"Stylin'," Don joked as he got his first look at the vehicle his father had rented for the long trip home.
"It was the best choice I had," Alan replied testily. "The other rental was too small for you to stretch out in. I only had your best interests at heart, Don. You think I want to drive a lavender minivan?"
"Don't believe him," Charlie laughed. "I overheard him asking the rental guy how much one of these babies went for."
Don burst into laughter, quickly waving at Charlie to stop as his stomach protested. "Save the stand-up," he pleaded. "It hurts to laugh right now."
"Sorry, Don," the younger man replied with genuine remorse. He carefully gripped his brother under one arm while the orderly across from him grabbed Don from the other side. Together the two men helped Don out of the wheelchair and settled him into the back of the van. "Thanks," Charlie told the orderly, indicating he'd take it from there. The young man helped his brother shift until he was reasonably comfortable and buckled Don into the seat. "Ready?"
"To?" Don asked with a twinkle in his eyes. "To get out of the hospital? To get out of Bridgeport? To get home? Yes, yes, and yes, Buddy."
"Well, only if you're sure," the young genius teased, easily dodging the playful punch his brother threw at him. He glanced to the front seat and back at Don, grinning that annoying little brother grin he'd perfected over the years. "Look at this."
"What?" the agent asked.
"Looks like I'm getting shotgun this time."
"If I wasn't recovering right now…"
"Ow!" Charlie yelped as a hand smacked the back of his head. Whipping around to look at his father while rubbing the back of his head, he grumbled, "What'd you do that for?"
"Because Donny is recovering," Alan smirked. "Now sit down and buckle in. I want to make it home before dark."
Don watched as the younger man muttered grouchily and took his seat. He glanced back at Don who gave him a cocky smile. A flicker of something flashed in the professor's eyes before he did something sudden and out of character – stuck his tongue out at Don.
The agent laughed and winced, pressing a hand to his stomach.
"Sorry," Charlie quickly told him. "I keep forgetting-"
"It's fine, Buddy. Believe it or not, it feels good to laugh."
"Yeah," he agreed. "It does."
The three men fell silent as Alan navigated the twisting road that exited the hospital lot. Once on the main road, he let out a small breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Boy I feel better," he stated.
"Me too," Charlie nodded.
"Yeah," Don whispered. "I thought…" He quickly clammed up, realizing he was about to say more than he meant to.
"Thought what?" Alan inquired.
"Nothing," the man in the back answered.
"Forget it, Charlie." His voice remained low, but there was a note of warning in the words.
"Okay," he agreed. "But do me a favor."
"What's that?" Don asked as he leaned his head back against the seat.
"Make sure you find me when you are ready to talk. Please."
"Nothing to talk about, Buddy. Thanks anyway, though."
Silence once again filled the car as Alan left the main part of Bridgeport and began the drive down the snow and ice covered roads. Don noticed his father drove with a white-knuckled grip on the wheel and appreciated his caution. As they came up to the turnoff for the resort, Don couldn't help the shiver that ran down his spine.
"Cold?" Charlie quietly queried.
"A little," Don lied, although he suspected his brother was feeling the exact same thing.
"Me too," the professor stated, making no move to turn up the heat.
Don warily eyed the road as they passed it and let out a deep sigh of relief. He glanced over his shoulder as if to make sure the turnoff wasn't following them. How rational is that? he wondered to himself.
"I hope I never see that place again," Alan said as he, too, watched in the rearview, making sure they were completely away from the resort's road. "And I mean never."
"Too many bad memories," Charlie breathed as he scratched his cheek.
Don peered more closely and noticed his brother's cheek shone where he was scratching. Charlie's crying? "Buddy?"
"Yeah?" he replied, feigning ignorance about the concerned note in Don's voice.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine," he nodded.
"No he's not," Alan sighed. "He's not, I'm not, and I strongly suspect that you're not either, Don."
The two brothers stared at their father in open mouthed shock.
"Don't give me those looks, you two. We came very close to experiencing a great loss a few days ago, and we've all been too busy and shell-shocked to deal with it." Alan looked up and met his oldest son's gaze in the rearview mirror. "This family never wants to talk about feelings and emotions and that's just not healthy in an instance like this."
"No, Donny," Alan shook his head. "I mean it. We have a seven hour drive ahead of us and we are going to spend it talking – really talking – to each other." Seeing the reluctant looks on his sons' faces, he threatened, "I can drive even slower, you know. You two up for a ten or eleven hour road trip?"
