The Truth, Forever Etched in Black Granite

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us
freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us
freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us
freedom to demonstrate.
It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the
right to a fair trial.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves under the flag and
whose coffin is draped in the flag, who gives the protestor the
right to burn the flag.
- Father Denis Edward O'Brien, USMC

Mulder's resignation lies on my desk and I know I have to go and talk to him. He's -- lost -- without Scully.

I get to his office, stop a moment, then enter. He's packing and barely acknowledges me. "When I started out, this is where they kept the copier."

"At least back then, it wasn't just wasted space," Mulder replies, bitterness rising in his voice.

I advance on him, tearing up the resignation as I move. "It's unacceptable."

He doesn't pause as he continues packing books into a box.

"Look, I know you feel responsible for Agent Scully," I say, "but I will not accept resignation and defeat as self-punishment."

He stops now, looking over at me. "All the forensics, the field investigations, the eyewitness accounts -- to still know nothing. To lose myself -- and Scully. I hate what I've become."

I don't want to do this. I never do this. I don't talk about this. But I know, if I am going to convince this man to stay, I have to talk about it. I sigh and remove my glasses. "When I was eighteen, I, uh, I went to Vietnam. I wasn't drafted, Mulder, I -- I enlisted in the Marine Corps the day of my eighteenth birthday. I did it on blind faith. I did it because I believed it was the right thing to do. I don't know, maybe I still do. Three weeks into my tour, a ten-year-old North Vietnamese boy walked into camp covered with grenades and I, uh, I blew his head off from a distance of ten yards."

He's shocked. I see it in his face, the disbelief, the -- disgust. And I don't blame him. What I did disgusts me as well. But he's still listening and I force myself to go on. "I lost my faith. Not in my country or in myself, but in everything. There was just no point to anything anymore. One night on patrol, we were, uh -- caught -- and everyone -- everyone fell. I mean, everyone. I looked down -- at my body -- from outside of it. I didn't recognize it at first. I watched the VC strip my uniform, take my weapon and I remained -- in this thick jungle -- peaceful -- unafraid -- watching my -- my dead friends. Watching myself. In the morning, the corpsmen arrived and put me in a bodybag until -- I guess they found a pulse. I woke in a Saigon hospital two weeks later." I walk toward him, pin him in place with my eyes. "I'm afraid to look any further beyond that experience. You? You are not." I pause, wanting to make sure I have his attention. "Your resignation is unacceptable."

I've said my piece. It will work or it won't. I wait a beat, then start out.

"You," Mulder says.

I turn back to listen to him and hear him sigh.

"You gave me Cancer Man's location. You put your life in danger."

"Agent Mulder, every life, every day is in danger. That's just life."

I end up at the Wall.

I don't dwell on the war, not like a lot of people. I survived. A lot of people didn't. I need only look at the truth, forever etched in black granite, to know how very many did not. Boots stand at attention below the panel, a flag declares their pride and our nation's freedom and I am lost in memory.

In 1971, I graduated from high school, turned eighteen and celebrated by enlisting in the Corps. I made it to Vietnam during the first week of October, just as the monsoon season was ending and search and destroy missions were picking up. Before I knew where I was, I was assigned to a counterintelligence unit and soon found myself in a Huey gunship heading to a landing zone about fifteen klicks from the DMZ.

"A little OJT for the FNG's," my team leader said in his South Georgia drawl as we streaked over the jungle. He was all of three years older than me, a combat-weary three-striper with hard edges and ancient eyes that couldn't conceal his disdain for the 'fucking new guys' HQ kept sending him, one of whom, he had no doubt, would eventually fuck up and get him killed.

I ended up next to him in the Huey, frankly amazed that someone so young could be so old. "Tags off, Bambi," he growled, his words barely audible over the roar of the chopper's blades. I jumped when I realized he'd focused his attention on me, then looked back to find him glaring in my direction. "One piece of tin in each boot, like this." He took his dog tags off, removing them from the neck chain, then undid the laces on his boots. He tucked one tag behind the tongue of each boot, threading the lace through the hole in the dog tag before retying it. "A little jingle in the jungle'll get you greased real quick."

