by Martha, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
"You want to do pain research, you experiment on yourself, all right?"
Jim Ellison, Secret
Part 1: Aftermath
Well, it's a funny thing, Blair was thinking miserably to himself. His broken fingers ached, and his knuckles were itching like crazy under the splint. Here he had always assumed the last straw would be something simple. His hair clogging up the shower drain, or the way the smell of fried falafel seemed to linger for days no matter how many windows he opened. But he had to give the big guy credit. He glanced sideways at Jim, who sat folded without complaint into a seat that was far too small for him, calmly reading the airline flight magazine. It hadn't been the little things at all.
Blair shifted uncomfortably, knowing he was fidgeting, but he just couldn't help it. Surely they ought to be starting the descent into Las Vegas any time now? This plane ride felt as though it had already lasted several lifetimes. Then it would be another hour or so sitting around the airport before they could catch their connection home.
Why was he even bothering to go back to Cascade? Did he really think he'd be able to get Jim to change his mind? He might just as well have stayed in New Hope (ha, what a name) and saved himself the misery of this trip. He was exhausted, but he couldn't sleep, he couldn't read, and wouldn't you know, there wasn't even an in-flight movie. He'd watched the desert far below for as long as the light lasted, but they had overtaken the sunset half an hour ago. Now all he could see was the reflection of his own face. That shiner under his left eye was something. Hanging around with Jim he'd become something of a connoisseur, and this one was definitely a beaut.
Well, so that was one good thing. He'd probably be spending a lot less time in Emergency Rooms from now on.
Jim's quiet voice startled him. "What? "
"If you don't stop kicking the seatback, the guy in front of you is liable to turn around and black your other eye."
"Oh. Sorry. Sorry, man," he said leaning forward and apologizing to the back of someone's head.
"Listen, Chief, relax. It's going to be all right."
"Sure. Everything's fine."
"For the last time, I'm not kicking you out. Take as much time as you need. And I expect you to let me know if I can help you with a deposit, or first and last month's—"
"I'll be fine Jim," he interrupted, not wanting to have this conversation. Especially when there was no escape short of climbing over Jim or out the window of the airplane. Of the two, he thought he'd rather take his chances with explosive decompression.
"Because I know money must be a little tight," Jim was saying. "Especially after your little expedition."
"No, I told you, I'm fine. It didn't cost me a dime, hardly. I just cashed in all those frequent flyer miles."
"And I'm sure I can get more work on campus this summer, now that I won't be spending all that time at the station. " He heard the catch in his voice and went on quickly, "There's not much happening in anthro over the summer, but they always need proctors for language placement exams. Plus I know a couple of T.A.'s in the English Department, I bet I can do some tutoring for the remedial comp classes starting in August, and that's pretty good money."
Jim held up one hand. "I know, Chief. You always land on your feet."
Not this time, Blair thought. "And I'll pay you back for your plane ticket. I don't know if I'll have the cash before my own classes start again this fall, but just as soon as I can, I promise."
"All the big money in tutoring, and I have to wait till fall?"
Blair had gone back to looking out the window and missed Jim's smile. "Well, okay. If you need it before then I'll try to work something else out."
(Humor? I'm glad Jim thinks this whole thing is so funny.)
But maybe it had always been kind of a joke to him, having some long-haired grad student tagging along after him – a joke, or maybe just a boost to his ego, the company of someone who would do the dirty work without ever demanding credit or equal respect or even getting to drive once in a while.
All right, Sandburg, put a lid on it. You're scared and hurt and mad as hell, but surely you have sense enough not to take it out on Jim. The Sentinel may be gone, but if you keep on like this, you're going to drive Jim away too.
He took a deep breath. Maybe it would be better to go ahead and say what he was thinking now, instead of waiting until he was calmer. But god, what was he going to do about this emptiness? He'd had a heart beating in his chest a week ago, he was sure of it. And now there was nothing. Just a chasm stretching under his ribs more empty and dark than the void this damn plane seemed to be flying through.
Looks like Naomi had been right all along. Don't stay in one place too long. And whatever you do, don't get too attached.
"Blair, I don't want your money. It was my decision to fly out."
"Right." It took him a second to remember what they had been talking about. "And exactly how long had you been planning this little trip? Just lucky it happened to coincide with my visit, huh?"
It suddenly occurred to Blair that if he hadn't put Jim's name down as his emergency contact, he might never have found out. And if they hadn't called Jim, who had dropped everything and come charging across the continent for him, Blair would probably still be huddled in a cave half-way down a mountainside somewhere in east Tennessee.
Although, considering how things had worked out, that cave was starting to look pretty good.
"Thanks for coming after me, man," he said quietly. "I don't think I ever got around to saying that before."
"If it's okay, then why are you doing this? I know you're really disappointed in me, I know I let you down—"
"But c'mon, Jim, don't you get it? That's why I went. That's the whole reason I did everything. I've been so terrified that one day I would screw up because there's just so much I don't know about your Sentinel abilities. I didn't want to let you down, that's all. If you'll just give me another chance, I won't disappoint you again, I swear."
Jim sighed and looked away, and Blair found he had been wrong about missing his heart. It was aching so badly now he wished he really could yank it out of his chest and toss it away.
"You've never let me down." Jim wouldn't look at him. "Not now, not ever."
Jim finally turned back. "But I've been wrong about this whole Sentinel business, letting you think it's somehow your responsibility. I should have seen what you were doing and put a stop to it a long time ago."
Blair finally tried guilt. "And what about my research? Do you think I'll have any hope in hell of finishing my Ph.D. now? Damn you, Jim, we had an agreement. What gives you the right to ruin my career?"
A muscle twitched in his jaw. But Jim only said, "Those extra letters after your name won't mean very much if you're dead."
The Vegas airport was so noisy and crowded it wasn't much of a relief to be off the plane. A pall of cigarette smoke hung in the air. Slot machines were everywhere. The flashing lights, the rattle of change and the cacophony of voices made Blair feel like he was on the verge of complete sensory overload, and he wondered how Jim could stand it. But Ellison just shouldered his own bag as well as Blair's pack, and set off across the terminal at a brisk pace. Blair trailed in his wake, tired and limping a little. His ankle had stiffened up during the long flight, and his fingers were really starting to hurt now.
"Uh oh. Looks bad, Chief."
"What does?" Glancing up, Blair saw the long line of people at the check-in desk beside the gate. No departure time was posted for the flight to Cascade.
"Oh god." This was just too much.
Jim turned quickly. "You okay?"
"Fine. I'm fine. Just a little tired."
"Why don't you grab a seat? I'll find out what's happening with our flight."
"Yeah." He turned around slowly. Tourists, gamblers, students and businessmen thronged around them. A burst of static came from the intercom, with the noisy demand that someone with an indecipherable name should meet their party at the luggage claim. There were no free chairs anywhere. At length he spotted a few feet of empty space and pointed it out to Jim. "I'll be over there behind the phones, okay?"
Jim nodded. Blair made his way through the crowd and dropped gratefully to the floor, resting his head against the carpeted wall behind the telephone bank. As soon as he closed his eyes, he felt himself beginning to slip away. It seemed no time at all had passed before a touch on his arm brought him back. Jim was crouching in front of him. "How you doing there, Chief?"
"Did you find out anything about our plane?"
"Looks like it's going to be another three or four hours before we can take off. A storm in Chicago has flights backed up all over the country."
Blair took a deep breath, filling his lungs with stale air.
"Look," Jim said, "I'm gonna go grab a hot dog or something. You hungry?"
He shook his head. "I'd rather just stay here."
"Then I'll leave the bags with you and be back in a few minutes, all right? Sure I can't bring you anything?"
"No, thanks man. Maybe some bottled water if they have it."
"Okay." Jim patted his shoulder and stood up. Blair pulled their luggage closer as Jim disappeared into the crowd, shifting a little so he could rest his head on the backpack. This felt like old times, trying to catch some shut eye in an airport. Pre-Sentinel times.
The next time he woke up, Jim was pacing nearby, somehow balancing a hotdog, a plate of nachos and plastic cup of beer . A bottle of Evian was on the floor beside Blair. "Thanks Jim," he murmured and drifted back to sleep.
When he woke again, Jim had found a seat on the other side of the aisle. Blair could just see the back of his buzz-cut head, and as he was wondering if he wanted to stir enough to finally have that drink of water, Jim turned to check on him. Must have heard me wake up, Blair thought. He smiled, and Ellison shook his head, rolling his eyes a little. Still smiling, Blair closed his eyes again, snuggling against the backpack, feeling safe and secure. He remembered dimly that there was something he should be worried about, but he was just too tired to think about it now.
The roar of conversation became muted. Even the air seemed to be getting better. Blair was still thirsty, but everything else was peaceful, though not entirely still. He heard water trickling nearby and turned towards it. The only light came from a narrow crevasse in the ceiling of the cave. That's what he had fallen through, he thought bemusedly. Lucky he hadn't broken his neck. He looked down, and realized he was luckier than he knew. The same crevasse split the floor of the cavern. Inching closer, he looked down through a crack that seemed to reach to the very center of the world. He pushed himself away from the edge.
Water was running down the wall on the other side, gathering in a little pool, then rushing away through the crack in the floor. And as he watched, the Immortals, the Nunnehi, who were a tall, handsome folk with accepting smiles (just something a little stern and frightening in their eyes) stepped through the walls, out of the water, and spoke to him.
"C'mon, Sandburg, rise and shine."
Blair awoke, almost ecstatic with relief . The mingled joy and horror had been too overwhelming to handle all alone, but of course, he wasn't alone. "Jim! It was incredible! Wait'll I tell you!"
Ellison had both their bags over one shoulder. He took Blair's arm and pulled him to his feet. "Tell me about it on the plane. That was the final boarding call. It's time to go home."
Blair froze, refusing to let Jim herd him to the gate. He'd been in that cave for nearly a day before Jim found him, and the things he had seen there had changed the world. Far more than he could handle on his own, he had tucked it all away into an unused corner of his mind until the Sentinel could help him make sense of it.
But that wasn't ever going to happen.
"Oh, please, Jim, you've got to listen to me. You're making such a mistake here." Tears of frustration suddenly welled up in his eyes.
'"Not now, Chief." Tightening his grip on Blair's shirt he physically propelled him to the gate. "I'm not spending another minute in this airport."
(God only knows what the flight attendant thinks about this.) Blair quickly wiped away the stray tears. But the astonishingly blonde young man in the smart blue uniform only glanced at them, taking in Blair's black eye and bandages and Jim's big hand wrapped around a fistful of his shirt without a flicker of his plastic smile. He took the boarding passes Jim was holding in his free hand.
"Have a nice flight," he said.
Part 2: Tuesday Morning, Seven Days Ago
Simon dumped the grounds of last night's coffee, then hesitated before beginning a new pot. He needed to borrow Sandburg for a few hours this morning, and it would probably be good idea to have a decent cup of joe on hand when he made the request. Not that he was worried about Blair. Tell the kid he was doing it for Jim Ellison and the greater glory of the Cascade PD, and Blair would cheerfully walk off a cliff. Jim was the one who had to be handled with care. He couldn't imagine that Ellison would object, but the last thing Simon wanted to do was inadvertently trigger that mother hen instinct. A little distraction couldn't hurt. From the back of a drawer, he retrieved his treasured cache of unblended java beans. Sweet, acidic, nary a trace of charcoal, soaringly thin and pure – just a whiff ought to transport those hyperactive senses straight to Sentinel heaven.
The problem had ended up on Simon's desk yesterday evening, giving him all night to stew about it, thank you so very much. A small thing, really, nothing compared to plutonium smugglers or rogue CIA agents. Just a sixth grade teacher at a local middle school calling Human Services to tell them that one of her students, 12-year-old-girl from an Iraqi immigrant family, had gotten married over the weekend.
Knowing full well how cases like this could end up on the evening news, the county officials had passed it straight to the police. It was the sort of problem that made Simon think nostalgically of his high school dream of joining the Peace Corps. Almost anything they did was sure to be wrong. Arrest the 19-year-old groom for statutory rape, or the families that had arranged the marriage for pandering, and see your department touted all over the nation as a model of cultural insensitivity, if not outright racism. Turn a blind eye on the grounds of cultural difference, and you'd have child welfare advocates baying on your trail. Let the press get hold of this, and half the skinheads and xenophobes in the Pacific Northwest were liable to converge on Cascade, not to mention a three ring circus of politicians looking for a free ride to Washington on a tide of anti-immigration sentiment,
And meanwhile, the question of what might be best for the young bride would be completely ignored.
Well, not on his watch, Simon thought with satisfaction. He planned to send Sandburg along with officers who would make the first report. There might be no way to avoid the storm, but at least with the kid on the scene, he could be reasonably sure his department would be fighting the right battle, not simply trying to repair the damage that could be done in the most well-meant ignorance.
And then he spotted Ellison as he came striding into the bullpen all by himself.
