He approaches Sandy behind the desk. Sandy knows him now, all the gals here do. She smiles a welcoming smile and leans in to him to say, "She's running late. Had an emergency patient this morning. Shouldn't be more than 15 minutes, though. She said I could escort you back to her office."
James shakes his head. "Nah, that's OK. I'll wait out here."
"Suit yourself," says Sandy. "I'll let her know you're here, though."
He nods, then takes his seat in the waiting room. He likes that he has the privilege to go back to her office if he wants, but truth is, he likes to sit out here and look at all the people coming in to get her help (or her colleague's, but still). If it wouldn't be completely absurd, he'd like stand up, puff out his chest, and announce, "She's mine, ya know."
This isn't the first time she's run late, though, and he brought a paperback just in case. He first makes room for the mom with the newborn in the car carrier. Then, he settles his glasses on his nose and starts to read.
Sure enough, it ain't but 15 minutes before she pops out from around the front desk. He gets to look at her for a few seconds before she spots where he's sitting. Takes his breath away sometimes, and always surprises him, the way she looks so professional in her lab coat and with her stethoscope half necklace looped around the back of her neck.
She spots him, grins, and waves. He closes his book, takes off his glasses, and slides them into his shirt pocket. He goes to her, but stops awkwardly when he's about a foot from her. Doesn't want to embarrass her too much or do something unprofessional. He gives her a quick hug and a little kiss on her left temple. She rolls her eyes, but smiles and doesn't glare at him, so he figures that was ok. She lets him take her arm, and she says, "I'm so glad we're doing this today. I could use a break." She jostles his shoulder playfully.
She's only got 35 minutes till she has to see a patient at the hospital. He tries to pretend this don't disappoint him – they're supposed to spend the afternoon together. She says they can have a quick lunch and that after she sees her patient, they'll still have their afternoon. OK. OK. She has a whole free afternoon, and she's choosing to be with him. That's something, even if it means a side trip to the hospital.
In the busy sandwich place they've chosen for lunch, she's picking at her salad, looking worried, so he tries to guess the source of distress. "Sandy says you had an emergency patient this morning," he says. "Everything OK?"
"Yeah, three-year-old with febrile convulsions. Scary, but he's going to be OK."
"Good work," he cheerleads.
She rolls her eyes. "Thanks. He's who I have to check in on at the hospital."
She uses her fork to push things around on her plate. Uh oh. This ain't never a good sign, the way she's got her dried cranberries off to one side, gorgonzola crumbles at the bottom of her plate, candied walnuts off to the other side. He knows her well enough to know that when she starts organizing her food into categories, it means she got something she wants to talk about.
"Can I ask you a question?" she asks. Uh huh. This'll be some nonsense somethin' or other her mama put in her brain. Some no-good advice about love or relationships or something, and he's gotta be stuck tellin' her how it ain't always like that, don't let her mama's nonsense get her down . . .
"Be my guest," he answers (fake) confidently.
She moves her salad around a little more. "Uhm, I guess . . . how come . . . why is it you never talk about it?"
"Talk about what, sweetheart?"
"Those three years you were gone."
Jesus. How long you got? (Not even 35 minutes, he knows). He points to her plate and observes, "Looks like ya got a cranberry mixed in with your walnuts, there."
"Come on, Dad. Don't be flippant."
"It was 25 years ago, Clem. Why does it even matter?"
"Seems like a big deal, and you never say anything about it. Nothing. Mom says you were a totally different person when you got back." (Uh huh, he knew it . . . nonsense her mama been putting in her head.) "I just want to understand."
He nods. "All right," he says. "Whaddaya want to know?"
She shrugs. "Like, I dunno, I mean . . . OK, well, how did you survive?"
Too many answers to that question. Too many questions in that question. Survive what? The crash? The Others? The smoke? The mercenaries? The time flashes? What? Clementine stares at him, waiting on an answer. "Just got lucky, I guess," he finally manages.
She scoffs. "OK. Let me try again. I mean, what did . . . I mean . . . to survive, and maybe . . . I mean . . ." she moves the lone cranberry from the walnut pile into the cranberry one before continuing. "I would totally get why you wouldn't want to talk about it, and I wouldn't judge or anything, but, I mean . . . did you . . ." she clears her throat. "Did you ever have to . . . you know . . . maybe," she winces, "eat some of your fellow survivors?"