We circled the LZ several times, then hovered above the clearing, not touching down. The grass bent beneath us, straining from the downdraft of the chopper's blades. In the blink of an eye, a chubby little girl, no more than seven or eight years old, long, black hair streaming behind her, flew out of the trees and began running toward us.

The sergeant was the only one who moved. Everyone else on the gunship froze, the 'whap, whap, whap' of the chopper's blades the only sound in the air. Sarge crouched in the door, watching the girl. He waited until she was about twenty feet away, then calmly fired a burst from his M-16, the sound roaring in my ears, shattering my innocence. The rounds tore into the child's chest. Her tiny body flew backward as if it had been hit by a truck; then it landed and began twitching in grotesque spasms.

"Oh, my God!" The words were out before I realized, my naive horror there for everyone to see. Despite all the training and Special Ops orientation lectures, I was still back in high school. "Jesus! That was a kid! A fucking kid!"

The sergeant nodded matter-of-factly, then leapt to the ground as the Huey settled down. The patrol piled out and followed. Three guys approached the child's body that was now motionless in the tall grass.

"No such thing in-country," the sergeant drawled as the rest of the patrol fanned out and began setting up a perimeter around the LZ.

"No what?" I demanded, my voice rising with anger.

"Fat little gook kids. Just ain't any. You remember that, ya hear?"

It wasn't clear; I didn't understand. I was standing there, shaking my head, my stomach trying to escape my throat, when suddenly a deafening explosion knocked me to the ground in a shower of bloody tissue. I looked around, saw guys pulling themselves to their feet and slowly clambered up myself. The explosion had left a smoking crater the size of my parents' garage, killing the three guys who had been trying to defuse the twenty pounds of plastique taped to the kid's skinny chest. If she'd made it to the chopper, she'd have blown us all to bits.

My ears ringing, I looked at the field that was now covered with body parts. The planned patrol put on hold, we spent hours tagging and bagging. It was nearly dark by the time we finished, and my tiger stripes were smeared with blood and dotted with bits of dried flesh. I didn't want to touch it and I tried peeling it off with my jungle knife to no avail. Finally, I broke down and used my fingernails like everyone else. I don't remember how many times I vomited.

By the end of the day, I was the one with ancient eyes. Within a week, I knew the rules and I was already conducting on-the-job training. I warned the FNGs, "If you're in the fucking jungle and a path looks inviting, don't take it. Never, never, never go through a gate -- climb the fucking fence instead. Enter a hutch through a window, never through a fucking door." I knew the rules. Each one had been learned at the cost of someone's life.

Memories. God damned memories.

There are tears on my face and I jump when someone touches my arm. I turn, stepping away and fighting the urge to pull my weapon. It's a woman, my age, staring at me with concern.

"Can I help?" she asks softly.

I shake my head, disoriented. I'd been there, back in the jungle, when she touched me, and this sudden intrusion of reality is almost overwhelming. I take my glasses off and wipe at my eyes.

She nods slowly, then reaches out and touches my arm again. "You know," she says, "the sound of a helicopter flying over my house will pull me out to the porch to watch. It takes a supreme effort of will for me to stay inside. Doesn't matter if I'm asleep or awake, I hear that 'whap whap whap' of the blades and all of me stops to listen. Is it the sound of death or of rescue?

I clear my throat and ask, "Were you there?"

She shrugs, giving me an evasive non-answer. "For me, there are no empty Hueys. They are filled with young men, with the dead, overflowing with the wounded. I stand in my yard and watch and wonder. Do others run to watch and wait, or is that my task alone?"

"Did you serve?" I ask, more insistent now.

She shakes her head. "I've never been to Vietnam. My husband is -- was," she corrects herself, "the veteran. I was home alone one day and I realized I was standing in my back yard seeing the ghosts of my husband's ghosts, remembering my husband's memories."

"Was?" I prompt her.

She nods. "He killed himself two years ago."

I close my eyes in pain. This is truth too, but it will never be carved into the wall of black we stand before.

