The pain was beyond excruciating, unlike any he’d ever known before. It became even worse when his chest was forced to expand. He called for help to beg for a modicum of relief, but his lips couldn’t or wouldn’t move and something was blocking his mouth. He knew no one heard the cry because he couldn’t externalize, though it was loud and clear in his head.
He was cold, like he imagined the Arctic must be, then hot, like he knew Death Valley was. He was tiring, too. His energy was deserting him like a coward on the battlefield.
Yeah, battlefield. I gotta be in some kinda battle.
A hard pulse of bilious nausea added to his raw agony.
Then loneliness. And aloneness. The only person on the planet. He couldn’t sense Hutch near him, and that amplified everything he was experiencing.
Oh, God, what if he’s dead?
His will, his hope went up in smoke.
Suddenly, he was in a doorless and windowless room painted a pale yellow color that reminded him of early dawn without the smog. What the… Then dizziness struck him, along with a sense of befuddlement.
He closed his eyes, hoping those sensations would settle down and maybe even disappear. They did, and he also realized he didn’t hurt, didn’t feel like upchucking, didn’t feel alone. He felt… almost normal. As normal as he could without feeling Hutch’s presence in some way.
He opened his eyes and studied the room more closely. It was small, barely big enough to hold two peacock chairs, arms touching each other at a 45-degree angle.
Where the hell am I?
Calmer than he thought possible, he decided to do the only thing he thought was possible -- say something rather than stand there like some big dummy.
“Hello?” He startled himself, surprised that he actually could talk and hear. “Uh, anybody here?”
He was immediately shocked to see someone he never expected to see again sitting on one of the chairs after materializing out of thin air.
“Muh-Mrs. Greene?” She looked exactly as she did before the cancer ravaged her body but not her mind, goodness, humor, and exceptional spirit.
She smiled warmly and happily, and her eyes, abnormally large behind her glasses, danced with joy. In the accented voice he loved to hear, she said, “Oh, my boy David. To see you makes my heart full.” She even spoke with the verve she had when they had first met.
He swallowed his fear and disbelief so he could respond. “But-but-but you’re… dead. Are you real?”
She laughed sweetly with a touch of condescension. “I am just, well, different. My energy has changed.”
“Uh… so there is life after death?”
“There are many faiths that believe it so.”
“Oh.” He paused, his mind itchy from trying to find words and belief in what he was seeing and hearing. “Yeah?” was the best he could come up with.
Mrs. Greene laughed gently as she patted the seat of the unoccupied chair. “Sit. Let yourself rest. And we can talk more easily.”
Slowly, he edged the short distance to the chair. He tested it with his hand to reassure himself that it was real -- at least real enough to support his weight. He sat almost daintily. When the chair didn’t collapse, he relaxed into it.
He took Mrs. Greene’s aged hand in his, surprised to find hers warm and soft, and asked, “Am I dead?”
She smiled and chuckled. “You are somewhere in between.”
He frowned. “Is that kinda like the limbo that Catholics believe?”
Mrs. Greene gestured extravagantly with her free hand as if to wave away his thought. “You are at a turning point, my dear boy. You have a choice to make. This is very rare, you must know. You are allowed to choose whether to live or die.”
Her bluntness disturbed him, as well as the mystery of all this. “I don’t understand.”
She patted his knee. “I will explain. You see, only a very few special people can choose. You are one of these because of who you are.”
“But I’m nobody special. I’m just a cop doin’ the best I can along with my partner.”
“Oh, you are so very special, David. It is in your eyes, and in his as well; I saw it when I visited him in the hospital. You visited with me when even my family didn’t. You arranged for someone to be with me during my last days when you couldn’t be there. I especially liked that charming young man with the unusual name of Huggy Bear; what a treasure he was! You and your two friends were there when no one else but my doctor and a few of my nurses were at my funeral. You love me, what can I say? You love an old woman who gave you some small comfort when your friend was hurt but in return you gave me love and hope that my last days were meaningful to someone other than myself.”
He felt the heat rise rapidly from his chest to the top of his head. He grinned shyly. “It wasn’t small, Mrs. Greene. You helped me a lot at a very rough time. How can anyone not love you, sweetheart, and wanna do for you?”
She cupped his cheek with her free hand. “Your life as a policeman -- and that of your friend -- comes out of love for those who cannot help themselves and you expect nothing in return. What you do every day gives hope that there is good in this world.”
“But I’ve killed or hurt so many people.”
“This is true. But war is a terrible thing and you killed to defend your friends, did you not?”
He nodded reluctantly. Then wondered how she knew he had served in ‘Nam.
“And this too you did as a policeman, did you not?”
He looked away, too ashamed to look at her as the reminder of the large death toll he’d wrought since his days in the army hit him like Thor’s hammer. “Yeah,” self-loathing apparent in the muttered word.
She tsk’d several times. “There will be none of that, do you understand?””
“Yes, ma’am,” he reluctantly agreed.
