The Place of Lost Souls
by Sheila Paulson
Summary: When Jim passes out at his father's funeral, Blair realizes there may be more to his coma than medical science assumes.
Disclaimer: The Sentinel does not belong to me but to Pet Fly, UPN and Paramount. I intend no copyright infringement.
I always hated going to funerals, but this one was worse than most. Standing in the rain, my shoulders hunched against it, I saw Simon Banks, grim-faced as he sheltered beneath a big, black umbrella. Megan Connor was distressed, and Brown and Rafe stood a little back; they'd assumed the decorous countenance of mourning. Joel was just behind us and, when I glanced back at him, he looked as upset as Megan did. There were a smattering of other people I'd never seen before, like a row of crows, in traditional mourning. Sally, eyes wide and tearful. Stephen Ellison, his face so utterly blank I was sure he'd detached himself from the whole process. I didn't have a clue what he felt about it, if anything. He could have been reciting the multiplication tables in his head, for all I knew. The minister spouted the usual garbage, proving he didn't know the deceased. I should have hated that. I should have hated the whole, phony scheme, but I couldn't. I didn't have that luxury.
Jim stood at my side, and his face was as white as milk. The last time I saw him that pale was when he came down with the flu last winter, took a conventional remedy without checking it out with me first, and wound up in the hospital experiencing weird hallucinations. Ever since then, ever since that time on the train, really, I'd drilled it into him: don't take anything until we check on it. Now, he looked like he wanted to close away the whole scene. The muscles in Jim's jaw are usually pretty active anyway; I can spot the tension there before I can see it anywhere else, except in that place inside of me that must be the Guide zone. In there, I can pick up on it when something's wrong with Jim, almost before I see him. Maybe that's the one Sentinel sense a guide has, a kind of ESP for his Sentinel's well- being.
Jim hadn't wanted to come to the funeral at all. "What's the point, Sandburg?"
"He was your father," I'd insisted. "I know you didn't get along with him, and you hadn't even talked to him for years until last year, but I think you should go. I think you need to go."
His eyes were dark with denial. "Why? Catharsis? Closure? Some other new age claptrap? He was nothing to me."
Well, yeah, a case of major denial here. Talk about your dysfunctional family. William Ellison absorbed in his business, his wife disappeared who knows where. Stephen and Jim pitted against each other in a weird toughening-up process that had served to put the brothers at such odds they hadn't spoken for years, either, until that mess at the racetrack a couple of years ago. Jim's still mending the parts of him that got broken when he was growing up. I know he thinks *I* had a weird childhood, and there were things I'd change if I could, but at least I'd always been rock-bottom certain that Naomi loved me. Jim couldn't have known he had any parental love, not until he saw that his dad had kept scrapbooks of his life. Pathetic grasping after what he'd driven away. Jim had talked to the guy occasionally after that, usually on the phone, and I encouraged it. Mending fences was good. Learning to live with his father might have helped him live with himself.
But now Jim's dad was dead, quick and clean, a coronary that took him right away. No lingering, no time for deathbed farewells, just an anguished telephone call from Sally, who had been his housekeeper all those years and who had been the closest thing to a mother that Jim remembered. I took the phone call, heard her sobbing, and knew, just like that. I was the one who broke the news to Jim. I felt that hearing it from me was best.
And, man, he scared me. He heard me out, then he took the phone out of my hand and said all the right things to Sally. But when he hung up, there was nothing in his face, no grief, no remorse, no *feelings*. He went back to the Jags game on TV and picked up his bowl of popcorn as if nothing had happened.
I edged over uneasily. "Jim..."
"Leave it, Sandburg." Talk about cold and final. "Just leave it alone."
"Come on, Jim, don't..."
"Don't what? Do you honestly think I care?" When I looked shocked, he drew a deep breath and said flatly, "Yeah, I care. I care that a life was wasted. I'd be sorry anybody's dead. But he's not you or Simon. It's not like it's personal."
Oh, god, his father was *dead*, and he insisted it wasn't personal. I'd have given anything to have a father I could know and interact with but I'd never had that luxury. Here was Jim saying the man who raised him was less to him than a stranger. I would have been scared of Jim as he said that if I hadn't been so scared *for* him. There was a wealth of denial in his claim. He had to be thinking about what might have been.
But I've known Jim Ellison more than four years and he isn't one of your sentimental types. He cares, but he doesn't wallow in it. Maybe he was afraid too many might-have-beens would push him into feelings he wasn't prepared to face and didn't know how to deal with. When that happens, he has a way of shutting down, going into this automatic cop mode, all stone faced and tough, and when that happens, I know something's eating him, something bad. Sometimes I can even get him to own up to it.
I didn't think I could this time.
Just getting Jim to come to the funeral took every bit of persuasion I could dredge up. I know he was on the phone with Stephen; they both wanted to skip it. But I talked fast and hard and in the end Jim decided he'd go. He made it sound like he was going because it would look bad in the department if he didn't go, and I let him think I believed it. If I challenged what I knew to be a defense mechanism, he'd probably decide to stay home. But I stuck with him, rode along with him when he drove over to his dad's house and went through his papers. He was the executor of William Ellison's estate. Turned out his dad had a lot of money put away that would come to Jim and Stephen. I hoped Jim wouldn't refuse it. Not that he was hard up for money, but it would be a pretty stupid grand gesture.
What got me was that I honestly couldn't tell if there was any grieving going on. There must have been a time once, when Jim had loved his father. Ellison senior hadn't been evil, just a hardass who didn't have any idea how to love his kids. Probably screwed up with Jim's mom, too, or she wouldn't have done her disappearing number. Maybe William even took her desertion out on Jim and Stephen once she was gone.
Thinking of Jim's mom made me look around the cemetery to see if Mrs. Ellison had come to the funeral. Not that I had any reason to think she was even alive, or that, if she were, she lived in the area. There were no strange women lurking in the shelter of the trees, though. No sign of Jim's mom watching her ex-husband laid to his rest. Late husband? Had William ever divorced her? Jim had never said, and this was probably a really crummy time to ask.
I really felt for Jim. Sometimes, when Naomi was visiting me, I'd seen him watching Mom and me together, and I couldn't help wondering if he'd been thinking of his own mother, who hadn't cared enough about her children to stay. Had to hurt, man. Maybe that was why he'd been so quick to forgive Naomi when she'd screwed up and sent my dissertation to her publisher buddy, Sid.
Jim really looked white. His jaw was working furiously, and his hands were clenched into fists. Tension radiated off him like fever heat. This was bad. I had to get him out of here. He didn't look like he was about to zone, but he'd never had to bury his father before, and who knew what kind of symptoms majorly repressed grief might have on a Sentinel. Assuming he even felt any deep down inside.
But I was sure he did. Even if he had convinced himself he'd hated the guy, Jim wasn't the type to write somebody off forever. There was too much good inside him, even if it was all tangled up with a lot of bad stuff. *Hang in there, Jim. This is almost over.* I thought of reaching out and grabbing his arm, but he'd hate it if I called attention to him. So I just edged a little closer and sent shut-up vibes at the minister so he'd finish his clueless filibuster.
Oh, god, Jim was zoning. I could see it in his eyes. They were blank and funny, almost like Jim wasn't in there looking out. It was really eerie. He didn't even look this spaced when he had one of his Sentinel vision things. Then, you could tell there was a lot of inner activity; even with his eyes closed, his eyeballs would jump around like he was in REM sleep. This time, it was like the part of Jim that made him who he was had gone on vacation. It was scary. Sentinel grieving? I wished I'd been able to talk to Incacha when he transferred this Shaman gig to me. There was so much I still didn't know, even though I spent every second I could spare to it researching: going through texts and websites on Shamanism, trying to stay ahead of the game. There was too much to learn, too much I didn't know and had no way to find out except by dumb luck and experimentation. Incacha had known, but, even if he hadn't died, I couldn't speak his language. I know he sometimes appeared to Jim in his visions, but Jim didn't like talking about things like that.
He'd never appeared to me.
"Jim?" I prodded.
