author's note. This story actually came about because I went to a New Kids on the Block concert a few weeks ago. (Hey, as a child of the 80s, I was always a little bummed that I didn't get to see them back in the day. And you know what? The boys put on a heck of a show.) Wanting to preserve that post-concert high, I came home and immediately started watching Band of Brothers so that I could get my fill of Donnie Wahlberg as the awesome, awesome Lipton. Reaching Episode 6 made me remember how much I also adore Roe, the hot/competent medic played by Shane Taylor. In fact, when I first watched the series back in 2002 (It was on videotape! We had to go to Blockbuster to pick it up! Uphill both ways!) as soon as I watched "Bastogne" I knew it would be my favorite.
Of course, that got the wheels spinning. (Roe is actually in all ten episodes so I had a fun time playing 'Spot the Roe' - the medic armband makes it easier than 'Find the Shifty,' which is another amusing pastime when you've seen BoB ten or twenty times.) I can't believe I've never written a fiction about this episode before - I mean, it's right up my alley what with the angst and the doomed love story. Also, I've just realized I have posted three stories in a row set during World War Two (the Kit Kittredge story, the Magic of Ordinary Days one, and now this). Anyone who knows me could tell you this is not surprising.
I have taken a few liberties with the timeline, but nothing too jarring, I think. I've never written a fan fiction about real people before, I hope I did them justice. Wikipedia was an awesome resource - it turns out that Renee Lemaire was a real person, I'd always assumed they made her up - and the IMDb boards filled in a lot too. No disrespect is intended towards the memory of these people, whose sacrifices I greatly admire.
She's never seen hair the color of his before.
When the young medic before her pops off his helmet, his hair sticks up like the feathers of a baby duck, and Renee stares. His hair is black, but it isn't just black - it's an inky, almost blue-black color. Renee's grandmother had a lacquered sideboard the exact shade of this young man's hair - it was one of her prized posessions. And they'd chopped it up for firewood the first winter of the German occupation. Renee was sad to see the lovely furniture destroyed, but the warmth it provided saved their lives.
His patient isn't so badly off - lower leg wound, no morphine - so Renee speaks only a few words to the medic. But he is following her around like a lost puppy, needing supplies. He is firm, though not impolite, and as she is packing a box of what little they can spare, he surprises her by speaking to her in French. "What's your name?"
"My name's Renee," she says.
"I'm Gene - Eugene Roe."
Her curiosity is piqued. "Where are you from?"
"Louisiana. Half Cajun." Renee doesn't catch the significance of this, but she has encountered very few men who speak her native language. This one slips easily back and forth between the two, a sign he's been doing so since childhood. And he speaks both English and French with an unfamiliar accent. Somehow, to Renee, it sounds like someplace warm. "And you? Where are you from?"
"Bastogne." She grew up just around the corner; she learned catechism from the nuns and took her first Communion in this church. But it isn't the nuns she's thinking of as the young man bounds up the stairs.
He hasn't told her she's pretty, and he doesn't stare. Renee, though a shy girl and not prone to flirtation, is well aware that the men she treats haven't seen a female face in weeks. And they often stare at her - all except the priests and the ones who are dying. If she were a different sort of girl, if it were a different situation, Renee would enjoy all the male attention. They smile at her, they tell her she's an angel, but not this Eugene. He is all business, demanding morphine and bandages. Dark eyes under dark brows. But he has spoken French to her, and then he is gone.
Renee always has a little chocolate in her pocket. One bar is eight squares, and she doles it out carefully. She'll nibble it in rare moments of peace between patients, she passes it around to the other girls, she feeds it to the men who are well enough off and in need of a little comfort. Renee has an unopened bar in the pocket of her sweater this morning, and without even thinking about it, she mounts the stairs that lead out of the church to the street. She's hoping he's still there and he is, a pair of boots from a dead man in his hand.
"Eugene," Renee says, and he turns. "Chocolat. Pour vous."
She's never given away a whole bar before. But he smiles, so it's worth it.
Back on the line, Doc Roe hops into his foxhole.
He's never been so cold in his life. Of course, all the men of Easy Company say this, but in his case it is true. He's only seen snow a handful of times in his twenty-two years. Well, he's seeing it up close and personal now. He is intimately familiar with all the forms snow can take - powdery snow, crunchy snow, wet snow, fresh snow, yellow snow. Snow stained crimson when the blood seeps into it and freezes.
