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Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes

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BOOK: The Secret of Raven Point
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The chaplain tilted his head. “My understanding is that Father MacDougal fell ill a very long, long time ago.” He set down his cases and surveyed the area. The silver crosses pinned to his lapels glinted in the light. “Tents, tents, and tents.”

“Just try not to confuse the outhouse and the shower house,” she said.

“Simon Reardon.” He extended his hand. “Army Chaplain Corps.”

“Juliet Dufresne. Army Nurse Corps.”

His handshake was authoritative, but his smile was boyish, buoyant. Around his neck hung a long, thick chain with an ornate crucifix, nearly the size of her index finger. She’d never before seen anything like it.

“The abbot lent it to me,” he explained. “For protection.”

The abbot.
He was a monk, then. Juliet didn’t quite believe in God, and certainly not in all the hoopla of Christianity, but it seemed wise to be friendly to a chaplain—just in case. She worried her haggard and sleep-deprived stare had been impolite.

“If you’d like, I can show you to Major Decker’s tent,” she said.

“I’m here to tend to the soul,” he said, “and the spirit and essentially whatever else pops up before
me. You, though I’ve never met you before, would, I think, be well served by finding your way to
your
tent. I’m no doctor, but I’d say some rest is in order.”

The mere thought of sleep made Juliet break into a yawn. She felt as if she’d been awake for days, moving and working and worrying for months. “Rest would be good,” she said. “Chaplain’s orders?”

The chaplain nodded. He took her elbow and walked her quietly through the drizzle to her tent, where finally Juliet slept.

CHAPTER 5

NEWS CAME THAT
the division had pushed the Germans farther north and several battalions were being rested. The rain ceased, and a pleasant silence settled over the landscape. In the distance, the trees were thick and green, and the mountains beyond looked beautiful against the sky.

Assigned to a seven-hour daytime shift, Juliet took her breakfast at dawn in the Officers’ Mess, and as the sun’s rays, like the limbs of a waking sleeper, stretched slowly over the encampment, she began her rounds.

By noon the glare was hard and bright, and inside the Recovery Tent the canvas walls gathered the hot air and held it very still. Juliet moved slowly; with each step her ward dress stuck to her sides. She fanned patients with magazines, laid wet folded cloths above their brows, flicked flies from their wounds. The worst off were the men in casts, whose necks and chests she doused hourly with a pitcher of water. “Holy Mary,” exclaimed a man in a full-body spica cast, “I’m cooked like a casserole!”

Slowly the mud dried and the bald patches of earth grew cracked and dusty; a tan soot rose from the ground and found its way into the creases of her clothing.

The most critical patients were trucked to Naples for evacuation, and soon the hospital took on the feeling of a resort; two by two, patients on crutches hobbled together around the lush grounds, speaking in low, intimate tones, smoking cigarettes while staring off into the mountains; young Italian girls waved empty baskets over the hospital fence, eager to do laundry for pay. A female reporter from a Chicago newspaper arrived; having been denied access to the front lines, she huffed around the recovery ward trying to coax patients into dramatic quotes—“You must have been terrified. . . . You must have felt trapped. . . . You must have been feverish”—which, theoretically, would bring home to her readers as palpable an experience of the front as did Ernie Pyle’s reports. Feeling sorry for her, the men invented tales of reckless heroism, of distant cousins reunited on the battlefield, ridiculous yarns that they referred to, among themselves, as
must-ofs
or, soon,
mustaff
s
. “I’ve got a good mustaff.”

Members of the nearby British air force squadron visited, including a pilot Glenda knew from North Africa who arrived one evening in a jeep with two friends and a bottle of grappa, insisting the nurses come to an Officers’ Club dance.

Returning from her rounds, Juliet found Glenda on her back, studiously penning a black web of fishnet stockings across her legs.

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” Juliet laughed.

“Want me to do yours?”

“I’m not going.”

“A little roll in the olive grove could do you good. It gets my circulation going, and that, sugar, does wonders for the complexion.”

Juliet bent to unlace her shoes. “You’re forgetting my special patient.”

