July, 1636, Grantville
Arnulf Langenberg found the dusty, crumpled shoebox beneath a pile of rags smelling of mildew and up-time 2-cycle oil. Tucked between dirt-encrusted aluminum badminton stakes and an olive drab duffel bag, the box called to him, as if saying, “Save me, Arnie, from all this junk.” For junk was pretty much all that one could find in Herr Grooms’ garage: Useless debris from a future that Arnie could imagine, but would never know in truth. Yet, he always enjoyed coming in here, always made a point to make up some excuse to rummage through the piles of old boots fallen to dry-rot, or rusty carburetors, or broken chain links from a Poulan chainsaw, or oddly-shaped gardening tools with soft green handles, or spark plugs lying about like errant nails on wooden shelves. To Arnie, it was a testament to what life could be in the future, a life filled with all kinds of neat gadgets and “gizmos,” and oh how he wanted to live in that world. To him, the old man’s garage was like a treasure chest. But he had never noticed the shoebox before. Now, it was the only thing that he could see.
He pulled it from its hiding place. Nothing much to look at; a nondescript light tan box with a brown top, damp fungus near the back that made it smell old and rustic. He held it delicately like a jewel, careful to keep his hand flat on its bottom lest it fall apart and crumble to the grease-stained concrete floor. He removed the top carefully and looked inside.
Letters. Scores of them. Some in blue-and-white envelopes; some without envelopes at all, but folded at the center in neat, tiny squares. All of them dog-eared and yellowing with age. They smelled too, and Arnie wiggled his nose at the combined fragrance of aged mold and some kind of stale cologne or perfume. He couldn’t tell which. He plucked one carefully from the box and turned it around. It had been opened long, long ago, the tatters of paper at its top sticking out like gnarled, rotten teeth. The address on the front held Herr Grooms’ name and street in West Virginia. The postage was strange, and nothing like Arnie had ever seen before. Certainly not like the old American stamps that he had seen in books at the high school library. He pried the envelope apart and began pulling out the letter.
“Did you find the hammer?”
The sudden voice made him jump, and he nearly dropped the box. He turned quickly to find his employer, Jim Grooms, standing at the entrance of the garage, a cane supporting his old, weakened body. Herr Grooms had had a mild stroke in February, but by the grace of God, he had recovered and could walk reasonably well under support. His speech had never been impaired, though the left side of his mouth drooped a bit still, and it made his smile look a little clownish. But there he stood, the thick glass of his spectacles making his eyes seem larger than they really were . . . and more concerned and menacing as well.
“I . . .” Arnie began, then realized the error of what he was about to say. No need to speak a fib; as an up-timer preacher he knew often said, “The truth shall set you free.” He lifted up the box as if offering it to sky. “No, Herr Grooms. I found this box.”
The old man seemed to deflate from the offering, his shoulders slumping as if laden with weight. He stared a moment at the box, then moved forward carefully. “Where . . . where did you find that?”
Arnie pointed to the box’s hiding place. “Right there, behind all that stuff. What are they?”
Herr Grooms set his cane aside and took the box in his shaking hands. He pulled the top letter out, put it to his nose, sniffed. A tiny smile crept across his mouth like the scribbling of a red pencil, thin and barely recognizable between the darker, leathery skin above and below. But it was a smile, no doubt about it. Arnie hadn’t seen Herr Grooms smile often, but the man could smile under the right conditions. It was indeed a smile, and a small spot of tear lined the bottom of his left eye. “They’re letters,” he said, smelling again, then setting it gently back into the box. “Letters I thought lost long, long ago.”
“Where did they come from?”
Herr Grooms didn’t seem to want to answer at first, grabbing his cane to give his legs rest. He handed the box back to Arnie, then said with a sigh, “Korea.”
Arnie ruffled his brow. “Where’s that?”
Herr Grooms moved as if to point towards the east, but then put his hand down and chuckled. “Far away, my boy. Far, far away.”
“Is that where you got your wound?”
It was not a subject Herr Grooms liked talking about; in fact, whenever it was raised by anyone, the old man changed the subject quickly. And his wife, Vellie Rae, gave anyone the evil eye who even mentioned the Korean War in the presence of her husband. Arnie didn’t know why it was such a touchy subject, and he didn’t know why he was violating that unspoken rule now, but he couldn’t help it. Something about this box of letters, and the reaction that Herr Grooms had when he saw it, made him want to know more.
Herr Grooms looked at Arnie with eyes wide, and smiled. “Yes, it is. Now . . .” He guided Arnie over to the shelf and directed him to put the box away. He moved aside a piece of warped press board and pointed to a hammer. “Grab that hammer and let’s get cracking. Those boards ain’t gonna nail themselves, you know.”
“Yes, sir.” Arnie tucked the box away, and made a half-hearted gesture to conceal it with the oily rags. He reached for the hammer and followed Herr Grooms out of the garage. “Perhaps you can tell me about the war someday.”
The old man didn’t stop, nor did it seem as if he even heard what Arnie had said. Then quickly, as if to keep from being overheard, he cleared his throat and whispered, “Someday, my boy. Someday.”
September 19, 1950, Near Seoul, South Korea
Corporal Jim Grooms watched Sergeant John Nearing die in his arms. John was shot through the neck with a Kar98k. Jim tried staunching the blood, but the Eternal Footman would not be denied. By the time the medic arrived, the sergeant was dead. His eyes in death were so peaceful that Jim didn’t want to let him go, wanted to fall into those peaceful eyes and forget about the chaos surrounding him. But one of his men grabbed his arm and shook him awake.
“What are your orders, Corporal?”
My orders? He knew this day would come eventually, but he never planned for it to arrive in the midst of a firefight while holding his dead sergeant. Luckily, they were now in a good defensive position, so he had a little time to consider their options.
