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The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 13

“What do you know about your CO?” Frankie asked.

“He’s tough as nails. Doesn’t talk much about himself. I hear he’s engaged to some admiral’s daughter. You probably know him better than we do.”

“No,” Frankie said. “I didn’t really know him well. An admiral’s daughter, huh? Engaged. It’s hardly surprising.”


Frankie almost said, Look at him, but held her tongue.

Even with Coyote’s arms around her, slow-dancing, Frankie found her gaze drawn again and again to Rye; she watched the way he laughed with his men, the way he stood apart from them sometimes. She could tell how much they respected him. Every glance took her back to Finley’s going-away party, when she hadn’t been able to look away, either, and their moment in her father’s office.

Women can be heroes.

Those words—his words—to an impressionable twenty-year-old had led her inevitably to this room, this war. It felt like fate, them meeting here.

“I have my own room, Frankie,” Coyote said, nuzzling her neck as they danced. “We could be alone…”

“Coyote,” she said quietly.

He drew back, looked at her. “You’re right. I should ask you out for a real date. I want to do this right with you, Frankie.”

The music changed. There was a crash of furniture and a rise of laughter.

At the edge of the dance floor, Barb had missed the chair and fallen to the floor. Frankie pulled out of Coyote’s arms and went to her friend.

Rye was there first, helping Barb to her feet. Barb threw her arms around Rye’s neck and hung on. “My bones melted,” she said. Her head lolled back, and she grinned drunkenly at Frankie. “Look a’ this one, Frankie…”

Frankie turned to Rye. The way he looked at her was unnerving. Too intense. It made her feel strange, fluttery. “I should get her back to the Caravelle.”

“I’ll get an MP to drive you.”

Rye helped maneuver Barb out of the O Club and to an MP jeep. Frankie climbed in beside her.

Coyote came out of the O Club. “Frankie, I’ll come to see—”

“’Bye, Coyote!” Frankie said, waving as the jeep took off.

Back at the hotel, she helped Barb up the stairs and into their room.

While Barb was peeing, she looked up, bleary-eyed, and said, “Don’t let me fall off the toilet. M’balance is for shit.”

“Whiskey,” Frankie said, and they both laughed.

Frankie helped Barb out of her clothes and into bed.

“D’ya see the cat in the sunglasses?” Barb said, flopping back into the clean white sheets. “Good-lookin’ man.”

“I saw him,” Frankie said, pulling the covers up to Barb’s chin.

With the lights out, and to the sound of Barb’s snoring, Frankie tried to sleep. It should have been easy; she had drunk plenty tonight, and there was no fear of a mortar attack or a MASCAL to waken her in the middle of the night. She was on clean, fresh sheets. Still, sleep eluded her. She felt restless, anxious.

The phone rang. She answered before it wakened Barb. “Hello?”

“Miss McGrath,” said a Vietnamese man in French-accented English. “There’s a young man here to see you. He asks that you meet him at the top-floor bar.”


Frankie didn’t want to see him now, but she owed him the truth. He wasn’t the man for her. And she couldn’t sleep, anyway.

She threw back the covers and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and went to the elevator, which was out of order. Sighing, she walked up four flights of stairs and emerged onto the hotel’s dimly lit rooftop bar.

A three-piece band sent music out across an empty dance floor. She could see a small group of men and women huddled in one corner, all of them smoking and talking loudly, arguing. She could hear typewriters clacking.

Journalists. She’d heard that this bar was one of their hangouts, along with the bar at the Rex Hotel. She wondered what they were arguing about, if their perspectives on the war were as at odds as her own; if they were as divided as America seemed to be.

Frankie walked over to a quiet table by a window and sat down. In the moonlight, the Continental Hotel across the street was dark except for a few illuminated rooms. She couldn’t help thinking of Jamie, who long ago had told her about this romantic rooftop bar. Sadness tainted the memory, left a sharp little bite, and then softened into regret. She tried instead to imagine him at home, with his family, but couldn’t quite manage that kind of optimism.

A slim Vietnamese woman appeared quietly to take Frankie’s drink order. Moments later, she returned with a glass of Sancerre.

Frankie took a sip of the wine as she stared out at the night lights of Saigon. Even with music playing, the noise of the war was ever-present: the whir of a helicopter flying over the city, the pop of gunfire. Here and there, streaks of red arced through the night sky like fireworks; orange fires blossomed. From here, the war was almost beautiful. Maybe that was a fundamental truth: War looked one way for those who saw it from a safe distance. Close up, the view was different.



She looked up in surprise.

The Vietnamese waitress glided effortlessly into place beside Rye.

