The water was a sickly green color from the rotting vegetation and the bed was soft mush.
Paul Zwylliger tried not to put too much pressure on his feet, tried to simply hang by his wrists, which were tied to the bamboo bars at the top of his river cage.
Ernie had tried to stand, had tried to lift the river cage; there was no bottom to the bamboo structure.
But Ernie had sunk down in the muck and his weight pulled the river cage down, trapping him underwater. The soldiers stood around and laughed at his frantic struggles and laughed at the men that cried out for them to help their comrade.
Moments later, when the North Vietnamese soldiers were sure Ernie was dead, they pulled the cage out of the murky river, used his lifeless body for their amusement, then simply threw him into the river and let his body drift downstream.
The afternoon sun beat down, blistering Paul's face. He ducked his head under the water for as long as he could hold his breath, then rose up again. Moments later, the searing heat again forced him to stick his head under the water again.
Lieutenant David Glass started screaming and Paul looked to see the three NVA soldiers pulling his cage from the river.
"Mother fucker! No! I told you everything I know!" the man babbled and screamed.
Paul had no doubt that the spineless officer had done just that; spilled his limited knowledge to the NVA before they even struck him once. He also had no doubt that the Army, in their limited scope of vision, had told the Lieutenant very little of their mission. Other than standing around, screaming inane orders that had the eight of them wandering around in circles, Lieutenant Glass seemed to have no idea what they were to do, or what the Army had hoped they would accomplish.
"Fuck; I'm not even supposed to be here," Paul Zwylliger had confided to Ernie Bell, right before the huge explosion and the ensuing blackness.
Carl entered the trailer, carrying a desk. Sister Angela looked up from her notes, nodded curtly to the retarded giant and pointed to where the desk would go.
Paul Zwylliger looked up with interest as Carl lumbered down his aisle, carrying the heavy cast iron and wood structure as if it did not weigh nearly fifty pounds.
"What you got there, Mr. Carl?" Paul asked.
Sister Angela put her finger to her lips; there were others still taking their tests.
"It's a desk," Carl responded.
"Oh, okay," Paul smiled as Sister Angela made a 'shh' sound.
"Got a new girl coming," Carl confided to Paul.
Carl liked Paul. Carl knew he wasn't too smart; his Daddy told him all the time he wasn't too smart, but that was okay, because God made him strong. But it bothered him when kids made fun of him. Paul didn't make fun of him; Paul was always polite.
"A girl?" Paul asked, ignoring Sister Angela's growing agitation. "She cute?"
Carl almost dropped the desk when he started laughing hysterically.
"Paul, you so bad!" Carl giggled as he put the desk down at the end of the aisle. "I'm going to tell that girl she better keep an eye on you!"
"If you two don't stop..." Sister Angela warned.
"Now look, you getting me in trouble!" Carl said, truly frightened.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Carl," Paul apologized.
With a 'thunk' Carl put the desk behind Paul, then quickly left the classroom.
A few minutes later, the door of the mobile building opened and in stepped a rail thin girl. The twenty five students looked up with real interest as the tall girl approached Sister Angela's desk.
"Class, this is..." Sister Angela said, and then looked at the card the girl handed her. "Sheila Zubecky; am I pronouncing it correctly?"
"Yeah, She La," Sheila said with a straight face.
"No, no, I meant..." Sister Angela sputtered, confused.
Paul stifled his laughter.
"Oh!" Sheila said, small smile playing across her lips. "Yeah, Zew Becky, pretty much like its spelled."
"Okay, the desks are in alphabetical order," Sister Angela said, pointing down the aisle where Paul sat.
"Um, hey retard, Bubecky? I get the last seat," Sheila sneered as Paul began to move his books to the last desk.
"Um, hey retard? Z W comes after Z U," Paul smirked.
"Oh!" Sheila said, and then brightened. "You mean I finally won't be the last one called?"
"Nope, that'll still be me," Paul gave a rueful smile.
"Far out," the girl smiled and took her seat.
Sheila Zubecky stood at five foot ten inches, looking Paul eye to eye. She possessed a twenty nine inch chest, a twenty eight inch waist and a twenty nine inch rear. She had a buck toothed grin, wiry brown and red hair that did not behave, and thick coke bottle glasses.
To Paul, she was perfect, though. She possessed a sense of humor that rivaled his own, an outspoken nature, and wasn't afraid of getting dirty or sweaty.
