Of Things Unknown

I only really knew two things about Sam: he was the company IC for Raven coy next door, and he was currently dating Min, one of my best friends. But Min had always told me he was great and he certainly seemed to make her very happy, so when I turned up at the guard collection point and found Sam waiting there too I felt that maybe things hadn’t turned out that badly after all.

“You on duty as well?”

“Yeah, my fucking sergeant has it out for me. Caught me texting after lights out.”

Sam grinned.

“A girl?”

I grinned back.

“Of course. You?”

He shook his head ruefully.

“Forgot to shine my parade boots before a stand-by-bed.”

“Ah, sorry man. Bad luck.”

“Yeah, and I was going to take Min out tonight too. She’s fucking pissed right now and I don’t really blame her.”

I flicked my hand dismissively. Min had always been a little dramatic.

“She’ll get over it.”

“Maybe.”

I glanced at my watch.

“They’re late.”

“Nope. Right on time. Look over there.”

Sam pointed into the distance, where two beret-clad figures were marching slowly up the driveway next to Raven coy line.

“Oh well.” I spat on my palm and gave my boots a final, quick, polish. Sam straightened his jockey cap and checked the folded sleeves of his smart 4’s.

“Guess we better get going.”

“Mm.”

Sam paused, then turned to me and extended a hand.

“Hey, Yiming – I know we don’t know each other very well, but I’m glad we’re on the same watch tonight.”

I shook his hand. He had a good, strong grip.

“Yeah, me too.”

 When the duty sergeants arrived they gave us the once over and knocked me down because I had, after all, missed a spot of dust on the heel of my boot. Sam got off scot-free, which was pretty impressive considering how strict they’d become with our bearings now that BMT was coming to an end and we’d almost earned the right to be called trained soldiers.

Once I’d finished my final set of push-ups, the senior sergeant left me holding in position while he chewed me out some more. Eventually he got bored and gave me permission to recover, and I dusted myself off and assumed parade rest position next to Sam.

The junior sergeant gave me a moment to catch my breath, then extracted a piece of paper from his breast pocket.

“Name, rank and 4-D number.”

I stood to attention, locking my arms by my sides and bringing my heels together with a quick stamp.

“Recruit Zhang Yiming, Pegasus coy, Platoon Two, Section One, Bed Fourteen – reporting for duty, sergeant!”

“Recruit Sam Lim, Raven coy, Platoon One, Section One, Bed Five – reporting for duty, sergeant!”

The junior sergeant checked our names off against his list and grunted.

“At ease.”

We settled back into parade rest and assumed that neutral, carefully studied expression soldiers soon learn to put on when confronted with orders – look too excited, and your commander might think you were volunteering for extra duty; look too indifferent, and you were liable to get “volunteered” all the same.

“The two of you will be on guard duty from twenty-two-hundred hours to oh-six-hundred hours. You are reminded that leaving your assigned post and sleeping on your shift are both court-martial offences under military law. If either of you have any medical excuses, you may speak up now.”

I toyed with the idea of inventing a phantom stomach-ache but quickly decided against it. A few of my friends had gotten out of guard duty this way, but our camp medical officer had just been changed and his replacement was rumored to be notoriously strict. One late-night shift was bad enough: I didn’t feel like risking a couple more.

Sam stayed silent too, and the junior sergeant went on.

“Your duty post tonight will be the ammo dump. We will now issue your weapons and conduct a brief refresher course in guard duty protocol before bringing you to your post. Do you have any questions?”

The ammo dump? I glanced at Sam quickly out of the corner of my eye to gauge his reaction, and saw him flicking a similarly nervous glance at me.

We had both heard about the ammo dump: every recruit had. It was rumored to be the single most haunted place on the island, and we’d passed along stories of the supernatural occurrences that happened there with an almost religious conviction. They said that walkie-talkies would go haywire when you passed by the dump and tune into strange channels that did not exist, and that strange creatures roamed the area at night. Guard duty at the ammo dump was universally considered to be the worst post of all.

