Life Dust: A Novel
by Pam Webber

Published: 2022-10-11T00:0
Paperback : 312 pages
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Nettie and Andy have been soul mates since childhood. While planning their wedding, Andy receives orders from the Army to deploy immediately to South Vietnam for a year.

Anxious about Andy’s safety, Nettie dives into her work as a nursing intern in the hospital emergency room. When ...

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Nettie and Andy have been soul mates since childhood. While planning their wedding, Andy receives orders from the Army to deploy immediately to South Vietnam for a year.

Anxious about Andy’s safety, Nettie dives into her work as a nursing intern in the hospital emergency room. When she inadvertently walks in on a nursing supervisor and surgeon during a late-night tryst, the vengeful lovers initiate a campaign to end her career before it starts. Nettie’s only respite is an elderly patient who has everything money can buy?except the one thing he wants.

In Southeast Asia, Andy is leading a long-range reconnaissance squad in an unforgiving jungle when he receives orders to escort a high-ranking female freedom fighter, Bien, to a clandestine meeting with an enemy officer who wants to defect. Previously raped, beaten, and left for dead by North Vietnamese soldiers, Bien is suspicious of the enemy officer’s motives, but she also thinks he may be the younger brother her attackers conscripted into their army as a child. Andy, meanwhile, believes his unit is walking into a trap that could cost them everything.

Struggling to survive in different worlds, Nettie and Andy navigate the best and worst of human nature as they try to find their way back to each other.

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Chapter 1


Nettie took the back stairs from the emergency room to the second floor two at a time. Glancing left and right,

she darted across the hall into the pitch-black recovery room. She needed an oxygen regulator fast, and this unit always had plenty. They just didn’t like to share after-hours. Clicking her penlight on, she hurried past rows of stretchers toward the supply closet but froze as startled shadows thrashed in the corner ahead.

“Bloody hell,” hissed a low, male voice.

Eyes wide and heart racing, Nettie released the button on the penlight and backed up. Panicked whispers and whiffs of perfume followed her out the door, the scent a favorite of the hospital’s most contentious evening supervisor, Genevieve Woods.

Slipping out the door, Nettie ran down the hall to the intensive care unit in search of anonymity and the needed equipment. Just inside, she bumped into Dougie, the short, quiet fellow who delivered linens throughout the hospital from seven at night until seven in the morning. Nettie leaned against the wall, breathless from angst more than effort. “Hi, Dougie.”

“Hey, Miss Nettie, are you okay?”

Straightening up, she peeked through the door’s small window at an empty hall and closed recovery room door. “Yeah, Dougie, I’m fine. How about you?”

“I’m good. Working hard. Lots of sick people, so lots of laundry. Are you and TK still going to the cafeteria for dinner?”

Nettie’s preceptor, TK, had befriended Dougie years ago by sharing a cafeteria table with the shy young man. They’d been friends ever since. When Nettie started the hospital’s nursing internship program earlier in the year, Dougie decided any friend of TK’s was a friend of his.

“Yep, we’ll be there.”

“Okay, see you in a little while.”

Nettie moved aside and opened the door, peeping around the tall cart as Dougie pulled it into the hall. The door to the recovery room now stood ajar, a dark figure hovering just inside. “Gotta go, Dougie.” Darting past moaning patients, beeping monitors, and pulsing ventilators, Nettie found the charge nurse and requested the needed regulator. After signing an equipment form and promising to return it within twenty-four hours, she headed back to the ER.

“What took so long?” TK asked, whipping the regulator out of its sterile bag and replacing the faulty one. Tall and slim with short, curly brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, TK seldom wasted time.

“I couldn’t get it from the recovery room. I had to go to the ICU,” Nettie replied, opting to stay quiet about what she’d witnessed. Speculating about the identity of the two people in the recovery room wouldn’t accomplish anything. Even if she had proof, she wasn’t sure what to do with it. Hopefully, they hadn’t recognized her, either.

“We need to get this patient undressed,” TK said. “The cardiac catheterization lab will be ready for him any minute. You get his shoes. I’ll get his pants.”

