Time on His Own

by

Doc

 

 

Title: Time On His Own
Author: Doc
Category: A little memory, a little adventure, and rather a lot of angst
Spoilers: None, apart from the movie … a little … and yeah, I suppose Cold Lazarus
Season/Sequel: Season Four, presumably, but only because I mention years lapsed … doesn’t really matter
Rating: PG
Content Warnings: uh … no language, no whumping … what’s the world coming to?
Summary: Is Jack going to manage to have a quiet few days’ leave like normal people? … Oh come on, you gotta be kiddin’!
Status: Complete
Disclaimer: Still don’t own them, but I’m currently writing the movie script, with a view to directing that ... Anyway: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. I have written this story for entertainment purposes only and no money whatsoever has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. Not to be archived without permission of the author.
Author’s Notes: This somehow crawled out of the ending of Cost of Living … Don’t ask me how. Can’t explain, won’t explain, and anyway, if nothing else, it’s turned into a Word-a-Month Story at last … uhm … that would be ‘Impact’ … So there, Tanya and Chris! It’s also, for once, a short story, which proves, much to my own befuddlement, that I can write stuff less than 250KB long. Special thanks to my knees for valuable insights into what happens if you incur the wrath of the joint.

 

Sorry ‘bout the title, Tanya. Changed my mind yet again ;-) …

 

 

 

“Michael! … Miiichael! … Breakfast’s ready! … Michael!!”

 

“Go on, Mike, be a good kid. Go eat your cornflakes …” Jack O’Neill grunted into his pillow.

 

“Michael!!”

God, that woman’s voice carried! … Drill instructor? Opera singer? Auctioneer at the fish market? … Wiggling and kicking, Jack managed to extract his left arm from the sleeping bag. A one-eyed squint at his watch elicited a groan. 0812 hours.

 

“Michael Francis!”

 

“Uh oh … Middle name … She’s gonna smack you, kid …” He slapped the pillow over his head and tried to go back to sleep.

 

Jack had arrived at the lake early the previous evening, after a three-hour-drive from Colorado Springs, set up camp and decided to go for a spot of night fishing. He hadn’t caught anything. The fish kinda noticed if you’re paying more attention to the summer constellations than to them. They got cranky and ignored you in turn. At least that was Jack’s current theory. On the other hand, it might have had to do with the fact that he’d never switched on the lantern. Can’t see the stars with the lights on, can you now? At half past three he’d called it a night. When he got back to his campsite, he saw that he’d attracted company. More tents. At a perfunctory distance, but tents nonetheless. Whoever was in them, they weren’t his kind of people. His kind of people came out here to be on their own and stupidly stare at the sky until they were cross-eyed with fatigue, so you never noticed them in the first place. The other kind spotted a tent in a secluded cove and proceeded to found a colony, with the express purpose of mass barbecues and mandatory socialising. Howdy-diddlee-do. Ned Flanders and his clan had moved in next door ... 

 

Oh here we go! … Mike was throwing a tantrum, and the kid had obviously inherited his mother’s powers of projection, judging by the way the yells drilled through Jack’s pillow.

 

He knew when he was beaten. With a last wistful moan, he flung the pillow against the tent wall and tried to unzip the sleeping bag. The zipper moved four or five inches and jammed. The ensuing struggle against the malice of inanimate objects led to the discovery that Jack’s T-shirt had become snared in the tab. So it was gonna be one of those days, was it? Well, maybe not. Experience showed that one of those days involved his team being in situ to watch. Daniel would laugh openly; Teal’c would stand there, one eyebrow arched, attempting to fit this latest display into his sketchy understanding of Tau’ri societal customs; and Carter would dispense handy hints, biting down on a titter in the most obvious fashion she could come up with.

 

Colonel O’Neill swore softly and submerged inside the bag, which presently began to behave as though a couple of mating mountain lions were trapped in it. At last he reappeared, a little florid from lack of oxygen and sans T-shirt. Shame he couldn’t stand up inside the tent. He might have done something mature. Like kick the sleeping bag … Muttering, Jack grabbed a towel and toothbrush, opened the tent flap and stuck his head out, only to retract it a split-second later like a turtle on acid, just about avoiding an exceedingly well-aimed football.

