Brushes of Memory
A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
He knew full well what they thought of him.
Cold. Isolated. 'Stand alone against the storm Ellison'.
It was an image he had cultivated with great care.
Even those he called friends didn't get close enough to glimpse what lay behind the fortress walls he'd so carefully constructed. They saw only what he wanted them to see. Only what he allowed.
He was in control.
Life was much safer that way.
A cold December wind slashed through the bayside park, sending a scrap of paper skirting over the faded grass. Jim tugged the collar of his coat higher about his neck and ignored the cold as he ignored so many other things in his life. Evening was falling quickly as afternoon shadows faded into the embrace of the night.
I've built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It's laughter and it's loving - I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
It had become obvious to Jim that he wasn't one of those people destined for a full measure of family and friends. Not that he hadn't tried, and in all fairness, he'd had some good friends in his lifetime.
Just not the kind who tended to stick close by. Not the kind who endured.
As for family...
He barely remembered his mother, and even those memories left to him were suspect. Were they real? Or merely a creation of a wishful little boy's fertile mind? Over time, false memories could gain a reality that made it difficult to distinguish fact from fantasy.
Jim knew he could never be certain.
Don't talk of love,
I've heard the words before;
It's sleeping in my memory.
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
He'd tried marriage.
Jim had honestly loved Carolyn and believed that he honestly tried to make it work. He'd sincerely wanted their marriage to succeed.
Bottom line - maybe he just didn't know how. Look at his father, after all. Perhaps the Ellison men simply weren't blessed with the knack for creating a harmonious union.
It was probably just as well. He hadn't known how to open himself up to her freely, and Carolyn, for all her talent and intelligence, hadn't known how to inspire in Jim the trust and faith he needed to have in any life partner. It wasn't as though she had actually needed him, after all, and in his heart, Jim longed for someone to need him. To need all the protection and care he had to offer, and in return, to take care of him.
Even if he hated to admit that he needed it.
In the final analysis, they were both simply too independent, too strong, to make a successful marriage. At least, to each other.
The end of his marriage had christened the final steps of his protective persona.
He'd tried opening himself up to the possibility of friendship... of family... of love.
The failures simply hurt too damn much.
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
A single concrete bench, chipped and weathered, faced the water. Hands stuffed deep in his pockets, Jim wandered over and sat down. A fine mist dampened his hair, and sparkled like tiny diamonds in the dim light of a streetlamp. The concrete was cold, even through his coat, but Jim scarcely noticed. A lonely foghorn moaned in the distance.
In another era, he might have been a sailor on a clipper ship or whaler, Jim mused, staring out at the rolling, dark water. In a simpler time, he could have devoted himself to the calling of the tide and avoided so easily the emotional ties that hurt so badly when they came undone. No one expected a sailor, gone for months, even years, at a time, to have a family. The ties were too difficult to maintain.
As it was, he'd accomplished virtually the same thing. First the military. Special Ops, no less. That job certainly did nothing to engender meaningful relationships. Then a cop. Another career where it was easy to keep one's distance. Jim did his job, very competently. He got along reasonably well with his co-workers. Or at least, in his mind it was a decent working relationship. He suspected others might differ. Jim realized he had a reputation for being hard to get along with.
He'd carefully sculpted the image himself over the years.
A lone pelican floated on the water, rising and falling slightly with the tidal swells. Jim leaned back, stretching his arms out over the back of the concrete bench. He had a satisfying life, all in all. It was exactly the life he'd set out to create for himself after the divorce.
When the day was done, he went home to his comfortable loft and a quiet dinner alone. Often a movie, usually a western or war epic. A bowl of popcorn and a movie, or perhaps a Jags game. It was relaxing after a tough day dealing with drug dealers and psychotics.
He didn't just space out in front of the TV, either. He enjoyed reading, not a pastime one normally associated with a soldier and cop, but one Jim liked all the same. A good mystery or adventure story - maybe the newest Grisham or Clancy. Hemingway, in particular. Jim knew the independent, strong male image evoked in Hemingway's words was stereotypical, but Jim understood it. He related to it on a soul-deep level. So he had his movies and his books. Even poetry, if it was the right kind. Nothing too obscure or flowery. Robert Frost. Simple, plain spoken. Like Jim.
Occasionally, there was a drink and meal with an old army buddy. He'd even attended a poker game or two with some of the guys from the station. That was proof that Jim Ellison did have friends, wasn't it?
Even if they never stayed around for long.
It was so much easier that way. So much safer.
So what if he sometimes had a niggling little fear that there was something missing... something important, even vital, absent from his life. And his heart.
