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An Hour Later
XO’s Stateroom

 

Talking quietly, Mac held Harm’s good hand. She didn’t need to see what lay under the blankets, or recall the horrifying sight of him jammed between two immovable forces, or replay the moment she realized he wasn’t breathing to be reminded of how close she’d come to losing him.

The badly swollen eye, whitish pallor, and lines of pain etching his face were enough. Only the subtle rise and fall of his chest assured her he was still with them. But it provided little peace.

“Hey Harm, unlike you I can’t sleep -- Doc’s orders be damned. I tried the top bunk. You can have it anytime you want. I guess I can’t handle sleeping in Pochatko’s stateroom given the fact he’s the reason you’re now lying here.”

“The problem is, I’m not sure I can ever go back to sleeping in the Torpedo Room either. What about you?”

“No opinion yet, huh?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to wake up? You’re missing an awful lot….Like what, you ask?” she continued the monologue, studying his face while bringing his fingertips to her lips.

“Well for starters, we saved the North Koreans after successfully opening up a polynya with our torpedo shot…I know, I know. We damn near killed ourselves in the process. In any event, after you helped get us unstuck, we had to help the Koreans navigate to it by radioing coordinates and course corrections. They successfully surfaced.”

“We did too, moored not far from them. The snorkel’s bringing in fresh air until the Life Support system is repaired…I know you know all about snorkels. Doc wants to know how you managed using one with a distressed airway.”

“Anyway, you’re missing this raging storm. You can hear the winds howling. They keep catching the sail and are bouncing us around. Everyone is nauseas, including me. Doc’s going through soda crackers and plastic bags like candy. I’d rather be submerged … You’re right. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking when I said that.”

“You know this would be a lot easier if you woke up and held up your part of the discussion. In any case, they estimate it could be days before the storm clears. When it does, they’ll send rescue aircraft for you, me, the Soundex guys, and the Koreans.”

“I have to admit Miles Skibinski turned out to be a bit of a hero too. I’d really like to hear your viewpoint.”

“At any rate, he was very helpful in recounting everything that transpired below. I guess I can’t be too angry at you. It’s not as if you went looking for Pochatko and Maughn. They found you.”

“When confronted, Petty Officer Curtis admitted his role in this whole thing. I’ve come to realize that radiomen are the only ones on board with any real contact to the outside world for months at a time. Well, I guess Sonarmen, too. But it’s not the same thing.”

“…I’m getting to the point, jeesh. It has to do with what Petty Officer Maughn was blackmailing the XO with. You interested?... I thought so.”

“Petty Officer Curtis enjoyed transcribing the familygrams that were transmitted to the Bradford. It helped break the monotony. So he always made sure he was around to pull that duty. Consequently, he and the XO Pochatko knew just about everything going on with everyone. The funny thing is, it was a familygram sent to the XO himself that started all this trouble.”

“Are you ready for this?...Captain Morgan’s wife was cheating on him. She’d been sleeping with Pochatko for two years and brazenly sent both men familygrams. Despite being under strict orders to keep all familygram transmissions to himself, this was too much for Petty Officer Curtis. So he innocently shares the info with his friend Petty Officer Maughn. Maughn in turn sees an opportunity. He warns Pochatko he’ll go to the Captain with the information unless Pochatko ‘expedites’ his Dolphins. And as they say, the rest is history.”

“…It is not anti-climatic. It’s the quintessential lovers-triangle.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot – the fight in the vault…What do you mean how could I forget? I have quite a bit on my mind.”

“Pochatko asked Petty Officer Curtis to meet him there. It was the only place he could confront the Radioman’s loose lips without anyone else witnessing it. They lost their cool and it came to blows. Curtis said he landed a good right cross, knocking Pochatko into the bulkhead. That’s when Pochatko’s watch scratched the paint.”

“Realizing they’d damaged the vault, even cosmetically, Pochatko knew they’d have bigger problems on their hands if anyone ever found out. He personally took care of covering up the gouge.”

