Later that evening, after spending the day at yet another marine park, Gary and his friends were sitting on Dr. Sloan’s deck. The good doctor had asked to be allowed to throw Gary a little ‘thank you’ party for saving his life. Gary was quickly made acquainted with Amanda and Jesse, both of whom tried very hard to control their curiosity about this shy, but mysterious young man. A battle they were losing.
“So,” Amanda was saying, “tell me. How did you know it was poisonous? Did you have some kind of vis . . .Ow! Steve! What was that for?”
“Sorry, Amanda,” Steve apologized as he rose from the table. “Would you two mind giving me a hand in the kitchen for just a moment?” he asked, including Jesse in his invitation. “Now?”
They got the hint. A moment later, Steve was leaning back against the counter as he spoke with his father’s colleagues.
“Don’t bring up the psychic angle,” he warned them. “I got in touch with that retired cop Gary mentioned the other day. He warned me that Hobson is very sensitive on that subject. Seems that Marley tried to convince him that he was crazy. He almost succeeded. For the longest time, Hobson couldn’t even watch those psychic hotline commercials without breaking into a cold sweat.”
“Sounds like this Marley was some piece of work!” Jesse said with a shudder. “I’d hate to run up against someone like that.”
“Crumb, that’s the ex-cop’s name, also told me that Marley had trapped Hobson and had him all set up to take the blame for the assassination. Posthumously,” Steve added in a grim tone. “The police burst in just as Marley was lining up his shot, but they got him before he could fire. Dropped him right at Hobson’s feet. He said the kid had nightmares for weeks.” He turned and picked up a couple of loaded platters, handing one to each of his friends. “So drop the interrogation and let the poor guy enjoy his last day here. He’s earned that much consideration.”
“I imagine he got a commendation, at the very least,” Amanda murmured as she headed for the door.
Steve shook his head as he picked up a tray of drinks. “Not even a handshake,” he told them.
“You’re kidding!” Jesse protested. “No ‘Thank you for saving my life, Mr. Hobson’? Nothing?”
“The Secret Service guys just told him to keep his mouth shut,” Steve shrugged. “Hobson said something like, ‘fine, have a nice day, hope I never see you again as long as I live.’ Or words to that effect. He won’t talk about it to anyone. The closest he’s come was about a month or so after his accident, when he finally admitted to Crumb that he still had nightmares occasionally.”
“Occasionally!” Jesse snorted. “I’d be on valium the rest of my life!”
The trio came back out to find Gary sitting near the railing at the edge of the deck. He was staring out at the horizon, apparently contemplating the spectacular sunset. When he turned back at the sound of their footsteps, he wore a sad, pensive expression.
“Steve fill you in on all the topics to avoid?” he asked with a wry smile. “Really, guys, I’m not that much of a basket case. I promise not to get all weepy-eyed and depressed, if you promise not to bring up the words ‘visions’ and ‘voices’ in the same sentence. Deal?”
“Deal,” Amanda smiled. “And I promise to keep the ‘interrogation’ on a friendly level. No rubber hoses.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Gary warned her.
“Where did your friends go?” Jesse asked, looking around for Chuck and Jade.
“Chuck is ‘helping’ Dr. Sloan with the grill,” Gary grinned, seeming a little more at ease. “Jade went to use your phone. She wanted to check on the twins.” He turned back to admiring the view. “This is great, living right on the water like this,” he said. “I’ve always loved the water.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” Steve remarked. “Chuck says this place you’re going to is so far off the beaten track, they have to pipe sunshine in on a satellite feed.”
The lush mountain scenery rolled past in a vast panorama of beauty as the sedan followed the dusty road to the camp. Gary had known the facility had to be fairly remote, but they had been driving northwards for almost two hours! And that was only since leaving the main interstate! Where was this place?
“It’s a little out of the way,” Chuck was saying from the front seat, “but its got state-of-the-art medical facilities just a ten minute flight away by chopper, and a completely staffed emergency clinic. They have to with the kind of clientele they cater to.”
“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Gary asked, peering out the window once more at the incredibly green landscape. ‘How high up are we?’ he wondered. ‘Wait! Did I just see the ocean over there? We’re miles from the ocean!’
“Quit teasing him, Chuck,” Jade admonished. “It is a very well equipped facility with a competent staff. But the directors and staff try to keep accidents to a minimum. It’s just that some of the campers have very special needs other than the one you all have in common.”
“The wheelchairs,” Gary nodded. He reached over and tucked the pacifier back between Alex’s puckering lips. Little Gary was trying to stare out the other window, but all he could see was sky. The twins had been very good for most of the trip, only crying when they needed to be fed or changed. Gary still found it amazing that his best friend was a dad, now. A completely doting one, from what he had seen. If Jade didn’t step in on occasion, Chuck would never put the kids down long enough for them to learn to walk! Gary envied his friend his good fortune. “It’s okay, Jade,” he murmured. “You can talk about it without hurting my feelings. The brochure you showed me makes this place sound great. I’m not sure about rock climbing, though. There aren’t a lot of places for that back in Chicago. Now, swimming, that could come in handy.”
“Especially if you keep diving in to the rescue,” Chuck remarked bitterly. “You scared me half to death, you know that? When we couldn’t find a pulse . . .”
“I know, Chuck,” Gary hastened to say. “Everything turned out okay, though. It took a while, but it did. Just . . . can’t ever go ‘home’ again,” he mumbled almost to himself, meaning Hickory, the town where he had grown up.
“That reminds me,” Jade spoke up. “Someone named Joe Frawley called while you two were out. He wanted to know how you were doing. Seemed relieved when I told him you were in good spirits. Was there some kind of trouble?”
“You . . . you could say that,” Gary mumbled uncomfortably.
“Well, he asked me to tell you that he had a talk with some minister,” Jade continued. “This Joe fellow said the minister delivered a wonderful sermon about ‘bearing false witness.’ Has someone been spreading lies about you?”
“Something like that,” Gary sighed. “You know how small towns are. Rumors spread faster than truth. That’s . . . that’s over and done with now.” He peered over Chuck’s shoulder. “I think we’ve arrived.” ‘Thank you, God!’ he added to himself. He really didn’t want to relive that nightmarish visit. Not even in memory.
As they passed beneath a huge sign fastened to two of the biggest trees Gary had ever seen, the camp unfolded before them. The buildings were arranged in a loose horseshoe formation, scattered around the edges of a large clearing. The noonday sun bore down on the camp through openings in the leafy canopy. Ten log cabins faced each other in two rows, five to each side of the clearing. At the apex of the horseshoe stood the administration building and the clinic, two separate buildings joined by a covered breezeway. Hard-packed dirt trails radiated in all directions from the central hub of the clearing.
Chuck pulled up in front of the administration building and unloaded Gary’s new chair from the trunk. A moment later, Gary was comfortably settled and rolling toward the front door. As they approached, a slender blonde man stepped out to greet them.
“Hi, I’m Andrew,” he told them. “And you are . . .?”
“Gary Hobson. These are my friends, Chuck and Jade Fishman. Are you the director?”
“No,” Andrew told them. “I’m just one of the counselors.” He turned to a tiny red-haired woman coming from a building marked ’Clinic.’ “This is Monica, one of our physical therapists. Monica, Gary.”
“Nice to meet you, Gary,” the smiling woman greeted him in a soft brogue. “I’ll be overseeing your rehabilitation, but Andrew will be the one teaching you about rock climbing, horseback riding and such. We’ll both be conducting group therapy sessions twice a week. If you feel the need for private sessions, feel free to ask, and we’ll be more than happy to accommodate you.”
“Th-thank you,” Gary stammered. “I’d rather skip that part, if possible.” He really wasn’t comfortable with people ‘messing’ with his mind.
“Sorry, Gar,” Chuck shrugged. “It’s mandatory, part of the program. I guess I kinda forgot to tell you that.”
Gary gave his friend a pained look. “You sandbagged me, man,” he sighed, shaking his head. “And please, don’t ever use that ‘s’ word again! Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard that?”
“It’s just a word,” Chuck protested miserably. “Nothing to get worked up about.”
“Actually,” Andrew told them with an easy grin, “that’s a pretty common, and healthy reaction. Gary doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him, because he’s tired of feeling sorry for himself.”
“Exactly!” Gary exclaimed. “That’s . . . “
“One of the things we’ll be discussing in your first session,” Monica explained quickly. “Which is tonight, by the way. As soon as we’ve gotten you settled in, we’ll take you around and introduce you to everyone.” She looked at the single bag Chuck set beside his friend. “My, you travel light! Most of our campers bring a cart load.”
Gary just shrugged, laying the suitcase across his lap. He reached out to shake Chuck’s hand in farewell, only to be drawn into an awkward embrace.
“We’ll be back in six weeks,” Chuck told him, his voice tight. “You take care of yourself and behave for the nice people.”
