MAJOR HILDA PAISLEY THANKED the Specialist-5 who took her forms. As she shouldered her purse, her stomach growled.
“Do I have time to go get lunch,” she asked, peering at the other woman’s name badge, “Sergeant Jenerette?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” she replied. “I’ll have your papers ready in twenty minutes, but the officers who must sign them are at lunch themselves.” Hilda noticed a very slight accent. Only someone who had grown up in the hills between the Rhine and the Saar Rivers would notice. She guessed that Jenerette could recognize her own accent.
“I’ve never been stationed in DC. Is there a good place to eat nearby? Or should I just try the cafeteria?”
The sergeant reached under the counter and extracted a brochure of local eateries. “The cafeteria’s not bad, but it’s still a mess hall.” She took a marker and circled a restaurant. “I like this one.”
“La Bonne Auberge.” Hilda smiled at the woman. “Almost home cooking, n’est-ce pas?”
The young Alsatian beamed. “Oui, madame. Bon appétit!”
“À bientòt alors. Merci.” See you soon, then. Thanks.
Standing on the stairs outside the National Military Medical Center, Hilda paused to consider whether to ride or walk. The papers will wait, she thought. Get used to not having commitments after lunch. As she started down the stairs, she heard a familiar voice.
“Are you foraging, too, Major?”
She turned to see Jack Rathburn stepping lighting down the stairs to catch up. His service green uniform fit his muscular frame as if tailored. Only the slightest discoloration on the left side of his face hinted at the mess his body had been the last time she had seen him. She smiled and swelled inside with pleasure to see him.
“Yes, I am. You are looking much improved, I must say. Do you feel as good as you look?”
“Better, I think. And you look pretty good yourself, especially in service greens instead of desert camo with body armor. What’s the occasion?”
“Interviews before retirement. And you?”
“First day of extended medical leave, and I am sick of BDUs.” Battle Dress Utilities. “No retirement party?”
“When I get back. I’m stationed in Landstuhl. Let’s catch up over lunch.”
“I have a recommendation from the young sergeant who runs the Army Element.”
“Jenerette?” He grunted an affirmative. “Let me guess: La Bonne Auberge.”
“That’s the one. Where were you headed?”
“Same. Have you been to the one in Forbach?” A village just over the French border.
They walked south toward Bethesda, Hilda easily matching his long strides. On a campus flowing with camouflage uniforms and white lab coats, they attracted more than a few stares in their service green uniforms. He stood six-foot-six, but her head was only an inch shorter than his. His sandy hair was cropped short; her black, fine hair tucked up tightly behind her head. His hazel eyes seemed to take in everything around him, but later a bystander could not have remembered what color they were. One would not forget hers: a brilliant lapis-lazuli set in a face as black and smooth as polished anthracite. She, too, seemed always aware of her surroundings.
From the rows of ribbons, the sharpshooter devices, Hilda’s distinctive Combat Medical Badge with two stars, and his Combat Infantryman Badge, an experienced veteran could read forty years of service on four continents. Much of that time in combat zones: the top row of ribbons on each chest consisted of the Bronze Star with Combat V for valor, the Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal. The devices on their lapels showed him to be a military policeman, she a nurse.
While they considered the menus, the server brought them two glasses of amber Dioller and a pitcher of water.
“If you’re stationed in Landstuhl, will you be settling there?” Jack asked.
“Haven’t decided yet. My hometown is Kaiserslautern, and my parents are there.” She put a questioning lift at the end of the sentence.
“I haven’t seen this country, except for Army bases. I’m thinking I’d like to tour.”
“What kind of work will you do?”
“Temp jobs – filling in for maternity cases, that sort of thing. It would give me destinations and keep it interesting. Living on a bike, I won’t need anything more than my retired retainer.”
“Anyone who gets you as a temp won’t want to let you go.” He smiled. His intense gaze pleased her. This surprised her, because usually alarm bells went off when a man stared at her like that.
“Too bad. I’ll only stay as long as I’m having fun.”
“Let me know if you need a recommendation. I’m one helluva a testimonial, you know.”
“Thanks. Everything is set up already. The interviews are the final step.”
“What kind of interviews?”
“Placement agencies. The best ones make sure they can vouch for having actually met the prospective replacement. We’ve done all the paperwork already.”
“So, you don’t know where you’ll be when you leave Landstuhl.”
“No. Isn’t that fun?”
“I think so. You’re giving me an idea.”
“Take up nursing?”
“No.” He laughed. “Touring might be a great way to build my strength. I could set my own pace, and it would be daily exercise. I have an evaluation in March of next year. I could cross the country and back in that time, and be in good shape for the eval.”
“That is an idea.”
The server appeared and took their orders.
“If you don’t mind my cheekiness,” he said, “could we exchange numbers and emails? I’d like to stay in touch. Who knows if our paths will cross?”
