~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"I don't see him. I don't see anything." Chuck's hand went up and out in a gesture matching the despair in his voice, before he turned to Marissa. "Let me see the paper again."
Marissa handed it to him without demur. In spite of - or because of - the cold knot of fear in his stomach, Chuck almost dropped a wisecrack about what it took for him to finally get hold of Gary's paper. But one look at Marissa and he kept his mouth shut. Fear and grief warred across her expressive face and she looked, if anything, worse than she had when he got off the airplane.
Chuck shook out the paper a bit louder than he had to, quickly searching for the tiny article he had found buried in the back pages of the paper. Not much of a remembrance for a man who had saved more lives than just about anybody else in the city. Chuck pushed the grim thought away. No, it wasn't, and it wouldn't be. Like so many other times, the article was in the paper so he and Marissa could help, like Gary always - almost always - did. It was there so they could get to Gary before he drowned.
There. The headline was almost apologetically small: MAN DROWNS IN LAKE MICHIGAN. The first line read, "A man with a reputation for being in the right place at the right time, Gary Hobson, 32, of Chicago, apparently paid with his life yesterday for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. " Chuck skipped that with a shiver, scanning the article for its crucial information of where Gary's bod-- no, Gary would be found. Alive. Maybe not well, but hey, his friends could take care of that once they had him back home where he belonged.
Thirty-first Street Beach. Just south of Grant Park. Which is where they were. As Chuck looked up from the paper, his eye caught on the time Gary was found by early morning joggers: 7:24 a.m. The rest of the article he didn't need to read; one recital for Marissa at the airport had seared it into his memory. He was sure it would give him nightmares for the rest of his life. Paramedics unable to revive him at the scene, Hobson was pronounced dead on arrival at Cook County Memorial Hospital. An autopsy is scheduled for later in the week to determine the cause of death.
Well, no coroner was carving up his friend's body, not if Chuck Fishman had anything to say about it. He'd seen Quincy reruns enough to know what autopsies were like. He wasn't going to let that happen to Gary. No way, no how. But first he had to find Gary. He paused his anxious scanning of the sand and rocks in front of them long enough to check his watch: 7:02 a.m. Damn. Where was he?
Spike barked suddenly, straining at his leash. Marissa and Chuck both jumped, and Marissa stumbled as the guide dog pulled her off balance. Chuck caught her elbow before she fell, grabbing Spike's lead as well, before he could take off after whatever it was that had captured his interest. Controlling Spike took all their attention for a moment. Then Chuck saw what the animal was so worked up about. Eyes wide, he could only stare at Snow's cat, crouched on the ground 3 feet in front of them. The cat's fur looked funny, like it was matted with something. Chuck's stomach lurched as he recognized the dark stains on the cat: blood. He swallowed, casting an anxious look at Marissa.
"What is it? Can you see anything? Is it Gary?"
Chuck tried to answer her, but it took a couple of tries to get his voice to work. The cat mreeowed at him, then turned and ran off down the lake front.
"Chuck? What is it?" Chuck could hear the growing fear in Marissa's voice. Spike still strained after the cat, but at least he had settled down enough she could hold him by herself. He wasn't sure how much to tell her. Probably the less the better. Dropping Spike's lead, he put one hand on her arm.
"It's Snow's cat. I'm gonna follow him, okay? You'll be--"
"I'll be fine." Marissa tried to put some of her usual confidence into her statement. "Just go find Gary, Chuck. Please ."
"Yeah, sure." He ran north, after the cat, praying he would be in time.
He couldn't reach the water. Swearing silently, fighting the dizziness that never left him now, fighting the fog that clouded his thoughts, Gary caught himself as he teetered on the edge of the pier; found the one thought and focused on it. Clutched it to him like a man clings to a life raft in stormy seas. He had to reach the water. He had to wash his hands. Slowly Gary knelt on the hard concrete:
"Well, well, look what we have here. Your garden variety nut who thinks he knows more than the rest of us."
No. Not again. Arms braced on the concrete in front of him, Gary hung his head, refusing to look up. Refusing to remember Marley. Refusing to remember what happened to him the last time he was alone with Marley.
"I just want the answer to a few questions, Gary."
Gary's gut clenched and flipped. He shut his eyes, fighting the sudden wave of nausea that rose with the undeniable memory - memory? - of cold steel between his teeth, brutally shoved against the tender tissues at the back of his throat. Losing the battle with his stomach, Gary retched bile on the pier. The small effort exhausted him, and he fell to his side, rolling over on his back. The sky do-si-doed with the park around him and his vision grew ominously dark. If he could have seen the truth, the clouds had lifted, the morning dawned golden bright and glorious. But fighting for consciousness, Gary couldn't see anything for a moment. Seconds later, he saw only one thing: Marley. Standing over him. Again.
Gary's eyes wouldn't focus enough to tell him if there was anybody else around. The world spun slowly, and he blinked up at the rogue agent, the cold knot of fear growing in his gut. Oh God. No. Not *alone* with Marley. Not again. Shuddering, he pleaded silently for someone, anyone... but there wasn't anyone there for him. Just like there wasn't anyone there for Samantha. He was alone. Alone except for the smiling apparition above him.
Marley knelt beside him.
"You just threw her soul, away, didn't you, Gary? Samantha's soul. If I'd thrown yours away when I wanted to, Samantha'd still have her soul now, wouldn't she?"
N-N-No. Gary couldn't get the word out past the knot in his throat, past the cotton in his mouth. Dizzy, breathless, he shut his eyes.
Gary's eyes shot open to find Marley's rifle pointed in his face - again. NO! He lunged, desperate to escape the gun, desperate to avoid the nightmare the second time around. His inebriated brain gave up as he fell over the edge of the pier. Marley's gloating face was the last thing he saw before his world went black.
Chuck wasn't sure the man wallowing on the pier 30 yards in front of him was Gary. That couldn't be his friend, could it? He stared in horror as the man - as Gary - suddenly rolled right over the edge of the pier and into Lake Michigan.
"Gary! Gar!" He ran frantically to the place where his friend had gone over. Throwing himself flat on the pier, Chuck strained desperately for the body floating just beyond his reach. Gary's face was submerged, and he wasn't struggling against the water. Chuck desperately tried to remember his college first aid class - tried to remember how long before drowning victims started breathing water - as he realized he was going to have to go into the lake after his friend. Might as well go for it then. Standing up, remembering to kick off his expensive Italian loafers, Chuck dove headfirst into the lake. He surfaced with a huge involuntarily gasp as the cold water drove the breath from his lungs, choking and coughing next as he swallowed a mouthful of the frigid lake. Geez, he knew there was a reason he never came to the beach in Chicago to swim in the summers. LA beaches were better than this, any day.
Momentarily disoriented, Chuck treaded water while he located first the pier from which he had jumped, and then looked for Gary. Damn! Where was he? It was another few seconds before he realized that the small black dot drifting south, away from him, was actually Gary's head. Geez, how had he floated that far in such a short time? It took only a dozen or so strokes to reach him, only a dozen or so seconds, but Chuck knew in a situation like this every second counted, and right now they were counting against his friend. Grabbing Gary from behind, Chuck turned him so his face was out of the water.
There was no response. One arm around Gary's chest underneath his arms, Chuck swam the short distance over to the pier, towing Gary behind him. He couldn't tell if Gary was breathing, and the water was too deep here for him to get them both out of the lake without help. Making sure Gary's head was supported out of the water on his shoulder, Chuck grabbed the concrete pier with his other hand.
"Hey! Help! Anybody! Help!"
He heard Spike bark in the distance, and yelled even louder.
"Marissa! Over here! He-e-e-elp!!"
The cavalry arrived a minute or two later, in the form of Marissa and a man in running gear. Shivering, Chuck helped them lift Gary from the water, then Marissa reached down to help him out of the frigid lake. Gasping, his heart pounding, he knelt beside Gary on the concrete, as the runner checked for his friend's vital signs.
"Is he breathing?" The man shook his head, and tilted Gary's head back to start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Stone cold fear dropped Chuck's stomach to his toes. He moved quickly to check Gary's neck for a pulse, relieved to feel a steady beat there. He wiped away the water that dripped from his chin, wiped away too the desire to shove the stranger away and take care of his friend himself. Chuck forced himself to just watch as the man tried to get Gary breathing again, his blue eyes straining desperately for signs of life in what little he could see of Gary's still, white face.
"Chuck?" Marissa's voice was tight, frightened. She reached out blindly.
Chuck reached up to grab her hand, still fighting to catch his own breath.
"He's got a pulse, but he's not breathing. We're--"
Suddenly, Gary drew in a deep breath, and choked. Quickly the man rolled him over on his side where he coughed and retched up a little bit of water. Listening carefully after Gary finished coughing, the man rolled him back over on his back. Catching Chuck's anxious gaze, he nodded.
"Looks like he's breathing okay."
Chuck scrubbed the moisture from his eyes. Marissa didn't bother. Tears were streaming down her face, as the stranger looked appraisingly from the unconscious Gary to them.
"He smells like a distillery. You know him?"
Chuck bristled at the comment, then reminded himself that the guy had helped save Gary's life.
"Yeah. We been looking for him all night."
The man nodded once, then considered a now shivering Gary.
"How long was he in the water?"
"Not more than a minute or two. I was standing right over there when he went in."
"Well, we should call an ambulance."
"No." Marissa spoke firmly. "If you can help us get him to our van, we'll take him home." The man stared at her, then sought Chuck's eyes for confirmation.
Chuck looked at Marissa for a second, before accepting her decision.
"Yeah. He doesn't live far from here. If you don't mind?"
Shrugging, the man got to his feet.
"He's your friend."
"Yeah. He is."
Marissa sat on the floor in the back of the van holding Gary as Chuck drove them home. She made Spike lay down beside him, hoping their combined warmth would keep hypothermia at bay. Chuck shivered as he waited for the light ahead of him to turn green. He hadn't taken time to change into dry clothes at the park; he didn't have anything for Gary, and it was more important to get him home and dry and warm right now. Gary hadn't come to yet, but he seemed to be in more of a drunken stupor than anything. Sighing, Chuck turned the last corner toward McGinty's. He had no idea how they were going to get Gary up the stairs at McGinty's. He supposed they could call Crumb, but he didn't really like that idea. Which reminded him...
"Why didn't you want to call an ambulance?"
"Because the last thing Gary needs right now is to wake up in a hospital."
"Oh." She was probably right. But then again, Marissa usually was.
Crumb was waiting for them when they got there. He gave Chuck a brief nod as he got out of the van.
"Did you find him?"
Chuck hesitated at the side of the van, unsure about Crumb's response to Gary's inebriated condition. Catching his eye, Crumb held up his hands.
"I don't want to know. I just figured you might need a little help this morning, that's all."
After a moment's consideration, Chuck nodded. He pulled the sliding door open. Crumb didn't say anything, just grimly reached to help Marissa down out of the van.
Between them, Crumb and Chuck got Gary up the stairs to his apartment. Crumb hung around long enough to help strip Gary of his wet clothes and get him into dry sweats and into bed, then went for the first aid kit from the kitchen when they both got a good look at the cuts and abrasions on Gary's hands. One particularly nasty cut on the edge of his palm looked like it could use stitches, but they found enough butterfly bandages in the kit to do for now. Gary didn't wake up at all during their ministrations, and Chuck wasn't sure whether or not to be grateful. As Crumb was leaving, Marissa called to him from where she was pouring coffee.
