Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Zoo and What Was Found There

This happened to a friend of mine. You probably didn't know him, a guy named Tree. Seven feet tall or so, lived on protein shakes and Red Bull, used to be in the Marines? He hasn't been around for a while, but you'd remember him.

The last time I saw him, we were at the gym. We were working in on the bench, and between his sets he's telling me about Afghanistan, the time he shot some hajji between the eyes because he thinks he's going for a gun and it's just a chocolate bar the guy wants to share. I don't know what to say, but Tree just laughs about it.

Like I said, you'd remember him.

That summer, Tree tells me, he and his squad are out on patrol near this zoo. A zoo, in Afghanistan, what the hell, right? There isn't much to it, just a few cages and a lot of rocks and dust. But the owner sees the APC and the uniforms and he starts waving his arms, saying come see the show. No one in Tree's squad speaks much hajji, and the guy doesn't speak English for shit, but that's what they figure he's saying, anyway.

So this kid with them, Simons, he's from San Francisco. This is his first tour. He wants to go in. Tree's lieutenant, for some reason he decides to humor the FNG. He calls it in as a possible situation. And they get the okay to investigate.

They get down from the APC, rifles out but they're not expecting nothing. And nothing's what they get. There's this sad looking lion, a couple monkeys just flinging handfuls of shit at anyone who comes near--Simons gets hit, Tree says, and he starts making these faces, going get it off me, get it off. I lost it right there in the weight room. Tree was a funny guy.

But, Tree says, now Simons is pissed off. Not only does the zoo suck, now he's covered in monkey shit and there's a hajji laughing at him. Rifles go up. The hajji stops laughing.

"No no, I show good," he tells them. "In cave, there."

They weren't going to hurt him, Tree says. Just scare him a little for wasting their time. But when he comes out with that, they're thinking maybe Bin Laden's in there, hiding in a pile of monkey shit. Or a weapons cache. Something, you know? So Tree and Simons, the lieutenant, a couple others, they follow him into the cave.

I was about to start my last set and Tree says no, listen, I got to tell you this. So I rack the weights and sit up. Tree's standing there, this absolutely huge guy. He's broken out in goosebumps. I ain't never told noone outside the Corps before, he says. They didn't believe me. But this shit is real. So I listen.

It's dark in the caves, Tree says. The lieutenant has put Simons on point, he goes to turn on his light, but the hajji holds up a hand and starts nodding. They do that backwards, you know? So when he nods, he means no. No light. All right, then. We put on our goggles and at first we can see okay, the goggles don't need much light. But the deeper we go the darker it gets. This smells bad and the lieutenant's getting nervous. But the hajji picks up a rope from along the wall, a good thick rope that's been there about a hundred years. We figure that means other people come here too. We might as well go see.

So we do. The hajji's been going "soon, soon" for like ten minutes. It's getting on my nerves. The lieutenant, he's squeezing his rifle so hard his knuckles could light up a room. He says we're getting out of there.

But then we round a corner and it's warmer. Up ahead there's light, our goggles start working again. Down another tunnel, the light's bright enough that we can take the goggles off. Red, purple, something between. Not steady. It's, you know. Pulsing.

When we get to the end of that run, we go around a blind turn and the hajji puts his arm out to stop Simons going over a fifty-foot drop. We look down from the edge. I still don't know how to describe it. You ever put too much soap in the sink, you run the water for a while and the bubbles build up, they're kind of splitting and growing? It was like that, a little. Only glowing like there's lights underneath it. It's beating like a fucking heart. And it's warm. We were fifty feet above it and half a mile underground, and it felt like a summer day on the beach.

Mother Mary, Simons says. So beautiful. I guess they say shit like that in San Francisco, right? All I know is it creeps me the fuck out, the way he says it. And then--

The rope, you see. The rope doesn't stop at the edge. It goes down into the pit.

The lieutenant, he's closest, he tries to stop Simons, but SImons throws him off like a toy. Grabs the rope and he's down there in three hops. The lieutenant's yelling at him, we're all yelling at him. Absolutely oblivious.

The bubbles, they . . . part for him. He's old Moses and they're the sea. They spread out  and up, and Simons walks between.

