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Accept the Broken Heart

Accept the Broken Heart

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Accept the Broken Heart

Length:
675 pages
10 hours
Released:
Aug 23, 2016
ISBN:
9781370471836
Format:
Book

Description

What can be said of Hell, when at its most quiet, I was most terrified? The explosions that had rocked every fiber of my being and made my bones feel like they could simply shatter like tempered glass still resonated.

I looked over at the wounded, wondering if I had the same haunted look in my eyes, and thought I probably did. In this war, no one leaves. No one goes home...and everyone is a casualty of war.

Released:
Aug 23, 2016
ISBN:
9781370471836
Format:
Book

About the author

Robin Leigh Anderson was born in the Montana Rockies and escaped to California in the early 1970s. She attended school in Montana, Washington State, and California, eventually settling in beautiful Santa Barbara with child and cats where she lived for 38 years before escaping sans grown child and late cats to Northern California. An advocate of reinventing oneself, Ms. Anderson dabbled in many of the major disciplines of life, providing fodder for the writing she pursued since she was eight. She has won numerous awards at writing conferences over the years, and was staff of the prestigious Santa Barbara Writer Conference for ten years. She has published numerous articles and short stories in her lifetime. She taught “crash-and-burn” intensive writing seminars in Santa Barbara and was the moderator of a writers’ critique group. She still conducts occasional seminars and enjoys editing others’ works, words being her all-consuming passion, as she writes in several genres.

Book Preview

Accept the Broken Heart - Robin Leigh Anderson

One

For Reenie, For Us all

July 1999

The psychiatrist paced in front of the windows of the sterile pale gray room, his gaze never leaving his patient hunched in a chair across from me at the table.

Irene, honey? I said, placing my hand near her arm. Her skin was so pale and dry. Reenie? It’s Robin, sweetie, it’s Sissy. Can you hear me?

Sissy, she whispered, her eyes fixed on the opposite wall.

I took a chance. I gently placed my hand over hers. She turned, gazing at me with moist, bleary eyes. Where had the light in those bright green eyes gone? I inhaled deeply to steady my nerves. Reenie, I said again. Her fingers twined in mine. I tried not to hold her hand too tightly. I wanted to talk to you about something really important.

Important, she repeated softly, blinking hard as if to improve her focus.

I took in another deep breath. I’ve started writing about it, Reenie, all of it. I’m writing a book.

Irene pulled her hand away and sat up straighter in the metal chair. You always wrote in your diaries, she said.

Yes, I nodded. They are valuable tools as I write the book. I hesitated. To tell the truth or not. Do I dare ask her? I really need to tell the whole story, I said, everything.

Irene swallowed hard. The whole story. You will tell the whole… The doctor stepped toward us. Irene looked up at him, then back to me. You need to tell the whole story, she said clearly. I heard genuine conviction in her words. She wasn’t simply echoing mine.

There’s more, honey, I said as gently as I could. I want to use real names. I’ve talked to a lot of the others. I want to use your name.

I don’t know about this, the doctor said. I didn’t like his tone.

Irene looked up at him again. You weren’t there, she said firmly. This isn’t for you to say. She took both my hands in hers and stared directly into my eyes. You have to tell the story, Sissy, she said. You have to tell it right.

I will, Reenie, I promised.

With my name, Irene said. In my name. Tell the story right, Sissy, you’ve got to tell it right. Her chin trembled. Oh, God, Sissy, I’m so sorry! she sobbed. I’m so sorry! I did this to us! God, I’m sorry!

I slid my chair around the edge of the table and wrapped my arms around Irene. I stroked her dull, matted red hair and whispered what words of comfort came to me. I knew the doctor was close at hand, but I wasn’t ready to let go of her just yet. I had walked away from it the most unscathed of all three of us, and I ached inside that I couldn’t impart even a tiny bit of my strength and peace of mind to her.

We’re going to take her back to her room now, the doctor said. An orderly carefully removed Irene from my arms. I followed the two men and the sobbing woman into the hall. Wait here, I’ll be back to talk to you, the doctor said.

I leaned back against the cool plaster wall and closed my eyes. Tears ran down my cheeks and my soul ached for her pain. After a few minutes the doctor returned.

She hasn’t been that lucid in a long time, he said.

But? I said.

But I don’t think you should consider that she is capable of giving her permission to be included in the very story that destroyed her, the doctor said.

I wiped the tears from my cheeks. She said for me to tell it right, and I can’t do that without her. I won’t send her a copy of anything, I’ll send it to you and you can decide what to do with it. Her folks trust you, so I will, too. Please tell Reenie I love her, and I will hold her in my heart and my prayers.

The doctor nodded and turned to walk down the hall. I left the building and passed through the security gate to my rented car. I sat behind the wheel and sobbed like a hurt child for a very long time.

I’ll tell it right, Reenie, for all of us. All of us.

Chapter Two

Beginning

December 1967

I took a deep breath of freezing air, pulled on my thick mittens, and picked up the nearest handmade placard to join the group at the center of the snow-covered quad. One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war! How easily the words came out of our fearless, idealistic young mouths. Twelve thousand miles away a controversial war waged and we wanted none of it. I pumped my arm into the air in time to the chant, trying to ignore the biting cold.