Simon exhaled noisily. Wouldn't you know it? Blair had been sticking closer than a lamprey all summer, and the one day he was really needed … He threw open the office door. "Ellison! Where's your sidekick?"
"Blair's out of town, Simon. Why? Is something up?"
"Out of town?" Simon groaned as his pleasant fantasy of Sandburg somehow producing a miracle of cross-cultural understanding disintegrated. "Out of town? You must be joking. Where the hell did he go?"
Ellison shrugged and looked away. "New Hope. It's a college town a few hours out of Nashville, I think Sandburg told me. Up in the mountains."
"Hold it. Wait a minute. How come nobody said anything to me about this?"
"Well, I don't know, sir, I guess Blair didn't realize you were so interested in his personal life."
Simon narrowed his eyes. "When something affects this department I expect to be—"
"Excuse me, Captain," Ellison interrupted, holding up one hand. His nose twitched and he drew closer to Simon's open office door. "Aren't you going to offer me a cup of coffee?"
By midmorning, Simon had largely forgotten his irritation with one Blair Sandburg's nonappearance. He went ahead and did what he should have done in the first place, namely, got on the horn and found a Farsi interpreter from the Islamic Cultural League in Seattle who could drive up and give them a hand.
And that was the real problem. Simon didn't deny Blair had his moments, not even taking into account the wonders he'd worked with Jim Ellison and Joel Taggert. He'd long since lost track of the number of times the walking encyclopedia had helped steer an investigation in the right direction. Clumsy and devoted as a cocker spaniel pup, Blair was utterly fearless when his back was against the wall. But he wasn't on the payroll, and there was nothing on God's Green Earth to stop him from lighting off for the other side of the country if the mood struck him. It could just as easily have been Tierra del Fuego or Timbuktu.
He hoped Jim would draw the same conclusion. It worried Simon, sometimes, the way he seemed to take Blair's presence so much for granted. And maybe it was just his imagination, but the detective had seemed a little restless all morning. Simon finally stopped him as he came barreling past his office, a sheaf of files in one hand and a distracted look on his face.
"Hey Jim, hold up. Want to grab some lunch? I was thinking we could run around the corner to Fatburger's. I've had a hankering for a fried egg cheeseburger for weeks."
"Good idea. You know what Sandburg would say about a lunch like that." The grin on Jim's face slipped away, and he cocked his head a little, a look of distant concentration in his eyes. The expression only lasted an instant, but it was long enough for Simon to finally identify it. So that was the way Jim had been acting all morning. Like a man who couldn't stop listening for something that simply wasn't there.
That damn kid, Simon thought with a completely unreasonable burst of anger. He knew he was being unfair – Sandburg had certainly earned a vacation – if that's really what this was – and so he didn't say anything about it until they had left for lunch, and Jim was tucking into an extra large order of chili cheese fries. The hamburger Simon had been dreaming about made him feel a little sick after the third bite, so he pushed it away and asked casually, "So what's in Tennessee?"
"I don' t know. Graceland?"
"I mean Sandburg's vacation. Why'd he go there of all places? Lima, I could understand, or Katmandu, but Nashville?"
"New Hope. One of the professors at the college there is an old friend of Blair's."
Well, okay, I can buy that, Simon thought. But he had an uneasy feeling that there was something more going on here. "Seems a little sudden," he commented, watching Ellison carefully.
Jim glanced away. "Yeah." He looked back. '"Yeah, it was sudden." He sounded like a man making a confession.
"Come on, Jim," Simon said gently. "What's going on?"
"Nothing. I don't know. I didn't really pay much attention at first. You know how Sandburg is when he gets excited about something."
Simon rolled his eyes. "Tell me about it. So what set him off? Hearing from his old friend?"
"This was maybe a week ago. He picked up an e-mail message or something in the middle of the night from the guy, and when I got up the next morning it was all he could talk about."
"Sandburg was just excited to hear from an old buddy? Or was there more to it?"
"I don't know if they were really such close friends. I don't think Blair had heard from him in years."
This is like pulling damn teeth, Simon thought. "Then what was it?"
"I'm not really sure. The two of them had spent some time in Brazil or someplace, and he was going on and on about that. Like I said, I wasn't paying very much attention." Jim looked down at his hands guiltily.
"If you listened to every word that came out of Sandburg's mouth, you'd never get anything else done."
"But I think this was important, Simon, and I just wasn't listening. Then he clammed up, and I didn't hear anything more about it for a couple of days. And the next thing I know, he's asking me for a ride to the airport."
"Maybe he just needs a break. Might do him good to get away for a few days."
"I know, but not like this. I thought he was totally involved in this Donatello murder investigation … for him to just drop it like that along with everything else … anyway, I asked him what was going on."
"And he lied to me, Simon."
Uh oh. "Well, you know about the kid's embellishments and obfuscations—" Simon suggested hopefully.
"This was a flat lie, and I didn't need any Sentinel senses to know it either. He turned red as a beet telling me he just wanted to catch up on old times and cash in some frequent flyer miles."
"So did you call him on it?"
"No, of course not. He's got a right to his private life."
"Really? He doesn't seem to think you do."
Jim smiled faintly, but it didn't last.
"So do you have any idea what's really going on?"
"I figure it must have something to do with his academic career. I mean, he gets a call from someone he was in school with, but this guy, he's finished his degree, he's got a job, his career's right on track – I guess if I were Blair, I'd probably start to wonder where my life was going, too. He can't just follow me around forever."
"You don't think he's planning to submit his dissertation to committee, do you?"
"I'm not sure how all the stuff works, but I'm sure he wouldn't make his research public. Not without my permission."
"So why'd he lie to you?"
"I wonder if he's thinking about moving on. He considered leaving once before when a research opportunity came up, but he told me about it that time. I can't figure why he won't talk to me now."
"Maybe because he knows how hard you're going to take it. But look, Jim, this was never supposed to be a permanent arrangement."
"I know, I know." He broke off, making a circular gesture with both hands, palms up, expressing the frustration he couldn't put into words. "But I've got a real bad feeling about this. I just hope Sandburg knows what he's doing."
Part 3: Grainger College, New Hope, Tennessee
Paul finally turned around and held out the syringe. "You'll have to self-administer this, of course."
Blair just stared at him, thinking, What the hell am I doing?
"That's not a problem, is it? Blair?"
He swallowed and looked down at his bared left arm, a length of stretchy rubber cord knotted tight around the biceps. "No, it's not a problem," he said in a distant voice. (Breathe, Blair. Take it easy. Think of Jim. Remember why you're here.) "I know how to do it."
He took the hypodermic quickly then, found the vein and pushed the plunger home before he could change his mind.
He felt dizzy, but he thought it was probably just nerves and the sight of his own blood. Paul caught him and eased him back onto the cot. "Doing okay?"
"I think so, yeah."
"Well, you know how this is going to work. I'll be right here. The tape recorder's running. Just describe what you see, what you hear, whatevercomes into your head."
"Got it." Blair swallowed, gazing up at the ceiling. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts. After a few minutes he rolled over, pushed himself up on one elbow, and vomited into the bedpan.
Communication had been the biggie, right from the start. It wasn't that Jim was deliberately uncooperative (well, not usually), but the man had developed stoicism into high art. Earning his trust had been only half the battle. Just because Jim trusted him now didn't mean he was noticeably more forthcoming. Still, Blair had really believed they were making progress, until Jim had dropped his little bombshell. One offhand comment about chronic shoulder pain and the onset of his Sentinel abilities, and Blair realized how wrong he had been.
"What—?" he stammered, astonished, even a little betrayed, completely unable to fathom why Jim wouldn't have mentioned something of such blindingly elemental importance before now. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Jim shrugged. "I didn't think it was any big thing."
Blair thought his head would explode. With a violent attempt at control, he managed at least to rattle off the practical considerations. "If painkillers don't work, what about Novocain at the dentist? Or for crying out loud you're having surgery, what about anesthetics?"
And all along he had thought he 'd been doing pretty good, going slow, but baby steps were okay as long as you were still moving forward. Then to have something like this crop up. God. And Jim thought he was overreacting. Think how much further along they'd be if he had known about this months ago! What else had Jim neglected to mention because he didn't think it was any big thing? And it nearly made him crazy, the way Jim seemed to think everything was working out just fine. After the whole terrifying mess with Colonel Oliver, when he told Blair how he had managed to stave off the effects of the tranquilizer, he had seemed pleased, satisfied with himself, with the both of them.
Blair had been horrified. All he could think was how close it had been. Jim was depending on him, but Blair could never anticipate everything, never be sure he had asked all the right questions. There had to be a better way.
And then, as if in answer to prayer, there it was. A two-word e-mail that was as smug and direct as Paul had always been.
"Hang in there," Paul said, bringing a clean bedpan. "The nausea goes away."
Curled up on his side and shivering uncontrollably, Blair eyed him with skepticism. "How long?"
"It varies from person to person. I spent the first twelve hours puking my guts out."
"But I drank that old curandero's own concoction. It might just have been the limewater and corn beer he was using to try to denature the toxins that made me sick for so long."
"So they didn't work very well, did they?" Blair groped for the bedpan, but after a moment, the wave of nausea passed.
Then Paul said, with an evil little smile on his face. "And I was drinking his bathtub mescal the whole time too. I think I've got some Cuervo Gold in the back office if you'd like to recreate that part of the experience."
Ice knifed through his bowels. "Help me up," Blair moaned. "I gotta get to the bathroom."
They had been pretty good friends in college. Even as undergrads Paul had been the more ambitious one, but he shared Sandburg's fascination with the larger-than-life adventurers of the Victorian era. And though he cautioned Blair that his growing obsession with Sentinels would never land him a tenure-track position, he had been interested enough to listen and argue the possibilities. Rejecting any theory of innate genetic advantage, he had believed it might be possible to find a pharmacological explanation. A previously uncatalogued species of Banisteriopsis was his guess. The right dosage consumed under just the right circumstances might lead to temporarily heightened sensory awareness.
Blair hadn't believed it for a minute. Ingesting psychoactive plants was a good way to encounter the spirit world, but no way could it help with the hunt or defend from enemies. "The guy would be hallucinating, violently ill. Completely wacked out."
"Yeah, maybe." Paul was never ready to give in. "And that's why every Sentinel would need a guide of some kind, don't you think? Sort of like a designated driver."
Blair been sitting on the john and vomiting into the bedpan on his lap more or less constantly for hours now. Phlegm was pouring from his nose in thick stream, he was blinded by tears, and he had a violent headache.
But not a whisper of anything else.
At first, sick as he was, he'd been relieved by the complete absence of hallucinations. He had thought it meant Paul was right, that the specimen of yaje he had brought back from his last trip to Ecuador really could mimic Sentinel abilities. It would do Blair no good if it created perceptions in the absence of outside stimuli. The whole point was to get a peek into the way Jim experienced the physical world.
But as the hours wore on, he started to think he would be glad for a light show … some geometric shapes … hell, at this point even the golden fire people would be a welcome distraction from the horrible sickness. He was sorry as soon as that thought crossed his mind. "Paul?" he whispered, suddenly feeling scared and vulnerable, and much too far away from Jim Ellison.
"Right here, Blair." Paul came to the door. "How you doing?"
"I just wanted to tell you that right now I really, really hate you."
"I know you do. But wait. It'll all be worth it."
"I can't believe I flew across the country just to let you poison me." He tried to wipe his nose for the millionth time. "What'd I ever do to you anyway, man?"
Paul just laughed and said, "Keep eating that ice. You'll feel a lot better afterwards if you don't let yourself get so dehydrated."
Eventually the nausea subsided enough for him to go back to the cot. He lay curled on his side, too miserable even to sleep, talking because there was nothing else to do. "I can't believe you've been letting students volunteer as test subjects. This is a living hell. Hasn't anyone complained?"
"Not yet. It's all worth it, getting to be a Sentinel for a few hours."
"No, you're totally wrong, Paul. Sentinel abilities are genetic. I can't believe I was stupid enough to put myself through this." Blair put his hands over his ears. "And would you cut out that awful noise!"
Paul smiled. "What noise? I don't hear anything."
It was gone again. Oh great, random auditory hallucinations. Just what he'd been hoping for. "I think I could really use a shower."
"Good idea." Paul helped him sit up. "You may not be aware of this, but you're a pretty disgusting sight right now."
It felt wonderful to wash the filth away. He was still weak and a little sick, but it was nothing compared to the last few hours. He was even starting to get over his irritation with himself. Live and learn, Sandburg. He should have known that this wouldn't work, but the barest possibility that it might had been an irresistible temptation. Imagine how he could have helped Jim if he'd been able to get just a glimpse of the Sentinel's world.
Actually, volunteering to take the drug had been his second mistake. The first one had been worse. He shivered under the hot water, remembering that look on Jim's face. But he couldn't have told him the truth. He knew perfectly well what Ellison would have thought about this little experiment, and Blair had been absolutely determined to go through with it .
And of course, as usual, Jim would have been completely right.
