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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

A Foreign Country

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

After a pleasant hour in the park "Shooting the Sun," Jack and Ed return to the shop, where Jack makes a startling discovery in the back room—a discovery that takes both men on a journey back in time.

February 20, 2001

Chapter Eleven

Jack Van Dorn's eyes swept along the shelves. He couldn't find the book he was looking for. Not that he'd thought it would be easy. He'd left his new reading glasses in his apartment, for one thing. There wasn't much light in the back room, either. Just a couple of naked bulbs in ceiling fixtures. And the temporary bookshelves they'd put up to hold the overflow stock blocked most of what little light the bulbs gave off. Still, Jack had to admit he was in luck. One bulb was only a few feet away, and the narrow aisle between the bookshelves opened out on the other.

Anyway, he figured he had all the light he needed. He'd be damned if he'd give up now. He knew the book was there somewhere. Hell, he'd put it on the overflow shelf himself, and only a week ago at that! Slaughterhouse Five. He'd sold the last copy off the front shop shelves just that afternoon, not long after he and Ed had come back from the park. Some kind of war-story, the man who'd bought it had said. Written by a guy named Vonnegut…. Sounded kind of interesting, in fact. Jack thought he might read it himself before he took it out to the shop.

But where the hell was it? When they'd unpacked the boxes from the last library book sale and put the books on these shelves, he'd arranged all the fiction in alphabetical order by author. He didn't need to ask anyone if that was how it should be done. He'd just done it. It made sense. That was the way fiction was shelved in the shop, after all. And it certainly made it easier to locate replacements for stock as it was sold.

He slapped his forehead. How could he be so dumb! Alphabetic order. Vonnegut. Ought to be right at the end. He sidestepped down the aisle, scanning the shelves at eye level as he went. He reached the last bookcase. Must be on the top shelf, he thought. He cocked his head back. It was hard enough to read the spines, even with the bulb right overhead. Despite himself, he wished that he'd remembered to bring his new glasses with him.

"Let's see, now," he muttered to himself. "Van Vechten. Nope…. Vidal. Gettin' close…. Vonnegut!" Jack let out a whoop of triumph.

God, there were a lot of 'em by that guy Vonnegut, though. Jack didn't recollect there being so many. The guy must be mighty busy. Still, Jack was sure that he'd seen Slaughterhouse Five. You don't forget a title like that. Yep. There it was. Jack reached up to grab it.

With a loud "Pop!" the bulb overhead blew out, plunging Jack into darkness just as his hand closed on the book. He tugged. It came free. But so did something else. Something heavy. It hit the floor hard, right at Jack's feet. Made a hell of a racket, too. And, whatever it was, it sounded like it had burst open.

His eyes blinking, still dazzled by the final, explosive flare from the now-dark bulb, Jack squatted down and felt around him. There it was! Some sort of cardboard file box. Bigger than a book. "Must 'a been jammed in right at the end of the shelf," Jack muttered to himself. "Empty now, though. Wouldn't ya know it!"

Good thing he was starting to get his eyesight back. And it was also lucky that the remaining bulb gave him just enough light to see by. He put Slaughterhouse Five down and started gathering up the contents of the cardboard file. The first thing he came to was a cigar box, the lid held down with a couple of rubber bands. There was stuff in it, too. It rattled when he picked it up. Then he found something else—something long and heavy, he thought, wrapped in what felt like an old t-shirt. It, too, was secured with a couple of ties. And there was a big envelope, stuffed full of papers. That was all. At least it was all he could find.

Suddenly it got even darker. A figure stepped between Jack and the remaining bulb. "Need any help?" It was a man's voice, sounding unnaturally loud in the silent room

Jack, startled, jerked around. Then he relaxed. Ed stood at the end of the aisle. His face was lost in shadow, his body outlined in the light from the single naked bulb.

"Sorry I startled you, Jack," he said. "I was heading down to the shop when I heard the crash. You OK?"

"Yep," Jack replied sheepishly. "Thought I'd do a little re-stockin' this evenin'. Bulb blew just as I grabbed this book off the shelf." He brandished Slaughterhouse Five. Then he held up the things he'd picked off the floor. "I pulled a box down. Reckon that's what you heard. This stuff was in it. Went all over. Don't know what it all is."

"That a fact?" said Ed. Jack thought his voice sounded a little strained. Ed paused, and then continued: "Well. So long as you're all right. Want a hand?" He took a couple of steps forward, but Jack was already on his feet.

"I suppose you'll want to take a look at that treasure of yours?" Ed asked. Not waiting for an answer, he walked over to the work table. Jack followed him and put his load down on the scarred wooden surface.

"Slaughterhouse Five?" Ed chuckled inanely. "Damn! If that doesn't beat all!"

Jack eyed Ed more closely. "Just what ails that boy?" he wondered silently. But he kept the question to himself.

"Why not open the cigar box first?" Ed said, his tone suggesting both resignation and regret. And Jack did just that, slipping the rubber bands off the box and dumping its contents on the table. The harsh light from the naked overhead bulb revealed a small pile of colored ribbon and gleaming metal. Three Instamatic prints lay face down beneath the pile.

"Well I'll be damned!" Jack blurted out. "They're medals! Military medals."

