Thanks to EJ for reading over this one for me. I appreciate your input very much! To Wolfshy - all my thanks and lasting appreciation for all you do.
Sculptor of Souls
The package arrived in today's mail, slipped into our box like any ordinary mailing envelope, marked "Photographs: Do Not Bend." I picked up the mail on my way up the stairs to the loft. Glancing at the address, I saw it was for me. Funny though, it was addressed to "Captain" James Ellison. No one calls me that any more...especially not around Simon. Too many captains make the bullpen an unhappy place.
I was curious, but I decided to change clothes before opening the envelope. Might as well be comfortable, right? Tossing the mail onto the kitchen table, I jogged up the stairs to my room and removed my "court" suit and tie, carefully draping them over a chair. Then I slipped into my favorite pair of old jeans, worn to a soft faded blue by numerous washings. Adding a denim shirt and pair of well-worn Nikes, I headed back down the stairs, stopping in the kitchen for a beer and some nacho chips before picking up the envelope from the table.
I open the door to the balcony and step out, breathing in the scent of the sea riding in on the breeze. That's one reason I love Cascade. The sea is so close, yet I can be in the mountains in no time. No better combination.
Pulling up a chair, I sit down and study the envelope in my hands. The return address has no name, just a PO number from Tallahassee, Florida. Do I know anyone from Tallahassee, Florida? Not that I can recall.
I take a sip of beer and munch a few chips. The clock in a nearby church tower chimes 6:00. Sandburg will be here soon. Somehow, I find the thought comforting. After all that time living alone, it's nice expecting someone else to come home again. I put down the beer and open the envelope, carefully pulling the "Tear Here" tab. I take out the contents, a photograph protected between two thin sheets of cardboard. I turn it over, face up, and the memories wash over me like a tsunami. A small note card flutters to the balcony floor. I bend over, pick it up, and study it. The lingering trace of perfume and writing both strike me as female; the script is full of flourishes and swirls, but it doesn't look familiar. I read the contents silently.
You probably don't remember me. I think we met only once or twice. At the time, I was Debbie Sullivan, Mitch's wife. He always spoke so highly of you. He was the youngest in your unit, and I think he looked up to you as a big brother of sorts. Anyway, I'm sorry to tell you that Mitch died two years ago, the result of a drive by shooting. He became a cop, you know. Or maybe you didn't know. I recently remarried, and while cleaning out some boxes, I found this photo of the old unit. I know this group was special to you, Captain, because it was your first command. I thought you might like the photo. I got your address through some military connections I still have. Seems you've become a cop as well; Mitch would have liked that. I wish you the best.
I stare at the note for a long time. I remember Mitch; a skinny kid with a ready smile and a story for every occasion. He was the youngest in my first unit. Everybody took to just calling him "Kid." What a shame he was gone.
The photograph captures my attention once again, and I begin to study the familiar faces from the past. So many memories...such good men. The best.
Then a face, at once the most familiar and the most unrecognizable, catches my eye. The eyes...hard, unrelenting. No smile on that face as it posed for the camera so long ago. The jaw set with determination. Not a face to be taken lightly; not a man to be underestimated.
My own face stares back at me from the past.
I read once that you can tell a lot about human relationships by studying old photographs. The positions people place themselves in; the expressions on their faces. Maybe that's true.
I study myself and the men under my command. I sat slightly isolated from them, set apart at the end of the first row, as if I were at once part of the group, but not quite included at the same time. This was not a formal portrait of the unit, but rather a quick snapshot taken for some long-forgotten reason. The men were all smiling and relaxed, some with their arms draped across the shoulders of buddies. My back was ramrod straight; my face set in stone. No one touched me; no one dared.
My God, who was that man? Maybe the more appropriate question is...who is this man? Who have I become since this photograph was taken? How did I change so drastically, so completely, in the years between then and now?
My life was once one of military precision, and I liked it that way. No mess, no extraneous clutter to contend with; just crisp, clean organization, both in my professional and my personal life. Yeah, a small voice whispers inside my head, just ask Carolyn. A valid point, I admit. Few women could contend with the man I was then. Hell, few men for that matter. Few chose to even try. Shut off, stoic, unwilling to break down those solid rock walls of resistance around my heart. No vulnerability about that James Ellison, no sir. I look back at the photograph. Once, I was proud of that person, that persona.
Yeah, just look where it got me. Not that long after the photograph, I was divorced. I was a lonely, bitter man who clung to his carefully constructed facade as a drowning man clings to a life raft in a raging sea, thinking it would protect him...protect me...from...from what?
I take another long swallow from the bottle and eat a few more chips. Maybe this is too much introspection for one evening. I start to slide the photograph back into its envelope, when I hear a soft voice from the door, "Hi, Jim."
Junior's definitely getting too good at sneaking up on me. His skill, combined with my deep concentration, meant I didn't even hear him come home.
"Hi, yourself," I reply, trying to turn the photo over and get it back in the protective envelope all at the same time.
Blair joins me outside, a beer in his hand. I hold out the bag of chips, and he snags a handful and starts to munch. "What's that?" His curly head nods at the envelope in my hands.
