After a fifteen-minute drive, I arrived in front of Ezra’s place and parked just off the dirt road. An old timber rail fence stretched the front of property, a quaint (that’s three) border whose inviting, old-timey appearance was offset with hand-painted signs bearing such warnings as PRIVATE PROPERTY—KEEP OUT, NO TRESSPASSING, BEWARE OF DOGS, and JAPANESE SOLDIERS SURRENDER OR BE KILLED. Behind the fence, overgrown trees and bushes hid any view of the house, which was about a hundred metres from the front gate, or closer to three hundred if you followed the winding driveway. I would not be going through the trees or taking the driveway, on account of Barry, Maurice and Robin, Ezra’s gargantuan rottweilers. Instead, I took a hidden path known only to Ezra’s closest friends.
Sweaty, wearing mud-caked shoes and a nasty barbed wire scratch on my arm, I made it to Ezra’s doorstep. I rang the doorbell and then scrambled up the nearby ladder. (Ezra had cemented the base of a five-metre wooden ladder in the ground, so it stood upright. Whenever the dogs heard the doorbell they would come running, and then the top of the ladder was the safest place to be.) With the snarling beasts circling the ladder, I clung to the top rung and waited. Soon, a small drone rose from the far side of the house and whirred toward me. It circled me at eye level and then hovered just out of reach. I looked into the tiny camera attached on the drone’s underside, waved and said, “Hey Ezra, it’s me, Miles.”
The drone waited a few seconds, then lifted high above me. The dogs suddenly took off around the side of the house, and I descended the ladder. The click and slide of three steel bolts sounded from the house, and the front door opened just enough for my buddy, Ezra Daicos, to slide out aiming a shotgun at me.
“That you, Miles?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Ezra squinted, then a grin appeared through his wild, black beard. He lowered the gun.
“I heard the dogs going, wondered who it was. Come on in, mate.”
I followed him inside the house.
“I thought the dogs would know me by now.”
“They know you,” said Ezra, “but they have a job to do.”
He opened the curtain above the kitchen sink, and daylight poured through the barred window. (Ezra liked his house dark during the day, but all through the night he would have gas lanterns lighting up every room.) Towers of stacked old newspapers along the wall, a thirty-year-old pinball machine in the corner, gun parts and ammunition on the table, six pairs of boots in a row by the door, a black and white television, two rusty dumbbells, an ancient treadmill and a crate full of canned food—I liked the charming clutter of Ezra’s place. He put the kettle on the stove while I sat down at the table.
“So, you got Rory out of prison then?” he asked.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“He came around here a few months ago. Wanted advice on digging a tunnel. He filled me in on the plan.”
“Oh. Yeah, well, it all went to plan. Did he tell you about Budgie?”
“Yes,” he grunted. “Sounds foolish to me—trying to overthrow a dictatorship with a song. Couldn’t talk him out of it though.”
The kettle whistled. Ezra lifted it from the stove then stared out the window.
“Sorry I haven’t been round for a while,” I said. “How have you—”
“OI! GET OUT OF IT!” bellowed Ezra. “Bloody mongrel. Barry keeps digging up my tomato plants.”
He poured out tea and set the cups on the table.
“There ya go, mate. How’s things?”
“Good,” I said. “Bit stressed out, obviously, trying to leave New Zealand this morning without getting shot.”
“Yep, that’ll do it,” said Ezra, opening a small flask and pouring a generous helping of rum into his cup. He offered me the flask, but I declined. “There’s nothing like being behind enemy lines to put you on edge. The first time is the worst. After that, at least you know what you’re dealing with.”
“Yeah, well I don’t plan on going back.”
I took a sip of my tea. It was good tea. Ezra stared blankly at the table.
“Reckon you’ll come to Rory’s party tomorrow?” I asked.
His head jerked up. “Hmm? Oh, uh, I don’t know yet. I’d like to. I just… I’ve been a bit off lately, you know?”
I nodded. “You still see that doctor, the Scottish one?”
“Dr Gordon? No. He moved to Western Australia. He put me in touch with another shrink, but he was no good. Same as all the others—trying to fix me, put me on medication. I can’t go through that.”
“No. Fair enough.”
“Gordon was good. He didn’t try to fix me. Just helped me make the best of my situation, you know?”