"Sure looks like it, Jack," replied Ed. "Sure does." His voice now had an oddly detached, almost mechanical quality. He sounded like a teacher reading a lesson to a classroom full of bored students. Then he reached into the pile and fished out one medal. A gold-bordered heart bearing a cameo portrait of George Washington hung suspended from a purple-and-white-striped ribbon. "You don't happen to recognize this, do you, Jack?" Ed asked.

"Yep," he replied. He'd seen that one before. "That's a Purple Heart."

"Right," said Ed. "What about this one?" A large, five-pointed gold star with a smaller silver inset dangled from a red-white-and-blue ribbon in Ed's fingers.

"Silver Star?" said Jack, not entirely sure that he was right. Then, when Ed inclined his head approvingly, Jack added, "Looks like this stuff belonged to some kind of hero."

But Ed gave no sign he'd heard. He lifted a circular bronze disk into the light. On it, a dragon sheltered behind a grove of bamboo. Before Jack could say anything, though, Ed threw it down on the pile again. Then he swept the pile of medals to one side. "What do you say we take look at these snaps instead?"

Jack nodded, not knowing what else to do.

Ed turned the first one over. Jack saw a badly-faded, grainy color print. Two guys—infantryman, no doubt about it: steel pots, fatigue trousers, sweaty olive-drab t-shirts, web-gear—were standing on either side of a hole in the ground. They had rifles slung muzzle-down over their shoulders. M-16s. "Vietnam," Jack thought. "It's gotta be Vietnam." The two standing men had hold of a third. They were gripping him under the arms and hauling him up out of the hole. Some sort of tunnel entrance, Jack realized. The third man was just half-way out. His head was thrown back and his face was all twisted up. He looked like he was gulping air. Or screaming. He was wearing an olive-drab t-shirt, too, but it was so wet that it looked black. After a second or two, Jack realized that the stuff soaking through the third man's t-shirt wasn't sweat.

There was another man in the picture, but only his head and arms were visible. His arms went around the neck of the guy who was being hauled out of the hole. It looked almost like a lover's embrace, but the fourth man's hands were tied together at the wrists, and his head sagged to one side. It had just cleared the hole when the picture was snapped. The eyes stared sightlessly at the cameraman. The mouth hung open and slack. The tongue protruded—a pale pink triangle vivid against an ebony face.

Ed turned over the second photo. It was even more faded than the first, but Jack could tell that it showed seven bodies. Six were naked. All were very small and very thin, with ragged mops of black hair and oriental features. Five seemed to be grinning impossibly wide grins. Grotesque grins. Jack looked again. The five weren't grinning, he realized. Their throats had been cut. The sixth wasn't grinning either. He had a long, ragged gash running from his crotch to his breastbone. Several loops of bowel protruded from the slash.

The seventh corpse lay a little way off to one side, under a poncho. Only the feet were visible. All but the soles were black.

Ed started to turn over the last photo. Jack had seen enough. He didn't want to see any more. He reached forward to stop Ed. Then he thought better of it. Still, his hand hovered in the air over the table for several seconds before sinking back down.

Giving no sign that he'd noticed, Ed turned over the last photo. Jack sighed inwardly with relief. There were no more bodies, no more terrible, mirthless grins. Just the same man that he'd seen being hauled out of the tunnel entrance. The man had stripped off the sodden t-shirt and was sitting quietly on the lip of the hole in the ground, legs dangling down. He was slim and young and he was working intently on something he was holding in his lap. Jack realized that he was cleaning something—a knife? Yes, that was it. A knife. And the slim young man was now wearing glasses. Wire-rimmed glasses with squarish lenses. Definitely not military-issue. Jack was sure he'd seen those glasses before. And he knew where. He looked up.

The glasses in the photo looked back at him. Jack noticed the worn gold-fill and the soldered repairs on the frame for the first time. And he saw the man he'd seen in the picture. No longer thin. No longer young. But the same man. The man whose knife had cut short six other men's lives somewhere in the black depths of an underground chamber of horrors. The man who'd then dragged another man, a man already dead, out into the sun.

Ed broke the silence. He no longer seemed ill at ease. Just matter-of-fact. "So you think this stuff belongs to 'some kind of hero'? You think so, Jack? I gotta wonder about that. Maybe these trinkets belong to some guy who just exceeded his quota. You think maybe that might be it?" He paused, then continued: "Either way, though, it doesn't make much difference to them, does it?" And he gestured with his thumb toward the photo of the seven bodies.

Jack nodded silently. There didn't seem to be anything to say.

"Let's see now. What's next?" Ed's eyes surveyed the table top as if seeing it for the first time. "Oh, yeah…. This." He reached for the heavy bundle and snapped off the ties, unrolling the t-shirt wrapping like a carpet-salesman showing the latest pattern to a hot prospect.

In seconds, a long, thin knife lay exposed to view on the table. It was a working knife. Jack could see that. Ribbed metal grip, straight cross-guard, slim metal-tipped black leather sheath stained with mildew and…"What else?" Jack wondered, his lips moving as if in silent prayer…no, it was better not to think about that, he decided. But he couldn't escape knowing that he was looking at a specialized tool. A killing tool. And he was certain—horribly certain—that he'd seen this particular blade before. It was the knife in the picture. The knife that had done those terrible things. And the man who'd wielded the knife was now standing before him. A man he'd thought he knew.

Moving quietly, with almost ritual solemnity, Ed picked the knife up and slid the blade from its sheath.

To be continued…


Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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