Mad Tom


Standard disclaimer, I do not own the characters and am not using them for profit. They belong to Katherine Paterson and David Paterson, Walt Disney Pictures, Walden Media etc.

I just wanted to get this one-shot posted out there before posting the final chapter of Groundhogs at Terabithia (or King of Terabithia's Row).

For those of you who are reading (or have read) and may have thought that Groundhogs at Terabithia (or King of Terabithia's Row), my first Bridge to Terabithia followup, was a little too sweet and cutesy, you need to be made aware that in addition to being a school psychologist who works with kids, I'm also a retired military reserve components combat arms officer. I can write incredibly dark and brutal as well as light and fluffy (often in the same story). This started as my try at a darker and more cynical followup to Bridge at Terabithia, just as a writing exercise. Then I decided it would be better to post this first and then allow all of you to read the finale of Groundhogs at Terabithia.

Canonically, this again favors the 2007 movie over the original novel, although the story now takes place sometime in the late 1990s. I hope there aren't too many anachronisms created in the movie as a result of that.

The Story

He had many warriors fighting alongside him now, but he was still the Warrior King, still had to lead and be up front. He had to be everywhere at once, tending to the wounded, rallying the others and directing the fight, jumping out from behind the safety of shelter to lead the advance. They had the enemy fixed now, had completely reversed the ambush situation. Now he could roll up their flank. "First and Second Fire Team! Follow me!" he yelled...

"As you were, gentlemen," Captain Marsters said as he entered the day room of Second Platoon's barracks. The dozen men of First Squad, Second Platoon went from attention back to sitting casually in the lounge chairs. "Most of you have been in Bravo Company long enough know that the men in Bravo Company, First Battalion, Fifteenth Infantry have always had huge shoes to fill. For the benefit of you FNGs, the highest decorated soldier in the history of the US Army spent his entire combat career in Bravo Company during World War II, and he was holding my job as Company Commander at the time he earned his Medal of Honor over sixty one years ago. Your late Squad Leader went a long way to fill those shoes, and I just wanted you to know that I just got word from Third Army G-1 that the Commanding General of Third Army has signed off on my recommendation. That means that Sergeant Aarons will definitely get at least the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Medal of Honor is almost a done deal."

The men of First Squad responded with a throaty unison "HOOAHH!"

"I'll be the first to admit," Captain Marsters continued, "with absolutely the greatest respect for the man, that Jess Aarons was an odd duck. The word did filter up to me, through SFC Hannigan and Lieutenant Trachtenberg, that while he never lost his tactical situational awareness, once the bullets and shrapnel started flying it was as if he was fighting somewhere else, that he was somewhere other than Iraq, killing some other enemy besides al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents. And I saw a bit of that in person the few times I actually saw him in combat. But he got the job done! That's why he was the youngest squad leader in the battalion."

"That's why we followed him, Captain," Sergeant Caulfield, who had moved up from Fire Team Leader to take over as Squad Leader, spoke up. "To Hell and Back, in the best traditions of Bravo Company, First of the Fifteenth!"

Another "HOOAHH!" from the squad members.

"Captain," Caulfield continued, "I don't know if Jesse had a death wish, but we all kinda had this feeling he knew he wasn't going home, maybe didn't want to go home. But he was never reckless with our lives in a fight. There was this unspoken understanding that, whatever he did, he wasn't gonna get any of us killed unnecessarily doing it."

"Yes," Captain Marsters nodded. "Lieutenant Trachtenberg knew that and he told me. That's why I kept Sergeant Aarons as Squad Leader. And considering the fix you guys were in, and the fact that all you guys are still here and Gellar and Sutherland are back on full duty, I know I made the right decision."

"Captain," Specialist Gellar, who had been wounded at the very start of the fight, spoke up, "we know Sergeant Aarons wasn't married, but did he have a girlfriend? The boys kinda wanted to do something for her if he did."

Captain Marsters shook his head. "Not as far as we can tell. When Lieutenant Trachtenberg and I went through his personal effects, all his snail mail was from just his parents and his sisters, and that's all he exchanged EMails with. The rest of his personal stuff was mostly sketchbooks, paints, charcoal sticks and colored pencils-- he was a damned good artist, but you guys already knew that. And two photos. Just a family portrait of him, his parents and, presumably, four sisters. And one school portrait of a little girl, maybe eleven or twelve years old, cute with blonde hair. Didn't look like she could've been one of his sisters. And it's hard to tell how old the picture was."

