by Estevana Rey
WWII Alternate Universe
While Jackson and Sanchez disconnected the catwalk rope that ran along the interior of the aircraft, Buck hunkered down as close to the turret as he could get. He had rigged a radio link so he could speak directly to JD, and disregarding the chance that the turret could shift again and trap his arm, he reached through the crack and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. He explained what they were going to do.
The kid turned his youthful face upward, those damn big eyes of his imploring him to somehow make this okay. Wilmington saw the traces of tears frozen to his long, dark lashes. The game thing to do would be for Dunne to say it was too dangerous, to tell Tanner not to do it. Ball turret gunner on a B-17 was a suicide waiting to happen, and no one would dare think of any of the men who took that risk as cowards. But JD was terrified. He claimed he wasn't afraid to die, and maybe he wasn't, but, that didn't mean he wanted to die, and he sure as hell didn't want to die like he was going to if they couldn't get him out of there.
Buck's voice was calm, and reassuringly stern. "Now, son, you mind that you have a good, tight grip on that rope before you unbuckle anything, understand? And you hang on to Lieutenant Tanner like he's your lover until you're inside this plane and I personally pry you loose. Got it?"
Dunne nodded that he understood.
"I mean it, JD," Buck warned. "You fall, and I'll jump out after you just so I can chase you down and kick your sorry little ass."
That got a small smile out of the boy. "You're so full of crap, Buck."
Wilmington made a motion as if he was tossling JD's hair, even though that wasn't possible with the headgear JD was wearing.
+ + + + + + +
Towards the front of the aircraft, in the cramped Navigator's compartment, Sanchez finished attaching the length of rope to Tanner's parachute harness. While it was likely that the rope would foul the chute in the event Tanner needed it, they didn't have the equipment to rig anything else.
Vin looked warily at the open hatch. Don't look down. So long as I don't look down, I'll be okay. He moved on unsteady legs towards the hatch combing. Wilmington had joined them by this time. The combined strength of the three big men would get this over with more quickly.
Vin sat down on the combing and as soon as he dropped his feet outside the aircraft, he was almost sucked out of the plane. The drag against the plane's underbelly was far more forceful than he had anticipated. It was only Nathan's quick, strong arm that kept the wind from catching his legs and dragging him out. He slipped a pair of goggles over his eyes, ignoring the pain as the edge of them dug into the cut on his head. They would eliminate his peripheral vision, but, maybe that wasn't an altogether bad thing.
The three men took a firm hold on the rope. "Ready?" Wilmington shouted above the sound of rushing air.
Vin wasn't ready. His insides were jelly. But he nodded 'yes' and in the next instant found himself buffeted by winds stronger than he could have imagined, being dragged along the underside of the Fort's damaged fuselage. There were jagged pieces of metal all around him, and he twisted and turned trying to get some control before one of them cut through the rope. Finding nothing to grab onto, he could only pray he wouldn't suddenly find himself in free-fall as they played the line out through the hatch and he drifted in the wind like a foundering kite.
Suddenly, another shudder wracked the big bomber and Vin was slammed against the fuselage. Pain exploded inside his already throbbing skull and he felt something stab deep into the left side of his chest. He lost his bearings completely, and although he couldn't hear himself, he screamed in terror, his arms flailing frantically trying to embrace the big airplane for security.
Pull me back in I can't do this for God's sake pull me back in!!!
He squeezed his eyes shut tight, trying to ride out the numbing fear that sent an overpowering wave of nausea through him. His stomach lurched and he vomited into the gale force wind, which instantly vaporized the mess.
'least I won't be wearin' my own puke...
Oh Jesus PULL ME BACK IN!"
He felt the line play out a little bit further while he tried to get his stomach under control, an effort because he was also trying to hold back the terrified sobs that were trying to break free.
He had never - ever - been so scared in his life, and he knew that nothing could possibly ever scare him so bad again.
Get a fucking grip, Tanner. Get JD. Get back in the plane. Then go nutso.
