The first thing the doctor said to Lance Porter was, "March fifth, is that right?"
Lance didn't know what he was talking about.
"When you were wounded."
Wounded. So that was why he felt so shitty. Lance couldn't quite open his eyes all the way, but he tried to get a better look at himself. He was lying down, and his right leg hung from a pulley. Pain tolled like a distant bell in the leg, and in his hip. "What happened?" he asked the doc.
"Mortar shell. The guys at the MASH saved a couple bits of shrapnel for you. Your leg was broken, and there are some pieces missing from your hipbone on that side, but you should be okay. Surgery went well. Your war is over, Corporal Porter."
The MASH. That brought back some memories. Mostly lights, Lance trying to say something and a masked face snapping irritably at someone Lance couldn't see: he's not out yet, for Christ's sake, put him out. And before that, a muddy stream bank. Shaking his head, trying to figure out what had happened.
"Reason I brought up the date is that it's the day Uncle Joe finally cashed in his chips," the doctor said.
The words took a long time to soak through Lance's skull. Uncle Joe. "Stalin?" he said.
"Stalin. Everybody's favorite despot. Had a cerebral hemorrhage, is what they're saying." The doctor flipped sheets of paper on Lance's chart, made notes. "A nurse will be in to see you in an hour or so. She'll top off your morphine if you need it."
"Thanks, Doc," Lance mumbled automatically, and was asleep again before the doctor got to the door.
He awoke to the whistle in his head of the falling shell, and remembered.
Just after dawn, when even the mud and tree stumps of Korea were beautiful. He'd been awake much of the night with a toothache, and had finally given up and climbed to the top of the bunker stairs to watch the sun come up. Mornings looked different, smelled different, when you'd been awake waiting for them, and on this morning Lance felt his spirits lift a bit as the sky brightened. Luke the Gook hadn't sent them any mail overnight, and he never attacked in daylight. All Lance had to do was wait for the morning jitters to pass on both sides, and then he could walk back down the ridge to the CP and get a ride back to have his tooth worked on.
Morning jitters: someone down the line to the east ripped off a long burst from a BAR, just on general principles. A few rifle shots cracked here and there. Across the valley that separated the 2/23rd Infantry from Hill 355, Luke greeted the dawn in his own fashion; Lance ducked back into the bunker as the clacking of a gook machine gun echoed from 355. The bullets didn't hit anything near him. After waiting five minutes for form's sake, Lance put on his helmet. "Sarge, I got a toothache," he said to the platoon sergeant, who was stirring in the corner of the bunker.
"Better take care of it," the sergeant said.
Lance climbed out of the bunker and walked down the back of the ridge, behind the line and away from Luke's Land. The trail switchbacked down the steep incline before following a stream to the CP, and Lance was just coming around a bend when he heard the whistle. Mortar, he had time to think, and then it hit him.
The blast erased all thoughts from his head, and it surprised him to find that he wasn't on the trail anymore. He was lying on his left side on a muddy slope, with his feet in the shallows of the stream. Automatically his hands started looking for his rifle. Rocks, mud, helmet. No rifle.
Pain rose in his leg like the brightening of dawn. He groaned, or thought he did, and realized he was deaf from the blast. And something was in his mouth; he worked it to the tip of his tongue and picked it out. His hand came away bloody, and between thumb and forefinger Lance held a triangular piece of metal about the size of his pinkie fingernail. Now how the hell did that get there? he wondered, probing around in his mouth, and he found a clean hole in his right cheek about two inches back from his front teeth. While looking around he brushed against the sharp stub of his aching molar, and the jolt of pain was much worse than the throb in his leg. I'll be damned, he said, and couldn't hear himself. Luke knocked out my bad tooth for me.
Okay, inventory. Hole in cheek, broken tooth that wasn't any good anyway, ears starting to ring, little stings awakening all up and down his right side . . . oh God.
He hadn't really looked at his leg yet, and when he did the pain rolled over him and he started to scream for real.
