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The Wounds We Hide

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The Wounds We Hide

Chapter One

Sergeant David Michael Starsky looked out of the bus window and sighed. Only another twenty-four hours of travelling and he would be back in Bay City. While a flight would have been a lot quicker, he couldn’t afford the ticket so here he was on second leg of the bus journey. His thoughts returned to the place he had left just over a day ago. Brooklyn. He’d been glad to stop off in New York and see his mother and Nicky and knew that they had been thrilled to see him; happy for the opportunity to confirm with their own eyes that he was alive and undamaged after his last tour of ‘Nam. He grimaced at his reflection in the window; alive maybe, undamaged – he wasn’t so sure.

The wounds he’d received in his leg had been severe enough to invalid him home but not so bad that the doctors hadn’t been able to patch him up almost as good as new. He had two scars where bullets had torn their way into his body but they had both missed a vital artery and not shattered any bones. He’d been incredibly lucky: the muscle damage had been repaired and now he just had a small limp, which the doctor and physiotherapist assured him would soon be a distant memory.

The wounds to his mind? That he wasn’t so sure about.

Unlike some of the other youngsters he’d served with in-country, Starsky’s philosophy of taking one day at a time seemed to have helped him get through the worst of every encounter and situation he had faced. He’d shrugged off things he’d seen and refused to dwell on them for more than a few minutes. Others had come to him for help; he didn’t need help himself. Why then did he seem to be unravelling now he was back on American soil? He was safe from enemy combatants yet, at the oddest of times, he would feel as if he could hear them or, worse, see them.

While he was serving, he’d successfully held in check any reaction to the horror of what he’d seen during his tours, just got on with the job he had to do. Now all of the feelings and thoughts he’d hidden away or tried to deny seemed to be trying to escape from the closed box into which he’d crushed them. They would burst out at random times as if trying to loose themselves into the daylight and purge him of the darkness he’d inadvertently caused by not dealing with each emotion as it came.

Starsky sighed again. It was true he’d managed to get through the week at his old home with only two nightmares; both of which had left him panting with fear in the darkness. Luckily, neither nightmare had woken his mother or Nicky but he knew that he was likely to have more and didn’t want his luck to run out.

He’d had one ‘daymare’, as he had taken to calling them. His mother had taken him out to a diner for a celebratory meal. As he’d been on his way to the washroom, someone in the kitchen dropped a pan. His heart rate had sky-rocketed and, shaking with fear, he had dashed into the men’s room. All around him, he could hear gunfire and for a moment he was back in-country, trying to find somewhere to hide amongst the vines, leaves and swampy roots of trees. Fortunately, there had been no-one else in the washroom. After a couple of minutes, he began to realise where he actually was. Still shaking, he used the toilet and went to wash his hands. Glaring at himself in the mirror, he gave himself a mental pep talk and then splashed some water over his face. His mother looked at him enquiringly when he returned to their table but he’d smiled reassuringly at her and she hadn’t pursued why he was looking so pale.

 The daymare and nightmares were one reason he hadn’t stayed for a second week. There were other reasons too. Nicky was completely self-absorbed and occupied with earning as much quick cash as he could. It seemed to Starsky that his younger brother was on the edge of a dangerous path, maybe the path he’d nearly gone down himself before his mother had panicked and sent him away to Bay City, California, to stay with her brother and his wife.

Then there was the fact that everyone seemed to have turned their anger over the war in ‘Nam from a political debate into personal attacks on the soldiers who’d been drafted. Starsky wasn’t sure he could take one more glance filled with hatred or one more person spitting at him.

Finally, even though he loved his mother and had loved his childhood in New York, it just didn’t feel like home anymore. The hole left by his father’s death was too big. On top of that, his mother’s decision to send him away, rather than move the whole family to Bay City, still hurt; despite his rational mind understanding and accepting her reasons. The emotional hurt, inflicted on his angry, confused, grieving, teenage self, had been immense and the wound had run deep.

Right at this moment, he wasn’t sure anywhere would ever truly feel like home again; like he was part of a family unit. The closest he’d gotten to feeling like he belonged in any place was at Al and Rosie’s. They’d accepted him into their home and done their best to weather the storm of his hurt and rage at the lack of control he had over his teenage world. If medals were awarded for parenting, Al and Rosie had earned it for sure, just by their perseverance and their refusal to react towards him with anything but love. Still ashamed at the thought, he knew he’d been horrible to them every day for at least a year when he’d first been dumped on their doorstep. Certainly, he didn’t know how they’d put up with him but he would forever be grateful that they had.

As he travelled back to their house now, he worried about what the immediate future held. He wondered what kind of job he could get. As someone with only basic schooling and a soldier to boot, returning to a country that regarded him with suspicion and in some cases disgust, it would be difficult. Al would probably offer him some temporary work again at the car lot, which would keep him occupied in the short-term but wouldn’t be the best thing financially for his uncle.

Starsky was also concerned about sharing the same living space as his uncle and aunt day-to-day. He knew his mood had a tendency to swing violently ever since he’d been injured and the last thing he wanted to do was lash out at the very people who’d given him stability and welcomed him into their home. He believed his erratic moods were improving a little week by week but he still had trouble not reacting when something angered or frightened him.

And then, of course, there were the recurring nightmares. He really didn’t want to wake Al and Rosie with his night terrors but when they happened he had no control over himself. At least in Bay City, he wouldn’t think twice about sneaking out of the house and going out for a run around his neighbourhood to ease his fear. Maybe, he could even run as far as the beach. Before he’d been drafted, he’d enjoyed getting down to the coast. The weather was pretty mild all year round in California and it was pretty easy to get to the beach and stare at the ocean in silent contemplation whenever he felt like it.

What he was sure he needed right at this moment, more than anything, was some peace and quiet. And time. Time to work out how he was feeling and what he was going to do with his life from now on.

 

*******

 

Ken Hutchinson stood under the warming flow from the shower head and, for the third time in as many days, wondered why he had this strong desire to just stay there forever. That, or crawl back into bed. He really didn’t want to go in today; it was the time of year to start thinking about what his next placement would be and he had been dodging his personal tutor for about a week. He sighed and began slowly washing his hair. He was only delaying the inevitable by lingering under the soft water. Soon he would have to get out, get dressed and drive the twenty minutes to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical School.

As he showered, he wondered again why his feelings towards his training seemed to be undergoing a ‘sea change’. He’d really loved attending college at University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and he’d enjoyed his pre-med course there. The four years had flown by and he’d loved every minute of it; throwing himself into all that college had to offer. He’d got involved with the UCSB wrestling team; wrestling being one of the main reasons that he had chosen the pre-med course at UCSB rather than attend a course closer to home in Duluth. Being part of the college squad had been a great experience.

It had taken a little time to be accepted, coming from such a different background from many of the other wrestlers, but he soon became one of them and got along easily with most people. He’d helped the squad gain some success in the inter-college championships and that had cemented his place as a member of the team. It was a team mate who first called him Hutch and it stuck.

Weekends home had been taken at the end of semesters and he’d enjoyed seeing his family on these occasions and keeping in touch with his home town friends, including a pretty girl called Vanessa. Somewhere into his third year, Vanessa had started visiting him at UCSB on a regular basis at weekends and by the end of the year he’d ending up proposing. They had decided to get married after his pre-med degree concluded and before he started at Med School. He graduated from UCSB Magna cum laude, much to his delight and Vanessa and his parents’ pride.

After four years of living in and around Santa Barbara, Hutch (as he now thought of himself, much to his parents’ and Vanessa’s consternation) had fallen in love with California and decided that he wanted to stay there to do his Medical training so it was inevitable that he would join the medical school at UCLA. He’d broached the subject with Vanessa and been relieved when she’d said she wouldn’t mind being taken away from Duluth and her family.

Hutch knew that starting out on married life whilst undertaking such an onerous area of study would be a juggling act but he was fully prepared to try in order to build a home with the woman he loved. So he and Vanessa had started their married life only three weeks before he started his medical training, after moving into their first home together in Bay City.

They’d chosen Bay City because it was cheaper than Santa Barbara and, of course Los Angeles, and the commute was only around thirty minutes to either the north or south on a good day, a bit more if there was holiday traffic. Bay City also had its own beautiful beaches close by to recommend it to them and, during the weekends of their first year there, he and Vanessa had enjoyed exploring all the little coves and towns along the coast between Bay City and Santa Barbara to the North and Los Angeles to the South.

Hutch immersed himself in his medical training, planning on doing as well as he did at everything he put his mind to; it was harder than he expected and his first placement in a busy Los Angeles hospital immediately gave him second thoughts about being a doctor but he kept these to himself and plodded on.

Vanessa liked the California lifestyle and settled happily enough. She made friends through her work at an art gallery and her membership of the Bay City Country Club. It had been a relief to him that she hadn’t minded being taken away from her family in Duluth and he delighted in her obvious enjoyment of her job. They both enjoyed the lifestyle they were able to experience despite Hutch spending a lot of time studying. Vanessa hadn’t minded him being a student while she worked because she was happy to put up with the sacrifices needed in order for him to train, knowing that their life would eventually be better financially and socially once he became a fully-fledged doctor.

Now, as he stepped out of the shower and wrapped himself in a towel, he wondered what Vanessa’s reaction was going to be if he expressed the feelings that had gradually crept into his heart and grown stronger with each passing week – the feeling that medicine was just not for him.  He had come to the startling conclusion that he didn’t want to go on training; he didn’t want to be a doctor at all. Even more startling was the knowledge that his heart appeared to have settled on training to be a police officer.

Hutch looked at himself in the mirror that was slowly being obscured by steam and sighed. He had no idea where the desire had come from. No one in his family had ever worked on the police force. His grandfather on his mother’s side had been a farmer; the one on his father’s side had been a lawyer. His own father was a lawyer, a good one that was sought after to represent large companies in big corporate cases, and had hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps. It was a profession that didn’t appeal to Hutch in any way, shape or form. His father had been disappointed, no denying it, but he had accepted that his son wanted to do something different.

Both of his parents had happily supported his choice to take a medical degree and become a doctor. His father liked his choice because it was a respectable profession; his mother because it meant his call up to serve in Viet Nam would be definitely deferred. The knowledge that he didn’t want to continue his studies would leave both of them surprised and bewildered. They certainly wouldn’t understand if he declared that he wanted to retrain with the police. It would be like telling them he wanted to walk on the moon, a totally alien concept. He didn’t know how he was going to tell them and, more importantly, he had no idea how he was going to tell Vanessa. He had a feeling that she would not be supportive. Over the last few months, he’d realised how much stock she set on him becoming a doctor; she already prefaced every conversation with new people with, “Of course, Ken’s training to be a doctor.”

Wiping the steam from the mirror so he could see his face again, he stared hard at the image in front of him, acknowledging to himself that he had been putting off telling her of his growing conviction that he couldn’t be a doctor. Perhaps he had half hoped that his thought of joining the police was just a wild idea that would soon pass. It hadn’t and if anything the desire for it had grown stronger, so strong he could almost feel how much it would hurt if he didn’t get accepted.

Time was now becoming his greatest problem; if he was going to get enrolled in Bay City Police Academy for the Fall intake, he needed to apply soon.

Suddenly, feeling a rush of determination, Hutch rubbed his hair dry and then began drying himself off. He needed to tell his tutor, his parents and Vanessa that he wasn’t going to be a doctor. He had been hiding from what he knew was going to be a difficult conversation on all fronts but time was up. He just had to man up and do it. He just hoped he was up to dealing with the fall-out. He didn’t want to upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings but he couldn’t go on lying to himself about what he really wanted to do. The time to take control of his life was now.

*******

 

“Hey man, wake up!” a voice was saying in his ear.

Starsky came awake abruptly, instantly on alert. If he’d had a gun handy, it would have been in his hand. As it was, he drew his hand back ready to defend himself should it be required. He found a pair of kindly brown eyes looking into his.

“Easy man. I ain’t gonna hurt you. Just thought you might want to know we’ll be arriving in Bay City in ten minutes or so.”

Starsky rubbed a hand over his gritty eyes and said, “Sorry, I tend to wake up mean. Thanks for letting me know we’re nearly there.”

“You’re welcome,” the older man said and then shuffled back to his seat.

Starsky pulled himself upright in his seat and tried to pull his clothes into some sort of order. Nearly three days of travelling and he knew he must look a sight. Not that his uncle and aunt would mind. They’d just be glad to see him.

Engine rumbling, the bus slowed down and turned into Bay City West bus station. The few remaining passengers grabbed their luggage and made their way off the bus. Starsky reached up and dragged his long army kit bag down from where he’d managed to squeeze it into the overhead compartment. He walked along the length of the vehicle trying not to limp. Before he attempted to descend the steps, Starsky quietly thanked the driver. The man grunted at him. Carefully favouring his only recently healed leg, Starsky slowly walked down the steps until he was down on the tarmac. He swung his duffle bag over his shoulder and moved away from the noisy vehicle, turning to watch as it set off again towards Bay City Bus Depot. The last few passengers quickly scattered in all directions, eager to make their way to their homes.

Starsky was still a few roads away from his Uncle’s house. Al and Rose didn’t have a car, even though Al sold them for a living, and so he’d known that there would be nobody waiting to pick him up. Feeling a slight anxiety, he hoped his leg would hold up to the walk he would have to make to get the rest of the way to their house. When he was tired, he still limped slightly; the sort of tired he was right now. Still, he could have had worse injuries and at least he was alive; that was more than could be said for nearly half his squad.

Faces floated up in front of his eyes. He shook his head to try to clear them away. Not now. Don’t think about it now. Just get to Al’s, get to a safe place. He could feel his heart starting to hammer in his chest and the sweat prickling a path along his back. Please God, not a ‘daymare’, not now.