I sigh in surrender. I know better than to try to obfuscate, one of Sandburg's favorite distraction techniques. Hard to fool the master...
I take another sip of beer and stare at the picture. "Got this in the mail today. It's from the widow of one of the men in my first command unit." I hand it to Sandburg and remain silent. He may not even pick up on the same things I did in the photograph. Maybe you had to be there.
Then again, maybe not.
I watch Blair out of the corner of my eye as he studies the photo, then glances at me. I know that look. He's trying to reconcile what he sees in the picture with me, the Jim Ellison of today. Just as I was trying to do when he came home. If I can't make the pieces of that puzzle fit, how can he?
Why do I always manage to underestimate the kid?
Blair leans back against the railing, the photo still in his hand. "You were a different man then, Jim." No question there; just a statement of fact.
I look away toward the sea, trying to hide my astonishment. Why bother? He reads me like a book. "Are you into mind reading now, too, Chief?"
He grins, that smile that melts my heart whenever I see it. "Sure. Comes along with being a shaman. Part of the job description, you know." Then his smile fades, a more serious look replacing it. "We all change, Jim. Would you still want to be this guy?" He taps the photo with his index finger. "The one who slammed me against that wall and called me, let's see...what was it? Ah, yes, a neo-hippie witch doctor punk, I believe. Did you enjoy being that person? Did you really like that guy, Jim?" His deep blue eyes meet mine and hold, demanding an answer, but possessing the patience to wait.
I hold his eyes with mine for a minute, then I smile. "Not now, I don't. Guess I didn't know any better back then, but being...him...no, that never was enjoyable." I stand up and take the photo from his hand and consider that stranger's face. "I put on that facade for protection, you know, Chief. I didn't start out life as a real jerk; I put on that armor after a lot of pain. Better to hurt first than wait around to be hurt. Protect myself, my heart, at all costs. I'd almost forgotten the man I was, until that photograph arrived today. It threw me a little, I guess, to come face to face with how much I've changed."
Blair smiles again and looks up at me with that intent, focused look he gets when he tries to explain something. My partner is a natural teacher. "We all change, Jim. It's like a...a metamorphosis; if the caterpillar never changed, there would be no butterflies. Naomi read me a great quote once..."If stagnation is perfection, then heaven is a swamp." He grinned, "Heaven's no swamp, Jim. Trust me. A jungle, maybe..."
He pauses, turning serious once again. "Change is natural. It's like a potter working with clay. If he's not satisfied with the shape he throws, he doesn't just toss out the clay. He works with it, reshapes it into something more pleasing. That's what we do with our lives, Jim; we reshape them as we grow."
I look into those beautiful, shining blue eyes holding my own. "You've done a lot of reshaping of your life recently, Chief. More than either of us ever counted on. More than I ever wanted you to have to do. Are you sure you're okay with that?"
He smiles, and his eyes grow even more luminous. "I'm sure, Jim. I started reshaping my life the moment we met, just as you did. No, I never figured on becoming a detective, believe me, man, but it's just another variation on the shape of the same basic clay. The reason for it all, the purpose, that's never changed." Blair reaches up, cupping my face with one hand, placing the other on my shoulder, squeezing gently. His eyes capture mine once again, blue mirrors reflecting the emotion in his voice, in his heart. "Our friendship...that's what counts, what truly matters. That's the clay that never changes, Jim."
I feel the tears welling in my eyes. I start to say something, anything, to let him know once again how much his sacrifice means to me, but I can tell Blair hasn't said all he needs to say. So I wait.
"How about you, Jim? You've made a lot of changes since we first met, too. Any regrets?" Blair's upturned face is glowing with hope, affection, and confidence; he knows what my answer will be. But considering the rough spots we've been through in the past year, I had already decided never to let the doubts, the uncertainty, build again. No more fissures in the stonework foundation of this friendship; it's far too important to us both that it remain strong, that it endure.
I fold him to me, wrapping my arms around his shoulders, and bringing my hand up to cup his head tenderly against my chest. Blair doesn't resist; we passed the point of being uncomfortable with hugs long ago. Like expressing our feelings verbally, they are necessary to keep the foundation strong.
I may be a slow learner, but Blair Sandburg is a patient teacher.
He burrows his head under my chin and snuggles close, his arms winding around my waist, his hands gently rubbing my back in soothing circles of warmth. I rest my face on his soft curls, savoring the precious life pressing tightly against me. My heart lurches with overwhelming emotion. When did I grow to love this young man so much?
Finally, I respond to Blair's unanswered question, an uncontrollable catch in my voice. "No, Chief, no regrets. Never." His arms tighten around me, and Blair's head nestles even closer over my heart. Exactly where he has always belonged.
I hear his whisper, muffled against my shirt, "Love you, Jim."
My embrace tightens, drawing him even closer. I kiss his temple as I whisper to him, "Love you, too, Blair."
How did I change from the man in that photograph to the man I am today? The answer is in my arms.
The quote about change is by Richard Bach from Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.
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