The usual caveats…
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Billy turned as they walked toward Iron Mike’s. “You know, that’s a pretty damn good little museum. But those gold plated AKs, were…”
The old man laughed. “Over the top? Yeah, a bit. Uday Hussein obviously didn’t fall far from Saddam’s tree. Some good stuff, and it’s no wonder they run all the students through there. World War One to the present gives them a helluva background on what they’re getting into.” He opened the door and Billy walked in, looked around and saw the sign pointing to the reunion dinner.
He turned that way, then stopped. “I need a drink. Fuck it, I need two drinks. I’m not sure I want to see some of these old farts.” He backtracked and headed for the bar with the old man following.
“Billy, you do this every time. You can’t rewrite history, and your intel saved a lot of our asses.”
“Not enough guys.” He waved at the bartender. “Two, no three scotches. The best you’ve got.”
The bartender reached up and pulled a bottle off the back bar, picked up three glasses and walked down to them, “Rocks? Water?”
The old man said, “One rock.”
Billy shook his head. “Straight up.” He pulled a fifty out of his pants pocket and laid it on the bar. “Keep the change.”
They each picked up a glass, and touched them, “Absent Comrades.”
The old man echoed him. “Absent Comrades.” He took a sip, enjoying the smoothness, and shook his head as Billy downed his in one gulp. “Go easy, Billy.”
Billy carefully set the one glass down, picked up the second and took a sip. “I will. I just…needed that.” Each lost in their own thoughts, they sipped the scotch quietly, finished them and headed for the dinner. As soon as they walked through the door, Billy moved to the side and stopped, mumbling under his breath. “McMahon, there’s the Kraut, Warner, Marks, Harmon, damn, there’s Sergeant Major Mac, he’s gotta be ninety if he’s a day.” Billy spotted the cash bar set up in the corner, and headed that way.
The old man shook his head, and said, “I’ll go find our table. I know where you’ll be.” He looked at the tables, Ten tables, sixty people, plus the head table. Not a lot of us left. Or not a lot that could make it. He looked at the head table and saw two Green Berets in blues, Must be the current Fifth Group guys. But I thought they were at Campbell. As he circulated looking at the place names, he finally found theirs, along with Bao Sedang and Deng Rhade, and two places for Colonel Hill.
A hand slapped him on the back, and he turned quickly, to see a smiling Mac McCloud, who had been their last Sergeant Major when they were in Vietnam. “John, it’s great to see you. Where’s your sidekick, Moore?”
“At the bar, as usual, Mac.” They both laughed and he pointed to the Colonel Hill nameplate. “I thought I heard the colonel had died?”
“He did, about four months ago. Mrs. Hill wanted to come, and since she always talked fondly of you two, I figured I’d put you with her. I think her granddaughter is bringing her, since she doesn’t drive anymore, and she lives up in Southern Pines. She’s had a bad year. Her son, Paul, and his wife were killed by a drunk driver at Christmas up in DC, and now losing the colonel. And I know you remember Bao and Deng, since you lived with them in sixty-five.”
Damn, that is bad. You’re never supposed to outlive your kids, as I well know.”
Mac clapped a hand on his shoulder, “I know John. I know.” He looked at him slyly. “Would you be willing to talk about running the AirCats down in the Delta?”
The old man shivered. “Not if I don’t have to. Hated those damn boats.”
“Oh I know. But you’re the only one here that actually drove one. And pretty damn good if I remember.”
“Just treated it like a horse, kinda pointed it in the direction I wanted to go, and gave it its head.”
Mac laughed. “And saw more shit while you were driving than anybody else. Saving those Navy boys…that was something.”
“Just luck. Just plain luck, Mac.”
Somebody clicked the PA on, “Take your seats, please.”
Billy came back carrying two glasses and sat, pushing one of them to the old man as the Kraut and Gene Salazar walked over and shook hands. A thirty-something blonde came up pushing a wheelchair and they quickly moved a chair away as she pushed Mrs. Hill up to the table. The old man nodded to the birdlike little lady in the wheelchair. “Mrs. Hill, it’s good to see you.”
She smiled and he saw her bright expression as she said, “Ah, they put me with the terrible twosome. Fitting, definitely fitting. It is good to see you John Cronin, and you Billy Moore.” She pointed to the blonde. “My granddaughter, Megan. Megan, besides those two, I remember…Bao isn’t? And the lady I don’t know.”
