They came like ghosts from the future, but Gracie wasn't scared of them. She was something like a ghost herself, the way she spooked around the prison camp, running errands and messages for the women, avoiding the guards, hiding food and medicine from them, even sneaking into the hut where the Japanese kept their own supplies and stealing away with a tin of beans and a small bag of rice. She only did that once, though. When the Japanese found out somebody had stolen their food, they had been very angry and had done terrible things to the grown-ups. They had beaten the little girls and some of the boys with canes too, but what they did to the grown-ups was worse – so bad that for a long time Gracie was convinced it brought the ghosts.
She was the first to see them.
Some nights, when she could not sleep because she was too hungry or scared, she slipped out of the cot she shared with two other girls, and padded to the far end of the long hut. There was a loose floorboard near the second last bunk. She could easily lift the plank, using a knothole big enough for three of her fingers. It wasn’t even nailed down, and Gracie was so thin she could squeeze through the gap, dropping to the warm, damp soil underneath. There wasn’t enough room to get up on her hands and knees under the floorboards, but that was okay. It reminded her of the house where she’d grown up back home in Kansas, before Daddy had taken them all to Manila to help General MacArthur.
She’d crawled around under that house too, even sleeping under there in summer with her dog, Boo. It made her happy to recall those days. She liked it under the hut in the jungle prison because the Japanese didn’t know she was there. It was almost as though she had escaped them and she could go anywhere and do anything she wanted. But she could only pretend, of course. Gracie knew that if she did escape, the guards would do terrible things again to everyone she left behind. She knew because they said they would and they were bad men. If they said they’d do a bad thing, you could believe them.
The night the ghosts came she crawled right to the edge of the shadows, where the small verandah that surrounded the hut cut off the moving light from the guard tower. She would just watch the guards for a while, she thought. She would watch where they went. Perhaps she would count how long it took them to move from one place to another in the camp. That was a good game and it was useful sometimes to know those things, like when she had to carry a message or some food or medicine past the Japanese. It was always better to simply avoid them than to make up a lie explaining her presence in the wrong hut or some other place.
She lay in the soft soil, ignoring the insects that crawled over her while she watched. When she had first left Kansas, and come here to the far side of the world, the insects had frightened her, but she wasn’t frightened of them anymore. She hardly noticed them and, besides, she had so many other things to be scared about. She was always frightened of getting in trouble with the guards, of being beaten or caned. She was frightened of getting sick, because lots of times when people got sick here they didn’t get better. She was really, really frightened that she would get everyone in trouble again if the grown-ups asked her to get more food or medicine. She wasn’t sure what she would do if they asked. But so far they hadn’t. Not since last time.
These fears gnawed away like the hunger pains in her stomach. They were constant, but mostly dull. The fear that sometimes came upon her like a Kansas storm, boiling up quickly out of clear blue skies, was the fear she had for her parents. They weren’t in Camp 5 with her. Gracie had no idea where they might be and sometimes, if she let herself think about it, she could go all but crazy with worrying that she would never see them again. When she was very sad, which was often, Gracie thought it was best not to think about them at all, because when she did, her thoughts ran away from her, with a wolf on their heels. But if she didn’t think about them, sometimes she found it hard to remember all of the things that made them Mommy and Daddy and that was even worse.
It was best, she had found, to imagine her parents playing a game with her. Watch the guards. Count the steps. Guess where they will turn up next. Daddy would love that game, and Mommy would be so pleased that Gracie was good at it. Her mother always told her to be the best at everything she did.
“Charlotte-Grace,” she would say, “you must always do your best at everything. You do not need to be the best. Just your best.”
So Gracie liked to play the watching game on nights like this, and imagine her parents watching her. That was how she saw the ghost.
At first, of course, she did not actually see the ghost. She could only see what happened when he came. One of the guards was slowly marching up and down outside the wire, the moonlight glinting on the hooked bayonet of the rifle he carried at his shoulder. Gracie was counting his footsteps. Thirteen steps from the corner to the bushes with the bright red flowers. You couldn’t see the flowers in the dark, of course, but she knew they were there. Another ten steps to the big anthill. Fourteen steps beyond that to the little hand-painted sign with the pirate flag on it. The guard would turn at that point, because the skull and crossbones meant there were landmines. He would retrace his steps, while Gracie counted them.
Fourteen to the anthill.
Ten to the red flower bush.
But the guard did not return to the corner post. He seemed to disappear into the night, as though the jungle shadows had grown hungry watching him and they had ...
