by Paul W. Marino
The main street was a pair of muddy ruts constantly being plowed through with heavy equipment. The machines ran day and night, crushing the pavement to dust and then gouging out the soil underneath. The other streets flowed with people, most in ragged clothing but many in military fatigues. Only the main road was kept clear, partly by soldiers and partly by mere caution. Everyone seemed to know that the huge vehicles would stop for nothing, and having no desire to be mown down and crushed under the rolling wheels, they stayed out of the way. The road was flanked with buildings in various stages of disrepair—some reduced to piles of rubble—separated by expanses of cracked concrete punctuated with shell craters. Dust and smoke drifted on the breeze and tension sang in the air.
The girl looked natural, by the appearances of the town. Her clothes were worn and dirty with travel, her hair unkempt and her face and hands unwashed. But where the locals appeared merely tired, the girl looked lost. Exhaustion tugged at her eyes and mouth, made her feet plod and her slim fingers grip the straps of her backpack feebly, but even stronger was the look of uncertainty. Having expended all her thought and energy to get to this ruined town, she was at a loss for what to do next. She made her slow way through the town, being observed or ignored by the locals. A few eyed her with interest, because she was young and alone, but there were too many people near her for them to make a move on her; too much chance of her being rescued. Oblivious, the girl plodded along until she reached the main road. There, she stopped and stared as the monstrous vehicles roared past; trucks carrying troops and munitions and other supplies, tanks and fuel tankers, all sending up clouds of dust and fumes, spraying mud and gravel and filling the air with a cacophony of engine noise, grinding gears and crunching tires.
The girl gave a shriek as someone grabbed her from behind and jerked her off her feet.
"You eager to get killed?" A voice shouted over the noise. The girl stumbled, but didn’t fall; the person who had grabbed her was still holding on, keeping her erect. She looked up and saw it was a woman, grim faced and dressed in olive drab fatigues, a rifle slung over her shoulder. Her eyes burned a cold blue. "Keep back from the road!" The girl had just barely regained her footing when the woman let go and began dismissing her from her mind. The girl gripped her sleeve with sudden urgency.
"I’m looking for Jack Weston. Can you please tell me where to find him?"
"Colonel Weston? He’ll be at HQ, three blocks that way." The woman pointed, indicating a nondescript building somewhere to the east. The girl did not relinquish her grip.
"How do I get there?" The soldier paused, taking a good look at the girl, noticing for the first time that she was a child, no more than twelve or thirteen, and clearly out of place. Her hazel eyes were clouded with fatigue and fear. The soldier studied her a few moments more, then gripped her arm.
"Come with me." She quick marched the girl through the streets, steering her through the crowds and rubble. The girl struggled to keep up and was soon gasping softly, but she didn’t need to keep up the pace very long. After several minutes she was being led into a tall building of stone, steel and glass. The soldier hustled her into an elevator, punched a button and rode in silence, listening to the creak of the car in the shaft and the panting of the girl.
The doors opened on a large room, packed with soldiers, all poring over maps, lugging boxes of paper and manning communications arrays. The soldier surged forward, all but dragging the girl behind her, weaving through the crowd until she reached a desk, where she stopped and saluted crisply.
"Sir! This girl is looking for Colonel Weston, Sir!" The officer behind the desk, a young lieutenant, looked the girl over critically.
"What’s your business with him?"
"He’s.......he’s my uncle." The lieutenant nodded curtly.
"Check her pack, Sergeant." The girl squealed a protest as the woman suddenly pulled her backpack off her shoulders, zipped it open and pawed through it briefly. The girl watched her, wanting to argue, but she was clearly too afraid.
"It’s clean, Sir. No weapons, no contraband."
"Fine. Return to your post." The woman saluted and left, melting into the crowd. Timidly, the girl reached for her pack, but the lieutenant quickly set it out of her reach. "Have a seat, over there." He gestured toward a chair by a wall. The girl pointed at her pack.
"That’s mine." The lieutenant pointed at the chair.
"Sit!" There was no compassion in his tone, only command. Whimpering, the girl did as she was told. The lieutenant gestured to a soldier, a guard, and pointed at the girl. "Make sure she doesn’t leave." Then he hefted her bag and walked briskly through a heavy wooden door. The girl looked up at the impassive face of the guard and cowered down in her chair.
After a minute the lieutenant returned to his desk. Ignoring the girl, he sat and turned his attention to his work. The girl sat tense and quiet, and trembling. Five minutes passed before the door opened again; a tall, strongly muscled man in fatigues stepped out. The girl jumped to her feet and ran to embrace him.
"Uncle Jack!" She threw her arms around him, blissfully burying her face in his chest.
"Marcie! What the hell are you doing here?" She drew her head back enough to look up at him.
"Aren’t you glad to see me?"
"Yes and no. What are you doing here?" The girl frowned and pressed her cheek to his chest, stalling for time. The man sighed. "You shouldn’t have come here."
"Why not?" Grasping her shoulders, he pushed her away and held her at arm’s length, looking her in the eye.
"Look around you! Didn’t you notice that half the town has been reduced to rubble? This is a war zone! The front is only five miles away! This town has been bombed twice in the last month. At any given moment, I may receive orders to evacuate; or worse, to pack up the garrison and relocate closer to the firing line! Yes, I’m glad to see you, you’re my niece; I’m just not glad to see you here!"
The girl’s eyes were starting to shimmer and her lower lip trembled. Her uncle drew her back into an embrace.
"So what are you doing here?" Starting to cry, she pressed her face into his chest again, muffling her reply. He tucked his fingers under her chin and pressed up until she was looking up at him again. "I didn’t hear you." She paused again, then murmured,
"I didn’t have anyplace else to go."
"Why not? What’s wrong with home?"
"I.........I ran away from home."
"I ran away," she repeated, her voice trembling. The Colonel glanced back at his office door, then walked toward another, pulling his niece behind him. He opened the door without knocking and said,
"Jenkins, I need your office for a few minutes." The Captain seated behind the desk stood up at once.
"Yes sir!" When the Captain had gone the Colonel closed the door, shutting out all but a murmur of the constant noise of the outer office. He pulled the girl to him again.
"Now why did you run away?" The girl sighed, pressing her cheek against him.
"It’s Dad. He’s not the same since Mom died. He’s........he’s mean. He says things to me, like it’s my fault that she died, that he’d be better off without me......" Her voice trembled. "That he wishes it could have been me." He held her tighter, and she gave a soft gasp of pain.
"Grief makes people do strange things; say strange things, things they don’t really mean."
"He says them a lot. And he hits me sometimes."
"Hits you? That doesn’t sound like him."
"It’s like he’s a different person. He ignores me a lot of the time, but when he doesn’t......."
"Isn’t there anyone you can talk to? Teachers? Minister? A friend’s mother?"
"No. He doesn’t want me to talk to anyone."
She pulled away and began pacing.
"Talking to other people just makes it worse. They promise to talk to him, and when they do, he punishes me. Says it’s none of their business and I shouldn’t talk to them anymore. That’s when he started hitting me."
"How does he hit you? Spanking?"
"No. He slaps me, on the face. He’s punched me a few times, and......." She turned away from him, shaking her head and wiped her eyes with her fingers. Her uncle stood erect and attentive.
