Long, dull author's note: I watched the mini-series of Parade's End and while I loved it, I felt like there wasn't *enough* to it, so I purchased the Kindle version of the novel(s) and haven't really been able to put it down. I am trying to reflect how Ford allows Christopher to spend so much time in his head...something that, IMO, the viewers of the mini-series just did not get enough of.
Add in my zany zeal for all things AU and well, you got this! (I have toyed with making this a crossover, though there is nothing concrete about that...I am simply following the Muse.)
I don't own any of Ford's characters, only my own creations and the background of the story. And since maybe only two other people besides me are going to even read this, I probably didn't even need to tell you that ;) Fans of the novels in question should take this as an extreme compliment to the author that his creations will not let go of me.
Things are as dull here as they have always been. Mum is working hard on her latest novel so I haven’t really seen her much. Of course, that is a good thing as far as studying goes as I’ve passed all my exams with flying colors! Naturally, the maths gave me three kinds of trouble, but I am happy to say I got through it all with plenty of thanks to you. Now, I am looking forward to summer.
I bet you’re not. In your last email, you said it was already miserable there. Did you get the care box Mum and I sent? I hope there were enough sweets and biscuits for you all to share. Will you give the others a hello from me?
I miss you, Chrissie, with all of my heart. I know it won’t be long and you’ll be out and we will be able to be together for good, but I can’t help it.
Christopher Tietjens closes his eyes and leans his head back against the wall behind his bunk. His hands cradle the mini netbook on his thighs, fingers almost touching over the rectangular keyboard. For a second, he tips it upside down over the floor and small bits of sand fall out of it. The little machine certainly has seen better days: the screen is cracked and it makes a loud whirring noise when it is powered on; it is enough, though, to get his emails from Valentine, which he receives with startling regularity, sometimes short like this one and sometimes much longer, depending on what she has going on around her when she finally sits down to write to him. Sometimes she talks about her day and sometimes she tells him about whatever project her mum is currently working on; a few times they have even debated the merits of war back and forth in a rather agreeable fashion…but she always tells him how much she misses him. There are times when the words cut through him like a knife and other times when they keep him from feeling so alone even in the middle of a war zone.
With his legs over the side of the thin mattress, his bare feet dangle next to his dusty camel colored combat boots and dirty socks that he stripped off moments ago in an almost wasted attempt to bring body temperature down. It is a practically useless gesture since there is really no cooling off until he hits the showers and the sun goes down. Even with his eyes closed, the color of this corner of the world is mostly sand and the temperature is sizzling. The thin blanket beneath him is no help as it just collects what he is radiating out.
Actually, he should change his description to stifling; the single fan that sits in the floor in front of the four bunks is somehow doing nothing but moving the heat around. It moves back and forth as if burdened by the weight of the very air, on the walls a poster or two lazily dances in the small current of barely-there-wind produced by the machine. The tent is open on three sides, completely negating the need for lights of any kind until after sunset. Everyone’s bunk is exactly like his: single mattress, pillow, bottom sheet, top sheet and blanket. For the most part the sheets are off-white, a color that many of the men call ‘almost sand’ and the blankets are brown; lots of the soldiers call those…well, there is no reason to be particularly gauche.
Christopher takes a deep breath through his nose and sets the laptop aside, annoyed at himself for forgetting to charge the thing last night. He huffs a little as he stretches muscles exhausted from too many hours of patrol and not enough hours spent actually sleeping. Who can sleep around here? He runs his fingers through what is left of his hair, feeling like a shorn sheep and knocking loose even more fine sand particles that fall onto his shoulders. He changes position so that he can reach the box beneath his bunk and get the charger for the laptop. Once he’s got it, he stands and removes the sweat-soaked tee-shirt. As he pulls it over his head a fine mist of dirt is kicked up in the air; he wrinkles his nose at the smell. Ghastly.
At this moment in time, he wants nothing more than to be…
Christopher’s thoughts trail off, because the only thing he really wants is to be home. And home means with Valentine Wannop, the girl he has been in love with since the first time his eyes found hers at some to-do put on by her award-winning novelist mother. Christopher had no real reason to be there, other than he was practically dragged by his brother Mark, which, in hindsight-as these things always are-it turns out there was someone else there as almost bored to tears as he remembers being.
They spent the evening talking about everything: Valentine’s university courses, her mother’s books, Christopher’s upcoming deployment and even touched on some things they mostly left unsaid. Loneliness was an ignored topic, but somehow both of them were aware of it. He was more than a little excited to find someone with whom he could level with, someone he could talk to about seemingly random subjects with the ability to, if not exactly understand him, at least keep up. To say that he had been impressed with her would be an understatement.
For the next two weeks, they were almost inseparable. He found excuse after excuse to hang around her house; eventually she became the reason. Her mother would smile up at him fondly then turn and call for Valentine if she wasn’t in the immediate vicinity. The older woman would smile and give him a pat on the back or call him down for a kiss on the cheek and go back to whichever manuscript she was currently working on. As he walks with his shaving kit in his hand part of him is aware of the constant murmuring litanies of soldiers talking, doing chores and the miscellany of life in a military camp.
They came from entirely different backgrounds, he and Valentine. Hers was mostly middle class while his—his thoughts derail again as a river of improbably icy water from the shower almost stuns him.
“Gah!” He shouts at the shock of it.
In the makeshift stall next to the one Christopher is using, a man chuckles into the mirror he has propped up on the wooden wall. He is holding one side of his face, making the skin pull over his ruddy cheek in order to shave with the razor in the other hand. His face is almost covered with shaving foam except for the single stripe over his jaw that looks like the rut made in a road after a snow plow makes its first pass. In the center of the stripe is now a tiny red dot.
“Hey, Carrot Top! You oughta be used t’that by now!” The man snickers. “Gonna make me skin my damned face off, man!”
“Mugsy, you irascible bugger! Was it you this time?” Christopher shouts as he leans his head into the spray, his eyes shut. When he is tired, his accent tends to get heavier, and at this point he is beyond caring. When he was first assigned to this strange mix of Canadian/British/American* soldiers he tried his best to cover it up, but when it became apparent that no one really gave two flicks, he dropped the act and decided that there were entirely too many more important things to be concerned about; the top of that list being dirty bombs and dehydration.
Mugsy holds off his comment for a second as he finishes shaving. He is quick with the blade and suffers no more cuts. He leans over the side of the partition and drops his razor into a beat-up bag sitting open on the sandy ground. Inside it are his toiletries as well as the most recent issue of Maxxim. From this side of the stall, he could easily reach over and shut off the water Christopher is enjoying, but that would be cruel. Even with his eyes tightly closed, Mugsy can still make out the dark circles that mark the skin beneath them. He studies Christopher’s broad shoulders and the parts of his muscular torso easily seen above the top of the wall with a medic’s eye: he knows complete exhaustion when he sees it.
“Ah, Carrot Top, what’s with all the big words? Why can’t you jes talk like everyone else?” Mugsy teases. “I think you need a little R&R, soldier.” He states in the lightest tone he can muster; only the sternness in his brown eyes gives the statement away as an order.
“Back off, Yank!” Christopher cups a hand beneath the spray and splashes the water right into Mugsy’s face.
In retaliation, Mugsy really does reach over and turn the water off just as Christopher is squeezing shower gel through his short hair.
“Bloody hell!” Christopher shouts again as Mugsy giggles and pounds on the wooden slats between them with his fist.
“Aww….I’m so sorry, yer Royalness, just lemme fix it for you!” Mugsy flips the tap to the hot side—which is pretty much a joke out here, because it is just lukewarm. It is enough to do the job, though, which apparently is called Make-Christopher-Jump because the younger man does exactly that.
If Mugsy were honest with himself, he would admit that driving his friend up the wall is one of his favorite past times out here, besides oogling any pair of breasts he can find. He smiles to himself and the gold tooth that replaces one of his front incisors shines merrily in the slowly setting sun.
“Carrot Top, you know I’m just harrassin’ ya.” Mugsy pleads when Christopher gets the soap rinsed off. He likes to drop into his east Tennessee accent because it irritates the living daylights out of his London-born-and-bred comrade.
“Indeed.” Christopher snarks as he runs his hand down his jaw. Still reasonably smooth, he can shave in the morning.
“You are beautiful, darlin’.” Mugsy says as he pokes Christopher’s shoulder with his index finger and makes smacking kiss noises with his sun-chapped lips. “Once you are dressed, or not, stop by my tent. Let’s have a pow wow for a bit. Don’t have to be formal, let’s talk.” Mugsy gives the younger man a slap and picks up his bag. Christopher makes a noncommittal sound in his throat as he grabs the end of the towel Mugsy has slung over his hips.
Mugsy is unaware of this retaliation until he is three feet from the two shower stalls and completely starkers. Several soldiers stride by and the immediate vicinity erupts in laughter. Mugsy, unembarrassed, plants his hands on his hips and shakes his head. From the shower, Christopher holds up the towel like he’s captured the flag. Mugsy gives him a sort of flippant wave that ends in flashing him the bird before he continues on his way, naked as the day he was born.
Some of the men catcall and whistle so Mugsy plays it up by shaking his behind and prancing towards his tent. He might be the commander, but he knows his soldiers need a break in the tension and if he can be the comic relief, he’s all for it. At the door, he shakes his hips one more time and does a little fake bow. Those still watching his impromptu performance clap their hands as Mugsy goes in.
Mugsy’s tent is like every other one in the camp: basically made up of three-sides of mosquito netting and a solid side that is supposed to offer some sort of shade. The material it’s made from is a shade darker than their fatigues. The floor is sand that has been packed down from walking on it. Only the hospital has a wooden floor, for obvious reasons. Mugsy’s tent only differs in the fact that it has a single bunk, rather than the four of the enlisted men’s tents; even the officers are expected to double-up. On those rare occasions when the Brass are around, Mugsy moves out of his little home for the night and bunks wherever there is a space.
Mugsy pulls a pair of cargo shorts out of his footlocker then digs towards the bottom and pulls out his ugliest Hawaiian shirt he can find. It is bright red with gigantic purple flowers all over. This should lighten the mood effectively. He settles onto his bunk after grabbing the little sewing kit from the overturned crate that he uses for a table. Stashed under his pillow are several socks with holes in the toes and heels. Mugsy sets to work on them while he waits for Christopher, wishing he was nursing a cold beer and watching the ladies dance instead of darning socks.
Christopher grabs a fresh towel from the stack in the box on the side of the shower stall and ties it over his hips. It only covers him enough to pass for ‘decent,’ something he has tried and failed to get better at since he’s been here. It is difficult being one of the biggest guys in the camp but he makes due, just like everybody else. He crosses the ground between his tent and the showers rapidly, detesting the feel of the grit on the bottoms of his feet. That was something else he had to learn: go barefoot whenever you can because the itching from what the Americans call ‘athlete’s foot’ is enough to make you insane. He only had to suffer it once to understand completely. Back at his bunk, he checks to see that the laptop is charging correctly; the old thing takes forever, but at least it still works. He slips into a pair of cargo shorts and a clean tee shirt then rolls on some deodorant; he heads towards Mugsy’s tent, absentmindedly running a hand over his scalp, an old habit that hasn’t yet died, even after all these months. At least for a few moments, his hair is bereft of sand.
Here is proof that I am absolutely and irrevocably insane.
Christopher stands outside Mugsy Harper’s tent observing some inner ritual of politeness that stops him from walking right in; never mind that the door is rolled up over the doorway and Mugsy is staring directly at him with an expression that seems to be a mixture of fond annoyance and open curiosity.
