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The Long Story
By Leia Fee
SUMMARY: At the end of "Bounty"
Murdock tries to answer Kelly's question of "What are you doing
"What are you doing here?" Kelly had asked Murdock. She was starting to wonder if maybe she shouldn't have asked herself the same question. Across the table from her Murdock was trying to shove an entire slice into his mouth in one go. It would have been amusing if it wasn't the fact he was blatantly avoiding answering the question.
Kelly was about to prompt him again when he suddenly started coughing and spluttering violently. She leapt up and slapped him hard on the back until he managed to dislodge the pizza and start breathing again.
He gasped for air and wiped the involuntary tears from his eyes.
"Thanks," he said breathlessly.
Abruptly he leapt to his feet. "See!"
"See what I said about choking. It can happen! Place is full of crazy people, can't even swallow without damn near doing themselves in."
Kelly settled back on the narrow picnic table bench. "I don't think you’re crazy, Murdock."
Murdock sighed and sat back down.
"There's a lot of paperwork in this place that would contradict you, sweetheart."
"Back at my house when you," Kelly blushed at the memory, "When you were waving that mirror at me and I told you you were crazy. I was only joking. I couldn't tell."
"It's just something people say isn't it?" Murdock shrugged. "I really am though. You just met me on a good day."
"It was a good day for me," Kelly smiled encouragement; trying to lighten the troubled turn the conversation had taken.
Murdock didn't seem to have heard her and continued, "Well I mean, assuming you can count a day which started with getting shot at and kidnapped as a good day… But, I mean, reality was more or less where it was supposed to be and the right way up--"
"Murdock," Kelly interrupted him.
"Sorry." He fell silent again, turning his book over in his hands and not meeting her eyes.
"You were going to tell me a story?" Kelly tried.
"Mmm. Okay." Murdock brightened up. "There once was a pilot named Murdock--"
"Murdock, that sounds more like the start of a limerick."
"Oh you don't want to get me going on rhymes again." Murdock shook his head vigorously. "'Once upon a time…' work better for you?"
"If you don’t want to tell me, you don't have to," Kelly said gently.
Murdock returned his attention to his book and shrugged.
He put the book down and looked up at her, an odd expression in his eyes, that made her feel although he was looking straight past her. Looking at something else entirely, something that wasn't here and now.
"All right then. If that's what you want. The life and times of H.M. Murdock…"
He paused again and Kelly watched him patiently as he glanced around the garden, then up at a contrail overhead, gathering his thoughts maybe.
Eventually he spoke.
"May as well start at the beginning I guess. And the beginning was some nowhere little town in
He put the book down on the table and pushed it around as he spoke, until it was aligned precisely with one corner of the table. He met Kelly's eyes fleetingly.
"If you wanted to play shrink you could probably find a way to work that in as a reason for why I am the way I am. Or you could get a special two-for-one and throw in a 'lack of male role model' option too. My daddy was a big of a blank spot really, did the deed and got out of town, y'know? Murdock's my mom's name--she never married. And by the time she died and I was left with Nanna Murdock, Grandaddy was gone too.
"I was an odd kid. Yeah, yeah, I know what you're going to
say--I'm a pretty odd adult too. I
remember when I was real small, my mom sorting the mail on the kitchen table. The letter addressed all formal with initials
instead of names--one for H.E. Murdock, that was my nanna, two for D. Murdock, Grandaddy,
one for E. L. Murdock, my mom. I asked
which one I was and she told me I'd be H.M. and it sort of stuck. I went around introducing myself to everyone
as H.M. after that. It sounded much more
Kelly laughed gently at the faint nostalgic smile on Murdock's face. He gave her a slightly embarrassed looking smile back.
"Like I said we were in the middle of nowhere, and every daylight moment I wasn't in school I was outside. I didn't care what the weather was. I could play in the rain for hours when it actually did rain, or lie on my back and watch the lightning and when there wasn't weather to watch there were always the airplanes.
"There was a little airfield a mile or so away. Not much more than a dirt strip really, but it always seemed busy. Lightplanes and cropdusters and oil prospectors in choppers mostly. I spent hours down there, watching and squinting after them as they flew, wondering where they were going. Mostly they were just local flights but in my mind they might as well have been going to the moon.