They have finally concluded that they aren't going to be resupplied any time soon. If he doesn't freeze to death first, Eugene will continue to treat the men with his dwindling supplies. Sulfa, bandages, a few syrettes of morphine. At least he has scissors now (thank you, Perconte). He's not taking any chances with them, either - he doubts that he'll be able to come up with another pair. Eugene finds a cord in his left cargo pocket and loops it through the scissors' handle, then ties the other end to his belt loop. The excess cord in his hands reminds him of a rosary, and without even thinking about it too much, Eugene begins to pray.
His religion has always been close to the bone. His dogtags say he's Catholic, but there's more to it than that. It's a potent brew, Catholicism mixed with folk traditions and steeped in the sultry Louisiana heat for a few hundred years. Where the other holy trinity is celery, bell peppers, and onions. He was raised this way, and he's never thought of abandoning it. Lord, grant that I shall never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, or to be loved as to love, with all my heart.
No one could doubt that he loves the men. He carries their blood in crescents under his fingernails and dried into his clothing by way of proof. Roe has been a member of Easy Company almost from the beginning - he's run the mountain with them, gone through jump training with them and hated Sobel with them. And truth be told he's done some drinking with them (Gene holds his liquor surprisingly well for a man who weight a buck-twenty soaking wet). It's not because he doesn't care that he keeps himself separate, aloof, risks Heffron's ire by calling him 'Edward.' It's for the simple reason that he must. He can't play favorites, he can't ever create a situation that will cause him to hesitate, because hesitation equals death.
And of course, there's the fact that it tears him up inside when one of them dies.
Eugene's cold fingers are burning - without realizing it he has wrapped the end of the cord tightly around them. He stares for a moment, then unwinds it - won't be much of a medic if he loses his hand. "With all my heart," he finishes.
The Americans call her 'nurse,' but Renee Lemaire isn't a nurse at all. She isn't like Anna, the Congolese girl, who has actual training and has seen this kind of thing before. Anna is usually the one who treats the wounded while Renee gives them comfort. Renee's only qualifications are that she speaks passable English and she isn't squeamish. That and, of course, she is here. Renee was a pigtailed schoolgirl when the Germans first arrived, bringing the door to her very doorstep. She had already watched her brother Henri march off to the fight, so proud in his shining uniform. He didn't last a month.
At first, she vowed to help the Americans only out of revenge. She soon found that that was quite impossible - she had to give herself over to it wholly, to view each wounded man not as a soldier but one of God's children. By the third week, she decided that as soon as the war was over, she would be taking the veil. That changed, of course, when she met Eugene.
All of the trees in the Ardennes are pretty much alike. This one is distinguished only by the presence or a dark-haired, wiry young man crouching at its base. A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking him the picture of calm, silent on a silent day, smoking a cigarette. This is not quite that picturesque scene, though; this is Eugene Roe, with all the kinetic energy of a coiled spring.
It's his last cigarette, at least until the skies clear, and it gives him no pleasure. He hates this. Watching them disappear into the fog thick as gumbo and wondering how many will come back.
They all call him by the honorary of 'Doc,' but he's never been to medical school. In fact, he left school at thirteen, when his father died, to work on a shrimp boat and keep his ma and his sisters fed. He was trained in combat medicine in between practice jumps in Toccoa and maneuvers in Aldbourne, and he's good at what he does, but he's no doctor.
Like Spina, Eugene has wondered why he ended up a medic instead of anything else. His grandmother, before she died, had often explained to young Gene that the healer's gift was passed down from generation to generation. It alternated from male to female, female to male. But his grandmother had had only one child, his mother Maud, and Eugene had only sisters. He always figured the line had died off with her. He considers himself a competent medic, but not particularly gifted as a healer. (And that, of course, is where Eugene is wrong. When he looks into the eyes of a wounded man, tells him everything will be fine, even when he is lying he is almost always believed.) No, it isn't because of his grandmother that he figures he has become a medic.
It's because he is the fastest.