They weren’t good. They never were. His unit was working alongside the 1st Marines, in an attempt to retake the city after the North Koreans had come across the dividing line in the summer, smashing through nearly all of South Korea. The KPA were doing surprisingly well, though General Douglas MacArthur’s amphibious Operation Chromite, which had landed in Inchon, had finally broken the back of the North Korean Army. Now Seoul lay before them, and by order, they were supposed to help retake it. That was the order given to the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. The private who was asking the question knew that. What he wanted to know was what they were going to do in this bigger scheme, now that their sergeant was dead. And the private was right: At this moment, the lives of the six men remaining in their squad were more important to Corporal Grooms than any General’s overall strategic plan.
He looked around quickly. Other elements of 32nd IR were engaged; fighting all along a line that overlooked the very edge of the city. The KPA were entrenched and determined to stay. Funny, but at that moment, Corporal Grooms couldn’t think of anything else but West Virginia, and how much it resembled Korea. Well, the mountainous parts of it anyway. Similar topography, similar foliage. Cold as hell in the winter. All this talk of exotic Asian jungles back home had been quickly dashed when he had arrived in-country. It almost felt like fighting in his own backyard. He shook his head. What a silly notion!
He peeked around the rubble protecting him and his soldiers, making sure his helmet was on tight. Kar98 rounds struck nearby. He pointed to the guts of a building. “There. That’s where we’ll go. Right in the center of the line; good defensive position. We get there, that might give the rest of the battalion a chance to anchor and then push forward.”
“They’ve got a light machine gun, Corporal,” said PFC Monk.
Corporal Grooms nodded. “I know, but it’s the best choice. Either that, or stay here and look like pussies. Sergeant Nearing wouldn’t want that. Now, get ready!”
He was mad. He didn’t know why. Of course he did. His sergeant and friend had just been killed, and there was nothing he could do about that. What he could do, however, was honor the memory and press forward, to kill the son of a bitch who had just killed his friend. It didn’t matter what dog he killed, in truth, as long as he was North Korean. One was just as good as the other.
“Get me a Garand with a grenade launcher!”
Someone found one among the bodies and handed it over. Corporal Grooms checked it. Still functional. Good. He’d prefer a rocket launcher or a Corsair dropping a bat bomb, but this would have to do. He’d discovered in training that he was a pretty good shot with one, so long as he could keep the snipers off of him while he set.
He waited until his men assembled beside him. He looked at them. Damn! Some were so young, hardly eighteen. He wasn’t much older than they were. Young men killing other young men. Didn’t someone say once that all wars were started by men, but fought by children? That certainly was the case here. Even the sergeant had been in his mid-twenties. But what did all that matter now? Now, they had to get across the small, deadly open space, take those ruins, and press on. They had to do it now!
He gave his order through hand signals. They nodded, readied their rifles. “Now!”
Together they rose up and fired on the building. Their rounds peppered the concrete and pinned the enemy gun. Corporal Grooms steadied the grenade rifle on the rough surface of the rubble in front of him, aimed carefully, and pulled the trigger.
The grenade flew inside the window where the machine gun resided and exploded. He felt a sudden rush of elation, then stowed it. “Go!”
They climbed over the rubble and pressed the attack, pulling grenades from their belts and launching them to cause even more suppression. KPA units farther away tried responding with grazing fire, but the machine gun in the building had been taken out. Good! That made Corporal Grooms very happy.
PFC Hadley fell with multiple shots in the chest and abdomen. His live grenade rolled away. Corporal Grooms crawled after it, caught it before it fell into a ditch, and tossed it wildly to the left, just in time to see it explode harmlessly in a patch of weeds.
The other men had reached the building and were taking up defensive positions among its ruins. He noticed someone stabbing the machine gunner with a bayonet. He smiled, climbed into a crouch, and pressed towards the building.
That’s when the bullet struck his right side.
It felt like a bee sting. Then a warm, comforting sensation spread through his stomach, down his legs, and up into his chest. He dropped to his knees. He looked down, expecting to see blood. What he saw and felt was piss.
July, 1636, Grantville
“You peed yourself?”
Arnie regretted the question as soon as it came out, but the expression on Herr Grooms’ face settled his concern quickly. The old man smiled, even chuckled.
“Well, yes, I’m embarrassed to say. I took the bullet right through the kidney.” Herr Grooms set the glass of tea down and leaned back in his rocking chair on his porch. The creek of the old gray-painted pine slats below the chair was eerily comforting to Arnie, and in direct conflict with the seriousness of the story. “Right through my kidney and right out the back. A pretty clean wound, all things considered, but I guess the shock of that made my bladder pop. I remember lying there thinking, ‘Damn! I hope no one saw that!’ More concerned about my honor than if I was going to die or not.”
“But you didn’t die.”
Herr Grooms shook his head. “No. I passed out shortly after that and woke up several days later in a MASH unit.”
“You don’t know what a—” Grooms paused, “—Sorry, I forget sometimes where I’m at. Of course you wouldn’t know. A MASH unit is a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. They were used a lot in Korea, popularized through the sit-com MASH in the seventies. Vellie Rae might have some old episodes on a VCR tape somewhere if you want to see what they looked like. But I can assure you, young man, that there was nothing funny about the real thing, about being in one.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Not at first, as I say. It was kind of a warm feeling. But when I woke up, it started to . . . bad. I got an infection, and that didn’t help. But I pulled through, in the end.”
Arnie set down his empty tea glass, cleared his throat, dreaded asking the next question, but couldn’t resist. He thought of his mother, who always slammed him for his intellectual curiosity. “ ‘It’ll get you in trouble one of these days,’ ” she’d say.
“May I see it?” he asked. “The wound?”
Herr Grooms stopped rocking, clearly debating whether or not to let this impetuous down-timer see his up-time battle scar. Finally, he shrugged and pulled his shirt free from his waist. He leaned forward and motioned Arnie to come around. “Go ahead. Take a gander.”
