"A toast!" Daniel, Annie's son, boomed over the clatter of forks on dishes, wine splashing into cups, and twenty people's conversations around the impossibly long table in Jake's dining room. He stood up and banged his knife on his glass for emphasis, though he hardly needed it. "To Aunt Colleen and Uncle Dick," he said once everyone turned to look at him. "Twenty-five years. May we all have a love that lasts that long. Even you, kiddoes," he called to the children's table in the living room, just on the other side of the open door. "But not till you're older."
Everyone laughed, and Colleen thought that was the end of it until Molly stood up. "I want to make a toast too," she said, her quiet voice nonetheless managing to cut through the noise. She raised her glass. "To Mom and Dad. And to Vietnam."
The table went very quiet.
"I know, I know, but—if you hadn't gone there, you wouldn't have met, and I wouldn't be here. So I figure I've got to be a little grateful." Smiling gamely, she raised her glass.
After a second, everyone else raised theirs and clinked them one against the other. Molly looked down at them a bit apprehensively. Colleen smiled back and touched her water glass to her daughter's plastic tumbler of red wine. Richard tapped his own against theirs.
She'd barely taken a sip when Roger said, "Speech, speech!", a chant which was quickly taken up by the rest of the room.
"Come on," Molly said as she sat down. Jake, on Richard's other side, encouraged them as well.
Richard stood up, and for a second Colleen thought she was going to be let off the hook, but then he grabbed her elbow and pulled her up beside him. "Richard!" she hissed, giving the expectant faces down the table a somewhat nervous glance.
"If I have to do this, no way are you getting out of it," he muttered back through his teeth. "All right, Rog, what are we supposed to say?"
"How'd you do it?" the boy asked. The man, now. The man who'd gotten married himself barely three months ago. "What does it take to stay married for twenty-five years?"
"Patience," Richard eventually said, to the amusement of those around them.
Colleen raised an eyebrow. "Tenacity."
He winced theatrically. "A sense of humor?" he ventured.
"The ability to improvise." She barely stopped herself from laughing at the bug-eyed—but very pleased—expression on his face. "Faith."
"Forgiveness." His hand found hers, and their fingers slipped between each others'.
She nodded. "Knowing when to forget—"
"And what to remember," he said.
"And what to remember," she agreed.
"There you go," he told the table. "That's the secret."
1 day earlier
"Oh, come on!"
"I think that happens later."
Richard glared at Colleen, who didn't bother to hide her amusement. As if it weren't bad enough that he was holding the all too concrete embodiment of a particularly painful junior high play on his name, his wife, the woman with whom he'd been planning to ring in their anniversary by having marathon sex—or at least as marathon as it got when you were pushing sixty—was also laughing at him.
Colleen's grin shifted to a smirk as she touched his stomach and started trailing her fingers lower. "You just need a little...encouragement."
In a just world, merely looking at her lying there on the bed, propped on her elbow and that wicked smile on her face, would've been more than encouragement enough. Age had softened her body and drawn lines around her eyes, but she was still as heart-stoppingly beautiful as the first day he'd seen her at China Beach.
"You think?" he asked, his voice pitching up as her fingers found their target. In response, he let his hands do their own wandering across her hip and between her thighs.
"Sure." She squeezed lightly, and he absolutely, definitely did not squeak. "But if not—" that was not going to happen, he promised himself "—I think we can find something to do. I was a Catholic schoolgirl once, you know. We're very inventive."
He was pretty sure she'd just short-circuited his brain. God, he loved this woman.
He dipped his head and kissed her, long and slow and deep. "I knew there was a reason I married you."
2 years, two months, and nine days earlier
Struggling to see over the top of her overflowing laundry basket, Colleen walked through the living room just as a man on the television, dressed in a top hat and tails, handed a bouquet to an old woman at the door of a grand Victorian house. "What are you—" she asked, stopping to watch, before her question was answered as the man began to sing. "I have often walked down this street before..."
"We're doing Pygmalion in English," Molly said from the ancient brown couch, where she was seated cross-legged with a notebook in her lap. She had sunk almost to the floor because of the broken springs. "Extra credit if we write a one-page paper on the movie."
"It's a good movie," Colleen said, and realized she was swaying slightly from side to side.
Richard poked his head in from the hall. "I thought you were bringing..." He too stopped at the song coming from the television.
"I'm coming." She took the last few steps to him, sock feet making no sound on the carpet, but when she reached him he took the basket from her arms and set it in the chair next to them. He looked at her with a slight curve of his lips and a softness around his eyes that could still make her stomach flip, and held out his hand. She took it and stepped into his arms, curling her fingers around his shoulder. They danced to the lilting beat of the song. Swayed, really, given the furniture all around them, and that was just fine with her. She nestled closer to him and pressed her cheek to his.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Molly staring at the them wide-eyed, her upper lip rising faintly in horror. So weird, she mouthed before resolutely returning her attention to the screen.
Colleen snickered softly. Richard, who must have seen it too, laughed along with her. "Can't blame her, really," he murmured in her ear. "With what passes for music these days, I'm not surprised the idea of dancing doesn't occur to her generation."
Colleen tilted her head back so she could look at him. "Do you realize how old you just sounded?"
"I just have taste." He raised an eyebrow. "I married you, didn't I?"
She scrunched her nose. "Flatterer."
He grinned and kissed her nose. She closed her eyes and laid her head on his shoulder. On the TV, Freddy kept singing, and they kept dancing. For there's nowhere else on earth that I would rather be...
3 years, eight months, and twenty-one days earlier
As Richard walked into the kitchen for a glass of water, he heard his daughter, seated at the table, slam a book shut. When she shot him a furtive glance over her shoulder, it confirmed his suspicion that she hadn't just been annoyed at her homework.
"What've you got there?" he asked, taking the seat across from her.
"Nothing. History homework. I just finished. No more Vikings for me." She attempted to casually move her forearm over her notebook, which was open to a page where barely a third was filled with handwriting.
He nodded. Let her think she'd fooled him for a minute. Then said, "Nice try. But I meant whatever it is you just hid away in your book." Before she could respond, his fingers darted out to grab the white edge of paper sticking out from the pages of her thick textbook.
"Dad!" she screeched, and tried to grab the object, but missed.
Richard found himself holding a school photo, one of the wallet-sized ones like the sheet Molly had brought home last week. Only this one was of a boy. He had blond hair that was just long enough to be called shaggy, a slightly goofy smile that revealed a line of braces, and a letter jacket with a soccer patch on the right arm. He looked so clean-cut and innocent that Richard immediately wondered what he was hiding.
Molly sighed and slumped in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest. "His name's Brandon. He's just a friend."
Richard nodded sagely. "A friend whose photograph you stare at when you're supposed to be writing about Vikings. Right."
She gave him a steely stare that he recognized from being on the receiving end of Colleen's version of it more than a few times.
"So, this Brandon. What's he like?"
"Nice." He waited. "In P.E. he picks all the klutzes first to be on his team. And he doesn't try to kill us with the dodgeball. He helps the slow kids with math in study hall. And last week in theater class we did a scene from Hamlet together, and he said he'd be Ophelia because he knew how much I liked Hamlet's monologue."
"Does he rescue orphaned puppies in his spare time?"
"I think he does volunteer at the Humane Society."
Richard wasn't entirely sure if she was serious or just exercising the sarcasm that was her birthright as his and Colleen's daughter.
"Well, why don't you ask him to go see a movie? Go rescue some kittens together, maybe?"
She gave him a horrified look. "Dad!"
"What? It's 1990. Women can make the first move now. Trust me, that's a much better state of affairs for everyone. Most men are oblivious to anything but a two-by-four to the head."
"Speaking from personal experience?" He shot her a look. It only encouraged her; a devious glint entered her eyes. "Did Mom make the first move on you?"
"Let's just say she made it abundantly clear that a move would not go unappreciated."
"So that's a yes."
Richard stood up and headed for the sink to get the water he'd come in for. On the way, he tweaked the long auburn ponytail hanging down Molly's back. "Take a chance," he said. "Of course, I want to meet him first."
"I mean it. We can talk about the plight of orphaned puppies."
Molly buried her head in her hands.
4 years, five months, and twelve days earlier
"I hate living here!" Molly cried just before she slammed her bedroom door, setting the Duran Duran and Boston Ballet posters on it a-flutter.
"What else is new?" Colleen called back. With a sigh, she headed for the stairs.
Richard came out of the bathroom just as she reached the first step. As they walked down together, she said, "Why didn't anyone ever tell me how hard it is to raise a teenager?"
"Don't look at me. I think the boys spent all their rebellion on Beth Ann."
"I think you're right. Wasn't I supposed to be the evil stepmother they'd hate?"
"You were the stepmother who'd play football with them and actually give them a challenge. They loved you."
Colleen smiled as she remembered those Saturday afternoons in the park. "Too bad I can't say the same for my daughter."
He put his arm around her shoulders as they reached the bottom of the staircase. "Just think of adolescence as an ugly, horrible cocoon from which she'll emerge as a beautiful butterfly. In about..." He grimaced. "Four more years."
"Maybe we can make our own cocoon."
"But then who would make her do her homework?"
"Damn." She brightened as they reached the living room. "On the other hand, since Molly's going to be doing chemistry homework all night instead of watching TV, nothing's stopping us from watching The Thin Man. And it starts in ten minutes."
He shared her conspiratorial smile. "I like the way you think."
6 years, four months, and eight days earlier
To say Colleen had mixed feelings about this reunion was putting it mildly. On her turns driving through Connecticut and Pennsylvania, she'd nearly gotten off the interstate and turned around a dozen times. The only reason she didn't was that Richard was so excited about it.
"We can reminisce about China Beach anytime we want," she'd argued when Boonie had sent them the invitation almost six months ago. And anytime she wanted wasn't particularly often.
"Aren't you a little bit curious what happened to everyone? Beckett, Frankie, Dodger?"
"I get a letter from Dodger every few years." She'd even written back a few times, but she'd sensed that he needed her to read them more than he needed her replies, so she'd eventually stopped.
Richard gave her an exasperated look. She gave him one right back before finally conceding, "It might possibly be interesting."
Somehow, he'd talked her into it over the next several weeks, and now here they were in the ballroom of the Youngstown Grand Reserve Hotel, picking up their nametags.
The Beach Boys were playing over the sound system, and someone—Boonie?—had put up a replica of the stage backdrop from the Jet Set at one end of the room. At least, she assumed it was a replica; she couldn't imagine the real one had lasted after the 510th had been abandoned in '73. Whatever it was, the surfers and lurid orange sunset matched her memory of it stroke for stroke, and she caught her breath at the sight. She was suddenly not at all sure how she was going to get through this.
As if he'd read her mind, Boonie grabbed her and Richard by the shoulders. "You made it!"
Well, there went her option of escape.
Richard shook his hand. "Good to see you, Boonie."
Boonie put his hands on Molly's shoulders. "And you," he said, "I think you've grown a foot since the last time I saw you!"
She shook her head, but he'd brought a smile to her face anyway. "Six inches, maybe."
He tweaked the long braid that fell over her shoulder. "It must be all that ballet, then—gives you good posture. That's what Jenny's teacher says, anyway. She and Karen are around here somewhere. Probably over by the food."
Molly looked at her parents, practically begging to escape from all the old people. They nodded, and she'd just started to walk away when a voice called, "Just a minute!"
Colleen turned her head to find Lila approaching from their left. She now wore her hair in an old woman's puffy halo, but still had that ramrod straight military lifer posture. She glanced between Molly and Colleen, shaking her head amazedly. "She looks just like you."
"We get that a lot." Molly was shrinking back into her, as if she expected Lila to pinch her cheeks at any moment. "Molly, this is Lila Garreau. She was commanding officer of the base while we were in Vietnam."
Lila stuck out her hand, and Molly tentatively shook it. "I saw your picture once, but you were just a baby. You must be in high school now, right?"
Lila shook her head. "It's hard to believe it's been that long. But I suppose it has."
Molly glanced up at her parents again. "Go, find people your own age," Colleen said. "And if there's a punchbowl, stay away from it."
She glanced at the inquiring faces as Molly fairly sprinted away. "Oh, come on. If no one's spiked the punch by now, then I'll lose all respect for this group."
After a second, Boonie laughed, and Richard and Lila followed.
Lila put her hand on her shoulder and looked at her and Richard. "I always think of you both on our anniversary. It's hard not to."
Colleen ducked her head. "Sorry for crashing your party."
Lila waved away the apology. "Oh, McMurphy, I was glad you did. We needed every scrap of joy we could get, especially that year."
Each of them went quiet at that. But then Beckett walked up to their group with a wide smile. "McM," he called, throwing his arms around her and kissing her cheek. "This time it honestly is a pleasure."
"Yes, it is, Beckett, Samuel B."
He let her go and held out his hand to Richard. "Doc, you too."
"Same," Richard said, smiling and shaking his hand.
They made small talk for a while—kids, careers, twenty years of life—before Beckett asked Lila, "Where's the Sarge?"
She shook her head, somewhere between amused and exasperated. "He's probably still badgering poor Frankie about why she hasn't opened a repair shop instead of wasting her time running that successful record label."
"Maybe I should go save her," Colleen said. Maybe this whole thing would be a little less overwhelming one-on-one. She touched Richard's wrist briefly and then headed into the ballroom.
Sarge, it turned out, had finally left Frankie alone, and Colleen found her at a table near the edge of the room, staring morosely into her drink. "You look about as uncomfortable as I feel," she said, joining her at the table. Frankie's hair was almost totally gray now; it matched the strands that were starting to lose their color along the part in her own hair.
Frankie smiled half-heartedly. "I was trying for inconspicuous. Guess I overshot." She sighed. "I don't know why I came. To be honest, I don't have a lot of good memories of China Beach."
Colleen shrugged. "Maybe this will bring back some of the better ones." Frankie looked unconvinced. To be fair, Colleen wasn't exactly convinced herself. "Or at least you can make us all jealous of your success." Frankie raised an eyebrow. "Lila told us about your record label."
"Oh, yeah." For the first time, the wide smile she remembered touched Frankie's face. "It's small, but that just means I get to really be involved with every artist I sign. Of course they're all great musicians, but every one of them has a message behind their music. They all want to change the world. It's inspiring."
"Sounds great," Colleen said, meaning it.
"What about you? Are you still in nursing?"
She nodded. "Well, nurse practitioner now. I figured since I knew everything, I might as well have the authority to do it." She and Frankie both grinned at that.
Molly came up to their table. "Do you have the car keys?"
"No, your dad does. Why?"
"Jenny wants to hear the new Sonic Youth song, and it's in my Walkman."
Molly started to walk away, but Colleen grabbed her wrist. Looking at Frankie, she said, "This shining example of good manners is my daughter. Molly, this is Frankie Bunsen. Still Bunsen?" Frankie nodded.
"Hi," Molly said dutifully.
"Hi. Sonic Youth, huh? You've got good taste."
Molly grinned. "Thanks." She bounced on the balls of her feet. "I gotta go. Nice to meet you!" she called over her shoulder as she disappeared to find Richard.
"I guess that answers my next question," Frankie said once she'd gone. "She's beautiful."
"I bet you've got some good memories of Vietnam, anyway."
"Some are better than others." Colleen smirked. "I remember that double bed you and Holly scrounged for us pretty fondly."
"Oh, yeah!" Frankie laughed. "The belated wedding present."
"We never did figure out where you got that."
"Ve haf our vays." She laughed again. "Actually, I don't entirely remember. I think it had something to do with a colonel K.C. had blackmail material on, but it may have just been that Holly turned on that sweet midwestern doughnut dollie charm."
She took another sip of her drink, and gradually her smile faded. "Do you and Richard talk about it much?"
"The war?" Colleen shrugged. "Not really. Sometimes he compares my cooking to the mess hall fare—"
"Well, it's true. I can't blame him." There was a reason Richard did most of the cooking anymore. "We've told the kids a few things about those years. The parties, the beach. The beauty pageant." They shared a smile. "It...took me a long time to make peace with the good memories. That they could exist alongside the bad ones. That I wasn't going to be able to just wipe it all away and start over—and that I didn't want to. He was a big part of that."
Frankie nodded slowly. "I didn't realize for a long time how much influence it had on me. Still does. Sometimes it's hard to admit how much of who I am is due to that year."
Colleen swallowed hard in the silence that followed her old friend's admission. "I'm glad you came, Frankie."
Colleen looked over her shoulder at the sound of Richard's voice beside her. "It doesn't have the same ambience," she commented.
He peered around the lobby, where she'd staked out an out-of-the-way corner, with a dubious expression. The carpet was a deep blood red, and the wallpaper striped red and gold. She hadn't looked at the ceiling, but she wouldn't be surprised if it was red too. "I feel like I'm trapped in a whale's digestive tract," he said.
The same thought had occurred to her. "If you haven't ignored a call to preach at Ninevah recently, I wouldn't worry about it."
He smirked and sat in the chair beside her. "You want to get out of here?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm okay. I just needed a little break. You go back if you want." It was barely nine o'clock; the party would be going on for hours.
"I don't mind it out here. Color scheme notwithstanding."
For some time, they sat in the companionable silence of two people who'd known each other for a very long time. Eventually, Colleen asked, "Do you ever wonder what our lives might have been like if we'd lost touch?"
He didn't answer for a long moment. When she glanced at him, she found him looking at her with an expression she remembered from a night on a beach eighteen years ago and nine thousand miles away.
"I don't know the exact day," he said, "but there was a point, oh, about halfway through our second year over there when I realized I couldn't imagine a day of my life without you in it." One corner of his mouth quirked up. "Still can't."
Even after so many years, she could still be caught off-guard by the intensity of his feelings for her. And by the strength of her own in return.
She leaned over the small space between them and kissed him.
She left her hand on his chest when they parted, and he kept her chin in his hand. "It could've happened," she said softly. "A million different ways."
He was silent for a long moment, staring into her eyes, reminding her of one of the sessions with Dr. Whitmire where she'd made them do this same exercise.
"I would've missed you," he finally said. "Every single day."
8 years, ten months, and two days earlier
The man rang the doorbell of the large, comfortable bungalow at the address he'd found in a Boston phone book under the name "Richard." A long moment later, a child, young teenager maybe, with long dark hair, big green eyes, and a sharp nose answered the door.
The man did a double take. The girl gave him a curious look. "Can I help you?" Even the voice was the same.
He laughed, delighted at the pieces that were coming together. "You look exactly like McMurphy."
She nodded decisively. "You must be looking for my mom. Mom!" she yelled into the house.
"You don't have to yell, honey, I'm right—" McMurphy stopped short as she saw who was at the door. "Boonie?"
9 years, five months, and fourteen days earlier
A scratchy, hesitant knock at Colleen's open office door brought her head up. Susan Gillies, one of the candy stripers who volunteered on her ward, peered uncertainly into the small room that just barely fit a desk and two chairs. "Can—can I talk to you?" Susan asked, so softly Colleen had to strain to hear her. "Um, privately?"
"Of course." Colleen set aside the paperwork she was filling out and motioned for Susan to come in. "Close the door behind you."
Susan did, and then sat in the chair on the other side of the desk. Really she perched on the edge, like a bird ready to fly off at any moment, smoothing her red and white striped jumper down over her knees.
"What is it?"
Susan kept running her hands over her skirt. She glanced up at Colleen, but evidently lost her nerve and looked back at her lap. Colleen waited. Finally, the silence must have flustered the girl enough that she blurted, "I need to see a doctor. I mean, a—a gynecologist. Only I can't have my parents know."
Well, that request could only mean one thing. "Do you need birth control pills?"
Susan looked at her with wide eyes and bit her lip.
Oh. No, it was a little late for that.
"It was just once!" she cried. "We forgot just the one time, and now I'm..."
"Susan, what you're thinking of doing—it's not the only option."
"Yes, it is." Her voice had an unnerving sureness to it. "I can't have this baby."
Colleen leaned toward her. "I know it seems that way right now, but—"
"How am I going to go to college with a baby?" Susan's eyes filled with tears. "All my teachers say I'm definitely going to get in to Yale."
"No one says you have to raise the child," Colleen said, trying to keep her voice gentle. "There are so many people out there who desperately want to have a baby and can't. If you just give it a chance to live..."
"My high school will kick me out when I start showing. I'll never get into Yale."
"Then they're idiots." If the desk hadn't been between them, she would've touched Susan's shoulder. "But you've got to consider the possibility that some things are more important than getting into a particular college."
"You don't understand. My parents would never let me just give it up. They'd tell me I made my mistake, now I have to live with it—I'd have to go straight to work." She choked back a sob. "I've wanted to be a doctor since I was seven."
Now Colleen did get up, and walked around the desk so she could sit on the corner and take one of Susan's trembling hands in hers. "Susan, I know this is the last thing you want, but it doesn't have to be the end of the world."
Susan pulled her hand away and wiped her face. She looked down at her lap for a moment and then back up at Colleen, on her way to composed if not quite there yet. "I'm sorry to have bothered you." She stood up and took the step from the chair to the door, her hand reaching for the knob. "I'll find a way on my own."
"Wait," Colleen said as Susan turned the knob. The girl paused, a hopeful look in her still-watery eyes. "If you're determined to do this, then I do know someone who can help you. He won't tell your parents."
"Yes. How far along are you?"
"You've got a little time. Promise me you'll think about this first. Really think about it."
Susan nodded. "I will."
Colleen picked up a pad of note paper from her desk and wrote down Richard's office phone number and address. Life was precious, she'd learned in Vietnam, whether it was a baby waiting to enter the world or a sixteen-year-old girl whose future was waiting to be born.
9 years, six months, and sixteen days earlier
No one could have clapped harder than Molly's parents when she, as Clara, took her bow at the end of the Boston Ballet's opening performance of The Nutcracker. Her brothers, too, though they had grumbled about spending an evening watching people twirl around in froofy dresses, applauded loudly, Roger adding a whistle and Jake a double thumbs up when Molly looked their way.
Backstage, they fought their way through a crowd of relatives and dancers in varying levels of costume. Molly was still in her long, frilly white nightgown, the hard material in her pointe shoes making her gait clunky as she walked flat-footed on the tiled hallway, darting between teachers and fellow performers like an eleven-year-old whirlwind. Occasionally she went up on her toes, as if she were so happy it was hard to remain tethered to the earth. "Molly," Richard called.
Her head jerked up, and she bounded over to them. McMurphy enfolded her in her arms. "You did so well. You looked wonderful up there."
"You really did," Richard said as he first put a green tissue paper-wrapped bouquet of roses in her hands, then hugged her tightly.
"Did you see my fouettes?" Molly asked when he let her go.
