Between Life and Death

by Qing Yang

An excerpt of Will of a Tiger

Time crawled, and life in prison became routine. Except for a few times they were forced to repair roads or dig trenches, they remained trapped in their small cell.

Nothing could dampen Danny’s spirit. He’d been exercising. At first he had to rely on help, but gradually he could hop without assistance. After a few weeks, the “cast” was removed, and he was able to put some weight on the injured leg to walk. His unsinkable spirit gained enormous respect from the fellow prisoners.

On top of admiration, Mr. Ding was amazed at Danny’s quick recovery. “Next time,” the Chinese teacher said, half joking, half serious, “I’ll try the American way.”

August 7th, 1945 started not much different from any other day. The summer was uncharacteristically warm in Yunnan, China. The sun grew stronger as the morning passed. Without a breath of wind coming through the window, the room became blistering hot.

Then, metallic sound and creaking wood broke the quietness. The cell door swung open, and Jackal, the prison chief, barged in with four guards. They seized Danny Hardy and Birch Bai by the arms and hauled them to their feet.  

“Get your damn paws off us,” the airmen shouted in unison and tried to wrench their arms free. “We’ll go with you,” said Birch, taking hold of Danny’s arm.

Side by side, the two friends walked out of the room. With a clang of the door, they were separated from their fellow prisoners who watched helplessly as they were taken away.

###

The Japanese led them to a small room at the far corner of the compound. They tied the two pilots back to back around a wooden pole. Thin leather straps bit deeply into their wrists and ankles.

The windowless room was hot and muggy. Birch sweated from head to toe. He almost felt relieved that they’d stripped off his uniform—before fear registered. The air stank of body odor, urine, and blood, too thick to inhale, so hot it seemed like a furnace.

Holding an iron ruler, Jackal paced back and forth between the two men. He was more agitated than normal. “How many atomic bombs do you have?” he barked in Chinese. “I mean the U.S.” His voice shook with fear and anger.

 Atomic bomb? Birch knew nothing about that and doubted Danny knew anything. He’d never heard the American mention a weapon by this name. How powerful is it? From the way Jackal talked, he guessed it wasn’t a conventional explosive device.

“Never heard such a thing,” answered Danny.

“Tell me the truth.”

“That is the damn truth.”

“You are trying my patience,” shouted Jackal. “I do not have time to play games with you.” His eyes narrowed to the thinnest of slits. 

He was short. The top of his head didn’t even reach the airmen’s shoulder. “You could be shot. Easily. You know why we kept you alive? For a moment like this. You have information we need.”

He swept the ruler from left to right. The features of his face turned hard as if the skin had suddenly been stretched over the bones. “You see what we have here?”

A naked bulb coated with grime dangled from the ceiling and dimly lit the room. Spots of congealed blood stained the mud-brick floor. Rusted shackles, whips of different sizes, heavy tongs and blades, and other devices were bolted to the dark walls. A clay stove with branding irons was tucked in a dark corner; fire crackled and hissed from time to time, giving out a sickly orange glow, making the room more oppressive. A wooden bench with leather straps sat by its side.

Jackal curled his lips, making a low chuckle. His yellow teeth were crooked and grotesque. “You will talk after I use them one by one.” He slapped the ruler against the palm of his other hand. “I will wring the words out of you. Might as well tell me now. Save us time and you, pain.” He waited, purposefully let the silence stretch out. His gaze bounced between the two men, studying them in a mute query.

Birch cringed in spite of his determination not to show any fear. He’d seen Captain Zhang’s nail-less fingers and heard Mr. Ding’s hoarse voice. He knew Jackal was a sadist—not too long ago, the midget had shot an officer in the face and beaten another to death.

How can I watch Danny go through hell like this? The thought crept over him like an encroaching shadow. His features reflected the turmoil within as he wrestled with the horrid possibility. Danny was not only his best friend but also an American who had traveled half way around the world to fight the war for China, for his country. Birch felt responsible for Danny’s well-being.

A wave of foreboding swept over him. Chills slithered up his spine while a fresh drop of sweat teared up on his brow, making a slow crawl down to his cheek. But what could he do? How could he protect Danny when his life wasn’t even in his control?

To hide the emotions, he rolled his lips inward and bunched his jaw and wiggled his fingers, touching Danny behind him. He detected a slight movement from Danny’s hands on his back, their only connection between them. 

Jackal advanced on Birch, apparently noticing his grimace. Tilting his head, he subjected his captive to an unhurried once-over. Then his beady eyes fixed on Birch’s bare chest. 

After being imprisoned for six weeks, Birch was no longer muscular. A sleek sheen covered his upper body. A jagged diagonal scar crossed the length of his torso.

Using the tip of the ruler, Jackal traced the pencil-thin scar he’d inflicted over a month ago. His gaze lingered there as if admiring his previous work.

Then he tilted his head back. His gaze zeroed in the Chinese pilot’s face. Without breaking eye contact, he took a step back, swung the ruler in his hand, and slashed it across Birch’s chest.

Birch snapped his head to the side to avoid the impact. His head bumped hard against the wooden pole. The tail end of the ruler caught the bottom of his left chin before slitting down his chest. The iron edge acted like a serrated blade, slicing through his skin. Blood spilled from the open wound. The burning pain stole his breath. He cried in agony.

“So, how many?”

Birch screwed his eyes shut. His hands squeezed into fists so tight that all the blood was wrung out of them. Taking gulps of air, he clenched his jaw. His whole body tensed as he braced himself for the next attack. Even with his eyes closed, he knew Jackal was getting closer to him, examining him. He could smell alcohol on the little man’s breath.

After a beat, Jackal slashed again, putting all his strength behind it.

Birch forced steel to his backbone as the iron ruler went up and down. His eyes rolled back under the lids. Sweat poured down his face, drooling red from his cut chin. It took every bit of strength to endure the unbearable pain. Soon his chest was crisscrossed with bloody marks, but no matter how intolerable it was, he didn’t allow himself to utter another sound. 

“You said the U.S. dropped the bomb,” Danny yelled, waging a futile struggle against his bonds. “How would he know anything?”

“He is with you.”

“Why don’t you ask me then?”

“Do not think I will not.” Jackal moved to the American. “I see your leg is healed nicely.” He paused for effect, twisting the ruler in his hands. Then, in a calm malicious voice he said, “Let me check it.”

The smack made Birch’s heart sink. “You sick bastard!” He twisted his body, struggled like a tiger trying to free himself from the restraints. His deep-set eyes brightened with pure hatred. Tied back to back, he couldn’t see clearly. But he saw the beastly shadow. He heard Danny’s painful groan. Through his tied hands, he sensed the American’s shudder. 

“Tell me. Otherwise, your leg will be broken again.”

