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 eave 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. Yep.
2. Must be somewhat historically accurate. This will be towards the later stages of the war, so the time period is late sixties, early seventies. As accurate as I could make it. The dates are, of course, there for your perusal.
3. Minimum word count 10,000 words. Final word count: 10,291 words.
4. An allusion to Billy Joel. Or if the timeline doesn't work for you (his first hit single was in '73), just someone named Billy. Bam. Billy Baker. Done.
5. Use a line from the song "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel. They're underlined for your perusal as well.
--political commentary. Although passing comments can be made, no paragraphs about how war is stupid, etc. Focus on character development and plot. I think I did well. Any paragraphs remotely close to ranting are intended to be angsty...
July, Present Day
I have been in love twice. I loved my husband, Walt, and still do, even now that he's gone. He was gentleness and kindness and the sort of sweet man that all mothers dream of for their daughters.
But I also loved a boy named Danny Shaunessy. He went away to war. He was neighborhood baseball games, and boyish immaturity and war and protests and the seventies, rolled into one. He was twenty-three. I was twenty-one. He went away to war and never came home.
** ** ** ** **
The summer of 1965 would come to be known as The Perfect Summer. Carolina South (whose parents had a twisted, semi-cruel sense of humor) spent most of her fourteenth summer watching the neighborhood boys playing baseball in the street.
Among the stars of the games were Danny Shaunessy, brother to Carolina's best friend Ellen (or Ellie, as she insisted on being called), Charlie Thomas, Danny's best friend, and Billy Baker, one of Carolina and Ellie's neighbors. He actually lived in the house between theirs, and spent many an hour harassing them from his back porch. He and Danny would sometimes yell to each other from their porches, laughing like hyenas for no obvious reason.
Carolina spent her entire summer watching the older boys—and some of the younger ones, like her brother, Lucas—hitting doubles and triples, and occasionally homeruns (when they either lost the ball or it went into Mrs. Springer's backyard, where no one wanted to venture). She and Ellie spent the long, warm days watching the boys sweat, Ellie daydreaming about Charlie Thomas, and Carolina imagining Danny Shaunessy sweeping her off her feet and declaring his undying love for her.
The fact that both Charlie and Danny, at sixteen, were two years older than they were only added to their mystery and their allure. Ellie thought that Charlie's blonde hair and blue eyes were to die for, while Carolina loved Danny's red hair and his smile.
The Perfect Summer ended, as all summers must, and before they knew it, Danny and Charlie were eighteen, and things would never be the same.
** ** ** ** **
"Are you really going back?" his sister asked. Her eyes were red, and he suspected she had been crying. She would never want him to know that she had been, though, so he didn't mention it, and neither did she. Instead, he forced himself to nod.
"It's not fair," she said. "I don't want you to go back."
He tried not to snort. Like I feel any differently, he wanted to say. Like I want to go back. Two times in Vietnam was more than enough for him, but there was nothing left for him. He was damaged. He had seen too many of his good friends killed, too many men with blown off hands and feet and legs and arms and heads. Out of all the kids he'd gone to Vietnam with the first time, he was the only one left who was still okay.
Okay being a relative term, of course. Okay here meaning that he still had all his limbs. Okay not meaning here that he wasn't fucked up in the head. Because they all were, every single one of them: the kids who left to fight, the men who came back, the government that sent them to fight in a place they'd never even heard of. How fucked up was it that he still wasn't entirely sure where Vietnam was on the map, even after almost three years of being there?
He hadn't wanted to go in the first place. Relatively politically naïve when the draft notice had arrived in the mail following his graduation from high school, he did know that he didn't want to go to Vietnam—where ever the hell that was—and fight. He didn't even really know how to handle a gun. He was a good kid, did decent enough in school—was planning on going to a local college, getting married, having kids, living. The war was screwing with his plans, and he didn't appreciate it.
What his sister didn't know, what no one knew, was that he knew he wasn't going to be coming back this time, and the war was seeing to that. Two times in Vietnam was too many, and getting out of there after three would be asking too much. He wasn't particularly religious anymore, but he was superstitious after all he had seen in 'Nam. Good luck charms saved one or two comrade's lives, but God had not. Two times was pushing his luck, and a third was too much. He wasn't going to be coming back.
"I'll pray for you, I promise," Ellie told him earnestly, eyes big and wet. "I just want you to come back. Promise you will." He figured right there, looking up at him earnestly, was why so many local guys thought his sister was beautiful. How could he break his little sister's heart and go back and die on her?
He didn't think that praying was going to do any good. God had ignored him the last time he'd prayed—begged, more like—for Him to save his best friend's life. Charlie didn't deserve to die that way: intestines hanging out of his stomach, the chicken and rice MRE that he'd eaten not three hours ago spilling out of him onto the ground. Charlie Thomas deserved to die because he was having too much fun, living life the way it was supposed to be lived: enjoyed. Or because he had lived his life to an old age, done everything he had wanted to. Not because of a Bouncing Betty. Not because his intestines were on the ground and now he could really take a look at what he had eaten for lunch and could tell you just what chicken looked like half-digested, which aside from horrifying was also disgusting.
"Yeah." But he couldn't make himself actually say the words—"I promise I'll come home"—because he knew it wasn't true. There was no coming back this time. Fate wasn't that kind.
Maybe it was because he felt these last few days before he left were the last he would ever spend in his hometown, but he found himself going to all his favorite spots in the city. Emerich was his home, and when he allowed himself to feel fear, he was absofuckinglutely terrified he would never see it again.
After all, how many times had he heard kids crying, "Oh, God, just one more look, one more look at my home, just one more look at my girl, please, God, please"? Charlie's last words had been "I want to go home, Danny." Well, after he stopped screaming, when the shock started to kick in and all he could focus on was that he was truly going to die. Danny had sat next to him, trying to tell him to just breathe and it wasn't that bad. Danny tried to tell him that he would fine, and come this time in a week or two, he'd be harassing him like they were still playing baseball in the streets with the neighborhood kids.