 

“Michael!!”

 

Oh shut up, lady! Jack heard running footsteps and figured that it might be safe to risk a break for the shore now. While the enemy was on the move they could hardly set up missile batteries. Unless, of course, they had an artillery position in the woods … This time he actually made it out of the tent, stretched and began to ease out the kinks in his back. Which was when the kid barrelled into him.

 

“Sorry, mister! Didn’t see you there!”

 

Evidently not. Hell, he was a mere 6’2”, and only when standing up on his hind legs! Easy to overlook. Besides, right now he was maybe 3’9”, if that …

 

“You okay, mister?”

 

Apparently, young Michael contemplated a future in the NFL. He’d been sprinting for a touchdown, all on his lonesome, football tucked under his arm, chin tucked to his chest, and his head had forcefully impacted with Jack’s midriff. Neatly folded in half like a newly laundered sheet but without the spring-meadow-fresh scent guaranteed to last a whole three days, the Colonel was starting to grasp why some people harboured an unholy terror of camping.

 

“Mister?”

 

Followed by “Michael!!” Mrs Flanders was on the warpath, making more noise than the entire Cherokee Nation engaged in the same pursuit.

 

Jack felt a spontaneous surge of sympathy for the kid. “I’ll live, Mike ...”

 

Gingerly straightening up, he cast a glance at the boy and barely stifled a gasp, winded all over again. Same age. Same height. Same barley flop of hair. Same dark, curious eyes ... Jack had swerved between pride and ruefulness when he’d realised that Charlie had his eyes, praying his son would never have to learn the trick of how to make liquid brown go opaque and unreadable, so he could hide a whole hell of tortured memories. The prayer had been heard, Charlie had never learnt that trick, nor any other of his father’s sins, and Jack had inherited the most desolate memory of all.

 

“You don’t look so good, mister”, the kid said, his bright kid’s voice husky and worried.

 

“No, it’s alright. I just … thought of something …” Oh God, so like - …

 

“Something bad, hunh, mister?”

 

He gave in to a sudden impulse and ruffled the kid’s hair. “Name’s Jack.”

 

“Michael! Come here! How often do I have to tell you not to talk to strangers?!”

 

Pulling faces, the kid mouthed along. Jack couldn’t help grinning. Mrs Flanders had broken from the bushes and stood staring at him. Appraising. Suspicious. He felt like a grunt who’d turned up late for roll-call the morning after a spectacular bender. Reflexively one hand scraped over his chin, prickling with stubble, then it travelled on up, got lost in boisterous tufts of hair, thick and grey and straight and forever wayward. The woman’s gaze strayed down to his bare chest, arrested on his dog-tags, and hardened. He recognised that look. He’s in the military, ergo he kills little children, it said. Not too far off the mark, he thought, the familiar bitter ache back with jarring force. Not far at all … But however true, it was none of Mrs Flanders’ business.

 

“I don’t mean to be rude, Mr …?”

 

“Simpson”, Jack offered, not really knowing what possessed him. “Homer Simpson.”

 

The kid giggled.

 

“Be quiet, Michael! … Well, Mr Simpson, no offence, but I’d prefer if you stayed away from my son.”

 

“Mom! He didn’t do anything! I bumped into him!” the kid protested and, with a sly glance at Jack O’Neill, softly added, “D’oh!”

 

“That’s enough out of you, young man! Wait till your father hears about this. Go back to your tent. Now!”

 

Giving an apologetic shrug, the boy drudged off towards the family’s tents, head bowed, shoulders slumped.

 

Colonel O’Neill pushed past the woman, trembling hands clutching the towel tighter. “If you don’t mind, ma’am …”

 

 

He’d crawled out into the lake with fast, steady strokes, at first driven only by an angry, consuming urge to feel clean again, but eventually he began to enjoy the swim. It was quiet out here. Clean and quiet. Jack turned onto his back and let himself drift, eyes closed, waiting for his breathing to slow, listening to gently enigmatic underwater burbles.

