He floated tranquil in enveloping blackness. His mind without focus, thoughts flowed as if they were dreams. Memories of motion carried him along, miles and miles of aimless wandering down streets that bore a vague familiarity.
A fast car. A blur of red and white... Two men, riding together, close in the confines of the car, closer still in shared danger, shared laughter. Shared comfort...
Two men... Partners... dark and light... Day and night... white knight... He tried reaching out, but the images slipped away, lost their meaning.
Voices... he became aware of distant voices speaking somewhere above him. The words were indistinguishable, the accents somehow strange. He should know... what they were saying... should be able to place the accents... it's somewhere very far away from home... only a word or two makes sense.
So far away... lost... I'm lost... who will find me... bring me home?
Time stretched, without meaning or direction. The dark enclosed him as before.
Melissa traded her white lab coat for a brown rain slicker, tucking her hair back under the collar. The rain and dampness were making fuzz out of her natural waves, but that was a fact of life for Australian winter. She cast a glance toward her office window. At five-thirty it was already dark.
I should be heading home. Dr. Samuels was off duty, but as happened to her not infrequently she really didn't feel like leaving the hospital. Not much to go home to, she mused. She had friends, and a cat that kept her company on quiet evenings, but she felt her life was here, at the hospital and nursing home. She was useful here, fulfilled by her work. My patients need me.
Thoughtful, she let her steps carry her to the room where Kenneth Hutchinson slept. She pushed the half-open door back. Of course. Starsky, at his vigil still. He was quiet at the bedside, lost in thought, face intent on the features of his friend. The tender openness in his expression told without words the depth of his feelings for Hutch.
'Hutch,' she thought. There was a sweetness in the nickname, the way he said it gave it the quality of an endearment. It suited the patient's handsome face, gave more of a hint to his nature than the somewhat formal sounding 'Kenneth Hutchinson.' Does everyone call him Hutch, she wondered briefly, or just friends as close as you are?
How do you bear the pain? She couldn't ask him the question aloud, couldn't breach the solitude he wrapped around himself like protective armor. The intensity of his watchfulness lent an unrelievable tension to his body. He wore casual clothes, slightly faded denims topped with an oversize sweatshirt in immaculate white, but his posture was the poised anticipation of a cop on patrol, eyes searching out any change in his beat's status quo. His face was carved with worry lines that made the soft mouth look vulnerable. His eyes were anxious, troubled windows reflecting a soul-deep need. The longish, nearly black curls were rumpled, as if a hand had worriedly brushed them back over and over again.
It was a fascinating face, intriguing to her cataloguing eyes; features that at first glance seemed irregular, yet combined somehow into a definition of masculine beauty. The seldom-shown smile could be dazzling, the repressed pain gave an aspect that could bring out anyone's maternal instincts, and the underlying strength attracted her feminine nature. Yet that was as far as it went. Melissa was too professional to cross the boundary that would allow personal feelings to get in the way of a doctor-patient relationship. If things were different, if she had met him under other circumstances... She wondered. No. She sensed with certainty that no matter what, he would still carry the indefinable aura of a man who was inaccessible. As if he's already taken...
She smiled, stepping quietly into the room. The love pouring out in the way he watched over his friend was the most endearing thing about him.
He looked up. "Hi."
She nodded a greeting. "How is he this evening?"
A sigh lifted both shoulders. "Just the same. I... Never mind."
Melissa turned, still holding the wrist she had lifted to check the patient's pulse. "What? Something wrong?"
A slim hand shoved back the unruly curls again. "I don't know. I feel like I'm runnin' outta ideas. Nothing I've tried so far..." He broke off, unable to complete the thought.
Melissa continued checking Hutch's vital signs. "I know. I wish I had more answers for you."
He didn't respond. Melissa looked toward him to find his eyes wandering unfocused to some point in either the past or the future where Hutch was awake.
"You look like you need to get out a bit. Would you... care to join me for dinner?"
The blue eyes came back to the present, resting on his friend for a moment, then turning to regard the doctor. "Okay. That sounds nice."
Rather surprised to hear his acceptance of the invitation, Melissa smiled. "Good. I know a lovely restaurant not far from here."
They rode in her car, Melissa pointing out a few places of interest along the route. Arriving at The Opal, the restaurant the doctor had chosen, they hurried through a light drizzle and entered the foyer decorated in rough-hewn stone and boasting a large, cheerily burning fireplace. Shown to a table, they spent a few minutes silently regarding their menus.
