INTO THE MYSTIC
A Halloween story.
With thanks and apologies
to Pet Fly and Van Morrison, and proceeding under the assumption that
forgiveness is easier to ask than permission....
We were born before the
INTO THE MYSTIC ~ Van
It was well past midnight
when Jim turned onto Prospect from Lake and began looking for a parking place.
He blinked bleary eyes in a vain attempt to clear them; his Sentinel
senses were not serving him well tonight.
Exhaustion was the reason.
Halloween was bad enough for the city's peacekeepers, what with the
general mayhem of trick-or-treating and pranks, those benign and those less so,
not to mention the outright vandalism that the latter too often turned into.
Add an unseasonably wintry night, with high winds and a nasty mix of rain
and sleet which had helped discourage the late-night trouble-makers but had
caused a series of serious accidents, and a flu bug that had made serious
inroads in the ranks of the CPD over the past week, and Jim had ended up
enduring a long and wearying shift that had stretched to almost twelve hours.
As he nosed the truck into
a parking place, a slight squeal made him wince.
The power steering fluid was getting low. Jim frowned; he'd have to spend tomorrow taking care of that.
He cut the engine and sat still for a moment as the engine shut down,
listening for small noises that might give clues to other problems.
Yes ... a slight tick in a rocker arm.
Nothing he could do himself; he'd have to get the truck into Roger in the
motor pool for an expert fix on Monday. There
... something else ... a low hiss that indicated a seal going bad on the water
pump. He could do that, and it
wouldn't be a bad idea to check all the other hoses and seals while he was about
it. Time to winterize the truck
Jim shrugged, slid from the
driver's seat and locked the door. Tomorrow
was a Saturday, and he'd take care of it then.
After he'd had his fill of sleeping in.
He stretched, flexed the muscles in his back and belly, and popped the
joints in his elbows and the back of his neck.
Head tilted back, he caught a hot sweet scent from the balcony; a
jack-o-lantern that his roommate had placed there, its candle had long since
burned out into darkness. But there was still a flicker of candlelight dancing on the
wet bricks of the balcony walls. Candles
burning inside his loft.
Jim frowned again.
Blair. The other reason he'd
had such a tough day. Jim had pulled this shift alone because Blair had succumbed
to the flu, along with Megan and Rafe. It
had segued into bronchitis, and then flirted briefly with pneumonia, thanks to
the early advent of another chill, damp winter and Blair's sensitive lungs.
But Sandburg had taken the
prescribed antibiotics in a tractable manner, acquiesced without argument to
staying home, agreed without a hint of reluctance to long hot baths and long
hours of sleep in the blanket-layered futon.
And that bothered Jim. Because
the tractability, the acquiescence, the agreeability were not the normal nature
of his friend. And yet they had
defined Blair's daily intercourse with Jim all summer and fall ... all through
the young man's retreat from academia, his struggle through the Police Academy,
his first tentative weeks as Jim's official partner.
Still, things had been
good, on the surface. Their working
relationship was, as it had always been, natural and instinctive and productive.
But Jim had noticed the difference in Blair, and worried about it
And when he thought he understood the why of it, he'd mourned.
Inside the loft candlelight
danced wildly on the walls, and Jim had to turn away for a moment and adjust his
hurting eyes to the shifting intensities of light in motion.
He hung up his jacket and dropped his keys in the basket, where they met
Blair's with a quiet clink, and scanned the room with pained vision.
On the floor in front of the coffee table, where a semi-circle of dying
votives guttered in their glass chimneys. A
dark heap of flannel shirt, gray sweat pants, mismatched and tattered socks, and
a bird's-nest tangle of hair. And
uneven, strangled snoring.
The name whispered from his lips, loaded with soft sadness, and Jim took
a deep breath of wax-scented air and shook his head.
He rounded the couch and leaned over to blow out the candles, one by one,
then reached down and curled his fingers around one cotton-covered arm.
He inhaled sharply at the heat, and moved his hand to Blair's forehead,
and cursed softly. The fever that
had been almost gone was back, burning bright and hot and dewing the pale skin
with unhealthy damp.
"Come on, van
Winkle," Jim said softly, both hands stretched down now, finding purchase
on the limp body and pulling it up and into the curve of his own.
"Come on, Blair," he urged.
Jim gathered the sick man into his embrace and held him. Mom. So that's what this is about.
"Just me, Chief,"
he answered, "just me. Come
on, let's get you to bed."
Blair stirred and coughed roughly, clearly still lost in fevered
"Got you, kid,"
Jim reassured him. He tightened his
arms around Blair until the coughing stopped, then straightened and brought
Blair up with him. Carefully he
walked the somnolent body around the couch and toward the small room underneath
his own, and lowered him into the rumpled bed.
