(Something that I started working on earlier this year, in between JBtS updates, and I hope you guys will enjoy it.)
Disclaimer: I don't own the rights to Nolan's awesome characters, but I enjoy writing about them.
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"Hello, you've reached Lisabette Miller. I'm sorry, but I've missed you at this time. Please leave your name and number, and I will return your call. Thank you."
Traveling light with just his messenger bag, Arthur was able to bolt for the exit before any of the other, jet-lagged, airplane passengers could get in his way, as they fumbled slowly and obliviously with their bags stored in the overhead compartments of the cabin. He needed the fresh air desperately. He was fairly sure the balding, red-faced businessman sitting directly front of him had eaten something volatile— Arthur guessed it had been a hard boiled egg topped with ketchup and fish sauce. The woman who'd sat behind Arthur had spent most of the flight leaning over and flirting in a slurred voice with a much younger man, who'd been unlucky enough to be seated next to her. Arthur had listened closely when she'd mentioned something about a man in Russia proclaiming that he was close to perfecting time travel, but stopped when she started to sound more like the kid from "David After Dentist".
"Thank you for flying with us today, sir, I hope you enjoy your time in New York," one of the stewardesses stationed at the front of the cabin remarked with a toothy grin.
Arthur nodded to the woman, cellphone pressed to his cheek, and stepped off the plane and entered into the jet bridge. He felt his mouth curve downward, listening to the answering machine message. He'd called hours before and there had also been no one around to answer his call.
"Hey." He passed through the flight gate and entered the terminal. His plane had landed at a quarter to eight a.m. and the sun had barely made a dent in the lingering darkness in the sky outside. "I'm in town. I'm gonna make a couple stops before I head to the house. I need warmer clothes—it feels a lot colder than I thought it would be. Not used to it, I guess. I'll call again before I head over to see you…"
It's strange… even this time of the day I usually get an answer by the third or fourth ring… I thought maybe she'd just slept through the ringing. Something's off.
He tried to shake the odd, uneasy feeling that he realized had him rushing through the terminal. He considered foregoing the trip to the bookstore that he'd planned, but told himself that he was being paranoid, and slowed down. He stopped outside of the bookstore and quickly glanced inside. He already knew what she would want to read.
"Talk to you soon," he added, finishing the message. "Love you."
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Damn, I wasn't being paranoid. Something is off.
It was now nine-thirty in the morning. The tips of his gloved fingers hurt where they pressed into the newest Alex Cross novel he'd bought for her. Arthur could feel the hairs rise at the back of his neck as he lifted his hand and rapped his knuckles on the red surface of the front door before him. Behind him, the yard of the colonial style house was encased in a couple inches of fresh snow. The only traces of life were his footprints. He guessed her car was in her garage, though nowadays she only used it for grocery shopping.
It can take an old woman a few minutes to climb out of bed and make it to the door… just give her time.
He leaned to the side and peeked into one of the windows, and held a hand to his brow to get a better look. Inside was dark and silent, and his breath fogged up the cold glass. Sighing, he wrapped his grey-and-white scarf tighter around his neck, and tucked the loose ends into the front of his light-weight, brown coat. He was never in New York long enough to bother investing in anything thicker, when layering was so much more convenient.
"Hey, excuse me, can I help you?"
Arthur straightened up and turned around. At the end of the sidewalk stood an older woman wearing a knit, purple cap over wavy, graying hair. Suspicion deepened the lines around her mouth. She had a red scarf tucked under her chin, and she was walking her very alert black lab.
He went to stand at the top of the three steps that led off the porch. Someone had to know what he'd missed. "Do you know if Ms. Miller is out of town?" When the woman's concerned frown deepened, he explained calmly, "This is my grandmother's house… But she doesn't seem to be home." He flexed his free hand, and tucked the new book under his arm. "I've called here three times. I've knocked on the door, and there's no answer."
The woman's eyes widened. Signaling to her dog with kissing sounds, she pulled the dog with her up the snow-hidden walkway towards the young man. "Is your name Arthur? Is that your car?" She gestured to the red, sporty car on the street.
He nodded. "Yes."
"I'm Dana. I live down the street." A relieved smile broke over her face. "You know, I've heard many nice things about you." She then sucked on her lips for a moment, the smile disappearing. "Dear, Lisabette's in the hospital. I've been picking up her mail and newspapers for the last few days, after Cheryl was dismissed."
