Ryan’s fingers twisted around the casing, amazed at how innocuous the scrap of metal appeared. Anyone looking at it or touching it would see and feel only cold, lifeless, spent metal. Odd, he thought, it’s so much more than that. As if sensing his train of thought, the hull came to life in his palm, sending pulsing awareness up his arm. It’s been so long. The words formed in his mind as an aching awareness, more than actual language. So far away—and yet so close—the vision played out behind closed eyelids.
“Hello, Ming,” he whispered as a woman’s face materialized before him.
The image shifted, becoming more tangible, “Heah-wo, Ry-ann.” His name on her tongue was bittersweet. Elongating and accenting the second syllable of his name was uniquely Ming’s interpretation, and it sent a jolt of longing through him. High-pitched and slightly nasal, her voice filled his head, setting his gut to quivering. “You don’t come so much any morah.”
“No,” he murmured, his head shaking slightly as he acknowledged her gentle accusation. “Not often.”
As he watched, the shimmering form took on firmer essence, filling out with the flesh and bone of substance. “You miss me, sold-jah?” she teased as she moved toward him. Her innate, exotic grace still had the power to hypnotize and fascinate him.
“Yes,” His voice was a hoarse rasp of sound as Ming leaned into his embrace. He pulled her against him, his body firing with a need he hadn’t felt in far too long. Slipping her arms around his neck, she trailed slender fingers through his close-cropped hair. He wore it short now, shaved and trimmed and gelled into spiked rigidity. Did she like it that way? When he’d first met her, his hair had been long and unkempt, the blonde tresses pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Now his hair was mostly gray; the dirty-blonde of his youth had long since succumbed to the inevitability of time.
“You still ree-mem-bah me, Ry-ann?” she murmured, her full lips all but touching the sensitive flesh of his throat. Her breath felt hot and moist against his skin.
God, did he ever! He remembered the taste and smell of her, the lilt of her laughter, the sparkle in those chocolate drop eyes. He also remembered the way her body could posses his, wholly and completely. Shuddering with longing, his arms tightened around her, drawing her closer. Dipping his head, he inhaled the scent of her, reveling in the sweet, spicy freshness that was distinctively Ming Thao.
“I remember you, sweetheart.” How could he ever forget? His hands tightened convulsively as he crushed her against the hard length of his body. “Ming,” he breathed out on a sigh of utter longing.
The sound that rumbled through her reminded him of a purring cat. It affected him now, just as it always had. Almost of its own volition, his mouth closed over hers, hungry and hard. His hands were ravenous now, moving with frenzied urgency over the soft curves of the woman in his arms.
“God, I’ve missed you, baby,” he whispered against the silk of her midnight hair, surprised at the depth of passion in that simple truth.
“And I, you,” Ming replied, her words feathering against the shell of his ear.
Suddenly, Ryan straightened; his muscles hardened with wary tension. The Viet Cong were coming! That was what he had come here to tell her; they suspected a spy among the people of her village. There would be bloodshed.
“Come!” he ordered as his large, square hand closed around Ming’s fragile-boned fingers.
“No, Ry-ann, I can not,” she said, pulling back and looking up at him. Her exotic, dark eyes looked like twin pools of midnight in the olive perfection of an oval face.
Ryan felt a stab of utter panic. He had to get her to come with him. She didn’t understand. There was so little time. He knew what was going to happen; knew it with a conviction that washed through him in unrelenting waves of dread. Urgency ate at him, nipping at nerve-endings like his parents’ tiny Dachshund snapped at the heels of passing strangers—loud and incessant—demanding attention.
Trying again, he said, “Ming, please. I—”
She didn’t let him finish. Placing a slender finger against his lips, she whispered, “Dis is my place, my pe-poll. I meant to be here.” Her body moved against him, and she took his face between her hands, meeting his gaze with steady strength and calm. “Listen to me,” she said calmly.
Ryan didn’t want to listen. Tension coiled through him, tighter and tighter with each passing second, drawing the breath from his lungs in hissed impatience. He inhaled, sucking oxygen between clenched teeth as he waited for her words, knowing his compliance would cost him everything he loved and held dear.
“Dis is my home, Ry-ann. My fam-lee and fwends. You know I can not leave.”
She didn’t understand!
Didn’t she remember?
Didn’t the images of blood and death haunt her days and nights, as they had haunted his? It had been an interminable span of years, and yet for him, those memories were as fresh and heartrending as if they’d happened yesterday.
“Miiinnng.” Her name was a keening plea on his lips.
“Shhhhhh,” she whispered, her finger once again covering his lips, stopping the words that trembled on the tip of his tongue.
Ahhhhh, God! Anguish sliced through him as awareness dawned. There was no reprieve. No second chance. Then, suddenly, there was no time, either.
The staccato rat-ta-tat-tat of gunfire shattered the mist-shrouded, early morning serenity.
“Down!” Ryan growled instinctively, pushing Ming toward the meager safety of a plank-topped table. “Stay here!”
His body moved on auto-pilot, reacting intuitively as training took over. In a crouched jog he raced out the flapping bamboo door, diving toward cover. Flashes of color assailed his senses—blues, yellows, greens and reds—bright and shapeless. They formed a surreal painting done in bold sweeps of brush, forever etched in his mind’s eye.
The flash of gunfire registered. His men were laying down cover. Zinging back and forth, the exchanged barrage of bullets ricocheted like deadly fireflies. Shouting assailed his senses, along with the screams of the wounded and dying.
