"At ease, Sargent. Have a seat." He offered Williams gum. "Want some Blackjack?" Henderson's Louisiana drawl sounded like the oldest residents of Trayvon's hometown of Natchez, Mississippi. Yet he looked fresh out of boot camp, with straight blond hair, peach fuzz on his face and a mouth full of crooked teeth.
"No thank you, Sir."
Henderson took a stick. "Really helps when those nicotine cravings hit. I was so glad they brought my favorite gum back."
"I don't smoke myself, Sir. They cut my performance."
"Smokes don't hurt me none, but they sure don't taste like they used to."
Trayvon's radar bleeped that something was wrong with this colonel.
Henderson opened a file folder and loudly chewed as he read. "Outside Karabilah, Iraq on the 14th of April, 2006, concealed heavy machine gun fire ambushed your squad. You affixed your bayonet to your M4 and moved aggressively into that ditch and silenced a sniper and six gunners. Out of ammunition, you killed the remaining hostile in hand to hand combat. Does that sound correct?"
"Yes, Sir. That is how I remember it, Sir."
The colonel flipped to another page. "In Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on August 8, 2008, you were the fire team leader. Your position took heavy mortar fire and then you observed two bad guys with a suspicious bulge in their clothing, suicide bombers trying to infiltrate the provincial governor's compound. After you lit them up, a platoon of camel jockies assaulted your team. They tossed grenades at you. You threw them back. When one of your comrades was wounded, you ran through enemy fire to give them first aid and retrieve him."
Williams nodded. "Yes, Sir."
"On the 15th of September, just a month later, you were maintaining security at a patrol rally point. Other members of your team moved on foot for a pre-dawn meeting with elders in a village in the Ganjgal Valley in Kunar Province. Ali Baba ambushed your patrol with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and machine guns. Your foot soldiers were cut off. You hopped in a Frankentruck, ordered a soldier to drive and took the exposed gunner's position. You disregarded Haji's fire, killed two dozen hostiles with the mounted machine gun and retrieved your comrades."
Williams nodded. "Yes, Sir."
"Ganjgal was only six months ago. Now you want to go back?"
"That's where I am needed, Sir."
He flipped through the folder. "You sure are one impressive buck. Hell, men win the Congressional Medal of Honor for a quarter of this."
Williams kept calm, but nobody had ever called him a "buck" in his life. "Sir, mine is to serve. It is not to question."
Henderson nodded. "I think you mean that." He added a second stick of gum, making his chewing louder. "You ever heard only two things are certain in life. Death and taxes?"
"Yes, Sir. Of course, Sir."
"We award the Medal of Honor to tell the world about your bravery. With it, any officer will salute that medal. You won't pay income tax neither."
Williams grew excited. He fought a smile. "Yes, Sir."
"Army's been watching you real close since Karabilah. Last year at Ganjgal convinced us you are worth something even better. Instead of never paying taxes, you can never die."
Williams stared at the colonel. "Sir, that's …"
"Impossible? That's the word I used when LeBlanc came to me. Let me prove it." He pulled a long, old style bayonet from his briefcase. "Imperial German M1898/05 bayonet. Got it at Cantigny in 1918. But you're probably thinking I bought it on eBay." He rose from his chair, putting his left palm down on the general's blotter. With a smile, he stabbed his hand with the wide, sawback bayonet. He stiffly held his hand up and forced the blade through up to the hilt. "Shit that hurts!"
In shock, Williams stood. "Sir! Let me get a medic."
The colonel turned his hand around and presented Williams the bayonet's grip. "Pull it out. That's an order."
Henderson winced as Williams wrenched the foot long bayonet blade free. "You watch that hole real good."
Williams could see through the savage, jagged tear in the colonel's palm. It should have bled profusely, but didn't. Instead, the wound became smaller until it vanished. The colonel smiled, flexing his hand. "You got the stones for this?"