Almost exactly twenty-four hours later I ran into Sally, a year behind me in our smalltown high school, and she delivered the devastating news on her way by me as she hurried from one campus building to another. Tom? God, how could this have happened to you? The sweet, funny, smart kid I’d grown up with in my tiny hometown, the boy who had comforted me after the death of my own brother from cancer, it was unthinkable that this decent boy had died a gruesome death in this damn war on the other side of the world. I expected it to be difficult to leave my friends and family, especially my baby son, but he would be with his father while I was away. That very same fearless idealism said I had to go. I leaned back against the cool plaster wall of the Campus Recruitment Center and closed my eyes. Tears ran down my cheeks. Dear God, I have to go.

The day before my nineteenth birthday in January of 1968, the plane from training headquarters for the relief organization in Switzerland landed in Saigon, carrying among its passengers nine nurses and two relief workers. I picked up my carry-on bag and started toward the open door. At the top of the steps, I stopped suddenly. I let out an involuntary scream. Humidity so thick I could hardly catch a breath grabbed at my throat, dank, oily, tinged with exotic spice. The air vibrated with aircraft coming and going. The tarmac teemed with strong men in olive drab uniforms and boots, and smaller, slighter people in loose shirts, black trousers and sandals. My eyes hurt from the brilliant green in the distance. This completely alien tropical environment instantly overwhelmed the girl who had never ventured far from the hills of her birth. Another nurse turned to ask if I was all right, but by then I had regained my composure.

A pretty, dark-haired nurse a few years older than me in full International Relief uniform met us on the tarmac and introduced herself as just Patty, no time here for formalities. She didn’t stop talking about our assignments until the van hit the center of Saigon. We arrived at a small hospital compound after dark. Patty invited me to the kitchen for a late supper. We whipped up some sandwiches and canned soup, then sat down at a small table.

I found your file interesting, Patty said. I cried when I read your essay about your friend. After the years I’ve been with the IR and the months I’ve spent here, it takes a lot to make me cry. As for the rest, I’ve got to ask, at your age and fresh out of school, are you really sure you want to be here?

I took a large bite of my sandwich. As my great-grandmother used to say, no one said life would be easy. Or fair. I expect to feel a lot of things, leaving everything I know and love, coming clear across the world. I paused to swallow and take a deep breath. I’m sorry, I said quietly. I feel things deeply. I’m just not so great at expressing them.

You’re doing pretty good so far, Patty smiled. Don’t apologize for feeling. When you stop, I’ll transfer you out of my unit. I’m concerned it will be too much for you. You’re awfully young.

I was never young, I said evenly. I have a deep faith in God. I have the need to serve just as deep in my soul. So far, every step of the way, people have said I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m too young. I’m old enough to say I’m staying.

Patty grinned from ear to ear. Well, well, I guess you told me. Do you like chocolate? Ah, that light in your eyes says you do. I squirreled away two pieces of cake and they’re calling to us.

I’m definitely going to get along with you, I said, nodding.

We both jumped up from the table when the back door to the kitchen burst open. In from the wet, black night stumbled a tiny young nun in full habit, drenched to the bone. She carried a limp child who was larger than she was. She gently laid the child onto one long table.

He was shot in the abdomen, the nun said in a crisp English accent. I’ll be back in a moment. She raced out the open door.

Patty and I sprang into action to attend to the unconscious child. At Patty’s direction, I retrieved bandages and disinfectant from a supply closet. Exit wound, Patty replied as she fingered a small raw hole on the child’s lower back. Not much blood. If we’re really lucky, it didn’t hit anything vital.

The nun reappeared. She carried two smaller rain-soaked children. She guided the children to chairs and spoke to them in Vietnamese, then joined us.

I’m Sister Mary Chance, the diminutive nun said. We were returning to one of our orphanages earlier when we were surprised on the road. We had an escort, but they were killed. One of the rogues used this boy and his brother and sister as shields.

You carried them from the road? Patty asked with disbelief.

Someone had to, the little nun said matter-of-factly, and I was the only one God had there at the moment. I must get on to the orphanage just now. I know I can trust the IR with my little ones until I can return for them. The two younger ones are bruised and frightened but nothing serious. God bless you. She disappeared out the door once again, slamming it after herself.

Sister Tornado. I smiled as I knelt down to examine the two wide-eyed youngsters. I spoke a few words in Vietnamese, and they returned my smile.

Ah, you speak? Patty said as she carefully cleaned the older boy’s wounds.

I chuckled. I know enough of nine languages to get myself in trouble, but not enough to get myself out.

Patty laughed softly. Yeah, we’re gonna get along just fine.

Patty and I flew through the wide double doors to the open ward, the children in our arms. The newest hospital in the chain, she’d said, and we were about to inaugurate it. Thousands of miles from home, I found the faint disinfectant smell very comforting.

Girls! Patty called out. She placed the injured boy on a gurney. Introductions later, go get the doctor, she ordered as two young women came running.

