As most of you are probably aware, "Do Not Go Gentle…" was the episode in which Judge Hardcastle is told that he has only six months to live and, after some heated discussion with Mark McCormick, decides to use his remaining time for a sail to Tahiti with just him and Mark on the ship. Boatnappers take the yacht back in the aired version, after an unaired fight with Mark. I always wondered what would have happened if they had managed to fight off the thieves and continued their flight to Tahiti, Southeast Asia, and Bangkok, still believing that Hardcastle is dying. This is what I came up with. I hope you enjoy it.
Time in a Bottle
By Lizabeth S. Tucker
The two thieves stood holding a machine gun on Judge Milton Hardcastle as Mark McCormick came from below with beer for their visitors. After his initial shock at their weapons, McCormick calculated his chances of surprising the pirates, but the men were well aware of him. Any attack would only mean Hardcastle being shot. McCormick decided to bide his time. An opportunity would come soon. He was determined that the Judge's last days be spent as Hardcastle would want, and no one or nothing would change that -- not if he had anything to say about it.
The boatnappers ordered them into the emergency rowboat. Hardcastle began to lower the flimsy wooden boat into the Pacific. The two men's eyes were on the Judge, giving Mark a chance. He grabbed the one nearest to him, pitching him into the ocean. He ducked as the other crook swung his weapon around. Fumbling about, McCormick found the coiled rope under his fingers. He flung it at the armed man.
"What the… McCormick, he'll kill you!" Hardcastle cried, half-in and half-out of the tiny boat.
McCormick, distracted by Hardcastle's yell, didn't see the gun butt as it came at his stomach, the man wielding it swinging with all his might. McCormick folded over, his mind losing every thought except the pain. Through watery eyes, McCormick raised a feeble hand to ward off the blow, but knew it was useless. Already leaning against the gunwale, there was no way he could avoid the downward sweep of the gun.
Something flew across the yacht, hitting the assailant with a thump. Taking the chance, McCormick pushed himself up and at the man, snatching the gun and dumping it over the side. In the ensuing struggle, the crook and McCormick both wound up in the drink. McCormick pushed the two thieves under the water as he dogpaddled for the rowboat, and the waiting Hardcastle. The Judge helped him into the tiny vessel, and then up into the yacht before the two potential boatnappers organized themselves for another try on the boat.
McCormick leaned down and pulled Hardcastle up beside him with a sharp yank. He found the object that had originally saved him from a crushed skull, picking it up. The oar was unwieldy, but sufficient to whack at the men climbing up the side of the yacht.
"We're gonna give you the same chance you were gonna give us. Get in the rowboat and take off." McCormick yelled, pushing with the end of the oar at the clutching hands. "Go on, or I might change my mind and leave you for the sharks."
One of the men protested. "What about our motorboat?"
"It's ours now. Get going. Here's an oar." McCormick threw the oar into the water near the boat, signaling Hardcastle to move the yacht away. Grabbing the gaff from the side of the yacht, McCormick used it to fend the thieves off in case they changed their minds about using the rowboat.
Before long, the yacht was well away from the rowboat and Mark could relax, slumping against the wheel. Hardcastle stopped him from falling to the deck. The younger man smiled wearily, putting the gaff down next to him.
"Stupid, kid, really stupid. He could've killed you," Hardcastle admonished as he helped McCormick up, checking him for broken ribs. He pulled the younger man's shirt up, revealing the beginnings of a nasty bruise over his right ribcage to his stomach. McCormick looked at the fast developing splotches, making a face.
"You'll live," Hardcastle said, shaking his head. "Don't try that again."
"Don't worry, I won't."
"That's what you keep saying, but you keep doing it."
"I'm not hurt. It's no worse than when some goon we go after does the same thing."
"Yeah, I know." Hardcastle glanced at the distant horizon, voice barely audible. "And…I'm sorry…" He held a white-knuckled grip on the ship's wheel.
McCormick looked at the Judge and realized that he was really sorry for all the beatings, the near-brushes with death. His own nearness to death was making the Judge more aware of the pain inflicted in the past. It was a different man than the one McCormick had first come to live with, but at least he was trying to fight his first inclination to just give in.
McCormick closed his eyes, savoring the quiet. The wind was taking them quickly away from the yelling boatnappers and the weapons were heading for the bottom of the ocean, so Mark felt safe for the moment.
"You okay?" Hardcastle's voice sounded worried.
"Yeah, just tired. Haven't been sleeping much the past couple of days." McCormick could have bitten his tongue. "I didn't mean…"
"I know, kid. Hey, you don't have to watch everything you say, ya know?" Hardcastle replied. "I know how you feel."
McCormick opened his eyes, staring out at the blue nothingness of the Pacific. And, for the first time, McCormick wondered what would happen when Hardcastle's time came. He shook himself. He had months before he needed to think about that. But still, he thought, he should have found out what would happen at the end, to know what to watch for, and what to do.
"We were gonna have a beer before being so rudely interrupted, weren't we? Still want one?"
"Yeah, that'd be nice." Hardcastle turned the wheel, brisk winds filling the sails. "Go back down and get some."
"Yes, sir, aye, sir. God, I thought dying was gonna change you, but you're still the same donkey as always," McCormick muttered on his way to the galley, grinning the whole time.
Mark scratched irritably at the beginnings of a beard. After a long argument with Hardcastle, he convinced the Judge that it wouldn't be a crime for him to give up shaving for their trip. He told the other man that if he wanted to scrape the skin from his face, that was his business. He pulled his shirt back on, carefully trying to avoid a bad sunburn like the one on his nose and hands. Looking across at a restful Judge Hardcastle, McCormick threw a piece of dried seaweed at him.
When Hardcastle glared at him, McCormick grinned. "Where are we, Cap?"
"Well…" The Judge unfolded the map, checking his log for reference. "If I read this right, we're almost to Tahiti."
"And if you're reading it wrong? Which, if you ask me, is a lot more likely."
"Then we've probably wandered into some Naval testing area."
"Testing? As in atomic testing?" Mark glanced nervously over the surrounding water, as if expecting to see a Poseidon missile breaking the waves at any second.
"There's a moratorium on testing, McCormick, so don't get all nervous on me."
"That doesn't mean anything. They just do it, and then say they didn't."
"We're not gonna get blown outta the water by a nuclear bomb, hotshot. Christ, think about something pleasant. Like Tahiti."
"What do they speak in Tahiti? I don't know any languages, other than a little Spanish. That I can understand, but I don't speak it too well."
"French, kiddo. They speak French. Tahiti was a French protectorate."
"Oh, great. I hope you picked up some French when you were in Paris during the war, Hardcase," McCormick said hopefully, lifting his face to the breeze.
"The only phrases I know in French could get me slapped into jail or in the face by an irate woman. Unless we decided to invade the country, in which case I can ask all the French speaking Nazis to surrender."
McCormick laughed, Hardcastle joining in. "Terrific, stuck in a foreign country, unable to speak their language --" he broke off, smile slipping, eyes growing suddenly wide. "Oh my God…"
"What?" Hardcastle looked around, assuming something was imperiling the ship.
"Passports. We're going to a foreign country. You need passports for that. We can't land anywhere."
Hardcastle shook his head, disappearing into the cabin.
McCormick grabbed the wheel. "Hey, Judge, somebody's gotta steer this thing, ya know."
Hardcastle reappeared, holding two slim books in his hand. "Recognize these, hotshot?"
"Passports! But where'dya get 'em?"
"I knew we'd need them, dummy. They're still good from our Rio trip a few years ago. I just called in a favor down at the State Department and Parole and Probation to okay you coming along."
"You're something else, Hardcase," Mark said, grinning.
"And don't you forget it, kiddo."
Mark wandered back to the yacht, his shoulders slumped in disappointment. Hardcastle walked alongside him, munching on a bag of French fries.