Bao had never been big, and he’d aged in the last few years, his hair had gone white, and he was more stooped, but he was sure that Bao was still working, even if he was in his sixties. He stood and bowed, “Mrs. Colonel Hill, it is a pleasure to be remembered. I do not drive anymore, and Deng was good enough to bring me down here. She is…my cousin’s daughter. And knows John Cronin and Billy Moore.” Deng nodded politely and looked at the old man with a smile.
Billy answered in Degar, and Bao smiled as Deng laughed, “Billy Moore! You know better. You old enough to be my…father.” The old man watched the byplay as he looked around, Looks like lots of folks are catching up. Mac apparently set up the tables with teammates where he could. Glancing at Megan, he saw a lot of tension, as if something was wrong, and wondered what was going on, even as Mrs. Hill was smiling and chatting with Bao.
After the parading of the colors and the opening prayer, the chaplain gave the toast to the POW table, set for one. The old man reflected somberly on the words as he saw a tear roll down Billy’s cheek and quickly looked away.
Billy finally laughed as the main course was brought out. “Ah, rubber chicken again. Oh, and look, wilted…something green.”
Mrs. Hill chuckled. “I see you’re as politically correct as always, Billy.” Megan just shook her head, a smile on her face as she poked at the green stuff.
After dinner, there was a short break while the dishes were cleared, and the old man headed for the bathroom. Coming back, he saw the blonde, Megan, coming out of the ladies room. “Miss? Megan? What’s going on?”
She looked at him sharply. “What makes you think something is going on,” she asked.
“Well, you looked like you were about to cry when you brought Mrs. Hill in, and you haven’t looked happy all evening.”
She sat down on a couch, looking up at him. “It’s…grandma is about to lose her house, and I can’t help her.”
He sat down facing her, “What?”
“This started about eight or nine months ago. Grandpa wanted to upgrade a bathroom and the kitchen, so he took out a loan for twenty-five thousand dollars. He…and grandma couldn’t decide on what all they wanted done, and the work had just gotten started when grandpa died. All the new stuff is stacked in the garage, but Grandma just…stopped everything. She’s only got one working bathroom, and nothing in the kitchen works except the microwave, and it’s sitting on a card table, everything else is torn out. The contractor wanted money up front, and raised the prices. They didn’t have a lot in savings, because grandma had been sick and the hospital and rehab cost so much, and what was left she used to bury him. After grandpa died, she couldn’t get any more money, because she only gets…what do they call it, oh, survivor benefits. And the bank sold the loan.”
She teared up. “And the loan company is calling the loan due at the end of the month. The house was used as collateral, and now…” She broke down crying, “They are going to take the house, and some developer named Springs is going to get it. He’s already been out and grandma let him in. She offered to sell it to him outright for seventy-five thousand, but she said he laughed and said why spend that when he…could get it for the loan amount.”
The old man saw red for a minute, then said calmly, “She’s not going to lose her house. I will not let that happen.” He held out a hand. “I promise you. Give me your phone number.” She did and he wrote it on his hand, then said, “Now go repair your face.”
She stared at him. “How?”
He said grimly, “There are ways. Now scoot.” She got up looked at him bewilderedly, and walked slowly back toward the ladies room as he went back to the dinner.
When he sat back down, Mrs. Hill looked across the table. “Did you see Megan?”
He smiled, “I think there was a line.”
She grumbled, “That’s always a problem. We have to sit, and you men don’t. And they never give us enough stalls.”
That prompted a round of laughter as Megan walked back up to the table. “What? Have a got toilet paper stuck to my shoe?”
Mrs. Hill said, “No dear, I was just bitching about the lack of stalls. We’ve always gotten short shrift.”
She smiled. “You’re right grandma, it’s the same way at the hospital.”
Billy asked, “You a doctor or a nurse?”
“Nurse. Worked emergency for five years, up in Virginia, then moved down here and have been working OR for about a year.”
They were interrupted by the Green Beret Colonel, Harrison getting up.
He gave a short presentation, highlighting what the current troops had been doing in the last year, and closed with the fact that the vote to return to the original black flash had been unanimously approved by the troops to a round of applause from the attendees.
