Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards Thriller Winner: “Night Vision”

“Night Vision” by C.J. Sweet is the First Place winning story in the thriller category for the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Twelfth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Sweet’s winning entry.

Night Vision

By C.J. Sweet

The sun was going down on the Delta, turning the water a sluggish, brownish red.

Almost time.

Full moon.

He finished lacing up his combat boots, trying not to notice how Chito and Little John got quiet. Hell, he knew what they were thinking; nobody had to say it. With a flick of his wrist, he settled his helmet onto his head and picked up his M21. He was himself again. A stranger with a loaded weapon.

“Keegan,” the two men said, nodding. Neither wished him luck.

He paused on the raised landing of his hooch as the last rays began to fade and moonlight took over. From here, he could see most of the other huts and the men who claimed them as home, but nothing he saw affected him like the transition from the day’s sunlit reality to the night’s ghost-like clarity. He grasped his dog tags like a rosary before descending the steps, one at a time, quietly, confidently, till he made contact with the earth. Head lowered slightly, eyes straight ahead, he walked to the edge of the compound and disappeared into the brush.

Sights and sounds registered automatically. Important things, like the shadow flitting through his peripheral vision two trees over and to his left. Or things of no consequence, like his jaws clamping down to move in agitated rhythm.

Teeth grinding. It started at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, when the Viet Cong bombed the air base every fucking night. Like others, he conditioned himself to sleep during the bombing and to control whatever emotions threatened to overtake him the next morning. Like finding out which of his buddies had been blown to pieces.

The dentist tried to convince him that if his teeth were filed down, he wouldn’t be able to grind them in his sleep. The base shrink backed him up, adding catchphrases like “you’ve got to learn to compartmentalize” or “things you push away in the daylight can haunt you at night” and “stress can surface in all kinds of ways.”

So they filed his teeth down. It didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

The shrink suggested that he “get out more” and “get to know his buddies.” He didn’t want to know ’em. You make friends, and the next thing you know, pieces of ’em are scattered on the ground and all you’re left with is a name on a casualty list, an empty bunk. No thanks. He’d go it alone. The hunt was different. If you buy it, you buy it. Nobody gives a damn.

And he did get out more. Every night in fact. It didn’t improve his social life, but he sure felt better.

Halfway through a cynical smile, Keegan stopped and dropped. Voices, carried on the wind. Vietnamese. At least three. Slowly, he raised up to get a better look. No one in sight. Not yet. He stood for a moment, listening until the voices faded in the distance. When you’re alone, you’ve got to pick your battles. Two, and you have a chance. Too many, and you’re dog meat. It’s hard to take multiple prisoners back for interrogation purposes. One’s easier to handle. One’s all you need.

He waited, hunkered down, sweating, waiting to see if the soldiers were circling back or were gone for good. Something flagged his brain, like turning down the corner of a page while you go piss. An earlier thought. About nobody giving a damn if you bought it? Yeah, that was it.

Hell, a lot of things bothered him lately, like the shit the news anchors and reporters were shoveling out about what the hell they were doing in Vietnam. If those guys were right, and America couldn’t win the war, then what was the point? He stood, lowered his weapon, and faded into the trees. Don’t think. You’re not here to think. Focus on the trail. Walk, watch, listen.

Besides, 56 more days and he was history. At the air base, he could buy a miniature gong from a mamasan and strike it for every day left on his tour, every fucking night, just to remind the other bastards his time was nearly up. Some of the guys started gonging at 100 days out and drove everybody nuts. Yeah, that’s what he’d do. Except his ass wasn’t at the air base anymore. It was crawlin’ through the underbelly of a jungle, looking for prey. It was what he did, and he was good at it. Or so he’d been told. Still, some nights he’d rather stay in the hut and beat Chito and Little John at poker, and just leave it be.

He thought about going home, but what the hell was he going to do stateside? A few weeks of R&R and he’d be expected to act like a normal person, whatever that was. All the war protesters could yell at him like they did on the news, and tell him what a jerk he was, fighting for his country. To hell with them. His life was here, now. They didn’t matter. Not even those waiting for him back at the hut.

Keegan figured Chito was cool with his being a sniper. Being from the Barrio in Los Angeles, killing was nothing new to him. They joined gangs and packed weapons by high school. Matter of fact, he’d asked Chito once if he’d like to go on a midnight run, but all he got was a strange look. He didn’t ask again.

He’d never ask Little John. What good could a gung-ho flagwaver who’d joined up to do his patriotic chore be to him? Shit, he was so “book smart,” you could smell the fear on him. The learned graduate still looked at Keegan like he wasn’t quite human. But in Keegan’s eyes, Little John was the nobody. Just a short white dude with a girl back in the States who did best to help him hang on to those stars-and-stripes-forever, midwestern, conservative, holier-than-thou values. Flag-waving might work in Iowa, when they weren’t busy peeling potatoes. But Nam wasn’t Iowa.