"I thought it'd be different. This place is the same as L.A. or Atlantic City, just a line of fast food restaurants and expensive dress shops. I mean, I've read about this place, watched it in the movies. You know, Dorothy Lamour, Jon Cypher, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. I never expected this. I counted three McDonald's and four Kentucky Fried Chicken places on the strip. And almost everyone spoke English, most of them with British or American accents. This place is about as French as those fries you're stuffing in your face."
"You were expecting palm trees in the breeze, native girls with sarongs and dark eyes staring lovingly at you?" Hardcastle offered the rest of the fries to McCormick, who took a couple and chewed slowly.
"Yeah, I guess. This is a tourist trap, no different than home." McCormick's face was crestfallen, a disappointed eight year old who just discovered that the magic act was all flash and no substance.
"Well, there's always Bangkok. Not too many tourists there. You should find all the mysteries of the Orient you could want," Hardcastle consoled him, slinging an arm across his young friend's shoulders.
"So, we're still gonna go there?" McCormick brightened.
"Yeah, kiddo. We've come this far, why not go all the way? We'll get a good night's sleep, sail out in the morning."
"By the way, I think I've sold the motorboat. There was this Brit in the jewelry shop next to the barber's who said he knew a man who might be interested. We might be able to clear a couple of thou, easy."
"I should say so. That boat goes for ten grand."
"Yeah, if it's yours, and if you have the time to wait for some fool with lots of money who wants a little putt-putt to show off in."
"You act like we're selling a stolen boat," Hardcastle commented.
"It is a hot boat, Judge. We stole it. Just because they were gonna take outs doesn't make it any less wrong for us…" McCormick grimaced when he saw the twinkle in the older man's eyes. "You were testing me, weren't you?"
"And you passed with flying colors, kiddo. You're gonna do okay on your own." Hardcastle laughed, slapping McCormick on the back.
Mark stopped short, Hardcastle's imminent death brought back to his immediate attention -- a fact that he had struggled to forget during the voyage.
"McCormick? What is it?" Hardcastle asked, looking back at him.
"Nothing. I just…forgot about it for a while." Mark frowned. "I wish I could forget completely."
Hardcastle shook his head, his voice low and gentle. "That won't make it go away, kiddo. Don't be down. I'm having the time of my life, doing what I've always dreamed about with a good friend, a very good friend. You were right, kid."
McCormick smiled a bit sadly, walking shoulder to shoulder with Judge Hardcastle. "Let's not talk about it, 'kay?"
"You'll have to face it sooner or later, kiddo."
"I prefer to wait until it's necessary, if you don't mind," McCormick replied coldly. He touched Hardcastle's arm and frowned. "I'm sorry, but it isn't getting any easier. I thought it would with time, but it won't go away. The hole keeps getting bigger and bigger. How do you handle it?"
"Nothing I can do about it, McCormick. Dwelling on it wouldn't help matters any, so I just put it out of my mind. As much as I can." Hardcastle shrugged. "Don't sweat it, hotshot. Let's enjoy ourselves while we can, as long as we can, and worry about my pending demise when the time comes."
Mark shuddered, a cold chill running down his back. A little frightened at the strength of his emotions, the younger man stalked off, heading for the waiting sailboat, renamed THE LAST CHANCE in a hasty painting job done by an American sailor who needed money for his passage home.
All McCormick wanted was to get rid of the powerboat and to sail off to their next port and, with some effort, shove the thought of the Judge's illness to the back of his mind. Jumping onto the yacht, he stomped to the galley, slamming the cabin door shut behind him. He flung himself down on the bunk and covered his eyes with his arm, tears prickling at the lids. "Two more hours," he muttered, "and the deal will be done."
He could hear Hardcastle moving about on deck, treading carefully and as quietly as possible, instead of his usual stomping and clunking about. That was another change in the Judge, a constant reminder, his consideration for McCormick's moods. He wasn't sure if he liked it or not. He missed the Judge's roughshod attitude when he was sulking. It was annoying, but, in some strange way, comforting.
"Wake up, McCormick! You've got a meeting to go to, don't ya?" Hardcastle shook the slumbering man awake, his sharp eyes not missing the tracks of tears on the dusty cheeks. "Wash up 'fore you go. You want to look like you could own such a boat, don't you?"
Mark dragged himself to his feet, the swaying of the boat making his footing shaky. He grabbed onto the upper bunk for stability. "I shouldn't be too long."
Hardcastle followed him to the head, watching McCormick splash water on his face. "You want me to come along, just in case something goes wrong?"
"Nah. This guy is legit. He thinks I'm another hotshot kid who overextended himself here, and needs some money fast." The towel muffled McCormick's reply to the Judge's next question, if he wanted dinner before leaving.
"No, not hungry. I think that Big Mac didn't set too well. Must be their version of beef." McCormick pulled his t-shirt off in favor of a fairly new casual shirt.
"How long will you be gone?" At McCormick's annoyed glance, Hardcastle continued, "so I'll know when to come hunting if you're late."
"Nag, nag, nag. Is that all you know how to do?" McCormick snapped, the twinkle in his eye taking the sting off the words.
"When you stop getting into trouble, then I'll stop nagging," Hardcastle growled, rebut toning McCormick's shirt after the younger man missed one button. "Hold still, ya got this crooked…like you get a lot of things."
Although he rolled his eyes, Mark waited patiently until the Judge was done, then took the keys to the speed boat from the hook outside the head. Climbing off the yacht, he prepared to cast off. "I'll get a cab back. I don't know how long this'll take, but if it looks like I'll be gone after dark, I'll ring the bar and leave a message. Okay?"
Hardcastle nodded. "Don't worry about a message. I'll be waiting in Sin Lao's for your call. Don't forget."
With a smirk, McCormick shook his head. "No, mother, I won't. Watch yourself."
"Isn't that my line?"
McCormick slid behind the wheel of the powerboat and revved the engine. With a jaunty smile and wave, McCormick spun away from the dock, the wake causing THE LAST CHANCE bounce up and down like a roller coaster. When the boat was out of sight, Hardcastle walked to the small bar owned by a friendly Australian who had taken an instant liking to both of them, helping them learn the ropes of the confusing city. His bar also served dinner, so McCormick and Hardcastle had gotten into the habit of eating there in the evening. The owner, Jake Conrad, regaled McCormick with tales of the ocean. The Judge listened with amusement and not a little awe. At first, he had put the stories down to bravado and exaggeration, but talk with some others soon changed the Judge's mind. It appeared that all the stories were true, with more that he didn't mention to the kid. Only a bad heart finally pulled Conrad off the oceans he loved, putting him behind the maple bar where he now lived in relative comfort.
"Hiya, Judge. Where's the kid? Don't think I've ever seen you without him hangin' about." Conrad waved, setting a pitcher of beer on the bar with two glasses beside it. "Here's the usual. What d'ya want to eat tonight? Got some fine shellfish."
"Nothing right now, thanks, Jake. McCormick had a little job to take care of. When he gets here, we'll order. Got an American paper back there?" Hardcastle asked, taking the beer to a rear table, settling back to wait.
"Got one from Los Angeles and one from Miami. Which do ya want?"
"L.A., of course. I don't want to read about drug busts and sunshine. I want sports, pollution, traffic jams, home."
"I understand." Conrad threw the fat Sunday paper, only a month old, over to the Judge.
Mark paid the taxi the full fare and strolled inside the Sin Lao bar. He peered through the crowd and the haze in the air for Hardcastle, but didn't see him sitting at their usual back table. Staring around the room, he spied Conrad working the bar, talking to some local hookers taking a well-deserved break. He squeezed through the crowd, grinning at the chorus of curses and greetings when the hard-drinking men recognized him. Mark had done some odd jobs for most of the locals and various dockside businesses, mostly cleaning boats and shops, running errands and deliveries, anything legal that would get him some spending money. He wouldn't take any of the Judge's cash, strangely reluctant to touch the Judge's remaining cash, refusing almost violently to the offer. After that, Hardcastle didn't offer and kept the contents of his will to himself.
