Darkness came from the jungle and slid across him like a water snake. Cold earth molded around his arms and legs as he sank into death, freezing him into the position he had landed in.
The stillness of the end was slow and steady. Pain in his legs and head wrecked his thoughts and had become a monster inside him. But the stars . . . they were never so bright, and they pulled at him, drawing his soul up from the living hell that was swallowing him.
He stretched a finger out, certain he might touch one. Yet, in the back of his mind, he knew their light would soon fade into the black of his dead eyes.
A dark silhouette shifted into Jake’s view, erasing the stars. Shaped like a man’s arms and head, the shadow didn’t provide enough detail for him to distinguish it from his men or the enemies. The person grabbed his clothes at the shoulders and dragged him into the jungle.
The disfigured limbs of trees drifted over him. Helplessness seeded in his mind. Wherever he was going, it wasn’t back to the base camp. If it were to enemy grounds, his hell was just beginning. Jake closed his eyes and dropped off in the middle of a prayer.
* * *
Pain was his first thought. Warmth his second. The sound of burning wood spit and sizzled somewhere nearby. The air was a strange mixture of Neroli oil, clay, and cooked chicken. It carried heated voices, a man and a woman arguing in Mandarin. Bony fingers laid a damp cloth over his eyes. A hand cradled his head and pulled him up.
“Drink,” an older woman said with a thick accent.
She pushed a cup of warm liquid into his mouth. It tasted like spicy dirt. The woman hummed and applied a cool salve to the areas of his body that burned and throbbed with pain. She swathed him tight with cloth, jerking his limbs as she went. He fell back into the womb of night.
* * *
Dreams descended . . . explosions, fire, and gunshot, all a hurricane of bloodshed and screams. It was difficult to tell who they were fighting anymore, which side they were on. Good and evil depended only on whose eyes one looked through.
Jake’s brigade had separated from their division, a conflict of morals after orders to shoot and kill everyone, including women and children. Soldiers turned on soldiers. Enemy lines blurred.
The jungle offered no safe heaven, infested with poisonous fangs, disease-ridden insects, and the eyes of creatures, one in particular that brought such fear to the remaining soldiers of his brigade, they argued about even speaking of it. A word that wasn’t possible. Still, it was there, ballooned in their eyes, just before the rupture of a grenade exploded bright light at them and stole Jake from consciousness.
* * *
Jake woke to the doctoring touch of the old woman. Subtle movement came to his body, stiff and sore, but he could move. He distanced himself from the pain, working hard to wrap his thoughts around his surroundings, most notably the ribcage of a small animal that dangled above him. Dried grass held the ribs together, and the skull, with its hollow orifices, gawked at him hostilely.
He turned his head, taking in the unfamiliar designs of the room: tiled walls, ornate furniture, organic garlands, and wreaths constructed from plant, bone, and wood. The peculiar color combinations and patterns of pillows, curtains, and blankets all looked foreign to him.
Another skull hung on the wall at the foot of his bed, the jaw full of teeth that were unusually thick and long. Some bear of sorts, he supposed, only the shape of the skull looked human.
Jake looked at the old woman. She sat cross-legged gazing at him with eyes that seemed to house far away knowledge. Her rubbery lips folded together while she waved smoldering sticks over him.
“Mama, he’s awake.”
A little, black-haired girl trotted into the room wearing a yellow dress. She leaned over him.
“Give him some space, Letti.” A middle-aged woman stooped next to the girl. Protective arms pulled her back a foot. “Are you thirsty?” The woman asked in a heavy accent.
The old woman brought him a tin cup of tepid water. She limped though not in a way that signaled injury as much as age.
“Thank you,” Jake said.
“Huānyíng nín,” the little girl said.
“Huānyíng nín,” he repeated.
“My legs are burning.”
The little girl gazed up at her mother. “Mama?”
“Shh, Letti. Let him be.” She turned to the old woman, passing her a look of concern.
“Gāo fāshāo,” the old woman said.
The mother stood. “His fever is still high. Come, Letti. Let’s go wash for dinner.”
The old woman spoke in Mandarin, to no one in particular. Hurt crushed over Jake like a blacktop roller, wringing strength from him. He shivered and struggled not to moan. People who moaned were often killed. The old woman pulled a hot-red stick from the fire and pressed it against his legs. Pain purged him into the darkness of misery again.
