Author's Notes:

Hi! I'm back with all new tales to entertain you with (grammatically incorrect, but so less stuffy <g>). Thanks for all the LoCs I received for my previous story. I could have started writing replies to each of you when I returned from vacation, or I could have written this story. I sort of figured you would appreciate the story more.... <g>

My apologies to those who liked Titanic. I didn't, so Blair's opinion below reflects my own.

The poem near the end is "Jenny Kissed Me" by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

Apparently, some of you are having problems with my new web site. If there are any experts out there who can tell me what's wrong, email me, please! If you're having trouble downloading from it, let me know which stories and I'll send them to you via email or as an attachment.

Hope you enjoy!

ALTERNATE REALITY: A TIME TO HEAL

by

D.L. Witherspoon

(Posted 07-23-99)


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die...a time to kill, and a time to heal....

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-3


We've lost ground. Although its's not my fault, I still feel responsible. I still feel as if I've let him down, and that makes me angry, not just at myself, but also at the person who is truly responsible for this setback. In just a few hours, Stephen Ellison had managed to undo the work of months. Until that fateful night two weeks ago, Jim had been progressing very nicely. He was beginning to believe in himself, in his own worth. He had stopped shying away from strangers, clamming up so tightly that he appeared angry and remote. He had allowed his emotions to show on his handsome face, giving those of us who care for him a clue as to what he was really feeling.

Those were big steps, you understand. I've never been in prison, don't plan on ever being there actually, but I know how closely you have to guard everything-- your possessions, your body, your expressions.... Jim was part of that "society" for a decade, but I think he'd learned the lessons long before his final booking. When the bloodlust of that night in the police station faded from my mind, removing the red haze that had obscured every rational thought, I remembered the little things that had occurred. Like how miserable Jim had looked in Simon Banks' office, but how little of that misery showed when he went out to confront his brother about the younger Ellison's role in trafficking Golden through Cascade. Like how Jim had accepted the blow which had split his cheek, with something akin to expectation. Damn. He had expected his brother to hit him. How many times had that occurred in the past? How many times had that son of a bitch and his father beat up on Jim? And how many times had my friend just stood there, emotionless, and let them take out their frustrations on him?

It seems weird to outsiders-- and I'm sure the detectives who watched this had questions-- that Jim, big, buff man than he is, would allow his slimmer, younger brother to attack him, and not retaliate. But you have to understand the psychological undercurrents that molded Jim, and eroded his defense mechanisms. From the moment his mother walked out on her husband and two sons, Jim was told that he was to blame. It was his "freakish" nature that sent his mother running...that if he had been "normal", they would be a family, and not just a mean old man who would nearly destroy one son and be a bad example for the other one. A boy had no defense against that. He hadn't been old enough to tell his father that if he wasn't man enough to keep a wife, that he shouldn't blame his son. He hadn't been old enough to figure out his mother had to be a selfish bitch to leave her two young children in the hands of William Ellison. All he'd been old enough to understand was that his mother had left, and that his father said he was the reason. Because it had been so convenient to blame Jim for that, William and Stephen had gotten into the habit of blaming Jim for everything that went wrong, and conversely, Jim had gotten into the habit of accepting the blame...and whatever punishment he received.

I get so angry when I think about Jim's childhood. I know that what I know is only the tip of the iceberg. When Stephen was blasting Jim in the Major Crime bullpen, he said some things that disturb me. He mentioned something about his father drowning Jim when he had the chance, and also something about threatening to shoot him. What had that sick, sadistic bastard done to my Jim? I ache to ask Jim for an explanation, but, God, the memories.... Who would be the sick, sadistic bastard if I made him recall those memories, right?

Knowing Jim has changed so much of me. Although my rivals, and those I've relieved of cash during my career, call me a bleeding heart liberal, my heart has never really bled. I help the less fortunate because of the thrill more than because I feel sorry for their plight. Well, maybe that's not altogether true, but I've never" weeped and wailed" for my clients, okay? They were people who needed help, and I helped them, then went on to help someone else. Even on a personal level I've never engaged my whole heart. I've been dumped, rejected, snubbed, but it's never bothered me for more than five minutes. Nothing has really and truly hurt me.

