Jason’s last wish

NANCY LOCKHART TAPPED THE HORN when she parked in the driveway. Adele came out to the porch. Joe ran around the housekeeper and threw his arms around Nancy’s waist.

“Adele, could you help me get this stuff into the house? I stopped at the post office on the way home. I think it’s Christmas packages.” She leaned over and kissed her son. “You want to carry something too?”

“Yes. Is something for me?”

“I don’t know. Nothing with your name on it. And if it’s a Christmas present inside, we’ll have to wait, won’t we?”

Joe sighed and took the lightweight box she gave him. The two women loaded the other boxes and envelopes into the library. Joe checked each one, hoping to see his name. Then he returned to his room, where he was building something extraordinary with blocks, sticks, pieces from an Erector set, and folded cardboard sheets.

After she changed into a skirt and blouse, Nancy returned to open the packages. As she slit the first wrapping, she heard Jason’s car pull up outside. She went to the porch. Flurries of snowflakes danced lightly in the streetlights, but a major storm was not expected.

“You’re early. I only just got home myself.” They walked into the house.

“Well, it’s not for a good reason. The patient we were going to operate on this afternoon died this morning.”

“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry. Wasn’t that just an appendix?”

“Yes, but there was something wrong with his immune system. He had symptoms of a simple cold last night. His organs began failing around midnight. He was dead by ten a.m. The family authorized an autopsy. I hope we can figure this out because it was a total surprise to us.”

“Not a pathology or an infection?”

“Except for the cold, no.”

“Take off the coat and tie and come relax. We had packages in the mail today. Some from Missouri.” Jason’s brother and his family lived near Independence.

Nancy met him with a glass of Riesling when he returned. He put it on the desk and embraced his wife. A long, lingering kiss put their busy world into its proper context.

“Thanks. I needed that.”

“Me, too.”

Armed with letter openers, they attacked the pile of packages. Nancy started a list for thank you letters in a notebook.

“This one looks like what we got last year and the year before. No return address.”

“Any guesses?”

“I’d say it’s a bottle of single malt whisky.”

Opening the package, they saw a gift-wrapped box about the right size for a bottle of liquor. A blank card attached read simply, “Thanks.”

“This is the third year. Do you have any idea who this is?” She set the gift under the tree with care, positioning it so that it would not break when it encountered an exuberant five-year-old on Christmas morning.

“Not really. It started after Inchon. I got the first one on board after Haven returned to Long Beach. This is the second one here in Richmond.”

“Anyone especially grateful about Inchon?”

“So many. I was up to my elbows for days on end. They kept us off Inchon for months, using helos to bring the wounded out as they pushed inland.”

She leaned over and kissed him. “Let’s consider it a gift from all of them. From what I heard, you gathered quite a fan club from both wars.”

“Wait a minute.” Jason put his palms to his forehead and closed his eyes. “There was a lieutenant, the skipper of an LST during the landing itself. We played cards while he rehabbed on board. I sewed him together okay, but he was in a coma for two weeks, so we were not sure he would survive.”

“He survived, I take it.”

“Yes, and returned to his ship.” He opened his eyes. “Mike. Mike Norwood. LST-973. He said he owed me a bottle of Scotch every year for the rest of his life.”

“The man keeps his word.” She smiled. “I like that.”

“Hi, Daddy!” a streak of red attacked Jason at knee level. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I didn’t hear you, either. Are you up to something?”

“I built a space base, with a school and a hospital and an apartment building.”

“Can I see it?”

“Not yet. I have to figure out how to build a bubble for it. There’s no air in space, you know.” He went to the stairs. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

“Okay, son.” Jason listened to the little feet scamper back up to their son’s bedroom. “Space base?” He looked inquiringly at Joe’s mother as he picked up the letter opener.

“I think my Aunt Mary had something to do with that. She spent a lot of time explaining what they are doing at NASA, where she works.”

“National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Isn’t that part of the Air Force?”

“Not really. It’s at Langley Air Force Base, but as a tenant.”

“Just a few years ago, I could not imagine going into space. But the new jets have broken the sound barrier. It’s just a matter of time.”

“That’s what she says.”

With all the packages opened, and presents under the Christmas tree, they moved to the envelopes. About half for each of them.

***

Amelia Banner, Nancy’s secretary, stood in the door to her office. “Doctor Lockhart? Your husband is on the phone. Shall I tell him to call back?”

Nancy put a pencil in the thick research grant proposal she was reading. “No, Amelia. I’ll take it.” He never calls me at work. She picked up the handset and pushed the blinking button on the phone. “Hello, Jason. Is everything okay?”

“Everything was okay until I heard your voice. Now everything is wonderful.” Nancy smiled and felt a blush of pleasure. After more than six years, he still amused her with his romantic silliness.

“My day is a little brighter, too, but you must have called about something else.”

“Oh, yes. Something much less important than flirting with you. Remember Edouard Manérin?”

“The French Consul. Of course. Émilie is in Joe’s pre-school class.”