* * *
The next few days, or weeks—he couldn’t tell—involved cut scenes of waking and nightmare. In many, the old woman hummed and rocked, and threw particle to the fire. She put cold cloth to his body and hot coal to his wounds. She hovered her hands over him; sometimes they held the skull with the large teeth. He envisioned it puncturing into its victims. The screams of soldiers and citizens returned to him in a mess of clamor and annihilation. He felt himself breaking, repeatedly, and each time, it chained him closer to surrender.
* * *
A voice streamed into Jake’s dream, one that was louder than the rest of them. He opened his eyes. His body felt lighter, and he wondered if his fever had broken. The little girl, Letti, played in the other room. She came bumbling around the furniture flying a doll through the air, back and forth, over to his bed, with eyes that watched him from the corner sockets as if she weren’t supposed to look at him. She edged nearer. “Hello.”
Her tone gave no hint to shyness, even without her family around. Jake knew that her father would be upset to find his little girl talking to the fallen enemy.
“Hello,” he managed to reply. His lips felt like two flat pancakes.
“We thought you were going to die.”
He gave a slight nod. “Me too. My name is Jake.”
“My name is Letti, and my doll’s name is Yuànjìng. That means vision of the future. She can predict when the ‘yá dàs’ are coming.”
“The ape monsters.” Her black eyes flitted to the shelf that held the human-like skull with large teeth.
Jake flinched at the word ‘monster,’ the word his sergeant wouldn’t let anyone say, but they all had thought it, had whispered it to themselves.
Letti’s eyes slid back to him, glazed with fear. “Grandmother says we can’t outrun them and that one day, we will have to face them.”
Run . . . face them . . .
The burning sensation radiated down Jake’s legs again. “My legs . . . they feel like they’re on fire.”
Letti glanced down the length of him. She propped her doll on a chair, sat next to him, and lifted his head with small, delicate hands.
He looked down at his feet. The blanket was flat, smooth against the contour of the makeshift bed.
“What?” He cried out. His thighs ended just above where his knees should have been.
“Oh my god. My legs . . . no! What hap—”
A gruff voice pounded into the room. Letti’s father had returned from the field, and he was shouting at Letti in Mandarin. It sounded like broken bells falling from a tower. Letti ran the room, passing Jake an uneasy glance.
The father walked over to him. Hate seethed behind his tightened eyes. He shouted at Jake, pointing his finger at the skull on the wall, and then back at him. Despite their language barrier, Jake understood Letti’s father very well. He was going to throw him to the yá dàs if he ever spoke to Letti again.
* * *
Screams woke Jake from dark sleep, but this time, they weren’t coming from his past. Angular shadows crossed the dim room. Letti’s father was boarding up the doors and windows in a way that suggested something was coming. Jake heard the mother mumbling frantically in Mandarin. She held on tight to Letti, whose eyes alluded to a darkness that even he didn’t want to know about.
The old woman clutched the skull in the claw of her left hand, empowering it with her grit and will. She jutted a bundle of dried herbs into the fire and waved it in a billowing arch around the room speaking in a slow, melodic tongue.
Letti’s father grabbed a large machete kept hidden beneath the sofa and backed up towards Letti and her mother. He said something in Mandarin that hushed everyone into a breakable silence.
Outside the cabin, the jungle stirred with the rustle of stout movement and the shrieks of wild beings. Jake’s thoughts twisted back to the night before his division had been bombed. Gordy, a six-foot-six frame of kick-ass temperament, paced around the camp with nervous, cognizant eyes. His bone-white knuckles were wrapped tight around an M16 Assault Rifle.
Jake suspected he had seen what their sergeant kept denying. The rest of the men struggled between their own gut feelings and a mind trained to withstand the impossible. Everyone knew that dissonance in war was no more than a death wish.
A crash slammed into the door of the cabin, suffocating Jake with the fear of the present. His heart kicked with adrenaline-rich blood. He had no legs, no means to escape or even the strength to fight and protect himself if the yá dàs came busting through. He was as good as bait.
Footsteps approached the front door and scuttled over to the side windows. Shadows slipped beneath the space between the floor and the door. Whatever was out there wasn’t tall, which normally would have put Jake at ease, but the scratching noises that ran along the frame and the hinges suggested that something intelligent looked for a way inside. It reminded him of raptors . . . not big dinosaurs, but cleverness made them remarkably dangerous.
Jake almost wished for the searing pain of hot coals so that he could fall back into another black sleep, but he couldn’t abandon Letti, even though he couldn’t help her. She looked at him, as if lost—innocence defeated by fear, an expression too old for someone so young. Jake held his fist up and brought it to his heart. She nodded back at him.
The yá dàs stomped along the thin boards of the deck, possibly looking for a way underneath. More of them joined in, becoming a wicked tempo of bloodthirsty intent.
