WARNING: Sharp turn in reality ahead! Approach with caution!
Starkville is the prison in the episode, Prisoner X.
Belated thanks to my beta, K. Sorry about all the rewrites!
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Blair Sandburg and I am an attorney. At one point, when I was much younger, I thought of being something fanciful like an anthropologist, but that wasn't to be my fate. My mother, Naomi, is what some still call a Flower Child. She and her friends roam the earth like gypsies, searching for causes to support, evils to protest, injustices to set right. By the time I was sixteen and ready for college, I had spent more time in legal libraries than I ever would during three years of law school, searching for ways to get my mother out of jail for one thing or the other. By the time I graduated at nineteen, it was assumed by all parties, including myself, that I would be a lawyer.
So, I have been a practicing attorney for four years, and judges and other lawyers have learned to respect me. Besides representing my mother and her cohorts, I have become somewhat of an advocate for the people. Class action suits, negligence cases, hiring and firing discrimination-- these are my specialties, and I am not ashamed to admit I am good at what I do.
Which is why it was strange that I took the case which would ultimately make me who I am. A young man, well not so young, since he was merely three years under me, came into my office and begged for my help. He began by telling me he had served time at Starkville State Correctional Institute here in Washington. Nineteen and foolish, he had let his friends influence him into an armed robbery. Because he had merely been the getaway driver, his lawyer had plea-bargained him down to a year to eighteen months, but there had been a hitch in the arrangement. Pleasant Grove, the area's minimum/medium security facility, had had space problems, so he was given a choice: do the full term out-of-state, or do a mere six months at Starkville. Starkville was high-security, and rightly so. The criminal element there were among the most dangerous.
"I chose Starkville." I looked at him incredulously. But I guess getting a year cut off his sentence was worth it to him. "I knew what I was in for," Paul Garrity told me, "and I was scared shitless. If I survived the six months, I figured I wouldn't be the same man when I got out. Hell, I figured I wouldn't even be a man anymore." He squirmed restlessly in his seat as he remembered his fears.
"I don't do sexual assault cases," I told him gently, figuring that was where he was headed. "But if you wish to sue the state penal system for subjecting you to the brutality of Starkville, I'll look into it for you." It was just a bone I was throwing him, but I thought he should be rewarded for his bravery. Most men refused to admit that a man could be raped, much less filed charges.
"I wasn't assaulted, and I don't want to sue anyone. I want to help someone special. I want to get a man out of Starkville," he said. "He doesn't belong there."
Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that one. "What makes you think that?"
"He's too gentle to have committed the crimes they said he did."
Too gentle? Hmm. "What crimes were those?"
"He was convicted of killing a mother and her child. But Ellison couldn't have done something like that. As soon as you meet him, you'll know that," he said with innocent confidence. No wonder his friends had decided he'd be the perfect stooge in a robbery.
"The man's name is Ellison?"
"Yes. Jim Ellison. He...he made my life bearable in Starkville."
"He protected you?" He nodded. "And he became your lover?" I'd seen cases of this before, a form of Stockholm Syndrome. The kid was identifying with his abuser, so much so in fact, that he didn't even know he'd been abused.
"No!" Garrity exclaimed. "He never once touched me--like that."
"But he protected you?" I asked skeptically. "And he didn't require any payment?"
The boy nodded. I tried to stop thinking of him as a boy, because I knew I looked young for my age myself, but it was hard to take this red-headed man seriously. How someone had survived Starkville and still had so much innocence left.... "In the beginning, when he told me it would be okay, he asked one thing of me; that when my time was up, I would leave Starkville, and never do anything that would wind me up there again. He...he reminded me of my promise on the day I got out. And I have been clean ever since, Mr. Sandburg. I have a job and I'm going to night school.
"When I first started college, I had dreams of becoming a lawyer and saving Ellison myself. In preparation of that, I studied up on his case. This is the information I have so far." He tossed a rather grimy manila folder onto my desk. "There are definitely some anomalies there which could get him a retrial. But my schooling is taking too long and the thought of Jim being in that place while I go through years and years of training, well it gives me nightmares, Mr. Sandburg. That's why I decided to come to you for help."
"You helped my mama and her co-workers when the mill wasn't paying them as much as the men."
Oh. Wonder which mill that was? There had been many in my short career. "I'm sorry, Mr. Garrity, but I'm not a criminal lawyer. Perhaps you should find someone else."
He nodded his head complacently, as if this wasn't the first time he'd been told that. He grabbed his wrinkled little folder and started out of my office. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Sandburg. Good luck on your future cases."
Even now, I'm not sure what it was that made me stop him. Perhaps it was the defeated slump of his shoulders, or the wish for luck even though I had basically kicked him out of my office. Whatever it was, had me reaching out my hand for his folder and telling him I would look into the situation for him. His smile threatened to overwhelm the high-watt halogen lamp on my desk.
"Ellison, your attorney is here."
