“Steve! Wake up!"
Steve bolted upright, best he could since he was trapped in a sleeping bag. As the last wisp of sleep drifted from his brain, he glanced around for the source of the voice. He noticed Rudy leaning against a boulder, waiting impatiently.
"Are you just going to sit there on your tin butt all day or are we going to fish?" Rudy questioned. It had taken a bit of effort, but he finally convinced Oscar that Steve needed a break; a fishing trip would do the trick. Rudy decided to drag Steve up into the Montana mountains, away from civilization. All methods of outside communications were left back at the lab.
"Yeah, yeah," Steve replied while fighting with the zipper. He heard Rudy chuckling at his dilemma. "How the heck…" The zipper finally broke loose. Steve cast off the bag and scrambled to his feet. He cast a dirty look at the doctor while rolling up his bedding.
In the meantime, Rudy poured coffee for both of them and seated himself in front of the fire, offering a cup to Steve.
Steve reached across the fire, accepted the cup, then seated himself. "Thanks," he replied before taking a sip. He was still trying to relax after having spent a week in the mountains. The peace and quiet is what he's needed, but he was becoming a bit antsy.
After several minutes of silence, Steve said "I hope you don't mind, Rudy, but I'm going to give the fish a chance to live another day."
Rudy finished off his coffee and put the cup down. "What do you have planned?" Rudy suspected that Steve was getting restless when he started pacing through the campsite the other evening.
"See that mountain?" Steve questioned, pointing to the looming peak behind Rudy.
Rudy glanced behind him briefly. "You're going to climb it?"
"It's there to be climbed, so that I'll do."
"As long as you stay out of trouble, fine with me. That will just mean there will be more fish for me to catch." Rudy replied.
Steve laughed. "Right…"
Rudy just rolled his eyes. This was a long-standing argument… who was the better fisherman? "Be back in time for dinner," he said while gathering his fishing gear.
"Will do." Steve started off at a slow jog toward the tree line.
By noon Steve had made it about a quarter of a way up the mountain. He found a ledge to sit on, wanting to enjoy the view before needing to head back down to camp.
Minutes later, Steve thought he heard the sound of a twin-engine plane. Looking around, he spotted the small plane flying just above the tree line, much too low to clear the mountaintop. Using his zoom, he noticed the plane carried two, maybe three occupants. He decided that if there were a third occupant, it must be a child. Steve stood and watched in horror as the plane smashed into the trees, crashing to the floor below.
With his heart pounding against his ribcage and adrenalin coursing through his veins, Steve hurtled down the hill to the sight of the crash where flames were already nibbling at the metal carcass. As he neared the cockpit, his eyes met with the pilot’s mangled body. He swallowed his disgust and proceeded to the side of the aircraft where he yanked the hatch off its hinges and hopped aboard.
Strapped to their seats were a young woman in her late thirties and a young boy Steve roughly estimated around two to three years of age. He tore off the woman’s seatbelt, shoved his arms underneath her armpits and dragged her out of the plane to safety. After gingerly laying her on a tussock of grass, he sprinted back for the boy. He figured he had enough time to save both woman and child before the flames could reach the gas tank. In his calculation, he hadn’t considered the small kerosene spill dribbling onto the ground. A loose flame fluttered down into the pond just as Steve was hurrying back to the plane. The force of the explosion propelled him several feet into the air but thankfully, he landed on soft ground, his right arm breaking is fall. The impact momentarily stunned him. He shook his head clear of his double vision and established focus on the roaring ball of fire billowing up to the sky.
Rudy was trekking up the mountain, having started up the hill the minute he heard the plane crash. Nearly twenty minutes later, he met with Steve treading down the path with the unconscious woman slung over his right shoulder.
“I saw that plane crash.”
“Yeah. Luckily I was a few yards up and was able to climb down to the wreck,” Steve explained as he unburdened himself of his load that he gently laid on the ground. “I managed to get her out before the blast.”
