Missing Letter Monday – No “Z”

Published November 23, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

This week for Missing Letter Monday, you’re getting a bit of a look of what I’ve been grinding out this month for NaNoWriMo.  Please keep in mind that the following excerpt is entirely rough; there has been no editing (apart from replacing a few words that had the forbidden letter in them) and the only spell-checking I’ve done is whatever I’ve noticed here having red squiggly lines under it.  (I turned off the red squiggly lines on my word processor ages ago…)  I’ve also done absolutely no research, so if anything doesn’t jive with 1970s speech, and/or the Vietnam War and the military mindset in general, well…what can I say other than “sorry about that”?  If the finished product seems good enough to bother trying to polish up (unlikely, considering that I’m the one writing it) then I’ll do some research and fix up all that stuff.  (Both NaNo and this novel were last minute decisions this year, so there was no chance to do research beforehand.)

The cast:

  • Ashley Pendleton — Our protagonist…essentially.  He’s more beautiful than handsome, and skilled at everything he does.  (In my own defense, he originated in another book, where he was literally the reincarnation of Achilles, so being beautiful and the best at everything was part of the job description.)  He has flame-red hair, blue eyes, and…uh…that’s about all I’ve figured out about his appearance, really.  If he wasn’t in the army, his hair would be in a nice long late sixties/early seventies style, with lots of pretty curls, but since he is in the army, he’s got a crew cut, which he hates.  (Though I’m not sure if the fact that he hates his haircut has come up yet at this point in the story…)  He’s from Detroit…sort of.  It was a random choice when he was just a dead backstory character for that other book; now that he’s the lead, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for him to come from a city I’ve never been to and know nothing about…although I’m not sure his home town really has any impact, since he doesn’t go there at any time during the book.  (It’s still a work in progress, after all!)  He’s twenty, almost twenty-one.  He’s quick to anger, and fiercely loyal to his friends.  Or to his best friend, anyway. (His loyalty to his other friends has not been tested yet with this version of the character; I’m not entirely sure how he’ll react when the time comes.  His new personality is still forming.)  He also frequently displays tunnel vision, ignoring everything outside his core focus.
  • Paddy Morris — Our second protagonist.  He’s also very handsome, and very talented at everything, if not quite as good as Ashley.  He’s the only person allowed to call Ashley by the nickname Ashe.  (And yes, I’m aware that the nickname is usually not spelled with an “e” when it’s being applied to men.)  When Ashley was drafted, Paddy volunteered and somehow managed to pull the right strings to be put in the same unit with him, so that he could watch Ashley’s back and make sure nothing happened to his best friend; he’s that devoted in his friendship.  (I have no idea if it would actually be possible for him to arrange to be in the same unit with Ashley, but…both their fathers were heroes in WWII, so…)  He’s twenty-one, but only barely.  (The quote doesn’t get to the part where the year is mentioned, but it’s 1970.)
  • Sergeant-Major Julius Fleischer — Everything about this guy’s name is temporary.  Particularly the Julius part; it might be too on-the-nose.  (It hasn’t come up yet, but he’s into ancient Rome the way Ashley is into ancient Greece…a fact which also hasn’t come up yet, come to think of it.)  He’s the typical fictional sergeant, really:  shouty and perpetually annoyed by our hero.  (Has there ever been a work of fiction where the NCO in charge of the hero actually likes him/her?)  He’s older than the regular troops; currently, he’s about 35, but maybe that’s too old?  (I have no idea…)  I have not figured out what he looks like; presumably nothing outstanding in either a good or a bad way.
  • Timmy Johnson — Okay, the “Johnson” part is definitely random, and will almost undoubtedly change.  I’ve got no idea what his last name will really end up being.  I went with Johnson because it was literally the first last name I happened to think of.  “Timmy” on the other hand is set more or less in stone.  He’s young — only 18 — and freshly arrived in Vietnam.  He’s from a tiny little town in North Carolina, because…uh…because.  He had to come from somewhere in the South, for reasons, and I went with North Carolina because that’s where my mother comes from.  (His town, however, is a fictional one.)  I have no idea what he looks like, other than “fresh off the farm”…which I do understand is not a “look” per se.
  • Sergeant Caesar Jones — Caesar is a medic.  He’s African-American, from San Francisco, and he joined the army in order to get the money to pay for medical school, because he couldn’t afford it on his own, and didn’t want to be saddled with massive loans to repay.  (He has, however, already gotten his pre-med degree, so he’s older than Ashley and Paddy by about five years; he’s been in the army for several years since joining up.)  He’s very intelligent (definitely the smartest man in the group, by far) but a bit jumpy, and liable to leap into anger too easily.  I don’t have any ideas what he looks like, either, but probably he’s pretty good-looking.  (There’s a girl who’ll show up later on (as of today’s pre-writing session, Nov. 5, she hasn’t even shown up yet) who’s probably going to end up with him, so for her sake it’d be nice if he’s attractive as well as smart and usually very nice.)
  • Frank, the pilot — Yeah, he doesn’t even have a last name yet.  He pilots a helicopter.  I know nothing about him, other than that he and Caesar are on a first-name basis.  (I know, as the writer I should know more than that!  But honestly, he’s not really going to have much of a presence…)

