tagMatureHelo Pilot

Helo Pilot


"Just look at them. This breaks my heart!" she said quietly.

"You taught both of them, right?" her husband whispered.

"Yes. She just finished my class, and he was my student five years ago."

"Wait. Wasn't he the valedictorian?"

"Uh-huh. Smart as a whip. And as nice as they come. And very popular with the girls. I tried so hard to get him to go to college, but he was hell bent on the Army."

"Right. I remember you telling me that. Such a shame. Not that there's anything wrong with the military. But being that smart..."

"Oh, look. His sister is about to fall apart!" his wife said as she squeezed her husband's arm so hard it hurt.

She'd managed not to cry up 'til then, but when the sister started crying, she cried, too.

The sister was Andrea Simmons who was 16 years old while her older brother, Nathan, had just turned 21 six weeks earlier. The siblings had just lost both of their parents in a horrible car accident that shook their little town of Maple Valley, Washington, more than anything anyone could remember in many years.

Nathan had indeed joined the Army a few months after high school, but he hadn't enlisted in the traditional sense. He'd gone in under something colloquially called 'high school to flight school' in which qualified applicants could, without a college degree, fly some of the world's most sophisticated helicopters after completing the Army's warrant officer basic course and flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Nathan had carefully planned his future starting when he was 16 and fell in love with helicopters after watching the movie Blackhawk Down. The thought of flying one captivated him, and after doing some research, he found out it was possible for him to do just that if he could meet all of the Army's qualifications.

From that moment on, everything Nathan Simmons did was with one goal in mind—to fly an Army helicopter. Whether it was academics, sports, or studying for various physical or academic tests he needed to pass, Nathan had a singular focus.

That kind of self-discipline had recently paid off for Warrant Officer Nathan Simmons who had just finished flight school. He was one day away from leaving Fort Rucker for his first duty station when his commanding officer called him in to break the worst kind of news to one of the Army's newest pilots.

In fact, his final flight had been on Wednesday, his class was due to graduate on Friday, and the Red Cross called Fort Rucker on Thursday informing the chain of command that both of Nathan's parents were dead. Too stunned to think, Nathan somehow managed to thank his commander, salute when he left, then talk to the admin section about his options.

Nathan had 30 days leave coming to him, and his commander told him he could try and delay his reporting date to his first unit if needed. Nathan thanked him and promised to stay in touch then found himself on a flight from Alabama to Seattle the next day, just three hours after graduation, an event he couldn't recall as more than a hazy blur.

His first concern had been for his little sister who was staying with a friend until her brother arrived. The first two days had also been a blur of planning for a funeral, meeting with their parents' lawyer, and a non-stop parade of people coming by the house to wish them well or offer assistance.

Now today, he found himself standing in front of all that remained of his mother and father, with his unconsolable, brokenhearted sister by his side.

The woman's husband knew she was going to go try and comfort them, and he knew her well enough to know there was no stopping her even though this brother and sister were the only ones standing in front of their parents' caskets as everyone else gave them time to grieve alone before filing by to pay their last respects.

She did interrupt them when she walked up and gently touched the girl's shoulder. She turned around, and once she recognized her former teacher, she hugged her and continued to cry.

"Ms. Edwards!" the girl sobbed as they held one another.

Over the girl's shoulder she saw Nathan who acknowledged her presence as she quietly said, "I'm SO sorry!"

She beckoned him over, and he joined in the hug as he thanked her for coming.

"Do you kids have a place to stay? Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?" she asked with genuine concern.

They were staying at their parents' home, and school had been out for a week, so Andrea didn't need a place to stay to finish out the year. Had it not been, Nathan would have done his best to find someone to keep her until school was over. Not having any family in the local area would have made that a huge challenge, but it's possible one of Andrea's friends would have offered. He might have even considered allowing this former teacher to care for her until school was out, but that was now a moot point.

"We're fine, Ms. Edwards," Nathan told her. "But thank you very much for your kind offer."

"Of course," she replied. "Listen, if you think of anything, you just let me know, okay?"

"We will," he told her as he gently pulled his grieving sister away from their former teacher.

