"Recruit Lee, where's your bloody Pack 4?" my Sergeant Major screams in the middle of the parade square, drawing hundreds of eyes on me. He is a rough man, my Sergeant Major - the only soldier in the battalion who voluntarily completed the Ranger course twice. And now, for the first time since my enlistment, I am on the receiving end of his harsh dressing down - something we recruits actively try to avoid every day.
"It's... It's err..." I stammer, scanning around my open field pack, half hoping I could find my Pack 4, half certain I had forgotten to pack it. I clench my jaws, bracing myself for his rain of profanities. My Sergeant Major is exactly how you'd picture an elite soldier. Rugged built. Biceps the size of my thighs. A face so coarse, he could make sandpaper smooth. The only thing one may find comical is his voice - he has the pitch of an adolescent girl. You would think that hampered his masculinity but it only made him more terrifying. Every time his shrill vocal darts pierce through the air, my scrotum would tighten a little harder. Now that I'm the target board, my testicles have drawn straight into my body, seeking refuge from his verbal acid.
"Recruit Lee, you useless sack of swine shit. Do you think this is your father's army? Do you need your fuc-"
"Sergeant Major, it's here" my buddy, Lam, holds up a Pack 4 before tossing it to me. "It was just beside his field pack."
My Sergeant Major shoots me a look of suspicion before walking away, holding his tongue for now, scouting for a new target. Staring at the Pack 4 in my hands, I realise that it's not mine. I turn to Lam who gives me a thumbs up and continues aligning his field pack items.
This guy. How does he do it?
I met Recruit Lam 6 weeks ago, while we were shaving our heads for Basic Military Training (BMT) induction. I was impressed by the way he spoke about his military aspirations. I was impressed when he did 28 chin ups on the bar. And as he planned our fire movement during the 5-day field camp, I had no doubt that I was in the presence of an officer in the making - an officer worthy, even back then, of the sword of honour.
I couldn't be more different from Lam. From the linguine arms that fail me during obstacle courses to my defeated disposition every morning as the alarm clock rings, I am his complete opposite. I'm not cut out for the military. Unlike Lam, it wasn't passion that brought me through the gates of national service. It was duty.
As luck would have it, a random assignment of bunk beds led to Lam being my buddy. And the guy has been picking up my slack ever since.
I thank him for passing me a Pack 4 for our field pack inspection as we prepare to move out. The mission for the next two days is a navigation exercise (navex for short) and possibly one of the few times I may be of any assistance to my section. I can read maps fairly well and during my time with the boy scouts, I honed on my compass skills. A small smile breaks out on my usually despondent face as I realise I'm actually looking forward to contributing to the section.
We move out in a 5-tonner, stealing one last glance at the concrete building that has offered respite these last 6 weeks. As hard and uncomfortable as our beds were, we would miss them these next two days as we lie spread eagle on the barren ground, unwelcomed Gullivers to the native critters of the jungle.
Soon after disembarking at the destination, our platoon commander gathers us for a safety brief. He keeps it short. We were to hydrate ourselves. Ration packs are not to be littered. For any emergencies, we were to establish communication through the admin net. He reiterates that the signal sets should be used for nothing else. After his brief, he ends on one small note, "If you need to take a piss or shit, remember to say sorry first."
We break off into our section level, ready to begin the exercise. I observe the dense undergrowth we have to traverse, a terrain I’ve grown accustomed to these last few weeks. "You can do this," I tell myself. With a map in my left hand and a compass in my right, I start plotting the checkpoints we have to secure and plan the route.
"We have four checkpoints in total," Lam reminds us. "CP4. CP8. CP9 and CP13. Which shall we go for first?"
"CP13 is the closest," one of my section mates points out.
"True, but I think we should go to CP9 first," I offer. "Since we have to end the navex here next to the admin shed, if we secure CP9, then 4, then 8 and finish off at 13, we will walk the least."
We study the map for a few seconds and agree on that route of advancement. Checking the compass, I see a short banana tree on the path along azimuth 5860, the direction towards CP9. With a reference point to walk towards, we begin the trek. It's only the beginning of the exercise and we are still in high spirits - the tyrannical rays of the sun, barely puncturing our resolve.