The blunt claim filled Birch with desperation. He felt suffocated as if his air passages were stuffed with cotton.

A moment later, another lash came down. This time, Danny screamed and cursed.

 “Stop,” Birch cried out, his voice raw with emotion. Fear, anger, pain passed over his face in rapid succession. And with every passing second, his expression discernibly changed. Hatred replaced by anguish; rage gave way to sorrow.

Birch felt sick to his stomach when he imagined the knifelike edge ripping Danny’s unhealed wounds. He bowed his head as if the haunting thoughts weighed him down.

Wild with terror, he shouted in silence, Don’t! Please, please, please. He had to bite his lip to keep himself from begging the enemy. The pleading words had already filled his throat.

He knew nothing about the atomic bomb. Even if he did, he wouldn’t give up such a top secret. He considered making up a number. But how many is appropriate? What if the number is the right one? What consequences would it bring?

Besides, giving a confession, even a false one, had a bad connotation; it showed weakness. As a proud airman, how could he bend to the enemy under torture? As Birch wrestled with the predicament, he tasted the blood in his mouth, as bitter and dark as his thoughts. 

“How many?” Jackal demanded. Beneath his low brow, his eyes turned even more hostile. He raised the ruler. Blood, Birch’s and Danny’s, dripped from the tip. He let several seconds lapse and, hearing nothing, he stroked again.

Still no answer.

The silence meant defeat. Anger infused Jackal’s face with color. His madness escalated. “I will burn your leg.” His voice filled with venom, cutting through the room’s stillness like a dagger.

“Soon your leg will be useless. After that I will burn your other leg. When I am done, you will never walk again in your life.” He raced toward the clay stove tucked in the corner.

“Stop!” The razor-sharp viciousness of the statement unhinged Birch. His downcast head snapped up. Blood drained from his face. His eyes were wild with fright. “Wait.” The exclamation caused his voice to crack. “I’ll…I’ll tell—”

“Birch, don’t—”

“I can’t let him—” 

“Tell me. Now!” Jackal leaped back, facing Danny, the iron ruler high in the air.

“One thousand,” Birch blurted out.

“One…” The ruler dropped to the floor with a thud. The little man looked like he’d seen a ghost. Staggering back a few steps, he changed to a different person: pathetic and crushed. The madness vanished. So did his evil spirit. He leaned against the wall, his head hung lower, upper body hunched forward. His mouth twitched, seemingly on the verge of a sob. Then he murmured something in Japanese as if he was praying.

Before long, his evil spirit crept back. In a whoosh of anger, he took several huge steps and picked up the ruler. “Is that the right number?” Facing Danny, he lifted it over his head.

“Why ask”—Danny’s voice was no more than a whisper—“if you don’t believe us?”

Baka,” Jackal barked a stream of profanity. “Goddamned Americans.” A muscle flicked at his jaw, his eyes bulged.

Neither Danny nor Birch understood the Japanese’s sudden feebleness and outburst of rage. They had no idea how devastating this false information meant to the enemy. The day before, August 6, the U.S. Army Air Forces had detonated the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, causing widespread destruction and hundreds of thousands of deaths. If one nuclear bomb had destroyed a city, one thousand would wipe Japan from the face of the earth forever.

Jackal went ballistic. Ignoring Birch’s wail of protest, he sent the iron ruler down to Danny’s leg again. 

###

“They’re going to kill us,” Mr. Ding exclaimed. “All of us.” It was three days after the airmen’s interrogation. He was standing before the front window of the cell. Anxiety shadowed his face as he twirled around. His eyes looked shocked behind his broken glasses. 

“What the devil? How do you know?” Captain Zhang lifted his head.

“Just heard it.” Mr. Ding hitched his chin toward the outside. Early morning sunlight poured through the cracks of the boarded-up window. “The guards were talking.”

“The bastards said, ‘Kill all?’” the captain asked again, straightening up. He moved toward Mr. Ding.

“I think so. Can’t tell for dead certain. My Japanese is limited. But it’s close enough.”

“I’m not surprised,” Danny said. He was sitting on the floor, his face tense, his brown hair curled in the humidity. “Killing prisoners wasn’t any news. This won’t be the first or the last time.” 

“Yeah,” Zhou Ming joined the conversation, standing with his feet planted slightly apart and hands in his pants pockets. “After they invaded Nanking, the Japs killed thousands of people including surrendered soldiers.”

“Three hundred thousand,” Birch confirmed with a drawl, his lips split, bearing bloody tooth marks. He sat slouching on the floor next to Danny. His uniform concealed most of his wounds, only a cut was visible at the bottom of his chin.

“Both my father and brother were…killed during the massacre. They were—” Zhou Ming swallowed a few times, trying to talk, yet the words died on his lips.

Danny had heard the story before, and he nodded in sympathy. Like Zhou Ming, his father and brother had worked for the Nationalist Army. Their regiment had been ordered to defend Nanking and later on to surrender. Nearly everyone in the battalion had died, some during the fight, but most after laying down their arms. Zhou Ming learned that they’d been tied up in long strings, chased into the Yangtze River, and machine-gunned by the Japanese. Thousands of bodies floated down the river, turning the water red for days.

“Not long before we were….” Loath to use the word “captured” Danny faltered, then cleared his throat and continued. “I read a report. One hundred and fifty American POWs in the Philippines were killed.” Burned alive, he added grudgingly in his mind.

As the likelihood of defeat loomed closer, the Japanese had sunk into madness. They’d turned to frantic acts of rage and bloodshed in parts of China and other Asian countries. A massacre could come about as an outburst of the vengeance-seeking Japs like Jackal, Danny thought. Or it could unfold as a matter of higher order. That disturbing prospect deepened the furrow between his brows. 

 “I don’t want to die before….” Mr. Ding’s face turned pale. He stood rigidly, his hands clasped in front of him. Six months ago he’d been arrested as a Communist resistor when the Japanese traced some anti-Japanese pamphlets to his classroom. To this day, he refused to admit being responsible. “My wife was pregnant when….” His voice cracked. He leaned back to the window frame as if pushed by an invisible hand. “Don’t even know…whether I have a son or a daughter.”

“Can’t sit around and wait to be fucking slaughtered like lambs,” Captain Zhang said angrily. His uplifted eyebrows and darkened long scar emphasized his fiery spirit. He shook the sturdy boards that bolted their window. “Either we break for it or wait to die.”

“What the hell can we do?”

The question hung in the air. No one had an answer. They’d never been allowed outside the compound except for a few times when the Japanese forced them to repair roads or dig trenches. Heavily armed forces surrounded them. There was no way to escape.

Back and forth the captain paced the confines of the cell as everyone watched. Ponderous minutes ticked by. Except for the thumping of his steps, there was no sound. The silence in the sultry room was nerve-racking.