No response at all, not even a tiny contraction of his pupils. He was standing there--no, erase that. His body was standing there. His mind was somewhere else. And how the heck to coax him out of one of the weirdest looking zone-outs I'd seen so far without calling the attention of everyone here to him?
I looked over at Simon and willed him to turn in my direction. *Come on, Simon, clue in.* I needed help. In some ways, Simon was harder on me now that I was officially a cop than he'd been when I was an observer, but, in other ways, I was even more a part of the club than I'd been before. Cops bond. It's not as intense a bond as the Sentinel/guide thing, but it's there. All that closed society research I'd done as a cover for studying Jim had proven that. Not only did Simon turn curious eyes in my direction but Rafe and Brown did, too. Megan's eyes widened in realization. Joel edged up beside me.
I gave a slight nod in Jim's direction. Simon and Megan knew Jim was a Sentinel; Simon had always known and Megan had found out during the Alex Barnes disaster. When the whole mess over my dissertation had come out, everybody in Major Crimes clued in, but some of them wrote it off when I gave my press conference. I was pretty sure Taggart knew exactly what the real story was, and Rafe and Brown worked closely enough with Jim that they knew, too. Jim had told me that Taggart had talked to him about it, so Joel was in on the secret. Brown and Rafe knew, but they didn't wave it around. I could see all of them ready to converge, and they all flashed questions at me with their eyes. *What's going down, Sandburg? Is this a Sentinel thing?* I wished I had answers for them.
Even Stephen, who wasn't that close to Jim, picked up on it. Man, this was bad. Any second now, something weird was going to happen. If the minister didn't sense the tension in the air, he was as thick as a brick.
I curled my fingers around Jim's wrist and lowered my voice. He'd be able to hear it, even if the rest of the crowd couldn't. "Jim, come on, Jim, focus on my voice. Come back, Jim. Let it go. It's all right. Just focus. My voice is your link. Let it guide you back."
Something was happening, all right, but it wasn't good. Jim's jaw muscles loosened their clenching, and sagged and his mouth fell a little open. His fingers uncurled. I could see something flow through him, a release of stress, something else, something weird, I didn't know. Whatever it was kept right on loosening him up. A slight shudder passed through his body, and, all at once, the wrist beneath my fingers felt--empty. Untenanted. It was as if Jim Ellison really wasn't in there any longer. Oh, man, that was just soooo uncanny.
His eyes rolled back in his head and he went out like a light, and only the fact that Joel and I were close enough to grab him kept him from going flat out in the soggy November grass.
I jerked to awareness and looked up at Simon from my bastion in the waiting room at Cascade General; I had it all to myself at the moment. Twenty-four crummy hours full of anxious catnaps, frantic research, and brief, unyielding visits to Jim's bedside, and none of the doctors had a clue what was wrong with Jim. I didn't either, although I kept thinking it had to be some Sentinel thing I'd never heard of. I'd begged Simon to bring me some of my books and I'd hunted frantically through one obscure page after another, trying to figure out what had happened at the cemetery. No luck. No clues. Jim just lay there in the ICU, hooked up to devices to monitor his heart, respiration, blood pressure, his eyes open and staring. Nobody home. The nurses would close his eyes so they wouldn't dry out, but next time somebody would go in, they'd be open again, open and dead empty. It was scary. Hell, it terrified the shit out of me. If the monitors hadn't kept reacting, I'd have believed he was dead.
They'd tried to get me to go home, to tell me they'd let me know if there were any change, but I refused to budge. I'd have been in intensive care with Jim, trying to coach him out of it, the whole time, if they'd let me camp there. I was still waging a war with the doctor to get permission to spend more time with Jim than five minutes each hour, and I think I was coming closer to winning. Stephen, white faced and alarmed, had ceded that family right to me after he'd been in there and failed to evoke any response from Jim. He had pulled me off to one side after he'd come out.
"Blair, listen. I heard all that Sentinel hype six months ago, and I saw you recanting on TV. But I know you did that to protect my brother. Everything they wrote up about your dissertation--I read it all. It explained a lot that I vaguely remember when I was really little. This guide thing? You can do that?"
I didn't want to give Jim away, but the certainty was in Stephen's eyes, so I said cautiously, "Sometimes."
"Then you go in there when they let you, and you do it. He and I aren't as close as you two are. You can help him. I can't."
"I'll try," I vowed, and I'd been doing it ever since. No progress at all. It was like talking to a lump of clay. I was scared to death that, wherever Jim was, it wasn't inside his body. And I'd *never* read anything about Sentinel out-of-body experiences, even in the most obscure monographs. Well, other than the stuff Jim and I already knew, the vision dream thing. But that was different; it had never been like this.
I was a lousy guide. I was letting Jim down and I didn't have a clue.
"Oh, hi, Simon." With a disgusted grimace, I pushed the book I'd been trying to study off my lap and stood up. My muscles groaned at the motion. How long had I been sitting there like that? If I'd napped through my visit time with Jim... A quick glance at the clock over the door reassured me. No, I had ten more minutes before they'd let me in again. "There's still no change. The CAT scan and MRI didn't show anything wrong. They've run every test they can think of and they can't find a clue why he's unconscious." I shivered. What if Jim never came out of it? What happened to a guide when he didn't have a Sentinel anymore? Would he react like those dragonriders in McCaffrey's Pern books, who freaked into miserable, pathetic creatures when their dragons died?
"Sandburg, is this some Sentinel thing?" He gestured at the untidy stack of books around my feet. His face was grim. He'd known Jim a lot longer than I had, more than twice as long. Was he blaming me for failing to find an answer? No, that wasn't Simon's way. Would he blame me if I never did?
"If it is, I never encountered it before. I've gone through everything I've got. Do you know how little information there is about --" I lowered my voice. "--Sentinels? God, Simon, I've thought it all out. I know more about Sentinels than anybody alive. I probably know more now than Burton ever did. But I don't know this. It's not a zone out. I felt whatever it was happen to him. I *felt* it. I had my hand around his wrist. It was like he just...left his body, just trickled away and wasn't in there anymore."
"Like a zone out?" Banks pressed me. Simon doesn't like it when I go mystical or metaphysical on him. He'd hated it when Jim was seeing that ghost lady, Molly, last winter, and, even now, he won't quite admit that really happened. He likes things spelled out nice and clear and reasonable. But what had happened to Jim *wasn't* reasonable.
"I thought so at first. But it's not really like that. I mean, I can always get to Jim in a zone out. Sometimes it's hard work, but it's not like this. He wasn't focusing his senses, either. I can always tell when he does that. It was like he was..." How could I explain without giving away the complicated tangle of Jim's emotions? "You know he had a lot of bad feelings about his dad," I said. Simon nodded warily. Cops were like other men--they didn't want to get talking about feelings. "I don't think he was about to grieve over his death. He was...repressing it."
"Assuming he still cared enough to grieve," Simon returned. He didn't look any more comfortable with the discussion than I felt.
"Maybe a part of him does. But...I don't even know if it's relevant. I don't know how he'd take it. He's got some weird reactions to things that the rest of us don't. You know how he reacts to cold medications? Drugs can do weird things to him. All I can think of is that the way you feel can affect your body chemistry, too. Maybe if he's blocking how he feels, it's twisting up inside him and causing him to..." I saw the curl of Simon's mouth and said hastily, "Yeah, I know. It sounds like hokum to me, too. Like I'm grasping at straws. Only they can't find a thing wrong with him. He's unconscious, and he shouldn't be. They say his system's depressed but there's no damn reason for it to be depressed. Only thing they found in the whole mess was that his cholesterol is up a little, and it's not even that high. The way he eats..." I let that trail off. Kidding Jim over his unhealthy diet belonged to the good times, the times before I had looked into Jim's eyes and realized there was nobody home.
"But he does react differently to a lot of things," Simon said, and I could tell he was trying to make sense out of it. "Sandburg, the last thing I want to do is give away the Sentinel gig, but do you think the doctors could--"
I held up my hand. "I think Dr. Sanders *knows*." Maybe he remembered all the wild publicity. Maybe he was grasping at straws because he couldn't find any other explanation. Maybe neurosurgeons didn't like to have no answers. "He asked me if this was a Sentinel thing already. First thing this morning, when the tests started coming back negative. He said he didn't expect me to admit anything, or even tell me anything, just to let him know if it could tie in."
