Martin Pemberton stood as his secretary ushered his guests into his paneled office. Priscilla Hutchinson looked as she always did, tiny yet with a bearing that made her seem formidable. Her son, Stanley, deferential as always, had taken her elbow, a sheepish look on his face indicating he was somewhat embarrassed by his mother's attitude. Behind him, though, came the man Pemberton most wanted to meet. He'd heard a lot about Kenneth Hutchinson, at least about the fact that the former police detective had been kidnapped and found after two years in a drug-induced coma. Priscilla had told Martin that she was concerned that Kenneth would never recover his physical strength or mental faculties. In fact, she had suggested that he would not be capable of managing the inheritance his parents had left. Though Pemberton knew it would be difficult to prove this unless the man was a complete invalid with extensive brain damage and had advised her thus, he needed to see the man with his own eyes before making any further decisions.
Experienced at judging people from sizing up witnesses on the stand, he watched carefully as Kenneth Hutchinson entered the room. He was a bit taller than his cousin Stanley, his hair a more striking blond. He was walking with the aid of a cane, yet his gait seemed fairly steady. The hand clenched on the cane spoke more of a painful anxiety than physical weakness. Pemberton studied his face. He'd expected the air of a stroke victim, the lost expression of slack features, the vague eyes that indicated they saw but did not comprehend. Yet that was not what he found. The slender man became aware of his scrutiny and drew himself upright, meeting Pemberton's gaze, doing some appraising of his own.
The large blue eyes were clear and cold, almost daring the attorney to judge him. Yet for all their determination, there existed the subtle shadow of pain endured, of being haunted by self-doubt. What would it be like, Pemberton wondered, to fall into a coma lasting two years? How could anyone emerge unscathed, intelligence intact?
"Please be seated," he invited his guests, pointing out the chairs arranged in a semi-circle facing his desk. "Priscilla. Stanley..." He turned his eyes back to the other man.
"This is my cousin, Ken," Stanley spoke up.
"Kenneth." Pemberton extended his hand.
The hesitation was brief, but all in the room noticed it. Hutchinson glanced at the offered hand, then seemed to take a second to decide on the proper reaction. Then he leaned his cane against the desk and, straightening to his full height, reached out. The handshake he returned was firm, however. Pemberton wondered how strong he was. The bone structure on the tall frame was large, the shoulders broad. The clothes he wore were well-fitting, yet the design of his sport coat was unconstructed and of heavy-textured material, capable of making a thin person appear to carry more bulk. Still, he did not appear overly frail. Physical therapy -- probably months of it -- had given him back some muscle tone.
Something flickered in the blue eyes as Pemberton addressed him. "Please," he said, "call me Hutch." The eyes, defiant now, darted to his aunt's face as if expecting some reprimand.
"Fine, Hutch. It's good to meet you at last," Pemberton smiled. Of all the Hutchinsons in his office at that moment, this man looked the most like he should be called 'Hutch.' It was obviously a nickname he'd acquired away from home. And the statement told the lawyer something more. It was as if he were saying to his relatives, 'I'm me, not who you want me to be.'
Hutch returned the comment with a nod, but before he could make a reply, his aunt spoke up instead.
"Martin, we do have a lot to discuss this afternoon."
"I know, Priscilla," Pemberton said smoothly, without a trace of audible impatience. "I think we should begin by reading the will."
"We've been over that before," the elderly woman frowned.
"I know. But Hutch hasn't heard it."
The carefully lipsticked mouth drew into a tight line. "Oh, yes. Of course." The woman turned to her nephew. "Ken, do you want to have Martin read the will? These things are somewhat complicated."
Pemberton watched Hutch's reaction closely. The fair lashes dropped for an instant, as if he were trying to hold onto his composure.
"Yes. I do want to hear it, Aunt Priscilla. I've read a few legal documents in my time."
"I'll explain any legalese that you can't follow," Martin assured, smothering a smile at the tone with which Hutch had answered his aunt. It held the same longsuffering note everyone used with their elder relatives who thought that, even though you were over thirty-five, you were still one of the kids.
The attorney opened the sheaf of crisp legal documents and began to read slowly. The will was fairly straightforward. The bulk of the estate, including the house, was designated to go to Hutch, with about one-third divided between the other relatives. The usual statement that if their son should predecease his parents, the estate would be divided among the surviving relatives, was a part of the main document.
Hutch sat forward as he heard those lines. Martin glanced over the paper he was holding to note his attention. The blond man nodded, obviously following the meaning of the formalized words. Another glance showed Pemberton that Priscilla was also watching her nephew, and that Stanley was sitting with his gaze on his own folded hands.
The attorney continued to the end of the document, then paused. "This codicil was added just a month before your parents' accident, Hutch." He cleared his throat. "At the time of this writing, our son Kenneth is missing and presumed to be dead. If he is not found alive within a period of seven years from the date of June 21, 1979, the estate will be divided in the manner stipulated in the will should our son predecease his parents."
Hutch winced at the words 'missing and presumed dead.' Pemberton knew the terms hurt him. He'd felt the addition of the codicil necessary, though at the time he'd told the Hutchinsons that they could be acting prematurely. He had been wrong about that. But they had also been wrong; it had taken more than two years, but their son had been found after all. And here he sat in Pemberton's office, obviously alive and well.
Hutch looked away as Pemberton folded the document and put it down. His voice sounded faint. "Looks like they didn't hold out much hope that I'd be found."
Stanley turned to soothe him. "Ken, you have to understand. It did look hopeless. It had been five months. We'd been in touch with your partner. He never had any news. All he could tell us was that you had disappeared without a trace, that there were no clues at all to what had happened to you."
Fine-boned hands clenched on the arms of the chair as Hutch listened. A flicker of pain chased across his fair features, followed by a firming of his determination. He looked up at his cousin and his aunt, eyes flashing. "I suppose it would have all been so much less complicated if I never had been found. All you'd have to do was wait another couple of years and you'd have everything my parents left for yourselves! As it is, my coming back has ruined your plans, hasn't it?"