"Could you take care of things downstairs for me today?"
After Crumb had gone, Chuck changed out of his own wet things. Dry and finally getting warm, he accepted a cup of coffee from Marissa, then pulled Gary's chair over beside the bed for her.
"So, what do we do now?" he asked, sipping the hot liquid gratefully as she made herself comfortable in the chair.
"We wait for him to sleep it off."
Chuck accepted this reluctantly. He wanted to talk to Gary now. Wanted to be sure his friend was okay. Wanted to shake him and ask him just what in the hell he was trying to prove with a stunt like this; scaring Marissa and himself half to death this way. Sighing, Chuck figured it was probably better if he didn't say all that to Gary. Not yet. Not until they had a chance to find out why this had happened. Oh, he knew it was probably the little girl's accident and death, but Gary had failed a few times before. It had never driven him over the edge like this, though. Chuck shook his head. He was too tired mentally and emotionally to deal with any of this right now.
"Well, in that case, I'm gonna catch a little shut eye on the couch over there."
Marissa nodded, not moving from her post beside Gary. Spike curled at her feet, his tail thumping briefly as Chuck touched her shoulder before he turned away. Stopping as he turned, he watched warily as Snow's cat appeared, jumping up onto Gary's bed with a mreeow. The animal had evidently had time to clean itself up, because its fur had returned to its usual ginger color. Curling around twice, the cat settled down next to Gary, purring loudly. That cat...
Shrugging, Chuck put his coffee down on the table, and, grabbing an extra
blanket from the foot of Gary's bed, flopped down on the couch with a sigh.
He was asleep almost instantly.
"You knew!?! You knew this would happen to my baby, and you didn't stop it?!?"
Gary's head came up sharply. The woman bearing down on the once-quiet alcove he shared with Father Dow outside the ICU was tall, and probably an attractive woman on her good days. Right now, her face and eyes swollen with tears of grief and rage, she was hysterical, and she was after him.
"What's the matter? Little black girl don't mean enough to you to save her?"
Force of habit had Gary on his feet to face the lady. Father Dow's restraining hand on her arm was angrily shaken off. She advanced toward Gary, and he backed slowly away from her, until the wall behind him cut off retreat.
Gulping hard, he tried to answer.
"N-n-no, you, you don't, you don't understand. That's, that's not it, that's not it at all. I, I, I tried, honest, I tried, I just--"
She slapped him. Hard. The wall kept him from going all the way down. Face burning not just from the impact of Mrs. Edward's hand, Gary stared at her, his own shame and grief rendering him helpless, speechless in the face of this woman's righteous rage. Father Dow was there again, trying to calm her, spouting something about how she couldn't blame Gary, but as Gary and Samantha's mother's eyes locked, they both knew the priest was wrong. Another man came running through the doors to the ICU; Mr. Edwards, Gary recalled from somewhere, and a couple of nurses came through after him.
"It's your fault. It's your fault my baby's dying and--" Tears were pouring down Talitha Edward's face as she screamed at him, and she raised her hand to slap him again. Flinching in anticipation, Gary didn't duck. But the second blow never landed. Not physically, anyway.
"Mrs. Edwards!" Grabbing her upraised arm, Father Dow distracted the woman long enough for Gary to slip away from the wall that held him. Stopping a few steps away, he turned to the sobbing woman, her sad-eyed husband now trying to take her in his arms as Father Dow turned to follow Gary.
"I, I, I'm truly sorry." Gary fought the tears in his own throat, fought to say what had to be said, knowing that it didn't make a bit of difference to the grief-stricken parents in front of him. "I really, I really tried. I wish I could have been there in time. For all of you." He caught and held Samantha's mother's eyes, again, but his first instinct was right. She didn't care what he had to say. From the shelter of her husband's embrace, she pointed one long finger at him, and screamed.
"It's your fault! Your fault! If it wasn't for you my baby wouldn't be dying in that bed right now! My baby's dying and it's your fault!"
Gary turned and ran.
The muttering from Gary's direction immediatlely captured Marissa and Chuck's attention. Marissa sat up straight in her chair by the bed, one hand reaching out toward Gary. Hurrying over from where he was making more coffee, Chuck sat on the side of the bed beside his friend, one leg folded beneath him.
"Gary?" No response. Eyes closed, Gary shifted restlessly beneath the covers, responding to something only he could see, and mumbled something unintelligible. Bending close to hear, Chuck shook his head as he sat back. Sighing, he looked at Marissa's eager face, opening his mouth to tell her, one more time, that it was a false alarm. It was close to noon, and Gary still hadn't come out of his alcohol induced swoon. Gary's voice cut off Chuck's comment.
"No..." Head jerking away from whatever - or whomever - he saw in his dreams, Gary spoke clearly, frantically, "You don't understand..." But the darkness he wandered in swallowed both his objection and whatever he was objecting to. Chuck shivered, his eyebrows contorted with worry as he stared at his unconscious friend. At least this time it wasn't Marley his friend was raving about. Gary had seemed to be confronting Marley several times already in his alcoholic rambles, and Chuck was more than a little concerned about his state of mind.
Marissa sat back in her chair as it became obvious Gary wasn't waking up - again. Chuck looked from her to the inert form beside him, considering...
"No." She folded her hands deliberately in her lap as she spoke.
"But you heard him! Whatever's going on his head, it can't be good, and especially not when it's that creep Marley as a central character!" Chuck turned to face her, sliding the leg he had been sitting on down, hands grasping the edge of the bed as he leaned towards her. In the background, Gary didn't move.
"No, Chuck. We've already been through this." Chuck took a deep breath, but before he got his thought out, Marissa put her foot down, in a manner of speaking. "Whatever it is, he's got to deal with it himself. He's got to figure it out on his own. We can't do it for him, and we won't help him any if we interfere. Gary's got to find his own way out into the light again."
"Yeah, well then why are we even here, if there's nothing we can do besides wait?" Chuck stood up, slapping at the bed with one hand as he did so.
"It's just like it was at Christmas, when we lit the candles. Remember, Chuck? Only we're the candles this time. We weren't here ealier, when we should have been, and that's part of why he got lost. The least we can do is be here now to help him find his way out of the darkness. But we can't bring him out of it ourselves."
Chuck slumped, reluctantly capitulating as he stared at the still white face on the bed before him. Dammit! He hadn't flown all the way out here from California just to sit and do nothing! No, but he had come to be here for his friend. And, if this was what being here for Gary meant, then that's what he had to do. But it didn't mean he had to watch.
"Yeah, well, I'm going to go get some lunch, then. You hungry? I'll bring you something up, if you like."
"Yeah, Chuck. That would be great."
Keeping a concerned eye on the still figure in the bed as long as he could, Chuck walked slowly to the door, hesitating once more before he finally opened it and headed downstairs where he could at least still the churning in his stomach. His mind and heart would have to wait a bit longer.
He was going to be sick. Groaning aloud, Gary opened his eyes, closing them again when the bright light sent shafts of pain into his brain. Geez, what a headache... His stomach lurched again, and Gary fought the covers over him. He had to get to the bathro--
"Whoa, there buddy! Take it easy!"
Chuck? What? He must be hallucinating again. Bracing himself for the onslaught of light, Gary opened his eyes just a slit, and found two Chucks dancing ominously with three Marissas over him. Closed them again, fighting the swinging dizziness that sent his bed into slow loop-de-loops around him. Swallowed, fighting the nausea. Gave up on trying to make sense of Chuck's presence here... where? He had to find a bathroom before he lost it.
"Sick." He groaned more than said.
"What?" The Chuck voice came closer.
"Sick. Gonna be sick." Gary opened his eyes briefly, saw comprehension dawning on Chuck's face as he shut them again.
"Okay, then, come on, we'll get you to the bathroom." Arms attached to the Chuck voice were removing obstructions from his way, helping him sit up, then he was pulled to his feet and someone short put a shoulder under his arm. Stumbling, unable to open his eyes for fear of passing out again, Gary let himself be guided to what he hoped was the bathroom.
"Here ya go." Gary risked one look, dimly catching sight of the toilet before his knees gave way. He reached blindly for the commode in front of him as he fell. Chuck caught him as he landed on his knees, then held his head over the toilet as Gary retched helplessly. Nothing came up, but it took a long time about it. Finished, Gary's companion helped him scoot backwards until he felt the cool, hard tile of the bathroom wall behind him. He leaned against it with a grateful sigh. Now that his nausea had passed for the moment, maybe he could figure out where he was and who was with him.
Resolutely pushing the dizziness and the pounding headache to the back of his mind, Gary opened his eyes to find himself in his own bathroom above McGinty's, facing a very worried Chuck, while Marissa hovered in the background, a concerned frown on her face.
He blinked. Surely not...
Squatting down in front of Gary, eyebrows up inquisitively, Chuck rested his elbows on his knees.
"Yeah buddy," Chuck whispered carefully, "So, how ya doing?"
Another wave of nausea threatened to crest and Gary closed his eyes. Arms crossing protectively over his stomach, he groaned in response to his friend's question. Chuck snorted.
"Yeah, well that about says it all. You want something for that headache I know you've got?"
Gary nodded once, just a tiny fraction of movement. Anymore and he'd really be sick. He put the quandary of Chuck's presence behind him for the moment, concentrating more on keeping up and down in their proper alignment, and hoping against hope he was done with the dry heaves.
It was half an hour before Gary left the bathroom. Marissa had gone downstairs to find something for him to drink or eat that wouldn't upset his stomach any more than it already was. Chuck helped him back to his bed. His head pounding, Gary lay back with a relieved sigh, then felt movement in front of his face. He opened his eyes just enough to see Chuck waving two acetaminophen tablets, with a glass of water.
"Here. Maybe you can keep these down now."
Gary accepted the medicine, and the water, sitting up the little bit required to drink from the glass before handing it back Chuck. He let himself carefully down to the bed, wishing he felt better. Wishing he hadn't drunk that bottle of tequila. Wishing he could have saved Samantha... His hands! The blood. Gary jumped, opening his eyes to inspect his hands. Chuck watched with a troubled frown from the chair by the bed. Bandages now covered the worst of the scrapes, and one deep gash was held tightly closed by several small butterfly bandages. There were no signs of blood - his or anyone else's. Gary closed his eyes. The water hadn't worked. His hands were clean, physically anyway. But it hadn't been his hands after all that needed washed. It was his heart. He didn't know how he was going to take care of that.
"I just throw them away." His eyes flew open at Marley's voice, and he searched the room frantically for any signs of the rogue agent that had haunted him throughout his drunken night. Finally, his gaze came to rest on Chuck, still frowning at him. Chuck?
"What're you doing here? I thought you had a big deal going out in California." Gary couldn't and didn't try to keep the resentment out of his voice.
Chuck's eyebrow went up. Gary could tell he was surprised, and probably irritated by his attitude, but Gary didn't care. Why should he feel grateful when Chuck was the one who had bagged out on the paper - and him - to begin with?
"Yeah, well a call from Marissa that you're missing in action and probably drunk as a skunk to boot sort of got my attention." Elbows resting on the arms of his chair, Chuck kicked at the bed with one foot.
Gary glared at Chuck.
"You didn't have to come. I would have been fine."
"Yeah right. You'd have been feeding the fish in Lake Michigan if I hadn't dragged you out of there this morning."
That got Gary's attention.
"The lake? Out of the lake?" Confused, he frowned as he tried to remember what had happened last night.
"Yeah. You were wallowing on the pier and then you just rolled right in. You want to tell me why?"