“Aw, Carrot Top, man I know you love me, but this ain’t a freakin’ mansion or whatever you’re used to. It’s a tent, for Christsakes, come in!” Mugsy bellows louder than necessary. The whole thing is a big bluff, though, since he is laughing like a fool by the end of it.
Christopher knows that his face is probably the same color as his hair at this point. Damn his ridiculously pale skin that refuses to brown up and help protect him from the horrid desert sun. There is no way that the sun on this side of the world is the same one that peeks through sheer curtains back in his bedroom in London, no matter what science says. He frowns at his friend and superior officer as he walks in to the tent.
“Geez, take yer time why don’tcha!” Mugsy tosses a cold bottle of water at Christopher, who almost drops it out of sheer surprise.
Christopher eyes the packed sand floor with hatred as he opens the bottle.
“Boy, you got some big hands there, you know it?” Mugsy teases as he settles back on his bunk, a sock wrapped over his right hand, silver needle nesting between the finger and thumb on his left.
The other soldier shrugs as he studies his hands for a moment. He can almost fit the fat little plastic bottle into a fist. He lets his mind slip away a little, thinking of the way his fingers cradle the side of Valentine’s open and trusting face, the way she smiles and the way he leans in close, the softly floral scent of her skin as he takes his time tasting the skin of her neck…
“Yo! Earth to Carrot Top! At least I think this fuckin’ desert is still on Earth, last time I checked anyway.” Mugsy mutters to his socks.
Christopher looks around the tent for a chair. There is a blue fold-up one in the corner against the solid side, so he grabs it sits down quickly, his long legs almost forced into an uncomfortable angle. He drinks his water and waits, thoroughly enjoying the coolness on his parched throat.
Mugsy finishes darning the sock. He holds up his hand and turns it back and forth, studying his handiwork, the stitches invisible against the tan material. Satisfied, he tosses it to the end of his bunk and grabs his own half-full bottle of water from his makeshift nightstand. He takes a deep drink that ends with a belch then studies Christopher hard.
“Sergeant Tietjens,” Mugsy clears his throat and switches into ‘professional soldier’ mode.
Christopher turns away from his contemplation of the floor and his own bare toes. “Yes, sir.” He says quietly. Everything that he has done in the past few weeks rushes through his mind, from sun up to sun down. It seems like there is nothing he has done wrong or anything he should be reprimanded for; Christopher would know, the one time he slipped up and didn’t follow given orders to the letter, he was the one who brought himself before his new commanding officer for a fitting punishment.
Mugsy, though, only laughed at him and called him a damned fool. He said something along the lines that if soldiers were all meant to be perfect then the army would be using robots and not human beings, and certainly not men. And, really, Carrot Top, did a spit-shine on tan boots in the desert actually make that much of a difference?
Christopher remembers frowning down at Mugsy, who stands a solid six inches shorter than Christopher and the Lieutenant frowning right back, his eyes flashing like a lighthouse ashore on a foggy night at sea. Mugsy was the first of the men to give Christopher a nickname and that small gesture not only broke the ice between them, but also helped Christopher warm up to the other men and women in the camp. Before that, Sergeant Tietjens only did what he was told and kept to himself, Christopher ‘Carrot Top’, however, relaxed a little and did his job even better than before.
“This is exactly what I mean, Christopher. You go somewhere, I don’t know. Into your mind, maybe? And I’m sorry to tell ‘ya, but you look like you’ve been horsewhipped and dumped in the swamp to die. You are a helluva patrolman and I don’t want to lose the likes of you to something as simple to combat as exhaustion.” Mugsy is leaning forward on his bunk, his hands on his knees and feet flat on the hard-packed sand. He snaps his fingers and Christopher blinks.
After a second, he rests his face in his hands. “I think that is a correct assessment of my current condition. What would you have me do, then, Mugsy? When they ask me to walk point, I walk point whether it is two hours or ten. Better me than one of the medics.” Christopher sighs wearily.
“Yeah, and that, too.” Mugsy places a firm hand on Christopher’s shoulder, forcing the younger man to look directly at him. “You don’t have to do that to let these bastard panty-wastes like you.”
“I know.” Christopher mumbles. “It just helps keep my mind off things.” He shrugs.
Mugsy lets out another laugh. “Uh huh. You told me about Valentine, Carrot Top. I know you are missing your girl. And, hey! Lemme be the first one to tell you that I get it, I totally do.” His fingers grip tightly for a second then release as he sits back and crosses his legs.
Christopher has nothing to say. It is the undeniable truth so he shakes his head.
“Right. So you know I get it. Fine, let’s move on. Unfortunately, I’ve got fifty or so other men and women feeling the same way about loved ones on the other side of the big pond as you Brits put it, but we all got a job to do, and it is my duty to make sure that job gets down. We are all out of here in six months, Carrot Top. You’re a strong dude, you can hang out that long; but I’ve got to get you rested up some first.”
Christopher blinks slowly, hearing very clearly the steel of the battle-worn soldier behind the paternally friendly tone of Mugsy’s little speech. “I understand.”
“That’s great, my boy. Listen, I’m going to get you out of here for three days. R and R means exactly that, don’t go out there and hump a bunch of women or men or both or get into a bar fight and get thrown into jail.”
Mugsy grins when Christopher wrinkles his nose as if the thought of carousing and fighting like a grunt is utterly despicable. This time when he leans forward, he smacks the side of Christopher’s face with his hand cupped so that the noise it makes is loud enough to echo in the thick, hot air.
“Yer dismissed, Carrot Top. I’ll see you at oh, I don’t know. Let’s say zero seven hundred hours? I’ll have yer ride and orders ready to go. Bring your kit with you.” Mugsy crosses his arms and falls back onto his bunk, shaking the frame and making the worn springs creak at the abuse.
“Thank you, sir.” Christopher mutters and gives Mugsy a crisp salute, which causes the other man to burst into laughter again. At Christopher’s querying expression, Mugsy shakes his head and gestures towards the open doorway. He is wiping tears out of his eyes when Christopher turns to look at him again. He opens his mouth as if to ask a question then lets it die unsaid. If your commanding officer orders you to get some R and R, you might as well do it.
Mugsy is right, too, Christopher thinks as he walks back to his tent. Surely he could find somewhere else to spend his free time, but right now he wants to be alone and the pub tent or the mess hall will be filled with soldiers talking crap, playing cards or even watching movies. He hopes that his netbook will be charged enough so that he can respond to Valentine’s email; he’s got to tell her that he will be away from camp for three days and hopes she will not worry too much if she doesn’t hear from him until he gets back.
In some ways, getting to see Chaldhar, the largest village nearest the camp, will at least give him something to think about other than watching for snipers and counting down the days until he can get out of this hellish place. Mugsy is right, as he always is, they have a job to do and that job comes first. After all, he volunteered for this duty. Several soldiers pass him by and call out greetings that he returns with only scant attention on who he is talking to. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Like Mugsy said, in six months they will all be out of here and since he is one of only a handful of European soldiers to be involved in this conflict at all, he feels like he cannot make too many friends because the likelihood of the others staying in touch is so slim—why fake it?
He walks slowly over the footpath worn soft by the countless tread of feet. On one side of the path there are several pathetic shrubs trying hard to survive the hellish climate: two of them still have green-going-brown leaves on them and the third is completely bare, nothing but a dried up tangle of thin branches. As he passes it, Christopher notes the abandoned nest deep in the heart of it and thinks that is what his own heart looked like before Valentine clawed and kicked and dug out a place for herself in his chest.
At his tent, Christopher finds that one of the other three soldiers he shares with is home. Robert Loving, Jr. is a short, barrel-chested, muscular hulk of a black man with smiling brown eyes and a shiny bald pate. His nickname around camp is Mister Clean. Christopher did not get that one in particular until Robert took pity on him and explained that Mister Clean was a big, muscular, bald, white guy that was a figment of someone’s imagination (in other words, a cartoon character) used to entice women to purchase household cleaning solutions back in the 2000s. Christopher didn’t really see it, other than the muscles and the bald head but he smiled and went along with it anyway.
“Hi Carrot Top, Mugsy been wearin’ your ears out this evenin’, big man?” Robert lazily drawls from his bunk where he is stretched out on his back, completely naked save for the fluffy yellow towel draped over his groin. Wherever you go in the universe, always remember your towel, Christopher thinks suddenly, completely bewildered as to where he’s heard that line before; it had to be the last movie night he attended in the pub tent.
Robert has turned the one fan in the tent directly on his still damp body, something they all do on those rare occasions when they are solo for a bit; no one begrudges any of the others the small luxury. Christopher is sure that the man’s thighs are as big around as both of his own. They have sparred together a few times and Christopher was surprised to find Robert to be a match in strength and ability. From a grudging respect of one another has grown something akin to friendship; not that Christopher would ever call it that, it is more like a mutual agreement to get along. He smiles in his tired way and Robert smiles back.
Who is he trying to fool, though? Without camaraderie and their inborn instinct to form such ties, there would be no military at all, and he, Christopher Tietjens, knows full well that all of his North American and European brethren be slaves in all but name to the constant flood of invaders from these arid hellholes of the world.
Christopher drops down on his own bunk and stretches out, realizing that he never answered Robert’s question. “Not as such, no. Apparently, I am in need of some mandatory R and R.” He puts both hands behind his head so that his elbows stick out on either side.
Robert grunts in acknowledgement just as the tent’s other two occupants stride in. One of them, a tall, broad-shouldered blonde Canadian, grabs the fan and yanks it away from Robert and turns it so that it is blowing the air out of the tent. It is an effective maneuver though and will soon create a faint breeze that will cool them all as night comes on.
“Dammit, Jackie-boy, I was comfortable!” Robert mutters, sitting up at his elbows to glare at Jacques Remeau. Jacques grins broadly and rattles off something in perfect French, ending it with a cheeky little growl. “Si je voulais aller native J'aimerais choisir l'une des filles dans le village.”
A laugh bubbles from Christopher’s throat and Robert turns his glare on him. “Give it up, Carrot Top, what the Canuk just say?”
Christopher looks up at Jacques who is now on his own bunk removing his boots. He tips one over and pours out a stream of sound with a sour look on his face. “You can tell him.” Jacques says in a deep, nasal tone, smiling despite himself.
“Robert, he says that if he wanted to go native, he’d pick one of the girls in the village.” Christopher chuckles shyly.
Robert puts on his best put-out face as he flings his pillow towards Jacques’ head. “Boy, you wish you could handle what I’ve got to give out!”
Jacques laughs heartily and tosses the pillow onto Robert’s face as he passes by, presumably to shower. Robert throws himself back down and groans about the heat. Like himself, Robert and Jacques are patrolmen, but the fourth man sharing the cramped living space with them is an electronics and communications technician named Blain Sarta, and the only person in the camp generally considered to be quieter than Christopher. He is of average height and build, has brown hair and eyes and wears square-lensed, rimless glasses that always seemed to be perched on the bridge of his nose.
Where Christopher socializes occasionally, Sars may only be seen at a gathering once in a blue moon. He was born in Quebec and raised in the state of Michiconsin. Christopher sometimes feels empathy for him because he knows what it is like to stand out in a crowd for no reason other than the way your accent lilts to one side or the other. Blain’s a decent sort, though and also has a ‘girl back home.’ Of course, this idea serves to bring Mugsy’s assertion home to nest.
