This is not the story I set out to write, but I'm still having trouble reining in my muses. Since the infamous "Bayou" was kept under considerable control (story-wise, not length-wise), I decided the muses earned the right to run free (and they did). So this story is first-person, present-tense from both Jim's and Blair's points-of-view. You have been warned. :-)
Oh, another warning. This story starts off as warm and fluffy, then takes a spiraling plunge into angst hell, before gradually rising to a typical ending. And there are minor references to the TV episode, Remembrances, and to my story, An Essential Friend. Oh, yeah, before I forget, some of you may recognize a snippet or two that are take-offs of classic KF:TLC lines.
By the way, I seem to have a running theme of Jim and kids lately. But at least they are alive in this one. :-)
~*~But I'm too late. The earth is shifting and we are trapped inside it.~*~
~*~But I'm too late. The earth is shifting and we are trapped inside it.~*~
"Thanks, Ricky," I say as the kid gives me his permission slip.
Instead of getting on he stares at the man leaning against the bus. "What's the heat doing here, man?"
I grin. Jim's been pegged within the first five minutes of this outing. That's money in my pocket. But no. Bet or no bet, I owe him. This is a rare day off for Jim, a Saturday where he should have been able to stay in bed as long as he wanted, read the newspaper in his shorts on the sofa, and catch the games on television. But instead, he's out here with me, chaperoning a group of inner city youth to Cascade Woods. Working with these kids is a community service project I do with my friend and fellow anthropology grad student, Walter Cody. We thought giving the kids a chance to breathe fresh air and actually see the beauty of untamed nature was a good idea so we planned this field trip. We would take them for a hike and a visit to a cave that had Native American art drawn thousands of years ago.
Then Walter phoned last night and said he had the flu. Since the rules state there must be two adult chaperones, his call put me in a bad spot. I thought about canceling the trip but the thought of the disappointment in their eyes weighed heavy on my heart. I think that's what made Jim agree to be the other chaperone. He's like that. He can be stubborn and hard-headed, but when it comes to something that affects my soul, he stands by me.
"This is my best friend, Jim Ellison," I tell Ricky. "He's the reason this outing wasn't canceled, so be nice."
"You planning on shooting anyone, cop?" Ricky sasses.
"Anyone planning on giving me reason to?" Jim replies. His stance against the minibus doesn't change, but something shifts. Ricky feels it too and he gets on the bus without another word.
"Hey, Professor Sandburg."
I look down to see nine-year old Bobby, his hand gripped tightly by a tiny little girl. "Who's your friend?" I ask.
"My sister, Tara. Mama put her name on the form too. She's supposed to go with us."
I take in the girl's size and frown. She has to be no more than three or four. How I can explain this and not come off looking like the bad guy? "I'm sorry, Bobby. Even if your mama added Tara's name to the slip, she's too little to go."
"But there's no one at home to take care of her," Bobby says, pulling Tara closer to him.
"The bus can only go so far and then we have to walk. I'm afraid she won't be able to make it," I explain. Walter and I had planned the trip this way in order to tire the kids out a little. We figured they would be easier to handle that way.
"It's okay, Chief. Let them on the bus."
I look at him in confusion. "But, Jim--"
"I'll look out for her."
Mush. That's what I am, ladies and gentlemen. I once had a hide as tough as an elephant's. Now, I am soft enough to be safely gummed by old men and babies. It started with Blair and now effects my whole life. If you need help, go to Cascade and ask for Ellison; he's all mush inside and will help you. You don't believe me? Last night I come in late. I wanted to make sure I had no loose ends at the station to mess up my day off so I stayed until my desk was clear. I come into the loft and Blair's on the balcony. I sense something's wrong. That's how close the two of us are. I felt funny about that at first, but now I'm used to instantly knowing how he feels, his moods and stuff. It really has nothing to do with my Sentinel senses, the hyper-awareness they give me. It's all about my relationship with Blair.
Anyway, he tells me about Walter getting sick and the possibility of canceling the outing. He doesn't even have to ask. I volunteer for no other reason than I know it will make him happy. When I look down at him, there will be a special light glowing in the back of his dark blue eyes and a smile will make his face appear even younger. Mush. Oh, if the criminal element of Cascade could see the real me, they would probably bust a gut. Well, that would be an interesting crime deterrent, huh? CASCADE CRIMINALS TOO BUSY LAUGHING TO COMMIT CRIMES.
Now I find myself taking responsibility for a thumb-sucking little rugrat with big hazel eyes. Why? Because I look at her brother and see myself. I see a person who has accepted responsibility for another, whether he was specifically asked to or not. The permission slip in Blair's hand is clear to me and if Bobby isn't the one who added Tara's name to the slip, I'll eat my favorite Jag's cap. The kid either suspected no one would be home to care for her or he didn't trust her alone with that someone. Therefore, if the girl couldn't go, he wouldn't go and there would be two children at home without supervision and/or in danger. The sacrifice touches the nobler part of me and I open my big mouth. Mush, I tell you. Pure mush.
We end up with a crowd of three girls and five boys. Other than Tara, who is four, they all fall into the nine to twelve year-old range. Thankfully, for most of the trip to Cascade Woods, they leave me alone. With my hearing turned to a minimum and the children doing their best not to disturb me, I veg as Blair drives. Some time during the trip, I rouse when someone slides into the seat beside me. I look down and there's Tara, her thumb in her mouth. She leans against me, squirms a little, then falls asleep. Hmm. Maybe she's my kindred spirit.
We get to the ranger's station and I go check the group in and inform them that I'm a Cascade police officer. It's just common courtesy to let another agency know you're on their turf. Then I join Blair and the others as he explains the kind of trees they are going to see and stuff. Smoky the Blair, I laugh to myself, even though I'm fascinated by the amount of knowledge he crams under all that hair.
"I think this is the trail we take," Blair says, looking at the map. It's obvious Walter was supposed to take over this part of the trip.
Knowing my partner's un-sense of direction, I sigh and step forward. "I've been here before, Sandburg. I'll take point." With that I grab Tara and swing her up around my neck. The child giggles and instinctively holds on as I lead the way up the mountain.
I think my actions with Tara reveals my mushiness, so I am approached by the others. "Why come you ain't leaving a footprint?" Ricky asks me.
I look behind me and shrug. "It's something I learned to do in the military. I can show you how, if you like."
"We're too stupid to learn something like that," Ricky announces.
"Oh, you're stupid?" I say, wondering who has told him this and how often. "I thought you were like me. I guess I was wrong."
"Like you, man? You crazy or what?"
"Why do you think you're stupid?" They all answer. They don't know this or can't do that. Then I ask them what they do know and what they can do. The replies are just as varied. "You see," I say when they run out of things to tell me, "I was right. You are just like me. We're called Jacks of All Trades. That means we know a little about a lot of things, but not a lot about anything in particular."
"What are you talking about?" eleven-year old Teddy asks, his eyes buried beneath Coke-bottle lenses.
"Take Professor Sandburg for instance," I point out, calling Blair what they call him. "People like him are experts. They know a lot about one or two things. He can tell you the history of the caves we're going to see and all about the people who painted the pictures in them. But he can't tell you whose gang symbol is on the corner wall or which street to avoid at night or who's a dope dealer and who's not. Can you, Blair?"
"No, Jim," Blair says and I sense he's listening as intently as the children.
"You see the experts make all the big discoveries, but it's us, the Jacks, that use the discoveries and give the experts the ideas. That's because we see the big picture and we see what the world needs. Not everyone can be an expert but we're all capable of being good Jacks. You don't need money. All you need is a brain."
"Oops, we're busted, man," Ricky replies dryly.
"What's my name, Ricky?"
"Jim. Professor Jim," he says with a cocky laugh.
"Well, if you can remember my name, you have a brain and all the skills you need to be a Jack. Jacks learn, Ricky. You don't have to remember everything, just be open to learning a little bit of a lot. Let's see what you Jacks can learn today, okay?"
