Location: marengo, il, United States

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Thing on Post Nine

When Aubrey noticed the new list that morning, he made sure to stop by and study it. But when he saw the line where his name was written, his heart sank. His eyes shot across the page twice to make sure he got it right, but both times he saw his own name, the midnight hour, and the number nine printed plainly in ink.

Of all the assigned patrols, post nine had the reputation of being the worst of the lot.

A polite houseboy padded behind where Aubrey stood, a steam iron in one hand; a spray bottle in the other. He called out a cheerful greeting to the younger man.

“O hayou gozaimasu.”

The boy responded, saying over his shoulder.

“Kon-nichiwa, papa-san.”

The smaller of the two men bobbed his head with respect and gave the marine a smile before darting into a storage room. There, two other black-haired workers squatted on the floor, attending to uniforms laid out on folded blankets. Surrounded by rows of fresh-ironed and neatly piled shirts and trousers, they chattered to each other in a foreign tongue as Aubrey came and stood in the hatch way. His glum face caused the elder Kim to look up and inquire.

“What a-matter you?” The man asked, taking a favored spot near a wall.

“I get bad duty post tonight, Kim-san. Very yokunai post.”

“Okasomio!” The man nodded an understanding. He then untied a knotted blue cloth bundle next to his side, and fresh laundry spilled out.

“So you no like?” He smoothed out one of the crumpled utility shirts and began to lightly mist it.

“Yokunai tomodachi stay,” The youngster explained, holding up hands to describe some fiendish monster.

The three men laughed at the misuse of the word for friend, but then exchanged concerned looks as they continued their chores, and began speaking among themselves in their rapid Ryukyuan dialect.

Aubrey left them and took his worries to the lounge at the back of the barracks. The sensible thing to do would be to find someone new; someone inexperienced with all of the frightening rumors; someone dumb enough to exchange places with him. Maybe Clark was around.

The new kid had walked in the guard barracks three days after Aubrey first arrived, and had been confronted from the start by an unusual commotion. He had stood frozen, framed by the doorway, and he balanced a duffle bag on one shoulder while he watched the two rowdy marines that tussled and rolled around in the middle of the center aisle. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the pair, and as one burly contestant grabbed the other in a sensitive spot, the lesser man screamed out in terrible pain.

Horrified at this, Clark’s jaw dropped as the crew began to shout encouragements. At some point he asked the on-lookers what was the problem.

The two on the floor kept at it as another marine spoke up.

“The poor guy has VD, and the only know cure is to grab his nuts and squeeze.”

A few other heads nodded in agreement, and since no one laughed or broke a smile, naive Clark, staring wide-eyed at the on-going fracas, bought the story. Then, over the course of the next two weeks, he refused to leave the base, vowing he would never take the chance of getting such a horrible disease.

Aubrey caught him coming out of the shower, wearing a towel and his ever-present half-grin.

“Say, Clark. How about trading me posts for tonight?”

The grin widened across the kid’s face.

“Not tonight, man. Can’t do it, sorry.”

“How come? Listen, I might do you a huge favor some day.”

He followed the sounds of Clark’s flip-flops back to his bunk. The kid pitched his shaving kit on the top berth, and then reached for a clean civilian shirt.

“Cause I’m going on liberty tonight and I plan on getting shit-faced drunk, that’s why.”

You can’t argue with a man that smells liberty, so Aubrey bowed to his ill-fated destiny. Post nine had him where it hurt, and he knew it.

No one liked post nine. Dreadful things had occurred there; inexplicable things went on there at night that sent shivers up a man’s spine afterwards; things that were told in the light of day that made others laugh and wonder.

Did the teller exaggerate his facts? Or were those outright lies, meant to entertain or impress others with their bravery? No one could ever know for certain when young marines told tales.

Did a mama-san actually lift a fifty-five gallon drum of some value, and then hoist the load upon her frail shoulders, and then run away as a frightened sentinel yelled for her to stop? Did some unseen hand really throw a knife at another guard during his watch, and narrowly miss? He never produced any evidence to prove this data, although his own eyes seemed to believe in the story.

Was there any truth about secret military things hidden behind painted windows inside the tin-roofed Butler hut on forlorn post nine?

Aubrey had finally caught the dread post on his fourteenth day of guard duty. Clark, or no other man could save him. Given a pre-dawn four-hour slot, he collected one of the paper bags containing a thin sandwich, an orange and a small carton of milk, provided as rations by a night crew at the mess hall. Then riding along with a group of replacements for several other posts, he was next dropped off beside the gloomy building at the far end of a deserted runway.