Mac got up and gave an overview of his time in the group, and asked if anyone else would like to get up and talk about ‘Nam. He looked pointedly at their table, and said, “John, why don’t you come up and talk about the AirCats?”
Billy chuckled as the old man got up slowly, and walked to the lectern. “Why I’d love to Sergeant Major,” he said sarcastically as everyone laughed. “Looks like I’m the only one here that actually did the Delta deployment and those damn boats. If I’d wanted to play with boats, I’d have gone in the damn Navy.”
That prompted a round of chuckles, and he went on to tell some stories about working with the Navy, ARVN, and indigenous troops to take back a good portion of the Delta Region from the VC. When he got back to the table, Megan was getting up and Mrs. Hill was saying, “Megan has to get back, she got another nurse to take half her shift tonight, so she could bring me. Now she has to get back to work. Thank you for letting me join you, I truly enjoyed it, and I will treasure this night.”
Everyone gave her a hug, and the old man walked to the car with them. As Megan walked around the car, he said, “I’ll call you tomorrow. We’ll figure this out.”
Megan hugged him. “Thank you,” she whispered, then got in the car. The old man stomped back in, and waved at Mac, motioning him over to the table.
As Mac sat down, the old man growled, “We’ve got some shit that needs to be taken care of.”
Mac looked sharply at him. “What shit?”
“Megan was telling me some asshole named Springs is trying to take the colonel’s house by calling in a loan, and she’s been living in a tore up house for at least five months, with no kitchen and apparently one working bathroom.”
A murmur of disbelieve went around the table and Billy said, “How do you want to take care of it?”
The old man shook his head. “Not sure about fixing the house, but I’ll pay the damn loan off myself.”
Billy asked, “Mac, you know any contractor we could trust? I’ll pay the contractors myself. Why the fuck did you guys not know about this?”
Mac held up his hands defensively, “I…I….we didn’t know anything was wrong. If we had…” He turned and yelled, “Salazar! Get over here.”
Gene Salazar came over, “What? You didn’t have to yell.”
“Yeah, I did. You’re deaf as a post. You still got that construction company?”
“Shit no. I’m too old for that shit. My son runs it now, why?”
“John, tell him.”
The old man repeated the story, and Salazar pulled a chair over. “How…did this happen?”
“All I got was what I just told you from the granddaughter. But I’m going to make it right. She’s not going to lose her house!”
There was a rumble of agreement, and Salazar asked, “What can we do?”
Billy said, “If I pay your son’s guys, how soon could they get there, and how long would it take for them to fix the house up?”
“Gimme fifteen. Let me make a call.” Salazar got up and walked toward the door, as Bao and Deng conversed quietly. Mac walked over to another table, quietly explaining what was going on, and they saw the Kraut pound the table in frustration, then get up and stomp over.
He flipped a chair around and sat staring at the old man and Billy, then said quietly, “I vill help. You vill not stop me.”
Billy nodded, “It would be appreciated, Kraus.”
Salazar came back a few minutes later, sat down and sighed. “Bobby says he can get some people there tomorrow morning, if we have an address. Maybe not a full crew, but enough to evaluate and see what we can do.”
The old man said, “Hang on, I’ll get that. I need to take a leak anyway.” He got up and walked out, then stopped and pulled out his cell, dialing the number he’d written on his hand. After a few rings, he heard a tentative hello and said, “Megan? John Cronin. We’ve got a few folks that want to come over tomorrow morning and see what needs to be done to the house. Can you give me the address?”
She gave it to him as he juggled the phone and his pen, writing the address across his palm. She told him she would be taking Mrs. Hill to church at nine, but she would leave the side door unlocked for them. He thanked her, hanging up when she said a patient was calling.
He went to the bathroom and headed back to the room, Now I gotta figure out how to get my hands on the money. I guess I could call the bank and have them wire it out here…somewhere. Walking back in, he sat down and said, “Okay, here’s the address.” He read it off, adding that the side door would be left open for them and she was taking Mrs. Hill to church at nine.
Billy asked, “Is she staying there too?”
“I never asked.”
Bao and Deng both got up, “We must go. Thank you for inviting us,” Bao said as he bowed. Deng quickly hugged the men and the two of them walked out quietly, as the others decided to meet at a local restaurant at seven for breakfast before driving over.
