by Catherine West
reviewed by Martha Artyomenko
Kristin Taylor was only twelve when she said goodbye to her father for the last time. He was a war corespondent to Vietnam, and when he never came home, her little brother who believed the best of everyone followed him there….she knew she had to go.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Kristen arrives in the war torn country with no place to go, stay or even a job….determined and stubborn against all odds, even when faced with almost getting killed her first day there…she learns many of the true stories from the men fighting the Vietnam War.
We do not hear many of the stories from the men who fought in the Vietnam war in this book, but instead we will hear what the war corespondent’s saw, what their families went through, and what some of the POW’s went through. We will live through the eyes of Kristen and her friend’s she meets in Vietnam, the pain and heartache of this war that is not always talked of.
I felt the author did a superb with this book. When I finished this book, I felt like I could understand as much a layman could have some of the pain and trauma that surrounds this war. I sat and could not stop thinking of each of the characters. I could feel Kristen’s mom’s pain, as she felt she lost her husband and now her children to the draw of this awful country. Kristen, who has felt she had let her dad down, if she did not protect her brother. The romance in the book, was subtle and subdued, not a lot of scenes where you felt uncomfortable, but was full of a true passion that you could feel and know would be real.
I loved this book!!! It has adventure and history in it and would appeal to both men and women. Best book I have read all year!- Martha
It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
OakTara (March 15, 2011)
***Special thanks to Catherine West for sending me a review copy.***
Educated in Bermuda, England and Canada, Catherine holds a degree in English from the University of Toronto. When she’s not at the computer working on her next story, you can find her taking her Border Collie for long walks or tending to her roses and orchids. Catherine and her husband live on the beautiful island of Bermuda, with their two college-aged children. Catherine is a member of Romance Writers of America, and American Christian Fiction Writers, and is a founding member of International Christian Fiction Writers. Catherine’s debut novel Yesterday’s Tomorrow, will release in 2011, through Oak Tara Publishers.
Visit the author’s website.
Independent, career-driven journalist Kristin Taylor wants two things: to honor her father’s memory by becoming an award-winning overseas correspondent and to keep tabs on her only brother, Teddy, who signed up for the war against their mother’s wishes. Brilliant photographer Luke Maddox, silent and brooding, exudes mystery. Kristin is convinced he’s hiding something.
Willing to risk it all for what they believe in, Kristin and Luke engage in their own tumultuous battle until, in an unexpected twist, they’re forced to work together. Ambushed by love, they must decide whether or not to set aside their own private agendas for the hope of tomorrow that has captured their hearts.
List Price: $18.95
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: OakTara (March 15, 2011)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Didn’t they know they were shouting so loud the neighbors could hear?
Kristin Taylor huddled in bed, drew her knees to her chest and clapped her hands over her ears. Through the thin wall she heard Daddy’s voice rise and Mom burst into tears. It was past ten o’clock. She was supposed to be asleep, but they woke her. Kristin gritted her teeth and began to hum her favorite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
A moment of peace settled over the brownstone apartment. Kristin smiled and wiped her eyes. It worked every time, even if she couldn’t hit the high notes.
Dad started yelling again. She groaned, pulled the covers over her head and squeezed her eyes shut. They were going to be a while.
Something smashed against the other side of her wall and shattered. More yells. No way to sleep with this racket going on. She sat up and turned on her bedside table lamp.
Kristin hopped off her bed and pushed her arms through the sleeves of her thick flannel robe. Cold air chased her as she quick-stepped across the faded rug to her dresser. She ran her fingers along the stack of books squashed between two hand-carved wooden bookends. The frayed bindings of Heidi, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice and the Bible she’d received at her confirmation shared space with all the Agatha Christie novels Kristin could get her hands on. Every once in a while Mom came in to clean, found them, and threatened to throw them out, but Daddy wouldn’t let her.
“The child has an inquisitive mind, Val. We should encourage that.”
“And you do a fine job,” Mom retaliated. “She’s only twelve years old! She should be reading something more…genteel…what’s wrong with The Brontë sisters?”
