NOTE: This story is a semi-sequel to my previous fanfic, "It Ends Here Tonight". While "Pieces On Earth" stands on its own merit, I'm giving fair warning that future chapters will occasionally reference events from that story.
Reviews are welcome. As with my other works, the story itself is finished, but I'd like to see how it will be received before continuing to upload it.
Green fields and warm sunshine were now just a dream. A gray, weary sky looked down on the creatures below, unaware of—or perhaps indifferent to—their plight. The sun had long ago retreated from its battle with the gloom and now nestled inside its cloudy haven, much like the earthbound people cocooned within their olive drab parkas. A brisk wind swept through the mountainside, bringing with it the bone-chilling reminder that winter had firmly landed in Korea.
The only movement seen in the frost-dusted camp was that of personnel scurrying either to the nearest source of warmth, usually within their tent (or, in some cases, someone else's tent) or trudging away from it to start their shift—accompanied by various curses uttered through chattering teeth. It was for this reason that the jeep bearing overdue mail, usually descended upon within seconds by the desperate and homesick, was able to coast unimpeded to the doors of the company clerk's office.
Anyone looking would have seen a figure emerge from the office, wrapped from head to toe in at least three scarves, two pairs of gloves and a floor-length fur coat that looked more at home on Fifth Avenue than a MASH compound. The figure hoisted the bag out of the jeep with a groan. Swearing softly, he managed to drag it through the doors and began sorting it. His breath made misty patterns in the air as he worked, which only added to his ire; he hated winter in Korea.
Several feet away in another tent, one of the camp's doctors was thinking the exact same thing. Hawkeye Pierce sat next to the stove, debating what needed to be remedied first: the danger of hypothermia, or his exponentially increasing boredom. The shortage of readily available wood had already forced him to burn the magazines he'd saved throughout the year, which he did with a small pang of regret—poor Lisette, you and your volleyballs won't soon be forgotten—and the fire still threatened to die out.
After several minutes, an idea struck him that would take care of both problems. Soon he had set up a hastily constructed slingshot on a nearby desk, with two pencils and a sleep mask belonging to one of his roommates, the inimitable Charles Emerson Winchester...
"The third," Hawkeye finished aloud as he opened the hinged door to the furnace. He had also crumpled a number of the major's personal stationary sheets and piled them up like cannonballs next to the slingshot. "All right, men," he addressed the paper ammunition as though they were troops headed into combat, "remember, Boston gave her best so that we may have warmth. When you go in there, give it all you've got. Freedom, liberty and equality—not to mention my fingers—are counting on you."
He loaded one of the balls into the slingshot and aimed it at the furnace—thwap. An inch too far to the right. He reloaded and took another shot. Clunk. A direct hit, rewarded by the fire glowing a little brighter. One by one, the paper missiles were launched—clunk.
Corporal Maxwell Klinger had opened the door just in time for a paper ball to hit him squarely in the stomach. "Is that any way to treat a clerk bearing gifts?" he asked, swiftly shutting the door behind him.
"Klinger, get out of the way. I'm trying to save Boston."
"If Boston produces people like Major Winchester, it's too late." Klinger eyed the sleep mask slingshot. "Looks like you found a better use for that thing. Does he know about it?"
"What he doesn't know won't hurt me," Pierce replied. "What's this about gifts?"
"Oh, right." Klinger reached into the satchel on his shoulder and pulled out a small stack of mail, wincing slightly at the resulting shout of joy. "Looks like the Army finally remembered this part of the map."
"It's about time," Hawkeye commented, sizing up the number of envelopes in Klinger's hand. "After I finished with Charles' stationary I was going to move onto his socks. What have we got?"
"Let's see...one for the husband," Klinger replied, tossing the letter onto the cot of Hawkeye's other roommate, B.J. Hunnicut. "Three for the royal pain," he continued as the envelopes sailed onto Winchester's bed. He held up the two remaining letters towards Hawkeye, who greedily snatched them out of his hand.
"And two for the doctor who lives on Swamp Lane," Hawkeye finished, ripping open an envelope. "Good work, Klinger, you've brought us reading material and a future fuel source. Give yourself a commendation for being so resourceful."
Klinger snorted. "Only if that commendation comes in the form of a plane ticket with the words 'one-way' and 'Toledo' on it." He glanced at the single envelope on B.J.'s bunk with a puzzled expression. "I wonder if some of our mail is still floating around somewhere. Cap'n Hunnicut usually gets enough letters to put me in traction."
"Consider yourself lucky. We're charging extra for hernia operations this month," Pierce replied absently as he scanned one of his letters. "Santa came in with a slipped disc from all the toys he was lugging around, and we had to keep Rudolph for collateral."
"Fine, just keep him in your tent," Klinger retorted. "I get so little sleep these days as it is without a reindeer eating my carbon paper and leaving presents on my morning reports."
"Does that mean this place is turning into a red light district?" Hawkeye asked, raising an eyebrow suggestively. "I don't mind, but you may have some trouble with the zoning laws."
"Are you kidding me? I don't need the extra paperwork," Klinger replied. He shivered as a stray gust of wind seeped through the tent flaps. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few other mail-deprived subscribers ready to take their dissatisfaction out on my hide." He wrapped his fur coat tighter around him and slipped through the door, leaving Pierce to huddle next to the stove.
