A Soldier’s Family
Wings of Refuge Series
March 1, 2008 | Steeple Hill/Love Inspired
She was the woman of pararescue jumper Manny Pena’s dreams. But he’d stuck his foot in his mouth the last time he’d met Celia Munoz. Now, grounded after a parachuting accident, he is desperate to make amends with the beautiful widow.
But Celia wasn’t having it. The last thing she needed was another man with a dangerous job—even if he had given his life to God. Yet Manny’s growing commitment to her and her troubled son begin to convince her that perhaps she should take her own leap of faith.
***A Soldier’s Family (4.5 stars) received a March Top Pick from Romantic Times Magazine.
This was not the smartest way to die.
U.S.A.F. Pararescue Jumper Manny Péna grunted, tensed his muscles and tried again to flare the canopy on his parachute.
Panic blew through him like the gust of crisp October wind that had whipped him laterally through Refuge’s early morning sky moments ago, causing part of his chute to collapse.
Manny swallowed. Must keep his head or this could end badly. He glanced at the ground.
Still slamming up to meet him. Fast. Way too fast.
It could end badly anyway.
He pulled one steer cord, then the other. Ropes dug into his gloved hands, burning his palms. Something definitely didn’t feel right. Manny tilted his head to peer at the underside of his canopy. Still one-third collapsed.
Two lines had twisted near the top and he’d made the cardinal mistake of giving his knife to one of the students. Jumping without it was something he’d never done.
The one jump he deviated from procedure, and now there was no way to cut away his main chute. Manny pulled the rip cord on the emergency reserve parachute. It bubbled open, but caught on his main chute, the worst possible scenario.
No ifs, ands or buts about it.
He was crashing.
A thousand yards from earth, wicked wind had blown him one way and his chute the other, winding them like a kid on a swing.
Manny brought his legs up. The upward thrust of air flapped loose material on his camo-clad arms and legs in rapid, violent clips. Manny kicked off the heavy field kit strapped to his thighs. It tumbled into the roaring Southern Illinois sky.
The position change and lightened load didn’t straighten out his malfunctioning chute.Manny continued to fall through howling air at a dangerous pace. He flicked another glance to the ominous earth. His pulse spiked.
Treetops were about five hundred yards down. If he could veer sideways away from them, he may have a better chance. He steered left. His team had to be wigging out. By now they’d know as well as he did it was too late to right himself enough to slow down for a safe landing. He fought hard to steer the wayward chute.
Three hundred yards. He tuned out fear-filled screams from skydiving patrons and directive shouts from his team that originated from both ground and air.
One hundred yards. He wished they didn’t have to see this, hoped they’d close their eyes before he impacted.
Twenty. Manny clenched his eyes as the drop zone screamed up. Maybe he’d clear the trees after all.
A violent jerk informed him otherwise. He arced downward toward a tall spruce. Gravity thrust him forward, head down. Fear gnawed him like the wood, splintering his calm. He sprang both arms up to protect his head.
Lot of good that would do if he broke his neck.
He blurred through a downward vortex of browns and greens. Cracking and popping sounds ricocheted around him. Frenzied shrieks came from everywhere.
Pinecones pounded. Leaves slapped. Fresh sap and pine smells hit him with nausea the same time a metallic taste entered his mouth.
If he was about to die, he hoped he’d go quick, ’cause it sure wasn’t painless.
A deafening thud and white-hot pain snatched his hearing and vision.
Darkness cloaked Manny. His mind fumbled with rational thought. Peace enclosed him and whispered through this chaos that at least he was no longer on the outs with God.
And I didn’t even tell them. Sorry. Give me ‘nother chance.
* * *
“BP, ninety over fifty, and he’s responsive to pain.”
Nope. Not dead. Dead people didn’t hurt like this. Manny groaned. More pain. A poke like a mad hornet sting, then burning in his forearm. He tried to pull his arm free. Hands tightened around his wrist.
“Manny, don’t move,” came from a soothing yet concerned voice. Team leader, Joel Montgomery. Manny then realized the pinprick had been Joel starting an intravenous infusion. A stream of deep cold traveled up his arm.
As more sensations returned, he realized the hard, frigid earth lay beneath him.
Manny forced open his eyes. His gaze trailed clear tubing up to bags of fluid that someone blurry suspended above him. Three bags became two, then one fuzzy bag. His eyes struggled for focus. He squinted to read letters on the transparent plastic.
Okay. Okay. Hydrating fluids. Not CPR fluids. So he might not be imminently dying.
“I crashed.” Blinding pain hit Manny’s eyes from a penlight aimed at his pupils. He clenched his eyes shut.
“We noticed,” another voice spoke with grim inflection. Vince? A distant chorus of murmurs flowed in hushed tones around him. The hum of conjoined voices reminded him of a bee swarm, bringing with it a verbal collective buzzing.
A gloved finger that smelled of sterile latex and powder opened his eyelid. Nolan Briggs, wielding that wicked penlight. Manny grinded his teeth against mind-numbing discomfort in his head and on his backside. “Equal and reactive to light,” Nolan mumbled in Joel’s direction. Manny’d never heard Nolan’s voice that tight before. He sought out Nolan’s face.