"They were great, sweetheart." Richard wouldn't have been able to tell exactly what made a fouette a fouette if someone held a gun to his head, but he was pretty sure it was some kind of spin, and he definitely remembered her spinning.
It was strange—he recalled eleven as a gawky, uncoordinated age, an impression buttressed by his sons' awkward navigation of it. And yet onstage, Molly was as graceful as a butterfly. Maybe it was different for girls.
"You killing the Rat King was the best part," Roger said. "And that thing you did, like—" He did a sort of strangled jump, his legs kicked out to opposite sides with the knees bent at different angles, which made him look like he was trying to perform something he'd seen in one of those martial arts movies he liked. Only Colleen's hand squeezing a warning on his elbow kept Richard from bursting into laughter. "That was cool."
"It's a grand jete," Molly said knowledgeably, though how she could've gotten that from Roger's performance was anyone's guess.
"And I liked that dance you did with the Nutcracker, where he did this," Jake said, and swept her up at the waist. She shrieked for a second before she grinned and struck a pose while he whirled her around, thankfully not into any of the other people milling about.
As the kids played (Richard supposed that, at twenty-two and nineteen, he'd have to stop calling Jake and Roger kids eventually, but that was going to take another couple of decades to get used to), he noticed a shadow pass over McMurphy's face. "What?" he asked softly.
"Oh, nothing," she started, then sighed. "I just wish Mom could've been here."
Her mother had planned to fly up for the opening night. Six weeks ago, she'd had a massive stroke. She'd died within half an hour of reaching the hospital.
He knew McMurphy's relationship with her mother had been rocky, but time and distance, not to mention Molly, whom Margaret McMurphy doted on from afar, seemed to help. He'd held her the night after the phone call from Brendan while she cried herself to sleep, so quietly the only traces of it were a few drops of wetness that slid down from her face to his arm. At the funeral and in the weeks after, a horrible emptiness overtook the usual spark in her eyes, and only lately had it started to diminish.
"It's hard to believe she's not still there, back at home, doing the house up for Christmas. That I can't just pick up the phone and..." She closed her eyes and took a slow breath before opening them again. "When the hell did we become the adults?"
He smiled. "Who says we are?"
Jake had put Molly down by now. Richard took her hand and raised it over her head. Her eyes lighting up, she bounced onto her toe and took the invitation to spin and spin.
10 years, nine months, and three days earlier
"If I ever have to assist for that bastard again," Julie Sparks, one of the newer nurses in Colleen's unit, announced as she entered the break room, "I'm going to take his smartass remarks and..." She stopped speaking abruptly as she realized Colleen was the other occupant of the small, drab room. Her face turned a shade close to that of her maroon scrubs.
"C-section with Dr. Richard?" Colleen asked mildly, stirring cream into her coffee.
Julie winced. "I was doing the best I could," she said, "but when he asked if I was waiting for his birthday to give him the forceps—"
Julie made a face. "No offense," she said, "but he can a real..."
Julie squinted at her. "This was not the direction I expected this conversation to go."
Colleen waved expansively with her plastic stirrer, then tossed it in the trash. "Trust me," she said, "he used to be much worse."
Julie looked like she didn't quite believe that was possible.
"Our second week working together, he compared me to a paperweight."
Julie put her hand to her mouth. "Holy crap."
"He turned out to be more than a walking sarcasm dispenser. Eventually." Three days after he'd called her that, they'd come a broken snap on a nurse's uniform from having sex on the desk in the surgical suite. They'd never made things easy on themselves.
"I don't think I could've worked with him long enough to find out."
"The Army didn't give me much of a choice about it."
"Oh." Julie's face shadowed. "I guess not." She leaned against one of the tables. "But how did you...I mean, it can't have been easy."
That was true. Her initial white-hot hatred of him—and his sarcasm, entitlement, disdain, and general jerkishness—had warred with the fact that they'd been the only new guys at China Beach for over a month. He was the only other person there as green as her. The only one for whom napalm burns and traumatic amputations and the bloody mess left of a man's groin by a Bouncing Betty were still new and unfathomable in their atrocity. It had bound them together in ways she couldn't anticipate or prevent, no matter how much he pissed her off on a day to day basis.
Somewhere along the way, she'd realized he was actually kind of funny.
"Time," she said. "It just took time."
11 years, eight months, and twenty days earlier
"What are you doing?" Molly asked as she passed through the living room, book in one hand and peanut butter sandwich in the other.
"Cleaning out the closet," Colleen said, grunting slightly as she hauled out a large cardboard box with a logo for tomato sauce that was at least fifteen years old printed on it. She knelt and blew a layer of dust off the top that glimmered in the afternoon sun coming through the nearby window. "Want to help?"
"Gee, thanks." Distracted by her daughter's entrance, Colleen opened the box before her memory of what was in it caught up to her hands.
"What's this?" Molly asked in the sudden silence that followed. She set down her plate and book and picked up the blue felt hat with its silver insignia. Underneath it, carefully folded and looking no different from when she'd packed it away in 1969, was the light blue dress jacket, with its single line of ribbons noting her service in Vietnam and the twin gold Captain's bars on the epaulets. "Oh," Molly said. "It's your Army uniform, right?"
Molly set the hat on her head. The brim hung down over her eyebrows, and she giggled. Colleen swallowed hard at the sight.
Molly lifted the brim so she could see, then gasped, her eyes lighting up. "Halloween costume!" She took the hat off and stared at the interior. "I could put in the pads that came with my bike helmet. Then it would fit."
She reached for the dress jacket, but Colleen grabbed her wrist. "No."
Because she would never be able to bear the sight of her child in that uniform, that was why. "The clothes are way too big. And I am not altering that jacket. I don't even know if I could."
Despite Colleen's best efforts, Molly snagged the jacket and held it up to her chest. The shoulders extended at least three inches past hers, and the hem fell halfway down her jean-covered thighs. "I could pin it."
"Not happening. I thought you were going as Wonder Woman this year, anyway."
"Yeah," Molly said, sounding thoroughly unenthused. She laid the jacket over the edge of the box. "Sarah's going as Wonder Woman too."
Colleen dimly recalled that your best friend wearing the same Halloween costume in the fourth grade was akin to her wearing the same prom dress at seventeen. "You could wear your costume from the recital."
Molly made a face. "I've been a ballerina two times already."
"Hoboes are easy. Or a ghost."
"I'll think of something," Molly said, obviously intent on distancing herself from her mother's terrible suggestions. She reached into the box again and pulled out a gauzy, pale blue dress. "Is this your wedding dress? From the pictures?"
They were really going to do this, Colleen realized. Thirteen years of keeping Vietnam in a closet, and her daughter was innocently, doggedly dragging it into the light of day. She sat down next to the box, suddenly dizzy. "Yeah."
"It's pretty." Molly held the dress up to her neck, the hem falling to her ankles, and twirled, sending the skirt fluttering out in front of her. "But it's not white."
"White dresses were kind of hard to get in Vietnam that year."
"Like when Laura and Almanzo got married in the Little House books, and she wore a black dress because they wanted to get married right away and it was all she had?"
Obviously she needed to pay much closer attention to her daughter's reading material than she'd been doing. "I...yeah. A lot like that, actually."
Thankfully, before her inquisitive child could ask exactly why the wedding had been so hasty, she was distracted by the shoebox of pictures that had been lying under the dress. Molly sat cross-legged on the carpet next to her, pulled off the top, and picked up the first one. Then she laughed and held it out to Colleen.
For the first time since opening the box, a smile touched her lips. "I tried teaching your dad how to surf. He didn't like it as much as he likes golf." Indeed, a dripping wet Richard looked rather peeved to be standing shin-deep in the ocean, clutching the surfboard that, if she remembered correctly, he'd fallen off of mere seconds before she'd snapped the picture.
"Can I learn?"
"If you can find yourself a surf shop in Massachusetts." Colleen took the photo and placed it on top of the pile of winter clothes she was going to set out to air. It was a good picture. She might be ready to have it in the family album now.
Colleen's throat constricted at the sight of the smiling, freckled, red-haired boy in the picture. "His name was Hyers," she managed to choke out. "He was a medic. He would go out with the soldiers and bring the injured back to the hospital so we could treat them."
"Did he come back with you?"
"No, honey. He died. He was killed while he was trying to save someone else."
"Oh." Molly glanced between her and the picture. "Was he your friend?"
"Yes. He was a good man—kind, brave, funny. He was only twenty when he died. He was going to have a great life." She took the picture and set it back in the box.
With Molly's artless questions leading her along, she found herself talking about every photo in the box. Even the ones that had hurt too much to look at, so she'd buried them in this box at the back of the closet. Even the ones of the men who'd eventually died on the table, in the jungle, in the air. The ones of K.C. Of Dodger. Of Cherry. Of Boonie, before that awful night in the rain.
"Are you sad you were there?" Molly asked.
Colleen thought for a long moment. Finally, she said, "I wish it hadn't happened. That people in charge had made better choices. But if it had to happen, I'm glad I was there. I'm glad I could make a difference to the people who were there with me."
With a grin, she put her arm around Molly's shoulders and pulled her against her side. "I'm glad I met your dad. And I'm really glad we had you." She kissed Molly's hair and tickled her ribs, smiling as she shrieked and giggled, squirmed and then tried to tickle her back.
"I've got you, Mom!" She did, too; Colleen grunted as Molly poked her right in the diaphragm, and laughed wheezingly as she proceeded to tickle her stomach.
"Enough, enough," she finally cried, nearly on her back from Molly's assault. "I'm getting too old for this."
"Grandma's old," Molly countered, but she bobbed back upright and drew her hands back to herself.
"Uh, thanks, I think." Colleen rested on her elbows for a moment longer, waiting to get her breath all the way back. Meanwhile, Molly dug in the box again.
"What's this?" she asked as she pulled out a narrow blue box.
Colleen caught the breath that had so recently returned. She forced her way back upright as she said, "Nothing, sweetheart, why don't you—"
But Molly had pried the difficult hinge open and revealed the medal inside. Despite years of neglect, the bronze gleamed dully in the sunlight.
"Cool," she murmured. "What is it?"
Somehow, she found her voice. "It's called a Bronze Star."
"What's it for?"
Before Colleen could answer—and she wasn't at all sure what she would say—another voice said, "For courage and compassion in carrying out her duties. For giving everything she could."
They both looked up to find Richard paused in the doorway, his gaze intent on her. He leaned his golf clubs against the wall and joined them on the floor, first ruffling Molly's hair and then quickly brushing his thumb along Colleen's wrist. "I didn't think you'd ever open this box," he said.
"What's compassion?" Molly asked.
"It means helping others, even if it's difficult," Richard said. "Like holding someone's hand when they're very ill."
"That doesn't sound hard."
Colleen closed her eyes, intensely grateful that her daughter could still think that.
"For working day and night to save lives, then. And for putting up with me the whole time."
Molly giggled again.
There wasn't much left in the box, and Molly soon picked up her book and sandwich and wandered off to her room to finish both of them. Richard poked through the remaining ephemera, eventually pulling out a chipped coffee mug with the words "World's Best R.N." printed on the side. He smiled at it and gave Colleen a pleased look. "I thought you left this on the desk in the ward."
She shook her head. "That was the one Singer gave to Jan."
His face fell. "The selection at the PX was even more limited than I thought."
"I liked it." She patted his shoulder consolingly.
"Of course, it's out of date now."
"'S all right." She took the mug from where it hung off his finger by the handle and smiled at it. "It wasn't at the time."
He dug into the box once more and, with a quizzical look, held up a large, patchwork bundle of fabric that in certain lights resembled a shirt. "Now, this I definitely don't remember."
She shrugged carefully. "Just packing material."
"Uh-huh." His expression turned skeptical. "That might work on a nine-year-old. Not me."
She shrugged again. "It's a shirt. I made it our first year over there."
"Dare I ask why?"
K.C. had been right. For a smart girl, she could be incredibly dumb.
"Remember when you were going to Hawaii on R&R to see Beth Ann, and you didn't have a gift for her?"
His eyes darted between her and the shirt, and his brow furrowed. "You made this for me to give to her?"
"It has a piece of fabric from everything that mattered on the base. See?" She pointed out the pieces from one of her scrub tops, Boonie's shorts, Cherry's Red Cross patch; explained the connection to her family's mismatched set of dishes. "It was supposed to be a way for you to tell her about your other life with us." She ran her hand over the blue scrub fabric stitched onto the front of the shirt. "I guess what I really wanted was for it to remind you of me." At his startled glance, she stuck the tip of her tongue out. "I may have had a very, very small crush on you at the time."
Amazement and delight spread across his face. He looked as if at any moment he might crow with glee. "What?" she asked. "After all these years, that changes something?"
"Are you kidding? It changes everything. Now I know it wasn't just me pining after you for two years and feeling horribly guilty about it."
"That surprises you?"
"I seem to recall you were married for one of those years."
"Hence the 'feeling horribly guilty' part."
"Ah." A slow grin spread across her mouth. "You had a crush on me."
"I wouldn't call it a—" He backed down in the face of her overwhelming smugness. "Fine." One side of his mouth curved up. "I was crazy about you."
They smiled at each other like besotted teenagers for a long moment.
Colleen eventually took the shirt and held it up. "New addition to your wardrobe?"
Richard raised an eyebrow. "I don't think it's quite my style."
She considered the shirt for a moment. "Molly was looking for a Halloween costume."
"I thought she was going to be Wonder Woman this year."
"Apparently there's competition. Sarah."
"Ah." He nodded at the shirt. "That would certainly scare everyone in the neighborhood."
She swatted him with it, but he just grinned at her until she couldn't help laughing back.
12 years, eleven months, and thirteen days earlier
Despite the commotion in the ER around the old woman—suspected heart attack; she'd already ordered aspirin and nitroglycerin to start with—Colleen spared a moment take her hand and ask her name.
"Well, Ellie," she said, "you're going to be just fine."
She wasn't sure Ellie believed her, but her taut face relaxed a small fraction.
She sent her for an ECG, and at that point one of the cardiologists took over. She didn't see Ellie again until five days later, when she got a message that she'd asked to see her.
On a break, she visited her room on the cardiac ward. "I'm going home today," Ellie told her proudly from the bed. "You saved my life."
Colleen shrugged, tamping down too much of a grin. "Just doing my job."
Ellie sketched her a small salute with a pale hand. Colleen cocked her head in confusion. "What...?"
"'You're going to be just fine'? I remember that one. That...tone."
Colleen let out a laugh that fell somewhere between amused and amazed. "You were a nurse."
"Thirteenth Field Hospital. Normandy, 1944."
Colleen shook her head. "So that was why you knew all the symptoms. How long were you in civilian nursing?"
"Oh, heavens, I got out as soon as I could. Married a pilot and set up housekeeping in Jamaica Plain." She looked down at her hands, folded on her lap, for a moment. "I was a purely adequate nurse. I really just wanted to see Europe and meet dashing young soldiers." She smiled at her youthful folly. "I didn't love it. Not like you do."
"You can tell that, can you?"
"Yes." She held up a finger to forestall any protest Colleen might make. "Don't argue with your elders when they're trying to give you insight. It's the only benefit of getting old and I won't have it taken away from me."
Colleen laughed, truly this time. "Yes, ma'am."
15 years and nine days earlier
"I want to go!" Molly stabbed one small finger at the big, colorful ad in the Globe for the annual Boston Pops concert and fireworks spectacular that would be held by the Charles in two weeks.
"Honey," Richard started, then pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back against the hard wooden headboard. "Okay, first of all, it's six thirty in the morning. Sunday morning."
"And you know better than to unlock the door when neither of us is with you," Colleen said, raising her head to peer over his stomach.
"There wasn't anyone there. I just wanted to read Garfield."
Richard glanced at his wife. "At least she's reading." Six years old and she was already paging through the newspaper, he thought with a swell of pride. All right, so it was in search of the comics page, but how many first-graders took that kind of initiative?
"Don't do it again," Colleen said. "Wait till we're awake."
Molly sighed. "Okay." She pointed to the page again. "Can we go?"
Her parents shared a pained glance.
Their first year back from Vietnam, when some neighborhood kid had shot off the first bottle rocket of the night, they'd both hit the floor. Then, realizing what was happening, they'd laughed. Then they'd cried.
As the pop-pop-pop of firecrackers and bottle rockets and roman candles continued, Colleen put on the Stones and turned up the volume to drown it out. Since then, their fourths of July had consisted of drawn curtains and a tour through their record collection.
Molly heard their hesitation loud and clear. "Please?"
Richard grabbed her under the arms and lifted her onto the bed, settling her between them. "Sweetheart," he started, clasping her shoulder.
Six she might have been, but their daughter knew when she was about to lose a battle. And, unfortunately, exactly how to play them. Well, him, anyway. "Please?" she implored, with the biggest eyes she could muster. "It looks so cool."
"Well," he began, just as Colleen said, "Jake can take you."
Richard raised his eyebrows at her as Molly bounced with enthusiasm. "Really?" she asked.
"I think Jake was planning to ask his girlfriend to the show," Richard pointed out.
Colleen gave him a look that could only be called steely. "So he can take his sister along with them."
"Yesssss!" Molly exclaimed just before she stood up and jumped off the bed.
Richard grabbed the back of her Holly Hobbie nightgown before she could run off. "Let your brothers sleep, okay? They're teenagers, they need it more than you do." He put his other finger to his lips.
She copied him briefly before letting her hand fall. "Can I have cereal?"
"All right. We'll be down in a minute."
She dashed off—sounding like only a single elephant instead of a herd, for once—and he turned his head back to Colleen, who was building a tower of pillows against the headboard. "Jake's not going to like that idea."
"Consider it insurance against what he might get up to with his girlfriend on those blankets in the dark," she said, finally settling against the pillows.
"Hmm." She had a point there.
"Besides, I can't even count how many dates and sleepovers and whatever else I missed out on to watch Connor and Daniel. Having a little addition to this one won't kill him."
"Is that a tenet of the 'if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for you' school of parenting?"
"Best I can manage at six in the morning." The smartass smile slowly faded from her face. "They barely get to spend any time together. We want her to know what it's like to have brothers. And them to know what it's like to have a sister—even if it does mean getting stuck babysitting."
He put his hand to his chin, rubbing his index finger and thumb over the stubble. "Right."
"You're still thinking about what he might be doing with his girlfriend, aren't you?"
"You've been elected to take Molly to see the fireworks," Richard said as they sat on the living room couch, still new and a bit stiff.
Jake bristled immediately. "I was going to ask Andrea."
"You can still ask her," he said breezily. "The more the merrier. Think of it as a preview of what to expect if you and she aren't careful."
Jake's eyes bugged out. "Dad," he hissed, his cheeks turning red.
"I am very well-versed in the various methods of prevention. Do you need a refresher course?"
"The first one was plenty," Jake said, his voice muffled from where he'd buried his head in his hands.
"Good." He patted his son's shoulder. "You can take a couple of the lawn chairs if you want to carry them."
Jake raised his head from his hands. The embarrassed flush on his cheeks had faded somewhat. "Why don't you and Colleen want to take her?"
Richard was still for a moment. Then he shrugged. If the casualness was a little too studied, he hoped Jake wouldn't notice. "Molly adores you. We'd like you and Roger to have a chance to spend more time with her before you go off to college."
"Does it have something to do with Vietnam?"
He blinked. "What makes you think that?"
Jake gave him a pitying glance, which was always somewhat galling from a teenager. "You used to help us set off fireworks in the back yard. Since you came back, you hate them. I can put two and two together, even if you never talk about it."
Oh. "Is that the new math they're teaching these days?"
Jake's lips quirked at the joke, then lost the smile. "Why don't you ever talk about it?"
"I've told you some stories."
"Yeah, about putting on musicals and beauty pageants and beach parties. I know there was more to it than that." He set his chin, and for a moment he looked exactly like Beth Ann when she was arguing with him about something. "I'm seventeen. You don't have to sanitize it for me anymore."
Jake wore his hair long now, and the curls he'd also inherited from Beth Ann looked just this side of unkempt most days. Richard smoothed his hand over the ones closest to his ear in a futile attempt to make them all run the same direction. "You have no idea how young seventeen really is."
"But most of the boys who passed through the Five and Dime were eighteen, nineteen, twenty. So." He took a deep breath, not at all sure he was ready for this. Jake looked at him expectantly.
"Most nights, you could hear mortars and rockets going off in the distance. See them, too, if you were stupid enough to go out when there was bombing going on. Or if you were running to one of the bunkers.
"You could see the tracer bullets arcing across the sky from one side to the other and back. If you didn't think about what those tracers were attached to, or what the fireballs might be blowing up, it was almost..." He cleared his throat. "The VC would fire on the base once or twice a week, usually. If you were smart, you put down a blanket and laid in some food and drink under your bed." He laughed. "Colleen and I actually had a pretty good setup under our bed after we got married. She had this halfway decent Vietnamese whiskey we'd share, and we had a radio and a lamp and a couple of books. Sometimes we'd read to each other to distract ourselves from the shelling. Most of the time we just tried to sleep, because we knew the moment it was over, the casualties would be flooding the hospital and we'd be up for hours dealing with them."
"They bombed your base?"
He shrugged. "The VC needed target practice. We had a nice big red cross on the helipad to aim at."
"But it was a hospital. Why would they shoot at a hospital?"
"It was that kind of war." He caught the anger on Jake's face. "Don't think our side was any better. Believe me. We treated Vietnamese POWs from time to time, and..." However old his son thought seventeen was, it wasn't old enough to hear the rest of that sentence. "There were a lot of sides, and none of them came out smelling like roses."
He swallowed hard. "The worst part was, every time I wondered if I was ever going to see you and Roger and your mother again, or if that night was it. I thought I was going to crawl out of my skin." He'd loved them all so much more fiercely in those hours when it seemed possible he'd never feel it again, a surging tidal wave of a love rather than the calm, everyday ocean of the previous ten years.
"We worried about you, too," Jake said. "Even after Doug, every time the doorbell rang, Mom jumped. She didn't want to answer because she thought it might be someone from the Army. I started answering it for her, but I didn't want to either."
The kindness and bravery his little boy was capable of never ceased to amaze Richard. With a hard lump in his throat, he put his arms around his son. Cognizant of teenaged propriety where parents were concerned, he let him go after far too short a time.
"Well," he said, and cleared his throat. "Do you want the lawn chairs?"
17 years, eight months, and nineteen days earlier
"A daughter," K.C. said on the drive down from Immigration in San Jose to Karen's new home in Santa Cruz. She scrutinized the picture from Colleen's wallet. "I never figured you for pushing a stroller, or having dolls strewn all over your living room." She shot Colleen a sidelong glance, her eyes crinkling in amusement. "I could see you putting frilly little bows in her hair, though."