Whenever they ran the mountain, back at Toccoa, Sobel would position himself at the top with a stopwatch in hand. It can't have escaped the lieutenant's attention that Gene was always one of the first to the top. And he tore through the obstacle course, too, nimble as a jackrabbit and completely unfazed by the pig guts festooning the barbed wire. (He's plenty of pig guts before, anyway, at the annual boucherie in St. Martinville.) Gene was understandably nervous to be called before Captain Sobel, wondering what infraction he could have committed - there's a rumor going around that Sobel had a man court-martialed or possibly executed over a can of peaches - so it was actually a relief to learn the true purpose of the visit.
He is agile, taut as elastic but with nerves of steel. He gets along with everyone. He is a light sleeper who can be easily roused. These qualifications, apparently, are enough to recommend him - and just like that, the C.O. takes away his rifle and replaces it with a medic armband. It isn't that he's a bad shot - he's no Shifty Powers but he can handle himself around a rifle. But you have to be tough to be the only man without a rifle when the trees and the ground are exploding around you. And he's always heard that the enemy aren't supposed to target medics, but a lot of those bullets have come awfully close.
Gene got his first taste of combat medicine at the same time the rest of Easy got its first taste of combat - minutes after hitting the ground in Normandy. Of course he landed nowhere near where he was supposed to be - he was second out of the plane after Winters, but the lieutenant was nowhere in sight - and he'd lost most of his supplies on the way down. He heard a man groaning in pain, and he low-crawled in the direction of the sound. It was a man from Baker Company, a corporal who'd caught an anti-aircraft round on the way down.
Gene wasn't able to save the man from Baker, but his success rate has improved considerably since then.
He is responsible for the men's mental wellbeing as well as treating their wounds. He scrounges boots for Joe Toye and doles out chocolate and sympathy to Heffron. He looks after Spina, who's a private and two years his junior. He does the rounds, the way a real doctor would, between all their holes when things are quiet. And when they aren't, when the rest of Easy Company is hunkered down in foxholes trying to avoid being blown to kingdom come, he ducks and weaves with an agility that would make any quarterback jealous. Because speed is the only thing that will save him, and his only purpose in life now is to save them.
The popping of gunfire echoes in the middle distance, like a telephone receiver left off the hook. It won't be long now.
Renee emerges from the church basement to a sight she hasn't seen in weeks: a blue sky.
Even more beautiful is the sight of planes overhead - friendly planes, their cargo tethered to parachutes drifting lazily to earth like milkweed. The supply drop means bandages and plasma and morphine, it means cigarettes for the men and another chocolate bar for Renee's pocket. But the chocolate isn't why Renee smiles. The supply drop also means that within a few hours, the medics in the field will be descending on the church to augment their own meager supplies. And that means that she will see Eugene again.
There is much more to take back, this second time around. Roe ducks into the alcove which has become an unofficial staging area, loading a ration crate with bandages (real bandages), plasma, morphine. He watches Renee through a window, and his frozen heart begins to thaw. By candlelight, with her blue kerchief, she resembles the Virgin Mary of religious art. Her loveliness permeates his very core, and for a moment the man who darts fearlessly between the trees is stuck. He doesn't know what he will say to her, or if he will slip away again. But in the next moment a surgeon calls for a medic. Renee is all confidence, directing the action again. It isn't an Easy Company man, but Eugene doesn't see the difference. He sets down his crates and follows the girl, dropping his helmet as the wounded man is borne into a room with a ceiling like heaven.
There is no time for pleasant conversation. "We need to find the artery," Renee tells him briskly, in French.
"Oui, d'accord," Roe agrees.
Their hands scrabble in slick blood, Gene is up to his wrists in the man's belly, but there is no traction, no success. "The artery," he grunts, "gotta find the artery -"
Blood spurts from the wounded man's mouth. "Anna!" Renee calls.
Anna comes swiftly but too late, and in a moment it's all over. Renee is the first to realize that the man has died. What a horrible death, in such a beautiful place, with its falsehood of starry blue. Anna sees it too, but not Eugene. He is still working, stubbornly.
Renee turns to him. Words freeze on her lips.
Eugene snaps the bandage to the floor and swears in French. He never lets the men of Easy Company see his emotions. He keeps his anger in check (with the notable exception of the night Lt. Heyliger was shot, and he's not a bit sorry about that) because they need him to. He can't afford to fall apart when Easy is depending on him to be strong. Now something inside of him fractures; somehow Renee's blue-eyed innocence has him totally disarmed.
