FLASHBACK


By Herschel Cozine



Helicopter blades whirred overhead, three whirlybirds sweeping low over the dense foliage. Jack pressed his body farther into the earth, his rifle at the ready, his eyes searching the underbrush for any sign of movement.

A plane swooped down, the roaring engines drowning out the blades of the helicopters. Unleashing its load, it quickly lifted into the air and disappeared. A burst of flame exploded less than a hundred yards from where Jack was lying.

"Napalm!" someone shouted. Jack watched in horror as the orange flames consumed a small hut. Agonized screams emanated from the hut. A small figure appeared, engulfed in flames, throwing itself on the ground and rolling back and forth.

"Napalm! For Christ sake, let's get out of here!"

Jack sat up straight, his thin blanket falling from his shoulders. The morning fog was still hugging the ground. His heart beat rapidly as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Looking around, he saw the familiar brick wall, the shopping cart with one bad wheel holding his earthly possessions, and the makeshift bed — a thick cardboard box — beneath him.

Vietnam. A nightmare that all too often haunted him, forty years later. He shook his head to clear it. He stood up slowly, and stretched.

He was hungry. He dug into his pants pocket. Fifty-seven cents. Enough for a donut. And there were the aluminum cans in the shopping cart that would bring about three more dollars. That would get him a breakfast of sorts at McDonalds unless he wanted the food to last longer by buying a can of beans and a can of soup at the supermarket. He wasn't welcome at the big markets and had been turned away the last few times he tried to go there. He had to do his shopping at the MiniMart at the Chevron station, and their prices were higher. So his money wouldn't go as far. One of the clerks, also a Nam veteran, would knock a few cents off his purchase. But he only worked on weekends. He had resorted to stealing a can now and then, but it wasn't in his nature to do that.

* * *

Jack and Anna had been married exactly two months when he was ordered to Nam. Anna was devastated. Jack tried to comfort her.

"It's only a year," he said. "I'll be back before you know it."

"A year! Oh, Jack, I'm scared."

"There's nothing to be afraid of," Jack said reassuringly. "I've got you to come home to. That will keep me safe."

"You may never come home!" she cried, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean..."

Jack gently removed her hand and kissed her. "It's all right, baby. It's all right."

He made love to her, more tenderly than he had ever done before. She responded with a fierceness he didn't know she possessed.

The next morning he left.

* * *

He needed a drink. Usually he could cadge one at the bar on Seventh Street. But not at this time of the day. He swallowed hard, tasting bile, and reached for his boots. Slipping them on, he stood up and fished in the shopping cart for the package of crackers.

They were gone.

"Damn," he muttered. He looked around, seeing no one. It had to have been Mike who took them. He had caught him in the past. Throwing the empty bag on the ground, Jack took hold of the shopping cart and wheeled it out onto the sidewalk. He would find Mike and make him pay for the crackers. It isn't right for one man to steal from another.

Mike, a homeless alcoholic and drug addict, had his spot in a small cluster of bushes down by the slough. Jack found him still asleep, his small body curled up in a fetal position, his breathing coming in erratic snorts.

Jack kicked him awake. "You took my goddam crackers."

Mike sat up, squinting to focus on the man standing over him.

"I didn't take nothing of yours," he said.

"Liar!" Jack shouted back. "You owe me for my crackers."

"Didn't take 'em I tell you," Mike said. "I ain't left here since yesterday morning."

Jack felt a sudden rage welling within him, a common feeling since his return from Nam. He pulled Mike to his feet. "Pay up, damn you."

Mike pulled free and stepped back. "What's the matter with you, you moron. I told you I didn't take your crackers."

Jack frowned in thought as a vague image formed in his fog filled brain. He reached in his pocket and extracted a cellophane wrapper. From the crackers. He strained to remember. He had been drunk the night before, and must have eaten them when he got back from the bar.

Mike pointed to the wrapper. "You ate them yourself, you crazy old fool."

Muttering, Jack left Mike and wheeled the cart down the sidewalk towards the park. He checked the sky. It must be about ten o'clock, too late to catch breakfast at the soup kitchen. Besides, it was on the other end of town, so he seldom ate there. A long bus ride with a transfer took too long and cost too much.

