Here's a little experiment.
Because I don't want to have to answer any more questions from well-meaning relatives and friends that sound something like this, "When is your book coming out?" "I couldn't find your book on Amazon..." and so on...let me clarify.
I am not published nor under contract with a publisher, and the chances of that happening in the next year are...well...bleak. So stop asking.
With that said, I'll give you a present.
Since you won't be reading any of my work for a while in real book form, I thought I'd put it out here for you to read on my blog. A chapter a week. My only request, (and I realize I can't hold you to this), is that if you are reading, please tell me you are. Hate it, love it, whatever. Feedback is golden, so bring it on.
A little history...
This book takes place during the Vietnam war. I have no idea why. I just woke up one day with this idea in my head and there it was. I lived and breathed Vietnam for about a year. A LOT of blood, sweat and tears went in to the writing and re-writing, and re-writing of this novel.
It is, as they say, the book of my heart.
I do believe it will be published one day despite predictions to the contrary.
But for now, I give you,
© Catherine West. 2009.
Didn’t they know they were shouting so loud the neighbors could hear?
Kristin Taylor huddled in bed, drew her knees to her chest and clapped her hands over her ears. It was past ten o’clock. She was supposed to be asleep, but their heated argument woke her. Again. Through the thin wall she heard Daddy’s voice rise and Mom burst into tears. Kristin gritted her teeth and began to hum her favorite song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
A moment of peace settled over the brownstone apartment. Kristin smiled and wiped her eyes. It worked every time, even if she couldn’t hit the high notes.
Dad started yelling again. She blew out a breath and switched on the lamp on her bedside table, illuminating her small room. Something smashed against the other side of her wall and shattered. More yells. Kristin narrowed her eyes. She threw back the covers. How could she sleep with this racket going on?
She hopped off her bed and pushed her arms through the sleeves of her thick flannel robe. No way would she be able to walk past Mrs. Jenkins’ tomorrow on the way home from school. Their old nosey neighbor would surely invite her in for cookies and milk and try to get the story out of her.
The air felt cold in contrast to her warm bed as Kristin padded barefoot across the faded rug to her dresser. She ran a hand along the stack of books squashed between two hand-carved wooden bookends. The frayed bindings of Heidi, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice and her Bible, shared space with all the Agatha Christie novels Kristin could get her hands on. Every once in a while Mom came in to clean, found them, screamed and threatened to throw them out, but Daddy wouldn’t let her.
“The child has an inquisitive mind, Val. We should encourage that.”
“And you do a fine job,” Mom retaliated. “She’s only twelve years old! She should be reading something more…genteel…what’s wrong with The Brontë sisters?”
Kristin suddenly remembered the Ian Fleming book hidden under her bed and grinned. Dad snuck it in to her room a couple of nights ago. She’d start it now. Hopefully she could finish the whole story before Mom got her hands on it.
Her eyes landed on the silver framed black-and-white image of Daddy getting his Pulitzer two years ago. They said he was probably the youngest journalist to ever receive the award. She should be proud. She was. Mom didn’t seem so happy about it. Everyone wanted Daddy to go all over the world now.
As the shouting died down again, she heard the distinct sound of drawers being pulled open and slammed shut. And she heard something else too.
Kristin tiptoed down the hall to her brother’s room. The lamp on the dresser shed a soft glow over Teddy’s round face. He sat up in his bed, fists curled into balls held against his chest. His eyes were scrunched tight—as if that would make it stop.
Compassion for him rose as she saw his shoulders shaking. He was always afraid she’d make fun of him for being a crybaby. Not tonight. She wanted to cry too.
She skipped over Lincoln logs and Tinkertoys and scrambled up onto the bed beside him, eager to get her cold feet under the covers. “Scooch over.”
Teddy’s bottom lip quivered but he made a supreme effort to stop crying, and shifted his small frame to give her room in the twin bed. She put an arm around his trembling shoulders and squeezed. He let out a long sigh that matched her own. “Is…Daddy…gonna leave again?”
