LIFE IS NEVER ONE SWEET SONG
Disclaimer: I do not own these memorable characters Hardcastle and McCormick, and I don't intend to get a dime for this piece of fluff that clogged the inner workings of the broken tumble dryer masquerading as my brain.
This story takes place right after Sonny Daye had pulled that disappearing act on McCormick, leaving him in the lurch in Atlantic City, in the episode called 'Ties my father sold me'.
It was midnight, and McCormick entered his motel room, trembling with emotion. He slammed the door shut, ran a shaky hand through his curls, uttering a shuddery sigh. He sagged down heavily on the edge of his bed. For ten minutes he just sat there, staring into space. Then he took the note his father wrote him from his pocket and read through it once more, getting angrier by the second. He crumpled it up, balling his fist around it with such force that his nails bit into his palm, his knuckles turning white.
"That filthy, illegitimate, slithering son of a cross-eyed rattler! Damn him to hell!" McCormick growled, as deep, unspeakable hatred started boiling up from inside him.
A rill of blood ran from his closed fist, unheeded. He tossed the note into the waste basket sitting against the wall, near the door. With a grunt he jerked the ridiculous blue tie his pathetic excuse for a father had sold him, over his head. He looked at it with disgust, as if it were a venomous snake. His lip curled up, baring his teeth. He tossed the tie with such force into the waste basket that it toppled over, spilling its contents onto the floor. That fuelled Mark's anger even further. He was breathing hard, his face turning into a mask of hate, his eyes the color of a thundercloud - hard and flat with rage. He put the waste basket right side up again, and groped inside his pants pocket, searching for his fire lighter. He fished it out with a trembling hand, and with a flick of his thumb the small, orange flame appeared. He stared at the little flame, and its reflection bounced off his hard, glittering eyes.
"Time to fry this cheapskate tie! Burn, burn, burn!" he growled, as he set the tie in the waste basket on fire.
Hardcastle was sitting on the edge of his bed, in the room next to McCormick's. He was worried about the kid – very worried, indeed. As they watched the ballgame, McCormick's face - which is normally open and showing every emotion – had changed. Hardcastle had seen a total eclipse once, when he was very young. As the moon quietly moved in front of the sun, inching forward, eating up its disc bit by tiny bit, a kind of hush fell over the world. Even the birds had finally stopped singing. The world had dimmed as the moon sucked the light from the sun. It was awesome and very scary at the same time. Finally, the sky had turned completely dark, and for a few minutes the silence was ominous – it rested upon you like a heavy blanket. The sun was a fiercely brilliant diamond ring in the sky. The same thing was happening to McCormick's face – minus the diamond ring part. Hardcastle had never seen McCormick's face close up and darken like that before. What Sonny did to his own flesh and blood was something akin to murder, and anger was welling up inside him. He wished desperately that there was something encouraging he could say to McCormick, but he was at a loss for words. What could he possibly do for the kid to make him feel any better? As he sat there, rubbing his chin, reliving the events of the evening, the smell of smoke wafted slowly into his room. At first, it didn't really register to him that anything was wrong. But then, a ribbon of smoke drifted lazily up from under his door. He sat there, staring at it for a few seconds, before he decided to investigate. He opened his door, and looked down the corridor. A cloud of smoke was rising from under McCormick's door. He rushed towards it, inhaling some smoke. It smelled like burning fabric.
"What the - hukkh - hell?" Hardcastle said, coughing from the smoke as he grabbed the door handle, throwing the door open.
McCormick was sitting on his bed, rigid and motionless, staring at the fire in his waste basket. A thick cloud of smoke was rising from it. The waste basket was melting, and a small patch of the carpet next to it had also caught fire.
"McCormick! What the hell are you doing? The room is on fire! Put it ouuuut!" Hardcastle shouted, rushing towards McCormick who just looked up at him, grinning. His eyes glittered feverishly.
"Oh, hell, he's going insane!" Hardcastle said to himself, and stormed out of the room, scanning the corridor walls for a fire extinguisher. He saw one sitting against the wall a few rooms away from his own. He hurried towards it and yanked it from the wall, running back towards the bin barbecue in McCormick's room.
"Hope this thing works, or we'll be toast!" He said as he twisted the nozzle open.
