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Unread postPosted: Sun Jul 13, 2014 9:41 am 
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Time And Realative Dimension In Space
Time And Realative Dimension In Space
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Joined: Sat Nov 17, 2007 9:14 am
Posts: 7520
Location: In the cold chill that runs down your spine.
My Mood: Whatever I want it to be
Crawling Specters of Calcyon Haze
© 2010 ~ 2014 DRM
{Based on the concepts and characters created by Robert McCammon}

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-1-

The pungent odor of gunpowder lay thick and heavy on the city of Ashland. Remnants of Independence Day streamers, banners, and celebration posters were scattered throughout the streets, plastered on lamp posts, or prominently displayed in the darkened store front windows. The magnificent, booming fireworks display had long since ended which left only the occasional bottle rocket whizzing through the night sky before they concluded with a fizzled, muffled pop. The frequency of these lesser displays and the distant sound of firecrackers began to dwindle as even the children began to let the lingering celebration pass into their collective memories of summer.

Still, there were others that could not let the memories of the summers past go quite so easily. For them, the cost of independence and freedom was no joyous cause for celebration. While the children remembered pinwheels and sparklers, they remembered the sound of the anti-aircraft guns, the sounds of bombs, the report of bullets and the cries of agony. They were the near forgotten men, the veterans that served their country only to be remembered on this day - the day that they once again donned what relics they still possessed from their time in the armed forces and marched down the main street as the people cheered. They knew that the cheers were not so much for them or their sacrifice as much as the celebration that would soon occur. A collective mixture of youthful, ancient, broken, battered, and proud. Veterans of the Korean, Viet Nam, and Desert Storm Wars. Regardless of their age, they all were haunted by the nightmares of their youth. Their nightmares of foreign lands. Their blood soaked memories that neither therapy nor age would ever cleanse. These are the members of VFW post 7770 and tonight, they will be holding their traditional 4th of July meeting, in the Twilight Zone.


-2-

This odd collective of men filled the post assembly hall. Although they were all there as a collective group, they had, with or without conscience intent, separated into smaller groups with the occasional drunken mixer floating between tables. One such mixer was Evan Rothmore, late sixties, veteran of Viet Nam and native son of Ashland. A man of average height and build, his clothes were over washed, out of fashion, and he himself was of little consequence in town Higher Archy. However, his lack of social status did not prevent Evan from being a prominent figure of Ashland. He had that certain “A” personality that draws one’s attention – immediate attention – even as a child. His Kansas country drawl was neither unpleasant nor soothing to the ear, just loud and at most times, opinionatedly so. But tonight, he had been drinking, so his normal personality was magnified in kind to the proof of the beverage.

He excused himself from his current table, stood and paused to gather his intoxicated equilibrium. Through drooping lids and bloodshot chestnut eyes, he spied the GW’s. This was a jibe label placed on the Iraq and Afghanistan vets by the senior post members. These veterans are more notably known as Golf War vets but being that the then President also had the same initials, GW, the older vets found the irony deliciously humorous and dubbed them the GW’s, though rarely to their face. Evan, however, did not share in this unspoken candor.

“Happy 4th, G-Dubs!” Evan shouted through a yellow, toothy smile as he raised his tumbler in toast, “To ‘nother year of freedom and yer health, bwoys.”

The GW’s, with much less enthusiasm, returned his toast.

Evan seized the opportunity, grabbed a vacant seat, and reached for the opened bottle of cognac. He refilled his tumbler as he began to regale his audience with his tales of military experiences. Tales that had grown increasingly taller than what was just overheard from his last telling a few tables away – or even a few tables before that. As always, the more he drank, the louder he would become and more exaggerated the incidents would escalate. Although most everyone had heard his tales in various interpretations, none of the post members had ever called him on his accounts or recollections until now.

“Bullshit!” announced a brooding, blue-eyed man with dark, curly hair as he closed the lid of his Zippo lighter with a harsh metallic click. He wore a patched fatigue jacket that was obviously older than he was. His tanned skin began to show signs of wrinkles marking him as older than the GW’s but still younger than most the other vets in attendance. “Do you honestly expect us to believe you were at Khe Sanh, Tet, and Siagon One simultaneously?”

“Let it go, Rick,” instructed a senior member of the GW’s only to be dismissed.

“No, I don’t think I will.” Rick retorted as flipped the Zippo lid open and closed to punctuate his sentence and mood. “I’ve patiently sat here, as have we all, and listened to him compound layer upon layer of utter crap for almost twenty minutes now. No one,” he cast his brilliant blue eyes across the room and scrutinized the older vets. “ I mean no one, has called this old prick out on his recollections. There was no way he could have been at Quang Nam and Ben Tre as he claims.”

Evan slammed the near empty tumbler onto the table top. What remaining cognac exploded from the glass confines. “Hell, yer not even a member here yet there yall is, callin’ me a liar, bwoy?!”

“Liar, no.” Rick stated in unison with the lighter’s lid flip. “Bullshit Artist is the phrase I’d use.”

A few of the other post members at the nearby tables attention was now drawn. Some members began to move toward the GWs in anticipation that developing argument may turn dicey. Others came simply for the argument and brazenness of the accusation.

“Let me tell ya, bwoy, the actions I proclaim are one-hundred-percent accurate. It ain’t somethin’ I learnt in no school book or seen in a Time-Life Video Collection. I was there! I lived it and lived through it!” Evan slammed his hand palm down on the table to accentuate his meaning. “How dare ya malign what I have done fer this country - fer this township. Hell, yall ain’t even old enough to have been alive fer most them battles. Tellin’ these good folk that I’m a Bullshit Artist –” He squinted down the length of his pointed finger as if he was targeting his rifle scope. “Yer the one that’s bullshit. Don’t nobody here know yew from nothin’ yet yew got the gall to call me a liar? Huh! Yer the one whose bullshit. Whatta ya think of that, bwoy?”