(Oh, the cast list above is only the ones who’ve been introduced prior to the main excerpt, not the entire cast, btw.) Now, the main excerpt below is not the beginning of the book.  I didn’t want to start at the beginning because, well, Timmy uses a word I’m not entirely comfortable with, and I’m not about to put it on my blog, even inside a piece of fiction.  (Though he could have used much worse ones, btw.)  I’m skipping to past that scene and the ensuing ruckus.  But I wanted to give a glimpse of the very beginning, because it spells out a few important details…

 With every step he took, Ashley felt as though he was going to burst into flames. Either it was hotter than usual today, or the long march was beginning to take its toll even on him. He wanted to complain about it, but no one else was complaining, and he didn’t want to seem like a sissy.

Besides, the sergeant was always such a pain when any of the men started bitching. He didn’t want to deal with that.

At least they would be out of the jungle soon; in the distance, he could already see the trees thinning off and stopping. That might at least cut back on the biting insects, but it would make them sitting ducks—well, marching ducks—if there were any VC around.

As he continued to walk along, Ashley tried to focus on the march, or on the road ahead, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything so mundane. Every time he looked ahead, he was looking directly at Paddy’s back. That was more than a little distracting.

He couldn’t help thinking about ways to get them both shipped safely home, before the enemy could hurt Paddy. There was one very simple way, of course, but Paddy would never agree to it. Even worse, Ashley couldn’t be sure what Paddy would think of him if he were to suggest it. It would be hard to blame him if he didn’t want to be friends anymore.

More often than not, Ashley hated himself for it, so why wouldn’t Paddy hate him for it, too?

Still, maybe if—

“Pendleton!” The shouting voice distracted Ashley from his thoughts. How had he gotten in trouble while minding his own business? “Stop staring at Morris’ ass and get your own ass in gear, or I swear I’ll shoot it off!”

Ashley grimaced as the others all laughed at him. Even Paddy was laughing. How could Paddy laugh at him? “The enemy’ll hear you if you do that,” he pointed out, trying to maintain the usual cheer he put on at all times.

“What was that, soldier?!” It was quite the bellow. Ashley wondered if part of the process to become an NCO was to be trained in how to scream at the ranks below.

“I’ll get right on it, sergeant-major,” Ashley replied, snapping a sloppy salute.

Okay, so that gets at something very core in Ashley’s personality.  A couple of things, probably.  Anyway, now, to fill you in on what happens between that opening and the main excerpt.