Because he’d only had one daytime flashback while he was at his mother’s, he’d started to entertain the optimistic thought that maybe they were over with. He should have known better. The hand clutching the strap on his bag felt cold and he could feel sweat breaking out along the back of his neck. His heart started thumping even harder in his chest and he attempted to hurry his footsteps.

What was that?

Behind him, footsteps and a whispered curse; he swung round but there was nobody there. Clutching his bag tighter, he moved his feet quicker along the sidewalk. He heard snatches of voices whispering then the sound of gunfire in the distance. It’s not real. He tried to keep a hold on rational thought, telling himself that none of what he was hearing was real and all he had to do was get to Al’s house and he would be safe. His free hand reached for a gun that wasn’t there and he swallowed hard. He could feel his mind starting to slip towards the state where he wouldn’t be able to control his actions. Just three more blocks to go. You’ll make it.

Every step of the way along Harrison Street, he had to fight the urge to run for cover and hide. By the time he reached James Street, he was starting to see ominous shapes out the corner of his eye. He passed a couple walking on the opposite side of the street and, for a second, saw soldiers. Hold it together, he whispered to himself. You’re nearly there. With a huge sense of relief, he saw, only half a dozen houses away, the white steps leading up to the front door that would lead him to sanctuary. He hobbled the last few yards and paused at the bottom of the steps, adjusting the weight of his bag to make it easier to carry. He took a deep breath, trying to calm his pounding heart. Then he began the climb. Suddenly, the door was thrown open making him jump.

“Davey! My darling, darling boy!”

The faces, gunfire and danger lurking at the edge of his consciousness began to recede as Rosie pulled him up the last of the stairs and on to the large, flat, stone slab at the top. Starsky dropped his bag and his aunt wrapped her arms around him, beginning to cry. Starsky’s eyes filled with tears, which he tried his best to blink back. He swallowed hard, clinging onto the woman, who despite her small stature was somehow bigger and stronger than the fears coursing through him. Her strength and care washed over him like a soothing balm and he began to relax.

“Oh my darling,” Rosie whispered in his ear, “I prayed every day you’d come home safe and sound.” She kissed his cheek and stepped back, holding onto his lower arms and saying, “Let me look at you. Oh, you’re so thin and you look so tired. Come on into the kitchen and I’ll get you something to eat.” Rosie took his hand and pulled him into the house, “Leave your bag in the hall; Al can take it up to your room when he gets home.”

Starsky allowed himself to be dragged through the house into the kitchen where he gratefully settled himself on one of the comfortable old kitchen chairs and leaned on Rosie’s smooth, wooden table.

“It’s good to be back, Aunt Rosie.”

Rosie ruffled her nephew’s short curly hair and then headed over to the stove to put the kettle on. Then she opened a cabinet and pulled a cake tin out.

“I made one of your favourites to celebrate you being home.”

She opened the round tin to reveal a sponge cake sprinkled with sugar and sandwiched together with jam. Starsky found his mouth watering at the thought of eating a slice of one of Rosie’s special homemade cakes. It had been a very long time since he’d had one of them. His aunt cut him a large slice and placed it on a yellow plate, which she pushed towards him. Then she turned to make some tea.

“Al’s going to come home early tonight. He can’t wait to see you, Davey. Everyone in the neighbourhood will be so pleased you’re home.”

Starsky savoured the first bite of the slice of cake. He sighed with contentment and smiled at his aunt. Rosie passed him his tea in a fine bone china cup and saucer that she usually kept for her best visitors – the gesture wasn’t lost on him and, although tea wasn’t his favourite drink, he drank it happily. Anything tasted better than army issued food and drink. He heard the front door open and heavy footsteps coming towards the kitchen.

Al came into the room with a big grin on his face. “You’re back!”

Starsky nodded and smiled.

Al sat down at the table and took the tea and cake his wife offered to him. He took a cautious sip of the hot liquid and then turned his attention to his nephew.

“How’s the leg?”

“Not too bad. Bit stiff.”

Al nodded. “You didn’t want to stay longer in New York then?”

Starsky looked down before he said, “It was too loud.”

“Ah.” Al looked at him kindly and, with the insight that came from having served briefly himself in Korea, said, “You take as much time as you need, Davey. If you don’t want to see anyone to start with, don’t. Don’t let Rosie get carried away with thoughts of welcome home parties.” He looked at his wife, who looked disappointed at first but then nodded her understanding. “And if you got any problems…well, I hope I would understand a little. Talk to me, talk to us. We’re here if you need us.”

Starsky wiped at his eyes; he couldn’t speak although he wanted to. Instead, he held out both of his hands to his uncle and aunt and squeezed his thanks when they took hold of his in theirs; he was so grateful to be back in this place, this haven from the outside world – at least for the time being.

Chapter Two

 

Hutch listened to the door slamming and let out a long slow breath. Well, he’d done it; he’d told her what was on his mind. He started gently, telling her that he was feeling increasingly called to do something that would involve helping people.

As she had many times before, Vanessa poured cold water on his ideas when he mentioned them, calling it a ‘phase’ and demanding to know, “What job could be more about helping people than being a doctor?”

He had admitted that she had a point but tried to make her understand that the idea of the profession just didn’t fit him anymore and he couldn’t pretend that it did. He attempted to illustrate his point by saying that he was looking for a career that would better fit him and his increasing desire to make the world a better place if he could. There was so much suffering going on in the city and he wanted to be out there helping people.

Vanessa had stared at him, uncomprehending. Then with a face that showed that she thought he was crazy, she asked, “You’re not going to join some Mission and spend your days ladling soup to the homeless, are you?”

“Well, what’s so wrong with that?”

Vanessa’s eyebrows had nearly flown off her face. Hutch had taken a breath and smiled gently.

“No, I’m not going to be spending every waking minute ladling soup…but I do want to help people. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I keep coming back to joining the police.”

The silence that met this announcement was deafening. Vanessa had looked at him as if he’d taken leave of his senses and haughtily reminded him that people of their social standing didn’t do jobs like that. It had been as if he was talking to her in a foreign language.

He’d said simply, “Vanessa, it’s what I want to do.”

That had been when she’d walked out of the kitchen, grabbing her car keys from the counter top, carrying on out of the house and slamming the door as she left. Hutch looked out of the kitchen window and wondered if he would ever be able to get Vanessa to understand. She was getting harder and harder to reason with and he was starting to feel like he understood her less and less and, no doubt, she felt the same about him. He was saddened by this thought. Just under two years of marriage and it already felt like it was running aground on rocks.

Vanessa was as beautiful as she had always been but somehow that wasn’t enough anymore. He was beginning to find her looks were only skin deep. He was sad to realise that he had come to see her internal make-up had no softness to it. She’d appeared to be a caring person and they had had fun when they first dated but now the things they had enjoyed seemed superficial and silly - not something to build a long-lasting life on. And she seemed oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t happy. Surely, the person you shared your life with ought to at least realise how miserable you were and try to help you?

He sighed. He sometimes felt like he couldn’t breathe when he was with Vanessa; even more so when he was with her and her friends. All of them were completely self-absorbed, only interested in how much they earned and what they could buy with it. Was it wrong to want more from life than that? He needed to do something that made him feel fulfilled and he needed to do something that would give him that precious room to breathe.

If he was completely honest with himself, it wasn’t just the idea of a career in medicine that had increasingly made him feel unfulfilled and unsettled. His marriage to Vanessa was becoming more and more like a war zone with new battle lines being drawn every day. Sometimes he didn’t feel as if he belonged in this life, in this marriage, even in this home. It certainly didn’t feel like he imagined a home would feel like. He tried to remember the last time he had felt ‘at home’ and decided it was a long time ago. Too long ago.

Sighing again, he realised it was clear Vanessa was not going to take his change of career in her stride but he felt the decision had been made and that there was now no turning back now. He just needed to stand firm and go ahead with what he knew was what he wanted to do with his life.

No one, not Vanessa, not anyone in his family, understood his overwhelming need to be a police officer. He’d give almost anything to find another person who understood that calling and his desire to help people.

 

*******

 

It was late. The house was quiet; both Al and Rosie were asleep, as he should be, but Starsky had tried and, after a couple of hours of tossing and turning, he’d given up. Unwanted thoughts kept popping into his mind. He’d been back in Bay City for a few days now and a restless feeling had been growing inside him. He stared at the chest of drawers opposite his bed. On the evening of the day he had first come home, he’d unpacked his kit bag and shoved everything away in the closet or drawers, including two items buried right at the back of the bottom drawer where he hoped Rosie would never have occasion to come across them.

Now, he could feel the pull of the hidden items. He slipped quietly out of bed and slid the bottom drawer open. Reaching towards the back of it, he pulled out a small bag and then went back and sat on the bed. With slightly trembling hands, he slipped the wad of material out of the bag and unwrapped the first item. A small box was revealed.

Frowning, he snapped it open and stared at the Purple Heart. He’d give anything not to have it. He knew Rosie and Al and his Mom would be proud of him if they knew he had been awarded one but his decision to hide it came from a sense of failure. He’d been given it for his part in trying to rescue pinned down members of his squad. He’d been instrumental in saving three lives but there were three more that he hadn’t been able to save. At the moment, he could only see the faces of his fallen comrades when he tried to sleep.

He was so tired. Would the disturbed nights ever end?

His lips curled in a wry smile. I should be grateful I am alive to even have disturbed nights, he thought. In truth, he felt guilty that he’d made it home when so many hadn’t.

The weight of the other item in the soft material made its presence known as if calling to him. As he carefully unwrapped the cloth, two bullets rolled out. He caught them before they could fall off the bed and make a noise. He looked at the Walther P38 he had taken from a dead Viet Cong soldier and smuggled home. It was a fine gun and Starsky had admired the feel of it when he’d come across it. Now he wondered why he’d wanted to bring it home with him.

His subconscious stirred uncomfortably in the darkest recesses. You know why. Just in case it all gets too much…and one bullet is all it would take. He allowed the thought to roll around in his brain for a minute and then shook himself hard. No. No matter how bad things got, he couldn’t do that to his Mom, Nicky, Al or Rosie. Feeling disgusted with his momentary weakness, he quickly wrapped up the bullets, gun and medal and shoved them back into the drawer.

It was fatigue making him think these dark thoughts. Somehow, he had to find a way to get some real sleep. He just wish he knew how.

 

*******

 

Hutch made his way back from the library via the shopping mall. As he came out of the east entrance, he spotted a scruffily dressed man staggering along the street ahead of him and then ducking into an alleyway. Hutch almost didn’t give it a second thought but something gave him pause and instead of crossing the road back towards where he’d parked his car, he carried on along the sidewalk. As he reached the entrance to the alley, he slowed his steps and peered cautiously around the corner. The man he had seen was staggering along with unsteady steps, bracing himself with one hand against the brick wall. He came to a stop and bent over groaning. Concern overcoming any fear, Hutch quickly strode towards the man.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you hurt?”

The beaten down old man lifted his head towards Hutch, looking both surprised and in pain. He shook his head. His voice when he spoke was rough with pain and alcohol: “Just stomach ache, friend.”

He gasped as pain shot through him again and sagged a little more against the wall.

“Can I help you home? Call you a cab?” Hutch asked.

The man almost laughed but shook his head. “You want to help me home, just help me a hundred yards that way. That’s home.” He pointed to a wooden crate stuffed with newspapers and bags.”

“All right,” Hutch said, stepping forward and placing an arm under the man’s shoulders.

The man blinked at him, surprised, but allowed Hutch to help him walk the few steps to his home. Hutch could feel how hot his skin was through the layers of clothing he had on. He gently eased the older man down into a sitting position and, before he could object, placed his hand on his forehead.

“I think you’ve got a temperature. Have you got any water? You need to drink plenty.”

The man fished around in his bags and came up with a clear bottle with a pale brown liquid in it. He took the lid off and drank some of the whiskey.

“Tastes better than water,” he remarked.

Hutch frowned slightly and said softly, “You really should drink water to get that temperature down.”

The man sighed and reached for another bottle. This time one filled with water. He took a reluctant sip and made a face.

“My name’s Hutch. What’s yours?”

“Bill.”

“Well, Bill, is there anyone I could call for you? Anywhere you could go for some care?”

Bill shook his head. Hutch was about to speak again when the man doubled over with pain. Hutch quickly helped him lie down, placing an old blanket he found under his head.

“Whereabouts does it hurt, Bill?”

The man indicated his left side. After pausing to gain permission with a glance, Hutch lifted the man’s shirt and pressed lightly on the man’s stomach. It was hot to his touch and the man moaned with pain.

“I think you might have appendicitis,” Hutch said. “I’m going to get help.”

The man began to protest but another wave of pain stopped him from speaking. Hutch didn’t wait any longer. He jumped up and ran down the alleyway back out onto the sidewalk. As he looked for a phone booth to call the emergency services, he saw a passing police car and waved them down.

“Excuse me officers, there’s a man ill in the alleyway. Appendicitis maybe. I think he might need an ambulance.”

The man with sergeant’s stripes appraised Hutch with narrowed eyes and then stepped out of the car, telling the patrolman to radio for an ambulance while he went along with Hutch to investigate. When they got back to Bill’s crib, they could see he was passed out. As they got closer, they could see he had vomited and his face was very pale.

Hutch took his jacket off and handed it to the surprised police officer, who was speaking into his radio. Hutch quickly checked Bill’s mouth for any obstructions and then turned him on his side and put him in the recovery position. Then he took back his jacket from the police officer and laid it over the unconscious man.

“Ambulance is on its way,” the sergeant informed him.

“Good. I think his appendix might have burst and he looks as if he’s going into shock. Hope they get here soon.”