“I promise,” Gary chuckled. “To try, anyway. You know me. Always in the thick of things,”
“I heard that,” Jade sighed as she, too, gave her husband’s friend a warm hug. “You were in trouble the first time I laid eyes on you. And, from what Chuck tells me, you’ll be up to your neck in it until the day you die.”
Gary smiled and shrugged as she released him. “Everybody needs a hobby. You two drive safe going back, okay? And give my folks a call? Tell ‘em . . .” Pausing, he turned to the two counselors. “Is there a phone here?”
“We have a satellite phone for emergencies,” Monica informed him sadly. “And a radio base station for keeping in touch with parties in the field. But no regular phones.”
With a sigh, Gary turned back to his friends. “Just tell ‘em I love them and I’ll get in touch when I can,” he told them. “And give those kids an extra kiss for me.”
He watched as his two friends drove away, waving at the cloud of dust that threatened to choke him. Gary then turned to his two guides and allowed them to lead the way to his cabin. He found that he would be sharing with another camper who was currently taking a riding lesson. Gary quickly stowed his meager belongings away, then followed Andrew and Monica on a tour of the facility. They started, naturally, with the clinic.
“We have a fully equipped therapy room,” Monica explained in her lilting accent. “We have the parallel bars, free weights, trapeze rings, the works. We also have a whirlpool and a sauna.”
“For minor injuries and illnesses,” Andrew added, “we have a twenty bed hospital and emergency room. Critical cases are flown out by chopper. Medication is closely supervised. We have to ask that you turn over anything stronger than aspirin and ibuprofen.”
“Not a problem,” Gary shrugged. “I threw all that away when they released me the second time. Too . . . tempting. I have almost no control over my life as it is,” he explained. “No sense in throwing away what little I do have.”
“You have more control than you know,” Monica smiled. “You make the choice to get up each morning. You choose how to greet the world and how to treat your fellow man. You make choices between right and wrong everyday. It ’s your choice to help someone, Gary, or not. It always has been.”
Gary froze. For just a moment, he was back in that crumbling basement with the derelict carpet store collapsing around him. The . . . ‘man’ he believed was Lucius Snow had said almost exactly the same thing.
“What kind of choice is that?” Gary grumbled, heading for the door. “Do something and help someone, or do nothing and watch them suffer . . . or die.” He stopped at the touch of a gentle hand on his shoulder. He looked up into Monica’s rich brown eyes.
“It’s a choice many would have refused to make,” she told him. “It’s a choice that requires rare courage and strength of will. From what your friend has told us, those are qualities you have in abundance.”
Troubled, Gary looked away from the compassion that radiated from her gaze. “Chuck talks too much,” he murmured softly as he continued out the door.
“This is our Administration building,” Andrew told him as Gary rolled through the side door. “We have some paperwork for you to sign, then we’ll show you the dining room and recreation hall. That’s where tonight’s session will be held. If you ever need one of us and we’re not here, then we can be reached from this base station in the main lobby.”
The building continued the rustic theme Gary had seen so far throughout the camp. It, too, was of solid log construction with hardwood flooring. High-traffic areas were protected by inlaid, textured ceramic tiles, which were laid out in a Southwestern pattern.
Monica handed him a clipboard with what proved to be medical release forms. Basically, they gave blanket permission for the camp to obtain all his medical records as far back as they existed. Gary saw no harm in it, and knew that it would be necessary for emergency treatment, so he quickly scrawled his name.
“When’s lunch,” he sighed. “I’m starved.”
“That’s where we’re headed next,” Monica told him with an impish smile. “You’ll have your choice of chicken or beef. No pork, sorry. We’re fresh out. There’s also a wide variety of vegetables, and pecan pie for dessert.”
Gary perked up at that. Maybe this place wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“We’ll introduce you to everyone before we take our seats,” Andrew added. “It’s a small group, right now. The ‘senior’ campers are on a two-day outing. Just you and six others.”
“Cozy,” Gary murmured. “And the . . . the therapy session?”
“Right after supper,” Monica promised. “We do give you a chance to unpack, Gary.”
They entered the dining room to see a single, long table at which two other men and four women were already seated. The table was loaded with platters and bowls containing a variety of hot foods, steam still rising from many of them.
As Gary approached an empty place at the table, the other diners greeted him warmly. Of the two men, one was apparently older than he was with dark blonde hair and broad, smiling features. The other was a younger man, barely out of his teens. He was slender with hair as dark as Gary’s and a solemn expression. The three women ranged in age from a teenager, to a woman in her mid forties.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Andrew announced. “I’d like to introduce our latest addition, Mr. Gary Hobson, a tavern owner from Chicago.” He then went down the line, introducing each in turn. “Mr. Doug Richards, college professor. Next to him is Jean Phillips, high school student.” He indicated a slender teenage girl with dark red hair. She flashed him a sad smile. “Then there’s Bill Thomas, college student. On the opposite side, we have Hailey Tisdale, reporter.”
Gary tried not to react to that revelation. He was instantly on his guard, however. Ms. Tisdale was a striking, if not exactly beautiful woman in her early forties, with short blonde hair and hazel eyes. He returned her appraising look with a fleeting smile.
“Then we have Eleanor Parrish, with the LAPD.” She was in her early thirties, slender, athletic with hair darker than his own. Penetrating brown eyes studied him closely as she favored him with a grim smile.
“Last is Michelle Williams, model.” From the way the twenty-something young woman held herself, Gary would have guessed something like that. She was very slender, with pale blonde hair and blue eyes.
‘Great,’ Gary sighed to himself. ‘A reporter and a cop. The two nosiest professions on earth. I better be careful how I breathe!’ He gave them a brief nod and a shaky smile as he pulled up to one of the empty places. “N-nice to meet you,” he stammered. He saw that the others had already loaded their plates, so he began to help himself. “Hope you don’t mind,” he said as he speared a piece of chicken. “We left so early, then forgot to stop for breakfast. My stomach is starting to wonder if my throat was cut.”
“No problem,” Richards grinned. He spoke in a slow, western drawl. “We don’t stand on ceremony around here. However, there is a price to pay. Each newcomer has to listen to how each of us came to be here. Then you have to tell us your tale of woe. I was a part-time rodeo clown down in Houston. Tried a little too hard to distract a bull, and got stomped into the mud.”
Gary winced. That had to hurt!
“Jeannie here was an Olympic hopeful as a gymnast,” the professor went on. “Another kid hit the balance beam while she was in the middle of a really tough routine. Jeannie landed badly as a result.”
“I was on a skiing trip in Aspen,” Bill Thomas spoke up for himself. “Avalanche caught me and two others halfway down the slope. The others got clear. I didn’t.”
Ms. Tisdale dabbed at her mouth with a napkin before speaking. “I was covering one of those nasty little hostage situations in the Middle-East,” she said with an ironic gleam in her eyes. “When the shooting started, I forgot to duck.”
“High speed chase on the expressway,” Eleanor Parrish shrugged. “My car rolled a few times then went airborne. I was lucky to get out of it alive.”
“Never do a photo shoot on a mountain top,” Michelle smiled. “Especially when working with animals. How my agent ever convinced me to try riding a llama, of all things . . . must’ve had a severe attack of idiocy.”
All eyes turned to Gary, who was trying hard to hide a deep crimson blush.
“Your turn, Hobson,” Doug grinned. At Gary’s continued silence, he leaned closer to the red-faced barkeep. “Come on. It can’t be that bad. Was it a bar fight? A robbery, maybe.”
Tisdale turned an intensely curious gaze on the newcomer. “Shot by a jealous boyfriend, perhaps?” she teased.
“N-no,” Gary quickly shook his head. “Nothing romantic or . . . or exciting.” God! Could his face get any redder? He felt as if he should be glowing! “I, um, I fell down some stairs. I was changing . . . changing a light bulb,” he mumbled rapidly.
“Scuse me?” Parrish asked, a tiny smile playing across her face. “I didn’t quite catch that last part.”
Gary shot her a shame-faced look as he pushed his plate away. He suddenly didn’t feel very hungry. “I was changing a light bulb,” he mumbled, “and the stool slipped. I landed on the stupid thing at the bottom of the stairs.”
The silence was thick enough to cut with a knife. Every eye in the place seemed to be boring holes right through him.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Thomas laughed. “You’re sitting here, listening to us spin these little tales of trauma and drama, and the best you can come up with is . . . a light bulb?”
Andrew started to say something, but Monica laid a hand on his arm and gave a slight shake of her head. Gary was on his own.
“All I can tell you is what happened,” Gary sighed, rolling his chair back from the table. His appetite had abruptly vanished. “It was the middle of the night, and I’d had a rough day. The light blew when I flipped the switch and I decided to go ahead and change it instead of waiting ‘til my head was clear. I fell down the stairs, broke my leg and lay there for God knows how long before help showed up. Sorry it’s not anything dramatic like a car chase, a shootout, or falling off a mountain. Or as athletic as skiing, gymnastics, or the rodeo, but it is what happened.” He continued to back away from the table until he could turn around. “Give my apologies to whoever does your cooking,” he murmured. “I-it’s really good. I just wasn’t as hungry as I thought. Excuse me.”