Rick smiled lopsidedly and merely stared at Evan.

“What? Ain’t got nothin’ to say to me?”

Rick finished his beer and sat the bottle down. “How you been sleeping, Evan?”

A few of the vets who had gathered chuckled at the remark.

Evan shook his head as if he was trying to shake water from his ears. “What?”

Rick flipped the lid on the Zippo open and instantly closed it. “I said, how have you been sleeping?”

Evan swayed for a second before replying, “Sleepin’? I sleeps like a bay-bee. What’s it to ya?”

Rick sat the lighter down on the table top. “I thought you might have been number five. Guess not though?”

“Damn right, not!” Evan plopped down into the chair and rubbed his chin. “Battalion Five were a gunnery battalion. I was infantry, the seventy-first.”

A low rumbling of comments emitted from the others in the room. Some in agreement with Evan’s statements, others in a more inquisitive position in regards to the number five. A stout man in a red, white and blue baseball cap with “VFW Post 7770 - Ashland KS” embroidered in gold upon its face stepped from the rear of the room.

“I don’t believe the man was askin’ ‘bout your battalion number, Evan. Unless I’m mistaken, young man, you had another number in mind? Care to enlighten the rest of us?”

Rick once again produced his lopsided smile. “I’m glad you asked, Troy.” He paused briefly to point at the portraits and name plates on the wall of the Post Officers, specifically that of Troy Hardt, USAF, Lt. Colonel Retired. “I’ve been on an exploratory journey – a mission if you will – for the better part of my adult life. A mission that began when I was just a boy, twelve, maybe thirteen I think. It’s been so long, I don’t rightly remember anymore.”

“Well,” blurted Evan as he poured the last of the cognac into his tumbler. “What do ya remember, bwoy?”

-3-

The post members gathered around closer than before to hear the tale. One member sat another bottle of beer before Rick to help clear his throat. Troy flipped around a folding chair, sat his large frame upon its seat and pulled his red sweat infused collared t-shirt over his pot belly, then used the chair back to support his large folded arms.

“As I said, I was twelve or thirteen. We were on a family vacation heading to Las Vegas by way of Utah. The weather turned bad and my pop was forced to pull in to a roadside diner for shelter. You know, one of those last chance food and gas places you always find before state lines. I still remember the sign in bright red letters, Big Bob’s Food and Fuel.”

“That the hell does this have to do with Viet Nam or the number five?” Slurred Evan as he reached over and grabbed the Zippo lighter from the table.

Rick quickly grabbed Evan’s hand to stop him. “Are you sure that you are sleeping ok, Rothmore?”

Evan yanked away from Rick’s grasp. “If this story of yers don’t pick up, I’ll be asleep in no time.” He flipped the lid open, struck the flint wheel three times and lit the cigarette between his lips. He closed the lid with a metallic snap and stared at the emblem and engraving on the lighter. “Nightcrawlers? I heard of them. Was that yall or yer daddy’s outfit, bwoy?”

Rick tilted the beer bottle to his lips and took a small tug. “Neither. That belonged to the first I encountered, Price was his name. Born in nineteen-fifty, Steubenville, Ohio. Died in action nineteen-eighty-five.”

“So,” interjected Troy as he adjusted his ball cap. “He was First Battalion Special Forces then?”

“Perhaps,” Rick replied with a shrug. “That’s not what I meant by Number One.”

“You said he died in action in eighty-five but we weren’t even in active conflict in eighty-five.” Announced a short, silver haired vet in a navy blue polo shirt from the back of the room. “Not with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or even some South American Dictator.”

“That’s right, Luther.” Again, Rick pointed to the wall of portraits and names. “Eidetic memory,” he tapped his temple twice with the beer bottles neck. “I never forget a face or name. Anyway, we certainly weren’t in conflict with Utah back in eighty-five. But let me assure you fine men here, that was my first, but certainly not my last, experience ‘in country.’”

Some of the older vets groused slightly at the off handed remark while the GW’s laughed it off.

Evan spun the lighter diagonally by the corners between his fingers. “Hell, bwoy, yall can get anythin’ printed on a Zippo theses days. This here lighter don’t prove nothin’. And yall accused me of being a liar. In – country – my ass.” He tossed the lighter onto the table top accompanied by a heavy thud as it landed.

A loud screech followed by an explosion pierced the air outside the hall. Rick gleamed his audience with meticulous eyes, mindful of their reactions. The GW’s nearly dropped under their tables. The older vets from Korea looked around unscathed but curious. The Viet Nam vets reacted as if they were suddenly shifted back into a vivid memory of a long past moment in a far off place.

-4-

“Well, I guess that one gottaway from ‘em,” announced Troy breaking the uncomfortable silence. “A run away from the fireworks show at the park, I reckon.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” agreed Luther as he nervously pushed his wire-frame glasses up th bridge of his nose. “Just a misguided rocket from the firework show.”

The members mumbled the pros and cons of the likelihood of a stray rocket from the park. Some agreed to side with fellow members, other certain that it was no firework at all, still others, desperately tried to convince themselves that it was only a firework. All the while, Rick watched and visually recorded their body language to memory as, all the while, Evan studied him.

“So, that’s how yall figured it, Troy?” Evan stated more as a declaration to the room than a question asked. “Cause if that’s how yall figure it-”

“That was no firework and we all know it.” Rick said matter-of-fact as he reached across the table and stood the lighter before him. “We all know that the show ended well over an hour ago. If that was truly ‘one that got away’ like Troy suggests, it would have shown up long ago and less dramatically timed.”

