Can’t have been a Huey. I might’ve squeezed a round or ten out into the jungle. Maybe.
Don’t know for how many minutes or days I’d been fastened there, but they stripped me to my ass and bush and gave me plenty of time to think about the blowtorches, tack hammers, and pliers doubtless to come. Maybe they were more… traditional than that. Maybe they’d do something nasty to me with water, maybe bamboo. I was doing exactly this when he came in — pondering my torture, wondering if I’d spill what little beans I had.
The room was all black aside from my bacon belly and thighs and the white operatory light behind my head. Bastard stepped out of the dark like a knife-edge, got broader as he neared, like someone was rotating said knife so I could catch my reflection in its side. Before my primate brain could comprehend just who or what my eyes were seeing, it changed, morphed into the varnished freedom fighter you’d find on a propaganda leaflet dropped from a plane.
He clicked his pliers together instead of speaking words — same damn pliers I’d seen in my brain just seconds before — and he turned the operatory light way up. I smelt my hair burn. Then my scalp melted, poured down a tube somewhere under me. The pain didn’t start until what must’ve been an air-conditioning vent blew a kiss upon my naked skull. The zip-ties were adamantine now. I writhed like a worm in the tightening beam of a magnifying glass.
An invisible force spread my arms and legs, making a starfish of me, and that sticky jungle guerrilla played with me then, testing the pliers in the glands of my armpits, the webs of skin between my ribs. Throughout it, he kept rested on me a hand with too many fingers, attached to an arm that was, somehow, neither of the two with which he was operating the pliers. Almost… reassuring.
Several more knife-edge figures lingered in the dark like cracks in a pitch-black curtain, and at this point, my interrogation resistance training was about as useful as the cashew passing for my crotch. I screamed, and the probing got worse. Much worse. I was blind, deaf, and dumb with pain. It made an infant of me, birthed me out between its clapping knees into a world of hurt. A planet-sized nerve.
It was during my climax of pain that my torturer’s unicoloured jungle fatigues strobed like the Huey-that-wasn’t-a-Huey that took me to this place. He strobed, and what I saw in those brief absences of the illusion was simply too much. My wormlike throes got me epileptic. Teeth had a bubble bath in my mouth. Tasted bile, bilge. Purged baby food I never ate.
Sweet unconsciousness took me.
While I was out, that primate brain of mine tried to make sense of it all, to render it. What I got was a sort of moon with smoothed black pebbles socketed in its craters like gems, arranged as eyes in the head of a spider. Smells too — a bucket of greasy old washers and nuts, tangy battery acid. Lastly, that clacking and chittering of the pliers, a language made from popping the tongue off the roof of the mouth. Tap dancing on wood.
When I came to, I was naked on my balls in the jungle, M60 lying hot beside me, smoke lifting off her mouth like a cigarette after sex. If I had my baby five minutes ago, they’d be cleaning up those bastards with a bucket and a mop.
Reality bitch-slapped me.
I was exactly where I’d been when I was hoisted up, taken prisoner, and half the platoon was crunching leaf litter to get to my side. Sounded like popcorn going off. Their faces in the moonlight tendrils scared me more than whatever in hell happened in… wherever that was.
Field medic stitched me up, salved the peeling monk tonsure that was left of my head. Infections brought on fever dreams, in which I felt their many-fingered hands upon me. Feel them even now. Reassuring.
Never saw the X-rays. They said I looked more bullet than man. But as I told the surgeon, they weren’t no damn bullets, and they sure as hell weren’t VC.