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by Jennifer

For two years, life went on like this.  Lewis would call me only on holidays in the beginning, but as I matured, he began calling me more and more—when he was lonely, when he needed someone to talk to.  I grew up fast because of Lewis—not because he introduced me to the horrors of war; no, he was always careful to skirt past the reason he needed a friend.  After that first phone call, I realized he’d never see me as anything past a little sister unless I made him forget.  By the time I was well into my seventeenth year, the phone calls had grown so heavy with unsaid feelings, unknown sentiments, that I couldn’t bear it any longer.  I had to act.

--

Dear Lewis,

I had my first sip of alcohol today.  I know you’re probably thinking—Jennifer?  But she went on all sorts of trips with Guy when she was fourteen; she never had any beer?  No champagne at a wedding?  

No, I didn’t.  Hard as I know it is to believe, I really am an innocent.  Ha.  A virgin drinker, a virgin clubber, and, obviously, a plain virgin, too.

Why am I stressing this?  I set out this letter to…well, to say something important.  And here I am emphasizing the very thing that I want you to forget so badly.  I should probably start over on a new piece of paper, now that I’ve ruined all of my chances, but…I want this to be real.  So I won’t.  So you’ll know.

Lewis—don't you feel our relationship...growing?  I mean, I'm eighteen now, you know, and I...well, I'm not seeing anyone right now and—

Shit, I'm not saying this right, am I?

Look, I know that you met me when I was fourteen and everything and this might be a little weird for you, being twenty-four now, but I think I love you, Lewis, and I'd like it if I could see you when you get back.  No obligations or anything, of course not.  I promise, I'm not even expecting anything to happen, I just—

I needed to let you know.  That's all.  Now it's out in the open and I feel better.  I'm not even going to change what I wrote up there, even if it makes you think I'm even more of a little girl than you already do.  I mean, come on, Lewis.  You've never really had a girlfriend before—you haven't even been in love, have you?  Well, I thought I'd been once, with Guy, remember him?  Yeah, he was an asshole.  But you're not, you're great, you're great for me and I'm great for you.  You know you love me at some level.  Even if it's just as your best friend, you'll come see me, won't you?  And—now, I don't want you to write me back anything about this, no, don't you dare.  I want you to carry on as if I haven't sent this letter—I'll even write you another one that doesn't say anything about this, and you respond to that, all right?

I'm going to be there when you get back.  And when you do, if you love me too, I want you to come off that boat and kiss me like you aren't ashamed of me.  If not, hell, kiss me anyway, I sure won’t mind—but on the cheek.  Pretend that I'm your little sister like you have been—I tell you, you're lying to yourself, Lewis!—but if you still think that way, burn this letter.

Love you, Lewis.  Have for four years now.

Jennifer

--

Dear Jennifer,

I don’t think I ever told you why I keep going back to Vietnam.

It’s not such an interesting story; if you listen to anyone and his brother, they’ll tell you the same story, with a few changed names and places.  But I think coming from my lips, you might understand the next guy who tugs on your sleeve for some sympathy and attention a bit better.  So I’ll tell you.

I messed up my knee playing lacrosse and lost my scholarship to school, but my knee didn’t stay messed up.  So, eighteen and not in college, I was a perfect candidate for the draft—it was almost as if I were waving my arms and bouncing on my newly healed knee and saying, “Choose me!  Right here!  S.O.S.!  My life is too normal and carefree and promising!  Uproot me and carry me far away, spin me around a few times, so I’ll be so dizzy I’ll never, ever make my way back to normalcy!”

And that might’ve been the end of it.  I might’ve just fucked my life up and gone back home, to work as, I dunno, manager of a grocery store, maybe.  The local goddamn Piggly Wiggly.

With that prospect in mind, I stayed in the military.  You know, most guys only serve one tour.  The rest are voluntary.  Even the military guys only have to do one tour.  So I go home, planning on not running, not worrying, and just relaxing.  It was like a mantra.  Relax relax relax.  I had to say it over and over, like some broken record that just couldn’t get the message because the dial was broken.  Relax relax relax.  When I’d sit up straight in bed, breathing heavily, terrified—relax relax relax.  When I felt like throwing a chair out of the window just because it was so tame and lifeless, relax relax relax.  Worry about worrying dictated my life, and I died of relaxation.