Hutch kept his eyes on Bill, watching him for signs of either returning awareness or difficulty breathing. The sergeant regarded Hutch with interest as he watched over the man and then interacted with the ambulance crew, telling them what little information he knew. As the crew wheeled Bill away, he approached Hutch.

“I reckon you’ve saved that man’s life. Nobody else would have bothered to check on him.”

Hutch shrugged as he put his coat on. “Just trying to do my civic duty.”

“You a doctor? You seemed to know what you were doing.”

“Sort of, I’m studying at Med School but I’m thinking about changing jobs, joining the police force actually,” Hutch said and then wondered why he’d offered up that piece of information to a complete stranger.

The sergeant nodded as they walked back down the alleyway to the parked unit.

“Think you would be an asset to the service, young man. What made you want to be a cop?”

“I’m not sure,” Hutch answered, “I just feel drawn to it. Although, my wife’s not sure it’s a good idea.”

Suddenly, with the piercing clarity that sometimes comes from saying something out loud, Hutch heard the longing in his own voice. He’d already decided it was what he wanted to do but now he knew nothing else would do. He had to work as a cop. He definitely couldn’t turn back now.

“Well, what’s her hang up? Worried about you getting hurt or something else?” the sergeant was asking.

“Well, we’ve only be married a couple of years and she thought she was marrying a doctor…and there’s the cost.”

“Well, I’m sure she’ll come round to the idea. Women dig a guy in a uniform, allegedly,” the sergeant said with a wink. “If money’s the real problem, it’s a year of scrimping but that’s not long in the scheme of things.”

Hutch nodded. “Thanks. I’ll tell her that. I do really want to be a cop.”

“Well, in that case, good luck at the academy and hope to see you around.”

The sergeant got into the squad car and after a moment drove away. Hutch watched the car until it was out of sight. The encounter had left him feeling that he was definitely making the right decision. He just needed to work much harder on persuading Vanessa that it was going to be a good thing.

*******

 

“Whiskey, neat,” Starsky said to the flamboyantly dressed man standing behind the bar he’d just walked into.

The tall, thin man reached for a bottle from the shelf behind him and poured a shot into a glass and placed it in front of Starsky. He started to turn the metal cap to close it tight.

“You might as well leave the bottle,” Starsky said.

The man looked at him with some reservation but put the bottle down on the counter nevertheless.

“Can I interest you in a burger, friend?” the man drawled. “Or some other delectation? We have a wide range of eats.”

Starsky shook his head. “Nah, already eaten.”

The barkeep cleaned a few glasses with a white cloth and placed them back on the shelves under the long wooden bar. He eyed Starsky as he did so. Starsky didn’t notice the look; he was too busy staring into his whiskey and recalling basic training with Mike. He’d not long got off the phone with him. That was why he now needed a drink. Mike was struggling; struggling worse than he was himself. He’d talked to Mike for over an hour, had even heard him crying on the other end of the phone before he’d started ranting again. During the call, Starsky had gone through a whole gamut of emotions; trying to calm him, sympathising with him and encouraging Mike all within the space of a few minutes – he’d tried to suggest people that Mike could go to for help. The whole conversation had left Starsky feeling exhausted and on edge himself.

“Wanna talk about it?” the barkeep asked softly, “I’m a good listener.”

Starsky downed his whiskey in one and helped himself to another shot before he looked up at the sympathetic dark brown eyes in front of him. He sighed and shrugged.

“’Nam?”

Starsky nodded but that was as much as he was prepared to do. “Thanks for the offer but tonight I don’t want to talk, I just want to drink.”

“Well, amigo, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

Starsky frowned. “If you’re worried about me paying for my drinks, I got cash.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out some crinkled dollar bills enough to pay for the two drinks he’d had and a couple more.

“Peace, brother,” the man said in a placating tone, “Just don’t like to see a good man disappear into a bottle. The name’s Huggy, by the way.”

“Well, Huggy by-the-way, how’d ya know I’m a good man? I’m many things…not sure good gets a look in…not after the things I’ve had to do.”

“We all got things we’ve had to do to survive,” Huggy said. “It’s a tough world out there.”

Starsky looked at him, considering the veracity of the statement, and then nodded an acknowledgement. He downed the second glassful and held up the empty tumbler.

“Another for the road, Huggy.”

Huggy picked up the bottle and poured another shot then slowly put the lid back on and, when Starsky didn’t protest, put the whiskey back in its place on the glass shelf.

“You from around here?” Huggy ventured a question.

“Not far,” Starsky said noncommittally.

He’d deliberately chosen the bar because it was far enough away from his uncle and aunt’s house for word not to get back to them that he’d been drinking hard liquor but not so far that he couldn’t get himself home afterwards. The bar had looked like the sort of place where you could remain pretty anonymous. The sort of place that wasn’t dangerous, although you might have to watch your back if some of the clientele fell out with each other, but by and large it was a mixed crowd of fairly ordinary folk. Any shady dealings looked low level. Starsky stood up.

“See you again,” Huggy said.

Starsky nodded and then headed out while he was still sober. He wanted to get home in time for the whiskey to begin to take effect and maybe help him relax enough to have an undisturbed night’s sleep. Otherwise, he had a feeling his mind was going to be on overdrive again after Mike’s call.

Huggy’s sympathetic eyes followed the man as he left the bar. He found himself hoping that the dark haired man would come back just so he would know that he was all right and hadn’t ended up doing anything stupid like other returning vets that Huggy had come across. He sighed. There was a lot of hurt out there and not many people trying to cure it.

*******

 

“I am getting more and more worried about him,” Rosie said to her husband as they sat after dinner, drinking a small cup of coffee each. “Since that chap Mike rang, he’s hardly left his room. Yesterday, he didn’t get out of bed till just before you got home. He’s not eating anywhere near enough. Have you noticed how jumpy he is some days? Other days, he’s just got no energy? It’s not like Davey at all. What can we do to help him, honey?”

Al sighed. He was just as worried as his wife about his nephew.

“Well, I’ve told him I need help at the car lot every morning from next week. That’ll help get him out of his room. Give him a bit of structure to his week. It must be hard moving from having to always take orders to having no boundaries at all. I found it hard myself when I first got back from Korea.”

“Do you think we should see if any of the guys he used to hang out with in the neighbourhood are home? Invite them round?”

Al considered this idea and then shook his head.

“Why don’t we invite the Blaines round at the weekend? John and Maggie will know who’s around of the old crowd and Davey has always got on well with them. That time he ran away – it was Maggie persuaded him to come home.”

Rosie nodded. “I’ll pop over tomorrow and see Maggie and find out if they’re free for dinner one evening. That’s a good idea, honey.”

“I have my moments,” Al said, smiling.

Rosie smiled back. She loved Al’s smile and she loved her nephew’s lopsided grin almost as much. She would give almost anything to see Davey’s grin back on his face. The quiet withdrawn man who’d returned from Viet Nam wasn’t the same bouncy, irrepressible, fun-loving youngster who’d been drafted. Why did countries have to go to war with each other? So many lives had been ruined with this latest conflict. She’d been so glad when Davey had returned in almost one piece. Now she was worried that he’d left a big part of himself in another country and that he’d never be whole again.

Chapter Three

 

Vanessa returned from town, loaded down with shopping bags. Hutch sighed when he saw the names on the bags but didn’t say anything. Vanessa dumped all of them at the edge of the living room and walked towards him where he sat on an armchair with his application papers and a pad spread out in front of him on the coffee table.

“What’s all that?”

Hutch squared his shoulders. “Application forms for Bay City Police Academy.”

“What! Don’t be ridiculous! I thought you realised that it’s out of the question!”

The conversation was off to a great start. Hutch sighed.

“Please just listen for once, Vanessa. I’ve told you I’m not happy. I really want to change my job and-”

Vanessa interrupted: “All right, fine, change your career but choose something that’s better paid than policing. Honestly!”

Hutch struggled to keep his temper under control. He was finding it more and more difficult to do so these days as Vanessa seemed to have given up all pretence of civility and was now treating him like a child.

“Vanessa! Sit down. Please.”

Vanessa looked at him in surprise but settled on the edge of the couch. “Well?”

“I’m not worried about being well paid. I want a job where I can make a difference. I’ve looked at lots of options but I keep coming back to being a cop.”

“Kenny, you can’t be serious! Do you know how ridiculous you sound?” Vanessa shook her head. “Your parents didn’t pay for your fancy education for you to become a cop.”

Hutch took a calming breath before he responded, “I’m sorry that you feel that way but my mind’s made up. I want to be a cop. I am going to be a cop. I’m applying to Bay City Police Academy and hopefully I will start training in September.”

Vanessa’s mouth fell open and then she frowned. “You can’t.”

“I’m sorry?! What do you mean I can’t?” Hutch said in disbelief.

“You can’t just decide to not be a doctor and start training for something new. I doubt your parents will go on funding you if you switch training. You’ll rack up huge bills…You’re married. Don’t I get a say?”

“Of course you get a say but doesn’t part of being married mean that you care whether I’m happy or not?”

Vanessa looked sulky and ignored the question. “How are you going to pay for it?”

“I have some money left from my grandparents’ estate. I’ll manage. It’ll only be for a year then I’ll be earning. We’d have had much more debt if I carried on training to be a doctor.”

“Yes, but eventually you would be on a great salary so it’s worth it. Won’t you reconsider? You passed pre-med with flying colours and I’m sure you’re doing well now. I just don’t understand your change of heart.”

Hutch sighed. “I know you don’t understand. I’m sorry you’re disappointed that you’re not going to be married to a doctor but I can’t help it. I’ve never wanted to be anything as much as I want to be a cop.”

Vanessa grimaced. After a moment, she said, “Well, there’s another thing you should take into account; I’ve supported you financially for nearly two years and I’m telling you now that I’m not going to start spending all of my pay on household bills. You’ll have to cover your share of those.”

Even knowing how much Vanessa loved spending money, Hutch was saddened to think that she didn’t care enough about him to even support him in this one small way. She seemed to have forgotten that his savings had paid for the deposit on the apartment they had chosen and both of their cars. It was as if his contributions just weren’t enough to take away the sour taste in her mouth. It was clear he’d upset her and she was going to find ways to make her displeasure known and punish him for it. The fact that he even thought that was how she felt depressed him further.

“Fine. I’ll use some of my savings to pay the household bills too.”

Vanessa stood up, looking resigned. “You’re not going to change your mind, are you?” It was more of a statement than a question. “I know how stubborn you can be.”

Hutch tried not to get irritated. “No, I’m not going to change my mind. I want to be a cop.”

Vanessa shrugged then walked out of the room, muttering, “I can’t believe I’m going to be married to a cop.”

She sounded so disgusted, Hutch felt a surge of anger but he tried to concentrate on the fact that at least Vanessa seemed resigned to his decision and he could go ahead with his application. He spread the forms out on the table and began making notes on his pad of his answers to the various questions before he attempted to fill in the proper application form. He didn’t want to make any mistakes on it. The smallest thing might make a difference in getting selected.

 

*******

 

Huggy knew how to deal with drunks. He’d lots of practice over the years. It wasn’t a regular occurrence at the establishment he now worked at but it did happen from time to time. Usually they fell into two categories; the weepy drunk or the belligerent drunk. Weepy drunks were easy – wipe them down, say a few consoling words, tell them to sleep it off and pour them into the back of a cab. Belligerent drunks were a little harder but he usually surprised them by doing something unexpected that took the force out of their bluster or, if he had to, he demonstrated that he was stronger than he looked and wasn’t going to take any nonsense.

What he didn’t like were the quiet ones. The ones who drank hard without it seeming to affect them and then got locked in their own heads. Those were the ones who wound up reported dead a couple of days later; from accidents on train lines or falling off bridges or being run down by cars. Huggy often wondered as he read the newspaper reports how many of them were actually accidents or how many had just the chosen to end a life that had become too hard to bear.

He gently pushed the final patron out of the door and locked it. Dimming the lights, he began the task of piling the chairs up ready for Sammy to come in and clean the floor in the morning. As he reached the last table and turned his attention to clearing the last bits of rubbish from the booths, he suddenly realised that he wasn’t alone. There was still a man sitting in the last but one booth. Huggy recognised the curly hair of the guy who’d come in about a week ago. His head was sunk on his chest and Huggy thought perhaps he’d fallen asleep. As he got closer though, the figure started and sat up.

“Hey man,” Huggy said. “Time to call it a night.”

The man looked around the dimly lit bar in surprise.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Didn’t realise it was so late.”

He stood up unsteadily and tried to slip his arm into the sleeve of his brown leather jacket.

“You want some coffee before you go wherever you’re going?”

The man paused, looking confused. Huggy decided to take silence as a yes and headed over to the kitchen door, quickly pouring two cups of coffee from the pot he kept bubbling all day for himself. He came back and put the two cups on the counter, next to two stools he hadn’t got around to putting up yet. The man had got his jacket on and had started walking unsteadily towards the locked door.

“Your coffee’s ready, friend,” Huggy called softly. “Drink up and I’ll unlock the door for you.”

Starsky’s expression was hooded as he turned uncertainly towards Huggy. He seemed about to argue but then his shoulders slumped and he came across and sat on the stool next to the bartender.

“You never did tell me your name,” Huggy said.

The man looked at him blankly and Huggy thought sadly that this was a man who was wary of making connections. He wondered why.

“Wanna talk about it?” Huggy offered, just as he had the previous week.

The man shook his head and then surprised Huggy by saying, “Thanks, but I can’t …Too much to unload.”

“It might help talking about it. Dump the load you’re carrying, you’ll feel better.”

The man shook his head again but said, “Maybe but…I can’t…yet.”

Huggy took the liberty of patting the man’s arm.

