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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER III

 

Dark. A black, unending universe, empty of light, of sound. Cold, desolate black...

Nothing stirs. There is no emotion, no sight, no feeling. Nothing stirs... save awareness.

A sense of... drifting. Tendrils of being afloat without form, without substance, through the void. The tendrils slide far apart from one another, unable to reach, to rejoin, unable to come together in existence, in any understanding of having life.

No time. No thought. Just drifting.

Yet no peace, either. Ripples of disquiet stir the separate tendrils. They are given strength by a growing need to stop the slow, sliding descent into the netherworld of non-existence. Unfinished business -- life -- calls them, beckoning, bringing the threads closer together.

Closer. Nearer. Almost touching. Time has no meaning, but need exists. Life must be defined...

Tendrils touch, beseech, caress, and merge. The dark takes on shape, limitations. It is a cocoon now, a shelter, keeping out the light and the pain, the death. Yet it also keeps out life.

Thoughts sift through the void. Without language to give them substance, they drift apart, lazy with inattention. Yet they tumble over one another, touching, drawing the threads together. Spinning tendrils come closer, weaving a living consciousness out of the emptiness...

To sleep, yet not to dream. Safe without hunger or hurt, never waking, never hoping, never hearing or seeing or touching or loving...

No. A small coherent symbol. The sleep is too much like death. Without pain, it hurts. Without emotion, it still can frighten. Consciousness surges. Feeble and vulnerable, life takes hold. Need gives it substance. Questions tremble, vibrate, striking chords in the interwoven tendrils. Thoughts take on hazy meaning.

Dark... Why is it so dark?

*********

Melissa Samuels checked though the appointment schedule on her desk before beginning her morning rounds. As she reached for a clipboard with her case notes, there was a light knock at her office door.

"Yes?"

"Dr. Samuels?" Mary Brownwell pushed the door open and stepped inside. "I wonder if I might have a word with you."

"I have a few moments now."

The nurse approached the desk. "It's Lieutenant Starsky. He... he's driving us batty."

Melissa smiled. She knew what Mary meant. "He's been spending a lot of time here, hasn't he?"

"And he's trying to do so much for the patient... he's actually being rather disruptive at this point. Like right now -- "

"He's here now?" The doctor checked her watch. "It's not yet eight o'clock."

"I know. He said he came in early so that he could wash Joey's hair. We aren't combing it the way his friend prefers. He's always there, giving us suggestions, exercising him... His presence seemed so helpful at first, but it's becoming quite a problem. We can't abide by the schedule we've established for the patient -- he's rearranged it. He suggests ideas and methods that have no basis in medical practice. At least we finally got him to understand that if the catheter bag is emptied, the amount must be recorded..."

"I understand. Mary." Dr. Samuels stood up. "I'll have a talk with him."

She decided her rounds could wait a few minutes and made her way to the nursing home complex, her thoughts occupied with Hutch. This was just the latest in a series of concerns relating to the blond stranger in her care. It had been that way for the two years he had lain in the corner room on the fourth floor. She hadn't told his American friend how delicate Hutch's condition had been at first. Pneumonia had developed in the early weeks, his temperature spiking to 104. She had pulled him through, working at his side long hours past her usual duty shift. She had recognized she was becoming attached to the patient, but her emotional involvement seemed natural, even necessary. He was alone -- there was no one else to take care of him. She wanted very badly for him to get well, to resume his interrupted life. Somewhere, someone was looking for him. Someone missed him, and loved him.

She opened the door to his room quietly. Lieutenant Starsky was blotting his hair with a towel, his hands gentle and precise in their attentions. Finishing with the towel, he reached for a comb, beginning to tame the wild halo of freshly washed hair. Melissa smiled, thinking, Yes, the patient is indeed well loved.

"Good morning." She spoke softly as she approached the bed.

The American turned at once, beaming. "Mornin', doc. Doesn't Hutch look great?"

The blond strands lay like silky gold threads across the wide forehead and scattered over the pillow, making the sleeper look nearly as if he were just grabbing a nap in the morning sun. Melissa smiled at his friend. "You're taking good care of him, I see."

The dark blue eyes that flicked down to glance at the patient's face and as quickly returned to meet Melissa's gaze were glowing with intensity. "I got to. He's my partner. And I can tell I'm helping him. Look." He nodded her over closer. "You can see how much better he looks since I've been helping him, can't you?"

Melissa met the fervent look, gauging her words carefully. "I know you can see a difference."

"Yeah, of course." He was perfectly serious. "See -- it's his expression. When I first got here, his face looked so closed, all shut down, you know? He was so far away... lost. Now he looks more peaceful, content. Whatever hurt him isn't so bad anymore. He's getting better."

Melissa turned her gaze to the pale, gaunt face. So many times she had studied it and shuddered with hopelessness. When he had first been brought to her, he was a normal, healthy man in his mid-thirties, with his proper weight and muscle tone. Now, he was frail, painfully slender, his delicate flesh drawn paper-thin over bone. It was hard to determine his age. Though lines of age and character had disappeared, he did not look youthful either. His features were slack, mouth down turned, his expression empty. Was that face a bit less grim now? Perhaps that was the change to which Starsky was referring, Melissa mused, straining to understand. "I'm not sure I see him the same way you do."

Undaunted by her skepticism, Starsky grinned. He crossed to the dresser where he began putting away the shampoo and comb. "Guess not. Nobody knows Hutch better than me, anyway. But you did say his muscle tone shows some improvement."

Melissa could agree with that. "Having you work so diligently with him has had a positive effect, yes. The staff is good, but they can't devote that kind of personal attention to him. You have been spending most of your time here in this room."

Starsky's eyes went back to the man in the bed. "What else would I want to do?"

The quiet words were spoken with an underlying determination that Melissa thought gave a stronger hint to the man's true personality than anything he had said so far. Two weeks ago, he had walked into her hospital, pale, fragile, a man hanging in precarious balance between hope and despair. Finding his friend lying there so unreachable had been a blow, but he had borne his distress with dignity and restraint. He had been as distant, almost as quiet, as the man he'd been searching for. Yet, as the days passed, he had blossomed, become enthusiastic, almost childlike in his ability to hope. Melissa had wondered how someone so seemingly naïve had dealt with violent criminals in a big U.S. city. Now she saw that there were more facets to his personality -- the eager boyishness was one part of him, but the cop who could be tough, all business, was there, too. He possessed a single-minded dedication to his current cause, but it wasn't motivated by duty, or even mere loyalty.

When she spoke again, Melissa's voice was compassionate. "You know, despite the fact that you really don't have anything else to do while you're here in Adelaide, maybe you should spend some time outside the hospital, visiting some of our tourist attractions. The nurses need to be able to keep to the schedule they've established for Hutch..."

"You mean I'm hangin' around too much? Gettin' in the way?" He took a step closer to the bed, defensively.

Melissa spread her hands helplessly, trying to smile. "Only when you're here at odd times, like now, so early in the morning."

"But -- " Again he retreated, his eyes going to Hutch's face. "I could tell he couldn't stand the way the nurses were washing his hair and combing it. He was... I don't know how to explain it best... uncomfortable. I was here early a couple of days last week, watching them bathe him and wash his hair. I just figured a way to do it that hurt him less."

"You're sure of this?" Melissa came close, touching the patient's shoulder, smoothing back the hair over one temple. She wasn't convinced she could interpret the subtle difference in his expression as Starsky did.

"Yeah! I know him better than anybody. He's my partner. You understand what that means, to a cop? We had to know each other, had to know what the other was thinking, even before he'd think it. Hutch saved my life more times than I can count." His words slowed, became loving, his gaze fixed on someplace distant in his memory. "I know him, Dr. Samuels. You've got to trust me when I say I can tell how he's feeling."

"Okay. But will you trust me when I tell you that I think you should at least check with one of the nurses, or me, before you do anything that will affect the routine? The nurses are beginning to feel as if a layman is giving them orders. You wouldn't want me to tell you how to solve a murder case, now, would you?"

"Whoa. Wait a minute. You could adhere to an arbitrary system when he was just a patient with no name, no background. But now that you're in the position to know more about him, why won't you take my advice, use my information? He should have the best care possible."

"I agree." Melissa spoke in the same carefully modulated tone. "And we can't do our job properly when a visitor tries to take on too many of the tasks that are the nurses' responsibility."

Starsky bristled. "I'm not just any visitor. I'm the only family Hutch has. It's killing me to see him like this -- to watch his face and see him feel pain or discomfort. The nurses -- and you, I guess -- just don't understand."

No. It's easy to understand. You had no way to help for two whole years. Now you want to make up for all that lost time. Melissa regretted the whole bad situation. The American looked haggard, as if the pressure he'd been living under was consuming all his vitality. What he felt was clearly visible on his face, in the bright passion illuminating his eyes. He had to believe that his own efforts would finally bring him out of the coma. Melissa knew she had to be careful -- this man was almost as much her patient as the other was.

"You're absolutely right. You're not just a visitor. I know you want to help as much as possible. And so do I. I just want you to recognize that you don't have to take on all the responsibility by yourself. It's our job to take care of the medical details. The kind of nurturing we'd like to provide but don't have the personal knowledge about him or the time to give... that's your job."

"All right." Starsky drew in a long breath, calming himself with visible effort. "I can admit when enough is enough. I won't be so much in the way from now on. At least, I'll try. But I'll still have my two cents to put in about things, understand?"

"'Two cents'?" His American expressions were amusing -- and Melissa could tell from the twinkle in his eyes that he was trying to charm her to get his way.

"My opinion," he clarified. "And I don't want to be restricted to coming just during the regular visiting hours. There's nothing else I need or want to do but come here and be with Hutch. I can tell it's helping him. You have to admit that's true."

She wouldn't for the world squash those brave hopes. "Of course. Just don't try to take on too much, and you're welcome to sit by his side as long as you want."

He flashed her a grin that was as dazzling as it was sincere. "Thanks, Dr. Samuels. I... need to be here."

"I know." Along with Starsky, Melissa's eyes turned to regard the quiet sleeper lying there. Wake up, she wanted to tell him. He needs you. She resolved to keep a close eye on the American. How long he could continue to wait and hope, she didn't know.

***********

"Did I ever tell you how scared I was?" The quiet voice spoke from the bed.

"You, Hutch? No way." Starsky sat forward in his chair, laying aside the book he'd been reading. "You're the bravest man I know."

The smile was faint, a bit wistful. "Sure."

"Come on, Hutch. You faced down two armed hit men that time at the spaghetti joint. You beat up all those crazy goons that Simon Marcus had turned into killers. Hell, you're the guy that took on James Gunther. Any one of them could have killed you, would have, without a second thought. And every single, damn, ordinary day on the street..."

"That wasn't being brave." The words were soft, full of patience. "I was scared the whole time. Scared to death." Blue eyes burned with intensity. "Scared for you."

Hutch's fire reached out to warm Starsky. He felt full of pride, still surrounded by Hutch's partnership, with his unstinting comfort and devotion. The caring that they held for each other was a living entity, big as the world, vast as eternity.

The peace of that eternity was shattered by the earnest voice. "Bet you never knew I wasn't just scared of losing you." Hutch's eyes were wide with the truth he spoke. "I was scared to love you, too."

No, Hutch, Starsky wanted to say. You loved me all the time, with every breath in your body. But he was held silent, mesmerized by the intense grief in Hutch's gaze.

"I wanted you such a long time, David. Did you know that?" Soft as a prayer, Hutch's voice crossed the terrifying void that suddenly seemed to open up between them. "But I was scared to reach out, to make the move that would bring us together. I waited so long..."

The voice faded, but Starsky heard the rest of the thought. He was the one to put it into words. "You waited until I almost died."

"I'd been so scared, of so many things, I couldn't even admit what I was afraid of. Of rocking the boat, of losing what we had, of the streets -- the bad guys finally making something bad out of the two good guys we once were. I let it burn me up, our last year. But what frightened me most was that if we took that last step and came that much closer in love, we'd lose it all."

Starsky saw it all in Hutch's eyes, the battle of conscience and need, the wearing down of ideals and patience until Hutch was the burned-out shell he'd been those last months they'd put in before Gunther's bullets struck. "There was nothing to be afraid of. We loved each other. That was all that should have mattered. I had all the same doubts, the same questions. But denying what we really wanted couldn't make it go away. It only made us waste too much precious time."

"I know." Hutch blinked, his eyes luminous with moisture. "And I was right. When I reached out... we lost it all..."

"You don't think -- " But of course, he would. Kenneth Hutchinson could blame himself for the weather if he thought it hurt Starsky. He'd convinced himself that he had no right to be happy, that finding love and taking it was something he should be punished for. A mile-wide chasm opened up in Starsky's gut. Did you get careless that last day, partner? Did you go looking for trouble, just to prove loving me was the ultimate danger, the ultimate mistake? Oh, God...

"Hutch, you darlin' idiot, love isn't wrong. It's what all of us on this earth deserve. What we need to keep us going, keep us alive. Come on back, and I'll show you." He got up, took a step toward the bed, wanting to go to Hutch and shower him with all the love they'd squandered, all the love bottled up inside him with no place to go.

The fire in the blue eyes locked with his own was fading, the tender voice dwindling to a whisper. "I can't, Starsk. I'm scared..."

By the time Starsky bent over the hospital bed, the eyes were closed, the man lost again in the vacuum of coma. Starsky wanted to shake him, scream at him. If he could go down there into the dark and the silence to rescue him, to tell him it was all right to come back, he would. But he couldn't. All he could do was sit there on the edge of the bed, holding a hand that couldn't feel him, begging with a voice that couldn't be heard, praying a prayer that would not be answered.

***

Starsky woke in his own bed at the Ambassadors, his throat feeling like a tube of sandpaper, his muscles knotted with frustration, each fist clenching a handful of sheet. He lay there, gasping, trying to concentrate on relaxing, to differentiate the dream from reality. Neither happened. He drifted back to sleep, dreamless this time, but tossed by restless emotions that had no words.

************

Two weeks later, Starsky sat quietly, his eyes on Hutch's face, while Dr. Samuels watched the needles on the EEG monitor. He was tense, expectant, but unsure that the medical gadgetry would indicate the improvement in Hutch's condition he felt in his bones.

After long, anxious moments, the doctor turned off the machine and reached to gently remove the electrodes that had been placed on Hutch.

"How's it look, Doctor?"

Melissa turned. "Not too bad. There does seem to be an increase in the Alpha waves." She pointed out a line on the wide sheet that had come from the EEG. "That indicates an increasing level of awareness."

"Yeah?" Starsky looked up from the paper, and found Dr. Samuels' smiling brown eyes on him. He grinned back. "What'd I tell you? He does hear me."

She nodded to the technician who began wheeling the cart containing the equipment out of the room. "Hearing is usually the first returning function."

Starsky was on his feet, reaching to pick up Hutch's hand. "Come on, partner. I know you're there. Wake up, huh?"

Intent on his friend's face, Starsky watched for any change in expression. "Hutch? You can hear me, I know it. That's it, boy. Listen to Starsky." Under the pale lids, his eyes seemed to be moving rapidly, side to side, as if he were dreaming. "Come on. Open up those baby blues." Hutch looked as if he were almost, almost ready to wake up. Starsky's whole body was tensed, his heart hammering. "Come on, Hutch. Wake up."

The doctor was standing beside him. When the rapid eye movement slowed and ceased, Starsky knew she noticed, too. A gentle hand settled on his forearm.

"No worry. He's going to sleep some more. You keep talking to him, and he'll start waking up like that a little more each time." She squeezed his arm, then turned to go.

Starsky drew a deep breath, pulled his chair up close to the bed and sat, just watching Hutch, unable to speak for the moment. It was hard to understand, though the doctor had tried to explain how Hutch could be "awake" yet still remain in the coma. The small sound, a grunt of pain or approval, the eye movement and slight changes in expression all showed that Hutch was getting closer. Starsky lived for those moments, his heartbeats tied to the infinitesimal improvements, his soaring hopes dashed every time they abated. The doctor counseled patience and Starsky tried, drawing on reserves of patience he'd never known he possessed. But it was so hard to keep waiting, so awful to want and hope and need so badly and still have to wait.

He cleared his throat. "Hutch. Come on. Time to wake up now. C'mon, Hutch..." It was okay. He'd keep it up as long as he had to, weeks if need be. If patience was what it was going to take to get Hutch well, then somehow he'd find it, or produce it, or steal it if he had to. He wasn't going to call it quits on the longest stakeout of his life.

************

The frustratingly slow pace of the passing weeks was marked by moments of tantalizing improvement. For a couple of days, Hutch's fingers had fluttered when Starsky or the nurses turned him. To his partner, he'd looked as if the movement unsettled or confused him, like he was trying somehow to grab and hold to something solid to make it stop. Starsky would catch the trembling fingers with his own, squeeze tight, his senses straining to feel a return pressure on his own hand.

"Hutch, squeeze my hand, babe." He'd said it a hundred times, a thousand. Once or twice, it had felt like Hutch tried. Yet on the heels of Starsky's brief elation had come the aching sense that he was imagining things.

Dr. Samuels and the nurses couldn't feel anything when they held Hutch's hand.

Now, Hutch's fingers were mostly still when he was being moved. "Try giving simple commands," Dr. Samuels had suggested. Starsky had complied.

"Can you move your hand, Hutch? Come on, do it. How 'bout your feet? Try to move." And more. "Hutch, open your eyes. You can do it." Starsky's back ached with the strain of constantly bending over the bed. His fingers stroked Hutch's cheek again and again, urging him to awaken.

After another week of coaxing, Starsky thought he saw the eyelids flutter. A day later, they lifted, a weary motion that stopped at half-mast. He'd pounded the call button, summoning nurses who had in turn sent for Dr. Samuels. She'd lifted the lids, checked the pupil's response with her flashlight and told Starsky what he half suspected and hadn't wanted to hear, that Hutch wasn't focusing. His eyes might be opening, but it didn't mean he was really any more conscious than before.

Starsky was on the verge of exhaustion. He had been in Adelaide for five weeks. It was rough getting to sleep at night after leaving the hospital, rougher still getting up to return in the morning. He moved on automatic most of the time; it was easier than thinking, making decisions. He continued massaging Hutch, speaking to him, reading his books to him. He ate meals at times he'd scheduled around the nurses' schedule for Hutch. He rarely felt hungry, but maintained out of habit. Every other week, he picked up a check from the Department at the American Express office and cashed it, using the leave compensation to pay his rent and food money. He dropped an occasional card to Dobey and wrote to his mother regularly. In his communications, he stressed Hutch's improvements and downplayed the setbacks, as if by putting the hopeful side down in black and white, it would confirm its reality.

"He's reached a plateau," Dr. Samuels explained. "Sometimes a patient will improve to a certain point, but remain at that level for a length of time." Starsky heard the words she hadn't said; 'and never progress beyond it.' He didn't ask her if it could be that way for Hutch. He didn't think he could stand any kind of medical mumbo-jumbo designed to placate his worries.

