Strange Bedfellows - Part 3
Jim awoke to the first rays of sunlight streaming through the living room window. He threw an arm irritably over his eyes to block the glare. Darn that gap between the drapes!
He tried to fall back to sleep, but a nagging burden of responsibility plagued him.
I wonder how it feels to just wake up, carefree, without the weight of the world settling on your shoulders.
He walked into the bathroom and splashed water on his face to clear the cobwebs. A glance in the mirror made him wince, and he quickly ran wet fingers through his hair. I hate bed head.
He ran his tongue over his teeth. I'd give anything to be able to brush right now. He walked to the bathroom door and peered out at his bedroom door. I wonder how late she'll sleep. I wonder if I dare...no, I'd better not.
Jim felt vaguely unsettled. Without his usual morning routine to follow, he didn't know what to do with himself. I can't shower, I can't change, I can't brush my teeth until she wakes up. He felt a flash of irritation again. It's like being a guest in my own home.
Jimmy's door opened, interrupting Jim's frustrated thoughts.
Ah, something to look forward to. Jim loved the way Jimmy usually woke up, all bright-eyed and excited about the brand-new day.
"Good morning, son." Jim kept his voice soft.
Jimmy walked out of his room, but without his usual exuberance.
"Is she sleepin'?"
"Yeah, she is. What do you want for breakfast?"
Jimmy shrugged. "I dunno."
"Well, how about I make pancakes?" That should cheer him up.
Jimmy shrugged again, a new habit that was beginning to grate on Jim's nerves. "Okay, I guess."
So much for Mister Sunshine.
Jim walked out to the kitchen feeling utterly depressed. He dug out the familiar ingredients and mixed them together by rote. Making pancakes had always been a special treat; something he did when he wanted to surprise Jean with breakfast in bed.
I don't suppose I should bring her breakfast in bed today. Might scare her if I walked in. He heard the resentment in his inner voice, and it worried him.
What's wrong with me?
"Jimmy, do you want big pancakes or silver dollar ones?"
"I don't care." Jimmy's apathy worried Jim as well.
He poured the batter into the frying pan with a practiced hand. Might as well make the bigger ones. It's less work.
Jean rolled over for one more look at the clock. No point in putting this off any longer.
She sat up, grimacing as she caught sight of herself in the mirror. I look like a bald woman who didn't sleep all night.
That's exactly what I am.
Jean sighed and got up. I'd better make myself presentable. She went through the motions of putting on her modest bathrobe and covering her head with a scarf, all the while wondering why she bothered.
I'm so tired. Her fatigue seemed to sink right through her body and into her spirits.
How am I going to face this day?
A sound from the hallway made Jim's stomach lurch. She's coming out.
Padded footfalls approached, and in a moment she stood beside him. Not too close beside him.
Where's that connection I used to feel with her?
Jim tried to pretend to be happy to see her. "Good morning. How are you feeling?" He dredged up a smile, but he knew it wouldn't fool her.
"Oh, okay." She fiddled with her bathrobe as if she felt nervous.
"Daddy, I'm not hungry any more. Can I go over to Frankie's?" Jimmy pointedly ignored his mother.
"It's too early to go to anyone's house, Jimmy. And I expect you to eat your breakfast." Jim knew his tone sounded angry, and he didn't want it to. But his emotions seemed to have grabbed a hold of him and taken off running, dragging him helplessly behind.
"I don't have to sit at the table with her, do I?"
"Jimmy!" Jim yelled. He slammed down the spatula and spun to face his son. "You will not treat your mother this way! Now you apologize to her right now!"
"NO!" Jimmy yelled back. He ran from the table, slid open the glass door and escaped into the back yard, leaving the door standing open behind him.
Jim slid the pan off the burner and switched it off. He planted his palms firmly on the countertop, closed his eyes, and forced himself to breathe deeply. Right now he knew nothing but anger, and he didn't dare move until he'd calmed down.
This isn't really helping.
His jaw muscles ached from the tension they held, and the pain began to radiate back into his temples and his neck. Words that he didn't normally allow into his vocabulary now begged to be shouted at full voice.
What's wrong with me? This is way out of line. What is going on?
Jim opened his eyes again, hoping to find something constructive that he could do. The cool, damp morning air pouring in the back door gave him his first mental handhold.
Go close the door. That will help. Just go close the door.
He made his way over to the door and pulled it shut, then stared through the glass for a time, watching Jimmy sitting listlessly on the swing.
I ought to go say something to him.
He turned away. Not yet.
Something's not right. Jim stood looking at the place where Jean had been. Where'd she go?
Fear rose in his gut. "Jean?" He called out, but heard no response. He started a rapid, methodic search of the house, battling down the sick feeling that he had just entered his horrible dream. Jimmy really is that awful, hateful child. And I can't find Jean.
Even when she's standing in front of me, I still can't really find her.
"Jean?" He threw his bedroom door open, giving no thought to her privacy right now. No sign of her. He ran into the master bath, almost afraid of what he might find there. Don't harm yourself. Please don't. He'd been in too many bathrooms where distraught people had done themselves in. But his own bathroom yielded no clues about his wife.
"Jean?" He ran back to the hall and threw open the door to the other bathroom. Nothing. His heart pounded. "Jean?"
A muffled sound caught his ear. Quiet, secretive sobbing. Jean.
His ears led him to the last place he'd expected to find her. Jimmy's room. He held back, no longer driven on by the fear that she'd disappeared again. Instead he turned the doorknob softly, and opened the door only enough to stick his head in and look around.
Jean. Jim could hear her plainly now, though he couldn't see her. He opened the door further and let himself in, following the heartbreaking sound around to the far side of Jimmy's bed.
The sight of her melted his heart. She lay on the floor in a fetal position, curled around Yellow Dog. She clung to the little toy as if he were her only connection to her son. And she sobbed.
"Jean, honey, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry." He sat down beside her and drew her up into his arms. "I'm so sorry."
She laid her head against the left side of his chest and poured out her heart in tears. He gently stroked her arm and her back, wishing fervently that he could stroke her hair. After a moment he placed a soft kiss on the scarf that covered her head.
He hated to feel her pain, but at that moment he felt a profound sense of relief. She's finally where she belongs. She's finally in my arms again. Holding her felt so wonderful that he felt almost guilty about it. She's heartbroken, and I'm feeling good about this?
After a few more minutes, and more gentle stroking, he realized that everything had changed the moment he'd missed her in the kitchen. I began to think I'd lost her again, and suddenly nothing mattered but finding her and being with her. I didn't care about where I'd had to sleep, or my morning routine, or anything. I just wanted her.
That's what will see us through.
Her sobs diminished, but she still trembled in his arms.
A new thought broke through with troubling implications. What will make it worthwhile for her? Why would she stay with strangers, when one of them treats her so badly?
He kissed the top of her scarf-covered head again. Please don't go. It's awful when you're not here.
"Honey, it's going to be all right. This is hard for all of us right now. But it will get better. I promise you." Jim felt pretty safe making that promise. After all, he couldn't imagine it getting much worse.
Jean finally spoke, her voice a fragile whisper. She still would not look at him.
"I don't belong here."
The words struck Jim like a fist in his gut. They stole his breath away and left him reeling, dizzy with fear. He closed his eyes as he swallowed the metallic taste of panic.
The terrifying whispering continued. "I've tried so hard to feel connected with him. But he won't let me near him. He won't let me touch him. He won't let me even try."
Jean wiped at her nose, keeping her head low.
"And you...you had to sleep on the couch. It made you mad. I know it did."
"No, honey. I told you. I was just tired and irritable." Jim inwardly cursed himself for his lapse.
Jean straightened up, pulling away from his embrace but keeping her gaze averted. "No, you're just being kind when you say that. You know it as well as I do. I don't belong here. This was her house. It isn't mine."
No! Jim longed to draw her back to himself, but he didn't dare try. Tears stung at his eyes. God, don't do this to us. She left us once because she was confused. Don't let her leave us again because she hates it here!
"Jean..." He reached out and gently lifted her face. "Please don't ever say that. The doctor warned us this would be hard, but he also told us we had what it takes. I believe that. I know that! Jean...." He took her hand in his and placed it on his cheek, as she had done in the ambulance that first night. Everything in him pled with her. "Don't you remember? Don't you remember the connection, the love? Not from before you got sick, but since then. You've felt it. You know you have." He reached out to touch her cheek again.
Her face wore an expression he couldn't begin to fathom.
"Baby, please!" He averted his face for a moment as he struggled with his emotions. "Please don't give up on us yet!"
Jean hardly knew what to think, much less what to do. Her own emotions nearly overwhelmed her. Jimmy's emotions shoved her violently away. And now Jim's emotions begged her to stay.
Jean knew instinctively that the raw emotions she saw in her husband were genuine. She could feel the enormous effort he was pouring into holding himself together. She saw the love and the fear in his eyes.
She gently drew her hand away from his face and closed her eyes. Right now she had no escape other than the solitude of her own mind, so she hid there for long moments, trying to coax some sanity out of the madness all around her.
Finally she found the courage to venture out again. She opened her eyes, but kept them focused on his chest. His face held more feeling than she could bear right now.
"I...I didn't know it would be this hard."
"I didn't either."
The honesty of Jim's response emboldened her, and she looked up into his eyes.
"But, honey," he continued, "think about all that we've been through in the last little while. It's astonishing. Anybody would feel overwhelmed right now. We just need time."
Jean nodded mutely. After a few moments she hesitantly leaned back against his chest.
He sighed deeply and wrapped his arms tenderly around her. His cheek nuzzled against the top of her head.
It feels so good to be here, in his arms like this.
I almost wish it didn't. Then I could just leave.
Despite her misgivings, Jean began to relax into the warmth of his embrace. I do feel safe here.
"Go away!" The angry voice made her jump, and she felt Jim flinch as well.
"This is my bedroom. I don't want you in here! Go away!" Jimmy stood glaring defiantly at her, his clenched hands resting angrily on his hips.
Jean felt frightened, and started to scramble to her feet. Jim grasped her hand and quickly stood as well.
"No, Jean. Don't let him bully you. You have every right to be here."
Jimmy ran past them and jumped onto his bed. He bent down and scooped Yellow Dog up. "You didn't touch him, did you?"
"Jimmy," Jim interrupted, protecting her from having to answer that one. "We need to talk about some things."
"I'll talk to you, but I won't talk to her."
"You'll talk to both of us!" Jim's tone left no room for argument.
Jean felt relieved by her husband's strong defense, but his anger worried her.
"Jimmy, your mother just wanted to be friends with you. You were not nice to her, and that made her so sad. She came in here to at least be close to your things. And she was so sad that she cried. All because you're being so mean to her."
Jimmy looked down, but his expression did not soften.
"Jimmy, I love you. I love your Mom, too. And I will not let you be cruel to her, any more than I would let her be cruel to you."
Jim squatted down by the little bed, placing himself in his son's line of vision.
"Look at your mother."
Jimmy shook his head 'no' and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Look at her!"
Jimmy pretended not to hear.
Jim rose to his feet and gave Jean an exasperated look.
"Jimmy, I don't have to protect you from your mother. She doesn't want to hurt you. She wants to get to know you again. But I have to protect her from you, because you're being so cruel. Look at me, son."
This time Jimmy complied.
"You're not going to be mean to your mother. I won't allow it. Do you understand me?"
Jimmy just stared.
Jim turned to Jean with an eloquent expression.
He's not used to seeing Jimmy behave like this. That's good news, I guess. I'd hate to think he was always this way.
"Jimmy, I want you to say 'I'm sorry' to your mom."
The little boy clenched his fists and his jaw. He said nothing.
Jim looked at Jean again.
This is miserable. I hate being the cause of all this.
"When you're ready to apologize to your mother, you may come out of your room. Don't come out until then."
Jim beckoned Jean with a gesture, and the two of them walked out of Jimmy's room. Jim closed the door behind them.
"Why are you on her side?" Jimmy shouted angrily through the door.
Jim sighed and leaned back against the wall. "What's going on with him? I've never seen him like this."
I don't approve of how he handled this, but I'm not about to come out and say it.
"He's just as overwhelmed as we are, and he doesn't have the resources to deal with it as well." Jean answered softly, unsure of how her husband would react to her opinion, especially the gentle remonstrance in her tone.
Jim turned to look at her, and she saw no anger in his face.
"Yeah, I guess you're right. I just don't have any idea how to deal with this, Jean. I can't just sit by and watch him bully you and mistreat you." Jim shook his head. "I can't do that."
"I don't know what to do about that, either. But I do know that he needs a lot of love right now, just like we do."
Jim sighed again, and turned to walk toward the living room. Jean followed.
"I'm sure you're right. Maybe after we've both had a chance to calm down, I'll go back in and talk to him." Jim turned and looked down at Jean. "Or maybe you should."
Jean felt a little shiver of fear at the thought. "Maybe," she replied dubiously.
"Well, not 'til you're ready." Jim walked out to the kitchen and called back, "Are you in the mood for cold pancakes?
"No, I'm not very hungry right now."
"Me neither." Jim put the pancakes on a plate and reached for some plastic wrap to cover them. "I'll put these in the fridge for later, in case Jimmy decides he wants them."
"If he ever gets to come out of his room." Jean hoped she hadn't stepped over the line with that one. How am I supposed to know how to talk to him about this?
"You think I did the wrong thing, don't you?" Jim's question was blunt, but Jean still could sense no anger toward her.
"It's hard to know what's wrong, when you don't know what's right. I don't know what to do with Jimmy. But I know you can't force someone to feel a certain way. If he feels like you're pushing him toward me, he'll push harder away."
"I'm not trying to force him to feel. I'm only trying to stop him from treating you so badly." Jim sat down on the couch, and Jean chose the recliner. Now that her emotions weren't running so high, she felt the need to re-establish some physical distance between them.
"Maybe you could explain that to him next time you talk to him. That might make things easier."
"Maybe you're right." Jim smiled at her. "It's good to talk to you like this. It's just like old times."
It is? Jean felt surprised. I thought I didn't know how to talk to him. But maybe I'm talking this way because some part of me does know how.
She couldn't think of anything to say, so she only smiled a little at him.
The phone jangled.
Jim picked it up. "Reeds'"
Jean watched as Jim nodded and made one-word responses. It's as if he doesn't want me to know what he's talking about. For some reason, Jean couldn't bear the thought that he might keep things from her. Mysteries felt too threatening.
Jim's face looked pained when he hung up.
"Who was that?" Jean tried not to let on how badly she wanted to know.
"It was Sergeant MacDonald." Jim volunteered nothing more than that.
"Do you have to go back in to work?" she prompted.
"Yeah, but I already knew about that. I just have to answer a few more questions...about that shooting I was involved in. Anyway, that's not why he called."
"Oh?" she hinted, when she realized he was through.
Jim assumed an expression of displeasure. "He just wanted to warn me about...about tomorrow's newspaper."
"What about it?" Man, this is like pulling teeth!
"Well, some of the relatives of the shooters have gone to the papers. They're calling us all sorts of crazy things, like murderers and stuff. Of course, the paper is siding with them." Jim tried to sound unconcerned, but his jaw muscles gave him away. "Mac just wanted me to know before I saw it myself."
Jean felt strange inside. How do I really know that he's a good cop? How do I know that he's right, and the relatives are wrong?
She shuddered a little, but then chided herself. You've seen what kind of man he is. You know how you trusted the police uniform when you saw it. He must be right.
She hoped her doubts would listen to her.
Jim stood up, clearly more agitated than he wanted her to know. "Mac also told me that the Shooting Review Board will be presenting its findings and conclusions tomorrow. I will have to go in for that, too" He ran a troubled hand through his hair.
The phone rang again, and Jim snatched it up.
"Reeds'." A pause. "Yeah, yeah, he just called me. Great, isn't it?" A mildly sarcastic tone belied his words.
A longer pause. "No, we're okay. Don't worry about us." Another pause. "Sure I'm sure!" His voice sounded almost angry at the caller, whoever it was. "All right. Bye."
He hung up the phone and walked out of the room. "I need some fresh air."
Jean closed her eyes and sighed deeply as she heard the sliding door close behind him. First Jimmy hides in the back yard, and now Jim.
Where can I go to hide?
Jim stood out in the sunshine, gulping in deep breaths of air and trying to ease the anxious tightness in his chest.
Why now? Of all times, why now? Don't I have enough to deal with?
Jim didn't know whether he was just complaining to himself or praying. Frankly, he didn't care.
Pete always told him not to let these things eat at him. I wish that were possible.
I shouldn't have snapped at him on the phone like that. But if anyone would understand, he will. I'll apologize to him this afternoon.
Jim wasn't too worried about the SRB. The accounts that he and the other officers had given of the shooting had clearly been within policy. So far, he'd sensed no ugly undercurrents from the brass that had interviewed him. Jim had heard several neighborhood witnesses talking to officers at the scene, and their stories had backed up the officers' version of events. That, combined with the exemplary records of the officers involved would almost surely erase any official doubt as to the appropriateness of their actions.
Jim scuffed at the grass with his toe. It wasn't the official doubt that bothered him. I know the looks I'll get and the comments I'll hear for days or weeks to come. I won't be able to pull anyone over or answer anyone's call without seeing it on their faces. I'm one of the bad guys. One of the murderers. He kicked hard at the swingset, seething at the unfairness of it all.
This stupid, worthless grass needs to be cut. He stomped into the utility shed and hauled out the mower. It might actually feel good to mow things down right about now.
Jean tried to distract herself by looking through the house more thoroughly. She looked through a bookshelf and picked out a promising-looking volume. This looks well-read. I must have looked at it before.
She sat down on the recliner and opened the book, but found it hard to focus on the words. In her mind's eye she saw Jimmy, confined to his room and boiling with resentment and fear. She saw Jim, hiding in the back yard and boiling with his own torment.
What on earth am I supposed to do?
She jumped, startled, as a roaring sound commenced in the back yard.
Oh, Jim's mowing. I guess that's a good thing. She walked over to the glass doors and watched him for a few minutes.
He looks so upset.
Jean put the book down on the dining room table and took a few steps toward the hallway.
I've got to talk to Jimmy. Now, while Jim can't hear and intervene. This is something Jimmy and I have to work through together.
She still hesitated, afraid of what might happen. I'm afraid of my own son.
Jean felt a sudden clarity. I have to remember two things. No, three things. I have to remember that he's scared and needs love. I have to remember that he's only a five-year-old boy, and not a horrible monster. And I need to remember that I am his mother, and I have every right to be a part of his home...our home.
Our home. She said it several times until she made herself believe it. At least for the sake of this discussion. Then she stood, squared her shoulders, and walked to Jimmy's bedroom door.
Knock, knock. She rapped softly, and then harder when she got no response. I don't even know what I'm going to say!
Still no response. Jean didn't quite know why, but she opened the door and walked in uninvited. She braced herself for his angry shout, but she heard nothing.
Jimmy held Yellow Dog and a toy truck, which he appeared to have been driving toward each other. He loves to crash things into each other.
Jean felt a rush of joy and confidence at the memory.
Jimmy held his toys at arms' length on the bed, and just stared at his mother.
"You like crashing things into each other. I remember that about you."
Jean took a gamble and sat down on the foot of Jimmy's bed. Her son responded by drawing his knees up, maximizing the space between them. He continued to stare at her wordlessly.
Jean took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Do you know what else I remember about you?"
"I remember seeing you and your Daddy playing catch in the back yard. You love to do that, don't you?"
Jimmy might as well have been a statue.
"Jimmy." Jean felt unafraid of him now, and decided to share her heart. "I'm remembering more every day. Soon I'm sure I'll remember everything. But it helps when other people help me remember. Did you know that you can help me?"
Jimmy's expression became less blank, holding instead a wary interest.
"I remember best when I do things with people. The sorts of things that we used to do together."
Jean took yet another deep breath. "What sorts of things did we used to do together? If you'll help me, I'll remember it sooner."
"Nothin'" Jimmy spoke up for the first time, but it felt like only a small victory.
"I don't believe that, Jimmy. When you first learned I was in the hospital, you sent your favorite bear to stay with me. That meant so much to me. It told me how much you loved me, and what a kind heart you have."
Jimmy's eyes betrayed him for just an instant before he resumed his defensive blank stare.
Too late. I saw you. You were sad, and scared, and you wanted your Mommy.
You wanted me.
Jean felt a lump form in her throat, and she blinked back tears.
I'll take a guess. "I bet we liked to read books together."
Jimmy actually looked away, as if afraid of letting his feelings show.
Good. I'm reaching him.
Jean looked around the room for clues. A box of wood blocks in the closet caught her eye. "And I bet we liked to build things with blocks."
Jimmy blinked hard. He looked as if he wanted to say something, so Jean gave him time.
"Please go away now." The voice was not the angry growl of before. Instead it was the quiet whisper of someone whose softer emotions threatened his composure.
He wants to be alone to deal with these feelings.
"Okay." Jean stood up, making sure her own softness matched his. "I hope we can play together later."
With that she left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Once outside, she leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, and sighed a quiet "Thank you" toward Heaven.
Jim stowed the lawnmower back in its shed. He wiped a sweaty arm across his even sweatier brow and glanced up at the sky. I can't believe it's so hot already.
The lawn unquestionably looked better, and Jim had found some relief in cutting it. The loud roaring of the motor drowned out his thoughts. The vibration and the effort fatigued his arms a little, loosening up knotted muscles. And the instant, unambiguous results of every pass gave him the feeling of having finally accomplished something that he could be sure of.
Lemonade. Jean always makes me lemonade after I've mowed the lawn. There's nothing like it. Ice cold and sweet. Jim's whole body craved the refreshment as soon as he thought of it.
Guess I shouldn't get my hopes up. The thought came without the attendant anger that he would have felt earlier in the day. Jim felt immensely relieved by that.
He swept the yard with a critical eye. I need to take care of the edging. He grabbed the edger out of the shed and went to work, welcoming the hard physical labor it required. A slight breeze picked up, cooling his sweat-drenched T-shirt against his skin.
Jim attacked the edge grass and weeds with triumphant power. He focused his whole being on this battle, one that he knew he would win. Under the force of endless days' worth of pent up frustration, the errant greenery had no chance at all.
Jean paused in her survey of the kitchen. The lawnmower had just cut off, and a quick glance showed Jim returning it to the shed.
He looks so hot and tired. Jean felt a sudden urge to do something nice for him. He must be thirsty.
She looked into the refrigerator. Milk, beer, soda. None of them struck her just right. Ice water? No, not that either. She didn't quite know why, but it seemed there ought to be something else.
A green bottle caught her eye.
Lemon juice. Yes. She pulled it out and stared at it as if it had some secrets to reveal. After a moment she recalled where she'd found the pitcher before.
Do I remember how to make lemonade? She began to search her memory, but then stopped herself.
Don't think. Just do.
She put ice and water into the pitcher and opened the bottle of lemon juice. How much?
My arm knows. Jean wasn't convinced of that, but she decided to trust her gut. She poured out an amount, without having any idea why she stopped when she did.
Now sugar. Where do I keep the sugar? She glanced out the window at Jim, hoping he wasn't on his way in. She wanted to have his surprise ready when he got inside.
Bless his heart. She saw him, back bent, arms corded, working away at the edges of the yard.
Sugar, Jean. Find the sugar. She started to search the areas she hadn't yet surveyed, when another thought stopped her. No. Some part of me knows.
She felt a little silly doing it, but she picked up the capped bottle of lemon juice and pretended to pour it into the pitcher. Don't think. Feel what you're doing. After a few moments, she opened a drawer and pulled out a long stirring spoon.
Stir and pour, stir and pour. She began to feel even sillier, but she refused to quit. Stir and pour.
Suddenly she saw it. A canister that she reached for in her mind's eye. In that cabinet, right there.
She quickly opened the door and found it just as she'd remembered it. Yes! She started humming happily as she pulled the sugar down.
I remembered, I remembered, I remembered.
Now, where do I keep the measuring cups?
She looked back out at her husband. It looks like he's getting done with the edging. I'd better hurry.
She found the measuring cups after a quick search, and used them to dispense as much sugar as seemed right. I hope this is okay. She stirred until the sugar dissolved, and then felt a rush of nervousness as she saw Jim approaching the house.
The back door slid open, and Jim stepped through. As soon as he saw her, his face filled with something she couldn't recognize.
"Well," she laughed a little, "I hope so. I haven't taste-tested it yet."
Jim walked to the cabinet and took down a glass. "I'll test it out for you."
"Oooh, I hope it's not too sour. Or too sweet." Jean felt unbelievably nervous. She poured out a little into his glass.
Jim sucked it down in one gulp, closed his eyes, and smiled. "Perfect." He opened his eyes, still smiling, and handed the glass to her for a refill. "Fill it up this time."
She did so, delighted at his response. I hope he's not just being kind.
"Is it really okay?"
"Sure, it's great! Here, taste it for yourself." Jim held out his glass to her.
Jean felt the sudden awkwardness of the implied intimacy. But after a moment she accepted the glass, sweaty from his hand, and drank from it. The sweetly refreshing liquid brought a smile to her face as well. I did it!
