He looked just like me, only different. Older, more haggard around the edges, more lines beneath his eyes, more grey in his hair. But behind the grizzled beard and old army cap, the eyes were still the same.
He stopped when he saw me. “We’ve met before?” he asked.
“In Viet Nam,” I said.
The lines of confusion softened around his eyes. He stepped closer, the hard weight of his prosthetic foot knocking against a chair leg as he came.
“In the bar,” he said. “Outside Huế.”
The rain beat against the coffee shop windows, playing its incessant tattoo as a wash of white noise that cut the din of the other café patrons to a subdued murmur.
I remembered Huế. Weeks of dodging bullets in narrow alleys. Rain and mud. Smoke from house fires in the night; the smell of rotting bodies in the streets.
He pulled the chair out and sat across from me, setting the prosthetic leg against the table base, studying my face.
“You’ve changed,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. Those years ago I’d thought he was the product of an LSD-fused dream. An ironic creation of my own imagination.
But I’d been clean for years. He was real.
I looked over his shoulder towards the door. The door leading out into the rain-soaked parking lot. He kept looking at me. I could feel his eyes searching me, asking the same questions.
“You’ve changed,” he said again, the musty smell from his old, green jacket reaching me across the table.
“You survived,” I murmured.
“After Nam,” he said, “I ended up in Malaysia. Smuggled skag until it got too hot. Then I delivered tugs from Singapore.”
Seeing him brought her back, just the way she used to look. I remembered the smell of her hair, her soft skin against my chest in the hot, tropical nights.
“Married?” I asked.
He pulled off the army cap and shook his head, revealing a scruffy brown head of hair. I was balding, now. “Haven’t been able to stick with a girl since Nam,” he said.
“You’ve tried?” I asked.
“Sure. Never lasts. Girls, jobs, money.” His eyes shifted into mine and he smiled. “Only things stick around are the dreams and the drugs.”
I nodded, aware suddenly of the crispness of my white shirt, the perfect knot in my necktie, my gleaming Citizen watch. The rain suddenly whipped across the window next to us, crackling against the pane like gunshots.
I saw her in the lines on his face.
She’d died. Âu Cơ must have died. I’d always wondered; now I couldn’t bring myself to ask him.
He smiled. “It’s been quite a ride.”
“Why am I seeing you? Why are you here?” I asked.
He sighed and put his cap back on. “Who knows,” he said as he stood up and turned to go.
“Wait,” I said.
He shrugged. “Why? Whatever you want me to wait for isn’t here.” He pointed to the door. To the rain. “It’s out there.”
I sat, motionless, frozen in my seat as he limped on his fake leg to the door and opened it. He paused before he stepped out, though, and looked at me once again.
“Be seeing you,” he said.
And he was gone into the mists of the rain.
The storm beat at the little Vietnamese bar, rainwater swamping in through the door, pooling on the floor around the tables. Outside, it swallowed the warm air in whipping billows, churning the streets to filthy morasses.
Two soldiers sat opposite each other, bent over their whiskeys at the wooden table as the sounds of the rain surrounded them. They were exactly alike. Same height. Clothes. Posture. They moved the same, spoke with the same voice, looked through the same eyes.
“What am I going to do?” asked the first man.
Beyond the rain, gunfire snapped in the distant streets.
“You know,” said the other man, drinking the whiskey through gritted teeth. “You’re leaving. You’re running.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“I do,” said the other man, slamming the empty whiskey glass back onto the table, “if it means saving Âu Cơ. When I walk out that door I’m going back. I’m taking my gun and I’m winning this stinking, shit-house street-fight if it means leaving my body rotting in the mud when I’m done.”
“Âu Cơ’s dead.”
“I’m finding her.”
“She must be dead.” The first man slumped in his chair, looking at the whiskey in front of him, listening to the rain. He picked up the glass. His hand shook, spilling half the cheap, warm liquid across the table.
The rain quieted for a moment. The second man stood up. “I don’t know what you are,” he said. “Maybe you’re the drugs. Maybe somehow you’re actually me… another me. Whatever. If you run, the fear will be at your heels for the rest of your life. It’ll shape the rest of your life.”
And he turned and walked towards the door. Towards the rain.
I looked up from my latte. It was cold now, like the wind outside the coffee shop window. I took my jacket, my laptop case, drank the last of my coffee and walked to the door.
I couldn’t see him in the parking lot. Maybe he really had disappeared. All those years, and he’d been real. A different me, living a different life. A life chosen on a swamped, muddy road in Viet Nam.
I stood for a moment at the door, trying to see my way through the billowing sheets outside, but you can’t see what isn’t there.
He had been right about the fear. But what had dogged his steps? What filled his dreams?
I suddenly remembered Âu Cơ’s soft breath on my face.
Gathering my collar around my neck, I braced myself against the cold wind and stepped into the rain.
About the Author
“Into the Rain” shows a man suddenly confronted in a very real, visceral way by his past, forcing him to remember a painful choice he made years ago that has since shaped his life, and making him wonder what may be hidden in his future.
S. B. Watson is a writer from Salem, Oregon. When he’s not spending time with his family, practicing historic English quarterstaff-fighting techniques, or playing acoustic music he can be found in his library, constructing mystery novels and writing pieces of peculiar short fiction. For more information, please visit SBWatsonMysteries.com, or contact him on Twitter.
About the Illustrator
Jaspreet Kaur is a 22-year-old economics student in Panjab university, India. She has been a winner of Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi award in Punjabi poetry. She’s a nature lover and a budding photographer. She thinks that there are hidden universes evolving inside us and we all shall pursue to find those.
You can spot her in cafes of Chandigarh sipping life over a coffee and trying new cuisines. You can find her here.
into the Rain is one of the many amazing submissions we have received for the third edition of the literary collection The Machinery.
Feel free to share the fiction on Social Media or let us know what you think about it in the comments below!
Follow The Machinery!