With gentle hands he settled Blair into the nest of his futon, shaping
pillows and smoothing and tucking blankets and sheets around the shivering body.
A quick trip to the bathroom and Jim returned with a glass of water and a
handful of pills, which he set on the small nightstand before dropping to his
knees beside the bed.
"Blair, wake up,"
he said, laying one hand on the stubbled, feverish cheek.
"Meds ... gotta take 'em, buddy.
Wake up for me, Chief."
Jim poured a little of the water from the glass onto a washcloth that had
been abandoned in a bowl on the nightstand, and ran the cloth gently over
Blair's face. "Come on, wake
Jim," he repeated patiently.
The disappointment in Blair's voice was clear, but Jim pushed the hurt
Time for your pills."
"Ah ... no...."
Here you go." The washcloth was replaced in its bowl, and one big hand slid
behind Blair's head, lifting it slightly, while the other held three pills to
Blair's lips. "Open up."
Obediently, Blair did, and
Jim slipped the pills into his mouth and quickly brought the water to his lips.
Blair drank, choked, coughed, and drank some more, and then sighed in
exhaustion, his head falling back heavily into the cradle of Jim's hand.
"Good job, babe,"
Jim murmured, and caught himself ... but Blair seemed not to have noticed the
endearment. "Time to get some
Blue eyes blinked furiously, and stared glassily up at him.
"Time? What time is
Go to sleep."
it?" Blair demanded, one hand curled tightly around Jim's wrist.
Puzzled, Jim covered the
hand with his own, patting it reassuringly.
He glanced out through the open French doors into the kitchen, where the
red numbers of the clock on the stove console glowed in the dark.
"A little past midnight."
Blair slumped back into his pillow, and Jim was pained to see that he was
blinking now not to stay awake, but to hold back tears.
"What is it?" he
asked. "What's wrong?"
Blair murmured sadly. "Missed
her. Missed my mom."
Jim touched his hand to
Blair's forehead, testing the fever. Not
that high. Blair should
"Go to sleep,
Chief," Jim whispered helplessly.
"She said she'd come,
if she could," Blair mumbled, sounding child-like in his sorrow.
"Tonight ... tonight ... I promised her I'd wait up...."
And suddenly, Jim
"It's all right,"
Jim said softly, desperate to offer some sort of solace.
"I'm sure she was here, Chief.
I'm sure she understands." His
hand moved over Blair's cheek, stroking the hot skin, seeking to ease the
sadness as he hoped the medicine would ease the fever.
But Blair remained restless
beneath the blankets, lost in a twilight world of illness and sorrow.
"She was all I had."
"You have me,"
Jim said, knowing how often in the past it had been a lie, but saying the words
anyway. "You'll always have
The soft voice trailed off, the breathing settled into a slow and steady
rhythm, and Jim knew that Blair had slipped off into sleep.
Gently he settled Blair beneath the sheet and blankets, then stood and
flicked off the light.
The scent of candles still
lingered, faintly aromatic, in the living room. Jim banished it by twisting the cap off of his beer and
inhaling deeply. He'd always loved
that scent; spicy, summery, sweet, a lift to a good mood and a comfort in a bad
one. He drank, and let the
fragrance turn to flavor, seeking that lift, and that comfort.
But neither could be found in the fragrant taste of fermented hops.
The smell of burning
candles was too strong, and so were memories, and realizations.
Blair had received the
phone call that spring, only a few weeks after Naomi had left Cascade; a friend,
telling him that Naomi was gone. Jim,
unsure of what to say to comfort his friend in the face such a grievous loss
when they had yet to make peace over the last one, had been supportive but
quiet. Blair had said little
himself, and nothing at all later, when the boxes holding Naomi's things
arrived. Silently he'd carried them
down into the basement, unopened, and placed them side-by-side with the boxes
holding his academic career in their tightly sealed confines. There had been no grieving, at least no overt signs of it.
Or perhaps Blair had grieved, Jim thought, as he had grieved the other
losses he'd faced in this ruined year ... by withdrawing into himself, leaving
behind the agreeable, tractable Blair to deal with the world.
But tonight was Halloween.
Samhain, to Naomi. The night
when the walls between the worlds grow thin, Blair had explained to him once,
years ago. The night when the dead
return to say their goodbyes. And
Blair had clearly been waiting up, hoping to say farewell to Naomi, dead now for
almost ten months. Jim didn't know
how much Blair believed of the old Pagan traditions Naomi had honored.