"My friend Sally’s mother invited me to stay with them a week or so ago." She turned to face him, breathing heavily, tears flowing down her cheeks. "Dad made me go back home. He came to the house and dragged me out. When we got home, he beat me up and......and whipped me with an extension cord." She choked and began sobbing. Her uncle went to her and embraced her again.
"I’d better have a talk with him."
"No! You can’t! If you call him he’ll know where I am and he’ll make me come home again! And.....and....." He pushed her face into his chest.
"Hush. Okay, something’s going on. We’ll get to the bottom of it, one way or another. First things first: How did you get here?" The girl took a minute to get control of herself.
"I hitch-hiked out of town, then took a bus to Warner, and I walked the rest of the way."
"Trying to hitch a ride, no doubt?" His fingers were caressing her hair, belying the disapproval in his voice.
"Yeah. But nobody was coming here."
"Good thing, too. God in Heaven! You could have gotten yourself killed a dozen times over! When’s the last time you ate?" She shrugged.
"A day or two......well......more like three." Giving her hair a final pat he crossed to the desk, picked up the phone and dialed the Officer’s Mess.
"Sergeant, this is Colonel Weston. I want you to put together a lunch tray and have it sent up to my office, ASAP. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s hot; double portions; milk to drink, if you’ve got it, water if you don’t." He hung up the phone, took his niece by the arm and led her out to the Lieutenant’s desk. "Lieutenant, this is my niece, Marcilla Niles. I’ve ordered a tray of food brought up for her. See to it that she’s comfortable and has a place to eat when the food gets here. When she’s eaten, detail someone to take her to the infirmary; I want her looked over thoroughly. I’ll pick her up there as soon as I can." He turned back to the girl. "As for you, do whatever the Lieutenant tells you. Address your questions to him, but don’t get in the way. I need to get back to work." He lowered his head, kissed her forehead and smiled.
"Mmm! You taste good!" She smiled timidly.
"That’s what Mom used to say."
"I know. We learned it from your grandmother. Be good."
The food arrived in ten minutes, a steel tray buried under a mound of steaming mashed potatoes, some kind of meat and grayish brown gravy with two kinds of vegetables and a short glass of milk. One of the vegetables looked like green beans, but Marcie was so hungry she didn’t really care what any of it was. The lieutenant sat her down in a chair and gave her a second chair as a table, and she tucked in, shoveling the food in so fast she barely tasted it. Then a female sergeant in green fatigues with an expressionless face took her by the hand and led her down stairs to the ground floor. The infirmary was peaceful compared to the office upstairs, all white and chrome, even the fatigues covered with white smocks. The sergeant handed her over to a nurse who helped her undress and get into a johnny. To her relief, the doctor who came to examine her was a woman.
The voice that answered the phone was cold and disinterested.
"Bill? It’s Jack."
"What the hell do you want?"
"Here?! What the fuck does that mean?"
"I mean, she’s here in the garrison. Says she ran away from home."
"Bill, are you feeling all right?"
"No, I’m not feeling all right! In case you hadn’t heard, I’m a widower!"
"I know that, Bill."
"Do you? Well thank you all to hell for coming to the funeral!"
"Bill, you know I couldn’t get away; if I could have been there, I would have. She was my sister, for God’s sake! Look, I just wanted to let you know that Marcie’s safe. How she got here alive, I don’t know, but she’s here. Bill, she’s told me some disturbing things."
"She says you’ve been abusive to her; saying things....." The Colonel paused, but heard nothing but the soft breathing of his brother-in-law. "Things like it’s her fault her mother died."
"Is there a point to this?"
"She says you beat her, too; that you’ve whipped her with an extension cord."
"Kids need discipline, Jack. Or hadn’t you heard?"
"Bill, what’s the matter with you?"
"I’m a fucking widower. What’s it to ya?"
"You really don’t sound like yourself. Why don’t you think about seeing a counselor?"
"A head shrinker, you mean! Why don’t you think about minding your own damn business?"
"Marcie’s well being is my business, Bill."
"Yeah? Well do us both a favor: Take her out and shoot her! That little bitch has been nothing but trouble to me!"
"Bill.......you don’t really mean that."
"The hell I don’t! Well you want her? You can have her! Just leave me the fuck alone!"
"Bill......." The line buzzed.
The Colonel hung up and thought hard for several minutes, then picked up the phone again.
"Lieutenant, send in Corporal Johnson." After a minute the door opened and Johnson entered, saluting.
"Johnson, I want you to go to the Lotus Club. Take an MP with you, tell them you’re there as my liaison. Get Rose and bring her to my quarters. Wait for her if you have to; when you get her to my quarters, have the MP stay outside to make sure she stays until I get there."
"Yes sir." The corporal saluted crisply and departed. The Colonel smiled wryly; it would be interesting to see if this course of action was going to be more trouble than it was worth.
Once her examination was complete, Marcie was allowed a quick shower and was then tucked into bed in a ward and ordered to sleep. She needed no further invitation, and drifted off quickly. She was still sleeping when her uncle arrived to consult with the doctor.
"Overall, sir, she’s healthy. Blood tests came back clear. She hasn’t been eating regularly lately, so she’s slightly undernourished, and could stand to gain a pound or two. But what’s most troubling is the evidence of abuse. She’s got bruises everywhere! Stomach, chest, arms, legs; and on her back there are fresh marks indicative of whipping. These will need to be monitored closely, as they were never treated and infection has set in; but I think we got to them in time. I’ve got her on an antibiotic, and she should be fine in a few weeks."
"Did you take photos?"
"Yes sir. I’ll have them on your desk in the morning."
"Good. When can she be released?"
"As soon as she wakes up. If you don’t mind my asking, sir, what do you plan to do with her?"
"Damned if I know! She can’t stay here, but I can’t send her home, either. Until I can sort things out, is there work she can do here?" The doctor smiled.
"I think so, sir. We can always use an extra pair of hands."
"Excellent. I’ll have her report to you first thing in the morning."
A full stomach, a shower and a few hours sleep did wonders for Marcie. Dressed again in her travel-stained clothes, she looked fresh and happy. A trace of uncertainty remained in her eyes, as if she suspected she was in trouble.
"Sorry to wake you," Jack said, tousling her hair. "If you slept any longer, you’d never get through the night."
"That’s okay." She raised her hands and whisked her fingers through her hair, smoothing out the tousle. Her uncle laughed.
"Some things never change. Now look: You know you can’t stay here, don’t you? Not forever, anyway." Her smile faded.
"I guess so. I just didn’t know where else to go!"
“That’s okay. You’re here now, and you’re safe enough for the time being. You’ll stay until I can figure out what to do with you." Marcie sighed.
"Thanks, Uncle Jack."
"You’re welcome." He looped an arm around her neck and began walking her down the passage.
They went down two flights of stairs into the building’s sub-basement, where the officers’ quarters were.
"The next issue is who’s going to look after you when I’m on duty. I can’t promise that my door will be open to you 24 hours a day; just whenever I’m free, which isn’t often. Dr. Chong is willing to put you to work in the Infirmary, but even that—realistically—would only be part time."
"Doing what?" He smiled shrewdly.