“Keep saying ‘yet’ my friend. One day, you’ll work out how to let it all go and move on…and my offer to listen is always open.”

“Thanks.”

The man swigged down his coffee and stood up. Huggy got up and went ahead of him to the door and unlocked it.

As he opened the door, he said, “Take care of yourself, compadre. Life will get better if you give it a chance.”

The man swallowed and nodded. As he stepped out into the dark, Huggy heard him say, “My name’s Starsky.”

Huggy closed the door and relocked it thoughtfully. He hoped that the giving of his name meant that Starsky was going to keep trying and not give up on life. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be seeing his name in the paper any time soon.

 

*******

 

Vanessa was standing in the living room holding a photo frame in her hand as she sipped her breakfast coffee. As he drew closer, Hutch could see it was a picture of his graduation. Vanessa became aware of him behind her and sighed, replacing the photograph on the mantelpiece.

“I just can’t help thinking what a waste all of this is going to be of your obvious talent.”

Hutch was so dumfounded, he could only look at her in silence.

Vanessa took a last sip of her coffee and headed out of the room, saying coldly, “Well, I’m off to work. See you tonight.”

 Hutch pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment and swallowed down the feeling of hurt building in his throat. Then he quietly headed into the kitchen to make himself some toast and clear up the mess on the table left by Vanessa. He decided he’d go for a run at the beach and see if he could get rid of the nasty bitter taste that Vanessa had left behind in the echo of her words.

 

*******

 

Starsky came out of the Veteran’s Association building and looked at the address in his hand. His courage started to falter. Maybe he’d go visit Jackson Walters another day.

No, do it today, right now, a little voice in his head said.

“You need to see that your actions did make a difference to someone,” the Captain at the association had said to him after their brief conversation.

Starsky had gone to the VA reluctantly; mainly because Rosie, Al, John and Maggie had all urged him to do so. They were worried about the increasing downward spiral his thoughts seemed to be moving in. He’d wavered, trying to insist he was all right, that he was dealing with everything he’d seen over there just fine but he’d seen the concerned looks and heard the quiet pleading in their voices as they urged him to go talk to someone. So here he was.

Captain Osmond had quickly realised that the young Sergeant wasn’t going to open up easily about what was bothering him so he’d suggested instead that they went for a walk around the grounds and talk about what hopes Starsky had for the future. Seeing some of the ex-soldiers that were hanging around, ex-soldiers of all different ages and from a variety of military campaigns, both reassured and depressed Starsky.

In halting words, he tried to explain this to the captain, “It’s kinda comforting to know that other people struggle with what happened over there. That I’m not the only one. But I don’t want to end up getting stuck in the past. I don’t want to end up not functioning. Ya know what I mean? I got a friend like that and I see some of these guys. I’m scared I’m not going to get back to normal.”

The captain had listened carefully and finally suggested that Starsky make contact with a soldier who’d been in his squad and also lived in Bay City. While Captain Osmond had gone into his office to ring Jackson and ask him if he was up to a visit from an ex-squad member, Starsky thought about the last time he’d seen the man. It was as they had both been hurried onto stretchers to carry them to the helicopters that would take them to the medical base. Starsky had been conscious; Jackson had been out of it and Starsky knew that Jackson had been invalided out of the army with worse injuries than he had. In fact, Jackson was one of the three that had been injured in the raid that had killed three other members of the squad; the same action that had ended up with all the survivors being awarded Purple Hearts. Starsky hoped he was making a good recovery; he had been a good soldier and a good man.

Captain Osmond had come out of the office and smiled at Starsky.

“Walters said: ‘Tell the Sarge to come round any time. He’s always welcome.’”

Starsky swallowed as he took the proffered paper with Jackson’s address on it.

“Sounds like a good person to go and have a chat with,” Captain Osmond observed.

Starsky nodded his thanks and headed out of the building; and here he now stood, still trying to make up his mind whether to go see Jackson today or not.

Do it today, right now, the little voice in his head said again. Or you’ll have Rosie on your case.

All right, all right, I’m going, he said to himself and quickly headed towards the bus stop where he could catch a ride to the part of town where Jackson lived. He didn’t have long to wait. A bus came into view and he climbed on board and sat near the front, looking out at the people on the streets as it travelled through the city. He saw: families out walking; office workers coming out from smart looking buildings, ready to head home; kids playing at parks and in yards; people buying produce from markets; adults sat at café tables in the late afternoon sunshine, sipping iced teas; the homeless rummaging in bins; and a disabled ex-soldier selling pencils from his wheelchair. Starsky closed his eyes for a moment.

The bus slowed down as it turned onto Jackson’s street and pulled up to the curb to let out a woman and her daughter. Starsky jumped up quickly and descended the steps before he could change his mind. The bus door closed and the vehicle rumbled away, leaving behind a trail of fumes. Starsky took a deep breath and then walked along the sidewalk a little way before crossing over to the side of the street where Jackson lived. He checked the number on his piece of paper and then headed up to the door and knocked.

A large, friendly looking woman opened the door and smiled at him. “Can I help you?”

“I’m David Starsky. I was hoping to see Jackson Walters.”

From inside the house, he heard a man’s voice call out: “Sarge? Is that you? Come on in!”

The woman moved aside to let Starsky enter and told him to follow her. As he did so, she said, “So you’re the famous Sarge.”

Starsky didn’t know quite what to make of the beautiful smile she gave him. Confused, he just nodded. They entered a warm, cosy kitchen where Starsky could smell a delicious dinner was cooking. The lady of the house hurried over to check on the pots and pans while Starsky looked at the man sat at the table. Jackson held out his hand and Starsky shook it.

“Sit down, Sarge. I’m so glad to see you’re recovered and home. How are you?”

“I’m good. How are you doing? How’s the chest? All healed?”

Jackson coughed. “Much better than it was few weeks ago. I’ll be able to start the hunt for a job soon I hope. Meanwhile I’m lucky that my Momma’s got room for me and my wife to live here. I’m luckier than a lot of people. You got an aunt and uncle in Bay City, if I remember rightly. You back with them?”

Starsky nodded.

“Good. It’s good to have people round you that care,” Jackson said.

Mrs Walters poured tea into cups and put them on the table. She pushed a little jug of milk and a pot of sugar towards Starsky.

“You’ll stay for dinner with us, I hope?” she said.

“Oh no, I can’t,” Starsky said, “My aunt’s expecting me but thanks for the offer.”

Mrs Walters fixed him with a look. “But you’ll come back next week and have dinner with us. My way of thanking you for saving my son. He wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for you.”

Starsky blushed and shifted uncomfortably on his chair.

“Enough of that, young man. You have to learn to accept gratitude when it’s given, especially when it’s earned.”

Starsky couldn’t help smiling at the no-nonsense tone. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Mrs Walters went back to her stove, shaking with peals of laughter.

Jackson grinned. “She’s fiercer than you ever were, Sarge!”

Through her laughter, Mrs Walters said, “That’s enough sass from you, Jackson. You ain’t so big; I can’t box your ears if I’ve a mind too.”

“Yes, Momma,” Jackson replied with a wink, knowing full well she’d do no such thing.

Starsky felt himself beginning to relax in a way he’d not been able to since he got back from ‘Nam.

“Why don’t you take your tea outside into the yard for a little while,” Mrs Walters suddenly suggested. “You can talk properly without my listening in then.”

Jackson stood up slowly and grabbed a stick, which Starsky hadn’t noticed, from next to his chair.

“Carry my tea for me, Sarge. I’ll follow behind you. I’m still a bit slow.”

“Sure,” Starsky said, “And we’re not in the army anymore. Call me Dave or Starsky.”

“Okay, Sarge.”

Starsky started laughing and shook his head. Old habits die hard.

As the two of them settled on chairs set out in the yard, Jackson asked, “So how are you really doing, Sarge? I found the first few weeks back was like being stuck in a walking nightmare. Thank God for Momma and my Annie. They’ve picked up the pieces and put most of me back together. The VA’s helped with the rest. You doing okay?”

Starsky swallowed and looked away. He turned back to look at Jackson.

“I don’t think I’m doing so good,” he admitted. “I’m hearing things. Seeing things too.”

“Night terrors?”

“Yeah.”

Jackson nodded with understanding. “I got ‘em too the first few weeks but they seem to be getting less frequent. Sarge? It’s good to be able to talk to someone else who understands exactly what went on over there. It helps. You saved my life. The least I can do is try to help you now. Talk to me.”

Starsky looked down at the ground and wondered where to begin then with slow, halting words he began to share some of the difficulties he had experienced since getting home while Jackson patiently listened.

 

Chapter Four

 

Starsky sat on the front door stoop, reading that day’s paper and enjoying the feel of the warm evening sunshine on his face and arms. Since his visit to Jackson earlier in the week, he was feeling more positive in general but it didn’t seem to have helped with his night terrors and even after a few months of thinking he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He felt like he was adrift without any purpose to his days.

A car came down the street and pulled into the Blaine’s driveway. As he climbed out and went to lock the car door, John saw him and waved. He crossed over the street and leaned against the wall at the bottom of the steps. Starsky folded his paper up and laid it across his lap.

“How are you doing, Davey?”

“Good, Johnny. Better since I went to the VA and met up with someone who was in my squad. Thanks for the advice.”

John grinned. “No problem. Glad you’re talking to someone. I know men are supposed to be men but we all got feelings. You just got to find the right person to talk to.”

Starsky nodded.

“You thought any more about the future?”

Starsky sighed. “I don’t know. What would I be good for? Don’t think I got the brains for most jobs.”

“That’s definitely not true.  Don’t want to hear you talking like that about yourself, Davey. Have you thought about becoming a cop like your Pop? A few years ago, you said it was something you wanted to do.”

Starsky scratched his neck. “Yeah, maybe. Mom would have a fit but it has crossed my mind. I’m just not sure about going back to ‘school’ though. Not sure I’d be able to keep up with the learning side of training, ya know what I mean.”

John leaned his head to one side. “You got lots of things that would make you an asset.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“Courage for a start.”

Starsky looked uncomfortable.

“And discipline. The Academy would look favourably on an ex-military cadet. You may not be academic but you’re smart as a whip and you got common sense, which is a lot more than some people have got. You know how to handle yourself, too. And you got heart. Some might not think that’s an asset but I do. Think about Davey. I’d happily give you a recommendation if you need one on your application.”

Starsky nodded. “I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll talk it over with Uncle Al before I make a decision one way or another.”

John smiled. “Good idea. I’d better get home. Maggie will have dinner waiting. See you around.”

*******

 

Vanessa wished him a happy birthday and gave him her present, which was a navy blue cashmere polo neck sweater, and told him she’d arranged to take him out to dinner at a restaurant they both liked. She kissed him sweetly before she went off to work and he breathed a sigh of relief. Vanessa had been moody lately and he hadn’t been sure if she would even bother to get him something for his birthday.  Then he felt guilty for thinking her so petty.

With Vanessa left for work, Hutch went to the front door to retrieve the mail that had just come. He sorted through it quickly, leaving a small pile of letters and a bill for Vanessa on the hall table and taking his own mail through to the kitchen. There were four envelopes that looked like cards for his birthday. He recognised the writing on one envelope. It was from his parents. He opened the birthday card and read it then opened the small envelope his mother had placed inside. He wasn’t surprised to see the sweet note she had written. He was surprised to see the cheque and the postscript that said, “Just a little something to help in case you’re struggling with the upkeep on your car or need money for books for your training.”

Hutch was really moved by knowing that his mother was on his side over his change of career and, if she was, his father would soon come around. He should be hearing any day now as to whether he had been accepted. The thought that it might not happen was unbearable. As if conjured by his thoughts, he suddenly realised that there was a long thin envelope at the bottom of the pile that had a printed address on it, not a handwritten one.

Carefully, Hutch sliced open the white envelope and held his breath as he withdrew the thin letter from inside. With slightly trembling fingers, he unfolded the sheet and read the words: ‘We are pleased to confirm that you have been accepted for training at Bay City Police Academy. Registration day is Monday 11th September at 09:30.’

The smile that broke out on his face was huge. He was in. Only two weeks and he’d be able to start training to do the thing he most wanted to do in the world. He was so happy he wanted to shout out loud. The only thought that slightly marred his happiness was that the person he should be able to celebrate the news with didn’t care. There was absolutely no point telling Vanessa. He would just write the date on the calendar and leave her to find it. He tried not to mind her lack of enthusiasm but it was hard. How he would love it if, just once, she said she was pleased for him and would celebrate this success with him.

He gave himself a shake out of the depressed mood that had suddenly descended. Never mind. He’d soon be surrounded by people who all wanted the same thing he did; to be a cop. He went to the fridge and took out a root beer. He flipped off the cap and raised the bottle in a toast to himself.

“Here’s to me! I’m going to be a cop!”

He decided that he would ring his Mom and tell her the good news. Now, he knew she’d come round to the idea, he felt he could talk to her about it. It would be so exciting to say the words that he had been accepted to the Police Academy out loud to someone who wouldn’t react with hostility.

*******

 

Rosie came into the kitchen holding a long white envelope.

“It’s for you, Davey.”

Starsky finished munching the cookie he’d taken from Rosie’s round biscuit tin and took the envelope from her. He tore off the end and pulled out the folded sheet from inside it. He read: We are pleased to confirm that you have been accepted for training at Bay City Police Academy. Registration day is Monday 11th September at 09:30.

Rosie saw the old grin cover his face.

“You got in then.”

“Yep!”

Starsky picked his aunt up and swung her round. She laughed.

“Well, you’d better go ring your Mom. She’ll want to know.”

As Starsky bounded down the corridor to use the phone, Rosie sighed softly. She was pleased for her nephew, glad that he had finally settled on what he wanted to do and that he seemed more at peace with himself than when he’d first got back. Although, she was a little worried on a few fronts, too.