Sam tentatively raised a hand.

“Yes?”

“Uh, sergeant? The stories they tell about the ammo dump… they aren’t true, are they?”

The duty sergeants exchanged looks, and the senior of the two grinned wickedly.

“I’m not sure. Although I did hear that the Japanese used it as a mass grave for the people they killed during the Sook Ching.”

“Yeah.” His junior chimed in. “My encik claims to have the third eye and he always said he saw angry ghosts in the area.”

I gulped. Sam didn’t look so good either.

“And don’t forget it’s the Eighth Month now,” he continued, clearly relishing our reaction. “The Hungry Ghost Festival’s coming soon – the time of the year when spirits of the forgotten dead walk the streets. Can’t imagine many people still give offerings to those killed during the war.”

The senior sergeant laughed.

“Don’t scare the recruits too much, man – we still need them to actually do their guard duty. You’ll be fine. But all the same, I’m glad I’ll be sitting in the guardhouse while the two of you are out on patrol.”

“Anyway, that’s enough talk. We better get going.”

 We drew our rifles from the armskote and were each issued two magazines: one empty, and one with four live rounds. We were also given two walkie-talkies for communication, and a set of cable ties that could serve as makeshift restraints. The sergeants made us practice the standard intruder response drill until they were satisfied with our proficiency, then called in a tonner to pick us up. Sam and I got in the back while the sergeants sat in front with the driver.

We strapped ourselves in and the tonner set off.

“I can’t believe we got the fucking ammo dump, man.” I slumped in my seat. “This night can’t get any worse.”

“I just hope I can get a phone signal there,” Sam replied. “I promised Min I’d try and call her tonight.”

“It’s probably far enough north that you could piggyback off a Malaysian network. At least, my phone could when we did our outfield in the area.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. Bringing a phone on a field exercise was a serious offence, and he knew I knew it.

“This girl must be pretty special if you were willing to risk getting confined. Any chance I know her?”

“Maybe – she went to your school. You know Grace?”

“Grace Tan? The floorball player?”

“Yeah.”

Sam leaned over and we bumped fists.

“Not bad dude, not bad at all. She’s pretty cute.”

“Thanks. Hey, Min’s pretty cute too.”

“Thanks, I guess.” He paused, and eyed me askance.

“Um,” he said. “I know this is kinda awkward, but were you guys ever, yknow, a thing?”

We passed through the camp gates, and the tonner shook as its wheels ground into potholed dirt.

“Nah,” I said. “You don’t have anything to worry about. Min and I are good friends, nothing more.”

“Okay. Sorry, it’s just, you guys seem so close and she talks about you a lot.”

I shrugged.

“Neither of us see each other in that way, I guess. I don’t know why, but we just… don’t.”

“For what its worth,” I continued.  “She talks about you a lot too.”

“Really?”

“Mm.”

“Thanks. That means a lot.”

We sat, silent, and let the tonner jerk us around, barely kept in our seats by worn seatbelts that frayed at the edges and bit into our waist and neck.

“Hey,” Sam said, presently. “How did you manage to sneak your phone outfield?”

“I hid it in my underwear.”

“Wait, actually?”

“Yeah, actually.”

He laughed, and the tonner rumbled on.

The ammo dump, as its name implied, was where we dumped our used ammunition after range practice or a field exercise. The stated rationale for placing a guard on the dump was the possibility of there being live or misfired rounds mixed into the spent cartridges that an intruder could possibly want to steal, but for the life of me I could not imagine an intruder desperate enough to risk being shot for the sake of a few used rifle rounds. The place itself was basically a glorified landfill surrounded by a barbed wire fence, a gravel path and motion-triggered floodlights that flicked on one by one as our tonner passed them by. We were dropped off outside a reinforced guardhouse with clear, bulletproof windows that commanded the dump’s single gate.

