Author's note: The characters aren't mine, and the story is! This ficlit pretty much wrote itself after I took a look at the Short Story Contest prompts, and it addresses an aspect of one of the characters that I wish had been addressed more in canon. As such, here is this…
A full-grown man in the grip of uncontrolled panic is not a pleasant sight. Then again, it isn't pleasant for the one being seen, either.
Normally quite plucky, hot-headed, and proud, Louis LeBeau hated being put in a spot that revealed his vulnerable side to anyone, especially in front of anyone who knew him. Though he was very together in most situations—including highly dangerous situations that would make a lesser man buckle at the knees—there were two stimuli that could cause the Frenchman's normally iron resolve to bend. One of them was the sight of blood; the other was an enclosed space.
So far, LeBeau had been able to avoid such stimuli; his companions didn't seem to notice how he always seemed to go missing whenever blood was present. Unfortunately, in their line of work, digging tunnels and hiding in various spaces, enclosed spaces were much more difficult to avoid. LeBeau dealt with it by volunteering for dirt removal or guard duty during the early stages of tunnel digging, only doing the actual digging after the tunnel was wide enough for him to work in without causing him to react to it… much; it still bothered him, giving him an unpleasant feeling in his gut, but he refused to acknowledge it on the outside.
The double-edged sword of having such a weakness was that while he was able to hide his affliction from his comrades, there was always a chance that the full extent of either of his phobias would, one day, be brought into the light under circumstances beyond his control.
For Louis LeBeau and his claustrophobia, that moment came on a warm, spring night. He and long-time cohort Peter Newkirk had been in town on a supply run—Kinch's radio had been in need of new parts, and they had also been also running low on the material that Newkirk used to make the disguises they used on their missions. And air drop from London had netted them the disguise material, which they had picked up on the way to town.
They had picked up the radio parts from their contact in one of the pubs in town; they had been heading back to Stalag 13—they were only half a mile away from it—when they had suddenly heard the familiar sound of nearby aircraft.
"Are those some of your Stirlings?" LeBeau asked, going pale.
"No; they're B-17s, I think…" Newkirk said, freezing in their tracks. "Oh, Cor. They must've tried to warn us about an air raid, but we didn't get it because the radio wasn't working!"
"What do we do?" LeBeau gasped, as the tell-tale whistling that heralded the air raid began to reach his ears.
"That barn—we're right near that abandoned farm. We can stay there until this ruddy thing blows over."
LeBeau looked at the old barn with some amount of trepidation; it looked as though it was on its last legs already. Still, Newkirk was right in that it would be better than staying out in the open.
The corporals slipped inside the old barn. It had been abandoned for some time, yet the faint smell of its former occupants lingered; Newkirk's nose twitched from the traces of horsehair.
The ground shook as the strikes came closer and closer.
"If we get out of this and get that radio fixed, I'm going to 'ave a long talk with London about getting a few better navigators. Don't they realize that they're 'alf a mile from a prisoner-of-war camp?"
"They must be after the railroad outside the camp—the one that le colonel is always talking about. The pilots must be off this time."
"Which is merely an inconvenience for them; it doesn't exactly put us in a good spot, now does it?"
In answer to Newkirk's question, a nearby explosion rocked the ground, followed by another, and then a third.
"Pierre…" LeBeau said, the feeling of unease growing in him as he heard the unmistakable sound of creaking wood. "Pierre, I think—"
LeBeau never got to finish his thought; two more explosions threw both corporals off of their feet as the old wood around them began to splinter from the stress.
Newkirk managed to let out a strangled cry; LeBeau didn't even get a chance to say anything at all as the barn collapsed around them.
Newkirk wasn't sure for how long he had been unconscious. All he knew was that he awoke to total darkness—and the most unsettling sound he had ever heard. It sounded like someone gasping for breath, painfully, and not being able to fully obtain the air he needed.
"Louis?" Newkirk asked. "Louis, are you all right?"
He received no answer—he only heard more of that horrible gasping for breath.
Newkirk tried to get up, but found out that he couldn't—something was pinning down his feet and ankles, and he wasn't able to raise his head very high before he hit it on something.
The truth of the matter suddenly sunk in; the barn had collapsed, and they were trapped under the debris.
"Louis!" he called, as loudly as he dared, not sure if there were Germans outside. "Louis!"
He was able to grab the flashlight from his pocket and shine it around the area to get his bearings. Now, he could see that the roof had fallen in, but it had not landed on them—piles of debris from the walls had caused the roof to be propped up enough to spare them and allow some fresh air in from a few openings. Unfortunately, it was another pile of debris that had Newkirk's feet ensnared.
Newkirk now searched for LeBeau, frantically calling for him, but getting no reply other than the gasps for breath.
At last, his flashlight found the Frenchman some distance from him, unpinned by any of the debris. However, the Frenchman was in a terrible state—his skin was pale and clammy, his eyes were wide and unseeing, and his entire body was curled up as he continued to hyperventilate.
"Louis, can you 'ear me?"
LeBeau did not respond; he was in the middle of a full-fledged panic attack, brought about by their dangerous, enclosed surroundings.
