AUTHOR'S NOTES: As ever, I thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope it's worth your while! ^_^ My muse, Carol, has gone AWOL again (she's off to Las Vegas, to drool over Elvis impersonators. ^_~), but she did leave me with this before she took off. ^^ This takes place after the series, and the title comes from a song called "Panic", from Child's Toy. I hope I didn't mess anything up-- I don't know much about how long distance service was handled in the 1950's.
Wow... I don't think I have anything else to say, except THANK YOU to Iolanthe, Leigh, Raven, Flick and Blue, who are a real source of inspiration and general slashiness.
That said, read on, oh gallant one... ^_~
DATE BEGUN: December 30th, 2002
DATE FINISHED: December 30th, 2002
A Still, Small Voice 1/1
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory
There were shadows, long and serpentine, scattered about the house-- Peg Hunnicut avoided stepping on them with all the religiousness of a child chanting about the bad luck of cracks. It was like a forest, so dark, but with red-orange light coming through the spaces between the trees. Like the thorns meant to keep Briar Rose from waking. It was winter, late January, trees trembling in what passed for chill in California. Rain lay over the stark branches outside the living room window but, with the setting sun, it looked like blood. For a moment, Peg paused in the middle of the room, tilting her head, as if trying to find the place in her mind such a grotesque image had come from. Sometimes, when she kissed BJ, it was as if she was swallowing his screams-- and if she somehow managed to take those cries away, new ones came from somewhere.
('Where ever they come from-- the bodies-- where ever they come from', said BJ, sounding as though he was speaking for someone else, 'they'll never stop. They'll still always be there, coming, from somewhere..."
And she said, countless times, helplessly, "Darling, the war is over.")
Finally, she drew the two objects in her hands close to her beating heart, folding her arms against her chest. One was a garish, brightly colored childs book, with the words Sleeping Beauty printed in fake old-style type across the front. And the other...
Carefully stepping around the sofas shadow, Peg perched herself on the small, formal chair by the coffee table; she laid the book down and smoothed the other object over it. A photo; black and white, grainy with the dust and sun of Korea. The face on the left was as familiar as the lines of destiny on her palms; she had traced those features as they grew and changed. There were other pictures, on the wall, to mark the passage of time--- she stared at them like mirrors.
("Mirror, mirror," --why, oh why do I feel like the wicked queen?-- "tell me true,
the one BJ loves..."
She's standing in shadows, her soft brown hair is swallowed by a heavy crown.
"Mirror, mirror, tell me true,
the one BJ loves..."
And the mirror says, "Ah-- not you.")
Peg forced herself to look at the photo's mounted on the wall, to remember that old affection. The years she had with BJ, lined up like so many dominos. So, someone else had two of those years in their hands. It's just two years. Nothing in the face of the years she had. Trapped in one brown frame, were an unassuming prankster and girl with lopsided pigtails -- both uncomfortable at being in the same photo with the opposite, cootie-infested gender. In the next, a blushing woman in virgin ivory and an earnest young man in a hopelessly out-of-fashion white tuxedo. The next, a radiant, moon-glow mother with a baby tinted soft-pink with the newness of life; the father was smiling, so proud, his eyes saying 'my girls'.
And now again, Peg gazed on the cheep polaroid in her hand. BJ with that ridiculous mustache and a painful happiness in his eyes. 'At least', Peg thought dismally, 'I know he didn't have his true-smile in Korea.' The smile had gotten lost somewhere-- even home, even now, all his smiles were wide and forced.
But the other man, this other man who was smiling with one arm looped around her husband? This man who leaned towards BJ with unconscious grace, clearly comfortable? The man whos memory still made her husband smile, laugh and-- when questioned-- say he was only remembering something Hawkeye said. Peg stared at the photo for a moment, recalling the care with which shed removed it from its hiding place in her husbands study. She could divine nothing from it, it was just a frozen moment, with no context to read around it.
Somewhere, a clock chimed. In her bedroom down the hall, Erin turned and rolled against the wall, then settled in again.