Blair would just have to confess everything and clear the air when he got back to Cascade, hope that Jim would understand and forgive him when he finished ranting and raving.
He wasn't sure if the lingering queasiness in the pit of his stomach was due more to the yaje or to the prospect of that confession. He turned off the water, noticing how bright the white tiles in the institutional little shower were. His pupils must be dilated from the drug.
"Feel better?" Paul asked when he came out again.
"Still hate me?"
"Forget all that."
"Can't do it. I've got everything on tape."
Blair eased himself down on the little cot. "What a valuable scientific record that's going to be. Hours of me being sick."
"You'd be surprised."
"I'm just really tired." He stretched out, resting his wet head on the pillow. "I guess now you can get a few hours of me snoring. If that won't make a name for you in the annals of ethnobotany, I don't know what will."
"Go to sleep," Paul said.
He expected vivid dreams, nightmares most probably, which would have served him right, but there was nothing but a pounding in his head that followed him as he lost consciousness, and even though he was sleeping, wouldn't let him rest. He ignored it as long as he could, but even though he desperately wanted to stay still, it finally dragged him back to wakefulness.
Damn. What was that?
He sat up in bed. A circle of light came from the reading light Paul was using on the other side of the lab, but otherwise the room was in darkness. "Blair? What is it?"
He got out of bed and began prowling for the source of his pain. "Talk to me. Tell me what's happening?" Paul insisted.
Blair ran his fingers along the specimen cabinets, opened drawers, handled instruments, touched the masks on the walls, a bark cloth hanging, Huichol yarn paintings, feeling the wool, the beeswax – something very peculiar is happening to me, Blair thought, but he couldn't stop to analyze it now, he had to track down the source of that agonizing noise. There, there it was. He shoved Paul out of the way, dragged open the bottom drawer of his desk and groped behind the pencils and papers, finally lifting out a thick white towel that had been wadded into a tight roll.
"What is this?!" he shouted.
"Calm down. It's okay."
Blair snarled at him. He shook out the towel, and a cheap pocket watch fell to the floor and lay there, every movement of the second hand booming like thunder.
Blair didn't think twice. He grabbed the telephone off Paul's desk and used the base of it to smash the watch to bits. Then he sat down hard on the floor, shaking with exhaustion and astonishment. When he finally looked up, Paul was grinning down at him, offering him a hand.
"Gotcha," he said.
Part 4: I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died—
(Is this really what it's like for Jim?)
Blair was perched on the edge of the cot, trying to ignore the hard buttons on the mattress ticking, taking deep, slow breaths, staying calm, staying cool. "What time is it?"
Paul turned his wrist to look at his watch. Blair covered his eyes as the pale green luminescence flashed across the room like an aurora borealis. "Oh, man—"
"It's two a.m. Tell me how you feel. You need to keep talking."
"Yeah, I know. But when I do, I can feel the air moving between my vocal chords, and it's kind of distracting, you know? I forget what I was going to say."
"I don't care what you say. Just keep talking."
"Want to know what's even weirder? I can feel my heart, man. I can feel the chambers filling up with blood." Blair put his hand on his chest. "Every contraction. The valves opening, snapping shut again. Makes me want to brush up on anatomy. It never seemed so personal before."
"It's a little scary. Being so aware of my heartbeat makes me wonder if I could, you know … do something about it."
"Well, we're not going to find out tonight. I want you to concentrate on exterior things."
"Yeah, okay, I'll try. But it's pretty intense. I start to get overwhelmed."
"That's what the pocket watch was supposed to be for. To give you something familiar and non-threatening to focus on." Paul laughed out loud, and Blair could see his uvula swinging at the back of this throat. "I've never had somebody attack it before. Good going."
"Sorry about that. Guess I've been hanging around Jim too long."
"My roommate. Usually he's the most easy-going guy in the world, but when something really gets under his skin, he's not shy about letting you know it."
"Oh right. That cop you were telling me about. How do you put up with a hardass like that? The cost of housing must be through the roof in Cascade if that's the best you can do."
"No, you don't know him, Paul." Blair could feel the capillaries in his cheeks expanding as he jumped to Ellison's defense. "Jim's a fantastic guy. I owe him a lot." (Like my life, about a dozen times over) "I'm sure he has a tougher time putting up with me than the other way around." The dizzying warmth of blood in his cheeks made him wonder if this was the secret behind Jim's poker face. Blair might learn to be stony faced too, with that much warning of a simple blush.
And just how much control was possible? Suppose Jim didn't have to use props and mental pictures, the imaginary pain dial, or – heaven help us – actually driving a nail into his thumb. Suppose he could go right to the source? Control the way axons branched and neurons fired? Simply change the chemical makeup of his neurotransmitters? My god, the possibilities—
"Blair. Blair! Where were you? Keep talking to me. Don't drift away like that."
"How far do you think it goes? If you were aware enough, do you think it would be possible to change brain chemistry?"
"No. You can't possibly be aware of the processes that make awareness possible."
"I'm not so sure about that."
"Either way, this isn't a good time to talk about it."
"Are you nuts? I've spent the past six hours sick as I've ever been in my life to get here. I want to explore the possibilities."
Paul jumped to his feet and crossed the room fast, stumbling a little in the darkness. He grabbed Blair's shoulders . "Knock it off! I mean it!"
"Don't you have any idea how important this is?"
"Of course I do. But Blair, listen to me. It's two in the morning, and we're hours away from the nearest hospital. The only medical help on campus tonight is the nurse practitioner over at the clinic. Am I getting through to you?"
After a moment Blair nodded. "Yeah, I guess I see your point."
Paul relaxed a little. "Thank you. So I've got your word? You're not going to try to change your blood pressure or increase glucose production or something?"
"Scout's honor. I'll leave my sympathetic nervous system alone. But wouldn't it be incredible if I could affect it?"
"But I won't try. I'd need to be monitored to be sure I was really accomplishing what I thought. It wouldn't mean anything otherwise."
"Jeez." Paul perched on the lab table nearby. "I tell you, I'm sticking to jocks from now on. They're always perfectly happy to just sit and look at the pretty colors."
Blair giggled. "Didn't mean to scare you."
"You know what the dean would say if one of my test subjects managed to stop his heart? Somehow I suspect the scientific breakthrough would be the last thing on his mind."
"See, Paul, that's what I can't understand. This just doesn't seem like the kind of place that would welcome you testing psychoactives on the student body."
"People like Siegal and Kluver had been doing this kind of research for decades."
"Sure, and they've been doing it at places like UCLA and Chicago. I don't mean anything negative, but I'd think at Grainger things would be a little more, um, conservative."
"The department chair is behind me all the way. This is important work. It's the kind of research that'll take me places. C'mon, Blair, you need to start thinking about your own career. You didn't even show up at the AIA convention last winter. You know how lousy the market is right now? Half the people we went to school with are stuck teaching life science or something to high school kids, and those are the ones lucky enough to find a job at all."
This was a subject Blair had been happily avoiding for the past year now. He certainly didn't feel like talking about it now. Recklessly, he flung his attention outwards. It was like scanning the landscape too fast with high powered binoculars. Sounds, smells, sensations were all just a jumbled blur until he stopped and let them snap into focus. He heard the slow gliding of a snake as it emerged from the woods, drawn by the heat still lingering in the asphalt parking lot. Blair stretched further. A night swit was hunting. He could hear the tiny rush of the wind tunnel it left in its wake diving for a mosquito. There were sounds in the earth, too. Water, stone, wind—
Then, boom, right in front of him. "Oh, man. There's someone outside the building. More than one. Three or four, maybe. I can hear their footsteps. Oh, oh man, and they're really drunk. I smell beer."
"Oh no," Paul muttered. "I've had problems with break-ins all year. I think the rumor around campus is I keep pot in the lab or something."
Glass shattered on the far side of the building. Blair doubled over, his hands over his ears.
"It's okay," Paul said in a shaky voice. "I'll just call campus security." He stumbled for his desk, then whispered furiously, "Goddamnit, Blair, you broke the damn telephone! What are we going to do?"
"Calm down." All Blair could hear now was the thunder of Paul's heart. "It's just some drunk frat boys or something, right? They must think the building's empty. Just turn on a light and they'll go away."
"And what if they don't? Oh my god. Oh my god." Paul was turning in circles, panicked and helpless. Blair could smell his nervous sweat. "Come on." He suddenly took Blair's arm and dragged him to his feet. "You go hide in the shower. I'll try to get to one of the phones in another office."
"Paul, no, wait a minute. I don't think this is the way to handle it."
"Just stay quiet." Ignoring Blair's objections, Paul pushed him into the little bathroom and shut the door on him. Blair listened to his footsteps cross the lab, heard the door open, and then he was gone.
This was ridiculous. He sank down until he was sitting on the cold tiles, his back against the door, trying to get past the lingering sensations of Paul's terror. Is that what Jim picks up when I'm scared? he wondered unhappily. He tried to follow Paul's progress through the building and listen for the interlopers at the same time, but he kept getting distracted by other things, the rumbling of the central air, the smell of antibacterial soap in the shower, an owl in the forest, moles digging in the hosta garden around front.
Then the door to Paul's lab slammed open, and a cyclone blew in.
Blair couldn't even tell how many there were. Just an undifferentiated blur of heartbeats roaring too fast, noisy whispering, clumsy footsteps, the stink of tobacco and alcohol and terrified bravado. A light flashed under the bathroom door. Blair pulled his knees up under his chin, wrapping his arms around his legs. Where the hell was Paul?
A weight smashed into the door. Blair rolled away from it with a grunt. The door opened, and a beam of light sliced through the darkness. "Ah, Christ, Petey, there's somebody here," said one of the voices from the maelstrom. Blair was hardly aware of it. All he could focus on was the destruction, breaking glass, splintering wood, the earthy smell of botanical specimens exposed to the air.
He was suddenly furious. "Cut it out! What the hell's the matter with you? Get out of here!" He staggered to his feet, one arm across his face, trying to shield his eyes from the flashlight. Voices shouted back at him. The display cabinet of fly agaric must have been broken. Blair could taste the bitter alkaloid in the air. He felt a blow and swung back blindly. An elbow hit his cheek, and he fell hard. There was a rush of displaced air as something massive came down after him. He rolled but couldn't get one hand out of the way in time.
His knuckles snapped like twigs.
The appalling shock cleared his head momentarily, and he was able to see. Red and blue lights were crawling up the walls. The lab was full of people, half of them in uniform, and Paul was yelling furiously, "Damnit, Blair, what's the matter with you? You were supposed to stay in the bathroom."
Stung by the gross unfairness of this he tried to answer, but all that emerged was a hoarse, humiliating bray. He clamped his mouth shut and tried to free his trapped hand. He had to get away from all this before he lost his mind. The room whirled, and he was afraid he was going to be sick. (Please, not that again.) The indecipherable, bullying voices were everywhere. Someone turned on the overhead florescents, and the light was agony. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried frantically to pull his hand free. Ligaments ruptured with a pop, and he felt beads of sweat heavy as mercury spring out across his forehead.
Someone in the room had been drinking amaretto and orange juice. Canned orange juice at that. Ugh. A pack of menthol cigarettes reeked in the vest pocket of one of the people who finally lifted the shattered display case off him.
"Take it easy, son. You're all right. We're just going to ride you over to the infirmary and get that hand looked at, OK?"
Blair was too overwhelmed by the vibrations in his eardrums to make sense of them. There were cockroaches in the basement of the building. He heard them scuttling to and fro.
This is insanity. Concentrate. Breathe.
But when he did, the pain came back with terrifying intensity. He looked around, finding himself being sat down in the back of a patrol car. Menthol Cigarettes was saying, "You hang tight, son. I'm just gonna be sure they've got everything under control in there, and then we'll go straight to the infirmary. Are you going to sit right here for me?"
Blair had no idea in the world what was being said. There was a sweet smell in the distance. Honeysuckle? And the gurgle of underground water flowing through sandstone to the heart of the mountain. He was amazed he could hear anything over the roar of the cicadas, and he wondered if he could concentrate long enough to find his way .
He got to his feet, dimly surprised (but relieved) that no one tried to stop him, and clumsily began to run for the soothing darkness beyond the sodium lights.
Part 5: The Nunnehi
The call came in at half past four that morning. Jim rolled over and sat up, groping for the phone. "Ellison."
"Jim Ellison? Blair's roommate? I'm sorry to wake you. I know it's still the middle of the night out there. I'm actually trying to reach his parents or someone, but this is the only number Blair left. My name is Paul Arrowood. I'm an associate professor at Grainger College."
"Is Blair all right?"
"There' s nothing to worry about. He's just had an accident. I'm sure he's going to be fine. But he may need medical attention, and there's a chance he won't be able to sign the consent forms for anesthesia or surgery when they find him, so the college was hoping I'd be able to get in touch with someone with the authority to—"
(Dear god. You knew something was screwy right from the start. But you let him get on that plane anyway. For chrissake, you even drove him to the airport.) "Dr. Arrowood," Jim interrupted, "I need for you to tell me exactly what's going on here."