"What's the specialty here?" the American asked. "Kangaroo burgers?"
Melissa glanced up into smiling blue eyes. He was teasing, trying to break the ice. "A lot of restaurants used to serve all variations of kangaroo meat. But now there are laws protecting our national symbol."
"Too bad," he continued with just the slightest rolling of his eyes. "I'll bet it was delicious."
His laughing sarcasm made her want to tease him in turn. "It is. But if you're interested in really typical Aussie food, I could bring you a jar of Vegemite."
"Uh-uhn. I've heard of that stuff. Hutch would probably love it, though. He used to eat all kindsa goop he thought was healthy." The comment brought the ghost of sadness back to his eyes, but he smiled again, determinedly, and scanned the menu. "Wonder how long it'll take them to serve us?"
"It's all right. Try not to worry about him so much."
"Can't help it." As usual, his candor was self-effacing.
Melissa suggested he try the establishment's excellent roast lamb, and he added an appetizer of rock oysters. The doctor selected wine, while Starsky indicated he preferred Australian beer. He seemed glad for her attempt to keep his mind off the friend lying so quietly back at the hospital.
The food seemed to do its job of lifting the American's spirits. Melissa kept the conversation confined to small talk, Australian customs, the early winter weather. Relaxed, the lieutenant was surprisingly good company, actually quite charming when he took the effort to be friendly.
While spooning up the last of the Pavlova they had ordered for dessert, as if he were running out of energy, his eyes stopped meeting hers. Unfocused, his gaze drifted away to the private world he dwelt in with Hutch.
"David," Melissa ventured, "you seem to be growing more depressed as time goes on."
His voice was soft. "It's tough, hangin' in." A sigh. "I'll be okay. I think maybe I just need a little sleep."
"You're still spending a lot of time at the hospital."
"Sometimes I feel like I've spent my whole life in a hospital." The words were unexpectedly vehement.
"I don't understand."
"We're cops." He shrugged as though stating the obvious. "We've both spent time standing around hoping for the good word to come down from a doctor."
"It's a dangerous job."
"Yeah." The one-word answer was briefly emphatic. "I don't mind waiting for Hutch to wake up. He's waited for me lotsa times. He's looked for me, found me just in time... guess maybe that's why I know it's gonna work this time. The reason I held on when I was hurt was because I always knew he was there for me. And somehow way down deep, he must know I'm here for him."
"You've both done your share of rescuing, then?"
"Oh, yeah. You shoulda seen Hutch. He saved a whole restaurant full of people when two mob hit men were holding them hostage, waiting for the guy they wanted to kill. They shot me... would've let me die and killed all the customers, too. If Hutch hadn't been there... Maybe another partner wouldn't have been able to save anybody..." He seemed to feel her intense eyes regarding him. Even though she knew there were dangers in police work, Melissa couldn't help looking a trifle shocked by his story. "Shoulder wound, that time," he went on, tapping his left shoulder. "I got it worse two years ago." His hand moved to rub across his chest. "Three slugs from a machine gun. Hutch got the man responsible..." A fleeting ghost of anguish crossed his features and his voice trailed off.
You keep on reliving all your pain, all your narrow escapes and brave stands together. They're your magic, your talisman -- try hard enough and the good guys always win. You're a little like me, aren't you? I hang on to my confidence in cases like your friend's by remembering all the patients I have saved... She reflected for a moment on the specifics of the last injury he had mentioned. "Two years ago? When did you say Hutch disappeared?"
"The day I got out of the hospital. How do you like that, huh?" His voice was wry, not maudlin. "That made it a little tough to go searching for him."
Melissa didn't know what to say to that. She waited for him to go on, silently pleating her napkin while she watched his face. Finally, when the silence had stretched on, she asked a gentle question. "Tell me what he's like, would you?"
The smile he gave her was poignant. "Hutch is smart. Brave. He's gentle. Tough and strong. He's funny... I usedta love to hear him laugh... Grouchy? Yeah, sometimes. Always honest. Loyal... so loyal." The voice softened, she could hear the ache in the reflective whisper. "He's loving... cares so damn much. He's... special." Eyes locked in hers, he summed up. "Like nobody else."
Damn. She wanted to see this man comforted, give him back the friend he'd lost. But she couldn't offer what medicine was unable to deliver. For not the first time in her career, she cursed medicine for not being an exact science.
But his despair had lifted. Somewhere deep inside, his strength still burned strong. "He never gave up on me. So you see, I gotta keep the faith."
