Title: Old Soldiers Die Hard
Author: Sholio (a.k.a. Friendshipper on Livejournal)
Season/spoilers: Season 3 spoilers through "McKay & Mrs Miller"
Word Count: About 8000
Disclaimer: I don't own them, I only play with them.
Summary: The old guy in Room 30B was about the most disagreeable human being that the nurses had ever met. But he did get visitors -- including a retired Air Force Colonel.
Old Soldiers Die Hard
I promised myself I'd write about this someday, and I've got a couple hours to kill, so I guess this is a good time to do it. I'm writing to you, Mom, because you're gone, and I still miss you terribly in spite of all the bad stuff that happened with Dad towards the end. I've forgiven you both; I hope you know that. And I know I'll probably never share this with a living soul, so I may as well share it with you.
This is the story of the guy in Room 30B.
I never knew his real name -- at least not at the time. I mean, I'm sure I saw it written down, on his door or around the building, but it never stuck in my head. Most of the residents we addressed by name, usually pretty formally because they were from an era when you didn't call older people by their first names. So it was Mrs. Brown in 12A or Mr. Johnson in 18B. But the ones we didn't know that well, and the ones we didn't like -- those we'd always call by their room numbers, behind their backs.
30B was about the most disagreeable human being that I have ever had the displeasure of meeting, and knowing our family, that's saying something. Most of the other teenage volunteers were afraid of him. He didn't scare me, mainly because my folks were worse, so I was used to it.
Please don't be offended, Mom. You did the best you could, we all did, and unlike the little ones, I'm old enough to remember that things were better before Dad had his accident and couldn't work. Then the drinking got bad and ... well. Yeah. You were there. You know what it was like. We had good days and bad days, but really more of the bad days, especially after you died.
No, 30B didn't scare me, not nearly as much as Dad on a bender. He just annoyed me.
Some of the residents had reasons for acting the way they did. They were going senile or had major medical problems. I could deal with 28A yelling cuss words at us volunteers, or 14B forgetting how to use the bathroom. They didn't know any better. But 30B was just a mean, disagreeable old man and that's all there was to it.
Nothing was ever good enough for him. He complained about the food, he complained about the room, he complained about the heat pipes making noise (they didn't) and the mold in the shower (there wasn't) and the way we all stomped around when he was trying to nap just to wake him up (we didn't -- trust me, waking him up was the last thing we ever wanted to do). He'd say the room was too cold, so we'd turn up the heat, and then it was too hot. The curtains were letting in too much light, so we shut them, and then it was too dark.
And, when I say that he complained, I don't just mean that he voiced his complaints in the normal way. No ... 30B was the most colorful complainer that I ever met. If he didn't like the food -- which was basically every day -- he'd start ranting that the entire kitchen staff was deliberately trying to poison him and that the cook was a hack who should go work at McDonalds because it was all she was qualified for. And he'd yell it, too. Loudly. Sometimes he'd work himself into a coughing fit with all the ranting. We kept hoping he'd choke himself to death, but we were never that lucky.
I swear he made a game out of torturing the volunteers, especially the new girls. He'd call to have something brought to his room at least twenty times a day, and then you'd get there with a cup of water or a pillow, and he'd start in on you. First it was all about how you were lazy and slow, and should have been there the minute he pressed the call button. Then he'd make sure you knew that after dragging your lazy ass up to his room, you'd brought him the wrong thing. That was the wrong kind of pillow, it was bad for his back. This water was supposed to have ice in it. That water had too much ice in it. He couldn't drink water at all because of his prostate. He had to drink more water because of his prostate and we were all trying to kill him by withholding it. And so forth.
I'm telling you, Mom, I couldn't figure out how he made it to this age -- and he really was freakishly old, ninety if he was a day -- without somebody killing him.
Although I couldn't really fathom it, there were people who came to see him. It always kind of bugged me to see the nice, sweet old people who just sat in their rooms and never made a fuss while their worthless grandchildren never visited them, while this old bastard -- er, sorry, Mom -- had someone come to see him nearly every day, and then proceeded to insult them the whole time they were there. The less frequent of his two visitors was a nice blond lady. I figured she was probably his daughter or granddaughter, although obviously the niceness genes had skipped a generation. She always had a smile for everyone at the nurse's station, and I heard her mention one time that she wished she lived closer so she could visit more often -- Yeah, right, thought I; she probably moved across the country to get away from the old coot.