So, if only to tell my legs to move faster and have them obey, I went back.
You saw me before my third tour.  A cocky bastard—same as I’d always been, I’ll admit it.  Still am, to be perfectly honest.  But I’ve never been heartless; I’ve been hurtful and cruel, but never without personal consequence.

My best friend in Vietnam was carted off for mental problems back a few years, when we were still on tour.  He was the one man I knew in Saigon whose hands were clear of blood, and he was the one who cracked.  He didn’t have any blurred faces swimming in his conscience. It was only when he was gone that I realized how much I loved him.  Riley was dead, Baker was dead, Edgars died, and then Billy went crazy?  I felt desperately lonely.  And you got me through. Billy might have been fine after a year; he was with me during the next tour, in fact.   But I’m the one who was never the same.

I write you letters in my head, sometimes.  Things of this nature, in greater detail.  Horrific things I could never relive on paper.  Feelings that I’d never be able to tell you to your face, or even in writing.  The war didn’t do this to me, it—magnified it.  Emphasized it.  Underlined it in permanent, red ink so I’d never forget.

I know you told me not to address your letter, but I have to, Jennifer.  I’m not saying anything either way—I know you wouldn’t want me to.  Just know that this is what you love.  This is who I am.  These pages.  So put them next to your heart and see how they feel there—do you really think they’ll fit inside?

Cordially,

Lewis.

--

Dear Lewis,

I’m not entirely sure how to respond.

I want to tell you that you should have said you were going through so much—but then again, maybe at that point I wouldn’t have wanted to know.

I want to know now.  I want to know all of you.

My dad made me quit my job today.  You know, where I was secretary for that senator after school?  He said I should be concentrating on my academics.  What he doesn’t understand is that for a career in politics, being able to read all of Stanley Orrick’s papers is really good move for me!  I mean, think of all the internships I could have gotten into no problem!  But he’s convinced that I’ll fail at politics and actually end up being my old childhood dream, a NASCAR flag girl.  I say, no way.  My breasts aren’t big enough for that.  Not that I’d tell him that to his face…


But Lewis didn’t write back.  I never got to enjoy the chuckle that I figured that last statement would force from his gut, nor savor the feeling of normalcy my life would return to, even after sending my letter of declaration.

--

Dear Lewis,

Please don’t stop writing to me just because of that letter.  I mean, I told you we could just stay friends!  I really don’t want anything from you.

I take it back, all right?  Write back to me.

Love,

Jennifer


--

I got the phone call two months later.  The night before, I had packed my duffel bag only with the essentials for running away—a sophisticated, grown-woman wardrobe tailored to compliment my few curves, enough makeup to satisfy every hired Ronald McDonald impersonator in the state, and enough chocolate to transport me to Calcutta and back in a drooling, taste-bud-orgasm-induced coma.

I heard the phone ring from my bedroom where I was triple checking that I had everything I needed to meet Lewis.  Yes, I was finally going to meet the love of my life!  That love who had, granted, never dipped me, tilted his hat back, and kissed me passionately like I had asked in that foolish letter I wrote him.  I had been disappointed, nearly to the point where I quit writing my “please forgive me’s” altogether in the hopes that he’d beg for me back.  But I couldn’t bear thinking of him overseas without me.  It wasn’t vanity; I honestly knew that Lewis needed me to keep sane, and that knowledge was enough to keep my pen to the paper, no matter how much it hurt that he didn’t love me in the way that I loved him.

So, even though he had yet to write me back, I was going to kiss him.  I imagined how I would do it.  I’d show up at his house, where he’d be sitting with his head down on his scratched-up, wooden dining room table, his eyes haunted.  Then he’d see me, standing with more shapely hips and breasts, the long, dirty-blonde hair in front of one eye making me mysterious and alluring.  He’d slowly lift up his head, and instead of looking haunted, he’d look…hungry.  He’d pivot in his chair, ready to stand—but I’d already be in front of him, bent over slightly, my hands on his knees.  I’d move my thumbs back and forth over his strong thigh muscles as I looked into his eyes, trying not to think of the memories that had made him run so hard and fast to develop such brawn.  