“You some sort of a munitions expert?” Queried the GW that initially handed Rick the beer.

Rick shook his head negatively. “Nope ... far from it. But like most of you in this room, I know the difference between firecrackers from gunshots, cheery bombs from grenades and bottle rockets from-“

”Yeah, yeah,” grunted a youngish ginger haired GW with a volume above the other voices in the hall. “We’re all in agreement that that was no bottle rocket.”

“Sorry,” replied Rick with raised eyebrows and a wistful side glance. “Your picture and name isn’t on the wall. You are?”

“Rollins ... Luke Rollins, Iraq, ought-four to ought-eight.”

Rick performed a small, snap salute. “Welcome back, Luke and god bless.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Luke’s volume was still several decibels louder in contrast to the quietness of the hall. “So, Price ... what about him?”

Rick picked up his story where he left off. “As I was saying, Price was the first-”

The sounds of “whoop-whoop” made by helicopter blades as they cut the air suddenly filled the room. Another screech followed by an explosion that shook the hall erupted outside. Empty bottles smashed on the tile floors as tables flipped in response to the men seeking cover from what they believed to be an incoming attack. Rick’s steely blue eyes again surveyed the room, this time more intently in search for someone not in reaction to the audio event. Just as quickly as the helicopter sound came, it dissipated into nothing.

As the men came up from their combat positions, Rick found himself to be the only person who remained seated as he was before.

Evan searched the scattered bottles for something, anything to fill his tumbler. “The first what, bwoy!?”

“The first I encountered who brought a little of the Nam back with him.”

Troy placed his baseball cap back on his large head. “What does that mean, ‘brought a little of the Nam back with him?’”

Rick flipped the Zippo lid open and then sharply closed it again. “Exactly what you think it means. Price experienced the horror that no man should live through, but he cheated death using his buddies bodies as shields and rice paddy stepping stones. A man has to pay for actions, in this life or the next, but sometimes death has its own plans and doesn’t want to wait. So, whenever Price went to sleep, the Nam came to claim him. In a way, its like Poe wrote, ‘Dreams ... those little slices of death.’”

“But yall said, Price died in eighty-five?” Evan proclaimed before he discarded his still lit yet broken cigarette.

“Oh, he did. A state trooper cold-cocked him and the gates of hell opened which released his buddies ... The Nightcrawlers, his patrol who came to claim him and anyone who got in their way. But, before Price met his death, he mentioned that there were four others who had this same-“ Rick paused to find the right word, “affliction. He had even wrote there names and locations on a slip of paper he kept in his wallet.”

“The five,” questioned Luther with a child like ghost story apprehension.

These words were echoed by the men in the room in just as hushed, almost silent voices as they cleaned up the mess and debris.

“Exactly, Luther, the five.” Rick stood, crossed the room, and poured two mugs of beer from the taps as he continued with the tale. “The second I encountered was in ninety-two, Clay Johnson - Dearborn, Michigan. Price’s note had him from Flint and a two star offender.”

“Two Star?” Questioned Luther as he dumped a dust pan of broken glass bottles into the trash can.

“Yeah, two stars. Price had rated how dangerous each of these guys were. Being that I was just starting to actively search for them, I started with the least dangerous on Price’s scale.”

“So,” asked Troy as he rubbed the sweat from his cheeks with the back of his meaty hand. “What was Johnson’s war crime?”

“He actively shot civilians as the US was evacuating Saigon in seventy-four to insure he had a place on the helicopter.” Returning to his seat, he handed the second mug to Rothmore. “Looks like you could use this.”

“How did he get his?” Luke yelled more so than asked.

Rick reached into his left-lower jacket pocket and produced a set of dog tags. A low rumble of thunder or shell fire reverberated through the glass window panes. “He worked the graveyard shift at a machining factory. I guess the sound of the machines lulled him to sleep. Just before break, they found him, or what was left of him, hiding behind a CNC machine. Eight other workers were shot in the cross-fire and those that survived, all claimed a group of shabby-dressed Asian’s stormed the factory but - now get this - none of them were armed. The bullets just appeared around or passed through them. Of course, the police and psychiatrist claimed they were all suffering from shock and dismissed their claims as hysterical delusion.”

“So, yall weren’t actually there then?” Asked Evan between gulps.

“I was in the break room at the time. Johnson was due for lunch and I had spent three weeks trying to get him to agree to meet with me, one on one, not in the group. Prior to that, we attended the same clinical group therapy at the University. And before anyone gets any ideas about me, I was searching for him remember. I figured a free clinic would be my best bet. After all, like Price, he showed the same symptoms of making objects appear at unconscious will.”

“Make objects appear at unconscious will?” Blurted Luke. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Price, at the diner, made a cup of coffee become a can of beer then made a steak appear then sizzle on the griddle before he removed them both just as quick. Kinda like Rothmore here with his cigarettes and alcohol.”

“That ain’t funny, bwoy.”

-5-

“Number Three? Who was number three?” Asked Luther.

Rick reached into his lower right pocked and extracted a small survival knife. As he set it before him, the inscription: De oppresso liber, could clearly be read etched into the handle. “Back in ninety-nine, Dagoberto Ramirez - Coral Gables, Florida.” He placed the knife on the table next to the lighter and dog tags.

Outside, a faint sound of machine gun fire could be heard. Normally, the men would have dismissed this sound as firecrackers but now it sent a cold chill down their spine.