"Come on, Andi. We need to move out of the way so other people can pay their respects."

She nodded as she sobbed then put her arm through her brother's and let him lead her back to their pew in the front row.

"It's...just...not...fair!" Andrea sobbed as Nathan helped her sit back down.

He thought about trying to explain how randomly the universe worked to her; that fairness had nothing to do with it. He wanted to tell her they'd just been in the wrong place at the right time, and that was all there was to it. But his younger sister needed love and reassurance, not cold, hard information, so he put his arm around her and let her cry as family members from out of town and other friends filed by the shiny coffins.

After what seemed like an eternity, their parents were laid to rest in a local cemetery. The last of the crowd was gone leaving just two people and the funeral director there with Nathan and Andrea.

"Thanks, Uncle Bart. We appreciate that," Nathan said to him after being offered his condolences yet again.

"You uh, you look sharp in your uniform, Nate," his uncle told him.

"Oh, thanks. I nearly forgot I wore it," Nathan told him truthfully.

"We're all real proud of you," his aunt said before taking Andrea aside to talk to her alone.

"So what's next?" his uncle asked.

"Well, I was on my way to Fort Riley, Kansas, but I asked my last 'boss' to see if they can delay my reporting date until I can deal with...all this."

"Makes sense," his Uncle Bart told him. "What about Andrea?"

"I guess she'll have to come with me. There's no one here to take care of her, and I'm the logical choice. Besides, she's my responsibility now, so I'm really the only choice."

"We'd love to have her, but with me being unable to work anymore, I don't think we could do that."

"I understand. And I'd never ask you to do that. This is on me, and I'll figure things out as I go. I just hope I don't have to deploy for any length of time until she finishes high school."

"She's got two more years left, right?"

"Correct. She just finished her sophomore year."

"Is it too early to ask about college?"

"I uh, I just can't say at this point, you know? I'm a little overwhelmed right now, but we'll make that happen. Andi's too smart not to have the opportunity to go," Nathan told him confidently.

"I have no doubt, Nate. You've always been mature beyond your years. I mean, look at you, an Army helicopter pilot at 21. That's pretty damned impressive if you ask me."

"Thanks, Uncle Bart," Nathan replied. "Look, I uh, I think I'm gonna grab my sister and head back to the house then start working on some kind of plan."

"Planning's the key to success, right? Isn't that what your dad always said?"

Nathan managed a smile then told his uncle, "Yes, he did. He instilled that, along with many other good values in me, early on, and he—and my mom—will be sorely missed."

"Well, you take good care of yourself and that pretty young sister of yours, you hear?"

"Yes, sir. I'll do that. You have my word."

The two men shook hands as Bart waved for his wife who gave Andrea a final hug before doing the same to Nathan.

Once they were all alone, Andrea looked at her brother and said, "Nathan? I'm so scared."

He put his arms around her and promised her everything would be okay, even though he had no way of knowing whether or not it would.

"Come on. Let's go home and see if we can maybe figure out what to do, okay?"

She let him put her arm around her shoulders as he walked them to their parents' car, the one that hadn't been demolished by a tractor-trailer that lost control on I-5 just south of Seattle eight days earlier, killing them instantly, turning their car into a compacted bale of glass and metal.

There were more flowers and some food on the doorstep with notes which Nathan read after taking everything inside. He changed clothes then checked on his sister who was in their parents' room looking into the closet.

She knew he was there and said, "I still can't believe they're gone."

Nathan walked up behind his sister, put his hands on her shoulders, but didn't say anything other than, "I miss then, too, Andi."

Andrea turned around, looked at her brother, then broke down again and began sobbing uncontrollably.

"Come on. This probably isn't the best place to be right now."

He tried to get her to eat a little something, but Andrea couldn't stand the thought. He managed to get her to drink a few sips of orange juice then let it go. He wasn't hungry, either, but knew he needed to eat, so he dished out something from one of the casseroles and sat down and forced himself to eat a few bites.

He gave up on doing any planning for the rest of that day choosing instead to spend it with his sister. Neither of them spoke very often, but there was no real need to. The only thing that was going to help was the passage of time, and that couldn't be sped up no matter how badly they were hurting.