"No," Charlie answered.
Don seriously doubted his father would put him through that in his current state, but figured if he felt that strongly about it the least he could do was humor him. "Okay, Dad. But you want to talk so you'd better start."
"Fair enough," the older man nodded. "I was flat-out terrified in that hotel. I just knew we wouldn't make it out of the elevator. I knew we'd be stuck there while…" His voice broke and Alan took a calming breath. "While you bled to death in front of us, Donny."
The agent's eyes widened. He hadn't realized that his father had been thinking that way back at the hotel.
"Then the aftershock hit and I was ready to give up, only it turned out to be a blessing."
"Yeah," Charlie joined in. "It dropped us just low enough to climb out of the elevator and into the hallway."
"And we still barely got out before the cab went plummeting down the shaft."
"It's weird," Charlie said as he studied a hangnail. "I felt almost invincible after that, you know? I mean, the odds were so against us and we beat them. I let that feeling go to my head."
"Invincible is right," Alan mumbled. "I told you not to try those stairs."
"What stairs?" Don asked.
"We needed to get you help," Charlie stated, his voice dropping back to a soft whisper. "All of the stairwells were chained shut except one. We went down a floor and there was some damage. Dad told me not to, but… You were so sick, Don. I had to."
"Charlie," Don scolded. "You endangered yourself for me? I don't want you doing that."
"You do it for me – for complete strangers – everyday. How is this any different?"
"It's my job, Buddy. It's what I do."
"And I'm not supposed to return the favor?" Charlie demanded.
Don sighed and shook his head. "Tell you what – if I'm ever in danger of failing a math test or overdrawing my checking account-"
"Bad call," Alan interrupted him as he glanced at Charlie. "Checkbooks are not your brother's strong suit."
"One mistake that snowballed," the genius moaned. "And I've corrected my error. It won't happen again."
"Right." Alan rolled his eyes.
"You're telling me that you're perfect?" Charlie quirked an eyebrow. "Never overdrew your account?"
"I did one time, right after I married your mother. That's when we decided she was the financial head of household."
"Good ol' Mom," Don chuckled. He felt a sudden emptiness in his heart as he pictured her face… hovering in front of him in a dark motel room? "Mom," he breathed.
"Donny?" Alan called. "You okay?"
"You saw her," Charlie said, more a statement than a question. "In the motel room right before we were rescued. I heard you say her name."
"I did?" Don asked as he continued sorting through the images in his head. "I remember I saw her and I didn't hurt any more. I thought she'd come to take me away…" He covered his face with his hands and shook his head. "She said something to me."
"What?" Charlie eagerly inquired.
"I couldn't hear her," Don growled. "Everything around me was getting dark and she slipped away. Her lips were moving, but I couldn't hear her."
"It's okay," Alan soothed. "Don't force it, Donny. You'll remember when the time is right."
"I want to remember now," Don snapped. "I need to remember now." He was startled by a hand on his shoulder and looked up to find Charlie sitting beside him.
"Dad's right. Just let it come to you – don't force it."
"But…" Don trailed off. How could he explain how he felt? And did he want to?
"Don," Charlie whispered as he leaned against him. "Talk to me."
"She left me behind," the older man said, his voice barely audible.
"She was there and I thought she was going to take me away with her." Don shivered and pressed back against Charlie who wrapped his arms around him and held him tight. "But… she left me."
Don heard both his father and brother gasp aloud right before Charlie hugged him even tighter. "Oh Don," he rocked his brother. "I'm sure that's not it. Mom would never leave you."
Why not? You were her favorite, Don thought to himself. "That's why I need to know what she said," he replied. "So I'll know she didn't leave me alone." He paused and burrowed farther into Charlie's embrace. "I thought – knew – I was dying. I could feel you and Dad with me, but I was scared to move on until Mom showed up. And then she left me."
The brothers felt the van come to a halt and looked up at their father.
"Dad?" Charlie asked.
"Can you drive for a while, Charlie?"
"Me?" Charlie asked as he glanced nervously at Don.
"I have confidence in your abilities, son. And I want to talk to Don for a few minutes."
"Okay. Just remember – you asked for it." The young man climbed into the passenger seat until his father climbed into the back, then moved into the driver's seat and started the engine. He glanced over his shoulder, made sure his father and brother were both settled and slowly pulled back onto the road.