Kristin remembered the Ian Fleming book hidden under her bed and grinned. Dad snuck it in to her room a couple of nights ago. She’d start it now. Hopefully she could finish the whole story before Mom got her hands on it.
Her eyes landed on the silver framed black-and-white image of Daddy getting his Pulitzer two years ago. They said he was probably the youngest journalist to ever receive the award. She should be proud. She was, but Mom didn’t seem so happy about it. Everyone wanted Daddy to go all over the world now.
As their shouts died down again, she heard the distinct sound of drawers being pulled open and slammed shut. So, he was leaving. Her stomach tightened but she ignored disappointment and tried to imagine her father’s exciting world beyond their brownstone apartment. As she waited to see if they’d start up again, a faint cry reached her ears.
Kristin crept down the hall to her brother’s room. The lamp on the dresser shed a soft glow over Teddy’s round face. He sat up in his bed, fists curled into balls held against his chest. His eyes were scrunched tight—as if that would make it stop. He opened one eye as she entered the room, probably afraid she’d make fun of him for being a crybaby.
Not tonight. Tonight she wanted to cry too.
She skipped over Lincoln logs and Tinkertoys and scrambled up onto the bed beside him, eager to get her cold feet under the covers. “Scooch over.”
Teddy’s bottom lip quivered but he made a supreme effort to stop crying, and shifted his small frame to give her room in the twin bed. She put an arm around his trembling shoulders and squeezed.
He let out a long sigh matching her own. “Is…Daddy…gonna leave again?”
Hot tears pricked her eyes and told her she wasn’t so brave after all. But she couldn’t give in. Teddy needed her. Later, Mom probably would too.
“I don’t know. I heard them talking earlier. His editor wants to send him to Vietnam.”
“Vietnam?” Teddy looked up at her, fresh tears pooling. “Where’s that?”
Kristin rolled her eyes but guilt nudged off impatience. He was only ten for crying out loud. Well, almost ten. She couldn’t expect him to know everything. “Some place far away.”
“Why do they want him to go there?”
“Because the French and the Vietnamese are fighting a big war and they want him to check it out.” Because their Dad was the best war correspondent that ever lived. Kristin ran her tongue over her bottom lip. “He has to go talk to some important people and write a story about it.”
Teddy shook his head and tugged on his blanket. “Why can’t somebody else do it? I want Dad to stay here. Tomorrow’s my birthday. We’re going to the ice rink, remember?”
“Yeah. I remember.”
He shivered and leaned against her shoulder. “But he’ll come back, right?”
Kristin screwed up her nose. Couldn’t he figure something out for himself for once?
“He’ll come back, right? And then we’ll go skating?”
She tried to smile but her heart pounded too fast. “Of course he’s coming back. He always comes back, dummy.”
She hesitated a moment. What if Dad didn’t come back? What would they do then? “I promise. Now can you go back to sleep? It’s getting late.”
Mom and Dad were yelling again. Their voices seemed louder, closer. Kristin scrambled off Teddy’s bed and went to the door. She poked her head out in time to see her parents brush past her. Daddy held a suitcase in one hand, his battered leather briefcase in the other. And his coat was slung over one arm. Would he go without saying goodbye?
Kristin glanced back at Teddy, about to tell him to stay put, but her brother was already behind her, standing barefoot in blue cotton pajamas.
She grabbed his hand. “Come on.”
With Teddy squeezing her fingers so hard she thought he might pull them off, she ran down the stairs and drew up short at the entrance to the living room. The French doors were open. Teddy slammed into her and jumped back with a yelp. Mom and Dad turned their way.
Mom let out a little cry and shook her head, then put her mad face on. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“We couldn’t sleep.” Kristin pushed hair out of her eyes and stuck out her chin. “You were making a lot of noise.”
Mom threw up her hands and huffed as she sank onto the couch. Kristin couldn’t remember ever seeing her wear her hair down, but tonight it fell around her cheeks and curled on her shoulders. She would have looked pretty if her face wasn’t so red and her eyes all puffy.
“I would’ve woken them anyway, Val.” Dad’s voice was gruff, but he didn’t sound angry anymore.
