For two years, life went on like this. Lewis would call me only on holidays in the beginning, but as I matured, he began calling me more and more—when he was lonely, when he needed someone to talk to. I grew up fast because of Lewis—not because he introduced me to the horrors of war; no, he was always careful to skirt past the reason he needed a friend. After that first phone call, I realized he'd never see me as anything past a little sister unless I made him forget. By the time I was well into my seventeenth year, the phone calls had grown so heavy with unsaid feelings, unknown sentiments, that I couldn't bear it any longer. I had to act.
I had my first sip of alcohol today. I know you're probably thinking—Jennifer? But she went on all sorts of trips with Guy when she was fourteen; she never had any beer? No champagne at a wedding?
No, I didn't. Hard as I know it is to believe, I really am an innocent. Ha. A virgin drinker, a virgin clubber, and, obviously, a plain virgin, too.
Why am I stressing this? I set out this letter to…well, to say something important. And here I am emphasizing the very thing that I want you to forget so badly. I should probably start over on a new piece of paper, now that I've ruined all of my chances, but…I want this to be real. So I won't. So you'll know.
Lewis—don't you feel our relationship...growing? I mean, I'm eighteen now, you know, and I...well, I'm not seeing anyone right now and—
Shit, I'm not saying this right, am I?
Look, I know that you met me when I was fourteen and everything and this might be a little weird for you, being twenty-four now, but I think I love you, Lewis, and I'd like it if I could see you when you get back. No obligations or anything, of course not. I promise, I'm not even expecting anything to happen, I just—
I needed to let you know. That's all. Now it's out in the open and I feel better. I'm not even going to change what I wrote up there, even if it makes you think I'm even more of a little girl than you already do. I mean, come on, Lewis. You've never really had a girlfriend before—you haven't even been in love, have you? Well, I thought I'd been once, with Guy, remember him? Yeah, he was an asshole. But you're not, you're great, you're great for me and I'm great for you. You know you love me at some level. Even if it's just as your best friend, you'll come see me, won't you? And—now, I don't want you to write me back anything about this, no, don't you dare. I want you to carry on as if I haven't sent this letter—I'll even write you another one that doesn't say anything about this, and you respond to that, all right?
I'm going to be there when you get back. And when you do, if you love me too, I want you to come off that boat and kiss me like you aren't ashamed of me. If not, hell, kiss me anyway, I sure won't mind—but on the cheek. Pretend that I'm your little sister like you have been—I tell you, you're lying to yourself, Lewis!—but if you still think that way, burn this letter.
Love you, Lewis. Have for four years now.
I don't think I ever told you why I keep going back to Vietnam.
It's not such an interesting story. If you listen to anyone and his brother, they'll tell you the same story, with a few changed names and places. But I think coming from my lips, you might understand the next guy who tugs on your sleeve for some sympathy and attention a bit better. So I'll tell you.
I messed up my knee playing lacrosse and lost my scholarship to school, but my knee didn't stay messed up. So, eighteen and not in college, I was a perfect candidate for the draft—it was almost as if I were waving my arms and bouncing on my newly healed knee and saying, "Choose me! Right here! S.O.S.! My life is too normal and carefree and promising! Uproot me and carry me far away, spin me around a few times, so I'll be so dizzy I'll never, ever make my way back to normalcy!"
And that might've been the end of it. I might've just fucked my life up and gone back home, to work as, I dunno, manager of a grocery store, maybe. The local goddamn Piggly Wiggly.
With that prospect in mind, I stayed in the military. You know, most guys only serve one tour. The rest are voluntary. Even the military guys only have to do one tour. So I go home, planning on not running, not worrying, and just relaxing. It was like a mantra. Relax relax relax. I had to say it over and over, like some broken record that just couldn't get the message because the dial was broken. Relax relax relax. When I'd sit up straight in bed, breathing heavily, terrified—relax relax relax. When I felt like throwing a chair out of the window just because it was so tame and lifeless, relax relax relax. Worry about worrying dictated my life, and I died of relaxation.