Kristin hated the hot tears that pricked her eyes. She couldn’t fall apart. Teddy needed her. Later, Mom probably would too. She stiffened and set her jaw. “I don’t know. I heard them talking earlier. His editor wants to send him to Vietnam.”
“Vietnam?” Teddy looked up at her, his blue eyes turning gray in the dim light of his bedroom. “Where’s that?”
Kristin rolled her eyes but immediately felt guilty. He was only ten for crying out loud. Well, almost ten. She couldn’t expect him to know everything. “Some place far away.”
“Why do they want him to go there?”
Because the French and the Vietnamese are fighting a big war and they want him to write about it. Because he’s the best war correspondent that ever lived… Kristin ran her tongue over her bottom lip and tried not to get frustrated. “Because he has to go talk to some important people and write a story about it.”
Teddy sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “Why can’t somebody else do it? I want Dad to stay here. Tomorrow’s my birthday. We’re going to the ice rink, remember?”
“Yeah. I remember.”
Teddy shivered and leaned against her shoulder. “But he’ll come back, right?”
Kristin screwed up her nose. Why did Teddy always ask her everything? Couldn’t he figure something out for himself for once?
“He’ll come back, right? And then we’ll go skating?”
She tried to smile but her heart pounded too fast. “Of course he’s coming back. He always comes back, dummy.”
She hesitated, but only for a moment. “I promise. Now can you go back to sleep? It’s getting late.”
The shouts grew louder, closer. Kristin scrambled off Teddy’s bed and went to the door. She poked her head out in time to see her parents brush past her. Daddy held a suitcase in one hand, his battered leather briefcase in the other. And his coat was slung over one arm. Kristin glanced back at Teddy, about to tell him to stay put, but her brother was already behind her, standing barefoot in blue cotton pajamas, his dark hair tousled, an errant cowlick falling over one red-rimmed eye.
Her heart hammering against her chest, she put out her hand. “Come on.”
With Teddy just behind her, squeezing her fingers so hard she thought he might pull them off, they ran down the stairs, drawing up short at the entrance to the living room. The French doors were open. Teddy slammed into her and jumped back with a yelp. Mom and Dad turned their way.
Mom let out a little cry and shook her head, then put her mad face on. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“We couldn’t sleep.” Kristin brushed hair out of her eyes and stuck out her chin. “You were making a lot of noise.”
Mom threw up her hands and huffed, sinking onto the couch. Kristin couldn’t remember ever seeing her wear her hair down, but tonight it fell around her cheeks and curled on her shoulders. She would have looked pretty if her face wasn’t so red and her eyes all puffy.
Mom glared at Dad, pulled at the belt around her green woolen dress and kicked off her high heels. “All yours, Mac.”
Dad rubbed his jaw, set his bags down and released a sigh from somewhere deep inside. His lips stretched apart in a feeble attempt at a smile. Dark circles lined his brown eyes and stubble covered his jaw. Guilt skittered across his face as he looked from her to Teddy.
The air suddenly got sucked out of the room, like someone untying the knot of a balloon. Kristin shook her head and yanked the sash of her robe as tight as it would go. He was leaving.
Dad dropped to one knee in front of them and held out both arms. “Come here.”
Teddy let her hand go and ran to him. She knew he would. And he’d probably start crying again. But she wouldn’t. Kristin folded her arms and stayed put, challenging her father with her eyes. He veered his gaze and concentrated on Teddy.
She stood there, like playing statues in gym class, listening while he gave his excuses to Teddy. Of course he had no choice. He never did.
Her brother could be placated with promises of season’s tickets to the Red Sox and a long train-ride from South Station to Grand Central and back, but she wasn’t going to play that game. Kristin blinked away tears as Teddy threw his arms around Dad’s neck and hugged him tight. Then Mom took Teddy by the hand and led him back upstairs.