Mom glared at Dad, pulled at the belt around her green woolen dress and kicked off her high heels. “All yours then, Mac.”
Dad set his bags down and released a sigh from somewhere deep inside. His lips stretched apart in a feeble attempt at a smile. Dark circles lined his brown eyes and stubble covered his jaw. He looked from her to Teddy as if he didn’t know what to say.
The air suddenly got sucked out of the room, like someone untying the knot of a balloon. Kristin shook her head and yanked the sash of her robe as tight as it would go. Dad dropped to one knee in front of them and held out both arms. “Come here.”
Teddy ran to him. She knew he would. And he’d probably start blubbering again. Kristin folded her arms and pushed her toes into the rug. The goodbyes were the worst part. Try as she might, in the end she never could keep from crying.
Dad concentrated on Teddy. Her brother always believed everything.
She stood there, like playing statues in gym class, listening while Dad gave his excuses. Teddy would be satisfied with promises of season tickets to the Red Sox and a long train-ride from South Station to Grand Central and back, but she didn’t need bribes. She understood his job. Sort of.
Kristin blinked through her tears as her brother threw his arms around Dad’s neck and hugged him tight. Then Mom took Teddy by the hand and led him back upstairs.
Kristin shifted, her feet like ice. She should have put on her slippers. Dad’s knees creaked as he rose and made his way toward her. He reached for her hand but she tightened her arms. A tear escaped and rolled off down her cheek. Kristin lowered her head.
“Oh, Kris.” Dad knelt before her. His hands warmed her arms through the sleeves of her robe. “Sweetheart, look at me.”
Kristin slowly raised her chin until she made eye contact. “Sorry.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “What do you have to be sorry for?”
She shrugged, but couldn’t think of a thing.
Kristin noticed for the first time a few streaks of gray in his hair. His white starched shirt sat open at the collar, his thin black tie slightly askew. Dad’s eyes were bright, sad. His mouth lifted in a grin as he wiped a tear from her cheek with the base of his thumb. When she sniffed, moisture shot up her nose. She gave a small involuntary shiver.
“Are you going to Vietnam to write about the war?”
His mouth twitched, like he was surprised she was so smart. Then something chased off the sad look and he smiled. “You’re going to make a fine journalist one day, young lady.”
Kristin raised her shoulders again and pushed out her bottom lip. “Mom won’t let me.”
“Sure she will. By then you’ll be all grown up. Making your own decisions. Leaving your old man in the dust.”
“We could write stories together,” she offered. “Taylor and Taylor.” Her grin faltered as she watched his eyes moisten. Kristin sucked in a breath. Dad never cried.
He pulled her to him and rested his lips against her forehead for a moment. “Sounds good to me.” He sat back on his heels, solemn. “Look after your brother.”
“I always do.”
“And don’t fight with your Mom.”
Kristin looked down, studying the scuffs on his normally shiny shoes.
“Okay. I won’t.” She met his eyes again and the lump in her throat got bigger. Her skin prickled. He’d left before. Lots of times. But this felt different. “You’re coming back, right?”
His face cracked in a funny sort of smile. “Of course I am. But you’ll pray for me, every night, just like always?”
“Yeah.” She tried to smile back. “God will keep you safe, Dad. He always does.” Kristin rested her head against his shoulder as he hugged her. She inhaled by habit. Tobacco and coffee mingled with the cologne he always wore. She could never remember the name of it, but they got a bottle for his birthday every year. He said he didn’t mind, but maybe this year they should do something different.
A flash of headlights chased dust across the room. Dad stood, his smile gone. “There’s my cab.”
Mom came forward and Dad took her in his arms.
“I’m sorry,” they whispered at the same time. Mom stepped back, rested her palm flat against Dad’s face. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. His hand came over hers and their eyes met as he pulled her closer and kissed her, a long kiss that seemed to go on forever. Kristin almost felt she shouldn’t be watching. But she was glad she was.
“Why does it have to be tonight?” Mom asked.