"Well, it's a slightly complicated situation." He laughed, unconvincingly and inappropriately. "The upshot is, Blair's managed to get himself lost in the woods."
I wonder why Jim ever listened to a word I said? Blair wondered. Because it's perfectly obvious that I never had the faintest idea what the hell I was talking about.
Meditation, directed breathing, that goddamned pain dial, none of it was the slightest use. If anything, his attempts at control only increased his panic. He was crouched in a narrow place between two sandstone boulders. There was nowhere else to run. The bluffs were less than a hundred feet before him, and the only reason he hadn't gone charging right over the edge was because the sensation of emptiness was more vast even than his need to escape.
(What you need is help, Sandburg. Terrible as it was, you've got to go back.)
He'd been telling himself that all along, but it didn't do any good. Dawn was nearly upon him. As the stars disappeared from the sky, he pushed himself deeper into the shelter of the rocks. Even turned away from the eastern horizon, one arm over his eyes, the first, faintest glow of the coming sunrise was almost unendurable. He had to find a better place to hide.
Wrong. You need help, and you need it now if you don't want to use a keyboard one-handed for the rest of your life. Blood was still pooling around the joints where ligament had torn from the bone. What was scarier still was that his heart didn't seem to be working quite right, and his extremities (all except for his hand, which felt bloated and warm as a hot water bottle) were getting cold.
The bats were coming home, flying away from the sun just like Blair wanted to do. The ping of their sonar made him think of Jim with a smile, and gave him a moment of hope.
There were places in the earth that could shelter him. He could feel the fissures, the rifts of the ancient, hidden sites, but hadn't been able to find the door.
The bats could lead him there.
It was humid, overcast, and hot in Nashville. The cuffs and collar of Paul Arrowood's smart blazer had wilted by the time they reached his car. He took the coat off and threw it in the trunk beside Jim's overnight bag with a miserable little laugh. "You know the old movies? Where the plantation owner is sitting on the veranda drinking a mint julep, cool as can be in his crisp linen suit? Well, it's all a load of crap."
Heat rose from the asphalt in waves. Paul unlocked the passenger side door for Jim, fumbling a little with the key. Jim turned slowly before getting in, looking towards the haze-shrouded mountains.
"How long will it take us to get up there?"
"Two and a half, maybe three hours, once we get out of the city. We should be there by seven at the latest."
Leaving maybe two hours of daylight, if they were lucky, Jim thought. Hang on, Sandburg.
"I'm sure Blair will have turned up by then. I can't wait to see the look on his face when he finds out you flew all the way out here."
Jim got in the car without answering. He'd managed to convince himself during the hopscotch of flights across the country that Blair would be the one waiting for him at the airport, properly abashed for having been the cause of so much trouble.
Maybe that was the reason he had already taken such a dislike to Dr. Arrowood. He supposed he wasn't bothering to hide his feelings either, nervous as the man was acting. But damnit, the whole thing was ridiculous. Sandburg's ability to snatch catastrophe from the jaws of anything was beginning to stretch the limits of credulity.
Freeway traffic was stop and go for miles, but the suburbs eventually gave way to farmlands, the farmlands to pine forest, and then, as they began to ascend into the mountains, dark tangles of laurel and rhododendron under the looming hemlocks. The little Toyota's engine groaned under the strain of the climb. Apologizing, Paul turned off the air conditioner and rolled down the windows. The air was no cooler here than it had been in the city, hot and still and humid as the jungle.
Paul kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation that Jim simply ignored. His dislike was heightened now by the subtle ways Paul reminded him of Blair. More than just his gift of gab. Or for that matter, the short blonde ponytail. It was something Jim couldn't quite put his finger on. Perhaps it was the innocent arrogance of his belief that everything was going to turn out for the best. Of course Blair was going to turn up safe and sound – no other outcome was conceivable, because after all, the world was knowable, just as long as you were smart enough, worked hard enough, spent enough time in the lab.
That optimism had been tempered in Blair. Jim had watched it happen and knew, regretfully, that a lot of the responsibility for it was his. There was an expression of Sandburg's that he had been unfortunate enough to see more than once. That blank look of simple, stunned surprise that things could go so amazingly wrong. Dr. Arrowood here didn't believe that the world could betray him that way, and Jim didn't care how many books he'd read, how far he'd traveled, how many articles he'd written, the man was still a child.
And that made him dangerous, Jim thought suddenly.
And then he thought he must be more tired and worried than he had realized, and tried to think about something else.
The campus security officer who had left Blair in his patrol car hadn't realized he was dealing with a head injury case, or he never would have left him. Everything had been so chaotic, happened so fast, Paul explained guiltily. He himself had been stunned by the destruction a handful of stupid, drunk kids could wreak— "You know one of them was in my Appalachian folklore class last spring?" — but he should have waited with Blair himself, he wasn't making excuses, he had been wrong—
And all Jim could see was Blair curled up under the branches of a laurel thicket, or down one of the caves that Paul said riddled the mountainside, slipping away into the final betrayal.
"I can hear the helicopter," Paul suddenly announced, bright-eyed. "That's the Shelby Mountain Emergency Rescue. They're the only ones with a copter around here."
Jim had been listening to the same helicopter circling for nearly an hour, and saw no reason for Paul's optimism. If it was still up there, it only meant they hadn't found Blair yet.
Oh, Jim, Blair was still able to think, sprawled on the floor of the cavern, staring across the fissure in the rock. He was laughing and crying at the same time, tears of ecstasy streaming down his cheeks. How come you never told me? Wasn't this any big thing to you either?
"Well, this is where we were when those kids broke in. You can see the damage they did."
The broken glass had been swept up, the overturned book cases and display shelves righted. It annoyed Jim to find Paul hadn't been too upset to start cleaning.
"I thought you wanted to get right out to the woods to help with the rescue operation," Paul said.
That was Jim's intention. He wasn't entirely sure why he had insisted on coming here first, except that it seemed important to see where Blair had started from. The lab reminded him of Blair's office, the artifacts, the clutter, but there was a slightly strange overlay to it all, organic and a little unsettling, with a sweet, narcotic undertone that was intoxicating as an orchid. Personally Jim hated orchids. He closed his eyes for just a moment, probing the scent cautiously, wary of it, and found Blair underneath.
His eyes snapped open, more than a little startled by the vividness of his impression. It was almost as strong as the stamp of Blair's presence in the loft.
The air conditioning cycled off. As the air currents slowed, the scent suddenly came into focus.
(oh dear god in heaven)
It was Blair turned inside out. He could smell his voided stomach, voided bowels, blood, sweat snot piss tears oh dear GOD what in the name of heaven—
"Son of a bitch." His own stomach heaving, he grabbed Arrowood and shook him. The man just stared at Jim, the whites of eyes showing. "You son of bitch! What did you do to him?"
The terrible essence began to dissipate almost at once. As it lost its coherence, Jim regained control and let Arrowood go. The smells were at least a day old. Other people had seen his partner since then. Whatever Blair had endured here, he had survived.
"It wasn't a head injury at all. The rescue service, the people who are out looking for Blair, they don't know how sick he was, do they? You didn't tell them."
Arrowood's face went whiter than a sheet, then a dull flush crept up to the hairline. "I don't know what you're talking about," he whispered.
Jim ignored him. Now that he knew what he was looking for, it wasn't hard to find. A closed metal trashcan labeled medical waste was in the corner of the lab, and the hypodermic was inside. He picked it up gingerly, holding it close enough to detect the coppery tang of Blair's blood. The smell of the drug was far stronger.
He turned, the syringe in hand. "What is it? What did you give him?"
"He took it himself."
Sure he did, you lying son of a bitch. "What is it?"
Paul straightened his shoulders a little. "I'm sure the name wouldn't mean anything to you. It's an extract from the bark of a species of Banisteriopsis. I know what you're thinking, and it's not controlled substance. I'm not doing anything illegal here."
"What are the effects? What did it do to him?" Jim asked very quietly.
"It's psychoactive. Indigenous peoples along the Pacific Coast of Ecuador use it as an ordeal drug."
"You mean it's an hallucinogen?" (Oh goddamnit, Chief, not again.) The remembered hours of terror made him feel a little sick, and he pushed those thoughts away. He glanced around the lab. "I need a manila envelope or something. The tube the hypodermic came in if you've got it."
"This'll do." Jim confiscated an empty specimen box from Arrowood's cluttered desk and put the needle inside.
Paul realized the implications immediately. "Hey, listen, I know you're a cop, but Blair and I didn't do anything wrong here. This was a controlled experiment. Blair signed a release."
"Then why lie about it?" Jim asked, a tight, angry smile on his face.
"Hey, I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'm coming up for tenure this year. The break-in, Blair getting hurt and everything, that had nothing to do with my research, but if word gets out, it'll mean my butt. The department wouldn't be able to protect me. Listen, Jim, the effects of the drug don't last more than twenty-four hours, thirty-six, tops. I'm sure Blair's going to come walking in here any minute now."
Jim wondered how he could have thought for one instant that this man was anything like Blair Sandburg. "Believe me, Dr. Arrowood. Getting tenure is going to be the last of your concerns." He turned and stalked away. Blair needed him.
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute!" He rustled in his desk drawer, and ran after Jim. "I'm not taking the fall all alone here. It was Blair's responsibility just as much as mine." He pushed a piece of paper into Jim's hand.
Afterwards, Jim would think it was strange how clearly he could remember that sheet of paper. The thought of it would intrude at inopportune moments, reminding him of how condescending his attitude towards Blair had been, thinking that his young partner was the only one innocent enough to still be surprised by all the ways the world could betray you.
It was slick and shiny, stinking of the blue mimeograph ink Jim hadn't seen since his army days. Blair's signature was scrawled at the bottom, and that was what caught his attention, made him stop and read it once, and then all over again, word for word, even though Blair was still out there in the woods and the sun was so low on the horizon.
Part 6: And Then the Windows Failed – And Then I Could Not See to See
Blair had been practically under their feet the entire time.
Jim was on the bluffs no more than a quarter of a mile from the college talking to the captain of the rescue squad. She was an apple-cheeked woman of fifty who called Jim and everyone else honey, and her assessment of the situation was unapologetically bleak. They'd get the bloodhounds up here in the morning, but these sandstone cliffs were rotten with caves and crevasses. It was just too dangerous to keep looking after dark. Of course she couldn't stop Jim if he wanted to continue on his own. "And this time tomorrow my boys will be looking for two bodies, instead of just one. But I guess it's your call, honey."
The sky was dull red behind the trees, and the valley was black with shadow, early stars reflecting on the river far below. As the sun set, the whirring of the cicadas rose to a crescendo. The breeze died. A wood thrush hidden in a wild rose suddenly burst into noisy song. A crescent moon was rising from the mountains on the other side of the river, and that was the moment when Blair's beating heart finally impinged on Jim's consciousness with such serene and perfect clarity.
They pulled him out of a fissure in the cliff so narrow that members of the rescue team had been stepping across it all day. Blair's heartbeat was a little fast and a little shallow, and the hand looked bad, but he had survived. Blair was silent, in shock. That, and the damned potion he'd shot up had to be the reason he hadn't said a word all day while the people trying to find him had been right overhead.
It was too dark by then for the helicopter to land. After they had strapped him to the stretcher to carry him back through the woods, Jim finally forced himself to go up to him. Blair's eyes were open and he was looking peacefully up at the stars. He didn't acknowledge Jim's presence until he laid a hand briefly on his forehead.
The touch brought him back from wherever he'd been. He grinned up at him. Jim squeezed his shoulder briefly, then turned and walked away.
There was a mosquito bite on the back of Blair's hand that the splint kept him from scratching. He gritted his teeth and tried not to think about it. He'd kept his sanity through everything else, but not being able to scratch was going to send him right over the edge.
Their flight didn't leave for hours, and Jim had gotten a room in a motel across from the airport so Blair could rest before the trip.
He couldn't sleep. He couldn't even bring himself to lie down, and Jim didn't insist on it. Instead, Blair sat at the little oak veneer table in front of the window watching the planes take off. He was still a little scared to probe his memories of the past two days. Getting through the immediate future was going to be difficult enough.
Jim brought him a newspaper and a couple of magazines from the newsstand in the lobby, then took a nap. When he woke, he went back downstairs for lunch and brought up a salad for Blair, who ate the saltine crackers and some of the rubbery cucumber slices before pushing the plate away. Jim didn't say anything about that either. He'd found a Braves game and lay sprawled on the bed watching TV for a while. Eventually he looked at his watch and turned the set off.
"Plane leaves in a couple of hours. Might be a good idea if you try to catch at least a little shut eye before we have to go."
Blair shook his head.
Jim looked away, then back.
"So why'd you do it, Chief?"