Finally making his way to the bar, McCormick waved to get Conrad's attention. "Where's the Judge!" he shouted, the din in the bar making quiet conversation impossible.
"Where've you been, mate? Hardcastle is on the boat, said he was feeling sorta sick to his stomach when he left," Conrad yelled back, turning to pass a drink order to his bartender. When he looked back to speak with McCormick, he found the man was already halfway out of the bar, pushing people rudely out of his way.
He hit the street on the run, half-falling onto the filthy pavement. Pushing off with a stiff arm, Mark ran full-tilt to the yacht, his heart in his throat. He tripped on the way down into the cabin, not seeing Hardcastle on the deck, and now he couldn't find him below.
"Hardcastle!" McCormick shouted, terrified.
The door to the head opened, a pale and shaky Judge standing in the lamp light. Mark grabbed his arm, helping him to the bunk. "What is it? Milt, are you…?"
"Don't know, kiddo. My stomach's been heavin' around like the ocean in a storm. 'Fraid everything's coming up. I've gotta get a mop and clean up." He tried to rise, but McCormick pushed him gently back down.
"You stay there. I'll take care of it. How bad is it?" He sat on the edge of the bunk, spreading the quilt over Hardcastle's legs, his gaze on the bright patterns, avoiding the Judge's careworn features.
"I can ride it out. Hey." A gentle hand touch Mark's chin. He reluctantly raised his eyes to those of the Judge. "You worry too much. It's probably a touch of flu, that's all."
The hours passed with Hardcastle not getting any better. McCormick kept sponging him down during the night, holding the pail when his friend's stomach protested again and again. McCormick sat across from the bunk, the fear that Hardcastle's time might have come four months early typing his own stomach in knots. He had been dreading this moment since Hardcastle had first revealed his death sentence. He wondered if the Judge knew what would happen in the end. He hadn't wanted to know, not then and not now.
McCormick leaned back against the wall, feeling his world coming apart. He didn't know what he'd do it -- no, when -- Hardcastle died. At this point, he couldn't think of returning to Gulls-Way. He couldn't think past Tahiti and the cabin of the boat which had given his friend so much pleasure in such a short time. Mark slid down the wall, letting the tears flow, his hands clenched into fists digging into his eyes. He tried to force the sound back down his throat, unwilling to disturb the Judge who was finally sleeping peacefully.
He wept for what seemed like hours. He wept until there were no tears left to drown the pain and wash away the desolation. Coughing from the congestion in his throat, his stomach heaved again, and he found himself leaning over the same pail the Judge had been using earlier. Drained dry, McCormick checked on the quiescent figure in the bunk and decided it was safe to catch some sleep himself. He climbed up on the top bunk, curling around a well-worn pillow, clutching it to his chest as he stared out the porthole overlooking the murky ocean harbor.
Hardcastle could barely force his eyes open, the lids like lead. He heard muttering from above him and called out to McCormick. He waited for a reply, but there was none. Hardcastle got up, his body drenched in sweat. He peered into the shadows of the top bunk. McCormick's thrashing figure was barely visible. Hardcastle laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder, trying to calm him.
"No!" McCormick screamed, his eyes flying open while his body bolted upright. His head hit the ceiling of the yacht with a loud thump, the pain waking him up. He stared about him in confusion, his eyes landing on Hardcastle. "What are you…? You should be…"
"Calm down, son, everything's okay. I'm fine. Are you?" Hardcastle placed his hand on his young friend's forehead. "You're a little hot. Guess it took longer to hit you."
McCormick's blue eyes were puffy and redlined. "What are you talking about? You're the one who's sick."
"Oh, yeah? And how do you explain your fever, huh? Sympathetic pains?" Hardcastle countered.
"That happens when I get upset. You know I've got a weak stomach sometimes," McCormick replied, rubbing his head.
"You've got food poisoning, idiot. That's all." Hardcastle's voice softened, "you said it yourself, the Big Mac didn't agree with you. Well, it didn't do much for me either. Considering the fact that you ate two of them, I'm not surprised you're running a fever. How do you feel other than that?"
McCormick frowned. "I feel lousy. Really shaky. Oh, God, I'm gonna be sick." He flung himself off the bunk, stumbling into the small bathroom and dropping to his knees in front of the toilet.
Hardcastle put a pot of soup on the small stove top. Neither of them would be able to stomach solid food for a few days. He shook his head. So the kid had thought he was nearing the end. That would explain the memory of crying weaving in and out of his dreams. Hardcastle had thought it was his son. Young Thomas Hardcastle had been very unemotional most of the time, hiding his feelings behind a stoical face that Nancy said reminded her of his father. Hardcastle had protested that he wasn't unemotional. She had laughed, commenting that for all the yelling Milt did, when things hurt him, you'd never know except for the silence. Tommy was the same way, until it became too much for him. Then the tears would flow in private.
Hardcastle was brought back to the present abruptly when he heard McCormick flushing the toilet. He stood in the door of the head, hanging onto the frame of the door, sweat pouring off his face. "I can't believe I didn't know sooner. Sorry, Judge. Guess I should've gotten you a doctor or something."
"Whatever for? We have a bit of food poisoning, that's all. Nothing serious. Feel like something to eat?"
McCormick made a face. "No, thanks."
"You'll feel better." When it appeared that McCormick still wasn't going to take the broth, Hardcastle poured the liquid into a cup. "Take a sip. If you still can't handle it, I'll take it back. Okay?"
McCormick nodded, gripping the cup in trembling hands. "I don't think I'll ever be able to look at the Golden Arches again."
"Standards in this country aren't as tough as back in the States. Soon as we both feel up to it, I think we'll move on."
"No, actually I think we'll head to Australia for a few weeks, then maybe back to the States." Hardcastle watched the cup stop just short of McCormick's lips.
"Home? "We're going home? Howcum? I mean, I thought you wanted to sail the Seven Seas and all that."
"Drink up," Hardcastle ordered. "Go on or I won't tell you why."
The threat worked. McCormick sipped at the liquid tentatively at first, then with obvious pleasure. "Not bad."
"Okay, let's put the beds up and sit down. I don't think either of us is up to standing for long periods of time."
"You're stalling," McCormick muttered, pulling the sheets and quilts off the two bunks. "These'll need washing. Maybe Jake can recommend a reliable Laundromat." He tossed the pillows to the floor, pushing the bunks up against the wall. It gave the cabin more room. The kitchen table could be pulled out for use, along with the benches that passed for seats. He lowered himself gratefully onto it, his knees like rubber.
Hardcastle picked up the pillows, stripping the cases off and adding them to the pile of dirty laundry in the duffle bag hanging on a hook near the head. "If we don't get these cleaned soon, we'll run out of room. This yacht wasn't meant to be an oversized closet."
"Guess not. Okay, we're cleaned up, so tell me what's going on. Why are we heading back to the States?"
Hardcastle sat down heavily across from McCormick. "It wasn't right, dragging you out here, expecting you to deal with all of this and the threat of my impending death as well. I guess I never thought about it before. I'm glad this happened. It brought a few truths home."
"I didn't…we can -- "
"No, this was stupid. All I need is someone to talk to, a friend who'll put up with my tantrums, my mood swings. You've been that and more, kiddo. I want you to know that I appreciate it."
McCormick sat back, frowning. "I don't know what you're talking about. Hell, all we do is argue when you're in one of those 'moods' of yours. You wanna go back home, 'S'okay with me." He stared at the counter top, his fingers tapping the half-empty cup nervously."
Hardcastle reached out and laid his hand on McCormick's. "You can't avoid it. Time is flying, son."