I don't know whether it's because I'm a lawyer, or just merely an observer of mankind, but I've become rather cynical over the years. One of my lady friends coaxed me into going to see Titanic when it debuted. It was supposedly much more than a chick flick. It had the ability to touch everyone, or so said its reviewers. Guess I'm not part of "everyone". I didn't find it romantic, sad, or even remotely tragic. Let me clarify that: the actual sinking was tragic, the movie wasn't. I found most of the characters to be stupid, the angst contrived, and the required bad guy more of a buffoon than a villain. It also bothered me that these shallow creatures had the audacity to call themselves slaves. Sure, the heroine's mother had basically sold her into marriage to a wealthy man for his money, but I'm sure any real slave back in, say, 1860, would have traded that kind of enslavement for the one they had at the drop of a hat.

I share all that to get across the point that I'm not an emotional being. I care about people, and I don't hide that, but I'm just not the weepy type. I'm more cynical, more practical. Take Titanic for instance-- I knew the boat was going to sink. Why cry when it happened? And if that's the best DiCaprio can do, don't be saving an Oscar for him, okay?

Now that everyone knows how unemotional I am, I can tell you that all of that became pure bullshit when I met Jim. During our brief acquaintance, I have cried for him several times. My heart right now is breaking for him. He's been so distracted that I've managed to watch him a couple of times without his being aware. The bleakness that comes to his eyes, the hopelessness in the slump of his shoulders, the slight tremble in his hands as his fists clench and unclench.... The cut on his cheek is healing, but the deeper wounds Stephen made are still bleeding, and I'm not sure I can staunch the flow. But if Stephen thinks I'm just going to stand here and allow his brother to bleed to death without a fight, he's even a bigger fool than I think he is.

I look around the office, especially at the empty desk in the corner. That's Jim's desk. He has his own office, but we'd found it was just more comfortable to work together...at least it had been until Stephen destroyed Jim's peace. Now, he works out of the office just down the hall, and while it bothers me, I try to be understanding. He needs to have a place to call his own, somewhere private. I mean, he can't even get that at home since he shares my apartment. Still, it hurts to know he wants to, has to, get away from me. Damn you, Stephen Ellison! Damn you!

I ball up a sheet of stationery and toss it angrily toward the door. Unfortunately, Garrity chooses this moment to enter, and the paper bounces off his forehead. "Sorry," I say sincerely. Garrity is the kind of assistant everyone dreams of having. He's efficient, detailed, and quick. At times, I'm also convinced he's a mind reader.

He shrugs off the incident. He knows why I'm in such a foul mood, and he understands. Actually, he understands better than anyone else. In a way, his interest in Jim rivals mine. When he was in prison, Jim protected him. While he was guarding him, Jim must have let his facade slip slightly, and Garrity had glimpsed the real being beneath the cold, hard, uncaring veneer Jim constantly wore. As soon as he was released, Garrity had devoted his life to getting Jim out of prison. That devotion led him to me, and our combined devotion got Jim out. We'd both been pleased as we watched our friend emerge from his walls, and both saddened when we saw him bricking himself in again. On occasion, I see a wicked gleam in Garrity's eyes, and I know he must be entertaining the same thoughts as I am...involving Stephen Ellison and lots of pain.

"I have the information," Garrity says quietly.

My eyes widen, and he nods. "I love you, Garrity."

"Better save the love until after you speak to Captain Banks. He's on line 2."

He drops into the chair in front of my desk, challenging me to dispute his right to listen in on the conversation. I can't, so I turn on the speakerphone. "Captain Banks, this is Blair Sandburg."

"Mr. Sandburg, as you know, Stephen Ellison and his information were turned over to the DEA."

"Yes, I was aware of that, Captain."

"They've decided to put him in the Witness Protection Program."

"What!" No way that little shit is going to be given a protected life while his brother is still reeling from his abuse. "I need names, Captain Banks."

Laughter came through the speaker. "I thought you would. My assistant is putting together a list, and she'll fax it to you as soon as it's completed."

"Thank you, Captain."

"Just doing my duty." The connection is severed.

His duty-- as a member of the Protect James Ellison Society. If you were lucky enough to glimpse a flicker of the man behind the mask of indifference, you would instantly recognize him as a survivor-- of what really didn't matter. Upon this instant of recognition, you would either hate him for not succumbing as you probably would have, or support him because he was an inspiration in the truest sense of the word. We members of the PJES fall into the latter category.