A sudden memory rose in Gary's mind, and he shuddered, closing his eyes. Chuck's eyes narrowed, but Gary didn't see his friend's concern. He was trying once more to push the memory of Marley -- being alone with Marley -- away and failing. His heart was pounding, and without thinking, he said out loud, "Marley."
Gary didn't open his eyes. Couldn't. The fear was too strong, the taste of steel in his sour mouth too real.
"Marley. Crumb... Crumb wasn't there. Marley, he..." He couldn't say it. Could only relive it over and over again in his mind: Marley, the gun between his feet and shoved into his mouth, Marley pulling the trigger... He shuddered again, swallowed against the rising nausea.
"Hey, Gary. It's all right. Marley's dead, remember?"
Gary didn't respond, just laid there shivering with his eyes closed. Chuck hadn't lived the nightmare like he had. It was most definitely not all right. Chuck touched his shoulder, trying to get his attention.
"Gary! It's okay. That's just the booze in your system, telling you lies. Marley died, and Crumb got there before whatever happened, okay?"
Gary didn't respond, so this time Chuck grabbed his shoulder and shook him roughly.
Gary's eyes flew open, and Chuck pulled back as Gary stared at him, not trying to hide his growing anger.
"Just knock it off, all right?" Gary shut his eyes again, and swallowed. Geez, he was going to throw up again. Groaning aloud, he made it to the bathroom on his own this time. It didn't take long for his system to reject the water and the medicine, and, breathing hard, Gary leaned against the tank when he was done. The cool porcelain felt good against his flushed face. Still fighting the picture of Marley's face looming over him, Gary turned his focus on Chuck. His friend was reclining against one side of the bathroom door, arms crossed and a decidedly unsympathetic look on his face.
"What are you staring at?" Gary closed his eyes again, trying to control his irrational anger at his friend. Right now he wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Alone in his shame, his humiliation... his defeat. His failure.
"You, for one. You want to tell me just exactly what you were thinking before you did this? Not exactly a smart idea Gary, and if I hadn't seen it, I don't think I would have believed it. What's gotten into you lately?"
Gary winced as Chuck's voice rose, then all the anger and grief he'd been fighting for the last three weeks suddenly ignited within him, and Chuck was the flashpoint. Staggering to his feet, Gary shook one finger out in his friend's face, the effect slightly ruined by the fact that he had to keep the other hand braced against the wall to keep from falling over.
"What's gotten into me? Wha, what's gotten into me?"
Chuck backed up a bit, warily eyeing his friend.
"Look, Gary, we know about the little girl, Sabrina--"
"Samantha!" Gary hissed, advancing towards his friend, not quite so reliant on the wall now. Eyes wide, Chuck backed up some more, but Gary wasn't done.
"You, you, you left, you weren't here, you were just out there taking care of Chuck and the rest of the world can just go to hell. That's all that matters anyway, isn't it? Taking care of Chuck, and money and girls, in that order. Don't give a damn about me, the paper, Marissa, McGinty's or anything else. Just Chuck." Gary was yelling by now, staggering after Chuck across the loft. Somwhere in the back of his mind he squelched the small thought that he probably was being too hard on his friend. No way. He wasn't being any harder on Chuck than he'd been on himself lately. Neither one of them heard Marissa come in.
"If you hadn't run off and left me here, Samantha'd be alive today. Did you know that? Huh? I missed the damn El train, and she died because you had to run off to California chasing some pipe dream. Didn't stop to think there might be things you could do here with that money. Didn't stop to think there were people here that needed you, that you could help. No one else matters, do they, Chuck? Just Chuck. Screw the rest of us. Screw the whole fucking world as long as you've got your money and your bimbos." Shaking, Gary tripped over nothing, catching himself on the back of the couch as he fell.
The look on Chuck's face told it all as he stared at his friend. He'd never, never thought of it that way. But, that was exactly what Gary had just said, right? Spike's claws clicked on the floor as he shifted his weight, and Chuck turned to Marissa, looking for help that wasn't coming. She just stood in the door, holding a glass of something in her hand, the shocked expression on her face matching his. Gary's battle for equilibrium long since lost, he sank to the floor behind the couch. Sitting there, face in his hands, he couldn't stop the tears of rage? Pain? Whatever. He heard Chuck come around the couch, swallowing audibly as he realized Gary was crying.
"Gar, that's not what..."
"Like hell it's not!" Gary's voice had dropped, but he was anything if not angrier. Staring up at Chuck as he knelt next to him, not caring anymore if Chuck saw just how shattered he was by Samantha's death, by his own failure, he grabbed Chuck's shirt with one hand. "Like hell it's not! Samantha's dead and she wouldn't be if you'd been here like you were supposed to be! I couldn't do it by myself, and *you* *weren't* *here!*" He shoved Chuck roughly away.
Chuck slumped to the floor beside Gary.
"Gary... I'm sorry, okay? You're right, I never thought about anything, anyone else. If it makes you feel better, it's all my fault."
Gary lifted his head, eyes wide in surprise at Chuck's capitulation. Remorse took over. He shook his head, drawing in a sharp breath and wincing a second later. The room spun around him, and he closed his eyes, trying not to fall over any further onto the floor than he already was. A moment later, he answered Chuck.
"N-n-n-no, Chuck, it, it's not your fault. It's mine." Gary rubbed his face tiredly, vainly wishing the pounding drums in his head to silence. "The, the paper's my responsiblity. I should, I should have been there. I should have--"
"Shit, Gary, it's not your fault! You try harder than anybody out there to help people. So what if you don't make it once in a while?" Chuck's eyes were blazing, but whether or not it was sympathy for Gary or discomfort at what he had just said, Gary didn't know. Chuck went on. "You tried, Gary, you tried, but you're not Superman. This isn't some comic strip and you're not a cartoon guy in blue tights that can do everything. You're human, Gar, you make mistakes. You gotta let go. Like that Bible Mrs. Danforth gave me says, you gotta forgive yourself."
Gary couldn't help it. His jaw dropped as he stared at Chuck in amazement, looking away and then back again before he could trust himself to speak. Even so, it took a couple of tries before he got the words out.
"You, you actually read that?"
"Hey, I'm not a total jerk. And yeah, I read it... well, some of it." He amended as Gary continued to stare at him. "Okay, maybe it was just a little bit of it. A couple of pages. But the point is, Gary, you can't do it all. You gotta let yourself be human once in a while. I'm sorry I wasn't here for you, buddy, but you just gotta remember that you can't save everybody. That's not your job." Eyebrows up almost to his hair line, Chuck grinned as his blue eyes met Gary's green ones. It was obvious he was already proud of what he was going to say next. " Someone else has that job - God, I think His name is."
Gary looked away, unable to match his friend's attempt at humor. He really didn't want to talk about it anymore, and the pounding in his head was the perfect out. Groaning, he asked, "You got any more of those pills?"
"Yeah, sure, buddy." Chuck stood, offering his hand to help Gary
rise. But Gary didn't see it as he sat, head hanging, unsure for
the moment was worse: the pounding in his head, or the ache in his heart.
Chuck looked up from the ending credits of Independence Day to find Gary conked out on the couch, stretched full length on the cushions, one arm behind his head, one leg hanging to the floor. This time he seemed to be sleeping soundly. Probably had a lot to do with the acetaminophen he had finally been able to keep down. And, better yet in Chuck's estimation, there was no strange mumbling or jerking around. No nightmares, then. Good.
Turning off the TV with the remote, Chuck watched his friend for a long moment before getting up and heading for the fridge. A beer sure sounded good right about now... Glancing guiltily at the recumbent figure on the sofa, Chuck shivered. No, on second thought, pop would do nicely. He retrieved a can from the fridge and opened it as he joined Marissa at the table. She had gotten some paperwork from the office downstairs and was going over it. She had also had him remove all the beer from Gary's fridge first thing when he woke up earlier today.
Marissa's hands faltered as he joined her, and she laid the papers down after a moment. The lamp by the couch the only light on in the loft, it warmed the room with its golden glow as the day outside waned. The two sat in silence in the half-dark, united in concern for the man slumbering -- peacefully, it looked like -- across the room. While life was definitely looking better for him now than it had this morning, neither of them were sure things were really under control yet.
"How long can you stay?" Chin resting against one hand while the other toyed with the thick braille papers in front her, Marissa kept her voice quiet, not wanting to wake Gary.
Chuck took a long drink of his pop before answering. How long could he stay? He had commitments in California, things to do, people to see... He also had a friend here who had come through for him more than once - a friend who was still in pretty desperate shape. Struggling with conflicting priorities, shuffling them over in his mind, he finally offered, "Three, maybe four days."
Marissa didn't say anything. She didn't have to. Even in the gathering gloom Chuck could read the thought on her face. What would happen to Gary when he left again? How would he cope with the burden the paper laid on him, unrelentingly, unceasingly, every day of his life without Chuck there to back him up? Chuck didn't like the guilty feeling that crept over him in her silence.
"First thing we're gonna do tomorrow is start looking for a manager." He spoke in a stage whisper.
Hand falling to the table, Marissa sat up straight and shook her head. Her disgust was obvious.
"You just don't get it, do you?"
Chuck paused, the can of pop halfway to his mouth.
"Don't get what?"
"The fact that Gary hasn't hired another manager because he doesn't want to replace you. Because running this place was something you two, we three have always done together. Because this place is not just a business, it's part of the paper, part of the life Gary's stuck with because of the paper." The cat jumped up on the table between them with a mreeow. Chuck glared at it. Marissa ignored it. She wasn't done yet.
"We've always seen the paper as being Gary's, Chuck. It was something you and I played with, toyed with, but it wasn't ours. It was his."
"The point is, it's not just Gary's. It's ours too. The paper's as much our responsibility as it is his." Chuck was sure he didn't like where she was going with this. Marissa wouldn't be deterred. "He can't do what he does for the paper without us. You and I, we've always been just as integral to the rescues as he is. We're not second bananas, Chuck, we're right up there with Gary. We have to be there too." She paused, then dropped the clincher. "Or, do you want Gary to end up like Lucius Snow?"
Chuck was irritated. Of course he didn't want Gary to end up like that. Recluse. Crackpot. Those were some of the nicer descriptions of Gary's predecessor with the paper. Things went downhill quickly from there. There was no way he wanted his friend to end up like that, alone with the terrible responsibility of the paper. But, that meant...
Now Chuck really didn't like this. What was he supposed to do, give up all his hopes and dreams for his own life just to serve the cosmic paperboy that delivered the paper a day early? He had places to go, things to do... And the pieces suddenly fell into place. Gary had places he wanted to go, things he wanted to do. Gary had hopes and dreams. A family. A normal life. A chance to have some happiness of his own. The paper so far had kept all that from him. Looked like it would continue to keep that from him, maybe for the rest of his life. Chuck shivered as he began to understand for the first time just how Gary must have felt as he struggled with what his life had become. As he learned to live with the shackles that bound him to a future predicated on the paper's whims instead of his own desires.
And he, Chuck Fishman, had just walked away from it all, from the paper, from his friends -- from Gary. Because he thought he could. Because he wanted to. Because he was tired of the paper and its demands. Gary was right, he hadn't been worried about anyone but himself.
And two people so far had paid for his selfishness. A little girl named Sabri-- no, Samantha. And Gary.
A soft knock on the door interrupted his thoughts and Chuck gladly turned away from the uncomfortable emotions Marissa's words had stirred in him. Through the frosted glass window he could see the vague outline of a heavyset man: Crumb. Chuck sighed. Not again.
