My first book, Everything Changes, was published in March 2015 by Dreamspinner Press. One of my main characters, Carey Everett, is a war veteran and amputee. He overcame several early challenges – a father who was never in his life, the death of his mom after a long illness, and a succession of foster homes. I didn’t detail his backstory much in the book, but I did allude to one instance where a kind stranger put himself out there to help Carey. Mr. Carter is the owner of a small café, and he gave Carey a warm, safe place to wait for school to open each morning. He helped give Carey one of the best starts into adulthood he could possibly get, by enabling him to finish high school.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Carter and Carey, so I wrote this short story for them. For anyone who hasn’t read Everything Changes yet and might like to, rest assured this won’t spoil anything for you, other than Carey has an eventual HEA with the man of his dreams.
*Contains some war violence*
Café & Memories
An Everything Changes Short Story
by Melanie Hansen
It was a January morning like any other, dark and bitterly cold at 5:30 a.m. George Carter stood indecisively at the doorway of his warm little café, wincing as he noticed how the wind was whipping the American flag hanging from the eaves wildly back and forth. He considered not going out there, considered just staying inside, warm and snug, maybe having another cup of hot tea before it was time to open for the morning breakfast rush.
George sighed in resignation before pulling a knit cap down tightly over his ears and winding a thick scarf around his neck. He’d changed the café’s menu offerings after the holidays, adding a few more varieties of soups and cakes, and he knew how the ladies over at the local high school loved their cake. This was the school’s first week back after winter break, and he really should drop these updated menus off for them.
George picked up the neat stack of colorful menus, making sure they were clipped tightly together before pushing out through the door into the frigid morning. He hunched down as far as he could into his scarf, his eyes watering as he headed directly into the wind. It was a short two blocks over to the school, and as he walked, George grumbled to himself about winter in the desert. Even after 25 years, he still had to explain to disbelieving relatives in more northern states that yes, it does get fucking cold during an Arizona winter.
“Y’all get snow then, Georgie?”
“No, Uncle Seth, it doesn’t snow here, but –“
“Then shut your mouth, it ain’t cold.”
George smiled, thinking about his uncle, who had passed away the previous summer. It was a conversation they’d had every year around the holidays, Seth ribbing him for complaining about the “cold” when he himself had just been out shoveling three feet of snow away from his front door. The weather banter was their little ritual, and George missed his uncle fiercely in that moment.
As he neared the school entrance, he heard a deep wracking cough come from somewhere off to the left, and he turned to stare disbelievingly at the figure huddled in the shelter of a nearby doorway. The boy was hunched into a ball, his arms wrapped around his upraised knees, his face buried against them. Another cough shook him, and George stuck the menus in the school’s mail slot before marching determinedly over. This time he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Boy, you’re comin’ back to the café with me. Right now.”
The bowed head lifted, and bright blue eyes rimmed with red looked miserably into George’s. His nose was running, and he coughed again before nodding. George waited for him to unfold and push to his feet, watching as he slung his heavy backpack over his shoulders.
“It’s not too far,” George said. “You’ll be warm before you know it.”
He led the way, not speaking, the sound of the kid sniffling and coughing behind him breaking his heart. He’d first seen the boy a little over a month ago when he’d been dropping off the café’s holiday menus for the school ladies, and George wondered why the young man would be sitting in that doorway at 5:30 in the fucking morning when school didn’t start until 7:45. Maybe an athlete waiting for 6 a.m. practice? George hadn’t thought much of it at the time, until he’d been passing by the school about a week later to take some menus to a nearby insurance office. The boy was there in the same doorway, drawing in a notebook. It was even earlier than before, about 4:45, and there was no way any sports practice started that early, not in this tiny border town.
On impulse George approached him and asked if he’d like to wait at the café for school to open, and the kid politely but firmly declined. After that, whenever George saw him, he made the same invitation and was always rebuffed. George was curious as to what his story was, who his parents were and why they’d drop him off at school a full three hours before the damn place opened to let him huddle in the dark and cold alone.
Now the boy’s misery had made the decision for him, and George was fiercely glad he decided to deliver the menus that morning.
George finally pushed through the front door of the café, the soothing warmth and the smell of fresh coffee and a hot griddle wafting over him. His three servers were moving busily about the dining room, replenishing napkin dispensers, making sure ketchup and Tabasco bottles were full. The short-order cooks were chattering in the kitchen, the clanging of pots and pans a familiar and welcome cacophony. Overlaying all of this was the engaging hip-hop that George allowed his staff to play at full volume during morning prep, and every now and then someone shouted out a lyric or busted a dance move. It was a friendly and happy place, and George was inordinately proud of it.