************

Starsky sat in the easy chair in his hotel room, an open letter from his mother in his hands. She had included a newspaper clipping, a short article about a young girl who had nearly drowned and had awakened from a coma of six months. Starsky read it with a strange mixed reaction. Part of him saw the positive side -- the girl had come out of what doctors had thought was an irreversible coma and it looked like she was going to recover completely. Yet there were many things about the case that were different from Hutch's. She was young, the water had been cold, and hypothermia had been what saved her. There had been no added complications like drugs or stroke. And although six months was a long time, two years was so much longer. The clipping just depressed Starsky.

He leaned back in his chair, staring sightlessly out the window. The constant loneliness, the numb hollowness of his heart, had never felt more profound. Here he was, alone in a city halfway around the world, with only a letter from his mother to let him know that there was anyone anywhere who cared about him. Most of the time, he felt like nobody even knew he existed.

Right now, he felt nearly as empty as he had those first early months of Hutch's disappearance. There had been times when he had questioned the reason he had survived Gunther's assassination attempt. Why'd I live? Why couldn't I have died when my heart stopped in the hospital? What use was pulling through when life has no meaning anyway?

The selfishness of his morbid thoughts had made him feel guilty and ashamed. Would he have condemned Hutch to this life of pain, this unending loneliness? And would I rather I hadn't lived to have that one night with him?

The bittersweet memory brought the ghost of a smile to his lips. Not for anything would be regret that having happened. The physical sensations of that night seemed far away and difficult to recall, but the emotions still played clear and strong in his heart. He had held on to that feeling of love and completion through all the endless days and nights since.

His eyes returned to the thin blue airmail stationary covered with his mother's neat handwriting. "I am so proud of you, son. You never gave up hope that Hutch would be found, that he was alive. He needs you there with him now, so of course you must stay. I will be thinking of you both."

Thinking of us... Knowing that she was there for him, albeit all the way in New York, made him feel stronger. It had been getting harder, lately, to keep the faith.

Starsky was trying not to let the continued lack of further improvement get him down. He stood, glancing down into the street congested with cars and pedestrians on their way to work. They seemed so far away from him, all those strangers. Starsky sighed.

Gotta stop letting it get to me. He shrugged into his jacket. It was drizzling again this morning. The wintry weather in July seemed odd, dreary and depressing. Maybe I've still got jet lag. Australia was hard to get used to; everything was upside down. Nothing seemed real. Starsky hadn't watched television or even bothered to look at a newspaper in weeks. His world had spiraled down to the dimensions of Hutch's hospital room. The only escape was in the books he'd been reading aloud -- and half the time he was just saying the words as they passed before his eyes.

Last night he had walked the same path once again in his dreams. They were always the same as his days; cared for Hutch, sat at his bedside... but sometimes Hutch spoke to him. The things he said, the teasing, earnest, loving, confusing things -- they seemed so real, like Hutch's real words, expressing the way he actually felt and thought. But I'm making them up, out of a lonely subconscious... He was being swallowed whole, the coma was consuming all of him until he couldn't be sure if he remembered the way he and Hutch used to be or not. Having Hutch alive but still so far away from him, his confidence in his memories was being shaken. If he never wakes up, what will I have left?

That thought scared him more than anything else. He tried to put it out of his mind, chalking it up to fatigue and frustration. Look at it this way, he told himself. Dr. Samuels says there's no medical reason he hasn't regained consciousness -- that means there's nothing preventing his awakening.

It might be Hutch's mind, his own tormented emotions, that were holding him back. He had to know how far away they were taking him. Was he convinced that I wouldn't be able to find him? God, I almost didn't.

Hutch wasn't a defeatist, he never gave up -- on Starsky or himself. Yet Starsky knew he was also beset with insecurities, and that his resilient spirit had been battered by the last years on the force and the attempt on Starsky's life.

I have to keep on trying, work harder to get through to him. It's okay now, I'm here and it's going to be all right. I won't let him give up -- and I won't either.

He found himself at the door to Hutch's room. He pushed it open, his determination once more firmly in place.

"Come on, partner," he said, taking the limp hand in a no-nonsense grip, "we got work to do."