Seven months. It had been seven months since Starsky’s shooting and Hutch had given every ounce of himself to his partner’s recovery. They were in an infinite tunnel, a continuous blind walk, hoping the trudge would eventually get them somewhere. Anywhere…out of the dark.
Hutch had tried to look for the light at the end, the light that said Starsky would be okay, but mostly all Starsky did was sleep. The more he worked his body, the more obvious it was that the specimen had been damaged. His once strong chest, now dipped and marred with fading wounds, couldn’t support a fraction of the weight it had before three devastating bullets. It seemed even the heaviness of Starsky’s heart was at times too big to carry.
So Hutch stopped watching for that light. There was the looming possibility that Starsky would never again be whole, but whatever he was in the end was better than the alternative, which was nothing at all. Hutch missed his spirited partner, but he still needed his friend. He’d accepted that life had tested him for a reason, and what better reason could he have than Starsky?
Besides, Starsky had made progress. Through tears and hope, setbacks and relief, Hutch had finally been allowed to bring him home. In fact, Starsky was doing almost everything for himself again, with Hutch’s support. He had started to spend the night alone, giving Hutch more time to sleep. He could also cook easy meals, even if half the ingredients came from a can. Small victories were victories all the same, and they celebrated each and every one.
So maybe the light was there after all, in spite of the bleakness, only coming into view so slowly they’d gotten used to it. Starsky smiled once in a while. That had to mean something. And his sense of humor returned in spurts. The pretty physical therapy assistant that Starsky called his drill sergeant had already met Bogie, unfortunately for her. More importantly, by Christmastime, Starsky was strong enough to start in with his usual yuletide crap.
“I want a train,” Starsky would say.
Hutch tried to ignore him, but it was impossible. Over the course of Starsky’s rehabilitation, Hutch had listened to him crying out in agony as he pushed through excruciating exercises. The sharp whimpers had been nearly too much for Hutch to bear, but he faced it together with Starsky. He had to. It was Starsky’s reality, and Hutch suffered every wrench of pain that his partner endured.
It was that same dutiful act of listening that worked like a corkscrew drilling into Hutch’s head, proving that way down deep, Starsky was still the same gluttonous child he’d always been. He couldn’t help but pay attention to the constant barrage of begging. The pleas for holiday spending. The cries that had turned to whining.
“I’ve gotten thin. I can’t wear this,” Starsky protested one day, holding out his favorite pullover. Months of being bed ridden had indeed wilted Starsky somewhat, but his mouth had grown in size. “I need a new sweater. A blue one. With pockets.”
“How about you put on some fat instead,” Hutch replied, impatiently.
And so it went on, like an Advent calendar, twenty-four days of hinting, reminding Hutch how hard he had had it. A Sears Christmas catalog set on the kitchen table, opened to the automotive section. Little notes left in his pocket saying Starsky’d lifted a whole freakin’ eight pounds at therapy and how a new model ship might help give him something better to think about. A visitor’s guide to Vegas on the back of his john, a conveniently placed poster for the upcoming Grand Funk Railroad concert taped outside Venice Place. It made Hutch sick.
He had principles. Just because Starsky had been shot didn’t mean Hutch needed to cave to society’s greed. The tree he’d planted in Starsky’s name a couple years back had been chewed up by a beaver, so for posterity’s sake, he’d considered planting another. He knew how well that would go over, however. Therefore, he decided not to revisit the idea until the next time Starsky pissed him off. Which was inevitably going to happen, even though he now cherished those moments because it meant Starsky was alive.
The daily routine of making Starsky healthy had become a daunting, wearisome task. Hutch was waking up at four am each day, going to work, picking up Starsky for rehab over his break, only to go back to work for the afternoon. After his shift ended in the evening, he headed straight to Starsky’s to help with whatever he needed help with. Hutch wasn’t in bed until midnight. He then had to start it all over again the next morning. He was a thirty-five-year-old wreck running on fumes.