In the week before his redeployment, Danny found himself up at odd hours, visiting all the places he used to know as a kid. The Fourth Street park, with its creaky swings and bumpy slides; his old school on Washington Avenue, the brick looking distinctly old; the movie theater on Killington Street. The movie theater wasn't much to look at when the lights weren't on, and he wondered if he should go back and watch a movie. But he couldn't go back to '65, could he? That seemed like lifetimes ago. It was, in a way. A year in Vietnam was like thirty years in real life. Instead of being in his twenties, he should be seventy. Only instead of dying of old age, he was dying of Vietnam.
He didn't want to go back.
It was like a mantra in his head. I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back.
So many other countries had pulled out of Vietnam—Australia and New Zealand just a month ago. Danny wondered why they couldn't leave, too. He almost didn't care what happened to 'Nam. All he knew was that he sure as hell didn't want to die.
So, he occupied his time before his return by religiously watching the news, watching the footage of Vietnam—people he fought with. People he knew. Places he knew.
The days ticked by. Four days until he left, then three, then two. He kept thinking, Four more days until I die. Three more… Two more days until I die. Then, the snide part of his mind would snipe, Actually, you probably have a little longer than that. Maybe another month. A month of writing home, missing Emerich, missing his sister and how things used to be, and then he would be, in all likelihood, dead. His last, freshest memories would be of the gooks in the jungle, of 'Nam in all of its inexplicable majesty and horror, not of his sister and his parents and home. Not of his beautiful hometown, where the kids played baseball and tag in the street and things still felt like the fifties comics he used to read.
Continuing with his project of revisiting all the places he used to go as a kid, he ate at Mason's Deli on the corner of Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. He remembered going to get lunch there sometimes instead of eating in the cafeteria at school. They weren't supposed to leave school grounds, but he didn't care. Sometimes Charlie would come with him, and they would goof off and laugh and things would be light and remind them of that Perfect Summer, when they were still young enough to ignore what was going on across the ocean.
Maxwell Mason, the old man who owned the deli, never seemed to mind them. He seemed to like them, actually, more than the rest of his customers. He was polite to everyone else, but he used to tell them stories about being in World War II, as part of Normandy and D-Day. The kind of glorified, heroic stories that both he and Charlie hoped they would have when they returned from Vietnam. If they had to go over to some God-awful foreign land, at least they could have some glory. They planned on returning as heroes, at the very least, if they had to put the rest of their dreams on hold.
Old Man Mason was furious when he heard Charlie say something to that effect. "Don't say that, boy," he'd snapped. "You don't ever want to go to no war. There ain't nothing heroic about it." This struck Danny as slightly hypocritical, but he didn't say anything.
Now, returned without Charlie, Old Man Mason said hello, seemingly sad. He looked older, his hair greyer and his face more drawn than before, with dozens more lines and creases than he had in '65. Danny wondered if he knew about Charlie yet.
He returned the greeting and ordered his usual: ham and cheese with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on wheat. Mason had it out to him in within a couple of minutes, and since no one else was in the small deli, he came out and sat down across from one of his favorite customers.
"How're you doing, Danny?" he asked. "Haven't seen you around of late."
"I'm going back over." Danny took a bite of his sandwich and chewed.
Mason's face fell. "How many times you been over?" he asked, eyes trained on Danny's, as if looking for fear or a hint of any emotion other than apathy and bitterness.
"This'll be my third," Danny said after swallowing, and then took another bite of his sandwich.
"Third. Christ," Old Man Mason whistled. "Already lost Charlie and Billy. Don't want to lose you, too."
Danny nodded, slowing his chewing. Apparently Mason did know about Charlie. He was afraid that Mason would want to talk about Charlie, or worse, how he died. Talking about Charlie dying made him feel sick. You don't get over losing your best friend overnight. Or in a year, either, it seemed.
When he thought of all that had happened to him, the loss of Charlie, like a brother to him, stood out the most. That whole, terrible day, the omens Charlie kept seeing—the same omens that Danny had laughed at, not the slightest bit superstitious, until later—was etched permanently into his brain, unforgettable, even with the help of dear Jack Daniels or Smirnoff.
Because of that day, Danny learned to believe in the superstitious crap that the other men toted about. Walt Davidson had a glove his girlfriend sent him, that smelled of her perfume. Whenever he kept that glove in his hat, he was safe from everything. Bullets and landmines seemed to avoid him. Even after his girlfriend sent him a Dear John letter, he still kept that glove, because it was the only thing keeping him alive, he said. "You don't throw something like this away."
Charlie, even as a kid, had been semi-superstitious. He wouldn't walk under a ladder or walk on the same patch of sidewalk as a black cat. Danny had always told him it was stupid to believe that crap. He had walked under a ladder plenty of times and nothing bad had happened; he'd broken a mirror once, too, and no bad luck. That day, even, his team won playing baseball in the street. But 'Nam had a different set of rules. Common sense didn't exist in 'Nam. Those superstitions kept you alive, like Walt Davidson's glove.
Now he believed in superstitions like some people believed in God, or money, or sex and women. Charlie had felt it, and it had terrified him, but he'd been right. That was how Danny knew his end was coming as soon as he stepped foot back in that God-forsaken jungle. He felt it, deep in his gut, that he was not coming home. There was no way not to feel it. It was tangible.
The chime on the door gave a little ring, and Old Man Mason glanced behind him at the newcomer. She was a pretty little girl, maybe eighteen or nineteen, young and innocent looking. Her white summer dress hugged her body just enough. Long honey-brown hair, stick straight and silky looking. Beautiful chocolate brown eyes that looked familiar somehow. She was petite and fragile looking, but Danny had no doubt that she could take care of herself if she needed to.
"Be with you in a minute," Old Man Mason told the girl, turning back around to face Danny. The girl, seeing who Mason was talking to, suddenly smiled.
"Danny Shaunessy?" she asked. She took a step towards the table where the two men were sitting.
