This is my first challenge response for SKoW and I'm both excited and nervous about it. I have the story planned out in my head and am just going through, chapter by chapter. If you see any spelling and/or grammatical errors, please let me know so I don't keep making the same mistakes! And as always, reviews are greatly appreciated.
Challenge #11 - Goodnight Saigon
Plot: Vietnam War. A bitter soldier is leaving for his third Tour of Duty, not planning on returning. A relatively innocent girl sits down and talks to him a few days before he has to leave and convinces him to write to her. A series of letters pass between the two. Months later, she is notified that his status has changed to MIA (Missing in Action). And you can take it from there. :)
1) Angst. Tears. Lots of it.
2) Must be somewhat historically accurate. This will be towards the later stages of the war, so the time period is late 60s, early 70s.
3) Minimum word count: 10,000 words
4) An allusion to Billy Joel. Or if the timeline isn't working for you (his first hit single was in '73 so he might not be a popular name yet in your story), just anyone named Billy.
5) Use a line from the song "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel. Lyrics can be found here: /goodnightsaigon.asp
- political commentary. Although passing comments can be made, there shouldn't be any long paragraphs about how war is stupid, etc. Focus on the plot and character development.
Hint: Listen to the song "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel if you want a bit of inspiration.
Mary McGraw did not expect the summer of her eighteenth year to be spent working as a waitress at her father's diner, listening to Frank Sinatra and dealing with unbearable customers. No, she should have been with her friends in Washington D.C. where they were participating in the various anti-war protests, yet here she was in what seemed to be the smallest town in the world playing hostess to ungrateful patrons who grumbled about the President and the sudden increase in prices.
"Fifty cents for coffee?" cried a particularly irritated gentleman who was about sixty-five, "Are you trying to rob me blind?"
Mary sighed and brushed a strand of auburn hair away from her face as she shook her head, "No Mr. Crawford, just trying to make some money."
The old man emitted a low growl and thrust the menu towards Mary, "Coffee and toast then."
"Any jam or butter?" asked Mary, writing the man's order on a tablet.
"Is it going to cost me extra?" asked Mr. Crawford, his wrinkled face squinting in distaste.
She shook her head, annoyed, "No, sir, nothing extra."
"Strawberry jam," came his short reply as he narrowed her eyes towards her.
Turning on her heel, Mary stalked back to the kitchen where her father was busy filling orders. Once in the kitchen, she let out an exasperated sigh, catching her father's attention.
"Tough day?" he asked, chuckling.
Mary grabbed a coffee pot and filled a clean coffee mug, "Mr. Crawford."
"Ah," he conceded, knowing full well that Mr. Crawford was one of the worst patrons in the restaurant, "Keep your chin up."
"I'll try," responded Mary, pushing her way back through the swinging door, coffee and toast in hand. About halfway back to Mr. Crawford's table, she noticed that he had received a guest and they now were hunched over the table, talking in hushed tones and making ever-so discreet glances toward one of the booths.
Curiosity taking over, Mary glanced in the direction the two men were and nearly dropped the coffee mug and plate. Sitting in the corner booth in nothing more than a white t-shirt and jeans was James Waters. Luckily, she made it to the table without spilling the contents of Mr. Crawford's order all over herself.
Mr. Crawford whispered to his friend, "Poor lad. Spent all that time in Vietnam-"
"-and now he has to go back for his third tour," finished the other man, shaking his head slightly. Mary allowed her gaze to fall on the young man who had been a senior when she was a freshman in high school. She remembered all the girls fawning over him because of his rough exterior and the fact that he had a motorcycle made him all the more intriguing. Now, a white scar marred his tan face, extending across his forehead and around his eyebrow and down to the base of his jaw bone. Mary watched as his gaze stayed trained on the sugar packet he was mutilating, bloodied and scabbed knuckles worked furiously, twisting the packet every which way.
Sighing, Mary walked toward his table and retrieved the pencil from her hair and tapped tablet twice before asking, "What can I get for you?"