Arnie walked behind the rocking chair. In his lower back, Herr Grooms had a large mass of red tissue, like a little mountain of flesh that had smoothed over the hole that had obviously been there. Surgical scars ran from it, but they had faded to near invisibility over the years. To Arnie, the wound almost looked like a spider, or some kind of nasty starfish. How could anyone survive such a wound?
“My word,” he said, “you’re lucky to have survived.”
Herr Grooms put his shirt back down. “No. I’m lucky she was there.”
Arnie cleared the lump in his throat. You’ll get in trouble one of these days . . . “Was she the girl who wrote those letters?”
Herr Grooms did not speak. He nodded.
“Can you tell me about her?”
Suddenly, the old man’s expression and demeanor changed as he saw his wife Vellie Rae returning up the path towards the house. She cradled a basket of ripening tomatoes in her arms.
“Shh! Enough talk for today. Some other time. Now,” Herr Grooms said, rising slowly from the chair and grabbing his cane with Arnie’s help, “get those weeds out of the rose bushes, and then get home. Your mama’s probably worried about you.”
“Yes, sir,” Arnie said, taken aback by Herr Grooms’ sudden change in spirit. The old man didn’t even bother waiting for his wife to reach the porch. He turned and entered the house as quickly as his old bones could take him, letting the screen door slam behind him.
“What was that all about?” Mrs. Grooms asked, stopping at the bottom of the porch steps and setting her basket down.
Arnie shrugged and walked by her. What could he say? He didn’t know what that was all about either. He didn’t know why Herr Grooms had suddenly gone cold and curt at the sight of his wife.
It’s those letters, he said to himself as he grabbed the hoe and began work. Those letters and that girl with the exotic name.
The girl he liked was named Jessica Yvette Tyler. Yvette… how exotic! Named after her mother; French in origin. He had looked it up in the Grantville library, its meaning being yew or archer. Well, she had definitely pierced his heart with her arrow. . . . Get a grip, Arnie! Stop swooning like a fool. A girl like her would want a man, one like Herr Grooms who had led his men into a hail of enemy gunfire. A man who would take a bullet for someone.
In his various waking dreams of her, Arnie had decided long ago that he would do anything for Yvette, even take a bullet. He’d decided on that first day he had seen her at school; the first time their eyes met innocently over the lunch table; the first time she smiled and waved at him across the crowded hall. Or was she waving at another boy? Of course she was, for why would Jessica Yvette Tyler wave at such a “nerd,” as the up-timers often called boys like him; the booky-boys, the brains. Arnie was so studious, with a book constantly glued to his hand, with tiny wired glasses and such a thin frame that his mother had had to get him a summer job just so that he would know what it was like to make an honest day’s wage. “Get out there, and get dirty,” she had told him, pushing him out the door with a kiss toward the Grooms’ house. “Get out there like your father used to.”
Father was the kind of man who had been willing to take a bullet for someone. He had taken one for the Protestants, but he didn’t survive it.
He felt kind of creepy watching her this way, as she and her friends communed outside Johnson’s Grocery, having pedaled over from her home to get an ice cream on a warm afternoon. If she knew he was watching her, she’d probably flee, and rightfully so. No real man stalks a woman, as the up-timers might say. But he wasn’t stalking her; not technically. He was just trying to get up the nerve to go and talk to her.
But what do you say to a vision like her? he wondered as he looked down at the dog-eared paperback in his hand. A Mickey Spillane special. Mike Hammer at his best. Borrowed from Herr Grooms’ extensive collection of up-time crime-noire paperbacks. There was no wisdom in those pages, at least not on how a sixteen-year-old down-timer should approach a fifteen-year-old up-timer to ask her for a date. A date? Arnie found himself blushing at his own forwardness. Is that what I really want? Her parents might be strict, might not let her be seen with such a worthless creature as Arnie Langenberg, with no father and few good prospects. No. He didn’t want a date. He just wanted to say “hello.”
He breathed deeply and wiped sweat from his brow. The sun was setting, and Yvette wouldn’t sit around the grocery store all day. He peeked out from hiding again and imagined the store as the ruined building that Herr Grooms and his men had worked to secure. He imagined Yvette and her friends as the enemy—no, you fool!—not the enemy. The target. And all Arnie needed to do was come out from hiding and walk over to her.
He stood up, tucked his paperback into his back pocket, and began walking across the street. At first, Yvette and her friends didn’t see him. That was good, Arnie thought, because that meant they didn’t see him climb out from hiding. Play it cool, Arnie. Saunter . . .
Finally, she noticed him, as he made it across the street and into the parking lot. He buried his hands into his pockets, and made at first as if he wasn’t paying attention. Then he turned to her, smiled, and was about to speak, when three other bikes rolled up in a whoosh of rubber tires, creaky frames, and boisterous smack talk.
Arnie had been so fixed on Yvette’s face, so focused on the first word he was going to say, that he nearly ran right into them.
“Watch yourself, brainy!” Erich Becker said as he swerved to keep from ramming Arnie. The bigger, brawnier, and shirtless boy clapped on his brakes and skidded to a halt in glorious fashion in front of the girls. They scampered out of the way as if they were going to be hit, acknowledging the new arrivals with playful banter and fake outrage. The girls seemed pleased with Erich’s dazzling two-wheeled showmanship. Even Yvette seemed impressed, and Arnie stopped dead in his tracks and looked round as if he were casually measuring the parking lot for drapes. He pulled the Spillane novel out and pretended to read the back.
He inched closer to their conversation without seeming as if he were doing so. They were talking fast, and their words were often interrupted with laughter and jibing. Something about horses and riding; something about a farmer up where Erich lived letting them shoot skeet. The girls didn’t seem all that keen on that activity, but the horses were another matter. Decisions were made, promises tendered.
Arnie turned to leave, that leery, bashful spot in the hollow of his heart aching fully. Foiled again, like the great devious masterminds in those up-time novels, like the one in his hand. Close, but no cigar. He sighed deeply, looked both ways, then stepped out into the street.
A hand caught his shoulder and turned him around.
