Jack awoke to find himself staring up at a ring of dark solemn faces. Hands were touching him, probing awkwardly at his body, at his elbow. Excited voices babbled a string of words overlapping each other which he had no hope or desire of translating.
With a strangled cry he fought to protect himself, flailing out weakly with his good arm. But there were too many of them and his feeble protests rapidly changed to a muffled screaming curse as one of the men began to pull ineptly at his arm. One ragged breath was all he had time for before blackness painted the blue sky beyond the sea of faces…
Someone was washing his face with a damp cloth. Carefully, soothingly, gently. Not words which he would have readily used to describe his life these past few days. But that didn’t stop him from silently thanking whoever had seen fit to send this small respite.
Slowly he forced his eyes open, praying that this wasn’t all a dream and he would awake only to find himself back in his cell sweet cell, or worse, in that damn truck on his way to Managua.
Worried brown eyes met his as he looked into Frank’s haggard face.
The ragged whisper surprised even him, but from the look of relief that flooded Frank’s face it was apparent that his friend was grateful even for that pitiful excuse for conversation.
He was surprised when Frank’s eyes grew glassy with unshed tears.
Frank’s voice was nearly as choked as his own. “God, Jack, I didn’t think you’d ever wake up.”
Jack searched his friend’s face and finally found the answers to the questions he could not yet verbalize.
“For real?” His voice broke as his eyes begged Frank to understand what he couldn’t say.
Frank reached out a trembling hand and grasped Jack’s shoulder. “Yeah, buddy, it’s real. We got you out.”
Jack’s eyes closed as he fought down the barrage of emotions that hit him. The sense of relief was so over-whelming it temporarily numbed the pain from his wounds. When he was finally able to gain enough control to open his eyes again, Frank was holding out a canteen.
Grateful that Frank was steering the conversation onto less emotionally shaky grounds, Jack nodded. “Help me sit up, will ya?”
He bit back a groan as Frank wrapped an arm around his waist and helped him slide back to lean against a nearby palm. His groan was cut off when he realized that Frank’s own groan was playing hand in hand with his own as he knelt beside him.Glancing sharply at Frank’s strained face he saw the sickly pallor and lines of stress that hadn’t been there at the beginning of this mission. Dark circles beneath bloodshot eyes were accentuated by the pale skin tone and sweat beaded on his forehead as his jaw clenched against the pain he couldn’t hide.
Reaching out with his good arm, Jack grasped Frank’s bicep. “Shit, Frank, I’ve scraped things off my boots that looked better than you do right now.”
Their eyes locked as they tried to crawl beyond the shadows that blocked their souls. Shadows that refused admittance even to best friends.
Gaining some control, Frank snorted. “Hey buddy, right now you wouldn’t have any trouble getting a job as fertilizer on a mushroom farm.”
Jack couldn’t help the half-smile that formed unbidden. “Shut the fuck up, you idiot, and sit down before you fall down.”
He watched as Frank collapsed slowly against the tree and leaned his head gratefully against its rough bark.
Jack sighed deeply and leaned his own head back. He could feel the heat of Frank’s body radiating through the course material of the stained shirt he was wearing. But despite the fact that Frank was obviously in bad need of some serious medical attention, not to mention a shower and a shave, he had never looked so good.
They sat silently, shoulders touching, eyes closed, content for the moment to let down their guard and relax. The gentle breeze teased, giving the impression that all was well. And then angry words broke through the illusion causing them both to jump.
The argument between two of the contras was over in seconds and Jack didn’t even try to translate the shouted words. He just didn’t care.
Frank rolled his head towards Jack and cracked a weary eye. “You gonna make it?”
Jack stared across the clearing refusing to make eye contact. “Yeah. You?”
“Hell, yeah. No other choice.”
That got a tired smile. “Damn straight.”
He watched as Frank reached into his pocket, digging out a dirty bent cigarette. Fumbling for his lighter he lit it and inhaled gratefully. As he exhaled, the smoke drifted gently towards Jack.