Firstly, he still seemed preoccupied with thoughts about ‘Nam despite all his protests to the contrary. She hoped that he wasn’t rushing into a new venture that he couldn’t handle in his present state of mind. Secondly, he still spent quite a lot of time alone but maybe being at the academy would help with that. Maybe he’d make some good friends there. She certainly hoped so. Lastly, she was scared for him. Being a cop was what he wanted but it was a dangerous job, as they both knew all too well from their shared experience of losing Michael.

Rosie listened as Starsky reassured his Mom on most of the same misgivings she had just been thinking about herself. She gave herself a mental shake and tried to change her perspective to the positive. This was going to be good for Davey and she and Al needed to do everything in their power to support him as he trained and help him achieve the goal he’d set his heart on.

 

*******

 

It felt weird to hold a gun and know that he wasn’t supposed to use it if he could avoid it; a far cry from only six months ago when his gun was the only thing standing between him and his own death. He closed his fingers of his left hand around the handle of the gun, whilst supporting the butt with his right hand, and took a long slow breath to calm a heart that was suddenly beating too wildly. He aimed and emptied the magazine in quick succession into the paper target. Five accurate shots into the chest, that almost made one hole they were so close together, and one straight through the temple. He drew in a tense breath and tried not to look directly at the target again. As he pressed the button to bring the target towards him, one of the training officers appeared and marked down his score on his clipboard, nodding with approval.

“Well done, cadet.”

Starsky nodded tightly and left the booth, shoving the sheet into the paper bin as quickly as he could. He walked with his head down, intent on returning the pistol to the secure locker outside the firing range. His heart was gradually returning to its normal rhythm and he was thankful that he didn’t seem to be having any other reactions to handling the gun. As he walked along the row of booths, he saw cadets having mixed success at their first target practice. Nearing the last booths, he heard sounds of frustration coming from one cubicle. A tall blond figure stood looking disconsolately at his paper target.

“Having trouble?”

The blond started and swung round to look at Starsky.

“Uh, yeah. I’m terrible at this.”

“Ever fired a gun before?” Starsky asked, assuming the answer would be no and thinking the cadet was fortunate if that was the case.

“No, well, yes - a shotgun on my grandfather’s farm – but I’ve never fired a handgun before.”

“Want some pointers? I’d be happy to help.”

The blond’s face broke out into a relieved smile. “Please. That would be a great help. I’m Ken Hutchinson, by the way. Most people call me Hutch.”

“Dave Starsky.”

Starsky held out his right hand and shook hands with Hutch. Then he used the gun he was holding to demonstrate the correct way to sight the gun and how to fire from a steady hold and stance. Hutch reloaded his clip and tried again. He did a little better. Starsky patiently reminded him of how best to stand and made him try again. By the third time, Hutch was starting to get his eye in and feel more comfortable holding a gun.

The noises of shots around them had gradually ceased as each cadet finished practice and clocked out for the day. Starsky checked his watch and Hutch looked apologetic at keeping him past training time.

“Thanks. I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it now,” Hutch said, as they left the firing range and handed in their guns. “I guess using it out in the field will be a lot different than using it here in a controlled environment,” he observed.

Starsky regarded him with muted interest. The taller man appeared to be roughly the same age as he was yet had obviously not been called up; that could be for any number of reasons; from his health; to being an only son; to having an exempt occupation; or studying an exempt degree. Historically, the draft had always been tilted in the favour of those from richer families. It was no different in recent times.

Of course, the man might have been a draft dodger but he didn’t look like a hippie to Starsky and he was here training to be a police officer which didn’t fit with Starsky’s thoughts of someone who might have eluded the draft on political grounds. He settled his mind on the fact that Hutch had probably been at college studying something that was considered important by higher powers, like medicine or law. Starsky could respect someone training to be a doctor. He wasn’t so sure about lawyers.

Hutch wondered what to say next. Starsky seemed to have withdrawn into silence now they were outside of the firing range and when Hutch tried to engage him in conversation, he nodded or grunted a response. The friendliness Starsky had exhibited inside the firing range had disappeared completely. Hutch wondered whether it was worth even trying to persevere with getting to know him. Starsky was clearly very confident with a gun and had a bearing that marked him out as having been in the army, which meant he’d more than likely been serving in ‘Nam until recently. Hutch had very mixed reactions to this thought. One of which was guilt; he’d been lucky enough to have been at college and so his draft had been deferred indefinitely. He had been relieved, truth be told, even more so once journalists began questioning some of the actions that had gone on and some of the stories of returning soldiers began filtering through the population.

Briefly, he wondered just what hell Starsky had been through and how he was coping back in civilian life. Hutch was aware enough to realise it might be difficult returning to normal life, from the few articles he’d read on the subject. Nevertheless, there was something intriguing about the quiet dark-haired cadet that made Hutch want to get to know more about him.

The two men went to their separate lockers to change into civilian clothes before heading home. As Starsky went to leave the locker room, Hutch fell into step beside him.

“Can I buy you a drink to say thanks for your help?” Hutch found himself saying, surprising himself and Starsky. 

Starsky hesitated then said, “Sure.”

“You know anywhere quiet. I don’t know many places that won’t be busy this time of day.”

The truth was Vanessa always made them go to the same expensive restaurants to eat; he hadn’t really had the opportunity to explore anywhere else.

“Yeah, I know a place. You got a car?”

“Yeah, it’s this way.”

Hutch led them across the campus towards the parking lots and over to a dirty white Ford Falcon that had been new in 1964 but didn’t look so new now. Starsky raised an eyebrow but didn’t say what he was thinking; that the car wasn’t what he had expected the tall, smartly dressed cadet to drive. Hutch was dressed in expensive slacks and shirt, clearly indicating he had more money than Starsky but his car didn’t fit the profile Starsky had been rapidly building from his observations. He decided he’d better stop making assumptions and try to get to know Hutch better before he decided if he was someone worth bothering with.

As Starsky directed Hutch towards a bar in the less than smart end of the city, Hutch wondered if he might be overdressed. Starsky was dressed in ratty denims that were torn along the ankles and dirty blue and white sneakers. Clearly, the bar they were going to wasn’t upmarket. Did he trust Starsky enough not to take him somewhere where he might offend someone just by the way he looked? He supposed Starsky wouldn’t wish him harm. After all they were both training to be cops, which had to mean something. At least he hoped it did. As he locked the car door and followed Starsky into the rundown bar, he squared his shoulders and decided to project confidence and hope that his trust in Starsky wasn’t misplaced.

“Hey, Starsky. Nice to see you again,” the bartender called in a friendly manner.

Starsky nodded and led Hutch towards the end of the bar where two stools stood vacant.

“Huggy’s the name, bartending’s my game. What’ll it be gentlemen?” the bartender asked.

Hutch asked for a beer. Starsky asked for a beer and a shot of whiskey.

Huggy produced their drinks and then asked, “Anything to eat, gents?”

“I could eat,” Hutch said. “You got time or have you got to be somewhere?”

Starsky looked uncertain then he said, “Let me just make a call. It should be okay.”

He went towards the phone hanging on the wall in the corridor leading to the washrooms. He was back a second later, looking sheepish.

“Hutch? You got a dime you could lend me? I’m out of change.”

Hutch reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. “Here.” He tossed a dime to Starsky, who caught it in his left-hand.

“Thanks.”

As Starsky went to make his call, Hutch turned back to pick up his beer and found Huggy regarding him with a contemplative look.

“How do you two fine gentlemen know each other?”

Hutch wasn’t sure he should answer the question, given that he knew nothing about this bar or the man standing behind the counter. Huggy seemed to pick up on his dilemma.

“’S’all right, my man. I just observe that it’s good to see Starsky with company. I think that’s a man in need of company.”

Huggy nodded to Hutch before he went to deal with customers further down the bar, leaving Hutch contemplating the bartender’s insightful words. Starsky came back a moment later and perched on his stool.

“Had to let my aunt know I wouldn’t be in for dinner or I’d get a telling off,” Starsky said, with some embarrassment.

“My wife’s out tonight so I can please myself,” Hutch said conversationally.

Starsky stared at him. “You’re married?”

“Yes.”

“Er congratulations, I guess. Been married long?”

“A couple of years. Got married straight after college.”

“What does she think about you training to be a cop?” Starsky asked.

Hutch wrinkled his face and sipped his beer. “To be honest, she’s not happy about it. Things are a bit difficult at the moment.”

“Sorry,” Starsky said.

Hutch shrugged and looked away then he turned back to Starsky and said, “I really want to be a cop. I’ve never wanted anything more.”

Starsky found Hutch’s candour was forcing him to speak. “Me too.”

Hutch nodded and they both returned to contemplating their drinks. There was a little cough and they realised Huggy had appeared behind them.

“There’s a table free if you gentlemen want to eat.”

“Thanks,” they both said and picked up their drinks and carried them over to a small round wooden table towards the back of the room.

Huggy followed them and handed them a couple of menus.

“Tracy will be over to take your order momentarily.”

When they’d ordered burgers and fries, Hutch asked, “You lived in Bay City for long? Your accent sounds a little mixed.”

Starsky grinned. “Can’t get away from Brooklyn. Runs through my veins. What about you?”

“Been here in Bay City for two years and I really like it here. I was studying at UCLA so it’s been a convenient place to be, too. But I was born and bred in Duluth, Minnesota before that.”

Starsky shuddered. “Cold winters in Minnesota I understand.”

“Yeah, it’s a lot warmer in California. I love the beach but I miss the snow.”

“What were you studying at UCLA?” Starsky asked.

“I was at Med School.”

Starsky gave himself a little pat on the back for guessing right.

“But you decided you wanted to be a cop instead of a doctor? How come?”

Hutch took a sip of beer before he responded: “Just started feeling called to it. Don’t know why or where the idea came from. Once I thought about it, I couldn’t shake the feeling it was what I needed to do.”

Hutch glanced at Starsky, trying to gauge if Starsky understood or whether to him it was just a job. Starsky was nodding so Hutch figured he understood what he was trying to say.

Their food arrived and they both settled into a companionable silence as they ate. After a little while, Huggy appeared with more beers for them. They looked at him quizzically as he placed them on the table.

“On the house, compadres. A little encouragement to become regular patrons of this fine establishment.”

Hutch couldn’t help smiling.

“Thanks, Huggy. My name’s Hutch.”

“Pleased to meet ya.”

Starsky said, “Thanks for the beer, Huggy.”

Huggy nodded and wandered away.

“You been coming here for a long time?” Hutch asked.

“Only the third time I’ve come in,” Starsky said, sounding mystified.

“Well, you must have made an impression.”

Suddenly Starsky grinned. “Must be my natural charm.”

As Starsky bit into the last bit of his burger, Hutch blinked. The grin had been a surprise. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen such a bright, friendly smile. If that was the real Starsky, Hutch liked this genuine, uncomplicated side of the man sat next to him. He was beginning to wonder if the silent, reserved Starsky wasn’t his natural state; maybe more of a shield he’d built up around himself. Hutch didn’t know where that little bit of insight had come from but he had a feeling that he was right. He pushed the last of his fries away and wiped his mouth.

“I’m full. You didn’t say how long you’d been here in Bay City. Why’d you move here from New York?”

Starsky looked slightly guarded but answered all the same, explaining about how his father had been a cop and had died in the line of duty and that his mother had shipped him off to live with his uncle and aunt when he was a teen. Hutch could hear the undercurrent of regret and sadness in Starsky’s voice.

“I’m sorry. That must have been tough.”

Starsky shrugged. “It is what it is. Al and Rosie are good people. I’m lucky they let me come back to stay with them. Means I have a place to stay while I’m training.”

Hutch thought about asking outright how long Starsky had been back from ‘Nam but chickened out. He figured that was a conversation for when they knew each other a little better. They’d learned enough about each other this evening to make a good start on building something more than just an acquaintance.

Instead, Hutch asked, “How are you finding the training so far?”

“To be honest, hard going. Long time since I was at school.”

Hutch nodded. “Well, if you need any help with your studies, just say. I can repay your for your help at the firing range. In fact, if you want we could make it a regular thing. Arrange a study night once a week. What do you think?”

When Starsky looked like a trapped animal for a moment, Hutch took it to mean that Starsky was trying to think of a polite way to decline the offer. He must have misread the overture of friendship. He downed the last of his beer quickly and stood up.

“Or not. See how you get on but if you want any help, well, I’ll leave you to ask. It’s up to you.”

Feeling very embarrassed and slightly hurt that his offer had been rejected, Hutch pulled some notes out of his pocket and put them on the table to pay for his meal. He went to put his jacket on.

“Wait…please.” Starsky’s voice sounded strained.

Hutch glanced down and could see a sheen of sweat on his companion’s face. He sat back down.

“Hey. Are you feeling all right?” he asked, concern banishing any other thoughts.

Starsky swallowed a couple of times and took some long, slow breaths.

“Sorry, your offer took me by surprise. It panicked me. I…I don’t do well with anything unexpected at the moment, especially if I have to make a decision about it.” He looked embarrassed and frustrated at the same time. “I bet you think I’m a nut case. If I have time to prepare for something I can handle it, if I don’t it triggers panic attacks.”

“Is this something you’ve always suffered from or is this a recent thing?”

Starsky drank some of his beer and looked across the bar, avoiding Hutch’s gaze.

“Only since I got back.”

“From ‘Nam?”

“Yeah.”

Hutch considered how much to push for information. “You got other symptoms?”

Starsky looked at him and frowned. “Whatcha mean? Symptoms? Ya think I’m sick or something?”

Hutch shook his head. “No. Well, maybe. You heard of the term traumatic stress?”

“Nah. What’s that?”