"Really, Kenneth," Priscilla spoke up, her own eyes as fiery as his. "There is no need to take such a tone of accusation. It isn't that we wished you dead. We have our own money, you know. But your parents worked years to accumulate the inheritance they left you. What concerns us now is that you might not be able to handle the responsibility..."
"Responsibility! Isn't that just another way of saying you don't think I deserve -- "
"Everyone, please," Pemberton broke in, aware that he had to take control of the situation. "Priscilla, Hutch, please calm down. You're acting like adversaries and you're not. You're members of the same family. Wills and inheritances have a tendency to make everyone lose their heads and say things they later regret."
"I haven't said anything I regret," Hutch snapped. "I feel as though I'm being accused of wrongdoing, and I want to know why. If my parents didn't want me to inherit their money, they would have written a different will."
"All right. All right," Martin spoke up before Priscilla could answer. "We have to deal with the will as it was written. Priscilla, there is nothing in here that says anything about Hutch's ability to 'handle' the inheritance. He is alive and apparently quite well recovered from his ordeal."
"'Quite well recovered' is a relative term, Martin," the dowager said tightly. "Until coming here to visit, he was still undergoing physical therapy as well as psychiatric counseling. He attempted to rejoin the police force, but it was decided that he would not be able to go back to work. He isn't working at anything now, and it doesn't appear that he will become employed in the near future."
Pemberton wanted to snap that in that case the inheritance would be very important to Hutch, but he held his tongue, knowing that only the most professional demeanor would serve him in this instance. "Priscilla, what do you suggest?"
"I believe someone should be appointed to manage his money for him."
"You wish a conservator to be appointed to administer the estate," Martin translated into legal terminology. "Priscilla, the need for a conservator would be extremely difficult to prove. It would take the testimony of two physicians in a court of law, stating that Hutch is incapable of managing that sum of money."
"I think we should look into the possibility," Priscilla insisted. "Martin, he's like a child in many ways."
"Mother!" Stanley sounded shocked. "Ken isn't... retarded, you know."
"He forgets things! He gets confused. Accomplishing the simplest tasks takes him an hour..." The elderly woman wound down, tugging a handkerchief from her purse. "I remember what he used to be. He was so much like my dear husband's brother, his father. They never wanted him to leave Duluth and become a policeman anyway. They'd hoped he'd stay here and take an interest in the business. But he doesn't know anything about how it runs. Stanley and I have had to keep things going in the time since Harvey and Margaret passed away. What's he going to do now? Take his money and go back to Los Angeles? He'll go through the inheritance in a year's time..."
"That's enough!" The sharp voice from across the room startled everyone, even Pemberton, who'd realized what the words had to be doing to Hutch. "Stop talking about me like I'm not in the room. I'm right here, you know. I'm wide-awake and listening to you. I'm not in a coma now!" He gripped the chair arms tighter, chest heaving, eyes full of rebellion. "For two years, yes, I had to lie in a bed and let others take care of me. I couldn't do a damn thing for myself. Nurses bathed me and changed my diapers. I was fed through a tube and I went to the bathroom through a tube. I couldn't move a muscle or open my eyes and look around the room." The words were caustic and full of self-hatred.
"But I finally came out of it. Someone was there who cared enough to pull me through, and I finally began to respond to the world around me again. Even then, I wasn't able to take care of myself, though. It was still up to doctors and nurses and therapists and my friend, Starsky. I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk, couldn't feed or dress myself. Learning to do those things again was hard work, dammit, but I managed them. All without anybody from this family ever calling to see if I needed help, if Starsky needed a break from taking care of me, if there were any bills I couldn't pay!"
The ragged voice grew louder. "I learned to read again. I learned to tell time and add and subtract and divide. I learned what had happened in the world while I was sick. And I learned that I wanted to get back on my feet and take care of myself again. And now I can. And nobody's going to tell me how to live my life or what to do with my money!"
For the first time since becoming her lawyer, Martin Pemberton found Priscilla Hutchinson speechless. She had paled under the verbal assault, her blinking eyes the only response to the words that had rained like blows, their vehemence like slaps in her face. Stanley had sat forward in his chair, reaching toward her, but he remained wordless, too, rendered silent by his cousin's outburst.
Pemberton turned to the man who, a few moments ago, had been raging and defiant. Hutch looked stunned, as startled by his flare-up as everyone else had been. He reached out to grasp his cane, as if it could offer him support in the sudden silence. Pemberton could only guess at what the description of what it had been like for him had cost the proud man; fresh lines seemed grooved into his features, curving around his wide blue eyes and etched at the middle of his forehead, between the brows. But he was still a proud man, and perhaps speaking out of his bitterness and shame, a measure of his tarnished pride had been restored. Though his mouth was downturned and his face flushed with emotion, the blond head seemed to be held a little higher than when the outraged speech had begun.
"Hutch," Martin approached him quietly, "tell me something. How did you get here to Duluth from L.A.?"
Though surprised at the question, Hutch answered succinctly. "By plane."
"Yes. And who made the arrangements for you?"
"Nobody." A light dawned in the large eyes, and he turned again to look at his relatives. "I made all the plans myself -- travel connections, buying the ticket, everything."
"I see." Martin pretended to straighten papers on his desk. "And what do you plan to do with the money you will inherit from your parents' estate?"
The hopeful face fell a little, but the man was still determined. "I... don't know. I haven't made any specific plans."
"You see?" Priscilla broke in. Stanley nudged her arm this time.
Pemberton ignored her. "Well, you do have a need for money, don't you? I imagine you have quite a number of medical bills that have piled up."
"Yes. Being in the hospital for two and a half years and continuing therapy is expensive," Hutch admitted. "But actually, my health insurance through the department is taking care of everything."