Then abruptly he stopped and turned to the American. “Danny, you’re wounded the worst. Tonight, call out. Act as if you’re getting worse. Obviously, we’ll play along. Tell the guard you know more about the atomic bomb, whatever the hell that is, and that you’re willing to give them more information in exchange for treatment. Hopefully, in the middle of the night, the stupid guard won’t think too much before he opens the door.”

No one said anything. Everyone was trying hard to judge the feasibility of the plan.

After a tense pause, Mr. Ding aired his opinion, “It’s not much, but worth a try. Let’s do it. Tonight.” A glimmer of hope excited him. His pale face was suddenly infused with color. “Worse to worse, the guard won’t care. But with any luck, the jerk might be curious enough to open the door.”

A hubbub arose with everyone talking all together.

“On second thought…” Captain Zhang lifted his right index finger, “hold off until tomorrow night. Let’s pray the bastards won’t start killing so soon.”

“Why wait?” 

“Haven’t you noticed? It’ll be School Boy’s turn tomorrow. He isn’t bad to Danny. We’ll have a better chance.”

“Good call.” Mr. Ding patted the captain on his back. 

Hushed murmurs filled the cell, a tinge of hope brightening the bleak mood.

“But right off the bat,” Danny spoke up, “you have to promise not to kill him. All of you.” Sitting on the floor and leaning against the mud-brick wall, he looked haggard and worn. His right hand went to his pants pocket, touching the medical bottle given by the guard. There were still a few pills left. In the past six weeks, a strange connection had formed between him and School Boy. The young guard had stopped to talk from time to time and offered a few fruits and candies in secret.

All eyes turned to Danny.

“What the….” the captain muttered a foul curse. “Why?” His thick eyebrows furrowed.

Everyone in the room mirrored his baffled expression.

“Can’t use his kindness and then abuse it like that. I won’t do it unless you guys are on the same page with me.”

“Seriously? After what you’ve been through? You’re joking, right?”

“No. I’m dead serious. Don’t have time—”

“You got that right. We’ve got no time to play priests or monks. He’s a freaking Japanese, our enemy.” Captain Zhang dismissed Danny’s request with an impatient wave. “Are you shitting me? He’s one of them. Will kill you if he’s ordered to. He won’t hesitate—”

“And I won’t think twice to fight back. Just not like that. It’s too sneaky. Not a man’s way.” 

“A man’s way? Bullshit,” growled the captain in frustration. “When the hell did they act like real men? Can’t believe you’re saying that after what Jackal did to you and Birch.” He folded his arms across his chest. “Why do we have to follow useless rules and morals when they don’t? It’s crap. Total bullshit.” Shifting his weight from one leg to another, he glared at Danny.

Mr. Ding sided with Captain Zhang and quoted a proverb. “‘Deal with a man as he deals with you.’ An eye for an eye. That’s fair.”

“No. We’re different from them,” Danny asserted without taking his eyes from captain’s glare. “We’re not animals. If we do what they do, we’re no different from them. Killing School Boy—”

“Danny is right,” interrupted Birch. “Killing the boy is too devious. Let’s tie him up.” Wincing at the needles of pain on his chest, he paused to catch his breath. “It’ll take a few seconds. No need to kill him. He’s just a kid.” 

“A bullet from a kid is as deadly as any bullet.” Captain Zhang gave an elaborate shrug, showing his distaste. 

“Hey, who the hell do you think you are?” Zhou Ming turned his death stare on the captain and moved closer to the two pilots. “Who gives you the right to call the shots here? The Nationalist is the leader of this war.”

All at once, several men in Nationalist Army uniforms followed suit and stood next to Zhou Ming. A line split the room—the Nationalists versus the Communists.

“Communism is the future of China,” retorted Captain Zhang. “We’ll fight all capitalists, and we’ll win. Mark my words.”

Zhou Ming took a huge stride, closing the gap. His fists clenched at his side.

Tension rattled between the two sides, and the stifling heat made it worse.

“Whoa, hold on, guys.” Birch waved his arm, struggling to sit up. “No need to get political here. We’re in this together. Okay?” He pulled the hem of Zhou Ming’s uniform, forcing him to back off, and shifted his focus to the captain. “School Boy isn’t just any kid. He’s kind to Danny. The pain relievers meant a lot—” 

“The fucking war is near an end. He’s trying to find a better way out.”

“Still, not all of them are like him.” Birch’s eyes were sunken and weary, but his chin rose a notch with resolve. “Come to think of it, my father has never tortured or mistreated the Japanese soldiers he’s captured, even after the death of my mom, sister, cousin, aunt, and uncle. We can be better than the Japs.” Pride propelled him to sit up even straighter.

Most of the prisoners in the room nodded. 

“All agreed?” Danny wanted to make sure.

“Yes,” they chorused.

Reluctantly the captain went along. “I hope like hell you’re not making a mistake. You may end up like the stupid Mr. Dong Guo. Sympathy to an enemy can be deadly to us later on.”

Danny looked puzzled. Born in a missionary family, he’d lived in China for several years when he was little. His Chinese was excellent, especially after being friends with Birch for three years. Nonetheless, he had no clue what the captain was talking about. “Man, it’s endless, isn’t it? Always new things to learn. So, who is Mr. Dong Guo? What’s he got to do with me?”

“One second.” Birch lifted his index finger and turned to Captain Zhang. “That’s not a fair comparison. The wolf was never friendly to Mr. Dong Guo, but School Boy was kind to Danny.”

He turned back to the American. “As you know, we have a lot of sayings in Chinese. Some are based on historical events, others come from fables. That’s why it’s so hard to learn. You have to learn the stories behind them. In this idiom, Mr. Dong Guo was a gentle scholar. He saved an injured wolf from hunters. But—”

“But as soon as the hunters left, the bastard wanted to eat the poor man.” Mr. Ding finished the story.  

“Right. The moral is never show sympathy or mercy to an enemy. He’ll strike back. Sort of like the snake in Aesop’s fable—the Farmer and the Viper.”

“I’m not Mr. Dong Guo.” Danny burst into a hearty laugh. “But if we kill School Boy, he’d be the poor man, and I’d be the deceitful wolf. See, that’s my point. I just don’t want us to be a cunning creature.”

No one said anything. Another awkward silence descended on them.

Zhou Ming cleared his throat. “But how the hell can we get out of the compound? Even if we can get out of the cell, the place is surrounded by barbed-wire. Don’t forget the watchtower and the machine guns.”

Outside a dog barked. The sound of its howling sent a chill to the gloomy room.

“Never mention the bloody German Shepherds,” Zhou Ming added.