The doctor nodded, dredging up a smile. He needs his hopes. But how far will he fall if we can't do anything more for his friend?
Starsky scanned the titles in the mystery aisle at the hospital library but found nothing he felt like reading to Hutch. It had been almost eight weeks. He'd read books, talked incessantly, massaged and cared for Hutch, all with no further signs of improvement. Now he was becoming desperate for new inspiration. All his knowledge of Hutch had not been much help so far.
C'mon, Mr. I-Went-to-College Hutchinson, what would you do at a time like this? Their deductive styles had always been distinctly different. Starsky preferred action, while Hutch took his time to think, to reason, to do research. You'd be more comfortable in this library than I am... The next thought struck him so suddenly, he laughed. A library -- what better place could I go to get information?
Two hours later, Starsky was seated at a table, surrounded by stacks of books and periodicals. Most of the information did little more than clarify what Dr. Samuels had explained to him about Hutch's condition. He'd found several heartening articles about people who had regained consciousness and gone on to full recovery. Still, Hutch's case was so different from theirs that Starsky was left feeling no known medical technique existed that could help him.
He reached for another magazine off the top of the stack. This one was an Australian family magazine, and carried a story about a young boy who'd fallen into a coma after a car accident. The boy was ten years old and the family cared for him at home. A doctor had suggested stimulating the child continuously, giving him a virtual barrage of physical and auditory stimuli. They banged pans, played toy horns and jangled wind chimes, they stroked him with feathers and sandpaper, they alternately placed his hands in bowls of ice and warm water, and they kept it up for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. After three months, the boy's awareness had come back. Now, he was in therapy and the prognosis for recovery was good.
Starsky read the whole article twice, then sat back, stunned. The idea seemed so obvious he wondered why he hadn't thought of it. He had played music, talked to Hutch, touched him. And Hutch had sensed his efforts, had improved until he reached the current plateau. Maybe I just haven't done it for long enough, or haven't used enough contrasting stimulation. I haven't kept it up constantly... Melissa said she doesn't know what's keeping him under -- maybe... The thought of Dr. Samuels brought him up short. Why hasn't she told me about a technique like this? He flipped to the cover of the magazine. September 1980. Last year... damn. Why has she just let Hutch lie there? Something inside him that had been twisting tight for weeks seemed to finally snap.
He pushed his chair back and stood, glaring at the librarian who looked at him reprovingly for screeching the chair across the tiled floor. He charged past her desk, heading for Melissa's office, the magazine gripped tightly in his hand.
The door to her office was propped open, so Starsky barreled right in, throwing the magazine down on the desk.
"David? What's the matter?" Melissa looked up from the file she'd been reading.
"Read it. That's an article about a boy who was brought out of a coma."
She continued to stare up at him for a long moment, her eyes wide, shocked by his surly demeanor. Then she picked up the publication.
Only minutes later, after scanning the article, she sighed. "Oh. You're thinking you should try this with Hutch."
"Of course I am. The question is -- why haven't you? That article's almost a year old. This isn't something that the doctors just thought of yesterday!"
"David. Calm down."
He didn't want to listen to her moderate voice. He'd had it with empty reassurances. "I thought I could trust you! But I should have taken him back to the States with me. Back home, he could be taken care of right, by doctors who keep up with the latest medical advances!"
"Please, Lieutenant," she tried again, her tone more formal and strained. "You don't understand. Hutch's case -- "
"That's the problem. Hutch is just another case to you! Just a body lying upstairs. You weren't even able to learn who he was until I found him here. You don't care whether he ever wakes up!"
"That's completely untrue. If you'll just listen..."
"It's not doing any good anymore. I've listened to what you've told me, and you've let me sit there with him, sure. You've let me do the exercises. But they haven't accomplished anything. The only other thing you've done is tell me I'm interfering, bothering the nurses. Well, I don't buy it anymore. I just want to know one thing -- why don't you want Hutch to wake up?"
Melissa stood. Her eyes were flashing now, the professional patience undermined by hurt and indignation. "You know I don't feel that way. I care. I want to see him recover." She paused, catching a breath, recapturing her poise. "I know it's upsetting, but carrying on this way isn't going to make the situation any better."
With effort, Starsky subdued his anger. "Just tell me one thing -- why haven't you tried what that family did? Was it because you didn't have someone to pay for constant attention for him? Or did you think it was so far-fetched it would be a waste of time?"
The doctor sighed, fixing him with a rueful look. "Just a minute." She crossed to the file cabinet, pulled out a drawer and rifled through its contents. "Here." She opened the file and pulled out a couple of printed pages. "See for yourself."