Her voice is rough with emotion, her hand warm on my arm. "Everything you brought back with you -- the anger, the pain, the fear and confusion -- it all seeps out of your silence into the hearts of those around you. Those who love you will carry your burden, all the more painful because we don't have your frame of reference. We try in vain and without understanding to comfort you." She squeezes my arm again, then steps away. "Your wounds are as real as any other. Acknowledge them. Find a way to speak, to grieve, to share. Let someone help."

I hang my head, no more able to speak to this stranger than I can to my wife, or than I could to my parents when I first came home all those years ago. How can I share my guilt? She waits in silence, then releases me with a sigh and turns to leave.

"Wait," I call, suddenly frantic to at least say this, to voice one thought, one feeling.

She turns and looks back at me.

"I asked if you served?"

She nods.

I meet her gaze, willing her to understand. "You did."

She stares at me, then her eyes fill with tears. "Thank -- thank you."

I nod this time, and turn to walk away.

God, I need a drink.

I don't get past the statue. The one they put up because of the controversy over the Wall. It was like he was waiting for me, this short, chubby, moon-faced Asian man. Ten, maybe fifteen years younger than me, he faces the statue and cries.

I don't want to stop, but I do. God knows why, I do. I watch him for a moment, knowing that anything I say is as likely to hurt as to help.

"I'm sorry," I mumble.

He turns to me briefly, red-rimmed eyes wet with grief, and says, "You're sorry?"

I nod.

"You feel guilty?" His voice is accented, as much New York as Saigon.

I nod again.

"What do you know about guilt?"

His words are a physical blow and my knees almost buckle. I look at his face; tears are running down his cheeks, leaving glistening trails mapping the full extent of his sorrow.

What do I know about guilt? Just -- everything. And -- nothing. Guilt is the province of Catholics and Jews, and stock-in-trade for born-again preachers. It's nothing I will ever feel. I don't allow it. Not me. No. Never. I build my walls firmly, every emotional brick in place, held fast by the best intellectual mortar my rationalizing mind can make.

I look at him again, this round-headed, red-eyed stranger, his cheeks wet with shining misery, and another wall begins to crumble. Images flood my mind, pictures of blood, pus, and tears in faraway place.

Three weeks into my tour, I killed my first fat little gook kid. I'd waited until he was close -- didn't want to blow the shot. Then I'd calmly and coolly pulled the trigger and blown a kid up. I was up for defusing the bomb and I didn't pull back quite fast enough. Ended up with some shrapnel in my hand.

A week later, the morning was young and warm and comfortable for a change, humming with insects and shimmering with a light that seemed to originate in the atmosphere itself. The ground was green, different shades of emerald that spoke of peace and life and the timeless order of growing things. It was beautiful, perfect... except for the throbbing in my hand.

I looked down at my hand and wiped some more pus off it, giving it a gentle squeeze. Another piece of shrapnel popped out. 'Just like popping a pimple,' I thought to myself, looking around at the other pimply faces surrounding me.

Jackson, our sniper, was sitting on a dike fiddling with his weapon, his black face shiny with sweat despite the relative cool of the day. Sarge was resting on the edge of the rice paddy, working on a tan for his Georgia skin. The others were scattered about in various stages of undress and relaxation.

We were all on stand down, waiting for Dustoff to pick me up. I was being medevac'd because, a week earlier, Doc Watson couldn't get all the shrapnel out of my hand that I'd picked up when the kid I'd killed had exploded. Now, it was infected and swollen like a rubber glove filled with water from a faucet.

Everyone was worn out; for a couple of weeks, we'd been chasing an NVA battalion, with a communications company attached, with little success. We'd been getting ambushed at night pretty regularly, been in a couple of running firefights, and lost a few men.

But that morning, that beautiful morning, while we were waiting for Dustoff, some of the guys were laughing; we'd been joking for a week about finding the 'Com Man.' In our search for the NVA, we'd been finding bits and pieces of com gear -- a length of wire, a handset, some batteries -- but the jokes were grim ones under the silliness, about what we were going to do to the Com Man when we finally found him.