"One Christmas when I was about 7 I got a book about planes. Sort of an aircraft spotter's handbook. Far too old and technical for me probably but I read it backwards and forwards until I could identify the make and model of every bird that flew out of that strip. I felt like I was in on some big secret. I could tell you the dimensions, weight, fuel capacity, anything you liked."
Murdock's eyes shone with the memory, that enthusiastic child clearly still there inside.
"That's when you decided you wanted to be a pilot?" Kelly asked.
"Well it took me until I was 10 to work up the courage to actually creep onto the airfield itself and I immediately got collared by one of the mechanics, guy called Skip. I was scared to death he'd tell on me to Nanna and I'd be grounded from even stepping foot outside the house. Instead he asked me what I thought I was doing there and I told him I just wanted to see the planes. He laughed. Said he'd done the same thing as a kid, at this same airfield.
"He let me follow him around while he was working that day, and the next, and soon I was down there every free moment I got. He gave me little odd jobs to do, just sorting screws or cleaning paintbrushes, that sort of thing. In return he'd take me up when he flew the test runs on the planes he worked on, and he talked constantly. About planes he'd flown, jobs he'd had, places he'd been. He used to be an army pilot 'til he was 'medically retired' and he told some great stories. I couldn't get enough of it."
"You were very close?" Kelly felt she was stating the obvious but the affection in Murdock's face as he spoke of him prompted her to comment.
Murdock smiled. "Yeah. Jeez, I didn't want to grow up to be a mechanic or a pilot--I wanted to grow up to be Skip. On my twelfth birthday my best present of all was when he let me take the controls of his own little plane. For maybe ten minutes I was flying and I knew absolutely that that was all I wanted to do in the world. I guess Skip recognised it too 'cause he started teaching me regularly. By the time I was 14 I could not only recognise every aircraft on that strip, I could fly it.
"Skip gave me my first real job then too, as a mechanic's assistant, which pretty much meant I was helping him like I'd been doing anyway for the past few years but getting paid in dollars not flight-time.
"First day I was old enough I started logging the flying hours for my license. Took the test the minute I could. I remember the look on Skip's face when I came down. He looked like a proud dad--or what I thought a proud dad should look like--and I couldn't have been happier."
Murdock smiled but there was a troubled look in his yes.
"Nice story isn't it? It ought to end there with an 'and he lived happily ever after' don't you think? I like to think it could have done. I'd like to think I wasn't just born to be nuts."
He started pushing the book around the table again and dropped his gaze, avoiding Kelly's waiting expression.
"So what happened? Why did you leave to join the army?"
"They had more whirlybirds than anyone else?" Murdock gave a bark of laughter that didn't sound particularly amused. "I was 17. Couldn't afford the training for a commercial license and who would hire a teenaged pilot for a commercial job anyway? There was enough work at the airfield to keep Skip busy but definitely not enough for the both of us to make a living." He shrugged. "It seemed a good idea at the time."
"And it means we can
take the simple option and blame
"So where were we up to in the story? Little lost boy meets friendly mechanic and learns to fly. Sweet. Next chapter: All hell breaks out over some patch of jungle and the Powers That Be decided that we need to wade in there too. Suddenly our happy young pilot finds himself shipped off to some godforsaken jungle without so much as a by-your-leave. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth from Nanna Murdock but our bold young pilot shrugs his shoulders and figures he can fly as well over there as anywhere else and sets off unperturbed."
Kelly sat silently at the sudden bitterness audible in the superficially light tone. Murdock caught her eye and ducked his head.
"Sorry. I'm supposed to try and remember not to talk about myself in the third person. It's not true anyway. Really, I was scared to death. Flying was still a game to me and it hadn't really sank it that people were going to get killed. Most of me was still that overexcited kid who crept onto an airfield and struck lucky and now I was supposed to go get shot at in a jungle God knows how many miles away. Still it could have been worse. After all I'd still be flying.
"The day we flew in was actually one of the worst. The NVA had managed to choose that day to launch an assault on one of the main bases and we flew right into a firestorm. We were under fire from the moment we had visual on the base. I thought we were going to die right there. Big old transport plane full of kid-soldiers thousands of miles from home and already in the shit deep.