The boy hovered wide-eyed in the doorway, seemingly reluctant to come any farther inside, and George waved his arm at him.
“C’mon in, son, and get warm. Go sit at that booth over there, and I’ll bring you some hot tea with lemon. Good for a sore throat and cough.”
The kid hesitated, and George moved closer to him. “Go sit, boy,” he urged gently. A bout of coughing almost had the young man bent double. As soon as it was over, he made his way cautiously to the booth in the very back and collapsed down onto the seat, folding his arms on the table and dropping his head onto them, the picture of weariness and misery.
George made him a large mug of strong tea with a generous helping of sugar, and squeezed several slices of lemon into it. He placed it in front of the boy then sat down in the booth across from him.
“What’s your name, son?”
The kid lifted his head from his folded arms, wrapping long-fingered hands around the hot mug and taking a sip before croaking out, “Carey. Carey Everett.”
“Nice to meet you, Carey. I’m Mr. Carter.”
Carey nodded. “Thank you, sir, for inviting me inside.”
“You’re welcome. Now sit here and warm up, and I’ll bring you a little something to eat.”
Carey looked alarmed. “I – I don’t have any money –“ he stammered, subsiding when George gave him a stern look.
“Didn’t ask for no money now, did I?”
George smiled to himself when he saw a look of stubborn pride fill the boy’s vivid blue eyes. He was a tough one.
“We’ll work something out, kid,” he said, staving off Carey’s protest. “Ain’t be much use to me right now as sick as you are.”
Over the next hour George was busy with the café opening, seating customers and then ringing them up at the end, making sure things were running smoothly. He found time to dish Carey up a big bowl of steaming oatmeal, setting it down in front of him along with a little tin of milk and a ramekin of brown sugar. George watched in satisfaction as he ate most of it, then rested with his head on his folded arms until around 7:30, when he stood up and pulled his coat on, getting ready to leave.
“Thank you again, Mr. Carter,” Carey said hoarsely, the sound of his voice raw and painful.
George walked him to the door. “Come again tomorrow, Carey. I’m usually here by 4 a.m. There’s no need to wait in the cold when you’re so sick.”
Carey’s lips tightened and George prepared himself for a protest, but then Carey said gruffly, “Okay, but just until I’m better.”
George watched him go, hunched miserably against the wind as he made his way back to school.
The next morning there was a tentative knock on the door at 4:45, and George opened it to let Carey in, noticing that his color was better and he didn’t sound quite as hoarse when he murmured a greeting.
After his tea and oatmeal, Carey sat quietly in the booth reading, sometimes doodling in a little notebook. The morning prep was in full swing, the little café bright and busy, filled with music and the sound of young people talking and laughing.
Just before the 6:00 a.m. opening, George sat across from Carey and said solemnly, “I want to offer you a job. You can start when you’re feeling better.”
Carey looked steadily back at him, his blue eyes unwavering. “I don’t want to accept charity, Mr. Carter,” he said quietly. “You don’t need me to work here.”
George snorted. “Look at these fools!” He waved his arm toward the doorway to the kitchen where two of the short-order cooks were dancing to the music, bumping and grinding to the accompanying “whoop-whoops” of the young servers.
Carey smiled faintly then looked down at his hands.
“Carey,” George said gently. “If it makes you uncomfortable, we won’t talk about a salary. How about in exchange for a hot breakfast and a warm place to wait, you sweep the front walk for me every morning, clean the windows, do the stuff they don’t get to in the midst of all their foolishness?”
Despite the harsh-sounding words, George’s tone was fond. Ever since his wife had died unexpectedly several years ago, the café and the vibrant young people who worked there had given his life meaning. He loved all of it.
Carey didn’t say anything for several more minutes, just spun his empty tea mug between his palms. Finally he looked up at George and nodded. George stood up and patted him on the shoulder.
“Good,” he said simply, and went back to work.
“C’mon Carey, break it down!” Andrè, the head cook, shouted, his hips swiveling as he danced, trying to draw Carey in. George watched from the doorway to his office, smiling as he watched the horseplay. It was Valentine’s Day morning, and the staff was feeling festive, chattering about sweethearts and upcoming dates. Andrè was planning to make heart-shaped pancakes for the breakfast crowd, and each table sported a red and pink carnation in a little crystal vase.
In the month and half since Carey had started working there, George was pleased with how he had come out of his shell. He was still naturally reserved, and quiet, but he had a wicked sense of humor, and when one of his rare smiles broke across his face, it was like the sun coming out. He was a breathtakingly beautiful kid, a true Black Irish, and he reminded George of someone…someone long gone but never far from his thoughts.
