"I got it, Face. It was in today's mail. Special delivery."
The voice over the phone was solemn. Face sighed, rubbing his forehead gently.
"Have you opened it yet?" The unspoken question - should I come over?
"Not yet. Uh..."
"Give me a half-hour."
Face could've made it sooner but he needed time. Time to brace himself. Murdock had been so...ecstatic when he'd gotten that first letter. The letter saying they'd found those dog tags. His friend's dog tags. The friend Face had heard so many stories about those first few weeks in Nam, he'd wanted to throttle the guy, sight unseen. Until Face found out how he'd died. That veterans group had told Murdock they were sending the tags to him, and he'd been like a kid at Christmas.
They met in the yard behind the screen of big oak trees. Murdock was already sitting on the bench when Face arrived. He smiled ruefully to himself. It was only a few months ago they'd all been here, laughing at Decker's perplexed meeting with Murdock. There was no playfulness in Murdock now. No ecstasy.
Face sat down beside him on the bench, glancing at him before staring out across the yard. A few other patients were wandering about, a couple orderlies. No one close. No one paying attention. He jumped a bit when Murdock silently thrust the envelope at him.
Face took it, noticing the slight tremor in Murdock's hand. He felt almost as shaky. It was one thing to talk about Nam; it was a distant memory. There were things you wanted to remember, things you chose to forget. This brought it all back, in 3-D.
"Nick was my friend, Face. He didn't have anybody else." Murdock looked at the ground, scuffing the dirt with the toe of his shoe. "You should've seen the look on his face when he asked if he could make me his next of kin." Murdock smiled, softly, blinking a bit. "I didn't get a chance to bring back anything of his; only had a couple pictures. When I got that letter, it was like...like I'd have him back again. A little bit." Murdock blushed, grimacing. "I know it's dumb..."
"No, Murdock, it's not dumb. Not dumb at all." He rubbed a thumb over the envelope. "Want me to...?"
Murdock nodded, still looking at the ground.
Face took out his pocketknife and carefully cut a slit along the top of the envelope. Reaching inside, he heard the faint tinkle of thin metal. Just as carefully, he pulled the dog tags out and held them in his hand for a moment before turning them over to his friend. They were dirty, and a bit bent on one corner, but that was okay. Face knew Murdock would want them back just the way they'd been found. He knew he would, too.
Murdock hesitated a moment before gently taking the tags from Face. He looked at them, sadly at first, then smiling, looking out toward the hospital, though Face knew he wasn't really seeing it.
"You woulda liked him, Face. He looked so...innocent, but he had a streak of larceny in him, just like you."
Face didn't even protest. Just smiled.
"We was at this bar in Saigon one time, and..." Face held back a grimace. He'd heard the story a hundred times. But Murdock had stopped suddenly, frowning, looking again at the tags, rubbing them.
Murdock ignored him, rubbing the tags harder, getting the dirt and grime off. He stared at the tags before suddenly flinging them away.
"Those are fakes! They're fake, goddammit!" He leaped to his feet, shouting words Face hadn't heard from him in years.
"Murdock! Murdock, calm down." He grabbed his arm, pulling him quickly back to the bench, smiling and waving off the two orderlies who had started over. Murdock dropped down to the bench, holding his head, shaking.
"They're fakes...goddamn fakes..."
"How do you know, Murdock? They looked..."
"Yeah, they looked perfect! But they weren't. The real ones weren't!" Murdock looked up at the sky, hands clenched tightly together. Took a deep breath. "That bar in Saigon...that jarhead, the drunk, tried to stab Nick with a pen - a pen, for god sakes." Murdock swallowed. "The pen hit his tags instead, put a big round dent in the middle. Nick used to tell the girls it was from a bullet." Murdock shook his head, smiling mirthlessly. "There's no dent in those tags, Face. They're not his." Whispering now. "Not his."
The two men sat on the bench, quiet, alone, the sun glinting off the small bits of metal in the grass.