“Ah, poor Dag. Price didn’t document any of their crimes only their locations and threat level. Dag was also a two star. He was a very likable guy and we became immediate friends even against my better judgment. Most people who knew him claimed he was the nicest man they had ever met. He never told me what his war crime may have been and I never pushed him on the subject. He led a quiet humanitarian life. Devoted to helping the less fortunate, providing disaster relief, heading food drives, you name it. Anything and everything he could to try to wash the stain of indecency from his soul he did. I believe he knew death was coming for him like hounds after an escaped convict and he continually tried to cleanse his scent before they narrowed in on him.”

Evan greedily gulped the last of his beer. “Guy sounds like a certified saint, what happen’ to ‘em?”

“Hurricane Irene if you want to believe the county mortician. But I was there, I saw what happened.”

“So why don’t you tell us what really happed, bwoy?”

“If you insist. We were trying to evac some of the more terminal patience from Miami-Dade when he was knocked unconscious by a lightning strike and falling debris. I rushed to the pile of bricks and wood that encapsulated him like a bunker. As I tried to free him, I noticed a few national guard trying to help, but as I peered closer through the wind and rain, I realized, they weren’t guards men at all. Their uniforms were old, torn, and dry ... not damp...not wet--dry!”

Rick paused as he recalled the incident in his mind, reliving the event. “In the middle of all that rain and wind, these ... men, were completely dry. I knew they weren’t there to help and tried to stop them. I pushed, hit, kicked and screamed but they just kept coming. A rifle butt slammed against my jaw and knocked me to the ground. As I rose to my feet, I noticed a fallen power line had begun to snake through the mud and mire like it was being pulled by unseen hands. I grabbed the cable and tried to pull it back but it slid through my grip. Desperately I tried to wrap it around my arm and pull to halt its progression but it was no use, the force on the other end was too strong. Next thing I saw was the still sparking and electrified severed end rise in the air and plunge into the bricks and debris that covered Dagoberto. A huge electric arch filled the pile and lit up the air like a lightbulb. Standing in the glow I could see them, like the statue of Iwo Jima, marines planting that power line in the pile of wet debris. Then there was a white flash as the power did its final arch and they all disappeared. The power cable fell limp, lifeless, into the muddy water.”

The group had formed a tighter circle around Rick, Troy and Evan in what any service man would describe as a mission briefing or debriefing conference.

“Damn!” announced Luke with a volume too loud for the hushed room.

Rick wiped the glistening tears that began to form under his eyes. “Damn indeed, Rollins. Damn indeed.”

Well, I don’t know ‘bout the rest of you,” announced Luther from the rear of the group. “But I think a strong cup of coffee is what is called for.”

Rick stared at Evan with an accusative stare, “Couldn’t hurt.”

Evan slammed the palm of his hand on the table top before pointing at Rick. “Stop dat, yall hear me. Just stop dat now, bwoy. I ain’t no war criminal and I ain’t got no stain on my soul.”

“Well, you gotta admit, Evan,” blurted Luke. “You certainly fit the profile.”

“Screw you, G-dub!”

“I’m just sayin’.”

“Calm down!” demanded Troy with a commanding tone. “No one here who fought in war is completely guiltless of their actions. Who here can say that they didn't give or follow a command that they knew was morally questionable? Anyone?”

Some mumbles and grumbling ensued but no one proclaimed their opposition to the statement.

“Right. So everyone calm down, that means you too Evan.” He turned his attention back to Rick. “That means you too, mister. No more dirty looks or suspicious glares, just stick to the facts.”

Rick displayed his lopsided smile and nodded his agreement.

“Right ... now that that is settled, continue your story?”

-6-

Rick removed his jacket and placed it on the table with name tag displayed. “Ought-seven, Mitchell Andrews - Salton City, California. Andrews was a medic during the late sixties. Sixty-seven through sixty-nine. He was one of those medics that came in on helicopters, jumped out, patched up, and dragged our boys back into the copter. His last mission, the pilot screwed the proverbial pooch and sat down in a minefield. Nobody knew it until Andrews jumped out and crossed the field followed by his partner. His partner, however, landed on a mine and as he stepped off-”

The sound of a mine exploding shook the hall.

“Andrews saw that the helicopter was minimally damaged but the pilot was threatening to leave him stuck in the mine field. Andrews saw the bodies of marines laying wounded, missing limbs, screaming in anguish around him as the fear struck him. He grabbed their maimed bodies, some alive, and began to create a body-part pathway back to the chopper. Blood and meaty bits of screaming marines filled the air as he ignored their pleas for help and mercy. Finally he came upon his buddy and fellow medic, Private Markenson. His left leg had been blown off but he was still alive and screaming for Andrews to help him. Andrews placed him on his shoulder and continued to the chopper when he heard the click beneath his foot. He dropped his buddy at his feet, ignoring Markenson’s screams mind you, and yanked his buddy ... his friend, on top of his foot ... atop of that mine spot as he jumped toward the helicopter door.”

“Jesus tap-dancin’ Christ,” commented Evan as he slowly took a drag from his cigarette.

Rick cocked his head slightly , “Christ on a crutch, actually. Andrews lost his foot but still made it aboard the helicopter. He tended to his own wound and shot himself up with the morphine syrettes he was supposed to use on the wounded. After being discharged, he was still addicted to the illicit drug, then heroine, methadone, and eventually prescription variants.”

“Wait a minute,” announced Luther as he began to serve the reheated coffee to any who accepted. “Wouldn’t he have been in a situation of constant drug induced catatonia? You’d think he would have been one of the first to get claimed.”

“Price had him listed as a four star. Have you heard what became of Salton City? Prior to Andrews’ arrival it was a recreation haven in the California desert. Boating, fishing, swimming, even a yacht club where the Beach Boys played. Then throughout the seventies and eighties it basically became a cursed paradise with one devastation after another being perpetrated upon it. Pesticides filled the water, salt became more prominent, algae grew like gang busters, the fish died off, etc, etc. Andrews stayed high so that they couldn’t find him. Yes, they knew where he was located but the drugs allowed him to stay hidden from their direct vengeful detection.

