CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

August 25, 1975

4 Years, 6 Months, 23 Days

Mr Bellows came into the kitchen, adjusting his tie. He was running late, very late, and Jenny had been watching out the window for some time. Kyle never came to the house while the white Caddy sat out in front. She turned, embarrassed, when Mr Bellows entered, and smiled as normally as she could.

"Why don't you just go out and get that young man before he starves to death?"

"I, uh, I..."

"It's all right, Jenny. Tell him I don't bite. But I do have something to talk to him about."

Jenny wasn't sure she could talk Kyle into the impromptu meeting, but she went outside and headed for the area he normally came through. Sure enough, he was standing by a tree, watching the house. He looked at her, then the car, with suspicion, which caught her off-guard.

"My dad - Mr Bellows - wants to talk to you." She smiled, hoping it was encouraging. "I think I know what it's about, and it's good, really."

He didn't look reassured, but nodded. She noticed he was walking rather stiffly today, and remembered that leap from yesterday. She'd have to tackle that issue after Mr B left.

Mr Bellows was sitting at the dining room table with a cup of coffee, and motioned Kyle to another chair with a smile. He sat down, keeping the chair a little further from the table than necessary. To Jenny, he looked like he was prepared to bolt at the first opportunity.

She sent Mr Bellows a warning glance before going back in the kitchen to fix breakfast. He just smiled at her, and started talking about the "Big Battle", as everyone in town was calling it. Jenny knew he was going to tell Kyle he could stay on the island as long as he wanted to. They'd talked about it yesterday. She hadn't told her father-in-law that, while it was a nice gesture, she didn't think Kyle would worry about having permission to stay.

She was happy to see that Kyle seemed to be more relaxed by the time she brought breakfast in. Still ill at ease, but less so. Unfortunately, they'd played out yesterday's events. Mr Bellows now wanted to know about Kyle. Politely, interspersed with stories of Mr Bellows' own military stint, but direct. What outfit had he been? What areas of Vietnam? What was his position? Kyle clearly did not want to answer, and didn't. But there was something else there, as well. The way he looked, not at Mr Bellows, but at her.

Jenny did something then she'd never done before. She told her father-in-law it was time for him to leave for work - and she didn't make it a suggestion. He was clearly surprised; so surprised that he actually left. She walked him out to the car, as usual, and he told her to apologize to Kyle if he'd been too inquisitive.

She would have, if Kyle had been there when she returned.

She didn't see him the rest of the day, even though she went out to the island, looking for him. And he hadn't shown up the next day either. The third day he had come, but looking nearly as rough as he had that very first day.

That would become the new pattern, though she didn't know it yet. Every few days he would just disappear. She never knew if he was on the island, or if he had just decided it was time to leave. Then he would show up at the back door, with that look on his face. As if he thought she wouldn't invite him in again. But she always did.

She always would.


*****

September 20, 1975

4 Years, 7 months, 18 Days

"I really appreciate your coming to see me again, Father. I mean, it's not like I'm a member of the club."

"You were his friend, Captain, so I think we can consider you a 'member', if only by proxy. And we are all His children, after all."

"Mmm, sometimes I wonder..." Murdock blushed at O'Malley's frown. "Sorry. Just, some days..."

"Remember the footprints, Captain. Always remember the footprints." O'Malley smiled gently. This wasn't the first time he'd come to visit, and every time started out the same. A little footwork, a little feinting, and then down to the nitty-gritty. O'Malley wasn't sure what the captain was looking for, but he always seemed calmer at the end of the visits.

Today they were going through Templeton's school records. O'Malley didn't have room to keep everything for everyone, of course, but he always kept report cards and as many special mementos as he could. And whatever he brought to share with the captain was always received eagerly.

Sometimes he thought a bit too eagerly.

"Did, uh, did Face have any stuff left at the, uh, orphanage? I mean, other than what you kept?"

"No, Templeton wasn't one for sentiment. Oh, when he was in high school, he kept things he thought he would need for college applications, that sort of thing. Always 'business', as he called it. I'm not sure what happened to the things he took with him, after he joined the Army."

