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Authors: Chris Lynch

I Pledge Allegiance

BOOK: I Pledge Allegiance
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VIETNAM

BOOK ONE

I PLEDGE
ALLEGIANCE

CHRIS LYNCH

CHAPTER ONE
The Nightmare

I
f friendship has an opposite, it has to be war.

Do you know what it feels like to watch your best friend die right in front of you? To watch the skin roll back off his skull like the pages of a book thrown into a fire? I do. Do you know what it feels like to watch your three oldest best friends die just like that, right in front of your eyes, and to know you are responsible, that you could have done something about it but didn’t?

I know exactly what that feels like.

I am the last one to The Curb. That’s the curb in front of Janelle’s Market, diagonally across from the high school. Ivan, Rudi, Beck, and I have met here nearly every school morning for the last four years. The whole high school game is just about done, one week to go, but there’s no need to break up old routines just yet.

So I mention last night’s dream.

“Oh, no, Morris,” Ivan protests. “No, no, not the dream again. Please …”

I’ve had the dream a lot. It’s a nightmare. Ivan shouldn’t be surprised to hear I’ve had it again. I watch the news. These days, even if you don’t watch the news, you watch the news. It finds you. It’s everywhere. The whole world is Vietnam now. The surprise is that everybody in the entire United States is not having the same nightmare as me, every single night.

“Well, yeah, Ivan, I had the dream again.”

“Well, yeah, Morris, we have heard it all before so we don’t need to hear it again.”

There’s a pause. It’s not suspense, really, because it always goes pretty much the same after I’ve had the dream.

“I could hear it again,” says Rudi, right on cue. He looks so serious and plumped up with anticipation, I almost don’t want to retell it now. Because it ain’t gonna end any different.

“Does telling it again really help anybody?” Beck asks. He is sitting beside Rudi and gesturing toward him with his eyes, so we all know who he means by
anybody.

I shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Ah, jeez,” Ivan butts in angrily.
“I’ll
tell it.”

I stare at him like he’s nuts. “You’re going to tell
my
dream?”

“Why not? I’ve heard it a thousand times. I can tell it. And a lot better than you.”

“Fine, Ivan — go ahead, tell my dream.”

“Right. The dream starts with a wicked firefight. I get shot a lot of times, but I don’t even burp. I’m killing guys all over the place. Beck is filling out the newspaper crossword from behind a small hill —”

“I don’t remember that part,” Beck interrupts.

“Hey,” Ivan says, and he seems to be taking himself seriously here, “was it
your
dream, Beck?”

“No,” I cut back in, “it was
mine,
so —”

“Right,” Ivan goes on, “and Morris is crying and trying to dig his way home through the ground with his fingernails, but his nails are already bitten down so much —”

“I was never crying,” I say. “Not until very late, anyway, near the end of the whole dream, almost.”

“Can everyone just please let Ivan tell the dream the right way, please?” Rudi asks. Begs, really. Poor Rudi. He needs this.

“Just get it over with,” says Beck. His mind is always working at about twice the speed as the rest of our minds, so it’s like he’s already been to the end of the conversation and back and is impatient for the rest of us to catch up.

“Right. So this guy’s bawlin’, this one’s trying to figure out a seven-letter word for
MommyPleaseComeGetMeNow,
and I’m collecting Vietcong kills like they’re baseball cards.”

“Yeah?” Rudi says, his voice rising up there in I Believe It Land. Rudi thinks every story is a real story.

“Oh, yeah,” Ivan says, looking up at the sky, half believing it himself.

“What about me?” Rudi asks anxiously. “Me?”

Ivan’s still admiring his bravery and cunning on that cinema screen he’s seeing in the sky. He likes what he sees, smiles at what he sees. Then he looks down into Rudi’s waiting face with its giant trusting eyes and puffy mouth pulled tight with nerves.

Even Ivan can’t do it. Even Ivan, who has never been much for feelings — his or anybody else’s — can’t let Rudi get in the line of fire. No dream heroics for Rudi.

“You aren’t there, Rude,” Ivan says. “You’re back at the base, cooking Swedish meatballs over flat noodles for us to have when we get back. Nobody’s shootin’ at you, and you’re not shootin’ at anybody else.”

“No-shootie Rudi,” Beck chips in.

Now there is very obvious pleasure on Rudi’s face.

“I could definitely do that,” Rudi says. “Swedish meatballs, man — I love Swedish meatballs.” Then he
turns to me, snappy. “How come you never tell the story like that, Morris?”

All three of them stare at me now. Rudi’s big trusting eyes dominate.

“Because it’s a lie, Rudi, man,” I say sadly, rightly. “It’s a lie.”