As we get closer towards CP9, the vegetation thickens and visibility beyond several bounds is muted. But I find a modicum of comfort in the firm ground and the occasional breeze. Things could be a lot worse if the heavens decide to pour down. I look up at the afternoon sky, thankful for being shrouded by the shadows of the canopy. With my jungle hat on, the only heat that is slowly becoming noticeable is the warmth trapped under my load bearing vest.
"We should be reaching a small waterbody," I trace our path on the map. "It'll be somewhere on the left."
"Yeah, probably in 50 meters or so," my section mate, Fernandez, corroborates.
I stare at the beaten track under my boots, a possible hint that others before me have trodden the same path. Not long after, the golden reflection of the sun's rays, bouncing off a lake to our left, verifies that we're on the right trail to CP9. The trees around this area seem to be more spaced out, giving us a clearer view of the next 40 to 50 meters.
We keep our heads up and walk for a good twenty minutes before finally reaching the spot where CP9 is supposed to be. With sparse vegetation, the checkpoint should be nearby, unless we had deviated from the azimuth we were supposed to follow. I start combing the area, looking behind trees for any sign of a checkpoint.
How sneaky are the commanders? Would the checkpoint be cunningly hidden? Perhaps camouflaged in the tall grass or wedged between two rocks? Or would it be out in the open, in plain sight? My musing is cut short as a minute into combing, Lam calls out to us, pointing to a stained, yellow signboard nailed onto a tree trunk.
"CP9," it reads in bold black. Under the checkpoint is the password we have to acquire - "Blue Frog"
Since we're not tired yet, we decide on moving off after a 5-minute break. I raise my arms, allowing the sporadic breeze to evaporate what little it could of the sweat at my armpits. Taking a swig of water from my canteen, we head off for the next checkpoint.
Encouraged by our effortless securing of CP9 and knowing we're way ahead of schedule, I start to enjoy the trek towards CP4. The birds chirping gleefully up in the canopy raise our spirits and to some extent mirror the vigour we still have under our sweaty uniforms. As we approach the checkpoint, I study the map and note that CP4 is barely 70 meters away. The only concern I have greets me as I face the direction towards the pin - the next 70 meters requires us to climb up a knoll.
"The checkpoint is at the top," Lam says as he puts his right foot on the fertile slope, preparing for the ascent. Although the incline is not overly steep, with the load of our vests and field packs, we'd rather not risk toppling over. So we get on all fours, keeping our centre of gravity as close as possible to the gradient. I find some vines along the climb and use them to haul myself to the top. By the time I reach the top, my sleeves are completely wet - mostly from perspiration, partially from the water in the vines I’ve been pulling and squeezing too hard.
Dragging myself to the top, I notice that the air feels lighter and smells sweeter up here. To my right, Lam reaches his hand out, assisting the last of our section to the crest of the knoll. There are fewer trees here. But the thick undergrowth would force us to lift our boots a little higher with each step forward.
"Nearby," I inform the section as I look at the map and gauge the azimuth off the compass. "Slight right."
We walk in that direction, a tiny glimmer of triumph fuelling my every stamp on the reedy ground. I believe I know where the checkpoint is. Even with overgrown shrubs and tall grass all around us, a lone tree steals my attention - its dark, colossal trunk further accentuated by the thin, light brown trunks of the surrounding trees.
As we get closer to the tree, a sliver of yellow playfully pokes out to the side of the trunk, fulfilling the silent hope in our hearts for a quick hunt. This has been easier than expected. Had the commanders chosen to be conniving, they could have made it a tough search up here. A small yellow board concealed in this undergrowth would take no less than an hour to scavenge. But I'm not complaining.
"Nice," Fernandez gets to the signboard first. It's a little bent but aside from some scratch marks, it looks just like the previous one. This board reads "CP4 Red Lips."
Having jotted the password down, we find a spot to settle down. The tall grass around me sways left and right, guiding the gentle breeze to my outstretched arms. I drop my field pack to the ground, appreciating this almost unexpected state of tranquility. Perhaps I've been so worn out by all the walking and climbing that any form of rest I can afford is a little piece of heaven. I glance around, watching my section mates unwind too.
"Time to eat," Fernandez digs into his field pack, fishing out the slim green packet that holds the army combat ration. He tears it open, flooding the air around him with the putrid miasma the green packet has thus far done a good job encasing. That's my cue to move away. Ever since the field camp, I've vowed to never again eat from a green packet. They say it keeps us alive out in the field. But with that nasty smell and taste, I feel closer to death eating it.