Dad shrugged, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. “War doesn’t wait on birthdays, Valerie.” Dad pulled on his coat, gave Mom a final kiss and picked up his bags. “I’ll call when I can.” He turned to Kristin. “Bye, kiddo. I love you.”
The little girl in her wanted to run back into her father’s arms and beg him not to go. But she wasn’t a little girl. She would turn thirteen this year. “Bye, Dad. Love you, too.”
Mom walked with him to the door. Kristin raced to the window at the front of the room, pressed her nose against the cold glass and watched him get into the waiting cab.
A light snow swirled around the soft yellow glow of the streetlamp outside their building. Maybe it would storm and his flight wouldn’t be able to leave Boston. Kristin pushed harder against the windowpane. It wouldn’t matter. He’d get another one. His job was very important. More important than anything else.
The taxi pulled out onto the deserted street and Kristin squinted through the window. Her breath made it fog up and she wiped furiously, seeing Dad raise a hand in her direction. She waved back just in time before he drove away.
“The past cannot be erased, nor forgotten. Flash photography; hellish images carved into our minds, emblazoned in our hearts forever. Golden threads hold yesterday together and form the foundations for tomorrow.
But what of today?”
Kristin Taylor – Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Vietnam – My Story. 1974.
February 1967, Saigon, Vietnam.
Kristin shuffled along in the line of travel-weary passengers as they exited the plane. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the daylight, shook off sleep and gripped the handrail of the metal steps. When her shoes hit the tarmac of Tan Son Nhut airport, her hand went to the intricately carved cross that hung around her neck. She rubbed the thick gold between her thumb and forefinger and took in her surroundings.
The early morning sun’s rays jack-knifed off the tarred surface. A stifling heat sliced through her sneakers, raced through her and smothered her in its welcoming embrace.
Teddy was right. It was hotter than hell.
The pungent smell of gasoline flooded her senses and stung her eyes. Kristin pulled on dark sunglasses, tried not to breathe too deeply and looked down the runway. She stepped aside to let others pass as she surveyed the area, the slow thumping of her heart picking up its pace as she began taking mental notes.
Aircraft of varying description lined the blacktop. Everything seemed larger in real life, from helicopters to small fighter jets to the Pan American Boeing 707 that had brought her here. Gray, green and brown flying machines blended together in an impressive show of US military power.
It was impossible to imagine jumping aboard any of them. Or jumping out.
Army personnel moved smoothly around the aircrafts, refueling and working on engines. Rows of enlisted men lined up to board a larger plane also being loaded with cargo. Soldiers sweating in the heat heaved supplies on to the plane’s cave-like interior. Commanding Officers barked like dogs to be heard over the noise as they rounded up their companies. She scanned the groups of soldiers and searched their faces. Some looked anxious, their eyes shifty even as their bodies remained stiff, while others seemed impassive, stone-faced and resolute as they stood between the world they knew and a world gone crazy.
During a lull in the activity on the tarmac, a low rumbling somewhere off in the distance reached her ears. Her throat tightened as she turned toward the outline of mountains beyond the airstrip.
The sound of war needed no introduction.
Kristin caught up with the rest of the arrivals and moved along through Immigration, then pushed through the crowded airport to retrieve her bag. Vietnamese men and women dressed in colorful pajama-like clothing darted in and out of the maze of olive-green and khaki uniforms. Strong scents of heady perfume, spicy tobacco and rancid body odor made a tactile assault on her already queasy stomach.
Her eyes tracked the Vietnamese signage while her ears captured the quickly spoken foreign tongue on every side of her. Relief cheered her on as she spied the doors that led out of the airport. She put her passport back into the green canvas knapsack on her shoulder and headed for the exit. Her eyes began to water as her body revolted against her present surroundings. She didn’t have a clue what lay beyond those doors, but she needed air.
The four journalists she met on the flight stood outside on the pavement and she nodded their way. They’d been in Hong Kong for R&R and had been quite happy to chat with her. Their stories fascinated her. Scared her a little, although she wouldn’t admit it. The Frenchman’s tales seemed a bit too dramatic. He wore a teasing look the whole time. Caroline, the only female in the group, hailed from England. She worked for a small newspaper that Kristin had never heard of.