She gave the glass back to Jim and watched as he downed it thirstily, Adam's apple bobbing. She began to feel deeply drawn to him. Everything about him exuded masculinity. His sweaty shirt clung to his chest, highlighting muscles she'd been too shy to let herself admire before. Powerful arms brought back the feeling of being safely cradled, but there was more. Those arms have held me for more than comfort.
Her mouth went dry.
She felt her eyes drawn downward along his throat until they stopped at the little dip right between his collarbones. For some reason she couldn't take her eyes off of that place.
I love to kiss him there. The realization took her breath away.
He loves it too.
The sudden rush of feelings and memories left her feeling very warm and almost light-headed. I've got to stop this.
She dragged her eyes off of him and almost shook herself.
Something in the way his chest is moving right now...
He's not drinking any more.
Suddenly Jean felt a warm flush of embarrassment. She lifted her eyes to his, almost afraid of what she'd see on his face. He must know what I was thinking... .
Jim looked almost as breathless as Jean felt. His eyes shone with love and longing, and with feelings that Jean gave no name. She only knew that they made her heart pound.
Jim's chest betrayed his feelings by its rapid rise and fall. As she watched, he slowly placed his glass on the counter, and then his hand, both hands reached out for her. Gentle hands, on the backs of her arms, drawing her close, and now sliding to her back. Goosebumps made her shiver as his fingers caressed the back of her neck. This is the feeling I remembered before they cut my hair. His eyes nearly swallowed her up.
She melted into him. So close, so close... .
And then he was bending toward her, and she lifted her face, meeting his kiss with a hunger that matched his. If any reservations remained, they crumbled under the power of passion, both hers and his.
She ran her arms around him, pressing him closer than he had dared to press himself. His heart pounded against her, and Jean felt a passionate longing which seemed at once both new and very familiar.
Jean jumped away, feeling Jim flinch away as well.
Jimmy stood looking at them with an expression of pure disgust. "Yuck! Why do grown-ups like to do that?"
Jim dropped his head onto Jean's shoulder, clearly trying to collect himself. "Son," he answered somewhat breathlessly, "some day you'll understand." His voice came out muffled by her shoulder, and Jean found herself trying hard not to giggle at the whole scene.
Even Jimmy almost smiled, but he still looked kind of grossed out. "Nope. I'll never understand that. Yuck!"
Jim raised his head and looked into Jean's eyes, his own sparkling with amusement, and with more.
"I love you," he mouthed silently.
"I love you, too." She returned voicelessly. At that moment, she had no doubts.
Jim finally loosened his hold on her, apparently ready to face his son.
"Jimmy, since you're out of your room, I hope you have something to say to Mommy."
"Yeah." Jimmy looked down at his feet. "I'm sorry I was mean."
Jean felt a rush of tenderness. She knelt down in front of her son. "I understand, Jimmy. It's all right. We'll start out new today."
Jimmy looked at her with a slightly skeptical expression. He had made his overture, but Jean realized that he still had his doubts. Still, it's something. She smiled warmly.
"Good job, son." Jim added from above.
"Can I have lunch now, please?"
"It's not lunchtime yet, is it?" Jim looked at his watch with some apprehension. "Oh, man, I completely lost track of time."
"What is it, hon?" Jean flushed a little when she realized what she'd called him. He smiled knowingly.
"I have to be at work in a little over an hour. Pete'll be here to pick me up in about forty minutes. I need to shower and everything. Do you think you could make lunch while I get cleaned up?"
"Sure. Jimmy will help me, won't you, son?"
"Okay." Jimmy still seemed reserved, but willing to try.
Jean stood back to her feet and laid a hand lightly on Jim's shoulder. She felt almost shy again. "You go ahead and do whatever you need to do."
"All right." His eyes nearly melted her all over again. He reached with one hand to take her chin, and then gave her a lingering kiss.
Jean felt butterflies everywhere.
"Yuck." Jimmy growled from below.
The two adults chuckled, and Jim headed for the bathroom.
"Come on, Jimmy. Help me make some lunch. What would you like?" Jean felt lighter than she could ever remember feeling in her short life.
No, that's not true. She thought back to their impassioned kiss. I was remembering feelings from before I got sick.
Suddenly the lingerie in her drawer seemed much more appealing.
Jim swung open the front door of the Parker building and walked in with Pete at his side. They showed their I.D.'s to the officer at the desk, and he waved them through.
The partners walked in silence, rounding a few corners, heading for a meeting room that they knew only too well.
A glance at his watch told Jim he had only three minutes to spare. Too close. Another red light or two and we would have been late. Jim hated tardiness.
He swung the door open to reveal the large meeting table and brown chairs. Marsh rose to greet them, but so far the rookie was the only one there.
Good, we haven't kept anyone waiting.
Jim picked a chair at random, only to immediately rise to his feet as the Big Brass entered the room.
Here we go. Jim seated himself again and looked his superiors in the eye with practiced, thoroughly feigned confidence. Ask away.
"Hey, can I go over to Frankie's?"
Jean couldn't quite get used to being called "Hey" all the time. It sure will be nice to be Mommy again.
Jean smiled at the thought. Mommy again. I guess part of me remembers being Mommy before.
"You know what your Daddy said at lunch, Jimmy. Before you can go play, you have to clean up the cars and tracks in your room. It won't take you long, if you put your mind to it."
Jimmy glared at her with almost as much hatred as she'd seen at breakfast time, and it hurt beyond measure. Jean turned and started the kitchen faucet at full blast, trying to take her mind off of things. When will you let me get close to you?
I'm so tired. Her nearly sleepless night seemed to take a much greater toll on her emotions now that Jimmy was being ugly again.
Jimmy folded his arms tightly across his chest, glared at Jean once more, and stomped out of the kitchen. The sound of the hard-running water only barely muffled the angry slam of a door a few moments later.
Jean focused on her job, hoping that time would heal the breach between herself and her son. But the longer she scrubbed, the more a nagging feeling began to distract her.
Something's wrong. Something is definitely not right. But what is it?
Maternal instinct could not be ignored. Jean rinsed the current dish, put it in the drainer, and went to check on Jimmy.
He wasn't in his room. The cars and tracks still lay scattered about the floor.
What's going on?
Something clicked in her mind, and she suddenly knew what was troubling her.
The slam came from the front door, not his bedroom door.
For a moment she felt terrified. He wouldn't run away, would he?
No. She wouldn't believe that of him.
I bet he went to Frankie's after all.
She closed her eyes and tried to gather strength from somewhere. I'd better go to Frankie's.
I wish I knew what to do once I get there.
She walked up the street, deep in thought, until she heard someone calling her name.
"Jean, are you all right, dear? Where are you going?"
Jean turned toward the voice and saw the woman with the hose. Well, she didn't have a hose now, but that's how Jean thought of her.
What did Jim say her name was?
The nameless neighbor bustled quickly toward Jean, who realized with a flash of embarrassment that her mental equilibrium was being questioned.
She's afraid I'm running away again.
"I'm fine." She reassured the neighbor, still digging through her brain for the elusive name. "I'm going over to Frankie's house to get Jimmy."
"Oh, well, that's good, dear. I'm glad you're doing all right."
"Thank you. Good day." Jean felt bad being so abrupt, but she felt too tired to work through the maze of conversation with a stranger who knew her well.
She walked up Frankie's yard and rapped on the door. While she waited for a response, she began to realize what she'd done.
I knew where Frankie's house was. Nobody had to tell me. I just knew.
That felt good, but a moment later a new thought filled her with panic.
What is Frankie's Mom's name? I can't just say "Hi, Frankie's Mom." What am I going to do?
The question quickly became moot. She saw the curtains part near the door, and heard a little squealing shriek from within. The door flew open, and Frankie's mom threw her arms around Jean.
"Jean! Honey! Oh, I'm so glad to see you! I've been so worried about you! I didn't expect you to be up and around yet!" Jean had barely regained her balance from the first unexpected hug when the second one began.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm probably overwhelming you." Frankie's mom backed off. "Please come in, come in! I'm Rachel. Rachel Yates. Oh, but you must have known that, or you wouldn't have come over here. Listen to me, I'm being so silly. I'm just so excited that you're here! How are you feeling? Sit down, please, sit down. Put your feet up. You must be so tired from walking over here. Do you want some tea?"
Jean wondered which question to answer first from that dizzying array. Finally she decided on none of them.
"I was wondering, did Jimmy come over here?"
"Why, yes. Just a few minutes ago. Don't you worry, he's no trouble at all."
I wish I could say the same.
"Thank you, Rachel. Would you mind terribly if I took him home now? He disobeyed me by coming over here."
"What? Jimmy's always welcome here, you know that."
Jean blew out her cheeks and regrouped. "That's not what I meant. It's just that he was told to clean up some toys before he came over. He's really testing me right now, you see. He is trying to see what he can get away with now that I've been...having some problems. So he just left his toys and ran off. I came to bring him home."
"Oh, that little scoundrel! It's not like him to be such a stinker! I'll go get him right away." Rachel left Jean standing in the living room. "Jimmy, Frankie, where are you?"
"Back here, Mom." That must have been Frankie.
A few moments later, Rachel appeared with a somewhat sullen, defiant James Allen Reed, Junior.
"You can't make me go with her. She's not my mom."
Jean stared at her son in disbelief. What happened? I thought we were past this. Tears stung in her eyes.
"Jimmy!" Rachel seemed as shocked as Jean. "I can't believe you would talk to your mother that way! You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Jimmy showed no hint of shame.
"Come on, son. Please come home. It won't take you long to clean up your toys." Jean reached for Jimmy's arm.
"NO!" The little boy yanked his arm away. "You're not my mom, I don't care what you say!"
Both Jean and Rachel took turns trying to talk some sense into Jimmy, but he remained adamant.
Jean felt desperate to reach her son, but she also began to feel a little angry. He's taking this way too far.
Finally Jean knew she had only one recourse. She bent down and picked Jimmy up in her arms. The little fellow began to kick and scream and flail.
Jean thanked Frankie's mom and took her leave, carrying the still-protesting child down the street. His weight would have been difficult enough for her weary body, but his struggling turned the trip home into a continuous struggle for balance as well.
I think I've bitten off more than I can chew.
Jim pulled into the driveway, still savoring the memory of familial harmony and romance that he'd left behind such a short time ago.
He hummed a little as he killed the engine. Maybe my parents or Jean's will take Jimmy overnight. I have a feeling a little privacy could go a long way....
He opened the car door and climbed out, only to be greeted by the sound of a child's angry screaming. He glanced up the street, only mildly curious. After all, Jimmy wouldn't behave like that.
Jim's jaw dropped, and his heart sank with it.
It is Jimmy!
He watched in disbelief for a few moments as his wife struggled to bring Jimmy home. Then he shook himself into action, taking off at a jog to meet them halfway.
As soon as he arrived by Jean's side, Jimmy's whole demeanor changed. "Oh, hi Daddy!"
"What do you mean, 'Oh, hi Daddy'? What's going on here?" Jim kept staring at his wife and son, hoping that they would give him an explanation other than the one he dreaded.
"Let's talk about it when we get inside." Jean looked winded and sad and rather fed up.
"Here, give him to me." Jim took Jimmy from his mother's arms, and the little fellow behaved like an angel all the way back to his living room.
After depositing Jimmy on the couch, Jim turned to Jean for the details. He listened with deepening frustration, keeping his son pinned to the cushions with a no-nonsense eye.
Jimmy listened to the account of his misdeeds with an expression of wary guardedness.
When Jean finished, Jim could only shake his head, his frustration partly giving way to hopelessness.
What can I do to get through to him? Why is he doing this?
I need more time to think this through.
"Jimmy, you need to go to your room while your mother and I discuss this. And while you're there, clean up those cars and tracks!"
"Okay, Daddy." Jimmy's cheerful obedience made his father angrier than defiance would have, because it deliberately highlighted his parental favoritism.
Jim watched as his son skipped down the hall and into his room, apparently unconcerned about the possible consequences of his actions.
Jim blew out his cheeks and looked back at Jean with raised eyebrows. "Man, I don't know what to say. I've never seen anything like this sort of attitude from him, and I sure don't know what to do about it." He rubbed distractedly at his forehead. "Do you have any ideas?"
Jean sank down to sit on the recliner, and momentarily covered her face with her hands. When she moved her hands away, it was with the same sideways motion she once would have used to push her hair away from her face. The familiar motion tugged at Jim's heart.
"No, I have no idea. He's a stranger to me, remember?"
Jim sat down as well. "Lately he's been a stranger to me, too."
"Just since I came home." Jean nailed Jim with a significant look, one that chilled him.
"It's not your fault, Jean."
"I know." She waved him off with a dismissive gesture. "I'm just tired and discouraged all of a sudden. I really think I could use a nap."
"Sure, go ahead." Jim felt disappointed. I had hoped she would help me with this issue, since it involves her so closely.
Jean shook her head. "I'll go later. Right now we've got something...someone to deal with." She nodded toward Jimmy's room. "What would you think of getting an appointment with the pediatrician? Maybe he could give us some insights."
"Hey, great idea!" Jim sighed with relief. That's my girl!
A moment later his relief turned to concern. He reached forward to touch her arm. "Honey, are you all right?"
"Yeah, I just have a headache."
Jim felt his mouth go dry. "How...how bad is it?"
She glanced up at him, and then gave him a little smile. "Don't worry. It's nothing like before. I think it's just tension. It's in my neck, too." She reached back to rub at her shoulders, and then rolled her neck around to relax it.
"Here, may I?" He reached one hand up to her shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.
"Well," she hesitated a moment, "Okay. That would be nice."
Jim stood and walked around behind the recliner. It's weird not to have hair to push aside when I do this. He shook the thought out of his mind and began to gently explore the muscles of her shoulders and neck.
"Boy, you really are tight." He started on her shoulders, rubbing at just the depth he knew she liked.
"Oooh, you've done this before, haven't you?" She quickly relaxed with his touch.
Jim smiled. "Many times."
"Am I prone to neck aches?" She moved her head some more, as if trying to relax muscles on the right side of her neck. Jim's fingers quickly found the spot and began to knead it.
"No, not particularly. You just like neck rubs." He couldn't help smiling again.
"Ow!" she said softly. "But don't stop. I think it's really helping."
I could show you a few more things that you like... .
One thing at a time, Jim.
He reached forward with a hand to support her forehead so she could further relax her neck. She responded instantly, and he could feel her tension rapidly draining away.
Normally I'd start kissing her neck right about now....Wonderful memories accompanied that thought.
Jim suddenly remembered their current dilemma. Oh yeah. Jimmy. His mood instantly soured.
Jean, too, seemed to sense the end of the moment. She lifted her forehead off of his hand.
"Thanks. That's a lot better."
Jim returned to his place on the couch so he could face her again. He smiled when she met his eyes. Please, let's hold that feeling for later.
After a few moments Jim left to dig up the pediatrician's phone number.
Jean leaned back in the recliner, trying to sort through her very conflicted emotions. Her defensive war with Jimmy felt like a knife in her soul. But her increasing closeness to Jim thrilled and excited her, in an almost-scary kind of way.
She still felt warm whenever she remembered this morning's kisses. Those same kisses had evoked memories of feelings even more electrifying. Memories she wasn't quite ready to discuss with Jim.
And now she tingled from a different kind of touch. The neck rub had been wonderful therapy for her tension, but it, too, had brought up the ghost of lost feelings. If she closed her eyes, she could bring those memories back all by herself, so real that she could lose herself in them for a few seconds at a time.
She shook herself back to the present. Jim's voice drifted in from the kitchen, where he talked to the doctor's office on the phone. Sounds like he got an appointment for tomorrow.
Not soon enough for my tastes.
She closed her eyes again. These memories are a whole lot more fun to think about.
"Later" isn't exactly what I'd hoped it would be. Jim sat on the couch, leaning against the armrest.
Jean leaned back in the recliner, though she didn't put the footrest up.
She looks as wiped out as I feel.
Jim's fatigue originated in his spirit, not in his muscles or bones. Many times he had heard parents say that their children were breaking their hearts. I never imagined it would happen to me so soon.
After numerous fruitless attempts to reason with his son, Jim had finally given up on Jimmy for the day, and had sent him to bed early. Jimmy had complied far too cheerfully, considering the insolent, sullen treatment he'd insisted on giving his mother all day.
For her part, Jean had tried her best. She'd gone to heroic lengths in attempting to reach her son. The effort clearly left her discouraged and frustrated.
She looks like she's on her last legs.
Jim's troubled thoughts turned back to his son.
I wonder what he'll be like as a teenager. If this is any indication, we're in big trouble.
From his vantage point on the couch, Jim could see his entire future stretching out before him, filled with emotionally draining days like today. He began to feel very old.
Jean's voice broke into his dreary thoughts.
"What do you think went wrong?" She didn't even lift her head when she spoke to him.
Jim shook his head. "I've been asking myself since I got home this afternoon. Everything looked so promising around lunchtime."
"I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out what I said or did to cause this." Jean sounded hurt and more than a little discouraged.
"No, honey. Don't think that way." Jim sat up straighter and leaned a little toward her. "This isn't you. This is him. He's having trouble coping with what's happened, and that's to be expected. The problem is, he won't let us reach out to try to help him. For the first time in his life, he's not trusting us any more. He's taking matters into his own hands as if his life depended on it."
"I guess it's hard to trust a mother who up and disappears one day." Jean's voice lowered to almost a whisper, and Jim wondered if she might cry.
"Jean, remember, he never knew about that. He stayed at the Yates' house and got a trip to the zoo with his friend. The only thing he found out about you was that you got sick and had to go to the hospital. He never knew that you disappeared."
He heard only silence from his wife, but a quick look at her face told him all he needed to know.
"Honey, come here." He reached for her hand, and she let him draw her over to his side on the couch. "It's going to work out eventually. It has to." He cradled her head to his chest as he had done that morning, and felt her trembling with the effort to hold back her tears.
"Who says it has to? How can you be sure that life as you knew it isn't over?"
Jim clenched his teeth and felt his stomach tie itself in a knot. I wish I knew that.
"I know it because what we had before was too strong, too good to be defeated like this. It wasn't just our marriage that was strong. Our relationship with Jimmy was terrific, too. I know it will be again. I know it."
Jim tried to believe his own words, so he wouldn't exactly be lying to his wife.
A few minutes later Jean sat back up. She had managed to keep from crying, but her voice still sounded shaky when she spoke.
"For...comforting me." She finally looked up at his face.
"My pleasure. Always. I just wish you didn't have to suffer like this in the first place."
"I'm the one causing the suffering, Jim."
"Jean, put yourself in my shoes. Suppose you still had all of your memories of a wonderful, loving marriage. Then I got sick and confused and lost my memory and disappeared, and for hours you were afraid I'd died. Then you found out I was alive, but dangerously ill. So for hours you still wondered if you would lose me to cancer or complications from surgery. You finally found out that I would live, and you were so relieved that you didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But then you found out that I still didn't have any memory."
Jean looked downcast while Jim recounted his own suffering. He reached for her chin and lifted her face to his. "Would you want me to go away? Would you hate me for what had happened? Or would you be as glad as I am to have you alive? Would you be as desperate as I am to become a family again, to get on with the business of making new memories?"
"I wish Jimmy felt that way." Jean sniffed, and Jim passed her a tissue for her nose.
"He will, baby. He will." Jim drew her close again, and she cuddled willingly. They sat in comforting silence and lost track of time.
Finally Jean spoke up. "I'm tired. I...I really want to lie down."
"Sure, honey." Jim released her from his arms.
I guess I'll be on the couch again tonight. This is definitely not a romantic kind of night. Jim didn't expect his exile on the couch to end any time soon.
Jean stood up and then reached for Jim's hand. She gave it a gentle squeeze, and looked unguardedly into his eyes. "Thank you...for everything." Then she turned and walked to the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Jim sighed. I should have gotten some pajamas. I hate sleeping in my clothes.
Maybe it's not too late. Besides, I need to brush my teeth.
Should I move my toothbrush out to the other bathroom? His heart rebelled against the thought.
He stood and walked hesitantly toward his bedroom door. Once he got to it, he couldn't quite bring himself to knock at first.
Come on, Jim. If you wait too long, she'll be asleep.
He rapped gently on the door. "Jean, let me know when I can come get my toothbrush, okay?" He used a loud whisper to avoid waking Jimmy.
A moment later she quietly called to him. "You can come in."
Jim walked into the dimly lit room.
Jean sat on the bed, wearing her bathrobe and her ever-present head scarf. The sight of the robe gave Jim very mixed feelings. That's what she was wearing when this nightmare started.
He pushed the thought aside. Someday, when we're closer, I'll buy her a new robe.
He got his pajamas out of his dresser and went into the bathroom to do all of his bedtime stuff. As he changed, he tried to convince himself that he really didn't mind sleeping alone on the couch. But somehow, he couldn't be very persuasive. I miss her so much.
He opened the bathroom door and looked automatically for Jean. The sight of her stopped him in his tracks.
She had removed her scarf. After all this time, it was only the second time she'd let him see her fuzz-covered head. For a moment, the sight shocked him. But then her eyes seemed to plead with him, tell me it's okay.
Her vulnerability tugged at him, and he let his answer shine in his eyes. It's okay, honey. You're still beautiful.
Jean still didn't know why she'd done it. Why did I want him to see my ugly head? But then she saw the love and acceptance in his eyes, and the answer came clearly.
I needed to see that look.
For a moment she flashed back to her lonely night under the tree, and her first memory of lying in strong arms. Her weary, aching soul filled with longing.
"Come hold me, Jim."
His face filled with surprise, and with a mixture of fear and hope.
He's afraid to believe that he understood me right.
She still felt strange inside, and yet at the same time sure of what to do. Without taking her eyes off of Jim's face, she patted his side of the bed.
"There may be a lot I don't know, and a lot I'm not ready for." She hoped he caught her meaning on that last phrase. "But I know I'm supposed to sleep in your arms."
The uncertainty on Jim's face slowly gave way to joy. He walked over to his side of the bed, his eyes still locked with hers.
Jean could scarcely breathe.
Jim gently slipped under the sheets beside her, and tenderly gathered her to his chest.
Strong arms. The sound of his heart beating in my ear. This feels so right. This is where I belong.
Something deep inside of her began to relax, and she let herself sink into their embrace.
Jim felt a score of different emotions coursing through his veins. Just feeling Jean lying in his arms again nearly overwhelmed him. The fact that she wanted to be there amazed him. He felt the kind of joy that wants to dance, the kind of joy that wants to shout, the kind of joy that wants to be very still and cuddly, the kind of joy that wants to weep.
He opted for still and cuddly. The more energetic emotions had to content themselves with making his heart and his breaths race. He lightly stroked her arms and her back, amazed at how quickly she seemed to become comfortable in his embrace.
Only one thing disturbed him. So many times in their marriage they had snuggled just like this. She loved resting her head on his chest, and he loved to run his fingers through her hair and kiss the top of her head. It was such a habit for him that he caught himself starting to do so, over and over. Then his heart would drop into his stomach and skip a few beats. Somehow, though he'd accepted the sight of her baldness, he couldn't yet bring himself to touch her head.
"What's wrong?" Jean's quiet words startled him. She began to lightly stroke his chest, just as she would have done before when she wanted to break down his defenses or bring him closer. The sensation felt immensely pleasurable, and he had to force himself to concentrate on her question.
How can I explain this without hurting her?
"I...I don't really know." Why can't I just get over the whole thing about her hair?
Jean drew back a little, raised up on one elbow, and looked into his face. "Was I wrong to invite you here? Is that what you're uncomfortable about?"
Jim had to smile. Memory or not, she's still the same Jean! She had always been courageous enough to go for the heart of a matter.
"No. Absolutely not. I can't tell you how wonderful this is to me." He held her a little more tightly, afraid she might pull away even more.
She stayed still and quiet, staring straight into his face as if trying to read his thoughts.
"Then what is it?" Her directness took his breath away.
How do I answer that?
"Jean, I'm not going to pretend that this is business as usual for me. Of course it's strange. But if I'm uncomfortable about anything, it's not ... it's not being here with you."
He felt horribly nervous. Don't let me say the wrong thing!
"Jean, holding you like this...well...it's always been one of the most wonderful things to me. And when you invited me here just now, it made me so happy that I didn't even know what to do."
He took a deep breath and gathered his courage.
"But then, yes, I started to feel uncomfortable. But honey, believe me, it wasn't holding you that made me feel that way. I love you, and I'll always want to hold you. I can't imagine a time when I wouldn't want to. I know that when I'm hurting or feeling bad, nothing helps me more than when you hold me. It makes me feel...loved, and...and whole somehow."
I hope she didn't notice that I didn't answer her question.
Finally Jean laid down beside him again and nestled her head on his chest.
Relief flooded Jim, drawing out a deep sigh. He closed his eyes, and his hand automatically reached to stroke her hair. For a moment he paused as he realized his mistake, but then reached up again.
Avoiding this is a bigger mistake.
He stroked the tops of her shoulders, then the back of her neck, and finally the back of her bald head. He felt her starting to tremble, and then finally beginning to cry.
