Flying Free – Part 2
Winmalee, New South Wales
Continued from this morning …
It was late evening. Creeping down the stairs, I jumped the last step. It was a creaky one. And Mum was a light sleeper. I should have been in bed, but I’d left my BB gun in the lounge room. I couldn’t lead a night raid in the jungle without my rifle.
In the lounge room. Dad lay sprawled in an armchair, his head tilted back. He stirred restlessly, moaning and twitching like a sleeping dog. A cigarette died on an ashtray on the side table, ghostly trails of smoke curling and fading. The fizz of static on the television screen threw long shadows across the floor, lighting up the facets of an empty of whisky bottle and an overturned glass. A softball bat lay propped by the armchair. He never slept without it. If he could have it his way, he’d sleep with Grandad’s old hunting rifle on his pillow.
I crept across the room, watching him from the corner of my eye. Dad was caught in a dream again. He was probably back in Nui Dat or Long Tan, riding in a Chopper, patrolling the jungle or mowing down Viet Cong soldiers with his M16. He was a hero, even in his dreams. That’s what Mum always said.
I spotted my rifle on the lounge. Snatching it up, I hunkered down low on the carpet, inching forward on my haunches. I held my silence, slipping into the darkness of the jungle.
The moon was bright, my skin cool with sweat and mud. The mosquitos buzzed and zipped passed my ears. They left angry welts all over my face and neck. I led my squadron through the thick brush, feeling my way in the dark. The mud sucked at our boots. Beside me, Patrick squinted, making out the outline of a mound of undergrowth. We had received intelligence that this was the opening to one of the Viet Cong tunnels. It was our job to find out if anyone was home.
Patrick crept through the darkness ahead of me, the moon lighting a path through the lush layers of ferns. A rustle in the thicket caught my attention. I paused, motioning my men to stop. Patrick walked on, oblivious to my command. The ferns rustled on one side, a tree above swaying. An animal? I listened, scanning the tree line. An uneasy dread settled in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t swallow it down.
‘Pat!’ I hissed.
Patrick didn’t hear me. A twig snapped under his boot.
The air filled with hell fire. The fire roared, sending rolling waves of scorching heat. The deafening blast propelled me backwards. I landed hard on my back, winded, ears ringing. The searing heat licked at my clothes and face. Stunned and deaf, I staggered to my feet, the world spinning around me. Trees blazed with fire. I gasped for air. It was too thick to breathe. Patrick lay dead under a tree. He had no legs. Blasted off from the knees, his blackened, burnt stumps sizzled and smoked.
Blinded by the smoke, a soldier staggered out into the mine field. He didn’t see the landmine under his foot.
Dad shrieked. Back in the lounge room, I jolted, scrabbling for cover behind the lounge. Dad dropped to the floor, hands over his head, gasping. Pressing himself down on the carpet, he shuddered as another round of fireworks went off. The fireworks boomed, popping like exploding shells. A mail box across the road exploded, the dull thunk of metal drowned out by the whizzing explosion. Dad trembled, stifling ragged sobs.
As Dad lay curled on the floor, the nightmares fresh in his eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been there in the darkness of the jungle with me. Had he watched Patrick die too? Was Dad still there, staggering in the mine field? I hid in the shadow of the lounge, listening to his ragged sobs, my ears still ringing.
Out on the road, it was darkening at the horizon. The street was quiet, a chill biting at my skin. I wheeled my bike in tight circles on the asphalt, doing loops. The clicking of the gear chain and the thumping of the tyres helped me forget about the emptiness in Dad’s eyes. The fireworks shook him up last night. He hadn’t spoken a word all day. He had a deer in the headlights look.
A gunshot fractured the silence of the street. It came from the house, loud and clear. Jumping in my skin, I skidded my bike mid-loop. I raced to the porch, heart racing. I climbed the steps two at a time.
I opened the front door by an inch, peering inside. A lava lamp hurtled past. It shattered against the wall. I flinched, jumping clear. Gathering my breath. I nudged open the door with trembling fingers.
The lounge room door was wide open. Inside, Dad carried Grandad’s old hunting rifle, pressing the stock close to his shoulder. Mum huddled in the far corner, terrified, tears streaking down her face.
‘Get down! They’re here!’ he roared, searching the room with frantic, bloodshot eyes.
I crept closer, lingering at the doorway. My parents were alone.
‘No one’s here!’ Mum gasped, ‘Jack, put the gun down!
Dad searched the room. He was wild, delusional, caught up in a nightmare again. Landmines exploded inside his head, artillery guns rattling, shells exploding. A fire raged in his eyes. Wide-eyed and unseeing, he grabbed the edge of the record cabinet, shoving it from the wall. Vinyl records tumbled out. The cabinet slammed hard on the floor, the impact shuddering and shaking the floorboards.
Mum sobbed, shrinking against the wall, trembling all over.
I watched with baited breath, wishing I could get back on my bike and ride as far away as possible. But I couldn’t move.
Dad over turned a lounge, his breath coming in thin gasps. Delirious with rage, he caught his reflection in a mirror across the room. He fired on reflex, the rifle knocking hard against his shoulder. The mirror exploded, glass shattering, powdered shards tinkling to the floor. He staggered back, gasping, eyes aglow. In the jagged, spider web tracks of the shattered mirror, his face came back distorted and broken.
He paced the floor, cooling his rage. With every restless loop, he calmed his nerves. Mum sobbed in the corner, her shoulders shaking. I scuffed my feet on the floorboards, shrinking behind the door frame when I felt the heat of his eyes.
When he finally realised where he was and what he’d done, he sagged with exhaustion. A shadow stole across his face. He looked ill, his face pale and drawn. He swayed on his feet, leaning on the wall, as if the strings holding him up had been cut. He slumped in defeat. And then and there, his soul died. The bright light in his body snuffed itself out.
His voice wavered, tears brimming in his eyes.
‘I’m s-sorry.’ Fighting off the tears, he left the room. Out of sight, the back door swung open. I heard his heavy limping footsteps on the back porch, down the steps and on the paving stones in the backyard.
Unsticking myself, I followed him to the back door. Mum caught me before I could. She snatched me by the arm, bleary eyed, sobbing. I shook her off. I ran to the door. Mum called after me, her voice thick and choked. I didn’t stay to hear her out. Dad was like the soldier in my imagination. He was blinded by the smoke and fire, stumbling towards the minefield. I needed to stop him. To tell him everything was okay. That he was home, that he was-
The final gunshot echoed. Birds fluttered.
I hit the door at a run, slamming it back on its hinges. Racing on to the back porch, I skidded to a halt, my heart sinking. My Dad lay crumpled near the aviary, bleeding, rifle loose in his limp hand. The cage door was open, the finches fleeing into open air.
I sunk to my knees, a cold, dead shock chilling me to the bones. I gazed up at the sky, watching the birds, now tiny black silhouettes, flocking out across the darkening horizon. They spread their wings, flying free, taking my father’s soul with them.