"The pilot took a round right through the windshield and into his head and the plane just screamed along with him and reared up and heeled over and we were falling. The noise was horrific, gunfire and wind and people screaming. I don't know if half the people in that bird even realised we were out of control, but I damn well knew. I climbed up front to see what was happening and saw the pilot. Just sat there, still hanging onto the controls. With half his face missing.
"Sorry." Murdock stopped abruptly. "It's not a pretty story any more is it?"
Kelly slid her hand across the table to rest it on top of Murdock's, still clutching the edge of his book.
"No. But it's your story." She gave his hand a squeeze and he smiled awkwardly.
"Well if you want me to shut up or tone it down just give me a thump, okay?"
Kelly nodded and after a pause Murdock continued.
"I think I may have thrown up. I definitely closed my eyes and felt decidedly sick. Not sick enough to want to go into the ground yet though so I reached over to move the body. The door had been blown off the side of the cockpit and the body just toppled right out as I touched it. I didn't mean to. I had to make him let go, he was hanging on the yoke, he was holding us in the stall and we were going down if he didn't let go but I didn't mean to throw him out. I tried to grab him back. I mean he could have landed on someone, could you imagine what that'd do to some poor grunt's psyche? Having a dead body fall out of the sky on him? I mean… Not good. I'm a pilot, I'm supposed to bring them home, not just throw them to the sky and leave them there in some goddamn jungle halfway round the world."
Murdock's words tumbled over each other, as though he was unable to stop, or afraid to. Kelly wondered if he even still realised she was there.
"By this point I was shaking so bad I was afraid I'd only crash us faster but once I had the controls in my hands I suddenly knew what I was doing again. All that mattered was the landing. The blood on the yoke and the panel and the seats didn't matter, the screaming didn’t matter, the gunfire didn't matter. I was flying and I was going to land in one piece. That I knew how to do. We were lucky I guess that we were high enough up for me to pull us out of it.
"I didn't feel lucky."
He stopped again and took several long, shaky breaths.
Kelly gave his hand another squeeze.
"Are you all right? You don't have to talk about it if you don’t want to you know."
"No. Yeah. I mean I'm all right. I want to." He gave a wry little snort. "It's only fair you know what you're getting."
"But it wasn't a good first day, you know?. Actually it wasn't a good first week. A pilot friend of mine from basic, guy called Lee, got blown out of the sky on his second patrol flight and I realised two things real quick. Rules and regulations and dancing attendance on rank wasn't going to keep me alive, and by-the-book, safe, sensible flying wasn't going to keep me alive. Lee was the model of an ideal soldier and he was a good pilot. He was safe, reliable, and dead. I wasn't going to end up like that. If I was going to die out there it was damn well going to be on my terms.
"I'm pretty sure the higher-ups thought I was a reckless, arrogant, little flyboy but I really didn't care. It was a choice between letting myself get lost in the gut-curling terror I'd felt for the first time in that transport or letting attitude and adrenalin carry me through. I know I got cut some slack because of the save on our arrival flight but even so it wasn't too long before the first pysch review. I think that one came about after I'd climbed up on top of the clubhouse to watch a thunderstorm and punched out the officer who ordered me down."
That did catch Kelly by surprise. The calm tone at odds with what it was describing. "You hit him?"
"Yeah. Well the guy was a jerk. A real by-the-book bastard. We'd be drowning in blood and dust and all he'd worry around was whether everyone had polished their boots and made their beds."
The sudden heat in Murdock's voice faded again.
"I don't remember actually getting up onto the roof but I remember being up there. I'd had a head cold. They wouldn't let me fly and there's nothing more useless than a grounded pilot. I was doing busywork and the weather was that muggy crushing pressure before a storm and I needed to be up out of it and couldn't get high enough.
"So they thought maybe I was cracking and sent me off to have my head examined. They put it down to stress and frustration at being grounded, gave me a warning and put me back on flight status."
"Just like that?" Kelly asked. Murdock waved his hand dismissively.
