Fade to Gray



3.



And then I see you there
With your arms open wide and you try to embrace me
These lonely tears I cry
They keep me in chains and I wish they'd release me...


I awake to warmth and light and to the delicious comfort of snuggly-soft blankets and my own pillow; cocooned in the center of my bed, I stretch lazily and for one brief moment am besieged by a startlingly vivid image of my arms and legs entangled here with someone else's...Jim! He was here with me, in the secret reaches of the night, sliding into my bed under cover of the peaceful darkness to pull me into his arms, the hungry glint in his eyes drawing me from restless slumber to almost instant arousal. We were here together, safe in some magical zone halfway between the unreachable THEN and the always horrible NOW. In this place nothing and no one else could touch us; in this room, in this bed, the cracks in my brain seemed to meld and seal over almost as if they'd never been, leaving me ALMOST...me again. The Blair from the THEN. But I was so afraid it wasn't real, that it was just another cruel trick being played on me by my unreliable mind.

"Jim?" I remember murmuring uncertainly, hopefully, half fearful that this was just another waking fantasy; but the warmth of his body pressing intimately against mine FELT so solid, so wonderful, that I was in no mood to question the reality of his presence with me.

"Jim?" I breathed again, needfully, arching into his touch as wantonly and as sinuously as a cat; practically purring with pleasure, I bared my throat to the delicious heat and suckling of my lover's mouth as familiar, sinfully skilled hands began their slow, tantalizing exploration of my body.

"More," I urged softly, fingers tangling in the short, amazingly soft strands of his hair, desperate to press his mouth even more firmly against my willing flesh. "Love me, Jim, please love me..." the garbled words trickled from my throat. And in the velvet darkness of my room, my phantom partner took on actual form and substance once more and covered my body with his own, moving with almost preternatural grace to divest the both of us of our clothing as he pleasured me to the point of insensibility with his mouth and his voice, whispering roughly to me as I quivered beneath his touch. His words floated to me on a hazy cloud of drunken desire, some of them clear in my mind while others were merely a seductive, rasping harmony echoing the raw need raging like an inferno between us.

"Yes," I moaned into the darkness, uncaring that my mind must surely be playing tricks on me again, fashioning from thin air the solid weight and shape of my Sentinel, my heart's deepest desire. As Jim slid the sweat-slicked length of his firm body over mine, I hooked my legs around his waist and thrust hungrily into the rigid center of his answering need, almost sobbing with joy as he took my mouth in a series of slow, deep kisses that left me dizzy and breathless and trembling with helpless arousal.

"Blair...God, Blair, tell me what you want; tell me it's okay to do this, to be with you like this..." Jim breathed the words harshly against my mouth, reluctantly holding himself still just above me despite my feverish efforts to clamp my thighs so tightly around him that he'd have little choice but to resettle his exquisite weight onto my desperate body. Though most of his words were incomprehensible to me, I grasped their basic meaning in the mixture of arousal and hesitation burning so intensely in his eyes as he hovered tautly above me, denying himself his own satisfaction for fear that he would be taking something I was incapable of offering. But this much of us--of the Blair I was before--I still remembered, with a clarity and a passion that had me whimpering aloud my frustrated longing for Jim to take me. Unable to express myself coherently with words, I resorted to clutching beseechingly at his wide, bare shoulders, mutely encouraging him with everything in my soul to complete this beautiful joining between us.

And it WAS beautiful, so beautiful; even now, as I stretch out in the morning light like a sated cat, I can still feel every caress, taste every kiss, remember the silken glide of every inch of Jim's powerful body claiming mine with such fierce gentleness. For one night we were shielded from the searching eyes of the phantasms from the NOTHING; for one night MY Jim was real again, miraculously returned to free me for awhile from the chains of my terrible solitude. The proof lingers with me still in the residual soreness of my body this morning; and both memories and sensations from our marathon lovemaking session are with me still in this new day's revealing light, a tangible sign of the passion shared between us in the silence of the night.

Rolling onto my stomach, I bury my face in the rumpled sheets beneath me and breathe in the intoxicating scents of Jim and sex and the sweat of our bodies that still lingers in the bedding. Jim; where are you, Jim? I wonder now, my lazy contentment fading as I become aware that I am alone once more, truly alone. Solitude suddenly hangs heavy in the air around me, reaching thick, oppressive tendrils all through the house; and a dank coldness seeps into my veins as a feeling of weary dread settles over me. Panicked by the smothering weight of being trapped again in the NOW--of feeling broken once more and angry and so very alone--I roll over and struggle to free myself from the twisted folds of the sheets that now seem a mere mockery of the intimate connection I shared with Jim in the night.

"Jim?"

Knowing no answer will come, I stand next to my bed now, dressed only in pajama bottoms that I have no memory of putting on again; and as deceptively friendly sunshine pours in through the glass doors at one side of the room, I know with fateful certainty that the sun's warmth has no hope of penetrating the gray chill that has fallen over my soul.

"J...im!" My tone is sharper now, half-angry and half-querulous, and when only silence echoes in response to my summons, I can feel the agitated increase of my heart's tempo in my chest as a slow, sick wave of fear washes through me. Jim, why? Why did you let them take you again; why didn't you fight harder to stay here with me?

No...no, don't blame Jim, don't be angry with Jim...he'd be here if he could, he loves you, even from far away, trapped inside the NOTHING, he loves you still; even with your scrambled, broken brains Jim loves you, loves his Chief...No, NO! Everything is leaving me again--all the lovely words and thoughts and things I knew last night when my brain remembered who I was are oozing out now through the cracks in my head. And it hurts to think, now I'm alone with no Jim again, he's left me, he always leaves me...

"Jim!" Even knowing that he couldn't hide from the things inside the NOTHING, I still can't keep myself from screaming his name; my stomach hurts, oh it hurts, Jim! and I am so afraid that I think I might wet my pajamas; but I can't find the toilet now, I have to remember about Jim and the NOTHING, I have to save him...I run from the bedroom looking for Jim in all the rooms of the house, but there's no one else here, no one anywhere; and as I run faster and faster, I can feel all the lighted-up parts of my mind getting darker and darker because I'm not really ME anymore, not the Blair Jim loved and wanted and needed before. And now he can't see me anymore; now I'M the ghost, the lost one. The house understands; the house won't have him here, the Jim from the THEN. He doesn't belong here, can't BE here in the NOW. And it's bad to feel so scared and alone, but my head hurts oh it hurts, with my brain so full of red and black and screaming, screaming so loud...

And now I hear them over the screams inside me, I hear ghost footsteps coming down the hall; and I don't remember how Time works or all about counting days-weeks-months...but I remember THIS, I remember the ghost and hot coffee splashing on my ankles and this is NOT Jim, this must be a thing from the NOTHING, coming to laugh at me because it took Jim away again and won't let me have him back.

"JIM!!"

My throat hurts from yelling, but I have to keep trying. I can see the NOTHING shadow moving closer to me, sneaking like a bad thing down the hall that takes me to the kitchen, and I know something, I know...Yes, yes, it lives there, it likes the kitchen; I remember this, how sometimes I hear it talking to itself and I have to be quiet, very quiet so it can't find me. So the house is not empty after all, there is me and this dark ghost; but I won't let it touch me like it touched Jim...

Jim, Jim have to save Jim...I turn now and run, run as hard as I can to my bedroom, to the place where Jim was in the mirror once and then loved me in my bed just one breath ago. There's something here I need to help me kill the NOTHING ghost; I can't remember just what it is, but Jim knew, Jim could tell me if I could only bring him back...

The shiny things! Yes...the shiny-cutting-snipping things, the ones that Jim used once when the things from the NOTHING let him visit me just long enough to take care of me, to help me...I needed him when my brain was still so sick, still hot and bubbling in my skull from the metal teeth of the monster that bit me. And I was so sick, poor Blair, so sick that even the ghosts were sad for me and let Jim come. And he sat me down in the bathroom, and first he scraped my face with a thing that made my cheeks smooth again, and after that he put cool lotion on my face that made it tingle; and then he brushed my hair and used the shiny, cutting things and snip-snipped with them to fix the long tangles that covered the nasty, inside parts of my broken head. And just before the ghosts sucked him away again into the NOTHING, Jim kissed my head and put the shiny things in a box high on a shelf in the bathroom.