Kristin shifted on the thin rug, wishing she’d put on her slippers. Dad’s knees creaked as he rose and made his way toward her. He reached for her hand but she tightened her arms. A tear escaped and rolled off down her cheek. Kristin lowered her head.
“Oh, Kris.” Dad knelt before her. His hands warmed her arms through the sleeves of her robe. “Sweetheart, look at me.”
Kristin slowly raised her chin until she made eye contact. “Sorry.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What do you have to be sorry for?”
She shrugged, but couldn’t think of anything either.
Kristin noticed for the first time a few streaks of gray in his hair. His white starched shirt sat open at the collar, his thin black tie slightly askew. Dad’s eyes were bright, sad. His strong mouth lifted into a grin as he wiped a tear from her cheek with the base of his thumb. When she sniffed, moisture shot up her nose. She gave a small involuntary shiver.
“Are you going to Vietnam to write about the war?” She hoped she’d been wrong, but knew she wasn’t.
A shadow ran across his face and he frowned. Then something chased off the sad look and he chuckled. “You’re going to make a fine journalist one day, young lady.”
Kristin rolled her eyes and pushed out her bottom lip. “Mom won’t let me.”
“Sure she will. By then you’ll be all grown up. Making your own decisions. Leaving your old man in the dust.”
“We could write stories together,” she offered. “Taylor and Taylor.” Her grin faltered as she watched his eyes moisten. Kristin sucked in a breath. Dad never cried.
He pulled her to him and rested his lips against her forehead for a moment. “Sounds good to me.” He sat back on his heels, solemn. “Look after your brother.”
“I always do.”
“And don’t fight with your Mom.”
Kristin looked down, studying the scuffs on his normally shiny shoes.
“Okay. I won’t.” She met his eyes again and the lump in her throat got bigger. Her skin prickled as an odd sensation slid down her spine. He’d left before. Lots of times. But this felt different. “You’re coming back, right?”
His face cracked in a funny sort of smile. “Of course I am. But you’ll pray for me, every night, just like always?”
“Yeah.” She tried to smile back. “God will keep you safe, Dad. He always does.” Kristin put her arms around him and rested her head against his shoulder as he hugged her. She inhaled by habit. Tobacco and coffee mingled with the cologne he always wore. She could never remember the name of it but they got a bottle for his birthday every year. He said he didn’t mind, but maybe this year they should do something different.
A flash of headlights chased dust across the room. Dad stood, his smile gone. “There’s my cab.”
Kristin watched Mom come forward and Dad take her in his arms. They stood together in silence for a while. Mom stepped back, rested her palm flat against Dad’s face. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. His hand came over hers and their eyes met as he pulled her closer and kissed her, a long kiss that seemed to go on forever. Kristin almost felt she shouldn’t be watching. But she was glad she was.
“Why does it have to be tonight?” Mom whispered.
Dad shrugged, tucking a strand of her thick hair behind her ear. “War doesn’t wait on birthdays, Valerie.” Dad pulled on his coat, gave Mom a final kiss and picked up his bags. “I’ll call when I can.” He turned to Kristin. “Bye, kiddo. I love you.”
The little girl in her wanted to run back into her father’s arms and beg him not to go. But she wasn’t a little girl. She would turn thirteen this year. “Bye, Dad. Love you, too.”
Mom walked with him to the door. Kristin raced to the window at the front of the room, pressed her nose against the cold glass and watched Dad get into the waiting cab.
A light snow swirled around the soft yellow glow of the streetlamp outside their building. Maybe it would storm and his flight wouldn’t be able to leave Boston. Kristin pushed harder against the windowpane. It wouldn’t matter. He’d get another one. His job was very important. More important than anything else.
The taxi pulled out onto the deserted street and Kristin squinted through the window. Her breath made it fog up and she wiped furiously, seeing Dad raise a hand in her direction. She waved back just in time before he drove away.