There she was, right there, mere inches from him, her body so close he could smell her light perfume. Arnie fell back, suddenly realizing that he was in the street. She smiled. “Hi, Arnie. Would you like to come with us? We’re going to try to ride some horses at old man Foerster’s farm.”
The world was right again. Arnie breathed deeply and was about to say yes, when he looked up and saw the three boys on their bikes staring at him across the pavement. Their stern eyes and furrowed brows made it clear what his answer should be. Erich straddled his bike as if he were Atlas himself, his arms crossed, his expression pure ice.
“No . . . no,” he said, waving her off. “That’s okay. You guys go on.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded, too afraid to speak again lest his cowardice show.
Yvette seemed genuinely disappointed. She shrugged. “Okay, well, talk to you later then?”
He nodded and backed away across the street.
Yvette returned to her friends, and Arnie watched them ride away.
He stood there along the side of the road for a long while, letting the fragrance of her perfume ride his thoughts. He smiled. The scent reminded him of Herr Grooms’ box of letters.
September 25, 1950, 1st MASH Unit, Near Inchon
He awoke in a bed, his muscles stiff, his arm attached to an IV. He tried to move, but the pain in his right side, covered by thick white bandages with blood stains, kept him glued to the mattress. He managed to lift his head and look left then right. He was in a room, but it looked more like a long hallway, a half-dome with row after row of beds, soldiers in every one, some wounded far more badly than he. I guess I should be thankful, he thought at first, then let that notion drift away from his groggy mind. The morphine coursing through his veins would not allow him to think clearly. Maybe it would have been best to die there on that desperate charge. Maybe if he had pushed himself just a little harder, he might have dodged that bullet and finished it off with his men. His men! Where were they? Had they survived? Had they—
He tried getting up again. A delicate hand held him down.
“Now, now, be still. You are going nowhere,” a voice said, soft yet firm.
Jim pinched his eyes shut, shook his head, and refocused on the shape that stood over him on his right side. He blinked, and she came into focus. It was a woman—no doubt about that—dressed in white, the insignia of her nurses corps emblazoned on her soft blouse. She was not American.
He let her push him down, her smile guiding his head gently back to the pillow. “You must rest,” she said, her English decent, but heavy with accent. “You were wounded badly.”
“You’re Korean,” he said, not realizing the word had come out.
She smiled, and dimples on her pale face accentuated a bun of thick dark hair. Her eyes thinned to slits. Her teeth were nearly perfect, though one of her canines stuck out a little, giving her mouth an almost fang-like appearance. Jim smiled back, not caring for that one tiny imperfection in her appearance. To his dreary eyes, she was perfection.
“Yes, I am. And you are an American soldier, wounded in action. And you must rest.”
She leaned over and fluffed his pillow. She checked his vitals, scratched some numbers on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard. Jim refused to take his eyes off of her.
“How badly am I wounded, miss . . . ?”
She put the clipboard back on its peg and sat down next to him, careful not to jostle the bed. The curve of her body as she sat mesmerized him; the petite nature of her frame surprised him. Standing over him, she seemed almost giant-like. Beside him, she was thin and small. He marveled. She couldn’t be more than nineteen, eighteen maybe.
“My name is Mee-Yon Cho,” she said, laying her hand on his chest. A warm, sleepy feeling spread through this body. “I’m glad to meet you, Corporal Jim Grooms.”
July, 1636, Grantville
“Then what happened?”
Arnie was literally on the edge of his seat in Herr Grooms’ kitchen, listening intently, as if the old man was reading from one of his yellowing ten-cent Doubleday paperbacks. Arnie had already read a number of them; one was in his pocket now, replacing the Mike Hammer tale just that morning. He hung on every word as if they were parables. Herr Grooms looked surprised, clearly not realizing why the young boy was so enthralled with the story. Arnie hadn’t told him about Yvette. He hadn’t told anyone.
“Well,” Herr Grooms said, sniffing and leaning back in his chair. “She was my nurse for the time I was there. Soon after that first meeting, the doctor came along and explained to me my condition. I wouldn’t be going back in the field; that was certain. Losing a kidney like that; it’s a life- changing experience. Going back to war would be a death sentence, and they were afraid of infection. A person can live a pretty normal life with only one kidney, but I was done. That pissed me off, I’m not ashamed to say—forgive the pun. I had gone to Korea to fight for my country, to fight for the Army, to fight the Communists, and I hadn’t been in-country for long. And here I was being told that I was no longer fit to fight.” He hung his head as if ashamed. “It was a tough time.”
“But she helped you through, right? Mee-Yon?”
Herr Grooms perked up, sniffed again, angled his cane so that it lay against his chair in a more secure manner. “Oh, yes. Definitely. She smiled all the time, even when men, far worse off than me, were hauled in with wounds so bad that there was nothing they could do. One time, she walked by my bed alongside a stretcher. The man on it was leaking blood from his jugular, and she held a cloth over the wound as best she could, talking to him all the way, rubbing his forehead, while his life poured out of him. She was crying, and that was the first and last time I saw her cry, break down, when finally the poor boy gave up the ghost. And yet, even through something like that, she kept her spirits high. She cleaned herself up and was back making her rounds within an hour, smiling like always. She was amazing, and a damn fine nurse.”
Arnie cleared his throat, measuring his words carefully. “Did you . . . when did you know you loved her?”
Herr Grooms smiled and rubbed his reddening face. He looked around the kitchen as if he were afraid that his wife would pop in unannounced, obviously forgetting that she and a neighbor had gone to the market. “Well, at first, I thought it was the morphine. That would wear off, however, but the feeling wouldn’t subside. I looked at her the same way no matter what kind of drug I was on, had the same feeling each time. So, I guess from the very beginning, from that first time she sat down beside me and we talked. Love at first sight. Silly, eh?”
Not at all. “So, what happened next?”
