Disclaimer: I do not own Wiess nor make any profit from them.
Comments: I wanted to write an epilogue to Sweet Hell ever since I finished it. But I wanted to put some time between the end and writing something new for it. Anyway I hope I managed to get back into the feel of the story. And I hope you guys enjoy this little flash forward; I thought it was important to write. Thanks for all your time and for reading this story with as much enthusiasm as you have. Thanks especially to all the new reviews that have trickled in over the past few months; it's great to know that people are still reading this. It makes me very happy. ^^ Anyway that's all I have to say. I'm going to crawl back into my hole now and get back to my class work. I hope to see you around some in the future.
Notes: The Vietnam Memorial wall was dedicated on November 13, 1982. This takes place about one year later.
Epilogue: Thanksgiving 1983
It's quiet. I'm alone, sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar city. But that's alright. I won't be alone for long. There is a sick, sad excitement building in my stomach. Half of me wants to leap to my feet and run from this place, out of this room, this city, everything. I don't know if I'm ready for this. It's been eight years since my hell came to an end, but I'm still not sure that I'm ready to go back into that place in my mind.
For the first time in years I dreamt about Nam last night. I dreamt that I was sitting in the infirmary, holding the kid's hand again. We were talking about philosophy, and I can't remember if this was a conversation we actually had or just something my mind made up on the spur of the moment. Whatever the case I woke up with a heaviness in my chest I haven't felt for a long time.
I didn't wake Ran to tell him. I know that he's been dealing with his own demons lately. No, instead of waking him I simply touched his face and thanked him for the millionth time for being with me. I thanked God for giving him back to me. Heh. Not that it's been all sweetness and light. We've had out share of bumps in the road. There was one point in time where I seriously thought it was over, that we'd gone through everything and come out together only to lose it, only to find out it would never work.
Bending down to tie my shoes I think about seeing Ran standing in the doorway, a duffel bag over his shoulder and goodbye in his eyes. He wanted us to move to New York or San Francisco, somewhere, anywhere that wasn't Smallsville, Middleofnowhere. Anyplace, he said, where even if we weren't accepted, we could at least be tolerated. I hadn't wanted to leave. That town was where I was reborn, where he came back to me, and I had attachments to it that I didn't want to sever. Not that life there was so great after he came back; it wasn't like we could hide who we were. But I figured that as long as we were together I didn't really care about the rest of the world, I didn't understand why Ran should either. For some reason I could ignore the looks and the whispers and the outright prejudice. Maybe it was because I was already used to it for other reasons. Ran on the other hand couldn't take it.
"Not because of me because of you, Ken. Don't you see? These people hate us. They hate you. I don't care what they say about me, but these people used to be your friends, and I can't forgive them for that. Please. God, Ken please… let's get out of this place."
Finally Ran said he couldn't do it anymore, and bought a one-way ticket to New York. I didn't think he'd go, so I'd stood my ground and let him pack up his shit and stand in my doorway and look at me with those eyes, waiting for me to beg him to stay, but I didn't, I just let him go. Half an hour later I was screaming at a taxi cab driver to forget the fucking speed limit and get me to the airport. I didn't know anything about Ran's flight, not which airline it was or when it was leaving. I never found his gate and I ended up falling apart in one of the lobby chairs and cried and cursed and made a spectacle of myself for a good hour before I caught another cab and went home, realizing just how badly I'd fucked up. It didn't matter where I was with Ran, I just had to be with him. Why had I clung to this shit-for-nothing town instead of him? I should have followed him anywhere.
When I got back home he was there, sitting on the couch, his head in his hands, and I knew he'd been crying too. I threw myself into his arms and held him so tightly I thought I would break him in half. He said he'd gotten about halfway to the airport before he realized what he was about to do and that he'd stay anywhere I wanted him to, because he'd lived without me once and he couldn't do it again. Sobbing I told him that I was stupid, that we could move, I didn't care as long as next time he took me with him. It sounds like a bad movie, doesn't it? In my mind it even plays out like that, so melodramatic. But I guess if it had been a movie it would have turned into a bad porno in the end.
