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by Jennifer

I hadn’t realized that relief could be such an intense emotion.  Denise clutched the phone so tightly her fingers were blotched white and red and shaking.  We both cried, falling on one another, not letting go of our respective lifelines—for her, the phone, for me the mug of hot cider I had in a vice grip.  Lewis wasn’t dead.  Lewis was in the hospital.  People didn’t die in the hospital nowadays.  He was fine.

Denise kept trying to form a coherent sentence, but she’d start, “I…” and then her voice would drag off into another happy sob.  I couldn’t stop grinning.  It was painful, but I couldn’t stop.

“Let’s go see him!” I squealed, holding her hands in both of mine.  “Come on.  We’ll go now!”  I tried to pull her towards the red, peeling-paint door, but Denise held me back.

“Don’t you think it’s about time you went home?”  Her voice was kind but there was a glint in her eyes I couldn’t place.

What?  She was telling me this now?  My smile faltered but I tried my best to keep it in place.  “But Lewis…”

“Lewis is fine.  He’s fine.  He’s in the hospital.  I appreciate you coming down, sweetie, but it’s time you got back.”  The cruel smile of a broken woman made her face crooked—one side of her mouth twitched as she pressed her lips hard together.

I quipped, “I’ve got to see him.  The whole reason I was going to come down here to begin with was because of him, you know that.  Which hospital is it?”

“I’m going to see him first.  He’s my son!”

I tried for a gentler tone; she was not going to be reasoned with, so I had to talk to her like a baby kitten—it didn’t matter what you say, you just had to say it like you loved them.  “You can see him first, I don’t care—just let me come with you.  Then I’ll go home.  I promise.”

“I just want my baby to love me still.”  What a sad woman, I thought.  She lost her son at eighteen and never got him back.

--

“I can’t do it,” Denise said, staring up at the jail-like, brick walls of the hospital. “I don’t want to see him like this.”

“You have to.”

“No, I can’t.  I really can’t.”  She shook her head so hard her hair fell out of its loose, hastily-fixed bun—she put a hand to her head, shocked, and started sobbing.  “I’ll see him when he gets out healthy again.”

I didn’t have any sympathy to spare.  “I’m going in there.  You can just sit here, or you can follow.  I don’t care anymore.”

The hospital was teeming with life—but no kind I’d like to live.  Frightened-looking nurses rushed past me, knocking me aside with sharp elbows.  Men without arms, legs, limbs in general peeked out at me from doors on either side of the hallway, and I couldn’t help it, I averted my eyes, trained them on the nurse’s desk a few feet in front of me.  A middle-aged doctor with bags under his eyes was resting his elbow against the counter and his head in his hand.  I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hm?” he grunted, looking at me blearily.

“I’m looking for Sergeant Lewis Bridges?”

“Ah, yeah.  Got him in from the Cambodian border yesterday.  Are you his little sister?”

I held my head high and looked the doctor straight in the eye.  “No, I’m his girlfriend.”

He raised his eyebrows but said nothing.  “Lewis Bridges was kept captive for a week in a Cambodian farmer’s hut; we found him running an impossibly high fever and lying in his own—”  The doctor broke off and sighed.  I had a feeling he hadn’t meant to say any of that, but was too worn to apologize.  “Miss, I’m not sure if he’ll recognize you or not.  He’s not really…there.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see him.  Just, tell me.  How bad is it?”

“I normally wouldn’t allow you to see him, because you’re not family.  But under the circumstances...”

“It doesn’t really matter anymore.  I understand.”

--

There was a bed, a curtain, a sink, a soap dispenser, a spindly, metal chair, and a trashcan with a biohazard sign on it, full of used needles.  Lewis was on his side, turned away from me.  He’d kicked the sheets to the bottom of the bed, so I could probably see his bare ass hanging out of his open-backed hospital dress if I’d looked—but I averted my eyes, kept them on the back of his shaggy, brown-haired head.  Thankfully, he rolled fitfully onto his back, his eyes scrunched like he was in pain, or having a nightmare.

The second I sat down in the chair, his yellow-tinged eyes flashed open.