His world was well-ordered.
He was safe - emotionally, if not physically.
Why risk anything more?
Sighing deeply, feeling far older than his years, Jim stood up. He pulled the collar of his coat up against the misty drizzle. He needed to get home, although he couldn't quite figure out why. Slowly, he turned his back on the water and disappeared into the night.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.
Six Years Later
Sunbeams danced in the air, pirouetting from heaven to earth in a celebratory dance. Cascade's sky was a rare, brilliant azure without a single cloud to disturb its perfection. Silhouetted against that blue canopy stood maples painted in a palette of fall colors, with the occasional leaf breaking loose from its limb to drift lazily to earth.
As rare as the perfect sky was the serenity that lay undisturbed between the two men who strolled along the path by the harbor. Crime in Cascade had taken an unexpected autumn holiday, leaving the city's Sentinel relaxed and introspective. When he'd suggested calling it a day fully an hour early, the light in his Guide's eyes brought a twinge of guilt.
Did they really work that hard?
He knew the answer. But what else was there to do? Jim's inborn drive to protect the city - his city - ran deep and full in his blood. To deny it would be pointless, and it would be the last thing Sandburg would want. They were doing exactly what they'd both been born to do.
But surely, it wouldn't hurt to take a break and relax. They'd both earned that much.
Old friends, old friends,
Sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
of the high shoes of the old friends...
The vacancy at his side caught him off-guard, and Jim turned to see why Blair was no longer beside him. The younger man stood at the edge of the leaf-scattered grass, gazing at a chipped and weathered concrete bench near the water's edge. Jim followed his eyes, but he didn't miss the tiny smile that graced the corner of Sandburg's mouth.
Two elderly gentlemen sat on the concrete bench, overcoats tucked beneath their chins against the cool autumn sea breeze. The gray of their coats faded into the gray of their paper-thin skin and of their hair, lending them an ethereal quality. Shoulders brushing, two sets of pale, clouded eyes stared beyond the immediate of the here and now, out past the point where the horizon dipped gracefully to touch the sea. Around them, the hustle of Cascade filtered through the trees, blending with the nautical sounds of the harbor, but if either man noticed, they gave no sign. The city's clamor flowed over and about them, but it did not touch them. Not a single word was exchanged, and there was a tangible sense that none had for a long time.
Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.
Nor were any words necessary. Years had erased the need for words, replacing them with an understanding born of time and shared experience. The man nearest to Blair and Jim bent slowly to retrieve a scrap of newspaper blown against his scuffed brown shoe. Barely grazing it with a glance, he tucked it into a deep pocket of the overcoat.
"They could be us."
The words were little more than a breath, carried to Sentinel ears on the breeze.
Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy...
"Can you imagine, Jim?"
The Sentinel drew nearer to his Guide, pressing his shoulder against Blair's in an echo of the old friends before them. He didn't respond to the question, but instead, waited patiently.
"What are they? Seventy? Seventy-five? How do you see yourself at that age, Jim? Can you imagine it?" Blair asked quietly, his eyes never leaving the forms huddled on the bench.
"I don't know. Haven't thought about it much, I guess. I tend to live one day at a time, Chief." It was as honest an answer as he could give.
"C'mon, you must think about it, man. Don't you want to fall in love and marry and have a family? Have grandchildren playing around you while you sit in the park at age seventy?" Blair's gaze never left the two old friends on the bench, but Jim saw the concern in his friend's eyes just the same.
Jim caught the increase in his Guide's heart rate even as the younger man's words faltered. "Sometimes... I don't know, maybe it's time I got my own place."
At those words, Jim's heart skipped a beat, but he forced himself to stay still and listen. After a moment, Blair stumbled on, obviously uncomfortable with what he was trying so hard to express. "I mean... well, I've been living with you in the loft for what? Five years now? Sometimes I'm afraid I'm cramping your style, man. Don't you want the freedom to bring home dates whenever you want?"
Blair looked away from the two old men and up at his partner, his eyes burning with his need to know. "What is it you want, Jim? What do you see for yourself in the future? Where do you see yourself when you're seventy?"
Unable to tolerate that intense stare, Jim turned from Blair to face the bay. He leaned forward, resting his arms on top of the metal railing separating the walkway from the edge of the seawall. To outsiders, those who didn't know him as well as Jim, Blair came across as completely sure of himself, absolutely confident.