“He would like me to take a trip, but he wants to explain it to both of us, over lunch. Would you be free on Thursday?”

Nancy looked at her desk calendar. “Unless Amelia is out there scribbling something new, I’m free. Where?”

“The Jefferson at noon. He is French, so I would block two hours and not schedule any boring presentations in the afternoon.”

Nancy laughed. “If he wants to do this at the Jefferson instead of his office, it’s probably dangerous, illegal, or embarrassing. He must want you to say yes very badly.”

“He does have my attention, although I have no idea what he wants.”

“Let’s do it. See you tonight.” She smacked a kiss in the phone.

“I love you. Bye.”

They hung up.

***

Jason and Nancy did not dine often at the Jefferson Hotel, but its dining room held special memories for them. They had come here for their first dinner date, and it was at a later dinner date that Jason had proposed. Occasionally, Smithson Pharmaceuticals took out of town investors and visiting executives to the Jefferson, so Nancy had seen more of it at lunchtime than Jason had.

Edouard Manérin was standing in the lobby when they arrived.

“Doctors Lockhart, a pleasure to see you both.” The Consul spoke English with an American accent, having attended the American School in Paris before going to the prestigious School of Public Administration. He bent over Nancy’s hand with a quick kiss and shook hands with Jason. “Émilie seems quite taken with Joe. She has not mentioned any other boys in the class.”

Peut-être qu’ils ne se sont pas encore frappés,” she said. Maybe they haven’t hit each other yet.

Manérin laughed heartily. Jason said in French, “At five years old, it could mean anything or nothing, but I am glad that neither has come home complaining.”

“Please,” said the consul motioning to the door to the restaurant, “let’s have our lunch.”

Conversation for the first part of the meal revolved around the two families. Their two children were the only ones in the five-year-old class who could already read, so they found themselves sitting together, reading quietly while the teachers and aides worked with the other children. Joe had picked up some French from Nancy’s conversations with her mother, and Émilie said that he had a Parisian accent.

Over the cheese, the Consul refilled their wine glasses and nodded to the waiter. The servers withdrew.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘we have been doing so much with so little, that we can do the impossible with nothing’, haven’t you?” Jason and Nancy nodded. “As you know, I served in Equatorial Africa after the war. We had a saying there, donnez ça à Jace.” Give that to Jace. “The mythical man who could do anything with nothing.”

After a stunned silence, Nancy asked, “Is this some kind of coincidence? Jace isn’t a French name.” Jace was her husband’s nickname.

“No. One of my colleagues, who had spent the war in and around Casablanca, told me that the saying was brought to Ubangi-Shari by Free French and Vichy veterans.”

“Why are you telling us this?” asked Jason.

“Because we are trying to do the impossible again.” He took a sip of his wine and gathered himself. “You know that the situation in Indo-China is not going well.”

“I read about the battle at Dien Bien Phu. Aren’t there peace talks in Saigon now?”

“And Paris. But the point is that the war in Vietnam has exhausted our resources, which we needed for our other colonies. We are trying to carry on in places like Africa and the Pacific, but those places are restive also.”

“What are you asking?”

“We would like you to join a team of American and Canadian medical personnel to help us set up a teaching hospital in Bangui.”

“French Equatorial Africa.”

“Yes. Bangui is the capital and the only major city in Ubangi-Shari. It is also the last town that can be reached by water north of Brazzaville. The city serves a vast area that includes Chad, inland Cameroons, and the northern half of the Middle Congo.

“If we can put a teaching hospital there, it would help lift the area toward self-sufficiency.”

“Which would ease the pressure on the French resources.”

“Yes. The consular corps throughout North America is recruiting people like you.”

“Why me?”

“Because of the work you did in Fedhala and Algeria. The work you did at MCV. What you did off Korea. And what you do every day at Saint Mary’s here in Richmond.”

“It takes more than a surgeon to set up a teaching hospital. Are you asking us to move to Bangui?”

“No. Your role would be to review our plans and watch us get started. Specifically, we’d like your expertise as a surgeon. We have administrators, researchers, and teaching professors of most specialties already.”

Jason looked at Edouard silently for a long time.

“You have more passion for this than simply carrying out orders, Edouard.”

“It shows, doesn’t it?” He smiled. “The other consuls are doing their jobs, assembling teams and forwarding recommendations, but I have a personal interest. I love the people in Bangui. And I am afraid that they are going to need surgeons very badly, very soon. I want this project to be there for them.”

“More war?”

“Worse. You did not hear me say this, but Vietnam is the tip of iceberg. I predict that in four years, my country will withdraw from central Africa, and by the end of the decade, from the rest of the continent.

“Then the nightmare will begin.”

Nancy said, “You could have pitched this in your office. Why lunch, and why me?”

“Because if you did not have Joe, I would be asking for you as a team. Your reputation at MCV and Smithson matches his. I want you both in on this offer.”

“When and how long?” asked Jason.