After taking the woman’s pulse, Rudy quickly assessed her injuries. “Was she the only passenger?” He turned to Steve whose face contorted in pain. “Steve, are you alright?”
“I couldn’t save him,” Steve quavered.
“Who are you talking about?”
“The boy who was in the plane with her. I thought I’d have enough time to return for him, but….” Steve’s voice faltered as he choked on a gulp. “Will she make it?”
“I don’t know. Her pulse is weak. We have to get her to a hospital, fast!”
Steve slung the woman back over his shoulder and followed Rudy down to the campsite. After gingerly laying her on a blanket, Steve took off at a bionic sprint to the nearest pay phone to contact the local police.
He ran back to Rudy who was kneeling down by the insentient woman. He turned to Steve with a woeful expression and delivered the grim news. “It’s her spleen.”
“The medivac’s on its way.”
“Pray that it gets here soon or we’ll lose her for sure.”
Steve’s worried eyes dwelled on the fever-ridden brunette bundled up in a warm blanket, his mind roving back to the scene of the crash where he failed to save whom he believed was her son.
Hours later at the hospital, Steve was dozing off in an armchair when Rudy slowly walked over to him.
“Hey, Steve.” Rudy coaxed him to awake in a subdued voice. “Steve!” He tapped him on the shoulder to rouse him.
Steve started out of sleep. “Rudy?”
“How is she?”
“She should be okay,” Rudy said with a strained smile, trying to sound reassuring.
“Should? What does that mean?”
“We managed to remove the punctured spleen, but not before the toxins were spilled into the abdominal cavity. Now we have to see if her system can fight off the infection.”
Heaving a heavy sigh, Steve sank into his chair and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
Rudy placed a hand on his shoulder. “Steve, why don’t you go back to the hotel and get some sleep. There’s nothing more you can do here. “
Steve glanced up at Rudy with sagging eyelids and nodded. “Okay.” He rose out of the chair. “Call me when she wakes up. I’d like to see her.”
“Alright. Now go.”
Rudy watched Steve head toward the exit with leaden steps. He worried that his friend was hurting more than he let on. Whether it was physically or psychologically, Rudy made a mental note to run a complete medical assessment once they return to Washington.
Steve hailed a cab to the hotel. He entered his suite where he collapsed onto the bed, falling asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. He lapsed into a deep fitful slumber, tossing and turning as he relived the traumatic events of the last few hours.
In the early morning hours he was jolted out of sleep by the phone ring. Sweating and panting, he lazily rolled onto his side to pick up the receiver.
“Steve, she’s awake,” Rudy informed.
“Great!” he exhaled while rubbing the haze out of his eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. Just a bit tired. I’ll be right there.”
Back at the hospital, Steve met with Rudy at the nurses’ station where he learned of the woman’s identity.
“Her name is Patricia Nolan. She lives in Boulder, Montana. The boy travelling with her was her son, Christopher.”
Steve’s heart quailed at the mention of the word ‘son’. He clamped his eyes shut as he felt pangs of conscience rise within in. Guilt and sorrow gnawed at his aching soul. How he wished he could rewind the tape to the exact moment he made the fatal mistake of saving the woman before the infant, instead of pulling them both out of the burning wreckage simultaneously. He racked his brain trying to figure out the reason why he made that crucial decision. He berated himself inwardly for not considering the fuel spill, thinking he had plenty of time to return for the boy.
“Does she have a husband? Parents?”
“No husband. We’ve contacted her parents who should be here at any moment.”
“Can I see her?”
“Sure but not too long. She’s still awfully weak. Come with me.”
As they walked down the corridor to Patricia’s room, Rudy assured Steve that she was cognizant of the plane crash and what happened to her son, and therefore had no reason to worry about telling her.
Rudy ushered Steve into Patricia’s room. They padded up to the bed where the woman was resting her eyes.
She slowly opened her eyes. “Dr. Wells,” she mumbled.