Kristin confessed she wasn’t working for anyone. Yet. This didn’t seem to bother them and they gave her plenty of tips on how to find work.
“Ah, Kristin, chèrie.” There was an odd comfort at the sound of her name being called in the midst of this foreign chaos. The Frenchman, Jean Luc, lumbered over, carrying two large cases. “Have you got your stuff?”
“This is it.” She tugged on a beat-up brown duffel bag. It weighed a ton thanks to her typewriter. But she refused to leave that baby at home. Sweat formed on her brow and a drop rolled down the side of her face.
“You have got a place to stay, oui?”
Kristin swiped sweat out of her eyes. “No, actually, I don’t.” This adventure slowly inched out of her control. “It’s okay. I’ll find a place.”
Jean Luc took a step back and hissed out air. “Oy.” His suitcases hit the ground with a thud and he ran a hand through his slick black shoulder-length hair. A sudden image of him tooling around Provence on a Peugeot made her smile. “Let me talk to my friend.” He put two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle aimed at the group gathered on the far side of the terminal building. “Caroline, sweetie, a minute please…”
The English girl looked their way. Jean Luc pulled a faded red bandana from the chest pocket of his Safari shirt and wiped his brow as he pointed a finger at Kristin. “You don’t move, oui?”
“Oui.” Not moving sounded pretty good.
He met Caroline halfway and they engaged in a lively debate. She was fluent in French apparently, hand motions and all. Kristin let her bag slide off her shoulder and positioned herself on the top of one of Jean Luc’s large leather cases. Maybe quitting her job at The Daily and hopping a plane to Vietnam wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done. But, despite the sheer exhaustion and more than a little trepidation tailing her, it was arguably the most exciting.
Kristin glanced at her watch and calculated the time back in Boston.
Mom would be pacing the living room, holding the letter Kristin left for her or ripping it up. Either way, the next time they saw each other would not be cool.
The worst of it was that her mother actually agreed with Kristin’s chauvinist pig of an editor. Former editor.
Vietnam was no place for a woman.
And then she’d pulled the old religious guilt trip. Had Kristin prayed about it? How did she know it was God’s will for her to go to halfway around the world, into a war zone no less?
What a joke. God didn’t care one way or another. She’d stopped consulting him a long time ago—the day they got the news that Dad had been killed in Vietnam.
Kristin pulled her hair into a ponytail, sweat stinging her eyes. She longed for a cold drink and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, but refused to allow her mind to go there. She needed a plan, a way to get out beyond the city and do what she’d come here to do. Report on the war. Find the truth, whatever it was.
And tell it to anyone who would listen.
Jean Luc returned, his sizeable schnozz glowing like Rudolph’s. “Okay. We have got a plan.”
Caroline stood beside him, a tall leggy blonde with a face so flawless she could be a model, but the wariness in her eyes betrayed the confident smile. “Jean Luc says you need a place to stay.”
Kristin nodded. “That’s right.”
The Grace Kelly lookalike raised a thin eyebrow, lit a cigarette and blew smoke over Kristin’s head. “My roomie’s gone back to New Zealand. It’s a one-bedroom flat, two beds, small kitchen and bathroom, a block away from The Caravelle, a hotel where a lot of the press guys stay. I’m in and out of the city. It’s not The Ritz, but if you’re interested…”
Interested was an understatement. But her savings would last a month or two at best until she got work. “Um. How much…I…”
Caroline smiled. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t have a job, do you…what was your name again?” She ground her half-smoked cigarette onto the pavement with the heel of her boot, taking along Kristin’s last shred of hope.
“Kristin Taylor.” She pushed herself to a standing position. Although they were probably around the same age, Caroline gave off an air of superiority she hadn’t picked up on earlier. She crossed her arms and shook off insecurity. “I plan to get work as a stringer. I’ll have the money.” For all she knew, the woman could be psychotic. Kristin ran her tongue over dry lips. The alternative was…well, there wasn’t one.