“Do not go out into the fields, or out onto the roads, for the enemy has a sword, and there is terror on every side.” Jeremiah 6:25
“The past cannot be erased, nor forgotten. Flash photography; hellish images carved into our minds, emblazoned in our hearts forever. Golden threads hold yesterday together and form the foundations for tomorrow.
But what of today?” Kristin Taylor - Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Vietnam – My Story. 1979
February 1967, Saigon, Vietnam.
Kristin shuffled along in the line of travel-weary passengers that trickled off the plane. Blinking as her eyes adjusted to the daylight, she shook off sleep and gripped the handrail, walking on unsteady legs down the metal steps. When her shoes hit the tarmac of Tan Son Nhut airport, tears sprang to her eyes. Her hand went to the intricately carved cross that hung around her neck. She rubbed the thick gold between her thumb and forefinger.
I’m here, Dad.
She stepped aside to let others pass while she shifted her heavy duffel bag on her shoulder and took in her surroundings. The early morning sun’s rays jack-knifed off the tarred surface and created a stifling heat. It couldn’t be more than seven o’clock and already the warmth engulfed her. Pungent fumes of gasoline tickled her nose. Kristin pulled on dark sunglasses and looked down the runway.
Aircraft of varying description lined the blacktop. Everything from helicopters to small fighter jets, to the Pan American Boeing 707 she had just exited. Gray, green and brown flying machines blended together in an impressive show of US military power.
She’d have to start learning all the names of the helicopters and planes she envisioned herself soon jumping aboard.
Army personnel moved smoothly around most of the aircrafts, refueling and working on engines. Rows of enlisted men lined up to board a larger plane also being loaded with cargo. Soldiers sweating in the heat heaved supplies on to the plane’s large interior. Over the roar of engines, shouts punched the air as commanding officers rounded up their companies. Her pulse quickened as she scanned the groups of soldiers, searching, hoping...
Kristin gave a slight shake of her head. As if she’d run in to Teddy the minute she stepped off the plane.
The night before he shipped out, three months ago now, her brother had called from San Francisco. He told her and Mom not to worry. He’d been eager to go, a little apprehensive, but held no doubt that serving his country was the right thing to do.
During a lull in the activity on the tarmac, a low rumbling somewhere off in the distance reached her ears. An explosion?
A surge of adrenaline shot through her. She longed to get a closer look at the men, but turned away, catching up with the rest of the arrivals as they filtered in to the crowded airport. Vietnamese men and women dressed in colorful pajama-like clothing darted in and out of the maze of olive-green and khaki uniforms. Strong odors of perfume, tobacco and other more unpleasant smells wafted around her.
Her eyes tracked the signage, all in Vietnamese, and her ears captured the quickly spoken foreign tongue on every side of her. Maybe this wouldn’t be as easy as she’d imagined. A slow seed of doubt began to take root.
Well, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Kristin moved along with the crowd through Immigration, brightening when she spied the doors that led out of the airport. Then reality set in.
She’d made it to Vietnam. Now what?
She ignored the slight twinge of panic and glanced around the long room, searching for the four journalists she’d sat beside on the last leg of the flight. They were on their way back to Saigon from a stay in Hong Kong for R&R and had been quite happy to chat.
Their stories fascinated her. Scared her. The Frenchman’s tales seemed a bit too dramatic though. He wore a teasing look the whole time. Caroline, the only other female on the flight, sounded like she might be British. They’d greeted each other, she’d told Kristin she worked for United Press International, but that was all.
Kristin wasn’t working for anyone. Yet.
“Ah, Kristin, chèrie.” Strange relief flooded through her at the sound of her own name being called in the midst of this foreign chaos. The Frenchman, Jean Luc, bustled toward her, carrying two large cases. “’Ave you got your stuff?”
“This is it.” She tugged on her bag loaded with all her worldly possessions, including her typewriter. Sweat formed on her brow and a drop rolled down the side of her face. Fatigue slowly descended.
