I was six when my parents divorced, after a cold and bitter war that held no rules but one: not in front of the kid. I wish, they would have dropped that one, too. It would have been less jarring, I think, if I had seen more than that they were no longer touching nor talking much with each other. As it was, Mom picked me up after school one day, packed suitcases in the back of the car, and told me we would stay with Grandma – her mother – for a while. I wasn't going to protest against an unexpected holiday trip, at least not until a few days later, when I – fed up with the strange atmosphere in the house – asked when we would go home, and my mom said "Never again", more bluntly than, I now suspect, she intended. I threw a tantrum, but it wasn't until I hit her thigh with my little fists and Mom flinched, much worse than she should have, that I realized that something was indeed very, very wrong.
The world, as I saw it, shattered, there and then. It shouldn't be possible, but somehow it hurts even worse when it does so without warning. It left me with, let's say... trust issues.
oo oo oo oo oo
I was eight when Mom brought home the man she had been dating for almost half a year then. Goes to show she knew me well enough to predict how I would react. Goes to show she had no real idea as to why I acted that way. I almost lost the sorry rest of trust I held in her. Would have, I think, if it wasn't for him.
Him. The guy my mom tried to introduce as 'Thomas'.
Tall, smartly dressed, dark hair receding slightly on his forehead. I hated him on first sight. The man said "Hi," and I gave him the third degree. Name, age, address, profession. 'Intention regarding the woman at his side' wasn't on the list, but I wouldn't have believed one word of what he could have answered, anyway. Mom tried to shush me, he just put a hand on her arm, looked me in the eye and calmly answered my question.
"Thomas Clay," he said. "What, like mud?" I shot back.
He looked me over, slowly, thoroughly, and said that my interrogation techniques needed practice, but my intimidation was already among the best. Put the wind right out of my sails and made me hate him even more.
"How the hell would you know?" I sneered, ignoring my mother's shocked gasp, and he reached for his belt and brought out a badge.
"Special agent Thomas Clay, FBI." He held out the badge to me, which had his picture and his name and a signature and a metal plate with official looking words on it, and everything. It was too light, too heavy, too shiny and not shiny enough, in short I had no idea how the real deal should have been like. Not that I was going to tell him.
"My last Halloween costume looked more real," sounded much more confident. He gave me one of his slow smiles then, and an appreciating nod. "Why don't you check it out then, at the FBI?" he asked.
"What? How?" was not the superior attitude I would have liked to keep, but the offer had thrown me, badly.
"Call the local FBI office, ask them if there is a Special agent with that name and the number on the badge."
"What's the telephone number?" Hah, called your bluff, I thought.
"If I give you the number, you might get an accomplice on the phone, who tells you exactly what I want you to hear." He got me there, I hadn't thought about that, but I pushed on, nevertheless.
"So you don't know it!" I'm not sure he bought the desperation posing as triumph on my voice, 'cause I had the sinking feeling that he did know it, after all.
He gave me a number, I looked it up. It was the local FBI office. I'm not sure he expected me to call it for real, my mom certainly didn't, but after I went sulking for my room, I had a polite lady on the phone in thirty seconds flat. I didn't lie to her, really. I just told her that there was a stranger in the house, who said he was FBI but I didn't trust him. Totally true. I might have given her a wrong impression about how scary the situation really was, because she did not only check the name and number for me – which were legit – she also brought the police down on our house. I should have gotten into massive trouble for that. I didn't. Clay had a few quiet words with the police officers, a few more with Mom who was torn halfway between scared and furious, and finally he came for me, took me by the shoulder, closed the door to my room behind us and sat down on my bed, which brought his face level with mine without leaning over me or going into that oyoyoyo-what-a-nice-doggie-you-are crouch that most adults use when they want to talk to a kid 'on their level'. It was a nice touch. Thoughtful. Didn't change the fact that I expected him to give me the chewing-out of my life and got ready to explode into his face in return.
Instead he said, "You did a really good job, looking out for your mom. Best I ever saw, considering the limited resources at your disposal. But it takes at least two for a real protective detail, for backup, you see? Think you could work with me, on this assignment?"
