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Chapter 5 – "The Visitor"
Mac Taylor pushed open the door to his apartment and – by force of habit – stepped aside to let Stella enter first. They hadn't said a word to each other since leaving the Crime Lab, and had sat silently on the back seat of the taxi together. Stella had glanced at him several times, but Mac had kept his head turned away, staring at the rivulets of rain streaming across the taxi windows. Since he – unlike the others – had never been reunited with any of his possessions at the hospital, she pulled out her purse and leaned forward to pay the driver. They stepped out onto the curb and dashed to the building entrance together, sidestepping the widest puddles. Dripping wet, she waited patiently in the foyer while he retrieved his spare apartment key from the building manager and emptied his mailbox.
As Stella walked past Mac into his apartment, he kept his eyes fixed on the letters he held in his hand. Looking back at him, she sighed inwardly. If his behavior at the Crime Lab had left her in any doubt, he was making it amply clear to her now: he was still resentful about what had happened two years ago. He made no move to close the door behind them, and Stella wondered if he was actually hoping she'd just turn on her heel and leave. But she hadn't come all the way from New Orleans just to be rebuffed on his doorstep. Besides, she still had a bone to pick with him.
"I'm hungry," she announced and hung her brand new winter coat on the coat hook rack beside the door. Ignoring him, she put her hand against the wall and tugged off her wet boots. Then she headed straight down the narrow hallway to his kitchen, where she pulled open the refrigerator door.
"Just make yourself at home, then," he muttered irritably. He yanked the door shut and dumped his mail on the console table. Taking off his overcoat without raising his right arm required a little more effort than he had expected. With his left hand, he fumbled with the buttons and finally edged himself out of the sleeves. He swore as he kicked off his shoes, unable to bend down to untie them.
"Yuck!" she called out from the kitchen. "Most of this stuff will have to go. You should really pay more attention to what you eat, Mac."
"Give me a break here, Stella," he protested and slumped wearily against the door. Sleep was definitely going to be out of the question now. "I've been in hospital for a week."
With one hand, he rifled through the stack of letters on the table, looking vaguely for bills, before shoving the whole handful down into a bin. Then he reached into the pocket of his overcoat and pulled out a bottle of painkillers.
"Had I known that I'd be coming home with you," he couldn't resist adding, "I would of course have thrown out my perishables ahead of time."
Ignoring his sarcasm, she looked around his spotless kitchen. "You left this place early Sunday morning, and it looks like this? Did you even eat breakfast? My house actually looks like someone lives in it, you know."
"I can only imagine," he replied, listening to her opening the cupboards and drawers in his kitchen. "You stayed with me for five days, remember?"
"How could I possibly forget …?" she began, before biting back the rest of her reply. They couldn't be doing this now. It would have to wait until they had eaten.
"I'm going to take a shower," he said and headed for his bedroom to retrieve a change of clothing.
"Fine by me," she answered from the kitchen. She stood still for a moment, listening to the familiar sound of running water in the bathroom.
When he finally emerged again, he was wearing his faded gray sweats and had a towel slung around his neck. Revived by his shower, he followed his nose into the kitchen, intrigued by the smell of cooking. Stella was just setting the table with a big bowl of green salad and two plates of spaghetti carbonara with pancetta and pecorino. Noticing that her hair now was wetter than his own, Mac tossed his towel over to her without thinking.
Stella wrapped the towel into a turban around her hair, and they sat down at the small kitchen table. She broke two pieces off a loaf of French bread and handed one to him. For a while they ate in silence, until he finally had to admit, "This is delicious," with an appreciative smile on his lips.
"I'm glad you like it, Mac," she answered graciously.
"You know," he added with a sigh, "I haven't had a halfway decent meal, since …" He had started the sentence confidently, but now the task of completing it suddenly defeated him. "… since …"
Stella recognized that his difficulties had nothing to do with his amnesia. "Well, some things certainly haven't changed since I left. You're still too busy to eat properly."