 

Coming up here hadn’t seemed like such a bad substitute … not until this morning. He’d got two days’ leave; too short for a trip to his cabin, but after the last mission, which, amongst other things, had involved saving Earth’s collective butt, including that of Mrs Flanders, he’d needed some time on his own. So far, the time on his own part didn’t seem to pan out too well. Call it naïve lack of foresight, but he hadn’t really banked on being pegged as a gun-toting maniac and/or child-molester for his trouble ... Then again, it was nothing that couldn’t be remedied. He’d simply pack up and move on, three or four coves further down the shore. Screw Mrs Flanders!

 

And he hadn’t banked on being reminded of the one thing he couldn’t run away from, the one that would stay with him and brand him as failure even if he lived to be a hundred. Which, thank God, was more than unlikely in his line of work ... He flipped over again and feverishly began swimming back towards the shore, hell-bent on making his body ache enough to blot out the memory for a while.

 

In the end, the day turned out to be better than the morning had promised. Jack had found a new campsite by a small inlet, a safe five miles away from the Flanders colony, and he’d even managed to fix the zipper on his sleeping bag. The T-shirt only had one tiny hole. Easy to mend with a patch of duct tape. Except, the duct tape scratched a bit, and it got kinda uncomfortable when your chest hair stuck to it …

 

In the afternoon he’d gone fishing for real. He’d actually caught something, and it was hard to tell who’d been more alarmed by that achievement, the fish or Colonel O’Neill. The pond at his cabin hadn’t exactly prepared him for success on that score … no pesky fish in it. He didn’t have the heart to kill his catch. After all, it wasn’t the fish’s fault that he’d got a fetish for bathing worms. So he’d carefully removed the hook and thrown back his putative evening meal, calling himself a soft twerp. Dinner had consisted of one of the MREs he’d lifted from the base, by ways of compiling iron rations. Soft twerp.

 

Waking up the following morning felt right, felt like waking up by the lake should feel. It was still early, earlier than the day before in fact, but he was alone, and it was birds that woke him, not the considerably less melodic tones of Springfield or wherever else Mrs Flanders had hailed from. Most importantly, the sleeping bag opened without a hitch.

 

 

Michael was feeding soggy cornflakes to a chipmunk.

 

“Michael, stop it!”

 

“He’s hungry, dad.”

 

“Don’t talk back at your father, Michael! … Shoo!” his mom shouted, clapped her hands, and the chipmunk scampered into the undergrowth.

 

“Mom!”

 

“Be sensible. They carry all kinds of diseases. Give me that!” Mom took his bowl and emptied it into the trash bag. “If you can’t eat properly, there’ll be no breakfast for you, young man.”

 

“I didn’t want the cornflakes anyway! They’re yucky, and they’re stupid, and you’re stupid, too!” Mike ran off.

 

Michael! Apologise to your mother! … Michael, come back here this minute! … Michael!!”

 

He wasn’t going to come back. Not ever. He’d hide, so they’d never find him again. Mike was tearing through the brush, twigs slapping his naked calves, until he reached a thicket over in the next cove, which he’d discovered the previous afternoon and made his secret headquarters. It stretched all the way to the water, and down there was a galleon some pirate had left long ago. It still had oars in it. The pirate had been killed and scalped by the Indian braves who lived nearby in the forest, and they’d carved scary faces into his wooden leg and nailed it to their totem pole as a warning.

 

Panting, Mike climbed into the boat, sat on the bench, and heaved the oars across the gavels and into the water. For a while he pretended to be rowing out onto the lake, but it didn’t work too well. You couldn’t pretend to be lost in the Caribbean Sea when there were no waves, and the leaves of the willow tree over your head got tangled in your hair, and the crickets were chirping in the heat, and the skin where you’d brushed a patch of nettles stung like mad. If you couldn’t pretend, the stupid old boat was just a stupid old boat, and it was boring. He wished he’d brought his Gameboy. And some of the Doritos he’d saved last evening. Maybe he could go back for them …

 

No. He wouldn’t to go back. He wouldn’t go back, and he wouldn’t apologise to his mom. You shouldn’t have to apologise for saying something that was right. She was stupid, and she was rude. If he were that stupid and rude, he’d get his butt smacked. The chipmunk hadn’t been doing any harm, it had just wanted some cornflakes. And Jack hadn’t been doing any harm either. Jack was cool. That Simpson joke had been really funny, and his mom never noticed, because she never watched TV. His mom had been very rude to Jack, and she’d chased him away, like she’d chased away the chipmunk.