Their dates usually consisted of going fishing on the Basin, which were largely spent swapping spit, drinking the beers and smoking the cigarettes she'd stolen from her father.
"Next time Foghorn there farts on me, I'm punching her in her head," Sheila threatened. "What's that girl eat? Nothing but beans?"
"Yeah, well, Ginger Young's been sitting in front of me for eleven years now; I'm just glad she's farting on someone else for a change," Paul admitted and cast his line out.
"Hey um, I got something to tell you," Sheila said and flipped her cigarette into the brackish water.
"Yeah?" Paul asked and took a sip of the hot beer.
"I love you," Sheila said and looked away.
"I love you too," Paul admitted.
On the west bank of the river, the villagers went about their daily lives. The children played, the braver ones even coming close to the prisoners and mocking them. The adult men toiled in the fields and the adult women tended to the small gardens in front of their huts, or tended to their wash. The children were unmanned, yet none dared stray too far from the safety of their mothers' eyes.
The three soldiers looked from cage to cage and Paul tensed as they looked at him. They jabbered to each other then came to a consensus.
"Fuck!" Paul barked as they approached.
One NVA held the AK-47 trained on him while the other two grabbed the cage and pulled it out, lifting Paul out of the brackish water. He continued to complain bitterly, cursing them and their mothers.
"I don't think he's happy to be coming with us," the one holding the rifle said and the other two laughed as they untied his wrists.
"Oh, that's a shame," one of the soldiers laughed. "We will have to change his mind, right?"
"Commander Nguit will make him very happy," the one with the rifle said and the three laughed as they shoved him toward the grass hut the commander occupied.
Paul stumbled, winching as his water-logged feet stepped on the stones and twigs that littered the ground. The stones and twigs cut into his already mottled flesh, making each step tortuous.
"Hurry, we wouldn't want to keep the commander waiting," one of the soldiers giggled.
Paul suddenly realized, the men were speaking Vietnamese, but he understood their every word.
The air inside of the hut was hot, dank. There was no air circulating and made the interior quite suffocating.
The one soldier kept his weapon trained on Paul while the two other soldiers tied him across a bar.
Commander Dat Nguit was a harsh faced man, his face still bearing the scars of teenage acne. He stood in front of Paul and harshly screamed questions at Paul.
"What was your mission? Were you looking for me Is that why you were here?" he asked in heavily accented English.
Paul did not answer the man's questions, just staring at him.
The reason they were in the vicinity of the enemy encampment was because of Lieutenant's incompetence. Paul wondered how the man had earned his stripes; he had no idea how to read a map's coordinates, had no concept of patrol protocol or formation. The only thing Lieutenant Glass knew how to do was scream useless orders.
Paul screamed as one of the soldiers brought a rattan reed down across the back of Paul's thighs.
"Answer me!" Commander Nguit screamed.
"Yes we were looking for you," Paul wheezed, tears coursing down his face. "We heard you suck cock almost as good as your sister and your mother and grandmother."
Commander Nguit took a moment, digesting Paul's comment. When the translation became clear to him, he screamed in rage.
"Beat him until he is dead!" the man screamed at the three giggling soldiers.
"Beat me until I'm dead?" Paul questioned and screamed again as the rattan reed was brought down again. "But then how will I fuck you up your ass? You like getting fucked up the ass, don't you?"
He screamed as the reed slashed into his water softened skin again.
And then you and these other faggots like licking the sperm out of each others' asses, right?" Paul gasped out.
Paul was awakened when they put him back in the river. The brackish water immediately began stinging his cuts and welts.
Stanley Monroe, Alphonse Marcoloni, and Samuel Bordelon each approached Sheila and asked her to the St. Thomas Aquinas Homecoming Dance. With a sneer, she turned each of them down; she was going with her Paul.
Stanley was the only one that was actually attracted to the flat chested eighteen year old girl; Al and Sam only asked her out because they didn't like Paul Zwylliger. Al because Paul made better grades and Sam because Audrey Kessler, his girlfriend, had let it slip that she thought Paul was cute.
"Oh, so you're one of those, huh?" Sheila mocked Paul as Paul prepared to put on his helmet.
"One of what?" Paul asked.
"Zwieback, get out there!" Coach Norman yelled at him.
"Oh, one of those idiots thinks it's all fun to hit on each other," Sheila sneered.
"Zwieback! Now!" Coach Norman screamed.
"You're a goof, Sheila," Paul laughed and trotted out.