"No insurance pays all the bills," Priscilla humphed.
"I was injured in the line of duty," Hutch pointed out, turning to her. "And because of that, they've picked up all the expenses -- the two years in the nursing home in Australia, travel costs, the rehab facility in L.A. and my outpatient therapy."
"And what do you do for other living expenses?" Martin probed gently.
"I get disability pay from the department. It's about eighty percent of what my salary would be." There had been only the slightest hesitation over the word 'disability.' "And I own a small piece of property in the Venice Beach area, the building where I have my apartment. I have three other tenants. While I was missing, Starsky collected the rent and put it into a savings account."
Pemberton drew a breath before phrasing his next question. "And does anyone help you manage your affairs?"
The eyes that had been locked with his own dropped to where he clutched the handle of his cane. "Starsky helps me."
"Do you make some of the decisions yourself, or does he do everything?"
"We talk things over." A brief, half-smile tinged with chagrin and self-deprecation. "I admit I don't always get everything together just right."
"Martin, please." It was Priscilla. "I don't want to hurt Ken, but you must understand. He's done very well to come through his illness so well, but he just isn't the same as he was before." There was honest sympathy in her eyes, but Pemberton could see that hurt as much as the content of her words.
The attorney turned to the elderly woman. "He seems very competent to me. His answers make sense. He knows what's going on. Are you telling me that he's not always this alert, this mentally proficient? Are there periods when he seems bewildered, confused, unable to accomplish the daily tasks of life?"
"I believe a doctor would be better able to make that determination."
"Priscilla, does he or does he not function as well the rest of the time as he has in this office?"
The woman drew her gaze from the intense scrutiny of her attorney to look at her nephew. "When he is particularly... fatigued... he has some difficulty. He seems weaker, physically, and he seems to lose track of what he's trying to say. But he is a guest here, not required to manage anything, financial or otherwise, so we don't know how other considerations would affect him. He's said himself that his friend helps him with his accounts, paying his bills, balancing his checkbook..."
"All right! You want to prove I'm unfit, go ahead and try!" Hutch threw himself out of his chair and strode toward the door. Pemberton watched as he tried to hide the weakness in the leg he favored.
"Hutch," he called out. "Your leaving isn't going to get anything solved."
Stanley rose from his seat also and went to his cousin. "She doesn't mean to hurt you, Ken," he said softly.
Hutch ignored him, but he walked back to the center of the room, stopping to peer down at his aunt. "What do you want? You want to take me to court? You want to parade me in front of a row of doctors and shrinks in the hopes they'll tell you I'm mentally unstable and deficient? What will happen then? When your 'conservator' is appointed?" He turned his angry gaze on the attorney. "Tell her, Pemberton. Doing all that isn't going to make it turn out so that she'll have the money, will it? A conservator will be in charge, but it will still be my money, won't it? And that person will be charged with acting in my best interest, won't he?"
"That's right, Priscilla," Pemberton conceded, respect for the beleaguered man growing in him. "And I must say, listening to him right now, he sounds like he's pretty good at standing up for himself, at reasoning through things. I don't know if you'd be able to find two doctors who will testify to the need for a conservator."
Hutch was moving slowly, coming back to his seat, tense hands shaking a bit on the cane he used to steady himself. One hand reached to rub at his forehead. After a moment, he looked back up at his aunt.
"What do you want, Aunt Priscilla?" he asked again. This time, his voice was not roughened with fury. Now he sounded wrung out, near the end of his strength and determination. "Do you want the house? Chelsea told me you love it. I've been there and there are some things I'd like to take back home with me, but I don't want to live there. It's... too much house for me. And there aren't that many memories. It's not the house I grew up in, after all." He let go of the cane, using his hand to smooth his jacket that had become disarrayed during his angry tirade. "Will you agree not to take me to court if I give you the house? I... don't want to go through something like that."
"Hutch," Martin spoke in a warning tone. "Nobody's offering you an ultimatum. You are under absolutely no obligation to give away part of your inheritance."
"I know that." The weary eyes closed. "If my... family... thinks I've never done anything for them, maybe this will make up for that. I wouldn't want the house to live in, so it would probably be sold. Since it means more to Aunt Priscilla, she should have it. All I ask is... to be left alone."
Silence reigned in the room for a long moment. Finally, Stanley Hutchinson spoke in a compelling whisper. "Mother..."
Priscilla looked up, a wan smile for her son, a look of gentleness turned toward her nephew. "I do love the house, Ken. If you have no other misgivings, I will accept your offer. And I'll say no more about the need for having a conservator."
The only outward sign of Hutch's feelings was a tiny relaxation of the tenseness in his facial muscles. As he set out to conclude the meeting and draw up the necessary papers, Martin Pemberton found himself wondering once more what it must be like to leave the world for a period of two years, to fight to return, and to have to continue to fight once the return was achieved.
"Ken!" Chelsea seemed surprised to find him looking for her in the garden behind the house. "How'd it go at the lawyers?" When he didn't answer, she moved closer to him. "Are you okay? You seem -- different."
Not knowing how to answer her, Hutch simply shrugged. "I'm okay. It was kind of... trying this afternoon."
She grinned. "I'll bet it was. Did you put Grandmother in her place?"
"Yeah. I think I did, a little bit." He still hadn't decided if he had won a victory or sunk to new depths.
"Good. We don't want her getting too complacent, do we?"
"I don't think there's much danger of that." He looked around and ambled over to the porch swing, tired beyond words.
Chelsea followed him. "You seem different. Want to talk about it?"
"How do you mean, different?" Hutch didn't want to recount the conversation at Pemberton's office.
"I don't know," the young woman appraised. "You look kind of tired, but... stronger somehow, I think. When you first got here, something was missing. You didn't seem all that sure of yourself."
"How do I seem now?" Oddly, he found he was hanging on her every word.
His cousin looked him up and down, her long-lashed eyes frank in their scrutiny. "Like you might have found what was missing."
