This story was originally published in Who You Know, What You Know, & How You Know It, put out by Hedonists Publications in 1983. This zine is still in print and can be obtain from Agent with Style: www.agentwithstyle.com. Transcribed from the zine for the web by Laura Schaal. Thanks Laura! Comments on this story can be sent to Flamingo who will forward them to the author.
Hutch was pissed. He was also tired and hungry after a long day. The preliminary hearings had gone poorly. Expensive lawyers and witnesses all neatly bought and paid for always made him furious. So much so that he'd let that smartass attorney get to him today and he had blown his cool on the stand. Now he felt like a fool. Every day it seemed like something worse went wrong. Driving home, his head pounding, he vented his frustrations by weaving in and out of the meager traffic, ignoring the blaring horn of the last motorist he'd cut off. Just before the turn-off to his apartment, he remembered his promise to Starsky.
Starsky... Just remembering their earlier conversation made his stomach flip.
"Why did you leave?" Starsky asked.
The question felt like a bucket of ice water. "Starsky, we've been over that a hundred times. I didn't come here to—"
"That's almost as good, why did you come?" Starsky said through a throat that wouldn't clear.
"Why did I come?" The blond leaned forward as if proximity would clear up the words. Starsky gave him nothing but an unblinking, accusing stare. "Just because we're not partners any more doesn't mean I don't care about you. I've never been able to make you understand that."
"You got it right there. I don't understand," the man answered resentfully.
Hutch lowered his eyes to stare at a dust ball trapped by the chair leg. They were nearly back to the original question.
Starsky sighed. "I'm okay, Hutch. Cracked ribs, sore shoulder, and a headache. I'm not hurt bad."
Not as bad as Bellamy's poison, or Gunther's hit a year ago...or when I left. Hutch ached inside as he read the injured man's pain. Has it really only been six months? Feels a lot longer.
"Good. When Dobey called last night, said you'd been hit by a car, it scared the hell out of me." Their eyes met and held this time and the blond's face lit up as he smiled.
"Déjà vu, huh?" Starsky whispered.
Sobering, Hutch leaned back as his face broke out in a cold sweat, a fine shiver taking him. Thanks a lot. Remind me of all the other times you almost bought it. You know how to push the buttons too, don't ya?
The phone rang, breaking the tension and Starsky grimaced as he reached for the receiver. "Hello...no, Mr. Davis checked out this morning. Yes, he looked fine when he left. Uh-huh...uh-huh. Thanks, I will. Nice talking to you, too. Bye." He rolled his eyes as he fought with the sheets and the IV tubing to hang up the phone.
Hutch reached over and rescued the phone. He replaced it, then straightened the tangled sheet, briefly checking that the IV was still in place.
"The guy from the other bed." Starsky jerked his head at the empty bed by the door. "He's a high school teacher. I bet I've had twenty calls for him."
"Why don't you have the switchboard hold them?"
"Aw, it's not so bad, kinda breaks up the monotony of the day. Besides, I wouldn't want to scare Ma. Dobey called her, too. If she couldn't get through, she'd go crazy."
"Yeah, I see your point." Looking at his watch, he stood. "Well, I've got to run. Court appearance at two, preliminaries this afternoon; the first's in forty minutes." He glanced back at Starsky, lying under the white sheets. "I'll call you later. Uh, if you need anything, give me a call, 'kay?" Please don't need, don't call.
"Yeah, sure. Ah, there is one thing..." He saw Hutch tense. "If you've got time, could you go by my place and water the plants? They were overdue for a drink yesterday; they're probably about ready to croak by now."
"Oh, yeah, sure, no problem. I'll get by there tonight." Hutch relaxed, hoping his relief hadn't been too obvious, knowing it was.
Starsky reached for the bedside table. "Here, let me give you the key."
"I still have mine. I..." Again, Hutch faltered under the glare from Starsky's eyes.
"Oh, yeah, I forgot. Thanks, I appreciate it. See ya."
"Yeah, see you." Hutch swallowed uneasily and wiped his damp hands on his jeans as the door shut behind him.
Shit! His fucking plants. Not that he ever cared about them anyway. I was the one who kept giving them to him every time I thinned out mine. But, driven by a pang of guilt, he swerved away from the exit ramp and detoured to Starsky's apartment to serve his penance. The pounding at his temples increased.
He screeched to a halt, an icy hand squeezing his gut as he parked behind the familiar Torino. He's not here. Somebody just dropped off the car. Relax. He passed the car on the way upstairs, resisting the urge to touch it as he went by. He let himself quietly into the apartment, noticing the furniture's new arrangement, different from the last time he had visited. That had been six months ago. But the stack of dirty dishes in the sink, the tower on the floor in the hall, strangely comforted him. He smiled. Some things never change.