And then there was the other guy, the one I never did really figure out, although I think I started getting warmer, towards the end. He was retired military. I could tell by looking. You know I get the career military from both sides, Mom, what with Grandpa on Dad's side and then your brother, Uncle Frank, in the Navy. So I know the look. This guy didn't carry himself ramrod-straight like Grandpa, instead he did this kind of slouching thing where he looked slow and lazy, but you could tell that he was neither. I tell you that I wouldn't have wanted to tangle with him in a dark alley, even though he must have been like seventy-five or something. I'm not into old guys, but some of the nurses had a thing for him, and I could kind of see why, because even though he was old there was something about him. He still had all his hair -- it was kind of this silver color -- and loads of, well, charisma? You could tell he'd probably broken a lot of girls' hearts when he was younger. I don't mean that he was a jerk, though. He just had this way about him -- this way of talking to you like you were the only person in the room. Even though he wasn't really my kind of thing, I could see why some of the nurses started checking their hairdos when he showed up on the floor.
He was, basically, like the total opposite of 30B. I could understand why the blond woman came to visit -- obviously, she was a daughter or something and she had to -- but I couldn't figure out why the military guy put up with the sorry SOB, especially since all they ever did from the time he walked into the room was fight with each other.
It was actually quite entertaining, and once we got used to it, we'd look forward to his visits as a nice change from the usual monotony. Most people, visiting their infirm and elderly relatives, walked softly and talked even more softly, rambling about safe and boring topics like the kids' braces, while avoiding the slightest mention of anything upsetting or remotely entertaining. But not Mr. Military.
A typical visit might begin with Military Guy walking into 30B's room with a cheerful, "So, not dead yet?"
On a good day, he'd do this when 30B was in the middle of something embarrassing, like having one of us hapless volunteers spoon-feed him Jello -- which, by the way, he was perfectly capable of doing himself, but he liked to have us do it so that he could insult us the whole time. The spoon flew one way, the Jello the other, and the volunteer (me) in a third direction (trying to contain the mess), while 30B scrabbled around trying to recover.
"No thanks to you! What are you trying to do, kill me with a heart attack, Colonel? I could have been in the middle of a sponge bath, you know!"
"God forbid," I muttered under my breath, rolling my eyes as I felt under the bed for the spoon. I didn't think they'd heard me, but when I straightened up and turned around, I saw that the military guy's green eyes were sparkling at me -- and dang if I didn't get a little weak in the knees, even though he was old enough to be my grandpa.
"Then I'd be the one having the heart attack, or possibly just go blind," he informed 30B brightly, leaning against the doorframe in that loose and lazy way that made some of the more susceptible nurses swoon.
"Oh, you're simply full of wit today, or what passes for it with you." 30B snapped his fingers in my direction without even looking at me. "Hey -- you -- clumsy girl, clean me up! I'll probably catch a cold and die from it. I'm very susceptible."
If only we would all be so lucky, I thought, going into the bathroom to wet down a cloth. Behind me I heard the military guy say, "You can't catch a cold from spilling Jello on yourself. Even you aren't that susceptible."
"How do you know? And I didn't spill it on myself. She spilled it on me."
I rolled my eyes again and took my time wringing out the washcloth. When I marched out of the bathroom, Military Guy was sitting on the edge of the bed and had dabbed off the spilled Jello with a napkin wet down in 30B's cup of water. Well, that was fine; it wasn't as if I wanted to get that close to him anyway. Not saying a word, I started scrubbing splattered Jello off the chair by the bed and the wall.
As I worked on a particularly stubborn Jello stain, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, 30B cast a glance in my direction as he lowered his voice. "So how's the -- you know -- coming along?"
"Same," Military Guy said, also sotto voce.
I wondered whose prostate they were talking about this time. Or maybe this was a colon-centric discussion. Really, when old folks get together, the conversations become very predictable.
With the sideways half-stare that I've perfected in order to watch people without being noticed, I could see 30B's shoulders slump just a bit. Guess the prognosis for the colon wasn't that great.
"They're still trying," Military Guy added quickly. "They'll keep trying until they get him. You know that."
Him? Old Mrs. Beckstein in 8A has named her tumors; I really hoped this wasn't one of those conversations.
"Past a certain point, Colonel --"
"They'll get him," Military Guy said, in a tone that left no room for argument, and picked up the nearly-empty Jello cup. "You gonna eat this?"
30B's voice rose out of the doldrums of despair into the familiar penetrating whine that we all knew so well. "What are you, a human garbage disposal?"
I went ahead and tidied up the room while the bickering rolled over me, like the ocean waves in the picture of the sea that 30B had hung on his wall when he'd first got here.