I looked up from setting the two younger children on a cot. In front of me stood a lovely young woman with a shock of curly fiery-red hair, porcelain skin, and enormous sparkling green eyes. Her infectious smile prompted one in return. I accepted her outstretched hand.

Irene, Reenie to my friends, she said, and it looks like you’re the newest friend. She knelt down and smiled into the two frightened little faces.

I’m Mara, called out the other young woman as she vanished around the corner.

You take care of these babies, Irene said to me. She took two soft blankets off the end of one cot and helped me wrap up the children.

A man in a white coat appeared, the other young woman in tow. They joined Patty at the side of the gurney to examine the injured boy. I sat down next to the little boy and he immediately crawled onto my lap. I wrapped my arms around his shivering little body. I missed my own little boy. I had not realized that I would not be able to disconnect my heart from my baby, even to pursue the noble goal of helpmate in war.

You must be the fresh meat, the second young woman said, looking over at me. She had shiny black hair, dark eyes and olive skin, and a smile every bit as engaging as Irene’s.

Patty chuckled. Don’t scare off the new charge before she unpacks. She’s already had one scare tonight. I take it Kate is out cold. Sorry, little girl, she said over her shoulder to me, but you’re scheduled for graveyard tonight with Kate. I hope you can nap on demand, but if you can’t, you’ll sure as hell learn.

Baptism by fire. I had anticipated no less, but the reality was still stunning.

This is not bad, the doctor said, genuine surprise in his voice. This little fellow was damn lucky. Shoot a couple of x-rays. I think a few stitches and a couple shots will do the trick. He looked around. Where are his parents?

He’s an orphan, all three are, Patty said.

Shit, the man muttered, turning back to the child. Who will care for these pups once we’re through here?

Oh, I think there’s someone out there for them, I said, shifting my thoughts to Sister Mary Tornado.

Once Patty and the doctor finished, Mara put all three children in cots. It tugged at my heart to leave them, but I needed some rest. Patty picked up my duffel bag and squeezed my arm. I smiled again, trying to ignore the butterflies in my stomach. These young women had several months of experience in Vietnam. I knew I had a lot to learn. I knew I would learn it from them.

If we’re lucky, we won’t wake Kate, Patty said, starting down the hall.

Well, welcome aboard, Mara said. Her head turned in the direction of a sharp cough. Duty calls. She walked down the aisle separating the rows of beds.

I followed Patty down the long hall to the left, noting the doors adorned with signs in English, Vietnamese, French, and German. We passed supply rooms, drug lockers, offices, bathrooms, and three small dormitories. Patty stopped at the third dormitory, billet, she called it, and I was told about bed assignments, racks, she called them.

Choose any rack in the room, she said quietly. You know where the kitchen and mess hall are, to the right of the ward desk. Help yourself to anything, and always clean up. That’s especially important when we’re up-country. If there’s a food you’re emotionally wed to, write it on the chalkboard in the kitchen. No promises for caviar, champagne, and truffles.

I smiled. Tea, all kinds, and the only truffles I want are made of chocolate.

Knew I liked you for a reason, Patty nodded. I’ll be on till midnight, damn paperwork, and I’ll have a cup of Earl Grey waiting.

I was surprised at the lump in my throat at her thoughtfulness. She opened the door and we walked into the dark room. She set my duffel on the bed nearest to the door and I sat down next to it. I looked around the room at the other seven beds, five of which were made up and one of which was occupied. I started to unzip my duffel.

You might want to rethink your choice of racks, Patty whispered. This door can open and shut fifty times while you’re trying to get some sack time.

Close that door, mumbled a voice from the darkness.

Try to get some rest, Patty said to me. Kate, this is Robin. She’ll be on with you overnight, so wake her when you get up.

The woman sat up and rubbed her eyes. I noticed pale skin and even paler shoulder-length hair, thanks to the light from the hall. You have exactly five minutes to make up your rack and close that bloody door, she said, her tone only half-joking. Hi, Robin, she added.

I grabbed a few things from my bag, quietly closed the door, and located the first bathroom with a female symbol on the door. This must be what it is like in a college dormitory. I had left high school and my mother’s home to go to college and my husband’s home, shortly to become ex-husband, with no experience of regular college living. After I brushed my teeth and washed my face, I changed into my comfortable pajamas.

I slipped back into the dark dorm room and climbed in between the crisp sheets and closed my eyes. My mind raced, trying to process the many sights, sounds, smells, people, and other fragments of information I’d registered since my arrival. I inhaled slowly and exhaled through my mouth.

You’ll be OK, came a soft voice from the darkness. It’s confusing and crazy to all of us at first. I know you’ve been pushed into the deep end here, but there are life preservers standing all around you.

Thanks, I managed around the lump in my throat.

I was tired and I fell asleep quickly. I was surprised when I woke from a deep sleep to the gentle shaking of my bed. I opened my eyes and squinted at the bright light overhead.

Good morning-evening, the blonde standing next to my bed said cheerfully. I was going to take a shower and get something to eat before we’re on the clock.

I sat up and ran my fingers through my short, fine hair. I hope you don’t mind if I follow you around like a puppy for a while, I said. That pesky lump formed one more time as I remembered that this was what I’d always said to my adored big brother who died just before I graduated early from high school. I can’t get homesick now, please, not now.