“Let’s.” They took out their phones and exchanged contact data. “Keep me informed how you are doing, regardless. You have no idea how happy it makes me to see you recovering so well.”
“Me, too, of course. If I never saw you again, I would never forget your face that day.” Her face was the last thing he remembered before he lapsed into a coma by the side of the road. “The personification of Rage. You weren’t praying; you were chewing out the gods and telling them they couldn’t have me.”
She took a sip of her beer. “Not how I’d like to be remembered, maybe, but I can remember the feeling. Does it scare you?”
“No.” His smile was soft and trusting.
“You had seen me before. At least at the weekly staff meetings.”
“True. And I wanted to get to know you better every time, but there was always something going on.”
“You’re tough, smart, and always on top of things. The equal of anyone in the room. You know what they called you?”
“Yes. The Black Amazon.”
“Did that bother you?”
“Not really. It did keep me from kissing a lot of frogs.” They laughed. “On the other hand, it made it hard to score a date.”
“I wouldn’t mind dating you.”
“Are you asking?”
“Sure. Do you have to be anywhere tonight? We could go see something interesting. I’ve never been stationed in DC.”
“Me, neither. Let’s do it.”
That afternoon, they visited the National Archives. In the evening, they attended a concert of the National Symphony at Constitution Hall. They ended up back at Walter Reed, because they were both in transient officers’ quarters there. Hilda was scheduled to board a bus early in the morning to Dover AFB in Delaware for her return to Germany.
The next day, Jack learned that two of his test results had not come back, but the doctor told him to continue making arrangements. Hilda had checked out. He visited some bicycle shops and bought a Surly Disc Trucker bicycle. At REI, he bought a two-person tent, a set of Ortlieb panniers to put on the bicycle racks, and the gear to put in them. He had toured in Europe and Asia when stationed abroad. Camping would be different in North America, but he figured he could get what he lacked along the way.
While he was on medical leave, he would be attached to the Army Element at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He called on the commander of the Element, who told him that he did not need to stay in uniform if he wanted to ship things home before his tour. He packed up two boxes and sent them to his brother at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. The doctors cleared him on the third day. He rode to Aberdeen to see his brother and sister-in-law, then set out.
Hilda taped the last box, and stowed it in the closet with the other three.
“That’s the lot, Baba.”
“Wonderful. See? That is completely out of the way. You just tell us where to send it, and we can ship it in a day.”
“I’ll be on a bicycle, so don’t use something expensive like DHL. If I stop anywhere, I’ll know long before I get there.”
“Of course not. The Army Post Office would be just as fast and cheaper at any level than a courier service.”
Hilda’s mother came into the hall, a file folder of music under her arm. “Are you still coming to rehearsal tonight, kära?” Margareta liked to use her native Swedish with her daughter. In Kaiserslautern, she could do that only with Tongai and Hilda.
“Of course. Do you want to rehearse my solo before or after choir rehearsal?”
“Let’s do it now.”
“Okay. Let me get my water bottle.”
Tongai gave his wife a kiss. “Supper when you get back.”
Margareta and Hilda walked to the church, only two blocks from the Paisley’s apartment. Two meters tall, with long, fine hair, high cheekbones and startling lapis-lazuli eyes, they were used to the turned heads and the stares. Her mother opened the church, and turned on the organ. While putting hymnals and sheet music on the chairs in the choir loft, Hilda vocalized and warmed up.
They had finished rehearsing Hilda’s communion solo when the first choir members showed up. The others were disappointed that Hilda had decided to go to America, but they wished her well. They could not understand what it was like not to have lived in one’s own country.
Monday morning, she took her bicycle and her gear to Frankfurt on the train. Tuesday afternoon, she checked into the HI Hostel in New York City. After five days of tourism on foot, she rode east toward Cape Cod. Jack was somewhere in New England.
Jack bent into the wind and geared down. Only four miles to Kingston. The light drizzle that started this morning had grown to a biting nor’easter – the kind that he had only read about. At least the roads were only wet; the oils from the traffic had long ago been washed off. Two months ago, black ice would have been hiding among the puddles.
The water seeped around his hood and helmet and dripped inside his rain jacket. He was soaked to the skin from the waist down, and soon his torso would be, too. The merino wool underwear kept him warm even when wet, but it wasn’t pleasant.
On the platform, he raced to the last car on the T-train to Boston, getting in just as the doors closed. He chose to stand with his bike at the back of the car, and let the rain drain off him where people wouldn’t slip in it. The weather cleared half-way to the metropolis. As he wheeled his bike to the exit of the South Station, the setting sun shone in glorious patterns on the undersides of the clouds. Riding the bike lanes west on Stuart Street, he was looking forward to getting changed at the HI Hostel and seeing Hilda again. She had written that she would be there today or tomorrow.
He swung off his bicycle at the corner, and walked it toward the hostel. The usual groups of panhandlers had congregated outside the eateries, and the doors to the hostel, but a group just beyond the hostel entrance caught his attention.