So we moved to San Fran, back to my roots, where I could finally start to patch things up with my family, and where there were plenty of other people who would not only tolerate but fully accept us.
That was five years ago. Not once since then did I even consider being without Ran. There's nothing to consider, I'd be nothing without him.
I stand up and stretch before walking to the window and pushing the curtain aside. I press my forehead to the cool windowpane and look out at the bleak streets. November is such a dead feeling month. It's not really fall anymore, because all the leaves have fallen, but it's not quite winter either.
I hear the key turn in the door and turn my head. Ran walks in holding two cups of coffee and smiling softly. He's wearing his army jacket. He always looks so young to me when he wears it these days. I glance over at the bed where mine is laying, waiting to be put on. Waiting to make me Ken Hidaka, pilot of the 326th AHC again.
"I went down to the lobby," Ran says. "I got some coffee."
"I see that," I answer, quirking my mouth into a smile, before looking back out the window. I sense him come up behind me. He hands me a cup over my shoulder and I take it, holding it between my palms to keep me warm.
I feel his lips brush over the back of my neck as he kisses me softly and puts one arm around my waist. "Are you ok?"
I take a deep breath. "Yeah. I'm good. You?"
He shrugs. "We've been planning today for awhile…"
"Yeah. Love me?" I ask to break the strange tension.
"Always," he says, chuckling slightly.
"Which direction is it from here? I'm so turned around in this place," I say peering out the window again.
Ran looks and gestures broadly off to my left. "That way."
For a few more moments we stand silently, sipping our coffee, comfortable being with each other and then he leans forward and kisses my head. "Ready? We shouldn't be late."
I take another deep breath. Ready? Am I ready? No, not really. I know that by the time this is over I'm going to be a wreck. This is going to take me back in a way that nothing has since the day I saw Ran for the first time outside of Vietnam. "I guess," I say.
I go to put on my jacket, making sure my 326th AHC wing pin is on straight. On our way out of the room I grab the three rosebuds I bought yesterday from the glass of water in the bathroom and put them in my breast pocket. I toss my cup in the trash on our way out of the lobby. I don't think I really want anything in my stomach right now.
We get in our rental car and for while I just stare out the window. Slowly things begin to take shape around me and off in the distance I can see the Washington Memorial, that American symbol of phallic greatness, jutting into the sky. I know that the sight should fill me with some sort of reverence, but it doesn't, it just makes me feel so damned tired. I turn to Ran. "Where are we meeting them again?"
"In front of the Lincoln Memorial."
"And that's nearby, right?"
"According to the map."
"Ok." I go back to looking out the window.
Driving down the National Mall is like being in a dream or something. It looks just exactly like how you imagine it too. All those important looking buildings and the perfectly manicured green lawns. The streets are practically empty. Nothing is going to be running today. And now the Washington Monument is huge, just right there, undeniable, and it fills me with dread. I want to scream, 'let me out!' I want to jump from the car and catch the next plane to San Fran and curl up in bed and go to sleep and forget I ever wanted to come here. But that's not fair. It's not fair to Ran, and it's not fair to the others. They're waiting.
We park the car, and begin our walk to the Lincoln Memorial. The air is cool and sharp, so I stand close to Ran. I put my arm around his waist and he puts his around my shoulders and we walk together. There's no one out and about to give us looks, so it doesn't matter.
The first thing I see as we come into view of the Lincoln Memorial isn't the giant likeness of Abe Lincoln lounging in his huge stone chair. It's a ten year old boy with bright orange hair being swung around by his feet by a man with equally bright orange hair. I can't help but smile, a big goofy grin breaking out on my face.
I wave and call out, "Oi! Wolff!"
The man stops mid kid-swing and looks up. "Hidaka! Long time no see, you pole-smokin' ass licker!"
What a wonderful way to speak in front of your children. Ran gives Schu a little nod and then the kid in Schu's hands is wriggling free and falling to the pavement and getting back to his feet and running towards us screaming, "They're here, they're here!"
