A big thanks to all of you who took time to read and review this - to the anonymous reviewers as well.
A Little Help From My Friends
It was a warm evening, mellow and golden. The Chinese lanterns glowed among the trees. The moon was already a ghostly shadow in the sky over the distant mountains. Don felt a sense of pleasure and spreading calm as he heard laughter and the sound of sizzling meat. His team were making the most of it – enjoying the hospitality and cooking. He watched them with a little smile on his face and an almost paternal sense of pride. Sometime in not so distant future, when all this was finally over, he would do what he'd promised in the hospital (the first time around) and take them all out somewhere special. They deserved it – more than deserved it. He was dammed lucky to have them working on his side.
Music. Someone had put some music on. And, almost inevitably, it was the Beatles. Don heard the first bars of a familiar song with a frisson of deja-vu. As songs went, it was more than appropriate. A Little Help from My Friends. Since the start of this whole freakin' fiasco, he'd received rather more than just a little. It was down to a little help from his friends he was out here with them tonight. Not just friends, he added a caveat, how about a shout out for family? In the great, universal scheme of things, he owed so much to Charlie and dad.
He'd been hanging onto the gantry for dear life – the unforgiving concrete below him. Megan talking, keeping him calm, as she let him know help was on the way. David taking Coulton out with two well-placed shots - a split second when he'd known he was falling. And then a moment of strange acceptance before the cast-iron grip of Colby's hand.
Yup – a little help from his friends, all right. Don watched them all from the recliner. He lay on his back beside the Koi pond, half-hidden in the shadows beneath the trees. A long absent mood of contentment began to steal through his veins. It had been far too long since he'd felt like this. Happy - dare he say at peace? He was totally at ease just to sit here, staring up at the pale violet sky. Too long. It had been too long. After weeks of pain and discomfort, he actually felt like a human being.
He could see Alan with his crazy chef's hat on. The one Millie had given him recently. It sat at a lop-sided angle, perched drunkenly on his head. It was so good to see dad laughing. What the hell was Millie doing with those cooking tongs? Don didn't think that was quite what dad had in mind when he called them the sausage grippers.
Don grinned and winced at their antics. They were acting like a couple of teenagers. For someone with such an august reputation, Millie Finch was like a breath of fresh air. 'You'd like her, mom,' he whispered, a slight ache in his heart. 'I know you'd really like her. She's bright and sparky and funny. You'd approve of what she's done for dad.' And it was true, Don realised, with gratitude. He was genuinely happy for Alan. It was terrific to see dad acting the clown - to see him having fun once again.
Being sick wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, but it had given him some brand new perspectives. Forced him to sit back and smell the roses - he remembered Megan's silver lining thing. She was right about the triteness aspect of it, but there was a tiny glimmer of truth among all the tired old clichés. He'd been burning out, no doubt about it. On a collision course with a breakdown or a bullet. Barely scraping by from day to day on too much caffeine and not enough sleep. The enforced time away had opened his eyes. Made him look at things from a totally different angle.
He'd sort of forgotten why he loved his job. Why he'd joined the FBI in the first place. The intrinsic sense of right and wrong which had always flowed and burned in his veins. It had got a little lost along the way - pulled under by the bureaucratic undertow. For the best part of two or three years now, he had worried it was irretrievably gone. Don heaved a sigh of resignation. It was time for some real honesty when he eventually got back to work. Doc Bradford didn't know what he was in for. The man was gonna have his work cut out unravelling the ball of string inside Don's head. Star Wars, the Beatles and Looney Tunes.
Don wondered if the good doctor liked elephants.
And talking of elephants – Don shook his head. This really was getting kinda silly. Sure enough, Jumbo was out here - sitting beside him on the recliner once again. And yet, earlier on, when he'd gone in to get changed, he'd made darn sure he'd taken him in.
"So, fess up. You gonna come on out and spill the beans – you gonna tell me why you keep following me around?" Don went nose to trunk with the elephant and gave him his sternest glare. To his credit, and that of the entire race of pachyderms, Jumbo appeared totally unfazed.
You had to hand it to Jumbo. He played all his cards close to his chest. He continued to stare off in two different directions with his unblinking, wonky eyes. Don grinned a little. So, okay, he was nuts. Know what? He no longer cared. He rested his chin on top of Jumbo's worn head and really hoped Colby would never see this.
"Hey, bro," Charlie loomed out of the shadows. "I thought you wanted to join the party? Dad's started to wonder where you are. He's saved you at least a hundred pound steak, so I really hope you're hungry."
"He has, huh?" Don shook himself out of his reverie, and hurriedly stuffed poor old Jumbo back underneath the recliner. It was time to curtail the reflection and go and do the social thing. "Dad's on a one man mission to fatten me up again."
"With good reason - " Charlie started to say. He paused, and stared a little harder. "Tell me, Don, am I really seeing that ratty old elephant, lurking underneath your recliner?"
"No, you're not." Don scowled, and got quick smart to his feet. Or, as quick smart as he could possibly manage. "He's only an optical illusion. And, believe me, Charlie, I should know."
"Yeah, well, you'd better come and show your face pretty soon," Charlie was grinning openly now. "And I promise not to mention the elephant thing or dad may start to reach for the thermometer. He already invited the Waldo's along, so you don't want to give him an excuse. The next thing you know, he'll have roped the doc into giving you a quick examination. And there's no point glaring at me, brother dearest. You know how dad gets."
