A/N: elicia8 did this wonderful illustration, which can't be uploaded to so I have included a link to it in the appropriate place.
"We have to do the surgery. The necrotic tissue has to be removed. If there's too much–"
"I don't care what you find."
"It may become necessary in order to save your life."
"I like my leg. I've had it for as long as I can remember."
"Honey, I love your leg as much as you do."
"They're not cutting it off."
Gregory swung into the front garden, vaulting the gate. Robinson was lying outstretched in the shade of the little lemon tree, but as soon as Greg's shadow flickered into the garden he rolled himself upright and bounded over, springing onto the boy and almost knocking him down onto the warm grass.
"Hey!" Greg shoved the dog's dark face away from his own and pushed his paws off of his shoulders. Robinson circled him rapidly as he wandered to the open door of the house and then lay down again, panting in the afternoon sun. Greg stepped up onto the porch and then into the cool hallway and threw his bag down by the door. He kicked off his shoes and heard them clatter satisfyingly against the wall. The house was very quiet.
"Mom? I'm home," he said, a little uncertainly. His mother came out onto the porch to wait for him most afternoons, reading a book or magazine in the wicker chair which stood by the front door.
"Greg," her voice was low and calm, but he sensed already that it was serious. Maybe Dad's dead, he thought, and was surprised at how neutral his reaction was. "I'm in the kitchen, honey."
She wasn't chopping vegetables or fiddling with the oven like she usually was when he got back from school. She was sitting at the kitchen table with a letter in front of her. Greg looked at her, scrutinised her weak smile, and hesitantly stepped in.
"What's the matter?" he asked, climbing onto the seat opposite her. He craned his head forward, trying to make out the words on the paper by her folded hands.
"It's your Dad," she began. Greg held his breath. "He's been wounded. They're sending him home," she smiled again, more convincingly than before. "Isn't that wonderful?"
Greg sat silently, a pensive expression on his face. "What's wrong with him?" he asked finally.
"His jet was attacked and he was shot in the leg, then he broke an arm jumping from the plane. Won't that be a story to tell them at school?"
"Sure," Greg said, studying his knees under the table.
"We're going to fly out to Maryland to see him on Monday. Okay, honey?"
"You can go out and play if you want."
Greg slunk out of the kitchen and was sitting with Robinson under the tree when Blythe went to the front window a few minutes later. She bit her lip gently. She knew that John was sometimes too hard on the boy, but surely this experience would make him realise how valuable his son was, how clever and how unique? And surely his commanders wouldn't send him to out to Viet Nam again? Perhaps now they could stay here, in Ohio. Greg was so happy here. She knew he was enjoying being in the same place for this long, making friends, tentatively at first as though he feared they would soon be torn apart.
He sat with his back against the tree, scratching Robinson's ear absently. He wasn't worried about leaving home – he had flown so many times that it was as natural to him as riding a bus; and he had lived in three different countries already. But when they came back, Dad would be with them. For how long? This was his third tour of duty, and Greg knew that that was a lot from what the kids at school said and from the way teachers drew in their breaths when he told them. "What a brave man your father must be, Greg," was what they usually said, but Greg knew the truth. His father hated being around him. Greg sometimes saw pictures on the news of the fighting in Viet Nam, before his mother swiftly switched channels. There was noise and fire and explosions, and his father would still rather be there than with him. Not that he cared, or so he tried to convince himself. At least when Dad wasn't there he could relax. He could grow his hair a little. When he was four, his father had accompanied him to the barber's and had them shave away his baby curls. Ever since then, his hair had been kept to a neat short back and sides. But when Dad was away on duty, he could let it until it touched his ears. He could talk in the house without whispering, he could leave things lying around. Mom's idea of punishment was to ask him to apologise. Dad's idea of punishment he didn't even want to think about.
Greg almost fell asleep on the bus which was taking them through Baltimore to the military hospital. His mother gently nudged him whenever it looked like he was about to drop off. Flying always made him tired, however short the journey.