Okay, I'm going to admit two things here: one, I was afraid Jim was going to hate me by the end of the day and I was going to have to do some major groveling before he ever did me another favor and two, I was afraid the trip was going to be a bust. And number two existed long before I knew Jim was going to be a substitute.
Walter and I have been working with this particular set of kids for about six months. They are almost a mini-gang with Ricky as the leader, probably because at twelve, he's the oldest. Teddy and Mykal are eleven. Nicole and Shawna are ten and are inseparable. Wayne is also ten and Bobby is nine. Their parents, mostly single women and a couple of single men, drop them off at Rainier University once a month and pick them up two hours later. In the intervening two hours, other than a couple of smart remarks from Ricky, we rarely know what they are thinking or if they're learning anything at all from us. We tried worksheets that were returned with only stray pencil marks. We tried videos and the snoring drowned out the soundtrack. We tried the discussion group method and let's just say, Walter and I got to know each other pretty well.
So I didn't have much hope for this trip. I was starting to think, and please whatever listening deities that are out there, forgive me for such an ugly thought, that these kids were incapable of learning. Me, the eternal optimist, was about to give up on children. I am ashamed of myself, especially as I watch them now. Their faces are eager as they place their feet just so and try to walk like Jim. They're lousy at it, of course, but there is fun in trying and Jim's encouragement... well, I know how special that is. The kids blossom under his attention. So do I.
As they tire of trying not to leave footsteps, Professor Jim begins showing the group basic outdoor survival skills such as how to tell time by the sun, how to remember landmarks so they wouldn't get lost, and an assortment of other handy life tips. When we reach the cave, Jim tells them it's time to learn from an expert. I leave them sitting outside in a circle for a while as I set up this really cool light that's filtered in order not to fade the colors of the paintings. Then I call them in and I begin the lesson. Although I have never seen these particular cave drawings in real life, I have studied pictures of them and the kids seem to be enjoying the lecture. A couple of them even ask me questions. I am in teacher heaven.
I look in Jim's direction, wanting him to share in my success and I notice he's not listening to me. He's listening to something else with his incredible hearing. And, from the ridge that has formed along his jaw, I know it is not good.
If anyone else finds out about this, my reputation is ruined but... I'm having fun. I like these kids. They aren't afraid of trying. I tell them that it will take hours of practice to do what I do with such ease but that doesn't matter to them. Each half-footprint they leave behind is a monumental triumph. They don't look ahead and see how far they have to go; they look back and see how far they've come. They call me Professor Jim as a joke, but it is I who am being taught.
My partner is in his element now. He's standing up next to the paintings and he's bouncing excitedly, his face coming alive as he imparts his knowledge to all who are listening and that is everyone in the cave, including me. I had been to the cave before and I had heard the same story, but it didn't sound the same coming from him. His enthusiasm is contagious, his thirst for knowledge rousing similar needs in us all. I feel sort of selfish when I think of the teacher he could be, would be, if he wasn't my Guide, my Shaman. But I'm sorry, I need him too much to let him go. However, I am willing to share as I am now.
What the... Something moves beneath my feet, but I'm standing on solid ground. Then the stone behind me trembles and I know something terrible is about to happen. I'm not sure how he knows, but Blair looks at me, awareness in his eyes. "We need to get out of here," is my answer to his silent question.
But I'm too late. The earth is shifting and we are trapped inside it.
~*~At least I will be remembered fondly.~*~
I vaguely recall herding everyone to the center of the cave as my senses reveal the instability of the surrounding edges. Then something hits me in my lower back and everything goes black. When I finally convince my eyes to open again, I'm surprised to find more light than I expect. Apparently the lantern Blair used to highlight the painting is a lot tougher than it looks. Blair.
"Chief?" I yell, forcing my body to scramble from its dirt and rock blanket. Scramble may be too energetic of a verb for what I do. For some reason, the communication between my brain and my legs seems a bit sluggish. I know if I adjust the dial that controls my pain, I would probably find out the cause of this slowdown, but now is not the time for me to experiment. Blair and eight children have to be accounted for.
"I'm alright, Jim," my partner yells, but I can tell from his breathing and the pounding of his heart that something is wrong. "Check the children."
I start with the one I so arrogantly took responsibility for. "Tara?"
"She's okay, Professor Jim. I have her," Bobby calls out.
My ears tell me he's telling the truth. "Nicole and Shawna?" I know wherever they are, they are together. As soon as I get my body to moving, I should be able to see them.
"We're fine," they chorus.
"Wayne? Mykal? Teddy?"
"My arm hurts!"
"I can't find my glasses!"
"Teddy, stay still. I'll find them for you in a minute. Mykal, don't move your arm until I tell you to. Ricky?" There. I'm free from the rubble and although the light is a blessing, it's the only blessing we have. The entrance is completely sealed. "Ricky?" Damn. I spy the kid beneath a ton of dirt and gravel. Blair follows my look and sees him too. He's unconscious, but I focus and hear his heartbeat and when I reach him, my hand feels his breath flutter as I pass his nose. A sweep across his head reveals a large bump. Possible concussion. Can anyone tell me what the opposite of a blessing is? The definition I am painfully aware of; only the word eludes me.
"How is he, Jim?"
"Alive," I say sharply, instantly regretting it. I touch Blair's arm in a silent apology. "Let's get him from under this dirt." We remove him carefully, unsure of his injuries until he regains consciousness and tells us. I probe him here and there and I'm pretty certain we only have his concussion to worry about. Only a concussion? I'm getting too old for this.
I leave Blair attending Ricky and I physically check the others. Mykal's elbow is dislocated so I yell something like, "Look out!" and by the time he looks back at me, the bone is back in its socket and I'm fashioning a sling out of the sleeve of my shirt. I unearth Teddy's glasses, the lenses way too thick to have sustained much damage. Nicole has a broken finger which I set and bind to an adjoining finger with the help of a bandaid. I ask her why didn't she say anything about being hurt and she shrugs and says it's only a finger. Makes me curious about her background. Why is a broken bone not a big deal to a little girl? Speaking of little girls, Tara is perfectly fine . So is Bobby, Wayne, and Shawna.
Finally, I am able to work on Sandburg. A deft touch tells me he has several fractured ribs. As many times as they've been broken, I know he realizes it too. Maybe I shouldn't be so quick to judge Nicole. Given Blair's hospital records and that I'm his roommate, if it wasn't for the fact so many of injuries occurred in public or when I'm with my captain or one of the other guys I work with, I too could be tagged as an abuser. Then again, maybe I am. Ninety percent of the stuff he gets into is because of me and my work. I send the anger to my hands and rip the remainder of my shirt into a long strip with which to bind him.
When I am able to catch a minute to rest, I look around and know that despite my grumbling, I should be thankful. I have not had to tax my minimal medical skills. Pieces of flannel and assorted first aid supplies are holding the injured together successfully and the fact that there are uninjured is a miracle on its own. Too easily I could have been burying one of the children I have come to admire. Too easily I could have been burying the friend I have come to love.
At first I think the shiver I feel is because of the dark turn my thoughts have taken. Then I realize the ground is shuddering again. Maybe I have been too quick in finding the silver lining.
As I sit with Ricky's head in my lap, I watch Jim move from child to child administering aid and comfort. A shiver of fear races through my body and I have no idea why. We are alive and no one is bleeding to death. We even have light, for a least an hour or so more if the battery lives up to its label. So why am I so frightened? Then it hits me. Something is wrong with Jim. His movements are all wrong. As his Guide, I am his trainer. It is my job to have intimate knowledge of the flow of his body-- his reaction times, his ability to go from one position to the next. As his partner, I have to be in synch with him. Our body language must speak quickly and silently to each other. Sometimes that is our only advantage over the enemy.