I look up from the bench press in surprise at the guard. As far as I knew, I didn't have an attorney. I certainly didn't consider the public defender who had handled my case nine years ago my attorney. I doubt if she even remembered my name. Bailey, who is acting as my spotter, helps me cradle the weight I'd been hefting and I sit up. "Can he or she give me five minutes to clean up?"
He nods and I head to the showers, Thomas Bailey tagging along faithfully behind me. He is my latest charge. I made the mistake once of putting a young fellow under my protection, and now the guards just give them to me. They are usually young, or young-looking, terrified, and doing very short time. They don't belong in Starkville any more than I do, and because of that, I take care of them. I keep them from getting beat up and raped. Why? Maybe because that's the only thing that keeps me from going insane.
I am not normal. I never have been. For as long as I can remember, I have been able to see and hear things other people can't. It's incredibly freaky, and I'm pretty sure that's why my mother ran off when I was young, leaving me and my kid brother with my dad. My dad hated me because of it, and that's why I run off from him. Went into the Army. Spent seven years of my life there and thought I had finally found something I could do, when suddenly my being different had me running again.
I had learned over the years to pretend I was normal and the few times I'd slipped, well, it had been easy to cover. Then my Army team went on a classified mission. Everyone died...except me. Out there in the middle of nowhere, I had to let my senses take over just so I could keep on surviving. But when I was rescued later, I couldn't get them to go back into hiding. I heard everything-- the beetles burrowing into the ground, the cement settling in the new barrack being constructed nearly a mile away, the base commander with one of the enlisted women.... I saw colors where there should have only been black and white, found myself fascinated by the pattern on a butterfly that flitted by me, nearly drove off the road when I was drawn into the writhing neon gas of an adult bookstore sign. Then it all started getting jumbled, the sights and sounds. A couple of times I blacked out or something, and that's when the Army wanted to turn me over to the doctors. But I knew what was wrong and that there wasn't anything they could do for me, so I took an honorable discharge.
I found myself in Cascade. Why? I have no idea. Sure, I was raised there and as far as I knew my dad and brother still lived in the area, but I didn't return because of them. Hell, I never even bothered to try to find them. It just felt like the place I needed to be. But being there just made my senses go even more off the scale. There were times when I would wake up and find out I had missed hours, even a couple of days once. Scary as hell, you know, to get up on a Wednesday morning, and the next thing you're aware of is that it's Friday. You know this because what wakes you is the sound of the garbage truck backing up in the alley below your window, and the garbage truck only comes on Fridays. I tried to deliberately lose myself in a bottle that night, but quickly discovered alcohol took away any control I had left. The next morning I awakened naked and horribly scratched, because when removing my clothes didn't bring the relief I sought, I had tried to remove my skin.
I thought I had hit bottom that week. I had lost days. I had nearly flayed myself alive. I had actually scared myself so badly that I was contemplating voluntarily committing myself. However, I contemplated a bit too long. Less than a week later, I learned the definition of the word terror. You can watch all the horror movies you like. You can ride roller coasters, face white water rapids in a kayak, jump over a goddamned canyon on a motorcycle. But if you want to feel terror, try coming to and finding a dead baby in your arms, her mother just as lifeless at your feet.
The cops had me cuffed and in jail before I could even process the knowledge that they thought I was the murderer. The trial had been a lost cause. Although I had pleaded innocent-- to my public defender's utter horror-- there was nothing I could tell the jury to point to someone else. How had I come to be standing with the baby in my arms? I didn't know. Why was the mother's blood on me? I didn't know. Why was I in the apartment in the first place? I didn't know. The life sentence came as no surprise.
I shower, Bailey standing just in the entrance holding my towel. There is no privacy in prison, and I had learned the hard way to keep my charges in sight at all times. That first one--what was his name...Garrity--Garrity had decided to go to the library while I took a nap. Only my good hearing had me arriving in time to keep him from being fucked bent over the computer table. No, they never leave my sight.
But I can't take Bailey with me to the visitor's room. The guards help me all they can, but this is a rule even they can't break. So I go out to the yard and look for Johnson. He's the guy in charge of the Brotherhood, the clique most Blacks belong to at Starkville. He respects me because I told the Aryan Nation to take a flying fuck when they tried to recruit me when I first arrived. I don't do groups.
I had thought I was going to have trouble with Johnson when I received my first Black charge. I understood instantly I was intruding on his territory, so I approached him first, asked him if there was going to be a problem. He asked me if someone tried to take the young brother against his will, would I send five men to the infirmary as I had when Garrity was attacked. I told him yes. He told me there would be no problem.
I walk Bailey over to Johnson's side where he's shooting the bull with his crew. I explain that I'm needed in the visitor's room, and Johnson nods. I feel eyes on me as I cross the yard back into the main building. One pair of them is Bailey's. His pulse races as I walk farther away. The guards had whispered to him when he arrived that his only chance of surviving was to stay with me at all times. But I trust Johnson as far as I trust anyone. And if anything happens to Bailey, I will know who to blame.