“We think six months. The planning is done. The Health Service in Brazzaville and Bangui would start construction after the review team helps them fix anything you can see. We figure two months. Then four months to see the project started. That should be enough to see if the actual work will proceed as planned.” He paused. “What do you think?”

“Do you have some of these plans?”

“I can send you the executive summaries and basic drawings for all the infrastructure, and the high-level planning documents for the medical school staffing and tentative curricula. Enough for you to see what the Health Service is trying to do and get an idea whether it is practical.”

“Who is doing the work?”

“The Colonial Administration, but a major goal of the project is to bring in as much local manpower as possible. We want the local population to keep it going.”

Jason and Nancy looked at each other.

“When do you need an answer?”

“Last week would be ideal, but let me know how long it will take you to look at the documents, and we’ll adjust our plans accordingly.”

“That seems fair,” said Jason. “Will you forward the materials to Smithson or Saint Mary’s?”

“To your home if you don’t mind. The involvement of non-French personnel in the project is a sensitive issue.”

“Understood. We’ll warn the housekeeper to accept the documents for us.”

They rose, shook hands, and walked to their respective afternoon commitments.

***

For four days, Nancy and Jason pored over the box of documents that Edouard had sent over. They took notes and discussed their impressions.

On the fourth evening, the dining room table was covered with plans, maps and typewritten reports. They had given little Joe a copy of L’Histoire de Babar to keep him from taking papers from the table. He read happily to himself (out loud) in the corner, as best he could, stopping to figure out the words from the pictures.

“Here’s another weak link between Brazzaville and Bangui,” said Nancy. “I see no discussion about how medicines get to the hospital from the free port in Brazzaville. Especially the ones that need refrigeration or special handling. Are the boats on the rivers equipped for that?”

“Good point. I think I’ve covered surgery and the emergency department as far as I can go.” Jason stood back, stretched, and refilled their wine glasses. “Let’s make one more pass, taking notes about what we don’t see – like the pharmacy and childcare center.”

“More than childcare. Relatives of urgent patients will need short-term accommodation, and they will need facilities for the families of the med students.”

“Let’s put him to bed first.” Jason sat on his heels in front of their son. “Es-tu prêt á dormir, mon fils?” Ready for bed, my son?

“Read me what Grandmaman wrote here.” Joe handed the book to his mother as Jason carried him on his shoulder.

Nancy read the inscription from her mother, which Annabelle Ardwood had penned in a beautiful cursive when she gave the book to Joe for Christmas. Joe was asleep before they reached his room.

By midnight, Nancy and Jason had assembled thirty pages of notes in French to be typed by the Consulate. Twenty of those pages came from Nancy, whose expertise in management and organization exceeded her husband’s. They had agreed to accept the proposal. Jason had more than enough vacation time backed up to qualify for a sabbatical.

***

Jason stepped through the door of the jetliner and almost fell backwards from the weight of the hot air pressing against him. A layer of shining dew immediately covered his suit and exposed skin as the humidity condensed on his still-cool person. Except for the initial sense of drowning for one breath, the warmth felt good. As he made his way down the ladder, he started sweating underneath his clothes.

He had been flying for four days: first from Washington to Montréal on a Colonial Airlines DC-4. There, the team of Canadians, mostly from Québec, joined him on a Comet operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation to London. The next day, they boarded the weekly BOAC jetliner to Paris, Nice, Algiers, Casablanca and Brazzaville on its way to Cape Town.

Two days later, the team boarded river boats for the long trip up the Congo and Ubangi Rivers. It took another six days to reach their destination. Jason’s head sometimes hurt from weeks of working in French. Unlike Nancy, who had learned the language growing up, Jason had studied it in school and gained fluency during the war in Francophone Africa. It was an acquired skill, not a natural one.

“Mind a little company in English?” Jason started slightly as Leo McDermott leaned on the railing next to him. Big-shouldered and medium height, the Scottish-Canadian epidemiologist smiled and reached in his pockets for his pipe and tobacco.

“Is it that obvious?”

“No, but sometimes I wear out by the end of the day – and I grew up in Québec.”

“Thanks. I feel better.”

They scanned the riverbank in silence for a few yards, as the boat pushed against the current.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Jason.

“Aye, and as unspoiled a piece of earth as you’ll ever see. I hope we’re not ruining it with our so-called civilization.” He took a long puff and turned to Jason. “Good work, by the way. I came on board at the last minute, and the stuff you contributed on epidemiology and research facilities was spot-on. Couldn’t have done better myself.”

“My wife Nancy came up with all that.” To his look of surprise, he added. “She’s Head of Research at Smithson. She noticed that this hospital would be a perfect place for field studies.”

“She’s right. There are diseases in that jungle that we have never heard of.”

***

There are no seasons near the Equator, except for wet. Ubangi-Shari enjoyed a short dry season from December to February. By March, the experts from North America had tans that would make the girls swoon back home. By paying attention and sleeping under mosquito netting, they avoided sunburn, heat exhaustion, and malaria.