A white spray of foam splattered from it, dousing the fire on the carpet and the crumpled, charred clump that used to be a waste basket. Smoke boiled from the mess on the floor.
Why the heck didn't the fire alarm go off? Are the smoke detectors busted? Hardcastle wondered as he put out the fire. He tossed the fire extinguisher onto the floor, and rushed towards the window. He opened it wide to let the smoke out. If someone woke up from this hullabaloo and saw the room on fire, McCormick would be in a heap of trouble. Luckily, the smoke soon dissipated, and the room smelt less like an incinerator.
"McCormick! Are you crazy?" Hardcastle growled as he grabbed McCormick by the arm, "the whole place could've gone up in flames and you're just sitting here!"
"Let go of my arm, Judge!" McCormick grunted and jerked his arm from Hardcastle's grip.
"What the hell were you doing? You can't just set fire to motel room property any time you like!"
"So lock me up, why don't you," McCormick hissed as he got up from the bed. "Here, take me in!" he shouted as he held out his hands, balled into fists, in the ready-to-be-cuffed gesture. Blood was still dripping from one fist where his nails had pierced his palm.
"No, I've got a better idea, I'll turn myself in!" Mark spat out, turned on his heels to storm out of the room.
"Hey, come here! McCormick, I'll knock you down, I swear!" Hardcastle shouted, ready to grab McCormick by the arm again.
"Give it your best shot!" McCormick barked at him.
"Why don't you wake up the whole frigging motel, huh?" Hardcastle shouted, getting hot under the collar.
"You're doing a great job yourself!" McCormick shouted back, looking mad enough to boil a dozen eggs in his butt.
Hardcastle grabbed McCormick with force by the arm and try to wrestle him back into the room. McCormick fought him fiercely, and tore loose from his grip. He lifted his balled fist, ready to strike Hardcastle. His face was contorted, his teeth bared. His once gentle blue eyes were now dark with rage, like an ugly storm cloud filled with flying chunks of ice, ready to spawn a twister. Anger and hatred roiled in them, they glittered dangerously.
"Oh no, you don't!" Hardcastle growled, and grabbed the balled fist, and with all his strength he lowered it, looking McCormick in the eye. The animosity he saw in those fierce eyes scared him, but he would be damned first before it shows. This was a side of McCormick he had never seen before. He did not care for it, no sirree, not one little bit.
"Hey, what's that racket?" Milt and Mark had finally managed to wake the rest of their neighbors down the corridor. "Yeah, keep it down, before I call the-" another man shouted angrily from a room nearby, before he was cut off by McCormick.
"You shut up, before I rearrange your face!"
Hardcastle took the chance, and grabbed McCormick around his neck in a sleeper hold. It was his only chance to get McCormick back before he snaps completely and becomes a danger to himself and others.
"Waddayou-" McCormick choked out.
Hardcastle kicked the door shut and wrestled McCormick back towards the bed. The kid was strong, and his strength was fuelled further by his anger, and he almost managed to writhe from Hardcastle's grip.
"McCormick, just knock it off, or I'll choke you. Knock it off!" Hardcastle barked in a tone McCormick had also never heard before.
McCormick was getting dizzy, and his attempts to free himself, were weakening.
"You're gonna stop this nonsense now, huh? Do you hear me?" Hardcastle asked in that same dangerous tone, tightening his grip on McCormick's neck even more.
"Hardcase, aaargh! Let g-"
"You're gonna stop this? Okay?" Hardcastle asked again.
McCormick nodded his head quickly. Hardcastle released him, and he stumbled towards his bed, out of breath, his face red. He collapsed onto the bed, drawing shuddering gasps, rubbing his neck. But Hardcastle was relieved to see the storm cloud ugliness had left McCormick's eyes, though the anger was still present. His trick had worked. He was a cop once, after all.
"What did you have to do that for?" McCormick gasped, glaring at Hardcastle angrily, with a pained expression on his face.
"Holy crap, McCormick, you went ballistic! You nearly had meltdown and a couple of fried short circuits. You should've seen the look on your face – it was murderous! What the heck is wrong with you?" Hardcastle asked him, pointing at the charred mess that used to be a waste basket. He had an idea that McCormick was hurting so bad that he couldn't think straight anymore, and the twenty-five years of pent-up anger would have him blow his top right off, just like Mount St. Helens. But, he would drag the truth from McCormick even if it's the last thing he did. He took a chair and sat it down in front of McCormick, who was still out of breath. He sat down and looked at Mark, hard.
