M A S H Fan Fiction ❯ Theatre of War ❯ Call Me 'Francis' ( Chapter 8 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

“I was actually afraid of nuns as a child.”
She set down her fork and rested chin against palm, smiling incredulously. “Were you?”
My first day of R&R was going extraordinarily well I thought, although it was just scarcely ten in the morning. Our grizzled breakfast had cooled into stale mush, but even its taste could not deter our cheerful banter.
We were becoming fast friends, Lena and I.
Last night had ended well enough, after the woman took a sample of my blood. I always hated giving blood, needles and I not being on the best of terms. But besides that and the bathrobe, it had been a perfect evening.
Her impromptu hug may have been frightening at first but oddly enough had the opposite effect on me. I felt a lot more comfortable around Lena now, like some invisible barrier had finally been lifted. I felt free to be myself.
Free to enjoy her company.
I mirrored the woman's smile and prodded a blob on my tray. “There was one I'll never forget - Sister Mary Patrick, oh goodness - dreadful woman. Quiet as a cat, but strong as an ox. She'd relish in slapping children's wrists with her ruler if they so much as looked troublesome.”
“That sounds terrible, Father!”
With a little giggle, the woman leaned against the back of her chair. “But I must admit I know what you mean. When I was a girl a `Sister Ursula' scared me to death. Tall, domineering; had a mustache if I remember correctly.
“For a seven year old - a virtual nightmare.”
We chuckled in mutual accord, enjoying each other's company. This was the most fun I'd had in ages. It had been too long since I laughed this hard, even longer since I really meant it.
Quite finished with my food, I looked around for somewhere to stash it and frowned.
“All done, Father?”
Lena's bright smile never faded, taking the tray before I could protest. She collected her own and set both on my desk. “So, if you were so terrified of nuns, how did you ever -”
“- become a priest?” I wilted a bit, thankful she still had her back to me.
I knew very well I couldn't tell the truth, about Linda and that night in my room. Sometimes I couldn't even admit it to myself. Lena dropped back onto her chair and nodded expectantly.
“Well, I...I always wanted to help people, this much I knew from childhood. And despite encounters with several harsh nuns, my faith had never changed.
“So, what better way to spend my life than to become a representative of Him myself?” I thought on it a moment, lowering my gaze. What better way, indeed. “The...best of both worlds, I suppose.”
Lena chuckled and rolled her eyes, “You sound like Maurie.” Catching herself, she sobered mid-laugh. “So -” the woman pressed on, hastily moving the conversation along, “- is it everything you expected and more?”
I had to think about that for a second. Priesthood always felt like sort of a...consolation prize for me to take; my `vocation' when other deals had fallen through. I suppose in a way it was everything I had imagined it to be, yes. I helped people on occasion - for which I was truly grateful. I was able to enjoy my faith, rosary beads and bible proof enough.
Was there really much more to it than that?
I must have looked a bit lost because Lena gingerly nudged my shoulder. “Are you feeling alright, Father?” She tilted her head to get a better look at me. “Zoned out there for a second.”
The doctor in her placed a hand on my forehead. With a frown, Lena shrugged. “Well, you feel fine to me. No fever.”
“What?” I snapped out of my haze and gawked at her, “I-I'm sorry, did you say something Lena?”
She raised an eyebrow and shook her head, clearly amused. “Everything okay, Father? You seem a bit distracted; are you getting tired?” The woman regarded me curiously, nibbling her lip as she watched me blanch.
“I can go if you need some sleep. You should be resting anyway, as per Doctor Hawkeye's orders.”
Humor decorated Lena's face as she examined her patient with a slanted glance. She really did have good bedside manner, something I respected greatly. Most doctors I'd met in my day were decent enough, sure, but a cold professional distance always lingered.
I couldn't put my finger on it but there was something different about Lena. She seemed a lot more relaxed, open. Sensitive to a patient's needs.
Even her gestures captivated me - gentle sweeps of a hand, soft smiles every so often to keep me at ease. Voice deepened by a warm timbre, her laughter rang like the bells of Saint Mary's. And that perfume, oh - just heavenly. For such a well guarded secret, it was much more inviting than I cared to admit.
Lena had told me once she never considered herself graceful, but seeing her here, watching her, I couldn't disagree more. From her sapphire eyes to the slope of her clavicle, there was such a delicate beauty about this woman. Even in army fatigues and a hasty bun, she was lovely.
It was all very mesmerizing.
