Colorado Springs, February 1999
It was more than five months ago now, just before February turned to March, that I’d found myself sitting by the side of a lonely back road, in front of the church…
It was a dark and stormy night, the kind of night that starts all kind of clichéd stories. So I guess I should have known something was going to happen.
Any sane person might’ve wondered what exactly I thought I was doing out here on the road, when it was after midnight and raining cats and dogs and horses and even a few small elephants. It was coming down in sheets now, great silver curtains sparkling in my headlights and obscuring most of the road, spattering against the roof of this old car with a hissing noise. Not to mention the vague rumblings of thunder that were getting louder, and the distant flickers of lightning I could sometimes see through the thick trees.
I’d been on my way home from my dad’s house. He’d wanted to me to stay overnight. It was stupid, he said, for me to drive all the way back to my house in this storm when it was this late. And I can’t really say why I didn’t, except that I had a real longing for hot chocolate, and my own soft bed.
Maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was some higher force that drew me out that night. To this day, I wonder.
And then I saw him. A man in Air Force blues, sitting hunched over on the church steps, his head bowed. He was far away across the lawn, and through the rain I couldn’t make out his face, but somehow I was sure it was Jack.
I felt my breath catch in my throat, choking back sudden tears as I wrenched the steering wheel hard to the right, coming to a stop at the side of the road.
Why? I demanded silently, opening my eyes and staring at the windshield wipers still beating back and forth, and the swaying pines. Why here? Why now? Why did he have to pick tonight to come here? I did not need to face him tonight.
Pull yourself together, I ordered myself sternly, swiping a sleeve across my eyes. It was a while before I could get up the courage to look behind me, to see that the slumped figure hadn’t moved.
I’d see him last almost a year ago. And it was that time that gave me nightmares still. I hadn’t told Dad what happened. Hell, I still didn’t know what had happened. Dad still thinks it was Jack he talked to, then. How could I tell him anything else?
Hey, Dad, you remember the last time Jack came over? Yeah, when he was acting all weird? Well, turns out there was a reason… seems like he’s turned radioactive or something. Or cloned copies of himself. And learned how to shape-shift, too…
He’d think I’d finally lost it. I hadn’t even told Lisa, and I told her everything…
Lightning flashed, brighter this time, and I couldn’t help shivering.
“It’s not Charlie,” he’d said. Yeah, thanks, Jack. He knew damn well I saw what that gun did to my baby. I saw him lowered into the ground. I knew it wasn’t Charlie in that hospital a year ago. But he sure looked like Charlie. And his hand felt like Charlie’s clasping mine for just a few seconds. I know it wasn’t Charlie, Jack. But tell me this — who the hell was it? And what happened to your radioactive double? And what in the name of all that’s holy are you doing for this top secret Air Force program now?
The day after it happened he called me, and that was the only way I knew I hadn’t completely lost it. He’d seen the same thing I had. But he couldn’t tell me about it now, he just wanted to hear I was all right.
So I told him yes, I was, and he promised a better explanation soon.
It was a month before I heard from him again.
The first week I waited patiently. The second week I thought maybe he was having problems persuading his superiors to let me know the details. The third week I was afraid he’d decided it would be easier on me to cut himself off from me entirely, and he had never intended to tell me anything or even try to talk to me.
The fourth week I was sure of it. And I was furious.
He was either a coward, afraid to face me or his own feelings, or an insensitive son of a bitch who didn’t care about me, or even realize what it did to me to see my son, my dead son, come to life before my eyes. Or both. Either way I wanted nothing to do with him. He left a message on my machine the fifth week, apologizing profusely for not contacting me for so long. I ignored it. In my mind there was nothing that could possibly justify what he’d put me through in the past weeks. The next time he called I told him I didn’t want to hear it, and to just leave me alone.
It’s not like he would have told me the truth, even if I’d let him talk to me.
