The final chapter – it didn't stretch to 5 after all! Many thanks to everyone who has reviewed.
Margaret saw Charles looking as shocked as she felt, and perhaps it was the fear on their faces that pulled Hawkeye back from the edge.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm scaring you. I'm scaring me." He licked his dry lips. "Talk to me. Just talk to me, Margaret. Help me keep a hold of myself."
Talk about what, she thought, and then realised that it didn't matter. "As soon as we get back to camp I'm going to have the longest hot shower ever," she said. "I'm going to scrub this place out of my hair and off my skin, and then I'm going to stand there with my eyes shut and let the warmth seep into every pore. After that I'm going to wrap myself up in my towelling robe, put on some soft music and finish the chocolates I got for my birthday. I think I deserve a little pampering - I must look terrible."
"You look beautiful by lamplight," said Hawkeye softly, surprising her. She'd been expecting – hoping for, perhaps – a snappy comeback about sharing a shower, or a reminder that the chocolates had been his gift. Before she could come up with any kind of answer, Hawkeye's gaze had moved away. "What about you, Charles?" he asked.
"A brisk walk first, I think, to stretch my legs. Then coffee. Even the swill they cook up in the mess tent will taste like the finest Costa Rican beans to my parched palette. This will be followed, as good coffee should be, by a good brandy. And I too shall listen to some music. Real music, Margaret." It was a gentle tease rather than a patronising comment, and her smile thanked him for it, and for his support.
"And you, Pierce?" asked Charles. "No doubt your first actions on returning to civilisation will involve wine and women. Please spare us the song if at all possible."
Pale and exhausted, Hawkeye looked as if any woman over the age of five could have knocked him over with one finger, but there was the ghost of a smile on his face when he answered. "No song, Charles, I promise. As for what I'll do first….." he frowned. "I don't know. I can't seem to think beyond this place." His face clouded, and to stop his mind turning toward the darkness again, he changed the subject quickly. "How about a game of Twenty Questions, Margaret?"
She remembered how he had tried to distract her from the explosions as they had operated that day, and how grateful she had been for his company and his stupid, childish game. But she didn't think that would work for him now. He needs to imagine himself somewhere else completely, she realised. Away from here, away from the fear. "I've got a better idea," she said. "You were talking earlier about the ocean near your home. Tell us more about that."
Hawkeye stood up, neck tucked into his shoulders as he carefully avoiding looking at the low ceiling. He took a couple of paces and sat down again opposite Charles so that the three of them made a little triangle; Margaret sitting on the steps, with Charles against the wall to her left and Hawkeye on her right. Pulling up his knees and resting his forearms on them, he tilted his head back against the wall. He sat like that for a long moment, eyes shut, and Margaret could almost see the images forming in his mind. Somehow, through instinct and pure dumb luck, she had found a way out for him.
"When was a kid," he said at last, "I would walk right to the end of the wooden jetty, out where I couldn't see land without turning around. I used to sit with my feet in the water and sometimes little fish would nibble at my toes while I looked out at the sea and the sky stretching on and on until they met, way off in the distance. I sat there for hours sometimes, listening to the ocean slapping against the jetty and watching the sun sparkling on the surface, not really thinking about anything." He took a deep breath as if tasting the sea air. "It was warm and peaceful, and everything just seemed right. And at the end of the day there might be a sunset like a huge fire in the sky." He frowned slightly. "When it began to get dark, there was that weird, lonely feeling you get on an empty beach at dusk.."
"Its sounds wonderful," said Margaret, willing him to stay in the memory.