So, yeah, we let the Colonel, whoever he was, argue with 30B so that we didn't have to. The funny thing was that the argumentative old cuss actually seemed to get it out of his system, and he was a lot easier to be around for a few hours after the military guy left. I wondered if we could get Colonel Sanders or whatever his name was to move in here permanently. Then maybe we could get some peace without 30B running us ragged.
Sometimes after the Colonel had visited him, you could actually have a civil conversation with him. Well, I could, anyway. Most of the others had given up on trying. They just smiled all sugary-sweet to his face, and then complained about him behind his back. Me ... I made sure and complained to his face, too. Hey, I figure that if I'm going to insult someone when they're not around, it's sort of hypocritical to be nice to them when they are there. At first I'd tried the "don't say anything if you can't say something nice" approach, Mom, really I did -- but this guy just had this way of getting under my skin. And after taking it from Dad at home, and from my boss at my worthless job, having to put up with it as a volunteer, too ... well, it just got to be too much, and I started telling him what I really thought of him -- when none of the supervisors were around, of course.
The crazy thing was, it actually worked. Being pleasant to him did nothing at all except make him more disagreeable, but telling him that he was an obnoxious old jerk and refusing to get him a third pillow actually made him grin. He had this nice, sort-of-crooked smile -- I mean, not "nice" in that way, of course, Mom; the guy was ninety, after all. It was just ... nice to see. I got the impression that he didn't smile very much and never really had. Well, I don't smile all that much either, so we had something in common.
Many of the residents surrounded themselves with personal items -- drawings their grandchildren made for them, a million pictures of kids and grandkids and long-dead pets. Anything to make their room seem more like a home and less like the place where they were probably going to die -- even though it was very little of the first and much more of the second. Not Mr. 30B, though. Aside from the seascape on the wall, the only other personal touches in his room were a laptop computer, which he refused to let us look at, and a pile of notepads from the nurse's station. He was always scribbling on them, even though his hands shook so hard with age that I could never read anything he wrote. At least, I think that's why I couldn't read it. Most of it seemed to be equations, though, and I don't get along very well with math. The military guy would often look at the notepads and he'd usually take a few with him when he'd leave -- with 30B's blessing, I presume, because whenever any of us tried to throw them away or even take a peek, he'd fly totally off the handle.
From all the math, I figured that he'd probably been some sort of math professor or scientist or something. After he started correcting my homework, I was pretty sure of it.
I don't know if you remember this, Mom, but I had to drop out of school in the tenth grade, while you were so sick before you died. There was just nobody else in the household who was willing or able to earn money. But I always meant to get my diploma, and I kept taking classes by correspondence. For some reason I was determined to get the actual diploma and not a GED. It was tough doing that and working and volunteering too, but I was finally pretty darn close. It helped that the supervisors didn't mind me studying in the nursing home during quiet times as long as I stayed on call. I'd sit at one of the tables in the third-floor lounge and spread out my books. The old people liked seeing me do it; I guess they figured I was being a studious, responsible young person, or something. A lot of times they'd wander by and strike up a conversation about how they'd been a teacher in their younger years or how I reminded them of some grandchild or other who was especially bright. It was kind of flattering and kind of annoying, because I really did want to read the books rather than talk, and my study periods were all too often cut short by someone ringing the call button or needing help with something in the lounge.
I figured I was safe from that with 30B, especially since he rarely left his room -- part of it was just being feeble, and part was that he didn't seem to like the company of the other people on the floor (a feeling which I'm sure was entirely mutual). However, he did hobble out and lurk in the lounge occasionally, maybe just to annoy people and make a point of not being dead yet.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when he leaned over my shoulder and plunked a shaky, liver-spotted finger down on my calculus homework. "That equation's wrong, and that one. So's that. Good God, girl, with such a pathetic grasp of the underlying concepts, you'll never pass that class."
I hastily covered my work with my hand and glared up at him. "Someone's nosy today."
"Just annoyed by idiocy. If I were you, I'd go back and review the basics of integral equations before you embarrass yourself further." With that, he stumped off to continue spreading the joy of his company.
"Please," I muttered. But I did open the book and flip back to the section on integrals, and after staring at it for a while, I finally got that I was applying the concepts wrong. I just couldn't figure out how to do it right.
I was still staring at it when he came stumping back the other way and lifted the pencil right out of my fingers. "How much hand-holding do you require?" he demanded, and proceeded to start scribbling in the margins of my book. My book! I was planning to sell that book back! I opened my mouth to tell him what I thought about him, when I realized that suddenly, seeing the equations done before my eyes, they made sense. I guess I made a sound like, "Oh", and grabbed the homework sheets and started fixing my mistakes. When I looked up to thank him or yell at him -- I'm not quite sure which -- he was gone.