Yeah, but not in the way you mean, I don't think. He hears it in Miles' voice in his head, and then he laughs. Laughs at the raunchy, double-entendre Miles still living in his head all these years later. Laughs at the idea of turning to cannibalism. He's laughing about it. Laughing about his time on the Island. He's never done that. Then he laughs at poor Clem's discomfort. He shouldn't do that. Shouldn't laugh at his daughter, because her assumption ain't completely crazy. More logical he don't talk about it because of cannibalism than because of time travel and a broken heart.
He wipes tears from his eyes. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh. No. No, it was nothin' like that, Clarice."
She quietly laughs at his nickname, then says, "Well, then, what did you eat? How did you keep from starving to death?"
He pushes his plate from him, and leans back in his chair. He crosses his arms over his chest. Big reason he's never ever spoken of this to anyone is he always thought it would hurt too damn much. But he's laughing about it now, and maybe he can tell. If he can shade the truth, leave out some time travel and other magic shit, maybe it'll be OK. He runs his tongue over his top teeth, and then begins.
"Well, see, where we crashed. The Island we crashed on – there were already people living there."
"Like natives?" she interrupts.
Hostile indigenous people, he hears Horace's voice, and laughs again. He can't believe it. "Not really," he answers. "Like a scientific commune. Kind of isolated and weird, but, uh, they had buildings and food and everything. First off, they weren't exactly real welcoming, but after a while, they let some of us join up with them." (Except by then, it was a different group, because it was 30 years in the past, but, well, let's keep it simple).
"So that's it? You just lived there with a bunch of scientists? How come you didn't let anyone know you were OK?"
"Who woulda cared?"
She shrugs, conceding his point. "Well, how about the other people? Didn't they have people who would have cared?"
She don't know about Juliet and she don't know about Jin, so as far as she knows, his answer is the truth: "Guess they didn't have anybody cared about them either. There weren't but a few of us. Most everybody died in the crash." (Again shading the truth)
She pushes things around on her plate again, but he notices she's moving everything back together, some romaine leaves getting mixed in with the cranberries and walnuts, and this is a good sign. She was so worried that he was a cannibal? He laughs to himself again.
She takes a bite, then begins, "So, when you got rescued . . ."
Shit. What was the cover story, again? Can't quite remember. Oceanic covered the whole thing up pretty darn good. Gave 'em a nice little payout of hush money and that was that. No one really cared about these lost souls returning. Claire's mama about the only person who cared one way or the other, so there'd been some sort of story concocted for her benefit, but damn if he remembers exactly what it was. Once upon a time, he probably told Clem some highly abridged Cliff's Notes version, and . . . and . . . and he realizes that she's trailed off, hasn't even finished asking the question. She's staring in the middle distance, dredging up something.
"Mom said," yep, figured it would come back to something her mama told her, but she still looks confused, and starts on yet another tack. "So it was really OK there? Like, you were comfortable and happy and all that?"
He considers this for a moment. "Yeah. Yeah I was. Best three years of my life."
And she brings it back to Cass again. "Because Mom said that Aunt Kate has always told her not to pry too much. She said we should let you be. She said it was really terrible what happened to you there. Mom still says you must've either lost a bunch of money, or, well, you know," she rolls her eyes, "cannibalism."
"Nope." Leave it to Cassidy to put these wild scenarios in Clem's head. He'd talk to her about it if they were actually on speaking terms.
"OK, so what was so horrible then?"
He looks up at his daughter. His little girl, now all grown up, with her professional hair and adult face and intelligent, perceptive, kind eyes. He's so damn proud of her. She's made his life worth living. She's the only thing that's made his life worth living. For three years decades ago, he lived a full life with a job, friends, responsibility, purpose, and abundant love. But most of that (the real part of it) was confined to a tiny house within a tiny compound on a tiny island in the middle of who knows where. For the past 25 years, the whole world, mountains, and cities, and beaches, and small towns, and vast prairies, museums, and malls, and libraries, and theaters have all been available to him. But his life, no responsibility, one friend, no purpose, has been confined to one small girl (grown woman across the table from him now be damned), and that's turned into abundant love, too. She's as old now as Juliet was when they first met and that doesn't seem possible. That Jules was really this young. That Clementine's now really this old . . .
"I, uh, I," he runs his fingertips along the edge of the table. "The woman I loved died," he says.
Clementine blinks at him.
"Juliet," he says, nodding decisively. It feels . . . it feels OK to say that aloud, to say that name to his daughter. "I was heartbroken."
"She was on your plane?"
