Staggering Along the Ruta Maya

By: Delilah


Series: Story #10 Coming Up for Air - the rest of the series can be found at
http://brothersinarmsfiction.com/delilah/fics/cufa.html

Plenty of thanks, especially to everyone who participated (willingly or un-) in the Great Does-Jim-Get-POV-Time debate. To the Lurkers for way more than lurking. To C for continued bouncing privileges. To Fingers for cross-Atlantic pre-betas. And always to Lyn for still putting up with beta'ing me and being a wonderful web-mom.

Warnings: The usual. Shifting tenses. Language that wouldn’t make family hour. More misuse of Mayan anthropological works. The continuing danger that I screwed up the beta.

Feedback: Always welcome at: delilah_miranda@yahoo.com

And the disclaimer: The guys still belong to the powers that be.

 

~oOo~

It comes in pieces. Small explosions of insight. Tiny scraps of sensory information. Flashes. Blinks. Lightening strikes of connection.

~Hands~

<flash>

~Small~

<flash>

~Pale~

Together these three things provide enough information to know that, if there is no response, there will be more touching, so fingers mimic the lesson that has been pressed into them.

/Bug/

But the movement is distracting and the other hands grasp.

No. No. No.

Fingers are disentangled from the restraint, only to be recaptured.

No.

Fingers fold and move, trying to communicate the need.

/Hear/

In the struggle, the pull of the void looms wide and deep and gray.

<flash>

~Voices~

<flash>

~Stevie~

<flash>

~Dad~

The other hands squeeze.

No.

<flash>

"Jim, what do you hear? Tell me what you hear."

<flash>

~Hand. Wrist. Clasp.~

<flash>

~Blair~

Focus.

<flash>

~Hand. Small. Thin. Chin. Held.~

~Held~

No! Need to hear.

<flash>

"Jim. Stay with me. So, you hear Blair. Where’s Blair been? Jim? Where’s Blair been today?"

<flash>

~Sharp sound~

Hurts. Hurts.

<flash>

"Jim. That’s the sign for school. You know this one. See …"

<flash>

~Head turned again.~

No.

<flash>

"Look at me, Jim. That’s the teacher clapping to get the attention of her class. Here, you try it."

Other hands on fingers. Motion. Flesh hitting flesh.

Sharp. Hurts.

No!

Snap fingers closed.

/No!/

<flash>

~Door~

<flash>

~Words~

~Stevie~

~Blair~

~Hurts~

~Blair hurts.~

Help. Word. Say. Say. Say word.

"Uhnnnn… uuhh."

<flash>

~Hands~

"Jim? Jim, honey? What is it? What do you hear?"

The void pulls wider, deeper, grayer.

~oOo~

One night on the Ellison’s credit is more than enough for my conscience. I didn’t realize, though, how I’d startle Paul. Forget that the only capacity The Shelter’s director has seen me in lately is that of the Cascade PD.

"No, man, nothing’s happened. I just couldn’t sleep at the Ritz."

"South and Highland? Man, no one should sleep at that place."

Oh yeah, it’s been way too long since anyone down here has seen me.

"I was just being facetious." I plunk down my… the Ellison’s belongings. "I have a perfectly nice hotel room." Hell, I have a fucking two-bedroom suite. "I just need some… reality."

He sweeps his arms expansively around the cinderblock walls of the mission. "Reality is not a problem here."

"Well, it’s been a problem with me lately."

There’s a crash outside in the larger meeting room. "Just hold that thought," says Paul, dashing through the door still posted with an old observation from a client long off the streets. ‘The Shelter is a place to help you when you are fucked up, whether it is your own fault or not.’ Not sure which category I fall into, but I’m here.

The reason that I spent so much of my childhood in therapy is, one, Naomi never met a problem she felt couldn’t be ‘talked out’ and, two, biology. We are all descended from creatures with good fight or flight responses -- all the ones blessed with low anxiety tended to end up as dinner. But good fight or flight responses were meant for things likely to think of you as their next meal, not for cell phones that don’t ring. Or when they do ring, turn out to be Noel wanting to know if you’re going to be working at Hargrove tonight and do you want to split pizza delivery with her.

It does not do any good, while Paul is tending to crashing things, to stare at the cell phone, cajole the cell phone or otherwise fondle the cell phone in a never-ending orgy of pick-it-up only to put-it-down.