“It wasn’t until your investigation that Curtis recalled seeing Chief Watters in the small machine shop when he left Pochatko to the task. The former COB must have seen and heard everything that had transpired in the vault.”

“Anyway, this all occurred just before an inspector from the Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Examination Board was scheduled to arrive. Evidently these guys are looked upon as the dark side of the force. They’re the ones who rule on the crew’s safe handling of its nuclear reactors. Given their propensity for safety, Chief Watters would have known they’d throw the book at not only Curtis and Pochatko, but likely other crew members as well.”

“Captain Morgan suspects Watters remained silent about what he learned out of leniency for those not directly at fault. But he obviously applied some literary license and adapted the experience for his book. As we suspected, the DNR was concerned enough to pressure the SECNAV to see if the story was based on fact or fiction.”

“Did you get all that?...Good.”

“I need to go to the head…I don’t care if that’s more information than you need to know. My bladder is ready to give way plus I think I’m going to upchuck.”

Mac stood wearily, kissing Harm’s fingers before taking another long look at his face. Setting his arm aside, she was unable to leave before planting a tender kiss on his lips.

“I’d love to marry you too.”

“I need more sleep,” she moaned to herself. Grabbing the small duffel with her hygiene items, she reluctantly left him alone.

 

Six Hours Later
XO’s Stateroom

 

In his dreams, Harm knew he had sought solace in some deep, dark place. The relief he found there was such that he didn’t care if he ever surfaced again. All he need do is remember his excruciating pain the last time he awoke from unconsciousness. It was more than enough persuasion for him to ignore the activity around him. This time he’d not be goaded into waking until he was good and ready.

But Sarah MacKenzie always had a way of derailing his best made plans.

Cursing the storm and wishing she were dead, Mac suffered through another bout of motion sickness. Feeling the warm contents in the plastic bag caused her stomach to roil all over again. In the process of filling a second bag, she sensed movement from the corner of her eye.

“Mac, go see Doc. I can’t lay here listening to you wretch your insides out,” Harm croaked, his dry throat making a mockery of his attempt to speak.

“Mac, do you hear me?” he asked, his ribs and lungs immediately protesting his raised voice when she didn’t answer.

“Harm! Thank God. I’ll get Doc,” Mac jumped from the upper bunk, her upset stomach forgotten.

“Mac, don’t go…please.”

Closing his eyes to the throbbing coursing through his body, he remained quiet and still. When he was certain he could tolerate the discomfort and that it would grow no worse, he slowly reopened them.

Careful of the IV in his hand, he raised his good arm to his forehead, gingerly fingering the swelling still obscuring his vision. He then angled his eyes to study the cast splinting his right wrist before lowering his left to continue his exploration. Taking a careful breath, his slipped his hand beneath the blanket, feeling the heavy tape securing his ribs before moving his fingers to his right hip.

Swallowing hard, he pulled the blanket aside. Seeing a purple contusion circling his thigh, he followed it down his leg. It disappeared under another cast starting just below his knee and ending at his blackened toes. It was too much to take in all at once so he closed his eyes.

“You’re going to be all right, Harm. Doc will give you another shot of morphine. I’ll go get him.”

“No, don’t.” He opened his eyes when he heard her start to leave.

“But…”

“It’s okay, Mac. I can handle it. It’s not nearly as bad as when it happened...Really.”

“All right, but drink this. It’ll help.”

She brought a straw to his mouth and watched him relish the soothing liquid going down his throat.

“Thanks.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go for Doc?”

“I’m sure. How long?”

“We pulled you out twelve hours ago…You weren’t breathing, Harm…We weren’t sure you’d wake up…,”

“Mac, don’t cry. Like you said, I’m going to be okay. Come on, look at me. I want to see your face.”

“I was so worried,” she sniffed.

“I know, me too.”

