[ together again ]

by trooper macniven

A six-by rolled slowly through the gate. Nobody paid attention to it except the newbies. Taylor gave a disinterested glance, then went back to talking to Sarge. Zeke said something about the truck being full of cherries. Taylor wondered if he was right. The truck stopped and the tailgate opened. The crunch and crack of bones popping attracted everybody's attention. One by one, guys piled out of the six-by. They were all thin and carrying rucks on their backs.

"Man," Sarge said, "those guys look like walking death." If the men jumping out of the truck had been shirtless, it would have been possible to see their ribs.

"If they're in that kind of shape," LT said softly, "I'd hate to see their looey. He must be twice as bad."

Then the troop's lieutenant jumped out. They all saw the movement of the officer's chest and knew it was a woman. She straightened slowly, wincing in pain. Her helmet covered her eyes. She pushed it up, then walked to where her men were standing or sitting. They began to form up in almost-forgotten company formation. She noted the gaps in the ranks almost casually. Seeing the C.O. of the base coming towards her, she started to bellow orders, amazing everyone who thought she was too weak to do so.

"Apache Troop, Foxtrot Company, atten-HUT!" Taylor let out a startled sound as he recognized Camille Patterson's voice. Sarge had to hold him back from running to her. The major strode over, yelling at the top of his lungs.

"Lieutenant!" he barked, "why are there gaps in your ranks?"

"Sir," Patterson replied. "They're for the men who aren't here, sir."

"Why aren't they here, Patterson? I ordered you to have all members of your troop present." He was yelling directly at her, seeing how much she could take.

"Sir. They're dead. Sir." Her voice was flat, unemotional. To him that indicated a good officer who wouldn't hesitate to make decisions that could get her men killed. He backed off the subject, instead criticizing her and her troop for their appearance.

"Sir. We've been humpin' for eleven months with no newbies or nothin'. We're tired, we're hungry, and we need showers. Sir." She sounded angry now, indicating the kind of officer he didn't like. Like Lieutenant Goldman, she showed a strong bond with her grunts. The major told her to dismiss her men and get them into barracks. Taylor broke free of his Sarge's grip and sprinted forward. Some of the guys in his platoon followed him. One of the blacks in the troop looked at Zeke.

"What the hell is this?" he asked, bewildered. The sergeant picked up his ruck and heaved it over his shoulder.

"Service with a smile," Anderson replied. A quick look at the troop told him they were all black. That wasn't unusual in Nam. He guessed these men were all survivors from a platoon and some of the guys were ones that had transferred in to replace them. Then he remembered Patterson saying they'd had no newbies.

As he walked with the soldier to Bravo Company's barracks, he tried to get a conversation going with the man. The most he got was a small story about the Parrot's Beak region, where most of the troop had been wasted. Sarge looked the guy over and saw that he looked like a ghost; his eyes were sunken, his skin was stretched tight across his face. He was in bad shape. There was a set of corporal stripes on his arms, but he didn't act like he had them. He was tense, like the men were around Goldman.

"So," Zeke said easily, "where's your sarge?" The way the guy looked at him said more than it was supposed to.

"Sarge bought it with the rest in the Beak." His voice was bitter. Zeke made a mental note to kick himself later.

"Well, we might not have enough room for all y'all, so, if you want, y'all can bunk down in my hootch. I've got an extra bunk." He heard the offer come out, and realized he wanted to talk to this guy. No big deal. Sarge talked to a lot of people. He glanced over his shoulder at Taylor. The young Sergeant was leading Lt. Patterson to his own hootch.

Taylor swallowed. Camille was bone-thin. If I hug her, will I break her? he wondered. There was only one way to find out. He hugged her. Camille hugged him back. They kissed quickly, then broke apart. She glanced around.

"So this is how Sarges live, huh?" she asked. Marcus smiled.

"It's not much, but it's home," he replied. There was a framed picture of them in bed hanging on the wall. He blushed as she looked at it. What she said next surprised him.

"You too, huh?" Lt. Patterson asked. "I look at mine about a hundred times a day, when I'm not in the bush." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "You know," she said, "a guy like you probably knows where to get some glass."

He grinned. His eyes flashed with laughter as he nodded. "I used the glass you got for my grandmama's picture. I'd like to put another pane in it." She swallowed suddenly, obviously aching for the woman who had raised her.

Lowering her head, Camille looked at the floor. "I miss her. She used to help me when I needed it. She'd get me pointed in the right direction and then she'd let me be me. When I told her I wanted to go to Nam, she looked at me and said to think about what I'd just said. I told her I had thought about it."

She looked up, eyes brimming with tears. "I never got to say good-bye to her, Marcus, and that hurts the most."

Taylor swallowed. He knew that he would feel the same way if his grandmother died and he wasn't there. His arms slid around the young woman and he drew her close.

"It's never to late to say good-bye," he commented. "It's all right to cry. This is a country where everyone does it."

His words came from an experienced sergeant, but he felt like he had the very first time he'd watched someone die in his arms. Camille was alive, but she didn't seem like it. She cried into the circle of his arm and he stroked her hair while he murmured soothingly. It didn't matter what he said, just as long as she knew he was there for her. She was shaking and trembling as hot tears soaked through his shirt.

"Camille, there's something I have to know," he said. When she drew away, he remembered the day their picture was taken.

"What is it?" she asked, wiping tears off her cheeks. She was so beautiful, so vulnerable, so much a veteran as any man in the field.

"It can wait," Taylor replied. She shook her head. Officers were like that.

"Say it." Camille used the same tone she had the day she and Marcus said good-bye. The same words, too, Marcus realized.

"Why are you in combat?" The question slipped out. He hadn't meant to ask it. Swallowing, Camille replied, "Da Nang got attacked one night. I grabbed a rifle off a dead guy. He was a looey. I took over his platoon, re-upped, and then got thrown out in the bush. I got transferred to a combat postion because they were short-handed. When we got attacked in the Beak, I watched my men die because of some officer-" she spat the word out, "- that was under pressure from brigade or something like that to get some guys before Tet came up and the VC pulled another '68 on us." After a few deep breaths, she went on. "It really hurt. These were guys that had kept me alive for the last seven months, and they were dying left and right. It hurt a lot. It was like I'd lost you."

Marcus swallowed. He hadn't heard about the attack on Da Nang. He rubbed her back soothingly as she swallowed hard again. She cried against his shoulder for a few moments, then composed herself.

"They kept me alive and now they're dead. I got thrown into combat because they didn't want to transfer in a new lieutenant. Why bother? They had a perfectly good one in the IG's office." There was bitterness in her voice, hard and sharp.

"It's okay," Taylor murmured in her ear. "It's all right. We're together and nothin's gonna split us up, Camille. I've got you and you've got me. We'll get out of this war, go home together, raise a family."

"You're not thinking," Camille accused.

"Not here. I'm thinking home, Stateside. Detroit. Or wherever you come from. I don't care where I am as long as I'm with you. I don't care about myself if I can't be with you. I'm with you now, and right now that's all I care about." He wasn't used to saying things like that. Marcus felt Camille's eyes bore into him, searching for some sign that he was lying, deciding he was telling the truth. She nuzzled him, saying,

"It don't mean nothin'." Yeah, they'd be all right. As long as they could stay together, they were fine.

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