“Then, on Thanksgiving in ought-seven, Andrews couldn’t get his prescription filled. Nobody came to Salton Sea for recreational purposes anymore. All of his old dealers had long since moved away. His still remaining neighbors just thought he was on another of his many detox state of paranoia; he was screaming about minefields and dead bodies after all. They say in the next morning, the area in and around his home looked like a war zone and Andrews body was found blown to bits and pieces. The only article found intact was his jacket-” Rick pointed to the one on the table. “That jacket and in its pockets were his unfilled prescription slip and a faded post card.”

Luther dispensed the contents of the 30 cup aluminum pot that sat atop a plastic roll cart. He placed a ceramic VFW emblazoned cup of black coffee before Rick. “What was on the postcard?”

“The postcard is still in the jacket’s top pocket.” Rick pointed with the coffee cup before he brought it to his lips. “Why don’t you slip it out and read it, Rothmore?”

Evan dropped his cigarette into the coffee cup that sat before him. “Naw, naw, bwoy. You’re tellin’ this here story, not me.”

-7-

Rick gently sat down the coffee cup, reached into the jacket pocket and produced the postcard. The image had faded over time and the corners were ragged but the words, “Greetings from Salton Sea,” was still present across the center of the image. He held it between his thumb and curled index finger to show the room the postcards face as he read from the back. “Price, Steubenville. Johnson, Warren. Ramirez, Coral Gables. Me, Here.” He looked up from the card. “Me, here is Andrews at Salton Sea, just so everyone’s clear.”

Evan exhaled a thick cloud of smoke and closed the Zippo lighter with the signature metallic snap. “So, let me guess. The last name on the list, both them lists, is mine?”

“Not exactly,” Rick stated as he placed the card on the table top.

Evan pointed his bony fingers holding the cigarette accusingly. “What the hell then, bwoy! Yall been makin’ accusation ‘bout me all night and yall ain’t got no so-called ‘ev-i-dence’ to backup your claims?”

“Fun is fun, Rick,” interjected Troy as he dabbed the sweat from his upper lip with a white bandana. “But you’ve come here with some tall tales and don’t have any proof that Rothmore here is your number five? I’ve known Rothmore all my life, we even served together, and yeah, he can be a big mouth ass but a danger to anyone other than himself, he ain’t.”

“What ‘bout the explosions and gun shots we all heard?” Asked Luther to the room. “We all felt the shock, heard the windows rattle-”

“Mass Hypnosis!” insisted Evan as the ash flew from the tip of his cigarette. “It’s just like one of them there reali-teevee shows.”

“What about all those cigarettes you keep smoking, Evan?” Responded Rick. “I keep seeing you with a cigarette but have I never seen you produce a pack. Not from your pocket. Not from another member of this hall. They just seem to appear in your hand or in your mouth. Care to explain?”

All eyes fell back on Rothmore.

“Ya know,” announced Luke with a voice still too loud in volume than the situation dictated. “Rick’s right. I’ve been a member here for a few years and I always see you smoking, even though it’s against the rules, but I have never seen you with a cigarette pack. It’s like they just appear out of thin air.”

“Nonsense!” insisted Rothmore as he reached into his front hip pocket and produced a pack of cigarettes. “See,” he shouted as he slammed the pack on the table. “Here are my smokes.”

The pack was deep red with a white sketch of a satyr playing the pan pipes in an idyllic forest settings. The word: Arcadia, was stylized scripted in gold across the top of the scene where below the image was inscribed: Flavor and perfection in every puff.

“They stopped making Arcadia’s back when I was a kid, Rothmore. Something about asbestos in the filters.”

“That’s right, they did.” Agreed Luther. “I remember that 60 Minutes story back in seventy-seven and the lawsuit bankrupt the company.”

“They got started up again as a discount cigarette a few years back.” Protested Evan. “So that dog don’t hunt, bwoy. Unless you got any real proof-”

“Read the last name on the postcard,” shouted Luke. “If it ain’t Rothmore’s, who is it?”

Luther picked up the postcard, studied the scrawl before placing it back on the table.

“Well,” insisted Luke. “What’s the name?”

Luther looked over to Rick for approval.

Rick nodded his silent response with his lopsided smile in place.

“Howdy Doody ... Ashland.”

For a moment the room remained silent until a roar of laughter replaced the quiet.

-8-

“Howdy Doody,” roared Evan as he choked on his last hit from the cigarette. “That’s your freakin’ proof. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life but Howdy Freakin’ Doody takes the damn cake.”

Luther looked at Rick with a sickened yet apologetic expression. “It doesn’t say, Ashland, Kansas. Maybe he meant Virginia or Oregon. There are a lot of Ashland’s out there.”

“Thirty to be exact.” Rick replied as he stared across the room at the laughing, mocking faces and landed his glance upon Troy. Other than Luther and himself, he was the only person not laughing. “Isn’t that right, Troy ... thirty Ashland’s?”

Troy used the bandana to dry the sweat from his thick neck. “Give or take, I guess.”

“Ashland, Ohio or Ashland, Kentucky, who cares?” Declared Evan. “You ain’t gonna find nobody named Howdy Doody there.”

“Shut up, Evan!” shouted Rick above the commotion.

“Aw, don’t go away mad, bwoy. Just go away.”

Rick grabbed the cigarette pack from the table and hurled it at the far east wall with member portraits. Before the pack made contact, it disappeared. Once again, the room fell silent.