The unconscious man looked like a gentleman. Slender, hair carefully trimmed and styled, close-shaven, with soft hands and manicured nails, he had walked into the ER a short time ago and collapsed. TK and the code blue team had managed to get his heart started again, but the monitor still showed a heart attack in progress.

As TK unbuckled the man’s monogrammed, leather belt, he woke and sat up in a panic.

“What do you think you’re doing?” He slapped TK’s hands away and kicked at Nettie. “Get away from me.” Dazed, his head and shoulders wobbled.

TK raised the head of the stretcher so he could lean back. “Sir, you’re in the emergency room of the Northern Virginia Hospital.”

“I know where I am, dammit. I drove myself here. What I don’t know is who the hell you two are.” He slapped at TK and kicked at Nettie again.

They both stepped back.

Always calm, TK introduced herself and Nettie. “Sir, you passed out as you walked in the door. It looks like you’re having a heart attack. We’re giving you medicine in your vein to help, but there’s a clot in one of the arteries supplying your heart that we need to—”

“Another heart attack? Then, the last thing I need is you two bedpan Betties. Get a doctor in here.”

“A cardiologist has already been here, Mr. Pepper,” TK replied, patiently. “She’s gone to the cath lab to get things ready. We’re going to take you there as soon as her team calls.” “Don’t talk to me like I’m an idiot. I’ve had heart attacks before. I know the drill.” He stared at TK. “You went through my things. That’s how you know my name.” He

looked at his right hand. “Where’s the ring?”

“Your ring and watch are in the safe along with your wallet. We had to know who you are, where you’re from, and how to reach your family,” TK replied.

“My name is William Edward Pepper. There is no family. You don’t need to know my address in Hawaii. And I want the ring back, right now!” Mr. Pepper banged the rail. “And get that damn doctor back in here!”

TK winked at Nettie. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

As she left the room, Nettie moved to the side of the stretcher, worried Mr. Pepper’s agitation might land him on the floor.

“What are you looking at?” he snapped. She looked him in the eye. “A jackass.”

Mr. Pepper sucked air as his mouth fell open.

Nettie put her hands on the rail and leaned in. “TK is trying her best to save your life. Why don’t you settle down and let her?”

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Just someone who knows you’re scared to death and in a dozen different types of pain.”

Mr. Pepper’s eyes narrowed. “You know nothing of the sort.”

Nettie waited.

He lolled his head back. “Did my heart actually stop?” “Yes.”

“I’m sweating like crazy.” He wiped his brow. “You all must have given me morphine. I always sweat when I get morphine.” “Yes, sir. It eases the pain and lowers the heart’s workload

at the same time.”

He looked at her name badge. “Nettie, I need to get that ring back.”

The pleading in his voice spoke to more than a ring. “If TK doesn’t bring it when she comes, I’ll get it for you. I promise.”

“I want it—”

The alarm above the stretcher sounded as Mr. Pepper’s eyes rolled back and he slumped to the side, deadly ventricular fibrillation wiggling its way across the monitor. Nettie hit the code blue button on the wall, lowered the head of the bed, gave him two quick breaths, and began pumping his chest. “Please God, lift him up, ease his pain, and heal his heart,” she whispered as others rushed to help. “Don’t go, Mr. Pepper, not now, not like this.”

The ventilator cycled steadily next to Mr. Pepper’s stretcher. Still unconscious, he had just returned from the cath lab where the clot blocking his left coronary artery had been dissolved, but not before it caused permanent damage. Nettie pulled his signet ring from the valuables bag she’d retrieved from the ER’s safe. The ring’s weight, muted gold glow, and hundreds of minuscule scratches spoke to its quality and long years of wear. She couldn’t separate the swirly initials on the top, but they didn’t appear to be Mr. Pepper’s. Returning the ring to its home on his right hand, she wrapped it in surgical tape to ensure it stayed on his finger, then wrote

“Do not remove” and her initials on the tape.

TK appeared in the doorway. “CCU is ready for him.

I’ll get his chart while you pack his things.”