“Well, I was in her care for about two weeks, and I got better as the days wore on. And she would visit me every day, several times each day. And sometimes she’d linger too long, and the head nurse would get on her case. We’d laugh about it later, after she’d come back with a little food from the mess. And when I got strong enough to try walking, she was the one who helped me with that. Whenever she’d bend down to check my temperature with a hand across the brow, I’d hope she’d come in close enough so I could steal a kiss.” Herr Grooms chuckled about that. “And sometimes she’d be close enough for it, but I never tried.”
Herr Grooms shrugged. “Too afraid, I guess. Too worried that she might recoil from it. I wasn’t sure how she felt about me, you understand. I knew how I felt about her, but behind that grand smile, those smooth cheeks, those pleasant, hopeful eyes, she was difficult to read. I didn’t know how she felt, and I thought moving too fast would be a mistake. It’s a decision I’ve regretted all my life.
“Through our letters, I did finally tell her how I felt. But I never said it to her face. I wish I had. She deserved to hear it once.”
Arnie sat back, breathed deeply, taking in all that he had heard. Herr Grooms had not told the woman of his dreams how he felt, and he had spent over fifty years regretting it. How long would Arnie regret it if he didn’t, at least once, approach Yvette and . . .
“When did you start writing letters to her?”
Herr Grooms heard the question, but he didn’t give it any mind. He looked past Arnie, through the kitchen window to the setting sun. He pushed his iced tea aside and got up as quickly as his cane would allow. “Look at us . . . sitting here like fools. You got me talking again, boy, and we ain’t finished painting the fence we promised Mrs. Grooms we’d get finished before she got back. Come on, get up, and let’s go. Grab your brush.”
They walked outside, and Arnie grabbed his brush. He sighed. Painting was not on his mind right now. He wanted to tell Herr Grooms that right away, to tell him that his thoughts were on more important things, but he couldn’t speak. The kinds of words he wanted to speak were not for an old man’s ears.
They were for a girl named Yvette.
Arnie sat alone on a bench outside Johnson’s Grocery, a small pad of paper and a pencil in his hands. He scribbled a line, marked it out, scribbled another, marked it out too. Over and over, until the page was so full of failed words that he tore it off and tossed it in the wastebasket nearby. His frustration grew.
Why can’t I write like Spillane, he wondered, or Hammett, or Chandler? Sure, they didn’t write love poetry, but their words had bite, pizzazz, and punch. Why can’t I write like them? Why can’t I write a letter like Herr Grooms did?
He hastily wrote a few new lines, then read them aloud, so he could hear the words. “My dearest Yvette, I want to tell you so much, but I’m afraid that if I say the wrong words at the wrong time, I’ll . . .”
He froze, the paper clutched tight in his hand. She was behind him. Quickly, he crumpled the paper and turned, seeing her there silhouetted against the backdrop of a setting sun. “H—Hi,” he said back.
“What are you doing here?”
Her question was valid. What the hell was he doing here? She couldn’t know the truth. “I, I was just jotting down a few things Frau Grooms asked me to pick up for her.”
“Oh, well, I’m getting some things for my mother too. Shall we go in together?”
Yvette stepped out of the way and allowed him to take the lead. He took it, though he would have been much happier to walk behind her. He enjoyed the way she walked and the light fragrance of her hair. “Okay.”
He had lied, of course, about needing to get groceries for Frau Grooms, but he played along, picking a couple potatoes and a little bit of dried bacon. Luckily, he had some money in his pocket, though he had been saving it for a newspaper. He acted like he was referring to the “list” crumpled in his hand. Yvette picked some potatoes too, and some beets, and a small container of milk. “I don’t know why Mom gets beets. I hate them.” She laughed, and Arnie laughed with her.
“Yeah,” he said, another lie. “I hate them too.”
“Are you looking forward to school starting again?”
“Yes, I am. Especially science. I’m anxious to do some dissecting.”
Oops! Maybe he’d made a mistake confessing that. “I—I don’t really like it, but you know, it’s kind of interesting to learn about things like that. Anatomy and all.”
“Oh, are you thinking about being a doctor?”
The idea had crossed his mind a few times. With the arrival of the up-timers, medicine had taken a major leap forward. If he got into the profession now, by the time he was in his late twenties, he could very well be one of the premier doctors in the USE, maybe even in Europe.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m thinking about it. But I like to write also. Maybe I’ll be a writer.”
“For one of the newspapers?”
“Maybe . . . to start. But I like fiction, stories.”
Yvette nodded. “I see that you’re always carrying around a book. Where do you get them?”
“Herr Grooms mostly, sometimes from others. The library has some.”
The small talk continued until they reached the counter, paid for their items, and left.
Ask her . . . ask her now before she turns away!
“Yvette? I mean . . . Jessica.” His heart was beating so fast he could barely stand. “Would you . . . I mean, would you like to meet up here on Saturday for some ice cream? I don’t have anything to do that day.”
He waited for her reply, leaning against the post outside the entrance. She gave him a quizzical look, but the smile that spread across her face was all the answer he needed. “Sure. How about three?”
He nodded, taking a deep breath. “Ja, that’s fine. See you then.”
They said their goodbyes and Arnie, a smile on his face and a spring in his step, crossed the road and headed to Herr Grooms’ house.
October 8, 1950, 1st MASH Unit, Near Inchon
The infection had subsided. The fever was gone. It was a near-run thing, however, and Corporal Grooms felt lousy. The initial days after the wound had been hopeful, and then he had taken a turn for the worse. There were nights that he felt he wouldn’t make it; Mee-Yon was there to see that he did.
He cried for morphine; she refused. He threatened. She ignored him. He clamored for a doctor, but there were too many wounded, too many more immediate concerns for them. Mee-Yon was all he had, and she ran the show. “I have seen too many men become addicted to it,” she said, her beautiful mouth having difficulty sounding out the name of the drug. “I don’t want that to happen to you. You will live without it; I have prayed for you.”