"Yeah, I know. I also know that ignoring it won't help, neither will refusing to talk about it." He sighed heavily. "But, I can't. I just can't." The Judge's hand tightened on his before McCormick pulled away. "I don't know what I'll do without you around, bugging me, making me crazy. You…you've come to mean a lot in my life, Milt. A lot."
"You're gonna make it, Mark. That's one thing I'm sure of. You've come a long way since we first met, though I think you were well on your way without my help." Hardcastle's cheerful façade crumbled. "Maybe I was wrong putting you in prison. I didn't think you'd be stupid enough to try and escape. That was what got you thrown into San Quentin, you understand that, don't you? I never wanted you put there."
McCormick nodded. "I couldn't stand it in there. The first three months were the hardest. I thought I would go crazy. I didn't think about what might happen if I were caught. I just had to get out! I…I don't react well to being in a closed place like that. The only reason I can handle living in this boat is 'cause I can get out on deck when it gets too close, knowing I can get out, that I'm not locked in."
"I'm sorry." It didn't seem adequate, but Hardcastle didn't know what else to say. "It shouldn't take more than a month to get to Melbourne. Then we can get rid of the boat and fly home…or maybe I'll hire someone to sail it home for us."
"Whatever." McCormick stared into his cup.
"Don't pull away from me like that."
McCormick shrugged. "I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't moved."
"You know what I mean, kid. I can feel it. You're doing the same thing I did when they told me my wife was dying. It won't hurt any less, and afterwards, you'll have a load of guilt about what you should've felt, should've said."
"I don't have anything left, Judge. It's all dead inside, ya know. It's so cold." He rested his forehead in his hands. "I don't feel so good, Judge."
Hardcastle watched as McCormick slumped in his seat, breathing heavily. "It's gonna take a while for the food poisoning to wear off, hotshot. I'll fix the lower bunk. You get in it, sleep a little while. I'll see if Jake knows a good doctor."
"Don't need no doctor," McCormick mumbled as he watched. "I'm just a little tired, that's all. You pulled out of it, so will I."
"Sure." Hardcastle hummed quietly to himself as he worked, glancing over his shoulder to see McCormick's head resting on the table, sound asleep. "You've been so busy watching after me that you've worn yourself out. That's gonna stop right now." He struggled to pull the snoring man onto the bunk, cleaned the cups off the table and pushed it back into place. Tucking the sheet around McCormick's shoulders, Hardcastle closed the cabin door quietly behind him..
He walked to the Sin Lao bar, taking his time, still a little weak from his minor bout with the bad Big Mac. He entered the cool, shadowed bar, always open no matter what time of day or night. Jake was standing at the end of the dark wood bar, playing an archaic pinball machine that was his pride and joy. His body English was a wonder to watch and despite the seriousness of the situation, Hardcastle stopped a moment to watch. He had watched McCormick and Jack get into intense pinball competitions that were accompanied by fervent betting from the other patrons of the bar. Unbeknownst to McCormick, even the Judge had laid down some money on the kid, winning most of the time.
It didn't take Jake long to lose his fifth and final silver ball. He had a tendency to mess up if the left flipper had to be used. Conrad turned to get a large glass of ale. Spotting Hardcastle, the Aussie smiled broadly.
"So you're still among the living! Mark was worried, I think. Took out of here like someone had lit a fuse to his tail."
"Yeah, well, sometimes the kid overreacts. As a matter of fact, McCormick is why I'm here. We've both got a touch of food poisoning and his seems to be worse. Wondered if you knew of a good doctor who speaks English and might help us out?"
"Sure it's food poisoning?" Conrad asked, his smile gone. "Lots of bug sin the islands."
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure," Hardcastle replied. "I've had it before."
"Well, in that case, mate, let me play 'doc' for ya. I've got some stuff in the back, all over-the-counter type, that should help him and you feel better." Jake disappeared through the beaded curtain that led to his office. The sound of closets opening and closing filtered out. When he came back, the bar owner was carrying three bottles, two brown and one dark blue. "This should do it. Come on, let's get Mark back on his feet. He owes me a game. He's two ahead of me in wins."
Hardcastle felt the time had come to reveal to Jake the reason for their visit to Tahiti and struggled for a way to start. Conrad, glancing at Hardcastle as they walked along the pier, made small talk.
"Uh, Jake," Hardcastle started, frowning as he ran out of words before he even started.
"I've been wondering how long it would take you," Conrad replied quietly. "Is it Mark? Is he on the run?"
"How did you guess we've been hiding something?"
Conrad shook his head. "I'm an old hand here. I consider myself a good judge of character as well. Whatever it is must have been a mistake. Don't worry, it'll work out."
"It isn't McCormick. It's me."
"You're wanted?" Conrad's voice cracked as if the idea was ludicrous.
"No! I'm…ill. Aw, hell, I'm dying. Only got about four months left. The kid convinced me to live it up, do the things I've always wanted to do while I could. It sounded good at the time, but now that this has happened, I'm not so sure."
"You mean Mark getting sick?"
"Partly." Arriving at the yacht, Hardcastle stopped at the cabin's entrance. "It just hit me how selfish that was. If I died out here, he'd be alone. I know how that feels, and it's a rotten thing to do to someone."
"So, what are you gonna do, Milt?" Conrad asked, leaning against the boom.
"Go home. I wanted to ask you if you'd come with us to Australia, sail this thing until McCormick is back on his feet. I'd pay for your flight home." The Judge saw the yearning on Conrad's face and nodded. "You'll do it?"
"Might be nice to see the homeland again. I can get one of the guys to watch the bar for me. And to be out on the sea again… Milt, you know how to get to a guy, don'cha?"
Hardcastle decided to leave it at that for a bit longer and climbed into the darkness of the cabin. Letting his eyes adjust to the gloom, he saw McCormick had kicked off the sheet, tangling it around his knees. His sleep was abnormally deep, each breath an effort. Hardcastle shook him gently by the shoulder, harder when there was no reaction. Blue eyes peered from under long brown lashes, the agony in them painful to Hardcastle.
"Hiya, kiddo. How're ya feeling?"
"'kay. Who's that?" McCormick stared past Hardcastle, the sun outlining Conrad's lanky frame.
"Jake brought some home remedies for you. Feel like sitting up?"
"Yeah, but slow, okay?" McCormick struggled to rise, Hardcastle lending a supporting hand.
"Hiya, Mark. Understand you're down with a touch of the Tahitian national treasure?"
"The local places, and some of the supposedly more modern ones, don't believe in refrigeration. Nasty things can happen to beef like that. A bit of this and you'll be feeling your same old self." Conrad sat on the bunk, poring the contents of the bottles into a mug being held by Hardcastle. "It's an old family recipe, good for all that ails you. Might taste a bit strange, but you have to gulp it all down, no matter what, understand?"
McCormick nodded, too ill to protest. Gripping the mug in his trembling hands, he took a deep breath and downed the entire contents. Hardcastle was amazed at the unusual shade of green McCormick's face turned.
Gasping, McCormick stared at Hardcastle, then Conrad. Slowly, a smile spread over his face. "Wow. It must be 120 proof."
"The liquor makes it taste better than it normally would, believe me. How do you feel?"
McCormick grinned. "Great!" Amending that a bit, he added, "Well, maybe not that good, but definitely better. That stuff sure burns a hole in you."
Conrad grinned back at him. "The alcohol makes you forget how lousy you really feel. It will also put you to sleep. That's the best thing for you now, lad. You get some rest. The Judge and I have some talking to do."
McCormick frowned, his eyes bright with the slight fever. "What kind of talk?"
Hardcastle leaned over, smoothing the sheet. "Jake is gonna come with us to Australia, sail this thing until you're back on your feet."
"I'm okay. I'll be back up in the morning. We don't need help." There was an undercurrent of jealousy in McCormick's voice.
