They gave me a card, and the card gave me carte blanche, which is a fancy French way of saying, I could do whatever and go wherever the motherfuck I wanted. In bold, underlined, all capital letters, it screamed: “UNDER DIRECT ORDERS OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.” This wasn’t strictly true, even though Lyndon was an old family friend from way back. No, my family and the Johnsons more or less parted ways after my daddy smashed my momma’s head open on the kitchen floor. Lyndon understood that a man had a temper, especially after working long days under the hot Texan sun and didn’t have two damn cents to rub together for a shot of whiskey, but it just didn’t feel prudent for a sitting Senator to be friendly with a wife-killer, even if the wife in question was the daughter of one of the worst mass killers Gillespie County had seen since, well, ever. They fried him, my papaw, in the lectric chair after he finished his last meal—ten shots of whiskey and a sawdust and ground beef pie (a favorite from his own miserable childhood)—and they said his last words were something like, “Uhhh.” Anyway, my daddy got the chair too.
So no, Lyndon did not directly tell me to go to the frontlines of Vietnam to eradicate anything with six legs or eight or one hundred, but I caught the gist from the guy who gave it to me. They gave me a jeep I could haul my canisters and pellets and so forth in, but I got to wear my own coveralls and listen to whatever music I wanted to listen to on the radio. I drove down roads sculpted by the Army corps of engineers through savage, verdant terrain that glistened with near-constant rainfall. I could hear the bugs out there, not just the usual sounds—the chirps and the clicks and the buzzing—but the sounds other people couldn’t hear. To me, they were warning each other that I was coming.
I was consulting my Army-issued map when I got stopped at a checkpoint. The fellas there seemed relieved to be stopping fellow Americans and not up front getting their guts shot out by gooks, or worse. Their boss ordered me out of the jeep. I did so, even though I didn’t have to—the card said I didn’t. “Where you headed,” he asked.
“Up front,” I said, adding “sir” to move the conversation along.
“Shitfire, you’re going into the shit, all by yourself? You know why it’s called the shit, don’t you?”
“Because it’s shit?”
“Because it chews up boys like you and shits ’em out, that’s why.”
I kept quiet because I knew he was winding himself up, and with this type of person, you just got to let them wind up and talk until they’re unwound. No use talking back.
“What are you, anyway? You don’t look like a soldier to me. No gun, no uniform, hair longer than my wife’s cunt-hairs. Who are you? And say sir when you answer me.”
I showed him the card and let him read it over. “I don’t have to call you sir because I don’t take orders from you. I don’t need a gun—I got gas.”
I felt bad putting him in his place in front of his men, and he was beet-red and madder than a hound dog with a hard-on. He gave the card back. I started walking to the back of the jeep and said, “Follow me.”
He did, and I opened the back of the jeep, showing him my wares, my instruments, covered with WARNING stickers.
I tapped one of the canisters and said, “One puff of this stuff will kill ya. Two puffs and it’ll kill ya dead. Get it?”
He accepted my expertise on the matter and I closed the back of the jeep and we returned to the front. He nodded to one of his guys and the checkpoint gate lifted. I was about to get in my jeep and get going but something in me just had to make one last dig at this asshole, just for making me put on this whole production.
“On second thought, you’re entirely correct. It is damn foolish of me to be going up in the shit, as you say, without a gun. Give me yours.”
“The fuck you say to me?”
“Under direct orders of the President of the United States, I hereby requisition your weapon…it’s all on the card, sir.”
Ticked off to high hell, looking like my daddy did when he stomped on my momma’s face while wearing his work boots, he surrendered his rifle to me, and before he could curse at me further, I hopped in my jeep and sped through the gate, down the road and into the shit.
It was dark by the time I got to the camp and the atmosphere was nothing less than funereal, thought maybe it was just always like that. I parked my jeep where I could and a private escorted me to the commanding officer’s tent. The private peeked his head in and said, “Sir, he’s here.” Before I could enter, the commanding officer exited his tent and softly said, “Come,” and he led me to the medical tent. Inside, along with the usual gore of war, were shirtless men, their limbs and bodies and even their faces covered with bulbous red bites that leaked pus. One was flat on his back, asleep or rather, knocked out, his eyes covered with bandages.
“The ants were all over him, and he clawed his eyes out trying to get them off,” the commanding officer explained. “Thompson over there, his foot got bit by a centipede, and it rotted off his leg. Dewey got bit on the ass by a spider—he’s in a coffin.”
I nodded solemnly, clenching myself to hide how giddy I was. The prospect of real adversaries, not just some house spiders or roaches or termites, enthralled me. “I understand,” I said, attempting to match my tone with his. “I’ll work tonight. I’ll need your men to retreat a hundred yards.”
The commanding officer was bewildered. “We just fought like hell for this hill and now you want us to retreat?”
“Nah I don’t want you to retreat, I need you to retreat. This stuff I work with…one puff and it’ll kill—”
“I can retreat fifty yards, but one hundred is unacceptable.”
I considered it. “That’ll work.”
As the men retreated down the hill, I arranged the canisters and set the timers for when they’d open. I found a good spot under a thicket of trees, put on my gloves and gas mask, and lied down on the jungle floor. I heard the voice of every creeping and crawling and flying thing on six and eight and one hundred legs. Then time ran out and the canisters opened.
The jungle was enveloped in a haze of green fog and it sounded like it was raining as the carcasses of enormous spiders and other bugs pelted the ground. These carcasses, shriveled and desiccated, fell atop me and I closed my eyes. I had a vision of a howling Earth impregnated by Thanatos, of no rock unturned, of barren fields and canyons where there were once oceans. I saw my daddy and my papaw, and I felt only disgust and pity. My daddy killed only one; my papaw, only seventeen. How many lives have I taken—thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions by the time I was finished.
Once the pelting stopped, I opened my eyes. Covered by bodies of dead insects, I saw only darkness. I got up, sloughing their withered corpses off me. I looked forward and saw the commanding officer standing a few paces away. Even behind his gas mask, I could see that he was frightened. So I ran after him, tackled him to the ground, and suffocated him with handfuls of dirt and dead bugs.
The men returned to the hill and resumed establishing it as their forward base, wondering where the hell their commanding officer went off to. When I had a moment, I dug him from his shallow grave and slashed his throat and guts open, and strung him up and made it look like the gooks got him. This got the camp in a tizzy, and as I departed to my next assignment, they were all shooting after phantom Viet Cong. Shortly after that, the Army decided they were just gonna drop gas from airplanes, and I was sent back Stateside. Upon returning to my childhood home, I found my momma where I left her the night before I shipped off to Saigon on my bug-killer contract, head caved in on the kitchen floor, her body all wizened and eaten away by flies. I found my daddy, too, sitting in the living room in his favorite chair, body looking as decrepit as my momma’s, hands and feet bound, with a gas mask taped over his nose and mouth, and the hose leading to a big empty canister of insecticide.
— Jacob Everett is the editor-in-chief and publisher of APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL.