Disclaimer: The characters do not belong to me, they belong to their creators and owners. If they belonged to me, I'd put them out on DVD immediately!
Ratings and Warnings: PG-13. Medical issues and language.
A/N: Originally published in Rerun 4 in 1986. Although it is implied that Donna is dead, the specific dates and reason are never mentioned. We know that Mark was working at 15 (helping his mother make ends meet?) and just managed to squeak through high school and by 17, he was stealing cars. I'm guessing that Donna died sometime between Mark's 15th and 17th birthdays.
by Lizabeth S. Tucker
Mark McCormick, ex-automobile racer and ex-con, paced St. Anne Memorial Hospital's corridors, anxiously looking at the large white clock at the end of the hallway. His companion, a distinguished looking man of about sixty, watched with a mixture of amusement and concern.
"Are you worried?" Dr. Rudy Grant asked, as he rubbed at his tired neck, sore from watching the younger man pace back and forth for the past hour.
"No, not really. After all, the Judge is as strong as an ox. I'm sure he'll pull through just fine."
The doctor gave him a sour look. McCormick's voice wasn't convincing. "Okay, if you're not worried, then why are you wearing a path through this fancy tile floor?"
McCormick gave him an even stare. "Never mind. Just keep checking with the nurses' station for me. Stupid hospital and their dumb rules. Don't know why I can't go in there." Mark waved his empty Styrofoam coffee cup at the doors separating him from the surgical area and Hardcastle. He was stuck in a dinky little room with ugly orange and blue chairs and an ancient coffee dispenser. Mark was on his fifteenth cup of coffee since Hardcastle had been checked into the hospital for a simple and, according to Rudy, common ailment: enlarged prostate gland. Real common and real susceptible to cancer. McCormick winced as he remembered the agony the tests had caused the Judge. And the words that, for Mark, sealed the Judge's doom: "We've found some irregularities that should be taken care of."
Mark dug in his jeans for another quarter, feeding it to the insatiable coffee machine. He shrugged at the grimace Rudy gave him. Endless cups of coffee and no food were taking their toll on Mark, he knew it. But he needed something to hold, something to wrap his hands about or he would go crazy. McCormick hunched over the white cup as if to draw warmth and comfort from the fiery hot liquid.
"Yeah, I know. It's making me edgy and I shouldn't gulp it down like this. Just go check for me, please?"
Rudy nodded, walking through the forbidding doors to find someone who could give them word on the progress of the operation.
The irregularities had been a little worrisome to Mark until Dr. Grant had explained that the prostate and the nearby bladder might have some small tumors in them. Tumors that had a 50-50 chance of being malignant. The memories had come rushing back, suppressed since Mark was a young boy/man of 15. He had become so pale that Hardcastle had noticed. Mark shook off his questions with an unconvincing story about a bad Chinese dinner.
Rudy Grant, obviously well aware of Mark's concern, had told him that he was confident the growth would be benign, but Mark couldn't shake the feeling of foreboding that kept his stomach tied in knots. It was all happening all over again, another hospital wait, another cancer-ridden loved one. He didn't know if he could handle the emotional turmoil again. While the Judge had been shot after returning to the bench at the request of the court system, that had been almost in the line of duty, something to live with and, while difficult to handle for Mark, it didn't bring with it the memories of an agonized, drawn-out death like cancer could.
Oh, sure, good old McCormick had been beaten up and shot at, but he expected it. It came with the territory. But this? This was more than he could have imagined. In fact, the Judge and McCormick had even joked that the kid's only experience for another job was that of a decoy in an arcade.
Rudy wasn't a surgeon, but he was an old friend of the family, and it was out of friendship for both the Judge and McCormick that he also kept vigil in the waiting room. Mark looked up, watching Rudy shake his head as he came back through the double doors.
"No word yet," Rudy said, giving an encouraging smile. "Hang in there, it won't be much longer, Mark."
Mark glanced at the clock again, comparing it with his watch, a birthday present from the Judge. Like the other hundred times he had checked, they agreed. Mark bit his lip to keep from asking Dr. Grant how long this type of operation should last. The last time he had asked, the physician's reaction had been almost violent. Mark was about to make another trip to the coffee machine when the nurse peeked through the doors, gesturing to Dr. Grant.