As Gary made his escape, the others turned to face the younger man.
“That was cold, Bill,” Michelle admonished. “Mr. Hobson is obviously embarrassed enough about what happened. There was no need to rub it in.”
“I thought he was kidding,” Bill murmured apologetically. “I mean, seriously, a light bulb?”
The two counselors held a whispered conference, and then Andrew made a quick exit as Monica took her seat.
“Gary is a wee bit shy,” she told the others. “His friend did warn us that he embarrasses so easily. He’s also one to hide his light under a bushel, as they say. For one thing, he didn’t tell you what it was that made his day so exhausting. Shortly before spending a very tiring evening waiting tables at his bar because one of his waitresses was injured, he had plunged into a canal to save a wee lad from drowning. He had also been beaten by a couple of drunken patrons, whom he sent home by a cab paid for out of his own pocket. He’s not likely to tell you much about himself at all. Which is one of the reasons he’s here.” She imparted all this information in an even tone as she helped herself to a plate of vegetables.
“Sounds like a very complex man,” Hailey Tisdale murmured, eyes fixed on the door through which Gary had fled moments before. “I smell a story here.”
“Gary sees himself as being a very simple man,” Monica smiled. “A man who believes that every life is precious.”
Andrew found Gary sitting in a small clearing surrounding a duck pond. The melancholy young man was idly tossing pebbles into the placid water.
“That was sorta rough back there,” the blonde counselor commented. “Bill is not known for being the most tactful of men.” He strolled up next to the wheelchair, both hands deep in his pockets. “The others are having a few words with him, by now.”
“Didn’t mean to get anyone in trouble,” Gary mumbled as he continued to pelt the tiny body of water. “Guess I’m just tired. It was a long drive.”
“You were also starving until Bill started in on you,” Andrew pointed out. “Abstinence is not encouraged where Tess’s cooking is concerned. She’s got a temper you wouldn’t believe.”
Gary flashed Andrew a sad smile before turning back to his ‘entertainment.’ “Don’t wanna upset the cook,” he sighed. “I just don’t have much appetite right now. Maybe later, at supper.”
“Lord, I hope so,” Andrew sighed. “Tess will skin me alive if I don’t make sure you eat right. Now, come on back. I think you’re owed an apology and an extra helping of pie.”
Gary shifted the pebbles from one hand to the other as he considered Andrew’s words. “You mentioned pecan earlier,” he said, giving the other man a sideways glance.
“Still warm from the oven, knowing Tess,” the blonde man grinned.
“Toss on a coupla globs of butter with some milk to wash it down,” Gary smiled, “and they can keep the apologies.”
Andrew stuck out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Gary grasped it in a firm handshake. “Deal,” Andrew smiled. “Now, let’s get back before Tess goes on the warpath. I should warn you that she’ll expect you to clean your plate first.”
“No problem,” Gary returned. “It really has been a long time since my last meal.”
Later, after rejoining a much-subdued group and finishing his lunch, Gary was shown the training areas. First was the riding stable, where he chose a rather sedate palomino to be his mount. Next was ’The Wall,’ where, Andrew explained, the rock climbing classes would begin the following week. Gary had to build his upper body strength up a little more before tackling the artificial construct. Swimming lessons would take place in the indoor pool at the clinic. Next were the outdoor basketball court, and a tennis court. Each area was in its own tree-shrouded clearing, except for ’The Wall,’ which stood in a clearing that ended in a sloping, root-encrusted cliff.
Gary found himself drawn to the magnificent panorama spread out before him as he sat back from the edge of the cliff. Taken in such a huge dose, it was so awe inspiring he was unaffected by vertigo. Still, when he tried to look over the edge, his head started swimming and he had to beat a hasty retreat. How was he ever going to climb that damned ‘Wall’ if he couldn’t stand heights? He looked up at the artificial precipice which towered thirty feet above the clearing. It presented a bare, gray face to him that was pockmarked at irregular intervals by carefully placed handholds.
“That’s not gonna work,” he told Andrew. “There’s no way I can climb that thing.”
“You’ve managed to put aside your fear of heights on any number of occasions,” the counselor pointed out. “Whatever it took to save someone’s life.”
Gary shot him a startled look. “Just how much has Chuck told you about me?”
“Chuck isn’t your only friend, Gary,” Andrew smiled cryptically. “In fact you have friends you haven’t even met, yet.”
“You, um, you care to explain that?” the younger man asked. For some reason, the image of an enigmatic man in a bowler hat came to mind. “Th-there’s not something you just might think I should know, is there?”
“Not at this time,” Andrew chuckled. “All I can tell you is to have faith, Gary. Everything happens in its own time.”
Gary shook his head and headed back to the main enclosure. “You’re a big help,” he grumbled.
Gary was finally given the chance to unpack his solitary suitcase. He hoped they had a washer and dryer on the premises, otherwise he’d end up with jeans that really were ‘stone washed.’ As he was hanging his things in the empty wardrobe on his side of the room, the front door opened with a bang. Startled, he turned in his chair to see Bill rolling into the tiny cabin.
“So, they stuck you with me,” the younger man grinned sheepishly. “That figures. I’m really sorry about that scene at lunch,” he went on. “I just figured that, being from Chicago and all, you had to’ve been hurt by some gangster or something.”
Gary just shrugged as he continued to put away his things. “No big deal. I hate to be the one to tell you , though, but not everyone in Chicago is related to a mob family,” he told Bill. “Or even knows someone connected to the mob.” He tucked his shaving gear into a drawer in the bedside table.
“Are you saying you’ve never had any dealings with organized crime?” Bill persisted.
Gary paused, unsure how to answer the probing question. “Dealings?” he mused. “No.” ‘Run-ins, yes,’ he thought to himself. “But I’ve met a few. I do run a bar, if you recall.”
Bill sort of meandered over to his own side of the room, idly glancing at the remaining contents of Gary’s bag. “No drug trafficking, jewel smuggling or ‘murder for hire’?” the younger man wondered out loud.
Gary stopped what he was doing to stare at the younger man. “You mind telling me what all this is leading up to?” he asked. “I’d really like to know.”
“Monica said you saved some kid from drowning just before your accident,” Bill shrugged. “Just wondered if you had a ‘dark side,’ so to speak.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Gary replied. “I have a lousy temper, if that helps. I stutter when I get excited or nervous. I snore like a freight train. And I really don’t like heights. Oh yeah, I have the social life of a monk. Anything else?”
“Just one thing,” Bill grinned. “How are you at basketball?”
“I can hold my own,” the young bar owner shrugged. “Or at least make ‘em remember I was in the game. Are you hinting at a little one-on-one this afternoon?” he asked with a sideways grin.
“Loser has to do the winner’s laundry for a week,” Bill replied with a relieved smile. ‘This guy isn’t so bad,’ he thought to himself.
“You’re on,” Gary agreed. “Name the time.”
“Right now,” Bill suggested. “We have a group session right after supper, which only leaves us another hour and a half before we have to get cleaned up. Since you’re new here, I guess I’d better warn you. Nobody comes to Tess’s table with dirty hands. The penalties can be lethal.”
“I’ll remember that,” Gary chuckled. “Mind if I meet you there? I have to ask Monica something.”
“No problem. Ten minutes?”
“Make it fifteen,” Gary told him. “It might take me a minute to find her.”
Bill quickly agreed, hurrying to get in a little warm-up before Gary joined him. Gary, meanwhile, went in search of a certain red haired counselor. He wanted to know how she had known about the boy he had saved. Everything had happened so fast that day, he hadn’t even told Marissa. Chuck, for sure, didn’t know. So . . . who had told her?
By the time he was supposed to meet Bill, Gary had yet to find the counselor/therapist. It was as if she were avoiding him.
He found Bill Thomas practicing his lay-ups on the court. The younger man was pretty good, Gary thought. Still . . .
At first, the two players seemed evenly matched. Bill’s youthful exuberance and flexibility, however, was no match for Gary’s greater strength and experience. Gary soon had the younger man extending his defense, making it harder for Bill to get the ball away from the older man. Add all that to the fact that Bill was lousy at getting three-pointers, and Gary had the game in the bag.
“Where the hell did you learn that rim-shot?” Bill grumbled when it was over. “I didn’t even see it coming!”
“Something I picked up the last time I went back home,” Gary replied with an easy grin. “Trick is to get the angle just right. After that, it’s just luck.”
Bill shook his head sadly. “I could never get that lucky,” he sighed. “Did you play in the pros, or college?”
“A little in college,” Gary shrugged as he led the way to the equipment locker. “Football was my game back then. I was never good enough for the pros.”
“But you’ve kept in practice,” Bill persisted. “I mean, you’ve, um, you’ve got some pretty cool moves for . . . well . . .”
“Someone my age?” Gary chuckled. “I may be in a wheelchair, kid,” he continued, “but I’m not ready for a nursing home, yet. I help coach a youth league back home. C’mon. I still need to talk to Monica before I get cleaned up. And you owe me a week’s laundry service.”