 

An Hour Later

 

Mac didn’t understand why writers reduced strong, honorable men to whining weak children when they were sick or hurting. She never bought the incongruous change in character, chalking it up to them never meeting a man like Harmon Rabb.

Watching him endure another of Doc’s painful examinations, she cursed his stoicism -- knowing it inevitably led to him turning further in on himself. She longed for him to accept the help she so badly wanted to give. When Doc finally left the room, their eyes met.

“What’s wrong?” Harm asked.

“I feel useless.”

“Maybe I can remedy that.”

“How?”

“How about filling me in on what’s been going on around here. You can start with why this ship can’t seem to remain on an even keel for more than 60 seconds at a time.”

“What did I say?” he asked, reading the disappointment on her face.

“It’s nothing,” she lied, taking a deep breath to repeat the summary she’d already given him once before.

 

2 Days Later

 

“What’s the weather forecast?” Harm asked, accepting Mac’s help to sit up.

“Five more days of this, I’m afraid.” She propped two pillows behind his back to keep him in place before handing him some fruit from the mess.

“You’re not eating?”

The withering look she gave him as she pulled out the packet of soda crackers caused him to chuckle.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed.”

“Don’t be sorry. It’s nice to see you able to smile again.”

“I’ve been sleeping better. The pain’s not as bad. I might even do some work today.”

“Harm…”

“You didn’t forget your promise to help me with the paperwork for my case, did you?”

He raised his right arm in case she’d somehow forgotten the limitations placed on his writing up the account himself.

“Not as long as you hold up your end of the deal.”

“What deal?”

“Your promise to discuss the finer merits of Chief Watters’ book. And I’m collecting first so you can’t back out.”

“Fine. Where do you want to start?” Harm acquiesced out of sheer boredom. If nothing else, it would keep his mind off the more unsettling issues that had been nagging him.

Sixty minutes later, they were still going strong. They could have sold tickets as curious sailors lurked outside the room to catch a snippet of the increasingly loud ‘discussion’.

Harm winced, holding his ribs from the chuckle he couldn’t contain. Their viewpoints had been so divergent on so many things it was laughable and, truth be told, a little disconcerting.

“Ah, Mac…you’re killing me.”

“So you don’t agree with me on that point either?”

“No way, I can’t believe we even read the same book.”

“Samuel Franklin and Ellie Whiteflower both professed their love for one another.”

“To third parties! And she treated him miserably, particularly in the latter stages.”

“And he didn’t do the same on occasion? God, they remind me of us.” Mac stood, hands on hips.

“Don’t make this personal.”

“I’m not!”

“Look – all I’m saying is that given the way Watters wrote the character of Ellie Whiteflower, I’m having trouble understanding why you keep insisting it’s a match made in heaven. I’m trying, really I am. But for the life of me, I just can’t see it.”

“You can’t understand my view that I want them together?”

“No and you keep pushing the veracity of their relationship down my throat! It’s annoying, particularly because in your mind Whiteflower can do no wrong.”

“She has no redeeming qualities?” Mac demanded.

“Frankly – no. She doesn’t deserve him. I admire your passion though,” he added, hoping to soften the declaration.

“You’re impossible,” she moaned.

“And you’re so hung up on their relationship you failed to appreciate Watters’ real message. There was so much more to the story than just the romantic aspects. But you insist on concentrating solely on those and now you’re disappointed that he left it ambiguous.”

“Arggh!”

“Look I know you’re frustrated. I’d have been happy to see him end it on a positive note given all they’ve been through. Really. But it would have taken another whole book to get out of the corners he backed himself into.”

“You’re saying it was just bad writing?”

“It’s either that or he intended to let their relationship fester through an on-going series of books – you know, so people would keep buying them until he finally resolved the issue. And you bought into it, hook, line, and sinker.”

“Remind me again why I insisted on this exercise in futility.” Mac rubbed her temples.

 

Three Days Later

 

“Don’t worry, Colonel. He’s around here somewhere,” Doc said, looking for his patient.