We were all tired and bone-weary -- dirty, scared, pissed off and frustrated from our losses and lack of rest, so this temporary respite from humping the paddies was a welcome one.

It all began innocently enough. I was sitting in the shade of a palm tree when an old man dressed in white pajamas and wearing a long, white, scraggly beard suddenly appeared on the trail. He looked like Father Time himself, somewhere between 70 and 90 years old. At his side was a young kid about 5 years old, his grandson probably. He didn't seem startled to see us but instead put his hands together in the traditional Buddhist greeting and motioned for our permission to pass along the trail.

I looked at him, and then at Sarge. Sarge glanced at the old man and the kid and said, "Go ahead and let him through."

I motioned to the old guy and told him he could pass. His face broke into big smile and after a profusion of head bobbing and bowing, he took the kid's hand in his own and, still smiling, began to walk through our lines and down the path.

It was a touching scene; my own grandfather and I had walked for miles through the wooded land that surrounded his small farm, giving me some of the best memories of my childhood. And here, in this land of blood and death, another grandfather and grandson walked hand-in-hand in the quiet of early morning sunshine. Even though my hand throbbed, I felt a sense of peace at the memory.

That's when the trouble started. Strickland, this dough-faced kid from Ohio, said, "Hey, Sarge! That looks like the Com Man!"

Everyone laughed at first, but then the sniper piped up. "Hey, Sarge! You gonna let the Com Man get away?"

I started to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Other guys were joining in the refrain. "Hey! That is the Com Man! The Com Man, the Com Man, the Com Man!"

They were chanting in unison now. "Come on, Sarge," Strickland said again. "You gonna let the Com Man get away?" There was something -- evil -- in the leer he flashed Sarge.

Sarge looked around at the guys chanting, egging him on. I look back on it now and I see it's pretty typical young male pack behavior, born out of fear and uncertainty and a need to take control of something in a completely uncontrollable environment. But back then, I was just -- appalled. And too scared to say or do anything. The sergeant got lazily to his feet and walked a few yards out into the rice paddy. By then the old man and the kid had disappeared from my view around a bend in the path.

I knew what Sarge was going to do, but I didn't say anything. I just watched, as if in a dream, unconnected from the world around me, paralyzed, impotent. I could have stopped it. I wasn't a fucking new guy anymore -- the sarge and I had gotten close. All I had to do was say "Sarge, don't do it." Just four little words, and the spell would have been broken. Instead, I said nothing, and watched as Sarge put his rifle to his shoulder, took aim and fired.

The shot was loud in the peaceful morning air. It echoed into the distance, a sound of finality carrying its message of death. There was a silence in the still air for about fifteen seconds. No one said anything. The quiet was complete. I was already running down the path when I heard the wail. It was a solitary cry of anguish, long, drawn out, ululating, as if someone's soul were being rent in two.

Suddenly I was there at the scene of my silent crime, standing over a little boy and a bloody bundle of white rags lying on the ground. The kid was staring at me, open-mouthed, snotty-nosed, tears coursing down his face leaving tracks on his dirty cheeks, looking in my eyes. He never spoke, but I heard his question over and over and over again. Hell, I hear it now in my dreams, in my doubts, in the days when my walls are weak.


We stood there for what seemed an eternity, the skinny American soldier and the little Vietnamese kid, looking at each other, both knowing the question, neither knowing the answer.

One of the new guys came over while we were standing there and took a photo of the scene with his camera. I knew the picture he took would fade with age, become old and torn and yellowed, forgotten in a scrapbook, stored in an attic and thrown out with the rest of the litter one young and warm and comfortable morning like this one.

But the picture I took would never fade unless I built a wall around it. A sturdy wall. A strong wall. A great wall to hide a great crime. I looked around for the man I used to call friend, the man who taught me to put my tags in my boots and climb over fences instead of going through gates. But he had already walked back to the edge of the paddy. I looked at Strickland. He was watching me with an ugly grin; satisfaction glinted in his eyes. I wanted to wipe that leer off his face with a burst from my M-16, for it was he who had instigated this murder, this treachery, this sin; and he was pleased with himself.