I rummage through my field pack and pull out one of the extra water bottles to refill the one on my vest. Beside the bottle, I see the few biscuits we've been given for this mission - my only source of food for the next 36 hours. I stuff one of the chocolate biscuits into my pants pocket, listening to Lam's lighthearted whistling as he walks deeper into the forest to relieve himself.
I uncap my water bottle and swiftly empty half of its contents down my throat before propping up my field pack, using it as a cushion to lean against. It's not time to rest yet but I shut my eyes for a few brief moments nonetheless.
"Lee," my serenity is broken by a perky voice. I turn to see Lam approaching, a slight bounce in his stride and a happy twinkle in his eyes. "I found these over there," he holds up a bunch of bananas.
"Woah..." a few of my section mates crowd around him, eagerly awaiting their share of his discovery.
"Where'd you get this from?"
"Over there," Lam points into the forest. "I was taking a piss when I looked up and saw these. Take some. There's more."
I help myself to two plump bananas, smelling the sweet fruit as I peel off its yellow skin. I've eaten bananas many times in my life but never have I truly enjoyed it like now. The second banana fills my stomach sufficiently and assures me that I'll have no issues conserving my biscuits. I lick my lips, having savoured the sweet nectar of this side of the forest, before getting startled by the sound of someone throwing up by my side.
"Bleah," I turn to see Lam hunched over a pile of vomit. "Ugh... Spoiled fruit," he says, wiping his mouth.
I stretch my hand out, holding one of my chocolate biscuits. "Here, eat this."
"It's okay, it's okay."
It's unfortunate that the guy who supplied us with the bananas is the only one in the group who got the bad fruit of the bunch. The rest of us had no issues with the bananas.
"Ugh, I've lost my appetite," Lam says, gargling with water from his canteen and spitting out to his side, leaving flecks of banana on the tall grass. "Never mind, let's join the rest."
I give him a light pat on the back as we walk towards the rest of the group. With a grin and a thumbs up, my buddy brushes off the entire vomiting episode as if it never even happened.
We spend the next forty minutes gathered in a circle, the entire section sharing with each other our plans for the weekend. During this time, the few who are desperate enough to eat their combat ration finish their meals. As we keep the trash and prepare to move out, I see Lam peering into the forest, at the spot where he had gotten the bananas earlier.
"Lee, there's someone there," he turns my body towards the direction of the banana tree.
I see nothing.
"Look, look, she's walking away," Lam points.
I place my hand over my eyes, shielding my vision from the glare of the sun. "I don't see anyone bro."
"So strange. I saw a girl. A pretty girl."
"A pretty girl?" he got my attention. "Let's go see."
We walk closer to the banana tree but even from a distance, we could tell that nobody was there. Given the slim tree trunk and the open space around the tree, there's definitely not enough room for anyone to be hiding there.
"I'm sure I saw..." Lam mumbles. As his words hang, I watch his eyes widen for just a fraction of a second. I turn back to the tree and see nothing still.
"Let's go," Lam says, more assertive this time. He turns around to head back to the group as I cast one last glance at the banana tree, wondering if there's any chance he might be right.
The group is almost ready to move out. "How? CP8?" Fernandez asks as Lam and I pick up our field packs.
"Let's go," Lam says again with a slight tone of urgency, giving me the sense he wants to leave this place more than reach the next checkpoint.
"We can go this way," Fernandez continues, opening his map and sharing with us the path he has traced. Clearly, he hasn't picked up anything odd about Lam. "What do you think, Lee?"
"Yeah sure," I nod, facing the map but not taking anything in. I'm distracted by Lam who's already preparing to make his way down the knoll.
"Lam, this way," Fernandez calls out to him. "We're not heading down this side."
Fernandez guides us to the far side of the knoll, taking the initiative to lead the section, a role I'm fairly disconcerted to assume right now as I continue to observe Lam. Approaching the edge, I see a relatively smaller knoll on the other side.
"CP8 is just after that knoll," Fernandez points. "Once we've crossed, about 300 meters."