That's right, Honey. Let it out. He continued softly caressing her, choosing to touch the places he once avoided even looking at.
Her words began to pour out. "I was so scared! I was so alone! I didn't know anything. Nothing made sense. I thought the whole world had gone crazy, and I just wanted to go someplace safe. Someplace that made sense. I knew someone loved me, somewhere. I knew I wanted to get to him...to you. But I ended up alone in the woods, sleeping with the bugs and rolling over onto pine cones, wondering how this had happened to me. I thought I'd stolen a car, and I couldn't imagine how I'd done something so wrong. I felt so lost, and so desperate!
Jim felt his own eyes prickling hot as he thought of her ordeal.
She sat up, startling him until he realized she only wanted a tissue. She mopped at her nose and returned to his chest. "I just wanted to find that love again. I knew if I found it, everything would be all right. Then I met Officer Hernandez, and I felt so safe with him. He was my only friend."
Her voice became almost despondent. "And then he left me."
Jim closed his eyes, feeling again the pain of having his place in her heart usurped, even if only for a few hours.
"But...but there was you, and I felt safe with you. And I felt a...a closeness with you that I couldn't even understand, except that I knew you were my husband. And I...."
She paused for a long time. Jim kept caressing her, hoping that his touch somehow helped.
Finally she spoke again, her voice small and frightened.
"I just don't want to do anything to make you go away, too. Or to make you wish I would leave."
Her words both shocked and saddened him. "Jean, honey, I would never want to be apart from you. Never! We've been through good times and bad times together, and we've come through all of it stronger."
She raised her head to look at him.
Jim continued, his voice passionately intense. "Think about it, sweetheart. You were very close to you mother before, but you don't feel as connected to her now as you do to me. You and I have something special now because we had something special then."
He touched his fingertips to her cheek, gently brushing tears away. "I love you, Jean. And I promise you, no matter what, I will be right beside you through it all."
Jean seemed to drink in his words, and her eyes seemed to probe his very soul.
Then she snuggled back down with him, differently this time. She pressed close, almost desperately close, as if she needed to know that they really would stay together.
Jim took his cue from her, and enfolded her tightly in his arms.
After several long minutes Jim felt her body relax against his, and he loosened his hold on her. He couldn't fully understand it all, but he felt as if a major battle had been fought and won in those few minutes. He resumed his tender stroking, no longer caring that his fingers found no hair to play with.
His body began to relax alongside hers, and soon it felt almost like old times.
Almost. He still missed one thing.
He lifted his head and placed a tender kiss on top of her peach-fuzz scalp. She sighed contentedly.
There. Now everything's right.
He nestled his head back down onto the pillow, feeling delicious relaxation seeping beyond his muscles, through his bones, and into his heart.
Jean's breathing told him that she had fallen asleep.
He reached one arm over and turned off the lamp, folded his arm around Jean again, and then surrendered to the first peaceful sleep he'd known in a very long time.
Jean awoke with a start. What was I dreaming?
She could almost remember the details, but not quite. The memory danced tantalizingly in front of her, slipping out of her grasp whenever she began to recall it.
But I do know one thing. I was dreaming a memory. Something about the past. That knowledge made her yearn even more to recapture the elusive phantom from her sleep.
She raised her head a little and glanced at the clock. Her eyes widened with surprise.
You've got to be kidding! It's only been forty-five minutes since we came to bed?
Jean lowered her head back onto Jim's chest, and he made an odd little noise in his throat.
I'm sorry. I hope I didn't wake you.
His renewed snoring banished her concerns.
She rolled her eyes. Now I feel wide awake.
I hope I don't lay there and stare at the ceiling all night like I did before.
She pulled away from Jim and stretched out on her back.
When I needed to be awake, I felt tired enough to drop. Now I have time to sleep, and I can't!
What's wrong with me?
Jim awoke to the most beautiful sunlight he'd ever seen. It seemed to give the whole bedroom a warm glow which infused Jim's heart as well.
It was all a dream. I can't believe it was all a dream.
Jim rolled onto his side to look at Jean. She slept peacefully beside him, just as she always had since their wedding.
I thought she got lost. I thought she couldn't remember. I thought my world was falling apart. How could I have ever imagined such an awful thing?
The phone is ringing.
He reached over to pick it up, but it kept ringing. He stared at the handset, and then jiggled the cradle.
Still ringing. What's going on?
Jim jumped, startled to wakefulness.
Oh. Reality intruded. The real phone was ringing in the real world. He reached for it, but the caller hung up as he lifted the handset.
Jim hung up and checked the clock. 7 a.m. Maybe I can get some more sleep.
He turned instead to look at Jean. She lay with her eyes closed, but somehow he didn't think she was really asleep.
I dreamed that it was all a dream. How weird.
All that awful stuff really did happen.
The phone rang again. This time Jim got it on the second ring.
"Hello?" He felt prepared to be annoyed, in case the caller hung up again. Probably a prankster.
"Jim? This is Nancy Donovan."
Jim raised his eyebrows with surprise. It was unusual for their neighbor to call so early in the morning.
"Mrs. Donovan? What can I do for you?"
"Have you been outside yet? In your front yard, I mean."
"No…." a sinking feeling drew on his gut. "Is something wrong?"
"I think you'd better go outside and have a look. I'm afraid you've been vandalized."
"What?" Jim sat bolt upright, feeling his shock quickly turning to rage. Who would do this, and why, and how dare they, anyway?
"Thanks, Mrs. Donovan. I'll be right out."
Jim jumped out of bed and threw on his bathrobe.
"Who was that? What's wrong?"
Jim turned, startled, at his wife's voice. His adrenaline told him to put off her question and hurry to the scene of the crime, but he forced himself to pause.
"Mrs. Donovan called. Someone has vandalized our house. I'm going out to have a look." With that he hurried out of the house.
He opened his front door to a nightmare.
Spray paint covered the front walls. Swastikas and guns. "Murderer," "Pig," and "Gestapo".
Jim's mind reeled.
The paper. The story in the paper. Someone read it and did this. Someone who knows where I live.
He glanced around on the ground until he found the morning paper. The headline told him all he needed to know.
" 'Police Are Murderers!' Relatives Say."
Jim snarled and kicked at the paper.
Calm down. Don't mess up the crime scene.
He walked around the privacy wall and stopped in horror.
My car. I can't believe they did this to my car!
The doors, hood, and trunk all bore angry black swastikas. The rest of the body was tattooed with the same kinds of hateful words that sullied the house, and the whole car drooped listlessly on four slashed tires.
Four punks ambush us and try to kill us, and this is what we get for defending ourselves?
Why didn't anyone ruin their houses and cars?
The injustice of it all burned in Jim's stomach like acid. He muttered things he would never say in front of his son. His hands clenched themselves into fists, and he took a few vicious kicks at his tires.
Call the cops. Get the evidence. Catch these animals and throw them behind bars.
Jim stayed frozen in place, still trying to comprehend not only what had happened, but what it would take to repair the damages.
He turned at long last to survey his house from the vantage point of the driveway.
Jean's rosebushes! Each one lay dying on the lawn, hacked off near the ground. Somehow that seemed the worst assault of all. This was an attack on Jean herself.
She loved those roses!
Hasn't she already lost enough? Why this, too?
Jim felt rage like hot coals in his soul. I'm going to catch you if it's the last thing I do. And when I do, you'd better hope I remember I'm a cop.
Right now he felt capable of beating them into a pulp, regardless of the consequences to himself and his career. Finally, he had an acceptable target for the anger he'd stuffed inside these past weeks. The vandals became, in his heart, all of the enemies that haunted him, from tumors to hateful children.
I'm gonna make you pay.
He stomped back up the yard and into the house.
Jean stood in the front doorway, robe pulled tightly around her, eyes wide with horror.
"Who did this?" She sounded almost childlike in her fear.
"I don't know!" Jim snapped. Right now he felt too angry to pay attention to her feelings. He snatched up the phone and dialed the station to report the crime.
As soon as he completed that call, another thought struck him. Pete!
He quickly dialed his friend's number. While he waited for an answer, he stared out at his distraught wife and his violated home. The sight sickened him, and he turned his back.
"Pete! Is everything okay there?"
Jim's partner sounded groggily surprised. "What are you talking about?"
Jim recited the details in angrily clipped tones.
Pete's voice sounded alarmed. "I haven't been outside yet. Let me check. Do you want to stay on the line?
"Sure. I'll wait. I've already called the cops."
Jim drummed his fingers while Pete performed a survey of his apartment. A few minutes later he heard Pete pick up the phone again.
"No, everything's fine here. I'll get dressed and come right over. As soon as the cops have finished, I'll help you clean up."
"Thanks, Pete." They hung up.
Jim felt his rage giving way to deep discouragement.
No, hold onto the anger. Make it work for you. Let it make you strong. He focused on his rage until it returned full force.
I'd better check on Jean. Her neediness created a burden he almost resented right now.
Where'd she go, anyway? He started to check the bedroom, but then heard a sound that he hoped he'd misunderstood.
"Jean, what are you doing?" He ran out into the front yard. Jean stood with garden hose and scrub brush in hand, working away at the defiled walls.
"No! Don't do that!" Jim rushed to turn off the spigot, and then whirled on Jean. "Don't you know that's evidence? You can't clean it up until the cops get finished with it!" He leaned back against the wall with a groan of utter exasperation, his hands clutching his head and his eyes closed. Of all the stupid things for her to do!
He heard Jean drop the hose and the brush, and he felt her hurry past him and back into the house. He didn't bother opening his eyes.
Jim finally looked up when a black-and-white patrol car pulled into his driveway. He recognized the officers inside, but only as faces. He'd never worked with either of them, and had only seen them as the watches changed.
I would have preferred some friends right about now.
Jean snatched up the newspaper as she passed by her husband. She could feel the tension radiating from him in waves. He's so mad at me. I should have known better than to do that.
He won't even look at me.
She bit her lip as she entered the living room. No matter what I do, I'll end up doing things wrong.
She dropped the newspaper on the coffee table, then wandered out to the backyard. I might as well take my turn at hiding.
Jean rubbed at her eyes, trying to make her foggy mind kick in. Her arms felt like lead, and so did her eyelids. Why couldn't I feel this tired last night?
If I don't start getting some sleep, I'm not going to be able to go on.
She stood on the back patio and looked listlessly around her. Yesterday he mowed the grass, and then he came inside, and we had a wonderful kiss. I thought that meant something. I thought I was doing okay.
I guess all it really means is that he likes kissing.
She walked over to the picnic table and sat down, trying to rally her exhausted mind and heart. No, I should be fair to him. He is trying. He's trying so hard. But he wants things to be like they were. And I can't give him that.
He's still in love with her. And I'm not her.
Jean blinked back tears.
I want to be. I wish I could be. I wish I could be the woman he loves, and the mother that Jimmy loves.
But I can't.
Jean glanced into the house and saw something that made her heart sink.
I don't want to see him. I don't want to face him. Not now. Jean's exhaustion left her feeling more than usually vulnerable.
Why is it that those you love the most can hurt you the most?
If I want to be his mother, I have to face him.
Jean dragged herself to her feet and into the house.
"Good morning, Jimmy." She couldn't even manage to fake a good mood.
"Why are the police here? Did somethin' bad happen?"
Jean looked out through the front window. When did they get here?
"Yes, some bad people made a mess of our house, and Daddy's car."
"Daddy's car?" Jimmy bolted to the front yard, and Jean breathed a sigh of relief. Let Jim deal with him.
She sank down into a dining room chair and buried her face in her hands.
I suppose there's something I should be doing right about now. Like making breakfast.
Outside she heard Jimmy's delighted voice yell, "Unca Pete, Unca Pete!"
Pete's here? Jean liked Pete just fine, but right now company was the last thing she wanted.
Be a good hostess. Jean pushed herself wearily to her feet and dragged herself into the bedroom. Can't greet my guest in my bathrobe. She threw together a decent-looking outfit and pulled it on.
C'mon, Jean. Get with it. She lightly slapped her cheeks, hoping to rouse herself more.
Just do what needs to be done. She made her way back to the front door.
"Have you had breakfast yet, Pete?"
Jim's friend looked up and grinned with delight. He said something quickly to Jim, and Jim responded with a nod toward Jean.
Pete hurried toward Jean, his smile broadening as he came. Jean couldn't help feeling warmed by the first pleasant contact she'd had all morning.
"Jean!" Pete's eyes shone, and Jean opened the door to let him in. "Jean, it's so good to see you! How are you?"
Jean had a feeling that Pete would hug her if she'd give him half a chance. She couldn't help smiling back at him. "I'm...hanging in there. How are you?"
"Well, life's treating me a whole lot easier than it's been treating you. I'm so sorry about all of this, Jean."
"Yeah. Me, too." She felt tears starting to sting her eyes, and they irritated her. I'm so tired of crying! "So, like I said, have you had breakfast yet?"
"I'm fine, Jean. Don't go to any trouble."
"We haven't had breakfast ourselves. I thought I'd fry up some eggs. Putting two more in the pan won't be any trouble."
"Well, okay, that sounds fine, if you're sure you don't mind."
"I'm sure." Jean smiled at him again, and then turned for the kitchen.
"Jean." Pete's soft voice stopped her, and she turned back to him. "I'm so glad you're home. I'm sure it hasn't always been easy, but...it's just so good to see you here. This home is empty without you."
Jean smiled a little awkwardly this time. I bet Jim hasn't told him what's been going on.
"Thanks, Pete. I'd better go get cooking now."
"Sure, Jean." Pete gave Jean another warm look and headed out to the front yard again.
Jean sighed as she walked into the kitchen. Where did I see the frying pan? After a moment's reflection she remembered, and bent down to retrieve it. Next she fetched the eggs and butter from the refrigerator, and set to work.
These smell pretty good. Between the warm reception she got from Pete, and her success with cooking breakfast, Jean began to feel a little better.
She heard the front door opening, and the sound of Jim and Pete's voices.
"I can't believe they didn't take this more seriously!" Jim sounded just as angry as when she'd last seen him.
"Jim, you know as well as I do that we don't go dusting for prints at vandalism sites like this. We don't call detectives out for it, either."
"I know it. But I don't have to like it."
The two men walked into the dining room, with Jimmy close behind.
"Smells great, Jean!" Pete smiled into the kitchen.
Jim turned to Jean, looking suddenly guilty. "Yeah, honey. Thanks."
It's about time you said something nice to me today.
"Hey, what is that?" Jimmy came over and sniffed disdainfully at breakfast. "Fried eggs? I hate fried eggs! I always want my eggs scrambled. My mommy knows that." Jimmy folded his arms and scowled at Jean.
"Jimmy!" Jim sounded like he was on his last nerve. He stood and glowered at his son. "If you don't want your breakfast, just go to your room."
Pete stared at Jimmy with obvious dismay.
Jimmy cast a scornful look in Jean's direction and sauntered away. "I don't care. I can play in my room."
Jean remained frozen in front of the stove. After pulling herself together, she divided the eggs into two servings instead of the intended four. She gave the hearty portions to the men, and then retreated to her bedroom.
This isn't going to work. Jean tried to tune in to her memories, to recall the loving relationship she thought she once had. But if her memories tried to speak to her, their voice was drowned out by incessant echoes.
"You're not my Mom!" "Don't you know that's evidence?" Kicking, yelling, and flailing.
Jean buried her face in her hands.
Jim turned misery-filled eyes toward his partner.
"Jim, is this how it's been all this time?" Pete's brow furrowed with concern.
"Yeah, pretty much. Worse, in fact. I don't know what to do. We're going to take Jimmy to the...oh NO!" Jim slammed his fist down on the table.
"What?" Pete's alarm sounded clearly in his voice.
"We were SUPPOSED to take Jimmy in for an appointment with the pediatrician at 8:00 this morning. When all of this happened..." Jim gestured toward the front yard, "...I just forgot." He rubbed at his forehead. "We'd hoped maybe the doctor could give us some suggestions on how to deal with him."
"Call them again. Maybe there's another opening today."
"Yeah, maybe." Jim rose wearily to his feet. "I'd better go check on Jean first. Do you mind?"
"No, of course not. Maybe I should just get to work on the graffiti. I don't feel very hungry right now."
"Pretty ironic." Jim shook his head. "Jean fixed us breakfast out of the kindness of her heart, and all it got her was heartache." He shot another depressed look at his partner, and then headed for the bedroom.
Pete kept throwing worried glances at his friend. Jim scrubbed away at the wall as if he were hoping to dig through to the other side.
I had no idea things were so bad. How is he coping with this?
He'd gotten Jim to open up just a little about Jimmy's behavior, but he could tell that his friend had left much unsaid. He'd also stayed pretty tight-lipped about his attempts to console Jean.
Pete bent his head for a drink from the hose. Warm, rubbery-tasting water. My favorite. But it was better than nothing, and Pete didn't want to be a burden to anyone right now. He also didn't want to go into the house to wait on himself. The walls dripped with misery in there.
Why hasn't he called me? He usually wants to talk things over with me. I hope he's not still mad about...whatever he was mad about before.
Pete glanced at his watch. "Uh oh."
"What?" Jim turned to him.
"It's one o'clock already. The SRB report is at two."
"Oh... !" Jim clamped his lips shut, as if censoring himself. "I forgot about that, too." He threw his scrub brush down and leaned into the wall on extended arms. His head hung low, and he shook it slowly.
"Pete, I don't understand what's happening. I thought I was prepared for some tough times, but...I don't know...it seems like I'm always on the verge of blowing up." Jim turned to face his friend. "Jean and I have had some really wonderful moments, but a minute or two later I can be madder than Hades again. I don't know what to do with Jimmy, I don't know how to help Jean, and frankly, I don't know what to do with myself."
Pete looked at his friend with genuine sympathy. "On a short-term basis, I'd recommend a shower and a change of clothes."
Jim managed a humorless smile. "Yeah."
"Jim, why haven't you called me? I know I don't have all the answers, but I'd be happy to do whatever I can, even if it's just lending an ear."
Jim looked down again.
"You shouldn't have to bear this alone, partner. It's more than any one person should have to carry."
Jim ground his teeth silently for a few long moments. "I guess...I guess when the doctor told us that Jean shouldn't have company...I guess I just got it in my head that I was going this alone. Besides, I didn't want to call and have her overhear."
"But Jim, it's not good for her to have you so tightly strung. You're not fooling her, you know."
Jim closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
He always thinks she won't notice anything that he doesn't mention. Pete wondered if Jim would ever outgrow that.
"Well, starting tomorrow we'll be back at work full-time, and then I can spill my guts all over you." Jim looked a little embarrassed about the idea.
"You be sure you do that."
Jim nodded, gratitude shining in his eyes. "Hey uh, Pete? Would you mind driving me to the meeting today? I'd like to leave the Bailey's Buick with Jean, you know, in case she wants to take Jimmy somewhere."
"All right." Pete put his brush down. "I need to get home and take a shower myself. I'll pick you up and take you to Parker at, say, 1:45?"
"I'll be here."
Jim walked into his bedroom and glanced at Jean. She lay on the bed, but she sat up when he entered the room. Jim tried to work up an encouraging attitude.
"I have to go to work for a little while."
Jean nodded quietly. She looks so discouraged!
"Pete left to take a shower. I need to take one, too."
"I guess that means I'm alone with Jimmy." Jean sounded despondent about it. "I hope I don't make too many mistakes this time."
Jim felt sympathy welling up inside him. He walked over and sat beside her on the bed. "Come on, hon. You're doing as good a job as anyone could in your shoes. Don't be too hard on yourself."
"I want to be close to Jimmy. I really do. But whenever I try to be a mother to him, he hates it. How can I work my way back into his life in a way that's not so...stressful?"
"How about calling your mother? She'd be happy to come and help you."
"Okay." Jean nodded. "What's her number?"
"I'll dial for you." Jim picked up the receiver and dialed the familiar number. When it rang, he handed the phone to Jean.
"Hello...Mom?" Jean sounded uncertain about using that familiar title.
Jim stood and walked to his dresser to gather his clean clothes. He listened with some relief as the arrangements came together and Jean ended the call.
"There, hon. I think that will be a big help to you. Is there anything I can do for you before I get in the shower?"
She still sounds so depressed! Jim walked back over to Jean and sat beside her again. He laid a hand on her arm.
"Hang in there, hon. Things have to get better."
"Sure." She sounded unconvinced. "I know I wouldn't let this bother me so much if I weren't so tired and...Jim, I just had brain surgery!"
Jim gave her shoulders a squeeze. "Hang in there, honey."
Despite his attempts to cheer his wife, Jim felt her depression wrapping itself around him. As if I weren't down enough already. "I have to get ready now. If you need anything, holler."
Jim headed for the shower. For the first time in his career, he actually looked forward to attending an SRB report. Anything's better than wallowing around here.
Jim kept a tight-lipped silence as he waded through a pack of reporters. Pete tried to run interference in a subtle way, protective as always of his junior partner. Jim almost managed to feel appreciative, but his inner turmoil quickly dissolved such pleasant emotions.
One of the human vultures shoved a microphone at his face. "Officer Reed, how can you assure the public that your exoneration isn't just one more example of the Police Brotherhood looking out for its own?"
Jim felt his blood boil, but he forced himself to keep a neutral face. At least, he hoped he did. He brushed past the reporter without a word. Behind him, the reporter took up his monologue, which he liberally streaked with yellow and purple.
Jim began to feel that his molars might crack, and tried without success to loosen his jaw.
Why do I bother? I bust my butt and risk my life, and all they want to do is tear me up and watch me bleed.
He shouldered his way past the last of the voyeuristic mob, only to have them press closely on his heels all the way to Pete's car.
Jim clenched his teeth even tighter, despite the pain in his jaw. Otherwise, he would have been in danger of blurting out something unprofessional at the despicable swarm that hounded him.
But boy, it would feel good to say it... .
Jim opened the passenger's side door just far enough to admit his body. Despite this precaution, reporters managed to stuff microphones though the cracks of the doorway. He saw that Pete fared no better on the driver's side.
Jim slammed his door shut, and Pete started the engine with a roar. The reporters parted to make room for them to drive off, and Jim had to breathe a sigh of relief. I don't know what I would have done if they'd blockaded us.
Yet somehow their escape afforded him only a moment's relief.
Things aren't any more pleasant at home.
He threw his head back onto the headrest and closed his eyes, trying to find some sort of emotional armor to wear home. But at the moment his protective coverings hung in tatters.
I can't do this right now. I just can't.
He thought of his home, still bedecked with hateful words and symbols. He thought of his wife, depressed and discouraged. He thought of his son, angry, defiant, and as hateful as the writing on the walls.
At least tomorrow I can go to work.
And face the public which will have read all about what a murderer I am.
There's no escape, is there? There's no escape.
"Pete, I can't do this."
He felt the car slowing down, and a moment later his partner pulled into a nearby parking lot.
"Talk to me, Jim."
Jim shook his head slowly. "I wouldn't even know where to begin."
Pete regarded him silently for a few moments, then threw the car back into gear and headed out of the parking lot, this time in a direction away from the Reeds' house.
Jim closed his eyes and dropped his head back onto the headrest. He didn't even care where Pete took him. He was just glad he wasn't going home.
Jean smuggled the newspaper into her bedroom while her mom played with Jimmy. But a quick glance at the clock gave her a new idea.
She returned to the living room and turned the TV on at very low volume. The news is about to come on. She glanced nervously back at Jimmy's room, but her mother did not emerge.
Just because I woke up and found myself married to Jim, doesn't mean he's a good cop. He sure has made a lot of enemies.
She tuned to the station she used to watch at the hospital.
I need to see my husband the way others see him.
Jean collected herself and turned off the TV. He wouldn't even answer their questions. Why not? The question made Jean queasy.
She arranged her face into what she hoped was a neutral pose, and then went to talk to her mother.
"Mom, I'm going to take a nap. Will you wake me up when dinner's ready?"
"Sure, sweetie. Jimmy and I are fine."
Jean tried to smile. I wish Jimmy and I were fine, too.
Jean walked into her room and closed the door behind her. She considered locking it, but decided against it. She crossed over to her side of the bed and pulled the newspaper out from under it.
I need to know the truth about my husband. No matter how much it hurts.
Jean read every word she could find about her husband, and found that it hurt far more than she had imagined it would.
I would have been a lot better off taking that nap.
Jim accepted a can of beer from Pete with a nod of unspoken gratitude. Pete's apartment was its usual quiet, neat self. Not a hint of chaos, or hatred, or strife. It might as well have been Heaven.
I used to think his apartment was kind of sad, because it seemed so lonely. Now I envy him. It must be great to have a quiet place to go to, all alone, where nobody can bother you.
Jim took a sip of his beer, grimacing slightly as the first wave of icy coldness ran down his throat. He stared at nothing in particular, absently swishing his drink around before taking another swallow.
"Do you need to call home, tell them you're running late?" Pete's question came as an unwelcome intrusion into Jim's thoughts. Jim had almost forgotten his partner was there.
Jim sighed deeply, resenting the demands that his home so constantly placed on him lately.
"Yeah. You're right."
