|It's one of those days I hate. Not the day itself but the
day. The weather is a reasonably comfortable 60ish so Sandburg
isn't freezing himself into a curly-topped popcicle waiting for me, with
the sun peeking in and out of fluffy clouds. No, it's the place; one of
Cascade's numerous cemeteries. We were here to honor a fallen brother;
that alone was depressing enough.
After the ceremony, Sandburg and I paid our respects, made plans with Simon and the guys for later and wandered slowly back toward the truck. On the way through the headstones, a name caught my eye. Gellner I slowed and came to a stop, swamped by memories attached to the name. It took Sandburg a moment to realize that I wasn't there anymore and I was vaguely aware of his returning to my side.
I looked down to the confused/concerned expression on his face. I blinked, feeling my mouth open and close a couple of times before I could form words, "I just need a minute here, Chief."
He blinked back at me, an astonished look coming over him. "What? You need...? Jim, are you ok?" My continued silence must have answered his questions so he nodded to himself as he said, "Yeah, man. Sure. Whatever you need. I'll just wait..." He waved his hand off to the side somewhere.
"You don't have to, Chief."
"No. Hey, it's fine. Take some time. I'm good." And he faded off to the side.
So here I am, contemplating another tombstone. Matt Gellner was a friend or at the very least a comrade in arms. We'd had a couple of missions together before Peru. The missions themselves were successful; and in the downtime, we hung out. Went to a couple bars off duty, hit a few poker games; he was a good guy, a competent soldier. I looked him up a couple of months after they got me out of Peru, after all the debriefing, as I was waiting for my discharge. Imagine my surprise, horror and disgust to find that he'd been dead for most of that year.
The official record said training exercise but seemed to read a classified mission gone wrong. Before my clearance was disabled, I managed to look up some of the details. Gellner was caught in enemy fire, pinned and by the time rescue got there, it was too late for him and the two other guys with him. Another case of bad intell. That section of countryside was supposed to have been patrolled a lot less actively than it turned out to be. Another mission signed off on by Col. Oliver. It just added fuel to my fire to get out and an added sense of vindication when I finally took him down since that was certainly included in the "do not mention ever" clause of my papers.
I shift my weight and stuff my hands into my jacket pockets. We had talked about our careers and we'd both planned to be in it for the long haul. Peru was the final straw for me. I talked to Barry Smith after I found out what happened to Matt Gellner, Smith had done some work with both of us and we had drinks to remember my team and Matt. Barry told me that when I went MIA in Peru, Matt decided to get out when his term was up. Granted, he'd had another two and a half years but that's a big decision for a former go-the-distance guy.
My team for Peru. That's a big polluted waterfall, a stinking morass, as Sandburg would say. Good for a multitude of nightmares throughout the years, the occasional sneak attack of memory flashes and a good guilt trip when I'm already feeling down. I run a hand over my hair and take a deep breath to try and keep ahold of things.
They were a really great group of guys. We'd trained together for it for three weeks, taking jungle survival courses, local language immersions and mission briefings. We had to come to know and if not like, at least respect or have confidence in each other. We'd managed with extraordinary success. I thought it was the most cohesive team I'd ever been a part of up to that point.
And the best until Major Crime - or I should say until Sandburg made me a part of Major Crime. I can admit it to myself; in the stillness, staring at this headstone, with his quiet breathing just over there, that he's been good for me. Brought me back from where I'd been drifting after Carolyn and Jack. It almost makes his help with the senses secondary.
Anyway, Ben Sarris was one of the last to die, though he hardly knew it. Three good men were already dead when I returned to the land of the aware in a screaming red haze of pain. I had a dislocated shoulder, a concussion, a broken wrist, cracked ribs, sprains to one knee and both ankles and I was covered in scratches and bruises. I dragged myself over to the first aid kit, strapped up my wrist and covered what cuts I could reach. I also took the time to slam my shoulder back into place. It was a good 45 minutes after I first opened my eyes until I was in any shape to help the rest of my team. I've always wondered if I'd tried to do more before treating my own injuries, if someone other than myself would have lived. The doctors, after going over what I could recall, told me I'd done the right thing, getting myself in the best shape possible to help the others but I still wonder.