Hawkeye read through his letters, both from his father, catching up on the latest news in Maine. Memories of celebrating Christmas in his hometown drifted through his mind, and he briefly forgot the constant chill sweeping across his skin. Memories of better days...of cranberry apple pies, girls in velvet coats under the stars, the warm glow of the fireplace reflected in his father's eyes...
He slowly came back to reality and sighed. A half-buried fear gnawed at the back of his mind: the war had already taken precious moments away that they could have spent with loved ones, moments they would never get back. What else would they lose before it was over?
His melancholy was steadily replaced by ever-present boredom, and he had already used up his supply of paper cannonballs. His gaze rested on Winchester's socks, then almost involuntarily snapped over to the letter on B.J.'s cot.
At first he couldn't believe what he was thinking. After all, it wasn't even his letter. Then again, he rationalized, B.J. was bound to tell him what it said anyway—several times, in fact. Many more times if it involved something his daughter said or did. Where was the harm if it just happened to be opened when he got it?
As boredom warred with his conscience, his hand reached across the bunk and closed around the letter. That decided the matter for him; if B.J. asked, he could always say he couldn't wait to hear what new phrase little Erin Hunnicut had invented this time.
Unsealing the envelope with utmost care, he slid the letter out and unfolded it. As his eyes moved down the page, his curiosity and boredom rapidly gave way to concern, then fear:
I wish my letter brought happy news, because I know how much you need to hear it. But the truth is things haven't been very happy here, either. I wanted to tell you on the phone so I could hear your voice, but the operator told me the harsh weather where you are is making phone contact impossible.
Erin caught what I thought was the flu a week ago, but she's only been getting worse. I took her to see Dr. Bergen, who suggested I bring her to the hospital for tests. I'm sure you would understand the results better than I do, but the doctors there think it might be viral encephalitis. They're giving her medication, but it doesn't seem to be working yet.
I was hoping she would get better quickly so I wouldn't have to worry you. I struggled for so long whether I should tell you anything because I know how upset you must be, but I didn't feel it was right to hide this from you.
I don't remember a time when I've been so frightened, and I wish now more than ever that you were here. But I understand why you can't be with me, so I'll do my best to stay strong in your absence. I promise to keep writing so I can keep you updated, and if the phone lines clear up you can look forward to a call.
Take care of yourself, B.J., and don't ever forget that I love you. --Peg
Hawkeye read through the letter several more times. His fingers were numb, but not from the cold. God, Beej, he thought to himself. B.J. had been more withdrawn as of late, and his friends could tell it wasn't from the weather. He'd already been showing signs of depression since Thanksgiving, grumbling how Christmas was creeping up and he was thousands of miles from where he wanted to be. This was going to utterly destroy him.
Pierce's finger absently traced the outside of the envelope as he considered what to do. His first instinct was to head towards post-op and break the news as gently as possible. But as he stood up, a memory surfaced that stopped him before he could take a single step.
He remembered the letter B.J. had received not so long ago with news about his daughter that didn't go over well. Images he'd pushed far from his mind returned with alarming clarity: B.J.'s bitter smile, a shattered still—a shattered spirit on the floor of the Colonel's office.
And...the pain. Hawkeye winced involuntarily as he recalled B.J.'s fist connecting with his cheekbone, sending him flying across the tent. He had long since forgiven his roommate for the unwelcome surprise, but didn't relish the thought of dealing with an angry, drunk, desolate father again anytime soon. And all that commotion over his daughter making the adorably innocent mistake of calling someone else "Daddy".
And this is far more serious. What'll he do this time?
His thoughts were interrupted by the slam of a tent door followed by a familiar voice—"I left my shift early and put a snowman in my chair as a decoy. I don't think anyone will notice, unless they happen to ask a question and realize I'm melting into a puddle." Hawkeye froze at the sound; it was B.J.
He wasn't sure what made him hide the letter. Maybe he wanted to spare a man already suffering an acute case of homesickness from even further pain. Maybe it was for fear of what that man would become when the news was revealed; he'd already witnessed the "Mr. Hyde" lurking in the depths of B.J.'s easygoing nature and wasn't in any rush to see it again. Whatever the reason, Pierce felt his fingers deftly slide the letter underneath his own mail as B.J. sat down across from him with a groan.
"The Army can import chipped beef and creamed corn to Korea—not to mention import us. Would it be a stretch to ask them to send us some sun?" the Californian complained between shivers. Noticing the letters in Hawkeye's hand, he asked, "Is that what I think it is?"
"Freshly picked from Crabapple Cove," Pierce answered, subconsciously holding his thumb over the Mill Valley address on the bottom envelope.
"It's about time. In this place even two weeks is long enough to make you think Korea's the only place left on Earth." B.J. glanced down at his cot, and Hawkeye fought back the guilt as he watched the man's puzzled expression.
"Y'know, Klinger did say he thought there was more mail on its way," he assured his friend quickly. "There's probably a bag floating around somewhere, bursting with letters from California."
"Yeah, probably," B.J. echoed quietly, then fell silent. His expression was strangely distant, making Hawkeye feel even worse. B.J. was in dire need of good news from home to pull him from his misery. And the letter he'd read brought something far from good news...
"The fire's dying." B.J.'s voice snapped Pierce out of his musings. Taking a deep breath, he coughed at the chill that seeped into his lungs.
"We're out of paper, but I have an idea. Grab Charles' socks."
He would tell B.J. soon. Just...not now.