During the course of their early-morning talks, before the staff arrived and chaos would reign, George found out that Carey was a foster kid, having lost his mom, his only family, a few years ago after a prolonged illness. He’d bounced around to a few homes, and since he was now almost 17, it was harder to find a home to take him. His caseworker had had to move Carey from his hometown of Tucson to Douglas, 120 miles away and on the Arizona/Mexico border, in order to place him.
In Douglas he lived with a rural family, and Carey told George that his foster dad was an over-the-road trucker who was gone 3 weeks out of every month. The mom worked as an aide at a nursing home, and had to be at work herself every morning at 5 a.m. There was limited bus service to the high school from Carey’s district, but there was a fee, and the family was unwilling to pay it. As a result, Carey was dropped off at school every morning at 4:30 a.m. to wait.
George was appalled, but Carey just shrugged and said, “It is what it is. At least I can come here now.” A loud series of whoops drew George’s attention, and he laughed out loud when he saw Carey dancing with Maria, one of the servers, petite and cute. Carey was grinning, and suddenly a series of memories slammed into George like a Mack truck. The boy was so much like–
George turned and went into his small office. He sat down at his desk, spinning around in his chair and rummaging in the small credenza set against the wall. In the bottom drawer was an old shoebox, and he put it carefully on the desk and lifted the lid. A slightly musty smell wafted from the box, which was full of old photos: some color, some black-and-white.
He picked one out of the box and held it in slightly shaky hands, staring at the grainy image.
“Mr. Carter? Are you okay?”
George jolted out of his memories, looking up to see Carey standing hesitantly in the doorway to the office. He put the photo down and wiped his eyes hastily.
“Yeah,” he replied gruffly. “Just a walk down memory lane.”
Carey advanced farther into the room and sat down on the small chair in front of the desk. “You want to talk about it?”
His tone was solemn, his face wise beyond his years. George smiled, fondness for Carey surging through him, along with a desire to tell him the story that had impacted George’s life immeasurably.
“It’s not an easy story to hear, son,” he said. “But I think I’d like to tell you about it.”
“Come by after school. I’ll call your foster mom and tell her I’ll drive you home.”
After Carey started working there, George had contacted Carey’s foster mom to make sure she knew all about the early-morning arrangement. The woman sounded harried and distracted, but nice enough. She thanked George profusely, and asked him to call her if there were ever any problems.
Carey nodded again. “I’ll be here.” Then he was gone.
George took another few minutes to himself, closing the shoebox and putting it carefully away.
The rest of the day flew by. At 2:00 p.m. the café closed, and by 3:00 the clean-up and inventory had been done. The staff left in a noisy rush, eager to start their own Valentine’s Day plans. Carey came in shortly before 3:00 and pitched in to help with closing, smiling and avoiding teasing questions about “hot dates” and “getting some.”
George shook his head. Young people.
In the quiet aftermath George fixed himself a cup of coffee, then gathered up his shoebox and sat at one of the larger booths. Carey sat down across from him, and George reached inside the box and pulled several photos out, fanning them across the table. He watched as Carey looked at them, taking in the grainy images of men in sweat-stained fatigues, sometimes clutching M-16s, interspersed with jungle scenes and Huey helicopters.
“Vietnam?” he guessed, running his finger across one photo that showed smoking, grinning men cleaning their guns around a rickety table, Jeeps and jungle in the background.
“Yes.” George shook his head. “I can’t believe it’s been 36 years, a lifetime.” He fished around in the box and handed Carey another picture, this time of himself. “I was barely 21 years old, been in-country for almost a year, had just been put in charge of my first squad.”
May 1970 – Vietnam/Cambodian border
“I ain’t gonna take no orders from a goddamned nig–“
The face was red, spittle flecking the corner of his mouth as the man spat the words at George. George stood impassively, cocking his head as a voice behind him cut through the invective.
“That’s enough, Biggs.” The voice was deep, with a Southern drawl. Without looking, George knew the voice belonged to Sgt. Justin Lowry, one of the Echo Company snipers.
Biggs sneered. “Can’t tell me a good Southern boy like you expects me to take my orders from this fucking darky.”
Lowry got close enough so that he was looming over the shorter, wider Biggs. “I said that’s enough, Corporal.” His voice had lost the drawl and was now laced with steel. “I take my orders from men I respect, period. Don’t matter none what the color of his fuckin’ skin is. You were there on Hill 875, same as me, and you know this man deserves your goddamn respect. And you’ll give it to him, or answer to me.”
Biggs glared for another minute, then turned and stalked away, outrage in every line of his body.