I straightened up suddenly and fumbled with my blanket, aware I was staring. “Oh no, I'm not tired at all. Please, stay.”
We talked a while more, exchanging stories of home, childhood memories. I was pleasantly surprised to find she and I had much in common, with enough contrast to keep up the intrigue.
Both of us were competitive in school - me with track and boxing, her with grades and the debate club. Turns out she was horrible at sports and I was horrible at studying. Quite funny how those things work out, I suppose.
But the similarities didn't just stop at wholesome activities, mind you.
“Spin the bottle, eh?” Lena smirked, giving me an intentional glance. Was that playful shock I saw brewing behind her eyes? “Really now?”
I smirked right back, fixing my glasses eagerly. “Oh, yes. Ancient history now I suppose, but I was quite the champion way back when. Three straight years at Saint Vincent's Junior High School, in fact. Kept the girls on their toes.”
“Well, Father -!” She curled into a giggle, grinning something fierce. “Who knew under that unassuming priestly exterior beat the heart of a regular flirt! Don Juan Mulcahy.”
I laughed despite myself, enjoying the new color adorning Lena's cheeks, “Well, that was long ago I'm afraid. Before this priest was a priest; all innocent fun.”
I burrowed further into my pillow and gazed at her contently. “Surely you must have talents yourself, not-so-upstanding talents I mean.”
“Perhaps,” Lena purred impishly, proudly raising her chin. Leaning closer, she dropped her voice to a whisper. “Now, don't you go spreading this around camp, but...I may have spent a summer or two at my Uncle Edward's cottage outside of Oxford Borough.
“My Uncle `Ace in the Hole' Edward that is, one of the best poker players on the Eastern Coast.
“So skillful in fact, legal intervention proved the only way to end his reign of gambling terror.” Lena made a face, pulling back a bit. “His sentencing was pretty extensive, if I remember correctly. Fifteen years without parole. Sure, there was more than just gambling involved...” She trailed off, shrugging. “Tax evasion, money laundering - you name it, Uncle Ed did it.”
I stared at her, shell-shocked. “You mean he was a crimin -?”
A grave nod was my answer. “But, I...might have picked up a thing or two about the game beforehand.
“Let's just say I'm not foreign to the ways of poker.” The gleam in her eye revealed a side of Lena I hadn't seen before. Playful, wicked almost. A hidden temptress dancing behind the blue.
I suddenly remembered being warned that Lena was a hustler. “Oh, I see. Well -” I grinned mischievously, “- in that case I think I'll stick to playing BJ and Hawkeye. The orphans need all the money they can get I'm afraid. Can't afford to lose.”
We impressed each other with scars gained from youthful folly - the bite marks on my ankle and toe from when Katherine got mad, the gash on Lena's neck from a roman candle gone astray. We shared little secrets with one another, watercolor hopes and dreams dusted with age.
Turned out to be quite a pair, Lena and I; it was wonderful.
We managed to talk ourselves straight through lunch in fact, until my stomach made it clear food was necessary to continue.
“Oh, my!” Still high off mirth, I almost shouted. “Seems like we might have to take a break. I don't suppose you're hungry, too?”
Lena, who had found a seat on my cot somewhere between `fishing' and `fistic', patted my hand momentarily and stood up.
“That I am, Father.” She mused, satisfied with our new closeness. “I'll be right back.”
The woman took our discarded trays from breakfast and left my tent, leaving a void behind her. I suddenly felt rather cold, as if all the giggling and conversation had curbed winter's wrath up until this moment. The few minutes she was gone seemed like hours, my eyes wandering the four corners of the tent in ennui.
I heard a knock and pulled into a seated position, struck with newfound vitality. “Oh, come in, Lena!”
But it wasn't Lena; it was Hawkeye, brandishing a medical bag and doctor's coat. He smirked roguishly at me and closed the door.
“Expecting someone else, Father?”
My face must have burned ten shades of red as shock set in. “Oh, Hawkeye! I-I didn't realize it was...you.”
He began to hum a melody just barely recognizable, waltzing toward my bunk. A cowboy hat covered his thick black hair, a flowery shirt beneath his coat - he certainly did a good job standing out against the rest. Setting down his bag, Hawkeye slumped into the chair and shook a thermometer out.
“So - enjoying your morning?”
With a look of wisdom, the man grinned widely enough to show teeth.
I gasped with alarm, recognizing that devious smile from the day before. Hawkeye hummed as if he knew the answer and asked me to open up. “And how is my patient feeling today? Get that sponge bath yet?”