"Safer there, Chief; don't want you ever hurting yourself with the scissors," Jim said then, and I didn't know scissors or ANY words then but now I do, now I remember. Scissors are sharp and shiny and cutting...So I will get them, I will get the scissors, and if the bad thing from the NOTHING won't send Jim back to me I'll snip-snip its shadow head clean off and then he'll be free, then Jim will climb from the hole in the bad spirit's neck and never go away again.

I slam the door of my bedroom closed but my tears won't stop, my heart won't be still, cause ghosts can come through doors and walls, can't they? Not safe, Blair's not safe... Hurry, hurry! a voice yells inside my head, and I run for the bathroom, slamming that door behind me and it's not safe, still not safe...The house can't help me, I have to find the scissors!

Panting, muttering meaningless sounds of rage and fear, I tear wildly about the bathroom, sweat dripping from my body as I fumble randomly in all the drawers and cabinets I can reach, fingers sliding and groping and tossing out all the things that are NOT scissors, NOT shiny-sharp. I can't think, need to think, have to remember...Help me, Jim, help me! I call out silently to his spirit, lost somewhere in the NOTHING. Show me, oh show me where the scissors are, so pointy and cutting...


And then I see it in my mind, see again Jim's long arms reaching, stretching so high to put the box away; it's a marvel, a miracle that the picture lives still in my head, and I think hard now, so hard, till I know what to do. I know how to pull the chair over, the chair that always sits in front of the dressing table; I need it to stand on, to make me tall, taller, and then I can reach it, the almost hidden shelf so high up along one wall. Gasping with the effort, I manage to clamber shakily onto the chair's cushioned seat, arms pinwheeling for balance; and then I'm stretching, fingers grasping the edge of the shelf and sliding along its surface, feeling for the box, thinking only of the scissors, scissors in my hand...

There! There, now, the corner of the box, the feel of fabric under my fingers as I pull it toward me, slide it to the edge of the shelf and over...and now it's in my hands, the box is in my hands and I'm trembling so hard I can't keep my balance, can't stay up on the chair...With a startled squawk I feel myself toppling, tumbling, my teeth clacking together as I fall, the box clutched to my chest, hearing Jim's voice warning me about scissors, don't hurt yourself on the scissors! But I'm on the floor now, the breath whooshing out of me so I can't move for a stunned instant, can't cry out, can't do anything but wonder if my ruined brain has forgotten how to make me breathe. Will I die here, holding this box with the scissors, so close but unable to kill the ghost when it comes to get me? I can't let it win, won't let it keep me from Jim, won't let it keep clouding my mind till the only times I know are the minutes WITH Jim and the ones WITHOUT. I can do this, I can breathe again, get up get up before it comes!!

And now I'm on my knees, choking and sobbing in wet gulps of air as my shaking hands try to figure out the clasp on the box, try so hard to open it, to find the scissors inside; finally I do it, finally the lid flies up and there they are, such shiny silver blades, the handles black and sturdy and ready for my fingers to grasp.

"Jim!" I cry triumphantly, wanting him to know that I've done it, knowing how proud of me he'd be if he could see; and I promise I'll be careful, I won't hurt myself with the sharp points, no snipping of fingers, no Blair blood dripping onto the tiles...And I'm standing, turning, running head-on into a wild-eyed, wild-haired freak in the shiny glass above the sinks, letting out a terrified yell that's echoed back at me by the crazed face before me, by my own reflection...me. God, this is ME looking in a mirror, me glaring crazily back at myself, standing here sweating and bare-chested and clutching the shiny scissors. And if I can recognize me, then the evil spirit will know me, too, will find me...It mustn't find me before I've made myself strong enough to kill it, before I can slow my breath and my racing heart and stop the shaking in my arms and legs.

"No," I mutter brokenly to myself, hearing sounds from the bedroom now, hearing the demonic creature's strangely feminine voice speaking gibberish through the crack at the bottom of the bathroom door. Too late, I'm too late to save Jim, to help Jim come back...But then I see my reflection again, see the wild mass of curls rioting all over my head; and I know what to do. I can fool the demon, trick it, make it so the NOTHING doesn't recognize me anymore...and then I'll be able to sneak up from behind and use my scissors, be able to kill all the ghosts and demons hiding in the house so Jim will be safe forever.

And I almost make it; I'm halfway done, scissors snip-snipping, tendrils of long, springy Blair-hair piling up in the floor at my feet, when the door flies open and the demon's presence fills the room. I can hear its dismayed outcry as it beholds the stranger before it, can smell its angry distress as it realizes that Blair isn't here, that clever Blair has managed to escape, leaving behind this other, this wide-eyed apparition with tufts of shorn hair sticking up from its vulnerable head, its expression amazed and fearful and somehow so sad as it looks down at all the hair, all the lovely hair that used to be Blair...

But that Blair is gone now; shhh! That Blair is too smart, no demon will ever catch him...I am that one now, the smart one, and I bend and stoop and scoop up a handful of hair, only to rise again and fling it at the demon, tranforming myself in the process into a warrior for Jim, into a slayer of evil with my scissors--so shiny--held at the ready, rushing in for the attack while the NOTHING demon reels back in confusion at the magic taking place before its shadow eyes.

Die! Die now! I scream inside my head as I launch myself at the enemy, unable to see it clearly but sensing its presence so near, smelling its fear as it falters, hesitates, and then acts much too late to save itself.

"NO, BLAIR, NO!" I hear it shriek at me, and it isn't right that it knows my name, that it's trying to make me feel sorry for hurting it, for killing it. But I have to get Jim back, have to break the evil spell that keeps my mind in pieces, stealing thoughts, stealing Time...Inside my ruined head all the Blairs that used to be me and are me NOW melt together with a loud, hurtful scream that makes me smarter and sadder and so much stronger all at once; and while the smarter bits of me are awake here inside me, I know it is time to press my attack against the NOTHING demon...knowing all the while that Jim would do the same for me if he could.

The battle is on; my scissors flash and stab and the demon fights back, fights back HARD, its strength and will to live amazingly tenacious. It's so strong, this demon, and wily, too, attempting to cloak its true face behind the flickering illusion of a human woman, a pretty woman with reddish-brown hair and huge brown eyes filling now with tears of fear and despair as the demon behind those eyes pleads for me to stop, calling my name and grappling fiercely for the scissors, Jim's scissors...

There's blood now, blood as rich and red as any human's; and the points of the scissors are tinged with scarlet. But I'm weaker than I thought, too weak to deliver the death blow to the creature's black and evil heart. Sobbing and cursing incoherently, I wrestle with the demon for the scissors, sucking in air to scream out Jim's name, needing him to come help me, to save me; and the demon takes up my cry, wildly yelling Jim's name along with me, as though my lover might actually rush to its aid instead of mine.

"No, Jim, no!" I cry out, begging him not to listen to it, not to be deceived by its soft, feminine curves and the copious tears falling like warm acid from its lying eyes. But no mere woman could be this strong, could fight so skillfully; and just as the demon somehow manages to wrench the scissors from my hand, I hear the frantic thunder of running feet from somewhere in the house and Jim's voice yelling desperately:

"Irma!"

He knows, I marvel with grim satisfaction as the demon overpowers me and drives me to the tiled floor, pinning my suddenly boneless limbs with its hard, hurting hands; Jim knows the demon's name, and now he will have power over it, now it will have to answer to him, obey him...and sure enough, the creature above me responds now to Jim's frantic summons, calling his name in a desperate tone that speaks of its hopeless realization of its own doom. Jim will make you go away, Jim won't let you have me, I think to the demon as I surrender myself to its grasp, knowing rescue is on its way. My right cheek is pressed against the hard floor, the laborious heaving of my breath stirring the sad piles of discarded hair scattered all around us; intermingled with the shorn curls are bright drops of crimson blood, and it pleases me that if I couldn't kill the demon, I was at least able to wound and weaken it. That will make it easier for Jim to finish it off, to send it back to its hell, to the NOTHING; and then we'll be safe; Jim and I will be together, inseparable, eternal.

