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With Every LetterA Novel
By SARAH SUNDIN
RevellCopyright © 2012 Sarah Sundin
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Chapter OneWalter Reed General Hospital Army Medical Center Washington DC October 2, 1942
Lt. Philomela Blake believed mornings should start gently, with the nighttime melting into golden sunshine and birdsong luring to wakefulness.
Most nurses on the morning shift assaulted the patients with electric light and harsh voices, but not Mellie.
She pulled the cord of the blackout curtain and sang "At Last," and the volume of her tune built with the intensity of light. Hurting and healing men deserved a soft hand.
On the nearest bed, Corporal Sloan shifted under the blankets. He'd undergone an appendectomy late last night. "Any dame ..." He cleared his throat, his voice raspy from the ether. "Any dame with the voice of an angel must have a face to match."
Mellie's song and her hands stilled. How many soldiers dreamed of a beautiful nurse who might fall in love with them?
He rubbed his eyes, looked at her, and his smile flickered.
Papa called Mellie his exotic orchid, but American men seemed to prefer roses.
Mellie opened the blackout curtains all the way. "How do you feel this morning, Corporal?"
"Um, fine. Fine, ma'am."
"I'll be back with your morning meds." She patted his shoulder and headed down the aisle to the nurses' station. Her cap felt loose, so she adjusted a bobby pin that clamped it to the helmet of thick black braids coiled around her head. Her crowning glory, Papa called it.
Poor Papa. Acid ate at her stomach, and Mellie dove into song to neutralize it. The Filipino folk song "Bahay Kubo" reminded her of traipsing through the jungle with Papa on his botanical excursions. It reminded her of his love, as warm as the Filipino sun. It reminded her to pray for him. If only he hadn't sent her stateside a year ago. If only he'd come with her. No news had arrived since the Japanese conquered the Philippines a few months before, and the State Department and Red Cross hadn't found out Papa's fate. How could she go on without him?
Work kept her busy, but worry pricked up and made her restless.
She opened another blackout curtain and gazed out onto Walter Reed's manicured grounds. A year in Washington DC was enough. So much more of the world waited to be explored. The war thrust barriers between her and adventure, but it offered new paths as well.
The door to the ward opened, and Lieutenant Newman, the chief nurse, leaned in. "Lieutenant Blake? Please come to my office on your lunch break."
"Yes, ma'am." The meeting had to be about her upcoming transfer to the Air Evacuation Group forming at Bowman Field in Kentucky. A smile climbed too high on Mellie's face, and she covered her mouth.
When the Army Air Force announced plans to train nurses to assist in air evacuation, Mellie had begged the chief for a recommendation. Flight nurses would fly into combat areas, load the wounded, and care for them in the air. They would be stationed all over the world. Perhaps even in the Pacific, close to Papa.
Next month, Mellie would begin training. That thought put an extra trill into her song.
"Must you?" At the nurses' station, Lieutenant Ingham scrunched her heart-shaped face into a frown. "That infernal singing. Honestly, Philomela, we're all sick of it."
"Sorry." Mellie's cheeks warmed, and she picked up the tray of meds she'd prepared earlier. How could she stop doing what she was born to do, something that provided relief to her patients? When she sang, pain-wrinkled brows smoothed. She returned to the ward and her song, but in a softer voice.
Philomela meant "nightingale," and her first storybook was The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen. The emperor of China treasured a pet nightingale and its song. But when he received a mechanical singing bird, he forgot the nightingale, which retreated to the lonely forest. While the little bird in the story longed to return to court, Mellie felt most at home in the forest, bringing musical comfort to passersby.
Next month, she'd enter a new forest.
* * *
"I can't believe you missed last night's meeting, Philomela." Lieutenant Newman's big blue eyes stretched even wider.
"I thought it was optional. For a morale program." Mellie shifted in her seat in the chief nurse's office.
"It is, but I want everyone to participate. You do want to participate, don't you?"
"Well, I ..." She lowered her gaze and straightened the skirt of her white ward dress. "I didn't really consider it."
The chief walked to the window and heaved a sigh. "Oh, Philomela, I don't understand you. You're an excellent nurse, but I simply don't understand you."
"It's a letter-writing campaign, isn't it? To men we've never met?"
Her lovely face lit up. "Yes. To the officers in my husband's unit. It's an Engineer Aviation Battalion based in England. It will all be anonymous. Isn't that fun?"
England sounded like fun. Writing to a strange man did not. "I wouldn't know what to say to someone I've never met."
"Say anything you like. I imagine you write a nice letter. You speak excellent English for a foreigner."
Mellie restrained her sigh. Always with one foot in one land, one foot in the other, never belonging in either. "Actually, ma'am, I'm an American. I was born in the Philippines, yes, but my father's American and my mother was half-American, half-Filipino."
"Yes. Well then." The chief fingered the window casement. "Well then, I'm sure you write a lovely letter."
Mellie rolled the hem of her skirt in her fingers. "But I've never ... I've never written to a stranger before."