George quietly blew out the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, turning to face Lowry when he said, drawl firmly back in place, “Sorry about that, Carter.”
George shrugged. “Ain’t nothin’ I’m not used to. But thanks just the same.”
Lowry smiled, then offered George a smoke, lighting it for him before wandering off, his endorsement of George as squad leader firmly in place. Even though George hated whenever other people fought his battles for him, he had to admit that the endorsement of a popular, well-respected man such as Sgt. Lowry would make things a little easier.
And in a place like this, George would take all the easy he could get.
“Damn, I wonder if it’s true about all the gooks hiding out down there.” Biggs spat out the open door of the Chinook helicopter as they swooped low over the impenetrable jungle. “Heard there could be up to 63,000 of those motherfuckers hiding in that mess.”
George shook his head at the racial slur but didn’t waste his breath reprimanding him, knowing it wouldn’t do any good.
“So much for Cambodia being ‘neutral,’ huh?” Biggs sneered. “Letting the Cong hide their shit out in there, makin’ it easier to hump it across the border into ‘Nam and kill good white boys with it.” He worked up another glob of spit and horked it out the open door, the wind whipping it away.
George grit his teeth, clutching his M-16, not wanting to let this racist asshole distract him from his situational awareness. Just a few short weeks before, George had seen a Chinook shot out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile, the burning bodies of the crew raining down in a horrifying storm into the river below.
He scanned the jungle closely, unable to see anything on the ground through the triple canopy of vegetation. It was true, that the Cambodians were letting the Viet Cong store weapons and supplies in huge amounts in these jungles, and that’s what George and his Marine battalion, among others, were tasked with doing: Finding and destroying all such caches they could find.
The Americans had surged into Cambodia just a few days before in a surprise incursion, meeting little to no resistance. A crude firebase was set up a few klicks across the border, and now George and his men were flying out to help get it more firmly established before starting to run active “search-and-destroy” missions.
As the Chinook swept in for landing, George gripped his gun with suddenly sweaty palms, looking down in disbelief. The “firebase” was little more than a desolate clearing surrounded by a berm, with some sagging strands of concertina wire strung along it. A most pitiful defense, especially when compared to the backdrop of the sinister jungle ringing it on all sides.
“Holy fuck, what is this bullshit?” Biggs exclaimed. “We gonna get wasted here. This is where we gonna die, boys.”
It was probably the first statement out of his mouth that George had ever agreed with.
When the helicopter landed, they all jumped down, George half-expecting withering machine gun fire to rip them to shreds the minute their boots touched dirt. He could almost feel the enemy’s eyes on them, watching. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, pulling every ounce of calm and self-discipline he possessed around him like a cloak. Time to lead by example.
“Okay, Marines,” George called out. “Double-time! We need to get better cover established before nightfall.”
He assigned groups to start digging foxholes, others to fill sandbags in order to build up the berm. That first night was sleepless as they huddled together, weapons at the ready. George wanted to snort in disgust when Biggs crowded into his foxhole with him, muttering, “If those assholes overrun us tonight, I wanna be next to you.”
The color of my skin don’t matter so much now that you’re so worried about your own, does it? George thought, casting Biggs a look of disdain that the other man carefully chose to ignore.
At first light everyone crept out of their foxholes, and the day followed pretty much the same pattern as the previous one. Chinooks flew in and out, ferrying men and supplies, and by nightfall of that second day, the firebase had taken on a crude shape. Army Corps of Engineers were frantically hacking through the jungle from the Vietnam border toward them, building a road in order to bring in backhoes, Jeeps and tanks.
The shout was almost lost in the sound of a helicopter ascending into the sky. George turned around, shading his eyes against the dust stirred up by the rotor wash, seeing Lowry striding toward him, his arm slung casually over the shoulders of a tall dark-haired man.
“Lo, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” George exclaimed. “That bird just drop you off?”
“Hell, yeah! This is Bobby Nevarez, my spotter. Nev, this is the best squad leader in this whole goddamn shithole, George Carter.”
After shaking hands, the three of them lit up smokes.
“So what’s the plan for this clusterfuck?” Bobby mumbled around his cigarette, his eyes scanning the jungle.
“Try not to get dead,” George said drily. “We’ve been here two days, haven’t seen hide nor hair of the VC, but I can feel them watching us from that fucking jungle.” He shuddered.
Lowry glanced around at the barebones firebase. “Yeah, this whole thing is – not groovy.”
“Scheduled to go out on a ground recon in about three days, start beating the bush, see if we can find a storage cache,” George remarked. “You two on my team?”