“Like I said, that brand doesn’t exist anymore. But you’re not a smoker, are you, Troy?”

Troy’s reddened and flabby jowls vibrated as he shook his head negatively.

“What’s he talking about, Colonel?” Demanded Luke as all eyes fell upon Troy.

“Luther,” Rick spoke to break the silence. “What Squadron was Troy with when he was active?”

“Twelfth Air Command. Sixty-Two to Seventy.”

“What Operation was he tasked to?”

Luther thought for a moment. “Ranch Hand, I believe.”

“Troy, fer god-sake,” pleaded Evan to his old friend. “Say somethin’. Tell this bwoy he gots it all wrong. Just like he was wrong ‘bout me.”

-9-

Rick addressed the other Viet Nam vets. “Who here knew that the colonel used to be involved in the spraying of herbicides to defoliate the jungles back in Nam?” He turned to the GWs. “You know, agent orange, white, blue, purple, green and whatever.” He turned his attention to Luther. “There was one very nasty concoction they tried for a brief period. Yeppers, it killed the trees and crops just fine. Hell, it killed most any flora and fauna it came in contact with – even humans.”

He turned, removed the cigarette from Evan’s lips, and dropped it into the coffee cup. As it made contact with the liquid, the cigarette disappeared leaving only the lingering tobacco odor behind. “They say that only 10% of humans survived the initial effects. When you got hit with the stuff, your body would instantly stiffen and you'd move in a stiff, jerky manner. Kinda like marionettes, you know, kinda like, Howdy Doody.”

Finally, he turned to Troy.

Troy sat quiet, motionless, his eyes glazed over as he stared at the floor before him. Streams of sweat poured from underneath his ball cap and down his neck. His red collard t-shirt was soaked through and sagged away from his large frame. If not for the fact he had been in this room, one would suspect he had fallen into a swimming pool fully clothed.

Rick opened his wallet and retrieve a scrap of paper. “Captain ‘Howdy Doody’ Hardt. Ashland, Kansas. Five Stars. Dangerous!”


“You knew?” Remarked Luther with a tone of disbelief. “All this time you kept cast suspicion on Rothmore.”

“I knew two things before I came here tonight.” Rick stated as he pulled a newspaper clipping from his wallet and handed it to Luther. “Captain Hardt was now Lt. Colonel Hardt and Evan Rothmore died in Laos, nineteen-sixty-seven.”

Luther read the article, adjusted his glasses, and read it again.

“I am not dead!” proclaimed Evan. “I survived that war. I’ve lived in this town before and after that war. Yall know me.”

“You were one of the first to come to him, Evan.” Rick spoke as if he was in a library. “The problem was, he knew you. Knew you were friends. Knew you just wanted to be alive again. So ... he made you alive again. He kept you around as a sustained illusion.”

“I am no damned illusion, bwoy. I’m flesh and blood!”

“Where the rest could keep illusions around for brief moments, Troy got very good at it. Maybe because he was exposed to the stuff in a concentrated dosage or prolonged exposer, I don’t really know. However, his ability to keep an illusion real takes a lot of concentration. Whereas, allowing one illusion to repeat in an endless loop clip of predetermined stories, responses, behavior took less and less concentration. Pretty soon, the illusion is real or real enough.”

“I’m not a freakin’ illusion!”

Evan and Rick slammed their right hands on the table in unison. Both men then pointed at each other.

“Preconceived reactions.” Rick explained. “You were childhood friends. You played together on the same teams, went to the same schools, even dated the same girls. He knew you as well as anyone could know you. Your reaction when you were seventeen are the same reactions at seventy. You’ve only gotten physically older but the man you are is still the boy you were because that is the way he knew you.”

Evan screamed, “Screw You, Bwoy,” as he lunged for Rick. Bringing back his fist, he threw a right cross but his hand dissipated as it made contact with Rick’s chin. He stared at where his hand used to be. “But I’m real, damn it! I’m real-”

Troy fell off the chair and on to the floor as Evan faded into nothing.

“The barn door is open. Barn door is open.” Troy babbled in breathless pants.

Outside, the loud roar of a Fairchild C-123 transport aircraft could be heard.

“Barn door is open. Barn door is open.”

-10-

Two GWs rushed to examine Troy. His heart rate and blood pressure was skyrocketing. His lumberous body began to twitch and convulse.

“What’s happening to him?” Luther demanded an answer.

“He’s over exerted. Like a computer trying to process too much, he’s locked up.” Rick stared at Troy’s twitching body. “It’s like I told Evan. The preconceived or programmed actions take little concentration or processing power. But my challenging Evan made Troy have to actively interact and create new responses, new subroutines. The more I challenged, the more Troy had to divert processing power, the more the little bits of the war escaped his control.”

“You mean the bombs and helicopters?” Queried Luke as he rushed to Troy with the kitchen first aid kit.

The roaring sound of the C-123's engines returned which rattled the buildings windows and rafters. Dust from the painted wooden beams began to fall upon the members as the large aluminum coffee pot fell from the rolling cart. Its contents exploded splashing hot coffee through the room.

“Yes!” shouted Rick over the trailing sounds of the C-123 engines. “That’s what makes Hardt so dangerous. Just like with Evan, Troy’s illusions are interactive. He’s based them off of real events and people. They are small subroutines based on past encounters. Small little clips that he no longer has to consciously control. Evan and Troy were independent of each other until I challenged Rothmore’s stories. Troy had to interact with Evan. Build upon his defined boundaries. This is something Troy was not prepared for mentally or physically.”

“Barn door is open. Barn door is open.” Screamed Troy incoherently.