Danny put down his sandwich and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Do I know you?" She did look faintly familiar, but he couldn't place her.
"I'm one of Ellie's friends," the girl said, coming towards him and Mason. "Carolina South." Ah. So that was why she looked familiar. Now that she had told him her name, he recalled summers spent around her and Ellie, playing baseball and teasing them. She had grown up since he had last seen her, though. Her hair was lighter and longer, and she'd gotten taller and filled out more. She was no longer the skinny, flat-chested sixteen year old his sister used to be joined at the hip with.
Mason snickered, rather like a schoolboy laughing at a dirty joke. "Your parents have a sense of humor," he said.
"I had no idea my name was a pun on South Carolina. Thank you, so much, for enlightening me!" she said sarcastically. In a calmer, more tired, world-weary voice, she continued, "Like I haven't heard that before. I know."
Mason looked a little miffed, but he sniggered again. "You want anything to eat, hon, or are you just going to talk to Danny boy here?" He stood up and went towards the counter, watching her speculatively.
Carolina South, longtime best friend of Ellie's, glanced at the deli counter. "A turkey sub, if you please," she said politely. "Lettuce and tomato, and American cheese. That's it."
She turned back to him and sat down across from him. "So, Ellie tells me you're going back."
"Yeah," he said. "Duty calls." He tried to keep some of the bitterness out of his voice and failed.
"She's going to miss you," Carolina said kindly ignoring his tone. He was grateful. "She was really upset when I talked to her on the phone. She says you just came home and now you have to leave again."
He nodded. This wasn't anything he didn't already know. He didn't want to leave, either. It felt like he had just come home, too, but it had been nearly a month. A month of anti-war protesters giving him attitude, a month of his family wondering what was wrong with him, a month of pity from those around him because of Charlie, still. Only Charlie's family seemed to understand what he felt. He shied away from the thought. He had seen the pain clearly written on Charlie's parents' faces when he had visited them upon returning to the States. Even though they had received his letter and the government visit months ago, the pain was still fresh for them as it was for him.
"She says you didn't write to her very much the last time you were over there," Carolina said, obviously ignorant of his thoughts.
Who was she, the letter-writing police? Christ, like she really wanted to know about Charlie losing his intestines and Billy Baker from next door getting the front of his face blown away. Charlie had cried hard when they lost Billy. It was one too many lost. One too many brothers and friends and comrades gone to gangrene and gut shots and gooks. The war wasn't good for him. "We would all go down together," Charlie had wheezed. "We said we'd all go down together." Danny didn't want to think about Charlie or Baker. Ellie wouldn't have either.
"Would you have wanted to know about Charlie's intestines or what Billy Baker's face looks like when it's in pieces on the ground?" Billy's parents had been another hard visit. Billy, Charlie and he had stuck together in Alpha Company. And now he was alone, to be joining them in a few days, he was sure.
"Well, you got to keep writing home. We all worry about you," Carolina said, as if he hadn't just said intestines or talked about Billy's face. She'd known both boys, since they lived on the same street. He saw her close her eyes for a moment, swallowing hard.
"Uh-huh," he said.
"Well, Ellie and your mother and I do," Carolina said.
"Well, I'll be fine," Danny said stubbornly, knowing it was a lie. He didn't want his sister to know how scared he was, and he didn't want this girl to know either. "I'll write home plenty." For the week or two I'll be alive.
"You should write to me, too," Carolina said. "Not just your mother and Ellie."
"Yeah? Why?" Danny asked, taking another bite of his sandwich.
Carolina shrugged. "It'll give you another connection to home. Someone else to talk to. You can write me stuff that you can't tell Ellie or your mother, maybe. I'll worry less, too."
"Why would you worry about me?" Danny asked, curious despite himself. He hadn't even recognized this girl, and she worried about him? Behind her, he saw Old Man Mason coming out from behind the counter with her sandwich on a plate.
"You were like a brother to me at times," Carolina said, a blush creeping up her neck. She looked so sweet, and Danny almost smiled. It was a nice change from the angry or pitying looks he normally got. "I just want you to come back, and I feel like you will, if I can write to you." Mason set the plate in front of her and disappeared back behind the counter.
Danny looked thoughtful. What did he have to lose? Nothing, and maybe she was right. Maybe it would help him. His gut was telling him that she was a good thing, and suddenly he knew he had to write to her. "Fine," he said. "I'll write to you, Carolina."
Carolina beamed. "Good," she said. "D'you know my address?"
"You're two houses down from us, right?" Danny asked dubiously. "That'd make you...2017 Miami Street."
Carolina nodded. "And you know the city and state and all, obviously." She smiled, a sweet, quaint smile that Danny hadn't seen on anyone since he was young. This was the look of the summer of 1965. This was neighborhood baseball. This was his and Charlie and Billy's friendship. Her smile was all the things Danny so desperately missed.
Danny nodded, and went back to his sandwich. "Okay then," he said in between bites. "I'll write to you." He told himself it didn't matter anyway, because he would be dead soon. What was the harm in one or two more letters before he croaked? A small part of him, though, was saying, Why would you want to set her up for more hurt?
Carolina nodded. "Good." She smiled again, and Danny was struck again by the sheer sweet that rolled off her in waves when she smiled. She could take Vietnam in an instant with that smile. Not even the never-surrender Vietnamese would resist her.
The two sat there while they finished their sandwiches, silent except for the sound of their sandwiches slowly being eaten. When Danny was done, he stood up, brought his plate back up to the counter. Carolina turned to watch him leave, and he said, "Bye, Carolina. I'll make sure to write." To Mason, he said, "I'll see you around, Mr. Mason."
Old Man Mason came out from behind the counter and shook Danny's hand, calloused fingers grasping Danny's. "You're a good kid," he said, looking at Danny and trying to catch his eye. "You'll be all right."
