There's a lot a ‘what if' questions you could ask yourself.
"I think we ought to wait for back up," Bryce told him, shifting nervously in the driver's seat of the cruiser.
"There's no time," his blond partner responded. "That guy's about to go off any minute."
Through the advertisements for half-price chicken wings papering the front of the all-night convenience store they watched a wiry man in a dingy t-shirt and jeans wave his gun wildly at a young cashier and the lone, unfortunate customer.
"He looks strung out. He can't be thinking too clearly. You get his attention from the front and I'll go around back and take him."
Officer Hutchinson slipped out of the car, hunched low and scurried around to the back of the store without looking behind him, relying on his partner to follow his lead. After all, isn't that what partners do? Look out for each other so they can look out for the innocent lives they are supposed to protect? Hutchinson and Bryce had been out of the academy and on the streets together six months now. Class was over. It was time to put that trust to work or someone might end up getting shot by a twitchy hothead.
Hutch opened the delivery door from the alley with caution, then moved into the storage room and took a position behind a barricade of crates that still allowed him a view into the store. The perp looked even wilder from this vantage point, with eyes too bright and sweat rolling down the back of his neck. Stringy brown hair fell across too thin shoulders. A middle-aged woman in a house dress cowered behind a display of potato chips, the young male cashier behind the counter held out trembling hands in submission.
"I swear that's all the money here. They never let us keep any big bills." The cashier's voice cracked. He looked no older than 18, with acne only beginning to fade.
"You better just find some more." The hype pulled himself together long enough to take a surprisingly steady bead on the white-faced cashier.
‘Where the hell is Bryce?' Hutch looked desperately to the front but didn't see the other uniformed officer. ‘Time's up,' he thought fatalistically as he burst out into the open, leveled his Magnum and shouted "freeze!"
The gunman pivoted toward him and fired off a shot as Hutch dove to the side. He felt a hot torch flare through him as he returned fire low, striking Twitchy in the leg. The perp went to his knees on the floor. He dropped his gun and grabbed his thigh where a splotch of dark red appeared. His howl of pain sounded like an alley cat on the losing end of a fight.
Hutch hit the floor at nearly the same time, fire burning through his chest. He found himself fighting for air. Each short gasp was a piercing agony. ‘So this is what it feels like to die,' he thought as the light faded. ‘Damn, it hurts. I wonder if anyone'll take care of my plants after I'm gone.'
Fear brought on by pain and disorientation clawed at Hutch as he awoke briefly. He was strapped to a stretcher whose every movement served to encourage the molten lava devouring his chest. A shrill siren vaguely registered in the background. A man in a white shirt stirred next to him, handling some kind of plastic bag filled with liquid, but didn't meet his eyes.
"Wha?" he coughed out then gasped, unable to say more. But the attendant remained preoccupied.
The ambulance raced down the street as the wounded man turned away against the demons of agony and the unknown.
Haven't you ever wondered how the world might be different?
There was an insistent throbbing that started in his core and radiated throughout his body. A slow and steady drone of beeps kept time with the ghostly voices of nurses and orderlies. Hutch's eyes opened sluggishly to take in the surroundings of a hospital room - mauve walls with a tasteless paper border running along the ceiling; a square-backed, vinyl-covered chair and assorted medical equipment clustered to his left. Needles and tubing hindered his movement, not that it mattered. He was too weak to move much anyway.
He lay still, listening to the beeps and murmured voices as he dredged through the mush of his brain to put together how he had come to be there. The pain was disconcerting. The loneliness was terrifying. Somehow he knew he had brushed death, yet he couldn't help but think that if he had died would it have mattered? Would anyone have missed him? He could almost hear the talk in the hall at police headquarters. A good guy, they'd say; a decent cop. His landlord would find a new tenant who would keep his couch but toss out his plants. Captain Dobey would assign Bryce a new partner with whom he might share a story or two about his academy days and rookie partner as they cleaned out his locker. A month from now all would be as if he had never been.
"And I had wanted to ‘make a difference,'" the blond mumbled feebly. Useless tears stung his eyes.
A moment later a matronly nurse appeared, her graying hair pulled back in an efficient bun. "Officer Hutchinson, welcome back." She smiled as she wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm. "I'll be taking care of you while you're in post op." Her words were as efficient as her movements as she went about checking his vital signs. "You've had emergency surgery. Is there anyone you'd like to call?"
His parents in Duluth were close neither physically nor emotionally. It was unlikely they'd make the two thousand mile trip, so he didn't see the point in telling them. The only other people he'd call, his partner and his captain, no doubt already knew where he was, but were apparently occupied elsewhere. He was alone. He shook his head no and caught a faint frown cross her face.
"On a scale of one to ten how is your pain?"
"Seven," he managed to say.
"Your IV has pain medication but I can check with Dr. Anderson about increasing it if you'd like."