"They're not that hard to fool, those check-ups. I got quite good at them actually. They don't really want to cashier people out. Especially pilots. It's damned expensive to train a replacement. All they want to know is that you're not going to do yourself in and take a Huey-load of grunts with you.
"After that, I ended up doing a lot of night missions. I didn't mind. I'd been having nightmares since I'd arrived and it was easier to sleep in the daytime. Bad things came out at night and it was easier to fight them in the air.
"They rotate the shifts though, y'know and eventually I was back on days again, complete with a promotion to Lieutenant. We'd been losing aircraft over a certain area and I was flying recon to try and find them. Hopefully pick up any survivors.
"Well I found them. I mean I found the aircraft. No survivors. Barely even anything recognisable as bodies.
"Three of those trips, a fresh set of nightmares and another pysch review ate up the next few weeks. Bet that made them regret promoting me."
He almost laughed, as though he expected Kelly to join in. When she didn't he shrugged and continued.
"Then I heard they'd found the base that was turning out the anti-aircraft weaponry that had taken those birds down. They needed a pilot to fly an SF unit to take it out and were looking for volunteers.
"Three of us put our hands up. Me, Bing, and Tanner. Funnily enough there weren't all that many pilots wanting to go flying in search of anti-aircraft emplacements."
Another almost laugh but this time he was looking right past her with that distant look back in his eyes.
"Bing was as green as they come, actually believed he was going some good out there. He was a nice guy for all that though. Hard to dislike. I met him just after he arrived and he spent about a week bugging me about what my initials stood for. Eventually I told him it was H.M. for Howlin' Mad. By then I had enough of a reputation as 'the crazy one' for that to stick. Anyway, Bing was far too inexperienced and never really in the running.
"Tanner was about the only guy there crazier'n me. He really did fly like he looked forward to the crash and burn. I didn't know why he volunteered. Maybe he thought it was the perfect suicide mission. He didn't have the night flying experience that I had though so that left me with the job.
"It was that mission I met Hannibal and the team. Like I said I hadn't really bothered with much deference to rank and it'd got me in trouble with C.O.'s before. I didn't really expect this Colonel Smith to be much different and I knew for certain that his superiors would have had a few choice words for him regarding his choice of pilot."
"And did they?" Kelly asked. Murdock laughed, a short but genuine laugh this time.
"Well actually it turned out the team had a couple of opinions of their own. Hannibal may not have heard of me, but bar room gossip meant that Face and BA surely had. Hannibal always could talk anyone into anything though. He'll listen to everyone's opinions and consider them all but once he's made a decision it's a done deal.
"It's weird actually, Face is definitely the con artist of the group but Hannibal's the one who talks him into running the scams in the first place. Who cons the con artist?"
Kelly smiled at the whimsy of the remark, reassured by the renewed animation Murdock displayed once talking about his friends.
"Anyway, I flew them there and I hauled them out. That mission and the ones after it. And I watched them. I'd never made any close friends since Lee was killed, it was too easy to lose people and I didn't need friends' faces as well as strangers' in my nightmares. But watching those three interact, the way the teased and joked and bickered and still worked together as though they shared one mind, I found myself wanting some of that.
"They always invited me back with them for a drink after missions and I'd always refused, not wanting to let myself become attached. I was just the pilot, not a member of the team, and I could be transferred at any time. It didn't make sense to become too attached. Even so, it got steadily harder to refuse those offers."
His face darkened again. Kelly forced herself to wait quietly as he searched for the words.
"Then I got a bad one. Should have been a simple retrieval, a couple teams needed picking up from an assault. Nasty area, river delta and pretty marshy but there was an area of high ground area good enough for landing. Half a dozen choppers went out.
"The mission had gone all to hell. The high ground was swarming with armed VC. Three choppers went down before we even had time to think about pulling back. The whole place was on fire. Top of the flames were a good three feet above the trees. Gunfire. Missiles. There was nothing we could do. We started to pull back. Lost another chopper before we could get clear.
"Then we saw the unit we were supposed to pick up. Down by the marsh edge. They were scattered, straggling, under fire. There was nowhere to land. We were still dodging the VC shooting at us from the ground. I radioed the other pilot and we went in low over the marsh, hoping we could get at least some of the unit on board if we could hold a hover close enough to the ground. I did. The other pilot didn't make it. Someone panicked, hauled too hard on one of the skids and had the chopper over before the pilot could compensate.