Jack was unprepared for the sudden flash of panic that hit him with the smell of the smoke wafting around him. It took all his self-control to relax his taut muscles. The memory of Vicente’s eyes haunted him as the coronel brought the cigarette down against his skin.
He let out a shaky breath as he felt Frank grasp his arm and gently turn it over to expose the festering round burns.
“Shit, oh shit, Jack, I’m sorry.” Frank’s voice was shaking.
Jack wanted to throw his friend a cocky shrug of indifference. Wanted to… tried… and failed miserably.
Silently he tried to deny what Frank’s face was telling him. But his own reaction had told Frank the truth even if he could have found the words to lie. Miserably he glanced into Frank’s eyes, confirming what his friend had already knew.
“Son of a bitch!”
A few of the contras threw startled looks at the venom in Frank’s voice. Then apparently deciding quickly that it was safer to ignore the loco Americanos they returned to their compadres.
Jack closed his eyes, weary beyond words, and leaned back as Frank’s tirade quickly ran out of steam. What was there to say? Frank wasn’t stupid. He couldn’t deny what had happened to him.
Not to Frank.
“It was bad.” His voice was a bare whisper above the breeze rattling through the palm fronds above their heads.
Frank didn’t say a word, but Jack could feel his eyes on him, supporting him, willing him to go on.
“The first couple of days weren’t too bad. Just the locals roughing me up. Cakewalk stuff.” Ignoring Frank’s snort of disbelief he plowed on before he lost his nerve. “Then that bastard Vicente showed up and it got pretty ugly after that.” He felt Frank shift his weight towards him in unconscious support. “It got… real ugly after that.”
His voice dropped even lower as he choked out, “God Frank, I almost broke. The bastard had me and he knew it. It was just a game to him to see how far he could push me until I cracked. He’d won.”
Braving a quick glance into Frank’s eyes he saw none of the condemnation he felt for himself. He read only the same acceptance that he had grown used to over the years. That and understanding that shit happens and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to change that fact of life. It gave Jack the courage to add, “I was so fucking scared that I’d never get out of there, that I’d sell out before they killed me.”
Frank didn’t offer empty platitudes. He simply tightened his grip on Jack’s shoulder in unspoken support.
For long minutes they sat in that silent support as Jack slowly regained a fragile control on his ragged emotions. Finally, taking a deep breath, he dared to look over at Frank only to find his friend’s eyes tightly shut, his face an unveiled mask of his own raw emotions. He could feel Frank’s hand trembling as it rested on his shoulder.
Stifling a deep groan, Jack shifted towards his friend.
“Frank, buddy, you okay? What the hell is it?”
He half expected Frank to ignore him, but as he sat there silently offering what comfort he could, Frank’s eyes slowly opened, locking onto his. And he was surprised by the unconcealed pain plain in their depths.
It was several minutes before he could speak. Leaning back, his voice quivered with emotions being held tightly in check. “There was this kid, Charlie. For some reason he took a liking to me. Started hanging around.”
Jack watched as Frank picked up a green coconut lying beside him and began tossing it back and forth nervously in his hands. It reminded him way too much of the coconut he had carved at the base camp a lifetime ago. Closing his eyes to the pain that flared at everything that had happened since they had left a few short days ago, Jack’s thoughts were dragged back by the anguish in Frank’s voice.
“ …only fourteen fucking years old.”
Jack was surprised by the intensity of Frank’s pain. It wasn’t like his friend to get so involved in the life of a kid he’d never have seen again after this mission was over. Frank was always the cool-headed one on missions, when it came to keeping an emotional distance from anyone but his team. It was what they’d both been trained to do, but it had always been harder for Jack. Kids were his Achilles’ heel.
But something had obviously happened to put a crack in Frank’s armor.
“So what happened?”