But I do not recognize the man moving among us in the cave, weaving between the groups of children. There is a hesitation in his step, a strange slowness as he kneels then rises. I see no trace of pain on his face and I wonder if I have taught him too well in regard to his pain dial. "Pain is a warning," I whisper to him as he gently probes my ribs.
"Yeah, and it's telling me I need an icepack followed by a heating pad."
He nods. "But sometimes I don't feel it. Only with certain movements."
He grows silent and I worry. "Jim?"
"We have to get out of here, Chief."
"They know we're here. The park rangers are probably already on their way."
"So is something else."
"It wasn't a quake. I think... the sensation is like water, Chief. Maybe a dam broke somewhere upstream or something."
Cool. He's definitely going to have to be more forthcoming when I question him about it later, hopefully from the comfort of our loft. "Is there a chance we can move the rocks out of the way?"
He shakes his head. "The rubble is too thick. Walter didn't happen to mention another entrance to this cave, did he?"
"No, but... If there is another way out, you should be able to find it." He rolls his eyes and looks away. "You can do this, Jim. Concentrate and see if you can feel fresh air coming from a particular direction."
He gives me this patented stubborn look, then it melts away. "Let me pass out some of that bottled water you carried in your pack to the kids, then I'll do some exploring, okay?"
"I'll pass out the water."
He starts to argue, then walks away. Or should I say, limps away. I don't want to think about what that may mean so I concentrate on tending to the children while mumbling a prayer for Jim.
Stubborn. That's what my partner is. He shouldn't be moving around with those ribs. Sure I have them bound but they could still shift and then we'll be dealing with internal injuries. Sometimes I get angry with him because he so easily disregards his own well-being in favor of helping someone else. At other times I am proud of him for his ability to care so profoundly about the rest of the world. His spirit is strong and he willingly shares it. That he shares it with me is often what gets me through the day. Especially days like this one.
I go to the back of the cave where there is a narrow opening. I focus my sight and see there is another cavern just beyond. Does it lead to the outside or will we just be going deeper into nowhere? Only one way to find out. The way is narrow, but turning sideways I think I can fit. It's going smoothly until my lower back brushes against a rock as I go through the passage. Fire explodes through my body. I don't need Sentinel sight to see the stars that flash before my eyes as I struggle to stay conscious. With fading control, I force myself to land on the other side as I collapse. Looking out into the gloom of the new cave, I think I would have lost it if the pain had been for nothing.
The air should have been dank on this other side. The earth is damper and there is a slick green moss growing on the walls. But the air is crisp, fresh. Blair was right. If I am ever able to get up off the ground, I may be able to find a way out. In boot camp, we were taught that you controlled your body and not the other way around. Tell your body to do something and it had to obey. Well, maybe my body has been around Sandburg too long. It's just not listening as I tell the legs to lift me up. It seems like it's time to go to that "other" place.
It's not a new place; soldiers, athletes, others who put heavy stress on their bodies have been going there for years. It's a place where you step out of yourself and you do what you have to do, regardless of pain, regardless of your individual wants or desires. You move and to hell with anything else. Of course there is an admission price to this wonderful place and you pay upon exit. Sometimes the price is as high as a life but mostly it comes in the form of extreme weakness and debilitation of muscle and mass. Hopefully, I can delay exiting until Blair and the kids are safe.
I move now. Much slower than I like, but at least it's movement. Concentrating on the air, I walk through the cave and find another. But this one has a hole in the center of its roof. There is some debris beneath the hole and I figure it has not always been that open. Probably the same vibration that brought down the other entrance created this one. I'm hit with the fanciful thought I read on a poster somewhere about one door closes and another opens. I grin. I am definitely in that other place now.
I gauge the height and figure if Blair climbs on my shoulders, he should be able to make it out. Then I can reach the children to him. Perfect. I wobble back to the narrow passage and even this other place cannot convince me to go back through it. Instead I call out for Blair, telling him what I've discovered. Thankfully, he never asks me why I'm yelling to him instead of coming over and helping him gather the children and the supplies. Everything is passed to me, including the trusty light. We're definitely going to have to find us one of these for our other jaunts in the woods. We can usually use all the light we can get.
I take them into the other cave and the relief is tangible as everyone sees the light coming through the ceiling. But either my eyesight is fading or the light is because I remember it being stronger than it was. I stare up, focusing so intently Blair worries I'm going to zone and I feel his hand come down on my shoulder. "It's cloudy, Chief," I say, hoping he can hear what I'm trying not to say in front of the children. Rain would only exacerbate the already treacherous conditions. As if it heard my thoughts, the ground does another subtle shift.
"It's getting worse," I say as a warning. "We better get out of here as soon as possible."
Blair looks at me and asks the question I have avoided. "How are you going to get out?"
"By the time all of you are topside, help should be here." He looks at me as if to say I need to do better. "Honestly, Chief. Once you get outside, you'll shoot up in the air, and the rangers will come running."
"Shoot what?" We had decided having a gun around the children would be too dangerous.
But I had decided being in the woods with Sandburg without one was a greater risk. "My backup piece," I say and tug on my pantsleg. He bends down and removes it from the ankle holster. He tucks it into his waistband.
"You sure you don't want to sit and rest for a minute before we try this?" Blair asks worriedly.
It is a testimony to how far I've come in trusting another human being when I admit to him, "Chief, if I sit, I won't be able to get up again."
He pales and nods. "Can you do this? If not, we can think of another way."
There is no other way. "Sure I can," I lie cheerfully. "It'll just be another trick to add to our Sentinel/Guide Circus. I'm more worried about the pressure on your ribs as you haul the kids and yourself up." He obfuscates. I misdirect. Apparently our avoidance skills need no practice.
"I'll be fine, Jim. You ready?"
I nod and make all kinds of silent promises, trying to bargain for the strength to do this. I cup my hands and he steps into them and then onto my shoulders. The kids clap. Maybe we really are a circus act. I feel him strain to reach the lip of the opening. I look up, hoping it's because I need to shift a little to the left or to the right, but no, he's directly beneath the hole and that is the problem. He needs more height.
"Maybe if we pile up the rocks and have you stand on them," he is saying, but I know if I put him down, I will never be able to lift him again. Since I have already pledged my life and my firstborn to get the energy for this, I now renounce all my carnal urges, grasp his feet, and lift him until he is able to reach the hole and pull himself out. The extra effort lifts all restraints I have on the pain and I turn slightly so the kids don't see the tears running down my face.
The gun fires and then Blair's hanging down from the opening, telling me to send up the children. I do so with the serenity of a condemned man. I mean I know this is the last thing I will do so what does it matter if I burn what little energy I have left? Hell, I think I would have smoked a cigarette if I had one.
Then it's over. I'm alone in the cave and I sink to the floor like a marionette whose strings have been severed. At least I will be remembered fondly.
~*~I would curse the gods if I thought it would do any good.
~*~I would curse the gods if I thought it would do any good.~*~
I knew when he wouldn't come back into the first cave that he was conserving his energy. I also knew putting me on his shoulders might cause an injury he couldn't recover from. But I couldn't think of an alternative so I let myself believe his bravado. Standing here on his shoulders, I actually feel the terrible strain he's under, the fine shivers wracking his body. And then, damn it, I am too short. He and Captain Banks tease me about being little, but I'm about average when compared to normal men. It's not my fault that he and Simon are giants. So it has never bothered me until now, until this instance when a couple inches are going to mean failure.
I would curse the gods if I thought it would do any good. But the cold bastards have turned their backs on us all day long. Why would this minute be any different? Just as I'm about to leap to the ground and at least give Jim some relief, I'm suddenly shot upward. How? I don't waste time trying to figure it out. I grasp the rim of the opening and I pull. My ribs protest but I don't care. Nothing matters now but getting help. I draw the gun, flip off the safety and shoot. I hope the birds have sense enough to duck.