"So, talk already. I'm listening," Hardcastle ordered.
McCormick got up and walked towards the door, and then turned around.
"What the hell do you want me to say, huh?" McCormick choked out, his voice cracking.
"You've gotta get this off your chest, you can't keep it in anymore. Just look what you've done, you torched your room and nearly burnt the place to the ground! So what's the idea?"
"It's that tie. That rotten, ratty excuse for a tie! I couldn't stand it, so I burnt it, along with that note that slithering snake posing as Sonny Daye gave me," McCormick said, his eyes beginning to darken again.
"You're nuts, you know that? You really wanna waste your time listening to this miserable excuse for a badly written school play, that's the life of a loser called Mark McCormick? Why?" Mark asked, standing in front of Milt, glaring at him.
"You're not a loser, McCormick." Hardcastle tried in a calm voice.
McCormick uttered a bitter laugh as he paced towards the door again. He looked like a lion trapped in a cage.
"No?" McCormick spat out, turning around to face Hardcastle. "Then why did my father, my own flesh and blood, sell me out, huh? Sold me out twice! Can you give me the answer to that riddle, I've been trying to figure out for twenty-five years, huh? Can you?!" The raw pain in McCormick's voice hurt Hardcastle's heart.
"Maybe, if you would just tell me what happened," Milt tried, getting afraid for the kid again.
"You wanna know what happened?" McCormick said, his face twisting with rage. "Oh sure! But the trouble is, you don't wanna hear about it, so let's just forget it," he growled as he faced Hardcastle again.
"It's not up to you to tell me what I want to hear or not. So try me," Hardcastle said, looking McCormick in the eye.
"Why would you care about it, anyway?" McCormick asked, throwing his hands in the air. Hardcastle noticed that the palm of his right hand was lacerated, and it was still oozing blood.
"What have you done to your hand?" Hardcastle asked.
McCormick looked at his palm, as if noticing it for the first time.
"It's nothing," he said, wiping the blood off on his pants.
"Here, take this," Hardcastle said as he fished a handkerchief from his pants pocket. "It's clean, really," Hardcastle added as McCormick pulled a face at the handkerchief.
McCormick took the proffered piece of cloth and bound his hand with it.
"So why do you care about all of this? It happened, and nothing anyone can do or say could change anything," McCormick sneered, his eyes still smoldering with anger.
"That's a pretty stupid question, even for you! I just thought we were friends, that's all. Have you dragged me all the way to Atlantic City just to ask me dumb questions? Friends tell each other about stuff like that, you know. Are we friends or are we not?"
"Uh huh, well, maybe," McCormick said, looking at Hardcastle with doubt in his angry eyes.
"Hell, you're persistent. You wanna be my agony aunty now? I never stick my nose into your personal life, so why do you want to hear about the rest of this sappy soap opera? You know now who and what Sonny Daye is, and what he did to me. He's gone, he's out of my hair – chapter closed. All of this was a helluva mistake, I never should've dragged you all the way over here," McCormick said, with a scowl on his face. The festering, twenty-five-year-old sore inside him had been there for too long – it was impossible for him to just spill the beans all at once, on cue. He did not have an idea where to start. Time didn't heal this wound; he only got used to the pain as his boyhood turned into manhood. This pain was, at certain times in his life, his only friend – crazy as it may sound.
"My personal life is not the issue, here. You're the one about to reach boiling point and blow a gasket! I'm not leaving this room before you start telling me what's going on under all that hair. The chapter will be closed when I say it is!" Hardcastle retorted. "So talk, already!"
McCormick glared at him, and started pacing towards the door again. He really wanted to tell Hardcastle how much trouble Sonny had caused him when he was a child, but he couldn't get himself to the point of opening up. He then went back to the bed and plopped himself down, with a heavy sigh.
"Where the heck do I begin, huh?" McCormick asked at last, looking momentarily beaten.
"What happened to your mother, McCormick?" Hardcastle asked, in a gentle tone.