It was lie, and both of them knew it, but Danny smiled and nodded anyway. "Thanks, Mr. Mason," he said. "It's good to know you have faith in me." A lot of others don't, he added silently. But Mason had always been different. He had always had faith in Charlie and him.
Mason laughed. "I just know you're a sensible kid. You'll make it through alright." He clapped Danny on the back, and took his place behind the counter once more. "Stay safe, Danny."
Danny waved once as goodbye and headed out the door, back out onto the street.
Carolina had been watching the exchange with curiosity, and now she felt a mild sense of depression settling on her shoulders. Danny Shaunessy was leaving, and no one was sure if he was coming back. Carolina felt a little thrill of fear. If Danny died, Ellie would be despondent. She had always been closer to Danny than to her older sister Linda.
Old Man Mason turned his attention back to her. "You better hope that boy comes back, 'cause if he don't, you're gonna be heartbroken, ain'tcha?"
Carolina must have looked as bewildered and shocked as she felt—were her emotions really that obvious?—because Mason said, "How you feel about Danny. If he doesn't come back, you're apt to be heartbroken, ain'tcha?"
"Is he going to come back?" Carolina asked in a quiet voice. She wanted someone to assuage her fears and assure her that of course Danny Shaunessy was coming home.
Mason shrugged, which didn't exactly fill Carolina with confidence. Suddenly her fears seemed a lot more realistic.
"I hope so," the old man said, truly looking his age. "I really hope so."
** ** ** ** **
Carolina's mother knocked on her bedroom door. Carolina resisted the urge to roll her eyes in annoyance, and instead forced herself to call out civilly, "Yeah, Mom?"
"Carolina?" her mother said, and Carolina thought, irked, Yes, of course. Who else would it be? "Ellie's here." Quickly, Carolina jumped off her bed and opened the door to reveal her best friend standing behind her mother with red, tear-stained eyes.
"Hey," Carolina said, "Come in." Ellie slipped into her friend's bedroom and glanced at Mrs. South, who took her cue to depart, leaving the door ajar. Ellie looked simply miserable, and Carolina immediately knew the cause when she glanced at the calendar. Danny's redeployment. She had managed to put it out of her mind, but Ellie was now near tears because she was so worried for her brother's safety.
"Danny's gone," Ellie said, pulling herself onto the bed next to her friend. She pulled her knees into her chest and wrapped her arms around them, turning herself into a tight ball.
Carolina nodded at Ellie's news. She knew that Ellie really just wanted some company, and her parents were unlikely to be any real help, since they were just as worried for Danny and didn't want to hear their daughter's sniveling, nor did they want to think of just all the ways Danny could die or come home maimed.
And, eventually, as Carolina knew she would, Ellie burst forth with her concerns. "I'm so afraid he's not going to come back," she said. "He's my brother! What happens if he doesn't? Mom and Dad and Linda are going to be crushed, and I don't want to lose him!" She started to sob outright. "What am I going to do, Carolina?" She wiped angrily at her eyes with the palm of her hand. "I'm really scared he isn't going to come home. Charlie and Billy are dead. I don't want us to be next. It nearly killed Mrs. Baker when they came and told her... And then when Danny went to talk to Mrs. Baker... He was so upset. I heard him crying, I think, in his room one night. I mean, Billy was always friendly with Charlie and him, and after they left for Vietnam, they became a lot closer. Charlie's death just absolutely killed him."
Ellie's worries were pouring out of her like a cup with a leak in the bottom. Carolina knew that in order to help her friend, listening was probably the best medicine. Ellie wiped at her eyes again when she continued quietly, "Charlie was such a nice guy. D'you remember that time Patricia Dally was mocking us, while the boys were playing baseball, and Charlie heard her and hit a ball right at her? And then he came over and talked to us and Patricia was just eaten up with jealousy?" Ellie smiled weakly. "Stupid stuff like that."
Carolina nodded, missing Charlie suddenly, like she never had before. His unruly blonde hair, cheerful, smiling face... "And remember the time Danny brought us ice cream when you were upset that Chris Hamilton broke up with you, and neither of us had a date to the dance at school?" They had both been so upset that night, feeling undesirable and dorky.
Ellie nodded, and cracked a small smile. "Though I think he just felt guilty because he scared Chris so badly that he dumped me."
"But then he was going out with Karen Sheppard the next day," Carolina pointed out. Ellie scowled, and Carolina hastily changed the subject.
"Don't worry. He'll be fine."
"That's what we said about Charlie and Billy," said Ellie softly.
Carolina knew that she was right, but she said gently, "It won't do any good to worry about it, Ellie, 'cause there's nothing we could do any way. Danny's a smart guy, he'll take care of himself. I 'spect when we get his letters he'll sound better. He'll come home."
"I hope he writes soon," Ellie said.
"Me, too," Carolina said empathetically. When Ellie looked at her, confused, Carolina elaborated, "I asked him to write to me, when I ran into him at Mason's Deli the other day. He said he would, anyway."
Ellie gave Carolina a sly look. "You little rat!" she cried, but she was smiling, taking the sting out of her words. "You used writing to him as an excuse! A cover! You and I both know you've had a crush on Danny since we were fourteen."
Carolina blushed. "No," she said, but Ellie saw right through her. Carolina was glad that she had at last succeeded in distracting her best friend from her fears of Danny dying, at least temporarily.
"You'd make a better girlfriend for him, anyway," Ellie was saying contentedly. "I mean, remember '66? When he was dating that dreadful Diane Parsons? God, was she a witch!" She laughed, before seemingly remembering that Danny wasn't really dating anyone right now, as he was on his way to Vietnam.
"Don't worry," Carolina said with more conviction than she felt. "He'll come back."
"I just feel like he thinks he's not coming back. Like he thinks he's going to die over there this time."
Carolina felt cold fear fill her. "Of course not. He'll be home in a few months and everything'll be fine." But she didn't quite believe herself.
** ** ** ** **
Carolina received the first letter from Danny on October 2, nearly three weeks since he had left. When she saw who it was from she immediately ripped it open and read the pages on her bed, reading his words and feeling like he was next to her speaking to her instead of writing.