"Thanks for seeing me, Mrs. Carpenter," the young reporter said as she took her seat in the living room of the mobile home and set her iPod to record. "As I've said, with the news of Jesse Aarons and his medal, plenty of people here in Lark Creek remember him, but nobody else seems to have known him well enough to be comfortable talking about him."

Twenty-three year old Janice Avery Carpenter sat in her armchair facing the reporter and smiled sadly. "Well, Ms. Benson, I can't really say I knew Jesse Aarons, either, any more than anyone else. I wish I could say he was my friend, but I don't think I ever earned that honor." Her eyes welled up quickly and she let out a short sob, stifling it with a quickly-grabbed sheet of Kleenex. "I'm sorry, I'm just remembering what a horrible bully of a girl I was when I first knew Jess in Grade School! What misery I caused a lot of kids, including Jess!"

"But you said you hope you'd earned his friendship. Or wish it."

"Jess had only one real friend that we in the Lark Creek schools knew of. And she actually changed my life," Janice said, weeping and pulling more Kleenex. "Back when I was in Eighth Grade and Jess was in Fifth, there was this little girl in his class named Leslie Burke. As far as I know, they were the only friends each other ever had. And I was just as mean toward Leslie as I was to any kid. But one day... I'm sorry, it's still hard for me to talk about today, but let's just say that my family had some 'domestic issues' going on... and one day I went in the Little Girls Room and locked myself in a stall and started crying my eyes out. And then after a while, there was Leslie in the Girls Room with me, talking to me. She was the only one in that whole school who wasn't scared of me, and she was talking like I was a friend, letting me know that she knew what it was like to be different, and that it was okay to be different. And I started looking out after Leslie and Jess after that. But the two of them had this patch of woods in back of their houses where they liked to play together, and not long after that incident, Leslie fell in the creek in those woods and drowned. Jess never let anyone get close to him again after Leslie died."

"And that's why people here in town feel that they don't know Jess?" Ms. Benson asked.

Janice nodded, still wiping her eyes frequently. "I was a Senior in high school by the time he was a Freshman, so I looked out for him that one year, kept the bullies off his back. But we never really got close, never really became friends. I heard he signed up for the Army as soon as he was old enough, left for boot camp a week after graduation from Lark Creek High. I knew him well enough so my husband and I stopped by the last time he was home. We were really proud at how fast he made sergeant. But I sorta knew then he wasn't coming back."

"Sounds like there's a story there about this girl Leslie. Can you tell us more about her?"

"She was a sweet, sensitive and intelligent little girl, with a great imagination, that's what I remember about her. As I said, she changed my life. What she did helped me survive my family's problems long enough to graduate, find a job and move out on my own. Her folks moved out within a week of her dying, and like I said, Jess was her only friend, so I can't think of anyone who'd remember." She paused thoughtfully. "Except maybe May Belle! Jesse's little sister May Belle. She's, I think, seventeen now. But I'm sure she's devastated along with her folks. You should wait a while before you approach her, if your story can wait."

"May Belle," Ms. Benson noted. "Younger sister. I'll be discreet."

"Could you do me a couple of favors, Ms. Benson?"

"I'll do my best."

Janice reached over, opened her purse and fished out two twenty dollar bills. "Could you please contact the Hostess baked goods company and buy a gift certificate with this money? And then give it to May Belle Aarons whenever you see her. Tell her it's from me with love, for all the Twinkies I owe her, with interest!"

"Is that it?"

"After you talk to May Belle, could you please get in touch with the fellas in Jesse's unit? Tell those boys they probably owe their lives to a little girl who's been dead almost nine years."

WASHINGTON, February 26, 2007

In a White House ceremony, President Bush presented to John and Nancy Aarons of Lark Creek, Virginia, the Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to their son, Army Sergeant Jesse Oliver Aarons.

The Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award for valor, was given to Sergeant Aarons, 20 at the time, for action in Anbar Province, Iraq on June 25, 2006 in which he was killed in action.