“You ‘ave got a place to stay, oui?
“No, actually, I don’t.”
Ludicrous as that sounded, Jean Luc didn’t bat an eye. “Oy.” One suitcase hit the ground with a thud as he dropped it and ran a hand through his shoulder length hair. He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled to the group huddled together on the far side of the terminal building. “Caroline, sweetie, a minute please…” He waved her over. Breathing heavily, he pulled a faded red bandana from the chest pocket of his beige Safari shirt and wiped his brow. He turned to Kristin, soft brown eyes sparkling. “You don’t move, oui?”
“Oui.” Kristin let her bag slide off her shoulder and positioned herself on the top of one of his large leather cases and watched Jean Luc lumber over to meet Caroline halfway. Not moving sounded just fine. It wasn’t like she had anywhere to go anyway. Or even knew where to go.
Oh, yeah. She’d done some stupid things in her twenty-five years, but this—quitting her job at The Daily and hopping a plane to Vietnam—definitely topped the list.
Kristin glanced at her watch, mentally calculating the time back in Boston.
Oy indeed. Oy vey. Mom would be pacing the living room, either holding the letter Kristin left for her or ripping it up. Either way, the next time they saw each other would not be anything to look forward to.
They’d fought for weeks over her determination to come here. Mom agreed with Kristin’s editor. Former editor. A war zone was no place for a woman. Besides that, she’d pulled the old religious guilt trip. Had Kristin prayed about it? How did she know it was God’s will for her to go to Vietnam?
She didn’t. But she was pretty sure God didn’t care one way or another. Kristin stopped praying a long time ago—the day they got the news that Dad had been killed in Vietnam.
Mom would calm down. Kristin would call home once she got a job. Her mother would see reason. Eventually.
Kristin pushed her hair out of her face, sweat stinging her eyes. She longed for a long drink and a good night’s sleep, her level of hunger and exhaustion escalating at the prospect. In the excitement of her first long flight, she’d hardly slept or eaten. If she didn’t come up with some place to go soon, she’d just curl up right here in the airport.
Jean Luc returned, flushed but beaming. “Okay. We ‘ave a plan.”
Caroline, the tall leggy blond with a face so flawless she could pass for a model, stood beside him. “Jean Luc says you need a place to stay.” She raised a thin eyebrow, lit a cigarette and blew smoke over Kristin’s head. Kristin nodded.
Caroline sniffed, her expression thoughtful. “My roomie’s gone back to New Zealand. It’s a one bedroom flat, two beds, small kitchen and bathroom, a block away from The Majestic Hotel, where a lot of the press guys stay. I’m in and out of the city. If you’re interested…”
Kristin’s jaw dropped. What unbelievable luck. But how would she pay for this? Her savings might last a month or two at best. Hope flickered and died. “Um. How much…I…”
Caroline stubbed out her half-smoked cigarette on the stone floor with the high heel of her boot. Her clear blue eyes roamed over Kristin’s face. “You don’t have a job, do you…what was your name again?”
“Kristin Taylor.” Kristin stiffened, pushing herself to a standing position. Although they were probably around the same age, Caroline gave off an air of superiority she hadn’t picked up on earlier. “I plan to get work as a stringer. I’ll have the money.” Did she really want this woman as a flat-mate? She didn’t even know her. She could be psychotic. Kristin ran her tongue over her dry lips. The alternative was…well, there wasn’t one.
Caroline frowned, as though mulling it over. “You know you’ll need press credentials if you want to get anywhere outside the city. I’m sure something will come up though. Listen, why don’t you go and have a look at the place? I’ve got to get to a meeting with my boss, but here…” She foraged in her shoulder bag and came up with a notepad and pen. She handed Kristin a piece of paper. Kristin squinted at the barely legible writing.