I followed Kate to the bathroom. I showered and brushed my teeth before selecting my size from the huge selection of crisp green cotton surgical scrubs.

Toss your towel and soiled scrubs in there. Kate pointed to a large bin at the end of the counter of basins.

We went to the kitchen to fix some soup and sat down at a small table. I looked around the large, well-equipped room, and my gaze fell on pretty Kate, with rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes, and perfect pink lips.

You’re staring. Kate smiled. I know, you’re wondering what the cheerleader is doing in the middle of a war. I could ask the same of you, youngster.

I grinned. I was never a cheerleader, I said emphatically.

I saw your file. You are a youngster, Kate pointed out.

I fought the impulse to snap off a defensive retort.

Oh, I came to make you that tea, Patty said as she walked in. I hope you slept well. Not much going on in the one open ward, but you’ve got eight long hours ahead of you. She set the kettle on a burner and lit the gas flame. I actually finished the stupid paperwork and I’m going to bed. See you when the sun comes up. She took out a teabag and mug and handed them to me.

Sun and son. When will my son be up? What will his day hold without me? The kettle began to whistle. I jumped up to deal with it so the two women wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I had to be strong. I had a lot to learn and I had to be strong to learn it.

Chapter Three

Lucky Thirteen

I’d begun to fall into the routine of things, due in no small part to the teaching and patience of my fellow nurses. Late on the evening of January 29th I awoke to the raucous jangling of my have-no-mercy alarm clock. I had been in-country for thirteen days—lucky thirteen, it occurred to me—already it felt like a hundred. I dragged myself out of bed and slipped on my uniform. Tet. An odd name for a holiday? Some holiday, I’ve still gotta work.

Patty looked up from the desk and shook her head. You don’t have to impress me by relieving me early. You’ll learn to treasure even ten extra minutes of sleep when we get to the northern compound in a few days.

Yeah, well, I already do, I grumbled back, then sheepishly chuckled. You’ll owe me ten sometime. Go ahead, go to bed.

Patty signed off on the log and rose slowly from the chair. Enjoy a real hospital while you can. This one just opened and isn’t full yet. This place will seem like a palace when we get to the aid stations in the Central Highlands.

Central Highlands, Northern Compound. What was she going to do next, tell me we’re on our way to the black pit of Hell? I took her still warm seat and began reading the current charts. The rich aroma of coffee wafted in from the lounge. Oh, my lifelong allergy to that beverage will be the death of me. I needed surgical tape to keep my eyes open.

Not accustomed to the wee small hours yet? Irene half-mumbled as she joined me at the desk, running her fingers through her thick and curly red hair. Hands on hips, she stared at me for a bit, then offered, Look, it’s ridiculous for both of us to suffer. It’s quiet, and I’m wide awake. Go find a corner in one of the empty wings and take a nap. I’ll come get you if things pick up here.

I stood up before she’d change her mind. Don’t have to offer twice. If the boss lady asks, tell her my goofing off was your idea.

Always, Irene nodded conspiratorially.

I wandered back down the darkened hall and found a room with a wide gurney, which I climbed up on, then pulled a sheet over my head and closed my eyes. The winter monsoon rains outside whooshed against the window and I fell asleep to the gentle sound, but not for long. A metallic crash startled me and I sat straight up. Quietly and cautiously, I opened the door and peered out. Faint light came from the junction of the halls and the large red glowing emergency buttons on the wall every few feet along the corridor. I stepped into the hall and heard a scuffling noise behind me. I turned and tried to focus my bleary eyes. A silhouette in the window at the end of the hall raised an arm. GUN! I heard a loud crack and glimpsed a burst of light.

My body slammed against the wall, my hand jamming against the nearest red alarm button as I slid to the floor, a fiery pain in my leg. Unable to catch my breath, I struggled to focus on something, anything, through my tears. The siren howled as I heard another crash, loud voices, people running. My nostrils flared at the acrid odor of gunpowder.

Oh, my God! Oh, God, no! Patty gasped as she knelt beside me. I tried to understand her words as she barked orders, to whom I didn’t know. When she pressed down on my knee, I cried out in pain. I know, sweetie, Patty said in a soothing voice, I know it hurts, but we’ve got to stop the bleeding.

Bleeding, I panted, my voice gurgling with tears. I…what…

You were shot, honey, Patty said as strong hands lifted me up from the floor. She gripped my hand as the gurney raced down the hall. Prep O.R. 2…now! she demanded. Where is that fucking doctor!

Right here! a voice shouted back.

Though I tried, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instead, I simply drifted here and there, in childhood I’d learned the trick of disconnecting, my mind strong enough to reject the searing hot pain. I felt hands undressing me, the sharp prick of a needle in the crook of my arm, the pressure of a mask against my face. I tasted metal.

You’re not alone, little sister, Patty’s voice said in my ear, you’re never alone.

I finally floated away on a soft cloud. Fuzzy, hazy, soft, pink clouds. I tried to swallow, but it hurt. I tried to take a deep breath, but that hurt, too. I tried to move. That hurt so much, I held my breath.