Mark stumbled after Rudy, eager/afraid to hear what the woman had to say.
"Doctor, I though you'd like to know that Judge Hardcastle is out of surgery."
Mark closed his eyes in relief, his breath escaping in a big sigh. "Is he okay? What about the tumor, is it benign or…malignant?"
"Slow down, cowboy! It's too soon to know that, but Judge Hardcastle made it through the operation fine."
Rudy smiled. "Feel better?"
Mark grinned, the dimple on his cheek appearing and lighting up his face. "Damn straight!"
"Now the question is - will he be able to survive the convalescence? You could drive a sane man crazy, Mark. And the good Lord knows, Milt Hardcastle is a lot of things, but sane isn't one of them. Thank you, Nurse Reynolds."
Mark grabbed the nurse by the arm as she started to leave. "Wait! When can I see him? Is he awake? Is he yelling at anyone?"
The woman tried to answer the questions in order. "Much later. No. I doubt it, he probably isn't even awake yet."
"So when can I see him?"
"Not 'til this evening. Shall we expect you then, Mr. McCormick?"
"Yeah. Definitely. Count on it." Mark grabbed the woman and planted a kiss on her startled lips. "Thank you, thank you!"
She blinked, smiling. "He's…rather exuberant, isn't he?" she said to Rudy.
The doctor just nodded, grinning. He watched the nurse stumble back through the double doors.
McCormick turned to Dr. Grant and shook his hand enthusiastically. "Thanks for stayin' with me, Rudy. I really appreciate it."
"Not so fast, Mark. I'm driving you home. I won't be responsible for your having an accident when that flood of coffee hits. You're so hyper, your reactions will be off. Come on."
It was two minutes after six when Mark tiptoed into Hardcastle's hospital room. He didn't want to disturb the sleeping man - at least, not until he had redecorated the premises. McCormick had convinced Rudy to take him on some errands on the way home. He wanted to get something perfect for the Judge. Funny, crude and totally without taste.
McCormick started spreading blue and white streamers around the room, carefully bypassing the Judge's bed. He tied a few balloons on the bed posts and on the large potted plant sitting on the window air conditioner, a device not used since the advent of center air and heat. Then he put up the 'piece de resistance', a life-size picture of himself, which had caused him to empty his wallet of cash and charm the developer at the speedy processing store into a long weekend date, after Hardcastle was out of the hospital.
The Judge will freak, Mark thought to himself, smiling. He gazed down at the sleeping man, realizing that he hardly ever saw Hardcastle asleep. The Judge was always up before him, usually standing over him with a scowl on his face because McCormick had over slept again.
He looked around the room and wondered what had possessed him to decorate it so. It made the younger man feel like he was at a wake - party-time feelings at a funeral. His face looked back at him, the smile resembling a skull's rather than a happy man. He sighed in resignation. It was too late to back out now. Especially after all the trouble he had gone to.
"Hey, Hardcase, wake up. Ya can't stay in bed all day sleepin'. Wake up!"
The Judge's eyes flickered open, then widened as they focused on the poster hanging directly in front of him. "Wha' the hell…?" he croaked.
"Hi'ya, Hardcase," Mark quipped with forced cheerfulness. "I thought you might miss me while you're holed up here, so I brought you a little something to remind you who's waiting at Gulls-Way."
Hardcastle grimaced, his eyes on McCormick's face, making the ex-con uneasy. Sometimes Mark could swear that the Judge was psychic, at least where he was concerned.
"Thanks, McCormick. I can't tell you how that makes me feel. "I'd like to, but I don't use that sorta language in a hospital run by nuns." Hardcastle fumbled for the bed controls.
McCormick leaned against the far wall and hid in the shadows. "How'ya doin', Judge?"
"Just fine, according to the doctors. They don't think the tumor was malignant, but they have to wait for the test results to be sure."
The heavy silence was deafening. Mark tried to contain his anxiety, and was unable to think of anything witty or funny to say. He could feel the Judge's puzzled eyes on him.
"Kid, have you been doing your chores?"
