Funerals, Friends, and Bullet Wounds
I stood at the side of the church, near the aisle, watching the flower covered coffin being carried out. It must have been light; my aunt had been a small woman even before her last illness. I tried not to be too obvious about it, but I was leaning fairly heavily against the arm of the pew. I wasn't completely recovered and only an appeal to the Doc's better nature had got me begrudging approval to come to Chicago.
The pallbearers were finally manoeuvring their way down the steep steps at the front of the church, the mourners following at a discrete distance. I pushed myself off the pew with my right hand and slowly edged my way up the side of the church, staying as much in the shadows as possible. There was no way I was going to attract any less attention than I already had, but I could try.
"Jack." My cousin Ben beckoned to me from a few feet closer to the door. He stood with his arm around his wife's shoulder, his teenage son close by his side. I went over to the small family group.
Ben's gaze was appraising. "You okay, Jack?" His tone seemed to be one of genuine concern, a far cry from the bully he had always been when younger. His wife, Sally, smiled up at me, her eyes red rimmed from crying. Their son's attention was riveted on my chest, the rows of ribbons of much more interest to him than the man who wore them.
"It's nothing serious. Just a muscle strain."
"Are you coming back to the house? You'd be very welcome?"
"If you need to rest you can use the spare bedroom." Sally hurried to add.
"Thanks, but I better head back to the hotel." I was a little surprised that I was so welcome. I hadn't been one of Ben's favourite relatives, and I hadn't had any contact with him since I left Chicago. It was only because of his mother I was here at all. Aunt Beatrice had been the only relative I had kept in touch with on my mother's side, if you could call an annual exchange of Christmas cards keeping in touch.
My mother had died when I was only a few months old, leaving my father to raise his only child alone. Aunt Beatrice had been there for me, helping to pull Dad out of the depression my mother's death had thrown him into. Ben never really forgave his mother for that, his understandable jealousy turning what should have been a close friendship into something closer to hatred. Maybe he had mellowed as he had gotten older and had a family of his own. I didn't know, and to be honest, I really didn't care right at this moment. In a few days I might be able to revaluate our relationship, perhaps give Ben a call and arrange to have dinner next time I was in town, but all I wanted to do now was get back to my hotel, take a couple of those pain killers the Doc had given me, and sleep.
I politely made my farewells to my cousin and his family, leaving by a side entrance. I watched the hearse pull out from the curb from across the road, before walking a couple of streets over and hailing a cab.
I was already up and dressed when breakfast was delivered to me the next morning. An early night and an undisturbed sleep had done wonders for my mood, and I faced the bowl of cereal and plain slices of toast with something akin to pleasure. For once I wasn't hankering after eggs and bacon. Janet would have been proud. It wouldn't last, and I didn't doubt that by lunchtime a hot dog would be on the menu, but at the moment I felt a glow of self-righteousness.
The 'Herald Tribune' was sitting, neatly folded on the tray, so I settled down at the small table to see what had been happening in the world while I'd been in hospital. A quick read of the headlines told me everything I needed to know. The usual suspects were still making money hand over fist, nations were still arguing, people were still killing each other. Sometimes I despaired.
The crossword diverted me for a short time, but for once I couldn't get up the energy to find alternate answers to fit the clues. The trick was getting them to all fit into the grid as if they were meant to be there. Usually I managed to get a few laughs from Daniel and Carter when they read it, but today, here alone in a hotel room far from the Mountain, my heart just wasn't in it.
Pouring another coffee, I continued to turn the pages, interested to find more local news from my old hometown. I didn't expect what I found – hidden in the small print was a tiny article of barely three paragraphs, probably only making it into the paper because one of its subjects was a well known scientist – my high school year was having a reunion. It culminated with a dinner tonight.
I sipped my coffee, sitting back in the chair and staring vaguely out the window at the park opposite the hotel. My memories of the final year of high school here in Chicago weren't exactly pleasant. My father had died three days before Christmas and I hadn't been much in the mood for study after that. My grandparents had swooped in and dragged me back with them to Minnesota, enrolling me in the local high and making sure I graduated despite my best efforts. I hadn't kept in touch with any of my old classmates, and I was curious to see how they had turned out.
My decision made, I eyed the clothes in the closet. No way was I going to turn up at a reunion in dress blues. That didn't leave me many options and the best I could do was a combination of various items I had brought for casual wear. Not a look I normally went for, but what the hell, I couldn't wear sweats.