A smile broke free, when he hadn't thought himself capable of smiling again. "How'd you ever get so perceptive, hmm?"
"I told you I was a genius, didn't I?" And Chelsea laughed, completely destroying the image of soothsayer-wise-beyond-her-years. She was a teenager again, fresh and just what Hutch needed to keep from taking things too seriously.
"What were you saying about helping me learn to drive again?" he asked suddenly, finding himself wondering where the idea had come from. Something like that is what I need, though. A way to empower myself, to take control and go where and when I want to go.
"Hey, you mean it? Great! Let's hop in the car and go see about getting your learner's permit." Chelsea jumped up from the swing, taking his arm to pull him to his feet. "We'll pick up one of the rule books so you can study the regulations -- I burned mine when I passed the test!"
The days became filled with activity: driving lessons that ended in laughter, sorting and packing things he wanted to keep from his parents' house, visiting some old friends and old familiar places in Duluth. Hutch took up jogging again, running each morning with his always-energetic cousin, Chelsea. He felt more of his old stamina beginning to return, more strength, and he began to revel in the feel of his long legs eating up the pavement.
There were long conversations with Chelsea during the pleasant afternoon driving sessions. He knew he'd never forget the feeling he'd experienced when she asked him about being in the coma.
"It was..." he'd groped for the right description, "kind of eerie. I don't really remember being unconscious, but I must have dreamed a lot. Waking up didn't happen all at once. At first I was too weak to even turn over in bed. I remember feeling scared, then confused, then I found out how long it had been and I was angry. Sometimes, I felt like a baby, with people teaching me how to do everything again, and it taking so long. That still bothers me -- it's been hard being with the relatives; they're worse than Starsky is."
"Boy, can I identify with that," Chelsea had sighed. "My mom still makes me feel like a baby. Seems like every time I start to talk to her this summer, we have a fight."
Hutch knew how that felt, too, and that made it easy to commiserate with the girl. "What do you fight about?" he'd asked.
"My driving. How long I stay out. Where I go. But especially about... Andrew."
"Andrew?" He had noticed a shadow of hurt in her expressive eyes at the name.
"We went together last year. He had to move away. I want to be with him, so I'm trying to get Mom to let me go visit him. But she doesn't understand. She just calls it puppy love."
Hutch pulled the car over to the side of the road, putting it in park, and then laying a hand on Chelsea's slender shoulder. He hated to see her hurting and a strong protective feeling made his heart seem very full. "You want to talk about it?"
When she turned to look at him, there was a mist in her eyes. Hutch listened, and it was strange to realize that a measure of his own pain lifted when he tried to give encouragement to Chelsea.
The days turned into weeks and soon nearly a month had passed. But if the days were full, the nights were long and lonely.
Before he could fall asleep in his room each night, Hutch had to allow himself to think about Starsky. He kept so busy all day that he fought the images of his friend's strong presence, of the smiles he so generously bestowed, of the tenderness and boyish charm, because with them came inevitably the remembrance of that hurt expression the beautiful face had worn when Hutch was leaving. I had to leave, Starsk, to find myself. I didn't believe in myself anymore. That's not who you need. I'm so sorry...
Now he welcomed the memories. He pulled them out like cherished snapshots, looking them over lingeringly, always finding some nuance he'd missed before. And he would relax, the pain fading, the presence of Starsky very close to him, soothing him into restful sleep. In his dreams, all was forgiven, and they were together again, as they'd been meant to be. In the morning, with the light of day, he wondered if those dreams could ever be reality.
The day he passed his driver's test was a special one. Hutch was filled with pride, amazed that such an ordinary thing could make him feel so complete, so productive. Stanley looked proud of him, too, and even Aunt Priscilla was effusive in her congratulations. Chelsea positively beamed. His teenage cousin suggested a dinner out for the family to celebrate, but her brothers and sister were busy with homework, her mom had a meeting and Stanley wanted to watch a baseball game. Aunt Priscilla declined the invitation, too, but urged Chelsea and Hutch to go out anyway. She offered to pay for the dinner, but Chelsea said no; she wanted to treat her 'student' herself.
They ended up in a nice, moderately priced restaurant that catered to a young crowd. Hutch didn't mind the teens and young adults there, he felt kind of adolescent sometimes himself, especially with his fun-loving cousin. They consulted their menus for a few minutes, and Hutch soon felt himself being stared at.
He looked up to meet the eyes of the waitress. She was blonde, brown-eyed and closer to Hutch's age than to the rest of the restaurant patrons and help. When he caught her looking at him, she smiled unselfconsciously.
"We don't get many men in here that are my type," she said with a little lift of her shoulders. "Are you from around here, honey?"
Hutch tried to fight the feeling that he was about to blush. "I grew up here, but I've been living in L.A. for the last couple of years."
"Well, welcome back to Duluth." A few more seconds of frank staring and then the woman seemed to shake herself and remember her job. "What'll you have?"
She kept her eyes studiously on her pad as she wrote down what Hutch and Chelsea ordered.
After that, Hutch tried to ignore her. It wasn't easy, because every time she brought something to the table, water glasses, the ketchup, the sodas they'd ordered, she kept looking at him and Chelsea teased him every time.
"I bet she'd go out with you if you asked her," his cousin prodded as she bit into the huge hamburger she had ordered.
"Why would I ask her out?" Hutch was truly baffled.
"She likes you, can't you tell?"
"She doesn't even know me."
"Well," Chelsea chewed a French fry thoughtfully, "she's attracted to you, then. What do you think of her?"
Hutch turned to watch the woman wait on a table across the room. "She's pretty," he shrugged. "I always did like blondes, but..."
"Well, then? I'll get lost if you want me to."
"Chelsea." He sighed, not knowing how to put his feelings into words. "I don't want to ask her out on a date."
"Why not? Do you have another girlfriend back in L.A.?"