Nathan got up early the next morning, and after making sure Andrea was still asleep, went out for a four-mile run to try and clear his foggy head. The cool, crisp, June-morning air helped tremendously as he tried to think about the things he knew he had to do while trying to come up with things he hadn't thought about but that would also need to be addressed.

One of the most important things was getting his sister declared his legal dependent so that he could make sure she had access to medical and dental care. He called his former unit and talked to a senior NCO as soon as he got back home who he explained how that process worked.

Evidently, pretty much everything hinged on getting death certificates, and those wouldn't be ready for another week or so, at least according to the attorney who'd helped him the day after he arrived back home.

Nathan thanked the master sergeant who told him to call—anytime—about anything no matter how trivial it might seem.

That was one of the things he liked the most about the Army. People really did seem to 'take care of their own', and they did it with a kind of professionalism he wanted to emulate.

He took a shower, ate a bowl of cereal, then sat down and starting making a list of things to do along with subheadings for whatever the main topic might require as part of getting it taken care of.

By the time Andrea wandered into the kitchen around 10am, Nathan had a fairly long list of things that had to be done along with getting his sister into the military's system as his dependent.

"Did you sleep?" he asked quietly.

"Not really," she told him. "I'd drift off then wake up and then lay there asking why this happened then start crying, and eventually fall back asleep only to wake up and do it all over again."

She poured herself some coffee, and Nathan thought about asking her what she thought she was doing, but if his 16-year old sister wanted coffee after losing her parents, she could have some.

"Did you?" she asked as she poured in a ton of cream and sugar before taking a first sip.

"I'd have said I had a rough night, but compared to yours, I did okay."

"What are you working on?" Andrea asked.

"Oh, it's a list of stuff we need to do. You know, like getting the house ready to put up for sale, the life insurance..."

"Wait? We're selling the house?" she asked, on the verge of crying again.

"Andi, I can't stay here with you, and you can't live here alone," he said as gently as he could.

She didn't cry, but her voice was hollow as she said, "So I have to leave all my friends, don't I?"

It wasn't an accusation, it was her way of processing their new reality. Technically, she could request to be emancipated, but Andrea wasn't ready to take care of herself, and she was well aware of that. Just the thought of doing so frightened her. She also knew none of her friends' parents were going to offer to let her stay there with them for two years, so that could only mean one thing. She'd be leaving with her brother and going wherever the Army sent him.

"You're being sent to Kansas, right?" she asked without looking at him.

"Yes. Fort Riley."

"Where's that?" Andrea wanted to know.

"Come on. I'll show you," Nathan said as spun around and opened a search engine on his laptop. He clicked on 'maps' and brought up the state of Kansas then zeroed in on his new duty station. Fort Riley was in the northeastern corner of the state, and about 150 miles from Kansas City, Missouri.

"Do they even have schools there?" she asked with a hint of sarcasm.

Nathan didn't reply in kind, he only assured her that they did.

"Where will we live?"

"I don't know yet. But either in a house on post or we'll get a place out in town," her brother told her.

He saw her puzzled look and explained that the Army called its bases 'posts' so living on-post meant on the base.

"Will I be able to drive?" she asked.

"Yeah. Of course. You can either drive Mom's car or, once we sell the house, we can sell that car, too, then buy you one when we get to Kansas."

"I want a Mustang," his sister said, her voice showing signs of life for the first time since he got home.

"We'll talk about that, okay?" he told her with a smile.

"Oh, right. You'll be my new dad, huh?" she said rather dismissively.

"Andi? I'll never try and be Dad, okay? But I will be responsible for you."

"So...you get to tell me what to do?" she asked with an edge.

"Andi. Listen. I don't have all the answers yet. One thing I do know is this is going to hard for both of us. I don't expect you to understand everything, but could you please try not to give me a hard time?"

Nathan had always been her hero, and she'd looked up to him for as long as she could remember. In fact, when she was a little girl, she'd announced one evening at dinner that she was going to marry her brother one day.