“Smoonngg maaph?!” I repeated in horror, the glass rod in my mouth preventing much more than that. A look of panic crossed my face, something which perked Hawkeye's brow up with interest.
“Well, you and Lena seem to be enjoying yourselves, I just figured -”
The man thankfully accepted my dread and discontinued the conversation. He instead asked about my breathing, alluding to a concern made by BJ. Did I feel any pain?
I shrugged, sinking from ease now that a safe topic had been found. “Mmoonrre wenn myye bhrreemph.” `Only when I breathe' hadn't exactly come out as articulate as I planned, but no doubt Hawkeye understood. He was a doctor after all, garbled responses was probably his forte.
When the minute was up, Hawkeye evaluated the thermometer and beamed. “98.9 - almost perfect, Father. I think all this rest is doing you some good.”
The man allowed a sly glance before removing his stethoscope from the bag. “Alright, why don't we check your lungs? Beej was concerned over a few faint areas he detected yesterday. I think we'll take you down to Pre-OP and get an X-ray later on, just in case.”
A knock on the door caused the man to pause above my exposed chest.
“Who's there?” His sing-song voice danced, enunciating each syllable theatrically. He seemed even more excited than I was, a devious smirk drawing up the corners of his mouth as if he knew exactly who was on the other side of my door.
With a jolt, I heard Lena's voice answer.
The man swiftly turned to me and lowered his voice, “Mind her coming in, Father, or should she to wait until I'm finished? It's up to you.”
I flustered. “I uh, um -” I begged him with my eyes, not knowing what to say. Unthinkingly, I blurted out the first thing to pop in my head, “She brought lunch.”
“I think that means `come in', Lena!”
I bowed my head when the door opened, aware my shoulders and upper torso were bare. The medical tool which had been hovering suddenly came down, cold metal against skin. I yelped, turning a fresh new shade of red.
Why hadn't I thought this through?
But the woman didn't notice, or at least, had the decency to busy herself near my desk. My stomach seemed to reach out for the inedible mush on those trays, a rumble coursing beneath the tangle of blanket and robe.
“Oh, pardon me.” I looked away embarrassed, straightening my glasses. Lena still had yet to turn around, and I raised my eyes skyward to thank those responsible.
Hawkeye pressed the stethoscope on another spot and cast a look of mock-reproach, “You know - this is usually where you breathe, Father.” Had I been holding my breath? I sagged and did as he said, daring a glance toward Lena.
Her back was still to me, thank goodness.
“So -” the man called over a shoulder, “- get a good night's sleep? I heard Margaret will be returning tomorrow, might want stock up while you still can.”
“Oh, I slept just fine, Hawkeye. Felt quite relaxed last night.” Even though I couldn't see, I knew Lena was smiling. I was too, despite my discomfort. “I've talked to Colonel Potter about possibly moving tents, but he doesn't think it's necessary.”
Hawkeye snorted in reply, “Well, there's always room for another doctor at our humble abode. You know you're always welcome to bunk with us.”
I crumpled with indignation but kept quiet. Lena however didn't mind admonishing him, “Now that would hardly be proper. Don't think I don't know what you mean by `bunk with us'.” She feigned disapproval and struggled not to laugh. It was a half-hearted rebuke, but I thought she had a point.
“I think I'm safer with the Major.”
I inhaled deeply enough to satisfy the man and he put his stethoscope away. Hastily adjusting my robe, I made sure to look presentable before slinking back onto my bunk. I was suppressing my own smile, very proud of Lena's fortitude. Hawkeye was a good guy, but the thought of those two...I shook my head, refusing to dwell on such notions. He promised to remain a saint around Lena after all.
Something that made me brighten considerably.
Finally in the clear, Lena turned around and made her way to my bunk, perching near my left thigh.
Hawkeye made note of this with an upraised eyebrow, smirking wisely. Exchanging a look with me that I didn't like one bit, he gathered his belongings and stood to leave.
But not before winking at the two of us. “Behave now, both of you.” With a whistle, he discarded my tent.
“And what was that all about, I wonder?” Lena inclined her head, relaxing on the soft olive drab of my cot.
I shrugged, assuming the priestly role of innocence. “No idea.”
The afternoon flew by rather quickly, picking up the pace from earlier. We discussed my sister Katherine, Lena's house in Frankford, a few random holidays that stuck in our memory. I told her about the time I traveled to Europe and met with the Pope, beaming at how excited the woman became. She had never left Pennsylvania, let alone the country.
