Balance by Loxley


2nd. Lieutenant Damon Mandell surveyed the ugly scene before him. The protesters were in full swing of their routine, chanting, singing songs, waving signs, yelling obsceneties. The usual. The Costa Rican Conflict seemed to be pretty unpopular with the more liberal element in the country, and Damon couldn’t think of a place much more liberal than this Southern California town. The protest was outside of one of the entrances to the Navy base, in a location where the protestors wouldn’t have to deal with traffic as much. A policeman looked on, boredly, there to enforce the rules of the protest permit; specifically, to make sure that the protesters disbanded at 17:00, which couldn’t get here soon enough for Damon. They were definitely getting louder and rowdier.

Up to now, Damon hadn’t been aware that there wasn’t anything anybody could do to prevent a rally like this. He had always assumed that these were unruly, lawless mobs. But in point of fact, the city was required to allow them to stage the protest, although it could make certain requirements for safety reasons… hence the less-used entrance and deadline.

"Hey, ElTee, they’re getting pretty agitated," asked one of his platoon members, a dalmation. "Should we fix bayonets?"

Damon stepped out of line and marched in front of the young infantryman, and turned sharply on his heel. "O’Clanahan, I am going to pretend I didn’t that!" Damon looked up and down the line of his platoon. They were all standing at attention, dressed in full gear, in front of the entrance to the base. Their presence there was mostly ceremonial; nobody actually thought the protesters would try to rush the gates; there was nothing on the other side for a long way, except for vacant lots and rundown buildings. However… "Need I remind you of what we’re doing out here?"

The unprepared private pulled himself to attention. "Sir, no Sir!" he barked.

"Well, I am going to anyway! Our job is to protect this idiots from themselves, by preventing them from entering our base. This is my home, and your home as well!" He made sure that his platoon could hear him. "As long as we keep them out of our home, then it doesn’t matter what they do out here." The chanting got louder, and Damon heard some alarmed cries from his men.

"Hey, ElTee, they’re throwing things at us!" Sure enough, Damon heard the squishy sounds of fruit and eggs being thrown at his platoon. He turned around to face the unruly mob of demonstrators in time to see a skunkette with a little girl at her side that couldn’t have been four years old reach into her bag and pull out a couple of eggs. He read her lips as she hurled the eggs…."Babykiller!!!"

Damon watched the trajectory, and knew that they were coming right for him. Handy skill to have if somebody is trying to throw a grenade at you, I guess. I’m glad that’s not a grenade. "Platoon, hold your positions!" he barked. SPLAT! A raw egg struck him square on the cheek, stinging and numbing his lip. Another hit his chest and splattered over his BDU’s. "Nobody moves a muscles, not even to clean this stuff off. You are Marines, and these idiots aren’t even worth dignifying with a response," he said, darkly. "If you’re willing to die for your country, wearing a little bit of egg should be no big deal." Damon almost chuckled to himself as he remembered some of the "team building exercises" (also known as hazing) he had endured at Basic and AWT. If the mob thought they could faze his Marines with eggs and rotten apples, they had another thing coming.

Damon looked over at the cop, and could see that he was busy arresting someone. Probably one of the throwers, no doubt. When the cop wasn’t looking, though, the mob would throw more eggs and old vegetables. It certainly beat rocks, but not by much. Some of those kids had an arm on them. Damon watched the skunkette with the young child. "No doubt raising a new generation of government hating liberals. Sheesh." It was going to be a long wait till 17:00.

* * * * *


Damon pulled into the parking lot of Ocean Park Academy as his watch turned to 18:55. Yes, he had made it just in time. He got out of the 4x4, and smoothed his dress blues. He wanted to look as sharp as he could. His 4x4 stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the SUV’s and luxury sedans in the parking lot. He hoped to make Captain soon, with a raise so that he could buy his wife a sensible car… something safe. And with a better heater, too. The nights had been very cold lately, and the forecast had been calling for rain any time now. He hurried inside, taking a program from a school-uniform wearing student working as usher. "Thanks, kiddo." "You’re welcome, Sir," came the reply. Damon smiled, and approved of the kid’s manners, after the day he had had. He soon had a seat, and a pretty teacher came out to address the audience.

"Hello, everyone. I’m Mrs. Mandell, 4th grade teacher here at the academy, and I just have to tell you, we are all just so excited to have you here tonight!" she bubbled. If it was possilbe, Lisa Dodson Mandell was even more bubbly than usual. "These young ladies and gentlemen have been working hard on the Christmas Cantata for several weeks now, and we just know you are going to love it!" She curtsied, made brief eye contact with Damon, sitting in the back, smiling just a bit wider for him, then vanished behind the curtain.