Peg let out the breath she hadnt realized shed been holding, and touched her hand to the phone as if it was an animal she might spook. She flipped the photo over, traced the words in their unfamiliar handwriting. Simple; "Hawkeye and BJ, 4007 Korea, 1953". And below that, scribbled in BJs frantic, tight script-- "Benjamin Franklin Pierce." As if the name needed to be marked, as if it might be forgotten. Why?
With a sour feeling sliding down her throat, Peg picked up the phone. There was a voice on the other end, saying that this was the operator, and could Peg be helped?
When she'd squared away her nervousness into a tight bottle somewhere behind her heart, Peg said, "Hello? I'd like a number, please."
"Yes, Ma'am. The city?" A young girl's voice. Peg could imagine the woman-child's freckles, her hand-me-down blue dress, and maybe the date she would have Friday night. Just a voice on the other end. Slowly, the young mother slid another item from between the carefully hopeful pages of 'Sleeping Beauty'. An envelope-- found in the same drawer with the picture. The clouds shifted, the sun fell over the table, and she moved the return address into the light. She hadn't been able to find the actual letter.
"Crabapple Cove, Maine," Peg said with authority.
"Alright," a click, a pause, "Name, please?"
"Pierce-- Benjamin Franklin." It was the first time she'd said the it aloud. The name was thick on her tongue, some enchantment that she--
(Why do I feel like the evil faery?
--simply couldn't master. Time stilled, the line just held Peg's breathing and that of the girl on the other end. Absently, Peg picked up a pen and flipped to the back of the fairy-tale book.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am," the operator coughed a little, "The only Pierce I have in Crabapple Cove is a Daniel."
"That's fine," Peg tapped the pen, "Give me that number." Several twos, and a seven she made with a habitual line through the stem. She wrote it at the top corner of the inside back cover, over the pale, peacefully benevolent drawing of a faery's face.
"I can connect you for a little extra," the operator offered, "if you like, Ma'am."
"No," Peg shook her light-brown locks, "No thank you." She nearly slammed the phone back down in the cradle. Slowly, she brought a hand up to massage her temples, for once taking comfort in the memory of her husband's voice over that same phone-- "I'm working late today, dear." No later than every other day, no more overtime than usual.
(Working overtime. Happening over time. Things change, over time.)
"You can do it," Peg told herself firmly. Her curved, half-moon fingernails touched over the other markings she'd made beneath the freshly written phone number. Once upon a time, she'd marked on the calendar the days her husband had been away; she'd displayed it on the back of the panty door, to remind herself to pray.
("Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my baby's soul shall keep, please let the war pass by-- please God, don't let my husband die".)
Maybe it was the first time BJ spoke softly and tenderly to someone else in his sleep, or maybe it was the fiftieth time BJ related something hysterical Hawkeye had done in Korea.
(He never talks about Korea, about the war, about what happened to him. He only ever talks about Hawkeye-- not even Hawkeye and the war, but Hawkeye making the war go away with something crazy so they could all stay sane.)
Whenever it had been, Peg began counting days again-- not moving towards something, but away. The number of days since her husband had come home. It looked so insane, those little tick marks in her daughter's bedtime book, like a prisoner's etchings on the wall. She picked up the receiver again, could feel her own heartbeat in her hand.
("Dial the number," urged the broken, scratchy country woman's voice on the old phonograph record, "Even his smile makes her turn away// You have one, maybe two days// He's looking for that feeling// What will I do?")
Turning the rotary dial made Peg feel dizzy.
(The voice sang sad, with a little Kentucky twang, "Even his smile makes her turn away// Dial the number.")
There was a ring on the other end, and another and another, stretching on out.
"Come on, damn you," Peg said, jolting with surprise at her own voice. One more ring, then, as if it was the last sound at the end of the world, a click.
The man's voice was young. Sounded far too tired to be that young, "Hello?"
"Hello," Peg steadied herself against the coffee table, "May I please speak with Benjamin Pierce?"
"You got him," said the voice, "Who might you be?"
"I'm...," she wanted to hang up the phone, she ached to do so. "I'm Peg. Peg Hunnicut."
Silence for a while both long and short. "Oh."
"You--" she suddenly needed the assurance, "You're Ben Pierce? Hawkeye?"
"Famous in song and story," the response was a reflex, a joke. Hawkeye's voice was far away, considering. "You know, you don't sound like I had thought you would."