It kept happening, though. I'm still not sure why. The obvious answer was that he was more of a soft touch than he let on, but I think there was at least as much truth to what he'd said -- that he was just annoyed by people getting math wrong. After a while it started to spill over into other subjects. He'd mosey past while I was doing a physics test and inform me, in a voice audible to everyone in the lounge, that if the human race had to rely on my measly knowledge of science, we'd all still be banging rocks together in caves. Then he'd show me how to fix whatever I'd, in his words, screwed up.
The really funny thing about all of this is that it started spreading into the rest of the lounge. Now, like I said, the other folks in the lounge had always noticed me studying, but nobody had ever actually tried to help me out before -- and, honestly, I'd never even thought to ask. Maybe they were all sort of guilted into it by the fact that the most obnoxious and antisocial person on the whole floor was kinda tutoring me in math. In any case, the retired teachers all started ganging up on my English grammar, and the old ladies helped me out with home-ec while the old guys tutored me on this class I was taking for automotive repair. It was neat and kind of creepy at the same time. You know what, though: I got straight A's for the first time ever that semester. I'm not a dumb person, no matter what Dad or 30B try to tell me, but I never really had time to learn the stuff, what with working so much of the time. I started off high school with pretty good grades and then they just went straight downhill. So I guess you can understand, Mom, that when I got my report card, I just kinda sat at the table in the lounge and stared at it for a while. If I could finish out high school with grades like these, it was possible that I might be able to get into a decent school. I might actually be able to do pre-med. Even then, even though I knew I wasn't well-suited for it, it was still what I want to do.
"Good job," said a voice behind me. I looked up, startled, and saw the Colonel doing his propping-up-a-wall thing in the doorway.
I just kinda shrugged. It's dumb, but I always feel weird about getting compliments, especially from people I don't know very well. "I had help."
"I know." He dragged up a chair to the table, and I saw him start to do that straddling-a-chair-backwards thing that some people do, stop with a wince as his hips or back gave him trouble, and sit down the right way. For a guy his age, he was in really good shape, and I sometimes got the impression from watching him that he kept forgetting he couldn't do the things he used to do when he was younger. Age sneaks up on some people. I think Military Guy was one of those.
This was the first time I'd ever had one-on-one time with him. Usually it was just me being a fly on the wall for one of his bickering sessions with 30B. It would be the perfect time to ask him just how exactly he and 30B knew each other, but I couldn't think of how to lead into it. Instead I said something dumb, as usual. "What do you want?"
It probably sounded kind of hostile. I didn't mean it that way. People often think I'm cold, but I'm really not -- I'm just kind of clumsy with words. That was part of why I believed I wasn't cut out for a medical career, where you have to act comforting and say the polite platitudes that I somehow couldn't ever bring myself to say.
But he didn't seem offended. He just grinned. "I just wanted to talk for a minute."
His mouth was smiling, but his eyes weren't, and I suspected that he had something serious to say. "About what?"
The smile slipped away completely. "About Rodney. About how he's doing. Physically, I mean."
Okay, Rodney must be 30B's real name, although by this point I was well aware that I'd never think of him as anything other than 30B. "Isn't there some kind of doctor-patient confidentiality or -- something?"
"Yeah, that's why no one will tell me anything, and Rodney sure as hell won't. But you're not a doctor," he pointed out, reasonably. "And of everybody in this place, I figured you'd be the most likely to shoot straight with me."
Great. Word had obviously got around about me, if even the visitors thought I was an insensitive clod. But you know, he was right. Why not tell him?
"I don't know a whole lot about it, but I do know he's old and he's pretty sick," I said. "He's still good in the mind, but physically, he's been going downhill lately."
It wasn't like I kept tabs on the health of every resident in the place, but you know, I did help them swallow their medications, and cleaned up after them, and took away the half-eaten trays of food when they were only able to swallow a few bites. I knew how most of them were doing. And, when it mattered, I remembered.
Military Guy let out a long, slow breath. I could tell this didn't come as a great surprise to him, but I could see a quick flash of pain before he slapped on the mask again. The depth of that pain startled me. He looked down at his hands.
"How much time do you think he has?"