Jack half expected Frank to ignore the question and clam up. What he didn’t expect was for Frank to suddenly fling the coconut as hard as he could and snarl, “That sorry son of a bitch killed him! He put a damn gun to his head and blew his brains out.”
Jack could see tears in his friend’s eyes as he fought for control. “The kid saved my ass. He shouldn’t even have been here. A kid in a gun fight. I tried to show him how to use the gun right. I tried, but I couldn’t teach him enough. God, Jack, I tried, but there just wasn’t time.” A single tear escaped and as Frank wiped it away angrily he added softly, “What the hell was a kid doing with a gun? Tell me that, Jack. Can you?”
Jack’s voice shook as he tried to come up with an answer that would alleviate some of Frank’s guilt. Some of his pain.
There was nothing. Nothing that would help. “I don’t know Frank, I don’t have an answer. All I can tell you is no kid of mine will ever touch a gun.”
Frank let out a long, shuddering breath, but he didn’t say anything else. There was nothing else to say. And so they sat in silence and fought their own demons. For minutes… for hours… it didn’t matter. Some things can’t be changed.
Footsteps caused them both to look up. Jack was startled to hear the ill-concealed hatred and anger in Frank’s voice. “What do you want, Joaquin?”
The man ignored Frank’s hostile tone and spoke in a calm voice of authority. “Señors, I have contacted the base camp. They are sending transportation to take you out of my country and back to Honduras.”
“Run out of bullets, comandante?”
Jack’s tired brain struggled to make sense of Frank’s bitter words. He saw a shadow of sadness pass over the man’s face.
“I am sorry how things turned out, señors.”
Without another word he turned and walked away.
“Sorry.” Frank didn’t try to hide the bitterness in his voice. “He’s fucking sorry.”
He could feel Jack’s eyes still on him, confusion and concern mixed in his friend’s face. Jack knew there was more to the story than what he’d already said. He might be barely conscious and hurting everywhere, but he could still read Frank like a book.
But he didn’t have the energy to go on, not right now. Someday, he knew, he’d tell Jack the whole story. Someday soon, when Charlie’s wide eyes had woken him too many times in the middle of the night, and he couldn’t face his wife anymore and tell her nothing was wrong. Then he and Jack would retreat to some run-down bar outside the Springs, and over the course of the night after they’d both had a few too many drinks, the stories would come out. Bit by bit, a few agonized words at a time, when the haze of alcohol was strong enough that they could say the words without remembering so clearly the horrific events they described.
But not today. Today all he wanted to do was forget.
Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.
The world was spinning slowly round and round, as he stared at the trees on the other side of the clearing. He could hear a loud ringing in his ears, and each careful shallow breath he took felt like a red-hot knife was twisting in his side.
Joaquin had said there was a truck coming. They were going back to Honduras. He tried to focus his mind on that. They were going back to Honduras. An American base, and a real hospital. As much as he’d always hated hospitals, the idea of lying on a real soft bed with a real pillow and not having to do anything for a few days sounded pretty nice right now.
He wasn’t looking forward to reporting to their CIA contact, and telling Mark that yes, they’d managed to deliver the information they were sent with, but they’d ended up being fairly useless to the contras. Stay with them for a month or two, teach them how to be a solid guerrilla unit on their own. Yeah, and instead they’d managed to get themselves injured the second day they were in-country, and had to turn for aid to the people they were supposed to be assisting. Mark was not going to be pleased.
Well, dammit, he had some questions for Mark, too. Like why in the hell was the CIA going around training a bunch of fucking kids to fight their war for them. Explain that to me, Mr. Secret Agent. Tell me when the United States decided to give guns to children. And for God’s sake, tell me why. Can you explain that to me?
We are nothing to you. Joaquin’s voice echoed in his memory. Pawns, in your little game with the Russians. Why should you mean anything more to us?
He slammed his fist into the ground, wincing at the movement and pretending he didn’t notice Jack’s worried glance. He didn’t want to think about Joaquin, now, either.
