Jim looked around the dining room of the Ellison household, absently adjusting the sling on his wounded arm. He hadn't sat at this table for more than twenty years. His memories of it were not good ones. Meals had been opportunities for their father to harangue him and Steven about whatever failing was currently topping his list. He'd lost count of the number of times he and Steven had been sent from the table, supperless until Sally sneaked them leftovers later on. He'd always laughed at televised images of pleasant family dinners, knowing them for fantasies.
Now here he was, back at the same table, with the same tablecloth, the same dishes and silverware. He and Steven still sat in their accustomed chairs on opposite sides of the table, their father at its head. But some things were different. Sally sat at the other end of the table now, an unheard of breach of the employer/housekeeper relationship when Jim was a kid. And Blair Sandburg sat next to Jim. Twenty years ago, no long-haired, weirdo hippie freak would have been allowed in William Ellison's house, much less at his dinner table. But there Blair sat, chatting away with Sally, Steven, and his father, hands flying through the air when they weren't engaged in getting food into his mouth. Nobody was yelling; everyone looked happy. It was weird.
"Blair," Steven said when he could get a word in, "Jim told me what happened."
"Oh." Blair's gaze fell to his plate. "Yeah, I messed up bigtime."
"Sandburg," Jim growled, "I thought we were past this crap."
"Jim said you saved his life," Steven clarified. "He said you've done that a lot."
"Jim exaggerates," Blair said. "It's more the other way around."
"Not the way Jim tells it. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. In case you hadn't noticed, the Ellison family needs all the help it can get."
Blair smiled. "You're welcome. But according to Jim, it's the Sandburgs who are the trouble-magnets."
"Only one Sandburg, Chief," Jim said.
"You haven't met my cousins."
Blair proceeded to regale them with a story about Robert the bookie, then segue into his truck-driver uncle, all seemingly without taking a breath. When Blair was in the middle of a story involving three big rigs, the Arizona State police, a Navajo hataalii, and a giraffe, Jim caught his father's eye and nodded toward the study. They got up from the table together. Jim felt Blair's concerned gaze as they left the room, but the kid never ceased talking. He didn't even slow down.
Jim closed the study door, closing his ears to sounds outside the room at the same time. "We have to talk, Dad."
Anxiety creased his father's face. "I know. I should have told you what Lyons really had, that he was threatening to expose you. I know that. But I was afraid."
William Ellison? Afraid? "Of what?"
"Him. You. I don't know." His father ran a hand through his hair. "I didn't know what you'd do, Jimmy. I didn't want you to be hurt."
Jim went cold. "Did you think I'd kill him?"
"No!" His heart pounded. "Of course not."
"But I did, Dad. Lyons is dead."
"Not on purpose. You didn't--you didn't set out to kill him. You had no choice: Blair told me."
"What if I'd told you?" Jim demanded. "Would you have believed me?"
His father looked him in the eye. "You're my son."
"Is that a yes or a no?"
"It doesn't matter. You're what matters."
"So you'd support me if I'd murdered him? That would be okay with you?"
"What do you want me to say, Jimmy? You're my son."
"Dad...." Jim shook his head. "Jesus, Dad, this isn't even what I wanted to talk about."
Now he looked away. "What else?"
"What else? You know what else. Why didn't you tell me about Mom? Why didn't you tell me she was a sentinel? Why didn't you tell me she killed herself?"
"You didn't need to know."
"It wouldn't have helped you!" Jim watched his father struggle for control. "Your mother--your mother couldn't cope with her--condition."
Jim exploded. "It's not a condition! She was a sentinel, just like I am!"
"We didn't know that! All we knew was that she had episodes, times when she couldn't block out sounds, or light was so bright the pain made her cry, or she couldn't stand to have any clothes on her body. It started when--when she was pregnant with you. It wasn't bad, at first. We thought it was a side-effect of the pregnancy. Your mother--for a while, she liked it. She could see things, hear things--she could hear your heartbeat, inside her. It was incredible. But when she went into labor.... She was in so much pain, and nothing the doctors gave her helped. I could hear her screaming from the waiting room, but they wouldn't let me in. They didn't let the fathers in, in those days."
"I know, Dad."
He nodded, not really hearing. "When we took you home, she was fine. I thought the sensitivity had gone away, but it hadn't. She always knew whether you were sleeping or awake, when you needed changing. I thought--Hell, I'd never been a father before, I thought it was something all mothers could do. I was in awe of her. I guess--I guess I was a little jealous, too. They say that happens with fathers. Her bond with you was amazing, and I knew I'd never have that.