He wasn’t resentful of Starsky. Fate had dealt his partner a shitty hand. But Hutch was wiped. He hadn’t had time to shop for groceries, let alone a stupid Red Rider BB gun.
The weeks had passed irritatingly slow, and one day when he wasn’t looking, Hutch woke with Christmas morning staring him in his face. As far as he was concerned, it was just another West Coast December day. So what? He just wanted it over with. Hutch had to channel his resources into Starsky, and Starsky needed to concentrate on regaining his strength.
Hutch rubbed his eyes, wishing he could stay in bed. But he rose, like he always did, and got dressed. Didn’t bother to comb his hair. It was only going to be him and Starsky, and Hutch didn’t give a crap what Starsky thought about his hair.
When he got to Starsky’s apartment, there was a blinking string of lights around the front door. He knew how much effort that had taken for Starsky to put up, and suddenly he felt bad about holding out. He could have gotten something small for his pal, to celebrate his accomplishments. Just a little trinket of friendship maybe. But it was too late. He was twenty minutes behind schedule as is. He hoped, despairingly, that Starsky hadn’t gone shopping for something more meaningful than an ant farm. He knew how grateful Starsky was for all of his help, and Starsky’s heart was as big as Santa’s belly.
He hadn’t bought Starsky a goddamn fucking thing.
As he lifted his fist to knock, Hutch paused, listening to Starsky sing backup for Gene Autry. Rudolph, Hutch thought. Of course it would be Rudolph. There was nothing in that off-pitch voice but pure joy. Hutch took the time to eavesdrop, picturing his partner swaying his hips like he used to, a long time ago, when moving like the wind didn’t hurt.
Hutch had come so close to losing Starsky that the ‘what if’ hit him square in the gut. For a second, he stayed there on the doorstep wondering if this was all in his imagination, and Starsky, in truth, hadn’t made it. How would Hutch have survived this year if Starsky had not come back to him?
The door swung open and there was Starsky in a red shirt and reindeer antler antennae.
The only thing Hutch saw was a brown leather coat, soaked in red, dripping red blood onto the pavement. Instead of antennae cupping Starsky’s head, it was the wheel well of the Torino, pockmarked with bullet holes. “Starsk,” he whispered.
The apartment walls faded to black and white. Hutch couldn’t breathe. Starsky was a vision, gaunt, almost ghostly, halting time as Hutch stood and stared. Everything rushed back; the smashing squad cars, gunfire, echoing hospital corridors, beeping heart monitors, Dobey’s scared voice over the phone, death.
A haze of shock came over him, a flashback to May, blurring his view of Starsky.
“Merry Christmas, partner,” Starsky sang, seemingly unaware of Hutch’s anguish.
Hutch glanced down at his empty hands. What a sonuvabitch he was.
“Come on in. The eggnog will knock your socks off.” Without even acknowledging Hutch’s lack of gifts, Starsky took Hutch’s arm, kicked the door closed, and dragged him into the kitchen. “Dobey stopped by with some cookies that Edith made. They taste like frosted cardboard.” He stuck a cookie in Hutch’s mouth. “Try one!”
The aroma of cinnamon and pine filled the room like a bakery decked out in boughs of evergreen. A menorah sat in the window next to a festive plastic elf. Hutch spit the cookie into the trash. He only wanted to take in the sight of Starsky, who moved slowly but steadily around the table. The tree they’d put up two weeks ago sparkled with ornaments that hadn’t been there the day before, and the air was so warm Hutch wanted to touch his partner just to reassure himself that this was real.
Starsky there by his side was the best gift of all.
Hutch watched in awe as his friend busied himself with dishes, wiping the counter, sweeping up crumbs. Starsky hadn’t moved this much in a long time and appeared ashen. Hutch got concerned. “Hey,” he said, restraining Starsky by the shoulders. “You need to take it easy. Don’t overdo it.”
“I’m fine,” Starsky said, smiling. He quickly pulled away.