“It won’t be easy. Many will end up dead. But at least we die trying.” Captain Zhang pointed to the left of their cell. “Here, I noticed the wires are in shitty shape.”

Danny raised an eyebrow. He was amazed that the captain had paid close attention to the environment and contemplated a prison break. 

“Start around midnight.” Captain Zhang ordered. “The darkness is our friend. The bastards might be too sleepy to walk straight or shoot anyone.” One corner of his lips tilted upward in a half smile.

“Where are we going? Just run?” asked Zhou Ming.

“Damn right. Run like hell. The rest is up to God. Nobody knows what’s out there.”

“We’re northeast of Dashan,” said Birch, pointing to the direction of the town. “Just so you know, we may want to avoid—” 

“Yeah. The town is still under the Jap’s boot,” Danny cut in. “At least that was the case six weeks ago.”

Captain Zhang nodded. “Let the others know. They must be prepared.” He motioned to the other five cells in the small prison. “Whoever takes out the waste bucket today, pass the word around. No sleep tomorrow night. Now, let’s talk details. The more we’re prepared, the better.” The guerilla leader had that an air of authority. Even here, he liked to be in charge.

                                                                        ###

The day dragged on, the air was unsettling. Everyone seemed restless. They were excited about the plan to escape and nervous about the possibility of failure and their massacre. Some whispered that they should start now. All of them tensed whenever a guard passed by. 

The odds of succeeding were slim. Many people might end up dead. Nevertheless, there was a sliver of hope, at least a prospect to fight for their lives, instead of waiting to be slaughtered. Most of them were fighters—Nationalist combatants, Communist guerrillas, spies, political prisoners, and an American pilot. They would try their best for this chance of lifetime.

Not long after the dinner, a loud commotion outside the room brought everyone except Danny to the window.

Through the space between the boards, Birch watched in horror at the scene unfolding in the courtyard.

The sun had already slipped behind the mountains. The red streaks in the sky looked like blood being splashed about. Daylight was drawing its last gasping breath.

In the fading light, a prisoner knelt on the ground, his hands tied behind his back. In front of him, Jackal hollered as he raised a Samurai sword with both hands. “Who is the ringleader? Tell me, you little piece of shit. Last chance.” The tone was so menacing that shook his captive and the onlookers. “Baka! I will count to three. One.”

“No, please. Don’t!” Horrible gagging screams came from the prisoner’s mouth. The blood-curdling sound cut through the twilight like a knife. He was about sixteen or seventeen. Fear glazed his wild eyes as he pleaded for his life. His face was a bloody pulp, his naked upper body covered with horrifying whip marks and other abrasions.

“Two.”

Jackal moved behind the prisoner and steadied himself, his legs spread apart. The sword swished as he took a couple of practice swings.

“Oh, God help me. I’ve told you everything I know. Please!” The prisoner shrieked at the top of his lungs. Panic and blood twisted his youthful face into a mask of unadorned terror.

“Three!” Jackal barked. After pausing for a beat, he raised the sword in a long arc, brought the blade down, and cut off the boy’s head with a shout, “Yo!”

The screech stopped. The head plunked onto the ground, rolling a few times. The body lingered for a moment, suspended in an upright position, and then toppled over. Blood surged from the chopped body parts.

There was a collective intake of breath from the onlookers. Then, the courtyard became quiet. Eerily quiet.

Wincing at the viciousness, Birch screwed up his eyes. He felt sorry for the boy and sad for the loss of a young life.

“Fuck!” Captain Zhang growled as he punched the wall with his fist. Crumbs of dirt fell off the wall. His eagle eyes were dark and cold. “Now our plan is down the drain. Goddamned traitor.”

The loathing in captain’s voice caused Birch to open his eyes. He glanced at the head, the headless body, and the ground marshy with fresh blood. Then he turned to the captain. “For crying out loud, he was just a kid.” Not many men could stand the Japanese tortures without cracking, let alone a boy. He was about Daisy’s age. And like the young woman, he would never grow old. “He didn’t deserve to die, not in this way.”  

“But he was a man, first and foremost, a Chinese man. Or he was, until he lost his balls. Bloody coward.”

Birch understood why the captain hated traitors with such intensity. The Japanese had long ago put a price out on his head. For seven years, with the help of ordinary people, the guerilla leader had managed to escape capture. Only a year ago, a traitor, a man in his group, gave him up under torture. He was ambushed during his last mission. The Japanese had beaten him relentlessly, more than anyone else. Captain Zhang not only had held vital information but also, to the Japanese, had been a highly hated and feared man.

Although Birch respected the man’s bravery and his invaluable contribution, he couldn’t agree with his attitude toward the young prisoner. No one deserves to die such an undignified death. He shook his head. With leaden steps, he walked back from the window, unwilling to argue or see the poignant scene again. 

Sitting on the floor against the wall, Danny tilted his head and asked, “Someone was killed?”  

Birch nodded, still absorbed in his anguish and thought. 

“What the hell happened? Captain Zhang looked pissed.”

“Well, from the bits and pieces I’ve gathered, the Japs found out our plan from a…a teenager. Either the boy confessed, or somehow they got hold of the info. Not sure how it happened.”

“Now we’ll never find out.”

“Yeah, the poor kid is dead.”

“So, what are they going to do to us?” asked Danny again. His calmness lay in stark contrast to the horror and gloominess around them.

Birch didn’t say anything. With a sense of premonition, he sank to the floor next to Danny. The rancid smell in the room filled his nostrils as pungent as the situation they were in. From the way they’d treated the young prisoner, he couldn’t be optimistic about their future. We’ll find out, soon. 

                                                               ###

Along with a few of his men, Jackal stormed into the cell. His saber dripping blood was still in his right hand. The front of his uniform was stained with red spots. “I know your plan. I know one of you organized it, even though I am not sure which one. Too bad I do not have time to find it out.” A muscle twitched in his jaw as his flat face twisted in fury.

Then his mouth curved in a vicious sneer as if he stumbled upon something amusing. “No problem. I have a better way. To punish your bad behavior, half of you will be executed tomorrow.” Lifting a flattened hand to his throat, he made a slashing gesture. 

He counted. Fourteen men were there. “If fewer than seven step out of the room tomorrow morning when I open the door”—his slanted eyes circled the cell—“everyone will be killed. No question asked. So fight. Or bet. Do whatever you like. One out of every two in this room will be dead tomorrow. Compete for your chance.”

He burst into a malicious and nervous laugh, revealing yellowed teeth. “The war is about to finish. Too bad for you.” His laugh tore through the foul air. “Half of you will not see the end of it. Half of you will never enjoy the freedom you have fought for.”

His smirk vanished as fast as it appeared. “Such a pity. You could all live if you did not plan to escape.” With that, he stalked out. His men followed him. The door banged shut behind them.

