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Life brings us magic
And life brings us tragedy
Everyone suffers some loss
Still we have faith in it
There's a reason that outweighs the cost
The Color of Roses -- Beth Nielsen Chapman
His face stops me cold, two cups of barely consumable hospital coffee clutched in my hands. All my senses sharpen, intensify, in the same kind of "fight or flight" response I get whenever Starsky or I are in danger. The heat seeping through the Styrofoam to warm my palms. The acrid, slightly sour tang of disinfectants--and the even less appealing odors they're intended to cover. The noisy protests of a belligerent patient, and the soft squeak of rubber soles on linoleum.
And in the midst of it all, Starsky's face.
Just words, completely inadequate for describing what I see written so clearly in features I know better than my own. I wait for him to notice me, for some sign of recognition. But in spite of the body I see slumped against the wall, Starsky is gone--trapped in a dark and lonely room without windows or a door.
I've only seen this look on his face one other time, and never with such intensity. We stood in a park, green grass beneath our feet and warm sunshine on our heads, while I struggled to tell him that the lady he'd loved was dead.
Oh God, Terry. No.
I set the coffees down on a dilapidated table before cautiously approaching him.
Even though I deliberately pitch my voice low, he startles as badly as if I'd done my Dobey imitation. His posture stiffens, spine rigid, and his eyes...
Oh God, his eyes are like two open wounds. He's teetering on the edge, barely holding it together, keeping tears at bay by sheer willpower alone. His lips move, his throat works, but several seconds pass before he can muster an audible response.
"Hutch, I...I don't...I can't..."
A nurse strides by, pushing a cart holding complicated pieces of machinery, the left front wheel squeaking and clicking. Starsky turns away, one arm braced against the wall, forehead pressed to the plaster. I step in close so that my body will shield him from curious eyes, and lay one hand on his shoulder. He's shivering, his entire body trembling as if exposed to the biting, 30-below-zero cold I left behind in Minnesota.
"Easy, Starsk. It's going to be okay."
Both shoulders draw up to his ears and he gives a sharp jerk of his head. His voice is rough, raspy with tears. "It won't though, Hutch. 'S never gonna be okay again."
I duck my head and try to look into his eyes, but he has them squeezed tightly shut. "What are you saying? Did you talk to Dr. Quo?"
A long pause, then another dip of his head. Starsky's eyes open and he stares blankly at his feet for a long moment before his gaze wanders to my face. His skin is ashen and the sluggishness of his response worries me.
Shock, I think, tightening my fingers on muscle and bone. He's in shock.
Two more nurses and an elderly couple meander past, the former ogling us with more than polite interest and the latter arguing about whether their insurance plan covers prescriptions. Starsky makes a heroic effort to look normal, swiping at the beads of sweat on his upper lip with one shaking hand and tugging on his jacket with the other. Despite his efforts, he still looks ready to either fall on his face or break into sobs. I'm desperate to know what he's been told about Terry, but if we try to do this here, my partner will shut down.
"Hang on. This way." I grab a fistful of leather and tug him along the hallway.
The fact that Starsky basically allows me to manhandle him without arguing or protesting speaks volumes about his state of mind. Unfortunately--or fortunately, in this case--I've come to know this hospital almost as well as I know Metro. Down the hallway, a left followed by a quick right, and I push him through a door. The chapel is small, dimly lit, and blessedly empty.
Starsky gazes up at the spotlighted cross and one corner of his mouth lifts in a sad imitation of a grin. "I appreciate the thought, partner, but dontcha think I'm a little outta place here?"
I engage the lock on the door. "It's just you and me. No one's watching. No one's going to walk in on us." I move closer, as carefully as if approaching a wounded animal. "Talk to me, Starsk."
Starsky surprises me by walking away--turning his back on me, and drifting over to stand with one hand gripping a wooden pew. I allow him the distance, even though my instinct is to wrap my arm around him in a comforting embrace. This is about Starsky, not me, and if he needs the physical separation to give him an illusion of control, so be it.
"She looked so beautiful," he murmurs, talking more to himself than to me. "A little pale, yeah, a little tired, maybe, but not...not..." He turns haunted eyes on me. "She was worried about me, can you believe it? Lyin' there in a hospital bed, a bullet in her head, and she's worried about everyone but herself. Me, Sally and those damn pompoms..."