Blain gives Christopher a slight wave as he peels out of his own clothing and, like the others, flops onto his bunk. Christopher regards him for a second longer and returns to his contemplation of the inside of the top of the tent. Within seconds he can make out the two distinct breathing patterns of both Robert and Blain then drifts off himself without another thought, completely forgetting about emailing Valentine.
The thirty minute ride in the lumbering military vehicle from camp to Chaldhar was so uneventful as to make the armor covering it unnecessary (this time.) Mugsy called on the supply sergeant, Angie Porter, to drop him off at the village’s only motel. She had given him a friendly greeting and remained silent for the ride, thankfully giving Christopher the space he so desperately needed after all these months in the crowded camp.
After checking in to his room, well, a water closet with a bed in it really, he peels down to his fatigue trousers and a tee shirt in order to check out the local color, and colorful it is. The motel itself is a single story sandstone building that stretches out in two wings from a square center. The woman working behind the desk is swathed head to toe in red silk from what he can see, save for her face and hands; her fingers are virtually covered in dainty gold filigree jewelry. As she types his name into her computer, the slanted morning light catches on a gem or three and the stones glitter pleasingly. Somewhere behind her, an air conditioner is running at full capacity, and it is not even noon yet. She was nice enough to him, but he was thankful for her distinct lack of small talk.
Christopher has not been here long enough to feel comfortable with the locals, but he is not completely suspicious of everyone, either. He winds his way through the crowd, enjoying the sights and smells: fried bread dough cooked with garlic and onions; mean and women clothed traditionally in bright colors, other soldiers like himself, and even a few locals dressed more in the western style: jeans, tee-shirts and sandals.
For a few moments, he lets himself consider purchasing a pair of soft brown leather sandals that are sitting on a shelf outside a leather-worker’s stall. The soles are as pliable as the straps and he is reaching for his wallet when something shiny catches his eye in the stall next door. Christopher gently puts the sandals back and the vendor gives him a nod. Sandals in London would be ridiculous anyway, and besides, he needs something to take home to Valentine. He moves around a couple of tourists haggling with an elderly man in a blue turban to see what it was that caught his attention.
It turns out to be several rows of shiny silver and jade necklaces and bracelets; the jade apparently comes in green, amber, and sky blue. He holds up a choker with light green and blue stones, envisioning it on Valentine’s neck. She could wear it in the summer where the colors would reflect her eyes and her favorite shirt, along with that long, flowing skirt she favors for warm evenings. Yes. This would do nicely; he nods to himself and searches for a matching bracelet and a pair of neat, heart-shaped earrings to complement the set. The vendor knows an instant sale when he sees one, but he haggles a little anyway, just so he can tell Valentine that he got the best deal.
Valentine will smile and tell him that she loves his present to her, and that she loves him.
Or, and this is almost unthinkable, perhaps she will not.
Maybe she doesn’t like silver? For an instant, he is almost struck down with a wave of insecurity. She is polite; of course, she would never tell him outright if she doesn’t like it...well, that is a lot worse, in his opinion.
The middle aged jeweler hands him the box he has placed the gift into with a blinding smile. Christopher tries to return it, but now he is worried and it has just occurred to him that he left his tent without emailing her. Right there in the center of the busy market, Christopher Tietjens closes his eyes and turns his face towards the sun that is slowly creeping towards its midday resting place. He takes several steady breaths and the river of people surrounding him recedes into background noise. Everything remains bright and colorful, his senses remain sharp, but he is able to let go his concentration so much on them and remind himself that no matter the gift, Valentine will simply be happy to have him home for good.
Christopher’s heart and his wallet are a little lighter. His inner pep squad has been keeping up a mantra of six more months since he woke up this morning, and he is starting to believe it. That idea bolsters him considerably as he moves toward the tiny, run-down café next door to the motel. Mugsy told him that occasionally these little places have landlines. He flips his wrist in order to look at his watch and does a quick calculation in his head. Valentine should be home, or at least have her mobile on her.
Christopher’s combat boots thump heavily against the cracked linoleum floor of the café and the little bell on the door jingles a soft, tinny welcome over his head as he bends his neck when he steps through the door. According to Mugsy, the name of the man who owns the place is called Sam. Christopher goes straight to the counter.
For the most part, everything in and outside of the village is constantly caked with dust or sand: the small, squat homes and business, the few automobiles and even the people. The children on the street often have their identities fully hidden by the gritty stuff. Christopher feels it collecting on his scalp again, and surely the back of his neck is covered with it. An occasional sand storm through the area brings with it even more, covering the ground with a fine coating of reddish, brownish, and sometimes even golden particles.
The café, however, for as run down as the place is—some of the windows are even cracked—it is spotlessly clean. The old cash register is as clean as the top of the grill Christopher can see behind the partial wall. Long counters and small tables have been painted and repainted several times, currently they are a deep russet brown and someone has taken the time to paint delicate designs along the sides and top in copper. Overall, the effect reminds him of henna painting he saw when he was younger; the air smells of cinnamon and bread dough. He takes a look around; the place is deserted except for him.
On the brown walls hangs several paintings and baskets that Christopher is sure are hand woven. Oddly, brass electric sconces have been added above each of the four tables lining the walls. Christopher wonders what the place looks like in the dark desert nights. The bench is lined with four large gleaming silver coffee pots and three tea kettles, only one of which is electric. Beside the machines that are so obviously a point of pride with the owner are mugs and tea cups stacked by twos and threes.
Finally, a large, dark-skinned and well-dressed man steps up behind the counter from the kitchen. He is wearing an eclectic mix of styles: an obviously American tee-shirt in bright blue paired with the wide trousers preferred by the locals. A wide gold band stretches around his left ring finger on a hand roughly the size of a Christmas ham.
“What can I do for you, sir?” The man asks. His brown eyes are kind and he has the beginning of deep crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. His salt and pepper hair is cropped short to his skull and the goatee on his chin is neatly trimmed. Christopher cannot decide if the man would look as good in a suit or a uniform. After a few seconds, he realizes the man is staring at him with an odd expression on his face.
Christopher clears his throat, hoping that it only looks as if he is trying to decide the type of tea he would like to drink from the ten or so tins stacked on the counter. Knowing that he has failed miserably, he finds himself looking directly into the man’s eyes, a rare occurrence for him and even rarer out here.
“You must be Sam.” He says, finally and holds his hand above the counter. The other man takes it, his broad paw actually threatening to engulf Christopher’s.
“Yes, I would be him. You must be one of Mugsy’s boys.” Sam lets go of Christopher’s hand and turns towards the bench without waiting for an answer. He pours some hot water into one of the mugs and sets it on the counter between them. “I am assuming tea? Which flavor?”
Christopher nods and points towards a box of what looks to be plain black tea bags. Sam pops the box open and drops the bag into the mug.
“Sugar?” Sam asks.
“Please.” Christopher answers as Sam stirs in two cubes with a flourish. He puts the spoon in a rest on the bench and gestures Christopher towards one of the tables.
“How much do I owe you…?” Christopher begins.
“Nothing. I owe Mugsy a great deal, the least I can do is offer some hospitality out here.” Sam watches Christopher sip his tea with the long practice born of a lifetime of taking care of customers. “What’s your name?”
“It is good to meet you, Christopher. Are they taking care of you out there at the camp?” Sam narrows his eyes.
“Yes, sir.” Christopher says. “Mugsy did say you have a landline here, could I be a bother and use it to call home? I’ll happily pay any charges.”
Sam is silent for a few seconds then he nods. “Aye, I do and you are more than welcome. Judging by the way you clip your letters, you aren’t Canadian or American. I’m guessing London?”
“Yes, sir.” Christopher says again. Sam smiles and stands up. He disappears behind the counter again and returns to the table with a very old fashioned black plastic telephone.
“It is all yours, all I ask is that you keep it to five minutes please.” Sam points at the telephone and walks away, presumably back towards the kitchen.
Christopher notes the time on his watch and dials Valentine’s mobile number. It rings several times and finally goes right through to her message center but he doesn’t bother to leave anything since his plan is now to try again tomorrow. He sighs and finishes the cup of tea in a single drink then fumbles about his pocket for a handful of coins. Dropping the coins on the table, he grabs Valentine’s gift. For a moment he stands outside, debating whether to walk around the market square a little longer or head back to the motel.
In the end, the motel wins simply because he saw a tiny air conditioning unit in his room. He allows his thoughts to swirl about as he crosses the lobby and turns left down the corridor. The keycard is in his pocket so he juggles the bag he is carrying to his left hand and swipes the keycard with his right. A little green light on the pad blinks on and he opens the door. The room is small but relatively maintained and the air inside it is not too horribly stale. At some point it looks like another lodger had the window open. He checks to be sure it is closed and flips on the a/c then pulls his traveling kit, a large black duffle bag, onto the narrow bed. Christopher stuffs Valentine’s jewelry beneath his clothes and takes out his netbook. He wiggles out of his shirt, looks at the window again then drops the netbook in order to pull the reddish-brown drape over the window to block out the worst of the midday sun.
Satisfied that he can luxuriate in the cool air for a bit, he turns on the netbook and checks the power. It looks like there is enough battery power left to at least check his mail and see if he’s gotten anything new from Valentine since yesterday. Of course, with the room steadily cooling and the motel relatively quiet around him, an icon in the top corner of the screen warns him that the battery has less than five percent power left.
“Damn.” Christopher mutters under his breath. He goes back to his kit and digs around, finally having to admit that he left the charging cord back in the tent. Frowning in irritation, he stows the little machine away again and grabs the television remote from the table next to the bed. He flips the thing on and cruises through channels for several minutes, secretly impressed at what the motel has to offer. If they regularly serve military personnel, there is no doubt that the owner’s have learned what is important.
Several news channels offer world coverage in an astonishing variety of languages. Christopher settles on an English channel and the female anchor runs through some highlights. He listens for a moment before his stomach protests its lack of sustenance; sighing he puts the remote back, checks his back pocket for his key and pulls his tee shirt back on.
As he exits the room, before the door closes completely, the news anchor mentions something about Chaldhar, and Christopher thinks it is possible he heard the word ‘insurgents’ but the door closes and he is thinking about food. He takes some solace in the idea that if he was needed at the camp, Mugsy would have already sent someone to fetch him.
Here be angst.
The next two days pass and Christopher finds that he is in the odd position of being bored. He has walked around the market so many times that some of the vendors know him by name; truly there is only so much to see in a village this size and only so many television programs he can watch before it all blends together into useless chaos. It has been months since he has been faced with absolutely nothing to do and he is practically vibrating with unused energy. He tries calling Valentine again but there is still no answer and he does not want to take too much advantage of Sam’s politeness. Checking his watch, he sees that he only has another four hours before his ride is supposed to pick him up; he makes a snap decision to walk back. It may not be the smartest idea he has ever had, but he feels like he can protect himself and it is only a little over a two hour walk if he takes it easy to account for the heat; if his ride appears on the road between here and there, then he will hop in and it will be no big deal.
Christopher packs his kit so that the weight inside it is evenly distributed, then hoists the whole thing up and slings it over his back. He returns the keycard to the woman at the desk, today dressed in bright yellow. She offers a shy smile and thanks him softly. Christopher signs the guest book and moves out into the day, stopping to check that his boot laces are tight enough to not need any attention for a while. He walks around the market once more to say goodbye to a few of the vendors; several wave him over and press small sweets or trinkets into his hands, others ignore him in much the same way they have the entire time he has been in town.
The locals are friendly enough, Christopher considers, that it is hard to believe the reason he is even in this place is due to a large band of rebels attempting to overthrow the more-peaceful-now-than-twenty-years-ago government that was spearheaded by the EU, Canada and the Americans. That brings his thoughts back to the odd reasons that the European Union put up about not getting involved in this fight.