As the house lights went down, Damon heard the electronic whir of several dozen videocameras, taping the event for posterity. He wasn’t here for any of the kids, though; Lisa was directing this particular endeavor. He was there to support her. He loved her very much, and she loved him back just as much. They had met in college, around the time his friend Tony had started playing for the Gryphons. They didn’t start out loving each other, of course. But as they spent more time around each other, they began to realize how compatible they were with each other, and that they genuinely liked each other’s company. There was a rough spot where that darn self-absorbed kangaroo Michael had finally had to tell Lisa to stop harassing him… Damon knew that Mike didn’t bear Lisa any ill will, and just wanted to be left alone, but he hadn’t needed to word it quite like that. She was crushed and lifeless after that. But Damon never stopped bringing her flowers or letting her cry on his shoulder. It was some time afterwards that they both realized that they really loved each other, though. After graduation, they got jobs (he a newly commissioned officer in the Marines, she a teacher at a private school), and commenced living happily ever after.

That as the part Damon liked the best. The happily ever after part. She was sweet and happy all the time, even when money was a bit tight. For his part, he made sure that she was always safe, secure, and loved. Not a week went by that one or the other of them didn’t hide some kind of love note or similar message where the other could find it.

Damon hummed along with the Christmas carols as the kids sang, and watched their performance during the skits. And on stage all the time was Lisa, directing, making sure the kids didn’t miss cues or forget lines. She looked very formal in her long dress with the hoop skirt, decorated to look like a Christmas bell. He even laughed uproariously as she participated in one particular song-and-dance act called "Ring the Christmas Bell," where she and the little girls acted like little Carmen Mirandas. It was priceless.

When the cantata was over, there was a standing ovation from the audience. Damon doubted anybody clapped and whistled louder than he did, of course. Lisa led all the children out in a line, and they took a bow, true thespian style. "I’ve never seen a cantata this good before!" he heard some proud parent tell another.

He made his way down towards the stage where Lisa was chatting with parents, and shuffling her kids off to change, as well as supervising the set strike. She was just so full of energy! He walked up behind her and said, "You can ring my bell anytime, Carmen."

"Honey!!!" In true Lisa fashion, she pounced her husband in a hug, arms wrapped around his neck, and kissed his cheek. She was, after all, still in teacher mode, and didn’t think it would be proper to give him a real kiss around all these children, her students. Damon gathered her up in a bearhug, and set her down.

"Great job, Muffin! I heard parents saying they’ve never seen a cantata this good before. You knocked ‘em dead!"

"No, no, sweetie, it was my kids. My lovely little angels, yes you are!" Lisa bent over to hug a trio of angels as they scrambled by, lost in some incomprehensible childhood game now that the cantata was over.

"I’m going to warm up the truck, honeybun, so it’ll be nice and warm for you."

"Okay, darling. I won’t be long, you can just wait for me. I think it may be raining, and there’s no reason for you to get wet twice. I’ll meet you outside. Oh, hel-lo Mrs. Johnson…"

Damon smiled and headed for the door. Ah, great, it was raining. And cold, too. He hated to get his blues wet like this, but he really didn’t want his lovely dachshund/vixen to be cold and wet when she got into the truck. He climbed in and started the big motor, and waited for the heater core to finally warm up and put out such heat as it could. Brr, it was cold! He slipped on his leather jacket, which he had left in the truck, and watched the other cars and SUV’s leave as he waited for Lisa.

There! He flicked the lights at her, and pulled up as close as he could to the door, and reached over to open the door for her. She had changed into a blouse and slacks, from that improbable Carmen Miranda getup, and hid under her leather jacket as she ran for the truck.

"Brrr! It’s cold! I’m cold!" she said, snuggling close to Damon. He smiled at her and gathered her into a big hug, and gave her a proper kiss. "Mmmmmm… I love you so much, snugglebunny!"

"And I love you too, cupcake!" he replied. "Let’s go home. I think there may be some more presents under the tree for my sweetie." Lisa snuggled close to him.

"Whatever you say, darling." She buckled the middle seat belt of the 4x4 so she could ride next to her husband, and snuggle up to him.

Damon started the drive home from the private school. He didn’t like the night driving, and the cold, and the rain. It made for really nasty driving through the winding mountain highways as they travelled home.