Plants aren't too bad. A little wilted, but I expected them to be dead and gone. He gave them all a cursory glance, and then looked in the kitchen for something to hold water. At the second set of cabinets, he stopped dumbfounded. There, stacked neatly, were several commercial plant foods and growth stimulators, a mister, and a large watering can. "I'll be damned!"
After tending to the coleus in the kitchen and the philodendron in the living room, he stopped and admired how each plant had flourished; remembering the occasion on which he'd passed each one along to Starsky. Moving on to check the ones in the bedroom, he poured water liberally on two spindly aloes on the windowsill, then set about misting the abundant fern. As he turned, his eyes fell on the bed and the rumpled blue sheets resting in a tangle more off the bed than on.
A shudder passed through him as he was chilled by the memory of a similar sight. For a fleeting moment his tired eyes envisioned Starsky's body there on the floor amidst entwining sheets, phone still clutched in his hand after calling for help. Bellamy's poison. He shook his head to exorcise those painful memories before they inevitably led to the one he found most difficult to deal with. The bed and rumpled sheets wavered in his vision briefly becoming cold, grey, blood-spattered concrete.
"Nooooo!" tore from him in a scream that banished the waking nightmare. As if to be sure it was really gone, he stepped closer to the bed and ran his hand up the mattress edge to the pillow.
"I wish...I wish...something! Shit. Not that things were like before, they can't be—but I wish it wasn't like it is now!" Feeling the need to rationalize his reluctance to leave the apartment, he began to straighten up. He made the bed, loaded the dishwasher and turned it on, jangled nerves soothed by the background noise of the machine. At least he'll come home to a clean place and won't have to do anything he's not up to. Wonder if his new partner'll come and take care of him. Where the hell was he when Starsky was dodging that car in the first place? Who is it now, anyway? He's gone through four or five. Hell, I haven't done much better, working on my third one myself. Gotta keep this one, though—one more request for a transfer away from me and they might reassign me to Starsky.
The apartment clean, he sat in the wicker chair and stared into space. "What the hell am I doing?" he asked aloud. Soaking up Starsky, his mind answered. Saving it up for the cold years to come. "God, I miss ya, buddy." That ever-present ache grew, painfully constricting his throat and chest, his eyelids stung and he blinked furiously. His hands clutched, knuckles white, at his knees. He was barely aware of the pain of his fingernails biting into flesh.
"I—can't—watch—you—die," he sobbed. "I'd get myself killed trying to watch out for you." He spoke through clenched teeth, punctuating each word, determined to convince himself of their truth. God, I'm keeping my bargain...what I promised...I promised. His mind replayed the last time he'd been in this apartment.
"...so I'm leaving."
Starsky's eyes widened and his face paled as Hutch's words seemed to sink in. "What...wh...what are you saying?"
Hutch met those frightened eyes, then lowered his gaze to stare at his interlocked fingers. "I'm saying I can't be your partner any more. Please try to understand. It's like...like the girl in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She'd do anything but watch them die. Well, that's how I feel. I can't go out on the street with you any more...I couldn't function. I'd be scared for you all the time, I'd be trying to keep you safe, and get blown away because I wasn't looking out for me."
"No, ya wouldn't—'cause I'd be looking out for you...just like always," Starsky argued, his eyes wide and his voice trembling.
"It can't work like it did. Accept that. I just can't handle it, Starsk. So, before it happens I gotta back away." Hutch stood, his whole body tense. Please see that, buddy. Without me you won't take those hot-dog chances. You'll be okay. I made the deal for you to be okay...I promised.
Starsky threw off the blanket and got slowly to his feet, still stiff and slow-moving from his injuries at the hands of Gunther's hit men. "No. Please, Hutch," he begged, his eyes beginning to fill. "Don't do this to me. It can be like it was. Sure, I still need to heal some, but I'll be good as new. I promise."
Hutch jumped, eyes tightly closed, fists thrust deeply in his jacket pockets. I promise echoed inside his head.
"No. I'm sorry." I promised, I promised. Hutch started toward the door.
"Sorry?" Starsky's voice cracked. "Hutch, please!" He walked to stand in front of his partner, gulping back the tears. "You can't do this. If you want to quit, I'll quit too, whatever you want."