He cashed the cans at the recycle center, pocketed the money — two dollars and seventy-eight cents. He had guessed it to be $2.86. Not a bad guess.

Breakfast or booze? He needed both.

* * *

The fighting was intense. Mortar shells fell behind Jack, less than a few hundred yards, shaking the ground and echoing in his ears under the helmet. The fear he felt was paralyzing and he had to force himself to act.

"Oh God, let me live," he whispered. His tortured thoughts turned to Anna, and he felt reason return. He would live for her if not for himself.

"Over there!" Jack heard a shout from a soldier to his right. He looked up to see a group of Viet Cong soldiers running toward them across an open field, their rifles spewing rounds that sprayed around him, missing him by inches.

He fired back blindly, hoping his rounds would find their target. His rifle, overheating from his rapid firing, jammed. Jack threw it down and reached to his belt for a grenade.

He never heard the bullet that shattered his leg. Writhing in pain, he lay in the field for what seemed an eternity before the medics arrived and carried him to the aid station.

Morphine for the pain. Surgery, poorly and hastily done, repaired the leg, but did nothing for the pain.

The leg wound, not enough to send him home, throbbed unbearably, especially at night. Morphine had taken care of that when he was in the field hospital. Out in the jungle it was not available. Nor was alcohol.

* * *

Jack rubbed his stubbled chin, squeezing the money in his hand. He wheeled the cart down the street, paused in front of McDonalds, then moved on. A few doors down was a liquor store.

He found the wine, an off brand. Cheap. Not very good, but all he could afford. Handing the money to the clerk, he stumbled outside, threw the bottle on top of the dirty clothes in the shopping cart, and walked stiffly to the park bench at the end of the street.

His leg throbbed, almost as badly as it did when he was in Nam. But it was not a "disability" in the eyes of the military; thus no checks forthcoming. He had signed papers to that effect when he was discharged, relieving the military of any financial responsibility. At the time all he wanted to do was get the hell out of the army and back to civilian life.

But the trauma, psychological as much as physical, was deep and permanently etched in him. He could still hear the echoes of the shouts that greeted him.

"Baby killer! Murderer!"

He sought release in alcohol.

He unscrewed the cap and took a long drink of the cheap wine. Like a powerful medicine the wine took effect almost immediately. His leg quit throbbing, his tortured thoughts subsided. The sun was shining a little brighter and he could hear the birds in the trees. He sat back, closed his eyes, and dozed off.

The helicopters whirred overhead.

"Napalm!"

A searing pain in his leg shook him awake. Shaking and scared, he sat up straight. Squinting into the afternoon sun, he saw the outlines of a blurry figure standing over him.

Jolson — Patrolman Ben Jolson — a hardnosed, unsympathetic cop who wasn't even born when Jack was cowering in the Vietnam village, glared down at him. Some cops looked the other way. But not Jolson.

"Move along," Jolson said. "You know the drill, pal." He tapped his nightstick against Jack's boot. "Move!"

Jack stood up unsteadily, groggy and confused.

"Goddam winos. Druggies. Too lazy to work for a living." Jolson taunted him often with such comments, hustling him out of the park with threats and a nightstick.

"Public park, chum. Mothers don't want their kids exposed to the likes of you. Now get along."

Jack didn't resist. He mumbled incoherently, stuffed the bottle in his ragged jacket and shuffled out of the park, wheeling the cart.

By the time he got back to his spot behind the theatre where he kept his cardboard bed he had collected enough cans and recyclable bottles to fill a trash bag. It might get him a dollar, slightly more, for dinner. He fingered the cardboard sign that asked passing motorists to help a veteran, decided against it and sat down heavily.

His head ached from the wine and the hot sun. He was hungry. Tired. And, although he never cared to admit it, lonely.

* * *

Jack came home one evening after another wasted day looking for work and ending up in a bar to find Anna, suitcases packed.

"I can't do this anymore," she said. I can't handle your drinking and your moods."

"Don't" Jack said. "I need you. I promise I'll do better."

"No, Jack. You'll never change. Never." She picked up the suitcase and stepped out onto the porch. Turning to him she shook her head sadly.

"I was right," she said. "My husband never came back from Vietnam. I don't know who you are, but you're not the man I fell in love with."