Hutch thought about where to start. “You know anything about history, Starsky? Like World War One stuff?”

“A little. Why?”

“Well, there’s lots of articles being written now about how soldiers suffering from shell-shock weren’t responsible for their actions. You know like the ones who were court-martialled for leaving their posts but now it seems more and more like they’d been driven crazy with the constant noise of the guns and the overwhelming constant fear.”

Starsky nodded. “Yeah, I guess I heard a little about that. I heard of shell-shock anyways.”

“Well, I’m not saying, you’re shell-shocked,” Hutch spoke very slowly and carefully, “but there’s a lot of articles out there about how soldiers coming back from Korea had personality changes from traumatic stress. And sometimes, it caused them to have flashbacks, anxiety attacks, insomnia or night terrors, or,” Hutch faltered as he saw Starsky wince with each word, “Well, the list goes on and everyone probably experiences different effects but the important thing is there’s a lot of evidence it can be reversed if the sufferer gets the right help…but as usual, the right help is slow in coming and not readily paid for by the government.”

Starsky swallowed and Hutch saw the inner struggle writ plain across his face. This was a man brought up in a world where it wasn’t okay to say you were struggling mentally, a world where any admission of ‘weakness’ in that department might affect your chosen work. The police welcomed veterans because they had discipline and good service ethics, they did not welcome so-called ‘damaged’ veterans for fear they might be unpredictable or dangerous. It was clear Starsky was caught between wanting to admit he needed help and worried that it would be used against him and make him lose any chance of being a cop.

“Starsky. I think all soldiers are traumatised by combat. It doesn’t make them any less strong, any less men. It just makes them human.”

Starsky looked down, clearly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken.

Hutch sighed. “Sorry. It’s none of my business, I guess.” He wondered what else he should say. “Look, we don’t know each other very well and I bet you want me to just go now and leave you in peace but before I do…I know you don’t have any reason to trust me but I promise I won’t share any of our conversation with anyone. You have my word.”

Starsky looked at him with a guarded expression and then nodded acceptance of Hutch’s statement.

“So we’ll leave this conversation for now but if you ever find yourself struggling…Well, I know a little now of what’s going on with you so you can call me on me for help.”

Hutch took out a pen and wrote his phone number on a piece of paper and pushed it across the table towards Starsky.

“Why? Why are ya trying to help me?”

Hutch shrugged. “Why did you try to help me at the firing range?” he countered.

Starsky’s eyes widened with surprise. He frowned and then shrugged with a small smile.

“Exactly,” Hutch said with a laugh. He stood up. “So I’ll see you tomorrow at training?”

“Yeah. Hutch, about the study thing. Thanks, it might help.”

Hutch beamed at him. “Okay, we’ll sort out when and where next week. Give you a few days to prepare,” he added with a slightly teasing tone.

Starsky nodded. “Okay.”

Hutch nodded back at him and then headed off. Starsky gazed after the blond with a thoughtful expression on his face. Over at the bar, Huggy smiled to himself as he poured another beer for one of the customers sat at the bar.

 

Chapter Five

 

Hutch and his classmates had just finished their session on Criminal Justice and were now queuing up to get some lunch. Around him, Hutch’s classmates were chatting and joking. Hutch joined in absentmindedly as his eyes scanned the line looking for any sign of Starsky. Since their introduction to each other, Hutch had seen him once at a distance and once for a brief hello between classes but that had been it. He was curious to know how he was getting on. Someone asked Hutch a question and he turned around to answer the cadet who was standing behind him. As he did so, he spotted Starsky, pacing outside the dining hall.

“Excuse me,” Hutch said, “I’ve just spotted my study partner. I need to check what time we’re meeting this week. See you in a while, fellas.”

Hutch hoped the excuse sounded plausible enough and wouldn’t invite awkward questions. He left the line and made his way out and down the three shallow steps to where Starsky was still pacing.

“Hey Starsky. Good to see you. You coming in to eat?”

Starsky slowed his steps and came to a stop in front of Hutch. Hutch thought he looked too pale.

“Thinkin’ about it,” Starsky said dryly.

Hutch just looked at him and waited.

“It’s the noise. Sometimes people drop things and I’m anxious I’ll over-react, make a fool of myself.”

“I see. Want to keep me company? Only I hate to eat alone so you’d be doing me a favour.”

Starsky took a deep breath and then nodded. “Okay.”

He followed Hutch into the dining hall and they joined the queue. Hutch talked softly about the classes he’d had that morning, giving Starsky a running commentary on his day so far, not expecting any answer, just hoping to keep Starsky distracted enough not to have time to get anxious.

Even though Starsky realised what Hutch was doing, he was surprised when it started working; he found himself relaxing under the spell of Hutch’s calming mid-western tone. Suddenly, there was a clatter as someone tripped and dropped a plate.

Before Starsky could react, he heard Hutch say, “Just a plate, buddy,” and felt a brush of Hutch’s hand on his arm. The reassurance and the touch helped calm him although his heart had started beating rapidly and he realised he was breathing faster than he had been. “Just a plate,” Hutch whispered again, “You’re safe.”

The line moved forward and Starsky tried to get his breathing under control.

“You’re doing great, buddy. You hungry? What are you going to have?” Hutch said, as he passed a tray and cutlery to Starsky.

Starsky stared at the options in front of him. With his heart still beating too fast, trying to make a choice about what to eat was almost overwhelming.

“How about the beef stew?” Hutch asked. “That’s what I’m having. Want to give it a go?”

“Y-Yes.” Starsky looked at the lady serving behind the counter, finally noticing that she was standing there waiting for him to choose. “S-Sorry, miles away,” he said, trying to make his voice sound normal. “I’ll have the beef, please.”

The woman served it onto a plate for him and passed it over. Hutch grabbed two pots of grape jelly and bottles of juice from further along the queue, leaning across people with a muttered apology to get them. He placed one of each on Starsky’s tray and led them away from the counter to a table in a quieter corner, well away from the sounds of the kitchen. Starsky sank gratefully onto the chair and let out a long slow breath.

“Thanks.”

Hutch picked up his knife and fork. “Don’t thank me yet. Wait till you’ve tasted it.”

“No, I meant thanks for helping me not lose it.”

Hutch gave a brief nod. “You’re welcome. Eat up while it’s still hot.”

“You sound like my Aunt Rosie,” Starsky grumbled.

Hutch just grinned at him and then tucked into his own stew. They ate in silence and Starsky’s heart rate gradually returned to normal. As they finished their meal, a couple of Hutch’s classmates appeared at their table.

“Hutchinson, we’re headed back to class. You coming?”

“Yeah, be with you in a minute. Go on ahead, I’ll catch up.”

One cadet stayed behind as the others moved away. He held out his hand.

“Hutch says you’re his study partner. I’m Colby, John Colby. Pleased to meet you.”

Starsky took the hand and shook it, trying not to look surprised.

“Starsky, Dave Starsky.”

“See you around.”

Colby walked away and Hutch became aware that Starsky’s eyes were on him.

“Study partner?”

Hutch shrugged. “Only reason I could think of for abandoning the dinner queue to talk to you,” he offered, sheepishly.

Starsky accepted the statement and began piling up his plate and rubbish. Hutch grabbed a piece of paper from his pocket and scribbled on it. He handed it to Starsky.

“What’s this?”

“My address and my phone number again in case you’ve misplaced it. How about we study at my place starting next Thursday? About eight?”

Starsky stared at the piece of paper and then said slowly, “All right.”

Hutch smiled. “Great. I’d better get to class. See you tomorrow for lunch.”

As he headed away, Starsky found himself wondering what had just happened. How had Hutch got him to agree to study with him? It was as if the man had cast a spell over him and he’d lost his free will.

He shrugged and went to put his dirty things on the rack. He wasn’t sure if the study partner idea would work but Hutch’s offer to meet for lunch the next day filled Starsky with relief. It would be good to have someone to go to meals with each day. It might make running the gauntlet of the queue achievable. Starsky let out a breath of relief. He’d got through today that was the main thing. Maybe things were starting to get a little easier and his panic attacks would lessen in frequency from now on.

 

*******

 

He was awake again. As he sat there, shaking with fear, he realised that he had had the same night terror for the fourth time in a row. He seemed to be stuck with this one going round and round his head. Even now, he could still see flashes of images he would rather forget. There was no way he’d be able to get back to sleep now. As quietly as he could, Starsky slipped into yesterday’s clothes and picked up his sneakers. Walking on bare feet, he tiptoed along the landing and down the stairs. He sat on the bottom step and slipped his sneakers onto his feet.

As soon as he was out on the sidewalk he began a slow steady jog in the direction of the beach. The sky was just starting to lighten. By the time he got to the ocean, it would be dawn. He listened to the sounds of birds beginning to wake up and tried to use the soothing sounds to ease his tension.

He was frustrated; he felt like every time he took one step forward, he took two backwards.

The routines of the academy day had provided a structure that he was finding immensely comforting and stabilising. The energy he used up every day on learning so much new information meant that he was sleeping better most nights and his days were filled with lots of areas that required his full focus. He hadn’t had a daymare since he’d talked to Jackson and had assumed that the night terrors would soon pass away as well.

Why did he keep dreaming the same nightmare over and over again? He’d have two good nights and then wham! He’d be back to waking up covered in sweat and finding his heart was racing. What could he do to get rid of the image stuck in his mind and the guilt that came along with the vision? The intensity of the dream was starting to frighten him.

Was this what had happened to the homeless veterans he’d seen around the city; clearly out of their minds with alcohol or drugs? Which had come first; the alcohol or the experience that made them turn to drink to drown out the sights and sounds that they didn’t want to remember? He knew how they felt. He longed to forget. That’s why he’d started hitting the hard stuff himself when he first got home. Recently, he had managed to stop. Partly due to the new focus in his life, partly due to having friends who would listen when he needed to talk. Old friends like Jackson, new friends like Hutch.

Starsky made it to the intersection where he could either turn back towards home or press onto the beach. His leg felt so good now, he knew he could make it there without making his limp appear. He decided to carry on. As he jogged two more miles, he tried to empty his mind and concentrate on the sound of his feet pounding on the sidewalk.

By the time, he reached the beach he was tired and headed to a bench he could see at the end of the promenade. Gratefully, he sat down to rest and looked out to watch the sun rising above the waves.

Unbidden, images floated before him. The images he was trying so hard to block out and forget. What would it take to drown out the noise of that single shot and the silence that followed? What would it take to erase the image? Would she ever go away or was he stuck with her now? Locked in some eternal prison of hellish memories that would never fade, would never let him be at peace? Would he slowly be driven crazy by those images and lose everything he was working towards? Is that how retribution would come?

The final judgement of his actions. Madness the price for his guilt.

What would it feel like to forget? What would it feel like to walk out into the ocean right now and keep going until there was only silence and peace?

Disturbed and frightened by the questions his mind was now asking, Starsky shook himself and got to his feet. It was time to start jogging back to the people who loved him even if it was because they had no idea of what he’d done and the punishment he rightly deserved.

*******

 

It was closing time and Huggy was encouraging his last few patrons towards the door. He looked over to the booths where he knew Starsky was sitting and was disappointed to see him, head sunk on his chest as if asleep. He frowned. He’d seen the curly-haired man come in earlier in the evening but hadn’t noticed much after that. The bar had been heaving and Huggy was busy serving tables while Norman tended the bar. He closed the door behind the last patron and walked over to see what state Starsky was in. The collection of beer and whiskey glasses told the full story.

“Man, what’s eating at you?” Huggy muttered to himself.

There was no response from Starsky as Huggy approached the table. He tapped him on the shoulder and Starsky jumped awake.

“Whaaat?” he slurred out the question.

“Hey Starsky, time to go home.”

Starsky slumped back into unconsciousness.

“Great. Can’t even call you a cab ‘cause I don’t know where you live. Hmm.”

Huggy tentatively patted Starsky’s leather jacket to see if he had a wallet on him. He found evidence on the left-hand side and carefully extracted the item from Starsky’s pocket. He found a few bills inside and a scrap of paper with a number scribbled on it. There was nothing with an address on it. Huggy went to put the wallet back but paused, taking another look at the scrap of paper. It was the number and address for a Ken Hutchinson. Surely that was the guy that had introduced himself as Hutch.

Huggy deliberated for a minute and then went over to the payphone and placed a call. After a few minutes, a very groggy voice answered.

“Yes?”

“Is that Hutch? It’s Huggy.”

“Huggy? From the bar?”

“Yes.”

“What do you want at this time of night? And how’d you get my number?” Hutch sounded slightly irritated.

“From Starsky’s wallet.”

The voice at the end of line changed tone immediately to one of concern: “What’s happened?”

“He’s been here all night drinking and he’s passed out. I’d call a cab for him but I don’t know where he lives. Do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Damn. Well, I’ll just have to leave him here and hope he sleeps it off. I gotta get home for some shut-eye. I’ll come back early and wake him up. Sorry to have bothered ya, man.”

“Wait. Huggy, call a cab and send him over to my place. I think somebody ought to keep an eye on him tonight.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, send him over. I’ll keep an eye out for the cab. Thanks for ringing me.”

“No problem.”

Huggy finished the call and then dialled the number for a local cab company. One he’d used many a time before. He quickly arranged for someone to come and pick Starsky up and take him to Hutch’s.

He spent the next few minutes trying to rouse Starsky enough to get him awake enough to walk to the door. With a lot of coaxing and manhandling, he managed to get Starsky on his feet and out to the cab. He gently deposited him on the back seat and told the driver where to take his semi-conscious passenger. As the cab drove away, Huggy sighed. He hoped Hutch could help Starsky move past whatever it was that kept sending him back to the bottle. Otherwise the guy was headed on a one way ticket to nowhere.