I didn't want to look at him. Of all the questions that relatives ask -- if their loved ones are happy, if they're eating well, if they're taken care of -- this one is the worst. It's made even worse because no one really knows, not even the doctors. "I don't think I can tell you that --"
He reached out quickly, grasping my hand in his lean, strong one. He didn't grip me hard enough to cause me pain, but I could feel the strain in his fingers. "I'm just looking for some kind of ballpark figure. He won't tell me anything. No one will. I need to know how long we have to --" He broke off, fumbled, recovered. "How long he has."
He'd come to me for honesty. His friend or whatever was dying, and I couldn't do anything about that, so I figured I owed him what little I could give. "I don't think he'll last until fall." Feeling his hand tighten convulsively around mine, I added quickly, "I mean, I'm not a doctor or anything ..."
"No, no ... that's about what I thought, too." He let go of my hand, gave it an awkward pat, and retreated to his side of the table. "Thank you. For being honest, y'know." When he looked back up at me, his strange little sideways smile was back in place and he probably thought everything was hidden, but his eyes, oh, his eyes ...
"I can't believe that you're hitting on the nurse's aides. That's a new low, Colonel, even for you. Especially given present circumstances."
30B didn't come into the lounge hardly ever anymore; he was starting to have a lot of trouble getting around. But there he was, leaning heavily on the wall with an expression of pure irritation. The Colonel practically jumped to his feet, then winced as his stiffening joints caught up with him. "You know what they say about people who ass-ume, Rodney --"
"--Makes an ass out of U and ME, yes, which means you just called yourself an ass, and I quite agree. Trust you to sneak off and hit on co-eds while I'm asleep. You disgust me."
I just sat there, still a little stunned, because I'd never realized that they, well -- I mean, obviously they meant something to each other, because the Colonel came and visited him a lot, but I guess I'd sort of figured it was some kind of obligation thing, especially given the way that they argued. But the look in his eyes ... that had been terrible. I'm getting a little teary sitting here thinking about it, Mom, because it was the way my brothers' eyes looked when we lost you.
And as I watched them arguing, and the Colonel trying to help him back to his room while 30B was having none of it, the thought occurred to me that there was a possibility that I hadn't thought of. They really did remind me of my little brothers. Between the way they bickered, and the look on the Colonel's face that day ... well, yeah, there was a pretty huge age difference, like about fifteen or twenty years, but that wasn't impossible, was it?
I kinda wished my words about 30B not making it to fall hadn't been quite so accurate. As the summer wore on, he got steadily weaker. It wasn't anything specific, like cancer or something. It was just age. All his organs were shutting down and starting to fail, one by one.
As 30B got sicker, the Colonel started coming around more often. Most of the time, they didn't really talk; he'd just kind of hang out, slouching in a chair with his legs propped up on the bed, reading a book while 30B slept or scribbled on his equations or whatever.
There was another visitor one day, a different one -- a fast-moving, abrupt woman dressed in red, with dark hair bobbed off at her shoulders. She kind of scared me a little, although I couldn't say why. I was puttering around 30B's room, arranging stuff -- it's not like I looked for excuses to stop by, of course; it's just that it was a slow day and I didn't have any classes, so I had nothing else to do. The woman stood in the doorway for a moment before I noticed her. When I finally looked up, she was staring at 30B with the oddest look on her face, a painful mixture of affection and dismay and pity.
"He's asleep," I told her softly, though it was quite obvious from looking.
She smiled, and nodded. "I won't stay long. Could I have a few minutes, please?"
She closed the door behind me, and in spite of what she said about not staying long, she was in there nearly the whole day. I happened to be passing by when she came out -- just taking some coffee to Mrs. Anderson down the hall, really -- and I saw that she was wiping at her eyes as she walked off.
I delivered the coffee and then peeked into Room 30B as I went back the other way. The curtains were closed, the lights dim, and I figured that he was asleep. I tiptoed into the room to check his bedside table and make sure he had water and stuff for when he woke up. I nearly hit the ceiling when he spoke.
"If anybody ever tries to draft you, kid? Shoot them and run the other way. It's not worth it. Better a live coward than a dead hero."
"You were a soldier?" I said in disbelief. I would never have guessed.
"Sort of," he said in that annoying, evasive way that he had of not answering questions if he didn't want to. "There are different kinds of soldiers."
And that was all he seemed to have to say. I hung around for a little while, in case he wanted to talk or something, but while he didn't say anything rude to me, I got a definitely "want to be left alone" vibe off of him. So I went away and left him alone.
It was kind of ironic that back when I wished 30B would hurry up and just kick the bucket already, he hadn't; and now that he was dying, I kinda wished he wouldn't. Stubborn old cuss just had to get that last bit of annoyance in at the end, I guess.
