Rodger burst through the door of the hut, bellowing, “Hey! Bright Eyes!” She was nowhere to be seen. He flung open her bedroom door, but the room, shadowed with eerie, quiet movements from men and machinery outside her window, was empty.
Rodger stamped into the kitchen. Dust and debris drifted through the opened window. As he went to close it, he spied Mary Elizabeth huddled underneath the sink, her face collapsed into the doll, her slender hands trembling.
“Hey, Bright Eyes, it’s over. Come on out,” he coaxed, reaching for her.
Her stringy hair trailed across her tear‑streaked face. Rodger pulled her close, felt the sharpness of her bones through soiled clothing. She burrowed into his shoulder and sobbed.
“They never come back…the ones who leave…without me touching them…never come back.”
Rodger held her tighter, cradling her in his arms as he stood for a moment before carrying towards her bedroom. With his foot, he eased the door open wide enough to allow them entry.
“No, Mary Elizabeth, no,” he repeated in her ear, setting her down upon her bedroll, then sat beside her.
Mary Elizabeth shook her head, negating his absolution. “I was mad at Buck; I did not hug him,” she whispered furiously, jabbing at herself with an index finger. “I…I…didn’t say good‑bye.”
“That doesn’t make the slightest difference!” He grabbed her shoulders, shaking her a little. “Listen,” Rodger tilted her chin so that she had to look up at him. His eyes bored into her glazed‑over pupils. “It’s God’s will that man lives or dies. Not yours. You just forget all that nonsense about your magical powers.”
Mary Elizabeth hugged her knees and began to rock back and forth on the dirty and ripped linen mat.
Rodger focused on a small, wooden chair. It was the only piece of real furniture in the room, nicked horribly at the legs and blackened scratches marring the seat. Idly, Rodger recognized it as the kind of chair he used to have in grade school.
“I know it isn’t easy to understand, but us guys over here take dying as part of the job. It comes with the wings. Can’t you understand that?”
Frantic, he searched for something to say to ease her anguished guilt. What was wrong with that goddamned LinChing anyway? Didn’t he say that her mother had been a missionary? Didn’t they tell her about God and all that? Goddamn her father, goddamn him anyway.
Mary Elizabeth sat quiet for a moment. Then a shudder racked her frail body and the great sobs began again.
Rodger gathered her in his arms, picking up the doll that had dropped from her hand to the floor. “Here, Mary Elizabeth,” he said, proffering the doll, but she pushed it away.
He sat with her as the light of day sloughed to night, sat holding the keening child as the room filled with specters and disembodied noises of whirring mosquitoes and snores from the other rooms.
Mary Elizabeth whimpered, coughing in tiny snorts. Rodger began to hum, “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies…” until he was sure she had fallen deeper into sleep. Then, as the dark lightened to dawn, he leaned back against the cold slats and dozed off.
He woke stiff from holding Mary Elizabeth all night. Sometime during the dark hours, someone, most likely LinChing, had crept into the room and covered them with Rodger’s army blanket. A cooling breeze shuffled through the room, and sunshine flowed through the window. He stood, still cradling Mary Elizabeth as the blanket dropped free. Looking down, he was reminded of his sisters’ faces and how peaceful they, too, appeared in sleep. He gently laid Mary Elizabeth down upon her pallet and spread the scratchy blanket over her. An unearthly silence permeated the hut.
Weary, Rodger went to his own bed and slept until the heat and achingly bright sunlight woke him. Mary Elizabeth rustled about in the kitchen.
“Hey, Bright Eyes! Where’s my breakfast?”
She turned in his direction, her puffy eyes making her look aged and weary. Yet she had a sassy tilt of her head and a smile in her voice. “After you wash up, GI.”
Rodger snorted. The men around him whooped and clapped. By the time they had all dressed and shaved, Mary Elizabeth and her father had plates of rice, eggs, and scorched toast along with coffee waiting for them.
Rodger ate in silence. He had made up his mind to go into Tiandong and see the priest there.