"What did you say?"
I hunched my shoulders. "I told him I did a lot of research on Sentinels and that I really did know a lot about it. I said if I thought it would help Jim I'd tell him anything I could, but that I didn't know any answers like that. I didn't tell him Jim was for real, but I didn't want him fixating on that and stopping looking for answers. God, Simon, this is so tough. There have to be answers. I should know. What if there's something I'm missing?"
"He's never done anything like this before?"
I raked my hands through my hair. It wasn't nearly as satisfying a gesture as it had been when I was still 'hairboy', before I had to cut my hair for the Police Academy, but it gave me something to do with my hands for a second or two. "Oh, come on, Simon. Don't you think I'd be doing something if I knew what to do? You think I'd be sitting here like the clueless wonder if I had answers? I've tried everything from research to trying to go into a trance state and track him down on the astral plane, and there's just nothing." I felt my jaw clench, just like Jim's sometimes did.
Simon opened his mouth, then he closed it again without speaking. He reached out and put two big hands on my shoulders and squeezed them. "If there's an answer, you'll find it, Blair."
Whoa? I was hardly ever 'Blair' to Simon. Pep talk #87? The guy had confidence in me, *me*, the newest and most untested rookie detective in Major Crimes. He had enough to cut me loose from work to stay here with Jim, and to send Megan scurrying around checking out websites for me to try to get more information. I needed that confidence right now, badly. Because this was all on my shoulders, and they felt bowed under the weight.
I missed Jim.
What if I never got him back?
Jim hadn't changed from the last time I saw him. They'd moved him in the bed; they probably did that to prevent skin breakdowns. They'd even had a therapist in here doing range-of-motion exercises already, too. He'd been unconscious more than twenty-four hours. How long before they labeled it 'coma' officially? So far, they weren't using that word around me, but I was pretty sure they batted it back and forth among themselves.
"Jim, I'm here." I grabbed up his hand. Jim was not a great guy for the touchy-feely stuff, but the grip might help. He had never objected to the contact I'd always used to shake him free of a zone out. He was a little uncomfortable if I got carried away and gave him an exuberant hug, but, if he woke up, that was the first thing I planned to do, hug him till it hurt, till he lost it and started yelling at me to can the mushy stuff. I counted on the yell. I looked forward to it.
Wasn't going to happen now, though. The fingers in my grip didn't feel remotely alive. They were warm; between that, the rise and fall of his chest, and the comforting beep of the monitors, I knew he was still with me. He wasn't on a ventilator. His body went on working just fine, but it had to be simple autonomic responses. That's why he was on the monitors, in case anything stopped working. His pupils reacted to light, too, although a little sluggishly. It was just that he wasn't really home. Sentinels didn't spontaneously go into out-of- body experiences, at least not that I ever heard of. He might narrow his focus and shut out the world, but that was different. This was like no zone-out I'd ever seen. The astral plane was not a subject Jim and I had even discussed. He'd have shut down in a second if I'd tried to suggest he practice floating around outside his body. He wanted practical applications for his hyper senses, not astral projection games.
But *could* that kind of thing tie in with his abilities? After he'd seen Molly's ghost, I'd wanted to conduct a few experiments to check on his sixth sense. I even contacted the Ghostbusters in case they had answers, but I couldn't give Jim away to them, so all I got from Dr. Stantz via e-mail was generalities. Without Jim's permission to tell him more, I couldn't reveal what had actually happened, but Stantz had admitted there were some ghosts that only people who were sensitive could see. Yeah, Jim was sensitive that way, all right. Of course Dr. Stantz had also said that sometimes people imagined it and that certain mental illnesses... No, I didn't want to go there. We had way too much evidence that what had happened to Jim was real. From his identikit drawings that had matched and the way he'd been able to find the murder weapon in the statue base, he had to have a direct link to the other side. But that was more than nine months ago, and there had been no more apparitions popping in and waving hi at Jim since.
Could he pull off any ESP? Sometimes he and I came close to that, but it wasn't really psi. It was just that I knew Jim better than I had ever thought it was possible to know another human being and he knew me. It might be a Sentinel/guide thing, too. Burton hadn't done much with guides in his research, just acknowledged the need, someone to watch the Sentinel's back. I hadn't even heard the specific term 'guide' until we ran into Brackett. Being a Sentinel was genetic. It wasn't paranormal. It didn't fit in with any of the books you find in the New Age section of the bookstores, although I checked them out every now and then since I met Jim, just in case. Jim might be able to see the occasional ghost, although Molly was the only one he'd mentioned so far.
Could he have seen the ghost of his father?
The question nearly blindsided me. Oh, god, what if *that* was it? What if he'd freaked at the funeral because he'd seen the spirit of his father popping up out of the casket? There were a lot of reasons for a ghost to linger, more than just the one I'd told Jim when he was seeing Molly, that she'd been murdered and her murder left unsolved. Unfinished business, said Dr. Stantz. That was what made a ghost linger in limbo, unable to pass on.
But William Ellison hadn't been murdered. He might have been relatively young to die, but a heart attack was a natural way to go. Unless he felt he had a ton of unfinished business with his two sons and his spirit had lingered because he'd never fully come to terms with Jim and Stephen. I didn't like that idea. I didn't want Jim to be haunted. God, how had he reacted that other time? I cast my mind back to those encounters in the dilapidated building, when Jim had seen Molly looking out of the mirror. Jim hadn't keeled over. He hadn't looked like his body was for rent. He'd focused closely, but not into a zone out. Calling his name had gotten his attention each time.
It sure hadn't this time.
But Molly hadn't been a close relative, either.
I hadn't had a peek at Molly myself. I'd wanted to--well, in a way I'd wanted to. Another part of me kept saying, 'no way, man'. Just accepting that Jim had seen her had pushed me over into a belief that I hadn't been entirely sure of before. The world changes when circumstances propel you into that kind of acceptance. When you shift world-views, the world around you stops being safe and comfortable-- and controllable. Once I'd discovered that first Burton paper and became clued into the possibility of Sentinels, my world-view had changed. It had shifted again when I'd met my first subject with an enhanced sense, and it had kaleidoscoped like crazy when I realized what I'd found in Jim Ellison. I ought to be getting used to the shifts by now, but ghosts really pushed it. Sentinels were a natural phenomenon, after all. Ghosts were...something else. I hoped I was a zillion miles off base here. I didn't want this to have anything to do with Jim's father's shade.
"Jim, listen to me." He'd said once that when I used that soothing tone, it helped him come out of a zone out. I'd been trying it ever since this happened--with a spectacular lack of results. "Jim, I'm gonna try to focus on you. I don't know if you can come out of there unless I come in to get you." I'd tried to summon up the wolf of my dreams, my own spirit guide. It had linked with Jim after I'd been face down in the fountain, when Jim was trying to bring me back and everybody else was ready to send for the coroner's wagon. Jim had been really uneasy about that union, but, even then, I knew it wasn't a personal rejection of me. It was more of his fear that the world had spiraled out of control, and, for a control freak like Jim Ellison, being a Sentinel is tough. I'd even thought once about doing research on my other subjects with one or two senses to see if they were control freaks, too. Alex Barnes had displayed a ferocious need to be in control, too. Maybe it took someone with that level of determination so they wouldn't be swept away in sensory overload. Maybe being a Sentinel demanded a Type A personality. I never had a chance to dig into that research. Item #743 on my to-do list. Maybe it's why *I'm* not a sentinel. Sure, there are some things I want to control, but I'm a lot more of a go-with-the-flow guy than Jim Ellison will ever be.
That ought to make it easier to connect with my spirit animal, to open up the part of me that makes me Shaman of the Great City--or at least Jim's own Shaman. You don't get to be a shaman without paying some major heavy dues. Dying in that fountain pushed me over into another level--ritual death is supposed to be part of the shamanistic enlightenment process--but the new level doesn't come with an instruction manual. I felt like Ralph Hinkley trying to learn to learn to use the super suit that aliens had given him in The Greatest American Hero. Trial and error, that was what I did so often these days. It's a great way to learn to think on your feet. I'd never realized before that it was possible to get psychic bruises.
