by Jayne Leitch

I'm back, my darlings!  ...Miss me?

Okay, I promise, that's the only channelling of dead movie stars I'm gonna do.  But I am back (not for long; essays beckon), and here's what I'm back with.  Considering other recent postings to this list, I guess we'll just have to file it under "Great Minds Think Alike"--but don't worry, it's not too much the same (I hope!).  Now, I hate to give a specific spoiler warning, but there's a doozy of one in here, so I guess I'll just say that if you haven't seen the last half of the third season--or 'Time' from the fourth--you're not gonna want to read this.  Other than that, though--please enjoy!

Disclaimers:  if you recognise them, they're not mine, and I make no claims other than Fun on them.  The story itself (at least this particular telling) is mine, though, so unless you're inkling, please ask me if you wanna do anything with this.  I love feedback; please give generously, good and bad, to the address at the end.  This one's for Jenna, Dale (nothing to do with the story), and Melanie.

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by Jayne Leitch

Copyright 2000

     It was dark, and freezing cold.  The persistent ping of water dripping onto a pipe provided an irregular rhythm that her mind latched onto, and she focused on the tinny noise with all of her being as she slowly woke up.  Her brain was sluggish and  uncooperative; she couldn't remember where she was or what had happend, and as she became aware of her surroundings she tried to ressurect some idea, some reason for how she had come to be--wherever she was.

     The cold bit into her skin, and she shivered.  It wasn't the gusty freshness of a freezing wind, but more the dull deadness of a shelter that had ceased to protect against the elements--which was somehow worse.  It seemed to resonate through her body, the still, absolute lifelessness echoing something that she couldn't quite remember; as more of her senses returned, she realized that she was lying in a frigid pool of mud, maybe water--and it was seeping through her clothing and numbing her skin.  She
was lying on her side; the arm trapped under her was tingling and throbbed with a vague kind of pain that didn't seem to matter all that much when she thought about it, and her legs were crushed under the weight of something supremely heavy--but they didn't hurt, either.  Not compared to...

     It came back in a rushing wave of memory, and she sagged further into the muddy ground, her thoughts black.  Why wasn't she dead?  That was the whole point, after all...

     Her face, turned up into the still, frosty air, suddenly felt warm, as if it were being caressed by afternoon sunlight.  But that couldn't be right; it must be long after sunset by now, and besides, she was inside--but a moment later she had to squeeze her eyes shut even tighter against a sudden glow.  It didn't make any sense--unless she *had* died.  She'd always heard about  going towards the light', but hadn't believed it; maybe she should have.

     The light was warming her far more than it should have been--but it didn't touch the coldness below her skin, where she cursed herself and her life and her purpose, and she was glad because she never wanted to forgive herself for what she had done.  But then, just as she was about to lose herself once more in her own bitter guilt--she heard a voice, quiet and casual and completely unexpected.

     "Lousy day to die.  Sure you want to do this?"

     Lindsay's eyes flew open, and she stared across the room at the man standing amongst the rubble.  He was tall; long legs encased in faded blue jeans met the bottom of a black leather bomber jacket, zipped to his chin against the cold, his hands buried deep in its pockets.  His face, just starting to look worn with the creases of age, was dominated by large, dark eyes that gazed back at her as if looking straight into her soul.  His hair had obviously once been dark, but now was streaked with gray; he didn't look much older than fifty, but something in his expression said that he understood so much more than age allowed...

     She knew him.  She'd been seeing him now and again over the past three days, in the bar, on the street, at the cemetary...and she knew his name.  Gary Hobson.  The man who had received the Paper before her, the man who had somehow passed it on to her--the man she wished had never known she existed.  "You brought me here," she said, too tired to sound as angry as she wanted to, and too hollow to feel the fury she craved.