He sighed again and reached for the phone, dreading even hearing Jean's voice right now. He dialed forcefully, irritably.
"Hello, Reed Residence." Candace Bailey's voice greeted him.
Jim closed his eyes with relief. "Hi Candace. Don't bother Jean. I just wanted to let you know that I've stopped at Pete's place for a little while. I'm not sure when I'll be home."
"Okay dear, that's fine. I can stay with Jean and Jimmy, that's no problem. Don't you worry about us at all."
"Thanks, Mom." Jim fought the urge to hang up right away. I should at least ask. "How uh…how's everything going?"
"Oh, we're fine. Jean's resting, and Jimmy's playing over at Frankie's. Don't worry, and don't hurry on our account."
"Thanks." Jim nodded at a few more pleasantries before saying goodbye. He hung up with a profound sense of relief, grateful he hadn't had to speak to Jean.
Almost as soon as the phone hit the cradle, Jim's mind retreated into solitude again. He nursed his drink slowly.
But even now he couldn't really escape. His relief gave way to guilt, and his anger dissolved into worry. What kind of husband am I? What kind of father am I to run away like this? At least when Jean ran away, it wasn't her fault. And if she runs away again, it won't be her fault either. Not with a son who can't stand her and a husband who doesn't even want to speak to her.
Jim took another swallow, and suddenly became aware of Pete's eyes on him.
How long have I just sat here? He glanced up at his partner, feeling a little guilty about ignoring him.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Pete's face and voice held all of the open compassion that made him such a good friend. Jim looked away again.
"I don't know what's wrong with me, Pete."
"You mean besides the fact that you're going through torture, you're facing an uncertain future, and the woman you love more than life itself may never be the same?"
Jim managed a humorless smile. "Yeah, besides that."
Silence fell again.
"I don't know what's wrong with me, because I'm handling all of this so badly. Sometimes it's like…it's like I don't even love her, but I know I do. I'm always blowing up at Jimmy, and…and right now I don't even want to face my own family." Jim spoke the shameful words very quietly.
Pete remained silent. Jim still didn't look at him.
"For the longest time, all I could think about was her hair. Here she was going through a nightmare, possibly going to die, possibly never going to be the same, and my mind just kept going back to her hair. Sometimes it seemed like that upset me more than anything.
"I'm doing better about that now," he hastened to add, feeling the need to redeem himself in his friend's eyes. "But it still shocks me how…shallow I've been. How shallow I still am. Not just about hair. Everything gets to me. I feel like I'm always just one straw short of a broken back, and Jean and Jimmy are running at me with bundles of the stuff. They need me to be strong, and I can't even handle the little stuff. I…I thought I was stronger than that…better than that." Jim took a long drink, but he tasted only the bitterness of his own failure.
That's all I have to say. If Pete doesn't say something soon, it will be because he's as shocked about my shallowness as I am.
"Jim," Pete began in a gentle tone, "did I ever tell you about when my Uncle Paul died?"
Jim shook his head mutely, but he finally looked at his friend. Pete was pretty closed-mouthed about his past, so Jim's curiosity overcame his shame.
Pete looked uncomfortable. "I was just seven years old. And I loved baseball more than just about anything. My Dad was away at war, so my uncle was like my surrogate dad." Pete paused for a swallow of beer. "He was going to take me to a game that day, and I was…you know…as excited as only a kid can be about something like that." Pete fidgeted, reminding Jim of just how uncomfortable it was for his partner to share personal things.
Pete cleared his throat and continued. "I had my team hat and shirt on three hours before he was scheduled to pick me up. I sat in the living room and pounded on my baseball glove, shouting like an umpire until my mother'd tell me to pipe down. I'd stay quiet for a minute or two, and then start all over again." Pete almost smiled at the memory, but then his face grew sad. "I was there when the policeman showed up at the door."
Pete closed his eyes at what was clearly a jarring memory.
Jim could hardly believe how Pete was opening up to him.
"I heard him tell my mom about the accident. I saw her crying...." By now Pete looked downright miserable, and Jim suspected that the sharing hurt worse than the facts themselves.
I don't know where you're going with this, buddy, but thanks for putting yourself through this.
"I screamed and yelled and ran to my room. My mom found me there… sobbing… a little while later." The admission of weakness seemed especially hard for Pete. He no longer even glanced at Jim.
"I went to the funeral. My aunt and my cousins were there, of course. I realized that the tragedy was even worse for them than it was for me. I overheard my aunt crying about having to leave her children and go to work to support the family. I heard my mom promise to help. She ended up spending a lot of time away from our home to help their family. We never had any extra money to begin with, but after that things got really tight, because a lot of our money went to my uncle's family. But I didn't mind, because I knew they were really suffering.
"I remember my cousins got really skinny. My littlest cousin really withdrew. She just went off by herself and cried a lot."
Pete paused for a drink. "After that first day, I didn't let myself cry. My dad had told me that I was to be the man of the family while he was gone. Since I was older than my cousins, I figured I kind of had to be the man of their family, too."
"That's a lot on a seven-year-old's shoulders," Jim said softly.
Pete shrugged, trying as usual to minimize his own ordeal. It wasn't convincing this time. "Despite all of the suffering that I saw my relatives going through, the only part of the tragedy I really let myself focus on was the baseball game I never got to see. I was fully aware of the other problems, but I didn't dwell on them. I just thought about that game, all the time. I was mad about it, and sad about it, but I carried it around inside without letting on."
Pete took another swallow. "Our next-door neighbor was a big German fellow, a butcher at the local meat market. He was nice, and he kind of took me under his wing after that. Finally one day he offered to take me to a ball game. I agreed to go, but I couldn't get excited about it."
Pete seemed far away now. "When the day of the game arrived, I…well…I just lost it. Started bawling my head off. Mr. Rosenthal…that was my neighbor…he sat down with me on the steps of his house, and I just poured out all of that anger and sorrow I felt about the other game, the one I missed. And as I told him about it, I started feeling bad for paying so little attention to my cousins' problems. I mentioned that to Mr. Rosenthal, too.
Here Pete met Jim's eyes, no longer hiding.
"I'll never forget what he said to me about that. He told me in simple terms that when something really bad happens to a person, he can't take everything in at once. The feelings are too powerful, too terrifying. He has to choose one part of it to focus on, so that he can feel the hurt without it being too much for him. He has no choice. He has to do that to survive. So, in my case, I focused on the ball game.
"Well, that's the gist of what he said. I'm sure he put it more simply since I was so young. Even so, I didn't fully understand what he told me then, but I do now. And he was right."
Jim looked away for a moment, lost in thought, until Pete's voice called him back.
"That's why you focused on Jean's hair." Pete leaned forward a little. "If you tried to focus on everything at once, Jim, well, it would be too much for anyone, what you've been through lately. You've got to break it down into manageable-sized pieces.
"But even then, the things you aren't focusing on are still there, below the surface, eating at you. That's why you feel so close to breaking all the time. You're not shallow, Jim. And you're not weak. You're doing your best to handle a living nightmare that no one should have to handle. You're right to do whatever you have to do to survive this ordeal. Even if that means choosing to handle your problems a little bit at a time."
Pete sat back, looking relieved to have finished his narrative.
Jim soaked in his words, contemplated them, mulled them over, and took comfort in them.
I needed this.
Jim glanced at his watch, then up the driveway at his mostly darkened home. I can't believe how late it is. I hope Jean isn't mad. But I needed this time with Pete.
"Thanks for having me over, partner. And for the ride home."
"I'm glad you could come. We've practically been strangers lately." Pete spoke without accusation in his tone, but his words still struck a sore spot with Jim.
I've got to come clean with him. Jim had tried to get over his irritation with Pete about talking to Jimmy, but somehow the twinges of anger continued to surface. I just need to get it off my chest.
"Uh, Pete." Jim felt uncomfortable. "I'm sorry about being kind of a jerk lately."
"I'm used to it."
Pete's response came as no surprise to Jim. He knew that dry, sarcastic wit was his partner's way of rebuilding the privacy walls he'd chosen to breach. And it was spoken with humor, not with irritation.
"Yeah, I know, but...well...there's something else."
"Oh?" Pete folded his arms but kept his face open.
Jim sighed deeply, wishing he could back out of this. Too late, now.
"Well, the day you came over to play with Jimmy...I really appreciated that."
"No problem. It was my pleasure."
"Yeah, but..." Jim finally looked Pete in the eye. "...why didn't you tell me you'd talked to him, Pete?"
A pained look crossed Pete's face. "Well, it wasn't that I tried to keep it a secret. It's just that I've hardly had a minute to talk to you since then. Certainly not in private like this. I...I wanted to spend some time with Jimmy, and I got kind of worried when the questions started coming. I wasn't sure what I should say, so I just did the best I could. I hope I didn't step out of line." Pete looked genuinely worried, and Jim wondered why he'd ever felt mad at him.
"Jimmy told me what you'd said. I thought it was pretty good, really. I'm not sure I would have thought up that 'wart' illustration."
"I'm sorry if I upset you, Jim," Pete said softly.
"No, it was stupid of me. I don't even really understand it. It's just that..." Jim squinted out the car window at the starry sky as he searched for words. "Everything in my life was spinning out of control. So whenever Mom or Dad...or you...did something that I thought was my responsibility, then I felt like I was losing even more control over my life." He looked back at his friend. "It was stupid. I'm sorry, Pete. Thanks for filling in for me with Jimmy. He's lucky to have you for an uncle."
"He's lucky to have you for a dad."
The unwritten rules of male discourse prohibited any further niceties, so the two men fell silent.
"Well, I guess I'd better head inside," Jim said at last. He opened the car door and let himself out, closing it softly behind him.
"Yeah. Say 'hi' to everybody for me. I really...well, you know."
"Yeah." Jim felt relieved that Pete hadn't accidentally crossed over into mushiness.
"I'll drive you to work tomorrow, and afterwards we can see about getting you some new tires." Pete leaned a little to talk to Jim through the passenger window.
I'll never be able to repay him. How do you put a value on that kind of friendship?
The two friends parted. Jim waved ever so slightly as Pete drove off, even though that was treading the mushy line.
Pete raised an index finger in response.
I'm so glad I finally got that out of my system. I hated feeling mad at him.
Jim walked slowly up his driveway.
The sight of his defaced house made him sick, even though he could tell that someone had been cleaning it since he left. Probably Candace.
Jim turned back for one last forlorn look at his car. Jean's car's still in police impound, and now my car's a wreck.
Jim kicked at a clump of grass. Even if I get tires tomorrow, I still can't drive it until it's cleaned up and repainted. That's going to cost me an arm and a leg.
Hospital bills already loomed in his future, and this added expense left Jim wondering where the resources would come from.
Maybe the Baileys will lend us one of their cars. Jim rubbed at his temples. I hate being a burden.
Jim opened his door and stepped inside. His mother-in-law greeted him with a quiet "Shhh."
"Is she sleeping?"
"Yes. The poor dear. She's just overwrought."
"How was Jimmy?"
"Good as gold for me. But he completely ignored Jean. Wouldn't even look at her when she spoke to him. Bless her heart, she really tried. I could tell it was tearing her up inside." Candace shook her head. "Jimmy played in his room with his cars, and then after a while he fell asleep on the floor. I just put him in bed a little while ago."
Jim sat down next to his mother-in-law. He pulled off his shoes, feeling as if even that effort would completely deplete his meager resources. "Thanks for staying late, Mom. I really needed some time away."
"Of course, dear. You should do that more often. I'm happy to come and help, you know that. Did you have a good visit with Pete?"
Depends on how you define a 'good visit.' Though unburdening had been a relief, the process had still been terribly painful. And Jim thought it had hurt Pete as much as it had hurt him.
He cares so much about us.
"We talked. It was ... helpful."
"Good. You needed that. Pete is a good man, and a good friend."
Jim nodded. You can say that again.
"I need to get to bed, Mom. Tomorrow is a work day. Remember, I'm on mid day watch." Jim rose wearily and reached out to help his mother-in-law up.
She accepted his hand, though she did not lean on it when she stood up. Jim knew she had understood his unspoken message of affection.
"Good night, son. I'll be here by 9:30 tomorrow morning."
"Thanks. I'll feel so much better knowing you're here."
"That's awfully kind of you, considering what happened the last time you entrusted Jean to me." Candace looked down at the floor.
"That wasn't your fault, Mom!" He put a hand on her shoulder. "You raised Jean from birth to adulthood, and you did a terrific job. There's no reason why I wouldn't have confidence in you now."
Candace leaned on Jim for a quick hug, and he returned it.
"Jean's a lucky lady to have found you, Jim."
Jim worked up a weak smile. I hope we can find each other again.
Jean lay quietly in her bed, pretending to be sleeping. In truth, she'd begun to feel wide awake the moment her head hit the pillow. This is so unfair!
She felt relieved when Jim headed straight for the bathroom, since that gave her more time to collect herself. She needed all her resolve to keep her sorrow from coming out in even more crying than she'd already done.
He needed time away. Away from me. Away from what I've done to change Jimmy. The quiet conversation between her husband and mother had not escaped her notice. And Mom thought he should do it even more often.
They'd all be better off without me. As much as it hurt, Jean couldn't come to any other conclusion.
Besides, I think I'd be happier without them, too. A little voice inside of her wailed broken-heartedly at the thought.
Jean fought that inner voice down. I understand your pain, but I can't let it interfere with what I have to do.
She rehearsed her conclusions in order to strengthen them in her own heart. I don't want to live with Jimmy's anger or with Jim's needs and expectations. I don't want to live with someone who may abuse his power as a police officer. I don't want to live with someone whose actions will get my home vandalized.
Jean didn't really believe that she'd be happier without them, but she felt absolutely convinced that the reverse was true. If I truly love them, I need to let them get on with their lives. Without me.
The thought broke her heart, so she kept trying to convince herself that she didn't want to stay.
I'm leaving. Tomorrow. For their sakes.
She quickly closed her eyes as Jim emerged from the bathroom. She heard him walk over to his side of the room, and then she heard him pulling off his shirt.
I won't watch. Jean wasn't sure what effect that might have on her resolve.
A moment later she heard what sounded like a key turning in a lock, and despite herself she quickly turned to look.
Jim reached into the back of his waistband and pulled out a revolver. Jean felt a shock of terror. Why was he carrying that? He wasn't on patrol!
Panic rose in her throat. What if...what if he's really a dangerous person?
After what she'd read and heard from the news media, she wasn't sure what Jim might be capable of.
Jim opened the revolver and emptied the bullets out into his hand. He placed the bullets and the gun into the lock box and closed it securely. Jean sighed.
Jim looked quickly at her, and she closed her eyes with a thudding heart. I hope he didn't see me looking at him.
Jean kept her eyes closed while her husband finished changing into his pajamas.
Come on, Jean. Don't be a fool. He's not an evil person. If he were, you'd have sensed it by now. You've let the paper and the TV tell you who your husband is. But they don't really know him. They've never lived with him.
Then again, I've never seen what he's like at work, either.
Jim laid down beside her, and she recalled his tender embrace.
No, he's a good person. I have to believe that.
But I still have to leave.
Jean awoke to the sound of Jimmy playing. He made his favorite car crashing sounds, so Jean had no doubt what he was doing.
I'm not getting up yet. He sounds fine. Jean had spent another nearly-sleepless night, and the thought of getting up left her feeling completely defeated.
Jim still snored softly beside her.
I love that sound.
Jean turned to face him, feeling puzzled.
Why would I love that sound?
The answer came from deep inside, from where that inner person lived. The one who wept when Jean decided to leave.
Because it means he survived another day of work and came home to me.
Jean suddenly felt a powerful desire to cuddle up with him. I love him so much!
Jean held herself back, and slowly shook her head. That's the old Jean talking. Those are her feelings. But I'm not her. I can't be.
She pushed the feelings away, shushing her inner voice. I need to be strong. I need to find out who I am now, not focus on who I was before. And the person I am now can't meet this family's needs.
A jarring ringing sound made her jump. Jim flinched as well, then rolled over and smacked the alarm clock. He stayed so still afterwards that Jean thought he'd fallen back to sleep, but then he gave a little groan and sat up.
Jean watched as he rubbed his eyes and stretched, and then turned to face her.
"How'd you sleep?" he asked groggily.
"Fine." Why did I say that?
She watched as he dragged his tired body out of the bed.
"It's only 7:00. Why're you up so early? You don't have to be at work until 10:30, right?"
"Yeah, but I want to do some more scrubbing." Jim rubbed at his right tricep, as if yesterday's scrubbing had taken a toll there.
Poor fellow. Jean felt a warm tenderness filling her, and she felt glad of that.
I'd like to part with good feelings. Jean couldn't be sure how she'd finally made up her mind to leave. She only knew that it no longer felt optional to her. It's what I have to do.
"I'll help you." Jean got up and started rummaging through her dresser for suitable clothes. Her fatigue-bleared eyes made choosing difficult.
"Are you sure you feel up to it?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I need to feel useful, anyway."
"Well, I'd sure welcome the help. And the company."
Jean felt warmed by the sincerity in his tone. She turned to give him a grateful smile, and then turned quickly away again, embarrassed.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot. I... uh...I can finish getting dressed in the bathroom." Jim stammered.
"No, don't be silly. It's... ." Jean stopped herself before she could say "It's your house." I know what he'd have to say about that.
"...it's all right." She finally concluded. Then she took her clothes and went to change in the bathroom instead.
Jim watched her head for the bathroom, and his heart filled with foreboding.
When is she going to feel comfortable with me again?
Something about her demeanor left him frightened. It's as if she doesn't want to get too comfortable with me.
Jim sighed, sat down, and pulled on his socks. He couldn't begin to figure out what to do with his family, so his mind chose to wrestle instead with issues that had answers.
Maybe I should just try to repaint over the graffiti. It might work.
But if it doesn't, then all that work and expense would have been for nothing.
He tied his laces and stood up, casting a glance at the bathroom door. Then, with a shake of his head, he walked out into the hall.
"Hi, Daddy. CRASH!" Jimmy greeted his father in typical boyish fashion. Jim had to smile a little, and reached down to rumple Jimmy's hair.
"Hi, son. Havin' fun?"
"Wanna help Mommy and me wash the writing off the house?"
"Can I use the hose?" Jimmy sounded enchanted by the idea.
"Only if you don't shoot us with it." Jim's smile broadened. He seems more like himself today.
Jimmy looked a tad disappointed. "Can I wear my bathing suit?"
"Sure, buddy. That's probably a good idea."
Jimmy scampered down the hall to change into his suit, and Jim felt immeasurably buoyed. Maybe this is going to work out after all.
The morning's disappearing fast. Jim shook himself and went outside to begin his assault on the walls.
Jean appeared outside a few moments later. She looked so appealing in her denim jeans, man-style camp shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and floppy sun hat. He had to smile at her, and she returned it.
Jim felt better with each passing moment. This feels like the Reed family again. I love it.
Jimmy burst through the door. "Where's the hose, Daddy?"
"Over there. Remember, no spraying us!"
"Okay." Jimmy turned on the spigot and promptly soaked himself. Jim laughed, and Jean smiled too.
She moved to stand next to Jim. "He looks a lot better today."
"Yeah, he does." Jim turned to look down at his wife. "Everything will work out. You'll see."
At that moment, nothing could have felt more natural than kissing Jean, especially with the privacy wall shielding them from neighborly eyes. Jim hesitated, but only for an instant.
Jean responded only half-heartedly. Jim pulled back a little and searched her eyes.
I see you in there. Behind the fear. I wish I knew what you were so afraid of.
One thing he knew for certain. Her walls were crumbling, her posture softening in his arms. He kissed her again, and felt her resisting not him, but herself. He drew back once more, pouring every bit of love he had out of his eyes and into hers. Please don't hide from me.
Jim released her from his arms and cradled her face in his hands instead. He knew how she loved that; how it never failed to melt her.
She closed her eyes with a sigh, and he felt her surrender to his touch. Jim claimed his prize, a kiss that turned his heart into a hammer and raised goosebumps down his arms. A kiss that quickly turned his blood into fire, fanned into intensity as he pressed her to him. He began to wonder which neighbor to send Jimmy to.
Jimmy hollered at them. "Aw c'mon. Stop that! Yuck!"
Jim paid him no attention, but Jimmy's next protest could not be so easily ignored. A blast of cold water shot from the hose, dousing the couple and drawing ragged gasps of shock.
"Jimmy!" Jim managed to shout once his breath returned. But one look at his soaking wet wife, rivers of water running off her floppy hat brim, made Jim have to laugh.
Jean's face mirrored none of his amusement. A moment later she pushed against his arms, freeing herself to run into the house. The last glimpse he saw of her face left his heart torn and his mind reeling.
Why is she so upset?
Jim forced down a maelstrom of painful emotions and sprinted into the house. "Jean?"
He tracked her to the backyard, where she stood weeping.
"Honey?" He slid the door open and approached her cautiously. Do I dare touch her?
Jim placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. This is Jean, and I'm going to treat her like Jean.
Jean shrugged away from his touch, half-heartedly, Jim thought. But for the moment he kept his hands at his sides.
"Why did you have to do that?" Jean whispered.
"Do what?" Jim felt totally baffled, at a loss as to what he could have done wrong.
"Kiss me like that," Jean explained, not lifting her eyes.
Why did I have to do that? The question left Jim's heart completely shredded. "Because I love you!"
"I was so sure! I was so ready to go. I wasn't going to live here one more day. I was going to leave, and nothing you said or did was going to stop me."
"Jean, no!" Jim felt the familiar tingling pinpricks of terror. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. She kept her eyes on the ground.
"Honey, why? Why would you want to give up so soon? You've only been home a couple of days. Please don't ever say that...Jean, we need you here. We love you!"
What happened? I thought things were going so well!
Jean raised her head, and for the first time Jim saw her unmasked heartache. "You love her. You love the old Jean. But I'm not her. I can't be her. You'd be better off without me. I've ruined everything for you..."
"No!" Jim interrupted, unable to bear any more. He placed his fingertips on her lips to halt her wrenching words. But Jean would have none of that, and she pushed his hand gently away.
"You're right. I've only been here a couple of days. And already I've seen you vilified in the press, I've seen our house vandalized and your car trashed, I've made you mad, I've made you cry, and I've made Jimmy hate me. I've seen you with a face full of cuts from some gun battle you fought in. I've worn you out so much that you needed to go to Pete's place just to escape for a while. It's all so overwhelming! You told me at the hospital that you were afraid I wouldn't be able to stand this life. Well, you were right. I can't live like this. I can't do anything about the problems that come from your job, so I need to get away from them. And I can't do anything about the problems that I'm causing for you and Jimmy, so I have to get out of your lives. For your sakes. It's the only thing that makes sense."
"Jean, you're killing me. Don't do this!"
"I'm doing this for you!" Jean straightened her spine, her resolve hardening. "Jim, the kindest thing I can do for you and for Jimmy is to go away and let you mourn and heal. Because the old Jean is gone. She died. And as long as I'm here to act a little bit like her ghost, as long as I'm here to kiss and cuddle with, you're going to be in denial. You're going to believe she's still alive. She's not. And you've got to accept that. Jimmy's right. I'm not his mother." Jean swallowed the lump that her words left in her throat. "And I'm not...I'm not your wife, either." Her eyes prickled and burned.
Jim seemed unable to speak. His whole being reflected shock, disbelief, and horror.
Jean could see that he didn't understand. He won't accept that this is in his best interest. Maybe it will be easier for him if he thinks that leaving will be good for me, too. She recalled the words she used to try to convince herself of that very thing.
"Like I said, I'm not just doing this for you. I'm doing it for me. This..." she gestured to encompass all of the awfulness of the past few days, "...this is more than I'm ready to deal with. I don't know what to do with a ruined house and a ruined car and a city full of people who hate you. I don't want to live with a son who hates me. I don't want to live in the shadow of someone that you want me to be. I have to find out who I really am."
Jean felt that her heart would tear in two. I can't take much more of this.
"I've got to go pack. Now."
Jim felt as close to panic as he'd ever felt in his life. He snagged Jean's arm as she went by, holding it like the lifeline he believed it to be.
Jean turned back to him with regretful eyes. "Jim, if you really love me, you won't hold me here against my will."
Her words sunk in like the awful truth they were. Slowly he released her arm, with the fatalism of someone who knew his life was about to end.
Jean turned her back and disappeared into the house.
Jean threw the sliding door open, more certain than ever of what she had to do.
She stepped inside, feeling the softness of carpeting replacing the hard concrete slab of the patio. Her eyes needed a moment to adjust to the dimmer light.
Jimmy. She saw with a pang of regret that the little fellow sat huddled in a miserable ball, watching her with overflowing eyes.
I'm sorry he had to hear that. But there was nothing she could do about that now.
Leaving is the kindest thing for him, too. I need to just get it over with.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and spoke softly to Jimmy. "I'm so sorry, son. I'm so, so sorry. And I do love you."
Jean felt herself weakening again. Now, while I still have the strength!
