This is a work of fiction concerning the characters in the series and has no relation to the lives of the real persons involved in WWII. This is purely for entertainment and no disrespect is intended. Written in 2010.
No, it wasn’t his imagination. Dick Winters’ face had flushed a deep pink hue, though his expression maintained an even keel somewhere between shock and annoyance. He stared up at him, then down at the strata of papers on his desk, then back up again. “What are you telling me?” he asked sharply.
Lewis Nixon flinched internally at the tone, but continued with his casual, upbeat demeanor. “You, my friend, are headed to Paris.” He proudly dropped a pocket-sized card on Winters’ desk. “City of Light. That’s a forty-eight hour pass. It’s been decided that you need a little dose of civilization.” He put his hands on the desk and leaned forward, dark eyes quietly urging his friend to pick up the pass, smile, thank him, make any sort of positive acknowledgment, but none ever came.
Winters fiddled restlessly with his fountain pen, his cheeks still glowing hotly. He licked his lips, shook his head, prepared to open his mouth to say something that would no doubt make his previous words seem dull by comparison, but Nixon wasn’t about to give him the chance.
Winters’ eyebrows arched faintly, either amused or insulted to suddenly be on the receiving end of orders. He turned his eyes to the pass, which lay on his desk engendering all the weight of a dead body. He picked it up reluctantly, read it, then let it drop. His face had not physically altered, yet it seemed to have darkened somehow. “You sound eager to get rid of me,” he said. “Not so much fun behind a desk now, am I?”
Harry Welsh, sitting in front of a nearby window, awkwardly looked the other way.
“What? No, no,” Nixon insisted. “Jesus. I never implied anything like that. I’m insulted you’d think so lowly of me.”
“Kinda hard not to.”
Nixon straightened his back, speechless. He’d never heard Dick talk like that to him, not in all the years they’d known each other. What was his problem? He should be happy, not angry (or whatever emotion this was—he’d never seen it before).
Before he could get a word in edgewise, Winters picked up his pass and rose from his chair. “Enjoy your stay in Aldbourne,” he muttered, shouldering his way past him. Nixon followed the man with a what’d-I-do look of bewilderment in his eyes, then flinched at the solid clap of the slamming door.
Welsh let out a long, dismal sigh. “Boy. You really blew it.”
“What’re you talking about? You know what I had to go through to get him that pass?” Nixon exclaimed, throwing his arms wide. “Every suit up at Regiment’s been breathing down my neck for the past month, Strayer’s been heckling me personally to make sure Dick gets those reports in on time, and I practically have to give an arm and a leg to convince them to give the poor guy a break. This isn’t some lousy day pass to the goddamn countryside, this is Paris!” Nixon’s shoulders slumped as all the fight went out of him. “I thought he’d be happy to go.”
Welsh gazed at him with one of those are-you-fucking-kidding-me looks. “You really don’t get it, do you?” He stood up and started toward the door.
“Get what? What’s there to get? I did everything right! Why should he be mad at me?”
Welsh paused with the door halfway open. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Nixon’s vacant stare answered the question.
Welsh rolled his eyes. “Forget it,” he muttered. “S’not my place. Have a nice trip.” The door shut behind him.
Nixon stood forlornly in the empty office, feeling confused, unappreciated, and strangely stupid. The Yale graduate, businessman, and intelligence officer didn’t enjoy those feelings at all. But he was on a tight schedule now—he had to be at the train station in Reims at no later than 1800 hours, and he still had a few loose ends to tie up before leaving HQ. He’d worry about all this when he got back.
Hopefully, he thought with a grin, Dick could find a way to enjoy Paris without him.
The sky over England was heavy and gray, overcast, the air damp. Not cold enough to be a real bother, but enough to keep one sitting by the fire with a cup of tea. Both sounded pretty nice to Lewis Nixon as he stepped off the bus and into the crisp November breeze. St Michael’s Church loomed across the street like an ancient warrior, weathered and tired but still standing proudly; it was a familiar sight, as well as the faded lawn of the village green and the horse-drawn carriages clopping down the streets. A few other passengers disembarked behind him, all of them civilians, most of them older women on their way home from Marlborough. The bus closed its door and lurched forward, continuing on its lumbering journey.