"I brought back six."
Murdock's voice was cold and flat.
"Six. Out of almost sixty. Didn't even realise until we got back to base that I'd been hit. One shot. Straight through the belly of the chopper and into my foot. Blood all over the pedals, all over the floor. I'd been feeling giddy on the flight back but thought it was just shock. Soon as I stepped out of the chopper back at base I went over though. Out cold for three days, blood loss and fever."
Kelly wanted to move to sit beside him, put her arms around him. Do something--anything--to take any the frozen pain in that quiet voice. Murdock pulled away even from the grip she had on his hand though, wrapping his arms across his chest and tucking his hands into his armpits.
"That little trip earned me another promotion, another pysch review and yet another set of nightmares. After a while you start to wonder, y'know? Start to ask whether it's you. It wasn't that I had an unusually large number of bad outings--that's what happens in a war. But other people had missions go south without waking up to see the people they hadn't saved talking to them. I started to think maybe I should play it straight the next time I had my head looked at. Maybe I'd be better off back home. Thing was, it would only land someone else in the same mess and I wasn't quite far gone enough to want to do that.
"I got signed off for a few weeks rest after they let me out of the infirmary. Last thing I wanted actually. Even worse than before, I needed to be back in the sky. Grounded, all I could do was hide from the dead. I'd always been pretty self sufficient, but now even when I was alone I wasn't. I could hear them asking me why I hadn't helped them, why I'd left them behind. I was basically losing it. Sliding away from myself.
"I went out walking round the base one evening during those weeks. Well, limping really. If I went fast enough it hurt enough to concentrate on that and not think about anything else. I saw
"I didn't even realise I was following them, but I suddenly found myself
outside Face's quarters, where they usually ended up for what Hannibal called
their 'wind-downs'. I looked at the
door. I must have stood there a good
half hour, just listening. It's weird
how you can recognise people's voices, even when you
can't hear the words.
Again at the talk of his friends Murdock relaxed slightly. He rested his hands back on the table and giving Kelly an apologetic smile as though he'd only just remembered she was there.
"I didn't so much knock on the door as fall against it. My foot had finally decided to object and was telling me in no uncertain terms that it had had enough. One little hole in your foot shouldn't be able to make you whole leg hurt should it?"
Kelly didn't have to think of an answer to the rhetorical question because Murdock continued without pausing.
"They must have heard
"After that, whenever we were off duty at the same time there was one of them there with me. More than ever,
"And I guess only a lunatic would have flown the one that landed us all in the shit. It had been the usual routine. Drop the team off, back to base, kick back for a few hours then return for the pick-up. Weather got bad real quick though that day. Someone further up the food chain decided that the team was more expendable than a chopper and pilot and cancelled the pick-up.
"Rumour is the fastest thing going on a military base though and I heard about it through unofficial channels before the official ones found me. So I made sure they never did find me. Not until I was on the chopper pad and taking off. My radio was suddenly struck with an unexplainable malfunction so I didn't hear the order to return to base. You don't believe me do you? They didn't either. Face would have made the malfunction sound more convincing.
"I made the pickup okay, but they weren't kidding about the weather. We had to find somewhere to put down or end up spread over half the jungle. Unfortunately the clearing I chose turned out to be already occupied and we were shot down. Worst crash I ever had out there. Well and truly crunched the chopper. The V.C. were on us in minutes. We never had a chance. The team took a good few of them out but I'd pretty much landed us on their doorstep."
"Six months they had us. I'm told it was six months. I don't remember. Time seemed sort of optional. There wasn't much to base it on. It was bad. I didn't really cope all that well. Reality was painful and hungry and dark and not somewhere I wanted to be. I was free falling a lot of the time and some days even the guys couldn’t pull me back."
His voice shook for the first time during his narrative.
"I kept wondering, whether... Whether all the people I'd had to leave, whether they'd all been killed or if some of them had ended up in places like this, and I hoped... I hoped that..."
Murdock choked off the sentence and ran a hand over his face. "I'm sorry."