Hutch noticed him flinch, his face awash with fear. That’s when Hutch understood that Starsky was far from fine. Hutch had spent so much time thinking about his own frustrations and doubts that he’d forgotten that this was Starsky’s first Christmas since Gunther, too. “Buddy,” he started to say, angry with himself for being such a jerk. For being selfish, being thoughtless, being tired when all he’d had to do was sit and observe while Starsky labored through his long process of mending. A process he wasn’t done with yet.
“How ‘bout some music?” Starsky said, leaving the kitchen to turn over the record.
A second later, Jingle Bells rang out in direct opposition to Hutch’s melancholy. He winced. When he looked around the corner to see why Starsky hadn’t returned, he found him braced against the back of the couch, his head hanging.
Hutch walked over and put his hand on Starsky’s back, careful to avoid the still tender scars. “Why don’t you sit down?”
“I told you,” Starsky snapped. “I’m fine. Just terrific.”
Stroking gently, Hutch insisted, “No. You’re not.”
Having depleted all his energy recuperating, Starsky barely ever had the might to argue anymore. He shook his head, still gazing at the floor.
“Listen, Starsk,” Hutch said, taking a deep breath. “I know what you’re doing.” He glanced at the decorations; the big present under the tree, the cheer, the merriment, all the other shit meant to make the two of them feel better. “I appreciate the effort, truly, but we both know you ain’t ready for the big leagues yet.” He grinned, hoping Starsky could see his admiration.
Because Hutch did admire his partner. There wasn’t any other man who could make the strides Starsky had made and still find it within themselves to be jolly. Starsky’s life had been shot out from under him, but he hadn’t given up. He’d even had courage enough to never, ever ask Hutch to go on without him. Begging for Christmas presents had been Starsky’s way of giving Hutch normalcy in an otherwise debilitating world.
Starsky’s mouth tweaked up to one side. He slumped towards Hutch and Hutch grabbed him.
“C’mere, buddy,” Hutch said, drawing Starsky into an embrace. The bones in Starsky’s shoulders were more apparent than before, and his muscle mass had diminished, but this didn’t bother Hutch. It only meant there was less to get in the way of him feeling Starsky’s heartbeat. That strong rhythm was the same as it had always been, maybe even stronger. He held his friend until he realized he was fully supporting Starsky’s weight. “Let’s sit down,” he said, leading him around to relax on the cushions with a blanket.
As he bent over to adjust a pillow behind Starsky’s arm, Hutch admitted, “I didn’t get you anything.”
“So I noticed,” Starsky grumbled, rolling his eyes. “Guess being blessed by your mere presence is my Christmas miracle. And here I thought I’d been nice.”
“Oh, no,” Hutch said, pointing his finger into Starsky’s face. “You have been exceedingly naughty. Let’s talk about that day the doctor said you weren’t ready to go out but you took your tomato to Merle’s anyway.”
Starsky looked stunned. “She needed medical attention, too, you know, Hutch!”
“And what about when you were supposed to eat your Jell-o and you dumped it in your bed pan. Huh?” Hutch frowned, his stomach roiling with the memory of that hospital food. How many cups of Jell-o had Starsky consumed before finally waging mutiny?
“Don’t forget that night the nurse was trying to check your catheter.”
Grinning, Starsky nodded. “Oh, that’s right.”
Hutch joined Starsky on the soft seat and leaned in close. He needed intimacy, to feel Starsky’s vibrancy next to him, to smell his aftershave, overpowering as it was, and to share the same space. In the whole wide world, this was the only place to be. “Thank you,” he mumbled.
Starsky eyed him suspiciously. “For what?”
Shyness crept in, which made Hutch turn away. He didn’t understand his own hesitation, because this was Starsky…his partner…his best friend…his everything. He remembered that day in the hospital when Starsky first opened his eyes. Those dark lashes nearly swallowing up the blue in a tiny smile so bright it could light their way through any tunnel no matter how dark. Hutch needed to see that brightness in Starsky’s eyes right now. He looked up with only one thing to say. “Thank you for loving me,” he whispered.