The Health Service had done a good job of quickly adjusting the plans, so that when site work began in March, things looked good on the ground. They had chosen a site on the edge of the jungle, two kilometres from the river. Jason could imagine the neighbourhood growing around the hospital, especially with the potential for a university just southeast of the site. Expansion plans included a pediatric unit.

By June, the rough site work showed where the facilities would be. Most of the fine-tuning had to do with the logistics of moving materials up the river; the design and the construction plan was sound. The advisors were looking forward to returning home at the end of the month.

On the fifteenth, Jason was looking at some plans for the nurses’ barracks when he heard shouting from the work site across the street. He knew the sound of an injured man instinctively. Grabbing the medical bag that he never let out of his sight, he ran toward the commotion.

One of the labourers guiding a steel beam held by a backhoe had slipped and fallen. The beam had swung and come out of its sling. It smashed the man’s arm and bounced away.

Jason raced to the man while the backhoe operator lowered the end of the beam away from the scene. The man should not die from a crushed arm, but Jason recognized a man falling into shock. He was screaming in Sangho. Jason recognized docteur, but the man kept pushing him away.

The backhoe operator knelt next the Jason and said to him in French.

“He says he does not want a doctor. He is afraid of your medicine.”

“Is there someone he would trust?”

“His medicine man. The tribe lives just over there.” He motioned to the north with his head.

Jason could tell that the man would soon faint. “Please ask him in Sangho if I could treat him enough to take him to his docteur.

The backhoe operator asked the wounded man in Sangho. That Jason was offering to transport him to his people seemed to calm him. He nodded. “Singila.” Thank you. And he fainted.

Jason bandaged the wounds and splinted the arm. They loaded the man into a jeep that a relative working on a nearby site brought over. They allowed Jason to ride with them into the jungle north of the newly dug earthworks. The injured worker woke up on the way.

Along the way, Jason scratched an itchy scab on his arm. The worker’s blood was still on his forearms, but Jason had worked with blood up to his elbows and thought nothing of it.

A half-hour later, the road ended. The men in the jeep got out and helped their relative to his feet on the ground. He wobbled but insisted on walking with the others. Dozens of silent men and women appeared out of the forest as they walked. They reached a clearing not ten metres across. A solitary hut stood among the trees at the edge.

A man watched them from the entrance to the hut. Somewhere between middle-aged and old, Jason thought he looked too fit for the whiteness of his hair and the lines in his face. Jason followed the trio approaching the elder but kept silent.

The elder told them to sit. Jason knew that much Sangho. When the four men were seated cross-legged around him, the elder examined the arm and looked into the eyes of the wounded man.

“Your bandage, European?” he asked Jason in French.

“Only enough to get him here safely, wanganga.” The elder arched an eyebrow at Jason’s use of the Sangho word for doctor.

“No drugs? No potions?”

“No. He only needs his arm set. You or I can do that.”

“You are an unusual European.”

“I will take that as a compliment, wanganga.

“It is. Let us do this together.” He ordered the men to bring out the chair inside the hut. Together, the two medical men undid the bandage and reset the bone. The worker used a piece of leather to bite down on, but otherwise bore the pain silently.

The elder let Jason clean the wound with antiseptic from his bag and sew up the gash. When that was done, the elder brought out a paste in a bowl and smeared it on the wound.

“May I ask what that is?”

“A salve. You would call it an antibiotic, but we have been using it for centuries to speed healing.”

“May I take some? My woman is a healer, expert in our medicines. She would be delighted to study this.”

The elder spooned some of the salve into a small jar from Jason’s bag. “A gift. Thank you for caring for our cousin.”

The jeep driver took Jason back to town.

The labourer was back in two days. The cut was closed over and healing without infection. Jason asked about the stitches, and the worker said that the wanganga told him to leave them until the weekend, that he would remove them.

***

“Daddeee!” With a squeal of delight, Joe grabbed Jason around the waist. His father almost tripped with the weight. He bent over his son and drew Nancy to him with his free arm. Joe put his arms around both of them while they kissed.

The family walked to the end of the platform of the Broad Street station and out to the parking lot. Twenty minutes later they were home. It was well after Joe’s bedtime, so they attended to that first. Then Nancy and Jason could make up for lost time….

***

A week later, Nancy woke from a deep sleep. Jason was burning hot and sweating. The clock on the nightstand showed three a.m. She eased out on her side and came back from the bathroom with some aspirin and a thermometer. Jason was awake.

“My God, Jason. One hundred one.” Nancy gave him the aspirin and a glass of water. What do you feel, dear?”

“Like I have a cold, except that it’s just the fever. Aches but no runny nose – yet.”

At dawn, his fever was 102°F. Nancy got Adele up and asked her to see Joe to day school. She drove Jason to Saint Mary’s, then came back to get ready to go to the office.

At eleven o’clock, Amelia announced a call from Saint Mary’s.