The other pair of eyes I feel on my back are cold and calculating. They belong to Orrin Pierson. He has been in for two years and for some reason, he despises me. The hatred he feels for me is deep and ever-growing. He tries to get to me through my charges, lunging at them, making suggestive remarks whenever we pass. Once, he touched one. That accounts for the limited motion of his left hand.
"I'm going to have that fine piece of young Black ass, or my name isn't Orrin Pierson," I hear him tell one of his Aryan buddies.
I sigh as I overhear this exchange. One day, I know with absolute certainty, I will have to kill this man.
I tap my fingers nervously as I wait for him to arrive. The guard has informed me that Ellison had been in the yard and needed a quick shower. Like I cared. There was bulletproof glass between us; I couldn't smell him if I tried. But apparently the man liked to be clean. I couldn't fault him for that, especially since he wasn't expecting me.
I had spent the past two days going through his file. For a kid, Garrity had done a good job of researching the case. Made me remember my early days of bailing my mom out. He'd also been correct when he said there were glitches that could lead to a retrial. But before I committed to such a task, I needed to meet the man. I had to know whether the Jim Ellison on paper was the real Jim Ellison.
My first impression is that he's big enough, and mean enough to have committed the murders. Although he is tidily dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, the clothing does nothing to hide that he is powerfully built. He is tall, six feet or more, with short-cropped, light brown hair, and if my mom saw him she would say his facial bone structure was extraordinary. In other words, he was handsome. Maybe Garrity hadn't been lying when he said Ellison had never touched him. The man probably could get whoever and whatever he wanted without force.
I pick up the telephone, and when he just looks at me, I motion for him to do the same. He does so slowly. "Mr. Ellison, my name is Blair Sandburg. I've been reviewing your case."
Cool, blue eyes regard me with an impassive stare. I shiver, despite it being a hot day and the air conditioning negligible in the building. "Why?" he asks. His voice reflects no interest whatsoever.
"Paul Garrity--" I begin.
"He's okay?" he asks quickly.
I don't answer right away. In that instant I see what Paul Garrity must have seen, what the guards who had smiled when I asked for Ellison must have seen. This is a caring man, a gentle soul which hid behind a cold gaze and an impressive body. Why he hid, and whatever else he may be hiding, I will take time to discover later. For now, it is enough that I have seen this tiny bit. "He's fine. Still out of trouble, but he is worried about you."
"Tell him to save his money for his schooling." The hard stare returns.
"There are grounds for a retrial in your case."
"Save someone else, Mr. Sandburg. I'm not worth it." With that he stands and walks away.
I leave, more determined than ever to free this man.
I try to hide how shaken I am as I return for Bailey. I tell him I'll be his spotter this time, and as I lead him through the workout routine I had designed for him, my mind returns to the strange meeting. The lawyer looked like none I'd ever seen. He had curly dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and instead of wearing a suit, he'd been in a pullover top that looked as if it had been through several washings. But I sensed his power, that this was a man to be reckoned with, in or out of the courtroom.
Why then, was he reviewing my case? The last time Garrity had come to visit, at least a year ago, he'd indicated he was working at one of the local fast food places. Definitely not making enough money to hire an attorney like Sandburg. Sandburg. Wait a minute. I know that name. It comes to me in a second. I'd read his name in the newspaper...several times. Big cases. Headline cases. Now, I am really confused.
The day passes and I can't get the thought out of my head. Could he be telling the truth about a retrial? And if he is, would it make any difference? I know no more now than I did then. No. I won't even consider Mr. Sandburg's theory as possible. To hope and then have it dashed away.... I survived walking into this prison once. I will kill myself before walking the same path again.
Besides, who would take care of my charges if I left?
"Mr. Sandburg, this is Howard Graham, one of the guards at Starkville. It's about your client, Ellison."
I had been wrapped quite comfortably around Gretchen Tillis when the phone call came, and it was only because I'd left the answering machine in screen mode that I heard the guard in time to pick up the phone and continue the conversation. Ten minutes later Gretchen is bitching, and I'm out the door. Since Starkville is an hour drive from Cascade, I get on my cell phone so I can have all the facts before I arrive.
According to my sources, Ellison had been attacked by a man named Orrin Pierson. Pierson had had a shiv, one of those homemade knives prisoners have been making since prisons had been invented. Anyway, he'd jumped Ellison just before lights out. When the guards heard about it, they let it play out, instinctively knowing Ellison would win. Despite having a large cut on his arm, Ellison had knocked out his opponent, and his latest "care package", a man named Bailey had headed to the laundry room to get a towel to stop the bleeding. Everyone's attention had been on Ellison, so they hadn't seen Pierson regain consciousness and follow Bailey. Suddenly, Ellison had let out a yell and went running toward the laundry. When everyone caught up to him, he was holding a dead Bailey in his arms, the shiv sticking out of his chest. Two feet away, Pierson lay, his head bent at an odd angle.