“I got upset with him when he insisted on using the head instead of the bed pan. We had words. I thought he just needed some time to cool down.”

“Well, I did give him a walking cast since he couldn’t use crutches. He couldn’t have gone far. I can have him paged.”

“No don’t. Let me continue looking before we resort to that.”

Mac pictured Harm lying unconscious somewhere, unable to call for help. Her unease grew as the number of possible locations dwindled. Her exploration of the upper level yielded no results, nor had her inspection and queries on the second. She doubted he would have gone into the restricted Engineering section. So that left her with no other alternative than to make her way down one more level.

Wondering how he could have possibly made it this far, she bit her lip trying to guess which way he might have gone.

“I swear I’m going to kill you, Harm.”

“Ma’am,” Chief McDonald interrupted the debate with herself.

“COB.”

“I think what you’re looking for is in that direction.”

“Really?”

“I tried talking to him, but I think he needs hearing from you more than me.”

“Thanks, Chief.”

Hurrying towards the Torpedo Room, Mac found Harm on his former bunk. Seeing him sitting alone, staring vacantly at nothing in particular, made her heart tighten painfully in her chest. This was clearly about more than their petty argument about him getting out of bed too soon. She helped herself to the spot beside him.

Sensing he was struggling with something deep and dark that matched the mood of the storm still howling above them, she took a chance at grabbing his hand.

When he remained silent, she used the opportunity to scan the area, surprised how well someone had cleaned the place up. There was no evidence of the unspeakable horror that had occurred here. Somehow, however, she suspected the tidy outward appearance of the place was doing little to qualm the fear in his eyes.

“I’m here, Harm. Let me help. Talk to me.”

“I was so scared, Mac. Then I dreamt it all over again last night.”

“What did you dream?”

“I couldn’t move…”

He started tentatively, his eyes never moving off the green cylinder directly across from him.

“Go on,” she urged, her heart aching for him as he replayed the experiences he hadn’t yet shared with anyone.

“I wanted to move so badly…But I couldn’t…It wouldn’t let me go…”

“I tried holding my head up as long as I could…but I was so tired…I threw up when the water first soaked the hat and filled my ears…It just made everything worse.”

“Skibinski didn’t tell us about that,” Mac frowned.

“I thought I was going to die…but the regret was worse, knowing I’d never have a chance to finish everything I’ve always wanted to do.”

“But you didn’t die, Harm.”

“At some point I wanted to…I wanted it to be quick…but drowning isn’t quick.”

 

~~~~~ Flashback ~~~~~

 

With his head tilted back, he could feel the water running into his nostrils before it reached his mouth, causing him to gag before he even had a chance to take a breath on the makeshift snorkel.

Choking, he knew the metallic tasting pipe was his only lifeline. But its simple cylindrical end didn’t allow him to bite down on it and form a tight seal like a regular diving snorkel. The intake of water was suffocating him.

He knew he had to force a burst of air up through the two-foot long tube before uncontrollable reflexes caused him to inhale more water. But the effort cost him dearly.

The torpedo bit into his chest, mocking him as he tried to draw a breath of air down the pipe. He’d have felt less pain if someone took a knife to his ribs. His mind screamed, reminding him he was a mere land-based being not equipped to deal with the asphyxiating pressure.

 

~~~~~ End Flashback ~~~~~

 

“Unable to move or communicate, I was fully aware of the rising water now totally submerging my head. It was like being totally paralyzed but still conscious of what was going on around you. I knew each and every time Skibinski reopened the breech doors.”

“Oh, Harm.”

“It was the loneliest existence I could imagine…I had to literally force myself to inhale, focusing everything on breathing…while ignoring the pain and the urge to scream…I don’t know how long it went on…”

“When the ship finally leveled, the water dispersed across the whole room…I could sense the change of temperature on my face…but I was so weak…Miles had to remove the pipe from my mouth and uncurl my fingers from it…”

“…and that’s really all I remember until I woke up in Pochatko’s Stateroom.”