I look down and in the glow of the dimming light, I see Jim is still standing. I think for a long time to come I will see him like that in my dreams. That is a Sentinel, my mind says. That is your Sentinel, my heart says. He lifts the children up, the taller ones first, then the smaller while the others are able to hang onto my legs so I can reach down farther. Finally, it is only him and he collapses. I feel the depletion of his strength and I will mine down to him but he barely moves. "Scream for help," I direct the children. Where are those damn rangers?
"Blair, move back. They need to see what's going on."
I'm lying on my belly, staring at Jim hoping for some sign that he still lives. Now I turn over to look up at the voice that I know will make everything better. "Simon," I say with relief. "You've got to help him."
Captain Banks nods. "We will, Blair. You need to move back. The SAR team needs to access his condition." He places his hand on my back and feels the wrapping. "You've got broken ribs, son?"
"Yeah, but that's nothing, Simon. Jim... I think Jim hurt his back. He got everyone out and then he just folded up. He hasn't moved in a long time, captain."
"You know Jim. He's probably just resting like they taught him in the Army." Simon grimaces as if he realizes how lame that sounds. But I'm ready to grasp anything at this point.
"You're probably right. Jim," I call into the hole. "Help is here now, okay, Jim? You listen to what they say. Don't be stubborn like you usually are. The kids and I are fine. Let them take care of you, man."
"Hang in there, Ellison!" Simon directs into the opening, then urges me away and I find myself being led to a rescue vehicle that's on a nearby road. "We had no idea of where we were," I say, stunned to find civilization so close at hand. "How did you get here?"
"We were waiting for construction machinery at the cave opening you entered when we heard the shot," Simon explains. "I told them we had to follow the sound. They figured it was just some lost hunter or something, but, damn it, I knew you two would find some way out."
"Actually, I meant how did you get here?" I clarify.
"The rangers called me immediately. Seems Jim left my number when he checked in."
I smile sadly. "He doesn't trust going anywhere with me. Not unless back up is on alert. He wasn't supposed to be here, you know. Today was supposed to be his day off."
"I know, Sandburg," Simon says, "but by now, he would be here anyway."
He's right. Jim would be here trying to rescue me. But he wouldn't be lying at the bottom of that pit. He wouldn't be fighting for his life. "Ouch!" I glare at the paramedic who poked me too hard. He better be glad Jim isn't here. He doesn't like it when people cause me pain. "Will you go tell them to hurry, Simon? Jim says there's water coming."
Simon gives a strangled cough. "That's what happened, Sandburg. There was a rainstorm upstream that caused heavy flooding and subsequently, the dam collapsed. The force shook the entire county. The rain is still falling and is expected to hit here soon. They want to get Jim out before that happens."
"Well, they need to get him out sooner than that. The water from upstream is racing this way and it's going to hit the cave. Tell them, Simon, please."
"I will, Blair. I will." He heads toward the knot of men.
Before he can reach them, there is a shout and a spout of water emerges from the hole.
I am wrapped in darkness and I like it. I imagine it's like being in a cocoon. Nice, warm, sheltered. Best of all, there is no pain. But it's hard to get comfortable here because someone keeps shouting at me. As usual, it's Blair. "Don't you leave me!" "Stop being so stubborn!" "You listen to them!" "Let them take care of you!" "The kids and I are fine!"
I smile at the last one. I did it or they did it or somebody did it. The kids are okay. Blair is okay. I can snuggle in my cocoon forever then, if only Blair would shut up. "Hang in there, Ellison!" Whoa. That's Simon. He's here too? Now I know everything will be okay. Blair is in good hands.
"Detective Ellison! Can you hear me!"
"Stop screaming in my ear," I growl wearily. I open an eye and see some idiot standing over me. Damn, I've been invaded. There goes my nice little hidey-hole.
A radio crackles, further disturbing my rest. "He's alive and responsive. Lower the yoke and the brace."
If he doesn't stop screaming at me, I may have to hurt my supposed rescuer. "What?" I try to yell back but my voice won't cooperate.
"Your partner indicated you have a back injury. Is that correct?"
"I guess so."
"Okay. Listen to me, sir. Are you listening?"
I want to tell him that I could hear him from the top of the hole if I wanted to. I want to tell him to go away. "I'm listening," I end up saying wearily.
"Ideally, we would strap you onto a backboard. But it won't fit through the opening. So I'm going to put a brace around you, sort of a corset. You understand?"
I nod my comprehension. I start to tell him to avoid the knot on my back that almost sent me into oblivion before. But I don't think it's a problem now. My lower back and legs have ceased to exist.
"Jim, do you think you can hold on if I slip a yoke around your neck? Then we'll haul you up from here. Come on, Jim. Squeeze my hand so I'll know you can hold on."
I do as he bids, hoping that will shut him up. But he orders me to do this or that and then he's wrapping this thing around me, asking me if it's too tight and can I breathe okay. I don't answer because there is something far more important I must listen to. It's coming. I can hear it. I can feel it. And while I have already made peace with my life, my hardy rescuer has not. I look at the man who is right in my face because he is slipping the yoke over my head and I know if I can save him, I will. I cannot let the sweet siren's song of death sway that which is me. I protect. It's what I do.
So even as the man looks around suddenly as his mere normal hearing picks up the sound of the raging waters, I am linking my arms with his.
Then we both are swept away.
I race toward Simon and the SAR team who are looking in horror as the angry water retreats back into the hole as suddenly as it arrived. "Pull them up!" I yell, grabbing at the rope that lay slack in their hands. It is as if the whole team has zoned, but I am a Guide and my words make it through to their brains. The rope moves.
The water has widened the portal and the lax bodies of both men easily slip through. Simon holds me up as CPR is performed and Jim and his "rescuer" are both revived with minimum effort. The water rose and fell so quickly, neither man inhaled much water. They have Jim on a backboard and stretcher before I am allowed to go to him. He senses my presence and opens his eyes. "Guess you're stuck with me," he says, his voice hoarse and barely audible.
"I always have been, Jim. What makes today any different from yesterday?" I ask, rubbing his hand. His skin is so cold. I adjust the blanket.
"Yesterday I could walk, Chief."
Trying to hide my reaction is futile with a Sentinel present. This time, it is his hand making comforting contact with mine. "It's just temporary," I say, hating the tremble in my voice. "You did too much down there. Your back needs to rest. That's all."
"You're right, Chief. I just need to rest."
I ride in the ambulance, holding his hand and watching for movement in his legs. There is none.
~*~He is at peace with this. I am not.~*~
~*~He is at peace with this. I am not.~*~
I putter around in the loft's kitchen, delaying going out onto the balcony. All the guys are out there, waiting on snacks as they prepare for the weekly poker game. The weather has been clear so tonight Jim says we should play outside. Sure, why not? After all, Jim seems to be the only resident of the loft to understand what's going on. He's the only one who has made sense of what has happened.
It has been three months since the incident in Cascade Woods. The first month I spent every day at the hospital while Jim was put through every medical test ever invented and endured three surgeries. At the end of the month, he called a halt to everything. He wanted to go home. So the guys from Major Crimes had piled into the loft, moving Jim's room downstairs and putting up rails and lift bars in the bedroom and bathroom. In a matter of hours, the loft was made handicapped-accessible... because Jim is handicapped.
He knew from the beginning. It took me longer to accept it. Jim is paralyzed from the waist down. The initial injury to his back and the following abuse had been too much for his spine. The tests all came to the same conclusion: the paralysis may or may not be permanent. After hearing the same pronouncement for the fourth time, Jim told the medical staff he would break the hand of the next person who stuck a needle in him or even asked how he was feeling. For some reason, he had no trouble getting his discharge papers after that.
I was prepared to help him through this, but my preparations were all in vain. Jim seemed to have no trouble adjusting to his new lifestyle. His upper body strength had always been superb so he easily hauled himself into and out of his chair. The kids on the field trip came over to visit and the next thing I knew it was Mr. Ellison's Neighborhood around the loft. I would come in from the university and Jim would have kids sitting around the table. Sometimes they would be fixing a lamp, a toaster, maybe a broken toy. That was something new I learned about my roommate; he had that fix-it gene that plagues a lot of men. When the neighborhood found out about it, broken things turned up at our door, along with unused tools long-buried in basements and workrooms. Other times, I would find Jim and his mite-sized crew sprawled out in front of the television, laughing at an afternoon cartoon or movie.