"I didn't realize I had the ingredients for this," he said, pointing down at their improvised meal. "I especially don't know how I could have overlooked that." He pointed to an enormous watermelon lying on his kitchen counter.
"Yeah, I'd forgotten how tiny they were here in New York," she replied wryly. "Actually, I ran down to that great corner deli of yours while you were in the shower." She watched him help himself to more food, pleased that she had correctly guessed he would be famished after his weeklong stay at Trinity General.
"That was a pretty long shower, Mac," she said, throwing him a challenging look. "Maybe I should've peeked to check up on you."
His mouth still full of food, Mac pointed his fork at her while he finished chewing. "As far as I'm concerned," he finally replied, "that's how you ended up in New Orleans in the first place."
"Oh?" She stared at him across the table, one eyebrow raised. "So that's how you see it?"
He put his elbow on the back of his chair and leaned back. "Are you telling me that you don't, Stella?"
"That's not what I said." Turning in her chair, she leaned forward and toweled her hair dry.
Having finally broached the subject, they tacitly agreed to leave it for the time being. Instead, Stella got up to cut them a couple of thick slices of watermelon as dessert.
"Coffee?" she asked, when they had finished eating and were clearing off the table.
Coughing again, he shook his head and pointed at the empty spot on the counter where his coffee maker used to be. He filled a glass with water from the kitchen sink and gulped it down.
"It's gone!" she gasped. "And here I thought nothing had changed. Well, I'm not surprised you finally wore out it out."
"Actually, I got rid of it. I'm cutting down." He began rinsing off the plates and filling the sink with soapy water. "I'll make us some tea instead. I could use some myself."
Stella picked up a dishtowel and marveled at how efficiently he took care of the dishes, while she tried to keep up. Behind them, a pot of black tea was already brewing on the countertop. To her surprise, Mac paused twice to check the gasket on the drain tailpiece below the sink.
"Now, why has this suddenly stopped leaking?" he muttered to himself, a puzzled look on his face.
Once the kitchen was spotless again, they walked into his living room together, carrying their mugs of hot tea. Outside, the wind had picked up, and now the rain was lashing against the windowpanes. They both stopped dead when they saw a lowball glass and an open bottle of vintage bourbon standing on his dining table.
"Well, something else has changed," Stella said dryly, putting down her mug. "I didn't realize you'd become a secret drinker, Mac."
"Neither did I." Utterly mystified, he picked up the bottle and stared at it.
"Are you seriously suggesting someone broke into your apartment and left an expensive bottle of whiskey on your table?" Instinctively, she pulled her sleeve over her fingers before picking up the glass. "Should we be dusting this for prints?"
"No, no," he reassured her, before twisting the cap on and putting the bottle back in the sideboard cabinet. "It's definitely my own. I've had it for years. I just don't remember opening it. It must have been last Saturday night, after I apparently met up with Henry."
Stella held the glass up to the light and took a closer look. "From what I can see, you poured yourself quite a stiff drink."
His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Well, that's unexpected, but I must have had a very good reason." He sat down wearily on the couch. "I really need to have another word with Henry."
Sitting down next to him, Stella put her feet up on the edge of the coffee table and blew on the mug she cradled between her hands. Mac glanced down at his wrist and realized that he no longer was in possession of his watch. He got up and went to his bedroom, and she could hear that he was rummaging around in the nightstand by his bed. On his way back, he emptied the pockets of his overcoat and brought a handful of pill vials and an inhaler, which he lined up on the coffee table.
Stella noticed that Mac was winding up an old-fashioned men's watch. She held out her arm so he could set the time by her own wristwatch.
"It was my father's," he explained self-consciously, strapping it carefully onto his wrist.
She picked up each plastic vial in turn and read their labels. "Ciprofloxacin, doxycycline and penicillin. That's an awful lot of antibiotics. Are you really supposed to take all that?"
"Yes," he sighed in resignation. "Three times a day for sixty days. Otherwise I'm in trouble. At least according to Hendricks."