“Whoostere?” he moaned, a trickle of sweat sliding down his temple.  I laid my finger below the droplet and caught it on my finger before it could disappear into his hairline. He flinched at my touch.

“It’s Jennifer, Lewis.  I came to see you.”  My baby kitten voice was back, but this time it was quavering, wavering between angry and impossibly sad.

“No!”  Lewis bit his tongue mid-word but didn’t seem to notice or care.  His greasy hair stuck up every which way, not carefully-placed like it was the last time I’d seen him.  The only time you saw him, I corrected myself.  His lips were dry and cracked; I knew it’d help if he’d stop compulsively licking them, but I doubted I could convince him to stop.  I doubted he could stop.

“Are you thirsty?  Are you hot, sweetheart?”

He just moaned and turned away from me again.  This time I did catch sight of his ass; it was blotched black-and-blue, but not like from a beating.  Like it was coming from the inside.

I covered my mouth before I could gasp, felt my eyes bugging out of my head.  I had no idea.  I had no idea he would be this bad.  He was in a hospital, for Christ’s sake, he should’ve been okay!  He didn’t even know who I was.  Well…well, I guess he just doesn’t recognize me.  It’s been five years, almost.  I guess he just didn’t imagine my face when he went to sleep at night, like I did.  I turned away, tears making the room swim and my hand still clamped over my quivering lips.

“Jennifer!” Lewis cried out.  I gasped again and ran around to the other side of the bed, kneeling down too quickly and bruising my kneecaps.  I could’ve cared less.

“Lewis?” I cooed, stroking his sweaty, red face.  I still thought he was handsome.

He turned towards me, so close to my face that I could feel his hot breath on my cheek and see the too-many veins in his eyes.  “We would all go down together.  That’s what we said.  We got around a poker table and Ivan had cigars and we said we’d all go down together, but that’s not what happened.  They picked us off one by one and then others cracked and others just couldn’t do anything anymore.  It’s not fair.”

I nodded my agreement.  It wasn’t fair.  None of this was fair.

Lewis took a deep breath and ran a shaking hand through his hair.  His lips moved a little bit, like he was talking to himself.  His eyes met mine before he looked away quickly.

“Dear Jennifer,” Lewis breathed.  “You know, I’ve never felt the same way about any other girl.  I know you’ve felt the same about other guys.  They hurt you; I’ve never been hurt.”

“That’s just because I’m stupid,” I told him, smoothing back his hair again.  He didn’t look at me.

“The weather here is weird.  It changes from hot to cold so fast I could swear the seasons were going haywire, but there’s no rain, no sun, no snow.  I think these Gook farmers rescued me.  Or maybe they’re not Gooks or Charlie.  Maybe they don’t even know a war is going on and saw me dying in a rice paddy and decided to save me.  Do ya know, Billy did it to me.  He left me.  I never left him once.  I think I’d be too much of a coward to leave Billy in a rice paddy, Jennifer, because he’s never shot anybody and I have.  I wonder if leaving me behind amounts to killing babies in God’s book, especially when ya killed a coward who saved ya before.

“The ceiling drips on me sometimes.  I think that means it’s raining, but ya know, I can never lift my head high enough to see.  I wish you were here.”

Lewis sighed and rolled onto his back.  It occurred to me that Lewis didn’t know I was kneeling next to him, holding his hand.  Was I losing him?  “Lewis?” I tried, smiling through my tears.  My voice sounded like I was speaking through a mouthful of custard, my nose was so runny.  “Lewis, honey.”  I shook his arm.

“Dear Jennifer,” he whispered, his eyes closed.  “You know, sometimes when I’m on watch the sun will set, and I’ll think of you watching that same sunset hours and hours before, and how weird is that?  And sometimes I’ll think of you when I’m taking cold showers at five A.M., and how happy I am that you’ll never have to be uncomfortable in your life.  Girls like you should always be warm and safe.  And sometimes I’ll think of you when I start thinkin’ of bad things, because your face, when I imagine it at night…it makes it so easy to remember good times I’ve had.  I’ll think of you whenever I talk on the phone to anybody, because my fingers automatically dial your number and I’m constantly havin’ to hang up before the first ring.  I just think of you all the time, Jenny.  I just can’t get ya out of my head, and I don’t want you out.  You’ll be eighteen now, an adult, and I think I will meet you when I get off my ship.  Your letter made me so happy, Jenny.  I’ll meet you and I’ll dip you back, tilt up my hat, and kiss…”