The skin between Arthur's eyes pinched as he descended the steps. "Cheryl?" He shook his head.
Dana's shoulders fell. "Lisabette's caregiver. You didn't know, did you?"
"No. I didn't." He tried hard to keep his eyes up and focused on the woman. "My grandmother has always been very independent."
"Well… an ambulance took her away a couple weeks ago. She was having trouble breathing, and the last time we visited, she had a pretty bad cough. I'm sorry, Arthur."
He reminded himself to breathe. "She's…?"
Dana shook her head. "She's still alive."
Arthur stood and listened as she told him the name of the hospital where his grandmother was staying. Extending a hand, he thanked Lisa for telling him what had happened.
"You see that green house down the street? If you need anything, Arthur, you know where to find me." Dana patted her dog on the head. Her cheeks and nose were pink, and her eyes shined.
He felt his face flush. "Thank you, I do appreciate it."
Dana wished him all the best and moved on with her dog, allowing him to walk through the snowy yard to his vehicle. He didn't bother shaking the snow off his boots, but cranked up the car heat and blew on his numb hands. He put the book in the passenger's seat.
She didn't want me to be worried, that's why I didn't know. I do the same thing…
Arthur felt guilty. In the nearly nineteen months since the inception job on Fischer, he'd pulled six, much smaller jobs. The last job had ended roughly seven weeks before. He'd stayed away for her own safety, and had only allowed himself to stop in for a couple days during the springtime, a year after the inception and the botched Cobol job. He'd skipped the previous two Thanksgivings and the last Christmas season entirely.
She would have made contact with me somehow if it were too serious, he tried to reason with himself. Something would have been done. She must be on the path to recovery, and she'll be able to leave in a few days…
The skin under the collar of his shirt burned, and he tore off the scarf and dropped it over top of the book already resting there. Suddenly, his phone vibrated in his pocket, and he quickly dug it out.
It's her! It's—"
"Fucking Eames…" he muttered, recognizing the forger's most recent phone number. What did he want? His throat constricting as he swallowed anxiously, Arthur waited for the call to go directly to voicemail, long enough for a message to be left, before he turned off the phone.
Shifting into drive, his car slipped away from the curb and into the slushy roadway. It would take him a good hour to get out of the suburbs and to the hospital—if traffic permitted.
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"She's your maternal grandmother?"
"Any other relatives you wish to contact about the situation?"
"No. Uh… She's the last of her family, and her husband died a few years back, and their only child was my mother. She's gone, too."
Outside the hospital room, Arthur could see her through the little rectangular window. In the bed, she was lying on her back, eyes closed. She had an oxygen tube that snaked across both pale cheeks and under her nose. Short, white, wavy hair radiated out from her wearied face. Her frail hands—dwarfed by an I.V. and an over-bearing heart monitor pinched onto an index finger—were clasped over the dark pink blanket across her chest. Her elbows were out to her sides. She did not look like a woman who was going to get better anytime soon.
"Your grandmother came here with a severe case of the flu, which she had sought treatment for previously, and had been slowly improving," a male doctor in teal scrubs and a white coat told Arthur, "but as of late her state of health has declined, and we fear that her lungs are becoming quite damaged."
Arthur frowned. He'd been pulled out into the hallway to hear what the doctor had to say. "Well, what's that mean?" he asked quietly. "And please, don't bullshit me." He swallowed. "Does she have a future?"
"No, she probably does not have much longer to live."
Arthur's rested a hand over his mouth and jaw, and dropped his gaze to the floor.
"You'll want to say your good-byes…" the doctor added.
Arthur glanced again through the little window into the plain hospital room. He'd never felt so useless.
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"Cobb… I can't."
A heavy silence grew out of those three short words, like the pressure a person feels in his stomach before he vomits—wanting to keep it all down, but his will is no match for his bodily reflexes.
"Arthur, you've never turned down a job…"
He blinked slowly. How much did I give away by declining a job? By opening my mouth? He didn't bother asking why I can't commit.
"No," the point man acknowledged flatly. "I have never turned down a job."
It was around eight a.m., and Arthur had spent two entire nights at the hospital. He'd only gotten to his apartment five minutes before, and hadn't troubled himself to turn on a light, painting the plain walls and simple furniture in hazy tones of gray. Beyond the frosted window of his sparse apartment, more snow was falling. The city was reduced to white and gray organic shapes that blended in with one another. Misty clouds hung low over the higher rooftops, and tall, dark buildings in the distance looked ominous and formless. Arthur stood at an angle so that he wouldn't catch his frowning, stubbled reflection in the glass.