*******

 

Hutch woke up early and tiptoed out of the bedroom and down to the kitchen to put on a strong pot of coffee. It was time to get Starsky up and going before Vanessa woke up to go to work. He had a feeling she wouldn’t appreciate seeing Starsky the morning after his evening spent with a bottle of whiskey. Luckily, she slept through his arrival by cab and Hutch’s efforts to get him to the couch as quickly and as quietly as possible. Hutch had managed it somehow and had sat up, watching Starsky snore for the first hour just to make sure he didn’t have a reaction to the amount he had drunk.

Coffee ready, Hutch poured a mug of it, tipped two sugars into the dark black liquid and carried the mug through to the living room. He placed the mug on the coffee table and went to pull the curtains back to let some light in. Starsky stirred and groaned. Hutch went over and shook his shoulder gently but insistently.

“Starsky. Time to get up, buddy.”

“Uhhh.”

“Starsky. You’ve got to get up now. You need to go home.”

Starsky struggled into a sitting position and held his head in his hands.

“Where am I?”

“My place.”

Starsky slowly raised his head and opened one eye. His eye roamed around until it came to rest on Hutch’s face and gradually gained focus.

“Hutch?”

“Yeah, buddy.”

Starsky opened his other eye and looked worried.

“How did I get here? I don’t remember anything.”

“Huggy found my number and called me. He put you in a cab and sent you here. We didn’t know your address so we couldn’t get you home.”

Starsky swore. “What time is it? My aunt will be going crazy if she knows I didn’t come home.”

“It’s six. I’ve arranged for a cab to be here by 6.15. They’ll take you home.”

“Thanks. I might just make it before she gets up. That for me?” he asked as he pointed at the mug of coffee.

“Yeah, figured you might need it to help you wake up.”

Starsky picked up the mug and took several sips of the strong coffee. He avoided looking at Hutch. Instead he stared at the mug and his feet.

“What happened?” Hutch asked. “Something happen after training yesterday? Or before? You looked tired again yesterday.”

Starsky looked uncomfortable. “I was just gonna have a few drinks to relax, help me sleep. But I guess I got carried away.”

“You’re still having trouble sleeping? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“No point. Nobody can help me sleep.”

“Someone might be able to. Have you thought about seeing a-”

Starsky interrupted Hutch’s question: “Thanks for letting me sleep on your couch, Hutch. I owe ya.” From outside they heard the beep of a horn. “I’d better get going,” Starsky said. He stood up with difficulty. “Sorry to be a nuisance.”

“You weren’t a nuisance,” Hutch said. “Couch is here if you need it again but I think it would be better if you talked to someone about why you’re drinking so much.”

Starsky patted his arm and headed towards the front door.

“Yeah, maybe. Thanks again, Hutch.”

“No problem.”

As he closed the door behind Starsky, Hutch frowned. He was getting worried. Starsky seemed almost a split personality. Much more relaxed than he had been when Hutch had first met him and yet obviously still not sleeping and seeking comfort in drinking. He couldn’t go on doing that or it would start to affect his training. Hutch sighed.

“Wish you’d talk to someone, buddy.”

*******

 

It was their first Thursday study session. Starsky looked around Hutch’s home and whistled softly to himself. He wondered what the rent was on a place like this and wondered how Hutch had been able to cover it while he was studying. The Hutchinson family must have quite a bit of money, he decided. That was the only explanation. Unless Vanessa was loaded or had a really well paid job. He hadn’t met her yet and wondered what she was like. When Starsky had arrived, Hutch had said she was just getting changed to go out for the evening. Some work related event.

The object of his curiosity came down the stairs. She was dressed in a smart, black dress and carrying a silver clutch purse. Starsky stood up to greet her.

“You must be David,” Vanessa said, offering her hand.

Starsky shook it and replied, “That’s right. Pleased to meet ya.”

Hutch reappeared from the kitchen, carrying two beers and handed one to Starsky.

“Well, I hope the studying goes well,” Vanessa said politely. “I’m off to the Edward Hopper Celebration at the Museum of Art.”

Starsky cleared his throat. “Look out for ‘Rooms by the Sea’ or ‘Railroad at Sunset’. They’re my favourites of his.”

Vanessa and Hutch looked at him in astonishment.

“What?” Starsky looked nonplussed.

“I didn’t know you were into art in a big way, buddy.”

“Yeah, well, Hopper’s a New Yorker. I couldn’t help but take an interest in him. When I was visiting Mom last, I went to the Metro to see his stuff. He was good. Sad he’s gone now.”

Vanessa checked her watch and then headed towards the front door. “I’ll be sure to look out for those paintings. Have a good evening.”

Then she was gone.

“Well, you’re full of surprises,” Hutch said.

Starsky shrugged and chugged his beer.

“You all right, Starsky? Only apart from the Hopper revelation, you’ve hardly said one word since you got here and you look tired. Still having trouble sleeping?”

Starsky looked away. “Yeah.”

“Are you still having night terrors?”

“Yeah.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

“Nah. So Vanessa’s gone out on her own? You could have cancelled our study time. I wouldn’t have minded if you wanted to go with her.”

“I wasn’t invited,” Hutch said more bitterly than he’d meant to.

Starsky raised an eyebrow. “When we first met, you said things were difficult. I assumed she’d come around, got used to the idea of you being a cop.”

Hutch sighed. “I’d hoped she would too but, no, it’s been like the artic round here for a few weeks.”

“I’m sorry. You should’ve said something.”

“Yeah, I guess I should’ve but you got enough on your plate without hearing about my pitiful marriage.”

“I’m all right buddy. You don’t need to worry about me. Everything’s peachy.”

Hutch considered the strained face of his new friend. “Yeah, I can see that,” he commented sarcastically.

“What do you want from me Hutch?”

“I’m worried about you. You’re still not sleeping. Don’t you think it would help to talk about what’s bugging you?”

“No. Look, I don’t want to talk about this with you.”

“Because?”

Starsky turned towards him with a slightly hostile face. “Don’t push me, Hutch.”

Hutch swallowed. “I’m not pushing. I’m just offering to listen and I wonder if you don’t want to talk because you think I can’t possibly understand. Or because you just can’t talk to anyone yet? If it’s the former, I think you’re selling me short.”

Starsky took another swig of beer. Hostility warred with friendship.

“Look, you seem like a…understanding guy. Guess that comes with training to be a doctor. But, you’re right, I don’t think you can understand this.”

Hutch stayed silent.

Starsky found himself speaking to fill the silence. “I've seen things that would make some men cry.”

“And have you?”

“Have I what?”

“Cried about it. Let it out.”

Starsky snorted.

“I’ll take it that’s a no,” Hutch stated. “If you did, maybe whatever it is that’s bothering you wouldn’t be so painful or keep on haunting you.”

It was an unfortunate choice of words but Hutch didn’t know that.

“What do you mean by that?” Starsky demanded. “What the hell do you know about it?”

Hutch put out a hand to try to calm Starsky down. “I’m not sure what I’ve said but it’s obviously hit a nerve. Whatever it is, you need to talk to someone about it.”

Starsky struggled to get his temper under control. He couldn’t fathom why he was so angry all of sudden. Why he wanted to give Hutch a hard shove, enough to send him flying. That’s not the sort of person he was. He tried to do what Jackson had suggested: “Close your eyes. Try to listen to what’s going on inside. Work out what’s triggering your reaction.”

Hutch wasn’t sure what to do. He could see Starsky was angry but he didn’t know why. As he watched, the tension slowly left Starsky’s face and his body language relaxed.

He opened his eyes and said quietly, “Sorry. Not angry at you. Angry at me.”

Hutch went to speak but Starsky held up a hand. “Don’t. I can’t. Not tonight anyway. Can we just get on with studying? Please.”

The last request was said with a clear plea for understanding.

“Of course. Let’s get to it.”

“Thanks.”

The rest of the evening passed without any other incidents. Hutch offered to run Starsky home rather than Starsky having to pay for a cab at this late hour. As they drove across town, they listened to the radio and commented on the sports news when it came on. They pulled up outside, Al and Rosie’s home.

“So this is me. Thanks for the lift.”

“No problem. See you tomorrow.”

As Starsky opened the car door, Hutch felt compelled to say, “I won’t press you again, Starsk, but if you ever need to talk, you know where I am. Anytime. I mean it.”

Starsky peered back into the car. “I know ya do and I am grateful. I’m sorry about earlier, too. Guess you might want to rethink trying to be my friend; seeing how looney tunes I can be.”

It was said in a jokey way but Hutch was beginning to read Starsky better than he figured Starsky could sometimes read himself.

“Nah, I think knowing someone a little looney tunes makes life interesting,” he said with a reassuring smile.

Starsky grinned at him. “T’rriffic. See ya tomorrow, pal.”

Then he bounded up the steps and into the house. Hutch turned the car around and headed back home. As he drove, he wondered what else he could do to help his friend. Whether Starsky realised it or not, Hutch now thought of him in those terms. As a friend. He cared about what happened to him. He wanted to make sure that Starsky got to the end of the course and became the cop he wanted to be.

Maybe in time, Starsky would sort out whatever was bothering him by himself. It was true Starsky seemed to be getting on at the academy okay now. He’d proved himself on the assault courses and in other physical activities. He was clearly a crack shot. On the social side; recent meals had all been taken without incident. He was starting to have a small group of cadets that he fitted in with, as well as spending time with Hutch, and he’d shown he’d got a wicked sense of humour only matched by John Colby’s.

In fact, the three of them were spending a lot of each day together and having a laugh in each other’s company. Starsky seemed so much more relaxed than he had been at the start of term and Hutch thought Starsky was enjoying life on the whole. But there was something.

Something was still triggering night terrors and disturbing Starsky’s sleep. If he couldn’t be persuaded to confront it, it wasn’t ever going to get better.

 

Chapter Six

 

It was the girl. She looked no more than twelve, as she advanced towards him carrying a grenade and moving her hand towards the pin. He raised his weapon and ordered her to stop. She continued forward, walking like a zombie under some dark spell unable to be reasoned with. Her fingers reached to pull the pin. His decision made for him; he shot her straight through the temple. As the hole appeared on her forehead and filled with blood, a brief look of surprise flashed across her face and then she was falling backwards. Starsky turned, re-holstered his gun and walked away.

“No!” Starsky screamed and sat bolt upright.

For several long seconds, he didn’t know where he was. Only that it was dark and his chest was pounding with terror. He blinked rapidly trying to clear the image that seemed burned on the back of his retina. The girl. It was always the girl.

In the dark of his room, he saw twisted shadows lurking in the corner that had him scrabbling off his bed and on to the floor, his hands searching for the gun which seemed to have inexplicably disappeared. Just as suddenly, he realised that it had all been a nightmare and he was in fact in his room in Bay City. Feeling nauseous, he dashed to the bathroom, trying to be as light on as his feet as possible. He heaved a few times, barely bringing anything up but still retching in reaction to the scene that had played out in his dream.

There was a knock on the bathroom door and Rosie’s concerned voice called out to him, “Davey, love, are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, sorry to wake you,” Starsky said as he opened the door. “Must have eaten too much at dinner. I’ll go take an Alka-Seltzer. You go back to sleep.”

Rosie looked at him doubtfully. “You sure?”

Starsky tried to smile. “Yes, I’m fine. I’ll go back to bed in a minute.”

Rosie kissed his cheek and then returned to her bedroom.

Starsky headed down to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of root beer from the fridge. He wished they had something stronger in the house. He contemplated going out but knew at this time of night, the only places open would be places someone training to be a cop shouldn’t be seen in. He thought about going for a walk but still felt quite nauseous. He felt like he was going crazy. Suddenly, he wanted to talk to someone. Preferably, someone who would understand, who would offer him some comfort. He thought about ringing Mike but dismissed the idea. He’d probably end up more depressed if he spoke to Mike. He thought about ringing Jackson but it was the middle of the night and not fair to wake up the whole of the Walters’ household. He’d have to wait till tomorrow; go see Jackson after class. Sighing, he stared unseeing across the kitchen.

After what seemed a few minutes later, he shook himself and looked at the clock. He’d been sat there, staring into space for an hour and hadn’t realised it. He swallowed down a sense of panic. Was this it? Was this the night he started to unravel for good?

He tried to stop himself from panicking and tried to be rational. He considered just going back to bed and trying to get some rest but that thought was distinctly unappealing; he was sure he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep and knowing that the gun was in his room made him nervous for some reason. As he tried to analyse his unease, he wondered what would happen if he had another night terror and actually made it to the gun while he was still in the dream state. It had almost happened earlier. Who knew what he’d do if he started sleep-walking with the thing! Would he hurt himself? Or worse? Would he hurt Al and Rosie?

Starting to feel overwhelmingly desperate and scared of his own out-of-control thoughts, he was surprised when an image of Hutch asking him if he was okay popped into his mind. Could he call Hutch? He’d said he could anytime, had said he could more than once. Hutch had offered to listen repeatedly and had said it again only yesterday. Suddenly, Starsky regretted pushing Hutch’s offer away yet again. Maybe talking would help.

Hutch would probably be surprised if he rang tonight, not expecting it to be so soon after yesterday’s rejection of his help but then Starsky hadn’t expected to have a night terror when he’d gone to bed…Although, maybe the signs were there. He thought about the evening he’d spent with Al and Rosie and, suddenly, realised what had triggered his nightmare.

Maybe it was time to admit what he’d done. But should it be Hutch that had to hear about it? To hear about what he couldn’t seem to forget and what he definitely couldn’t forgive himself for?

Would Hutch still want to spend time with him once he knew? Starsky felt a moment of sadness at the thought. But there wasn’t anyone else he could call. Maybe it was better to lose a new friend than an old friend.

