Disclaimer: Hogans Heroes and its characters are the creations of others. No disrespect is intended and - other than the pure enjoyment of writing - no profit is being made.
Under The Surface
"You do what you can for your country," they told him. "So quit your bellyaching, Carter. We've all got to do the nasty jobs from time to time. That's how it is." He knows how it is, he knows about duty and responsibility. He also knows that while the nasty jobs may get doled out pretty evenly, he's always the one who seems to get picked for the ridiculous ones. And the others get a kick out of it every time - yes, he knows that too. It's not like they bother to hide the jokes, after all.
"It won't be that cold," the Colonel reassured him.
Then why don't you go down the stupid thing? he thought resentfully, but didn't say it out load because the reasonable part of him knew he was being unfair.
"We'll cover you with lard or grease or wax. Don't worry, Carter, you won't feel a thing," Colonel Hogan had gone on to explain again.
Carter only sighed. Just got all the answers, don't you, Colonel. Do you know what ice water really feels like? How much it just plain hurts as your fingers and toes thaw out? That water can be so cold it stops the darn lungs in your chest and you cant fill'em enough to get a breath?
Geez, Colonel, have you got any idea just how dark water can really be?
But eventually the moment had come where there was no more chance to back out. Stripped to his boxers, he shifted nervously from foot to foot as he waited for the signal. "What's the hold up?" he asked. He wanted to get this done before the building fretfulness in his belly exploded into blind panic.
"Old Blood and Guts is still blithering on to the troops about 'ow they need to catch Lebeau at all costs," Newkirk told him.
"And how they need to maintain his perfect no escape record. Yeah, yeah, yeah," he muttered. It was the same thing every time. "Geez, I don't know why the Colonel couldn't have come up with all this when the well was still dry," he grumbled under his breath.
But Newkirk caught his comment anyway and rolled his eyes. :Blimey, you still moaning about that? Give it a rest, Andrew."
Carter couldn't look his friend in the eye. I'll show them, he groused inwardly, though he didn't know exactly what it was he was going to show them or why his success would change anything.
It was the fear making him irritable and he knew it. But he couldn't help complaining; right now being angry at his friends was the only way he had of keeping that fear under control. Last night hadn't been so bad, and even in the tunnels a little while ago when he'd been coating himself with the mix of kitchen fat and grease he'd had to make himself, he'd been almost okay. Now though, with nothing to do but wait for the Colonel's signal, his mind kept returning to the same disquieting images that had started the moment the Colonel had told him he was the one going in the well.
They were blurry and confused - he'd only been four, and to be honest, he didn't know if they were all even true memories or just things his imagination had filled in later, but it didn\t seem to matter any in the end. Carter felt like he'd swallowed a bellyful of ice water and he hadn't even got to the hard part yet.
They hadn't been near home. Too many trees and hills and... lakes. He always wondered if it'd been somewhere in Minnesota, but he couldn't remember and never felt like he could've asked. The family never talked about it. Except his Mom, but only late at night. Late at night when his Dad would wake up shouting.
She hadn't been there, thankfully, but he couldn't remember why. He'd been there, though. He'd been dozing, wedged in between his Dad at the wheel and his sister beside him, so he'd never even knew what had made them go off the road. But whatever it'd been, one moment he'd known nothing other than he was warm and cozy, and the next his little body was being whipped and tossed from side to side by the force of the trucks wild spin. Barreled into wakefulness with such sudden shock, he hadn't even been able to scream till the truck was careening down the slope.
They'd hit trees - thump, thump, thump - but they were nothing but saplings and the plummeting truck had mown them down like a streaking meteor as they rushed unstoppably towards -
Finally! The signal! Colonel Hogan waved him out and, wrapped in a blanket, he followed his CO in a dash across the compound with Kinch and Newkirk bringing up the rear.
As he perched on the edge of the well, the rope around him, he could only nod when the Colonel asked him if he had the signals. Now that the job was at hand, he was trying to concentrate, but the Colonel kept talking. "Two pulls on the rope means we'll pull you up, three tugs means trouble, stay down," the Colonel told him again, as if he hadn't told him five different times when they were in the tunnel getting ready. Carter couldn't blame him though, not when he got things wrong so often, but a secret part of him wondered if the constant drilling was what made the problem worse; maybe getting him so worked up was what drove any instructions right out of his head in the first place.
But he wasn't thinking that now. Now he was fiercely repeating each step over and over in his head: They'll lower you down and you grab the code book. Then tug on the rope and they'll pull you up again. Nothing to it. Its easy. A regular walk in the park. So determined to keep his mind from dwelling on anything else, he barely registered his Colonel wishing him good luck or even his giving his hat to Kinch to hold.