“Nancy, it’s Mel.” Melvin Schroeder was an internist and an endocrinologist. He was on a first-name basis with all the known germs and parasites in the human blood stream. Jason, Nancy and Mel had been researchers at MCV after the war.

“Is this about Jason?”

“Yes. Could you come here? It’s complicated on the phone.”

“Twenty minutes.” She hung up.

“Amelia. I’m going to Saint Mary’s. I don’t have any appointments this afternoon, do I?”

“No. You wanted to go over the office budget, but that only involves you and me.”

“Let’s do it later. I don’t know what this is about, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“Give my best to Jason, and don’t worry. We have your back here.”

“Thanks.”

***

Melvin pointed to the settee in his office. Nancy sat. He drew up a chair.

“We’re baffled, Nancy. Here.” He took some lab reports from his desk and passed them to her. “His immune system is going nuts. We give him antibiotics for the infection, but his blood seems to eat the stuff. And he has almost no antibodies, not even for the things he was vaccinated for: smallpox, rubella, etc.”

Nancy read the figures from the lab. “Is this like that patient with a cold back before Christmas? Jason described something like this.”

“Yes. Shall we go see Jason?”

They walked to the ward together. Jason was sitting up, reading a newspaper. Nancy went to him and kissed him.

“Has Mel explained this to you?” she asked.

“Not that there is much to explain, eh, Mel?”

The three doctors looked at each other in silence. Nancy took in a sharp breath.

“What happened to your arm?” The IV site on Jason arm had a bruise spreading halfway around his elbow.

“I don’t know. The injection was unremarkable, but that’s one hell of a bruise. All since this morning.”

“We’d better stop the aspirin,” said Mel, “before that turns into something worse than a bruise.”

“What else do you feel, dear?”

“Nothing really, just tired. The fever is down, although that may be a reaction to the aspirin.”

“Good enough to go home?”

“That’s up to Mel here, but if nothing is going to change here, I might as well.”

Mel said, “Let’s take out the IV. You’re eating and drinking normally. If nothing changes overnight, we’ll discharge you in the morning.”

“I’ll bring little Joe back before supper.” Nancy kissed her husband.

“Thanks. I’d like that.”

***

A week later, Jason was back in the hospital with pneumonia. While there, he started losing weight, no matter how much they fed him. By September, he had lost forty pounds and was bedridden most of the time. Melvin noticed a virus on a blood test that he did not recognize, and he thought he had seen them all. The lab photographed the slides of Jason’s blood tests and sent them to the National Institutes of Health.

Every day, Nancy and Joe visited him in the hospital. Between hospital visits, Joe played in the master bedroom. Jason and Joe read stories to each other.

On Thanksgiving, he went into the hospital for the last time. His body was breaking down, eating itself from the inside. Dr. Lambert, Joe’s pediatrician, advised against having Joe near his dying father so much, but Joe sensed that his father wanted him there. Joe had never seen anyone die before, so he approached each day with his father as another day for both of them to enjoy.

Nancy understood this. She took Joe in every day.

Pearl Harbor Day was a Tuesday that year. After school, Nancy drove Joe to Saint Mary’s, where Jason was in palliative care.

Jason sat up in the bed, his face pale, the skin pulled taut over the bones of his face.

“Hi, Daddy.” Joe sat up on the bed. By now there was plenty of room for him next to his father’s shrivelled body.

“Hi, Joe.”

“You’re yellow today.”

“It’s called jaundice. My liver has failed, son.”

“That’s bad, right?”

“It just is, son. We knew this day would come, didn’t we?”

Joe nodded solemnly.

For the first time since Jason first fell ill last summer, Joe and his father cried. Silently. Nancy let her tears fall and knelt by the bed, one hand on each of her men. She saw the pulses on the monitor next to the bed get lower and lower.

“I know you two will take care of each other. Am I right?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Yes, dear.”

“Kiss me, lover. Hug me, son.”

They did as he asked. When they pulled back, Jason smiled and sighed.

“Thank  you. I love you both.” And he closed his eyes.

Nancy put her arms around her son. Joe hugged her back and sat on the chair with her. The monitor squealed as the trace flatlined.

© 2022, JT Hine

Some quick help please: short story or novella?

Most of the my short stories run about 3000 words, give or take a thousand. However, I have a tale that is currently at 11,000 words, or almost four times the normal length. My first reaction was to publish it as a novella (Book 2.5 of the Emily & Hilda series). It started life as part of the story that became Rule Number One. It’s short for a novella and long for a short story.

Would you prefer to read it here as a blog post or as a separate book?

Hilda goes to the prom

IF YOU ASKED THEM, Jim and Hilda would have insisted that they were absolutely not going steady. But the knowing winks and glances when they happened to be in the same room told them that no one believed it. Between basketball and the fact that they had most of their classes together, they spent almost their entire school day in the same rooms. They didn’t hold hands or hang around together between classes. By unspoken understanding, they made a point of not sitting together at lunch, which would have doubtless advertised a major relationship in the eyes of their schoolmates.