He is at peace with this. I am not. I find myself in Rainier's library, looking at medical journals instead of anthropological ones. I surf the internet entering spinal injury and paralysis into every search engine I can find. Somehow, some way, my Sentinel is going to walk again. I know this. I can feel this.
"Sandburg, you have hungry people, hungry people with guns, on your balcony," Simon says, breaking into my thoughts. "You gonna look at that food or serve it?"
"Sorry, man. Kinda got lost in my thoughts."
"You still searching the basement for pods?" he asks with a grin.
I made the mistake of telling him I didn't think it was Jim we brought home from the hospital. He was too calm, too accepting to be the man I had lived with for five years. My instincts were telling me his behavior was wrong. And it scared me. "Simon, I can understand the others falling for Jim's act. But you know him. You know this isn't right. Jim accepting life in a chair? Jim content to fiddle around with broken appliances? Jim happy playing with children instead of going after bad guys? Jim being nice to everyone, even those who go on and on about how awful it is that he's paralyzed?"
"You said he threw his father and brother out, didn't you? That's typical Jim," Simon tries.
"He didn't throw them out, I did! They were both so damn condescending. And his father had the audacity to suggest Jim come live with him. Said his housekeeper would be glad to take care of his special needs." I still see red when I remember that conversation. "I take care of Jim, I told the old fart, and if he didn't like it, he could get out. He looked at Jim like he expected him to contradict me, but he just shrugged and said I had the right to invite or evict anyone from our home." So that's what I did.
"And that was all Jim said?" Simon questions, starting to see my view. I nod. "But what can we do about this, Sandburg? Go up to Jim and say, 'act like a jackass so we know that it's you'? The man's coping, Blair. Just because we don't understand it, does that mean we have the right to force him to explain himself?"
"I don't know, Simon," I say, picking up the tray. "I'm just glad you don't think I'm crazy anymore."
"Hey, that's not what I said," Simon protests teasingly. "I still think you're nuts, Sandburg. Just not about this."
"Picky, picky," I say and head to the balcony. Simon's in my corner now. We will be able to help Jim.
At first I thought it was strange that Blair was taking this harder than I was. I mean I'm the one whose life is now confined to what I can reach with my arms. Then I reverse our positions and I understand what my friend is going through. If Blair were paralyzed, I would be unbearable and heartsick. I would probably put on a good front, which he has. Except when my family came to visit.
Good old dad. He could challenge the patience of a saint. The renumeration of my new limitations hadn't bothered me. Hell, I've always had limitations in his eyes. His suggestion that I move home and let Sally take care of me was a bit more difficult to tolerate. He had foisted Steven and me off on her as children and now he was prepared to do the same thing. Why Sally continues to put up with this man is beyond my capacity of understanding. But before I could say anything to Dad that night, Blair was all over him. I think he thought Dad was taking a shot at him, saying he wasn't capable of taking care of me. But that wasn't the case. Dad was just being Dad. Anyway, Blair's anger surprised me. Later, I realized he was-- what was the term... channeling. Yeah, he was channeling his anger at the situation onto my dad. Kicked him out of the loft and told him he could take his youngest son with him. I was so proud of him that night.
"Finally," I say as Blair and Simon walk through the door. "Thought I was going to have to roll in there and get the goodies myself. You know hungry men get quite cutthroat at cards. I would like to have both my tires when this game is over." I pat the wheels beneath my hands.
"Your wheelchair is safe, Ellison," Brown calls. "But I don't know about that truck of yours. We were talking the other day and--"
"Give it up, Brown, " Blair interrupts. "I've tried to convince him to let me do away with, I mean sell, his precious truck, but no dice. He even makes me drive the thing to keep it in good condition."
"Make you?" I interject quickly. "Tell them why you have to drive it, Sandburg. Any of you ever know his car to make it a week without breaking down?"
They howl and laugh, making fun of Blair's poor car. Then we play poker.
~*~Situations like this separate friends from acquaintances.~*~
~*~Situations like this separate friends from acquaintances.~*~
I hear Blair in the hallway and grin. My visitors look at me and wonder if it's time. The children have figured out my senses are stronger than theirs and they accept it as a given and go on. Yes, they are still teaching me.
Anyway, I'm grinning because I had Sally bring me one of Dad's old blue sweaters when she came to visit me today. Although I refuse her care, she comes over twice a week to clean up. In the beginning I tried telling her that her services were unnecessary, but she viewed my protests as rejections. Sally is the closest person I had to a mother; rejecting her is the last thing I would ever do, so she comes and I greet her with a smile each time. Reconnecting with her has healed places in me I hadn't realized were damaged.
Anyway, so now I'm wearing a pale blue sweater, white shirt, and tie. When the door opens, my friends and I break into a chorus of "It's A Wonderful Day In The Neighborhood," the theme song to the PBS program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Blair stands there stunned, then he starts laughing, understanding that I overheard his cracks about this being Mr. Ellison's Neighborhood. The kids of course, lose it and it's minutes before any of us regain control. Then we look at each other and the laughing breaks out again.
Later, I "walk" the children down to the bus stop. It's part of a ritual that sort of evolved. They ride the city bus from their part of town to mine. We spend time together. Then I wait with them until the bus comes. The girls kiss my cheek. The boys shake my hand. Then they get on the bus and I watch until it disappears. I know Blair doesn't understand my fascination with these children. He tries to get psychological and finds meaning in the fact that I lost the use of my legs saving them. But it's more basic than that. I remember Bud, my friend from childhood. Having him, an adult that wasn't family and therefore required to put up me, take interest in me in those important years helped me become the man I am today. Maybe one day, one of these children will say the same thing about me.
"The project shop closed for the day?"
"Unless you brought me something that needs fixing," I say to Simon as the bus turns the corner and leaves my sight. The captain is a daily visitor unless there is a crisis involving Major Crimes. Situations like this separate friends from acquaintances. Simon is a true friend.
"In a way, I do. Let's get upstairs so we can talk."
He's excited. I'm not sure whether that's good or bad. Sometimes what makes Simon happy is bad news for me and Blair. It usually means a case we don't want or mandatory appearances at places we don't want to be. But that was in the past. Although I am officially a Cascade police officer until I use up all my sick leave and vacation time, it's pretty clear I'm just collecting a paycheck.
"That ratty blue sweater doesn't mean what I think it means, does it?" Simon asks as the elevator heads to the third floor.
"What do you think it means, Simon?"
"That it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood?" I grin and he groans.
"Hey, Chief, look what I picked up on the street," I call as we enter the loft. His head is stuck in the refrigerator, probably checking to see what goodies Sally brought today. She always brings food and although I pretend to fuss at her, her gifts make me feel less guilty about not being able to help with the cooking.
Blair looks up at our visitor. "Put it back," he replies. "It will eat too much, cause a mess, and probably isn't housebroken."
"You guys are just too funny," Simon remarks sarcastically, then motions us toward the sofa. "Okay, men, play time is over. It's time for you to start earning your keep again."
"I miss something here?" I ask, looking at my partner. He shrugs, as confused as I am. "You need someone undercover in a wheelchair, Simon? Somebody been rolling the handicapped, sorry, the physically challenged?" I amend dryly. What I hate most about being handicapped are the euphemisms for my condition. We know what we are. Cute words and phrases change nothing.
"I need your ears, Jim. As far as I know they still work, right?" He pulls a tape from his pocket. "You heard of Richard Kensington?"
"The great Californian philanthropist, at least according to his press secretary, right?" Blair says.