"Here, you work on this," Garrity says, handing me the file he'd brought in with him. "I'll get started on the other."

"Can you?" I ask. This isn't anything against Garrity. It's just that along the path of my career, I've encountered contacts, powerful ones. If Garrity needs to use them, I want to make them available.

Green eyes bore into mine. "When I realized I could not get Ellison out of prison by myself, I made up a list of people I could ask for help-- ones I knew, and ones my research told me knew Jim. You were at the top of the list, but by no means, were you on the roster alone."

He leaves, and I'm still gaping at him. Sometimes I forget how resourceful he can be.

Since I have my orders, I study Garrity's information, think about the right approach, then grab my jacket. "I'm going out," I yell as I pass by Garrity's office.

"Okay."

See? I told you he's a mind reader. He doesn't ask where I'm going because he doesn't lie to Jim. When Jim asks, "Where's Sandburg?" Garrity will reply, "He went out." Jim will ask, "Where?" and Garrity will say, "He didn't tell me." Complete honesty...in a way. Garrity knows what he gave me. He knows where I'm going.

I'm going in search of a cure...perhaps the only one that will save Jim.

*****

I know Sandburg isn't in the office. His car is missing from its usual space, and I can't feel his presence. At first that weirded me out, the ability to know when Sandburg is around. Sure, with these special senses of mine I can discern more than most. I use sight, hearing and smell to identify people from a distance-- a very convenient talent for a private detective. But with Blair, those aren't the senses I use. I can "feel" him like no other. It's more of an internal sensation, a subliminal awareness that yes, Blair Sandburg is nearby. I haven't told him about it yet, and now, I doubt if I'll have the chance. You see, what I feared would happen, is happening. Once again, someone I care about is leaving me, and as usual, it's my fault.

I tried to warn Sandburg that I would eventually scare him away. He said I couldn't-- because he was my guide, and my abilities weren't unnatural to him. But it isn't the sentinel who is scaring him away; it's me, Jim Ellison, son of William, that he's distancing himself from. He has finally realized I'm too scarred, too broken to fix, and although he's doing it as gently as possible, I can feel him pulling away from me. I wish I could make it easy on him and just leave. However, he made me promise not to disappear on him, not to walk out into the night without warning. Of course, that was before...before Stephen opened his eyes to the kind of man I truly am.

Now that I'm versed in legalese, I can tell you exactly how a lawyer would do a closing argument in this situation:

Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Ellison is a child of abuse. His father beat and demeaned him constantly. He was told he was the reason his mother walked out on the family. He was called a freak. When he was eight, young Jim awoke to find the muzzle of a gun pressed against his forehead. His father was holding the weapon, his finger was on the trigger, and at least fifteen minutes passed before William sighed and lowered the gun. Poor Jim was so traumatized by the incident that he slept through school for two weeks because he was afraid to sleep when he was in his own bed. For at least a year afterwards, he could not sleep the whole night through, often awaking in a terrified sweat.

When Jim was eleven, his father's co-worker offered William a weekend at a cabin near a lake. Since the co-worker practically demanded the man take his sons with him, William had done so. The two boys liked the lake and frolicked there often. While diving off the pier, Jim hit his head. He awakened to find some stranger doing CPR on him, his father drenched and heaving beside him. Later, his brother Stephen told him how he'd yelled for their father, and that William had only jumped in and pulled him to the bank when a man from a nearby cabin had come running out. Daddy Ellison-- saving his son only because the public was watching.... That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is what caused this man to be the way he is.

So, it's not his fault that he isn't normal. It isn't his fault that he can't react like normal human beings react. It's not his fault that he is incapable of love and trust. It isn't his fault that he's a pathetic piece of shit, not worthy of being loved. Blair Sandburg didn't know all the facts when he tried to love this man. He hadn't seen all the ugliness inside, known how deep the infection ran in his soul. Those tainted by William Ellison are tainted for life. For example, take Stephen Ellison. He's a drug dealer, my friends, profiting off the lives of innocent children. Why? Because he is the son of William, and nothing good can ever come from William. Please, take pity on Blair Sandburg. Send Jim Ellison back to isolation where he belongs...away from society, away from those he will cause pain, away from those he will in turn affect with William's sickness. Don't let Mr. Sandburg's life be permanently fucked because he thought he could save Mr. Ellison. In this case, let ignorance be an excuse. Mr. Sandburg was ignorant to the facts about his supposed friend. Now, his eyes have been opened, and he sees the hopelessness of the situation. Allow him to cut his losses as painlessly as possible. Expunge Jim Ellison from his life. Lift this burden from Mr. Sandburg's shoulders.