He shook his head and closed his eyes again. His few moments of wakefulness had cost him.
If my name was Anderson I might have been a doctor.
When next Hutch opened his eyes the scene had barely changed. He still lay in the drab hospital room attached to needles and tubing with pain gnawing at him. But this time the lighting in the room was dimmed and a man dressed in green hospital scrubs was sitting in the vinyl chair next to his bed. His feet were hitched up on the rails and his head was tipped back with a magazine splayed over his face. At Hutch's soft groan the man abruptly removed the magazine and straightened up. He looked about the same age as Hutch, with close cropped, dark hair that couldn't hide its tendency to curl. His name-tag read "D. Anderson, M.D."
"Hey there, Sleeping Beauty. I'm Dr. Anderson." A slight east-coast inflection leaked into his words. He got up from the chair and, in a repeat of the nurse's actions, moved to wrap a pressure cuff around Hutch's arm. "I would have come by earlier but I wasn't able to get away. I been waitin' for you to wake up."
Hutch looked at the clock on the wall. It read nearly 11:45 p.m. He'd been there almost 24 hours - or had it been longer? He had no way of knowing.
"If you stayed this late to check on me, I must be worse off than I thought." Hutch muttered thinly but was secretly relieved not to find himself alone this time.
The doctor studied him with deep blue eyes, then gave a crooked smile that was oddly familiar. "Actually, you're pretty lucky. The bullet just nicked your aorta. It could have been very dangerous, but we were able to patch you up so you'll be good as new."
"My aorta? You mean, my heart?"
"It's the body's main artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the circulatory system." The recitation of medical terms sounded impressive coming from the unlikely doctor. "Barring complications, you'll be back on the job in a coupla weeks."
"Thanks, doc. But I guess it really doesn't matter," Hutch added as a bitter afterthought.
Dr. Anderson removed the cuff but not his hand from where it encircled his patient's arm. The touch seemed to have its own ability to give him ease. The sensation penetrated deep inside as if reaching directly to his wounded heart. "I think it matters to the two bystanders who were in the store."
The comment took Hutch by surprise. This time he looked into the other man's eyes and saw rich warmth centered in the cool blue.
"Yeah, I heard what happened. You're a bit of a hero, my friend. I can't say the same for your partner. Sounds like he left ya hangin' out to dry. Aren't you guys supposed to back each other up?" His tone made it sound as if he was prepared to confront Bryce himself for the position he had left Hutch in.
"It doesn't always work out so well," Hutch answered dismissively.
"Wanna talk about it?" Dr. Anderson released the hold on his arm and sat back down, as if it wasn't the middle of the night after an exhausting day and he had all the time in the world.
‘Talk about it? There's nothing I'd like more. Let's say we get out of here and grab a beer,' Hutch found himself thinking. ‘Maybe rib each other over a game of pool. Then we'll head over to my place and I'll water my plants while you babble on about some crazy story you read in a magazine. . .'
"It's nothing," was what came out instead.
"I wouldn't exactly say that. You sacrificed yourself for two strangers. I understand you haven't notified anyone about bein' here. Are you sure there's no one you'd like to call?"
"My parents are in Duluth. They were never too happy about me being a cop in the first place. I'm sure this little incident wouldn't change their minds. And I'm not married. Not anymore, that is." Did he really just give such personal details to this stranger? Only, Dr. Anderson didn't seem like a stranger, exactly.
"How ‘bout a close friend?"
"My job doesn't leave me much time to socialize."
"Ya know, my dad was a cop. There was a time I thought about bein' one, too. Funny, huh?" Dr. Anderson admitted softly.
"Not really. Why didn't you?"
"Well, ya see, back in school we used to sit alphabetically." Dr. Anderson leaned back in the chair, kicked off his shoes and put red stockinged feet up on the bed to where they nearly rested against Hutch's hip. "And with my name bein' "Anderson" I was always seated on the left hand side of the classroom . . . "
Hutch dozed off to the doctor's convoluted story, his comforting voice and physical proximity lulling him into peaceful sleep. The distance of his family, the faithlessness of his wife, even the loneliness of his job, was replaced by the warmth of blue eyes, a touch of support, the music of an east coast drawl . . . .
"Hey! Come on. You don't wanna be late for work, do ya?"
Hutch's attention snapped back from the daydream. The hospital room had returned to a locker room with its grey metal lockers instead of beeping medical equipment. Starsky had come back in to see what was keeping him. Thank god. No imaginary Dr. Anderson, but a flesh and blood Starsky. He wanted to grab him, swing him around, plant a big wet kiss on his forehead that would be hard to explain. He wanted to thank every serendipitous event that had arranged to bring him to this moment, in this particular place, with this one person.
"What if we were?" Hutch couldn't help but ask as he followed his partner out the door.
"I don't suppose you'd wanna imagine the possibilities," Starsky suggested.
"No, I don't suppose I would, Gordo."