Once packed, we had nothing else to do but hurry up and wait. Sam and I were conflicted about leaving. We felt that it was wrong that we were leaving Chris, but we had searched all over for him, the grunts had searched for him, but there was absolutely no trace. We kept hoping against hope that he would show up by random chance one day, but as the days went by and there was no Chris, we began to lose hope. Finally, the day before we were supposed to return to the camp arrived. Sam I should have guessed, but we were assigned watch that night for four hours (2200 to 0200). There was no sense arguing about it, everybody had to take a turn pulling watch, so around 2145, Sam and I got up, got dressed, gathered our weapons, and walked across the base to the guardhouse this stood by the front gate.
A thin, wooden, rickety structure that was only accessible by ladder stretched about 15 feet into the air. It just didn't seem unsteady; it was unsteady. The slightest breeze made the tower shift and wobble like a drunk, but true to the militaries nature, it wasn't broken, so there was no need to fix it. Upon reaching the tower, Sam and I called up to the two Marines we were relieving and as they came down they said that everything was quiet. After bidding each other good night, Sam and I ascended the structure and settled in for a lonely, cold, four-hour stretch.
The minutes started to crawl by, and as the time went on the cold seemed to get more and more intense. Sam and I were both wearing multiple layers, but since we weren't able to move around much, we were losing a lot of body heat. The only real movement we were able to obtain was passing the night vision goggles back-and-forth. As we looked across the empty desert, looking for any movement, it was easy to see why this land was as desolate as it was. There was nothing around except for the village a little ways away. There were no bushes, no trees, no nothing. The only movement came from shifting sand that the wind picked up and blew across our field of vision. We made a couple attempts at talking, mostly about Chris and where he might be, but we both begin to get a little depressed talking about it, so we gradually began to let the talk fall off.
Night vision goggles give the entire world an eerie greenish quality. They require a little bit of ambient light to work, and you have absolutely no depth perception, but it does enable you to see clearly at night. Sam and I scanned the desert again, and again, and again. We were supposed to be looking for anybody that maybe trying to sneak up on the base, infiltrate the base, or were otherwise up to some sort of no good. It was boring work, but it did require concentration, so it was tiring. Time stretched on and on. We discussed letting each other get some sleep, but we realized that it would be our asses if something happened. Plus, we were leaving the next day, and we figured we could grab some shut eye on the ride back.
Sam and I had about an hour to go in our watch. We had started to become complacent, and we were not truly watching as clearly or sharply as we could have. Our first hint that something was wrong was just this weird, gut feeling. We had a sensation that we were being watched. We looked around in the base, but there was nobody stirring. We used the night vision goggles to look out across the desert, but again we didn't see anything. We looked at each other both knowing what we were experiencing, but unable to explain it. Suddenly, we heard a whistle and then the world blew up about 100 yards in front of us outside the walls.
We were under attack again by those freaking mortars. The night vision goggles, intended operate in low light conditions, picked up at the explosion of the mortar with a blinding, white flare that seem to sear my eyeballs. I had been the unlucky one that was looking through the goggles when the mortar went off, so I was temporarily blinded. I groped behind me for the hand crank siren we used to signal trouble and began to turn the crank as if everyone in the base hadn’t heard the explosion. Within seconds another mortar hit, again outside the gate, but a lot closer than the first one. Another mortar, even closer. Another mortar, even closer. Sam and I realized that they were walking the mortars closer and closer to us, and if we stayed where we were, we were as good as dead.
Disregarding the rickety swaying tower, we both jumped out as quickly as possible, hitting the ground harder than we intended, but still alive. Sam grabbed me by and the vest and started hauling me across the base to the concrete bunkers that were scattered around and we dove in. At this point, my vision had started to return, and the first thing I saw was the tower we had been in only moments before exploding as it was hit by a mortar. It seemed that we had gotten out in the nick of time.
We were unable to appreciate our luck however as from outside the gate we heard an unholy scream as people began to charge the gate. This was a new experience; we had only received mortar fire up until that point. Sam began to fire into the charging masses followed quickly by myself. At this point, we were no longer alone. Every Marine that was stationed at FOB Smitty had responded to the explosions and began to defend themselves from the masses that were attacking the base. Within seconds we were laying down a devastating barrage of gunfire. It didn't seem like it was doing anything. However, people kept coming and coming. From the opposite corner of the base, Sam and I heard another scream as if we were being attacked from another side. The grunts that were with us, so Sam and I turned in case, there was another threat that we had to face.
What we saw caused this to stop dead in our tracks. Standing in the empty mouth of the warehouse, we saw what appeared to be Chris! The massive gunfire behind us faded away, and Sam and I both stared at Chris. Quickly, without any regard for what was happening behind us, Sam began to sprint as quickly as he possibly could toward the warehouse. It took me a second to get moving, but eventually I was right behind him. As we ran full tilt, I heard Sam yelling “Chris! Chris! Where have you been man?”
As we got closer and closer to Chris, we realized that he looked different. He seemed much, much leaner. He had dark circles underneath his eyes, and his skin seemed somehow loose like it had been hung on his frame instead of wrapping his body. As we got closer to Chris, instead of rushing to meet us, he seemed to melt back into the darkness of the warehouse, oblivious to our cries to wait and stop. We still heard the massive amount of gunfire behind us, but we charged into the warehouse with total disregard for our safety, oblivious to the threats all around us, totally focused and intent on rescuing our friend. As we entered the warehouse, we momentarily couldn’t see Chris, but then Sam picked him up. He was still walking backward, almost gliding. As he moved, he kept staring at us with his arms out as it beseeching us to give him a hug.
Sam and I both stopped about 15 feet in front of Chris, both overjoyed at the fact that our friend had returned to us. I had just opened my mouth ask Chris where the hell he had been when he stopped walking and even stopped me speaking with an upraised hand.
Chris pointed his right hand at us, and then clenched his fist. Sam and I both doubled over; it felt like we had been punched in the stomach. As we tried to catch our breath, a jumble of images hit us out of nowhere. It was like watching a movie in fast-forward, only instead of a video it was a series of stills in our minds. We saw a man, approximately middle-aged, being walked through the front gate of the camp, but it was not the camp as we knew it. It was the camp as it had been as a Republican Guard stronghold. We saw scenes of torture, beatings, and finally, an execution via a pistol shot to the back of the head. We saw the body being thrown into a grave and a board covered with sand. Finally, we saw ourselves, as we had been the other night. Driving through the warehouse, Chris hitting the hole where the body was buried. Sam as he kicked at the body. Sam as he performed his final act of desecration. Finally, Chris walking to the head at night, with a dark shadow stalking him.
Concluded in The Ghoul Part 6