 

Afterwards his dad had yelled at Mike about how he should stay away from strangers, and especially strangers like Jack, who were in the Army. His dad was stupid, too. Jack wasn’t in the Army, he was in the Air Force, anybody could see that. It said so on the tags. Mike had tried to tell his mom and dad, but they hadn’t listened. They never did. People like Jack were mean, his mom had said. His mom was stupid.

 

Jack hadn’t looked mean. He’d never even yelled at Mike for crashing into him. Actually, Jack had looked kinda … sad. Really, really sad. A bit like Mike’s best friend Joey had looked when his dog had been run over. But more sad. A lot more.

 

Suddenly Mike knew what to do, and he knew which direction to take. From his hideout in the bushes he’d watched how Jack had packed up his things and gone away. He’d go and apologise alright. He’d go and find Jack and apologise to him for his mom being so stupid and so rude. And then he’d ask him why he was so sad.

 

Mike’s small fingers untied the rotten line that moored the leaky old boat to the willow tree, and he began rowing out onto the lake.

 

 

At lunchtime, clouds had started boiling up over the mountains, and the wind had freshened sharply. First gusts had leapt into the treetops with the sound of a freight train rushing past. The thunderstorm was riding in on its caboose.

 

Jack stood on the shore, hair tousled by a breeze that was already fierce enough to slap the breath from his mouth occasionally. He watched the water beginning to stir from an almost inert, oily swell into a respectable chop. The lake ran north-south, leaving the waves with nowhere to go, and the westerly gale racing across whipped it into a foaming cauldron. At last he tore himself away. If he didn’t strike his tent now, he’d have to grow wings to catch up with it.

 

By the time Jack shouldered his backpack, the sky had turned to shimmering graphite, flicked into transparency now and again by the whispers of sheet lightning. It had started to rain warm, sporadic globules, greyish blue like robin’s eggs, that hinted at the deluge yet to come. The hike back would take him about ninety pretty wet minutes. He didn’t mind. As far as he was concerned, thunderstorms were right up there with stars. Raw power and incomprehensible vastness. Nature’s way of telling you nicely that she was in control, bigger, stronger, more beautiful. Stars and thunderstorms. Perhaps the only times when he felt almost at peace. No need to be responsible, accountable, because there was no point. Too small, too insignificant to stand up to Nature, he was sheltered at last, could make no mistakes, no wrong decisions, the load lifted a little, and he was allowed to lose himself for a few short hours. Thunderstorms and stars. Oh God, yes, he longed for them …

 

The forest trail he followed was protected by trees, but the air smelt of ozone, was heavy and close, seemingly weighing hundreds of times as much as those few atoms could justify, and raindrops exploded on the foliage and the ground with brisk, aggressive pats. There was no other sound apart from the soft creaking of nylon straps on his pack and his own breathing.

 

Hot and jagged, the thunderclap detonated around Jack like the report of a gunshot, startling him momentarily. A distant wail rose through the fading echo like a spectre, rose like Sara’s endlessly wounded wail that day … It was real. Not a memory, not imagined, it was a real scream, and it was now.

 

Decades of training and living on instinct had made his body respond faster than his head … So what else is new? Jack thought wryly. He’d veered off the trail, downhill through the woods and towards the lake, running, tripping over roots, brambles yanking at his feet, branches snapping in his face, the pack badly fastened and boxing his back with every step, until he slipped it off impatiently, lost it somewhere along the way.