"I’ve missed you, sweetheart," said Lisa, her eyes closed as she rested her head on Damons big muscular ribcage. Damon threw his right arm around her to help keep her warm. "I’ve been so busy with the cantata, and work, and parent teacher conferences… I feel like I’m neglecting you."

"No, love, you haven’t. You’ve just been busy with your career. I feel like I’ve been away from you for too long though. I’m so sorry."

"Oh, don’t say that, shnookums!" cried Lisa. "Your career is the Marines! You have very important work, and you’re doing the best job you can; I knew what my life would be like going into this. Don’t you dare apologize to me just for doing your duty, soldier!" she barked at him. Damons eyes grew wide… until she winked at him, and started giggling.

"You had me going there sweetJEEEZZZZ!!!!!" The 4x4 lurched as Damon hauled hard to the right on his steering wheel, then left again as he narrowly avoided a black sportscar blaring some kind of brash rock screamed by into the night. The car had been mostly in his lane. Lisa screamed as Damon fought for control of the truck, and tried not to think about the absurdly high center of gravity the truck had. Damon finally settled the truck down, and continued the way he had been travelling.

"What happened, dear?" asked Lisa, shaken still.

"Some car was in my lane. Probably drunk or high or kids, or all three. Idiots." Damon kept driving.

"Sweetie, what’s that up there? It looks like rocks on the shoulder of the road. That wasn’t there last time you brought me home, was it?"

Damon looked. As the truck got closer, he could see brilliant diamond reflections in the road up ahead. The rocks on the shoulder were the remains of the concrete guardrail where something had smashed through.. The glitter was glass, and there were skidmarks leading to the scene.

"Oh my goodness! I wonder when it happened?"

"For all I know, it happened two minutes ago. I’m stopping. Stay in the truck for a bit." Damon pulled up to the break in the guardrail, and got out into the driving rain. About thirty yards down a steep bank, he could make out taillights, but that was all. He knew this road, and knew that the bank went down further. They had been lucky not to tumble all the way to the bottom. He ran back to the truck, to Lisa’s door. "Call 911. Tell them there’s a car down the cliff. Make sure to tell them where we are. I’m going down to see if there’s anything I can do."

"Honey?!?!" Lisa cried as Damon reached into the toolbox and pulled out his rappelling gear and a flashlight. He enjoyed rappelling, and had even gotten Lisa into it, as well as camping out.. He grabbed one of the two way handietalkies from the toolbox, and handed one to Lisa, and clipped the other one to his jacket, switching it to voice operation.

"Can you hear me, baby?" he said as he tied the rope to an undamaged portion of guardrail.

"Yes, I’m on the cellphone with the police. Hang on." Damon finished tying off, and threw the rope down the mountain. It was a good thing the car stopped where it did, or he wouldn’t have had enough rope. He quickly tied himself a "swiss seat" since he eschewed the more traditional rappelling harness, and clipped onto the line.

He was shocked at how fast he zipped down the line, since it was slickened with cold rain. Damon found himself shivering as he descended into darkness, he turned on his flashlight and played it on the car as he got closer. It was a beat up old Beetle, not one of the newer ones. The car had obviously rolled, as there was no glass left, and half the roof was missing. As he got closer, he could hear crying, like that of a child. Damons heart gave a lurch, afraid of what he might find inside the car.

"Okay, they’re on their way, but they think it’ll take a good 20 minutes to get here," squawked the little radio as Damon picked his way down the steep embankment. "Copy that. I’m at the car."

Damon was on the passenger side of the car, and shone the light through the missing passenger window of the mangled little Bug. In the passenger seat was a small skunk child in a car safety seat, crying, but looking unharmed. He shone the light at the driver, who was hanging against her seatbelt, dazed, with blood running from her nose and cuts on her face. Rain was pouring into the car through the missing portion of the roof, washing the blood into her clothes, making it impossible to tell if she was further injured. "Merciful heavens, lady, please don’t be dead. I really need for you to be alive for me. Can you do that? Lady?"

Back at the truck, Lisa could hear the child crying, and Damon talking to the driver through the little family communicator she clutched in her paws. She was frightened that something may cause her husband to get hurt, and wanted him to come back. This was all so scary. But at the same time, her heart was breaking over the sounds of the little child crying.

Damon worked his way around the smashed Bug to the drivers side, careful of the wet rocks. There was further to fall if he slipped, and ran out of rope through his D-ring before he could stop himself. That didn’t bode well for the car or its occupants, either.

The driver slowly turned to face him, eyes unfocused, and bleeding. "My daughter…" she coughed, a pink foam forming at her lips. "It hurts….." With a moment of shock, Damon realized he was looking right at the protester who had egged him earlier in the afternoon! He dismissed the thought as irrelevant at this point.