“Yeah. He sounds like a good guy.”
Like many war veterans, Ezra suffered post traumatic stress disorder and insomnia. The only thing was, he wasn’t a war veteran. His mind had “invented” years of horrific memories of war experiences—the hardship, the fear, the pain, the horror of watching friends get shot to pieces and the soul-trauma of killing men—and for him it was completely real. He could tell you about the men he fought alongside; the smells and sounds of trench warfare; and accurate, specific details of historical battles most people have never learned about. Battles in which he had never actually fought haunted him as though he had. It was five wars in all: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Third Crusade. Ezra knew his military experiences were inventions of his mind, but that didn’t make them any less real to him. Psychiatrists loved it; they wanted to diagnose him, study him, cure him and publish papers about him. This turned out to be useless to Ezra. Only Dr Gordon seemed to help. He didn’t try to eradicate Ezra’s false memories, but rather gave him ways to cope with them and live his life. Dr Gordon’s best guess was that Ezra had had a kind of Don Quixote experience—as a teenager (and Rory can testify to this; he and Ezra went to school together), he read so many books about war and watched so many war movies that one day his brain decided he had been in those wars. I tried to look at Ezra the way Dr Gordon did—he was an average guy to whom life had dealt an unusual hand. Besides that, he was my friend, and you don’t bail on a friend, even if they are a mental case.
It was good to see Ezra. We had a long chat; he was curious about the situation in New Zealand. After my third cup of tea (Ezra’s third rum), I told him about the emergency landing on the plane that morning, and about the arrows that had killed the pilots. I showed him the mysterious arrowhead.
“Hmm. Like the ones at Arsuf,” he said. “And Rory said this was meant for him?”
“Yeah. He said someone was trying to kill him. Then later he was anxious about turning forty. He’s not his usual self. I wish I knew how to help.”
Ezra thought and nodded. He handed the arrowhead back to me.
“In Vietnam,” he said, “there was this kid, Cooper. He’d just turned eighteen, but he looked more like fifteen. He was scared sh**less—whimpering and crying every night in his bed, and then nearly having a nervous breakdown whenever we were on patrol. He was always asking how to get sent home—started talking about shooting himself in the foot. A few guys tried to talk sense to him, but when that failed, everyone just ignored him. Made him sleep outside on his own with just a mosquito net. He wouldn’t stop though. And all his complaining, worrying, threatening to hurt himself—it was beginning to rub off on the new guys coming in. So, one night, I took my pistol and went outside. I grabbed Cooper by the hair, stuck the gun in his face and said, ‘Make a sound and I’ll blow your f**king brains out.’ He shut up, all right. I dragged him behind the latrine and told him I was gonna do him a favour. Said if he wanted me to, I’d shoot him in the foot right there and then—send him home. Well, he shook his head, said he was okay. I told him it was a standing offer—he just had to say the word, and I’d shoot him—then I left him there and went back to bed. After that, he stopped crying and whining and talking about shooting himself. He was no more scared than the rest of us. He turned out to be a good soldier.”
“What I’m saying is, sometimes you can’t help people’s problems—they just have to sort it out on their own. But what you can do is let them know you’re the kind of friend who would shoot them if they needed it.”
“What? I doubt Rory wants me to shoot him.”
“No one wants to get shot, but we all want someone who would go to that length for us.”
“Uh-huh. Well, thanks for the advice,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
I set down my cup.
“I should get back now,” I said.
Ezra stood and walked me to the door. He whistled and then yelled something in Greek. The rottweilers came running and sat perfectly still in front of us.
“All right,” said Ezra, “you’re good to go. The dogs will wait till you’re past the front gate.”
I kept a hesitant eye on the drooling beasts as I passed them. I turned back to Ezra.
“Hey, where did he end up, that kid in Vietnam?”
“Cooper? He died. Stood on a land mine. I wasn’t there, but Vic Dooley saw it. Said the poor kid got blown into three pieces. Apparently, his left arm went straight up and got stuck in a tree.”
Ezra gazed at the ground; his shoulders dropped a little. It must be hard having such awful memories. It must be hard knowing none of them are real.
“You all right, Ez?” I said.
He looked up at me and nodded. “Tell LaShawn I’ll be at the party.”
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