I heard the whap-whap-whap of a chopper in the distance and knew it was mine. I looked back at the kid, at his dust-and-tear-stained face, still staring at me as if I could suddenly do something and put his grandfather back together. I looked down at my throbbing hand, pus oozing onto my fingers, leaving a trail in the grime like the kid's tears; and I turned to collect my gear from under the palm tree.

I thought to myself that I could have stopped this murder. But could I have stopped all of the murders I had seen since I'd been here? Could anyone?

Dustoff was about to land. I picked up my gear and walked through the marking smoke to the paddy, angry with myself in my misery and guilt. As the chopper was lifting off, I looked over the scene below me -- men in dull green resting on bright green, a speck of red and white in the dust, a smaller speck kneeling by the red and white speck; and I knew I would never go back to the field. The wind from the chopper's pounding rotors felt cool on my face. I looked down at my still throbbing hand and wiped off the accumulating pus.

When my hand was well enough, I went back. But not to that unit. Not to those men. I joined a new squad, had to start again, but I didn't really care. I couldn't have trusted any of the others ever again.

A sound pulls me back to myself and I look at that round, Asian face streaked with tears. I stare for a moment, then say, "I know."

Tears on my cheek again and I'm thinking this day can't get any worse. Mulder, memories, the woman at the Wall, and now this man.

I come to the Wall when my own walls are low. I need the reminder to help me build them back up.

The man stares at me for a moment. He knows, somehow, that I know. I reach out, put my arm around him, and we stand there together for a long time, sharing a misery that overflows the walls men build.

I only come here when the war is close. When it flutters on the edge of my consciousness and threatens to intrude into the life I've made for myself. I only come here when I need someone else whose guilt is heavier than mine. When I need to remind myself that I not only survived, but that I've found a way to live. This is where the vets come, the ones who hang out at the memorial, homeless, maimed, numb. This is where they come to remember -- or to forget.

I walk in and see him immediately. I'd told Mulder that everyone in my patrol had been killed, but that wasn't exactly true. There was one guy who survived -- our point man. He hadn't been with us that day, but he'd been there every day since.

His chair is tipped against the wall as he stares empty-eyed into nothingness. In a place like this, you'd think he wouldn't stand out, but he does. He wears old fatigues, dirty and torn, as do over half of the others. He's bearded and his head is wrapped in a bandana, and again, a good many of the other patrons were the same. And still, he stands out. Something in his posture, in the palpable pain and misery that clings to him, singles him out in this room of pain and misery.

I hate this part of myself -- this piece of 'Nam part that I can't completely lose -- a little more every time I come to see him.

The bartender sees me looking at him and, as he wipes his hands on a dirty apron, says, "You want to talk to him, you have to get here sooner. He's probably out of it now. Gets like this every day. He just sits there not talking."

"He'll talk to me."

The bartender shrugs. "Maybe."

"Someone still come and get him?" I ask carefully.

The man nods. "Some woman comes and picks him up about six every night. Same woman. He's here every day and she don't ever forget."

"Scotch. Double," I say, sighing as I pick it up and knock it back. "Again." I nod my thanks, then stare at the man at the table.

He could be me. Once, many years ago, I'd looked a lot like him. I'd given up on everything. I drank 'til drinking didn't do any good. Tried drugs too, but I never could find anything that did just what I wanted it to do. I either got too high or too stoned or too depressed. Booze did it best most of the time. It made me numb enough to quit thinking and feeling but then I ended up in a VA hospital, my mom begging me not to kill myself. It took a while, but I finally promised her I wouldn't and I began to shove everything down. Keep it out of sight. Keep it out of mind. Push, push, push it away. Repression wasn't necessarily a bad thing, until a day like today, when I found myself dragging things out and looking at them again. I grab my glass, walk to the table and slip into the chair next to him.

He looks up, blinking blearily. "Skin-man?"

I give a half-smile and nod. "Hey, Vis."

Saying his name, it all comes rushing back to me -- why we called him Vis. I've forgotten his real name, forgotten if he was ever anyone but Vis.