All right, Blair thought, here we go. Make him listen to you. Don't get emotional. Don't get upset. Jim's a reasonable guy, and if you can just explain what you were thinking, how much you could have helped if things had worked like they were supposed to – and hey, actually, he did have some great ideas now, didn't he? Once they got back to Cascade he would have to get cracking on this whole question of neurochemical control. He'd need to talk to his friend Professor Loren over in the psych department. Blair's undergrad psychobiology classes just weren't enough to guide them through something as big as this. "How much did Paul tell you about it?"
Jim just looked at him. Blair sank back into the hard little motel room chair, trying to figure out what that expression on Jim's face meant. He'd seen it before, why couldn't he read it now?
Because it had never been directed at him before.
"Oh, Jim," he whispered, horror-struck. "C'mon, man."
Ellison got to his feet without a word, picked up the hotel keys from the top of the dresser, and walked out.
He wasn't gone long. Not more than fifteen minutes or so, although it felt like about a million years to Blair. He was carrying an ice bucket and a can of club soda from the vending machine when he came back. Without looking at Blair he went to the sink and put a few ice cubes in a plastic cup, opened the club soda and poured it over the ice. He brought it in to Blair, still not really looking at him, and said, "You need to be drinking more water."
"Jim, I don't understand this. What's the matter with you?"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he saw the same rage dulling the intensity of Jim's blue eyes. What was going on here? He'd done stupid things before, inconvenienced Jim, inconvenienced everybody, and Jim had never reacted like this.
This time Jim didn't walk out. He paced as far as the door and back again, and then stopped and looked down at Blair, his arms crossed over his chest. Blair was so frightened that he was starting to get angry. He was dying to unleash a torrent of frantic expostulation, but he managed to hold his tongue, though one knee was bobbing crazily with the effort to keep quiet.
"I just couldn't believe it," Jim said at last. "Even when your friend Arrowood showed me the release you'd signed, for a second there I still kept thinking it was just another lie to cover his tracks, that he had – I don't know – tricked you somehow." He gave a humorless little laugh, shaking his head.
"Tricked me? What are you talking about? I wanted to do this. I volunteered."
"And I couldn't get it out of my head," Jim walked away and was standing at the glass balcony door. It was another hot, smoggy day. The mountains were lost in the haze. He had to wait, wincing a little, until a jet had roared past overhead before he could go on. "That moment when you finally gave me the gun and came down off the car—"
"Jim, what in the world are you talking about?"
He didn't turn around. "And then to find out that this time you had done it to yourself. I don't know, Chief. I just don't know."
"You're not making sense. Getting dosed with golden – that was like an attack, man. I was poisoned. There's no comparison. This was a controlled experiment in a laboratory setting. It was just bad luck that things turned out the way they did. Maybe Paul did panic some, but hey, he hasn't had the benefit of hanging out with Cascade PD's best and brightest for the past year like me."
Jim wasn't buying it, Blair could see that, and he let himself lose his temper just a little bit, thinking about everything he'd gone through because he wanted to help the big ungrateful lug. Man, his hand was itching. "Oh come on! I can't believe you're turning into Nancy Reagan on me here. The whole world doesn't have to Just Say No."
"That's not what I'm talking about," Jim said quietly.
Blair didn't listen. He was just getting started good. "I've drunk achuma in Las Huaringas, had iboga with the Bwiti and muscimole with the Chukchee, and for that matter, I've knocked back more than a few cold ones with officers of the Cascade police department. This wasn't really all that different, Jim. There's hardly a civilization on the planet that hasn't used intoxicants and psychoactives in some form. You know some researchers believe that our proto-human ancestors might have made the leap to consciousness by eating psychedelic mushrooms?"
"I was in the lab," Jim said, unmoved by his speech. "And I got a pretty good idea of how sick you had been."
"No kidding? That's incredible! It must have been, what, at least twenty-four hours later, right? And the lab's airconditioned, too. I wouldn't have thought there would be anything left for you to pick up by then."
Jim didn't respond to that at all. He said, "Maybe you're right, and I just don't understand what's considered an acceptable risk in your field. But Arrowood sure did his best to hide what you two had been up to. And I can tell you what it seemed like to me. It seemed like something so damned dangerous and so damned stupid, I had to wonder if I really knew the first thing about you."
Oh god. He didn't even know. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," Blair said frantically. "I thought you had talked to Paul about this. Jim, come on, this wasn't just some esoteric research project – well, maybe it was for Paul, but not me. See, Paul's known about my Sentinel research for years, and he got back from Ecuador with a specimen of—"
Jim's head had snapped up at the mention of Sentinels, and he was staring at Blair now with something so stark and naked in his eyes that Blair had to look away, stumbling over his words in his haste to get them all out.
"Well, I guess you don't really care what it was, but the point is, when he took it himself, and then when he gave it to his first test subjects, they all experienced a sensory enhancement so amazing that Paul thought right away of my Sentinel research, and when he told me, I had to fly right out to try it myself. I'm sorry I didn't tell you what I was doing. I knew you probably wouldn't think it was such a good idea, and I was just too excited about the possibilities to stop and argue about it."
(Well, what do you know? I'm still learning new things about Jim all the time. Half an hour ago I thought that anger was just about the worst thing I'd ever seen on his face but whoa, guess what Sandburg? You were wrong again.)
He started to tremble. "And hey, Jim, you know something? It worked, man. It totally worked. I've got so many great ideas. There's so much we need to talk about when we get home."
"Blair." Jim was shaking his head in a dazed, slow way. Even his words were coming out dazed and thick. "How could you have thought—" He sank down slowly onto the corner of the bed.
Blair couldn't understand why Jim wasn't getting this. He must not be talking fast enough, "Jim, hey, wait a minute, don't you see? I know you're counting on me, but there's so much I don't know. This was my chance to see the world like you do, just for a little while. Okay, maybe it was a little reckless, and maybe Paul didn't have the most solid controls in place – and I definitely should have talked to you about it first. But if I can help you more with your senses because of it, then of course it was worth it. I'd do it again in a second. And it was worth it, man! I know it was. I've already got so many great ideas. You know this whole business with painkillers? It's totally key. One day we might even use it to get right to the neurochemical basis of your enhanced senses."
Something was incredibly wrong here. Jim was hunched over like a man in pain.
Oh god. Jim didn't trust him anymore. That had to be it. Good going, Sandburg. You run off and do something that looks so reckless (and to Jim, probably seems practically illegal, too), that he must think you're some kind of a flake, not totally committed to this. Well, okay, he just had to prove to him that it wasn't true, and to hell with that macho reserve. Not that he'd ever had much of that anyway.
"Jim. Please listen to me. This was not about research. This was not about my career, or my dissertation, or anything else. It's about being your partner," He was proud to hear how calm his voice sounded. "Now I know I get scared sometimes, and I don't always know what to do, but you gotta bear with me, even if this sounds really corny, because I swear to you, there's nothing I wouldn't do to back you up. You're the one who taught me that. Whatever it takes."
And something was still wrong. Man, didn't Jim believe him? (And why should he? You lied to him, remember?)
"No? What's that supposed to mean? You're starting to freak me out here. Talk to me, Jim, please. I can't stand this."
"Blair, if I had ever dreamed—" He didn't seem to be able to get his thoughts out. "If I had realized for one minute—"
It's like I've already used up all the words in world, Blair thought. There aren't any left for Jim.
But then he found the ones he needed after all. He straightened up, looking suddenly calm, decisive, even relieved.
"It has to end right now."
Part 7: Sandburg Under the Bodhi Tree
"So what did you want to tell me?"
The bright lights of Las Vegas filled Blair's window as the plane banked, turning west for the sea. Wouldn't you know it? Jim had snagged the aisle seat again.
"Nothing, man. It was nothing."
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Blair listened to Jim watching television in the living room, surfing past movies, a game, the news, back to the John Wayne western he'd started the evening watching. Tomorrow he was going to go back to work, and Blair wouldn't be with him.
Funny thing, though. As disastrously wrong as everything was, Blair still felt safe here. Safe enough to finally think about what he had seen during those hours in the cave under the bluffs. And he needed to think about it now, because tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, he would be alone again, and he knew he wouldn't have the nerve then, not without Jim close by. Even if it was just Jim, not the Sentinel. Maybe especially because it was Jim, beer in one hand, remote in the other, clicking past channels and getting on with his life.
The cave was shelter from the daylight world above him, and he was unabashedly grateful, even though the stone floor was wet and his jeans and shirt were wicking moisture. He'd twisted his ankle after worming his way through the crack in the ceiling, and his shoe was getting uncomfortable as his foot swelled. He was doing a pretty good job of ignoring the deep, terrible damage in his hand. Water was running down the walls of the cavern, a soothing sound that he was able to focus on for minutes at a time. When he concentrated closely enough, he could almost feel the surface tension holding the individual droplets together and the cataclysm as each shattered on the rocks in turn.
(It's more than you deserve, Sandburg, but you know what? You might just survive this after all.)
But then the pain came back.
He clutched his wrist with his other hand and rolled over, cradling it to his chest. He couldn't escape this time. He brought his knees up, pushing himself across the pebbled surface on his back, keening in bewildered agony. There was a crevasse in the floor, he knew he should be careful, but it seemed impossibly inconsequential right now. Oh Jim, man, I need you right now, I really, really need you.
Just evoking his name seemed to help. Blair's senses turned outwards again, abruptly as a sock yanked inside out, and he flailed for something outside to concentrate on. Quartz crystals in the rock were generating minute electrical charges. He focused on them until his skin began to prickle and he could see blue and white flashes arc through the cavern, but he was still afraid.
He eased himself away from the crack in the floor where the water was running down. Maybe instead of following it downward he could trace it back to the source, look for the beginning instead of the end. Maybe that's what he should have been doing all along.
He was surprised by the effort it took to oppose the flow. So much easier to rush along with it down to the floor of the cavern and then to the heart of the mountain, but he persevered, awkward as a salmon leaping upstream, pushing back through the timeless course in the rocks, tracing a path that had been immeasurably ancient before his first ancestors had emerged from the sea.
And that's where he had found Them. A courteous folk, they emerged from the stone, crossed the water, and greeted him.
Click. Jim had changed channels again.
Blair opened his eyes and looked at familiar surroundings. They were a comfort to him, even though he knew now it was all illusion and artifice. How did Jim live with this? Why had he never bothered to mention that when you concentrated hard enough, the walls came tumbling down? He'd known the man was a pragmatist, but god, give me a break.
Naomi always said that everything happened for a reason. As a child, it had simply been Blair's cue to begin detaching himself, the coda to yet another of his mother's failed relationships. For the first time, though, he began to wonder if it were more than just a rationalization you trotted out when things went wrong, because this couldn't all be coincidence, everything he'd believed was important in his life being snatched away all at once.
Despite what he'd told Jim in desperation on the airplane, losing the Sentinel wouldn't have had to mean the end of his academic career. It would have taken time – a lot of time, probably – okay, years maybe – but the sheer joy of the work would have won out in the end. He would have found a way to continue, even if he never finished his degree and did end up teaching life science to eighth-graders. After all, what else was he going to do? Go to business school?
He smiled bleakly. Well, now might be the time to consider that MBA after all. It was no more hollow than anthropology, and at least he might make a little money for a change. Wonder if he'd have to cut his hair?
And then he realized that he was weeping. Oh damn, Jim was sure to hear. He lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. Maybe he was hoping Jim would hear him. This was too much to handle alone. He wished he could leave the memory back in the cave under the bluffs, put the genie back in the bottle, or at least the Immortals back in the rock. He grinned even though tears were still leaking from the corners of his eyes. If this is enlightenment, then why do I feel so lousy?
The light changed. Jim, standing in the doorway.
"Sure you don't need a ride tomorrow?" he said.
"No, thanks man." Blair just kept looking at the ceiling. "Molly said she'd give me lift. I know you're behind enough at work as it is."
"I'd feel better if you were going straight to the orthopedist. I don't like this whole business of having to get the referral through student health."
"I already told you, that's the only way the university will cover it. Really, until this whole liability thing gets hashed out, this is the easiest way. Lucky I decided to buy health insurance over the summer after all."
"As I recall, luck had nothing to do with it."
"Yeah, okay, Jim, thanks for pestering me into it. But I always thought for sure if I needed to see a doctor, it would be for something the police department would cover."
Jim snorted. "Go to sleep, Sandburg." He flipped off the light. "I'm going to leave the door open. Let me know if you need anything."
I'll do that, Jim, he thought.
Simon just didn't get it, and to Jim's annoyance, he didn't seem prepared to let it go either.
"So it really worked? That's incredible."
"It nearly killed him. I don't see anything incredible about that."
"The kid's been in dangerous situations before, Jim. Usually because you put him there."
"No. Not like this. You don't know what it was like. I don't either, not really, except twenty-four hours later it was still bad enough to turn my stomach. Sandburg could have prolapsed an intestine or started throwing up his stomach lining—"
"And there they were out in the middle of nowhere, hours from the nearest hospital. Blair's not stupid, and he always seemed like he had a pretty well developed sense of self-preservation, but some crackpot feeds him a line about Sentinels, and he tosses it all out the window."