We entered the guardhouse and found another pair of recruits waiting for us. We introduced ourselves while the duty sergeants set up, and spent some time swapping stories we had heard about the ammo dump in a vain attempt to prove to the others that we weren’t afraid.

According to standard protocol, the four of us would alternate two-hour shifts: one pair would patrol while the other pair rested in the bunks set up inside the guardhouse. We all wanted to be on the first shift. After some discussion, we decided to toss a coin to determine which pair would get it. They won, so Sam and I settled into the bunks while they headed out on patrol. I was exhausted by the day’s exertions, and quickly fell into deep, dreamless sleep.

After what seemed like five minutes, I woke to a firm hand shaking my shoulder.

“Goddamnit.” I rubbed my eyes. “What time is it?”

“Twenty-three-fifty-five.” Sam sat back down on his bed and yawned, cradling his rifle across his lap. He already had his gear on. “The other two’ll be back soon.”

Groaning, I forced myself upright.

“Did you manage to call Min?” I pulled on my boots and began the laborious process of lacing them up.

Sam shook his head. “Couldn’t get reception.”

“Sorry man, that sucks.” Tying a final knot in my laces, I pulled them taut and shrugged on my webbing.

“It’s okay. I’ll try again later.” He tossed me a plastic-wrapped bun. “Here –they dropped off some snacks while you were sleeping.”

“Thanks.” I stuffed the bun next to my phone in a spare magazine pouch, then picked up my rifle and slung it over one shoulder. Finally, I grabbed my jockey cap and fixed it squarely on my head.

“I’m ready.”

Sam got up, and together we walked out of the guardhouse and into the midnight air.

The jungle loomed pitch dark around us, a ring of unbroken shade only held at bay by the floodlights around the guardhouse. My vision blurred, and I had a brief sensation of vertigo as my eyes took a moment to adjust, focusing and un-focusing in a vain attempt to find a reference point in the midst of that all-consuming blackness. As I stood, giddy, in that slim perimeter of light, it was all too easy to believe in the tales I had heard about this place and that there were spirits who lurked in the night.

The sound of boots on gravel jolted me back to reality, and I turned to see the other two recruits walking towards us.

Sam waved a hand in greeting.

“How was your shift?”

The leader of the two shrugged.

“Nothing happened, really.”

“We got a big scare when our walkie-talkies suddenly blasted static about an hour into our shift, but I think it was just the sergeants screwing with us,” his partner added. “I could hear someone giggling right before it cut off.”

I nodded.

“Thanks for the heads up. Have a good rest.”

We all shook hands, and the two of them went into the guardhouse.

Sam unhooked his walkie-talkie and keyed the transmit button.

“This is Sam and Yiming. We’re taking over patrol duty now. Over.”

“Roger that.” From the sound of the voice, I figured that it was the senior sergeant replying. “Take your time on the rounds, but don’t take too long. You should aim to complete one circuit of the dump every half hour – we can see you when you walk by the guardhouse, so we’ll know if you’re slacking off. Over.”

“Roger that. Over and out.”

Sam hooked his walkie-talkie back onto his webbing, and we set off on patrol.

 We walked in silence, taking the opportunity to stretch our limbs and rub sleep from our eyes. The air around us was rank with humidity and the noises of the jungle at night: the wind in the leaves, the calls and hoots of nocturnal birds, the undergrowth rustling with the movement of creatures unknown, and the ever-present, incessant cicada-call that serves as kind of deep bass layer to the symphony of the tropical night.

My phone buzzed, and I fished it out of my magazine pouch.

“Grace?” Sam gave me a curious glance.

“Nah. My old classmates are gathering for football tomorrow, but I think I’ll be too tired to join them.” I fired off a quick text, and was about to replace my phone when I remembered my earlier conversation with Sam.

“Hey, wanna use my phone to call Min?”

Sam looked unsure. “I mean, do we have time? And what if they catch us?”