“Scotch. Neat,” Rye said. When the waitress left, Rye sat down opposite Frankie, saying nothing until he had his drink in front of him and the waitress had gone. “Seeing you … was like going back in time.”


“Finley was the best friend I ever had.”

“Me, too.”

He sat back, studied her. “So. A combat nurse. I would have thought you’d be married to a millionaire’s son by now.”

“Some guy I met at a party told me that women could be heroes. No one had ever said anything like that to me before.”

“I don’t think you needed to hear it from me,” he said, his gaze steady on hers. She couldn’t help wondering what he saw when he looked at her. Finley’s kid sister? Or did he see who she’d become?

“I did need to hear it,” she said quietly.

The music changed to something unrecognizable.

He said, “Dance with me.”

As a girl, she’d dreamed about this moment with him; as a woman, she knew how fragile dreams were and this war had taught her to dance while she could. She got to her feet.

He took her hand in his and led her to the dance floor. She fit up against him, felt his arms encircle her. They moved in time to the music, but they weren’t really dancing. She would have sworn she could feel his heart beating against hers.

He looked down and she saw desire in his eyes. No man had ever looked at her like this, as if he wanted to devour her, bones and all.

When the song ended, she pulled free. “We probably shouldn’t dance,” she said, feeling shaky. “You’re engaged, from what I hear.”

“She’s a long way away.”

Frankie managed a smile, but only barely. They were not the words she wanted to hear from him. “I’ve already had my heart broken over here,” she said quietly, taking another step back. “And I expect an officer to be a gentleman, Rye.”

He locked his hands behind his back. Soldier’s stance. A respectful distance. “Forgive me for coming here tonight.” His voice had a rough edge to it. “It wasn’t my place.”

She nodded, tried again to smile. “Stay alive, Rye. I’m seeing too many bird pilots in my OR.”

“Goodbye, Frankie.”


Frankie tossed and turned all night, her sleep plagued by sharp, unfamiliar longings. When she woke, it was late morning and sunlight streamed through the clean glass windows.

Her first thought was of Rye.

That dance. And the way he’d looked at her.

She got out of bed, saw that Barb had left her a Meet you at breakfast note.

Downstairs, she found Barb already seated at the hotel restaurant, drinking a Bloody Mary. “Hair of the dog,” she said. “What happened last night? How did I get back to the hotel?”

“I used my superhuman strength and carried you.”

“Ugh. That’s good for the reputation.”

“You were dressed the whole time, if that helps. And there was no public vomiting. You may or may not have used the men’s bathroom.”

The waitress returned with a second Bloody Mary, which she handed to Frankie.

“I know I was drunk as shit last night, but you were acting weird,” Barb said.

“Was I?”

Something about the casual response put Barb on alert. “So, now I know there’s a story. Spill the beans, girl.”

Frankie sighed. “Fin used to bring his Naval Academy friends home in the summer. They seemed like gods to me.” She smiled, a little one, and thought maybe it was too sad to be real. “Rye Walsh was his best friend. The CO in the sunglasses last night? I had a huge crush on him.”

“The guy who looks like Paul Newman? Wow. So, grab his hand and show him—”

“He’s engaged.”

“Shit. Not again.” Barb took a drink. “And you’re a damn good girl.”

“When I danced with Jamie, I felt safe. Loved, I guess. It was like being home, but with Rye … when I was in his arms, I felt … I mean, the way he looked at me was … hungry. Almost scary.”

“It’s called lust, Frankie, and it can rock your good-girl world.”

Back at the Seventy-First, the only thing that ever changed was the weather. By December, the days were uniformly hot and dry. Now, with the temperature rising to 110 degrees in the OR, Frankie was hot and headachy. She hadn’t slept well since Saigon.

The OR doors opened and a pair of medics rolled a soldier in from Pre-Op; he was face down on the gurney, his naked, bloody butt stuck up in the air. One of the medics was laughing at something—a good sign. “Butt shot,” he yelled to Frankie, who showed the medics to an empty table and snapped on a new set of gloves.

The kid on the stretcher craned his neck around to look at Frankie. “I got me a fine black ass, don’t I?” he said with a glassy-eyed smile that revealed he’d been given some morphine for the pain. He was barely over eighteen, Frankie would guess. “I’m Albert Brown. Private first class.”

“Hey, Private Brown. Yes, you do have one fine ass, I’d say. Too bad I’m going to have to pick shrapnel out of it.” She waved over the male nurse-anesthetist—nicknamed Gasman—who injected a local anesthetic. When the patient’s buttocks were numb, Frankie bent over his backside and went to work, tweezing out jagged bits of shrapnel. It would hurt like hell if he could feel it. And he would when the drugs wore off.

“Where are you from, Albert?”

