Keeping Watch

Keeping Watch

(Bantam Books, March 2004)

The boy sat without moving before the multicolored screen of his computer, head bowed, pulling the room’s silence around his bony shoulders as if harnessing the billowing cloak of a superhero. As if by wrapping himself head to foot in the fabric of silence, he might become invisible as well.

The boy thought of his cloak as The Quiet, imagined it to be woven from ever-shifting tones of grey and blue, mist-like colors of peace and invisibility. He was, in truth, still nearly halfway convinced of its actual existence, a portion of his heart even now almost certain that if only he could concentrate intensely enough, like some Chinese martial-arts master—if he could just find the precise area in his brain from which The Quiet flowed—he would be able to trigger it at will, pulling it up over himself like a blanket so that he simply winked out, into another dimension or something, vanishing from the world’s sight.

He knew this was nonsense, of course. He was twelve years old now, and he’d lost his belief in fairy tales a long time ago. The problem was, sometimes it seemed to work. Sometimes he’d sit really, really still, so motionless he could feel the blood slowing in his veins, hear his mind turning within its skull; when he reached just that right place, he could reach in and summon The Quiet. He would feel its cool fabric brush lightly across his skin and snug down against his clothes, as firm and protective as a mother’s arms. When that happened, when he got it right, Father’s footsteps would continue on past his door, as if he had lost sight of the boy wrapped in his cloak of silence.

Other times, however, the boy would just think he’d got it right. He’d sit without moving a muscle, his breath so low it did not hide the slow lub-dub of his heart, stilling his mind until he felt The Quiet begin to creep up over him, clothing him in the knowledge that tonight’s footsteps would go on by, since he was not there for Father to see. Only, incomprehensibly, the approaching footsteps would turn right and come through the shattered doorway, and the real world would crash over him with the shock of a bucket of ice water.

He’d seen a television program one time about a dog trainer, and although the woman herself was stupid and ugly he’d left it on for a while, because he couldn’t take his eyes off one of her dogs. It was a small brown-and-white animal with soft-folded ears and intelligent black shiny eyes—a terrier, she’d called it. It was a compact dog, sharp of feature and round of belly, just the right size to fit into a boy’s lap and wriggle around to lick his chin with that pink tongue, but the woman acted like it was a lab rat or something. The terrier had been mistreated by its owners, she’d told the camera—and he knew just what she was talking about, oh yeah. But, she said, from the terrier’s point of view, the worst part was not the physical abuse it had suffered, or even the lack of affection. It was the unpredictability of it all, the way the owner would one day kick the dog and another day pick it up and feed it treats and spoil it, so the poor animal (those were her words: poor animal) never knew what to expect. That was what had made the dog vicious, so that he couldn’t be trusted not to bite.

The dog lady hadn’t said anything about the opposite result of being treated unpredictably: the hope, constant and tenacious, that insisted on whispering in the back of a person’s mind, If only… If only I could find the right spot in the brain, I’d be able to enter The Quiet any time I wanted. If only I could figure out what I do that sets Father off, I could stop doing it. If only…

Maybe it didn’t work that way with dogs. Maybe dogs didn’t hang on to hope like people did. Maybe they just gave up thinking that life might make sense one day, so when they looked up and saw a hand reaching out to feed them or to hit them, they just bit it without waiting to see which it would be. Because they Couldn’t be trusted. Not to bite.

Maybe only little kids hung on to the hope that they could do something—like they clung to the idea of some superhero cloak of invisibility. Lately, he’d begun to think it was time he grew out of the fantasy, that basically there was not a thing he could do to avoid Father when Father was in one of his moods.

Or maybe there wasn’t all that much difference between a boy and a terrier. (Great name that, somehow like terror only friendly, like the dog looked, his ears cocked at the camera and at the stupid woman who hadn’t even said his real name. The boy had decided the dog’s name was Terry, and concluded that Terry Couldn’t be trusted only when it came to do with stupid women and unpredictable owners.) Maybe, the boy thought, it was time for him to start growing up, time to become more like the mistreated white-and-brown dog.

Time for him to become vicious, and snap those sharp white teeth down into flesh and bite and tear and—

When the sound of feet came on the stairs, the boy jabbed the SAVE button on the keyboard and subsided into motionlessness, trying not to breathe, searching desperately for The Quiet, for the tiny button in his brain that would render him invisible.

Two

Allen’s dreams were cloaked in green, even after all these years.

