PAINTING BY NUMBERS
Well, here it was.
Doc Hockenbury stood outside psych ward E-1, turning his cap around in his hands and squinting at the shabby, olive drab door thoughtfully. Not for the first time since he'd come to Vietnam, he was facing a dilemma. Should I? Shouldn't I?
He glanced around at the soldiers who were going by, strolling, hurrying, lagging hoping one of them would magically stop and provide him with the answer he was seeking, tell him what to do, come on, guys!...
No luck. They just kept on passing by, intent on whatever it was that they were doing, ignorant of the fact that he needed advice and guidance and...ah, hell.
Taking a deep breath, Hockenbury pushed open the splintery wooden door and went inside.
Danny Percell looked up slowly, still in the groggy daze that lying here in this cot usually put him into. The shrink sounded pleased. What did that mean?
"You've got a visitor, Percell. Take as long as you want."
The doc turned in a whirl of white coat and was replaced by...Doc, who pulled up a chair to sit at the bedside, smiling all over his skinny, pointy face. Percell was mildly surprised, but not really; over the past week, he'd become accustomed to swimming up from the depths of his agonizing heroin withdrawal to find that face hovering over him, gentle hands wiping his forehead, low voice murmuring comforting words.
"Hey there, Danny," Hockenbury said, punching Percell lightly on one huge arm. "You're looking pretty good for a guy who's seen the other side of hell."
"Yeah, well, Doc...I kinda feel like I'm still there." Percell slouched against the bed railing, avoiding Hockenbury's eyes. He concentrated on the slightly off-white of the coverlet, his thick fingers scrunching and pleating the material to keep his hands from shaking.
The medic said nothing, finding himself mesmerized by those hands. Big, ropy, calloused the complete polar opposite of his own slender, sensitive hands. Soldier's hands versus peacenik's hands.
Feeling suddenly self-conscious, Hockenbury was about to fold his hands underneath his shirt, but stopped himself with a stern admonition. How could he expect these guys to ever accept him into their ranks if he showed himself to he a long-haired hippie sissy?
So instead, he tentatively took hold of one of Danny's strong, rifle-hardened hands, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "You're outta the woods now, Danny," he said. "You're doing just fine."
Awkward pause, and oh God heart racing when Percell turned that sky-blue, piercing gaze on him. If you let Danny Percell down after he looked at you that way, with all that hope and trust and bright clear blue, you might's well find the nearest VC hole and toss yourself in.
"You really think so, Doc?" A striving for inner peace in that smoky raspy voice, and hey, didn't Francis Hockenbury know all there was to know about searching for peace, huh?
Swallowing, Hockenbury smiled and deliberately lightened his tone. "Sure do. And I got it from an indisputable, eminently trustworthy source, too."
"Yeah. Chico said you were gonna pull through, and you better believe Chico's on the money."
The furrows in Percell's brow smoothed out and he shouted a quick, harsh bark of laughter that startled Hockenbury and looked like it damn well startled Percell, too.
"Well now," he drawled, sitting up a bit straighter, "I can't go arguin' with your ol' lady, huh?"
Hockenbury smiled, slowly, and patted Danny's hand. "No. No, you can't."
"...and you should've seen it, man! I've never seen anybody run so fast as Taylor did!"
"Don't underestimate them pot-bellied pigs, Doc. Just 'cause they're short don't mean they ain't got big, sharp teeth. I woulda run if I was Marcus, too."
"Hey, if it was you instead of Taylor, we wouldn't've been trying to steal the pig in the first place."
Percell grinned and leaned his head back, looking at Hockenbury from half-closed eyes. Laughing a lot always made him drowsy. That, or cake and ice cream two sure-fire ways to get Danny to bed.
"So," he said lazily, "nobody got the pig, but you all got away in one piece?"
"Oh, I didn't say that," Doc murmured. "Ruiz and Johnson were so busy laughing at Taylor doing the two-minute speed sprint that the pig had time to nip Alberto's ankle. He's been paranoid about getting rabies ever since. Keeps insisting that I check him over every morning to make sure he's not frothing at the mouth."
"Ha! That's kinda funny, huh? Roo gettin' bit by a pig?"
Hockenbury grinned as Danny chortled over the irony. Things were feeling much more relaxed now, after a couple hours' worth of chatting and filling Percell in on the squad's goings-on, dotted with liberal mentions of "We wished you were there's" and "Yeah, but if you were there's". Almost deliriously happy now, Hockenbury was feeling quite pleased with his prowess at getting Danny to relax, laugh, talk again.
"I'm fallin' asleep here, Doc...."
Shaking himself out of his self-congratulatory reverie, Hockenbury blinked. "Oh. Oh! Hey, maybe I should take off, then, and give you a chance to rest "
He had half-risen from the chair already when Percell gripped his shirt, tugging him back down with almost embarassing ease. "Naw, I don't wantcha to go, Doc," he rasped. "If I sleep now, I'll be awake all night. I just wantcha to keep me awake."
Hockenbury looked down at that earnest cowboy face and felt his heart lurch. Danny Percell, he thought, you don't know how happy I would be to keep you awake....
"Okay," he said, pitching his voice low to keep it from wobbling like his knees were as he collapsed back into the chair. "Okay, sure! What is there to do around here that's doctor-sanctioned?"
Percell snorted and scrubbed at his short bristly hair. "Nuthin' 'cept kiddie stuff. Comic books, fingerpaints "
"Fingerpainting? I love fingerpainting!"
"Why does that not surprise me, Doc?"
"Come on, Danny you'll enjoy it. I got a real good idea about what we can paint, too."