"Oh, God...oh my God, Irma...What's happened--Jesus, you're bleeding!--Blair, oh God, Chief, what have you done!..."

Jim's presence, Jim's voice with its harsh, shocked cries of fear and disbelief, suddenly fills the room; and I try to squirm out from under the demon, try to at least turn my head so I can SEE Jim, so I'll know that he's truly come to rescue me...And now he's pulling the demon away from me, taking it away so it can't hurt me anymore; I hear him speaking hoarse, frantic words to it that I can't understand, but they must surely be some powerful invocation to send it back to oblivion.

"Sorry...I'm so damned sorry...God, are you SURE you're okay...all my fault, thought he was sleeping...believed he was getting better, so much BETTER...oh, Jesus, Irma, he's cut you, let me call somebody...might need stitches..."

Jim's voice fades as he tricks the demon into leaving with him, cleverly leading it away from me and out into the hallway beyond the bedroom; for a moment I am hurt and bewildered that he's seemingly abandoned me here, but I swallow down the bereft whimper of his name rising in my throat and lie very still, forcing myself to wait obediently till Jim comes to tell me it's safe now. It seems to take forever, and I can't help the small moan of relief that escapes me when I finally see Jim's familiar form returning through the door, his eyes dark and tortured with some nameless guilt as he drops to his knees beside me and reaches a shaking, blood-smeared hand toward my newly shorn head.

"Oh, God, Chief; God...What have you done?" he murmurs brokenly; and as I surge up from the floor to fling myself into his arms, he squeezes me to his chest in silent desperation, crushing me so tightly against him that I can barely breathe. But it's okay; I won't struggle or fight, because I can feel how upset he is, how worried, and I know that he feels so bad for not being here for me, so guilty that I had to face the demon alone. Sensing his pain, I cling to him every bit as fiercely as he's holding on to me, my face pressed deep into the wall of his chest as his heart pounds out a frantic rhythm. He's trembling against me, trembling in every limb, and one hand slowly slides up my back to sift through the hacked-off strands of my hair as I cling to him and mouth his name over and over like a mantra.

"Your hair," he whispers sorrowfully after a long moment, his fingers gliding with infinite regret over the haphazard gaps amongst the few long, curly tendrils still remaining on my head. "Oh, Blair, your hair..." And then he's pushing me away, grimly unpeeling my protesting arms from around his torso and drawing back from me. Before I can hurl myself at him again, his hands are moving over me, fingers stroking methodically up and down my bare arms, chest, and back as he checks me over for any signs of injury or bleeding. Mutely he tilts my head up and to either side as he assures himself that I don't have any nicks or cuts on my face; then his attention moves to my hands as he cups them gently in his own and frowns at the numerous shallow gashes on several of my fingers. For a moment my gaze follows the path his has taken, seeing the blood on my hands, the evidence of a hard-fought battle; then I lift my eyes to his, waiting for a sign from him, half-afraid I'll find nothing but anger and disappointment in his answering gaze for my failure to kill the demon when I had the chance.

"J'm?" I murmur uncertainly after a long time, a time in which he only looks at me with such sad, searching darkness in his eyes. I've done something wrong, I realize suddenly, have wounded or offended him in some incomprehensible way; and suddenly I'm afraid, so afraid he's going to leave me again and never come back.

"J...im?" I whisper again, unable to stop the hot tears that suddenly fill my eyes and roll, unchecked, down my cheeks.

Oh, Jim, I'm sorry, so sorry, whatever I did, I'm so sorry!...Please don't go, please...

But now the sight of my tears has shattered his frozen state, has returned life and awareness and intense FEELING to his blue eyes as he tenderly brushes my tears away and leans forward to press a chaste kiss to my forehead.

"I love you, Chief," he murmurs, his strong hands cupping my face with unbearable gentleness. "And I'm sorry, so sorry; this was all my fault, you're not to blame, I've pushed you too hard, expected too much...I love you, it's gonna be all right, it will all be okay..." And he's cradling me against him again, rocking the both of us gently back and forth, murmuring bemusedly to himself that he's amazed I found the scissors, how did I know where they were?...And the cadence of his voice suddenly makes me tired, so tired, and everything goes gray and fuzzy around the edges as MY Jim--the one miraculously come here from the THEN--carefully levers the both of us up from the floor before swinging my lax body up into his strong arms.

Carrying me through to the bedroom, he lays me gently on the bed and strokes one hand over my forehead while he reaches with the other to pull the sheet up over me--the sheet that still smells faintly of him, of us, of our loving. Drowsily I peer up at him, squinting to make out his blurry outline; and I watch as he kneels next to the bed and leans in close, his breath warm against my ear.

"Sleep for awhile now," he whispers softly, and as soon as my eyes close I feel him rise and begin to move away from me. NO! Come back..stay! I whimper after him; and then he IS back, reaching carefully for my hands and dabbing at the cuts with some sort of burning liquid. Growling, I flinch and try to pull my hands away, but Jim won't let go; gently but firmly he hangs on, speaking to me in soothing tones and lightly caressing my wrists till I relax again and allow him to bandage all the cuts on my fingers. I'm just too tired to fight him; and I trust him, trust him completely to take care of me, to make me all better.

When he moves away a second time I let him go, feeling myself slide down and down toward blessed slumber; I stir half-awake once, startled and disturbed when I dimly hear Jim speaking to someone, calling softly to the Irma demon, murmuring almost sadly. And I try to warn him, don't let her trick you, don't listen to her lies!...But then I understand clearly when he orders the demon to leave at last, telling it to go home, back where it came from, directing it to 'take the day off.' Yes, go, obey your new master; leave us here, just Jim and me, he is mine and I am his and we don't need anyone else, no one else...

"Jim," I murmur, suddenly worried that the demon might return, that the blood she spilled onto his hands might somehow poison or infect him; but he's right here, right by my side, and my fears slide away as he covers my mouth with his, breathing love and safety and the dusky taste of some nameless, heavy grief deep into the back of my throat. Sorry, I want to tell him; sorry I've made you so sad. I'll try to do better; I'll try to be smart again ALL the time. But then sleep overpowers me and I let go, secure in the knowledge that at least I've brought Jim back from the NOTHING.

***
...Now most days I spend like a child
Who's afraid of ghosts in the night
I know there ain't nothing out there
But I'm still afraid to turn off the lights...
---from "Arms of a Woman" by Amos Lee

4.


Cold is the night but
Colder still is the heart made of stone
Turned from clay
And if you follow me
You'll see all the black, all the white,
Fade to gray
.


I don't like this, I don't like this; Jim is with me but this isn't HOME, we aren't at the house, it isn't safe here...I hate this, hate the dizzy moving that makes me sick, that makes me retch and drool and huddle miserably in Jim's lap, my arms wrapped so tightly around his neck that he can barely breathe.

"Hang on, we'll be there soon, just hang on," he murmurs to me over and over, one hand rubbing my back while the other cups the back of my head and presses my face even more snugly against the strong column of his throat. I know he's only trying to make me feel safe, trying to shield my eyes from the sickening rush and blur of things zooming by outside the window; but nothing he does can really help me. Cars--I HATE cars, hate riding in this one now, hate going OUT...but Jim said yes, we're going OUT today, OUT, and OUT is not good...I don't like OUT, not at all.

"IN!" I'd shouted at him in angry rebuttal as I stood in the morning room with my special book in one hand and the tv changer in the other. I knew I was behaving like a child, which means 'throwing a fit' and 'being difficult,' as Jim has explained to me many times; but I REALLY hate OUT, and he KNOWS I hate it, and he hates it too sometimes but we go, anyway. So..."In!" I'd yelled again, my heart racing fast because I didn't want to go; don't make me go, Jim, please...