The old woman shouted in the tongue of mandarin and held the skull over the flame with a rage of fire in her own eyes. The flames fanned through the eye sockets and out the jaws in a demonic image. A piercing squeal outside split through the ruckus. The others shrieked and shuffled on the porch.
Jake realized that they were leaving, giving in or in search of reinforcement. Their cries faded into the arms of the jungle.
Letti and her mother hugged. The father slumped against the wall, and the old woman turned to Jake, her eyes fierce as any he had ever seen before. She dipped her fingers into a bowl. They came out red, and she wiped them across Jake’s forehead.
“Tā shì jiānhùrén, zhànshì de sǐwáng, láidào nǐ mìngyùn!”
Letti looked at the old woman and then at Jake. The look of pain in her eyes had contorted into a scowl.
* * *
It had been over a week since the yá dàs had come. Letti took Jake in like a big brother, seemingly a terrible thing to her father. His eyes never softened on him, and he always fed him the last of supper’s scraps. Letti was gracious in hiding cooked shoots and sweetened rice in his water tin. The old woman pretended to notice much less than she did.
When the family went outside to work on the land, Jake practiced sitting up, dragging himself to the bathroom (to inspect his new, heavily scarred face, which he couldn’t believe Letti had never feared him for), and even attempted pushups—he had to prepare for another encounter with the yá dàs.
Whether or not the old woman was trying to protect him, marking him with blood and verse, he couldn’t count on her defense alone, and Letti’s father would enjoy nothing more than seeing him sacrificed to the yá dàs.
But his legs were stumps at the knees, large, round nubs that had a seam which pulled the skin taught at the center like pinched dough. He had just enough height to use his arms like crutches, hopping and gliding along the floor. Soon, he could do it with one arm while he carried things in the other.
The old woman never watched him directly, though he knew she studied him closely. Items that she used to put at his bedside, within reach, were now farther away, by the fire, on the shelf, or in the kitchen. She wanted him to push his strength—she knew the yá dàs would return also.
One day, the old woman mumbled continuously. She stayed near the fire, burning herbs, melting substances, and charging objects. She listened, as if to a particular sound—the inaudible voice of warning. Jake heard it to, in the subtle flutter of anxiety in the meat of his chest. The yá dàs were coming again.
* * *
Letti’s scream cracked through the thin walls of the house. Sweat dripped from Jake’s forehead after a round of pushups, and he came upright with a jump. Letti’s mother ran out the front door, her screams surpassed those of her daughter’s. Jake could hear the father shouting outside. The old woman was gone. He glided over to the sofa, grabbed the machete, and skipped outside as fast as he could move.
Jake followed the commotion to the edge of the garden where he saw Letti’s mother, father, and the old woman, all staring at a monster, a yá dà that had one hand on Letti’s head and the other around her neck. He knew that hold, the easy snap that would turn the lights out on Letti.
The other yá dàs gathered behind the larger one that held Letti. Another shock washed over Jake—the eerie similarities between the yá dàs and himself. They looked like a cross between humans and mandrills: shortened legs, lines creased into the face that resembled his scars, baldheads, and brawny arms. With the exception of enormous teeth and fur, Jake could almost pass as one of them.
The yá dà that held Letti tightened his grip around her throat, forcing a strangled cry from her. Jake heaved himself between the yá dàs and the family. The yá dàs grunted and barked when they saw him, that he looked just like them, and they seemed unprepared for what Jake signified.
The yá dà threw Letti towards the other yá dàs and turned on Jake. But he had been trained for lethal combat. Jake wasted no time and charged the yá dà with the machete grasped tight in his hand. He brought the blade down on top of its shoulder. It smacked against bone. The yá dà howled out in pain and clutched Jake around the neck. Jake had underestimated its strength and was overwhelmed at how powerful it was, how quickly it moved.
The yá dà swung him to the ground, knocking the machete from his hand. It rushed at him like a bear. Jake ducked and thrust himself toward the yá dà. It flipped over him and skidded in the dirt. The yá dà’s clawed hands dug into the ground. It sprang back at him in a ferocious rage.
This time, the yá dà lowered itself, quick to learn its past mistake, and trampled over Jake. It bore down on him, mauling his body with its claws, sinking its teeth into his middle like a shark. He could feel muscle and tissue ripping, warm blood spilling.
The yá dà beat on his chest, each blow knocking further air from his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. Jake turned himself to the side and wrapped his arm underneath its armpit. He thrust himself at the yá dà and rolled himself over the top of it. Grabbing it by the wrist, he yanked it’s arm up and twisted until he felt bones pop.