“You know you’ll need press credentials if you want to get anywhere outside the city. I’m sure something will come up though. Listen, why don’t you go have a look at the place? I’ve got to get to a meeting with my boss, but here…” Caroline foraged in her shoulder bag and came up with a notepad and pen. She scribbled, then handed over a piece of paper.
Kristin squinted at the barely legible writing. “Thanks, where—”
“Righto, I’ve got to run. Oh, here’s the key, but the apartment should be unlocked. Madame Dupont, my landlady, does laundry for me. She always forgets to lock the door. Just ignore the mess. I’ll stop by the flat later and we can chat. Cheerio.” Caroline marched off to rejoin her comrades, leaving Kristin to suck air in her perfumed wake.
Jean Luc clapped his big hands together. “Voilà! We can share a cab, oui?”
“Sure. As long as you know where I’m going.” Kristin picked up her bag and allowed a smile. She had a place to stay. Next, a job.
The drive to the apartment building in Saigon turned in to an interminable journey of stopping and starting. The odors inside the beat up blue Renault taxi were almost worse than the airport. Jean Luc grinned and pinched his nose. Kristin leaned a little closer to the open window, seriously wondering about body hygiene in this country.
Men, women and children jostled for space along narrow sidewalks. Peddlers in brightly colored tunics and trousers and large conical shaped hats bowed under the weight of a wooden bar balanced across their shoulders on which a straw basket hung from each side. Avocados piled high in some, while other baskets held bright oranges and some other fruit she didn’t recognize.
Her own heavy duffel bag no longer seemed significant.
Tall trees lined the city sidewalks, their lush branches giving much needed shade from the blistering sun. It was odd to see these massive trees in the city, but then again, she hadn’t known what to expect. They passed rows of concrete buildings, some almost comparable to what she’d left back in Boston, but no skyscrapers. The architecture, especially the churches and the larger houses, appeared French in design, which made sense given the country’s history. The painted shades of blue, peach, pink and yellow put on a happy façade.
She snapped a few photos as they drove. It was tempting to pretend she was merely a tourist on vacation. But this was Vietnam. A place of death—the place her father died—the place where countless others fought for freedom out there beyond the confines of the city. At this very instant men were losing their lives.
Tomorrow she hoped to be taking very different pictures.
As they veered off onto smaller side streets, shops of every description almost sat on top of each other. Striped awnings overhung many of them. They passed a large market where she spotted fruit and vegetable stalls and…oh… Kristin covered her mouth with her hand. What was that?
“You don’t eat from there. Ever.” Jean Luc pointed at the hanging animal carcasses and made a horrible face.
Kristin looked beyond the vile sight and shook her head. “Thanks for the tip, Jean Luc.”
As they drove further along, burnt out shops and dilapidated structures here and there revealed the ravages of war, and its toll on the city. She turned to him, spider legs crawling up her spine. “I thought Saigon was relatively safe.” Her palms were moist against the ripped leather seat of the cab.
The Frenchman grinned and lit a cigarette. “What is relative, chèrie?”
Kristin nodded. “You’re right.” No wimping out. She’d come here to do a job, once she got one, to cover the war. Of course it would have been much easier if her Dan the Pig had just given her that chance. Instead, they’d chosen to send Joe Hines, twice her age and overweight. Joe wouldn’t last a week here.
Kristin stared out the window again. The number of vehicles on the roads startled her. Cars, military jeeps and trucks jammed every bit of the asphalt. Pedal-bikes and motorcycles zipped on by, weaving in and out of the traffic. Gasoline fumes took fresh air prisoner and made breathing a chore. The cab inched along until there was a break in the traffic.
Men pushing pedicabs ran along the side of the road. Kristin flinched each time they passed one, thinking the cab would surely hit it, and send the runner and his passengers flying.
Heat emanated through her pores. She hated the cold, but hadn’t anticipated the oppression of this sauna-like atmosphere. She should listen to her brother more often. Her fingers slipped into the pocket of her jeans and felt for the thin envelope, his last letter to her before she’d left the United States. She wiped sweat from her brow and frowned. He hadn’t revealed his location of course, but she knew he was a combat medic. He could be anywhere. Hopefully she’d find out where and be able to get in touch. After leaving Mom in her wigged-out state, being able to tell her Teddy was alive and well would be the least she could do.