"Go to sleep. We'll talk about that tomorrow." Hardcastle stood and waited until McCormick's eyes closed. He motioned toward the deck, and he and Conrad slipped up the stairs.
"He seems a mite resentful. Are you sure you want to do this? I don't want to cause trouble," Conrad said.
"He's a little testy, that's all. It's gonna be okay." Hardcastle glanced at the doors leading to the cabin and shrugged. "He's been a little overprotective lately. Won't hardly let me out of his sight."
"He's afraid of losing you."
"Yeah, well…" Hardcastle was uncomfortable discussing his relationship with McCormick, more so since he got word of his impending death. He changed the subject. "Wonder how the boat selling deal went? He was gonna get cash for that."
"Maybe he stashed it someplace here?" Conrad suggested.
"No, I don't think so. I would've heard him if he came to the boat first." Hardcastle looked at the slowly moving traffic of the harbor where THE LAST CHANCE was docked, his hands gripping the side railing.
"Are you sure you want me along? I don't think Mark has in mind any sharing of your time," Conrad said softly. "Maybe it would be better to just fly out of here, or wait till the kid is back on his feet."
Hardcastle sighed. "I don't know for sure how much time I've got left. Officially, it's four months, but who knows? I was selfish, taking off with just the kid for company. I never thought about the fact that I could die out here and leave him alone to cope with it. You were right, it took something like this to make me see it. So we're going back to L.A., via Australia; he's gonna need somebody around to help."
"And he has that back in Los Angeles?"
Hardcastle smiled faintly. "Yes, he does."
They were three days out of Tahiti, sailing along at a comfortable rate, when McCormick finally made it up on his feet for a whole day. He had said little to Hardcastle and even less to Conrad, his face drawn with lines of fatigue. He climbed to the deck, leaning against the door jamb momentarily as he watched the easy rapport between the Aussie and Hardcastle and felt his heart lurch. He wasn't the kind of company the Judge needed, it seemed, the age gap more evident than ever. Two sets of eyes turned to look at him, and McCormick forced himself to walk out on deck, out of the shelter of the cabin.
"Howya feelin', kiddo?" Hardcastle asked, pushing his chair over to McCormick and planting himself on the rail.
"Okay, I guess." McCormick collapsed in the chair, shaky after four days of enforced bed rest.
"Yeah, looks like it. Want something to eat? I can fix you up some breakfast if you're hungry," Hardcastle offered.
"Nah, don't think my stomach could take it. I'll stick to the soup," he replied, leaning over to tug his sneaker tongue straight.
"I know you're still sick if you're refusing solid food," Hardcastle jibed.
Conrad laid a hand on McCormick's arm. "I've got to get back to steering this lovely craft. We'll be in Australia's waters in a few weeks. Then it's a leisurely sail to Melbourne."
McCormick pulled away, trying to disguise it as a shifting of position, but even he knew it was obvious to both Conrad and Hardcastle. "Great." His voice wasn't convincing, either.
"Then we'll head home, kiddo. To hamburgers that are made of cow meat, instead of who-knows-what, TV and MTV, and the rest of that awful stuff you've missed," Hardcastle continued.
"I haven't missed any of it," McCormick mumbled.
"Well, I have, so we're heading home."
"What about the boat?"
"I was thinking of selling it, but the money you got for the speedboat and what I already have is enough. Speaking of which, carrying that money on you was stupid. You could've been killed."
"Who'd think I'd have any money? It was safe in my pockets. All large bills that didn't take up much space. Do we have to fly back to the States?"
"Yeah, kid, I think so. This was fun, but I don't want to die in some--" Hardcastle stopped as McCormick tried to flee. He had to grab at his young friend's arm, only McCormick's shakiness making the attempt successful. "You can't shut it out, Mark. It's a fact, and you have to face it. I. Am. Dying. Nothing you can say or do will change that."
"I don't want to think about it, okay? Let me pretend that it isn't true for a little longer." He could feel the suppressed emotions choking him. He tried desperately to pull away. "Damn it, leave me alone!"
"No! I won't! You're the one who told me to live life like I wanted to. I am! You can't take this all on yourself. Don't tear yourself apart, Mark. It won't help."
"Maybe not, but I can't help it any more than you can help what's happening to you. Just…let me be. Let's go home, if that's what you want. I…I don't care." He stumbled back into the cabin, throwing himself down on the bunk and flinging an arm over his eyes.
"Jake, she's all yours." Hardcastle signed the paper that changed the ownership of THE LAST CHANCE to Jake Conrad.
"You're crazy, Milt. This jewel is worth more than I'll see in my lifetime." Conrad shook his head. "You can't do this. Give it to Mark."
"I don't want it," McCormick growled, sounding much like Hardcastle. "I'm not a sailor, don't wanna be."
"Are you sure, Milt?" Conrad asked, his eyes alight with longing.
"Yep, can't think of anyone else who'd be worthy of it. Enjoy. If I did leave it to the kid, he'd probably fall overboard on the second day out. It's easier on my mind if I leave it to someone who knows what he's doing."
McCormick smiled coldly. "He doesn't have much faith in my abilities."
"You want the boat, you can have it," Hardcastle said, annoyed at the moodiness of his friend, despite the fact that he recognized it for a form of grief.
"No, I don't want it. I've told you before, I don't want anything of yours!" McCormick slammed the door of the Melbourne hotel room behind him, escaping to the city streets.
"I'm sorry, Milt. Things haven't gotten any better for him, have they?" Conrad stuffed the paper in his jacket pocket.
"No. I guess they won't for quite a while. He'll make it, though."
"Are you sure? He looks…"
"What?" Hardcastle asked, frowning.
"I don't know how to say it." Jake shook his head. "It's probably my imagination. Maybe a remnant of the food poisoning. Go on, find him and get to the airport before you miss your plane home. And, mate," he added as the Judge started to leave. "Go easy on him. He cares. That's pretty unusually in this greedy old world, to find someone who cares for you, just you, and not for what you own."
Hardcastle found McCormick standing by the pool, watching the tourists frolicking in the aquamarine water. He stood silently by the younger man for a while, enjoying the laughter and shouts of the happy people. A sneeze, then another, made him look at McCormick. "Cold?"
With a grimace, McCormick nodded.
"Time to leave, McCormick. The bags are already downstairs waiting. Are you coming?"
"Guess so. Hey," Mark looked at Hardcastle. "Sorry I've been such a pain. I hope Jake understands. I'm not sure I do."
"He knows. Said to tell you goodbye and to take care." Hardcastle slapped him on the back. "Let's go home."
McCormick trudged back to the lobby of the hotel, Hardcastle walking beside him. "How long a flight will this be?"
"Well, we have a stopover in Hawaii. Thought you might like to look around there for a few days. Nice little vacation before we go back to Gull's-Way."
"Some sightseeing? Beaches and volcanoes and all that?" There was a lilt in McCormick's voice that had been missing since Hardcastle's illness in Tahiti. "I've never been to Hawaii before. That would be great."
Hardcastle grinned. "Anything you want. As long as it doesn't cost too much."
"Cheap as usual, Judge. I mean, how much can a private luau cost?"
"Too much for some wallpaper paste and a fancy pineapple, not to mention those ridiculous drinks with the umbrellas in them. Now, a nice juicy steak and baked potato, that's more like it. Some decent American food, that's what I want."
"This is crazy. You can get that anywhere, Judge. Think of gorgeous island girls dancing the hula in grass skirts…"
"For a bunch of tourists, kid. Most of them are doing it for the money and wouldn't be caught dead in the outfits otherwise," Hardcastle laughed.
"Do you have to destroy all my daydreams? It's an exotic place."
"It's the fiftieth state. Just another part of the U.S., only farther away."
They continued the argument as they got in the taxicab, taking time out only to let the driver know where they wanted to go. So engrossed were they, that both men missed the beautiful sights along the highway, didn't see the glorious landscape of Australia's southeast coast.