He really thought they could save the man.
Renee's lips tremble. She will not weep for the dead man - she is afraid, not for herself but for Eugene. There are no words in French or English to express what she needs to say, and she is the first to drop her gaze. Anna simply turns and walks away. There is a strange intimacy to the scene, an intensity that she never would have wanted for herself.
Eugene, with shaking hands, reaches for the dead man's neck. He pulls out the chain and removes one of the blood-spattered metal tags. Now he can't meet Renee's eyes. She has seen the Americans do this before, but it is odd to see Eugene doing it, and slightly jarring. He turns abruptly on the heel of his boot and stalks away.
She is no longer a schoolgirl, so she doesn't run after him. "Eugene, wait -"
"I have to find Sergeant Lipton -"
"Wait," she says, looking at his hands. "Wash it off before it dries."
Eugene looks down. This death was a particularly bloody one. He hates to go back to Easy even more of a mess than he left it. "All right."
Eugene allows the girl to lead him to a basin of water. "There's no soap," she apologizes. He gives her a fraction of a smile and plunges his hands into the cold water. The strange man's blood, since it is fresh, easily swirls away but the stains remain. Renee watches him - his wrists are red and chapped from the cold, she realizes, and he doesn't have any gloves. To think, on a day this cold.
"Thank you," he says, holding up relatively clean hands. Anna doesn't have a towel, but there is a dry spot on her apron. He doesn't meet her eyes as he blots his hands.
Now his hands are jammed into his pockets for warmth, his shoulders hunched. "Let me get my coat," she says.
"Where are you going?"
"Come with me," she pleads. "A few minutes' peace. I have some chocolate."
"All right." Another man might have held her hand, guided her by the small of her back as they walked together. Eugene doesn't try to touch her, only follows her wordlessly up and out. Behind the church there is a small stand of chairs, some of which are serviceable. He doesn't wonder where the chairs have come from.
In another place, in another lifetime, this would be considered a romantic scene. And it hasn't escaped her attention that Eugene Roe is a handsome man. But it isn't anything as fleeting and trivial as romance that's driving them together, it's need. She can only offer him chocolate and a tiny respite from the horrors. But it is enough - it will have to be enough.
Now Eugene speaks to her only in English. He chuckles, mirthlessly, only a small sound at the back of his throat. "What?" Renee wonders.
Now she looks down at them, confused. "My hands?" They are bloodied, her nails cut short, but not otherwise notable.
"Mm-hmm." Now he looks at her, and Renee realizes that his eyes aren't brown at all - they're an unusual deep blue. "You're a good nurse."
His kindness is harder for her to accept than his anger had been, and her voice quavers. "No." Renee slides her kerchief off, revealing coiled braids underneath. Gene realizes that she must be no more than eighteen. "I never want to treat another wounded man again. I'd rather work in a butcher's shop."
"But yo' touch..." He pauses, and for a moment, he is thinking of his grandmother. "...calms people." Eugene is all sincerity. "That's a gift from God."
She can't bear to have him think of her as a saint. She is not an angel the wounded men think her; she is a girl with bloody hands. "That's not a gift. God would never give such a painful thing." Renee has finished breaking her chocolate bar into squares, and she offers it to Eugene. He hasn't eaten, not a thing, in two days but for some reason he shakes his head. Despondently, she bites into one of the precious squares herself. Gene's eyes are on her like he's seeing her for the first time, but his expression is not one of dismay. Wondering, or perhaps even awe.
He is trying to think of the next words to say when a truck pulls up. "Nurse! We need some help over here." And Eugene realizes she wouldn't be the person she is if, despite what she has said, Renee didn't immediately assist.
"Where's his tag? What's wrong with him?"
Eugene turns towards Doc Jones. For some reason, the words form in his brain in French. "Paralyzed," Roe finally manages.
In a church basement, the dead and dying stacked all around them, Eugene has absolutely zero sense of irony. "He's paralyzed. He can't feel a thing."
He stands, as if rooted to the floor. He doesn't want to be here but he sure doesn't want to go back to the lines, either. Maybe he'll put down roots. Back home in St. Martin Parish, there's a tree growing in the ruins of an old church. Its roots crack the stone floor, branches parting the roof like arms supplicating the heavens in prayer. He could do that. As long as he doesn't have to see any more blood.