“Fuck yeah, we are,” Lowry exclaimed, throwing his arm around Bobby’s shoulders again. “Wouldn’t miss it.” He winked at Carter, and then the two men wandered away.
Another night passed uneventfully, and as the sun started to rise on the third day, a loud boom was heard along the eastern perimeter of the base. George woke up from where he was curled up uncomfortably in the foxhole, kicking Biggs hard in the shin to get him moving.
“What was that?” George called out to one of the men currently standing overwatch, a young private hunkered down in a nest of sandbags nearby, his gun resting on the top. He peered through some binoculars at the source of the explosion.
“One of the claymores deployed, sir!” he called out. “Probably a bird or animal–“
Before he could complete that thought, a burst of machine gun fire came from the edge of the concertina wire, cutting down an American who had just emerged from the shitter.
The shouts rose from all around the base, and men struggled up from sleep to ply their weapons. Suddenly, before anyone could blink, it seemed, the firebase was in a fight for its life. Wave after wave of enemy poured from the jungle, running toward the base perimeter.
The Marines, though, were all prepared, their weapons primed and plenty of ammo at hand. The first surge of VC was annihilated immediately, shredded by the powerful American guns.
“Don’t let them breach!” George screamed, crawling on his belly to the closest machine gun nest. He propped his gun on the bags, sighted, and fired steadily, watching the enemy fall.
Grenades were lobbed by both sides, smoke drifting up and obscuring the sun. Screams as a Viet Cong fighter breached the perimeter, only to be cut down. Then another, and another. Soon there was hand to hand combat, bayonets flashing. George reloaded, the smell of gunpowder, dust and smoke filling his nose and lungs, Biggs’ fatalistic words echoing in his brain: This is where we’re gonna die, boys.
It could have been minutes, or hours, or days, but the waves of enemy pouring from the jungle slowed to a trickle, then stopped completely. Random cracks of gunfire filled the air as the men shot at shadows, finally tapering away to silence.
A lone monkey screeched nearby, soon joined by others, and before long the air was filled with the normal sounds of the jungle instead of the fierce and frantic battle that had just taken place.
George stood up cautiously, men all over the firebase doing the same, and the assessment and cleanup began. The tally – 1 American dead, 7 wounded. All in all it was a miracle they hadn’t been breached and overrun. Viet Cong dead littered the perimeter of the base, and heavy blood trails led back into the jungle where some of the bodies had been dragged away.
In spite of the hot and humid air, George shivered. The enemy moved like ghosts: silent, effective, deadly. It was sheer luck, or a miracle, the Marines had been able to defeat them. The only thing that saved them was the preparation they’d done, their state of readiness and the sheer firepower they possessed. Out in the jungle, on their turf, it would be a much different story.
None of George’s squad had been killed, although he soon found out that Bobby Nevarez had been a little too close to a grenade when it landed. He’d been blown backward, suffering a few minor shrapnel wounds and a concussion.
George went looking for Justin Lowry not long after the firefight, asking around and being told that he was checking on Nev in the medical tent. Not sure if the injured man would be sleeping, George was quiet as he lifted the tent flap and peered inside. It looked like Nevarez was indeed sleeping, and George could just make out the dark shape of Lowry kneeling next to the cot.
As George’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, he could see Justin smooth a lock of hair off of Bobby’s forehead before trailing his fingers down his cheek. He brushed his thumb back and forth over Bobby’s lips, quiet murmurs reaching George’s ears. George stared, not comprehending at first, and then he backed quietly away from the tent, waiting a few seconds before knocking softly on the pole.
He pushed inside and saw that Justin was now on his feet next to the cot, turning to leave.
“Cap’n wants to see you, Lo,” George whispered. Lowry nodded, casting a look at the sleeping man over his shoulder before following George out of the tent.
“How is he?” George asked as they walked across the bustling firebase in the driving rain, each ignoring the mud that squelched up almost to the top of their boots. It wasn’t anything they weren’t used to by now in this tropical climate.
“He’s gonna be okay,” Justin said, his voice hoarse. “When that grenade exploded and I saw him just lying there–“ he broke off, and George looked sideways at him. He still wasn’t quite sure what he’d seen in that tent, but whatever it was certainly wasn’t any of his goddamn business. Snipers and their spotters were known to be as close as brothers, and George didn’t want to assume anything by what he’d just witnessed.
“We’re going ground reconning at first light, see if we can pinpoint these assholes’ location, follow any blood trails or broken vegetation while they’re fresh,” George said. “Cap’n wants to read you in, says Dhu will be your spotter until Nev is back on his feet in a day or so.”