Murdock nodded, as if that meshed with what he knew of the man, and picked through some more of this trip's folder. A few folders. That was all that was left of the first eighteen years of Face's life. He thought of the attic at his grandparents' home, filled with boxes of old toys, photo albums, scrapbooks, odds and ends of his own life.

He was grateful that Father O'Malley would bring what he had for Murdock to look over. If only Murdock knew what it was he was looking for. He wasn't even sure why he was looking. After all this time...maybe because he wanted to know who this guy was who had considered him a friend. Or because he was finally starting to think clearly, or because he'd run out of diversions. Maybe because he was finally ready.

He glanced through the handful of report cards.

"What happened in seventh grade?"

O'Malley blinked. Woolgathering again. "Seventh...?"

"Yeah. The 'good conduct' grade - it went up to a B+. What happened? He didn't seem to be quite so...angelic before that."

O'Malley smiled. "I'd like to believe it was my influence, but actually that was the year he read that book by Dale Carnegie. He was always very...determined. He decided he needed to change direction, and he found this book - I think he studied that more than his catechism." O'Malley shook his head, sadly.

After O'Malley left, Murdock sat, staring through his window. He remembered reading that same book. Glancing through it, anyway. "How to Win Friends and Influence People". Murdock sighed, picking aimlessly at the splinter of the sill.

He'd only gotten it half right...


*****

December 17, 1975

4 Years, 10 months, 15 Days

Jenny kept glancing at him as she drove; whether he was aware of it she didn't know. He kept his eyes on the dashboard. He hadn't said a word since they left the pier. She could understand that. It had been a mistake going there this morning.

It had probably been a mistake going anywhere this morning.

She should've known that when he didn't show up for breakfast. Their 'ritual', as he'd called it once, had gotten more and more sporadic over the last few weeks. She had taken a lot of the blame for that. She should've prepared both Kyle and Mr Bellows for that first meeting. She'd apologized to him for both Mr B and herself, and he seemed to dismiss it as nothing, but she wasn't sure he really had.

Today he hadn't shown up, and she'd decided to try a new tack. Whatever he was doing on those "missing" days obviously wasn't good for him. He would be doing so well, coming out of his shell, smiling more, laughing even, and then suddenly, he just wasn't there. And when he did come back, it was almost like starting all over again. So this time she'd done something she hadn't for a long time - gone looking for him.

She'd gone up to the shelter first. He'd actually put in a back wall, of sorts. But the two sides and front were still open. She could see the remains of a campfire, enclosed by a neatly arranged circle of stones. She knelt down and felt the ashes. Stone cold. She stood, pursing her lips and looking around the thick woods.

"Kyle! I know you're out there. And I'm not leaving until you come and say good morning!" She waited. He knew her well enough to realize she meant what she said. She knew him pretty well, too. During these times, he got 'ideas'. Just like when he first showed up and wouldn't talk to Mr Bellows. When he was ready, when enough time had passed so she would know he was coming of his own choice, he would show up.

Sure enough, almost ten full minutes later, he came wandering down the path to the shelter.

He didn't look too bad. He hadn't shaved, or combed his hair yet. His clothes were wrinkled, and looked damp, as if he'd been out in the woods all night. He probably had been; he looked tired and...unfocused.

She really should've just brought him some breakfast, or something to cook over the fire. But she thought that by coming the first morning, she could nip whatever was coming in the bud. They had, on occasion, gone to the pier for a fresh fish breakfast. A treat, which they both seemed to enjoy. Granted, it was usually when he was in a much better mood, but she was getting tired of the ups and downs. She felt guilty thinking that, even if it was out of concern for him rather than selfishness.

She'd talked him into going, and to comb his hair, straighten his clothes. He just looked at her when she mentioned shaving, so she dropped it. He hadn't looked angry; he hadn't had any expression at all. Just looked at her.

But he'd followed her down to the ferry. The new ferry that Mr Bellows had made Dave, and Sarge and the others build. She remembered bringing lunch down to them in the boat, along with a picnic for her and Kyle. Trying to bridge both worlds, without much success.

