"Hey." Blue Dare came out of the dusk, sat down on the berm next to Murdock, and handed him a Tiger. The other captain was carrying a duffle which from the sound it made when he dropped it was probably full of the brown bottles of Indonesian beer. Murdock smiled and took the bottle opener; a bag of beer fit his mood perfectly. Of course, it usually would.
They sat there silently for two bottles each, watching the sun drop into Cambodia like a giant illicit bomb from Operation Menu, something they were both too familiar with to talk about. The third bottle Murdock pulled out, though, was a San Miguel. He raised an eyebrow, but before he could say anything Blue grabbed it away.
"No, no," he said. "That's for later. For midnight." He tucked it away and pulled out another Tiger.
Murdock took the Indonesian brew willingly enough; sure the Philippine stuff was primo but Tiger would get the job done. And midnight wasn’t all that far off. Still - "What's at midnight?"
"Celebration." Blue leaned back and looked up at the darkening sky. "Celebration, my man Hao Lin."
Murdock's nickname always sounded Chinese when Blue said it. Sometimes that was freaky, like he wasn’t himself any more. Sometimes it was really good, like he wasn’t himself... Anymore, he liked being Hao Lin better than being Murdock. Hao Lin was just a soldier; he had problems, of course, but he hadn’t done the things Murdock had done. He took another pull of Tiger and then, just for something to say, asked, “What celebration?”
“Last day of summer, man.”
“No, it’s not. That was weeks ago,” Murdock said without thinking, and then cursed himself. Why annoy Blue, one of the few men he could stand to be around any more?
But Blue wasn’t annoyed. It was too dark to see his grey eyes, but his voice was still light and cheerful when he answered. “Yes, it is.”
Murdock drank some more Tiger and finally said, “Midsummer is in June. So –“
“We don’t live in the sky. Okay, not really,” Blue laughed; the sound was ambivalent. Murdock wasn’t sure if he was being sardonic or angry. It didn’t matter, not after three beers, and Blue might have had more. “On the ground, summer starts in June. So it’s over in September.”
“Okay.” Murdock was agreeable, actually in this damn country he figured summer came and went with the rains. But any excuse for a celebration, after all. He took another drink. “Where’s the ice cream?”
“Last day of summer means ice cream,” he said, “least it always did back home.”
“Yeah? Well, this ain’t home, Hao Lin, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
That was sardonic, and Murdock regretted it, though his remark had been innocent. He answered quickly, “Virginia –“ and as soon as the word left his mouth he knew it had just made things worse. Blue got still, the Tiger frozen halfway to his mouth. It was too dark to see it, but Murdock was sure: Blue’s fingers were white-knuckling the bottle. Some guys, back in the bad old days, had tried calling the red-headed pilot Virginia Dare; he didn’t like it. Those fingers Murdock couldn’t see were scarred from the time he’d knocked out the entirely loathsome Matt Highman’s teeth demonstrating just how much he didn’t like it. Nobody called him anything but Blue Streak after that. Except the ones that knew him well... He hurried to finish the sentence so Blue wouldn’t do whatever he might do, volatile as he was. “- has beaches, right? Boardwalks? Ice cream? Don’t you miss all that?”
“Beaches?” Blue snorted and Murdock relaxed too. “I hate beaches, Hao Lin. All a beach is is crowds, heat, and drowning. And sand in my shorts.”
Murdock laughed. “Well, you got away from heat, drowning, and sand.”
“I guess it depends on how you define a crowd.”
Blue handed him another Tiger. “Three’s a crowd?” he said quizzically. “I don’t believe that, and neither do you.” True enough; you needed that many to fly a Chinook or Huey. Blue went on, “A dozen’s okay, even, if they’re the right dozen.”
“Maybe,” Murdock said. Too many... that was always trouble. He’d always resisted those big missions. Small teams, that’s what he liked. Blue just grunted softly and lay back on the berm, Murdock pulled the duffle bag closer to hand and joined him, looking up at the stars.
They didn’t say anything for two more Tigers. Two each. That was okay with Murdock. Talking was overrated. For people you didn’t know. People you either needed to get to know, or wanted to keep at arm’s length. He had the reputation of a chatterbox, but his crew was comfortable with silence, and as for Blue... What did they have to talk about tonight? What did they ever have to talk about besides missions coming up, which they didn’t need to talk about since there wasn’t one, or missions over with? And missions over with didn’t need to be talked about. He and Blue didn’t need words, anyway.
What bound them together was beyond words. The things they’d seen, the things they’d done: you didn’t talk about those things. You didn’t even think about them except when they invaded your dreams and left you sleepless and sweating in the dark...
Other things could invade your sleep and leave you sweating in the dark, which was good. Sometimes you needed that. Sometimes you needed to be that for someone else. There wasn’t anything else to it, but that was enough. And next to what else bound him and Blue, it shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow (though it would, of course). Murdock glanced over at Blue, a darker shape in the darkness. That line of thought made him wonder if Blue needed something besides beer and company. If so ... well, after six or seven Tigers a San Miguel would put him right over the top, and so why not? Blue had been there for him when everything had gone to hell, dragging him right along. Which reminded him. “Blue?”
“I told you. Last day of summer. Just about ... now, in fact.”
“Last day of summer, though? Bluey, since when is that a holiday?”
“Didn’t say it was a holiday.” Blue sat up and rummaged in the duffle, coming up with the San Miguels. “Last day of summer. Labor Day. Kids go back to school, pools close, women stop wearing white shoes...”
“I don’t hear any celebration-worthiness there,” Murdock said, sitting up. He opened his own San Miguel and held it on his knee.
“My tour’s up.”
“You’re going?” Murdock reviewed that and revised it. “You’re getting out?”
“Looks that way. Scheduled to fly out in the morning tomorrow. Today, I guess.”
Murdock knew why Blue hadn’t mentioned it: tempting fate. “Lucky man, Bluey,” he said, meaning it.
Blue tipped his bottle against Murdock’s. “Your time will come,” he said.
“Sure,” Murdock agreed, though he wasn’t. Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever leave Indochina – or if he did, if he’d leave it behind him. But Blue was getting out, and that was worth celebrating, sure enough. “Where are they sending you?”
“Ord,” he said. “And then I’m getting out."
“Out?” The concept startled Murdock. Was it even possible any more?
“I won’t miss much."
“I guess not...” Murdock shook his and repeated, experimentally, “Out...”
"I’m thinking of going to Alaska. No crowds, pilots can always find work...” His voice trailed off.
Murdock figured he was thinking of all that emptiness. Plenty of room to hide – hide the moods, the nightmares, oneself. Good plan, Bluey, he thought. He raised his bottle. “Here’s hoping you make it,” he said, and then lightened it. “Write if you get work.”
“To getting out,” Blue said.
“To getting out,” Murdock agreed. “Fast and far, boy. Fast and far.”
They drank in silence. The stars burned in equal silence, and the moon shone. And the night moved on to morning, and the morning brought winter, and took Blue, and Murdock felt the winter settle in his soul, deep, like no spring could ever shift it.
It took more than Tigers to put him to sleep that night.
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