They took him to a small fortification deep in a cave at Fort Polk. Four people were there. One was Henderson. Williams could understand why they sent him. Henderson might pass for normal. LeBlanc was a short, middle age man with pockmarks. He spoke with an impossibly thick Cajun accent and seemed to be from another world. "Pauvre bête had a real bad time adapting to the 20th century," Henderson explained confidentially to Trayvon.
The Baron was black as an M4 carbine. His elegant clothes clashed with his cadaverous face. He spoke words that almost sounded like French but somehow weren't. Everything said he was in charge. Brigitte, his wife, was as fair as her husband was dark, with fire red hair and emerald eyes. Profanity that would make a soldier blush laced her Irish brogue. She and LeBlanc translated for the Baron.
The Baron said, "sèvi loa a ak tou de men yo" or "serve the loas with both hands." Growing up in the Miss-Lou, Trayvon knew it didn't mean to work hard. It meant to practice for both good and evil.
Henderson and LeBlanc drilled him as if his life depended upon it. How to recognize loas, which to avoid, which to ignore and which to bribe with dancing and coca cola. None of it made any sense. But Colonel Henderson told Trayvon that if he didn't go through with the ceremony that he would die in a "training accident."
One day, or maybe one night, LeBlanc asked him "You reckon you are ready?"
For the first part of the ritual, Williams drummed along with Henderson and LeBlanc. Henderson said to match his drumming and concentrate on the spirit of the nkisi. It was a cork standing with the use of a needle that had two forks coming from its sides. The point of the needle balanced on a coin sitting on the mouth of a wine bottle. When Trayvon became one with the essence of the nsiki, it would spin all by itself.
They drummed the whole day long, filling him with peaceful relaxation. Drums rang in his head all night long. LeBlanc woke him early on the second day to continue. As he drummed, he grew hyper-aware of everything, the room, the smell, the drumsticks and cowhide on the drums. He felt light and warm like napping on a waterbed. Serenity enveloped him on the third day, disconnecting Trayvon from his surroundings. He was the drum, and the drum was him. Finally, the nkisi moved, just a little. Then it moved again and again until it whirled.
Brigitte took Trayvon from drumming to a waiting tub filled with herbs. She bathed him twice after that. After the first bath, she pinned a diaper on him. For the second, he changed into the formal blue Army uniform with a white shirt and black tie. As he lay in the bathtub, the Baron held his funeral. From birth through death and beyond into new life, LeBlanc had told him. His old existence must die now. Yet as the Baron spoke over him in a language he couldn't understand, all he could think of was the damage to perfectly good dress mess blues.
As he resurrected and changed into a white robe, Brigitte blindfolded Trayvon and led him by the hand. When she removed the blindfold, he found himself in a large circular room with a high ceiling. Trayvon knew it was the djevo where initiations take place. LeBlanc said he would be in between worlds there. Candles surrounded an open coffin on the floor. Brigitte led in a young goat. The Baron cut its throat. If this was supposed to shock him, they failed. All it did was make Trayvon remember slicing the throat of the kid with the M91/30 Mosin Nagant rifle in the trench back in Karabilah. Too young to shave but old enough to die. He fought to shove that memory back.
Henderson and LeBlanc knelt, presenting the white blindfold to Brigitte, who wrapped it around Trayvon's head. Brigitte then gave him a pot of spicy fish and a milkshake. All the coconut, sugar, rum and vanilla couldn't cover up the stink and nasty taste he remembered from his boyhood. Jimson weed. They used it to get stoned when they didn't have anything better. His Grammy was furious when she found out. She called Jimson weed "Devil's Cucumber" and said the voodoo bokors use it to make zombies. Test or not, plainly they expected him to drink it. The stew had a strange liver flavor. Grammy said blowfish liver was the other part of the Zombie recipe.