“When a computer overloads, in this case Troy, it dumps the large programs first and allows the subroutines to keep running.” He paused to examine the room of vets. Some dumfounded by the events occurring while others sprang into action. “Look around, Luther. Subroutines. Some aren’t programmed to handle events where others start when an event occurs. Activates their runtime. Everybody has their own programmed responses to a situation.”

“Yeah, we get the analogy!” spoke Luke in a volume that finally met the criteria. “Somebody want to call 911 for god-sake?”

Luther fumbled with his hip case and retrieved his cell phone.

Rick placed his hand over the phone. “A virus is just a subroutine and they become very aggressive when they perceive that they are under attack.”

The roar and shockwaves from the strafing C-123 shook the hall once more.

“The stallion’s off the farm.” Announced Troy calmly as if making a radio report. “Repeat, stallion’s off the farm.”

“Does that mean what I think it means?” Asked Luke removing the stethoscope from his ears. “Agent Orange or that ‘Howdy Doody’ stuff!?”

“Yeah,” replied Rick as Luther headed toward the table. “What are you doing, Luther?”

Luther pickup up the survival knife and brandished the blade. The florescent lights reflected off the inscription. “I may be old and not as computer savvy as you, but there is one thing I do know about computers when they lock up ... you gotta power ‘em down.”

One of the attending GWs stood to block Luther’s approach. “You are insane old man if you think-”

The knife blade made a tiny slice into the man’s under-jaw as Luther confronted him nose to nose. “If you think I'm gonna stand here and allow my home, my friends and family, this whole damn town to be exposed to Agent Orange or something worse, then you are dead where you stand, son.”

The man stepped back as the engine roar approached once more.

“The stallion's off the farm.”

Tears welled up in Luther’s eyes as he positioned the blade tip over Troy’s heart. He removed his glasses and wiped away the tears with his hand. “Sorry old friend. I wish there was another way.”

Troy’s arms reached out stiff as boards and grabbed Luther by his shoulders. His rotund head snapped upright in a robotic fashion. His eyes were open and wide but lacked any emotion or humanity. “The stallion’s off the farm, Luther.”

As the C-123 engines shook the build, the screeching sound of falling bombs pierced their roar.

Luke wrested to free Luther from Troy’s grasp while the other vets assumed crouched and covered bombing positions.

Rick slapped Troy several times across his face in attempts to wake him. “Come on, Troy. Reboot. Reboot!”

Troy released his grasp on Luther in exchange for Rick’s throat. “This is all your fault, bwoy. All your fault-” His gurgled words were cut short as the blade plunged through the sternum and into his heart.

The sound of screeching bombs dissipated as Troy’s limp, lifeless hands fell from Ricks throat. In the distance, the sound of the engines slowly faded until they were silent.

Rick took a deep break and coughed slightly. He stared at Luther whose hands were still grasping the blades now bloody handle. A handle and blade still firmly implanted into Lt. Colonel Troy Hardt’s chest.

Luther looked up, “You ok, son?”

Rick coughed again before replying, “I was gonna ask you the same thing.”

Luther looked down at his hands. “True enough. Better than the alternative though.”

“Damn right!” announced a GW relinquishing his duck and cover posture.

-11-

Rick stood in the shadowy rear doorway as the last patrol car departed the VFW parking lot with the flasher lights on but sirens off. The police accepted the answer of accidental stabbing during some July Fourth celebratory rough-housing. After all, the principles were well respected members of the community. All the witnesses agreed that it was merely a sad, unfortunate accident. Taking into the considerations of Luther’s age and no evidence contrary to witness statement, an investigation was deemed unwarranted.

“So, where to now?” Asked Luther.

“First stop, Washington.” Rick replied as the Zippo lighter’s lid slid open then closed. “Our nations capital. Home of the Viet Nam Memorial.” He placed the lighter into the left breast pocket of the faded fatigue jacket. “I gotta couple of items I think belong there.”

Luther produced a red, white and blue baseball cap with “VFW Post 7770 - Ashland KS” embroidered in gold upon its sweat stained face. “Here then. I think this maybe belongs there too.”

Rick placed the cap on his curly dark mop of hair and displayed his lopsided smile. “Yeah, I think its earned its place.”

“Damn right.” Luther took in the irony of his comment. “Damned right ... so it’s over for you. This whole quest of yours to find these, these ...”

“Vets? Yeah, I think I’m done for now. But I have read about some interesting stories on a few Internet blogs. Incidents that just sound too eerily similar that I can’t just not go.”

“Go where?”

Rick gave a small salute as he turned and walked toward his car. “Gitmo.”

“Guantanamo Bay?” Shouted Luther. “That's a detention camp for terrorists. Are you tellin’ me they can do the same thing? Same as Troy and those other fellas?”

Luther couldn't be certain, but as Rick entered his car, he thought he heard him say, “Yep.”


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Unread postPosted: Fri Jul 18, 2014 8:05 pm 
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Ive read the first few chapters of this, its pretty damn enjoyable. What the hell is it? I hope to finish it in the next few visits. Props to the writer.


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Unread postPosted: Sat Jul 19, 2014 5:58 pm 
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Thanks, SVB!

Basically, it's a follow-up to one of my favorite TZ80s Episode, "Nightcrawlers."
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I remember watching this episode back in 2010 and there was always an intriguing aspect at the end of the episode:

    1) Young Rick picks up Price's lighter out of the fire and they freeze frame meld away to Bob the Owner/Cook being place on the ambulance.
    2) While being loaded aboard the ambulance, Bob repeats one of Price's earlier comments, "Four more. Price said there were four more just like him."

