Title: The Persistence of Memory
Warning: Post “John Doe”
Summary: He’d rather sleep. He’d rather dream.
He sleeps most of the way to San Antonio. The light in his dreams is soft and golden, not harsh and white like it had been in Mexico. In his dreams he lies beside her with his hand on her belly and threatens to name the baby Zoltan or Attila. Laughing, she pushes his hand away: Oh yeah? I’ll see your Attila and raise you an Egbert, buster.
The road is rough, and he shifts, humming in complaint. In his dreams he is underwater, trying not to hyperventilate as the bull shark swims close enough to bump his arm and dart away. Still, still, still, he chants. Stay still, stay alive.
Monica had wanted to check him into a hospital but he refused. He is only bruised, not broken. They compromised on a hotel, where he could get cleaned up and sleep a while before they all flew back to D.C.
“All?” he asked.
“Dana’s here.” Monica looked at him steadily, as if she expected him to flinch.
“Oh,” was all he said. But he turns the word and her look over in his mind. Dana . . . does he know a Dana?
In his dreams the redheaded woman lies asleep in his arms. Her body is like a furnace. She strokes his leg in her sleep, and he hums to her a half-remembered lullaby.
The bumping car wakes him fully, and he squints out the window at the passing freeway. Dana is waiting for him in San Antonio—in another 68 miles, according to the sign they passed. He licks his lips and whispers, “Dana,” to try the name out.
From the front seat, Monica turns around to smile at him. He smiles back, then grimaces as his dry lips crack. He licks his lips again and tastes blood, warm and coppery.
“Walter,” Monica says softly, “stop at the next gas station, please. John needs a drink.”
“I’m fine,” he protests.
But the driver nods. “There’s an off ramp.” He flicks on the turn signal.
Walter . . . Skinner. Yes. Like a catch in a lock it falls into place. Friend, superior, ally. Okay.
He closes his eyes again.
*** *** ***
In the hotel room, Monica lingers, fussing with the curtain. He sits on the edge of the bed, watching her. The half-drunk bottle of water is loose in his fingers. “You could have internal damage, you know,” she says, turning suddenly to face him.
“I feel fine. I’m tired. I’m dirty. But I feel fine.”
“I’ll send Dana in to look at you.” She sighs. Her shoulders slump, and he wants to hug her and tell her she’s off-duty now.
He doesn’t move. The puzzle pieces are falling into place around her, too, but he still can’t see the complete picture. Most of it is blacked out by his grief for Luke.
He closes his eyes and lets his head droop, and in a moment Monica’s cool hand is on his shoulder. “John?”
He whispers, “I’m so tired. I just want to sleep.”
“I’m sending Dana in. You’ll listen to her, won’t you? Tell me you’ll do what she says.”
He nods without looking up. Monica waits a beat, squeezes his shoulder and leaves the room.
When he hears the door click shut, he flops back on the bed and stares at the ceiling. Monica has put her faith in Dana, it appears, and for now so must he. She might heal what’s wrong with his body, but he doesn’t think anything will soothe his mind.
He’d rather sleep. He’d rather dream.
In a few minutes he hears a soft knock at the door. “John?”
He forces himself to his feet and opens the door, ready to tell her to leave him the fuck alone and let him sleep, but the angry words die on his lips. Images kaleidoscope together: desert sun, blinding pain ripping through his chest, water closing over his head, snow in a newly-dug grave, a blurry grayscale photograph against a light board, blood on her porcelain skin.
“H-h-” He swallows.
“Monica said you were bad, but my God.” She puts an arm around him and guides him back into the room, back towards the bed. He has an image of a mouse assisting a crippled bulldog. “John, let me take you to a hospital.”
“I don’t need one.” He lets her sit him on the bed, lets her hands flutter over him as she gently probes and smoothes. “I just need a good night’s sleep.” He moans as her fingers press a delicate spot in his side, and she frowns.
“Were you punched here? Or kicked?”
“You could have kidney damage. Has there been blood in your urine?”
“No.” He lifts his head to look at her again. She’s like staring into the sun—so bright, so beautiful. He thinks, All things wise and wonderful, and smiles.
She has a little black doctor’s bag, and she opens it and takes out a penlight. She shines the beam into his eyes. “Do you know what year it is?”
“2002,” he guesses.
“That’s right. Well.” She sighs, straightens, and puts the penlight away. “Your eyes are dilating normally.”
“Is that good?”
“Yes.” She sits down beside him and takes his hand in both of hers. “John, I can’t force you into a hospital, even though I think an overnight for observation would be the best thing for you. But if you want me to stay with you, I will. We’ll—we’ll deal with whatever comes up.”