Set him free.

Garrity greets me as I enter the office. I feel anger roiling from him, and I wonder what I've done to offend him. But does it even matter anymore why people hate me? They just do. "I have the photos from the warehouse. The conditions are just as hazardous as the workers said," I report.

"Good. I'll put them in the file."

I hand him the packet. "Where's Sandburg?"

"Out."

I nod, and go into my office. I never really used it much until now. Before that night with Stephen, I was always comfortable working in the same office with Sandburg. But after the incident, everything changed. Sandburg was wary around me, tentative in his actions, in his speech. I understood, even though I didn't want to. He was just waiting for me to act like my brother, to let the violent tendencies that were beat into us as children show forth. I moved to the other office, because quite frankly, I'm waiting for it to happen too. That's why I'm considering making a clean break. Leave Sandburg. Leave Cascade. Hell, maybe I should just do the world a favor, and leave life altogether.

I finish up all the files I have pending, just in case I decide to act on the latter option. Then I drive home. Home. I never had one before, you know. A house, a place to stay, somewhere to crash.... Some were better than others, but they weren't home. At least, even if this is about to end, I got to know what people meant when they said they were going home. Fellow prisoners would mention the word with such longing. Some even cried when they were finally paroled, and allowed to go "home". I never understood the tears. Until now.

"Hi, Mr. Ellison."

I look around and see John Phillips, the doorman. "Hello, Mr. Phillips," I reply formally. We play this game because he refuses to call me by my first name since I live in the building, and I refuse to call him by his first name because I know I don't deserve his respect. "How has your day been, sir?"

"Splendid as usual, sir."

"That sounds interesting, Mr. Phillips. Perhaps we should explore this splendid day of yours in greater depth." Phillips is a gossiper. Normally, I don't like that in a person, but I find his information quite useful. I am Sandburg's protector, for the time being, and as such, I need to know what's going on around him-- including the actions of his neighbors.

"Mr. Sandburg and his guest are probably waiting for you," he replies. "It will keep until tomorrow."

Sandburg and his guest? Phillips assumes I'm still in the know, and since I don't want Sandburg to become part of his gossip repertoire, I don't do anything to change his mind. I just go up to the penthouse, and pause outside the door. Sandburg's presence is unmistakable; figuring out his companion takes a little more effort. The trace of perfume tells me it's a woman seconds before I tune into her sultry voice. She and Sandburg are discussing the Degas over the mantle. God, he really is showing her his etchings, I think with a smirk. Then, before my listening becomes eavesdropping, I let myself inside.

The woman is as lovely as I pictured; Sandburg is an excellent judge of beauty. She's a tall, slim redhead, possessing an air of professionalism and confidence. That figures. Sandburg likes them intelligent and independent.

"Jim," Sandburg calls when he sees me. "Come over here. I'd like to introduce you to someone. Carolyn, this is Jim Ellison, my partner and friend. Jim, this is Carolyn Plummer."

"It's nice to meet you, Ms. Plummer," I reply politely, wondering why Sandburg didn't tack on an explanation to her name. He'd called me his partner and friend. What is this Carolyn to him?

"Please, call me Carolyn, Mr. Ellison."

I notice her pulse has quickened. Why? Maybe she's thinking three's a crowd. "Are you two heading out for dinner?" I ask, wondering if I have to leave, or would they do the honors.

"I was hoping it would be the three of us at dinner," Sandburg says softly, a nervous question in his voice.

What the hell is going on? Who is this woman? Maybe she's a potential client and not a date, but that doesn't explain the anxiety that is pouring off of Sandburg. The sentinel in me surges forward. "Sure," I say with a casual shrug. "Dinner sounds fine."