Colleen looked in her mirrors, changed lanes on the rainy, foggy freeway. "I have been known to push a stroller," she said. "But Molly's into blocks now, not dolls."
"She's, what, three?"
Colleen nodded. "Four in March."
"Good age. So I hear."
Colleen gave her a sharp look, but K.C. stared resolutely forward, her face a mask over whatever she might be feeling. "Mmm-hmm," she finally said.
They didn't speak much for the rest of the drive. Their relationship, whatever it was, had stopped requiring words years ago.
Standing at the fence around the yard of Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School in the rain, Colleen watched K.C. take a step forward, wrap her fingers around the links, and open her mouth. She willed her to call out, but wasn't surprised when K.C. closed her mouth, not a sound escaping.
She walked up to the fence beside her, looking for Karen. The girl wasn't hard to spot; just following K.C.'s laser-like stare led her to a girl with long blonde hair and a red raincoat leaning over to whisper something in another girl's ear.
"You can still go talk to her," Colleen said, just as a pair of crutches appeared out of the shadow of the school's porch overhang, followed quickly by Boonie, who poked Karen's rain boots with them.
Oh, God. Boonie. Glasses and long hair, and a terrible emptiness where his left leg should be. And yet he was smiling, happy—a father, now.
Karen laughed as she turned to meet Boonie, finding him bent to her level, and the two of them smiled and joked with each other for a moment before walking back the way Boonie had come.
K.C. stared after them for a moment before she let go of the fence and started to walk back to Colleen's rented car. She spoke, finally, her voice firm through the blue nylon of her umbrella. "Well, I saw her. Karen. She's got her school, a best friend...she has Boonie. What more could a mother want?" She turned to Colleen, who could see that her blue eyes were filled with tears. That must have cost her. "What would you want?"
When K.C. had given Karen up as a baby, Colleen hadn't been able to imagine how she could do it. She could, now. But even the thought of Molly growing up somewhere far from her, of missing her for almost four years, made her ache. The four days of this trip were bad enough.
"I'd want to keep her with me every day. I'd want to want what was best for her, but I'd never be strong enough to let her go if that wasn't me."
K.C. blinked a couple of times, and like magic, the nascent tears disappeared. She raised an ironic brow. "Here I always thought it was staying that took guts."
Colleen put her hand on her friend's shoulder, squeezing it through the clear plastic of the poncho they'd bought at a gas station and the knitted bulk of the sweater she'd brought for her. "You took the hard road. I've got a reason to keep going that comes into my bedroom every morning at dawn and stares me in the face."
"Is that what going on looks like?"
"For me." She shrugged. "I don't know what it looks like for you."
K.C. sighed. "Wish I had a clue."
18 years, two months, and twenty-eight days earlier
"Just give it to me!" Colleen shouted at the nurse who was unsuccessfully trying to find a vein in Molly's tiny elbow. The girl's current state of dehydration wasn't helping things. She'd been alternating between coughing and vomiting for the past twenty-four hours in the worst case of pneumonia Colleen had ever seen.
She all but ripped the IV out of the other nurse's hands, ignoring the young woman's protests. Just as she'd taken Molly's arm in her hand and started looking for the vein, a rough, familiar voice barked from the doorway, "When did you start working pediatrics, McMurphy?"
Nancy Wineberg—the director of her unit in the ER—stared her down. Colleen stared right back. "She's my kid."
Apparently this was all too much for Molly, who suddenly burst into tears, the sobs punctuated by more coughs under the oxygen mask that had been fitted over her nose and mouth. Colleen immediately turned back to her, such a tiny figure dwarfed by the hospital bed, red-faced and struggling to breathe. Her heart twisted horribly to watch, clenching in a terrible fear.
Richard, seated on Molly's other side in the bed, pulled her against his stomach. "It's all right, sweetheart," she heard him murmur as he rubbed her back and brushed his other hand over her head. "Your mom's trying to help you. It's just not going very well."
Colleen gave him a black look.
Returning her attention to the task at hand, she found the likeliest-looking vein and held the needle over it. "Little stick, baby," she said to Molly, and pushed it in.
Molly yelped at the puncture, but Colleen had found the right spot. She anchored the needle and thumbed open the line so the saline could start draining into her parched body. "All done," she said, brushing back a sweaty lock of hair from her daughter's face. Molly cried harder and leaned into Richard, as far as she could get from her.
"Can I trust you'll let the pediatrics staff do their jobs now?" Nancy asked.
Colleen dropped her hand to the bed.
Colleen twisted in her chair to face him, their knees knocking together in the close quarters next to Molly's bed. "I'm glad to see you're so worried about our daughter," she hissed.
"Of course I'm worried!" he spat back. "When she started turning blue this morning, I was the most terrified I've ever been in my life. I just don't think alienating the staff is going to make things easier for her."
"I might agree if the staff knew what they were doing."
"You are not the only person in the world who knows how to put in an IV."
"The most recent evidence suggests otherwise."
"I'm just saying there might be better ways to help her get over this than badgering the—"
"My father nearly died because a nurse and a resident didn't know cardiac arrest when they saw it. If I hadn't been there to give him CPR..." He'd still died forty-eight hours later. But they were forty-eight hours he wouldn't have had otherwise. Forty-eight hours she wouldn't have had with him. "I'm not going to let anything like that happen to her."
Richard looked at her for a long moment. Finally he ran a hand down her arm. "Not a chance."
Once she was off the oxygen, the attending pediatrician reluctantly allowed them to take her to the children's courtyard, though under no circumstances was she to go near the playground. To emphasize the point, he put her in a wheelchair, her IV pole dragging along behind her. Richard wasn't entirely certain it wasn't worse for her to be outside, but confined to the chair while she watched other kids play, but she seemed to enjoy the sunshine. Actually, she fell asleep almost immediately.
From the bench they'd picked, Richard watched the children on the slides and monkey bars without quite seeing them. He blinked back to the present when Colleen put her hand on his thigh. "What is it?" she asked.
"I was thinking about how much Lien could've used a place like this."
"Lien," she said, her face furrowing. "The girl from the orphanage?"
"All she needed were pediatric tubes so we could intubate her. We could've stabilized her enough to get her to the hospital ship for the surgery." He snorted bitterly. "Of course, why would a military evac hospital have any of those?"
He placed gentle fingers on Molly's head, which slumped in his direction as she slept. He needed to touch her, to reassure himself she was still there, still breathing, unlike the undergrown ten-year-old who lifted everything not nailed down and never saw eleven. "They needed so little, really. And it was still more than I could give them."
Colleen squeezed his knee. He was grateful that she didn't offer a platitude, something mindless about how it wasn't his fault, he'd done his best, they'd still managed to help some of the civilians. It may have all been true. None of it made a difference. Not to him. Not to Lien.
A particularly loud screech came from the direction of the playground, and Molly startled awake with a cough. "Hey, sleepy," he said, running his fingers through her fine, straight hair.
A certain glint in her eyes suggested a break for the swings was imminent, trailing IV pole or no. He pulled her onto his lap. She reached forlornly toward the playground, which simultaneously brought him to the edge of laughter and broke his heart. "Two more days," he promised. Then she'd run around with the other kids, strong and fast, the way Lien had never been able to do.
Colleen tried to engage her in some kind of quintessentially girly handclapping game he'd frankly been surprised his wife had even known when he first saw her teaching it to Molly a few weeks ago, but their daughter wasn't buying it. She kept staring at the playground as if she could teleport herself there by sheer force of will.
Richard squinted at the layout of the play area before turning back to McMurphy. "Nurse," he said, "in your professional opinion, does the spring bouncy horse really constitute playground equipment? Those things barely move."
Her eyes widened, and she glanced at Molly's IV, judging the length of the tubing that ran between the bag and her arm. She put her fingers to her chin. Molly practically vibrated in his arms with repressed hope and energy.
A sly smile appeared on McMurphy's face. "I think what Dr. Horace doesn't know isn't going to hurt him."
18 years, six months, and five days earlier
It was inevitable. Colleen had managed to put it off traveling to Kansas for the last two years, first arguing that flying with a baby was a torture no one should have to endure, then pleading an unshiftable shift at the hospital on Christmas Day for the next. But this year she'd drawn Thanksgiving at work, and had been all but ordered to take the week of Christmas off by her division director. Kansas it was.
Brendan picked them up at the airport on Christmas Eve, and her mother met them at the door. She dusted her hands off on her apron and then clasped them in front of her like a delighted little girl. "Look at you!" she said to the kids. "You've all gotten so big!" She gave Colleen a pointed glance. "Of course, it wouldn't be such a surprise if I got to see you all more often."
"It's only been two years since you came to Boston, Mom," Colleen said, trying to keep the long-suffering tone from her voice as she set Molly on her feet.
"Hmph." It was, thankfully, all the argument her mother offered. She looked at the boys. "I have a little surprise for you in the kitchen."
"Reindeer cookies?" Roger asked, his eyes gleaming.
For their second Thanksgiving together, Colleen and Richard had made the trip with the boys, and once Jake and Roger had spent five minutes in shock at the riot of step-cousins they were now in possession of, they'd plunged right into the band of children, which swept through the kitchen at periodic intervals to devour whatever they could get their hands on, but especially the peanut butter cookies with pretzel twists for antlers, chocolate chips for eyes, and a gumdrop for a red nose. Jake and Roger hadn't forgotten the experience—or the cookies—since.
"You'll have to go find out," her mother said, a distinct twinkle in her eye.
The boys took off without even bothering to remove their coats.
"Mom, you'll spoil them," Colleen said, kneeling to undo the buttons on Molly's fuzzy red coat.
"Nonsense. It's Christmas. There's no such thing as spoiling a grandchild at Christmas; it's one of the benefits of being a grandmother."
Colleen couldn't help smiling when she heard her mother refer to the boys as grandchildren. She pulled Molly's coat off, revealing a red velvet jumper with a kitschy Santa applique that Colleen privately thought was hideous, but her mother had made it. "Oh, good, it fits," she said, just before sweeping Molly up in her arms. "You were just a baby the last time I saw you," she told her, "and now you're a little girl."
"I'm big," Molly said, sounding rather offended.
"Big girls use the toilet," Richard explained.
Mrs. McMurphy nodded sagely. "Of course you are," she said to Molly. "Do you want to come into the kitchen with me and see what surprises your brothers found?"
As Molly nodded enthusiastically, Colleen said, "I hope you aren't planning to sugar her up this late in the day."
"That's exactly what I plan to do," she said airily. "I put you two in your old room. Molly and Roger are in Conner's. And I thought since he's a teenager now, Jake might like that slip of a room in the attic, you know, where your grandmother always stayed. It's not much, but it is private."
"Thanks. I'm sure he'll appreciate that," Richard said, hefting one of their suitcases.
Mrs. McMurphy turned her gaze back to Molly and started walking to the kitchen. "Now, sweetheart, let's see what's in here..."
Colleen and Richard came back downstairs after putting their things away and found Brendan in the dining room pouring himself a shot of whiskey.
"Where'd you get that?" Colleen asked. With their father gone and their mother not much of a drinker, she wouldn't have expected the bottle to be around.
"I laid in a little supply before the holiday," he said. "Figured it might lubricate the inevitable friction when so many of us are in the house together."
"Ah." All the rest of her brothers, their wives, and children would be arriving in the next two hours for dinner. "Madhouse" wouldn't begin to cover it.
"Either of you want to get a head start?" Brendan asked.
Richard shook his head, while Colleen said, "No, thanks." Brendan gave her a curious look. "I don't, anymore."
He nodded slowly. He was probably in shock. "Good choice. Probably one more of us should make." He swallowed all the whiskey he'd poured in one gulp.
"How's Mom been?" Colleen asked as he finished. She pulled out one of the chairs around the table to sit down and the two men followed suit. Although Brendan had moved out shortly before she returned from Vietnam, he spent the most time back at the house with their mother. He was the only one of them still single and living in an apartment; he got stuck cleaning the gutters and repairing holes in the roof, though their mother had apparently turned out to be handy with the lawnmower since their father's death.
"Same as ever," he said. "Maybe slowing down a bit. She said something about trimming down the garden this year. The weeding hurts her back." He snorted. "She loves having a bunch of kids in the house again. Trust me, she's been looking forward to this holiday for weeks."
"She loves filling them with cookies till they burst," Colleen grumped.
Brendan laughed again. "You're one to talk." At Richard's curious look, he said, "Colleen was our regular cookie thief for years. Mom always figured out it was her, but she kept doing it." He shook his head, "Why the life of crime, sis?"
"You should know; you were a middle child too," she said. "I wanted attention. Dad would give me some kind of half-hearted lecture every time they caught me, which at least meant he was talking to me." She shrugged. "And Mom's cookies are the best."
"You were the girl. You got lots of attention," he argued.
"All the wrong kind. I swear, if Mom told me to cross my legs one more time..." She looked at Richard, who had propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward with interest. "I guess sibling rivalry never dies."
"Don't apologize. This is very enlightening," he said.
"Just wait till Mom drags out the photo album," Brendan said with a distinctly evil grin. "Happens every year at Christmas."
Richard started to smile, and Colleen buried her head in her hands.
"Conner set her and Lisa and Katie up in the den with some crayons," her mother answered from under the tree, where she was more artfully arranging the wrapped gifts the rest of the McMurphy brothers had deposited when they came in for dinner a few hours ago.
"Oh. Okay." She was surprised Conner had put the little girls to such a tame activity—from past experience she would've expected a game of football using a kid as the ball and the china cabinet as one of the goalposts—but he'd mellowed since having children.
Her mother put the last box in place and half-rose, still on her knees, as she surveyed her work. She glanced at Colleen. "It's strange hearing that name in this house again."
Colleen's heart thumped harshly. After nearly three years, the name was simply her daughter's to her; she hadn't thought about what it must be like for her mother. She sat on the floor a few feet away from her.
"I still have her stocking," her mother said, glancing at the mantel. "I thought about putting it up, but then I thought it wouldn't be fair to the other little ones."
Colleen didn't say anything. She didn't really know what to say. She could count on one hand the number of times she'd ever heard her mother mention her sister.
"Christmas came so soon after the accident. I'd already made the two of you matching green Christmas dresses that year. I couldn't bear to put you in one of them, so I gave them both to the Salvation Army." So that was why the family picture that year had featured her in what was obviously a store-bought dress rather than the usual simple velvet or printed cotton one her mother made every year.
"So many boys, and then twin girls—I hoped you'd do everything together. Be as close as sisters could." A soft smile graced her lips. "When you were just learning to talk, you had your own language. I'd come in to your bedroom in the morning and find you both standing up in your cribs, having a conversation. It sounded like nonsense to me, but you seemed to understand each other."
She lapsed into silence, until Colleen said, "I wish I could remember her."
"You were so young," her mother said. Colleen thought she could see a faint glimmer of tears in her eyes, but her voice was steady. "You kept crying for her, saying her name over and over. I tried to tell you she wasn't coming back. But how do you explain death to a two-year-old?" She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "You asked for her less and less, until finally you stopped. I wasn't sure if it was a relief or if it just made it worse to have you forgetting her."
Colleen almost put a hand on her shoulder, but her mother had never been fond of sympathy.
"Would you like to have it?" her mother asked. "The stocking, I mean. For Molly."
"I..." She would, actually. "Are you sure?"
"It's not doing anyone any good up in a box in the attic," her mother said, sounding like her usual, practical self again. "I'll have Brendan get it down before you leave."
"Mommy!" a voice piped. Little feet in mary janes trotted over the hardwood. "Look." Molly held out a piece of paper with red, blue, and orange scribbles on it. "I drawed it."
"I see." Colleen settled the girl in her lap. "Why don't you tell me about it?" Because she had no clue what the picture was actually supposed to represent.
As Molly described an intricate scene involving Santa riding a unicorn and eating cookies, Colleen looked at her mother and smiled.
Richard shifted a very sleepy Molly on his hip and peered at the cards in his and two of their nephews', Sean and Brian's second boys, hands. "Is that..."
"I call," Roger said.
"Where do ten-year-olds learn to play poker?" Richard asked, half-rhetorically.
"Billy and Paul taught me."
"Where do nine-year-olds learn to play poker?" This Richard directed at Colleen.
She shrugged. "Brendan taught me when I was eight."
"Aw, man," Roger whined. His cards, now lying on the table, revealed several numbers and no faces, while Billy had a straight flush. With a flourish, Sean's son swept the small pile of matchsticks they'd been playing with across the table to his place.
"All right, card sharks, bed time," Colleen said, putting her hands on their backs to gently push them in the direction of the stairs. "Where's Jake?" she asked, turning to Richard, once they'd gone on their grumbling way.
He shrugged as best he could with Molly's head on his shoulder. "Kitchen would be my guess."
She laughed. "No doubt. I'll show him where his room is."
While Richard headed upstairs to put their daughter to bed, she found Jake in the kitchen clearing the last crumbs from the plate of cookies her mother had put out. She offered to show him the little attic room he'd be sleeping in, though at thirteen he was beyond the age of the mandatory bedtime.
"Cool," he proclaimed when they got to the small room under the eaves, with its uneven ceiling and dormer windows with little bench seats.
"My brother Brian lived up here all through high school. It got him away from all of us little kids, so he loved it. Ticked Sean off to no end, though; he had to share a room with Brendan."
Jake sat on the bed, bouncing it slightly. Colleen sat beside him. "Do you like having so many brothers?"
She blinked, surprised he'd asked. "I suppose," she said. "I never really knew anything else, though. But I could always find someone to play a board game or cards with if I wanted, or toss a ball, that kind of thing. Or at school—I knew they had my back if anything happened. And I'm glad they're all here to help out my mom now that Dad's gone."
"I want a big family like this," Jake said dreamily. "It's fun. Christmas with Mom's family is boring—Grandma just asks me all these questions about school, and Mom and Doug and Uncle Jim talk about work or politics."
"Yeah, well, it's fun until all six kids are down with the stomach flu," Colleen joked.
"No, I’m going to stop at five. That's how many seatbelts are in the back of a station wagon."
She barely remembered in time not to laugh. "Very safety-conscious," she praised. "You want to get some sleep before mass?"
"Nah. I'll stay up here and read, maybe. It's neat." His brow furrowed. "Is mass in Latin?"
"No, it hasn't been for about ten years." To Father Gallard's eternal consternation.
"Good." He looked at her from under his eyelashes. "Don't tell Dad, but I hate Latin. I wish I was taking Spanish instead. They have parties and stuff, with tacos and flan. We just have to wear a toga once a year and make speeches. It's totally lame."
"That does sound completely lame," she agreed. "I took French from this woman who'd been a Red Cross nurse in France during World War I, so you can imagine how old she was."
"She was a war nurse like you."
She caught her breath. "I suppose so."
Her entire tour in Vietnam, she'd never once thought about Mrs. Talbot's endless stories of smiling French people who, despite the lack of supplies, still managed to make gourmet meals; touring the sights of Paris after the armistice; assignations on bridges over the Seine. Those tales had been peppered with the odd hollow-eyed mention of amputating a soldier's leg or the long stares of shellshocked boys, which riveted her students more than any of the other stories. Colleen had wondered at the time why she called the soldiers boys and not men.
She stood up. "Well, come back downstairs if you want company. We're going to leave at eleven thirty."
Later, after hours of catching up with her brothers—whom she did miss, even Brian, even when they made pointed comments about how far away Boston was—she wandered into the den to find it empty except for Richard, who was sitting in an old green wingback chair, staring into space. "What are you doing in here?" she asked.
He smiled a bit sheepishly. "Enjoying the relative quiet."
"Ah." She knew she was giving him ammunition, but said anyway, "One year my uncle Connell dressed up as Santa and sat in that chair, and we all sat in his lap and told him what we wanted for Christmas."
Richard raised the arch eyebrow she knew so well. "Does that mean if I go, 'Ho ho ho,' you'll sit in my lap and tell me what I should bring you for Christmas?"
In response, she crossed the few steps between them and delicately perched on his thighs, swinging her legs over the arm of the chair. The thick wool of her red plaid skirt fell in folds around her calves. He wrapped his arms around her waist—one hand dipping rather lower than might be considered her waist—while she wound hers around his neck. "I was thinking more what you could do for me," she said, moving her face down towards his. Just as they were about to touch, she said, "The laundry after we get back from this trip would be nice."
He jerked his head back and narrowed his eyes.
"Just one of several ideas," she said, grinning, and kissed him.
Richard kissed well; he always had. He was inventive, eschewing the obvious for unusual angles and offbeat timing, while at the same time moving his hands to unexpected, but very pleasant, places along her body. It was like he'd read a book. Knowing him, he probably had.
She shifted in his lap, making him jump just a little, and grinned against his mouth. She'd just started to take advantage of the new angle when a voice startled them out of the kiss.
"Mistletoe's in the living room, kids," Brendan said. She twisted her neck to find him taking in their situation with an amused glance. "Or maybe you'd prefer directions to the bedroom."
She stuck her tongue out at him.
"Better drag your kids out of bed. The mass caravan leaves in fifteen minutes."
Richard glanced at Colleen. She tilted her head, half-shrugging. Their last time here, she'd stayed in her pew with Richard and the boys during communion the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Her mother badgered her afterwards to go to confession, and she quietly refused; Brian and Sean's red-faced haranguing about how she was breaking Margaret McMurphy's heart never made her sorry. She hadn't lost her faith. She just chose to put it in other things now.
The music and pageantry of midnight mass, though, had a comfort of tradition that wouldn't be denied no matter what her feelings were about the Church. And it would be special for the kids, going out into the midnight clear so long after bedtime, and the way the church looked, mysterious and beautiful in the light of so many flickering candles.
Brendan left to warn any other stragglers. Colleen started to get up, but Richard tugged her back onto his lap. "We could be late," he suggested.
"Just trying to wake up Roger is going to make us late already."
"I may have let slip that presents happen after mass. He probably hasn't gone to sleep yet."
"You're the one who gets to chain him down during the service, then."
"How long is this thing again?"
She pecked him on the cheek and hopped to her feet. "Merry Christmas."
18 years, nine months, and twelve days earlier
Richard adjusted the round salt dough plaque on the wall at the bottom of the staircase, the smallest of the five arranged in a tight cluster. When he finally got it to hang straight, he stepped back to admire his handiwork.
A quiet breath behind him alerted him to McMurphy's presence. "Not bad, huh?" he asked, stepping back to join her.
"They look great together," she said, and then rubbed her eye a little too casually.
When Molly brought home a tiny handprint from preschool last week, he'd had the idea. He dug out the impression Roger had sent him when he was that age, and the one he'd made in return, and then mixed up a batch of the dough for Colleen. He'd managed to wheedle Jake's away from Beth Ann—who had dug it out of a box of preschool tchotkes—and then hung them together. Three little hands. Two big ones. The family whose shape, eight years ago, he never would've imagined and now couldn't conceive in any other configuration.