“Go to hell,” Captain Zhang yelled, waving his right arm after the Japanese. He spat on the already filthy ground, trampling the dirt. “We’ll die together. Kill us all, you sick bastard!”

“No,” said Danny, propped against the wall on the floor, his left leg stretched forward, right one bent at the knee. “He meant business. He will kill us all if we don’t comply.”

“Let’s all be killed. Who’s afraid of death? From the moment we started fighting, death was expected. I’m sure as hell ready.” Captain Zhang’s eagle eyes panned the room. Murderous rage in those eyes chilled to the bone. “No coward here like the bloody traitor. I’ll kill him with my bare hands if anyone behaves like a chicken.”

 “That’s right,” Mr. Ding quoted a famous saying. “‘None can escape from death since ancient times.’” Beads of perspiration popped out on his face. But his sadness and helplessness dissipated, replaced by steadfast fortitude. “It’s an honor to die for our country.”

Zhou Ming butted in, “Remember the song?” He stood up straight and began to sing.

Everyone followed him.

 

Use our flesh and blood.

Lay down our life.

Protect the country from the enemies.

Safeguard the freedom of our people.

We are a team made of iron.

We have brave hearts.

 

“Are you ready?” rumbled Captain Zhang after they finished singing. He punched his fist high into the air, revealing sweat-stained cloth beneath his armpits.

“Hell, yeah!” everyone shouted, except Danny. A collective determination to laugh in the face of death seized the group. Exclamations erupted nonstop for minutes.

“Have you heard the Chinese saying—beheading leaves only a scar as large as a bowl?” The captain turned the full force of his gaze on the American. His left hand circled his neck, indicating the size. “I’ll be reborn as another warrior in twenty years.” His stern face offered a rare smirk; the long scar on his cheek pulsated and darkened. “God! Can’t wait to be born again as another fighter.” 

“No,” Danny spoke up again. Leaning against the mud-brick wall, he tilted his head back to face the group. His voice was calm and strong. “This life is more important. No one knows for sure about the next one. We shouldn’t waste any opportunity. Never give up a chance to live. The war is getting closer and closer to an end. One day of being alive is one day closer to surviving this damned war. To be free. To live a better life.”

He took a breath. “Germany has already surrendered. The Allies are winning. Even Jackal said so. You should see his face. The atomic bomb, whatever that is, scared the shit out of him. We’re not too far from freedom. Don’t give up hope. Don’t talk about death so easily. Let half of us have the chance to live.” 

Everyone stared at the American. His different view caught them by surprise. The room grew quiet, and for a few moments, not a sound was heard except thunder in the distance. The air was sultry and stale; it smelled of body odor. Even the nightfall offered little relief; they were all melting in the hot temperature. A storm was sure to come. 

Birch was the first one to break the silence. He was sitting next to his brother. “Danny is right.” His voice was as steady as his companion. “Next life is uncertain, but this life is somewhat in our hands. No need to be too emotional. We shouldn’t give up so easily.”

He turned to Captain Zhang who stood towering over him. “Remember once you told me no heroes here, only survivors. Well, this is not the time for being a hero or a martyr. We—”

“But surviving doesn’t mean we have the freaking right to live at the expense of others. We can’t send our comrades to death,” the guerilla leader retorted, a frown pulling at his lips. He waved his arm, dismissed the argument as if he were shooing a fly. “No way. No fucking way. We can’t sacrifice others to save our own asses.” 

“No, we are not sending our comrades to death. The Japs are to blame, not us. Don’t let them win so easily.” Birch looked long and hard at the captain before shifting his gaze to the other prisoners. “Half of us getting to live—that’s half the victory. No need to lose entirely if we can win half the battle. We shouldn’t let the sick bastards win without putting up a good fight. Like Danny said, we should treasure every opportunity to stay alive.”

“The goddamned Japs will laugh at us. They’ll think of us as cowards if we let half—”

Using two fingers on each hand as quotation marks, Danny interrupted the captain. “‘He who laughs last, laughs best.’”

“That’s right,” Birch said. “Half of us may be able to laugh at them one day after the war. How about that?”

Captain Zhang dropped his head and mulled over the idea for a long, strained moment. “So?” He lifted his head, swiveled around, and asked the group.

No one answered. But the slight nods from some of them showed the consensus.

“We don’t even know if Jackal will keep his word,” the captain grumbled, making his last attempt. “He might’ve just teased us. He may kill us all tomorrow, anyway.”

“We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?” Danny raised his broad shoulders in a devil-may-care kind of shrug. “What we’ve got to lose by preparing for it?”

“Danny is right,” Birch said. “Besides, I think Jackal will keep his plan. It’ll be more fun for him to taunt us than to kill us.”

More heads nodded in agreement.

“All right.” Captain Zhang marched straight over to Zhou Ming, the Nationalist Army officer. “Let’s fight for that chance.” He assumed a combative stance.

Before the Japanese invasion of China, the Communists and the Nationalists were opponents. They were temporary allies facing the same foreign enemy. Now the war against Japan was about to end. What would the two parties do? Who was going to rule the country? A civil war was a real concern in many people’s mind. Most likely the two sides would become adversaries again.

The other prisoners started to choose their opponents, using a more civilized means like tossing a coin to settle the score.

###

Danny turned to his wingman, but before he opened his mouth, Birch held up his hand to forestall him. “Don’t! Don’t argue with me, Danny.”

“Listen—”  

“No, you listen. I’m the Big Brother. Da Ge has the final say. You call me Da Ge. You have to follow my order.”

“No, Birch. Hear me out—” 

“Danny! No need to argue. No point to discuss. It’s nonnegotiable. For Pete’s sake, you’re an American. This is not your war. You’ve done enough. Too much, actually. The war is about to end. You can go home soon. Stop fighting with me. Let me do my duty. Allow me to serve my country, okay?”

“How long have we been brothers?”

“About three years.”

“Then don’t talk that kind of crap. You’re my brother. I’m yours. That’s it. And that’s all. It doesn’t matter whose war or duty. What matters is who can survive, who has a better chance to live, to get out of here.” Danny took a deep breath. “Let’s face it.” He pointed to his left leg. “You know I don’t have much luck to walk out of here.”

“I can’t. I can’t let you…” Birch couldn’t finish. No big brother will let his younger brother…or younger sister die! He’d be heartbroken if he let Danny die in his place. He wouldn’t be able to endure the pain or the guilt that he’d been suffering since Daisy’s death. “It’ll kill me. And even if I don’t kill myself, Daisy and Jasmine would kill me.”

“They’d strangle me if—”

“No, they wouldn’t. They saved you. How—”

“Look, it’d be too cruel to ask the two girls to choose between you and me. For all we know, they loved us both. They wouldn’t want either one of us to die. Period. But think about it for a second, Birch. They’d prefer to have at least one of us live. Again, who has a better chance? You!”