First off, they fall under attack by the VC.  Paddy’s arm is lightly scratched by a bullet, and Ashley goes berserk even though he can see it’s nothing serious.  He charges out of cover and starts sending a barrage of bullets everyplace he thinks one of the enemy snipers might be hiding.  (In fact, he probably uses more bullets than he would actually have available to him…but I don’t even know what kind of gun he would realistically have anyway.  Like I said, no research.)  In the process, he’s shot in the shoulder, but keeps on shooting until he finally falls over due to blood loss.  Eventually, the others drag him back to cover, and the sergeant-major calls for an evac chopper, mentioning as he does so that he’s got two wounded men.  (Technically, we’re hearing him ask when the chopper will come, indicating that he actually already made the call earlier, like while Ashley was being such an idiot.)  By the time they get to the chopper, only the sergeant-major, Ashley, Paddy and Timmy are still alive, and the additional soldiers who were in the chopper and got out to cover their retreat have also been killed.  (There must have been a really large number of snipers, I guess…)  As the chopper is taking off, Caesar tries to start giving them emergency first aid on the way to the medical station, though there’s a brief argument between Ashley and Paddy about who’s going to get medical treatment first, as each wants the other to be treated first, but eventually Paddy wins, because his injury isn’t serious, and Ashley’s is.  As Caesar is starting, however, Timmy makes what seems to be an excessively racist remark, and Caesar understandably becomes enraged.  After the sergeant-major quiets Caesar down by pulling rank on him (what little rank advantage he has, anyway), the treatment resumes, and Paddy explains that Timmy really didn’t mean to offend him:  he’s just not used to being around normal people.  This is not accepted as an excuse, but having calmed down again, Caesar does his best to put it aside and get on with his work.  The whole time Caesar is working on Ashley’s wound (which could be much worse, as it went straight through and out the other side, and missed all the major arteries), Paddy is holding Ashley’s other hand tightly against the pain.  (Uh, did that make sense?)

All right, now on with the (fairly large) quote!  (Oh, btw, I’ve removed all the hard swearing from this.  I swear a lot in private, but I’m not comfortable swearing in public, and that includes online, so…yeah, self-censoring.)  The first words are in [] because it was actually “he” in the original text.  Other words in brackets are replacements to get rid of the few words with this week’s forbidden letter…


 

[The medic] stopped cleaning Ashley’s wound, and placed something firm against it. “Here, hold that, and press down hard,” he said, looking at Paddy.

Reluctantly, Paddy let go of Ashley’s hand, and started pressing both his hands against the wound, holding the item—whatever it was—against the wound. While he was holding it, the medic began wrapping bandages around it. They were tight enough to hurt a little, and Ashley grimaced at the pain.

“All right, with luck that’ll staunch the bleeding a bit,” the medic announced. “Best I can do for you in here, anyway.” Then he looked back at Paddy. “May as well have a look at your arm, while we’re in transit.”

“You’re sure Ashe will be all right?” Paddy asked.

“Should be. It’s not as serious as it looks.”

“But he just about passed out!” Paddy objected. “And he didn’t seem to feel it! There must have been something on the bullet!”

“He passed out due to blood loss,” the medic sighed. “And sometimes the body cuts off the nerves to the brain after a serious injury. It’s a natural defense mechanism, so you can keep moving and get away from whatever hurt you.”

“So he’s really all right?”

“He’s got a hole in his shoulder. That ain’t ‘all right,’ but like I said, there’s nothing else I can do in the back of a ****ing helicopter. Now you want me to look at your injury or do you wanna keep bleeding on your uniform?”

Paddy smiled weakly. “I’m sorry. Yes, of course I’d like to have my arm tended to.” Quickly, he unbuttoned his uniform, and tried to take off the shirt, but soon stopped with a gasp of pain.

“Lemme help you with that, or you’ll just make it worse,” the medic sighed. Then he paused, and started laughing. “What’s with the tourniquet?”

“I didn’t want him to bleed to death,” Ashley said, perhaps a bit defensively.

“From a wound this shallow?” The medic shook his head, even as he untied the bandana. “Not much chance of that, not on the outer arm.” He dumped the bandanna on Ashley’s chest, then helped Paddy get his shirt off. “Yeah, this isn’t bad at all,” he announced, peering at the wound. “I’ll just disinfect it and—”

The medic’s words were cut off as the helicopter suddenly jolted, then began shuddering badly.

