The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 11


Jamie lay in a Stryker bed in Neuro, naked beneath a sheet, his face bandaged so completely that only one closed eye could be seen. A tube snaked into his nostril. A ventilator kept him breathing. Whoosh-thunk. Another machine monitored his heartbeat. Rob, the surgeon, had done what he could, and then stepped back, shaking his head, saying, “I’m sorry, Frankie. I’ll write to his wife tomorrow. You should say goodbye.”

Now Frankie sat by Jamie’s bed, held his hand. The heat of his skin indicated that an infection was already taking hold. “We’ll get you to the Third, Jamie. You hang on. You hear me?”

Frankie’s mind played and replayed the last thing Jamie had said to her. I love you, McGrath.

And she’d said nothing.

God, she wished she’d told him the truth, wished they’d kissed, just once, so she could have that memory.

“I should have…” What? What should she have done? What could she have done? Love mattered in this ruined world, but so did honor. What was one without the other? He was married and Frankie knew he loved his wife. “You’re strong,” she said, her voice strained. The nurse in her knew no one was strong enough for some injuries; the woman in her longed to believe in an impossible recovery.

“Lieutenant? Lieutenant?”

The voice seemed to come from far away. Scratching, irritating, a thing to brush off.

She realized a pair of medics were standing beside her. She noticed belatedly that one had laid his hand on her shoulder.

She looked up at him. How long had she been here? Her back ached and a headache throbbed behind her eyes. It felt like hours, but it hadn’t been long at all.

“The bird’s here. He’s being medevaced to the Third. A neuro team is standing by.”

Frankie nodded, pushed her chair back, and stood. For a second, she was shaky on her feet.

The medic steadied her.

She saw the duffel bag at his feet. “Those are Jamie—Captain Callahan’s things?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Frankie reached into her pocket and pulled out a felt-tipped marker and the small gray stone she’d been given by the young Vietnamese boy. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he’d pressed it into her palm. It had become a talisman for her. She wrote You fight on one side of the stone and McGrath on the other. She slipped it into his duffel bag.

She leaned over and kissed his bandaged cheek, felt the heat of his fever, and whispered, “I love you, Jamie.”

Slowly, she drew back, straightened. It took every scrap of strength she possessed to step back while they prepped him to leave and then rushed him out of the OR and toward the helipad.

Halfway to the helipad, Frankie heard the medic yell, “Code,” and saw him begin chest compressions.

Jamie’s heart had stopped.

Frankie screamed, “Save him!”

They lifted Jamie onto the waiting helicopter; the medic jumped aboard, continued chest compressions as the helicopter lifted up slowly.

Frankie stood there, staring up into the Dust Off.

She saw the medic stop compressions, pull his hands back, shake his head.

“Don’t stop! He has a strong heart!” she screamed, but her voice was drowned out by the whir of the rotors. “Don’t stop!”

The helicopter flew up and away, merged into the darkness of the night, and became a distant whir of sound, and then even that was gone.

Gone.

How could his heart stop? His beautiful, beautiful heart …

She closed her eyes, felt tears streak down her cheeks. “Jamie,” she said in a cracked voice. All she wanted was one more minute, just a look, a second to tell him that he hadn’t been alone in what he felt, that in a different world, a different time, they could have come together.

The pounding thud of outgoing mortar shells and rockets was all that remained, steady as the beat of her heart. When she turned away, Barb was there, waiting. She opened her arms wide.

Frankie walked into her friend’s embrace, let herself be held for as long as she dared.

Arms around each other, they headed to the O Club. As always, the smell of smoke wafted outside. Inside, music. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Their newest anthem.

Barb pushed the beaded curtain aside.

Inside, there were probably a dozen people gathered in small groups. No one was laughing or singing or dancing, not on this night, not in the wake of what had happened to Jamie. Some things could be partied away, pushed aside by booze and drugs and momentarily forgotten. Not this.