Jones never woke up and bled out about fifteen minutes after I got him comfortable; Ben and Harry Stevens both survived `til nightfall when fevers and internal bleeding took them both within an hour of each other. None of them ever truly regained consciousness, though I think Ben was aware of me. I spent the next day off and on digging through the jungle loam to bury them, struggling with a foldable shovel from the survival kits in the wreckage and crying. It was the first and only time since childhood that I'd cried. The transmitter was toast; I think it was toast before we even took off. And it was another day and a half before the Chopec decided I was safe enough and helpless enough to rescue. Those are the last of my truly clear memories for quiet some time - though I remember more of the end of my term as Sentinel there than I let either the army shrinks or Sandburg know.
I shake my head sharply to free myself of their ghosts for the moment. I hear Sandburg's breath catch but I just hunch my shoulders and run a hand over my hair. I've lost so many people from that time of my life. My circle of friends mostly now consists of fellow officers and a couple of resilient high school buds who've stuck with me. Nearly half of my covert ops contemporaries are gone now and I don't mean gone back to civilian life.
The two women I wanted most from back then are gone as well.
Lila and Veronica. I'd wanted them both desperately. Lila with her exotic eyes and accent in exotic Bali and Veronica was the girl next door with her sweet laugh and her sweet personality. At least I thought it was sweet at the time.
Two more faces responsible for nightmares. I wonder sometimes how many of these dreams are obvious to Sandburg. He sleeps with as much enthusiasm as he does everything else; it's those late nights up working when he'd be most likely to hear me. And so many of my bad dreams recently revolve around him. Falling elevators and gun toting nutcases and dental chairs... the list goes on. Though he's only ever had to wake me from a few. Far less than I remember actually having.
Veronica. Though she died last, I actually met her first. I should have known better than to get my hopes up again. Seeing her with Alan right before Peru warned me off and I should have held to that. Instead, I let myself get involved. Let her woo me again and it was definitely she who was doing the wooing. I'm glad now that I instinctively held back, just another betrayal to add to my list.
And Lila... Lila simply confused me. With her on-again, off-again actions and our pleasant separation in Bali, I had no reason to believe that she was anything more than an old fling that was unhappy with her fiancé, at first. Her death actually hit me harder than Veronica's because she was trying to change, or at least trying to save me. She came from the streets and had no real way out of her assassin's lifestyle, while Veronica came from privilege and only wanted more power and money because she "deserved" it.
All of those things made her death more personal, made me much more affected by Lila's death, not the least of which was that she died in my arms. I can say that in retrospect, I was glad that my senses weren't focused on her as she died. That only happened once and I had trouble with them for days afterwards. It was a strange week after that happened; I hovered about my friends, especially Sandburg, and generally made a nuisance of myself, he understood, eventually, and I am not ever going to apologize for it.
I raise a hand to my eyes and surreptitiously pinch away the tiniest bit of telltale moisture. I'm ready to go now, I've managed to depress myself further, which I didn't think was possible, but I can't make myself move. Something in my stance must have changed though, for moments later he's by my side, just standing quietly. I lay my hand on his shoulder, feeling the solid heat of him, the warm smoothness of his black leather jacket, a tickle of wayward curls from his ponytail and just a touch of life as my fingertips don't quite reach the skin of the back of his neck.
"You ready to go, Jim?"
"Yeah, Chief, I am. Thanks for waiting."
"Sure. Is there anything...?" He turns just his head to look at me and my fingertips make contact.
"Nope. I'm good. It's better now. Let's go home and get changed, we've got plans over at Simon's tonight." I give him a small grin.
"Cool." We head off toward the truck again, "I've got this new beer I found that I want to... inflict on the guys."