But I knew it wouldn't work; no matter how many words I know now, when Jim's eyes turn colors like that and he folds his arms over his chest and just looks at me, waiting, he always wins. Always. Sometimes when he does that it gives me a tingly feeling inside, all hot and excited and mad at the same time; and sometimes it just makes me want to stamp my feet and yell and yell. But I know too many words now, and yelling isn't allowed--Jim says talk to me, Chief, use your WORDS; and I know how proud he is of all my hard work, and so most times now I talk, even when it's very hard to do. And I know a lot of words now, way more than five but less than the numbers that are really, really big; but I do know all the important ones, like JIM and IRMA and IN/OUT and YES/NO, STOP/GO, PLEASE/THANK YOU, WHY, and I'LL-BE-HOME-SOON-I-PROMISE-BLAIR, and I-LOVE-YOU...

I know more words in the in-between place that Jim and I go to when we sleep sometimes, all snuggled together like happy, sweaty animals in the middle of our big bed; in THAT place I'm smart again, just like back in the THEN times. In the in-between place I know things I can't remember again when I'm awake in the NOW, when I'm in the house and Irma is there with me and I wait and wait for Jim to come home from 'the city' and his JOB that I hate SO much because the JOB means Jim goes away and it's too sad and lonely then, even when Irma lets me help her make cookies and watches tv with me and helps me learn 'phonics' and how to read again.

I just want Jim, always Jim is in my head, in my heart; and even when Irma talks to me in her most gentle voice--the one that means what she says is VERY important--and tells me that sometimes Jim needs 'space' and 'rest' and 'Jim time' but that it doesn't mean he doesn't miss and love me--well, it doesn't make the big, hurting hole inside my chest feel any better to hear her say the LOVE word then. It hurts and hurts until Jim comes back, until I hear his voice and his steps and see him there in the door and his arms squish me to his chest and he's laughing cause I can't stop kissing his whole face and wrapping my arms and legs so, so tight around him so he can't go away again for hours and even days...

But even then, even when he's back, a scary, dark little piece of the empty hurt stays stuck in my chest, and it only goes all the way away deep in the night when we are alone and Jim is loving me, holding me and stroking me and kissing me so good, so sweet and hot, and it's so good sometimes that it takes us to the in-between place, where Incacha comes to say hello and promises that I AM getting better, better than the bad day when I hurt Irma and cut off my hair and Jim was so sad...But Irma still loves me, she stayed to help because she is 'good people' Jim says, and he says my hair is already growing fast and Incacha doesn't lie when he tells me I'm getting so much better in the NOW.

But it's hard, so hard to know it, and sometimes I think Jim can't take much more of this Blair I am inside the house, and I feel sick at my stomach when I think about being stupid now and lost and oh, poor Jim, I am so much trouble now to him...But Jim just shakes his head and gets mad and sad all at once when he knows I feel sorry for being dumb; and if I say that D word out loud in the air, he puts his hand--so big and gentle--over my mouth and over all the sad, lost words coming out of it and whispers again the secret in my ear of how we are meant to be together for ALWAYS, Jim and me, and how much he loves me and I love him, and then I say, "I love YOU?" like it is a big surprise, and he grabs his heart and makes sad sounds that are not REAL sad feelings because he KNOWS I love,love, LOVE him so much and I am just 'playing'...But just to be sure he isn't REALLY sad, I always jump on him and squeeze him as tight as tight can be, and I whisper over and over in his ear, "I love you-I love you-I love you, my Jim, MINE, all mine..." and he always sighs and whispers back, "Yes, Chief, all yours, tied up and delivered in one big, mushy Sentinel package." And I'm not sure why, but that always makes me laugh, and it makes the last little bit of the hurt go away. And then we have TIME together--precious, precious time--and I am safe and happy.

But THIS...this is NOT happy, this riding in the car; this is BAD, this is the Narrow Place, the gray world that Jim tells me is real, is all around, but I don't want to see it, to know it. It's too big, too loud, too many sounds and colors and noises and smells; it's ugly and scary, and Jim says I sound like HE used to sound when I first found him in the THEN and his senses were as unhappy as mine get here in the Narrow Place. But Jim says I helped him then, that I saved him, and now he helps ME, now he's saving me, making me see and hear and smell even when I don't want to, because it is 'for my own good.' But I can't let it all get too close to me yet; when Jim brings me here, to the Narrow Place, I can only see the ZONE--the narrow space directly in front of my eyes, just out past my feet. Nothing on this side of it, nothing on that side of it, nothing behind it...I only see close to me, very close, and only down. Don't look up, I don't like to look up, don't like to see the EYES looking at me, into me, those surprising eyes that are just THERE--out of the NOTHING--and it takes long, too long, to remember that the eyes are attached to faces and the faces are part of other people, nice people Jim says, who only want to help me to remember again and to learn and grow. And I want to make Jim proud and happy, but the Narrow Place makes me sweat and makes my mouth go dry and my head hurts and everything shimmers and wiggles and gets so LOUD in my ears, and there's so much rushing, so much moving of dark, slinking shadows and voices all blurring together into mumble mumble mumble just past the edges of the ZONE...

I need my ZONE, it keeps me safe, keeps me from rolling into a ball in the floor and scratching at my own face and arms because my skin hurts when people who are NOT Jim or Irma touch me or talk--SO LOUD--in my ear or put things in my hands and say WHAT IS IT?, and I feel shapes and hard and soft but there's nothing REAL there, I can't SEE until I pull the things they give me close, inside the ZONE, and I know there are people OUT THERE waiting for me to say what I have in my hands; but I just want to scream and growl at them because I can't SEE them and I don't like them close, coming so close inside my ZONE. And I like to pretend I could turn into a big, furry wolf like the stuffed one Jim gave to me to be my friend whenever he has to go to the JOB...If I could be the wolf I could run, run like the wind on four legs, far away from the Narrow Place and the people with surprise eyes and only Jim could find me...and if I was the wolf Jim would be a big, black panther, and we could play forever in the sun and make everything else go away, far away...

But Jim says no, Jim says I need to COME BACK, that lots and lots of people called FRIENDS are waiting for me in the Narrow Place and I will really have fun with them when I learn how to come back, closer and closer to how the old Blair was THEN...and I don't like it but Jim goes away to the Narrow Place a lot and is sad when I can't follow him there, and I want to be with Jim, always with him...so I try and try and try, but I HATE how hard it is, and I can't see-hear-smell it all yet because it is too much, too frightening, and I can't make my brain work right yet, only sometimes...But now we are in the car, and the ZONE doesn't work here, I can't push the dark edges away and the rushing and moving goes all through me and the special pills Jim gives me for the sick-ups only work sometimes, not always. In the car I feel so unhappy, cold-sweaty and scared and shaking all over; and it's all Jim can do to hold me here now against him, stroking and petting me and whisper-saying words that I can sometimes understand and sometimes can't because my brain knows lots of words again now but not ALL the words yet.

And now the car keeps going, and I twist my fingers tight in the nice-feeling material of Jim's shirt, and I remember the word I need for right now, the word that means a question and a hope at the same time. "Soon?" I manage to groan against the warm skin of his neck, and I start to breathe harder because I think I can feel it, can feel and hear a change in how the car's motor sounds, can feel the slow, sick rolling in my stomach smoothing out until the sour, sick-up taste in my throat goes away.

"Yes, very soon, now," Jim answers me, pressing a slow, soothing kiss against my temple. "The car will stop, and then we're going to see Dr. Inatsch again; you remember Dr. Inatsch. And Terry, too--she's been helping you with your speech, your words."

But I don't want to talk about the doctors and the therapy and the people in the hospital, too many shadow people everywhere..."We're stopping soon?" I mutter a mistrustful reply instead, still not daring to lift my head from the hollow of Jim's throat, still unwilling to relax my death grip around his neck. "Home, now?"

"No, Chief, not yet--not home yet," Jim rebuffs me gently, carding his fingers through the short curls on my head before giving one a slightly scolding tug. "C'mon, Blair, don't be difficult today; I explained to you already--more than three times, more than four--that I really need you to cooperate with these tests so Dr. Inatsch and his team can know the best ways to keep helping you."

"We hate tests," I retort sulkily, reluctantly peeling my arms from Jim's neck just long enough to lean back and give him my most disgusted look. Disgusted--I know that word, Jim tells me I use the 'look' that goes with it all too often these days. But disgusted is what I feel, and the brief glint of humor that flares in Jim's eyes is NOT enough to take the feeling away.