I throw my arms open and catch the little ball of pre-adolescent fire as he slams into me. "Hey, Walt!" I say squeezing him tightly. It really is scary how much Walter Wolff looks like his father. It's lovable in a creepy sort of way. Setting him back down I ruffle the kid's hair as we keep on walking towards Max who is just then lighting up a cigarette. "Where's your mom and sister?" I ask.
"Pissing," he says in that little Texan accent of his.
I nod. "That's nice." Ran snickers and puts his hand on my shoulder.
Ran and Schuldich and I go through the usual reunion pattern. The hugging, the joking, the ball busting. We jostle each other, putting on a little show, but I can feel that the tension that is running through Ran and I is running through Max as well. A few minutes later Sherry and nine year old Helen come back from 'pissing' and we go over the whole hugging thing once more time. We laugh and joke for a few more minutes and then I start to look around. Funny. I thought we were running late.
"I guess we didn't have to hurry, Ran. Where the hell are the others?" I say, mostly to myself.
"Oh," Max says, shifting his weight. "Heh, actually, Lieutenant's already here." He hitches a thumb towards the Lincoln Memorial. "He went to look at the statuary."
I swallow and look up at the huge Lincoln. For a moment I just stare, not sure what I'm feeling. I haven't seen Youji Kudou since I left Pang Nuan over ten years ago. I'm not so sure how I feel about seeing him now. I went through a lot of shit because of Youji Kudou. I lower my eyes and then feel Ran's hand on my shoulder again.
"I can go get him," Ran says softly. Unlike me Ran's been in contact with the Lieutenant over the years. It's not really a big deal to him.
"No, it's ok. I'd like to go see him myself," I say and then step away. "I'll be back in a few minutes, hopefully with Kudou."
"Ken…" Ran calls after me, but doesn't seem to really have anything to say.
Glancing over my shoulder I shake my head. "It'll be fine."
As I hurry off, jogging just slightly, heading up the long stairs towards Mr. Lincoln, I know the others are watching me. I can feel their eyes on my back. It's a relief when I disappear in amongst the huge stone pillars. Does everyone really worry about me that much? What do they think I'm going to do? Get into a brawl with Youji Kudou at the feet of our nation's greatest president? I know I can let my emotions get ahead of me but I'm not that irresponsible. Pausing for a moment I listen. An older couple walks by, shuffling and smiling. They look like locals. I nod to them and then start to walk around behind the columns. I didn't think I'd find Youji in front of the statue, and sure enough when I finally do find him he's standing at the very edge of the monument, leaning against a column, his back to me, taking a long drag on a cigarette. His hair is shorter than it used to be, I can tell that already, without even seeing his face. But other than that he seems pretty much the same. Same loose, easy way of holding himself, same swagger, apparent even when he's not moving.
"Youji Kudou, you fucking sonuvabitch," I say coming to stand next to him.
He turns towards me slowly, eyebrows raised, cigarette hanging limply from his lips. He looks a lot older than I remember. Maybe his conscience caught up with him. Serves him right. I stare at him blankly.
"Well, if it isn't the mambo king himself. Heh, best fucking dance of my life, Hidaka. I didn't think you were talking to me," he drawls.
"Cut the crap, Kudou," I say.
"You look good. Are you good?" he asks, taking another drag and exhaling sharply.
"All things considered."
"Do you have anything to say to me?"
"Like what? Nothing you want to hear, I'm sure."
"Fuck, Kudou just say it."
"Say what? Oh, that I'm sorry? Ok. I'm sorry, Ken."
"Alright then. Now give me a hug, I haven't seen you in ten years. Shit you're old," I say.
He looks me up and down and then bursts into laughter, dropping his cigarette and snubbing it out underneath his foot before stepping towards me and drawing me into a tight embrace. We laugh for a moment and then he grabs my shoulders and pushes me back. He smiles at me at then ruffles my hair.
"Who's old, punk?" he says.