The shadows had snatched him away.
Fast. So very fast. And quiet too. Because shadows don’t make noise.
Gracie blinked and nearly rubbed her eyes, trying to make sense of what she had just seen, or not seen. Then she remembered how dirty her hands got under the hut and she cleaned them on her tattered shirt before blinking again and carefully rubbing just one eye with the palm of one hand. She had learned that trick here under the hut too. Do not blind yourself. If you have to rub your eyes, do it one at a time, carefully. And don’t rub dirt in there. The dirt here had lots of germs.
She expected to see the guard again when she next looked, but he was gone – disappeared as completely as her mother and father. Swallowed by the night.
And then she saw the ghost.
At first it was just a darker patch of night moving at the edge of the jungle. Then it took the shape of a man. The dark figure floated over from the edge of the jungle and kneeled in front of the tall barbed-wire fence, just before the flower bush.
The ghost was smart.
Gracie knew that part of the fence could only be seen from the small exercise yard in front of it. The view from the guard tower was blocked by a water tank on the roof of Hut 23. The guards in the main compound could not see the fence because two other huts blocked their view. That’s why there was always a guard marching up and down that line of fence, night and day.
But now the guard was gone and the shadow kneeled at the fence, doing something to the wire. The cry of night birds, the bark of the fire lizards and the many sounds of the jungle were so loud that she could not hear what happened next, but she did not need to. Gracie knew. The ghost was cutting through the wire.
Her heart swelled like a water balloon filled too quickly, growing so big and full so fast that she thought it might burst. For one mad moment she thought it must be her daddy, come for her, but she was not silly and she put that thought away. Her daddy was not coming, no matter how much she might want him to. More ghosts emerged from the darkness of the jungle and she could see now that they were men. They carried guns. Their heads looked strangely misshapen, as though tiny machines grew from them; binoculars or telescopes, she imagined.
Gracie would have been scared, but she had seen the ghost make the Japanese guard disappear. She knew that the guard would not be coming back, just like her parents, and she wormed herself into the moist, dark soil of the jungle prison camp, letting it enfold her in a hug, clenching her fists and smiling at the ghosts with guns and telescopes for eyes. Her smile grew positively vulpine when the night exploded into fire.
Gracie did not emerge from her hiding place until the morning sun was high and hot enough to raise wispy tendrils of mist from the pools of rainwater that lay about the camp. It rained almost every day, always in the afternoon. In the mornings, as the terrible heat built up, most of the puddles evaporated, but they never dried out completely and Gracie always looked as though she was wearing dark socks from the mud which clung to the bottom half of her legs. The sun came up as always that morning too, but not all the pools of monsoon water evaporated in the usual way. Some were stained deep red with blood and these dried into a sticky brown sludge that even she would not like to walk through.
The ghost soldiers, as she thought of them, even though she knew now that they were not ghosts, had killed or captured all of the Japanese very quickly. They were very brave. She had watched as one of them stood perfectly still while an angry Japanese officer charged at him with a sword. Everyone was terrified of the sword. The officer, a Lieutenant Onishi, had used it to chop the heads off some Australian soldiers when Gracie was first in the camp. But the ghost was not scared, possibly because Lieutenant Onishi’s pyjama pants were falling down, somewhat ruining the fearsomeness of his banzai charge. The ghost seemed to regard Onishi with real interest for a moment, and then his strange-looking gun fired and Lieutenant Onishi’s head came right off, just like the Australians’ had.
Gracie had to smile at that. It was funny how things worked out.
The fighting was over long before the sun peeked above the tree line. Gracie had to crawl around under the hut to watch it all. After the ghost soldiers came through the wire, not much happened in that part of the camp. To see the fighting she had to belly crawl all the way to the other end of the hut where she had a much better view of the main compound. She could see the guard tower from there, or most of it anyway. She dared not get too close to the edge of her hiding place. More than once she saw bullets chewing up the earth just in front of where she lay. But she also got to see the hated tower brought down in a roaring explosion, bigger and louder, and much better, than any fireworks she had ever seen. Not too long after that she heard heavy boots on the floorboards above her, and more guns firing, and the women screaming and guards yelling. But that didn’t last very long.
More soldiers came. They arrived in the strangest airplanes, which had no wings and the biggest propellers you could ever imagine right on top of them. They sometimes hovered in the air like hummingbirds but she knew they were warplanes because every now and then they would roar away and shoot machine guns and even rocket bombs into the jungle. Gracie could feel the explosions in her chest, through the ground. The terrible force of them was just like an earthquake, or even a volcano. She had seen a volcano once, when she first flew to Manila with her parents. It had been a long way away, but even seen through the window of their plane it was very scary.