I’d lean even further towards him, so close I’d be able to feel his slow, shallow breaths tease my face.  He’d be looking at my lips, and slowly—so slowly my throat would burn and make me swallow with anticipation—lean forward.  I would be unable to wait for him to work out his conflicting feelings—we would both want it, so I’d take it.  My lips would be rough against his for a moment, but he won’t fight back, and I’d relent—Lewis’ lips would be soft and playful, nipping at mine and then kissing me so deeply that I’d forget retaliation.  Neither of us would think of his mom humming “Someone’s in the Kitchen With Dina” in front of the stove.  Neither of us would remember dead comrades, dead babies, or dead dreams.  We’d just feel each others’ lips, and as I’d fit my arms around his neck, we’d forget that we’re separate people with lives like oil and water.

And everything will be all right.

--

I scurried down the stairs to answer the phone.

“Hello, this is the Vigneault residence, may I ask—”

“Jennifer?” the woman’s voice cut me off.

“Yes?”

“It’s Denise.  Lewis’ mother.”

“Oh, Denise!  How are you?  I just finished packing, I should be arriving—”

“No, Jennifer.”

“No?” I asked, a little scared now.  I only just noticed the edge to
Denise’s voice.

“Lewis is—they just called.”

“No!” I moaned, my eyes wide, horrified.

“It’s not definite,” said Denise, beginning to cry.  “He’s missing in action, Jennifer.  They just called.  They have the gruffest voices…”

I hung up the phone on Denise’s sobs and ran out the door—I had to turn around to get my duffel bag once I was nearly to the highway, headed for Missouri.

by Lewis

I felt my mind wake up, but my body stayed in a coma.

I could feel the wood I was lying on was splintery, and that there was a
thin layer of straw—but I couldn’t wiggle or shift my midriff to get that straw piece to stop pokin’ me.  

How long has it been? I asked myself.  At least eight days.  Last I remember, I’d been gone eight days.  Six days with Billy and them and two days…sitting there.  I didn’t know where Billy was, just that he’d left me, stranded.  Hot sun.  Boiling, rancid water.  No shade.

It was cold here.

Jennifer would be worried—she’d probably think I was angry about her letter.  I made a moaning sound, deep in my throat, the best I could manage.  Her letter…

Dear Jennifer,
I thought.

It’s very cold in here and I can’t figure out why.  It’s South Vietnam, for Christ’s sake, and yet here I sit, shivering, chattering, trembling, convulsing….  Am I in Vietnam, still?  Maybe I’m somewhere else, somewhere…cold.  I wish snowflakes were falling on my face.  Then the cold would be tolerable, I think.  I never did get any snow in Byrnes’ Mill.  My skin would melt the flecks of ice and I’d savor the feeling of water dripping down the side of my face…I wish I could write to you, but I can’t bring myself to move. It’s like my muscles have severed connection to my brain—maybe I’m just a brain, I can’t tell, I can’t open my eyes…

I heard sounds near me.  Rustling…clattering…clanging…words?  Yes, someone was speaking, but nothing I could understand.  I blearily tried to lift my eyelids, but when I managed, the world was a single, opaque blur, like cirrostratus clouds had been smeared across my vision.  A line of cold sweat trickled into my open eye, and I closed them again, giving way to darkness once more.

--

I’d been patrolling a river with my comrades in the safe, quiet part of Vietnam, near Saigon; the part they sent veterans who really shouldn’t be there anymore.  Desk job guys who got antsy.  Billy asked me to join him for a “last hurrah,” a last head-long dive into danger before we were all “crazy, old farts.”  He’d cracked and recovered, only to return to that same fissure.  I was beginning to suspect I was cracking, too—though the military didn’t necessarily know that yet.

It all happened so quickly.  There were shots from the wall of jungle that we couldn’t have penetrated even if we’d wanted to, and Ulrich was down.  Bates, hit in the gut, fell in the river with a splash like he’d done a cannonball.  I ran like a stupid man pursued by an angry grizzly, zigzag, haphazard, unthinking, and nearly careened off a sharp dip into a rice paddy.  Instead, I stood with my toes over the edge, my arms wind milling, until I felt pain like a pinch on steroids in my lower left back—and fell forward into the swamp.  I grew lighter as I lay in the water, facedown, as if something were flowing out of me.  Blood, I knew, from the bullet wound, but also something else—something much, much heavier.  