Aarons, a squad leader with Company B, 1st Battalion 15th Infantry, was riding with his squad in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle as his platoon escorted a supply convoy along the main highway through that region of Anbar Province. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded near the Bradley, wounding the driver, upon which several al-Qaeda insurgents opened fire on the entire convoy with automatic rifle and machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades. Aarons pulled the driver out of his compartment, drove the Bradley fifty meters in a head-on counterattack and closed with the enemy, allowing the Bradley's gunner and the remainder of the squad to suppress their fire, and fixing their position, averting further US casualties and the loss of any vehicles. He then directed the dismount of his squad, established a base of fire with one of his fire teams, then led the remaining two fire teams around the flank of the enemy ambush position. The action resulted in the killing of 23 insurgents and the capture of four more, although during the roundup one insurgent threw a hand grenade in the midst of the fire team accompanying Aarons. Aarons immediately and unhesitatingly threw himself upon the grenade, which killed him instantly and wounded one other soldier but saved the remainer of the squad from harm.

Bravo Company 1st Battalion 15th Infantry first gained distinction during World War II as the unit with which Audie Murphy served while achieving his own distinction as the most decorated soldier in US Army history, and which he commanded when he earned the Medal of Honor in January 1945. Murphy went on to a career as a Hollywood movie star, while continuing to serve with the Texas National Guard, until his death in 1971. Sergeant Aarons is the fourth soldier to receive the Medal of Honor for action with Bravo Company, and the first since the Korean War, with Murphy being the only non-posthumous recipient of the four.

Attending the ceremony in addition to Aarons' parents were his four sisters, ages 26 to 13, and William and Judith Burke of Hanover, Pennsylvania, who were the Aarons' former neighbors in Lark Creek. The Burkes' daughter Leslie, a grade school classmate of Sergeant Aarons, died in a drowning accident in Lark Creek at the age of 11 in 1998. In accordance with his own wishes, Sergeant Aarons' remains were cremated and placed in the same niche at a cemetery in Hanover with those of his young childhood friend, although neither family would comment further on the arrangement.

As he has often done in these ceremonies, particularly those of posthumous awards, President Bush quoted from James A. Michener's Korean War novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri, with a line spoken by Fredric March in the 1954 William Holden-Grace Kelly film version: "Where do we get such men?"

Jesse felt the burn and sting of the grenade blast for only an instant. Then he felt someone helping him with a pull on his elbow as he pushed himself up on his knees and felt for his rifle on the ground, determined to get the bastard who threw the grenade, when he saw two of his men gun the insurgent down, each with a couple of short bursts of fire. He couldn't feel his rifle, looked down, and then saw that he was kneeling over his own body as the two men turned it on its back, screaming his name. Then the entire scene turned white with a cool fog, no longer the burning sunlight of the Iraqi desert in June, and the sounds of ebbing battle faded away and were replaced with a rushing stream and wind through trees. He looked down and saw he was no longer in a dusty Army Combat Uniform but some kind of royal robes, and he felt that his Kevlar helmet had been replaced by some kind of crown.

Then the voice of the person holding his elbow said, "Arise, my King!" It was a voice he hadn't heard in over eight years but would know anywhere, no matter how much time had elapsed.

"Leslie!" he breathed as he stood and turned to face her. She was a little older and physically more mature than he'd remembered, then he became aware that his own body had become a little younger than that of a battle-hardened 20-year old infantry squad leader. She was every bit as beautiful as he remembered her, and now also wore a crown and robe.

"Welcome home, Jess," Leslie said gently, her voice and eyes full of joyful tears. "You don't get seventy-two of us like the bad guys think they're getting! Just one, but that one is me!"

"You're the one I want!" he smiled, equally tearful. "The only one I've ever wanted!"

They kissed softly and then pulled into a tight but gentle embrace as the fog lifted to reveal the creek and the bridge beneath them. Not the crude, planked over fallen tree bridge he'd built for May Belle, but the red-carpet lined archway he'd taught her to imagine it to be. Leslie took Jesse's hand, and led him up the carpeted path toward the Castle.

Author's notes:

Alert readers will note that the surnames of all non-canonical characters come from the cast members of a certain past TV series for which I often write other fanfic. ;-)

Facts about Audie Murphy should be self-explanatory except for the added explanation that To Hell and Back is the title of his autobiography, and the film version in which he played himself. (And although I'm a big Meat Loaf fan, I'll never forgive him for having the chutzpah to steal that title for his autobiography!)

Comments are again invited.

I now return your attention to my original, happy ending fanfic!