He sighed, finally turning his gaze toward Mac’s own tear-stained cheeks. Despite the turmoil, he sensed a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He gratefully returned the squeeze Mac applied to his hand. They both remained silent, breathing in unison, until Mac could find her own voice.

“I know it's difficult revisiting the nightmare, Harm. I can’t imagine the horror of having to live through something like that. But I will thank God to my dying day that you somehow found the will to endure it.”

“Thanks, Mac.”

“Promise you’ll let me listen if things get too bad again.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

It had been a week since the accident. Harm’s strength increased with an ample supply of pain meds, rest, and finally some solid food. He kept his promise and bared his soul a little more regarding the traumatic experience. In exchange, Mac remained quiet when he pushed himself physically. She found him struggling to make final adjustments to the jury-rigged sock covering his exposed toes.

“How are you doing, Harm?”

“I’m almost ready.”

“Here, let me help.”

Mac chuckled, securing the scarf around his neck like a mother sending her first born out the door on a cold snowy day.

“Damn,” he muttered through the muffling material.

“Too tight?”

“No, I forgot I need to see the COB.”

“I can take care of it.”

“I need to do it myself. Just meet me at the escape trunk,” Harm said, navigating cautiously and slowly on his healing leg.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“What’s your problem, Skibinski?” Mac asked minutes later when the disgruntled man arrived at the exit.

“I feel like a glazed donut.”

“What happened?”

“Someone put powdered sugar between his sheets. He didn’t realize it until he woke up ten minutes ago,” Robert Cline answered for him.

“You should know the crew only does that to guys they like,” COB said, arriving with Harm and Captain Morgan in tow.

“And I only give these out to men deserving. Honorary though they may be, we owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you,” Captain Morgan said.

Observing the golden Dolphins being pinned to his chest, Harm beamed like a little kid and winked at Mac. She could only shake her head and roll her eyes picturing the ensuing scene when Harm and Sturgis next met. Miles Skibinski also got a set.

“Why are mine only silver?”

“Let it go, Miles,” Robert Cline interrupted, smiling as he pulled his younger charge towards the vertical ladder rising up through the Bradford’s sail while everyone shared a laugh.

“The Navy will be in touch,” Morgan advised the civilians as they prepared to vacate the Bradford.

“We’ll be topside eventually. This could take a while. The Commander refuses to exit the ship on a stretcher,” Mac said.

“Are you sure you don’t need help, Commander?” Morgan asked turning his attention back to Harm.

“I don’t think so, Sir. The Colonel will be below me no doubt covering my six.”

“Well if there’s ever anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

 

Fifteen Minutes Later

 

“Did you enjoy yourself?” Harm asked, breathing hard when they made landfall onto the snow-covered icepack.

“What do you mean?”

Mac stared innocently at where their transport waited. Skibinski and Cline were already preparing to board it.

“I was doing quite nicely without your added assistance,” Harm answered, accepting her help to cover the same distance.

“Are you telling me you didn’t appreciate my hand on your six for a boost?”

His answer was interrupted with the arrival of a Petty Officer running up to them.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, Sir. I tried to get word to you before you left. But the transport is full. The next one will be here in twenty minutes. Do you want me to ask the civilians to give up their seats?”

“No, we’ll wait for the next one,” Harm answered, signaling the Petty Officer to go about his duties.

“Are you sure Harm? It’s pretty cold out here.”

“Mac, look around you. We’ve been cooped up for days. I’m not in any hurry to get into another confined vehicle.”

Seeing his point, she slowly turned around 360 degrees. The brilliant, blue sky against the pure whiteness took her breath away. The aftermath of the storm had left the area spectacularly clean, crisp, and clear, symbolizing a fresh new start.

“Listen.”

“Yeah, it’s special,” Harm whispered, listening to the sound of silence, not even a breeze or shifting ice flow to mar the setting.