Before I could conjure up a smile that would stick there, telling all the world that I’d thought of Jennifer before I died, I felt rough hands turn me over.

“Billy,” I moaned, still smiling slightly—like a madman.  Like I’d cracked.

“Lost him!” yelled Billy, dropping my torso back into the paddy and sloshing away through the water, not looking back.  “Keep moving!  The rest of them will make it if they make it!”

First day as a coward, I thought, still smiling, before I let darkness claim me.

--

I woke up when I opened my eyes, and I could see.  I saw a dark, caked roof, and felt water drip on my face.  I tilted my face to the left and marveled at the feeling of my muscles tensing and relaxing.  Then I saw her—a bronze, slightly wrinkled face with almond-shaped eyes, staring startled.  She said something that sounded like, “Nahn thook!” and ran out of the small room.  As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I was able to make out curved, circular walls, a hand-made table with a hewn wood bowl sitting on it, and a dirt floor.  That was all.  The bed I was laying on—if you could call it a bed—was nothing more than a slab of wood with some straw scattered on top, as I’d suspected.

My body swung through extremes.  One moment I was freezing cold, trying to create friction rubbing my body against the wooden slab I lay on when I barely had the energy to keep breathing, and the next I was feebly reaching up to move the fabric away from the window it was covering to try and get a breeze.  Cold sweat pooled in the crevice between my lower back and the wood.

Consciousness ebbed away in shorter and shorter intervals; the Vietnamese woman no longer came rushing in to check on me when I awakened with a shuddering gasp.  In those rare moments I was coherent, I reflected on my reversion to caveman thoughts: cold, hot, thirsty.  Never hungry.  So primitive—and yet it was only when I was awake and aware that I was man, that I was capable of speech and invention, that I felt actual pain; every other time, it was only a million-year-old ache.

I watched a mosquito land on the light smattering of hair that covered my arm and welcomed the bite.  It fascinated me.  Too weak to move, I merely watched the bug drink its fill of my humors and swell with it, with my blood.  “That’s goin’ to itch and I can’t scratch it, little bug,” I told the mosquito, giving a goofy smile as it flew drunkenly away.  I jerked out of my trance at the sound of the thatched door opening.  Unable to move my neck, I rolled my eyes to the side and peered through the goop lacing my eyelashes.

“Của thức lại!” He’s awake again!

“Tặng nó nước.”  Give him water.

The speech made no sense to me, even in my lucid state.  I felt more than heard the rise and fall of the subtle nuances and harsh, jabbing syllables that betrayed it as Vietnamese; that’s right.  I was in Vietnam.  Left for dead.  I groaned and turned to my side, only to have a splash of water fall on my head. I felt a throb of pain in my lower back and raised my abdomen slightly, moaning.  I remembered the bullet wound.

“Tôi rất lấy làm tiếc!”  I am sorry!

Slowly, I creaked back so I stared at the ceiling, now replaced by a shocked face and still-streaming cup of water.  I cracked open my mouth and let the murky well water stream in.  “Thank you,” I croaked.  The woman just looked frightened at the noise.  “Why am I here?”

The woman shook her head and walked back out the rounded thatch door—as it swung shut, I saw an Asian man standing there, ready to receive and comfort her.  Did these people save me from the paddy?  Are they poor farmers?  South or North Vietnamese?  Suddenly, all these questions feel imperative—they are imperative!  I’m a soldier in the United States Army!  It’s my duty to discover whether these people are the enemy or the—

I was thrown back down on my cot, hard, after attempting to stand, and shrieked.  Calloused, clammy hands held me down, eight, nine, ten pairs of them.  I couldn’t see.  It was as if someone had taped mosquito netting over my eyeballs.  My legs were lifted off of the dirt floor and laid back on the cot—all my progress!  Ruined!  I squirmed to the best of my ability, but they had me wrapped like a cocoon—what the fuck do they think they’re doing?  I’m so hot!

“GET OFF!” I screamed, the sound tearing through my vocal chords like a blunt machete.  “GET OFF ME!  OFF!”  It was a guttural sound, primitive—and it was only then I realized what had happened.  I had regressed again.  I was a caveman, thrashing around like a caged animal.  My eyes had even rolled back in my head.  I felt the back of a cool hand stroking my forehead as I calmed, still panting hoarsely like a wild dog.  Only two pairs of hands.  The farmer’s and his wife’s.