Looking at Youji if feels good to let it go. Ever since I learned the truth, that Youji had lied to Ran and I to keep us apart because he thought it was for the best on both sides, I've carried around a painful hole in my heart. Youji was one of the people I relied on the most when I was in Nam, knowing he betrayed me killed something inside that even Ran couldn't revive. But now, seeing his smile, knowing he was willing to come here I know that he didn't do what he did out of malice. With all the time and distance between us, it doesn't matter anymore. I've feared this moment for so long, and now I know there's nothing to fear anymore. I can forgive Youji. I can let it go, because Ran's with me now and that's all that matters.
I turn and look down the hill on which we're perched. I can see Ran and Max's family down at the bottom of the steps and beyond them the reflecting pool, casting back a perfect image of the sky and the Washington Memorial. I suddenly feel very peaceful and I'm ready for today. Down at the base of the stairs another figure wanders into the group. I touch Youji's shoulder. "Let's go, old man. Jei's here," I say, pointing.
I jam my hands into my pockets as Youji lights up again and together, in silence, we make our way to the stairs and down to the others. Sure enough Jei Farfarello is standing next to Schuldich and when he looks up at Kudou and I, I realize that he's wearing an eye patch.
I shake my head. "Jesus, Jei, what the fuck happened to you?"
"Oh, you know, Nippy, comes with the job," he says looking even crazier than he used to, cocking an eyebrow above his one good, yellowish eye.
"Do I want to know what you do for a living?" I say.
There is more hugging and laughing and catching up. The kids are getting restless. Finally we all seem to take a collective
"Let's do this," Max says, taking his wife's hand. The rest of us nod and I slide my arm around Ran's waist again. We head around the drive, past the reflecting pool and into the Constitution Gardens. There's nothing really growing here this time of year. All the bushes are barren save for a few straggling leaves. It feels so empty and sad, but I figure that works. We stand at the entrance to the garden for a moment. There is a little kiosk with booklets. Ran picks one up and leafs through it briefly before smiling at me distantly and putting it in his pocket. The others each take one and then we move on.
I'm thinking about the lack of vegetation in the garden so much that I'm not prepared when all of a sudden there it is. The long black wall, reflecting back the diffused November sunlight. It shines with a light that seems innate. It is thick and solid and powerful and it takes my breath away. It's almost five hundred feet long, erupting form the earth at the west and east and running at an angle until it meets at the apex, ten feet tall, and every single inch of it is covered in names. Endless, numberless, going on off into eternity. The names loop around, going in order by date of death. The first to die start at the apex and go east until the wall runs into the ground again, and then the names pick up again on the west end, listing off until the last to die meet the first to die and the whole thing is somehow complete. A circuit of death. I can't breathe and as we draw closer I can feel the tension and the sadness and the awe run through the rest of us. The impact is has on Ran, Kudou, Schu, Jei, and I cannot be understood by someone who, like Sherry, was never there. She probably doesn't even know one name on that wall, but I can think of many, three in particular that will be there, that will speak to me. We walk the length in silence, just taking in the impact that this black, ominous monument has to impart. When we reach the end we pause before stepping closer. Flowers and offerings are left lined along the bottom of the wall.
I stare blankly for a moment and I feel Ran's arm tighten around my shoulders. I realize distantly that he probably knows more names on this wall than I do.
"There it is," he says at last.
"Yeah," I breathe. "There it is."
I nod and reach around his waist to pull him closer. "Can I see that booklet?"
He reaches into his pocket and then hands it to me. "Sure."
I take it from his fingers and I realize that both of our hands are shaking just slightly. For a few moments I flip though the booklet until I have my bearings. I look around and note the numbers and letters on the bottom of each panel and then hand the booklet back to my lover. I know where I need to go.
"I wanna go look. Alone. Do you mind?"
"Of course not."
