CHAPTER FIFTY

"Patience is a virtue."

Father Magill smiled encouragingly at Hannibal. He had just finished another unproductive session with Templeton, and the colonel's face showed he had hoped something might have happened this time.

"He still resists me. It's unfortunate. I have tried to reassure him but, of course, he's not hearing it. It's terribly frustrating, I know, but eventually what needs to happen will happen. I pray for it every day."

"But will it happen before you have to leave, Father? Because if it doesn't happen with you, it won't."

"I have some leeway with my time, Colonel. That's how it is when you're as close to retirement as I am. My superiors tend to see my usefulness as limited, and they like to see me 'out of the way' so the newer men can practice." He grinned at Hannibal. "So you may have me longer than you would really like."

Hannibal grinned back. "I like you, Father. I like having you here. I know he doesn't show it, but I think it's good for Face - Templeton - having you here. As for patience, well, we've been dealing with this whole mess for almost a year now. It almost seems like we never had a life before this. But I like to think we keep getting a little closer to bringing him back. And I keep reminding myself why this all happened. If Face could go through all this for us, then we can be patient for him."

"Some of the others, well, I think I make them uncomfortable."

"Only because of the Church, Father. They don't understand all the ceremonies, the 'mysticism' of it. It was different when Face was just visiting you. Having you right here all the time - well, they'll learn."

"And you, Colonel?"

"I respect all religions, Father. I'm in awe of none of them."

"Hmm." Father Magill smiled, and the two men continued to walk in companionable silence.


*****

The priest kept coming back. Every now and then, he would almost let him see. But he would draw back again. He had to think about it more. He was trying to remember what Hannibal had said. Digesting it. Could he have lied? Or was it true? If it was a lie, why did the priest keep returning? If it was true, Face needed to come out and talk to him. But it was hard.

That bothered him. Because it was getting harder and harder to come back. He never quite made it back all the way any more. Even when he wanted to. Which he did, sometimes. Especially when they went to that place. The meadow. He would sit in the sun and feel warm. The only time he felt warm any more. And he could smell the spring flowers now. But sounds and sights remained fuzzy, out of focus. Like it was too much for his mind to deal with those senses.

And then he would go away. He didn't want to, when he was out there. But he didn't have the control over it any more. Sometimes he could, sometimes he couldn't. Maybe that was the way it was supposed to work. He'd thought he could just make himself go away completely and be done with it. But that hadn't happened. And now...now he found himself wondering if he really should. Hannibal had said that wasn't the way. What if he were right? What if Hannibal was right but it was too late? What if he'd already gone too far to come all the way back again?

Well, nobody ever said life was fair, did they? Maybe it was just time...


*****

Mama was worried. So was Maggie. Face was not gaining weight any more; in fact, he was losing. Not a lot, but steadily over the last month. His appetite was down. He wasn't refusing food. He just lost weight. His skin was getting dry, too. And cold. His body always felt cool, sometimes actually cold, to the touch. Coupling that with the fact that he never came out of his 'trance' any more, they worried. Very much.

"You think he's what?!" Hannibal was incredulous.

"I think he's killing himself."

"That's crazy." Period.

"No, I don't think it is, John. I think he's made the decision. I think he made it some time ago. Mentally, he's shut himself down almost completely. I think he's doing the same thing to his body. Willing himself to die. Or at least not caring to live."

"Can we stop it? Medications?"

"There are things I can do. But if we can't get through to him and make him want to live, he's going to die. I think he's been 'working' on this for some time - the symptoms he's showing now - the reasons for them don't happen overnight. John, we don't have a lot of time."

"Okay. I'll talk to Father Magill and the rest. We'll have to start pushing now. He's not going to quit after all this."


*****

God, the priest was back again. He could still make out the voice, though faint. He was so tired. He wanted to make it quiet. All quiet. Then he could rest. When they talked to him, he couldn't rest. Please be quiet.

He'd accepted things now. There had been a time when he thought he should try it Hannibal's way. But he couldn't pull up the energy. He'd tried. It just wasn't there. So he'd resigned himself. It was almost over. If they would just leave him alone now.

Murdock? Murdock was there now. Murdock was hard to resist. Really hard. Always had been. Even in the VA. So many times he'd thought he should ignore Billy, or refuse to go along with all those people Murdock liked to be, but he couldn't. He had to play along. He had to follow Murdock. He couldn't follow now, though. No matter how hard Murdock pulled him. He didn't have the strength. He didn't have the time.

He came back slowly. That was happening a lot more. He came and went without much control of it. No idea how long this time. A minute? An hour? A month? Who knew? Still those voices around him. Seemed like everybody was here now. A jumble of voices. Hard to tell who was who. They were louder. Were they shouting at him? Each other? Why? Maybe that's why he came back this time, they were so loud. Angry.

Quiet. Sudden quiet. What was going on now? He couldn't hear a thing. No, wait, there was something. So faint. But clear. Crystal clear. How could that be? Nothing had been clear like that for so long...

"Cleanse me of sin with hyssop, Lord, that I may be purified; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow, Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost."

What was that? Wait. He knew that...

"By this holy unction and his own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed by sight."

Something wet on his eyelids...

"By this holy unction and his own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed by taste and speech."

...on his lips...

"...the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins they shall be forgiven him..."

...fading in and out now...

"...we implore Thee, our Redeemer, to cure by the grace of the Holy Spirit the ailments of this sick person and heal his wounds, forgive his sins, drive from him all pains of mind and body..."

So this was it. Last rites. It was truly almost over then. Sins forgiven. Finally. They were letting him go. He could go home now. He could rest. It was over...


*****

"NO!"

Murdock slammed into the sun room, nearly knocking Father Magill down. He rushed to the bed, grabbing Face in his arms, pulling him close, glaring at the group gathered around him.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?! Get out! He's not going to die! Get out!"

"Murdock, calm down. This has to be done for Face. He's too close..."

"NO! You're letting him die. You can't do that! You can't!"

"Captain, stand down! We're not letting him die! It's just a precaution. He needs this. He..."

"The hell he does. He needs us! He needs us telling him not to go, not to quit." He turned his back on the others, grabbed his friend's face, practically nose to nose with him. "Don't you quit, Faceman! Don't you go! You can't! You come back, do you hear me? You come back to me, right now! Don't you dare leave me! Come back! Now!..."


*****

The quiet, clear voice stopped. It was replaced by a loud, searing noise. It was too loud. It hurt. Stop it! Stop! Murdock - it was Murdock. What was he saying? It's too loud. He couldn't make sense of it. Quit? No, don't quit. Don't quit. Murdock didn't want him to go. But I need to. I want to, Murdock. Please... please...I don't want to come back...I don't...

No...Murdock. He could never fight Murdock. He was too strong. There was too much of him...he trudged through the fog...I'm too tired, please...no, Murdock was pushing him through...go back...no...let me go...

No control now. It was all Murdock's. He could feel him. Holding on. Tight. Still yelling. He could feel his breath on his face. He could see him now. Fuzzy. So fuzzy but there. The others, too. Their voices, loud. Hands on him. Murdock. Let go. No, no, don't let go. Don't. Oh God I don't know...please stop...come back...Murdock...

Silence. Finally. They were all there. They were crying. How odd. Crying over him? They were still fuzzy, but not like before. With a little effort, he could clear them up. There. Better. Better? Yeah. He was back. All the way back. He never could fight Murdock. He didn't know if he wanted to. He didn't know how long he could stay. As long as Murdock wanted him, he guessed.

Maybe it would be okay now. Maybe...