"Coffee," responded James hoarsely, gaze still on the sugar packet.
"Anything else?" prodded Mary, scribbling coffee on the tablet and looking up at him to find that his gaze had moved to outside the window. He shook his head and she nodded, knowing full well he hadn't seen her and went to fill his order.
Upon returning from the kitchen, the entire town seemed to have gathered in the tiny diner and they all seemed to be staring at one table in particular. Taking a quick detour, Mary poured the coffee into a Styrofoam cup and placed a doughnut in a brown bag and hurried over to the table.
Mary placed the cup and sack in front of him, "Here you go."
James looked up from his hands and into Mary's eyes. She had to keep herself from gasping. His green eyes held so much pain, sorrow, anger, and malice all rolled into one emotion, she wanted to cry.
"I didn't order food," was his slow response, he flicked his gaze at the paper sack she had set on the table.
Perfectly aware that the entire diner was observing their conversation Mary nodded, "It's on the house."
James nodded as a response, "Thanks." He slid out from the booth, tossed a few dollars on the table and headed for the door. With one hand on the door he turned towards Mary, "What's your name?"
"Mary," she responded, smiling.
"Like the virgin right?" countered James, cocking one eyebrow while taking a sip of his coffee. He forced out a hollow laugh and sauntered out the door leaving Mary with her jaw unhinged.
Once the door shut, the restaurant went back to their whispers and small talk resumed, leaving Mary to wonder why she even stayed home this summer.
"How was the diner?" asked Ellen McGraw later that evening as Mary, her mother and father sat around the dinner table.
Mary shrugged, picking at her food, "Fine."
"James Waters is back in town," said Richard, Mary's father, wiping his mouth with his napkin, "Poor boy looks like he's been through hell and back."
Ellen made a sympathetic noise, "He probably has dear. Two tours and has to go back at the end of this week."
"He's rude," muttered Mary, taking a bite of her chicken.
Richard laughed, "Well Mary, he has a right to be. Besides, he was just making a joke."
Mary glared at her father, "He compared me to Virgin Mary."
"That sounds like a compliment to me!" exclaimed Ellen, clasping her hands together, beaming at Mary. Mary, on the other hand, rolled her eyes. She never would understand her mother.
"Well it isn't mother. May I be excused?" asked Mary, a bit annoyed and not the least bit hungry anymore. Her parents nodded and she headed for the door, determined to walk her annoyance away.
She arrived at the local park ten minutes later to find it deserted. Mary was surprised because of the nice weather that they had been having often attracted many young couples. Nevertheless, she walked through the park, past the various oak trees with ribbons tied around them as a tribute to the soldiers to her favorite bench in the park…only to find it already occupied.
"You're sitting on my bench," snapped Mary, folding her arms over her chest.
James opened an eye, only to close it again, "Piss off."
Mary's mouth dropped for the second time that day and increased her voice by a few decibels, "No! It's a public park; I can be here if I choose."
"I comprehend that," said James, sitting up, not bothering to show his anger, "And there are twelve other benches in the park."
"But I like this one," countered Mary, digging her heel into the dirt.
He rolled his eyes, "Are you really that much of a spoiled princess? Not everything is about you."
"And you're just rude," said Mary just as James closed his eyes again.
James laughed a humorless laugh, "War can do that to a person. Now, leave me alone."
Mary's tough façade faded slightly as she looked at his lone figure. He looked lonely and a tad bit pathetic. A change from his high school days was definitely evident.
"Is it really bad?" asked Mary cautiously, "You know…in Vietnam?"
"No," mocked James bitterly, "It's a place full of butterflies and ponies. Judas Priest, what do you think?"
She bit her lip and sat in the dirt in front of the bench, "I'm sorry. All I hear is the occasional death…"
James opened his eyes and let out an angry sigh, "Listen, they cover up the real shit that happens so the town and young, innocent girls like yourself aren't scared out of their minds."
"Are you scared?" asked Mary, cocking her head, genuinely interested in the answer.