"Whatever needs doing. The important thing is that you have someone you can go to when I’m not available. I have a plan for that, that’s still under negotiation." He pointed to a door guarded by an MP. "That’s my room. You’re in the one next door, on the left. I want you to wait in there a while. I’ll be in as soon as I can."
"Okay." She looked bewildered and more than a little disappointed, so he caught her face in his hands and kissed her cheek.
"Don’t take it personally, sunshine. You picked the busiest man in the garrison, and you made him even busier. But don’t apologize. Just be patient. Okay?" She nodded glumly, and then hugged him.
"I will." Releasing him, she opened the door to her room and walked in, closing the door behind her. It was a good sized room, though furnished with only the bare essentials: Two cots, a desk, a chair, a packing crate for a bedside table graced with an olive drab lamp. Her backpack sat forlorn on one of the beds. She sat next to it and stared at the featureless gray walls, floor and ceiling. The ceiling alone had any decoration, a lamp with a metal shade hanging in its center, controlled by a switch next to the door. After a moment, she heard voices coming through the wall, muffled and indistinct, but she recognized her uncle’s voice. She couldn’t understand the words, and sighed in resignation, figuring it had nothing to do with her. But she was wrong. It had everything to do with her.
"I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me, Colonel." Rose was reclining on the bed, propped on her elbows with a knowing smile on her face. Jack smiled.
"How could I ever forget you? But you can turn it off. I need to talk another kind of business."
"Yeah?" She got up, rising in one languorous motion, then minced toward him, oozing seduction. "You think I don’t know what it means when the Base Commander sends someone to Smitty and hand delivers me? You wanna talk business? Talk away." She raised her hands to caress him; he caught her wrists and let his smile fade.
"I’m serious, Rose." She stepped back, looking disappointed.
"Okay, so you’re serious. It’s your nickel. What business do we got to discuss?"
"My niece is in town." Her smile returned, honest this time.
"No kiddin’? Cyndi’s kid?"
"The one and only. Here’s the thing: I need some time to arrange some other place for her to live, and in the meantime, I need someone to look after her."
"Oh, no you don’t! I don’t do kids!"
"Come on, Rose! I can’t spare any of my people. I need a civilian."
"No way! What do ya think I am? A nanny or sumpthin’?"
"I’ll tell you exactly what you are," he said in a cold voice. Her lips curled suddenly, her eyes lighting her face with hatred and challenge.
"Yeah? So what am I, Colonel?"
"You’re a woman for hire. And I want to hire you, for something more than just what’s between your legs." Her eyes softened.
"You really are a rat, you know that, Jack?" He nodded, smiling.
"Yeah, I do."
"Look, why isn’t she home with Cyndi?"
"Cyndi’s dead. A year ago."
"No. She was killed in a car accident."
"Shit! That’s tough! So what about........?"
"Bill. He’s out of his mind with grief. Literally. And he’s taking it out on Marcie; being abusive, cruel....you know."
"Like my Sammy."
"Yes, except that Sam didn’t have the excuse of losing his wife."
"Don’t you say nothin’ about Sammy. You didn’t know him."
"Yeah, he was a real sweet guy."
"When the moment was on him. So she ran away, huh?" Jack nodded. "She sure picked a hell of a place to run to!"
"Exactly my point."
"Look, Jack, I feel for the kid, but it don’t change nothin’. I don’t have the time to—...."
"Yes you do. And believe it or not, you’ve got exactly what it takes." She shook her head.
"You’re wrong, Jack. And we both know it."
"Rose, how long has it been since you’ve seen your daughter?" Her eyes sparkled with anger.
"You son of a bitch! What the hell do you w—...."
"How long?" He asked, matching her anger with challenge.
"I don’t know! Ten years......twelve maybe."
"Any idea where she is? What she’s doing?"
"You rotten prick!"
"Any idea?"He separated the words for emphasis.
"No. None at all. Do you?"
"No. I’ve put out a few feelers, but nothing’s turned up."
"Oh, so you’ve put out a few feelers, have you? Well aren’t you just the knight on the white horse? And just why did you trouble yourself to do that?"
"Because I can. And for old times’ sake. I know it hurt you when she left."
"Yeah, well, maybe she had good reason for leavin’, d’ja ever think of that? I wasn’t exactly a model mother, you know."
"I guess not. But then again, you weren’t a mother under the most ideal of circumstances, either. She might have put some thought into that."
"Yeah, well.......she didn’t. Look Jack, it’s been swell visiting with ya, but I’ve got—...."
"Rose, I’m not asking you to think of Marcie as your daughter; that would be ridiculous, for both of you. But you might think of her as a second chance. An.....opportunity to not make the same mistakes twice. Think about it! Unlike Helen, Marcie doesn’t just need someone to look after her, she wants someone to look after her. Why else would she run away to a war zone? Because she has family here! Someone who would take her in and give her what she needs. But she’s twelve years old, and what she’s going to need most is a woman’s touch; not an uncle that can only give her ten minutes here and five minutes there, but a woman. A woman she can go to, and talk to, about anything."
Rose sighed and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Look, Jack.....even if I agreed to this—and I’m not sayin’ I do—but even if I did, you know Smitty would never go for it!"
"Rose, you take care of Marcie, and I’ll take care of Smitty." She laughed, a trill of pure amusement.
"Yeah, I’ll bet you will! Permanently, too."
"I don’t know about permanent, but the town is under martial law. I can take care of him for as long as I need to. Come on next door and meet her."
"Oh, yeah! I know how this works! I know you don’t want a dog, but just take a look at this little puppy.....ain’t he cute?" Jack smiled. "So you look at the puppy, and then you’re hooked."
"Ah! But Marcie’s already housebroken!" Rose gave a whoop of laughter and jumped to her feet. Looping her arm’s around Jack’s neck, she kissed him full on the lips.
"You’re a rotten SOB, Jack, but I love you anyway. Let’s go look at the puppy."
Whatever Marcie was expecting, it did not include an aging prostitute, but what the prostitute said first took her completely by surprise.
"Geez, Jack! She’s got her mother’s face and everything!"
"That she does."
"You knew my Mom?"
"We were in school together."
"A long time ago," Rose added. "C’mere, honey, and let me get a better look at you." Marcie walked toward her, looking nervous. "I see what you’re thinkin’; go ahead and say it if you want to: I look like a hooker, right? Well, I am a hooker. Just not at the moment."
"She’s also the only civilian I know that I’m willing to trust you with. Rose and I go back a long way, Marcie. I’d trust her with my life, and I trust her with yours." Rose was running her fingers over the girl’s hair and shoulders.
"Cyndi’s eyes........Cyndi’s mouth.....Cyndi’s hair.....I ain’t seen her in so long, it’s like seein’ a photograph."
"See? I told you you’d like her."
"And don’t think I won’t get back at you for it, either. Now why don’t you scram so we can get to know each other?"
"I was thinking you could do that over dinner; it’s just about time. But first, I need to lay down some ground rules. Rose, for you it’s simple: You’re working for me now, and no one else. No moonlighting. Anyone tries to talk you into it answers to me, and yes, that includes Smitty. Marcie, it’s not quite as simple—or easy—for you. There are no luxuries here, so don’t go looking for any. For now, there are five places you’re allowed to be, starting with this room. The next is my room, whenever I’m in it. Third is the Infirmary, where you’ll be working in the mornings. Fourth is the Officer’s Mess, where you’ll be taking your meals. And finally, there’s the plaza in front of this building. You are never to be out of sight of the door, and it’s best if you don’t venture any further than fifteen feet from it." Marcie moaned, slouching in dismay.