The scream sliced through Ryan’s awareness, spinning his body around. His gun was up and aimed before his mind registered the source of the cry. Dark hair and eyes under a Viet Cong cap blinked across his consciousness a split second before his finger squeezed the trigger, riddling a small-boned chest with bloody holes. Through all the intervening years, Ryan would see that body spin in slowed motion, arms askew, flung wide in a macabre dance that sent droplets of blood spiraling through the air.
“NOOooooooooo!” Another scream.
Pivoting, Ryan saw Ming lunge from the hut to fling herself across the fallen soldier. Diving and rolling, he managed to come up next to her. “Get back insidee!” he ordered.
“Ry-annnnn!” Ming’s sobs echoed in his ears. He could still see her bloody hands lifting a limp head to her lap.
Reluctantly, he looked down, knowing what he would see would haunt him for the rest of his life. Cradled in her lap, eyes staring blinding at the dawn skies, was Tran—Ming’s younger brother. Dear, GOD! He should have known! The recrimination came in swift, agonizing blasts. The body that had hurtled toward him had been Tran, wearing his souvenir cap and wielding a wooden sword. Tran, barely ten years old! Tran, who talked incessantly of fighting the Viet Cong and helping the “…Am-mer-E-cans…”.
“Come,” Ryan choked the word out over bitter grief and self-loathing. “Ming, come.” Getting her to safety was the only coherent thought in his head as he pulled her up and began a zigzag run toward the closest cover.
Gunfire punctured the ground around his feet. “STOP!” The shouted word was not in English, but Ryan recognized its meaning , and his body froze. Pushing Ming behind him, he turned.
The VC soldier standing no more than a dozen paces away smiled with sadistic satisfaction, raising his rifle and taking careful aim. Ryan knew an instant of alarm, followed by calm acceptance. This is how it should have ended—all those years ago. He should have been the one to die.
“No!” Ming’s cry cut through his awareness as the VC pulled the trigger, sending the deadly missile hurtling through space and time. “NOOOOOooooo!” she screamed again, flinging her small frame in front of him in the last split-second.
It happened fast. Too fast. Ryan felt her body slam against his, absorbing the impact of the bullet. In less than a heartbeat his free hand wrapped around Ming’s waist and pulled her down with him, as he leveled his M-16 and fired. Tangentially he saw the enemy soldier drop in his tracks, but his only clear thought was to drag Ming toward the meager reprieve offered by the forest’s edge.
Once there, he found a relatively protected patch of ground, then began an anxious perusal of her wound. Somewhere in the recesses of his brain he knew it was fatal; beyond human healing.
“Ryan!” Out of nowhere Harlton’s voice beat against his awareness, and his hand clamped onto Ryan’s shoulder. “Come on, man. We gotta get outta here!”
Ryan knew he was right, but he didn’t want to leave. “Ming,” he sobbed, his hands moving over her body in a futile effort to staunch the life-draining flow of blood pooling around her. “God, noooo.”
“Ry-annnnnn,” she whispered, gasping with the effort to speak and draw breath. “Go. Pa-weese.”
Go? Leave her here to die? Alone?
He couldn’t. He wouldn’t! Not again. He’d made that choice once—a lifetime ago—and had carried the tortured weight of guilt and shame on his soul, through all the years that choice had bought him.
“Jesus, Ryan! We gotta get the hell outta here! They’re coming outta the goddamn woodwork, man!”
“No,” he whispered, pulling Ming against his chest and cradling her head on his shoulder. Not this time. Looking up at Harlton, he said, “Go. That’s an order!”
Harlton didn’t argue, he simply disappeared into the brush, leaving Ryan behind. The clamor of destruction faded into a soft, incessant ticking as Ryan held Ming’s shaking body close. “I love you,” he whispered against her tear-soaked cheek. “I never told you that. I love you so much, Ming. I always will.”
“And…I love…you, Ry-ann.” The words were pulled from her heart through a haze of pain. “I…love…you.” The reaffirmation slipped from her lips on a gush of breath as her body eased into the limpness of death.
Even through his crushing grief, Ryan felt a weight lift from his shoulders—his heart. Despite her brother’s death—at his hands—despite her own death, Ming still loved him. All the years since her death, he’d believed he had not only lost her, but forfeited that love! All the unbearable, angry years of not knowing suddenly slipped through his fingers like insignificant grains of sand.
She loved him!
Ryan felt her words knife through his heart, ripping the breath from his lungs in a painfully sweet twist of awareness. Pure reflex brought his hand to his chest, the empty metal casing falling from numbed fingers to clink against uncarpeted tile, and then roll until the wall halted its progress. His knees buckled, and he felt himself sink to the ground.
The shell! It was his only tie to Ming. He tried to reach for it, but his body refused to obey. For all this time, he’d held onto the empty casing, once stained with Ming’s blood, but he didn’t need to carry that weight of guilt any longer. It doesn’t matter, he thought, gasping air into lungs that felt as if the hounds of hell had clamped his chest into a vice grip. Nothing matters now. She loves me!
Suddenly, Ming was there beside him. Kneeling, she cradled his head on her lap, stroking his face. “It over, Ry-ann, “she whispered. “At last, you come home, sold-jah.”
Ryan smiled through the crushing pain in his chest, knowing her words held a promise he had waited for all his life.
At last! The cold, shame-ridden years—over!
At last! The hole in his heart—filled!
“At last.” The words floated from his lungs on a sigh. Leaning down, Ming’s lips closed over his.