"Given how sick you've been," she said, shaking her head in wonder, "I'm astonished you were discharged so soon."
Instead of replying, Mac just leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and silently studied the medication on the table.
"Oh, no, you didn't!" she exclaimed, unable to keep the disapproval out of her voice. "You really give new meaning to the word incorrigible, Mac."
"By threatening to raise hell, I finally got Hendricks to call Henry. He's the one who got me discharged." He threw out his hands in indignation. "Well, can you see me lying around in bed all day?"
In her mind, Stella actually had vivid images of him doing exactly that, but she held her tongue. "Oh my, you've been keeping busy, Mac," she said, thinking about what he had done to Williams. "So, should I be reminding you to take your meds?" she added hesitantly. "Because I seem to remember having to … wrestle … you about this, last time."
"Nope, I'm all grown up now. You'd be amazed." He shook out three pills and washed them down with a sip of his tea.
"Well, I came all the way from the Big Easy to the Big Apple to rescue you. There must be something I can do for you."
He rolled his eyes at her. "I didn't need rescuing, Stella. I was already in safe hands."
"You mean Jo's hands?" she asked, looking him right in the eyes.
"No," he answered tersely, pulling back. "I mean Hendricks and his team. Apparently, I'm their first ever survivor. They'd probably put a plaque up at the hospital, if it wasn't all such a damned secret."
"Jo tells me you're not getting much sleep," Stella ventured. "She was really worried you had come down with pneumonia again."
"Well, it wasn't pneumonia, was it? It was just bronchitis. I happen to have the top infectious disease experts in the country backing me up on this one."
"Yeah, right, Mac," she said. "It was bronchitis with just a touch of anthrax."
"Whatever. You're deliberately missing the point, here. I'm fine. There's no need for anyone to worry about me."
"Well," she replied, "it's just that the last time you got sick, everything just went south for us. I wouldn't want it to happen to you again."
He looked up sharply. "The way I remember it," he replied, "I stayed right here, and you're the one who went south."
"Mac, I didn't realize you felt crowded by me until it was too late," she exclaimed. "I mean, you didn't say a word and then you just – blew up!"
"We were moving too fast," he replied bitterly. "It felt like you were taking over my life, and then you suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth. A few days later I find out you'd taken a job in New Orleans!"
"I was desperate to leave, for everyone's sake, including your own, Mac," she replied. "We were constantly arguing, unable to work out how to get back to being just friends again. Everyone was hiding under their desks, no one was getting any work done. You were about to lose it, and the whole Crime Lab was suffering."
"So, you just headed for the hills, leaving me behind to pick up the pieces. You had me reeling for days," he spat out, his simmering anger flaring up. Stella braced herself, knowing exactly where he was heading. "And then – to top it all off – I get a phone call from the NOPD Chief about the recommendation from me that you had faked!"
"Please try to understand, Mac," she appealed to him. "I just had to get away at the first possible opportunity. It was very big of you not to rat on me at the time. I never got to thank you for that. I would have been out of a job before I even got started." She put her hand on his sleeve, trying to catch his eyes. "I really appreciate it."
Frowning, he stared at her for a moment before finally sighing. "Well, you wrote everything that I would have written myself, anyway. Saved me the paperwork, I guess."
"We ruined ten years of friendship in just five days," she said ruefully. "It was definitely a mistake."
"Oh, yeah, was it ever," he agreed. "I'll never do anything quite so stupid again."
"There's actually something I've been meaning to ask you," she told him. "No one around here seems to know what actually happened between us. They all seem to think we argued because you didn't like being fussed over. How can that be?"
"Well, I don't like it," he replied sourly.
"Yes, I realize that now," she sighed, "but that's not why we were fighting, was it?"
"You were gone, Stella, and I wasn't up to explaining what actually happened," he confessed, a little embarrassed that he had omitted telling everyone the truth. "If it's any consolation to you, the story backfired completely on me. Now, whenever I cough, everyone panics around me."