“What the **** is going on up here?!” Fleischer was shouting from the direction of the cockpit.

“I don’t know!” the pilot shouted right back. “We must have been hit by the enemy!”

“Shouldn’t we have been out of VC territory by now?” the sergeant asked.

“We were almost back to the base! Now shut up and let me fly, or we’ll end up killing someone as we land! And everyone strap in back there!”

“Dammit, not now!” the medic exclaimed. “Help me get him onto one of the seats and strapped in,” he said, trying to lift Ashley off the floor.

Ashley tried to lift himself on his own, but it wasn’t working very well. And the others hadn’t managed to get him over to the seats before the helicopter’s motion became so erratic that they were all thrown from side to side like rag dolls. With every impact, the pain in his shoulder became more extreme, until he was afraid he was really going to pass out.

Then there was an unpleasant whipping, ripping sound from outside the chopper, followed almost immediately by a shuddering feeling beneath them. The whole room tilted sideways, and then slammed to a gut-wrenching stop.

For a moment, all was still and quiet. Ashley couldn’t even hear the thrumming of the rotors. Nothing but his own breathing, and his pounding heartbeat, though it felt a bit weaker than usual.

“We better get outta here, in case the engine catches fire,” Sergeant-Major Fleischer said. “Get moving, boys!”

“Give us a moment to make sure we’re still alive,” Ashley groaned.

“You wanna say you got beat by a helicopter after you stood your ground against a couple [score] VC snipers?” the sergeant laughed. “Pathetic way to go, Pendleton!”

“Ugh, all right, all right, I’m getting up!”

Despite saying so, Ashley still wasn’t having much luck getting to his feet. How long was he going to be weak, even after getting medical treatment?

“I’ve got you,” Paddy whispered, starting to lift him by left arm. Soon Ashley also felt someone else’s hands on chest and waist, helping to raise him to his feet. Once he was standing, Paddy and the medic helped him up the slanting floor of the helicopter to the door.

Paddy leapt down and turned to help Ashley down to the ground beside him. But instead of following them down, the medic stood on the edge of the helicopter and stared ahead of him, his eyes wide, and his brow furrowed. “Where the hell are we?” he asked.

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Johnson said, from somewhere in front of Ashley. He wasn’t sure where; all he could see was Paddy, directly in front of him.

“That ain’t funny, redneck,” the medic grunted, then jumped down from the helicopter beside Ashley.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Ashley asked.

Paddy bit his lip, then stepped aside so Ashley could see where they had landed — crashed.

Instead of the foliage of the jungles of Vietnam, or the panicked medical station, Ashley saw a [strange] melange of trees in front of him. There were mimosas and palm trees, but there were also pines and oaks, as if some deranged god hadn’t been able to make up his mind about whether he wanted to make this a tropical paradise or a northern forest. No, not a deranged god, a deranged gardener. Wherever they were, they had crashed on the edge of an artificially maintained clearing; there was grass beneath their feet, and it had been neatly trimmed down. The trees, too, looked like they had been carefully planted to be thick enough to provide cover and privacy, but not thickly enough to make navigation on foot difficult.

“Timmy’s right about one thing,” Ashley sighed. “This sure as hell isn’t Vietnam.”

“That’s impossible!” the sergeant snapped. “Where else could it be?!”

“You ever seen pine trees in Vietnam?” Ashley countered.

“Must be some rich Frenchman’s garden outside Saigon,” Fleischer said, shaking his head.

“Except we weren’t going all the way to Saigon,” the medic pointed out. “Isn’t that right, Frank?” He turned back towards the helicopter. “Frank?!  ****, someone help me get him out of there!”

The medic ran over to the cockpit, and started wrenching it open. Sergeant-Major Fleischer and Johnson were soon helping him. Ashley wished he had the strength to help, but he knew he wouldn’t even be able to keep standing if Paddy let go of him. “I can’t see anything from here,” he commented. “What’s going on?”

“Not sure,” Paddy admitted. “I guess the pilot was hurt in the crash.”