Hutch saw the agony in the face before him. Starsky's one hand clutched the opening of Hutch's jacket, fingers convulsing over the fabric, his other pressed against his own chest. The dark man's breathing was rapid and he shuddered with the effort of keeping back his obviously painful sobs.
Struck by his friend's vulnerability, the tightness in his own chest increased, yet he could offer the trembling man no comfort. The shudders continued with shaky mumbles against Hutch's chest.
"Come on, easy now...you're gonna hurt yourself," Hutch soothed, leading his armful back to the couch. Reluctantly, Starsky released his desperate hold long enough to sit and be eased back against the cushions. He was regaining control of himself, through still trembling slightly.
"Hutch..." The voice was soft, child-like. "Hutch, I won't get hurt any more."
The small, quiet statement, on top of the sorrow he already bore, burst Hutch's heart. "God—God, Starsky, I never thought you did it on purpose!" Hutch sank onto the couch.
Feeling cold shaking arms wrap around him, Hutch returned the embrace. "You won't have to watch me close. I'll be more careful. I won't drive crazy. I won't eat weird stuff in front of ya, I'll try not to talk so much so I don't get on your nerves," Starsky pleaded, talking faster and faster. "I won't die on ya, Hutch, I swear it."
The absurdity of the statement struck Hutch. He spat a short, humorless laugh, and pulled out of Starsky's arms.
"It's not up to you, dummy! I said I couldn't be your partner any more—I never said I was going to stop being your friend." Softer, "I don't want you to change, Starsk. I just want to keep you safe." Fearing he'd said too much, but unable to stop, he continued, "I watched you lying there, dead. Starsky, you were dead! I don't ever want to hurt like that again. I love you." I've loved you, God forgive me.
"I love you, too," Starsky sniffed.
Yeah, I know you do. You really do, Hutch thought.
Starsky reached out and laid his hand on Hutch's knee. "I don't blame you."
"For Gunther's hit in the parking lot. I don't blame you. We had no reason to suspect a black-and-white; I never thought you could have prevented it. You got nothing to feel guilty about if that's what's behind all this."
Hutch knew he could never explain. "I don't," he said gently, then stood. "I have to leave now."
Returning to the present, Hutch wiped shaking hands across his face, not surprised when they came away wet. "I know you never blamed me. Did you let your new partner off that easy for this one?" He felt his anger rise. Where the hell was he, anyway? Careless sonofabitch. He stood and looked up, leaving the apartment dark, vowing to check the report of Starsky's injury in the morning. Maybe he'd have a talk with what's-his-name.
Once home, Hutch was too tired to eat. His stomach burned and churned. He swallowed a glass of milk hoping to quell the blaze in his gut and flopped across the bed. His eyes barely closed before he had to struggle upright and dash for the bathroom, spewing his milk into the toilet. When the retching finally stopped, he rinsed his mouth and padded back to the bed, not really surprised the milk hadn't stayed down. Not much did these days.
Hutch caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he undressed. Bones would show through the clothes if I had anything that fit!
"Who gives a shit?" he sighed and got into bed again.
* * *
"I'm sorry, sir, but that line is still busy," the hospital operator told him.
"Thanks...look, how is Officer Starsky listed this morning?" Hutch asked, exasperated that he couldn't get through to check for himself.
"Satisfactory," came the nasal reply.
"Thank you." Hutch hung up and went back to his report, returning the carriage more forcefully with every line. Just want to see if you had gotten someone else to water the plants or if you need me to come by and do it. His shoulders slumped and he stopped typing. Damned flimsy excuse...probably a good thing the line's busy. Face it, Hutchinson, you want to go back to his apartment, take care of it if you can't take care of him any more. Well, it's allowed, isn't it? It wasn't part of the deal. No reason I can't. So...I'll go. After work. He finished the paperwork in an hour and left his desk, whistling softly to himself.
Still whistling he let himself into Starsky's apartment. He placed the mail on the kitchen counter and bent to retrieve the watering can when he heard a noise behind him. Dropping the can, he went down on one knee and spun around, Magnum drawn.
Standing in the doorway, Starsky dangled his automatic loosely in his left hand. "Good thing neither one of us is trigger happy," he remarked wryly, then turned and walked stiffly back to bed.
Hutch holstered his cannon and strode into the bedroom after the retreating man. "What are you doing here?"
Starsky grimaced as he bent forward to draw the covers up. "I live here."
"Wise-ass. I didn't know you'd been discharged. When? How'd you get home?"
"About two hours ago, Pherson dropped me off. What're partners for?" he added sourly.
"Is he coming back?" Hutch asked.
"I doubt it. Said something about taking his wife and kid to Baja to see her family. Why?"