Lt. Goldman stomped into his hooch, collecting his gear in movements that were now automatic for him. His mind was too occupied on the mission that he and his men were heading out on routine search-and-destroy. In fact, that was what was bothering him; it was almost a little too routine for what was now Team Viking of the MacV SOG. If Brewster was thinking of giving Goldman's team the shortstick for that Phu Lan incident, why he'd
The lieutenant's annoyed musings as he headed out the door were stopped by Sergeant Anderson as, indeed, was the lieutenant himself. Rebounding off Zeke's chest, Goldman brought himself up and snapped irritably, "What is it, Sergeant?"
Anderson glanced around, looking halfway embarrased, halfway amused. "Well sir, I just wanted to take a look at your lid."
"What?" Goldman was not in the mood for this. "My helmet? What "
Turning the helmet around in his hands, looking at it for the first time since he picked it up, Goldman found bright green paint across the back spelling out "MOMMY." He gaped at the word for a few seconds, not knowing what to make of it, until Anderson sheepishly held up one of his black headbands Myron noticed that he wasn't wearing one, for once across which was the green legend "DADDY."
Goldman was initially enraged this kind of jacking around was not what he wanted to deal with right now but it quickly subsided into resigned amusement. After all they'd been through, it was actually kind of good that the men were getting their sense of humor back. And it was a pretty harmless prank. Well, except for one thing
"Sergeant, howcome I have to be the Mommy?"
Anderson grinned and, with a quick, hard scrub of headband against helmet, eradicated the labels into greenish smears. "Lt, I reckon it's because they love you more."
"Uh-huh. Let's go."
"Holee Toledo, Doc I hope the Lt wasn't too steamed about that helmet paint." Percell tumbled onto his bunk, reveling in the feel of being back in the hooch. Nice olive drab walls, nice army green everything hardly any white in sight.
"Ah, I doubt it, Danny. Besides, it's just paint. It'll wash off." Hockenberry stood in the middle of the hooch, hands on his hips, looking around. His eyes came to rest on his footlocker, and he smiled, a lightbulb going off in his head. "Danny? I got the perfect thing for us to paint next."
Percell groaned, tossing an arm over his eyes. "More paintin'? I thought we already did that?"
"Hey, I didn't bust you outta the psych ward with a promise to take good care of you just to let you lie around on your bunk." Hockenberry went over to his locker and tugged it away from the wall, heaving it up onto Taylor's bunk. "Besides, that wasn't really painting that was just a couple'a words. Real painting means pictures."
Pulling himself up to sit balanced on the edge of his bunk, hands dangling between his knees, Percell squinted over at him. "Whatcha thinkin' of, Doc?"
Hockenberry turned his most plaintive, serious gaze on the soldier. "Look at this, Danny." He gestured at the locker. "Sad, plain, anonymous. Dontcha think it could do with a few decorations? Somthing to make it stand out from the crowd, feel like one in a million instead of one of a million?"
Percell considered. Then he got up and came over, picking up one of the tubes of poster paint from Taylor's bunk where Hockenberry had tossed them. "Hell, Doc, you're right," he declared. "It could use some livening up."
"Darn straight it could." Pleased, Hockenberry picked up a tube of pale yellow and squirted a bit out onto his fingers. Danny, brow furrowed, was working on a pinkish-red daisy of some sort, sitting on Taylor's bunk and reaching around the front of the locker. Hockenberry knelt on the floor and carefully traced a peace sign not so much because he was afraid of messing it up, considering he could now draw peace signs in a coma but because his arm kept brushing Danny's. Electric tingle each time, but Jesus, it would not be good to let on, nossir, not in front of good ol' boy Danny Percell.
He concentrated on the roundness of the sign, the smell of the paint, the smooth, slick feel of it under his fingertips, going over the same lines again and again. And holy moly, what the hell, Danny was sliding off the bunk onto the floor next to him and watching what he was doing, and now Danny's voice was stirring the hair around his ear, going "That's lookin' pretty good there, Doc," and he turned and found Danny kneeling soooo close, so close that the warmth of him was all over Hockenberry's skin....
Breath coming in short sharp pants, Hockenberry blinked rapidly, his fingers frozen in the yellow paint of the peace sign. "Danny...." he said uncertainly.
Percell raised his hand and ran his thumb slowly over Hockenberry's cheek, blue eyes intent on the arching line of color that it left. He traced a voluptuous curve across the medic's skin, reaching up with his other hand to grip Hockenberry's chin, holding him steady while marking his face. The pressure of his fingers increased as his concentration did, pressing harder against Hockenberry's face and digging into his chin, but the Doc didn't notice a thing except the hot intensity of Danny's eyes, the determined set of his mouth, the crinkle in his broad brow...Jesus, Danny....
He paused, warm fingers trailing to a stop, and then broke into a sudden delighted grin, leaning back to survey his work more clearly. "Hot dawg, Doc," Percell crowed, "take a look!" He swiped the round bit of mirror that Taylor always kept on his locker and held it up in front of his subject.
Hockenberry stared dazedly at the reflection of his pale, foxish face. Glazed blue-green eyes with pupils dilated from here to there, hectic flush on the cheeks and forehead, mouth open and stunned, and...a great big pinkish-red peace sign on his left cheek.
Giving a laugh that was more of a gasp, Hockenberry settled back onto his haunches, feeling like he just rode a roller coaster, fell off a building, collapsed from heatstroke, oh my God, oh boy oh boy....
"It's great, Danny," he said weakly. "It's...perfect."
Danny grinned even wider and grabbed a tube of blue paint from Taylor's bunk, opening it with renewed enthusiasm. He squirted out a massive amount onto his palm and started painting the footlocker with commendable gusto.
Sighing regretfully, Hockenberry still couldn't hold back a smile at Danny's unbridled delight. He plucked out a tube of happy apple green and, getting back onto his knees, set to work.