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Everybody sees the ants, p.3
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       Everybody Sees the Ants, p.3

           A. S. King
 
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I tried to look like I didn’t give a shit. “Whatever. I’m in enough trouble as it is. My parents got called into a meeting next week. They’re going to test me or something.”

  “What? Test if you’re an idiot?”

  I nudged him on the arm. “Yeah, right?”

  “Because I can tell them that,” he said.

  The meeting was on a Tuesday. But Nader found me on Monday, in the locker room after gym.

  “Hey, Linderman! Pay attention!” he shouted.

  Then he grabbed the shortest, scrawniest kid in the locker room and threw him into the corner bench. He had his friends hold him down, take off his clothes, and blindfold him with his smelly gym uniform. The more the kid screamed and kicked, the more of Nader’s minions helped to hold him down, legs open. I could see him struggling against their hands, trying to bring his knees together. I could see him shaking. Breathing heavily. Panicking. Gagging.

  While the other boys chanted “Don’t barf, pussy!” Nader produced a banana from his gym locker, walked over to the toilets, dipped it, and said, “Watch closely, Linderman, because this is what snitches get.”

  That night I made my first booby trap.

  RESCUE MISSION #49—BOOBY TRAP

  I was in a pit, up to my knees in water. It was raining frogs. Big, fat green raindrops with legs that hopped the minute they landed. They were in my shorts. In my shirt. They were in my brain. There were leeches sucking life out of my ankles and calves. The frogs were trying to gnaw them off with their sharp frog teeth. It was agony.

  This was my forty-ninth mission to rescue Granddad, so it wasn’t the first time I’d seen frog rain, leeches or the jungle. So far we’d never quite made it all the way out. Obviously.

  On our many journeys together, Granddad had showed me how to make booby traps, but I’d never done it by myself before. I took my machete to the bamboo and whittled it into spikes. A hundred spikes. No one could see me because the pit was a mile off the jungle path and hidden by underbrush that was impossible to get through.

  Granddad was sleeping ten feet away. I’d helped him escape Frankie’s prison camp the night before, and we’d been hacking through the vast jungle all day. I stayed in the pit through the night, carving spikes until they were sharp enough to cut stone. I tested one on my left index finger, and I barely had to connect to draw blood. I set them into the trap and covered the hole around me.

  Then I was so tired I fell asleep standing up, my head resting on the muddy side of the frog-drenched pit, still knee-deep in leeches.

  Granddad Harry woke me up inside the dream.

  “You ready?”

  He pulled me out and set me on the side of the hole. There were so many leeches, I thought I’d rather amputate my legs than pull each one off. The rain had stopped, but not for long. The sky was still cloudy, and this break was the cruel joke of the rainy season—a moment to pretend you weren’t soaked to the marrow and being eaten alive by the jungle.

  Granddad dragged me to the shelter he’d made out of a tarp and three bamboo poles. I said, “I need to cover the pit. Finish the job.”

  He thought I was delirious, and I probably was. My legs were just blood and bites and animals and teeth. I passed out by the time he got to the fourth leech. There were at least one hundred to go.

  When I came to, curled under the tarp, it was raining frogs again. I looked over to my booby trap and it was perfect. My legs ached as if they were shot with salt pellets. Even the bones hurt. When I looked down, and my eyes adjusted to the dim monsoon light, I saw that my legs looked as if they’d been attacked by a tiger.

  Granddad said, “You need to heal those legs, son.”

  “Ughhhh.” This was supposed to be me speaking, but I couldn’t speak. I drooled out this sound.

  “Go back to sleep. I’ll try to get us to a hospital.”

  I knew he was lying. How could an escaped POW from the Vietnam War walk into a hospital with his wounded half-dream grandson and get help? It was impossible. I was going to die there.

  If I was going to die, then I wanted to die with honor. I’d rescued my long-missing grandfather, and I wanted him to get out the rest of the way without me.

  I said, “Iiihyyyyy.”

  If I was going to die, then I wanted to die without secrets. I tried to tell Granddad about the banana incident and what Nader did to snitches.