"And that surprises you? He's young and enthusiastic and more than a little obsessed on the topic. Why else would he have stuck around here for so long? Besides, it worked, didn't it? He must be beside himself withnew ideas. Did he even stop for breath on the flight back?"
"He didn't say much of anything, and frankly, I don't want to know."
"Well pardon me for speaking my mind here, but that's a hell of a thing. Sandburg goes through all that so he can help you with your senses, and you kick him out without even listening to him?"
"I'm not kicking him out. But look, somewhere along the line he seems to have decided that these Sentinel abilities are somehow more important than his own life. Come on, Simon, I can't accept thatkind of responsibility. I never asked for that kind of blind, unthinking devotion."
Annoyance flashed across Simon's face. "Of course you did, Jim. You've never accepted anything less."
Jim was halfway out of his chair, but he stopped at that, staring at Simon, and then slowly sank down again. He tried to set his coffee cup down on the edge of Simon's desk, but for some reason his hands were shaking, and he missed. It hit the floor and bounced, splashing coffee everywhere. Cinnamon mocha flavored. He hadn't even noticed.
"Sorry, sir," he muttered, getting up again. "Let me get some paper towels."
"Leave it, Jim. Sit down."
"That wasn't a request."
"Look, Jim, I'm not denying what Sandburg did was almost criminally stupid. And if you think I was happy about having to redistribute your entire caseload so you could fly across the country to go pull him out of a cave, then you're as far gone as he is." He stopped for a moment, scrutinizing Ellison's face with more attention than Jim really cared for. He looked away from Simon's gaze. "Blair made a mistake, Jim. He got so focused on the task at hand that he just lost track of the rest of the world. Stop me when this starts to sound familiar."
"It doesn't change the fact that he—"
"And the worst part is, his partner wasn't there to snap him out of it."
"He shut me out, Simon. He didn't let me know what was going on."
"As I recall, you knew good and well something was up."
Jim rubbed one hand wearily over his face. "I've got a lot of work to do today, sir."
Simon sighed noisily. He leaned forward over his desk, picking up a pen.
"Then get to it. And clean up that coffee first."
"Hey, Mr. Sandburg, is that you? What's up, man?" A bull-necked youth came out from behind the screen separating the waiting area from the examination rooms. Only an inch or two taller than Blair, he was almost twice as broad, arms perpetually akimbo and legs a little bowed with layers of muscle. His nose was swollen and purple.
"Hi, Corey." Blair had been seeing people he knew all morning during the interminable wait at the clinic, and was beginning to think Jim'd had the right idea about going straight to an orthopedic surgeon off campus. "Did that happen playing? I thought the season was over."
"Nah, man, I got wasted last night and walked into a door. What happened to you?"
"It's a long story."
Corey maneuvered himself with some difficulty into the chair next to Blair. "Yeah, I bet." He studied Blair's face. It was rather like being examined at close range by a well-meaning Saint Bernard. "Hell of shiner. Looks like somebody popped you one."
"It's okay. Like I said. Long story."
Corey didn't choose to take the hint. "What happened to your hand? Same asshole do that too? Listen, Mr. Sandburg, you just say the word, and me and guys'll make damn sure it never happens again."
"No, man, it's all right," Blair assured him, grinning a little. He'd had some misgivings when half the rugby team had decided en mass to satisfy a GE with his intro class this past spring, but it turned out pretty well. Blair had gotten a kick out of the way they approached new ideas like opponents that had to be pummeled into submission, and anyway, it certainly hadn't hurt an anthropology class to have such a powerfully intact subculture right there in the room.
"Yeah, well, you change your mind, you just lemme know. So what are you up to this summer? Teaching?"
"Actually, I don't guess I'm up to anything."
"Hey, that's cool by me." He levered himself up out of the chair. "Be seeing you. I gotta get over to student housing and post an ad. Dennis flaked on us and moved in with his girlfriend. You don't know anybody looking for a room, do you?"
Part 8: I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth
Jim saw the pickup truck parked in front of the building and knew what was up immediately. Damn, he should have been expecting a stunt like this. He double parked beside the truck, blocking it in to be sure nobody was going anywhere, then got out and looked at the boxes already piled in the back. Full of books and papers, of course. Shaking his head, Jim picked up two of the boxes and lugged them back upstairs.
In the hall outside the loft he found a kid built like a human rottweiler with yet another box in his arms. The door was standing open. "Put it back," Jim said.
"What's your problem man? Did you get those out of my truck?"
"Jim." Blair came to the door. "Hey, it's all right. Good news. I found a place to stay already." He tried to smile, but managed only to bare his teeth a little. His sweat had a cold, sick smell, the medication he was on bleared his eyes and made his breath rancid with chemicals, and his limp seemed much worse than it had been this morning. "Corey, this is Jim Ellison. Listen, Jim, Corey and some guys from my spring intro class have a spare room in a house they're renting. They're letting me move in tonight."
Jim scowled and put down the boxes in his arms. "Nice to meet you Corey, but I'm afraid there's been a mistake. Sandburg's not going anywhere."
Blair flushed with anger. "Jim."
"Excuse us a minute, would you?" Jim pulled Blair back into the loft and shut the door on Corey. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Trying to get the hell out of your life. Isn't that you want? I thought you'd be happy I was going."
"Sandburg, you haven't given me anything to be happy about since you got on that plane to Nashville."
"Get out of my way Jim. Corey's going to think this is a lover's quarrel or something."
"You're not going anywhere."
"I'm not staying here! You can't have it both ways. You want to kick me out, fine, I'm going, but that means you have to stop interfering in my life." Blair was trembling with emotion. "And anyway, why would I wanna stick around just to be the first to hear the bad news? When you get yourself killed because you zoned out and didn't have anybody watching your back, I hope I'm in another country, man. I hope I'm on the other side of the world."
Jim looked away, forcing himself to calm down. This was the last thing Blair needed right now. He released his arm, though he stayed between Blair and the door, and cocked his head to one side with a smile. "Lover's quarrel? I can make it sound like that, Chief."
"Jim, I swear—"
"You're not moving in with the wrestling team tonight, and that's the bottom line."
"The guys are on the rugby team. Jim, listen to me."
Corey pounded on the door. "Blair! Are you all right, man?"
Blair covered his face with his good hand. "Oh god. He probably thinks you're the one who gave me the black eye."
"Blair! I'm going to get help dude. Hang on."
"All right, Jim, all right, damn you, open the door before he comes back with the whole squad."
Corey was looming on the threshold. "What's going on? You okay?
"I'm sorry about all this, Corey. Um, looks like I won't be moving out tonight after all. But hey, go ahead and get yourself that pizza." He fumbled out the twenty he'd been hoarding and handed it to him. "Sorry you had to go to so much trouble for nothing."
"No trouble," he answered, taking the money. "But are you sure you're all right?" He shot an angry look up at Jim.
"I'm okay. Sorry it didn't work out, but I'm sure you can find somebody else."
"During the summer? Think again, man. You change your mind, just gimme a call."
"I'll carry up the other boxes." Jim said. "Blair, go sit down and take it easy before you keel over."
When he came back upstairs with the last box, he found Blair sitting rigid on the stripped mattress in his bedroom.
"You're something else man," he said to Jim in a small, furious voice. "You planning any more ritual humiliations I should know about?"
"Get up. Let me make the bed for you. You should be resting, not trying to move across town tonight."
"Can't you just leave me alone?"
"As soon as you start acting like you know how to take care of yourself, I'll consider it. Did you get the referral? When's your appointment?"
"I got it," he said sullenly. "Next Thursday."
"Next Thursday? That's it. We're through doing things your way. I'll get you somebody through the department tomorrow."
His shoulders sagged, too tired even to hold onto the anger. "C'mon, man, please. This is hard enough as it is. You've got to stop trying to take care of me."
"You can get as angry at me as you want. I can take it. But I'm not going to let you hurt yourself in the process, so you might as well give it up now."
Anger sparked again behind those dull blue eyes. "Everything in my life isn't about you, man."
"Then tell me what this is about."
He shrugged and looked away. Then with a sigh, he pulled up his legs and curled sideways on the mattress, his splinted hand stretched awkwardly in front. "Sorry," he said at last, closing his eyes. "I think I probably knew all along you wouldn't let me move out like that. Guess maybe I was just trying to piss you off." He smiled, eyes still closed. "Worked, didn't it?"
"Yeah, it worked, Chief. Good going. Now sit up, let me make the bed, and then you're going to tell me what's going on inside that addled head of yours."
By the time Jim had finished the bed, Blair was sound asleep on the couch. He gave up any thoughts of cooking dinner, made a cold cheese sandwich instead and sat out on the balcony reading until the light failed. When he came back in, Blair was just waking up. "Hey Jim," he said, sleepy and relaxed. "You know what part I just couldn't understand?"
He sat down next to him. "What's that?"
"Why you never told me what a Sentinel really sees."
"What do you mean?"
"You know." Blair shifted a little on the couch. Jim reached over and helped him sit up. "I saw it too. There in the cave. It was incredible. It made me feel … I don't know. I can't really describe it. Maybe that's why you never mentioned it, huh?"
"I'm not sure I follow you."
"I could hear the rescue people the whole time, but I was so … so overwhelmed, I guess. Enraptured." He looked earnestly into Jim's face. "I admire you so much, man. I really do. It blows my mind, to think that you've known all along. But still you keep on doing your job, working so hard, helping people, putting up with me, always trying to do the right thing. And me, I couldn't even open my mouth to let the people looking for me know where I was."
"Blair?" Jim kept his voice calm over the sudden flutter of fear in his gut. "Help me out, buddy. What are you talking about?"
"Maybe because I'm not a Sentinel. This time it's my brain that's just not wired to accept that kind of input." He looked away, then back. "Yeah, that must be it. That's the other thing I couldn't understand. While I was in the cave I felt so happy, a little terrified, too, but so swept away by the immensity of it all, I couldn't stop crying, but I was laughing at the same time, man. Ecstatic. But now, even though I can remember so clearly what it was like, there's none of the joy anymore. It just feels hollow." His voice dropped. "Hopeless, you know? Like there's no point in anything."
Jim must not have been controlling his expression as carefully as he thought, because Blair suddenly said with alarm. "Oh, hey, I'm sorry. Sorry. I'm not talking about The Big Sleep here or anything, I swear. It's just kind of hard, you know? You think about things one way all your adult life, spend every waking hour practically working and studying, building your little paradigm, and yeah, there're a lot of holes in it, and there are some places that are so dark that you know even if you had ten lifetimes you'd never be able to shine enough light in there to explain everything, but still, you know, it seems worthwhile, and if you get really lucky, important, even. Like actually discovering a Sentinel, maybe." He grinned momentarily. "And then, poof. All gone before you'd even gotten started good."
Jim had no idea what to say to him. He'd known this was going to be hard for Blair, but he hadn't been prepared for this blank despair.
"Now I know, I know you're not gonna talk about the Sentinel stuff anymore," Blair went on. "But maybe this is something you can help me out with just for old times sake, you know? Just tell me how you keep going, even though you know so much."
Jim spread his hands helplessly. "I'm sorry, Chief. I just don't understand. What is it that you think I know?"
Blair looked away. "Sorry. I guess I don't get to ask you that."
"Blair, whatever you felt, whatever you think you saw, it was just the drug. I know it must have seemed real at the time, but it was only chemical, the drug messing with your brain. No different from the golden fire people. You'll understand that when you've got a little more distance."
Blair's eyes widened. "Man, how can you say that to me? How can even say that?"
"Calm down, I'm sorry. Sit still." He put a hand on his shoulder to keep him getting up. "Maybe if you'll tell me what you saw I can help. But you're not giving me anything here."
Blair nodded quickly, still agitated, but at least he was willing to keep talking. "I was pushing real hard, you know? My hand was hurting a lot. So much it was messing me up. I don't know if you saw, but that cave where I was, there was a crack in the floor as big as the one I'd fallen through. I was afraid if I didn't find a way to stay in control I would end up going right over the edge. So I was looking for something to hold onto, with my mind, I mean, and then all of a sudden—" He broke off, searching Ellison's face. Then he shook his head and looked away. "You know, Jim, maybe it's realizing what a cold, stupid, arrogant bastard I've been all along that's freaking me out so much now."
Jim wished he could just pick Blair up and shake some sense into him. "Keep going," he said quietly. "What happened?"
"I've been to all these places, spent time with all these people, tried to understand who they were and what they believed, all the time thinking I could hold out. The only truth for me was what was tangible, what I could collect somehow, their words, art, rituals, whatever – oh, oh man," He clutched his stomach with his good hand, as though just thinking about it was making him a little sick.
"I don't understand what's so wrong with that. It's your job. That's what your career's about, isn't it?"
"Oh man, Jim, tell me about it. Why do you think I've got to get the hell out of here? I'm thinking about business school or something. Think I'd make a good CEO?"
Damn you Blair, what the hell is the matter with you? "Come on, Chief. Let me hear the rest of it."