The last real conversation that I had with 30B was on a nice day in early fall. The weather was gorgeous and the leaves were just starting to turn on the trees outside. Most of the old people were bundled up and complaining about the cold. Naturally, being the contrary types that they were, 30B and the Colonel had wandered off somewhere outside. I was attempting to study when one of the nurses hailed me over. "Hey, Annie, 30B is late for his meds. He's not supposed to skip a dose. You'd better take them to him."
I just rolled my eyes and took the paper cup from her. Everybody had got in the habit of turning the 30B duties over to me, because I was just about the only person in the place who wasn't scared stiff of him.
So I went off into the autumn sunshine, looking for 30B and his brother or friend or war buddy or whatever they were. By this point, 30B could barely shuffle around, and he had to drag an oxygen tank everywhere he went, so I was really surprised at how far they'd managed to go. They were all the way down by the duck pond, sitting together on a bench by the water's edge. I don't know what they were doing -- talking, feeding the ducks, maybe just sitting there in the morning sun. The lawn in front of the building is wide and open, so I could see them from a long way off, long before they were aware of me.
As I slogged towards them through the dew-damp grass, the military guy did something that really surprised me ... at first. He turned, and hooked his hand around the back of 30B's neck, and pulled him forward, so their foreheads rested against each other. And then they just stayed that way for a while, not moving, as I walked quietly towards them over the grass, feeling increasingly out of place.
Writing about it now, I guess it must sound kind of weird to see two guys doing something like that, especially two old guys, but if you could have seen them, Mom -- I mean, it was pretty much one of the most intimate things I've ever seen, but not in a sexual way, you know? You just got this feeling from them, like they knew each other so well that personal space didn't matter anymore.
I felt like a trespasser. I really didn't want to interrupt them, but the nurse had said that 30B needed his meds and, as sick as he was, I was afraid of the consequences if he missed a dose. The two of them were so wrapped up in their own, private silence that they hadn't even heard me approach.
I cleared my throat softly.
They both jumped a little, and Military Guy sprang up quickly, running a hasty hand over his eyes.
"Um, I'm here to give you ..." I said, or started to say, but neither one of them was paying attention to me. They were looking at each other, and Military Guy's eyes were kind of reddish and soft and sad. I couldn't see 30B's face from where I stood, and I was glad of that.
"We'll fix this," the military guy said, so quietly that he probably thought I couldn't hear him. "Ronon and Teyla will find the Wr-- the one that did it to us and we'll fix it in time."
30B snorted, but equally quietly. "In time for you, maybe. Not in time for me."
The military guy turned, hard and fast. He strode past me, across the lawn and away. I watched him go, hurting for him, and by the time I turned around, 30B was staring out at the duck pond with his usual condescending mask firmly in place. He didn't glance at me as I sat awkwardly down on the end of the bench.
"I brought your pills," I said finally, holding out the paper cup and a cup of water like some kind of consecrated offering.
I thought he might knock them out of my hands. He had that look about him, and it wouldn't be the first time. But instead, he just took them shakily in his palsied old man's hands. I helped him tip the cup to his mouth. After he swallowed the pills, we sat in the sun for a few minutes in silence, staring at the glistening surface of the pond. I kinda wanted to get back inside, but I also didn't want to leave him alone, especially since I knew he'd need help getting back. And this might be the last time that he'd be well enough to be outside. Ever.
"I don't believe in miracles, Annie," he said at last. I think it was the first time he'd ever used my name. In fact, up until that point I wasn't absolutely sure that he even knew my name.
I laughed in spite of myself. "Who does?"
30B waved a shaky hand over his shoulder, in the direction the Colonel had gone. "He does. He thinks he can make it better, get back what we've lost."
I had kinda gotten that impression. It's denial, I guess. I've seen it a lot from family members of dying old people. Seen it in my own family, too. The Colonel never seemed like a guy who'd give in to it, but I guess that when you're faced with the loss of someone you care about -- well, like I'd told 30B just then, I don't believe in miracles, and I don't believe in God either, but that doesn't mean I didn't pray and pray hard when you were dying, Mom.
But some things you can't fix. I couldn't fix you, Mom, and the Colonel couldn't fix old age, not even for somebody that he obviously loved like a brother even if they weren't real-life brothers.
"He just wishes he could help you," I said, kind of lamely. Here I went with the platitudes I'd promised myself I'd never say. At least I hadn't said You'll be okay or some such stupid crud.