  I said, “Ttrroooooo.”

  Nothing came out right. The leeches ate my brain. They ate my tongue.

  Granddad Harry stroked my head and handed me a cigar. “Congratulations on your first booby trap, son. Now go back home and get yourself some rest.”

  • • •

  When I woke up, out of breath and completely freaked out, I tried to calm myself with the words Mom always said when I’d woken up from jungle dreams before: “It was just a bad dream, Lucky. Just a bad dream.”

  But it wasn’t just a dream. I still had the cigar in my hand.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN HIDES THINGS UNDER HIS BED

  Last night after dinner and his “Fighting is for sissies” declaration, Dad showed up at my bedroom door.

  “Help me take down the flag?” he said.

  I followed him to the front lawn, where we took down the POW/MIA flag, followed by the American flag. Usually he does this by himself, so it was nice helping him fold them into perfect triangles.

  After that he went back to work and I went into my room and read my book. It’s called One Shot, One Kill, and it’s about snipers in different American wars. Lara Jones never fails to tell me that my reading about war makes me weird, but I can’t get her fascination with reading about fairies and wizards, so I guess that makes us even.

  After the dreams started to come every other month or so—when I about was nine—I started reading about the war as much as I could. My elementary school library had a set of World Book encyclopedias and I pulled out the U–V volume one day and found “The Vietnam War” on page 372 and read about it, even though I had no real idea of what it was talking about. All sorts of names and places I’d never heard of (Gulf of Tonkin, Laos, Cambodia, Vietcong, Indochina, Ho Chi Minh). Dates (1957, 1964, 1973, 1975). Numbers (approximately 9,000,000 US military served; 58,000 dead; 300,000 wounded; 2,300 missing at the end of the war). And there were three pictures: one of a helicopter hovering inches above a clearing in the jungle, and three soldiers providing cover; one of protesters at the Capitol in Washington, DC; and one of a bunch of Vietnamese people stuffed into a helicopter during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.

  Every time I went to the library, I revisited page 372 to see if I could understand more. This went on through middle school, when I started to read other Vietnam-related books, too. I figured out who “Charlie” was—that it was just a nickname for the enemy, the Vietcong, or the VC: the Communist soldiers fighting for North Vietnam to take over our allies in South Vietnam.

  Then, when I was twelve, I took a trip to the attic to find an old baseball mitt, and I discovered the box—the box from Granny Janice’s house filled with keepsakes and paperwork and books and letters about Granddad Harry’s case. Even though it was a hot, late-spring day and the attic was sweltering, I went through the whole box, paper by paper. That’s where I found One Shot, One Kill. It’s where I found all the letters between Granny Janice and the government. It’s where I found out she was a big-time member of the POW/MIA movement who spoke at rallies and national meetings and worked with the families of the missing. There were newspaper clippings, including a big one about how the government decided to classify all missing as “presumed dead” and how Granny Janice refused to see it that way.

  It quoted her. “No one has proved to me that my husband isn’t still alive somewhere in Southeast Asia. So, as far as I’m concerned, if even one man is alive, we owe him more than this—than presuming him dead for the sake of tidying paperwork.”

  There were more than twenty clippings, from places all over the country where she was invited to speak. Some had pictures. There wa
s even a picture of her at the White House. This made me realize that Granny was a hero as much as Granddad was.

  At the bottom of the box, I found a shoe box full of love letters between her and Granddad Harry from the time he was in training all the way up to when he was captured. I took it and hid it under my bed at the bottom of an old box of Transformers.

  There’s this one letter I read nearly every day.

  Dear Janice,

  I’m sorry it’s been so long since I wrote. Back in August they plucked me right out of my platoon and sent me for training in the mountains over by Long Binh. I’m now a US Army sniper.

  Last week I sat in a tree for over twenty-four hours watching a VC spy with his family in a village. When I dropped him, I watched his wife and kids throw themselves on his dead body. Janice, God knows if anyone did it to you, I’d find them in hell and make them wish they didn’t. When I killed deer with my father, it never felt like this.