Her father smiled and told her, "Oh, okay," never bothering to mention that wasn't allowed.

In time she realized it wasn't, but she never stopped loving and admiring her brother, but she wasn't quite sure she was ready for him to be her parent. Then again, it was a case of 'ready or not, here it comes' so Nathan really was her de facto dad now.

"Sorry. I'm just a total mess right now," she told him.

"It's okay. So am I."

Nathan was surprised when his sister then said, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Her brother smiled at her then said, "Maybe eat something?"

Andrea made face then said, "Ugh! Not that."

"We do need to do the laundry and the dishes are piling up. If you pick one, I'll do the other," he offered.

"You suck at the laundry so you do the dishes," she told him.

She nearly smiled when Nathan smiled at her, and for now, that was more than he could have hoped for. Between the two of them they somehow managed to get the house reasonably clean and agreed to do their best not to mess anything up before they could find a realtor to help them get it sold.

That evening they sat down and looked at some websites and tried to decide whom to ask to sell the home, but shelved the idea when neither of them could decide.

It was just after noon the following day when the doorbell rang, and Nathan went to answer it. The parade of well-wishers had stopped, but it was probably someone like Ms. Edwards checking in on them.

He looked outside, and saw a woman standing there then did a double take when his brain told him he recognized her. He opened the door, took a better look at her, and that's when she smiled at him.

"Miss Jennings?" he said before she could speak, knowing it was her. He knew she'd gotten married, but couldn't recall her new name to save him.

"I got married right after you were in my class, Nathan. My last name is Stevens," she said politely.

"Yes. Right! I knew you did, I just couldn't recall your new name," he said apologetically.

"It's fine, Nathan. You have a lot going on right now, and it's been what—five years?"

Nathan nodded as he looked down and saw the ring on her hand then said, "Yes. Yes, it has."

He hesitated then asked, "Um...would you like to come in?"

"Am I bothering you?" she asked, her eyebrows raised to let him know she was concerned about that. "I...just heard about, you know, your parents, and I...I wanted to come by and at least offer my condolences."

"Oh, sure. Yes. Please, come in, Mrs. Stevens," Nathan said as he stepped aside.

He closed the door then asked her if she'd like anything to eat or drink.

"Oh, no thank you," she told him. "I won't stay long, I promise. And I hope you'll call me Marissa from now on."

"Oh. Sure. Thank you. I will," he promised as he led her to the family room.

As they walked, he remembered Miss Jennings quite well. She'd been his 10th-grade Washington State history teacher, and the only teacher on whom he'd ever had a crush. Then again, nearly every other guy in school had had a crush on her, too, but he'd really had it bad for her. He did remember her first name was Marissa, and ever since, it had been one of his favorite names even though he'd never yet met anyone else with that name.

Her very blonde hair wasn't quite as long as she'd worn it back then, but it was still every bit as beautiful as it now fell to just above her shoulders rather than to the middle of her back.

The gorgeous blue eyes and pretty face that had mesmerized him in class looked exactly the way he'd remembered them, and although she'd aged, it was barely noticeable to him. Marissa also still had the same amazing figure she'd had five years ago, and Nathan found himself briefly back in tenth grade fantasizing about his beautiful teacher.

"I'm sorry I missed the funeral, Nathan, but I only heard about the accident last night when a friend called to let me know," she explained.

"It's fine, and there's no need to apologize," he told her. "I'm just glad you stopped by."

She didn't reply so he said, "I knew you got married, and as I recall, you left the school the next year. Am I remembering correctly?"

"You are," she replied with a smile. "My husband, Eric, was a firefighter, and he lived in Seattle, so I resigned my position and started teaching closer to our home."

Nathan grew up in a small-town Maple Valley which was located about 40 miles southeast of Seattle, and that's where Miss Jennings had taught high school for several years.

"I haven't been back out here since I left in 2014, but I always loved the scenery."

"It was a pretty great place to grow up," he told her with a smile of his own.

She looked down for a moment then looked back up at Natan.

"The reason I came was because...well, sadly, I have a lot of...experience...with dealing with the kind of things you're going through."

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