"Well, Jo is definitely going to work out what really happened," Stella said. "She's a bright lady. And there's a certain chemistry between the two of you, I can tell."
"Chemistry?" he replied, glancing sideways at her. "You really think so?"
"Are you telling me that you don't?"
"That's not what I said," he said with a smug smile.
"I think you'd be perfect for each other. You're going to want to let her get closer."
"I don't believe you're giving me advice on this." Exasperated, he briefly covered his eyes, before looking back at her. "You're an expert on this subject, exactly how?"
"You know how, Mac," she replied quietly. "Jo is giving you a hard time because she really likes you, Mac."
"You saw her at the lab today, yourself," he said. "She never lets me get away with anything."
"She's just keeping you out of trouble, like I used to," Stella laughed. "I can also tell you for free that Sheldon's going to be applying for paternity leave by the end of the year."
"What?" He stared at her in disbelief. "How can you possibly know that? The man is still on his honeymoon."
"You're forgetting that I run a Crime Lab, too. I just know to keep an eye on these things, and I'm sure Jo's already making contingency plans." She saw him shaking his head skeptically. "C'mon, it's just common sense. The birds and the bees. Remind me to tell you about them sometime. I think you're old enough by now."
"Actually, I think I've had a few practical lessons already." He had a twinkle in his eye as he smiled at her.
She grinned. "Well, I certainly learned a thing or two I didn't know about you, Mac. We practically spent five whole days in your bedroom."
"It's been too long, Stella."
"You know, I'm actually glad Jo called me," she replied. "We could never have cleared the air like this in a long-distance phone call."
"You're right." Yawning, he straightened his back and stretched out his arms wearily, before suddenly flinching.
"Are you all right?" she asked anxiously.
"I'm still so damned tired," he replied, holding his left hand firmly under his right arm. "It must be the medication. I think I need to lie down."
Stella looked at him in concern. "Mac, whenever you say you want to lie down, it always means you're about to pass out. Why am I the only one who seems to know this? You said exactly those words to me when you collapsed at the crime scene two years ago."
"I did, really?" He looked skeptical. "But now I really just want to go and lie down." He pointed towards his bedroom.
"Mac," she warned him, "I'm not following you into your bedroom ... again."
"Stella!" he exclaimed, rolling his eyes in irritation. "I'm not inviting you into my bedroom ... again." He sighed deeply. "Now you're reading something completely different into the same words. Why do women always have to make everything so … complicated?"
"Mac, has it ever occurred to you," she suggested gently, "that maybe you're the one who's complicated?
"What do you mean?" Mac looked offended. "I'm a very straightforward kind of guy."
"Oh, really?" she laughed. "What makes you think that?"
"Help me out here," he appealed to her. "It's just … I really need to lie down. What am I supposed to say if I just want to do exactly that – lie down?"
She frowned in disappointment. "Okay, I understand. You want me to leave. I'd better get back to my hotel, anyway." She started to get up from the couch. "I'm meeting Flack for dinner tonight. If you're feeling any better after your nap, you're welcome to tag along."
He reached out for her hand and pulled her gently back down again. "But I still want to talk, Stella."
Stella stared at him before retrieving a cushion from the far end of the couch and put it on her lap. "Come on then," she said, patting the cushion. "Put your head here so you can lie down while we talk."
He reluctantly leaned back until he lay with his head on the cushion, looking up skeptically into her smiling face. He exhaled slowly, keeping his hand clutched to his side.
"How are you feeling now?" she asked.
"I'm fine, really."
"So, is that fine-fine," she teased him, "or in-agony-fine?"
"Stella, not this again! I don't need an interpreter." He thought about it for a moment, before finally explaining, "In Mac-speak fine means leave me alone."
"Good, I'm glad we got that cleared up," she laughed. "I'll make a note of it in my Mac-speak dictionary." She looked down at him warmly. "I'm so glad you're okay. My job is obviously done here. Someone upstairs is apparently looking out for you, from now on."
"God's a scientist, Stella," Mac answered. "And we're all just His lab rats."