McCormick just stared at him, then looked away. He couldn't hide the pain in his eyes. After what seemed like an eternity, he decided to tell what there was to tell – the abridged version.
"She…died, when I was twelve. She died of a brain aneurism. She was overworked and permanently stressed out, and never had any idea that she was living on borrowed time," McCormick said, haltingly.
"I'm sorry to hear that, McCormick. It must've been hard for her as a single parent," Hardcastle said.
"Damn hard. She was so brave, it was just the two of us against the world. She had terrible headaches in the last days, and one day, after she came home from work, she looked like death warmed over. I felt so guilty! She had to work her fingers to the bone just to keep me fed and clothed. She collapsed onto the kitchen floor. I ran to her,and held her. She duh-died in my arms," McCormick stuttered in a trembling voice.
Hardcastle just reached out, and patted McCormick on the shoulder. He had no words at that moment. McCormick went through hell and back again; no wonder he was lugging so much emotional baggage around. It took a full minute for McCormick to compose himself and keep from breaking down and crying. Finally he looked up, his eyes bruised and vulnerable.
"I had to go and live with my uncle Luke and his wife. Now that was a part of my life that…that…." McCormick trailed off. "I can't talk about this, Judge, not right now."
Hardcastle rubbed McCormick's shoulder, still battling to find the right words. No child should have his mother die in his arms. That alone would be enough to break him and scar him for life.
"Did your uncle hurt you?" Hardcastle asked, strongly suspecting that McCormick might've suffered some kind of abuse at the hands of his uncle.
McCormick looked up, his eyes pain-filled. Then he brushed Hardcastle's hand from his shoulder. He stood up from the bed, and started pacing the room again, rubbing his face. Then he turned to face Hardcastle. His eyes were getting that thunderstruck look again. He trembled like a leaf. He took his jacket off, and threw it onto the ground, his anger flaring up again.
"What are you doing now?" Hardcastle asked in alarm.
McCormick grabbed the top of his right shirtsleeve with his left hand. Then he tore at the material. The sleeve let go with a ripping sound, leaving his right bicep bare.
"McCormick, don't d-!" Hardcastle tried again, but was cut off by McCormick.
"You ever noticed this scar?" McCormick said, his voice trembling with anger, as he pointed at the deep scar on his right bicep. "You wanna know how I got it?"
"I'm sure you're gonna tell me," Hardcastle said, trying not to appear shaken up by McCormick's erratic behavior.
"There are a lot of other scars, but not as bad as this one. You probably noticed them, too," McCormick said, looking Hardcastle in the eye.
"Yeah, kiddo, I did."
Hardcastle did indeed notice some smaller scars on McCormick's neck, chest and forehead. They were faint, not disfiguring at all, but they were there. He never asked the kid about it, and McCormick never bothered to tell him how he got them. He wondered at times if McCormick had suffered some kind of accident. He was about to find out that it was no accident at all.
"Did your uncle beat you?" Hardcastle asked, tentatively.
"Sometimes, especially when he was drunk. He beat his wife, too. Most of the times I managed to evade him and hide somewhere, though. He was a drunken fool, not an athlete. I would run rings around him, and hide under some old cardboard boxes inside the neighbors' tool shed. His wife wasn't as lucky as I was. He used to grab her by the hair and knock her around. She didn't have the guts to leave him, and was caught between a rock and a hard place. She never worked, either," McCormick explained.
"The filthy bastard," Hardcastle growled.
"Sonny Daye is to blame for all of this! He had sentenced my mother to loneliness, misery and eventually death. She couldn't afford medical insurance, and had no money for trips to doctors and hospitals. She was a waitress at a crummy restaurant, and the rules were simple – no work, no pay! I was delivered into the hands of a worthless drunk and his wife, who couldn't even stand up for herself," McCormick snapped angrily, wringing his hands together.
"But how did he hurt you?" Hardcastle couldn't help but ask.
McCormick let out a shuddery sigh. He wished he could end this conversation, but that old sore inside him had been pricked open by everything that had happened during the past few days. There was no turning back, now. It was strange, but he felt relieved in a way, by spilling this awful can of worms.