He'd never inquired too closely about his guide's personal philosophies,
although he'd intuited much from Blair's musings, shared or overheard, on
stakeouts and around campfires and in hospital rooms.
Jim's own brief flirtations with the unworldly left him fearful, not
comforted, and he'd never reconsidered his refusal of Blair's one-time
invitation to explore the mystical.
Blair had never invited him
again, and looking back, Jim wondered if Blair's withdrawal had begun then, with
that refusal, even before the disastrous events of Sierra Verde and all that
followed. He still did not know
what Blair believed, or how deeply he embraced that world Jim had declined to
explore with him. Jim didn't think
that Blair had really expected Naomi's ghost, but perhaps he'd been waiting all
these months to make his peace with Naomi simply by keeping the night in the
traditions Naomi had honored.
Whatever closure Blair had
hoped for, though, he'd lost it now ... lost it to illness and exhaustion.
The unfairness of it tightened Jim's throat.
And the knowledge that Blair now felt truly alone was worse.
That disconsolate whisper before Blair fell into uneasy sleep had told
Jim a bitter truth that he'd long suspected.
He swallowed hard, and the aftertaste of his beer was as bitter as that
Jim got to his feet and
went into the kitchen. He poured
the rest of the bottle down the drain and left it on the sink, then went about
the loft in the dark, checking the door and the windows, and pausing for a
moment next to Blair's room. He
listened carefully. Blair's
breathing was still ragged, his body still moved fitfully, but he was sleeping,
at least. Jim turned away and
headed up the stairs for bed.
He didn't know what
disturbed his own sleep, but the scent of burning candles was so strong that Jim
woke completely and immediately and peered over the railing.
And could not quite believe what he saw.
All the candles on the
table were burning. The same
candles that he himself had blown out only ... he glanced at the clock ... only
an hour ago.
Jim swung his legs over the
side of his bed and was downstairs within moments, standing over the table,
staring at the impossible. The
candles burned steadily, evenly, even though two of the small glass holders were
empty of wax. Refusing to believe
the unbelievable, Jim bent over and blew them out.
They guttered, smoked, and
died beneath his breath. And then
flared up and burned again.
He reached out one hand and felt the heat of the tiny flames.
And then he smelled the
He was taken suddenly by
melancholy, and stood rooted in place and let the feeling wrench through him
with an almost physical pain. Other
emotions followed ... regret, and bereavement, and an unbearable loneliness.
Jim moved without conscious thought until he stood at Blair's door.
The darkness seemed even darker where his friend lay, and a feeling of
loss infused Jim's heart and brought tears to his eyes, and he went to his knees
with the weight of it.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry, whispered through his head, and vaguely Jim recognized that the words were in a
voice not his own ... and yet they mirrored his own thoughts, his own emotions.
he said aloud.
I love you....
"I will," Jim
said, suddenly knowing, suddenly sure. "I
will, Naomi. I promise."
The scent of sage was
overpowering, and Jim inhaled deeply of it, and brought comfort and peace and
love into himself with the fragrance. He
smiled in the darkness, and remained by the door for a long time, watching Blair
sleep. He didn't even notice when
the candles died.
Blair leaned heavily in the
doorway to his small room. His
sweats were rumpled, his eyes half-closed, and his hair made a wild halo around
a reddened face creased with lines pressed into his cheeks by the wrinkles of
his bedding. "What time is
it?" he mumbled.
Jim left the coffeemaker and went to his friend, steadying him with a
hand on his shoulder. "How do
affirmed. "You okay to get to
the bathroom by yourself?"
Yeah." Blair nodded, as
if that would make it the truth, and stumbled away, down the hall.
Jim listened until he heard the water begin to run, nodded, and returned
to the kitchen. By the time Blair
had returned, there was fresh orange juice in a glass on the table, and the
obligatory pills had been laid out. Blair
made a face, but sat down and reached for the juice.
Jim picked up the pills.
Blair did, finished the
juice, and hiccupped. Jim felt his
forehead. "Still warm, but
down from yesterday. You want
More sleep, then." Jim
helped Blair to his feet and wrapped one arm around him, steering him back into
his bedroom and down onto the futon. He
turned the pillow, shook out the sheets and straightened the blankets and
watched, smiling, as Blair closed his eyes.
Blair murmured. "Sorry to be
so much trouble."
"No trouble at all,
whispered again, and drifted off to sleep.
"It's okay," Jim
whispered back. "It's going to
be okay. We'll talk later.
I have some things to tell you."
A hint of sage touched his
nose, and he smiled.
And when that foghorn blows
- 30 -