*Wolf spirit, come to papa.* I tightened my fingers around Jim's and closed my eyes. I'd tried to enter a trance state, tried to see if I could tie into the collective unconscious. Next thing I'd be doing was sneaking in some peyote and signing up for a vision quest. Pop some of that concoction I'd given Jim to fight off his cold. Trace elements of peyote, that's what Simon insisted had caused Jim to see Molly. I hated to do the drug route; it wasn't my gig, even though I'd had a few experiences with native tribes that had pushed me over the top, experiences I couldn't have avoided, experiences that had taught me a lot--and made it clear that unless there was a means of control and a desperate need for answers, that was *not* the way to go. For Jim, I'd do it, if I thought it would save him, but better to go into this with a clear head and open mind instead. If I couldn't reach him, if everything else failed, maybe I'd have to dig out some of the stuff and see if it helped, but I had never needed chemical enhancements to connect with Jim before. I hoped I wouldn't this time.
With my eyes shut and my body loose and easy in the chair, I focused everything I had on the grip of my hand around Jim's and used his name as a mantra to guide me in deeper. Wasn't something I could have practiced with Jim. He'd have turned off so fast we would both have been dizzy. But he couldn't stop me now and it might be the only way to find out what had happened to him.
I don't know what would have happened next if I hadn't been so sleepy, but the utter relaxation I sank into took me down and down and down into dreams.
Into the impossible.
I padded through the darkness, my wolf paws finding the path with unhesitating ease. I was seeing out of the eyes of the wolf, and everything had a golden edge to it, the way it had when the golden fire people were popping out of the woodwork. Whoa. Not a good place to go. Back up, man. Try again.
I forced myself to go on. The path around me was mostly invisible. I could see the ground beneath my paws, a rough and stony trail that wound through a narrow canyon. When I lifted my muzzle to the sky, I saw the canyon walls rise high and impossibly steep, with only a thin strip of slate-grey sky visible so far above me I could never climb out. Major claustrophobia time. I shivered; not even the wolf coat could keep me warm. Where *was* this? Was Jim here?
In the vision, I possessed the senses of the wolf and I used them to sniff the trail. It was like receiving a momentary gift of a Sentinel sense of smell. Abruptly I could smell something I'd never scented before and I knew it was the trail of the panther, just as I recognized the faintest of scrapes on the dusty stone path as its spoor.
Jim had come this way.
I couldn't call his name; the wolf's vocal cords aren't designed for human speech. But I raised my head to the thin strip of sky and bayed, a wild, eerie sound that was hard to believe had actually come from me. Then, head cocked, I listened for any trace of Jim.
All I heard was the unending moan of the wind that turned the canyon into a wind tunnel and ruffled my fur.
Whatever was ahead of me was very bad. I didn't want to keep going. All my instincts screamed at me to go back--before it was too late. I was an anxiety attack waiting to happen. My breath quickened and I stood braced, panting, wolf tongue lolling. I was nearly scared witless, and I didn't even know why.
But Jim had come this way. That meant I had to keep on going. If he were there, he needed me. He might not be able to find his way back on his own. *I'm coming, Jim.*
The canyon started to open up. I halted as the walls drew back, and crouched in the shelter of a boulder, gazing down in awe at a vast valley that spread below me. Here and there, the ground opened to allow little jets of fire to spout up, and a trail of lava oozed down the slope on the other side, glowing dimly red beneath the cloud- troubled sky. I thought I saw a few distant figures down there, but they were too far away for me to tell if they were even human. Maybe they were ghosts. Everything around them was dark and gloomy, and it was blazing hot. *Great. Welcome to Hell, Blair.*
The trail that led down to the valley was one of the scariest I'd ever seen. It was carved into the walls of a sheer cliff in a series of abrupt switchbacks, no more than a meter wide at its broadest points. In a few spots, it narrowed down to almost nothing, a mere lip of stone. The thought of scrambling down there made the hair rise on my shoulders. I couldn't do it. There was no way I could do it.
That was when I saw the panther.
He was halfway down the cliff face, trailing a figure that led the way. I couldn't make out any details, other than it was tall and man-sized, and it wore a dark cloak that concealed its features. I was probably too far away to recognize him, even if I could have seen his face, but a sudden vision of Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come popped into my head and I was positive that encountering the entity face to face would probably give me nightmares for months.
//Your Sentinel needs you, Shaman.//
The words were not spoken aloud. I heard them inside my head, and I don't think I even heard them in English, just the sense of them. My mind, in spirit form, translated them neatly into English, but I knew that they had been spoken in another language. That was so cool. It was like telepathy.
I jerked my head around wildly, seeking their source.
Incacha stood at my side, looking just like he had when he was alive, all painted up the way the Chopec had been when they'd come to Cascade to stop the destruction of their land. He looked at me levelly, and I wasn't sure if he were a ghost or a figment of my imagination or part of a vision. It didn't even matter, since he was there. What did was Jim.
"I know he does. I'm going after him."
Incacha hadn't known English when he was alive unless he had picked up a few words from Jim, and he probably hadn't learned more after death, not unless death grants you understanding of everything, but in the vision he understood me with no effort. //You do not understand that which you must face.//
"That doesn't matter, not if I can help him. Tell me what it is?"
//I cannot, for to find out is the task of the shaman. But I can tell you that you must stop him before he steps onto the valley floor. Should he reach it, you will be too late and his path cannot be reversed.//
Jim seemed a long way down that terrible path. How could I hope to reach him in time? And, if I did, how to turn him back unless I blocked the way and argued with him? I didn't understand what was happening. But if it were the task of a shaman--
*The task of a shaman?* Bells rang wildly in the back of my mind and, for the first time since this whole thing began, I thought I saw a glimmer of light in the fog of my confusion. Too many mixed metaphors there, but it made sense. I had an answer, but I didn't know if it were the right one or not. I didn't know if I were even up to what I had to do. But I needed more answers. "Is it his father?" I asked, with a wave of my paw in the direction of the cloaked figure that the panther followed down and down and down. Incacha didn't reply. He just stood there like one of those old-fashioned cigar store Indians with a face so stoic I knew I wouldn't get another answer from him, even if I got down on my knees and groveled.
Maybe I didn't *need* him to give me more answers.
I'd done a lot of studying on the concept of shamans ever since Incacha had grabbed my arm when he was dying. He'd been transferring the shaman function to me, and I'd actually felt something happening that I couldn't explain. I never could, but it had propelled me to drag Jim out on the balcony that day and to get him using his abilities again. Once I realized what responsibility I had accepted in that moment, I figured I'd better research it and learn everything I could. It took me into some pretty strange areas of study, let me tell you. Ritual self-mutilations and celibacy were couple of gigs I couldn't get into, especially the celibacy part, but I figured out that there were ways of handling things. I got into a little meditation, burned some candles and incense when Jim wasn't around to nag me about the smell, and studied everything I could. I checked out web pages like crazy, dug into musty old books. Some of it bordered on the supernatural, but I halfway figured out that I didn't have to do all that weird stuff. I just had to have a handle on it. How could I help Jim if I didn't understand the possibilities?
This particular possibility was pretty much out in left field. Simon Banks would have closed down in two seconds if he heard what I had to say. He had a predisposition to doubt things he couldn't see and hear and touch. Good thing he wasn't in here with me--though if he were, he might understand what I was thinking.
Ghost sickness. It was a facet of tribal cultures around the world, and I'd read of it in my Sentinel studies, because the Sentinel concept was tribal, too. In some ways, Jim was more evolved than the rest of us, but in others... The Sentinel had arisen out of need of protection for primitive tribes who didn't have modern technology to defend them from enemy tribes, wild animals, the weather, threats that modern man faces quite differently, with standing armies, modern technology, and police departments to protect the innocent. So a layer of the primitive surrounded Jim Ellison, binding him to those ancient times and customs. Because he was a Sentinel, he might be more susceptible to threats the rest of us didn't understand and would never need to face or even to acknowledge.