Less than half a mile to the “watering hole.” Halfway between a pond and a creek. Keegan had stumbled across during one of his midnight wanderings. Chito and Little John knew about it, but neither of them would come this far into the brush, not without a whole company and a damn good reason.

He glanced at the moon and kept moving. Little John and Chito would be getting up when he turned up at dawn, leaned his weapon against his bunk, smoked, and crashed. They both knew to keep it quiet if they stayed in the hut. Maybe they’d be out on patrol when he got back, one of those “search-and-destroy” missions, military-speak for “find people and kill them.” He liked having the hut to himself.

And he liked hunting alone, even if everybody called him a rogue. He didn’t care.

Sometimes, he came back with a prisoner. Sometimes, he found nothing to hunt. One shot, one kill. Short and sweet.

And night vision made it all possible. A scope that got him “up-close and personal” with the enemy. He used it a lot, telling himself he needed it in case his M21 jammed, which was highly unlikely. After all, he kept his weapon as clean as the rest of his body. Cleaner.

Keegan traveled as far as he could on the trail, then scaled a hill and settled his 5’11” frame onto a ledge jutting out from the trees. He crawled forward until he had a clean line of sight over the rim, making sure the shadows of the trees concealed him. The water hole was in range, 110 feet away. His body settled in against the rock, his eyes and mind cataloguing everything that moved or made a sound. Now that the initial hush of dusk had settled, the animals were coming out to forage and to kill.

That was the kind of reality he lived with. Not the “folks back home” in their rocking chairs out on the porch, smelling the honeysuckle and listening to crickets rub their hind legs together. He had no folks back home. It was a long way from northeast Texas to southeast Saigon. And no southern pines growing tall and proud, which was fine with him. It’s hard to hide in a pine tree.

Keegan thought about draft dodgers, the trust fund babies heading off for college so they could protest The War and The Establishment while daddy’s money paid for everything, the protesting as well as the college degree. It pissed him off. He hadn’t protested. He’d volunteered. Hell, the farthest he’d ever been from Texas was southern Oklahoma, and he’d always wanted to see something of the world. So why not let Uncle Sam foot the bill?

He’d enlisted. And his wife had filed for divorce. Fair enough. Said he was crazy. Uncalled for, but not the first time. It was his one chance to travel and see different things, to know what was out there. Made perfect sense. His wife disagreed.

Thanks to ROTC in college, he managed to land a cushy job at the Air Base handling incoming cargo, personnel, visiting dignitaries. Great job. Not too demanding. In his off-hours, he went into the village and got food, jewelry, clothing, drugs, anything he wanted at a damned good price. He and the other officers who shared a hut had a “mamasan” who did all the cooking and cleaning for less than minimum wage. Things were good. Then some fool found out he could shoot a rifle and hit whatever he aimed at. Bam. He was “volunteered” for sniper school.

But the targets weren’t birds, rabbits, or squirrels. They were other creatures. The kind that come alive at night. The kind that shoot back.

Something flickered on the north side of the water hole. A reflection? Leaves? No. Keegan knew a rifle when he saw one. Muscles tightened, he slithered back like a snake, recoiling deeper into the trees. He rested his weapon gingerly on the rocky ledge. A quick glance at the sky. No clouds. Ideal.

His hands were clammy, but he denied the urge to wipe them on his fatigues. His stomach lurched like he’d eaten a bad burrito, but it was always that way before a kill.

Breathe. Focus on the mission. He remembered the first time he’d ever fired a rifle at a shooting range and realized how impersonal cold-blooded murder could be. The rifle did the killing, not the person. It had a personality all its own. The bullet was indifferent, separate, unlike a knife. With a knife, you could feel the entry, the flesh, the muscle ripping away, the blood warm on your hands. A bullet flew on a preordained trajectory until it hit home, and that was that. End of story.

There was another movement in the shadows, about twenty feet to the left of the initial flicker. He could make out the wood of the enemy’s rifle being held at the ready. Somebody was skirting the watering hole. Keegan’s body tensed. The movement stopped. The enemy stepped cautiously out of the shadows, looking around, unable to see him up on the ledge. He pressed his lips together, wanting to curse and spit and slam his hand against a wall somewhere.

It was a woman. A fucking Vietcong woman carrying a rifle. She didn’t even have a helmet on, just a damn Ching Chong hat, one of those woven bamboo things hanging down her back from a cord, like a farmer who’d just stepped off a rice paddy. But she held the rifle like a close friend as she checked the perimeter, her long, black hair shining in the moonlight. He brought up his weapon and centered her in the scope.

