The woman emerged soundlessly from out of the swirling mist. Hutch didn't even notice her until she had sat down next to him.
"Mind if I join you?" She asked, drawing up her knees and tucking her thin dress around her legs. Hutch started to ask where she had come from but ultimately lifted his shoulders in an offhand shrug. He turned his attention to study the boat's slow but steady progression across the troubled water. Only one thing mattered for now. Finding a way across the river.
"Why didn't Charon take you across to the other side?" She asked in a voice that was friendly and pleasant, yet tinged with a hint of melancholy.
"Charon?" The name meant nothing in this place of nothingness.
"The ferryman," she explained.
"Oh. He said something about a toll," Hutch replied. The ferryman was nearly across now, apparently oblivious to the two figures sitting on the bank. "I didn't know anything about a toll."
"Hmmmm. I thought as much." She gave a small frown. "I've seen it before. I just wouldn't have expected it of you."
Hutch turned and looked at her then. She seemed strangely familiar. "How would you know anything about me?"
The woman appeared to be in her late twenties, with wisps of soft blonde hair lying at her shoulders. In another time and place she would have been attractive. Here she just looked otherworldly. Her skin was so pale it was nearly translucent, as if she might blend back into the fog at any moment. Hutch thought if he were to reach out and touch her she would disappear. In fact she looked, Hutch thought, much like he'd felt for quite a while. Transitory.
She smiled softly. "I know a lot about you, Ken Hutchinson. You'd be surprised. I know you're kind and caring and . . . generous."
"Maybe before. But none of that matters now." Hutch looked back across the water. Beyond the verdant hills on the other side the sun shimmered on the roofs of the town, casting them in an iridescent glow. Almost like the stained glass of a church.
"Why are you here anyway?" The woman asked.
Hutch pursed his lips. He could ask her the same question. If only he knew where here was. Nothing seemed to exist other than the fog and the river. Once more a barrier stood between where he was and where he wanted to be -- and with whom. Was it a physical place or merely a state of mind? It was irrelevant. In either case, here was where Starsky was not. Which made it empty. Meaningless. Just like before.
When his partner had let go of his hand that day in the hospital, there'd been nothing left for Hutch to hold onto. Without Starsky, Hutch had felt himself fading away a little more every day. He saw a little bit less of himself when he faced his reflection in the mirror.
His days were waking nightmares. His nights were haunted. He couldn't bear sleeping in the same bed he'd shared with Starsky. The bed where they'd fumbled at first to move from the realm of the emotional into the physical until it all had worked together like sorcerer's magic. A little of this, a little of that until the sparks ignited into blue flame.
No one had never really understood their connection. Even them, themselves. At first they'd fought it -- with Gillian and Terri and dozens more. And then came Kira. Starsky's last grasp at "normal" love. But Hutch wouldn't let go. He'd wanted too badly what Kira had. Starsky. They'd finally figured it out that night. Whether wrong or right, he and Starsky were meant to be more than friends. They'd finally just accepted it for what it was.
Without Starsky, Hutch was only half a man. Incomplete and lost. No one had been able to piece him back together. Not that Dobey and Huggy hadn't tried. Each in their own separate ways. But Dobey's heartfelt bluster and Huggy's streetwise wisdom just wasn't what he needed. He needed Starsky.
Left alone, Hutch made a ritual of sitting in the Torino where Starsky's presence still lingered. At first Hutch would take his customary place on the passenger side. If he kept his eyes straight ahead, he could make believe that Starsky was sitting at his left, like always. Then he'd close his eyes and lean back, trying to capture the last remnants of his scent -- the freshness of a morning shower, the tang of garlic and spices from a meal eaten on the run, a mingling of sweat and exhilaration at the end of the day.
When the ache became unbearable, Hutch slid behind the wheel and let the leather of the seat enfold him. He ran his hands over the steering wheel and remembered Starsky's touch that had grown from fumbling to firm. Late one night he turned the key and the engine flared to life. The car rumbled and pulsed, creating a sensation like a child must feel in the womb. He let it lull him. And like an infant pre-born he'd been reluctant to escape its sanctuary. He fell asleep, only to awaken on the bank of the turbulent river.
"Hutch?" The woman pulled him from his memories.
Hutch shook his head. "I'm not exactly sure. One minute I was sitting in my partner's car, listening to the motor hum, and now I'm here." He remembered feeling sleepy, unable to keep his eyes open. Maybe this was all a dream.
Her response came as if she'd read his mind. "You're not dreaming, Hutch. I hate to tell you, but you're not in the land of the living anymore."
Her words weren't all that much of a surprise. Hutch hadn't felt fully alive for quite a while.