"He's hardly a stranger. He's an American officer. All the other nurses are excited about it. I need one more volunteer, or one poor gentleman won't receive a letter."
She stretched her skirt back down over her knees. "That would be horrible, but maybe ... maybe someone would be willing to write two letters."
"Come now." Lieutenant Newman sat on the edge of her desk, right in front of Mellie, and she leaned close. "Please, Philomela? I would be so disappointed if you didn't participate. Especially after I recommended you for the Air Evacuation Group. I didn't mention how you don't have any friends here. Perhaps I should have." She glanced down to the desk and traced her finger back and forth, as if erasing her recommendation.
Mellie's throat swelled shut. "But—but why would any man want to hear from me?"
The chief flashed a bright smile. "Remember, it's anonymous. No names, no pictures. Just a nice letter to encourage our boys overseas."
Mellie dropped her chin and squeezed her eyes shut. She felt so awkward in social situations.
"Oh please, Philomela? Please? It's only one letter."
Mellie lifted her head. Outside the window, the horizon beckoned. "One letter," she whispered.
* * *
"One letter." Mellie groaned. The blank sheet of airmail stationery taunted her. "Lord, what can I say?"
In the hallway, a group of nurses squealed and giggled. Mellie peeked around the post of her bunk. The ladies hooked arms and strolled away, laughing and chatting, off to some fun activity.
Longing tugged at her chest. She set aside the stationery and stroked the worn burgundy cover of the scrapbook she used as a writing surface. On the black pages inside lay her childhood friends, who had kept her company on countless lonely days at home and abroad. She flipped through, and her friends offered paper smiles just for her, paper ears to listen, and paper eyes that accepted her.
Children from magazines, catalogs, and newspaper articles. They'd never played hopscotch with her or whispered their secrets to her.
A thin substitute for friendship, but it was all she'd ever had. Overseas, she'd been the only child on Papa's expeditions. Stateside, the boys and girls found her odd and foreign.
Halfway through the scrapbook, the faces shifted from children she had needed to children who needed her.
The first, a little fair-haired boy, had started her mission of mercy. His mother stood behind him, one arm clutched around his shoulders, her face angled to the side, chin high and brave and fearsome. The boy wore short pants and a little jacket. One foot toed in. One hand grasped his mother's forearm around him, the other hung limp by his side. With his chin dipped, he looked at the newspaper photographer as if his life had been stripped from him.
It had. His father had just been sentenced to death for murder.
The nation cheered. No one cared about the boy. So Mellie cut his picture out of the newspaper, pasted it in her scrapbook, and prayed for him.
Others followed. A hollow-eyed little girl with stringy blonde hair, riding an overloaded jalopy from the Oklahoma dust bowl to points unknown. A colored boy blinded by a fire, his eyes swathed in bandages. A Filipino girl, her face disfigured by a tropical disease.
Mellie prayed for them every day. While the other children had provided a sense of companionship, these children provided her with purpose. What if she was the only person praying for them? Even in her isolation, she could still extend mercy.
She glanced at the empty sheet of stationery on her bed.
Across the ocean, perhaps another young man needed her. What if a letter could ease his fears or worries or loneliness? What if her prayers could strengthen him?
What if he wrote back?
Mellie's breath caught. On paper it wouldn't matter if she were a rose or an orchid. Perhaps a friendship could develop, still a paper friendship, but more than she'd ever had before.
"Lord, give me the right words." She set the stationery on top of her scrapbook and put pen to paper.
Chapter TwoHMS Derbyshire Liverpool, England October 24, 1942
Lt. Thomas MacGilliver Jr. prepared to walk the plank.
"Ahoy there, mateys." Tom stood on the superstructure of the British transport ship and grinned. Below him on the deck, the men in his platoon gaped and laughed. He turned to Privates Earl Butler and Conrad Davis behind him. "Got it?"
"Sure thing, Gill." Butler clamped the four-inch pipe under his beefy arm and gripped it in his hands. The length of pipe crossed the metal railing for the superstructure and stretched over the deck ten feet below.
"Hey, boss!" Private Bill Rinaldi stood beside Butler. "You're going swimming with the sharks."
"Yeah. Watch out for those English sharks. On a ship." Tom climbed the railing, held on to it, and arranged his bare feet on the pipe. The rough texture from corrosion in the salty air would help him keep his footing. He stretched his arms wide and slowly rose to standing.
Mumbled praise built into a low chorus, and Tom smiled. The men needed a diversion. Any day now the U.S. 908th Engineer Aviation Battalion would sail to North Africa for Operation Torch, although only the officers knew the destination. In a few weeks, the men would know the taste of battle.
"This, boys, is what a cantilever bridge is like." He stepped forward like a tightrope walker, curling his feet around the rusty pipe. Another step and the murmurs grew. His construction work on Pittsburgh's bridges to put himself through engineering school had paid off. "The bridge can handle my load because Butler and Davis provide a counterweight. Imagine another segment coming from the other direction toward me, also balanced by a counterweight. Where the two segments meet, you only need a pin to join them."