Hilda was so used to riding to and from school on her bike, that she did not realize what a change her classmates perceived when Jim started doing the same thing. They would not have understood that he preferred the freedom of the bike over taking the bus. They also did not know that he peeled off the Pariser Strasse less than a mile from the school to go home, while Hilda continued into downtown Kaiserslautern on the bike path.

The spring of their junior year was different. One day, as they unlocked their bikes to go home, Jim asked, “Have you been thinking about the prom?”

Hilda paused with the Abus u-lock in her hand.

“No. Why?”

“I only thought of it today when I noticed the tittering and eyerolls in physics class.”

“Oh, yeah. What was that about?”

“One of the guys on the team said I was totally dense not to see the girls coming on to me.”

“I admit that you do have a lot of batting eyelashes following you around.” She grinned and batted hers in an exaggerated, slow motion. They laughed. “So, what about the prom?”

“Why haven’t you thought about it?”

“I don’t know. I know everyone is excited about it, but I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Sometimes I wonder if you’re American, Hilda.”

“I am, but, like you, I’ve never lived there. At least you spend your summers in Montana, but my grandparents are in London and here. Except for the girls on the team, my friends are all in town.”

“Would you like to go?”

“Are you asking me?”

“You’re the only girl I’ve ever dated. Seems to make sense. I’ve been afraid to ask, because it might signal something, or you might be offended.”

Hilda looked at him while she snapped her u-lock to the bike frame. She glanced at the students walking away from them or boarding the buses.

“Yes. I think it would be fun. Besides, dancing with anyone else would be awkward.” She grinned. They were both well over six feet tall.

“What about the others?”

“What did Bonnie Raitt say to that?”

“‘Let’s give them something to talk about.’ I like it.”

They swung onto their bikes and rode home.

***

One had to be eighteen to have a driver’s license in Germany, so it never crossed Hilda’s mind that a natural consequence of the annual Weasley migration to Montana would include her friend’s getting his own license. Sergeant Weasley lent his son the family car, a Volkswagen Beetle, for the prom.

“Have you driven much?” She asked him on their way to world history one day.

“Yes, I have. Mom doesn’t like to drive. When there’s a commissary run or another errand, she’s happy to let me drive. And on vacations, I do most of the driving. Dad says he drives for a living; he’s fine to have someone else do it.”

“So, this will be the classic setup?”

“Yup. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

***

Hilda had a black gown, which she wore for classical concerts, recitals, and other musical performances. Tongai and Margareta quickly fought down her insistence that it would be fine for a prom.

“My fault for not asking for duty in Kansas, mudiki.” Little one in Shona. “After you spend some time in America among your peers, you will understand how much the prom means to them.”

“And your friends will all want to know what you wore to your prom, long after you leave here,” said her mother.

For a week, Margareta and Hilda visited dress shops after school. In the end, the tailor who had made many of Margareta’s costumes for the stage suggested a slim gown that clung to her figure but allowed her to move easily.

“This will be easy,” he said, looking at Hilda’s mother. “It’s the dress we made for die Zauberflöte in 1974. Remember that one?”

“Too bad we couldn’t keep the dresses back then. I liked that one.”

“True. But I have the patterns, and Hilda here is a carbon copy of you.” He stood back and admired the teenager. “I was just thinking that either white or a pastel would set off that fantastic skin. You could not have worn a colour like that, Margareta.”

“I agree. What do you think, Hilda?”

Hilda felt a little embarrassed but also pleased to be part of this conversation between masters in their fields. “Are you talking about the outfit on the poster in Baba’s office.”

“That one, yes.”

“I’ve always admired it. I think I’d love to have a dress like that.”

***

For the hair, Margareta marched Hilda to the most expensive hairdresser in town, which happened to be between their apartment building and the Pfalz-theatre.

“Mama, isn’t this too much? We can put my hair up.”

“Nonsense, dear. Rike has been waiting sixteen years for this. She would be offended if I let anyone else do your hair for something like a prom. She said so before every show after I married your father.”

“She was the hairdresser for the Städtebundoper?”

“She still is. And she made me promise.”

In the salon, Hilda sat while Rike Messner examined her hair closely, running her fingers through it, and massaging Hilda’s scalp.

“This is remarkable. She absolutely has your hair, Margareta. I can feel it.”

“So, as easy to work with?”

“Oh, yes. This will be a pleasure. Come, Hilda, let’s look at some magazines.”

***

Jim pulled into a free space outside Hilda’s apartment building. He was still getting over the fact that his father ordered a tailored tuxedo for him. Sergeant Weasley had never shown that much interest in the social life at school.

“It’s a rare chance to get you a quality tux at an affordable price,” his father had said. “We would have had to rent one Stateside. You can keep this for weddings, funerals, command performances – even opening night at the opera, since you seem to have developed a taste for that. A tux is never a waste, as long as you don’t outgrow it.” He patted his flat stomach. Jim knew that his father had never had to let out any of his original uniforms.