Jack pleaded and begged. "I'll change. I swear I will."

Anna sighed heavily. "When was the last time you had a job?"

"It wasn't too long ago," Jack said.

"Three months. Janitor at the mall. You were there for three weeks."

"I..."

"No," Anna said, holding up her hand. "No excuses. You missed work three times, showed up drunk four times, and got into a fight with your boss. Let's face it Jack. You can't handle responsibility. You need help and I'm not able to do it. I can't tell you how sorry I am."

Before he could reply she was gone.

He didn't blame her. Sometimes he hated himself for what he had become. He escaped in drink. No drugs, he thought with as much pride as he allowed himself. Never any drugs. Except morphine. But that was a long time ago.

Losing Anna, however undeserving of her he may have been, only served to hasten his downward spiral.

* * *

Another search of his pockets and the rumpled pair of pants in the shopping cart yielded seventeen cents. With the thirty-eight cents left over from morning it would buy some cheese crackers at MiniMart. He considered it for a moment, then pocketed the money and leaned back. A few crackers would do little to satisfy his hunger. He needed a real meal.

His thoughts turned to Anna. She would be home now.

Jack put the thought out of his mind. It wasn't that she was unkind to him. Quite the contrary. She helped him as much as she could — with food and occasionally money. But she had a menial job, and expenses that took almost every cent she made. It may not appear so to others, but he had his pride. He seldom asked her for anything more than a meal. He never asked to stay over. She wouldn't allow it anyway. She made that plain when they split up. No divorce. Neither one could afford it.

He took comfort in the fact that she still had feelings for him. He wasn't certain why. Maybe she clung to the life they had before Vietnam. If only he could do the same.

He stood up and looked around. The hunger pains increased and he tried to remember the last time he ate. Nothing today. Just the wine. He took the bottle from his pocket, unscrewed the cap and drained the last of it. Tossing the bottle aside he lurched to the street and headed for McDonalds.

He lifted the lid from the trash bin, extracted a few aluminum cans and threw them into the shopping cart. A box partially filled with french fries lay near the top. Jack lifted it from the bin and ate a few. Greasy and cold, they sat in his stomach like lead weights. He reached into the shopping cart, took the can and drank the remaining soda. Warm and flat, it did little to help. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and limped down the sidewalk to his spot behind the theatre.

It was getting late. Jack, still in need of nourishment and aching for a drink, felt panic overtaking his thoughts. Panic attacks were another of his problems. And they seemed to be coming oftener and stronger. He wiped perspiration from his forehead and stumbled out into the street.

It was dark. The clock in the service station across the street said 9:45. The dryness in his mouth made it hard for him to breathe. He crossed the street to the service station, picked up the water hose used for filling car radiators. He drank from it, the water running down his chin and soaking his shirt.

The cashier stuck his head out of the window and shouted to him.

"Customers only, buddy. Get away from there."

Jack dropped the hose and staggered back across the street. The movie would be letting out in another fifteen or twenty minutes, and the sidewalk would be crowded.

A lone figure appeared at the far end of the block. A woman, walking a small dog, approached slowly, stopping to let the dog explore the light posts and bushes. Jack, his throat still dry and starting to ache, headed toward her. A dollar. That's all he wanted from her. A dollar — two if she wanted.

The dog stiffened as Jack approached, his tiny body quivering with excitement. The lady, picking up the vibrations of her pet, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and gripped the leash tightly. She eyed Jack warily as he walked toward her unsteadily. Unaware of her nervousness, Jack lurched forward.

"What do you want?" she said.

Jack started to hold out his hand. The dog, sensing danger to its mistress, lunged forward, barking shrilly. Jack paid little attention. A harmless creature, no match for an adult, all noise with nothing else to go with it.

Ignoring the dog, Jack took another step forward. The dog leaped at him, catching him on the arm.

"No, Mimi," the woman shouted, tugging at the dog.

Razor sharp teeth dug into his arm. Jack swore and grabbed the dog's head.

"Goddam it!" Jack yelled, "get him off of me."