We were on patrol, humping through yet another unnamed village, and he was in the lead, walking point. He wasn't Vis then, but I'll be damned if I can remember what his name was -- is. There were locals all around us. Mamasans, Papasans, kids. That was okay. But, there were a whole lot of guys the wrong age. You know, the age to be either in the ARVN outfits or the NVA or Viet Cong outfits. We were all getting pretty weirded out. Then Vis, before he was Vis, he steps back from point and says to me real low, "They got guns."

I glanced around and didn't see any guns but I had that hair-raising feeling he was right. We were right there, almost in the fucking middle of the damned village and I just knew he was right. I turned and yelled, "Hit the trees!"

Guys started running and just like that, all hell broke loose. The locals opened up on us. Only one of our guys got hit, and it was minor, a hit in the back of his leg. We called it in, and within minutes -- "Boom!" -- that little place was no longer on any map. If it hadn't been for Vis, we'd have all been dead. The team leader wrote him up for a medal. I sure as hell felt like he deserved it. Later, back at base camp, the Captain called us together and brought Vis up front.

"Corporal Desmond" -- that was his name, John Desmond -- "there are no medals for good eyesight, although I think in your case there should be. I want to thank and congratulate you. Your vision saved your squad."

It stuck. "Vision saved the squad." We clapped and cheered and pounded him in the back. Vision became Vis, and John Desmond ceased to exist. That's when he announced he would be the squad's permanent point man. Because of his superior vision, he'd walk up front to spot booby-traps and ambushes.

And he did. Vis always took point. The old guys forgot how and the new guys never learned. He liked his hero status. He was always being the good guy. One time out in the field, this new guy -- I don't remember his name, he got killed a week or so later -- pulled off his boots and his pink, stateside feet were a mass of blisters. Somebody asked him if he'd been changing his socks.

He said, "Hell, I ain't wearing any socks. I thought they'd cause blisters."

Everybody laughed at this dumb-ass but then Vis pulled out this brand new pair of socks and gave them to the new guy. He did stuff like that.

I swallow hard when I realize that's a good memory. God, what the war did to us.

I look at him, still staring at me, still blinking like his vision's all blurry and wonder what the fuck I'm doing here. I finish my drink and signal for another, look at his empty glass, and make it two. He takes the fresh drink when it's given and gives me a nod.

"Why the hell are we alive?" I ask.

He shudders, but doesn't answer.

He'd been hit, Vis, the perfect point man. Nothing serious, but enough that he had to be medevac'd out for treatment. Soloman was walking point. We were just humping the trail and there was a huge explosion. It knocked me down and I saw Soloman fly over my head. Fly, just like he'd sprouted wings. It seemed funny then as I lay on my back trying to breathe. There was Soloman in the middle of a firefight taking time out for soaring. I snapped back to reality when the screaming started. God, I hate screaming. I hated it then and I hate it now. Especially when it's my own screams that wake me in the middle of the night. It's unmanly and weird. Stays in your ears too long afterwards.

I checked first to see if I had any leaks and couldn't find any. That's because I got hit in the back. Then I looked behind me to see where Soloman landed. I saw he was hurt bad. He was lying on his back moving his arms and legs slow like he was a bug in water.

I crawled over to him. His pants and shirt had been blown off and I saw gray gut hanging from his belly. I almost couldn't make myself say anything to him. Then I said something real stupid. "Hang on, Solly. Looks like you got a little hole. We'll get Doc to patch you up." I lifted my head. "Corpsman up! Corpsman up here, goddamn it!" I yelled.

I knew when I saw him that he was as good as dead. No way he'd last till Dustoff arrived. "Help me, Skin-man! I'm scared," Soloman whispered and bloody foam oozed out of his mouth. That's when I pulled him in my arms and tried to scoop up his gut and put it back in, but it wouldn't fit. I just sat there rocking him and holding my hand over that bloody mess, telling him that it would all be okay, that he was going to make it.

The ground bucked under me and it was my turn to fly. I never even got to really say good-bye to Solly, just took off and flew away. Didn't feel the landing, didn't feel the bump. Just remember floating, hovering like some weak-assed Huey over top of my own body, looking down. Time passed -- or it didn't -- and then I was watching myself be put into a bodybag. It was the last thing I remembered until I woke up in Saigon.