I'm smart, okay? But I was only eight, I didn't understand every word of his speech. There was no way I could miss its meaning, though. And it was adult-to-adult speak. Not just the fancy words, also the fact that he said 'work with me'. Not 'trust me', 'like me', 'we'll be best friends', blah blah blah, sugar sweet and sticky speak. Just, 'work with me'. Counts for a lot, if you treat an eight-year-old like an adult. At least, it did for me. I love my mom, but Clay was the first to treat me like a thinking person.
oo oo oo oo oo
After this rocky start, we got along famously. I never called him Dad, even after Mom married him, even if baby-Jean, who was born when I was nine-and-a-half, calls him Daddy; nor do I call him Thomas, or Tom or anything like that. No, I call him Clay. Gets us funny looks, occasionally, but that's okay, he just gives me a slow smile – he never does anything rash, everything's slow and methodically, which puts a serious crimp in his coolness factor that not even his flashy badge-and-gun sort of job can fully balance, but it makes every smile feel like you really earned it – and a wink, and tells people with a look or a few very polite words to mind their own business.
He does a good job as a father, though, no doubt about that! A bit distant, I admit, goes with his other job that has long and unpredictable hours, every now and then. Hours that got longer and weirder when he took on a new assignment, shortly after Jean was born. It paid better, the risks weren't worse than before and the benefits were great. That's how he explained it to Mom. I listened, anyway. Eavesdropping to serious adult talks might not be nice, but I won't get caught unaware, ever again. Speaking to me, Clay told me that the new job, he was going to take, was one that really made a difference for the safety of people everywhere. The rest of the details, he added with a wink, I already knew. So I had been made, the night before. Guess that's something you learn at the FBI.
He can't talk about his work, and he won't – no amount of bugging will change that – that is one of the rules he set early on. It doesn't bother me, much. It lends his job an air of mystery, MIB-style, that none of my friends' parents can compete with. There's just one thing, I always demand to know: sometimes he's away for a few days and when he comes back, tired and sore, once even with his chest taped up around cracked ribs, I'll always ask, "Did the good guys win?" Most of the time, he says "yes".
Another rule is that his gun is off-limits. I had to promise him, my hand in his, looking him in the eye, that I won't try to get my hands on it. He locks it up, securely, every time he comes home, but he told me, frankly, that he thought enough of my ingenuity to be unsure if I couldn't get around that and he didn't want me to try. For my safety, for Mom's and for my little sister's. I promised. I don't want anything to happen to my family.
oo oo oo oo oo
I'm thirteen now, going on fourteen. The world, while not – yet – shattered completely, has started to show massive cracks all over, again. A pair of sombre looking suits drove a black limousine up to our house, to fetch us. I was out when they came, returning just in time to see them lead Mom to the car, her face ashen, a scared and bawling Jean clenched tightly in her arms. If I hadn't recognized one of them as a colleague of Clay's whom I knew by sight, I would have thought they were taking her by force. It didn't look good, anyway.
My bike screeched to a halt, a noise that made both agents – what else could they be – go for their guns while pushing my mother down beside the limo for cover, before Mom called out my name in a voice half-choked with terror and they relaxed, slightly. I never had a real gun pointed at me before, but somehow the fact that these guys, who are usually all as unflappable as Clay is, got spooked by the sound of a bike braking, was more scary than the prospect of getting shot.
"What happened?" I managed hoarsely.
Mom tried to say something and started sobbing instead; the guy I recognized, Greensand I think his name is, worked his jaw and said, "Your father was hurt, badly. Get in the car, I'll explain more on the way."
I didn't bother to correct him.
The drive to the hospital was a nightmare. Greensand was talking but I didn't really catch the words. There's a helpless, pained anger in his eyes that was more than enough, though. It's the look that has burned right through denial and made me see the ominous cracks appearing.
By the time we arrive, Mom has caught herself well enough to reassure Jeannie into quiet curiosity. We get ushered through elevators and corridors to some place of sombre quietude, the ICU, I guess. Mrs Moss, wife of another of Clay's colleagues, is already there, with a heavy-set, balding man talking to her, his hand lightly on her shoulder while she cries. He looks up at our arrival and is obviously relieved when my mother transfers Jean's hand to mine and strides forward to give the other woman a tight hug. Jeannie gets upset again, and her fussing delays me for the space of time it takes for Baldy to introduce himself to Mom. "Still in surgery," is the tail-end of the sentence I catch.
