Chapter Twenty: Stop the World, I Want to Get Off
The words 'Kingpin Makes Deal' over the news anchor's shoulder on the forty two inch flat panel television screen got David's attention and he leaned over and grabbed the remote control from the table.
Aiming the device at the television in the corner of the room, the digital letters MUTE disappeared and the sing songy voice of the news network's resident bubble headed bleach blond filled the room.
"…a last minute deal worked out with the Department of Homeland Security, Abrego Cartel front man, Miguel Escalón has agreed to testify against his former employers. A federal court judge in Southern California has accepted the plea, giving Escalón a life sentence in a medium security facility in exchange for his testimony."
About a dozen agents had stopped working to watch the breaking news and several of them audibly gasped in disbelief at the information.
"The charges against Escalón included racketeering, weapons and murder conspiracy, conspiracy to commit terrorism and running a continuing criminal enterprise. The trial was slated to begin early in the new year."
Someone behind him squeezed Don's shoulder and he was jolted from the instant stupor that Escalón's name had emerged him in. Don offered up a forced smile as he turned to see Megan standing behind him as they listened to the rest of the news report.
"Several other defendants from the FBI's crackdown on gangs in Los Angeles have also agreed to plea bargains in exchange for their testimonies. It was Escalón who was expected to receive the harshest sentence and for him to be ushering in the new year in a private cell comes as quite a blow to the victims of the violence incited by the Abrego Cartel and the notorious street gang known as the Mara 13. If he had been found guilty by a jury, Escalón would likely have been sentenced to death by lethal injection. His involvement in October's massacre at the Spring Street Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles, which resulted in the death of Assistant United States Attorney…."
David hit the MUTE button again before the news anchor could say Robin's name and an oppressive silence held the room for several seconds.
Finally Don could take it no more and stood, feigning a stretch in an attempt to disrupt the awkward silence.
"Well, at least he's not coming out again."
Several agents gave their hearty agreement to his statement and went back to their desks.
Standing up, Don headed for the door.
"David, if you can wrap things up here, I think I'm gonna call it a night."
David nodded in silent reply as Don grabbed his jacket from the back of his desk chair, getting several sympathetic looks as he exited the room.
He had just hit the down button outside the elevator doors, when Megan caught up to him.
"You okay, Eppes?"
Megan's expression was incredulous, but she smiled politely.
"We're meeting over at the Bonavista later to watch the ball drop. If….?"
"Oh...Thanks. But I'd better not. It is Charlie's first night home and I promised Dad I'd make it for dinner. Besides, I'd like to be the one to tell him….about Escalón's little deal. I think he'll take it better if he hears it from me."
The elevator door opened and Megan followed him in. As the doors closed, Don turned to her with an inquisitive stare.
"Something else on your mind, Reeves?"
A sympathetic smile played across her lips.
"How is Charlie?"
"He's still got a long way to go. The doctor says it will be at least four more months before he releases him for work and he's not very happy about sitting out a full semester. Up till now, he's kept himself pretty busy getting Marcus through his GED. The kid's going to take his SAT's in the spring and start applying for colleges."
From the expression on Megan's face, he could tell this wasn't the answer she was looking for. Giving up the chit chat, Don stopped trying to hide his concern from her.
"He still has some pretty bad days and he doesn't want to talk about it."
Don bit his lip and stared at the floor for a minute.
"To be honest, most of the time, I don't either."
Megan's green eyes were filled with compassion as she shook her head sympathetically.
"He was able to go to the funeral, Don. That's an important part of getting the closure and the resolution that he needed. But he will need to talk about it….and so do……."
He didn't let her finish.
"I know. I know you're right…I really do. But it's only been eight weeks."
"Do you want me to talk to him?"
The support that his team had shown him over the course of this nightmare had been phenomenal. And Megan's expertise had always come in handy, but somehow Don didn't think that was what Charlie needed right now.
"I'm working up to it. It needs to be me……I do know that. I'm just waiting for the right moment."
He nodded, almost to himself.
"Maybe tomorrow….you know? New year and all."