"No, I... it's just..." Hutch couldn't frame an answer. His heart felt like someone was turning it inside out. There was only one other person he cared about. The thought of being with someone else had never entered his mind. Hutch looked toward the waitress again, trying to see if anything about her attracted him. She had a slender, feminine body, with curves in the expected places, but he felt nothing. No, not quite nothing. A vague curiosity in him wondered if he could actually function sexually again. He had felt no stirring inside himself for such a long time, but what if he were with someone and that someone touched him? Shouldn't he try to find out? The possibility of embarrassment or humiliation seemed too probable. Hutch shook his head and brought his eyes back to his well-meaning cousin. "No. Chelsea, you have to understand. I've been sick a long time. I'm feeling pretty good these days, but..."
"Oh." An incandescent blush swept the face of his young companion. She took an enormous bite of her hamburger.
Hutch smiled, feeling sorry that he'd embarrassed her. "It's not just that," he continued softly. "I have my own problems on my mind. A few years ago, yeah, I'd have picked a woman up if she acted like she was interested. But now I'm different. I don't know if I could ever tell some stranger about... what happened to me." That answer was mostly the truth. But there was more, Hutch knew. If I can ever be with anybody again, I know who it's going to be.
Chelsea seemed to regain her composure and the rest of the meal continued without incident. When the waitress came up to ask them if they wanted to order dessert, she spoke for both herself and Hutch.
"We want the biggest, richest ice cream and cake dessert you have. We're celebrating."
"You are? What are you celebrating?" She looked from one to the other.
"My cousin got his driver's license today," Chelsea announced proudly.
Hutch felt like sliding under the table at the look the waitress gave him. A bit of his sense of accomplishment slipped when she seemed surprised and befuddled by the announcement. "You're just getting a license?" she asked, seemingly unable to stop herself.
He lifted one shoulder in a dismissive gesture. "It's been a long time."
There was another uncomfortable silence at the table. Then the waitress cleared her throat noisily and offered, "Congratulations, then. I know what you should order. Our big devil's food cake, ice cream and hot fudge combination." She pointed out a page in the menu. "See, there it is. It's called 'Death by Chocolate."'
"That's perfect! Bring us two of them," Chelsea told her before Hutch could say anything else.
The huge servings almost daunted both of them when they arrived. Hutch just stared down at the plateful of dark chocolate cake covered in rocky road ice cream smothered in hot fudge and melting whipped cream. Chocolate sprinkles and a maraschino cherry completed the confection. Hutch picked up his spoon but could hardly figure out where to start.
Chelsea dug right in. "My face is sure to break out from eating all this," she said between mouthfuls, "but it'll be worth it." She ate quietly for a few minutes. "I'm sorry I embarrassed you when I told her," she said softly as she caught a drip of hot fudge at the edge of her bowl.
Hutch, enjoying his own dessert, felt magnanimous. "That's okay." Though rich and almost too much for one person to finish alone, the Death by Chocolate reminded him of someone else who might like it. Miss you, Starsk. Someday, I'll take you out for a meal like this. He dipped a huge spoonful up and put the whole thing in his mouth, catching his cousin's grin.
He drove her car back to the neighborhood and parked it in her father's garage. "Now that I've got my license, all I need is something to drive."
"Why don't you buy a car?"
Hutch looked at Chelsea. "Here? In Duluth?"
"If you're going to stay..."
He turned away from her. He hadn't been thinking of staying -- or leaving, for that matter. The comfortable limbo of his 'visit' had been enough for him these last weeks. "We'll talk about it later," he said then, touching the girl's shoulder. "Thanks for dinner, Chelsea, and for all your help."
"Hey, it was fun." She checked her watch. "I gotta go in. See you tomorrow?"
"Sure. Goodnight." He turned and headed down the street for Aunt Priscilla's house.
Tired and full, he turned in early, bidding his aunt goodnight before the evening news came on. Talking to her had become a little easier since the truce they'd achieved in Martin Pemberton's office.
"Did you have a good dinner?" she asked as he let himself into the house.
"Yeah. Chelsea's a fun kid."
Priscilla smiled. "She means a lot to me. Someday, she's going to bring a lot of happiness to this family."
"Actually, she already has, to me."
The older woman nodded. "Have you had any thoughts about what you're going to do, dear? Martin said he thought you should invest the money in the trust fund right away. It will be a while before the will is out of probate, but you could work with the trust fund money right away."
Hutch had been thinking about that money all week, not really deciding yet what to do with it. The trust fund had been set up for him by his grandfather and it had been in his name along with his father's, so it passed to him outside the will and it wasn't necessary to wait for the will to go through probate for him to get those finances. The trust fund was worth about fifty thousand dollars. It seemed an incredible sum to Hutch.
"I guess I'll talk to Martin about some good investments," he shrugged. "I might spend part of it on a car."
Aunt Priscilla looked shocked but held her tongue.
In bed in his room, Hutch thought more about Chelsea's suggestion. Having a car of his own would allow him to go wherever he wanted without having to depend on others. Wonder what Starsky will say when he finds out I can drive again? The thought brought a smile to his lips. Perhaps Starsky would tease him about his driving again someday.
He settled into sleep easily, crediting his full stomach with helping him drift off. As he sank into dreams, his thoughts were on the waitress' face when she had brought them their Death by Chocolates.
The wide brown eyes smiled at him over the cash register as Chelsea paid for the meal. "What time do you get off?" he heard himself asking.
"Nine o'clock," the waitress told him. "Would you like to take in a movie?"
"Maybe." He felt his cousin's approving gaze as they left the restaurant.
He was walking home from the movie with the woman he'd just met that night. Without invitation, she wound her arm around his waist, falling into step with him. Hutch laid his arm across her shoulders, feeling strong and possessive. It had been a long time since a woman had looked at him like she thought he was handsome.