However, Christopher does not feel like it is his place to question because it makes him consider where his loyalties really lie. He is for England, without a doubt, through and through, but spending so much time getting to know his comrades from other places shrinks his world considerably.
The road ahead is reasonably flat except for several small dips that appear to be repaired wash-outs. He studies the cracked and patched reddish brown asphalt then kicks it with the toe of his boot. It is sturdy enough and really no matter of his. On either side of the road the desert opens up as far as the eye can see. The landscape is tinted in browns, pinks, and yellows and Christopher finds it beautiful for as deadly as it is. He studies it so that when he gets home he will be able to describe it to Valentine just how he sees it now: a seemingly lifeless expanse of sand and rocks that really fools the eye. At night the desert truly comes alive: many types of burrowing animals that sleep through the day use the cover of darkness to hunt for their food.
People do, too. He realizes, the thought bringing him full circle to where he began. He stops right in the middle of the road and looks back towards the village, remembering what he told himself about the locals being friendly…every night he has been in the village, he spent it holed up in his room at the motel, so he really has no true idea of what the ‘night life’ is like for the villagers. Christopher feels like he has failed them somehow, which is ridiculous. In some ways, he is doing something for them by just being present; no, everyone in the camp is doing something, it is a group effort to keep them protected; to keep them safe. That is the reason Christopher signed up to fight; he truly believes that through his own actions and the actions of his comrades-at-arms they can make a tiny corner of the world a better place.
Christopher smiles wryly at himself; he’s got to remember to tell Valentine about this little epiphany. The day grows longer and hotter and Christopher continues to walk. After a while, his mind is blank and quiet, the constant tumult of his thoughts begin to settle as his body adjusts to the exertion. He pulls a bottle of water from his pack and drinks it slowly just to keep his hands busy.
When he smells smoke he is about a half an hour away from the campsite. At first he thinks that maybe Jason the cook has burned some big thing like a roast or some such; he lengthens his strides and picks up the pace anyway. He is starting to get that itch in the back of his mind that something isn’t right. He begins to see the tops of a few of the outermost tents and the smoke is thicker here, black and roiling against the brightness of the azure sky.
Christopher is running before he realizes his own reaction and grabbing for a weapon that he does not have on his person. He throws the half-empty water bottle away and takes a lungful of air then lets it out through his nose as he pours on the speed. His boots slap the sandy ground as he cuts across a sandy rise that is several meters from the camp.
The sight before him pulls him up short. Everything is ablaze. Bright orange flames lick at each tent, ebony smoke is a crude ‘x’ that marks every single…oh god.
Bodies. Pompeian negatives of people who asphyxiated buried in feet of ash like snow it was so fine like the hand of some god caressing the downy cheeks of its children…
These are the people Christopher has bunked with, broken bread with, protected and in turn, they protected him. He stands there on the rise, heedless of the danger, his mind only on the scene before him. It is daylight. These things are not supposed to happen in the daylight, hell, the light of day is supposed to be safe, dammit!
Without thinking, without stopping to check to see if the perpetrators are still in the vicinity, Christopher races down the sandy bank almost losing his footing once or twice but no matter…he needs to check on Mugsy. Christopher is running now with his head bowed, watching where his feet are going but it all means nothing because he recognizes all of these people and it is overwhelming and Mugsy’s tent is just fucking gone and there’s a hole, a big, gaping hole right here and. He can’t breathe.
…There is pain. Voices babbling in a tongue Christopher has never bothered to learn because he was only going to be here for a year…and he’s failed again because the pain in his back stops him in his tracks where he is reaching out to steady himself on what is now no more than a pile of charcoal…bomb. It must have been a bomb.
The earth tilts on its axis when he thinks I have been shot …and it keeps tilting and those voices are all around him now…shouting, someone is angry…why would someone be angry? He is still safe in the motel room in the air conditioning with the telly on some inane program and he is being selfish taking this time when his brothers and his sisters are fighting the good fight and he has let them down…he has let them all down. Where’s Mugsy? Mugsy could solve this problem, he solves them all. He is a good man and oh god, what will Valentine say when she hears of this? How can he contrast this to the timeless beauty that he passed through a few short hours before?
“Valentine!” Christopher screams as his hands claw at nothing and then something explodes in his mind or outside he doesn’t know because falling face-first onto warm sand is exactly like falling into a soft bed into the arms of a lover.
The first thing Christopher notices when he next becomes fully aware is that everything is gray: the steadily beeping machines, the walls, the chair next to his bed, the bed…just everything. He has no way of knowing how long he has been out and for a few moments is blissfully ignorant of the how and the why. The one thing he does notice, besides how drab his surroundings appear, is that the room is almost unbearably hot and he would know, because he has been in the desert for months.
The memory hits him full force and he struggles to fight it. It’s too much, though; soon he finds himself gulping for air amidst a storm of tears. His chest heaves, causing one of the various monitors attached to him to begin crying out for attention. Breathing is becoming painful, taxing and there are too many wires and the noise is overwhelming; shooting over the ridge there, they are shooting at us…
Christopher’s hands flap about as he struggles to push himself up and away from the wailing machines and the cacophonous memories. An unfamiliar ice cold lightning bolt of fear threatens to split his body is half, forces a scream from his throat when the horrors of what happened out there settle on his shoulders.
“Sergeant Tietjens, sir, are you conscious?” A tall male doctor opens the grey door. His lab coat is as grey as the walls. His voice cuts through Christopher’s panic and returns him to the moment.
Christopher does not bother with answering the question; he is weak enough in this prone position. “Where am I?” He is forced to turn his head slightly to one side as the doctor sounds like he is coming to Christopher through water.
Two nurses come in behind the doctor and fuss with the machines then check his blood pressure and other functions. Christopher hates it. He wants to push them away so that he can be alone with his anguish and pain. One of them raises his bed so that he is now sitting up. He feels a slight pull on his abdomen and back, but the painkillers are keeping him numb enough that he pays no immediate attention the discomfort. Right now, it means nothing. The nurses are as generically smoke colored as everything else. Now he knows what a goldfish in a bowl feels like, trapped behind a thick wall of glass and peering at a distorted view of the world.
The doctor watches the nurses for a few moments and gives one of them a nod when she leaves two minutes before the second one. Neither of them says a word to Christopher. He keeps his eyes on the doctor.
“Sergeant, your body has been through a terrible ordeal. What do you remember?” The doctor asks in a voice meant to be soothing.
Christopher detests the patronizing, “I remember enough.” That is really all he wants to say on the matter; he expects some type of argument.
The grey doctor simply nods, however. “You know that you were shot not long after you stumbled into the camp?”
Guilt rises up in the back of his throat and tastes of bile; he grinds his teeth against it. “I believe I remember that, as well.”
“That is good. I do have some more good news for you: none of your vital organs were too terribly injured. Your left kidney took a beating, but the bullet missed the arteries.”
“Fine.” Christopher grits out; he knows there is more or the doctor would not still be standing here. Both men turn their heads towards the door as it opens. Christopher does a double-take so fast the room spins.
Valentine steps through and looks around cautiously. She is dressed in a light blue blouse and dark blue jeans; her earrings are small flowers that match her shirt and for a second, the only decent thing still remaining in Christopher’s tiny world are her eyes. His school ring dangles from a silver chain on her neck, the emerald stone almost dazzling him as it swings dangerously close to her cleavage. Valentine spots him sitting up and rushes to his side, pushing the chair next to his bed out of the way.
“Chrissie?” Valentine asks timidly, pulling back to look into his face. She holds him gently, like something that will break. He reaches out and catches a lock of her golden hair between his fingers; her bright blue eyes are rimmed with red and there is a scarlet patch on her cheek, probably from resting her face on her hand while she sat in the chair. He is filled with both joy and trepidation at her presence here, so far away from home.
“Doctor, where am I?” He asks, not taking his eyes from her face. She is crying now and not even attempting to hide the tears. Christopher thinks it must be relief.
“You are at Philip’s Stronghold Hospital.” The doctor answers, still not making any move to leave.
“In London?” Christopher asks Valentine. She nods, petting his cheek softly, her fingertips rasping against stubble. He recognizes the name of the military hospital, which makes perfect sense. “How did I get here?”
Again, the doctor answers while Valentine continues to stare at his face as if it has been years instead of months since they were last together. For his part, he tries to hold her but finds that his arms are too weak. They flop down on the bed. He sighs and Valentine returns the chair to its spot near the bed then takes both of his hands in hers. “A team of fresh soldiers were only a few minutes behind you.” She tells him, “When they found you, you were unconscious and in danger of bleeding out. The insurgents were already gone and the…”she hesitates then barrels through, “…damage had been done.”
Christopher fights the feeling of tears threatening to fall again. “I was the only survivor,” he gasps between his teeth as his chest heaves as the realization crashes over him the way the bombs destroyed the campsite. Once again, guilt threatens to shove him down in a pit of despair and horrid memories.
Valentine nods and the doctor says, “Yes.” The man’s expression does not change.
Christopher gets a tight grasp on his emotions after a few moments and looks from the doctor to Valentine: she is the only thing in the room that has any color. He shakes his head. “What else?” Because there has to be something else, otherwise the doctor would not still be standing here.
“Sergeant Tietjens, I need to tell you about the bullet that entered the lower left part of your back. Actually, it is a good thing that you were moving quickly when you were shot at, because, as I said earlier, none of your vital organs were grievously injured. Your kidney was nicked and you lost quite a bit of blood; however, the wound was a clean one, the bullet actually passed right through.” The doctor stands still, easily at parade rest and delivers his words as if they are memorized lines. Christopher thinks that if he wasn’t all grey his hair might be brown.
“Alright.” Christopher states. Valentine offers him a soft smile and he tightens his hand the best he is able around hers.
This time the doctor looks down at the floor then back to his patient. “It was very close, Sergeant. The projectile could have done more damage, as it is on its way out, it glanced off of your spine.”
Christopher can feel Valentine tense up as the atmosphere in the room gets heavy. No. Don’t tell me I’ll never walk again.
“As it stands right now, when you are strong enough to be released, you are going to need a wheelchair until your body fully heals. From what we have been able to ascertain with several tests run while you were unconscious, at the current time you have very little motor control over your legs. All of your other body parts, however, are in working order.”
Except for my mind and my eyesight, Christopher thinks as he tightens his hands. Valentine takes a deep breath of air and he is instantly sorry that he hurt her. “I’m sorry.”
“Chrissie, no. You have nothing to be sorry for! You are alive.” Christopher screws his eyes shut tight. He cannot bear to look at her lovely face with the light dusting of freckles over her nose and her eyes full of innocence and love.
She is looking at me like that, with that love that will now be wasted on this useless, broken body. How long will she put up with this?
“Is there anything else you require at the moment, Sergeant?” Asks the doctor, whose name he has not bothered to ask.
The other man leaves the room and Christopher falls apart in Valentine’s arms. She crawls up beside him on the bed and gently guides his head to her shoulder where he weeps for the senseless deaths of forty-nine people and for the future he and Valentine had planned that is probably now lost.
Valentine murmurs quiet words into his ear and keeps one hand locked on the back of his neck, holding him steady, sharing her strength, and anchoring him to reality when it would be so easy to simply fall into hopelessness.