 

Arms flailing for balance, he skidded out onto the narrow strip of pebbles that separated forest and lake, found himself stumbling into a wall of moisture. Spray and torrent had met to weave a blanket of water, pearly and impenetrable, flying on the wind. He blinked and stared and listened, hoping for another cry to give him some bearings. Lightning forked across the sky, sheared through the haze, and in the brief, white dazzle Jack saw it. A black keel and, bobbing on the waves, drifting away from the capsized boat, a small dark shape like a head. Then it was gone again.

 

For some reason all the good advice he’d got lumbered with in childhood flip-flopped through his mind as he dived into the lake. Don’t go swimming with your boots on: you’ll sink. Don’t go swimming in a thunderstorm: you’ll be struck by lightning. Don’t swallow cherry stones: you’ll have a tree growing in your belly. Don’t run with scissors … Seeing how it was the repository of these and similar pearls of wisdom, it was a miracle that his brain functioned at all ...

 

Half-blinded by the chop washing over him, he headed towards the boat and the body, if it was a body. With his kind of talent for the mock-heroic, he’d probably end up rescuing a log … logs didn’t scream, though ... Should be almost there … Where was it? … He trod water, slowly turning to try and make out the hull at least, and almost collided with the boat when a wave pushed it towards him. Hanging on to slick wood, catching his breath for a moment, he kept looking. Another flash split the sky, throwing the shape in the water into stark relief. Less than thirty yards away from him, and disappearing.

 

Jack let go and swam again, took a deep breath and started down, long, powerful strokes pulling him towards the bottom. Suspended in sightless, airless silence he felt around, hands groping frantically, a cold, sardonic voice somewhere in his mind telling him that he’d never find anything down here, and wasn’t he the one terrified of drowning? Yes ... No ... His fingers brushed against something soft, more solid than water, more solid than mud, and Jack held on for dear life, legs kicking, lungs burning, begging him to obey their craving for oxygen. Not yet. Don’t inhale under water: you’ll drown. Don’t run with scissors … Not yet.

 

Then he was back amidst rain and wind and thunder, choking for breath, a small, limp body clutched against his. The kid, oh God, not the kid … Charlie … Mike … Mike, not breathing … Breathe for him! Get on land!

 

Pebbles under his feet, his weight and the kid’s doubling somehow, wet, wet, wet and cold, and the shore at last, and no pulse. It was not going to happen. Not again. Not again …“Breathe, Mike!!! Breathe, damn you! … Please …”

Compressions. How long had it been? Six minutes? Seven? Eight? How long had the kid been under? Breath. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Breath … Why five? Ask Doc Fraiser. Who’d come up with five? Four. Five. Breath. One … He’d done this for Charlie, Charlie lying in the bedroom upstairs, a halo of blood slowly widening around his head, Charlie, not moving, not breathing, not ever again … Breath. One. Two. Thr- …

 

The kid started coughing violently, pink froth and water gushing from his mouth, his small frame jerking off the ground.

 

“That’s it. That’s great …” Jack gently rolled him onto his side.

 

Retching and heaving, the boy began bringing up more water, half the lake or so it seemed. Mike was shivering now, and Jack cursed himself for having dropped his pack. Well, he’d have to find it, that was all. He needed that sleeping bag …

 

He scooped the kid to his chest and rose, felt thin arms close around his neck, felt a wet head nestle against his, smelt that unique little boy scent he remembered with agonising clarity, made up of faint traces of No Tears shampoo, disinfectant for scraped knees, journeys of discovery through the back garden, and whatever collection of strange and wonderful items Charlie happened to carry in his pockets at any given time.

 

“Jack …”

 

“Right here ... It’s okay, Mike … It’s okay … I got you …” Words punctuating the steep run back up the hill and towards the trail.

 

“You’re not sad anymore?”

 

Sweet Jesus, what was that?!

 

 

The waiting room was gleamingly white and strenuously sterile, all chrome and easy-wipe upholstery, the monstrous plastic Scheffleria in the corner completing rather than breaking the picture. There was nothing to offer solace, not even to the eye; it was as though whoever had designed this generic hospital holding pen wanted to erect a germ-free barrier against the all too human anguish that saturated the room’s recycled air.