"Amen to that," she said with a smile. "But if you don't mind me saying so, He's running a pretty weird experiment on this particular lab rat." She poked his chest with her finger, before shaking her head gloomily. "I still can't believe the mess you got yourself into. I mean, seriously, Mac, an anthrax balloon! How awful."
"I don't remember any of it," he reassured her.
"When Jo called me to say you were fighting for your life, and that she couldn't even tell me why," Stella recounted, "I thought my own heart would stop beating." She took a deep breath before continuing. "I literally dropped everything and rushed straight to the airport. On the flight, I was sick to my stomach with anxiety, worried that I might have to decide to discontinue your life-sustaining treatment. It is such a heavy responsibility."
"I'm sorry, Stella," he said quietly. "I really appreciate you coming all this way for me. I didn't realize you were still listed as my health care agent on that proxy. I guess I never got around to changing it after you left."
"You've always been a strong believer in a person's right to a dignified death," she said. "But I've never really known why."
Mac lay silently for a minute, realizing that he owed her an explanation, since he had inadvertently summoned her to New York.
"When I left the Marine Corps," he finally said, "my father was already very ill with small cell lung cancer. I offered to move back to Chicago, but he said there was no need for me to be there, he'd had a good life. Instead he urged me to take the job in New York. He said it was the finest police force in the country."
With a wince, he raised his right arm and stared at the watch. He held it to his ear briefly to check if it was still ticking, before brushing away a few imaginary specks of dust with his fingertips.
"He spent the last eight months of his life in bed on a feeding tube," he continued. "Whenever I called, he always said he was fine, even though we both knew he was slowly dying, in great pain."
Stella reached for his hand and held it tightly.
"Then one day, when I came to visit," he continued, taking a deep breath, "he asked me – begged me – to end it for him." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "I just couldn't do it. I would have done anything for him, but not that. I let him down, Stella. It was the second worst day of my life."
Still holding firmly on to his hand, Stella sat for a while, taking in what he had just revealed to her. She realized for the first time that there had been an undercurrent of sadness beneath his stormy mood all day. Even if he had no memory of it, nearly losing his life had to have left an indelible impression of mortality on his mind.
"Well, I want you to know that I was inspired by you," she finally said. "In fact, I even put your name down on my own health care proxy in New Orleans."
"You're kidding." He was astonished. "Even after what happened between us?"
"Yes, how sad is that?" she sighed. "You're still the only person I would want to pull the plug on me."
"You're not sad, Stella," he replied, shaking his head miserably. "I have many regrets. Not patching things up with you is one of them."
"It's all water under the bridge now, Mac," she said encouragingly. "I've moved on, built a new life for myself. You should really come down to Louisiana and visit me sometime."
He smiled. "You heard Adam today. I've got to stay away from alligators."
"Oh that's right," she said, rolling her eyes. "I completely forgot that we have alligators roaming around our Lab in New Orleans."
"So, is there someone significant in you life now?" he asked curiously.
She stared down at him for a moment, before finally nodding with a big grin. "I haven't actually told anyone yet. And until now, I wasn't even sure I was going to tell you. But I think you should be the first to know. It's still so new to me. But, yes, as a matter of fact – as of last month – there is!"
Mac looked up and saw the joy shining from her green eyes. "That's great, Stella. I'm so happy for you. What's he like?"
She smiled. "Well, I don't know yet if it's a he or a she."
He looked momentarily confused, trying to work out what she meant. "Either you've gotten more … experimental since you left New York, or …" His eyes widened with a sudden realization. "Is this your way of telling me that …?" He sat up with a jolt, turning his head to look back nervously at her stomach.
"No, I'm not pregnant, Mac!" she laughed out loud and pulled him back down onto the cushion.
Looking up at her again, his brow creased in confusion. "Well, what then?"
"I've just been approved for single parent adoption. In the City that Care Forgot, the foster homes and orphanages are always full of children in need of loving parents. I figured I could be one of them."