"Your daughter is fine, ma’am. That seat saved her life. You seem like a good mother. We’re going to get you both out of here. Somehow." The young skunk mother started to shake and shiver.

"Cold…" she said weakly. Damon instantly took off his big leather jacket and draped it over the young woman. Her eyes focused on him for a moment. "Black car… ran us off… You’re a soldier." More pink froth, not good.

"Yes ma’am. And it’s a soldier’s job to protect little girls. You’re going to be okay." Damon thought furiously. He didn’t think she could be moved safely; she was looking awfully banged up, and like she needed professional help… and soon.

"Lisa? Call the cops back. Tell them that there’s a badly injured driver with a little girl in a carseat down here, they’re going to need an ambulance and climbing gear, as if they didn’t know it, and they need to put a rocket in it."

"Will do," came the reply.


"Shhh, ma’am. Don’t talk. You’re going to be fine. I’m talking to my wife up there on the road. She’s already in touch with the authorities, and help is already on the way. You’re going to be fine."

Suddenly, the car settled on the rocky bank, and started to slide. Damon grabbed the steering wheel and a fender, and dug his feet into the slippery, rocky surface. "Crap!" he shouted. The car stopped, but Damon could feel it balanced precariously, straining against him to continue its trip down the hillside.

"Mommyyy!!!!" screamed the little girl. The drivers eyes shot open, riven with fear as she stared at Damon, sopping wet, muddy, in full dress blues, straining to keep the little car from moving. "My daughter… please…" She was hyperventilating now, and coughing up blood. "Get her out. Now. Please!"

"Honey, what’s wrong, what’s happening?!" Lisa asked from the little box still attached to his jacket, covering the young skunk woman from the cold rain.

"Lisa! I need your help, honey," he shouted towards his radio, not wanting to take his hands off the Bug for fear of what would happen. "I need you to come down here with the hook, and I need it now. We’re losing the car. Right now. Please, hurry."

"On the way," said the little radio.

Back at the truck, Lisa leapt out, stuffing the cellphone in her jacket pocket. In the headlights of the 4x4, she stepped into the rapelling harness that she preferred to use, and clipped her D-ring onto the rope. Grabbing the hook from the winch on the front bumper, she shifted the winch to neutral, and jumped over the edge, bounding down the embankment, pushing as far away as she could so she could get down as quickly as possible. She was soaked by the time she arrived. She gasped at the wreckage of the vehicle before her.

"Be careful, honey! The rocks here are slippery. Put that cable around the rear tire. Hurry." His voice was straining as he struggled to keep the car from sliding down the mountain. He was already starting to feel his muscles burn. Lisa got down on the ground, and pulled on the winch cable, straightening it out. It lacked a good two feet from the axle, or any other place that would make a secure connection.

"Damon, it’s too short! It won’t reach!"

The young mother’s breathing was shallower, and her eyes were closed. Damon tried to figure out what to do next. Take the little girl out of the car, and hold on as long as he could before he had to let go of the car? The kids mother looked like she was dying already. But was she? Damon was having a hard time fitting this situation into the so called "battlefield calculus" that sometimes determines who lives and who dies. Besides, it was a soldiers job to protect little girls, and the lady skunk looked pretty young herself.

Damon shivered in the cold. "Come to the passenger side. Take the little girl out. Climb back up to the truck. Square her away. Pull the truck as close as you can to the rail, and come back down here, and belay the car by the axle."

"Damon… can you hold it that long?"

"I’m going to have to. Go, please, now." Damon strained, and shifted his feat for a better purchase in the slick mud and rocky surface. So all those years of working out, so that I could be a good football player, a good soldier, is doing somebody some good. I just hope its enough, he thought to himself.

Lisa worked her way around the car, and ever tried the door on the passenger side. It was jammed shut. Looking at her husband, straining to keep the whole affair in one place, she leaned into the window, and looked at the whimpering little child in the seat. The kids mother didn’t look like she was in very good shape… not good at all. Turning her attention back to the little skunk girl, Lisa quickly unfastened the belts and connections that held her in place, and gathered her up into her arms. The child instantly clung to her, wrapping arms and legs around her. "Okay, I got the kid," she said, looking up at the climb she was going to have to make up the embankment, over slippery, wet rocks, in the cold, with a terrified child clinging to her. She immediately started climbing.