"You better listen to him, honey.....he knows what he’s talkin’ about."
"I know you think you’re mostly grown up, and ordinarily I’d agree with you. But this town isn’t safe. I’m amazed you got through it at all without being murdered."
He opened the door and asked the MP to come in.
"Glick, you were on that raid last week, weren’t you?"
"Tell us about it. And don’t leave anything out." The soldier looked at Marcie and gulped softly.
"Yes sir. We were receiving reports of people disappearing in the Mission Lake district; subsequent investigation led us to make a raid on a warehouse, where there was an illegal butcher shop operating." He paused, licking his lips nervously.
"And what did you find, Glick?" The Colonel prompted. The MP looked ill.
"There was a walk-in freezer, containing ten human bodies. Six of them were children." Marcie made a face.
"As of today," Jack added. "Only three of the adults have been identified. There was not enough remaining of any of the children to make identification even possible. Dismissed, Glick." The MP saluted and left. The Colonel turned back to his niece. "That’s one reason why I don’t want you on the street. You want to know some others, ask Rose. She’s seen more than some of my soldiers. To continue: In the event of an air raid, you are to come here. No heroics, no worrying about me or anyone else; you get yourself here to this room and you stay here until I—or an MP—tell you it’s safe to leave. It’s the safest part of the building, and why the Officer’s Quarters were put here. Is that clear?"
"You’re scaring me, Uncle Jack."
"Good! The more scared you are, the more likely you are to survive. If you’d called me, instead of coming here on your own, you’d be someplace safer right now. Next, as I told you, I’m not available around the clock. So whenever you need anything, talk to Rose. It’s what she’s here for, and believe me, you can talk to her about anything."
"Yeah. I’m a regular encyclopedia."
The next morning, Marcie started working in the Infirmary. For lack of anything better to do, Rose accompanied her and was pressed into service as a nurse. It was a wise decision on Dr. Chang’s part; Rose was known to most of the male soldiers, and was adept at bantering with them. Surprisingly, she was equally proficient at most other nursing tasks as well, from emptying bedpans to changing bandages. Marcie started in the office, doing filing, and moved on to loading surgical tools into the autoclaves. When lunchtime came, she helped carry trays of food into the wards. Then she and Rose went to the Officer’s Mess and got their own lunch. Afterwards, they went back to the Infirmary. Not because either of them was in love with the work—though Marcie was finding it romantic, in a noble sort of way—but because they both realized there was nothing else they could do but sit in their room in the sub-basement. Life settled into a dull, steady routine, but that routine was disrupted after only a few days.
They were in the Infirmary working in one of the wards, Rose and a nurse changing dressings and Marcie dispensing cups of water. Rose suddenly sat up, listening. Her voice was soft, but cut like a knife through the quiet.
"Air raid." Faintly, sirens were wailing outside. Then klaxons in the halls began blaring. Marcie froze where she stood as medical staff came running in. Rose went to her and took her arm. "Time to make tracks, kid."
"What about them?" Marcie asked, gesturing toward the patients. Rose frowned.
"They got soldiers to look after them. MOVE IT!" She began running, dragging Marcie after her. The corridors were alive with people, and they got caught up in a flow of bodies that swept them toward the stairs and down. There was no talking, just the roar of the klaxons and the thunder of hundreds of running feet. Then they were in the sub-basement and running toward their room. They slipped in and Rose closed the door, pushing Marcie ahead of her. Here, at least, she could make herself heard over the now muffled scream of the klaxons.
"Take the mattress off your bed and get under it!" Not waiting to see if Marcie would comply, she dragged both mattresses off the beds and pushed Marcie under them, then slid under them herself. The girl was shaking like a leaf, twice as bad as Rose was; but then, it was her very first air raid. Rose embraced her soothingly. "Let it out, sugar. It don’t do no good to bottle it up." As safe as she was likely to get, Marcie started crying, but it didn’t last long. She was already scared, but a greater terror was coming.
The room shook, as if by earthquake, and a dull boom reverberated through the concrete floor and walls; dust and pebbles rained down onto them. Another tremor hit, and another after that. Then a muffled explosion sounded over their heads, followed by a violent shock wave and a sustained rumble. The klaxons fell silent, the lights went out and Marcie screamed. Rose pressed the child’s face into her shoulder. There were maybe a dozen more tremors and soft, distant rumbles, and then silence crept back into the shelter. The quietness was eerie, and accented by Marcie’s hysterical sobbing. Still embracing her, Rose pushed the mattresses off and listened.
"It’s over," she said.
"What?" Marcie whimpered.
"The air raid, sugar. It’s done." The girl began crying afresh. The woman sighed and continued holding her, rocking her and rubbing her shoulders.
After a few minutes, Marcie was mostly cried out and began working to take control of herself.
"Are you really a........?"
"Yeah, I am." Marcie was silent for a few moments, struggling for words.
"How’d it happen?" Marcie nodded.
"If you don’t mind me asking."
"Who cares? Besides, it’ll be a while before they come to let us out. Here’s the thing: I got married while I was still in school. Your uncle Jack didn’t like him; your mother didn’t like him. Come to think of it, nobody seemed to like him except me."
"What was wrong with him?"
"Sammy was a lot like me, then. Not interested in school, not interested in working......just in havin’ a good time. He was real good at that! I guess that’s what drew me to him. If there was a good time to be had, Sammy would find it. Of course, he had a mean streak too. If things weren’t goin’ his way—at home or on the streets—it made him mad, and then I had to watch out. And once we were out of school, and tryin’ to make a living......things didn’t go his way very often. He’d beat on me a lot, yell, swear, what have you. It was a mean time."
"Why did you stay with him? Why didn’t you leave?"
"Because I was young. And stupid. See, when the moment was on him, Sammy could be sweeter than honey! And oh! I lived for those times! For those moments, when everything was fine, and he adored me! That made all the bad times worth while. Well, one day we decided we were goin’ nowhere if we stayed where we were, so we packed up and moved here, lookin’ for greener pastures. Of course, they weren’t any greener than they were back home. It was just a different town, with no more opportunities than there were anyplace else. Not that Sammy was actually out lookin’ for them. He was still stuck on the idea of havin’ a good time and lettin’ everything else take care of itself.
"I worked when I could; when Sammy would let me, that is. Maybe it shamed him that I was working and he wasn’t, but I think mostly it was that I wasn’t around as much as he wanted me to be. Then I got pregnant, and that really ticked Sammy off!"
"Sammy said that babies only complicate things, and I guess he was right. I was thinkin’ that havin’ a baby in the house would get him to settle down, get a real job, make us a real family. It didn’t work that way. When he saw he couldn’t talk me—or beat me—into getting an abortion, he split."
"He left you??!!"
"That’s right. No family life for Sammy! Just freedom and havin’ a good time."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do, honey? I had the baby. I worked as long as I could, saved up a little, but the baby took it all. I was all alone when I had her. Oh, there was a doctor and a nurse, but nobody else. And when I took her home, there was nobody else there."