When he had gone downstairs for lunch earlier in the day, the retired detective had cornered him about Gary, wanting to know just what exactly was going on. Chuck had tried to put the man off, but Crumb wouldn't be diverted. This was out of character for Gary, and Crumb knew it and was bound and determined to know what had happened to bring Hobson to this point. Unnerved, Chuck was reminded just a little too much of the interrogations he had gone through with the man when Gary was suspected of trying to assassinate the President. At least this time Marley hadn't been hovering in the background, watching and waiting like a hungry spider in it's web. Chuck had finally given out the whole story about Samantha as he knew it, excluding the paper's role, of course, feeling extremely disloyal to his friend upstairs the whole time. Crumb had listened quietly, then basically run Chuck off.
Shaking the picture of Marley off with a shudder and a glance at the couch, Chuck rose to get the door.
Funny thing was, it seemed to him once Crumb understood Gary had failed to stop something bad from happening, he mellowed right out. Looked downright sympathetic. Chuck couldn't even begin to figure that one out. Gary stirred on the couch, swinging his feet to the floor and sitting up abruptly as Chuck opened the door to admit the detective.
"Thought youse guys might like something to eat." Crumb advanced into the room with a tray of sandwiches and drinks -- none of them alcoholic, Chuck saw with relief as he followed him over to the table. There was one bowl of soup on the tray. Placing the tray beside Marissa, Crumb set a cup of tea by her hand, then picked up the bowl of soup and headed over towards Gary. Sitting with elbows on his knees, hunched over his clasped hands, Gary was looking everywhere but at Crumb. His body language was obvious: he wanted to be anywhere but right here, facing Crumb. Chuck almost said something, but it was too late. Crumb set the bowl on the coffee table in front of Gary.
"That ought to sit okay in your stomach. Plain old chicken noodle, maybe not as good as your mom makes, but good enough."
Face flushing, Gary still wouldn't look at Crumb. He nodded shortly.
Crumb sat on the edge of chair Chuck had recently vacated, silently watching the younger man in front of him. Worried about just what the man was going to say to Gary, Chuck took a step toward his friend, but Snow's cat appeared in front of him, and Marissa's hand grabbed him as he tried to step over it. Her "No," was just loud enough for him to hear. His hand half-raised and his mouth half-open to object, Chuck looked from her to the silent pair over by the couch. Marissa had been right about things so far, he thought, maybe she was right about this. Still, he'd pay attention, and get Crumb out of there in a hurry if it looked like he was gonna land too hard on Gary. Shrugging, he sat down at the table.
On the other side of the room, Crumb shifted, the creak of the chair beneath his bulk loud in the silence.
"You oughta eat that before it gets cold. It goes down better that way."
Gary's eyes flicked toward Crumb, then back to the soup before him. He stared at it for a moment, then shrugged.
"Yeah." When Crumb still didn't leave, still sat there looking at him, Gary nervously got up and paced over to the window by the TV. Standing half-hidden in the shadows just beyond the circle of light cast by the lamp, he leaned against the wall with one arm, staring out the window at the growing twilight. Crumb silently watched him as Chuck, fingers drumming soundlessly on the table, watched Crumb. Marissa found her tea and sipped at it. Of everyone there, she was the only one who wasn't wound tight as a drum. Then, visibly coming to some sort of a decision, Crumb followed Gary over to the window.
"No." Standing stiffly, Gary stared out the window, the one short word his only response to the man behind him.
Crumb hitched at his pants, then stepped further into the shadows that half-obscured Gary. Chuck tensed, ready to leap to his friend's aid, but Marissa's hand on his arm again stopped him. He didn't like it, but he stayed where he was. The cat hissed at him from where it lay on the floor at his feet, tail twitching.
"Hobson, you can't beat yourself up about this. You gotta let it go. Trust me, I know. I been there, been where you are. Hell, ain't a cop or fireman worth his salt in Chicago what hasn't been where you are now. What you do, whatever it is, it ain't so different than the guy out walking his beat, or the guy trying to put the fire out before somebody gets hurt." Crumb paused, his eyes watching, assessing the impact of his words on Gary. Taking Gary's lack of response as tacit permission to continue, he took a deep breath and went on.
"Look, when I was young kid, like you -- no, younger than you, just a pup, a raw rookie out of the Academy, I screwed up, screwed up big." He waved his hands in front of him as he spoke. "The bust was goin' down, and I was supposed to be in a certain place, at a certain time." Startled, Gary shot him a look. Crumb either didn't notice, or chose not to. Gary turned back to the window.
"I was supposed to be watching the other officers' backs. Well, I was the hot shot rookie, and I didn't want to be left out of the action. I went on in after my partner instead of staying put, like I was s'posed to. Guy came around the back, got the drop on another officer. Upshot of it was, a good man went down that day because I wasn't where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there."
Chuck stared at Crumb, and Marissa even froze at that one. Gary finally turned around to face the bartender. One thought was paramount in all their minds. Just how much had Crumb figured out about what Gary really did? Gary caught Chuck's eye from across the room, and Chuck shook his head vehemently, finding himself slightly irritated that Gary didn't even bother looking at Marissa.
Crumb took advantage of the fact he evidently had captured Gary's full attention. He stepped up directly in front of Gary, pointing one gnarled finger at his chest. Though he spoke softly, as if for Gary's ears alone, Crumb's voice was heavy with the authority of expereince.
"I tried what you're trying, a lot of cops I know have tried it, and I'll tell you right now, though I think you've already figured it out, it won't help. It'll just make things worse, and one day you'll wake up and realize you missed out on another save because you were too busy trying to drown the one you blew." Gary's eyes, appearing almost black in the dim light, were wide with shock as he stared at Crumb.
Crumb's rough face softened noticeably as he took in the younger man before him. It was obvious to Chuck that he chose his next words with extreme care. Looking full into Gary's face, reaching out with one hand to cuff his shoulder gently, he said, "You gotta let yourself off the hook, kid. You gotta face the fact you're human, you can't save everyone that needs saving. Good cops, they know that. You do the best you can out there on the streets, and when you come home and face yourself in the mirror at night you know you did what you could. And that has to be enough. The rest, well the rest is up to someone else."
Gary swallowed, and looked away from Crumb, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists at his sides. Closing his eyes, he worked his throat, finally choking his words out.
"You, you don't, you don't understand," he began, his eyes meeting Crumb's, unable to hide the pain in them anymore. "It, it, it wasn't a cop, it wasn't, it wasn't another adult, it, it, it was--" He couldn't say it. Gary turned away, staring out into the darkness surrounding him.
Crumb put a hand on Gary's shoulder. Chuck could hardly believe this was the same rough, gruff man they'd known for the last two years.
"It was a little girl. And that makes it harder. Makes it worse. But, it doesn't change what you have to do. You have to let it go." His voice was gentle. Gary swallowed again, dredging up more arguments, fighting the comfort Crumb was offering him. Crumb wouldn't let him push it away.
"Look, kid, that little girl, wherever she is right now, she knows better than to hold what happened against you. And, I don't care what her mom said, what happened to her little girl wasn't your fault. It can't be. And you can't let her make it be." He gave Gary a gentle shake. "You did more than anybody else to save her little girl, and you didn't make it. That happens sometimes. It's hard, ‘cause you care. ‘Cause you want to do the right thing. But you gotta let it go. You gotta let yourself off the hook, Gary." Their eyes caught and held, the older man, the voice of painful experience, and the younger man, learning the painful lesson. Crumb's gaze was insistent, refusing to let Gary slap away the absolution he was offering. Finally, swallowing again, Gary nodded.
Crumb held his gaze for a moment or two longer, then with an abrupt nod of his own, turned away from Gary.
"Well, I gotta get downstairs and pour some drinks before my boss finds out I'm slacking." He walked to the door. "You can bring that stuff down later when you're done, Fishman. And Marissa, if you need a ride home tonight, let me know, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Probably later."
Crumb nodded, and with one backward glance at Gary, still frozen by the window, went out and shut the door behind him.
In the sudden silence, Chuck stared at Marissa, who was sipping her tea now with an unmistakable "I told you so" look on her face. The cat jumped up and ran over to curl around Gary's feet. His eyes following the motion, Chuck frowned. Gary hadn't moved. He started to get up, and Marissa's hand for the third time that night caught his arm. The shake of her head was unmistakable, and Chuck slowly sat back down, watching her carefully. Then the bathroom door slammed, and they both jumped. Chuck looked at the spot Gary had been glued to for so long, then back at Marissa.
"How'd you know?"
Marissa smiled her satisfied smile as she finished her tea.
"I had a suspicion. You weren't here when Crumb first came to me about the inventory. He cares about Gary, more than maybe he's willing to admit. What they do isn't that different, like he said." Chuck took a deep breath and blew it out, his eyebrows raised.
"Hand me one of those sandwiches, would you please?"
Back against the wall, Gary sank to the bathroom floor for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. Elbows resting on his upraised knees, he buried his face in his arms. His head was spinning again, but not from the alcohol, not this time. This time he was trying to get his thoughts around a bigger thing: forgiveness. Absolution. The things he hadn't realized he was seeking all those times he had gone to the hospital to check on Samantha. The things that her mother had denied him, that he had denied himself.
He rubbed his face, then looked up at the ceiling he could barely see in the fading light of the day outside, fighting the knot in his throat, the tears burning in his eyes.
Could Crumb be right? Could Gary really believe that Samantha, from wherever she was -- heaven, surely, there had to be a heaven when it came to little kids, whatever you believed about grown-ups -- could he really believe that she forgave him? Would that be enough for him to forgive himself?
Suddenly, he knew. He didn't know why or how or where, but he knew. She did. As clearly as if he had heard her say it, Gary knew in his heart that Samantha forgave him. That she wanted him to forgive himself.
Losing the battle against the burning in his eyes, Gary hung his head and sobbed.
Gary came out of the bathroom almost an hour later to find Chuck helping Marissa gather her things. Obviously she was getting ready to leave for the night. Just as obviously, Chuck wasn't planning on going anywhere. Gary hadn't decided what he thought about that yet. As he walked around his bed and the newspapers stacked at the end of it, both of them stopped what they were doing and turned to face him. Avoiding their eyes for the moment, he walked to where Marissa was standing by the table. Weariness was evident in every sagging line of her normally straight carriage, her usual sparkle - or bite, depending on your point of view - missing tonight. That was his fault too, and he knew it. He couldn't avoid that fact any more than he could avoid the stark white bandage on her left hand. Might as well get this over with.
"Marissa..." One hand out to touch her arm, Gary's voice died as he finally faced Marissa. Her soul stared at him from her sightless eyes; the wounded question there was almost more than he could bear. Gary swallowed, his gaze dropping to the floor between his feet as his hand fell to his side. Briefly he closed his eyes, wishing for once he was blind himself. Then at least he wouldn't be able to see the pain his folly had caused his friend. This was going to be harder than he thought. Chuck, now, Chuck would have just blown the last 24 hours off with a wisecrack and a threat of revenge someday maybe. But Marissa... She was the steady one, the stalwart one. The one who was always there for him. The one he had abandoned at the hospital last night, leaving her to find her way home alone, in the dark, from the middle of Chicago. Not a thing he'd like to confess to his mom. Or his dad, for that matter. Bernie Hobson, for all his bluster, was a gentleman, and he'd taught his son to be the same - on most occasions.
