Lester carried nothing in his hands. His rawboned upper body barely filled a half-buttoned tunic, sleeves rolled tight to his biceps, chest pockets bulging with what personal items he still possessed. A month’s growth of dark beard hid his face, his filthy black hair long enough now to sweep behind his ears. The steaming jungle around him had begun to look like hell on earth, its leaden mist lit by sulfurous fires burning out of control. He’d studied Delacroix’s painting in one of his early classes at the Cranbrook School. The Barque of Dante. Mariveles, where he stood in dilapidated boots, was the City of the Dead, and he could smell the wet rot of the River Styx off to his right, only it was Manila Bay, wide and treacherous. The island fortress of Corregidor, impossible in the distance, offered salvation out of reach.
Men poured into the inferno around him, throwing down their rifles to sprawl blank-faced into the flickering shadows, unspeaking throngs separated from their command, sweat-glazed bodies illuminated by explosions as the fuel dumps and remaining supply depots were being destroyed ahead of General Homma’s swarm of soldiers pouring south toward the dying heel of Bataan.
Lester’s head, hollowed of thought by fear, could not produce any idea of what to do as he stumbled along the gravel road east out of Mariveles. His B-17 had been destroyed on the ground at Clark Field on the first day of the war. Schooled as a navigator, his career was never supposed to end like this, as a forsaken foot soldier with no way home. Ordered to Bataan with the other grounded souls from his squadron, he’d been put to work digging defensive lines or manning nonstrategic positions along the coast. At one point, Lester convinced an officer to let him drive a truck under the high jungle canopy, carrying food to the front lines, then battered men to the Army nurses in their stinking jungle hospitals. The men assigned to his plane, his friends, had all disappeared. He yearned to find someone he knew, someone with whom he could share the collapsing night.
Other soldiers wandered about on the road in a similar daze. Lester sat down on a shattered log next to a man without a shirt. He’d never met the fellow, but was offered a spoon and half a can of stewed tomatoes.
“Thanks, friend,” said Lester. He hadn’t eaten all day. Or the day before. The man let him take a long pull from his canteen. Lester had lost his own.
“Get rid of any Jap trinkets, any flags or shit you stripped off the dead,” said the soldier. “I ain’t kiddin’.”
“I haven’t even seen a Jap,” said Lester.
“You’re gonna see plenty of ’em, flyboy,” said the man, tucking the empty can into a musette bag before moving off.
Gunfire on the other side of a line of trees startled Lester, and he walked down an overgrown secondary road, heading toward the beach. Maybe he could hide out in the thick trees until he got a feeling for the mood of the conquering army.
Near the shore, Lester stopped when he heard an old woman shouting.
“Get up! We’ve got to keep moving?”
“Don’t yell at her!” screamed another woman. “She’s sick as a dog.”
Lester guessed they were some of the lost Army nurses who hadn’t shown up at the pier when they should have. After the last launch pulled away toward Corregidor, officers discussed what the defeated men could do if the Japs dragged any of those soft white bodies into the road and started raping them.
“They’ll just have to take it and hope for the best,” said a Colonel.
Lester had delivered the last load of nurses to make the evacuation. The one he hoped to see again had missed the ride. Her name had not been checked off the list dockside. After draining the oil from his truck, he stood around listening to the officers discuss the fate of the missing women, wondering what “hoping for the best” could possibly mean for them in the face of ten thousand men drunk with victory.
Walking toward the voices, Lester found five exhausted nurses stalled in a cluster of trees near the beach. His nerves sparked with electricity when he saw her. Marti. He didn’t know her last name, or anything about her, but he was never sorry to look at her. They must be thinking hard about Corregidor, he imagined, praying to be deep inside that cool rock in the middle of the bay. One of them, a little blonde with braids who looked about fifteen, lay in a ball and groaned, probably sick with dysentery. Lester could tell by the stench that she’d shat all over the inside of her coveralls. Two more young nurses sat on the ground and stared blankly toward the water, holding their knees. The one he thought about a lot at night, pretty even now, paced back and forth while the old one, her white hair glowing in the strange light, walked toward him.
“Soldier!” she shouted. “Has the launch with nurses from Hospital 2 departed?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Lester, his hands in his pockets.
“We’re fuckin’ screwed,” said one of the younger nurses.
The old nurse turned on her.
“I will not have my girls using language like that. If you cannot control yourself, Hastings, I’ll have you reassigned.”
“Could you make that stateside, Major?” muttered Hastings, staring at the ground between her knees.
“As God is my witness, young lady, I’ll have you brought up on charges if I have to put up with any more of your sass.”
“I don’t care,” said Hastings. “I really don’t.”
The white-haired nurse faced Lester again.