"When she got pregnant again, the sensitivity went away. We thought it was gone for good, but after Steven was born, it came back. This time, it.... She'd never been able to control it, but this was--it hurt her, so much. She avoided--stimulation--as much as she could--"
"The darkened room."
"You remember that? It didn't help. Not for long. Finally, she--she couldn't bear to be here anymore. She loved you boys, but she couldn't stay here. She needed quiet. She left."
"You divorced her."
"She divorced me. She decided that it wasn't fair for me to be tied to her, and I--I couldn't talk her out of it."
"Did you try?"
Anger flashed. "Of course I did! I loved your mother." The anger subsided. His father looked old, older than Jim had ever seen him. "Maybe I could have tried harder, I don't know. When she left, it was hard. I loved her, but I was angry, too. Angry because she left us, and because I couldn't do anything to help her.
"She tried doctors. When they didn't help, she went to Lyons. He was a good man; he tried. But he couldn't help her either. When she realized that nothing could help, that she was only getting worse, Grace...."
"She killed herself. And you told us she'd been sick."
Tears stood in his father's eyes. "I couldn't tell you the truth, Jimmy. I knew you had the same sensitivity as your mother. You seemed to be handling it okay, but there was no guarantee that it wouldn't get worse, that you wouldn't.... How could I tell you, Jimmy? How could I tell you your mother killed herself? How could I tell you why?"
Realization stunned him. "You were afraid I'd kill myself, like she did."
A whisper. "Yes. You're my son, Jimmy. I wanted to protect you. I wanted to do everything I could to help you grow up."
"To grow up normal, you mean."
"To grow up! To live. And yes, I wanted you to be normal. I'd seen what your mother's sensitivity did to her. I thought, if you didn't have it, you'd be all right. I loved you. I only wanted to protect you. That's all."
His father touched a trembling hand to his arm. Jim studied the narrow, lined face, the hope and anguish, the trace of old bitterness. Somewhere within him, something softened. Gently, lightly, he folded his father in his good arm. "Okay, Dad. Okay."
His father returned the embrace, his arms thinner than Jim remembered, his strength leeched by age. It didn't last long; they were uptight Ellison men, after all, not Sandburgs. Jim stepped back, fixing his father with a stern gaze.
"You've got to tell Steven."
"I know. I will."
"All right." He sighed. "All right."
"I can't believe it." Steven looked from Jim to his father, shaking his head. "I can't believe it. When Jim told me that he was one of these--these--"
"Sentinels," Jim supplied.
"--sentinels, that was hard enough. But Mom?" He shook his head again. "I can't believe it."
"You believed me," Jim said. "Why is this so hard?"
"I didn't, at first. But then I remembered, when we were kids, how you could see things, hear things no one else could. I didn't think anything of it at the time. It was just something else you were better at than me. But Mom.... I don't remember her doing anything like that."
"You were really young when she left, Steven. Do you remember anything about her at all?"
"Just that she was pretty. And--she always seemed to have a headache. She was always in her room, lying down. I used to think it was my fault, that I'd made her sick by making too much noise or not doing what I was told." He gave a rueful smile. "Guess it was my fault after all, huh?"
"Absolutely not," their father declared. "Don't even think that, Stevie. What happened to your mother was not your fault."
"But you said she was handling it fine until I came along. Doesn't that make it my fault?"
"No," Jim said. "No way, Steven."
"Then explain it to me, Jim. If it wasn't my fault, whose fault was it?"
At a loss, Jim looked to Blair. Silent until now, the anthropologist stirred to life.
"It's no one's fault, man. You're looking at this the wrong way. Your mother was a sentinel, yeah, but her senses didn't come online the way most sentinels' do. Jim had his from birth. Sir Richard Burton--the explorer, not the actor--said that most sentinels' abilities manifested when they were isolated for a period of time, probably in some kind of coming of age rite of passage, similar to the vision quests of certain Native American tribes, or...." Blair grimaced. "Sorry. Anyway, your mother's abilities didn't manifest until she got pregnant. It's possible that it was a defensive reaction of her body to the changes it went through, or it may have been psychologically triggered by her feeling isolated due to her condition; it could even have been a way to help her prepare for having a sentinel baby. We'll never know. You can't assign blame for something we don't understand." Blair turned to their father. "Mr. Ellison, were there complications with either of Grace's pregnancies?"
"No. They both went fine. She had no trouble."
"Good. We can assume her becoming pregnant again did have something to do with her abilities going offline, maybe as a protective measure for Grace, so she wouldn't experience the pain she went through with Jim. But, as far as we know, there was no physical reason for her abilities to go back online the way they did. Given the conditions we know about, she should have had the same level of control she had before. Her abilities didn't go out of control because you were born, Steven. They couldn't have. We'll probably never know what did happen. But it wasn't you."