He flopped back heavily against the cushions on the couch, looking up at the ceiling. "The Nunnehi. My pronunciation sucks, I know. Sorry. I'm not exactly fluent in Cherokee."
"I don't care how it's pronounced, Blair. What does it mean?"
"They're the immortals. Not gods, but – the substance behind the shadow, you know?"
"So like I was telling you, I pushing really hard, trying to find something to focus on, and all of a sudden the whole physical world, everything that matters, everything that I was concentrating on – it's like it all went flat. I could see it was all just surface. And oh god, Jim." His voice sank to a whisper. "God, Jim, there They were. So please, I know I don't have the right to ask you this anymore, but please man, I could really use your help here."
Jim's utter and absolute helplessness in the face of that plea infuriated him. It must have been that anger Blair read in his eyes. He drew away, his own eyes suddenly shuttered and cautious. "Sorry, man," he whispered. "But don't worry. I won't mention it again."
Part 9: Paper Cut
Jim hadn't known if Paul Arrowood would even speak to him, but it turned out he was still underestimating the serene egotism of the man. Why wouldn't he talk to Jim? As far as Paul was concerned, he wasn't the one who had done anything wrong.
"I appreciate the call," he said. "I'm glad to know Blair's all right."
Jim didn't comment on that peculiar and evidently highly personal definition of all right.
"And I'd be glad to talk to Blair if you want, but I'm not sure what you want me to say. I mean, Blair's right about the effects of the drug he took. None of the other test subjects reported hallucinations. I drank a homemade extract of the stuff in Ecuador and washed it down with mescal, and believe me, if there had been any tendency for it to cause a light show, I should have seen it then."
This was not what Jim had been hoping to hear.
"I didn't see any evidence that Blair was hallucinating either. He sounds a little funny on the tape sometimes, but the effects of the enhancement are fairly intense. Besides, he was wrung out from being sick for so long. And I know if he'd started seeing form constants or anything like that he would have said something. He went on for fifteen minutes about the way his own heartbeat felt."
"Tapes," Jim said. "You were recording this?"
"Well yes, of course."
"You'll need to FedEx them to me. Have you got something to write with? I'll give you the address. I'd like you to send them to me at the station."
"Oh, hey, now wait. I don't know about that. I guess if Blair wanted a copy it would be one thing, but there's some pretty personal stuff on there."
"I read the release," Jim said, his voice sinking to a growl. "Blair agreed that the results could be made public."
"Sure, in the context of a research paper for publication. I'm sure he didn't think I'd be shipping the raw material to his roommate."
"Dr. Arrowood, let me make this simple for you. I need for you to send the tapes to me immediately, or I'll fly back out there and pick them up myself."
Jim may have underestimated his egotism, but not his cowardice. "That's all right," Paul said quickly. "I'll save you the trip."
He bought Serena lunch and got her to explain to him in numbing detail the biological effect of hallucinogens, but afterwards he didn't feel as though he had learned anything he could really use. Blair knew all this too, better than Jim did in all probability, and still he persisted in believing that the gods had spoken to him under the bluff and told him his whole life was a lie. He hadn't been willing to listen to any of Jim's arguments, apparently convinced that Jim was simply shielding him from some big Sentinel secret about the meaning of the universe. Or the meaninglessness of it, perhaps, given the despair Jim had seen in those eyes.
There had to be a way to make him see reason. Blair had begged for his help last night. Now Jim just had to find a way to get him accept it. The first step was certainly to find out more about that damn poison. Normally, Jim would have talked to someone at the University, but that seemed like a bad idea in this case. Even though he had kept all his questions deliberately vague and impersonal with Serena, she'd figured out right away that he was talking about Blair. Her voice got softer, as did her eyes, and when they parted after lunch she had laid her hand briefly on his forearm and whispered, "You be sure and tell Blair we all miss him, all right?"
Let Sandburg's big cop friend show up on campus without Blair in tow and start asking questions about psychedelic drugs from Ecuador – well, he might as well take an ad out in the school paper.
But maybe he could stop by the library and see if he could turn up something on his own. It wouldn't have to be much, he didn't think. Just enough to jolt Sandburg's frame of reference a little. If he could just get Blair to think about it in terms other than this ridiculous pseudo-spiritual take on Sentinel abilities, he was sure he would come to his senses.
So to speak.
His first inkling that things might not be as simple as that came when he realized he'd been wandering around the reference section for a good fifteen minutes looking in vain for the card catalog. And something told him that he shouldn't bother mentioning the Dewey decimal system to the librarian who finally showed him to a terminal and helped him set up his search.
But once he started to get the hang of it, he was pleased with how quickly he was able to find information. So this was what Blair spent his time doing at school? No wonder he liked the adrenaline rush of police work.
He began to jot down the names of articles he thought might be useful, but after a few minutes, he started to feel a little overwhelmed. There was just so much of it. Books, articles, monographs, conference papers, dissertations published and unpublished – he could spend months slogging through all this. Years. And perhaps never find what he needed.
He paged down to the next screen, and Blair Sandburg's name jumped out at him. He smiled, as pleased as if Blair himself had just walked in. The listing was for a two-year-old article in the Journal of Anthropoetics. "Persephone in Zaïre: Some Observations on the Iboga Ritual among the Bwiti." Well, who knew if it would have anything to do with the problem at hand, but it was a place to start. He thought he remembered Blair mentioning the Bwiti.
The article was available on line. The reference librarian showed him how to print it out, and he settled down in one of the little carrels to read it. And immediately discovered the real problem.
He had expected the prose to be tedious and pedantic at worst. What he hadn't anticipated was that the article would be absolutely opaque. The first paragraph might as well have been written in Greek for all the sense he could tease out of it. For that matter, there was a good bit of Greek.
Mystikos. Deimata. Aporrheton. The parts written in English were more alarming, since Ellison thought he should have been able to understand them.
The repetition automatism finds its basis in the insistence of the signifying chain? What was that supposed to mean? And who the hell was René Girard?
He read the first paragraph again. And then a third time, feeling his scalp begin to prickle with heat. What had he been thinking, imagining he could somehow glean enough from a few hours in the library to take on Sandburg? Blair was so casual about it, pretending that anyone, really, might have picked up the knowledge he had, that it was just chance that he happened to know what he did. God, what a time to find out how much he'd underestimated the kid again.
He rubbed his hand over his face, feeling a dull, helpless sense of panic. Sandburg needed him here, he really owed him on this one, and damnit, Ellison, it turns out that unless the problem can be solved with your gun or your fists, you're no use at all.
(Wonder if this is how Blair feels when bullets start to fly?)
He smiled at that and took a few deep breaths, calming down. If Blair could do it, then so could he.
And eventually, he did. He had a crick in his neck and a nerve was throbbing over his right eye by the time he was done, but he got it. The important parts, anyway. The trick seemed to be setting his bewilderment aside while he hacked and fought his way through the entire essay. Eventually things began to fall into place. It turned out the impenetrable theoretical thicket at the beginning of the paper was just typical Sandburg. He'd had another of his great, wholly unorthodox ideas, and in order to get anyone to take it seriously, he constructed that labyrinth of words. Wasn't that Sandburg all over? Razzle dazzle the opposition, then run like hell.
The point of the article – a suggestion about the afterlife beliefs of a Greek mystery cult that had died out two thousand years ago as extrapolated from the practices of a contemporary African religious society – interested Jim not at all. What seemed as though it might prove useful, though, was a detailed aside played out in the footnotes about the cultural use of drugs as a gateway to the numinous.
Jim stopped for the dozenth time, looked up the word in the Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy, shaking his head a little, wondering why you really needed a word to describe the indescribeableness of the direct apprehension of God, then read the last, page-long footnote.
Blair wrote that he'd been fortunate enough to be invited to participate in an iboga ceremony, and participate he had, lying half-paralyzed in a ditch by the fire for twelve hours while the iboga worked its way through his system. And as the final insult, after all that, the ancestor god which the herb was supposed to evoke hadn't even bothered to put in an appearance.
He sounded more like himself in the footnotes. Jim could almost see that self-deprecating grin of his and that 'oops, oh well, maybe I'll have better luck next time' shrug. He focused on that vision to keep from getting angry at Sandburg all over again, this time over something he'd done years before he'd even met Jim.
The drug was administered topically during the course of the ceremony, and Jim had reflexively clamped his knees together at Sandburg's breezy clinical description of the method of application. No wonder he had been so surprised by Jim's rage. It did put a self-administered injection in a western laboratory setting in a whole new light.
No, Jim corrected himself, Blair had been surprised only by the extent of his anger. He'd known all along that Jim would think it was a lousy idea, so he'd lied and run to avoid having to talk about it.
Well, they were going to talk about it now. As soon as Blair got his head turned around straight, anyway. Here was the proof in his own words that, at least once upon a time, Blair had known perfectly well that the right chemicals in your blood would call God down out heaven. Or out of the rock, as the case might be.
He was thinking something else as well that he didn't particularly care to analyze, but out of fairness to Sandburg, he forced himself to look at it. Blair's article mentioned the dangers of iboga, how frequent overdoses were, the possibility of falling into a coma that lasted for days or ended in death. He'd gone through with it anyway, and for what? A final footnote at the end of an obscure article in an even more obscure academic journal.
Constructing that paradigm he'd been talking about last night.
(Go ahead, say it, Ellison.)
Looking for the Truth.
(What's the matter? Surprised to find out you're not the only one willing to put his life on the line in the service of a greater purpose?)
Well, he should have known that all along, shouldn't he? What did he think Sandburg was doing tagging along after him through the gun battles and fist fights – in it just for personal loyalty to one Jim Ellison?
Well, yeah, he supposed he probably had thought that, insofar as he'd stopped to think about it at all, which wasn't very damn much. Simon was right. Loyalty came easy to Jim. He did take it for granted. He'd had years of training in it. Loyalty to his country, his service, his unit, his commander, his oaths, his mission, his department, his partner.
No wonder whenever Blair had dared intimate that his work was important too, Jim had pulled away and refused to listen. Loyalty had very little place in the search for the truth. If Jim had ever admitted that to himself, he would have had to face the possibility of a fiasco like New Hope. A moment when the research became more important than whatever Jim's objections to it might be.
All at once he remembered Blair's anguished plea in the Nashville motel room. His protest that it hadn't been about his career or his research, but about being Jim's partner. Had he really meant that? Or had he just been saying what he thought Jim had wanted to hear? Because if he did mean it, it was a stunning abdication of a life's work. How could Jim accept that kind of responsibility? There were plenty of good soldiers in the world. Probably too many. And only one Blair Sandburg.
But it wasn't up to Jim anymore. Blair had already made his decision.
The bibliography was almost as long as the article itself. Jim read through it with care, ignoring the cramp developing in his calf from sitting for hours in the miserably uncomfortable little wooden chair. He found a dozen references that looked like they might be useful in getting Sandburg to see reason, then set off to track them down. He was dimly aware that the sounds in the library had been changing over the past few hours, but it wasn't until he was standing at the xerox machine, eking out the last few copies on a drained debit card, that he glanced at his watch and realized why. It was three in the morning.
Oh god, where had the time gone? He had no business leaving Sandburg alone for so long. He thought they had nipped that business of moving out in the bud, but the mood Blair was in, you just never knew. He stuffed his copies into a notebook he'd bought for the occasion and flew out of the library, not noticing the startled glance he drew from the sleepy work study student manning the front desk. He started to call en route, but stopped himself. Blair was almost certainly home asleep in bed. And if he weren't, well, then, he wouldn't be there to answer the phone, would he?
But he was. Jim stood in the door of his bedroom looking in on him for a minute. Blair was curled up tight on his side, clutching a pillow hard in his sleep. Practically everything the kid owned in the world was still packed up in cardboard boxes scavenged from a liquor store.
Hang in there, Sandburg, he thought, then went up to bed.
Part 10: Sea Change
Paul said, "You'll have to self-administer this, of course." There was a long pause. Then he said, "That's not a problem, is it? Blair?"
Another long silence. Sandburg didn't even seem to be breathing, and Jim realized he was holding his breath as well. Absurd. This was over and done with days ago. Well, over with at least.
"No," Blair said at last, betrayed by the tremolo in his voice. "I know how to do it."
Despite his experience with iboga (and god only knew what else), he sounded scared to death.
Probably because he knew what was coming.
Simon had snarled and rolled his eyes and chewed the end of his cigar into a disgusting mess, but otherwise raised no protest at Jim's commandeering one of the interview rooms for the morning. He stuck his head in the door later in the day. Jim had his papers from the library spread out across the table. "Simon," he said, grateful for the interruption. The tape recorder was turned way down, but the sound of Blair's slow, exhausted weeping still seemed to fill the room. Simon frowned, and Jim turned off the machine. "Just glad you don't act like that when you're using your senses."
"They haven't kicked in for him yet. He's been sick for hours."
"Jim, what's the point of this? I don't see how this can do either one of you any good."