Now, I had often noted these incidents since my first viewing, its original 80s airing, and it always made me long for a follow-up. But, the follow-up never came, so I started writing one.
Then, some time later, I stumbled upon and read the original Robert McCammon Short Story. I figured that maybe indeed there was something more, something left out. As a whole, the episode is pretty much the short story - word for word in most cases - with minor exceptions. However, the ending is different as indeed there is a follow-up of sorts. But alas, it is only thought about but never carried out.

Then, between 2010 to 2014, life has that annoying habit of getting in the way and distracting me from finishing the story. So, there it sat in hard drive limbo between my desktop, laptop and tablet. Various scenarios and excerpts written as storyboard what ifs logged in notes as they sprang to my conscious during my copious free moments. This brings us to a few weeks back, July 4th, and I was watching the firework displays from my backyard balcony deck with the family.

As the shows die off, the wife leans in to me and says, "This reminds me of that short-story you wrote a few years ago."

"OK, that narrows it down," I reply while trying to remember which short story she was talking about.

"The Twilight Zone one."

"Again, that narrows it down."

"You know, the guy in the Kansas VFW who keeps playing with a Zippo lighter on the 4th of July."

Ding-Ding-Ding. The bell sounded in my head.

My youngest and oldest daughters heard the words, "Dad" and "Short Story" and instantly inquired what my wife and I were discussing. Needless to say, after some discussion and gentle family persuasion, I gathered all my notes, the original 6 page draft of the story from a back-up hard-drive, and set about to finish the story. So, after 4 years in digital limbo, here is my follow-up to what happened with the other 4 vets like Price.


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Unread postPosted: Sun Jul 27, 2014 7:48 am 
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Thanks DrM, I read the story and really enjoyed it. I found that I visually placed the event occurring in a VFW hall in Wisconsin that I know well.

It was interesting how you brought tech into the story. You write what you know, eh? :)

You had a lot of characters in a concentrated area and did a great job of helping the reader keep track of who was saying what. It's got to be difficult to create large group conversations like that.

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Unread postPosted: Sun Jul 27, 2014 8:39 am 
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That was really enjoyable to read. Very engaging, Dr. M! I can see it all playing out in my head - I really liked it.

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Unread postPosted: Sun Jul 27, 2014 11:49 am 
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Thanks, Gentlemen!

I really appreciate you're taking the time out of your busy schedules and reading - and responding - to the story.

DrM


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Unread postPosted: Mon Jul 28, 2014 9:25 am 
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Well it really was a pleasure to read; a very interesting short story with characters that felt alive. I love the concept of a continuation to an existing story that's actually good! Rock on Dr. M! :rockon:

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Unread postPosted: Mon Jul 28, 2014 10:22 pm 
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Again, thanks for the feedback, Lazy! :D

I hadn't written anything of fiction really in a few years and after the busy, busy year and a half I've had, completing this was very satisfying and cathartic. To receive positive feedback from both you and Whit is very gratifying. To have you each visualize aspects of the story and become invested in the characters is a sincere pleasure to hear. Hopefully, SVB and other members will get around to reading it and take your praise as earnestly as I do.

DrM


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Unread postPosted: Thu Aug 07, 2014 2:01 am 
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I am enjoying the flow of the story so far, just read first few parts, I really like how you paint a vivid picture of each character, expiditiously, good Dr. M.

I will respond soon enough after my first read thru. 8)

Z

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Unread postPosted: Wed Aug 13, 2014 9:34 pm 
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Have you had a chance to complete the story yet, Mr.Z? :)


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Unread postPosted: Fri Aug 15, 2014 2:53 am 
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DrMoreau wrote:
Have you had a chance to complete the story yet, Mr.Z? :)



Highly entertaining story, Dr. M, you have a great wealth of knowledge in regards to the military, I'm truly impressed. I really enjoyed the vis-à-vis encounter between Rick and Evan, love the 'magical' portions of the story, love the dark sinister material thru out, and i love the ending, great work keeping it nigh realistic and current. 10 stars .

I love your name for this, yet I am certain if you changed it to Nightcrawlers 2, you could sell this script to the next TZ franchise, for a pretty penny.

Keep up the Great writing DR M

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Unread postPosted: Fri Aug 15, 2014 10:32 pm 
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Thanks, Mr. Z. :D

I'm glad another core member here has found the story genuinely entertaining. My Nam expertise is purely vicarious at best as I know many, many vets from that war. It pays to be a good listener ;)

My original title was "The Five" but alas McCammon's latest novel - although completely unrelated - bares the same title, The Five. The current title is based on a catch phrase a friend of mine, now deceased, who was a nam vet, used to use when discussing his G.A.D. Therapy sessions.


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Unread postPosted: Sat Aug 16, 2014 1:38 am 
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DrMoreau wrote:
Thanks, Mr. Z. :D

I'm glad another core member here has found the story genuinely entertaining. My Nam expertise is purely vicarious at best as I know many, many vets from that war. It pays to be a good listener ;)

My original title was "The Five" but alas McCammon's latest novel - although completely unrelated - bares the same title, The Five. The current title is based on a catch phrase a friend of mine, now deceased, who was a nam vet, used to use when discussing his G.A.D. Therapy sessions.


NP Dr. M, and again thank you for this well crafted story, you kept it in the vein of the original episode, and twilight zone in general. Bravo.
I must admit that: your listening skills are quite impressive, the attention to detail and use of military jargon is outstanding.

Our other fellow PtE Members, who have responded here, are also enthralled by it. I am sure the rest of the gang, when they cast their collective eyes on this treasure will too. We are hungry for more Zone and Outer Limits, and this helps quench that, merci.

Thank you for explaining the title, pretty deep and inside baseball. I'd still love to see this realized into a television episode or better yet a movie.
Votre talent ne connait de limits ( your talents knows no bounds).

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