Inside her tiny apartment, she lit candles and poured wine. Hutch drank some, feeling lightheaded almost immediately. Soon the woman was in his arms, kissing him deeply. It felt good. She was warm, the soft curves of her body melting against him. But he still didn't understand why she'd been so eager to be with him.
He pulled out of a kiss, taking another sip of wine. "Why did you want to go out with me?"
She ran a finger over his lips. "I don't know. Most of the guys that come into the restaurant are too young for me. A girl gets lonely, you know. And there was just something about you..."
"Don't talk," she urged. "Kiss me again."
The kisses were delicious and Hutch lost himself in them, letting the warmth suffuse his body. Without his realizing it, they'd arrived in the bedroom. He let her push him back against the mattress and begin unbuttoning his shirt.
A frisson of excitement chased her touch down his chest. Hutch closed his eyes for a moment, trying to understand his feelings. He wasn't really responding to her, but seemed to be watching from a distance, curious about what was going to happen next. It was like a science experiment. Would all the right elements bring about the expected result? She was so sweet and gentle, he thought he might let her take him where she wanted to go.
Deciding to take the lead, he wrapped his arms around her, feeling his strength as if it were coming back after a long absence. He kissed her mouth, her breasts and felt her legs opening under him so he could settle between them.
"Come on, baby," she breathed. "I'm ready for you..."
Hutch pressed himself against her willing body for a long time, content at first, still waiting to see what would happen, then feeling more uncomfortable. At last, he rolled away from her and sat up at the side of the bed.
A small hand stroked his shoulder. "Hey, it's okay. Don't be embarrassed." He couldn't answer. "Is there something wrong? Is there anything I can do to help you?" The hand slid slowly across his bare chest.
It didn't move him, so he gently pushed it away. "It's not you," he finally croaked. "It's me. I... I've been sick a long time." He hung his head after the admission.
She sat up beside him. "It's okay. Happens to everybody sometimes. " She touched his face. "Maybe that's why I was attracted to you. You seem so... vulnerable."
He cringed from the description, pulling on his clothes and shoes and trying to hurry out of her apartment. At the door, she touched him again, and he winced. "I'd like to see you again."
He didn't look at her. "No. I don't think so."
"At least tell me your name."
"It's... it's Joey," he mumbled, stumbling through the door.
Hutch woke in a sweat, wondering where the words had come from. 'Joey,' the name he'd been called by the nurses who hadn't known who he was, the name for a baby kangaroo. Had his dream called the image up because he felt he was a nobody, or because he was able to function only on a childish level? It was a horrible feeling, as if he'd been humiliated for real. Miserable, struggling to unwind himself from the sheets, he finally found a comfortable position and dropped into sleep again.
He was weighed down by heated darkness, unable to see, only to feel. Someone was nearby, touching him. He felt strong fingers slip up his thighs and brush over his penis. "No." He sighed the protest. Why bother? Nothing worked right.
Soft hair brushed his belly and his mind at first supplied the image of smooth blonde strands. But it didn't feel like that. It was more like short, curly hair. He looked down, tried to see, but couldn't. Then soft lips kissed along his swelling length, and moist warmth opened to swallow him up. The sucking pulled at him, at his heart and soul. His hands reached down, holding the head to him, crying out in pain-laced arousal. The sucking stopped, the mouth left him. Anxious hands framed his face.
"It's all right, Hutch. I won't hurt you. Let me make you feel good."
The voice penetrated the haze of darkness, and he could see Starsky's eyes. The earnest, expectant love in them was almost more than he could bear. "I'm home," he whispered, glad and afraid at the same time.
"That's right. You're home with me. Everything's gonna be all right."
Firm, loving lips touched his own, then bent again to his erection. Hutch fell back against the bed, every pore open to sensation. Starsky was so good, a dead man would have responded. Wake me up, Starsk. Let me be alive again...
He cried out, lurching awake in stunning disappointment that the dream had ended too soon. Hutch reached down under the covers and touched himself. His penis was slightly hard, and he rubbed and stroked it slowly. Vibrations of feeling seemed to gradually tingle through him and he continued, allowing himself to enjoy the sensations, to visualize Starsky's face, Starsky's hand doing the touching. The pleasure built over a long moment, and he thought it might really happen this time, but then the glow faded away. He sighed, turning his face away from the light streaming from under his curtains. Starsky, I love you, he thought in anguish. With you it might be okay. Don't you think? He didn't know how to ask his friend, how to let him know what he remembered.
The dreams that night had proved one thing to him, and that was how much he loved and needed to be with his partner.
I want to come home, Starsk. It'll be different this time, you'll see.
A growing desire to be with him again, to show him how much he'd improved during the weeks in Duluth, fueled his thoughts.
Eager to make sure the day was a productive one, he climbed out of bed. The clock read nine and he realized it was Saturday, that Stanley would not be going to the office. He decided to call his cousin and ask him to go along with him to shop for a car.
Both Chelsea and her father accompanied him from car lot to car lot. He looked at American cars, European cars, a proliferation of new Japanese models he'd never heard of. It was strange to discover yet another part of life that had changed while he slept away in the coma. The new prices seemed astronomical to Hutch, who had bought so many older used cars in his day that he'd seldom paid over a thousand dollars for transportation. It had been his inclination at first to look for something reminiscent of his old LTD.
But Stanley counseled him otherwise and Chelsea concurred. "You've got a whole new life," the teenager proclaimed to him. "You need a new image. Something flashy."
Starsky might like a car like that, Hutch thought, but he'd never been comfortable driving something that looked like it belonged on a racetrack.
The little sporty Japanese autos seemed disproportionately small to him, leaving Hutch wondering how he would fold his legs enough to climb into the driver's seat. And with these new makes he'd never seen before, he had no idea of the cars' reliability.
"If you want something reliable," Stanley finally pointed out, "go with the best. Get a Mercedes."