*****

Ah. My Blessed Protector is on the job. He thinks I call him that because of the way he bristles when perceived danger comes my way-- part of the sentinel/guide connection we have going. But I actually call him that because just like in the old Chinese proverb, he saved my life, and now he's responsible for it forever. I wasn't in any physical danger when I met Jim, but I recognize I was in spiritual danger. That whole cynicism thing I discussed earlier? It was getting the best of me, and I was getting too much joy out of crushing the opponent. My work was close to being just a game. And the stuff I taunted Naomi with when she came to visit? I had come scarily close to being that person. Remember Gretchen, the woman I casually left in my bed to go to Jim's side? I'm glad you remember, because I barely do. Looking back, I can see that I was using her. The relationship was barren, incapable of going further, yet night after night we ended up in bed together because it was convenient. It doesn't matter that she was using me as well, the thought leaves a bad taste in my mouth, you know?

But Jim rescued my soul. By coming into my life, he pierced the veils over my eyes, and allowed me to see more clearly than I have for years. I can perceive colors again...and the sun. I'd forgotten how bright the sun can be, how it can warm you from the inside out. I dance in its light, bask in its warmth, and laugh beneath the rainbows it casts now that I have Jim. Blessed Protector? You bet your sweet ass.

"So, are you a lawyer too, Jim?" Carolyn asks as we enter the elevator.

"No. I'm a private investigator," Jim answers, his eyes cutting over to glance at me. He knows something isn't right by my continued silence. I'm usually the first to speak up when someone asks about Jim. I'm so proud of how capable he is.

"You're into guns, then?"

Jim blinks. "I'm licensed to carry one, but I'm not 'into' them. I see guns as tools, Carolyn, and just as I only usually use a screwdriver when there's a screw that needs to be tightened or loosened, I only use a gun when necessary."

She blushes. "I'm sorry. I used to work for the police department. Several private investigators that I ran into seemed to like to do it for the thrill of being a cop, without having to follow the rules."

"Were you a police officer?"

"No. I was a forensics technician."

"Outside of the qualifying range, I haven't shot a weapon since my Army days, and I hope to keep that record going," Jim says defiantly. "This world is violent enough."

She looks over at me, obviously shocked by Jim's statement. I give her a little smile, knowing she's going to be shocked quite a bit before the evening's over. I have no doubt in my mind that Jim is going to impress the hell out of her.

And that will bring us one step closer to our goal-- even though he doesn't know it.

*****

What is he up to? Sandburg's playing some game, and I'm a major part of it. I can tell from the way he tenses at each of this Plummer woman's questions, then relaxes when I answer. Is this some kind of test to see if I'm ready for polite company? Or is he trying to set me up? Is this some desperate effort to find a woman to take me in, so he won't feel so bad when he kicks me out?

It's okay, Chief. You don't have to go to all this trouble. I've taken care of myself all these years. I can do it again. Granted, I didn't do such a good job, but I have knowledge on my side this time. You've taught me that I'm a sentinel. You've shown me how to manage that part of me. Maybe-- probably, I won't be able to handle it on my own, but if I keep the dials turned down, I should be okay. And if that fails.... The money you got me in those lawsuits is enough to get me a room in one of the nicer asylums. So, don't sweat it, Chief. I'll be fine.

"Damn."

I leave my thoughts to see that Carolyn has knocked over her water glass. I feel the heat of her embarrassment, and when Sandburg doesn't rush in to ease her discomfort, I do. "It's okay," I croon, motioning for a waiter. "At least this is just water. I remember the time I spilled wine at...." I just keep talking until I feel the tension in her ease. Sandburg...Sandburg just sits there, not helping at all. I glare at him in anger, then worry gets the better of me. What's wrong with my friend?

Back at our building, I head back up to the penthouse while Sandburg walks Carolyn to her car. If he's expecting me to be closeted in my room when he comes in, he needs to lower his expectations. This-- whatever this is-- has gone on long enough. If he wants me out, fine. But I don't want to play the games anymore.

"Who is she?" I demand when he walks through the door.

"Carolyn...Plummer," he says and I barely catch the slight hesitation.

"Who?" I reply in my most threatening tone.

"Carolyn Plummer...Ellison."

My knees give out. I sink onto the sofa. "Stephen's wife?"

"Ex-wife. That's why she went back to her maiden name."

"What was she doing here?" Seeing for herself the freak who used to be her brother-in-law?

"I went to the lab where she worked, and begged her to come here to meet you."

"Why?"

"Because I wanted her to know you could be trusted to be an uncle to her daughter."