Yeah, Don smiled with wry resignation. He knew, and he wouldn't change a thing.
Well, okay, maybe one or two small things. Nothing was ever one hundred per cent perfect. Hey – now that he'd come to think of it, perhaps he could get dad to sell the Volvo. He smiled to himself and shook his head – or then again, maybe not. It was hard to imagine Alan driving anything else – that car was so . . . it was so dad. Sturdy and always reliable - robust and disregarding of fashion. The more Don thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed. Sell the Volvo? Now that would be a miracle.
Wardrobes might turn into elephants and pigs would definitely fly.
Moonlight shone in through the open window, and slanted across the man in the bed. Alan paused for a moment, just listening. Just listening to the slightly rapid breaths. Still a little too fast, still a little too raspy. But better – oh, so much better. His older son merely sounded like a man asleep. No longer like a man on his last legs.
And talking of older – he was kinda done-in himself. The last few weeks had taken it out of him. Don getting injured and then being so sick – one of the things he dreaded most had come about. But they'd survived – just barely – by the skin of their teeth. All of them had made it through intact. At long last, Don was recovering, and the end of the tunnel was in sight.
Alan moved quietly into the bedroom. He'd spent so many nights in here lately. Just sitting and watching and listening, as the silent hours ticked by. Too wired-up and vigilant to sleep himself, but too fearful to leave the room. He'd sensed this building for such a long time now. Like the threat of a storm on the horizon. Whenever Don didn't turn up when he'd promised, and every single time the phone rang. There'd been something - a certain look on Don's face. The exhaustion, the terseness, the drinking. The little signs he was concealing yet another headache to be read by anyone in the know.
Alan sighed, and sat down in the bedside chair. By now, it was force of habit. Don would be mortified to discover him here, but what the heck, he would never know. In a couple more weeks this would be over. Please God - Alan was cautiously optimistic. Don was far from being physically well just yet, but at long last, the signs were looking good. He'd enjoyed himself at the cookout tonight – when he'd eventually decided to join them. And, so what, if he hadn't managed a quarter of his steak?
It was better than nothing at all.
Alan had been so sure he would lose him Just like he had lost his mother. For what seemed like months - like years, now - he'd been carrying a secret terror locked inside.
The terror had almost materialised. It had nearly swallowed them whole. With a little whim and a twist of fate, his beloved son might have been gone. Alan leaned across to the bed and pulled the sheet back gently. He took the moth-eaten elephant from under his arm and tucked him in, on the pillow, next to Don. He was immediately transported back in time. To a distant world of long hot summers. Life had seemed so much more innocent, but the days had vanished too quickly by. It had all been swept aside in the blink of an eye, one moment there, the next moment gone. His family had been together under one roof, cradled beneath the beams of the old craftsman. Had it really been so straightforward then? Sometimes, he wished it had gone on forever.
Forever. He wished he could have kept them safe, secure, and eternally within arms reach. To whisper some words and wave a magic wand – to make things exactly as he wanted them.
But, of course, there was no way of reversing time. Alan shook his head at his whimsy. No way of turning the clock back, whatever Larry Fleinhardt had to say.
So, okay, this was a crazy indulgence. So what, he was a sad old man. But when he looked at Donnie, asleep with Jumbo like this, he could pretend his son was still a little boy. A little boy – safe with his toy elephant. Protected from the harshness of reality. For a few, short hours in the still of the night, Alan could watch over him again.
For a while – it was only for a little while. And he knew it was really an illusion. When the sun rose and the morning came, Don would be his own man once more.
"Oh, Donnie," Alan sighed and placed his hand on Don's dark head. He allowed a second or two to let it linger. "Did I ever tell you how much I love you? Did I mention how proud I am of you, my son – or how proud your mother would be?"
There was no answer, of course. He didn't expect one. Don was too doped-up on his meds. Antibiotics and painkillers - they made a pretty potent cocktail. And the clandestine bottle of beer couldn't have helped much – Alan chuckled softly. But then again – he didn't know about that one. Or, at least, he didn't know in theory. In reality, hardly anything got by him. There wasn't much the old man missed.
Like the sudden relaxation of tension, for instance, since Don had gone out to the garage. Or, the way the whole atmosphere had lightened, along with the smile on Charlie's face. And for the first time - in what seemed like forever - something resembling contentment had finally appeared in Don's eyes.
Alan took one last look and got to his feet. Fairly soon, life would be back to normal. It was time to start trusting the gods once more, and believing in the kindness of fate. Time to start sleeping in his own bed again, Alan rubbed his back ruefully. Now that really was something to look forward to – he was getting too old for all this. He smoothed the sheet over Jumbo and his slumbering son, and headed towards the door.
The night wind blew in softly through the window and lifted the flimsy curtain. Alan paused on the threshold and the cool valley breeze caressed his face. For a moment, he fancied he saw her there, outlined in the silvery moonlight. Just as beautiful, just as loving. For a moment, he thought she blew him a kiss.
Margaret. Alan knew then, she'd been watching him, throughout his silent vigil. His heart swelled with bittersweet happiness. Just like he knew she'd been watching over Don.
"Thank you, Margaret," he said.