The cab pulled up outside a large white five-story building with a rounded front. The words Hotel Caravelle in large black lettering teetered at the top of the building.
“This is me.” Jean Luc gathered his gear and grasped her hand. “Later, chèrie. Come for a drink, okay?”
“Cool. Thanks.” Kristin watched her only friend in Vietnam disappear through the glass doors of the hotel and fiddled with the cross around her neck. Suddenly she was back in junior high on the first day of a new school, riding the bus for the first time. Alone.
About ten minutes later, the cab shuddered to a stop. Kristin squinted up at the three-storey building in front of her. Distinctly French in architecture, pink paint crumbled in places where the cement had shifted. Two sorry-looking potted palm trees sat sentry on either side of a weathered wooden door. A small brass nameplate read: La Maison Dupont.
Good enough. She paid her driver and made her way inside, entered a small living room area and glanced around. There wasn’t much to see. The worn wallpaper looked like it had once been pink. A tattered Persian rug curled at the edges lay on the floor in front of the reception desk. Two faded rose-patterned easy chairs were positioned in front of a fireplace. Kristin almost laughed at the sight as sweat dripped down her back.
She peered over a raised wooden desk into a miniscule office. “Hello? Madame Dupont?” Nobody answered except a black cat that jumped down from the counter and prowled around her legs. Kristin cringed and moved aside. “Stay out of my way, cat, and we’ll get along just fine.”
She called out again but the place appeared deserted. The smell from the full ashtray on the counter tickled her nose but jogged a sudden memory of her father and served up a fresh shot of courage.
Kristin turned toward the only set of stairs in view. Caroline said her flat was on the second floor, first door on the left. She heaved her bag to her other shoulder and went to the darkened stairway, pushing thoughts of Psycho from her mind.
The stairs creaked under her. A thin carpet runner proved more of a hindrance, bare in spots and easy to trip over. Nails stuck out of the wood and slowed her down as she picked her way over them. At the top, a long dark hallway stretched out into blackness. Where was the light? Two bare bulbs hung from the ceiling. Finding the switch, she flicked it upward. Nothing.
Kristin squinted at Caroline’s instructions in the semi-darkness. Even if she could see the writing, she probably couldn’t read it. She stumbled toward the door on the left. Tried the knob and sure enough, it was open.
She found the switch on the wall and thankfully this time the overhead light came on. Kristin let out a low whistle. This was more than just the mess Caroline had warned her about. A hurricane had ripped through the small apartment. That, or her new roommate was a total slob.
She stepped over piles of clothes and magazines. A large pair of muddy combat boots sat in one corner near the door. She didn’t bother to pull up the blinds as she poked through the boxy rooms—a tiny kitchen and one bedroom with two twin beds. She dumped her bag and looked around. One bed was unmade, sheets tangled every which way. The second bed was covered in a light mauve bedspread, what looked to be freshly folded sheets sitting on the single pillow. Heaven.
The battered-looking dresser was cluttered with newspapers, camera film and notebooks. A cramped bathroom tiled in white lay off the bedroom. A shower just big enough for one thin person, a cast iron claw-foot tub and toilet took up most of the space. She didn’t dare pull back the shower curtain. Towels lay strewn across the floor. Judging by the musty smell that filled the room, they’d been there a while. But the small circular tiles on the wall sparkled and coaxed a smile. Perhaps she could just live in the bathroom.
Thirst scratched her throat as she retraced her steps to the kitchen. Her hand shook as she turned the tap. It squeaked and sputtered, then spat out a slow stream of water. Kristin frowned at the brown tinge. She washed her hands but decided not to drink it. She’d have to boil water to keep in the fridge. Assuming there was one.
A brief scan of the room revealed a cubic four by four, almost hidden behind the door. Bits of rust showed through the white paint. She pulled the handle, opened the door and quickly shut it again, gagging as the odor of sour milk reached her nose.