 

God, he hated hospitals, had hated them even before … For cryin’ out loud, what could possibly be taking so long?! Jack stopped his pacing and escaped into the hall, suspecting that the nurses would round him up and escort him back in here within the next five minutes.

 

On the way, the kid had confessed what he’d been doing out on the lake in the first place, and Jack had no idea of how to deal with that, except feel cold, and sick, and shaken … By the time he’d reached the Flanders’ campsite, Mike had become lethargic, breathing shallowly, complaining that his chest hurt. His parents were nowhere in sight, probably out searching for their son … their son … but he couldn’t hang around and wait for them to return. He had to get the kid to a hospital. Perversely, most people didn’t drown in water, but on dry land, hours after they’d been rescued. So he’d left a note, bundled Mike into his pick-up, and sped through the pouring rain, down the logging road, out onto the pass and for the nearest town.

 

Jack didn’t really care to imagine what he must have looked like when he’d come crashing into the ER. Sodden, filthy, half sobbing with fear, in his arms a disoriented, trembling ten-year-old, whose surname he couldn’t give, because it sure as hell wasn’t Flanders. He could now. Robbins. The young doctor who’d taken over had gently coaxed it out of Mike. A fleeting hint of something in her eyes … pity? recognition? … she had asked Jack to wait outside, more kindly than he had expected, like he had a right to be here, a right to be so upset about a child that wasn’t his. She’d let him know as soon as possible, she’d promised.

 

That had been over an hour ago, and he’d heard it all before anyway. Waiting had been harder still back then, because Sara had been there, crying, screaming at him, stopping to clutch at elusive smithereens of hope that had been dancing beneath the strip lights like motes, and stopping that to scream at him some more, hammering home his guilt like you’d drive a nail into the wall. As she’d had every right to …

 

“Colonel O’Neill?”

 

He started, shoulders bunching and fists slipping deeper into still damp pockets. How did she - …? Reception. Considering the manner of his and the kid’s arrival, she was bound to have checked up on him ... At any rate, the good doctor seemed intent on keeping her promise. Time to run. Run, run, run.

 

 

Dr Ines Montego knew she should remain detached, but professional or not, she was deeply grateful to be able to give this man good news. Unlike the last time.

 

She’d recognised him instantly. Older, much greyer, almost certainly much wiser as well, but she never could have forgotten the day he’d come racing in from the ambulance bay, cradling his dying son. The kid had shot himself, playing. With his father’s handgun. That had been six years ago, when Montego had still been an intern in Colorado Springs. It had cinched her decision to get out of city ER as soon as she’d finished her rotation and find a job at a country hospital.

 

For a moment or two the paediatrician had thought she’d lost it when she saw him again today. As far as déjà vues went, this one was a corker. Except, this time he’d won. While she’d examined Mike, prior to suctioning his airways, Montego had drawn the boy out on what had happened. The kid would survive. Thanks to Jack O’Neill. Who in the process must have relived every last second of that day six years ago. Which would explain why he looked like he’d been cranked through the wringer a dozen times over ...

 

“Colonel O’Neill?”

 

Muscles twitched as though he was about to bolt, then he seemed to change his mind. “Yeah?”

 

“There’s someone who’d like to see you.”

 

“Oh …” A tiny, guardedly hopeful smile.

 

Madre de dios, que guappo! Que lindo … She’d never seen him smile. Well, he’d hardly had reason for it, but right now he made her ache for him… The doctor cleared her throat and said, a little gruffly, “The kid’ll be fine. We’ll keep him in for a coupla days, just to watch what his lungs are doing … So, you wanna see him or what?”

 

“Yeah.” He nodded, that heartbreaking little smile still in place. “Yeah, I’d like to -”

 

The double doors at the end of the hall flew open, admitting Sheriff Frank Riley who looked hassled, and a man and woman who looked spooked. Montego sighed … Mr and Mrs Robbins, she presumed.

 

“That’s him!” the woman shrieked suddenly. “That’s the man!”

 

“You sick bastard!” Michael Robbins Senior pushed past his squealing spouse and launched at O’Neill like a dyspeptic pit bull.