She’s shaking a little. He presses his free hand against hers. “Yes.”
“Okay. Good. Okay.” She looks relieved. “I’ll run you a bath. You’ll feel better after a bath. And I’ll order some room service. What are you in the mood for?” She touches the side of his face. “Nothing that requires a lot of chewing, I’d say.”
“You trust me that much?” The side of her mouth starts to grin.
“I trust you with everything.”
The grin slides away and she touches his face again. She looks like she wants to speak, but instead she only smiles gently and rises to go into the bathroom.
She stops at the sound of his voice. “Yes?” She turns, her hand on the doorframe.
“Dana, did you know my son?”
Her lips tremble and she returns to him, kneels at his feet. She puts her hands on his knees. His jeans are caked with dirt and sweat. “I never met your son,” she says quietly. “Do you want to tell me about him?”
“I remember . . .” He curls his fingers into a lock of her hair. Her brows furrow but she doesn’t move away. “His eyes. I remember his eyes. And . . . I remember the way he smelled when he was a baby. I remember, he laughed when I tickled him under the chin. I remember teaching him to ride a bike.” A tight, invisible fist squeezes his chest. “I remember his body—in a field—”
“John,” she begins, trying to soothe him.
“I’ve got to. All of it. I’ve got to. I remember his body in a field.” His eyes are wet. He removes his finger from her hair, afraid he’ll pull it too hard. Her hands grip his again, strong and steady. “I was angry. I blamed everyone. Monica, for not finding him soon enough. My wife, for letting him out of her sight. Me. I blamed me, Dana. Most of all, I blamed me.”
The words come in a waterfall now, unstoppable. “I mean, I was his daddy, I was the policeman, I was the soldier, I was the one who put bad guys in jail and brought lost kids home, why couldn’t I find my boy? My own boy. If I ever brought anybody home, it should have been him. My boy. My sweet boy. My good boy. My beautiful boy. I was my boy’s hero and I failed him.”
“You’re still a hero, John.”
Her face is serious, not teasing him at all. He rubs his thumb against her hand.
Dana says, her voice low, “You’re still my hero, John.”
He can’t say anything. The tightness in his chest moves into his throat, blocking out his voice. He cups her face in his hand and strokes her cheek. Catlike, she moves her cheek against his hand.
In a moment she gets to her feet. “Bath,” she mutters. She passes her hand over her face and goes into the bathroom.
*** *** ***
The bathroom is steamy and full of echoes. “Do you need help?” Dana asks him, but he only stares at the water. In his mind he’s four years old and being held under Drake’s Pond by four pairs of older, bigger hands. Their owners only laugh as he flails his arms, helpless and furious.
“Dad came,” he says.
t?” She strokes his arm.
“They were holding me under—some older kids, mean guys—but then Dad came and he pulled me away. He yelled at them. ‘He’s just a kid. It’s not funny. You could have killed him.'” He can remember his father’s scent: the tobacco, the grease, the grass and potting soil. “My father was bigger than life.”
“Fathers always seem that way, when you’re a child.”
“He died when I was thirteen. Heart attack. He just . . . stopped.”
Dana goes on stroking his arm and says nothing for a long moment, until finally, “Let me help you get your shirt off. It’ll probably hurt to lift your arms.”
He nods. Her fingers are nimble, parting the buttons of his shirt and then carefully lifting his undershirt up his chest and over his head. She hums in apology when he winces with pain. He expects her to go on, finish undressing him, but she pauses and steps away.
“I think you can handle the rest.”
He cups her face in his hand. He strokes her lower lip with his thumb. “Please stay.”
Her bluer-than-blue eyes meet his. She bites her lip. “John, I—”
His dreams forgot the details, he realizes as he kisses her. His dreams forgot the cushion of her lips, the sweetness of her breath, the tiny whimper in her throat and the clutch of her fingers in his hair. Her lips part at the first tap of his tongue and she moans, one hand in his hair and the other against his jaw, as he kisses and kisses and kisses her.
“Stay a while,” he whispers again. He nudges his lips against her chin. “You make everything so clear, Dana.”
“Yeah. You bring it into focus.” His lips trace her cheekbone. His hand moves down her neck, strokes her collar bone, then slides against her silky blouse to seek out her buttons. Her neck tastes like light and sweet, like summer.
It’s not until he opens the first button that she catches his hand. “John. Stop.”
“I’m up to it. Don’t worry about me.”