Rudy motioned to Steve standing to his left. “This is Colonel Steve Austin. The man who rescued you from the plane crash.”
Steve greeted her with a shy nod of the head and a faint smile. Her eyes turned dark brown and narrowed in contempt at the mention of the man who chose to save her over her son. “Get out!” she spewed out with seething eyes and as scornful curl of the lip.
The words speared Steve in the guts, twisting the knife in the already festering wound.
“Miss Nolan, what’s the matter?” Rudy queried, taken aback by her sudden outburst.
“I don’t want to see that man near me. He killed my son!” she lashed out feebly without considering the implications of her claim.
“That’s not true,” Rudy corrected on an acrid tone. “He risked his life to save you.”
She flashed him a smouldering glare. ”And what about my son? Why didn’t he save him, huh?”
“There wasn’t time. I…I tried to…” Steve stammered an explication but was swiftly cut in mid sentence by Patricia who dared accuse him of wanting to save a pretty woman over a child, which was far from the truth.
Steve stood numb at her accusation.
“Get out of here!” she spat at the man who was crumbling under a crushing guilt.
Rudy took Steve by the shoulders and led him out of the room.
“Steve, don’t take her seriously. She’s hurting right now. She’s not thinking straight.”
“She’s right,” Steve said tonelessly.
“Don’t be ridiculous Steve. You nearly got killed trying to save that boy.”
Steve stared blankly in front of him, his eyes clouding up with tears. “Why didn’t I get to him first? Or better yet, why didn’t I get them both out of the plane at the same time? I could have. Why didn’t I?”
“Steve, you had to make a split second decision. If you’d stayed to pull the boy out along with his mother, it would have cost you precious seconds, time you didn’t have. All three of you would be dead.”
Steve closed his eyes to focus on those last crucial seconds before the plane went up in flames. “I had plenty of time to drag him out, Rudy.”
“Steve, don’t beat yourself up over this. You did what you had to do.”
“Yeah, sure,” he sighed heavily. “I’ll see you back at the hotel.”
“Okay.” The dismal look etched on Steve’s face worried Rudy that his friend’s despondence was a portent of a dark depression looming just beneath the surface.
Three days later, Steve and Rudy flew back to Washington. Steve remained taciturn during the flight, answering Rudy’s questions monosyllabically as he blankly stared out the window. Despite the woman’s apologies for her unwarranted behavior at the hospital, Steve continued to wear the woe of the world on his shoulders. His dull mind would repeatedly play the scene of the crash before his eyes and although the scenarios were different, the outcome remained the same. The guilt was eating away at his heart and soul, leaving a deep festering wound that Rudy was unable to cleanse.
Upon their arrival in Washington, Rudy drove Steve to his house and left him with his solemn promise to drop by the lab first thing in the morning for a thorough examination.
Steve entered his house and went straight for the kitchen to fix himself a glassful of milk. As he put the rim of the glass to his lips, he caught sight of a note pinned to the refrigerator door reminding him of a meeting of the Big Brothers association in a week’s time. He plonked the glass down on the counter and clamped his eyes shut as the anger rose within him, shaking the very core of his being. His right hand tightened its hold on the glass until it shattered into pieces.
Once he cleaned up the mess, he grabbed his coat and keys and headed out the door. He drove around aimlessly for hours before he reached a familiar building.
Late next morning, my plane landed at Dulles airport where an OSI official was waiting to drive me to HQ. I had just wrapped up a case abroad and was looking forward to indulge in a well-deserved vacation in Curacao.
“Good morning, Peggy, “ I greeted Callahan gleefully upon entering the reception area.
“Cassie! Glad to have you back!”
“It’s good to be back. I was getting homesick and often sick to my stomach from all that Chinese food,” I said, ending on a whimsical tone that made her chuckle. “Is the boss in?”
“Sure. He’s waiting for your report.”