"So......why didn’t you just go back home?"
"To my mother? She was gone by then. Dead, I mean. But besides that, there was the old standby reason that always gets in the way: Money. When it was just Sammy and me, we didn’t need much to travel on. But with a baby? It’s costs too much to travel. It costs too much to just sit at home. I named her Helen, after my mother. That’s when things got real bad. See, I couldn’t get a job that would keep me away from her for too long. Babies need to be taken care of 24/7. And nobody I talked to was willin’ to let me bring her to work with me. And finally, I got desperate, and turned to prostitution. I’m not sayin’ it was right; but it was the right thing to do.......at the time. I could work pretty much whenever, right in my own place, and I could be there to take care of Helen. Not that I ever made all that much, just enough to scrape by on. And that’s when Smitty came into my life."
"A pimp. Smitty told me the reason I wasn’t makin’ as much as I was worth was because I didn’t have an agent. I needed somebody that could sell me to the customers; set up the deals, handle the money, and so on. It sounded smart. What Smitty didn’t tell me was that his cut was sixty percent, and that once he was my agent, he was my agent for life. So I made a little more money, but not much more. And I worked a lot more."
"What happened to Helen?"
"I didn’t have enough time for her, so she spent a lot of time alone. It wasn’t so bad when she was little; she could play by herself for hours, and she did what I told her. But when she got older, she started rebelling, like kids do. I told Smitty I needed to spend more time with Helen, but he had another idea. He said I oughta’ move into the brothel.
"It would cut my expenses, he said, and there’d be a lot of girls to help look after Helen when I was workin’. I knew it was a bad idea, but I didn’t figure I had much choice. So we moved in. Smitty’s cut went up to nearly a hundred percent. I got room and board for me and Helen, and enough extra to buy clothes and stuff for her. I still didn’t have enough time for her, and not so many of the girls were interested in baby sitting. Then Smitty started saying I could make more money if Helen went to work for him, too. She was nine then, and Smitty said there was lots of money in little kids. Well, for the first time in a long time, Helen and me were in complete agreement: She was not goin’ to be a prostitute! Smitty said okay, but he kept bringin’ it up, and I know he was workin’ on Helen, tryin’ to persuade her to change her mind. One day, when she was ten, he sent her to bring a bottle of whiskey up to a john in one of the rooms. He didn’t tell either of us that the john was payin’ to get it on with a little kid."
"What happened?" Rose laughed.
"When the john made his move, Helen kicked him in the groin! And she scratched his arms and face bloody. I loved her more than ever when I heard about it, but it was bad news. The john was a local politician, and now he had to explain to a lot of people how he’d got scratched up like that. And what’s more, he wasn’t accustomed to havin’ little kids say no to him. Smitty went ballistic! But when I wouldn’t let him beat on Helen, he beat on me instead. Whipped me to an inch of my life."
Rose paused. The way Marcie was clutching her was changing. She wasn’t seeking comfort any more, but trying to give it. Rose smiled in the darkness.
"He never tried to get her to work anymore, but he got less and less happy about having her around. Helen wanted me to move out, but it wasn’t that easy. Smitty wouldn’t let me go, and I couldn’t explain it to her. When she was eleven, she went out on her own. Told me I could stay there and rot for all she cared." For the first time, Rose’s voice lost its even, matter-of-fact tone. It trembled, and she drew Marcie closer to her, accepting the comfort the child offered her. The embrace shifted the clothing on Marcie’s back, grating the fabric against her wounds, and she gritted her teeth against the pain. The lights flickered and brightened. Rose forced a smile and wiped her eyes with her cuffs.
"See?" She said. "Everything’s all better now." Drawing back from the embrace, Marcie was blinking back tears.
"Not really," she answered. Rose shrugged.
"No. Not really. But really enough."
The Colonel and his aides had not been in the Command Center during the missile attack. When the sirens began wailing, they were on their way back from the motor pool, where the Colonel had been consulting with a general, on his way to a hospital. The ambulance convoy had pulled out and the soldiers had started back to the Command Center when three men stepped out of the crowd. Two tall men, bulky with muscle and with blank, insolent faces, and one shorter man in expensive clothes, with an unpleasant smile on his face. They stepped forward, not blocking the path, but plainly obstructing the soldiers’ passage on it.
"Morning, Colonel," the sharp dresser said.
"Hello, Smitty. Sorry I can’t stay and chat; I’ve got a load of work waiting in the office."
"I’ll keep it short, then. You’ve got something that belongs to me. I want it back."
"Have I? What might that be?" The pimp scowled.
"Don’t you bullshit me! I want Rose back, and I want her now." The Colonel smiled.
"Ah! Rose......you’re mistaken, Smitty. Rose doesn’t belong to you. In case you hadn’t heard, slavery was outlawed in these parts more than a hundred years ago."
"Don’t you bullshit me!!! She’s mine and I want her!"
"She’s not yours. She belongs to herself. If and when she wants to go back to you, she’s free to go, but I don’t think she wants to."
"I don’t give a shit what the bitch wants! As long as she’s with you, I’m losin’ money......so you give her back or pay up."
"I’m not paying you, Smitty. Not one thin dime. If you think you’re being robbed, have your lawyer file criminal charges. I think we both know how it would play out in court." Smitty clenched his fists.
"You better quit the games, Colonel, or I’ll settle accounts with you, big time!"
"That sounds like a threat, Smitty. MP!" An MP stepped forward from the Colonel’s entourage and clamped a hand on the pimp’s arm. Smitty’s scowl changed to surprise.
"Hey! Wait a minute!" The two goons exchanged glances and stepped back as some of the officers drew side arms. The Colonel smiled coldly.
"Smitty, remember how happy you were when martial law was declared? No more local cops giving you trouble, just soldiers and MPs, too busy to give you a second glance. But you’ve just threatened the military commander—in front of witnesses, no less. I don’t think you’re going to like martial law too much anymore."
"Look, Colonel, I didn’t mean nothin’!"
"That’s for a judge to decide." The Colonel turned to the MP. "Put him in the stockade." He turned and walked away, followed closely by his aides and another MP. The two goons melted into the crowd, and Smitty was led away, loudly protesting.
"He’ll be back on the street in a few hours, sir," one of the Lieutenants said.
"See to it that he’s not. As soon as he’s called his lawyer, move him to another jail. See how long you can keep him on the move."
"His lawyer will make a stink about that, Colonel."
"Let him. Smitty doesn’t want this to go to trial. He’s going to want to settle this and be done with it. We’re just giving him more reason to; and maybe reason enough to leave Rose alone."
Sirens began wailing, and people began running, screaming. And in the background, they could dimly hear the growing thunder of incoming missiles. The soldiers began running, making for the Command Center, pressing their way through the crowds. Seeing the first incoming missile, the Colonel shouted,
"This way!" He ran toward the nearest crater and dived in, followed closely by his aides and guard. The missile screamed in and exploded with a deafening roar two hundred yards away. A moment later, the sky was raining gravel as a second missile sailed in and struck a building, forty feet off the ground. A third struck somewhere ahead of them. The men huddled together in the crater, waiting. Twelve more missiles roared in, impacted and exploded. Then, only the sirens screamed. A few seconds later, even they stopped. An eerie, uncomfortable silence settled over the town.