"Oh," I say as his words trigger my brain. "You mean the guy who gave money for the Kensington Art Museum, the Kensington School for Disadvantaged Children, the Kensington Home for Orphans, and the State Center for Performing Arts at Kensington Manor. What has that unassuming man to do with Cascade?"
"Apparently more than anyone knew. He grew up here, attended Cascade public schools, etc., but this was all under his real name-- Richard King, son of a plumber and a waitress."
"So the whole British thing he has going is all a scam?" Blair asks. Simon nods.
"And we care because?" This is the most important question because Simon isn't the Inside Edition type, spreading gossip for gossip's sake.
"An old friend of his from his Cascade days put two and two together. He asked Kensington for a loan--"
"Blackmailed him," I interpret.
Simon nods, smiling at me as if to praise me for not having lost all my detective skills. "Kensington laughs in his face. Says he's rich enough now that he doesn't care who knows where he came from. The old friend, one Jeremy Archer, is not amused. Tells him there has to be something he does care about and he will find it. Two days ago, Mrs. Kensington and their son disappeared."
"They want us, I mean, Major Crimes to investigate this Archer guy?"
"They think he may be holding the wife and kid in Cascade."
I frown. "That makes this a federal case."
"It is," Simon concurs. "An Agent Paul Leo showed up in my office a little over an hour ago."
"The feds are voluntarily seeking help from the locals? Quick, Chief! Check the Weather Channel. It has to be snowing in Hell," I remark acridly.
"Actually he wasn't seeking the Cascade P.D. as much as he was looking for you, Jim," Simon continues. "In fact, he said he had strict orders from Deputy Director Whitney to contact you immediately. Seems Whitney is still pretty impressed with the work you did on the presidential assassination attempt."
"Guess I should have had some cards made up," I say lightly. "'To Whom It May Concern: Jim Ellison is now a cripple. Find someone else to save the world.'" I think I'm being witty but one look at my friends' faces and I see they don't get the joke. Tough audience. "So what did you tell him, Simon?"
"I said I would contact you and get back to him."
"Wait up, Jim," he says. "He gave me this tape, a recording of a phone call Archer made to Kensington. Apparently they traced the call to a Cascade exchange. That's why they think he's here. Anyway, this is where you can help. I mean, your hearing isn't affected by your condition, is it? Maybe you can pick up something the federal analysts couldn't get," he adds enthusiastically.
My stomach churns. I don't want to do this. I'm happy with having two distinct lives: one before my paralysis and one after. I don't want the two to mix. I don't want to be Ironsides, working cases from my chair. Hell, it's bad enough I ride around in a van like his, equipped with an electronic lift that makes it easier for Sandburg to transport me to my doctor appointments and therapy sessions. Sandburg. He's looking as excited as Simon. There is a spark in his eyes that I haven't seen since the cave-in and although he is still, I can feel the familiar bounce strumming through his system. Has he missed policework that much? Or maybe he thinks I have. Sometimes with Blair it is hard to separate his joy from mine. He embraces both with equal zest.
Two sets of eyes bore into mine, wondering at my hesitation. They think this is perfect for me. I know it will destroy me... But it is my choice.
"Well, what are you waiting for, Simon?" I ask, putting on a smile that never reaches my eyes. They don't notice. "Put the tape in and we'll have a listen."
~*~This day has cost me more than I am willing to admit.~*~
~*~This day has cost me more than I am willing to admit.~*~
As soon as I get Simon alone, I'm going to give him a big hug. Of course he'll probably flick me away like an annoying insect, but it's worth a few bruises. He's found the perfect position for Jim. His paralysis has not damaged his unique senses. He's always laughing about how he has to be the only handy man who's never lost a screw. He sees where each one rolls.
The tape plays and I lay my hand on Jim's shoulder, helping him to concentrate. "This call came in about seven or eight last night?" he asks Simon.
Simon's amazement shows on his face. "Agent Leo said the call was made at 7:23. How'd you know that?"
"Airport traffic. Lots of planes going up and coming down in the background. Seven to eight is a busy time at the airport."
"Can you get a location from the sounds?" I ask, pleased he's right about the time. We haven't been working with his senses at all since the accident.
"I need a map."
I hurry to the kitchen drawer where we keep them. "Here. This one is a close-up of the airport area."
He asks Simon to play the tape again. I rub his shoulders, standing very close to him. He is going to immerse himself in the sounds so he needs me as an anchor. The tape runs to an end and he doesn't react. "Jim," I call softly.
"Here," he says, indicating to a point on the map. "The call came from here."
Simon glances at the map and pulls out his cell phone. "Since Archer let the wife and son talk briefly, we can assume they are there too. Better alert Leo. He'll want to have a tactical team sent to the area."
"Why don't we go out there too?" I suggest, my mind racing as I realize how helpful Jim can be. "Jim can probably pinpoint their position faster than a tactical team. C'mon, Jim. Let's get you in the van."
Alright! I think as we head toward the area Jim indicated. Sentinel and Guide on the job again! I sort of wish I had Jim's senses now so I can tell how he is feeling. His face reveals nothing. But that's usual when he's on a case. He seemed to have no trouble directing his hearing and I consider the possibility his senses are compensating for his lack of mobility. Perhaps he has more control now or maybe he has been practicing all those hours he's alone in the loft soldering wires or screwing on dolls' heads.
I feel him stiffen as I release the chair from the lift. He's grown comfortable with the Major Crimes Unit seeing him in the chair, but the FBI is a different matter. I resist the urge to push him, instead letting him propel himself. Simon leads us to Agent Leo. Because he has never seen Jim before, he barely acknowledges the wheelchair and Jim relaxes. Leo wants to deploy men all over the area. Jim says no. An airplane rumbles overhead and he tunes in. The houses here are sporadically placed with large lawns surrounding them. His eyes sweep them, then settles on one. "Chief," he calls.
I'm at his side in an instant. "You got something, Jim?"
"Two heartbeats inside."
"The wife and son?"
"My guess. Let's get this over with."
He tells Leo what he suspects and to give the man credit, he doesn't blink an eye. He orders his men to approach the house cautiously. I watch the men in black, protected by snipers, cross a field behind the house just in case Jim's wrong and Archer is there. Of course, Simon and I know Jim isn't wrong and we shared an amused glance.
"Stop!" Jim yells. We all look at him. "Stop them, Leo! Tell them to pull back now!"
The radio squawks the order. There are mixed reactions but these are well-trained officers. They do as told. "What is it, Jim?" I ask, since everyone is looking to me for answers.
"Shit!" Agent Leo overhears and calls for metal detectors and a military deactivation team. He asks Jim if the mines are all around or just in the back.
Jim shakes his head in confusion. "I need out of the chair," he tells me and I quickly move the footrests out of the way. Simon eases him to the ground. He places his palms against the grassy soil. I've never seen him do this and I'm fascinated. What else has he kept from me? Jim confirms there are mines everywhere.
Leo makes more calls and equipment begins to arrive. We find out that Archer has made several online purchases and that, yes, they could be used to make mines. Another black mark for the World Wide Web. Hours later, the mines are deactivated and the woman and child are rescued. Agent Leo thanks Jim, indicating a citation may be in order. He also thanks me and Simon. Simon drags out a cigar and lights up in satisfaction. We say something about how great it was to see Jim clench his jaw and the dirty look he gave the feds when he'd heard one of them mention something about the spooky cripple. We are happy. Our Jim is back.
I am so glad this is over. I wish Blair and Simon would stop accepting congratulations on my behalf and drive me home. This day has cost me more than I am willing to admit. I had to lie there on the ground as useless as the clump of grass clenched in my fist as other people did my job. I am the Sentinel, damn it. Negotiating a path through the minefield should have been as simple as drawing a line in one of those magazine mazes. During all those hours the military team deactivated the mines, I monitored the Kensingtons' heartbeats. What if they had become erratic, or slowed, or even stopped? There would have been nothing I could have done except wallow uselessly on the ground or in that fucking chair... Please, I just want to go home.