I lost all sense of time, of self, of being alive at all.  The temperatures reached such extremes that all I could do was stay still and sweat it out, moaning, or feel my muscles convulse as they tried to keep warm.  I saw flashes of color; no images registered.  I remember feeling cold hands on my hot skin lifting me off the cot and screaming, lashing out—I felt a prick, bit my tongue hard, and knew no more.

To be concluded in Part Five...
14,652/17,195

We near the end.

Part One - [link]
Part Two - [link]
Part Three - [link]
Part Five - [link]
:iconthornyenglishrose:
This is a solid chapter. There are a few things you might like to tweak. A typo: '...being able to read all of Stanley Orrick’s papers is really good move for me' - missing 'a'. Also a couple of small grammar issues. 'My lips would be rough against his for a moment, but he won’t fight back' - a bit of tense confusion there. With the rest of that passage, 'won't' should be 'wouldn't'. With 'my arms wind milling', 'windmilling' is one word, I believe. My spell checker doesn't like it, but 'windmill' is one word, and anyway it would have greater impact. Shortly after that, you have, 'The bed I was laying on'. The correct form of the verb there is 'lying'.

I do have a few more suggestions. I'd like to start with a sentence towards the end:

One moment I was freezing cold, trying to create friction rubbing my body against the wooden slab I lay on when I barely had the energy to keep breathing, and the next I was feebly reaching up to move the fabric away from the window it was covering to try and get a breeze.

It is very long and convoluted. I'd suggest making that at least two sentences. Maybe:

One moment I was freezing cold, trying to create friction by rubbing my body against the wooden slab I lay on, with barely enough energy to keep breathing. The next, I was feebly reaching up to move the fabric away from the window it was covering to try and get a breeze.

Or whatever suits you - just break it up a bit, I suggest.

I have some more small points you might like to consider, but nothing major. Jennifer's sentence, 'Now it's out in the open and I feel better', I think would flow more smoothly with a comma instead of that 'and'. There is a point where Lewis uses a semicolon: 'It’s not such an interesting story; if you listen to anyone and his brother...' Semicolons are great, and this is the correct way to use them, but they're not something everybody likes and with what we've learned about Lewis's character, he doesn't seem like someone who would casually put one into his writing like you or I would. He's intelligent - that's established - but the semicolon doesn't feel right.

Similarly, Jennifer describes her letter of confession as 'foolish'. I think she might use a different word - something simpler like 'dumb' or 'stupid'. When she hears that Lewis is MIA, her response is, ' "No!" I moaned'. With her, I'm hearing something sharper and more forceful than a moan. Maybe a gasp, or a yell?

Finally, there are a couple of bits I tripped over towards the end. First, 'I woke up when I opened my eyes'. I understand that he hadn't opened his eyes for a while, but that still doesn't sound right. Maybe you could just invert it: 'I opened my eyes when I woke up.' Finally, I didn't understand what you meant by a 'still-streaming cup of water'. You didn't mean steaming, I think, because it's cold (right?). How can a cup of water stream?

So yeah, just little things. It's a great follow-up to the previous instalment - I was hoping we'd get to see a bit more of Jennifer, and we have. I haven't read the final part yet, but maybe it would be better to put Lewis's section a little later, after we've seen a bit more of Jennifer not knowing where he is or whether he's even alive - I think that would really add impact.
What do you think?
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:iconposhlost:
poshlost Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Also: I don't think your love fantasy/scene is necessary and even hurts the story. You've got a good sexual tension going, don't break it.
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:iconposhlost:
poshlost Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
I think you need to reassess the mother's relationship. I find a plot hole in why she contacts Jennifer all the time, why she has allowed Jennifer to visit her, etc. Also, there's all this stuff going on between the letters that you've left out. Which could a good thing, an aesthetic thing, but I would consider filling in some of the gaps later on.

One more note: you're absolutely brilliant at detailing madness/warping reality.
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:iconthornyenglishrose:
ThornyEnglishRose Featured By Owner May 30, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
I've read this and made some notes. I don't have time to write up a critique now this minute, but I'll get it to you soon. :)

(I see you've taken my advice about the point of view headings in part 5, so no need to comment on that again. :))
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