In primitive tribes, the ghosts of the newly dead are said to be lonely in their new existence and they stick around for a few days before moving on. During this time--it's called the liminal period-- they can be dangerous to the living, at least to those among the living who might be susceptible to them. Maybe even to those who had particular ties to them in life. As far as I knew, William Ellison had possessed no Sentinel abilities, but his son did. And he had died with years of antipathy unresolved. Jim had tolerated him lately and made stiff duty phone calls but there was no real warmth between them. Jim hadn't even gone over at Christmas, although he'd stopped in and had dinner with Stephen and his family on Christmas night. I'd always figured he'd have more time than this to come to terms with his dad, but he hadn't been granted that opportunity. Had William Ellison's ghost decided it needed closure?
Children are usually more susceptible to ghost sickness than adults are, but Jim was William Ellison's child. And he was a Sentinel who was susceptible because he was still learning to use his abilities. He wasn't a guy predisposed to be open, but using his senses to their fullest required an enforced openness that might leave him vulnerable.
Worst of all, though, was another feature of ghost sickness, that of soul loss. Another legend of tribal cultures, soul loss can be caused by a lot of things, but one of them is when the spirit of a recently deceased person draws it away. Jim had gone to the funeral in what was probably a lot more precarious emotional state than he'd been willing to acknowledge. Somehow, this had happened.
The only way to return the soul to the body and save the victim's life was for the shaman to venture after the stolen soul on its journey to the land of the dead and to draw it away from the revenant. I'd have to engage in a spiritual 'tug of war' with the ghost to get Jim's soul back--and then I'd have to find a way to return it to its body.
But in order to restore Jim's soul to his body and save his life, I had to stop Jim before he reached the place of the dead, because, if he arrived, there could be no turning back. If his soul wound up there, it was forever. Dead souls didn't make a practice of coming back.
The place of the dead wasn't 'hell' as it's known in Western religion and mythology, at least not the traditional hell. I couldn't help wondering if my subconscious mind had painted the valley to look like an artist's conception of Dante's Inferno.
"I've got it," I said to Incacha. "I know what I'm supposed to do." Never mind I didn't know how to do it. But I would do it because I wouldn't let Jim lie there like this and never come back. Maybe it sounded crazy, but in my vision, it made so much sense that I girded myself for the horror of that awful trail and set off after the panther as fast as I could run. *I'm coming, Jim. Just hang on a little longer, man. I'm gonna get you out of here, back where you belong.*
The hand on my shoulder jerked me back from the trail and out of the body of the wolf with such force I nearly went into terminal whiplash. All at once I was back in my chair in the ICU, and Jim lay before me, unmoving, unresponsive, his vital signs more depressed than ever.
"No, you can't," I groaned. I erupted upward and whirled to find Dr. Sanders and Simon Banks, gazing at me as if I'd lost my mind. Then, panicked, I turned back and snatched up Jim's hand again. I needed that link to get back in.
If there was time.
He'd been nearing the valley floor. The land of the dead.
I was terrified that I'd lost my chance to save Jim. That I'd never get him back.
My knees nearly buckled as the realization hit me. I could feel the color run out of my face. Simon grabbed me, dumped me back into the chair, and forced my head down between my knees. After a few seconds, I felt myself steadying and reared up against his hand. He let go.
"Sandburg, what the hell..."
"What were you doing?" Sanders demanded. "From the look of you, your blood pressure was way down. But..." His eyes lingered on the monitors. "But his spiked there. For a second, I thought he was coming out of it."
"He would have, if you hadn't stopped me." I wanted to yell and curse at them but that wouldn't help Jim. "Simon, you have to trust me on this. I can't explain and there isn't time anyway. Doc, you asked me some questions this morning. I'm not going to answer them, but what I was doing was tied into them. You have to let me do it. If you don't, Jim will never come back."
Sanders might be a tolerant, open-minded guy, but he was also a medical doctor. He didn't have a clue what I was talking about. He'd probably resist the concept for all he was worth. If I started talking about shamans, he'd think I was ranting about quack gimmickry and new age hoodoo, and he'd shut down so fast my head would spin. He'd sounded open before, but there were things the public at large couldn't grasp, not when it came to Sentinels. Even Simon, who had known from the beginning, hadn't yielded over the ghost issue. He still didn't buy that. What if he wouldn't buy this? Jim and I had always glossed over the shaman thing with him. The one time it had come up, he'd laughed and accused me of playing 'witch doctor'. When I'd come in to the office the next day, there was a tribal mask on Jim's desk and some beads and rattles, with Brown and Rafe hovering around making 'voodoo' noises, and doing some phony ritual bowing to the medicine man. Reminded me of the fake haunting they'd tried to set up after Jim had first seen Molly.
But right then, I didn't give a damn about my reputation. I didn't have much time. Maybe time was relative in the vision quest reality, but I couldn't take the chance. "Doctor," I said fervently, "I can't explain but I need more time with Jim. I was trying to reach him. Don't you doctors always say that people in a coma can hear familiar voices and understand what's being said to them?"
"It's not a proven fact, but sometimes the presence of a known friend or family member can do wonders," he admitted.
"Well, I know Jim pretty well. We're partners. You've gotta know cops form a pretty close bond with their partners. You work with somebody every day and face danger together--come on, you know that. I know I was probably here longer than I was supposed to be, but I wasn't hurting Jim. I need to be here alone with him. I can help him, but I have to do it right now." I was talking hard and fast because I was desperate.
Simon must have recognized my vehemence and sincerity. "Is this a new kind of zone out?" he asked.
Okay, time to put it in terms Banks could understand. "Yeah, it's like that, Simon. Only a whole step up in the zone department. I've gotta bring him out of it."
"I wish you could," Sanders said. "But you were only sitting there holding onto his hand. You weren't even talking."
"Sometimes, I don't have to," I said. "Please, doc. Just give me the time. You've got Jim on all these monitors and they'll tell you if something's wrong. But I have to do it *now*. I'm running out of time."
Banks shook his head. "I've got a feeling I don't even want to *know* what's really happening here." He turned to Sanders. "I don't understand it, either, Doc, but I trust him. Can we give him what he needs?"
*Please, please, please....*
Sanders seemed to hesitate a year. Then he gave an abrupt nod. "All right. But you get half an hour. I don't want to lose you, too."
"You won't," I said automatically, but how could that possibility matter? I had to save Jim.
Simon guided the doctor out of the room and I turned back to Jim. His hand felt colder in mine, as if he were further away. God, not *too* far? I closed my eyes and willed myself into the trance state. It was harder this time because it was so urgent. And it wasn't like I did things like this all the time. Meditate, sure, but not open myself up to the spirit animal. If Jim had been willing to play this out, we could have practiced together and it would have been easier, but he didn't like the mystical part of it any more than Simon did. He was more open than Captain Banks, but then he'd seen more, and he didn't deny the evidence of his senses. Look how quickly he'd accepted Molly.
I curled both of my hands around Jim's and used his name again like a mantra. *Jim. Jim. Jim. Jim.* Just his name, over and over again.
I burst into the spirit realm running flat out, low and lean, my claws digging into the trail as I sped down the treacherous path. A part of me was terrified of the thought of a fall--I *hate* heights-- but I shoved the fear into a compartment in my brain and sealed it away. I didn't have time to be afraid. I had to get to Jim, and acrophobia couldn't have any part of that.
At first, I didn't see Jim, and my heart thumped in painful panic. God, if I were too late... Could wolves get ulcers? My stomach churned sickly with enough acid to bring the taste of bile to the back of my throat.
Then I saw him. God, god, he was nearly down to the valley floor. Ahead of him, the robed figure led the way, turning from time to time to reach out enticingly, to direct him lower. Jim didn't slow down. I couldn't figure what was going down here. Would he actually follow his father? Was the antipathy he dished out a thin veneer over long-buried feelings. I wouldn't have thought it. William Ellison had been no Ward Cleaver. He hadn't even been an Al Bundy. Parents weren't automatically entitled to love. The biological act of producing a child was only step one. The nurturing had to be a part of it, too. Without that, a parent might be only someone who lived in the same house. William Ellison may have given *things* to his sons, but he'd messed them up pretty bad in the process; even now, Jim had a lot of unresolved issues that tied back to that time. Jim was strong enough to function in spite of them. But then, what was going on now? Why was he following his father into the land of the dead?