Gary opened his eyes, took a deep breath and looked up at his friend once more. Chuck backed away, giving the two of them some space.
"Marissa... about, about last night. I'm sorry--"
"No, Gary. Don't even say it."
Uh-oh. She was upset. More upset than he had realized, as it slowly dawned on him that she was near tears. Marissa? Crying? And it was all his fault. Shoulders slumped, hands working at his sides, Gary stared at his friend in silence. Geez, Hobson, you can't just go down on your own, you gotta drag your friends down-- His self-recriminations were cut short by Marissa's voice.
"Gary, you don't owe me anything. I owe you an apology. A big one."
Huh? Gary's eyebrows contracted into a frown and the nervous clenching of his hands stopped as he stared at Marissa. What was she talking about? He opened his mouth to object, but she didn't let him, putting one hand out to find and grasp his arm with her usual uncanny accuracy.
"Gary, I'm sorry, I don't know how I let this get by me for so long. I mean, I know you, and I know the paper, and what it demands sometimes, and I should have realized when you quit talking about anything to do with it that something was bothering you. Chuck even called me after he talked to you that one night and I still didn't catch on. For all the things you've done for me, all the times you've been there for me, I wasn't there for you this time, and I'm sorry." She shook her head, slowly. "I'm so very sorry Gary."
Shit. Marissa hated that word, "sorry." And now she was forced to use it, because of him. Because of his stupidity. But, beyond that, Gary was thoroughly confused. What was she talking about, not being there for him? She'd always been there, putting more into the paper sometimes than any of them. It never ceased to amaze him how she functioned better in this world with her handicap than most sighted people he knew. He didn't call running McGinty's by herself without him or Chuck "not being there." And, what phone call from Chuck? He hadn't talked to him in how long? Looking back and forth between Marissa and Chuck, who stood back a bit from the table, hands in his pockets and chewing his lower lip as he watched, Gary realized they were waiting for him to say something.
"That's, that's all right, Marissa." A sudden memory of saying those exact words to Chuck a few months ago surfaced. Chuck looked slightly ill at ease, as if facing the same memory.
Her grip tightened on his arm.
"No Gary, it's *not* all right."
"It's not all right. You can't just say ‘that's okay' to mollify me, and then go off and blame yourself anyway."
"Well, I, I wasn't, I wasn't gonna do that."
"Yeah you were." Gary turned to face Chuck, eyes wide with shock. Marissa's hand fell away as Chuck stepped up beside her to poke at Gary with a finger much as Crumb had earlier in the evening. "That's what you do, Gar, you take the world on your shoulders, and you take all the blame when something goes wrong. You did it with Samantha, you did it earlier today when I tried to apologize to you, and you're doing it now. Crumb wouldn't let you get away with it, or you would have done it to him too." Chuck took a deep breath, his eyes serious. "Gary, you do more than any of us to make the world a better place. The least you can do is let us take the blame when we deserve it. You shouldn't carry any more than you already have to carry." Both hands went back in his pockets as he looked at Gary, wide-eyed, waiting with Marissa to see if Gary could accept - would accept - his words.
Gary shrugged his shoulders, and stared around the loft. His stomach rumbled uneasily, still not entirely happy with him after the tequila last night. He didn't quite know what to think about this latest turn of events. Truth was, he didn't want to think about it at all. The day had been way too full of such stuff already. As he hesitated, Crumb opened the door.
"Marissa? You ready?" Crumb came in, nodding to Gary briefly as he walked over to help Marissa with her coat. Gary realized irritably that Crumb was in on the conspiracy to not leave him alone tonight either. What did they think he was gonna do? Go out and tie on another bender? Geez, after last night he'd be crazy... last night... Gary swallowed at the sudden taste of steel in his mouth, and turned away from his friends for a moment as he fought the abrupt butterflies in his stomach. Marley... God, he wasn't going to face that again tonight, was he?
Marissa's touch on his arm startled him. She stood beside him, trying to be bright and cheerful, but he could see how much the effort cost her.
"Gary... Samantha's okay now, you have to know that. Where she is, there's no hurt and no crying and nothing bad. She's happy. If you can't believe that, then let me believe it for you. Because I know it's true."
Gary stared at her. How'd she..? But Marissa had faith. He knew that. She always had. Faith in God, faith in the paper, faith in him, in his ability to do the things the paper wanted. And when he fell down, here she was, faith just as strong as ever. Faith in him, still intact. His throat tight, it took him a minute to reply, a minute in which he and Chuck and Crumb studiously avoided looking at each other.
"Yeah, sure, Marissa. Uh, thanks." Tired, emotionally exhausted, the faint southern twang in his voice was fully evident. Marissa smiled at the familiar sound.
"I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
Crumb nodded once more to Gary and Chuck, and taking her arm, guided Marissa toward the stairs. As the door closed behind them, Chuck began gathering the debris from their casual supper; the clank and clatter of colliding dinner- and silverware threatened to set Gary's omnipresent headache off again. He was tired, too, bone tired and heart weary. He glanced at the clock: 9:31. And he felt like it was hours later and he was years older.
Taking the tray, Chuck headed downstairs without a word. Gary stood silently as the door closed once more behind his friend. Truly alone for the first time today, his sigh of relief was cut short as the shadows in his apartment suddenly seemed to be moving, shifting shape innocently into nothing as fast as he looked at them, while out of the corner of his eye the next shadow would begin to move, take on the form of something - no, someone. Skin crawling, Gary turned frantically, trying to follow the flowing shapes, struggling vainly to quash the voices and images crawling from his nightmares to join them. Samantha's form no longer among them, that didn't stop the rest from rising once more.
"No." He spoke it out loud as much for himself as the specters surrounding him.
"Do you think you can keep this down inside?"
Gary spun around. No. He was alone in his loft. There was no one there. Chuck... was gone again. Marley leered at him from the shadows. Gary rubbed his eyes, denying the apparition. Geez, how long did it take to get all the alcohol out of his system? Surely by now--"
"Cat got your tongue? You still haven't answered my question." The Marley figure loomed before him, closer now. Gary backed away from it, almost tripping over the chair behind him. "You can't cheat it, you can't wish it away. Something's gonna happen. Whether you like it or not, something's got to happen."
Shaking, rigid, hands and jaw clenched, Gary confronted the image before him.
"Wh- wh- wh- what's gotta happen?"
Marley smiled, and the temperature in the room dropped 10 degrees.
"You threw Samantha's soul away. Whether she blames you or not is irrelevant." Marley's voice was calm, reasonable. Almost friendly. "And, you know the price. A life for a life. A soul for a soul."
Cat appeared from nowhere, curling around his feet. Gary swayed, closing his eyes. No... this couldn't be real. Marley was dead. Dead as a doornail, he told himself bitterly. Dead at my own two feet. Just like Samantha... NO! He shoved the picture away, but he couldn't shove the truth away. He kicked the cat, and it skidded across the floor with a yowl. Gary couldn't care. Wouldn't care. The fear was too real, too strong. He needed... He needed a beer.
The small refrigerator was open and Gary was crouched down, searching though it without any conscious decision on his part. It was just what was necessary to drown the fear, drown the conviction that it wasn't enough, forgiveness wasn't, that more was required of him, would be required of him. That Marley would be there again tonight to taunt him, torment him. Gary shoved the carton of milk and cans of pop frantically around the fridge, as if a beer would appear magically if he just moved them into the right arrangement--wait, he knew where to look! The last time he had filled his fridge, there hadn't been room for all the beer. Turning, Gary quickly searched the cabinet beneath the microwave. There! A whole 6 pack, unopened, behind the empty Ramen noodle carton. Throwing the carton on the floor and kicking it out of his way, Gary reached for the beer, setting it on the counter as he searched for the bottle opener. His hands were shaking by the time he found it, and he could feel Marley in the room behind him. It took three tries, but he managed to open the bottle.
It didn't take him long to finish the first beer, or the second. Marley was there, in the background, just waiting, like a spider when it knows the prey is in the web, knowing all that remains is for the sacrifice to stop struggling and accept his fate. As Gary downed the third beer, he could hear Marley walking across the room, coming up behind him--
"Gar? What the hell are you doing?"
Gary jumped, the almost-empty bottle flying out of his hand to shatter on the floor at Chuck's feet as Gary whirled around to face him.
"D-d-did you, d-d-did you have, did you have to sneak up on me like that?" Backed against the counter, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, Gary couldn't meet Chuck's eyes.
Eyebrows up, Chuck looked incredulously from the bottles on the counter behind Gary to the mess on the floor, and then back at his friend. Gary flushed, refusing still to meet Chuck's enquiring gaze. They both knew Chuck hadn't snuck up. It was Gary's own compulsion, his own irrational fear, his own... addiction that had kept him so occupied he hadn't heard the door to the apartment open. His paranoia had made Chuck's footsteps into something more ominous, a wild hallucin--
"You can't run away from your fate. You might as well go toward it." Gary started, looking around wildly. There was only Chuck, an anxious frown now creasing his face as he stepped closer to his friend. Standing up straight, Gary ignored him, searching the shadows beyond them anxiously for some sign of Marley. What fate? What did the Marley voice want with him?
"You know the price."
Damn. He needed another beer. He needed to make the voice shut up, make it all go away, deaden the pain, stop the roiling in his gut that told him this whole thing wasn't over yet - not by a long shot. Without looking at Chuck, he turned around and fumbled for the bottle opener and another beer.
Gary's efforts to open the fourth bottle were stopped short as Chuck's hands grabbed his.
Blue eyes hard as he stared up at Gary, Chuck's expression was a mixture of anger and... fear? Gary couldn't figure that out. He didn't try. He had other, more pressing things on his mind.
"D-d-do you, do you mind?" He asked, giving the bottle and opener a sharp tug.
Chuck didn't let go, just stood there glaring at his friend.
"Yeah, I mind. I mind a lot. I mind that my best friend went out and got drunk off his butt last night and if it hadn't been for the paper this morning I wouldn't have known where to go to fish him out of the lake before he drowned." Gary flinched. Chuck went on, his voice rising. "I mind that he's got us worried out of our minds about him, and then the first chance he gets, the first time I turn my back, he's headed right back for the booze again. Shit, Gary, what are you trying to prove?" Eyes narrowing now, Chuck shook his head. "I said it before, and I'll say it again, if I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it."
Gary yanked the beer away.
"I-I-I'm not trying to prove anything!" Gary angrily indicated the door behind Chuck with the bottle opener. "Th-th-the door's, the door's right there, and you can just leave right now if you don't like what you see." His friend gave him a "yeah, right" look. Gary slammed bottle and opener down; gripping the edge of the counter with both hands, he stuck his face in Chuck's, belligerently. "Look, this is *MY* loft and *MY* bar. You left, remember?" It was Chuck's turn to flinch. Good. "I can do whatever I damn well please here, drink whatever and how much ever I like here. And I'm going to. By *MY*self. Got that?"
Arms crossed in his familiar stance, one eyebrow up, Chuck refused to back down.
"Oh, that's smart, Gar. Real smart. Get drunk again. Maybe you can drown in the toilet this time."
"Y-y-you, why don't, why don't you just go back to California and your bimbos there, hunh?" Standing up and facing Chuck straight on, Gary's hands clenched into fists at his sides.
One finger pointing at Gary's chest, Chuck shot back, "‘Cause I got enough to do right here right now just trying to keep you from doing something stupid. Again."