“Private Cyclops?” Glenda pointed her toes and examined her handiwork. “He won’t know if you’re gone.”

“Mother Hen will.”

“Then we’ll sneak a chum back for you!
One for you and one for me! Share alike for Victory.”
Glenda scissored her legs. “Just give me some guidelines. Tall and dark? Short and athletic? Freckled? Bookish, I bet.”

“Hunchbacked and pockmarked,” said Juliet. “With a speech impediment.”

“Hell, that’s my first husband. Come on, I’m offering you my extraordinary powers of discernment.”

“Thank you, but it’s unnecessary.”

Glenda flipped onto her stomach and narrowed her eyes. “Sugar, you’re not
inexperienced,
are you? ’Cause if that’s the problem, Glenda here can talk you through it. I know very little about most things of worldly consequence, but I’m encyclopedic in the boy department.”

Juliet had not, in fact, kissed anyone since her failed attempt with Beau Conroy years earlier. Just as she began looking at boys with greater interest, most in Charlesport had shipped overseas. And by the time she’d arrived in Naples, the soldiers there were endlessly claiming they were “pissing fire.” She’d tired of handing out condoms and brochures on syphilis. One more short-arm exam and she’d have joined a convent. (
Short arm
was army slang for the male organ, though most men, as they sat half-naked before her on the hospital beds, trying to mask their shame with wisecracks, claimed
short arm
was a misnomer, suggesting that for medical and historical accuracy, Juliet should note their manhood as
long arm
.) It was, Juliet realized, an unfortunate introduction to the male anatomy.

“I’ve sort of got someone back home . . .” Juliet fibbed.

Shrugging, Glenda stood to smooth out her dress. Glenda wasn’t exactly beautiful—there was a thinness to her lips that made her seem old, and a slight crook at the bridge of her nose; one eye even seemed slightly smaller than the other—but she gave the dazzling impression of glamour.

“This pilot,” said Juliet, “is he your sweetheart?”

“Oh, I got more sweethearts than I can count. None of them worth a horseshoe, though. As my momma likes to say, they are
phi-landerers
. You know what that means? It’s from Latin. Latin for stickin’ your hand in too many cookie jars.” She hopped into one of her pumps and was about to duck through the canvas, when
she turned back thoughtfully. “Look, Juliet, you got a real nice face, you know. Don’t be fussing about that there birthmark. It makes you distinct, distinguished. The first time you walked in here, I thought,
That there is a special gal.
You should be out there dating. They got ten boys here for every girl, and half these boys are missing
essential
parts! They aren’t exactly in a position to be picky.”

Glenda exited at the onset of Juliet’s blush. Since Juliet entered nursing school, no one had mentioned her birthmark (nurses and doctors were wonderfully delicate about such matters), and the absence of mirrors in the hospitals had allowed her to forget it. But the sudden recollection of the attribute that had for so long compromised her self-confidence stung her: she was an army nurse, she was serving on the front lines in Italy, but to plain sight she still seemed the same odd-looking girl she’d been back in Charlesport.

Juliet felt
different,
though. Inside her resided a new, unflappable sense of triumph; after all, she’d worked tirelessly to get her nursing degree in under twelve months; she’d studied enough Italian to ensure a posting to Italy; she’d endured five grueling weeks of Basic Training and eight blazing, seasick days aboard the HMS
Mayflower
to arrive in Naples. She was now closer to her brother’s last known steps than she’d ever imagined possible.
I’ve been tested and I succeeded,
thought Juliet, and nothing—not even the blemish on her face that she’d so long wished away—could take that from her. Was it too much to hope that this whole experience would transform her in a way others would find attractive? All she had ever wanted was to come across as a person of substance. Perhaps Glenda was right; maybe the boys here wouldn’t make a scene over her birthmark as Beau Conroy had. Plenty of nurses were heavyset, even mannish, and they didn’t seem the least bit shy about prancing off to dances.