I chuckle, snort and give him a shove to his side of the doors and I decide it's shaping up to be a decent day after all
These days suck. No matter how you look at it, a day where you have to attend a funeral is a sucky day. Today it's for a fellow officer, but it seems that today isn't just for remembering the recently fallen. Jim's eye caught a name on a tombstone as we walked between the rows. He's been standing there for a little while just looking, and I'm assuming, remembering.
I find myself wondering what it would be like to walk through a cemetery and see people you know. I've been extremely lucky to be one of the few people that can say they've buried almost no one close to them. I have little family, just Naomi and she's still alive. Just about all of my close friends are still living; no `loves of my life' have died, no best friends taken before their time. Roy was the closest I've come to losing someone important and close to me, and his death hit me hard. Hard enough to send me off in a rage, but I don't think even that comes anywhere close to what's happened in Jim's life.
I now wonder if this is a good thing. Is it better to live a life, semi-detached from those around you, or deeply integrated with another person? Before I met Jim I had friends, even close friends, but we all had separate lives, different majors, goals, ideas. When we got together we would catch each other up with what had been happening in our lives, but it didn't go deeper than a mostly shallow glance, shared stories over mugs of beer in smoky air.
Have I missed out on a different kind of life? Has keeping myself detached from intimate relationships robbed me of something I never knew I was missing? Did I put my Holy Grail and doctorate ahead of things more important?
Jim shoulders a lot of memories mixed with some guilt over people who were close to him and remembering their past together and their deaths. I shake my head as I realize I used to have problems recalling the name of the women I was dating, let alone someone's favorite coffee flavor or what they sounded like when they laughed.
Ask anyone at the station and they will tell you I'm a `people-person', and I am. I'm great with people. I can charm a checkout girl, fool a criminal, offer sympathy to victims. What do I give of myself though? Empathy I suppose, compassion. Is that enough?
I lend my ear for listening, my knowledge toward cases, and I'm there helping, but of my personal self – what makes me... me. Do I offer that to anyone? Is it wrong for me to just glide through life with miles and miles of acquaintances? It didn't seem wrong this morning, but now with Jim just over there. He's so different than me. Yes, he's standoff-ish to most people and yeah he doesn't let many into his personal life, but yet he can stroll in a cemetery and remember someone that touched his life deep enough to make him stop and remember.
Jim jerks his head as if he's trying to clear his mind and I see the tears glistening in his eyes and my breath catches. I want to go to him, to let him know he's not alone – but I don't. I know he didn't send me away, something he probably would have done a few years ago, but this is private. I felt I should give him some space. Then I grin as I realize the distance between us is maybe ten feet.
Maybe I have nothing to worry about. Jim knows me. Knows my favorite coffee, color, what I sound like when I laugh. I know him, the foods he hates, the way he snores when he falls asleep on the couch. I know I'm the first thing he looks for in a crowd and he's the one I lean on. I've never had that before, that kind of security in a friendship. I was always afraid the person was going to walk away when they'd heard enough from me, or finished their studies. There always seemed to be something threatening the length of time I was with someone, whether that someone was a romantic interest or just a friend.
With Jim it's different... or maybe I just want it to be different. I can't imagine my life without Jim, he just plays such a prominent figure that his absence is something I can't contemplate. My dissertation though is like a ticking bomb that I'm studiously trying to ignore. What happens when it's finished? Do we separate and say, `hey it was good while it lasted' or do I find a way to stay? Without hesitation I know I want to stay; the `how' is unknown but together Jim and I can figure it out.
I see Jim's body relax; his shoulders aren't as straight and rigid so I slowly make my way over to him. He'll let me know when he's ready to leave, to move on, but in the meantime I'll be there for him. I'll continue to be the one he looks for and he'll continue to be the one I let see me, because I've realized that I don't need a long list of intimate and personal friends to reap the rewards of close relationships. I've found my best friend in Jim, and that's all I need.