“I might have known.” I waved the folder in the air. “Twenty-five neatly typed pages. The longest report I’ve ever written since joining the establishment. That’s worth a long vacation, don’t you agree?”
“Absolutely. Go get him tigress!” she cheered me on with a shake of her clenched fist.
“Grrrrrrrr!” I crossed to Oscar’s office and rapped on the door.
“Come in,” invited the voice from inside.
Oscar was on the phone and beckoned me in with a wave of the hand. “I’ve sent Peters and Samuels to back you up. They’ll be there within the hour.” He hung up and rounded the desk to stand by my side. “I want to commend your work Cassandra. Both the FBI and CIA had trouble cracking this case until we assigned you to it.”
“Piece of cake,” I gloated with a smug.
“They spoke to me about perhaps reinstating you into their ranks.”
“Who? The FBI?”
“Yeah,” Oscar said with a tinge of sorrow. “I told them it was your decision to make.”
“Well you can tell them no. I’m staying here. I’m having a ball at the OSI. All my friends are here.”
Oscar’s face broke into a broad smile at my answer. “That’s what I wanted to hear.” He stepped over to the bar. “Want a drink?”
“No thanks.” I placed the folder on his desk. “Here’s my report. I hope it meets with your satisfaction?”
“I doubt the contrary.” He took a sip off his drink and walked back to his desk. With a hand thrust in his pants pocket, he broached the subject of my vacation. “So where are you off to?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Just idle curiosity.” he said detachedly with a shrug.
“Uhn uhn. “ I flashed him a knowing crooked grin at the transparency of his question. It was plainly obvious the boss wanted to be wired into everything his operatives did.
“If you must know, I’m headed down to Curacao for two full weeks of lounging around on the beach to check out the goods.”
“Good-looking guys,” I teased with a click of the tongue and a wink.
Callahan buzzed Oscar’s desk. “Yes, Callahan?”
“Dr. Wells is here to see you,” came the voice over the intercom.
“Send him in.” He crossed to the door to greet his visitor. “Rudy, what brings you by?”
“Hello Cassie.” Rudy greeted.
“Oscar, have you heard from Steve?”
“No, not since yesterday. Why?”
“He was scheduled for a physical early this morning and never showed up,” Rudy explained with an edge of apprehension that both Oscar and I were quick to note.
“He probably slept in. You said it yourself he was looking rather worse for wear when you two returned from your trip.”
“That’s the reason why I want to run a complete check up on him. He might have a slight concussion that only an MRI can determine.”
My heartbeat increased at the mention of concussion. I stepped up to the two men with a worried frown. “What are you two talking about? What’s wrong with Steve?”
“Steve and I went up to the Montana Mountains to unwind and do some fishing. While there, a small aircraft crashed nearby and Steve was able to save only one passenger from the wreck. The other died in the ensuing explosion. He was a three-year-old boy, the woman’s son. Steve has been shouldering the guilt and has been despondent ever since. “
“That’s ridiculous!” I mocked. “Surely he’s not to blame for the explosion. My God! He could have been killed!”
“That’s what I’ve strived to tell him but he won’t listen. He’s shunning everyone, slowly withdrawing within himself. If we don’t address the problem now, I’m afraid he could sink deeper into a black depression and maybe…” Rudy needed not finished his sentence as his forlorn expression clearly conveyed his fear of Steve possibly turning suicidal.
The blood pounded at my throat at the mere thought of my friend attempting to his life. “It’s that bad?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Oscar opened the door and asked Callahan to call Steve’s house.
“Don’t bother Oscar,” Rudy said with a hand on his shoulder. “I rang his house all morning. There’s no answer.”
“Callahan, try any other place you can think of.”
“Yes, Mister Goldman.”
She picked up her phone and started making enquiries while Oscar and Rudy filled me in on the details on the incident. We cudgelled our brains as to where Steve might be but came up empty. My frustration grew as the dead ends piled up. I decided to drive to my apartment in order to shower and change before returning to the OSI and help in the search for my missing Blue Eyes.