Charles realised what she was trying to do. "You mentioned watching storms over the ocean," he said
Hawkeye's eyes were still closed. "Yeah. Sometimes, after a really hot day, you would get these massive electrical storms. Really spectacular, with dark purple clouds and the sky split in two by lightning. But the best storms were in the winter. The wind would come in like an express train, and you could see the spray being blown off the top of the breakers and taste the salt on your lips, even up on the cliffs. You could feel the power of the waves pass through your feet and up through your whole body – it was as if nature was trying to smash the land to pieces. I used to walk for miles along the cliff path without seeing a soul, struggling to stand upright, and sometimes I would shout into the wind and not even hear my own voice. I loved that; it made me feel so alive. And then the storm would start to pass and the sea would calm, and you would get those shafts of sun through the clouds – like searchlights, you know? My Grandma used to tell me that it was the glory of heaven shining through, and any ship that sailed through one of those pools of light was sure to reach port safely."
He paused. "All my best dreams are of home," he said. "Where you can see right to the horizon, and feel the sun and the wind on your face." Opening his eyes, he turned his head to look at Margaret. "And all my nightmares - the really bad ones where you wake up confused and sweating, with a scream stuck in your throat - are of places like this."
From above Margaret's head came a slithering, scraping noise, deafening in the confined space. Hawkeye scuttled backwards, convinced that the roof was coming down on them. Little pieces of dirt and bark fell into Margaret's hair, but she didn't notice.
"It's okay!" she said, going to comfort him just as she had when all this started. This time Charles was just behind her, putting a reassuring hand on Hawkeye's shoulder. "It's okay," she said again. "They've come for us."
The hatch opened and a flashlight shone down. The glory of heaven, thought Margaret.
"Are you guys okay down there?" came Klinger's voice.
"Yes, we're all right!" shouted Charles. "We're coming up!"
Hawkeye released his iron grip on Margaret's arm. "Ladies first," he said.
"Don't be an idiot," she said, pushing him towards the light.
Eager hands pulled him up and he stumbled through the ruins of the hut, not hearing the concerned voices around him. The worst of the storm had passed, but it was still raining hard. He reached the edge of the clearing and fell to his knees, one hand against a tree trunk for support. For a moment he just knelt there, eyes closed, breathing in the sweet fresh air, oblivious to the rain soaking through his clothes. Then he spluttered and coughed and brought up what felt like every meal he'd ever eaten. It seemed to go on forever but as the spasms finally subsided he became aware of a hand resting on his back.
"I'm okay, Margaret," he croaked, spitting into the grass and wiping his mouth.
"Wow, you really have lost it," said a familiar voice, and he looked up to see BJ's anxious face. The tall man held out a hand to help him up. "Come on, let's get you home."
Hawkeye took his hand, mumbling thanks. "No problem," said BJ, guiding him back towards the group of people and vehicles. "I seem to recall you doing much the same thing for me, the day I got here. I was green in more ways than one, and more scared than I'd ever been." He hesitated. "I'm sorry I wasn't with you, Hawk."
"Margaret and Charles were incredible," said Hawkeye. "I think I owe them my sanity."
They climbed into the bus, to find Charles and Margaret waiting for them. "Is he okay?" asked Klinger from the driver's seat, and Hawkeye nodded tiredly.
"I am now, thanks," he said. "Kind of empty, but okay."
"Do you want to lie down?" asked BJ, moving towards one of the spaces reserved for stretchers, but Hawkeye shook his head.
"No, I want to look out. I want to see the sky." He took a seat near the front of the bus.
"It's nearly dark, Hawk," said BJ gently.
"Yeah, but the sky's still there. That makes all the difference." He rested his forehead against the cool glass and gazed out. BJ put a blanket around Hawkeye's damp shoulders and sat down next to him.
Father Mulcahy's face appeared at the door. "Thank heaven you're all safe," he said, his eyes lingering for a second on Hawkeye. "Klinger, the rest of us are going to stay and help Mr Kim clear up. Why don't you and BJ get these three back to camp?"
"Sure thing, Father." Klinger ground the gears and they moved off.
"Tell us what was going on while we were down there," said Charles. "We couldn't hear a thing."
"Buried alive," muttered Hawkeye, rubbing his eyes, and BJ gave him a worried glance.