Hutch just looked at him at first. "I never thought of myself as the Mercedes type." What would Starsky think? "They seem like you should have a chauffeur driving you around."
Chelsea giggled at him. "It's not like we're telling you to get a Rolls Royce. I have a girlfriend whose dad drives one and it never breaks down."
"That's what you'd need on a long trip, Ken," Stanley agreed. "If you're thinking about driving all the way to L.A., you don't want something that's going to break down in the middle of the desert."
He had a point, Hutch decided, though it hadn't occurred to him to drive all the way home. How did I expect I'd get there once I bought a car? he laughed at himself. All at once, the adventure of setting off cross-country seemed like a wonderful idea. He could visualize the pride in Starsky's eyes when he drove up and climbed out of a brand-new but somewhat dusty automobile. "Okay," he said to his relatives, "let's go check out the Mercedes lot."
On the way, he contemplated the trip. It would be difficult, maybe boring and lonely to drive all that way without someone else with him. He figured such a trip would take several days, and that his route should be well planned in advance. That's what the Triple A is for. They give you all the maps you need. He'd always enjoyed being behind the wheel, especially when a long drive provided time to think things through. Years ago, he'd get in the car and wind through the Los Angeles canyons just to puzzle through the details of a case and put the pieces together in his mind. Driving back to L.A. would be good for me. Like a test, to see what I can handle all on my own. A need for the sense of accomplishment making the journey would give him made Hutch determined that that was what he would do. Starsky'll have a fit when I tell him. He won't think I'm up to it. Hutch thought it over and considered not mentioning it his friend. He might point out difficulties I haven't thought of and then I'll lose my confidence.
They had arrived at the tastefully designed Mercedes showroom. Chelsea went immediately to the sports cars, but Hutch was attracted to the smaller Mercedes model nearest the wall-size window, shining in the sun. It was blue in color, with a hint of metallic glaze in the paint. Hutch's eyes widened when he looked at the price sticker, but as he explored the showroom further, he realized that the car he'd first looked at was more moderately priced than the larger ones. It didn't take long for Stanley and Chelsea to agree with his choice. He took a test drive, learned of the many features the car included and interested to learn there was an 800 number he could call for road service anywhere. The car was equipped with cruise control, and Chelsea reminded him that would be an important asset when driving long distances. In a little over an hour, the deal was struck, the papers were signed and the car was his. Stanley wrote a check on his own account for the down payment and Hutch would come by on Monday with a cashier's check to pay for the car in full. He couldn't wait to drive the beautiful car off the lot.
The days sped by, filled with going to AAA to get his Triptik, tooling around in his new car, getting used to the way it handled on the country roads on the outskirts of Duluth. Hutch was having a good time, but his desire to go home and be with Starsky grew until it became as strong as his need for food to sustain him, for air to breathe.
He awoke early Wednesday morning and lay under his covers, rehearsing his arrival in L.A. Starsky would be happy again, both of them would be. He'd dreamed of them being together again last night, and once more had awakened partially erect. I need him so much...
Thinking so much of Starsky made him need to talk to him. He sat up in the bed, reaching for the telephone on the nightstand.
The sleepy voice answering reminded him that it was a couple of hours earlier in California, but his joy at hearing it didn't diminish.
"Hi, Starsk," Hutch whispered warmly, wishing he could touch his friend.
"Hutch?" There was a moment's pause and the sound of movement. "You okay? Why are you calling? Is anything wrong?"
"No." He wished he dared risk an endearment, but 'babe' seemed too much, 'partner' awkward now. "No, I'm fine." He settled on making his intonation as gentle as possible, hoping his caring would come through.
"Okay." The concern left the voice, and Hutch imagined Starsky might be smiling.
"I was just... thinking about you."
How to say all he longed to? "Are my plants okay?"
"Sure. I've been taking care of them, just like I told you I would."
"Thanks." He didn't know if he'd said that before. "I... miss the place, I guess." Starsky said nothing to that.
"Starsk? I think I want to come home."
"Hutch." There was a cautious pleasure in the voice. Don't break my heart again, it seemed to beg. "You mean that?"
"Yes. I've been here long enough."
"What have you been doing?"
"Going through my parents' things, taking care of business. I've been to the lawyers a few times. Everything is settled with the will." He took a few moments to describe how those sessions had gone. "How about you?"
Starsky started talking about his work, and Hutch relaxed and listened. It had been ages since they'd shared anything like this, filling each other in on the days they'd spent apart; he didn't really pay much attention to the words, just filled up his soul with the tone of his friend's easy manner. He must be glad I called.
"When..." Starsky hesitated, his voice seeming as though it could break, "when do you think you'll be coming home?"
Hutch cradled the phone with both hands, wishing Starsky were as close to him. "I was thinking about leaving tomorrow morning."
"You know what time your flight gets in?"
Hutch nearly told him then that he'd be driving. He bit his tongue while he wrestled with a decision. It didn't seem very fair not to explain his plans, and he was almost bursting with his own eagerness to share them.
"Listen, if you want," Starsky hurried on, "I'll make the reservations for you here at my end."
"Why would you need to do that?" Some of the pleasure at talking to Starsky again faded with his friend's peremptory suggestion.
"I'd know then just what was going on. In case... in case you didn't get the flight number or the time right or something." Starsky himself sounded aggrieved that he'd brought it up.
"You don't think I'm capable, do you?" Hutch bristled, feeling indignant. "I made my own plans to get here, remember? I can make my own plans to get back."
"Hutch, I didn't mean anything by it..."
"Of course you did." He caught himself before getting any further into an argument. But he did decide it was no business of Starsky's whether he was taking a car, a plane or even a boat back to L.A.
"Well," sounding very awkward, Starsky continued more softly, "be careful, okay? Don't... don't get your wallet lifted or anything."
He cares, Hutch's heart told him, but just like me, he doesn't know how to show it anymore...
"I'll be careful," he answered sincerely. "I'll probably leave tomorrow morning, or if not tomorrow, the next day."