Lewis’ eyelids fluttered and he took a single sharp gasp of air before his fingernails dug into my palm—I yelped, but didn’t try to pry his hand off.  One of his legs kicked out once, twice, three time, forcing the sheets to ball around his foot.  For a single moment it looked like he would make to get up—his back arched, and his elbows twisted the wrong way, the IV line pulled taut—but he fell limply back on the pillow.  Instead of looking at his eyes, I looked at his mouth where a bubble of spittle was forming in the right corner.  The bubble popped.

“DOCTOR!” I screamed, almost slipping on the smooth, white tile in my rush to the door.  “I NEED A DOCTOR!”

No one was in the hall.  No frantic nurses, tired doctors, or limbless men.

I looked back at Lewis, who’d curled into the fetal position on his bed.  He was impossibly red, like he’d been boiled.  I remembered, suddenly, the lobster races my dad and I would have on the kitchen floor before we’d boil and eat them.  I remembered the way I’d name them before cracking their claws and sucking out their meat.

“Lewis?  Sweetheart?”  I couldn’t bear to touch him.  I picked up the spindly metal chair beside the bed and prodded his upper arm—he didn’t move, and the chair had to be freezing to his feverish skin.  I jabbed him with the chair again.  Again.  I was practically hitting him with it, over my head—but I was only hitting the mattress, making Lewis’ limp body bounce up and down as the springs squeaked below him.  I heard footsteps in the hall.

“I think they called for you in here, doctor.”  A woman’s tired voice drifted through the doorframe.  My soft-soled shoes did slip this time as I ran for the door; I tasted blood, biting my tongue as my chin hit the floor.  Still, I crawled forward, army style, dragging the chair behind me.  I fit it securely below the doorknob and turned around, feeling like someone had tied a plastic bag over my head and thrown me in a trunk.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t move.  I didn’t know where I was.  Lewis, the only thing that had mattered to me since I was fourteen, loved me.  He would have kissed me.  And he’s dead.

I picked up that red, metal trash can, the one with the black biohazard sign on it, and threw it against the wall.  For a moment, the used syringes fell to the ground and broke—it was chaos, like rain.  I started screaming even before they finally banged the door open (that spindly chair was stronger than anticipated) and pinned me down.  That’s something I learned.  It doesn’t matter how strong you are—there comes a point when your world is chaos, falling like hailstones on your face.  Will it strike your hard, durable cheekbone or in the vulnerable flesh of your eyes if you dare crack them open for a peek of your decimated world?   All you know is you’ve broken and all the shards—the smithereens—won’t go quietly and leave you in peace.

I couldn’t bear to think of Lewis as peaceful—I imagined him breaking every bond, tearing and ripping at death, and peace, and eternal sleep to get back to me, little Jennifer Vigneault, crying on the floor and not caring that her legs have fallen asleep or that she’s collapsed on tiles other deaths had seeped into before.

Fin.
To those of you who saw the previous ending: I took it out for =bekkia's story contest, but I AM thinking of another way to end it than just obliterating my old idea. :D

The end seems so melodramatic. I want it to be affecting, obviously, and it is dramatic, but I don't want it over the top.

What do you think? Your feedback's super appreciated. :D

Part One - [link]
Part Two - [link]
Part Three - [link]
Part Four - [link]
Add a Comment:
 
:iconthornyenglishrose:
You're right - I'm not sure about the last part. But I do have a couple of suggestions. I like your idea of showing that other couples are affected by the war, but those characters we've never seen before suddenly showing up is a bit forced. Basically, my idea involves you writing another little section. It needn't be long, but you may remember I wanted Jennifer (and us) not to know what has happened to Lewis for longer. Before you reveal what has become of him, I want to see more of Jennifer's thoughts, and maybe at that point she could meet other people in similar situations. She could have a conversation with one half of that couple at the end, maybe, or even both of them, so we'll know them. I'm getting an image of a kind of park bench scene, with her talking to strangers, but of course you don't have to do it like that. Now, wasn't there an MIA bracelet that people used to wear when they were waiting for news? You could use that - people with missing loved ones would recognise each other. You could also maybe show that some people did get their loved ones back - just maybe one couple leaving the hospital together, or something.