Three men were beating someone against the wall. The lone man was Black, maybe middle twenties; the trio were white. Jack had no idea what started this, but he pushed his bike at a trot toward the scene. Just as he closed in, the door of the hostel flew open in his face, throwing him and his bicycle to the sidewalk. Stunned, he looked up to see a tall figure flying out the door. The first two thugs never knew what hit them. They were both unconscious on their way to the pavement when the third turned to face the new arrival. She caught the baseball bat in one hand, gut-punched him with the other, and head-butted his nose as he bent over. A chop to the temple on the way down made sure he would take a nap, too. She crouched by the victim, and began checking his injuries.
Jack picked himself and his bike up, and leaned the rig against the wall. “Hilda?”
She looked quickly at him, then continued talking softly to the victim. Jack saw now that he was a teenager, well groomed, with new sneakers, and quality jeans. Tufts tee-shirt.
“Hi, Jack. Got a first aid kit?”
“Uh – yeah.” He turned to his bicycle, and got his kit out of the left pannier. Hilda opened it quickly.
Jack grabbed a bottle from his bike and put it in her outstretched hand. She continued working on the boy, until his eyes opened. Feeling movement around them, Jack looked at the three thugs, piled on each other. They were beginning to stir. He went to them.
“Good to see you guys can move. Would you like us to call the police now, or would you prefer not to be here when they arrive?” They opened their eyes and considered the helmeted man holding a bicycle frame pump like a night-stick.
“Urgh,” one of them groaned. He shook the other two, and they helped each other up. Another look at the scene, and they quickly turned and staggered west down the street.
When he turned around, Hilda was helping the boy up. His face was badly bruised, and he still seemed wobbly. Concussion? Jack wondered.
“Shall we help him inside?” he asked.
“Good idea. There’s a café in there. We can sit and finish checking him out.”
Hilda walked inside with the boy, while Jack wheeled his bike into reception. Hilda sat in a corner, and continued talking to the youngster. Jack brought them coffee, which in Boston, always had milk and sugar in it. He took the cup, mumbled thanks, and drank.
“I don’t think he has a concussion, but he said he’d go to Student Health to have himself checked.” She exchanged smiles with the lad.
“Is it far?”
“No,” said the boy, “just across the street.”
“I’m Jack, by the way.”
“And I’m Hilda.”
They shook hands. Ralph asked, “are they still out there?”
“No,” said Jack. “I recognized the type. They opted not to be present if we called the police. I bet one or more of them is wanted for something. Do you know them?”
“No. I saw them yesterday, hanging around this corner. I live a block from here, so it’s on my way to school.”
“Yeah. I started this year.”
“Sorry. I’m asking all the questions. Old habit.”
“Want us to walk you to Student Health?” asked Hilda.
“I think I’ll be okay now, if they’re gone.” He looked at Hilda. “Thanks. You’re awesome.” To Jack he said, “thanks for not calling the cops.”
They stood and watched Ralph walk out and cross the street to the Tufts School of Medicine.
As they turned around, a Boston police officer followed the pointed arm of the receptionist and came toward them.
“We got a call of a fight here.”
“There was,” said Jack. “but it was over long ago. All the participants have left.”
“The caller said you were beating up three men outside.”
“Not really,” said Jack. “When I arrived, they were lying in a heap on the sidewalk, and my friend, Nurse Paisley here, was treating a boy who was beat up. He was able to walk home just before you arrived.”
“So where are the men in the heap?”
“When I offered to call the police, they got up and left as quickly as they could.”
“Can you describe them?” Jack reeled off the traditional description format for each of the three thugs. The police officer raised his eyebrows. “Are you in law enforcement?”
“Yes. Army MP.”
The policeman’s demeanor softened visibly. “I think I know who you saw. Old friends. We’ll keep an eye on them.”
“Anything else we can do to help, officer?”
“No. We got this, uh – ?”
“Rathburn, Major Jack Rathburn.”
“And – ?” the policeman turned to Hilda.
“Also Army, Major Hilda Paisley, Nurse Corps.”
“Thanks. Please let us know if you see any of them again.”
“Thanks.” The policeman put his hat on, waved at the receptionist, and walked out.
Hilda and Jack looked at each other in silence. Relief, pleasure, anticipation, worry, silly, giddy happiness – all these emotions ran through them, while the receptionist only saw two people standing perfectly still. She wondered if they were going to explode into a fight or an argument or something else.
Their first kiss was long and passionate, their embrace automatic. They discovered how perfectly they fit each other. When they pulled apart, the receptionist sighed, then caught herself.
“Are you here to check in?”
© 2021, JT Hine
If you enjoyed this peek at Hilda and Jack setting out on their adventures together, you might enjoy the novel Emily & Hilda, which picks up later that year. Links in the Books page.