"Greg," she whispered, rousing him once more. He started, then looked out the window. Set back from the road was a big grey building, domed, and with a wide set of steps in front of it. On the broad grass verge in front of it, young people lounged together, sitting or lying, eating and smoking.
"That's the Eisenhower Library," his mother said quietly, spotting a chance to catch his attention and keep him awake. "It's part of the Johns Hopkins University. Did you know," she said, in a confidential tone, "that Johns Hopkins had fifteen wives?"
Greg looked up quickly. "That's against the law," he said, a smile creeping onto his face.
"Well, honey, he was a Quaker. Back then, Quakers could have as many wives as they wanted."
She smiled. She could see him processing this information, sorting it in his head and storing it away. "Johns is a stupid name," he said absently. His eyelids began to droop under the baking heat filtered through the glass and his head came to rest on his mother's shoulder.
The military medical centre in Baltimore was a converted general hospital. Greg blinked, standing with his mother on the reddish asphalt of the car park, where the bus had left them and two young women, and stared at it through narrowed eyes. The military hospitals he had seen before, usually small buildings in some far corner of a base, were usually made-for-purpose, green iron constructions. This building before them looked more or less like the general hospital downtown, where he had spent a few painful hours after breaking his wrist falling out of a tree.
Inside, the reception was white and hushed and cool. On the seats around the room sat only a few men, most of them in military uniform. A nurse touched his mother on the arm as they entered.
"Can I help you?"
"We're here to see Lieutenant John House."
"Okay. If you just take a seat, I'll find out which ward he's on."
Greg stood at the magazine table and skimmed over battered periodicals and month-old Readers Digests, affecting nonchalance. He wished his stomach would stop churning. He wasn't scared. His dad was laid up in bed – there was no way he could lay a finger on him. Perhaps, Greg thought suddenly, the injury had changed him. What was that book his mother had read to him? An old, old book, which had belonged to his grandmother. What Katy Did, that was it. She had hurt her back, and that had taught her how to be patient and kind. That was an old-fashioned story, he knew. Things like that didn't happen now.
"Ma'am?" the young nurse said, returning. "He's on the Dickens Wing. If you make your way up the stairs and to your left, it's signposted from there."
"Thank you," Blythe said. She tapped Greg on the shoulder. "Come on, honey."
The corridors were full, much busier than the reception. It was still very quiet, but doctors, nurses and patients throttled the narrow halls. The air smelt like the dentist's room and there were no windows. The ward was a small, narrow one, a general ward for men recovering from non life-threatening wounds, and the hall outside it was deserted. Blythe stepped in and anxiously scanned the faces of the patients. Greg lingered in the hall, his hands gripping the bottom of his shirt, forcing down the bile in his throat.
"There he is!" she said softly, hurrying towards a bed about two-thirds down the ward. Greg shifted his gaze upwards and saw him. His father was half-sitting in his bed, a newspaper spread over his knees. He had his reading glasses on, and his plastered arm was hanging in a sling in front of his chest.
"John!" she cried, her voice still muted, folding him in a careful embrace and setting down the plastic bag of fruit and sweets she had put together for him. Greg stood awkwardly behind her, his hands gripping the lining of his pockets. He looked around at the other beds. Most of the men were either asleep or receiving visitors themselves. Opposite his father lay a fairly young man with his neck in a brace, talking to a pretty blonde woman. At the woman's side stood a boy not much older than Greg himself, also staring around uncomfortably. Their eyes met in a moment of mutual understanding, before Greg's attention was forced away.
"Greg," his father hailed him gruffly. "How are you?"
"Pretty well, sir," he muttered, avoiding his father's eyes. "Does it hurt?" he added, curiously.
"Not a lot. Blythe," he turned to his wife and began saying something. His father had already expended his interest in talking to him. Greg stood still, too tense now to try and make eye contact with the other boy again. His mother was now unpacking the plastic bag, setting out the grapes, bananas, chocolate bars and magazines on the bedside table.
"Now, you didn't have to do this," he protested fondly, pressing her hand.
"Of course I did. If hospital food is as bad as they say and army food is as bad as you make it sound, this place might be the death of you," she replied affectionately.