Blair and Simon are so ecstatic. Home? No way! Dinner, they say. I admit the Thai restaurant they choose is pretty good. But then they start talking about other ways I can still be a cop and I lose my appetite. It's hard to describe what I'm feeling. It all goes back to that moment I took my first breath on the outcropping above the cave. In that instant, I realized I was going to survive and that I would be paralyzed. From that point on, I stopped calling myself a cop and a Sentinel. I was merely Jim Ellison and whoever he would become. I never doubted that Blair and Simon would be at my side. I never doubted that at some point I would truly be happy. Legs may make a cop, but not a man.
So I started to remake Jim Ellison. This Jim would have a sunny disposition. He'd work well with children. He would use his hands because his hands still worked like they were suppose to. He would be patient with the people who couldn't accept his useless legs. He wouldn't get angry at himself because he couldn't do what he used to. After all, that was the other Jim Ellison, not him. This one would ignore the whine of sirens, the need to check the neighborhood for sights and sounds that were out of place. He had the senses, but he was no longer the Sentinel. He looked after himself and his friends. That was it. Everyone else was on their own.
I had even thought about going back to college. I figured I could ride in with Blair in the mornings. We could do the lunch thing and I'd be waiting near the van when it was time to go home. I could buy my very own laptop, make myself some cyber-friends, and write papers. History would be a good subject to study. I certainly had enough military history drilled into my head. Or literature. Reading didn't require legs and hell, maybe I could write one of those techno-thrillers that were so popular. I had the background to make it sound authentic.
But all these plans have been ruined now. This case has forced the two Jim Ellisons to look at each other and the new one knows he is lacking. He is an insubstantial shadow, a weak, pathetic effigy of the man who used to reside in this body. Oh God. I know what Pandora must have felt when she opened that box. Because I am looking into the box right now and it is all escaping and there is nothing I can do.
"Jim?" A gentle touch on my arm. "Why aren't you eating?"
"Guess I'm just tired, Chief. I'm not used to these active days anymore. Got lazy hanging around the loft, I suppose." Did I mention the new Jim is a great liar too?
They accept my excuse, teasing me about being a man of leisure, and how that's coming to an end. We drive back to the loft and Simon picks up his car. Blair opens his laptop and begins working on a lesson plan. I go to my bed and pray for the energy to make it through another day.
~*~Please, God, let us be in time.~*~
~*~Please, God, let us be in time.~*~
We are in rhythm again. For nearly two months now, we've been back at work. We're the post-forensics team. The officers and detectives have gotten used to seeing our van at a crime scene. In the beginning, we would hesitantly offer our findings to the detectives in charge. Now, they come to us. Some of the stuff we find they can use as is. Other stuff is merely used to point the investigation in the right direction.
Although we're used by everyone at the station and we have our own little corner in the lab, we still have our desk in the Major Crimes bullpen. Both Jim and I are most comfortable there and Simon likes looking after us. We are so busy that my schoolwork is suffering again. Life is good, except for the paperwork. Jim still makes me do most of it.
Ah. My ten o-clock is here. Office hours at Rainier followed by office hours at the station. It seems so normal, it's scary. We discuss the student's need to do the readings I assign, then I let her go. I should have been sterner, but I'm in such a good mood I let her slide. Cramming material into my backpack, I head for one of the two classes I'm taking this semester. It's boring, but it only has one paper. Back in my office to make sure I haven't left anything vital, I reach for the phone, intending to call Jim to let him know I'm on my way. I'm thinking maybe we ought to invest in one of those vans that can be operated totally by hand. That way he won't have to wait for me to haul him from one point to the other. He'll appreciate the freedom, I'm sure.
I never make the call. Instead of seeing the phone, I'm seeing Jim. He's sitting in the middle of the loft and he's holding his gun. Is there an intruder? The vision expands and I see he's alone. Why does he have the gun then? My eyes finally register the fact that he's stroking the weapon, almost caressing it lovingly. Does he miss carrying? There's a simple solution to that. He merely needs to go to the range and re-qualify. With his Sentinel sight, it'll be a cinch. Then he raises the gun and as the vision fades, I see he has turned it on himself.
"No!" I scream this as I run down the hall. A few people look at me strangely, but most know I do something with the police department. They figure I'm on a call. Call. I manage to drive and call Simon on the cell phone. I tell him to get over to the loft. He asks for an explanation. I don't give him one. After I hang up, I wonder if I should have told him to have an ambulance waiting. But no. The one thing cops usually don't screw up is a suicide. That's why they all do it the same way. EOW. Eat Own Weapon. It's a trademark of the boys and girls in blue because they know it's effective. Gun in mouth. Pull trigger. Bullet emerges out the top/back of the head. Survival chance: 0 percent.
I don't have time to debate the whys that tease the back of my mind, not when I must concentrate on my driving and the strength to enter the loft. I take the stairs because they are generally faster than the elevator and quite frankly, I don't relish being in a closed box and having time to consider what I may find when I open the door to the only home I've ever known. I love the loft. It has been a shelter, a haven, even when the world around me has gone nuts. But if Jim has done this thing, I won't ever return. Our friends will have to clean it out for me, ship my stuff to wherever I've gone.
My hand trembles so badly, I can't get the key in the lock. "Sandburg?" Simon takes the keys out of my hand. "What's going on?"
"I had a vision, Simon." I wait to see if he's going to scoff. He's a believer but never admits to it. Except today. I guess he sees from the look on my face that I have seen something. "Jim was in the loft, holding his gun."
"Oh, dear Lord," he says, opening the door and stepping in front of me just in case there's something he doesn't want me to see. No chance of that, considering I have my eyes closed. I hear him expel his breath in relief. "It's okay, Blair. He's not here." He checks out the rest of the loft. No Jim.
"Then it's not okay," I say, collapsing onto the floor where I last "saw" Jim. "He just didn't want to taint the loft for me. It's mine, you know. He's always made certain I knew that. It's to be my home no matter what happens to him."
"Maybe he's just out," Simon tries to convince me.
"Take the smaller key on my ring and open the drawer in the kitchen by the sink," I tell him. "That's where Jim keeps his gun. It's been there since the Saturday we went to Cascade Woods. If the gun is there, I will relax. If it's not..."
He doesn't tell me what he sees, but I hear him call in an A.P.B. for Jim. "He's in a wheelchair. He can't be far," he says and I wonder if he's talking to me or himself.
"He's Jim Ellison," I remind him hollowly. "He can be wherever he wants to be."
Simon joins me on the floor. If the occasion wasn't so somber, I think I would have been amused to see the tall captain folding down beside me. "Why?" he asks.
"I don't know."
"Things were going well, weren't they? The department had even accepted this post-forensics set-up. Get the solve-rate high enough and they'll believe in the tooth fairy." He chuckles sadly. "I thought we were beyond such a crisis."
"You thought. I thought. But what did Jim think, Simon? From the moment this accident occurred, my link to him has been shrouded, cloudy. I never understood his acceptance, his lack of anger, his optimism that he could survive being paralyzed. I told you he was a stranger to me. Then when we helped the FBI, I thought I knew him again. But instead of getting Jim back, I think we just got another stranger."
Simon shakes his head. "We would have found a stranger here. It was Jim who decided not to desecrate the loft. And you know Jim. Where would he go, Sandburg?"
"To off himself? Never something I've considered before, Simon. Gonna have to give me a minute," I say bitterly. I am not angry at him or at Jim either. No, the person I despise right now is me. My best friend is sitting somewhere contemplating ending his life and I had no idea he was in pain. Where were all those signs I learned in my psychology classes? I had even worked a suicide hotline back in undergrad. But my vast background has not helped me help Jim... What a fuckingly complex man. We had worked a case yesterday, watched a game on TV last night. This morning, we had eaten breakfast together, discussed what we would have for lunch, lobbed around a couple of ideas about a robbery we were reviewing. Not once had he indicated he wouldn't be around for those plans. Not once had his eyes said to me, "I'm tired of this shit, Chief. I want to get off the merry-go-round."