Gary didn't stop to think. He was tired, angry - he was scared, and he wanted a beer and Chuck was right there in front of him, right in the middle of it all. Damn him. Ran off to live his own life then tried to come back and tell Gary how to live his. Chuck jerked back enough that Gary's blow didn't knock him out, but not enough to escape being knocked flat on the floor. Fists up, Gary stood rigidly over him for a moment, fighting for control, beating back the raging desire to pummel all his frustration and fear and anger and regret out on his friend. Chuck didn't move, didn't say anything, just laid there in the middle of the mess from the beer Gary had dropped with one hand on his jaw, eyes wide. Waiting to see what Gary was going to decide to do. Gary sagged.
"Shit," he mumbled, dropping his arms and turning away, trying to ignore the tingling in his hand. Marley chuckled from the shadows beyond him. Gary walked away from his friend, over to the window again, closing his eyes and leaning against the frame with one arm up over his head. In the background, behind Marley's amusement, he heard Chuck get to his feet. The clink of glass and metal that followed was shortly joined by the sound of liquid gurgling in the drain as Chuck poured the rest of the beer down the sink. That done, Chuck's footsteps followed him over to the window, stopping behind where Gary stood, eyes closed, forehead resting against the cool glass. He didn't turn around; he could still hear Marley in the distance, could feel the cold steel between his teeth as--
"You ready to tell me what's bugging you?"
Gary didn't answer.
"Come on, buddy, let's share here. What's gotten into you? What haven't you told us? I thought you'd be okay with this Samantha thing now. It's not your fault. Gary, you have to believe that by now."
"Don't you have a motel room or something to go to?" Gary's voice was muffled by the glass in front of him.
"Nope. Haven't had time today to go get one."
Gary shifted his head enough to give Chuck a disgusted look, before closing his eyes and turning back to the window.
"Well, you got time now."
He didn't need to hear what Chuck said next, it was already obvious Chuck had crossed his arms and wasn't planning on going anywhere until Gary talked to him. Vibes, Marissa would have called it.
"Yeah, well, I'm not leaving until you tell me what's going on, *buddy*."
Silence. Damn, Gary wanted another beer. Wanted one bad. But not bad enough to go through Chuck to get one, which, he realized grimly, was what he would have to do at this point. Gary silently swore at his friend, swore at Marley, hating both of them for haunting him this way. The cat yowled, and he spared a glance to find it sitting at Chuck's feet. Chuck, arms crossed, looked down at it in surprise, then gave Gary a triumphant smirk. Gary made a face at them both, then shoved away from the window with another muffled curse. He brushed past Chuck without looking at him. Beer was still what he really wanted, but he pulled a can of pop out of the fridge and opened it, ignoring his companions while he tried to decide what to say next. Might as well start with the easy stuff.
Chuck had followed him across the loft, leaning now against the counter behind him, hands in his pockets. Gary turned and found himself facing in Chuck's eyes that same wounded question he'd seen in Marissa's earlier. Damn. Gary sighed, looked down, then up at Chuck, catching his eyes briefly. He waved the can of pop vaguely in Chuck's direction.
"Um... about, about hitting you... I'm sorry."
Chuck shrugged it off.
"It's nothing. At least, it'll be nothing, if you'll tell me what's going on. What's gotten into you, Gar?" He stepped forward now, voice and eyes urgent, begging an explanation. "This isn't like you at all, Gar, none of this is like you! Man, you're going down, you've hit bottom, and I've never seen you like this, not when Marcia threw you out, not when you lost Emma, not -- shit, not even that Marley creep rattled you like..."
Gary couldn't stop the shudders that came over him when Chuck mentioned Marley's name. His eyes shut instinctively as he tried to control the fear choking him, tried to breathe through a throat that was abruptly too tight. Vaguely he was aware that the room had gone silent. Pop sloshed out of the can as he reached blindly for the counter, trying steady himself against a rush of vertigo. Opening his eyes a moment later, he found Chuck staring at him, blue eyes wide with sudden comprehension.
"That's it, isn't it? Marley. Somehow, between the booze and everything else, you got this stuff with Samantha all mixed up with what happened with Marley, haven't you?"
Still fighting the persistent vertigo, Gary glared at Chuck resentfully. Damn it, Chuck... Guiltily, his eyes flicked over the slowly darkening bruise on Chuck's jawline. It would be black tomorrow. Great. One more thing on his already overloaded conscience. With a sigh, Gary conceded that Chuck probably deserved to know what had earned him a punch in the face from his best friend. All he had tried to do was help, after all. Gary shoved away the traitorous thought that whispered if Chuck had been here where he belonged in the first place... Choking down a gulp of the pop, he made a face and threw the almost full can into the garbage -- empty now; Chuck and Marissa had made themselves busy today while he was recovering his wits. At least, that's what he'd been doing until the last half hour or so. Giving Chuck a bleak look, Gary headed for the couch, flopping down with his head back and legs stretched out on the floor in front of him, futilely willing the world to stop twisting around him. Cat appeared, and jumped up beside him, then stepped delicately into his lap and nuzzled his face. Gary let it, silently apologizing to the animal before it stepped down to settle comfortably on the cushion next to him. Gee, was that all he was going to do today? Apologize to people?
"Apologize to Samantha." Oh god, not again. Gary shifted on the couch, glancing at Chuck, sitting in the chair Crumb had occupied just a couple of hours before. For a brief instant he could see Marley standing behind Chuck, hands in the pockets of his gray trench coat, that chilling smile on his face. The cat mreeowed loudly, and the apparition was gone. Gary laid his head back, sighing. Okay, here goes nothing
"It, it, it's just I've had trouble sleeping lately. A lot of trouble. Dreams. Bad ones." He stared up at the slowly swaying ceiling.
Leaning forward, forearms on his knees and hands clasped in front of him, Chuck waited. When Gary didn't continue, he took a deep breath, then offered, "Yeah, but you've had dreams before, Gary. They've never been enough to drive you over the edge like this."
"Sin-since Samantha... si-since she..." Come on Gary, say it. You can't avoid it anymore. That's what got you here in the first place. Avoiding this. Closing his eyes, he could hear Chuck listening. Swallowing, he tried again. "Since Samantha die- died, it's like everything I ever did, ever-everything I ever tried to do went wrong. The DA gets murdered, you and Crumb drown on the boat, Maris-- Eleanor gets ra-ra-raped and Jesse dies and I-I-I can't do anything about any of it. It just goes on and on and I just have to stand and watch everything go wrong, and then I wake up and..." Gary swallowed again, fighting the dizziness as he turned his head to meet Chuck's steady gaze.
Chuck frowned, dubiously, now. He took a breath, but Gary looked away before Chuck's thought became words. He wasn't getting through. That much was obvious.
"Th-th-that's where the beer, the beer came in. It just, well at first it was just there. Then, it, well, I just seemed, I just seemed to sleep better with it. That's all." That's all you want to say, you mean. His stomach twisting, he told the inner voice to shut up, hoping against hope that Chuck would back off without pressing for any more details. Gary didn't want to share last night with anyone, including himself.
"Yeah, okay, so where's Marley come in?"
Gary clenched his jaw, fighting the pitch and yaw of the room around him, not responding, not looking at his friend. Chuck was watching him; the vibes told him that, but the vibes didn't say he had to answer.
"Come on Gar, the guy was enough to give anyone nightmares. I had nightmares after the stuff with him, and I wasn't even the one he tried to frame for assassinating the president." Chuck paused as Gary shivered, chilled. He really, really, really did not want to finish this conversation. The chair squeaked as Chuck leaned further toward him, one hand coming out to brush Gary's knee.
"Gar, the guy's dead. Crumb shot him."
"I've come for your soul."
The two voices overlapped in Gary's mind, and he shot to his feet, Chuck staring up at him in consternation as his gaze once more flew wildly around the loft. Oh my god. He knew what Marley wanted. He understood now what the voice wanted him to do, and what's more, he knew the voice was right. This was where the voice had been trying to push him last night, why he had wound up at the edge of the lake, wound up in the lake. A life for a life. Somehow, in hos own mind, Samantha's death now required his own. Marley stood before him, grinning cadaverously as Gary's thoughts came full circle. Gary faltered as he backed slowly away from the rogue agent, catching himself against the arm of the couch. He shook his head.
"N-n-no. I, I, I can't do that."
"Gary!" Chuck was there, grabbing Gary's arms and shaking him roughly, concern evident in his face. Marley stepped back as Gary struggled to focus on his friend.
"It's Marley... he, he, he..." Swallowing, he tried again. "I, I can't, I can't do that."
"Can't do what? Gary, Marley's dead!" Chuck was still holding onto Gary's arms and he shook him again. "It doesn't matter what he wanted you to do, he's dead. Gary!" Gary just stood there, swaying. He was too tired to fight any more. Too tired to care. Marley stepped forward again.
"You know the price."
"I know the price." Gary responded, automatically. Marley smiled.
"What price?" Chuck was angry now as well as confused. Gary stared past him at Marley. Chuck, one hand still grasping Gary's arm, turned to see what he was staring at, growing more concerned as he realized there was nothing there. "Gary!"
Gary shook his head, looking down at Chuck, seeing him clearly for the moment. Seeing everything clearly for the moment, before the shadows swooped in again, and Marley stepped closer, standing right behind Chuck now. Gary swallowed. Marley had used him and thrown him away once before, and almost gotten away with it. Almost...
"It's a life for a life..." He whispered, slowly, and Chuck's eyes grew huge. Marley smiled again and nodded at him, a rifle suddenly in his hand. Gary's stomach flipped, and he took another step backwards. No, surely not. This, this couldn't be real. The cat mreeowed at his feet, and Chuck yanked on his arm to get his attention. Gary stepped back and jerked his arm free, but Chuck refused to be shook off, immediately grabbing his arm again.
"Gary! What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's Marley. It, it, it's Marley. He, he, he..." Gary's stomach knotted and he shook his head against the dizziness as Marley stepped closer, flipping the rifle upright in one hand, reaching out with the other for Gary's arm. He tried to twist away from Marley's grasp, but Chuck wouldn't let go.
"Gary! Snap out of it! It's just the booze again! Your system is still trying to get rid of it all!" Forcing his arm free this time, Gary glared at Chuck.
"No! No, it's not! You don't understand! You weren't
there!" Anger surged wildly in him, anger because Chuck had abandoned
him, left him here alone to watch Samantha die. Anger at himself.
Because in spite of Crumb's words, in spite of his own conviction that
Samantha forgave him, he still hadn't forgiven himself. The paper
had laid the responsibility at his feet to save her, and he wouldn't lay
the responsibility for her death anywhere else. The cat yowled at
his feet, and he glared at it for a moment, before grabbing Chuck's shirt
in one fist for the second time that day. Chuck gulped and let go
of Gary's arm as he was yanked close and Gary stuck his face down into his
friend's and snarled, "You weren't here, and now Samantha's blood
is on my hands whether she or anyone else says they forgive me it's still
on my hands and it will always be on my hands and Crumb didn't show and
Marley was there and he was absolutely right when he stuck the fucking gun
in my mouth and blew my head off!"
Chuck stared at Gary - no, this stranger holding him up by his shirt, nose to nose. This, this wasn't Gary. This was, this was... Chuck didn't know who it was. Where had his friend gone, and where did this wild-eyed man come from that had taken his place? Swallowing, Chuck didn't move, didn't respond to Gary's raving. What was he talking about anyway, Marley blowing his head off? Was that what he had been dreaming earlier today? Geez, Chuck should have followed his own instincts and woken the guy up. Marissa, if she had known this was what was going through Gary's head, she wouldn't have objected to waking him up then and there. Would she?