Greg was pretending to study the monitor by the bed, but he could feel his father looking at him, probably frowning.
"That boy's hair is too long," he muttered. "First thing we get home, Greg, I'm taking you down to the barber's."
"I like my hair like this," Greg argued, but quietly. The thing was as good as settled now his father had spoken. Blythe opened her mouth, but John was already talking again.
"You don't want the boys at school to call you a sissy, do you?"
"No, sir," he answered dutifully.
"How's he getting along at school?" John asked his wife. "Did he make any teams?"
Blythe smiled proudly and tried to redirect the question. "Tell Dad about the hockey team."
Greg looked briefly up at both of them. "I made the hockey team," he said brusquely. His mother picked up the conversation before his father could make comment on his surliness, as he was almost certain to do.
"And he's doing so well in class, too. A poem he wrote for English was read out in front of the whole grade."
"Well, you ought to be doing well, Greg. You're a smart kid," John said. Then firmly, "But you can forget about poetry. That won't do you any good at all."
Greg sighed inwardly. Here was another thing he enjoyed that his father had decided to stamp out. He remembered the volume of Hilaire Belloc's poetry lying on his bedside table at home. That was something he would have to put away somewhere when Dad came home. He could pull it out in quiet moments and absorb more tales of disobedient children meeting terrible fates. On second thoughts, maybe his father was a fan.
"I hope you haven't been giving your mother any trouble," John continued sternly.
"Oh no," Blythe cut in quickly. "None at all. He's been very helpful."
"Good, good. I can see what I told you before I left about not being bother has had some effect," he said to Greg, who shuffled his feet and nodded. There was a few moments silence as Blythe finished arranging the gifts she had brought on the table and John folded up the newspaper on his lap and lay it under his pillow. He leaned back his head against the pillow as if weary, and Greg's eye caught the threads of grey beginning to pick themselves out in his dark brown hair.
"How are things out there?" Blythe asked softly. John stared at the ceiling.
"Bad," he said. "Still terrible. The things I..." he trailed off. "I hope Greg won't have to see anything like that after he enlists."
An awkward, silent mist descended upon the conversation, as it always did when the subject of Greg's future came up. I don't want to join the Marines! he screamed to himself. He kept quiet, just hoping that when he was old enough to join up he would be big and strong enough to defy his father. He could hardly imagine that now, but he dreamed about the day.
"Can I go to the bathroom?" he asked instead.
"Sure. I'll show you where it is," his mother said.
"He's old enough to find it himself," his father interrupted, frowning in that mildly disapproving way that he almost always used regarding Greg.
"I saw it on the way up anyway," Greg said hastily, seeing his mother open her mouth to protest.
Outside the ward door, he leaned against the corridor and closed his eyes, letting out a long breath. The halls were still jammed with people, rushing and snapping orders, driving him aside. He slowly wandered through them, heading for the floor below, where he had seen a sign for the bathroom.
The bathroom was empty when he got there, cool and clean and smelling faintly of ammonia. As he washed his hands in the white enamel basin before he left, he stared at himself in the wide mirror. He looked pale and ill. He slapped his cheeks with the palms of his damp hands. Didn't want them to mistake him for a patient and keep him there.
As he stepped out the door, a thunderous rattle filled his ears. Approaching rapidly from the right was a gurney, surrounded by three EMTs, two doctors and three nurses, all talking, rattling off statistics. He was supposed to be going the opposite direction, but something about the frenetic movement, the energy buzzing around the gurney that almost hypnotised him. He followed it, half-running to keep close, eyes fixed and wide. He didn't stop running until they reached an emergency room on the other side of the floor, when they slammed the door shut, no one even noticing him throughout the entire journey. The silence that followed, as he stood outside the solid blue door, was strange. He had been so transfixed by the noise and rush that now he was almost dizzy, wondering where exactly he was.
He eventually turned in a vague direction and headed along the nearest hall. This part of the building was less busy. A janitor was slowly pushing a mop in semi circles over the hard cream-coloured floor. He looked up. They were the only two in the short corridor. The janitor had thick grey eyebrows and not much hair, Greg observed. The janitor winked, and nodded amiably. Greg hurried past, looking back at the grey marks his sneakers had made on the damp surface.