Simon's cell phone trills. It's not good news. "Jim took a taxi to the metro hub. From there, he could have gone anywhere."
I nod. Hadn't I told him that at the beginning? Jim comes off as this man of action but he's a thinking man as well. Getting around Cascade? Not a problem. Makes sense he would use the public transportation system. How more anonymous could you get? He would be just another man in a wheelchair to not only the crowds but the workers as well. His black ops training officers would be so proud of him.
"Are you thinking, Sandburg?"
"About what, Simon?" I ask listlessly. How I failed the other half of my soul?
"Where Jim would go? Let's say he's still in the city. What wouldn't he want to mess up for you? I mean, we know he wouldn't go to the university."
"And he wouldn't go downtown because that's where the kids live," I point out. I wonder has he considered how they are going to feel when they find out. Selfish, big guy. Real selfish. Just like taking off. Should have done it right here in the loft. At least then we wouldn't have to search the whole damn city for your body. Don't you know I consider all of Cascade home now? Where do you think you can do this and it not affect me?
A light blinds me. How stupid are you, I yell at myself. "Come on, captain!" I spring from the floor, giving him my hand when he moves a bit more slowly. I lead him to his car; at least I know it'll crank.
"Where are we going?" he asks, slipping behind the wheel.
"Pier 38." He nods and starts in the direction before asking me how I came to that determination. "Cecile dumped me there. I remember telling Jim that I'd never go to that pier again."
"And since it's already ruined for you..." He follows my logic with an ease that would scare him if he realizes it. He turns on his siren and I put the bubble on top.
Please, God, let us be in time.
I hear the siren in the distance and somehow I know. They are coming for me, as I knew they would. Maybe that is why I'm sitting here waiting for them. Maybe that's why when I put the gun into my mouth and tasted the tanginess of the metal, I removed it without pulling the trigger. Before when I came this close to ending it, after the senses had kicked in, there was nobody to come. My ex would have shed a tear. Simon, more than an acquaintance but less than he is to me now, would have hung a plaque somewhere in the bullpen. My dad would have added the obituary to the pathetic collection of clips he has on me. But nobody would have rushed to my side. No one would have cradled my bloody head and cried. No one would have wrestled with guilt every day for how many days he had left.
Both of the men on their way now, would have done all of the above. I know that as sure as I know I can't condemn them to such anguish. That would be a shitty reward for putting up with me all these years, huh? For accepting my flaws, for listening to my fears, I give you... grief and guilt. It wasn't their fault they didn't know I hurt inside. I had kept the pain hidden, had deliberately misled them with a false face. That was my sin and it would be cruel to make them pay for it.
I stare at the gun in my lap. It was an excellent solution when I was a lonely man. Now, even if it took away my pain, the bullet would ricochet in those I love and perhaps damage them permanently. I cannot betray their trust like that.
"Hey, Blair, Simon." I hand the gun to the captain. He nods and I'm not sure he's aware of the tears in his eyes or not as he turns to go. "You don't have to," I say. I want to explain to both of them. That way, they will have each other to lean on if my words cause nightmares somewhere down the line.
My story is choppy and I cry in places as I tell them about the dueling Ellisons, how I created the other Jim and how the figment shattered the night we ended the kidnaping. I reveal to them why I encouraged the children, the decisions I made in the cave, and the ones I made later while I lay drenched on top of it. I leave nothing to lurk in the dark corners. Those secrets had led me to the brink of death. The two men on either side of me are responsible for me turning my back on that beguiling but bleak abyss. For every lie I had fed them all these months, they deserve my truths.
I don't know what the others think of us, three grown men sitting at the edge of a pier bawling our heads off. We are left alone but I hear the others arrive, having been alerted by Simon's flashing light which he had neglected to turn off. Brown just turn flips the light off, closes the doors, and tells his partner that everything is going to be okay. He's right; whatever the future holds for me, I will never come to this place again. It is no longer an option. The door has been welded shut by friendship.
~*~Those walls will not crumble and the rest do not matter.~*~
~*~Those walls will not crumble and the rest do not matter.~*~
I think the miracle started that night on the pier. My body began regenerating itself. Scarred tissue melted away. Nerves that had been obstructed found open pathways, freeing my mind to once again give orders which could now be obeyed. It has been a long, painful six months since then. The fire I'd felt in the cave was nothing compared to the inferno I faced during recovery. There were spasms that kept me and therefore Blair, awake for nights at a time. Sometimes my body responded and sometimes it didn't and I would get depressed. Simon faithfully kicked my ass every time I descended too deep.
I'm back on my feet now. I have these stupid braces on my legs which pinch and rub sores on my sensitive skin, but they're useful when my muscles give out and they become the only things keeping me from falling flat on my face. I spend more time in therapy than I do at the station, but post-forensics is still a popular addition to the crime-fighting arsenal and there is already grumbling about it being phased out as I am phased back into Major Crimes.
Would I live this past year over again if I could? No. But the lessons I learned probably couldn't have been learned any other way. According to Sandburg, that's because I'm hard-headed. I think it's because some things have to be lived before they can be fully understood. As I look back, I think I was headed for a cave-in long before the cave-in occurred. I took a lot for granted. I made assumptions. I didn't appreciate what I had. I undermined the bedrock designed to hold the Sentinel's weight. No wonder my world collapsed as surely the cave did.
But I survived, the same way I did the real cave-in. I have eight children and Blair to focus on. Not to mention Simon and Brown and Rafe and... The list is too long for me to name since the bus is pulling up. I bend so the girls can reach my cheek, Bobby lifting Tara because I can only bow so low without toppling over. The boys each solemnly extend their hands. The driver nods, assuring me he'll get my "brood" home safely. Ritual. It has its moments.
I start to hobble back to the loft but I hear a familiar engine and then I hear a familiar heart. Although my legs are aching and I long to stretch out on my bed, which is still downstairs but not for long, I wait for Blair to join me. Before, I went trotting off on my own and left my friends behind and confused. This time, I'll go nowhere without them. Especially home.
How's that for mushy?
I wave to the children as the bus passes. This is a part of that other Jim my Jim has kept. I'm still trying to sort that out. My part in the screw up, that is. I mean, I understand him creating this other "person" as a coping mechanism and I understand how Simon and I interfered with that. What I don't understand is why I didn't know what was going on. Why had I been so blind to his struggle? Was it because I was so busy trying not to see the chair that I missed everything else? Or was it that I was so sure I knew what was best for Jim? I wanted to fix what was wrong with him and almost killed him instead.
By neglecting to ask one simple question-- "What do you want, Jim?"-- I came awfully close to losing something precious on Pier 38. But Jim is my Blessed Protector and once again he saved me from myself by being the strong, courageous man he is. I don't know if I would have been able to make the same decision he did on the pier. He didn't just choose not to die, but to live. I worried about that for a while, concerned his choice was made merely to appease Simon and me. But I know now the decision encompasses all that he is. It's in his eyes, his actions, his day to day struggle to walk normally again.
That's another thing; I think he would be just as okay if he were still in the wheelchair. He's a survivor. He walked through Hell and came out on the other side. It's nice to know if, or maybe I should just go ahead and say when, I get in that situation, I have a friend who will be there to guide me through it.
"You look tired, Jim," I say, as I cross the street to join him. "Where are your crutches?" I chide gently. He suffers the braces with a graceful dignity; the crutches are props he conveniently forgets.
Jim gives me a weary grin and rests his arm comfortably around my shoulders. "It's okay, Chief. I have all the support I need."
I shake my head and wrap my arm around him as we walk side by side into the building. He's right. As soon as he's well enough, we're going to find us another cave to enter. Together we will stand there and know that if the walls do begin to fall, we'll be okay. We have each other. We have our friends. Those walls will not crumble and the rest do not matter.