I pull away from the comfort of Ran's arm and go to stand against the black marble, running my fingers over a few of the names. The stone feels so cold and a coldness inside of me echoes it. I put my hand over the roses in my pocket. Leaving one finger on the wall I start to walk backwards from the end, heading back towards the beginning. As I walk my eyes scan the names as they pass by in blurry anonymity. My hand scans, my eyes scan, working backwards through the dates of death. I walk all the way to the end of the west wall and then stop and turn around. Now to look in earnest. I know that the three names I want to find should be close together. They all died within a couple months of each other. Somewhere in the middle of 1969 I'll find them. I walk to the correct panel and being to scan, using my fingers to run over every name, up and down the rows until all of a sudden:
Its appearance amongst all of the other names is like a physical blow. Up until now they had just been letters strung together but this… this is a person. A life that is no more. Someone I knew, someone I carry with me at all times. And he is here too, locked in the black granite amongst all the other names. To most people he's just a bunch of letters strung together, but to me… I take a quivering breath, but I don't cry. Even as the images of the kid's smiling face start to fill my mind, as I see him lying broken in my arms, vomiting up his own blood as he dies, as I remember how he always won at poker, and how I never got to tell him about Kase and the whole rest of the mess I don't do anything but stare and breathe. I don't cry. Deep on the inside I want to scream as my very soul starts to shake, but I don't let it out. If I fall apart now I'll never make it through the rest of the names. And I need to. Hunkering down I squat for a moment and let my head rest against the cold granite. I place one red rose at the base of the wall below Omi's name and then get to my feet.
Placing my fingers over Omi's name I continue to trace along through the names. There are just so many. So many. And each one has a story, a story just like Omi's, a story like mine or Ran's or Schuldich's or Jei's. A story that has ended, and I wonder if there is someone somewhere for each of these names who remembers, who will come to leave flowers and touch the etched name of the remembered. I wonder if there would have been anyone for me if I had died in Nam.
A lot more names pass under my fingers that I feel should. The next name should be here, it shouldn't be that far away, should it? I don't know. Time is so warped in my head somehow. And then suddenly I'm on the wrong panel. Too much time has passed now. I pause and then trace back up through the names, looking harder this time, staring at every letter. My fingers run over the name James D Mitchell. I realize as I reach out and touch this Mitchell that I either don't remember or never knew my Mitchell's first name. He was just Mitchell. But the placement seems right and somehow it sounds right when I say it in my head. Smiling sadly I shake my head and whisper, "I'm sorry, buddy. I really am so sorry." I try not to think about his face cradled in his hands as blood froths up in between his fingers, or the smell of his decaying body in the heat of the jungle afternoon. But of course that's impossible. Dropping down I place another rose below James D Mitchell and then get up to finish off my journey. If this is Mitchell and I know where Omi is then the last name has to be somewhere in between. I wonder how I missed it the first time.
Again I move along the wall, heading back towards Omi, the fingertips of one hand running over the imprinted letters.
I stop and look back down the wall. Did I miss it again? How could I keep missing it? It had to be there, right? It had to be! Furrowing my brows, beginning to feel something aching and trembling inside of me and head back towards Mitchell's name and when I reach it again, my search once more fruitless I can't help but slap my hand against the granite, making a small sound of frustration and despair. I walk midway between the two names and step back to look at the wall again. And I understand. It makes such perfect sense.
I take a deep breath and smile sadly. Somewhere in that space of black granite is where the name Bradley Crawford belongs. But of course Bradley Crawford is not on the wall of Vietnam casualties, because Bradley Crawford was a section eight suicide case. This is their final insult, the final twisting of the knife in the heart of Bradley Crawford. He doesn't even exist. He never happened. But I know the truth. I know that Vietnam killed Bradley Crawford as surely as it killed Omi or Mitchell or any of the other men who fell under enemy fire. Brad Crawford is the ultimate Vietnam casualty, but far be it from anyone to admit it. I stare at the blackness for a long time, until the stone gets blurry and I realize that I'm crying now. I step closer to the wall again, hoping that by leaning against it I can hide my tears from the others. I remember the speech that the Lieutenant Commander gave us my very first day at Pang Nuan and the conversation we had on the training field. I may not have really known the guy all that well, but I knew him well enough. Closing my eyes I remember the way his blood looked spread out over the back wall of his office and then fall to my knees, shaking.