"Sorry!" he called over his shoulder. The janitor shrugged in a very Zen manner and resumed his mopping.
Greg hurtled down several corridors, dodging staff and gowned patients, until he felt sure he recognised the area. One of these doors was the right one, he was certain. The first was open, and he slipped in.
He knew at once that it was the wrong ward. It was much longer and wider than his father's, for a start. The ceiling was higher, and there were more doctors and nurses moving around under it. It was also much louder, constant voices clashing. Greg immediately heard hollow groaning, even as he stepped in, and his eyes roved to find its source. A man two beds up from the doorway was making the noise, a young man with sandy hair and brown eyes screwed up in pain.
"Kid!" he hissed, saliva flying out from behind gritted teeth. Greg took a hesitant step forward.
"Me?" he whispered loudly, looking at the bed between the young man's and himself. Its occupant was asleep.
"Yeah, c'mere!" the man urged.
Greg walked slowly to the bed.
"Sir?" he said nervously.
"Kid, there's something heavy on my hand," he nodded towards the shape of his arm under the sheet. "It's…" he broke off and gave a yelp of pain. "It's crushing my f-fingers. Lift it off, will ya? These bastards," he gestured with the other hand to one of the white-coated medics. "They won't do a thing about it. They're ignoring me. Just do it, will ya?"
"Okay," Greg gripped the corner of the blanket and drew it slowly back over the man's arm. At the wrist, the flesh stopped. All that remained of the hand was a violent pink stump, twitching from side to side.
"Lift it off! My fucking fingers!" the man yelped. Greg dropped the blanket and backed away so fast he almost tripped. He turned away from the bed and stared around the ward.
The bed opposite contained an older man, perhaps ten years older than his father. Two men in wheelchairs sat, one on either side of his bed, playing cards across the fold-down table. Greg looked closer, and saw that neither man had legs. They wore loose shorts, but no limbs came out from under them. Their stumps moved though, as if they were still controlling limbs beneath. They laughed, but the sound was horrendous to Greg's ears. He started suddenly as he looked back ahead and saw a man with one leg propelling himself down the centre of the ward with painful slowness. He was propped up on two crutches, and edged forward, sweat streaming down his face. Greg watched his approach. The man did not look up and see him, staring at the floor and snarling.
Then, when he was only a few feet away from Greg, the crutches slid backwards and he hit the floor. Greg screamed as the man's robe came apart and his stump became visible. Two nurses broke away from the patient they had been talking to and hurried down. The man was moaning in pain and trying to roll onto his back. Tears were sliding down over his bony face.
"I didn't..." Greg mumbled, then stopped. The nurses were ignoring him. Next to them, a patient's monitor began to bleep loudly and rapidly. Two doctors entered the ward almost immediately. One of them glanced down at Greg as he passed.
"What the hell is this kid doing here?" he barked, moving on to the patient. One of the nurses who had been helping the fallen man to his feet leaned forward and took Greg's shoulder.
"What are you doing here?" she spoke loudly over the blare of the monitors.
"I don't know...I got lost,"
"Get out!" the doctor ordered.
"Go on, kid," the nurse added. "Go up the hall and ask at the nurses station. They'll tell you where to go."
Greg backed away, out into the hall and suddenly began to run, away from the ward, as fast as he could. He was breathless and flushed when he found the nurses station. Only one woman was there. She smiled at him, gave him a red lollipop and a set of simple directions. A couple of minutes later he was back by his father's bed.
"You've been gone an age, honey. Did you find it all right?" his mother asked.
Greg nodded, his hands shaking in his pockets. "I got lost for a while."
"I should've gone with you," his mother said, shaking her head.
"Don't baby the boy. So what if he got lost? He found his way back, didn't he? Didn't you?" John said sternly.
"Yes," Greg muttered, his mind elsewhere, in the amputations ward.
"You see, Blythe? It was good for him."