"Who's still in surgery?" I demand to know and when Mom says "Thomas" I sit down with a thud, weak-kneed with relief. Dead men don't get surgery. A short-lived relief, she doesn't look happy with the news and Baldy radiates the same brand of impotent fury as our escorts.
"Did you get the bastard?" I challenge him. Nothing personal, he's just the next best target for a healthy dose of someone-is-going-to-pay-for-this.
I can see the word 'Language!' form behind his lips before he shakes his head and replies "No need for that. The body of the assailant was found next to Agent Clay."
"You're sure, he's the right one?" Not that I doubt it, really, but yeah, convenient target.
"Ever heard the term 'caught red-handed'?" He winces and apologizes after his sharp reply, but the mental picture is clear enough. Before we end up at each other's throat – Baldy doesn't deal half as well with my kind of coping mechanism as Clay did – a green-clad doctor approaches and beckons Mom and Baldy aside to dish out bad news, wrapped in Medicalese for the sake of minors present. Too bad I'm a smart kid. 'Multiple stab wounds' filters through, 'emergency surgery' and 'critical condition'. Other parts of the story sound as if they had to pull out the shredded bits and tried to put what was left back together with staples and glue. It takes my sister crying out in real pain before I realize my hands are clenched into white-knuckled fists. Mom comes over to comfort Jeannie, Baldy gives me an awkward pat on the shoulder and makes his excuses, going back to work. Wrapping up the paperwork, I think viciously.
Some blurry eternity later we are finally allowed into a nearby room. There's enough tubing attached to the still figure on the bed to build a life-sized map of the subway system, countless machines and more monitors than Mission Control. One of them is visibly breathing for him, which drives home the mental picture that his lungs are held together more or less by the medical equivalent of duct-tape. Incongruously, his face is pale but untouched. Mom leans over to give him a soft kiss on the forehead, to whisper something nonsensical into his ears. I stand back, a squirming baby-sister in my arms, deadly afraid to touch anything and deal out further damage. Someone fetches a chair from somewhere and my mom sits down, stroking Clay's hair gently, like she does when Jean sleeps badly or when I'm sick with the cold or something. All I can think of, is how I made fun of his hair less than a week ago, telling Clay he looks like one of Jeannie's dolls now, with the new implants. It's his only weakness, his vanity concerning the hair, but now it's sweat-soaked and ruffled, and it takes minutes of finger-combing to smooth it back into some semblance of his usual look. Time crawls by, Jean starts fussing and gets to sit on Mom's lap. I finally get close, too, taking Clay's hand, careful not to disturb the clamp attached to one finger or the needle of the drip feeding liquid into his veins. Close-up, the drips are the single most scary thing in the room, two of them, one looking suspiciously like blood, the other clear and colorless, and they are both dripping fast. I don't think you can pour so much stuff into the system for long – unless it's running out again, somewhere. I feel like throwing up.
I won't. I keep my place, holding the hand, until little Jeannie, who's too young to understand, can't stand it any longer and Mom has to take her out, to calm her down. I stay. I stay, willing the heart that throws spikes across the monitor that don't look quite like they do on TV – and I don't think that's a good sign – to keep beating. I stay, fully aware of the fact that it's a bad sign no one tries to throw me out with arguments like 'only five minutes, he needs his rest'. I stay, while the sun sets and the hour turns late and Jean falls into a fitful sleep in her mother's arms, face smeared with chocolate from the vending machines down the corridor.
"It's late," Mom finally whispers, "we have to go, you have school tomorrow."
"I stay!" I don't care if they throw me out of school and if my mom tries to ground me, I'll climb out of the window and make my own way back. I tell her so. The latter is a rather nasty threat, considering that our apartment includes a roof garden atop an eight-storey building, but it's also an old building, with broad ledges all around. It's doable.
"You can't." She's too tired and worried to argue. I don't feel any better, but there is a seven years old, white-hot core of desperation that will keep me going for a while.
"Why not?" I'm a teenager, I can live on chocolate bars and coke for an indefinite amount of time, all I need is enough coinage.