And she was right. He survived again, and one morning he awoke pain-free with a small bit of the sun peeking through the rough green canvas of the tent he had lain in. It was cold outside, but the errant breeze that found its way through the canvas folds felt good to his sweaty skin. Mee-Yon bathed him with a sponge.
She averted her eyes when she worked his thighs. He worked hard to keep from concentrating on where her hands were rubbing, thinking of fat old Mr. Barnes from high school, or the shot that destroyed his kidney. Images that evoked disdain, disgust, anything to keep from focusing on the most beautiful woman in the world touching him in places his mother would have considered scandalous. But even with those terrible thoughts in his mind, he could not avoid the fresh fragrance of her skin, the mild curve of her lip as she hummed one of her soothing lullabies. And there was no concealing the fact that she kept looking at him, more intently than any nurse should, and he didn’t keep her from doing so. Their eyes lingered on each other’s faces, and he so wanted to reach out and touch her skin. But she turned away, any expression of joy erased from her face.
For the rest of the day, she avoided him, working quietly with other patients. He tried getting her attention, but she would scoot past his bed with nary a glance his way. Then she erred and drifted into his reach. He grabbed the hem of her dress and tugged. “Tell me, what’s the matter? Did I do something wrong?”
She paused, turned to him, and he could see that she was fighting back tears. “No. You did nothing wrong, Jim Grooms. But . . . we are leaving. We are packing up tomorrow and heading to Seoul. And you are not coming with me. You are being sent to Japan, and then back home.”
She did not wait to hear his response.
The rest of the day, he tossed and turned, ate sparingly. The idea of going home was exciting, sure, seeing family again, being safe and at peace in the West Virginia wood. But at what cost? To leave his men, his unit behind, and more importantly, to leave her behind. A million thoughts raced through his mind, none of them soothing.
The night before he left Korea forever, she came to him, quietly and without a light. She was a shadow to him, a shape in the darkness that made it even more difficult to say goodbye. She did not let him speak. She cupped his face in her hands. She kissed his forehead. She kissed his cheek. She nuzzled his neck, whispered something in her language he could not understand. She pressed a letter into his hand. She left.
He never saw her again, but the letter told him everything he needed to know.
July, 1636, Grantville
“We corresponded for twenty years,” Herr Grooms said, putting one of the letters back in the box.
“Even after you were married?”
That question seemed to hurt the old man, as he hesitated, leaned against his cane, then pushed the box across the work bench so that he could rest his arm.
“Yes. She gave me an address in that first letter, and after I was shipped back home, I finally got up the courage to write her. Honestly, I was surprised that she wrote me back. The war was still going on, you understand, and a combat nurse’s job is dangerous. It took awhile for her to respond; she just wasn’t in a place where she could stop and mail a letter. But she did, and I was glad about it.”
“Herr Grooms,” Arnie said, nervously sweeping the cold garage floor with his shoe, “I—I like this girl. Yvette Tyler. I’ve asked her to get some ice cream with me but—”
“You sly dog!” Herr Grooms winked and snickered.
Dog? What does a dog have to do with this? “—but I want to tell her more. I’m afraid, though, that I’ll creep her out? I want to write her a letter, tell her how I feel, but—”
“Patience, my young Lothario,” Herr Grooms said, walking forward. He placed his hand on Arnie’s shoulder. “Take your time. Don’t go from cream and sugar to marriage in one date. Hold her hand before you neck in the backseat. You understand what I’m saying? I didn’t tell Mee-Yon how I felt in my first letter. I took a few years to confess it, and I still—”
“You still what?”
Arnie turned and saw Frau Grooms standing there, in the entrance to the garage, her dirty-gloved hands on her hips. Arnie looked in her face, saw anger and pain there. She looked as if she were about to cry. The look reminded him of how his mother looked when she thought of Papa.
“Vellie!” Herr Grooms said, backing away from Arnie as if he’d seen a ghost. He turned towards the work bench, towards the letters. He moved as if he were going to reach for them. Frau Grooms blocked his way.
“You still what, Jim? Still love her? You still love your Korean girl? You promised me you had gotten rid of them. You promised.”
Then Herr Grooms got angry, defensive, though he could barely express it physically. “Well, I didn’t, did I? And what do you care, anyway? They don’t mean nothing. They’re just letters.”
“Just letters . . .” She trailed off, no longer able to contain her anger, her hurt. Arnie turned from them, looking for a way to slip out of the garage unseen, but before he could make a move, she said, “Well, then, there it is. You have your letters, Jim Grooms. And you can keep them. They’ve always meant more to you than me.”
She stalked away, leaving her husband standing there, dejected, speechless, grasping for a response to her abrupt departure. The old man mouthed something at his wife Arnie could not understand, then he turned to the letters again and fumbled through them under the faint light of the overheard lamp, as if searching for a place to hide.
Arnie left the garage and found her in their small garden, leaning over a hoe that she slammed into the dirt like a cleaver. At first, he was afraid to approach, worried that she might turn on him and sink the hoe’s business end into his face, but he paused, breathed deeply, and stepped forward. “Frau, Grooms. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I found the box. I asked him what they contained. I—”
“It ain’t your fault, boy!” She said, chopping away at the weeds. “You didn’t write those letters, did you? You didn’t make a promise to me to destroy them and then break that promise, did you? Don’t cover for him, Arnie. Jimmy’s had a thing for that girl for fifty years, and there ain’t no down-timer gonna take the blame for it.”
She let the dirt fly, but her anger finally subsided. She dropped the hoe, stepped back, rubbed a glove across her brow, and said, “I guess it’s partly my fault. I’ve always held this notion that I could compete with a memory, that I could, in the physical, wipe away what she meant to him in the ethereal. Know what I mean?”
She pulled off her gloves. She tossed them to the ground and moved a little closer. Arnie thought about backing off. “But . . . surely, Frau Grooms, you have meant something. You have been married for a long time, no? Over fifty years?”
She chuckled, looked up at him. “You’re a good boy, Arnie. Your mother must be proud.”