Well, that would probably be the answer that makes the most sense, wouldn't it? For a second he considers going with it. Easier explanation. But if he's going to tell Clem about Juliet, he might as well be as honest as he possibly can. Was always honest with Jules about Clementine. Ain't that some sort of math function? Transitive property or commutative or something? He thinks back to helping Clem with her 4th grade homework, right about the time he was getting to be a part of her life.
"Nope, no. She, ah, she was part of that scientific group I told you about. She was already there when we crashed. I lived with her almost the whole three years I was there. God, those were three great years, but it was a long time ago. Time heals all wounds, and all that."
"Does it?" she asks. "Heal all wounds?"
He looks down at the table. "I'll let ya know. It's only been twenty five years."
She tilts her head and looks at him sympathetically. Juliet used to do that, too. Clem's eyes look a little too bright, like if he really turns up the tragedy-o-meter, she might go for a good cry.
Hoping to avoid that, he says, "Time soothes all wounds. Don't heal 'em, but does a good job making it so you can go on livin' your life."
Clem's eyes widen in sudden realization. "Wait, hold on . . . OK, I think I get it now. Is she from Korea? Or Florida?"
James points his index finger at his daughter then taps it on his temple. Smart girl, figuring out his mysterious trips. "Florida."
"How did she die?" Clementine asks.
No way to explain. She fell seems too mundane, doesn't encompass everything that led to that moment. I dropped her probably requires more detail than he can go into. Nuclear bombs and changing time and looking at Kate and all of it . . .
He chews on his lower lip, trying to figure out how to answer. Finally, he says, "Does it really matter?"
For a second, it looks like she may say it does and may press him further for an answer, but she exhales and says, "No. No, I guess it doesn't."
It doesn't. What matters is how she lived. Clem ain't asked nothing about that, but James just starts telling anyway, what he can, at least. How she was a doctor (Clem asks, eagerly, "A pediatrician?," but no). What she looked like (James tones it down a bit, just so it's believable, doubts Clem'll believe him if he tells exactly what she looked like).
He talks on and on, about books, about shared laughs, about meals, about Miles, about parties, about fights, about music, about inside jokes.
Clem stares at him, soaking it all in, listening carefully, processing, taking too long to blink, smiling where appropriate. He knows she's filled with an endless well of compassion. Not to say she can't cut you dead with a look when she thinks you're being stupid or thoughtless. He sees so much of Juliet in her.
Now, he knows damn good and well Juliet ain't her mama. Juliet wasn't never anybody's mama. Never got that chance. It kills him, absolutely knocks him sideways to think that too hard. She woulda been great had she got the chance. Naw, he knows Clem ain't Jules' daughter. For a long time, he thought he was just seeing what he wanted to see, deluding himself.
Now he sees how it's self-fulfilling. It ain't by accident she stuck with science even after eighth grade when she came home and said science "is for boys." She stuck with it because he told her "hell, no, it isn't." It ain't by accident she likes to read, likes to read the same books he does. It's because he's shared books with her since about the time he got to know her. Ain't by accident she's a doctor, not a banker. It's cause when she came home freshman year of college with straight A's and started talking about a career in finance, he subtly steered her toward medicine. Didn't do none of that for any purpose 'cept he wanted her to believe in herself, wanted her to read, wanted her to do something good for the world. Anything else was by accident.
Still, no telling how it is she does that head tilt sympathy look Jules used to bust out occasionally. How she does that eyebrow-raised scoff. No telling where that came from. He supposes he is just seeing what he wants to see. No harm in that.
Her eyes widen suddenly. "Dad! I have to be at the hospital in ten minutes! I lost all track of time."
They pay the bill in haste. He agrees to accompany her to the hospital and wait while she sees her patient. He almost bails when they reach the hospital front doors, silently swishing automatic jobs. Shit. This was Jack's hospital. He's pretty sure Kate told him that once. Jack and his asshole dad, too.
"Dad?" Clem asks, while James stands staring, open mouthed, at the entrance. He shakes his head. What the hell's he afraid of? They gonna have some kind of oil portrait to the sainted Jack in the lobby? They probably should, guy was a hero. Naw, this'll be OK.
He and Clem ride the elevator to the fourth floor. He gives her a protective-dad shoulder hug as they get off. They do a quick little hallway sidestep dance with some lady in a hurry to get on the elevator they're getting off.
Clementine leads him down the hall to a waiting room. "Sure you don't mind, Dad?"
He pulls his paperback out of his jacket pocket and waves it at her. "Always prepared."
"All right. An hour. Tops."