Damon put himself in a sort of mental low gear, concentrating only on not letting the car get away from him. His muscles burned like fire now. To take his mind off of the pain, he thought of the happy times of his life… his wedding to Lisa, his fun filled college years, hanging out with the guys, spending time with Lisa… As the freezing cold December rain came down on Damon as he single handedly tried to hold back Death itself, he was filled with the warmth that comes from loving someone and having them love you back so unconditionally.

"Okay, I got it! Damon, you hear me? Damon! I’m going to start the winch now!" He was snapped out of his reverie as the car groaned. Thinking he was losing it, he threw everything he had into it. But the car started sliding… upslope! It had worked! "You did it, Lisa! It isn’t going to move now, that’s for sure," he gasped into his handietalkie, after he had retrieved it fro his jacket, covering the shivering form of the driver. She seemed to still be alive, but unconscious. Damon was going to stay down here with her, though, until help arrived.

Back up at the truck, Lisa locked the winch down with a muddy paw, and climbed into the truck, gathering the crying little girl up in her arms, and soothed her as best she could. Flashing red and blue lights arrived. A cop ran up to the door of the 4x4, while fire rescue looked over the edge at the car far below. "Ma’am, are you hurt?"

"No, it’s not me. This little girl was in the accident, though. My husband is down there now with the driver… she’s in real bad shape. The winch is the only thing holding that car onto the mountain though. Please, hurry." An EMT quickly too the little girl and started checking her over, while others started down their own lines towards the car.

Lisa waited anxiously over the next hour for them to bring the driver up. Working delicately, the raised her up with lines on a backboard, and rushed her into an ambulance. The fire and rescue team, as well as her husband followed shortly thereafter. He stood around for a few minutes, talking to the policeman writing up the report, before he shuffled weakly back to the 4x4, where Lisa waited anxiously for him. As he climbed in, Lisa gathered him up in a powerful hug, pulling him close.

All the macho manly marine facade crumbled at this point, and Damon was overcome with big, wracking sobs. Lisa felt her own tears burning her cheeks. Her husband may be tough, but he did have a heart, and a sensitive side, if you got to know him. She held him, being there for him when he needed her so badly. "They don’t think she’s going to make it," he choked out. "She regained consciousness… she’s just a single mother working as a waitress someplace… and some jerk ruins her and her kids lives by joyriding… it’s not fair!!!" he bawled. Lisa knew the whole situation violated Damons ideas of right and wrong, and how the world should work… and she knew that this was one of those unhappy instances where it didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.

There was nothing Lisa could do for Damon, and she knew it… besides just be there for him. Finally, he worked it all out of his system, and he wiped his face off on his rain and blood soaked jacket, and lifted a shaky hand to the ignition. They drove the rest of the way home in silence.

* * * * * *

"… Oh, Cindy, it’s so great to hear from you! Thank you so much for calling. We really needed the good cheer around here. Tell Tony that Damon and I wish him a Merry Christmas, too." Lisa Mandell hung the phone up on its charge cradle, and snuggled up to Damon, both in their pajamas in front of the fireplace, where they had been opening gifts. Pretty things for her, and tools for him. They hugged and kissed, and said, "Merry Christmas, I love you," for about the ten thousandth time, when the phone rang again. "Maybe that’s Mom and Dad. Or Dani and Kevin." Lisa bounced over to the phone. "Merry Christmas from the Mandells, hello?"

Lisa’s smile froze on her face. "Mm-hmm. Yes…. Yes… oh. Oh! I see. Yes. Thank you. I’ll let him know."

Damon had a feeling he already knew what she was going to say.

"Don’t worry, sweetums, it’s not what you think. That was the police. It seems that not too long after that black car tried to run us off the road, it wound up in a ditch. The driver was passed out, drunk and high, just like you guessed. But get this; it gets better. Driver was the kid of some movie star or somesuch… a popular one. It seems that they don’t want this to get out, so they are paying a massive settlement to the kids mother, as well as handling her hospital and physical therapy bills. And yes, she is going to be okay. Her condition improved once they got her into the hospital."

"Oh, thank goodness. I am so happy to hear that. The bad guys didn’t win after all."

Lisa looked down at the cuts and scrapes on her hands from climbing up and down the hillside four times, and thought about the poor skunkette in the hospital. "Yes… but I wouldn’t say the good guys won either."

"I’ll be satisfied with that, dearest. A draw then." The big bulldog pulled her close in a loving embrace. "Merry Christmas, Lisa. I love you."

"I love you too, Damon."

The two sat there silently, in front of the fire and the festive Christmas tree, for a long, happy time.