“No, I can’t. I’m not strong enough.”

“Oh, yes, you are. Daisy used to say we are the best. Remember? She had faith in you. So do I. You are a Tiger. Both of us are Tigers. Just now I have a broken limb. It’ll be a waste if you let me take it.”

Birch knew Danny was right. But he wouldn’t admit it. He kept shaking his head.

“Don’t forget the plan. You have to do it. Look for Jasmine. Search for Jack and all the others like we’ve talked about.”

“Forget it.” Search for the remains and the wreckage was a tough job. It would take a lot of efforts, strength, and persistence. How could I go through the vast wilderness on my own? The prospect made Birch quail. He plowed his fingers through his overgrown crew-cut in exasperation. “It’s our plan, not my plan. Can’t do it alone. Not a chance in hell.”

“Sure you can.” Danny paused. Then one corner of his mouth pulled up into an impish grin. “If not, I’ll haunt you in your dreams.” He lifted his arms; his elbow bumped into Mr. Ding sitting next to him. “Oops, sorry,” he said in Chinese before he turned back to Birch and wriggled his fingers like animal claws.

“It’s not funny, Danny! Stop joking.”

“Oh, you’ll miss my jokes, sure as hell.”

A whole lot more than your jokes! Birch couldn’t imagine life without his dear friend. They were sworn brothers. And their friendship was cemented by their love for the two girls and the life-and-death experiences they’d shared. The young women had given up their lives to save Danny. In a way, the American was the extension of the girls. As long as Danny was alive, Daisy and Jasmine were alive. Such Brotherhood filled the void in Birch’s soul.

How could he survive without this unique bond? Danny meant too much to him.

“Please! Don’t do this,” begged Birch, swallowing the dryness in his mouth. The mere thought of losing his much-loved friend threatened to overtake him. He felt a sharp pain in his chest, and it wasn’t because of the wounds.

“Think about Ma Li. You’re going to marry her once the war is over. You promised her to have half a dozen Little Tigers. Remember?” Danny waited for a beat. In a matter of seconds, his expression changed. A mischievous sparkle came into his lustrous brown eyes. “Or perhaps, you’ll take my advice,” he teased with a wry chuckle. “You’ll marry Xiao Mei instead. Who knows? After all, her dishes are to die for.”

“Knock it off, Danny. Be serious. What about your sister? What about your mom and dad? They haven’t seen you for three years. They’re waiting for you to go home. How can you let them down? Susan will hate me forever if—”

“If I had a better chance, you bet your ass I’d use it. But—” 

 “Let’s die together then. We vowed to die on the same day.” Birch pressed on, quoting the pledge. “‘Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we merely hope to die on the same day of the same month in the same year.’ Remember?” A frisson of excitement brightened his jet-black eyes. “This is a godsend opportunity. Let’s give the chance to someone else.” 

Sworn brotherhood was an ancient Chinese tradition. Highly influenced by Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a classic novel, many young men dreamed of having such ultimate fraternal loyalty. After Danny had been rescued by Jasmine and Daisy and safeguarded with their lives, the two men had become sworn brothers. Together they fought the unbearable pain that neither could handle alone.

“No. Remember the twist I added?” Danny put his hand on Birch’s shoulder. “If one of us survives, he’s going to live for both of us. He’ll kick some butt. Seriously. Remember?”

Birch nodded, then shook his head. A lump formed in the back of his throat. He aimed a withering look at Danny. A morose mask covered Birch’s handsome features. To hide the emotion, he leaned forward, planted his elbows on his knees, and shielded his face with his hands.

“It’ll be hard. I know. It will hurt. Really bad. Like hell, actually. So, I’m selfish.” Danny cracked a light-hearted smile. “See, I’m letting you do the hard work. After all, you’re the Big Brother, as you remind me every day. You have to deal with the tough part.” His gold-flecked brown eyes gleamed with wicked wit from the watchtower’s light that sneaked through the cracks of the bolted window.

“I can’t.” Birch dragged his hands down his face and lifted his head. But the gesture did nothing to rub the hurt from his features. “Goddammit, Danny!” he grunted, reeling with frustration and anguish. The lump in his throat grew and burned, threatening to undermine his composure.

They kept talking, without reaching an agreement.

“Okay,” Danny conceded at long last. “Let’s do it like others. We’ll toss a coin in the morning. That’ll be fair and square. Right?”

There was no better way. Birch nodded. In his mind, he’d already started plotting. I’ll block his way. No matter what happens, I’ll step out first. I’m faster than he is.  

Da Ge, Big Brother, was a title bestowing a father-like authority and the responsibility that came with it. A Big Brother was expected to take care of younger siblings. Birch had already failed his younger sister and cousin. I won’t make another horrible mistake, he vowed. He would use his life to protect his brother. That was the promise he’d made to himself.

“Okay. It’s settled then.” Danny seemed content. Holding onto the wall, he stood up slowly and limped to the waste bucket.  

###

“I live in the town of Dashan,” Mr. Ding said as he propped himself against the wall. Apparently he’d lost the bet. “If anybody survives this ordeal, please send a message to my family. It’s easy to find them. Ask anyone at the high school, they’ll tell you. I’m the only history teacher there. Let my wife know….” His croaky voice trailed off. Then he cleared the hoarseness from his throat. “I hid some money at the bottom of her favorite flower pot. It doesn’t belong to our family. It…”

He hesitated for a moment and then cracked an awkward smile. “Well, at this point, it doesn’t matter who finds out, does it? I’m a member of the Communist Party.” He pushed up his slipping eyeglasses, his youthful face stern and proud. “The fund belongs to our party. Tell my wife to give it back. And tell her…” He swallowed hard before continuing, “If we have a son, let him fight the Japs when he grows up. If it’s a girl, train her as a nurse so she can save our soldiers’ lives.”

Everyone listened in rapt silence. At that moment, it didn’t matter who was the Communist or the Nationalist.

Storm clouds loomed above, turning the sky an ominous black, robbing any light the moon might’ve offered. Now and then the searchlight sneaked through the gaps of the barred window. An air of melancholy settled on them all. 

Danny returned with two canteen cups. “Too bad we don’t have any rice wine.” He handed one cup to his wingman and raised his. “To the best Big Brother.”

Birch clinked his cup against Danny’s. “Happy…happy birthday to you, Hao xiong di!” he said, forcing a light tone in his voice. Hao xiong di meant, “A good brother.”

Danny’s thirty-first birthday was in three days. They probably wouldn’t celebrate it together. Birch wanted to express his best wishes while he still had the opportunity. He mustered a faint smile, but his soulful eyes betrayed his inner turmoil.