Lewis shouldered his bag and stuffed his hands into his jump jacket. His fingers brushed against the slip of paper in the pocket, and he recalled the address he had memorized on the train ride over. A rental cottage, not far from the center of town, just as they’d agreed. He half-hoped she wouldn’t be there when he arrived; it’d make a nice surprise for her to see him in civvies instead of this presumptuous uniform. He’d almost forgotten what non-military clothes felt like.
He started down the street toward the crowded rows of shops, which almost seemed to be huddled together in silent conversation. Maybe he’d stop inside a cafe, grab a cup of tea, get the chill out of his bones first. Then he thought of her, possibly counting the minutes until he arrived, and decided against it. Besides, there might be coffee at the house, and that was what he really wanted right now.
If I can find it, Lewis thought, looking at the clusters of red rooftops and soot-blackened chimneys that lay beyond the main street. He wasn’t too worried about finding his way—if he could follow a designated route through a labyrinth of exploding Norman hedgerows in the dead of night, navigating the side-streets and footpaths of Aldbourne would be a walk in the park.
Won’t be too long, he thought with a shameless smile, picking up his pace. There was a definite spring in his step now, jaunty and full of anticipation. A part of him—maybe his conscience, that little angel on his shoulder—scolded him for his unseemly lack of abstinence, but another part—the wanton wolf, no doubt—was howling for joy.
Lewis snickered under his breath. Maybe the wolf could show the angel a good time in Aldbourne, too.
He stood in front of the tiny stone cottage, taking in its weathered façade. Ivy crawled up the chimney where a thin finger of smoke swirled out into the wind. She was here.
He opened the front gate and went to the door, gently easing the latch open. It was warm inside and smelled like something good might be cooking. Lewis stepped over the threshold and shut the door as quietly as he could. He was unfamiliar with the layout of the house, but his ears followed the telltale crackling of the fire. He unconsciously rolled his feet as he walked, making his steps almost inaudible. He wanted to surprise her.
He entered a cosy living room by way of the parlor and stopped in his tracks. There she was, sitting in the wingback chair beside the fire, reading a book. She hadn’t heard him come in.
Love swelled in Lewis Nixon’s heart as he gazed at her, his eyes wandering over her round, beautiful face (she is beautiful, he thought. I need to tell her more often), her dark hair pulled back to reveal her thick eyebrows and her expressive eyes, her hands with the long, slender piano-fingers, her pale calves peeking out from the hem of her dress, her brown leather heels. Suddenly the purpose of this visit seemed lost to him, and he would have been content to stand there unseen until his pass expired.
But he smiled and broke the silence: “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
The young woman started and looked up from her book, her deep brown eyes wide and her full, pouty lips parted in shock. She stood from her chair, dropping her book on the floor, and cried, “Lewie!”
Lewis stepped toward her, beaming. “Bunny.”
Blanche Nixon ran over and threw her arms around her brother. “You almost scared me to death, you fool!”
“Sorry,” he chuckled, wrapping his arms around her tall, curvy frame. “Couldn’t resist a good joke.”
She pulled back and held his elbows, taking in his appearance with delight. “Look at you, in uniform and with your captain’s bars!” She pinched his cheek like their mother used to do. “I never thought you could actually look so handsome.”
“You’re not so hideous yourself—how’d that happen?” He poked his finger in her side and made her squirm away, giggling. “You’re downright gorgeous.”
Blanche smiled shyly and looked down. “Don’t talk like that, you’ll make me cry.”
“Why? You holding out on me?” he teased. “Let me guess: you’re wearing a wig, aren’t you?”
She laughed, but it was apparent that she was fighting tears. “I saw the photos from Normandy. The ones they didn’t put in the paper.” Her grin washed away like a message written in the sand. “I saw paratroopers hanging dead in trees or lying in ditches with body parts missing and I thought, that could be Lewie. That could be my big brother, dead and nobody caring, covered in flies and b-blowing up like—”
Lewis put his arm around her and pulled her against his collar, quieting her. “I’m sorry, Bee. I tried to write home as soon as I could. I didn’t mean to cause you or Mom or Dad any grief. If I did, well . . . I blame the army postal service.”
Blanche laughed through her tears, but didn’t let go. “We were so scared for you. We still are.”