Steven said he would call. Steven said, (and you remember this even though most of last night is still viewed through a kind of foggy haze) he promised. And Steven would call if he thought I was what Jim needed.

Wonder when Jim figured out I wasn’t coming back and what he did when it hit him. Maybe he just went back to his sculpture. Maybe, hell, maybe this was really all in my mind.

~oOo~

Paul’s been happy to have the help and I’ve been happy to have the distraction.

It’s easy to blame that I haven’t slept in the last three nights on the fact I’m trying to do so in a side room in a shelter on the Cascade waterfront, on a rickety cot, after months of Serta-heaven. The fact that if I don’t sleep, I don’t dream, has nothing to do with it.

And if I pick up that phone one more time, I’m going to punish myself by tossing it out the window.

~oOo~

"What is this place?"

The vast expanse of… nothingness all around me is disconcerting. Apparently I can only fight off slumber for so long before I succumb. At least this time I’m not under the Ellison’s dining table.

"Where I speak with Enqueri."

If the empty eternity is disconcerting, the silken voice whispering in the vast expanse of nothingness is downright eerie. As deeply resonant as it was in the cave, it is equally ephemeral here. Wispy and insubstantial.

"Where’s Jim?"

"He is… further."

"Further." I peer into silent infinity. "This… this is where Jim goes?"

"Here there is peace. Here the wolf first came. P’enqali saw him – off that distant horizon."

The fact is, ‘that’ as a direction and ‘horizon’ as a concrete concept really have no meaning in all this… boundlessness.

"You call him ‘P’enqali?"

The nickname, if that’s what it is, has a certain soft sibilance, a kind of paternalistic affection.

"It means ‘bashful one’. ‘Enqueri’ was fated him, yet, here, this is the one that suits him."

Invisible narrators in vast gray infinity is not my usual type of dream. I look up at the identical vast gray infinity above me to see if any fiery aircraft are going to fall on me, like they usually do, but this is Jim’s version of the mystic – the merest breeze, the briefest caress of color and form. Or, at least, it is my vision of Jim’s peace.

"The wolf has gone."

"Yeah, well… I don’t know what I can do about that."

"P’enqali said he had to help him. He said, ’For wolves suffer terribly from thorns.’"

The dream doesn’t so much end with that revelation as just… fade out into waking. Great, now I’ve got a dream-jaguar quoting things at me. Half-familiar things. This is why I knew I shouldn’t go to sleep. Squinting at the clock perched haphazardly on a stack of cartons doesn’t do me any good so I stagger up to where I can see the time. Barely eleven pm. Just great. Just fucking great.

Wolves. Thorns. I know I’ve seen that somewhere. My mind reels back to the battered paperback that usually lay beside Jim’s bed.

~oOo~

"I need a copy of The Jungle Book!" Various late-night tenants of the shelter’s meager library back away in concern. They’ve seen people like this before – coming down, going up, wild-eyed and half-gone. A timid woman inches ever closer to one of the mismatched bookcases, digs out a coverless paperback and asks in a hesitant voice, "This one?"

Since I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, it takes a while.

"He took his place at the Council Rock, too, when the Pack met, and there he discovered that if he stared hard at any wolf, the wolf would be forced to drop his eyes, and so he used to stare for fun. At other times he would pick the long thorns out of the pads of his friends, for wolves suffer terribly from thorns and burs in their coats. He would go down the hillside into the cultivated lands by night, and look very curiously at the villagers in their huts, but he had a mistrust of men because Bagheera showed him a square box with a drop gate so cunningly hidden in the jungle that he nearly walked into it, and told him that it was a trap."

~oOo~

I take the brittle paperback back to the none-too-steady rollaway and grow drowsy reading. I’ve never been particularly disposed to Kipling, apologist of the White Man’s Burden, but I can see the appeal of a talking wolf pack. At least if they’re not talking to you.

Been a while since I’ve been back to the jungle. Picasso had his blue period and I thought this must have just been a phase, that I had my blue period, too.

This dreaming thing is getting tiring, the overpowering busyness of my dreams claustrophobic next to the complete openness of Jim’s. Perhaps all sentinels dream of vast, open, dull nirvanas.