"How can you be sure?" Steven asked.
"He's the expert," Jim said. "Trust him, Steven. I do. Without Blair, I would've been in Mom's situation."
"Never, Jim," Blair said. "Not you."
"Yes, me. Don't downplay your part in this, Chief. You didn't when we met. Remember? 'Mess with me and you will never figure out what's up with you.'"
"You were holding me off the floor at the time, Jim. I would've said pretty much anything to get you to let go."
"It was the truth. No one else could've helped me, Chief. They would've put me away somewhere."
Blair just shook his head.
"So, Blair," Steven ventured, "are you the only expert on sentinels?"
"As far as I know. And I'm not exactly an expert. I'm just the only one who's made a study of sentinels in the last century or so."
"How did you find out about them?"
"I read a monograph by Burton about fifteen years ago. It had basically gone straight into obscurity after he published it. The concept of sentinels fascinated me, so I researched it on and off through school. I wrote some papers, and eventually, it became my dissertation subject. I had hundreds of documented cases of people with one or two hyperactive senses, but I never thought I'd find a real sentinel. I was pretty much convinced they didn't exist anymore, except maybe in remote locations, like the Amazon. Then I found out about Jim." Blair smiled. "It was like all my dreams had come true all at once. When he agreed to let me study him, I was ecstatic. Of course, that was before I knew what a hardnose he is."
Blair grinned. "Jim fought me every step of the way. No matter what I asked him to do, his first reaction was always to say no. It still is, most of the time, but I don't have to argue as hard as I used to."
"Sounds familiar," his father murmured.
Steven grinned back at Blair. "You're getting him trained, huh?"
"I'm working on it."
"I'm the one doing the training," Jim declared. "You wouldn't believe what a slob this guy used to be. I'd come home to find the whole apartment covered with books and papers, discarded clothes, and the remains of whatever weird concoction he'd been eating. Not to mention the assorted artifacts and dead animals he'd leave lying around."
Blair laughed. "That is so not true. I do not deal with dead animals. And I was never that much of a slob. It's just that Jim was so anal, he thought a magazine out of place on the coffee table was a major disaster."
"There you go, Sandburg, obfuscating again."
"That is not an obfuscation, Jim. It might be a slight exaggeration, but--"
Steven shook his head, making no effort to suppress his laughter. "How do you two stand each other?"
Blair and Jim exchanged glances. "He's gotten better," they said.
Jim and Blair sat side by side on the couch, each with a glass of milk and a piece of Sally's chocolate cake, in flagrant violation of House Rule #33. Blair slid a forkful of cake into his mouth, savoring the dark chocolate, the rule-breaking, and the rare peace of the evening. Despite having to balance the plate on his sling, Jim looked equally content, so much that Blair hated to bring up what he knew he had to bring up. He couldn't let it go. As a shaman, an academic, and especially as Jim's friend, he had to do this.
"So, I guess the genetic theory is correct, huh?"
They paused to eat a bite and swallow some milk. So far, so good. Nothing had been spilled, and his head was still on his shoulders. Maybe it was the chocolate. Maybe Jim was mellowing. Nah, must be the chocolate.
"In a way, it's too bad your mother's records were 'lost'. I know Dr. Lyons wasn't able to help her, but they might have told us something."
Jim chewed and swallowed. "You think?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
More cake disappeared. Jim frowned thoughtfully. "Guess it's a good thing they were 'lost' right into my storage space in the basement, then."
"What?" Blair sat up straight. "Jim, are you serious? Why?"
Jim fixed his gaze on his glass. "She was my mother, Chief. I barely knew her. She saw Dr. Lyons for months, told him things. Maybe, if I go through this stuff, I'll know her better."
"Yeah." He laid a quick hand on Jim's arm. "I hope so, man."
"Besides, anything you find out will help me, right?"
"Right. Yeah. Of course."
Possibilities raced through his mind. The things he could learn, the information, the test results he could put to use. This could be incredible!
Whoa. Calm down, Sandburg. This is Jim's mother you're talking about, not some anonymous test subject.
"Jim, are you sure you want me to see this stuff? Some of it's got to be really personal."
"I'm sure, Chief. You're the only one with a chance of understanding what she went through."
Jim finished his cake and took a long drink of milk.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Chief, but part of me wishes you were thirty years older."
Softly. "Because of your mother?"
Jim nodded. "You could have helped her, Blair. If you'd been there, she'd be alive now."
"I wish I could have helped her too, man. But--and don't you take this the wrong way--I'm kind of glad to be here now. With you."
"Yeah." Jim reached out and ruffled Blair's hair. "Me too, Chief. Me too"