I entered the apartment and went straight for the shower. On the way, I passed by the guest bedroom and noticed that the curtains were drawn. As I walked in, I gasped in surprise at Steve’s form lying on the bed. He was sleeping, curled up on his left side. The sight of him in a near foetal position sent an icy chill down my spine. I padded up to the bed and quietly perched myself on the edge of the mattress to feel his forehead. He started out of sleep at the touch of my hand against his skin.
“It’s okay Steve. It’s me.”
“Yeah. Are you alright?”
He drowsily rolled onto his back and rubbed the haze out of his eyes. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Rudy and Oscar are worried about you. Don’t you remember you had to be at the lab early this morning?”
His eyes began swivelling back and forth in search of that memory. “Oh yeah, “ he sighed in defeat. “I forgot.”
“There’s still time. I can drive you.”
“No!” He grabbed my arm and rubbed his thumb over it. “Not now.”
“Okay. But at least let me call him to let him know where you are.”
“Later.” He turned to his side and hugged the pillow. “I hope you don’t mind my crashing in your guest room.”
“If I did I never would have given you a key,” I remarked to him amicably as I ran a soothing hand up and down his arm. “You look kind of pale. Have you eaten?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. Then, he tilted his head up to stare me in the eyes with a questioning look.
“I know everything. Rudy told me.”
He turned his back to the pillow and heaved a mournful sigh. “I let that boy die, Cassie.”
“Steve, you’re not making any sense.”
“You weren’t there. You can’t possibly know. No one can.”
“Let’s not talk about it now. Why don’t you take a shower, get a shave, run a comb through that mess and come join me for lunch.”
“I’m not hungry,” he mumbled with his eyes closed.
“Well I am. And I would enjoy your company. I’ve been abroad too long. I miss chatting with my friends and you’re the best one I’ve got.” I cocked my head to peek at his face and saw him straining a half grin.
“Thanks Blue Eyes.” I gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder before leaving the room and going to the living room, where I notified Oscar of my having found our missing boy. I assured him that I would try my best to convince Steve to come by Rudy’s lab for a check-up. Thereafter, I went to the kitchen to whip up a quick lunch.
Twenty minutes later, he showed up looking very dapper, though the glumness was still etched on his face. He sat quietly at the table and twirled the stem of his empty wine glass. I fixed myself a plate of cold cuts and potato salad and sat across from him.
“Sure you don’t want some? It’s seasoned turkey breast. Your favourite.”
Although he declined with a shake of his head, I could tell by the longing look in his eyes that he was hungry, but I didn’t insist.
“Any new assignment lined up after this one?” he asked casually.
“Nop! I’m officially on vacation for two whole weeks, three if I’m lucky.”
“Where are you going?”
“You know that’s a very good question. I was leaning towards Curacao but now I’m thinking more along the lines of Ojai.”
“Ojai? As in California? My hometown? You’re choosing Ojai over Curacao?” he mocked with a look of incredulity.
“Yeah. I think it’s about time I visit the small corner of paradise that you so proudly call home. I’m curious to see where my Blue Eyes was born. Maybe meet with some of your former girlfriends and get the scoop on your wild teenage years,” I teased with an elfish wink.
He raised an eyebrow in suspicion and sighed. “You would.”
“Of course. Hey I tell you what! Why don’t you come with me? That way you can make sure I don’t run into anyone potentially harmful to your reputation.”
“I know what you’re doing, Cassie, but…”
“But what? I need a tour guide and you’re the best one around. And you’ve been boasting about the best fishing in the area with fish as long as what did you say? Ah yes, long as your arm?”
Steve winced with embarrassment at the exaggerated comment. “Forearm,” he corrected sheepishly.
“What do you say?” I asked with an eager anticipation that I tried to mask behind an airy expression. “I’m sure your folks would love to see you. And you did promise to introduce me.”
“Alright. I’ll call my mom this afternoon to let her know we’re coming for a visit.”