As he prepared to leave, Mary Elizabeth came to the door, watching his every move with a downcast face. “What’s the matter Bright Eyes?”
“My father and I will make special meal tonight. I want you to stay.”
Dammit, he thought, she always does this. “What have you cooked up?”
“Rice. Special Chinese dish. You’ll like, you see. I know you like.” She looked down at the ground, grinding her big toe into the dirt. “Today is my birthday.” She peeked up through her long lashes, smiling coyly. “Twelve years old today.”
Twelve. A small lightning bolt of dread shot through him. She’d never understand why he’d send her away from here. “Oh, all right! I’ll be back before six, then,” he promised with a shrug.
Like a dancer gliding across the boards, Mary Elizabeth came to him. She threw her arms around his waist and pressed her head into his stomach, whispering, “Thank you, Rodg.”
He patted the top of her head, embarrassed before the men who stood inside the door. “I have to go, or I won’t get back in time.” He frowned at her, stabbing the air between them with his finger. “Only, you’ve got to take a bath.”
Her face clouded and he knew he had wounded her womanly pride. But satisfied she had him, she shrugged and walked away from him, nonchalantly hefting two buckets as she went to fetch water from the stream.
Rodger jumped into the jeep and headed for the village of Tiandong. He hailed passersby, but the villagers shied away from his approach. He looked around, finally spying the crumbling tower with a cracked bell in the distant countryside.
The sunlight reflected cruelly from the bleached hovel that acted as both convent and church. He drove right up to the door. Two nuns scurried out, then backed into the entrance. They watched him, huddled together and chattering to one another. Rodger had about given up making himself understood to them when a stately man in Chinese pants and shirt came to the door, extending his right hand.
“Hello, I’m Father McBride.”
Rodger shook the older man’s hand, the knots in his stomach relaxing. “Glad to meet you. I’ve heard you’ve done remarkable things for this place.” He considered the man, immediately liking him. “I want to make a deal.”
The priest motioned Rodger to follow him, leading him through the gate to a garden. “This is not a spiritual matter, then?”
Rodger felt as though he had squared off with a friendly opponent. “Oh, in way. It’s about a lost soul.” He never looked away from the other man’s eyes, nor did Father McBride blink. “I have a mechanic living on our base with his young daughter. We’re under a lot of heat, and I don’t want to be responsible for her.”
Father McBride gestured broadly around him at the war-scarred countryside. “Nowhere is safe.”
“But,” Rodger interjected, “here would be safer than if she were found on base…alive.” And here, he thought, scanning the fertile garden and the huge litchi tree in the courtyard, she would have a little bit of something beautiful in her life.
“Are you be referring to Mary Elizabeth and her father LinChing?”
“You know them?”
“Yes, quite well.”
“I could pay some for her room and board.” Rodger scratched his chin. “But I don’t want LinChing to know I am paying you. I have to be sure Mary Elizabeth will be taken good care of here.”
“I would have to discuss this with my staff.”
Rodger met the hard, assessing gaze of Father McBride. “I have medical supplies I could exchange, also.” He grudgingly had to admire the priest who struck a hard bargain.
With a bemused smile, the priest gestured to the nuns. “Please stay and have supper with us. We can discuss the terms.”
“Can’t.” He glanced at his watch. “Haven’t much time.”
Father McBride adjusted his steel‑rimmed glasses. “Perhaps an exchange of goods as payment would be sufficient.”
“Make me a list, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you.”
They shook hands again. Rodger left feeling certain that the priest with steely-gray eyes could handle any objections from those two nuns.
When he returned to base, all of the men were seated at the table and waiting for him. Jimmy moved over and Rodger sat heavily in the seat. Mary Elizabeth carried in a huge platter, heaped with steaming rice and vegetables, and duck, placing it between Rodger and LinChing. She had made a sauce, pungent and thick dark‑brown, which she ladled slowly over the portion on the dish she placed before each one of them. The men ate heartily, loud and animated, except for LinChing, who never changed his imperturbable expression. Mary Elizabeth stood beside the table, effervescent, as if she gathered her happiness from the men in the room.