The woman was crying now, watching with horror as Jack fought with the small dog, his hands flailing wildly. With his free hand Jack grabbed the dog by the neck and pulled. This only served to make the dog bite harder. In a blind rage, Jack swung wildly. He missed the dog and caught the woman squarely on the back of her head. She cried out and collapsed to the sidewalk, hitting it hard. Blood appeared from under her head.

Jack had managed to free himself of the dog, took it by the throat and squeezed the life out of it. It was an instinctive move, learned in Nam. Hand to hand combat had taught him how to kill with an efficiency and quickness that was necessary for survival. The dog fell to the ground next to his mistress.

Jack surveyed the scene without emotion. Holding his throbbing arm, he stooped down and picked up the lady's purse.

From behind him, Jack heard a shout. "Hey, what's going on here?"

He whirled to see a man running toward him.

Dropping the purse, Jack ran into the alley behind the theatre. He scaled a fence and headed for the ravine a few hundred yards away. There was a culvert there that he had used from time to time to escape the cold and rain. He would hide there.

The woman was dead. He knew it. He had developed a recognition of death during the war. They would be looking for him, a full scale search. He had to find a place to go, away from here. South. He would go south, away from this town with all its bad memories. He would miss seeing Anna. But he couldn't stay here. Not now. Not anymore. He shook his head to clear it of the image of the woman and the dog.

In the sour, hot confines of the culvert, Jack felt himself grow sleepy. He dozed off, slipping into a troubled sleep. His arm oozed blood where the dog had bit him. His head throbbed and his stomach, still needing nourishment, growled and ached.

Then he heard them. Choppers. Police helicopters searching the area for the killer. His brain reeled at the sound. Viet Cong! Rifles pointed at him, grenades exploding, planes screaming overhead, coming closer with their instruments of death and destruction.

"Napalm!" He shouted to no one. "Napalm!"

He saw the hut go up in flame, the figure writhing on the ground, the choppers roaring overhead.

He climbed out of the culvert, picked up a rock and hurled it at the chopper.

"God damn you!" he shouted. "God damn you!"

The searchlight from the chopper caught him in its beam and held him like a trapped animal. Behind him he heard the sirens. Red and blue lights from a police car sprayed across the ground and in the trees. Uniformed officers, guns drawn, ran toward him, shouting for him to put his hands on his head.

A mortar round exploded a few yards away. Jack reached for the grenade on his belt, but it was gone. He found a small rock on the ground by his feet. Picking it up he hurled it toward the approaching figures. He dropped to the ground, waiting for the grenade to explode.

Nothing.

Jack scrambled to his feet, reached for his rifle, but grabbed only air.

The men were getting closer, shouting for him to lay down and put his hands behind his back. He would die before he was taken prisoner. Vietnam prison camps were worse than death.

Jack leaped forward, shouting as he ran.

The bullet caught him in the chest.

* * *

"Homeless," Sergeant Grimes said, staring down at the body.

"They're not violent as a rule," his partner said.

Grimes shook his head. "They're unpredictable. They get high on drugs or cheap liquor and no one knows what they're going to do. They're crazy, most of 'em."

"What do you suppose this guy was trying to do?"

Another head shake. "Dunno. There's no figuring these people." He sighed and turned away.

"Unarmed," Grimes' partner whispered.

Grimes studied the body and shook his head.

"He was coming at us. Couldn't take a chance." He looked to his partner.

"Besides, no one will ever know. A bum. No family. A killer."

The other man nodded in agreement.

"Well, there's one less for us to deal with." Grimes strolled back to the squad car, lifted the phone from its cradle and pushed the button. Identifying himself to the dispatcher, he called for the coroner.

"Got a John Doe here. Murder suspect. DOA."


Herschel Cozine has published extensively in the children's field. His stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. Work by Herschel has also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, Wolfmont Press Toys For Tots Anthologies and Woman's World. Additionally he has had many stories appear in Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full Of Bullets, Untreed Reads, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E and others. His story, "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer award.

Retired from a career in electronics, he has resumed his writing career after an extended hiatus. Herschel lives with his wife, Sue, in Santa Rosa, California, close to his children and grandchildren.

His short story "Who Killed Hamlet?" was published on omdb! in November, 2011. A second story, "The Melody Lingers On" was published online in omdb! in March, 2012.


Copyright 2012 Herschel Cozine. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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