“Right, I’ve got to run. Oh, here’s the key, but the apartment should be unlocked. Madame Dupont, my landlady, does laundry for me. She always forgets to lock the door. Just ignore the mess. I’ll stop by the flat later and we can chat. Ta.” Caroline marched off to rejoin her comrades, leaving Kristin to suck air in her perfumed wake.
Jean Luc clapped his big hands together, clearly pleased with himself. “Voilà! We can share a cab, oui?”
“Oui.” Kristin picked up her bag and smiled. She’d made it to Vietnam. She had a place to stay. Next, she’d get a job. She’d show them back home what she was made of. Her former boss would regret not sending her here to write for The Daily.
She could do this. She had to do this.
The drive to the apartment building in Saigon turned in to an interminable journey of stopping and starting. The putrid smell inside the beat up blue Renault taxi was almost unbearable. Jean Luc grinned and pinched his nose. Kristin leaned a little closer to the open window, peering around her in fascination.
Men, women and children jostled for space along sidewalks amongst what she could only assume were peddlers in brightly colored tunics and trousers, wearing large conical shaped hats. Many bowed under the weight of a wooden bar balanced across their shoulders on which a straw basket hung from each side. Large green avocados piled high in some, while other baskets held bright oranges and some other fruit she didn’t recognize.
Tall trees lined the city sidewalks, their lush branches giving much needed shade from the blistering sun. They passed rows of concrete buildings, some almost comparable to what she’d left back in Boston, but no skyscrapers. Much of the architecture, especially the churches and the larger houses, appeared French in design, painted in shades of blue, peach, pink and yellow. As they veered off on to smaller side streets, shops of every description almost sat on top of each other. Striped awnings overhung many of them. Fruit stalls, vegetable stalls and…oh, gross. Kristin covered her mouth with her hand. What was that?
“You don’t eat from there. Ever.” Jean Luc pointed at the hanging animal carcasses and made a horrible face. Kristin looked beyond the vile sight. No chance of that, Jean Luc.
As they drove further along, burnt out shops and dilapidated structures here and there told of the ravages of war, and its toll on the city.
“I thought Saigon was relatively safe.” She turned to him, apprehension crawling up her spine. Her palms were moist against the ripped leather seat of the cab.
He grinned and lit a cigarette. “What is relative, chèrie?”
Kristin shrugged and pushed down trepidation. “You’re right.” She’d come here to do a job, once she got one, to cover the war. And she would prove her worth as a journalist. Of course it would have been much easier if her editor had just given her the chance. Instead, they’d chosen to send Joe Hines, twice her age and overweight. Poor Joe wouldn’t last a week in Vietnam.
Kristin shook off thoughts of home and stared out the window again. The number of vehicles on the roads startled her. Cars, military jeeps and trucks jammed every bit of the asphalt. Pedal-bikes and motorcycles zipped on by, weaving in and out of the traffic. Powerful fumes stung her eyes and made them water. The cab inched along until there was a break in the traffic.
Men pushing pedicabs ran along the side of the road. Kristin flinched each time they passed one, thinking the cab would surely hit it, and send the runner and his passengers flying.
Stifling heat emanated through her pores. Never a fan of bitter cold, Kristin looked forward to a change in climate, but hadn’t anticipated the oppression of this sauna-like atmosphere despite the way Teddy had described it.
Her fingers slipped into the pocket of her jeans and felt for the thin envelope, her brother’s last letter to her before she’d left the United States. She wiped sweat from her brow and frowned. He hadn’t revealed his location, but she knew he was a combat medic with Charlie company. He could be anywhere. But she’d find him. After leaving Mom the way she had, Kristin vowed to get some news on her brother to send back home. The letters he wrote gave little information. Mom had tried to mask her worry, but Kristin knew how hard this was on her. She worried about Teddy too.
The cab pulled up outside a large white five-story building with a rounded front. The words Hotel Majestic in large black lettering teetered at the top of the building.
“This is me.” Jean Luc gathered his gear and grasped her hand. “Later, chèrie. Come for a drink, okay?”