Juliet lay back and imagined the Officers’ Club. She envisioned ivory tablecloths, yellow wildflowers in empty wine bottles,
lipsticked nurses sipping champagne from tin cups. A makeshift band would be playing—maybe a pilot with a saxophone who loved Glenn Miller—and in a swirl of cigarette smoke a group of clean-shaven officers would pull the nurses by their fingertips onto the dance floor. Juliet eventually drifted off, awakened by the sharp white glare of a flashlight. In the semidarkness, Glenda blinked forcefully, as though to orient herself, releasing a deep-throated moan. “What . . . a . . . night.”

Her mouth, smeared with lipstick, looked bee-stung; her platinum curls had wilted. She flung her hands behind her back and struggled so noisily and strenuously with the zipper on her dress, it seemed she was fighting handcuffs. In final surrender, with the dress half off her shoulders, she plunged her fingers into a vat of cold cream and worked it sloppily into her face.

“How was it?” Juliet asked tentatively.

Glenda flicked off her flashlight and let her head thump into her pillow. “Sug,” she sighed, “wake me when the war’s over.”

In the morning the world was bright and green and frenzied. Supply trucks rolled noisily into the encampment and crews of ward men unloaded crates of surgical supplies. Cigarette packets were distributed; the bugle sounded for mail call. The clank of the weekly crate of Coca-Cola bottles elicited wild applause.

The sky was cloudless; the day blazed.

In the shade of the Recovery Tent, Juliet was reviewing the medicine schedule. She stood at the nursing station, flipping through the clipboard, when she felt the dark weight of someone staring at her. In the entrance of the tent stood a man she suspected to be Captain Brilling, the commander of C Company. A few minutes earlier, she had heard his arrival announced over the megaphone. Three thick lines traversed his leathery forehead; a gray mustache
topped his lips, which were thin and dry and seemed to be working over a deep annoyance.

“You’re in charge?” he asked.

“Well, I’m the senior nurse on duty at the moment.” And that was only because Mother Hen had briefly gone to the quartermaster to complain about the gauze that had arrived. “But I think you’ll recognize most of your men. And for the ones with head bandages, you can check their tags. . . . Everyone is doing pretty well.”


All
the beds are full?”

“Yes, but a lot of the patients should be up and walking in no time.”

“Walking? I need them climbing, kicking, fighting.” He made a fist, and Juliet noticed the heft of his hand; a large gold ring shone from his forefinger. “The Krauts have dug in like moles. It took half my men to get them out of that godforsaken town and now they’ve dug into the next.” His dark eyes roamed the cots. “Where’s the Nervous Nellie?”

“Private Barnaby is—”

“Christopher Barnaby.”

“He’s been discharged?”

The captain stepped toward Juliet with such slow deliberation that his very lack of speed felt menacing. Juliet noticed a thin scar across the left side of his face, from the corner of his mouth to his ear. Not a speckled scar from shrapnel, or the clean entrance wound of a bullet; this scar had been carved at close contact. He would have seen the blade traveling his face. Once, when she was a child, she had willed herself to imagine the face of a convict, because she and Tuck had heard a report of a man escaping from a nearby jail; this was the closest Juliet had ever come to seeing an embodiment of her childhood terror.

“He’s in the far bed on the right side,” she said timidly. “But he’s sedated. And the doctors aren’t certain he’ll be able to speak.”

Captain Brilling remained entirely still, as though challenging her to say more. Juliet could smell his perspiration, could hear his
unnervingly long breaths. Finally, he crossed the ward in the direction of Barnaby. From all sides of the tent, men looked up from playing cards and sheets of V-mail, muttering, drowsily and morphine slurred, one hesitant, affection-filled word: “Captain.”

Juliet slipped out, entirely against protocol, and ran to the Sterilizing Tent. “Glenda, get Mother Hen. The commander of C Company is here to see Private Barnaby.”

Back at the tent, Juliet saw the captain standing over Barnaby, studying his cocoon of bandages. He waved his hand in front of Barnaby’s mouth; he snapped his fingers beside his ear. He shook Barnaby’s leg. Finally, from his side holster the captain pulled a pistol and held it just above Barnaby’s face; he cocked and released the weapon several times. “So you like the sound of this? This sound brings you comfort?”

BOOK: The Secret of Raven Point
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