Starsky took the papers. The heading identified them as a report from the New England Journal of Medicine. It was a scientific study on the effects of stimulating coma patients.
"We did try it," Melissa continued in her soft voice. "For three months. With a crew of ten volunteers. They worked 'round the clock."
Starsky flipped through the pages, a record of all that had been tried. The conclusions were painful to see there in writing. "It didn't work."
"No." She could only whisper now, the sound raw with shared hurt. "Some patients respond, but others... I don't know why, they just don't. I conferred with a doctor in Sydney who's done a lot of work in the field. His opinion is that the attention frightens them. It's possible that they retreat, fearing the very thing we'd hoped would waken them."
Starsky chewed his lower lip. "I don't know what to say."
She took a step closer to him, hand out. "Never mind. I understand."
He backed away from her touch, unable to meet her eyes. "I'm sorry." He turned, needing to get out of the room.
Starsky sighed as he stood at the window. There was no inspiration in the wintry August scene. He shivered, feeling more gloomy the longer he stared out at the grey afternoon. Returning to his seat at the bedside, he slumped into the chair. Then he just sat -- couldn't think of anything new to say. Whatever he said didn't seem to matter. Starsky turned worried eyes to the still countenance before him. The joy he felt at simply having Hutch to look at was now muted by his concern that his friend would always be this way.
The detective leaned closer, resting his folded arms on the mattress. Hutch's eyes had drifted open about half an hour ago, but he lay just as he always did, in whatever position Starsky or the nurses put him. His eyes were heavy-lidded, pale, hardly any blue showing. They were hard to look at. Starsky tried to avoid them, didn't peer too closely to see how vague and unfocused they were. Hutch's blank, empty eyes haunted his dreams. They wandered without conscious direction, not even a ghost of personality in them. It was a relief when they would sink closed again.
And I once thought that his opening his eyes would mean everything. Thought it would mean he was really awake and finally coming back to me.
He cleared his throat, trying to raise his flagging spirits. "Hutch, move your hand. C'mon buddy. Just your fingers." There was no response to the verbal command. Starsky tried a few others, speaking loudly, with authority. Nothing. He picked up Hutch's hand and squeezed it, hard. There was a reaction to that, but it came a beat after the application, sluggishly. Starsky tried to tell himself that Hutch was merely drifting back to sleep. He knew there was more to it than that, though.
Damnit, why? Why can't I get him to hear me? Anger twisted into his heart, an insidious torment that destroyed Starsky's tenuous self-confidence. No matter how he tried to rationalize, he continually came back to the same question: what should I do that I haven't been doing?
He stood abruptly, stalking to the window again, casting a baleful glare at the winter-cloaked city. Damn this weather. And damn this upside-down country. His gut tightened with unexpressed anger, the litany went on. Damn this hospital, too. Damn medicine for all its empty promises.
His clenched fist rapped on the windowsill once, then he consciously relaxed his fingers. The tension within him remained, however. I must be some kinda fool. I sound like a kid who's mad at the world for givin' him a bad time. Wishing hard enough doesn't make dreams come true. No matter how much I need him... that's not gonna make Hutch get better.
He turned back to look at the sleeping man. Hear me, Hutch. You have to hear me... He had so many questions, so many things he needed to say. Yet in all the hours he'd been sitting at Hutch's side, they had remained locked in his heart. Perhaps he would never have the opportunity to say them.
His mind went back to the ever-present dilemma. Dr. Samuels could not come up with a reason for Hutch continuing this way, yet something had to be keeping him in the coma.
The drug -- it could have affected him more than Melissa thinks. That stuff eats away at the brain. What's left of your mind, Hutch? He couldn't ask that one question aloud. It was too frightening. Starsky tried to imagine his partner brain-damaged, helpless, yet aware of all he had lost. That would be horrible. God, staying like he is wouldn't be as bad as that.
God help me, I really mean that. Starsky's gasp broke the silence of the room. What am I thinking? Isn't any kind of life better than death? Isn't consciousness, in whatever form it takes, what I want for him? He didn't know anymore. The growing sick emptiness was sucking all the hope out of him, leaving only weary resignation behind.
This is what it's like without a partner. There's no one to back me up, no one to share the pressure with. No one...
No. Damnit, Hutch. You can't do this to us.
"You can't leave it like this, partner. You can't give up on yourself and you can't give up on me." He strode back to the bed, the simmering anger igniting under a new focus.