By suppertime, Gary still had not been able to get Monica alone. The lissome redhead sat at the head of the table, with Andrew at the other end. She smiled whenever she replied to some comment or question, speaking in soft, lilting tones. Gary watched her as he tackled his own meal with enthusiasm. The quick game with Bill had not only gotten him a week’s laundry service, but a voracious appetite as well. The fact that the food was some of the best he’d ever eaten didn’t hurt, either.
Finally, they retired to the recreation room and parked their chairs into a semi-circle, facing Monica and Andrew. The two counselors pulled up a couple of easy chairs and started the session by turning to Gary.
“As the newcomer,” Andrew told him, “you should start things off by telling us exactly what happened that night, when you fell.”
Gary ducked his head and shrugged. “Not much else to tell,” he murmured. “I don’t remember most of what happened.”
“Then tell us what you do remember,” Monica gently urged.
Again, Gary gave a little shrug. “The stepstool slipped and I ended up at the bottom of the stairs,” he murmured. The fingers of his right hand kept worrying at the broad band of his watch. “The next thing I recall was waking up in the hospital a coupla days later.”
“That’s not exactly true,” Monica admonished. “You were unconscious a long time. You dreamed, didn’t you?”
Gary shot her a strange look. “Sorta,” he mumbled, eyes fixed on his hands once more. “I-it was . . . strange.”
“The idea is for you to open up to us, Gary,” Doug snorted impatiently, “not make us pull it out of you one word at a time! Dreams are always strange. It’s the nature of the subconscious mind. What was it that made your dream seem strange to you?”
For a moment, it seemed as if Gary was going to refuse to answer, then . . . “It was too ‘real’,” he sighed. “Wh-when I was ten, this guy saved my life. Kept me from being run over by a truck. I was just a kid, and I guess I blocked it from my mind until . . . until something happened to make me remember. A-anyway, in . . . in this dream, I had to go back and save him so that he would be able to save me. And it was really . . . detailed. Days passed in this . . . place. And . . . and even in the dream, I could . . . I could feel what was happening to my . . . real self. I was in so much . . . pain and it was like . . . like I could feel the life . . . and the strength draining from my body.” His hands clenched and unclenched reflexively as he related his ‘dream’ to the others. “I kept having to . . . to do things when I was so . . . weak. And I knew that, if I didn’t do this, didn’t succeed, I’d die.”
“Were you frightened?” Eleanor asked in a surprisingly gentle tone.
“Oh, yes!” Gary chuckled nervously. “I’ve only been that scared a few times in my life. Each time, I was almost certain I was about to die.”
“So, what was happening in the real world while this was going on?” Bill asked. “How long before help arrived?”
“Coupla hours,” Gary mumbled, once more fixated on what his hands were doing. There was no comment from the other campers as the horror of his situation sank in. “They, um, they said there was blood everywhere. A big, huge puddle of it coming from my leg. A smaller one from where I’d hit my head. The, ahm, doctor told me I should’ve bled to death long before help ever got there. He . . . he believed the . . . the end of the bone was putting pressure on the artery, slowing down the . . . blood loss. By the time help arrived, I didn’t have a whole lot left, a-apparently, ‘cause m-my heart . . . stopped.”
No one said anything as they tried to picture in their minds what it must have been like. To be lying there, alone in the darkness, unable to move, as he felt the life draining out of him. No wonder he hallucinated!
“A-anyway,” Gary continued, clearing his suddenly dry throat, “they, um, they got me jump-started again, about the time the ambulance got there. Th-then . . . then it stopped a coupla times o-on the way to the . . . the hospital. And . . . and one more time wh-while they were . . . were trying to get me st-stabilized. They, um, they told me later that . . . that they gave up on me that time.” He suddenly unsnapped the tabs that held his watch to the wide leather band. Handing the loosened timepiece to Monica, he pointed to the inscription. “That . . . that’s when I ‘came back’, they tell me. M-my mom told me . . . later . . . that they called th-the time at . . . at 4: 42 AM. So, um, I was gone . . . quite a while.”
The others passed the watch around wordlessly, reading the time inscribed on the back: 4:56 AM. Each of them gained a new respect for this soft-spoken young man. Jean Phillips finally handed it back to Gary.
“S-so you see,” he stammered as he fastened it back in place, “it was just a stupid accident. Nothing exciting, o-or romantic about it. C-could’ve happened to a-anyone.”
“You underestimate yourself, Gary,” Hailey Tisdale murmured. “I’ve covered wars with less human drama than what you’ve just told us. You were fighting for your life! Hanging on tooth and toenail for each second! Even when the medical staff gave up, you didn’t! For each of us, as traumatic as our own experiences were, help was there within minutes! You lay for hours, not even knowing if help would arrive at all!”
“I feel really bad about that ‘light bulb’ crack, now,” Bill sighed. “I had no idea, man.”
“S’okay,” Gary shrugged, a tiny smile playing across his saddened features. “You shoulda heard what my best friend had to say.” He tugged nervously at his watchband. “Chuck . . . Chuck’s crazy. He, um, kept trying to find out . . . things.”
“What kind of things?” Jean asked innocently.
Gary’s only answer was a deep crimson blush as he suddenly found that watchband very fascinating!
“Oh, dear,” Michelle giggled. “Chuck sounds like a cruel, evil man!”
“Nah,” Gary grinned. “He’s just Chuck.”
Jean looked around in puzzlement as the others broke into abashed grins. “Am I missing something, here?” she asked. “What was it he wanted to know that was so . . . oh!” Jean’s own face went six shades of crimson as the answer suddenly sank in. “Oh, dear!” She looked at Gary with a mischievous gleam in her eye. “Did you ever find out for yourself?”
Gary looked at the young girl, his expression serious. “How old are you, Jean?” he asked.
“Fifteen,” she told him. “Why?”
“Cause you still have a long life ahead of you. Plenty of time to hear . . .stuff like this. Yes, I-I got an answer, but it was a mixed blessing. Things got . . .ugly. A lot of . . . of things were said that . . . well, let’s just say my social life didn’t take off the way . . .” He looked around at the other, expectant faces. “Um, wh-who’s next?”
It wasn’t until much later, while the others were all preparing for bed, that Gary was finally able to corner the two counselors more or less alone. He found them in the dining room, talking in hushed tones with the cook, a heavy-set black woman named Tess. The young camper pushed his chair up to the table.
“Hi,” he greeted the trio. “I think we need to talk.”
“Sure, Gary,” Andrew shrugged. “What’s on your mind?”
“I wanna know how you three know so much about me,” Gary told him. “You’ve been dropping these little hints all day about things I haven’t told anyone.” He turned to face Monica directly. “How did you know about the kid I pulled out of the canal that day?” Gary shifted so that he was looking Andrew in the eye. “What did you mean about my having ‘friends’ I hadn’t met yet?” To Monica: “How did you know I dreamed? People don’t always dream with head injuries. And you’ve been fixing all my favorite foods since I arrived,” he added, looking at Tess. “Stuff even my mom doesn’t know I like.
The oddly matched trio exchanged glances. They seemed to be speaking without saying a word that he could hear. After a couple of minutes of this, Gary began to get irritated.
“Excuse me, people,” he said. “I’m still sitting here, waiting for an answer of some kind!”
“I’m sorry, Gary,” Monica said with a winsome smile. “There’s not much we can tell you. All the information was in your dossier. Every client is preceded by a very thorough information packet.”
“We can’t tell you who puts the packet together,” Tess added. “He’s a stickler for detail, though.”
“He must be,” Gary grumbled. “He’s even getting inside my head.” He stared back at the three camp ‘officials.’ “Could you put in a call to my friend tomorrow?”
Andrew shot Monica a puzzled look before answering. “We can try,” he said. “Why?”
“Please ask him to come back as soon as possible,” Gary replied grimly. “I can’t stay someplace where . . . where you know more about me than I know about myself.” He started to back away from the table.
“Wait, Gary,” Tess spoke up. “I can’t promise you’ll get all the answers you desire,” she told him, “But if you can hang in there for a few more weeks, you may at least find out why you’re here.”
Gary met her gaze with a direct, appraising look of his own. “I’m going to hold you to that,” he promised, as he headed for the door. “I’m more than just a little tired of the runaround I’ve been getting for the last few years.”
When a strange noise woke Bill later that night, he recalled Gary’s off hand comment about snoring. Expecting to hear a loud rumbling sound, he was surprised to hear a low mumbling instead. Gary’s head was tossing fitfully from side-to-side, as his hands made feeble ‘warding off’ motions. Concerned, Bill threw back his covers and slid into his chair. A moment later, he was pulled up to the older man’s side, reaching out a hand to try to wake him. He paused as he began to make out a little of what Gary was saying.
Gary was once more in his loft, his left arm stretched painfully behind him and cuffed to the back of his chair. Savalas stood before him, grinning evilly, a trickle of blood oozing from the corner of his mouth.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Hobson,” he chuckled, a mad gleam in his eyes. “You shouldn’t have killed me.”