He stepped to within a foot of the end, his arms outstretched, and gazed down at the laughing crowd. Everywhere, always a laughing crowd. But never a friend.
Tom cleared his throat and flung a smile back on his face. "As long as you do your calculations and get the right counterweight—and Butler's got plenty of that ..."
Hoots and hollers rewarded him.
"Hey, Gill!" Rinaldi called from behind him. "Did you calculate that Butler's ticklish as a little girl?" He wiggled his fingers near Butler's thick midsection.
"Don't!" Tom squatted and grabbed the pipe. "No, Rinaldi. Don't!"
The pipe wobbled as Butler edged away from his friend. "Don't, or I'll—"
"Should have thought of that before you dumped salt in my coffee." Rinaldi jabbed Butler in the ribs.
The pipe lurched to the side and broke Tom's grip. He grasped for it, but it bounced away. He dropped to the deck, banging his hip and his shoulder.
The men howled with laughter. Tom hoisted himself to his feet and rubbed his sore hip. He'd get a bruise, but it was worth it.
Someone pulled the plug in the basin of laughter, and it all drained away. Tom turned to face Capt. Dick Newman, commander of Company B of the 908th. Tom saluted. "Captain."
"Lieutenant." Newman's dark eyes took in the scene. "Another engineering lesson?"
"Yes, sir. Someone's got to educate these lumps."
"A little less education, a little more discipline." But the corner of the captain's mouth flicked up. He stepped to the side and motioned to the man behind him. "Just assigned a new man to your platoon, Staff Sergeant Larry Fong."
"Hey! What's a Jap doing here?" That voice—Tom's platoon sergeant, Hal Weiser.
Tom settled a smile on Weiser. "Fong's a Chinese name, not Japanese. The Chinese are our Allies, remember? And the sergeant's an American."
"Three generations, sir." Sergeant Fong wore a bright smile. He had some height to him, matching Tom's five foot ten.
Tom extended his hand. "Nice to meet you, Sergeant. Welcome to the platoon."
Fong shook his hand. "Thank you, Lieutenant ...?"
The moment suspended in air, the always-too-brief moment when Tom could be one of the guys. Before they knew his name. Mom was right when she discouraged him from changing his name—lying would be wrong—but he still wished he were someone else.
He set his face in the proper cheerful expression. "Lt. Tom MacGilliver."
The sergeant's eyebrows popped up in recognition.
Captain Newman set his hand on Fong's shoulder. "The sergeant will take Weiser's place as platoon sergeant, and Weiser will take Duke's squad, since Duke's in the hospital and won't join our excursion. Fong had a couple years of engineering school at the University of California before he got called up. That's why I put him with you, Gill."
Tom's grin widened. "Cal, huh? I went to the University of Pittsburgh. We can pick each other's brains."
"Sorry, sir. I didn't get past my lower division work. But after the war—can't wait to get back. In the meantime, on-the-job training."
"Great. Glad you're in my platoon." He motioned for the sergeant to come with him and set a path down the starboard side of the ship. He could think of several reasons for the captain's decision, the least of which was to put the engineering student with the graduate engineer. Chinese or not, the sergeant wouldn't be accepted in authority over a squad. And Tom's platoon served as the dumping place for men the other two platoon commanders in the company didn't want. The misfit platoon.
A brisk breeze snaked by, and Sergeant Fong held on to his garrison cap. "Say, Lieutenant, that's a bum rap of a name. Just like MacGilliver the Killiver."
Thank goodness Tom had years of experience smiling over the pain. "He was my father."
"Your ... I'm sorry, sir."
"He left when I was five and was gone when I was seven. Barely knew him. And I take after my mother. Completely harmless."
"Of course. I never—I didn't mean—"
"So what field of engineering are you interested in? I'm in civil."
Fong's face relaxed a bit. "Electrical, sir."
"Good." Tom nodded and leaned on the ship's railing. He gazed around the estuary of the Mersey River, where dozens of British and American transports anchored, holding the Eastern and Center forces for the invasion of Algeria. The Western force would sail straight from the U.S. to French Morocco.
"That would be a good place for a bridge." He pointed northwest to where the Mersey narrowed between Liverpool and Wallasey. "A suspension bridge. The towers and cables would resemble sails, honor Liverpool's nautical history."
The sergeant frowned. "Isn't there a tunnel under the river?"
Tom rearranged his arms on the ship's railing. "Tunnels are so ... impersonal, hiding underground as if the two sides were ashamed to associate with each other. Bridges are visible, personal, proud to make the connection."
Larry squinted at the empty space over the river. "Yeah. Yeah, I see what you mean."
The design flew together in Tom's head. "I want to build bridges all over the world, connect people and places."
Excerpted from With Every Letter by SARAH SUNDIN Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Sundin. Excerpted by permission of Revell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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