"Radio," the Colonel said. Screams, generated by human throats, were starting to sound. Someone handed the Colonel a radio. "Command Control, this is Colonel Weston, report." Silence. "Command Control, this is Colonel Weston, report." The radio crackled.
"Colonel, this is Sergeant Dickson at Post 47. Command Control took a direct hit. I don’t have any other information, sir."
"What are conditions in Post 47?"
"Fine. Start making some room; until damage at Command Control is assessed, Post 47 will be Command Control. I’ll be there in five minutes."
"Fine. Weston out." He handed the radio back. "Let’s get a move on, gentlemen."
Post 47 was a subsidiary command center in a building located three blocks from Command Control. It contained several barracks and the equivalent of a Police Precinct, as well as a communications relay. Walking into the office area, the Colonel began issuing orders.
"Lieutenant Brown, your first priority is to reestablish communications, throughout the town and with Longacre. Major Hamblin, take whatever medical personnel you need and start setting up a field hospital in Monmouth Park. Coordinate with the local hospital, too; we’ll do triage and keep the most serious cases, civilian as well as military, and send the rest to them. Make sure they know that we’re helping them, not vice versa. Captain Woodson, coordinate search and rescue efforts and set up an ambulance circuit. I want it up and running before the field hospital is open. Harry, get some engineers into Command Control and see how stable the building is. Specifically, will it have to be abandoned completely, or can we continue using some of it? I want a report in two hours. Lieutenant Harrel, I want a report on survivors and casualties in Command Control, top to bottom. And if the sub-basement is accessible, detail an MP to get Rose and my niece out of there."
Within an hour, the Colonel received a report indicating that his two charges were both alive and well. He saw them, briefly, two hours later; just long enough to see for himself that they had both survived, exchange a hug of relief, and assign them new quarters in Post 47. He saw them again in the evening, shortly before he turned in for the night. Three days later, to Marcie’s bewilderment and Rose’s resignation, a soldier ordered them to pack their things and be at the front door in ten minutes. There was little enough to pack, and they were at the door on schedule. The same soldier loaded them in a Jeep and drove them to a park close by the field hospital, where a helicopter sat idling. They stepped out of the vehicle, took their meager possessions, and it drove off. Another soldier led them to the helicopter and helped them climb in. They sat on the hard, fold down seats and waited. After a few minutes, the Colonel appeared, deep in conversation with a Lieutenant. The Lieutenant saluted and left, and the Colonel climbed in.
"How are you two doing?"
"What’s going on, Uncle Jack?" Marcie sounded forlorn. Her uncle smiled.
"I’m killing two birds with one stone. I have to do reconnaissance, and you have to get to Longacre Base."
"And what’s on Longacre, Jack?"
"A house. It’s a bit scant on furniture, but it was bought in rather a rush. Still, every convenience is within walking distance: Store, school, hospital, even a pool. And General Petrie is right next door; he and his wife will help you out with whatever else you need."
"You really are a knight on a white horse," Rose chuckled.
"I do my best. Smile, Marcie! You’re going to live in a real home!" He pulled the hatch closed and climbed up into the cockpit. The idling rotors spun faster, their whispers building to a deafening roar, and the helicopter lifted off and sailed into the east.
The house was a neat little pre-fab with a small front yard of rippling grass and a few shrubs. Inside there were three bedrooms, a good sized living room, a full kitchen, a full bath, and a small dining room, all on one floor, a full basement underneath; a large back yard, rimmed with hedges. As Jack had warned, furnishings were minimal. Each bedroom contained a single twin bed, a small table and a lamp. The living room had two easy chairs and a coffee table. The dining room was empty, as were the refrigerator and the cupboards. This elicited a laugh from Rose.
"Boy! He really was in a rush! Looks like we’ll be eating out of our hands for a while!" Marcie didn’t answer. Throughout the flight and the subsequent drive to the house—chauffeured by a young Corporal from the base airfield—she’d been very quiet. Now she was withdrawn, standing in the kitchen doorway, looking depressed. Rose sighed. "What’s the matter, honey?"
"I don’t know."
"Yes, you do. Maybe you don’t want to deal with it right now, but you know. So tell me. It may hurt, but not forever. And I’m here for you. Now what’s wrong?" Marcie turned away, hugging herself. "Ah. Feeling rejected, are you?"
"I thought he’d want to keep me!"
"He does! Think with your mind instead of your emotions. He doesn’t just want you to be his family, he wants you to be safe! Look at this place! Did you see any missile craters when we rode here? You see any buildings shot to hell, wrecked cars or dead bodies in the streets? Or pieces of bodies? How many people do you see toting guns around here? This is a nice neighborhood, in a nice town. It’ll be quiet at night. And let me tell you something else: Your Uncle Jack doesn’t dump people. When he was in battle, he never left anybody behind. Everybody came home, or he stayed there with them." Marcie stayed quiet, listening.
"Take a look at me........look at me!" Marcie turned and looked. Rose was standing on the other side of the room, leaning comfortably against a counter. "If anybody stood to get dumped in this move, it’s me. Your uncle didn’t need to buy a house; he could have asked his friend the General to take you in, put you in a house with two people that could be your new Mom and Dad for as long as you needed them. But he didn’t do that, did he? He bought a house, where the two of us can live together, and have his good friends next door to look after us. Now come here." Marcie started forward. Rose met her in the middle of the floor and folded her in a tight embrace. "Feel better now?" Marcie nodded.
"I feel stupid."
"You’re not stupid, honey. You’re young. Now straighten up your face. We’re gonna go next door and meet the General’s wife and see if she’ll take us shopping. We got a lot to do if we’re gonna put this place in order."
They dined that evening with the General and his wife, Mildred. No one had been home when they’d stopped in, so they went for a walk and found their way to the Base Exchange, where Jack had arranged an account for them. They bought some clothes and assorted house wares—soap, towels, plates, cups and so on—as well as a few basic groceries. Heavily laden, they walked back to the house, where they found the General’s wife waiting for them. She gave them a mixed bouquet in a ceramic vase and invited them to dinner. They both showered for the occasion and dressed in their new clothes; Marcie in shorts and an Army tee shirt, Rose in a dark blue skirt and a sky-blue blouse. The General greeted them jovially at the door and ushered them in. His wife greeted Rose with chill courtesy and Marcie with warm enthusiasm. If Rose felt slighted she didn’t let it show; she was an old hand at rejection and it didn’t bother her at all. If she felt that Marcie was being rejected, she would have responded with animosity, but for herself? It was nothing.
Dinner began with a bright green watercress soup, served cold. Rose watched Marcie wrinkle her nose at it and smiled.
"Tasty," she said, sampling her own.
"Thank you," Mildred said, then turned to Marcie. "Don’t you like it, dear?" Marcie dipped her spoon in her soup and tasted it without enthusiasm.
"It’s cold," she said.
"Yes, it’s meant to be served cold; it enhances the taste of the cress."
"Watercress," Rose said, taking another spoonful. "It’s a salad green."
"Have you had watercress often?" The General asked. Rose shrugged.
"No, never. But I’ve heard of it."
"Really?" Mildred asked in a cool tone. Rose smiled.
"I never got around much, but I’ve lived a good deal."