He put his arm around McMurphy's waist and took it in.
20 years, four months, and six days earlier
Richard tapped McMurphy's shoulder to get her attention. She pulled her head out of her book, and he pointed across the room at Molly, who was holding on to the edge of the coffee table with both hands, pulling herself along. Her feet, in their footed pajamas, shuffled along the dark green carpet. She reached the edge and paused, looking back and forth between the table and her parents.
"Do you think she's..." McMurphy whispered.
He shrugged. "That's what Roger did just before he started walking."
McMurphy slid out of her chair and knelt on the carpet a few feet from Molly. He crouched beside her. She held her arms out and called, "Come on, sweetheart."
Molly kept holding on to the coffee table, now looking dubious.
"Just put one foot in front of the other," Richard encouraged.
McMurphy shot him an exasperated look, then wiggled her fingers. "Come here, baby. Come to Mama and Daddy."
Molly rocked back and forth. She burbled something multisyllabic and unintelligible.
"Maybe she's not quite ready," Richard murmured. He started to stand, but was stopped by McMurphy's hand pressing on his thigh.
She refused to give up hope. "Molly," she said in her most coaxing tone, "come here. You can do it."
Molly took one hand off the table.
She raised the other hand and put it back down immediately as she started to wobble, then tried again with the same result.
"She's cautious. Good," Richard commented.
"You could help me encourage her."
"Maybe we need to be closer." Scooting on their knees, they inched toward Molly, who giggled. Part of him suspected she was refusing to take those first steps so she could continue to watch their antics as they tried to get her to walk.
McMurphy held out her arms again when they were only a foot from their daughter. Richard did the same. "Come here, Molly," he said. She rocked back and forth again, and hope kindled in his heart. "Come on."
What seemed like an eternity later, she took both her hands off the table at the same time, and then took a bowlegged, thumping step toward them.
McMurphy all but bounced on her knees. "That's it!" she exclaimed, stretching her arms out even further.
Molly took another step, her chubby arms waving in the air as she tried to balance. Another, and her face started to crumple in fear and doubt. Her arms pinwheeling now, she toppled forward—straight into McMurphy's arms. She lifted the baby up and held her to her chest. "You did it, baby girl," she said into her shock of auburn hair.
Molly struggled to get down, babbling loudly, and McMurphy put her feet-first on the floor, holding up her arms. "Walk over to Daddy." She slowly loosened her grip.
Determined now, Molly took the two steps needed to reach Richard, who also swept her up in his arms. "Good girl, Molly," he whispered in her ear.
They spent a few more minutes encouraging her to toddle between them, before Molly decided she'd had enough and sat on the floor, putting her fingers in her mouth.
Richard felt the broad, proud smile he'd been wearing since she took her first step away from the coffee table fade. He found himself thinking, unexpectedly, of Boonie. Of the leg he'd cut off, underwater in the rain. And the ones whose names he couldn't remember, but whose faces, when he told them they were never going to walk again, remained seared into his memory.
"Home run leader in the softball league," McMurphy said suddenly, touching Molly's shoulder. She burbled at them, showing her seven little teeth in a smile.
"Nah," he said. "Dancer."
21 years and twenty-nine days earlier
"There we go! All done," Dr. Sam Wilkins, a preternaturally perky blond bear of a man, said as he tickled Molly's chest where she lay screaming in Colleen's arms. He opened his hand to reveal a rainbow-colored foam ball attached to a keychain ring dangling from his finger. Molly's protest at the indignity of the DTaP and polio vaccines she'd just received started to quiet as it caught her eye. She batted tentatively at the ball.
"She's exactly where she should be," Dr. Wilkins said. "Height, weight, all the milestones for two months." He waggled the keychain over Molly's face for a moment before returning his attention to Colleen. "And you're about to go back to work?"
"Two more weeks." She was simultaneously horrified to leave her tiny daughter in the care of other people all day—even though the other person in question was Richard's sister, Annie, who had two children under three of her own and was more than competent enough to handle another—and desperate to get back to work and adult conversation.
"Boston General, right? ER?"
"I remember Dick telling me a while back." Dr. Wilkins was one of a few doctors Richard and the other OBs in his practice recommended to expectant mothers; Colleen thought she remembered some med school connection between him and one of the other partners. "Is that where you two met?"
It would be so easy to just say yes. There was nothing unusual about a doctor and a nurse meeting at a hospital. No one asked questions. No one had opinions.
"Uh, no. We met when we were stationed together in Vietnam."
His eyes widened, the blond brows rushing towards his scalp. "Really?"
"China Beach. 510th evac hospital. '67 to '69."
He looked sheepish. "Vietnamese geography's not my strong point."
"It's near the middle of the country. On the beach." She shrugged, a little sheepish herself. "Obviously."
"A lot of the people in my class at med school got called up. Good doctors. I guess you really needed them." She nodded tightly. "My number never came up. Although I suppose there wouldn't be much call for pediatricians over there."
"You'd be surprised." The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.
He gave her a strange look. "Maybe so. I did hear about the civilian medical aid projects."
Thankfully, the conversation ended there. A few minutes later, Molly nestled sleepily against her chest, she exited the building into a sunny June morning. There was the slightest of springs in her step. It was probably just the weather.
21 years, one month, and twenty-four days earlier
"There," Colleen whispered as she rubbed Molly's onesie-covered back. "She has to be good for at least an hour." The baby had been fed, changed, and rocked soundly to sleep. For the last two weeks, that had consistently bought them one or two hours, enough time to shower, do the dishes, or run one of the endless loads of laundry an infant generated.
Tonight, though, she had something rather different from household chores in mind. She looked at Richard with an expression she hoped was sultry rather than just exhausted. Starting at his belt, she began walking her fingers up his chest. "Let's leave the dishes for tomorrow," she said.
He caught on to her meaning with a swiftness that suggested the last six weeks—during no part of which had they managed to collect the right combination of time and energy for marital relations—had made him as antsy as they had made her. His hands went immediately to her waist, and he kissed her eagerly.
His hands disappeared up the back of her shirt. One-handed, she started to unbuckle his belt, her other hand busy smoothing up the back of his neck into his hair. Still kissing desperately, as if trying to make up for lost time, they stumbled directly across the hall into their bedroom.
Richard lifted his mouth from hers, evoking a whine before he kissed her again, then began moving downward. He murmured against her skin as he went. "I"—he kissed her jaw—"have really"—her neck—"really"—her collarbone—"missed this."
She shivered at the desire in his voice, as unmistakable as any other time she could remember despite the fact that her shirt had a spit-up stain on the shoulder, she hadn't showered in over a day, and—she touched her hair briefly—okay, at least she'd combed it at some point today. "Me too," she sighed against his ear.
He slipped her shirt over her head, and she made quick work of the buttons on his while he fiddled with the hooks on her nursing bra. With the teamwork they'd always been good at, they quickly stripped each other of the rest of their clothes.
She fell back on the bed and pulled him with her, greedily running her hands over the skin now revealed. It seemed like years since she'd last touched him. He did the same, until he abruptly propped himself up on his elbows and stared down at her, a contented smile visible in the low light from her bedside lamp.
"What?" she asked.
Her stomach fluttered with pleasure. He'd claimed to adore her body even when she was the size of a house, but for her it had been too different, too uncomfortable, to feel anything like normal. She smiled back at him. "You can appreciate with more than your eyes, you know."
He dropped his head. His mouth closed on her right nipple, and she immediately winced. "Uh, maybe not there right now, honey," she said, putting her hands on his cheeks and pulling his head up.
He obligingly moved his lips to the dip between her breasts and began kissing his way down her stomach.
Just as he was about to reach his goal—she was already straining her hips upward to meet him—a shrill cry came from the room across the hall.
Colleen's entire body slumped into the mattress. Richard's forehead fell forward, defeated, onto her stomach. "You have got to be kidding me," she muttered, thinking a few very unmotherly thoughts and then immediately feeling guilty about them.
"I'll get her," Richard said, not raising his head.
Molly kept crying, and after a long moment he finally rose and went to her room. Colleen heard him speak as he lifted her from the bassinet. "It's time for you to learn about appropriate timing. First thing, as soon as you can understand the concept of time."
21 years, three months, and one day earlier
"Lunchtime," Richard said. He reached for the increasingly squally newborn in her plastic bassinet next to McMurphy's hospital bed.
"Again?" she complained, but she started untying her gown anyway. "She just ate an hour ago."
He placed their daughter in her arms. "Well, her stomach is this big right now." He made a circle the size of a nickel with his thumb and index finger. "And your supply hasn't really ramped up yet."
"I noticed," McMurphy said crossly. She rubbed the baby's cheek with her finger and positioned her to latch. "That's it," she murmured. "We can do this."
Richard put his hand on her shoulder. "It's nothing to worry about. This is exactly what she needs right now."
"I know," she snapped. Then she gave him an apologetic glance. "I said the same thing to dozens of women during my obstetrics rotation. But it's different when it's personal."
"Right." Despite the hundreds of babies he'd helped bring into the world, last night had been an entirely different experience. He hadn't been with Beth Ann when Jake and Roger were born, instead following the same received wisdom he used on his patients at the time, that it was better for everyone if fathers stayed in the waiting room. Watching Colleen struggle all night had almost undone him in a way he'd never, ever felt with his patients.
He returned to the chair next to the bed and picked up the newspaper he'd collected from the box downstairs, thinking they might save it for Molly's baby book. His eyes widened as he read the headlines he'd ignored earlier. "'Last US soldiers leave Vietnam,'" he read out loud. "I forgot that was today." He glanced at McMurphy. "Nixon's idea of a birthday present, maybe."
She kept her gaze on Molly's head. "Tell that to the Vietnamese." She sighed. "Everything we did, everything everyone did...and it didn't make a damn bit of difference."
"I think some of the boys we patched up would disagree."
She gave him a weary look he'd seen too much of in their last days at China Beach. "They aren't even a drop in a lake. An ocean. Much less a bucket."
He leaned over the bed and stroked two fingers over the soft fuzz on Molly's head. He'd originally thought it was just a deep brown, but in the sunlight through the window, now he saw the red in it, just like Colleen's. "You know, there were ten other babies born here last night. Probably thirty or forty more in the city. They're all special to only a few people, relatively speaking. But to those people, they're the most important thing in the world."
He moved his hand to McMurphy's shoulder. "We didn't win the war, but we did make a difference to the men who came through China Beach."
She dipped her head for a long moment, her thumb tracing the skin of Molly's neck, before she put her free hand on top of his.
"Knock knock," a familiar voice said.
They both looked up to see Beth Ann, Doug, Jake, and Roger peeking around the half-closed door. "Is now a good time?" Beth Ann asked. "You wanted us to bring the boys by to meet their sister."
Of course, now he remembered. He smiled at them and turned to McMurphy, who nodded at him. "She's done." She gently disengaged Molly from her breast and pulled the flap of her gown back up to her neck.
"Come on over, guys," Richard said to the boys, who crept over to the bed, simultaneously curious and mistrustful of the tiny creature whose arrival had garnered so much attention.
"Come up here," McMurphy said, patting the bed. Jake sat on the edge, while Roger hopped all the way up, bouncing it as he jumped. McMurphy winced, and both Richard and Beth Ann called out, "Careful!"
"It's okay," McMurphy said. "It's exciting, right, Rog?" She turned the baby toward them, and Molly chose that moment to open her eyes. "Hey, kiddo. These are your big brothers."
"Oh, she's darling," Beth Ann, who had followed the boys up to the bed, said over Richard's shoulder. "Dick, I think she got your mouth."
He took a closer look at his daughter, searching for the resemblance. Shaking his head, he said, "If she's lucky, she'll grow up to look exactly like her mother."
McMurphy rolled her eyes.
"Congratulations," Beth Ann said, sounding like she meant it. "Colleen, I know you must still be exhausted, so we'll come get the boys in fifteen minutes, all right?" Colleen and Richard nodded, and Beth Ann returned to the door, where Doug echoed her congratulations before following her out of it.
When Richard returned his gaze to the kids, he saw that Roger had crawled up to McMurphy's hip and was holding a finger over Molly's face, like he was trying to get up the courage to touch her cheek. She ended his indecision by reaching up and grasping the finger in her tiny hand.
Roger gasped. McMurphy smiled and said, "I think she likes you."
"She's so little," he said softly. "I bet she could fit in the basket on my bike."
"Don't get any ideas," Richard warned. "Let her skull finish growing together before you start trying to break it."
"Can I hold her?" Jake asked.
"Sure," McMurphy said. "Do you know how?"
"Mrs. Crabb let me hold Mikey's little brother."
"Okay." She carefully placed Molly in Jake's arms. She squawked at the change, but he shushed her, and miraculously she fell silent.
Jake beamed at the rest of them. Richard ran a hand down his son's back. "You're a natural. We'll call you for babysitting as soon as we get out of here."
"The going rate's three dollars an hour," Jake said, somewhat distractedly, as he made a face at Molly. "That's what the girls in my class say."
"You realize that's over twice minimum wage?"
"It's a hard job." He smiled as Molly blew him a spit bubble.
"That never worked on my parents," McMurphy grumbled.
Richard picked up the camera from the floor under his chair. He'd already used up two rolls of color film on Colleen and the baby—and she'd wrestled the camera away from him a few times to do the same—but he had plenty more. "Smile, everyone," he said, twisting the focus ring on the lens barrel to get them all in the shot.
McMurphy put her arms around the boys' shoulders. Roger leaned against her and smiled toothily. Jake turned so Molly's face could be seen and smiled down at her once more before looking at the camera.
Richard snapped the picture.
21 years, three months, and two days earlier
"Mrs. Richard," the nurse said, peering over her knees, "you really need to push harder on the next—"
"I know what to do, I'm a nurse!" Colleen shouted. Not that she felt like much of one here, lying on her back, sweaty and frizzy-haired, panting and desperate for this endless night to be over.
"Then start doing it," Richard said from his station by her right shoulder, where he'd been coaching her through breathing exercises that did no good at all when faced with this pain.
She turned a glare on him that by all rights should've sent him up in flames. "And you," she hissed. "I'm going to kill you for getting me into this!" Her threat turned into a scream as another contraction wracked her abdomen and stiffened her entire body.
"Kill me later. Right now, you have to push!"
She pushed. The nurse shook her irritating blonde head. "Harder."
You try pushing harder after twenty-four hours of this! she wanted to shout, but she used the strength that would've gone into it to push just a little harder and send this baby—this really, really slow baby—just a little further out into the world. She kept squeezing Richard's hand in a bruising grip, though, because he damn well deserved it.
Finally, the contraction was over, and she collapsed against the bed, trembling with exhaustion. "You're progressing well," Dr. Leonard, the OB on call that night, said from the end of the bed. "Just a few more ought to do it."
A few more. He might as well have told her to fly to the moon. She shook her head. "I can't. Too..." Her eyes drifted shut. "Too tired."
"Look at me." Richard took her chin in his hand and turned her head to face him. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes again. "You can do this." She shook her head again, certain she couldn't. He raised his eyebrows. "You'd work a twenty-four hour shift, mass-cal, one case after another, then go back to your hooch for an hour and jump out of bed the second you heard a chopper, but you can't find the strength to birth one measly baby?"
She took a breath, ready to tell him exactly where he could shove his lousy attempt at encouragement. But then the next contraction hit, and her words evaporated into a yell.
"McMurphy!" Richard tightened his grip on her chin, his face inches from hers. "You can do this! Push!"
It took three more pushes, each more exhausting than the last, but then she heard a wail, the first utterance of a brand new voice. "She's here," Richard said, a tired grin spreading across his face. A tear dripped onto his cheek as he cupped her face. "You did it."
"She's here?" Colleen asked, though the increasing volume of the wails filling the room was more than enough confirmation.
"Ten fingers, ten toes, one excellent pair of lungs," Dr. Leonard said.
He placed the blood-spattered, pointy-headed, red-faced, shrieking, perfect baby on her chest. With reverent hands, she touched her daughter's slimy head, her tiny shoulder. Richard's hand, when he laid it on her back, covered her from head to tailbone. Colleen felt his forehead come to rest against her temple.
"Hi, sweetheart," Colleen said, her voice breaking. "Welcome to the world."
21 years, four months, and eleven days earlier
"What are you saying? That you'll actually do it? Richard, it's a life!"
Richard refrained from gritting his teeth. This conversation was going south faster than a double bogey could ruin a good back nine, and it couldn't happen at a worse time.
The cabin in the Berkshires they'd rented for a long weekend had a foot of snow outside the door and little in the way of distractions from one's companion indoors. At the outset of this trip, that had been the selling point. He'd meant it as a last romantic getaway before the baby came and they spent the next several months too sleep-deprived to hold a coherent conversation, much less a vacation.
It had lived up to almost all of his fantasies until he'd turned on the radio to check the forecast for the drive back to Boston tomorrow. He'd come across a commentator talking about the effects of the recent court case that was about to turn his professional life upside down. McMurphy had looked to him, her eyes wide with innocence he'd assumed they had both lost in Vietnam, and asked what he was going to do now that the laws that had previously criminalized termination of pregnancy were no longer in effect. That had led them to the conversation—the argument—they were having now.
"I'm saying I'll do what the desperate women who come to me for help ask me to do, yes." He stared her straight in the eye, the righteousness he found there not nearly a match for that produced by the hollow, tearstained faces he'd seen in the course of his career, especially the young ones who saw their infinite futures telescoping into a narrow path. "Not everyone wants a baby as much as we do. Some of them will try as hard to get rid of it as we tried to have one, even if it means a dirty coat hanger on the bathroom floor."
Her hand went to her abdomen, round under the too-big sweater she wore because she hated the inexplicable bows and ruffles of maternity shirts. He couldn't blame her. But she narrowed her eyes at him and said, "You think I don't see them in the ER when they come in after it goes wrong? I know damn well how awful it is. But there has to be another way, not just sanitizing it with scalpels and betadine at an office visit."
"When you find it, be sure to let me know."
21 years, seven months, and twenty-six days earlier
"Oof. Man, he's active tonight." Colleen rubbed the upper left quadrant of her stomach, where the baby had just done what felt like a backflip off her ribs. "Is this a protest against broccoli for dinner, buddy?"
"Could be a she, you know," Richard said, joining her on the couch. He put his hand on her stomach, and she moved it a few inches to the latest spot their kid felt like pummeling.
"Nah. McMurphys always have boys first. And second. And third, usually. You gotta roll a lot of dice in my family before you get a girl."
"You have met my brothers, right?"
"How could I forget?" He shuddered ever so slightly, and she bit back a grin.
"Same way in my dad's family—Aunt Helen is the only girl out of eight. All of my uncles, same thing. Brian, Sean, Connor's kids..."
"You've proved your point." He looked at her conspiratorially. "You know, there is a way to find out."
"What? Oh, you mean ultrasound?" She winced as the baby headbutted her bladder. "I thought that was only for the problem cases."
He shrugged. "Well, I only order them when it looks like something's going wrong. The resolution's so poor, half the time you can't tell if you're looking at a fetus or a television station after midnight. But that doesn't mean we can't take a peek."
She narrowed her eyes. "Are you suggesting we sneak into the ultrasound suite in the middle of the night and use hospital equipment for our own selfish purposes?"
"Shhh." Richard peeked around the corner at the central desk for the labor and delivery floor. "All right, she's charting. Let's go."
Attempting to look casual, they rounded the corner and walked swiftly, but not quickly enough to draw suspicion, toward the ultrasound suite around the next corner from the desk. They'd almost made it when the nurse said, "Dr. Richard? I didn't think you were on call tonight."
They stopped and turned. "We were in the neighborhood, so I thought I'd just pop in and check on Mrs. Ramirez," Richard said. "That fever she spiked after the C-section had me a little worried."
"And I just had to use the bathroom," Colleen added, pointing at her stomach.
The nurse, a graying woman with sharp eyes, smiled. "I know how that goes."
"See you tomorrow, Chen," Richard said. The nurse went back to her paperwork, and they walked on down the hall.
As soon as they slipped inside the suite, Colleen leaned against the door, her shoulders shaking with nervous laughter. "I can't believe she bought that."
"I think she mostly bought that you had to pee. Speaking of which, do you?"
"I—sort of. Why?"
"Good. That'll make it easier to see. Up you go." He helped her up on the table and kept an arm behind her shoulders as she lay back. "Comfortable?" She nodded. He brushed a hand over her hair, smiling softly, and then moved down the table to pull her shirt up to just above her breasts. As he gently tugged the stretchy waistband of her pants down, he said, "Usually I have my patients do this themselves, but in your case I'll make an exception."
"Such a gentleman."
He walked away from the table and returned a few moments later with a tube of gel. "This will be a little cold."
"We do use these machines downstairs, you know. Keeps from having to open some of the abdominal patients up?"
"Not on yourselves, I hope. Incoming."
She jumped when the gel hit her stomach. Damn, it was cold. She glared at Richard, who very visibly bit his tongue.
He spread the gel around with the transducer as the machine warmed up. Slowly, the gel warmed as well. Colleen turned her head to see the screen, but all she saw were fuzzy gray and black blobs. "Anything?" she asked.
"Little guy's gone into hiding," he said. "You'd think this far along that wouldn't be possible, but...bingo. Look."
It all still looked like a mess of gray static to her, but she squinted, and suddenly—oh.
"There's the head on the left. Two arms, two legs," he said almost reverently. He swallowed hard. "Can't tell about the fingers and toes, but it looks promising."
She reached up and gripped his left hand. Along with stories about Vietnam vets having trouble conceiving after their exposure to the defoliants used in and around combat zones, tales had begun filtering through the medical community about missing and malformed limbs, among other problems, in some of the babies that did make it. Not all of them, not even most of them, but enough to be worrying.
The baby kicked suddenly, and she gasped, feeling it and seeing it at the same time. "That's it, sweetheart," Richard murmured as the baby turned slightly, aiming its feet toward them. "Keep heading that way, and we can figure out what you are."
She held her breath as the baby kept wiggling. Richard moved the transducer slightly, staring intently at the screen. Then he laughed.
He let go of her hand and pointed at a dark portion of the screen between their baby's legs. "Unless this kid's missing a rather critical part of his anatomy, I think we can safely say we're having a girl."
"Really?" She stared at him, astounded. "A girl?"
He nodded, a grin starting to form on his mouth. "Sugar and spice and everything nice."
"You haven't been around many little girls, have you?"
"I hear you haven't either, Miss five brothers and untold numbers of male cousins." He turned back to the screen and moved the transducer again, looking intent. "Everything else looks good—placenta, amniotic fluid, everything's normal. We should get going."