She's off, and he settles in. This place ain't nearly as fancy as the waiting room at her practice. Hard plastic chair and old magazines. A pot of coffee in one corner and old-school vending machines along the wall. He settles in to read, but finishes his book in ten minutes.
He chuckles to hear the sound system, subtle, but unmistakable: good ol' Willie Nelson. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. James never got around to writing his hit country music single. "One day, when we meet up yonder," Willie croons. James wonders if Willie's right. If there's an up yonder. Hell, if there's an up yonder, the waiting room chairs are probably more comfortable. Or why would they even bother having waiting rooms up there?
He thinks he needs to call Miles. Tried to call him last weekend, but Miles is seeing some new girl, and was too busy to talk right then.
He thinks he needs to call Kate. When did he call her last? Christmas probably? Needs to do better about that, not just calling at Christmas like some old friend from high school.
He thinks he needs to call Horace. That one control panel on the fence acting up again, and needs new parts. Gotta go out there and fix it again tonight. He needs to call Jin, see if he'll go out there with him. Needs to call Juliet. Tell her he won't be home for supper. Tease her some more about the way she laughed so hard she snorted last night . . .
James comes to. Still hanging out in the old school waiting room. Someone in a white coat staring down at him. He tries to play it cool, rubbing his face, yawning and blinking. Clementine standing over him.
"Hey, babe," he croaks. "Guess I drifted off. Was having good dreams. You all done?"
They're out the hospital and in the parking deck before he realizes he left his book. He was all done with it, but it was a good book. Eh, screw it, he thinks, no desire to go back to Jack's hospital anyway. It did kind of make him feel funny, give him weird dreams. Besides that waiting room smelled funny anyway. Scorched coffee and old magazines and floor wax.
What a godawful good-for-nothing day. Fucking waste of time to come over here, and then them looney tunes just up and leaving. What the fuck? He shoulda just left and gone on home. Shouldn't have stuck around to call back to the precinct. "Vic in the restaurant shooting bailed on me. Mark that down in the file." Then he remembers to call off the translator, "Tell Park he don't need to bother comin' over here. For the record, them two speak English just fine."
Then, he shoulda gone straight home, except the lieutenant tells him to "sit tight while I make some calls."
"I'm tellin' ya, they ain't coming back."
But, whatever. He needs to call Cassidy back, anyway. He knows what all these calls she's made today are about: Christmas. It's her and Jeff's first married Christmas, and she really thinks they should therefore get Clementine for the holiday. But, see the thing is, when she moved off to Albuquerque, taking Jim's daughter with her, the deal was that holidays were his. He wants to do the mature thing, but he ain't sure if mature is being the bigger person and letting Cass have Christmas or if the mature thing is fighting tooth and nail for his daughter.
Maybe you should go to Albuquerque and stop bugging the crap out of me about it, is Miles' unsolicited opinion. Because, yes, it has come up more often over the past month or so than it probably should.
It's kinda like when he and Cassidy squared off over the Easter back in the spring. Jim'd been dating that girl, Elena, he liked. Then Cass threatened to keep Clem over Easter, and that was just really one straw too many, and, yes, yes, he did obsess over it. And, yes, he probably talked about it too much, but really not. It's a big deal. It's his kid.
Then, whatever, Elena dumped him. 'Cause, yeah, who wants to sit around and discuss child custody problems? No girl Jim's ever met. Besides, fine. She was kinda boring anyway.
But Cass is not answering her phone now (Jim leaves a silly message and goofy song, and hopes Cassidy'll at least have the decency to let Clem listen to it). Then the lieutenant calls back and says give it 45 more minutes. And just great, just fucking great, the cafeteria is closed. What a godawful good-for-nothing day.
Jim's had no dinner, and this'll have to do, even if, quite frankly, this waiting room stinks. It smells like scorched coffee and old magazines and floor wax.
He slides his bill in, and, yep, yep, figured that would happen. He stares balefully at the stuck candy. He doesn't even like Apollo bars, but they're Clementine's favorite, and they always get them for a treat together and he was thinking about her, and he just wants to grab the goddamn machine and shake it till it lets the candy loose. He wants to kick it and punch it and he wants his daughter closer and he wants his daughter for Christmas and he supposes if he does something stupid and violent, it'll get back to Cassidy, and that'll be that.
So, he does the "smart" thing, and shoves his hand up the machine like some kinda vet working with a constipated elephant or something. He's thisclose, almost got it, when he catches a flash of white lab coat in the doorway. Busted. Of course. Of course he's busted. What a godawful good-for-nothing day.