They sang and danced the priye ginen to open the ceremony of Trayvon's initiation. As they danced, first his mouth and then his whole face grew numb and tingling. His Grammy was right about what bokors gave initiates. Trayvon's heart pounded, and his hands wouldn't stop shaking. Was this all some strange test like when the Army gave soldiers LSD to observe the results? Whatever was going to happen, he may as well relax and enjoy the trip. He felt every shred of his mind and all rational thought float away as he sang and danced. After hours or perhaps days of the priye ginen, he couldn't dance or sing anymore.
The Baron put palm leaves on a throne. Trayvon scooped paste that looked like chocolate and cornmeal from an iron pot and fed it to the palms. As he fed them, he saw that the fronds were chewing and swallowing. A small part of him knew that plants didn't eat chocolate but only a very tiny bit, and it had no power of will over his own body. The rest obeyed the Baron's orders and rejoiced that the palms accepted the offering. That part fed them until they curled up and became giant feathers. Then the feathers burst into hundreds of flaming pieces and flew away.
It had been four days since Trayvon had a decent night's sleep. He was tripping balls and could no longer even see straight. The Baron laid him in the coffin. They left and slammed the door of his crypt. Trayvon was alone. Goat blood made the room stink of death but it was quiet, comfortably cool and dimly lit. He relaxed.
His rest was interrupted by the smell of tobacco and dog breath. He was too tired to crawl out of his coffin and look. Then something knocked him on the head. Trayvon stirred and saw an old man with a cane wearing a red skirt and a broad brimmed straw hat. The keys to the past, the present, and the future hung on a string over his bare chest. Two large dogs patiently sat behind him. It was Papa Legba, the loa who opens the doors between the loas and mankind. "You reached the crossroads of decision," Papa Legba said, puffing on a big bulldog style pipe. "Hurry up now. Which way do you choose?"
"What are my choices," Trayvon asked, raising himself up to his elbows.
"You can go to sleep. You wake up, same person you were."
"Henderson will shoot me."
The old man nodded. "You will die. Just like they did." The room filled with the people Trayvon had shot, bayoneted, stabbed or beaten to death. Enemy soldiers who fought him and the women and children who got in the way. The kid who had died in Karabilah stood, pointing at him accusingly, his throat cut wide open.
Trayvon felt the wet, sticky blood on his hands. They never gave him the Medal of Honor because he had no honor. He had done horrible things. If the god he learned as a child judged him, he would be damned. "And the other choice?"
"Until the heat death of the universe and time ends. Never one day older."
"What happens then?"
"I can't tell you what's at the end of your road." The dogs leaned into him and whined. He stroked their chins and ears. "I ain't forgot. You hush now." He looked into Trayvon's soul. "They're saying times up. What path do you choose?"
"I choose life."
"Done." With that, everyone faded away.
When Trayvon woke, he realized how greasy and smelly he was. The goat's blood reeked. After tossing the head wrapping aside, he wondered why the Army did this theatre. Was it an experimental program to make platoons of zombies? All the answers lay outside. He opened the iron hatch. Henderson sat at a table, reading a book. Without looking up, he pointed to a door. "Shower and fresh uniform are in there, sleepyhead."
Trayvon felt better when he got out. By then, Henderson had set the table with cereal, bread, fruit, and jam. "Want coffee?"
"Oh God do I!"
Henderson poured him a large mug and placed it and a can of creamer on the table. "Sugar's already by the cereal."
Trayvon sipped his coffee black. It was surprisingly good, with just the right spicy chocolate aftertaste that slowly caramelized his mouth. As he enjoyed his cup, he wondered what sort of stupidity they would do to him next. "Where are the others," he asked as he unwrapped and bit into a Wheaties biscuit.
"LeBlanc's taking a nap. The Baron and his wife disappeared soon as we shut the door on the djevo. They are done with us, for now."
After clearing breakfast, Henderson said "There's one final test, the brule kanzo. Now we can go through the hoedown on glowing coals, or do it the quick, modern way. Which do you prefer?"
Williams smiled. "I have had enough crazy dancing to last me a lifetime."
