We're back with Rachael Ritchey
, the weekly keyword-driven flash-fiction contest. (We're also linked with Coffee and Conversation
and Wedded Wednesday.
The word this week is LURK
This story is a continuation of "The Distance Between Hearts
"; you may want to drop by there first.
Where Lurks Meaning
Slow time. The 155s were firing desultory H&I, and off in the distance a flareship was interrupting Charlie's sleep with Bright burning magnesium. And we had a deck on which to relax, and enjoy. Well, the louvered plates over the engine. Sonny had the headphones, and Biff was reading The Cost of Discipleship
"Gonna write her, TC?"
"Dude?" I feigned dawning wakefulness. I knew what he meant.
"Charlie's wife. Marie. I think you should."
"I may be a lifer, but I didn't mean Leavenworth." Sending a letter to a Hanoi address wasn't a particular enhancement to my career.
"You're not a lifer. We're going to Israel. And you won't go to Leavenworth."
"Dude, I am SO comforted by your confidence."
"You should be. It's all arranged."
I sighed. This was one man you didn't second-guess. "Go on."
"I talked to the chaplain, and he's got a friend here, a French priest. And the priest knows people...you write a letter, it goes by diplomatic bag."
"With my name on it. Nice."
"No," said The Dude patiently, "with my
name on it."
"I'm your shield, TC. You dictate to me, and it'll be in my own handwriting, in French."
"You speak French
?" The Dude already spoke Vietnamese, but a polylingual tank driver seemed too much.
"Not well, but I can write it." The Dude paused. "Accurately."
"So you'll go to Leavenworth, and not me..." I was going to say more, but The Dude waved his hand to cut me off.
"I've been there."
Sonny had been listening, one ear uncovered. "Whad y'all do?"
"Something I wasn't supposed to do."
Sonny was nothing if not perceptive. "Ah," he said, and went back to the original subject. "I think y'all otter writer too, TC."
I shook my head. "What am I going to say
? I mean, Dude, if you're so set on my writing, why don't you
Sonny spoke for him. "It's y'all's job, TC. It done goes with th' strahpes."
The Dude said, idly, "Know what else has three stripes, TC?"
"Dude I have no
idea what you mean by that."
"Nothing. But Sonny's raht...uh, right, TC. It';s your job." Sonny tossed him a message pad. "Ready when you are."
Biff had been dragged away from Bonhoeffer, and was perched on the turret. Great. A full audience.
"Well...Dude, what do I say
"How about bonjour
? That's a good way to start."
The Dude looked at Sonny and Biff. "Guys?"
Biff spoke first. "Just tell her what happened, TC."
So I did. I dictated a letter that told Marie I was sorry I couldn't identify myself, but that I was with her husband Nguyen when he died, and that he was thinking of her. I told her he had fought bravely, and that I regretted that we had to be enemies in this war, as I thought I might have liked him as a friend.
The last line was kind of a flight of fancy, but it might make her feel better.
"OK." The Dude slipped his pencil into a chest pocket. "I'll put this on plain stationery, and send it on its way." He sidled around the turret, and dropped into the driver's hatch.
"Think she'll get it, TC?" asked Biff.
""Well, The Dude says she will."
Sonny nodded vigorously. "Yeah. The Dude says done, yeah, done."
The last thing I expected was an answer, but here, two weeks later, came The Dude, walking quickly from the hootch the chaplain shared with the dentist.He was waving an envelope, and from his animation I knew it had to be from Hanoi.
There was an odd flutter in my chest.
"Gonna read it to us, TC?" asked Sonny.
"Please?" Biff put up his hands in a praying gesture.
The Dude handed me the envelope, which wasn't sealed. I looked at him, and he shrugged. "Sure." I said. "Why not."
"It's in English," said The Dude. "Well, most of it."
The paper was scented, and I held it to my nose for a moment, eyes shut. When I opened them, Sonny's hand was outstretched. "Givvit here, TC."
I handed it across. He inhaled deeply, then passed it to Biff, who took a sniff and softly said, "Mom."
The Dude retrieved the letter and handed it to me. "Go ahead."
"Please be accepting of the gratitude I am feeling on receipt of your letter. While I am grieved that my dear Nguyen is killed, I am grateful to God that someone was with him at the end. May I say that you were a friend to him?
"No one should die in loneliness, and in saving Nguyen from this I think and pray that God will protect you. I hope that your survival will be assured.
"I am enclosing a picture of myself in our garden. You may have it for your own, for I have another. Nguyen loved the flowers, and wanted to grow them for the decorations, but the war came, and there has been little time for flowers.
"I am again grateful for this opportunity to write to you this letter. If you would care to write to me once and again, may I say that it would be pleasing?
"Dude, take the radio," said Sonny. "I gotta take a dump." He jumped straight from the turret to the ground, a long way, and walked heavily into the night, at an angle away from the latrine trench.
The picture Marie had sent was small, and black and white, and it showed her standing amidst a spray of flowers. Her head was tiled back, and her mouth was slightly open, as if she was about to laugh at something the photographer had just said. I wondered if the photographer had been that North Vietnamese soldier to whose exsanguination I had borne witness.
Of course it was. Love isn't hidden by the small size of the image, or the shades of white and gray.
Sonny returned, still from the wrong direction. The Dude lent him a hand to pull him onto the deck.
Sonny stumbled a little, and wiped his eyes, and then said, "TC, could y'all read it agin?"
Wondering at the depths my loader might have, I said, "Sure," and read.
When I got to the end, Sonny was looking off into the distance. The flareship was still up and now Puff was circling something on the ground, hosing tracer like the wrathful finger of God. His old piston engines were lost in the distant cloth-tearing sound of the miniguns in the old airliner's windows.
"Well, TC, ah knows wha 'we's'all heah, now. Now ah gits it."
"We's heah to make th' world a kinda place where nahce ladies lahk that ain't gotta write them kinda letters."
He looked at me, and now the unexpected tears fell, and I would never tell a soul. "Ya really think, TC? Someday?"
"Someday, Sonny. Yes."