I pick at one of the blue leaves but really can’t feel it; touch and scent being the senses least likely to work in dreams. I’m standing in a small clearing where I might (or might not) have been before. There’s a large, flat rock to my right. The Council Rock, no doubt.

"Yo, Bagheera. I’m here." I’m feeling feisty in the midst of all this … blueness.

But Bagheera and the pack must be otherwise occupied. After a while I sit on the rock and look up at the navy sky of the night, watching as it eventually dissolves into stained ceiling tile and the hazy light of another dawn by the city’s weary bay.

~oOo~

"Jim," I say immediately, knowing Lisa didn’t appear in my office doorway after four days for any reason I probably want to contemplate. "Where is he?"

She has the hesitant look of a student who’s empty handed on a major due date.

"I don’t know." The tutor looks tired and she shrugs helplessly. "He tried to tell me something and when I didn’t understand-- Steven’s out looking for him. I just thought …well, we thought you should know."

I’m already turning off the laptop. "What do you think he was trying to say?"

"He’s been," she pauses like she’s unsure how to explain it, "I’d call it ‘obsessed’ ever since you left."

"I didn’t ‘leave.’ Steven and William—" I stop abruptly. That doesn’t matter now. None of it matters now. "Obsessed how?"

"He… he destroyed a lot of his work."

Oh god. If Jim’s being missing didn’t completely turn my heart to ice, this finished the job. I can only stammer dumbly. "What? Why?"

"I don’t know. He just took the rage out on the cat. He… defaced anything that looked feline. Literally."

As much as this shocks me, I am too mired in anger to fully process it. I only manage to grate out accusingly, "And Steven didn’t call me?"

"They thought he’d calm down. They’d hoped he’d—"

"Forget me? Forget all the ‘dream-shit’ and just go back to being a minor nuisance?"

Yeah, I know what they’d hoped.

Lisa looks likes she’s going to cry and I didn’t mean to take all this out on her. What she says next is barely a whisper. "The wolf is near the water."

"What?"

"I’ve been thinking about it and I think that’s what he was trying to say -- ‘the wolf is near the water’."

"And that means what?"

"I don’t know." Lisa wraps her arms around herself. "You’re supposed to know. Steven said you would know."

Now, now Steven’s interested in what I have to say.

"Blair… he’s… Steven’s a good man, even William. They’re just—"

"Afraid? Well now’s when they really should be afraid. Jim’s out there," I sweep my arm toward the picture of the darkening city of Cascade that can be seen from my office window, "…somewhere, looking for a ‘wolf near water.’"

Lisa looks out into the skyline then spends a great deal of time contemplating Hargrove’s cracked tile. "You… I thought you could talk to the cat."

Shit.

"Talk to the cat? And just how am I supposed to do that?"

"I thought you’d know. You talked about all that Mayan--" Lisa’s shoulders hunch helplessly.

"Yeah, well, the Mayans practiced bloodletting to open the door to the supernatural – they opened their veins with obsidian flakes and drew ropes through their tongues. I guess we can go over to the museum in McClung and see if there are some Indian points they can lend us. Think that will that help? If I get a bowl and bleed all over the floor?"

Not that I wouldn’t do that, if that’s what it takes.

Lisa sniffles quietly from the effects of the venom she’s unleashed in me. "He heard you. He heard you leave, heard you and Steven."

This isn’t exactly a surprise. "I… thought he would. I thought it would be worse if I stayed and he had to watch us all fight it out. Besides, exactly who do you think the cops were going to toss out when William called them?"

"And you didn’t try to come back?"

"Steven said he’d call." I close my eyes. It can’t be all up to me. There’s not enough in me to fight myself, and Jim’s family. "Why didn’t he call?"

Why didn’t I? Why didn’t I pick up the phone one of those nights at the shelter – those sleepless nights listening to the horns of the boats on the bay…

Lisa steps aside as I tear out of the door, then follows my pell-mell flight down Hargrove’s steep stairs. "Water," I explain in a kind of panting huff to the body trying to keep up with mine. "The wolf is by water."

I wrest the cell phone from my jacket pocket and punch the speed dial. Please be working late, Simon. Please be working late. I get a clipped "Banks" on the other end of the line.

"Thank God. Simon. I need—"

"Slow down, Sandburg. Are you okay?"

