“Ouch! Stop crowding me, Crackers.”
Tom Doyle jerked his hand out of the tangle of wires surrounding the commbox switch and looked at the scrape that was already beginning to ooze blood along his index finger. He was not comfortable in his awkward position under the console, trying to work on the switch mechanism and brace himself against the pitch of the floor at the same time. The mess caused by the broken bottle of Jacque’s Reserve had been cleaned up, but the floor was still sticky against Doyle’s back and fought him every time he needed to shift to a new position.
Adding to all of this was the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing, and he was not accustomed to working with things like spanners and wrenches and screwdrivers. He had volunteered to help Cracchiolo – who supposedly did know what he was doing – only because anything was better than sitting around waiting for something to happen. Even with the cooling unit laboring at full speed, he was sticky with sweat. The tequila hangover still thumped uneasily inside his head, and his usual good nature had been pushed beyond reasonable limits. Vito Cracchiolo, working above him on the commbox circuitry, was the closest target for his frustrations.
The injury to Doyle’s finger, which was the result of his own carelessness with a screwdriver, proved to be less than serious. A quick dab with his handkerchief quelled the trickle of blood.
“Sorry, Thomas.” Cracchiolo stepped back onto Sofia Liu’s foot. “Uh-oh…”
“Watch what you’re doing,” Liu snapped.
“Sorry.” Cracchiolo turned back to Doyle. “Let me in there, Thomas. I’m all done up here. Besides, my hands are little bitty things, special made for – ”
“Never mind,” Doyle interrupted irritably. “I’ve almost got it.”
Although there was little humor in their situation, Caitlin Palamara, watching from the corner chair, had to smile. Jack-a-dandy was barely larger than an oversize shoebox and had not been designed to hold five people in comfort. It was strictly a vehicle for transportation.
“Ouch!” Doyle exclaimed as the screwdriver slipped again and bit into the flesh of his finger. “This is insanity! I’m an accountant, not a mechanic.”
Palamara offered no comment. Her fingers tapped a three-count rhythm on the arm of the chair; her eyes moved repeatedly to the vidscreen above the console, and she kept thinking about the question Wheeler had asked. What if they don’t know where we are?
“Got it,” Doyle muttered at last. He crawled backwards out of the shallow workspace, grunting as he pulled the back of his shirt away from the sticky floor. The commbox switch was grasped tightly in one large fist. He scowled at it for a moment, then handed it across to Vito Cracchiolo. “Now what?”
Cracchiolo probed at welded seams and tugged cautiously at wires. His mouth formed a small frown. “There’s nothing loose, no burned-out terminals or anything like that.” He looked up at Caitlin Palamara and gave an apologetic shrug. “Whatever’s wrong with it, there’s no way we’re going to fix it. It’s a sealed unit.”
“We’ve got to fix it.” Sofia Liu stood beside Cracchiolo, looking down at the switch mechanism. “Take it apart, if you have to.”
“Simmer down,” Palamara interrupted. “We can’t take it apart. That’s what Crackers means. Not with the tools we have.”
Liu turned to face her. “That’s great. We can’t fix the commbox, we can’t contact Graywand, we can’t get out of this fucking place. So what’re we going to do?”
The problem, they had decided, had to be in the switch – the mechanism under the console that accepted stored power from the drive system and transformed it into energy the commbox could use. The switch was the only electronic component of the communications system. Most likely, they’d decided, it had been damaged by the spilled coffee.
“Can you bypass it?” Palamara asked.
“Bypass it?” Cracchiolo looked doubtful.
“Connect the commbox directly to the spud.”
Cracchiolo’s brow wrinkled as he thought it over. “Might work, boss. Depends on how much juice the box can take.”
“What’s our risk?”
Cracchiolo thought for a moment longer. “Tops would be a frizzled commbox.”
“Then let’s try it. The commbox isn’t doing us much good anyway.”
“You got it, boss.” Cracchiolo kicked away a shard of glass that had been missed during cleanup and lowered himself to the floor. He squirmed agilely into the workspace and began stripping insulation from wires.
Caitlin Palamara returned to the corner chair, leaned back against the hard cushion, and raised her eyes again to the row of vidscreens. The fore screen was flickering. They’d had problems with it before – something that seemed to defy permanent repair by Graywand’s mechanics. The erratic flickering would, she knew, worsen and the screen would blank out for good – or at least until the mechanics had another go at it.
Not that she would mind if it did go out. The valley below – the stunted trees and the reddish-brown vegetation and that rock-strewn gully snaking out across it – did not present a comforting landscape. She shifted her eyes to the chronometer. Barely two hours had passed since they had lost contact with Graywand.
How can they come after us if they don’t know where we are?
Damn Wheeler, anyway, and his clinical observations. But even as she cursed Wheeler, a small voice inside her said: If they were coming, they would have been here by now.
Sofia Liu made a sound – a long, jittery exhalation of breath. She sat on one of the backless stools, leaning against the counter in what looked to be an uncomfortable position, staring up at the vidscreens. Beside her, John Wheeler, still wearing a thin smile, also watched the screens. Tom Doyle, sitting cross-legged on the floor awaiting instructions from Cracchiolo, seemed to be too tired to do anything but close his eyes and produce more sweat.
Why are we so fragile? Palamara thought. Their lives, so neatly wrapped in patterned experience, had been stripped clean of meaningful definition. They knew nothing of what lay in the barren valley, or beyond in the dark forest. The shields of constancy were down. They faced the unknown – that ancient horror of humankind. There were no familiar patterns in their new environment, no learned ways of dealing with this feeling of helplessness they had never before faced.