It’s a lie.

Because my dream is a crystal-clear vision of torn flesh and burned flesh and the end of everything we know, all dying there in the scorching jungle of Vietnam. Four great friends, one mighty beast of a friendship, shredded to bits. It’s my dream, and I’ve had it pretty much the same way at least fifty times. I’m the guy who wakes up sweating as if my actual body has taken me to that jungle while I slept. So maybe my body already knows.

All four of us die every single time. Sometimes it’s in a different order. Sometimes we all die at once. Sometimes it’s a wall of fire and sometimes a hail of bullets. Sometimes a stabbing, sometimes an explosion. Or a drowning.

But always we die, every time.

And it’s my fault, every time.

Because I let it happen. Which is why I can’t let it happen.

Which is why we have the pledge.

CHAPTER TWO
I Pledge Allegiance

W
e have a pact for everything. I suppose it was me who got it started.

We all go along, once a pact makes sense. And a pact makes sense every time something bigger than us comes along and looks like enough of a threat that we need to band together. It’s our response to every scary or confusing or just plain overwhelming force that seems capable of destroying the four-man fortress that we’ve built.

Evelyn DelValle was such a force.

We were in sixth grade. We were eleven-going-on-twelve, except for Rudi, who was twelve-going-on-thirteen-going-on-seven. Evelyn was always there in the same school with us, from first grade. She was a good kid, as girls go, not a close friend to any of us, but not a whole load of trouble, either. As girls go.

Then, suddenly, she was a whole load of trouble.

“I can’t stop thinking about her,” Beck said, staring like a dolt across the school yard. Our class was playing
foot hockey with a sponge ball, and Beck was our goalie. He had just let something like his eighth goal roll by, between the two balled-up coats that were the goalposts. One of the coats was mine, and it was just before Christmas break. I was cold.

“Well, you
better
stop thinking about her,” Ivan said, walking right up and giving Beck a flat smack to the forehead with the heel of his hand.

Beck appeared like he didn’t even notice.

“Beck, man,” I said, “I didn’t give up my warm coat for this. Get your head in the game.” Normally, he was an unbeatable goalie. And worst of all was that we were playing against the seventh graders. Even though they were older and mostly bigger, we were as good as them. We just were. Sometimes you get a group of guys who just work together, blend together, and they defy the odds, and this class was a class of those guys. The sevenths hated us for it, the way it upended the whole nature of things. And their relationship with the eighths was the normal seventh-eighth relationship, meaning they got spanked by the older guys regularly. Yesterday, as a matter of fact.

Which wasn’t good for us. One of the penalties for losing was a mass wedgie, which the losers had to administer to
each other,
while the winners supervised, hooted, and applauded.

The stakes were high.

“What’s wrong with him?” Rudi asked, joining our goal-crease conference.

“Nothing wrong with me,” Beck said, a stupid happy glaze all over his face.

“Yes, there is,” Ivan said, gesturing toward Rudi. “You look like
him”

“Yeah,” Rudi said accusingly. “What’s that all about?”

“Right,” I said, turning and looking in the direction of Beck’s faraway gaze. There was a small gathering of girls doing a whole lot of very distracting nothing against one of the far school walls. “I’ll be back.”

I ran in the direction of Evelyn DelValle and company. I didn’t get twenty yards before I heard the familiar noise of us giving up another goal behind me.

“Hey,” I said to Evelyn — not too harshly, but not quite friendly, either. “You gotta cut it out.”

I could see her in profile as I approached, and I was certain she could see me. She had uncommonly large brown eyes that I hadn’t noticed so much before … but at this moment I was sure would give her amazing peripheral vision.

“What?” she said, turning sort of slow motion my way. “I need to cut something out? What am I doing?”

She was doing it again.

Well, this was embarrassing. I came over to lodge a complaint and to tell her to cut it out, and I couldn’t even put into words what she had to cut out.

But she knew she was doing it.

Her eyes were so big. So amazing.

“How come you never talked to me before?” she said, touching the back of my hand with her index finger. I felt it in my knees.

Suddenly, speech was a foreign and painful process. Every word came up like I was coughing out a peach pit.

“Oh, I talked. Before. I talked to you.”

“Not really. You never talked to me for real. And now, for the first time, you do, and it’s all unfriendly and telling me to cut it out.”

“I’m sorry,” I said like a simp.

“That’s okay,” she said. “Now we’re talking, so it will be easier from now on. We can talk.”

“We can?” By now I had no recollection of why I had come over here. But I was really, really, really glad I had.

Until I got wedgied. Lifted right up off my feet, in plain view of Evelyn DelValle and everything.

“Ahhh-ahhh,” I screamed, quite high pitched. This wasn’t going very well at all.