No, he thought. His mother had never said so directly, and she was always trying to dirty him up, get him out the door, working, toiling in sweat and muscle. She didn’t seem to care much about his more intellectual pursuits, about his reading. I don’t think she is.
“Did I hear you say that you had a girlfriend?”
Arnie shook his head. “No, ma’am. Not really. I’ve asked a girl to get some ice cream with me, but she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Well, don’t pay any mind to what Mr. Grooms says. Patience is fine when it comes to gardening, hunting, or dealing with a stubborn old coot like the one I married. But it don’t hold water when it comes to love. It sounds crazy coming from me, I know, but Jimmy should have gone to her a long, long time ago. He should have confessed his feelings in person. But he didn’t. And he regrets it. That’s why he clings to those letters. That’s why they mean so much to him, because as long as they exist, there’s hope, even now after we’ve gone through the Ring and are living in a time way before she was even born. It’s silly, but that’s my husband for you. An impetuous dreamer.”
She placed her hand against Arnie’s face, then leaned in and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. “When the time comes, young man, don’t waste your time with letters. Face your girl . . . and tell her how you feel.”
She walked away, and Arnie stood there watching her go, Yvette’s smile drifting again across his confused thoughts.
The ice cream was tasty. A vanilla cone with a preserved maraschino cherry on top to give it “zip,” as the grocer described it. Arnie got what Yvette got, so he tried it. Too sweet for his tastes, but he smiled through it. What mattered was that he was trying it with her.
He had dressed in his best shirt, vest, and cap. He had even scrubbed his shoes and had put on clean socks. She arrived pretty much as she always did, in a light-colored dress. Sometimes she wore a hat, but not today. Her hair flowed down her back in brilliant fashion. He liked it that way. The only negative was that her mother had brought her to the store, and then proceeded to spend her time shopping while they sat on the bench outside. Arnie’s enthusiasm dropped like a sail in the doldrums. Frau Tyler was a nice lady, but what boy wants a girl’s mother hovering around? Arnie didn’t need a chaperone. He wasn’t going to try anything.
“Have you worked for Herr Grooms all summer?” she asked, finishing off her cherry.
Arnie nodded. “Most of it. Since his stroke, he can’t do much himself. Frau Grooms does some work still, but only little things, like weeding. They have me do the big stuff.” He arched his chest as if he were stretching, hoping she’d notice. “I’ll be doing some reconstruction work on the concrete block support wall along his driveway. The blocks are starting to crack and break away from their mortar.”
Yvette seemed impressed. “Sounds like hard work.”
“Yes, but I can handle it. Herr Grooms showed me how to mix the cement, and I read up on it in the library.”
She smiled. She worked on some ice cream that was running down the cone. Arnie watched her, a question on the tip of his tongue, but he shelved it and asked another. “Do you read?”
Yvette shrugged. “Some, but for school mostly. My mom has old Nancy Drews. I’ve tried a couple of them.”
Arnie nodded. “I’ve read some Hardy Boys.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a paperback. “But I’ve been reading a lot of this kind of book lately.” He held it up to her.
Yvette squinted in the sunlight to read the title. “The Big Sleep. Interesting. What’s it about?”
“Not what you might think,” Arnie said, smiling and flipping through a few pages. “It’s a crime novel, like the Nancy Drews, only better. I can read you some if you like. Or, better yet. Herr Grooms has an old VCR. It doesn’t work too well anymore, but he says he can usually get it to go. He said he’s got the 1978 version of the movie, with some up-timer named Robert Mitchum. I haven’t seen it, but I was going to ask next week if I could.” He beamed at an idea, sat up straight. “Hey, would you like to come by and watch it with me? I’m sure the Grooms wouldn’t mind.”
Yvette thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay, I’ll ask my mom and see what she says.”
“Great! I know you’ll love it. It’s a little adult—well, that’s what Herr Grooms calls it—but it’s really good, and—”
He was interrupted by the rumble of bicycle tires on loose gravel. He looked up, and here they came, Erich Becker and his posse. Arnie’s stomach clenched.
They rolled up, ground to a halt, spreading gravel and dust everywhere.
“Watch it, Erich!” Yvette said, holding her cone up high to escape the dust.
Arnie put up his hand to help protect her cone. “Back off, Erich. You’re getting dirt everywhere.”
Erich made a face. “Oh, is that so? Herr Brain has decided to speak. What are you trying to do here, Arnie, protect your girlfriend?”
“She’s not my—” Arnie paused, refusing to finish that line. She wasn’t his girlfriend, not really, but he couldn’t admit that truth, not even to himself. “Just go away, will you? Leave us alone.”
“Why don’t you make me?”
“Erich, shut up!”
Arnie’s heart raced, his stomach churned. He risked a glance towards Yvette. She was upset, angry perhaps, or more likely afraid. Her expression made Arnie mad, and he turned back to face Erich. I have to do something. But what? What would Marlow do?
“You want me to make you, eh?” He said, standing and tossing aside his half-eaten cone. “Okay. I’ll make you, tough guy.”
With his fist balled up and ready, he took a step toward Erich, but something on the bench caught one of his socks. He tried pulling away, but the impetus of his move caused him to trip, and he fell forward. Erich moved aside and let Arnie fall face-first into the gravel.
Laughter erupted. “Nice move, Herr Brain! You learn that one in a book? Come on, guys,” Erich said, climbing back on his bike. “Let’s go before Arnie here breaks a nail and starts to cry.”
They rode away, and Arnie lay there, not wanting to move, wishing that the world would just go away, wishing that the Ring had never come and changed all their lives. Yes, life was hard before the Americans, but at least it was simpler, easier to understand.
He felt her hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay, Arnie?”