“Looks like a ninety-nine.”
Wheeler’s quiet statement sliced like a blade through Palamara’s thoughts. Her eyes jerked across to the older man. “A ninety-nine?”
Wheeler gestured toward the vidscreen. “Lots of vegetation. Air may be breathable.” A ninety-nine was the informal designation for a planet with Earthlike characteristics sufficient to support human life. The ninety-nine in the Sierra coordinates – 3RX-99301 – identified it as such a planet. This planet, as Wheeler pointed out, had every appearance of also being a ninety-nine, although a week or more of study by the Blue’s research teams would be required before it could be given official recognition as such.
“You planning on taking a walk, John?” Sofia Liu asked.
Wheeler smiled faintly. “Just thought I’d mention it. In case we’re stranded here for good.”
He’s done it again, Palamara said to herself.
Liu swung around, mouth gaping. “Damn you, Wheeler. You’re such a know-it-all – ”
Palamara held up a restraining hand. “That’s enough.”
“Well, I’ve had it with – ”
“Sofia!” Palamara fixed her with a hard look. “Quiet down.”
Liu clenched her teeth with a snap and turned away, fuming.
“We can try it now, boss.” Cracchiolo climbed out of the workspace and rose to his feet. “Only thing is – ” He glanced tentatively at Tom Doyle. “Well, I’ll need somebody to support the switch housing under the shelf while I connect it up.”
Doyle roused himself and looked across at Cracchiolo. With a resigned sigh, he worked his way across the sticky floor and eased himself once again into the space under the console. Cracchiolo knelt down to give him brief instructions.
“Okay, boss,” he said, gesturing to Palamara. “If it works, we won’t have much time.”
“Coming.” Palamara stepped over Doyle’s outstretched legs to the console. Maybe they would get lucky. They were due some luck. “Ready?”
Cracchiolo reached into the tangle of wires and made a series of connections. Holding it all in place, he nodded assent.
Palamara hesitated only a moment, then pressed the commbox switch.
Something crackled underneath the console. Tom Doyle roared and slammed his head against the underside of the shelf, then skittered out backwards, flapping his hand wildly. A trail of smoke spiraled upwards from the commbox, carrying an odor of scorched insulation.
“Uh-oh,” said Cracchiolo. He released his hold on the wiring harnesses and helped Doyle to his feet. “Thomas, are you hurt?”
Palamara stared at the tiny wisp of smoke, too concerned with what it meant to be solicitous of Doyle. With that crackle of electricity and wisp of smoke had gone their last chance to contact Graywand. Which meant they were down to one option.
“Work them out manually?” Sofia Liu asked incredulously. “Is it possible?”
“Sure,” Palamara said, hoping she was right. “And you’ve just volunteered to help do it.”
“Me?” Liu’s eyes widened. “I don’t know the first thing about stream coordinates.”
“You have a logical mind. That’s all you need. I’ve been through it before. Piece of cake. Besides, if you ever expect to get into Field Recon, you’ll need the experience.” Palamara turned to the console to begin querying jack-a-dandy for preliminary information.
Liu stared at her for a moment, then her eyes rolled heavenward as if seeking mercy, and a long, weary sigh emerged from somewhere deep inside her. “All right. What do you want me to do?”
“Hang loose for a minute.” Palamara concentrated on what was becoming a frustrating conversation with jack-a-dandy. What she had said about having been through this before was only partly true. During her two years at the Kominsk Academy on Earth, while nurturing thoughts of a career in Field Recon, she had taken general training in emergency procedures which included skipping blind. For Field Recon crews, skipping without the benefit of sector ship navigation support was a rare, but not unheard of, occurrence. Bounding as they did through the vague substance of the stream in search of new planets, Field Recon pods sometimes inadvertently broke free of sector ship control, popping out in uncharted territory with no way to contact NavSec for aid in returning via the usual stream cycle. When Palamara assured Sofia Liu of her experience with blind skips, she saw no reason to mention that such experience had been entirely academic.
“Find some paper,” she told her as she jabbed a command into the console. “And something to write with. The rest of you stay out of our hair.”
A few minutes later, they were deep into it.
It was exhausting work, and it took a lot longer than Caitlin Palamara had expected. Jack-a-dandy’s brain was an operational tool that was not programmed for the kind of analysis needed to compute Graywand’s coordinates. It knew where to find Graywand by looking back through the skip sequence it had made, but it could not tell its human companions in a way they could easily grasp. Nor could it make the skip on its own without a locking signal from Graywand’s navigation computer. Drawing from jack-a-dandy the information necessary to provide a false locking signal was a back-and-forth process that called for mental concentration and exhausting checks and rechecks. Palamara knew that if one step were misplaced, the entire sequence would break down. They could never be absolutely certain of their answers until she pressed the blue button to activate the pod’s drive engines. If a single equation were wrong, they would find themselves spread across Omega, stripped atom from atom by the opposing stresses.
She and Liu had been at it for three hours, by which time they had thoroughly skinned and boiled one another’s nerves, when they moved to the counter and spread their work papers out for a final check. They ran through their tests for the last time, glared at one another for a long moment, then agreed that they were finished. The coordinates were ready.
“Thank God,” Liu muttered.
Palamara sipped cold coffee and tapped keys on the control pad, all her concentration focused on the worksheets spread out in front of her and the green figures trailing across the readout screen. She ran a coherence test at each step, using a stubby pencil to place a checkmark beside each equation on the worksheet as it passed muster.