It’s OK, a voice crooned from far away. Open your eyes, Robin. Can you hear me? I ran my dry tongue over even drier lips. I tried to form words and I struggled to open my eyes, but the light stabbed so deeply into my brain, I squeezed my lids shut again right away. Close the shade, Patty ordered, then she whispered to me. Try again, honey. It’s not so bright now.

Relaxing the muscles in my face, I slowly opened my eyes. I feel sick.

No shit, Patty smiled. Some adventure you had last night, huh?

Tell me. I coughed, which made my body throb from my scalp to the soles of my feet.

Patty injected something into my I.V. I will be back later. You’re out of danger now. We’ll talk when you wake up.

Another soft pink cloud carried me adrift for who knows how long. When I opened my eyes again, the bright morning sun had become a golden sunset. A figure was silhouetted against the window to the right of my bed. I gasped from the memory of the figure with the gun. Terrified, I tried to sit up, but all I could manage was a yelp of pain as I collapsed back.

It’s alright, came a clear, even monotone response. A man stepped closer. As well as I could see, he looked to stand at almost six feet tall, his skin as light as mine, clean-shaven, short dark hair, and the dark eyes of a spooked animal, dressed in charcoal and black civilian clothes. I tried to focus on his expression, but he appeared expressionless. I considered him handsome, perhaps late thirties. And he smelled good, clean and masculine.

I didn’t mean to startle you, he said in a cool and unemotional tone. I’d like to ask you some questions about your attacker, if you are up to it.

I took several deep breaths and tried to clear my mind. Then, I’m afraid I didn’t see a thing, I said, my voice so faint and husky I could hardly hear it myself. Water?

He was kind enough to pour me a glass and then he held it up to my lips. I was still struggling, and he slipped a strong hand under my neck. I managed to swallow a few sips before falling back on the pillow, exhausted from the effort.

Thanks, I whispered. I’m afraid I can’t be much help. It was dark, everything happened so fast.

Excuse me, Patty demanded from the edge of the curtain, her official tone conveying great displeasure, but who are you and why are you bothering my patient?

My goodness, but you have a lot of visitors. Do you remember me, dear? asked the diminutive nun as she approached my bed.

Who could forget such a first impression!

Mary Chance, good to see you, the man said.

This is Carey Hall, the nun said to me. He works in the intelligence community. I was sorry to hear you’d been hurt. I hadn’t realized there were women combat casualties in this war.

Only by accident, sister, Patty said. She injected a hypo into my I.V. tube.

The pink clouds overtook my surroundings again. When I next opened my eyes, no one was there, Patty and the tiny nun gone. Had there been a man there, too? Tall, dark and handsome, yes, my fatal flaw, my greatest weakness. Intelligence, the sister had said, or had she? Everything was so surreal. I tried to open my eyes again. To my utter astonishment, there he stood, still, right next to the bed, with that same completely unreadable expression on his face.

You’re awake, he said, confirming my silent question.

If you say so. Patty’s got to stop giving me that golden liquid. I like these clouds too much.

He didn’t laugh or even crack a smile. Do you remember anything more about the shooting, he asked.

More? I don’t remember anything at all. I’m not being difficult, honestly, it happened too fast. I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. When I opened my eyes, I scanned the ward. The dark man in dark clothes had disappeared again. I surrendered to the clouds once more and drifted away.

I was asked through channels to look in on Australian soldiers from this offensive, a familiar voice said, as long as I am caught here.

Offensive? I whispered. Caught?

Good Lord! You have the hearing of a canine, my dear, Sister Mary Chance laughed from the end of my bed.

You’ve been out longer than you realize, Patty said, joining the nun. Do you think you’re ready to hear the news, or are you still on the wings of dreamland? I reached for my water and nodded my head. I had many, many questions. Well, the night of the 30th a major offensive was launched from the top to the bottom of South Vietnam. It caught everybody in the South with their proverbial pants down. Transport and comm, um, communications are frozen at the moment. We couldn’t get you to a larger facility with better orthopedics. Our little hospital is overrun with military wounded, because we were here and so were they. We can’t even get out into the field to treat civilians.

I tried to sit up. Tell me about my leg.

Patty looked at my determined expression. I should let the doctor talk to you.

I’ll get up and read my own damned chart if you don’t tell me!

Patty sighed in resignation. You are fucking lucky…oops, pardon me, sister. The nun seemed more amused than offended. He got you square in the knee, Patty continued, with an AK-47 round. If the thing had been on automatic, it would’ve severed your leg. Evidently, you surprised him. He got off a single shot before he jumped through the back window. She smiled. If it’s any consolation, there’s blood all over the glass.

I slumped back onto the hard mattress. Am I going to be able to walk any time soon, or will I walk at all?

She paused. You can move your toes and I know you can feel your leg from hip to ankle. Your knee was…badly damaged. The doctor put it together as best he could. She fidgeted a few seconds. I…we…just don’t know. I don’t want to lie to you.

I finally allowed myself to exhale. Thanks for the honesty. Oh, sister, I said to the nun as she turned to go. That guy, the one you said was in the intelligence community? Who is he?

