Hot water blasted Xu Guan’s body as layers of grime and a thick film of stench ran down the drain at his feet. It had been months since Xu Guan had a shower and longer still since he had a hot shower. With no shouting platoon leaders and no immediate assignments, Xu Guan relaxed in the relative luxury of the concrete and ceramic communal military shower room. Others around him did the same until those waiting in line became impatient and began to shout insults and threats at their fellow soldiers. Few, if any, were in condition to make good on their threats.
Most of the men in the shower room had marched from San Francisco to Nebraska over the last several months. The majority of the men were sick, nearly starved and bone tired. To Xu Guan, it seemed something of a miracle that he didn’t simply melt and run down the drain with the grime and stench from his body. As the hot water relaxed his body, Xu Guan felt as if his body was growing limp – as if he might simply collapse onto the floor of the shower to sleep and, perhaps, never wake. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. A sudden bout of vertigo struck Xu Guan as he reached out to steady himself against the wall.
With another shake of his head, Xu Guan’s knees began to buckle.
Nearly an hour later, Xu Guan woke to bright lights and clean sheets. An IV trailed from his arm to a clear plastic bag hung from a shiny steel pole near his bed. Xu Guan had never seen such a clean bright room in his life. Everything glistened, reflecting the intense light from the overhead fixtures. Xu Guan blinked and rolled his head to the side. Through a window near his bed, Xu Guan could see sunshine and green grass. It was as though a giant hand had wiped away the entirety of Xu Guan’s life and replaced it with bright and beautiful surroundings. The long march from the western coast, the seemingly even longer time spent on the ship to reach the western coast, the drudgery and poverty of his childhood … it all seemed to fade from Xu Guan’s memory – as if the bright light and sunshine had bleached it away.
A youthful-looking nurse came to Xu Guan’s bed side and grasped his wrist to check his pulse. The nurse’s features were plain but pleasant. Her black hair shone almost blue in the intense fluorescent light. Most amazing to Xu Guan, she was clean and healthy and smelled of perfumed soap. Xu Guan could only recall the smell of perfumed soap from the few times his mother had used it on special occasions. The scent brought back memories – both good and bad.
Xu Guan relaxed back into the sheets as the nurse finished checking his pulse, made sure that his bag of electrolytes was adequate and shined a pen light into his eyes to check his pupils. Within minutes Xu Guan was asleep and dreaming. He and the nurse were walking hand-in-hand through a field of poppies outside his village. The sky was a brilliant blue. Puffy clouds floated gently on a light breeze that cooled Xu Guan’s skin and made him shiver.
Explosions, gunfire and screams abruptly ended Xu Guan’s dream. Still drowsy, it took him a few moments to realize that the noise was not a part of his dream. The building where he lay was under attack.
“Who would be so foolish to attack …” Xu Guan began to mumble and then realized that he had no idea where he was.
Xu Guan pulled back the medical tape that held his IV in place and then gently removed the needle. He quickly looked around the room but saw no clothing. The gown he was wearing was open in the rear revealing his entire backside. Xu Guan cinched the gown tighter and walked gingerly to his door. As he reached for the handle, the lights went out leaving his room flooded with sunshine. The hallway was dark.
Fingers of red light flashed down the hallway as shots rang out. Xu Guan ducked back inside his room and looked around frantically. He ran to the window and looked out. The ground below was three stories down. Several of Xu Guan’s blue-helmeted comrades were engaged in a firefight with several small groups of apparently well-armed Americans. The Americans had the U.N. troops pinned down with no escape route back to the building and little cover. They were being cut to ribbons. Xu Guan was torn between loyalty to his brothers-in-arms and his own desire to survive. One of the Americans spotted him standing in the window quickly cementing his decision.
Xu Guan turned away from the window and dropped to the floor under his hospital bed. The bed on the other side of the room, near the door, was occupied but Xu Guan saw no movement. The other occupant was either dead or disabled as Xu Guan had been only minutes before.
The dresser! It was his only hope. Xu Guan scrambled out from under the bed, grabbed the dresser underneath the television with both hands and wrestled it over to the door. The dresser was just short enough to fit under the door handle but a little too short to block the handle’s movement. Xu Guan searched frantically. He needed something solid, just a few centimeters tall, to keep the handle from turning.
The gunfire in the hallway was getting louder. Xu Guan could hear bullets thumping against the concrete block walls. There were fewer and fewer screams. Xu Guan thought of the pleasant little nurse who had attended to him. He felt sorry for her but he was too frightened to do anything.
“She’s probably already dead,” Xu Guan justified his inaction.
An idea struck Xu Guan. He pulled one of the drawers out of the dresser and turned it over. The drawer slipped under the door handle with just a few millimeters to spare.
Almost perfect and just in time!
The door handle rattled as someone outside tried to turn it. Someone was screaming in Cantonese, “Open it! Let me in! Help me!”
Xu Guan pictured his nurse on the other side of the door as he froze in panic.
Someone was kicking at the door now. The heavy wooden door absorbed the kicks as if they were from a child. The screaming in Cantonese continued unintelligibly. Gunfire erupted and a shower of hot lead pierced the door. Xu Guan dropped to the cold tile in a heap as blood began to run down the inside of the door.