After a time, he takes several deep, gulping breaths then angles his head in order to press his lips against her neck, noting that the chain she wears is warm from her body heat. Suddenly overcome with the desire to prove to himself that she is real and that she is still his, at least for the moment, he opens his mouth a little more and begins sucking on the soft skin against his lips. Valentine stills for a moment then tilts her head and sighs. His suckling becomes a bite, then a lick and then one of them moves and she opens her mouth to him as he finds his second wind and pulls her tighter against his chest with one hand on her back and the other resting lightly on her neck, his thumb gently rubbing against the lovebite he made.
Valentine sneaks a hand beneath his hospital gown and rests the palm over his heart. She spreads her fingers and presses and for a moment Christopher is struck with the idea of yanking the organ from his body and simply handing it over to her, because she owns it. Even when she finally grows weary of him, she will always own his heart. There is and never will be anyone else for him.
Their heated kissing begins to slow as Christopher finds himself growing weary even from that. Only now does he worry about his hygiene. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t stop. I should have thought about it….” He puts his hand over his mouth.
Valentine shakes her head. “No, Chrissie. It doesn’t matter to me; you have no idea how happy I am that you are alive. A bit of morning breath is nothing compared to the idea that I was being rushed her to claim your body.” Her expression tightens; her blue eyes become ice shards.
It occurs to him, then, that he never answered the last email before he was sent on his R and R. “Valentine, I’m sorry. Mugsy sent me to the village for three days to unwind, I had every intention of emailing you back, and I even tried to call a couple of times from this little café.”
“Oh!” Valentine smiles now and draws her mobile out of her pocket. Christopher does not particularly like the girly pink thing that fits in the palm of her hand, but she fell in love with it on first sight and he has never been able to deny her anything. She thumbs the screen to show him the call log. In between what he recognizes as her mother’s number and several of her girlfriends, he sees the long distance code from the café.
“The first time you tried me, I was proofreading Mother’s latest manuscript and my phone was in the bedroom. The second time you called, I assumed it was a wrong number. Now it’s my turn to say I’m sorry. I had no idea or I would have picked up!” She bites her bottom lip.
“No, it was a miscommunication. I need to replace my old netbook anyway.” Christopher’s mind is suddenly a blank slate. His netbook is surely gone, as are the clothing and Valentine’s gift that he had stowed in his duffel bag. The clothes and the computer he could care less about, but her gift! He tries to look around the room a little more closely and from what he can see, none of his things are in evidence.
“Where are my things?” He asks, preferring to look at Valentine rather than the grey room.
Valentine thinks for a moment and Christopher thinks that he still hasn’t asked her how long she has been here with him. “Hold on,” she says and stands up. “Let me go find Doctor Mayer or one of the nurses. They mentioned something a day or so ago about your belongings, but I was sort of distracted.” She smiles wanly.
“Valentine, how long have you been here?” Christopher asks, grasping at her wrist to stop her from taking all the color out of the world for a moment.
She lays her other hand over his. “Three days. It took them almost two days to get you here, so you were about twelve hours ahead of me.”
“Chrissie, don’t you apologize again. Please, let me go find the whereabouts of your stuff. I’ll be right back, I promise. I’ll also see if they will send up whatever you are allowed to eat, okay?”
He thinks that he must be making a strange expression if the worried look in her eyes is anything to go by. Christopher lets his eyes slip closed and he leans back against the pillow then releases her wrist; he allows his fingers to skate over her hand, wanting to hold onto that feeling. “Alright.”
“There you are, love. Rest. I’ll be right back.” Valentine leans over and kisses him once on the mouth and once on the forehead. He offers her the best smile that he is able, though he is now overcome with exhaustion again; she runs her fingers through his hair and he thinks that now would be a good time to rest for a little while so they will be able to talk more when she returns.
I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. I tried to be realistic with what I know, however, I did not want to loose myself in the medical details at the cost of the story.
Thank you all for reading. I write for myself but knowing that anyone else is reading along makes the craft that much more rewarding ;)
Minutes turn into hours turn into days. Christopher finds himself fighting guilt over his fallen comrades alternating with even more guilt at being injured and unable, at least in his mind, to properly care for Valentine or himself.
This was not the homecoming he envisioned, and he knows she did not either. On those rare occasions when he finds himself in his grey, pathetic hospital room alone with his memories of Mugsy and all the others and fitting in, he can taste sand in the back of his mouth and feel it burning his feet even when he knows that he is only lying on his back on the lumpy mattress of a hospital bed. All the sadness and the ridiculousness of deadly conflict and the idiocy of truly thinking…really believing that by getting involved would actually help out somehow…all of that paired with the pull of what he now knows is labeled survivor’s guilt (from the explanation given to him about his feelings from the staff psychologist)…it all threatens to drown him...then take him apart bone by bone, opening him up and leaving him filled with nothing but sand-colored particles.
At least until Valentine returns with her golden hair and kindness in her eyes. For a few moments then, he can believe that everything is going to be alright, that the love he sees emanating from her whole self really belongs there…that he really deserves it and that he can heal and be whole again.
Yet even when she is beside him, holding his hand while he struggles to take a step between the bars during his physical therapy, the weakness of his body threatens to overtake his mind.
Trying to pull himself out of his uncomfortable thoughts, Christopher leans heavily on his hands until the knuckles are turning white from the strain of holding his body upright. Pain radiates down his spine and the doctor’s words about having very little motor control push him to try harder. He can reach out with his right leg and balance on that foot but as soon as his left foot moves forward, he crashes to the mat and slumps forward, his head hanging, big hands limp in front of his knees. Christopher stays that way for a few seconds then Valentine is beside him, her hands on his shoulders.
“Chrissie, look at me, please. You are doing so well; please…please don’t give up now. You’re farther along in just a few weeks than the doctor thought you would be. Don’t be discouraged.” Valentine croons softly as she moves around in front of him, runs her fingers into his quickly-becoming-shaggy hair, not forcing him to look at her, but not allowing him to remain too deeply into his head, either.
When he finally raises his head, she lays one hand against his scruffy cheek and uses the other to balance herself on the floor. He suddenly hates everything.
“Just go, Valentine.” He growls. Her hand disappears from his face but she does not move otherwise, merely narrows her eyes at him.
“Where would I go?” She asks quietly, but there is something hard behind the tone of her voice the crosses her hands over her chest and sits down on the mat, facing him.
“Just go.” Christopher snarls. “I hate all of this,” he gestures around the room. The therapist has left the immediate vicinity, presumably to be out of the line of fire. Anger has been radiating from Christopher since the moment Valentine helped him into the wheelchair to take him down to have breakfast in the cafeteria this morning. He is aware of it, all so aware, being caught up in it now like a motorless boat in a tidal wave; powerless to stop it.
“It’s all too much. I understand. Go on; go find someone hale and hearty. Be done with me, all broken and useless.” Christopher’s hands tighten into fists, his arms tremble with the strain. “I may always be like this.” He says between clenched teeth.
Valentine regards him coolly. “Don’t, Christopher.” Her own expression hardens; two spots of red appear high on her cheeks. He refuses to meet her eyes, instead staring at the blue plastic mat spread on the floor beneath the exercise bars.
Christopher is glad to see some other emotion on her features besides the soft caring she has been offering all this time. “Get out of here. You are free to go and live the life you…want.” Of course, the phrase he wants to use is ‘...go and live the life you deserve’, but it doesn’t quite make it past the end of his tongue. When she doesn’t move a muscle, he slams a fist against the mat hard enough that the sound of his cracking knuckles echoes through the room.
Christopher does not see his therapist step into the doorway, take one look at them staring each other down and make a tactical retreat, going so far as to close the door behind himself. If he had, Christopher would understand that his reaction is a normal one, and had been expected long before now. Right now all he can see is defiance in Valentine’s eyes.
“You want me gone, is that it?” She asks.
This reply catches him up short. Is that really what he wants? No. Not really; he wants her to be happy and caring for a broken soldier is not a road to the life they had planned, not on any count. He knows he is out of control; the vitriol has become too difficult to control.
“You don’t want me. You don’t want this.” He spits in an attempt to fight the tears threatening behind his eyes.
Valentine uncrosses her arms and stands up gracefully without offering to help him get off the floor. He accepts it as his due when she turns on her heel and leaves the room. He remains there, refusing to ask for help long enough that his thighs begin to shake from the odd position. When it finally dawns on him that he’s been left alone—like he asked to be—the tears really do fall. There is a gentle touch on his shoulder but he shakes his head and hides his face behind his hands and the person leaves him be.
Christopher is lying on his bed with his arms crossed over his chest, contemplating the ceiling. His thoughts are moving sluggishly through his brain like smoke on a hazy mid-summer day. Today, they are releasing him from the hospital. Only a small part of him is looking forward to leaving, because he knows that it will be the beginning of the end: as soon as Valentine realizes how difficult things will be, she won’t stay. Granted, she was waiting for him in his room after his little melt-down in the physical therapy room a few days ago and she said nothing about it, merely wrapped her arms around him once he was settled in his bed again. For a few scant moments, he allowed himself the luxury of comfort.
That kind of unwavering support cannot last forever. He really wants to shout and scream and shake the walls of this place, maybe shake it to the ground. All the therapists and specialists keep telling him that he is doing fine, that he’s on the mend, but it certainly does not feel that way.
What it feels like is torture: being trapped in a body that no longer responds to the orders of his brain. It is hateful and he wants everyone to feel like he does. The sheer greyness of it all is killing him too slowly. If he was meant to die there, blood pouring out of him and cooking into sticky puddles on the sand, he sure cocked it up. In the same sense, if he is meant to be alive and be here with Valentine…no.
For Valentine, then why does he have to do it this way?
Christopher saw his paperwork. He’s been invalidated as a soldier and invalidated as a man. He was gunned down before he could put up much of a fight—so much for all that combat training, yeah? He actually had to sign that he had accepted it. Accepted it? Which part? What a bloody joke. He can admit that part of his life is over—and really, it is better that way because he is sure that no one else would ever accept him as a comrade the way the men and women in camp did. They were all special, each and every one of them. He has told Valentine a little about them, because some days he needs her to understand; yet he never waits to hear her responses, always pushes forward into another story, another anecdote about a past that has been horribly mangled in the worst way possible.
An electric shock of pain suddenly travels from his foot up his leg and lodges itself in his thigh, causing the muscle to contract and attempt to strangle itself.
He feels the hospital bed creaking beneath him, feels the shaking of his own body, the hot tears rushing over his cheeks after spilling from his eyes. Everything that has been grey up until this very moment is framed in black around the edges and it is that blackness that he is railing against, trying to keep it at bay—keep it from growing and taking over everything. This is his life now: a pathetic, wounded boy taking to crying in his bed.
He pounds a fist into the mattress at his side, causing the rickety headboard to slam against the wall. A presence makes itself known in the corner of his eye and he turns his head slightly.
No color. He watches the nursing assistant set the tray of food she’s holding down on the little table next to the bed. She seems nervous as she reaches for the heavy plastic lid covering the plate. Christopher notes the way she stands, only half turning away from him the way you would do an unfamiliar dog—untrusting of it, but unwilling to let your fear show so as to not to provoke it. Like you are afraid it will year your throat out if given half the chance.
“Leave it.” He snarls at the ceiling. More and more, he can stand no one else near him except Valentine. The assistant pulls her hand back from the tray as if she’s been burned and practically leaps for the door, yanking it open and fleeing into the corridor. He is hard pressed to come up with a way to apologize that wouldn’t sound like blame so he returns his concentration to the grey plaster of the ceiling.