Chuck didn't know. He didn't know anything right now, except he wanted his friend back: reliable, trustworthy Gary, good man beside you whether you wanted to go drink beer and watch some hoops or whatever. Yeah, he could get irritating, him and his Boy Scout attitudes toward life, his propensity to take care of everyone in the world but himself. But he was a good guy. A real good guy.
And this man had taken his place. The paper and the cat had finally done it. He'd said all along that the paper was out to get Gary, and now it looked like the damn thing had succeeded. Chuck would have glared at the cat, but Gary hadn't let him go yet, and Chuck - fearing another punch in the face - simply held very still and stared back at Gary.
Finally, Gary shivered, shoving Chuck away. Chuck stumbled backwards a few steps, still staring at his friend. Staggering, Gary turned back to the window. Catching himself against the wall at the last moment, he sank down to sit at the base of the wall, forearms on his knees and head hanging.
The loft was silent. Chuck didn't move. What the hell was he supposed to do with this guy? What was he supposed to say? He had no idea where to begin, what to do. Where was Marissa when he needed her? Where was Crumb? They were both better at this stuff than he was.
"It's a life for a life." Gary's words suddenly came back to Chuck, and he frowned as he stared at the top of Gary's head. Did he mean what Chuck thought he did when he said that? Gary? Not Gary, he would never... but, then, this wasn't Gary sitting in front of Chuck, it was some stranger, some crazy, grief-stricken man that Chuck had never seen before. There was no telling what he might do. No telling at all. And, if he did anything, that would mean Chuck would lose his friend too. Swallowing, Chuck was forced to admit he was the one who was going to have to deal with this, somehow.
He took a tentative step towards his friend. The cat mreeowed at his feet, looking up at him before going to curl around Gary. Gary shoved it away without looking up. Chuck wished he hadn't eaten that second sandwich, wished his stomach would unknot itself, wished the words would magically come to him, the words that would summon Gary - the real Gary - from whatever dark place he was locked in. Nothing came however, and Chuck squatted in front of Gary, arms resting on his thighs and hands clasped in front of him, with no more to say than he had a minute ago.
"Gar? What do you mean about Marley? Marley's dead."
Gary came uncoiled suddenly, jumping up halfway to his feet, and Chuck fell back onto his buttocks.
"Don't you think I know that, Chuck? Don't you think I know?" All the way on his feet by now, Gary's voice had risen as he did, his face contorted in what looked like rage to Chuck. Scrambling to his feet, he backed nervously away from his friend, who followed him, finger stabbing into the air in a few inches in front of Chuck's nose. Gary's voice dropped, ominously, as he continued. "Hell, *I* was there. *You* weren't. I watched Marley die, right at my own two feet. You weren't there, Chuck, you weren't there, but I was. I saw him die... Just like I saw Samantha--"
Hands falling clenched to his sides, Gary shook his head, visibly choking on the tears that Chuck could see building in his eyes before looking away, searching the shadows around the loft almost as if he expected to find someone, something lurking there. After a minute, his gaze sought Chuck's again, the shattered soul peering from those hazel eyes unavoidable. Chuck gulped nervously as Gary, hands reaching in supplication, pleaded softly. "Don't you see, Chuck? Don't you see? I owe something, someone, for Samantha's life. Marley, Marley, he's just some crazy way my mind has of telling me that I'm responsible, and that there's a price to pay, and somehow I've got to pay it if I ever want to get Samantha off my conscience."
Chuck didn't like this turn of events, not at all. He stared at Gary, swallowing noisily again as he fought for the words to say, his own emotions from the passing day roiling within him - and suddenly boiling over. He didn't try to moderate the sarcasm in his voice as he answered Gary.
"Yeah, so what exactly do you mean about a price to pay, Gary? Huh?" One hand in his back pocket, Chuck gestured angrily with the other. "You gonna go blow your head off for Marley? That'd be just great, Gar, just great. First I lose you to the booze, then I lose you permanently. You bothered to think about how I'm gonna tell your mom and dad about that? Huh? Where's the sense in it? Oh, hey, Bernie, Lois, Gary's dead. Some other parent lost their baby, and now you've lost your only child because somehow, somewhere, in some great cosmic, karmic way, this made sense. This made it ‘right.'"
Gary's face contorted now in confusion. He opened his mouth, but Chuck batted the objection away with his own words before Gary could voice it. Chuck knew he was losing control; he knew he was yelling, and he was afraid he might be losing his friend forever with his words. But he couldn't stop the anger anymore; he couldn't hold the fear back any longer.
"Well, I'm not gonna sit here and watch you do it, hear? If you want to kill yourself over something you couldn't have prevented anyway, then be my guest. Just go do it somewhere I don't have to watch you murder my best friend--"
"M-m-murder? I-I- I'm not going to--" Gary's face was flushed with frustration, and Chuck could see his anger rising, but he refused to be denied his say. He stepped forward, and shot his next words directly in his friend's face.
"Oh yeah? Well, you've already taken the Gary I knew away. I don't know who you are, Gary, I don't know you." Gary flinched, backed away. Chuck followed him, one hand delineating each point he made next in the palm of his other hand. "The Gary I knew would have called for help, would have asked, would have known that his friends care about him, that we'd help him. He'd never let himself get this far down, he'd ask for help. You, you've changed, Gary, and I don't like it. I want the old Gary back, the one who knew how to take life with a grain of salt, who knew how to go out and have fun."
Chuck crossed his arms now, entrenching the position he had taken, still glaring at Gary even though Gary refused to look at him. "So you missed one damn rescue. It's not enough to take my best friend from me for the rest of my life, to take your parents' son from them for the rest of their lives. You don't owe anybody anything, Gary. You did your best. Now you gotta let it go. I don't care what Marley or whomever has said to you, you gotta let it go. It isn't your fault. Not any more."
Tirade complete, Chuck's hands dropped to his side. Gary stared at Chuck, slack-jawed, then, shoulders slumped, he turned away to stare out the window again. Abruptly concerned he had said too much, cursing his stupidity, his lack of control, his lack of skill with words, Chuck took a step toward his friend.
"Please, Gary, you've got to..."
Gary tensed, his fist coming up. Chuck quickly stepped back, away from Gary. But Gary didn't turn around, and it wasn't Chuck's face he smashed, it was the window. Chuck jumped as the window shattered beneath the impact, then - disgusted by his own cowardice and selfishness - he jumped to grab Gary's hand before he could pull it back through the glass and cut it up any worse than he already had.
Gary stared wide-eyed at the blood on his hand as Chuck carefully maneuvered it through the broken glass. At least he didn't resist or fight Chuck as he led him into the bathroom. Be grateful for small favors, Chuck told himself grimly as he left Gary standing with his hand bleeding into the sink and ran to grab the first aid kit. Good thing Crumb had left it beside the bed this morning. Returning, Chuck swallowed, fighting the bile that rose in his gorge at the bright red ribbons trailing from his friend's hand down the white porcelain.
Cleaned up, the damage consisted mostly of small cuts on his knuckles. Nothing too serious, just a lot of blood and the developing shadows of several nasty bruises mingling with the cuts. Still, Chuck would feel better if he could get Gary to a doctor. Stitches would probably help a couple larger gashes. Thoughtfully eyeing his friend, who stood passively, avoiding eye contact as he watched Chuck's ministrations, he decided against that. Marissa was right, Gary had spent too much time in hospitals lately. Too much bad time. Chuck would have to deal with this himself. He just hoped there were enough butterfly bandages left.
There were, barely, if he only used them on the deepest cuts. Twenty minutes later, both seated at the table, he wrapped the last of the gauze around Gary's hand and fastened it with a piece of tape. Taking a deep breath, Chuck looked up, Gary's eyes finally meeting his. There didn't seem to be anything for either one of them to say and they were both happy to look at the cat instead when it mreeowed, jumping up on the table in front of them. Gary put his good hand out as if to fend it off, changing his mind in mid-motion and stroking it as it nuzzled at his hand and mreeowed again.
The loft was silent for the next few moments, except for the noise of Chuck cleaning up. He started with the detritus from his first aid, dumping it in the garbage can. The broken beer bottle glinted from the floor, and Chuck cleaned that up next while Gary sat at the table stroking the cat. A chill breeze blew through the window until it was covered with some cardboard from the back room downstairs, Chuck sweeping the shards of the window into the garbage with the rest of the evening's debris. Then he hunted up the acetaminophen, and a glass of water. Between his hand and his head, Gary could probably use several extra-strength tablets. Chuck thought he could probably use some himself.
Gary had his head down in his arms on the table, apparently asleep. Chuck shook Gary's shoulder, hoping he hadn't fallen too soundly into slumber.
"Gar! Hey, Gary! Let's get you in bed, okay, buddy?"
Shaking his head, Gary sat up, staring around him in bewilderment for a minute or two before catching Chuck's eye. He silently took the tablets, swallowed them with the water Chuck offered him, then stood, swaying wearily. Chuck steadied him with a hand on his elbow as Gary moved mutely to the bed. Collapsing across it with a sigh, he started suddenly, sitting up on his elbows and looking wildly about him. Chuck's gut froze for a minute, and then he reached out and shook his friend's shoulder gently.
"Gary? I'm here if you need me, okay? I'll be right here."
Gary's eyes met Chuck's, and Chuck thought briefly he'd like to take a bat to the cat and the damn newspaper for tearing his friend up like this. But he pushed that thought aside and tried his best to look reassuring for his friend. Evidently he succeeded, for Gary finally nodded shortly, and fell back on the bed, asleep almost before his head hit the pillow.
Chuck found a blanket and tossed it over Gary, then stood for a moment looking thoughtfully at his friend. He couldn't shake the traitorous feeling of relief that stole over him as he watched Gary, waiting to be sure he was sound asleep before seeking his own bed - relief that he'd soon be away again, far away from the paper and the insanity of life with it. He wondered about Crumb's speech on karma, all those months ago: What you reap is what you sow. But, he'd only ever really helped one person out in the last two years of his own free will, without Gary or Marissa pushing him, and he was handed a hundred grand and the opportunity to go do what he wanted in life. Gary helped people every day, and what did he get? Little or no thanks and more blame than he ever deserved. Where was the justice in that? When was Gary gonna start reaping some of the good he sowed every day?
The even rise and fall of Gary's chest beneath the blanket brought to mind his own weariness. Chuck made his way around the apartment, turning out lights, before heading for the couch and the blanket he'd left there this morning.
* * * * * * * * * *
The pain in his side was a knife, a dull one, stabbing into his chest with each gasping breath. But he couldn't stop running, couldn't slow down, couldn't risk... what? Why was he running? What was it that he so feared...? Gary slowed, then stopped completely, unable to do anything for a moment but stand, hands on his knees, half bent over, chest heaving as he sucked air in to his starved lungs. Pulse slowing finally, his breathing slowing to a more normal rate, he looked up, scanning his surroundings, trying to make some sense of where he was and why he was there. Chicago, downtown, night... he stood just outside the circle of light cast by a solitary street light. Across the street, the El tracks stood, silently shadowing the night beneath them. But why? Why was he here? Frowning, he tried to remember, tried to focus--
In the darkness beneath the El tracks, a darker form moved forward. Gary tensed, took a step backward, his heart pounding again like it had just a moment ago. Still, he waited, wondering...