Dear Carolina, it read.
How are things in Emerich? I know they can't have changed that much since I left, but I'm just wondering if anything note-worthy's happened in my absence. Maybe Mason went nuts, or something, and finally went after that guy who owes him 5000 bucks.
I want to know how Ellie and Linda and my parents are doing, too, because I know that when I write them and get their reply they'll sound all happy—or Mom will, at least—and I want to know how they're really doing. So could you tell me? I'm counting on you for the cold, hard truth. Ellie would rather chew off her arm than admit she's worried about me. She always was more stubborn than Mom, Dad and Linda put together.
Things aren't so bad here, I guess, considering it's Vietnam, but I miss Emerich really badly. I wish I didn't have to leave. I have two new squadron mates, Patrick O'Reilly and Joel Williams. Joel's from nearby, in Emerich, but Patrick's from Michigan. They're no match for either Charlie or Baker, but I guess they'll do.
Carolina saw that for Charlie and Billy's names, his writing was suddenly shakier, and she thought of him closing his eyes as he wrote the letters down, thinking of his friends and wishing they weren't dead.
Hopefully this letter gets to you soon and you'll write back. I know it was you who said that I should write to you, but I guess I'm worried that you'll realize that I'm just a screw-up and write me off.
Carolina read over the letter twice, amazed that Danny had written even that much to her. She put the letter on her desk, fully intending to write back now as opposed to finishing her work for her classes. Her mother was adamant she take classes at the local university, like Ellie was. She said she didn't want to see her oldest daughter reduced to typing when she could clearly do more.
Carolina immediately fished a clean sheet of paper out of her desk and started to write.
You don't have to worry; I won't stop writing to you because you're a "screw-up". I don't think you're a screw-up anyway, Danny. You were always a good brother to Ellie and sometimes me, when I needed it. Do you remember the time you brought Ellie and me ice cream when we were sad because we didn't have dates to the school dance? You told me that if no one asked me it was their loss, and you would have taken me if you'd known about it. I always remember that, because it was one of the nicest things you could have said to me. Plus the ice cream was really delicious.
Ellie's doing fine, I suppose. The day you left she was a bit of a wreck but I calmed her down and told her that of course you would come home. She seemed to think that you were doomed and that you thought you weren't coming home, but I told her that was nonsense. It is, right? Because you're going to be fine, Danny, I mean it. You have to come home because Ellie and I and Linda and your parents—not to mention Mason and everyone else who knows you—would be devastated. Who would the smaller boys on the street look up to if you're gone, too? They'll have no one to show them tips for hitting more homeruns in their games of street baseball. Promise you'll take care of yourself and you don't think what Ellie thinks.
Your parents and Linda are okay, I guess, but they're very worried about you, of course. All the news footage looks very bleak, and I know my mother sometimes watches for your face, but of course you're never on. She used to look for Charlie and Baker, too, since we knew them. She really wanted all three of you to come out okay, and now that Charlie and Baker are gone she's tripled her prayers for you. You know my mother. She's as stubborn as a mule, and she's insisting that you'll come home alright. And you must, now, because my mother said so. I don't know if you know how formidable she is, but you don't want to prove her wrong, do you?
I'm fine, I guess. Busy with my classes at the university. Ellie's in a few of my classes, and we've taken to doing our work in front of the television when the news is on, incase anything about Vietnam or where you are comes up. Ellie's practically religious with the news now. She seems to think that if she says informed enough she'll bring you home by sheer will and dedication.
I spoke to Mrs. Baker this morning, too, and she told me to tell Ellie and your parents the next time I saw them that she wishes you the best and is praying, just like my mother, for your return. I think the visit you gave her really touched her. Billy was her youngest, wasn't he?
I'm sorry, I don't mean to keep bringing up Charlie and Baker. I always think of them when I think of you, though. It's so odd to think that they're gone. It's unfair.
I have some work for my classes that I need to finish, so I'll end this here and send it along tomorrow. It's good to hear from you, Danny. Write back soon, okay?
The letter had flowed so smoothly, she hadn't had to think about what she was writing, but then she considered that perhaps she should scratch out the parts mentioning Charlie and Billy. He didn't want to be reminded of them, and she was sure that he was reminded of them enough already.
The question now was how to sign off her letter. "Your friend" seemed childish, and "Sincerely" was clearly too stuffy. She supposed she could just write her name at the bottom like he had, but he had clearly the same troubles when he had written her letter.
Finally, she decided that "Cordially" was the best choice, not too stuffy but not too childish and personal, either, since to him she was surely just Ellie's little friend who had told him to write.
Once she had finished, before she could change her mind, she stuffed it into an envelope and set it with the other two or three letters her mother was taking to the post office tomorrow for stamps. She hoped he wasn't upset at the letter—full of mentions of home and, now that she thought about it, things he probably didn't want to read about—and was happy to have her companionship, even though it was in the form of letters exchanged thousands of miles across an ocean.
** ** ** ** **
When he got her letter a week and a half later, he was glad that she had written like she was chatting with him and it wasn't several thousand miles from Emerich to Vietnam. Of course, the part about him not thinking he was going to make it home was a little too close to his actual thoughts for comfort. Ellie was a perceptive one.
Carolina's letter was different from Ellie and his mother's in that she didn't try to force cheerfulness upon him. Ellie and his mother were clearly worried for him, but instead of allowing it to show in their letters (which he probably would have found annoying, granted), they pretended that they were so cheerful they had rainbows shooting out of every single bodily orifice. Danny saw right through it, but he was forced to write an equally cheerful reply to their letters.
Every time he read Charlie or Baker's name, his chest seemed to hitch just a little. It had been a while since the day Charlie had died, and even longer since Baker had gone. It still hurt to think that his best friend was gone. And Baker, a good friend to he and Charlie since they had arrived in Vietnam that first, scary day, was gone, too. He was alone in a strange land, with only Alpha Company and his letters from Ellie, his mother, and Carolina. There was really no one else at home to write to.