Back in the living room Kristin surveyed the mess. Ear-splitting honks from the street below startled her. Closing the window would be out of the question. An upward glance showed her a ceiling fan, and she tugged the cord. The groan and shudder it gave made her jump out of range, but the blades began to move and warm air circled around her. Better than nothing.
Kristin went back into the bedroom, her muscles aching. Maybe she could take a nap while she waited for Caroline to show up. She stretched her arms over her head and yawned. The empty bed looked inviting. Another yawn overtook her. And suddenly sleep was the only thing that made sense.
Luke Maddox entered his apartment, chucked his duffel bag across the living room and shuddered as a yawn escaped him. Jonno sauntered in after him.
“Holy cow, what happened in here? Looks like a tornado hit the place, man.”
Luke ignored his friend’s observations and made for the kitchen. He yanked on the rusted fridge door, scanned the contents and quickly stepped back. Whatever he’d left in there had died a slow and painful death. Moldy cheese, maybe. Combined with milk—yellow milk, and…well, he didn’t know what that was. Something green and slimy, definitely not edible. Only a jug of boiled water hiding on the bottom shelf remained safe. Madame came in to refill it every morning.
He shut the door and let out the breath he’d been holding. “There’s no grub. I haven’t been home in a while. Sorry.” He returned to the living room to find Jonno already stretched out on the couch.
“Too tired to eat anyway. I’m just gonna…sleep.” Jonno turned on his side, pulled an issue of Time from under his head and dropped the magazine to the floor.
“Okay.” Luke pushed his fingers through his hair and frowned. Dirt was embedded in his pores. He knew if he looked in the mirror his face would be covered in the red soil they’d ripped over for half the night. He’d shower and get some sleep too.
If he could shut his mind off long enough.
He clenched his jaw and strode over to the window, pulled the camera strap over his head and set the Nikon down on the round table. Photographs covered almost the entire wooden surface. He poked at the black and white prints with a grimy finger.
Glancing over his shoulder, Luke saw Jonno’s eyes flutter closed. He turned back to the table, pushed the pictures out of the way and retrieved a small leather wallet hidden beneath them. He never took it with him. Couldn’t risk losing it.
He flipped it open and allowed his eyes to rest on the familiar smiling images. Melissa’s two year-old cheeky grin tugged at his heart. The dull ache in his chest returned.
“Y’all get any good shots yesterday?” Jonno’s Southern drawl drifted across the room.
A smile inched up one corner of Luke’s mouth and he pushed the wallet back under the other pictures. “Thought you were asleep.”
Silence. Another yawn from Jonno.
“What?” He placed his palms flat on the table and drew in a breath. He blinked a couple of times. Couldn’t remember when he’d last slept.
“Do you ever wonder if…if it’s the right thing to do?”
Luke pulled at the collar of his damp t-shirt and squared his shoulders. It wasn’t that he couldn’t answer the question. He did answer it, every day, each time he went back out there and stepped into hell. But lately his answers weren’t as consistent as they used to be.
His pulse throbbed through a tendon in his jaw and he rubbed the bruised spot. He couldn’t bring himself to turn around. “I can have you transferred to somebody else. Just say the word.”
“Nah.” Jonno grunted. “Don’t sweat it. I’m cool.”
“Okay. Sleep. I’m going to shower.”
Kristin stirred from deep slumber. Still in her jeans and t-shirt, she glanced around the darkened room, getting her bearings. She stretched her arms above her head and yawned. Then bolted upright.
‘You’re listing to Armed Forces Radio, Vietnam. Current time is 9.0.0. We’re looking for a high of ninety-eight degrees today, folks. Now, here’s a little Rolling Stones to get you going this fine morning. ‘It’s Not Easy’. You all stay safe out there…’
The radio. Kristin ran a hand down her face and let out her breath. Caroline must have
arrived. Male laughter filtered through the closed door. And brought some friends back with her.
She worked the kinks out of her neck, pushed herself off the bed and wandered barefoot across the threadbare carpet out into the next room.
Kristin jumped back and stared down the barrel of a small pistol.