Nick blinks. Blinks again. Stares down at his motionless fingers. His hands and forearms are resting on the long mess table, the sleeves of his flight suit rolled up to the elbows. He can feel the texture of the wood against his exposed skin. After a few heartbeats he experimentally scratches at the a bit rough surface with one fingernail. Lets the motion slowly die away. The bench he is sitting on is hard, uncomfortable. They always complained about that. It never changed anything.
He looks up at the sharp clink of glass on glass. A woman is sitting in the far corner of the mess tent, leaning her arms on the table there. No. One arm. One elbow. Pouring an oily looking dark liquid from an unlabeled bottle into her dirty glass. All the while staring at him, unwaveringly. She wears pink coveralls the exact same color you get when mixing one and a half buckets of white paint with one bucket of red.
I am forgetting something.
The thought is startlingly clear, brilliant in its intensity, and Nick frowns a little as he turns it over in his mind. His gazes wanders to the closed flaps of the tent's entrance. No breath of air stirs the heavy olive green canvas. To the right of it is what they generously called the 'bar' though it is really just a plank on two old oil drums. Some worn crates and cardboard boxes are stacked against the tent wall, bottles with dark liquid haphazardly piled on top. Nick lets his gaze move on to the row of tables they used to hand out meals. The opening to the kitchen tent behind it also has its flaps lowered so one can't see through. There is no smell of cooking food, not even the always lingering odor of old fat and scraps gone bad. There isn't even the stench of spilled alcohol.
The sound of a bottle placed hard on wood draws his attention back to the woman in the corner. She is massive, heavy-set, with a large bosom and thick upper arms. Her iron-gray hair is standing up in a brush cut that's about to grown out. There is something disconcerting in the way she keeps staring at him as she lifts her glass and empties it in one long swallow. Setting it down she picks up the bottle for a refill, chugs back the second glass without ever changing expression. Nick is impressed, since he now recognizes the stuff she drinks so casually as JD 'Loony' Curtis's moonshine, and they used to call it 'fuel' for a reason.
I am forgetting something.
Nick flinches as the thought pierces his mind a second time. The momentary pain fades away. It is absolutely quiet in the mess tent. Tilting his head he tries to catch any noise from outside but there is non. No voices yell or argue. No equipment rattles and bangs as it is handled. No engines rev, there is no distant flapping of rotor blades. The total absence of sound is pressing against his eardrums, growing more oppressive with every second that trickles by. He is oddly aware of the rise and fall of his own chest. Closing his eyes he shakes his head. Just a tiny movement from left to right. Lifting his chin he squints up at the thick canvas of the ceiling.
A sharp clack brings his eyes once more back to the woman in the corner. She has slammed her empty glass down on the table, fingers now resting lightly on its rim. The intensity of her narrow-eyed stare unsettles him though he doesn't know why. She has a big, square jaw, protruding slightly like a bulldog's. The lips of her wide mouth are painted a garish red that reminds Nick of his grandmother. Nonna was the sweetest person on earth and he loved her dearly, but what make-up she wore was never anything but just short of horrible.
I am forgetting something.
This time the thought hurts and Nick squeezes his eyes shut, clenching his fists. In his back, just outside the canvas wall of the tent, he knows the jungle of Vietnam is waiting. And this isn't right, it isn't right, in no camp he was ever stationed the mess tent was pitched directly at the edge of the jungle, would never have been for safety reasons... But still he can feel it out there, its dark, alien presence. Can taste on his lips the danger lurking in its green labyrinth of plants and mud and shadows. Waiting for a mistake. Any mistake.
Eyes snapping open, Nick is startled to find the woman standing right on the other side of the table. She is tall, very tall actually, though her massive frame makes her look stocky. There is a distinct impression of muscles underneath fat, of power not to be underestimated, and Nick involuntarily draws back as she moves with unexpected grace to brace her hands on the tabletop. Her blazing eyes are a curious mix of green and blue, a dark turquoise that is somehow so, so familiar. She bares even teeth underneath the ugly lipstick.
“You always took good care of me.”
And her voice is... Her voice...
“So now I take care of you.”
The roar of an engine, the shudder of moving pistons, the hammering of rotor blades...
-- -- --
Nick jerks awake with a gasp but somehow can't get enough air into his lungs. Mimi is swinging sideways, out of control, trying to roll with alarms blaring and red lights flashing all over the panels, Cody and Murray screaming his name in the headset. A low hillside is filling the cockpit windows, too close and jumping closer, and he instinctively hauls back on the controls.
Sends Mimi spiraling in the other direction so abruptly it nearly knocks her right out of the sky. Below the ground is flashing past in a dizzying blur: the hill with its dusty trees, the dirty band of a road, one-storied houses on the other side of it. A gray van, every door thrown open, muzzle flashes like miniature fireworks in each one – Kramer and his two brothers, drug dealers; killed a junkie but their client's friend got arrested for it; knowing they were onto them the brothers fled but they had placed a tracker on the van and managed to hunt them down in the Mimi – and Nick is aware of the impact of bullets in the fuselage, but not Mimi is failing this time. He is. Is too slow, too uncoordinated as he tries to bring the spinning under control.
Overcompensates a second time.
The reversed rotation is worse, Cody and Murray's screaming voices now frantic, and Nick prays, in a distant corner of his mind, for them to hold on, to not fall out of the open cargo bay door. He works cyclic and collective and throttle and pedals in increasing despair, intricate interaction of hands and feet that is normally easy as breathing now completely off with his lungs burning with lack of air. Only achieves that Mimi dips her nose and whirls towards the line of black and whites in front of the van – they called Joanna for backup and managed to box the Kramer brothers in between the chopper and a roadblock; only they opened fire with everything they had and that is a lot – staggering lower with each rotation around her vertical axis. Nick sees cops fleeing away from their cars. Sees Joanna sprinting for cover. Feels the tail wheel clip the lights right off one roof, showering the road for yards with broken glass and torn metal. Can't get enough air, can't get enough air as he desperately tries to avoid a crash...