Everybody was laughing — my guys, the seventh grade guys. Apparently, we had taken a beating of
biblical proportions while I was busy trying to rescue our goaltender from Evelyn. Also apparently, my efforts came to nothing anyway since, while I was busy drifting into the powerful gravitational grip of this girl, poor sap Beck stood there stupid like before. He didn’t tend goal, he didn’t speak or move. He just stared.

We were in love, both me and Beck, and we knew it — which made the simultaneous wedgies even harder to take, what with the lady herself witnessing, and laughing robustly at, our humiliation.

So what was going to happen, with two of the four of us mental over the one girl?

“Wow,” said Rudi, loud and naked and stupid. He just looked at Evelyn and said “wow” again.

She was wow. All of a sudden, she was wow and wower and wowest, but you didn’t have to blurt it right out loud.

Which is why Ivan stepped up, practically bowed to the princess, then body-slammed Rudi right there on the pavement.

To the untrained eye, that was random violence. But to us, it was a lot more. That was Ivan going wobbly over a girl.

So the team was complete. Four for four.

“Now what?” said Beck as the four of us walked
home together that afternoon. It usually was down to Beck to be the guy rationalizing things out. Even if he did still have that bashed-in-the-head-with-a-ball-peen-hammer-or-possibly-it’s-love look on his face. “Now what, what?” I asked.

“You know what, Morris. The Evelyn situation. Jeez, everybody in the whole school yard could see it. You really embarrassed yourself out there.”

“I embarrassed myself?”

“Yeah, Beck, what are you talking about?” Ivan jumped in. “If anybody was embarrassing, it was Mister WOW here. Smooth move there, Rudi.”

Rudi started getting flustered, his voice rising into that whistle-tone that signals his discombobulation.

“You dumped me on my head! On my
head.
If anybody was really being embarrassing, it was you.”

“Me?” Ivan laughed the triumphant laugh of disgust. “Rudi, I have dumped you on your head about a thousand times. And they were all for just cause, and you know it. You even liked it most of the time. So I can’t see your point about why this time was such a big …”

It was becoming apparent that nobody was going to be able to see anybody’s point anytime soon.

“So,” Beck spoke up, coming to the same conclusion, “like I said, what now?”

“Will somebody please tell me what we’re talking about?” asked Rudi.

“I suppose that’s up to Evelyn,” I said.

“No,” Ivan said, his serious voice coming on, the deep, slow, serious voice. “No, it’s not up to Evelyn.”

“What are you, a caveman?” I asked him. “You gonna
tell
her that she has to like you and that’s that?”

“Maybe she doesn’t like any of us,” Rudi said.

“Maybe,” Ivan said, “it doesn’t matter. Because if she did like one of us, we would have a problem, wouldn’t we?”

There was a silence for several seconds as we all tried to muscle up the strength to tell a decent lie.

But of course a lie wouldn’t help. We all knew we’d have a problem.

“What’s more important, right?” asked Beck.

“What’s more important than what?” asked Rudi. “I hate it when it gets like this. I don’t follow anything.”

Ivan stopped walking, turned around, and let Rudi walk right into him.

“Sorry,” Rudi said, like it was his fault.

Ivan grinned real hard, grabbed Rudi’s big dopey head in his hands, and squeezed. Then he shook it all around.

“Than us, Rudi, man? What is more important than
us?
Than
this?”
Ivan gestured all around — at me, at Beck, at himself, using Rudi’s head as a pointer. Rudi looked scared at first, then very, very happy.

“Nothing,” said Rudi. “Nothing is more important than us, man.”

Ivan let him go, turned, and started walking again.

“That’s right. Nothing is more important to us than us. So if anything is going to come between us …”

“That thing is off-limits,” I said.

We were crossing the big intersection just before the point where we splintered into our four directions.

“Evelyn DelValle,” Ivan said with a big gap in the middle there, “is off-limits.”

There was a rusty squeak of sadness behind me.

“But I love Evelyn DelValle,” said Rudi.

I slapped his back gently. “You can keep loving her,” I told him.

“But keep it to yourself,” Ivan said.

I put the stamp on it. “It’s a pledge, then.”

The other guys all moaned loudly as we got to the corner. “Gee, does everything have to be a
pledge?”
Beck grumped. “It’s not a pledge.”

“It’s not a pledge,” Ivan said. “It’s a
thing,
not a pledge.”

“It’s a pledge,” I said, “and you all know it.”

We split off right there, our four ways to the four winds, and we knew we had pledged.

Even if they all kept moaning and groaning until I was in my front door, practically.

It was a pledge.

BOOK: I Pledge Allegiance
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