 

Riley’s amiable cherub face darkened. Moving faster than his bulk should have permitted, he caught Robbins in a headlock before the man could land a punch. “Try that again and you’ll sit in the slammer till Christmas, buster”, he growled, warily releasing his stranglehold. “Hiya, Doc.”

 

Mr Robbins made a show of straightening mud-stained cuffs and a greasy collar. His wife was sobbing, at the verge of hysteria.

 

“Frank? Mind telling me what’s going on?” the doctor asked distractedly.

 

O’Neill had backed to the wall, nervous fingers unconsciously tapping some Morse code message on the plaster. SOS probably was a good bet, but Montego knew it wasn’t fear. Not that kind of fear, anyway. Save our souls. She’d seen him like this, or almost like this, once before, in a treatment cubicle in Colorado Springs … The parents had been told. The mother, however slowly, would cope. She’d let it out. Boy, had she ever let it out! As for the father … The scene had had something mediaeval in its cruel, zealous abandon. Sara O’Neill had thrown herself at her husband, weeping and swearing, had hit him and continued to hit him until she was too drained to raise her fists. He’d never even flinched. Eyes deadened by nameless despair, he’d let it happen to him.

 

Montego had a pretty good idea that he was back there right now. So he hadn’t forgiven himself, still was hopelessly in search of redemption. If blows was what it took, he’d suffer them, although he doubtlessly realised that his pain couldn’t change a damn thing. If he hadn’t realised that, he wouldn’t be alive. Six years ago she’d have sworn he’d drag himself straight home and put that gun to his own head … Point was, he didn’t deserve what he was putting himself through. Nobody deserved that. And he certainly didn’t deserve this circus …

 

She shook her head in disgust. “Frank?”

 

“Well, these good folks” - with a glare at Robbins and his missus - “swear that their kid’s disappeared and that Homer Simpson here” - a jerk of the head at O’Neill - “’s got something to do with it. Claimed he’d given a false name, which I reckon he might have” - Riley grinned - “then showed me a note saying he was on the way here with the boy … Anyway, something’s telling me we won’t have to call in the Feds just yet …”

 

Colonel O’Neill seemed to have snapped out of his fugue. “It’s Jack”, he muttered. “Jack … O’Neill …”

 

“You sure?”

 

Suppressing a grin, Montego nodded. “Yeah, he’s sure, Frank. I know him, so leave off!”

 

“What happened?”

 

The Colonel’s jaw set in an expression that plainly stated he’d rather lose his pants in the middle of town square on a Saturday morning than admit to anything as acutely embarrassing as good deeds and personal bravery.

 

Figures, thought Ines Montego. Aloud she said, “Kid’s here, and he’s doing alright, but I wanna keep an eye on him for a coupla days. He nearly drowned.” In the direction of the Robbins’, she added pointedly, “You might consider saying ‘thank you’ …”

 

 

To give credit to Mrs Flan- … Robbins, she’d never bothered to fake instant conversion. She’d masticated on her mumbled thanks as though they were a plateful of ancient fried squid. Hubby, on the other hand, could have had a stellar career in used car sales. Well, for all Jack knew or cared, hubby had a stellar career in used car sales ... Hubby, all hyperbole and heavy duty dental work, had flown into a disturbingly overdone best-pals routine. Jack had jumped when the first comradely pat slammed down on his shoulder. He had a skilfully inflicted problem with being touched at the best of times, but this wasn’t the best of times, and hubby didn’t count among the few whose touch Jack O’Neill trusted.

 

Thankfully, Mrs R had terminated the travesty by demanding to see her son, the doctor had obliged, and hubby and the Sheriff had fallen in behind them. Doing his critically acclaimed impression of the Invisible Man, Jack had hung a sharp left at the earliest safe opportunity and disappeared down a corridor that hopefully led to a staircase and from there to an exit. He had a pick-up to catch, had a three-hour-drive ahead of him, had a briefing at 0830 hrs tomorrow morning, had to get out.