Gracie did not reveal herself when the fighting was over. Not at first. What if the Japanese came back? She knew that the guards in the camp were not the whole of the Emperor’s army. And they weren’t his best soldiers either. Not at all. There were thousands of Japanese army men on this island alone. Maybe millions! The ghost soldiers could not fight them all. And so Gracie remained hidden for many hours until she was certain the Japanese were not coming back.
Once or twice she heard the women and some of the other children calling for her and she almost went, but you did not just drop the habits of survival like an old towel. She even heard some of the ghost soldiers, revealed now to be men and women – women! – calling for her but she stayed curled up in the dirt, content to watch and wait. As amazing as their rescue was, she made other intriguing discoveries as the hours went by. She watched, disbelieving, as a black woman barked orders at two white men and they jumped to her command.
That was partly why she stayed hidden.
It was all too much to take in. There was part of her which simply could not believe it was happening.
It was only when she smelled food, real food, for the first time in months that she was tempted out of hiding. The newcomers had set up a little kitchen and a team of cooks in oddly patterned uniforms heated giant pots of soup and baked fresh loaves of bread.
Well not really fresh, she thought, as saliva squirted into her mouth. They didn’t roll the dough like her mother would.
“Charlotte-Grace, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing properly.”
She had observed one of the cooks taking the white, doughy, uncooked loaves from a big cardboard box before putting them into an oven. These strange people brought an oven to the jungle? Would their wonders never cease?
She flinched from her name, scuttling right back under the hut, into the safety of the shadows. But they had seen her – Mrs Ritherdown specifically – and there was no escaping once you fell under her gaze. She was a nurse and nearly as fearsome and scary as the guards.
“Gracie, you come out here right now. You’ve had us worried sick, young lady. Come on. Out you come.”
And out she came. Out of the darkness and into the day where impossible machines hovered in the sky, and bread rolls baked, and soup bubbled in a pot and Mrs Ritherdown fussed over her and told her off and brushed her down and announced to everyone that she was found and she was safe.
Now that Gracie was revealed and pulled directly into the mad rush and swirl of events, the full scale of what had happened broke over her like a big wave at the beach. The camp was a scorched and half-demolished ruin. Their former guards had been put to work digging a giant hole into which the bodies of more guards would presumably be dropped. They were piled high in an obscene mound near the charred wreckage of the guard tower.
More of the Japanese, including the camp commandant, Colonel Tanaka, stood glumly on the other side of the pit, guarded by giant soldiers in uniforms Gracie had never seen before. She was confused. The soldiers had American flags on their uniforms, but wore German helmets. There was no missing the distinctive coal bucket shape of them. They were Americans though, no doubt of it. She could tell from the voices. Plus, as best she knew, there were no black or Asian soldiers in the German army. She wasn’t sure about the Asian ones, but she knew for sure there were black soldiers who drove trucks and things for America. Apparently they did secret stuff like this, too.
Gracie waited impatiently to eat, standing with the ladies from Hut 23, including Mrs Ritherdown. They didn’t say much, the grown-ups. Now that all the excitement was over, they seemed even quieter than usual, although there wasn’t much point in talking. It was hard to hear over the noise of the strange wingless planes that came and went from Camp 5 with a terrible thudding roar. Gracie tried to ignore the rumbling in her tummy as she watched a lady soldier come stomping out of one of the aircraft. Right out of its belly! The lady soldier was dressed just like the giants guarding Colonel Tanaka and his men, but she had a red cross on her uniform. She was a nurse then and she looked even fiercer than Mrs Ritherdown.
The angry lady stormed right up to their little gathering, ignoring the Japanese at first. She looked at Gracie, noticing her among all of the grown-ups.
“Come here, darlin’,” she said, and even though she looked so fierce and scary her voice was soft. “I’m Doctor François. What’s your name?”
The doctor – a lady doctor, there really was no end to the surprises with the ghost people – kneeled down and gave her a little hug. In a quiet voice, Gracie said that her proper name was Charlotte-Grace, which was what her mommy always called her, but Doctor François may not have heard.
Dr François introduced herself to the grown-up ladies then, and she gave them a little talk about how everything was better, and they would all be going home, and how the men who had done the terrible things to them would be punished. Sanctioned, she called it. They would be sanctioned.