Bailey's death had affected Ellison so deeply that they couldn't get the man to respond. He just sat there with the dead man's head in his lap. Someone with a medical background had arrived, given him a shot, then had him transported to the small infirmary. Since I had been the last person listed as Ellison's attorney, I had been called so I could be on hand when they transferred the big man to a real hospital. Although the arm wound had been stitched, Ellison was still unresponsive.
I know all this, but I'm still shocked when I see him in the bed. The blue eyes which had assessed me so thoroughly earlier in the day are open, but clearly unseeing. Are you in there, I wonder silently. Something urges me to touch his face as I whisper, "I'll take care of you, Jim." I'm stunned as I say this. I don't know this man. We haven't even had a true conversation; he walked out on me while I was offering him his future. But even as I contemplate the words, I know they are true.
Even more stunning is when he turns toward my hand, and I see tears shimmering in his eyes, his seeing eyes. "Bailey is dead?"
"Yes," I say softly, and the eyes close, allowing the tears to spill. One burns my hand as it trails down his face.
"He's dead too."
"Good." The eyes do not open again. An hour later I realize he has fallen asleep...and my hand is still on his face.
When a man loses everything, what's left? I figure nothing, and when I hear Bailey's last breath escape his lips, I let myself fall. But as I spiral toward some murky destination, there appears a hand out of the darkness and its touch put ground beneath my feet. Suspended, I open my eyes and stare at my rescuer. Although I recognize Sandburg from his visit, I realize I recognize more than just the patient blue eyes and tentative smile. His soul is intimately familiar to me, his essence already indelibly etched onto my peculiar senses. Oddly soothed by his presence, I let go of my demons and sleep beckons.
His voice calls to me later, and I awake to a battery of tests which confirm I don't have to be transferred to the local hospital. Sandburg asks me if I want to go, because if I do, it's my right to have the best medical care possible. But I don't want to go. I just want--I just want to leave this place for good. So I look into the eager and determined eyes at my side, and I tell him I'll do whatever he wants me to do, whatever I have to do, in order to get out of Starkville. Warm fingers clasp my wrist and he says he'll start the paperwork immediately. Then he leaves. I know I should feel alone, but a voice whispers in the back of my head, "I'll take care of you." Sleep comes easily again.
The next morning one of the guards escorts me to my cell. It's just before worktime, so everyone is up, and they all stare at me as I pass. Some mutter threats; friends of Pierson, I guess. Some express fear; after all I had killed a man with my bare hands. Most are unaffected by the violence and merely yawn as they get on with preparing for the day. At one cell I stop, and although the guard looks at me strangely, he lets me do as I will. Johnson puts down the towel he's drying his hands on, and meets me at the cell door.
Unconsciously, I straighten my shoulders, and look him directly in the eye. I would do this as the man I had been on the outside. "I told you I would keep him safe. I failed." I wait for his reaction, whether it be words or physical. Either or both are acceptable to me.
"You told me you would defend him. Instead of sending his attacker to the infirmary, you sent him to the morgue. I ain't got no beef with you," he says, and I turn to leave. "You don't remember what happened afterwards, do you?" I shake my head. "You cradled that boy better than his mama ever could have." He reaches out his hand and I automatically take it. Somehow I find myself doing a ritualistic handshake which ends with Johnson saying, "Go in peace, my brother."
Go in peace.... If only I can.
Ellison's case turns out to be pathetically easy, and it's all because this extraordinary man is even more extraordinary than anyone realizes.
With the retrial scheduled, Ellison is moved to Cascade City jail. After all, he is no longer a convicted felon, merely a suspect. It takes a lot of doing, and I have to smile at a lot of people I don't particularly like, but I am able to get Ellison sprung for a couple of hours each day to work on his case. I make him relive the day he supposedly committed the murders, and it goes smoothly up to a point. Then the man suddenly stops remembering. I can read in his eyes that he isn't fabricating this amnesia. I can also read between the lines, and realize that this blackout isn't the first of its kind. I ask him about his last medical exam, and for the first time since the incident in the visitor's room, I am assaulted by his hostile, icy glower. Naomi Sandburg hasn't raised a fool; I back off for the time being.
Quite unexpectedly, a short time later I discover what he's hiding. I get my hands on the murder weapon, well, not literally. It's in a sealed bag of course, and I hold it out to Ellison, hoping that maybe the weapon will trigger his memory. But it triggers something else entirely. He peers intently at the knife, so intently in fact that I begin to worry that he's having another blackout. Then he asks me, "Who's fingerprints are on here?"
Strange question, but I pick up the report and tell him, "Just yours."
He shakes his head, and stares at the tips of his fingers. "Most of these are my prints, yes. But some of them are not."
"How can you tell?" I cautiously ask.
"I can see them," he says innocently enough. Then I watch the panic flare in his eyes as he realizes what he's just said. The panic quickly turns to fear.