Mr. Pepper’s dress shirt had been cut away during the first resuscitation and the rest of his things thrown across a chair during the second. Nettie put his tailored suit and cashmere overcoat on hangers, then covered them with a long clear plastic trash bag. While not the best protection for elegant things, it was better than nothing. Laying the bag across the bottom of the stretcher, she placed his intricately tooled leather shoes, matching belt, and monogrammed socks and underwear in a plastic bag and stowed it in a basket under the mattress.

Rolling Mr. Pepper into his assigned CCU room, TK left to talk with the charge nurse while Nettie positioned the stretcher and put his things away. She stepped back as two CCU nurses quickly changed monitors, placed an automatic blood pressure cuff on Mr. Pepper’s arm, arranged the pumps and poles holding multiple IV lines, and covered him with a hypothermia blanket. In a few minutes, his body tempera- ture would drop to ninety degrees where it would stay for twenty-four hours or more. The cold would decrease his body’s demand for oxygen and lessen the workload of his hurting heart. Nettie put his socks back on his feet, then covered the top of his head with a folded towel. These small pieces of cloth would help minimize shivering and further reduce his demand for oxygen. Underneath the hum and systematic beeps of the life-saving equipment lay a hurting and unhappy man. The least she could do was try to make him a little more comfortable.

Outside the door, TK and the charge nurse studied Mr. Pepper’s latest electrocardiogram. “Left anterior descending infarct,” the nurse whispered. “Widowmaker.”

Nettie wrapped her hand around Mr. Pepper’s and whis- pered in his ear. “Your ring is on your finger and God is in your corner. Feel better soon.”

His eyelids fluttered, and for a split-second Nettie thought he might wake up. But his lids went smooth again as he drifted back to wherever the mind goes when traumatized and drugged.

Leaving work later that night, Nettie couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Pepper. “There’s no family,” he’d said. The only thing in his wallet besides cash and credit cards had been the name and phone number of a lawyer in Hawaii. Tomorrow, one of the hospital’s social workers would call to see if they could get more information. Until then, the only people who cared about this man were strangers.

At home, Nettie brushed her teeth, slipped into her pajamas, and had just turned down her bed covers when the phone rang. She rushed to stop the clanging before it woke Win, her best friend and roommate. No one calls this late at night. Something’s wrong.

Wisps of steam radiated from the asphalt as Nettie brought the car to a stop in the shade of the rain-heavy loblolly pines outside the entrance to Fort Benning. Instead of delivering a cool start to an unusually hot, spring day, the fast-moving storm had created a stifling morning sauna. Already disheveled from the all-night drive, the humidity made her hair droop, skin sticky, and clothes wilt. Plus, her breath had to smell like coffee. She didn’t want to say goodbye to Andy like this. Without warning, his orders had been changed and moved up. Instead of participating in the next level of tactical training in Georgia for three months, he would be leaving for South Vietnam in a matter of hours. “Everyone’s restricted to base until flight time,” he’d said

last night. “I can’t even meet you halfway.”

“If I leave now, I can get there before you go.” “No, honey. It’s too late to be on the road. I—”

“I’m on my way.” Nettie hung up before he could object again. She called TK, then left a message with the ER charge nurse explaining that she wouldn’t be in tomorrow and why. Andy, the love of her life, would be gone for a year, maybe longer. She quickly changed clothes, filled a thermos with instant black coffee, and left a note for Win. Grabbing her wallet and the keys to her old Oldsmobile Cutlass, Nettie headed for I-95, the new interstate highway that made it possible for her to travel from Northern Virginia to Columbus, Georgia, before Andy had to leave.

She’d tried to pull herself together during the long drive, but the closer she got to the military base, the more rogue tears escaped. Get a grip, girl. The last thing Andy needs is to see you puffy, red-eyed, and bawling. She blew her nose, blotted her eyes, brushed her hair, and stepped out of the car to tuck in her blouse. Straightening her shorts, she took several deep breaths. The sharp citrusy smell of the pines helped clear her head. Climbing back behind the wheel, she pinched her cheeks, bit her lips until they blushed, popped a Certs mint in her mouth, and headed for the guard gate.