The final equation pulsed across the screen at last and was followed by: READY. Palamara placed the pencil on the console with exaggerated care, leaned back in the control chair, and covered her eyes with both palms.
It should work, she told herself. The pieces fit together as they should. They seem to, anyway. No reason at all why it shouldn’t work –
Someone touched her arm. “You okay, boss?”
She took her hands away and looked up at Vito Cracchiolo. Then she grinned wearily. “No arguments, Crackers. I’m buying the first round at the Cornucopia.”
“Ho! Won’t get an argument from me, boss.”
“Me neither,” chimed in Doyle, his old congeniality back. He raised his cup of coffee in a toast, then downed it in one gulp and brought forth a magnificent belch. “I’ll buy the second, and Sofia can buy all the rest after that.”
“Let’s just get on with it,” Liu grumped from her place at the counter.
Palamara turned back to the console, drew a breath, and began talking jack-a-dandy through the final preparations for the skip. Despite her exhaustion, she worked briskly, eager to get it over with. She felt good about their chances now. The equations were solid. Everything had been checked and rechecked. Ten minutes from now, they would be inside Graywand’s hold. And despite what she had said about the Cornucopia, her first visit would be to the Navigation Section, where she had every intention of batting heads around until a few answers popped out.
Reaching automatically to the rear panel of the console, she depressed a row of switches to shut down auxiliary power, retract stabilizer gears, activate autocontrol systems –
The stabilizer control glowed red. Malfunction.
Palamara stared at the blinking light, not wanting to believe it. She made a sound deep in her throat.
Sofia Liu’s head jerked up. “What’s wrong?”
“Problem,” Palamara answered in a flat tone.
“I can see that – ”
“Stabilizer’s jammed. Must be the one that was damaged earlier. It won’t retract.”
“So what’s the big deal? Let it hang there.”
A long moment of silence was broken by Vito Cracchiolo. “We can’t. The stream won’t take us with the stabilizers out.”
“Why not?” Liu demanded. “Can’t we override it?”
“Nope. Jack’s gotta give a smooth surface. Can’t have lumpy things like stabilizers hanging out when he skips.”
“That’s wonderful. What are we supposed to do?”
Cracchiolo had no answer for that. Apparently nobody did. Palamara worked the stabilizer switch back and forth several times while the red light blinked steadily.
“Here’s what we do,” she said at last, pronouncing each word with care. “We go outside, crawl under the pod, and take a hammer to the stabilizer.”
“The problem with that,” John Wheeler pointed out, “is that we don’t know what the air is like out there. It may not be breathable.”
“Yes,” Palamara agreed dryly, swiveling the control chair around to face the others. “That could be a problem.”
“We don’t have to do it,” Sofia Liu argued. “We can sit here and wait. Help will be coming before long.”
Palamara shook her head. “That’s exactly what we can’t do. We don’t know if help will be coming or not, and we can’t wait any longer to find out. The wind could kick up again any time. If it blows even a little harder than before, we’ll be in trouble. I’m not prepared to take the risk of getting us blown off this ledge.”
“Uh, boss?” Cracchiolo was looking through the supply hold at the far end of the pod. He had a puzzled look on his face. “We’ve got a – ”
“That’s fine,” Sofia Liu snapped, her eyes flaring. “But what about the risk of breathing poisonous air if we open that hatchcover? All I’m saying is, we should hold off opening the door as long as possible.”
“And I’m saying we already have.”
Doyle cleared his throat. “The thing is, we won’t be taking that much of a risk by opening it up.” Liu shot him a withering look that he withstood with a slight hunching of his bear-like shoulders. “The air should be all right. It can’t be too bad, not with all the trees and plant life out there.”
“That doesn’t mean we can breathe it,” Liu cut in harshly.
“Listen, folks,” Vito Cracchiolo tried again from the aft section of the pod. “There’s something here we should – ”
Palamara’s eyes jerked sideways to John Wheeler’s unperturbed face, then moved to the bank of vidscreens. The fore screen was dark, shot through with ragged streamers of light.
That, Palamara told herself angrily, was the final straw. Never again would she accept this old broken-down excuse for a pod. Never.
Just below the vidscreens, on the graymetal surface above the rear panel of the console, was a long row of faded black letters: GENERAL SERVICES AUDIT AGENCY – DEEP SPACE GROUP. The line was not centered properly under the screen; whoever had changed the inscription from FIELD RECONNAISSANCE – DEEP SPACE GROUP when the pod was transferred to the Audit Agency had apparently been more concerned with efficiency than esthetics, and so had merely painted over the words FIELD RECONNAISSANCE and replaced them with the longer title identifying the General Services Audit Agency. The line was skewed to the left, and the word SPACE lay directly beneath the fore screen. The inscription offered a convenient target for Caitlin Palamara’s wrath. She raised a fist and struck the word SPACE, giving it all the frustrations of the past six hours in one blow. The vidscreen blinked twice and came to life.
The barren valley, the slashing gully, the distant forest – all were exactly as before. A gust of wind tugged at the pod. Palamara rubbed her stinging knuckles and felt better.
“Okay,” she said, pushing herself out of the control chair. “Let’s see what tools we can find.”
“Already have, boss.” Cracchiolo grinned across at her, holding an enormous spanner in one hand and a pry bar in the other.
“You found those in the supply hold?” Palamara asked incredulously.
“Sure. All kinds of other goodies, too. Bet it’s been there since jack was with Field Recon.” Cracchiolo hefted the spanner. “Biggest son-of-a-gun I ever saw.” He hesitated. “One other thing I noticed in the supply hold, boss. Been trying to tell you, but you were all too busy to listen.”