He swung out and they lowered him down. He heard Newkirk say something about a half mile down, and, too tense to think clearly and realize the other man was only exaggerating, he spared a brief second to puzzle over what the heck Newkirk could possibly be thinking.
Though it does seem to be taking an awfully long time to get to the bottom, his frozen mind argued.
A second later he hit the water with a splash and would've given anything to be only waiting for it again.
Oh God, God, please God, the water is so cold!
His muscles immediately cramped up, but he barely noticed. With the iciness of the well water, all the memories that had been lurking dimly in the back of his mind, twisting his stomach for the last twenty-four hours with a barely contained hysteria, suddenly flooded his senses. Clinging to the rope with white-knuckled hands and eyes squeezed tightly shut, for a moment he couldn't do anything at all.
The book, the book, he repeated to himself, you gotta get the book!
With a sudden gasp, he hurled out an arm and thrashed his hand across the surface of the water. The Colonel had told him what with the water proof wrapping and the book being light, it should be floating, but Carter was terrified that it wasn't.
Please, God, don't make me have to go under. Don't make me have to go under the water.
There! He'd knocked it with his hand, but then cried out in frustration when the motion caused it to bob away out of his reach. Breathing hard, his lungs already burning, he churned the water wildly in horror.
But then he finally remembered the flashlight his team mates had given him - the one he'd stuck in the elastic band of his shorts so he could hold onto the rope with both hands. They'd coated it in wax so the water wouldn't cause it to fritz. He pulled it out so quickly he nearly flung it out of his hand and smashed it against the wall of the well.
He saw the book. It was over to his right and he threw himself towards it with such grateful abandon that all his fears and memories were pushed out of his mind for a blissful second. After ramming the package in his mouth, he yanked on the rope for all he was worth; a gesture more of a fierce order than any he had ever given verbally in his life.
And it worked. Keeping his eyes glued to the patch of sky above him, refusing even to look down at that awful water for even one more second, he heard the crank turn and felt himself begin to rise upwards.
But then, right at the top, right when his head was looking over the edge, the Colonel called, "Kraut!" and his friends let go of the rope as they ran to take cover.
He plummeted remorselessly down into the icy blackness again, falling hard this time, the book in his teeth striking the surface of the water so violently it felt like it had broken his jaw. The momentum took under and he breathed in water, lunging to the surface coughing and spluttering painfully.
He remembered the fall.
The truck had flown off the cliff and then plunged straight down. His little lungs had lurched in his chest as his body worked to both scream and gasp at the same time. At four he'd barely had any concept of what death was, but the total, paralyzing terror of hurtling towards the ice covered lake had brought a primal knowledge with it, a fear built right into the blood, though it had taken years to really un-spool and sink into his nightmares.
The rest was a jumble of vague images. He'd been too young, too panicked, too stunned, and too busy screeching in fear to have any coherent memory. The ice had broken easily, which was perhaps what had saved them all from being killed instantly on impact, but that was something he had only put together later.
He could see the ice, though. He had a picture of it cutting horizontally half way up the truck's passenger window just beyond his brother Ben's head. Above the line was sunshine. Below it, below the three inches of dirty glassiness with its cover of snow and weird bottom layer of slushy almost-ice, was a murky darkness so deep and lifeless it looked like something that should've belonged on another world.
For several minutes they'd been stuck there, the front of the truck almost, but not completely under the surface. He didn't remember much except the noise: the screaming and crying of three children banging and clawing against the windows, the frenzied attempts of his father to force a way out while all the while yelling a mix of comforting words and desperate orders.
The water had seeped in slowly at first, but steadily, irrevocably creeping up closer and closer to swallow them. Or had that just been in his nightmares? Then it had made a sick glugging sound and in one gulping, sucking noise, seemed to jump to the level of the seat as the front of the truck had swung further down in a stomach-dropping motion, engulfing the entire cab in the blackness under the lake's surface.
Suddenly the rope around his waist jerked and Andrew was yanked back to the present. He tightened his grip on the bucket's rope and felt himself being pulled upwards once more. But the memories were here now and didn't go away.
Somehow, they'd gotten out. He remembered being in the water; never in his life had anything been so dark and cold. The ice with its covering of snow had acted like a lid on a bowl, blocking the sun. The only light had been the patch coming through the hole where their truck had broken through.