"You can see them?" I keep my voice calm and level, trying to express mere curiosity, not disbelief.
"Yes," he replies softly, and I feel him withdrawing although he remains seated.
My memory is a peculiar thing that allows me to recall most, if not all, of everything I've ever heard or read. When I was fifteen, and at the height of wanting to be an anthropologist, I had eagerly devoured an obscure monograph written by Sir Richard Burton, a renowned traveler and researcher of man. One of my mother's "special friends" had acquired the overlooked journal for me, hoping it would distract me from what he and Naomi were doing in the other room. It had worked. The report, highly disputed, was about tribal watchmen he had stumbled upon in the Amazon basin, sentinels with senses beyond those of ordinary humans. Wow, I had thought. Wow, I think now as the words instinctively push their way to the surface of my thoughts. "What else can you do that's different, Jim?"
He starts to deny any and all, but I touch his wrist, and he drops his head. "I can hear what I'm not supposed to, too."
"Smell?" He nods. "Taste?" He shrugs. "Touch?"
He raises the sleeve of the ubiquitous denim shirt. Beneath it, his arm is a nasty red. "In Starkville, one of the guards gave me cotton longjohns to wear beneath my clothes. His wife would wash them in Ivory Snow for me, and he would sneak them back and forth."
I'm so distressed by the rash, that for a moment I forget what he has just revealed. If his arm is this red, I can only imagine what the rest of his body must look like. And the pain he must be in. Especially considering how hypersensitive he is.... Hypersensitive. My God! I have just discovered a sentinel! A myth from my childhood is sitting directly across from me! I process more thoughts from my memory. Hadn't Burton mentioned something about these people having partners...Guides! Yes, they had guides because sometimes they focused too much on one of their senses and went into fugue states...like Ellison had on the night Bailey was killed, and when the woman and child were murdered as well.
I'm not sure what appears on my face, but in a flash my nascent sentinel is darting to his feet, about to call the guard to lead him back to his cell. "No!" I yell. He flinches, yet pauses. With a sigh that even I can feel, he retakes his seat.
"Don't hate me," he says brokenly. "If you get me off, I promise I'll go away, and you can forget about me, about what I can do."
"Why would I want you to go away?" I ask, still in my euphoria from having figured it out.
"Because I'm a freak, and I scare you."
Those words make it through my thick skull, and I am horrified at what he's saying. "Did someone tell you that?"
He nods. "My dad...my brother.... My mom ran away because she was scared of me."
All my life, I have been an emotional person. My mother taught me that emotions are good, that expressing them keeps your aura pure. Well, my aura is getting a good washing today. For reasons I don't yet understand, I feel the emotions this gifted creature is keeping at bay, and I ache for him. "You don't scare me, Jim, and you're not a freak. You are a sentinel. Your talents are as natural as they come, a genetic gift."
"I'll bring you some information on it tomorrow," I vow, even if I have to spend all night trying to find it. "For now, I need to get this knife re-examined, and you some more comfortable clothing. You'll be okay until I get back?"
He nods, then looks at me. "A sentinel?" he asks again.
I lay a hand on his shoulder as I pass by. "Yes, my friend. A sentinel."
I am a sentinel. Just having a name to put on whatever it is that ails me was amazing. But when Sandburg returned with the information and I saw myself reflected in those words that were over a hundred years old, I felt as if heavy weights had been lifted from me. The shackles of prison were nothing compared to the chains I had worn all my life. Now, to discover they aren't chains, but trinkets I'm supposed to use to help people, protect them.... If only I could have saved Bailey.
That sobers me up as I appear in front of a court as Jim Ellison, accused murderer, for the last time. The fingerprints, which had been conveniently overlooked during the first trial since the obvious killer had already been caught, were matched to a local hood with a rap sheet as long as my legs. It took him about fifteen minutes to admit that he'd killed the "bitch and her brat," because she had kicked his brother out of the apartment. My trial becomes just a formality.
So I stand, the judge declares me innocent, and suddenly I'm not only a sentinel, but a free man. Garrity is thumping me on the back. Sandburg is literally bouncing on his toes as he accepts various congratulations. All of it gets to be a bit overwhelming, and I sit before I fall. Damn. I think I'm heading toward another one of those blackouts.... No, zones. That's what Sandburg calls them.
A hand lands gently on my shoulder, and I hear him murmuring, "Dial it back, Jim. Just turn down the dials on your senses." I do what he says, and it helps. During the past couple of weeks, it has been determined that he is my guide. His voice and touch easily slice through the muck that sometimes clogs my head. His quick and agile mind always knows how to undo whatever I've done wrong. I find him handy to have around. Beyond his help though, is my need to protect him. It is similar to what I felt for my charges in Starkville, but magnified about ten times over. According to him, his desire to protect me is equally as strong.
He makes excuses and sends Garrity for his car. With his hand firmly planted against my back, he leads me through the crowds with their flashbulbs, microphones, and yelled questions. Then we are in the relative sanctuary of his car. He grins and says, "Let's go home, James."
