When he woke up at 7 a.m., B.J. wasn't even sure exactly where he was. He smacked the travel alarm clock into silence and blinked a few times. For a few frightening moments, he truly had no idea why nothing looked familiar… why this room was completely foreign to him. Eventually, though, his brain began to function properly, and relief flooded his body.
That's right, he was in a motel room in Pittsburgh. He'd been exhausted when he'd checked in shortly after midnight, and he'd gone unconscious almost immediately after his head hit the pillow. Four days now of nearly nonstop driving. He hadn't realized how much this kind of journey takes out of you. Just sitting in a car and driving, all alone with his thoughts and daydreams and anxieties… he'd never imagined how tiring it would be.
Instead of rolling out of bed right away, he turned over onto his back and stared at the ceiling for a while.
Kind of late to be wondering now, but… am I doing the right thing? Does this make any sense?
He had no answer for himself. He shut his eyes. Tried to focus, tried to relax… get some perspective.
I'll never be able to shake you.
Sometimes he swore he could hear his voice. Sometimes it felt like he was next to him. As if he could reach out and… yeah… there he was. Close enough to touch.
Musings of a demented mind, he thought with something between amusement and horror. He'd laugh at me if he had any idea what my thoughts have been like lately. Who belongs in the nuthouse now?
He sighed and pulled himself out of bed, padded to the shower. Standing underneath a just-barely-warm stream of water, he thought, Really close now. I'll be there tonight. His heart took a jump. The thought excited him and terrified him. Nearly at the end of a long, long trip…
But who knew what that actually meant.
Many months before… Both of them sitting on Hawkeye's cot… who could remember why. Looking at the same medical journal, maybe… or the same nudie magazine. There were always equal amounts of each in the Swamp. B.J. could remember no details, only that at some point he realized he was feeling strangely lulled by the sound of Hawkeye's voice. He closed his eyes and felt the vibrations echoing in his brain and thought… I love that voice. It comforted him, made him feel safe and relaxed. Like the sound of a dove, or a father singing his baby to sleep. It sounded, he realized, like peace.
He blinked his eyes open and turned off the shower. Time to get going.
He stopped at a diner for breakfast, bacon and eggs. There were truck drivers sitting along the counter, kidding the waitresses, taking their daily dose of socialization before getting back into their trucks and on the road. Lonely job, B.J. thought. He'd gotten a taste of it over the last few days, just motoring along the highways, and he could say with absolute certainty that he did not envy these guys.
At least his journey was nearly done.
He lingered over coffee. He savored coffee now, ever since coming home, because every cup he'd had in Korea had tasted dreadful. Putting a ton of sugar into it never helped. It was always too strong, too bitter. But they drank it anyway, because it was a caffeine fix, and caffeine was vital.
Sitting in the mess tent over breakfast, so close to Hawkeye their thighs were touching… swapping his bacon for Hawk's sausage… taking a bite of Hawk's scrambled eggs while he was at it. Hawkeye never minded. It was a ritual, almost… the exchange of food… the way they always seemed to end up with something different on their trays than they'd started with, but somehow it was what they'd each actually wanted. A kind of bizarre barter without words. Much of their communication, he now realized, occurred without words.
Once back on the road, he turned on the radio but kept the music soft. He'd found that it soothed him if he occasionally talked out loud to himself, even though it seemed like a crazy thing to do. But hell, everything about the last few days was crazy… what difference did one more thing make?
"He knew before I did," he told himself, there in the car, as he made his way to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. "There were times when he'd look at me, and I'd wonder what was behind that look… He knew that it would someday come to this. That someday I'd be making my way across the goddamn country to get to him."
Throwing everything away… everything I thought I ever wanted… just tossing it out the window.
War changes a man in so many ways. Even if you're not on the front lines, fighting the battles, it changes you. Before Korea, B.J. had never known terror like he saw there. He'd never before looked into the panicked eyes of a dying young man. He'd never thought too long or too hard about death… not really. Oh, clinically he understood death. He'd just never stopped to consider the finality of it.