Carey Hall, Sister Mary answered pleasantly.

Wait, intelligence…he’s a spook?! Patty said with wide eyes. What the hell does a spook want with this little girl!

Information comes from many sources. Carey is not a bad person to know.

Right, sister, Patty said, not bothering to hide her cynicism.

A spook. Those eyes. He was here again, I said nervously, a little while ago.

Patty looked around the ward. Maybe we should keep a closer watch on the comings and goings around here.

Sister Mary gave her a sly little smile. Begging your pardon, dear, but you have armed military guards on every door and window and ventilation shaft. If Carey can walk in and out despite their presence, your watchful eye will do little good.

Patty sniffed with displeasure at the sister’s remark, but they left to go over the charts, since the sister was also a nurse. My head felt clearer now and it dawned on me that I really had been out of it for some time. I looked around for some indication of the date. I leaned over to check the drawer of the tiny bedside cupboard for my watch and almost fell off the bed when I raised myself up to stare into those mysterious dark eyes of Carey Hall.

I didn’t mean to startle you, he said almost robotically.

With every ounce of strength I had, I pulled myself up slowly and leaned back against the sturdy metal headboard. I think you’re very good at startling people. I’ve been a little fuzzy lately, but unless I was dreaming, you have been here three times. So, for the third time, I just saw the flash from the muzzle of his rifle and no more.

That is more than you recalled before, the man said. You said you remembered nothing.

Will you keep coming back until I remember the size of the guy’s shoes? I countered.

What kind of shoes were they? he asked quite seriously.

I smiled. The kind worn one to a foot. He did not seem pleased with my remark, and that tickled me more than it probably should have. Would you do me a favor? I’m hungry and I haven’t had a solid meal since the 30th. Could you ask one of the nurses to get me something to eat?

You haven’t eaten in five days? the man said with more emotion than he had yet displayed. I suppose you would be hungry. I’ll talk to someone on the way out, but do take it easy, don’t get sick. Oh, and your answer was clever, he added, but clever won’t help us find the person who did this to you.

You expect to catch one lone gunman in the middle of a war, I challenged. It happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to breathe. Then it hit me. Five days, my God, five days lost.

The man looked very uncomfortable. I am sorry I was the one who told you.

Told her what, Patty snapped as she entered the curtained area and took control. You shouldn’t be telling this girl anything. You need to leave now, and I think it would be best if you don’t come back.

She’s hungry. He nodded to me, turned on his heel, and walked off the ward.

Hungry, huh, Patty said to me in a lighter tone. You know the drill, crackers and clear fluids.

I plan to be a real pain-in-the-ass patient.

That means you’re gettin’ better, Patty chuckled. OK, saltines and broth coming right up, my dear, she added as she disappeared down the hall.

I closed my eyes again—the pink clouds had lost some of their sheen as my body adjusted to the pain killers, but I was still hurting and rest felt good. A moment later, the sound of a sharp cough to my left startled me. I pivoted my head around to find a pale young man on the bed next to mine. I could see he was struggling mightily to breathe. Without thinking, I swung my legs off the mattress and a white-hot pain stabbed into my left knee, taking my own breath away. As I leaned over and gently pulled the pillow out from under the soldier’s head, I hollered as loudly as I could, which wasn’t very loud.

What are you doing! Irene scolded as she ran through the door, beckoned by my cavewoman’s groans.

Check his airway, I gasped as I fought to pull up my legs. No, him first! I snapped when Irene hesitated at my bedside.

Irene turned and began to adjust the young soldier’s position while I managed to grab the brace encasing my left leg and swung both legs onto the mattress. Beads of sweat from my brow and upper lip dripped down my face. I laid back.

Having attended to the boy who couldn’t have been older than eighteen, Irene turned her attention to me. Mind telling me what you thought you were doing?

He needed help, I panted.

Listen to me, little girl, you don’t whip those legs off this bed again until the doctor tells you, clear?

Oh, good, our patient is giving you a hard time, too, Patty said to Irene from the end of my bed.

So, now that I’m actually awake, do you get mad at me now or later? I asked. I was slacking off or I wouldn’t have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Patty merely smiled. Who among us hasn’t caught a nap on a slow night? I’m sorry this happened to you, but it probably stopped the guy from getting farther into the hospital. He could have killed us all. How do you feel? Any pain?

Any pain? I echoed. This hurts so much I can barely breathe. No, no more hard drugs, I said as Patty reached for a hypo on the medication cart. Look, I’d like to be put back in our quarters. Is it wise for me to be on this ward with all these guys?

Uh, leave the nursing to us nurses, Irene said.

She has a point, Patty said. Can we trust you to behave yourself if you’re unsupervised?

Didn’t Sister Mary Chance say she was stranded? I reminded. There isn’t a Catholic church or whatever around here, is there? We have three extra beds in the dorm. Make her my warden. You think I’d disobey a nun?

Why not, I did all my damn life, Patty snickered. You’re not even Catholic.

OK, let me put it this way, it’s one thing for you to pull the curtains and take care of me when I’m unconscious. It’s quite another thing for some of these guys to catch wind that there’s a real live female in the bed over here.