I nod, although I don't know where home is anymore. But Sandburg seems to know, and as I have done for the past month or so of my life, I put myself completely into his hands.
"I can't stay with you," he argues as we enter my penthouse. It is a spacious duplex with a wide balcony, which is occasionally windy but affords a beautiful view of Cascade and the mountains beyond.
"Why? Afraid people will talk?" I tease. He glares at me, something I've grown quite used to, and easily dismiss. "Why can't you stay with me, Jim? You have somewhere else to go? Someone is waiting for you somewhere?"
He shakes his head. "You've already done so much for me. I can't impose on you like this."
Impose? He doesn't know the half of it. Gretchen threw a complete fit when I told her I was thinking about having Jim stay with me through his transitional period. He'd lost ten years of his life, falsely imprisoned-- for which the state would pay handsomely by the time I finished with them. He needed time to get back on his feet, I explained to her, leaving out the part about getting him comfortable with being a sentinel as well. She gave me an ultimatum, and I told her she could either leave the key with the doorman downstairs, or I could simply change the locks.
"I'm your guide," I tell him. "You need me." I know instantly I've said the wrong thing. He constantly worries about his growing debt to me and I've just foolishly reminded him that he owes me even more. "What if I told you I wanted to study you? That I want to monitor what you eat and drink, test the limits of your skills, use them?" There. I've smoothly turned the situation around, focusing on my desires instead of his needs. Being a lawyer keeps me nimble.
"Yes. I'm offering you a job, Jim. I want you to become my investigator. In my line of work, people are always trying to shit me. It's the nature of the beast. But I think I can battle that nature with another kind of nature-- yours."
"I don't know anything about being a detective."
"Says the man who just got himself out of a murder charge. Your military records show that you spent several years as a MP before you were recruited for other duties." Even with me, Jim had refused to discuss what those other duties were. Truly, a good soldier. "You were born to be a detective, Jim, to sniff out clues and see dangers. A sentinel protects, but first he needs to sort out the signals he's receiving. That's all detective work is-- sorting out the signals to get a clear picture."
He seems intrigued, but wary. "Won't I need a license for that?"
"Garrity has already filled out the paperwork. It just needs your John Hancock." I'm no fool; as soon as I saw how useful Garrity could be, I hired him as my researcher.
"Pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?" he says, and gives me this slightly lopsided grin.
A smile. I can't believe it. "So does that mean you'll stay?"
He nods. "Just until I can afford to get a place of my own. I try to be neat, and if you need the place to yourself," he winks, "just tell me to scram-- no explanations needed."
Neat? I had visited him in his cell at Starkville, a cell he'd lived in for nearly a decade, and it was the only place on the entire grounds where I would even think of eating a peppermint, much less a meal. I thought it was because of his military background. Then I figured it was because he was a sentinel. But the more I learn about him.... "We'll both figure out a signal when we're entertaining."
He looks at me skeptically. I know he still feels like a convict, that no reputable woman will ever have anything to do with him. But I know better. By the time I'm through suing everyone, he will be the most sympathetic figure in all of Cascade. "It'll work out, Jim. I promise you, man."
He flicks his eyes away. "Must be the giddiness of freedom, Sandburg, but I'm starting to trust those promises of yours."
"Just keep on doing that, Jim. I'm sure it'll get easier with time." Although he doesn't know it, I plan for us to have all the time in the world. "Come on. I'll show you to your room."
My detective goes immediately to work upon entering the chamber which had once been my game room. His fingers trace the wood of the furniture and knows the bedroom suit is new. He brushes against the sheets on the bed, smelling the Ivory Snow, which is probably what leads him to the drawers full of freshly washed clothes in his size. He sends the closet door sliding back to reveal suits and ironed shirts. There are even shoes, neatly stacked in boxes, awaiting his inspection.
"Too much," he says after a silent debate on whether to berate me for my extravagance or not. I had read the argument in his eyes and crossed my fingers that he wouldn't go all stubborn on me.
"Not really," I reply. "You can pay me back once your cases are all settled. Do you know, Jim Ellison, that you are going to be one very rich man by the time we're done?"
The blue eyes are not so cold as they seek mine. "I already am."
He blesses me with another smile. "I am too," I agree.
It hits me all at once as I stand out on the balcony of Sandburg's penthouse on the eighteenth floor, and look down at a teeming Cascade. The first thing that strikes me is that I can actually see the city in very startling clarity. In the three months I've been living with Sandburg, he's been training me, testing my abilities, and now that I have marginal control of them, they are not so frightening. One of the first "tricks" I learned was to follow a balled up piece of paper as it dropped from the balcony to the street below. At first it was hard; now it's automatic. I am a sentinel. This is who I am.