Starsky went out into the hallway where his jacket was hanging on a peg. He felt in the pocket and took his wallet out and unfolded the scrap of paper with Hutch’s number on it. Should he call?

 

*******

 

Hutch became aware that the phone in the living room was ringing. He opened one eye and squinted at his clock. It was three a.m. Who’d be ringing at this time of night? Irritation was quickly replaced by worry. It must be some sort of emergency. Maybe his parents? He hoped it wasn’t Huggy again because of what that would imply. He climbed out of bed, trying not to disturb Vanessa, and snagged his robe from the door as he went down the stairs to the living room. He picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hutch?”

“Yes.”

“It’s me. Starsky.”

Hutch was instantly on alert. “You all right? What’s happened?”

“I-I-I’m being stupid. Sorry I shouldn’t have called this time of night.”

“But you have called so, it’s not stupid, it’s obviously bad. Bad enough to need to talk to someone.”

“I guess.”

There was a long silence. Hutch rubbed his eyes, trying to wake himself up.

“Starsky? Do you want me to come over?”

“I dunno. I-I got these thoughts. I’m scared I’ll…Look, sorry, it can wait. I’ll go for a walk or something. You go back to sleep and we’ll talk tomorrow.”

“No. I’m going to come to you. Stay put,” Hutch said firmly.

“Nah, it’s all right, Hutch.”

“Starsky. Please stay put. I won’t get back to sleep now unless I see for myself that you’re really okay.”

Starsky sighed. “All right. Thanks. I’m sorry, Hutch.”

“Don’t apologise and don’t go anywhere. I’ll be there in less than twenty minutes. All right?”

“Okay.”

Hutch put the phone down and slipped quietly back into the bedroom to find some pants, a top and his car keys. He scribbled a quick note for Vanessa and then left the apartment.

 

*******

 

The front door was opening as Hutch bounded up the steps. A silent Starsky let him in and led him through to the kitchen and closed the inner door behind them.

“I’m sorry,” Starsky started to say, without even looking at Hutch.

He was startled when Hutch placed a warm hand on his stomach and patted him gently. The comforting warmth spread through his body making him relax.

“Why don’t we sit down and you can tell me what happened and what triggered it. If you know.”

Hutch sat down at the well-used, plain wooden table and looked expectantly at Starsky. For a second, Starsky felt lost without the comfort of Hutch’s touch, which had momentarily made him feel better. He could feel the muscles in his shoulders and chest tightening again. He pulled a chair out and turned it around so he could lean his arms on the back of it.

“I was sick. Woke up my aunt. A nightmare caused it,” Starsky explained. He sounded embarrassed, as if he was afraid that Hutch would think he was a small child plagued by infantile nightmares.

“Do you know what triggered the night terror?”

Starsky was filled with gratitude. Hutch didn’t think he was distressed by some childish dream. He did understand, at least in part. Starsky gulped.

“I-I’m not sure. There was a report on the news last night. It mentioned a place I’d been out there….Maybe that did it.”

Hutch nodded. “How often are you getting them now? The night terrors?”

“It’s random. I thought they were getting less frequent. Only they seem to be more intense. Does that make sense?”

Hutch nodded again.

“I wish it made sense to me!” Starsky said testily.

Hutch looked around the kitchen and said, “How about a hot drink and then you could try to tell me about it?”

“About what?”

“About the place and what happened there?”

“I don’t think I can, Hutch.” Starsky looked stricken. Even though he’d called Hutch for that very purpose, now it came to it he didn’t want to burden his friend with such a horrifying incident. It was going to be too much for Hutch to handle. Heck, it was clearly too much for him to handle himself. Hutch wasn’t the right person; maybe Jackson was the answer, maybe some stranger at the VA, who he wouldn’t ever have to see again or look in the eye every day.

Hutch watched the internal battle played out on Starsky’s face. It was obvious his friend had reached out in desperation. Now, he was second-guessing that decision. Hutch thought about what would be the best way to get Starsky to open up. Whatever had been pushing its way to the top of Starsky’s locked box was clearly about to burst out. There was no way Hutch was leaving Starsky’s place without getting him to acknowledge what it was. Hutch was sure tonight was a critical moment for Starsky. There was a wildness in Starsky’s eyes that Hutch had never seen there before, even when he’d flared up in anger yesterday. He looked as if he didn’t trust himself anymore.

“Got any cocoa?”

“Cocoa? You want cocoa?”

“Yep, I want cocoa.”

Starsky looked at Hutch as if he was crazy.

“Humour me,” Hutch said softly.

Starsky sighed. “All right.”

A few minutes later, they both sat with their hands wrapped around mugs of cocoa, the sweet smell and warmth transferring from the china to their fingers added comfort and helped to relax the strained atmosphere. Seeing Starsky had calmed a little, Hutch tried to probe for what was holding Starsky back from talking.

“Not wanting to talk about that particular place. Is it for my sake or yours?”

“How d’ya mean?”

Starsky could feel anger beginning to bubble again. He closed his eyes, trying to talk himself down, knowing that the anger was really a cover for fear that had been triggered by the thought of talking about the incident. He was starting to realise that what he had thought was a scar like the ones on his leg was actually a Band-Aid over an injury that hadn’t healed. It wasn’t going to heal unless the Band-Aid came off and he let the air get to it.

With his eyes still closed, Starsky said, “My mind’s busted, Hutch. I don’t know if it can be fixed. Maybe it’s not my mind. You believe we have souls, Hutch?” as he asked the question, Starsky opened his eyes and stared into Hutch’s.

“Yes, I do.”

“I think…I think taking a life damages your soul. Breaks little bits of it off. Do you think it can be repaired?”

“That I don’t know for sure, buddy. I guess taking a life lightly, not being bothered that you’ve done it. Well, that’s different, isn’t it? Those people do become ‘soulless’, I guess. But that’s not you, Starsk. Maybe being bothered, feeling guilt, caring, maybe that’s all the things that keep your soul intact. And maybe if you talk about it. Maybe that starts the healing process on the bits that have been damaged.”

Starsky hung his head, seemingly locked in his own thoughts.

Softly, Hutch said, “You said before that I wouldn’t understand. Because I’ve not been in combat and had to take a life? Or you think that I’ll be too shocked by what you tell me? Or is it that it’s just too painful for you?”

Starsky remembered that Hutch had suggested this once before. He thought about the question and looked up, as he answered, “All of that. I got a buddy rings me and offloads all his memories on me. He wants to go over it all again and again. I can’t do that. It’ll break me. I-I have talked about some of what we went through in-country with Jackson, my buddy from my old squad and it did help talking to him because he was there. He’s got the same frame of reference, ya see. But there’s something. I-I had to lock it away in a box. Only it seems this thing is too big to stay in. She wants out.”

Hutch heard the word ‘she’ and wondered what it meant. His blue eyes looked directly into Starsky’s.

“Then maybe the things that really want to come out, need to come out. Talk to me. I’ll just listen. I won’t say anything. I won’t talk about stuff I know nothing about or make facile suggestions. And I won’t judge you.”

Starsky jumped up and started pacing. Hutch didn’t say a word, just left Starsky to work out if he could open up about the particular thing that had happened to him and was still causing such anguish. After a few minutes of frantic pacing, Starsky began to talk, telling Hutch about a day of particularly nasty, intense combat. It was also the day that had ended with him shooting the girl. He finished with: “She was a child. I had to kill a child.”

With all of his energy spent, Starsky almost collapsed back onto his chair. Tears started rolling down his face. He dabbed at them furiously with the sleeve of his top, trying to stop the torrent. Hutch got up quietly and filled a glass with water from the tap. He placed it on the table in front of Starsky and then handed him some tissues that he’d pulled from a box on the side of the kitchen.

He stood beside Starsky and placed a gentle hand on the side of his head, pulling his sobbing friend’s head against his stomach. He murmured words and sounds of comfort and gradually the storm passed and the torrent ceased and Starsky quietened.

Hutch let go of him but pulled out a chair from next to him and sat down. He sat with his shoulder leaning against Starsky’s. Starsky turned to look at him, his dark blue eyes almost black with grief. Hutch’s eyes had turned grey with sympathy and compassion.

With a look of concern, Starsky raised his hand to brush away a tear that Hutch hadn’t even noticed was rolling down his own face.

“You all right?” Starsky asked.

Hutch almost laughed. “I’m supposed to be asking you that, not the other way around!”

Starsky chewed on his lip. “Thanks, Hutch. I won’t load ya down with anymore stuff like that again but thanks for listening this time.”

Hutch shook his head. “Hey, don’t let that tear fool you. I’m hard as nails. You can unload on me anytime.”

Starsky shook his head.

“I mean it, Starsky,” Hutch said, sounding strangely fierce.

Starsky looked at him surprised. He raised an eyebrow in enquiry. Hutch rubbed his face, suddenly feeling embarrassed.

“Sorry. ‘Course it’s up to you who you want to talk to. I know your army buddy can probably help you more than I can but…It’s just…You’re my friend. I don’t want you to feel you can’t talk to me in case I’m shocked or get upset.”

Starsky nodded and looked at Hutch, suddenly noticing him trying to stifle a yawn.

“You should go home and get some sleep,” Starsky said. “I’ll be okay now.”

“Yeah, in a minute. Starsk, that memory. I know it’s bad and all but why does that one haunt you in particular?”

“Wouldn’t it haunt you, killing a kid?”

“Yeah, of course. That’s not what I meant. What’s your overriding feeling when you wake up from the nightmare?”

“Guilt.” The word fell out of Starsky’s mouth before he could even think about what he was saying.

“But you shouldn’t feel guilty. You did what you had to do. You’d be dead otherwise and so would Jackson or others in your squad.”

“I know that,” Starsky said wearily, “But nothing changes the fact she was just a kid and somehow that just hurts worse than all the other times.”

“She was a brainwashed kid, Starsk. She was going to kill you,” Hutch protested.

Starsky closed his eyes and shuddered.

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Hutch muttered, “I’m making you feel worse. I’ll shut up.”

Starsky opened his eyes and gave a wan smile. “Nah, it’s all right, Hutch. You’re right. Maybe I needed to confront that feeling of guilt head on and accept that there was nothing else I could have done. You’ve made me do that at least. Maybe that’s enough to take some of the sting out of the memory.”

“Hope so. I’m just sorry for what you’ve been through but I also think you are stronger than you give yourself credit for.”

“I am, huh?”

“Yeah.”

Starsky nudged his shoulder. “So being able to call you in the middle of the night and know you’ll come over means we’re definitely friends now, huh?”

“I guess it does. Well, if I’ve passed your stringent application process of course.”

Hutch was joking but Starsky thought he could read a little insecurity below the surface.

“Well, you were on the short-list already. Yeah, I think you made the cut.”

Hutch rolled his eyes and then yawned again.

“Is it all right if I go home now and get some sleep? Will you be able to sleep now?”

“Yeah, I think I will. Thanks…friend.”

Hutch grinned at him. “You’re welcome...friend.”

*******

 

A week later, as Al and Rosie walked through their front door, they heard the sound of voices chatting and laughing. They exchanged startled looks which quickly changed to smiles when the heard the sound of their nephew laughing loudly.

Rosie grasped Al’s hand and whispered, “I’ve been waiting and hoping to hear that sound again.”

“Think we should disturb them?”

Rosie was saved from making a decision by the sight of the kitchen door opening and a tall, blond man coming into the hallway.

“Oh. Hello. You must be Mr and Mrs Shapiro. I’m Ken Hutchinson,” Hutch said, and offered his hand to Al.

“Please call us Al and Rosie,” Al said, as he shook hands with Hutch.

Starsky appeared behind Hutch.

“This is my friend I told ya about. I’m glad you’re back in time to meet Hutch before he had to go home.”

Rosie wanted to dance with delight seeing the broad smile covering her nephew’s face. Instead she nodded and smiled at Hutch.

“Let me walk you out,” Rosie offered.

Starsky slapped Hutch on the back and said, “See ya tomorrow, Hutch.”

He returned to the kitchen. Al nodded goodbye to Hutch as he went to follow his nephew. Hutch smiled at Rosie and followed her along the hallway. She opened the front door and held it open for him.

“Goodnight then, Rosie. I expect I’ll see you again sometime.”

Rosie didn’t know what possessed her but she reached for Hutch’s hand, startling him. She squeezed it quickly and said, “Thank you. I hope I’ll see you again soon.”

Grey-blue eyes looked at her with slight confusion.

“Our Davey needs a good friend, someone to make him remember how to have fun. I wondered if he’d left a bit of himself behind but it feels like he’s found whatever was missing and I think you’ve had something to do with that so thank you,” she said by way of explanation.

Hutch nodded with understanding. He stepped out onto the stoop but paused and turned back towards her.

“I think I’m in need of a good friend, too,” he said softly. “Hopefully, we can both help each other out. I think we already are.”

Rosie smiled and then closed the door. As he walked down the steps, Hutch realised that what he had said to Rosie was true.

He felt he had helped Starsky work out some of his problems arising from traumatic stress. He knew Starsky still had some work to do and that he ought to get outside help, from someone who knew more about it than he did, but at least he’d gotten Starsky to a place where accepting that help was a possibility.

But Starsky was also helping him. Take this evening, just being able to let off steam about the latest argument with Vanessa had helped him feel less stressed about it. He had a feeling things with Vanessa were only to get worse and it was good to know he had a friend he could count on if he needed a shoulder to cry on.

Starsky was becoming the person he looked to when he needed someone he trusted not to share his inmost secrets; like a brother that he had never had. He was enjoying training with him and hoped that they would eventually end up working together. Maybe they could even be partners on the job one day. Who knew what the future would hold? For now, it was enough for them to be friends and to be there to support each other through the good and bad things life would throw at them.