  But I don’t want you to know these things. You are a beautiful woman who deserves to hear beautiful things. This will make you laugh: They gave me a nickname. Because I’m so good at my job (a confirmed twenty kills) the enemy has a price on my head, but so far Charlie can’t catch me. So my PL named me Lucky. Lucky Linderman. Has a ring to it, don’t you think?

  Sometimes I dream of you and your skin. The way you smell. And I know that this will all be over soon and we can make perfect love with each other again. The boys on the front had magazines with pinups, and they talked about how one day they would score women like that, but they’re kids. They don’t know what love is. Here they learn what hate is, and I am so sad that they might never know love because hate came first. Maybe they will miss out on having a woman like you, and I feel sorry for them.

  I can’t wait to be a great father to Victor and an outstanding husband to you. Janice, you deserve it. Since that day I saw you in chemistry class with that canary yellow skirt, I wanted to make every day Christmas for you. I know waiting for me must be hard. Please remember how much I love you.

  All my love,

  Harry

  This letter was the last personal letter Granny Janice received. Then, he was gone.

  No one could explain it. In the box in the attic, we have a ton of letters from the government that asked to change Harry’s status to “presumed dead.” But they never had proof. No bones or tags or anything. No one ever returned his wedding ring or his teeth. In the end, they changed the status without her permission, but it’s a lie.

  The last she ever heard, he might have been alive in a Lao prison camp in 1987, fourteen years after the end of the war. This information came from fifteen unrelated sources—mostly refugees and boat people, and only thanks to the civilian POW/MIA organization that Granny Janice had worked for. The Pathet Lao (Communist Laos) returned very few US prisoners after the Vietnam War.

  Under a dozen.

  This was okay because we didn’t technically have a war with Laos. This was okay because our government wanted to move the nation into a more positive political era. This was not okay with the more than six hundred families who’d lost track of their loved ones in Laos.

  Of course, it was easy to assume that these men who never returned from the war had died from jungle diseases. Jungle diseases suck. There’s dysentery, which goes like this: constant bloody diarrhea until you die. And malaria, which goes something like this: fever, body aches, vomiting and convulsions until you die. Also beriberi, which sounds way fruitier than this: weight loss, body pain, going crazy, swelling limbs, paralysis and heart abnormalities until you die.

  It was also easy to assume that these missing men had died from an assortment of war wounds—from stinging shrapnel to torture injuries to booby-trap infections, thanks to the practice of coating spikes in a variety of infectious materials. But some men survive all sorts of crazy stuff, and Communists at the time were known for holding live prisoners for use as political currency or a ticket out of their unstable country.

  So every time the government tried to make Granny Janice sign a piece of paper declaring Harry dead, she fought it. I can see her saying, “Up yours! My Harry is not dead!” Because Granny Janice figured Harry could survive anything to see her one last time.

  Of course, now I know it, too.

  RESCUE MISSION #101—PLAYING GIN WITH FRANKIE

  Granddad, his guard Frankie and I are playing a game of gin under the canopy of the jungle. I’m winning. Granddad is not really paying attention, because he is too busy swatting red ants off his ankles. He’s missing three fingers on his left hand.

  “Aren’t you guys getting eaten alive out here?”

  I look down at my ankles. No ants. “Nope.”

  Frankie ignores us and is concentrating hard on his cards.

  Granddad gets up and sees that his chair is right on top of an anthill, so he moves to another part of the card table, and play continues.

  Frankie turns to me and says, “How you dealing with that jerk in school, Lucky Lindo-man?”

  I shrug. “It’s under control,” I say. I hadn’t talked about Nader with Granddad for years. How could I complain about titty twisters at recess to a guy who was missing his limbs or his teeth or his whole damn life? I know he told me to come to him if ignoring Nader didn’t work, and I wanted to, but I’d stopped telling any adults about it in real life, and here in the jungle it felt too whiny.

  And I wasn’t there to whine. I was there to outsmart Frankie, kill him if I had to, and then rescue Granddad Harry.