Jim took the box with the corsage from the passenger’s seat. He almost dropped it in the street when he cracked his head on the door frame. Pausing to let the dizziness subside, he locked the car and walked upstairs.

***

Hilda felt upset, excited, happy, and afraid. This was a new experience for a girl who had always gotten away with standing taller and acting older than her classmates.

She had been Jim’s friend since fourth grade; she could not imagine going to any event at the school with anyone else. She didn’t hang out at school. Her classmates were friendly, but she wasn’t tuned into their world outside of class and the basketball court.

The reality that she was going to a dance, let alone the prom, with a boy, let alone the captain of the basketball team, had not hit her until this week, when she overheard two girls in the washroom speculating about who Jim was taking to the prom.

“I’ll bet he asks Mirella. He can ask anyone, and she was the homecoming queen last fall.”

“You crazy? Mirella is so into Matt Dukens that I don’t think she knows Weasley is alive.”

“Everyone knows Weasley is alive. Have you seen his pecs when he shoots those three-pointers?”

“Not just his pecs.” Hilda was surprised that their giggling annoyed her. “Still, I’ve never seen him on a date with anyone.”

“Maybe Paisley? I saw them a month ago coming out of Forrest Gump.

“Yeah, but they’re both jocks. That could have been a coincidence, and no one’s ever seen them together here at school. Besides, he could have any white girl he wants at the prom.”

Hilda took in a breath and clamped her hand over her mouth. She had not thought about her skin colour since the first day of fourth grade so long ago.

“You’re probably right. Except for that one movie, I’ve only seen them in class.”

“They do sit together.”

“Doesn’t count. The teachers have been putting those two in the back row forever.”

“Personally, I would love to be able to hide behind Weasley. Much more interesting than the blackboard.”

“Yeah, better view…” The conversation trailed off. Hilda waited to be sure that they had left. When she opened the door to the stall, she was alone in the washroom…

The doorbell rang. Hilda took a short breath and walked to the living room. Margareta went to the door.

Hilda gasped when Jim came into the room. She had never seen his hair combed. Or wearing a tux. His clean, strong chin made her realize that he had never shaved off his fuzz until tonight.

He stood there with his mouth open, taking a short breath as if he wanted to say something. The box in his hands was quivering slightly. Hilda snapped out of the trance first.

“You look good. Really good.”

“You’re – I mean, you’re –” he ran out of words. He looked around for help, but there was only Margareta, standing in the corner smiling as proudly as a mentor watching her protégé win first prize.

“Pick an adjective, James. She won’t bite.”

“Uh, beautiful. No! Stunning. Amazing.”

“Thank you. Maybe I should wear skirts instead of jeans more often at school, eh?”

“I just – I knew you were good-looking, but you’re hot!”

Hilda chuckled and looked at her mother. “Is that what the reviewers wrote when you wore this dress?”

“No, I think that was the reference to smoking hell.” She laughed. “Hilda told me, James. I will call it the Smoking Hell aria from now on.”

Jim chuckled, relieved to have laughter break the spell. “Is this your dress?”

“No, but the tailor who made mine still had the patterns and chose new fabrics and colours.”

“Here.” He offered Hilda the corsage and helped put it on.

“Would you care for something before you go?” Margareta asked.

“I don’t know. Do we have time?”

“I think so,” said Hilda. “Let’s relax and get used to this.”

“Okay. Thanks, Mrs. Paisley. That soda we had before?”

“Sure.” She left the room. They sat on the sofa.

“Is your father here?”

“No. He’s on another mission. The army has my schedule, and they make sure to send him away anytime something interesting comes up. Like our eight-grade graduation, my confirmation, and the prom.”

“I know how that feels. I’m glad to have my dad around for high school. When he was here at Pulaski Barracks, he was in the field almost all the time. At Ramstein, he has a desk job.” Jim thanked Margareta and took a sip. “He is – or was – a helicopter mechanic. What does Mr. Paisley do?”

Hilda looked at her mother, who gave no hint. “We’re not sure. Baba was an Army linguist during the Cold War, but he’s in special operations now.”

Jim put down his glass. “What time do we need to be back?”

“This is Germany, James,” her mother said. “You could go clubbing all night at your age.” She looked at Hilda.

“I have a solo during Communion tomorrow. I’ll need to be rested for that.”

“I’ll return her when she tires of me, ma’am.”

Margareta laughed. “Good plan. I trust her.”

***

Hilda admired the confident, careful way that Jim drove. She had seen enough craziness from the other students. She complimented him.

“It’s Dad’s car and the only car. I can’t afford to be stupid with it.”

“Well, I feel safe.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t drop me off. Just park in the student lot and let’s walk in together.”

“Okay.”

A crowd of noisy students in prom dresses and tuxedos had gathered outside the main entrance to the school. When Hilda rounded the corner from the parking lot on Jim’s arm, conversation stopped as if someone had pressed a big mute button.