"Yeah, we do hate tests--both THEN and NOW," he agrees softly, caressing my back as I sigh mournfully and burrow against him. "But THESE tests are very important, Chief--very important. You remember how we talked about this problem you're still having with words--the aphasia Dr. Inatsch diagnosed? And we both know how frustrated you get when you want to tell me something, and you can SEE the concept in your mind but the words just go away--"

"YOU get frustrated, too," I huff disagreeably, giving his shirt a yank; and Jim grins as a deep, appreciative chuckling sound suddenly booms from the gray space where I know the front seat of the car is.

"He's got you pegged there, Jim," a gravelly voice rumbles from beyond the ZONE, and I can't help flinching in pained surprise at the sound, my heart beginning to pound as a wave of nervous confusion washes over me in a sick rush.

"Easy, babe, easy..." Jim murmurs against me now, hands running up and down my back and cradling me protectively to his chest as both his touch and his voice pull me back from the sudden dark trying to crash in on me. With my hands clutching onto his shirt-front, I'm finally brave enough to lift and focus my wide eyes on his face, and Jim smiles softly at me and strokes my cheek with one warm, comforting hand. "Simon's with us today, Blair, you know Simon...remember, he's driving us in his car, taking us to see Dr. Inatsch and Terry. Taking us to the city."

Moving slowly, Jim reaches to one side and pulls something from thin air, carefully retrieving whatever it is from the gray void outside of the ZONE. Pictures, I realize with a relieved shudder as he slowly lifts a small leather wallet up close to my face so I can see it clearly. Even knowing what it is now, my body still shivers and can't stop as I sit bolt upright and pull slightly away from him, flinching a little as Jim opens the wallet and unfolds lots and lots of photos--both color and black/white--of all the people who've come back from the NOTHING to live in my world again.

Sometimes I forget some of them; most times I can't SEE them right away, even when they're in the house or out here in the Narrow Place and are standing very near to me. But Jim helps me to remember; he figured out how to show me, with these pictures, just who is around me and helps me SEE them and hear them and understand. And when I have trouble matching names to faces, the pictures help me out; Jim even made a space below each photo and wrote the person's name under their picture so that I could learn the letters for Irma and Simon and Daryl and Joel and Henri and Meagan and Rafe...and Naomi. I've always known Naomi's face, but sometimes I forget the letters for her name, and the pictures show me--"N" and all the rest that come after.

"Blair...right here, sweetheart." His voice low and patient, Jim pulls my wandering thoughts back to the wallet in his hand, back to the photo of the black man in glasses peering up at me with a smile that seems closer to a snarl. Scary or silly? I think confusedly to myself as I run a tentative finger over the face and try to untangle the two words in my mind. This is Simon, I hear Jim in my head; his bark is worse than his bite, so silly must be the right word for the face he's making here...Simon. I know him now, and he IS driving us, I remember, because he is our old and trusted friend.

"Hello, Simon," I greet him cheerfully enough now, cautiously turning my body in Jim's arms to catch a shadowy glimpse of the back of Simon Banks's head in the driver's seat. "I've decided you're silly," I inform him and then jump at the choked-off snort of laughter that vibrates up from Jim's chest.

"Well, hello, yourself, Sandburg...and SILLY?" Simon's voice replies, sounding friendly but somewhat bewildered; I want to answer him, but I am distracted because Jim has begun to chuckle quietly against me, his lips curving upward in that way that means he's happy on the inside because of something I've said. That makes ME happy right back, and when I'm happy like this I want to crawl right inside Jim's skin and love him until he's nothing but a sweaty puddle.

"Uh-uh, NOT now," he mutters warningly as he feels me beginning to harden against him; already my breathing is growing sharp and excited, and I can't stop myself from rubbing and sliding myself over Jim's lap, where his own hardness is pressing right back, so happy and hungry against me. I like this, like it very, very much; and Jim's eyes are getting so dark as he looks at me up close, so dark and hot...and I know his mouth will taste sweet and wet, his tongue pushing my lips apart, sliding inside to say hello to MY tongue, to lick and suck and make me moan for more, more Jim, please!...And suddenly, as all these wants and needs inside me crash together inside my heart and my blood, the magic begins to happen and I am thinking better, seeing more clearly, shaking off layers of the thick, gray fog that always keeps me blind and confused and ashamed because underneath its coldness I feel like a child trapped inside a grown man's hungry, needful body. I'm confused that the magic could be happening right here in the car, in the daylight, instead of waiting for the darkness and the safety of our bed; but it's like waking up, like getting hit HARD in the head and knowing you're not quite 'all there' yet but just starting to remember who you really are and to know things again.

And now...now I'm getting glimpses of the jungle, seeing images of the in-between and of Blair the way he--I--am supposed to be; and I remember loving Jim like a grown man, wanting him the way real lovers want and need and share with one another the deepest places inside their souls. I feel suddenly as though an electric switch has just been flipped on inside my head, making lights blink and tiny motors whir and whispering to my sleepy brain to 'wake up and smell the coffee, for God's sake!'...and greedily I reach for Jim again, desperate and determined to take everything I can here and now before it all goes away again, leaving me lost and frustrated and no good at all to the man holding me in his arms.

"Cut it out, Chief!" Jim hisses at me now, reaching down to grasp both my thighs tightly in his hands and hold me still. His tone is stern, but I can hear how hard he's breathing, too, can feel his heart thundering as I slide both my palms over his chest and lean in to press my mouth to his. He doesn't know yet, isn't concentrating enough to SEE the shadow of the jungle forming all around us, and he's still trying to argue with me, trying to be patient.

"We're in the city now, Blair, the nice people at the hospital are waiting for us..." he murmurs, wrestling with my determined grip on him. "We can't do this now, you know that. C'mon, Chief, stop it, stop SQUIRMING like that!..."

Groaning low in his throat, Jim lifts a hand to tangle his fingers in my hair and gently but firmly pulls my head back, freeing his mouth from my determined kiss long enough to ask Simon a rather desperate-sounding question. "Are we almost there, Simon?" he calls, bestowing a warning glare on me as I begin circling my fingers round and round the perfect nubs of his nipples, watching in delight as each one hardens instantly to stiff, aching attention beneath the soft material of his shirt.

"Well, gee, Jim, I don't know; I just might be too SILLY to read the freeway signs correctly," comes Simon's disembodied voice, and Jim half-grins, half-sighs as he fastens both hands around my wrists and pulls my busy fingers away from his chest.

"I'm sure Blair meant it as a compliment, Simon," he offers apologetically, and I nod agreement as I tighten my thighs on either side of Jim's and begin to rock back and forth very slowly and deliberately over the rock-hard bulge in his going-to-the-city slacks.

"Silly is good," I smile in distracted affirmation as Jim's expression tightens in helpless pleasure and he thrusts back once, instinctively, against the hungry friction of my body over his. His gaze is glued to mine, his pupils darkening and dilating with some mysterious, simmering alchemy that draws me into the center of his power and his need; and I can read in the heated depths of his eyes his belated but swift-dawning realization that at least some part of the Blair from in-between has returned now to sit in this moving car with him, to share for however brief an interval some small but vital portion of the precious link forged between us back in the time before it all went bad.

I know this won't last for long; we both know it. Already I'm growing exhausted by the effort to hold on to this tiny oasis of awareness in the midst of all the darkness surrounding me. But I can sense Jim lending me his strength, can feel in the touch of his hands on me and in his burning gaze his own desperate need for this moment of connection and affirmation between us. And as I struggle to push away the heavy folds of smothering blackness pushing relentlessly at the edges of my consciousness, Jim silently tangles his fingers in my hair and pulls my face in close to his, our noses touching and rubbing together in a caress both chaste and unbearably tender. My heart sends a slow, bittersweet rush of blood through my body and sets me to trembling as Jim exhales the warm, soundless murmur of my name against my lips. In mute desperation I grip his head between my hands, biting back a groan of anguished longing and praying to all the gods to send the rest of the skewed, crazy world that's wavering around us far, far away. Give us this right now, this touch, this KNOWLEDGE; just this, Jesus, please...