Staring out the window, I wondered what he was doing here tonight. Why was he at the cemetery at midnight in the cold winter rain? I couldn’t help remembering how he’d looked, the last time I saw him. He’d looked weird, then… vague, emotionless. Uncertain. Before he started spraying blue lightning bolts I was worried he was having some kind of nervous breakdown. That empty, lost look in his eyes was one I remembered from when he came back from Iraq, and I thought maybe the accumulated trauma of the past decade had finally caught up to him. Now I wondered the same thing, shivering again. He could be in real trouble, some kind of delayed trauma reaction or whatever they call it. Or he could just be drunk. But either way I couldn’t leave him out here.
But I couldn’t face him right now, either.
I’d told him to leave me alone, and he’d respected that. After a couple months I wished he hadn’t. I was still angry, but I wanted to know. I needed to talk to him. And a part of me also wanted to know he cared enough still to call me. But apparently he hadn’t, or he’d thought I’d really be able to put this behind me without him.
Jack, you sorry son of a bitch.
I didn’t know how I felt about him now. If I still wanted him to care, if I still wanted us to have a chance together, if I’d ever forgiven him for what happened to Charlie. I only knew I was terrified to get out of the car and go to him.
And I was furious with him for making me feel this way.
Sara, stop being such an idiot, I told myself angrily. It might not even be Jack. There are a lot of Air Force people in Colorado Springs.
But whoever it was wouldn’t be sitting in the rain at midnight, the calm voice of logic said, if he had a working car and was able to drive it.
So get out of the damn car already, and ask the man if he needs a lift, for crying out loud!
I scrubbed a hand across my eyes, turning the engine off and shoving the door open. It never crossed my mind to take an umbrella as I sprinted up the drive to the church steps.
There was an overhang that sheltered us from the rain, and I leaned against the heavy oak door for a few seconds to catch my breath, pushing my wet hair out of my face. It was a minute before my voice would work, but he didn’t seem to notice me until I spoke.
It came out sounding kind of breathless, a second before I realized it wasn’t my ex-husband.
All the same he started at the name, looking up finally, dazed brown eyes meeting mine. And I was suddenly very glad Jack hadn’t picked tonight to visit Charlie.
This could have been ugly.
I tried to keep my voice steady, sinking down to sit on the step next to him. “Frank, what are you doing here?”
He’s drunk, was my first thought. Then, I thought he was still overseas. His blue uniform was soaked through, and he was shivering. For a moment we just stared at each other. I hadn’t seen him in more than a year. The last time I talked to him was a long-distance phone call at Christmas from God knows where. He’d been about to leave on a mission then — he didn’t say so, but I could hear it in his voice — and I wondered what it was, what he’d been doing.
He looked like hell. His eyes were unfocused, and I don’t think he was seeing me at all, at first. When I touched his shoulder he flinched, and when his head turned I saw blood matted in his hair and trickling down his face.
Damn. Not drunk, then, but certainly not in good shape… I didn’t know much first aid, but I knew head injuries were bad news. “Frank? What happened?”
“Sara?” He blinked at me, like he was really seeing me for the first time, but not too sure he wasn’t imagining things. “What the — ” Still looking confused, he covered his eyes with one hand, looking back at me a few seconds later like he expected to find I’d never been there. “What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing.” Mixed feelings struggled for expression as I reached out to touch the side of his face, finding a raised lump just above his temple and blood still flowing from a deep gash. First and foremost was an overpowering relief that Jack wasn’t here, that I didn’t have to deal with him tonight. But talking to Frank Cromwell was walking into a whole different emotional minefield, one I wasn’t at all sure I was up to navigating right now.
Practicality won out finally, though, and I swore silently at myself for leaving my cell phone at Dad’s place. Oh, well, I could drive him to the hospital myself. “Come on,” I said, standing up and offering him my hand. “Let’s get you out of here.” He grabbed onto the railing, trying to pull himself up, then finally relented and let me help him to his feet. “My car’s here, they’ll fix you up at the emergency room and get you warm and dry… ”
“No.” He seemed to straighten, one hand on the railing for support. He looked haggard, rain mingled with blood smudged across his cheek, but the dazed expression was gone. In his face there was only that same mixture of reserve and awkward affection I’d always seen when he looked at me, tempered now by regret and a soul-deep exhaustion.