"How long can we stay there?"
"We'll see. A couple of days, at least. Maybe longer, depends on how we like it."
"You mean, how you like it," McCormick replied.
"That'll be the day. When you and I like the same stuff is when I call it quits and check myself into a nut farm."
They went through the tedium of airport ritual, finally getting comfortably seated in a wide-body jet heading for Hawaii and home. McCormick buried his nose in a car magazine, happily munching on peanuts while the plane droned on. The sound lulled him to sleep. He curled up on his side in the large first class seat, the magazine falling unheeded to the floor.
Hardcastle smiled fondly. Making himself comfortable, he prepared to sleep also. It would make the trip go faster.
The Judge awoke to the sound of coughing, a rough and raspy noise that came from the slumbering McCormick. He listened as the coughing was broken by a series of sneezes that woke the ex-con up.
"Oh, am I stuffed up." McCormick checked the back pocket of the airline seat for tissues, found a small packet of Kleenex.
"Sounds bad. You sure can't seem to shake all this stuff off lately. You okay?"
"Uh-huh, just another cold. Probably from the air-conditioning on the plane. No big deal."
"The stewardess was by earlier with lunch. I told him not to wake you, but if you want something to eat, she'll bring a tray back."
"Nah, not right now. Maybe later…" He glanced up as the stewardess came down the aisles, passing out earphones. Smiling, he appropriated two sets, handing one to Hardcastle. "Wonder what the movie is?" He groaned as he recognized the opening sequence of "True Grit". "Awww, man. You planned this, didn't you. How many planes did you go through before you found one with this movie?"
The third stewardess served from the drinks cart, of which McCormick uncharacteristically helped himself to several as Hardcastle settled back in perfect contentment.
"Get into bed. I'll see if there's a doctor in the area and get something for that cold."
"Ogay. I'm so topped up, id's hard to breed. Godda do id trew my mout." McCormick grabbed the half-used box of Puffs tissues and crawled under the hotel bed's blankets.
"I'll be back later. You sleep some more and then, if you feel up to it, we'll do some sightseeing," Hardcastle said, turning off the lights in the room.
Hardcastle had spared no expense in their Hawaiian hotel room. It was on the top floor with a balcony that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and the Waikiki Beach. Unfortunately, McCormick was too sick to enjoy it, merely raising his eyebrows when he saw the luxuriously appointed room.
McCormick seemed to need so much more sleep than ever before that Hardcastle was worried. Whatever was troubling McCormick appeared to be more than just a cold. Pocketing the hotel room key, the Judge headed for the elevators and the lobby. The clerk at the desk should be able to recommend a good doctor.
The visit to the doctor was long, the man doing all the tests he could run on McCormick while Hardcastle waited impatiently in the outer room, thumbing through a four-year-old copy of Newsweek. The door to the inner sanctum opened, McCormick sneezing his way out. The Judge jumped to his feet, his look questioning the ex-con, who shrugged back.
"Don't know. Did a lotta dumb tests, but all he'd say was, 'We'll see'. Stupid." McCormick smiled wearily. "Guess we'd better head back to the hotel. The doctor said it would be a couple of days before he got the test results back. Can we get lunch back on the way?"
"You're hungry? That's an improvement."
Hardcastle smiled wickedly. "Saw a McDonald's on the way here. How 'bout a Big Mac?"
McCormick leveled a deadly look at Hardcastle. "How 'bout I just shoot us both and get it over with?"
The Judge laughed, leading the way out of the doctor's office. "There's a seafood place around the corner, and a steak place down the street from the hotel. Which do you want?"
McCormick smiled. "Pizza."
"You asked what I wanted and that's it. I want a pizza, with lots of cheese and pepperoni, beef and sausage, mushrooms and peppers, and…"
"Okay, okay, I get the picture. One Suicide Pizza coming up."
The apparent recovery was a con job by McCormick, an attempt to bring normal relations back between himself and Hardcastle. After they had finished lunch, Mark had excused himself from Hardcastle's plans to visit the courts and police departments in town, visiting old friends, saying that he was going to take it easy and not push his luck any more than he had. Going back to the hotel on his own, over the Judge's objections, McCormick went out onto the balcony and stretched out on the lounge chair, staring at the horizon.
The months were going fast and the closer it got to Hardcastle's time, the less McCormick could summon any feeling. He was dying also inside. He didn't know how much longer he could keep up the pretense of normalcy. He wanted Hardcastle's last days to be enjoyable, swearing to himself that he wouldn't dwell on the subject of death, even to himself, but it was almost impossible to avoid. Now that Hardcastle was somewhat comfortable with the subject, he seemed to bring it up all the time. For all McCormick's bravado claims, he couldn't deal with the idea and would have preferred dropping the subject entirely. He couldn't even say that to the Judge, retreating into a silence that disturbed Hardcastle, or falling back on the smart-ass comments that were his stock-in-trade to conceal the growing terror of being left alone.
And despite what he had told Hardcastle, he already knew what the doctor's conclusions were. McCormick had been diagnosed as being on the point of physical exhaustion. He had confided in the doctor, a man by the name of Iboldt who usually worked at the local hospital's emergency room but was filling in for a friend on vacation. The man had an easy way about him, a sincere friendliness that inspired confidence. When the doctor had listened to the situation, he had sympathized, but explained that, in an effort to be helpful and strong, McCormick was driving himself into an early grave.
"That's just something I'll have to deal with later," McCormick had replied.
"For how long?" Iboldt had returned curiously.
"About three and a half months, the way I figure."
"And when your friend is gone? Do you think it will ease then? It won't. I can guarantee it'll get worse. You're riding too close to the edge, son. That's a dangerous line to tread. Watch out, or you'll fall the wrong way."
"That's the breaks, Doc."
The visit had gone well considering the fact that Iboldt had wanted to talk to Hardcastle and McCormick had refused to admit that the man in the waiting room was him. Luckily an emergency call diverted the doctor, leaving McCormick time to slip out after paying his bill with a meeting between the two men.
"Hello, I'm Milton Hardcastle. I received a message at the hotel desk to call you?" Hardcastle wondered what Dr. Iboldt wanted with him.
"You're a friend of McCormick's, aren't you? A good friend?" The answer came over the line.
"Yes. What is it? What's wrong with him?"
"I think we need to talk and it might be better in person. Can you come to my office without your friend knowing about it?"
"Sure. I'll come right over. Are you sure he'll be okay alone?"
"Yes. There's nothing seriously wrong with him yet, but that is part of what I need to talk to you about. I'll be expecting you about an hour from now. I don't have any appointments scheduled this afternoon past four o'clock. I'll be in my office. Tell my receptionist who you are and she'll show you into my office rather than the examination room."
Puzzled, Hardcastle agreed. He was more worried than ever. His mind played over the conversation, catching on the phrase 'nothing seriously wrong with him yet' which played over and over like the refrain from one of McCormick's rock songs.
The Judge didn't hesitate, leaving immediately for the doctor's office, arriving in just under thirty minutes. He told the receptionist his name and was ushered into a warm, untidy room crammed with books and three different sizes of fish tanks, one saltwater and the other two filled with fresh water fish. Hardcastle sat down in a large, overstuffed leather chair, resisting the urge to fidget. Doctors' offices made him nervous, had since he was a child. It had been his experience that nothing ever good happened in them. He didn't expect it to change now.
The door to the office opened and Dr. Iboldt strolled in, shucking his white coat for a sports jacket. "I'm starved. Mind if we have this conversation over a late lunch?"
"Uh, no. I've already eaten, but I can have coffee."
Once they were in the restaurant, with a large plate of food in front of the doctor, he began to speak. "I understand from Mr. McCormick that you are dying of an incurable blood disease, is that right?" Iboldt began, slapping butter on his mashed potatoes.