After a few minutes the pain begins to grow dull and he considers sitting up. Though the smell of what can only be scrambled eggs on the tray threatens to make him nauseous, thirst is something else entirely. His stomach voices its own opinion on the matter once he is upright, trying to ignore the pain in his leg as he leans over and reaches for a grey ceramic mug with a tag hanging over the side of it. He curls his fingers around it and allows himself a few seconds to enjoy the feeling of the smooth, warm cup against his palm. Christopher raises the mug to his lips, preparing himself for that first sip which may or may not burn a little. In doing so, he looks down into it and it changes into a tiny, clear plastic bottle.
Sergeant Tietjens is staring down into an empty water bottle that he drops to the raked sand floor of his commanding officer’s tent. There is a ruckus outside and he is jumping to his feet and turning to Mugsy who has been stretched out on his bunk reading a magazine. The trio of net walls that make up the tent are shot full of huge holes; the material hangs by a thread in most places like old spider webs that have been roughly torn down in the woods to make room for people to walk between them.
“Mugsy, what…?” Tietjens finds himself at a loss for words, because gunfire has begun and Mugsy has turned his head to look up at him and his eyes are empty sockets. There is blood on his cheeks and his mouth is moving like a fish out of water, gasping to pull air into lungs that no longer move. Christopher can hear an echo of a dying heartbeat.
There’s a whistling sound overhead then another loud report and heat in his lap. Sure he has been shot again, Christopher screams and attempts to push himself away from the pain only to find that he is stopped by a wall at his back. He claws at the pajamas he’s wearing, ripping a tear across his thigh but the material refuses to budge further. New pain is blooming on his skin and he can’t get away from it.
“Chrissie. Chrissie, stop. Stop!” Valentine is shouting at him from where she stands with one hand holding the door open, the other resting on the handles of a large grey suitcase he has never seen before. She is dressed today in a light pink t-shirt, blue jeans and black trainers. Her shoulder-length blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail at the nape of her neck.
Valentine’s shout is not very loud, but it does the trick; it gives his mind something else to grasp onto. A lifeline.
He hates it but follows it willingly until all of his immediate focus is on her. Vaguely, he realizes that the crotch of his pajamas is soaked.
“Christopher, it’s me, alright?” She closes the door and there is a click as she locks it. Her expression is cautious, but not overly so. There is no fear in Valentine’s blue eyes.
Christopher appreciates this and it serves to pull him completely back into the present. “I…” he starts and glances down at his lap.
“Alright.” Valentine says as she crosses the room to the little en suite. She returns with a small flannel in her hand and leans over him, dabbing at the tea he has managed to spill all over himself.
The gentle pressure of her hand on his groin reminds him how long they have truly been apart. In an instant, the atmosphere in the room becomes less cloying and more comforting. He grabs her hand and carefully draws it away from him while at the same time turning himself around and pushing his body towards the pillows with his good leg. Christopher draws Valentine down against him and she complies, going soft against his chest. Once he is comfortable, he puts his fingers under her chin and tilts her head up to look at him. As always, Valentine is meeting him half-way. Her eyes are full of love as well as curiosity, wondering what he will do next.
He kisses her slowly, tenderly; trying to apologize for everything; to make up for the hurt and his ridiculousness. She returns the kiss, giving no less and taking no more than he has to offer. Valentine clutches at his shoulders as he rolls his hips upward then she gasps at his obvious arousal. Christopher smiles up at her when she pushes herself up on her palms as his hands skate beneath her tee and under her bra.
His mouth is in the perfect position here to nip at her breasts through the soft cotton shirt; his teeth close gently on the soft flesh as he unhooks her bra.
“Sit up.” He demands in a low tone.
“Are you sure?” Valentine asks, already straddling his lap. Christopher holds her by the hips, even more aroused as she moves up onto her thighs as she removes her shirt and takes the bra off the rest of the way then drops her clothing onto the floor beside the bed.
“Yes. A thousand times, yes.” Christopher announces firmly, voice still low as his hands fondle her breasts, thumbs slowly sweeping over dusky pink nipples. Let me show you that part of me still works, he thinks. Instead of saying anything else, however, he slides one palm to the center of her back and moves her towards his mouth, taking one nipple between his lips. He flicks it with his tongue and she hisses.
“Christopher.” Valentine moans softly and leans down to kiss him.
He delves deeply into her mouth while at the same time stroking her through her jeans; thankful to feel her heat and dampness as well as his own hardness at the thought of being buried inside of her. He strokes her slowly, fingertips pressing against her but only enough to tease. Valentine’s head falls back and he takes advantage of the position to unsnap and unzip her jeans. He gets one finger between the denim and her panties and she gasps.
“Hold on.” Valentine climbs off of him and drops her jeans and panties. She bends over the bed and yanks his pajama bottoms down to his knees, allowing his cock to spring free. For a second they freeze that way and Valentine looks at him, smiles and plants a tender kiss right on the head of it. Christopher groans and reaches out towards her.
“You sure you want to do this here?” She asks, moving herself to straddle him again.
“Yes, Valentine, I am…” Christopher almost gets the entire sentence out just as she raises up and grabs the base of his cock, holding him still so that she can slowly sink down onto him. She is tight and wet and hot and he grabs her hips to hold on and tries a shallow thrust.
The pain in his leg returns and he almost shouts but does not let her go. She leans forward until her hands are balanced on his chest and waits for the spasm to pass, very slowly moving her hips. It works and he finds that his erection has barely flagged. She kisses him, moves back and touches the tip of her tongue to his lips and says, “Let me,” and proceeds to set the tempo. Christopher arches his back the faster her movements become. After a few moments, he is close. He licks his index finger and slides it between her folds until he is rubbing her clit. In no time out all, she tightens around him and cries out his name. She stays where she is, wrapping her legs around his thighs as he thrusts into her. When his orgasm crashes over him, he pulls her downward into a sloppy but passionate kiss.
Valentine slowly lifts off of him and crawls to his side. He turns to her and buries his face in her neck and wraps his arms around her, holding her as tight as he dares without hurting her. They both ignore his tears in the aftermath of their lovemaking; they fall asleep, both of their bodies still trembling slightly from the aftershocks.
...all the while wearing the perpetually slightly far-away expression of the writer of fiction, present in the moment in body but only partially ever in mind...
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
A week after he is released from the hospital, Christopher sits in one of the big overstuffed armchairs in the Wannop living room staring out the big bay window at the unhurriedly waning sun. He knows it should be tangerine, turquoise and saffron, but to him, it is charcoal, ash and coal. He closes his eyes against what should be a beautiful sight and instead focuses on the quiet of the house around him, silently offering his gratitude to any deities that happen to be listening that Valentine pushed him to come here rather than to his brother’s home.
He most likely would have killed Mark in cold blood by now. Christopher shakes his head against that thought then leans back against the chair and closes his eyes. Mark tries too hard, always to prove to the world that he’s the ‘big brother’ but sometimes it all feels hollow to Christopher—like they both have some prescribed hierarchy to follow, each position coming with its own rules: the whole thing is stupid and Christopher hates it; therefore it is better for him to be here, where the only thing he has to do, he has been reliably informed by both Wannop ladies, is get better.
Of course, he’s also supposed to be looking forward to his and Valentine’s wedding. Right now, though, autumn seems almost as far away as a useless war on the other side of the world. The idea that he has been a total fool does not sit well in Christopher’s mind. He opens his eyes in an effort to ground himself back into the present.
Mrs. Wannop is upstairs in her study, presumably working on her latest manuscript; the rhythmic click-click of her nimble fingers flying over the keyboard is almost a balm to his chaotic soul. She must have left the study door open; he contemplates it as a metaphor for her heart.
The night he and Valentine came home, Christopher had tried to hold a conversation with her. She smiled and patted his hand, all the while wearing the perpetually slightly far-away expression of the writer of fiction, present in the moment in body but only partially ever in mind. Even he could see how she is always thinking about the plot structure and characters of whichever story she happens to be currently working on. He has never held her oddness against her, and she has always repaid him in kind. Mrs. Wannop knows Valentine loves him, she knows he returns the sentiment; she also seems to know that asking Christopher too many questions would be a mistake. He appreciates this—and more—about her.
Christopher understands the way she views life because it is very similar to seeing the entire world in shades of grey—really, his mind is sometimes so far away that he is unsure that he is ever going to be able to move on. He crosses his legs at the ankles then decides that his shoes are bothering him. Stripping off his trainers and socks, he is vaguely aware of the front door opening and closing quietly.
Someone bent over the chair doing something as simple as removing their shoes and socks is normally not considered to be in a compromising position, so Valentine thinks nothing about it as she glides up to the chair and embraces Christopher’s shoulders. For a few seconds, it seems like it is going to be fine. Her hands settle comfortingly on his biceps and she leans down to place a soft kiss on the nape of his neck.
The grey world inside Christopher’s mind explodes in fiery reds and oranges.
He rolls forward onto the floor, dragging Valentine with him over the back of the chair; in seconds she finds herself pinned beneath him, rolled over onto her stomach by his strong arms as easily as if she were a ragdoll and him a child. One hand grasps the collar of her shirt, the other one holds both of her hands behind her back; his knee just above the curve of her butt, pressing her down into the floor. She stills, all of her muscles going slack.
“Christopher, it’s me.” Valentine says to the floor.
When he comes to, Christopher is horrified at his actions. He’s panting hard as if he just jogged ten miles with all of his gear on his back. “Oh my god.” He gasps, letting her go all at once and backing away from her, scuttling on hands and knees until the wall beneath the bay window stops him from going any further. When his back hits the wall, the muscles in his thigh spasm and he clutches his leg; now everything that was calm and peaceful a few short moments ago is a storm of pain. He takes deep breathes in an effort to center himself, gulping as his lungs try desperately to take in enough oxygen as his mind begins to shut down in panic mode.
As if the horror of seeing the world practically in monochrome isn’t enough…now this?
“Christopher.” He opens his eyes to see Valentine kneeling in front of him, one hand outstretched as if calming an injured animal.
In that second, it’s all too much. He shakes his head and pushes up against the wall, holding both hands out towards her.
“No.” Is all he can say, the sound broken and weak like he is. “No.” He moves fast, fighting against the pain in his leg, dragging it with his body. He needs to get away before he does anymore damage. He detests the half-frightened expression on Valentine’s face; he notes with even more sadness that right now her clothing just looks pale and washed out…but her eyes.
Sapphire gems swim with tears as she backs away from him, her hands held up, mimicking his former posture. His mind calms a little at the sight. She never takes her eyes from him until she steps back and turns around so. Christopher studies her back, the forward hunch of her shoulders.
He could kill her right now and she would not fight him.
This thought disturbs him greatly and he moves away, as far away as he can get in that moment. Some weird half-choked words come from his mouth, though he is unaware of what he is trying to say as he opens the door and rushes headlong into a rapidly darkening night.
Christopher is vaguely aware of the cool grass beneath his bare feet as he runs. A constant litany of ‘must get away before I hurt her’ streams through his mind. He runs until he is double-over from both the pain in his leg and the pain scorching his side, his breathing shallow and rapid and his head swimming from lack of oxygen. Christopher runs until he drops, paying no attention to his surroundings whatsoever. He lets himself fall to the ground, flat on his back. Somewhere in the back of his mind he tries to parse the pieces together of what just happened yet he gets no farther than watching the replay of his ridiculous body yanking Valentine over the back of the chair. Next to him, she always looks so small and he could have…
He could have killed her.
All she would have to do is land the wrong way or struggle against him and his instincts would have kicked in even harder than they had. It never occurs to him to question the way she went limp beneath him, the way her voice was soft but stern or the way she never made any move to stop him from leaving.