Lowry shrugged, and George fell silent. The rest of the day was spent on mission prep. At dawn the next morning, after a ‘breakfast’ of cold C-rations, George and the five other members of his team swung their 70-pound rucksacks over their shoulders, clutched their M-16s tightly and headed out into the triple-canopy jungle.
Hacking through the vegetation was arduous, and the heat so oppressive the squad was forced to take a break every hour in order to rest and rehydrate. Everyone was dealing with bamboo cuts on their hands that stung like a bitch with their sweat, and they each took turns picking huge black leeches off of the back of the others’ exposed necks.
They didn’t really sleep, but caught catnaps in shifts. The constant rain wore them down, and the deafening buzz of tropical insects and the whine of mosquitos further eroded morale.
“Can’t believe I’d ever fuckin’ say this,” Biggs muttered, “but I wish I was back in goddamned Vietnam. Better than this shit.”
George, once again, had to agree.
As the squad continued to hack their way through the bamboo, practicing noise discipline and stealth as much as they could, the sense of foreboding that was making the hair on the back of George’s neck stand up grew stronger. The men were walking in a loose line formation, George bringing up the rear, and suddenly the grunt on point lifted his closed fist in the air to signal a halt. Without a word, Lowry and Dhu melted off into the jungle to do a “sneak and peek,” trying to head off any potential ambush. The other four waited until George gave the order to cautiously move forward.
They spread out a little farther apart than before, trying to dogleg and zigzag as much as possible to make themselves less of a target. George’s skin crawled, certain he could feel the enemy’s eyes on him once again. They were out there, always waiting–
Suddenly a cloud of insects swarmed by right above their heads, and George instinctively looked up, only to see a wire strung up high, along with a–
“Mine!” he screamed, but it was too late. The claymore exploded at head level, cutting down the two men on point with deadly ball-bearings. Immediately there was a barrage of withering automatic weapons fire from the unseen enemy, and Biggs was hit, his body flying back into George’s, knocking him to the putrid jungle floor and pinning him.
Biggs had been shot in the throat and blood poured down from his severed artery onto George’s face and neck. Choking and sputtering, George tried to push the dead weight off, rolling and twisting, managing only to hopelessly pin his legs. Booted feet appeared next his head and he looked up, expecting to see an enemy bayonet flashing down to end his life. Instead it was Lowry, his face speckled with blood.
He knelt down next to George and tugged at Biggs’ twitching body, trying to pull him off. “Dhu panicked when the mine went off, exposed himself,” he said, gasping with effort. “Shot.”
Suddenly Lowry hit the ground next to George and pulled Biggs’ body half on top of himself, too, hastily smearing some of his blood on his face and hands.
“What the–“ George began, and Lowry hissed, “Shut the fuck up. Play dead, damn you.”
In the next instant, VC soldiers slid silently out from the dense jungle and approached them. George made himself as limp as possible, certain that his thundering heart could be heard clearly over the sound of insects and chattering of birds.
The enemy soldiers were muttering as they stood over them. Biggs’ body twitched without warning, still in death throes, and suddenly the sickening sound of bayonets being plunged into human flesh reached George’s ears. The body on top of him rocked with the thrusts, and George waited to feel cold steel slicing into him. It didn’t happen, although he was treated to several kicks about the legs and head, and Lowry’s arm, draped across George’s chest, jolted as a ring was ripped violently from his finger.
The men backed off, and George expected them to leave, but instead they lit some smokes and stood there, chattering in their unintelligible language.
George and Lowry played dead for what seemed an eternity, although it was only a couple of hours. Any minute he expected the enemy to come and inspect them more closely, but they never did. Both of George’s legs were asleep from the weight of Biggs’ body across them, and Lowry’s head was mashed against his shoulder. He could feel his shallow breaths against his neck.
Finally the Cong moved off back from where they’d come from, and Lowry hissed, “We’ve gotta stay still for at least another half hour, in case they’re watching.”
George and Lowry lay there in the stinking mud, not moving, covered with thick, clotting blood and the contents of Biggs’ evacuated bowels. George prayed to himself like he’d never prayed before, and he could hear Lowry doing the same, the words little more than puffs of air coming from his mouth. He was almost sure he heard the name Bobby a time or two, but George was past caring about anything except his own fear and misery.
Finally Lowry shifted cautiously, and slowly and carefully pushed himself to a sitting position, looking around. He stood up and staggered a little, catching himself and managing to drag Biggs’ body off of George’s legs.
“I can’t feel my legs, Lo,” George hissed, and Lowry hauled him up anyway, supporting George when he sagged helplessly. They started to move off as quickly and quietly as they dared, and George realized with horror that both of them were weaponless, the enemy having taken everything they had. It was a couple of days’ hike back to the firebase, and George knew they wouldn’t make it, not without supplies and guns.