Mark gave a faint smile and moved closer to the bed. "Yes, Dad, all done. Do you think that just because you're here and I'm all alone that I'd neglect the estate?"
"Thanks." He stood looking down at the Judge, his hand stuffed into the pockets of his tight jeans, the blue eyes brooding. "When are you gonna get sprung? This week?" Mark was alternating between euphoria and depression. Definitely too much coffee and not enough food, he thought to himself.
"What do you think? I have to wait a couple of days, depending on the results of the biopsy."
"Didn't the doctors take it all out? Surely the reports are back by now?"
"Yes, they cut out all they saw, but if it turns out to be malignant, they may want to try other options, anything from chemotherapy to some sort of operation. I think they call it a urostomy."
"They cut out the prostate and the bladder."
Hardcastle's voice was calm, as though he faced having half his guts rearranged everyday.
Mark withdrew to his safe, dark wall again. The magic grin faded, and his eyes became shadowed, haunted looking. "Milt, I'm scared," he blurted, his voice hoarse.
"Hey, I'm okay. The chances are excellent that the tumor is benign. Don't get overly excited."
Mark continued speaking with no reaction to what Hardcastle had said, the memories screaming for release to someone who might understand. "Didja know my Mom died of cancer? I can still remember the hell she went through, and the smells of sickness." He rubbed the palms of his hands across his eyes, pressing to force back the tears, the words tumbling out like water through a ruptured dam.
"It was spread through her whole body, even in her brain. Towards the end, she lost her mind. Between the pain and my problems with the cops, it was too much for her." He drew a shuddery breath. "I never told anyone about this before. They only other person who knew was Flip Johnson, the guy who designed the Coyote, remember? He took me in after Mom died."
"Wasn't there any other family?" the Judge asked. "I know your records were sketchy, but I seem to recall next of kind listed. Or was that another of your flights of fancy?"
"The only relative I had was my grandmother. She was ashamed of my Mom for having an illegitimate kid. She couldn't take care of a rowdy, grief-stricken 17-year old kid. Especially one she didn't even wanna acknowledge," Mark explained bitterly, reopening old wounds.
He started to pace the room, his heels kicking the floor as if it were dirt. His hands strayed from his pants' pockets, flailing the air in long-suppressed anger. Mark leaned back against the wall, then pushed himself up, heading for the window. He could feel his facial muscles tightening as he struggled to pull his wall of control back into place. With only a small part of his mind, Mark watched a group of student nurses rushing across the hospital grounds clutching their school books to their chests.
He sighed, turning back toward the Judge, his defenses weak but restored. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get so worked up. It's just that, well, sitting out there brought all those bad memories flooding back."
"Why didn't you talkl to Rudy about it? He could've told you that all cancers aren't malignant. And even the types that are, don't always lead to death. There're lots of ways to die in this world, kid, and when you get to my age, you know 'em all. I can't live forever, no matter what I or you or anyone else might want. I'm dying, every day I live."
Mark winced at the truth of the statement. "Hey, let's drop this, okay?"
"Will you get the hell over here? I can't see you flat on my back!" Hardcastle snapped, reaching over to the table and flipping the auxiliary light switch on. "You didn't talk to the doctors because you were afraid of what they might say, right?"
The ex-con dropped his eyes and nodded with the barest dip of his head.
"Listen to me, no matter what the doctors say, malignant or benign, I won't go down without a fight. I'd like to think that you'd be there in my corner backing me."
"I don't know if I can, Judge. I really don't." Mark's voice rose with remembered pain. "You don't understand."
"I don't understand?"
McCormick's head shot back up at the anger in Hardcastle's voice.
"I watched my wife die. My son was killed in Vietnam, you know that. What you don't know is that he was missing in action for three months prior to that. So don't give me your sad stories about your pain, and how you can't stick around for the bad as well as the good."
"I…I didn't mean…" Mark's voice trembled in shame.
"Kid - " The Judge's voice softened. "-what's the real reason you keep runnin' away from anyone that tries to care for you? You push people away, then blame circumstances on the troubles you get in. Even that girl who charged you with stealing the Porsche said that once, in the beginning, she loved you. But you didn't seem to want her to care, and soon all that love turned to contempt."