“Don’t be. I’m alright. Hell, I’m here and alive. That calls for a celebration.”
He felt his sister’s hands tighten on his sleeves, clutching, clinging. “I wish you’d come home. Just forget this war and come back to New Jersey.”
Lewis rested his cheek in her dark hair. “I can’t. Not until it’s over. I’ve got a job to do, men counting on me to get that job done. My superiors, my friends. I can’t let them down, not after all we’ve been through.”
“Still a stubborn ass,” she muttered.
“Still a big crybaby,” he replied, giving her a squeeze. “You’re what, twenty now?”
“Twenty one,” she corrected, “and girls can cry at any age, thank you.”
Lewis chuckled. “Okay, fair enough.” He carefully pried Blanche away and held her at arm’s length. “Now let’s dry off and try to enjoy the next few days without turning on the faucets again, alright?”
“I’ll try,” Blanche sniffed, dabbing her face with a handkerchief. “No promises.”
Lewis feigned a punch to her chin and smirked. “Atta girl. Tough as nails.”
“Fingernails, maybe,” she scoffed. “It’s awful hard to be tough when your big brother’s been gone for so long.”
“Count your blessings ‘cause I’ll be home before you know it.” He drew a long, appreciative breath. “Damn, that smells good. What’s for dinner?”
“Food before drink? Lewis, I’m shocked.”
“If you had to eat that lousy Kraut bread, you’d be starving too. A man can’t survive on whiskey alone, you know . . . Speaking of which, did you bring it?”
“I did,” Blanche smirked, leading her brother into the kitchen and indicating the crate on the floor with a magician’s flourish. Vat 69, read the painted wood, Blended Scotch Whisky, W. Sanderson & Son, Established 1863, Distilled & Bottled in Scotland, Contents: 12
Lewis Nixon stared at the bounty of beloved booze and could almost cry. God bless little sisters—they did have some use after all. “Bunny,” he said, “I owe you big time.”
“You better believe it, buster,” she retorted. “You don’t know how hard it is for a young woman to travel alone with a case of fine whiskey.”
“Every man’s dream come true, I’ll bet.”
“You’d better pace yourself with this load, Lewis, because I’m not gonna fly out here to make another booze run for you.”
“Ah!” He clutched his heart melodramatically. “Your words, how deep they cut me.”
“I’m not kidding, Lew.”
“How can you stand here and claim I didn’t arrange this whole meeting just so I could see the face of my darling, sweet, loving baby sister—”
“I seem to recall a post script that went something like ‘for the love of Christ send more Vat, I’ll meet you in Russia if I have to’ etcetera, etcetera.”
“Lies and fabrications. I never.”
The Nixon siblings bantered back and forth, their smiles reappearing as their moods lightened, poking and teasing one another as if they were both teenagers again. Once they’d thoroughly caught up with a few years’ worth of barely-missed brattiness, they settled down and Lewis set a table for two while Blanche served up a hot, hearty stew that had been simmering on the stove. It was tasty and filling, even though it was meatless, and a few slices of bread and butter made it a comforting, homey meal. Add a shot of Vat and, well, this couldn’t be beat!
Lewis wondered what Dick was eating on his first night in Paris. He would have had an appreciation for a dinner like this one, carroty and peppery and all-American, even though it was nothing special. Lewis would rather have had this than filet mignon or mousse crêpes, especially since it was made by his sister. Eating food prepared by a loved one always tasted better than food prepared by a complete stranger. It was the extra ingredient that did it.
The more he thought about it, about Dick’s sour words and Harry’s cryptic messages, the more worried Lewis felt about the situation he’d left behind. No matter how many times he redid the math, he still couldn’t understand how the sum always ended up a negative number.
“You’re quiet,” Blanche murmured. “What’s on your mind?”
He stirred his stew and brooded. “It’s nothing.” He paused, then changed his mind. “I think I might have offended somebody I care about.”
“Can’t be Kathy,” Blanche quipped. “She’s as happy as a lark.”
“It isn’t Kathy.”
“I know. That’s why I said it couldn’t be her.” Blanche put down her glass of wine. “So what happened? What’d you do?”
“Nothing. At least, not intentionally. You ever . . . you ever tried to do something nice for somebody and it just blows up in your face?”
“Yeah, can’t count how many times that’s happened. I lose more men that way.”
