The sound of Christopher’s scream became garbled as Buck was pulled away and under the water. He wasn’t the only thing that the receding wave had claimed. To reach the surface, Buck not only had to fight the water, but all the debris that it had caught up in its savage movement. Buck clawed through the odd pieces of wood, a bicycle and other flotsam until he popped to the surface.
The ladder truck was already far more distant than Buck would have thought possible. Thank God that Christopher was wearing a bright yellow shirt. Despite the distance, Buck could see that the little boy was safe.
For now, anyway.
Determined to get back to his charge, Buck tried swimming, but the current of the wave worked against him. He didn’t get very far.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Buck chanted under his breath.
He’d been so caught up in saving Christopher and then anyone else he saw in trouble that Buck never thought about what would happen to all the water that had rushed in. It had to go somewhere, and Buck had been unprepared. He’d been helping a woman onto the ladder truck refuge when the water started rushing out and he’d been ripped from his perch before he knew what was happening.
Bobby was always chastising Buck for acting without thinking. Every instinct Buck had was demanding that he swim directly back to Christopher, but clearly that wasn’t working. Hearing Bobby’s voice in his head telling him to be smart, Buck changed tactics. He stopped fighting the wave, mentally acknowledging that there was no way he was going to win against the ocean. Instead, Buck focused on staying afloat and dodging the worst of the debris.
“We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!”
Buck turned towards the screaming and saw a pair of young women. They were trying to hold on to one another in order to keep their heads above water but were mostly only accomplishing dunking each other. Buck looked around wildly and found what looked like a piece of telephone pole. He wrapped an arm around it and swam to the women.
“Hold on to this,” Buck told them as he thrust the pole fragment at them. “Let it take your weight. Save your strength.” He kept one of his hands on the pole but didn’t completely grab it. Buck wasn’t sure that it could support all three of them. His legs were getting tired, but he still could tread water. He wasn’t sure the same could be said for the women.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” One of the women asked shrilly. She looked to be a couple of years younger than Buck. Soaked, he couldn’t tell if her hair was blonde or brown, but there was no mistaking the terrified look on her face.
“Nah,” Buck assured her with a confidence that wasn’t faked. He believed in his team and, through them all of the LAFD. “I’m a firefighter, so I know they’re looking for us already.”
“Firefighter, what good is that going to do us?” The other woman had regained enough breath to talk. He could see from the scar on her face that she’d had a surgically corrected cleft lip. “There’s no fire!”
Buck looked around. The wave had pulled them from the pier area and out into open water. The shore was still frustratingly close, but there was no way any of them were getting there on their own.
“Look, my name’s Buck, what’s yours?” Buck asked. He had a lot of practice in calming people down.
He looked at the first woman and she provided her name too. “Jackie.”
“Jackie, Melanie, fighting fires is the least thing firefighters do.” Buck told them. “Believe me, they’re going to come. All you gotta do is hang on. Can you do that for me?”
They both nodded, if hesitantly. Buck was about to say more, but a movement in his periphery caught his eye. He could see a pair of arms waving in the air as someone else struggled to stay afloat.
“Shit.” Buck let go of the piece of wood and immediately swam towards the next person in need. He was getting tired, so it took longer than it had with the women. As he reached the person, he could see it was a man and just as Buck got to him, the man went under – and didn’t come up.
Buck didn’t hesitate. He took a deep breath and dove under. Thankfully the man hadn’t gone down too far and within moments, Buck had an arm around his chest and pulled him towards the surface. As their heads broke water, the man started to struggle with Buck even as he gulped for air.
“Calm down,” Buck barked. The man was significantly smaller than Buck, but his struggles threatened to send them under again. “I got you.”
It took a few moments, but either his words got through to him or the man became too tired to fight. Buck looked around desperately. He was growing increasingly tired and cold; he needed to find something for them to hold on to or they were both going to drown.
As much as the ocean had taken away from them, it also provided. Buck spotted a flat piece of wood floating not too far away. He wasn’t sure if it was part of a building or a billboard, but ultimately it didn’t matter. It floated, that’s all he cared about.
“Hang on, here we go,” Buck told the man he was trying to save.
The man didn’t answer and remained blessedly limp as Buck swam and towed him towards the flotsam. His eyes were closed, but Buck couldn’t tell if the man was unconscious or just too scared to keep them open.
It took more effort than it should have, but Buck got them to the floating board. It was smaller than he originally thought, but the man was small too so hopefully it would be enough.
“Here, hang on to this,” Buck instructed, going so far as to lift the man’s arm towards it. There was no reaction.
“Come on, come on. Do you want to die?” Buck tried again to get the man to hold on to wood and this time, he weakly reached out.