Go get a gurney, Patty ordered. She shook her finger at me. Don’t make me sorry. I’ll break the poor sister’s new assignment to her. Don’t look so pleased. You aren’t going to win all your battles with me so easily.

Wanna bet? I mumbled under my breath as Patty departed. I studied the wheeled stool across the aisle, thinking it would be a way to get around the ward.

Chapter Four

Wheels Turning

In less than forty-eight hours I was teetering on the edge of that state known as stir crazy. I did try to obey Patty’s edict, and to endure Sister Mary Chance’s ministrations. I just couldn’t ignore the fact that the wards were full of other injured patients, many much worse off than me.

I convinced Sister Mary to bring me the wheeled stool, which would, I lied convincingly, make visiting the bathroom easier. Patty and Sister Mary Chance left for the nearby village under heavy guard a while later. That’s when I seized my opportunity. I rolled myself around, no easy task at first, and found some surgical scrubs. I must’ve looked like some kind of crazy octopus trying to get my limbs into the outfit, but I’d never been a quitter. I was able to hike myself onto the stool, dressed in the appropriate garb. I pulled and pushed myself down the hall and out onto the first ward.

Hi, there. I looked up at the pretty young woman with a shock of shiny, curly red hair and sparkling green eyes. Why do I think you’re not supposed to be here, Irene said, one eyebrow raised skeptically.

I can get around a little, I responded evasively. You know, I could check vitals while the rest of you concentrate on the more important care.

Irene opened her mouth to object further when the young soldier in the bed nearest us began to cough sharply. She turned to tend to him and I covertly rolled right by her. I didn’t get far.

Excuse me, missy, Mara said as she walked up the aisle, but what are you doing out of bed?

I gave an exaggerated shrug. I’m Sissy, Missy is my cousin Terry and she’s back in Montana.

Delightful family history lesson, dear, Mara said dryly, but you know damn well Patty will spank all of us if she catches you on the wards.

She won’t spank me, I’m crippled. I smiled up at the two young women.

Oh, so now you’re crippled, Irene interjected. A minute ago you were here to help out. Which is it, victim or nurse?

Victimized nurse? I offered.

Adorable, Mara scowled.

Oh, come on, I said, I can take temps and blood pressure and hold hands and generally free you up for more important things.

Pour it on, girl, I might actually buy into this, Mara said, unconvinced.

You need some rest, Irene added.

Oh, yeah, I’m rested. I’m rested right into crazy, I grumbled. Come on, I’m fine as long as I can roll around on this handy contraption.

God help us all if Patty isn’t amused by this game of yours, Mara said sternly.

I win! No problem, I will take sole responsibility if she gets mad, I assured, nodding my head so vigorously I could feel it in my knee.

See that you do. Mara turned on her heel and headed to the far end of the ward.

Irene leaned over until our noses were nearly touching. Do you always get your own way, Sissy? she asked quietly.

I grinned. No, never. It feels kinda good.

Don’t get used to it, Irene cautioned. She stood up, fished a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff from the large pocket on the front of her smock and handed them to me. Get to work, she ordered, trying mightily to hide her amusement.

I pulled myself back and forth by grabbing the metal footboards of each bed. It took forever, but I managed to register routine vital signs on every chart that afternoon. I was exhausted and in a great deal of pain, and I wasn’t about to admit to either. I rolled about, helping patients prepare for supper. The Vietnamese kitchen staff served the evening meal and I thought about grabbing a plate for myself when I was startled by a fork clattering across the cement floor, along with a few whispered expletives coming from a young man as he lay back on his pillow in a bed across the aisle. I rolled over to him. Other than a few minor cuts and bruises, the only apparent injury was that his eyes were completely bandaged.

Something I can do for you, sonny? I said in my deepest, most official alto.

I can’t see a fucking thing, so how can I eat? the young soldier snarled.

Really, I said pleasantly. Here, let’s sit you up. I took his arm and pulled gently but firmly. Now tell me what you smell.

Smells like my grandma’s fried chicken, he said sullenly.

Close enough, I said, looking at the baked fowl on his plate. I assume you can still taste, because you aren’t wasting away yet. You certainly can speak. So, you haven’t lost all your faculties.

Yeah, just my sight, he growled. I’m blind, lady, I’ll never see again. How the hell can I eat? he repeated.

Your hands appear to be just fine, I said evenly.

I haven’t fed myself with my fingers since I was two, he snapped.

Fine, so learn a better way, I retorted.

What the hell are you talking about? the soldier demanded. Just because I can touch it, doesn’t mean I’ll know what it is.

I rolled closer. Here, I said. I took his hand and stuffed it down my shirt and into my bra.

What the fuck?! The young man jerked his hand back.

OK, son, tell me what you just touched, I said.

That was your…you let me touch your tit? he stammered.

Bingo, give the boy a prize, I laughed. See, you haven’t forgotten a damn thing. So you can’t see, so what. Give me your hand again.

He hesitated. Exactly what’m I gonna feel next?

Give me your hand, I repeated. He did as I asked, and I ran his hand down my leg and across the padded brace which extended from hip to ankle. You can’t see and I can’t walk, I said. Tet got us both.