I looked at my watch.

“Yeah, we have around fifteen minutes: you can walk and talk. There’s also no way the sergeants can see us from here – we’re on the other side of the guard house.”

Sam hesitated, but took my phone anyway and punched Min’s number in. He held it up to his ear, and cradled it there as we walked on. Presently, he lowered his hand.

“She’s not picking up.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “She’s probably just asleep.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Sam handed me my phone and I put it back into my magazine pouch. I felt like I should say something more to him, but I did not know what to say. The silence between us grew heavy, and for some reason I became acutely aware of the sound of gravel beneath our feet.

Suddenly, our walkie-talkies crackled into life and blared out a series of loud, clashing noises.

“Jesus Christ!”

Sam wrenched his walkie-talkie off his webbing and tossed it on the ground like a thing on fire. I unhooked mine and checked its settings. It still appeared to be set to the original channel. As I did so, the clashing noises faded and were replaced by the sound of mandolins and a thin, male voice that chanted strange words in a high falsetto.

I listened more closely. Something about those words seemed familiar. Then it hit me – it was dialect of some kind.

I thumbed the “transmit” button on my walkie-talkie.

“Hello, sergeant. I didn’t know you were a Beijing opera fan. Over.”

The sing-song chanting abruptly stopped, and the sound of the senior sergeant’s laughter came roaring over the channel.

“Heh, just messing with you. Are you near the guardhouse? Your 30 minutes are almost up. Over.”

I looked up. Through the barbed wire, I could see the guardhouse just round the next corner. “Yes, sergeant, we’re almost there. Over.”

Swearing, Sam picked up his walkie-talkie from where he had thrown it and hooked it back onto his webbing. We rounded the corner and waved at the duty sergeant, who gave us a nod of acknowledgement and signaled for us to proceed on to our next round.

I waited till the guardhouse was out of sight, then turned to Sam and smirked mockingly.

“You fucking pussy – I wish I could’ve taken a photo of you just now.”

“Fuck off,” Sam grumbled. “You weren’t exactly calm yourself. I totally heard you squeal like a little girl when the walkie-talkie went off.”

“I did not!”

“Did too.”

“Did not!”

“Did too. It wasn’t very loud but it was definitely a squeal.”

“Alright,” I admitted grudgingly. “Maybe a little. But still, it was nowhere near as bad as your reaction.”

“Fine, fine. So I’m a little bit of a pussy sometimes – at least I’m not afraid to admit it. And in my defense I was kinda preoccupied.”

“With what?”

“It’s nothing.”

“C’mon man,” I said. “You can tell me.”

Sam sighed.

“Alright. I guess, I don’t know, I’m just worried about Min.”

“Are you guys fighting?”

“No, no. It’s just – well, she’s leaving for uni in a few months and I think we’re going to have to break up.”

“Don’t say that. It could work out.”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m pretty realistic about our chances. She’s going to be in Cambridge and I’m going to be stuck here and we won’t see each other for another six months at least. Sure, we could Skype, but only on weekends – that’s no basis for a real relationship.”

“She really does like you, though.”

“I know, I know. But in six months time she’ll be in another country and surrounded by interesting, intelligent guys who can be there for her while I’m here digging a trench somewhere in the jungle. You know Min maybe even better than I do. Do you think she’ll still like me as much then?”

I fell silent.

Sam nodded. He understood why.

“You see what I mean? And it sucks because I really really like her too, and I think we would have had a chance of working out long-term if she had stayed.”

As much as I hated to admit it, Sam was right. He was a great guy and I could really see why Min liked him as much as she did, but I did not think that she had the patience to do long-distance with anyone. She was mercurial, passionate, and lived for the moment, and nothing Sam could say or do would change that.

I reached into my magazine pouch and pulled out my phone once more.

“Call her again.”

“What?”