I threw back my head and howled into the sky. The sound echoed and rebounded from the far walls of the valley.
The panther halted.
*Yes!!!* I howled again, urgently. *Wait for me, Jim. Wait for me.*
The shrouded figure gestured alluringly. The panther took a wary step closer.
*NO. No, no no. Jim, don't! Don't give in to him! Don't go there.*
I didn't even notice the height as I galloped down the endless trail, baying desperately. Jim hesitated, stepped, hesitated. He looked like he was walking through quicksand, pulling a foot out at each forward motion, then feeling it sink in. So long as it slowed him down...
I measured the distance between us. He was closer to the valley floor, to the land of the dead, than he was to me. But he was moving a lot slower. I could do it. I had to do it.
The shrouded figure suddenly became aware of me. It turned its cowled head in my direction. I couldn't see a face in the shadows, but I could see eyes that glowed. They held menace when they were turned to me. Was I wrong? Maybe this wasn't William Ellison's ghost after all. It wasn't always a ghost who did lured the soul away. Sometimes it was a spell or witchcraft, the dark kind, not Wicca. Sometimes, it was a malevolent supernatural being, maybe a demon. Only why should it be that way? Jim had zoned at his father's funeral. It had to be his father. Maybe the dead changed. Maybe when they had so many unresolved issues they got desperate.
The glowing eyes were so nasty that I checked momentarily, then I shook myself out of the hesitation and raced on. *Jim. Wait for me, Jim. Damn it, wait for me.*
Jim took another step toward the valley floor.
But I was gaining on them. I was getting closer. I could see the panther was unsteady on his feet. I could see reluctance in his posture. He didn't want to go. He just couldn't stop himself.
*You fight, Jim. You're the strongest man I ever met. Endured all that time in the jungle. Take on bad guys who make me want to run screaming. You can do this. I know you can.*
I came around the last bend in the trail to find Jim only a few meters from the valley floor, and, desperate, I launched myself into the air in a great leap, and landed hard between him and the figure in the enveloping cloak. The minute my paws touched the trail, I felt myself morphing, and I was me again. In my own body. At the sight of me, the panther melted and flowed and surged upright, and Jim and I stood facing each other with the land of the dead close enough to touch. The drifting figures I'd seen from the top of the cliff bunched closer, watching us with avid eyes, but I ignored them entirely. I ignored everything but Jim.
He blinked in dazed surprise. "Chief?" In that instant, he took in his surroundings and his eyebrows shot up. "What the hell..." Not the best choice of words.
I grabbed him hard around the upper arms. "Jim, you have to come back with me. If you go down there, you can't come back. Ever."
"You are too late," said the shrouded figure in William Ellison's voice. "He is mine."
"He never was," I said disgustedly. "You didn't deserve him. Maybe you loved him, but you had a lousy way of showing it, man. Now you want to drag him down into hell with you. No way. You have to go through me first."
"He came with me. He chose to come. You can't take him now. No one can."
Jim stood there blinking at me, and I didn't think he had it together enough to understand what was happening. I didn't let go of him for an instant. "Jim, you have to fight it. If you want to live, you have to fight it."
"Where are we?"
"It's a dreamscape, Jim. It's like the visions you get. Only you're not in control of this one, not unless you decide you want to be yourself. If you want to stay Jim Ellison, if you want to be in control of your life, you have to turn around and go back." I nodded up at the twisting trail. "That's the way home, Jim."
He looked past me and saw the shrouded figure. Maybe he'd known who he was before, or maybe he'd been so deep in the ghost sickness that he hadn't thought at all, just reacted by rote. If he hadn't been shutting out everything at the funeral, if he hadn't been there essentially under protest with all his feelings bottled up, he might not have been susceptible. I wasn't even sure if he weren't here because a part of the internal Sentinel hadn't projected the image of his father. Because no matter how mature and together a person is, to have a parent reject him is the ultimate betrayal. Sometimes, when I thought about my own father, who had to exist out there somewhere, I told myself he didn't know about me, that Naomi hadn't told him. Because, otherwise, I'd have to believe he'd rejected me. Okay, so I know it's not a personal rejection; he couldn't have known me. But he'd have known he had a son, and he'd walked away.
Jim's father had loved him, but he had loved him in his own peculiar way that hadn't exactly taught Jim and his brother that they were wanted and needed. Even tough, hard men might repress an inner craving for that. Jim never acted like he felt it, but if there wasn't something like that deep inside, would he have even cared enough to make so many rejecting noises? He wouldn't have needed to make the point.
"Jim, I'm your father," said the spirit. "I know I wasn't a good father, not by your standards."
"Or society's," I put in.
He and Jim both ignored me. They were staring at each other intently. I had to remind myself that Jim was essentially a disembodied soul here, even if I could feel the hard biceps under my fingers. I was something like an astral projection myself, but I had sensation. That meant Jim had to feel my grip. I tightened it.
"After your mother left, I was...bitter," said William's spirit. "Whether I drove her away or whether it was something inside her that made her go I never knew. I didn't even try to figure it out. She was gone. I lived with it. I knew you and Stephen had a tough world to live in, and the most important thing, the gift I could give you, would be to toughen you up so you could face it. I challenged you both so you'd learn to fight for what you wanted."
"Competing for your approval," I said. The ghost heard the disapproval in my voice and turned to me. It was really weird to see the familiar face staring at me out of the shroud, especially since the eyes glowed yellow the way my wolf eyes must. Oh, man, this was too crazy. *I'm a shaman. I have to do the shaman thing.* But I didn't know what the shaman thing was.
William Ellison had never been articulate about feelings. Part of that was his generation, part was the macho persona our society teaches to little boys the whole time they're growing up. I was spared a lot of that with Naomi but I got my share of it, in school, with my temporary 'fathers'. The rest was just William's nature. He wasn't the type to give his son a hug or tell him he loved him, not even when his boys had been really small. He might have thrown a baseball around with them, but I suspected he hadn't much. Too busy working, telling himself he was making a good life for his family. A lot easier to give things than to give the self. That's true for most people.
"Your approval isn't worth shit to me," spat the ghost. "This is my son."
"And you hate him so much you want to kill him, just because you're dead?"
Jim flinched and pain flashed in his eyes. I muttered, "Sorry, man," and wondered if he'd remember this when--if--I got him home.
That made the ghost look startled. "I never hated him. Damn you, do you think a man hates his own sons?"
"Maybe not hate, but I sure don't see one shred of love there, man." Was this the tug of war for Jim's soul? Jim was awfully passive here. Maybe this close to the land of the dead, he couldn't fight for himself. But I was sure Jim was stronger than that. So I turned my back on the ghost--a lot of whistling in the dark in that gesture--and met Jim's doubtful gaze head on. "Jim, why are you here?" I asked. "I know why he is. He's got unfinished business with you. Is that why you're here? Or did you just get in too deep to get out?"
The ghost touched my shoulder. It was like being seared with ice. I flinched and jerked away from it automatically. Okay, so I'm not the world's best shaman here, but it's all new to me. I never had to fight a psi battle for Jim's soul before. It would have been nice to have had a chance to practice before the stakes got so high.
"He needs to be with me," said the ghost, his voice full of certainty. "He can't let me go."
"Jim, listen." I whirled back to my Sentinel and grabbed him again. If the cold came again, I'd bear it, for Jim's sake. He was closer to me than before; that meant he was closer to the point of no return. The vague and transparent spirits that lingered just beyond us were trapped forever, but Jim wasn't trapped yet. I had to stop him. "You can fix this right here. He's your dad. This is your chance to say goodbye. If you take that chance, you can go home. Speak to him. But don't go to him, no matter how much he begs you to."
Jim shivered. "He wants me to die," he said.