"Silly is good, eh? In that case, the hospital is coming up on the right, one more exit ahead," Simon suddenly chuckles wryly from the front seat, then adds in a scolding tone almost as stern as Jim's can be sometimes: "And I don't even want to KNOW what's going on back there with you two! For God's sake, Jim, can't you put a leash on the kid or something till you can get him back home--where there's PRIVACY for that sort of thing, if you get my drift?"

And though I know he has no clue what he's just done, the intrusion of Simon's voice into our small, precious bubble of privacy has shattered whatever magical spell that enabled me--the WHOLE, miraculously blended parts of my mind and my soul--to come to the forefront and say a brief hello; I try to hold onto the tattered wisps of myself as they uncurl and disperse again, try to hold onto Jim as to Life itself as he tightens his hold on my errant, fast-growing curls and gives the smallest groan of grief and disappointment at witnessing my helpless withdrawal once more.

Sorry, Jim; I'm so sorry, my eyes tell him, and for a millisecond the desolation in the blue eyes gazing back at me is almost unbearable. But then he smiles at me, just a small lifting of one corner of his mouth that nonetheless conveys all the love and patience and protectiveness for me that exists all the way to the core of his soul; and as a choking gray fog of bewildered haziness begins its steady descent over my thoughts again, Jim leans in even closer to brush his mouth against my ear and whisper: "It's okay, Chief; I've got you, safe and sound here with me."

And now Simon's voice is a buzzing that sounds noisy and almost painful in my ears, and I am gazing wide-eyed into Jim's half-sad, half-loving face, and my body can feel how strong Jim is against me, how hard and solid and exciting. And suddenly I remember we are in the car and we are going to 'the city' and I don't care right now because all I want is to touch Jim and to go back, back to the magic place that seems like a dream from long ago.

"Jim feels so good, Simon," I share with our friend now, mildly upset that the shadowy figure at the edge of the Zone can't seem to understand that, that he can't see how important it is to me to make Jim feel as wonderfully excited as I am right now to be with him like this. The car is bad and the moving it does is bad; but THIS moving between Jim and me is so very, very good that I never want to stop doing it. But Jim's face has turned an interesting shade of pinkish-red at Simon's scolding, and now he grits his teeth and releases his hold on my wrists, only to slide his hands to my waist and squeeze me warningly, holding me still on his lap.

"Sorry, Simon," he growls out, and I know that the words are for Simon but the growl is for ME. Just like the black panther I see in my mind sometimes, Jim's body right now is all sleek, hard muscles and beautiful, dangerous eyes glittering back at me, showing me one last, true glimpse of the REAL me as the look in his darkened irises changes from embarrassed chagrin to the soft, helpless love that's always waiting there when he looks deep into the true soul of me. "And YOU behave," he whispers to me now in gentle exasperation, lifting a hand from my waist to stroke teasing fingers down one side of my face.

"Okay, I'll behave," I agree complacently, turning my cheek into Jim's warm caress and giving a little sigh of pleasure as I hear his breath catch at the last, regretful rub my bottom gives to his groin before I make myself sit still. "But can we go home soon, Jim, really soon? I don't like it here; I don't want to see the doctors."

"It won't take very long, Chief, you'll see; and I think everyone's going to be very pleased with all the progress you've made since our last visit," Jim murmurs persuasively, his gaze holding mine as he continues to absently glide his fingers up and down my cheek. "I'll stay right with you the whole time; and when we're done, we'll stop by the gift shop and buy you another jigsaw puzzle to work on back at the house."

"Fish...I want one with fishes this time, okay, Jim?" I suggest excitedly, and Jim scrunches up his nose and smiles at me with lazy affection. There is still a darkness in his eyes, still a sad, empty place for the parts of my brain that have gotten lost again; but he isn't mad at me, not at all, and I can feel under my hand how steady and calm his heart is, beating so strong and keeping the best parts of me safe there until the next time we can love each other with soft, hungry sounds in the night, till the next time the fog drifts away and everything shines crystal clear.

"Hey, Simon, would that be fishes, plural, or FISH, plural?" he calls good-naturedly now to our almost invisible friend up front, and Simon snorts back a vague, "Beats me, Ellison; but if the boy wants a fish puzzle, I'm sure that can be arranged."

"See, Simon says I can have one," I grin proudly at Jim, and his answering smile is wide and amused as he gives my hair a gentle tug and allows me to capture both his hands in mine, my fingers gripping and squeezing his flesh with my growing excitement. "Will the puzzle have koi, Jim? Can we find one that has the same kind of fish that live in our pond?"

"We can try, Chief," Jim replies, and all I can think about now are puzzles and fish; and I feel a sudden rush of mingled worry and anticipation tingle through my body at the chance that there might NOT be a koi puzzle waiting for me in the gift shop. That would be bad, very bad, and I don't want to go there if MY puzzle isn't there; it will be SO hard and confusing if I have to find ANOTHER puzzle, so many many puzzles and it makes my head hurt, having to choose...suddenly everything is so dark around me again, so fuzzy and mixed up, and I don't like this, I want to go home...

"Hey, hey; it's okay, buddy. We'll find just the right puzzle for today," Jim soothes me, his quick gaze seeing down and down into my head just like magic, just like he always does. "Shh, settle down now, we'll be there in just a bit. It's all right, you're doing great this trip, sweetheart." Gently pulling his hands from mine, Jim begins to rub them up and down my back, using slow, firm strokes that make the nervous quivering in all my muscles fade away again into quiet.

"I love you," he murmurs in my ear now as I sag against him, my arms going around his neck to tug him even closer to me. "Love you so much, babe."

"Love you forever, Jim," I murmur back, my mouth sliding over the strong pulse beating at his throat. I need Jim right here with me, always with me; and the idea of doctor hands touching me soon and taking me away from my Jim, even for a minute, makes me very upset. Suddenly I feel small and scared and everything looks so dark...and I hear my own voice, tight and shaky with pleading. "I want to go home, Jim; please, take me home." I can't stop the shudder that runs down my body, and Jim hugs me tighter than tight and whispers all around me, his voice keeping most of the darkness away.

"I'm right here--right here, Blair; I won't leave you, it's you and me all the way, okay? You want to get better, I know you do; you don't want to be afraid of the world anymore. It's such a beautiful world, sweetheart, so many things to see and do; and we're going to discover it all again...together."

And as Jim talks on and on, telling me about parks and beaches and restaurants, museums and mountains and libraries--all the places he wants to take me to when I'm smart enough again and can remember how to think and see without shadows all around--I nod weakly against the side of his neck and try to blink back the tears in my eyes, not wanting him to feel so sad that I am not the Blair from THEN. I'll try harder, Jim, I want to tell him; I'll try so hard to be better, to find THAT Blair again, the one hiding somewhere in the gray spaces between my broken mind and the bright jungle where Incacha lives and helps Jim to keep all the important pieces of my soul safe until my stubborn brain gets well again.

"Hurry, Jim; please tell the doctors to hurry," I gulp as he presses a comforting kiss to my head; and I think neither one of us knows if I mean hurry now--today--or just hurry and fix me, hurry hurry and put Blair Sandburg back together again like a big egg, like Humpty Dumpty who fell off the wall. I saw that, saw it on educational tv, and my head is an egg, too, cracked and scrambled but not leaking runny stuff anymore, at least not today.

"We're there, Jim," Simon suddenly announces quietly from nowhere, his growly voice sounding much softer and gentler than usual, as if he knows that I am nervous, so very nervous, and is sorry to hear it.

"No more moving car," I sigh, relieved by that small blessing, at least; and Jim smiles reassuringly as he carefully untangles my arms and legs from his body and slides me onto the seat right next to him. I can't help clutching anxiously at his arm as he reaches for the door handle, my fingers plucking at his sleeve as I press against him in silent desperation. Don't! I want to shout at him, my heart pounding in my chest. Don't open it, don't let The Narrow Place come spilling inside here, come rushing in to suck the both of us out and away. What if we get separated Out
There; what if I get lost and I can never find Jim again, never go back to the house and Irma and the koi and the bedroom, Jim's and mine?...