“You heard me, call her again. Min never sleeps before two on a weekend. She’s up and probably just hear you call. Call her again.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Okay.” Sam took the phone from me with a grateful smile. Pressing redial, he lifted the phone to his ear.

Then the look on his face changed and he handed the phone back to me.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Sam raised a finger to his lips.

“Do you hear that?”

I listened, and noticed a strange sound too. I had grown used to the quiet noises of the night-time jungle, but now there was a new cadence added to their mix – a loud and insistent rustling, punctuated by the snapping of twigs.

“Over there!”

Sam pointed at a clump of trees at the edge of the floodlights’ reach. We could see their branches thrashing as a dim figure blundered its way through the undergrowth. It was about as tall as a man, and coming fast.

A thought struck me, and I grinned.

“It’s probably just the sergeants goofing around again.”

Sam visibly relaxed.

“That makes sense. They must want to test if we’re actually alert.”

“Yeah, and give us a little scare while they do it.”

“Alright. Let’s show them.”

I reached into my magazine pouch with my right hand while my left kept my rifle trained steadily on the moving figure. Extracting my live magazine, I held it between my four fingers and palm, leaving my thumb free. With a swift, practiced motion, I brought my hand up under my rifle and thumbed its release catch, letting the blank magazine fall to the ground as the live magazine locked into its place with a snap. Sam followed suit, and we shouted a challenge towards the moving clump of trees.

“Stop! Identify yourself.”

The rustling immediately stopped. Seconds ticked by, but no one emerged.

“Maybe it was just the wind?” Sam whispered.

“No way. None of the other trees were moving. And I definitely saw something.”

“I’ll go investigate.”

Sam advanced cautiously, and I circled round to his side so he wouldn’t be in my line of fire.

“Is anyone there?”

Sam had only taken a few steps when something huge and black and hooved came barreling out of the tree-line. It was on him in a flash, and I saw the gleam of a tusk as Sam disappeared under its bulk.

Sam screamed.

My body moved with the automatic reactions that had been grooved into it by hours of painful drill. Release safety catch. Finger on trigger. Hold charging handle. Pull charging handle. Release charging handle.

Breathe.

Aim.

Fire.

As it turned out, Sam and I were both wrong: him and Min lasted a full year of long distance before they broke up. I like to think the incident that night helped, a little: the hole in his leg was quickly patched up, but our medical officer (who, we discovered, was actually not strict at all) gave him a long furlough from active duty and he spent the next six months in an office Skyping Min and pretending to work.

But when they did break up they broke up bad. Like a divorced couple, they divvied up their mutual friends, and I fell on Min’s side of the settlement. She made me promise not to see Sam again, and as much as I liked him I liked Min more. The rancor of their separation faded with time, and I think she would not have minded if I had reconnected with him, but we too had grown apart and we both found it easier to stay strangers when we finished our service and returned to our civilian lives.

They said afterwards that it had been a wild boar that attacked us that night, and Sam’s tusk shaped-wound and the hoof marks on the ground bore out that version of events. But I saw that creature with my own eyes, and wild boars do not come that big. There was also the small matter of the bullets I fired – they were later found buried in the tree trunks nearby, bent and warped as if they had ricocheted off some kind of armored surface.

All I know is that when I look back on those two years in the army, the rest of my memories seem slightly unreal: like the smiles in an old photograph, they are sepia-toned, stained with the shouts and tears and laughter of boys playing at war. But in my mind that long night of guard duty will always burn in a brilliant hue, etched in full color by fear and friendship and the thought of things unknown.

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3 thoughts on “Of Things Unknown

  1. Ren Jie, I love this piece – will definitely share this with my guy friends.
    Like the “studied expression” description and the alliterative slumbering effect made by the “deep, dreamless sleep”.
    Yvonne

  2. The last line – “But in my mind that long night of guard duty will always burn in a brilliant hue, etched in full color by fear and friendship and the thought of things unknown.” – is absolutely beautiful writing.

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