He had so much to say to his younger brother. But tears clogged his throat. I’m so lucky to meet you, Danny. He could only shout in his mind. I’m honored to be your brother. It’s been such a privilege to fly with you, to fight together. I pray to God that we’ll meet again in Heaven or in another world, like you said.

Tilting his head, Birch emptied the cup in one long gulp. “If…I’m just saying—” His voice tangled in his throat, and his Adam’s apple bobbed a couple of times to accommodate a painful swallow. It was hard to sound normal when a knife was twisting in his heart. He hated to say goodbye. “If I saw Jasmine, what would you like me to tell her…other than you love her?”

“Tell her to wait for me. I’ll see her soon.” Danny gave a firm nod.

Their eyes locked and held for a long time.

Even in the dim light, Birch detected an odd flicker glimmered in Danny’s eyes. A longing? An unspoken message? Profound love too keen to name? He stared at those gold-brown eyes, wishing to God he could deliver the heartfelt message to Jasmine.

Danny turned to the others in the room. “Hey, why don’t we all introduce ourselves in more detail? Like Mr. Ding said, if anyone survives, he ought to get in touch with the families. Let our loved ones know what we want to tell them.”

“That’s a fantastic idea.” Flattening against the wall, Zhou Ming stood up. Evidently, he’d lost his fight. “I’m from Chungking. My mother is the only one left in our family.” His voice trembled. The lanky officer looked frail in the eerie light. Within seconds, he yanked himself back in control and gave the hem of his uniform a tug. “She lives…”

Birch bowed out of the conversation, knowing he couldn’t deliver the messages. He sat there thinking about his father. What can I say to ease his pain?

He wanted to thank his dad for raising him as a strong man. He’d followed his father’s footsteps in his career as a military professional. His decision to become a fighter pilot had surprised everyone. Although he’d always been athletic and competitive, his demeanor was more that of a scholar. It was his admiration for his father that had drawn him to this path. Yet such notion would only cost his father more grief.

What will happen to Dad? Daisy is dead. Mom is gone. Jasmine’s whole family was killed. His father would be all alone with no family member. Birch wiped his forehead, his fingers came away wet and sweaty. He felt sad for his father. Try as he might, he couldn’t find the right words. In the end, a simple “I miss you, and I hope you’ll be proud of me” was all he decided to say.

Before his turn came, he felt drowsy. The voices in the room turned fuzzy, and sounded far away from him. What the hell is wrong with me? Was it because of the rumble of thunder drowning the conversation? He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms, trying to stay awake.

This was their last night. Every moment was precious. Birch wanted to stay up all night to talk to Danny. He had no intention of waste a second. I’ve never told Danny he’s the best brother, as he keeps telling me.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t up to him. His eyelids were heavy. His mind became cluttered. He slumped listlessly onto the floor. Soon he was fast asleep.

###

Birch awoke from a deep sleep. He struggled to open his heavy eyes. It took him a few blinks to bring the world into focus. When he spotted half a dozen people in the room, he asked abruptly, “Where’s Danny?”

He tried to stand up, but his head started spinning and he took a moment to let the dizziness pass. Flattening his hand on the wall to stabilize himself, he asked again. Anxiety gnawed at him. Are they interrogating Danny again? Torturing him? The thought knifed through him.

“Gone,” said one of the men. The darkness of the day shaded his face.

“Gone? Where?” Birch rushed to the window. His leg isn’t healed. Where the hell are they taking him? Peering through the slats, he searched for any sign of Danny outside. His nerves tingled in anticipation of seeing the American’s tall frame.

No one. Nothing except the dark sky, muddy ground, and thunder echoing off the distant mountains. He dashed to the rear window. All he could see were the heartbreaking forget-me-nots and the dense forests. Wind blew, tossing fallen leaves and twigs.

“What happened?” Birch mumbled. He had no clear idea, but his stomach was tied into a knot. Vaguely he recalled their discussion and his vow to protect Danny. From what? A shudder of alarm bolted through him, his uneasiness mounting with each passing second.

“Six stepped out, including the American,” Captain Zhang hissed through his teeth, shooting Birch a dirty look.

“Shit! No!”

“That’s right.” The captain didn’t say it out loud. But his accusing look spoke volumes, and he didn’t even bother to hide it. His eyes brimmed with reproach.

 “This morning?” It all came back in a rush. Birch remembered everything now. His fretfulness expanded to full-blown panic. Looking outside, he tried to see what time it was. But the bruised sky obliterated any sunlight, giving him no clue. In every fiber of his being, he felt chilled and shaken. “What time is it now?” he asked with frantic haste as though he could catch up with his brother if it was early enough.

“Late afternoon.”

“What?” Danny gone for more than half a day, and I didn’t even know it. Birch’s heart wrenched. He hadn’t kept his word. He hadn’t given his younger brother the opportunity of living. I didn’t even say goodbye.

“Danny!” he screamed through the window. But no one answered, no one cared about his desperate pleas.

The only reply was claps of thunder getting closer and closer. Silver streaks of lightning carved the gloomy sky. A sudden rain slashed down, pounding the rooftop. The windows and the door rattled with each strong gust.

Unshed tears burned his throat. Soon his voice cracked, drowned by the growls of the storm. Birch felt paralyzed by the misery as the world closed in, squeezing the life out of him.  

Dear God! What did I do? How the hell could I oversleep? His mind raced in wild circles. I’m always alert. I’m responsible and punctual to a fault. Never been late for anything. How could it be?

The tantalizing questions made him grip the planks even harder. Splinters of the rough wood stuck into his palms and fingers. He didn’t even notice; he was hurting all over already. When he turned around, pain, regret, and scalding tears contorted his face into a haunting expression of agony, making him almost unrecognizable.

He rushed back to where they slept, searching for anything Danny might’ve left behind. On top of the straw bed lay the white scarf. The blood-stained scarf was folded, apparently left on purpose. Birch’s heart squeezed, aching with a sharp pain as though the wounds on his chest were torn apart. His big eyes resembled two black pools of sorrow.

He grabbed the scarf as if he were hugging his dear friend. Once he lifted it up, he saw a small bottle. It was the pain reliever. Birch picked it up and felt the emptiness of the bottle. The answer came to him in a sudden moment of clarity—Danny had drugged him with the potent medicine. His brother had planned to make him oversleep and safeguard him from the start. He gave the opportunity of living to me!

Now Birch understood the longing in Danny’s eyes. He was saying goodbye, to me! That unspoken message and profound love were for him, not for Jasmine as he’d assumed. The realization hit him with the force of a thunderbolt.

“Damn you, Danny!” A sob escaped from deep within. He buried his face into the silk scarf to stifle his cries. Unfathomable despair seeped through his body, carving a hollowness in his soul.