"Eames said you're ignoring his calls. Took me a couple tries myself to get a hold of you. I heard you and him butted heads the last time you worked together." Cobb gave a weak chuckle before he added lowly, "Not surprising… He told me to make sure you weren't missing or dead. Apparently, you've never snubbed him so ruthlessly."
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his over-strained, itchy eyes. He muttered, "This isn't about us 'butting heads', if that's what you're getting at."
Eames was collecting teammates, without Cobb, who had been safe at home with his kids since the inception. From what Cobb had described, it would be an easy job for the forger. He was employing Ariadne as his architect. Due to finals right before the holidays, Ariadne would work from Paris and would have her plans ready in time to practice en route. She would stay out of the field, though Arthur knew it was only because she already had enough on her plate. Eames had other people he could call to watch his back, though they'd lack the familiarity the forger had grown accustomed to after half a decade of working with Cobb and Arthur— complimentary harassment included.
"Oh. Well… Everything…? Your voice— How are you?"
Arthur scratched the side of his rough jaw with his fingernails, knowing how worthless it probably was to lie. To lie at that point would be a poor choice, and it would only serve to raise the older man's suspicions. Arthur, the point man… well, he's supposed to be calm and collected, resourceful. If anything, he lacked the energy to make the attempt to lie to Cobb.
He could tell Cobb was growing impatient. Stiffly, he sat down on the arm of one of his couches. "I'm watching Lisabette." He hadn't expected his voice to crack, ever so slightly, and he tried to swallow down the swelling lump in his throat. "It's not good… I came home, and I haven't kept in touch."
A sympathy-saturated sigh oozed over the phone line. "Oh… I see."
Immediately, Arthur's shoulders tensed. "Cobb. Make something up to tell to Eames. I don't have time for him." The forger didn't need to know about his family life.
Soon he wouldn't have much of one…
Arthur was staring sightlessly out the window again when Cobb, the family man, spoke his name twice. He realized sadly that a resentful pang of jealousy had risen up in his chest when he finally responded to his friend with a stunned, "Huh?"
"I said, care if I send flowers?"
The point man thought it over, standing up again and navigating through the dark to his cold bedroom in the back of the apartment. He paused in the doorway a moment. "She likes roses of any color." Telling Cobb the hospital address and room number, he fought hard to keep his voice calm, but that only made things worse. This wasn't going well at all.
"That woman is wonderful. I know you owe your grandmother a lot."
"Now, I thought I was pushing my luck with the flowers… You… probably don't want company. It's only an offer."
Now standing in front of his closet, Arthur shook his head grimly before he remembered how Cobb was merely a phone gripped in his fist, compressed to his ear. "I'm fine," was all he was able to spit out. All he could get out.
"Understood." Cobb was quiet a second. "But, if you do need—"
"I'll call," Arthur forced himself to say, feeling awkward. "I don't know when." The closet was open and he was digging for something clean and warm. Most of his clothes were still in his messenger bag, which was sprawled out like a corpse on the floor in front of his hamper. He tried to tug a sweater off its hanger with his free hand, but successfully ended up knocking it and a couple ties onto the wood floor. "Shit…" he hissed.
"Okay, Arthur, send my regards…" Cobb replied in a level tone.
He ended the call quickly with a sigh, scooping up his clothes. He tossed the phone and the navy blue sweater and a striped dress shirt toward the bed in the middle of the room, before carefully replacing the two ties back on the hanger where they belonged with the others.
Sorry, Cobb. Priority number one is getting cleaned up before getting back to that hospital. There's no time to feel guilty about acting like an asshole. It isn't like I'm the one who's dying. I have time later to apologize.
He had to get back there. Fear and frustration wound up his guts, and as he moved unfocusedly around the apartment, he could feel his hands as they clenched and unclenched. He hated feeling afraid that something might happen while he wasn't at her side.
Within fifteen minutes he had showered, shaved, and was pulling on his brown coat, keys clenched in his fist. Right before stepping out the door, he pulled a small, red die from his pants pocket. Absently, he ran the hard cube across the tips of his fingers. He didn't need to roll the totem. He wanted to pitch it across the apartment and through one of the windows.
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