As they pulled up in front of a typical seventies golf subdivision house, low sprawling brick, and shaded by the pines the area was famous for. From the street the green shutters and eaves looked well cared for, but it was obvious the yard needed some attention. Billy asked, “How are you planning on getting money here? I don’t think Pecos County State Bank has any branches here.”
“I’m going to call Michael after he gets out of church and see what he can do. I saw a Wells Fargo coming in, so maybe through them? I dunno.”
The others pulled in behind him, with two of the Salazar construction trucks backing into the driveway. They all got out and the old man led them to the covered portico that separated the detached garage from the house and he cautiously opened the door, wondering if there was a dog, Never thought to ask that. My luck a damn pit bull will take my leg off.
He walked in and stopped dead. The kitchen was…not there. At least he thought it was the kitchen, since he could see plumbing coming out of the floor under the half window. New tile had been laid, so he could guess the outlines of where the cabinets had been. Billy pushed him, and he stepped on in, moving into what he figured was the den. Wood paneled, filled with what he guessed was leather furniture, it was nicely furnished, with a card table sitting next to the wall, a microwave on top of it.
Gene Salazar and his son came in, and he said, “Well, that makes it easy. John, didn’t you say something about stuff being in the garage?”
He nodded. “Megan said all the new stuff was out there.”
He and his son left, the other six members of the crew in tow. Mac and the Kraut came in and Mac whistled. “Tore up ain’t the word for it. This is unbelievable. Especially that they would do that to an old lady.”
Gene came back in smiling, “Cabinets, countertops, stove, fridge, oven, looks like everything is there and still in boxes. We’re going to get started. I saw somebody else pulling up too.”
Billy wandered off as the old man walked back outside, hearing a lawnmower start. He looked toward the street and saw a beat up truck bearing the logo of Sedang Lawn Care and Bao starting to mow the yard. As he headed that way, he saw Deng and three more ‘Yard women coming toward the house, mops, buckets, and cleaning supplies in hand. “What are you doing, Deng?”
“We help. Mrs. Colonel cannot do, we can. Mens not know how clean. You move now, John Cronin.” Shaking his head, he stepped to the side and watched as they marched toward the house. Damn, I forgot to check on the bathroom. I must be losing it. Getting old sucks.
He walked back to the portico and was amazed to see cardboard strewn everywhere as the construction crew was breaking out cabinets and moving them into place. He finally managed to slip through the door, and looked around for Billy, but didn’t see him. He found a half bath off the kitchen that was complete, and a full bath in the hallway, also complete. He heard voices, and followed them to the master bedroom, where the Kraut was down on his knees spreading glue, while Billy was breaking out tiles from a box. “I didn’t know you knew how to do tile, Klaus.”
Without looking up, he replied, “I haf done my hoose, my daughter’s hoose, and my brother’s vit tile. Is easy. Patience. Billy vill help.”
He glance in and saw that the shower enclosure and walls had already been tiled, and he was secretly happy with that. “I’ll see if I can find the vanity that goes in here, and the toilet, okay?”
“Jah. Please find. I will need soon.”
He walked back through the house, and stepped into what had obviously been the colonel’s home office. The walls were covered with mementos of his service, and the bookshelf contained any number of books on tactics, and unconventional warfare. He smiled and stepped back into the hall and Deng said, “You men only use half bath. We clean everything else. No mess up anything else, you hear?”
As he walked through the kitchen he was amazed to see cabinets already setting in the middle of the floor and two of the crew bolting a cabinet to the wall and ceiling. Gene was on the phone discussing plumbing as he walked across the portico into the garage, and he saw another of the crew moving more cabinets around. “You didn’t happen to see a vanity for the bathroom, did you?”
“Double sink vanity? Toilet? Yeah, back corner of the garage, over there.” Curious, the man asked, “This important? I mean to get us out here on a Sunday?”
The old man nodded, “Very important. This lady means a lot to us.”
“She must for the old man to pay us double time. We seldom do homes anymore. First time I’ve worked on a house in five years, I guess. Kinda miss it.”
“Thank you. You guys are worth every penny of your time to us.” The man nodded as he put another cabinet on a hand dolly and wheeled it out of the garage. He went back and told Billy and the Kraut that he’d found the vanity and toilet, and they nodded. He went back to the kitchen and saw that most of the wall cabinets were up, and two of the floor cabinets were already in place, with Gene and his son positioning the countertop over it. “What can I do Gene?”