Barb snagged a bottle of gin from the bar and then led the way to a ratty sofa and sat down. “I imagine you’re ready for a real drink now.”

Frankie sat down next to her friend, leaned against her.

Barb took a big chug of gin and handed Frankie the bottle.

Frankie stared at it for a moment, almost said, No thanks, and then thought: What the hell? She reached for the bottle, took a long, fiery swig, and almost gagged. It tasted like isopropyl alcohol. It was even worse than the whiskey she’d drunk—with Jamie—on her first night here.

You’re safe, McGrath … I’ve got you.

Barb took a drink. “To Jamie,” she said quietly. “He’s tough, Frankie. He could make it.”

To Jamie, Frankie thought, forcing herself to take another drink. She needed something to dull this pain. She closed her eyes, but in the darkness of her mind, all she saw was the medic stopping compressions.

Frankie wanted, just for a moment, not to be a nurse, not to be serving in a war, not to have worked in Neuro, not to know what Jamie’s injuries and stopped compressions meant.

“There’s something else,” Barb said. “I hate to bring it up now…”

“What?” Frankie said tiredly.

“My DEROS came today. I’m outta here on December twenty-sixth.”

Frankie had known this was coming, but still it hurt. “Good for you.”

“I can’t do another tour.”

“I know.”

Finley. Ethel. Jamie. Barb.

“I’m so tired of goodbyes,” Frankie said quietly, squeezing her eyes shut to keep from crying. What good were tears? Gone was gone. Crying didn’t change it. “To Jamie,” she said again, more to herself than to Barb, reaching for the bottle of gin.


September 30, 1967

Dear Ethel,

I don’t know how to write this letter, but if I don’t say the words to someone, I’ll keep lying to myself. Jamie is gone.

I can’t seem to breathe when I think about losing him. I want to believe he will survive, will make it home to his family, but how can I believe that with what we’ve seen? His wounds were … well, you know what it looks like. And I did my time in Neuro. Anyway, I am tired of losing people.

It’s been three days since he was hurt and it’s all I can do to get out of bed. I’m not crying, not sick to my stomach. I’m just … numb, I guess. Grief tears me apart when I stand.

They need me in the OR. I know that’s what you’ll say. It’s what Barb says. I am trying like hell to care about that. But how can I walk into the OR and know he won’t be there? I’ll reach for him, call out to him, and someone else will answer.

You’d think, after losing my brother, I’d be a little more durable.

He wasn’t even mine. I keep thinking of his wife and his son. I want to reach out to them, ask if he made it, but it wouldn’t be right. It’s not my place. And he’ll reach out to me if he can, won’t he? Maybe not … Like I said, he was never mine.

I miss you, girl. I could use your steadiness now, maybe one of your stories about galloping your horse through autumn leaves … or even one of your lectures on barbecue as a noun.

Hope all is well back in the world.

Love,

F


October 9, 1967

Dear Frank,

My heart breaks. For Jamie, for his son and his wife, and for you and all of the men he would have saved.

Damn war. I remember how I felt when I lost Georgie. I don’t think there’s a word for that kind of grief. But you know what I’m going to say. It’s ’Nam.

You meet people, you form these bonds that tighten around you, and some of the people you love die. All of them go away, one way or another. You don’t carry them around with you over there, you can’t. There isn’t time, and the memories are too heavy. You’ll always have the piece of him that was yours and your time together. And you can pray for him. One way or another, Frank, he’s gone for you, and you know that. As you said, he was never your guy, no matter how much you loved him.

For now, just keep on keepin’ on, Frank.

Sending peace and love, girlfriend.

E


October 13, 1967

Dear Ethel,

Today it’s hot enough to roast meat on the hooch floor, I swear to God. I’m sweating so much I have to keep wiping my eyes.

Thanks for your letter about Jamie.

You’re right. I know you’re right.