"Jim." I vault down the few remaining steps and slam out the door into the cool Cascade drizzle. "It’s Jim. I think he’s down near the docks." A car in the parking lot nearly sideswipes me in my rush. "Shit! Sorry, Simon. Put out an APB. We’ve got a goddamn killer loose down there and he’s looking for me and--"

"It’s Jim," replies Simon. "I know."

~oOo~

The flashes come quicker. Closer. Almost meld into a coherent picture.

Scent: Flat. Stale. Watery.

Touch: Damp. Cool.

Taste: Oil. Fish.

Hearing: Machinery. Voices. Always voices. But not the voice he seeks.

Sight: Darkening. Patches of white light. Hurts.

This is what happened before. How he knew. How he traced the heartbeat to the pile of metal that groaned. Wet then. Cold and wet now.

~oOo~

The Shelter is my first stop. It’s dinnertime and some of the guys who won’t accept a bed, who frequent No Man’s Land, will be inside, warming themselves with soup and bread before returning to their cardboard and plastic huts.

I’m lucky Bethel is there, the man who sits at the top of the social structure of No Man’s. His two ‘enforcers’, Manny and Roosevelt, are cautiously eyeing the pack of teens at the next table. Bethel, Manny and Roose are an older generation of homeless. They distrust the crack and meth addicts and they look out for each other.

They’ll look out for Jim, too. Get the word around. If it’s any of Manny’s pack that finds him, Jim will be just fine.

Simon’s done his job as well, as I start my hunt, walking an expanding grid from The Shelter outward, I am passed occasionally by a pair of patrol cars.

I leave Lisa in the company of Paul to wait for Steven. I have this strange need to search alone. To see if whatever is happening to me, the whole blue jungle thing is… real. For the first time I pray there really is a beacon that brought Jim to Fourth and Talmadge.

~oOo~

Coherency breaks down.

<flash>

Knees slam into something hard.

~Rough.~

Hurts.

<flash>

Hands pound onto rocky edges.

~Sharp~

Hurts. Hurts.

<flash>

"My men, I think we got ourselves a retard."

~Movement~

Hurts.

<flash>

"Not going to say anything, boy? Not gonna beg us to save your worthless ass?"

<flash>

~Hands jerked behind back.~

~Held~

~Held~

<flash>

"Piece of shit. Worthless motherfucker. Shoulda gotten yourself a job, asshole, instead of living off the good people of this world."

~Movement~

Hurts.

Sick.

~Muscles clench~

<flash>

"Fucking retard! Those are my Dunk Hi Prems, man!"

Hurts. Hurts.

~Help~

~Blair~

~oOo~

Never let it be said Blair Sandburg did things the easy way. Do I go to Mexico to follow the Mayan’s path? Do I have a shamanic experience on a dust-and-gravel highway on the border of Belize? No … I have the hair raise up on the back of my neck while searching piss-scented alleys in a harbor in Cascade-friggin’-Washington because I suddenly feel like I’ve been magnetized and right through that…oh, two-story building sturdily blocking the path in front of me is true North.

I learned from Naomi it’s better not to question these things. She was given to premonitions. Pertinent sensings of the future. Stuff they’re still looking for at Duke, Naomi notwithstanding.

This isn’t really a vision. It’s more a… pull. The cosmos pointing a finger and saying, ‘Go ye there’.

It’s not an offer I’m prepared to ignore.

Like I know what the hell I’m looking for – spiritually, that is. The concrete thing I’m looking for most is one frustratingly misplaced Sentinel who’s ransacked his own work and gone wandering into the bowels of the city where even his father’s power is limited.

So if something, uh, higher wants to help…

I find myself speeding up as the pull grows stronger until my shoes pound on the broken concrete. It is true that every single atom is a magnet; they just have to all line up in the right way to make the materials they make up attractive. The reason everything isn’t magnetic is that most things hold their atoms rigidly in place. Paper clips … and, apparently, myself, excepted.

The back of the building is pretty much a mirror image of the front, with no sign of Jim.

I stand still, then find myself slowly turning, my body a compass in its own search. For the Maya each cardinal direction was associated with particular days, with gods and colors. The cardinal direction I seek in my whirling is linked solely with Jim and the indigo of my private spiritual jungle. Not the red of the East or the white of the North. Not the rain gods, each with a personal compass point.

There… toward the bay. The wispy tendril of magnetic force.