This time Kelly did get up to join him and wrapped an arm around him in comfort. He was rigid with tension and unresponsive, but didn't pull away.
"Murdock, it's all right."
"No. No it isn't, I'm sorry, you came all this way and I just..."
"Hey," Kelly gave his shoulders a little shake. "Will you stop apologising already?" She hoped that sounded firm, he'd seen through her false bravado with the gun easily enough. He did look startled enough to fall silent though. "You didn't make me come down here. I wanted to. I pushed you to tell me about all this, if anyone should be apologising it should be me. Now I still want to hear it if you want to tell me."
Murdock gave her a weak smile and took a deep breath. "Okay.
"Well, I really don't know why they didn't pack me off home after that. I was still faking out the pysch reviews but it must have been obvious that I was missing a few pieces. I know
"He knew I wanted to stay but I don't think he realised that by then I was outright scared to death of getting sent home. The team was the only thing keeping me anchored to reality and I was terrified that I couldn’t hold on by myself.
"And I couldn't. I found that out pretty damn fast when they were arrested.
"It started with the usual routine again. Drop them off. Back to base. Wait for the call. And wait, and wait. Then one of the Generals came by. He asked if I was Murdock. I said yes and he asked me to go with him. He told me what had happened.
Murdock's voice had developed an odd, clipped quality. "That's the end of the story."
Kelly frowned, puzzled by this abrupt halt but reluctant to push any further. Murdock watched her expression.
"It really is. You asked why I was here. That's why. I couldn't... I couldn't cope. I just... Everything just fell away and I couldn't keep it together."
His voice became more controlled and matter of fact again.
"So they shipped me back and installed me here. It was two months before I even remembered my own name, and even then I didn't want to. I didn't want to be alive. I definitely didn't want to be sane. They didn't tell me until months later that the team had escaped. They were afraid it would make me worse, that I'd try to escape myself. I was drifting in and out of reality. I could hardly remember which version of me was me."
Kelly listened and watched, becoming used now to Murdock's carefully controlled, matter of fact tone. At least the pained, distant look had faded and he almost smiled as he continued.
"Then I got a telephone call. Confused the hell out of the staff, 'cause there was no next of kin listed on my forms. Not since my Nanna'd died. But there came this call asking for dear cousin Murdock and wasn't it tragic he'd only just been able to find him and wasn't it shocking that it had taken so long. They didn't bother asking me if I had any cousins of course, that would assume I could give a coherent answer with any basis in reality. They did let me take the call though.
"It was Face. He told me they were all okay, and they hadn't forgotten about me and they'd see me soon. It felt like the lights had come back on. Suddenly I knew which direction reality was in, even if it was still a long way off.
"I guess that really is the end of the story. I'm still here. Reality is still over there somewhere. Close enough to reach when I need to, not close enough to hurt too bad when I have to retreat. The team are still my tethering point so I don't drift too far.
"It's not a bad ending, really. Not quite 'happily ever after' but at least 'happy-ish for a good long while.'"
Murdock looked down at the table then back up at Kelly, who was still watching him silently.
"Bet you wish you'd settled for the limerick, huh?"
Kelly stayed quiet, trying to process the events of the afternoon. She hadn't really expected such a frank outpouring of information and emotion.
"Kelly? Say something. Even if it's just to tell me I'm a lousy storyteller." He gave her a brittle-looking smile.
She smiled back at him and tightened her grip around his shoulders.
"Thank you for the story, Murdock."
She searched for something more to say. Some reassurance or consolation. She didn't have anything equivalent to offer in return for the trust Murdock had given her in sharing his story, or even to express how much she appreciated it.
She thought back to the awkward attempts at conversation they'd both made back at her house--the music on the radio, the pet cat she'd been treating. Neither her nor Murdock too adept at dealing with the tentative attraction between them. Blushes and pauses and casting around for harmless topics of conversation.
And maybe harmless, idle chat was what they needed right now.
"So--mushrooms on the pizza next time, right?"
It sounded stilted, even to her, but Murdock broke into a dazzling grin.
"You mean it?" He quirked his head sideways. "I mean about next time not about mushrooms."
Relief made the mutual laughter perhaps a little hysterical but the reply was no less sincere for that.
"I mean it."
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