The rest of the day was taken up by a little lazy sightseeing, familiarising myself again with my old stomping grounds. Some memories were good, some bad. Fortunately the good far outweighed the bad, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to come back. By afternoon I was beginning to feel the effects of all the walking and I turned towards the hotel, annoyed that my normal level of fitness was taking so long to return after this latest injury.
For one brief moment I wished I hadn't given up my role in the nefarious activities all those shadowy agencies had taken part in. A bullet between the eyes would rid me of Kinsey in one easy step.
With a rueful sigh, I stepped out of the elevator and unlocked the door to my room, collapsing on the bed after barely managing to pull off my shoes.
I woke three hours later, my chest aching. Popping a couple more painkillers into my mouth, I washed them down with a glass of water and waited for them to take affect. A hot shower helped ease the pain, although a glance in the mirror at the new, livid scar was a nasty reminder of how close Kinsey had come to winning that round.
I needed to relax for an evening, forget about the political machinations surrounding the Stargate Programme, forget just for one evening that I was General O'Neill, with everything that entailed.
I slipped into the black trousers and shirt, grunting a little as I bent to tug on the black boots. I picked up my leather jacket and gave myself a once over in the mirror on the closet door. I couldn't help laughing at what I saw – Jack O'Neill, rebel without a cause. It was a bit over the top, but my only other option of old jeans was out, so it would have to do. I cautiously slid my arms into the jacket, wincing a little as the action pulled the still tender skin. A final brush of my hair and I was ready.
The hall was exactly as I remembered it, even down to the peeling paint around the main door. In fact, the whole school looked a little down at mouth, a bit tired and old. Rather like me actually.
"Can I help you?"
The pleasant looking woman sitting behind the desk just inside the entrance was unfamiliar to me. I peered at her badge. Nope, didn't recognise the name.
I smiled nicely. At least I think it was nice – I was a little out of practice in the smiling department. She didn't run screaming for the hills so I assumed I got it right.
"Jack O'Neill. I was in town and saw the article in the paper. Thought I'd drop in and say hi, perhaps catch up with some old friends." I smiled again and received one in return. She leafed through the file on the desk in front of her until she got to the "O"s, running her finger down the column.
"Here you are. We didn't have any contact details for you, so we couldn't send out an invitation." She began writing out a label. "It's no problem to have you join us at all. I'm glad you could make it."
Label firmly attached, I made my way into the main hall. There was quite a crowd, some standing in groups talking, others sitting at tables. I could feel the eyes on me as I entered, and I was sure everyone was trying to put a name to the face. I made it several feet inside before a voice came from somewhere to my right.
"Jack! Jack O'Neill. Well I'll be..."
This time my smile was genuine. "Tom Lewendoski." I grasped his outstretched hand in mine. "It's great to see you."
I looked at my childhood friend and saw the changes the years had wrought. His still brown hair had receded almost back as far as his ears, and his waistband had grown, but his face was unlined and worry free. All in all he was looking good. I wondered if he was thinking the same about me. Was he just seeing the signs of stress, the scars above my eye and down my cheek, the tiredness I saw in my eyes every time I looked in the mirror?
"Where have you been hiding yourself, Jack? I wrote a couple of times and never got an answer."
What could I tell him? That I had thrown away all the letters from home without opening them, not wanting a reminder of what I had lost. That I had been angry and blamed everyone and everything for my father's death? I took refuge in a lie.
"Did you, Tom? I never got them." I thumped him on the back. "But I'm here now."
We had continued walking as we spoke, heading towards a large group sitting at one of the tables.
Rachael Smith, Karen McPherson, Harvey Killick. The names rushed back to me. Three men and another two women whom I didn't recognise.
Karen peered short-sightedly at my label and gave a soft squeal of surprise. "It's Jack!"
"Hi Karen, long time no see." She moved across, gesturing to me to sit in the vacant chair beside her.
"What's everyone been up to?" One of the men I didn't recognise made to pour me a glass of wine, but I smiled and shook my head. Alcohol definitely didn't mix well with the painkillers I was taking. He frowned slightly as he pulled the bottle back.
"This is my husband, Jeff. We're living in Boston now. Don't get back here very often." My question was answered by Rachael. The man with the wine placed a proprietary hand on her arm, his every move sending warning signals. He had no problem there. Rachael and I may have been an item for a few months back in high school, but those days were long gone. I wondered what sort of stories she had told about me to cause him to react like that. Maybe I didn't want to know.
The others introduced me to their respective wives and husbands. Only Harvey was unmarried, even Tom had a wife and three children whose photos he proudly showed me. Charlie would have been the same age as his youngest.
"What about you, Jack?" Tom had taken a seat across the table from me. "Married?"
I kept it simple. "Divorced."