The patrol car passes me again, Rigby’s hand rises in greeting but I acknowledge it only peripherally for I have direction.

It is a few blocks before I realize I am not running alone.

A dark, lithe shape matches me stride for stride.

~oOo~

There are three of them in baggy pants, oversized athletic jerseys and expensive sneakers. Hip hop wannabes. And entangled in their legs, bearing the brunt of their heavy sneakers’ weight is a body.

Blood stains the cracked concrete, looking like mad strokes of rust-colored paint.

My mind, running on some loop hammered into me by Simon, is making independent judgment calls. No weapons. Outnumbered. Call it in, kid.

My body, running on adrenaline, doesn’t hear and I plow to a stop six feet away from the teens, yelling "Freeze! Cascade PD!" A ridiculously hopeful order when I’m obviously no more a cop than they are.

The three look up, astonished probably to find a height-challenged, longhaired geek without a gun going Kojak on them. But there’s something in their eyes, some fear I know I’m not inspiring. Jim is pinned awkwardly between Hilfiger-clad legs, his eyes closed.

"Back away from him!" I command.

And they do.

"Fuck, man!" gasps one of them, stumbling back, his hand on his buddy’s arm. His fingers, I note dully, are bloodstained. "Is that thing rabid?"

From behind and slightly to the right of where I’m standing comes a low feline snarl. I do not have to look to know this is not the languid cat from my jungle dreams. This is panthera onca, the velvet tongued voice in the black cave; ‘Yaguara’, the beast that kills its prey with one bound. ‘Kinich Ahau,’ the fire-eyed lord to be appeased by offerings of sacrificial beheadings, ancient personification of darkness and fear and death.

The abbreviated yip of a police siren distracts none of them from their frozen stare. It’s Rigby, his door slamming open, identification made, his weapon firmly trained. A second siren blares longer, closer, then a third. By that time I am kneeling, ghosting hands over Jim’s back, as if I am the one with sentinel senses and can feel the hovering heat of his bruised flesh.

He is curled on his side, a limp hand still protectively placed over his stomach, the other arm splayed above his head. His breath rasps shallowly and I fear for his ribs. His legs are tangled, the knees of his pants ripped and bloodstained. The thin shirt he’s wearing is torn, a tattered piece is caught by the stiff breeze and waves momentarily like a shredded prayer flag as I linger, unable to decide where it might be safe to touch him.

His curled hand, when I take it, is cool. The movement elicits a little moan from Jim.

"Shhhh …" I croon, no words being available at the moment. "Shhhh."

~oOo~

Jim is placed on a backboard and lifted gingerly into the ambulance while I get out the only vocabulary that will make sense to the trained medical staff, informing them their patient is autistic, chemically sensitive and non-verbal. Once inside the ambulance I crouch at Jim’s side, holding his hand in hope somehow he’ll know he’s not been left alone.

No one – the ambulance attendants, the EMTs, the staff that meets us at the hospital – has said anything about the hundred-and-fifty pound black jaguar sitting regally in the corner.

~oOo~

Steven and Lisa huddle in a corner of the ER waiting room, awaiting some fury that I no longer have the energy to entertain. William is pacing, hands in pockets, but keeping his distance as well. The big cat watches him; his quick sharp stride and turns making him look like prey. I find myself staring into the jaguar’s blue eyes, and the fur ruffs around the dark neck like a warning at my impertinence; he stretches slightly, unsheathing claws, thick and sharp.

"Jim Ellison’s family?"

The four of us all exchange looks like rabbits caught in the beam of a headlight. A pathetically funny moment as the nurse’s innocent inquiry has overturned some philosophical rock, exposing that we have wildly divergent viewpoints on who Jim’s ‘family’ really is.

"I’m his father." A subdued William is something few people have probably seen, but he looks bent and gray, the energy that so attracted the black cat’s attention suddenly dissipated.

"You can come back now." The nurse is holding the door open and it is all I can do not to go through it, but I am not ‘family’. I am the lowly life form scuttling away from the bright light of truth after the rock is lifted.

The jaguar makes a disapproving huffing sound as William’s path crosses inches from his territory in the corner.

Beside the door William hesitates. His hands knot in the safety of his pockets and he takes a deep breath.