She moved quickly, all of her actions planned in advance. She picked up the phone book, thumbed through it, and then called a cab. Next, Jean peeled off her soaking wet clothing and changed into dry ones. She retrieved the suitcase from the closet where Jim had stored it, swung it open, and quickly stuffed it with items she'd decided on the night before. As it snapped closed around her chosen treasures, she caught sight of Jim out of the corner of her eye. He stood in the doorway, and she straightened for a better look.
I didn't hear him open the door. She felt a surge of fear. Did he watch me change clothes?
She shook her head and pushed the uncomfortable thought out of her mind. I'll never have to worry about anything like that once I leave here.
She folded another item into the suitcase.
I hope he isn't going to try to block my way. I don't know what I'd do then. Jean glanced up at her husband a little nervously.
Jim's face wore such anguish that Jean nearly lost her nerve. But not entirely.
He only thinks he needs me. The one he needs is Jean, and I can't give her to him. All I can give him is his freedom.
Whether he wants it or not.
Little Jimmy felt his world collapsing around him. He couldn't have put his thoughts or feelings into words, any more than he'd been able to for days. But deep in his heart he knew one thing. He'd put that woman to the test, and he'd desperately wanted her to pass.
My mommy would never leave. Never.
She said she's not my mommy. She says my mommy's dead.
She said she doesn't want to stay with a son who hates her.
That last comment hit him the hardest of all. It's my fault. It's all my fault. Daddy will be so mad. He rocked his little body, trying to stop himself from crying.
That woman came quickly into the house, stopping for a moment to say "I'm sorry" to him. Then she hurried to her bedroom.
Daddy came behind a few minutes later. He also stopped and looked at Jimmy, reaching out to lay a gentle hand on top of his head.
Daddy was more upset and scared than Jimmy had ever seen him. He looks like he wants to cry.
My big strong Daddy?
Jimmy's young mind could find nothing sure to cling to, so it simply went blank. But his heart could not escape so easily, and he felt himself drowning in the terror of this strange new life. A life without a Mommy. A life where even Daddy no longer seemed like the tower of strength Jimmy needed him to be. Where even Daddy was afraid.
Daddy turned and followed after That Woman.
Finally Jimmy mastered his tears and stood up to follow, drawn to the scene of familial collapse unfolding in his parents' room. He sat down quietly on the hallway floor, the place where he usually raced his toy cars. Now he could only grieve along with Daddy as they both watched That Woman packing.
A suitcase. She really is going away.
Jimmy would have sobbed again, but his pain and fear went way beyond tears.
Maybe Daddy will stop her. Maybe Daddy will make her stay. The thought gave Jimmy some hope. Daddy was his hero. Daddy took care of bad guys. Daddy made the world a safer place. Mommy said so.
But then Daddy spoke, and his words crushed Jimmy's budding hope into the dust. The little boy could scarcely believe what he heard. It stripped his courage away, and sent him running for his room.
Jim stood and watched his worst nightmare coming true, and for a long time he could find no words to confront it.
Jean's leaving me. She's leaving me. Before he'd ever dreamed of brain tumors and death, he'd seen a hundred variations of this nightmare. But never once had he believed it would become real.
Some things are just too horrible to happen.
Everything else looked so normal. The curtains swayed in the breeze. The bed was carefully made up. Clothes hung neatly in the closet. The seconds ticked by on the clock.
And Jean was packing to leave.
Jim's mind could scarcely take it in.
Finally he swallowed the gravel in his throat, and licked his dry lips with an equally dry tongue. He needed a couple of tries before his voice would work for him. When he could speak, he said the hardest words that had ever passed his lips.
"Where will you go?"
Behind him he heard Jimmy's feet run down the hall, and he turned to watch his son slam himself into his bedroom. I didn't know he was there! His heart ached for his precious little boy. Our little boy.
How am I supposed to take care of both of them?
He knew he ought to comfort Jimmy, but...
But if I can stop Jean from leaving, that will be even better than comfort.
Jean did not hesitate with her response, and Jim realized just how thoroughly she'd thought things through.
"I heard about the Salvation Army on TV. They take people in who need a place to stay while they're getting back on their feet. I wouldn't have to stay long, I hope. Just long enough to find a job of some kind."
My wife would rather live at the Salvation Army than with me?
"What...what can the Salvation Army offer you that we can't?"
Jean turned soulful eyes his way.
"I don't understand, Jean. Please, help me understand. If you're going to destroy my world, please at least help me understand why."
"Jim, you've confused me with someone else. Someone who no longer exists. As long as I'm in this house, you're going to want me to be her. You're going to need me to be her. And so will Jimmy. And I will go through every day living a lie, failing you, failing Jimmy, and causing strife in this house. I won't do that. I can't do that. It wouldn't be good for you, for Jimmy, or for me." She folded one last blouse and smoothed it neatly on top of the others.
Jean turned to survey the room, as if looking for anything she might have forgotten to pack.
"Jean, you can't go to the Salvation Army. It's not what you think. You'll be living like...like a homeless person off the street. Jean, you just don't understand what you're letting yourself in for." God, please make her listen to me!
"Well, what else can I do? Where else can I go? I don't want to move in with my parents. That would be the same song, just a different verse. I have to be on my own." Jean snapped the suitcase shut with an air of finality.
"Jean, I'm sorry I didn't understand...I didn't mean to put pressure on you to be...to be like you used to be. I'm sorry I did that. Please forgive me. Please don't walk out on me for that. Give me another chance. Let me try to let go of my...unrealistic expectations. Yell at me when I get it wrong. Anything but leaving. Please, anything but this."
Can't you feel how wrong this is? Jim leaned heavily on the door frame, desperately needing whatever support he could find.
"How can you be so sure that you want to be married to me? Isn't it because you still believe, deep down inside, that I'm the same Jean you used to love?" Jean looked into his eyes with unguarded sincerity. Her hand closed on the handle of the case, and she lifted it.
Jim had no answer for her question, and he felt his window of hope closing rapidly. She's ready to go. Find the right words! Say something! Do something! Don't let her leave!
"Please don't block the doorway, Jim." Jean sounded truly regretful, but determined.
Jim walked the rest of the way into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. I don't want Jimmy to hear any more than he has to. But he kept off to one side so Jean wouldn't feel trapped.
"Jean, let me just say one more thing. I know I can't force you to do anything, and I promise I won't try. But will you please hear me out on this? I think we can reach a compromise."
"Okay. I'm open to anything that will be good for us all." She let the suitcase rest on the bed again.
Jim pounced upon the only idea that entered his head, and placed all of his hope in that. Maybe if she sees that I believe in it, she will, too.
"Let me give you some money. You could go stay in a hotel. You wouldn't have to tell anyone which hotel you went to. That would have to be better than the Salvation Army. Besides, if you went to the Salvation Army, I'd know where you were, wouldn't I?" Jim stopped for a deep breath, gauging his wife's reaction.
Jean seemed to consider his idea, so he continued with more boldness.
"You could have time to yourself. All the time you need. Time to find yourself, away from all of the stresses around here. Time to make a more informed decision. Time to see how easily you're going to find a job, and stuff like that." Jim unconsciously spread his hands in the non-threatening negotiation stance the LAPD had taught him.
Jean still seemed to be listening. Her suitcase remained untouched on the bed, and she made no move toward the door.
Jim worked up a little smile, pouring as much sincerity into his face and voice as he could muster. "Honey, I don't know if you'll believe me or not, but the last few days around here have not exactly been typical. This is not the way we lived before. And a lot of the stress has nothing to do with your amnesia. You didn't cause the gun battle I got into, or the vandalism that happened, or the slanderous lies that made it into the press. You didn't cause Jimmy to be so hateful. He could have handled this differently. And no, we definitely would not be better off without you."
He paused for a breather. Desperation made the room seem very low on oxygen.
"But I can understand the point you're trying to make. You don't want to be...pushed into your old mold. That's fine. If you stay, I'll do my best never to make that mistake again. But if you feel you have to leave, at least let me put you in a decent place. And at least promise me that you won't make any final decisions yet. Give us time. Please give us time." The last few words nearly choked him, and he knew his face plainly showed his grief.
Jean looked down, but he saw the moistness in her eyes.
"Don't you think it would be better to make a clean break?" Her voice sounded very small.
"No, Jean, I don't. I don't think we should break at all. Breaking hurts. It destroys."
"The hurt and destruction have already happened, Jim. Don't you see? I'm just trying to help you accept that." Her eyes seemed to plead with him to understand.
Jim closed his eyes, trying to shove panic away yet again.
"All I'm asking, Jean, is that you think of this as a breather, not as a breaking away. Think of it as a time to collect yourself. We're still in such an overwhelming time right now, such a tough time in our recovery, that it would be foolish to make life-changing decisions."
Jean looked down. "Before you came in the room I...I called a taxi. It'll be here soon."
"I could...." Jim stopped himself. I could take her in whose car?
Besides, she doesn't want me to know where she's going.
"Will you please consider what I said? Don't you agree that this is too crazy a time for making huge decisions like...like destroying a family?" Jim moved closer, keeping his eyes locked with hers.
Jean sighed and sat down on the bed. "Maybe you're right. Maybe. But I can't make you any promises about what I'll decide when this 'breather' is over."
Jim sighed with relief. "Thank you. All I want is a chance for things to work out." He felt his knees going weak, and he sat down to cover for it.
"If it could, that would be wonderful." Jean sounded doubtful, but the words gave Jim the first real glimmer of hope he'd felt since this insanity started.
Where will you go?
That's what Daddy asked her. He's not going to make her stay. Jimmy reached down and scooped up Yellow Dog, hugging him close. But then his eyes fell on Pancake.
On some level below Jimmy's consciousness, the little brown bear had become a symbol of his mother. He had given it to her back before he knew she'd changed. Back when he still thought he had his old Mommy. When he would go to bed at night, he would imagine Pancake with Mommy, and he would ask Pancake to tell Mommy "I love you." It made him feel close to her.
Then Pancake came home with that woman. That woman who turned Jimmy's world upside-down and removed nearly every bit of security in his heart. Pancake got thrown under the bed and ignored.
I wanted her to turn back into my Mommy. Jimmy reached under the bed and pulled Pancake out. Without knowing why, he dropped Yellow Dog and hugged Pancake close, connecting once again with the dream of his old Mommy. Then, blinking back tears, he quietly opened his door and headed down the hall, bear in tow.
Daddy's bedroom door was shut. He could hear them talking inside. Daddy wanted That Woman to stay.
She wouldn't stay.
And it's my fault.
Jimmy hurried past on stealthy feet, not wanting to hear any more. He ran to the back door, sliding it open and closing it behind him as quietly as he could.
His footsteps carried him to the huge old elm in the backyard. It towered dauntingly above him, and his heart began to pound.
I know I can do it. I know I can.
Jimmy had long contemplated this particular tree. He'd even clambered up into it with some help from Daddy a few times. But he'd never done it alone.
The branches swayed far too high above his head, but they seemed tantalizingly close to the top of the chain link fence.
I always told Frankie I could get into the tree by myself if I climbed up on the fence. But I'm not allowed to climb on it.
Jimmy hesitated only a moment. He held Pancake's ear between his teeth and clambered up the chain links, finding toe-holds for his shoes and hoisting himself along. Only a few steps and he'd reached the top.
But now what?
The tree branch hovered teasingly close, but how could he let go of the fence without falling off?
He reached awkwardly up with one hand, then wrapped that arm around the branch. The rough bark scraped at his skin, but he held on. Carefully, scarcely breathing, he rose to a wobbly stand on the top bar of the fence, then wrapped his other arm around the branch.
From there it was child's play. Daddy always called Jimmy a monkey, because once he got into a tree, he felt very much at home there. Jimmy's little body may have been immature, but his veins coursed with the blood of a natural athlete, and he excelled at physical challenges.
Jimmy hoisted himself up to hang like a sloth, then clambered up and onto the top of the branch, managing to keep his biting hold on his bear.
I did it!
Jimmy prepared himself to try something he'd long imagined. Of course, in his imagination he'd done this just to play. He never dreamed he'd really leave his home and family.
He used to think only of adventure when he'd stared at the closely planted trees of his neighborhood. Often he'd imagined being able to travel from yard to yard without touching the ground. Frankie said he was crazy. Jimmy didn't think so.
Quick! Jimmy remembered that he might be pursued at any moment. He shimmied across the branch, then reached for the branch of a neighbor's tree. It took a lot of work, but after a terrifying scramble and frantic near-fall, he finally found himself in a backyard diagonal to his own. I did it! I told you I could, Frankie!
I'll never get to tell Frankie about it.
Or Daddy. Or Uncle Pete. Or Mommy....
Pete turned onto Miramont in time to see Candace Bailey's Buick pulling into Jim's driveway. I picked a busy time to arrive.
Candace took her time getting her things together before exiting the car, so Pete found himself walking up the driveway with her. They exchanged the usual pleasantries, but then Pete heard another car pulling up to the curb. He turned for a look.
A taxi? The disreputable-looking yellow cab seemed out of place here. Did Jim forget I was driving him to work this morning? That hardly seemed likely. Pete glanced at Candace, and she looked equally confused.
The Reeds' front door banged, and Jim rushed past Pete and Candace without acknowledging them. He ran straight to the cab and leaned in to talk to the driver.
I don't like this. Pete had no idea what it meant, but it couldn't be good.
Behind Pete, the front door swung open again. Pete turned, and his jaw dropped.
There stood Jean with a suitcase.
A suitcase! Pete began to question his own sanity. This can't be happening. This can't be.
Candace gasped. "Jean?"
Jean flashed them both a sorrowful glance, then walked past them toward the taxi.
Pete grabbed her arm. "Jean, what's going on?"
"Jean, you're not leaving?" Candace laid a trembling hand on that same arm. "Honey?"
Jean turned her tear-stained face to them. "This isn't easy for me either, but it's best for all of us. Please let me go."
Pete slowly released her arm, feeling shock settling in at full-strength. Candace, however, would not release her daughter.
"Jean, honey, you can't mean this. You can't do this. Jim loves you so much, and Jimmy does too. This can't be right, sweetie. Tell me that you're not leaving."
Jean's eyes pooled, but she gently pried Candace's hand off of her arm. "I'm sorry."
Candace began to sob as Jean resumed her path to the driveway. A moment later Pete caught up with her, not even pretending to be uninvolved.
Jim's voice carried over to him. "I don't know where she wants to go. You'll have to ask her. She won't tell me."
"Oh, it's one of those deals, huh? The ol' gal's leavin' yous? Well, yous're better off without her, I can tell yous. My ol' lady was... ."
Jim cut the driver off with barely concealed rage. "I'm just telling you that all the cash I have is ten dollars. So don't take her anywhere beyond that range if you don't want to get stiffed."
With that Jim straightened up and walked over toward Jean. Pete hung back only a step or two, trying to fathom the insanity unfolding before him.
Jim gave a ten dollar bill to his wife. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"No. But I'm sure I have to." Jean looked ready to break, and she reached a trembling hand to Jim's cheek.
She looks so awful. So exhausted. She's not herself at all. What on earth has been going on here?
Jean continued her sorrowful words. "Give Jimmy a kiss for me. Tell him that I love him, even though he won't believe it." She paused to wipe at her eyes.
"Baby, you don't need to do this." Jim's voice dripped with pain.
Pete stared at Jim with a growing sense of shock. How much more can one man stand? He began to feel that his friend had become the target of all the fiendish attacks that Hell could muster. A modern-day Job.
"Jean, please don't go." Jim took hold of his wife's hand, but let it slide through his fingers as she gently pulled away. His empty hands fell desolately to his sides.
Jean climbed into the back seat of the taxi and said nothing, but her rounded shoulders and continual wiping at her face spoke volumes about her pain.
"C'mon, people, I ain't got all day. Are yous goin' somewhere Missy, or ain't yous?" The driver sounded like he had a huge wad of something in his cheek.
Jim told the driver in no uncertain terms to wait a minute. Pete raised his eyebrows at hearing some unusual vocabulary from his partner. But who could blame him?
Pete felt like he ought to be doing something. At work Jim counted on Pete to save him from all sorts of dangers, just as Pete counted on Jim.
Now he's facing a fate worse than death, and there's nothing I can do.
Why in the world is he all wet?
Jim sprinted to the house and slammed the door on the way in.
"What's he doin'? I ain't stayin' here while he tries every trick in the book to get the dame to stay!"
Pete leaned to look in the front window. "My friend said 'wait.' And that's just what you'll do." He let the cold authority of many years of police work infuse his words.
The driver rolled his eyes, but seemed to resign himself to waiting. "The meter's runnin', yous remember that!"
Pete tried to catch Jean's eye, but she kept her head down. He cast a quick glance back at Candace, who'd remained rooted where he'd left her, still too distressed to do much of anything.
The whole world is falling apart for this family. Pete hated feeling so helpless.
Jim emerged a minute later, his face a mask of anguish. He trotted over to the taxi and leaned in Jean's window.
"Here. Take my Master Charge. It will see you through for a little while." He handed the card through the window.
"Thank you," came the quiet reply.
Jim squatted down on his haunches and spoke with a choking voice.
"Honey, please just make me one promise. Please don't...don't disappear without a word. While you were missing, all I could think was that you'd been murdered, or killed in a car wreck, or something else awful. Not knowing is.... " Jim looked away from Jean, and Pete could see agony on his face. "I couldn't live with not knowing. Please don't do that to me." He whispered hoarsely.
Jean reached out a hand, and Jim took it almost desperately.
"I wouldn't disappear like that. Not in my right mind, I mean. Jim, I care so much about you and Jimmy. I'm not trying to be cruel, please believe that. I'm trying to spare you pain." Jean's voice sounded so effortful, as if she battled through armies of fatigue and despair just to speak.
Jean sniffed, then reached out and laid a hand on Jim's cheek. Jim pressed into her hand, his anguish written in every line of his body.
Jean continued. "I'm sorry this couldn't work out. I wish I could have been the woman you needed me to be. You deserve that. Now, go check on Jimmy. He needs you now. The two of you can make a life together. I know you can."
Jean leaned forward and said something to the driver.
The driver in turn growled at Jim. "Move it or lose it." The transmission audibly clunked into Drive.
Jim straightened up, pulling his hand away from the cab. The taxi pulled away from the curb, and Pete could see the driver leaning back to say something to Jean. A moment later, they drove down the street to the stop sign.
Then they turned the corner, and they were gone.
Pete stared numbly.
Jim stared down the street as well, but then turned to face Pete.
I don't think I've ever seen a face that ghastly. Jim's unshaven face and plastered wet hair only made things worse.
Jim walked like a man with a bullet in his gut. He made his way to Pete, putting a hand on his shoulder and leaning heavily on him for a moment. "My son. I have to go take care of my son," he husked.
Pete wasn't sure if Jim was talking to him or to himself. But a moment later Jim pulled himself away and headed effortfully back, past his crippled and defaced car, toward his graffiti-stained house. Toward his mother-in-law, who sobbed openly next to the privacy wall. Toward a terrified, confused little boy who needed more comfort than Jim cold possibly give.
Pete shook himself and headed for the house as well. I've got to call Mac. Pete wasn't about to leave Jim. Not now.
"JIMMY?" Inside the house, Jim's voice took on a new tone of terror.
Pete picked up his pace. Now what?
He threw the front door open to see Jim rushing wild-eyed through the house, searching frantically and calling for his son.
Oh no. This can't be happening. This can NOT be happening. Pete started calling too, and behind him he heard Candace pick up the cry.
None of them got any response.
Jim slid the glass door open and took a quick survey of the yard. He called his son's name again, but no one answered. His heart pounded and his head spun. If he's not in the yard, then where is he?
Please be behind the shed. He ran around the corner of the metal structure and peered around the back. Only weeds and a stray baseball rewarded his search.
No, he's not there. Jim opened the door and pulled the chain to turn on the light in the shed. Nothing.
"JIMMY!" He summoned an extra reserve of breath from somewhere and called louder this time, certain he could be heard down the block.
The garage. Jim ran to check inside, stopping at the sight of his latest auto rebuilding project. His terror increased by the moment as he stared at the car's tightly-closed trunk.
I've pulled a suffocated child out of a car trunk on a cooler day than this.
Everything in him recoiled at the thought of opening the trunk, of what he might find there. But his trembling hand reached out just the same, some cooler part of his mind forcing him to act.
If he's in there, maybe it's not too late.
He lifted the handle, fighting down waves of nausea.
The trunk lid swung open, and Jim sagged against the car with relief at finding it empty. But only for a moment.
"JIMMY!" He forced his trembling legs to carry him out of the garage and back into the house.
I've got to get help. Pete will help me. I can't do this. I can't go on.
"JIMMY!" Daddy's voice called.
Daddy sounds worried. Jimmy scrambled around to hide on the other side of the tree trunk, scarcely breathing.
Daddy catches bad guys. I know he can catch me. Jimmy may have felt unworthy to go home on his own, but he couldn't help hoping that Daddy would make him go.
The call came a few more times, and Jimmy found it so hard to resist. He could hear the terror in Daddy's voice.
But Daddy knows it's my fault. I can't go home.
Daddy went back inside the house.
Jimmy felt fear and loneliness creeping into his soul. Daddy didn't find me. If Daddy can't find me, no one can.
Jimmy nestled into the crook of a branch, buried his face in his bear, and cried his heart out.
Jim felt only dimly aware of Pete's supporting hand on his arm. He complied unquestioningly as his friend steered him to a chair and sat him down.
"Jim, are you listening to me?"
Jim raised dull eyes toward Pete. "I have to find Jimmy, Pete. Help me find him."
"I will. I've called Mac, and he's gonna have the whole district searching. We'll find him. But Jim, could he have gone to a friend's house? Think, partner."
"He might have gone to Frankie's. That's his best friend, and the only boy his age on the block."
"Do you know the phone number?"
Jim could scarcely have remembered his own number at this moment. "It's...." he jerked his thumb toward the phone index without finishing his sentence.
Pete snatched the index up. "What's the last name?"
"Yates. It's Yates," Candace filled in helpfully.
"Yeah, that's it." Jim clenched his fists and tried to will himself back together. I need to stay strong. I can't fall apart now. Jimmy needs me. He listened mutely as Pete dialed the number, and buried his face in his hands when he heard his one hope shattered.
He's run away. He's really run away.
I'm alone. I've lost everyone. I've lost everything.
He forced himself to his feet, knowing that despair threatened to completely immobilize him. Get moving. Get moving.
"I'll start canvassing this way," he managed, pointing up the street. "Will you take the other direction?"
"Sure, partner, if you think you're up to it on your own." Pete looked dubious.
"I can do it. I have to."
"I'll go with you," Candace offered, though she scarcely looked better than Jim.
"No, Mrs. Bailey. You need to stay here at the phone in case the police call."
"Oh...oh, all right." Candace nodded and perched by the phone as if expecting it to ring any second.
Jim felt a certain satisfaction at how the plans fell into place. Protocol became a steady, sure anchor for Jim to grasp, and he clung to it. Do your job. You'll find him if you do your job.
Jimmy heard the cries resuming. He heard his name called by his father and his Uncle Pete.
I was so bad to Mommy. Finally Jimmy felt willing to call her that.
Running away is very bad, too. Every time he ignored his family's call, he felt himself sinking deeper into trouble. By now, he felt too deep to ever get out.
He'd never felt so forlorn in his life.
Despite his earlier hopes, the next tree stood too far away for him to reach. If he climbed down the tree he occupied now, he wouldn't be able to get back up. Its branches hung too far from the ground and the fences.
I guess I'll just stay here. He wiped at his nose and tried not to cry again.
Hunger made his stomach growl. He hugged Pancake closer, then scratched at a spot where a leaf continually tickled him.
A moment later a motion caught his eye. From his high perch he could see a car pulling into the driveway of this house.
I don't want them to see me.
Jimmy stuffed Pancake's ear back into his mouth while he looked around for a place to hide. A few minutes later he'd climbed to a very leafy part of the tree where he felt sure no one would spot him. He pushed some of the foliage aside just enough to keep watch over his house.
It used to be my house.
"JIMMY!" Uncle Pete's voice sounded further away with every yell. So did Daddy's, but in the other direction. Nana's voice stopped calling a while ago.
"Daddy." Jimmy whimpered. Despite his best efforts, his lip began to tremble and little sobbing sounds escaped him. Twigs and smaller branches shook a little bit with him. But only the tree heard his mournful little voice whimpering, "Dad-dyyyyy!"
"I can't believe she left like that. Now, of all times. I thought I knew my daughter. But maybe I'll never see that Jean again. Maybe she's really gone, and the daughter I have left is a stranger." Candace turned watery eyes toward Pete. "I know she's my flesh and blood, and I love her, but right now I'd like to wring her neck!"
Pete could understand the emotion. He'd been battling against rage since Jean walked out the door with her suitcase. But he'd heard some things that had comforted him a little, and he shared them now with Jean's mother. "I know it's hard for us to understand. But we really can't imagine what she's going through. And we also don't know if she's able to think perfectly clearly yet. She did have brain surgery not long ago."
Candace nodded and dabbed at her eyes. "I know, but somehow that's no comfort."