I can’t keep thinking about him. Wishing, remembering, replaying the choices we both made over and over. Fortunately for me, the 36th has been quiet for the past week. But maybe that’s not good. Too much time to think.

I guess I have to feel lucky to have known him, and to have learned from him. Too damn many lessons to learn over here, but the one that’s for sure is this: life is short. I’m not sure I ever really believed that before.

I do, now.

Thanks for being there for me, even from half a world away. I sure would love another picture from home. I miss you.

Luv ya,

F

Frankie put down her pen, took a sip of warm TaB, and folded up the piece of thin blue stationery. Leaning sideways, she put the letter on her bedside chest, beside the stack of letters from home she’d been rereading.

She should write to her parents, too. She hadn’t written in days, unable to find the words to put a pretty spin on her life over here.

She could write and say she was safe, she supposed. That was what they wanted to hear. Although, in truth, that was what her mom wanted to hear. She had no idea what her dad wanted from her anymore. He hadn’t written a single letter.

According to her mother’s frequent letters, everyone back in the world was talking about music and hippies and the so-called Summer of Love. The Summer of Love. (There wasn’t so much as a mention of it in the Stars and Stripes.) It was vaguely obscene. As if boys weren’t dying by the boatload over here.

She leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes, hoping to fall asleep. She wanted to dream about Jamie—it had become comforting in a sick kind of way, obsessively remembering him—but now, instead, she thought about Barb’s DEROS, coming up in December.

How could she survive over here without her best friend?

A knock at the hooch door woke her up.

“Come in.”

The door opened. A young private stood there, looking nervous, his knobby Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “Lieutenant McGrath?”

“Yeah?”

“Major Goldstein would like to see you.”

“When?”

“Now.”

Frankie nodded and got slowly to her feet. She reached down for her shoes and put them on.

At the admin building, she knocked on the chief nurse’s office door, heard a mumbled, “Come in,” and opened the door.

The major looked up. Frankie saw exhaustion in the slant of her shoulders and the lavender bags under her eyes.

“Are you okay, Major?” Frankie asked.

“Rough few days,” the major said.

Frankie knew the major wouldn’t elaborate. Major Goldstein was old-school. There was a chain of command for a reason. Fraternization was out of the question. In a world where there were very few women to start with, and most were of lower rank and experience, it had to be lonely as hell. Certainly, the men who were of her rank considered themselves superior.

“You’re being transferred to the Seventy-First Evac.”

Frankie’s stomach dropped. “Pleiku?”

“Yep. It’s near the Cambodian border. Central Highlands. Deep jungle.” She paused. “Heavy fighting.”

“I know.”

Major Goldstein sighed heavily. “Losing you is pure shit from my end. I’ll get some newbie nurse to replace you, no doubt, but orders are orders. You’re a hell of a combat nurse.” She sighed again. “So, naturally, I lose you. It’s the Army way. Make sure your will is up-to-date. And write your parents a nice letter before you go.”

Frankie was too stunned—too scared—to say anything except, “Thank you, Major.”

“Believe me, Lieutenant McGrath, you will not thank me for this.”

Frankie left the admin building in a daze.

Pleiku.

Rocket City.

She walked past a group of men playing football on the beach and a pair of uniformed Red Cross workers sitting in portable beach chairs, watching the game. More shirtless men sat in chairs, getting some sun. Someone was setting up the screen and projector for tonight’s movie.

She found Barb in a beach chair, reading a letter from home.

Frankie sat down beside her. “I’ve been transferred to the Seventy-First.”

Barb took a long drink of her gin and tonic. “Man. No one screws a woman like this man’s Army.”

“Yep.”

“So, when do we go?”

Frankie must have misheard. “We?”

“Honey, you know I love to travel. I can get transferred with you. No sweat. God knows they need us both up there.”

“But Barb—”

“No talking, Frankie. For as long as I’m in this godforsaken place, I’m with you.”


The hooch door banged open. No knocking. A swatch of hot yellow sunlight blasted into the dim interior.