Only a single bulb flooded the front side of the long metal shed, while the surrounding horizons loomed as black and irregular shapes. Over a near-by hill, the glow from a small settlement illumed low-hanging clouds.

1. To take charge of this post and all government property in view.

Aubrey eyed the place while thoughts of the barrel-toting woman ran, and he sat his sack down on a stack of empty pallets while the relieved guard handed over his weapon. As the pair stood in the bright beams of the jeep’s headlights, and as the soldier cleared the pistol, he heard a scurrying sound coming from the shadows, and he turned to see.

The bag had vanished.

“It must have been that rat,” The guard said, and he laughed. He was going back to the barracks, and would be asleep before zero four-thirty rolled around; so what did he care?

Aubrey swallowed as he inserted the .45 sidearm into its holster.

2. To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert.

I’m putting a clip in later; I don’t care what the rules say.

The jeep left. Aubrey walked along side the building, staying in the moonlight. He turned the corner and stopped, watching the taillights as they disappeared over a rise. He stayed there without moving, letting his eyes adjust before continuing.

3. To report all violations of orders I am instructed to enforce.

Growing up as a boy, Aubrey had often copied the actions of Indians he read about, and walking softly was one trick he thought he had mastered. But here in the obscurity of this dreadful place, each careful footstep caused his heart to race. The grass under his feet crunched loudly as he approached the second corner. No matter how cautiously he stepped, he knew the sounds carried way beyond the hill across the road. He paused next to a utility pole, and the boy’s imagination soared.

This is where the knife landed. This is where he said the knife landed that barely missed his head.

He stayed still, and he listened. What was that popping noise? It came from over there -- oh, the tin on the building -- it expands or contracts with heat or cold.

11. To be especially watchful at night and, during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority.

Aubrey shivered once, and was about to take a step when he saw it. He froze, and he stared into the void as a pin-prick of light, a small glowing object, a reddish jot that looked like a lit cigarette, moved.

He saw the shape of a man, an unknown intruder walking on his post; a form that was, right this moment, moving stealthily along the moonless side of the Butler hut. His fear drowned out the loud pounding in his chest as he stood mesmerized and helpless to move.

To talk to no one except in the line of duty, or to call the corporal of the guard in any case not covered by instructions did not seem to fit this event. To give the alarm in case of fire or disorder did.

Aubrey yelled.

Or rather, he tried to yell out what the eleven general orders did not bother to cover in this situation, but earlier instructions given by the corporal-of-the-guard outlined with such simplicity.

He tried to yell, but the word halt stuck in his throat as the approaching man, swinging his arms, bearing his glowing cigarette, paced himself steadily towards Aubrey. The distance between them closed, and the panicked boy reached for his weapon.

Shoot him shoot him shoot him shoot him

The regulations, given during short classes over the preceding two weeks, made clear his required response. He was to shout out a loud and commanding Halt! three times before he could legally discharge his firearm, and that, only to protect life or property. But here he had no time; the man was almost upon him, yet fear for his life he surely had.

In a predicament such as this, one thinks one will do certain things, and if these things are practiced often, they will come natural and instinctive to a man, and things will go smoothly.

Aubrey struggled with the pistol. The weapon, for some unexplainable reason, refused to budge from its pocket. It remained lodged inside its leather holster, and the intrusive man and the cigarette were both closing fast.

The boy’s hands and knees trembled violently as he tugged and pulled against the handle, and he caught his breath as the cigarette slowly bobbed and floated by his head.

He stood in the exact same spot, locked and frozen as when he first spied the thing, and it was with great effort that he turned his head to watch as a firefly blinked several more times, and then it was with little effort that he began to breathe once again.


Blogger Gone Away said...

Very good, Harry, gripping and full of suspense. Fooled me totally as well.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

When I was an owlet, I believed in vampires, ghosts, banshees, and everything else I ever read. Poor Aubrey puts me in mind of a certain owl, flying to her first midnight shift so many years ago.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Domo arigato gozaimasu, Gone. You know, achieving that end goal of reader surprise almost gave me as much of a charge as writing the entire bit.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Hannah, do I percieve a good story tucked away in the nest, or am I, like poor Aubrey, dreaming of things?

11:12 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

Well, there are a few up that you haven't commented on, so perhaps you should read those first :P

9:50 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

Oof, that was a very well-built story, Harry. The suspense was high quality.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Harvey Young said...

I love the build up of this story. In particular I like the way you provided some of the general orders. The end was a surprise tha made me smile which after a long day is exactly what I needed. I will save this story.

3:49 PM  

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