Pete knelt down beside her. "Were you able to hear what she and Jim talked about?"
Candace shook her head in the negative.
"I overheard it all. And I...I couldn't help believing that this was hurting her as much as it was hurting Jim. She really seemed to think that her leaving was in Jim's best interest, and Jimmy's."
"How can we even let her know that Jimmy's run away?" Candace searched Pete's eyes for comfort.
"If we don't find him within the next couple of hours, Mac said he'll get some officers to track Jean down, too." Pete knelt beside the distraught woman. He knew instinctively that she needed something to do, some protocol of her own that would strengthen her, just as Jim had been strengthened. I wonder how far he's gotten.
"I have to go help Jim search. Can you handle the phoning?"
"Yes, yes. Go ahead. I'll call everybody in the phone index." Candace counted off her responsibilities. "I'll let everyone in the family know what's happening, and I'll call everyone else to see if they can help us find him, too."
"Remember to stay off the phone for a minute between each call, just in case the police department is trying to get a hold of you."
"I know. I know. You go on." Candace opened the phone index and picked up the receiver.
Pete went out and looked north for some sign of Jim. He saw him almost at the end of the block, walking away from a house empty-handed. "JIMMY!" The worried call carried to Pete through the hot afternoon air.
Pete shook his head and started his mission, hitting the first house to the south. He knocked, showed his badge, and interviewed the neighbor. He got plenty of shock and concern from her, but no helpful information. One down, who knows how many to go.
"JIMMY!" he called, as soon as he hit the street. Then he trudged up the driveway to the next house.
Jean sat in the taxi, completely ignoring the passing street scenes. She'd told the driver to take her to a moderately-priced hotel. He could choose which one. He'd looked at her like she was crazy, but he'd chosen his course. Now she could only trust him to get her there.
I'm doing the right thing. I'm doing the right thing. She closed her eyes and bit her lip, trying to believe herself.
It all seemed so clear before. So why is it all murky now?
The cab bounced squeakily over a pothole, jarring Jean and deepening her dejection.
She began trying to talk herself out of her doubts. No, this has to be right. Jim and Jimmy will never heal or be happy if I'm there.
Jean's lip began to tremble. Oh, God, please help Jimmy. Please help him to know that I love him. Please, if it's possible, help him to decide he wants me back! She began to weep quietly. No, I mustn't get my hopes up.
I'm so tired. So very tired.
"Aw, c'mon lady. Don't go blubbering in my cab. It don't look good to the people drivin' past. Makes 'em think I ain't treatin' you right." The driver's thick Bronx accent and callous words grated on Jean's ears. She bit her lip again and stifled her emotions.
The cab pulled up to a fairly decent motel. It didn't look seedy, but it certainly wasn't luxurious, either. Its trademark green roof and 1950s-style exterior looked fairly good on a cosmetic level, but underneath the paint Jean saw signs of neglect.
"Is this the place?" Jean asked quietly.
"Well, this is a mid-priced hotel. That's what yous asked for, ain't it? I could take yous on a tour of all the hotels in LA, but yous'd have to have more than that little ten dollar bill your friend gave yous."
"Husband," Jean corrected him softly.
"He's my husband." She spoke up more clearly. Or at least he was.
"Don't look like yous are plannin' to stay that way." The cabbie chuckled, though Jean couldn't begin to imagine why.
"How much do I owe you?"
"Oh, that tenner will do yous."
Jean found that amount hard to swallow. She leaned forward and looked at the meter, suddenly remembering that cabs had such things.
"That meter says six dollars and 85 cents."
"I charge extra for carrying passengers who don't know where they're goin'. If yous don't like it, hey, I can take yous back to your husband." The driver lowered his voice to a sarcastic mutter. "If he really is your husband."
Jean wanted so desperately to tell him to take her back.
No, I've got to be strong. I have to do this for all of us.
But I'm going to be so lonely.
She opened the door of the cab. "I'm going in there to get change for my ten. I'll be back in a minute."
"Yeah, well, the meter's runnin'. Don't yous forget that." The cabbie made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
Jean stepped out of the cab and went inside. Fortunately, no one was ahead of her at the desk, and she was able to get change quickly.
She returned to the cab and counted out seven dollars and fifty cents. "There. I gave you a little extra." She pocketed the remainder.
"Oh, ain't yous just so generous." The driver rolled his eyes. "I'll take my wife out for steaks and champagne with this tip. Thank yous very much." His sarcastic tone wafted up through clouds of cigar smoke, followed by his exhaust as he drove away.
It's more than you deserved. Jean couldn't help comparing this man to her husband.
I wish it could have worked out with Jim, and with Jimmy.
I'd give anything.
Jim moved on automatic pilot. He scanned yards. He knocked on doors. He asked questions. He gave instructions. He called for his son. He went to the next house and did it all over again under the merciless California sun.
His emotions swung as wildly as his routine stayed fixed. He ricocheted from anger at Jean, to understanding, to despondency over losing her. He careened from certainty that Jimmy was fine and this was all a silly misunderstanding, to picturing him in horrific straits. Or worse. And all the while he fought against his most ruthless enemies, panic and despair.
Just keep going. Find Jimmy. And when you do, hold onto him, and never let him go.
Pete wished fervently for a cold glass of water. Even warm, rubbery water from a hose. Anything to soothe his parched throat, and maybe some extra to pour over his sweating head. Even the shade from his uniform hat would have been welcome indeed.
Pete ran his forearm across his forehead as he contemplated his course. He'd come to the end of another block, and couldn't decide which way to look next.
We need our cc units. For all I know, Jim could have found him by now. Maybe I ought to head back toward the house, but on this next block over.
Pete turned left and walked to the next block, then left again. Eventually, this course would take him along the street behind Jim's.
"JIMMY!" His throat felt sore from all the yelling. Ignore it. It doesn't matter. Just find Jimmy. Find your godson. Find Jim's little boy.
Pete trudged up the first lawn on this block. Please know something. Please.
Jean thanked the employee who'd helped her with her bags, but he gave her a surly expression and muttered his way back down the hall.
Isn't anybody nice any more? She slid her key into the lock and let herself in.
The room reeked of cigarette smoke from a previous occupant, and Jean felt her nose wrinkling with distaste.
I'm so alone.
What am I doing here?
She hauled her suitcase into the room and let the door slam behind her. This seemed so right before. It must have been the right choice. I'm just tired.
Jean dragged herself over to the bed and collapsed onto it, not even bothering to pull the bedding back. It will feel so good to sleep. Exhaustion and sorrow wrapped themselves around her, while loneliness insinuated itself into her soul.
Just sleep. Just sleep.
Sleep still would not come.
Jean lay completely motionless, too tired to toss or turn. She kept her eyes resolutely closed, and tried to wipe her mind clear of any thoughts. Yet still her mind refused to surrender its wakefulness.
How can this be?
Jean stared at the insides of her eyelids. She breathed as slowly and deeply as she could. She counted sheep. Her whole body cried out for sleep.
I'm still awake.
Pete steered his weary body back toward Jim's house.
Jimmy will probably be home already. This exhausting search will all have been for nothing.
And I'll be so glad.
He rounded the corner onto Miramont and felt his heart hit his shoes. Mac's wagon sat parked in front of Jim's house.
This could be good news, but somehow Pete didn't think so.
He pushed himself to a run through the heat, slowing to a sprint and panting as he hit the yard.
Is Jim home?
He skirted the privacy wall and pulled the front door open, pausing to let his eyes adjust to the light.
"Oh, Pete, I'm so glad you're here!" Candace's voice came from across the room. "Let me get you some cold water." She jumped up and hurried to the kitchen, wiping at her eyes as she went.
"Thanks," Pete replied, but gave most of his attention to his sergeant and his partner.
Jim's expression of hollow devastation did nothing to raise Pete's hopes, though Mac's face didn't seem quite so grim. Doesn't look like the worst has happened, at least.
"What's the news?" Pete directed the question to his superior. Jim didn't look like he was up to answering.
"No sign of him. I've just been asking Jim some questions, trying to get some fresh ideas of where to look." Mac shook his head and gave Pete a significant look.
He's telling me what I already know. Jim's all in.
Pete contemplated his partner for several worried seconds. Jim seemed oblivious to his scrutiny.
"I've also got some off-duty officers who've volunteered to try to track Jean down," Mac continued. "We're checking all the hotels in the area, especially the ones we think a cab could get to for ten dollars or less. We're also trying to get some answers from the cab driver, but so far he's been hard to contact."
I'm not surprised. He didn't seem like the most cooperative sort of person.
Mac continued. "If she's used the charge card that Jim gave her, we'll have a good chance of finding her. But it may take time."
Pete sighed and accepted an icy glass of water with a grateful nod to Candace. He downed the whole thing in several long gulps, then wiped his mouth with his arm.
"What can I do?"
Mac sighed. "I take it you got no information from the neighbors."
"No, nothing. That's strange in itself. All of the neighbors on this street know Jimmy on sight. One of them, a Mrs. Gordon, said she's been sitting by her window most of the day. She's an older lady and she knits without looking at her needles. She said she's sure Jimmy didn't go down the street, unless it was during some short times when she may have stepped out of the room. I don't know how accurate she may be."
Jim spoke up, his voice dull and hollow. "Mrs. Gordon always knows everything that's going on. She watches the whole neighborhood all the time."
"Which house is hers?" Mac pointed toward a street map he'd opened out on the dining room table. Pete walked over and pointed it out after a moment's reflection.
"And what are the areas you've already covered?" Pete pointed them out as well.
"All right. Jim's been from here...to here." Mac's finger ran along the map, covering an area at least as big as the one Pete had canvassed.
A shocked exclamation jerked their attention away.
"What the...?" Jim sprang to his feet, looking out the front window.
Pete and Mac rushed to see, and Pete instantly grabbed Jim's arm to restrain him.
"Jim, it's okay. I'm sorry I forgot to tell you."
"What's this all about? Why is there a tow truck in my front yard?"
"A bunch of the guys got together and pooled our resources. Mac's brother has agreed to clean up and detail your car for the amount that we collected. But with all the... happenings when I arrived, I forgot to tell you."
Jim's face filled with relief and gratitude, and his eyes pooled a bit. "I...I don't know what to say."
Pete put a hand on Jim's shoulder, imagining the impact that this simple act of kindness must have had on a day like this.
Mac's expression matched Pete's feelings.
"Oh, isn't that just wonderful," Candace spoke up tearily.
"Thank you," Jim said softly. "Tell everyone thanks for me."
Jim walked out to the driveway to supervise the care and handling of his car.
Mac spoke softly to Pete. "I really don't think there's any more to be gained from canvassing house-to-house, based on the areas you've already covered."
"I know. You're right." Something in Pete hated to admit that. "But I don't just want to sit around, and frankly, that would be the worst thing for him, too." Pete nodded out the front window toward Jim.
Mac turned concerned eyes toward the younger officer for a few moments, and then turned back to Pete. The sergeant lowered his voice even more. "He's not looking so good."
"No. Can you blame him?"
"Not at all. I can't imagine what this has been like for him. I still can't believe Jean left him." Mac shook his head. "And then this on top of it all...."
Mac tapped Pete's arm and beckoned him into the back yard. He must not want Candace to hear.
Pete pulled the glass door closed behind him and looked expectantly at Mac.
"I'm wondering if I should put him in for medical leave. Sometimes you can do that for extreme emotional distress." The sergeant's face could not hide his distaste for the idea.
Pete's stomach sank. "Mac, you'd be just about labeling him a loony! That would go on his permanent record, too!"
"I know, but as of the end of today he's out of time off, and there's no way I can let him work the way he is now. No way," Mac repeated for emphasis.
Pete had to agree with that. But Jim's record would be forever sullied by such a decision. "There's got to be an alternative, Mac!"
"I'm open to suggestions." Mac raised his eyebrows at Pete and waited.
Oh, am I supposed to come up with a brilliant idea right now?
"Well..." Pete stammered. "Let me think about it. Right now we have to get back on the search. We've got to find Jimmy. That would do wonders for Jim's emotions, now wouldn't it?"
"Agreed. But I still doubt it would make him fit for duty."
Pete dropped his eyes. Mac was right, of course. And Pete could see just how much pain Mac felt over the situation.
I'm glad I'm not in his shoes.
Pete glanced through the glass door and saw Jim watching them through it with unveiled apprehension.
Pete clapped a hand on Mac's shoulder and nodded toward Jim. "We'll think of something. Let's get back inside."
Mac nodded, and the two men walked back indoors.
Jean dragged her tired body out of the bed. I can't go on like this. I have to get some rest.
She retrieved her key from the nightstand and walked out to the lobby.
The young man behind the counter looked like a polite enough fellow, and she approached him.
"Excuse me, but is there a drug store anywhere within walking distance?"
"Yes, ma'am. Just around the corner. Marvin's Drugs. It's on the left. You can't miss it."
"Thank you." Jean made her way along, grateful that the hot day had begun giving way to a cooler evening. I'm not sure I could have made it if it had stayed hot.
She began to wonder about her endurance anyway. I've never felt so exhausted in my life. Her tired feet felt every bump and crack in the sidewalk, and her purse weighed heavily on her shoulder.
Jean finally found her way to Marvin's Drugs and pushed the door open. She headed straight for the chairs in the waiting area and sat down to rest. She stayed for quite a while, waiting until she felt her feet could hold her up again. Thank goodness it's air conditioned.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" A man in a white coat approached her, and Jean decided he must be the pharmacist.
"Yes, please. I'm looking for something to help me sleep. I've had insomnia lately, and I'm very tired, but I still can't sleep."
"Have you seen your doctor about that?"
"Uh, no." Jean felt surprised that she hadn't thought of that. I wonder why I didn't.
"Well, you should if it continues. But you can try some of this medication in the meantime." He held out a hand in the direction of a nearby aisle, and Jean rose to join him.
"Here, this should do the trick. But if it doesn't, or if you find you continue to need these for more than a day or two, please do see your doctor."
"Thank you. I'm sure these will be fine." Jean noted with relief that the pills cost less than the remaining change she still carried.
A few minutes later Jean's weary feet began the long trek back to the hotel. At least, it seemed long. The hotel driveway seemed long. The hallway between the lobby and her room stretched interminably.
Finally! She let herself into her painfully plaid room.
A quick look at the medication's label told her to take one or two as needed. I'll make it two.
The pills went down easily, and Jean stretched out on the bed to wait for them to work.
Please, please let me sleep!
"Pete, I just can't understand it. I thought I knew my wife and my son better than just about anyone on earth. But they've both become strangers to me, and this morning they both walked out of my life! How can this be happening?" Jim rubbed his eyes before renewing his scrutiny of the neighborhood.
Pete blew out his cheeks. "I wish I knew what to tell you, partner. I'm still in shock myself, and I can't imagine what this must be like for you. I keep hoping I'll wake up and none of this will have been real." Pete stopped and signaled for a left turn.
"That makes two of us." Jim ran a tired hand through his hair, keeping vigil out the window of Pete's car.
"It's starting to get dark out there." Come home, Son.
"And cooler. Maybe that will make him want to come home. Are you sure you want to keep driving around?"
"I know it probably doesn't make any sense, but I just need to feel like I'm doing something."
"Well, maybe we should at least check in with Candace."
"Yeah. Why don't you stop at that phone booth?" Jim stretched out a leg as best he could and started fishing in his pocket for a dime.
"No, we're not that far from your house. We might as well just stop by."
Jim just grimaced. I bet he'll try and talk me into staying there. Maybe even getting something to eat.
"You know what I really can't figure out is Jimmy. One minute it would seem like he was willing to give Jean a chance, and the next minute he was just being awful to her. He seemed determined to drive her away. Why would he be like that?"
Pete shrugged. "I'm hardly an expert on kids, Jim. But it seems to me that they often don't think logically."
Jim grunted in agreement, keeping his eyes peeled for any sign of his son along the way.
Pete gestured with his hand before returning it to the steering wheel. "And it also seems to me that they tend to push for exactly the opposite of what they want. Kind of like kids who rebel against their parents. They really want their parents to stand firm, right? Maybe it was the same thing with Jimmy. Maybe he really wanted her to...I don't know...pass the test or something."
"Hmmph. She didn't do that, did she." Jim felt a rush of anger again at Jean. And look what she's done. She's completely destroyed my family and my life. I hope she's satisfied.
Jim rested his mouth on his fist while he stared out the window. Where are you, son? Where are you? And where is your Mommy?
Whatever anger he felt for Jean melted instantly away. I need you back. I can't believe I've lost you again! I'm sorry I let you down. I'm sorry I expected too much. Please don't be angry. Please come home. Jim felt despair clawing at him again, dragging him down with a fist around his throat.
God, don't let some pervert have my son.
"Jim." Pete's gentle voice drew Jim back to the present.
"You're torturing yourself over there."
"Pete, you know as well as I do what can happen to little kids out there." Jim could barely choke out the words. "It's getting darker and more dangerous by the minute. Where is he, Pete? How could he just disappear like this?" His fear began to gel into frustrated anger, and he let it strengthen him.
"He'll turn up, Jim. He's got to."
"Who says he's got to? Every parent who's ever had a child disappear has believed that he had to turn up."
"And for most of them, he did. You've got to keep believing it will happen that way for you. If you don't, you'll drive yourself crazy."
Jim closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead, and said nothing.
Pete steered over to the curb in front of Jim's house. What he saw put a lump in his throat, but Jim still hadn't seen it.
"Check it out, Jim."
Jim looked up quickly and saw a small army of women working away at his house. Most of the graffiti had disappeared under their care, and new rose bushes stood in freshly-turned earth along the front.
One of the ladies turned around and Jim recognized her. "Mary MacDonald!"
"Yeah, and over there is Elise Brinkman, and Joanne McNally..."
"Good grief, half of the wives in the department are here!"
"And isn't that your neighbor?"
"Yeah, there's Mrs. Donovan, and Mrs. Yates, and a few others...I can't believe this." Jim took a sweeping glance of the many cars parked in front of his house and down the street. "There's my parents' car, and there's the Baileys', too. I wonder how my house can hold them all."
"You have a lot of friends, Jim. Don't ever forget that. We're here for you."
Pete's gentle tone and the kindness of his friends left Jim choked up yet again, and he chided himself. Can't lose it in front of all these women…
Mary MacDonald waved and started down the yard toward them. Jim quickly got out of the car to greet her, feeling slightly embarrassed when she drew him into an almost motherly hug. "Jim, we're all so sorry for what you're going through." She released him and stood back to look him in the eye. "We know this isn't much, but we wanted to do whatever we could."
"This is...this is incredible. I can't tell you what this means to me."
"Why don't you come inside? All of the girls have brought food and goodies, and they've helped your mother and mother-in-law with some cleaning and things like that. C'mon in."
Jim shook his head in wonder and walked up to his many friends. They all stopped their working to look at him; some with smiles, almost all with tears.
Jim knew he could never find the words to thank them all. Right now he doubted he could even find his voice.
"Thank you." His voice caught a little, and several of the ladies burst into tears in response. A few came up for hugs, and before long Jim found himself surrounded by a small mob of weeping, hugging women.
Jim began to wonder how he could escape, but a quick look at Pete told him his partner wasn't coming to the rescue. Pete's Irish eyes were smiling at Jim's predicament, and even Jim felt the humor of the scene, if only for a moment.
"Jim!" Candace appeared in the doorway. "I'm so glad you're here. Doctor Barnes is on the phone."
Doctor Barnes? Jim hurriedly excused himself to the women and rushed into the house.
Could Jean have gone to see him? Is she there with him now?
Jimmy sat in his uncomfortable nook, staring down at his house. A bunch of cars had pulled up in front, but he couldn't recognize them. Sometimes he could see people, and they all seemed to be women. Occasionally some of them would go into his back yard, and sometimes they would even call his name.
Jimmy sniffed and wiped at his nose. "If I go home, I'll be in so much trouble." He spoke softly to Pancake, as he had often in the last few hours.
The sun had taken all of its earlier warmth down with it. Jimmy shivered a bit. "I'm cold. I want my coat. I want my blanket." He hugged his bear close, thankful for even the meager warmth it provided.
"And I'm hungry, Pancake. What am I going to do?"
Jimmy shifted his weight, trying to get more comfortable. But little bottoms aren't meant to spend hours on knobby tree branches, especially in the chill of the gathering darkness.
He felt despair mounting with every moment.
Am I going to have to stay here forever?
He wrapped his arms around his tummy, trying to squeeze away the gnawing emptiness in his gut. His thoughts turned toward his mother's delicious cooking, and the wonderful feeling of having Daddy tuck him in at night. He thought of Grandma and Grandpa, of Nana and Papa, and his beloved Uncle Pete. His little body began to shiver with more than the cold.
I want to go home! I want to go home!
Jimmy began to cry harder than he had since running away. He tried to muffle it by hiding his face in Pancake's fur. But his tears would not stop, and Jimmy had no loving arms to hold him, no tender kisses to make the hurt go away.
Doctor Barnes listened quietly while Jim explained the situation to him.
"Jim, I'm so sorry. Why didn't you call earlier?"
"Like I said, Doctor, I didn't think things were going that badly, except for Jimmy. I still can't understand what made her do such an about-face. It was such a shock."
"Did she seem like...like she wasn't herself?"
"Well, yes and no. She really believed she was doing what was in my best interests, as well as Jimmy's. In that, she was like herself. She always wanted to do what was best for us. But, I don't know, she just didn't seem to be quite as...reasonable."
"Not quite thinking straight?"
"No, she wasn't. For one thing, she thought she'd be able to go out and get a job and support herself, and here she is still recovering from brain surgery. No, she wasn't reasoning things out well at all."
"Has she been taking care of herself? You know, basic things like eating well, getting enough rest, that sort of thing?"
Jim rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "She's been eating okay."
"How's she been sleeping?"
Jim thought a moment. "Well, she usually told me that she slept okay, but I'm not so sure about that. She's been more exhausted every morning than she was the night before. And I've noticed her tossing and turning a lot. Last night she admitted that she didn't sleep at all. Could that be important?"
"Lack of sleep can cause serious problems under the best of circumstances. With someone under a great deal of emotional stress, who's also just had a major surgery, it's possible it could become overwhelming."
Jim felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe she doesn't really hate it here. Maybe it's just a physical problem. Somehow, that felt much easier to accept. Maybe she didn't really reject us.
"You say that you don't know where she is?"
"That's right, but we've got officers out looking for her. We have to let her know about our son."
"Well, even if your son turns up in the next five minutes, you'd still better keep looking for Jean. We can't predict whether or not she'll become increasingly confused."
Jim's sense of relief vanished.
"Yes, Doctor, we won't give up until we find her."
"Please call me when you do. I'd really like to have her come back in right away for a check up."
"All right. Thank you, Doctor."
Jim hung up and turned to face his family and friends. They all stared at him with expectant, worried eyes, and Jim began to feel light-headed. He sank down to sit on the couch, trying to look like he wasn't really falling apart.
Recite the facts. He cleared his throat and launched into a quick summary of the doctor's words. His listeners seemed to take the same emotional journey that he took, from relief to renewed concern. Silence fell when he finished.
Jim began to feel truly faint, and he rested his forehead on his hand.
"Jim, you absolutely have to eat something." Carol Reed resorted to her favorite subject, and hurried out to the kitchen for something to give him. A few moments later she returned with a banana. "Here, eat this while I throw a sandwich together for you."
For once Jim did not protest. He felt uncomfortable eating in front of so many watching eyes, but his body demanded nourishment.
The banana went down and stayed down, and Jim felt some life creeping back into his bones.
"Excuse me, everyone." He walked over to the dining room table to await his sandwich.
Jim's father sat down beside him, offering a gentle hand on the shoulder and silent support. The others began to mill around and talk amongst themselves. Some went back outside to scrub and paint again.
Pete sat down on Jim's other side and looked him over with undisguised concern.
"How're you holding up, Jim?"
Jim shrugged wearily. "As well as I have to."
He nodded grateful acknowledgement to his mother as she placed a cold-cut sandwich and glass of orange juice in front of him.
Pete sat back quietly and let his friend eat undisturbed.
"Pete, what can I get you?" This time it was Candace who offered. Jim vaguely wondered if the two women were competing to see who could be the most helpful.
"Oh, nothing, thank you. I'm fine."
"Uh-uh. If I have to eat, so do you." Jim looked critically at his friend. "You look pretty worn out yourself."
"I'll make you a sandwich, and I don't want any arguments." Candace bustled into the kitchen.
"Yes, ma'am," Pete called after her.
Jim laid the uneaten portion of his meal back onto the plate and scrubbed at the fatigue in his eyes.
"Pete, Dad, would you mind telling me how to choose? How do I decide who to focus my efforts on, my sick wife who's possibly a danger to herself, or my son who's possibly in danger from others? Who do I prioritize, and who do I give my second-best to? Would you tell me how I'm supposed to make a choice like that?" Jim could hear the desperation in his own voice, but by now he didn't care.
Pete thanked Candace and took a bite out of the sandwich that she gave him. "You don't have to make that choice. You've got the whole LAPD helping you look for both of them."