“Cool. Thanks.” Kristin watched her only friend in Vietnam disappear through the glass doors of the hotel and suddenly felt very much alone.
The car jerked and spluttered and pulled back in to traffic, and she stifled a yawn She’d never been so tired… she’d just close her eyes for a minute…
The next thing she knew the driver was shouting at her in Vietnamese. Kristin squinted up at the three-storey building in front of her. Distinctly French in architecture, pink paint crumbled in places where the cement had shifted. Two sorry-looking potted palm trees sat sentry at the entrance. A small brass nameplate on the side of the building read: La Maison Dupont.
Good enough. She paid her driver and made her way inside. She entered a small living room area and glanced around. There wasn’t much to see. The worn wallpaper looked like it had once been pink. A tattered Persian rug curled at the edges lay on the floor in front of the reception desk. Two faded rose-patterned easy chairs were positioned in front of a fireplace. Kristin almost laughed aloud as sweat dripped down her back. When would they ever need that?
“Hello? Madame Dupont?” She glanced over a raised wooden desk into a miniscule office. Nobody answered except a black cat that jumped down from the counter and prowled around her legs. Kristin cringed and moved aside. “Stay out of my way, cat, and we’ll get along just fine.”
She called out again but the place appeared deserted. Kristin turned toward the only set of stairs in view. Caroline said her flat was on the second floor, first door on the left. She heaved her bag to her other shoulder and made her way to the darkened stairway. The stairs creaked under her. A thin carpet runner proved more of a hindrance, bare in spots and easy to trip over. Nails stuck out of the wood here and there and she took her time avoiding them. As she reached the top, Kristin breathed a sigh of relief.
A long dark hallway stretched out before her. She raised her eyes and looked for the light. Two bare bulbs hung from the ceiling. Finding the switch, she flicked it upward. Nothing.
Squinting through the semi-darkness, Kristin studied Caroline’s instructions. Even if she could see the writing, she probably couldn’t read it. A wave of exhaustion swept over her and she stumbled toward the door on the left. Tried the knob and sure enough, it was open.
She found the light switch on the wall and thankfully this time the overhead light came on. Kristin widened her eyes. This was more than just a mess. A hurricane had ripped through the small apartment. That, or her new roommate was a total slob. She stepped over piles of clothes and magazines. A large pair of muddy combat boots sat in one corner near the door.
Only her own voice echoed back to her.
Kristin didn’t bother to pull up the blinds as she poked around the boxy rooms. All she really wanted to do was sleep. She found a tiny kitchen and one bedroom with two twin beds. One bed was unmade, sheets tangled every which way. The second bed was covered in a light mauve bedspread, what looked to be freshly folded sheets sitting on the single pillow.
The battered-looking dresser was cluttered with newspapers, camera film and notebooks. A cramped bathroom tiled in white lay off the bedroom. A shower just big enough for one thin person, a cast iron claw-foot tub and toilet took up most of the space. Towels lay strewn across the floor. Judging by the musty smell that filled the room, they’d been there a while. But the small circular tiles on the wall sparkled, and Kristin smiled. Perhaps she could just live in the bathroom.
Thirst scratched her throat as she retraced her steps to the kitchen. Her hand shaking from exhaustion and lack of sustenance, she turned the tap. It squeaked and sputtered, then spat out a slow stream of water. Kristin frowned at the brown tinge. She washed her hands but decided not to drink it. She’d have to boil some water to keep in the fridge. Assuming there is one…
A brief scan of the room revealed a cubic four by four, almost hidden behind the door. Bits of rust showed through the white paint. She pulled the handle, opened the door and quickly shut it again, gagging as the odor of sour milk reached her nose.
Back in the living room Kristin surveyed the mess. Ear-splitting honks from the street below startled her. She’d have to get used to the noise, as well as the heat. She didn’t dare close the window for fear of suffocating. An upward glance showed her a ceiling fan, and she pulled the cord. The groan and shudder it gave made her jump out of range, but the blades began to move and warm air circled around her. Better than nothing.