Leaning against the elevator wall, Megan ran her hand through her hair.
The elevator's ding indicated that they had reached the ground floor.
"I've done my time on the big black couch, Reeves. I'm back in the field."
He reached out and squeezed her arm gently.
"It's getting better. You know? I'm learning how to deal and things are getting better. I just need to help Charlie get there too."
The elevator stopped in the lobby and as the doors opened, Megan hit the button to hold them open.
"If you need anything….you know where to find me."
Don stepped out and turned, giving her a smile.
"Yeah. I do. Thanks, Megan."
"Happy New Year, Don."
The elevator door closed and Don slipped his coat on and headed out the doors into the waning light of the setting sun.
Standing at the table and staring at the array of papers spread out over it's surface, Don called out to no one in particular.
"What happened in here?"
Alan stuck his head in from the kitchen.
Stepping into the room, Don headed for the refrigerator and opened the door.
"I thought he was supposed to take it easy. You know, relax?"
Alan shrugged his shoulders.
"He is. He's working."
Giving his father a dubious stare, Don selected a bottle of beer from the refrigerator and closed the door.
Alan had moved back to the stove and was dutifully stirring something that smelled suspiciously like beef stew.
"Charlie's on the couch. Will you help him clear his papers off the table, Donnie. Dinner will be ready soon."
Stepping across the dining room, Don noticed that the TV was on and the running scroll across the bottom of the screen was still repeating the news of Escalón's plea bargain. But Charlie was not there.
"Did he see the news?"
Alan stepped through the swinging door from the kitchen into the dining room and stopped short at the serious look on Don's face.
"Did he see the news, Dad?"
"I don't know. I was……."
He stopped to read the words that were scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
Alan's faced melted into a mask of disbelief.
"How can they do that, Donnie?"
"Did he see it?"
Nodding grimly, Alan turned away from the television to face his son.
"I'm sure he did."
"Dad? Where is he?"
When a quick search of the house yielded no sign of Charlie, Don returned to the living room. Switching off the television, he flipped through pages of Charlie's notebook which had been left open on the coffee table. Most of the time the numbers that Charlie chose to jot down wouldn't have meant anything to him. But on the surface of the open pages a short list got his attention. Don sat back on the couch and carefully looked over the numbers that his brother had immortalized on paper.
The count extended to the bottom of the page and Don realized that it continued for several more pages. He recognized the numbers. They were the same ones he unconsciously recited to himself this morning. Eight weeks since she had been killed. Fifty Six days since he had almost lost his younger brother. But Charlie had reduced it to hours, minutes and seconds which was further than he had taken the other journal. The one he had kept for weeks after their mother…….
Suddenly, Don knew with precise certainty where Charlie had gone.
Alan burst through the front door and Don met his father's panicked eyes.
"His bike is gone, Donnie. He's not up to riding. Doctor Harper said he shouldn't do anything strenuous."
Don stood and handed his father Charlie's notebook.
"What does this mean, Donnie? Should I call the police?"
Trying not to laugh at his father's statement, Don shook his head.
"I think I may qualify as the police. It's okay. I know where he went."
Alan grabbed his jacket from the back of the easy chair and headed for the door.
"You know, I stopped worrying about where your brother was when I wasn't watching a long time ago, Donnie. I didn't think that I needed to watch him like a hawk or I would have…….."
Don was still standing by the couch, staring at Alan as he rambled.
"What is it? Donnie?"
"I think you need to sit this one out, Dad."
"I need to talk to Charlie…..alone."
Alan stood and stared at him for a moment before speaking.
"Well….it's New Years Eve, Don. It's getting dark, there are drunk people out there driving around and your brother, eight weeks into recovering from a near death experience decided to go for a bike ride."
Meeting his father's eyes Don raised his eyebrows.
"Then I guess I'd better go get him, huh?"
In an act of surrender, Alan removed his jacket and tossed it back over the chair.