“I didn’t!” Gary gasped, wincing as the cuff once more bit into his flesh. “You pulled the trigger, not me! You killed yourself!”
“Do you really believe that?” the evil specter laughed. “You are so naïve! You fought me, Hobson. You pushed the gun so that it was pointed at me!”
“I know that!” Gary sighed. “And I’m sorry! I didn’t want to kill anyone! I’m sorry!”
“I don’t want sorry!” Savalas screamed into his victim’s face. “I want my life back! Can you give me that?”
His face twisted in anguish, Gary tried to escape that leering glare. “No!” he sobbed. “I can’t. You know I can’t! Go away! P-please, just . . . go away!”
“Go ‘way!” Gary whimpered. “Sorry! ‘m so sorry! Please, go ‘way! Not . . . not my fault.”
Bill listened in horrified fascination as his roommate pleaded to be released from whatever nightmare visage held him in its grip. Hesitantly, he reached out to lay a hand on Gary’s left shoulder, meaning to shake his new friend into wakefulness. Even in the darkness, he was able to sense the flailing fist that just barely missed his face. He grabbed it, trying to restrain it long enough to get through to him. The other man was surprisingly strong. It took both hands and most of his strength to hold onto that one arm. As he struggled to keep his grip, Bill was startled to feel a ridge of tissue that completely encircled Gary’s wrist.
“Gary! Wake up!” he cried. “It’s just a bad dream, man! Wake up!” He let go with one hand long enough to switch on a lamp. The sudden illumination did the job that his voice could not.
“Hmm? Wh-what?” Gary blinked several times as he tried to get oriented to the strange surroundings. “Where . . .? Oh. Oh, man! I’m sorry, Bill,” he mumbled drowsily. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“S’okay, Gary,” Bill sighed, relieved to be able to release his hold. As he did, he took a closer look at the other man’s wrist. A livid scar completely circled Gary’s wrist. “What caused this?”
“Caused wh . . . Oh. That.” He scrubbed at his face with his right hand as he contemplated the scar. “Trick ‘r’ treat,” he murmured.
“Come again?” Bill asked in puzzlement. “What does that mean?”
“Sump’n’ tha’ happ’ned las’ Halloween,” Gary mumbled. “It’s a long story.” Sleepily, he turned himself over onto his side. “G’night.”
Hesitantly, Bill asked, “You wanna talk about it?”
“Bout wh . . .? Oh. No. Not now, anyway.” Gary sighed. “Like I said, it’s a long, sad story. Sounds better in the daylight. G’night, Bill.”
Disappointed, Bill headed back to his own bed. He couldn’t help but wonder what his roommate had been dreaming about. As he hoisted himself back into bed, he heard Gary shift back onto his back, reaching out to turn off the forgotten lamp.
The next morning, Bill found Doug and Hailey in the stables, discussing the new arrival in hushed tones. Easing in, he listened a moment before making his presence known.
“You have to admit it was an incredible story,” Doug was saying. “Sent shivers up my spine thinkin’ about lyin’ on those stairs in the dark, alone. Brrr!”
“Makes me wonder if that’s all it was,” Hailey murmured in response. “I mean, the way he down-played it was masterful, but that bit about his heart stopping four times, c’mon! The watch was a nice touch, but anyone can get an engraving done.”
Bill chose that moment to announce his presence by clearing his throat. “Couldn’t help overhearing, guys,” he said, “but I think you’re wrong, Hailey. I think he’s the real deal.” He quickly told about waking Gary up from a nightmare, and finding the scar encircling his wrist. “It was deep, guys,” he shuddered. “Whatever did it had to go almost to the bone! When I asked him about it, he just said he got it last Halloween.”
A thoughtful looked crossed Hailey’s face as she tried to remember what was so special about last October 31st. “Did he mention anything else?” she asked. “A name or something?”
“Just ‘Trick or Treat,’ is all he’d say about it.” Bill shrugged. “Oh! While he was still tossing around in his sleep, I think I heard something that sounded like ‘Valus.’ Does that make any sense?”
Doug and Hailey both looked startled. “Savalas?” Doug asked. “The fugitive who was killed in a home invasion last year?”
“Now we know who’s home was invaded,” Hailey murmured thoughtfully. “The article only said that the man who killed him was hospitalized from injuries sustained in the struggle. A month later, a follow-up in the ‘Sun-Times’ simply said that he was recuperating at his parents’ home in Indiana.”
“It didn’t mention a name?” Bill asked.
“The first one, no,” Doug replied. “At least, not in my neck of the woods. The second one just mentioned that he owned a . . . a bar on the corner of Illinois and Franklin in Chicago.”
Hailey looked from one man to the other. “Suddenly, I can’t wait for tomorrow night’s session.”
An hour later, Andrew was holding the reins of the palomino as Gary parked his chair on the raised platform next to which the horse stood. Gary removed the arm of the chair, making it easier for him to pull himself into the saddle. By lying on his stomach and sliding himself over until his legs fell to either side, Gary found it much easier to get mounted than he had thought.
“That was very good, Gary,” Andrew smiled. “Now, let’s get your legs in the stirrups. These spring clamps will help hold them in place, and still let you throw yourself clear in an emergency.”
Gary kept a tight grip on the saddle horn as Andrew got him situated securely. Gary had ridden before, on occasion, and even enjoyed it. It was a different prospect, entirely, when he couldn’t use his legs to grip the horse’s girth. When the blonde counselor finally handed him the reins, he retained his grasp on the saddle.
“There’s no need to be nervous,” Andrew told him. “The only thing that’s changed is how you hang on. Now, just shake the reins a little to get her to move forward.”
Obediently, Gary gave the reins a quick shake. The placid animal took a few tentative steps forward, stopping when her rider pulled back gently on the leather straps. ‘So far, so good. Now let’s take it up a notch.’ Gathering his nerve, Gary shook the reins once more. As the mare started forward, he let go of the saddle horn, giving the straps another shake. She obediently quickened her pace. Within minutes, they were moving at a brisk canter around the practice ring. A tiny grin spread across his face as he began to relax and enjoy the familiar rhythm and the gentle rocking motion.
“Excellent!” Andrew exclaimed, clapping his hands in approval. “You’re ready for the next lesson,” he added as Gary stopped the mare in front of him.
“Next lesson?” Gary asked. “What’s that? Getting back in the chair?”
“Nope.” Andrew tapped the palomino on her left shoulder. With a lurch that sent Gary grasping for the saddle horn once more, the horse bent her forelegs and lowered herself to the ground. “Next is getting on and off the horse without the platform.” He took the reins from Gary’s frantic grasp. “It’s okay,” he assured his pupil. “All the horses are trained for this. Just slide off her back and onto the ground.”
Nervously, Gary did as he was told. He felt oddly vulnerable without his chair.
“That’s good,” the counselor smiled encouragingly. “Now, pull yourself back into the saddle. That’s it. Great. Now, tap her right shoulder.”
The mare lurched upright, with Gary hanging onto the saddle horn for dear life. She stood very still as, following Andrew’s careful instructions, Gary re-inserted his legs into the stirrups, allowing the spring-clips to close around his calves.
“That was excellent, Gary,” Andrew praised him. “Now, let’s try that a few more times to make sure you’ve got it down pat, then we need to hit the gym. We want to have you climbing ‘The Wall’ before the end of this week.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” Gary remarked as he slid off the saddle once more. “Do I have to climb that thing? There’s not a lot of call for that in Chicago.”
“Yes, Gary. You do,” Andrew told him. “It’s part of the program. We have to work on that ‘fear of heights’ problem of yours. Rock climbing is good therapy for that.”
Gary climbed back onto the horse, mumbling something that sounded like, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Andrew just smiled.
Supper that night was a fairly quiet affair. The others speculated mostly about the reason why the senior group had decided to extend their outing another three days. Gary was simply glad to be out of the hot seat, himself.
“Monica said one of their horses pulled up lame,” Eleanor told them. “Raphael came back this morning for more supplies and told her what happened. They didn’t want to leave anyone behind, so they all ‘volunteered’ to extend their outing. Personally, I think they were just looking for any excuse to stay out there.”
“You’re probably right,” Doug drawled lazily. He pushed his plate away and leaned back with a satisfied sighed. “Lord knows there’s some great places to camp around here.” He turned to the man seated next to him. “You ever been camping, Gary?”
“A few times,” the younger man shrugged. “Not for a while, though. Why?”
“During the last two weeks,” Hailey spoke up, “they take us on a two day horseback ride and rock climbing trip. Raphael usually conducts those little outings.”
“Sounds like fun,” Gary mused, idly toying with an errant sweet pea. “Rock climbing, huh?”
“Don’t worry,” Michelle assured him with a friendly smile. “Andrew will make sure you know your stuff before then. Safer for everyone that way.”
“If you say so,” Gary sighed, obviously not convinced. That pea was getting a real workout as he chased it around his plate.