     Gary's eyes didn't waver, but they did soften slightly.  "In my experience we all get pretty much where we want to go," he replied.  He tilted his head to the side, and suddenly Lindsay felt like he was *observing* her, as if he was curious about her reaction to what he was going to say.  "Having a problem with that paper, aren't you."  It wasn't a question.

     She was too tired to argue.  There could only be one reason for his appearance; why bother to skirt the issue?  She'd say it for him.  "I can't do this anymore."

     He nodded once in agreement--but then he arched an eyebrow, and leaned forward slightly as if he needed to pay close attention to what was about to be said.  "Why's that?"

     Lindsay blinked, and shifted uncomfortably.  Her legs were going numb under the beam that had fallen across them--but not even they were making her as uneasy as the expression on Gary's face.  "Because someone died," she answered, the simplicity behind the matter clear in her mind.

     Gary was nodding; he must have understood the implication.  "So you decided that made it your turn."  His head stilled, and he added fervently, "I've been there."

     Closing her eyes, Lindsay swallowed thickly, feeling a grim smile curve her lips.  "No," she stated, her mind replaying the fire and the investigation and the chill of knowing that she had killed another human being.  Her words ringing with complete conviction, she told him, "No, you haven't.  No one's been there."

     She expected him to argue, for some reason.  She expected him to say something about how he had handled the Paper, how he had sometimes felt like he had messed everything up only to realize with time that it had been--what had Todd said?--fate.  She expected him to tell her to find some way to move past it and get on with her life--but when she opened her eyes, all he did was meet them with his own for a long moment.  "If you want to go on," he said finally, his expression balancing between comfort and conviction, "You have to accept the responsibility.  And the loss."

     "Why?  I didn't ask for it."  Remembering what it had been like to open the door and find tomorrow's newspaper on her front stoop for the first time--and realizing for the first time what that incredible thing was going to do to her life--Lindsay shook her head and firmed up her voice.  "I don't want it.  Do you know what it's like to wake up every morning and know what's going to happen?"

     Gary's expression didn't change--but his eyes seemed to grow deeper and older, as if answering her question would tell her so much about what he knew...which was exactly why he wasn't going to say a word.

     Lindsay dropped her eyes and forced back a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold.  "I don't want to know," she muttered to the slushy ground.  "I don't want to care.  I just want to wake up one morning and not *know*.  Please..."  Somehow she had begun to plead; hearing theweakness of her voice, she felt tears well up, and tried to swallow them back only to find more behind them.  "I just--I just want to wake up..."

     The first tear broke, and as suddenly as there had been multitudes more, there were none.  The emptiness expanded through her, a growing, dull pit of self-loathing and anger.  How dare she feel sorry for herself!  A woman was dead, and crying wasn't going to make it better, not for her or the woman's son.  She wasn't going to cry.  She couldn't.  It would cheapen the life that had been lost.

     Through the descending haze of pain and anger, Lindsay heard Gary's voice, quietly sympathetic.  "The choice is yours; it always has been.  It's time to accept that."

     Lindsay blinked.  Choice?  What choice?  She'd never had a choice; the Paper came every day, whether she was ready for it or not...and whether she was ready for it or not, she had taken care of it.

     Understanding hit her like a frieght train, and Lindsay began to shake.  She'd made her choice, long ago.  She'd chosen to deal with the Paper, come what may--and now, even though she'd failed, even though she never wanted to be responsible for another person's life, she couldn't just stop.  She'd made her choice, and now she had to die with it...

     The heavy burden of it all slammed into her, and without warning the tears returned.  As they shimmered across her eyes, Lindsay looked up into Gary's steady gaze, watching as her breaking heart was mirrored in its depths.  Desperately wanting him to understand, desperately wanting him to realize how much she had been hurting, she told him brokenly, "Her name was Margaret, you know that?"  The tears choked her and spilled over, tracing hot lines over her frozen cheeks, but she forced herself to continue.  "Her name was Margaret--and I let her die!" Unable to say anything more, she sagged back against the
fallen beams behind her, shaking with the effort of crying, her mind going blank of everything except Margaret Johnson--the green blouse she'd been wearing, the panic in her eyes when she hadn't seen her son outside in the crowd, the sound of her voice as she demanded to go back into the house to find him, the wisp of reddish hair that was the last part of her to disappear into the smoke, despite Lindsay's efforts to keep her outside...the look in young Danny's eyes as he clutched his teddy bear in the back of the ambulance, watching the covered gurney wheel his mother's body to the M.E.'s van...