The argument goes back and forth for a while but in the end I out-stubborn her and the doctor she rallied for support. The doctor salvages the rest of his authority by citing some parent and child exemption that principally allows for parents to stay in their children's room, only the other way round. Mom just looks defeated. The pain in her eyes makes it an ashen victory, but I had to do it. I have to stay. Fact is, I can't stand to lose another father.
oo oo oo oo oo
Clay flat-lines three times during the next two days. He's in surgery again and again, to try and find and hopefully stop the internal bleeding that keeps his blood-pressure from stabilizing. In-between he's kept in a sort of artificial coma, to minimize energy consumption and therefore strain on already stressed-out organs. I hone my skill of sleeping in chairs and practice invisibility until I become the ghost haunting the Intensive Care Unit and even the most disapproving doctors and nurses don't acknowledge my presence anymore.
I don't drop off the radar completely, though. My mom comes over, every day, to check on Clay and on me, bringing a change of clothes and other stuff. On day three she has talked someone in the paediatric ward into saddling me with the same amount of schoolwork that those kids who have to stay in hospital for long-time treatments get. I do it without complaining. I'd do anything that keeps me from getting banished. Or rather, anything to make sure the erratic spikes on the monitor won't stop forever.
Some time around day ten, I wake from a nap at the sound of someone talking to Clay. A black-clad woman is sitting in the chair my mother vacated a few hours ago, her hand on his. She's skinny, pale and dark-haired, barely legal – in short, the polar opposite of Mom in almost any aspect – and for a moment something very ugly rears its head. I happen to know for a fact that my mom didn't mind receding hair.
"Who are you?" I snap. She whips 'round, startled. Some weird trick of light turns her hand blue and glowy for a moment before she sees me and relaxes.
"Liz Sherman. I'm sorry, I didn't see you over there."
"Who. Are. You?" I repeat myself, hand hovering over the call button that will have nurses sprinting into the room in record time, and if distrust would be visible, I would be glowing, too.
For a moment we just stare at each other before something flits over her face that might be recognition. "I… I used to work with your father, at the bureau. I went away for some time, almost a year, and when I came back, it was right after… the attack. I noticed he wasn't there, but things were pretty hectic, people got killed, we had to go after the bad guys, halfway round the globe, took down the bad guys… in short, it wasn't until the flight back that I found out that Clay hadn't transferred out, or something." She pauses, looking a bit out of breath, like she isn't used to long speeches. "I'm sorry I didn't come earlier," she finishes.
Ooooo-kay. That explains, at least, why she's the first of Clay's colleagues to stop by, since Baldy left – not that I noticed the lack of other visitors before, not that there was much use for them. I give a noncommittal grunt and Liz smiles, rather unconvincingly, and asks how he is, really. I give her a short summary of what I have learned from listening to doctors when they spoke to Mom and from cornering the occasional nurse. He's hanging on, the battery of machines, doing the job of organs shutting down, has spawned another offspring – he's on dialysis since the day before yesterday, because of "acute renal failure due to near-exsanguination", a doctor's words, not mine – but on the flip side, his breathing went from being mostly mechanical to mostly his own, with just a bit of assistance to get enough oxygen into his blood. Considering the state he started in, the very fact that he's still breathing means that there is hope for recovery, it's no longer touch-and-go.
She smiles, for real this time, and I try to pump her for information, but Liz obeys the same vows of silence as Clay, all she'll say is that it's over. For now. It would have been far more convincing without the last half sentence, but, in her words, I'm "old enough to know, there'll be always another one who tries to sow death and destruction." Is this a standard procedure they learn in Quantico, I wonder, to inspire trust in kids by treating them like sensible people? Or is it a personal quirk of this mysterious 'Bureau' they both work for? Or maybe, if her story of working with Clay is true, she learned that trick from him?
We chat a little more, carefully skirting the topic of 'work' and anything it entails, before she gives Clay's hand a last gentle squeeze and hugs me goodbye. She's already at the door when she throws over her shoulder, "If he wakes up before I can visit again, tell him that Red and Blue send their love."
