Author's Notes: Not much to say this time. ^_^ I hope this part doesn't disappoint, and I'm so glad you took the time to even click the link! Big thanks and chocolate Hawkeyes go to Addezia, Barrie, and Tabitha for the kind reviews!

 

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Offer Up Your Last Defense 2/4

By Meredith Bronwen Mallory

mallorys-girl@cinci.rr.com

http://www.demando.net/

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Erin and Abigail stood still, watching the setting sun burn their long shadows on the sidewalk ahead. Staring down the way, Erin's eyes traced the straight lines and angles of the house she'd grown up in. The driveway was empty; the weeping willow she'd planted the summer after mother left was dragging it's emerald, too-long tresses against the concrete. They stood at the corner, Erin leaning against the cooling metal bar of the street sign reading 'cooper' one way and 'cherry cove' the other.

Abigail opened her mouth, once, twice, but couldn't seem to think of anything to say.

"Papa's not home yet," Erin nodded towards the house that watched with wide windows like eyes. "He works late in the summer a lot. Likes to keep busy."

Abigail nodded, as if chewing on her next words, "Erin, if... well, you know, *if*-- all you have to do is call. I'll come and pick you up, where ever you are, and we'll go to Aunt Ruby's. She says we can stay with her at least until we get our degrees and have something to start out on."

"That's what you did after your Mom had that break down, isn't it?" Erin asked. The words seemed harsh, but Abigail regarded her mother with the same vague fascination and disgust one has towards a strange, exotic and somehow hideous beast.

"I mean, you called you Aunt Ruby?"

"Yup," the other girl waved her hand briefly in front of her chest-- the evening was swelling with humid warmth and the sound of June bugs that didn't know it was July. "She was really great about it. She knows what we're going through."

Erin cast her gaze down to where the smooth road became a line against the sky. With a sudden, half-clumsy graceful motion, she cradled her palms against Abigail's slim, sharp hips, pinching lightly. "Here's hoping I can have you over for dinner soon-- see if Papa and I can't put some meat on those skinny bones of yours." And then, because she didn't dare hold on any longer, she let go.

Abigail 'hmped' and tossed her hair, "Are you saying that I'm scrawny?"

"Oh, no," Erin moaned, pretending to be insulted, "It's just that one poke from your elbow could cause a fatal injury."

One delicate eyebrow raised, "Is that your diagnosis, doctor?"

The shorter girl snorted, "Not unless you're a qua draped mammal. I'm studying to be a Vet, not a physician. And," she added, seeing a wicked glint of star in her lover's eyes, "definitely not a Gyno."

"More's the pity."

Down past the fire hydrant, the Thomas boy started up his mother's old Valiant. The two girls, still life portraits of hope and dread, waited patiently until the car passed and its rumbling hick-up faded away. Then, Abigail pressed two of her long fingers to her lips and reached for Erin's palm, tracing the shape of the kiss there.

They took a few steps apart, hands still touching.

"See you later."

On the sidewalk, their shadows were still one-- then slipped apart like diverging raindrops.

"Yeah, see you."

"Call me."

Erin couldn't look back, could only return the gaze of her childhood home. The windows were dark.

She said, "I will."

 

 

There was a note from Papa, pinned in its usual place on the cork-wood board they'd put up. Erin removed the leaf of blue paper and its pin, glancing briefly at the other myriad notes and reminders. 'Clean this weekend', one admonished. '8/25 register for classes,' advised another. There was a news paper clipping up there, too-- pinned lopsided and fading from its month long stay in the direct light from the kitchen window. 'KOREAN VETS HONORED IN LOCAL JULY 4 PARADE', in big, thick letters, with a wide picture underneath. Men, their faces far away and strange, huddled in together. The flags of both countries acted like book ends-- her father was the one holding the Korean flag.

Frowning over Papa's tight, messy script, Erin reached into the refrigerator and took an almost over-ripe apple in hand. Biting into it indiscriminantly, her fingers condensed the paper into wrinkles and she pitched the wad towards the garbage can. For a while, she stood in the kitchen, until she'd nibbled her apple and her worries down to the core. A glance at the clock told her it was heavy past seven-- she turned with strange resolution and entered her father's study.

The light was coming through the window and the clear bottle of gin her father kept on the desk, and Erin stepped in its reflected shadow, coming around to sit in her father's chair. Her mind grasped in vain for some vague image-- like a child jumping for a high branch. She pulled out the highest drawer, lifting papers with care not to overtly displace them. Nothing, just reports and medical texts. Some bills. A misplaced copy of 'Time'. The next drawer was much the same, and the one after that-- Erin puckered her lips childishly and pushed the chair back to reach for the lowest storage.