Barb stood there, still dressed in the khaki shorts and T-shirt and combat boots she’d worn to the ER this morning. Her Afro was bigger now; in the past weeks, she’d let it go, called it her private rebellion.

A young woman stood beside Barb, wearing her Class A uniform and carrying her Army-issue handbag and a soft-sided travel bag. Electric-blue eye shadow drew attention to her wide, frightened eyes. Frankie could see how the poor girl was shaking.

“I’m Wilma Cottington from Boise, Idaho,” she said, trying to iron the stutter out of her voice.

Barb said, “Land of potatoes.”

“My husband is in Da Nang,” Wilma said. “I followed him.”

“A husband in-country. How lucky.” Frankie made brief eye contact with Barb. They both knew a husband in-country was potentially lucky. Or extremely unlucky.

“I’m Frankie.” She stood up. “Why don’t you unpack? We’ll show you around when you’re done.”

Wilma looked around the hooch.

Frankie knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling.

They’d all been turtles once, and the Thirty-Sixth was a carousel of people coming and going. Wilma would make it—become a more-than-competent nurse—or she wouldn’t. Most likely she would, even without Frankie or Barb to train her. Major Goldstein would start her in Neuro.

The circle of life in the Thirty-Sixth.

A rat scurried across the floor; Wilma screamed.

Frankie barely noticed the rodent. “That isn’t the worst of what you’ll see, kid.”

Kid.

They were probably the same age, but Frankie felt ancient by comparison.

“Don’t drink water unless it comes from a Lister bag, Wilma,” Frankie said. “That’s as good a place to start as any.”


October 20, 1967

Dear Mom and Dad,

Hello from hot and humid Vietnam.

I never told you about our beach party. I went waterskiing for the first time. Then we had a mini-American Bandstand dance party on the beach. There are these Naval helicopter pilots—the Seawolves—who really know how to have a good time.

My friend Ethel went home and Barb and I surely miss her. I never knew how intense wartime friendships could be.

I’ve been at the 36th Evac Hospital for six months, and it seems that the brass wants me to move up north, into the Central Highlands, to the 71st. I’ll send you my address when I know what it is. Barb is going, too.

Until then, could you please send some hand lotion, tampons (they sell out in the PX because the men out in the bush use them to clean their rifles), shampoo, crème rinse, and I sure would love some more See’s. And I’m almost out of perfume. The boys love it when I smell like the girls back in the world.

I’ll write again as soon as I’m settled. I’m nervous about the transfer, but excited, too. This will really sharpen my nursing skills.

I’m sorry I haven’t written for a while. I lost a good friend recently, and I’ve been in a bit of a funk. But I’m getting better now. Not much time here for grief, even though there’s plenty of cause. Life isn’t always easy, as you can imagine. People come and go. But I love nursing. It’s important you know that, and that you know I’m happy I came here. Even on bad days, even on the worst days, I believe this is what I’m meant to do and where I’m meant to be. Finley told me once that he’d found himself over here, that his men were important to him, and I know how he felt.

Love to you both,

F


Frankie’s first sight of Pleiku was from the air, in a supply helicopter, looking down at the dense green jungle below. Barb sat on the other side of the chopper, peering down, too.

A flat pad had been cut into the lush green mountainside—a huge square of red dirt held a ramshackle collection of tents and Quonset huts and temporary buildings. Looking at it, Frankie remembered—or finally understood—that the Seventy-First was a mobile Army surgical hospital. It struck her suddenly what that meant. Mobile. Temporary. In the jungle, near the Cambodian border, where the Viet Cong knew every footpath and clearing, where they planted bombs to blow up their American enemies. Coils of concertina wire protected the compound from the jungle that encroached on all sides.

The chopper dropped down to the helipad. Barb and Frankie jumped down as several soldiers moved in to unload supplies, including the nurses’ footlockers and duffel bags. Everything in, around, or about helicopters had to be done quickly; Charlie had no greater target than a landed bird.