"You know your mother loved you, right?"
"I know, Dad," Don answered. "But I felt so abandoned."
"And you think knowing what she said to you will help?"
"Yeah," the agent admitted. "I know it's kind of stupid, because it was just a dream-"
"Why do you say that?" Alan cut him off.
"Well, she couldn't have been real, right?"
"I think," Alan began slowly. "I think your mother would make every attempt to be with you when it was your time. But this wasn't your time, was it?"
"No," Don shook his head. "It wasn't."
"You think maybe she knew that? That's what she was trying to tell you?"
"Maybe so. I just want to know for sure."
"Well," Alan spoke. "You can't force it. Why don't you just relax and rest and see what comes to you?" Without giving his son a chance to refuse, Alan pulled his head onto his shoulder and wrapped his arms around him.
"You don't have to hold me," Don told him, although there wasn't a trace of annoyance in his voice.
"I almost lost you, son. I need this more than you do right now."
"Okay." Don yawned and let his eyes slide shut. "I love you, Dad."
"I love you, too." The older man gently smoothed his son's hair as he listened to his breathing even out. Alan caught Charlie's eye in the rearview mirror and gave him a reassuring smile. "I think he'll be just fine now."
Pain. Pain all around him and filling his soul.
He opened his eyes and blinked to adjust his vision in the darkness of the hotel room. "Mom?"
"Why do I hurt again?" he asked, hating the pleading tone in his voice. He let out a moan of pain, quickly quieting down as a warm hand rested on his shoulder. "Dad?"
"He's holding you, Donny."
"Right. I remember that now. I thought I was better."
"Don't worry sweetie, you are better." Margaret sat beside him on the bed. "But you needed to see me, so you dreamt of this place again."
His mother laughed softly and shrugged. "You don't learn all the answers, even after you die."
He managed a weak grin. "Charlie's not going to like that."
"No he's not," the ghostly woman agreed. "So, do you know why you're here?"
Suddenly feeling ashamed, Don shifted his gaze away from his mother's face.
"Donny?" she prodded as she gripped his chin and made him look at her. "All you have to do is ask. I won't judge you."
"You left me," he whispered brokenly. "Why would you do that?"
"Did I leave you?"
"Before we were rescued," he told her. "I was so scared until I saw you. Then I knew I'd be okay because you would take care of me. But… but you left."
"Think back carefully, Donny. Really concentrate on the memory."
Don nodded and thought back, but refused to look away from his mother as he did, afraid she would vanish again.
"I'm not going anywhere until you're ready. Think, Donny."
The agent closed his eyes and tried to go back in time. He remembered waking up and there was no pain. He saw his mother and asked if she was there for him. She leaned close and whispered… only there had been a loud noise drowning her out. This time he recognized the sound as coming from the rescue vehicles around the hotel. The knowledge gave him the power to separate her voice from the background noise.
"It's not your time, Donny. I just wanted to make sure you knew that. You still have a long life to lead and a lot of love to share with your father and brother. I'll be keeping an eye on all of you." A pause and then, "They're coming for you now. Close your eyes and rest and you'll be safe soon."
Don opened his eyes and smiled. "Thanks, Mom."
"Anytime," she promised him as she leaned over, placed a kiss on his forehead and disappeared.
"Dad?" Don mumbled as he opened his eyes again – this time to the inside of the minivan.
"Are you okay, Donny?"
"She didn't leave me," he whispered happily. "I dreamed it and she told me I was going to be fine. That we were all going to be fine and she was going to be watching over us."
"That sounds like your mother," Alan nodded as his eyes blurred with tears.
"Yeah," Charlie spoke from the driver's seat. "Just like her."
"I know this sounds odd," Don began. "But I think that was the last thing I needed in order to get over this entire incident."
"I think it's what all of us needed," his father suggested. "Your mother was an incredible person in that way."
"She was." Don couldn't quite stifle a yawn and smiled as his father patted his shoulder.
"Get some sleep, Donny. I'll wake you when we're home."
Don smiled and let his eyes close. He drew comfort from his father's loving touch and the knowledge that his little brother was confidently guiding them home. And, of course, he drew the most comfort from the image of his mother watching over them – and trying not to laugh – as they made their way home in a small lavender minivan.