     Then Gary spoke.  His voice was soft, and carried the most compelling tone Lindsay had ever heard; she couldn't help but listen to the quiet, heartfelt plea:  "Count the living, not the dead, Lindsay.  Count the *living*."

     And suddenly, Margaret faded away as memories assailed her.  Lindsay saw Todd, her fiance, being held at gunpoint by the terrorist she would manage to save him from.  She saw Daphne Lawrence, an abortion doctor who was seconds away from being shot through the window of her living room when Lindsay showed up and got her out of the house and to the police.  She saw Dale Harley,standing on the window ledge outside of the rehersal hall where he worked with troubled kids, putting together
musicals to keep them off the streets; he was going to jump because the programme had lost its funding and he didn't know how else he could help people, but Lindsay had managed to find him more money and talk him into getting some help for himself.  She saw Claire Cameron, the victim of abuse; Mike MacKenzie, the overworked businessman; Gavin Oliver, the single father; Valerie George, the woman wrongly convicted of murder; Julia Quinn, the little girl in the street...

     With a start, Lindsay realized that her tears had stopped.  Blinking furiously, she turned her eyes back to Gary--and she saw him, twenty years younger, dashing up the stairs in a Chicago courthouse to pull her back from where she was dangling from a if grimly terrified of not getting to her in time.  He did understand; he had been there, and he had lived through it, and so could she if she really wanted to...

     The man smiled as if he was reading her mind, and something in his eyes told her that she could do it.  Lindsay smiled back, felt how really wonderful it was to be able to do just that, and closed her eyes to savour the sensation of continuing to draw breath.  And the memories kept coming--a thousand saves, a thousand and one headlines--and while the one wasn't cleared by the thousand, it was at least made less painful.  And Lindsay was sure that that was how it was supposed to be; there would always be that one, that few, who just weren't meant to be saved--but now, while it might not hurt any less, at least she could live with that.

     Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Lindsay opened her eyes--and found herself alone.  The light was still there, glistening off of the slick pipes and spraying water--but it was normal light, shining through holes in the wrecked building from streetlamps and emergency vehicles outside. Lindsay could hear sirens and the muted chatter of a crowd, and as she struggled out from under the collapsed beams, she called to them.  "Hey!  I'm down here!  I need some help!"

     There was an answering yell, and then scrabbled movement above her as the emergency teams began to work at freeing her.  Lindsay was suddenly anxious to get out of the place; she knew without looking that her obituary was fading from the Paper that lay in a muddy puddle behind her, and she was looking forward to soothing Todd's fears in that regard.  She didn't doubt for an instant that he would be going crazy with worry in the crowd outside; she'd pushed him away completely over the
past few days, but he wouldn't let that stand in his way.  All she wanted was to hold him and kiss him and tell him that she was all right...

      And as Lindsay Romick was pulled out of the collapsed basement of an abandoned carpet store in downtown Chicago, Gary Hobson smiled, sadly.  It hadn't been her fault, just like it hadn't been his with Jeremiah Mason.  And now...she knew that.

     He turned away, then paused and turned back as he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.  Lindsay's Paper lay, forgotten, in the muddy hollow she'd fallen into during the building collapse; the pages were fluttering in a phantom breeze, but as Gary knelt down to pick it up, the front page headline fell back into view:

     "Miracle in Collapsed Carpet Store"

    Gary smiled, and picked up the Paper.

Jayne Leitch

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