Distance wise, it seems Fernandez might have found the shortest - a beeline between CP4 and CP8. However, as we close in on the edge of the knoll, my navigational instincts instantly kick in, telling me that this quick route he has planned isn't ideal. While the knoll across us is barely 60 meters away, the entire stretch below is filled with water.
The water is clear and judging by the rocks forming the streambed, I'd say the water level wouldn't rise above our knees at its highest. Nonetheless, we should avoid getting our boots wet. That would only drag us down for the rest of the mission.
Before I'm able to voice my concerns, Fernandez turns to me. "Hmm... The map doesn't show water here," he scratches his head. He seems to have noted my unspoken worry.
Seeing the wrinkles of confusion breaking out on his forehead, I step in to help. "Let me see the map. Maybe we can find a different-"
"Is this the fastest way to CP8?" Lam interjects.
"Erm... Maybe," Fernandez hesitates as I look at Lam with a slight mixture of confusion and qualm. "But we'll get wet."
"Never mind. Let's go," Lam says decisively.
As he skillfully makes his way down the knoll, I find myself swayed by Lam's natural dominance. The others seem to be on the same boat too because nobody challenges his decision. A few of them look at each other silently, as if inaudibly expressing their doubt, while the rest slowly follow his track down the knoll. Giving me a meek shrug, Fernandez joins the rest on the descent.
By the time I reach the foot of the knoll, Lam is halfway across the stream. I chase after him, plunging my feet into the tame current. For a few brief moments, the water-resistant properties of the military boots hold up. But not for long. Trawling my boots on the rocky streambed, I start to feel a trace of moisture creeping into my socks. Barely two seconds later, water floods vehemently into my boots, drowning my feet in cool liquid.
"Everything alright man?" I catch up to Lam on the other side of the stream, climbing up the new slope.
"Perfect," he forces a smile, overcompensating for something clearly troubling him.
"We could have gone around, you know. May be a longer route but at least we'd still be dry."
"No time bro, the sun is setting."
The orange hue of the evening sky casts warmly on us, blending with the grassy slope beneath our hands and feet to create a picturesque scene. I look up to the sky, only just realising how late it's getting. We have forty, maybe fifty, minutes before the darkness forces us to retire for the day. Thinking back, we may have overstayed our time at CP4.
"If we get to CP8 before nightfall, everything will be fine," Lam whispers ominously. As much as I'd like to secure the checkpoints quickly too, I find myself feeling uncomfortable with his choice of words.
Everything will be fine.
It sounds harmless. Placid, even. But why did I just feel my stomach twist upon hearing those words?
Although the previous knoll was higher, we take a much longer time on this one, encumbered by our heavy boots. The water from the stream barely reached my knees earlier, but I find my entire uniform wet now, soaked with the residual moisture on the slope, mud, and sweat. I spread myself wide on the slope - hands, elbows, knees and feet wildly grappling every inch of support the gradient provided in thrusting myself up.
Lam seems to have noticed the difficulty a few of us are facing. Despite being close to the top, he has reversed his progress, positioning himself below a section mate, propelling him upward by pushing his buttocks. The bulging veins in his neck show not only his strain but also his determination to get everyone up the knoll in the quickest possible time.
One by one, we slowly reach the crest of the knoll, just in time to catch the sun dipping below the horizon. Wiping the thick beads of perspiration off his forehead, Lam turns to Fernandez and asks, "Which way?"
"Azimuth 1140," Fernandez checks the compass.
We move in that direction, chasing the quickly diminishing daylight. Tired from the climb and enduring the burden of our wet boots, we move much slower than before. The only person who's still going strong is Lam, who is several bounds ahead of us, turning back every few seconds to encourage us to move faster. As daylight fades, I sense his frustration gradually rising.
Just ahead of me, a few of my section mates quietly discuss taking a break from the search to rest their feet. Having heard them, Fernandez calls out to Lam, "Lam, wait. I think we should settle for the night."
He drops his field pack to the ground and a few others follow after him.
Lam runs back to us. "What? No. Hey guys, just a little bit more, let's press on."
"We should take a break, man," Fernandez speaks on behalf of the rest. "We're still ahead of schedule. This is a good spot and we're losing light."
"Come on, we need to find the checkpoint."
"The checkpoint cannot be far from here. The guys are tired. We can find it in the morning."