The others exchanged amused glances.
“Is there a problem, Gary?” Bill asked. “You seem a little . . . nervous.”
Gary continued to roll the tiny morsel around on his plate a moment before he responded. “Not very . . . comfortable w-with heights,” he stammered, not meeting their eyes.
“Is that something new?” Jean asked. “Since the accident, I mean?”
“Nooo,” Gary replied with a slow shake of his head. “It may’ve had something to do with it, though. H-heights make me . . . dizzy. They always have. I think that’s why I decided to go ahead and change the bulb that night, instead of waiting. I-if I couldn’t . . . couldn’t see it, m-maybe it wouldn’t . . . b-but I guess it did.”
Much later that night, Bill was again awoken by mutterings from the other bed. Slipping quietly into his chair, he eased up close enough to make out some of what Gary was mumbling.
“N-no,” he murmured. “D-don’t go. Not a . . . a loser. Please, Marcia!” His voice drifted down until it was little more than incoherent whispers. Gary grew still for a moment, then his voice rose to a frantic pitch. “Y-you can’t do this, Dobbs! S-stop you . . . don’ have . . . soul . . .” His voice grew lower until Bill had to strain to hear anything. Mostly, all he heard was low groans and grumbling.
“L-look at me!” he gasped suddenly. “D-don’t look . . .look down! Look at me! W-we can do this! W-we . . . can . . . No-oo-oo!” he sobbed. “J-Jere-. . . Jeremiah.”
Fascinated, Bill watched Gary as his face twisted with more than just physical pain. Tears glistened on his cheeks and in his eyes as a gamut of emotions, suppressed during the day, ran rampant in his dreams.
Gary ran down darkened streets, his pursuers hot on his heels. At every doorway, every alley mouth, faceless figures lunged out. Some tried to trip him up, others stuck weapons in his face. Somehow, he eluded them all.
Finally, staggering with exhaustion, gasping for each ragged breath, he plunged through a familiar door. She was waiting for him this time. He threw both hands up in a pleading/warding off gesture . . . as Toni pulled the trigger . . .
A heavy fist slammed into his jaw, rocking his head back on his shoulders. Dazed, Gary found himself once more chained to his wheelchair. This time both hands were stretched behind him so tightly, it felt as if his shoulders would pop out of their joints at any second. Another blow landed across his face and a rough hand grasped his hair, yanking his head back until he was forced to meet the hellish gaze of his captor.
“No escape, this time, Hobson,” Savalas sneered. “You’re mine to play with for as long as I like. And no one to hear you scream.”
“You go to hell, Savalas,” Gary hissed. “You were a sick, twisted bastard in life. Being dead hasn’t helped you a bit!”
The fugitive drew his hand back for another backhanded blow . . .
And Brigatti pushed him away from her, face twisted in anger. “You think just because you’ve been dumped a few times that every woman is out to wipe her feet on your heart?” she snapped. “Well, let me be the first to tell you, Hobson. You are not worth the effort!”
“You are not that big of a catch!”
“Not worth . . .”
“. . . the effort,” Gary mumbled. “You‘re . . . loser, Hobson, worthless.”
Bill felt like a voyeur, listening to the poor guy getting one low blow after another. Had anything nice ever happened to him? Doug and Hailey had to hear this, he decided. Maybe they should help him bring this out in tomorrow‘s session. Grabbing a pad and pen from the nightstand, Bill clicked on the light and scribbled a few notes before reaching out to awaken his roommate.
“What!” Gary’s eyes snapped open with a wild, panicked look. Breath coming in ragged gasps, it took him a moment to remember where he was. He pressed both hands to his face with a mumbled apology. “I did it again, didn’t I?” he sighed, wiping the tears from his eyes. “This is one habit I really need to break.”
“Have you always had nightmares like these?” Bill asked, concerned. “I mean, has your whole life been one long slump?”
“No,” Gary told him honestly. “Just the last few years. Thanks for waking me up, again. Now, get on back to bed. No sense in both of us losing sleep.”
“You need to talk to someone about this, Gary,” Bill insisted. “Holding stuff like this inside just makes it worse.”
Gary turned his face to the wall as he mumbled, “I’ll think about it. Now go on back to sleep. I’m okay, now.” ‘I hope.’
“It was awful,” Bill murmured as he passed the notebook to Hailey. “If he wasn’t getting dumped on, then he was getting beat up or pushed around. And they seem to be getting worse.”
The reporter read the hastily scribbled notes, then passed them to Eleanor. The ex-cop scanned the pages, nodding thoughtfully.
“I have a friend on the Chicago PD,” she told them. “He was telling me about this case just a few days after it happened. Really shook him up.” She stared off into the distance, the note pad dangling loosely in her hand.
They sat on the bluff which was bordered on one side by ‘The Wall.’ Doug and Michelle also sat in on this impromptu ‘war council.’ They had not thought to include Jean, feeling that she might be too young to really understand what they were doing. As if they understood, themselves.
“So,” Doug spoke up impatiently, “what did he tell you?”
“Hmm? Oh, sorry,” Eleanor murmured. “He was the first one on the scene. There had been a loud Halloween party going on in the bar downstairs and no one heard the shots. Or, if they did, they must’ve thought it was canned sound effects. Anyway, he got a call from the detective assigned to watch another group under protection at a safe house. Seems these other people were convinced that something had happened to the witness the police were supposed to be protecting at the tavern. So Davis, that’s my friend, went upstairs to do a visual check.” The ex-cop looked down at the notepad once more, shaking her head sadly. “He found the fugitive lying on top of the man they were there to protect. It was . . . There was blood all around them, he said. The guy was in shock, staring at nothing, and repeatedly tugging on the handcuffs that had his left hand fastened to . . . his wheelchair. The fugitive, Savalas, had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to set in. The victim, whom I have to assume was Hobson, had been shot in the right shoulder, and . . . now this part really set my teeth on edge. The cuff on his left wrist was so tight, his hand was purple by the time they found him. Said it was touch and go as to whether or not it could be saved.” She handed the notebook back to Bill. “No wonder he has nightmares.”
“None of this was released to the media,” Hailey mused. “God! What a human interest story this could be! If I could just get him to talk ‘on the record’!”
“You know better than that, Hailey,” Doug admonished the reporter. “What gets said here, stays here. Gary’s entitled to the same courtesy as everyone else.”
“But he’s news!” Hailey insisted. “The missing piece in the ‘Savalas/Scanlon Murder-for-Hire’ saga! Hobson was hunted throughout three states before that mess was cleared up!”
“That’s true,” Eleanor conceded. “But he was cleared. I’ve even heard rumors that he saved the lives of two of the cops who were leading the hunt. That earns him a little extra consideration in my book!”
“What about the rest of it?” Michelle asked. “All those women calling him worthless, a loser. That has to be eating at his self esteem like acid! I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for him just to make the effort to meet someone! Never mind making a commitment!”
“I don’t see why he isn’t the bitterest man alive,” Bill murmured. “I’d never date again after being talked to like that.”
Hailey sighed in frustration. “Don’t you see?” she persisted. “That’s part of what makes his story so fascinating! As badly as life has treated him, he still makes the effort to get his back together! I’d be suicidal with half of what he’s been through! Please! I just need ten minutes!”
“No, Hailey,” Doug told her. “You can ask what you want in the group sessions, same as the rest of us. But nothing goes to print without Gary’s permission. Those are the rules we all agreed to. No exceptions.”
Hailey sat back with a ‘humph!’ as the others planned that night’s session. Unbeknownst to them, Hailey was making plans of her own.
“Faster, Gary!” Andrew insisted. “Put some muscle into it!”
Gritting his teeth, Gary struggled to pull his body up the knotted rope. He’d not had to do anything like this since high school, and he was a little out of practice. Not to mention the added difficulty of having his legs dangling below him like two lead weights. Finally, Gary reached the top and, after a moment to get his breath, began working his way down. By the time he was able to lower himself into his chair, his arms were trembling from fatigue. It was so much harder to climb without the assistance of feet and legs than it was with them.
“That was pretty good,” Andrew told him, “for a beginner. Take a ten-minute rest, then give it another try. We want you climbing that rope in under a minute by the end of this week.”
“Y-yeah,” Gary huffed. “Right.”
“You know,” Andrew observed dryly, “it might be easier with your eyes open.”
Gary shot the counselor a sideways look. “For you, maybe,” he muttered. “You gonna climb up and get me when I freeze?”
Andrew crouched down next to his pupil. “You won’t freeze, Gary.” he chuckled. “How many times have you climbed out on a ledge to stop someone from killing themselves? Or saved someone from a fatal, or crippling fall?”
Gary studied his instructor a moment before saying what was on his mind. “You’re doing it again,” he muttered. “How do you guys know so much about me? I mean, what is so blasted special about me that attracts so much . . . attention?”
“That’s one of those things I can’t tell you,” Andrew shrugged. “Although, the fact that you don’t see yourself as being special is exceptional in itself.”