Heading for the door Don stopped in front of his father. If it hadn't been for this man, neither one of them would have made it to adulthood, much less though the past eight weeks. A unexpected rush of emotion filled Don's eyes with tears and much to his own surprise, he grabbed Alan by the shoulders and hugged him tightly.
"He's gonna be okay, Dad. We're all gonna be okay."
By the time Charlie parked his bike at the bottom of the hill, he was hurting so badly that he had started to wonder if he was on some kind of path to self destruction. By the time the psychiatrist that Dr. Harper had recommended finished talking to him about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and 'normal' reactions to guilt he felt like he was trying to plead his mental stability in court. He was okay now. He really was. At least he had thought so. Until he had seen the news update.
His eyes found the old familiar rut in the ground and Charlie headed up the hill. Thanks to the heavy rains of late fall there were large patches of green grass growing across the hillside and that made it easier for him to keep his footing.
New York had Times Square, but California was the best place in the world to be on New Years Eve. It was cool, but not too cold and if there had been enough rain, everything stayed green and beautiful all winter long. If it truly qualified as winter. Four seasons across the globe…except in California.
It was always summer here. Well, most the time.
It had sure been a long cold winter for him…….and for Don too.
It was almost completely dark by the time he rounded the top of the hill and headed for the knoll that rested less than a quarter of the way down the other side. But as he had done so many time in the past, Charlie easily found the smooth surface of the familiar solid granite marker and used it as a brace to lower himself to the ground.
Leaning his head back against the stone, Charlie felt calm and safe. It was the first time he'd truly felt that way since………..since that day.
"I know you were there. I felt it."
He paused as if waiting for an answer.
"I remember when I was about six or seven years old. You told me that you would always be there for me, no matter what. I always believed that right up until the day you told me you were leaving. That you were dying."
Charlie felt tears rolling down his cheeks and made no effort to suppress them. He was tired of trying to remain detached from the pain he was feeling. And here, with her, there was no point. She always knew anyway.
"I'm sorry that I spent so much time resenting you for breaking that promise. But now I know you never did. You didn't lie to me. You were there. You were always there. I know that now."
Sitting quietly in a graveyard wasn't exactly something he had made a habit of doing in the past, but somehow tonight…..it felt right. Charlie turned his eyes to the heavens. The stars were shining brightly, clearly visible in the cloudless sky.
For a moment Charlie actually thought he might sit there and doze off, but an angry curse from very close by cut though the peaceful silence and brought him back to full alert.
His breathe caught in his throat and Charlie held the air in his lungs until the next sentence from the loud mouthed interloper made him smile.
"Where the hell are you, Buddy? You're supposed to be here."
The almost panicked tone in Don's voice quickly erased the smile. He must have been gone longer than he thought.
"I guess you know me pretty well, huh?"
A genuinely relieved laugh came from somewhere nearby.
"Where are you? It's dark as hell out here."
Using the cool granite to pull himself back to his feet, Charlie almost came face to face with Don where he stood on the other side of their mother's tombstone.
"Are you okay, Buddy?"
Now it was Charlie's turn to laugh, but his was a weary laugh that bordered on cynicism.
"Not even close. And you?"
Don leaned against the stone and turned to look at his brother, barely visible in the dark.
"Charlie, I know it's not what we wanted. I know it's not what Escalón deserved. But we have to look at the bigger picture here……."
Charlie interrupted him, his voice sodden with disparagement.
"The bigger picture? THE BIGGER PICTURE? Don! He gets to walk away."
The light from the rising moon was just enough to make out Charlie's face and Don was dismayed to see tears shining on his brother's cheeks.
"It's not like that, Buddy. He's still going to prison. He's still gonna pay for the part he played in all of this."
Charlie shook his head sullenly and turned his back to Don, heading towards the trees at the edge of the cemetery.
"It's not the same, Don and you know it."
He stopped about half way and then turned back to face his brother.
"He's supposed to sit there. Sit there and wait knowing that his time is dwindling down to nothing. He's suppose to be forced to sit there waiting to die….knowing that he is there to die for what he did. The man who pulled the trigger got off easy and someone is supposed to suffer for what happened to Robin. It was supposed to be him."