Broken, the doctor had said. So casual. Bullshit, Lance thought. Broken was when someone cut you on the football field, you heard a clean snap, the doc set it, and that was that. Lance's leg had been a hell of a lot more than broken. But there it was, apparently whole, encased in plaster and suspended from a pulley. The doc had said something about his hip too, and Lance instinctively reached down to check that his works were all still there. They were. He let out a long sigh.
The guy in the next bed started to laugh at him. "You too, huh? I did the same thing, buddy. Sonsabitches only shot me in the arm, but as soon as I woke up from the surgery I went looking after my Johnson too."
Lance let his heart rate settle down. The sudden motion had reminded his leg that it hurt like hell, and his head was clear enough to figure out that the morphine had about worn off. "How do you get the nurse?" he asked.
"You can ring, but they come quicker if you yell."
Lance found the button on his bedside table and rang.
"I gotta warn you, though, the more you bitch about the morphine the less they give you."
"Well, I haven't said a thing yet. They must cut you a break the first time, right?"
The roomie shrugged, and Lance noticed that only two fingers stuck out of the guy's arm cast. He saw Lance look and said, "I'm left-handed. Lucky me, right? I'm Morton Trecker." He reached his wounded arm out to Lance as if he really might want Lance to shake it.
Lance introduced himself, and the nurse came in. She was about fifty, with career military written all over her: ramrod posture, hair in a bun that an atomic bomb wouldn't shake loose, lines at the corners of her mouth, eyes bright and pitiless as a hawk's. "What can I do for you, Corporal Porter?"
"I think my morphine's worn off."
She checked his chart and gave him a shot. "Hey, what's the date, anyway?" Lance asked.
"Twelfth of March," she said. "Three forty-seven pm."
A week. He'd been wounded a week ago. "Where are we?"
A ship? Lance held himself still, and couldn't detect any motion. Maybe the shell had done something to his inner ear.
She saw what he was doing and smiled. "It's a big ship, and we're not moving right now. Plus you had a severe concussion from the blast; you've been a little dazed since we got you, but you're coming around now. We're going to transfer you in a couple of days. Maybe if you're lucky we'll get a storm and you'll notice we're on the water."
The curtain parted again and a much younger nurse came in with lunch. The morphine started to hit Lance, and he'd barely touched his sandwich before he lost interest in it and fell asleep again.
Six weeks later his leg was still hanging from a pulley, but now the pulley was bolted to the ceiling of a room in the Oak Grove Naval Hospital in Oakland, California. It only hurt when he twisted his body the wrong way, and then mostly in his hip. The doctors said he'd make a full recovery, the halls were full of gorgeous candy stripers, Joe Stalin was dead, he'd turned twenty on March 20, and in general Lance was beginning to feel optimistic. Could have been a lot worse, he thought, looking out his window at the city and a tiny sliver of what must have been San Francisco Bay. Trecker lost fingers; I just lost a rotten tooth and a couple of pieces of bone that'll grow back.
While he was still on the Repose, a dentist had come around and done a root canal on Lance's broken molar. Now he had a gold tooth. It made him feel like an outlaw, somehow, a pirate or a gunslinger. His tongue wandered over it often, and then found the lump of scar on the inside of his cheek, and he caught himself wishing the gold crown was closer to the front so people would see it when he grinned.
One of the candy stripers came in with a canvas bag full of paperback books. She handed one out to each of the six guys in Lance's room, and they all watched the switch in her hips as she left before seeing what they'd gotten.
"You got a science-fiction book," the guy to Lance's right said. "You like science fiction?"
"Not as much as you do, I guess," Lance said. He tossed the book over.
"Thanks, pardner," the guy said. He was from Texas, Lance remembered, but he'd forgotten the guy's name. He'd had the toes blown off his left foot, and was waiting to have a special shoe made so he could start walking again. All the guys in their ward had leg wounds.