"No, he doesn't want you to die, any more than you want to die," I argued. "He's not operating on all thrusters here, Jim. He screwed up with you, all down the line, and a part of him knows it. He doesn't know how to *say* it, but I think he needs your forgiveness to go on."
"My *forgiveness*?" Jim's face twisted. He was alert enough for that. "Come on, Sandburg..."
I tried to shake him. Jim didn't shake easily. He never had. He didn't look like he had anything to give, but his feet shuffled slightly closer to the valley floor. I leaned against him and pushed. He retreated a step. I could never push him all the way to the top.
"Damn it, Jim, listen to me. He screwed up with you and Stephen. He screwed up so bad. He might have had good intentions. I think he probably did. But this is the way he was. It was the only way he knew how to be. You weren't the only one hurting. He was hurting over your mom leaving. When you're a kid, you don't see the grown-ups' pain, just your own. By the time you were old enough to understand that, he'd put it away inside where he didn't have to deal with it. He took it out on the two of you, and that was so unfair, man, but he did it because he was hurting, too. He gave you things instead of what was inside him because that was the only way he knew how to give. You learned not to expect more. You learned it really well. So now, now that he's dead, this is his last chance. It's not your last chance, but it's a chance, a chance to finally put all that bad stuff behind you."
"Can the psychobabble, Sandburg," Jim muttered. I wasn't sure if he were really pissed at me, or if that were just a conditioned response to me mouthing off. He looked past me over my shoulder at the ghost I could feel hovering at my back and I saw the pain in his eyes. It was an old pain, one he'd grown so used to over the years that he hardly felt it any longer, but it had never quite gone away.
I whirled to confront the ghost. "Look at him. Look at your son. *You* did this to him. If you really ever loved him, you have to let him go."
The ghost took a step backward and the golden glow of his eyes faded down to their normal blue. His heel hit the valley floor and he quivered with the shock of it. "No," he moaned. "Not yet. Son, help me."
Jim reached past me and grabbed for him, and I hit his arm and knocked it away. "You can't, Jim. You can't touch him. If you do, you'll go with him. You have to say it instead." And that was harder for him than putting out his hand had been.
With one hand on Jim's chest to hold him in place, I turned to the ghost. "Say goodbye," I instructed him. "Say it now. If you ever loved your son, this is what you have to do. You have to free him. You *have* to, man."
"What gives you the right to say what happens here?" demanded the ghost. He was starting to look transparent. I was afraid he'd fade away before our eyes, and this would be forever unresolved.
"I can't forgive him," Jim ground out. "Damn it, Sandburg, I couldn't forgive him, and then he died." He was angry. Good. I wanted him angry. If he were angry, he could fight.
"So, tell him," I urged. "Tell him now, Jim."
"Damn you," Jim spat at the spirit of his father. "You did all this. You turned Stephen and me against each other for years. You taught me things mattered to you more than I ever did. You screwed me up. Do you know how hard it is for me to have a decent relationship? That's your fault. My marriage fell apart, and if it weren't for Sandburg here, I'd be in a rubber room somewhere--because *you* made me repress what I am."
"That was to protect you," the ghost insisted. "I knew what they'd do with you if they found out you were a freak. I *protected* you."
Jim flinched at the word 'freak'. He took a step backward. He was going in the right direction, but for all the wrong reasons.
"You're not a freak, Jim," I insisted. "You might be stubborn and anal, but the only kind of freak you are is a control freak. I put up with you, don't I? I'm still here. You think I'd be here if he'd been right?"
Jim stared at me. "But *isn't* that why, Sandburg?"
"Because you're a Sentinel? That's how it started, man, but I told you when we came back from Peru that it was about friendship, and that's been true ever since. You don't believe me? Everything you ever threw at me, and some of it was pretty bad--and I'm still here. I'm not going away. I mean it."
He blinked at me and his eyes acknowledged that his question wasn't fair, had stopped being fair years ago.
"Oh, for god's sake," sputtered the ghost. "I meant 'different'. It's only words. You're my son. I had to protect you."
"Why?" I demanded.
"Why?" He gaped at me like I was insane.
"Why did you have to protect him?" I was pushing, but time was running out here. He was turning fuzzier and fuzzier, and somehow Jim was closer to the canyon floor.
"What do you want of me?" screeched the ghost. His voice was eerie now, otherworldly. The bunched spirits just beyond the path moaned and wailed. I don't think Jim had noticed them until now but, at the sound, he cast a doubtful glance in their direction.
"I want the truth." It wasn't me who answered that. It was Jim. He looked taller, somehow.
The two Ellisons locked eyes. I hovered near Jim, ready to throw myself at him if he moved one centimeter closer to the valley floor. He'd have to go through me to get there, because I wasn't budging.
The ghost dropped his eyes and I thought we'd all lost, but he only did it because it was his nature. He couldn't look Jim in the face. "Because I...love you," he faltered out, his words choked and embarrassed. Even now, even when it all came down to this, it half killed him to say it.
Jim's head came up and his eyes gleamed. I saw the way his shoulders squared, and there was a light in his face that hadn't been there a moment before. He was aware now, fully aware of his surroundings.
"He didn't know how to show it," I said quickly. "He still doesn't. That doesn't make it a lie, Jim." I nudged him. "Forgive him. He needs it."
Jim looked at me a long time, and I saw something in the depths of his eyes that made me feel really great. Respect. Affection. Affirmation of our friendship. And gratitude for my presence. I didn't need more than that, not one word spoken. I gave him back look for look.
Then Jim took a step past me. He didn't move onto the valley floor, but he stopped just short of it. He held out his hand. I caught my breath, scared as hell that his father would grab him and yank him over the line, but Jim didn't look even remotely apprehensive. He did look awkward and uncomfortable, but we were getting into the feeling thing, and he wasn't good at that.
He looked his father full in the eye. "Okay, yeah," he mumbled. "I forgive you."
The ghost's face blazed with joy. He firmed up again, until he looked fully solid. Then the weirdest thing yet happened. He paled again, but it wasn't a dark transparency, it was a thing of light. The cloak fell away and he hovered there, glowing. Then he drifted higher and higher until he vanished into the cloud layer that hung overhead. A second later, he was gone.
I turned to Jim. He swallowed hard once or twice, and blinked a few times. I pretended not to notice the brightness in his eyes. He'd be so mortified if I said anything about it. I knew better.
But I still wasn't sure how to get him home. I'd won the tug of war--or maybe Jim and his father had won it themselves. But it was the task of the shaman to return the soul to the body, and I didn't have a clue how to do that. "Jim, I--" I began awkwardly--and then I *did* know.
"Transform, Jim," I urged, and he only hesitated a split second before he did his morphing number into his spirit animal. A moment later, I was the wolf. And, as we'd done when I drowned, we leaped at each other, flowed into each other in midair, and merged into a glorious whole.
I had maybe two seconds to relish the utter joy of that moment, the wholeness of the Sentinel/guide bond, the knowledge that I would never be closer to any living individual, even if I lived to be a hundred and ten.
Then it went away like dreams do and I woke up back in the ICU, sprawled in the chair.
Jim's fingers were so tight around mine that my hand hurt like crazy.
I shook myself, squashed down the dizziness that flowed through me and then away again, and risked a glance at Jim's face.
His eyes blazed with consciousness as he stared at me.
"Jim!" I yelled, and I did what I'd promised myself all along, I flung myself on him and hugged him as hard as I could.
"Oh, come on, Sandburg," he groaned and tried to wiggle free--but for the first second, I felt him return the hug and I was satisfied.
The hospital kept Jim for another couple of hours, running tests on him to make sure he was really okay. I spent the time in the waiting room fending off questions from Simon, from Megan, from Joel, Rafe, and Brown. All of them figured out that what had gone down was some Sentinel thing, but since Simon and Megan were the only ones who were officially allowed to talk about it, I dredged up some mumbo jumbo about a combination of grief and stress that nobody bought a word of. When Dr. Sanders discharged Jim, he said much the same thing. Jim had told him about a high profile case we'd finished up just before his father's death that had meant a lot of overtime and very little sleep, and the doctor finally ruled officially that it had all just caught up with Jim at the funeral. He was fine; he could go back to work the day after tomorrow, but he was supposed to go home now and catch up on his rest.