“If you say so,” Gary sighed. He looked up at the rope. “What is so wrong with a little healthy fear? I mean, it keeps you safe. Keeps you alive! So, I’m afraid of heights. Nobody’s perfect,” he grumbled.
“In spite of what the theologians claim,” Andrew said with a wry smile, “perfection isn‘t the ultimate goal. Life is a journey of exploration. You learn to do the best you can with what you have. What makes you different, is that you use your gifts to benefit others over yourself. You even set aside the things that terrify you in order to do whatever has to be done.”
Gary found himself staring down at his hands. The right one was once more worrying at the band around his left wrist.
“Your best isn’t always good enough,” he murmured, “is it.” It was not a question.
“No,” Andrew agreed sadly. “It isn’t. But you keep trying. Even this chair hasn’t proven that big of an obstacle, has it? You keep trying, no matter the cost. And you succeed much more often than you fail. God isn’t keeping a record of how many times you fail, Gary. Just how many times you try. Now, that rope is still waiting and you’ve had enough rest. Let’s try it one more time before Monica starts your therapy.”
As Gary grasped the knotted rope once more, Andrew was almost certain he heard him mutter something under his breath that sounded like ‘Slave driver.’
Hailey looked around carefully as she eased open the door to Bill and Gary’s cabin. She had seen the younger man riding down to the tennis court, and Gary was scheduled for therapy at this time. The resourceful reporter only needed a moment to hide her little device.
She quickly determined which bed was Gary’s, and slipped a tiny, voice-activated tape recorder into his night table. It was that easy. As long as the drawer stayed open even the tiniest crack, she could record every sound he made that night. Looking around just as furtively as when she entered, Hailey slipped out the door and proceeded on to her next rock climbing lesson.
“Getting on that horse was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Michelle confessed. “After that stupid llama almost killed me, I’ve been afraid of riding anything without wheels.”
They were gathered once again in the recreation room, chairs pulled up in the now familiar semi-circle. The others had taken turns relating how they had been affected by their accidents and by people’s reactions.
“Most of my friends have been so supportive,” the model continued. “I mean, this is where you really find out who they are.” She turned to face the man on her left. “Don’t you think that’s true, Gary?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, well . . . um, most of my ‘fair weather friends’ were long gone,” he murmured. “A-about the time my . . . my marriage broke up.”
“Tell us about that,” Doug urged. “Can you point to any one thing, or sequence of events that led to your break-up?”
“N-not at first,” Gary shrugged. “I thought things were going pretty good. Then, on our anniversary, I came home with flowers, champagne, a nice present . . . and found the locks had been changed. The next thing I know, I’m dodging flying luggage. Mine. A coupla weeks later, this guy slaps some papers in my hand and says ‘Have a nice divorce.’ I-I was . . . floored.”
Eleanor leaned forward in her chair. “Had anything changed in your life that might have upset her? Made her angry at you without you being aware of it?”
“N-not exactly,” Gary mumbled.
“Speak up, hon,” Hailey smiled. “We all want to hear it.”
The young barkeeper shifted uncomfortably in his chair, giving the reporter a brief, red-faced glance before returning his gaze to the hand that went back to tugging at his watchband. “Sh-she, um, she’d just gotten a promotion at . . . at the law firm where she worked. Wh-when I confronted her w-with the . . . the papers, she said . . . she said that she could only be associated w-with . . . with winners. Making it pretty plain that . . . that I . . .wasn’t.”
“Ouch!” Bill murmured sympathetically. “Talk about your low blows! What did you do then?”
“I, um, I quit my job.”
“You . . . Whatever for?” Jean asked. “Because of her?”
“Sorta,” Gary shrugged. “It just didn’t make sense anymore. I’d hated that job from day one, but I hung in there so she could finish law school and her ‘internship.’ So she’d have the financial stability she needed to stay focused on her goals. Once she was . . . set, then we . . . at least I thought we were gonna start a family. I mean, isn’t that what life is supposed to be about? You fall in love, get married, work to provide for your kids’ future and your old age? Grow old together. W-without that, the job . . . didn’t mean anything. Besides,” he murmured, “I hated that damned tie.”
There was an uncomfortable moment where no one could find anything else to say. Then Hailey cleared her throat.
“Tell us about last Halloween,” she said. “What happened in your apartment that night?”
Gary’s head snapped up, a look of puzzlement mixed with alarm flashing across his sad-eyed features.
“Wh-where did that come from?” he asked.
“From me, I’m afraid,” was Bill’s shame-faced reply. He shot the reporter a heated glance before continuing. “You, um, you weren’t just moaning and groaning in your sleep. You got a little . . . vocal. So tell us. What went on that night?”
The young bar owner looked around at the circle of expectant faces. Hailey was practically salivating in her eagerness. “This is all ‘off the record’?” he asked guardedly. He looked directly at Hailey as he spoke. “Not one word gets to print or tape,” he insisted. “Not one.”
“But you’re news, Gary!” Hailey insisted. “All anyone knows is the bare bones of the story. The world needs to hear your side of it.”
“No,” Gary told her, backing his chair out of he circle. “They don’t. The rest of the world wasn’t there, and I don’t want to be ‘news.’ That’s not what I’m here for.”
“Wait, Gary,” Monica interceded. “Please stay.”
“Why? So she can plaster my life on the front page?” he snapped. “No, thank you.”
Hailey leaned forward in her seat, trying to make eye contact with the retreating man. “Gary, the public has a right . . .”
“To mind their own business,” was Gary’s rejoinder. “And I’ll mind mine! I don’t want to be a headline! Can’t you understand that? I-I don’t want to be reminded by every face I catch staring at me as I go down the street that I killed a man!” This last came out in a choked cry. “A man is dead because of me! Not the police, who were supposed to be protecting me from him, and not . . . exactly . . . by his own hand. B-because of me! Yes, he was trying to kill me! That . . . that still doesn’t m-make it . . . r-right. I k-keep trying to think . . . o-of some . . . way I could’ve s-stopped him w-without . . . But I don’t know of a-anything . . . Excuse me.”
Gary continued backing his chair out of the circle and sped from the room. Every eye in the place watched him leave, then the majority of them turned to look at Hailey.
“What?” the reporter asked defensively. “I was just doing my job. I’m still a reporter, you know.”
“And Gary’s a bartender,” Bill grumbled. “You gonna ask him for a Mai-Tai, later? Or ask Michelle to model the latest trend from Paris? Should Doug give a couple of lectures while he’s here? You could sure use one! Or should we ask Eleanor to slap the cuffs on you for reckless use of gray matter. What were you thinking?”
Andrew whispered something to Monica, and then quickly left the room. Leaving the slender redhead to deal with the miscreant on her own, he went in search of the more troubled member of their group. He found Gary back at the same duck pond that he had fled to on that first day. This time he was just sitting there, staring out at the placid waters.
“It’s a little dark to be enjoying the scenery,” Andrew commented, crouching down next to his pupil. “And I don’t see any ducks to feed.”
“Wrong time of year, anyway,” Gary mumbled. Even in the dark, the counselor could sense the fretful movements as Gary tugged at the leather band encircling his wrist.
“Ready to talk about it?”
Gary gave out with a sort of choked chuckle. “Not in this lifetime,” he replied. “I was dealing with it, honestly. I was. But . . . I can’t . . . I can’t have my f-face, or my name, plastered all over the front page again. You don’t know wh-what it was like . . . when everyone just thought I’d killed that reporter. Even after I was cleared, people that I’d never seen before . . . that didn’t know me from Adam, kept giving me these . . . looks. And you could almost see what was going through their minds. ‘Killer. Murderer. What’s he doing on the streets?’ A friend on the force told me he was still getting anonymous tips about where I was. Every move I made was being reported and I wasn’t even a suspect anymore! Now, even people I grew up with, or who watched me grow up, are thinking ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ And she wants to drag it all back up again. I . . . I can’t do that, Andrew. I can’t.”
“I understand that, Gary,” the counselor sighed. “And I agree that you don’t need to be subjected to public scrutiny again. But you do need to talk about it. As Bill said, you’ve been talking in your sleep. Everyone knows about the nightmares you’ve been having and that they’re getting worse. This is going to keep eating at you until there’s nothing left. Let us help you, Gary. Don’t keep trying to shoulder this burden alone.” With a sigh, he pushed himself erect, clapping Gary on the shoulder as he rose. “You go back to your cabin and get some rest. I’ll tell the others that we can call it a night. But I want you to think about, maybe, talking about it tomorrow night. We’ll keep Hailey in line, even if we have to lock her in her room.”
A tiny smile played at the corner of Gary’s mouth as he pictured the determined reporter’s reaction to that.
“You don’t have to go that far,” he sighed. “I . . . I’ll try. Just . . . don’t expect much. Do you have someplace else I can sleep tonight? I don’t want to keep waking Bill up if . . . you know.”
“Yeah, I do know,” Andrew replied. “Which is why I’d rather you weren’t alone. You don’t want to get lost in your nightmares, Gary. They can be hell to come back from.”