Cracchiolo’s smile had turned into something that looked suspiciously like a sly grin. “If you guys had let me get a word in edgeways, I’d have told you that you were arguing a dead issue. Old jack’s split a seam. Probably happened when the stabilizer gave way. There’s a hole as big as my Aunt Annie’s fanny in the back wall of the hold.”
Palamara’s brow wrinkled. She felt a little scrambled. “It goes through to the outside?”
She stepped back to the supply hold for a look.
“It isn’t really as big as my Aunt Annie’s fanny,” Cracchiolo said, pointing it out to her. “That was an exaggeration. More like the size of her little finger.”
It was a hull breach, all right. Palamara had heard that some of these old pods were subject to stress fractures. She could see the glare of sunlight through it. She drew a breath, wondering why Cracchiolo seemed so pleased with this latest development. “This thing won’t skip with a hole in the hull, will it?”
Cracchiolo shook his head. “Nope. But that won’t be a problem.” He turned to retrieve a flat metal box from a shelf behind him, then held it out for her to see. “Patch kit. Things like this happen to the Blue now and then when they end up in a bad place. Nowadays, most of ’em have newer pods with hulls you couldn’t cut through with an industrial laser – ”
“Good for them,” Liu said. “Doesn’t do us much good.”
Cracchiolo shrugged. “At least we got a patch kit.”
“Will it do the job?” Palamara asked.
“Ought to. It’s self-fusing, and it’s designed to be applied from the inside.” He paused. “But I think you’re missing the point.”
Liu made a sound in her throat. “C’mon, Crackers – ”
“His point,” Palamara interrupted, “is that we’ve got a hole in the hull. Which means we’ve been breathing this planet’s air for some time.” Wheeler was right. It was a ninety-nine.
When all was said and done, Tom Doyle was selected to go out and fix the jammed stabilizer gear. Palamara was adamant that only one person leave the pod. Flabby and out of shape as he was, Doyle was nonetheless a powerful man; if freeing the gear depended on brute strength, Doyle had the best chance of any of them.
The job turned out to be ludicrously easy. With one solid swing of the monstrous spanner, Doyle straightened a brace that had buckled inward and jammed against the gear housing. A moment later, he clambered back through the hatchway and collapsed panting and gasping into the corner chair just as Vito Cracchiolo finished plugging the tear in the hull.
“It must be a hundred and twenty degrees out there,” Doyle grunted.
An understatement, Palamara guessed. Even in the few moments the hatchcover had been raised, the temperature inside jack-a-dandy had risen considerably. The air was hot and dry, with a tangy odor that was just short of unpleasant.
Not that it matters, she told herself. Graywand will be cool and comfortable.
The others crowded around as she settled into the control chair, her eyes on the red pulse of the stabilizer control. A lot rested on that tiny piece of plastic. She reached out and depressed it, silently commanding compliance from the stabilizer gear. Movement came from under the pod, resolving into a steady downward motion. The floor tilted crazily, then leveled. The pads at the base of each stabilizer crunched into solid rock. The red light on the console winked to green.
She lifted the safety cover, braced herself for the punch, and thumbed the blue lever to initiate the jump to Graywand.
Nothing happened. No drunk-stagger. No punch in the gut. Nothing.
A gust of wind rattled sand against the pod and moved on.
Richard Inglish stared out across the overgrown field for a long moment, then let his eyes return to the charred remains of the small farmhouse.
“Cecil and Betty were good folks,” said the young deputy sheriff standing beside him. “They didn’t deserve to die like this.”
The Kelcher place was in the farm country of south-central Illinois, in that vast, flat land where the forests had been logged out decades ago and replaced with crops. Richard had driven from St. Louis on a two-lane blacktop road that cut straight through more corn, barley, and wheat than he’d ever expected to see in his lifetime.
“How did it happen?” he asked.
“I wish I knew.”
Richard turned to look at the deputy. He was a tall, well-built man with light, close-cropped hair and clear blue Midwestern eyes. He’d introduced himself as Deputy Newcomb.
“County fire marshal didn’t find a point of origin,” Newcomb went on. “No residue of flammables. No sign of electrical malfunction.” He was staring at the charred remains. “Wouldn’t take much to light up an old frame house like that.”
“The Kelchers died in the fire?”
“Medical examiner thinks they were dead before the fire got to them.”
Richard frowned. “From what?”
Newcomb drew in a breath, let it out slowly. Richard realized the deputy didn’t much like talking about this. “It was a hot fire. Not much of the bodies left to work with. But like I said, Doc Miller doesn’t think Cecil and Betty were still breathing when the fire reached them.”
“What about the girl?”
“Lori got out.” Newcomb pointed at a patch of weedy, overgrown lawn thirty feet or so from the rear corner of the house. “I found her right over there with her dog. The dog was dead, but Lori wasn’t hurt. Not physically, anyway.”
“She must’ve seen what happened.”
Newcomb shook his head. “She knows something, all right, but not because she saw it. Lori’s been blind since birth.”
“Ah . . . her mother didn’t mention that.”
“Lori was in bad shock. Wouldn’t say a word, not even when her sister Kay came for her the next day. She’s living with Kay in St. Louis now. I call now and then to see how she’s doing. She still won’t talk about what happened. Not even to the psychologist Kay has been taking her to.”
“How old is Lori?”
Newcomb had to think about that. “Nine, I think. Maybe ten by now. She had a birthday in the spring, if I remember right.”
Richard looked at the remains of the Kelcher house. The roof had caved in, and one outer wall swayed crazily outward. A ribcage of charred rafters poked out of the wreckage. “You think one of the Kelchers did it? Murder-suicide?”