“What are you going to do about the fact that we can’t get to Corregidor? Are you just going to stand around, soldier, when the Japs drag us into the bushes?”
“I don’t have a rifle to shoot them all with.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“And I don’t have a boat in my pocket.”
At that moment, a fresh chatter of gunfire erupted somewhere to the north. All the heads turned toward the sound. It was close. The old nurse became agitated.
“Well, find us a boat. Anything that floats. There must be fishing shacks along the shore near here. Get moving.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Lester as he glanced at Marti, then shuffled off toward the sound of lapping water. He could hear the mouthy one behind him. Hastings.
“He ain’t comin’ back. The other two ain’t come back. Why should he come back?”
Pushing through the branches that hung over the narrow beach, looking for a place to hide as much as anything else, Lester felt a jolt of surprise when he found an overturned rowboat under a pile of brush. He lifted up the side to discover oars, a detached mast and rigging, and a canvas sail bag tucked neatly underneath. Everything seemed to be in good shape, but was it roomy enough for him to row a group of nurses five miles across choppy water, the sleek gray bodies of sharks churning below? He guessed some guys had hidden the boat there for themselves as a last resort, but he had it now. It would probably hold six, one behind him in the bow, giving directions as he pulled, the four others in front of him, squatting on the hull.
“Are you sure you didn’t have that boat in your pocket all this time?”
Lester turned at the voice. Marti, her brown hair tied back off her sweating neck, had followed him. He hadn’t noticed her moving behind him on the wet sand.
“You’re Marti, aren’t you?” he said.
She studied him through dark eyes.
“Martha’s my given name,” she said. “My friends call me Marti.”
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant. You probably don’t remember me. I drove you and some other nurses to the sea one afternoon. You met up with a group of officers and had a swell little party on the beach. You all went swimming in your underwear and got drunk. I stood by the truck and smoked.”
“What else do you remember?” asked Marti. “Tell me while we go back for the others.”
Lester walked behind her, watching her long body move in her coveralls. She was tall and seemed strong for a thin woman on a starvation diet. He remembered how pretty she’d looked in her underthings.
“You came running back to the truck,” he said. “You were angry. I watched you dry your hair as Jap planes glinted in the sun over Corregidor. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget that picture.”
“One of the officers got fresh,” she said, turning to walk backward, smiling at him. “I didn’t like it.”
An explosion rocked the landscape as another building went up in flames.
“You girls have a reputation,” said Lester, feeling the heat of her smile.
“We can still be choosy,” she said as she turned back to face the war. “And I remember you. A grounded airman from Detroit, right? Lester? You were sketching that day on a pad of good drawing paper. You gave me your shirt and drove me back to the hospital. I forgot to thank you.”
“I made a sketch of you drying your hair.”
“Really? Hard to believe I was much to look at.”
“The context made the picture.”
“Will I ever be able to see it?”
“Someday. It’s folded up in my pocket.”
“A reason to not give up,” she said.
They hurried the final short distance to the other nurses, but slowed their steps when they noticed three men hanging at the outside of the group.
“We didn’t find anything that floats,” said Marti, looking at the ground in front of her. “Sorry, boys.”
The men hung their heads, wished them luck, and walked back toward the road.
“Lester found a rowboat,” said Marti when the men were out of earshot. “There’s just enough room for the six of us.”
The sound of his name from her lips gave him strength as he stooped to pick up the stinking blonde, cradling her in his arms. Marti pulled the two defeated young nurses to their feet and nodded for the old woman to hustle along toward the water.
At the edge of the wide bay, Lester flipped the boat and set the oars. He held the line and let it drift in the lapping waves. She floated fine. Marti waded into thigh-deep water with Lucy, the blonde, and cleaned her the best she could while holding her up after dropping her coveralls. Smoke began to hide the stars as Lester watched Marti care for Lucy in the waves, as much in love with her now as he’d been that day he watched her dry her hair on the beach.
But there were other concerns. Men would come and take the boat from them if they didn’t cast off soon. And no one carried water for the crossing.
“Marti,” he said, after beaching the boat, loading the mast and sail bag, and helping the others in. “We have to go.”
Buttoning Lucy up, Marti sloshed with her to the back of the boat and helped her in. Then Lester steered Marti around to the bow seat, ready to push away from the cradling sand once everyone got settled.
Before they could float away, a rustling grew in the undergrowth. Two men came out onto the sand, and right away Lester didn’t like the tension.
“God, no,” said Hastings, as two Japanese soldiers stood before them, faceless in the low-hanging branches. Each of them held a rifle with a long bayonet, and they stood there for a minute studying the scene. When something exploded down the beach by the docks, Lester saw their features for a second. Shaking though he was, he could tell these weren’t evil faces, just tired and dirty mugs, much like his own. The soldiers walked to the bow of the boat and looked in.