I gave him a sharp look. “What, you want to stay here?”
“My hotel’s not far from here.” He said it like he really thought I was going to drop him off and leave him alone at a hotel room with an untreated head injury. “If you can just give me a ride over there, I’ll be fine.”
“And I got a bridge to sell you in Arizona.” Watching him swaying, I wished again I’d brought my cell phone. Or at least an umbrella. With a sigh I put my arm around him, ignoring the way he stiffened. “I swear, you’ve been hanging around my ex way too long.”
Every time you open your mouth, my mother used to tell me, you always put your foot in it. I said it without thinking, cursing myself when he looked away, that brief tightening of his lips betraying a world of pain he’d never show me.
“Come on,” I said quietly, picking up the black duffel bag and a briefcase sitting on the steps next to him, guiding him toward the car. After a few hesitant steps he finally put his arm around my shoulders, leaning heavily against me. I could feel him shivering. “How long have you been out here, anyway?”
His voice was tired. “Don’t know.” I opened the car door, and he practically fell into the front seat, leaning back and closing his eyes. “Ran my car into a tree. It was brand new… government property, too… ”
The car door made a satisfying slam as I got in and started the engine. “It never occurred to you to call an ambulance?”
“Somebody else called it.” His eyes cracked open a fraction. “Must’ve been out a couple minutes… ”
“And you woke up and told the paramedics to leave,” I finished, thinking, Sara, honey, I don’t know why you’re surprised. When it comes to common sense he’s got three things working against him… one, he’s male, two, he’s military, and three, he used to hang around Jack O’Neill.
“Should’ve asked ’em to call me a taxi,” he mumbled, and I shook my head as we pulled away from the curb.
“Look, you really should get that looked at,” I tried one more time. “It wouldn’t take long… ”
In the end I wound up taking him to my place, against my better judgment. There was nothing I wanted more, that night, than to go straight home, change into dry pajamas and go to sleep. But he needed my help right there and then, whether he wanted to admit it or not. And whether or not he thought he deserved it, he was a friend, and I was worried about him.
So I got out of my sopping wet clothes, opened my drawers and stared at the contents for a moment before thinking, the hell with it, and pulling out my flannel pajamas and a bathrobe. The man was practically family, after all. Once upon a time I could almost have called him my brother-in-law. And if he was going to show up after midnight, he’d better not expect me to dress up for him.
I grabbed an old flannel shirt and jeans that had once belonged to Jack, giving them to Frank before I headed down to the kitchen. After discovering I had run out of cocoa, I proceeded to boil water, rummaging through the cupboards for my decaf mint tea. The next task was to find my first aid kit, and by the time I found it he was standing in the kitchen doorway.
Leaning against the doorway would be more accurate, in Jack’s old clothes, his feet bare and his wet hair sticking up in all directions. He looked disoriented, glancing around the kitchen like he wasn’t sure if he should come in. “Sit,” I told him firmly.
There was a look in his eyes I didn’t like, and I didn’t think it had anything to do with being knocked on the head. He hadn’t been here in more than a year, but all the same this house was as familiar to him as his and Lisa’s had once been. This same room was where the four of us used to sit up late, drinking hot cocoa and talking and telling stupid jokes, and all those things friends and family do together. It was a small room, but it felt terribly empty now with just the two of us. Still he didn’t argue, sinking into one of the chairs as I poured mugs of hot tea for both of us.
We started at the same time. “Have you heard from — ?”
It was always the first question, whenever we saw each other. He turned away, putting both elbows on the table and resting his head in his hands. “No.” His shoulders were rigid. “You?”
“No.” Taking out a strip of gauze, I splashed alcohol on it. “Yes.” He looked at me again, wrapping both his hands around the warm mug. “It’s — a long story. I’ll tell you in the morning.”