From the look of him, as the others dragged him out of the chopper, the pilot was more than just hurt. His legs were crushed and bloody; he was probably going to lose them both, assuming he didn’t simply succumb to his injuries.

“Hang in there, Frank!” the medic shouted, then looked at Johnson. “Go get the medical supplies out of the chopper!”

“Yes, sir!” Johnson was leaping back into the helicopter without a moment’s pause. The kid was enthusiastic, anyway. Quite quickly, he returned, carrying several bundles of medical equipment.

The medic accepted the supplies, and started working on the pilot. But the sergeant and Johnson crowded around to watch him, so Ashley couldn’t see what was going on. He could, however, hear a bit of groaning from the pilot, so he clearly wasn’t dead yet anyway. After a while, Ashley got tired of staring at the sergeant’s and Johnson’s backs, and looked over at Paddy.

He, too, was staring in the direction of the pilot’s emergency medical treatment, his brow creased in worry.  While he always looked good, from the side Paddy looked downright noble, like he was a king posing to have his portrait preserved on a coin for his adoring subjects. They were so close that Ashley could even see the chicken pox scar above Paddy’s eyebrow. The sight made him smile, remembering how worried he had been when Paddy had caught the chicken pox. He hadn’t known what to do with himself at school without Paddy there; even at six years old, they had already been utterly inseparable. Maybe Ashley had already —

“What are you smiling about?” Paddy asked quietly, as he turned to look at Ashley. There was concern in his beautiful brown eyes. “If the others saw you, who knows what they’d think. Most of our squad just died, you know.”

“Sorry,” Ashley said, with a light chuckle. “It’s just…no, it’s nothing. But…hey, at least maybe we won’t have to go back to fight out the rest of our tour of duty.”

“Yeah, that’d be good,” Paddy agreed. “But knowing the brass, they’ll probably make us make up for the missed time.” He shook his head. “Still, I’d like to know where the hell we are.”

“This is the island of Dr. Tanaka,” an unfamiliar woman’s voice said from nearby. Turning to look at the speaker, Ashley saw an older woman — perhaps sixty or so — approaching them, pushing a cart like the dessert trolley from a fancy restaurant towards them. The woman herself was oddly dressed, wearing a jumpsuit made from shiny fabrics. Her hair was short, and entirely white, except for the odd streak that was still only gray. But she had a pleasant, friendly, oval-shaped face, and smiled at them warmly.

“How’d we get to an island?” Sergeant-Major Fleischer asked, walking towards her warily. “We were flying over dry land.”

“Ah…that’s…difficult to explain,” the woman replied, looking more distressed than she sounded. “For the moment, I’d like to get you settled in to someplace to stay. We certainly don’t want you to stay here by the crashed vehicle. Its engines might explode, after all.”

“That seems unlikely,” Paddy commented. “If it was going to do something like that, it would have done it already.”

“Even so, it’s not safe here,” the old woman insisted. “But there are some very nice bungalows ready for you to use.”

“We can’t go anywhere,” the sergeant told her, his voice even more gruff than usual. “We’ve got hurt men here.”

“That’s why I brought the medical kit,” she said, with a smile, as she gestured down at the trolley.

“We’ve already got our own damned medical kit, and it ain’t helping none!” the medic shouted at her.

The woman frowned, then pushed her way past Fleischer and Johnson, towards where the medic was still working on the pilot. “God above!” she exclaimed. “I wasn’t expecting anything this bad! Hold on, I’ll have someone take him to surgery right away!” With that, she rushed back to her trolley, and picked up a…actually, Ashley had no idea what it was that she picked up. It looked like a clipboard without a clip. The woman touched it briefly, then spoke to it. “Send a medical evacuation team, stat!” she said. “Both legs are badly damaged.”

“Don’t panic,” a child’s voice said from the clipboard. “It can’t be as bad as that,” it added, with a little giggle.

“Don’t toy with me, Aiko,” the woman replied, glaring at her clipboard. “Just send the evacuation team!”

“They’re already en route,” the child assured her. “Are there other survivors, or just the one?”