“Don’t let them take us, soldier,” said the old nurse. “It’s just two weak yellow bastards standing there. Act like a man and do something.”
“Shut up,” said Marti. “Just shut up.”
The young nurse who wasn’t Hastings began to cry. Hastings rocked the boat as she moved to the other side to enfold the weeping girl, calling her Kelly as they held each other. As sick as she was, Lucy was able to sit up on her own now, her blond braids coming apart. She didn’t look afraid at all.
“You go now,” said one of the Japs. “Many men coming.”
The other soldier opened a large pouch hanging from his belt and scooped out a handful of small objects. He dropped them into Marti’s cupped palms.
“Hurry,” said the first soldier. “Time to go.”
Lester clambered into the boat past Marti to take the center seat, and the two men pushed the bow through the sand and into the bay, quickly vanishing into the shadows as Lester found his rhythm with the oars and got them away from the beach with long strokes.
“No one’s ever gonna believe that,” said Hastings, breaking the silence after a few minutes.
“Desperation makes you mean,” said Marti as she unwrapped a hard candy and reached over Lester’s shoulder to pop it into his mouth. “Mean like I was when I lied to those three guys back there. About us not having the boat.” She sighed and dropped her voice so only Lester could hear her. “I feel bad now after what those Japs did for us. I’ll take pity any day.”
Lester set the oars onto the gunnels after half an hour of feeling as though he were rowing in place. They were out of the smoke finally, so progress must have been made. He took deep breaths, wishing for water to ease the stovepipe dryness in his throat as they drifted in the light breeze. Bataan had gone quiet, but fire still dotted the shoreline around Mariveles. Leaning back against Marti’s knees, he looked up at the Milky Way. As a navigator, he knew his stars, and he couldn’t believe how lucky he was to have found her again.
“Are we getting any closer to our new home?” he asked. He could feel Marti turn to look at the black lump of Corregidor.
“You’ll get us there,” she said, the boat bobbing on the tide.
He could hear the rustling as Marti unwrapped another piece of candy behind him, and felt her fingers touch his lips as she slipped the rock-hard lemon sweetness into his mouth.
“Thanks,” he said as she began to massage his shoulders.
“I’m sorry I told you to shut up, Major,” said Marti.
“I’d already forgotten about it, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Aw, cut the bullshit, Marti.”
“Both of you shut up,” said Hastings. “I hear something.”
They all turned to scan the water where she pointed, and soon they could make out the pale arm strokes of a man swimming in the waves.
“Hey!” he shouted as he approached. “Have you got room? Me and my buddies are done in.” There was no sign of any other men.
“We’re full up,” said Lester, “and if you try to climb into this boat, I’ll club you with an oar. I’ve got five nurses in here, and I’m not letting you tip us into the drink.”
“I understand,” said the man, coughing a little as he swallowed water. “Can I hang on the side for a minute and catch my breath?”
“Sure,” said Lester.
The man swam to the side of the boat and draped his elbows over the gunnel, panting hard as he looked back into the darkness.
“I’m Lou. 57th Infantry.” He coughed again. “Earl!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Pablo!” No one shouted back at him. He turned back to the boat. “Do you have any fresh water?”
“Sorry,” said Marti. “We haven’t got anything.”
“Just like you said you didn’t have a boat?” It was one of the three men who had been chased off by Marti’s lies, and Lester could feel her flinch behind him as the realization hit her.
“We got lucky after you left,” said Lester.
“No hard feelings,” said the man. “Look!” He pointed to a disturbance in the distant swell. Another half-naked man struggled to reach the boat. Dropping from the side, Lou swam toward his buddy, eventually helping him to the hull, where Hastings and Kelly pulled his arms over the side and held him there with words of encouragement.
“Pablo? When did you last see Earl?” asked Lou.
“He was falling behind me,” said the other man, panting, sputtering.
“Shit,” said Lou, and turned to swim back toward Bataan.
Marti stood up after pulling off her boots, then quickly unbuttoned her coveralls. She stared at Lester while her fingers worked. Dropping the coveralls to her feet, she stepped out of them and dived gracefully off the bow in her underthings, coming up at the side of the exhausted man clinging to the boat.
“Marti,” said Lester. “What are you doing? Get back in the boat!”
“Pull him in,” said Marti. “I’m a strong swimmer.” She hung onto the side as Kelly and Hastings dragged Pablo into the hull, the boat rocking dangerously. “Follow me,” she said as she spun to her side and kicked, her long body making powerful strokes as she headed off after Lou, disappearing into the darkness.
Lester grabbed the oars and turned the boat to trail her.
“Wait!” he shouted. Hastings moved to the bow to guide him.