“No, no, not in that sense.”
“The romantic sense. It’s not romantic.”
“Are you sure?”
“What kinda question’s that? Sure I’m sure. Jesus, this is a fellow officer we’re talking about here, not some European whore.”
“Pardon me. There’s no need to jump across the table, darling.” A long pause descended between them, then Blanche said, “It’s this Winters fellow, isn’t it.”
Lewis looked up, feeling as if he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to. He didn’t know why he felt that way, but he didn’t like it. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
She shrugged one shoulder and continued eating. “He’s the only person you ever really talk about. You’ve mentioned him in just about every letter.”
“I have?” This was news to Lewis. He hadn’t been keeping a tally, mainly because he didn’t think it mattered—obviously it did. What else might have slipped past his notice, he wondered?
Blanche nodded. “He sounds like a very nice man. Honest, respectable. Why he chooses to hang around a scoundrel like you, I’ll never know.”
Lewis snorted. “Everyone wants to stand next to the ugly guy . . .” He trailed off as flashbulb memories began to run a Saturday matinee inside his head. Scenes from OCS, Camp Toccoa, Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, then here in Aldbourne. Trucks, trains, planes, boats, parachutes. Guns, grime, guts, blood, bile, bullets, mud, murder, madness. And through it all, the ever-present form of a red-headed man who had stood by him, unfaltering. The same man who’d gripped his shoulder on that first training jump and said, “Don’t worry, Nix, I’m right behind you.” The same man who’d dragged Lewis out of the road with a bullet-burn on his forehead and seemed unable to believe he was alright.
The same man who’d shoved past Lewis and left him alone in his office.
Blanche’s eyes widened as she lowered her spoon. “Lew, are you crying?”
Lewis left the theater and came back to reality with a cough. “Pepper,” he rasped, reaching for his glass. “Down the wrong pipe.” He gave a few more coughs to convince her, though he didn’t think he completely succeeded. He could tell by the way she gazed at him with her eyebrows like that, low and suspicious. But she didn’t press. Thank God. Lewis didn’t think he could summon the gall to tell her how lucky he was to have a friend like Dick Winters without bursting into tears . . . or how he might possibly right whatever wrong he had committed.
“If you say so,” Blanche said softly. “More stew?”
Lewis handed her his empty bowl with a faint smile. “Please.”
Camp Mourmelon was even busier than when Nixon had left it. COs were leading platoons in calisthenics, rifle drills, and marches; men jogged to and from the mess hall while others enjoyed a few spare moments playing cards, shining boots or writing letters home. One notable difference was the temperature—it had gotten much colder, almost as if Mother Nature had thrown off a few layers the moment November turned into December. Fires burned in 50 gallon drums throughout the camp, and men were gathered around them like moths.
Nixon pulled his scarf higher on his neck and thanked the sergeant for the lift. He hopped out of the jeep and went around back to unload his luggage: a duffel, a wooden box, and a curiously heavy laundry bag. The sergeant twisted around in his seat. “Need a hand with those, sir?”
“No thanks, I’ve got ‘em,” Nixon said, lifting one bag on each shoulder and holding the box in his arms. He looked as if he were carrying bricks. He might as well have been—each of the twelve bottles of Vat 69 hidden in his parcels weighed at least three-quarters of a good-sized brick.
“Alright then,” said the sergeant, and he put the jeep in gear, leaving Nixon standing in the lane just outside Battalion HQ. The officers’ barracks stood next door, and he hefted his heavy burden in that direction.
Nixon had been hoping to unpack his treasures in relative secrecy for a number of reasons, but Reason Number One just so happened to be there. Dick Winters was sitting at the lone desk, head tilted as he paused to examine the letter he was writing. He glanced up when he heard Nixon at the door, and seemed a little surprised to see that he was carrying a lot more luggage than when he had left. By then it was too late for Nixon to turn around, so he tried on a careful smile and stepped inside.
“Hey,” he said gently, hoping Dick wasn’t still mad at him. “How was Paris?”
Winters turned back to his letter without batting an eye. “It was fine.”
Nixon winced. Nope. Still mad.