And right now, his fellow soldiers thought he was a little unstable, because although death was a mere formality to them all, when Patrick O'Reilly had been blown to bits the other day, something inside of him snapped. He had liked Patrick, thought him a nice guy. Patrick reminded him of Charlie, and when Patrick had died it was like Charlie had died again, some little piece of him. While the rest of the guys hadn't shown any remorse, merely because they could spare no emotion and because death was an all-too-common occurrence for them lately, Danny had gone berserk.
"What is wrong with you?" he had demanded. "He's dead." He gestured wildly at the poncho covering Patrick's remains.
Someone had pointed out that of course they knew that, while the rest of the men got quiet.
"We pulled pieces of him from the tree branches, Danny, 'course we know he's dead," another soldier said, indignant, as if he was merely defending his favorite baseball team to an enemy fan.
"What the hell is wrong with you, though? You act like it's no big fucking deal! He's dead. Jesus H. Christ, he's dead."
"Danny, we know. Relax." A part of him knew that they were trying to cope with this in their own way, that they were different than him in that respect. They were making light of Patrick's disintegration because they were trying to rob Death of what it demanded every day: fear and respect. They were trying to deny Death these payments.
"Remember Charlie? Remember Baker? They left their childhood on every acre of this Godforsaken place. This is wrong, this is..." He couldn't continue, and while no one said anything about what he'd burst out with, they stopped their light casual tones, too.
Danny was sullen and silent for the rest of the night, and no one from the rest of the company spoke to him at all. They barely spoke amongst themselves.
Danny instead wrote a reply to Carolina.
I don't remember saying that to you at all, actually, but it's certainly true. If there were a dance at school I'd gladly take you. You don't seem like the type to not get a date though, not now.
And of course I want to come home. Why would Ellie think I don't want to come home? You don't have to worry about me, C, I'll come home.
Even as he wrote the words he knew they weren't true. It was easier for him to lie this time, because they couldn't see his face and see that he didn't believe a word of it. But it felt like a betrayal, too, because here it was, on paper, that he was going to come home, and when he didn't, they would be a lie.
I know Mason and everyone back home would miss me, and tell them thanks for keeping me in their prayers. It's a nice gesture. I didn't realize that anyone at home looked up to me, playing baseball, anyway. Your brother doesn't, does he?
It's good to hear that everyone's doing okay, though, and they're not just freakishly chipper in their letters. Mom is always incredibly cheery in hers, with exclamation points everywhere. And Ellie is just as bad. Linda doesn't write that often, but Mom always tells me that she says hello, or something. I guess they're doing it because they don't want me to worry, but it's annoying and gets old pretty fast.
I hope you and Ellie do well in your classes. I hope when I get back I can go there and take some myself. I never got the chance, unfortunately. I don't mean to sound bitter, if I do, but the injustice of it all sometimes gets to me.
Like the last time I came home (not this September, the time before that), I had several people telling me I ought to be ashamed of what I've done in Vietnam. I wanted to shout at them that I wanted no part in this war, and I didn't join willingly. Don't they realize—and I hate to say this, but I will—how many times I contemplated running away to Canada? Didn't they realize I was so afraid to be a coward that I went to 'Nam? Don't they realize that I didn't start this war? When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fireman, partly because I've always liked fire and partly because of the glory firemen always got. I mean, firemen! They're heroes! And when Charlie and Billy and I got our draft notices, I kept hoping that at the very least we would get some glory. Maybe a heroic story or twelve to tell, kind of like Old Man Mason. But instead, I get people like Mrs. DuBois from church telling me I should be ashamed of myself. It was all I could do not to strangle her and tell her what exactly I've done, so I wouldn't get killed. What she thinks I've done isn't half as bad as what I have done.
A kid in my squadron died today. His name was Patrick O'Reilly, the one from Michigan. Really nice kid, and today he stepped on a mine and was blown to bits. We pulled pieces of him out of a tree this afternoon, instead of continuing our march. He was maybe twenty, probably a little younger even. He reminded me of Charlie, a little. You know how Charlie was a smart-aleck? How he was always making those smart-ass remarks, and all you wanted to do sometimes was throttle him? This O'Reilly kid was kinda like that. The Lieutenant had to radio in one American KIA and a chopper took the bits of him away. His folks'll get the news in a couple days, and they'll probably never know how their son died, or if it was painless, just that he's dead.
It kills me, it really does. It's like, how do guys like O'Reilly and Charlie and Baker always get killed? There are some real jerks over here with me—and I would trust my life to any one of 'em—and Charlie has to be the one who dies? Why Charlie? What did he ever do wrong? He was a good kid, you said so yourself, and I just can't get over the fact that my best friend is dead. He and I'd been through hell and back together.
It's okay that you bring up them, because everyone else at home tiptoes around it, like it shouldn't be spoken of. I almost want to talk about it, sometimes. Sometimes not, but they were two of my closest friends and I saw them both die. They don't deserve to be hushed up, even how they died.
Sorry to get all depressed on you. I know you don't want to hear about it. I should just shut up. It's too quiet here, though, because of O'Reilly. All the men are quiet. It's just like this pall is hanging over us—over me—and I can't escape from it.
** ** ** ** **
As the weeks went by, Danny and Carolina kept writing. She felt that she needed to write to him, because he needed someone—an impartial third party—to talk to. He was opening up to her, and when she got a letter from him in which he talked about how Charlie and Baker, and now another kid had died, she started to cry. She couldn't imagine having seen any of this: not Charlie with his intestines on the ground, not Billy Baker with half his face missing, not this new kid, hit so suddenly that he went down in an instant.
Danny seemed half-remorseful, half-angry about what was happening to him. Sometimes he would write her about things he remembered from his childhood, favorite days spent in the summer sun with Charlie and the rest of the neighborhood. Other times he would simply tell her about how Vietnam had taken his childhood from him. There aren't going to be any more baseball games for me in the street.