She did not find what she was looking for, but it had been there before.

 

((( It's just a box, brown and made with cheap cardboard . There's tape, heavy and yellowing, on almost all the corners, and Papa lifts the lid with a gentleness odd for something that hardly looks precious. Erin stands in the doorway, dwarfed by the big bookcase and feeling like a stiff china doll in her black velvet dress. It's hot, and her little tights are sticking to the backs of her knees.

"Papa?" she asks, tilting her head. It seems as if some strange other-land has risen out of the box and laid itself over the study, and Erin remembers something about the danger of opening things. Pandora's box-- yes. But wasn't it also true that the one thing you really needed was the thing that *stayed* in the box?

Her father looks up, startled and staring a her as if he only knows her from some deep-sleep dream. She tugs nervously at her sleeves and her skirt, which Mom hurriedly altered so she could wear the only black dress she owned. There's a black ribbon in her hair, too, but she feels like it's around her neck, really. Too tight, choking.

"Erin," there's that smile, the one he has for her, but his gaze returns to the box. She takes a step forward in her shiny mary-janes-- now she can see that there are papers in the box, mostly yellow with blue and pink lines that really look green and orange. Her father shakes the box, looking for something, and it jingles, trinkets in the bottom pressing together.

"Are you alright, Papa?" she's got her hands out, like she's balancing on a rock in the river. Papa's eyes are rimmed with red and a light purple bellow-- he's been crying on an off, without making a sound, since two nighs ago when the phone said "Hawkeye is dead."

Erin doesn't understand what this means. To her, dead is the hamster-- Sunshine-- in Ms. Moore's kindergarten class. Dead is what happens to the other kids when she shoots them with the plastic pistol she borrows from Joey White; they fall down and get right back up again to continue the game.

"Not really, sweet-pea," her father is honest, about this at least-- he doesn't look away like when she asks him why he doesn't kiss Mommy goodbye or hello. Finally, Mommy said she didn't want to kiss him anymore. Maybe it's something adults get tired of, Erin considers.

"Can I help?" she comes around the desk and stands in front of him. Remembering the other night, she says, "I can give you a hug, if you want?" He opens his big arms and pulls her up; she takes two small fingers and tries to pull his mouth up in a smile. It lingers briefly when she lets go, before she just sits down with her head on his chest. Papa reaches into the box again, stares at the shiny, rectangular photo in his hand until she can hear the tears hitting each other inside his chest, trying to get out. Softly, "Who's that, Papa?"

"That," Papa takes a deep breath, laying the photo like a resting child back in the box. She only sees it for a minute-- the details seem unimportant and fade from her mind like Fi rework smoke. "That's the man who's funeral we're... your Papa is going to."

Such a scary word. "Funeral?"

"Uh-huh," Papa's big hand tightens in her hair, but it doesn't hurt, "they're going to put his body in the ground. I have to go watch them put his body in the ground." Then he's lifting her back down on her own two feet, because Mommy is standing in the doorway, and he's saying that he's changed his mind, he's got to go alone. Erin steps backwards until her tiny back presses against the bookcase; her parents suggest, in carefully coated tones, that she go change out of that hot dress and head outside to play. She slips deftly between them, like she's walking on the line drawn down the middle, but she still hears things as she goes down the hall.

Papa; sad, very sorry, "I *do* love you, Peg."

And Mommy, her voice soft and hard all at the same time; "I love you, too. It's funny, I only realized it a little while ago; I love you, just not..."

They finish together, "Not that way." There is no bitterness.

Mother says, "Go on. I'll take Erin to my parents' for a little break. We'll be here when you get back."

That isn't true-- there comes a night, a week later, when Mommy has her bags packed and her pretty, light pink jacket buttoned up. She and Papa stand on the front porch, with the moths gathering around the light and Erin watching through the window. Mommy stands on her tip-toes and Papa bends down a little; they kiss goodbye, and it looks so funny that Erin wants to laugh, but can't.

It would be wrong. )))

 

There was just a slight vibration in the floor, but Erin-- an interloper in her father's study, the sanctuary in which he shut himself away-- felt so completely caught that she shoved the drawer back into its cradle in a reflexive movement. Her finger-bones and skin where pinched unpleasantly in between the wooden panels; she freed them hastily and pushed the drawer closed again. Absently, she pressed the offended digits to her mouth-- outside, the garage door finished its ascent and the vibration in the floor stopped. Almost loosing her shoes in the hurry, Erin fled, pausing only to return the door to its previous half-open position.