Was the dude about to cry? Nolan the softie. If Manny didn’t feel like a grenade had just blown up in his back pocket, he’d put forth the effort to tease Nolan. Shards of jolting pain shot through every part of him.
“Aaah. Hurts.” Maybe death would offer reprieve.
Joel moved into Manny’s line of sight. “Where?”
“Where not?” Manny pushed the words through gritted teeth and blinked his eyes open as much as he could stand.
A circle of horrified faces stared down at him. Some he recognized, some not. His heart tumbled against his ribs at the grave concern on each. Darkness threatened to drag him back under. He fought for lucidity. If he closed his eyes he might never wake up.
“Tha-was close.” He forced his eyes to stay open despite throbbing pain in his head.
Joel nodded, his face stern with a sort of tense concentration Manny had only seen him exhibit in life-or-death situations.
In the distance, coming closer, the rhythmic chopping of a helicopter echoed. No doubt to evacuate him.
At least they’d been on a training op and not a mission. Still, how embarrassing to crash in front of a class full of rookie PJ wannabes.
“By th-way, tha-was a near perfect dem-n-stration a throng wayda land.” Manny pinched out the words to them. His attempt at humor caused a few pallid faces to wash over with discernable relief. This day would definitely weed out the weak ones.
“If it’s any consolation, we saw that tree jump in your path, Péna.” Pale with worry lines Manny never noticed before, Chance squeezed his shoulder in a gentle grip.
Manny tried to smile at Chance’s attempt to keep his embarrassment minimal. Little late. His pride took a fatal hit when his body crashed through the only grove of trees for a twenty-mile radius at NASCAR speeds. What a clumsy landing. At least he was still here to sulk over it.
He stared at the spot of sky, previously blue, now gunmetal gray, visible through the circle of gawking faces. Would he ever air ski that vast expanse again, or fall through clouds at exhilarating speeds? Would he live through the end of this day?
Manny studied the people around him, creating a diversion from outlandish pain and fear that he’d never freefall again.
He began to feel like a caged zoo animal on display. Where’d all these people come from? His team flanked him on all sides, working, poking, prodding, bandaging, splinting, assessing injuries and vital function. They also elbowed people back continually, sparing Manny’s dignity.
As if picking up on his discomfort, PJ Vince lifted his face and shot the gawkers a lethal look. “Stay back. In fact, I want everyone not medical behind the line.” He jabbed his arm westward. “Over there.”
Team leader Joel eyedVince then the drop zone crowd as they retreated with soft murmurs and parting words of comfort. Manny figured people were more concerned than curious but he appreciated the cove of privacy his team provided as they rallied around him. These guys were like family. He loved each of them like brothers.
Even Chance, the new guy who kneaded expert fingers around Manny’s ribs as Joel pressed a cold stethoscope against his chest and abdomen.
Manny licked dry lips. “Wha’d all I break?” Though he didn’t really want to know.
“Besides every branch off the south side of a pine tree and your reserve chute? Only X-rays will tell.” Nolan Briggs mouthed his assessment past a syringe clenched in his teeth. He flicked Manny’s arm below a tight tourniquet that pinched his skin.
“You know my blood type.” He’d been poked enough in the last five minutes. Manny was certain hundreds of pine needles splintered every square inch of him, including his tush, which felt like it had borne most of the crash impact. He imagined he looked like a battered porcupine. Had he actually landed on the ground? Or had they pulled him out of a tree?
Joel piggybacked a small bag of antibiotics into his main IV line. “The local hospital doesn’t, and procedure won’t allow them to take our word for it.”
His first significant skydiving accident and it had to happen in a Podunk town like Refuge.
“They want a type and cross-match for emergency surgery,” Joel finished.
Surgery. That’d be a first, too.
And just weeks after he’d given control of his life back to God. He should have told someone. Now they’d all think the change in him was due to this accident.
“Joel, dude. I need to tell you something,” Manny croaked.
Joel taped tubing across Manny’s arm. “Rest now. Talk later.”
“No, I need to—”
“Péna, tell me when we get you stable and in the chopper.” Joel sounded worried. He never sounded worried. And if Manny was being airlifted instead of ground transported, that meant he must be pretty bad off.
He couldn’t die without telling them. Manny reached up and grasped Joel’s collar. “Listen—”
He squeezed Manny’s fist. “We’re going to get you fixed up, bro. Don’t worry.” Joel ripped open supplies, unfurling more tubing. Oxygen? Manny tried to shake his head but his C-collar neck brace wouldn’t allow it.
How long had he been out?
Nolan spread a warm blanket over Manny as Joel stuck an oxygen tube in his nose. It hissed air up the passages, making his eyes water. By the rattled look Nolan passed Joel, he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Sweat beaded Manny’s forehead despite the chilly temperature. He tugged Joel nose to nose. “No. I need to tell you now.”
That got Joel’s attention. He froze and studied Manny. Gaseous fuel vapors pushed through residual antiseptic fumes. A fog of dust wafted from the helicopter landing.