Walking around the stone marker in front of him, Don found his way to the place where his younger brother was standing.
"It will be, Charlie. He's not exactly gonna be saying at the Ritz. I know how you feel, I do. But you aren't the one who's supposed to suffer for it. It's not your fault and it never was."
Watching Charlie's face it was obvious he was battling with what he wanted to say and it took him several minutes to find the words he was looking for.
"I know it's not my fault, Don. I know there was nothing I could have done. Deep down, I really did know that. But I still felt responsible for it and sometimes I still do. But unlike you, I can't just pretend that I'm okay. I tried, Don…but it doesn't work that way for me."
Don was too flabbergasted at the statement to speak and he allowed Charlie to finish his sentence while he gathered a rebuttal.
"I don't….I don't pretend…."
Charlie cut him off.
"You do Don! You always have. I'll bet you didn't even get pissed off when you found out about Escalón. I got sick, Don. I had to go to the bathroom and throw up! After what he was responsible for doing to me and to Robin. She was…..she was….. You loved her. I thought you loved her."
His regret was instantaneous, but even knowing it was a psychological need to divert his guilt onto someone else, he couldn't stop the words from coming out of his mouth.
Don looked at him as if he had been physically struck.
"Damn it, Charlie. How can you say that?"
He closed the distance between them, trying to sort out the wide range of emotions that he was feeling.
"How in the hell can you say that to me?"
Even in the dark, Don could see the self loathing displayed on Charlie's face. He wanted to be punished. He wanted him to be angry.
Don took a shaky breath and firmly grabbed Charlie by the shoulders.
"I know what you're feeling, Charlie. And I'm going to tell you the same thing I told you eight weeks ago when you looked at me and said you were sorry for letting her die. You are not going to do this, Charlie. It was never your fault. It was never her fault. And it wasn't mine either."
As he continued, his words rushed out of him like an avalanche picking up momentum down a mountain.
"And I'm more than pissed off, Charlie. I'm..…furious. At Escalón. At you. At myself. At God. At the Universe. At no one in particular.
I didn't kill him when I had the chance. I regret that every day and then at the same time I'm glad I didn't because I'm not sure I could have lived with myself if I had."
Letting go of Charlie's shoulders, Don took a step back.
"I'm not pretending that I've stopped hurting, Charlie. It feels like it was yesterday that she died. And then it feels like it was five years ago. But either way, it still hurts. I still see her. Smell her. Look for her. I wake up in the night and reach for her…….but she's not laying beside me and then I get that stabbing reminder that she never will again."
Charlie hadn't taken his eyes off of him, and his face reflected a degree of anguish that Don was only to familiar with.
"She's gone and she's still everywhere, Charlie. She's always……………."
Don cut himself off when he felt hot tears burning in his eyes. He was losing control. Of his thoughts. Of his emotions. Of his actions. And he could not afford to do that.
Or maybe he could. Maybe that was what Charlie needed.
Hell, maybe that was what he needed.
"I just want…………."
He hesitated to stifle the sob rising in his throat and then decided against it. It came out as half a sob and half a laugh.
"I want you to understand that you're not alone, Charlie."
For the first time in as long as he could remember, he didn't bother to disguise his tears for what they were and Don was startled when Charlie walked quickly towards him.
"I know that. I just wasn't sure if you did, Don. I've always known that."
Pausing to wipe off his own tears, Charlie stopped in front of his older brother and stared at the honest emotion that was displayed on his face.
"That's the only thing I'm sure of anymore."
"That's the only thing we can ever be sure of, Buddy."
Forcing himself not to think about it, lest he hesitate, Don grabbed Charlie's shoulders and pulled him to him, folding his brother into his arms. Hugging their father was one thing, but physically embracing Charlie was quite another. Neither were accustomed to physical displays of comfort from the other, but there was no awkwardness in this and for what seemed like hours they stayed where they were.
Allowing himself to cry in front of his brother was less of a challenge than Don had thought it would be and in one regard he had been correct…..he felt as if he would never stop. He had come here to console Charlie, not the other way around.