Newkirk stared at his older friend with a large amount of shock and concern. He had seen LeBeau have minor panic attacks before, but this was the worst he had ever seen him.
"Louis!" he called again, trying to get through to his companion. Normally, LeBeau served as Newkirk's pillar of strength; today, he would have to return the favor. "Louis, you've got to snap out of it! Come on, little mate! You need to 'elp us get out of 'ere!"
"Non! NON!" LeBeau cried, clapping his hands over his ears, thinking that Newkirk was some kind of disembodied voice. His cries were punctuated by pained gasps as his body trembled in fear.
And all Newkirk could was watch helplessly.
LeBeau's chest seemed to tighten further, driving him into a deeper state of panic.
"Je… Je suis mort!" he gasped. "Je suis mort!"
"No!" Newkirk countered. "You aren't dead, Louis! You're with me, and we're both still alive! But we're also both trapped 'ere, and I need you to 'elp me so that we can both find a way out!"
LeBeau shuddered violently, gasping for breath once more. It was a sound that was going to haunt Newkirk's nightmares—assuming, of course, that he ever got out of here at all.
"Louis, please!" he said, now completely at a loss to determine what he was supposed to do. "We're going to be done for if you don't snap out of it! I can't 'elp us with me feet trapped like this, so it's up to you!"
His response only more hyperventilating from the Frenchman.
Newkirk now cursed loudly, wondering if he could possible scare the Frenchman back to some amount of awareness.
"Cor, for 'eaven's sake, Louis!" he snapped. "We 'ave one chance to get out of 'ere, and you need to act like the soldier you are and get ahold of yourself! I don't care if we are both corporals—I'm giving you a ruddy order!"
He may as well have been yelling at a statue for all the good that it did.
"All right, all right," he said, conceding defeat. "I'm sorry, Louis. I wouldn't even be able to begin to imagine what you must be going through right now, and I don't 'ave the right to tell you to snap out of it. I'm sure you didn't want any of this to 'appen, either."
He tried to free his feet again, but got nowhere. Sitting up a second time also yielded the same results.
"Well, this is it, ain't it?" Newkirk sighed. "This is 'ow it'll end, eh? Either we'll die trapped 'ere, or some ruddy enemy soldier is going to find us after 'e 'ears your wheezing."
LeBeau was still hyperventilating, but now he was also inhaling the dust around him. He hacked and coughed, tears spurting from his eyes.
Newkirk sighed again, feeling worse for having out such pressure on the Frenchman.
"I know… I'm no 'elp at all, Louis."
LeBeau continued to gasp and cough, and Newkirk now decided to try to pull his feet free from the debris pile pinning him down once more. This time, not only did he fail and remained stuck fast, but he also ended up twisting his ankle in his attempts to pull free. Unable to stop himself, he let out a yell of pain before gritting his teeth and forcing himself to remain silent.
After that, there was utter silence—the pained gasps had stopped completely, but Newkirk was in too much pain to notice… until he heard a raspy voice call out to him, softly.
Stunned, Newkirk accidentally dropped the flashlight from his hand, hardly daring to believe his ears.
There was a scrambling sound; LeBeau was trying to get to his knees and crawl over to him. Somehow, Newkirk's pained yell had been what LeBeau had needed for something to reach into his soul in the midst of his panic and bring him back to some level of reality.
But LeBeau had not bounced back so easily; the panic attack had not left him. Even as he crawled towards Newkirk, his chest tightened again, and he stopped halfway, his hyperventilation increasing.
"Pierre, I cannot… I cannot take it!" the Frenchman gasped. "It is too much… Everything is closing in on me!"
"No, Louis! It isn't!" Newkirk said, partially relieved that, at least, LeBeau was now aware of his presence and was able to recognize him. "You'll be fine, Louis. In fact, why don't you find a way out and go back to camp? Tell the Guv'nor where I am, and 'e can send Andrew to get me out."
Newkirk knew that LeBeau simply couldn't handle the enclosed space, and he had no right to force him to stay any longer than he had to, even if he had wanted to—even if it meant that the Englishman was going to have to be trapped here for some more time.
LeBeau looked over, still gasping as Newkirk made his suggestion.
"Are… are you sure, mon pote?"
"Of course I'm sure; you're going crackers 'ere, Louis. I'm telling you to go! I'll be fine as long as no Germans come by…"
LeBeau continued to gasp; it was clear that he knew he couldn't stand it here, and he was seriously considering taking Newkirk up on his offer.
But there was no way that he could ever go through with leaving Newkirk here.
"Non…" he gasped, crawling over to Newkirk the rest of the way and handing him the flashlight he had dropped.
"Louis?" Newkirk asked, stunned. "Why aren't you leaving?"
LeBeau didn't answer; he was trying to conserve his breath as much as possible, and he was still hyperventilating as he worked on freeing Newkirk's feet from the debris pile.
"Louis," Newkirk said, worried. "Louis, you're going to make yourself pass out if you keep that up. If you must insist on staying, at least try some deep breathing. Langenscheidt taught me 'ow to use that to curb nerves—I didn't need it, but you certainly do."