Given the thinness of the wood, it wasn’t something that could be grabbed on to like with the two women that Buck had helped. Instead, Buck boosted the man onto the board. It was just big enough that he could curl up on it. Buck held on to the edge, but he was bigger and his weight caused it to dip dangerously. The man yelled wordlessly in fear and Buck let go, afraid that the man would get toppled back into the water. Buck was sure of one thing; he couldn’t lift the guy up again.
Realizing that sharing the board with the man he’d just rescued wasn’t going to happen, Buck looked around for something that he could use to stay afloat. What he saw was an awful lot of water, but he did catch site of something bobbing in the waves not too far from him. He made his leaden arms move so he could swim slowly towards the object. When he got closer, however, Buck discovered that what he’d seen was another person. This one was floating face down. Buck knew what that meant, but he could leave it like that. He swam to the corpse and put his shoulder underneath, flipping it.
It was another man and from his fixed, open eyes, Buck knew that checking for a pulse was a moot point. He did it anyway, head dropping for a moment when he didn’t find one.
“Sorry, buddy.” Buck’s voice was a croak as he released the body. For all he knew, this guy had been dead since the first wave. Buck still didn’t like the idea of losing someone. While on the ladder truck with Christopher, he’d distracted the little boy when some bodies had floated past. He only hoped someone else was doing that for Christopher now. The kid had been through so much, he didn’t deserve to be traumatized like that.
While he was thinking, a sharp pain in Buck’s leg took him by surprise. His bad leg cramped and hurt like a son of a bitch. Buck’s cry of pain became a gargle as his head slipped under the water. Buck forced his leg to straighten and fought his way to the surface again. He coughed, making his chest hurt worse than when he was coughing up blood at Bobby and Athena’s house.
Finding something of his own that he could use as a float was becoming an increasing priority for Buck.
For the first time of the day, Buck had some good fortune for himself. He spotted something red practically bouncing in the water. When it bounced closer, Buck realized it was a cooler; the super large kind that you’d find at a tailgate party. Buck groaned softly as he made his body move again, snagging the plastic container before it could float by.
The cooler was big, but Buck was a tall man. Using a 100-quart cooler to support a six foot, two inch man was not easy. Eventually Buck found a position that kept his head out of the water, while allowing a grip that kept him from falling off. For the first time since he saw the wall of water headed for the pier, Buck was glad his team wasn’t there. Chim would never let Buck forget how he looked riding a cooler.
Everyone, including himself, was as safe as Buck could make them and that’s when the hard part started. Waiting.
The ocean wasn’t some tame swimming pool; it had plenty of movement. At first Buck could still see Melanie and Jackie clinging to the telephone pole and the little guy curled up on his board. The waves eventually carried them out of sight. Occasionally Buck though he could hear feminine screams in the distance, but even those faded after a while.
Buck never knew it was possible to be so tired. He thought it was bad when he was training to get re-qualified for the LAFD but that was child’s play compared to surviving a tsunami. His good leg was numb and his bad leg felt like a giant piece of lead hanging off of his hip. At least his bad leg wasn’t cramping anymore. Buck’s lungs felt like he was breathing shards of glass, but the worst was the way that Christopher’s voice echoed through his head.
The whole day was like a jagged puzzle that Buck’s shell-shocked mind was too tired to put together. One piece was spending time with Christopher at the pier before everything went to hell. Eddie had been right; Christopher oozed a kind of joy that had lifted Buck’s spirits. The next puzzle piece was seeing the wall of water coming in. Pure joy and sheer terror – how could those pieces ever fit together?
As the sun began slipping away, Buck’s world narrowed down to his grip on the cooler and the emptiness of the dark water surrounded him. When he saw lights in the distance, he at first thought it was a trick of his imagination. Then he heard the whiny buzzing sound of an engine and Buck’s hopes lifted.
“Hey!” Buck shouted, ignoring how it made his throat feel like it was going to rip apart. With a supreme effort, he pried one hand off his grip of the cooler and lifted it so he could wave. “Hey! Over here!”
If he’d still had the ability to produce tears, Buck would have cried with relief when the lights turned his way. The sound of an engine got louder and then Buck could see it. A rescue boat was headed his way. Whoever was piloting it wasn’t very adept and the boat’s wake threatened to swamp him. Buck cried out as he lost his grip on the cooler, but strong arms grabbed him. Whoever had hold of him was hanging on very tightly and it felt like agony to Buck’s exhausted body as he was pulled over the side and into the boat. He didn’t fight it, though. Pain meant he was still alive and so Buck welcomed it. He was going to live and, more importantly, be able to find out what happened to Christopher.