Starsky held eye contact tightly, lingering in the moment as long as Hutch required.
“Merry Christmas,” Hutch said quietly. He took Starsky’s hand and patted it. “Blitzkrieg.” Starsky still had on his antlers.
“No, no,” Starsky moaned. “It’s Blitzen, you hum bug.” He carefully pulled his hand away and gave Hutch a little punch in the arm. “Why don’t you bring me some eggnog, since you’re too cheap to buy your invalid partner a present.”
“That’s not being very nice, Starsky.”
“Okay,” Starsky said, rather disheartened. “Well, then I’ll just return the guitar I got you. I’m sure Frank Zappa can cross your name off and write in someone else’s.”
All at once, Hutch was twelve-years-old again, standing with his parents on their driveway in Duluth, snow falling around them, gaping in shock at his brand new dune buggy with a giant green bow. His best Christmas ever.
Hutch glanced at that big present under Starsky’s tree, choking back the tears that threatened to unmask his inner hysterical teenage girl. “You got me a Frank Zappa signed guitar?”
“Yeah, but since I’m not being very nice—”
Hutch jumped from the couch. “Would you like some frosted cardboard with that eggnog?”
Starsky chuckled and snuggled under his blanket. “Thanks for loving me, too, Hutch.”
It’s love, pinches the capillaries. I liked this a lot–all the pain, frustration, annoyance and joy.
Thanks, Dawn, and thank you, too for the edits! 🙂
Thanks for the cool picture to go with my story, Flamingo and Cyanne, I love it!
Beautiful work, D! I love post SR recovery stories and this sounds so real. It’s a poignant moment when Hutch realizes how estranged from reality and lost in his bleakness he is, despite being near Starsky every step of the way; I like that image of him, standing there behind the door.
Thanks for reading! I liked the thought of him realizing things while standing alone, too. I’m glad you liked it!
Was waiting to read this 🙂 You write Hutch’s anger and frustration very well. Like Sagitta has said, it is very real!
Thanks, Sammy! I do love to write Hutch angry. 🙂
Really beautiful story, DG!!!
Thank you so much, B. Glad you liked it! 🙂
Excellent, DG. Love the Hutch angst. So them.
Why thank you so much, WF! I had hoped to keep them in character, even thought they both sort of switched attitudes half way through. 🙂
Aw, post-SR goodness! The bit about the beaver chewing up the tree made me laugh. Angsty Hutch is angsty, but Starsky keeps him right 🙂 Thanks, DG!
Thank you for your comments, hbb. I don’t often do post – SR stories, but it was nice. 🙂
Only slowly catching up here, after falling way behind. Oh first Christmas after “Sweet Revenge”, it’s bound to be hard on them both, since they are both still recovering. But, as you wrote, they’ll make it through together. Thank you!
Thanks for the nice comment! There is just so much to think about when it comes to post-SR. 🙂
I liked this, the frustration Hutch was feeling and even though he didn’t get Starsky a present, in the end he has Starsky’s love and a pretty neat present. Thanks.
Thanks for reading and the nice comment, Kat. I’m so happy you liked it!
Loved this..the insight into Hutch’s thoughts, the fear that maybe Starsky hadn’t survived and none of this was real pulled me up short. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks so much for your kind words, and thanks so much for reading!
Really lovely. Thank you for this gift. I was away for the holidays and then came home and found this gem.
“Thank you for loving me.” This part captures so well Hutch’s character as does the way he shows up with no present. I love how he does not quite realize that he has been giving the gift of himself all along. But it’s there, somewhere, deep down. In the end, they both know.
Thank you so much for the lovely comment, marian. It means a lot to me to get these guys’ characters right. And yes, my intention was indeed that Hutch had given himself all along, even if the frustration had come to a head. He never would do anything different when it came to Starsky. I’m so happy you liked it.