When they’d gone about a mile, Lowry half-dragging, half-pushing George along, he suddenly stopped and helped George sit down against a thick stalk of bamboo.
“I’m gonna double-back and get Dhu’s rifle and rucksack. Don’t think the hostiles found it, we were well off the trail when he got wasted by that stray bullet.”
George nodded, and Lowry slipped silently away. He was gone for a long time, and George started to drift, his mind caught in a whirlpool of ever-worsening nightmares. Of Lowry never coming back. Of being eaten by fire ants. Of being tortured and killed by VC. Of starving to death. Tears leaked from his swollen, burning eyes and ran down his cheeks unchecked. He’d never see his wife again, never have the chance to live the life they’d just begun together when he’d been drafted.
He was on the verge of falling completely apart from stress and shock when Lowry was suddenly there again, kneeling in the mud next to him, Dhu’s rucksack over his shoulders and rifle clutched in a tight grip.
George looked at him, Lowry’s black hair plastered to his head with rain and mud, helmet long gone. His face was haggard, filthy, his bright blue eyes standing out even more against the muck. He was the most beautiful sight George had ever seen.
“Gonna get us out of this, Carter,” Lowry muttered. “Gonna tell the brass about what we saw here, won’t let those assholes get away with this.” He hauled George to his feet and they set out.
For the next two days they trudged through the jungle, retracing their steps back to base. The journey was a blur to George, dehydration, shock and hunger taking their toll. Insects attacked him constantly because of the blood and shit on his uniform and skin, eating him alive. His feet were a mass of blisters. Lowry never once slept, constantly on alert, bolstering George and keeping him going when all George wanted to do was fall to the jungle floor and let himself die.
Finally they reached the firebase, were whisked off to medical. George’s wounds and blisters were dressed, and he was given IV fluids to rehydrate. He drifted in and out of consciousness for several hours, at last falling into a healing sleep. When he woke up late the next afternoon, he felt weak but mostly functional. He managed to eat a little, and take a tepid shower, before going looking for Lowry, intending to thank him for saving his life.
Darkness had fallen, the jungle beyond the firebase perimeter black and menacing. The floodlights they’d strung up around the camp didn’t do much to penetrate the almost tangible blackness of the Cambodian night. George poked his head in a few hooches, asking around. A couple of guys said they’d heard Lowry was looking for Nevarez.
George was tired, still a little weak, and about to give up trying to find Lowry; he’d just take care of it the next morning. He was heading toward his hooch when he saw Lowry striding across the far end of the base. George didn’t think, just hurried to catch up. When he finally rounded one of the structures, he saw Lowry’s silhouette just as another dark shape emerged from the gloom. George stopped in his tracks, watching as the two shadows merged into one.
As his eyes adjusted a little more to the darkness, he could see that Lowry had Nevarez enfolded in his arms. They weren’t merely hugging; they were wrapped tightly around each other, so tightly that George couldn’t tell where Lowry left off and Nevarez began. Lowry had his hand cupped around the back of Nev’s head, his lips buried in his hair.
George watched as Nev lifted his face from Lowry’s neck, and they kissed softly, over and over. He turned and slipped silently back the way he’d come, ashamed of himself for intruding on a private moment, but a little in awe, too. The raw feeling emanating from the two men had been powerful, and George didn’t feel disgust, or curiosity, or any other prurient emotion. Just that sense of awe, that two people had managed to find a little beauty, a little comfort, in the midst of all the ugliness that currently surrounded them.
He didn’t say anything to anyone, and he went to bed.
* * * *
A sneeze from Carey broke the spell of George’s story, and George came back to the present with a start.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Carter,” Carey apologized before sneezing again. “Go on.”
George smiled a little sadly. “Not much more to tell, son. It’s just that your manner, something about your eyes, reminds me of Justin Lowry, the man who saved my life. He’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I can still see him so clearly, even over 30 years later.”
He pulled another picture from the box and handed it to Carey. He watched as Carey perused the faded color photo, a photo that showed George’s entire squad before that fateful day. He wondered if the boy’s sharp eyes would pick up on what George himself had seen: Lowry and Nev, leaning against a low wall side by side, hands bracing themselves, the pinky finger of one hand overlapping the other’s in a subtle caress. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t even notice it.
Carey did notice, because he looked up and asked quietly, “So they were gay, then?”