She sighed, looking over at him one more time. Lost in his own world again. She didn't know if she wanted to hug him or hit him sometimes. Whatever it took to keep him out of these...things.

They'd gone to the pier, and the waitress, Nancy, came over, cheerful as ever. Nancy was one of those people who just liked people, no matter what they looked like or how they acted. Kyle even seemed at ease with her; that made two. They gave their order - or rather, Jenny ordered for them - and she started talking about the morning sun over the small bay. Many times just talking about inconsequential things would bring him around. It just took a little time.

Today she didn't get that time. Two friends of hers came over to chat, before they realized whom she was with. Most of the town accepted him now, but only because the Bellows' had. Everyone was polite, but nervous. As if they expected him to start blowing things up at any second. Her two friends were no different - just less subtle about it. They said hello, and then tried to ignore him. Except for obvious glances at him. Their conversation was overly bright and animated. A little too loud. And short. They left, practically at a run. Jenny looked over at him. He was staring at the table, face pale.

"I'd like to leave now."

That's all he'd said, but he was nervously picking at a loose bit of plastic on the table. She'd nodded. Her plan had failed. This time.

But she wasn't about to give up. He was too good a person for that.


*****

January 11, 1976

4 Years, 11 Months, 9 Days

Hannibal sat uncomfortably in the chair, smiling the way he hoped a caring uncle would smile at his nephew's doctor. He was much more at home playing sea monsters than doting uncles, but the ruse had worked for a long time. Looking at Dr Richter today, he wasn't sure how much longer that would be the case.

Dr Richter did not look happy. He never did when one of his patients went south when he should've been going north. And Hannibal wasn't much help, despite being Murdock's 'uncle'. Richter was probably starting to think intermittent memory loss was genetic, because there were a lot of gaps in Hannibal's knowledge of 'his' family. Or maybe Richter went along with the charade simply because 'Mr Bradley' was the only person who had any real influence on his patient.

"We're having a bit of a problem with Captain Murdock. I thought we were making some progress with it, but..."

Hannibal frowned. "What kind of problem, Doctor?" His tone clearly saying, "Now what?"

"Over the past several months, he's been visited by a priest, a Father O'Malley. Do you know him?"

Hannibal knew the name, but not from Murdock. From Peck's file. Skirt carefully now.

"It doesn't ring a bell right off hand, but then, my memory..."

"Right, right. Well, this priest apparently ran an orphanage that one of Murdock's friends grew up in. A friend from Vietnam, who died over there. The first time he came was just to give Murdock a few mementos."

"The first time." Murdock hadn't mentioned him to Hannibal other than that one visit.

"Yes. Murdock apparently asked him to stop by from time to time, to talk. Again, nothing wrong with that. Until a few months ago, when the priest started coming on a more regular basis. Always bringing something of this...Lieutenant Peck's. Photos, school records, anything he had.

"Things started getting a little more serious. A couple weeks ago, Murdock started writing letters. To the Army, former colleagues from the airline he worked for, even the Pentagon."

"What?!"

"Yes. Normally, we don't interfere with patients' correspondence, but, uh, we did in the case of the Pentagon letter. Only to see exactly what he was contacting them about - then we had no reason to withhold it. But this...obsession is something we need to address."

Hannibal had a hard rock in the pit of his stomach. "And what are these letters about?"

"He's requesting - well, demanding - any and all information on the lieutenant's death."

Hannibal sighed. This was bad in so many ways. He looked up at Richter, who was watching him with concern.

"Okay, Doc. I'll talk to him. See if I can find out what the hell is going on with him."


*****

February 3, 1976

5 Years

Face sat on the edge of the bluff, watching the ferry. It wasn't going anywhere, just sitting there, but he watched it anyway. He had a feeling, that tingling feeling running through his body. Like it was in Nam, when they were moving into a hot area. When you could feel Charlie all around, but couldn't see him, couldn't hear him. You just knew he was there. Waiting.