He pushed her away. “Please, leave me alone.” He got up, rubbing grime and dirt out of the scrape on his left elbow. It stung. He didn’t try to hide it. What was the point now? She had already seen him humiliated. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
“Wait, Arnie. Don’t—”
He didn’t stop. He crossed the road, not looking back, not wanting her to see his face, the fear and pain there, the embarrassment. He walked away, leaving her there holding melting ice cream.
Arnie smelled the smoke before he saw the fire. He rounded the corner of the house and found Herr Grooms standing beside the old bonfire pit in his backyard, picking letters from the box and tossing them into the flame.
“What are you doing?” He yelled to the old man. “Stop!”
Herr Grooms tossed another letter into the fire and watched it crackle and burn. “Doing what I promised her, years ago. I should have done it then. Now, why keep them? Mee-Yon doesn’t even exist in this world, and probably never will.”
“But they’re your memories. You loved her.”
Herr Grooms nodded. “Still do, but I don’t need letters to remind me of that. And Vellie Rae has been patient long enough. She deserves better from me. It’s time.”
Arnie wanted to lash out, to knock the box from Herr Grooms’ hands, but that would be stupid, disrespectful. And what would it accomplish anyway? They weren’t his letters; Herr Grooms could do whatever he wanted with them. But to burn them, to throw away all that sentiment, to walk away from a relationship so fully defined by words and paper; a relationship more real than Arnie had ever experienced himself, more real than the one he was trying to have with Yvette. How could that be thrown away? He wanted to cry.
Herr Grooms upended the last letters into the fire, then tossed in the box as well. They stood there together, watching as the heat and smoke spread slowly through the old, yellowing paper. “Mrs. Grooms said you went on a date with that girl you mentioned?”
Arnie shrugged. “Yeah, we got some ice cream.”
“How’d it go?”
Arnie’s heart sank. “Not very well.”
Herr Grooms huffed and turned on his cane. “Well, what the hell you standing around here for? There ain’t no work for you to do today. Go find her, and make it right. You got one big advantage over me and Mee-Yon. Your girl ain’t thousands of miles away, in another timeline. Go!”
The old man walked away, and Arnie watched him go. When Herr Grooms disappeared through his porch screen door, Arnie knelt beside the pit, stuck out his hand, and plunged it into the fire.
Her mother greeted him at the door. Arnie removed his cap quickly. “Good evening, Frau Tyler. I’m sorry to disturb you, but may I speak to Yvette—I mean—Jessica?”
She noticed the white bandage on his hand. “My word, what happened to you? Are you okay?”
He smiled. “Yes, ma’am. It’s just a little burn.”
She nodded. “Wait here.”
She went back inside, and another silhouette joined her behind the door. They spoke a few indiscernible words, then Yvette emerged with a smile. He stepped back and let her come out on the porch. She noticed his hand as well.
“Are you okay?”
He nodded. “Yes, nothing to worry about. Just a small burn. It’s healing already.”
She grabbed his injured hand and stroked the fibers with tender fingers. “Poor thing.”
“I—I wanted to come by and apologize for running off on you today. I didn’t mean to do that. But—well—”
“That’s okay. I know it wasn’t your fault. Erich’s a jerk! I’m not hanging around him or his friends anymore.”
Arnie nodded, sniffled. He put his cap back on, fumbled around with the bandage, trying desperately to delay. But she stood there, her eyes staring deeply into his face, not blinking, waiting. “Yvette . . . there’s a lot I want to say to you, but I don’t know where to start.”
“Wait,” she said, taking his hand again and leading him onto the porch, away from the door. She whispered, “My mother is listening, so don’t say anything.”
She grew sullen and sad. “Arnie, I wanted to tell you at Johnson’s. I—I’m not allowed to date until I’m seventeen. I asked my parents if I could go watch that movie with you, and they said no. The subject matter is too adult, whatever that means.” She shook her head, rolled her eyes. “Anyway, what I wanted to tell you was that, I like you. A lot, and if you will be patient with me, seventeen isn’t that far off.”
In a matter of seconds, his emotions went from utter defeat at the fact that she couldn’t date, to the faint sliver of hope that within a couple years, she could. Sweat began to build on his brow. He wanted to wipe it away, but he didn’t. He couldn’t move his arms, so fixed he was on her soft expression, her kind, searching eyes. “Okay . . . I can wait.”
She jumped a little, then reached into the pocket of her dress and fished out a note. A letter, folded twice and tucked neatly in a beige envelope. “Here, I wrote you this,” she said, still whispering. “It tells you how I feel about you. And maybe some of my words are yours as well.”
She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Bye, Arnulf Langenberg. I’ll see you around.”
He opened the letter as he walked away. The faint light of the moon made it difficult to read, but he figured it out. Most of it. And he was happy, for Yvette was right.
Her words were his words.
August, 1636, Grantville
Herr Grooms was in an anxious mood. “No, do it like I showed you, boy.” He said, waving his cane at Arnie as the boy worked his trowel through the thick mortar in the wheelbarrow. “Mix it up right, and slather it on thick. Let the brick settle, then scrape it clean. Understand?”
“Yes, Herr Grooms.”
“I’ll come back and check on you soon.”
Arnie did as he was told, placed three concrete blocks in place as directed, until he was certain Herr Grooms was inside the house and well into his nap. Arnie smiled, reached into his pocket, and pulled out Mee-Yon’s letter. The one he had saved from the fire.
He opened it carefully and read the passage that had not been burned. The lines were precise and straight, as if she had used a ruler. Her English was spotty, articles missing here and there, but it hardly mattered. The sentiment was there, the love, and whether Herr Grooms would admit it or not, he needed her words, like Arnie had needed Yvette’s. Her letter was tucked into his latest Chandler novel and would be in every novel from here to 1638 until he could cash in on her promise.
“Well, Herr Grooms, you may have thought you burned them all, but you didn’t. Your Korean girl will be with you always.” He rolled the letter up and tucked it into one of the cement blocks. “Take care of him, Frau Mee-Yon. He needs you now more than ever.”
And with a smile, Arnie scooped up a trowel of mortar and buried the letter.