Well, not until the war at least.
Although her father was a military doctor, they did not travel around as other families did. I wondered how the family had managed such a feat, remembering how often Major Houlihan had moved as a child. To my knowledge, that was a normal practice. But Lena had lived in Frankford since she was seven - this much she explained, although the woman remained aloof during the discussion. Must be homesick.
The day was drawing to a close, dinner beckoning our stomachs to life. Lena was gracious enough to go fetch food for us again, returning just a little while later.
“Here you are,” the woman rested a tray on my lap, taking a seat at the edge of my bunk. “Are you sure you aren't getting tired, Father?”
I brushed her concern away with a hand, promising I felt just fine. It was the truth after all, this old priest just happy to have a friend. Conversation sparked between bites, me becoming more confident with each new wave of discussion.
So much so in fact, I gently tapped Lena's silver cross with the back of my fork, smiling at her.
“So tell me, where did you get such a lovely necklace? I meant to ask the first day I met you, but I'm afraid I never got the chance.” I was feeling rather bold, resting against a pillow.
“It was my mother's actually,” She held it up for me to see. So small and dainty, it fit Lena perfectly.
A thought struck me, furrowing my eyebrow. “You've never talked about her - your mother, I mean.” My tone softened when I caught the look in her eyes, nostalgia glazing them over.
The woman nodded to herself. “She passed away a long time ago; I guess I don't talk about her anymore. We had an unspoken rule not to discuss my mother in front of Andy, you see. He was young when she died, never really adjusted. I suppose I...just got used to the silence.”
“What was she like?” I didn't want to pry but I was suddenly interested. Up until this point, Lena had steered away from discussing her family. Actually, I didn't even know if Andrew was her only sibling. The woman was an enigma.
“Well, I remember she was very elegant. Delicate boned, but - much taller than me. Beautiful actually; dark hair, dark eyes, willowy - if I remember correctly.”
I smiled, forming the image of a slightly older Lena in my head. “How did your parents meet?”
“Hmm, well, my father was stationed in Italy during World War I. He took sniper fire evacuating a trench and my mother became his nurse. It wasn't surprising that he'd fall in love with her. From what I've heard she was quite fascinating, with a sharp tongue only an Italian woman could have.
I watched her face peel into a smile, eyes still focused on that little cross. I thought I would inquire more about the necklace, “Did she bring that back from Italy?”
Lena nodded, “Belonged to her mother, a present for Confirmation. She put this on last before going to church every Sunday, right after applying her makeup and perfume; she loved this necklace a lot. Probably the only thing I have left of her.” There was sadness misting her eyes as she twisted its silver beneath the lamp's yellow glow.
Suddenly aware our conversation had turned serious, Lena gave a watery smile and shook her head.
“And what about you?” She gestured toward the large white cross laying on my nightstand, “Where did you get yours from? Or is it just one of the many spoils of priesthood?”
I beamed, “That was my actually mother's, too. Well, a gift from my mother I should say.” I remembered the night Linda had broken my heart, and carefully tucked the memory aside. “My lucky charm, I suppose. It's been with me for a very long time.”
“It suits you.” Lena had scooted closer to me to peer at my cross, craning her neck for a better look. “Really, it suits you well. It's a very attractive design, Father.”
I'm not sure why, but hearing `Father' come from Lena just felt wrong. Horribly wrong. My heart sank into my stomach, an emotion I couldn't quite explain settling over me. She had called me nothing less all day, but now it seemed unsuitable, improper. After all, this was the same woman who knew the story of Sis and me baking crabapple pie, of spraining my ankle jumping off the roof of a doghouse.
She knew I was afraid of dragonflies as a child, that I loved the smell of rain. Lena had found out more about me in a day than anyone else had in a year; we were friends now.
She knew me for the man I had been, not for my collar now, and I almost preferred it that way. To have someone know the Mulcahy beneath the cassock and bible; It felt good.
I pressed my mouth into a grimace and sighed, frustrated for no apparent reason. It was proper to address me by Father I suppose, all the men did. I was a priest after all; it was my title. Certainly better than Padre or Chaplain.
So why did I feel so wounded?
“Father -” Lena turned from the cross to look at me, another question sparkling in her blue eyes. My desperation peaked, losing myself within those bottomless sapphires. “So tell me, Father; what do you -?”
Hearing the word again had forced a hasty decision. Fumbling with my glasses, I cut her off with a hand.
“Please -,” I felt my ears tingling, waiting with bated breath, “- call me `Francis'.”