Once, he wrote her a letter telling her of his day: when he got up, what he did, how he marched, how many causalities he had seen that day. In another letter, he told her about napalm and seeing a little boy's body burnt to a crisp. They called him a "crispy critter" so they wouldn't have to think about the fact that this kid had once been a smiling, happy eight- or ten-year-old.
In return, she sent him letters about her classes, about how Mason, Ellie, and the rest of the town was doing, about the snowfall. She sent him pictures of Ellie and her outside playing in the snow with Lucas and baby Kathy. She told him, I would have sent you a snowball, but I don't think it would have lasted long in the mail.
She sent him trinkets and cookies for Christmas. She said if she could, she would send him his favorite Christmas movie for him. He said he had immediately loved The Grinch when he first saw it the winter of '66, and he appreciated the thought. He didn't just miss Emerich, he missed the little things he always used to take for granted back home during Christmas and the holidays. For Christmas, she sent him some pictures, more pictures, and a notebook and a pen, so you'll always have paper to write.
She told him that she would put some flowers or a wreath on Charlie and Baker's graves and tell them that he was doing okay. She couldn't be sure, but when he told her, Yes, that's fine, she thought the paper looked rather like someone might have cried a little, because the ink was blurred, as if water had mixed with the ink. But she was just probably imagining it. Ellie always told her she had an overactive imagination.
When she told him about the protests around town and in the nearby cities, he told her to be careful. Please, don't get shot. Kent State was bad enough. We don't need another Kent State. He said he didn't want to hear about more mothers losing kids who were fighting, only these kids were fighting for ideals, fighting for peace. It's insane that peace has to be fought for.
When he said he wanted something to read, Carolina bought a box full of paperbacks and sent them to him in twos in threes, telling him that she bought them cheap, so it was okay if he didn't send them back or used them for kindling if need be. By this time, they wrote almost everyday to each other, numbering their letters, because sometimes they would get two and three on the same day and none on others.
For Danny, Carolina's letters were a lifeline like Ellie's and his mother's couldn't be. He looked forward to her letters, whereas he never really had like the other men did. He got some of the most mail in his squadron once Carolina started writing to him. There were times, marching with the rest of his group, that he wished she were with him, so that he could talk to her. He read all the books she sent him—some of them were better than others, and he requested some authors more than others.
He still felt, deep in the back of his mind, that something was going to happen, but since writing to Carolina, he had almost started to believe he was going to make it back, if only to see her once more.
** ** ** ** **
In the middle of March she received another letter from Danny. It was dated three days previously.
I miss you and Emerich more than ever. I was reading over some of your old letters, and it was just like everything came rushing back at me at once. Tell Ellie and the rest of my family I love them.
I want to thank you again for those books you sent a couple letters ago. I'm almost done with them, so could you send a couple more along this time? Maybe some more Wallace Greene if you have him. I like his books the best. He's a lot better than Thomas Richards, in my opinion.
Carolina read through the rest of the letter, relieved at how much better he sounded than in his last letter. Last time someone from his company had nearly died after being shot in the stomach. Danny told her about how they'd had to load him into the chopper, rags and ponchos pressed against his stomach to staunch the flow of blood. I hope he doesn't die on the way to the med center, he'd written.
Aside from how much better he sounded—more alive, less like a traumatized soldier and more like the boy who had left Emerich—this letter was different from all the others, because at the end, instead signing off with "Best wishes" or "Your friend," he had written, "Love."
Love. Carolina stared at the page, and bit her lip. He said Love, Danny.
She wanted to write him back right away, jubilant, but when she looked at the time, she realized she had to get going. Ellie had invited her over for dinner tonight, and it was already almost six.
"Damn," she swore. She almost took the letter with her, but instead placed it carefully on her desk, folded neatly in its envelope as if it was of no more importance than the rest of Danny's letters. She was itching to reread it, though, to look at the creases the word "Love" had made in the paper.
Slowly, because she didn't want to leave, she told her mother she would be back in an hour or two, and walked past Billy Baker's old house. She saw Billy's mother sitting in the kitchen, looking at a letter, crying. Carolina, so happy because of Danny's letter, felt terrible for poor Mrs. Baker, losing Billy. He had been a nice guy, just like Charlie. It wasn't fair, that she should get Danny when Mrs. Baker had lost her youngest son and the Thomases had lost Charlie.
Carolina forced herself past the Bakers' house. When she opened the door to Ellie's—she was over so much that Ellie's house was like a second home to her and Ellie scolded her for knocking like a stranger—she knew immediately that something was wrong.
"Ellie? What is it?" she asked, fear flooding her, when she saw Ellie crying in the kitchen. Her mother was at the stove, stirring something in a saucepan, but she didn't seem to be too aware of what was happening, because she was crying harder than her daughter.
Ellie looked up. She screwed up her face, trying to momentarily stem the flow of tears. "It's Danny."
Carolina felt as though she was suddenly covered in ice. Ellie told her that they had received the news that Danny's status had changed to Missing in Action. They didn't know any details about how or why he had gone missing, only that he was. Carolina was reminded of Danny's words about the news about Patrick O'Reilly's death. His parents wouldn't know how their son died, only that he had.
Mostly she felt numb.
Danny was Missing in Action. MIA. His fellow soldiers didn't know where he was. Maybe they were dead or missing, too. Maybe their parents had received letters or doorstep visits telling them that their sons were gone. How could this have happened? What happened to him? More than ever she wanted to talk to him, to know if he was okay. She was scared that he was dead, and they just hadn't found the body.
Ellie didn't want to listen to her fears, she knew, so she sucked it up and put her arm around her friend, who was completely distraught. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she had clearly been crying for a long time before Carolina had come over.
"It'll be okay," she said, willing herself to believe it. "He has to be okay."
Ellie cried, "I knew he thought he wasn't coming home! And now he isn't. He's never coming home."