How could you do this? You are the younger brother!

Image after image rolled through his head. Danny’s carefree smile. His gold-flecked brown eyes gleaming with wicked wit. His bravery in the face of pain or danger. His confident strides toward his P-40. His tall frame sitting proudly in the cockpit, giving Birch the thumbs up sign. Side by side, their two planes soaring in the vast sky. The excitement emanating from him whenever he talked about the great outdoors. The hungry way he devoured the delicious food Xiao Mei cooked for them…

A thousand memories dragged Birch into the past, overtaking him. To block the heartbreaking images, he screwed his eyes shut.

Even with his eyes closed, he could hear Danny calling him Da Ge, telling him that he was the best Big Brother. The words taunted him, hurting him even harder. What kind of Big Brother am I?

Life without Danny was too unbearable to imagine. The thought that he’d never see this much-loved brother again sliced into Birch like scalpels. The heartache was more painful than any of the beatings he’d taken at the hands of the enemy.

Grief and guilt joined force to create an emotional tornado that crashed his spirit to the ground. Birch felt himself being buried under a pile of rubble. He couldn’t believe he had to go through Purgatory like this again as he’d been through when Daisy perished right in front of his eyes.

                                                                        ###

“Dig. Dig!” Jackal shouted, spewing saliva. The rainstorm two days ago finally cooled the sweltering heat. But a sheen of perspiration clung to his forehead despite the comfortable temperature. He swung his Samurai sword and yelled again, “Dig, faster! This is for the final fight.”  

Surrounded by the armed Japanese soldiers, the group of seventy prisoners were forced to dig a trench not far from the compound. The starved, emaciated men worked as fast as their worn bodies were able.

When the trench was large enough, without warning, Jackal thrust his sword into a young man’s back. Before anyone could react, the soldiers opened fire on the prisoners. A hail of gunshot erupted all at once.

Birch sucked in a harsh breath while multiple bullets hammered into him. The pain was more excruciating than he could describe. He fell hard, and all the air rushed out of his lungs as he hit.

Screams, mingled with animal-like whimpers, ripped at the morning’s chilly air. He realized that some horrible sounds came from his own throat. His head was bleeding. His right leg didn’t seem to belong to himself. His body hurt in more places than he could count. Blood covered him and soaked through the white scarf around his neck.

After all that we’ve been through, the sick bastards won’t allow us to live. He lay breathless in the trench. Someone collapsed on top of him. Captain Zhang? The guerilla leader had been standing next to him when the shooting began.  

Birch was furious with the Japanese for letting them go through such agony for nothing. It was so cruel to force the two brothers to choose between life and death. The bastards could’ve just killed us all together. In that way, he and Danny would have died on the same day as they swore.

He became calmer, however, as his body turned numb and the pain subsided. No point in being angry. The Japs are animals. He shouldn’t waste his last breath staying mad.

Screams, cries, and more gunshots surrounded him. Dirt scattered on the part of his body that wasn’t covered by Captain Zhang. He heard Jackal shouting and exhorting his men to finish off the wounded. His sword slashed up and down, its bloodstained blade thrusting into the dying bodies. Captain Zhang jerked on top of Birch when more bullets hit.

Through half-opened eyes he watched his fellow inmates sprawled in the dirt, dying around him. The sickening odor of blood and gunpowder assaulted his nostrils. Expecting to be shot again, he braced himself for death.

But in chaos, he felt an unusual peace. Soon he would follow Danny. Before long, he would discover if there was a Heaven. He wished he could see Daisy there. He hoped to see Jasmine. His mom would be delighted to greet him.

Birch missed his loved ones too much. Death was a longed-for outcome. The pain and guilt he’d suffered in the past was killing him anyway. He’d felt like the walking dead the last two days. Not a second had gone by that he wasn’t plagued by turbulent emotions. Instead of dying slowly, now his life would end in an instant. And dying on Danny’s birthday is as good as it gets.

A great weight was lifted off his shoulders and chest. No more pain of missing his loved ones. No more guilt for killing his own sister. No more regret about his brother’s death. Soon he would be free.

Lying on the blood-saturated ground, Birch closed his eyes, letting his body go and his mind to drift. Beneath the captain’s dead weight, he sensed himself floating up and up into the sky, into the warmth of sunlight, as if he were flying. It was a bright sunny day, an undeserved blue sky mocking the horror unfolding below.

The best time of my life was spent flying with Danny by my side. They’d soared countless times on beautiful days like today.

Danny?

Then Birch remembered his promise—he would find his best friend. The odds for this courageous American to survive were next to zero. But what if? No one had seen his body yet. Even if Danny were dead, Birch vowed to find his remains and bring him back home to America. The idea of finding Danny, alive or dead, had kept him going the past two days. And he had to search for Jasmine, Jack, and the other dead airmen as the two of them had planned.

Daisy said I never promised anything I wouldn’t do. Look at me? I let Daisy down. Let Danny take my place. This is my last chance. Fight! Survive. Fulfill the promises. Don’t let Danny down again. He’d want me to survive. To find Jasmine. To bring him and Jack back home. Do it! For Danny. For his parents. For Susan.

And for Ma Li.

Birch missed his girlfriend so much. He’d planned to marry her as soon as the war was over. He thought about the ring in his pocket. It belonged to his mother; his father had given it to him after her death. Birch had it sewn into the breast pocket of his uniform. In this way, it would be safe and always with him. He was ready to marry the only girl he’d ever loved.

He had to survive until the day he could take Ma Li’s hands in his, to hold her in his arms. Her striking figure in a carmine red dress appeared in his mind. He remembered he’d burned with desire when she leaned against his chest. We haven’t even made love yet. I promised her to have half a dozen Little Tigers. He couldn’t let her down. He was her Perfect Tiger, and she was his Sweet Ma Li.

By now the screams and the cries had subsided. The area was eerily quiet. Only occasionally did a breeze rattle the birch leaves and sigh in the high branches of the pines on the perimeter.

Then, a swarm of flies came, making a repulsive buzzing sound.

Get out! Gathering the last strength he could muster, willing his courage to sustain him, Birch stretched out his arms. He tried to free himself from Captain Zhang’s lifeless form, hoping to crawl out of the grave. His right hand moved only a few inches before the movement stirred up his numbed body. A sharp pain radiated from the wound below his right collarbone and sent shivers through his body. He moaned in agony. 

The pain returned with a vengeance. No matter how much he tried to stay alive, he couldn’t bear it anymore. After all, a man of flesh and blood could endure only a certain degree of pain. He’d already way passed the threshold.

As darkness whirled at the edge of his mind, he heard footsteps. He fought for consciousness. Are they Japs? Are they going to bury us? No! Birch didn’t get the chance to find out.

He fainted.

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