But over the years they'd spent together, Jim had learned that, like most people, Sandburg doubted himself. Perhaps he harbored even deeper doubts and fears than most. And even worse, Blair all too frequently doubted his place in Jim's life. Jim knew he himself had provided Blair with cause to doubt how much he meant to the Sentinel, and that knowledge hurt Jim deeply. He'd made too many mistakes in their relationship. Way too many. Now, when Blair had doubts, when he couldn't see that their friendship was secure, Jim did what he could to reassure the younger man.
This was one of those times. Jim gazed out over the crystal blue water at the sailboats out in the harbor, dancing atop the waves with their colorful sails. Such a peaceful scene. When he didn't reply, Blair came to stand beside him.
Not looking at Sandburg, Jim said, "What do I want? First, I want you to stay in the loft. I thought that was already understood. If not, then I'm saying it now. I want you to stay with me, Chief. At home. On the job. You belong with me. Period. So forget moving out."
There. He'd said it. No room for doubt or hedging.
Jim felt a little shiver go through his friend, so small that only a Sentinel would detect it. He turned to face Sandburg. He hadn't yet answered all his questions. "When I'm seventy? I don't know about the details, but I'll tell you this. I want us to grow old together. I want you to be there to hold my hand when I leave this world."
Blair looked up at him wistfully. "What if I go first?"
His answer was immediate. "If that happens, I'll be there with you to hold your hand." Jim paused, then he added softly, "And then I'll do what I always do. I'll follow my Guide."
For a moment, the meaning didn't seem to register. Then Blair breathed in a ragged breath. "Ah, Jim," he began, reaching out to touch Jim's sleeve, his blue eyes growing misty. "I... "
"I'm not done, Sandburg," Jim cautioned. "See those two guys over there?" He jerked his head toward the old men on the bench.
Blair nodded, but when he opened his mouth to speak, Jim silenced him with a lift of a single finger. He took a step back, placing Sandburg in front of him and held him there with hands on his shoulders. Lowering his head, he spoke softly into one curl-covered ear.
"I've never been the kind to harbor grand visions, Chief. It really doesn't take much to make me happy. If we could end up like them, sharing a park bench on a beautiful day, I would count my life as well lived."
Twisting his head to look up at Jim, Blair smiled - that brilliant, all-encompassing smile that never failed to tighten Jim's heart. "And until then?"
"We have a lifetime of memories to create, Chief. So we'll have something to talk about when we're old and gray." Jim grinned and patted his friend on one cheek.
He was rewarded with Sandburg's laugh. "Let's go home, Chief."
Slinging one arm over Blair's shoulders, Jim led him up the path toward the truck. As they passed the old friends on their bench, one of the elderly men looked up and smiled.
Jim could read the future in his watery blue eyes.
Old friends, memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fears...
A Lifetime Later
Time it was,
And what a time it was,
A time of innocence,
A time of confidences.
The Sentinel leaned forward to brush a stray lock of gray hair from the familiar forehead. How many times had he made the same gesture? Beside how many hospital beds had he stood sentinel? Waiting...
This time, he knew, would be the last.
He'd never expected his Guide to go first. But Blair's lungs had been weakened by his drowning in the fountain, and he'd fought frequent battles with pneumonia ever since Jim had brought him back that fateful day. This time, the doctors said, shaking their heads sadly, Blair was simply too weak to fight his way back.
Long ago...it must be...
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories;
They're all that's left you.
During the long days of waiting, Jim had a lot of time to remember.
And discovered that he had memories enough to last eternity.
What glorious memories they were. Strange how the mind rejects the bitter and holds onto the sweet. When he thought back, sitting beside Blair as he drifted in and out of consciousness, it wasn't the fountain or the disastrous release of Blair's dissertation or the times they had hurt each other that Jim recalled.
It was their friendship... the laughter... the closeness. In the end, those were the things that rang eternal.
Jim looked over at the photograph in its gold metal frame that sat on the small table beside the narrow hospital bed. He'd brought it from home on Blair's third day in the hospital when it became clear that this time, he wouldn't be coming home again. He'd wanted to make the room feel a little more personal, a little less institutional. So Jim had gathered up a few candles, Blair's own pillow, a small piece of ancient pottery, a coverlet... and the photograph.
It had been made during a return trip to Mexico during their tenth year together. They had gone back to the temple where Alex Barnes had destroyed her mind trying to capture the secrets of the universe. It had been important to them both to go back, to put to rest at long last the ghosts of that devastating experience.
For seven days, Sentinel and Guide had remained in the deep jungle. Blair had studied every inch of the temple, interpreting symbols and making notes and sketches that would endure years of interpretation and speculation. For his part, Jim had been content merely to watch Blair in his element and to absorb the spirit of the place. At the end of the week, he'd felt more comfortable in his Sentinel skin than he'd ever been before.
