He took a deep breath, tapped his crutch lightly a few times with the tip of his finger, then nod to himself a last time. “This is it,” he told himself. With a soft grunt, he began to walk towards the shore, his movements slow and cautious, his false leg making him slightly unsteady on the slippery sand. Pressing his right fist inside the pocket of his coat, he thought of Peggy and the words he had said to her, once, came back to him. ”Peggy. Don’t run. If you run, I’ll know it’s true.” He played them over and over, ”don’t run, don’t run,” in his head, like a silent mantra.
Only this time, those words assumed a different meaning. ”If I run, I’ll still know it’s true.”
He cast his eyes towards the tall, lean man who walked barefoot along the shore, lost in thought. He watched him as he threw each pebble from his hand into a perfect arc sailing down the blue waves. Each throw he made was precise, elegant. There was a sleek grace in the way he moved, and for a moment Daniel was reminded of a wild stallion – handsome, powerful, proud... hunted, cornered...
Fighting for his life.
Daniel walked towards Jack Thompson, and soon his steps produced soft splashes on the water. Jack turned and immediately backed off, his body stiff and poised to flight, his eyes hard and glinting.
“Hey, Jack. It’s been a long time,” he said. At his quietly spoken words, Jack’s body relaxed, though he continued to eye Daniel warily.
“What are you doing here?” Jack asked in a cool, detached voice.
Daniel shrugged. “Oh, nothing. I was just in the neighborhood, I thought you would’ve liked if I’d stopped by to say hi. There’s this seminar up in... that’s not important.” He cocked his head. “How’s your wound?” he asked. “Is still hurting?”
Jack shrugged. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah, it still feels sore, but... I’ll be okay.”
“Good, good,” Daniel said, before taking a deep breath. The two men eyed each other silently for a long moment.
Jack rubbed his forearms a few times and shivered slightly from the cold wind. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt over his bare torso, the top buttons undone revealed his skin, and the absence of bandages. His eyes glimmered faintly in the dying light.
“I suppose you knew about me and Peggy?” Daniel finally asked, just to break up the quiet.
“Yeah,” Jack answered. “I’m sorry. I suppose.”
“We couldn’t make it work. We both have realized we work best as friends, coworkers, than... You know,” Daniel said. “Did she tell you?”
Jack licked his lips and sighed once, then asked, “How is Marge? Is she fine?”
Daniel shook his head. “She’s doing great,” he answered. “Besides,” he continued, “you know, she’s not one to look back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on, Jack,” Daniel said, brusquely changing the topic. He didn’t come all the way there to talk about Peggy. “The doctors gave you a clean bill of health. Your attitude tests came back fine. You’re going to be fine. You have your old job waiting for you, plus a commendation. You can have your old life back. What are you waiting for?”
“It’s not...” Jack paused and shook his head. “I can’t,” he said.
“Everyone misses you,” Daniel continued. He was silent for a moment, then said, “Peggy’s back. I’m going back to Los Angeles soon, so I’ll be out of your way, if you want me to.”
Jack raised his head and looked up at him. “You? You were back as well?” he said softly.
Daniel raised his right shoulder. “I’ve stopped by there for a while, because I missed... the place.” He eyed Jack silently as the man stared off into the distance. His voice was kind when he spoke.
“Come back, Jack.”
Jack looked at him with misty eyes.
“I can’t,” he softly answered. He shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re saying.” Jack turned and began to walk away, but Daniel pressed on.
“What are you hiding from?” he asked.
Jack froze. “What do you think I’m hiding from?” he asked. He turned to face Daniel. “Do I look okay to you?” Without waiting for his reply, Jack moved closer. “Look at me,” he said, his voice a sharp whisper.
Daniel looked in silence at the man in front of him. His shoulders were tense, and his body language defeated. He looked a lot more frail than the man he remembered back then, when they were working together in Los Angeles, when Daniel was the chief of the L.A. department, and Jack came all the way down there, to help them, like he had nothing more pressing to do. Daniel had disliked that man, once. That was long ago. Now, he missed him, so hard that it hurt.
Jack’s voice trembled as he spoke. “Look at me now, this is why I can’t go back. You think I’ll go back to them and let them see me like this? Those attitude tests? I lied. I said everything they wanted to hear. You know how good I am with lies. You think I’m going to tell them what really went on?” He gave a deep, shuddering sigh. “Do you think I’m going to tell them just that my entire life is a lie?”
Daniel looked into Jack’s eyes, speechless.
“Have you ever lived each second of your life in fear to be caught being a fraud? Do you ever wake up each day, wondering whether finally, everything will blow up in your face? Do you know how it feels like to lie every day on your real worthiness? To take, knowing that what I’m taking should be someone else’s?” Jack’s face tightened into a grimace. He turned and began walking towards a tall piece of rock. He sat on it, and Daniel did the same. Jack’s self-blame was something Daniel didn’t expect from the man.
Together, the two of them sat on the rock. Daniel looked on quietly as Jack shielded his face with his hands. “I miss them. Oh, God, I miss them,” Jack said, “but how can they see me like this?” His voice dropped to a whisper. I can’t. I just can’t.”
Daniel reached out. After a brief moment of hesitation, he rested his hand on Jack’s shoulder. ”Jack, you don’t have to go through this alone. Besides, no one thinks you don’t deserve your job. You worked hard and are great at it. Peggy would agree with me, too.” Daniel said. For a long time, they said nothing to each other. Then Jack spoke again.
“I never wanted to hurt Marge, when I’ve accepted the job,” he said. “I was always a lucky bastard, wasn’t I. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Daniel remained quiet, as he rubbed Jack’s back. Daniel hoped it conveyed the intended comfort. It felt a very intimate gesture, one that neither of them were used to, from each other, but Jack seemed welcoming it and that emboldened him. Together, they waited for the sun to disappear.
“You still love your job, Jack?” Daniel asked, after a long moment of silence had passed.
Jack sighed. “Yeah,” he nodded. “I do.”
“Then come back to New York with me,” Daniel said. “Everyone misses you – Peggy misses you, too.”
“She doesn’t need me, she never did, in fact.”
Daniel shook his head. “I need you to go back. You know, the new boss is a jackass. A jackass a lot worse than you.”
They both laughed. “Jee, thanks for that,” Jack said, then.
“I’m serious, though. I know that makes me sound not myself, but I miss working with you. I knew I could always count on you, back then. And nothing is changed, now.” After a moment, Daniel added, with a quieter voice, “I miss you, Jack. If you don’t wish to take your old job back, you could always come to Los Angeles, with me? I’d be happy to take you in my division. If you can stand to have me as your boss, that is.” Daniel said that with a light voice, but he actually meant it.
“Los Angeles, uh? As your goon, to order around. You’d like that, wouldn’t you.” Jack said, and hearing him make jokes made Daniel feel hopeful.
When the stars appeared, Jack and Daniel were still seated closely together on the rock, in a comfortable silence, their shoulders close together.
“Okay,” Jack said. “Okay.”
Daniel smiled and nodded. Jack smiled back. It had taken some convincing, but in truth Daniel was surprised of succeeding. He didn’t let it showing, though.
“You didn’t come here for a seminar, did you?”
Daniel shook his head and smiled again.
Jack grinned, and finally seeing Jack’s smiling face warmed Daniel’s heart.
“Come on, Jack,” Daniel said, getting his crutch back and getting up. He offered his free hand to Jack. “Let’s go home.”