"Do you want to die?" Hernandez stepped into the light, gun aimed straight at Gary's heart.
Gary's stomach sank. No. Not again. He swallowed, but when he made an attempt to move aside, out of the gun's way, Hernandez took another step closer, threatening with the gun. Gary's throat was dry, and he swallowed again, warily eyeing the gun. When it looked like Hernandez wasn't going to go anywhere or do anything unless he answered, he finally forced the words out.
"N-n-no. No, I don't." And he knew it was true as he spoke it. There was a chuckle in the background, behind him, and Gary's blood ran cold, but he didn't dare turn around, didn't dare look away from--
Eddie. Eddie held the gun on him now, not Hernandez, and Gary blinked in confusion. The boy took two quick steps closer to Gary, gun never wavering from its aim. Gary's hands went up, but before he could say anything, Eddie spoke.
"You're gonna be sorry you didn't come, mister."
Gary frowned. Something, something wasn't quite right here, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Eddie shook the gun menacingly again, and Gary decided figuring things out could wait a few minutes, wait until he had this child and his gun pointed somewhere else. Preferably not at him. Ignoring the ominous chuckles that came occasionally from the night behind him, he took a deep breath, and...
"What do you know about losing everything you ever had?" Frank's eyes were haunted, his raw grief at the hand life had dealt him written in every line of his angry stance, a stance that included a gun pointed directly at Gary. Taking a couple of quick steps, Frank had his face right in Gary's, and before Gary could rise above his confusion, try taking charge, try talking his way out of it, tell Frank "Try me," he saw Frank's hand tense, knew he was gonna pull the trigger.
Gary threw himself aside, landing hard on the sidewalk, rolling to his side and cradling his hands to his chest immediately after he caught himself. Damn, what had he done to make them hurt like that? Bruised, scraped, one hand wrapped almost entirely in blood-spotted gauze, his hands were a mess. He heard footsteps, braced himself for facing another gun, and looked up to find Marley, squatting down beside him, a chill smile on his lips.
"It's almost time."
Time? Time for what? Behind Marley other figures materialized from the darkness: Hernandez, Eddie, Frank, all with guns in hand. Gary stared in horror from them to Marley, then scrambled to his feet, shaking his head.
"N-n-n-no." Backing away, still shaking his head, Gary turned and ran again. He didn't get far through the black and white streets. He tripped and fell over something, fell hard, crying out as his hands hit concrete again. Then he turned to look at what he had tripped over, and his heart fell to his shoes.
She lay there, much as she had in the park that day after she had been run over by the skaters, blood oozing from her nose and mouth, that awful dent in the side of her head where it shouldn't be. Gary stared, horrified for a moment, before taking his jacket off. He laid it out beside her, and carefully eased the little girl into it. In the background, he heard footfalls, knew Marley and his goons were still there, still hunting, still pushing, but he couldn't not try to save Samantha. Pulling his jacket securely about her, he gathered her into his arms. With one last look behind him, he stood and turned to hurry down the street. If he could just get her to a hospital... Shaking his head against a sudden image of a sunny day, a cool spring day, a different little girl in his arms, one who had lived, along with a whole lot of other people, Gary came around the corner and nearly dropped his precious burden as he bumped into the person standing there.
Rachel smiled at him, the same mischievous grin that dared him to believe her wild tales at the hospital last year. Gary stood frozen in shock. Rachel's scrutiny turned serious.
"You have to put her down, Gary."
Gary could hear the footsteps behind him, knew he had to keep trying to save Samantha, or Marley would catch up to him, Marley would never give up, had never given up. He opened his mouth to respond to Rachel, but she shook her head.
"There was nothing else you could do. I know that. She knows that. You have to put her down." The words on the tip of his tongue fled without a sound as Gary stared at her. Rachel put a hand on his arm. "You have to save yourself, this time, Gary Hobson. Otherwise, there won't be anyone there the next time." She nodded at the still form in his arms, and Gary looked down at Samantha in reflex. He caught his breath.
There was no blood, no injury. Samantha lay in his arms as if sleeping peacefully. Rachel smiled again as his eyes sought hers.
"Let her go, Gary. You have to." The footsteps were louder, and Gary risked a look back over his shoulder to see Marley and his crew rounding the corner behind him. He made as if to run, but Rachel's hand on his arm held him.
"Gary." Their eyes locked, and Gary felt his conviction, his guilt, fading, drowning in the conviction flowing into him from Rachel's gaze. Swallowing, heart pounding almost as audibly as the feet approaching from behind him, Gary knelt and laid Samantha gently on the ground.
Chuck's face was simply a lighter shadow in the deep night darkness of Gary's loft, but his concern was obvious as he bent over his friend, one hand out to shake Gary awake. As soon as he saw that he had Gary's attention, Chuck released Gary's shoulder and stood up, the concerned frown remaining as his eyes searched Gary's.
"You all right?"
Gary closed his eyes, probing internally for the wound of Samantha's death, much like the patient's tongue probes for the missing tooth after the dentist has pulled it. It was there, but not so raw, not so overwhelming anymore. The vision of laying a peacefully sleeping Samantha on the ground flashed through his thoughts.
Opening his eyes, meeting Chuck's gaze, he nodded.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I am."
Chuck blew out a heavy sigh, relief plain on his face.
"Well, in that case then, I don't know about you, but I could use a little more shut-eye."
Gary nodded as Chuck turned back to the couch. Listening as Chuck got settled, Gary finally allowed himself to think about the day's revelations - just a little bit. After a minute, he sat up on one elbow.
"Yeah?" came the disembodied reply from the general direction of the couch.
"Thanks. Thanks for being here tonight."
"You're welcome buddy." Chuck's blue eyes peered over the top of the couch, his gaze serious. "Anytime, you hear me? Anytime."
"Yeah. I hear ya."
"Now boarding for United Flight 51 to Los Angeles." The announcement cut across the silence that had fallen around the small group seated in the airport waiting area. Looking around as he stood, Chuck could hardly believe this was the same place he and Marissa had met in misery just 5 days ago. Today, the sun shone brightly outside, the carpets looked freshly cleaned, and, best of all, Gary was sitting beside Marissa, looking and sounding much more like his own self.
Oh, to be sure, there were still moments when Chuck could see it all in Gary's face, see the memories of Samantha and her mom and all the events of the last month haunting him. Times when the sorrow overwhelmed him again, when Chuck realized why it was said that the eyes were the windows to the soul. Just the memory of the desolation in Gary's expression at those moments gave Chuck the shivers. But those looks were fewer now than they had been, and longer in between. The shadows beneath Gary's eyes were gone, and his face had lost the pinched appearance it had had the first couple of days after Chuck had fished him out of the lake. A few nights of sound sleep - though that first night had been a little rough - and some days of good company - Chuck's - and Gary was going to be fine. Just fine.
Gary even had a date with Renee tonight, and it looked like they were going to work things out, again. She had shown up at McGinty's last night, and the four of them, Chuck, Marissa, Renee and Gary, had gone out for pizza. When Gary left for the bathroom at one point, Renee had surprised them both by demanding to know what had happened to him. They had finally stammered something out about Gary witnessing an accident he felt he should have prevented. His return had forestalled further questioning on her part, but Chuck felt sure she was going to get the whole story out of Gary one way or another. Frowning as he studied his friend, Chuck wondered if Gary was going to try to tell Renee about the paper any time soon. If he would, maybe she could help take up some of the slack now that Chuck himself was out in California.
Gary looked up and caught his friend's gaze on him. Shifting uncomfortably in his seat and looking away, he mumbled something about getting a drink, then practically bolted out of his chair and headed for the water fountain across the room. Chuck sighed, his eyebrows going up as he watched him make his way across the terminal. Yeah, Gary was better. But... He turned to where Marissa was seated, calmly petting Spike. She was back to her old, impeccably coifed self, both inside and out. Chuck hesitated, not sure how to say what he felt needed to be said. With that unerring sixth sense she had, Marissa turned her sightless eyes towqrd him, a small smile curving her lips.
"Don't worry. Crumb and I will keep an eye on him. We won't let him fall through the cracks again."
"Yeah, well..." Chuck fought the lump in his throat, as across the room Gary started back to them. "Okay. Thanks, Marissa." He reached for his bag, settling it on his shoulder.
Gary joined them, studiously avoiding both their gazes. Baseball cap pulled low over his face, hands in his pockets, he looked uncomfortable, but then, he'd never liked emotional scenes, of any kind.
"Final call for United Flight 51 to Los Angeles." Chuck shifted his bag to his other shoulder, and held out his hand. Gary helped Marissa up with one hand before facing Chuck. He shook Chuck's hand briefly, looking away, and then back again.
"I, uh, well, uh, thanks..." Gary's voice trailed off as his eyes finally met Chuck's. Eyebrows up, Chuck shook his head.
"Don't mention it. I'm just sorry I wasn't here to begin with, buddy."
Their eyes met again, and neither one of them could deny the truth they saw between them. There was no going back. Much as Gary needed Chuck here, much as Chuck wanted to be here for his friend, now that he realized just how false his "second banana" image of himself had been, the truth was they couldn't just wave a magic wand and have the past back. Chuck had started a new life, had new commitments, things he couldn't just walk away from. Gary was going to have to figure out how to make the paper and McGinty's work without Chuck.
Clearing his throat and looking away, Chuck dropped Gary's hand. Glancing at Marissa, and then back at Gary, who stood shoulders slightly hunched and hands in his pockets again, he said, "Well, I guess this is it. Again." He grinned wryly as he spoke.
Marissa nodded, and reached to hug him. Chuck returned her embrace, then stepped back for one last look at the two of them before turning towards the entryway to the plane. Stopping, he caught Gary's eyes and held them once more with his own.
"You call me, if you need me, ok?" They both heard the overtones in his voice, and Gary, obviously ill at ease, finally nodded, looking away as he did so. Chuck waited until Gary's gaze met his again, wanting and receiving Gary's unspoken promise that he wouldn't let himself get pulled so far under a second time without asking for help.
Then with a smile, he backed away.
"Don't you two have somewhere to be?"
Gary looked surprised, automatically grabbing at the paper folded in the back pocket of his jeans. Marissa just smiled as Spike wagged his tail and barked once, happily. Chuck laughed, then turned and walked to his plane. He didn't look back.
"Okay, so now where?"
"Huh?" Gary looked at Marissa, then took one last look at the door where Chuck's retreating back could barely be seen, rounding the last corner. As his friend disappeared, Gary turned to Marissa and pulled the paper out of his pocket. It only took a second for him to find the article. He scanned it, checked his watch, and then took a deep breath.
"The paper says the accident doesn't happen until 2:35. That should give me enough time to get you back to McGinty's before I head for the park."
Marissa was shaking her head. Gary frowned at her.
"What?" If she could have seen him, he looked as confused as he sounded. Marissa smiled.
"Oh, let's just say I'd like to go along for the ride this time." Spike barked, wriggling with excitement and for a moment Gary just stood, looking suspiciously from the dog to her and back again. Then, shrugging, he pocketed the paper before offering her his arm. Why not? Marissa put her hand out and he placed it on the crook of his elbow and they walked away, quickly disappearing into the crowded airport.
Behind them, sitting quietly in the window where Chuck's plane could be seen beginning its taxi out to the runway, sat a very contented ginger cat, licking its paws. Giving one ear a final rub, the cat mreeowed out the window in the general direction of the plane, and then leaped down and ran, tail held high, into the crowd in the same direction Gary and Marissa had gone.
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