So, if only to tell my legs to move faster and have them obey, I went back.
You saw me before my third tour. A cocky bastard—same as I'd always been, I'll admit it. Still am, to be perfectly honest. But I've never been heartless; I've been hurtful and cruel, but never without personal consequence.
My best friend in Vietnam was carted off for mental problems back a few years, when we were still on tour. He was the one man I knew in Saigon whose hands were clear of blood, and he was the one who cracked. He didn't have any blurred faces swimming in his conscience. It was only when he was gone that I realized how much I loved him. Riley was dead, Baker was dead, Edgars died, and then Billy went crazy? I felt desperately lonely. And you got me through. Billy might have been fine after a year; he was with me during the next tour, in fact. But I'm the one who was never the same.
I write you letters in my head, sometimes. Things of this nature, in greater detail. Horrific things I could never relive on paper. Feelings that I'd never be able to tell you to your face, or even in writing. The war didn't do this to me, it—magnified it. Emphasized it. Underlined it in permanent, red ink so I'd never forget.
I know you told me not to address your letter, but I have to, Jennifer. I'm not saying anything either way—I know you wouldn't want me to. Just know that this is what you love. This is who I am. These pages. So put them next to your heart and see how they feel there—do you really think they'll fit inside?
I'm not entirely sure how to respond.
I want to tell you that you should have said you were going through so much—but then again, maybe at that point I wouldn't have wanted to know.
I want to know now. I want to know all of you.
My dad made me quit my job today. You know, where I was secretary for that senator after school? He said I should be concentrating on my academics. What he doesn't understand is that for a career in politics, being able to read all of Stanley Orrick's papers is a really good move for me! I mean, think of all the internships I could have gotten into no problem! But he's convinced that I'll fail at politics and actually end up being my old childhood dream, a NASCAR flag girl. I say, no way. My breasts aren't big enough for that. Not that I'd tell him that to his face…
But Lewis didn't write back. I never got to enjoy the chuckle that I figured that last statement would force from his gut, nor savor the feeling of normalcy my life would return to, even after sending my letter of declaration.
Please don't stop writing to me just because of that letter. I mean, I told you we could just stay friends! I really don't want anything from you.
I take it back, all right? Write back to me.
I got the phone call two months later. The night before, I had packed my duffel bag only with the essentials for running away—a sophisticated, grown-woman wardrobe tailored to compliment my few curves, enough makeup to satisfy every hired Ronald McDonald impersonator in the state, and enough chocolate to transport me to Calcutta and back in a drooling, taste-bud-orgasm-induced coma.
I heard the phone ring from my bedroom where I was triple checking that I had everything I needed to meet Lewis. Yes, I was finally going to meet the love of my life! That love who had, granted, never dipped me, tilted his hat back, and kissed me passionately like I had asked in that dumb letter I wrote him. I had been disappointed, nearly to the point where I quit writing my "please forgive me's" altogether in the hopes that he'd beg for me back. But I couldn't bear thinking of him overseas without me. It wasn't vanity; I honestly knew that Lewis needed me to keep sane, and that knowledge was enough to keep my pen to the paper, no matter how much it hurt that he didn't love me in the way that I loved him.
So, even though he had yet to write me back, I was going to kiss him. I imagined how I would do it. I'd show up at his house, where he'd be sitting with his head down on his scratched-up, wooden dining room table, his eyes haunted. Then he'd see me, standing with more shapely hips and breasts, the long, dirty-blonde hair in front of one eye making me mysterious and alluring. He'd slowly lift up his head, and instead of looking haunted, he'd look…hungry. He'd pivot in his chair, ready to stand—but I'd already be in front of him, bent over slightly, my hands on his knees. I'd move my thumbs back and forth over his strong thigh muscles as I looked into his eyes, trying not to think of the memories that had made him run so hard and fast to develop such brawn.