Four feet above the ground Mimi levels out and hovers.
He sets her down as fast as he can. The landing is hard, hard enough that she bobs groaning on the landing gear, but it is his instinctive reach for the instrument panel that steals away the last of his breath. Fire flares up in his chest, first hot then cold and then everything goes numb. He thinks he hits the right switches to shut the engine down, though they are suddenly at the far end of a narrowing tunnel. Thinks he hears the pitch of the rotor change as it slows down. But the sound is growing fainter and fainter and so does Cody's agitated voice … which is strange because he thinks he can feel his hands grabbing at his arm, his elbow. Fighting against the gathering darkness Nick tries to look down but his head just sort of flops to the side.
The woman in pink coveralls is sitting in the left seat.
He stares, feeling light-headed and oddly calm, distant, not even bothered by the iron band around his chest winding tighter and tighter. She is looking right back, eyes hard and intense. And slowly smiles with those lips painted the color of his Nonna's lipstick. Nick blinks. Blinks again. Then the darkness rises up and swallows him whole.
-- -- --
Several weeks later...
“This is stupid.” Cody was fuming as he pulled the Jimmy up in front of Mimi's helipad on Pier 56. “Do we really have to do this now? We told you, Joanna saw to it personally Mimi got transferred back here by a pilot who knew what he was doing. The doctor said you have to rest...”
“He said to take it easy!” Nick snapped back, wincing a little at the twinge in his chest and lowering his voice. “I'm taking it easy. This is me, taking it easy, okay? I just need to see her for myself for a moment!”
“Well, there she is, see?” Cody stopped at the archway and gestured angrily. “Now can we go home? Whoa, wait, what are you doing? You are not getting out of this car!”
“You just got out of the hospital!”
“Damn it, Cody, get off my case, will you?” Nick tried to fully open his door without putting too much stress on his right arm and side. “Look, I took a bullet, fine! I blacked out for a second, okay! Then I came to and landed. The Kramer brothers are in prison, our client's friend is cleared and we even got paid. Stop making a big deal out of it!”
Cody just spluttered for a moment in the face of that and Murray piped up from the backseat.
“Well, Nick, no, I think a sucking chest wound is a rather big –“
Only to get interrupted by Cody with a furious: “Oh, yeah, you landed and after that you passed out again, since you were bleeding like a stuck pig, and ended up in surgery for hours –“
Nick made a raw sound of mingled rage and frustration and finally got his feet on the ground.
“Nick, I really don't think...,“ Murray tried again but Cody stopped him by throwing up his arms in disgust.
“No, Murray, let him go! Let him go. There is no reasoning with him when he gets like this. But don't expect us to scrape you off the tarmac if you faint!”
“I don't!” Nick shot back angrily.
Nick stopped just out of the car, fingers still curled around the frame of the open window, and dropped his head with a sigh. In the ensuing silence he pinched the bridge of his nose. Knew he couldn't leave it like that. Knew he had no right to leave it like that.
“I'm sorry,” he said finally, eyes firmly on the Mimi's closed cargo door. “It's just...”
He stopped. Swallowed. Tried again.
“It's just, for a moment, back there, I really thought I'd kill us all. You know?”
He didn't have to see the look Cody and Murray exchanged – startled, concerned, comprehending – to know it was there. It was Murray who spoke first after long seconds, his voice very, very gentle and very, very sincere.
“But … you didn't, Nick. You got us safely on the ground.”
Nick tilted his face upwards and the burning in his throat had nothing to do with the diffuse pain still lingering in his side.
“I guess,” he whispered eventually.
Behind him Cody exhaled a long breath.
“Look, Nick,” he said quietly, “Just go and say hi to that stupid chopper of yours. And then let us take you home to the Riptide. Okay?”
It was apology and absolution wrapped in one and Nick nodded jerkily, that terrible thing that had gnawed at him for weeks in the hospital, making him sharp and irritable, finally letting go. Breathing as deeply as he dared with the still healing wound he started walking across the hot blacktop.
Slowly circling Mimi's hulking body he noted the good job Cody and Murray had done patching up the fresh bullet holes. They had even managed to mix the exact right shade of color – one and a half buckets of white with one bucket of red – to paint them over. Rounding the nose back to her right-hand side he stopped and looked longingly at the steps leading up to the cockpit but made no move to actually climb them. He knew it wasn't a good idea right now. Not with the way any careless movement still pinged painfully in his side and chest. Besides, Cody would only throw another fit and it wouldn't be fair to him anyway, considering how long it had probably taken his friend to wash all the blood off his seat. How long it had probably taken both of them. Glancing briefly over at the Jimmy Nick deliberately turned his back to it and carefully placed a hand against Mimi's sun-warm fuselage, just above the painted mouth.
He didn't know what it had been that day.
Dream, hallucination, vision – if he had really met some personification of Mimi, or maybe the spirit of his grandmother acting as his guardian angel … or if it had simply been his oxygen-starved brain trying to cope with the trauma of the bullet and a body going into shock, blending memories of the war with clues of the present danger.
And if he was honest, he didn't really want to know.
Looking up Nick smiled, because from this perspective it almost seemed like Mimi's painted eye had shifted slightly to peer down at him.
They were okay. They were all okay, and if he wasn't sure if he had insisted on stopping by because he wanted to reassure himself Mimi was all right or because he wanted to show her he was all right … well, that didn't really matter, now did it? He brushed his fingertips gently across the pink metal and his soft murmur was for her alone.
Still smiling Nick turned around and walked back to his waiting friends.