"Why?" My heart is pounding so loud in my ears that I can barely hear Sandburg.

"Because Jenny needs a positive male role model in her life, and you need...you need that little girl. You made quite an impression on Carolyn. It seems that Stephen had this gun collection that he obsessed over, so your response to guns was an excellent one. And when you were so nice when she spilled the water.... She was expecting anger, you know. Your brother...well, you know your brother better than anyone, I guess. Anyway, she's agreed to bring Jenny to the park tomorrow. I thought we could make a picnic of it."

"No," I think I say. But my ears are ringing so badly, I'm not sure if the word was spoken aloud.

"Jim?" The voice is so distant that I ignore it. Then I feel warmth on my face, and look into the blue ocean depths of my guide's eyes.

I happily drown.

*****

"Because Jenny needs a positive male role model in her life, and you need that little girl, " I tell him earnestly. Then I continue eagerly. "You made quite an impression on Carolyn. She's agreed to bring Jenny to the park tomorrow. I thought we could make a picnic of it." I wonder if Mrs. Thomas will be able to fix a basket at such short notice. I guess I can always call one of the local delis.

"No," he whispers, and I look at him in dismay. Then I really look at him. He doesn't look so good.

"Jim?" I question anxiously. I sit down beside him, and cradle his jaw in my hands. "Jim?" I watch in horror as his eyes catch mine, then the light leaves them. He's zoning. Shit. "Don't do this, Jim. Come back to me." I drop my voice a half pitch and speak firmly. "Come back, Jim. Listen to me. Follow my voice and follow it back. You can do it, Jim. Come on back."

A tremble runs through his body, and suddenly he's looking at me. I heave a sigh of relief. "Don't scare me like that again," I say, my voice harsh with the remains of my fear.

He squirms out of my grasp, and drops his head. "I'm sorry," he mumbles.

Damn. I just told him he scared me-- the same thing his family accused him of. His past is such a fucking minefield. "You don't scare me, Jim," I hasten to explain. "Your zone frightened me because I never know if you're coming back to me. The fear is for you, not of you. Do you understand the difference?"

"Yeah," he says halfheartedly.

I pinch his chin, forcing him to look at me. "Don't let them do this, Jim. Don't let your father and your brother come between us. Don't let Stephen's actions and words make you doubt your trust in me."

"I'm not the one doing the doubting, Chief."

"What?" I lower my hands, stunned.

"You don't trust me anymore. I understand. After Stephen's display--"

"What does that have to do with you?" His brother is an asshole. So what? That didn't mean.... "You think so little of me that you believe I would change my opinion of you because of your brother?"

"Blood will tell," he replies dejectedly.

My first instinct is to slap some sense into him. But that will only emphasize the point I'm trying not to make. "Sometimes, Jim, but not always," I tell him gently. "Your blood makes you a sentinel, but your father isn't, and neither is your brother. You're already different from what they are. Why would you be the same in other ways?"

I can tell he hadn't thought of it in that way before. Some of his hopelessness fades. "But why?" he asks in confusion. "Why did you feel so uncomfortable around me afterwards?"

I shake my head. "I thought you were uncomfortable around me. I thought you needed space to deal with what had happened," I quickly explain.

"Oh."

A major screw up on both our parts and he sums it up with a simple "Oh." Gotta love this man. "So, about tomorrow's picnic," I begin enthusiastically.

"No picnic, Sandburg."

One step forward, two steps back. "Why not?" I ask patiently.

"You said it yourself: Jenny needs a positive male role model in her life. That ain't me."

"You're perfect, Jim. You're--"

"An ex-con."

"Not true," I argue.

"My courts records can go poof, and you can file as many lawsuits as you want, Chief, but the fact still remains that I spent ten years in prison. Nothing will ever change that."

My mouth drops open, but nothing comes out. He's right. Those years can never be erased. They are a part of him forever. I never looked at it that way. I always assumed that with his record purged from the system, those ten years ceased to exist. It's a wonder I graduated at the top of my law school class. "But those ten years have nothing to do with the man you are inside, my friend. The good in you has always shown through. You have always been a protector. Little Jenny will need that growing up without a father. Have you heard about Stephen going into the Witness Protection Program?"

"Garrity told me."

