A/N: Sequel to story "Shades of Love". You should read the first story before diving into this one or you might not understand.
To Tell or Not to Tell, That is the Question
By Lizabeth S. Tucker
Frank Harper drove his brown sedan up to the Gull's-Way estate and parked near the front door. He glanced at the lights shining out of the Gatehouse. Before he could even knock at the front door of the main house, it was opened. "Milt," he greeted his old friend with a big smile.
"Frank, come in. Want a beer?" Hardcastle offered as he ushered Frank into the den.
"No, but I will take some coffee if you have it. It's been a long day."
"I can make some in no time. The kid's got this coffeemaker that brews up a decent pot in minutes." Hardcastle led the way into the kitchen.
Frank sat at the table and watched the Judge prepare the coffee, noting the nervous glances out the window. "Problem?"
"No!" Hardcastle snapped, then grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm just…I don't want McCormick to walk in on us."
"Because I want to talk about him." The Judge poured two cups of coffee out and joined Frank at the table. "Have you seen the kid lately?"
"Since he came home from the hospital."
"Sure, a couple of times. Why, Milt? What's wrong?"
"McCormick's not…I think something's wrong with him. He's not the same."
Frank frowned, quickly realizing that Hardcastle wasn't joking, he was sincerely worried. "Tell me what you mean."
"You can be talking to him and he'll get distracted, start looking to one side, not at you. The other night I was getting onto the kid about studying too much…"
"I assume that means you were yelling at him?"
"Yeah, kinda. Anyway, he's not smarting off like he usually does. He's trying not to laugh and shrugging his shoulders. I thought someone was standing behind me that was making faces, the way he was acting. I don't think he's…right."
"Why don't I go out and talk to Mark? I assume he's in the Gatehouse?"
"Yeah, studying for his finals. I told him to get an extension, but he won't listen to me."
"Mark just doesn't want to delay his graduation anymore than he already has. The doctors cleared him, didn't they?"
"Yeah, yeah, they did. As McCormick keeps telling me over and over again." Hardcastle rubbed his hands over his face. "I'm just…I'm worried, Frank. We came so close to losing him this time."
"I know, Milt. Look, I'll go talk to him, you just stay here and stop worrying, okay?"
"Fine. You talk to him, but you'll see what I mean, Frank. He's just not the same."
With a wave, Frank exited through the kitchen's back door, walking around to the Gatehouse's French doors. He watched through the glass as Mark paced the living room, gesturing as he walked. On a small side table, a text book was propped up on a cookbook holder. As Frank watched, pages were turned in the book.
Frank knocked on the door, smiling when Mark darted a quick glance at where the book was resting.
"Frank? Something wrong?" Mark asked, peering around the police lieutenant.
"Milt's still in the main house, if that's who you're looking for."
"Oh, ah…" He opened the door wider. "Sorry, c'mon inside. I was just studying."
"So I saw."
Mark's sheepish grin froze and once again he looked toward the table and the text book. "You…saw?"
"Yep. I assume you were getting some 'help' with your studying?" Frank also turned to the table's general location. "Hello, Nancy."
Mark cocked his head, listening. "She says hello back. That it's nice to be meeting under better circumstances. But how did you know she was here?"
"I don't think you could turn pages by yourself from clear across the room." Frank strolled over to the couch and sat down.
"Oh, jeez, sorry, Frank. Would you like something to drink? I've got some coffee. Decaffeinated 'cause the docs still don't want me having any stimulates for the time being. It's not too bad."
The older man waved the offer away. "Nothing, thanks."
"So," Mark sat across from Frank in the small side chair. "Why are you here? Is something wrong?"
"No, but Milt doesn't think so."
Mark frowned. "I don't understand, the hospital released me. The doctors said I could get back to my normal everyday activities. Okay, except for some minor things. What's his problem?"
"You and, I assume, Nancy."
"Mrs. H? But I haven't told him about her being here. I mean, he wouldn't believe me anyway. He'd think I was nuts." Mark laughed. "Well, more nuts than normal. Mrs. H and I talked it over and she agrees."
"That's nice, but it doesn't change the problem. You may not have told Milt anything about her, but you have been interacting with her in his presence. He's afraid that your skull fracture scrambled your brains."
"What? I don't…" Mark's voice trailed off as he thought back. "Oh."
"Yeah, oh. He's seriously worried about you, Mark. You have to make a decision here. Either tell him about Nancy or she has to stop talking to you while in the Judge's presence."
Mark blew his breath out, rubbing his hands over his face. "Damn it."