She bit her lip. On the screen, the baby—their daughter—seemed to be sleeping, tired from her latest round of acrobatics. If she stretched, Colleen could just barely reach the screen, and she pressed her index finger to the very edge. "I don't want to say goodbye," she admitted.
"Me neither." He put his finger to the tiny blob of their daughter's hand, before wrapping his hand around Colleen's. "It's not for so long, though. Eighteen more weeks, if she's punctual."
"I'll probably be ready to evict her by then."
To avoid the nurse on duty, they took the emergency stairs to get out of the hospital. As Richard pulled out of the parking lot into the empty midnight street, Colleen said, "Actually, you're not entirely correct. About how many little girls I've been around." He flicked an inquisitive glance her way before returning his eyes to the road. "There was Molly. My sister. Twin, actually."
They came to a rather more abrupt stop than necessary at a traffic light. "Your sister? You don't have a sister."
"She died when we were two. Car ran off the road. My father was driving."
"You never told me."
"It was a long time ago." The light turned green, but it took a nudge from her before Richard drove through the intersection.
"I was too young to remember her. Brian and Sean told me a few things, in passing. Mostly about how they would switch our clothes to confuse Mom or Dad, but they always knew. Nobody knew how." She clasped her hands together over the swell of her stomach, then pulled them apart. "Molly cried easier at a loud noise, or if an errant paper airplane hit the back of her head. She stayed close to Mom if she had us outside while she was hanging laundry, while I went wandering off. That kind of thing." It was such a sad, small collection of impressions to comprise a whole life, short as it had been.
"It must have been a nightmare for your parents, losing a child. Especially like that." She could see Richard shudder, and knew he was thinking of Roger and Jake. Of the tiny girl moving inside her right now.
"Mentioning her was the one surefire way to get Mom mad as hell at you." As soon as she'd learned of her sister's brief existence, she'd learned never to talk about her while her mother was around. The one time she'd tried it with her father was the first—and one of the very, very few—times she'd ever seen him tear up, and it had scared her so much that she'd never done it again.
"Molly," he said softly. Experimentally.
She touched her stomach, just above her daughter's kick.
21 years, ten months, and seventeen days earlier
"You go ahead. I'm not really hungry."
A drop of red sauce fell onto the plate of noodles as Richard paused mid-ladle and glanced at his wife. "You love spaghetti."
She gave him an uneasy look, swaying slightly on her feet. Her eyes were oddly glassy in the fluorescent kitchen light, and her skin had taken on the pallor of her uniform. "Well, tonight I'm—" Her eyes widened, and she turned and ran for the bathroom.
Heedless of how the dropped ladle spattered sauce all over the counter, not to mention the back of his dress shirt and pants, Richard ran after her. "Colleen!" he called over the unmistakable sound of vomiting. "What's—"
He broke off as he got to the bathroom door and saw her with her head hanging over the toilet bowl, a position he'd seen all too many times over the past year. The swaying, the glazed over expression...his own stomach fell as he realized he knew what was wrong.
"I thought we were over this," he said as he leaned over her and roughly yanked her hair back from her face. "You made a promise." She gasped, a strangled but ultimately not dangerous sound, no aspiration, and then another round began. "Did you follow the interns to that dive they all go to? At least tell me you didn't drive home like—"
She was done, finally, and when she turned her head she gave him a look that could've burned a forest to cinders. "Damn it, Richard, I'm not drunk. I'm pregnant."
He sat down on the tile—maybe fell was more accurate—hard enough to hurt. "What?"
"I was trying to think of a good way to tell you."
She met his eyes, and for a long moment they just stared at one another. Finally, she choked on a laugh. Then she didn't bother trying to stop. If it was a touch hysterical, then he couldn't judge, because he'd joined her, and his was walking that same line.
"Here," he said through the last of it after he opened the cabinet under the sink and retrieved a washcloth. He handed it to her and stood up. "I'll get you some water." He ran water into a paper cup from the dispenser next to the sink and handed it to her, sitting back down as she rinsed and spat into the toilet. He reached up and flushed.
"How far along?" he asked. Excitement started to muscle through the shock that had cocooned him. She was pregnant. After trying for so long, they were having a baby.
She smiled for the first time all night. "Six weeks."
He counted back in his head. "Our anniversary?"
"Could be. Or it might've been the night of Andy and Jane's party."
Andy Bowers, one of the other OBs in his practice, and his wife Jane lived on five acres way out in the country, almost at the New Hampshire line. As they were driving back through the fields, Colleen had mentioned how it reminded her of driving out to some farmer's field in Kansas after her senior prom, and how the night had ended rather badly for all involved. Richard had pulled off the road and promised to make it up to her. However, they hadn't counted on how much of an advantage youth was in that particular situation. They'd managed the deed, but both of them had nursed sore backs and aching necks for two days afterward.
He took her hand. "Let's say it was our anniversary." Suddenly he remembered. "I thought we couldn't—with our exposure, Agent Orange—"
She bit her lip and swiped at a tear that had escaped her eye. "I guess there's always the possibility of miracles. Even for us."
22 years, two months, and four days earlier
When Colleen came in through the front door, she walked in on Richard putting down the hall into a washed-out soup can. "I'm four for four," he said as she shut the door. "One more and I'll qualify for the tour."
He lined up his club against the ball. She came up behind him and clasped her arms around his waist, resting her chin on his shoulder. He swung, and both their heads turned to follow the ball's progress down the hall. It bumped down the hardwood in a straight line that just missed the soup can, making a loud knock against the baseboard before rolling to a stop several feet away.
"There goes the Masters," Richard said. "I think I should be allowed a mulligan, though. Distraction on the field."
"Mmm." Remembering what Jennifer Whitmire had told her half an hour ago, Colleen tried to be aware of the moment with all of her senses. Traces of Richard's aftershave, spicy and sharp, lingered on his face and neck, where the tip of her nose brushed the scratchy beginnings of a five o'clock shadow. He was warm in her arms, always surprisingly solid despite his wiry frame; his pale green button-down was soft under her cheek and hands from many washings. She could hear him breathing as he briefly rested his head against hers, brushed the fingers of his free hand across her knuckles.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Nothing," she murmured. "I just felt like...this."
He leaned the putter against the wall and turned slowly in her arms, his hands coming to rest just above her hips. She concentrated on the restrained lightness of his touch, and the way he ran his thumbs slowly down the curve of her waist. "Good session with Dr. Whitmire?"
She nodded. "She wants you to come next time."
"Oh." Although he'd gotten a friend from med school to recommend someone—Colleen having had quite enough of Army psychiatrists after their tour—he'd never actually met Dr. Whitmire himself. She'd turned down his offer to come along to her first session. "Okay."
"She wants us to do some kind of communication exercise together."
"What kind of communication?"
"I have some suggestions."
She smirked. "I'm sure you do."
His hands tightened on her waist, and, still somewhat hesitantly, he pulled her in for a kiss. She stretched to meet him.
22 years, three months, nineteen days, fifteen hours, and forty-one minutes earlier
Richard looked up from the newspaper he hadn't been reading, because he hadn't bothered to turn on the light when he got home, when he heard a key in the door. He held his breath as it swung slowly open, the hinge neither of them could seem to remember to oil squeaking in the silence.
McMurphy stopped short when she saw him. "Oh."
"Hi." He stood up and dropped the paper on the couch. He turned on a lamp, finally. "Been a while since I saw you here."
"I just came to get some clean underwear. I'm—I'm staying at the hospital again."
"How long are you going to do this?"
She stared at her feet for a long moment. Glanced at him without meeting his eyes, then back at the floor. "I just came to get some underwear."
He squared his shoulders. "No."
Her head jerked up. "Are you going to try to keep me out of my own house?"
"It's my house too." He closed the distance between them and grabbed her wrist. She tried to twist out of his grip, but he didn't let her. "How much of your life are you willing to scrub away because you want to forget the bad parts, McMurphy?"
She inhaled, and he heard her breath hitch. But she didn't say anything, and she kept her face turned away from him.
"It was two years of our lives. Two years. It was kids getting blown up, and Boonie's parties at the Jet Set, and singing pop songs together in the OR, the smell of burnt flesh that lingered all night, and falling in love with you."
Ever so slightly, she started rocking back and forth. Her free arm squeezed tight across her ribs, and her chin dropped to her chest.
"It's part of us. It always will be."
"I know," she finally murmured. "I know. I know."
At last, she turned toward him just a fraction, and he caught her up in his arms, holding her as tight as he could. She clung to his neck like he was the only thing keeping her from sliding off a cliff.
"I don't want to lose you," she said into his ear, her voice breaking on the words. "But I'm drowning and I don't know how to hang on."
He pulled back just enough that he could see her. He cupped her cheek, thumbing away a tear. "We'll figure it out together," he promised.
She closed her eyes and nodded. Opening them again after a long moment, she said, "I think I'm going to need some help."
22 years, three months, nineteen days, fifteen hours, and fifty-three minutes earlier
Behind the wheel, Colleen approached her usual exit from the Mass Pike, the one that after two rights, a left, a long straightaway, and another right, would deposit her in front of the house she and Richard shared on a quiet, tree-lined city street. It was late evening, just past rush hour, and traffic was light. The exit lane opened up just past a shoe factory and a billboard advertising Coca Cola, a woman in a red bathing suit drinking deeply from a glass bottle.
Colleen took her foot off the gas and put her hand on the turn indicator stick, but didn't flip it up.
The road continued, of course. Past Boston, past the state line. Along the Great Lakes. Through the flat, high prairie. Finally it ended in Seattle, a whole continent away.
She could see herself driving past fields green with new wheat. Through the Rockies, choked with snow this time of year. Just driving, on and on, fast enough and far enough, maybe, to escape everything that haunted her. She pressed the accelerator again, lightly, just an experiment, and then with more authority. Seattle was rainy. Good thing she had an umbrella stashed in the back seat. Her eyes she kept straight ahead, on the dark road unspooling in front of her.
At the very last second before she would've crashed into the barrier separating interstate from off ramp if she strayed, she zipped into the exit lane.
22 years, three months, and twenty-two days earlier
Colleen felt Richard's eyes on her as she stood at the kitchen counter and poured another generous slug of bourbon into her glass. "Don't you think you've had enough?" he asked.
Not while she was still upright. "Nope." She took a deep swallow, relishing the burn down her throat.
He crossed the room and put the cork back in the bottle. She took it right back out and splashed another finger into her glass.
"Nancy stopped by when I was cleaning up after a tubal ligation today."
That made her glance up from her glass.
"She's worried about you. She told me about finding the flask you've been keeping in your desk. Apparently that doesn't fly as well here as it did in Vietnam." He glared at her. "And she told me about the little breakdown you had the other day over a patient with neurological damage suspiciously similar to a certain Marine's. None of which you bothered to mention to me."
She laughed, a choked and bitter sound. "Amazing. No matter how many letters you have after your name, if you're a nurse someone's always going to go tell the doctor on you."
"She told me because you're my wife," he snapped. "And you're lucky she hasn't fired you. She's not going to have a choice if this kind of thing goes on."
Somewhere under the pleasant haze that was finally, after more than three quarters of the bottle, starting to take hold, a part of her that spoke in her mother's voice said he was right. "I'm dealing with it."
"And I'm the queen of England." He slid the bottle away from her and corked it again. "Drinking half a bottle of this every night, and God knows what else from that flask you keep in your desk, isn't dealing with it."
"Better than the alternative," she mumbled. A little mellow, and she didn't see soldiers' faces in her patients. Certifiably drunk, and she didn't see their broken bodies in her dreams.
"Colleen, you need to see a professional."
God forbid. Talking about it was the last thing she needed. "We're not in the Army anymore. I don't have to take orders from you."
"And I don't have to watch you slowly kill yourself because you think it'll make the ghosts of some dead boys happy."
He turned and started walking out of the kitchen. She hadn't expected him to actually leave.
"You don't have a clue," she said, arresting him mid-step, and maybe in part it was to do just that. "The last thing I want to do is encourage their ghosts. I have enough of them haunting me as it is."
"Then why won't you let someone help you?" The way he looked at her, searchingly, so desperate to fix her, made her wish she could let him come close and just hold on to her until everything felt normal again, but it wasn't that simple.
She threw her glass against the gold-papered backsplash. The last of the bourbon made a brown, wet stain on the wall, and glass rained on the counter. She pitched forward with the effort, unsteady on her feet now, and cut her left hand on one of the shards.
He was at her side immediately, reaching for her hand, but she reared away from him, fisting her hands by her sides. Her eyes, damn it, were tearing up.
"I just want to forget everything that happened over there. The whole damn two years." No more ghosts, no more dreams, no more nagging feeling that she'd never love what she did here as much as she'd loved it in Vietnam. No more wondering what kind of a person that made her.
He looked stricken. "I'm part of what happened over there. This—" he waved at the space between them "—is part of what happened over there."
She nodded miserably.
He gulped. She watched his Adam's apple bob once, twice. "So what does that mean?"
She spread her hands. Felt a drop of blood trickle off her ring finger, hit the linoleum and stain it red. Listened to the clock tick on the wall behind her.
"I don't know."
22 years, seven months, and fifteen days earlier
"Mrs. Warren, you say you and your husband have been...having relations according to the ovulation calculator for fourteen months now?"
Richard leaned forward slightly over his office desk as the patient in front of him, a tiny, mousy woman with frizzy brown hair, bobbed her head several more times than necessary.
"And your menstrual periods have been regular?"
Richard held back a sigh. "Well, I didn't find anything unusual on either pelvic exam, and Dr. Marx assured me that everything appears to be functioning normally for your husband. Whatever the problem is, it's not something that we can see." He wove his fingers together on the desktop. "The usual advice in this situation is to relax."
"Relax?" Mrs. Warren clutched her purse, looking dubious.
"Yes. Forget about the calendar and the thermometer. Let nature take its course. Something about the lack of tension seems to promote fertility for many couples."
Her brow furrowed. "Does that really work?"
"I..." He stopped, his mouth closing of its own accord. He'd told plenty of women in Mrs. Warren's situation that relaxation worked like a charm. Throw away the calendar, proceed to go at it like bunnies, and boom—baby. And for some people, a few, that was true. He hadn't lied, exactly. The placebo effect may have even contributed to a few of the pregnancies that had resulted. But something about Mrs. Warren's sharp eyes and sudden air of intelligence when faced with a claim she couldn't immediately see the evidence for—he dimly remembered her mentioning something about Radcliffe, a chemistry degree, maybe—made it impossible to tell her the happy half-truth.
Or maybe it was his new personal experience with how flimsy that advice could be.
"Not really," he said. "If it's going to happen, it'll happen. If not, it won't. It's just easier to get through the waiting without worrying about the timing."
Mrs. Warren's face relaxed, and she nodded. "That makes more sense."
"I'm sorry it's not more comforting." More sorry than she would ever know.
"I'm a scientist, Dr. Richard. I prefer an ugly truth to a pretty lie any day. Much like yourself, I would assume."
He paused a moment too long. "Right."
She stood up and collected her coat. "Good luck," he told her.
She looked at him intently and nodded. "To you too, Doctor."
22 years, ten months, and seven days earlier
"What were you thinking? Were you thinking?" Richard ranted, after twenty minutes of cold silence, as he drove them home from the wedding of one of his cousins to a pretty young blonde woman who looked like the stiffest, most stuffy society lady one could ask for, but who'd turned out to be a pretty good dancer.
Slumped in the passenger seat, Colleen rolled her eyes. "It's a wedding. You're supposed to drink to get through the reception. That's why someone invented the open bar."
Admittedly, she may have taken things a little far when she invited the bride to dance on a table with her. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the horrified expressions on everyone else's faces suggested otherwise. Spoilsports.
"Well, you certainly got through it. Now my entire extended family thinks you're a lush."
"Oh, like you're one to judge! You used to match me drink for drink in the Jet Set."
"You'll notice I don't anymore."
Her breathing sounded harsh in the silence following his remark. "I'm glad you're so well-adjusted," she finally said as he pulled into their driveway.
He turned off the engine but made no move to get out of the car. The street lamp cast a sickly yellow glow over both of them as it shone through the rear window.
"What's this about?" he asked, his voice much softer than before.
"Apparently it's about me being a drunk."
"It's about more than that."
"You seem to have all the answers. Why don't you tell me?"
"You were fine until we started talking about China Beach with Eddie and Carolyn," Richard mused.
"You started talking about it." And while she'd tried her hardest to change the subject, the other couple—she'd forgotten how they and Richard were related—had been fascinated by the carefully sanitized tales of hijinks and mayhem, embellished for maximum humor, that Richard fed them. Eventually she'd gotten up for a drink and never come back.
"You can't just pretend it never happened. We were there."
"And you can't put the war in a little box and bring it out at parties!"
He drew back as if she'd slapped him.
"It's what people want to hear," he finally said. "Frankly, I'm surprised they want that much. If that's how it has to be told, then that's how I'll tell it. At least it's saying something."
Meaning, of course, that it was superior to her habit of never bringing it up at all.
Maybe it was the aftereffect of all the wine, scotch, gin, and whiskey she'd had tonight, but her anger seemed to tint everything red for a second. "That's not what it was like," she spat, each word a rock from a slingshot. "It's not the truth."
"And what is the truth? Is it only the kids who died? The ones who got their limbs blown off? That's not the whole truth."
"They're a bigger part of it than you tell people."
"Because no one will listen to that part. Remember the last time we were at your mother's house?"
She glared at him in the dim light. For bringing it up. For being right. For being able, apparently, to forget, when she never, ever could.
"I haven't forgotten," he said. "You're just the only person I can tell it to."
A lump grew in her throat. She was either going to cry or about to throw up. Whichever it was, she needed to get out of this car.
She unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door. "I," she said, thickly and with as much dignity as she could muster, stumbling a bit as she got out, "am going to bed."
Over the noise of her retches, she heard him sigh. Then she felt him pull her hair away from her face and run his palm over her back.
"Oh, God," she moaned when she was finished. She leaned against the wall hard enough to hurt her already pounding head. The tile was cool against her temple, though. Clammy, but almost pleasant.
Richard silently offered her a cup of water. Her pride chafed at taking it, but her mouth insisted. She washed the taste out and spat in the toilet. He flushed it for her and closed the lid. Then he sat on the shaggy blue rug, leaning against the bathtub.
"Any time you want to start the lecture about not drinking so much," she said when the silence started to unnerve her.
"Would it do any good?"
She looked at him for the first time since he'd come into the room. His eyes were red, and the lines around them deeper than she remembered from even this afternoon. His shoulders curved forward as though he was protecting himself from something.
He was the only other person in Boston who knew the truth of all they'd been through at China Beach. And he was sitting right there.
"I'll stop," she said. "I'll get...better...at this. I will."
23 years and six days earlier
Even if she hadn't just attended the show, Colleen would've known that voice anywhere. She opened her arms as Laurette leaped off the stage and raced into a flying tackle that nearly sent them both sprawling across the table Colleen and Richard had staked out for the performance.
"Oh my God!" Laurette screeched in her ear. "I wanted to come over here for the entire set! What are you doing here? What are you doing in Boston? You're from Kansas!"
"I'm here to see you!" If one could call it seeing in the dark and smoky club, anyway. "And I live in Boston now."
"Was that Dr. Richard I saw with you? With his arm around you?"
"Yeah, he went to get us another round."
Laurette's eyes bugged out. "Colleen, he's married!"
She laughed. "Yeah, to me!"
If Laurette's jaw dropped any lower, it would've been on the floor. Colleen took pity on her and explained. "His first wife divorced him, just a few months after you joined Johnny Grant's tour, actually."
"And you were there to pick up the pieces?" Laurette asked, a sly gleam in her eye.
"Not exactly. It took us a while to...realize what was there."
"And then you got married."
"Two years next week."
Laurette nodded, causing the dangling ends of her brightly-patterned headscarf to bob. "Amazing."
"What is?" Richard asked, sidling up to the table laden with three glasses. "The price of a drink in this place? Here." He put a double of Jameson's on the table in front of Colleen. "For you. And a martini for me—special treat, I got an extra olive for you to steal." He held the last glass out to Laurette. "I took a chance that you still like the treacly cocktails you used to order in the Jet Set and got you the fruitiest thing on the menu." She smiled as she took the glass from him. "It's good to see you, Laurette."
"Same here, Doc."
They rambled through the past four years, bringing Laurette up to speed on everything she'd missed since leaving China Beach. She took the news of Boonie's lost leg with a gasp—apparently they hadn't kept in touch—and laughed at the idea of Lila partaking in wedded bliss to an NCO. Laurette had toured for a year with Johnny Grant's company before returning stateside with a recording contract. Since then, she'd been touring and cutting the occasional record. She wasn't yet as famous as she'd hoped, but she made a living and did what she loved.
"Hey," Laurette asked, "did you guys keep using that little spot we made behind the church? No men allowed? I was so bummed I never got to hang out there with you."
Colleen smiled sadly. "VC mortar destroyed it a week after you left."
"Aw, man! Really?"
"The only things left were splinters." She swirled the last sip of whiskey in her glass. "I wish we'd rebuilt it. There were times I could've used a place with no men."
In the ensuing awkward silence, both of them couldn't help but look at Richard.
He stood up. "I can take a hint."
"It's okay—" Laurette started, but he shook his head.
"I have a seven-thirty hysterectomy tomorrow anyway. All good little gynecologists should be in bed by this hour." He leaned down and quickly kissed Colleen. "You have cab fare?" She nodded. "Good night, then."
Once he'd disappeared into the crowd, Laurette gave her a shrewd look. "I knew you had a crush on him back at China Beach."
Colleen felt her jaw drop. "I did not!"
"That shirt you made for him says otherwise."
She put her hand to her forehead. "Oh, God, that shirt. What was I thinking?"
"Do you still have it?"
She raised her head. "Yes. It's in a box at the back of the coat closet." Along with everything else she'd brought back from Vietnam that she couldn't bear to look at but couldn't bring herself to throw out either.
"Did you ever show it to him?"
"No!" She laughed. "I'd never hear the end of it." Narrowing her eyes, she said, "Let's change the subject. What about your love life?"
Laurette smiled wryly. "I threw a lot of fish back in the sea. Guys who were just interested because I was kind of famous, you know? It took me a while to figure out how to tell them from the rest. There were a couple nice ones that I met in New York, but I was gone so much that we couldn't keep it going.
"So two months ago I got smart. I started dating my keyboardist."
Colleen thought back to the show she'd just seen. "Isn't your keyboardist a woman?"
Laurette gave her a careful look. "Does that bother you?"
She considered the question for a moment. "No. Not if you're happy."