"Yeah. My doctor in L.A. gave me the word a few months ago."
"And McCormick has been with you since then, taking care of you?"
"I wouldn't say he was taking care of me. I'm not helpless, you know," Hardcastle protested.
"No, of course not. But he has been hovering about, doing things for you almost before the idea is out of your mouth, yes?"
"Well, yeah, I guess so. What's this leading up to?"
"Mr. McCormick said that he's been sleeping a lot the past few days, since he had a bout of food poisoning. And, of course, now he has a bad cold."
"Right," Hardcastle confirmed, annoyed at the lack of information.
"Did you know that he hadn't been sleeping much before that?"
"No, he never mentioned it."
Iboldt took a bite of his chicken fried steak and grimaced. Reaching for the ketchup bottle, he doused the meat thoroughly. "He told me that he was afraid something would happen to you while he was asleep, so he would watch you at night. Then, to keep you from finding out, he went through his normal activities during the day, catching a few catnaps when he could. His resistance to disease is down. He'll probably catch every bug out there. He's very close to a breakdown."
"A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN!" Hardcastle exclaimed, the restaurant personnel staring at him. He smiled apologetically, lowering his voice. "A nervous breakdown?"
"Not exactly, more a physical one. Though if this stress keeps on, it's not out of the question."
"What can I do about it?"
"Frankly, nothing. Try and make him rest, don't let him get excited until he's fully recovered from this bout of the flu. And for God's sake, no more shocks. I don't think he can take much more. Not right now, anyway."
"And that's it?"
Iboldt nodded. "Considering the situation, I doubt you could do much more. You are dying, we can't change that fact. He'll probably make it, but he's going to need time to recoup his losses. When are you planning on flying back to Los Angeles?"
"Well, we were going to stay here a few days to a week, sightsee a bit."
"Good idea. But I wouldn't let him out of the room until a few days have passed. No sniffles, no coughs, nothing that even suggests illness. Then he can go see the glories of our island. I can even suggest a helicopter service that would give you a good view of the more inaccessible parts of Hawaii."
"Thanks, might take you up on that. Do you want to check the kid out later?" Hardcastle rose, anxious to get back to the hotel.
"If he isn't feeling better in three days, bring him by for another check-up. Oh, I won't be at that office by then. Let me give you my number. My service will be able to get me if there's an emergency."
Hardcastle took Iboldt's card, thanked him, and left him to his lunch. He walked the few blocks back to their hotel, wondering how he would be able to confine McCormick to their room. The kid got antsy after a few hours contained indoors. "Well, I'll order him and if he doesn't obey me, I'll tie him up and sit on him." That internally settled, Hardcastle strode into the hotel lobby. Punching the 'Up' button, he waited for the elevator.
Entering the hotel room, he saw McCormick sitting in a chair on the balcony, chin resting on his fist and eyes staring out over the ocean. He didn't' seem aware that there was anyone else in the room.
"Hey, kiddo, how'ya doin'?"
McCormick shrugged. "Okay, I guess."
"Yeah, you sound like it."
"Nah, just a little…I don't know. Maybe I'm bored."
"Doctor say anything about what you should be doing about that cold?"
"You know, 'take two aspirin and call me in the morning,'" At Hardcastle's stern look, he added, "I'll be fine in a few days."
"Uh huh, I'm sure. I have a few rules and regulations, McCormick. One, you're gonna get into that bed and sleep for a few hours. Two, you're to stay in this room and relax, until you've knocked this thing. I don't care what you do while you're here, whether you sleep, watch TV, or read, but you're not stepping out of this place for at least three days. Got me?"
"Jawohl!" McCormick jumped up and clicked his heels, then walked into the room. "What if I don't feel like staying cooped up here?"
"Doesn't matter, you'll do it anyway." Hardcastle waited for argument, and was disturbed when none came. That worried him more than any complaints would've. The ex-con didn't take well to orders, and even less to enforced rest. Whine and complain were more his style, even though it would be out of proportion to what he was really feeling.
The afternoon dragged on, McCormick slumped in a chair in the corner of the room, staring at the soap operas that he claimed to hate, a book lying unread on his lap. Hardcastle couldn't stand the silence, and went outside for some fresh air. Remembering his curiosity about what would happen to him in his last days, he walked to a pay phone and placed a long distance call to his doctor in L.A.
After the door closed behind Hardcastle, McCormick jumped to his feet. He paced about the room, seeking to get rid of his nervous energy that he kept hidden from Hardcastle. It was getting harder to deal with the fast-approaching deadline. One part of him wanted to run, to avoid that final goodbye, but another part knew that he would never forgive himself if he cut out on Hardcastle when the Judge needed him the most. He had run away from emotion his whole life. He wasn't running any more.
McCormick felt empty inside, there were no more emotions left in him, nothing but coldness and pain. He didn't know what he would do when the time came, if he'd be capable of doing anything. It was all rushing back again, the memories of a loved one's death. His mother. Flip. The anger, and the shame because of that anger, the feeling of the world ending. He remembered well.
He found himself back on the balcony again, leaning on the railing as he gazed down at the tourists enjoying the beach. "I survived that. I'll survive this." Said out loud, the words echoed hollowly, convincing no one, especially himself. He wished Hardcastle would return, he was comforted by the man's presence, taking in every gesture, every look. He didn't seem able to speak to the Judge about what was and would occur, but his eyes never left the man, watching when Hardcastle wouldn't notice.
McCormick swung around, startled, when the door to the hotel room slammed open, hitting the wall behind it. Hardcastle was standing in the opening, a strange look on his face, a look that was both relieved and disbelieving, joyous and somewhat irritated.
Frightened, McCormick hurried to his side. "What is it? Are you okay?"
Hardcastle grabbed the younger man in a tight bear hug, swinging him around, laughing. Shocked, McCormick pulled away, staring at the Judge with wide-open eyes.
"What is it? Is something wrong?"
"No, not now. I called Charlie from the lobby. Kid, it's a mistake!" Hardcastle grinned from ear to ear.
"What? I don't understand."
"The lab tests got screwed up. I'm okay, do you understand? I'm not dying!"
McCormick backed away from the Judge, his face pale. He kept backing backward, until the chair hit his legs behind his knees. "You're…okay…gonna live? You're okay?"
"Hey, you'd better sit down. Kid?"
McCormick slipped into the chair, his heart racing. He couldn't seem to get his breath fast enough and began to pant, the room becoming black, a roaring in his ears.
"Breathe slowly, Mark. You hyperventilated, but you're okay now. Take it easy, keep breathing into this paper bag. I shouldn't have sprung it on you like that. Your doctor warned me about sudden shocks. I'm sorry." Hardcastle leaned over the chair, hand on McCormick's shoulder.
"You're really okay? You're not gonna die, I didn't imagine you saying that, did I?" McCormick gripped Hardcastle's arm tightly, his blue eyes intent on the Judge's face over the bag.
"You didn't imagine anything. I was never ill, it was a mix-up. You doing better?"
"Terrific!" McCormick exclaimed. "Wait a minute. You went to my doctor? What about doctor patient confidentiality?"
"Don't pull that on me, hotshot. I was worried and so was Dr. Iboldt. He called me, not vice-versa." Hardcastle didn't mention that he was already contemplating calling the doctor when the man took that out of his hands. "He didn't violate any doctor patient stuff, he just told me to take care of you until this flu was over with."
"Hmmm, I bet."
"Now, you listen to me. I was worried, okay? Is that a crime?" Hardcastle knew going on the attack would distract McCormick from thoughts of his near collapse. The Judge would never tell how the hotel manager was called to discover what he was drinking after the loud yell he gave on hearing the good news.
"I can't believe it." McCormick's ever-present sense of the ridiculous came to the fore. "A million and a half for a little joyride to Tahiti, and you gave the boat away. I love it!"