"That means Jenny will never see him. Who's going to be there to hold her on his shoulders, so she can watch the Christmas Parade go down the street? Who's going to teach her how to defend herself in the big, bad world? Who's going to dry her tears, and tell her she's loved when someone teases her, or calls her names?"

"She has a mother."

"And she only needs one person to love her?"

"It's more than I--" He stops as soon as he realizes what he's about to reveal. "I don't want to hurt her, Chief. I don't know anything about children."

"You're not too old to learn," I tell him cheerfully. "But considering you are getting a little long in the tooth, maybe you should go to bed and rest up for tomorrow. Five-year-olds can be exhausting. At least I was."

"Was?" he teases.

"And I was planning on asking Mrs. Thomas to make her special chocolate chip pecan surprise cookies for the picnic," I chide, shaking my head. "But they're only for good boys and girls."

"She'll make them for me if I ask," he replies with an impertinent grin.

I want to hug him. He's finally starting to accept that people will do something for him, just because he asks. Now that is a giant step in the right direction. "You're absolutely correct, Jim. She will make them for you if you ask. So, you gonna ask?"

"What do you care, Sandburg? 'All that sugar isn't good for you'," he says, quoting my own words back to me.

"If you don't say it tomorrow, I won't," I negotiate nimbly. It feels good to be so at ease with each other again.

"Deal," he agrees as he stands and stretches. "See you in the morning, Chief."

I smile and sprawl out on the sofa.

Sandburg, I think, you done good.

*****

He doesn't understand, and I don't think he can. He can't comprehend how being in prison alters the way you look at yourself. Sure, maybe I was there in error, but after ten years, I had convinced myself that I was where I belonged...and that still feels right to me. And what does an ex-con have to offer to a child? It's bad enough that her daddy should be serving time. Now, she's going to have to deal with an uncle who could give her a guided tour of Starkville. Okay, she's only five, which means my past probably won't matter to her now, but what will happen when she's older and capable of understanding...and judging? Do I really want to begin a relationship with her, and then watch it die as she realizes who her uncle really is?

When I hear Sandburg pad up to his room, I leave my bed and step out onto the balcony. I don't mind the breeze, although it carries a chill from the mountain it originated from. That chill has nothing on the one originating in my gut. Life with Sandburg has been wonderful, but I don't know how long I can keep taking these chances with my heart. Every other week or so he's demanding that I open up, that I let this person or that person into my soul.

No. That's not fair. He's never made a single demand of me. He gives me opportunities, and I perceive them as demands...which makes it my fault, not his, right? I think I see them as demands because failing him is unacceptable to me. He's given me so much, and has asked for so little in return. If he requires every so often that I put my heart on the line, who am I to argue or gripe? It's the least I can do. The very least.

Okay. That's settled then. I will slap a smile on my face, and go to the damn picnic. I will try not to frighten little Jenny or her mother, and maybe everything will go okay.

And maybe it won't.

*****

He didn't sleep all night. I heard him go out onto the balcony right after I went to bed, and he was still there this morning when my alarm went off. I know he's scared of being rejected by Jenny, and even more terrified of being loved by her. Maybe I'm rushing this, but I feel it's important that he makes this connection with his niece. If she's like every other five-year-old I've run into (several of my clients have had children, and when day care or a babysitter failed to materialize, they've brought them to the office with them), Jennifer Ellison will see straight past all of Jim's best defenses, and burrow straight into his heart.

"You have the cookies?"

"Yes, Mrs. Thomas. I packed them on top so they wouldn't be crushed," I explain. The aroma of the fresh-baked cookies is still swirling around the kitchen.

"I just wanted to make sure. It isn't often my sweetie asks me to do something for him." She smiles, then looks at me worriedly. "He was a little pale this morning when you sent him out to get a bag of ice."

"He's going to meet his niece for the first time today."

"Ah. Butterflies in the stomach. He'll be all right then. She will love him."

"How do you know?"

"Because my sweetie is a lovable person."

I laugh, and give her a hug. Mrs. Thomas is not the type of woman who likes a lot of words. She says what she means, and is always right. "You think one day he'll realize that?"

"Yes, Mr. Sandburg, if we tell him often enough, one day he will believe," she says wisely.

"I'll take you dancing on that day," I promise her.

"I'll wear my red high-heels, sir."