The deputy shook his head. “Nope.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I knew Cecil and Betty.”
Richard decided not to debate the point. He had a hunch the deputy was a fair judge of character. “What about Lori? Sometimes kids play with matches – “
“What happened here was a lot more than a kid playing with matches, Dr. Inglish. Besides, I damn well know Lori wouldn’t do anything like that.”
“What’s your theory?”
When Newcomb didn’t answer, Richard turned to find the deputy looking at him thoughtfully. “Sheriff Stevens says you’re a friend of the family.”
It was spoken as a statement of fact, but Richard knew it was a question. “Not exactly a friend. I was acquainted with Betty. I’ve been trying to get in touch with her.”
Newcomb’s gaze remained steady. Richard decided the deputy deserved a straight answer. It was clear he’d known the Kelchers well.
“I teach astronomy in Chicago. I also do some work with SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”
Newcomb nodded. “Betty contacted you about what happened to Lori last year?”
That surprised Richard. “You knew about that?”
“Betty showed me that thing that looked like a black egg. She was a little worried about it, whether it was safe to let Lori keep it. I told her she ought to check with someone about it. I guess that’s why she got in touch with you.”
“That black egg . . . do you know if Lori still has it?”
“She didn’t have it when she left here. Didn’t have anything but the clothes she was wearing. If it was in there,” he gestured at the burned-out house, “it’s toast.”
He was probably right. Even if the ovoid was still in there and intact, it would take a lot of time and sifting through burned rubble to find it. More time and manpower than Richard had at his disposal. “You were the first one here after the fire started?”
Newcomb nodded. “That was my day off. Saw the fire from my place. I live right on the other side of the creek.” Richard looked in the direction Newcomb pointed, but saw only a broad expanse of cornstalks bordered on the far side by a rangy stand of trees. “I called for help, then came right over.” He walked over to the overgrown patch of grass and weeds he’d pointed out earlier. Richard followed. There had been another small structure back there, too, he realized. It had been back a few feet from the house, but the fire had reached out and burned it to the ground. A piece of wood about four inches by twelve had somehow escaped and lay in the grass nearby. It was charred, but two words painted in bright red were still visible: Cair Paravel.
“Lori’s playhouse,” Newcomb said, following his gaze. “Cecil built it for her. I found Lori right here with Fortinbras.”
“Her dog. Lori named him after a dog in a storybook. Like I said before, he was dead.”
Richard remembered something Betty Kelcher had said in her letter. Lori’s dog was with her the morning she encountered the alien. “He died in the fire?”
“Nope. Belly was ripped open.”
Richard turned to stare at the deputy.
“Looked like he’d been in one helluva fight. Not like old Fortinbras to fight like that. He was a cocker. Mostly cocker, anyway. Big, floppy ears. Slobbery. About as vicious as a day-old calf. But he put up a real fight before whatever he was fighting tore open his belly.”
Richard turned to survey the countryside. “You have wolves around here?”
Newcomb shook his head. “Now and then we have some trouble with a pack of wild dogs going after livestock. I figured Fortinbras had the misfortune of taking them on when they came by the farm.”
“Quite a coincidence to have that happen the same day as the fire,” Richard observed.
“Yes,” the deputy acknowledged.
When it became clear that was as much as he would offer on the subject, Richard said, “You have a phone number for Lori’s sister in St. Louis?”
Newcomb considered that, then nodded. “I’ll call her first, see if it’s okay. Let’s head back to town.”
Richard had left his rented car at the sheriff’s office, accepting the offer of a ride with Newcomb. After he had buckled himself into the front passenger’s seat of the deputy’s Ford, Newcomb spoke again.
“I don’t know Kay too well. She moved to St. Louis before I got here. I only saw her on visits. But she was Cecil and Betty’s daughter, so that means she’s all right.”
Richard waited for the deputy to say what else was on his mind.
“Don’t give her any bullshit,” Newcomb said. “Tell her why you’re there. If you can get Lori to talk about what happened, you let me know. Okay?”
Richard nodded. “You can count on it.”
Newcomb still had not reached for the keys in the ignition. “There’s one more thing I suppose I ought to tell you.”
“Doc Miller couldn’t say for sure what killed Cecil and Betty. Like I said, there wasn’t much left after the fire. But . . . ” Newcomb paused a moment, drew a breath, issued a quiet sigh. “He said it looked like their bodies had been torn up pretty bad, too. Just like Fortinbras.”
Her memory is like the earth beneath her feet. Dark, rich, deep – it has as much to say about the future as it does the past. But it can’t break up on its own. It has to be cultivated. It has to be reached into. It has to be penetrated with spade, pick, or plow, its musty underside folded and furrowed into something new. This, or nothing will grow in it.
“When I dream about him,” she says, recalling the love of her life, “we’re both seventeen again.”
Seventeen, and a limitless world in front of them. Seventeen, and a weightless future that never comes. Seventeen, and everything that ever mattered is now. While just over the horizon boys become men, and men become ghosts, and ghosts become memories in one bloody instant, she and he drink from the giddy anxiety of first love.
“When I started reading some of the books on Vietnam,” she says years later, “I read some of the nurses’ stories. I had walked around maybe twenty years, and it hit me: how can anyone compete with a ghost? Later, I read that line in one of the books, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God. There are other people out there who have experienced the same thing.'”
Yes. But precious few.
Jeannine Vehrencamp, a legal secretary in Vancouver, Washington, was born on August 16, 1948, in Los Angeles, California. Her family moved around a bit before settling in Wrightwood, a little resort town two-and-a-half hours northeast of LA.