Jim shook his head, indicating the stacks of papers and the notes he'd been jotting down in a little spiral binder. "No, Simon, actually I think I've really got something here. It probably would have occurred to Sandburg sooner or later, but he just got so caught up in this Sentinel business it's like he can't think straight anymore."
"That's a real surprise," he said dourly. "Just do me a favor and get this worked out ASAP, would you?"
"Yessir. I'll need to drive Sandburg to the doctor this afternoon, and I really want to talk to him about this first. I just want to be sure I'm prepared, you know? This is pretty big. I'm a little worried if I say the wrong thing now, he might never listen to me about it again."
"Right. Whatever. It's a lot to ask, I know, but then if you could clear some time in your busy schedule for police work, I would appreciate it."
"Yeah, Blair, I'm here. Tell me what you're feeling."
Jim had what he needed by this point. He really ought to go talk to Sandburg, make the stubborn kid listen to him and get this over with, but he'd found himself enthralled by Blair's experience.
"I can hear a whippoorwill in the woods somewhere. It's so far away." Blair's voice was soft with exhaustion and wonder. "So clear. Like it's the only sound in the whole universe."
Yes, yes, yes. He'd never been able to explain that to Blair. The intoxication of zoning out. The temptation to just keep going, lose oneself forever in the sensation. (You cheated me, Blair. I should have been there with you.)
He shook his head, astonished that such a thought could even have crossed his mind. He couldn't help it, though. It was the truth. Here had been a chance to share the things that sometimes made him feel so isolated he might as well be the only man on the planet, and he hadn't even known.
He stopped the tape, popped it out, put the last one in the machine and fast-forwarded to the end.
Blair was sitting on the couch watching television. No books were open on his lap or stacked up on the coffee table. His glasses were nowhere in evidence, nor was his laptop. No notebooks. No papers. Just watching TV in the middle of the day.
"Jim. Hey man. You're early, aren't you?"
"How you feeling?"
He shrugged. "Fine."
"What are you watching?"
He almost smiled. "It's 'Santo Contra las Mujeres.' Did you know the Spanish language station runs Mexican wrestling movies after the soaps on weekday afternoons?"
"Guess I didn't know that. Look, you mind turning off the set for a few minutes? We need to talk."
"Ah, Jim." He looked away. "I'm tired of talking, really. Besides, I've been waiting half an hour for Santo to finally put in an appearance."
He picked up the remote and clicked off the TV. "Sorry, Chief. This won't wait."
Blair's jaw tightened. "Jim, have I mentioned that I'm getting pretty damn sick of the way you've been goose stepping through my life recently?"
"I know you don't like it. I'm not having a lot of fun either, if that's any consolation."
"I want to talk to you about the drug you took. The Banisteriopsis extract."
He looked a little startled that Jim even knew the name of it. Good. Then he looked away and said, "Well, I don't feel like talking about it, man. Sorry."
Jim sat down across from him. "You and Paul were right. The sensory enhancement seems real similar to what I experience."
That got his attention. "Have you been talking to Paul?"
"He sent me a copy of the tapes he recorded while you were under the influence. I listened to the highlights this morning at the station."
Blair sat up straight. "Paul sent those to you? Oh man, I don't believe it. He had no right to do something like that."
"Probably not, but he did it anyway. I'll resist the temptation to point out once again just what kind of man you entrusted your life to."
"Please don't start. There can't be any reason to go through it again. I know what you think about all this, but I can't change the past, so can't you just leave it alone?"
"Nope. You started this, Sandburg. Now you've got to live with the consequences. Which include listening to me for a minute."
Blair sighed. "Okay. Fine. I'm listening."
"Good. Now all I've got to go on are the things you say on the tape, and I agree, it doesn't sound like you were hallucinating or out of touch with reality. More like a little too involved in reality. I know what it feels like."
"I guess you would."
"But what you experienced afterwards, while you were in the cave, that was different. It didn't have anything to do with your senses being heightened."
Blair closed his eyes and shook his head. "Please, I know what you're trying to do here, and I'm really just not in the mood."
"You've got to trust me on this. You had Sentinel abilities for maybe twenty-four hours. I've been living with them day in and day out for years, so maybe, just maybe I know what I'm talking about, all right?"
Blair gave a quick, skeptical nod.
"Listen to me. Even in the very deepest zone out, I never had the faintest sense of the numinous. It was more like I was too connected to the world of real things, if you know what I mean."
He could already see Blair formulating his objection, but then he seemed to really hear what Jim was saying. His eyes widened with wonder. It felt like years since Jim had seen that expression on the kid's face, and it did his heart good. "Jim. Jim, did you just say 'numinous'?"
"Uh, yeah," he answered, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious. "Why? Am I not using it right?"
Blair was staring like he'd never seen him before. "No, man," he said with a grin. "No, you got it right." Then the smile slipped away. "But I know what I saw. What I felt. It was absolutely real. Maybe you just never – I don't know – maybe you never looked that hard or something."
"No, Blair, it wasn't real. You were hallucinating."
"No! No, man, I wasn't. You said it yourself. The drug wasn't making me see things that weren't there. For the first time I was seeing what really was there."
"So it wasn't the drug. But think about this for a minute. People hallucinate for other reasons. Being sick or hurt, scared, disoriented, exhausted, isolated – lack of sleep, dehydration, hunger, exposure, shock, any one of those things can trigger hallucinations, can't they?"
Blair was rolling the hem of his t-shirt nervously between his thumb and forefinger. "Yeah. Yeah, they can. That's probably how stories about yeti in the Himalayas got started. Exhausted climbers, suffering oxygen deprivation, seeing things that aren't there. But Jim, that's not what happened to me. I know it wasn't."
"And victims of torture can hallucinate to escape a present that's unendurable for them. Blair, the tape recorder was running throughout the break-in." He hesitated a moment. "I heard the way you screamed."
His face had gone white. "Please, man, I don't want to talk about this."
"You told me how bad you were hurting in the cave. The pain dial didn't work, did it?"
Blair was staring at his feet. "Um, not too good, no," he whispered.
"So what I think happened is you found another way to cope. You survived. But you don't need the illusion that helped you get through it anymore. It's time to let it go."
He drew back. "No. No, wait a minute. It's a nice story, man, but I just can't buy it. Why would my mind come up with something like the Nunnehi? Native American studies aren't my thing. I haven't even thought about Cherokee religion since my old survey classes."
"I saw the road signs when Paul was driving me up to New Hope. I'm sure you did, too. The town of Cherokee, North Carolina was just a hundred miles away, wasn't it?"
"Oh my god." Blair started to shake. "Oh, Jim. Oh my god."
"It's okay. Hang on. It's all right."
"No. No, it's not all right. You're right, Jim, I mean, you must be, but it was so real! You don't know, man. More real than the cushions on the sofa. More real than you are. I was ready to throw everything away. Everything. I just can't believe – Oh, Jim, what am I going to do? How can I trust anything anymore?"
"Blair, visions like the one you had have changed the course of history, uprooted civilizations, formed the basis of entire cultures. Think of Socrates, Joan of Arc, Saul of Tarsus, St. Theresa, the Huichol, the Bwiti—" That exhausted the stock of Jim's carefully memorized examples, so he broke off and grinned at Blair. "So you really are an arrogant bastard if you think you can set it aside and get on with your life like nothing ever happened. But I just think you should ask yourself how likely it is that the Cherokee Immortals emerged from the great beyond simply to tell one Blair Sandburg to drop out of grad school. Just seems to me like they'd have better things to do."
Blair gave a quick, miserable smile. Then he got up off the couch and walked away. He opened the refrigerator and closed it again without getting anything out. He paced to his bedroom and backed right back out again, obviously finding no comfort among the stacked boxes and bare walls. He flopped down on the couch and clicked on that ridiculous movie and stared at the screen with unseeing eyes. After a few minutes he seemed to realize what he'd done and glanced at Jim as though he expected to be scolded.
"We need to be at the doctor's office in forty-five minutes. The way crosstown traffic is, we probably better go ahead and leave pretty soon. Will you be ready in ten minutes, you think?"
"Yeah. Sure. I guess." He clicked the TV off and on again. Then he finally seemed to find something to focus on. He sat up and looked at Jim. "What do you know about the Bwiti anyway?"
"Just what I've read. Their contact with the spirit world through the ritual consumption of iboga helped them maintain their cultural identity in the face of European imperialism, right?"
Blair's eyes were round as saucers. "You read my essay. I don't believe it. Jim! You read my essay, didn't you? Oh man!" He pushed his hair out of his face. "Oh man, I'm so embarrassed. What a song and dance that was! Using an African religious cult to talk about the Eleusian Mysteries. Very uncool. I was sure I'd get blown out of the water on that one. I couldn't believe I even got it published—" He seemed to remember who he was talking to then and stopped, but he was grinning from ear to ear. "So what did you think man?"
"What did I think? I think I don't need to worry so much about you publishing your Sentinel research one day. Nobody's going to know what the hell you're talking about."
Epilogue: Seven Pairs of White Socks
Blair was cranky and out of sorts the evening after his surgery. That quack Jim had sent him to had operated on his hand, so why did every muscle in his body feel so bruised and pummeled? His throat was sore, his head ached, and his humor was hardly improved by the prospect of a second operation at the end of the summer, depending on how things healed up, and months of physical therapy after that in any case. In fact, it would pretty much be safe to say he hated the whole world right now, and if Jim didn't stop hovering over him and just leave him the hell alone, somebody was gonna get hurt. Probably himself, since he lacked the ability to inflict pain on anybody else right now. He'd retreated to his bedroom and shut the doors, but Jim didn't take the hint, per usual. He knocked and then stuck his head in without waiting for Blair to answer him. "This is yours," he said. He was holding a padded mailing envelope. "I'll just leave it on the dresser here, okay?"
"What is it?"
"The tapes Paul sent me."
"Oh." Oh, man.
"I'd been saving this until you were feeling better, but I think it's time we had a talk."
Oh great. Like he was in the mood for this now. "Can't it wait? I'm really tired."
Jim looked at the books scattered open on the bed around him, the file folders, the laptop (he was getting pretty good at typing one-handed, but it was just so slow. Probably needed to start dictating everything on his little voice recorder, but he hated the thought of hours of notes hidden and invisible on tape. Maybe he could pay somebody to transcribe them for him. Right. Why didn't he just hire a full time secretary while he was at it?).
"If you're so tired," Jim was saying, "then you should go to bed."
"Yeah, I think I will."
Jim didn't leave. "I found something after you had already left for Nashville. With everything that happened, I just haven't had time to mention it before now."
Blair realized then that Jim had something else in his hand. He passed it over to Blair, who took it cautiously. It was one sock. One thick cotton sock. One very, very pink sock. Oops.
"You know, there's a purpose for the two laundry hampers, Sandburg. And all it takes is one red bandanna in the wrong hamper to defeat that purpose."
"Oh, man, I'm really sorry. Uh, did you try bleach?"
"Want to know what else was in that load of laundry, Sandburg? Seven pair of briefs, all my white t-shirts, and seven pairs of formerly white socks."
Just like Ellison to have counted them. "I'm sorry man. I'll pay you back. Just put it on my tab, I guess."
Jim sat down on the edge of the bed. "You know, if this is going to work, we've got to be clear about the ground rules."
Blair thought he was still talking about laundry, and wondered why he was bothering at this point. And it pissed him off, to be perfectly honest about it. The only way he was getting through this at all was by not allowing himself to think about the future. He was still dependent on Jim right now – heck, he wouldn't even be able to drive the Corvair for months – but this was a temporary arrangement. If Jim needed to satisfy some mistaken notion of responsibility by looking out for him for a while longer, well, Blair had learned to his cost that it was much easier just to go along with it. But god, pretending like nothing had ever happened … not now. Not tonight. He was tired and sore and way too emotional. If Jim didn't knock it off he was liable to start bawling again.
"Are you listening to me, Blair?"
Nope, he sure hadn't been. "I'm sorry. What?"
"I said, I should have been there. You sold me short, Chief."
A chill went up his spine. "Jim?"
Jim nodded towards the dresser where he'd left the tapes. "We'll need to go through them when you're up to it. But it won't be the same. You blew it, Sandburg. That was sloppy research. Bad science."
His head was spinning. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "But Jim, you never would have gone along with this. Not in a million years."
"If it was that important, then you should have found a way."
Blair squeezed his eyes shut. "Please be careful here, man, because if I'm not hearing you right, I don't think I'll be able to stand it."
"It's not complicated. I just want to know I'm at least as important as one of your footnotes, okay, Chief? I don't think that's asking too much."
Oh damnit to hell. Here he was crying again after all.
He felt Jim's hand on his shoulder. "I said, okay, Chief?"
He opened his eyes cautiously. It must have been his imagination, but Jim's eyes looked a little red too. "Okay, man," he whispered.
He stood up. "Good. I'll replace the t-shirts and the underwear, but you're paying for the socks, got it?"
"Yeah. I got it."
"Then go to bed, Sandburg. It's been a long day."
Drop me a line?