“Several others. I’m going to take them to the bungalows in Sector A-12.”

“They’ve been cleaned recently, so that should be acceptable,” the child replied, sounding [strangely] authoritarian for a child. “But do hurry. The next patrol is not that far away.”

“Yes, I know that,” the old woman sighed, then set down the board again. She tried to smile at the men who were all staring at her in confusion. “I’m sorry about that,” she said. “They’ll pick up your friend soon. Meanwhile, I can treat any light injuries the rest of you have.”

“Well, the medic already treated my shoulder,” Ashley said, “so you should treat Paddy’s arm.”

“It’s nothing! Just a scratch!” Paddy exclaimed.

“You sound like an American,” the woman commented, “but from that name, I’d have expected an Irishman.”

Paddy blushed, like he always did when people commented on his name. “My mother’s an Irish immigrant, and she wanted to name me after her father,” he explained.

The woman smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she assured him. She certainly sounded friendly, but…

“Just who the hell are you, lady?” Fleischer asked. “I’m not letting you lay a hand on any of my boys without a damned good explanation. Starting with where the hell we are!”

“And what that patrol you were talking about is,” Ashley added, deciding it was best to assume that the child’s voice was actually the woman practicing ventriloquism. The only other simple, reasonable explanation was if the child was hidden inside the cart, and that was definitely worse.

“That was Aiko who mentioned the patrol, not me,” the woman told Ashley, shaking her head, “and it’s just a standard security practice. You’re with me, so it won’t be a problem even if you’re not safely inside by the time the patrol starts. As to who I am,” she continued, turning towards the sergeant, “you can call me Mel. I crashed on this island many long years ago, just like you did.”

“What island? Where the hell are we?” Fleischer repeated.

“If the island has an official name on the maps, I don’t know what it is. But it currently belongs to Dr. Tanaka. As to where it is…honestly, I’m not sure.” She bit her lip uncertainly. “Probably not too far from the [Canary Islands], I suspect, but…as I said, I’m not sure.”

“The [Canary Islands]?!” Fleischer shouted. “That’s impossible! You can’t crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean five minutes after you took off in Vietnam!”

“You certainly can,” Mel assured him.

Before anyone could say anything else, four men approached, and walked silently past everyone towards where the medic was still working on the pilot. They bent as one, and lifted the pilot up on a stretcher — not that Ashley was quite sure where the stretcher had come from — and started carrying him off again. His legs were badly torn up, and looked partially flattened. But more than the pilot’s condition, Ashley couldn’t look away from those four men. There was something decidedly unnatural about them. Their faces were as identical as their gardening uniforms, and their skin had a [creepy] pallor to it, as well as giving the decided impression of insubstantiality. For a moment, he even thought he saw one of them flicker, as if the gardener had only been projected on a movie screen.

The medic tried to follow them, but Mel stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “You’re not cleared to go where they’re taking him. Not yet. Don’t worry; we have better medical science here than you did back in Vietnam. Besides, if you were all in this terrible crash, you might be suffering from a concussion or something.”


 

And there you have it.  A good explanation of why I’ve never published anything.  (Seriously, it’s not bad because it was a rush job for NaNo.  This is just what my writing is like.)


MLM icon init MLM Z


Oh, btw, Mel’s line “You certainly can,” was originally followed by a quasi-quip that was crushed by reality.  (I thought the islands she originally mentioned had originally been French colonial holdings, because the name sounded French to me, but it turned out, when I looked it up, to actually be Portuguese.)  I hope that I will, eventually, think of a new quip to go there — some nice, amusing or ironical connection between the islands and Vietnam, hopefully — but for the moment…yep, I got nothing.

One more thing:  the reason Caesar’s name never actually came up in any of that is that he hasn’t had the chance to introduce himself yet, what with fulfilling his duties.  Since I write in a pretty tight POV, I can’t call a character by their name if the POV character doesn’t know their name yet.  (The introductions — introducing themselves to Mel as a way of proving to her that they aren’t concussed — were the next part of the scene, but I thought the quote was quite too long as it was.)

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