I'd also like to suggest that a little more time passes before Lewis is found. It doesn't seem like he's missing for a long time, but I think an agonising wait of maybe a year would be effective. Perhaps Jennifer could have her nineteenth birthday.

There are two things I would particularly like to praise. The first is Jennifer's sudden turning on Denise, after pussy-footing around her - the way she suddenly loses it and becomes harsh with her is totally in character. And obviously, Denise did decide to stay outside. We don't know what becomes of her - I'm not quite sure whether that works or not.

The second thing that really got me is the way Lewis says, 'Dear Jennifer', as though he was writing a letter. I didn't expect that (perhaps I should have!), and it was great. The second time he said it, I thought, That's perfect, but if he does it one more time it'll be too much. But he didn't. You got that just right.

A few small things. When Jennifer says, 'I quipped', that surely isn't the word you want. A quip is a joke. Similarly, you don't really want the word 'decimated'. It is mis-used a lot lately - taken to mean 'destroyed'. But actually, if something is decimated then ten percent of it is destroyed, hence the 'dec' prefix.

When Lewis demands, 'Whoostere', it didn't quite sound right. Written as it is, it has a hard T sound, and I don't think someone in that condition would blurt out an attempt at 'who's there' with a hard T. It'd take it out altogether, or else put in the H. And finally, there's this one sentence: 'I laid my finger below the droplet and caught it on my finger...' You probably would have picked it up on another read-through anyway; all you need to do is take out 'on my finger' - we know where she caught it from the first clause in that sentence.

So that's it, then! Really great piece - and very brave. I don't think I could write something like that. This last part in particular could do with cleaning up. Endings are bloody hard, I know - you want an effective ending to an effective story. With something like this, there is always a danger of being anti-climactic. But this is almost there - just not quite perfect yet.
What do you think?
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:iconkylarynn:
kylarynn Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2009
Is that seriously -THE- end? :omg:

It's so... Sa~d. Terrific story though, even if it didn't have the ending I had hoped for.
Reply
:iconwaltz-with-me:
Waltz-With-Me Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2009
Yep, wish it wasn't, but I couldn't make it any other way. *sniffle*

Thanks. :aww: Glad you liked it, even if it's a tear-jerker. (Sorry 'bout that.)
Reply
:iconkylarynn:
kylarynn Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2009
Write another story with a HAPPY ending, lol. :D
Reply
:iconwaltz-with-me:
Waltz-With-Me Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2009
I write plenty with happy endings, don't worry. :aww: If you like romance, you might like my story "Tire Swing." Just a suggestion. :D
Reply
:icona-hitchhiker:
A-Hitchhiker Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2009   Writer
congrats on the contest, it was a great story, but how did the other end go?
Reply
:iconwaltz-with-me:
Waltz-With-Me Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2009
Ah, the other end. Basically I tried to get across that the Vietnam War affected many people, not just Lewis and Jennifer, so I had a man at the end talk about his comatose wife who had been a front-lines nurse and how she'd never wake up. But I didn't tie it in quite right and it just took away from the impact at the end. So until I go in for a major edit, I just took it out. :aww:

Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :D
Reply
:iconposhlost:
poshlost Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
I agree with ThornyEnglishRose. Also, this bit about the mother further reinforces my point that her character/relationship should really be reassessed. I don't think it's a good idea to close a story/novel with new characters, ever, and I know it's a completely aesthetic reason, which I generally don't use, but it does ruin the flow and people are going to be like wtf.

Most people don't realize how difficult first person narrative is, but you have done a good job here. A great job even. Are you planning on putting this out as a novel?

PS Your website is fantastic.
Reply
:iconahavati:
Ahavati Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2009  Professional General Artist
I definitely think the critique is fair.

It's a wonderful but sad story for me because of my father's tours in Nam. When you polish this up you need to definitely submit it to Bekkia's Story Contest. I don't have the link but the details are in my journal entry.

Great job.
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