"Hold on tight to me; don't lose me," I whisper brokenly into Jim's shoulder now, and he merely nods, sliding one strong, protective arm around me as he pushes the door wide and lets in all the harsh, bright clutter of The Narrow Place.

"I won't lose you, Chief," I hear him promise in a low, steady voice as I reluctantly allow him to guide me from the car into air that feels too stuffy and warm and smells of city things that burn my throat and make me wrinkle my nose unhappily.

"Stinks here," I mutter as I wrap both arms tightly around Jim's waist and press my face into his chest, not wanting to see yet, not ready to move.

"Yeah, it does, kinda," Jim agrees, running a comforting hand up and down my back. Dimly I hear the sound of another car door slamming and can't help jumping a bit as Simon's voice emerges from the Zone and is suddenly right up close, warm and amused and almost too much to take in the midst of all this other.

"NOW look who's got enhanced senses, Jim," he's chuckling, and I force myself to turn my head slowly to one side, my cheek rubbing against Jim's chest as I make myself open my eyes and SEE Simon's solid, powerful body so near to me, so close...

"Uh...hi, Simon," I mutter uneasily, digging my fingers into Jim's sides as I try to slow down my racing heart. I know Simon--Simon is safe--I keep repeating over and over in my head as we all stand very still in the too-bright air, the others waiting patiently for me to be ready, for me to tell them we can go into the hospital now.

"Hi, Blair," Simon returns after a bit, and I am glad, so glad, that he's done it right, that he's giving my brain enough time to get everything straight and put it all in order again. His smile is small but sincere, not showing any white teeth that would blind and distract me and make it hard to think clearly; and he stands with his face turned partially to the side so I won't be startled by the force of both his eyes on me at once. Only Jim can look at me full-on like that--Jim and sometimes Irma--but now that I'm sure it's really Simon and that it's okay, I slowly release the death grip my left hand has had on Jim's poor flesh and stretch my arm cautiously in Simon's direction.

"Where is it?" I demand with the smallest touch of bravado in my voice, and Simon's rumbling laugh sounds like rough velvet on the air as his large brown hand slides very carefully into my view, waiting for me to pluck the small piece of candy he's settled on his open palm.

"Thought I forgot, didn't you?" he teases as I extend shaky but determined fingers just far enough to snatch the paper-wrapped fruit chew from Simon's grasp and clutch it triumphantly to my chest.

"You never forget," I retort, and for just one breath my eyes meet his square on, my gaze flickering nervously but curiously over the expression of warm affection in his own steady stare. Then the dizzying blur of noise and light and movement in The Narrow Place just behind him comes crashing in on us, and I give a small, pained moan and press my face as hard as I can against the comforting wall of Jim's chest.

"It's strawberry this time," I dimly hear Simon saying, each word emerging from his mouth in a slow cadence that helps to drive out all the furor of slamming car doors and clicking heels and strange voices warbling nonsense words and oh, the horns and sirens...even the breeze hurts my skin now, and I need Simon's voice and Jim's strong arms to anchor me here inside this bubble of safety in the middle of The Narrow Place.

"Grape was last time; I don't like grape," I mumble into Jim's chest, and Jim chuckles softly and accuses Simon of spoiling me. Simon says something I can't understand, and then I am tensing up, going stiff and stubborn and sweating all over as Jim slowly but firmly begins to turn my body around, prying my desperate arms from around his waist as he murmurs, "C'mon, Chief, time to go, time to go inside..." over and over.

"Let's walk--just walk with me, babe, I'm right here beside you, holding onto you...Simon's got your back, he won't let anyone or anything come up behind you...you remember this, you remember how we go..." Calming me with his words and his touch and with the deliberate, steady tone of his voice, Jim begins to navigate the both of us through the treacherous territory of The Narrow Place, his arms wrapped firmly around me as he walks me forward a step at a time. His hard body is a strong, protective barrier all along my right side, keeping the scary darkness out beyond the Zone safely at bay; behind us I can feel Simon moving in careful tandem with our slow steps, and I force myself to relax as I cautiously stretch my vision to the very edge of the Zone directly in front of us. My eyes can see the asphalt paving of the parking lot beneath our feet, and hazy snatches of muted noise and garish colors waver in and out of my conscious notice as I try not to flinch away from the disturbing, formless blobs that my brain tells me are other people moving through The Narrow Place all around us.

"You're doing great, Blair; we're almost to the hospital entrance," Jim is murmuring beside me, and I swallow down the bitter taste of bile and fear rising in my throat as I give in to his gentle but purposeful directing of my steps. I can do this, I can do this, it's for Jim, too, not just for me...Do this for Jim, get better, you'll get better here, I chant silently to myself; and I think I am doing very well, that I can be proud of myself today. But then suddenly--screaming out of the big NOTHING and hurtling straight toward us from the murky darkness up ahead--something small and bright-hot and loud--so LOUD--slams into the front of my body, its terrible shrieks stabbing knives of blinding pain into my skull.

"JIM! JIM!" I scream, flinging myself frantically backward and away from the unidentifiable demon creature clawing at my legs now and shrieking up at me. "Make it go; take it AWAY!" I sob, my heart almost beating through my chest as a wave of sick terror crashes over me. I can feel Jim's hands on me, trying to pull me away from the monster attached to my legs, and I can hear his voice ordering me to calm down, begging me to stand still and to stop yelling, telling me it's okay, it's only a child, just a little girl who wouldn't hurt a fly...

"See her now, Blair; LOOK at her with your eyes, see? She's just a little girl, she got away from her mother but it's all right, everything's going to be all right..." Slowly Jim's intense, cajoling tone cuts through the fear that has overtaken me, and the part of me that still wants to run away screaming can't move at all because I'm blind and shaking and stupid with terror and confusion. But Jim is here, I tell myself, Jim is still here and his arms are holding me close, so close, and he's asking me to look down, to please just try to SEE for him, and the shrieking thing wrapped around my knees is wild and bright and has narrow, pale arms and golden hair that streams like melted butter in the sunlight.

"Oh, God, what's happening here--what's WRONG with him? Get her OFF him; what do you mean, letting a freak like that near my baby?! He's scaring her; how DARE he bellow at her like that?"

The woman's voice is loud and rough and mean, very mean--not at all nice and smooth and friendly like Irma's--and as my bewildered brain begins to make sense of the picture my eyes are sending to it, I can finally see a little bitty person with big blue eyes and a wide, screaming-pink mouth being dragged away from her frantic hold on my legs, her squirming body pulled roughly loose from mine by a pair of angry, grown-up Mommy arms.

"Please, Ma'am, calm down; Blair was just startled by your little girl, he wasn't expecting her to come at him like that..." I can hear Jim's voice, tense and somehow angry, but I don't think he's angry with me OR with the little girl child; and he's holding onto me and trying to calm the crazy lady who's zoomed in on us from The Narrow Place, and the girl child with the golden hair--pretty little thing--is screeching SO LOUD inside the Zone, and it makes my head hurt a lot but now I'm not so scared, now I know it's not a demon...And Simon's voice is here, too, drawing Crazy Lady off to the side, telling her he is THE POLICE and Mr. Sandburg has been ill and doesn't need this ruckus and meant no harm to the little girl, and we need to go inside for Mr. Sandburg's APPOINTMENT now and would the nice, crazy lady please try next time to keep a tighter hold on her child...

And then Jim is moving me quick quick, up 1-2-3-4-5 steps that glitter in the sun with tiny chips of sparkly rock, and his voice is calm and easy as he tells me I'm doing SUCH a good job...but I know he is upset a little and mad a little, and his grip on me is almost too tight as he pushes-tugs-marches me into the cooler, darker inside place that is the hospital. And I don't want him to be angry or upset or afraid for me, because he is Jim, he is my ROCK, and I need him to show me that it's safe, that WE'RE safe and that I can get better here...and after I'm all better, THEN Jim can be sad and mad and scared sometimes, because THEN I will be strong and I can help him, I can be the rock then and Jim can finally rest...So I have to start now, have to show Jim I'm fine, that I can walk inside this place and see the doctors, and everything will be better. And it's hard, very hard for my brain to get it straight, but suddenly I remember the tv and 'sitcoms' and know just what to say to make him feel better.

