x x x
“Sir, if you can’t pay, I’m going to have to call the cops.”
It wasn’t until the bartender raised her voice that Nathan even noticed the man across from him. It was easy to sink onto the barstool and then for two, three hours only see as far as the bottom of his glass. He couldn’t find the same escape drinking at home. It was too quiet. Every time a floorboard creaked or a curtain fluttered, he would whip his head around expecting someone to be there. Here, the crowd was usually big enough to blanket the space around him with noise but never feel intrusive.
Nathan lifted his eyes and watched the man stand up, sway slightly on his feet. He searched through his jacket and removed a passport and airline ticket, dropped them on the bar. Then he reached into his pants’ pockets and came up with nothing.
“Look, I had it on the plane.”
“So you said.”
“Maybe I already paid, and you…,” the man said, leaning over, waving a finger in the bartender’s face, “…and you stole my wallet.”
“I’m going to give you a minute to collect yourself. If you can’t pay, then you’ll explain yourself to the police.”
The man absorbed this and sank back down, his brief moment of bravado crushed. His eyes glistened with defeat and Nathan almost expected him to put his head in his arms. Instead he caught Nathan’s stare and his eyes narrowed. Suddenly the defeat disappeared and was replaced with challenge. There was still some fight left in this man, Nathan thought, and he was in no mood to be on the receiving end. So he swallowed the remainder of his drink, checked his watch and left a few bills on the bar.
Nathan was almost at the door when the recognition hit, sobered him almost instantly. He turned back to study the man who was now tapping his passport on the rim of his empty glass. He should have known him instantly, and not only because the poor bastard’s haunted image had been on the front page of every newspaper last fall under the headline, ‘Hero of Flight 815’.
He shifted in the doorway, torn between maintaining his mask of indifference and indulging in something, he wasn’t sure what, maybe curiosity, maybe empathy. The later won and he retraced his footsteps.
The man flinched at the sound of his name but he didn’t look up. “I don’t give interviews.” The voice was more alert than Nathan expected.
“I’m not a reporter,” he said, unexpectedly softly, like he was comforting his children after a nightmare. “You treated my wife.”
Jack blinked several times, and then bobbed his head slightly. “Petrelli.”
“Yeah.” Nathan took another step closer and gestured to the seat next to Jack. He merely shrugged. Nathan slipped onto the stool and held up two fingers to the bartender who appraised them warily, one pierced eyebrow raised. He lifted up his wallet and she came over.
“You’ll cover his tab?”
Nathan nodded. “Sure, and bring us two more.”
“No.” Jack tried to wave Nathan’s wallet away.
“I don’t think they’re going let you to do the dishes. And this is cheaper than you paying me to handle your court appearance.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
“It’s decaf.” The bartender returned, dropped two coffee cups in front of them with a clatter. With one hand on her hip, she filled them, and tossed them a couple of spoons, creamers and sugar. “We’re closing in twenty minutes.”
Nathan settled back on the stool, absentmindedly stirring the coffee he had no intention of drinking. “So, what brings you to New York?”
“I didn’t figure you’d want to fly again.”
A tiny bitter smile played at Jack’s lips. “That’s what everyone thinks.”
“Well…” Nathan was going to say something about the odds of crashing again but it didn’t seem appropriate to be flippant. “Right.”
“When I was a kid I loved to fly. It was exciting being in this little box so high in the sky. Time sort of stood still. You watched a movie, ate some peanuts, then all of a sudden, you were somewhere new, somewhere good. Now…,” Jack trailed off, rubbed his forehead. “Now it’s just a means to an end.”
“I know what you mean.”
Jack dropped the packet of sugar he had been fiddling with, turned to Nathan and asked, “I couldn’t help her, could I?”
Those were the same words he had used four years ago, crushing what Nathan assumed had been his last hope that his wife would walk again. The regret that had flooded Jack’s face when he first said this was amplified now, a thousand times more remorseful. Nathan suspected this had nothing to do with memories of an old patient but rather carrying the weight of being gone and coming back and everything in between.
He considered mentioning Heidi’s reversal of fortune but decided against it. Not only would it require tiresome lies unlikely to convince a spinal surgeon, he doubted waving success in the face of failure would be helpful. Plus he had no desire to talk about her and considering Shephard’s own wedding band, which when they first met had struck Nathan as a halo, a testament to the doctor’s ability work miracles, was missing, it seemed to be best to avoid the topic of wives.
It was then that Nathan realized that he had nothing to say to Shephard. They had quickly exhausted their ability to reminisce, and small talk, always an exercise in tedium, seemed even more pointless than normal. It was unlikely that Jack would suddenly open up to a near stranger about his adventures on a deserted island, anymore than he would confess what it was like to stop an exploding man.
Yet the silence they lapsed into wasn’t uncomfortable.
Maybe this was because Shephard knew little about him and cared even less. Or maybe Nathan recognized in him something beyond their briefly shared past.
What did Jack Shephard see when he looked in the mirror?
Of course, this could all be conjecture since Nathan knew he had a tendency to become sentimental when he drank. Next he would be inviting Shephard to spend the night on his couch. They would lie on the floor, drinking single malt scotch right from the bottle while listening to Peter’s Nina Simone CDs.
Outside in the street, after were ushered out the door, Nathan pressed cash into Jack’s hand, and they went through a dance of refusal and insistence before he finally accepted. With a clumsy handshake they said good-bye and walked in opposite directions.
“Weren’t you going to run for mayor or something?” Jack called after him, just before he was out of earshot. “Save New York?”
Nathan paused under a streetlight. The light seemed unbearably bright. “Or something.”
Jack nodded and then held up his hand, giving a stiff wave, the salute of the damned. Nathan returned the wave, then turned the corner.
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