And then it all comes back to me. All the pain and the suffering and the fear and the confusion. So many men living in hell and dying in fear for a cause that was not their own, for no cause it seemed. I want to scream and tear down the wall with my own two hands. I want to build a new wall, one for every name etched in the blackness before me. I want to write Bradley Crawford's name in blood across the whole damn mess so that those who see will understand. But nothing can make them understand, not even I understand anymore. I don't think I ever did.
Shaking, crying quietly, I blindly place the last rose on the ground beneath where Bradley Crawford's name should be. A moment later I feel someone hunker down beside me, and I know it's not Ran because I know what he feels like.
"It's not there is it?" It's Youji's voice, low and thoughtful.
I shake my head silently and choke back a sob. His hand rests gently on my back and for a moment we just crouch there.
"Typical," Youji says at last and then gets up and walks quietly away.
I get slowly to my feet, wiping at my eyes, holding back the screams of futility that are building in my mind. I walk away from the wall, not wanting to be in its presence any longer, not wanting to feel so dwarfed and empty by that black granite. I have done what I came to do and I don't want to have anything more to do with any of it. I start walking towards the entrance of the Constitution Gardens, ignoring the looks and calls that follow me, and I don't stop until I am suddenly back and the Lincoln Memorial looking down over the reflecting pool and the huge double image of the Washington Monument. Clenching my fists I stare at the symbol of out nation's greatness and then scream, "Fuck!" as loudly as I can before sitting down heavily on one of the white steps and putting my head in my hands.
Looking up I see Ran standing a few yard away from me, looking at me tentatively. He doesn't want to disturb me if I'm not ready for him to.
I blink away a few lingering tears and smile to tell him it's alright. "Hey, you," I say softly.
He comes to sit next to me, putting his arm around my back and pulling me closer. I lie my head against his shoulder and together we stare out at the reflecting pool. "Whoever designed that thing knew what they were doing," I say quietly. "God it hit me like a ton of bricks just looking at it."
"Did you find Yuushi's name?" I ask.
I'm not sure what to say so I snuggle a little closer. "Crawford's name wasn't even on there."
"I know. I saw."
"It's not fair. The whole fucking thing was so unfair. Seeing that wall just made me think about how futile it was. What did we accomplish? Nothing. We didn't win, we didn't even really help. We just prolonged the inevitable. Crawford was right; it was all just a political crock of shit. 'Fighting for Democracy,' bull. The whole damn mess should never have happened. That wall shouldn't even be there," I say, watching the reflection of a bird fly across the water.
Ran is silent for a few moments and then he sighs. "You know, Ken, I thank God every day that the Vietnam War happened. If it didn't I wouldn't have you now. And having you with me is worth everything I went through in Nam. I would do it all again if it meant having you."
I close my eyes and let his words wash over me. No matter how long I am with him it can never be long enough, it will never make his love stop affecting me. "I would do it again for you, Ran," I answer. "But I like to think that even if the war hadn't happened I would have found you somehow. I know I would have."
"Hn. I wouldn't want to chance it," he answers, kissing the top of my head.
"Where are the others?" I ask.
"Still looking, I think. Let them look, I'm satisfied."
Leaning farther into Ran I slip my arm around his waist. "I don't think satisfied quite fits what I'm feeling, but I'm done nonetheless."
"You want to head back to the hotel? We already know where we're all meeting for dinner. No reason to wait."
"In a minute," I answer.
"I love you, Ran."
"I love you too, Ken. Happy Thanksgiving."
*Special Note*: *sheepish grin* Well… thanks to one of my reviewers, Tao *pets Tao*, it was pointed out to me that I did not do my research as thoroughly as I thought I did. Turns out the names on the wall are not alpha by last name, but go by date of death. I must have scrambled the conversation I had with my step-dad about it somewhere along the way. -_-;;. So I re-wrote that part. And that's all I have to say about that. Gomen for my incompetence.