Renee, coming in from the alcove with a load of bandages, freezes. She's seen him only twice before but she knows Eugene from his silhouette; his distinctive posture and that inky black hair beneath his battered helmet. "Eugene?"
He turns towards her, and his stricken gaze shatters a heart she had thought was beyond breaking. The man he has brought is alive, but grief is plainly written on his face. "Eugene, are you..." Already a voice is calling to her for assistance. "Are you all right?" The last time, he had been angry. Now he is torn in two.
Renee lifts a hand to gesture, Wait. Even as she hurries away she knows he won't be there when she returns. She needs to help him, to fix him, but there isn't enough chocolate in the world.
Christmas Eve. Renee has often heard that during the Great War, opposing armies made their peace on the most significant of religious holidays. Men sand hymns together, blending their native tongues, and even emerged from the trenches for a shared supper or a game of football. It doesn't take long to discern that no such armistice will take place in 1944. In fact, far from being content to hurl their weapons at each other in the shattered woods, now the Germans are targeting the town.
Corporal Jones' pale face is blackened with soot. "Renee!" he urges her. "We're evacuating. Let's go!"
"But there are more men at the back of the church," she argues.
He swears. "Renee, there isn't time -"
It is too late. A few feet from the front of the church, the very ground on which she is standing takes a direct hit. And as she dies, Renee thinks of those she has loved: her grandmother, her parents, her brother Henri. And finally Eugene.
The bombs are unrelenting.
Eugene has a long time to think about it, on his cold solitary walk back to the line.
For a while he tries to convince himself that she could have escaped. She could have dropped her scarf on the way out the door - there were others who made it out alive. He didn't have much time to investigate the wreckage, but he didn't see the body. Then a wave of horror overtakes the young medic. He's seen what the German artillery can do to a person. And the shells and the bombs don't discriminate. They don't care if you're soldier or civilian, male or female, young or old. They make no allowance for a young girl with the hands of a butcher and the face of an angel.
He's just grateful he didn't have to see Renee like that.
Eugene feels Winters' eyes on him as he trudges past the Captain's foxhole. He knows that he's going to have to tell the company commander about the destruction in Bastogne, in case he doesn't know already. And Winters is a good C.O., decisive, loyal, even compassionate. But Eugene is reluctant to tell Winters about Renee. It isn't that he thinks he will get a reprimand - their chaste interaction was appropriate even for the church in which it took place. It's because Eugene knows that he will never be able to say her name again.
He never even took a bite of the chocolate she offered him, and now he wishes he had, because he's realized too late that he loved her.
All is quiet. The Germans have obviously turned their focus on the town for the time being. No one has died in his absence. This will be good enough. He pops into the hole beside Heffron on the O.P. "Everything all right?"
Heffron rubs a hand across his nose, and Eugene notices that the man's palm is bloody. "How'd you do that?"
"You did that," Heffron tells him. There is not a hint of resentment towards the man who made him bleed.
Eugene lifts his eyebrows, but doesn't deny it. He's probably done a lot of things in the last few days that he doesn't remember. "Well, I'll fix it up then." He puts his hand in his jacket pocket and encounters an unfamiliar texture. Cotton, clean and freshly pressed - soft, not stiff with dirt and dried blood. He pulls it out - Renee's kerchief.
Maybe it's because the sun has come out again, but the blue is so bright it hurts his eyes.
He turns it over and over in his hands, like a rosary. He can't do this. It's his last tangible link to Renee, the only proof that she ever existed. And he hasn't kept anything back for himself, these last few weeks, because it isn't in his nature. Cold, unhappy, and weary to his very bones, Gene feels justified in being a little selfish. But as he starts to stuff the scrap of cloth back into his pocket, his hand is arrested.
Even though his world has contracted to the size of this foxhole in the frozen woods, the clothes on his back, and the meager supplies in his back, there is one important constant, and it's the men of Easy Company. They depend on him, and their need is the only thing keeping him together any more. Lord, grant that I shall never seek so much to be loved as to love, with all my heart.
And if Babe wonders about the origin of his strange blue bandage, Gene knows that he will never ask.