"Damn, man. I'm sorry."
"Shut up, big brother. You're ruining the moment."
The kind of laughter that can only come from real heart-felt tears filled the unmitigated silence that had taken over the night.
Pulling back from his brother's returned embrace, Don meet Charlie's eyes.
"I feel like an idiot."
Charlie laughed again through his own tears.
"Because real men don't cry?"
"No, dummy. Because I waited so long to do it."
They stared at each other for a moment and then Charlie suddenly looked uncomfortable. He took two steps back and took a deep breath before he spoke.
"I love you, Donnie."
Don ran his hand though his hair as Charlie's words stirred up the memory of the last time he had said that to him. And how certain he was that he would never get the chance to tell him that the feeling was mutual.
"I love you too, Buddy."
It was easier to say than he had imagined.
"I just feel bad that I had to wait until you were dying before I realized how much."
A comfortable silence effortlessly descended on the graveyard and it's only two living occupants. For a few moments they stood in silence, then Don heaved a deep sigh and headed back towards the top of the hill. He had just turned to Charlie and opened his mouth to speak when a tremendously loud explosion broke the silence and a shower of sparks lit up the sky over their heads. In a split second Charlie dropped to the ground and Don fell into a crouch and pulled his GLOCK from it's holster.
As the second round of New Years Eve fireworks went off, Don stood back up.
"Damn it. GOD!"
He looked over to where Charlie had been standing and took several wide strides to get back to him.
"Are you okay?"
Charlie's eyes were as wide as saucers.
"I wasn't ready for that."
His eyebrows drew together as his eyes went from the gun in Don's hand to the display of concern on his face.
"I see you were."
Holstering his weapon and looking slightly embarrassed, Don reached out and took Charlie's hand, pulling him gently to his feet.
"Sorry. Habit. You didn't hurt yourself did you?"
Charlie shook his head. Another round of fireworks went off nearby and his shoulders jerked in response to the sudden noise.
"I think I'm ready to go now."
Just as Don had reacted habitually to the sound, Charlie had developed a reaction as well. At the first explosion he had hit the ground like a seasoned pro and Don knew that from here on out he always would.
"It's normal to react that way, Charlie. After everything you've been through this year. It's perfectly normal."
"Normal? What's normal, Don? About any of this?"
Don put his arm around Charlie's shoulders as they started down the hill towards his SUV.
"The situation is not normal, Charlie. But I think our reactions are."
"Normal behavior in an abnormal situation, huh?"
As they reached the bottom of the hill, Charlie headed over to the edge of the tree line and retrieved his bicycle from where he had hidden it from view. He wheeled it back to the SUV and handed it off to Don to lift into the back of the vehicle.
"I just want things to be okay, Don. When are they just going to be okay?"
"I know I'm not gonna be okay overnight, Charlie and neither are you. Nobody expects that………..except for us."
Slamming the top of the hatch back trunk on the SUV, Don turned to face his brother.
"But I'll tell you one thing. Neither one of us is going to be okay if we don't call Dad and tell him where we are."
"He's a little freaked out, huh?"
Charlie's timid expression almost made Don laugh again.
"A little? That's an understatement. Do you have your cell?"
Shrugging his shoulders, Charlie gingerly pulled himself into the passenger seat.
"What do you think?"
"Here, use mine."
Tossing his phone at his brother as he climbed into the vehicle, Don couldn't help but marvel at the places this year had taken them both.
Yet somehow they were still standing.
It was finally starting to look like they were going to make it.
Things would get better. And life would go on.
Just as Don started the engine, Charlie's voice filled the cab.
"No, I'm okay."
"Yeah, We're on our way back."
"Just talking, Dad. We just needed to talk"
Authors Notes: Thank you all for reading and for taking the time to leave feedback! I hope you've enjoyed the series.
"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge,
That myth is more potent than history.
I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts
That hope always triumphs over experience
That laughter is the only cure for grief
And I believe that love is stronger than death."
-- Robert Fulghum. Storyteller's Creed.