He ambled over to his bed and set down his belongings carefully. He glanced at Winters, who sat with his back to him, writing. Silent. Nixon sighed and dropped down on the edge of his bed. “Look, Dick, I’m not that good at subtlety, but I’m pretty tired of this cold shoulder treatment.”
Winters stopped writing and listened.
“I don’t know what I did to piss you off,” Nixon went on, his anger rising, “and I can’t be sorry for it unless you tell me what it was. Either do that or let bygones be bygones, because I’m sick of this crap and I want us to be friends again.”
Winters set down his pen and turned in his chair. His expression was gentle and patient, no longer rigid with indignation. “Lew,” he said, “I’ll always be your friend. But that doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with you.” His eyes scanned Nixon from boot to brow. “Or your behavior.”
“My behavior? Is that what this is about? Jeez, Dick, I know I’m not gonna win any Man of the Year awards or anything, but what did I do to deserve this?”
Winters turned back around. “Maybe you should ask your mistress.”
Nixon drew a complete blank. “What?”
“Your mistress,” he repeated evenly. “The one in Aldbourne.”
For a moment Nixon didn’t know how to react. By the time his brain had solved the equation with the missing variable, the absurdity of this whole unfortunate misunderstanding had caught up to him. He started to chuckle.
Winters turned to stare questioningly.
Nixon shook his head, now laughing quite helplessly. “Oh. Oh my.”
Winters, despite his grave mood, couldn’t keep the laughter from infecting him; he started to grin. “What is it? What’s so funny?”
“Oh, Dick,” Nixon sighed, rubbing at his watering eyes with the heel of his palm. “You’d never believe me. Here.” He dug into the inner pocket of his jacket and produced a small black and white photograph, crisp and new-looking. He leaned over and handed it to Winters, who studied the smiling young woman with dark hair and a familiar-looking nose.
“She’s pretty,” he said softly, his voice like a bird with a broken wing.
It was that tone which slid the final piece into place; Nixon stopped grinning. For a moment or two he didn’t say anything, but gazed at Winters as if everything had suddenly become clear to him. Finally he murmured, “Read the back.”
Winters flipped the photo over.
Winters’ eyes widened. Then he bit his lower lip. “Nix, I . . .”
“It’s alright,” Nixon said with a slight smile. “Couldn’t have you thinking I was actually a decent man, could I?”
Winters turned the photo over to look at Blanche Nixon again, as if she might have the power to erase this whole embarrassing mix-up from their history. “I try so hard not to jump to conclusions,” he quietly explained. “I don’t like it when people make hasty assumptions or judge others. Yet that’s exactly what I’ve done.” He bowed his head. “I’m sorry, Lew.”
“Hey, c’mon, give yourself some slack. You can’t hang around a philandering drunk like me and expect to maintain your ethical equilibrium.”
“That still doesn’t justify my actions. I shouldn’t have treated you that way.”
“No, you shouldn’t have. But I forgive you. Fact, I’m so relieved I’m not in the damn doghouse anymore I might actually be able to get a decent night’s sleep again.” Nixon flopped onto his back and slung his arm over his eyes with a grateful sigh. “Don’t wake me until June.”
“Was it really that bad?”
“Oh yeah. I’ve got a conscience too, y’know. Small one, doesn’t talk much, but he’s got a hell of a bite.”
A long, peaceful quiet fell, a lull without confusion, hostility or worry. A week’s worth of troubles melted from Nixon’s mind, unshackling those heavy chains from his heart. It felt good to have everything fixed and right again, even though there was an extra ingredient added to the equation now. But it was only basic math—constants, variables, significant figures. They’d find the answer in time.
Nixon felt the mattress dip and he drew back his arm to see Winters sitting down beside him. He looked pretty depressed, and Nixon almost felt sorry for him. Despite absolutely none of it being his fault. He was willing to take the blame for anything, even things he didn’t do, to see this man happy.
“Hey,” he murmured, reaching up and nudging the corner of Dick’s mouth with his finger. “Smile. Jesus loves you.”
Winters snorted and grinned despite himself. “Here,” he said, slipping a hand inside Nixon’s jacket and tucking the photograph into his pocket. “Better hold on to something that special.” He patted it and started to pull his hand away.
Lewis suddenly grasped his wrist. His dark eyes stared up into Dick’s blue ones, eyes that had been there for him and he hoped always would, and said, “Okay.”
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