I was fully expecting some sort of biting comment, and I would have deserved it. But 30B just stared out at the sun's reflection off the water. Finally he said, "So what are you going to be when you grow up, anyway?"
It surprised me that he really wanted to know. I guess he wanted to see if the tutoring had been worthwhile or not. "I dunno. It's stupid, but I want to go to medical school. Be a doctor."
He snorted. "Don't tell Carson I said this, but what's stupid about that?"
I had no idea who Carson was -- probably someone he'd known in his youth. I hadn't mean to talk about this to anyone, but the words just came pouring out in a rush. "It's stupid because I can't afford it and I'm not really smart enough anyway. I'm not in high school, you know -- I had to drop out. That's why I was studying in the lounge. I'm just trying to get my diploma. But there's hardly time for it. My mom's dead and my dad doesn't work, so I have to work to support my family. I wouldn't be able to find time for college, even if we had the money."
He looked at me with those piercing blue eyes that were far too sharp for someone as old and sick as he was. "So, if you haven't got time for anything, why are you volunteering here, then?"
Would you believe, I'd never asked myself that question? Not even once. Not even with Dad insulting me nearly every day about wasting my time coddling old people. My surprise must have shown on my face, because I saw that familiar, crooked smile appear -- the smile that was so much nicer than he ever seemed to realize.
"I don't know. I really don't. It's kind of like ... it's something I just have to do."
He just kind of made a hmph noise and started struggling. It took me a minute to realize that he was trying to get up, and I moved quickly to help him. Neither one of us spoke as we made our slow way back to the building. It wasn't until I had got him settled in bed and was turning to leave that he said, suddenly, "You're good at this, Annie. No matter what anyone says."
I stopped. "Astounded" doesn't begin to cover it. I don't think I'd ever heard him say anything complimentary to anybody, the whole time he'd been here. I didn't say anything, didn't turn around. I really wanted to know what else he had to say, but I was afraid to look at him for fear of embarrassing him back into his usual behavior.
But he didn't say anything else, and when I finally turned around, I saw that he'd fallen asleep.
He died not long after that. I wasn't there. I'd had to work a lot of overtime and missed a week of volunteering, and when I came back, his room was empty. It happens that way a lot, in that place -- one day a person's there, and the next day their bed is made up and all their personal things are gone. I remember that I stood in the doorway of the empty room for a few minutes and, weirdly, felt like crying. But they come and go, they live and die. Nothing you can do about it. He was real old, after all.
I finally found a nurse who'd been on duty when it happened. It was at night, she said, and an ambulance took him off, and that was it. Sometimes they come back from the hospital, sometimes they don't. This time he hadn't. I asked her if she knew where he was buried, but she said she didn't.
I realized later that I couldn't have visited his grave anyway -- I never even knew his full name.
I kinda hoped that the cute-yet-old military guy would come back one last time, maybe to pick up personal effects or something, but he never did.
That should have been the end of the story, but there was one more thing. It was kind of weird and I still don't really know what to think about it, but it's the reason why I'm sitting here in my apartment, Mom, writing this in my last year of pre-med school, instead of working as a waitress somewhere to help pay off Dad's debts.
It happened about three months or so after 30B died. Room 30B had long since got a new resident, a nice little Asian lady who talked a lot about how much she missed her cats. But I guess I still thought of it as "his" room, and every once in a while I'd go by there. I don't even really know why; I mean, it's not like I thought he was going to show up or something. He had been a disagreeable old man and now he was dead, and even though I'd seen a little bit more to him, there at the end, he was still gone and dead and that was that.
Besides, I was a little bit mad at him for having got my hopes up about college and all. I had talked to Dad 'till I was blue in the face, and that was pretty much that. We couldn't afford it and we needed me to stay home and work. Even though I finally had my diploma, it didn't change a thing.
That was weighing on my mind quite a lot, needless to say, and I was thinking about it as I wandered by Room 30B on that particular day. Then I looked up and saw somebody standing outside the door of 30B, just kind of gazing down the hall. And for a minute, even though I knew it was silly, something about him really made me think of Resident 30B. The resemblance wasn't really physical, but it was still uncanny -- I think it was something about the way he was standing. He was a lot younger, though, way too young to be a resident. I guess he was about Dad's age, maybe a little younger.
"Excuse me, Mister?" I said. "Are you visiting somebody? Did you get lost?"