"Geez, Jim; chill, why dont'cha?" I mutter in the same sort of voice I heard the man on the tv say; and suddenly Jim's face is right up close to mine, his eyes wide and unbelieving and his mouth hanging open.

"Did you just tell me to CHILL?" he growls in a low, raspy voice; and when I nod, my chin thrust out defiantly, his eyes suddenly go all crinkly and happy and he begins to snort like he has a cold--only it's laughing and not cold germs that come out of his mouth now, the chuckles getting so strong that his shoulders are beginning to shake.

"We have an APPOINTMENT, Jim," I try to remind him as he bends over with his hands on his knees and laughs and cries all at the same time. Silly, silly Jim; maybe the doctor needs to check HIS brain, I think fondly just as a pair of legs ending in feet wearing shiny black shoes steps into the Zone between Jim and me. Simon! I realize with a gasp of shaky relief as a large, dark hand descends on Jim's right shoulder and Simon's familiar voice rumbles:

"Ellison! Jim, are you okay? Don't go getting all hysterical, man; Blair's fine, and you had no way of knowing that that darned kid was gonna come barreling straight at him like that. Look, Jim, you've got to pull yourself together, Sandburg needs you now--"

"He needs to chill, Simon," I confide knowingly to our friend's back; and Simon straightens and turns toward me, the expression of blank surprise on his face making him look rather silly. I really WAS right about the picture from before, I think with no small sense of satisfaction as, behind Simon's back, Jim dissolves into another bout of helpless laughter. His face is turning an interesting shade of red, and the sounds he's making are so free and happy that I don't even mind that Simon is looking at me full-on now with both eyes, his brows climbing up his forehead like wiggly caterpillars.

"I need a stiff drink," he groans after a minute, a slow, delighted grin stretching his mouth. I wince a little at all the white, white teeth so close, but this is Simon so it's okay; and now Jim is pulling himself up straight and tall again, his gaze on me filled with such love that it makes me forget everything but how happy I am that I am his and he is mine, always. My Jim, my Sentinel--though I'm still not sure what that word means, exactly. But it will come back to me, and I will know then how to help Jim, just like I used to do, just like he helps me now.

"We can have a drink later, Simon," I say, a note of mild reproof in my voice. "I remember there's apple juice here in this place. But now the doctor is waiting. Come on, Jim, Dr. Inatsch has to see me so I can get well and we can go back home and tell Irma."

"Yes, Simon; we'll have apple juice later," Jim grins as he allows me to grab his hand and start tugging him across the floor. The Zone opens slowly all around as we move, and Simon has to take some hurried steps to stay in the safe area, where I can still see him.

"That's not exactly the kind of drink I had in mind, Jim," he's grumbling, but right now we are on a journey, a mission, now is appointment time and I remember the elevator and know that I don't like it at all because we have to go inside where there's moving almost like the car moves but not; and sometimes there are shadow people pressing in on all sides and they smell of too many confusing things, and I have to bury my face in Jim's chest and just hold onto him so tightly till the elevator lets us out and then we find the place where Dr. Inatsch and Terry and Phil the Exercise Man wait to see me and tell me how healthy I look.

"I'm proud of you, Chief, so proud of you," Jim murmurs into my ear now as he puts his hand gently on my back and steers me toward the big wall where the elevators go up and down inside, swallowing shadow people and then spitting them out again. "You handled that 'surprise' just like a pro, my friend," Jim is saying as we step step over to the closed elevator doors. "You didn't curl into a screaming ball on the ground, and you didn't try to run away or lash out; you coped so well, babe."

"I coped?" I hear myself mutter dazedly as Jim pushes a button on the wall and numbers light up and the dull mumble of voices belonging to Narrow Place people that I can't really see ebbs and flows in the gray space behind us. I'm beginning to sweat again, my heart going faster and my breaths getting shorter as air gasps loudly in and out of me, making me dizzy and weak.

"Like a pro," Simon echoes as he stands between me and the almost-scary shadow people who want to go on the elevator, too; but I don't want them to touch me, can't-don't--won't see them clearly right now, and Jim knows I am tense again, Jim knows I need his hands on me, his voice murmuring love words and courage words in my ear as the elevator door slides open and we are eaten up by the square room inside that goes up and down and has no windows anywhere.

"That's good, isn't it, Jim? Being a pro, I mean. I'm doing good?" I ask as Jim presses me snugly into a corner of the elevator and keeps the shadow people safely away by putting his body between me and them. Gratefully I lean into his warm hug, wrapping my arms around his waist as he strokes my hair with one hand and smiles down at me.

"Yeah, Chief, that's really good," he murmurs; and for the time it takes to feel one big breath fill up my chest, I stare into my Sentinel's blue, blue eyes and remember all the nights in our bed, all the whispers and sighs and love words and running free in the jungle, talking like real adults together, knowing everything, living everything with him from all the hours-minutes-seconds of sharing dreams and hearts and souls. And I try to tell Jim with my eyes, with my fingers squeezing and squeezing his warm, solid muscles, that I WILL get better, I WILL get well, no matter what; and Jim bows his head until his mouth is right up by my ear and whispers, "I know you will, babe; I know it." And I know he is seeing inside my head--my heart--again and that makes me feel so safe.

And then the door opens and the shadow people trickle out around us like silver-gray fishes rippling in the light, and Jim tugs me from the elevator and I know this place, know the way now to Terry's special office. And it is my turn to lead, I am 'in control' now, and Jim smiles slightly as I brush his hand away and march off down the hall, my eyes going down and down to keep the Zone in sight so I don't fall or bump into the walls.

"Follow me, Jim. This way, Simon," I order them, feeling suddenly brave and strong and pleased with myself; I know that inside my head are still cobwebs and gray--so much gray--where before everything was clean and neat and not all mixed together till the nice, clean colors smeared like mud into the big, gooey mess that is my mind now. And part of me is afraid to have Jim following me, afraid for him and Simon to see how ugly the stuff in my brain is now, leaking out of me for anyone to see. The gray in me makes the hearts of some Narrow Place people hard and cold and mean; it is not a color they like here, in the Big World, and I don't like BEING here, where edges are sharp and hard and only Jim can keep it all from hurting too much. But I can do this today; I WILL do this, I decide suddenly.

"I will NOT 'wait in the truck' today, Jim," I say out loud now, not understanding the words in my mouth but knowing they mean something very, very important; and when I turn back around to check that Jim is safely in my Zone and is still with me, I feel his eyes on me in that scary way that happens when my words come out so fast and surprising that they are a 'shock' to him and hit him like a big fist in his chest.

"Jim? Jim, did I say it wrong?" I murmur uncertainly as he freezes in the hallway and just stares at me, his eyes suddenly filling with the hard shine of tears that won't fall. He looks so white, so pale, and I turn anxiously to see Simon stepping up into the Zone right next to him, his hand moving very, very carefully to touch Jim's arm.

"Simon, did I say it wrong?" I ask again, my voice coming out high and shivery and scared; and Simon looks at me so sad and gentle and amazed all at once and says very quietly:

"No, Sandburg, you didn't say it wrong. That was perfect. And you're right; no more waiting in the truck for you. You're ready to get out and meet the world again, kid. And that makes Jim so happy that he can't help crying a little bit. You know--happy tears."

"I'm making you happy, Jim?" I ask, shyly delighted by the whole idea of it; and with a funny, pained little smile Jim comes up very close and kisses me right on the mouth, right here in the hallway of the hospital.

"Always, Chief--always," he breathes against my lips; and now I know I am ready to see the doctors, ready to get better and 'get the hell out of Dodge,' like Phil the Exercise Man says when it is time to go home again. And I think to myself that Irma is going to be so proud when I tell her how I learned about 'coping' today and about being strong and brave...and how I am ready, so ready, to get all the way well. 'Will the REAL Blair Sandburg please stand up?'--that is what the announcer from the game show channel would say now if he was here, in my Zone--and I AM ready to stand up tall, so tall. For Jim, and for me, and for the rest of our time together, because time is precious and time is love, all love, when Jim is with me.

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