"No, we must find it now."
"There's not enough light, man. Why now?"
"Argh.. Never mind."
I feel his frustration as Lam storms off. But as he turns away from Fernandez, I spot a shred of despair in his eyes, as if it wasn't desire that impelled him to find the checkpoint but rather, need. I let him pass me, choosing not to say a word.
Lam joins the others and drops his field pack to the ground. But with his vest still on, he walks around the area.
"Don't wander off too far, bro," Fernandez calls out.
We unload our items, huddling in an open area with fewer stones on the ground, preparing to rest. I hear the trickling of water and smell wet socks as a section mate drains his boots a little farther out. But my eyes continue to trail Lam until I lose him to the darkness.
Unable to rest, I sit up next to my field pack and wait for Lam. An itch on my back tells me that the mosquitoes have come out for their nightly forage for blood.
I don't let the itch bother me as I scan the area, hoping Lam would return to our resting ground. He should know better. You never move out on your own, especially at night.
Thankfully, ten minutes later, the sound of footsteps accompanied by the demoralised trudging of my buddy puts me at ease.
"You're back," I nod my head upwards.
"How far out did you walk?"
"Far enough, CP8 is not nearby," Lam resigns as another mosquito buzzes around my ear.
I reach into a magazine pouch on my vest, pulling out an army-issued insect repellent. As I unscrew the cap, I catch a whiff of the caustic gel oozing out of the tube. It doesn't smell great but I'm convinced of its efficacy. During our 5-day field camp, I dripped a droplet of the gel onto a caterpillar that was crawling up my pants. The moment the gel contacted it, the caterpillar squirmed and writhed in agony, twisting in ways I never knew a slow creature could. A few seconds later, it stopped. I looked at it, noticing the red hue on it's previously light green head. The gel must have some sort of corrosive effect on insects, keeping them at bay and threatening a burn on any that contravenes its olfactory warning.
I squeeze a generous volume on my cuffs and collar, hoping to deter the mosquitoes from coming close to my exposed hands and face. "Lam," I raise the tube towards him, offering him the same peace of mind the repellent provided me.
"Nah, I'm good," he replies as I'd expected. But even with just the faintest of light splashed on us, I can tell that something is off. Lam definitely does not look "good." His stricken expression reminds me of the time I left my stove switched on at home, only to realise when a colleague asked if I've had breakfast. Just like how I dashed off as soon as I realised my stove was still on, I get the sense Lam wants to dash off to somewhere. To do something that's waiting for him.
I keep the repellent back in my magazine pouch and keep a closer eye on Lam. He's been acting strange for a while now.
Lam sits down beside me but chooses to face away. For some time, he merely sits still, making me wonder if he just needs some time to himself. Then, as I start to turn away, I see him shaking his head. It starts off slow, as if he's just reacting to his own thoughts. Gradually, the shaking gets more and more vigorous. It escalates to a point where he's shaking his head so forcibly, it seems as though he's fiercely resisting something or denying someone.
Before I can check on him, Lam covers his ears. Completely enveloping his ears with his palms, he finally stops shaking his head. Then, letting himself fall back, he lies on the ground, chest thumping aggressively with each deep breath he takes.
I find myself torn between asking him if everything's alright or letting him rest. In the end, I decide to go with the latter, justifying to myself that it's best if he tries to sleep.
I spend the next few moments with my eyes closed, regulating my own breathing. When I eventually open my eyes and face Lam, I realise he's gone.
"Shit," I start to get up. This time, I can't just sit idly by. I scan the area, trying to pick up clues to where Lam could be. I decide to walk in the direction he was facing earlier. My walk leads me to an open space.
Out in the clearing, illuminated by the pale moonlight of the full moon, I spot the silhouette of my buddy, Lam.
He's just standing there. Still as a statue.
I hear low murmuring as I approach him, slowly, trying to understand what's going on. I strain my ears and amidst his drone, I hear, "Red talisman..."
My surreptitious prowl is compromised by a dry, crunchy leaf on the ground that breaks apart noisily under my heavy boot, alerting Lam that he's not alone.
"Finding something, buddy?" I quickly ask, suppressing the real question I wanted to ask - Who are you talking to? I'm not sure I want to hear an answer to that.
He turns towards me, a blank expression on his face, a dazed look in his eyes. "Er... nothing..."