He kinda jumped in this guilty sort of way, and he turned and looked at me, and dang me if he didn't still remind me of Resident 30B. The eyes were just the same. Even though he'd never come to visit 30B during the whole time the guy was here, I figure he had to be related somehow. Like a son or something. And I guess I got kind of mad, because all the time the old guy had been here, this jerk never once came and visited him. But now that the old man was dead, here he was, wandering around in the halls.
"No, no, I'm not lost," he said quickly, still kind of flustered. His eyes slid away like he didn't want to look at me. Maybe he could tell I was mad at him and just wanted him to leave. Then he freaked me out by reaching inside his brown leather coat. I took a step backwards.
"If you do anything, I'm calling security," I told him.
His eyebrows shot up, and he grinned a sort of shy, lopsided grin. That was just like 30B, too -- creepily so. "No, no, no, you've got the wrong idea," he told me, and he took out an envelope and held it up. "See?"
"What's that for?"
"You," he said, and held it out, then paused with a surprised, guilty look, like somebody who's been caught in a lie. "Ah, if your name is Ann Kent, that is? Someone downstairs, um, said you might be up here."
He was a really pathetic liar, but I was so confused that I took the envelope anyway. He stood there for a moment after he let go, and he just looked at me like he wanted to say something else, but didn't know what. Then he shook his head and walked quickly away.
"Yeah, see yourself out!" I called after him, because I had to say something. Then I looked down at the envelope. My name was written on it, and my heart started beating faster, because I'd seen that handwriting enough times to recognize it -- scribbled on my term papers, correcting my equations. Except it wasn't all shaky, the way I was used to; it was firm and clear. I slipped my finger under the flap on the envelope and tore it open.
Inside was a piece of paper, folded around a check made out to me. The piece of paper was a letter of recommendation from an "M. Rodney McKay, PhD". And the check, well ... I know it wasn't really a whole lot, but I'd never seen so much money in one place before. There was a Post-It note stuck to it, in that same familiar-yet-different handwriting. It said, "This is for college. Nowhere to spend it where I'm going."
After I stopped hyperventilating, I ran to the window and looked down. The stranger who looked so much like 30B was just walking down the path that led from the grounds to the street. Next to the curb, a car was waiting for him and another guy was leaning on the roof in a lazy, relaxed kind of way. I would have said it was the Colonel, except that I could see even from here that he wasn't old at all. He was wearing a black leather jacket, and he straightened up when the other guy got close to the car. I could see him say something and laugh, and the other guy cocked his head to the side in this annoyed kind of way that just sent a little shiver up my spine, it was so like 30B. And they got in the car and drove away.
So, here I am, Mom. 30B's check didn't go nearly as far as I thought it might, but it did pay off the mortgage on the trailer and got me through my first year of pre-med. And now that my brothers are old enough to have jobs, they don't need me quite as much as they used to. I'd like to help them out later, help give them the hand up that 30B gave me. But right now, just for now, I'm making something out of myself, just like I always promised myself I would.
And, in some of my classes ... I've heard stories. Rumors. I don't think I'll write them down here, Mom, just in case they're true, but I guess it's okay to say that I've learned there's this top-secret government program that recruits medical and scientific people. Some of the instructors in my classes know about it, and even though they don't talk about the particulars, I've had a couple of them tell me that it might be worth looking into when I get done with my residency. They don't take most people who apply, but my instructors think I might be good enough to get in, especially after seeing that letter of recommendation. And if half the rumors I've heard are true ... then, wow.
I might even see ol' 30B again, one of these days, out in a place where you can't spend United States currency. Who knows?
Author's Note: One of my favorite mental images is John and Rodney, 40 years down the road, basically being the Grumpy Old Men of the Pegasus Galaxy -- still snarking and driving everyone around them up the wall. Obviously in this case, it wasn't really true. But I've still always wanted to write a story using that idea.
I did go out on a limb guessing that only the Wraith who takes a life can return it. My best guess for how it's actually supposed to work in canon, based on what we saw of how the whole process works in "Common Ground", is that it probably CAN be any Wraith. But I liked the idea of Ronon and Teyla being out there trying to do an impossible, needle-in-a-haystack search for the sake of their friends -- at which, apparently, they did manage to succeed. And TPTB have never specifically said it doesn't work that way; canon could support either interpretation at this point.
I dithered on whether or not to make this an actual deathfic -- or, at least, to leave the ending much more open as to whether or not their friends succeeded. Ultimately I had to write the ending the way I did because I, personally, needed it that way. I wanted a sweet and wistful tone for the story, not one that makes you want to slash your wrists. I think it would have been a very powerful story if they hadn't succeeded, but also a very sad one, and that's not really what I wanted to get from this idea.