I'd lean even further towards him, so close I'd be able to feel his slow, shallow breaths tease my face. He'd be looking at my lips, and slowly—so slowly my throat would burn and make me swallow with anticipation—lean forward. I would be unable to wait for him to work out his conflicting feelings—we would both want it, so I'd take it. My lips would be rough against his for a moment, but he wouldn't fight back, and I'd relent—Lewis' lips would be soft and playful, nipping at mine and then kissing me so deeply that I'd forget retaliation. Neither of us would think of his mom humming "Someone's in the Kitchen With Dina" in front of the stove. Neither of us would remember dead comrades, dead babies, or dead dreams. We'd just feel each others' lips, and as I'd fit my arms around his neck, we'd forget that we're separate people with lives like oil and water.
And everything will be all right.
I scurried down the stairs to answer the phone.
"Hello, this is the Vigneault residence, may I ask—"
"Jennifer?" the woman's voice cut me off.
"It's Denise. Lewis' mother."
"Oh, Denise! How are you? I just finished packing, I should be arriving—"
"No?" I asked, a little scared now. I only just noticed the edge to Denise's voice.
"Lewis is—they just called."
"No!" I gasped, my eyes wide, horrified.
"It's not definite," said Denise, beginning to cry. "He's missing in action, Jennifer. They just called. They have the gruffest voices…"
I hung up the phone on Denise's sobs and ran out the door—I had to turn around to get my duffel bag once I was nearly to the highway, headed for Missouri.
I felt my mind wake up, but my body stayed in a coma.
I could feel the wood I was lying on was splintery, and that there was a thin layer of straw—but I couldn't wiggle or shift my midriff to get that straw piece to stop pokin' me.
How long has it been? I asked myself. At least eight days. Last I remember, I'd been gone eight days. Six days with Billy and them and two days…sitting there. I didn't know where Billy was, just that he'd left me, stranded. Hot sun. Boiling, rancid water. No shade.
It was cold here.
Jennifer would be worried—she'd probably think I was angry about her letter. I made a moaning sound, deep in my throat, the best I could manage. Her letter…
Dear Jennifer, I thought.
It's very cold in here and I can't figure out why. It's South Vietnam, for Christ's sake, and yet here I sit, shivering, chattering, trembling, convulsing…. Am I in Vietnam, still? Maybe I'm somewhere else, somewhere…cold. I wish snowflakes were falling on my face. Then the cold would be tolerable, I think. I never did get any snow in Byrnes' Mill. My skin would melt the flecks of ice and I'd savor the feeling of water dripping down the side of my face…I wish I could write to you, but I can't bring myself to move. It's like my muscles have severed connection to my brain—maybe I'm just a brain, I can't tell, I can't open my eyes…
I heard sounds near me. Rustling…clattering…clanging…words? Yes, someone was speaking, but nothing I could understand. I blearily tried to lift my eyelids, but when I managed, the world was a single, opaque blur, like cirrostratus clouds had been smeared across my vision. A line of cold sweat trickled into my open eye, and I closed them again, giving way to darkness once more.
I'd been patrolling a river with my comrades in the safe, quiet part of Vietnam, near Saigon; the part they sent veterans who really shouldn't be there anymore. Desk job guys who got antsy. Billy asked me to join him for a "last hurrah," a last head-long dive into danger before we were all "crazy, old farts." He'd cracked and recovered, only to return to that same fissure. I was beginning to suspect I was cracking, too—though the military didn't necessarily know that yet.
It all happened so quickly. There were shots from the wall of jungle that we couldn't have penetrated even if we'd wanted to, and Ulrich was down. Bates, hit in the gut, fell in the river with a splash like he'd done a cannonball. I ran like a stupid man pursued by an angry grizzly, zigzag, haphazard, unthinking, and nearly careened off a sharp dip into a rice paddy. Instead, I stood with my toes over the edge, my arms windmilling, until I felt pain like a pinch on steroids in my lower left back—and fell forward into the swamp. I grew lighter as I lay in the water, facedown, as if something were flowing out of me. Blood, I knew, from the bullet wound, but also something else—something much, much heavier.
Before I could conjure up a smile that would stick there, telling all the world that I'd thought of Jennifer before I died, I felt rough hands turn me over.