"Let's catch some sleep so we can move off as early as 6am tomorrow. Okay?"
Lam follows behind me, drooping his head and letting his arms hang limply by his sides, as we walk back to our resting ground. Although confused by his behavior, I feel sympathetic for my buddy, who I've never seen this dejected before.
"Bro, if you're not feeling well or anything, just tell me, yeah?" I offer some support. Lam just nods his head a few times, pursing his lips.
At the resting ground, I find the rest of the section sound asleep. Joining them in their repose, I lie down, resting my head on the back of my vest. Lam slouches against his field pack, in seemingly deep thought. I'm not sure what's bothering him and frankly, I'm a little worried for him. But at least, he's back here with us now. I turn away from him, gazing into the starless, barren night sky. For some reason, it's a more comfortable sight than a pretty, starry night.
The forest is silent. If there were any crickets around us, they seem to be in no interest to mate tonight. I close my eyes, appreciating the stillness of the night after a trying day.
Just as I was getting used to the calm, the silence is broken by the spasmodic crackling of the signal set beside Fernandez. "Fsshhhh.. Fsshhhh..." It's mostly static. Is another section in need of help? Or did some clumsy fingers accidentally hold the button on the transmitter down? "Fsshhhh... Fsshhhh..." The signal set continues to buzz.
Before I can dismiss it, I hear a whisper that tightens my skin and makes my blood curdle.
"Fsshhhh... Come here... Fsshhhh..."
I might have heard wrongly. But if that had been what I thought I heard, there's one thing I'm certain of. That whisper did not come from a soldier. That was no distress call. It was a command. And the voice was a woman's.
I look around to see if anyone else might have heard it. The fatigue from our earlier trek seems to have ensured no amount of static could break my section mates' slumber. Even Fernandez who's barely inches away from the signal set doesn't stir. Everyone's resting. Except Lam.
"I need to pee," Lam tells me as he stands up.
"Oh okay," I reply weakly. "Erm.. I'll follow you." I try to play my role as his buddy despite feeling slightly on edge.
"I'm going to CP4," Lam murmurs, with his back facing me.
"What? Why?" I get startled. "Just pee over there. I'll follow you." I start to get up too.
The words come out quite unlike anything I've heard before from Lam. It was a pained voice. Although firm, it had a tone of great internal struggle, as if somewhere in the deep recesses of his heart, he wants me to accompany him but knows I shouldn't. For the few moments that Lam prepares to walk out, I remain frozen, paralysed by uncertainty, stiffened in fear.
Lam walks away slowly, never once turning to face me. Only after he walks out of sight do I regain enough motor skills to sit down and take in what has just transpired. As strange as that encounter was, what's even stranger is that Lam had strapped on his vest and carried his field pack just to urinate.
As I recline my body onto the moist earth, I realise a small amount of tear has involuntarily welled up behind my eyes. I let it stream down the sides of my face as I hope my momentary inability to address the situation would lead to nothing I'd regret.
"Lee! Lee, wake up," I feel a hand pressing against my chest.
"Lam is missing," Fernandez says, shocking me into an upright position.
"What? Lam's missing? Where is he?" I reply frantically.
"We don't know. He's missing."
"Shit," I slap myself awake. "Where's the signal set? We need to comms the commanders."
Fernandez brings the signal set over and I quickly engage the transmitter. "Sir! Sir, Lam is missing. Sir can you hear us?"
The few seconds we wait while the signal set comes to life again feel like hours.
"31 to unknown station," the speaker sputters. "Identify yourself. Over."
Quickly recalling the signal voice procedure, I speak into the transmitter again, "31 Charlie to 31. This is Recruit Lee. We have an emergency. Lam is missing."
"31. Check location. Over."
"31 Charlie. We are close to CP8 sir. Mike Golf Romeo 376151. Over."
"31. Hold your position. Scouts are on their way. Lee, where was Lam last seen and how long ago? Over."
"He was last seen here sir. About 2 hours ago."
"Okay, Lee. Listen to me carefully. Tell the section to hold your position. Don't go searching for him. Do you copy? Over."
The section has heard the command over the speaker. But even without it, none of us would consider wandering out to search for Lam in this darkness. We hold our position, clustering close together as we await the scouts to locate us.