He tried to take a deep breath, but it was useless. The wind was sucking the air right out of him and was battering his face so fiercely that he instinctively kept his eyes squinted against it despite the goggles. He had become turned so that he was looking up at the fuselage and he mentally made a note of the damage. The wheel wells were stove in. There was no way Chris would ever get the landing gear down.
JD is a dead man.
His feet were pointed into the wind, so that cold air rushed over his body with unmerciful force. His arms were literally being blown above his head and he was feeling for the turret like a blind man.
Don't look down
His face and lungs were stinging painfully from the cold by the time he reached the spherical protrusion. He could see JD through the plexiglas. Damn stupid kid was waving at him.
Get JD. Get back in the plane.
He saw immediately that it was hopeless. The turret had a big dent in it where the hatch was. With a crowbar and plenty of leverage, he might have been able to pry it open, but because of the way the turret was jammed, even if he were able to do that, the resulting opening would not be big enough to pull JD through, especially not with all the layers of protective clothing he was wearing.
Some of the rivets seemed to be barely holding on, and in frustration, anger and fear, Vin slammed his fist against it and kicked at it - all of which was ineffectual considering he was hanging in mid-air.
He kept trying, though, punching the ball that looked like it was ready to fall apart but just wouldn't
God damn fucking Boeing to hell! Fucking plane won't fucking fall apart when you fucking want it to...
He knew he was hysterical, but he didn't give a shit. He kept pounding the turret, pulling at the hatch. Anything he could think of.
Stop lookin' at me, JD!
Suddenly, there was a tug on the rope that jack-knifed him at the waist and the turret drifted away.
He kept reaching for it, screaming "NOOOO!" -Yes God yes pull me back in!- JD's big, dark eyes watched him slip away.
You're dead, kid. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington pounded the bulkhead of the navigtor's compartment with his fist as Jackson and Sanchez pulled the bombardier back into the plane.
Tanner crumpled in a heap, burying his wind-burned face in his arms. He looked like he'd be happy to stay in that same spot forever, but Jackson urged him to his feet.
Tanner's eyes met Wilmington's, and the Sergeant knew the look he gave the young officer was hostile, but he couldn't help himself.
"Ain't no way to get him out," the soft-spoken Texan said.
Sanchez clasped a hand on his shoulder. "We know," he said softly. "JD told us you tried your best."
Tanner let his legs give out from under him and he sat down heavily. The pain in his head was blinding by now, but he was only dimly aware of it.
The tail section of the plane was wobbling even worse than before, but if Wilmington noticed the potential danger, he didn't care. His attention was focused on the tiny opening in the steel-and-plastic ball that would be JD's coffin.
Wilmington returned to the turret and Sanchez grabbed the tool bag and followed him. Tanner saw the two men set to work trying to do God knew what, but he couldn't keep watching them. They had to know it was futile. He welcomed the intense sting of the tincture of mercurochrome that Jackson applied to the cut on his head. "Needs some stitches," Jackson told him. "But it don't look too bad."
Tanner nodded mutely as a bandage was placed over the gash. He could feel the warm wetness trickling down his side from where the piece of metal had stabbed him, but it hadn't soaked through all the layers of his clothing yet, so Nathan hadn't noticed it. Just as well. He hated being fussed over. When Nathan wasn't looking, he grabbed a heavy piece of gauze padding and stuck it through the tear in his suit, then clamped his arm down to keep pressure on the wound. Funny how in another time and place, those injuries might have been a pretty big deal. Here, in the lethal skies over a war-torn Europe, death and maiming were an everyday occurrence, and the deep cuts didn't even rate a second thought, not even from him.
His eyes drifted back to that damned turret.
God JD, I'm so fucking sorry...
He wasn't aware he was crying until he felt the sting of his tears on the raw skin of his face. Absently, he wondered if he looked like he had a sunburn.
"How ya doin' kid?" Wilmington asked, trying his damnedest not to reveal the grief and frustration he was feeling. They had tried for two hours to unjam the turret, until finally, with a roar of despair, Sanchez had thrown the tools across the cabin, as if to punish them for their failure. The outburst had scared JD, and Buck knew the kid didn't need for everyone around him to be in a tizzy. The calmer everyone stayed, the easier it would be on him.