"Billy," I moaned, still smiling slightly—like a madman. Like I'd cracked.
"Lost him!" yelled Billy, dropping my torso back into the paddy and sloshing away through the water, not looking back. "Keep moving! The rest of them will make it if they make it!"
First day as a coward, I thought, still smiling, before I let darkness claim me.
I woke up when I opened my eyes, and I could see. I saw a dark, caked roof, and felt water drip on my face. I tilted my face to the left and marveled at the feeling of my muscles tensing and relaxing. Then I saw her—a bronze, slightly wrinkled face with almond-shaped eyes, staring startled. She said something that sounded like, "Nahn thook!" and ran out of the small room. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I was able to make out curved, circular walls, a hand-made table with a hewn wood bowl sitting on it, and a dirt floor. That was all. The bed I was lying on—if you could call it a bed—was nothing more than a slab of wood with some straw scattered on top, as I'd suspected.
My body swung through extremes. One moment I was freezing cold, trying to create friction rubbing my body against the wooden slab I lay on when I barely had the energy to keep breathing. The next I was feebly reaching up to move the fabric away from the window it was covering to try and get a breeze. Cold sweat pooled in the crevice between my lower back and the wood.
Consciousness ebbed away in shorter and shorter intervals; the Vietnamese woman no longer came rushing in to check on me when I awakened with a shuddering gasp. In those rare moments I was coherent, I reflected on my reversion to caveman thoughts: cold, hot, thirsty. Never hungry. So primitive—and yet it was only when I was awake and aware that I was man, that I was capable of speech and invention, that I felt actual pain; every other time, it was only a million-year-old ache.
I watched a mosquito land on the light smattering of hair that covered my arm and welcomed the bite. It fascinated me. Too weak to move, I merely watched the bug drink its fill of my humors and swell with it, with my blood. "That's goin' to itch and I can't scratch it, little bug," I told the mosquito, giving a goofy smile as it flew drunkenly away. I jerked out of my trance at the sound of the thatched door opening. Unable to move my neck, I rolled my eyes to the side and peered through the goop lacing my eyelashes.
"Của thức lại!" He's awake again!
"Tặng nó nước." Give him water.
The speech made no sense to me, even in my lucid state. I felt more than heard the rise and fall of the subtle nuances and harsh, jabbing syllables that betrayed it as Vietnamese; that's right. I was in Vietnam. Left for dead. I groaned and turned to my side, only to have a splash of water fall on my head. I felt a throb of pain in my lower back and raised my abdomen slightly, moaning. I remembered the bullet wound.
"Tôi rất lấy làm tiếc!" I am sorry!
Slowly, I creaked back so I stared at the ceiling, now replaced by a shocked face and a glass of water spilling onto my face. I cracked open my mouth and let the murky well water stream in. "Thank you," I croaked. The woman just looked frightened at the noise. "Why am I here?"
The woman shook her head and walked back out the rounded thatch door—as it swung shut, I saw an Asian man standing there, ready to receive and comfort her. Did these people save me from the paddy? Are they poor farmers? South or North Vietnamese? Suddenly, all these questions feel imperative—they are imperative! I'm a soldier in the United States Army! It's my duty to discover whether these people are the enemy or the—
I was thrown back down on my cot, hard, after attempting to stand, and shrieked. Calloused, clammy hands held me down, eight, nine, ten pairs of them. I couldn't see. It was as if someone had taped mosquito netting over my eyeballs. My legs were lifted off of the dirt floor and laid back on the cot—all my progress! Ruined! I squirmed to the best of my ability, but they had me wrapped like a cocoon—what the fuck do they think they're doing? I'm so hot!
"GET OFF!" I screamed, the sound tearing through my vocal chords like a blunt machete. "GET OFF ME! OFF!" It was a guttural sound, primitive—and it was only then I realized what had happened. I had regressed again. I was a caveman, thrashing around like a caged animal. My eyes had even rolled back in my head. I felt the back of a cool hand stroking my forehead as I calmed, still panting hoarsely like a wild dog. Only two pairs of hands. The farmer's and his wife's.