By the time Bill got to the cabin, Gary was already in bed, his face to the wall. As quietly as he could, the younger man made his own preparations for turning in. By the time he was ready, Gary was already mumbling in his sleep.
“Earl,” he murmured. “Hang on. H-help’s on . . . way.” Gary’s voice sank to an unintelligible moaning sound. “No. You gotta . . . gotta stay w-with me!” Again his voice drifted down until the words slurred beyond recognition. “M-Marley? N-no. Go ‘way! Won’t l-let you kill . . . Moth to . . . flame.”
Fascinated Bill pulled up closer to the bed, hoping to be able to make out a few more words. In the darkness, he didn’t notice that the drawer in Gary’s nightstand was cracked open just the tiniest bit. Nor did he hear the muted whirr of the voice-activated tape recorder inside.
“Why did you let me fall?” the raggedy older man accused in a whimpering tone. “I was so afraid! Why didn’t you save me?”
Gary backed away from the pathetic figure crouched before him. The huddled figure reached out imploringly with one weathered hand. He could not face the accusation in those gentle, fear filled eyes. “I tried,” he answered, pleading for understanding. “I really did try! I-I couldn’t hold on! You . . . you were too heavy.”
Suddenly, he was standing in the doorway of a familiar office. The name on the open door read Harry Hawkes, Editor In Chief. Nervously, Gary stepped in the rest of the way. A high-backed office chair was facing away from him, only the top of a dark head peeking over the edge. Gary reached out with a trembling hand to turn the chair. Harry Hawkes sat there, eyes open in a fixed gaze, a tiny trickle of blood trailing down from the bullet hole in his forehead. As Gary stared in horrified fascination, the dead eyes snapped to life.
“Why didn’t you know?” the sepulchral voice asked. “You knew about the bomb. Why didn’t you know about this? Why was I allowed to die?”
“I don’t know,” Gary moaned. “I don’t understand how it works! I don’t know why I can save some, and not others!”
“Why did I have to die?”
“I don’t . . . .
. . . know!”
Now he was back in that derelict building, trying to staunch the flow of blood as Earl Candy lay dying.
“Don’t let me die,” the injured man pleaded. “Please, don’t let me die.”
“Just hang in there,” Gary urged. “Don’t give up on me, Earl. Do you hear me! Don’t you give up on me!”
“Why?” the injured man asked . . . as he breathed his last.
“Earl?” Gary shook the limp figure. “Earl! Don’t do this! It didn’t happen this way! Earl!”
“You saved her from me,” the spectral figure of John Hernandez accused. “Why couldn’t you save me from the train? Wasn’t I worth it? Did you think I was ‘just an animal,’ too?”
“No,” Gary sobbed. “It happened so fast! And I had the boys in my arms . . . I-it was over so . . . quick!”
“Why didn’t you save me?”
Gary was back in the train yard, but night had fallen. A few scattered street lamps provided the only illumination. He walked over to the stocky figure lying face down in the dirt. Kneeling down, he cautiously reached out and grabbed one shoulder. The figure flopped over on its back with a suddeness that sent the young man sprawling. Dead eyes glared out of a bloodless face as Frank Scanlon rose to his feet.
“You knew!” he accused. “You could’ve stopped me if you really wanted to. But I was digging too close, wasn’t I? You had to let me die!”
“Th-that’s not true!” Gary insisted. “I did try to warn you! But you wouldn’t listen! Y-you had to be ‘The Dog With A Bone!’ I tried t-to call you! But you never answered! I even warned the police that you were in danger, and they wouldn’t listen! Until it was too . . .
. . . late?”
He now stood on the Navy Pier, the giant Ferris wheel directly in front of him. A tiny voice called out to him from somewhere above. Looking up, Gary was horrified to see a small child clinging to one of the seats at the top of the wheel for dear life. Without thinking, he began the arduous climb upwards, all the while entreating the child to ‘hang on. I‘m coming!’ A strong wind kicked up as he scaled the skeletal structure. The higher he climbed, the stronger it blew. By the time he reached what proved to be a little girl of about seven years, the wind was almost gale force. For a moment, he could only cling to the metal arm of the gargantuan device, trying to anchor the child and shield her from the full effects of the wind. Finally, keeping his eyes focused on the face of the frightened girl, he prepared to make his descent.
“Hang on to me,” he said into her ear, trying to be heard above the storm. “Don’t let go, no matter what!” The child simply nodded, burying her face against his chest as she tightened her grip. Slowly, placing hands and feet with utmost caution, Gary started down.
The wind gusted harder and faster with each downward step. By the time they reached the hub, it was all Gary could do to hang on! Keeping the child wrapped tightly in his strong embrace, Gary clung to the steel spoke and prayed for a miracle.
“Please, God!” he entreated. “At least save the kid! If you can only save one of us, save the kid! I‘m begging you! Don’t let her die! Please!”
“Ple . . .” Gary sat up, his heartfelt entreaty only half voiced. Looking around, he saw Bill seated next to his bed, one hand frozen in the air mere inches from his shoulder. “Oh,” he murmured in a small voice. “S-sorry.”
“S’okay, man,” Bill shrugged. “Sounds like you’ve had more than Savalas on your mind, lately. Want to talk about it?”
Gary silently shook his head as he lay back in the bed. Scrubbing at his face, he wasn’t surprised to discover fine beads of sweat standing out on his skin. “Not a lot to say,” he sighed. “I just have this . . . knack for landing in the thick of things. Sometimes I can do some good. You know, help someone. Maybe even save a life or two. S-sometimes . . .sometimes all I can do is make sure they d-don’t die . . . alone. M-most of the time, I’m trying to convince people I’m not . . . ‘delusional’, which is everyone’s favorite term, when they want to be polite.”
“So you’re haunted by . . .” Bill ventured.
“The ones I couldn’t save,” Gary whispered tonelessly. “F-fortunately, th-that’s a small number. But each one . . . they matter. E-even if they don’t matter to anyone else, they matter to me.”
“That’s a heavy load to carry all alone,” the young college student sympathized. “Is there anyone back home you can talk to? Friends? Family?”
“I dump on them enough as it is,” Gary replied with a shake of his head. “No, this is something I have to deal with on my own. I just have to look in the right place and the answers will be there.” He pulled the covers back up and over his chest. “I’m okay now, Bill,” he sighed. “You can try to get some sleep.”
“Positive,” Gary told him with a tired smile. “They only come out to play once a night, it seems. I’ll be fine.”
Bill backed his chair away from the bed slowly. “If you’re positive . . .”
“I already have a mother, Bill,” Gary gently chided the younger man. “She might take exception to my giving someone else her job. Good night.”
A few seconds later, he heard Bill lever himself into bed. Less than five minutes passed before he heard the kid’s breathing settle into a regular rhythm. Gary laid there, hands clasped behind his head, listening to the soft susurration of his roommate’s slumber. For him, sleep was to prove much more elusive.
It was a bleary-eyed barkeep that showed up at the breakfast table the next morning. Gary sat next to Jean, picking over his food in a desultory manner. Hailey sat directly across from him. It was impossible for her not to notice his red-rimmed eyes, or the dark smudges beneath them. A feeling of guilt swept over her as she realized that she was most likely the cause of his present state. She glanced over at Bill, catching him staring back at her. He nodded his head in Gary’s direction, then shook it in a warning to leave the other man alone. Frustrated, the reporter lowered her gaze to her plate and stabbed her fork into her omelet.
The main topic of conversation that morning was the still absent ‘senior class.’ Raphael had reported in that morning by radio. The lame horse was doing well and should be ready to travel in a couple of days. Meanwhile, they were having a wonderful time fishing and swimming in the tiny grotto they had found.
Gary listened without comment, excusing himself after only a few token bites. As soon as he had disappeared from the dining room, the conversation shifted.
“He looks like death warmed over,” Doug sighed. “Didn’t he get any sleep last night, Bill?”
“I don’t think so,” Bill replied dejectedly. “He had a really bad one last night. From the sound of it, Savalas isn’t the only ghost haunting him. No, Hailey, I’m not going into detail. Most of it was just disjointed ramblings, anyway.”
Andrew looked over at Monica, concern written plainly on his face. “I was just thinking,” he told her in a near whisper. “The nightmares started that first night, after I showed him ‘The Wall.’ Could that have anything to do with it?”
“You mean his fear of heights?” Monica murmured. “It’s possible. Nightmares are often triggered by stress. If that’s the case, the simplest solution would be to excuse him from having to climb.”
The blonde counselor shook his head. “I can’t do that,” he sighed. “Strict ‘orders’ to help him learn to deal with it. We’ll just have to keep a closer eye on him.”
“That may be hard to do,” Monica responded sadly. “There’s the other one we’re here to help, as well. I still don’t know what we’re watching for.”
“We’ll know when the time comes,” Andrew assured her. “Til then, just keep the faith.”
Go on to Installment 8
Return to Installment 6
Email the authors: Polgana54@cs.com