Lousy bastard, Hutch thought, scowling.
"What's eatin' you?" Starsky asked as he squirmed to get comfortable.
"Did the doctor really feel it was okay to come home or did you badger him into it?"
The sheet over his head muffled his reply. "I can lay around here as easily as I can there. Cheaper, too."
"Who's gonna see about you?"
Throwing back the sheet, Starsky frowned. "What?"
"I said, who's gonna see about you, take care of you, cook, do laundry, all that kinda stuff?"
Starsky's face took on a sad look that said 'nobody', but he answered only, "I can take care of myself, thanks. Don't need no mother-hen."
"You're not an island. Everyone needs somebody."
"Not no more. It's...easier. Look, you stopped by and took care of the plants, cleaned up the place. Thank you. It was a nice thing to do. You've done your good deed, you're free to go. See, I really am a big boy—I don't need you either," he finished bitterly.
Hutch very carefully shut himself down, sent his defenses up, kept the walls intact. "I'm sorry to have bothered you. See you around..." He turned to go.
Nearly at the front door, he heard Starsky shout, "Wait...Hutch!" The ensuing crash and thump stopped his exit mid-stride. Sprinting back to the bedroom, he found Starsky on the floor, trying to maintain his balance on both knees and one hand, while the other hand pressed tightly over the taped area on his chest.
Hutch reached him and eased him back into the bed. Starsky gasped and shut his eyes, chest heaving for breath. Gagging in spite of valiant efforts not to, he rolled to the side of the bed. Hutch stayed close, holding the wastebasket nearby just in case.
"Easy...take it easy. Slow, deep breaths...in and out...it's getting better, that's right...in and out," Hutch repeated, stroking his friend's forehead.
Starsky relaxed, the dry heaves gradually ceasing as he lay back against the pillow. Normal color came back to his cheeks and after a few minutes, he opened his eyes.
"Am I right-side-up yet, or is everything still spinning?" Hutch asked, smiling.
"Your ears are on straight. Thanks," Starsky said raspily.
Returning from the bathroom with a wet cloth, Hutch wiped it over Starsky's face and neck. "You're still a little green. The doctor give you any pills for this?"
"Yeah, they're in my jacket pocket, but I don't think I need 'em. It only happens if I move too quick. Doc said it'll pass in a few days."
"I'll get 'em," but a hand grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back down on the edge of the bed.
"I was just gonna get your pills."
"I don't care." Starsky's hand loosened its grip on the material only to clasp down tightly on Hutch's wrist. "Stay right here."
"Okay." His hand covered Starsky's, giving it a squeeze, then dropping it away.
"I...I'm sorry. I shouldn'ta talked to you that way."
"Guess I didn't want to admit I hated being alone."
"Hell of a time for your partner to take a trip. He should be here." Hutch let his anger show.
"Wasn't his fault."
"What do you mean, he just dropped you off and split—"
"I'm talking about the accident. He told me you made a couple of comments to him. Better watch it, he can take ya."
Struggling to sit straighter, "Hell, look at you, Hutch—a fourteen-year-old could lay you out. What do you weigh now, one fifty? One forty-five? You look like a dead man who forgot to lay down. Why are you doing this? You're miserable, I'm miserable. It'd be different if you were happy. You're killing yourself and being without you is killing me!"
Hutch stared at the naked pain in those blue eyes and couldn't speak around the lump in his throat.
Pressing his advantage, "You want to know how the accident happened? It wasn't because Pherson fucked up, it was me! He yelled in plenty of time. Shit, I saw the car. I just stood there and watched it come. For a second, a million thoughts went through my mind. It would be so easy, just to stand here and put an end to all of it. By the time Pherson shoved me, the car was too close and I got clipped."
Hutch trembled with red-hot anger and jumped to his feet, shaking a finger in Starsky's face. "Don't you dare! You live, you hear me? Don't you ever do anything like that again! Damn you, you stupid sonofabitch, I haven't lived in hell all this time for you to throw it all away like it was nothing!"
Staring up at Hutch as if he expected a blow, Starsky tensed. After a long, frozen silence, he said, "Come here."
Hutch shook his head and started to turn when Starsky caught one of his hands and pulled him back. Slowly he reached for the other arm, then both shoulders, as he eased Hutch down against his chest.
Softly he said, "Don't you think it's time you told me the truth, Hutch?" Panic struck Hutch as he tried to pull free from Starsky's grasp, but he was held by the hands as well as the words. "I gotta know. You owe me that much."