The second thing that smacks into me, is that I am free. At first my mind balked at the idea, and although I didn't let him know, I sort of turned Sandburg into my jailer for the first couple of weeks. It felt more natural thinking of him like that in the beginning. The only time I had ever been on my own had been those frightening weeks after my discharge. Before that, I had depended on my father, then the Army. After that, the state took care of me. And now there's Sandburg. He owns the bed I sleep in, signs my way too generous paychecks, and it is his housekeeper who buys the groceries and has a meal waiting when we come home from the office. It soon becomes obvious he is not my jailer; Sandburg is my roommate, my friend, my guide. Okay, so I am no longer a prisoner, but neither am I on my own. I fear I am way too comfortable with this compromise.
I should be in an apartment somewhere by now. Sandburg pays well and I've already received one of the settlements. My bank account, while still lean, is enough to meet monthly rent requirements. But I don't want to leave and he doesn't want me to leave. So instead of reading the real estate section of the paper, I opt for the sports, then the headlines, then the comics. My roommate prefers the comics, the sports, and then the headlines. The real estate section goes automatically into the recycling bin.
So Sandburg and I spend the majority of our lives in each other's company. I am a licensed investigator now and although I have my own office, I spend most of my time in Sandburg's. It's easier than talking over the intercom or dragging files from office to office. Besides, we are both more comfortable when we can see each other. I think it goes back to that protective streak we discovered. Besides my having confiscated a corner of his office, there is another change at Blair Sandburg, Attorney At Law as well. After my first week on the job, a man showed up to put up a new sign outside the building: Sandburg & Associates. Up until that point, I'd thought life had pretty much taken away most of my pride. I was wrong.
We work surprisingly well together, despite our differing temperaments and styles. He's a continual bundle of energy, his mind, body, and usually, tongue, in constant motion. His desk is a mess (which means when he has a client that he wants to impress, the meetings are held in my office), but he knows where everything is and Garrity and I have learned not to move anything. I am more reserved (and neat). I like to observe, think, make deliberate movements. Garrity says we balance each other out, making each other better. I don't know about that. I know that he makes me better, but I'm still not certain of my worth to him.
Why has he done this? Why has he taken me into his life so completely? He says we have some kind of bond. It's not sexual or obsessive, but it transcends anything he's ever felt in his life. He admits that even his pull to his mother is overshadowed by that which connects the two of us. I told him he was full of bullshit, but I think he's right. Hell, I know he's right. Just his mere presence can keep me from zoning, and when he touches me I am anchored firmly at his side. There is this...thread...that weaves between us, knitting us into one unit. At times I swear I can read his mind and vice-versa. I also sense his emotions and his well-being just as easily as I hear his heartbeat or smell his shampoo.
All my life I've never needed anyone, and they have never needed me. But now both things have occurred, and I am more frightened of this than I ever was of being different. The blackouts, the loss of entire days, even the dead woman and child...nothing is as terrifying as this dependency I feel for this man. In just a few short months, he has become my world. Some would say this was ordinary, that I'm clinging to him because he's my savior-- getting me out of prison, establishing an identity for me in the community, easing me into the real world. But it goes deeper than that, so deep that I know if he ever lets me go, I'll drown.
That's why I'm scared. Like everyone else in my life, I know eventually he'll run away from me, or I'll run away from him. Either way, I'm a dead man.
And people think capital punishment is a bitch.
He's in his room when I arrive home. I had had a date-- not with Gretchen though. Gretchen had come by to make up about a month ago. I may have given her a chance, but I hadn't been home when she stopped by. Jim had been though, and I could hear her screaming at him even before I opened the door. To give the man credit, he hadn't responded. He was just sitting in one of the chairs and she was standing over him accusing him of using me, of seducing me, of putting me under some Satanic spell.... When I came in, he'd stood and gone to his room. I told Gretchen if she was wise, she'd have a restraining order taken out against me, for I would not be responsible for my actions if I got within twenty-five feet of her again.
When I see his door is closed, I go up the small flight of stairs that lead to my suite of rooms. I know how precious his privacy is to him. So many years of it lost...to the Army, to Starkville. I try to go to sleep, but our connection hums to me. He doesn't admit it exists, but I've come to know his body language. When something comes across that bond, he reacts. Sometimes he smiles shyly at me, but mostly he grinds his teeth and looks away. It makes me want to laugh, but I'm not sure he's comfortable enough with me yet to know when I'm laughing with him and not at him, so for now I hold it in, confident that one day he will understand me perfectly.
For now, I'm content to be the one who understands. So, when the humming becomes stronger, I head back downstairs. I'm comfortable traversing the penthouse in the dark now that Jim is here. One would think it's because he is big and strong so I know I'm safe; the truth is that I know I won't trip over anything. The sound reaches me as I take my first step down. At first I don't recognize it. It's one of those sounds you know you should know, but it takes a while to penetrate. Sobbing, I finally realize. There are only two of us here and quite frankly, I actually check my own face for tears before I admit the sound is coming from my roommate. What has happened? The phone has not rung. He's completely healthy. A nightmare perhaps?