"I'm really scared, Buck," the boy finally admitted, his voice quavering.
"Ol' Buck's right here," Wilmington said softly. He had nothing else to offer the frightened youngster.
JD readjusted his position as much as he was able to in the confining ball. He was still wearing the safety strap, which was painfully tight. "Can I take this off now?" he asked.
A lump caught in Wilmington's throat, but his voice didn't betray him. "I reckon there's no harm in that."
JD undid the coupling and sighed with relief at the small measure of comfort. "Shouldn't you guys bail out?" he asked.
"Don't know about the others, but I'm stayin' right here... and Capt. Larabee, he's not goin' anywhere, either."
JD squinted out of the damaged window of the turret. "Looks from here like the tail might come off, Buck. You guys really shouldn't stick around for that."
Wilmington reached his long arm into the hole in the turret and slid his hand behind Dunne's neck. "I ain't leavin' you, JD. I'm here all the way."
JD nodded and looked away. His shoulders heaved slightly. "I don't wanna die," he whispered.
Buck tightened his grip a little. "I know kid... I know..."
+ + + + + + +
By the time they were thirty minutes from Sudbury, the Fortress was so weakened that it was like a cardboard box that was being shaken by some giant hand. They all shared Larabee's fear that the plane wouldn't even make it to the field, let alone survive a belly landing in one piece, and no one was surprised when Larabee's crisp order came over the microphone. "Tanner, you, Jackson and Sanchez get outa here."
"Ain't jumpin', Chris," Tanner stated.
"That's an order, Vin."
"Lieutenant..." Nathan warned, and then realized how ludicrous it was to be worried about rank and insubordination considering the situation they were in.
Tanner disconnected his radio and looked at Jackson. "You and Josiah can jump if ya want Nathan. Rather take my chances right here. Probably get killed either way."
Sanchez nodded, then spoke into his mike. "If it's all the same, I'd like to stay, too, sir."
"This plane is not going down with seven godammed men in it!" Larabee barked. "Now get the hell out before I come back there and throw you out!"
"Yes, Sir," Jackson replied.
"And take Tanner with you, even if you have to drag him."
"Yes, Sir," Sanchez echoed.
His remark was punctuated by another jolt and the cockpit link went dead.
Effectively cut off from any further communication with the pilot, the two enlisted men sat down on either side of Tanner. "You know, we'll do more stockade time than you will for disobeying orders," Jackson said to the young officer.
Tanner's lips curled upward slightly when he realized no one was going anywhere, but then he looked at JD and shook his head. "Gotta be something we can do," he said.
Nathan bowed his head, and began to repack the first aid kit he'd left on the floor beside Tanner earlier. As if they were of one mind, the eyes of all three men riveted on the morphine styrettes in the kit, and the same thought struck them all simultaneously.
Tanner reached out and took a styrette, then looked at Jackson.
The enlisted man's eyes shifted uneasily. "We can't just put him down like a sick dog, Vin."
Vin's gaze was steady. "We wouldn't let a dog die that way." He nodded towards JD. "Why should he?"
The three of them sat in silence, each contemplating Vin's words and coming slowly to the conclusion that he was right. This was a way to spare JD's last moments from being filled with the horror that surely awaited him.
Jackson took the styrette from Tanner, gathered up the kit and moved towards the turret.
+ + + + + + +
"Ezra, you can go, too," Larabee told his co-pilot.
"A lot can happen between here and England, Captain Larabee. You may require my services in the interim."
"Ever make an belly landing?"
"I regret to say I have never had the pleasure."
"Good chance she won't come out of it."
Standish nodded, but said, "I say she will... Care to make a wager?" Normally, the comment would have been followed by a flash of his gold premolar, but there was no humor behind the remark, not today. For a fleeting instant, Standish found himself contemplating the convenience of all of them being killed in the landing. Then, they wouldn't have to live with what they were going to do to JD. He also wondered briefly if he would give his own life if it meant the boy would live, but to dwell on such considerations was folly. The only way to save JD would be to land the plane on its nose. While that had, in fact, been done, not even a pilot of the caliber of Chris Larabee could do it intentionally.