Manny swallowed, but dryness coated his throat. Or maybe it was actual sand. “I made a big decision last week.”
Joel held Manny’s gaze. “Yeah?”
“Yeah, and I need you to do something for me.”
“Anything, buddy.” Joel braced his arm around the back of Manny’s shoulders. “On three.”
Chance cradled Manny’s head. “One. Two. Three.”
Hands everywhere lifted him. Helicopter para-medics slid a hard orange board under him that smelled like melted plastic and floor polish.
The pressure on his hind end caused his breath to catch.
He exhaled slowly. “There’s a stack of letters in my pack. I need you to find it and see they get mailed.” Manny shuffled the words out quickly because it hurt like crazy to talk.
Joel shook his head and stared Manny down. “No. No. You get better and mail them yourself, Péna, and that’s an order.”
Manny realized by the stubborn jut to Joel’s jaw and the glitter in his eyes that he probably thought these were the kind of letters a soldier writes to family when the soldier sensed he wasn’t coming home.
Joel’s nontypical emotional reaction stunned and touched him to the core. Manny no longer cared if everyone heard. They’d eventually find out anyway because when Manny made a decision of commitment, it was for real and for keeps.
God spared his life. No way could Manny be ashamed of Him.
And Joel had been a huge part of that, his open devotion to Jesus a huge catalyst for Manny’s own hidden faith.
“I had a change of heart, Joel. All that praying you did musta worked on me.”
Joel cut Manny’s uniform top down the middle, starting below his neck brace. “How so?”
“I gave God control of my life last month.” Joel’s cutting stuttered, then resumed as he flicked Manny a surprised look.
“I wrote the letters in days following. I’ve done things I’m not proud of.”
Joel shrugged. “We all have.” A relieved grin peeked out both corners of his mouth, though.
Manny dropped his tone. “Most of those letters are to ladies I’ve, well, you know ”
“I Roger that.” Joel leaned aside as a paramedic attached a cardiac monitor lead to Manny’s chest.
“The top letter I wrote last. I didn’t have the right address, or she refused it. It’s to Celia. I know she’s still mad that I propositioned her at your wedding. I don’t blame her. Joel, I was so drunk, I don’t even remember disrespecting her.”
Joel actually laughed. “You have a nice scar on your lip as a monument to your indiscretion. You did proposition her, Péna. She clocked you good for it, too.
Amber and I thought you two were going to throw down and brawl to the death right there on the reception-room floor.”
Acute embarrassment hit Manny though Joel’s kind smile never waned.
“And I haven’t taken a drink since.” Nor did he plan to.
Nolan leaned over Manny’s face. “Joel’s right. We’re not letting you off that easy. You’re gonna get better and apologize to Miss Hot Tamale, as you so called her, in person.”
Hot Tamale? Oh, boy. For sure he needed to never drink again.
Manny understood what they were trying to do. He squeezed Joel’s hand while being carried to the waiting chopper where they stood now, preparing to load him. Why couldn’t he feel his feet? Did paralysis begin like that? He loved tamales. Had he really called her that? Probably that and more. He felt terrible for nearly ruining his best friend’s wedding.
God, don’t let me be paralyzed.
He should call his family. Talk to his mom. What if he never skydived again? What if he never saw his team again? No.
They’d never abandon him. Not as a friend. Ever.
Not even if that homicidal wind had ripped him from the arms of his team today.
He didn’t want this to be happening. Didn’t know at six this morning that by nine he could be a total goner. Doubt assailed him that if he did live to tell about this, Celia would ever speak to him, much less accept his apology and forgive his indiscreet actions. He hoped for the chance to tell her he really was sorry.
“Thanks, Joel.” Manny knew he would see that Celia and the other women received their letters if Manny ended up unable to mail them himself.
“I’m not going anywhere.” Joel released Manny’s hand to hop in the helicopter and help lift him inside.
“I know, just thanks.”
Joel reached across Manny to tap Nolan Briggs on the shoulder. “You’re in charge in my absence. Find the pack he kicked off. Bring it to me at Refuge Memorial.”
Nolan nodded. Joel peered past Nolan’s shoulder. “Brock, sit the rucksack search out and get that swollen ankle X-rayed when you guys come to the hospital.”
Brockton Drake nodded from the opening, then limped aside while Vince Reardon, Ben Dillinger and Chance Garrison pressed in. Vince grasped Manny’s hand, bringing it tight to his chest before relinquishing it slowly as Joel and the paramedic pulled Manny on in. Nolan swallowed when his gaze skittered across Manny’s legs as they slid past.
Manny didn’t miss the wince on Chance’s face, either. He hadn’t learned to control his facial reactions like the rest. From their expressions, he must have a compound fracture or two.
Manny wished he didn’t have any medical knowledge to compound his fear. He focused on his team, looking in at him through the side hatch.
Maybe not such a good idea.
Faces didn’t strain or squirm like that unless things were critical. His team could hide how bad things were, but the other skydivers approaching in waves behind them couldn’t.