She stammered, "I don't?"
"From BJ's pictures," he explained, "I thought you looked like you might have a lower voice. You know, an alto." His voice was languid, yet engaging-- there was just something strange coloring the tone.
"I'm--" this was ridiculous, "I'm sorry?"
"No, no," he assured her, "Don't apologize. You have a beautiful voice. Voice of an angel, just like BJ said."
"BJ said that?" Strange, strange.
"Peg--," he seemed to change his mind, "Ms. Hunnicut... is there... That is, why did you call?" he asked cautiously.
"Because-- because I need to talk to you," she spilled the words out, caught her tongue on them, "I need you to tell me... what happened to BJ."
There was only kindness, traveling over the line, "Korea happened to BJ, Ms. Hunnicut."
"Call me Peg," she said suddenly, almost viciously. "And you don't understand! He's not BJ anymore... he's this other *person* who is only sometimes BJ."
"He screams at night," Peg hurried on, "it'd break you heart to hear--"
"I've heard it," soft, unobtrusive, " and it-- it is broken."
"Why won't they go away?" she asked, feeling like a child raging at the immovable laws of the universe. "It's been months."
"I don't think," said Hawkeye with a great deal of sorrow, "That they ever go away."
"But," she sighed, "but that's all over now. Korea is over *there*," she resisted the urge to move her arm, to gesture as if to push the war away.
"It's so strange--" Hawkeye laughed, "I mean, it's strange just to be talking to you, but it's also strange to hear Korea called 'over there'. I mean, to me, it's not 'over there'. It's here, it's in me-- sometimes I think I'm still there."
"I don't," she said helplessly, "I don't understand."
"Surely you..." he sounded further away now, distancing himself.
"I've *talked* to the damn psychiatrists!" Peg was suddenly Aurora, Sleeping Beauty, Briar-a-rose-by-any-other name, using her again voice for the first time, "I've talked to BJ. He doesn't talk about the war, he talks about you."
A deep breath on the other end of the line. "Peg, Peggy-- my heart," he was trying to glibly quote a song, but there was something more to it, "what made you call now?"
"Now?" she repeated, "Erin is asleep--"
"Oh, Erin!" Hawkeye seemed pleased, "How is she? Does she call BJ 'daddy' now?"
"She calls him 'Papa'.." she frowned.
"Good, good." A pause, "It really bothered BJ when he found out she called Radar 'daddy'. Maybe you shouldn't have written him about that." Peg stared at the phone, feeling as it was alive and some how so foreign. Finally, Hawkeye said, "I'm sorry, I interrupted you. That was rude of me-- I'm afraid I lost my manners with some of my luggage, not to mention my mind. Please, go on."
"Well," she drew a deep breath, "Erin's napping, BJ's at work. I need... I need help. No one I've talked to has said anything that's real. BJ's so far away, sometimes he's not even real. I don't know what to *do*."
"Love him," said so simply, "He loves you a lot, Peg."
She took a moment to let her tears stream down her face, so they wouldn't be in her voice, "Why?"
"Why does he talk to you in his sleep?" she felt as though she'd cut herself open-- the torrent was free now, "Why does he hide your letters, drink gin and look at your picture? Why, when we were together that one night, did he almost say..."
"You don't have to tell me this, Peg," he said, sounding like a big brother, "and I'm not sure I wanna to know."
"No, no, no," Peg chanted, "I pretended I didn't hear it. We were together. He started to say-- to cry out... it sounded like..."
Said like a little boy, "Please don't tell me this."
"It sounded like *your* name."
Silence, just his shallow breathing and her quiet sobbing.
"Peg," he said at last, "BJ was faithful to you in Korea." There was a rattle, then another, on the other end of the line, like something dropped, or hands loosing their grip.
"I don't care one way or another, anymore," she sniffled, holding the storybook like a child, "I want you to help me. Help him. Please."
"You picked a funny time to call, Peg," softly, softly, "I'm..." he took a deep, forced breath. "I'm shaking pretty bad, now. And I'm really tired."
"Shaking?" she was suddenly cold, so cold she was numb and so numb she was cold.