Rodger paused in the midst of a bite to gaze at her. She looked so vital, so beautiful standing there. He smiled at her, and she blushed and bowed her head in acknowledgment.
LinChing spoke quietly, almost too softly to be heard. “Mary Elizabeth is a young woman today. At home, she would be betrothed. But I have no wealth, no family. She can only choose and forget.”
Rodger felt for this old man, a man fettered to his past but bereft of his homeland and traditions, a good man with a young daughter to worry about.
“My father means that when I am to marry, I must choose a man.” She blushed crimson, but challenged the eyes of the men at the table.
Stevens, usually aloof, sang out unexpectedly, “Well, by God, we’ll be in suspense as to which one of us it is for our barefoot pixie!”
Everyone but LinChing, applauded. Summers and McGree slapped each other on the back. Between mouthfuls of food, the men bantered.
Rodger yelped and extracted a round, tiny, hard, object from his back tooth. Frowning, he held up a carved, ivory marble.
Mary Elizabeth spontaneously clapped her hands, then in a familiar gesture hid her face behind her cupped hands.
“What the hell is this? A Chinese tooth‑cracker?”
Mary Elizabeth wagged her head, wrapping her long, black hair softly around her waist. Wordlessly, she retreated to the kitchen.
LinChing bent over his plate and continued eating. There was a moment of restrained quiet.
“I think, sir, that you’ve been chosen honorary husband,” McGree said, before bursting out in laughter.
Rodger pocketed the marble, mashing his rice around the plate with his fork before taking another mouthful. LinChing disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a blue‑leafed, porcelain tea set. The aromatic brew filled the room with the strong odor of warm rice wine. LinChing poured the first cup for Rodger. With mock severity, each man raised his cup in salute. Rodger tipped his cup back and drank.
Pushing away his plate, Rodger turned to LinChing and gestured at the door. “We need to talk. Let’s go outside.”
They walked toward the hangar. Rodger placed a hand on LinChing’s bony back, stopping him.
“Listen, friend, I’ve talked with Father McBride at Tiandong.” Rodger felt LinChing stiffen. “He says he will care for Mary Elizabeth there at the mission.”
“No, she cannot go. Must stay here with me.”
Damn, this wasn’t going to be easy. He hardened himself and allowed no sympathy in his voice. “Yesterday was too close for comfort. She can’t stay.”
“I promise to take care of her!” LinChing had the determination of a warrior, but Rodger would not back down.
“No, LinChing, she cannot stay. She is going tomorrow. You can visit. By yourself or one of us will take you.”
Desperately, he stammered, “I cannot pay. I have nothing to exchange.”
“Don’t worry about it. Father McBride is all right with the arrangement.” LinChing stared at him, his face suddenly impassive. “Dammit, LinChing! This is an Army base. Do you understand?”
Rodger lit a cigarette, offering the other man one, which LinChing refused. “I cannot be responsible for her death…or worse.”
LinChing winced at his words. He shook his head furiously, turned and walked to the hangar. Rodger followed him. Parts lay strewn about like discarded clothes, yet Rodger knew LinChing could put his hands on any given one in an instant.
LinChing snatched up a piston and wiped it down. “I cannot tell her.”
Rodger flicked the butt of his Camel and watched it skip through the dirt. The hard part was almost over.
LinChing put a restraining hand on Rodger’s forearm. “You.”
Rodger shook his head. “No, that’s hardly my…,” but stopped at seeing the stark anguish in the old man’s eyes. He couldn’t say more, could not even conjure up the anger he was entitled to.
He ran his hand through his hair, searching for a better way, knowing there wasn’t any. Yes, this was the right decision, but he didn’t feel right about it, either.
He swore. He cursed himself, palming the marble in his pocket, rolling it around and around.
“All right, LinChing. I’ll tell her in the morning.”
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