“Good! Now that that’s settle,” I spooned a heap of potato salad in his plate. “You eat,” I said on an authoritative tone that left little room for argument.
He didn’t take much grovelling to convince him to stay over for dinner, after which we settled on the couch to watch an old classic black-and-white movie. Halfway through the flick, he drifted off. He was looking so peaceful that I didn’t have the heart to wake him. Instead I stood, picked up his legs and stretched them out on the sofa. I grabbed an afghan draped over the armchair and spread it over him. A worried frown crossed my face at the thought of him being emotionally vulnerable. I vowed to keep a watchful eye on him while I improvised myself psychologist to try to purge his mind of his demons.
In the hush of the night, I was started out of sleep by a shrill coming from the living room. Filled with panic, I flung the covers aside, leapt out of bed and hurried to Steve who was at the grip of a powerful nightmare.
“Steve!” I sat on the edge of the sofa and gripped his shoulders to nudge him awake. Steve, wake up!” I taped him on the cheek. “Hey, wake up!”
When the nightmare finally released its hold, his eyes popped wide open. He stared at me with a quizzical look, panting and sweating profusely. “Cassie?”
“Yeah. Where were you?”
He ran a hand across his sweat-bedewed face before heaving himself into a sitting position. “On the mountains,” he exhaled heavily. I rubbed my hand against his back as he tried to recover his composure. “Why? Why didn’t I get to him first?” he chastised himself.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. Guess it’s because his seat was located farther down the aisle. I just automatically got to his mother.”
“That’s a natural reflex. You didn’t have time to spare.”
Annoyed by my rational explanation, he bolted upright and stepped over to the kitchen counter. “I should have went straight for him,” he ranted, pounding his fist against the counter. “God’s sake he was only three years old.”
I walked up to him and laid a consoling hand on his shoulder. “Don’t beat yourself up with this, Steve. You did what you had to do. If you had gone for the boy first, you might have all perished in that explosion.”
“There was plenty of time, Cassie. That’s what you, Rudy and everybody else don’t seem to understand. I made a fatal mistake that cost a child’s life, “ he railed, grinding out the words between clenched teeth.
“So you made a mistake! It’s over, done, finished. You can’t go back and rectify the situation. Are you going to let it poison the rest of your life?”
He buried his head in his hands. “Just leave me alone.”
“Fine!” I threw my hands up in defeat. “I’m going back to bed.” I stormed away to my bedroom and slammed the door close. I heaved out my frustration before opening the door at a crack to peek at Steve. To my relief I saw him flumping himself down on the sofa to try to get back to sleep.
Early next morning, he left for his house to pack his suitcases. He returned to my apartment shortly after in time to grab a quick breakfast before we headed down to the lab for his check-up. Rudy gave him a clean bill of health and the green light to travel. An hour later, we drove to the airport to catch our flight to Ojai. There, Steve rented a car and took the scenic route to his parents’ farm.
On the way to our destination, we engaged in a casual conversation on the various activities we intended to partake in during our two-week stay. Suddenly, an involuntarily spasm coursed through his right arm.
“Steve, what’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. It felt like a electric surge radiated through my arm.”
“Rudy checked it out, didn’t he?”
“I think so,” he replied unconvincingly.
“Maybe you should give him a call once we get to your folks’ house, just to be on the safe side.”
“Yeah,” he answered absently as he focused on flexing his arm and clenching his hand into a fist.
We showed up at the farmhouse where Helen and Jim were anxiously awaiting our arrival. As we pulled in the driveway, we saw Helen rush out of the house. She flung her arms around her son the second he stepped out of the car.
Once the introductions over, Steve and I got settled into our rooms, after which I reminded him to call Rudy on the matter of his spasms. From Steve’s description of the problem, Rudy inferred to a possible short-circuit in the nerve endings. He informed Steve that he was to take a flight out to California tomorrow to have his arm checked out for precautionary measures.