George shrugged. “Son, I don’t know what they were, other than two people who cared about each other a great deal and managed to carve out a little happiness for themselves in the midst of hell. Other people might not have understood it, but considering my own relationship, I probably understood it better than anyone.”
“What do you mean?”
George didn’t reply, just opened his desk drawer and took out another picture, this one framed and professional. He handed it to Carey, watching his eyes widen as he took in the photo of George and his wife Sarah. In his mind’s eye George could see her, hair as golden red as an autumn leaf, those bright and mischievous green eyes, freckles across her pert nose.
Oh, how he’d loved her.
“Yes, Carey, I married a white woman. Which to you young people today might not be a big deal, but back in the late ‘60s, it was still so rare as to be almost unheard of. Sarah and I faced our share of bigotry and outright hatred, prejudice and judgment leveled against two people who simply wanted to love one other. A black man and a white woman, or two men…love is love, son.”
“Wow,” Carey whispered, “that couldn’t have been easy. We’re studying the civil rights movement in school. I know how hard it was for African-Americans back then.”
George felt the shadows of those early days of his marriage creep up on him.
“We had a few rocks thrown through the windows of our house, slurs painted on our front door. One night I asked Sarah why she’d married me, why she’d taken on a life with me so full of uncertainties. You know what she said? I’ll never forget it, son. She said, ‘When I met you, Georgie, I didn’t see the drawbacks. All I saw were the possibilities, the glorious possibilities.’”
George felt his eyes mist up at the memory, and he wiped the back of his hand over them. “Thank the sweet Lord above she was open to the possibilities. Because we were married for 39 years and those were the best years of my life.”
Carey smiled, and handed George back the photo. George let his fingertips caress Sarah’s beloved face.
“Be open to the possibilities of life, son, whatever they might be. Lowry and Nev were, Sarah and I were. And we all found a little bit of beauty in the darkness.”
They both fell silent after that, not much more to say, and soon George drove Carey home.
Over the next year, George delighted in seeing Carey nearly every day, watching him mature, grow taller and more handsome. Carey even made a few friends, one day bringing a girlfriend around and shyly introducing her to George. High school graduation approached, and George threw Carey a small party one afternoon after the café had closed, complete with cake and apple juice toasts.
Over the summer Carey’s visits tapered off to a trickle, and on the first day of school, George waited out on the sidewalk for him at 4:45 a.m. Of course Carey wouldn’t come, he wasn’t in school anymore, but George still waited. He waited that whole week, but Carey never returned. George missed him fiercely, but he knew in his heart that Carey was grateful to him, cared about him, that maybe he just couldn’t face the pain of good-bye.
And life went on.
Eight years later
George pushed away from his desk and stretched, his back cracking as he twisted side to side. At almost 64, he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d have the energy to put 60 hours a week into the café. He loved the place, but maybe it was time to delegate to a manager, enjoy what remained of his twilight years with a little relaxation, maybe some travel.
It was 15 minutes before closing, and George headed out to the main dining room to ring up the last few customers before sending them on their way with cheerful good-byes. He was digging in his pocket for the keys to lock up when suddenly the door opened again and a tall, black-haired man entered the café, followed by another equally tall man with thick brownish-blond hair. The black-haired man seemed familiar, and George looked him over carefully, noticing that underneath the right leg of some loose cargo shorts, the metal of a prosthetic leg was showing. He scanned back up to the man’s face and was startled by bright blue eyes brimming with uncertainty, and a cautious hope.
“Mr. Carter?” The voice was deep, a man’s voice, but George would know it anywhere.
“Carey,” he breathed, coming around the counter and opening his arms. Carey fell into them and George enfolded him close.
“I’m sorry that I never said good-bye, or thank you,” Carey whispered in George’s ear, emotion choking his voice. “Thank you, Mr. Carter, for everything you did for me.”
George hugged him tighter, tears burning in his own eyes. Finally they pulled apart, and George looked down at Carey’s prosthetic leg.
“Marines,” Carey said. “Lost it in Afghanistan.”
“Oorah,” George whispered, and they hugged again. Finally Carey stepped back and then drew the other man forward, pride shining in his eyes. George looked questioningly at them.
“Mr. Carter, I’d like to introduce you to Jase DeSantis. My husband.”
George’s mouth fell open, and when he finally snapped it closed, he managed to croak, “Well, my boy. Congratulations.”
He stuck out his hand and shook Jase’s firmly, pleased by how strong his grip was, how his eyes met George’s directly.
“Glad to meet you, sir. I’ve heard a lot about you,” Jase said.
“Son, I – I never knew –” George began, and Carey gave a faint smile, his vivid blue eyes glowing with warmth and love as he said simply, “I was open to the possibilities.”