The inevitable question was next. I was ready for it.
"Nope." I made myself smile, taking away the harshness of the answer.
"What have you been doing all these years, Jack?" Harvey's tone was slightly bored, as if he was only asking out of politeness. He had been one of the nerds, a member of the Science Club – Carter would have loved him. We had never been friends; his group and mine had been at the opposite end of the school hierarchy. I had him to thank for being here though. He was the only one of my classmates to have gained public recognition – his research into quantum physics earning him several awards, and the small article that had caught my eye in the paper.
"I joined the Air Force. I'm based in Colorado Springs."
"Air Force? So you're a pilot?" Tom's wife, Lorie opened her blue eyes wide, her hand twirling a piece of hair around her finger.
"Yes, I have been, sometimes."
"What do you do now? Desk jockey?" I wanted to wipe the superior smirk off Harvey's face, but contented myself with a quick answer.
"You could say that"
I had already lost the listeners' attention, my boring life behind a desk not able to compete with the glamor of grown-up science projects.
The conversation flowed on as the food was put on the long tables at the end of the hall. I stood, feeling the stiffness of having sat for so long, and realised how slowly I was walking when Tom shortened his strides to match mine. His gaze was curious and I could almost hear his thoughts –. my continued refusal of alcohol, my stiffness, my perceived desk job all added up - Jack O'Neill had turned into an old man.
I was beginning to get annoyed.
The final straw came soon after we returned to the table with our food. There was a small group clustered around Harvey's chair listening to him pontificate. He had been asked about his work and had dismissed the question, stating baldly that no one would be able to understand it even if he did explain. I swear he was looking straight at me as he spoke.
Being a general and part time ambassador for our planet had certainly taught me some tact, but it all left me in a rush.
"Actually I find De Vaucouleurs' argument to be quite simplistic. I touched on a similar theory in my doctorate."
With that I stood and left the stunned silence behind. I had spotted a few more familiar faces, including a couple of my old teachers. Very old teachers!
"They had huge eyes, just like those Roswell aliens. Then they probed me."
My forwarded momentum stopped and I came to a screeching halt.
"I didn't see anyone else there, but I know there are others that have been abducted. We have meetings."
Oh for crying out loud! Did I want to even know about this? Should I go talk to him, ask questions? Find out if Loki was back and up to his old tricks, or if it happened years ago?
I saw the gleam of fanaticism in the speaker's eyes and the uncomfortable movements of the people around him – the "don't make eye contact and back away slowly' sort of movements.
Nope – probably just a nutcase. Nothing to see here. Moving right along.
"Mr Greyson." The figure may have been small and frail, but the eyes when they turned to met mine were as clear and alert as ever.
"Jack O'Neill, as I live and breathe!" My old history teacher clasped my hand firmly. "Or should I say General O'Neill?"
Crap! I had been sprung.
"I've been keeping an eye on your career, Jack, what little I could find out about. You've done your old school proud."
"General?" Tom came up from behind me.
Mr Greyson smiled at Tom. "Yes. Jack is one of our country's most highly decorated officers. Didn't you know?"
I began edging towards the door.
"I had no idea." The circle around us was growing. I was cornered.
"Weren't you injured recently, shot?"
What was this old man? Some sort of NID agent? How the hell did he know all this? And, more to the point, why did he have to say it?
"Shot? How recently?" Jeff pushed forward. "Is that why you weren't drinking?"
"Why?" I didn't deny it, but I also didn't answer the question.
He grunted his disapproval. "I'm a doctor. You're on painkillers, aren't you? I thought you were on something, I just wasn't sure what."
Well, that explained his previous attitude. He must have seen my black clothes, my scars and my pupils and added two and two to make five.
He wasn't going to let it go.
"So apart from the fact that you're a general, what else are you hiding? Just how badly were you injured?"
All I wanted to do was sit down somewhere quiet away from the curious faces. Even Harvey was there on the edge of the circle, looking astounded. Jeff grabbed my arm, tugging me towards an exit. He beckoned to my old teacher. "Mr Greyson, if you could please show us to somewhere more private?"
We left the others behind, moving into the corridor of the school proper and heading for the staff room. I couldn't seem to get up the energy to protest, Jeff was a force to be reckoned with. He pushed open the door, shutting it behind us, and turned to face me.
"Now, where were you shot?"
I muttered a reluctant answer. "In the chest."
The rise of his eyebrows would have done Teal'c proud. "Take your shirt off."
What was it about doctors? Whenever they saw me they seemed to get this gleam in their eyes, even ones that barely knew me.