"My dad's out doing his rounds, you know," there was a fond smile in Hawkeye's voice, "and you know, I almost didn't pick up the phone, but then I figured if it was one of the neighbors and I *didn't* answer, they might come over..."
"Ben--" it didn't feel right on her tongue, "Hawkeye--" There it was, that name her husband sometimes breathed.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"I guess.." she said cautiously.
"What do you think happens after we die?" he seemed to sense her pause and added, in a reporter-esque tone, "I'm taking a survey-- very unofficial."
"What?" she breathed, then answered automatically. "I'm a good Baptist girl." She could feel him leading her away from and around the original topic, "Heaven, I guess. Or, reincarnation-- don't they believe that, in Korea?"
"I'm to tired to be reincarnated," Hawkeye joked.
"Why do you ask--"
"Peg?" he was a still, small voice on the other end of the line, "Peg, I'm really tired and dizzy. Can we hang up now?"
"Why are you--" she swallowed her fear, "What's wrong?"
"Oh," he said, offhandedly, "nothing out of the ordinary when you're suffering blood loss."
She bit down on the words, "Blood loss?"
He went into that same doctor-mode BJ possessed, "Well, when the skin is cut too deeply for clotting to occur..."
"Talk to me," she all but ordered.
"It was crazy in Korea," Hawkeye confessed, "and now it's crazy here. Only, only it shouldn't be, because this is home. But there it is, the craziness. It's in the dogwood trees, and the old school house, 'cause one minute I'm here and the next I'm.. over there, as you said. No BJ, and the craziness. It got inside me, Korea is inside me, so I had to let it out..." He sounded puzzled-- he really was like a little boy, "only my blood is coming out with it."
"God." She was staring at the photo, at the two smiling faces in that other-land country, and the orange-red sunlight flickering over it from the window. Distantly, she heard a sound, a key in a lock, but she was too sick and too curled in on herself to really register it.
"So, while I really do love talking to you, Peg," he went on, "I'm just so _tired_..."
"No," she found her voice at last, "No, please. No."
"It's funny you called when you did," he said again, "I'm really glad I got to talk to you. You sound so nice-- you'll be nice to BJ, right? Hold his hand sometimes? And when he has nightmares..."
There was a shadow in the doorway, a long one that fell over Peg. Bad luck, stepped on a crack. She looked up and saw a stranger's face to match the one she knew, and blue eyes filled with a person she loved and other things she didn't understand.
BJ asked, "Who's on the phone, Peg?"
"I had this bad dream the other night, about being in a coffin. I don't think I want to be buried," Hawkeye said calmly, "but I only just thought of it a few minutes ago, and when I tried to write a note to Dad, there was blood all over it... Would you, would you tell them not to put me in the ground? And not to lay me out in a suit or anything, either-- that would be silly."
"You *can't* die!" Peg heard her own voice screech, "You can't die, you have to help me!"
BJ was at her side, hands on her shoulders, "Peg! What's wrong? Who's on the phone?"
Peg stammered, "BJ, I--"
"Shhh... it's time to go to sleep. No more nightmares." it sounded like Hawkeye was smiling, telling a naughty secret, "You know... will you tell BJ--"
"He's right here," she protested, feeling as though he might pull her into the still waters of beyond, "Why don't you tell him?"
"No, I don't... too tired, Peg. Listen," Hawkeye was insistent, and Peg was a prisoner in BJ's arms, "tell BJ that if there's something.. after death and all, you know-- that I'm gonna wait for him, okay?"
"Hawkeye--" she pleaded, watching her husband's eyes widen and shift.
"Peg," BJ pulled away a little. He asked slowly, afraid, "What's going on?"
Hawkeye's voice, fighting one last little battle, "Tell him I'm gonna wait!"
Her husband's hand was on the phone, but she refused to let go, "I will."
"Thank you, I..." a clatter, a falling away.
And BJ said, roughly, like some other person, "Peg! Let me talk to Hawkeye!" She turned on him, pushed him away and saw the BJ that belonged to Hawkeye-- right there in her own husband's eyes.
The other line was dead, the long tone like a heart that has stopped; Peg wept, watching her husband through the mirror of her tears.
(Once upon a time...)
And the receiver, like so many other things, slipped through her fingers, and was gone.