"What the hell? Why are you so interested all of the sudden?" barked James, sitting up on the bench and towering over her small figure.
Mary had to admit that she was a little scared at this point, but tried to keep calm all the same, "Because I'd rather not whisper and assume. I want to know. Plus, you look like you could use a friend."
James sighed and began, "Look…Mary is it?" she nodded, smiling, "I don't need a friend, because the truth is, I'm not coming back once I leave at the end of the week."
"What? Why?" asked Mary, her smiling falling into a frown that James couldn't help but acknowledge the fact that it was cute.
"Because," he replied, swallowing thickly, "I'll probably not make it out this time around…they're sending me to the center of the fighting."
Tears began to fill Mary's eyes and James shook his head, angry. Mostly at himself for opening up to someone when he promised himself before he returned home that he wouldn't get involved in anything. He rose to leave and muttered, "Bye."
Confused, Mary quickly scrambled to her feet from her sitting position to find that James had already walked a great distance, "Wait! James, wait a minute!" She ran to catch up with him as he continued walking.
"What?" he growled, once she had caught up with him.
Mary caught her breath and said, "Let me write to you."
Both surprise and disbelief flickered through his eyes before nonchalance took over yet again, "No. No way in hell."
"Why not?" she asked hurt evident in her voice.
"Because I'm not coming back!" he yelled, throwing his hands up in the air, "There is no point." There is no point, he echoed in his head. It was the constant echo that had been in his head since he had returned home. James had made an agreement with himself not to become too attached to anything or, more particularly, anyone. Not that he was attached now…for all he knew this girl was a serial killer, though, she seemed too innocent and naïve for that.
But what was he thinking? There was no way he was going to let some girl write to him. He had seen what the letters that had come in had done to the men back in Vietnam; reduced some of the men to tears. Felt they had to prove something to themselves after reading a letter from their beloved. It made James sick.
"…and you don't even have to write back," finished Mary when James came out of his reverie. She looked at him with hopeful eyes. His green eyes searched hers for any joke, but found nothing but innocence and concern.
Mary herself didn't know why she was so adamant about writing to this bitter man who had insulted her twice in one day. Maybe it was because she felt slightly sorry for him and that she knew from the stories told that he had been an only child ever since his sister died of pneumonia one winter. He had lost his mother shortly afterwards to a car accident. He had no womanly affection shown to him, except for the many escapades she had heard about him around town.
"So what do you say?" said Mary, still hopeful.
James blew out air, "You feel sorry for me don't you?"
Mary shrugged. Why not be honest? "Yes, a little bit."
He laughed lightly, yet humorlessly, "Honest, aren't you?"
"I'm just really terrible at lying," she said, allowing a small grin to grace her features.
"Well," said James, looking past her and into the distance. He closed his eyes briefly and the sound of gun shells exploding enveloped his mind for a brief moment and then was gone. He jumped slightly, startling the both of them. He swallowed and started to breath heavily.
"James?" asked a panicked Mary now, "Are you alright?"
James shook his head clear of any thoughts of Vietnam and replied gruffly, "I'm fine."
Mary couldn't help but prod, "So?"
"Fine," said James, completely letting go of his dignity, and pointing a stern finger at her, "I probably won't write back and I most likely will not return home. So this is not a lover's thing, understand?"
"Completely," she smiled, excitement overwhelming her so much she wrapped her arms around him briefly.
In response, he threw her arms off, "Stop that."
"Sorry," she said, sobering quite a bit. The space around them became incredibly awkward, "So, I'll have your address tomorrow?"
James nodded and began walking in the general direction of his home, "I leave Friday, you'll have it before then."
"Okay! Goodnight!" said Mary, smiling, and turning in the direction of her house, completely content with herself.
He looked back once he was sure that Mary had vacated the area and let out a breath he hadn't been holding. What had just happened? He promised himself he wouldn't do this. After Laura three years ago, he said he wouldn't get involved with anyone ever again. It wasn't fair to Mary anyways because he was going to die in Vietnam and he had come to terms with dying in a foreign country.