I let him talk. Whenever Starsky has to go to the dentist, he takes the long route, using side streets and back alleys that probably add a good fifteen minutes to the trip. He can't avoid trying to postpone the inevitable, but he always gets there eventually. I figure the same holds true now.
Something in my face makes the words catch in his throat, and he turns away again. When he continues speaking, I have to strain to hear.
"Dr. Quo says an operation would kill Terry."
I struggle to decipher the meaning behind his words. "So...what are they going to do?" Before I realize it I've taken several steps toward him.
"Nothing? You mean they're just going to leave the bullet in there?"
Deep inside I know what Starsky is really telling me, but I refuse to acknowledge it. Guess I'm not above taking the long route myself.
"You said she looked good, a little tired, but good. I've heard of people living for years with hunks of shrapnel in their heads, maybe..."
"She's gonna die, Hutch."
The words are toneless, and they hit me in the gut harder than any of the numerous sucker punches I've been dealt by less than cooperative crooks. I lick my lips, try to force words from a mouth suddenly as dry as the desert.
He finally looks at me, still fighting his emotions. "They'll kill her if they try to take it out, but sooner or later that stupid little piece of metal is gonna move. And when it does, she'll die anyway. How's that for your basic catch-22?" He pauses to suck in a ragged breath, blinking hard. "They know it's gonna happen, they just can't say when."
I work to get my own feelings under control, eyes burning and throat tight.
Unbidden, I have a vivid memory of the day Starsky introduced me to the girl who had so swiftly and completely stolen his heart. He'd been acting goofy and love-struck for nearly three weeks, but it certainly wasn't the first time I'd seen my partner fall for a pretty woman. Starsky never does anything halfway, whether he's chasing down a suspect or plunging head over heels into love. Still, I'd sensed a difference in him this time around, though I hadn't been able to put my finger on just what it was.
He'd invited me to join them for dinner at The Pits--just me, alone. I'd shown up early and parked myself in a booth so I could watch them come in. I knew I was acting like a father checking out his kid's date, but I didn't care. Neither Starsky nor I have had the best luck with women, and the last thing I wanted was for him to get hurt because his heart short-circuited his brain.
Starsky and Terry walked through the door a few minutes later. The first thing that struck me, was the way they touched each other. Starsky's territorial, and it's not unusual to see him draped over whatever lady happens to be his latest conquest--an arm slung around her shoulders, a hand resting on her hip or waist. As I watched, Starsky held the door and then followed Terry through, stopping to greet Huggy. All without laying a finger on her. The thing was, he didn't have to. There was a connection there, a closeness I could see in the way they moved, in their body language. You didn't have to wonder if they were a couple, it was expressed naturally in every look and gesture. A sideways glance. The brush of her hand on his arm. The way he leaned in close to hear her speak.
The second thing I noticed, was that she wasn't what I've come to think of as Starsky's 'type'--tall, blonde, and built. Oh, she was pretty, especially when she smiled, but it was a quiet beauty, not loud and showy. Huggy must have cracked a joke then, because they'd both laughed and Terry had tipped her head back to gaze up into Starsky's face.
And I'd seen it. Something passed between them, the same sort of nonverbal communication that Starsky and I share. A raised eyebrow, then her lips pursed into a little grin and Starsky responded with a barely detectable wink. A message sent and received, just the way Starsky and I had done it countless times in Dobey's office, on the streets, in court....
After another few words with Huggy, Starsky had spied me and steered Terry in my direction, a hand at the small of her back.
"Hey," he'd said, letting her slide in across from me before taking his own seat. "You musta got here early. Hutch, I'd like you to meet Terry. Terry, this is Hutch."
Still a little stunned by what I'd witnessed, I offered my hand and a smile. "Hi, Terry. It's nice to finally meet you."
She'd accepted with that same little grin, her hand feeling absurdly small in mine. "You, too. Dave talks about you all the time." She'd glanced briefly at Starsky, then the grin got bigger and she leaned across the table. "Tell me the truth, Hutch. Is he really the worst Monopoly player in the world, or is it all just an act?"