I lost all sense of time, of self, of being alive at all. The temperatures reached such extremes that all I could do was stay still and sweat it out, moaning, or feel my muscles convulse as they tried to keep warm. I saw flashes of color; no images registered. I remember feeling cold hands on my hot skin lifting me off the cot and screaming, lashing out—I felt a prick, bit my tongue hard, and knew no more.
I hadn't realized that relief could be such an intense emotion. Denise clutched the phone so tightly her fingers were blotched white and red and shaking. We both cried, falling on one another, not letting go of our respective lifelines—for her, the phone, for me the mug of hot cider I had in a vice grip. Lewis wasn't dead. Lewis was in the hospital. People didn't die in the hospital nowadays. He was fine.
Denise kept trying to form a coherent sentence, but she'd start, "I…" and then her voice would drag off into another happy sob. I couldn't stop grinning. It was painful, but I couldn't stop.
"Let's go see him!" I squealed, holding her hands in both of mine. "Come on. We'll go now!" I tried to pull her towards the red, peeling-paint door, but Denise held me back.
"Don't you think it's about time you went home?" Her voice was kind but there was a glint in her eyes I couldn't place.
What? She was telling me this now? My smile faltered but I tried my best to keep it in place. "But Lewis…"
"Lewis is fine. He's fine. He's in the hospital. I appreciate you coming down, sweetie, but it's time you got back." The cruel smile of a broken woman made her face crooked—one side of her mouth twitched as she pressed her lips hard together.
I stared at her, hard. "I've got to see him. The whole reason I was going to come down here to begin with was because of him, you know that. Which hospital is it?"
"I'm going to see him first. He's my son!"
I tried for a gentler tone; she was not going to be reasoned with, so I had to talk to her like a baby kitten—it didn't matter what you say, you just had to say it like you loved them. "You can see him first, I don't care—just let me come with you. Then I'll go home. I promise."
"I just want my baby to love me still." What a sad woman, I thought. She lost her son at eighteen and never got him back.
"I can't do it," Denise said, staring up at the jail-like, brick walls of the hospital. "I don't want to see him like this."
"You have to."
"No, I can't. I really can't." She shook her head so hard her hair fell out of its loose, hastily-fixed bun—she put a hand to her head, shocked, and started sobbing. "I'll see him when he gets out healthy again."
I didn't have any sympathy to spare. "I'm going in there. You can just sit here, or you can follow. I don't care anymore."
The hospital was teeming with life—but no kind I'd like to live. Frightened-looking nurses rushed past me, knocking me aside with sharp elbows. Men without arms, legs, limbs in general peeked out at me from doors on either side of the hallway, and I couldn't help it, I averted my eyes, trained them on the nurse's desk a few feet in front of me. A middle-aged doctor with bags under his eyes was resting his elbow against the counter and his head in his hand. I tapped him on the shoulder.
"Hm?" he grunted, looking at me blearily.
"I'm looking for Sergeant Lewis Bridges?"
"Ah, yeah. Got him in from the Cambodian border yesterday. Are you his little sister?"
I held my head high and looked the doctor straight in the eye. "No, I'm his girlfriend."
He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. "Lewis Bridges was kept captive for a week in a Cambodian farmer's hut; we found him running an impossibly high fever and lying in his own—" The doctor broke off and sighed. I had a feeling he hadn't meant to say any of that, but was too worn to apologize. "Miss, I'm not sure if he'll recognize you or not. He's not really…there."
"That doesn't mean I don't want to see him. Just, tell me. How bad is it?"
"I normally wouldn't allow you to see him, because you're not family. But under the circumstances..."
"It doesn't really matter anymore. I understand."
There was a bed, a curtain, a sink, a soap dispenser, a spindly, metal chair, and a trashcan with a biohazard sign on it, full of used needles. Lewis was on his side, turned away from me. He'd kicked the sheets to the bottom of the bed, so I could probably see his bare ass hanging out of his open-backed hospital dress if I'd looked—but I averted my eyes, kept them on the back of his shaggy, brown-haired head. Thankfully, he rolled fitfully onto his back, his eyes scrunched like he was in pain, or having a nightmare.