Checking Nettie’s driver’s license against the expected guest list, the military policeman waved her in. From memory, she turned right, drove through a tunnel of over- hanging hickory trees, and entered a village of austere, white clapboard buildings. The sign on the first one said Visitor’s Center.

Andy jumped from the steps and trotted toward the car as Nettie pulled up, relief flooding his handsome face. Tall and tanned, his uniform accented his broad shoulders, slim waist, and muscular build.

Thank God he’s strong. He’ll need to be.

Andy leaned in the window, cupped Nettie’s face, and gave her a quick kiss.

She slid to the middle of the seat as he climbed in and put his arms around her. He smelled good and felt better. His second kiss was long and sweet.

“I’m sorry you had such a long drive, but I’m so glad you came,” he said, kissing her hair.

“Me, too.” She took his hand. “Why the sudden change in orders?”

“I’m not sure. Rumor has it a North Vietnamese offensive may be in the works, so they want us in-country and up to speed as soon as possible.”

Nettie shivered.

Andy pulled her close. “Just a lot more of what we’ve already been doing, honey.”

She knew better. It was more, dangerously more. As hot, humid, and miserable as summers in Georgia were, there was no comparison to the hellish heat and wetness of the jungles of Southeast Asia. And there would be no pretending, he’d be dodging real people and things intent on killing him. Nightly television news reported the horrors of fighting a jungle war and never failed to update the American public on the numbers of soldiers killed and wounded on a weekly basis. “Is everyone going early?” she asked.

“No, only those who’ve completed Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol training. The rest will follow later.”

“Your mom must be beside herself.”

“I called her last night. She wasn’t surprised. The army used to do the same thing to my dad. Would you call her when you get home? See if she’s okay?”

“Of course. It’s an awfully long flight. Will you have any layovers?”

“Not really. We fly to Alaska today, refuel, then head to Okinawa, Japan. From there we fly to Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam. After that, I have no idea where I’ll be sent.”

“You’re a lieutenant. That’s a good thing, right?”

Doubt flashed in Andy’s eyes. “I don’t know if it’s good or not. I have to lead men I’ve never met, in a country I’ve never seen, in a war no one seems sure about.”

Nettie squeezed his hand. As the son of a military family, the words were not easy for Andy to say, but she understood why he said them. To date, the United States had lost over fifty thousand men and their allies, South Vietnam’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the ARVNs, had lost over two hundred thousand in their attempt to stop a hostile takeover by the communist controlled North Vietnamese Army, the NVA. With the brutal war playing out on television, many citizens were questioning America’s continued involvement. Even the politicians in Washington, DC, couldn’t seem to decide if they wanted to stay the course or just get the hell out.

Andy drove to the western edge of the base. Parking in front of a forested area, he pulled a colorful, patchwork quilt from the trunk. Hand-sewn from squares of cloth cut from the clothes Nettie and Andy grew up in, the quilt had been an engagement present from their mothers.

Following a curvy path through the woods, they came to the bank of the picturesque Chattahoochee, the river of painted rocks. Spreading the quilt near the water’s edge, they sat shoulder to shoulder watching the morning fog lift in lazy drifts. They’d discovered the serene glade during Nettie’s first visit to the base and made a point of visiting it every time she came. The secluded spot reminded them both of River’s Rest, their favorite hideaway at home in Amherst.

In the middle of the river’s sauntering current sat a small, W-shaped structure made of colorful granite boulders. Placed by Native Americans a century ago, the structure provided an easy way to secure food. The boulders’ quartz and feldspar sparkles attracted fish that became trapped in the W-shaped design, making them easy targets for spears. “I’ve been thinking,” Andy said, watching the osprey

and cormorants dive for their breakfast. “I’m going to be gone a long time, and I don’t want you worrying. I know you’ll be busy with school and work, but I also want you to go out with friends, have fun. Like you always say, I want you to choose to be happy.”