"That's right, son. And your friends and your family are here to help you, too," Dan spoke softly.
Jim folded his arms on the table and laid his head down on them. "Good because, I don't mind telling you, I'm about at the end of my rope."
Loud, frantic knocking sounded at the front door, startling Jim out of his chair. He hurried to the door, hoping against hope to find one of his missing loved ones there.
But they wouldn't knock, would they? He threw the door open.
The spry older woman that greeted Jim looked vaguely familiar. She wrung her hands and then smoothed her dress as she spoke.
"Is this the house with the missing little boy?"
Jim's heart leaped into his throat. "Yes, he's my son." He reached out to the woman and drew her inside. "Have you seen him?"
"I'm not sure, but I may have heard him. I'm your neighbor, Eunice Blackburn. I live kitty-corner in the back over there." She pointed in the direction of her backyard where it cornered with Jim's. "I just went outside to say a prayer for your little boy, and I heard a small child crying up in my tree. I didn't say anything, and I don't think he knew I was there. I didn't want to scare him away. I just hurried over here."
"Wait a minute. That tree, back there? Jimmy couldn't climb that thing. No way. There are only a couple of trees in this whole neighborhood that Jimmy could get himself into, and I've looked in all of those." Jim's battered heart felt wary of any hope that might be too easily shattered.
"Well, then, who is crying in my tree?" The woman looked exasperatedly at Jim.
The question burned in his soul for a few moments, and then Jim grabbed his jacket and hurried out the front door.
Jean felt delicious sleep creeping over her mind. At last.
Jim ran around the corner with renewed strength, his long strides taking him far ahead of Pete and Miss Blackburn. Please be Jimmy. Please be Jimmy. His feet pounded on the pavement, and his heart pounded double-time in his chest.
He rounded the next corner onto the neighboring block, then slowed his pace again while he got his bearings. It's that house over there. He needed only a few seconds to sprint the distance.
Slow down, Jim. Don't scare him. He dropped to a walk, breathing much harder than he should have been for such a short run. His eyes searched through the scant light that the windows provided, until he spotted the gate on this side of the fence. Please don't be locked.
The latch lifted easily in his hand, and he swung the gate open as quietly as he could. Then he stood stock still, listening with all of his heart.
Jimmy, are you here?
He heard nothing, but he wasn't sure that any sound could compete with the thumping of his own heart in his ears.
I hope she doesn't have a dog that I don't know about.
Jim walked silently through and closed the gate behind him. He approached the tree cautiously, his eyes searching the leafy heights without success.
Why couldn't there be a full moon tonight?
Jim froze. The sound had been soft; so soft that he couldn't be sure he'd heard it. But it sounded like a little snuffle. Like Jimmy would make if he were trying not to cry.
Jim felt joy and relief flooding him. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.
Jim paused for a moment to collect himself. A quick glance backward confirmed that Pete and Miss Blackburn were waiting outside the gate, giving him space and privacy.
Jim turned back to the tree, gave a little hop, and wrapped his forearms around the lowest branch. The huge old limb could have supported three of him, and the tree barely shook as he hoisted himself up.
Once he'd righted himself, he stopped and strained to hear again.
No matter. Jim's instincts told him what his intellect couldn't account for. Somehow, his son had climbed up into this tree. It didn't matter how. He's here. I know it.
Jim set his sights on the part of the tree he thought the sound had come from. Slowly, cautiously, he picked his way along in the darkness. The tree shook more as he moved along smaller branches.
The hair on his arms began to stand up, the way it did when he hunted a hidden suspect and his instincts told him he'd gotten close. Jim froze to listen again.
Breathing. Soft, frightened breathing. He knows I'm here. It's time to speak up.
"Jimmy?" Jim kept his voice soft and low.
A frightened little gasp told him all he needed to know. His eyes focused on the leafy clump that held his son.
"Jimmy, it's time to come home, son."
"No." The answer came in a scared little whisper. "I can't."
Jim tried to find a comfortable position for his tall frame, but the branches refused to accommodate him. It didn't really matter, though. All that mattered now was his precious little boy, alive and well, just inches away.
"You can't? Why not?" Jim made sure his tone remained gentle and completely non-threatening.
"Because...you know why." More tearful sounds now.
"Why, because...because you got mad at Mommy?"
"I made her go awaaaaaay!"
The mournful little howl tore at Jim's heart, as did the heartbroken sobs that followed. But a more practical concern tore at him, too. The more distraught Jimmy became, the more likely he was to lose his precarious perch.
Jim felt fairly certain that he couldn't move closer to attempt a rescue. The smaller limbs that supported his son would be unlikely to support Jim too.
"No, Jimmy. You weren't as nice to her as you should have been, but it's not your fault that she went away. She's still a little confused because of ... of the problem inside her head. That's why she went away."
"I want my mommy!" The child sobbed. "And...and I want a sandwich!"
Jim had to close his eyes and smile despite the wrenching of his heart.
"Come here, son. Come over carefully and let Daddy take you home."
This time the sound of crying mingled with the sound of rustling leaves, and the most beautiful sight of Jim's entire day unfolded before him.
"Daddy!" The little fellow scrambled with remarkable agility and practically threw himself at Jim. The older Reed had to make a mad grab at both his son and the tree to keep both of them from tumbling. But as soon as he safely could, he drew Jimmy into his tightest embrace. All of the discomforts of jabbing branches and scraping twigs vanished as Jim buried his face in the warm, sweaty smell of his son.
Jimmy melted against him, wrapping his tiny arms tightly around Jim's neck and clinging to him almost desperately.
Jim thought his heart would burst. He kissed his son's cheeks, tasting salty tears.
"I love you, son. It's going to be all right. You just stay with Daddy. We're going to be a family again, but we all have to stick together to do it. Are you with me?"
Jimmy nodded with a sniffle, and Jim crushed him even closer.
"You're smooshing Pancake."
"Oh. Sorry." Jim loosened his hold and pried the little bear out from between them. "Sorry, Pancake," he intoned solemnly.
"It's okay." Jimmy replied with equal seriousness, retrieving his bear. "Can I have something to eat when I get home?"
"Sure. You know Nana and Grandma will give you more food than you can possibly eat."
"I can eat it all tonight!"
Jim grinned and tousled the little fellow's hair. "I bet you can." He planted one more kiss on Jimmy's forehead, and then began to contemplate how he'd get them both down.
"Do you need some help up there?" Pete's quiet voice momentarily startled Jim. He'd forgotten anyone else existed.
"Well, yeah. Now that you mention it." Jim hauled himself back to standing, as best he could, and pulled Jimmy up onto one of his hips.
Coming down proved very difficult with only one free hand, and Jim endured several unkind slaps from branches as he passed them by. But finally he'd gotten down far enough that he thought he could let Jimmy go.
"There's Uncle Pete, Jimmy, right at the bottom of the tree. Can you climb down to him? I'm not sure I can carry you there."
"I don't want to let go of you, Daddy."
"But there aren't enough branches there for me to hold onto. I'm afraid I'll slide and drop you, or we both might fall. But if I stay here I can help you down, and then Uncle Pete will grab you. He won't let you fall."
Jimmy looked down at Pete, who smiled warmly up at him.
"Good to see you, pal!"
"I want you, Daddy." Jimmy turned his face back to Jim.
Pete spoke up again from below. "I promise I'll give you right back to Daddy as soon as he's out of the tree."
Jimmy looked down at Pete, and then back to his father for confirmation. Jim nodded his encouragement.
"Okay. But you gotta give me right back to Daddy like you said."
"Will do, buddy." Pete smiled and winked, then reached both arms up toward his godson.
Jim wrapped his left arm around a sturdy limb, and his left leg around the trunk. "Hold on tight to my arm, son." He leaned over as far as he could, dangling Jimmy's lower body until Pete could grab his hips.
"Let go of me now, Jimmy. Uncle Pete's got you."
"I can't let go!" Jimmy's eyes widened with fear.
Jim felt sweat breaking out on his forehead as the awkward position strained muscles in unusual ways. "Son, I can't hold your weight like this. Uncle Pete's holding you. You won't fall. C'mon. Let go. You can do it."
Pete squeezed Jimmy's hips close to his shoulder, then reached one hand up to grab Jimmy's elbow. "I've got you. Come on."
Jimmy finally let go, and Pete took his full weight with a slight grunt. "There you go, buddy. Good job!"
Jim had to smile at the heartfelt hug his partner gave his son.
Jim scrambled down until he could safely jump, though the ground hit harder on the soles of his feet than he'd anticipated. I'll regret that tomorrow.
Jim took his son back into his arms. No, I won't. I won't regret it a bit.
Jimmy nestled his head on his father's shoulder, and Jim felt certain he would never put the little fellow down again.
They walked out through the gate, and Jim paused to express his deepest gratitude to Miss Blackburn.
She waved off his words. "I'm just glad it's turned out well. I guess God answered my prayer before I could even pray it, didn't he?"
"Yeah. He answered mine, too."
Jimmy pressed shyly into his father's shoulder and remained silent.
"C'mon, Tiger. Let's go home. I know a lot of people who'll be awfully glad to see you."
They began their trek back home, with Jimmy melted onto his father's shoulder like butter on toast.
"By the way, son, just how did you get up in that tree?"
This day has come at last!
Jean turned around to survey herself from every possible angle. Everything needed to be perfect, today of all days.
Jean thought back to the first time she'd dreamed of wearing this dress. She'd been just a little girl admiring her mother's wedding pictures, when her mother told her that her beautiful wedding gown was now safely in storage.
I knew right then that I'd wear it someday. On my most special day. And now, just look at me!
Jean's maid of honor burst into the dressing room.
"He's here! Jim's here!" Ruthie nearly trembled in her excitement.
Jean gasped. "Where?"
"He just pulled up outside, and I saw that he had Mike with him."
Jean dashed out of the dressing room, heading for a window that faced the lot.
"No, Jean, don't let him see you! It's bad luck!"
"I won't! I won't!" Jean waved off her friend's concerns. "I just want to see him for myself!"
Jean ran to the window and peered outside. There stood Jim and his best man, both with rented tuxes carried casually over their shoulders. They chatted easily in the parking lot, but Jean noticed how Jim kept casting nervous glances at the church.
He's nervous, too. Oh, I can't believe this day is finally here!
The candle light fell softly on their faces, and the organ music played low. Jim looked gorgeous in his tux, but Jean only had eyes for his face as he said those wonderful words.
"I James, take thee Jean, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, to love and to cherish 'til death do us part."
And then Jean's own voice spoke up in her ears. "I Jean, take thee, James, to be my lawfully wedded husband..."
"Oh, Jim, it's beautiful! Are you sure we can afford this suite?"
"Hey, we only get married once, you know. And that means we only get one honeymoon. I figured we might as well do it up right."
"You must have saved forever for this!"
Jim approached her with a look in his eyes that took her breath away. "It's worth it."
Jean dialed Jim's number at work. "Honey, can you make it home for lunch today?"
"I think I could manage that. What's up?"
"I'll tell you when you get here."
"Okay, hon, I'm home. What's the big news?"
"Oh, Jim, it's just too wonderful! Can you guess?"
"Uh, well, no."
"Oh, honey, I'm pregnant!"
"I can't get over how beautiful he is. Or how much he looks like you."
"Yeah, he really does! Poor kid."
"Oh, get out of here. Lucky kid is more like it."
"I can't believe we're taking him home tomorrow."
"I can't believe I'm a Mommy!"
"Hi, hon. The sergeant said you called. What's up?"
"Oh, Jim, I'm sorry to bother you at work. Maybe I should have waited 'til you got home, but I was so excited!"
"Why? What happened?"
"Jimmy said 'Mama' today!"
"Oh, you're kidding! Gosh, I wish I'd been there to hear it!"
"Don't worry. I'm sure he'll say it again."
"Oh, that's wonderful, Jimmy! Did you build that tower all by yourself?"
"Yeah, aw by seff. Dimmy do it."
"Wow. Wait 'til Daddy sees that!"
Jean's eyes opened to unfamiliar surroundings. Where am I? Plaid curtains, plaid bedding, cheap artwork, and an ashtray ambience left her momentarily confused.
Oh. The hotel. Jean sat up, rubbed her eyes and looked at the clock.
I slept for hours! Why am I still so tired? The sun had set by now, and her thoughts turned to dinner.
Jean reached for her water glass. I can't believe that dream! She slowly began to realize that, for the first time, she could fully remember the details of a dream. But there was more. What is it?
Jean went back over her newfound memories. She recalled the joy of her wedding day, their wonderful honeymoon...
Wait a minute. I didn't dream that part of the honeymoon. Jean felt her heart skip. I remember it all! The whole incredible week! Not just the part I dreamed about, but the whole thing!
She sat up and began excitedly rehearsing everything she'd dreamed about. In each case, her memories exceeded the events in her dream. It's coming back! It's really coming back!
Dinner no longer seemed important. Jean flipped on the light and walked back into the bathroom. She snatched up the box of sleeping pills and re-read the directions.
It only says to take it at bedtime. I doesn't say how soon I can take it again. I guess most people don't want to sleep 24 hours.
Jean opened the package and took out two more pills.
I do. Sleep has the answers that I'm looking for.
"Good night, everyone. Thanks again."
Jim closed the door behind his many friends, shaking his head again at their kindness.
Candace sat on the sofa with Jimmy held tightly in her lap. Carol sat beside the two, looking as if it took all her self control to keep from snatching Jimmy for herself.
The two grandmothers had taken turns stuffing the little fellow full of every imaginable kind of food, but they still seemed a little worried that he might starve before morning.
For his part, Jimmy looked rather like an overfed puppy. His little tummy stuck out round, and his eyes grew heavier with each passing moment.
Jim spoke to his relatives. "You should head home, too, guys. It's been a long day for all of us." And who knows what tomorrow holds.
"I know. I'm just so happy to be able to hold this little guy again." She lifted Jimmy's chin so he'd look in her face. "You won't ever run away from us again, will you? You made us so scared and sad."
"No, Nana. I won't run away again. I was scared and sad, too." He slurred his words a little with drowsiness.
Jim smiled and walked over to his mother-in-law. He scooped Jimmy up off her lap and cradled him on his shoulder.
"Oh, all right. I guess I'll let you have him back." Candace smiled for a moment, but Jim could see that Jean's absence weighed almost as heavily on her as it did on him.
"We'll find her, Mom."
"I know you will, dear." She patted Jim's shoulder and then retrieved her purse from the end table.
I wish I knew that.
Pete waited until he and the police wives were well down the Reed's lawn before singling out Mac's wife.
"Mary, can I speak with you a minute?"
"Sure, Pete." She turned to him with a pleasant smile. "Isn't it wonderful about Jimmy?"
"Yes, it sure is. But...I was wondering...there are some things I'd like to talk to Bill about." Pete didn't use Mac's nickname when he talked to Mary, since she never used it herself. "It would be great if I could talk to him tonight. I suppose I could handle it over the phone, but...."
"But you'd rather talk face-to-face. That would be fine, Pete. Come on over. You're welcome any time, you know that."
"Thanks, Mary. I'll head on over, and I won't keep him for long, I promise."
"Oh come on, Pete. I know what happens when you two get talking. I'll be asleep long before you're halfway through with your favorite war stories." Mary laughed and laid a friendly hand on Pete's shoulder. "Which would do Bill a world of good. We don't see enough of you. I'll get some coffee made, and you stay as long as you like."
"Thanks. And thanks for rounding up the wives to help Jim out. I could tell it meant the world to him."
"Oh, poor Jim. He's such a nice fellow, and Bill thinks so highly of him too. And Jean is such a delightful person." She sighed. "Sometimes it seems like the good guys suffer more than the bad ones." Mary shook her head sadly, but then regained her usual steady composure. "I'll see you at home."
Pete opened her car door for her and waved as she drove off. He thought, not for the first time, that Bill MacDonald had done awfully well for himself when he found Mary.
I hope Mac'll go for my idea.
Jim carried his son down the hall to his bedroom. Jean had put a rocking chair in Jimmy's room when he was a newborn, and she'd never removed it. Bedtime rocking didn't last nearly as long as it used to, but Jimmy still enjoyed it. Especially when life had given him some hard knocks.
Today certainly qualified.
Jim sat down in the rocker, and Jimmy cuddled as close as he could. They rocked in silence for quite a while. Jimmy still held Pancake close, seeming to need that extra bit of security. He rubbed at the bear's ear in a rhythmic motion that Jim hadn't seen him use in a long time. Just like when he was little.
Jim felt the relaxing effects of rocking as strongly as Jimmy did. His overwrought nerves found refuge in his closeness to someone he loved. Sleep beckoned, and it had almost overtaken him when Jimmy finally spoke.
"Daddy, was I very, very bad?" Jim's head jerked up and he tried to clear the fog from his mind. As Jimmy's question sunk in, he placed a gentle hand on the little boy's head.
"Well, son, you were very unkind to your mother. That was bad. But you are not a bad person, Jimmy. You are a good person who got so scared and confused that you didn't know what to do. If you ever feel that way again, I hope you'll let us help you, instead of pushing us away."
Silence fell again. Jim gently stroked his son's hair, and after a few moment's he looked down at him.
I can't believe it. Jimmy had put his thumb in his mouth, something he hadn't done since he was two. His other little hand kept rubbing Pancake's ear.
This whole thing has really set him back. Jim felt a whole new kind of worry clenching its fist around his chest.
Jimmy popped his thumb out of his mouth just long enough to ask, "Is Mommy coming back?"
I wish I knew. "We're trying to find her, Jimmy. Right now we don't know where she is."
"Just like you didn't know where I was?"
"That's right." Jim re-lived the horror of that dual loss for a few moments, then shook himself.
"But Mommy knows where she is." Jimmy seemed to find some comfort in that observation.
Jim kept up his gentle stroking. I wonder if she really does.
Jean slept deeply.
Jim dipped his head as she opened the door.
"Flowers for you, ma'am?" He brought his arm out from behind his back and presented her with a dozen roses.
Jean just looked at him, trying to hold on to her irritation. She still wore her prettiest dress, her pumps, her pearl earrings and necklace, her carefully done coiffure. Jim wore the street clothes he'd worn to work that morning.
Finally she rolled her eyes and opened the door the rest of the way for him. But she turned her back and walked away as he came in, not yet ready to give up her ire.
"Our reservations were for six o'clock." She let her anger show in her voice as she retreated to the kitchen.
"I know. I'm sorry. I did my best." Jim didn't sound angry or defensive, and Jean felt herself struggling to stay annoyed.
"Is this how I'm going to spend all of our anniversaries, waiting for you to show up and wondering if you're late because you got shot or something?"
"I hope not. And I did call as soon as I could."
"Oh, Jim!" She whirled to face him, frustrated by the whole situation, and by his power to disarm her even when he deserved her anger. "It's just so unfair!"
Jim had on his most charming face. "I'm sorry, baby. I felt the same way when I saw that I was going to be late. It upset me, too." He hid the flowers behind his back again and began to look impish. "So, shall we start all over again?"
He began to walk closer to her, his eyes locked with hers.
She backed away toward the counter, finding it harder and harder not to smile. His expression became more and more mischievous, in a romantic sort of way, and she started to smile despite herself. Soon he'd backed her right up against the counter, tantalizing her with what she hoped was about to be a kiss. But then....
"Flowers for you, ma'am?" He whipped the bouquet out from behind his back, stepped away a little, and bowed ceremoniously.
"Ohhh you!" she scolded, took the flowers, and playfully rapped him on the head with them. "Why can't I stay mad at you?"
"Because I'm too charmingly irresistible?" Jim moved close again.
"Hah. It couldn't be that."
"Oh, then what could it be?" He started nibbling at her neck, and she felt all her resistance melting away.
"I must be a glutton for punishment," she murmured.
"Oh, is that it?" He stood nose-to-nose with her now, his hands running up the back of her head through her hair. Goosebumps radiated across her scalp and down her arms. She closed her eyes.
"Yeah. That's it. And if this is punishment, I plan to be very, very naughty."
Jim chuckled deep in his throat. "Good."
Pete sank into the familiar comfort of the MacDonalds' overstuffed sofa. He'd kicked off his shoes out of long-standing habit. Mary didn't like people wearing shoes in the house.
He rubbed thoughtfully at the rim of his cup.
I'd love a cigarette.
Though Pete had given up smoking years ago, every once in a while when the stress piled up over his head, he'd indulge himself. But he knew he'd never get away with that in Mary's house.
Mac gave his legs a hearty stretch and wiggled his toes. "I sit around too much. I need to get more exercise."
"Come ride with me tomorrow. I'll let you do all of Jim's running around."
Mac snorted. "No thanks. I was never that young."
"Now wait a minute, I remember. You didn't do so badly in your younger days. I recall some pretty good action on your part."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right. But I also suppose that you came here for some reason other than reminiscing."
"Yeah." Pete sipped at his coffee, wincing a little at its heat. "I hope this is decaf." Normally caffeine wouldn't bother him, but he'd been drinking a lot of it today.
"Of course. Mary knows better than to keep my officers up with caffeine."
Pete grinned and took another drink. "Only Mary could make decaf taste this good."
"She's a wizard in the kitchen." Mac took a swallow from his own cup. "So, what's up? Are you gonna spill it or not?"
"Well, it's just that I've got an idea how we can help Jim, but I'm not exactly sure how you'll feel about it."
"Well, run it by me. I'd sure love to do something."
Pete rubbed at an ache in his neck. "I know the guys think the world of Jim, so I thought nothing of asking them to chip in for car repairs. And I know that the wives were happy to come out and help today like they did. But after all of that generosity...well...I'm not sure I have the right to ask for anything more. I don't want to dig too deep, if you know what I mean."
Mac's brow furrowed. "What were you hoping to ask them for?"
"I thought maybe if we all chipped in enough, we could make up Jim's salary for a few weeks. That way he could afford the time off, and he wouldn't have to have 'mental distress leave' on his record."
Mac whistled. "Whoa, Pete, a few weeks? That is asking an awful lot."
"I know. Believe me, I know. But I thought I'd make it a little easier for everyone." He pulled a check out of his pocket. "This check is for the amount that I'd been saving for...well, something special I've wanted to buy. I'm going to chip that in, and it will buy Jim the first two weeks. At least, I think it will." He handed the check over to Mac.
Mac's eyes grew large when he saw the amount on the check. "Are you sure you want to do this?" He looked back at Pete, clearly amazed.
"Will it cover his first two weeks off?"
"Yeah, it will." Mac's expression grew very soft. "You're something else, Pete."
He looked away, uncomfortable with praise."No." Pete waved him off. "He'd give me the shirt off his back if I needed it. You know that about him.
"So, anyway, I do want to do this. In fact, I'm going to do it whether I end up asking the other guys to pitch in or not. Two extra weeks off are better than nothing. The problem is, I don't think he'd accept it if he knew where it came from. He knows what I've been saving for. But it seems to me that, if it was a group gift, he'd have to accept it. But I won't ask the guys if you think it would be too much."
Mac remained thoughtfully silent for several moments.
"I'll tell you what, Pete. Why don't you tear this up and write out a check to cash instead? I'll put the money in an envelope and tell Jim it was left as an anonymous gift. Or I could even tell him it was a group donation from the guys. That will see him through the first two weeks. We can decide at the end of the first…say…ten days whether we need to ask the fellows for more or not. Maybe Jean will turn up tomorrow, and things will be better, and Jim will only need two weeks. You never know."
Pete nodded. "That makes sense." He took another swig of his coffee, which had cooled considerably.
"Good. Then that's what we'll do." Mac sounded very contented with their plan.
The phone rang. Mac looked up, but then relaxed as Mary took the call in another room.
The two men sat in comfortable silence for a few moments, the way good friends can do.
"Bill? Jim Reed's on the phone," Mary called from across the hall.
Mac and Pete exchanged surprised glances, and Mac reached for his extension. "MacDonald."
Pete found himself trying to hear Jim's half of the conversation, but of course he couldn't.
Mac listened for a while.
"Well, Reed, that's really generous of you, but I don't think I can let you come back to work tomorrow."
Pete heard Jim's voice and could guess how he must have been protesting.
"Jim, I know the hospital bills are going to pile up, but I don't want you to end up in the hospital too. With all you've been going through, it wouldn't be responsible of me to put you back in the saddle. You wouldn't be one hundred percent out there, and you know that." Mac delivered his verdict with his own special blend of toughness and gentleness. "And with Eberly and Craft both pulling desk duty, we don't need the help there."
Jim apparently protested again.
"Jim, right now it's time to think of the department as family. That's what we are. The wives cooked a lot of meals for you, didn't they? Mary said they left enough to last you a while. We're not going to let this thing take you down, Jim."
Mac listened again.
"Well, I'm not talking about forever. We're going to find Jean, and we're going to find her as fast as we can. And then I'll make you work triple shifts every day to pay everybody back."
Pete chuckled a little. Of course Mac knew that Jim would never buy that line. But the implied payback time gave Jim a way to accept help with dignity, and Pete appreciated Mac's thoughtfulness.
No one could ask to work under a better man.