He didn't remember how he felt - whether he'd been frantic or desperate or too numb to do anything. He'd breathed in water - that he learned later - but what he did remember was how painful nearly drowning really was. People thought it was a bit of choking and then the lack of oxygen put you into some kind of dreamy state where you didn't know what was happening anymore, but wasn't like that at all. It had hurt and hurt and hurt until he hadn't known anything else and even the patch of light in the broken ice had started to dim.
The next thing he'd been aware of was of being able to see the sun again. Sarah had been dragging him towards the shore by pulling on his coat, but he hadn't been conscious of it at the time.
But he does remember how she;d been screaming for their father, though.
They'd talked about once, him and Sarah, many years later, just after their father had died.
'"I can't ever get the look in his eyes out of my mind, Andrew," she'd confessed as they'd sat together on the back porch of the house in Bullfrog one summer evening.
"What look?" he had asked.
"I didn't understand it at the time, but eventually I realized what it was. Wish to Hell I hadn't."
"What was the look?"
"It was him making the decision."
"The decision?" he'd repeated without meaning to. He had already known what she was going to say.
"I just wanted my daddy, Andrew. I was nine years old. I just wanted him to come out of that damned water and be safe and to take us away from there. I just wanted everything to be all right. I wasn't thinking beyond that, I swear. I didn't know what him getting out of the water meant. I didn't realize it'd mean he'd have to leave - "
She'd broken off to take a deep breath then. "I saw him choose," she'd went on after a moment, not looking at him, instead staring out onto the flat, dark prairie stretching beyond their yard. "I saw it in his eyes: that moment when he had to decide to let Ben go."
Andrew had only fragmented memories of his father diving under again and again, coming up each time more panicked and desperate. He'd been so young and the cold had already been making him sleepy, but he remembered being scared and crying and trying to bury his face in the folds of his sister's coat as shed shrieked, "Daddy! Daddy!"
Finally, finally, their father had struggled to drag himself out of the water. Using a knife he'd always carried in his pocket, he'd thrust it into the ice, needing to make several tries before he'd found a good, solid place. Then he had grabbed hold with both hands and pulled himself up and out.
His father had been weeping. Great shuddering gasps. Harsh, ragged, tearing sounds that terrified the two remaining children huddled on the ice, who had never, ever seen their father cry. But it hadn't been until the grief-ravaged man had suddenly screamed himself raw in rage and heartbreak that they'd been shocked out of their own bawling. Even with Andrew's little, cold-numbed, traumatized brain, he'd instinctively realized that that sound meant something even more awful than the crash and it made his blood run cold like even the dark water hadn't.
But it hadn't been until their father had scooped them up in his arms and started stumbling towards the trees that either child realized they were leaving without their brother.
"Daddy? Where's Ben, Daddy? Why are we leaving without him?"
"Sarah, stop. Please."
"DADDY? WHERE'S BEN, DADDY? WHERE'S BEN?"
But their despairing father had only been able to sob and crush them closer to him as he carried them away without looking back.
The present Andrew was silent as his friends pulled him up. Despite his stiffening joints and numb extremities, he clambered awkwardly onto the edge of the well with no help from the others. The Colonel took the code book from his mouth and handed it to Kinch, who ran off to get it radioed to London, while Newkirk helped him pull the rope down and off his legs.
He felt the Colonel and Newkirk pull a blanket around him, but it didn't help much. He sank bonelessly into a squat, trying to curl up as tight as he could for the body heat, and could hear them congratulating him as they rubbed his back in an effort to warm him.
"He's got an affinity for water," he heard his Colonel say. "Natural frogman."
Newkirk made some comment about him being a smash in the Navy, to which Hogan laughed as the two of them pulled Carter to his feet.
"If they ask for him," the Colonel said, "I'll have to sign the transfer papers."
He whipped his face around to look at his CO. He doesn't know. I never told him. I never told anyone here, he argued with himself. But he was stung and hurt just the same.
He stood and threw off the blanket. "If you guys don't mind," he said thickly, "I'll see myself home." He was aware of how ridiculous he must look - naked except for boxers, socks and boots, gloves and his threadbare hat; walking awkwardly due to muscles seized with cold; covered in gunk - but he couldn't look at them. He couldn't stand them near him at that moment.
It's all a big joke. But he's still down there. They never found him. You're making fun of me but they never found him, he thought and something clenched inside his chest.
But he didn't say anything, because these were the things you did for your country.
Authors note: for those of you wondering, the object of this contest was to write a short story, within the allotted time, using one of the lines given in the rules as the first line of your story. For more info, see the topic thread in the forums or feel free to PM me. I'm sure there will be another contest soon and I'd love for people to join in.
For this story, the starting line was from "The Boy in Zaquitos" by Bruce McAllister.