As I undid the buttons, I turned to Mr Greyson, wincing a little as I twisted. "How did you know?"
"My nephew works at the Pentagon. He knows you are an ex-pupil of mine." He gave a short laugh, his whole face smiling. "Plus it was hardly a secret. A general getting shot in the corridor of the Pentagon by a senator's bodyguard is something that gets talked about. Especially when the general is a personal friend of the President of the United States."
Jeff's eyebrows had almost reached his hairline, but it didn't stop him from pulling my shirt off. There was a sharp gasp as he took in the extensive bandages around my chest, slightly loose after my poor re- bandaging job after my shower and all the activity this evening. I had been supposed to visit a doctor Janet had given me the address of. Somehow I just hadn't seemed to get around to it.
"Let's see those painkillers."
I pulled the bottle from my pocket and handed them over without question. I knew when I was licked.
"These are pretty strong, I'm surprised you're still on your feet. In fact I'm surprised you're even here." He handed them back and continued. "I'll redo these bandages then I'll call you a cab. Where are you staying?"
I muttered the name of my hotel, as he pulled and prodded, until I was as tightly bound as an Egyptian mummy.
When I got my breath back, I managed to finally speak.
"I'm not going back to the hotel just yet, Doctor." I gave him my best glare. "This is hardly the first time I've been shot, I know my limits. I may push them sometimes, but not too far, it isn't worth the consequences. I'm going back out there, and I'm going to talk to some old friends. I've been out of touch for too long to let a few twinges stop me." I got to my feet, managing to stand straight without too much effort. "Thanks for your help, Jeff."
I picked up my dignity and left the room.
The word had gotten around. All eyes were on me as I walked into the room. Well, perhaps not all eyes, there were an awful lot of people there that either hadn't heard or just weren't interested. There were, however, enough people looking at me to make me feel very uncomfortable.
Tom was just inside the door. "Jack!" He must have been waiting there the whole time. "What's going on?"
"Nothing much, Tom. Listen," I started across the room. "We haven't had much of a chance to talk, what say we find somewhere quiet and catch up?"
"Sure." He nodded enthusiastically, "Hey – I saw John Kepos arriving a few minutes ago, late as usual, why don't I grab him, let Lorie know where I am, and meet up outside in our old spot?"
"Sounds great. I'll be waiting."
The moonlight was enough to let me pick my way without mishap to the corner of D Block. I eased myself carefully down onto the low bench that ran the length of the building and waited, drinking in silence and the memories. Tom, John and I had spent many a skipped class back here discussing everything from girls to what the future held for us.
We had never come close to guessing mine.
My friend's voices broke the stillness, and they took a seat on either side of me, the clink of glass accompanying them.
"No thanks, John." I smiled into the darkness.
"I brought you a mineral water. Figured you'd be thirsty by now." Tom passed the bottle over, and I took a grateful sip.
"God, times have changed. You never use to turn down a drink."
"I'm taking some medication that doesn't mix too well with beer, John."
"No, bullet wound."
We all took another swig from our bottles, the hairs on the back of my neck twitching as John stared at me from the darkness. He didn't even blink.
"What are you doing now, John?"
"I'm in IT."
We all took another swig.
"He's a general."
The sound of drinking drowned out the muted music coming from the hall.
I put my bag down in the hall with a grateful sign, very much looking forward to sleeping in my own bed. Hotel pillows are never exactly right.
I took the phone from its cradle, walking towards my TV as I did so. "Hey, Daniel. Did you record those programs for me?"
My friend's voice echoed down the line. "Of course. The second tape is still in the machine. I left the other one on the coffee table."
I pushed the eject button on the recorder, slipped the other tape in, and sat back. My shoes hit the floor and my sock clad feet were up on the table within seconds.
"Thanks, Daniel. Listen, get hold of the others and tell them to be here tomorrow for lunch. Bring everything."
"Sure. What time?"
"How about noon?"
"We'll be there. How was the trip?"
I smiled, feeling more relaxed than I had in months. "Fine, Daniel, just fine. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow."
Hanging up the receiver, I pressed play, the familiar theme music coming from the speakers.
I had my cousin Ben's phone number written in my address book, John and Tom were meeting me at the cabin next spring, fishing, beer and good times on the agenda, aliens and wormholes permitting, and my team would be here tomorrow.
As I drifted off to sleep, I realised that today marked the anniversary of my first year as a General. Things had certainly changed over that time, mostly for the better.
All I needed now was that familiar sparkle of the Asgard transporter and everything would be sweet.
My dreams were filled with laughter and large alien eyes.
The End Continued in 'General Jack Year Two'