"Thirty nine," Coach Norman commanded.
They ran play number 39 and Paul caught the ball that Sam flipped out to him, even though Sam purposefully threw it off target.
Al got knocked on his ass when he tried to plow over Paul, but Paul didn't give an inch.
Paul listened as the soldiers discussed an upcoming ambush they would be performing; a division of U.S. Marines had been spotted traveling north east. If the battalion continued on their trajectory, they would be less than three miles from the encampment in twenty four hours.
In preparation, the NVA had built up for the past week and instilled a new commander and additional troops, swelling the number of soldiers to nearly one hundred.
The new commander was very young, and is wont with most youth, very arrogant. His arrogance manifested itself in his cruelties toward not only the P.O.W.s under his jurisdiction, but in his treatment of his soldiers and the villagers.
Paul did feel sorry for the villagers. They were a simple folk, industrious, hard-working, and devout. They just happened to be caught in the middle of a conflict between two opposing forces.
They cared nothing for politics, only wished to be left alone to toil in their fields, hunt for the occasional game that wandered close by, fish their river, and provide for their families.
Paul watched the sneering commander as he marched to and fro, preening and posing for the children of the village.
The commander seemed especially fond of one young boy, often seizing the boy, and tickling him.
The afternoon sun beat down mercilessly and Paul ducked his head underwater again.
When he could hold his breath no longer, he popped back up.
The commander and the boy were no longer in sight.
The children played, running and shrieking; the mothers and older children tended to their chores, the soldiers marched back and forth.
At twilight, one of the village men stood and called out 'Toi!'
He called it out several times and a young woman spoke with some of the few children that had not been called in to the evening meal.
"He is with the Commander," Paul thought, watching as the man and woman search around for their child.
Some of the soldiers took notice of the mother and father and offered to look beyond the village for their child.
"Toi!" mother and father called out.
Paul wanted to tell them where their child was but he knew if any of the soldiers found out he spoke their language, he would be executed. He felt a gnawing in his stomach, a gnawing that was even more powerful than his hunger.
Michael Zubecky worked seven and seven for Bayroid Hydraulics, an oilfield company. This left Sheila at home alone to care for her younger brother, MJ, Michael Junior, who was eight years of age.
Doris Zubecky, Michael's wife and Sheila and MJ's mother, had been in Delphi's Diner when a man driving a large Cadillac came in, loudly and brashly demanding service. The man let it slip that he was a movie producer and was looking for potential starlets.
Doris gave no thought to Michael, Sheila, or MJ as she got into the man's car and left Bender, Louisiana behind. Within twenty four hours, she was sucking and fucking the man and within forty eight hours, Doris was fucking and sucking many men in front of the Bell & Howell 16mm cameras in the hotel room.
MJ gave no thought to answering the knock on their trailer door; he just assumed it was either Paul Zwylliger coming over, or Joey, his friend that lived three trailers closer to Highway 52.
"Hey, shrimp, your sister here?" Stanley Monroe asked, shoving the boy aside.
"Yeah, she home?" Sam Bordelon giggled
Despite the doctor's affidavit and Sheila and MJ's testimony, there was no indictment forthcoming from Judge Dan Robertson and no arrest for the rape of Sheila Zubecky. Graham Johnson, the lawyer for the three boys also produced some film that starred Doris Zubecky as evidence in his clients' innocence.
Paul Zwylliger was heartbroken when the Zubecky clan abruptly moved, and had that gnawing in his stomach when he looked at the smirking faces of Stan, Sam, and Al.
"I know where you can find your son," Paul hoarsely called out to the mother as she frantically held the lantern, searching close to the cages at the river's edge.
"Yes? Please, please tell me," she cried in anguish.
"The commander; he has him in his hut," Paul said, pointing as well as he could with his restrained hand toward the commander's hut.
The woman ran to find her husband
Obviously, someone alerted the commander; he quickly marched out of his hut, clutching a small bundle wrapped in cloth.
The woman and her husband saw the commander and with loud shrieks, stopped him.
"Toi!" the father screamed, clutching at the bundle.
A soldier beat the father away with the butt of his rifle, but not before the mother managed to uncover the face of her child.
"You monster! You are dragon!" the woman screamed.
The commander callously threw the body of their child at them and marched back into his hut.
"Man, that is some fucked up shit," Dwayne Jefferson, a large black man said.
Lieutenant Glass laughed and taunted both the soldiers and the grieving parents.