 

The ache in his left knee exploded unannounced, like a fire cracker, but brighter and more enduring and with the kind of malicious suddenness that makes you yelp from sheer surprise and sends a feeble tingling of nausea up your throat. He recognised it. Hell, he was the world’s foremost authority on the O’Neill Knee! A sliver of loose cartilage had got jammed in the joint somewhere, courtesy of a forty-five minute jog, carrying Mike. Take the weight off the leg, and the pain would dwindle to a milky miasma. He didn’t. He kept walking, repeating the experience with every other hobbling step. It had its own hypnotically awful rhythm, and just now he needed that. Step. Wham! Step. Wham! And so on. Not pleasant, but it held the huge advantage of being brutal enough not to let him focus on anything else.

 

Behind him he heard the rapid clicking of high heels on linoleum. The big, inviting glass doors of the lobby were in sight, promising escape and fresh air, and Jack tried to summon up a run, without much success. Footfalls clickety-clicking closer. Dr Montego seemed determined not to let him get away. He’d have to tell Fraiser that she had a long lost sister … A hand landed on his arm, and funnily enough her touch didn’t startle him.

 

“Are your exits always this spontaneous?” Gentle and insistent, like a steel bar sheathed in velvet.

 

“Don’t outstay your welcome ...” He shrugged, hoping to look nonchalant, and continued hobbling.

 

Montego clickety-clicked along. “I thought you wanted to see the kid … Besides, I’d like to check you over.”

 

“I’m fine. And you’re a paediatrician!”

 

“So? I’ve been known to make exceptions for -”

 

“The incurably infantile?”

 

“If the bootie fits, Homer … You’re limping.”

 

“Bootie’s too tight.” The door at last, through it the valley and a second thunderstorm panting to unleash its splendour, and he needed to be out there, buffeted by something other than memories. Stars and thunderstorms and a little bit of peace. Except the door wouldn’t open. Montego leaned against it, effectively blocking his way.

 

“What about the kid?”

 

No. Please … “What about him?” The question stuck to his tongue, sounded thick. You don’t wanna know, Jack!

 

“He’s asking for you.”

 

“He doesn’t need me. He … He’s got his mom and dad with him.”

 

To his surprise Montego smiled, kindly, wryly. “I understand”, she murmured.

 

Jack almost believed her. Mostly because he wanted to. It would have been good to know that someone understood. “I don’t think you do … Look, I’d better be going …”

 

Montego nodded, shifted away from the door. “Drive carefully.”

 

“I will … Thanks, Doc. And … tell the kid … tell Mike, I’m not sad anymore.” Two lies in as many breaths. But with any kind of luck, the second one wouldn’t be held against him. Maybe. Not that it’d matter much in the grander scheme of things ... Jack pulled open the door, and a quirk of wind slipped into the lobby, bringing with it the pungent smell of moist earth and impending thunder. He limped out onto the paved lane that led to the car park.

 

“Colonel?”

 

“Yeah?” Don’t turn around!

 

“Charlie’s dad was a better father than Mike will ever have.”

 

He spun around, wide-eyed with shock, but she’d closed the door with a quiet finality he couldn’t bring himself to challenge.

 

 

Ego te absolvo’, Ines Montego breathed.

 

But that wouldn’t do, would it? She knew plenty of people who went to confession like they went to the supermarket. It was on the things-to-be-done list for the week: pay out a bunch of ever identical, well rehearsed peccadilloes … Been looking at the boobs of my neighbour’s mujer again, Padre … and stock up on a few ounces of righteousness. Ego te absolvoFunny how those who most deserved absolution never dreamt that it could be granted. Not to them.

 

She watched as he stirred at last, like a sculpture furtively thawing into life, ran a weary hand through damp spikes of hair, and slowly walked down the path through the driving rain. The first clap of thunder struck, and he stopped, raised his face to stare at a sky that seemed mauled by some angry pagan deity. Perhaps he found comfort there, a strange kind of kinship. This only is denied the gods: The power to remake the past … Besides, if you were going to cry, what better place? Who was to tell raindrops from tears?

 

 

Fin.

 

 

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