"So sue me. I don't wanna be abandoned anymore." Mark slammed his fist against the wall, his head lowered, almost 'assuming the position' as he tried to keep from breaking down. "Damn it, Hardcastle, everyone I've ever cared about has left me. I can't watch you go, too. I can't take this again."
"Listen, no one lives forever," Hardcastle replied gently. "But for now, I'm not going anywhere. You got a home, and no one's planning on leavin'! If anyone leaves, it'll be you. When you're ready. Unless you have another temper tantrum and storm out like the last time. Understand? Besides, my job isn't done yet. I've got lots to do before I check out."
"Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Teaching you about life and how to deal with death and loneliness. You don't have the market cornered on that, kiddo."
"So don't worry. Understand?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Mark's expression softened, the lines on his face fading. "You're some piece of work, Judge. Thanks."
"Sticking around for the movie? It's The Sands of Iwo Jima, one of my favorites."
Mark gave a shaky laugh. "No, I don't think so. I'm not in the mood for a war flick."
"Then go home, kiddo. If you need to talk, call me. Or call Rudy. He'll understand."
The phone was ringing off the hook as Mark dove across the room to answer it. He knocked the lamp toward the edge of the desk and struggled to catch it. He'd spent the last hour rushing about, trying to clean up the mess he'd made at the estate before he had to pick up the Judge at the hospital. Despite Mark's reassurances that he was better able to handle things, Hardcastle had insisted on waiting for the surgeon alone. Today they'd know the results of the tests.
Mark finally grabbed the phone receiver. "Yeah, what is it?" he yelled.
"You sound more like Milt every day. Been taking lessons on telephone etiquette?"
"Rudy! What's up?" Mark asked, suddenly anxious, and gripped the phone tightly. "Nothin' wrong with the Judge, is there?"
"No, of course not. I thought you might like to hear the results of the tests from me, rather than having Milt drag it out."
Mark took a deep breath, bracing himself. Plunking himself down in the Judge's chair, he leaned forward on the edge of the crinkly leather. "Go ahead, I'm ready."
"Don't sound like a man in front of a firing squad. He's fine. The tumors were benign."
Mark deflated in the chair, a limp smile plastered on his face. He breathed a quiet prayer, mixed with a sigh of relief.
"Mark, are you still with me?"
Mark coughed, trying to clear that lump in his throat. "Yeah. Thank you, Rudy. Has the Judge been told yet?"
"Of course. And he said that he wanted you to pick him up tomorrow, if you can tear yourself away from the pool."
"A direct quote, I gather."
"How did you guess?" Rudy Grant laughed, then his voice sobered. "I wanted to tell you myself, Mark. See? Everything came out just fine."
"This time," came the quiet reply.
"Don't go looking for trouble. Life is a crap shoot, Mark. It doesn't always have a happy ending, admittedly. But when you're handed one, don't look forward to the time when that happiness will end. Enjoy it while it lasts. Here's a happy ending, or at the very least, a happy middle."
"Thanks again, Rudy. Oh, and about our little talks these last few days?"
"Don't worry. Doctor-patient confidentiality."
"You're not my doctor, Rudy."
"If you keep hanging around Milt, you will be."
"I guess I'd better clean up before the Judge sends a posse out after me. Catch you later, Rudy." Mark started to put down the phone, then stopped. "Hey, Doc?"
Mark choked on the words, his attempt to suppress his emotions failing. "You…you know what I want to say."
"Get to work. Remember, I've seen the state of the Gatehouse, so I can imagine what the rest of the place looks like. I'll talk to you later."
Mark hung up and hooted for joy. He didn't know what he wanted to do first, but there was a bubbling mass of excitement wanting to escape and he had to do something or bust. He glanced around the room, looking for an outlet for his exuberance. The joy began to fade when he saw the pile of newspapers, plates of half-eaten food and empty bottles of the Judge's best wines. He saw Hardcastle's trombone perched in a pool of spilled wine and winced.
"This place has got to be cleaned up."
He leaned backing the chair and put his feet up on the large walnut desk, mulling it over. Slowly a smile appeared on his face and he picked up the phone again.
"Hello, Dial-a-Maid? I have an emergency job for you…"