Gracie held on to Dr François’s leg while she spoke, as she had once held onto her mother’s leg during the loudest summer storms back in Kansas. Dr François was wearing army pants. The pockets were full of mysterious objects and she wore a pistol at one hip and a very large knife at the other. It did not look like something a doctor would use. Charlotte-Grace held on, nonetheless, because it made her feel better.
She held on extra tight when Dr François ordered some of the Marines – she called them Marines, so that’s what they were even though they didn’t look like any Marines Charlotte-Grace had ever seen – to bring over the Japanese prisoners. There were lots of prisoners, but she meant Colonel Tanaka and his officers. Charlotte-Grace could see that Colonel Tanaka was very scared. There was no color in his face and he was shaking. It made her feel good to see him like that. She had seen a lot of people look very scared since she had arrived in the Philippines. Many of them had been scared of Colonel Tanaka.
Not all of his officers were scared, however. Two of them swaggered over as though they still ran the camp. She did not know their names, but she recognized one of them from the time they had cut off the Australian soldiers' heads. He had been cheering the loudest. Mrs Ritherdown leaned forward and spat at him, which was far and away the most surprising thing Charlotte-Grace had seen since the ghost soldiers first arrived.
“What’s your name, asshole?” Dr François asked.
She was talking to Colonel Tanaka, and the casual way in which she addressed him with a swear word caused Charlotte-Grace to look up suddenly. She could see muscles bunching in Dr François’s face. It seemed she was very angry. Her whole body felt like it was made out of steel cables.
Colonel Tanaka pretended not to understand, which was a mistake, because everybody knew he could speak English. Charlotte-Grace wanted to see what would happen next, but Dr François gently pushed her face into her leg and held one hand over her ear. She took out her pistol and fired it. The noise was such a surprise that Gracie jumped. One of the ladies screamed and some even started to cry.
Charlotte-Grace recovered from her shock and uncurled herself from Dr François’s leg. She walked over to look at the body of one of the officers. Nobody stopped her. She kicked the twitching man, to make sure he wasn’t getting back up again. Nobody stopped her doing that either.
She heard Dr François saying, in a very calm voice, “I asked you what your name is, you rapist motherfucker.”
She was very rude. Not at all like Mommy. But Charlotte-Grace decided that was okay. This last year she had seen much worse things than people using swear words.
Colonel Tanaka didn’t think it was okay though. He started to babble in Japanese which must have annoyed Dr François because she shot another two of his men. A third man tried to run away, and she shot him too. In the back.
Charlotte-Grace looked at Dr François the way she had once looked at the stained-glass windows in the church at home. She did not understand her feelings, and could not sort them out from each other. Nonetheless, she knew watching Dr François kill one man after another, as calmly as Charlotte-Grace had learned to flick insects off herself, that she was seeing something very powerful. Something hinted at in those stained-glass windows.
When Dr François walked over and held out her hand, Charlotte-Grace took it. The camp commandant had fallen to his knees and he was begging the Marines to do something. Charlotte-Grace did not imagine for a second that the ghost people would lift a pinkie to help him. One of the Marines even said, “You’ll want to keep clear, ladies. Give the doc some room.”
As they moved away from Tanaka, Charlotte-Grace saw her chance. She squirmed free of Dr François’s grip and ran forward to slap the trembling Japanese officer in the face. Some of the women shouted encouragement. She slapped him again, this time for her mommy, and he did nothing about it. It was as though the world had been turned on its head. She could have stood there slapping him all day, one slap for every person he had hurt, and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Honey, stand aside.”
It was Dr François, speaking softly. Charlotte-Grace came back to herself and did as she was told. She was a good girl like that.
“You know what, I don’t really give a fuck what your goddamn name is,” Dr François said then. Charlotte-Grace had never heard a lady swear so much before. It didn’t matter.
Nor did she care when Dr François shot Colonel Tanaka three times, spinning him into the ground where he lay for a little while before she shot him a fourth time, in the head.
Dr François put her gun back in its holster and picked up Charlotte-Grace as though she weighed almost nothing. They walked past a couple of the Marines on the way towards the strange aircraft in which the even stranger doctor had arrived.
“Come on, precious,” she said. “Let’s get you a hot bath and some chocolate.”
Charlotte-Grace nodded, completely satisfied with the way the morning had turned out. “I like chocolate,” she said.
When Dr François replied, her voice was thick and she was crying as she hugged Charlotte-Grace tightly to her chest.
“Of course you do, darlin’. Everyone loves chocolate.”