But you’ve been working all afternoon, I heard your voice.

Yep, I said, perched on a wheeled stool.

The young man digested this for a moment. Are you gonna walk again?

Don’t know, I said honestly. Your dinner’s getting cold. How about we figure out what to do with those two good hands of yours?

Yes, ma’am, he said sheepishly.

Between the two of us we did figure out how he could identify his food and get it to his mouth with a minimum of mess and bother. I felt an equal measure of pride and relief when he finished the last bite on his plate. I helped him clean his understandably sticky fingers and face and shrugged off his effusive thanks. My own stomach reminded me that it was well past my mealtime, and my knee was screaming in its sharp reminders as well. I turned on the stool to look up at Patty. It was obvious from the expression on her face that she had been standing there for quite some time.

You are fearless, little girl, Patty said with just a hint of amusement in her tone.

No, I’m hungry.

And I’ll bet you could use a pain pill, Patty added.

I sighed. Four or five.

I’ll bring you meds and some supper, in your room, where you will stay until I tell you that you can leave again, Patty said in a no-nonsense tone. I’d turn you over my knee if I didn’t think it would hurt yours.

See, I told you she wouldn’t spank a cripple, I said, rolling by Mara and Irene.

And you two should damn well know better, Patty scolded the two nurses.

She claims she doesn’t get her own way all the time, Irene said, but I don’t believe that for a minute.

I grinned all the way down the hall, until I opened the dorm room door and saw the dark scowl and steely glare of tiny Sister Mary Chance. In that instant I understood why all my Catholic friends lived in perpetual fear of nuns. I felt fortunate that Patty and the Sister didn’t hold me captive for more than two days. The wards were far too busy for anyone to be spared to baby-sit me. A few words at the right moment convinced Patty to let me back on the wards to assist with routine matters. I endured some light-hearted kidding from some of the soldiers about giving them lessons in touch. I was actually quite happy to help the morale on the ward. One young soldier finished his teasing and asked for a refill on his water pitcher. I turned to the left in the aisle, just in time for my braced left leg to be smacked by an approaching gurney. I yelped in pain and half a dozen people came running.

"My goodness, cherie," came a fluid French-accented baritone.

I looked up, and through the tears in my eyes I saw a vision of the most elegant man. I sized him up and down, taking in his tousled thick brown hair, his strong tanned face, the flowing shirt open at his neck, exposing just a hint of a very manly chest, khaki breeches that fit in all the right places, and spit-polished knee-high riding boots. How did he keep those boots so spotless in the middle of the winter monsoon?

"Allow me, mademoiselle." The man smiled as he swept me up into his strong arms. I could easily have laid my head against that broad shoulder for a week to ten days. I blinked away the tears of pain as he gently set me down on the empty gurney.

Hmm, are you a nurse or a patient? he asked with that delicious accent as he studied both my uniform and the leg brace.

Both, in actual fact, Sister Mary Chance declared from her perch.

Hearing her voice, he spun around, ran to her, and enveloped the diminutive nun in a bear hug. Mary, Mary! he whispered with great emotion, mainly relief. He stepped back and pressed the fingers of both her tiny hands to his lips. I grew so concerned when my people could not locate you at the orphanage after the offensive eased, he said. His rich voice tickled my ears and his handsome face tickled my eyes.

Sister has had the unenviable task of trying to keep me in line, I said.

Emil, this is Robin Anderson, a new nurse, Sister explained. She was decidedly unfortunate to have been here for about a minute before she was shot. Robin, this is Emil LeRoux. Emil has a rather large and profitable plantation nearby and he is by far my favorite benefactor.

I gain points to Heaven through Mary. He bowed. "Mademoiselle, I am both pleased to meet you and sorry for your injury."

Madame, I corrected, and me, too, on both counts. I adjusted the brace on my knee. I’m going to have to watch where I’m rolling.

That low stool is not well suited for mobility with one leg out straight, Emil observed. Perhaps something more suitable should be arranged.

I wish my Uncle Walter were here, I said. He can tinker just about anything together on his farm.

Just so. Emil nodded. Farmers must be inventive and resourceful. He glanced at his watch and shook his head, suddenly sad. "Ladies, I fear I must depart. I dare not hold up the ARVN forces I enlisted to escort me in my search for my sweet Mary. Robin, enchante, rencontrer toi, it was a marvelous pleasure to have met you. Take special care of yourself." He gave Sister a peck on the cheek and strode down the aisle. My eyes followed his every step until he stopped at the ward desk to greet and offer a handshake to a familiar character dressed in black. The dapper Frenchman exited out a side door. I tried not to smile as the man in black walked toward me.

Emil said you’ve hurt your leg again, Carey said evenly.

I shrugged. Just bumped into something.

You might be interested to know your assailant will no longer be of concern.

I blinked hard. You actually found one lone rifle-toting bozo in the middle of all this madness? No reaction from Carey. I don’t know whether to say thank you or…what.

I will settle for news that you’re feeling better, he said. Should you be up and on duty so soon?

Thank you, Patty said as she walked up to the side of the gurney. "I knew if you kept talkin’, we could agree

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