"Wait a sec," Lance said as he opened his new book. "Mine's not right." He looked at the cover again, a guy with a gun and a fainting girl. It was right-side up, but the words on the page where he'd opened it, somewhere around the middle, were all upside down.
Without looking up, Tex the science-fiction fan said, "It's two books. They put 'em upside down to each other so you know when the first story's done."
Lance turned the book over, and sure enough it had another cover that aligned with the upside-down words. Junkie, it said. The other cover read Narcotics Agent. Strange pair, cops back to back with robbers, or cowboys with Indians. A Fed, Lance thought. That's a line of work I could get into if my leg heals up right. Probably a lot of ex-GIs doing it. He bent back the cover and started to read, trying to ignore the itch under his cast.
The next morning a different candy striper came in, this time with mail, and Lance's heart did a little skip when she handed him a letter from Ellie.
She'd written on the thirteenth of March, but the letter had probably gone all the way to his unit before being sent down to the MASH, then the Repose, and finally Oak Grove. He tore it open, thrilling a little to the sight of her handwriting.
By the time you get this, maybe you'll be home. Your mother told me as soon as she got the telegram, and I wrote right away. I don't even know how bad it is yet, but your Mom says not to worry. She's sure that you'll be okay. Here's my news: Dexter is closing in around me; I'm going to quit working for Mel Fricker and--are you ready for this?--come to CALIFORNIA to meet you! I have a place set up in Berkeley, thanks to a friend of Jerry Kazmierski's, but I won't get there until Mel can find a replacement, so if you get discharged write and let me know where you are. If not, we're expecting another telegram from the army telling us where you're recovering, and I'll just come there.
I'm so excited to see you, Lance my love. But a little scared too. You see, I'm not just coming because I want to--although God do I want to--but some people have asked me to come and talk to you about something important. It has to do with your family; Jerry came back from New York City looking for me, and he's talked to your mother, and there's some big secret they won't tell me. I'll get it out of them, though. They talk to me like I'm a little girl, and it drives me nuts.
This is important: don't go anywhere until I get there and we have a chance to talk. I want to tell you more, but it's not the kind of thing you should read in a letter lying in the hospital.
Not too terrible a request, is it, to hang around in San Francisco for a while waiting for me? I hope not. Get well, get completely well, and I'll see you soon.
He read the letter over again, making sure he hadn't missed anything. Below her signature was an address in Berkeley.
Ellie was coming to California to meet him, and she wouldn't tell him why except it was about family. "Hey, Tex," he said to the science-fiction fan. "Where's Berkeley?"
Tex pointed out the window. "Right over there eight or nine miles. North of Oakland, across from San Francisco. That's where all the Reds go to college around here."
Sweet Jesus, Lance thought. Was Ellie a Red? Was that why she was being so mysterious? She couldn't be. Her parents wouldn't allow it.
Dexter is closing in around me, she'd written. If she was a Red, she wouldn't be able to stand Dexter, Michigan, that was sure; even though it was right next to Ann Arbor, it wasn't a place where a commie would find much sympathy.
"Is everybody at Berkeley a Red?" he asked Tex.
"Just about. Why would they go there if they weren't?"
Don't be crazy, Lance told himself. This is Ellie you're talking about. She's as American as any girl. She's no Red.
The worry stayed with him, though, as he went back to his book and read about Maurice Helbrant's crusade against dope fiends and degenerates.
He didn't get his cast off until the first week of June, and by that time he'd come close to tearing it off with his toothbrush, just to scratch the ten million itches that crawled along his leg. The itches in his head were worse--try as he might, he couldn't shake the fear that Ellie had gone Red, and he couldn't figure out how to ask her about it, so in the end he didn't try to get in touch with her at all. He read the newspapers to get a sense of what Berkeley was like, and what he saw, especially in the Examiner, confirmed all his suspicions. So he let it sit while he figured out how he could feel her out without actually confronting her. If he did, she'd either deny it and be hurt or admit it and try to turn him, and if that happened Lance didn't know what he'd do.
Copyright © 2004 by Alexander Irvine. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.