At maximum magnification, her eyes sparkled when she glanced up and looked around, catching the moonlight. Her shoulders relaxed, like she thought she was alone. Safe maybe. At least for the moment.

He took his time with the scope, targeting points on her body from habit as his night vision took him on a journey across her shoulder, down her arm, to a little hand clutching her own. A little boy stepped out of the undergrowth. Keegan jerked back from the scope for a moment. A woman and her son.

They were still the enemy.

The little boy could grow up to be another Viet Cong. Or one of the “innocent children” used by the VC to lead American soldiers into an ambush or a mine field.

A breeze ruffled through the trees as the woman let go of the boy, reached for a canteen from her belt, and bent down to the pool of water to fill it. Keegan tried not to think about the boy, just like he tried not to think about Alicia, his own little dark-haired girl, somewhere back home in the sole custody of his ex-wife.

He squeezed the thought from his mind. Whatever he was to do needed to be done, and quickly. His finger curled tighter on the trigger, his military training striking a cadence he tried desperately to step in time to. It wasn’t him doing the killing. It was the bullet. It was the rifle. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t personal. It was Vietnam.

His finger edged off of the trigger while conflicting thoughts waged war in his head. She was armed, capable of shooting him without thinking. Which made it okay to kill her, to kill them both. Keegan started to sweat. He watched the boy drink some water from the canteen. He decided to kill them when they were through drinking. Yeah, that was it. He would kill them after they were full of scummy pond water. That way, when the bullets went through them, only dirty delta water would pour out of their bodies. Not blood.

You couldn’t actually see blood. Not at night. It took the cold light of dawn to reveal the dull, reddish brown color. Creatures of the night, like him, didn’t die in the dark. They just lay there till daylight. Till their blood turned brown.

That’s it. Focus on the kill. His M21 carried 7.32 mm bullets. He pictured them in his mind, propelling slow-motion down the bore where the rifling gave them a beautiful spin all their own and sent them home. His M21 was the best weapon for sniping, and with his ART on 900, the night was his. Nothing could touch him. Nothing could even get close. Nothing.

The boy had finished drinking. His mother reached out with her hand to brush his hair back from his eyes. Keegan remembered doing the same thing to his daughter’s hair, once, a long time ago. He jumped as a VC soldier crashed through the trees just a few feet from the woman and boy. Now there were three of them, and two rifles. He froze on the ledge, hidden but ready. Watching the soldier strike a threatening pose, but not shoot. Why not?

Keegan steadied the scope, taking in the drama below. What the fuck was going on? The woman reached for her rifle, and the VC kicked it away. The boy ran to help his mother. The soldier knocked him to the ground. It was eerie. No yelling, no screaming. They knew the enemy was all around. Hell, the enemy was already there.

The scene came alive in the moonlight as the woman struggled, already pinned down, her captor slapping her into submission, laying his weapon aside for the moment, but within reach.

He obviously didn’t see the woman as a threat, or maybe he was just stupid. Was he honestly going to try and rape a woman in the middle of a war-packed jungle with patrols everywhere?

Keegan’s training surfaced. This wasn’t covered in sniping class, but he knew exactly what he was going to do. Instinct. He didn’t even think about it.

In perfect calm he zeroed in on the left side of the VC soldier’s head and fired. He knew the bullet would go right through the flimsy little helmet, which it did. The VC froze in a sitting position, then slumped off of the woman and onto the ground. The woman lay there, shaking and confused. She lifted her head and glanced at the dead soldier. Then scrutinized the trajectory, turned her head, and scanned the rocky embankment. Smart woman.

When her eyes held steady with his own, Keegan knew she had spotted him.

She glanced toward her rifle. Too far away. She looked at the ledge, waiting.

Keegan’s hands shook. He laid the rifle next to him. The woman half-crawled toward her son, glancing up at the ledge, unsure of what had happened and why he hadn’t taken her out as well. Keegan wondered the same thing. Why would he save her from being raped and then blow her away? She was the enemy, right?

Before he could find an answer, he heard gunfire in the distance. His training told him to get the hell out, but another war waged within, a battle between time and circumstance, death and duty.

He knew why he’d hesitated on the landing back at the hut, surveying his kingdom before he’d allowed the jungle to swallow him. It was a gift. a special talent for killing, and it set him apart from the rest. Without is, he was one of them. One of the herd.

Still, he hesitated. And he knew why. He knew, but he didn’t want to look it in the face. Truth was like that. It wasn’s always earth-shattering. Sometimes it was a quiet, empty thing.