Laurette's dimples appeared. "I am." She put her chin on her hand. "Is it easier being with someone who was over there? It's just...I haven't, since I came back, and some of it's so hard to explain. The guys, you know? What it was like. Why it mattered so much."
Colleen looked down at her empty glass and considered going back to the bar for a fourth round before answering. "In some ways," she finally said. "Honestly, we don't talk about it much. But it's nice not to have to explain...things." Like why she froze for a second whenever she ran across boys named Tommy, or ones who looked like Dodger. Or the source of a nightmare. Or why neither of them could stand fireworks anymore.
"Sometimes I'm more grateful than I can say."
Laurette picked up on what she didn't say. "Other times?"
"Other times...I can't look at him without remembering it. And sometimes all I want to do is forget."
Laurette played with the fringe on her shawl. "I always thought love was supposed to make things easy. You know, relationships. Hasn't worked out that way, though."
"Love is what makes them hard."
The conversation turned to easier topics for a while before Laurette asked, impishly, "So, got plans for any little McMurphies?"
Colleen's smile, left over from a funny story about an amplifier mishap Laurette had just told, faded. She dropped her gaze to her lap, just barely covered by a yellow and white polka-dotted minidress. "Well, Richard has his sons every other weekend. That's been an adventure."
When she looked up again, Laurette was watching her with a sympathetic expression. "Sorry. Not a good subject?"
"No," Colleen hurried to say. "No, it's fine." She worried her lip between her teeth for a moment. "We said we'd give ourselves a year to settle back into the world, and we did. And since then—well, we haven't been trying, with schedules and charts and everything, but we haven't been doing anything to prevent it either." She held back a sigh. "That was nine months ago."
Each month, the arrival of her period sent an arrow of pain through her that grew keener each time she saw the telltale smear of blood. She'd never even been late, which at least would've given her some hope for a while. True, they weren't trying with the single-minded focus some couples did, but it had been almost a year. Statistically, they were starting to look like outliers.
Laurette put her hand over Colleen's. With a little smile, she started to sing. "People get ready," she sang, "there's a train a-comin'. You don't need no baggage, you just get on board."
Colleen could never resist joining in. "All you need is faith," they sang, too loud in the emptying nightclub, "to hear the diesels humming. Don't need no ticket, you just thank the lord."
23 years, four months, and twenty-six days earlier
"Having trouble sleeping?" Richard asked as he watched Colleen pour a rather large shot of bourbon into a tumbler.
There was the slightest bobble in the rhythm of liquid hitting the glass. She pulled the bottle upright and carefully put the top back on. "Why?"
"This is the fifth night in a row you've had a pretty good fraction of a fifth." In addition to what she'd drunk at dinner, and a follow-up after dinner. Her breakfasts this week had mostly consisted of aspirin and coffee, he'd noticed.
"And?" She crouched to put the bottle back under the kitchen counter and then stood back up, swaying slightly as she tightened the tie on her robe.
He crossed the kitchen and touched her cheek. "Something in particular bothering you?"
She almost shook her head, but then said, "Cherry died three years ago today."
Cherry. That poor girl. He'd forgotten. For a second, he let himself remember her cheerful smile, her dogged helpfulness.
"What about the last four days?" he asked, moving his fingers to tuck a few strands of hair behind McMurphy's ear. She'd been letting it grow lately, and now it reached almost to her shoulders.
She shook her head, breaking their contact, and took a long sip from her glass. "Somebody died."
"I'm not sure I like the implications of that logic for your liver."
She sighed and met his eyes. "It's been a hard week, all right? I have to be in early tomorrow and I need to sleep. Not wake up with—" She snapped her mouth shut and took another sip. "I won't need it tomorrow."
He had noticed a marked lack of nightmares this week. She'd woken them both up at three AM on Saturday, shouting for someone to get down. She was clammy and trembling as he held her afterwards, trying to ease her back into sleep by rubbing her back. Almost always, two or three more nights like that would follow, until whatever demon was haunting her this time left her alone for a few more months. This week, she'd slept like the dead.
She swigged the last of the bourbon and set the glass on the counter. "Cross my heart." She brushed her fingers over his hand. "I'll see you upstairs."
He turned to watch her go. Leaning against the counter, he picked up her glass and turned it in his fingertips, looking at the patterns made by the refraction of the overhead light through the remaining scum of amber liquid in the glass.
Cherry should've been twenty-three this year. Some farmer's wife by now, maybe. Or a teacher. A dance instructor. Hell, maybe an actress—she'd certainly managed to put on a happy face for the boys even when she had to be completely wrung out inside.
Colleen should've been sleeping through the night without the help of Mr. Jack Daniels. And yet.
Something Dodger said during that long, horrible night at Tet came to mind. "Nobody here gets out alive. Breathing, maybe. We were dead the day we got off the plane."
Richard stared at the glass for a long time.
23 years, eleven months, and three days earlier
Colleen's heart wasn't really in this dinner out. Her steak was delicious—almost a year out, it was still a novelty to eat something that hadn't been freeze-dried and cooked to death by an inexperienced private on KP duty—but she barely tasted it. Instead, she gulped the wine in her glass
"Penny for them," Richard said. "Although I suppose with inflation, it might be a nickel now."
She gave a half-hearted smile at his joke, then shrugged. "Just tired, I guess."
Obviously determined to keep the conversational ball rolling, he said, "Today was the first day for the choppers, wasn't it?"
She nodded. Somehow, he'd landed exactly on what was troubling her—though she supposed it was obvious. Boston General had recently completed construction of a helipad on top of the hospital, and because there were always car accidents, they'd received their first emergency patients today, a man and a woman who'd smashed into each other on a twisty country road thirty miles outside the city.
Colleen's charge nurse had volunteered her to be part of the team meeting the first flight. She'd tried to insist she'd be more useful in triage, but her protests had fallen on deaf ears. So as soon as the call came over the radio that Boston 1 was five minutes out, Colleen and the two other nurses and physicians assigned to helipad duty took the new, express elevator to the roof and went out to wait.
The view, at least, was better than the one from the helipad at China Beach. She'd give it that. But the sticky July heat in Boston wasn't much different from the cloying humidity of Vietnam any month of the year. At the thrumming of the chopper blades, when she finally heard them on the breathless air, she tensed as she had a thousand times before, preparing herself for anything from a few boys with light shrapnel wounds to the carnage of an overrun firebase, half the soldiers dead and the rest so close it would take a miracle to keep them alive.
The two people hauled out on stretchers, both of them stabilized already by the paramedics on the chopper, were half a relief, half an obscene disappointment. With so much adrenaline flooding her body, Colleen was all dressed up with no one to save.
She approached the patients, half-expecting to see bloodstained triage tags with poor information about their injuries, but the paramedics were already reeling off the damage. Broken bones—the woman's pelvis and a couple of ribs were fractured, the man's collarbone and left arm—and blood loss, possible concussion on the man, the woman's spleen and liver might have been scratched by the shattered bone. Both of them were breathing and had strong pulses. It was strange to have the exploratory work all done for her, and not have to find it all out for herself as fast as possible so she could put them in line. Even when she'd tried to hang a pint of blood, one of the doctors had taken it from her hands with a quick, "I've got it."
"How was it?"
She shrugged. "Fine." He raised an eyebrow. She sighed. "Different." She slowly raked her fork through her baked potato. "There wasn't much to do. I was...I felt so superfluous." Like a paperweight, dull and inert. "Sometimes I wonder what I'm even doing there."
At China Beach, there'd been so many wounded coming in that it was all they could do to keep up with them. Nurses filled in where they could, even if splenectomies and suturing weren't exactly on the licensing exam. Not at Boston General. Sometimes she felt like she needed to get a physician's order to breathe. The last nine months had been like having her wings clipped.
Richard stared at her for a long moment, like he was cataloging symptoms to make a diagnosis. She was about to ask him what he was looking for when he reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a thick envelope. "This came for you today."
The upper left corner of the envelope bore the name and crest of Boston College, with the words "School of Nursing" in small letters underneath. "My application," Colleen said, fingering the heavy paper. She'd requested one for their MSN program two weeks ago, the first step on the way to a nurse practitioner's license. General was looking to add more of them to the acute care program, to build a stronger front line in triage who were trained to do much of what the doctors currently did. Who could fill in where they were needed.
"I know you said you weren't sure"—these days, she wasn't sure about anything, including whether she wanted to be a nurse at all—"but it would give you more freedom."
She turned the envelope over and slid her finger under the seal.
24 years, one month, and sixteen days earlier
"Colleen?" Richard called when he came in the side door, late after a day that had gotten off to a sluggish start when his first appointment ran late and the effects cascaded throughout the day.
"In here," she called back from the living room. He could hear the soft drone of the television, caught the melody that signified the beginning of the nightly news.
The screen showed thickets of college students sobbing, chanting, and waving protest signs. Black and white photos flashed across the screen of events earlier in the day, young men lying too still on the pavement as bystanders gazed at them in horror, their mouths open in silent screams.
"Did you see this today?" she asked as he joined her on the couch. She was huddled in a corner, her knees drawn up to her chest.
"Radio." The receptionist had called them all to the desk at the front, and along with a waiting room full of patients, he, his partner, and their nurses had listened to the sirens and screams and the reporter's panicked voice.
The story finished, and the anchor introduced another about the ongoing invasion of Cambodia that had birthed the protests at that college in Ohio. Colleen looked at him with a weary expression he'd seen too much of last year. "What's happening here?"
He shook his head. "Sometimes it feels like we never left."
The screen flashed images of jungle and dirty Marines, as familiar now as they had been seven months ago. Richard toed off his shoes and curled up next to his wife, putting his arm around her shoulders. After a moment she leaned into him, and they watched the rest of the report without saying another word.
24 years, seven months, and nine days earlier
"Rog, you want to hang this one? It's a bear, your favorite." Richard held the fuzzy teddy bear ornament out to his five-year-old.
"Giraffes are my favorite, Dad," he said.
"Really? I was sure it was bears." McMurphy, who could probably tell that his voice was a little too bright, glanced at him from where she was hanging a glittery red ball near the top of the fragrant, slightly lopsided Christmas tree.
He didn't quite meet her eyes and instead put the bear in Roger's hand. "Well, why don't you hang it anyway?"
With a little puff of breath that wasn't quite a sigh, his son tromped over to the tree and hung the bear on the highest branch he could reach, about halfway up the trunk.
Richard looked at Jake, who was desultorily picking through the boxes that had once held balls, bells, and figurines to find any last ornaments. None of them bore the scuff marks of past Christmases; he and Colleen had bought them all new this year. Beth Ann had kept all the ones they used to share—all the macaroni art the kids had done in preschool, the fragile glass bells her parents had given them for their first Christmas together—and Colleen's mother still covered her own tree with all the sentimental favorites from the McMurphy clan's childhood Christmases.
"You guys don't seem to be too into this," Richard observed as he unpacked the shiny gold star that would crown the tree.
"We did it with Mom and Doug last weekend," Jake said.
Ah. Next year, they were putting up the tree right after Thanksgiving. Even if it would get brown by Christmas.
"Well, twice the fun, right?" McMurphy said. When no reaction appeared forthcoming from the boys, she raised her eyebrows and glanced at Richard. "Tough crowd."
"All right, then, here's the last piece...coming...right...up," Richard said, straining to reach the top of the tree and jam the coil on the bottom of the star onto the highest branch.
"You sure you don't want a ladder?"
"I've...got it." He let go, and the star swung wildly on top of the tree. They all watched it in silence, wondering if it would stay or come flying off to impale someone or something with one of the five pointy ends.
It stayed. Richard did not let out a sigh of relief, though he may have thought very hard about it.
"It looks nice, right, guys?" McMurphy asked the boys.
"What about the tinsel?" Jake asked.
"The tinsel! I almost forgot." Richard rifled through the paper bags they'd stored the lights and ornaments in, finally emerging with a package of silver tinsel.
Colleen made a face as he ripped open the cardboard packaging and gave a handful to everyone. "I've never been a big fan of tinsel."
He stopped and stared at her. "Really? You don't like tinsel? I didn't think that was possible. Did the VC replace the real McMurphy with a lookalike when I wasn't watching?"
He took a large handful of the silver strands and draped them over her head. She rolled her eyes. "Richard..."
"I think it's fetching, myself. It makes you look festive, it makes the tree look festive."
They were interrupted by a muffled giggle from Roger. Jake, too, was having trouble keeping himself from laughing, though he seemed to be trying hard. Both of them kept snickering as he and McMurphy looked at them. "Oh, so you think that's funny?" Richard asked.
They put hands over their mouths, but they were still laughing. Jake finally nodded, and Roger managed a "yes" between two more giggles.
"Then how about...this?" With one quick motion, he draped handfuls of tinsel over both the kids' heads. They gave up trying to hide their laughter then, and the room rang with it. It had been a long, long time since he'd heard that sound. For a moment, he just stood still and drank it in.
At least, until McMurphy crept up behind him and put a handful of tinsel on his head. "There," she said, "you match the rest of us. Although I think if you want to use it for coverage you're going to need some more."
"Hey," he said, his hand automatically going to the hairline that was retreating faster than an outgunned patrol. He turned a stinkeye on her. "For that, you get..." He noticed they were standing under the mistletoe he'd attached to the light fixture a few days ago. "This." He leaned forward and kissed her softly.
"Ew," one piping voice said, while another, slightly less piping, delivered an emphatic "Gross!" He and Colleen parted and shared a glance.
As one, they swept forward and diverged, him to grab Jake by the shoulders and plant the biggest, sloppiest kiss he could on the eight-year-old's head, while she scooped Roger into her arms and laid an equally messy one on his cheek. "Gross!" they shouted, but their smiles gave away that they loved every minute of it.
24 years, seven months, and five days earlier
"You and your baby are going to be just fine," Colleen said to the woman on the bed beside her as she and an orderly rolled it from the ER to a maternity operating room.
The woman gave her a wide-eyed look and placed a hand on her gown-covered belly. She'd come in to the ER with what she'd assumed was a bad case of food poisoning, only for the OB on call—who'd since run off to another delivery—to declare her baby was coming some seven weeks early. Her first child had been a C-section, which meant an automatic repeat for any successive children. Whether it was finished cooking or not, the kid was coming out today.
They met the anesthesiologist at the OR, and he quickly took over once the mother had been transferred to the table. As he put the mask over her face, she glanced fearfully at Colleen, who squeezed her shoulder. "Next thing you know, you'll be holding that baby," she promised, knowing both that it wasn't strictly true—the fetus's heartbeat was strong, but if it really was a month early, it was more likely to spend the next several days incubating in the NICU rather than in its mother's arms—and that the mother wouldn't remember this conversation when she woke up. She just needed the words now.
As the patient slipped under, Colleen looked around the OR. A neonatologist and pediatric nurse had arrived at about the same time as she did, but so far, neither an OB nor an L&D nurse had appeared. "Where's the surgeon?" she asked the anesthesiologist, who shrugged in response. Someone ought to have shown up by now. Had the world ended when she wasn't paying attention?
The door opened, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone in maroon scrubs walk in. "Finally," she couldn't keep herself from saying.
The person who'd come in raised his gaze to meet hers, and to her surprise, between the cap and mask she found herself staring into Richard's dark eyes. "Fancy meeting you here," he said.
Indeed. Sure, he admitted primarily to Boston General, but Colleen worked triage, not perinatal cases, and they'd never run into each other in an OR before.
"Jones is in another c-section," he continued. "It'll be a few minutes until they send me another nurse. I need someone to assist."
It actually took her a second before she realized that the "someone" he was referring to was her. "Like I don't have my own patients?"
"Five minutes, McMurphy."
She rolled her eyes. "Fine. But only because I like you."
"You make it sound like I'm using our personal relationship for professional favors," he said as she went to the sink to wash her hands.
"Aren't you?" she called over the running water.
She could practically hear the nonchalant shrug. "I suppose." She came back to the table, pulling gloves on. "Have you ever assisted at a section?"
"I watched a couple in nursing school."
"It's a lot like pulling shrapnel out of a bowel," he said, bending over to insert a catheter and empty the patient's bladder. "Except shrapnel doesn't usually come out screaming. Or wiggling."
The last time her withering glance had gotten this much of a workout was when he'd started singing "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out" over a dying soldier on a particularly bad day in Vietnam. "Even I know that's not true," she said when he looked back up at her.
He shrugged. "No, it's not. But I thought it might make you feel better." He bumped her shoulder with his. "You'll be fine."
Not at all convinced, she quickly scrubbed betadine over the woman's stomach. After plucking a scalpel from the stand, Richard made the incision. She had a skin retractor at the ready—at least that was a constant from the surgeries she'd assisted at in Vietnam—but blanked on what to do next. "Bladder blade," Richard said. She blinked and handed him the tool to keep the bladder away from the operating area.
It was nothing like retrieving metal fragments from a soldier's intestines, but at least it wasn't entirely outside her comfort zone, Colleen thought as she suctioned blood from the uterine incision. Richard got the first syllable out of an order to get a bleeder she'd missed, but she was already there. He glanced at her, and she knew that under his mask he was smiling.
The intricate dance they'd done so often at China Beach replayed itself over the woman's body. She was clumsy, not used to this exact work, but he trusted her to be there, and every time it counted, she was.
The procedure was over in minutes. And the baby boy did come out making a lot more noise than shrapnel ever had. He looked a bit small for a newborn, but not unusually so. Maybe the mother's doctor had made a mistake calculating the due date.
The neonatologist took over then, and—thank God—the L&D nurse who'd gotten tied up in another c-section arrived and relieved Colleen. She gratefully left the other nurse and Richard to the task of stitching up the mother and returned to her own ward.
"Hi," he said when he saw her. She stood beside him, and he put his arm around her waist. "A little far from your usual fiefdom, aren't you?"
She leaned against him. "I like to see how things turn out."
"Pretty well, in this case. A couple more days in here, that kid'll be fine."
They watched the family for a moment longer. Then Richard said, "It was nice working with you today. Like old times." She nodded. "We should do it again some day."
She looked down, gathering her thoughts. "It was nice," she finally said. "Just like old times. I can't do it again."
He gave her a sharp, hurt look, but understanding blossomed in his expression as she held his gaze.
He cocked his head toward the exit. "Shall we? We've still got to make the cranberry sauce for tomorrow." Jake and Roger were spending the weekend with them and having their third Thanksgiving dinner of the week. The poor boys were probably sick of turkey by now.
They started walking away from the nursery. "It does come in cans, you know," Colleen pointed out.
"It's cranberry sauce, not cranberry discs," Richard countered, as he had each of the three times they'd had this conversation already.
"Always worked well enough for my family."
"You just don't know what you're missing. You'll swear off the canned stuff for life once you try this."
Twenty-four years, seven months, and twelve days earlier
Richard finally breached the surface of consciousness, vaguely aware that this was not the first time McMurphy had ordered him to wake up. "What?" he mumbled muzzily, blinking his eyes open in the thin light of far too early on a Saturday morning. It seemed brighter than it ought to be outside the window, whiter and sharper than he was used to. McMurphy was standing in front of it with the curtain pulled back, her nose practically pressed against the glass.
"Snow?" He stood up, wincing at the chilly floor of the cheap, underinsulated apartment that they were thankfully only going to be in for another three weeks. "I remember snow. Strange little white flakes falling from the sky, soft and cold...oh," he said when he reached the window. The ground below them was already covered, two inches or maybe more, and it was still coming down. After two years in the tropics, it seemed utterly exotic.
"Come on," Colleen said, already dashing for the closet and her boots inside it.
"Don't you want to get dressed first? At least have some coffee?" he asked, somewhat plaintively.
She tossed his boots out of the closet. The couple downstairs was going to love that. "It might stop."
He glanced out the window again. "Doesn't look likely."
"Just come on!"
There were times when graceful defeat was the best one could hope for. He picked up his boots and sat on the bed to put them on. McMurphy, who had finished jamming hers on, dug both their coats out of the closet and tossed his on the bed before she shoved her arms into her sleeves.
She jogged out of the bedroom as he finished with his boots. He quickly pulled the coat on, leaving it unbuttoned, and went to the closet to grope blindly along the top shelf for their gloves. With both pairs finally in hand, he walked into the living room, where McMurphy was waiting impatiently, her hand on the knob of their front door.
He tossed her the smaller pair of gloves. "Here," he said. "So your hands don't get cold when you start throwing snowballs at me."
She slid her hands into them with a grin. "You know me so well."
The cold outside was still a shock. They'd been back for more than a month, but apparently his tolerance for northeastern winters remained trapped in Vietnam. With a shiver, he paused on the covered step and did up the buttons on his coat even as Colleen raced out into the courtyard in front of their building, sending the once-pristine snow flying with her footsteps.
He watched as she spun around a couple times, her arms outstretched, and then stopped to stick out her tongue and catch a few of the falling flakes. Snow quickly whitened her hair and outlined her Army-issue woolen coat.
When he finally stepped into the yard, the snow crunched with a familiarity that made his heart flutter. For two straight winters he'd missed this, but it had waited for him, unchanged.
Well, unchanged except that now McMurphy was there to share it with him. And that made all the difference in the world.
While she was busy catching snowflakes on her tongue, he bent to pick up a handful of snow and pack it between his palms. He crept around her back and, still several feet away, called, "McMurphy"—he felt a warning was only fair—before he lobbed the snowball at her back.
Her mouth dropped open, but without missing a beat she reached down and collected her own snowball. He ducked, but somehow she compensated, and it hit him square in the upper arm with a force that didn't seem possible given how little time she'd spent packing it. Those brothers had trained her well. Pickup baseball games on the base had not prepared him for this.
While he was thinking, she'd prepared another missile. It exploded against the back of his knee, which was covered all too thinly by a pair of flannel pajama pants. More followed, smashing against his back, his side, even his head. He returned a few of his own, but it quickly became apparent that he was outclassed. When her assault had left him powdered in white, he dropped to his knees and held out his clasped hands. "Uncle," he beseeched.
She glanced back and forth between him and the snowball in her hand for a second, but then she nodded and let it fall to the ground. She sat in the snow herself, careful to make sure the tail of her coat was between her pajamas and the ground—she must be feeling the cold, finally—and stared up at the sky again for a minute. When she looked at him again, her eyes shone with a layer of tears. "Richard," she said. "We're home."
Around them, the snow kept falling, silent and white and clean.
24 years, seven months, and twenty-one days earlier
"You really like these things?" Colleen asked as she looked around the hotel ballroom, which was liberally dotted with well-dressed men and women conversing in pairs and small groups, most holding glasses of slightly above average wine, two choices each of red and white.
"Learning new techniques, case studies of diseases and complications you don't see in everyday practice...what's not to like about professional development?" Richard replied.
"I see lots of education going on right now."