"That's great news, Stella." He squeezed her hand. "I've always thought you would make a really wonderful mother."
"Thank you, Mac. It means a lot to me to hear you say that. No one in New Orleans knows me as well as you do."
"So, there's not going to be a father in the picture?" he asked, suddenly looking concerned.
"I grew up without a father. Look how wonderful I turned out," she said brightly. "You know me, Mac, always going a million miles an hour. Can't catch my breath. I've been too busy running my lab to find Mr. Right. "
He blinked at her a few times and was quiet for a few minutes, his eyes blank. "You might want to live a little, Stella," he said, closing his eyes.
"Oh, that's really rich coming from you, Mac," she laughed. "I'm here in New York because you flatlined."
"I didn't flatline, Stella, it was v-tach," he added, opening his eyes again. "I happen to know that you know the difference."
"Whatever. You're deliberately missing the point here," she said with a sigh. "Jo tells me you're not seeing anyone."
"No, not at the moment," he replied sleepily.
"And 'the moment' has lasted how long…?" she enquired.
"Years," he admitted and closed his eyes again. "I still think you should be out there looking for a father for your child."
"I don't know. I have such terrible taste in boyfriends."
"Not all of them, surely?" he opened his eyes and smiled.
She laughed. "Well, Jo seems to be doing just fine as a single mom. I only just found out she adopted her daughter after her divorce. I've really got to ask her about that." She looked down at him again. "You were pretty close to your own father, weren't you?"
He nodded pensively. "For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about him lately."
"Do you miss him?"
"I guess I do," he sighed. "We had a very formal relationship. He couldn't always be there for me when I was a boy, but I joined the military because of him. Even as a kid, I used to dress up in fatigues and pretend to be a soldier, rather than a superhero." He sighed deeply. "I came to New York to honor my father's wishes. So, what I'm doing here has to somehow make a difference."
"But it does make a difference, Mac," she replied. "You're doing a great job with the Lab. You've been doing so for years."
"You don't understand," he said miserably. "My father told me to leave because he wanted me to start a family here. What would he think, if he could see me now? All I have left is my job."
"Mac, it's not just a job," she cried out. "We're your family, as well. We all care about you! In fact, you owe your life to Jo and Flack's quick thinking."
"It's not the same thing, Stella," he sighed.
"At some point, you're going to have to let someone into your life again," she suggested gently.
"I already told you, Stella. I can't do that again."
"Why are you always keeping everyone at arm's length? What are you afraid of?"
He thought about it for several minutes, before finally replying, "I just can't bear …" he began slowly, bracing himself, before confessing to her, "… always being left behind."
Feeling her heart was about to break, Stella looked deeply into his green-blue eyes and saw that they were completely defenseless. He blinked a few times as an unfathomable sorrow crossed his vision. She recognized the terrible images he had seen in his life, which would never cease to haunt him.
"Oh, Mac, I'm so sorry," she whispered, fully aware that he hadn't only been thinking of her, or even his father. Drawing a shuddering breath, he briefly covered his mouth and nose with his hand, before closing his eyes again. As he fell asleep, she felt his body relax and his tension drain away, and his hand finally slipped away from his side.
Stella sat for a while, wondering how she was going to extricate herself without waking the man now sleeping soundly on her lap. Finally, she stretched out to retrieve another cushion and nestled her head up against it. She could no longer reach her mug of tepid tea on the table, but it was surprisingly comfortable just sitting here like this. Hearing a roll of thunder above the incessant city traffic, she looked at the dark clouds gathering outside and was thankful she wasn't meeting Don until later in the evening.
Before she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep herself, Stella resolved that she would try to make up for the damage she had done by abandoning Mac two years earlier. After working around-the-clock for two years, she already had several weeks of vacation accrued. She could easily leave the New Orleans Crime Lab to her capable Assistant Supervisor for another week or two.
Her job was not done, after all. Mac was not all right. He was still in need of life support.
Next: Chapter 6 – "The Favor" Mac finds out (again) whom Henry wants him to kill