The best case scenario was also the worst case scenario. They'd bring the plane in, and she'd hold together as she slid across the tarmac leaving behind her a trail of pieces from the shattered turret and a short, red smear. Everyone would know what the red was, but no one would say it out loud. Maybe someone would have the stomach to collect a few slivers of bone, or a tooth or a lock of hair - and the dog tags, which, God bless 'em, survived practically anything. Then they'd put it all in a coffin and pretend it was a real body and maybe even send it back to the States with JD's name on it.
Or, maybe they'd just hose off the runway.
Buck Wilmington had been a soldier almost as long as JD Dunne had been on this earth. He'd seen dozens of kids like him come and go... and die. But only a very few of them had possessed that combination of youthful innocence and eagerness with the true courage and ability to face the horrors of war head-on. The kid had guts. He'd never doubted that. That he was the smallest and youngest man in the crew was something he didn't seem to notice. If he had something to say, he said it, whether it was to a grizzled old sergeant like Josiah, or to Captain Larabee. Kid had grit, and he had spunk. Plus he was fast - could whip that turret around like it was a carnival ride. Sometimes even acted like he was having fun doing it, crazy little sonofabitch.
Wilmington had made it a rule not to get attached to anyone. It was too hard when you lost them. But JD had gotten under his skin with his infectious smile and his sometimes annoyingly cheerful disposition. JD's cup was always at least half full, and hell, he'd gotten to all of them. Kid didn't have anyone else. When he'd buried his mother, he'd said good-bye to his only family. There wouldn't even be anyone to receive the black-bordered Western Union telegram, to read a letter with some made-up story about how he had died because the truth would be too ugly. A press release would probably be sent automatically to some Boston paper, and maybe some kids who knew him in high school would read about, but there wasn't going to be anyone to stand at his graveside and take home a folded flag. There was no blue star in some living room window that would be replaced by a gold one so that a neighborhood would know to mourn.
JD didn't have anyone but the six men in that plane.
And they weren't leaving him.
When Nathan Jackson had approached with those styrettes, Wilmington's first instinct had been to toss his ass out the door. His rage was compounded by the knowledge that the cold hard logic of it made sense: JD wouldn't have to face being crushed alive if he was already dead.
The youngster had grown eerily quiet. He was staring out of the plexiglas bubble that was now, and forever would be, his entire universe. Wilmington didn't think he could see anything. The turret was angled so that he couldn't see the ground below him, and the belly of the plane blocked his view of the sky.
He touched JD's head, stroking it gently as if he could feel the boy's thick, impossibly black hair. Rory Selkirk had often teased him about his hair, saying there had to have been some horny Indian got a piece of his great grandma way back when. JD would just laugh it off. Kid had a hide thicker'n a Texas steer.
The boy looked up. "Yeah?"
"JD... Nathan's got somethin' here..." He fumbled for words, because there was no good way to phrase what he had to say. He cleared his throat. "It'll make you go to sleep."
JD blinked. "Morphine?"
"Yeah... We got four styrettes here...."
He saw in the boy's eyes that he clearly understood what it would mean to give him that much, but JD grinned -Damn him- and said, "I oughta sleep really good if you give me that much."
Buck nodded, still absently stroking the kid's head. "Yeah, real good."
JD looked around him, like he was trying to find someone to tell him this wasn't happening, but eventually his gaze turned back to Buck. "When?"
Wilmington looked at Jackson who said, "Should take about fifteen minutes to... take effect."
Buck looked at his watch. They were about twenty-five minutes from Sudbury. "Five minutes or so."
JD sighed. "Okay."
Another eerie silence followed before the kid spoke again. "So, you think the Red Sox are ever gonna get to the World Series, Buck?"
Wilmington laughed in spite of himself. "Bound to happen eventually."
"Always wanted to see a baseball game, but Mama never had the money. Had a radio, though. I listened to every game."
Why were they talking about baseball? "They made it once, ya know. Reckon they will again," Buck continued the small talk.
"I played in high school. Did you know that?"