“Good. Now I tell you more. For this love you have for people and the uncommon love you and your friend share, you have been granted a choice. If you choose life, know that you will have lots of pain and other unpleasant feelings. There will be setbacks. There will be a few things you can no longer do. You will suffer greatly for months, but you will come through. Your pain will lessen with time.”
“And if I choose death?” His voice shook with fear and uncertainty. He didn’t want to die, but he wasn’t sure he could face months of agony and years of milder but never-ending pain.
“Then you will join me and those who’ve gone before you. It is beautiful beyond description or imagination, this life after life.”
His brow knitted as he asked, “Gimme a minute?”
“Of course, my David. But you must decide soon.”
He nodded. The thought of being with Pops again was overwhelming and exhilarating, as was being with Helen, Terry, a few of his closest platoon mates, John Blaine, Jackson Walters, even Iron Mike. It was so tempting --
“Have you decided?” she asked, ending his train of thought.
He peered at her anxiously. “I gotta know somethin’ first. Is Hutch still alive? I know it sounds looney, but I can’t... feel him.” Suddenly he regretted asking the question. He couldn’t stand it if the answer was not in the affirmative. He didn’t want to die, but he didn’t want to live without Hutch. Without him, he’d be half a person, and Hutch, truly his much better half, would be gone. He believed he was only worthy to live because of his brotherhood with Hutch.
Mrs. Greene gazed at him with some pity. “Your friend is still alive. He is working to find the people who tried to kill you both. You cannot feel him because you are using every speck of energy to stay alive. And yes, my dear one, you are worthy.”
Holy crap -- she can read my mind! He couldn’t let that bother him with time being short so he asked, “Do you know what happens to Hutch if I choose death?”
“I can say nothing except that is a future that cannot be foretold, unlike what your body will experience if you choose life. He has many paths he can choose to go down.”
He knew instantly what path Hutch would choose because he’d choose the same one himself. And they would choose and follow it together.
He wanted, needed, to live. He wasn’t ready to leave his life, much less his best friend, partner, and brother by choice. He wasn’t ready to give up food or cars or driving or dancing or anything else.
With a conviction as powerful as Hutch was, he declared, “I choose life. And Hutch. Pain is no price at all, so I’ll live with it gladly.”
Mrs. Greene looked delighted. “I knew you would. You’ll both be all right, you and your friend. Before you go, I must ask you to promise me one thing.”
He kissed her hand. “Anything, lovely lady.”
She gave him a mischievous smile. “I get the first dance when you join us in this life after life.”
He grinned so widely that his face ached and laughed with his entire body. “It’s a date.”
“Oh, how am I so lucky to be so lovable to such fine young men? Now go back, quickly. Oh, you won’t remember anything of our visit. But you will remember two things. One is to stretch your heart so you’ll feel your friend again; the other is your promise to endure the pain.”
He stood, kissed her forehead, said, “I love you”...
Then he was back to the indescribable misery. He felt as if he were sinking into a hot whirlpool of lava, until he decided for some odd reason to stretch out his heart to hopefully reconnect with Hutch.
He heard a bang not too far away, and felt Hutch once again. He relaxed in the gratitude and love that welled up in him and the lava morphed into a warm, sandy beach. He resolved then that pain would not rule or conquer him, that he would embrace life and soon, he hoped, his best buddy.
Hutch guided Starsky’s wheelchair back to his room. Not surprisingly, Starsky was quiet. The physical therapy session had been barbarous yet Starsky had endured without one word of complaint, without a whine, without a snarl. Just like he’d done since they had started therapy weeks ago.
Hutch backed the wheelchair into Starsky’s room and stopped when it was beside his bed. As he locked the wheels, he asked, “Ready?”
Starsky nodded, said, “Yeah.”
“Want some help?”
Starsky looked up at him, a grateful smile on his face. “Sure. Let’s do it.”
Hutch was yet again amazed at his best friend’s unfailingly upbeat attitude that had been present since he had come out of the coma. He knew Starsky had a lot of pain, occasional trouble breathing, and periodic nausea. But no griping? No moaning? No feeling-sorry-for-himself pout? Even with his history of downplaying serious discomfort, this was different. This wasn’t the Starsky he knew and loved. Hell, his reactions, or rather lack thereof, weren’t even human. He could hold his tongue no longer; he had to find out what was going on in Starsky’s apparently warped -- more so than usual, it seemed -- brain.
Once Starsky was settled in his bed, Hutch hiked a hip on the mattress. “Starsk, I got a question.”
Hutch involuntarily grimaced at Starsky’s word choice.
“Uh, too soon, hunh?”
“Well, yeah.” Probably always will be.
Starsky looked chagrined. “Sorry, babe. I’ll try to do better. So, what’s your question?”
“Starsk, I know you too well –- you can’t hide your pain from me, even with your pretty high tolerance. I can see it on your face and in your body. But you act like PT is a stroll along the beach. You’re still throwing up once in a while. What the hell is going on with you?”
Starsky gave his concerned, bewildered friend a serene smile.
“It was a choice I made.”