  “Gin!” I say, and I lay down my run of diamonds and four queens.

  Frankie picks up his rifle and puts it to my head. “Why don’t you tell us the truth, kid?”

  Granddad is standing now. “Frankie, put the gun down.”

  “But he don’t tell you the truth, Harry. He lie.”

  I duck, punch Frankie in the gut and grab his rifle from him. I kick him to the ground and put my bare foot on his neck. Granddad sits on his torso. I put the rifle to his head.

  “It’s none of your goddamn business how my life is,” I say. “You got that?”

  He nods quickly. My finger jitters on the trigger.

  “Don’t kill me! Please!” he says.

  I laugh. But my trigger finger just won’t pull.

  Granddad says, “Don’t, Lucky.”

  “I’m getting you out of here, Granddad. For good. Forever.”

  “I let you go,” Frankie says. “You go and I never see you again!”

  I kick him in the face. His nose bleeds instantly.

  “Lucky, stop,” Granddad says.

  “Why are you defending him? He’s tortured you for your whole life!”

  “He’s fed me, too.”

  I look at Granddad and figure he must be suffering from some freaky kind of Stockholm syndrome, where you bond with a kidnapper.

  “He brainwashed your ass,” I say. I point the rifle right at Frankie’s temple. “I’m taking you home.”

  When I feel my finger pull the trigger, I wake up.

  • • •

  Next to me on my pillow is a winning hand of gin. An ace, two, three, four, five and six of diamonds and four queens. The cards are coated in four decades’ worth of jungle dirt.

  I pull out my Transformers box from under my bed and put the cards in, alongside all my other jungle souvenirs that I’d collected over the years: the very first one—a small rusty bolt I’d found when I was ten, the cigar from my first booby trap, a small block of wood with nails hammered through it. A petrified frog. Two rocks. A map. An empty C ration can. An assortment of metal parts.

  I lie back down for a while, feeling like a jungle hero. But then I hear Mom and Dad talking in the living room, and I remember that I am a weak suburban failure.

  LUCKY LINDERMAN IS NOT MAKING SCRAMBLED EGGS

  Le Smugasbord is closed on Mondays, so we treat Mondays in the summertime the way most people treat Sunday. Dad is required to stick around all day if possible, though he usually only makes
it until midafternoon before something we do makes him mad. Around ten, Mom comes to my bedroom door and says, “Lucky? You want some brunch?”

  I groan and tell her I’ll be there in ten minutes.

  Through my one half-open eye, I see her put a pair of swimming trunks on my dresser. “I bought these a size too big last year. I think they’ll fit you now.”

  When I arrive in the kitchen, I realize I’ve been set up. The eggs are still in the carton next to an empty bowl. The whisk is sitting on the counter next to the bowl. There’s a loaf of bread by the fridge, and an empty frying pan on the stove.

  Oh, God. Not this again—the once-a-month attempt to give-a-shit-through-cooking.

  Before I can turn around and go back to my room, Dad arrives next to me, and Mom is at the kitchen doorway.

  “French toast or scrambled eggs? It’s up to you,” he says.

  “I don’t care. Whatever you guys want,” I say.

  “Nope,” Mom says. “It’s your choice!”

  I go to the cabinet with the cereal in it and pull out a box of Cheerios. I grab a bowl and am about to get a spoon out of the drawer, but Dad stops me.

  “Come on, man. Just for fun. Let’s make breakfast together.”

  “Why?” I ask.

  “Why not? How come you don’t want to cook with your old man anymore?”

  “Dunno. Just don’t think I’m good at it,” I say.

  “You were great at it once. Aren’t you the only person in the family who can crack an egg and not get shell?”

  “I doubt I could do that anymore.”

  “These things take practice. Remember when we used to make pancakes and waffles together?”

  I was seven. That makes it over half my life ago. I don’t tell him this.

  “I’m fine with cereal. I’m not really that hungry.”

  “I don’t think that’s the real reason,” Dad says.

 
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