Kristin lugged her bag across the scuffed wood floor into the bedroom. Maybe she could take a nap while she waited for Caroline to show up. She stretched her arms over her head and yawned. She couldn’t keep her eyes open. The empty bed looked inviting. Folded sheets, a blanket and pillow sat at its head. Another yawn overtook her. Yes, a nap would be very good. Very good indeed.
Luke Maddox entered his apartment, chucked his duffel bag across the living room and shuddered as a yawn escaped him. Jonno sauntered in after him and let out a low whistle.
“Holy cow, what happened in here? Looks like a tornado hit the place, man.”
Luke chuckled and made for the kitchen. He pulled open the rusted four by four fridge and scanned the contents and quickly stepped back. Moldy cheese. Milk—yellow milk. And…well, he didn’t know what that was. Something green and slimy, and definitely not edible. Only a jug of boiled water on the bottom shelf remained safe. Madame came in to refill it every morning.
He shut the door and let out the breath he’d been holding. “There’s no food. I haven’t been home in a while. Sorry.” He returned to the living room. His friend was already stretched out on the couch. Jonno turned on his side, pulled an issue of Time magazine out from under his head and dropped it to the floor.
“Too tired to eat anyway. I’m just gonna…sleep.”
“Okay.” Luke pushed his fingers through his hair and frowned. Dirt was embedded in his pores. He knew if he looked in the mirror his face would be covered in the red soil they ripped over for half the night. Exhaustion crept over him. He clenched his jaw and strode over to the round table by the window, pulled his camera strap over his head and set the Nikon down. Photographs covered almost the entire surface. He poked at them with a grimy finger.
Glancing over his shoulder, Luke saw Jonno’s eyes begin to close. He turned back to the table. Carefully he pulled out a small leather wallet hidden beneath the pile of photographs and flipped it open. He never took it with him. Couldn’t risk losing it. He allowed his eyes to rest on the familiar smiling images.
Luke inhaled sharply, blinking in the dim glow of the overhead light. Melissa’s two year-old cheeky grin tugged at his heart. The dull ache in his chest returned.
“Y’all get any good shots yesterday?” Jonno’s Southern drawl drifted across the room.
A smile inched up one corner of Luke’s mouth and he pushed the album back under the other pictures. “Thought you were asleep.”
Silence. Another yawn from Jonno.
“What?” He placed his palms flat on the table and drew in a breath. His lids grew heavy. When had he slept last? Yesterday? The day before?
“Do you ever wonder if…if it’s the right thing to do?”
Luke pulled at the collar of his damp t-shirt and squared his shoulders. His pulse pounded through a tendon in his jaw and he rubbed the bruised spot, grimacing. He couldn’t bring himself to turn around. “I can have you transferred to somebody else if you’d prefer. Just say the word.”
“Nah.” Jonno grunted. “I’m cool. Don’t sweat it.”
“Okay. Sleep. I’m going to shower.”
Kristin woke with a start. Still in her jeans and t-shirt, she squinted in the darkened room, getting her bearings. Where was she? Ah, yes. Vietnam. She stretched her arms above her head and smiled. Then bolted upright.
‘You’re listing to Armed Forces Radio, Vietnam. Current time is nine oh, oh. We’re looking for a high of ninety-eight degrees today, folks. Now, here’s a little Rolling Stones to get you going this fine morning. ‘It’s Not Easy’. You all stay safe out there…’
The radio. Kristin ran a hand down her face and let out her breath. Caroline must have arrived. A man’s chuckle reached her ears. And brought some friends back with her. She worked the kinks out of her neck, pushed herself off the bed and wandered barefoot across the threadbare carpet out into the next room.
Kristin froze, swallowed back a scream and stared down the barrel of a small pistol.