"Man, that is some fucked up shit," Dwayne said again, this time referring to Lieutenant Glass's behavior.
"Think he's finally snapped," Paul agreed.
"No talk! You no talk!" their lone guard screamed, pointing his rifle at them.
"Fuck you, slant eyed cock sucker," Dwayne said.
"I say no talk!" the guard shrilled.
Dawn was close to breaking through the trees on the east bank of the river when Paul saw the father slink from the hut where he and his family slept.
The two guards slept soundly, having drunk some of their very potent wine hours earlier.
The father stealthily made his way to the commander's hut and crept in.
Moments later, he reappeared and Paul watched as the man frantically wiped at something in his left hand.
"Hey," he hoarsely called out.
The father froze his fear quite apparent on his young face.
"Here, over here," Paul called out in the man's dialect.
The man looked, but did not move.
"I am the one that told her wife where your son was," Paul again called softly.
My son!" the man moaned.
"I cry my own tears for your loss," Paul assured the man.
"He was a child," the man cried.
"You killed the commander?" Paul asked.
"He killed my son," the man sobbed, coming closer.
"If they find you have the knife, they will kill you," Paul said.
"I do not care," the man said defiantly.
"But what of your wife?" Paul said. "She is young and she needs you to be there to protect her."
The man looked at the hut where his wife, his parents and his two sisters slept.
"Give the knife to me; I will let them kill me," Paul cajoled.
The man looked at Paul and nodded.
"Thank you," he said and pressed the knife into Paul's hand.
"No, thank you," Paul thought as the man hastily scurried back to his hut.
The knife was a short blade; the knife that the villagers used to harvest rice. Paul was grateful that his thumbs were double-jointed; he could not reach the cord that secured his left wrist, so he sliced first through the cord that secured his right wrist, and then cut the left wrist free.
Immediately, he sank into the mud, but was able to kick his way back up. He cut away the cord that secured the top of the cage, and pushed himself up onto the bank.
"Far fucking out," Dwayne hissed.
"Shh, fuck man, keep it down," Paul hissed as he tried to get to his feet.
He managed to wobble to where the two guards slept and sliced through their throats.
. The pain in his feet was intense so he gave up and crawled back to where Dwayne was.
"Here, man," Paul wheezed and cut the cords of the cage, then cut the cords that secured Dwayne's wrists.
Dwayne nearly screamed as his own raw feet touched the stone and twig littered ground, but managed to go to the third cage and cut it open.
"I'm going back; fuck, can't believe I forgot to get those fucking guns," Paul hissed. "You're in charge of getting them out of them fucking cages."
Lieutenant Glass roused himself as two more P.O.W.s were freed and began screaming for them to free him.
"Shut up!" Paul hissed, shoving the man's head under water.
"Please!" Lieutenant Glass blubbered.
"We will! Just shut up, ass hole!" Paul hissed, slicing through the cords. The moment he was freed, Lieutenant Glass tried to run.
"Sit on that dumb ass mother fucker, huh?" Paul ordered two of the men.
"Can't we just fucking kill him?" Dwayne asked.
"No, man, he's an American," Paul said.
He scurried as best he could to the villager's huts and stole the larger of the sandals that the men left outside, as well as a few of the garments that still hung in front of the huts.
"What the fuck we doing with them dresses?" Peter Slovenik asked as Paul shuffled back.
"Rip them up for bandages if we need them," Paul said.
"And to gag this mother fucker," Bennie Ford said, thumping Lieutenant Glass on his head.
"Come on; battalion's about five hours away," Paul hissed, gesturing.
"Man, how the fuck you know that?" Dwayne asked.
"Heard them talking; that's why they brought in all them extra soldiers," Paul said as the eight men scurried southwest.
"Heard...? Since when you speak Vietnamese?" Dwayne asked.
"Languages was my bag; had a full scholarship to Loyola if I hadn't gotten arrested," Paul said.
"I'm in charge, not you; I say we go that way," Lieutenant Glass demanded, pointing southeast, following the river.
"What is your rank?" Dwayne asked.
"Lieutenant David Glass, United States..." David said, throwing out his chest.
"Well, mother fucker, this here's Colonel Paul Zwylliger, United States Army and I say he's in charge, not you, you piss ass mother fucking Lieutenant," Dwayne sneered.
"Since when is he a Colonel?" David shrilled as they continued to scurry as best they could in the pitch black darkness.