How can I keep my bargain unless I tell him? Let me tell him, and I'll go right away, I swear. Slowly Hutch nodded, sitting back. He drew a shuddering breath and began.
"It was right after Gunther's hit. Dobey'd called and I got there as quick as I could. They were working on you—I could see the pile of EKG paper on the floor showing your cardiac arrest. I wanted to run, but I was paralyzed. I couldn't move a muscle...but my mind wouldn't stop. I kept remembering all those resuscitations in medical school, and how damn few of them were successful. I stood there. I knew the next steps, but this wasn't a lab cadaver, this was you. I had to do something. I had to...but I didn't know what. I...I started praying...I've never prayed as hard in my whole life." His voice shook as the pain swelled in him again.
"You see, everyone that ever loved me or that I loved dies, Starsk...like I'm the poison that kills them...like it was meant to be that way. My grandfather, Gillian, Van—I know you didn't like her, but she did love me, once. They all died and I knew you were gonna die, too. I was so scared. So I told God...I'd go away instead if He'd just not take you. That's what it is—I left because I promised to, if He'd just let you live." He stopped, looked at his former partner. "Maybe it sounds crazy, but it worked, didn't it?"
"Oh, babe." Starsky reached up to draw him into his arms again. "Why didn't you talk to me about it?"
"I made the deal...I promised," Hutch groaned, unable to pull away from the encircling arms. "Besides, I tried to talk about it and you just got uncomfortable, so I..."
Starsky pushed Hutch up to look into his face. "My turn, so you listen to me. I remember something from that time, too, that you oughta hear." He paused, looking off to the left for a minute, then continued. "I was on this long bridge, one of those suspended, swinging jobs. It felt weird, 'cause you know I don't like things like that, but this time I wasn't afraid. There was this light at the end and I was going toward it, then all of a sudden I stopped and looked back. I was all alone, just me on the bridge with that light on the other end. I called for you, but you weren't there." He stopped again for a moment.
"I don't know if I heard it out loud or in my mind, but something told me as long as I didn't go any farther I still had a choice. I could still go back. It felt really good where I was, and the closer I got to that light the better I felt. That light was so beautiful...but every time I tried to take a step toward it, it just didn't feel right. So I said I'd go back. And as soon as I did, that voice said, 'Go back, I understand.'"
"I turned and walked back to the beginning of the bridge, and you were waiting there for me. You weren't standing there the last time I looked, but you were there then, and I knew why I was coming back. That's all I remember about it, 'cause the next thing I felt was being cold and hurting like hell. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. If I'd even guessed what you had done... It was just too close back then and I couldn't share it. Too...personal. Even now—Hutch, I've never told anyone before. Probably still wouldn't've if you hadn't stayed away so long like you did."
Hutch froze. "That doesn't change what I promised."
Starsky answered with a snort. "Listen, you shithead, for somebody so smart, you sure can be dumb. You prayed—okay, you got an answer, but there wasn't a contract involved. All you saw was your request delivered; you're the one who set terms on it. You don't know that it wasn't a freebie. Look, I don't know how to sort it all out yet, maybe that's why I couldn't talk about it. I'm still not ready to deal with it myself. If that light was God, and who else would it be, He said 'Go back', He understood, and He knew you were the reason. Y'think He'd do that just to make you stay away from me? That's crazy! You and me...we're supposed to be together. We're better together than either of us is apart. Believe it!"
Faltering, "I don't know...I'm still scared. What if—what if it really is a contract, and I break my part of it?"
"You really think that God would shut off my gas just because you break your word?" Starsky said dryly. "You got some kinda ego, Hutch."
The absurdity was too much and Hutch had to laugh. "You're right. I'm dumb." But I'm glad I got you back again.
"Just remember, babe, you aren't the only one God makes promises to," Starsky admonished. He drew Hutch to his chest again, moving over to give him more room. "How ya been sleepin'?"
"Yeah, me too. Kick your shoes off, Blondie, and turn off the light."
The reach for the bedside lamp was followed closely by two thuds as his shoes landed in the darkness.
"Turn over toward the table," Starsky said in his ear.
Hutch complied as Starsky snuggled close to his back, spoon-like, draping one arm across his body.
"God, Hutch, you're nothin' but bones! You need a couple weeks of peanut butter an' jelly burritos to fatten you back up."
"Go to sleep, Starsk."
He could feel Starsky's breathing against his shoulder. In minutes it was slow and even, the rhythm of it lulling Hutch toward sleep as well. He'd never felt so right in his whole life. As if Someone had finally kept a promise.
"Thank you, God," Hutch whispered.