“Hurry,” she said, making Lester pull hard, his shoulders aching as he ground against the tide. “I can’t see her anymore.”
The Major and Kelly shouted Marti’s name until they were hoarse. Lester worked a straight line in the general direction she had gone, Hastings quiet behind him, offering no alternatives. The rising and falling of the boat and the mounting hopelessness began to make him feel sick.
Resting the oars when he couldn’t pull anymore, Lester dropped his head between his knees. He felt Hastings’ hands now on his back.
“We tried,” she said. “You rowed your heart out.”
The only sound in the soft breeze, as the boat bobbed and turned in circles, was water bumping against the wooden hull. A slow blossom of dawn began to creep over Luzon.
“We rest for five more minutes,” said the Major. “Then we turn around and head for the Rock. We don’t want to be caught out here in daylight. Marti made her own bed.”
“Join the Army, they said. Become a nurse. Live a better life in some exotic land. Jesus Christ.”
Hastings had been bitching for the last half hour, and Lester was about ready to shove her teeth in.
“Why did you do it, then?” he asked, just for something to do with his mouth, to take his mind off Marti and the thirst that made his voice stiff as he rowed.
“I wanted that better life,” said Hastings. The other women watched as she talked, and Lester imagined the story was similar for all of them. “Times were tough back home. Nobody had jobs. No future. No relief. Folks said the Philippines was the best duty in the world. They weren’t wrong. Sure as hell earned my pay this last month, but before that I spent three easy years dancin’ and makin’ out every night with some handsome fella or other. My toughest days were spent puttin’ casts on the broken paws of soldiers who got drunk and quarrelsome the night before. Maybe over me. Never thought things would end like this, though. I didn’t join the fuckin’ Navy.”
Pablo asked if he could row for a spell.
“No,” said Lester. “Thanks. I’m not a good swimmer. This is my job.” He could hear Hastings unwrap a sweet, and listened to the lump of hard sugar as it clicked against her teeth while she sucked. Her breath smelled of lemon. He figured the candy would be gone about now, and he missed the touch of Marti’s fingers as she slipped a sweet into his mouth.
“We’re coming up on the beach,” said the Major.
The sun had risen completely over the horizon when the small boat crunched against the rocks and sand. Two armed soldiers wearing campaign hats waited for them, helping to secure the boat. They carried a belt full of canteens.
“Have you seen any other women come ashore here?” asked Lester after a long drink. “Tall brunette? Pretty? She’d be wearing just her underthings, I guess.”
“I wish,” said one of the men. “But these are the only nurses I’ve seen down here, and I’ve been on duty since yesterday afternoon.” The beach was littered with small boats. It was the lowest part of the island, the widest beach to aim for.
One of the soldiers escorted Pablo and the nurses up a trail to the spine of Corregidor, toward the Army installation topside and the protected tunnels below. Lester sat down in the sand.
“Let’s go, brother,” said the other man, standing with a rifle stock on his hip.
“Let me sit here for a bit.”
“We got orders to keep everyone off the beach.”
“You wanna fight about it?” asked Lester, still clutching a half-empty canteen.
The soldier sighed and strode off to another part of the sandy stretch, his eyes on the horizon. Lester unbuttoned a pocket, pulling out a sheaf of folded papers, many of them drawings he’d saved. The one on top was the one he wanted, and he unfolded it, smiling at his work, his perfect capture of Marti drying her hair in the sun.
A line of dark clouds constructed an ominous wall over the South China Sea, promising rain. Lester glanced toward the hill at the shapes moving along the trail. Then at the rowboat. Getting up, he brushed off the seat of his threadbare trousers and walked to the bow. Marti’s boots and coveralls waited for her among the litter of candy wrappings. After, shoving off, Lester climbed into the boat and settled down at the oars again. The soldier yelled after him, but it didn’t feel like desertion if Marti wasn’t there.
Eventually pulling around the thin tail of Corregidor, staying away from open sea to the west, Lester watched for Jap planes as he recollected summer afternoons with his father on Lake St. Clair. It didn’t take him long to rig the sail and set hard for the bay’s southern shoreline. The Japanese controlled the north, but the south must still be clear. He knew the islands well. From the air, anyway. He’d flown the inner passage a dozen times, studying the maps. All the way to Mindanao and back. He’d stay close to shore, stopping at villages for food. Float it all the way to Australia on a good breeze, Marti in his pocket.
— Russell Thayer’s work has appeared in The Phoenix, Evening Street Review, Cirque, Close to the Bone, APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Bristol Noir, Hawaii Pacific Review, Shotgun Honey, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington, worked for decades at large printing companies, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana. He can be found lurking on Twitter @RussellThayer10