"Don't be fooled. These meet and greets are where I learn to whom I can send those few patients who need someone with more specialization than I have...and who are the real quacks."
"Oh, Dr. Richard!" A young blonde woman approached them with a smile so shiny it could've been used as a streetlamp.
"Dr. Allison," he said, smiling back at her. "It's nice to see you again so soon."
Doctor? Colleen thought. She looks nineteen, tops.
"Let me introduce you—this is Dr. Sarah Allison. She just moved to Boston. We met in the poster session this afternoon. Sarah, my wife, Colleen."
"Colleen," the woman said, holding out her hand. "Dick told me how you met serving in Vietnam. That must have been interesting."
Colleen was so startled that she couldn't respond. She nodded ever so slightly as she took Dr. Allison's hand.
"And now you work triage at Boston General? I admit there sometimes. Maybe we'll run into each other."
Colleen cleared her throat and managed to croak out, "I don't work the OB cases."
"Much to my disappointment," Richard said.
Dr. Allison smiled. "I bet the two of you made a good team."
"The best." Richard put his arm around her waist. She tried not to shudder.
Dr. Allison's eyes widened at something she saw over their shoulders, and she smoothed a hand along her skirt. "I'm sorry to leave so quickly," she said, "but I just saw someone I really need to talk to. Will I see you at the keynote tomorrow?" she asked Richard.
"Absolutely." He watched her walk off with a vaguely appreciative gaze. Colleen might have worried, except that he soon turned an even more appreciative eye on her. "One day I'll talk you into it," he said.
Keep dreaming, she thought. "You told her we met in Vietnam?" she asked instead.
His face rumpled in confusion. "Of course. Why wouldn't I?" She didn't answer. "What do you tell people?"
"I tell them a friend introduced us."
It was easier, on the whole. No one looked at her like she was a conspirator in a war no one wanted, or like someone to be pitied. No one asked what it was like. No one stirred up memories she was still trying unsuccessfully to bury.
"Any particular reason?"
"Uh-huh. Well, be sure to tell me who they are so I don't blow your cover."
"I don't care, really. I just think we should coordinate our stories."
She gave up. "You won't ever meet them. We don't work together anymore."
His mouth twitched unhappily. "Right."
24 years, eight months, and twenty-three days earlier
A chill wind swirled yellow and orange leaves down the street Richard had once lived on. He pulled his old peacoat more tightly around his body and walked briskly into the deepening afternoon.
Behind him, he heard the slap of McMurphy's tennis shoes against the sidewalk quicken. "Wait up," she said. He didn't. "Dammit, Richard, slow down!"
He slowed, ever so slightly. As she caught up with him, he said, "We'll miss the train."
They'd arrived in Boston yesterday evening, giving them just time enough to unpack a few necessities from their duffels in the furnished apartment his sister's husband had found for them near the hospital, where McMurphy would start work next week. He'd wanted to see the boys as soon as possible, and without time yet to buy a car, to get to and from his old suburb they were at the mercy of the MBTA.
"There's another in half an hour."
He angled through the gate of the park at the corner of the street. "There's a shortcut to the station through here." He stalked along the path that led past the playground, picnic shelter, and ball field before eventually emerging two blocks over, cutting off a good three minutes from the hike to the station.
It took him a second to notice McMurphy had disappeared from his side, that her shoes no longer echoed off the concrete. He stopped and looked around to find her striking out for the swings.
"You can go on," she called back over the several dozen yards between them. She reached the swings and gingerly sat in one, as if unsure it would take the weight of an adult. "I'm not really interested in a forced march."
He cursed under his breath before he left the path to join her.
Unlike her, he flopped hard into the wooden seat of the swing next to her, knowing from experience that it was sturdy; this playground, after all, was the one he and Beth Ann had taken the boys to on weekends—at least, weekends when a patient didn't need him, or when a golf game hadn't seemed more important.
McMurphy pumped her feet a few times, getting a small back and forth going, while he stayed resolutely still, his feet flat on the gravel below them.
Eventually, she dragged her feet on the stones and slowed to a miniscule rocking. She reached over and put her hand on his knee. "He was only two when you left."
His leg stiffened under her hand. His fists tightened around the swingset chains until the links seemed to burn themselves into his flesh. "When are you going to learn you can't fix everything, McMurphy?" he snapped. "You can't fix this. My son doesn't know who I am."
She looked at him with the same eyes he'd seen her stare at the hopeless cases with, the ones that reminded him of an old painting he'd seen once of an infinitely sympathetic angel witnessing some saint being martyred. He hated those eyes. They always made him want to confess his sins.
"I should've spent more time with them. There was always something more important, and I always thought I could catch up later. And then the war happened."
"You still have time," she said softly.
"Every other weekend," he said bitterly. "Fifty-two days a year." It hadn't sounded so bad when he'd first received the notarized letter informing him of the agreement (which he'd never actually agreed to, being nine thousand miles away) in China Beach. But after seeing them so much bigger than when he'd left, Roger unsure who he was besides a voice on some tapes and Jake worried he was going to leave again, he wanted so much more. He wanted their footsteps and voices and laughter to fill a house he shared with Colleen, and with their children, when the time came.
She still looked at him with those eyes, but somehow they seemed less accusing. Maybe it was his own perspective that had shifted.
He nodded. "Me too."
She squeezed his knee. With a sigh, he curled his fingers over hers. They sat there for some time, swinging gently and not talking, long enough to miss their train.
24 years, eight months, and twenty-nine days earlier
"I still don't think this is a good idea," Colleen said as they hauled their overstuffed Army-issue duffel bags across the tarmac at Mid-Continent International. "They're a lot easier to handle one at a time."
"Oh, come on. We had to have a layover in the midwest anyway. Might as well use it to see your family. To meet your family." For the first time since they'd planned this little stopover, Richard looked nervous. Good. He'd been entirely too eager about the impending introduction to the McMurphy clan.
"Be careful what you wish for." They walked through the gate door and into the airport.
Though the gate was crowded, her family was easy to pick out. They were the biggest group, all of them there, each of her brothers and Brian and Sean's families, with her mother right in the middle.
Her mother stepped forward when she saw her. "Colleen," she whispered, and before she quite knew what she was doing, Colleen had dropped her bag and run into her arms.
Her body felt smaller and more brittle than Colleen remembered. Two years of worry, maybe. Two years of getting older. Colleen squeezed her harder, as if that could make up for them. "I missed you, Mom," she finally said.
"We missed you too, sweetheart."
When she finally let go, Colleen noticed Richard standing awkwardly outside the semi-circle of family that had closed around her. She dodged Brendan's waiting arms and stepped back to take his hand and pull him in. "I'd like you all to meet my husband."
She'd brought enough boyfriends home to remember the way all their faces closed, not revealing anything until they'd thoroughly vetted and terrorized the poor guy. Then they'd tell her in meticulous detail everything that was wrong with him and why she shouldn't see him again. Well, it was a little late for that now.
Though his eyes flicked apprehensively between all her brothers, Richard gamely held out his hand. "Hi."
Brendan was the first to take it. "So you're the one we've heard so much about," he said, cutting his eyes over to Colleen.
The day after the wedding, she called home to give everyone the news. She had hung up after three minutes of her mother's shocked stuttering, claiming a bad connection. Since then, she'd responded to the desperate requests for information in their letters with the barest minimum: She was fine. Richard was fine. They were happy. The weather was still hot.
After Brendan broke the ice, everyone else followed, and Colleen bobbed from embrace to embrace. In addition to shaking his hand, a couple of her brothers gave Richard slaps on the back that, from the way his eyes bugged out, were a lot harder than they looked. Typical. She rolled her eyes and, when she got to them, punched Brian and Conner on the shoulders in retaliation.
"Mary and Angela've been cooking since dawn," Sean said once she'd gotten around to everyone. "We shouldn't keep them waiting."
"I agree," her mother said. "While we're eating, you can tell us all about how you met."
"There's not that much to tell, Mom," Colleen said as she picked up her duffel bag. Connor immediately took it out of her hands, while Brendan, after a moment, snagged Richard's.
"Nonsense," her mother said breezily. A chilly breeze at that. "I'm sure it's fascinating. I'd certainly like to hear it."
She glanced at Richard. It was going to be a long four days.
"Roderigo! Do you remember him?" Richard asked, turning to Colleen.
"I let him take me to Boonie's Mardi Gras party. On crutches, he could dance better than half the guys in the room."
"What happened to him?"
"He died," Richard said. "We sent him back out, and he came back three weeks later with half his face shot off. His jaw was hanging on by about a quarter of an inch of tendon."
Colleen stared at her hands. "We gave him fifty units of blood, but he just kept bleeding faster than we could repair it." Sometimes she could still see it on her skin.
A muffled squeak brought her attention back to the rest of the people in the living room. Mary, Sean's wife, had her hand over her mouth, and everyone else in the room was staring at her and Richard with wide, horrified eyes.
"What about this girl?" Brendan asked quickly. He held up a picture for everyone to see. "I bet the guys liked having her come visit."
"Cherry," Colleen whispered.
"Let me guess, she went home with some private she charmed and set up housekeeping."
"She went home in a body bag," Colleen snapped.
"She was visiting a firebase that got hit during Tet," Richard explained.
Her mother stared at them. "Is this a gallery of the dead?"
Taken aback, Richard stuttered, "Well, it—it isn't meant to be..."
"Here," Colleen said, holding up a photo of a teenager in obnoxiously-printed swim trunks who was proudly clutching a surfboard. "His name's Matthew. He went home alive. Missing one of his legs thanks to a mine, but at least he made it back to his parents in Nebraska."
Mary stood up, pulling Andrew and Maggie with her. "It's time we were getting home," she said, staring daggers at Sean. "These two need to be in school tomorrow."
Sean hopped to.
Brian, Conner, and their wives made their excuses as well, and shuffled their children out to waiting station wagons. Even Daniel claimed a Calculus test he had to study for and left for the apartment he shared with some friends from the university. Her mother disappeared into the kitchen.
When the whirlwind was over, Brendan caught her eye from across the room and gave her a wry smile and half a shrug. "Nice picture show, sis." He stood up, and it seemed even he was going now. "I'm sure they'll come around."
At a loss for what to do, she and Richard went to the kitchen, where her mother was doing the last of the dinner dishes. Richard, apparently still eager to make a good impression on his in-laws despite the recent disaster, asked, "May I help?"
Her mother pointed to the dish towel hanging off one of the drawer handles. "Colleen can show you where they go. I assume you remember."
She consciously didn't grit her teeth. "Of course I do."
They worked silently for some time, washing, drying, and returning dishes and silverware to cupboards and drawers. When they were almost done, Richard said, "We were just getting the boys to start helping with this when I left. Of course, Roger wasn't doing much besides playing with the soap suds, but Jake probably could've taken over..." He paused at the look on Margaret McMurphy's face.
"Boys?" she asked. The dishcloth in her hand rested, unmoving, against the plate she'd stopped washing.
"Yes, my ex-wife and I have two sons, an eight-year-old and a five-year-old," he said carefully. He looked at Colleen. "Didn't you tell them?" he asked through clenched teeth.
She shrugged. "Never came up."
One of Richard's better qualities was a keen ability to read the emotional weather of a room. He was also proficient at knowing when to make himself scarce. As Colleen and her mother faced off over the sink, he said, "I think I'll just go put away the photos." He left the last of the dried silverware on his dish towel and hurried back to the living room.
"A divorced man with two children," her mother said when he was gone. "You didn't think that was worth mentioning?"
"So you could tell me how he's still married in the eyes of God? No, not really." She interrupted whatever her mother was about to say in response to that. "He's a good man, and I love him. As far as I'm concerned, that was all you needed to know."
"Colleen," she began, reproachfully.
"No, Mom, let's just leave it at that." She flung her dishtowel on the counter. "This is who I am, okay? Someone who has friends whose limbs were blown off, who has a bunch of horror stories about dying soldiers, and who marries a divorced doctor from Boston you've never met without telling you. Take a good look."
"That's what I wanted to do!" her mother cried. Her eyes watered in the dim light over the sink, and her mouth twisted in anguish. "I just got you back. And now you're about to leave again. He's going to take you halfway across the country."
Colleen sucked in a breath. Could it really be that simple? Could her mother just...miss her?
"I don't see why you were in such a hurry." She looked critically at Colleen's stomach, the same way K.C. and Lila and Holly had three months ago.
Colleen bit back a bitter laugh. For once, she'd actually done what she'd always thought she was supposed to do, and all anyone could think was that they'd done it because they'd disobeyed the rules and got stuck with the consequences. That they'd done it out of guilt instead of joy.
She wasn't sure what that said about what she'd always thought she was supposed to do, but she suspected it wasn't good.
"Not that," she said, meeting her mother's stare.
Colleen had no idea how to put into words the past two years. The intense intimacy the work forced between them from the moment they arrived couldn't be spoken, and could never be replicated stateside. It had changed them, left them open to a love that had surprised both of them with its presence and its depth. Maybe by normal standards it had been hasty to promise themselves to each other so soon after they'd realized it, but that was how life worked in Vietnam.
Her mother had always rolled her eyes when her father quoted poetry, and it was with a certain childish relish that Colleen said, "'Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, one cannot begin it too soon.'"
Her mother stared at her for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Your father..." she started, opening her eyes again, but didn't finish the sentence.
"Mom," Colleen said, suddenly desperate, wanting something she couldn't put a name to. "I'm sorry I can't be the daughter you and Dad wanted me to be. I can't be the lifer the Army wanted me to be. I can't even be the person I wanted to be when I grew up." The one who couldn't drink six terrible Vietnamese beers and then wash it down with most of a fifth of bourbon and barely bat an eye. The one who didn't have nightmares about dead boys, and see their ghosts in living ones. "I can't make everyone happy or be everything everyone wanted me to be. I wish I could. But I can't. So I figure the best I can hope to do is what makes me happy."
Her mother pressed her lips together for a moment. "If that's what you want, then I suppose you should go to Boston."
Colleen felt the air leave her body, taking the fight with it. Whatever she'd wanted, she wasn't going to find it here with her mother in this dim kitchen. "I will," she said, and walked out.
Richard sat on the couch in the living room, shuffling the photos into order for what was probably the third time as he waited for the storm to blow over. He shot her a questioning look.
She glanced at the door. "You wanna get out of here?"
Richard gave the corn, seven feet high by now and bare days away from harvest, a dubious look. "Don't people get lost in these things? Die of exposure?"
She smirked and reached into the back seat for the blanket they'd brought. "It's planted in rows. Pick one and keep going and you'll eventually get out."
"All this for a field?"
"It's a really great field."
He trailed her and her flashlight through the corn, yelping occasionally as one of the sharp-edged leaves scratched his face or hands. "This is almost as bad as bushwhacking through the jungle," he complained when they were halfway there.
"When were you in the jungle?" she called back to him.
"I went on the same orientation exercises you did," he protested. "Use a compass, hack your way through the underbrush, figure out which leaves you can use for toilet paper without getting a rash..."
"They gave the women a roll of toilet paper."
He stopped short. When she turned and focused the flashlight's beam on him, his face held one of the most affronted expressions she'd ever seen. "What other perks did you get? Did the women's latrines have flush toilets you all managed to hide from the rest of us?"
"Well, there was being stashed in temp housing for more than a year—that was definitely a perk. Boots and jackets that didn't come in women's sizes, that was nice. Chopper pilots flying low over the women's showers so their buddies could take pictures, or for that matter certain people camping out at the top of the water tower with a telescope—"
"You knew about that?"
"The cheering when K.C. took off her towel was hard to miss."
He tsked. "Heathens."
They kept pushing through the corn. She'd remembered the spaces between the rows as wider, somehow, and the field as smaller. The Elgars couldn't have taken over the fallow patch in the middle, could they?
Her questing hand suddenly encountered air rather than another cornstalk. "Here it is," she said, relief thinly disguised, as she stepped through the last curtain of stalks and into a rough square of stubby, patchy grass a few dozen yards long on each side.
"It is definitely a field," Richard said.
"It's perfect. Come on." She took a few steps forward and shook the blanket so its four corners fluttered out before laying it on the ground. "The soil's so rocky here, it's not worth the effort to till it. So they've left it fallow for decades. I used to come here all the time. I loved it."
"You know, I don't think I realized until just now exactly how deprived your childhood was."
"You'll see." She sat on the blanket and tugged his hand to get him to follow. "Lie down."
"On the other hand, if this is going where I think it's going, I may have to reconsider my opinion of this field."
She smacked his shoulder and pushed until he finally lay back. She settled beside him, resting her head on the arm he automatically curled around her, snugging her close against his side. It was starting to get chilly even with her dad's old leather jacket over her white dress, and she was grateful.
"Look," she said. "You see how the corn cuts off everything but the sky? It's just you and what's overhead. The stars. The clouds. Nothing else exists." She breathed deep, the familiar scents of dirt and grass and growing corn filling her lungs. "Lie here long enough and you can almost feel the earth turning."
"And you can pretend you're anywhere but here?"
She didn't say anything.
Richard traced a fingertip over the part of her shoulder the too-big jacket had gapped open and left bare. When he spoke, his breath tickled her ear, and his voice was gentler than she'd ever heard. "Why didn't you tell them anything about me?"
She shifted slightly, angling towards him, and pressed her lips to the line of his jaw. "I didn't want to give them a chance to judge you before they'd even met you."
"And what do they think of me now?"
She bit her lip. "Brendan thinks you're all right. But he and I were always the most similar. He's always been...my ally." She sighed. "The little boys don't care. I was their older sister long enough that deep down they still think anything I do is probably correct."
"Must be nice," Richard grumbled.
She smirked. "You should've lobbied your parents for a younger sibling."
"Are you kidding? Sharing everything with Annie was bad enough. Who wanted to add another?"
"Try sharing with five of her."
"Brian and Sean wouldn't be happy unless I became a nun," Colleen said, pulling the conversation back on track. "So we might as well not count them. Mom—" She broke off and kissed him again before continuing. "I've never been able to figure out what she thinks. She might be able to get over the whole divorced, non-Catholic thing. In a couple more decades. Not wanting to live in Kansas might take longer."
He squeezed her shoulder, and she leaned into the silent support. "What would your father have thought?"
She considered the question for a long moment. "I think he would've liked you," she said. "I think he knew I wasn't meant to stay here. There was this poem he used to recite to me. Yeats—I know," she said at his quickly-covered laugh. "You should've seen him on St. Patrick's Day. How did it go—it's something like, 'How many loved the moments of your glad grace, and loved...and loved your beauty false and true. But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you...'"
"'And loved the sorrows of your changing face,'" Richard finished.
"Yes, that's it."
She found his hand and laced her fingers through it. "You've sometimes asked me for more than I could give, but I appreciate that you never tried to limit what I could do."
Through the leather of her jacket, she felt his hand move along her back. "Why would I? The better help I have, the more time I can spend on the golf course."
She snorted. "Right."
"Seriously." He put two fingers under her chin and tilted her head up until they saw eye to barely visible eye in the moonlight. "You're the best nurse I've ever worked with. I couldn't count on anyone like I could count on you. No one else knew what I needed, what the patients needed, so well."
"Everybody over there was good. I wasn't that special."
"You are to me."
She stared at him for a long moment before she said, "You're still not talking me into L&D."
He snapped his fingers. "I was so close, too."
Laughing, Colleen turned her gaze back to the sky. She could pick out the Big and Little Dippers, the easy W of Cassiopeia, but that was about it. She'd never been much for constellations, preferring just to sink into the whole starry night.
"You were right," Richard said, his breath ruffling her hair. "It is as clear as the sky above China Beach."
"When no rockets were going off, anyway."
They watched the stars for a long time, long enough that she could sense the movement of the earth. Long enough that everything fell away but the sky, the ground, and the man she'd married, lying beside her like the answer to a question she hadn't even known to ask.
24 years, eight months, and thirty days earlier
The silver 707 on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut gleamed in the Saigon sun. With its swept-back wings and streamlined body, it looked eager to leave the ground. To fly into the air with two hundred soldiers, officers, zoomies, and doughnut dollies cradled in its fuselage.
And one doctor and one nurse.
Colleen inhaled one of her last breaths of humid Vietnam air. It smelled of airplane fuel, a fishy stench from the Saigon River, and sweat from the hundreds of bodies around them.
She and Richard waited in line to board, sandwiched between two groups of enlisted men who whooped and laughed with each other, ecstatic to be going home in one piece. But their laughter had a nervous edge to it, because Vietnam, as the saying went, sucked. It sucked so hard it could suck your freedom bird right out of the air.
She remembered from her last trip on one that even the vast Pacific couldn't quite keep it from sucking you back, either.
She took another deep breath as they approached the stairs that would take them up to the plane. Richard laced his fingers through hers. "Ready?" he asked when she looked at him.
Leaving didn't exactly mean returning anymore. It hadn't for three months. Now, leaving meant starting something new, a life together they might or might not make work back in the world.
But somewhere deep down, under the jaded cynicism and the fear, she still had hope.
She nodded and took the first step up the stairs.
24 years, nine months, and twenty-five days earlier
The blast rattled the furniture, sent small objects flying, and woke both of them from a sound sleep. And he'd been having such a nice dream, too.
"Don't the VC ever sleep?!" Colleen shouted as she rolled out of the bed.
Richard met her under the bed a millisecond later, both of them crawling on their stomachs. "Charlie has been rather active lately." This was the third attack in a week. "Do you think they're preparing for something?"
"I think they're being pains in the ass," she grumbled. She fluffed her pillow as another blast, one that sounded closer, hit. The sound of breaking glass came from nearby.
"Planning to sleep through this one?"
She shook her head. "It's almost daylight. By the time they stop, it'll be time for our shifts to start." She reached behind their heads for their store of supplies. "Let's see what we have in the way of reading material." As Richard lit the lantern, she brought out two paperbacks. "The Quiet American. Read it. Five times. Tired of it." She tossed the book aside. "The Collected Works of Washington Irving. Your work, I presume." He nodded. "All right, then you read."
She handed him the book, and he turned on his side to get a better light from the lantern. McMurphy busied herself pouring drinks. "That last one broke one of the glasses. We'll have to share."
"That's all right. I don't need liquor. I have Irving."
He caught the roll of her eyes before she corked the whiskey bottle and turned over on her back, propped against her pillow with the glass resting on her chest. He picked a story and started reading.
"'There are certain half-dreaming moods of mind, in which we naturally steal away from noise and glare, and seek some quiet haunt, where we may indulge our reveries and build our air castles undisturbed.'"
More blasts punctuated the words. "Somehow I don't think Irving ever went to Vietnam," Colleen commented, closing her eyes.