Naturally, Jim, being Jim, was not really gung ho to do that. He was all for going into the office--talk about your major workaholic here. I got him aside and told him that I didn't know about him but that being a shaman was tough and I wouldn't mind putting my feet up and watching a ball game. I must have looked halfway to death's door because he agreed. I hope he never finds out I can fake that look at will, and that I only do it when he needs to slow down and is too stubborn to do it on his own.
When I saw myself in the bathroom mirror, once we were back at the loft, I realized it was more than my patented I-need-to-rest-so- that-Jim-will look. I didn't have much color at all, and there were giant bags under my eyes. Walking in the spirit realm must take a lot out of a guy.
Jim was all prepared to fuss over me--over *me*, when he was the one who'd come too close to losing his soul. "No way, man," I protested. "I'm fine. I'm just tired."
"Then we'll call out for pizza. I'll spring for it."
Great, just what I needed, something to clog my arteries and raise my blood pressure. Not that I don't like pizza, I do. Tonight, I'd probably do better with a nourishing and healthful concoction, and so would Jim. But there he stood, all eager to do something to help me out, and there is a certain camaraderie in pigging out together on pizza with all the trimmings. I couldn't say no. I'd come too close to losing him altogether. I'd have eaten red meat dripping with fat, if he'd wanted me to.
"Sounds good, man."
He phoned in the order then he turned to look at me, and I saw that there were a zillion questions in his eyes. "Gonna be about half an hour," he said, then he went over and flopped down on the couch. He picked up the TV remote and raised it, then he lowered it again.
"Did any of that really happen?"
I heard the plea for normalcy in his voice. He wanted it to be a dream. He wanted it to be a dream so bad I could practically taste it. I knew right where he was coming from. I'd have liked it to be a dream, too, because remembering the trail to hell scared me all the way down to my socks. I could recall standing out there on the street the time the Chopec came to Cascade and kidding Jim that I was now the Shaman of the Great City, and I could hear how flippant I'd sounded. Typical Sandburg whistling in the dark. But now, I knew that being a shaman had consequences--major ones--and that the power that came with it was one hell of a responsibility. It wouldn't just be me who went down if I screwed up. It would be Jim, because once I'd committed myself to this guide routine, I'd assumed responsibility for the part of him that's a Sentinel. Since being a Sentinel is not only what Jim is but who he is, I'd become *his* blessed protector. And there was sooooo much I didn't know and didn't understand. What if I screwed up next time--because I knew there was going to be a next time--and Jim paid the price?
I could have gone into a full-blown panic attack at the thought of that--except I didn't have the luxury. I had to learn how to deal with things like this. I didn't think they would happen very often-- and I hoped like mad they wouldn't--but even one time could be too many. I needed to understand a lot better than I did what went with the responsibility Incacha had abdicated to me.
It wasn't that I hadn't tried. It was that I had to try harder. There weren't any guarantees that Incacha would show up next time and say just the right things. There weren't any guarantees that it wouldn't be something I hadn't read about. If I hadn't known about ghost sickness and soul loss from my research, Jim might have spent the rest of his life hooked up to life support equipment with his upper story for rent.
Jim gripped my arm, and I jumped a foot. "Okay, Sandburg. I can tell from your face that it was real."
And he so didn't want it to be real. I nodded. "Yeah, Jim. It was real. It goes with the whole tribal concept that being a Sentinel is part of. When you accepted the responsibility to be a Sentinel, you took on the whole ball of wax."
"No way I can go back to just the heightened senses part?" he asked ruefully.
I held up my hands. "I don't know. I don't think this kind of thing is very common. I can do a web search for unexplained comas, but I honestly don't think this particular thing is a problem we'll ever have to face again."
"We? From where I stood, *I* was the one about to be trapped forever in that place."
I jerked back and tried to hide the hurt his words had caused me. With my eyes lowered, I said, "I wouldn't have left you there alone, Jim," and I realized that, even though I was the shaman, if I'd stepped into the valley with him, I'd have been as bound as he was. I hadn't been there in body. My soul had been riding the edge, too. At the time, I hadn't realized that, but it was so obvious now. The utter horror of the idea must have blazed out on my face like a neon sign because he stared at me and I saw regret for his hasty words flash in his eyes.
"Yeah, Chief. That was a really dumb thing to say. I know you wouldn't. I guess I just...I'm really uncomfortable with all this mystical, paranormal stuff."
"I'd worry about you if you weren't," I admitted. "Jim, what happened to you had to be pretty scary--I know it was for me-- especially since you didn't understand it. I think you were mostly out of it till I got there, weren't you?"
He nodded. "I knew I had to follow him, but I wasn't even sure who he was. I kept telling myself it was a dream, but I couldn't wake up. I even tried to tell myself it was just a zone out and that you'd be calling me out of it at any second. I knew it wasn't the typical vision thing. Because when I have something like that, I always have choices to make and it's pretty clear what they are. This time I didn't understand it."
"It was a war for your soul, Jim."
"My *soul*?" He stared at me, face full of revulsion at the idea. "My father wanted my *soul*?"
I shook my head. "No way, Jim. It wasn't really like that. It was all the unfinished business between the two of you. I know you hadn't worked it all out with your dad. You were talking to him again and coming to terms, but knowing the kind of man you are and the kind of man he was, you weren't *talking*."
"Baring our souls, you mean? Oh, come on, Chief, only you would insist on that."
"No, not even that. But going around the issues and pretending they weren't there. Come on, Jim, you know you do that. We all do that. I'm not pushing you about it. I didn't really push you much with your dad before."
He rolled his eyes. Okay, so maybe I had a little. "But the thing is, when he died, you knew you hadn't worked through it. I think that's why you didn't want to go to the funeral, because a part of you felt...bad about it."
He jerked his head up and down once in a nod that could have meant anything. "Yeah. So..."
"So, he hadn't either. I don't say this kind of deal goes down a lot, but I think there's a part of your...essence...that's tied into a bigger universe Sentinels have always been part of. It's not the collective unconscious--"
"Oh, for god's sake, Sandburg!"
"I know it sounds crazy, Jim, and I don't get it, either. Maybe there *is* a kind of collective Sentinel unconscious. I don't know any way to test for it..."
"But I think that's what made you susceptible. We know ghosts can linger. We knew that when you saw Molly. She lingered because she was murdered and Sam Bromley got away with it. Your dad did because he knew there were things unresolved between you. I don't think Stephen was responsive to it--he's not a Sentinel."
"You mean every time somebody dies--"
"No, Jim. It was because you and your dad had those issues to finalize--and because I think you were so focused at the cemetery that you halfway zoned on it--and you know you're vulnerable in a zone. The things that made it happen aren't likely to come together in that combination again."
Some of the tension went out of his muscles. "So we write it off?" he asked, and I heard a touch of hope in his voice.
"We put it behind us," I said quickly, because the last thing he needed to hear was a rehashing of what had passed between him and his dad. "But we acknowledge that we don't know everything there is to know about what makes up a Sentinel."
"I acknowledge that every morning when I get up and look at myself in the mirror," he admitted. "I'm just..." His voice trailed off and he snatched up the remote again and turned on the TV. I didn't ask him what he'd been about to say because he had that really uncomfortable look on his face, the one that means he caught himself just in time, before he could say something sentimental.
Then he squared his shoulders and faced up to it manfully. Jim can do that, accept more than you'd expect any man could take, and keep on going. Maybe it's that, even more than his heightened senses, that makes him so special.
Then he said something that made it all worthwhile, every bit of Sentinel-induced stress I'd ever gone through, every panicked moment when I wasn't sure what to do next, even that moment I'd stood up there in front of the TV cameras and called myself a fraud.
"I'm just glad I don't have to do this alone, Blair. Without you here..."
I jumped in and rescued him before he could get so maudlin he wouldn't be able to face me for days. "I know, man. Goes both ways."
We grinned at each other like idiots, then he clicked the remote button at random. "Didn't you say there was a Jags game on tonight?" he demanded and started flipping through the channels.