"One day, my uncle came home from work, already as drunk as a skunk. He had been drinking heavily all the time, and got trouble at work about it. On that particular day, he got fired because of it. He arrived home, raging like a bull about unfair dismissal, and how unkind the world was towards him. Can you believe that?" McCormick carried on, getting more worked up by the minute.
"That's what drunken morons like him always say," Hardcastle agreed.
"My aunt was furious about it, for she had also reached breaking point. She told him to go back the way he came and look for another job. Big mistake! He grabbed her by the throat and started choking her. I had arrived from school a few minutes earlier, and was tidying my room up. I heard the screaming, and it sounded like my aunt really was in trouble. I couldn't just sit around and do nothing. My aunt needed help, for that bastard was about to choke the life out of her."
"That's revolting," Hardcastle grumbled.
"I grabbed my uncle from behind and try to tear him away from her, and then he turned on me. He threw my aunt against the dinner table, and she smacked her head against it. I could hear something crack inside her when it happened. She collapsed onto the floor. I screamed at him that he had killed her. That made him see red. He shoved me backwards with such force that I smashed into the living room window. The window frame wasn't made to withstand flying boys. It gave way and I crashed through the window, like a projectile. I landed in a heap of broken glass, cut into ribbons, bleeding like a stuck pig," McCormick said with his voice pain-filled, trembling as he told his tale of misery.
Hardcastle closed his eyes for a moment, and saw that ghastly picture with clarity in his mind. A skinny boy with blood in his curls, went hurtling through the broken window, in slow motion. Droplets of blood and glittering glass shards trailed behind him in an arc as he went crashing into the ground, head first. He saw the critically injured boy lying in a growing pool of his own blood, covered with glass shards. He looked up at McCormick, standing next to the bed with his wide eyes and trembling hands. Deep pity for this luckless young man welled up in his heart. It was mirrored in his eyes.
"McCormick, I'm really sorry to hear that," he said with earnestness in his voice. "And I'm sorry that I had to bully you into telling me all of this. You didn't deserve any it."
"Nobody does! That swine, he had killed his wife, and left me outside on the ground to die! He just staggered away, out the front gate, swearing as he went. The neighbors heard the commotion, and decided to investigate. They found me, unconscious from the enormous blood loss. It was too late for my aunt, though. Her neck had snapped when she hit the dinner table. My uncle was horribly strong when he was drunk."
"Holy crap, McCormick, that's horrific. What happened to your uncle?" Hardcastle asked, appalled.
"He was caught, convicted on charges of murder and attempted murder. He got his butt thrown in the cooker, where he died twelve years later."
"What happened to you?" Hardcastle asked, the pity still present in his eyes.
"Well, the neighbors had scraped what was left of me from the ground and took me to the hospital, where I lay for months. I was badly cut, as you know, and I had lost a lot of blood. The doctors had me stitched up; I looked like Frankenstein's little brother, let me tell you. I had a broken collarbone, as well as a broken arm. I had also suffered severe head injuries, and the doctors feared that I might lose my left eye. After I left the hospital, I was more or less functioning again. But the scars were awful, and it took a long time for them to fade. I was placed in a foster home, with nice people and everything, but I was broken, on the inside as well. I ran away, and kept running away from all the other foster parents I had stayed with, thereafter. You could say I was trying to run away from what happened to me, trying to leave the past behind," McCormick continued, walking towards the bed. He plopped down onto it again, sighing heavily. He was terribly tired, and the pent-up anger had bled away as he talked.
"What happened to me did strange things to my head, and I was in and out of trouble most of the time. Remember the joyriding beef? Boy, I used to be a first class screw-up, hell, I still am," McCormick said, and sniffed loudly, staring at the carpet. He couldn't look Hardcastle in the eye any more. He had run out of words for the time being. He didn't feel like repeating all the stupid mistakes he had made in his past to Hardcastle at all.
"McCormick, look at me," Hardcastle said, taking the kid by the arm.
Mark lifted his head, trying to blink the moisture from his eyes. He really didn't want to cry in front of Hardcastle.
"You aren't a screw-up, you hear? I don't want to hear you say that about yourself again," Milt said, with stern pity in his voice.
McCormick looked at him, shaking his head. "If I'm not a screw-up, then what am I?" he asked at last, sounding lost.