"I’m sure you have." Marcie frowned, but Rose’s smile sharpened.
"So how do you make soup out of a salad green?"
"You blanch the cress, and then shock it, to keep the color bright; then it’s pureed."
"How do you shock it?" Marcie asked. Mildred opened her mouth to answer, but Rose beat her to it.
"You put it in ice water. It stops the cooking."
"I had no idea you understood cooking," Mildred said. Rose shrugged again.
"You only met me today. There’s a lot you don’t know." The General smiled.
"Jack said there’s more to you than meets the eye," he said. Rose laughed.
"Yeah, I guess that’s true. I bet there’s more to you than meets the eye."
"I hope there is!" He laughed in reply. His wife gave a tight lipped smile.
"I’m sorry you don’t like the soup, Marcie, dear; perhaps it is a bit sophisticated for your palate. But I think you’ll like the salad better. It’s much more traditional. Do you like salad, dear?" Marcie shrugged.
"It’s okay." Mildred beamed.
"I think you’ll find it delicious. The dressing is an old family recipe that we’ve fallen in love with. Do you do much cooking yourself?"
"Some. Not much."
"If she’s anything like her grandmother," Rose said. "She should make a mean Chicken Marsala." Mildred swallowed sourly, then smiled again.
"You really ought to learn, dear. I’d be happy to teach you." The General frowned and glanced at Rose, giving her an apologetic shake of his head. Rose shrugged in reply. "What sort of things do you like?" Marcie paused, thinking; then she put her spoon down and sighed unhappily. Rose watched her closely.
"I don’t know," Marcie said.
"You feel okay, honey?" Rose asked.
"I guess........I was just thinking about......." Rose nodded.
"Thinking about what, dear?" Mildred probed.
"You have a beautiful house here, General," Rose said.
"Thank you," the General answered. "We’ve been here five years now. It is five years, isn’t it, my dear?" Mildred frowned.
"Six, actually. But we were talking about Marcie."
"Marcie doesn’t feel like talking right now," Rose said.
"I think Marcie can decide that for herself," Mildred answered in a cold tone. Rose exchanged glances with Marcie.
"She already has. Just give her some time." Mildred’s frown deepened.
"Perhaps we’re on the wrong subject." She turned to Marcie again, smiling. Her husband tapped her arm, but she ignored him. "What are you studying in school, dear?" Rose forced herself to smile.
"Mrs. Petrie, Marcie is going through a really rough time right now. She’s in way over her head, and needs time to sort things out. We need to talk about something else for a while." Mildred’s eyes sparkled with hostility.
"I think I know more about young girls than you do." Rose’s smile sharpened.
"Maybe you do, but I know this one."
"Mildred," the General said. "Let’s change the subject."
"No, I think it’s time we had this out. I don’t know what Jack was thinking putting his niece in the care of a woman like this, but I for one disapprove!" Rose snarled.
"And just what kind of a woman am I, Mildred?"
"I am a lady, and ladies don’t discuss such things."
"Oh really? Well I got news for you, lady: You’re already discussing it."
"Mildred!" The General growled. Mildred glared at her husband and then back at Rose.
"Well—in that case—you’re the kind that sells her body, to the lowest bidder." Rose laughed bitterly.
"Is that the best you can up with? You sell your body to the lowest bidder? Why don’t I tell you what kind of a woman I am? The word you’re thinking of is whore," Mildred flinched in fury. "But that’s only what I am. The kind of woman I am is called a survivor. I do whatever it takes to survive."
"Survive?" Mildred spat the word out. "Do you think that’s an excuse for sinking to the lowest level of human behavior?"
"That’s really rich," Rose sneered. "Coming from someone who’s never been hungry! Who’s never had bills to pay and a kid to raise and feed with no way in hell to pay for any of it!"
"Don’t you speak to me about raising children! I’ve raised more children than you’ve ever laid eyes on!"
"Yeah. And I’ll bet they were real tasty, too."
"What did you say?! What did you say?!" Rose stood suddenly, looming over the table.
"I said we’re leaving. C’mon, Marcie. We’re outa here!" Marcie stood and quick-marched around the table to Rose. "Don’t worry; we’ll see ourselves out." Mildred clenched her spoon as she watched them walk out. The General calmly took a spoonful of soup. He swallowed it and smiled sardonically at his wife.
"That went well."
Rose and Marcie were silent as they walked back to their own house, each lost in her own sense of outrage. Closing the door behind them, Marcie declared,
"She didn’t have any business talking to you like that!" Rose grunted sourly.
"Don’t tell her that!"
"No, I mean it!" There was something in Marcie’s tone that caught her attention, and she stared at the child as if she’d never seen her before.
"Oh, so you’re the nanny now, huh? Well, save it. I don’t need a shoulder to cry on, honey. I did my crying a long time ago." Marcie stared at her nonplused. Rose watched her expression turn to hurt confusion. Tempted to continue her rant, she sighed instead, forcing herself to swallow her anger.
"Look, kid.....I understand what you’re trying to do, but you don’t need to. Really. I’ve been through this particular sewer so many times, I know every brick in the walls. Yes, it bothers me, but there’s nothing you can do. You just get to a point where a kiss and a hug doesn’t solve everything anymore. Just gimme some space, and it’ll all blow over."
"Yes, Rose," Marcie answered in a small voice, tears glistening in her eyes. Rose’s anger flared again.
"And don’t you start that! I’m not in the mood for mothering right now! You need to get your head out of your—......" She paused, took a huge breath and expelled it slowly. "Okay, look....I need some space, and you need something to do. Go take a look in the fridge and see what you can throw together for dinner."
Their shopping trip had only been cursory, so there were only a few odds and ends in the kitchen. Marcie opened a can of soup and another of tuna and made tuna salad. While the soup was heating, she set the table and made sandwiches for both of them. A tall glass of milk for each setting. Wanting to give Rose as much time as she could, she waited until the soup was boiling hot and ladled it into bowls. Then she cut some fruit. When she announced that dinner was ready, Rose came to the table and ate in sullen silence. Never having seen her like this, Marcie ate in silence too, watching Rose out of the corner of her eye.
They were just finishing when Rose sighed.
"You know what the hell of it is? She’s right!"
"No she’s not!" Marcie responded hotly. Rose laughed bitterly.
"You just wait. See if you feel that way when the girls start shutting you out because their mothers don’t want them hanging out with a girl that lives with a whore." Marcie opened her mouth to answer, but Rose cut her off. "Or when the boys start asking you out because you live with a hooker! Hey! If she lives with a hooker, she must be training to be one. I’ll bet she knows some hot moves! That’s what you’re in for, little girl. Make no mistake about it; it’s coming."
"You’re scaring me, Rose."
"To quote your uncle, good. Okay, maybe it’s not good, but you need to be prepared. We oughta’ get you some self defense training. Boys don’t like it when easy girls don’t turn out to be easy."
"I guess it’s all part of growing up, huh?" Marcie asked in a shaky voice.
The doorbell rang. Marcie looked at Rose a moment, then stood up.
"I’ll get it." Rose sat in her chair and watched Marcie walk into the living room, out of sight. She heard the door open, followed by the General’s distinctive baritone. Marcie said something about Rose not feeling well, the General responding. The door closed and heavy footsteps walked through the living room.