"Erin, sweetheart?" her father's voice, and the sound of the kitchen door closing.

"Coming, Papa!" Running her thumb over her still-smarting fingers, she came through the living room and leaned over the counter separating carpet from the tile of the kitchen. Almost bemused, as she lifted her fingers for inspection once more-- they were stick and smelled like strawberries, the lip gloss Abigail had given her. Hastily, she wiped her hands on her dress. "How was your day, Papa?"

"Fine, fine," briefly, her father raised his blue eyes to meet her gaze and offered her a smile, before he returned to the task of sorting through the mail. " meant to work a little later, but they ran me out," he shook his head, a little amused, and carefully tore open a small ivory envelope, "How about you?"

"It's nice having a little break between semesters," Erin grinned, "Gives me a chance to catch my breath."

"You deserve a break," BJ Hunnicut came around the counter and slung his arm to rest on his daughter's shoulders, " You were studying so hard I thought your brain was going to leak out your ears." He held up a letter in familiar, spidery handwriting for Erin's inspection. "Your Mom wants us to come up to Seattle for Thanksgiving again. You wanna go?"

 

Here she was, under her father's arm-- she could smell soap, the antiseptic, sweat and beneath all those the smell of human blood Papa tried so hard to scrub away. She was looking, not at the letter with her mother's funny little script 'a's and curled 't's, but at her father's hand, wide with carefully cut fingernails. Hands that dipped into human flesh, that poised holding organs apart, looking for the cancerous rot, or plucking leg veins to repair a heart. Here she was, in the kitchen, and Papa was in a sad sort of good mood that came so often in the summer.

(It's a summer night; she's sitting on the sheets in a green room that smells of her mother's powder and perfume. The phone says, right in her ear;

"Hawkeye is dead.")

 

It was too much, too easy to take off a part of herself and hide it behind the flower-pot sitting on the front porch. She could come home and be Erin Hunnicut, who lived with her father and was studying to be a Veterinarian-- the good girl with high grades and a sturdy middle class background. She could pretend that the other Erin-- the one who's name could be said only the way Abigail murmured it, "Ae-ryn"-- the Erin who rode horses sitting behind her best friend/lover, the one who pressed her breasts against Abigail's firm back, the one who drew smooth lines and curves with charcoal; well, she could pretend that Erin didn't exist. She could pick that Erin up on her way out the door and leave her at the door when she came home.

(Blue eyes, kind smile with a hint of a mischievous boy; "Don't be afraid to tell your papa.")

 

For a minute, Erin blinked, because she could hear herself speaking and had not intended to.

"Sure," her mouth was letting out, "Last year was a lot of fun. We could have her down here for Christmas, if that's okay."

"That's a great idea," BJ grinned, "You won't be lonely with just the three of us, will you?"

"No," Erin slipped out from under his arm and locked her knees so she wouldn't panic, thinking about one thing and having a conversation about another. "Things are kind of... tense with her family."

"This," BJ lifted a finger, setting the rest of the mail down, "Is very true."

"I think," Erin said, suddenly coming to the realization, "that they're upset you and Mom are such good friends."

"Your Mom is a great gal," BJ's smile held some measure of guilt, "I'd be a fool to pass up her good graces." There came a pause, comfortable; too comfortable. Papa, tossed junk mail in the 'circular file', asked her what she wanted to have for dinner.

"Papa," she was an iron maiden, her chest was metal and squeezing out the words before she could back out, "I need to talk to you."

 

She could not feel her face, had no idea what expression it was that made her father still, then reach towards her in concern. She moved out of the way, standing behind a chair with her knuckles white as she gripped the rungs.

"Of course, Erin, honey," he said, hand still hovering in the air where he'd meant to touch her air, "Are you alright?" She turned away, taking a few steps into the living room, then replied, "Not really. There's just... something I have to tell you."

("Don't be afraid to tell your papa.")

Lowering himself onto the couch, BJ nodded solemnly, elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped. "Alright."

Unable to sit down, Erin shifted from foot to foot and knotted her hands in her dress. "I'm in love."

"In my experience," her father said truthfully, "That can be a good thing or a bad thing." There was something, something in his eyes and the set of his jaw.

"Have you ever been in love?" she asked, not sure from where the question sprang, "I mean, besides with Mom?"

Honesty made BJ's face somehow stark, as if there were two men in there-- the one that came home, somehow defeated, from Korea, and the one that slowly began to emerge and rebuild itself during her childhood. "Yes." His voice was rough, "I was in love, once. Your mother... I loved her, Erin, you understand, she was my good friend, she was wonderful, but..." he shook his head, "Yeah, there was someone I loved."