"McCormick, just listen to me. Life is never one sweet song, you know, and for you it was a song filled with jarring, grating, off-key buzzing and yammering," Hardcastle said, with earnestness in his voice.
"Hmmmpf! It's more like the kind of racket the Jazz Masters would raise," McCormick snorted.
That made Hardcastle laugh; the kid's warped sense of humor still worked.
"Well, what I was trying to say is that everybody who walks on the face of the earth - and that includes me – has baggage, hurts that may never heal. You know about the family that I've lost; and maybe one day I might even tell you about it. But you're here, and keeping your nose clean, most of the time. Many kids have been spared what you've gone through, and yet - despite all the horrors - you aren't broken, not anymore. You're hurt, but your head's still screwed on the right way, and you possess a keen intelligence that really comes in handy when we chase the bad guys," Hardcastle said with surprising earnestness.
"Wait a minute, here! I thought you said I wasn't the brightest bulb in the box, remember? What has changed now, huh?" McCormick asked, with the ghost of a smile on his face. His eyes were still a little moist.
"Aww, I just said that to yank your chain a little, you always try to be smart with me! What I was trying to say is that you're gonna be all right, McCormick. You still have the rest of your life ahead of you, and you could still make a big success of it. It's up to you. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. I'm not gonna tell you to forget about Sonny, but seen in the light of what a weasel he is, you're way better off without him. We came all this way to find that out. I'm really sorry about what happened to you and your mother, kiddo," Milt said with a gentler tone in his voice.
"I've often wondered if Sonny had left us because of me; he didn't want a snot-nosed little boy on his hands. My parents sure as hell didn't plan to have me," McCormick said, shaking his head.
"You can't carry the blame for the fact that you were born, McCormick. Many kids were never planned, but are still loved by their parents. It makes no difference to them. Sonny didn't leave you because you were born. He's just a failure as a parent," Hardcastle continued.
"And I hate him for that! He should've stayed away from my mother, he destroyed her life!" McCormick growled.
"Would you be here today if that happened? Come on, McCormick. And don't hate him, rather pity him, for he's a pathetic, spineless chicken. He's no good to anybody! No child could ever look up to someone like him. He doesn't deserve a good kid like you."
"Easy for you to say! Your father never threw you away like a dirty dishrag. Do you have any idea how people like me have to battle with feelings of worthlessness and inferiority all our lives, because our own fathers didn't want us?"
"I do have an idea, McCormick. I was a cop and a judge for many years, remember? Many of the trials in my courtroom involved cases of child abuse. Some people never should've been parents, like Sonny. They do terrible things, and their kids have to suffer. The world is a very hostile place for those children. Many grow up to be criminals, many grow up and rise above their past and become successful. You can't let that fleabag drag you down for the rest of your life. You deserve better, kiddo," Hardcastle explained, putting his hand on McCormick's shoulder again. The kid still had a long, long way to go before he's ready to put the past behind him, and to cross the bridge to self-acceptance.
"That fleabag is probably halfway across the country right now," McCormick said with a sigh. He was spent, and not in the mood to talk about the horrors of his childhood any more. He was surprised at what a good listener ol' Hardcase could be if he put his mind to it.
"Sheesh, and look at this room! I really messed it up, huh!" McCormick said, changing the subject. He surveyed the damage he caused. "I'm still in a heap of trouble, aren't I?" He looked at his torn shirtsleeve, and sighed again.
"Oh, how could you be blamed for this little accident? You were half asleep and didn't put your cigarette butt out properly, and the paper inside the waste basket caught fire, remember?" Hardcastle said with a smile, standing up from his chair.
"Juuudge! That's-" McCormick began, his eyes big.
"Exactly my point. Smokers should be more careful where they toss their cigarette butts. I'll straighten it out with the manager in the morning," Hardcastle said, winking an eye at McCormick. "Just don't do it again!"
"You're something else, you know," McCormick said with a smile. He felt better, already. "Thanks, Hardcase, for everything, and for saving me from becoming a pyromaniac."
"You're welcome, kid. Now go to sleep, ya hear! You look ready to fall on your face." Hardcastle said, ruffling McCormick's curls. He opened the door and left the room.
"Kids!" he muttered under his breath, shaking his head as he went back to his own room. "Ya can't live with them, but ya can't live without them, either!"