by Ryan Tan
Wayne noticed it first.
We were at the cookhouse after a routinely exhausting day. Dinner was spaghetti and meatballs. Wayne and I sat opposite Tim and Brody.
“What happened to your scar?” Wayne pointed.
A pink line zigzagged from Brody’s temple to his mouth. “My father’s an alcoholic,” he’d told us the first day. We’d left it there. In the army, you took others’ words at face value.
Today, Brody’s scar was gone.
Everyone thought it was a trick of the light. But when we went to our bunks, Brody’s face remained scarless. He looked like an imitation of himself.
Two days later, Mark returned from the medical centre.
No one knew the extent of his injury, but rumours spread that he’d broken his leg. Yet he joined our platoon without a limp.
“Sure you’re okay?” asked the sergeant.
Mark nodded. “X-rays showed nothing.”
Wayne and I belonged to the group of six who could run two miles in fifteen minutes. During twilight training, the fastest runner, Brian, took seventeen minutes and forty seconds. The rest of us fared worse. But Paul, who came last, improved by one minute.
The sergeant drew the obvious conclusion. Remedial training worked. Meanwhile, the six of us had become complacent.
By the time we were dismissed, the moon had risen. I wobbled to the bathroom. Dragged the toothbrush to my lips.
And saw that the mole on my chin was gone.
Wayne visited my bunk the next evening. “Share your thoughts.”
I sighed. “Can’t say.”
“You must have an idea.”
Poker cards slammed the common table. Mamma Mia convulsed a portable speaker. “Let’s go outside,” I said.
We were on the third floor. Racks of uniforms suffused the corridor with the smell of Febreze.
“Couldn’t stop thinking about it today,” Wayne said. “I can’t be the only one.”
I gripped the railing. “Suppose we’re becoming the average of our individual qualities.”
He folded his arms.
“We wear the same uniform, eat the same meals, sing the same songs, and so on,” I said. “And we move as a group. There is homogeneity.”
“We’re more like one another.”
“We’re more like one another,” I agreed, “without being like any one person. But could there be too much homogeneity? What if we’re not just approaching the average soldier, but…”
“We’re becoming him?”
I nodded. “The average soldier doesn’t have a broken leg, or a scar like Brody’s, or a mole like mine. He can’t run as fast as you or Brian.”
“But why us, and why now?”
“Who knows?” I shrugged. “Maybe our platoon is unusually disciplined. Maybe there’s always been a chance that we’d be homogenised. Statistically, that chance gets bigger and bigger with every unchanged platoon.”
He shook his head. “That’s crazy.”
“There’s probably a better explanation,” I said. “But if I’m right, we have to act fast. The curse only affects our bodies for now. We don’t know what’s next.”
Wayne removed his glasses.
We couldn’t leave. Four years remained on our contract.
We couldn’t tell the sergeant. Even if he believed us, he might welcome a perfectly homogeneous platoon. One without a weakest link — without any links.
We agreed to journal. Each day, we recorded an episode of our pre-army life. I kept my journal under my pillow.
No developments emerged. Our platoon’s theory was that a pigment in the water coated Brody’s scar and my mole, concealing them like face cream. I didn’t voice my objections.
“Why’s everyone so blasé about it?” Wayne asked me. We were queueing for a breakfast of sausage and blanched tomatoes. “Twilight Zone is here, and no one gives a damn.”
“Maybe the curse hit their minds,” I said. “Maybe they’re more receptive to it because they love regimentation.”
“And you don’t? So why did you enlist?”
He nodded. “I joined for… yeah, money, and to serve the country…” He cleared his throat. “What would you do though? If we became the same person.”
“Go AWOL,” I said. “Get the hell out of here before our sergeant, or someone of higher rank, realises the value of our platoon.”
He filled his plate in silence.
The bathroom mirror showed a stranger. Marble-sized nostrils, spider web hair. I dropped my toothbrush in the sink.
Don’t panic, I told myself. Something I never said. Cigarette-chewing berets spewed such platitudes.
In the bunkroom, I shoved my pillow aside. It slammed the locker adjacent to my bed. Wayne’s journal, a rainbow-coloured notebook, lay on the top shelf. I took my journal and his.
Someone squeezed my shoulder. “Wait for me.”
“The one and only.”
“Your voice,” he said. “My god, your voice.”
I walked towards the door.
“You’re serious about leaving?”
“I’m going to call my parents,” I told him. “Give me ten minutes. Keep everyone away from the bathroom.”
“Okay.” He stared at the hair on his knuckles.
Jerry cans packed the storeroom. I overturned six and removed a seventh. Golden fluid soaked my forearms. The smell of gasoline filled the corridor.
I splashed the outer walls. Struck a match and dropped it. Fire reddened a row of palm trees. As I passed the sergeant’s Porsche, an explosion shook the flagpoles.
The heat intensified with every step I took. My imagination, surely. But the smothering warmth was as tangible as the wind and the ground. Near the dental clinic, I unbuttoned my uniform. Frigid air wrapped me with the smell of Lysol. The heat remained, as though I had a fever.
I took the journals from my pocket and opened them. They were blank.
Something bit my right knee. Prickling sensations swarmed my calf. What was happening?
Comprehension dawned. The journals were blank because the average soldier didn’t keep a journal. The rest of my platoon was trapped in the barracks, and my escape attempt had failed. I was part of them.
And I would burn with them.
Ryan Tan studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Straylight, Grimdark, Wyldblood, Bone Parade, and Bristol Noir.