There were a lot of times like that. He would hear gunfire, off in the distance. Artillery. Or catch a muzzle flash out of the corner of his eye. Smell the dankness of the jungle, feel it closing in on him. Hear Harry's voice as he and the other guards sat around the fire. None of it really clear, or distinct. He couldn't say, yeah, it happened. It was just...there.

The tingling got more intense whenever he was near the ferry. Some days he could put it aside for what it was. Other days, like today, he had to watch.

He started tossing pebbles and sticks into the water below, watching the rings drift out, disappear into the current of the river. It was the boredom. He knew that. Over there, he'd dreamed of coming home, having a mundane little life, nothing more stressful than taking the car to the shop. And when he did get back, he couldn't handle a simple conversation.

Now, even months after that fight, that battle, that war - he couldn't deal with the quiet. He wanted more of that fight. Wanted that energy, that danger, that thrill. Some days it was like a physical ache.

On those days he stayed away from Jenny. He didn't trust himself not to pull some boneheaded stunt, hurt her in some way. So he'd hide out on the island, or take off. Hitch a ride someplace where they didn't know him. Find a bar, a back alley. Someplace he shouldn't go, and make his presence known. And after, the thrill of getting away, from the guys he fought with, from the police. The thrill of the chase.

Knowing that getting caught meant getting locked up.

Stupid.

And then the fall. When the energy drained away. When it was all over, and he had to find some way home.

Home.

A piece of crap shack on an abandoned island by a town where no one wanted him.

Except Jenny.

He'd come back, because he had no other place to go, and feel ashamed of what he'd done. To himself, to her.

And to make amends, to prove he was whatever she thought he was, he would try to get back to being what he was before. Try not to make her regret her friendship.

Today, he didn't care about any of that. He'd seen the calendar in the kitchen yesterday, and it had suddenly hit him like a brick wall. So he stayed away, and let the tingling fill his body as he watched the ferry.

Today, he was sure, they would come.


*****

The three men didn't usually go to the VA together, but today was a special occasion. Wiley had been discharged from the hospital a couple days ago, after his latest go-around with chemo, and he wanted to celebrate. Why this time, Hannibal didn't know, but Wiley wanted to and that was enough. He'd wangled an overnight pass for Murdock, and they were going out for a big dinner and whatever else happened along. Hannibal had a semi-foreboding picture of the celebrations they used to have after missions in Nam. It would be an interesting night.

While BA waited in the van with Wiley, Hannibal walked up to Murdock's building and checked in with the front desk clerk. She frowned only slightly, but Hannibal picked up on it.

"Something wrong?"

"Captain Murdock has been...a bit down the last couple of days." She smiled her professional smile. "But I'm sure this outing will be good for him. He's just finishing with his class. If you'd like to wait in his room, it should only be a few minutes."

He nodded and walked down the long hall. Murdock's door was closed, but unlocked, and Hannibal settled himself in the armchair Wiley had gotten for Murdock a couple months ago. He absently looked around the room, wondering what was going on with Murdock this time. He had talked to him last month about contacting all those people, and Murdock had promised to back off. Since then, he'd had more ups than downs, and Hannibal took some credit for that. Richter had been right to be concerned about that obsession thing. Hannibal wasn't sure he liked the fantasy world Murdock seemed to be building for himself in its place, but if it kept him from those dark days, and writing more of those ill-advised letters, Hannibal was willing to put up with it.

He grinned. He wished BA felt the same way, but...

His glance swept over the desk in the corner. Murdock had a conglomeration of items scattered across it, bits and pieces of model airplanes. Murdock never put together a model; he took pieces from several and cut and filed until he had a completely new airplane. Some even looked like they could fly.

Along the wall beside the desk were pictures of the team. No Nam shots - even a crazy Murdock wasn't stupid. But lots of civilian style pictures.

One of Face, in fatigues. Standing close, but not quite next, to Murdock.

And then he saw the calendar, tacked to the wall above the desk. A series of big circles around the date. Today's date. Hannibal smiled, and stepped over. Murdock may have had his down time, but he was definitely looking forward to his 'over-nighter'.

Hannibal's smile disappeared when he saw the notation within the circles. With very straight, meticulous strokes, Murdock had printed one word.

"Face."