Buck hadn't known that, and sadly, he wondered what else there was to know about this young life that would soon end right before his eyes. He forced a smile. "Lemme guess... short stop."
JD laughed. "Catcher. I was okay, too."
"I'm sure you done real good, JD."
The boy's face was turned away still.
"Will you do something for me, Buck?"
"Anything, kid. Name it."
"My stuff... in the barracks... There's some letters to this girl... Her name's Casey... "
"You got a girlfriend, kid?" Buck teased him.
"Not really... but... you know... she sorta likes me, I think, but I never... we never... Well, I'm not sure she likes me, so I never mailed the letters... But, could you maybe send them to her? And maybe tell her somethin' about how I was thinking about her?"
"And I wanna be buried next to my mama. You know... if... well, you know..."
He means if there's anything left of him to bury...
"You got my word on that, JD."
Another silence. "Don't let the guys in the barracks take all my good stuff, either. You guys get first dibs on all of it."
"I'll hammer anyone who says different."
"Lieutenant Tanner can have my motorcycle jacket. It'll fit him, I think."
Buck smiled. That black leather jacket was JD's most prized possession. "He was plannin' to win it from you in a poker game one of these days."
JD laughed softly. "Yeah, I know..." For a moment there was only the sound of JD's breathing. "Buck?"
"Maybe all of you can take something. You know, sorta to remember me?" he asked hopefully.
"Sure, kid... That's a good idea...." Buck wanted to say more than that, but he didn't trust his voice. His throat had locked up like there was a vice around it. In that moment, he realized that this funny, goofy, incredibly brave kid was the younger brother none of them had ever had. He wanted to scoop him into a big bear hug and tell him there wasn't any way in hell any of them would ever forget him, not if they all lived a thousand years.
After another thoughtful silence, JD shrugged. "I guess there ain't nothin' else, then."
"JD..." Wilmington swallowed a sob before it could leave him. How much more could this hurt?
"I think I'm ready, Buck."
There was a finality in the boy's voice that kept Buck from arguing with him. He nodded to Jackson, who removed the styrettes with shaky fingers. Wilmington reached out and steadied his hand.
"I'll do it, Nathan."
Nathan shook his head. "You're too close to it, Buck. I won't ask you to live with this."
Wilmington nodded and stepped away from the turret. He could hear JD breathing hard into his headset now, but he couldn't see him any more. He looked over at Tanner and Sanchez. The big Sergeant's head was bowed in prayer. Tanner was just staring off into space, his body limp as a rag doll. Wilmington wondered if the young officer was okay, but he supposed none of them were, really.
Jackson reached down into the hole in the turret. There was going to be a problem because he couldn't reach any place where the drug could be easily injected, even forcing the business end of the styrettes through the thick layers of JD's flight gear. Finally, he asked JD to loosen his collar and tilt his head to the side. This exposed the relatively thick trapezius muscle at the base of the neck, behind the shoulder. He jabbed the first styrette in. It was painful, and JD moaned softly. It was just a small, brief sound, but it ripped out Buck's heart and left a big, cold, aching hole in his being that nothing would ever fill again.
Nathan reached for the second styrette and repeated the process, and then did the same with the third. Wilmington was appalled at his cold, calculated efficiency until he saw the tears flowing freely and unashamedly over the other man's cheekbones, his dark face a mask of misery.
The job done, Jackson moved away so that Buck could resume his spot. "That should do it," he said, trying not to yell even though he pretty much had to in order to be heard. "We'll save the fourth one in case it doesn't."
Buck nodded, and then snaked his arm back down into the turret. He rested it on JD's shoulder, but a small, gloved hand reached up and the fingers wrapped around his own. Buck returned the handclasp. There was no more need for words. All that was left to say was in that simple gesture.
Wilmington held on tight, but as the morphine did its work, JD's head began to nod and gradually, his fingers relaxed.
"You sleep good, little brother," Buck said. "And when ya get where you're goin', you put in a good word for ol' Buck and the rest of us sorry bastards."
"'Kay," came the sleepy reply, softly whispered. JD's head nodded forward and his hand fell away.
And that was it. It was done.