"Well," he stared. "We got a radio message from Father Mulcahy saying that lightning had struck a shed and that he didn't know if you three were in it at the time or in the cellar below, but you needed help either way. So the Colonel got about a dozen of us together, and we jumped into one of the ambulances and this bus and started off in one hell of a hurry. On the way, we got another message to say they'd cleared away what they could but there was a mess of branches that needed more people to shift them, and a whole tree seemed to have landed over the entrance to the cellar, which was where you must all be because they hadn't found you in the wreckage. We were pretty relieved, I can tell you, although we still didn't know if anyone was hurt. I knew Hawkeye must be going through hell if he was stuck down there. Anyway, we got here in record time and helped to shift the rest of the stuff, then we hitched the bus and the ambulance up to the tree and pulled it away, and there you are. Can't have been more than forty five minutes from the time we got the call to the time we got you out."
"It seemed like forever," said Margaret, shivering. "Didn't it, Hawkeye?"
Hawkeye didn't answer. He was asleep, his head bumping gently against the window as they drove through water-filled ruts and potholes. BJ reached over and shifted his friend's weight onto his own shoulder.
Hawkeye woke up just enough to be helped into the Swamp and onto his cot, but he was asleep again before his head hit the pillow. They took off his boots and covered him with a blanket, and BJ sat with him while Margaret went to have her shower and Charles fetched coffee for all of them. But neither Charles nor Margaret got their relaxing evening or their soft music. With BJ, they took turns sitting beside Hawkeye's cot throughout the night, in case he woke up and thought, even for a second, that he was back in that dark cellar. Other visitors, Klinger, Colonel Potter and Father Mulcahy among them, came and went as the story got around, but Hawkeye wasn't conscious of any of it until he woke up fourteen hours later, ravenous.
Having eaten his way through most of the mess tent menu without a single smart comment about the quality of the food, he went to Colonel Potter and asked a favour, which the Colonel granted gladly. That evening, Margaret found a note pinned to her door inviting her to the Swamp for a nightcap. Hawkeye and Charles were waiting there.
"Where's BJ?" she asked.
"Post-op duty," said Hawkeye, inviting her to sit. "My post-op duty in fact. He insisted." He waited until she was settled. "Listen, I don't want to get all gushy about it, but I really wanted to thank you both for yesterday. Last night. Whatever. I don't think I – no, I know I couldn't have made it through without you. Will you join me in a drink?"
Charles eyed the infamous still. "Pierce, you're very welcome for whatever help we could offer, but I'm not sure that this new camaraderie extends to my drinking your firewater."
"I thought you'd say that," Hawkeye said, reaching under his bunk, "so I got this instead." He produced three bottles of beer, the very ones that they had been liberating when disaster struck the night before.
"Hawkeye, you went back?" Margaret was flabbergasted.
"Into that cellar? No way - you think I'm nuts? The Colonel let me take a jeep back over to the orphanage this afternoon, and Mr Kim very kindly retrieved these three bottles for me. We'll be rebuilding his hut for him, by the way." He removed the caps and handed them round, then raised his drink in a toast. "To you, Charles. Thanks for helping me fight the clowns. I think we got to know each other more during an hour yesterday than we have since the day we first met. And to you, Margaret, for refusing to give up on me. God knows I was ready to." He smiled, and the twinkle was definitely back in his eyes. "And you do look beautiful in lamplight – let's just make it a more enjoyable atmosphere the next time, okay?"
They all drank, and there was a slightly awkward silence.
"This beer is dreadful," said Hawkeye.
"Truly appalling," agreed Charles.
"What the hell," said Margaret. "We've survived worse. Here's to loud explosions." She tipped her bottle back again.
"To clowns," said Charles, taking a long swallow.
Hawkeye did likewise. "To small spaces," he said, then hiccupped as the warm, over-fizzy liquid repeated on him. "And bad booze. May we seldom have to face them, and never without friends."The End