“John!” At her sharp tone he looks up, to see the set of her mouth and the spots of color flaming in her cheeks. She says more gently, “John. I’m not sure what you’re remembering, but whatever it is—”
The depth of his mistake strikes him at once. He has an urge to cross his arms and cover his bare chest. “Oh,” he says. “I—sorry.”
Dana only nods and almost runs from the bathroom, nearly slamming the door in her haste. He can’t blame her: if someone had come on to him in this manner he’d want to escape quickly, too. For a moment he only stands, his eyes closed, body burning with embarrassment, and then he strips off the rest of his clothes and gets into the tub.
The hotel has provided white, fluffy bathrobes, and he wraps one around himself when he finally gets out of the tub. After days of stiff denim and scratchy shirts, the robe feels almost decadent. He wipes steam off the mirror and peers at himself critically. Eyes: blue. Slightly haunted. Slightly scared. Hair: brown, starting to gray at the temples. Body: lean, but strong. Ten fingers, ten toes, an assortment of scars, one tattoo.
And a past that is like an unfinished puzzle.
Dana knocks on the door again. “John? Room service is here. Do you want to eat?”
“Yes. I’ll be right there.”
He hears her soft footsteps move away. He takes a deep breath and runs his hands through his damp hair. He will have to be honest. He will keep it simple.
He opens the door and steps out, to see that Dana is setting up the room-service table by the window. “Dana,” he says, and she looks up.
“I got you cream of potato soup, does that sound good?”
“Yes. Dana, about earlier.”
“I have dreams of kissing you.”
She shuts her mouth. Her hand grips the back of the chair.
He says, “Everything is so confused right now. I have pieces but not the whole picture. I assumed things I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”
She whispers, “You thought we were lovers.”
He nods. His ears feel hot.
“We’re friends, John,” she says firmly. “Friends, former partners. Nothing more.” She softens and adds, “Here, John. Sit down. Eat. I bet you haven’t had a decent meal since you left home.”
He’d actually eaten well—apparently he liked Mexican food: black beans and rice, melted cheese, tortillas both soft and crisp—but he’s had nothing but water all day. He sits, watches Dana uncover the soup and toast, watches her peel back the plastic from a tiny tub of jelly and pour a glass of water.
“Are you going to eat?”
“I’ve eaten.” He starts to smile, and she adds, spreading jelly on a slice of toast, “Maybe some toast. Toast is hardly real food.”
“No, not at all.” He’s truly smiling now, and she smiles back, biting into her toast. He picks up his spoon and begins to eat.
*** *** ***
He knows she expects him to sleep after dinner. He expects it too—to close his eyes and drift away again into his past—but once he puts on Skinner’s loaned pajamas and slips into bed, he doesn’t want to sleep. He watches Dana instead, as she stretches out in the overstuffed chair with her feet on the bed and flips through a magazine. It’s a thick magazine with few pictures and tiny print. Some kind of medical journal, he supposes.
The truth fills him with regret. He has never held her, never sung her to sleep, never caressed her bright body and loved her until she was weak and sated. The child, he assumes, is just a figment of his imagination as well: his memories of Luke blended with wishful thinking. It brings a lump to his throat. He has to turn his face away.
“John?” She moves next to him and puts her hand on his cheek. “What is it?”
“Nothin’. I can’t sleep.”
“Is the light keeping you awake?”
“No.” He holds her hand for a moment before letting it go. “I’m still sorry.”
“Oh—don’t,” she says as if it doesn’t matter, as if she wasn’t upset at all. She hesitates, then starts fingering the hair at his forehead. “You’ve got a lot to process. I’m not at all surprised you’d get confused.”
Particularly if you do that a lot, he thinks as she continues playing with his hair. “I’m not sure of what’s real.”
“I’ll help you if I can, John. There are a lot of things about you that I just don’t know.” She pauses. “Though, now I know you nearly drowned as a child.”
“You know more than that. You know I trust you. You know I I’ve dreamed about you. You have nothing to say about that?”
Dana opens her mouth and closes it. She shrugs. “You saw me through a bad time.”
It doesn’t answer his question, but he accepts it. “Is the baby real?”
“But not ours.”
“Does he like it when I lie on the floor with him and blow on his stomach? Or is that Luke?”
She smiles. “My son likes that a lot. You’re one of his favorite playthings.”
“Tell me more about him.”
“His name is William and he has big blue eyes. He’s very sweet. Very quiet. Sometimes I think he’s just observing us before he decides to get involved.”
“Involved in what?”
“Oh, this whole human drama. Sometimes I make up stories for him, that he’s stopped here briefly on his way to somewhere else. He’s my little traveler.” Her expressive eyes glisten and she looks away.