The war showed him that life was too short, to coin a phrase. Too short, in fact, for regrets. You just put the bullshit on the back burner and you man up and you ask yourself: what's important? What matters? What do you want?
He knew now what he wanted… hell, he'd probably known all along.
Because he was so close, because it was the final day of his journey, he drove nearly nonstop, only taking a couple of bathroom breaks and eating a hasty lunch at a fast-food joint at 2 in the afternoon. As a result, he pulled into the long gravel driveway of the Pierce residence in Crabapple Cove, Maine, soon after 8 p.m.
Sitting in the Swamp one night while Hawkeye was on post-op duty, looking at the latest issue of the Crabapple Cove Courier, smiling because the Cove seemed like exactly the type of place where Hawkeye belonged. Reading the random article—"Small fire engulfed Harry Osterman's backyard shed, quickly extinguished by the town's volunteer firefighters, nobody injured"… "Local librarian Sylvia Kline retired after 35 years at the Crabapple Cove branch…"—and he saw Hawkeye at 6, at 10, at 15, growing up in this idyllic small town. Then without even realizing he was doing it, he began to picture himself in the town as well… fishing with Hawkeye, getting to know the locals, picking up groceries at the general store. He just kept idly paging through the newspaper, lost in this world… until suddenly he was pulled back to the present by the sound of Zale's voice, talking to somebody out in the compound, not to him, but it was enough to bring B.J. out of his trance. And he shook his head, thinking, what was I doing? What the hell was that all about?
Doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure that out, he thought now, bringing his car to a stop at the end of the driveway.
As he unfolded himself from the car seat and stood looking at the house in front of him, his vision went a little gray and his stomach did a somersault. All this way… all this way… and now what?
Even before he stepped onto the porch, the front door opened and there stood Hawkeye, like a dream. He'd probably heard the car coming down the driveway. His mouth dropped open at the sight of his former campmate from Korea, and it looked comical. Or it would have if B.J. weren't so terrified.
"Beej?" Hawkeye asked, frozen in the doorway of his house. His head tilted, as if taking a look from a slightly different angle might change the reality. "What are you…? Are you all right?"
That was an odd question to ask, but B.J. supposed he wasn't looking like himself right then, so he assured Hawkeye, "Yeah, I'm OK. Hi, Hawk." The whole thing seemed bizarre and surreal, and he had to laugh. "How are ya?"
Hawkeye finally moved then, practically flying from the door of his house down the porch steps to meet his visitor. He pulled B.J. into a bear hug, placing his hand on the back of his head, just as he had when they'd parted less than six weeks before. During the plane ride home from Korea, B.J. had continued to feel the presence of that hand on his head, as if a ghost were touching him.
I'll never be able to shake you.
"I don't want you to," he said now, and Hawkeye pulled back a bit to look at his face.
"You don't want me to what?" he asked, confusion mixing with concern in his expression.
And B.J. took a deep breath, his hands still clutching Hawkeye's forearms, his eyes holding the man's gaze. "You said you'd never be able to shake me. Remember… when we were saying goodbye? Well… I'm here… and I want to always be here, with you. I want to make a life with you, if that's OK, if that's what you want too. I'm here, Hawk… and I… I don't want you to shake me."
He'd rehearsed what he had wanted to say, and yet what he ended up saying was not even remotely close. The contents of his head had just somehow spilled out. He was starting to feel foolish, like he wanted a do-over because he was fumbling the ball so badly, but then he realized that Hawkeye was both smiling broadly and tearing up, and that made him realize that his words had worked. Right ones or wrong ones, they'd managed to work.
Hawkeye didn't speak, or maybe couldn't, but he did pull B.J. roughly back into another hug, this one more ardent than the first… this one saying the things the two of them couldn't say out loud at the moment.
B.J. shut his eyes and brushed a kiss over Hawkeye's temple as he held on tight. He let out a sigh of utter contentment.
His journey was over. His life was just beginning.