Nettie’s mantra flew back at her hard. “Andy, don’t—” “No, listen, this is important.” He took her hand. “I can

do whatever I have to do over there, but it will be a hell of a lot easier if I know you’re okay. For decades I watched my mother worry herself sick whenever my father deployed in harm’s way. I don’t want you going through that.”

“Worry seldom accomplishes what fear does,” Nettie replied, remembering the words of Win’s grandmother, Nibi, a full-blooded Monacan Indian.


“It’s something Nibi told me once. She said worry spins us in circles while fear motivates us to act. I’ll stay busy with school and work, and if that’s not enough to keep the worry at bay, I’ll find something else to do, something constructive. I promise.”

“Who would have thought fear could be a friend.” Andy pulled a stem of white clover and twirled it back and forth. “It’s the unknown that has my attention, what I fear. The army’s prepared me for a lot. And I’m sure I’ll learn more from the guys who’ve been in-country for a while. But still—”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Andy. You’re smart, you see things others aren’t even looking for, and you’re the bravest human being I know.” Andy had risked his life to save hers during the flooding after Hurricane Camille in 1969. He’d demonstrated a level of courage that defined heroism. He kissed her, then pulled a small version of the New Testament from his breast pocket. Inside was a picture of

Nettie and him.

“You had it laminated?”

“The monsoons over there keep everything wet. I didn’t want it to get ruined.” He slid the picture between pages marked with a small, red ribbon. Several lines on the page were underlined.

“First Corinthians 13:13?”

Andy nodded. “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” He wove his fingers through hers. “I love you, Nettie. I have since the day I met you in the sandbox, and I will love you until the day I die and beyond.”

Tears Nettie had been trying to corral for hours broke free. Andy pulled her close. “It will be okay, baby.”

“No. Nothing will be okay until you’re back home.” “Look at me.” Andy lifted her chin. “Nobody wants

this, but if we have to do it, let’s do it our way. Let’s stay focused on the jobs we have to do, and take it one step at a time, one day at a time.” He kissed their engagement ring. “A year from now, this will all be over, and we’ll be having a picnic at River’s Rest and putting the finishing touches on our wedding plans. Deal?”

Nettie managed a weak nod. “Deal,” she whispered.

He slid the New Testament back into his pocket and wiped away her tears. “I have to go.”

Nettie started to get up.

“No, stay here. I don’t want you standing behind some rusty, chain-link fence on a sweltering tarmac. I’ll walk back.” He kissed her, holding her tight for a long moment, as if trying to imprint the feeling deep in his memory.

She held onto his hand as he stood. “Come back to me.” “Count on it.” He put two fingers to his lips and blew her a kiss as he walked away.

She held the air kiss until she couldn’t see him anymore, her heart breaking. Numb, she laid down on the soft quilt. Since childhood, Andy had been there, her rock, her port in every storm, and she’d been there for him. Now, she couldn’t help him, and he couldn’t help her. Loss, loneliness, and the insanity of war pulled her into an exhausted sleep.

Hours later, a gusty breeze signaled the approach of another storm. Groggy, Nettie got to her feet and wrapped the quilt around her, Andy’s scent still present. The path seemed longer and rougher as she stumbled her way back to the car. Opening the trunk, she brushed the grass and twigs from the quilt, folded it, and placed it inside, resolving not to unfold it until she and Andy were together again.

Rain drops and tears wet her face as she got into the car. Get a grip, Nettie. You can’t do it this way. You promised Andy. If he can do what he has to do, you can, too. You have school and work to concentrate on, and before you know it, he’ll be home. So, suck it up buttercup, and get on with it. Taking a deep breath, she turned the windshield wipers on, put the car in gear and headed for home.

The next afternoon, at the 3:00 p.m. change of shifts, a dozen ER nurses gathered in pairs across the glass-enclosed nurses’ station preparing to give and receive report on each patient. Having the additional eyes and ears around did little to deflect Genevieve Woods’s dressing-down of Nettie, the graying supervisor intent on humiliation.