Hardcastle's face froze as he realized all the money that he had been going through when he thought the end was near. "Everything is going back to the store. Everything, get me? The big screen TV, the stereo system, the Jacuzzi, every item I bought."
"and the yacht?"
"Jake'll treat it right. I'm not gonna worry about it. I can't very well take it back, can I?"
"No, but it's all right to take all my stuff away, right? I mean, I don't count like Jake does," McCormick pouted.
"Don't give me that, McCormick. I'll let you have the stuff, if you pay for it."
"Are you out of your mind? Do you know how much money that would take? And on what you pay me, that would take the rest of my life and beyond." The paper bag fell to the floor, no longer needed.
"Yeah, yeah. Well, you could've had the money if you let me leave it to you like I wanted."
"Which I wouldn't get till you…died; so don't try that tact, Hardcase." McCormick grinned widely. It felt so good to fuss and argue again. "So, what do we do now?"
"Now? We go home on the next flight out once you're better."
"What about some sightseeing? Remember you promised that we'd see some of Hawaii before going home."
"That was before."
"Frugal, McCormick, I'm frugal."
"Tightwad, cheapskate, but frugal? Nah, doesn't cover it. Come on, one night in Hawaii won't break you. Please?"
Hardcastle smiled. His conniving young friend was back, the lost little boy look working its way as usual. Despite everything, Hardcastle knew that he'd give in. The kid would bat long lashes and aim a hangdog look at him, and memories of another boy would weaken the Judge's resolve. But for now, he knew that he'd make McCormick work for it. "Nope, no need now. I've got my whole life ahead of me to see Hawaii, don't need to see it now."
"Awww, Judge!" McCormick's whine grated pleasantly on Hardcastle's ear.
It was a sound he had despaired of ever hearing again. And while he would never admit it to McCormick, the last couple of months had been more fun than Hardcastle would have thought possible. The most important part had been sharing it with McCormick. Except for the past few weeks, the kid had put on a cheery face, cracking jokes as normal, if a little strained. And sometimes, for a short while, both of them would forget that dark cloud that was hanging over them.
Four days of frantic sightseeing, McCormick trying to squeeze as many places into that short time as he could. He feverishly toured museums and historic sites, ignoring Hardcastle's entreaties to take it easy and wait until he felt better. He was driven, could feel it in himself, a need to see all that he could, as quickly as he could. He was on edge, avoiding conversation of a personal nature with the Judge. They ate in fast food places, surrounded by masses of people. When night fell, McCormick would pretend sleep, huddling in the bed and clutching a pillow to him, watching the lights bounce off the ocean and reflecting into the room. He brushed off all of Hardcastle's concerns, refusing to admit to his own bone-deep weariness. After all, he thought, why should he be tired?
"McCormick? You awake?" Hardcastle's voice intruded on his thoughts, startling him. He had thought the Judge asleep.
"I know you are, so don't pretend. I want to know what's wrong? I thought after we found out it was all a mistake that everything would return to normal. You're withdrawing from me now more than you were before. Why?"
"I…I don't know.'
"There's gotta be a reason. Give."
McCormick sat up in the bed, hugging his knees to him and wrapping the blanket around his shoulders and tucking it under his feet. "When we thought you were gonna…die, it hurt. But when you started to fight back, I could deal with it. For a little while. Then when you got sick, I was scared again. It came back to me in a rush that you weren't going to be around forever."
"I wouldn't be anyway, kid. I've got thirty plus years on you, can't expect me to live forever," Hardcastle commented.
"I guess, but I don't think about it that way. I mean, that sort of thing just doesn't occur to me. Especially when someone is so…well, big and strong and healthy -- they'll have to come after you with a two-by-four on Judgment Day. I just never think about you not being around. I…can't."
"Okay, that might explain your depression before we got here, before we found out the truth. But it doesn't have a thing to do with now. You won't talk to me unless you can't avoid it. Hell, you're avoiding being alone with me, or for that matter, alone with yourself and your thoughts. All I want to know is why?"
McCormick turned to look at the Judge, his hair falling onto his forehead. "I never thought about dying before. I mean, not about my own death. My mom died years ago, Flip was murdered, lots of good friends on the racing circuit were killed, but it never got to me, not really. It was always the other guy, couldn't happen to me."
"And that changed?" Hardcastle's voice was hushed.
"Yeah, I guess it did. It happened so fast, one minute you were dying, the next, it was all a terrible mistake. I guess it made me think about how fast it could change. I got scared. Scared that I would be alone again, scared that the only person who cared for me would be gone. I didn't know what to do. Then it changed, and I thought it was great, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I realized that it didn't matter whether you were young or old, it could change -- " he snapped his fingers, "like that. I'm not a kid anymore, Judge. It's time I grew up. I can't keep playing my life away. I want my life to make as big a difference as yours."
"You're not that old and you do make a difference. There's more, isn't there?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I'm still scared, Judge, and I can't seem to stop shaking inside. That hole I told you about? It's still there, and it won't quit growing. Why won't it stop? You're gonna make it, nothing's changed in our lives, but I'm still so cold inside." He dropped his head onto his knees and sighed, murmuring, "so cold."
Hardcastle frowned. "I don't know what to tell you, kiddo. Could be it's reaction to everything that's happened. Maybe it's the cold. I don't know. You've been fighting against the inevitable for so long, maybe you're afraid of the truth. Listen to me, Mark. I'm not gonna die. Not right now. And you aren't either. Not yet. I can't help you any more than this, can't fill that hole inside of you, but I want you to know that I understand. I felt the same way when I first heard the news about Nancy's cancer, and again when my son was declared missing in action in Nam. That was the hardest part of all, you know. My son disappeared for six long months, no one knew whether he was alive or dead. I lived with that emptiness and had to cope with the fear of what might be happening to him. I survived. Not always calmly, not always with dignity and grace, but I survived nonetheless. You'll do the same. You'll survive. That's your best trait, McCormick. You can survive anything the world dishes out to you. Okay, you've had a little setback and it shook you, but you're strong enough to handle it."
It was the first time Hardcastle had talked in depth about his feelings about his son and wife, and McCormick was touched. Usually the subject of their deaths was a closed one. It was an indication to him of Hardcastle's affection for him that the Judge was sharing these horrible times. It strangely eased his own pain. McCormick smiled, eyes blinking back unshed tears, grieving for the first time since his mother had died. He had never allowed himself to indulge in true self-pity or grief since he was fourteen years old, deeming it to be an unnecessary and useless weakness. In his heart, he knew it was time for cleansing and that Hardcastle would understand. "Thank you, Milt."
Hardcastle smiled back. "No, kiddo, thank you for making me fight, and for sticking by me through all this craziness."
"I think I'd like to go home tomorrow. We can always come back someday. I think it's time for a rest, to get back into the grind of fixing the estate. God knows what it must look like by now. We've been gone so long. And knowing you, there were no arrangements made for a gardener to come in and take care of the minor details." He laughed when Hardcastle looked away, covering it with a flip of the bedcovers. "Figures. I should've checked before we went bouncing off for out trip on the Seven Seas. At least I had the good sense to stop the paper and drain the pool. The work will be good. It'll give me time to clean all of this out of my system."
McCormick sat for a moment, thinking and searching deep inside himself for the answer. With a surprised laugh, he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I think I'm getting there. Suppose it's like when you have a bad cold, the fever's always worse right before it breaks."
"Guess so. Get to sleep. We'll see about getting the first plane available to the Mainland tomorrow. Night, kiddo."
McCormick lay back down, straightening the covers loosely around him. "Night, Judge." He yawned and turned over onto his right side, facing the opposite bed. It was hard to see more than a general outline in the darkness, but it was enough.
A/N: Originally printed in Back to Back Supplement 2. This was a favorite episode of mine as it centered on the two main characters and their great love for one another.