"Blair." He doesn’t say another word but his head inclines toward the open door. A wordless invitation that gets a wordless reply as I hurry over to take my access while I can get it.

The door clicks behind me with the finality of a magnetic lock but this is no barrier to the jaguar which slinks through the wood with a predator’s grace.

~oOo~

The doctor says he just wants to keep an eye on him. Overnight observation. Possible concussion but given his neurological… uniqueness, it’s hard to tell. Those are his words, not mine. But they’re closer to the truth than harried doctors usually get. He’s seeing something. Something that doesn’t quite look like autism. I would worry, but there’s way too much concrete stuff to be concerned about to fret over a stranger’s vague suspicions.

Jim looks fragile. He is not a small man, but lying on the gurney, his skin pale and translucent where it isn’t bruised and swollen, his hands limply curled by his sides, he looks… breakable. A too frail vessel for the powers biology graced him with.

The jaguar settles at my feet, the tip of his tail barely twitching.

A slight moan escapes Jim’s lax mouth and one of his hands clenches into the rough sheet of the gurney. I move closer, treading right through the cat who doesn’t seem to notice.

"Jim?"

The hand worries the cloth and Jim’s head tilts back, exposing the vulnerability of his throat.

"Come on, big guy. Let me see those blue eyes of yours."

His lids flicker but I don’t know if he hears me -- if he’s actually here and not in the vast emptiness of the void.

"Come on, Jim. Come back to me."

I take the fretful hand into mine, lightly rubbing warmth back into the cool skin. The distance for Jim to reach is so very far it is only fair we take a few steps to meet him. The fingers in mine clench spasmodically.

"It’s okay, Jim. I’m here."

When the blue eyes finally open they take over a minute to fix on me. The sound he makes is more a whimper than a moan. Then the lids flick closed again.

William has moved closer, is standing near enough to brush my shoulder. His posture stiffens as we watch Jim. The hand tightens in mine and Jim’s dazed eyes blink back open long enough to take us both in.

He licks dry lips and puffs out nearly silent syllables. "Fa….found."

"Yeah." My other hand reaches to caress his cheek and he turns his face into my touch. "You found me."

I don’t notice that William and the cat are gone until much, much later.

~oOo~

I stare at the metal glinting hypnotically as it swings from a leather key chain.

"What is it?"

"A key to a loft on Prospect. Empty executive apartment." Steven presses it into my hand. "We had a talk. Dad and I." I’m still not getting it. Jim stirs in his sleep and two pairs of eyes glance over to check on him. Steven can take him home any time, but since he’s sleeping peacefully, everyone’s just letting him linger.

"What am I supposed to do with it?"

"Live there." Steven looks again at his brother. "With Jim. And some help, of course." He hesitates. "If you will."

I must look… dumbfounded.

"Wait." The key lays heavy in my hand. "You…" I can’t get a grip around what it is I’m trying to say. Something along the lines of ‘You tossed me out, you fucker!’ but that would disturb Jim. "You…" I find myself making the sign, the damn sign for abandoned/cast aside.

"Look, Dad was wrong, but that’s not something I haven’t seen before. The man makes consummate business decisions, but the ones involving his family are… shaky at best. I shouldn’t have gone along with him." Steven ducks his head, for a moment looking – remarkably – like I imagine Jim would if he wasn’t swept away in the current of sensation that he can’t outswim. "Please, Blair, I know we took over your life. But you’re the only person who’s reached Jim in years. It’s not a bribe, Blair. It’s an… acknowledgement. Dad bending his stubborn neck. This is a place where you can be alone, outside his influence. Sally will watch Jim whenever you need her to. I can get more people. Anything you want."

So I’m suddenly… what? Given the Ellison carte blanche again? I’ve passed over some line into re-found acceptability?

The silence hangs between us as deep and intractable as the rift I sometimes find between me and Jim, only that one can be bridged by touch, by scent, by the unfettered honesty that is Jim and the reciprocity it brings out in me.

"Mr. Ellison. If I may, I’d like to talk to you about your brother’s condition."

"What?" Steven stammers, as lost as I was in the abyss, as surprised as I am by the doctor’s entrance.

I should have known if we stayed too long, the slightly-too-curious doctor from the ER would seek us out.

Steven’s hand rakes his hair. "They’ve woken him regularly through the night, I don’t think the concussion is anything to worry about."