The photo had been snapped on their final day in the jungle. Blair had set the timer, then he'd scurried to stand beside Jim. They were on the steps of the temple, Jim standing on the step above Blair, his hands resting lightly on his Guide's shoulders. Tall, muscular and tan, Jim was an imposing figure in his fatigue pants and white t-shirt. Every inch the soldier. Every ounce the Sentinel.
Blair's hair hung to his shoulders, and he was shirtless. His blue eyes shone from his tanned face, sapphire stars shining brightly. But Blair wasn't smiling. Not quite. Instead, there was a look of awe on his face as he looked up at Jim over his shoulder, as though he couldn't quite believe his good fortune to be there in the jungle with this man... with his Sentinel.
The photo had become Jim's favorite.
As he studied it, he felt a momentary twist of sadness for what had once been. How had the years gone past so quickly?
Out of habit, Jim ran his hand over his hair, still surprised to feel how little of it remained. His hands shook slightly now, and when he looked at them, he was reminded of his grandfather's hands.
When had he grown old?
The sadness didn't last long. It never did. Jim was too much a pragmatist to bemoan the passing of the years and the quiet, but steady, approach of death. He had a few regrets, but overall, his life had been a good one. He'd lived a full, exciting life. He had left the world a little better than he'd found it. He'd laughed, loved, and even cried a little.
He'd been blessed with a friendship like no other.
Squeezing Sandburg's hand lightly, Jim whispered, "It's okay, Chief. You don't have to keep fighting for me. I know that's what you've been doing the past several years - hanging on to give me more time."
The tired blue eyes opened and smiled up at the sight of Jim. No cloudier now than they'd been when Blair was twenty-five, somehow those eyes had remained young. "Hey... " Blair's nose twitched at the discomfort of the oxygen tube that helped him to breathe. Then he smiled in greeting, obviously glad to find his friend there with him.
Jim winked at him and smiled at his Guide. Over thirty years now, and he never tired of seeing Blair's smile. It never failed to touch him. "Hey, yourself."
He watched as Blair swallowed hard, then took several deep breaths, and Jim knew that this time talking was going to be difficult. "Shhh... listen to me, Blair. You don't have to say anything. Just listen."
Laying his other hand atop Blair's, effectively creating a sandwich of their joined hands, Jim studied his friend's face for a moment. There were wrinkles there now, around the eyes and mouth, but Blair didn't look that much older than he had when they first met so long ago. "I know you're tired, Chief. Tired of fighting to breathe... tired of the tests and doctors and hospitals."
Lids shuttered the familiar eyes for a brief moment, and when they reopened, they were moister than before. "I know," Jim said simply, patting Blair's hand encased within his. "It's all right now. You don't have to fight any more. It's our time."
"How... ?" That was all Blair could manage, and Jim refused to allow him to fight for more breath to speak.
"Last night I had a vision." He saw the old familiar light flare in Sandburg's eyes, and his heart lurched. *Always the scholar, aren't you, Chief? Always my Guide... *
"I know... it's been a long time. The visions only come when there's something I need to learn, so I knew it was important. It was Incacha this time."
*What did he tell you?* The words weren't spoken aloud, but Jim read them clearly in his best friend's eyes.
"He came to tell me that it's time." Jim's voice grew thick with emotion. "Your time... and mine."
*But you're not sick... *
Jim smiled at the silent question. "I know, but it's the way of Sentinels and Guides. I'm tired, Blair. Everyone I loved in this life has gone on ahead. Everyone but you, of course. My joints ache; too many injuries over the years, kid. My senses go in and out, and I'm losing control over them. Nothing we've tried has really helped, and you know that. My strength's going and my will, buddy. I may not look it, but I'm ready. I'm ten years older than you, remember."
*I remember, Jim,* teased the blue eyes.
Jim smiled at the laughter reflected in Blair's expressive eyes. "Incacha promised that when you leave, I'll follow quickly."
Blair drew a long, deep breath. "No... not... suicide... "
"No," Jim reassured him quickly. "I don't know how it will happen, but he said that a Sentinel can choose to accompany his Guide in death. It's a choice, just like choosing to be a Sentinel in the first place. Apparently, it's an accepted thing among the Chopec. He seemed pleased that we'd be with him soon on the other side."
The gray curls bobbed softly as Blair nodded. "Are... you... sure?"
Releasing Blair's hand, Jim reached out and cupped Blair's head in a tender benediction. "A long time ago you asked me where I wanted to be when I was seventy. Do you remember?"