He thinks I have learned nothing from him, but I have. I have been taught patience by a master. When I want to fly into a situation, he restrains me with a touch on the elbow. When I want to push someone, he gently clears his throat. If I talk before I listen, he walks away. Not wanting him to walk away tonight, I patiently stop and listen. This is not just the shedding of a few simple tears. His cries are coming from somewhere deeper than physical pain, and a nightmare would have caused more panic than I'm hearing. This is hardcore anguish-- harsh, deep sounds that break my heart. I stand poised, uncertain of my direction. What I want to do is continue down the stairs and comfort him, but then I realize I would be intruding in something very personal. He may not be ready for that.
"This is your apartment, Sandburg. You have every right to go where you please," he calls out.
There he goes, reading my thoughts. "This may be my apartment, but this is our home, Jim. Your rights are equal to mine. If you want privacy, just say so."
"I have no secrets from you, Chief."
Chief. The name started out as a joke. Once in the office, Jim and I had disagreed about something we wanted Garrity to do and the poor boy just froze like a marionette, not knowing who he should allow to jerk his strings. I signed the man's paycheck, yet his first loyalty was, and probably always would be, to Jim. I understood this. I applauded it. But Jim just looked at Garrity and said, "He's the chief, man. I'm just another Indian like you." From that time on, when we're alone or doing something casual, he calls me Chief. I sort of like it.
I take the statement as an invitation. He's on the sofa, and I sit on the coffee table directly in front of him, earning me a look I could feel in the darkness. He hates when I perch on the furniture, whether it's a table, the arm of a chair, or the back of the sofa. By the way, my cleaning lady loves him. She now spends most of her day watching soap operas because he leaves her so little to do. "What's wrong, my friend?" I ask gently.
"I...I don't know. I have no idea why I'm sitting here crying like a baby. I haven't cried since I was five."
Five? Geesh. The last time I had let loose was when I was sixteen and watched my mama leave me behind at Rainier University. I mean, I wanted to be there, but.... "What happened when you were five?" Maybe it will give me a clue to what is troubling him now, although I suspect it's merely a case of delayed reaction. In all the time I have known the man, he's never once given in to his emotions. Reviewing the ups and downs of the past few months, I think he's due this small eruption.
"I was playing stickball in the street," he remembers. "I could hit pretty well for a little kid."
"As a sentinel, you probably had good eye/hand coordination," I murmur.
"Yeah, well, my eye/foot coordination needed a little work," he replies with a weak laugh. "Another kid and I got tangled up, and I went down hard. Broke my arm. It hurt like hell. Guess I can blame that on those sentinel genes too, huh? Anyway, someone went running for my old man, and I guess my crying as he drove me to the hospital got on his nerves. So he tells me to quit bawling, or he was gonna break my other arm. I took him at his word and shut up. Never cried again. 'Til now."
I sway dizzily on the table. Never have I been so blindingly angry in my whole life. It consumes me, threatens to take my breath away. Vaguely, I hear Jim calling to me, begging me to answer him, but the world has gone red. I have always thought that was just a saying, but I actually see red, and in that red are names: his parents; his brother, who had never once shown up for either of his trials; the lawyer, who could have spent five minutes of her precious time to review his case before going to court; Orrin Pierson, who had nearly destroyed him in Starkville; the son of a bitch who had let an innocent man go to prison for his crime....
I guess Jim has picked up on the touch thing I use, because I feel his hand tentatively reach out to touch my shoulder, and suddenly the red is gone. I'm still angry, but not overwhelmingly so. I commit the list of names to memory; I will deal with these people in time. But now is for my friend, my sentinel. I lean forward and hug him, holding on through his initial resistance, smiling when I feel him return the embrace, crying sympathetically when he gives in to the closeness and his tears begin again. I rock him as his mother should have rocked him. I comfort him as his father should have. I croon reassurances to the child who had never heard them, and to the man who had never expected to hear them, maybe hadn't even known such words existed.
Even when dawn bathes the living room in a rosy glow, and I'm draping a blanket across the man who has literally cried himself to sleep, I still feel that anger, especially toward his parents. Two people were handed a special gift, and instead of treating it with care and respect, they abused it, dropped it, left it outside in the cold and rain. I pray to God that I never meet either of them, because I guarantee they will personally know some of the hell they put their son through. This is a promise I make on the bond I share with this misunderstood and mistreated man.
As I gaze upon him, the traces of tears becoming clearer as the day brightens, I know it is only by the grace of God, and his own inner strength, that Jim Ellison survived long enough for me to find him. Well, God and he had done their parts. Now, it's my turn, and I am so ready....
Look out world, I think, as I stand on the balcony and watch Cascade awaken. A new day dawns. Inside is a fully functional sentinel ready to stand guard over you, with his guide beside him. My God. That sounds so...right. I grin, and complete my thought:
May the heavens help those who dare stand in our way.