A fresh crop of GIs step from the cars onto the train platform. I’m stationed back in Ledo until September, when the dry season should start. Today I got hospital duty, and a rush order of quinine for malaria and typhus just arrived on the last train. I get to visit Earl after I drop the medicine off at the hospital. That place gives me the creeps, but I guess I should be happy it’s only a day’s job and I’m not stuck in there.
Knowing I had the hospital run today, I stuffed a few sticks of dynamite in my rucksack, cushioned them with a few old 1943 CBI Roundup newspapers, and threw it in the back of the Jeep. The 14th Evacuation Hospital is about five miles out of town, and Jairampur—or Hell’s Gate—is fifteen miles further. It’s at the beginning of the switchbacks up to Pangsau Pass and a good spot for a washout. No one knew when the train would arrive, so they shouldn’t notice if I take an extra hour. Earl doesn’t even know I’ll be dropping by. I hope I don’t look nervous, but I’m already on edge after reading the letter I got from Ruthie.
Some of the injured boys are returning home already, needing someone to keep them company in the hospital. So I go visit them with a couple girls from work. I know what it’s like to feel lonely; I haven’t heard from you lately. But since I can get letters from Bob, I can’t help but wonder whether you still care. All you have to do is drop me a line, and I’ll know everything is okay. I miss you.
“Yeah, I’ve got something to say.” I scrunch up the letter. “Get off my back.” She doesn’t know what it’s like to be here, fighting for what you believe in, alone.
Package in hand, I start the Jeep in neutral, then quickly change gears. I feel like I’m in a washing machine; the wipers barely keep the road visible. This is a nice stretch of land. Lush, terraced fields rise up along the mountainsides until it’s too rocky and there is no soil.
I go through my mental checklist for the fiftieth time today: dynamite, fuse wire, cap, detonation box. Wound tighter than an alarm clock, my mind can’t settle on anything. My overstimulated nerves scream until the blood vessels in my ears are ready to burst. It’s not like when I was out on the construction site and I could easily slip away. Pilfering the few sticks for today was like lifting a wallet from a pickpocket.
The culvert under the road where I want to stick the dynamite is in a draw just around the bend. I park the car facing the direction of the hospital, ready for a quick getaway. I slide out of the Jeep, my jacket and pants immediately drenched. Luckily, the CBI magazines kept the ammo dry, and I have a change of clothes. I check to make sure none of the local villagers are out in this rain before I hunch over the rucksack and hurry to the ravine.
The mud squishes into my socks, down my pants, and up my shirt as I shimmy down the slope. Only a few feet further to the edge of the pipe where I’ll stick the dynamite. The culvert flows full with cold water. Preparing the fuse wire in this cramped position is the pits, and the splicing knife slips from my hands. “Damn it.” My foot blocks it before it tumbles into the current. I twist my body and reach downhill, trying not to fall head-first into the stream. Slowly, I inch the knife up my pant leg until I have a good hold. Sweat and rain blur my vision. The knife is dull. Why didn’t I check it before?
I look up towards the truck where I left the detonator box, hoping the length of wire I cut is long enough. With the way this mud is running, there’s no room for second chances. Pressing my face closer to the ground to block the rain, I try to work faster. “Damn it.” I hold up my hand. Blood drips steadily from a chunk of skin hanging off my thumb. My hands are slippery, and the damn cap doesn’t want to stick in the dynamite. “Calm down,” I coach myself. “You’re almost there.”
Finally, after what seems to be a whole afternoon, everything is ready. I scramble towards the road, grabbing at roots, barely noticing the thorns in the branches as I slip down a half foot for every foot of rise. At the top, I spit out mud and wipe if from my eyes.
Only the igniter connection is left. Months ago, when I first tried to connect the fuse wire to the igniter box, I must’ve spent an hour trying to get it right. Now, after several dozen blasts, I can practically connect it with my eyes closed. Today’s not my lucky day, though; it’s like peeling carrots with a butter knife. The metal wire is exposed, sliver by sliver. With a questionable connection, I call it quits. My patience is running on empty.
I strip down before getting into the truck, knowing that a muddy bench seat would lead to questions. After a deep breath, I go through my checklist: dirty clothes, unused fuse wire, rucksack—all stashed on the floor. The detonator box is ready to be plunged.
I push down on the T-handle and listen. Nothing happens. “For Christ’s sake.” I grit my teeth. A second look at the muddy slope doesn’t bolster my hopes. I finally admit it’s too wet today and detach the wire from the detonator and stick it in my sack.
Just as I get back into my truck, I see a little girl with a wicker basket balanced on her head about two hundred feet down the road. Her physical details are shadowed by the overhanging tree canopy, but I can see she’s young and drenched. She stops and stares at me.
As soon as she realizes that I see her, too, she turns and disappears down the slope, almost like she’s an illusion. Now I’m grateful the blast was a dud. I drive past the child on my way out; she plods along a lower path towards the ravine in the wet, thick vegetation. Her neck is bent downward, avoiding my stare.
On the drive back to Jairampur, my hands on the steering wheel shake. Today was a big waste of time. My muscles are cramping, but I ignore them and let myself be comforted by the gentle patter of a million drops tiptoeing on the roof.
A dull WHOOPH, like the release of an air vacuum, sounds from the gorge behind me.
I’m afraid to look back, but I can’t resist it and whip my head around to watch the chocolate brown chunks of mud and rocks begin to fill in the gully. From the bowels of the crevice, the watery stream thickens into sludge. I slow down and look back to see if the girl is ok, but she’s nowhere in sight. I convince myself she made it to the other side before turning my attention back to the road and accelerating.
I veer into the curve. It’s then I see her basket in the rearview mirror. It’s upside down, caught in a branch, on the brink of the ravine. There’s no girl. I look harder. Still no girl.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I lose control of the wheel. The Jeep hydroplanes, and I brake hard until the truck fishtails. Mud splatters across the windshield. For a moment, I’m blinded. The tires teeter off the edge of the road until I throw the wheel in a wild arc and it rights the truck.
Within minutes, the slushy rain grows into a torrential flow, and I can’t see beyond the front of the Jeep. I drive faster, as though getting away will erase what just happened.
“What did I do?” I ask myself. Staring straight ahead, I try to reassure myself it was just a trick of my eyes. But the rain can’t wash away what my gut says happened. My eyes dart from one side of the Jeep to the other for confirmation that this is really happening. My mind screams,
“Stilwell’s Road is the cause of all of this. It’s the murderer.” I’m panting. My anger at the road feels safer than the truth.
“Give me a sign that this is right. Anything,” I hiss between gritted teeth. I look for a bolt of lightening, a thundering voice. The swishing of the windshield wipers back and forth is what I get. Like a ping pong ball, my mind bounces between “you killed her” and “no, she’s safe.”
“Damn it,” I scream, slamming my fist on the dash.
The rain pounds on the roof, and bone-chilling air seeps through the vents. My temples throb like they’re going to explode. I briefly close my eyes. When I open them again, a blurry image in the side window mirrors my face: gaunt, creased, and sad. It’s then I start to face who I’ve become. Am I willing to live with his decisions?
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