LeBeau shut his eyes and did as Newkirk suggested. He was able to calm down slightly—enough to stop hyperventilating for the moment, but not enough to stop his sweating or his trembling.—the deep breathing would only work for so long, so LeBeau had to move fast.
The Frenchman had cleared some amount of the debris from around the Englishman's feet before he fully lost it again. Newkirk tried to keep talking to him, to encourage him to calm down, but it didn't seem to be working as well.
Hesitating, Newkirk attempted to pull his feet free, and, to his surprise, found that LeBeau had loosened the debris enough to free himself.
"Louis, you did it!" he said, sitting up at last. "Now we can both get out of 'ere!"
"Non…" the Frenchman whispered again. "Non, I… I cannot, Pierre."
"What do you mean? Of course you can! All you 'ave to do is follow me; I'll take it from 'ere!" I can find an opening where the roof is best propped up—there's fresh air coming in, so there must be a spot."
But LeBeau shook his head, keeping his eyes firmly shut.
"I have used up what little strength I had, Pierre!" he gasped.
"I know that can't be possible," Newkirk insisted. "You're getting out of 'ere even if I 'ave to pull you out with me bare 'ands!"
LeBeau had not given up on him, even in the midst of his panic attack. There was no way that Newkirk would even consider leaving him here, even for a moment.
Newkirk placed his hands on LeBeau's shoulders.
"Can you 'ear me, Louis?" he asked.
LeBeau nodded, making an honest effort to catch his breath.
"Well, as long as you can 'ear me, it's a start. Now, come with me. You're getting out of 'ere."
LeBeau cried out in protest again, clutching his head as his surroundings began to spin. Newkirk responded by calmly gripping the Frenchman's wrist. He was both startled and concerned at feeling how fast the older corporal's pulse was beneath his fingers.
"Just follow me, Louis," he said. "And remember that deep breathing. Langenscheidt never said anything more valuable than that."
He guided LeBeau across the small space, following the spring breeze penetrating from outside.
"There!" he exclaimed. "An opening! And it's big enough for us!"
LeBeau opened his eyes and gasped a few more times, trying to stay in control against the demon of fear inside of him.
"You go first," Newkirk insisted, pushing him through.
After several minutes, LeBeau was free, collapsing on the ground and gulping in the welcome fresh air as his breathing evened out at last. After a moment, the realization dawned on him that Newkirk still needed help, and he moved to pull the Englishman out. However, he did not meet his friend's gaze at all, even after he had succeeded in helping him out.
Newkirk did not press LeBeau to talk at that moment; he knew that LeBeau was still badly shaken and needed to catch his breath, not to mention that it wasn't a particularly safe place to talk, either.
Newkirk placed a hand on LeBeau's shoulder as they headed back to Stalag 13—both to provide support and get support for his hurt ankle.
LeBeau sighed, still trembling slightly as he sat on the safety of his bunk in Barracks Two. His nerves had been so frayed, he had found it nearly impossible to go through the tunnels without reacting to them. He hadn't even been able to stay in the radio room long enough to tell Hogan what had happened; Newkirk had been the one to give the mission debriefing, as well as hand over the radio parts (which were still functional, despite what they had been through) to Kinch.
Newkirk had also requested the colonel to let him talk to LeBeau alone before the colonel did himself. Hogan had granted him his request, and Newkirk now clambered up to the barracks.
"You sure you're all right, Louis?"
LeBeau just glanced at Newkirk for a moment, his face going as red as his sweater.
"I am sorry, Pierre."
"What do you mean?"
"I am sorry that I was such a hindrance to you on the mission," the Frenchman said, quietly. "And I am sorry that you had to see me like that."
"Louis, you weren't a ruddy 'indrance at all!" Newkirk insisted. "Right; so, your claustrophobia got the better of you for a while, but the point is that you fought back against it enough to 'elp me out of that dilemma that I was in. I couldn't 'ave gotten out of that one without you."
LeBeau countered with a mutter in his own tongue, but Newkirk could tell that it was something self-deprecating.
"Right, well… You don't 'ave to be upset about me seeing you at your worst, either. After all, what are best mates for, if not to see you at your very worst, eh? You saw me when I was at me worst, remember? Or 'ave you forgotten 'ow that old medic—the one before Wilson—declared that I was a gone case who 'ad only a couple more weeks to live before I would keel over from starvation? That was back when I 'ad that spell of sickness and couldn't keep anything down—December of '40… But you kept at it, didn't you? You kept going through those recipes of yours until you found something that would agree with me—and I started gaining weight again."
LeBeau looked back at him, but gave him a slow nod.
"Oui, I remember."
"Then consider tonight the payment of an old debt," Newkirk finished.
LeBeau managed a wan smile, still looking a little pale, but definitely on the road to recovery.
Newkirk had a point. And LeBeau was grateful that it there had to be someone who had to see him at his very worst, at least it had been Peter Newkirk, the one who had kept him sane (and whom he had kept sane, in return) during the two years they had spent in the pre-Hogan Stalag 13—when it had still been an ordinary prisoner-of-war camp.
His claustrophobia, he realized, had nothing on that.