A day on the truck, a week or so in the hospital in Honduras, and then they’d be on their way home.
For days he’d thought he’d never see home again. He hadn’t allowed himself to think of after, when the mission was over. There had been only the here and now, the struggle, minute by minute, to stay alert, to stay on his feet and not let down his guard for an instant, when it felt like everyone in the entire goddamn country was against them.
And now, it was just beginning to hit him that soon he would be going home. They would both be going home. They’d made it. They were safe.
He wanted to see his wife, wanted to hold her so bad it was like a physical ache somewhere deep inside. She’d cried when he left, he remembered. She knew their mission would be a long one, and he wouldn’t see her again maybe for months.
But at the same time, a cold dread settled in the pit of his stomach at the thought of facing her now. Of looking into her trusting eyes, and imagining what she would think of him if she knew what they’d done here. She wasn’t stupid, he knew, and she knew he’d done some damn distasteful things in the service of his country. Even if he couldn’t tell her about them.
But she would never in a million years imagine that the man she loved had trained a fourteen-year-old child to kill. And led him to his death.
He didn’t know how he would face her. How he would speak to her, how he would touch her, with such a wall of lies between them. The wall had always been there, since they were first married, and it had never been easy for them to live with … but they’d managed somehow. This time was different. This time he wasn’t sure he could reach around it, or over it, enough to reach her.
Turning his head, he could see Jack was watching him still. Probably guessing everything that was going through his mind. Even with everything he’d been through, everything those bastards had done … he was worried about Frank.
Leaning his head back and letting his eyes close, Frank could still feel the warmth of his friend’s shoulder touching his. Jack was alive, and he was here. The physical reminder of Jack’s presence was a reassurance, through all the dark and confusing emotions he could no longer suppress. Even now he struggled to focus his mind, to stay aware of what was going on around him, unable to believe that they were truly safe yet.
But he was too tired, and the pain and the fever ate away at his concentration, so that he found it difficult to open his eyes.
He didn’t know how long they sat like that, listening to the buzz of insects and the quiet conversations all around. The sun was beginning to go down when footsteps roused him from a feverish daze.
“Señors.” Joaquin and the Snake were holding some kind of makeshift stretcher made from blankets and branches. “It is time to go.”
Frank would have helped them lift Jack onto the stretcher. The ground suddenly seemed to tilt under him as he pushed himself to his feet, and the world was spinning faster now, seeming to flicker in and out of a haze of colorful sparkles. Dimly he thought he could hear Jack’s voice saying his name.
And then Joaquin’s face was very close, fierce dark eyes looking uncharacteristically disturbed, and after a moment he realized the comandante was supporting him, lowering him to lie flat on the grass. The sky wheeled dizzily overhead, and he thought he could hear overlapping worried voices fading in and out like a bad record, mostly in Spanish. Jack was saying something, he couldn’t make out what, but he didn’t sound happy…
He tried to get up, couldn’t, and after a minute realized that Joaquin and the Snake were kneeling on either side of him, hands on his shoulders holding him down. The Snake was saying something in Spanish that his brain flatly refused to attempt to translate.
“Will you please lie still? You are not well, and you have not been for some time.” Joaquin spoke in English, and he sounded exasperated. “Do you think you can stand, truly? I would advise you not to try it.” And then, over his shoulder, “He will be all right, señor.” He was vaguely aware of hands pushing up his shirt, searing pain that took his breath away, as fingers probed the red, swollen flesh around the wound. His own strangled gasp was barely audible through the roaring in his ears, but above it he could faintly hear Jack’s voice in a stream of curses. Then something cool was laid against his side, a wet cloth, a temporary bit of relief that shocked him. “He is ill, and exhausted, but he will recover, in time.”
He could still hear Jack’s voice, but he couldn’t see him. Couldn’t even lift his head, despite the sudden wave of panic that struck him, realizing his own helplessness. He was falling into fog, he couldn’t see anything, but he couldn’t feel the pain, before darkness claimed him.