Before anyone can even speak a word, a spine-chilling sound erupts around us.
It's the sound of a baby crying.
"What the hell is that?!" Fernandez presses his body against mine in fear, swinging his head wildly, looking for the source of the sound.
I hear one of my section mates crying as he rushes to the signal set. "Sir! Sir! Please. There's a ghost baby crying here. Please hurry," he wails into the transmitter.
"31 to 31 Charlie. Hold your position. We're on the way."
Just as suddenly as it materialised, the baby's crying disappears altogether. The only cry that's left comes from the one section mate, sobbing and sniffling as he hugs his buddy in fear.
What in the world did we just hear, though?
Why is there a baby in the forest? How can there even be one? What's going on?
The obvious answer fights its way to the surface of my mind as I do my best to suppress it. I can't give in to it, lest I allow the thought to fester and slowly break me down mentally. As if offering a means of distraction, a waft of sweet fragrance caresses my face.
"What's that smell? Did anyone spray anything?" Fernandez looks around.
The scent doesn't alarm me as much. It's a floral fragrance, quite possibly diffused by the surrounding flowers, picked up by a gentle zephyr. Still, the timing is bizarrely coincidental and the fact that we've been here all this while without getting so much as a whiff of it before doesn't escape me.
I jolt in shock, my fingers and ears turning icy cold in fright. That voice. It is the same voice I had heard over the signal set earlier. Just before Lam disappeared.
It sounds very distant. Like a woman laughing wickedly from afar. But even the hyperventilation of my section mate next to me isn't able to mask its vile, devilish timbre.
As I cower in fear, I feel a pair of skeletal hands graze my shoulder, from left to right. I instantly flinch, my body reacting involuntarily to the strange, demonic touch.
The evil snickering continues in the background, somehow sounding even further away now. I close my eyes, bracing myself for something I know I'd never be ready for.
"You come to my home..."
Her long fingernails drag lightly across my back again.
"With no respect..."
She strokes the back of my head, curling one finger under my collar. A chill runs down my spine as I shudder. My entire body starts to convulse.
"Why should I let you leave..."
In one swift motion, I'm hoisted in the air, raised by the collar. I kick around, trying to find my footing but my boots dangle inches above the ground.
"What are you doing?!" Fernandez cries in panic and indignation, making me realise that whatever's holding me up isn't visible to him or the others. In my state of distress, I lose control of my bladder. I feel the warm fluid flow down my thighs, welling up in my already sopping boots.
Just as I stop thrashing around, I feel a sharp jab on my shin.
"Lee. Eh, look over there," Fernandez continues kicking me. I instantly drop to the ground, released from the firm grasp of the thing that had lifted me up.
Dizzy, I follow his line of sight, detecting a few distant beams of light sweeping the ground. As I train my eyes towards the light, something white quickly swishes in my peripheral vision.
"Section 3. Section 3," I hear a familiar voice calling out from where the beams of light are coming.
"Over here! Sir!" my section mate shrieks as the rest of us start to clamour, drawing the attention of the scouts.
"Section 3," my platoon commander rushes towards us, accompanied by a few other commanders. "Is anybody injured?"
"Okay, quick. Everything on and follow me."
I've never felt more relieved in my life as I buckle my vest and carry my field pack. With a few rear scouts securing us from behind, my platoon commander guides us back to the admin shed. Even in our walk back, we huddle close together, almost pressing against each other the entire way through.
I hear the rear scouts mumbling something rhythmically over and over again, a sing-song melody that sounds almost like a chant. My platoon commander opts to remain silent mostly as he steers us back to the admin shed.
When we finally reach the admin shed, trembling from the fear of what we've just experienced and possibly the physical strain of the rush back, my platoon commander addresses us.
"Stay in this admin shed. Drink up. The medic is on his way here," he says firmly. "Don't do anything else. We will find Lam."
We can only muster enough nerve to nod our heads before collapsing at the corner of the admin shed. Together with his scouts, my platoon commander moves out again.
I watch them race off, admiring their vigour and fervour. But despite feeling very grateful towards them, I'm certain they'll fail in their search for Lam. They barely reached us in time. Whatever it was we chanced upon in the forest, had much more time getting to Lam.