"Hutch. Hutch! C'mon, man. Wake up." Starsky was bent over the bed, his voice loud and demanding. "Hey, partner. We gotta get goin'. Didn't you hear that call come in? Hutch... Hutch!" His hands closed on the bony shoulders.
"Hutch!" Losing control, Starsky stopped trying to cover his fear. "I need you! Right now, Hutch! I'm here. Wake up, partner. Hutch!" What could he do, what words could be the key?
"Hutch -- I'm hit!" Whenever he'd said that before, Hutch had always been there, salvation and strength combined. "You gonna let me down? You gonna stay away? Hutch, come back! Right now! They've got me! They're killin' me, partner!"
He lifted, pulling the unresisting body up. The head lolled sideways and the eyelids lifted a fraction, but there was no other response.
Starsky recoiled from the sight, the lack of reaction fueling his anger. "God damn you, Hutchinson! Wake up, you bastard!" He was shaking, the whole world at the mercy of his desperation. And Hutch was in the heart of the raging storm. "Hutch!"
"Lieutenant! My God, don't shake him! Put him down!"
As if from the depths of a well, the nurse's voice penetrated his anger-hazed mind. Her fingers closed like steel cuffs around his wrists.
"Put him down."
Starsky felt the room wavering. He shook his head, trying to latch onto reality, but he couldn't find himself anymore. All he could do was hang onto the frail shoulders he gripped so maniacally.
"David." Another voice, this one to the right of him, calm and soothing. New hands reached, one to support Hutch's head, the other to stroke down the length of Starsky's back.
The fog of unreality lifted a little. Slowly, he tried to do as he'd been told, but he couldn't seem to let go of Hutch's shoulders.
"Easy. It's okay." Brown eyes glanced into his panicked ones, and his breath came under shaky control. Together, he and Melissa eased Hutch back down on the bed.
Starsky watched the doctor as she checked tubing, as she listened to Hutch's chest through the stethoscope. "I..." He faltered. "...didn't mean it..." I might have hurt him... coulda killed him...
Melissa answered without looking up. "It's okay. Everything seems to be all right."
What have I done? Starsky didn't know what scared him more, the knowledge that he'd lost control or the possibility that he could have harmed Hutch. He was shocked at himself. He had not realized how terribly close he'd been to breaking. Gotta get out of here... before something else happens. "You... think he's okay?" He had to make sure, first.
Samuels turned, her eyes appraising. "No harm done. Now, how do you feel?"
He shrank from the solicitation in her gaze. "I dunno." He took a step toward the door, running a trembling hand through his hair. "I... think I'll get out of here for awhile. Maybe... take a walk or something."
She nodded. "We'll keep an eye on him."
"Okay." He turned and hurried away from the room. He couldn't even bring himself to look at Hutch before going, he was so ashamed.
His universe was comprised of sounds and touches. They divided his space and his time, creating spiraling oases of interest. He drifted, trying sometimes to stay, to focus his fragmented ability to concentrate on one of them. But he couldn't. The drifting was stronger.
Some of the sounds were voices. One in particular just seemed to matter more. The new voice came to him, ebbing and flowing, always seeming closer than the rest. At the same time, hands touched him, hands that were warm and strong. When he could focus on the touches, he could tell the differences between them. Most of the hands were soft... light in their touches, yet impersonal. The special hands were stronger, rougher in texture, and they were also infinitely more gentle. They called to his lost consciousness, and he spent uncounted hours waiting for them, seeking the feel of them, so tender as they touched. They would skim caressingly over his face, defining him, and they would shake when they enfolded his own useless hands, communicating with the power of some raw emotion and deep need. Even when the anguish that seemed to drive them became an overpowering tempest, he did not mind. Without them, he was nothing...
And the voice called to him. He listened, content with just its sound, like a symphony that carried him to a place of sweet dreams. So close, so mellow, so welcomely familiar, it called.
I should know that voice.
He tried to gather the disconnected threads of his consciousness, to give substance and meaning to the touches and the voice he recognized but could not name.
He knew only that when that familiar presence was near, he felt secure. When it was away from him, he felt the world drop away until he fell, dizzy and lost, through frighteningly empty space. When he was alone with only the strangers' hands for comfort, he wanted to fade away again, to let go and drift off like a planet cast away from the gravity of its star. Then the so-familiar presence would return, star-bright, sun-warm, and he was rescued, held again in that safe, sheltering orbit. He knew then that he could not let go. He must hold on to coalescing consciousness... try... live.