Gene stopped and looked around. “Um, we’re good here. Would you mind running for lunch?”
“I can do that, any recommendations?”
The son said, “Smithfield’s. Fried chicken plates. Get half and half, white meat and dark meat. And a couple or three gallons of tea?”
“Okay. Where is it?” Fifteen people, plus a couple of spares in case anyone else show up. So eighteen total.
“Highway one, south. Go into town and turn south on one.”
“Gotcha. I’ll be back.”
It took him about twenty minutes to find the place, and when he placed the order, the older gent behind the counter said, “To go? I’ll box ‘em up for you, and give you knives, forks, and condiments.” Fifteen minutes later, he helped the old man carry the boxes out to the car, as one of the young kids brought the gallon jugs of tea, and a sleeve of cups.
He pulled back in front of the house and walked over to Bao, who was using a weed eater. Tapping him on the shoulder, he waited until Bao shut it off, “Can you help me carry these boxes in? I bought lunch for everybody.”
Bao whistled and directed his crew in Degar to get the boxes and jugs, and followed the old man to the portico. They made a table out of the cabinet boxes, and the old man walked in, “Chow guys!” He continued down the hall and saw Deng in the office, “Deng, chow is outside.” She nodded and he went back to the master bedroom, “Chow’s up. On the portico.” The Kraut was fitting the last tile and grumbling in German as he wiggled it to fit precisely the way he wanted it to.
Once he was satisfied, he got up. “Dere. Ve wait twenty-four hour. Den put in vanity and Toilet. She can use day after tomorrow.” He got up with a groan, and stretched, popping his back and sighing in relief. They walked back through the house and out to the portico, grabbed boxes and stood eating the fried chicken.
Deng had found a trashbag, and was chiding the men to throw the trash in there as Megan’s car pulled into the driveway. Mrs. Hill got out and walked slowly toward the house, holding Megan’s arm, “John Cronin, who are all these people and what are they doing,” she asked sharply.
He grinned at her, “Fixing your house, Mrs. Hill.”
“But I can’t—”
“Hush,” he said sternly. “This is the least we could do for you. I need the loan paperwork too. Billy and I are going to take care of that tomorrow.”
She looked at Megan and then back at them, an amazed look on her face. “Why?”
Billy said, “Because we care. And most of us are standing here today because of your husband. We would be remiss if we let this happen without taking action. Therefore we are taking action. We take care of our own.”
Megan smirked as Mrs. Hill said, “Now you’re sounding like a lawyer, Billy Moore!”
“That’s because I am,” he said with a laugh.
Megan said, “I know where the paperwork is. Let me go get it as soon as I get grandma in the house.”
She helped her in, and they heard her exclamation as she saw what had been done. Megan came back a few minutes later, a folder of papers in hand and tears in her eyes. “Here, I can’t believe how much you’ve accomplished. All of you have accomplished!”
Gene said, “We may be done with the kitchen today. At least the big stuff.”
The Kraut added, “I vill come back tomorrow and finish bathroom. Tile must dry.”
A little after five, Gene stood in the now complete kitchen. He looked around and smiled as Deng wiped down the last countertop. “Not too bad, if I do say so myself. I was afraid we’d have to do demo before we could start, but this was fairly easy. And all the appliances even work! I can’t believe we didn’t have something that either didn’t fit, or didn’t work.”
Mrs. Hill gave everyone a hug, and a word of thanks as they left, and stood with Megan until everyone had gone. The old man and Billy waved as they turned around in the parking lot, and Billy said quietly, “That went better than I thought it possible could. And I can’t believe how she’s been living.”
The next morning, after a call to Ruben Abbot at the bank in Texas, they sat in the manager’s office at the Wells Fargo branch while the two of the talked. He hung up and said, “The money should be here now. I’ll authorize an immediate disbursement of the funds. Just between us, I’d recommend you take cash, that way they can’t delay the processing on closing out the loan, especially since Springs is involved. Are you worried about carrying that much cash?”
The old man laughed. “Not at all. I’m a retired deputy sheriff. It won’t be an issue.”
“Give us fifteen or twenty minutes, and we’ll have a package for you. More coffee, gentlemen?”