And I'd known, like puzzle pieces clicking together in a perfect fit. Terry wasn't what Starsky once irreverently referred to as "the flavor of the week." Terry was the real thing, here to stay.
And as time passed, I'd grown to love her too. We shared something special after all, a mutual affection that bound us together as strongly as blood.
How could this be happening?
I let my eyes slip shut, groping for words, for some kind of response to the unthinkable. "Are they sure? Maybe a second opinion..."
"Dr. Quo sounded pretty damn sure." Starsky's voice trembles and he clears his throat. "They're consulting some specialist in New York. Should know in a few days." He grimaces. "You know that decision Terry has to make? It's a doozy. The doc says if she stays in bed, flat on her back, she could live up to a year. But if she gets up and moves around, it'll...it'll be..."
Screw distance. I walk up and grasp his arm in both hands. "I'm sorry, Starsk. I am so damn sorry."
"She won't let me help her decide, Hutch." His voice is bewildered, like a little boy whose best friend just told him to go home. "She wants to do it all by herself. I don't understand."
I can only imagine what Terry must be feeling right now, struggling to cope with Starsky's grief as well as her own. With effort, I keep my reply firm but gentle. "She's hurting, buddy. Maybe she just needs a little time."
His grasp on the pew turns white-knuckled, and his breathing rapid and uneven. "I love her, Hutch. She's the only person I've ever known, besides you, who loves me for me. No conditions, no expectations." His face crumples and he abruptly turns the pew loose and buries both hands in my jacket. "How can I just...just watch her die? Huh? What am I supposed to do?"
Starsky's face blurs as I nearly lose control over my own tears. "Be there for her, buddy. Love her, just the way you always have. She needs you."
He drops his chin until his forehead rests against my chest, still clutching my jacket like a lifeline. "I wanna wake up, Hutch. For this all to be a bad dream. Why can't I just wake up?" His words are choked with anguish, and I feel the first tears soak into my shirt.
I cup one hand around the nape of his neck, rubbing knotted back muscles with the other. "Let it out, Starsk. I'm here for you now. And later..." I swallow the lump of sorrow in my own throat. "Later you'll be there for Terry."
After several minutes he pulls away, scrubbing at the moisture on his cheeks with the sleeve of his jacket. He shuffles up the short aisle and drops into the front pew, staring vacantly up at the cross.
"What's the point, Hutch?"
I frown, studying the back of his head as if it will somehow give me a clue to what he's thinking. "The point?"
"The point of this." He gestures, voice bitter. "Life. What purpose is there to it, when in the blink of an eye a loony tune with a gun can take away someone like Terry? Someone so kind and sweet and unselfish, who has people who need her, who...who love her."
You want me to explain the meaning of life? You've got an awful lot of faith in me, partner.
I walk over to sit beside him. He's propped his chin on his knuckles, elbows resting on his knees, so I place my hand on the curve of his spine. Though no longer trembling, I can feel tension humming through him like current through a wire.
I've done a bit of thinking on this subject myself--after my struggle to kick the heroin, after losing Gillian. I take a deep breath and attempt to put it into words.
"Maybe we don't see the purpose because we're looking in the wrong place, Starsk. Maybe we're so busy looking at the big stuff--money, power, success--that we're missing the real point."
Starsky's reply is lackluster. "Which is?"
I lift one shoulder. "The little things. How, even on the worst days, Terry can make you smile. Her willingness to accept all of you--" I nudge him--"even me and the job, without jealousy or resentment. The way she's touched the life of every kid in that school, making them feel special and loved." I shake my head in frustration at my inability to say exactly what I mean. "Then again, maybe I'm crazy," I mutter.
Starsky sits up and looks at me. "You're not crazy, Hutch. And what you said...it makes sense, I guess. But it doesn't really change anything." Something in his expression shifts, eyes going flat and hard as stone, mouth compressing to a thin line. "I'm gonna get whoever did this, Hutch. Ain't nothing gonna stand in my way."
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't having the same feelings. But I also recognized the danger.
"I want him too, Starsk. But you have to know--that's not going to change anything either."
Starsky stands, his emotions back under iron control. "Maybe not. But it'll make me feel a helluva lot better."
It won't, of course.
I follow him out the door without argument. Eventually, he'll figure it out, and when he does, I'll be there.