He sits up. He wants to hold her so badly his arms ache. “You’re afraid for him.”
“He’s special. I’m still learning how special he is.”
A tear pearls on her eyelash. He touches it and licks it from his fingertip. Dana watches him, frowning. He says, “How long have I loved you?”
“John . . .” She sounds exasperated. “You don’t love me. We’re friends.”
“So I can’t love you?”
“So you shouldn’t. Things are complicated enough.”
“I feel like my body already knows you.”
“John!” She stands and moves to the window. “Don’t say things like that. Don’t say things you’ll regret. Don’t say things you’ll want to take back.”
“How can we be friends,” he muses, “if I go through every day wanting you so much? How do we spend any time toget
her if all I want is to pull you to me, knowing that I can’t? How is it that we’re friends? How can I see you every day and not belong to you?”
“You don’t see me every day.” Her voice thickens. She wraps her arms around herself, her back towards him.
“What do you want me to say? Do you think I’m going to throw myself into your arms and tell you I’ve been blind? You’re not going to solve your troubles by seeing me naked.”
“I wasn’t aware that was an option.” His voice is surprisingly cool, considering how her words send blood pounding through his veins. Dana doesn’t answer, still hugging herself, turned away from him as if she can’t bear to see his face. “I’m not making this any better. I’m sorry. I want to understand. I have no context, Dana.”
She says stiffly, “Get some sleep. You’re exhausted. Disoriented. Things will make sense in the morning.”
“Am I ever going to be able to look into your eyes again?”
“That is entirely up to you.”
He hesitates, then rises from the bed. He places his hands on her shoulders. She inhales, shuddering, and holds herself stiffly. “Did I or didn’t I ever hold you in my arms and make love to you until you wept with pleasure? Did I? Tell me I didn’t. Tell me I dreamed it and I’ll believe you.”
Lips parted and eyes closed, she turns her head towards him. “No,” she whispers, but she turns and thrusts her hands into his hair. Her lips seek out his as she whispers, “No, it wasn’t a dream. It was real.”
*** *** ***
When they stop kissing she tries to explain. “I thought my baby’s father was dead. I was so unhappy and lonely . . . except when you were there. You were so kind and comforting. You never asked for anything. And I wanted . . .” She scrapes her nails lightly over his scalp. “I wanted to feel . . .”
“So we slept together.” His hand is on her warm stomach, his head against her breast. She has taken off only her shoes, and hasn’t noticed—or just not mentioned—the undone buttons on her blouse. He likes that he can feel her breathing.
“Yes,” she says quietly. “Once. I didn’t know you were in love with me until you said just now. I thought . . . at most I thought you pitied me.”
He chuckles, lifting his head to look into her eyes. “No, I wouldn’t call it pity at all.”
Dana smiles and touches his cheek with gentle fingers. “It’s no easier now than it was then,” she says. “My baby’s father is alive but we’re not together, and I thought you were moving on . . . and I was glad. I want you to be happy.”
“I bet we both would be a lot happier if we did the moving on together,” he says, kissing her fingertips.
“Maybe.” She sighs and stops stroking his face. “Everything’s so complicated.”
“Seems pretty simple to me.” He kisses her belly between the parted tails of her shirt. She sighs, arching up towards him, and thrusts her hands into his hair again. “You.” Kiss. “Me.” Kiss. “Your William.” Kiss and a nuzzle.
“And Monica?” she says painfully. “And my baby’s father?”
“I thought you said you weren’t together.”
“Not physically. I told you it’s complicated. I want you. I need him.”
She’s right—it is complicated, more than he can comprehend right now. “What?”
“I can’t have both of you, and I know that, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting and—John, please don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?” he mutters.
“Like I’ve just broken your heart.”
He rubs his chest absently. “Maybe you have.”
“I think I’d like to be alone after all.”
“John,” she tries again, but he pushes himself away and lies on his back, his arm over his eyes.
For a moment she doesn’t move except to sit up. She speaks slowly, gravely. “I came to you because I trusted you. I knew you’d always be careful with me. I knew even if you didn’t love me you’d treat me like you did.” The silence is filled only with his breathing. “I’m sorry I didn’t think about what it might mean to you.”
Still he says nothing, and in a moment she slips on her shoes and goes to the door. “I’m in room 419 if you need me,” she says. “If you have any pain.”
He imagines himself saying Dana and her turning and saying Yes and then he could say I have pain, I need you, and she’d come back and climb into bed with him and then—
The door clicks closed and he is alone in the silent room.
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