For several moments all Buck could do was huddle on the deck and breathe. Even after fighting dozens of fires where smoke seemed to steal all of the available air, Buck had never appreciated the simple act of breathing so much before. Vaguely, Buck was aware of people around him, mostly because they weren’t wearing any gear that would indicate they were first responders. He supposed given the breadth of the disaster that even civilians were helping with rescues. Bobby would have a fit; things got messy when civilians tried to help.
“Water?” Buck asked. It was hard to believe that, surrounded by the ocean as he was, his throat had never felt so dry.
“Not yet,” a voice responded. “Gotta see if you’re worth it.”
A bright light was shone into Buck’s face and he flinched back. A hand immediately not-so-gently gripped his chin and turned him back. Buck was so cold from his time in the ocean that the warmth from the other person’s hold felt like it burned his skin.
Buck couldn’t see past the bright light to see who was wielding it. He did, however, hear the long, low whistle the man gave.
“Boss, get over here,” the man yelled over his shoulder. “I think we hit the jackpot.”
The boat rocked as someone else approached. “What do we have here, Mr. Cody?”
A different hand took over the hold of Buck’s face. It turned him left and then right, ending with a thumb brushing over his chapped lips. “Oh, my, Mr. Cody, I think you’re right. They need to heal, of course, but I do believe that these lips were made to suck cock.”
Buck blinked, not sure he’d heard that correctly. Before he could protest, hands were running over his body. Given his tendency to get hurt, Buck was used to Hen or Chim checking him over. Those touches, however, had been professional and impersonal. This touch started out the same, but soon became something else. Neither Hen nor Chim had ever ended the process by copping a feel.
“Hey,” Buck tried to squirm away, but the someone behind him was holding him firmly.
“Mr. Cody, get this young man some water.” The voice said, now full of a greedy smugness. “I think he’s going to be a real money maker.”
A bottle was held up to his lips and, despite his confusion and growing disquiet, Buck drank willingly. All too soon, it was pulled it away.
“Gotta take it slow, beautiful.” A finger ran between Buck’s ass cheeks, but he was too tired to protest. “Don’t want you barfing all over the boat. Can’t damage the merchandise and all that.”
The grip remained, but the light was turned elsewhere. Buck blinked rapidly as he tried to get accustomed to the change in brightness. As his eyes adjusted, he could see that the women from earlier were also in the boat. Jackie was huddled in the corner, a water bottle clutched in her hand. Two men hovered over Melanie. Buck knew that clothing could be stripped off with the force of the tsunami, but he couldn’t figure out why Melanie’s shirt was pulled up, revealing her breasts.
“The face is a mess with that lip, but the body is okay,” one of the men said to the other. There was an almost clinical detachment in his voice. “And her tits are nice.”
The other man took Melanie’s left breast in his hand and gave a squeeze. “Yeah, they sure are.”
From the look on her face, Melanie wasn’t truly aware of what was going on. She moaned and reached for the bottle of water the first man held. He looked towards the bow of the boat and, apparently receiving permission, gave it to her.
Before Buck could protest, the boat lurched to a stop. The flashlights were concentrated off to the side and Buck realized that they’d found the small man he’d rescued earlier. As the boat floated closer, the man was pulled off the board and dragged over the side.
After the newcomer was aboard, another person approached him. A light was shone into the small man’s face just it had been done to Buck earlier. The results were different, however.
“No, this one won’t do.” The voice was familiar, it was the man who’d told Mr. Cody to give Buck water. “Throw him back.”
Buck watched with horror as the two men who’d been with Jackie and Melanie approached the small man and, with no ceremony, pitched him over the side of the boat. Buck heard a shriek as the man’s form slipped under the water.
The shock energized Buck enough that he struggled with whomever was still holding him. “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be saving people!”
The apparent boss approached Buck. “Is that what I’m supposed to be doing?”
“Y-yes, of c-courssse,” Buck’s tongue didn’t seem to want to work correctly. He’d been exhausted when he’d been pulled into the boat, but despite being given water, his condition seemed to be deteriorating by the moment.
The water. Buck looked down at the bottle with dismay and then tossed it away. “Y’pu s’mthing in t’water.”
His defiance, as meager as it was, seemed to please the man in charge. He crouched by Buck and smiled at him indulgently. “Beautiful and smart. My clients are going to have so much fun with you.”
The edges of Buck’s vision began to darken as his body became limp. He heard a chuckle behind him and then he was being lowered to the floor of the boat with surprising gentleness. “Don’t want to damage the merchandise.”
As unconsciousness approached, Buck finally realized that he might have been pulled from the water, but he hadn’t been rescued.
He hadn’t been rescued at all.