Richard ignored her. "'In such a mood I was loitering about the old gray cloisters of Westminster Abbey, enjoying that luxury of wandering thought which one is apt to dignify with the name of reflection; when suddenly an interruption of madcap boys from Westminster School, playing at football, broke in upon the monastic stillness of the place, making the vaulted passages and mouldering tombs echo with their merriment.'"
"I see he's met my brothers."
"'I sought to take refuge from their noise by penetrating still deeper into the solitudes of the pile, and applied to one of the vergers for admission to the library.'" He reached the end of the page. "I can barely see this," he complained. "The lantern doesn't work with print this small. I'll get a flashlight."
She opened her eyes. "There's still incoming."
He flashed her a smile. "It's on the nightstand. I don't even have to get out from under here." He snaked his left arm and shoulder out from under the bed, groping for the flashlight, just as another shell landed.
For a second, it seemed like the entire world upended. Underneath the noise of impact, he could hear what sounded like splintering wood.
"Ahhhh!" His left shoulder exploded in fireworks of pain. His arm fell back to the floor with a heavy thump.
"Richard!" he heard McMurphy scream. "Oh my God!" He followed her gaze to the six inches of wood sticking out of his freely bleeding shoulder, a thin but jagged piece that had once been part of his—their—chest of drawers. So that was why his deltoid felt like it was on fire.
McMurphy's hands were instantly on his shoulder, probing the wound. She moved to his back, and the lightest pressure of her fingers sent a wave of pain so intense through his shoulder that his vision actually went white. When he could see again, he found her giving him a hollow look. "It went all the way through. There's about an inch sticking out the other side." She shook her head. "We've got to get to the hospital."
"Are you crazy?" he found the strength to say when she started scrabbling out from under the bed. With his good arm, he grabbed her wrist. "They're still firing on us!"
"You have half a tree sticking out of your shoulder!"
"And if either of us go out there, we'll be blown to splinters!"
Her mouth set stubbornly for a moment, but she bowed to reality as another shell exploded all too nearby. Then she grabbed another long splinter that had been blown under the bed and stabbed her pillow.
"New anger management technique?" he cracked through gritted teeth as she ripped a short line down from the initial entry point.
"I'm making a dressing," she said. The "you moron" was left implied. "Careful, I'm getting yours now." She slipped his pillow from under his head and ripped a hole in it as well. "Don't move," she instructed. That wouldn't be hard. Lying on his side as he was to keep the injured shoulder elevated, the slightest motion led him to brush against the springs of the bedframe and consequently yelp from the pain. He was a-okay with not moving.
She pressed a pillow over the front of his shoulder, taking care to make sure the splinter fit into the hole she'd created so it didn't move and do even more damage. It being stuck in his shoulder was probably the only thing keeping him from bleeding out immediately.
Which didn't mean it was going to keep him from bleeding out eventually.
"Hold this and pull up your legs. I'm going to go around and get the other side."
He held the pillow against his shoulder with his right hand, and she slithered around him so she could press the other pillow onto the exit wound. As best he could, he inched over to her original side of the floor to give her more cover. They each crushed their pillow as hard as he could stand against the wound to stem the leaking blood.
"Dawn's breaking," he said after a while. Through the hole the concussion had ripped in the tent wall, he could see buildings and other structures coming into view as the light grew. "Surely they have to stop soon." Indeed, the frequency of the blasts had decreased in the last five minutes. It had to have been at least twenty seconds since the last one.
He felt the dressing on his back shift slightly. "You're starting to bleed through this," McMurphy said, strain clearly evident in her voice.
"Army-issue pillows. Gauze is probably thicker," he joked tiredly. Too tiredly, he realized.
"Another ten minutes, you're in transfusion territory."
"Think you can tell that to Charlie?"
Two more shells hit, but they were far in the distance. The perimeter guards trying to smoke out the VC who'd been firing on them, probably.
"Two more minutes," McMurphy said. "No more impacts in the next two minutes, and we go to the hospital."
"Sold, to the lady in the striped pajamas." He thought for a moment. "Not that either of us have a watch down here."
"I'm using my pulse. My resting heart rate's sixty beats a minute."
"I'd hardly call this resting. You're going to get your two minutes on false pretenses."
"Shut up. I'm counting."
He shut up. The world was strangely quiet except for their breathing and the odd burst of machine gun fire—their side. It really seemed like the attack might actually be over.
Then again, it might just be the calm inside the storm.
"We're going," McMurphy said.
He was getting too tired to argue. Anyway, death was starting to sound like a halfway decent option if it would just stop the fiery ache in his shoulder.
She slid out from under the bed, keeping her hand on the back half of her improvised dressing. "Can you keep it still if I pull you out?" He nodded. She wrapped an arm around his knees and dragged him out into the room. To say it hurt like hell was giving hell too much credit.
She hopped around to his good side and put a hand under his armpit. "On three. One, two..." He made it upright without fainting, which he considered a minor miracle. She slung his good arm over her shoulder, and they started walking.
The three hundred yards from the officers' tent to the hospital might as well have been three miles. He leaned more and more on McMurphy as they walked, to her growing concern. His too, for that matter.
At least no one was shooting at them. For the moment.
Finally, they reached the doors. McMurphy kicked them open. "I need a doctor!" she screamed as she helped him—carried him, practically—to the nearest gurney.
Lila ran into the ward and stopped short at the sight of them. "I'm going to assume this wasn't a pillow fight that got violent," she said.
"Projectile," McMurphy reported. "It's still in there. He's starting to get shocky. Is anyone else worse off? And where the hell is Sutter?"
"I'm right here," the newest addition to their surgical team called as he walked in from the surgical wing. He also paused at the sight of them, at the bloody pillows covering Richard's shoulder. "Jesus."
Lila injected a painkiller then, and Richard soon started drifting in and out of sharp awareness of the world. He heard McMurphy calling out the pertinent details again, and then felt himself rolled into one of the ORs. Someone removed the pillows from around the wound, and he heard Sutter suck in a breath. "Did you go vampire hunting and have it backfire?" he asked.
Sutter inspected the wound and hissed. "Shit, we're going to have to put him under to get all this crap out."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw McMurphy race to the other side of the bed, clad in a surgical gown. She began laying out instruments on the Mayo stand.
"What the hell are you doing, McMurphy?" Sutter growled.
"No, you're not. Out."
Wordlessly, she kept setting tools on the stand. The anesthesiologist put a mask over Richard's head.
Sutter slammed one of his huge, meaty hands on the stand, rattling all the instruments on it. "Husbands and wives don't operate on each other, for chrissakes," he shouted. "GET OUT! Major!"
Lila appeared beside him, holding up her gloved hands. "I'm here."
The last thing Richard saw before he went under was the OR doors swinging shut on McMurphy's stricken face.
If they'd needed the bed, he would've had Sutter discharge him back to his tent, but amazingly enough, the previous night's attack had been light on casualties. Which meant that instead of lying alone in the officers' tent, he could spend the day doing his favorite thing—bantering with McMurphy.
"Nurse!" he called as she walked by his bed. "Who do I speak to about the service? Do you have to lose a limb to get a cup of jello around here?"
She whirled on him, her face red and her expression fierce. "Stop it. It's not funny," she snapped, and stalked out of the ward.
He sat blinking stupidly in the bed for several seconds. The two privates on either side of him gave him sympathetic glances. "Ouch," one of them commented sagely.
Richard stumbled out of bed and followed her. Pushing through the swinging doors into the alcove off the surgical wing, he saw McMurphy standing in front of the desk, her back to the door. Her shoulders were hunched, and he could distinctly hear her trying to choke down sobs. His heart clenched.
"Hey." He touched her shoulder, and when she turned away from him he stepped around to her side and took her chin in his hand, gently pulling her head up. Shiny tear tracks traced down her face. "What's wrong?"
She glared at him. "Nothing." He raised his eyebrows. She pressed her lips together and looked down, breaking his hold on her chin. "Everything."
He waited for her to explain. She sighed and brought her gaze back up, giving him a piercing, desperate look. "If that splinter had hit just a few inches lower..."
"But it could've."
She crossed her arms, hunching over them hollowly. "Yesterday I remembered how easy it is to lose people here. And I realized how much I don't want to..." She took a shaky breath. "I'm scared, Richard," she said. "I stopped being scared months ago."
He didn't know what to say. What was there to say?
He wrapped his right arm around her back and pulled her against his chest. After a long minute, she folded both of hers around his waist and held on.
24 years, eleven months, and twenty-three days earlier
"Where are you going?"
Colleen jerked as she realized which path her feet were taking her on. "Oh." She wove back over to Richard's side, and they kept walking in the direction of the officers' tent. "Guess I forgot my new address." They had just worked a 24-hour shift, a mass-cal that wouldn't end. Sutter and the night crew were still cleaning up the leftovers. She could hardly blame her body for going on autopilot toward her old tent.
His hand drifted to her ass. "I guess I'll just have to remind you why you moved in with me."
She snorted. "Give me about twelve hours' rack time and then I'll think about it."
He shook his head, tut-tutting. "Does the thrill really go that quickly?"
She stopped and turned to him, then put her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply enough to leave him gasping for air when she finally let him go. She smirked up at him. "Consider that a preview of the thrill I plan to indulge in when we get back to our tent. You sure you're up for it?"
He blinked a couple of times. "It occurs to me that I may need some rest before I'll be capable of living up to your expectations."
"I knew you'd see it my way."
She started walking again, a step or two in front of him. She deliberately swung her hips as provocatively as she could manage. Might as well give him something to dream about until they'd recovered from the extended shift. She glanced over her shoulder. "Anyway, I already have a reminder, remember?" She waved her left hand.
When she'd found out that they'd gotten married without actually having rings, Lila had insisted they take an afternoon off to go into Da Nang and find something. Since then, Colleen had been acutely aware of the little gold band's presence on her finger. She'd tried to keep from getting blood on it while she worked, because it seemed wrong to stain something so shiny and new. Like it might somehow stain the new relationship between her and Richard that was slowly unfurling in moments like these.
That had lasted about an hour. She'd gone to wash her hands after an emergency trach on a boy who'd died anyway, and had to scrub the dried blood off the metal.
But what was a little more blood, a little more death? She and Richard had met in the middle of a mass-cal, and while the bar at the Jet Set sometimes ran a close second, they spent the majority of their time together in the hospital.
She'd wondered a couple of times over the past four days if it should bother her that they'd never exactly dated. Part of her would've enjoyed seeing what he came up with. The boys they put back together sometimes talked about taking their girls out to drive-in movies or the local Lovers' Lane, or, for those from even smaller, more behind-the-times towns than her, to the drug store for a root beer float at the soda fountain. They'd gotten to know each other, fallen in love, and now when the boys were spaced out on morphine they showed her the picture they all carried, of a smiling blonde in front of a house in Stamford, a brunette on a horse in Texas, a redhead holding flowers in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
She and Richard had gotten to know each other over the bodies of dying teenagers, had fallen in love with their hands covered in blood, picking shrapnel out of kids' intestines and sewing up gaping holes in their bodies so that they might make it home to the girls in their pictures. The same dues paid with a different coin, she supposed.
"I remember," he said. He'd caught up with her while she was wool-gathering, and now he captured her right hand in his left. If she moved her fingers just so, she could touch the new ring on it, twin to her own. "It looks good on you."
"You're just saying that because you're the one who put it on." They'd driven back from Da Nang with the rings still in their little box, and had gone straight to the hospital for the rest of the night shift. Richard had walked with her into the little changing area, and there, with the bustle of the hospital just outside, he'd slid the ring on her finger, and she'd done the same for him. It was utterly unromantic, and yet it was exactly the right place.
"That might be part of it," he allowed.
She squeezed his hand. "Yours doesn't look so bad either."
"And you're just saying that because you put it on."
She grinned and danced backward up the well-trod path. "Come on. The faster we get some sleep, the faster we can..."
Tired and bloodshot as they were, his eyes lit up at that prospect. "Race you," he said.
24 years, eleven months, and thirty days earlier
"Well, what do you think? We had to move the dresser a little to get it to fit, but..."
"You guys, this is great," McMurphy said to Holly and Frankie, glancing back and forth in amazement between them and the double bed that had magically appeared in Richard's portion of the officers' tent. "But how...why..."
"Wedding present!" Holly said. "It would've been here sooner, but since you guys didn't tell us you were getting married until it was over..."
"Right." Richard shared a glance with his wife. They'd gotten ragged on for their supposed secrecy from practically everyone on the base at some point in the past thirty-six hours. They'd given up explaining that it was really more about impatience. "Thanks. It's perfect."
"I hope so, after all the maneuvering we did to get it in here," Frankie said.
Holly rubbed her hands together. "Well, that's our work here done. Have a good night." She winked at them, and both she and Frankie disappeared through the tent flap.
McMurphy's face was still slack with shock as she sat on the edge of the bed. She bounced lightly a couple of times, and then flopped onto her back. "No dip in the middle, no springs in my back—I think this might be the most comfortable bed I've been on since I got here. Where could they have gotten it?"
"Sometimes around here, I think it's best not to ask." Richard joined her on the bed, lying down next to her and brushing her hair aside so he could kiss her neck.
The bigger bed was definitely more comfortable. Not that sharing the narrow twin hadn't had some advantages. Such as the way it forced them into the same space, so that this morning he'd woken to find her arm slung over his stomach and her head resting on his shoulder, her hair fanning down her cheek and the ends just brushing his chest. He'd always loved her hair, the depth to it, the way it could look like a rich brown indoors and then burn red when the sun hit it. He'd found other things to love about her last night, too, so many of them; places on her body that were soft and splendid and made her gasp when he touched them. She would've been worth waiting for, but he was nevertheless glad they hadn't.
But he'd always remember that first sleepy moment, waking an hour before the alarm to find her there—still there, not having rethought this whole thing overnight—and fitting so perfectly along his body, like they'd been made for this moment. For each other.
"Kind of makes me worry about inspection, though," she said, dragging him out of the happy memory. He slid his hand under her T-shirt, because the last thing he wanted to do now that they were in possession of a big, beautiful new bed was talk about why they shouldn't have it.
It didn't stop her. "Not that Lila's going to care, but if some colonel comes through..."
He rolled on top of her, taking most of his weight on his forearms so he wouldn't knock the wind out of her. He did want her to stop talking, at least about this, but getting his wish that way didn't seem quite fair. She broke off in the middle of her sentence, her mouth hanging open slightly and her eyes gaining an interested spark.
"What are they going to do?" he asked. "Send us to Vietnam?"
She tilted her head in wry acknowledgement. Then she let him take her shirt off.
In the dimness, she looked uncertain. "I think you were having a nightmare," she said.
"Oh." He tried to sound surprised. "I'm sorry I woke you."
"No, it's okay. What...I mean..."
He dropped his head, touching his chin briefly to his chest before he looked at her again. "We had a Jake come through the OR today. I heard Winters ask his name while he was waiting. He arrested on the table. We lost him." He sighed. "Sometimes when a kid with Roger's cowlick or Jake's eyes comes through, I dream it's them. I'm never able to save them."
Colleen looked stricken as she stroked her hand down his arm. "Sometimes they turn into my brothers. I've never managed to save one either."
"You'd think we'd have more faith in ourselves."
"Right." After a moment, she said, "I didn't know you had those dreams too. You're so...I mean, like just now. You've always got a joke ready."
He shrugged. "Just because I use humor as a coping mechanism doesn't mean there's nothing there that needs coping with."
She cocked her head, staring at him intently, before she nodded. "Yeah." A yawn split her face, and she belatedly covered her mouth.
"There're a few hours left before the AM shift," he said, holding back at laugh at her sleepy face.
"You okay?" she asked softly. He nodded. She lay down and tugged on his arm. "Then get back down here."
Despite the comparatively vast acreage of the new bed, she curled around him like a shield. Like she could singlehandedly defend him from the demons his subconscious cooked up while he slept. Well, if anyone could do it, it was McMurphy.
He squeezed her hand where it rested against his stomach. "Hey," he said. "Sweet dreams."
She squeezed back. "You too."
25 years earlier
In the end, they decided that upstaging Lila and Sarge's wedding wouldn't be fair to them. But that didn't mean they weren't getting married.
While everyone else decamped to the Jet Set for the party, Richard approached the priest. "Any interest in a repeat performance?"
Father Max glanced between them before a broad smile lit his face. "One of the guys at seminary told me this happens sometimes, couples who get inspired to follow their friends off the cliff. Never had it happen to me before, though."
"Oh, no, we were already engaged," Colleen said. "It's been, what, a whole ten hours now? Maybe even eleven."
"We didn't see much point in waiting." Richard took her hand. "Will you?"
"Well, in that case..." He laughed. "All right. You can file the paperwork for the license later. But you need two witnesses."
They shared a glance. "I think we can manage that."
"Down here," Colleen said from the ground several feet below the floor of the bar, as hidden as possible behind a post. The last thing she needed was Holly or Beckett or, God forbid, Lila dragging her into the party. "I need your help."
K.C. hopped off the porch and looked at her with concern. "What?"
"I just need you to witness something."
"Witness?" She snorted. "What, you getting married too?"
Colleen bit her lip, and K.C.'s eyes nearly popped out of her head. "You're kidding." Colleen shook her head. "You're not kidding. Jesus." She took a deep swallow of the scotch in her glass. "Who?"
She smiled. She couldn't seem to help it. "Richard."
K.C. had taken another sip of her drink, and promptly spewed half of it on the dirt in front of them. "Richard?" she gasped, once she'd finished choking.
"What? Is that so hard to believe?"
K.C. gave her a horrified look and opened her mouth. Then she closed it. Tilted her head thoughtfully. Narrowed her eyes. "Actually, no." She stared at Colleen's stomach. "Why now? Are you pregnant?"
Colleen shook her head. "We haven't even..."
Her friend's mouth dropped open. "Then what the hell are you doing?"
"Getting married. Are you going to help or not?"
"Oh, brother," K.C. muttered. "Fine, yes, I'll be your witness."
On their way back into the little courtyard outside the church, K.C. swiped one of the bouquets decorating the wall. "Here."
"I've already got some."
K.C. shook her head and took the bouquet from her hand. "Those were for a bridesmaid. Every bride should at least have her own flowers."
Colleen closed her fingers around the other bouquet, all but identical except for a couple extra sprigs of artemisia. "Thanks."
When they entered the courtyard, she saw Richard and Beckett waiting for them next to the priest. She shivered at the way Richard's eyes softened when he saw her, at the gentle smile that touched his lips. He'd looked at her that way in the hospital or at parties in the Jet Set, she realized now, but neither of them had understood what it meant until last night.
"McM," Beckett said, smiling, as she approached, taking her hands. "Although I guess it's not going to be McM for too much longer, is it?"
"I'll still be McMurphy in the hospital," she said. "Two Richards in the OR would get confusing."
He glanced at Richard. "This one's going to be trouble."
She rolled her eyes, and Beckett laughed before he kissed her cheek and let go of her. Richard held out his hand. "Shall we?"
She took his hand, and as K.C. and Beckett moved to stand beside them, they faced the priest.
25 years and 1 day earlier
The late night sky stretched above them, cloudless for once, and a million stars twinkled above the ocean. Colleen plowed her fingers and toes into the sand as she stared up at them.
"This isn't going to do my dress jacket any favors," Richard said as he lay down beside her, "but what the hell. In ninety days, I won't need it anymore."
Ninety days. Ninety days until they returned to the world. Ninety days until they had to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Together.
"How are we going to do this?" she asked.
"This!" She turned her head to him, mere inches away, but their dying fire cast long shadows over his face at this angle and she could barely see. "Be married. I mean, where are we going to live?"
He was silent for a moment. "If I want to see my kids on a regular basis, I'm pretty much limited to Boston."
Right. She remembered, now. At least that decision was easy.
"Okay," she said. She stared up at the stars again as her stomach flipped. "I've never been to Boston."
"Really? But it's the capital of your people."
"Before I came here, the farthest I ever got from Kansas was Chicago. Well, no, I guess Fort Sam was a little farther. The bus ride was longer, anyway."
"Do you like clam chowder?"
She eyed him carefully. "If it's better than the fish stew they serve in the mess hall."
"You're going to love Boston."
She flopped against the sand again and sighed in frustration. "What if it turns out we hate each other's bad habits?"
He turned over, and suddenly his face loomed over hers. "I already know all your bad habits. The teeth-grinding, the terrible housekeeping, the complete lack of interest in golf, much as that pains me..."
"What if I snore?"
"You don't. I've catnapped on the next gurney over in the ward enough times that I would've heard you if you did."
She narrowed her eyes.
"Face it, McMurphy. We're already about as married as two people can get. All we need is the ceremony." He cupped her cheek. His fingers were warm where her skin had been chilled by the breeze off the water. "We were thrown together here and it changed us. You changed me. Now I can't imagine spending another day without you. Isn't that what makes a marriage?"
She didn't have an answer. So instead, she said the words she'd been dancing around all night. Or maybe their whole tour.
"I love you."
He smiled, happier perhaps than she'd ever seen him. Maybe it was an answer.
Some time later, she asked, "What are you going to do when we get back?"
He shrugged against the sand. "Go back to the practice I had to abandon for two years. Assuming it still exists. I haven't heard anything from my partners since I left." He glanced at her. "Ever think about going into L&D nursing? I could use a good assistant."
"I think the ER's more my speed."
He poked her shoulder. "Adrenaline junkie." She elbowed him back. They had a brief war of poking and prodding until he grabbed her wrists and kissed her. She'd lost count of how many times they'd done that over the course of the night, but it had to be in the teens by now. She'd liked each of them more than the last.
"I don't know," she said when they pulled apart. "When I went back last year..." Jan's bitter story of being straightjacketed by her return to stateside nursing had haunted her since she'd heard it. And she'd been a civilian nurse for two years before joining the Army; she knew how much more limited it was. Here, people would die without her. There, most would just complain about not getting their bedpans removed quickly enough. "I've been thinking about something...more."
He looked at her curiously. "Medical school?"
He would think that, she thought with a certain amount of exasperation, but she was flattered that he'd suggested it. "I was thinking one of those new degrees. MSN. Advanced practice nursing."
"Ah. For people who want to be doctors without the bother of med school."
She smacked his shoulder. "For people who think diagnosing and prescribing doesn't have to come with a side of arrogance." She sighed and rolled onto her back. "Maybe it's a dumb idea."
"No." He touched her elbow. "It's not dumb. You'd be good at it. You'd be good at anything you wanted to try."
She gave him a long look. "Is this the part of the night where we get maudlin and tell each other how wonderful we are?"
"I certainly hope so. I'd like to hear you tell me how wonderful I am."
She rested her head against his shoulder. "Stick around for forty or fifty years and you just might."
He pressed his lips to her temple. "I think I will."