A half hour later, they walked into the loan company office and asked to see the manager. When he finally came out, Billy took over, playing the avuncular country boy. “Son, we’re here to pay off this here loan,” he handed the manager the loan paperwork, “Preciate it if this could get done fairly quickly, as we have other things to do this morning.”
The manager looked at the loan paperwork, looked again, and said, “Well, a check will take a week to ten days to clear, so I can’t—”
Billy wagged his finger, “Not a check, son. Cash. Right now.”
The manager replied, “I’ll have to check with our lawyer, since neither of you is Mrs. Hill. If you’d take a—”
Billy interrupted again, “Why don’t you do that, and I’ll talk to him, since I’m a lawyer too. Maybe we can move this along.” The manager turned and walked back to his office, and Billy and the old man followed him, sitting down across the desk from him. Billy waited until he got the lawyer on the phone, and peremptorily motioned for the phone. The manager reluctantly passed the phone across, and Billy said, “Who am I talking to?” After a pause, he said, “Well, I’m a lawyer too. Name’s Billy Moore, out of Houston. I’m representing Mrs. Hill in this action, if it becomes an action.” Another pause, and Billy chuckled. “I thought you might see it that way. Now why don’t you tell your manager here to get on with it.”
He handed the phone back, and the manager held a short conversation, mostly listening, and they watched his eyes get big, and a bead of sweat roll down his face. He hung up and said, “You said you have cash? I’ll be happy to sign it off.” He yelled, “Robin, come in here please!”
A young lady came into the office, and he said, “I need you to verify the amount due on this loan, and count some money. Can you do that for me?”
She nodded and the old man got up, took the package Billy hauled out of his briefcase, and followed the young lady out. As he was leaving he heard Billy say, “Now I want you to give a message to this guy, Springs.”
A half hour later, they walked out of the loan company office and Billy said, “I feel like I need a shower now. Talk about a scumbag operation…”
The old man nodded. “But we’ve already checked out, and our bags are on the airplane. Let’s go make Mrs. Hill happy and head home. I think Mac and the guys have got this.” Twenty minutes later, they pulled into Mrs. Hill’s house and got out. They walked to the side door and rang the bell, and heard a distant voice say to come in.
As they walked in, Mrs. Hill came slowly through the den, “I’m sorry boys, I don’t move too fast anymore. Would you like some coffee?”
Billy said, “Yes, ma’am, that would be nice. And I have some paperwork for you.” The bell rang again, and she motioned for him to get it. He opened the door and Gene and the Kraut stood there, “Hey guys. We just got here. Come on in.”
Mrs. Hill made it into the kitchen and took cups down, “How would you like your coffee?” Everybody said black, and she passed the cups carefully down the counter, unconsciously rubbing the counter and smiling. She poured one more cup, and motioned. “Go in the den. Billy, you sit on the couch next to me.”
As they got settled, a tousled Megan came in the den wearing a robe. “Sorry. I was asleep. Got called in at midnight. Is it done,” she asked hopefully. She sat on the other side of her grandmother as Billy explained everything and handed her the paid off loan paperwork. She hugged him, and the old man saw that both her and Megan’s eyes were shiny with unshed tears. Gene finally said uncomfortably, “Uh, Mrs. H, we wanted to finish the bathroom, if that’s okay with you. All we need to do is put the vanity in, and get the toilet installed.”
She clapped her hands, “Oh please. Don’t mind the mess.”
The two of them jumped up and disappeared out the side door, with the old man right behind them. “John, I can’t believe you and Billy got that done. Can I contribute?” He and the Kraut picked up the vanity and balanced it on a hand truck, and the old man held the door for them.
“No, I can afford it Gene. I don’t want anything from anybody else. Thanks.”
The Kraut looked at him, shook his head, and sighed. The old man held the side door to the house open, and they carefully maneuvered the vanity through the house as Billy stood. “Mrs. Hill, we need to get on the road, we need to get back home. I’m just glad we could help out.”
Mrs. Hill got up and hugged him, then the old man. She stood back shaking her head, “No wonder my husband was scared of the two of you. You don’t understand the meaning of the word no, and you never give up. I can only say thank you.”
Megan gave them each a wordless hug, tears running down her face, and they quickly made their way out. It was a quiet drive back to the Fayetteville airport, with each of them lost in their own thoughts.