He is too wound up to think clearly about any of those things. Christopher is so deep in his mind that as full darkness blankets the world, he loses two full hours.
The next time he is aware, Valentine is standing next to him. She is speaking and for a few minutes he cannot understand her words. What now? He thinks. Now I will lose my hearing, too? Panic never sets in however, because Valentine is beside him now, one hand on his shoulder. Christopher does not move off the ground but he does open his eyes.
Long strands of blonde hair that is ghostly white against the darkness fall over Valentine’s face that is tipped towards him, her expression one of concern. He reaches out towards her as if moving through space and nothing now, nothing is going to stop him from touching her, from grabbing her and hauling her down to him until she is crushed against his chest and crying softly into his neck. Christopher holds her tightly, arms wrapped around her in the most soothing gesture he knows. He is a big, stupid lump most of the time where she is concerned but she always loves him, always comes to him when he is failing himself and that grounds him, holds him pinned to the earth the way scientists pin insects to boards for closer study.
“I’m so, so sorry. I never meant…” Christopher’s lips feel heavy like an ammo box stuffed full, just waiting for the next skirmish to begin.
“I know, Chrissie, I know.” Valentine mumbles into his collarbone.
It is the soft use of her pet name for him that causes a wall to break in his mind and he holds her to him, thankful to feel each breath she takes, each thud of her heartbeat against his chest and the warmth that tells him she is still here, still alive. Still with him. He knows, though, he knows he’s got to appreciate these moments while he has them, because he is incapable of controlling his reactions at the present time and he knows that someday he will screw up so much that she will walk away and never look back.
How long can she stay strong? My god, she is so strong! “Did I hurt you?” He manages with rubber lips drenched in tears. She starts to pull away but he tightens his hold. He does not want her to see his face.
After a few seconds of that, she settles back against him, sliding her hand between them to spread her palm over his heart. “No.” The soft fleece jacket she is wearing reminds him of the blanket on their bed, her warmth, her touch, her scent pervades all of his senses.
Her answer takes him off guard but he does not spiral away from her this time, because that warm hand over his heart is enough to hold him. There is nothing else he can say.
“I’m sorry. Valentine, you have to believe me. I would never…” He sniffs into her hair.
Under his chin, she shakes her head. “I know, Chrissie. I understand. That was my fault. I should know better than to surprise you like that.”
He nods, still weeping, still holding her, crushing her tightly to him and finds that he is at a loss for words. How long? How long before it is all too much? How many times will she follow him? How long before she begins to detest even the sight of him because his demons have grown, fed by the guilt of surviving? How long before she realizes that he will never be unbroken or strong enough to fight the chaos in his head?
How long can she possibly hang on?
In all the fics I've written and been part of, I've never had one make me question my sanity as this one has. Thank you for hanging in there with me, and please don't be afraid to tell me what you think.
It was Valentine’s idea to get out of the house for awhile. Christopher is firmly aware of the fact that over the past month, Valentine has been busily preparing things for their upcoming nuptials, plus whatever else she’s been up to—including cleaning up parts of Mrs. Wannop’s current manuscript and posting it off in bound form to the editor for review.
Right now Christopher is leaning against the kitchen sink; his shoulders are rounded slightly in an effort to keep from hitting his forehead on the fancy wooden piece mounted between the cupboards on either side of him. He is actively scrubbing a particularly dirty frying pan that he messed up in an attempt at making crab cakes for dinner last night. Christopher scowls at the black edges of the metal pan as he hauls it back up out of the soapy water for another go at it. Maybe he should just give up on trying to make himself feel useful if it’s going to be this much work.
He finally gives up for the time being and shoves the irritating thing back into the sink so hard soap bubbles run over the front of it and into the floor. Christopher stares at them for a moment then grabs a dry towel and leans over, carefully bending at the waist and locking his knee in place against the cabinet in order to hold his bad leg still. The muscle spasms still come on without a warning, but they seem to ease up much quicker. In the afternoons, he and Valentine often take long walks around the property and the exercise is making a difference.
Going back to the sink with a disgruntled snort, he pulls the plug and leaves the frying pan full of soapy water. He dries his hands then wipes down the faucet and the sides, leaving the whole area gleaming save for the one pan. The dishes he has washed stand drying in the rack to his left, over the built-in-dishwasher that Christopher has been ignoring. He discovered quickly that the constant bending to place plates and bowls and things into it is worse than just standing here washing them the old-fashioned way. So in order to not feel completely useless, he has taken it upon himself to help out. He moves from the kitchen to the dining table where a small grey box sits atop a pile of paperwork and a laptop. The box is filled with Mrs. Wannop’s receipts, the laptop with an accounting program and both of these things serve to fill up some of the spaces in Christopher’s head that he tries like hell to avoid in the daylight hours. The menial work helps keep him grounded. He runs his palms over his jeans to make sure they are dry before opening the box and pulling out papers to sort through.
“…I first heard about the bombing, I was terrified, Amanda. I couldn’t even imagine what my life would be like without him…yeah, yes. That’s it exactly. It was like a black hole…”
Valentine is pacing back and forth between the kitchen and sitting room, talking to her friend on her phone, hips swinging back and forth to the rhythm of her bare feet on first carpet then tile. Christopher always feels slightly unsettled when their conversations seem to go forever and a day, though there is something domestically comforting about two women chatting away while he flips through slips of paper and makes a genuine effort to organize them.
“Yes. He is getting better. Everything they told me at the hospital…” is all Christopher hears as Valentine breezes back through, giving him a smile and a wink as she does so. They are half way through summer and he cannot deny that he actually likes watching her flit past him in those white denim shorts. She’s got a tan from all the time outside either walking with him or overseeing the construction of the wooden archway that is being put up in the back garden for them to stand under and recite their vows, among other chores.
After a little while, everything fades to background noise as he shuffles through Mrs. Wannop’s receipts with one hand and enters data into the spreadsheet on the laptop with the other. He considers the times when he feels like he is coming back to life, ever so slowly. Like just now, where the brightness of Valentine’s clothing seems to radiate from her, giving him a glimpse of the maroon-colored tiles of the kitchen floor and the dark blue woven cloth of the towel he hung over the side of the gleaming silver metal sink.
It only lasts for a few minutes, however, then everything is back to grey.It doesn’t matter because numbers are all black and white anyway. Valentine has shown him photograph after photograph of things she has picked out for their wedding and he’s done his best to choose, but when all the flowers are shades of the same color who is he to say what will look good and what will not? Mostly, he takes her lead and chooses what she seems to favor. She always beams at him then flits away satisfied before moving on to the next part of whichever project she’s working on.
After a while, Christopher becomes engrossed in the rhythm of entering the details of each receipt into the laptop. Slip one out of the box, read it, check the total and then put the information into the correct field, flip that one over next to the box and begin the next one. In and out, like marking time.
Two hours easily roll by in this manner until movement out of the corner of his eye breaks his attention; Christopher looks up at last to find Valentine across the table regarding him with a soft expression. His fingers stop in their flurry of movement on the keyboard.
“Hey.” She smiles. “Been awhile seen you had a break. Feel like some company?”
Christopher pulls the now empty box over, he’s actually surprised to find that he’s completed the project. “Yes.” He nods. “Give me a moment.” He clears his throat at the sound of his deep and scratchy voice.
He returns the receipts to their box and picks it and the sheaf of papers up in order to return them to Mrs. Wannop’s study.
“I’ll take them up there.” Valentine informs him, sweeping the whole lot of out his hands and gliding from the room. She’s left her hair down and it falls about her shoulders in a gold wave.
Christopher waits until he can hear her quiet footsteps on the carpeted stairs before pushing his chair away from the table. Sometimes standing after sitting in one spot for so long is difficult; he braces himself against the table as he tests to see both legs will take his weight. The bad one shakes a little, but gives him no trouble this time as he turns towards the loo in the hallway.
When he returns, Valentine has spread out some sandwich makings. Mrs. Wannop is apparently joining them for lunch. The older woman smiles up at him when he leans down to kiss her cheek.
“Thank you for organizing that mess.” She pats his big hand.
“You’re welcome,” he says. “It wasn’t as bad as all that once I got it started.”
Valentine takes her place next to him at the table after sliding an enormous sandwich right under his nose. He must make a strange expression because she pats his shoulder and grins. “Go on, eat that, you need some energy.”
Christopher freezes in the middle of lifting the thing to his mouth for a bite. “Why?” He asks as he eyes the concoction of sliced deli meat and tomatoes.
“I thought we would go out for a bit this afternoon. The village is hosting a bit of a dance at the square and since the weather is going to be nice, I thought you’d like to get out of the house for a bit.” Valentine tells him as she cuts her own sandwich with a knife.
Oh. He sighs and bites into his lunch in order to buy some time. Not bad. He swallows. “Did you say dance?”
“Yep.” She tells him as she peers over the rim of her glass. “I don’t really expect you to dance; I’m meeting Amanda and Rachel there and thought that maybe you could just socialize for a bit, yeah? Get to know some of the locals?”
It’s on the tip of his tongue to say why would I do that except for the expression Valentine is wearing. She really, really wants to do this. Christopher thinks it is a terrible idea, but he loves Valentine and part of that is loving to make her happy because of all the times lately he’s done just the opposite. This, however, seems like a particularly bad idea: take a wounded vet with a bum leg to a dance that is apparently going to be filled with people. A crowd.
“Alright.” He agrees with a sigh.
She smiles and leans her head on his shoulder for a second. He spends the rest of lunch barely hearing anything Mrs. Wannop or Valentine say to him, contemplating what a dreadful idea this really is.
The dance hall isn’t so much a hall as it is a single open-plan room bordered on three sides by white walls decorated with colorful strings of lights. People from the village mosey about in small groups and pairs. Several tables have been set up and two of them are covered with small treats and drinks. Christopher notes the distinct lack of hard liquor, though there are several varieties of beer.
The evening starts out well. Valentine moves between socializing with her friends and introducing him to some of the locals, then to pulling him out on the dance floor for a couple of slow songs, like the one they are currently swaying to. He’s got his cheek nestled against hers, her hand in his and one arm wrapped around her waist; he’s not moving much, just shuffling his feet a little to keep them turning. It is good, though, and the music isn’t all happy-poppy-bubblegummy stuff like he’d feared.
“Is this the type of stuff they will play for us?” He asks with his lips against the shell of her ear.
“Is that alright?” Valentine whispers back.
“Of course.” He tells her and for a few moments he allows himself to enjoy the feeling of her in his arms.
Christopher lets the silky strands of her hair fall between his fingers. She hums and moves closer to him. He kisses her cheek and she turns her head to catch his lips with her own. Behind them, the music slows almost to a stop and there’s a slight pause before something with a faster beat begins. Amanda appears as if conjured beside them. Christopher gives her a smile and Valentine another kiss and starts to move away.
“Thank you.” Valentine says, squeezing his hand. He smiles and gives her a wink before turning towards the refreshment tables. He has to admit this is not as bad as he thought it would be; his chest feels lighter than it has in a long time and he’s even seeing some of the bright colors that surround the revelers. With a polite nod, one of the volunteers offers him a red plastic cup of punch. He thanks her and finds a seat at an empty table.
Christopher takes a sip of his punch and almost chokes. Well, he’s found the hard liquor without even trying very hard. Across the floor, Valentine catches his eye, smiles and waves. Amanda, Rachel and now another woman he doesn’t recognize all give him flirty waves. He takes a drink of his punch and waves back. They seem to giggle and move back together in unison, swaying and shaking to the beat of the song.