"Who's Red and Blue?" I demand to know, but all I get is a sphinx-like smile, and then she's gone.
oo oo oo oo oo
Liz returns three times before the doctors judge Clay stable enough to let him wake up. The second time she visits, there is another suit with her, young guy named John. Looks a bit worse for wear, his hand in a splint and healing stitches around rainbow-colored bruises on his head, but he tries his best to be nice and easy-going. Not his fault he caught me at a bad time. I got shooed out of the room for some examination shortly before they arrived, an unexpected one that makes me fear the slight improvement of the last two days might have been false hope, and his friendly greeting did not lighten my mood. I rip his head off, verbally, and stuff it down his throat, and when a nurse storms over to investigate the noise, they get thrown out. Me too, but I know my way around the place well enough to be back in front of Clay's room, before the doctors are finished. Liz tries again, half an hour later, but I don't see John again. Fine with me, I would have had to apologize, otherwise.
Next time she's here, she asks me, more or less out of the blue, what I would get someone who spends most of his time in the water or at least soaking wet but loves to read. I go "Huh?", but give it some thought. Jeannie has some 'books' that can stand getting chewed on, but I think we're talking somewhat more serious literature. In the end, I say "I'd try an eBook-reader and a pack of zip-lock bags," and she squeals, actually squeals, with delight and gives me a hug. "Huh?" indeed. But there are benefits to being used as a sounding board for Christmas presents, for I learn a bit more about her friends, the enigmatic Red and Blue, and it's definitely friends, not just colleagues. Especially Red. Can we say, 'Guys, get a room, already'? Not me, given her age, and mine, and Clay's presence in the room – unconscious or not – to boot, that would get awkward. But somebody ought to. I settle with proposing a fancy candlelight dinner, in a tone snarky enough for her to wave it off as a joke, if she absolutely doesn't want to take the hint. I'm not sure she will. Her smile gets all sphinx-y again, not a look that goes well with dreamy eyes, but in the resulting mental confusion I slip in a quick "how is he like?" I get shot down, though, if gently, 'cause if I'd take her description for real, he'd be seven foot tall and built like a small mountain, strong enough to stop a speeding semi truck with his bare hands. Oh well, a smaller guy then, I guess, and I'd suspect his first name is John, if not for the fact that she mentions that name, too, with some affection, but nowhere near dreamy eyes. I like Blue better, anyway, he sounds more interesting. He must be a professional diver, I assume, a surfer or some other water sport would fit the bill as well, but I can't see the FBI paying for that. Smart, even studied, a marine biologist perhaps or some other expert, that's what I piece together from little snippets, with good insights into other people's motivations. Unlike Red, who seems to be… less of a diplomat. Hmmm, if the guy code-named Blue does work related to water, maybe Red works with fire. Explosives expert, anyone? Might fit for a man with little time for niceties.
I still don't know why they can't come visiting themselves, all Liz would say, is that anonymity is safer for everyone involved. Sounds like they do undercover work, too. I have imagination enough to come up with some very nasty assignments where an explosives expert might get undercover. And a few rather exotic ones for a diver…
oo oo oo oo oo
I'll never forget, for the rest of my life, the first twitch of fingers under mine when Clay comes to, his eyes bleary and unfocused, his throat raw from the breathing tube he has needed for so long and his voice croaky, but alive and aware, nevertheless. I squeeze his hand and his eyes recognize me and I laugh out aloud, giddy with happiness and relief. Then I run for assistance, jumping the first nurse I find with a maniacal grin, and it takes her a moment to sort out my babbling. She sends me off to phone Mom, and by the time I return, there are doctors with him, and when I'm allowed back in, he's asleep again. He wakes up once more, when Jeannie calls for her Dad, and gives the three of us a weak smile. When our suddenly limited five minutes are over, he mumbles for me to go home with Mom, and I do so, without a word of complaint. I got what I was waiting for.
All in all, Clay stays four weeks in the ICU, about three of them knocked out, before he's transferred to a more normal ward. He won't be home for Christmas, but hopefully early in the new year. There's a lot of rehab in front of him, but he'll make it.
We'll make it.
A/N: Where I come from, if a stranger tries to get into your home waving an official-looking badge and you have the slightest doubt about his legitimacy, you are advised to check with whatever agency he claims to be from, before you let him in. Looking up the number yourself, for exactly the same reason stated above. This expressly includes police officers and all and any other law enforcement forces. I couldn't find out if that would be applicable to the FBI, too. If you know better, please inform me. Likewise, my grasp of intensive care procedures is marginal, so any mistakes are there to be corrected.