The yá dà roared and shoved Jake backwards. It spun around, the left arm limp from having been pulled from its socket. Madness seethed in its eyes. Jake understood that this fight was to the death.
The yá dà opened its fanged mouth and pounded towards Jake once more. Jake dove for the machete, swung back, and contacted the side of its neck. The yá dà arched back in a shriek of pain. The hot stench of blood spurted out, rancid metal, and it dropped to the ground in a violent spasm of death.
Jake glared at the other yá dàs. He lifted the bloody machete up into a darkening sky, challenging them, even though he could hardly stand from his mauled middle. The yá dàs, unobservant that Letti had run to her mother, looked on horrified. The distended gawking of fear spread over their faces—they had lost their king.
* * *
Jake woke the next morning and realized that, since he had made it through the night, he would probably live. Over the next few days, the old woman’s herbs, poultices, and tea brought him back to health. Letti’s mother brought him new clothes, and her father let him sit at the dinner table with them. He had earned his place in the family, which was something Jake never had much of. Besides, he was a different person now. He had a new destiny.
One evening, Letti’s mother started clearing the table, spilling food from their plates into a bucket for the compost. Jake picked up the bucket by the handle just as Letti’s mother reached for it.
“I got it,” he told her.
She smiled. “Thank you, Jake.”
Using his left arm as a crutch, he held the handle with the other hand and hopped along to the back yard. He dumped the slop of leftover into the bin. There were flies swarming around the area. Jake shooed them away with his hand and turned his head towards the edge of the property. New dirt mounded in a pile. He thought to scoop some over the compost to advert some of the insect infestation.
He went over and pushed the bucket into the soft dirt. He filled the bucket halfway when he came across a piece of cloth. Green canvas-like material. Jake dumped the bucket of dirt and used it to dig. The sight of camouflage stopped him with ungodly horror.
Jake dug faster, clawing at the dirt. A pair of legs . . . black boots. On the heel, there would be an identification number—everyone knew everyone’s number. He found it and wiped it clean.
Jake reread the numbers. He was not mistaken—he was 301. It wasn’t the body of another soldier; it was his legs.
Jake turned to the cabin, wondering if the old woman had cut them off to save his life. He ran his hands down the cold, stiff flesh of them. Having felt the pain in them so often, he swore they were still attached to him. Yet, there they were . . . unscathed and in one piece.
A thought scratched the back of his mind. Unscathed. One piece. He lifted the pant leg and inspected his ankles. There were no wounds bigger than a small cut, which hadn’t had time to become infected. A surge of tears knotted in the back of his throat. He swallowed the sob down.
Shoving more dirt aside, he unburied the spot where his legs stopped. He found the stark white of bone, not splintered, but sliced clean through.
Jake backed up, revolted and enraged. His vision strayed to an axe lodged into the top of a tree trunk.
No . . . Fuck!
He shuffled over to it, his breath heavy as he examined the dark stains smudged around the top of the handle where it fastened to the thick steel of the blade. Blood. Yá dà blood or his own? It didn’t matter. The old woman had still made him a monster.
The sound of the back door screeched. It was her.
The night Jake woke after his fight with the yá dà, Letti told him what the old woman had said to him when she had wiped him with blood: ‘He is the guardian, warrior of death, come to your fate.’
Jake shifted to the old woman. “Tā shì jiānhùrén, zhànshì de sǐwáng, láidào nǐ mìngyùn!” He said to her, pointing to where his legs protruded from the dirt.
The old woman shambled over to him, one eye squinted on his. She was only a foot taller than he, without legs. “I saved you,” she said, pointing to his chest. “You save us.”
She turned and went back to the house. Jake grabbed the axe and chucked it at the old woman. It somersaulted through the air, inches past her head, and stuck into the side of the house.
Letti’s father came out the door, his eyes bent on the old woman. The old woman looked to both of them, her eyes filled with dark unease.
“I save Letti.” Jake pointed to the trees where the yá dàs lived. “Not you.”
* * *
The leaves rustled through the jungle. Shadows careened across the grass as they approached him. In the middle of the lawn rested a skull, an ancestor. One of them emerged, cautiously, with an over-exaggerated stride to play up its size.
Jake sat still. The yá dà studied him and the skull. It moved closer, eyed the skull again.
With hairy, hand-like paws, it picked it up . . . made eye contact with Jake. Thought glimmered behind its black eyes. The yá dà cradled the skull under its arm and skipped back into the trees.
The eyes of the jungle watched him. Enemy lines blurred again.