Mac didn't mention the monetary gift yet. "All right. You check back in with me tomorrow after watch, and I'll let you know if I'm ready to let you come back the next day. You got that?" Mac switched to his pretend irritation mode, a sure signal that the conversation was drawing to a close.
Pete didn't need to hear Jim to know that he'd reluctantly consented. No other response seemed possible.
"All right. Take care, Jim. And don't worry. We'll find Jean. We won't rest until we do." Mac was all softness now. "Right, then. Goodbye."
Mac hung up and stretched his arms out in front of him. He stifled a little yawn.
"By the time he calls me after watch tomorrow, I'll have an anonymous gift to give him. Works out pretty well, I think."
"Sounds great to me. Thanks Mac." Pete rose to leave. "I promised Mary I wouldn't keep you long."
Mac stood to see his friend off. "Well then you'd better go. You don't want to break a promise to Mary, or she'll get really mean." Mac winked at Pete, and his expected response came quickly from the nearby room.
"I heard that, Bill MacDonald. You'll be sleepin' on the couch tonight for sure." Mary couldn't quite manage to sound like she meant it.
Pete chuckled along with Mac. The sergeant didn't seem too worried about the threat.
"Good night, Mary," Pete called. He heard Mary coming to see him off.
"Oh, good night, Pete. Too bad you have to leave. It's nice to have a good man around the house."
"Oh, ouch!" Mac protested. "Get out of here, Malloy. You're wrecking my marriage."
"I'm leaving, I'm leaving!"
He shared a smile with the MacDonalds, the kind of smile that went back for years. "Thanks again, both of you."
"Come back soon, Pete. And bring Jim and Jean with you when you do." Mary's eyes misted a little. Mac put an arm around her waist and gave her a squeeze.
"I'll do that," Pete replied. "That's a promise."
Pete made his way back to his car.
I hope that's a promise I can keep.
Pete twitched and thrashed in his sleep, murmuring unintelligibly, his feelings too frantic to confine themselves to his dream.
"Jim, don't do this. We'll find Jean. We will. Think of Jimmy. You can't do this to him. He's been through too much already. I know it looks bad now, but this isn't the answer. Don't do this, Jim. Put the gun down."
Pete scarcely breathed, his whole being focused on one unimaginable sight. Jim Reed stood in a corner of his living room, the barrel of his service revolver planted firmly against his temple. Pete's mind reeled with terror.
Why didn't I confiscate that gun?
Pete steeled himself, forcing anger to sublimate his fear. "This is the most selfish thing you could possibly do, Jim. You've got to think of your family, of your friends! What about me, Jim? Should I have to watch my best friend blow his brains out? How would I live with that, Jim? How would I live with my failure to help you? How would you feel if our roles were reversed?"
Jim's eyes seemed wild, and he pressed himself more tightly into the corner. "If our roles were reversed, I wouldn't be able to understand how badly you were hurting. I'd do the same thing, try to talk you out of the one thing that could make the pain go away. I don't blame you for trying. You can't possibly understand. You're a good friend, Pete. You don't deserve to see this. So go away."
Pete's mind raced with plans, trying to determine some way to get the gun away from his younger, more agile partner.
There's no way I could get to him in time. I'll just have to talk him down. I'll have to! I've done it for others before, and this time it matters more than it ever has before.
"Jim, think about it. Jimmy's asleep in his room right now. If he hears a shot, he'll run out to see what happened. Does he deserve to see you...like that? You know what a bullet at close range does to a man's head, Jim. You've seen it yourself. Should Jimmy have to see that? Should he have to grow up remembering you that way?"
Pete poured his heart into his words. He knew that Jim loved his son with all his being. Surely he wouldn't do something so awful.
Jim shook his head slowly, sadly. "You're his godfather. Do your job. Don't let him see."
The shot rang out with awful finality. Pete saw it tear through his best friend's skull with unreal slowness, caving in the right side of his head, blowing out the left side, splattering blood and brains on the wall and the drapes.
Pete screamed, but his own scream was drowned out by a smaller one.
Jimmy's horrified shriek brought Pete instantly to his side. He scooped his godson up and ran with him to the back of the house, sobbing, pressing the child's face into his shoulder so that he couldn't see the horror any more.
I can never erase that nightmare from Jimmy's mind.
Or from my own.
Jim, no. No. NO!
Pete sat bolt upright in bed, his own shouts ringing in his ears. He clenched his sheet in his hands, pressing his knees to his heaving chest. His heart hammered out of his ribcage.
Even now, awake as he was, Pete could not stop the words. "No, Jim. NO! No. No. Don't ever do that. Don't ever do that. Don't you dare."
Pete forced his eyes to focus on whatever he could see in the darkness of his room, trying to keep his mind from watching and re-watching the gruesome suicide.
With tremendous effort and unwavering vigilance he could eventually push the image away. But he couldn't control the waves of horror that kept shivering their way over his flesh. And the trembling simply would not stop.
Jean slept deeply, barely moving as the time flowed by.
The phone rang, and Jean snatched it up. " Hello, Reeds'."
"Hello, honey, it's me. Look, I'm sorry, but I'm going to be late tonight, so don't wait up for me."
The despondency in Jim's voice sent Jean's stomach plummeting. In all the years that she'd known him, she'd never heard him so close to tears.
"Jim, honey, what's wrong? Are you all right?"
"I'm all right." Jean heard Jim jiggling the phone around and wondered just what he was doing.
"What is it, then? Who got shot? That's it, isn't it?"
"Jean, what it is, is....tonight, I killed a man." His voice caught as he said it.
"Oh, honey...oh I'm so sorry!"
The man who walked in her front door looked like a pale imitation of her husband.
Jean rushed into his arms. "Honey, are you all right? How did the questioning go?"
"Jean, please!" Jim pushed her away, though not roughly. He walked away a few feet, then lashed out without warning, slamming his fist into the wall of their little apartment. The wallboard gave way, and Jean stared in shock at the hole her husband had just made.
Her mouth went dry. He'd never done anything like that before in his life. At least, not that she knew of.
I don't know how to react to this side of him. I didn't even know he had this side.
Jean needed a few moments to get over her shock before she could take any more in. Jim seemed like a stranger, and a violent one at that. But then she realized that his shoulders were shaking, and her heart melted.
He's hurting something awful.
She moved cautiously toward him, gently turning him until she could work her way into his arms. For a moment he seemed to resist her, but then he clung to her with desperate need.
She gave him a few moments, terrified by the prospect of anything that could move Jim so. He'd always been her rock, but this felt like an earthquake.
"Baby, please talk to me."
Jim's voice finally came out in a choked whisper. "Oh, Jean...I didn't know it at first, but...he was just a kid! He was sixteen years old!" Jim pulled away from her almost frantically, as if he were trying to escape the awful reality of what he'd just said.
A kid? How could that be? There must be some mistake. Jean could find no voice for her thoughts. But Jim was not yet through with the terrible news.
"The press is already buzzing. They're going to crucify me, Jean. You're going to be married to a man that all of Los Angeles thinks is a cold-blooded kid killer. Not to mention that I could lose my job if the Review Board doesn't find in my favor."
Jim trembled but stood ramrod straight, clearly trying to force strength into his being.
Jean, on the other hand, felt her world collapsing around her.
This cannot be happening. This cannot be real.
"Pete, why haven't they found her yet?" Jim's frustration carried clearly over the phone line.
Pete sighed, leaning against the wall of the break room. I wish I could have called him from a more private place. The morning watch was about to begin, and the room was bustling, but Pete had needed to check in on his friend. He needed to reassure himself that Jim was really alright.
Otherwise, he couldn't be sure it had only been a dream.
"Jim, you know as well as I do how many motels and hotels there are around here. And how many cab drivers. And you also know that many hotel managers and taxi companies can be less than forthcoming with the police. But they'll find her, Jim."
"But, what if the doctor's right? What if she's getting more confused from lack of sleep? I've been thinking about it, and she really did toss and turn a lot at night. If she has gotten more confused, she could be halfway to Nevada by now."
Pete closed his eyes. Maybe it was a mistake to call. "To do that, she'd have to use your charge card, and then we'd know where she was." Pete sighed deeply. "I know it sounds impossible, Jim, but try not to drive yourself crazy with 'what ifs'." He glanced at the clock. "I'm sorry. I can't talk any more. Roll call is about to start. But Jim, every cop in this place has told me that finding Jean is their top priority. And you know I'll have my eyes peeled every second. If she sets foot outside her motel, someone is bound to see her. Okay?"
"Yeah. I guess I get to sit by the phone again and do nothing, right?" Jim's voice dripped with bitterness.
"No, you don't. Don't even think about it. You're going to stay within earshot of the phone while you spend a lot of quality time with your son. He needs a lot of help from you right now. And I need to go."
Jim's whole tone changed, just as Pete knew it would. "Yeah, you're right."
They said their goodbyes and hung up.
Pete trotted to roll call, making it to his seat just as Mac called out Anderson's name. He could hardly keep his mind on the roster of names, or on the report that Mac gave afterwards.
We've got to find her before Jim loses his mind.
Jean dreamed, but not peacefully.
She walked into her home hours later than she'd planned to. But she'd been having so much fun, and what could be the harm in it? Jim wasn't expected home yet, anyway.
She glanced at the clock and then flipped on the news.
"A Los Angeles Police Officer has been shot and killed tonight in the line of duty. His identity is not being released pending notification of the next-of-kin."
Jean gasped and reflexively put a hand on her stomach. Up until now morning sickness had not been much of a problem for Jean, but at this moment the nausea came in waves.
I haven't been home. They haven't been able to notify his family, and I haven't been home!
Does that mean they've been trying to notify me?
Jean half-stumbled backward until she could sit down on the couch. Her hand continued to rub at her belly, unconsciously caressing the child who even now might be fatherless. Her mind careened wildly between numbness and panic.
Don't let it be Jim. Please God don't let it be Jim!
The phone jangled.
Jean jumped violently, then stared at the phone as if it might bite her.
It jangled again.
Jean moved like a woman in a dream. She picked up the receiver, all the while wanting nothing more than to run away from it and the awful message it might bring.
"Honey, you're finally home." The voice was unmistakably Jim's, and Jean clapped her hand over her mouth to hold back a sob of relief.
"I'm okay. I've been trying to reach you to let you know it wasn't me." Despite that good news, Jim sounded choked up.
Jean's relief began to crumble. "Oh, no! Not Pete...!
"Pete's okay too. But...I've got some bad news."
Jean could barely breathe.
"Honey, it…it was Bill...Bill Stenzler." Jim's voice betrayed just how shaken he felt.
Jean felt waves of shock cascading over her.
"Oh, Jim, no! NO!"
Jean's mind reeled. Just two days ago Bill and Beth had been at the Reeds' house, laughing with them, making plans for all four of them to go fishing this weekend.
Beth and I were looking forward to lots of girl talk. Now all she has left are memories.
"Baby, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry!" Jim sounded nearly unglued.
"Tell that to Beth!" Jean felt instantly sorry, but she couldn't help her anger. This was so needless, so pointless! Bill and Beth should have had a future together, should have had children together, should have kept laughing and loving as they so freely did. Why, why this pointless waste of an irreplaceable life?
Is Jim going to be next?
Jean felt sobs choking her even as her stomach went into revolt. "I'm sorry. Please...go to the hospital and check on Beth. I can't...I have to run." Her sobs overwhelmed all her attempts at holding them back, and she knew Jim must have heard.
Jean hung up abruptly and ran to the bathroom, where she became violently ill.
Oh, poor Beth. Poor Beth. I should go to her.
Jean knew even as the thought entered her mind that she simply couldn't do it.
I'm too sick.
Jean gave up on housework, gave up on everything. She lay curled up on the couch by the phone, alternating between crying and running to the bathroom.
This is too much. No woman should have to live this way. What did Beth do to deserve this?
What did I do to deserve this?
Jim groaned and rolled his eyes. Pete's phone call had jarred him out of one of the few moments of rest he'd gotten. I couldn't have slept more than two hours all night. How can it be time to get up already?
He glanced at the clock, as if hoping that the sun had risen hours earlier than usual. But he had no such luck.
Jimmy's probably already awake.
Jim sat up with some effort, then bent over with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Another groan escaped him as he scrubbed at his face. C'mon, wake up. Gotta wake up.
Jim felt anger rising up in his soul again. No matter how tired I was, I would never walk out on my family.
He sighed and battled against the resentment once more. She just had brain surgery. She can't remember things. She can't sleep. She's stressed out. Give her a break.
When do I get a break?
He finally forced himself to his feet, visited the bathroom, and then went to check on Jimmy. He found the boy in his bedroom.
"Hey, son. Whatcha doin'?" Jim tried to sound casual and unconcerned.
Jimmy shrugged. "Playin' with blocks." The little boy had played very quietly all morning, nothing like his usual boisterous self.
"May I play with you?" Jim sat down beside his son.
Jimmy shrugged again. "Sure."
"That's an interesting thing you've built. What is it?" Jim pointed out an imaginative construct.
"Oh, it's nothin'." Jimmy deliberately knocked the blocks over, refusing to invest any of himself in what he'd made.
Jim felt his heart sink. He's always proud of what he makes. "It looked good to me."
Jimmy just shrugged.
He doesn't want to care about anything right now.
Jim began mindlessly stacking up blocks, trying not to show how hard he was thinking.
He doesn't want to care, because he cared about his Mommy, and she got sick, and she changed, and she left.
Caring hurts too much. It's not worth it. That's what he's decided.
Jim's soul ached. How in the world am I supposed to help him with that? I'm an adult, and I don't know how to cope with it myself.
No ideas presented themselves, so Jim resorted to the one thing that might give him answers. Talk about it.
"I wonder where Mommy is." Jim tried to keep his tone casual, and he focused his eyes on the blocks he played with. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jimmy pause in his own work.
The pause lasted only a moment, and Jimmy made no response.
"When I didn't know where you were, I was really scared." Jim gave particular attention to a wedge-shaped block as he placed it into position.
Still no response.
Jim tried to identify with what Jimmy might be feeling about Jean. "I thought maybe you got hurt, or maybe you didn't love me anymore. I thought maybe I would never see you again."
Jimmy began to fidget a bit, and almost seemed willing to talk.
The moment was critical, so Jim kept his profile low. Don't look at him. Too confrontational. Just build and wait.
Just like Dad would do.
Silence stretched out long.
"Are you mad at me?" Jimmy finally asked.
"For what?" Casual, casual....
"For making Mommy go away." Jimmy kept building, clearly trying to imitate his father's relaxed attitude. I hope I'm doing it more convincingly.
"No, I'm not mad at you, son."
"Remember what we said back before Mommy came home? This is the tumor's fault."
"Yeah, but I was really mean."
Jim sighed. He's playing it straight. I'd better not do less. "Yes, you were. I wish you had been kinder."
His words hung suspended in the air between them.
Now what do I say?
"But there have been times when you've been naughty before, and we never stopped loving you, did we?"
Jimmy shook his head without looking up.
"All children are naughty sometimes. That doesn't mean that their Mommies and Daddies will stop loving them. It doesn't make Mommies and Daddies go away."
The conversation lapsed for a minute or so, until Jimmy's frustration finally showed itself. He whacked a tower of blocks and sent them catapulting across the room.
"But she did go away."
"Yes, she did." Jim swallowed a lump in his throat. "I've talked to the doctor, and he thinks he knows why she did that. He thinks she got confused because...because of the problem in her head."
"You told me the doctor took the problem away."
"No, I told you the doctor took the tumor away. But remember, I also said it would take time for her to get better, and I even told you she might never remember things."
Jimmy built another tower.
"Do you know what Mommy said to me just before she left?"
"Uh-uh." Jimmy tried to sound like he didn't care, but his father wasn't fooled.
"She said to tell you how much she loved you. You see, she really believed that going away was best for you and for me. She was a little confused about that. But she did it because she believed that we would...be happier without her."
Jim toppled his blocks and began to rebuild them. "She really didn't want to go. She said so. She only did it because she loved us and thought that was best for us."
I hope he understood all of that.
Jimmy said nothing.
"So...if she can stop being confused, then she'll know that it's best for her to come back. And she would, because she loves us and she always wants to do what's best."
Jimmy played in silence, but Jim's surreptitious glances confirmed that the little fellow was thinking deeply.
"Does she have another tuber? Is that why she's confused?"
"No, the doctor doesn't think so."
"What is confused?"
"Oh...well..." Jim searched his mind for a suitable definition. Jimmy's vocabulary was very good for his age, so Jim had expected him to know that word.
"Confused means…well...it's when you think you know what's right, but you really don't."
"Oh." Jimmy furrowed his brows as he stacked up a wall of blocks.
"How do people stop bein' confused?"
I wish I knew.
"Well, first we have to find Mommy, and then we have to let the doctor figure that out."
"What if we can't ever find her?"
The plaintive question tore at Jim's heart. He closed his eyes for just a second, grasping for equilibrium.
"We found her before, didn't we?"
"What if she can't ever stop bein' confused?"
Jimmy's questions hit all of Jim's vulnerable spots with the relentlessness of a machine gun. By now Jim was beginning to feel that his wounds might be fatal.
He could find no answer.
"Will she just keep goin' away again and again?" Jimmy tossed a block away as he wrestled with questions no child should have to face.
Jim inwardly groaned, pleading for an end to this torture.
"We just have to pray that that doesn't happen."
Jimmy abandoned his blocks, scooped up Pancake, and sat curled into a ball. "She said Mommy was dead." His voice was barely audible.
Jim drew in a deep breath. Oh no, I didn't realize he'd heard that! What has this poor child been carrying around inside himself?
"She was confused about that too, son. Mommy's still alive."
I hope that wasn't a lie. I hope the Jean I once knew is still with us.
Jim paused to collect himself, deliberately straightening his spine and willing confidence into his manner. Then he swung the station door opened and strode into the lobby.
"Hey, Reed!" Mark Eberly stood up behind the desk and extended a hand toward Jim.
"Hey, Mark. How come you're riding the desk?" Jim remembered that Mac had mentioned it, but he hadn't asked why.
"Oh, it's nothin'. Just sprained my ankle really badly a little while ago. It's taking its time healing. But I'm the one who should be checking up on you, not the other way around. Is there any word on Jean?"
I wish he hadn't asked. Jim's emotions still ran far too close to the surface for his comfort. But he put on a brave face for his colleague.
"No, not yet. But we're looking." He released Mark's hand and made a pointed move away from the desk.
"Well, Jim, I've had my kids saying extra prayers for all of you. We'll do it again tonight."
"Thanks, Mark. I appreciate that."
Jim tried to keep his pace normal as he walked down the hall. He really wanted to run as hard and fast as he could to get away from such painful words. But of course there could be no escape. The watch was nearly over and the station swarmed with cops. Colleagues approached him in a seemingly endless stream, all with questions, concerns, and sympathy. It threatened to completely crumble his brave façade.
I should have just phoned Mac instead of coming over. If I get much more support, it will knock me flat.
Jim had hoped that his physical presence might somehow sway Mac into letting him get more involved. But of course Mac would see right through him now. If he'd had any hope of appearing on top of things, his friends had ruined it.
But I have to go to work. I'm going to go broke. As if I didn't have enough to worry about right now.
He finally reached the relative safety of Mac's office and rapped firmly on the window in the door. Mac raised his head, then beckoned him in with a smile.
"Jim, I was just about to call you. I'm glad you stopped by. That's even better." Mac motioned toward an empty chair.
Jim felt in no mood for chit-chat, and he stayed on his feet.
"Mac, I need to go to work tomorrow, and I am up to it. I don't have any other choice. If I don't, these hospital bills will ruin me. Believe me, earning a paycheck will take stress off of me, not add it. That's why you need to let me come back." Jim had rehearsed that speech all the way to the station.
Mac turned genuinely kind eyes toward him. "Reed, you know I can't do that."
Jim started to protest, but Mac's face became commanding, and he held up a hand to silence the junior officer.
Jim fidgeted and fumed, but kept respectfully quiet.
"Sit down, Jim."
Jim glared at his superior and complied with obvious reluctance.
Mac's expression became mildly amused. "I have something here for you. It's a gift from some of the guys. They wished to remain anonymous." He lifted a manila envelope off of his desk and handed it to Jim.
"What's this?" Jim hardly felt like receiving a sympathy card right now. I need something concrete, something that will really help. But he opened the envelope and reached inside.
His fingertips instantly recognized money, and he stopped short of pulling it out.
"Mac, I can't take money from the guys!"
"Well, I sure can't give it back to them, because I don't know who gave it. Besides, they'd be insulted if you returned it. I won't have any part of that." Mac sat back and folded his arms obstinately.
Jim closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Well, go on, take it out!" Mac commanded with clearly feigned impatience.
Jim sighed and pulled out the handful of bills. When he saw the denominations, his jaw dropped and he sat up straight.
"This is…Mac, this is too much! I can't take all this! Why this is...this is more than two weeks' salary!" He stared at Mac with a deepening sense of shock.
"I guess the guys figured it would be insurance. They'd put a little money in the envelope, and they wouldn't have to worry about working with you while your head's not on straight."
Mac's gentle attempt at humor helped to put Jim at ease, but he still could not believe what he held in his hands.
"How will I ever be able to repay them?" Jim spoke mostly to himself.
"I don't think they would want you to. Like I told you on the phone, you have a lot of friends here. More like family. Nobody wants this thing to do you in, Jim."
Jim remained frozen in his chair. He continued to stare at the bills as if they might suddenly disappear, mere figments of his imagination.
"Jim, take it and go home to your son. Give him a hug, and tell him how much all of his uncles in blue care about him."
"Mac, I don't know what to say. 'Thank you' hardly seems like enough, and I don't even know who to thank!" Jim's eyes narrowed, and he looked hard at his sergeant. "Are you sure you don't know who's behind this? It sure smells a lot like Pete to me."
Mac spread his hands. "I told you, the donors chose to remain anonymous. I'm sorry, but I can't help you out on this one. Maybe you should write a blanket 'Thank You' letter and post it on the bulletin board."
"Yeah...yeah, I'll do that." Jim rose uncertainly to his feet. "I'm still not sure I should take this."
"I am." Mac folded his arms again. "Now get out of my office before I get annoyed with you. Some of us have work to do." With that he grabbed a pen and bent over some papers.
Jim slowly made his way back to the door.
"Mac?" Jim turned around to face his superior again.
"What, Reed?" Mac feigned annoyance again, clearly letting Jim know that the gift was not subject to debate.
"Thank you. And please...if you find out who donated...thank them for me. And be sure you include Pete in that."
Mac just smiled, and Jim let himself out of the office.
Uh-oh. I didn't want to him to see me here. Pete resisted the urge to duck into another hallway. I know he saw me. I'd better not blow my cover.
Pete forced down an irrational feeling of relief at seeing Jim alive. It was just a dream! Get over it!
I still wish there was some way I could get him to surrender his gun.
Pete reined in his thoughts and put on his most innocent face. "Hey, Jim, whatcha doin' here? Mac's not sending you back to work yet, is he?"
"No, and you know it. And you know why not, too." Jim sounded almost annoyed.
"What are you talking about?"
"This!" Jim showed the wad of bills to Pete, shaking them a little for emphasis. "But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
Jim's attempt at irritation grew weaker by the moment. "Pete, this is too much." He grew a little misty around the eyes, and Pete had to look away to keep his own emotional balance.
"Jim, this is a surprise to me." He tried to sound as genuine as possible.
Jim eyed him narrowly.
"I promise, I'm telling you the truth." Pete put up a hand as if swearing in before the bailiff, and he pushed away the mental image of a nun coming after his hand with a ruler.
Jim looked less certain. He finally dropped his eyes. "Well, whoever it was, or whoever they were...I only hope they know what this means to me." Jim was so obviously moved that Pete could hardly keep his composure.
"Do you want any company tonight?" Pete thought it might be best to change the subject.
"Yeah, sure. My parents and in-laws are there. They're watching Jimmy right now. But they've been with me most of the day, and they were planning to leave after dinner. I'd be happy to have your company."
"All right. I'll drop over after dinner."
"No, come for dinner and stay. There's plenty of food. I think my mom and Candace are trying to out-cook each other."
"All right, if you're sure I won't be the fifth wheel."
"I'll see you soon, then. I'd better go get changed. Can I bring anything?"
"No, there's plenty. Thanks, though."
Jim headed back down the hall.
Pete made a pretense of heading for the locker room, but as soon as Jim rounded a corner Pete hurried to Mac's office instead.
His rap on the window earned him an instant invitation. "Hey, Pete! Did you see Jim? He was so shocked by that gift!" Mac smiled broadly.
"Yeah, he showed it to me. I was surprised too, Mac. There was an extra fifty dollar bill in there. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
Mac's face became a deliberate mask of innocence. "The donors wished to remain anonymous, Pete. I'm shocked that you even asked."
Pete curled his mouth up in a warm smile. "You're right. Good night, Mac."
"Good night, Pete."
Pete started to turn the doorknob, but stopped himself. "Oh, and Mac?"
"Thanks. For everything."
Pete shook his head and steered himself for the locker room. When it comes to friends, I've been unusually blessed.