“Lieutenants McGrath and Johnson?” said a short, bulkily built man in faded fatigues. “I’m Sergeant Alvarez. Follow me.”

Frankie clamped her boonie hat onto her head and angled low beneath the whirring rotors. Red dust flew up, swirled, made its way into her eyes, her nose, her mouth.

He pointed to the Quonset hut nearest the helipad, yelled, “ER. That one’s Pre-Op.” He kept walking and talking and came to another Quonset hut, its entrance stacked in sandbags: “OR.”

“There’s a large air base nearby,” he went on, “as well as the village of Pleiku. Don’t go to either without an escort.” He led them deeper into the camp, where personnel moved in a rush. There wasn’t much here—some Quonset huts, a row of dilapidated wooden huts, tents. Everything was stained red and surrounded by barbed wire and protected by armed soldiers in guard towers.

“The morgue,” he said, pointing left.

Frankie saw a tired-looking medic pushing a wheeled litter with a body-bagged soldier through a pair of double doors. Inside, she saw body bags stacked on tables and cots and a few even on the ground.

“I know it looks shitty compared to the Thirty-Sixth,” Sarge said, not stopping. “And the rainy season lasts for nine months up here, but we have our benefits.” He showed off an area he called “the Park,” which was a stand of rotting brown banana trees, their giant fronds bent over and decayed, and an honest-to-God aboveground swimming pool full of brown water and leaves. Off to the side was a tiki-style bar, complete with torches and a sign that read HULA SPOKEN HERE. Beside it, a sandbagged bunker and a dozen portable chairs waited forlornly for partiers. “The officers have some kick-ass parties here at the Park, ma’am. You can find someone here most times if you’re feeling angry or blue. Ain’t much space between those emotions here in Rocket City.”

He pointed out the commanding officers’ trailers and walked past a row of unimpressive wooden huts. Up ahead were the latrines and showers. “By fifteen hundred hours, the water feels almost warm,” he said. At the final wooden hut, built up on blocks and layered in sandbags, he stopped and turned to them. “Home sweet home.”

“Get settled in, Lieutenants,” he said. “This quiet? It won’t last. The fighting in Dak To has been brutal this week. Your duffels will be delivered ASAP. Shifts are oh-seven-hundred to nineteen hundred hours, six days a week, but if we’re short on staff … and hell, we are always short … we work till we’re done.” He opened the door.

The smell made Frankie almost gag. Mildew. Mold.

Insects and dust motes thickened the air. Inside the small, stinky space were two empty cots, upon each of which sat folded woolen blankets and a pillow that she already knew neither of them would use, and two rickety chests of drawers. Red dust coated everything, even the ceiling. For the first time, she thought kindly—and nostalgically—about her hooch at the Thirty-Sixth.

Frankie turned back to thank the sergeant, but he was already gone.

She followed Barb into the hooch.

They stood there, shoulder to shoulder. “My mother would pass out,” Frankie said at last.

“Spoiled white girl,” Barb said.

Frankie tossed her purse and travel bag on the empty cot nearest her. They landed with a squeak of metal that did not inspire her confidence for a good night’s rest. She felt insects feasting on her bare arms and legs. Slapping her own thigh, she unpacked a few belongings and carefully arranged her family photographs on the rickety dresser. Then she tacked up a picture of Jamie; in it, he was leaning against a post, holding a beer, giving her the kind of smile that lifted everyone’s mood. She stared at it longer than she should have, then felt the start of tears and turned away.

Barb unpacked her posters. Unfurling them, she tacked them up on the wall, a trio of her idols: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted, with the words I AIN’T GOT NO QUARREL WITH THEM VIET CONG stamped across his body.

Frankie opened the creaking, makeshift dresser drawer, saw that it was full of rat droppings. “Shit,” she said. “And I mean that literally. Shit.” She started to laugh and then heard an incoming chopper.