Hilda felt Jim’s hesitation. She squeezed his arm and invisibly pushed him to keep walking. During the twenty yards to the door, she noticed how both boys and girls were staring at her. The boys’ expressions were a mixture of surprise and lust. And something else on some of the faces. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it felt negative. The girls were checking her out as they often did, but some were staring at Jim with stunned expressions.

“I guess the eye-batters are getting a surprise,” she whispered to Jim.

“Ya think?” He grinned broadly and extended a high five to the right guard on the basketball team. That gesture snapped the moment and conversation resumed, although at a lower level than before, as Jim and Hilda entered the school. Couples from the two basketball teams followed them in, which made everyone else conclude that there was nothing more interesting happening outside.

Soon, the dancing, drinking and eating was in full swing.

“You’re a good dancer, Jim,” she said on the first slow number.

“You, too. I never thought about it before.”

“This isn’t your first dance, is it?”

“No, but it’s the first time I could talk to my dance partner without shouting or getting a crick in my neck.” He backed his head. “I haven’t seen you at a dance before. Why not?”

“You’re my first date, remember?”

“Oh, yeah.” He seemed intensely happy and spun her in a couple of double-time counts before settling back.

***

A few couples disappeared before eleven, but Jim and Hilda were among the large exodus to the parking lot at the end. They walked slowly, holding hands. By the time they crossed the student parking lot, it was almost empty.

“That was wonderful, Jim. I don’t want this evening to end.”

“Me, neither. Hey, what’s this on the car?” He pulled a notebook-sized page from under the windshield wiper. His face paled as he read. Hilda could see a single word bleeding through. It was too fuzzy to read.

“Jim, what is it?”

He held the note out to her. “I thought we didn’t have this kind of trash here.”

Hilda read the scrawl in red magic marker. Her first reaction was fear for Jim.

Her next was to scan the parking lot. “We’ve got company.”

A trio of boys approached them from the direction of the housing area east of the school. They wore tee-shirts and jeans. Hilda recognized two of them as seniors. The largest one was repeating junior math and physics with her and Jim, having flunked them last year. The one next to him spoke first.

“Didja get the message, Weasley?”

“What do you want, Ramsey?”

“Kick your ass, nigger-lover.”

They were close enough now that Hilda could smell the beer on their breath. She nearly laughed when the thought went though her mind, drinking cheap Budweiser in Germany. Figures. These were the kind of people her baba had told to be ready for. She just didn’t expect it until boot camp. She breathed slowly and moved into the alert state that Tongai had drilled so many nights in the forest.

“No one is kicking anyone’s ass tonight, Ramsey, unless you three want yours trashed. Just go away, all of you.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to, black bitch?”

“You and your two friends. Now leave!” The big one lunged for her. She pulled his arm through and chopped the back of his neck with her elbow. Ramsey came at her, but she used his momentum to swing him into the third boy, who had Jim bowled over from a punch to the solar plexus. As the two assailants went down, she followed them with a straight kick in the back, which cracked Ramsey’s face on the pavement. The one under him started to move but stopped and put his hands up in terror when Hilda dared him to move with a flash of her eyes and a foot on his groin. Jim was standing straight, breathing carefully.

“Jim, do you have a phone? We need to call 112 or get a teacher out here.”

***

The military police station was just across Fifth Avenue from the school, so the response was quick. The sirens brought the teachers out. When they saw that the police were taking charge, they let the principal watch and shooed the onlookers back into the building.

The sergeant who responded recognized the three boys. “Ramsey and his buddies.” He looked at the three of them on the ground, and watched Hilda shake her head at the big one when he tried to move. “What happened here?” he asked Hilda.

“These three put a note on the windshield of my date’s car, then attacked us as we were about to get in and leave.”

“Note?”

Jim gave the sergeant the page with its blood-red insult. “Ramsey admitted that he wrote it.”

The sergeant whistled and handed the note to his partner, whose eyes flared with rage. He called for backup and handcuffed the three boys.

An hour later, the MP who had responded first drove Jim and Hilda back to his car from the MP station.

“Sorry Ramsey ruined your evening. Don’t worry about him. His father has been warned twice already. This will put the whole family on the next plane Stateside.”

“Thank you, officer,” they said. He drove off.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Jim asked as they sat in the car.

“Third generation Army brat. My father taught me.”

“Thanks. They would have made a mess of me.” He took the car keys from his pocket. “Did this ruin your evening?”

Hilda leaned over and put her hand on his before he put the key in the ignition.

“It could have, but now it will be the most memorable prom ever…”

***

Hilda tried to let herself in as silently as possible, but the light was on in the living room. Margareta looked up from her book.

“I didn’t expect you back so soon, cära,” she said. “Isn’t there a tradition of a little something after the prom?” She glanced at the wrinkles in the front of the evening gown and looked back up.

Hilda paused to read her mother’s arched eyebrow and the twinkle in her eyes. Then she got it.

“We tried, Mama, but it’s too hard to make out in a Volkswagen.”

© 2022, JT Hine