"Just give me a call if you want me to pick you up."
"I can find my own way." A remaining stubbornness wouldn't let him totally remove all the obstacles to Starsky understanding him.
"Okay." The voice had lost its anger, but also a measure of its openness. "I guess I'll see you when you get here."
"Right." They finished the phone conversation on a note of tentative peace.
Leaving Duluth was not like leaving the hospital. Then, he'd felt only joy and no regrets. There was joy in the anticipation of this departure, too, of excitement in undertaking the journey. And a part of him was only too eager to be out from under his relatives' watchful eyes. But it was hard to say goodbye to Chelsea. She'd worked her way into his heart like no one else since he'd awakened. The friendship and camaraderie she'd offered came completely without strings, and she showed no indication that she thought Hutch was less than he should be. It had been an uncomplicated relationship that had allowed him to grow, to flex his wings in tentative rebirth. With Starsky, the old ties of partnership and obligation and unexpressed love always got in the way.
Aunt Priscilla and Stanley and the rest of the family bid Hutch goodbye in the foyer of Priscilla's house, but Chelsea followed him out to his car, gripping his hand as if she didn't want to let go.
"I'm going to miss you," she told him without looking up. "You've been a good listener."
"I have?" He hadn't thought about the relationship going both ways, but it had, and that knowledge gave him a good feeling, a feeling of becoming a whole person again. He drew the girl to him in a gentle hug.
"I'll miss you," he told her. "I want you to come visit me some time."
"Okay!" The anguish faded from her eyes as she looked up. "I'd just love to see California. You take care of yourself, okay? Be careful driving."
"I will." He pulled the shiny set of keys from his pocket and inserted one into the door lock with pride.
"Use the cruise control if your leg gets tired. And don't try to stay on the road too long at a time."
Her admonishments didn't make him feel as though he was being badgered. Instead, they made him smile. He pulled at a strand of her hair. "Don't fight with your mother anymore. She may let you visit Andrew yet."
Chelsea made a face, but quickly tiptoed up to kiss him on the cheek.
Hutch swiftly settled in the driver's seat of his car and started the engine. "Thanks, cousin," he grinned as he began backing out of the driveway, "for everything."
The road was his, a black, unrolling ribbon of never-ending challenge and familiarity. He felt as though he were driving through the country of his consciousness, turning pages of his memory and wistfully contemplating them. Hutch had become accustomed to being by himself by the middle of the day, and he found he wasn't such a bad person to keep himself company after all. He listened to the radio, singing along with songs that were familiar, listening to those that were new to him. Yet traveling the highway, he could see that the basic shape of the world was just the same as it always had been. And he also began to believe that the man he used to be hadn't changed so fundamentally as he had thought.
He nearly got lost a couple of times, despite the route being clearly marked on the Triptik and maps. They showed he was to drive around the outskirts of Minneapolis and St. Paul, but the traffic there confused him and he made a couple of wrong turns. Yet he wasn't scared about getting lost, preferring to think of it as Daniel Boone used to say, "Never lost -- just a mite bewildered for a few days." It was actually fun, a challenge, to figure out where he went wrong and get back to the road he was supposed to be on.
He'd wanted to make it all the way to Kansas City that first day, but the trip was more tiring than he'd expected. His foot seemed to want to drop, falling heavily on accelerator as it tired. He turned on the cruise control, imagining Chelsea's approving look as he did so. That night, he stopped at a hotel in Des Moines, and fell asleep almost immediately after crawling into bed.
He didn't remember dreaming of Starsky, but the man was on his mind as soon as he woke up. Hutch dressed and breakfasted hastily, eager to set out, needing to go home to be with Starsky as soon as he could. There was so much he wanted to tell him. So much he hoped he would be able to show him.
He let himself relive the days before his kidnapping, going back to Starsky's stay in the hospital. His feelings of love and concern had been nearly overpowering, even after they knew Starsky would live and after Gunther's capture. The night of the party in Starsky's room had been one of the singular experiences of his life.
He drew the memories out, lingering over them like faded snapshots. He remembered hiding in the men's room after the sprinkler had doused their party, and he remembered sneaking back to Starsky's room.
He hadn't known how to begin to tell him how he felt, only that before the night ended Starsky would know. And when his friend has awakened and touched him, there had been little need for words after all.
For the first time, he contemplated the love they'd made to each other that night. He'd thought his memory of it would be sketchy, but once the pictures started in his mind, the recollections became vivid. He remembered their first kiss, a subtle and sweet discovery. He remembered unbuttoning Starsky's pajama top, and pulling down the pants, getting his own clothes out of the way. His hand could clearly recall the feel of both their cocks nestled in his palm together. The sensations were heartbreakingly beautiful, precious as nothing else to him.
He rubbed awkwardly at his tearing eyes as he drove, conscious of the terrible waste, the knowledge of how they'd been cheated. We only made love once, never got the chance to touch each other as lovers again. The unfairness swept him, and he realized the horrible cost to Starsky, left alone when Hutch was kidnapped, alone when he was comatose, alone when he woke up but didn't remember.
Has that awful aloneness burned out Starsky's love, scarred his soul so badly he can't conceive of us being together again? Hutch didn't know the answer, and was nearly afraid to find it out. Yet he continued toward his goal, relentlessly pushing for home. Whatever waited for him in L.A., it was his future he was driving toward and he wanted it for its own sake now.
The names of cities passed him by on the interstate: Wichita, Liberal, Oklahoma; Tucumcari, New Mexico; Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff. Beyond lay the desert. Hutch felt a little chill down the back of his neck as he neared the Mojave. He remembered another desert land, where he'd tried to run with nowhere to go, been recaptured and beaten senseless, where a needle had taken two years of his life -- and where it had sent Starsky to wander in endless barrenness, still alone after all this time. I want to take you out of that desert... if you'll let me.