It's a cold hand on my arm this time that brings me back to myself. I focus and see Vis, confusion and hesitance in his face. "Skin-man?"

"Yeah, Vis. It's me."

Tears start running down his face. "I'm sorry," he sobs. "Didn't mean to."

"Shhh. It's okay."

"Didn't mean to get hurt."

"I know."

"Didn't mean to have to leave."

"Shhh. I know. It's okay, Vis."

"Didn't mean to live."

The words send a spike through my heart. He's summed it up so well. Didn't mean to live. Why me? Why did I survive? Why not someone else? Someone better? Someone who had more to live for? Someone who didn't kill little kids and stand by while old men were murdered. But I don't say anything. I just touch his hand where it rests on my arm. "It's okay, Vis. It's okay that you lived."

"You forgive me?"

I shake my head. "Nothing to forgive."

He nods, like I've made sense, takes his hand back and drinks, looking at me hopefully. I sigh, then get him another.

"Soloman?" he asks. "Soloman forgive me?" His eyes cross, and he closes them.

I look at my watch, see it's almost six and wonder if the woman who comes for him will be on time. I can't decide if I want to be here and see her or not. I don't know if I can face her. I want to leave, to rise and run to the door and never come back here again. Instead, I put my arm on my old friend's shoulder and shake him gently.

"Vis! Hey, Vis! It's me, look at me!" I guess I kinda hiss the words. He doesn't move. He just sits there like he's dead. For some reason, that pisses me off a little. "Vis! Wake up! Talk to me!"

He turns so fast, I jump. Then he stares right into my eyes the same way he'd been staring at nothing before I sat down and he keeps staring without saying anything for a long time. Finally, his mouth opens. "Where's Soloman?" he asks in a flat, slurred voice.

I stare at him, my hand on my gun and wonder if it really wouldn't be kinder to just shoot him than to let him keep suffering like this. I say, "Soloman's dead. He died, remember?"

His mouth sags. His eyes are even more confused. "Dead? Is he really dead? Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," I say.

"He shouldn't have been on point. He couldn't see like I could."

"Wasn't your fault," I mumble. Why the hell was I here again? Oh, yeah. Because every now and then I need to poke at the wound to make sure it's still there.

The woman shows up about then. Vis is still crying and she gives me a sharp look, but doesn't speak to me. She seems weary when she leans over and speaks quietly to Vis. "Time to go, Johnny," she murmurs.

He nods and seems to have forgotten I'm there. I watch them go, then order another drink. And another, and another. That's what I do when the memories overwhelm me. I don't talk about it. I never talk about it. When it comes up, I mostly just sit and drink.

It's what hurts the least.

I stay till midnight. It's enough. I throw some money on the bar, far more than I owe as if money can assuage my guilt. I wave vaguely at the room. The bartender knows to cover the drinks for as many as he can with what I've given him. It's the least I can do for my fellow walking wounded.

I hate this -- hate the remembering. Why had I done it? Oh, yeah. For Mulder. For a minute, I hate him as well, but then I shove that away with all the other feelings I keep locked up and remind myself that I need Mulder to keep searching for his truth. I'd done what I had to do to keep him from giving up. Some small piece of me clings to the idea that maybe his truth can give meaning to the truth on the black granite wall. It doesn't make sense, I know that, but what about that damn crazy war did make sense?

If my truth was children used as bombs, shot callously in self-defense; if my truth was old men murdered for nothing more than sport; if my truth was death and blood and misery and loss and line after line of young men's names forever etched in black granite, then my truth could never make sense.

Maybe Mulder's could.

If you are able, save for them a place inside of you
and save one backward glance when you are leaving
for the places they can no longer go.

Be not ashamed to say you loved them,
though you may or may not have always.
Take what they have taught you with their dying
and keep it with your own.

And in that time when men decide
and feel safe to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes you left behind.

Major Michael Davis O'Donnell
1 January 1970
Dak To, Vietnam

Listed as KIA February 7, 1978


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