The blue eyes grew softer.
Jim gazed into their depths and whispered, "I said that I wanted to grow old with you. And I have. Thank you for that, Blair. I promised that if you needed to leave first, I'd be there with you to hold your hand."
Jim tightened his hold on Blair's hand, and Sandburg nodded. Jim let his hand slide down to cup his Guide's cheek. "I also promised that when that time came, I'd do what I always do. I would follow my Guide."
Fighting to contain the emotions that churned inside him, Jim added softly, "I'm ready to take that trip with you, Chief. Wherever it leads us."
The single tear that had escaped to trickle down Blair's cheek merged with Jim's hand, and he felt its salty roughness against his skin. "It's all right, Chief. You can rest now. I'll be right behind you. I promise. We've created that lifetime of memories. Now it's time to move on into whatever lies ahead. The next stage of our journey is waiting for us."
Slowly, Blair closed his eyes, even as his lips moved to form his last words. "I'll... wait for ... you ... Jim ... wait ... for you ... forever."
A lone tear was falling from his own eye now, but Jim didn't bother brushing it away. Even as his Guide's heart slowed, he felt the presence of Incacha behind him. "I'm ready," he whispered, never taking his eyes from Blair. "Take me with him. I choose the danger... "
No, that wasn't right. Those weren't the words he needed. Not this time.
Their time together in this world was almost up. Jim leaned closer to Blair and inhaled deeply, drawing the sweetness of Blair's last breath into his own body. "It's all right, Chief," he whispered. "I'll be right behind you. You won't have to wait long. I promise." Jim brushed his lips against Blair's neck and hoped his Guide was still aware enough to know.
Incacha laid a hand on his shoulder. *What do you fear, Enqueri? What choice do you make?* No words were spoken aloud, yet Jim heard his old friend's thoughts clearly. Perhaps he was already on his way to join his Guide on the other side.
Ah, yes... the choice.
He didn't answer right away. There was still one last connection to break.
The Sentinel lowered his head onto Blair's chest and listened closely to the final beat of the beloved heart.
There was no choice to be made, regardless of Incacha's message. Not really. His Guide had gone ahead. Jim had to follow. Just as he always had.
"I choose the path of my Guide."
*You have chosen well, Enqueri. You have served your tribe well. I am proud. Come with us now and meet your destiny.*********************
Clouds swirled around him, in pastel colors he'd never imagined. As the mists parted, he could see the jungle, verdant and teeming with life.
Suddenly, a charge ran though Jim, jolting him with its power. His body felt strong again... young again. His senses as sharp as they were when he was in his prime. How marvelous! He hadn't felt so alive in years. The Sentinel threw back his head and laughed aloud. Breaking into a jog, he entered the jungle.
The sound of cascading water beckoned him. On feet that scarcely touched the earth and made no sound, he ran. A jaguar called, wild and free, and the Sentinel roared back.
He was alive!
The waterfall plummeted to the pool below with the thunder of the ages. Its cool spray moistened his bare chest with a thousand droplets of crystal. The Sentinel stood beside the pool and waited, absolutely certain of who he would find there.
From behind the waterfall, out of the stone mountainside, emerged a figure.
His heart soared as the man drew closer. Long chestnut curls hung wet to the tanned shoulders. Strong white teeth shone in a welcoming smile as eyes the color of an azure sky laughed in delight.
He could wait no longer. Striding into the pool, the Sentinel opened his arms wide, and without hesitation, his Guide stepped inside. The body he held against his own felt so strong... muscular... healthy.
Young again... they were both young again, as they once were.
Tightening his arms around the familiar back, Jim lowered his head onto Blair's shoulder and breathed a quiet prayer of gratitude.
"You came." There was no surprise in Blair's words, no shadow of doubt.
"I promised I would." Jim felt the satisfied chuckle against his chest.
Blair murmured into Jim's chest, making no effort to pull away, "Leave it to Incacha. The other side's a real jungle, man."
They stood together for a long time, if time had any context in that place, content to savor being together once more. Content to be as they had been.
When Jim opened his eyes at last, he smiled and told his friend, "Someone's waiting for us."
Releasing Blair, but keeping one arm over his shoulder, Jim pointed to the figure waiting on the pool's bank. Incacha waved in greeting, a broad smile creasing his face.
Blair looked up at Jim, his expression identical to the one he wore in the photo they'd left behind in the hospital room. "Lead on, my brother. I have a feeling our journey's just begun."
Time it was,
And what a time it was,
A time of innocence,
A time of confidences.
Long ago...it must be...
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories;
They're all that's left you.
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