“My mom doesn’t have good memories of the place,” says Jeannine, who was the middle child of three girls, “but I think it was the perfect place to raise kids. You had the pine trees, streets with no sidewalks, a little country store. Everybody knew everybody. You didn’t have to worry about locking your door. We grew up in a very rustic cabin that was built around 1910. We did a lot of bike riding around town. We collected Coke bottles to turn them in to the store in exchange for ice cream on hot, sunny days.”
It was on such a day in the summer of 1965 that she met Jimmie Duayne Cintron, a blue-eyed John Travolta look-alike who wore black Levi’s and a black T-shirt in the sweltering heat of Kernville, California. An old Western town situated in the desert mountains northeast of Bakersfield, Kernville was and still is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. At 2,650 feet and with a population hovering near 1,500, it makes a natural jumping-off point for visits to Kern River, the Sequoia National Forest, and a handful of remote lakes and gulches.
Jimmie was seventeen. Jeannine was just about. He was from Acampo (near Stockton) but was spending the summer with his grandparents in Kernville and working at the town grocery store. She and her family were visiting her older sister and brother-in-law. Jimmie and Jeannine met on July 21st on what amounted to a blind date at the river.
“She didn’t say she had invited someone,” Jeannine says of her older sister Cheryl. “But these two guys showed up in their white Mustang.”
One of said guys was Jimmie, who hit it off instantly with Jeannine. The feeling was mutual. They met on a Wednesday and spent the rest of the week together.
“We went to the movies the following night,” Jeannine remembers. “Any time he had off we spent together. Then we went back to the river. Saturday we went to a dance. On Sunday, the day I was leaving, he took me to lunch on his lunch break. I remember walking down the street in the hot sun. Every time I think back on him, I don’t remember conversations. I just remember how I felt.”
Jeannine has managed to piece together the puzzle of her first and only true love by going through the letters, one by one, Jimmie sent to her so many years ago. Herself a victim of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she had to go back before she could go forward. The most important summer of her life had been buried in the recesses of her psyche, a dimly understood, vaguely felt ache with no name.
After spending five days together in July, Jimmie and Jeannine wouldn’t see each other again until the following month, when he came to Wrightwood for a weekend visit. The visit was too short, and the two professed as much in the torrent of letters and long-distance phone calls that followed.
Then history, as indifferent as it is relentless, cut in, interrupting the dance between the two hopelessly-in-love teenagers. In October, Jeannine received a letter from Jimmie that would have far-reaching consequences. After having casually pondered his options in a previous letter, he informed Jeannine that he had quit school to join the Marines. The two were planning on being married. But the following spring, everything changed.
“He went into the Marines in March of 1966,” Jeannine recalls. “And up to this point he had been in contact with his CO at the depot. His CO told him how hard it was going to be if he got married. He had to sign a letter saying he would not get married until after boot camp. We were still planning on getting married. I was hoping to get married right after I graduated. In May, he wrote a letter to say he was ending it.”
Adds Jeannine, “He always said he never wanted to hurt me. He wanted to do what was best for me. He didn’t want to see me waiting around for four years. I think he really agonized over what to do. I called him, and we talked about it. We continued writing. I thought everything was okay. Then around July he went into advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. His letters were a little different. When I read them now, I can tell. He still said he loved me, but . . . when I was seventeen, I wanted to believe it was all okay.”
Perhaps Jimmie, having endured boot camp and advanced infantry training in Pendleton, had a sinking suspicion that the ordeal had just begun. He was trapped, as it were, within forces he could no longer control, riding the irrevocable wave of his own destiny.
He graduated in July, and the letters dried up. Jeannine, unaware of where he had gone or how she could reach him, didn’t hear from him until October, when she got a letter from Okinawa.
“He wrote to explain he had made a very big mistake in not seeing me, and he knew it,” she says. “He apologized for what he did. I wrote back, and I said, ‘I’m here, and I’m yours. I’ll wait.'”
Jeannine asked when they could see each other again, but Jimmie gently rebuffed the naive question. He was in Okinawa, and Vietnam loomed. He turned eighteen on December 31, 1966. A day later, he wrote Jeannine to let her know he would be shipping out for Vietnam in just over two weeks.
In Vietnam, Jimmie, who served with Key-low Company, Third Battalion, First Marines, First Platoon, kept his fellow soldiers abreast of his love affair with Jeannine. One buddy even wrote a letter to Jeannine. Only seventeen at the time, she didn’t understand how the soldier had found her address or how he even knew her. Jimmie explained everything in his next letter, saying the marine was a good friend and had told Jimmie he’d be a fool not to marry Jeannine. But things still seemed strange. Jimmie kept sending mixed signals, telling his sweetheart he loved her in one letter while suggesting she prepare to move on in others. When Jeannine went to a show with another boy and then told Jimmie about it in her next letter, she got an angry letter back from another of Jimmie’s buddies.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on?'” Jeannine recalls. “‘Why am I getting these letters from these guys?’ I know now he was just sharing, and his buddy was just trying to protect him. It was very hard. For the first time, I allowed myself to feel angry. And I wrote the letter.”
The letter . . .
Was the marriage off? Had she said goodbye to Jimmie forever? Jeannine still can’t talk about the letter.
“A couple weeks later, my sister came down from Kernville to visit. She needed to go back up briefly, and I drove her that day. Sitting there where he used to work and thinking about him, I could see his face in front of me. I thought, ‘My God, if I never see his face again, I couldn’t stand it.’