"Evening, General," Rose sighed.
"I wanted to apologize," he replied. Rose looked up at him in surprise, and the General smiled gently. "You’re right. Mildred is a military wife, but she’s led a sheltered life, and doesn’t understand survival; not from a first-hand, day to day perspective. It’s not much, I know, but I wish things had gone better."
"Thank you, General."
"Phil, please." Rose nodded.
"Thank you, Phil."
"Don’t let Mildred bother you. Jack told me you’re the most naturally maternal woman he knows, and I’m willing to believe it. If there’s one sure thing about Jack, it’s that he has the best instincts of any man I’ve ever met. If Jack thinks you’re up to the job, so do I."
"I get the feeling you’re buttering me up, Phil." He chuckled.
"I’m not. I know that what Mildred said to you must have hurt. If you were a soldier, I’d order you to make it like water off a duck’s back. But you’re not a soldier, so I can’t order you to do anything. I can only tell you that you have my complete confidence. And my friendship."
"For Jack’s sake."
"Yes. And eventually, I hope, for yours. Don’t disappoint me, Rose. Marcie will be cared for in any event, but it’s better if she’s cared for by you. Because Jack trusts you, and so does she." Rose stared at him with searching eyes and then sighed.
"Boy, you and Jack are really a pair of creeps, you know that, Phil?" The General shrugged.
"We’ve been soldiers a long time. We do what has to be done. So you’re staying?" Rose blew out a breath.
"Yeah. I guess I am. Don’t wanna disappoint a general."
"Good. If you need anything—anything at all—let me know."
"Self defense training. For her." She pointed at Marcie.
"Sure. But why?"
"Because of what’ll happen when word gets around who she’s livin’ with."
"Excellent point. I’ll send someone over tomorrow."
Marcie was practicing her self defense moves in the living room. The morning after the General’s visit, a young woman rang the doorbell. She was about thirty years old, with cold blue eyes and blonde hair trimmed close like a man’s. She was lean and muscled, dressed in olive drab fatigues with Sergeant stripes on her sleeves. The mere sight of her made Marcie’s blood run cold, but she turned out to be a consummate teacher; as patient as she was knowledgeable, she started them with a few basic moves to incapacitate an assailant and then moved on to martial arts. Over the course of the day, Marcie and Rose both became adept at their lessons. Their tutor left them with advice to practice the moves often, so they’d become natural to them, so over the next few days Marcie applied herself with a will.
She’d been sparring for a half hour when the phone rang. Dabbing her face with a tea towel, she walked into the kitchen and picked up the phone.
"Nice to know you still recognize me. How are things going?"
"They’re good! General Petrie got someone to teach us self defense."
"Cora Tyler? Phil doesn’t fool around! Tyler’s the best trainer in the Army. Whose idea was it for you to learn self defense?"
"Rose. She says I’ll need it when word gets around that I’m living with a......a prostitute."
"That’s Rose," he answered approvingly. "She’s got a lot more smarts than she gives herself credit for. Is she there?"
"No. General Petrie took her to look at some furniture."
"No. He’s got some in storage he said we could have, so they’re going to look at it."
"He’s a decent guy. How’s Mildred?"
"We don’t like her. She seemed nice at first, but then she got nasty. She was all over Rose....sneering down her nose at her, saying ugly things...."
"I’m sorry. Be sure to tell Rose I said that. I knew it was a possibility, but I was hoping Phil would be able to get her to control herself. The important thing is she means well. If you met her under other circumstances you’d probably hit it off big time." He paused as another voice spoke in the background. His hand scraped over the mouthpiece and muffled his voice into dull gibberish. Then he was back on the line. "I’ve got to go. Listen, Marcie, the reason I called is to let you know I’ll be seeing you soon. I’m taking two days leave next week."
"Glad you approve. I’ll see you on Wednesday. You take care."
"I will. You take care too!"
"I will, sunshine. Give my best to Rose." The line clicked.
On Wednesday morning, the house was ready to receive company. The living room sported a full length sofa and five easy chairs, paintings adorned the walls, as well as a what-not shelf. The refrigerator and pantry were fully stocked, and Rose and Marcie were primed. At 10:00 the phone rang.
"Rose? This is Phil Petrie. I’m sorry, but Jack won’t be coming today. All leaves are off, indefinitely. The front shifted last night and Barrinton is being evacuated."
"Shit! But Jack is all right?"
"As of the last report I received. I’ll let you know as soon as I know anything."
Over the next few days they watched the news religiously. Word was that Barrinton had been abandoned and was in the process of being over-run. They saw Jack being interviewed on television before they heard from him. The interview was an oasis of relative peace in a cacophony of engine noise, construction sounds and shouting voices; he spoke briefly about the evacuation of civilians from the ruin of Barrinton and the challenges involved in building a new garrison from scratch.
Two weeks later, a car pulled up to the house. The young Corporal driving it announced that General Petrie had ordered him to drive them to the base hospital. He had no other information, but the nurse waiting for them in the hospital lobby gave them an earful as she led them upstairs.
"Colonel Weston came in last night with a large shipment of casualties. He was trapped in a collapsed structure during a missile attack; he took some shrapnel in both legs, broke an arm and dislocated a shoulder." Marcie gasped and started to cry. The nurse smiled and patted her arm. "He went into surgery this morning and is doing fine. In fact, he’s awake and waiting for you." She led them down a broad passage flowing with people; many were clad in scrubs, others in pajamas and light robes, a few in civilian clothes. They turned into a ward where most of the curtains were drawn, and she graced them with a warm smile.
"Wait here a moment, please." She pushed a curtain aside and walked through. "Colonel? Are you up to some company?"
"I’ve never been readier, Major. Send them in."
"Yes, sir!" The nurse pulled the curtain aside. Jack lay propped up on the bed with one arm in a sling. He looked pale, but well otherwise.
Marcie all but ran in and threw herself on her uncle. He grimaced in pain, but caressed her back and hair with his uninjured hand. Rose stood at the curtain, watching with a grin on her face, but the nurse stepped forward and put a hand on Marcie’s shoulder.
"Try not to handle the merchandise, honey. He just got out of surgery."
"Gosh! I’m sorry!" Marcie gasped, pulling back.
"Oh, that’s all right," Jack said. "That kind of pain, I can take."
"I’ll be right outside if you need anything," the nurse said, and left them. Marcie was near tears.
"I’m sorry, Uncle Jack! I just wasn’t thinking!"
"Don’t worry about it, sunshine. I’m glad to see you too." He glanced up at Rose. "Aren’t you coming in?" She shrugged.
"I don’t know. It seems more like a family moment."
"But you are family!" Marcie protested. Rose raised her eyebrows.
"Yes!" Marcie answered, but Jack eyed her soberly.
"If you want to be."
"Yes, please, Rose!" Rose regarded them a moment longer, then walked slowly into the cubicle. Marcie took her hand at once; Jack remained sober.
"You’re always welcome, you know."
"I wanted to be sure. It’s not like I’m related or anything."
"Yes it is," Marcie insisted.
"You can be anything you want to be, Rose," Jack said. "With us, or without us. It’s all up to you." Rose smiled cautiously.
"In that case.....I’ll settle for being a relative. Maybe your cousin or something." Jack smiled.