"Not about the beating. About his… it’s not autism, is it?"

"You see a lot of autism in the ER?" I sound, admittedly, snarky.

The doctor offers his hand. "Let’s try starting over. I’m Brad Lozzio. I’m a neurology resident. I moonlight in the ER to make a little extra cash. I actually plan to go into research."

I realize I’ve moved to place myself protectively between this man and Jim.

"Autism is his given diagnosis?"

"Yes," says Steven.

"And, no," I finish. I don’t think this one is going to take the medical party line for an answer. "Jim has extreme hypersensitivity to stimuli. It’s often a hallmark of autism."

"Heightened senses," the doc simplifies.

"Yeah." I scrape a toe along the floor. "Look, Jim’s seen a lot of specialists who’ve given him a lot of tests. Tests that hurt. I think he deserves not to have to go through that again."

"No, of course." The doc looks down at Jim’s thick medical chart. "Have you tried buffering the input?"

"How?" As much as I’d like to make the world go away and leave Jim alone, I can’t exactly control that.

"Well, for hearing, white noise. It actually delays the organization of auditory information in the brain. While that’s a very bad thing in children, in Jim’s case it might actually be helpful. You can get a good one for about fifty bucks. If it works, you’ll probably want to disperse them through his living area."

Oh good, another duh moment. I know about white noise generators I just never thought—

"For the touch, allodynia, I think if we can get his hearing more on level he’ll be more cognizant. The more aware he is about what’s going to happen next, the less tactile defensiveness he’ll exhibit. Massage would also be a good non-pharmaceutical therapy, although there are drugs available—"

"No drugs," I say firmly, still in my protective stance.

"I think we can help him," he says defensively and I try not to imagine myself standing guard over Jim going, ‘Help him? You and what army?’. Shit, I’m messed up. Here’s a medical professional suggesting reasonable, non-chemical type things and I’m…putting up obstacles.

Besides, this isn’t my decision.

"Steven?" I gesture the eager doc over to Steven and Steven toward the eager doc. "I’m not family," I explain when the doc gives me a quizzical look.

Okay, I know I look like family ‘cause I’m protecting Jim from licensed professionals, but I’m not family. Will never be family.

But Steven demurs. "Your decision, Blair."

Gaping is such a good look on me. Thankfully Jim saves me from my graceless stammering by shifting around to blink blearily at his audience then wincing from the pain the movement produces.

"Easy there, Jim."

He repeats his performance of yesterday by rasping his newest word quietly. "Ff…found".

I can’t help but offer a smile at the comfort this seems to bring him. "Yep, you got me, Jim."

The doc is frowning down at the colorful pages of the chart. "I thought he was documented mute and aphasic."

"Yes," says Steven.

"And no," I immediately follow up with a sense of déjà vu.

There’ll be no getting rid of him now.

~oOo~


Our escape is about as ungraceful as they come. Jim is hurting and getting him dressed is wearing on both of us. The neurologist finally gives up when I agree to take his card. It’s the least I can do. He’s right about more than I want to let on and he’s got non-pharmaceutical leanings. He might do some good. Friggin’ annoying, too. The damn white noise generators are an idea I should have thought of early on.

The paperwork takes too long. The wheelchair is cold and Jim balks at taking the mandatory ride to the car.

It’s been a while since he handcuffed himself to me but he is not going to be separated and tucked securely into the front seat so I struggle the lap belt around him and let him… connect if that’s what he wants.

"Uh, Steven, where are we going?"

This is not the way home … or at least to Jim’s home.

"I thought we’d drive by the loft."

"I think we ought to take Jim home." Jim needs familiarity. Needs to be tucked into bed. Needs Sally and ice cream and one of those damn heated blankets that even unthaw your toes.

I can see Steven glancing in the rearview mirror at Jim, whose head is tilted back against the seat and who’s stroking my arm contentedly, eyes closed. Okay, so Jim thinks he’s got what he needs, but Jim doesn’t know a damn thing about what his real needs are.

"There it is."

This wasn’t quite what I was expecting, a refurbished warehouse in one of the not-too-unfunky downtown blocks. The bottom floor is full of little shops – a bakery, a florist, a couple clothing stores.

Steven pulls the sedan to a stop. "Want to go see?"