“I get back to Wrightwood, and we sit down for dinner. My daddy says he has something he needs to show me and takes me upstairs.”
He showed her a news clipping. Jimmie was dead.
“I remember looking at that,” she says. “I couldn’t fathom it. Before I could write another letter, he was killed. I never got the chance. To add to the devastation, I got a scrawled note with three words from one of his buddies that said, ‘You killed him.’ I took it to heart and carried that guilt and pain around for thirty years.”
Jimmie was cut down by small arms fire in Quang Nam, South Vietnam, on April 22, 1967. While riding on top of a tank, he was hit and killed instantly. His death was considered ironic by his fellow marines, for he was sitting on the middle tank, usually considered the safest ride, of a three-tank column. The lead tank often had to contend with booby traps, while the last one typically fell victim to snipers.
Days, then weeks, then months went by for Jeannine back in Wrightwood. But the fog wouldn’t lift.
“I cried,” she says. “Especially at night, when I was alone in my bedroom. I remember looking out my window up at the stars, thinking, ‘I’ll never see him again.’ And it just wouldn’t compute. Forever, it would not compute.”
Fifteen years, countless parties, and a string of abusive relationships later, she bottomed out. The year was 1982. Jeannine, who had been masking her pain with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs, finally joined a twelve-step program. This, though, was just the beginning. It would be another fifteen years before she could face Vietnam and Jimmie’s death.
“At that point,” she says, “I was just making a living and figuring out what I wanted to do. I still had his letters at my parents’ house. One year my parents were coming up to visit me [in Vancouver], and I asked them to bring that box of letters back up with them. After that, every once in a while I’d read one of those letters and just sob. In 1997 I was looking at the thirtieth anniversary of his death, and I was going to be forty-nine. I remember thinking, ‘How did I get here? What happened? Why am I still single? Why don’t I have kids?’ Every time I got to Jimmie, I hit a wall. And I couldn’t remember. I realized I had to understand what happened.
“I got out his letters, and I started with the first one, and I read them. Reading the letters, I had more questions. So I thought I needed to go to the library and check out some books. I found a section on Vietnam. The first day I walked out with five or six books. Personal stories, nurses’ stories, hospital stories – everything I could get my hands on. I was like a sponge. I just read. That October, my neighbors had me pick up their paper while they were away for the weekend. I picked it up that Saturday night, and one section was on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Traveling Wall, which was coming to Vancouver in a year. I put it on my refrigerator and thought, ‘I have to go to that.’ Three weeks went by, and every time I walked by the refrigerator, I looked at it. Eventually, I decided I had to volunteer there. I tracked down the coordinators and put my name on the volunteer list.”
Recovering for Jeannine meant recovering her memory. She was working the swing shift at Hewlett Packard at the time, and she would use her lunch break to go online and do research. She visited sites dedicated to the war and traded emails with Vietnam vets. Chuck McAllister, a vet who ran a site dedicated to Jimmie’s former outfit, told her about PTSD and suggested she see a counselor.
She also got in touch with another vet, Tommy Schomber, who was there the night Jimmie died and even tried to save him. By the time Jeannine contacted him, Tommy was plagued by his own demons and took his own life shortly after. But before he died, he gave Jeannine a precious gift, satisfying her thirst for redemption and relieving her of the guilt she had been carrying for so long. He made sure she knew she wasn’t responsible for Jimmie’s death. Perhaps just as importantly, he simply talked with her about the young man they both had loved.
“He told me Jimmie was the kind of guy you could depend on,” Jeannine says. “If Jimmie was on watch, Tommy would look up from the foxhole, and Jimmie would look down and say, ‘Don’t worry. I got it.’ He said Jimmie was the kind of guy who could size up the situation quickly and that he had a dry sense of humor. They’d all be standing at attention, and he’d say something quietly, and all their lips would be twitching.
“That night after I spoke with him, the dream I had been having for thirty years changed. He gave me Jimmie back. I had always dreamed of trying to find Jimmie in a crowd. I would go from person to person, asking if he was there. The answer was always, ‘He was just here.’ But I could never find him. After talking with Tommy, my dream has been of Jimmie holding me. The contentment and serenity I feel is absolutely wonderful.”
The healing process eventually took Jeannine to Jimmie’s hometown, Acampo, where she reunited with his family after thirty years.
“I was terrified,” she recalls. “There were a lot of people there. It was overwhelming. But everybody just talking made me feel right at home. I was sitting there, and part of me was thinking, ‘This is what I could have had. This could have been my life.’ I was doing okay until Jimmie’s younger half-brother, Melvin, put his hand on my shoulder. I just lost it. Just the contact . . . .”
Jeannine went with Art, another of Jimmie’s three half-brothers, to visit Jimmie’s grave at a mausoleum in Sacramento. The two traded stories and reminisced between silent moments. The next day they visited California’s memorial wall dedicated to its Vietnam veterans. The names were listed alphabetically, starting with hometown and then last name. Jimmie’s name was first on the wall.
Visiting his family and grave, volunteering at the traveling wall, corresponding with vets – all helped Jeannine claw her way out of a decades-long funk. But the process is an ongoing one, and one that waxes and wanes in intensity.
“When we were being downsized by HP,” she recalls, “they provided classes for us to help with the transition. I met a gentleman at one, and I could tell he was a Vietnam vet. I told him I had started this healing process to get closure, and he said, ‘I don’t think you’ll ever have closure. I think what you’ll do is learn to incorporate it into your life.’ I don’t ever want to forget Jimmie. He was a special person, and I want to hold his memory. I also want to recognize and honor him.”