Frankie slapped her thigh again. Her hand came back bloody.

“And here I was thinking we had time for a little gin rummy,” Barb said.

“Or to do our nails,” Frankie answered, stripping out of her shorts. She put on her fatigues and gathered her supplies: a lighter, a roll of bandages, scissors, a flashlight, chewing gum, and a felt-tipped pen. She looped a length of Penrose tubing through her belt loop, in case she needed to start an IV, and snapped a Kelly clamp on her bagging waistband. You never knew when supplies would be lacking, and being prepared could save a life.

Outside, the whump-whump of the helicopters was deafening.

Frankie and Barb ran past the helipad, where wounded were being offloaded from a Dust Off and coming in by ambulance. Men covered in mud and blood, working together, shouting at one another beneath the thwomping rotors. In the air, a row of helicopters hovered, waited their turn to touch down.

A grizzled-looking Black medic was running triage in the ER, determining who would be seen when. Sawhorses were being set up quickly, to hold the men on litters. A screen in the back corner shielded the expectants. “Lieutenants Johnson and McGrath,” Barb said. “From the Thirty-Sixth. Surgical nurses.”

He looked at their bloody, stained fatigues. It meant they’d been in the shit. “Thank Christ,” he said, loudly enough to be heard over the din of yelling men and helicopters landing and taking off. He pointed to a Quonset hut. “OR 1. Report to Hap. If he doesn’t need you yet, try Pre-Op.”

Frankie and Barb were halfway there when the red alert siren sounded. Seconds later a shell exploded on the ground not far away from them. A sound like pelting gravel hit the Quonset hut. The air stank of smoke and something strangely acrid.

Something whistled over Frankie’s head and thudded behind her. At OR 1, Frankie wrenched the door open.

Inside: Bright lights. Men waiting for surgery, lying on tables.

She and Barb washed their hands, then grabbed scrubs and caps and masks and gloves and found Harry “Hap” Dickerson, a lieutenant colonel, operating without assistance on a deep belly wound.

“Lieutenants McGrath and Johnson, sir. Reporting for duty.”

“Thank God. Cart’s there,” Hap said to Frankie. “Johnson, that’s Captain Winstead over there. He’ll need you.”

“Yes, sir.” Barb ran toward the other doctor.

Another rocket blast, this one close enough to shake the Quonset hut. The lights dimmed and went out.

“Shit! Generators!” Hap yelled.

Frankie pulled out her flashlight and flicked it on, directing the narrow yellow beam on the wound.

Seconds later, the lights came back on, accompanied by the hum of the emergency generators.

The rounds kept falling, raining fire on the camp. Thud. Whump. The explosions were so close they rattled Frankie’s teeth.

The noise was excruciating and heightened Frankie’s sense that hell had broken loose here. Helicopters coming and going, the mortar attack that went on and on and on, the hum of suction machines, the drone of the generator, the snapping of lights on surging electricity, the hissing of respirators.

“Hap! It’s Reddick. He’s in trouble,” someone shouted above the melee.

“Can you close?” Hap said to Frankie, stepping back from the patient.

“Yes,” Frankie said, but her hands were shaking. Stitching up an incision was one thing; doing it with too few doctors and nurses, unreliable electricity, and bombs landing nearby was a whole other world.

She closed her eyes, brought Jamie to her mind, then Ethel. She felt them beside her.

No fear, McGrath.

She heard Jamie’s voice in her head. It’s just like sewing, McGrath. Don’t all you nice sorority girls know how to sew?

Frankie closed out the chaos and the attack; when she felt calm, she closed the belly wound, then handed the patient off to a medic, washed her hands, put on new gloves, and followed Hap to another table.

“Hey, pretty,” the patient said to her, his voice slurring, his eyes lowering heavily. He was a Marine, undergoing anesthesia. “Are you here to watch my game?”