I’m not sure which is worse, the Ellisons telling you exactly what to do or the Ellisons trying to make it seem like it was your decision. Steven reminds me of a guy selling cars, the kind that practically throw themselves in the retreating path of your old vehicle ‘cause they know if you leave the magic confines of the lot, their chance of a sale goes down dramatically.

"I don’t think Jim is up to this."

Steven hops out and opens the door. "There’s an elevator."

Great. Fine. There’s an elevator. I give a little tug to my arm. "Come on, Jim. Steven wants to show us something."

I’m not thrilled with confining a bruised and battered Jim in the small, mechanized space of an elevator. But even I have to admit he seems beyond distraction, eyes locked on Steven and all other senses trained on me. I’m sensing a real breakdown of brotherly trust and think Jim is only in this to keep an eye on me, rather than the truth of the matter which is that I’m only here to keep an eye on him. My breakdown of trust in his brother having happened days ago.

The elevator rattles to a stop on the third floor, depositing us in a hallway of numbered doors, one of which Steven goes to with an alacrity that smacks of intimate prior knowledge. Oh yeah, like this whole field trip wasn’t planned. The door isn’t even locked and the smell of cooking wafts through the cracks. This entire thing’s been boned, filleted and laid out on a platter with garnish, Ellison style.

"Hey, Sally," I acknowledge softly as I’m nudged inside the door.

The woman looks guilty and I can see her part in the plot was not entirely voluntary. Not that she’d do anything that would hurt Jim.

Jim’s torn between the siren song of his caretaker and his obvious desire to not lose his hold on me. Of course, Jim being Jim, he finally just drags me with him to get his hug. Sally’s petite hand takes my free one in a kind of mute understanding that this wasn’t an idea that came from either of us.

The loft is… okay, well, the loft is pretty cool. Sparsely decorated but clean and warm and dry. A fire crackles in a fireplace and the table is set.

"Hey, Jim?" I ask when he finally disentangles himself from Sally. "You want something to eat?"

The pale blue eyes look tired. I was right about him needing a warm bed.

"His clothes here?" Not that I really need to ask. Naomi’s only boy was born at night but it wasn’t last night.

Sally nods.

Yep. I figured …

"There’s a big bed in the loft," offers Steven, pointing at the railing above us.

I trudge toward the stairs, Jim following docilely after me. The covers on the king-sized mattress have been turned down, revealing fresh, soft linens, the kind Jim has on his own bed. He slips into the sheets, releasing a little pent-up sigh. What he doesn’t release is me, the hand gripping as tightly as ever on my wrist. I sit down to wait him out and Jim scoots over, nestling into the pillow. I’m tired myself. Drowsy and warm. Comfortable even though I’d rather not be. When Jim tugs slightly, I take the hint and bring my legs up, shoes and all, and lay atop the covers.

~oOo~

Blue is not a pleasant color to wake up to – although I can’t really be awake, can I – it’s just the damn lucid dream thing again. The loft has the whole jungle motif going, vines snarling down the staircase, the small river running through the living room to make a falls of the porch. The bed’s morphed into that big, flat council rock. Which explains why I’m being judiciously examined by a wolf.

"So where’s Bagheera?"

Okay, so that’s maybe not the best thing to say to something with jaws built to crush bones, that must be over five feet, dark, moist nose tip to pearly gray tail. He cocks his head, his glance flickering in the direction of the stairs where something sleek and dark weaves through the dark greenery. Having mounted the last riser, the big cat pulls itself up from its slinking crouch, the wolf going over to scent it, making a satisfied, high-pitched squeak before curling at the black feet.

I lean forward, maybe subconsciously lowering my head, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution telling me I’m not alpha here.

The cat starts to… shimmer, lose the sharp boundary separating fur and jungle. Edges fading out. Black diminishing. Limbs lengthening. The pupils in the blue eyes losing their feline shape. Face flattening and becoming familiar.

"Jim?"

His skin is bare, his arms wrapped around his knees, head slightly tilted down. But it is Jim, his gaze drinking mine in. He smiles, shyly, the Jim I glance every precious once-in-a-while, the one that ever so rarely manages to bridge the horrible chasm that separates us.

"Hi," he breathes, his voice soft but not hesitant.

"Hi, Jim."

It’s not very erudite for our first verbal exchange not born out of crisis, but, hell, it feels damn satisfying.

End