Frank got to his feet. "Think it over, talk it out with Nancy, then let me know what you decide. I'll back you no matter what, Mark, you know that."
"Yeah, I know. Thanks, Frank."
"You're welcome." Harper let himself out into the darkness of Gull's-Way, slowing walking over to the main house where an anxious Milt Hardcastle waited.
He barely got through the front door before the Judge was standing in front of him.
"Did you see it? Did he zone out on you while you talked to him? Should I take him back to the hospital?"
"Milt, calm down. There's nothing wrong with Mark other than you overreacting."
"He's been through a lot lately, worried about you, struggling with his own recovery. Just give him some space, okay?"
"You don't think it's serious?" Hardcastle asked, a weight dropping off his shoulders.
"No, I don't think it's anything you need to worry about. And if he needs to talk to you about anything, I want you to listen with an open mind."
Worried again, Milt moved closer to his old friend. "Talk? Open mind? What the hell do you know, Frank? This isn't the first time I've gotten the feeling that you and the kid are keeping something from me. What the hell is going on?"
"Milt, calm down."
"I thought you were my friend, Frank, but now you're hiding things from me. Is it the kid? Is Mark having problems, serious problems? Did that operation do more harm than good?"
"Judge, lay off of Frank." Mark had entered the house unnoticed by either man. "I'm fine. How many times do we have to tell you?"
"McCormick, you're not fine. You're acting all strange. You have been ever since that damn attack."
"I've got something to tell you, Judge. I need you to sit down and listen. No interruptions until I'm done, okay?"
Hardcastle's face blanched, his hand reaching out to grip McCormick's forearm. "What is it?"
"Milt, please. I'm not dying, my brain's all in one piece, just like it was before. This is something else. Will you, can you just listen?"
"Milt, c'mon, let's sit down and let Mark speak."
"Okay, okay, I'm listening." He perched on the edge of the couch, his hands clenched on his knees.
Now that the moment was at hand, Frank could see that Mark didn't know how to start. He decided to help. "Mark, just tell him exactly as it happened."
"Right, as it happened." Mark looked toward the doorway and smiled faintly.
"See, he's doin' it again!" Hardcastle snapped.
"It'll all be clear soon enough if you let him talk," Frank said sternly.
"Whoa, this is hard. Okay, Judge, did you ever hear about people who, after they have a skull fracture or a severe concussion, being able to see or do things that they never did before? Like psychics?"
"You're saying you're psychic?" Milt asked dubiously.
"Well, not exactly. But sometimes it can let you see things that you probably wouldn't have been able to before." Mark looked to Frank for a moment, earning an encouraging nod. "That's kinda what happened to me. I could see someone who wasn't really alive any more."
Hardcastle stared at McCormick for a long moment, then broke out laughing. "You're something else, kiddo. Did you and Frank set this up when he was out in the Gatehouse? No, you've been planning this since before you got out of the hospital, haven't you? Good joke, you really had me worried there for a while. Seeing dead people." Hardcastle shook his head, getting to his feet and moving toward the kitchen. "I'm getting us some ice cream. You want some, Frank?"
"Uh, no. No, thanks, Milt." After the Judge had left the room, Frank turned his attention back to Mark. "That certainly didn't go the way you planned."
Mark smiled. "No, but in a way, that's let me off the hook. Mrs. N and I talked about it, like you suggested. She didn't really want me to tell him, said the Judge wouldn't believe me for a moment and, if he did, would be hurt by the very idea that I would be able to see her when he couldn't. I was willing to try, even though I thought the same thing. But this is better. He believes that it was all a setup as well as relieved that I'm really recovered. Mrs. H and I will keep the interaction down to when the Judge isn't present. And I don't hurt him. Christ, Frank, you know I wouldn't hurt that stubborn ol' donkey for the world."
"I know it. You may be right, this might be the best solution of all. But you and your ghostly friend had better be careful or you won't have any choice but to tell him or be committed."
"Who's being committed?" Hardcastle asked, returning with two bowls of ice cream.
"Me, for living with you all these years," Mark replied, thinking quickly.
Hardcastle snorted. "Let me tell you, hotshot, if anyone is on the verge of being committed in this house, it would be me. Living with you is no bed of roses, that's for certain."
Frank shook his head at the resumption of the men's usual wrangling, letting himself out the front door. He breathed in the fresh air, enjoying the tang of salt in the air. The warm night air surrounded him as he made his way to his sedan. Just before he got into the driver's side, he felt a cool swipe across his cheek. Frank halted, touching the spot lightly. Looking into the darkness, he smiled. "Good night, Nancy."