As I recall the events that happened just before Lam disappeared, something Lam had told me earlier is dragged from the back of my mind to the forefront. Something I had neglected to share with my platoon commander.
I know where Lam might be.
Or at least, I remember where he wanted to go. If he's where I think he is, I might have the best chance at finding him. I look at my section mates and make eye contact with Fernandez. Perhaps I should share it with him.
"Fernandez," I reach out to him. "I need to go find Lam. I think I know where he is."
"Dude, don't be an idiot. Lam is already missing. We don't need another soldier missing."
He's not wrong. The right thing to do is to stay and allow the commanders to handle everything. But logic has no room in my mind now, given the circumstances.
I've made my decision. I'm going out to find Lam as soon as the sky brightens up.
The wait for daybreak is torturous and every second that passes, I feel like I'm getting eaten from the inside. But that only reinforces my decision all the more. As soon as there's a hint of daylight in the sky, I slip out of the admin shed, determined to make my way to Lam. With just a map and compass, I start running to CP4.
As if the checkpoint itself is drawing me closer to it, I find myself running tirelessly to CP4. The moment I hit the knoll, I stow away the map and compass and begin climbing.
"He has to be up here. He has to be up here," I keep telling myself. And the moment I poke my head above the knoll, I know I was right all along. A couple of commanders have gathered in front of the dark-trunked tree, looking at each other as one of them speaks on his cellphone. I should be feeling relieved but an intense wave of trepidation sweeps over me.
As I walk towards the commanders, I feel a seed of despair being planted in my heart - roots slowly creeping out and a young shoot emerging. It grows bigger and bigger with each step I take forward, wrapping itself tightly around my palpitating heart. The commanders in front of me speak in hushed tones, the usual regimental resonance completely stripped from their voices. I don't know what they're discussing yet, but their demeanour is definitely foreign to me.
And then I see it.
Up in the tree that once gave us the password, pinned against its dark trunk is a face I've recently grown fond of. I move closer to see a bare-bodied soldier dangling limply about four meters high. His front torso has been ripped open, with blood still dripping off his ribs onto his boots. His eyes are bloody but even the blood flowing out of his sockets fails to veil the other facial features I had seen almost every day for over a month. I was sure of it. That's my buddy, Lam.
"Recruit Lee, what are you doing here?" my Sergeant Major squeaks, shocked to see me. "Sorry Sergeant Major, that's my buddy," I brush past him. At this very moment, any fear I once had for my Sergeant Major is replaced by stupefaction and unprecedented terror - for what I'm witnessing in the trees and for what is lying in front of my eyes on the ground.
Lam's field pack is open and its contents aligned neatly in front of it. Pack 1 all the way to Pack 6, just like how they're arranged during our inspection. But within each transparent ziplocked pack is an item that's not supposed to be there. The standard military items have been replaced with Lam's organs. In Pack 1, his heart. In Pack 2, his lungs. In Pack 3, his kidneys. In Pack 5, his stomach. In Pack 6, his intestines. I'm completely arrested with fear when I see within Pack 4, a pair of eyes glaring directly into mine.
I drop to my knees as the unit commanding officer instructs two of his lieutenants to get me out of there. My mind starts spinning, mostly aimless mental wandering, as time itself seems to be distorted. I remember being helped up and escorted away from the scene and back to the admin shed again.
Throughout the entire walk back, despite the questions and reassurances from the lieutenants, everything is drowned out by the visual recollection of Lam's eyeballs.
It's a sight I'll always remember. He had looked at me. It was a bitter stare that pierced my soul. An image that I've been trying to scrub off my mind for over three decades now but is still vividly etched into my memories. That fateful day back in 1983 was the beginning of all the horrors I've had to endure for the years that followed. After more than a decade of therapy, I finally learned to live my life normally again.
But I'm afraid I might have done something recently to invite the horrors of my past back. This time, much fiercer. This time, I may have to walk the path Lam was forced to walk.
I was in the forest a few days ago. After picking some durians, I went to relieve myself at a nearby tree. As I was urinating, my piss depressed the grass I was aiming at and I realised that hidden under the grass was a red piece of paper concealing something gold.
Immediately, two things said by two people that fateful day blazed in my mind.
Lam had mumbled mysteriously about some red talisman. And my platoon commander had said, "If you need to take a piss or shit, remember to say sorry first."