"Good." Henderson opened a cabinet and took out a propane torch and an M9 pistol. He pointed the weapon at Trayvon. "Light it up and put your finger in until it glows cherry red."
Here starts the next show, Trayvon thought. "Why don't you just shoot me?"
"Great idea." He squeezed the trigger.
The world went black. It slowly came back. Pain made Trayvon spew vomit. He managed to hit Henderson in the face. The side of his head felt crushed. His ears rang. Something big rattled in his mouth. When he spat it out, he saw it was a flattened 9mm slug. LeBlanc rushed in as Trayvon repeated "Fuck" over and over. LeBlanc passed Henderson a towel. "Ah yes, is Mr. Skeptic now a believer?"
After eight years in Afghanistan, Williams lost count of the times he had been shot in the head. Afghanistan had turned into Groundhog Day. Every day was the same. When he re-enlisted, they promised to send him to Officer's Candidate School or the US Military Academy. Instead, he and chopper pilot Pedro "Speedy" Gonzales became hit men. They flew by night into Taliban held areas where Williams crawled on his belly through the hills to eliminate high profile targets.
When he wasn't actively engaged in killing, they kept him in near seclusion. They gave him his own 22 by 8 foot CHU or Containerized Housing Unit. By Afghanistan standards that was sheer luxury. To Williams, it was a jail cell. He wasn't even allowed to go out and engage in PT. The Army's rationale was that since he would remain in exactly the same condition, no amount of exercise would make him stronger, and a complete lack of it wouldn't make him weaker. When Williams was allowed out, everyone treated him like he had a contagious disease.
Instead of training with his fellow soldiers, the Army put a top of the line 3D virtual reality system in his CHU. He spent days going through simulations of the next mission. Crawling through the computer-generated landscapes was no substitute for life.
His only freedom was during a mission. Ironically, the Taliban knew more about him than his own people. They called him "The Ghost." They had seen an IED blow him apart, only to rise from the dead, grab one of their guns and keep fighting. That scared the Hell out of Johnny Jihad.
Once, $100,000 a year under the table kept him happy in his little jail cell. Now that he was a single digit midget with only eight days on his contract, he turned down a $250,000 sign bonus and $50,000 a month. When he was back in the world, he planned to apply to divinity school and become a priest. Maybe a few centuries of helping God's children instead of killing them might make him clean.
When he was told to report to Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin, he thought his CO would pressure him to sign. Baldwin didn't. "Son, T-men nabbed Speedy at a haji mart."
Trayvon became sick. He'd asked Gonzales to pick him up souvenirs for him from the bazaar.
"We got lucky," Baldwin continued. "Mobile phone interception technology on Predator drones picked up a call. He is in a cave in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. We need you to take the point in the rescue."
"Yes, Sir. I would be honored." Williams wouldn't be able to forgive himself if he didn't do everything he could to save him.
They helicoptered him along with five squads to the entrance. Afghani warriors had used these caves since the time of Alexander the Great in fighting their enemies. The tunnel split in three directions a kilometer from the entrance. Intel said Speedy was on the right-hand branch. Williams went in alone as he always did.
Past the fork, he heard talking and found a complex of rooms.
Williams located the source of the voices. The sounds were a recording. Speedy was alone, duck taped to a chair and gagged. When Williams pulled the gag off, Speedy shouted "It's a trap. Run."
"Where's Ali Baba hiding?"
"No. It's Baldwin. The whole mountain is …"
Just then, tons of TNT exploded. The cave collapsed. Everything turned black. It didn't stop being black, but he felt the agony of being crushed to death with each resurrection. What hurt worse than the indescribable physical agony was the loneliness and absolute nothingness. Trayvon couldn't see, hear, smell or taste anything except pain. Soon, hunger and thirst joined the list of tortures. They buried him deep. The Army didn't want an immortal priest confessing their sins. He wondered how long it would take for the granite mountain above him to erode.
Written by DrBobSmith