He winced at my touch, closing his eyes as I tried to push his hair away from the wound. I knew he was way past the end of his rope, if he didn’t press me to tell him the whole story right now. And I couldn’t help feeling a strong surge of pity, and almost reluctant affection, as I dabbed gently at the blood on his face.
That was quite a lump he had there. I didn’t know how to tell if it was a concussion. Hell, it could be a skull fracture for all I knew, but there was no way to tell without getting him to an emergency room.
For a brief, irrational moment I wished Jack was here. Jack knew all about first aid. Of course, it was anybody’s guess whether he’d help Frank or punch his lights out…
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” I asked, holding the gauze against the still oozing gash. He shook his head, then winced again at the motion.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said softly.
“Frank, don’t be an idiot.” Honestly, did he really think I would have left him sitting outside bleeding in the rain? Although, knowing him, he probably thought that would’ve been no more than what he deserved. “What are friends for?”
“I don’t want — ” he started, looking away from me again, but I cut him off with an exasperated sigh.
“Don’t say you don’t want to make trouble for me.” I took a deep breath, dropping the bloody gauze on the table and picking up a clean strip. “Look at me.” He blinked, looking extremely awkward, but didn’t say anything. “You’re not going anywhere until I’m sure you’re okay,” I said sternly, fixing him with my best angry mom look. “And I don’t care what Jack says, you’re my friend, and this is my house now.” And Jack’s not exactly high on my list of most favorite people right now, but we won’t go there. “So will you stay still, for crying out loud?”
His shoulders slumped, but he didn’t move, staring at his mug of tea with an expression that was now completely unreadable. I suppressed a sigh, squeezing some antibiotic cream onto the clean gauze. I couldn’t help thinking of Charlie, sitting in this same chair, squirming impatiently as I washed and bandaged his scrapes and bruises. Men, I thought… it doesn’t matter what age they are, they’re all the same…
“They been wearing you out on exercises all day?” I asked, in an attempt to break the uncomfortable silence that had descended.
I wondered why I bothered. Even his exercises were probably top secret.
“No.” It was almost a whisper. “Just one… very… interesting… briefing.” He waved an unsteady hand at the briefcase on the table.
His eyes were drifting closed again, and I shook his shoulder gently. “Stay with me a little longer here,” I told him, looking through the first aid kit for some tape. “I’m almost done here, then I’ll let you sleep.”
He nodded, and I glanced idly at the briefcase, noticing for the first time that it was locked with a combination lock. “So is this going to blow up if I enter the wrong combination?” I asked, a second before I saw the name stamped across the top.
W. O. West.
And there was a small explosion in the back of my brain.
“I don’t know, I’ve never tried.” But I wasn’t listening. A very interesting briefing from General West, of all people. Not an officer high on my (or Frank’s) list of most favorite people, but if he was working for West now he might know something. Or someone. Who knew about what Jack was doing.
Suddenly wide awake, and more than a little frightened, I taped the gauze in place over the wound. “That’s the best I can do right now,” I said. “You sure there’s nothing else I need to look at?”
He stood up with an effort, leaning on the table. “Thanks.” It was almost inaudible.
I gave him a little smile, but he didn’t return it. “Any time,” I said. “The guest room’s — ” I stopped, nodding toward the doorway. “You know where the guest room is.”
Of course he knew where the guest room was. It had been his and Lisa’s second home, once. “I don’t want to make trouble for you,” he said, looking down. “I’ll be fine on the couch.”
I would have protested, but I could see he was less worried about making trouble for me than about facing the memories in that room tonight. That, at least, I could understand. “All right.”
I went upstairs to find him a blanket, and by the time I came back he was already stretched out on the couch in the living room fast asleep. Even now, though, the lines of strain didn’t disappear from his face. There were deep shadows under his eyes, faint white scars along the side of his face that hadn’t been there before. He looked older, much older than the last time he was here. These last few years had not been kind to him.
I spread the blanket over him, looking down at him for a long moment before turning out the light. These years hadn’t been kind to any of us.