The good dreams, dreams like those flickering behind his eyelids that night in the apartment smelling of cat’s piss, were woven from the rich and varied greens of the islands where he had grown up: the dark dull cedar and the sword fern in autumn, the gloss of wet madrone and Oregon grape, the brilliant tips of the springtime firs against the gray-green shapes of the distant mainland, the opal-green tint the sea took on in a clear day after a rain, the blues and greens of the small braided rug that had met his bare feet each and every morning of his childhood, all of them melding in his sleeping mind with the mind-boggling, gorgeous multiplicity of colors that had made up the Vietnam countryside, ranging from near-black to startling chartreuse, from the quiet bottle-green flavor of light under the jungle canopy to the artificially bright patchwork of the rice paddies.

Those were the good dreams.

Then there were the other nocturnal greens. He could not have said what the difference was, why one color was comforting and its close brother brought menace. He only knew that the dreams that had him thudding out of sleep into full, sweat-drenched, tight-muscled battle alert were shaded with dead tones. They might begin with the bright olive of a new guy’s fatigues, a clean slate waiting for the messages of battle and blood and the permeating red earth of Vietnam, to be followed by the ominous flatness of one lone shrub on an entire hillside of vegetation, a shrub whose roots had been cut by some tunneling creature. Sooner or later he would dream the startling lime-green of Flores’ eyes, and once those eyes had appeared, the shades of green worming their way into his sleeping mind bore the inevitability of decay: the weird tones of chemically murdered foliage and the blatant innocence of the vines that sprang up overnight from soil disturbed by man; the lifeless colors of the hacked-off branches used to camouflage the enemy’s trucks and the yellow-green glow of terrain through a night-scope and the nauseous blue-green of suppurating infections in Caucasian bodies that had lain a week in the jungle heat. The greens would writhe and merge like jungle phosphorescence through his sleeping mind until he bolted upright, sweating and breathless at the vivid reality of a green body-bag being zipped shut inches from his nose, or of eight-foot high elephant grass curling down upon him like the maw of some huge carnivorous creature. Sometimes he would be heading back to the NDP in a Huey, the cool breeze fingering his damp hair and his M16 easy between his knees, relaxed and safe and riding high above an undulating sheet of emerald-colored crushed velvet that draped the soft curves of the earth below—only the chopper would shudder and Allen’s harness would open and out the open door he would shoot, floating unencumbered over that endless green expanse of unbroken jungle, achingly beautiful and pure except that he was not floating he was falling and the jungle was rising up at great speed and the crushed-velvet became individual trees reaching up for him and the ground was getting closer so close it was nearly at his eyelids and he was about to—

Yes, Allen’s dreams were green.

Of course, Allen had been pretty green himself when his stiff new jungle boots had stumbled down the metal stairs from the air-conditioned Braniff jet onto the sticky tarmac of Vietnam. Wet behind the ears, clueless jerk, fuckin’ new guy, a real cherry, oh yeah. What grunts so expressively called fresh meat. Twenty years old and out to save the world in his year-long cycle in ’Nam, when he hadn’t even had enough sense to save himself.

He could have stayed deferred, could have sat out the remainder of his four years behind a nice clean desk in a nice tidy classroom. But romantic fool, halfway through his freshman year at the U of W he’d looked around and thought, I’m not doing my part. So he’d enlisted, can you believe it? Turned up his nose at the student deferment and signed his name on the forms. At least his girl Lisa had slept with him when he’d come home from boot camp, so he hadn’t shipped off to war a virgin.

Sometimes, in the darkest cycles of his middle-aged sleep, smells would creep in, too. Not so much that first overwhelming stench, which he would come to know all too well as the rich savor of shit barrels doused with fuel and set alight, but rather the country’s other, more universal odors—rot and stale urine and clothes stiff with fear-sweat, diesel trucks and jet fuel and kerosene cookstoves, dust and animals, rice paddies and incense and the ubiquitous fish sauce the people ate, an olfactory flood that swept over him on this, his first venture into the tropics. Even now, a couple of lifetimes later, the whiff of a pit toilet or the whoop of monkeys in a zoo had the power to clothe him in the taut and twitching skin of a kid barely out of his teens, and for an instant prickly heat would flare in his crotch and armpits, sweat trickle down the muscular hollow of his young spine beneath the ghostly pack. Even on that first day, bumping in the bus with its wire-covered windows while his mind worked to convince itself that this was the act of a righteous man, a ritual of passage that would make him whole—even then, his body had had enough sense to dread the place.

He’d learned to control himself. It was twenty years or more since he had dived behind a car at the sound of a sudden clatter, at least fifteen years since he had slapped his rib cage reaching for a non-existent rifle. But thunderstorms still made him jumpy, approaching a strange house had him scanning the surroundings for sniper sites and perimeter defenses, and on a dirt path, his eyes never ceased searching for trip wires.

And all his dreams were cloaked in green.