For Jeannine, that means coming to grips with who Jimmie was and the role he played in her life. He wasn’t just a highschool crush. He was the man she was meant to spend the rest of her life with. He was her soul mate. After he died, she tried to forget. It was easier, at least up front, to lose herself in an abusive relationship or a mind-numbing drug than to remember the life that was stolen from her.
Reliving her past meant finally experiencing the full range of pain she had anaesthetized herself from while a 17-year-old girl still reeling in shock. It meant looking back at her youth and feeling like she was watching someone else – not her – find and then lose a love that would never be realized. It meant rediscovering the moments that made her sick with nostalgia – the way the air felt on her skin on a warm summer night, the way the night sky practically exploded with stars, the way a simple melody from a car radio could transport her to a life she had lost.
“I’m driving home that night,” she says, recalling the day she decided to reclaim her memories, “and the streets are bare. I’m going through traffic lights. It was quiet. And I found myself just sobbing. And I said out loud, ‘Jimmie, as long as I’m alive, you will not be forgotten.’ In that instant, Down in the Boondocks came on the radio.”
She’s back at the river with Jimmie, and it’s time to go home. The sun has long since disappeared. She decides to play a joke on her sister and hide with her new boyfriend in the pitch-black darkness. She grabs the 17-year-old boy’s hand and whispers in his ear the melody to Billy Joe Royal’s hit single, Down in the Boondocks.
They had a song. They had the future all sussed out. They had everything that ever mattered.
So often in life there exists an irreconcilable difference between what we want and what we need. What do we call that divide? What name do we give to the space between ego and wisdom, to the way we somehow stumble upon our own salvation? Kismet? Serendipity? Dumb luck?
With my health steadily crumbling and my body feeling less and less like my own, what I wanted more than anything was relief, quick and complete. I wanted to know what was hounding me, I wanted the magic pill that would make it go away forever, and I wanted my old life back. A stressful but lucrative job, a comfortable marriage, a predictable routine – everything I had taken for granted before suddenly felt like the height of happiness.
But what I needed was power. Courage. I needed to meet my illness, to stare it in the face, and to show it the door. I would need help from others, but ultimately my health would be my own responsibility. To be accountable, I would need to change everything about myself: what I ate and drank, how I breathed and moved, what I thought and believed, what I wanted from life.
The seeds of my metamorphosis came in the form of a little book given to me by Eileen Amrian, a friend and fellow churchgoer who was suffering from similar, though less severe, symptoms. The book, written by Dr. McPherson Brown and already three decades old at the time, was called The Road Back, a fitting title for the role it would play in my own healing.
In it, Dr. Brown claimed that people could recover from rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and a disease I’d never heard of before – scleroderma – by taking an antibiotic called tetracycline for an extended period of time. Dr. Brown had built up a successful track record with the antibiotic, administering it to his patients and achieving the hallmark of success: full remission.
As I read the book, I began to see myself – my inexplicable symptoms, my failing health – in some of the patients Dr. Brown described, and I felt a tiny surge of optimism when I learned that Dr. Brown had started a clinic in Virginia. I couldn’t possibly travel that far for treatment, at least not on my own (I was having difficulties dressing myself by now), but I called the clinic nonetheless, hoping they could point me in the direction of someone nearby who subscribed to Dr. Brown’s theories and would prescribe his antibiotic therapy.
I was given the name of a rheumatologist in New Jersey – Dr. Hal Whitman – and I quickly phoned for an appointment. But Dr. Whitman’s earliest opening wasn’t until several weeks away, in late August.
I could have waited it out, but I knew I needed help now. I gave the book to a doctor who was married to a friend of mine. After reading it, he agreed that Dr. Brown’s theories held promise, so he wrote me out a prescription for tetracycline.
At first it seemed to make a difference, but by late July, I had progressed from being mildly disabled to grossly disabled. I felt bowled over by weakness and was experiencing shortness of breath, and my whole body felt cold. I had lost all feeling in my head and face, and I had lost my sense of taste. Once again, it felt as if I had been given a mammoth shot of Novocain. I was numb from forehead to chin, inside and out. On top of that, I felt a strange burning sensation inside my nose and right eye.
One day after struggling my way through a short walk in the neighborhood, I returned home and was shocked to find a dead fly in my eye. Had I not bothered to look in the bathroom mirror, I wouldn’t have even noticed it – because I certainly couldn’t feel it.
A wave of utter dread overtook me. What was wrong with me? I began to wonder if I was already dead and just didn’t know it yet. Fear gave way to doubt. Was it all in my head? Did I really need psychological help? I suddenly felt old. Enfeebled. Something like this, I told myself, could only happen to someone running out of time.
Other symptoms steered me toward the same conclusion. I could hardly swallow anymore and was beginning to feel undernourished because I could only eat what I could liquefy. Meal times had become an exercise in humiliation. Because I no longer had any feeling in my mouth or lips, I slurped and gagged on my food, just as one would do after a visit to the dentist’s office, often drooling and coughing as I ate. I was forced to wear a bib and to clean up after myself as one would an infant.
Bob, meanwhile, continued to live in an almost comical level of denial. How he could think I was the same vivacious woman he had married five years earlier was beyond me. But he stubbornly remained unsupportive, refusing to take my illness seriously.
I couldn’t help but respond with an anger bordering on rage, and I found myself wishing my symptoms on him. If he could spend an hour in my body – just one hour – he would know what it felt like to be me: the numbness, the burning, the humiliation. But he was incapable of empathy. Had his first wife’s death drained him of that virtue?