The second I sat down in the chair, his yellow-tinged eyes flashed open.
"Whoostere?" he moaned, a trickle of sweat sliding down his temple. I laid my finger below the droplet and caught it before it could disappear into his hairline. He flinched at my touch.
"It's Jennifer, Lewis. I came to see you." My baby kitten voice was back, but this time it was quavering, wavering between angry and impossibly sad.
"No!" Lewis bit his tongue mid-word but didn't seem to notice or care. His greasy hair stuck up every which way, not carefully-placed like it was the last time I'd seen him. The only time you saw him, I corrected myself. His lips were dry and cracked; I knew it'd help if he'd stop compulsively licking them, but I doubted I could convince him to stop. I doubted he could stop.
"Are you thirsty? Are you hot, sweetheart?"
He just moaned and turned away from me again. This time I did catch sight of his ass; it was blotched black-and-blue, but not like from a beating. Like it was coming from the inside.
I covered my mouth before I could gasp, felt my eyes bugging out of my head. I had no idea. I had no idea he would be this bad. He was in a hospital, for Christ's sake, he should've been okay! He didn't even know who I was. Well…well, I guess he just doesn't recognize me. It's been five years, almost. I guess he just didn't imagine my face when he went to sleep at night, like I did. I turned away, tears making the room swim and my hand still clamped over my quivering lips.
"Jennifer!" Lewis cried out. I gasped again and ran around to the other side of the bed, kneeling down too quickly and bruising my kneecaps. I could've cared less.
"Lewis?" I cooed, stroking his sweaty, red face. I still thought he was handsome.
He turned towards me, so close to my face that I could feel his hot breath on my cheek and see the too-many veins in his eyes. "We would all go down together. That's what we said. We got around a poker table and Ivan had cigars and we said we'd all go down together, but that's not what happened. They picked us off one by one and then others cracked and others just couldn't do anything anymore. It's not fair."
I nodded my agreement. It wasn't fair. None of this was fair.
Lewis took a deep breath and ran a shaking hand through his hair. His lips moved a little bit, like he was talking to himself. His eyes met mine before he looked away quickly.
"Dear Jennifer," Lewis breathed. "You know, I've never felt the same way about any other girl. I know you've felt the same about other guys. They hurt you; I've never been hurt."
"That's just because I'm stupid," I told him, smoothing back his hair again. He didn't look at me.
"The weather here is weird. It changes from hot to cold so fast I could swear the seasons were going haywire, but there's no rain, no sun, no snow. I think these Gook farmers rescued me. Or maybe they're not Gooks or Charlie. Maybe they don't even know a war is going on and saw me dying in a rice paddy and decided to save me. Do ya know, Billy did it to me. He left me. I never left him once. I think I'd be too much of a coward to leave Billy in a rice paddy, Jennifer, because he's never shot anybody and I have. I wonder if leaving me behind amounts to killing babies in God's book, especially when ya killed a coward who saved ya before.
"The ceiling drips on me sometimes. I think that means it's raining, but ya know, I can never lift my head high enough to see. I wish you were here."
Lewis sighed and rolled onto his back. It occurred to me that Lewis didn't know I was kneeling next to him, holding his hand. Was I losing him? "Lewis?" I tried, smiling through my tears. My voice sounded like I was speaking through a mouthful of custard, my nose was so runny. "Lewis, honey." I shook his arm.