The hajji is shaking his head, slow, he's got this grin on his face, he's doesn't even realize. Like he's copping the world's best hummer and he can't believe it's happening to him.

Simons has his arms out to either side. His rifle is up with us, he's got a sidearm but there's no one to shoot even if he wanted to. Which he doesn't. He's sweating through his cammies, he doesn't even notice.

The bubbles raise up higher on either side. They hang there. And then they fall on him. All at once, like they were doing their best to behave but then gravity or the hunger got to be too much.

And Simons disappears.

We're looking for targets, yelling his name, nothing. The lieutenant has the hajji up against the wall, he's screaming at him and the hajji doesn't even notice, he's still shaking his head, he still has that smile on his face. So the lieutenant, he ices him, and not a man of us sees it, you know what I mean?

Here's the thing, though. Next thing you know, Simons is back up top, at the edge of the drop. There's bubbles coming out of his nose when he breathes.

We look back to the hajji. He's all over the cave wall, right? Except he's not. He's picking himself up. Not  a scratch.

The lieutenant--all of us--we open up on the hajji, full rock'n roll, burning through every clip we packed, and then Simons is firing at us. What the fuck? The lieutenant goes down. The other two go down. No one's shooting at me.

I freak out, I dump half a clip into Simons. He doesn't even notice he's getting lit up. He turns on me, he drops the rifle and he just fucking sprints right at me, his hands are curved like claws. The hajji's coming at me too. I keep firing, doesn't matter. I run dry. I start running up the tunnel, but I'm too slow, Simons is on my back. I'm thinking zombie movie, thinking I'm going to get my ass eaten but--this is fucked up. Simons get me down on my back. He's is under me, way stronger than he should be. He has me in a sleeper, he's ratcheting it down and it's like an iron bar, I can't get him off. The hajji crawls up my legs, onto my chest and I'm almost out, I can't--

And then the hajji breathes on me, Tree says. That's all he does. Just breathes. Lays on my chest like he's about to kiss me, but he just breathes. Simons lets the sleeper go and I can't help myself, I take a deep breath.

Next thing I know, they're rolling on the ground, laughing like this was a big joke. I'm losing my head at Simons, kicking the hell out of him and he's just taking it, laughing--

I lost track of what happened then. But after that day I never saw him again. I don't think I killed him, though. Not that I wouldn't have. I just don't think I could.

The rest of the squad came in when they heard the shooting, but by the time they found me, Simons and the hajji were long gone. The bubbles were still there, but we weren't leaving anyone there to stand guard. Not after what happened. So, instead, we brought out the the bodies and then we bugged out. Came back later with a full platoon, searched every inch of that cave system, but we never found that drop again. Never saw the bubbles, or the rope, or the zoo. As far as we could tell, nothing and no one had ever been there. But that's Afghanistan, right?

They were going to court-martial me. They thought I went high and right, that I killed the lieutenant and the rest. But the ballistics didn't match, and I just kept telling them the same thing. The truth of the whole clusterfuck. The hajji, the bubbles, Simons.

Three months later, my enlistment was up. They were hard up for bodies, they probably would have let me re-up. But I'd been having trouble breathing. When I coughed, there were these tiny purple-red bubbles in my hand. I didn't go to the medics about it, not after what happened during the investigation. So I came home. After a while, it cleared up, and I forgot about it. Until a couple months ago, when the nightmares started.

I flew home with that hajji's breath in my lungs, you know? Walked around the airport. The mall. Went to the gym, went to work. Breathing, all the while.

Tree stops and looks down at me. I start laughing my ass off. I couldn't help it. He was a funny guy.

The Marines would never have let him just go home. They'd have found it, locked him up, figured out what was wrong. Fixed it.

Wouldn't they?

One weird thing, though. Last I heard of Tree, he'd hopped a flight overseas. No forwarding address. I haven't seen him in about a year.

I'm only telling you because I've been having nightmares. And I can't seem to shake this cold. Someone ought to know.


Here's another Chuck Wendig challenge. This one was to tell (as it turns out) a ghost story set in a zoo, featuring an alien parasite. It uses a ghost story format, if not an actual ghost story. And it's waaaay more than 1000 words. But I couldn't find a big enough cut to make a difference. Any suggestions are welcome. Hope you enjoyed!

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