Somehow, that bare-boned confession, that little seed of sorrow her father nursed with gin, made Erin's blood run harsh and determined. She held herself up as she said; "Papa, the... person... I'm in love with," the sentence somehow ended, she tried to pick it up again, "her name is Abigail."

"Oh, Erin," BJ said-- not with disappointment or disgust or anger, but with an almost hurting tenderness. It was only then that she realized she'd begun to cry, big tear drops that made the world a pool of swimming colors. Her hands raised just a little, frozen and cupped as if she was trying to hold onto something that wasn't there. Her father reached out, pulled her down to sit beside him on the couch, and she sniffled against the shoulder of his soft pink shirt. "Hush, honey," he said, patting her hair, "Shhh... it's okay. Is this what you were worried about?" He laughed, suddenly and at himself, "You're very brave, sweetie."

"Brave?" she lifted her head, trying to puzzle out this new facet of her father. His face was the same, but as with his talk of the one he had loved, there was also a stranger in there too. Then, like a little child, she asked, "You don't want me to leave?" She could swear she was five years old again, frightened by the largeness of the world, "You don't hate me?"

"You're my daughter," BJ's voice was firm, "I love you, no matter what. Being in love isn't a crime and... Oh, sweetheart, you know, there were times in Korea when I looked at that picture your mother sent me, and I would think I'd never see you again. That maybe you weren't real to begin with. Why would I want you to leave now? You're always welcome here." She'd stopped crying now-- it had been a freak thunderstorm, quick and harsh.

"Abigail's parents kicked her out when she told them," Erin confessed, "They even changed the locks. They tell everyone they have only sons because they don't even want to admit to her." She looked away, "She lives with her aunt, now."

"They're blind fools," her father said with authority, "Being in love is not crime," he said again, then smiled, tilting up her chin, "And you are in love. I can tell-- the way you talk about her."

Erin giggled, giddy with relief, "I do, I do love her so much." Pressing her hands over her temples, she shook her head, "Are you sure? That this doesn't bother you, I mean?"

She watched his face, could tell he intended to say, "Of course I'm sure!" and leave it at that. Then, he smiled, and she saw on his face the same half-goofy, shy look that came over her own sometimes. He seemed to change his mind, sitting back with his arm around her for reassurance. For him or for her, Erin wasn't sure.

"Tell you a story?" BJ grinned, "I know you're a little old, and it isn't bed time yet anyway, but..." She nodded, unable to ply the words from behind her teeth.

And there was the stranger, sitting next to her. The other-BJ, who had held onto her and cried, who sometimes sat, drinking gin and staring off into nothing. "Right then," he said, and his voice held that same carefulness with which he'd held the battered brown box years ago, "the story."

 

A breath in, a breath out.

 

"When I was in Korea, I fell in love..." he was warming to his subject already, as if the story was there, whole in between his ribs and ready to come out. "Captain B.F. Pierce, the best surgeon in all of Asia, or anywhere for that matter. Everyone called him Hawkeye."

A gasp tried to escape Erin's mouth, but there was no air in her lungs and it came into the air strangled. "*Him*?"

BJ smiled indulgently, "I bet you weren't expecting that."

"No," said Erin, who's body now lay rather boneless with relief against the other end of the couch. "I never..." She searched for words.

 

("Hawkeye is dead."

Crying. Who was that? Her father had cried for grief, and she had cried for confusion.

In her mind's eye: a man in a tattered red robe, watches the sun come up over a plain little rural street. He's standing in front of the highest window in the house, the attic, with a drink in hand. He's not crying, but he might as well be.

--Who are you?--

Then, her father; "They're going to put his body in the ground. I have to go watch them put his body in the ground.")

 

Erin shivered, just slightly. "This isn't a happy story, is it, Papa?"

"No," BJ said with heavy, distant eyes. There was something written back there, behind the dark moons, but it was not for Erin to see. "No, I'm afraid it's not much of a happy story."

"Does Mom know?" she couldn't help but ask the question.

A nod. "Yes." Simple and clean.

She slid a hand up to her father's shoulder, "If you still want to tell me, Papa, I still want to listen."

"I do want to tell you," BJ smiled, partly at his daughter, and partly at the man standing before him in his memory. "But how can I tell you about Hawkeye Pierce?"

 

 

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Roses are red,

Feedback is my love,

You can tell I am crazy,

From the lines above! ^_~