Twice, Nettie tried to explain that she’d missed work the previous day because her fiancé’s deployment had been moved up unexpectedly and that he would be in Vietnam for a year. And twice it didn’t matter. In fact, Nettie’s reason for being gone seemed to infuriate the woman even more.

“You had an obligation to be here, regardless of what’s going on in your personal life,” Mrs. Woods insisted, her once pretty face distorted with feigned indignation. “Illness and death in the immediate family are the only acceptable excuses. You demonstrated a flagrant disregard of hospital policy, which constitutes grounds for dismissal from the internship program.”

Some of the ER nurses turned disbelieving eyes toward the angry woman, others kept their heads down to stay out of the line of fire.

“Ma’am, I didn’t disregard the policy. I followed it exactly. I notified—”

“You were expected to be here. Others in this department were counting on you.”

TK entered the nurses’ station, after standing in the door long enough to hear what was going on. “Mrs. Woods, Nettie had my permission to be away.”

Mrs. Woods spun around. “TK, you’re not authorized to give anyone a day off, much less an intern.”

“Ma’am, we’re interrupting report, why don’t we talk in here.” TK opened the door to a side office and motioned Nettie in. Mrs. Woods followed in a snit, her perfume trailing in her wake.

Not bothering to sit, TK pulled a notebook from the bookcase. “Mrs. Woods, the new Nursing Internship Manual says the designated preceptor, which in this case is me, can adjust the intern’s schedule as needed. Nettie had my per- mission to be off yesterday.”

Mrs. Woods snatched the manual, her eyes narrowing as she read the policy. “At any point did you consider notifying me or another supervisor of the change in staffing?”

“No,” TK replied matter-of-factly. “The manual also says interns are not to be counted in the daily staffing schedule, so her absence didn’t inconvenience or cause a hardship on anyone. Why would a supervisor need to be informed of a problem that didn’t exist?”

Touché TK. Nettie braced for an acidic comeback but watched Mrs. Woods surrender to logic instead.

“Regardless, supervisors need to know what’s going on in their units.”

TK had mastered the skill of allowing people to save face, even when they didn’t deserve it. She opened the office door, scattering those who’d huddled nearby. “I see your point, Mrs. Woods. We’ll try and remember that next time.”

“Good.” Mrs. Woods nodded stiffly at TK, shot Nettie a dark look, then left.

“Come on,” TK said to Nettie as the supervisor dis- appeared. “We’ve wasted enough time on this nonsense.” Grabbing stethoscopes, she and Nettie headed down the hall. “Thanks for the help back there, TK,” Nettie said when

they were past curious ears.

“No need to thank me. Woods was out of line.” TK stopped. “I got the feeling she was angry about something else altogether. Any idea what it could be?”

Nettie shrugged, unwilling to drag TK into speculating about who was in the recovery room that night.

“Well, don’t let her get to you. She’s an unhappy person.” “Any idea why?”

“Lord only knows. Seems like it’s a choice she made a long time ago.”

“What a miserable way to live.” “Exactly.”

“Her perfume doesn’t fit her personality,” Nettie said. “In fact, I’m surprised she wears perfume at all.”

“No hospital staff is supposed to, but Genevieve Woods has gotten away with it for decades. Unfortunately, it hasn’t helped her disposition.” TK frowned. “I don’t know why she is so wound up about you, but stay out of her way. People who can’t control their own happiness will try to control yours.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the Author:

1. What factors contribute to Nettie's ongoing reluctance to reveal Mrs. Woods's affair?
2. In what ways does Nettie's development reflect the 1960s/1970s women's movement?

3. How do the hardships that his squad endures in the jungle change Andy over time?
4. What about Bien's story reflects the humanity and inhumanity of war?

The Story
5. How is symbolism used throughout the story?

The Author
6. If you read The Wiregrass and Moon Water, was Life Dust a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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Member Reviews

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  "A Must Read"by Diane P. (see profile) 09/28/22

I received a free copy of this book to read and give an honest review.

Hospitals are known for saving lives but wars destroy them. Pam Webber masterfully portrays both the environment of

... (read more)

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