The image of the senior citizen in red pumps keeps a smile on my face as Jim returns, and we pile the picnic fixings in the back of his Jeep.

They are waiting for us when we arrive. Carolyn is holding her daughter's hand, and I can see the wariness in her eyes. The little girl is the spitting image of her mother, her red hair long and in pigtails, whereas her mother's is cropped short and stylish. "Hi!" I call enthusiastically. "Are we late?"

"Jennifer can get impatient," Carolyn says, sending her daughter a loving glare. "It was just easier to 'come on', even though we knew we'd be early."

"Are you my uncle?" the girl asks me.

"No, he is." I point to Jim, who is unloading the vehicle and trying to fade into the background. "Why don't you go say hi?" I whisper. I feel Jim's eyes send daggers into my back.

I shrug, and scope out a perfect place to lay the blanket.

*****

Killing Sandburg wouldn't be a good idea, would it? After all, he's my attorney and if I kill him, well, who's going to get me off for doing it?

"Can I help?"

I look down, way down, to see the child staring up at me. Shit. Here goes nothing. "Sure, little one." I hand her the beachball I'd picked up when I bought the ice. I'd seen families on television playing with the colorful balls on outings, and I thought it might be appropriate. Hell, it's already saved me. Maybe I should think about getting stock in the company. I hoist the cooler into my arms, and look around for my traitorous roommate. He and Carolyn are spreading out the blanket beneath a tall tree. "Let's go join the others, okay?"

"'Kay." She jogs along beside me until I realize I need to make shorter steps. "You're my Uncle Jim?"

"Yes. I'm your daddy's brother."

"Does that mean my mommy's going to cry like she did when my daddy was around?"

Damn. These little ones didn't play around, did they? I put down the cooler, and drop to one knee in front of her. "I can't guarantee that your mom won't cry anymore, but I solemnly swear to you that I will do my best to make sure that I'm not the reason for her tears. Is that okay?"

"You won't hurt her?"

"I'm going to try my very best not to hurt her or you, but sometimes, even when you try your best, you do the wrong thing anyway." I want to assure her, but I also want to be honest. I know my limitations. If one day I do mess up, I don't want Jenny to throw my words back in my face.

The blue eyes which remind me so much of her father stare into mine. "If you do wrong, I'll let you know, and then you won't do it again. Okay?"

"Okay."

She grins, and I take that as my cue that I can pick up the cooler again. I set it just at the edge of the blanket, and Jenny puts the ball right beside it. "Can I go on the swings, Mommy?" she begs. Since the swings are within viewing distance, Carolyn nods. Jenny starts off in the direction of the playset, then looks back at me. "Wanna push me?" she offers.

"It sounds like fun." She reaches out her hand to me, and I enclose it in my own.

Now, that's a feeling that should be bottled.

*****

Jim carries the sleepy little girl to the car and carefully buckles her into the backseat. When he starts to step back, her arms come out and fold around his neck, her lips brushing his cheek. He smiles and shuts the car door. For a few minutes he and Carolyn discuss future arrangements, then we both wave as the ladies drive off. As he arranges the leftovers of the picnic, I sit on the blanket and try to remember something I learned in high school English. Finally the memory comes to me.

"Jenny kissed me when we met," I recite, "Jumping from the chair she sat in,/ Time, you thief! Who love to get/ Sweets into your list, put that in./ Say I'm weary, say I'm sad;/ Say that health and wealth have missed me;/ Say I'm growing old, but add--/ Jenny kissed me!"

Jim smiles, and continues re-packing the cooler. "I think I'm in love, Chief."

"I think it's mutual, Jim," I happily add.

He puts the picnic basket on top of the cooler and lifts both. "Thank you," he says softly, then walks toward the Jeep.

No. Thank you, Jenny Ellison, I think, as I fold the blanket. I can see the difference in Jim's walk, in the way he carries his head. We're back to where we were, maybe even beyond that point. The child had healed the wounds her father had made in my sentinel's soul. Apparently, Stephen Ellison's life hadn't been a total waste. He had one saving grace: a beautiful, wonderful daughter.

Maybe I should call Garrity off his case.

And maybe not.

"Coming, Chief?" Jim asks, taking the blanket from my arms.

"Yeah, Jim," I say, slipping into the passenger's seat. "Let's go home."

THE END


Comments? D.L. Witherspoon