"Where am I then?" He asked.
"Between here and there."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Not hell, Hutch. But not Heaven either." She indicated the gleaming town across the river with a tilt of her head. "You've been caught in the land in between." She waved her hand like a butterfly wing.
A foreboding grazed like cold fingers down his spine. "What is that river?" He asked.
"It's been called a lot of things," the woman said. "You may have heard it referred to as Styx."
"The boundary between earth and the underworld." The fingers turned his blood to ice.
"Something like that. On the other side is what some have called Heaven. Eternal paradise." She turned to gaze wistfully across the water. "But not everyone gets to go there. Like Charon said, you need to have earned your way across."
"By good deeds? Is that it?" Hutch gritted his teeth as he thought of the stories he'd heard growing up in his strict Lutheran church. Some things had made sense, but so many others didn't. After a while he had grown tired of trying to sort it all out. At the end of the day he figured knew was that love was love and that was all that mattered. But he'd guessed he'd been wrong after all.
"Yes and no. It's more about the how much you value the life you've been given during your time on earth. That's the toll Charon requires to Charon to take you across."
"I told him I didn't know about the toll," Hutch said. The unfairness he had felt before seemed to have followed him.
"That's because you came here too soon. Something must have gone wrong. You shouldn't have come. You weren't properly prepared."
She looked at him sadly and took one of his hands in hers. "Tell me what you remember just before you arrived." Her hands weren't as frozen as he felt. Although they were unnaturally cool to the touch, they weren't uncomfortably so.
"I was s. . . sitting in Starsky's car. The Torino." Her touch seemed to pull the memories from him when he would have stayed silent. "The red tomato, I used to call it. I was trying to remember what he smelled like, what he felt like."
Hutch closed his eyes the way he had in the car and when he opened them he saw the woman's eyes on him. Tears glistened and her expression was pained. He realized there was something familiar about her.
"I know you." He said.
"You did once," she admitted. "But that was in another time and place."
The woman's face softened. "Roxy was a hooker and a junkie. She died from an overdose of tainted heroin." Roxy's lips lifted then in a soft smile. "But that doesn't matter anymore. Here I'm just Roxy. And all the pain is gone."
Hutch squeezed the hands that held his. "I'm sorry we couldn't do more to help you."
"You did enough, Hutch. Both you and Starsky. You didn't look past me like everyone else. You treated me like a person. I wouldn't have taken any help you offered. We would both have been fooling ourselves. I was too far gone and you'd been around enough to know it."
Hutch thought of the last time he'd seen the woman he knew as Roxy, shaking and begging in the filthy room above a bar. Sympathy had resonated through him like a struck tuning fork. Like her, he'd had his own upper room experience. He'd understood the pain and the craving she felt. The hopelessness. If it wasn't for Starsky he might have ended up the same way.
"Are you stuck on this side, too?"
"Yes, Hutch. I am. I threw away the life I was given. I didn't give it enough value to cross over."
Empathy vibrated through him once more. Roxy was stuck forever in this misty no-man's land. Pain didn't exist for her but neither did pleasure.
"It doesn't seem right," Hutch spoke his thoughts aloud. "You were an addict. It wasn't your fault."
"But the choices I made put me on that path. Hanging out with the wrong people. Thinking I could beat the system. Besides, I can't complain." She shrugged her shoulders, simultaneously pulling her hand from his grasp. "I could be somewhere far worse, I guess. We all have a price to pay for the lives we lived."
Hutch didn't want to ask what she meant by a place far worse. He'd been there once or twice.
Across the river a figure approached. Not the cloaked ferryman but another man, fairly young and dressed in faded jeans and t-shirt. Even from a distance, Hutch would have known him -- Heaven, hell, or anywhere in between. His cocky swagger and shock of dark curls.
Hutch stood up as his heart leapt in his chest. His partner had come back to him like in so many of his dreams. Starsky stopped on the bank and looked across to him. So near but yet so far. The raging waters of Styx separated them.
Starsky lifted up his hand to acknowledge him. Words would have been useless across the churning river so they just locked onto each other with their eyes.
"It's Starsky." Roxy stood alongside him.
"You were sitting in his car. The motor had been running . . . . "
Hutch nodded once again as his eyes remained fixed on the man standing across from him.
"And now you're here. Don't you see, Hutch? That's what happened. It was just a terrible mistake." She turned from him and yelled out, "It was a mistake! Charon -- did you hear? Come back!"
But her cries were pulled away from her as if by the swift-moving current.
Hutch paid little attention. Nothing else mattered but the man across the river and the unbridgeable distance that lay between them.