In no time at all, an older man takes the seat opposite Christopher. Christopher says nothing, just continues drinking his punch and watching Valentine dance. His attention is drawn to the old man when he clears his throat.
“Are you Tietjens?” The man queries.
Christopher looks him over; he seems to be wearing a grey jacket, white shirt and red bow tie. For some reason, Christopher finds himself pleased that he can see that, even if it does look a little out of place here. He nods carefully.
“Good, then.” The man holds out his hand and Christopher shakes it over the table; the man clasps it in his own (much smaller) hand then gives Christopher’s arm a hearty smack. “It’s so good to meet you.”
“Likewise.” Christopher rumbles, now displeased that his cup is empty. He is only feeling a slight buzz and decides its more from the atmosphere than the liquor.
The old man chuckles and calls behind him. “Mariam! Mariam, bring Tietjens over here some more of that brew you’re serving!”
The woman who gave Christopher his drink hustles over with a glass carafe and pours him a fresh cup.
“Thank you, ma’am.” He tells her. She blushes and half-curtsies, giggling like a schoolgirl. Christopher frowns.
“Oh, don’t mind her, my boy. She’s a crazy old biddy. I ought to know, I’ve been her younger brother for seventy-four years.”
Christopher laughs then sets his sights back on Valentine.
The old man laughs, too. “I just came over to welcome you to our community, young man.” He turns his head until he catches Christopher’s line of sight. “You’ve made a great catch there.”
Christopher nods his agreement. “Indeed I did.”
“I would also like to say thank you for fighting, you know, over there.” The old man has leaned in close as if the information is a secret they are sharing.
Christopher truly has no idea how to express his discomfort at that statement so he drains half his cup of punch in one drink then mumbles, “thanks.”
“You glad to be home?” The old man asks.
“Yes.” Christopher states firmly, hoping the man will get the hint. Half of what’s left in his cup disappears rapidly.
“You know, young man, you’re a hero now; been over there fightin’ fer our freedom and all that and here you sit, a shining example of what we want our boys to grow up and be: a real man’s man.”
The old man has moved from his seat and is now standing beside Christopher with one hand on his shoulder. Christopher finishes his punch and looks around for a way to make a quick exit. His leg is beginning to tremble. Granted, he knows the old man means well, but he cannot be boxed in this way.
Without realizing it, another man has joined the first. This man is also dressed all in grey and the lights around the place are reflecting off of his shiny bald head. There are long grey hairs sticking out from his ears; he’s got to be fifteen years older than the first man at least. But the old guys are paying no attention to their quarry. Now they are talking about what it was like when they were in the ‘war and Christopher is losing focus fast. They are blocking his view of Valentine and it’s like someone has cut a phone line.
The music increases to a deafening level until Christopher can’t take it anymore.
“Sirs, listen. I mean no disrespect to either of you or the units you served with, but you’ve got to understand that I am no hero.”
Christopher is standing now, shoulders hunched and trying to get away from the old men. “I’m only alive out of lucky circumstances.”
Suddenly it’s all too much. “They all died!” He shouts. The entire place goes silent as Christopher slams a fist against the table. The seniors finally realize what they have done and they back away from him slowly. Searing pain is now working its way up his leg and he is desperate to get away from this. He limps across the room as fast as he is able and pushes out the side door.
Christopher falls with his back against the wall as his leg gives out beneath him. There is a tearing sound as the seam in his khaki trousers gives way. Like before, he clutches his leg and tries desperately to make it stop. The world is spinning and he’s back there again, the heat and the sand and the blood and the bombs and oh god, the nausea and the sweat and the screams of the dying…and he is never going to get away from it. Never...
Until the world finally shuts up and turns off.
“Chrissie?” Valentine’s voice is tentative but does not hide the concern. Her touch on his shoulder then the side of his face brings him ‘round, reminds him where he is. Some of the darkness on the edges of his vision fades when Christopher opens his eyes to find her kneeling beside him in her skirt. He tugs on her hips until she is sitting on the ground between his legs, her back against his chest. In this position he is able to rest his head against the top of hers. Their arms intertwine around Valentine’s waist and he holds her close, detesting the tremors he can feel in his limbs even now. Christopher curves around her, letting the warmth of her smaller form anchor him.
“Christopher, it’s alright. I understand.” Valentine says.
He shakes his head, no you really don’t. She tightens her hands on his forearms.
“I do, Chrissie.” He shakes his head again. “No, listen to me.” Valentine turns around until they are face-to-face, her hands on his biceps. As is always the case, Christopher is impressed with the way she sees right through him. He watches her closely, taking in her lilac blouse and skirt, serious blue eyes and the firm set of her mouth. “I saw what happened in there,” Valentine points towards the exit door. “Those old men, they think they’re being friendly, but they’re not, are they?”
“Right. I get it. Either one or the both of them started hounding you about your military service; they just wouldn’t back off. I could see it from across the room.” She pauses. “You’ve spent so much time trying to hide all of it from me, Chrissie, but I understand. I know that you feel like you are no hero, and I know how angry you are inside because you survived.”
Valentine’s expression is intense. Christopher thinks that right here, right now, is probably not the best place for this conversation; but, on the other hand, it all needs to be said. He’s pinned to the spot and he’s never felt so naked in his entire life.
“I just…” she trails off as a single tear forms in the corner of her eye. He wipes it away with his thumb then lets his hand rest on the side of her face. She takes a breath, “I can’t ask you to stop it, Christopher; because you are unable. Coming home, trying to fit back in…I can see that it is difficult. People like that, they don’t help much—they are so busy trying to make themselves believe the rubbish they are spouting that they forget about your feelings. In some ways, I think they are a little bit jealous, but unable to properly deal with it. You’ve got to understand that deep down, they don’t mean any harm. Their generation was venerated for enlisting, you know?”
“Yes,” is the only word Christopher can force past lips made of stone. He tilts his chin so that he can touch his lips to her forehead. Her closeness is a balm rather than overbearing and he welcomes it.
“Something like this will probably happen again, I am sure of it.” Valentine continues, sighing. Her hands are now gripping his shoulders. “You have to stop being afraid to speak up, Chrissie. I know you, my love. If you would just talk, all of this pent-up stuff would be easier to deal with. I don’t believe you’d actually hurt anyone, least of all me,” she grabs the sides of his head and forces him to look her in the eyes when he tries to turn away. “You are hurting, Christopher. I get it. We all get it. I love you and I’m here. Do you see?”
Christopher closes his eyes again; if he doesn’t, he’s going to fall so far into the ocean of Valentine’s that he’s never going to find the surface again. After a few moments’ silence, marked only by the backbeat of the music in the dance hall, he finds his words again. “You make me think, Valentine.”
She starts to speak and he hushes her softly with a finger on her lips.
“It’s a good thing. I’ve been trapped up here for so long,” he taps his head then moves his hand to clasp hers in his lap. “I’ve forgotten that you are going through this, too.”
“Christopher, what do you want?”
Instantly, he realizes that her question is loaded: what does he want out of life, out of them?
Valentine nods, idly chewing her bottom lip and seems to Christopher to be doing her best not to give into the tears that are standing in her eyes. Something inside his chest breaks and warmth suddenly floods his entire being.
“I’ve never been so transparent.” He states quietly. Valentine smiles a little and leans her head against his shoulder. “It’s all been so…so muddled for so long that…” He swallows hard, fighting the tears he loathes, but this time there’s something different about them, something cleansing. “You’re a mirror, Valentine. You’ve shown me myself. I couldn’t ever let another soul.*” He finds that he is sobbing as discreetly as possible into her hair then her neck when she pulls back. This time when she holds him, he lets it all out—everything.
All the anger and guilt and grief, everything pours out once the dam is broken and he decides then and there that he no longer has to hold any of it back, at least with Valentine. Christopher can’t take it anymore and palms the back of her neck in order to bring their mouths together. Something brilliant and sparkling erupts behind his eyelids when he thinks how accepting of him that she is and has been, how even with tears streaking down his face and his eyes all red she never shrinks away, always meets him at least halfway and sometimes even further. His heart pounds against his ribs and he kisses her slowly, drawing it out, pulling back enough to run a questing tongue against her bottom lip and when she gasps from the combined feeling of his mouth and his hand on her neck, he dives in, wanting to show her what gifts she has given him in this moment.
“Can I take you home?” Christopher finally breaks away long enough to ask. The look in Valentine’s eyes is almost enough to break him again.
“Yes.” She whispers against his mouth. In no time at all, they are standing, leaning on one another as they walk towards the parking lot.
Christopher’s leg gives only a small twitch as he leans over Valentine, the fingers on his right hand deftly flicking open the tiny pearl buttons on her blouse. He is balanced over her on his left hand. She smiles up at him and for a second he has to stop and let himself revel in her undiluted radiance. Finally, he opens her shirt and cups her breast around the purple lace bra she is wearing.
“Your hands are so warm, Chrissie.” Valentine says, arching into his touch. He quirks a smile as an answer as he leans down to kiss her; his hand behind her back now, unhooking the strap that holds the garment in place. With a clicking sound, it is finally open. He draws first off of one of arms then the other before dropping it over the side of the bed. Christopher mouths around the side of her neck and down her chest, barely tasting her with the tip of his tongue before taking one nipple into his mouth and suckling it, ever so gently.
Valentine hisses between her teeth, arching into his mouth. He suckles harder as the atmosphere around them changes, shifts into something less needy and more comforting; he finds that he can feel her heartbeat in his mouth. She holds him and caresses the skin of his bare back as he closes his eyes and groans against her breast. The arm holding his weight off of her begins to tremble and she pushes down against his shoulders, telling him without words that it’s okay. Before he rests, he runs his hand down her belly and pulls her skirt up over her hips in order to take her panties off. Once they are out of the way, he places his palm against her and another groan escapes him at the hot, damp feeling of her folds.
Christopher fingers her carefully, wanting nothing more than to be slow and loving; to stay in the moment for as long as his damnable mind will allow. Valentine bucks into his hand and wraps her legs around his hips. With a firm grip on himself, he rises up and enters her gently then finally stretches out over her, her heels digging into his buttocks as he thrusts.
“Christopher.” Valentine whispers into his ear. He nips at her neck as she meets him with every thrust. He moves his head in order to plunder her mouth; she tightens her legs around him, the motion spurring him on until his thrusts become erratic, the formerly drawn out tempo broken because he can feel her hand between them and when she climaxes around him, he loses all sense of rhythm and comes with a force inside her quivering muscles that virtually paralyzes him.
“I love you.” Valentine says when he comes down enough to look at her. She kisses him tenderly, holding his face in her hands. This time he does not fight to hide the emotion that he knows must be written all over him.
“I love you, Valentine.” He kisses her again, thoroughly, languidly, until they fall asleep wrapped around each other.
Note: *my own paraphrase of the lines: “You do make one collect one’s thoughts. I’ve been very muddled till today…you analyzed my character. I’d never let another soul…don’t you see?” Thank you F.M. Ford for such a poignant explanation of the emotions Christopher is having a difficult time expressing. I’ll always feel like the symbolism of Christopher and Valentine having this discussion in front of a roaring fire is appropriate to what is happening between them: they are fanning the flames of desires they cannot yet express, so they choose to talk about the way they feel rather than act upon it, i.e. they acknowledge the beauty of each other in the firelight, but ignore the heat (for the time being.) Fire is considered by many to be a pure element…as is love that is entrenched within souls that belong together.