Carolina said, "You don't know that. He could come home. He's only missing, maybe they'll find him yet."
"He's probably dead, or a prisoner of war," Ellie moaned. Hundreds of horrible scenarios ran through her mind, and Carolina's.
Carolina closed her eyes, focusing on remaining calm until she made it home and could cry in the peace of her bedroom. "He will come back," she said firmly. "He has to." He said Love, Danny. He has to come home. I can't have lost him now.
But she was so uncertain and scared, and sat with Ellie for a long time, crying.
** ** ** ** **
The next few weeks seemed to drag by at an unbearable pace. Carolina waited frantically for news on Danny. Ellie promised that she would let her know if she learned anything.
But mostly it was just waiting and trying to go about her daily life as though nothing had happened.
When she had returned home from Ellie's that night, her mother had known instantly that something was wrong. "What's wrong? What happened?" Her mother had fussed over her until Carolina had said, very quietly, so quietly that her mother almost missed it, "Danny's been listed as MIA."
Mrs. South had put a hand to her mouth and said, "Oh, no, Caroline..."
Mrs. South had known about her daughter's crush on the Shaunessy boy, and now that he was declared missing in action, pain must have shown clear on Carolina's face. She'd led her daughter over to the couch and said, "It's okay. He'll come back."
She doubled her prayers for Danny Shaunessy.
Carolina tried to keep herself busy, but she kept thinking of Danny and what he must be going through—if he's even still alive, she would think, and reprimand herself. Of course he's still alive—and how scared and upset he had to be.
It was bad enough that Ellie was terrified for her brother and was just as distraught as Carolina was, but her mother and Linda, too, were more upset. Mrs. Shaunessy was barely capable of going a complete day without crying for her little boy. Both she and her oldest daughter watched the news religiously for any sign of Danny, but of course he wouldn't show up if he was a prisoner of war and missing. A prisoner of war was a bleak outlook, but Carolina's father told her that he was likely one, if not dead. "I'm sure he's fine, though," he said when he saw her expression. "I'm sure of it."
March of 1972 faded into April, and April into June.
Before she knew it, it was summer again, only there were no baseball games on the street, because so many of the neighborhood boys—in their late teens and early twenties—were being shipped to Vietnam. Her brother Lucas tried to play a miniature game with some of his friends, but it wasn't the same as The Perfect Summer, before everything went wrong. Vietnam was just an idea then, not really something to be too concerned about. Even with it on the news, it was just a blip on their radar, not something they had to concern themselves with.
Still, summer continued. The baseball games started again, haltingly, as more kids tried to join in. Carolina watched the game from her porch, thinking of Charlie, Billy, and Danny. They had started playing a few years before the Perfect Summer, harkening after their baseball heroes. Danny was a fan of the Red Sox, since his father was from Boston originally and had always—and would always—root for the Sox.
July turned into August and Carolina despaired of ever hearing of what happened to Danny.
** ** ** ** **
She was engaged. Her fiancée, a kind, sweet man named Walt, was exactly the kind of man her mother wanted her to marry. She had a steady secretarial job, which paid well, and soon she would be Mrs. Walter Morris. She still loved Danny, always would, whether he was dead or alive. And while some part of her hoped that he was, another cynical part of her told her he wasn't. She didn't know what might happen if Danny ever came home, because she knew he had loved her, while she had moved on. It was a thought that haunted her daily, and she did her best to put it out of her mind.
Ellie was engaged as well. Carter Lowry, her fiancé, was gentle and lovely to her. He had a university degree, and no baggage from Vietnam to hold him back, like so many of the young men returned to Emerich within the past few months.
It was three weeks before Ellie's wedding—she was to be married on New Year's Eve—when the news came regarding Danny's disappearance. He was a sore subject in the Shaunessy family, and even amongst Carolina's family. Neither Ellie nor Carolina liked to talk about him, feeling that it was too difficult to speak of him, not knowing if he was alive or dead or in pain or hungry and cold. Ellie liked to pretend that he was just on an extended vacation, enjoying the nature and the animals and drinking a cold beer in the sunlight. It was outlandish and foolish to think so, but it helped her cope, so Carolina didn't say anything about it.
Carolina, Walt, her parents, and Carter were over at the Shaunessys' for dinner, finalizing more plans for Ellie's wedding. Carolina was to be the Maid of Honor. The group had been playing cards and laughing, having a fun time.
When the door rang, everyone was momentarily silenced, and Carolina felt a feeling of dread rise up inside her for no reason. She stood and met Ellie at the door. Ellie pulled it open, and two men in army uniforms stood on the stoop. Carolina's hand met Ellie's and squeezed, fearing their words. She was right to, because afterwards, they both wished they had never been told a thing.
Sergeant Daniel Shaunessy, MIA for more than three years, was dead.
The wishing, while desperate and hopeless, was better than the harsh certainty that Danny was absolutely gone. There would be no more whimsical "when Danny gets home" and "Danny will love to hear that." Instead, the men quietly informed Ellie, Carolina, and the others that a body had been found and identified through medical and dental records to be Daniel Shaunessy, aged twenty-three.
Carolina remembered beginning to cry. Ellie's father had to carry his wife to the living room, because she had dissolved into tears and fallen, clutching at her husband. Ellie turned to Carolina and they cried together, wanting to return to moments before, with dreams still alive, however bleak.
But Danny was gone and things would never be the same.
** ** ** ** **
July, Present Day
I once loved a man named Danny Shaunessy, who went away to war and never came home. He was twenty-three years old, and died with his boots on before he knew what hit him. He was everything to some of us, and now he's gone.
A/N: I fixed it up a tad bit. There were two or three typos that were driving me nuts, and I tweaked the ending a wee bit, though it's still the same in all it's depressing, awful glory. It's still a wee bit more rushed than I'd like but I've got NaNo to edit and a few other things to edit. Hope you enjoyed. [Note: thanks to you guys who've reviewed so far. I appreciate it.]