“It’s beautiful. I hadn’t realized. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

Her smile, replacing days of tension, validated the joy on her face as she looked far off into the distance.

“Mac, I don’t know if this is the right time, but since we’re alone…well we never finished our discussion about the future, about my leaving JAG.”

“I know.”

She cast her eyes downward and concentrated on using her toe to trace an intricate pattern in the snow. She suspected her euphoria was about to be tarnished. When he didn’t continue, she turned her back and focused on the two subs poking through the surface.

“I’ve been carrying this with me for months, waiting for the right time.”

“It must have been a heavy load,” she said.

Harm furrowed his brow, her comment causing him to question if this was the right time and place. But after everything that had happened on the Bradford, he was determined to see it through now.

“Mac….”

“I can’t Harm…”

“I haven’t even asked yet.”

“Asked?”

“Turn around, Mac.”

She gathered her courage to face him. Once she did, her breath literally caught in her throat. She’d never been more terrified, confused, or hopeful in her life.

“Harm?” she questioned tentatively, seeing him on bended knee, his twinkling eyes tilted up towards her as he squinted into the sun.

“I believe I get to ask the question.”

“Question?”

“Sarah Mackenzie, will you please marry me?”

Mac’s right hand shot to her mouth, while her left encircled her waist. Harm remained motionless, his fingers loosely holding the diamond solitaire.

“Mac…? Mac say something, anything.”

“I’m…I’m part of the important things you want to be doing?” she asked shyly, recalling one of the reasons he’d given for wanting to leave JAG when he broached the subject days ago in the Torpedo Room.

“You’re at the center of them, wherever the fates may take us, even if it means resigning my commission for good this time.”

“What did I do to deserve you?” Her hand trembled as her fingers lightly caressed his face.

“The feeling is mutual.”

The all-encompassing silence returned again as the moments ticked contently by.

“Mac…”

“Yeah?”

“I’d really appreciate an answer soon. This is getting a little uncomfortable and I’m going to need your help standing up.”

“Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you Harmon Rabb Junior.”

It was as if her answer and laughter floated unending for miles. Her arms carefully embraced him, helping him to his feet.

“Let me slip this on your finger.”

Harm grinned, gently lifting her left hand. She gasped as the sunshine reflected through the prism, causing a colorful display to dance over the snow.

“It’s beautiful,”

“Not as beautiful as you.”

“That’s so sappy.” Mac chuckled, cupping the back of his head, pulling him closer.

“Slowly, Marine. Let’s give the guy on the periscope something really worth looking at.”

“I love you, Harm,” Mac whispered when they finally came up for air.

“And I you, more than you know. There is one thing, however.”

“What’s that?”

“The terms of this betrothal include you never asking me to discuss another romance novel for as long as we live.”

“Or you never teaching me golf,” Mac countered.

“I’m glad we understand each other,” Harm answered, giving her his brightest smile.

 

SSN Bradford
Control Room

 

“Yes!” Master Chief McDonald exclaimed, pumping his fist.

“Everything okay, COB?” Captain Morgan asked.

“Yes, Sir,” he replied folding the handles of the periscope back in place.

“Did Rabb and MacKenzie make it okay?”

“More than okay.”

“So the ring you had stowed in your safe really was for her.”

“Yeah. Good thing we delayed their departure,” COB replied, anxious to leave and record the anecdotal story in the journal he’d been keeping for years. Someday he’d write a book about his experiences.

 

Two Hours Later
In flight

 

Mac loved the sound of Harm’s chuckle as she rested her head on his shoulder, not giving a damn about protocol – it was her engagement day after all.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just remembered something,” he answered.

“Are you going to share or do I have to beat it out of you?”

“I left something personal behind.”

“Your appendix!”

“Yeah, I think I left it in the Officers’ Wardroom, next to that tray of condiments they always keep on hand.”

“Harm, it was in a pickle jar.”

“Exactly.”

 

The End

 

 

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