She looked at his dog tag. “Hey, Private Waite.” She kept her gaze on his face, careful not to glance down, where both of his legs had been severed mid-thigh. Thick yellow tubes were draining the blood from his chest wound, pumping it into a suction machine at Hap’s blood-splattered boots.

Another rocket hit. Close.

“They’re targeting us!” someone yelled. “Mandatory blackout in three … two … one.”

The lights clicked off.

“Get down!”

“Lower the table,” Hap said.

“Put me in, Coach,” Private Waite mumbled. “I can score.”

Frankie and Hap lowered the operating table as low as it would go. The nurse-anesthetist lay on the floor, monitoring the gauges with a flashlight.

Frankie knelt in the blood and turned on her flashlight, held it in her mouth.

For the next ten hours, she followed Hap from surgery to surgery in the blackout darkness; they peered at each other through flashlight beams.

The wounded kept coming, wave after wave of men brought in broken and in pieces after the fighting at Dak To.

There were South Vietnamese incoming, too: soldiers and civilians. Children. Filling the wards, the hallways, the morgue, overflowing outside.

Finally, Frankie noticed a lessening of the noise.

No Dust Offs landing or hovering, waiting to land. No bombing. No ambulances rumbling toward the OR.

The lights in the OR snapped back on, jarringly bright.

Hap pulled off his surgical cap and lowered his mask. He was older than she’d thought, fleshy, with large-pored skin and a dark shadow beard that had probably sprouted during the push. “Hey, McGrath, good job. First day at Pleiku and a mortar attack.”

“Is this what it’s always like here?”

Hap shrugged. It had been a stupid question: Frankie knew there was no always anything in ’Nam. Everything moved, changed, died; people and buildings came and went overnight, roads were built and abandoned. Hap tossed his surgical garb into an overflowing waste bin and left the OR.

Frankie stood there, unable for a moment to move; she felt people around her—nurses and medics, cleaning up, moving things around, rolling out gurneys.

Move, Frankie.

It took an act of will to simply lift her foot, to take a step. She felt dazed, overwhelmed.

She walked out of the Quonset hut. The squishing of her socks told her that—impossibly—there was blood inside her sneakers. Her feet hurt from standing for so long, and her knees ached from kneeling.

Outside of Post-Op, she saw dead men on litters, overflowing from the ER, out into the walkway. She’d never seen so many wounded in one MASCAL.

The morgue was worse. Black body bags stacked up like cordwood.

The darkness popped with noise and distant rocket fire. Here and there, beyond the glimmering silver of concertina wire, she saw blots of yellow light moving through the jungle. The enemy was just beyond the wire, barely out of machine gun range, watching them, planting bombs and trip wires.

Rounding the corner of the Quonset hut, she saw Barb sitting in the dirt, knees drawn up, back resting against the metal wall, her green canvas boonie hat drawn low on her forehead.

Frankie slid down the hut’s wall to sit in the dirt beside her.

For a long moment, neither said anything. The distant pop-thud of the war raging in the mountain underscored their breathing.

“This is not the vacation we signed up for,” Frankie finally said in an uneven voice. “I want my money back.”

Barb’s hands shook as she took a joint out of her pocket and lit it up. “We were promised champagne.”

“Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire. I feel like Frodo in Mordor,” Frankie said.

“I have no idea what that means.”

“It means give me that joint.”

Barb looked at her. “You sure, good girl?”

Frankie took the joint from her friend and drew in a big lungful of smoke and immediately started coughing. She laughed for a second, said, “Look, Ma, I’m doing the drugs,” and then she was crying.

“Jesus, what a night,” Barb said.

Frankie could hear the trembling in Barb’s voice and knew her friend needed her tonight, needed Frankie to be the strong one. She wiped the tears from her eyes and leaned sideways, put an arm around Barb. “I’ve got you, girlfriend.”

“Thank God,” Barb said quietly. And then, even more softly, under her breath, she said, “How will you do this alone?”

Frankie pretended not to hear.

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