"Dear Jennifer," he whispered, his eyes closed. "You know, sometimes when I'm on watch the sun will set, and I'll think of you watching that same sunset hours and hours before, and how weird is that? And sometimes I'll think of you when I'm taking cold showers at five A.M., and how happy I am that you'll never have to be uncomfortable in your life. Girls like you should always be warm and safe. And sometimes I'll think of you when I start thinkin' of bad things, because your face, when I imagine it at night…it makes it so easy to remember good times I've had. I'll think of you whenever I talk on the phone to anybody, because my fingers automatically dial your number and I'm constantly havin' to hang up before the first ring. I just think of you all the time, Jenny. I just can't get ya out of my head, and I don't want you out. You'll be eighteen now, an adult, and I think I will meet you when I get off my ship. Your letter made me so happy, Jenny. I'll meet you and I'll dip you back, tilt up my hat, and kiss…"
Lewis' eyelids fluttered and he took a single sharp gasp of air before his fingernails dug into my palm—I yelped, but didn't try to pry his hand off. One of his legs kicked out once, twice, three time, forcing the sheets to ball around his foot. For a single moment it looked like he would make to get up—his back arched, and his elbows twisted the wrong way, the IV line pulled taut—but he fell limply back on the pillow. Instead of looking at his eyes, I looked at his mouth where a bubble of spittle was forming in the right corner. The bubble popped.
"DOCTOR!" I screamed, almost slipping on the smooth, white tile in my rush to the door. "I NEED A DOCTOR!"
No one was in the hall. No frantic nurses, tired doctors, or limbless men.
I looked back at Lewis, who'd curled into the fetal position on his bed. He was impossibly red, like he'd been boiled. I remembered, suddenly, the lobster races my dad and I would have on the kitchen floor before we'd boil and eat them. I remembered the way I'd name them before cracking their claws and sucking out their meat.
"Lewis? Sweetheart?" I couldn't bear to touch him. I picked up the spindly metal chair beside the bed and prodded his upper arm—he didn't move, and the chair had to be freezing to his feverish skin. I jabbed him with the chair again. Again. I was practically hitting him with it, over my head—but I was only hitting the mattress, making Lewis' limp body bounce up and down as the springs squeaked below him. I heard footsteps in the hall.
"I think they called for you in here, doctor." A woman's tired voice drifted through the doorframe. My soft-soled shoes did slip this time as I ran for the door; I tasted blood, biting my tongue as my chin hit the floor. Still, I crawled forward, army style, dragging the chair behind me. I fit it securely below the doorknob and turned around, feeling like someone had tied a plastic bag over my head and thrown me in a trunk. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't move. I didn't know where I was. Lewis, the only thing that had mattered to me since I was fourteen, loved me. He would have kissed me. And he's dead.
I picked up that red, metal trash can, the one with the black biohazard sign on it, and threw it against the wall. For a moment, the used syringes fell to the ground and broke—it was chaos, like rain. I started screaming even before they finally banged the door open (that spindly chair was stronger than anticipated) and pinned me down. That's something I learned. It doesn't matter how strong you are—there comes a point when your world is chaos, falling like hailstones on your face. Will it strike your hard, durable cheekbone or in the vulnerable flesh of your eyes if you dare crack them open for a peek of your decimated world? All you know is you've broken and all the shards—the smithereens—won't go quietly and leave you in peace.
I couldn't bear to think of Lewis as peaceful—I imagined him breaking every bond, tearing and ripping at death, and peace, and eternal sleep to get back to me, little Jennifer Vigneault, crying on the floor and not caring that her legs have fallen asleep or that she's collapsed on tiles other deaths had seeped into before.
Here were the SKoW challenge requirements:
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. :)
Requirements: 1) Angst. Tears. Lots of it. Um. Check.
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. I hope it was accurate! Got the time right. This story begins in 1969, a year after the Tet Offensive, and ends in 1974.
3) Minimum word count: 10,000 words 17,000-something, in fact. :D
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. Oh, Billy. Why? Why?
5) Use a line from the song "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel. That would be the classic line "We would all go down together."
No: - 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. Pretty much every Vietnam War story or movie is a political commentary, and I don't think mine is any different, except maybe strength-and-experience wise. But I did work hard on the developing of my dear characters.
Hint: Listen to the song "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel if you want a bit of inspiration. That I did! It's a great song. Terribly sad. :(
Anyway, thank you for reading. :) Please leave me any thoughts or criticism you might have, or if you had a favorite part, or something. I'd really love to hear from you. :)