“Kentucky, ma’am. Land of bourbon and good-lookin’ men.”

“With fine asses,” Frankie said.

He laughed. “I’m glad to represent, ma’am.”

When she had finished, cleaned him up, and bandaged his backside, she called for a medic to take him to Post-Op.

“Wait, ma’am,” he said. “Can you take a picture with me for my mama, Shirley? She’d love that.”

Frankie smiled tiredly. It was a common request. “Sure, Albert. But your ass looks like it’s been chewed by wolves and so does my hair.”

Albert grinned. “No way, ma’am. You’re the prettiest girl who has ever touched my butt.”

Frankie couldn’t help but laugh. She leaned down and let the kid’s friend snap a Polaroid picture of them. With a wave, she sent him off to recovery and peeled off her gloves, tossing them away and reaching for a new pair. She was thinking about going for a soda when she heard choppers.

Several of them.

She glanced across the OR, made eye contact with Barb, who looked as exhausted as Frankie felt.

The two nurses ran for the helipad, their feet lost in a cloud of red dirt. They helped offload the wounded and guided them back to triage. There, they moved through the wounded fast, barking out orders, prioritizing treatment.

They were almost done when Frankie heard, “Where do you want him, ma’am?”

Two medics appeared, with a wounded man on a litter between them. She took one look at this casualty’s wound and said, “OR, STAT,” and ran along beside the medics.

In the OR, she pointed to an empty table and called for Sharlene, the newest nurse at the Seventy-First; the poor thing was fresh off the plane from Kansas. This would be her first shift. “Sharlene,” Frankie said, thrusting a pair of scissors at her. “Cut off his clothes.”

The young blond woman stared down at the blood falling from the soldier’s chest and onto her shiny black combat boots.

Frankie saw the woman’s fear and thought, Take a breath, Frankie. She forced her voice to soften as she said, “Look at me … Sharlene.”

Sharlene’s eyes were full of tears. “Yes … ma’am…”

“It’s scary, I know. But you can cut his clothes away and take off his boot. You’re a registered nurse.”

Sharlene took the scissors in shaking hands and went to the end of the table. Staring down at what was left of the soldier’s left leg, she began to cut away the blood-and-mud-soaked pants leg.

The patient sat up suddenly, saw his mangled leg. “Where’s my foot? Where’s my foot?”

“Doc! Over here.” Frankie reached for a shot of morphine and administered it. “This will help. You’ll be okay, Corporal.”

“I’m a bulldogger, ma’am,” he said, starting to slur his words as the morphine took effect. “In Oklahoma. You smell mighty fine, ma’am, like my girl back home.”

“It’s Jean Naté perfume. What’s a bulldogger, Marine?” Frankie said, looking for a surgeon.

“Rodeo, ma’am. I surely need that foot…”

Frankie yelled, “Is there a damn doc here, or am I going to do this kid’s surgery myself?”

On her birthday, after a long shift in the OR, Frankie headed to the Park, where a party was in full swing. Barb and Slim were standing by the dirty, leaf-infested pool. A banner had been strung between two dying banana trees: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRANKIE! A small, tired-looking group of nurses and doctors whooped and clapped at her arrival.

Coyote saw Frankie. He leaned over the tiki bar, poured a drink, and brought it to her.

In the days since she’d seen him at the O Club in Saigon, he’d shaved his mustache. He looked younger.

“Happy birthday, Frankie. I’m glad I could be here. Dance with me?”

She started to say no, but when she looked in his eyes, and saw how hard he was working to smile, she realized that they were alike: just trying to conceal the pain of every day here, tired of being alone.

“Give me a chance, Frankie. I’m a good man.”

He sounded so earnest, and she knew he meant it, knew that it made sense to do as he asked, so, she let herself be pulled forward. She wouldn’t sleep with him, wouldn’t even let him kiss her—that would be wrong, to lead him on that way—but just now, she was lonely and tired. It was the wrong song and the wrong man and the wrong hand in hers, but honestly, it felt good not to be alone. And it was just a dance, after all.

“Say you’ll be my girl.”

“I’m sorry, Coyote,” she said softly. For a moment she almost hoped he hadn’t heard her.

“Yeah,” he whispered back, his breath hot against her ear. “I know. You’re out of my league, Frankie McGrath.”

She tightened her hold on him. “No, Coyote. You’re everything a girl could want.”

He drew back. “Just not you.”

God, she hated this. “Just not me.”

He pulled her close again, resumed their dance. “I love a challenge, Frankie. You should know that about me. But I’m going home soon. Short-timer. So don’t lose your chance.”

He threw his head back and howled, but for the first time, Frankie heard the loneliness in the sound, the sorrow and the heartbreak. She wondered if it had been there all along.


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