He didn’t want to do this anymore.

He was tired of the killing.

He wanted to awaken in the morning to eggs, toast, orange juice, coffee, and his daughter’s hands around his neck, telling him she loved him.

His time was up, and he wasn’t ready.

It was a truth that had built up inside him with every life he had taken with a single shot to the head or heart, knowing he had pulled the trigger. He was a paid assassin. And they didn’t pay him nearly enough.

He wanted to feel.

He wanted to live.

He wanted to matter.

From this tiny seed of self-realization, Keegan did something that went against logic, against self-preservation, against everything in the book.

He stood up.

It wasn’t to scan the perimeter, so he didn’t both lying to himself. The shot he’d fired would bring others, and he was vulnerable. Out in the open like the woman. The strange thing was, he no longer cared. He looked down from the ledge. She looked up from the river.

And they knew.

She was his witness. The one person in all the world who would remember him, but not as a killer. That’s why he wanted her to see him, to see him as he really was, so she could describe him to her son one day. Tell him about the enemy who had saved them both.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come. Keegan lowered his rifle. He watched as she bathed her son’s face with water, then helped him to his feet. She said something to him, a whispered warning carried on the breeze to where Keegan stood.

“Yên tĩnh,” she said. “Kẻ thù là tất cả xung quanh.”

Keegan knew just enough Vietnamese to know that she had told her son to be quiet, that “the enemy is all around.” Something turned inside Keegan’s stomach at those words, some kind of ungodly regret he couldn’t explain.

The wind came up; moonlight flickered through the trees. She was still looking up when she grabbed her rifle, swung it in his direction, and fired. She’d moved so fast, he didn’t have time to think. He barely had time to fire his weapon in reply, even as he felt the bullet from her rifle whistle past his left ear and bury itself in a VC soldier directly behind him with a thudding sound he knew so well. She hadn’t been aiming at him. He turned.

The VC soldier was going down, twitching in agony and blind-firing as he fell. Keegan gasped as one of the stray bullets hit him in the chest, exploding with a pain he had never felt before. He dropped his weapon and fell onto his hands and knees, fighting for every breath. It wasn’t supposed to hurt like this. Not a bullet. Not like this.

If he could just make it back to camp. If he could just-

The knife got him in the lower right back. The wounded soldier had crawled the last few feet to make sure of his kill, and the force of his hatred toppled them both over the ledge and into the undergrowth below. Keegan cried out as the soldier fell across him, grunting as the soldier’s weight drove the cold, dull blade in even farther, where the pain changed into one of searing heat that set his intestine on fire. There was a god-awful pressure inside him now that wouldn’t stop. His right hand was trembling against the foliage. He was done. The acrid taste of sweat mingled with the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth.

No time. No time. Can’t die yet.

Something he needed to do.

Important.

He tried to push the soldier off, but his arms no longer functioned. The effort left him dizzy and disoriented. Then the weight lifted. The woman was there, pushing and pulling, but without success. He saw her favoring one arm and struggling to free him with the other before calling to her son to come and help. Together, they rolled the soldier off him.

Keegan gasped at the pain radiating down his side. Blood gurgled up into his throat. Through fading vision, he lifted his eyes, looking up at the woman as she examined his wounds. The bullet wound in his chest. The knife wound in his lower back. The blood.

Her Ching Chong hat was gone, and her dark hair fell across her face as she bent over him. She had used the thin rope from the hat to hold a makeshift bandage of leaves against the wound in her right shoulder, but she was alive. Her rifle was at her feet. He had missed his target. He had shot her in the arm, but thank God, this time, he had missed her heart.

His right side was going numb. He looked at the woman and tried to speak. A gurgling sound came out.

The boy glanced down at him. Unlike his mother, who had saved the life of the enemy and shot one of her own to do it, there was no horror or pity in his eyes. He just looked, then checked the perimeter again. He had seen it all before. Was he the same age as his daughter? Shit. His daughter. Tears escaped Keegan’s eyes and flowed down to mingle with the dirt and blood.

Keegan spit blood out of his mouth. Too much blood.

“Tôi không biết!” he whispered as the darkness took him. “Tôi không biết.”

I didn’t know.

I didn’t know.

She bowed her head in understanding, then raised it one more time, her tears reflecting moonlight. It was the last thing he saw as the light faded from his eyes, eyes that would later be closed by trembling hands. The same hands that would hesitate, then gently remove his dog tags.

#

They found his body at daybreak. The weapons were gone. Two Viet Cong soldiers lay dead. The woman and child were nowhere in sight.

Keegan got to go home a little earlier than he had planned. They called him a hero. They said how good he was at what he did. That he had done what he had to do.

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