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This Is a Thought Experiment

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Put a man in a box.

Bury the box in the ground.

The box has an air vent. The box has lights, a tape recorder, and a gun. The box has a webcam.

The box rests on a pressure-sensitive detonator connected to ten pounds of Semtex.

When the box is opened, will the man be alive or dead?

***

"Thanks for coming over," Nick says. He looks like shit. Most of his blisters from the fire-ant bites have scabbed, leaving a scaly, topographic crust on his face and arms. "You want a beer?"

"Yeah, sure," Warrick answers, trying to clear away whatever expression's on his face and just be normal. "When did your folks leave?"

"This morning. Where did she put the - ? Oh, here." Nick reaches way, way in to a very full refrigerator and emerges with two bottles. "How about some chicken soup? I got a lifetime's worth. Plus beef stew, lasagna, a mystery casserole, cinnamon rolls, and a chocolate cake. Mom went kinda overboard."

"Wow. Uh, maybe later."

Nick grins hideously and takes a long pull on his beer. Warrick nearly asks: Should you really drink that? Alcohol interacts with corticosteroids and antihistamines, and Nick's probably been prescribed both. Those are low-risk interactions, though. Warrick doesn't think there's been a documented fatality from either one.

"How are things at work?" Nick asks as Warrick follows him back to the living room. You can tell he's been spending a lot of time on the couch. It's all set up for the long haul--a couple of crumpled pillows by one armrest, some half-empty orange juice glasses on the coffee table, and the TV remote, pills bottles and a bag of Doritos in easy reach. Nick mutes the sound on the baseball game and moves a wadded-up blanket off the other end of the couch to make room for Warrick.

There's been a murdered prostitute since what happened to Nick, and a high school kid who hung himself from the roof of his ex-girlfriend's house. Warrick hasn't cared all that much. The bodies don't seem real. "The usual. Greg jinxed us by saying he hoped we didn't get any high-pressure cases before you get back. So now we're all waiting for a triple homicide or somebody pulling an Ocean's Eleven at the Mirage." Warrick presses the cold beer bottle, wet with condensation, to his forehead. It must be ninety degrees outside, but Nick doesn't have the AC on. All the windows are wide open, and the room is bright and hot.

"If you get one, I'm definitely gonna play this sick leave thing for all it's worth."

Warrick feels himself smiling fakely.

There should be guidelines. A tech manual, like all the other ones CSIs get issued: Talking to Your Friend After He's Almost Died Horribly: Policies and Procedures. Section A: How to stop making small talk. Subsection A2: How not to ask him what it was like in the box. How not to ask him if he would've really pulled the trigger.

Ever since it happened, people at the lab have been speculating about being buried alive. They say it's the worst way they can think of to die. Warrick agrees, but he doesn't know why. There are plenty of slower and more painful ways. Most of them, in fact.

He's been thinking about it. Been spending a lot of time imagining being inside that box. What he figures is, it's the worst way to die because it's like being already dead. Or dead and alive at the same time. You're in the ground but you're still awake. You're Schrödinger's cat, at the mercy of a thousand chances you can't control. Waiting in that uncertainty, not knowing if you'll live or die until somebody opens your coffin lid. Or doesn't.

If Warrick had been in that box (it was just a coin's flip from being him, just a draft of air or a pinch of grit on the quarter's edge) he'd have shot himself just to stop worrying about it.

"Hey," Warrick says, looking at the TV and not at Nick's pustular face and tired eyes. "I think the Dodgers just got a home run."

"All right! I've got two hundred bucks down on this game." Amazingly, Nick laughs. "I figure either my luck's running really good right now, or so incredibly crappy that it's bound to get better."

***

Put a man in a room. Let him watch footage of his best friend in the box. Let him see the gun.

Let him try to find his friend. Let him count down the minutes before his friend's air runs out.

Let him dig up the box. Let him see his friend's face.

Will he be the same man he was before?

***

Warrick has never understood why people say the dead look like they're sleeping. He's seen maybe three or four thousand corpses, so far, and not one has ever seemed peaceful. Empty, yeah, like a stray sock on the sidewalk. But that's not the same, not comforting. And even after the morticians do their tricks with make-up, it's easy to see that the lifelike skin is painted, the angelic smile forced with sutures.

On the other hand, Nick, asleep, is doing a pretty good imitation of being dead. He dropped off sometime in the sixth inning, and he hasn't moved or made a sound since then.

His face is turned towards Warrick, so Warrick's got another chance to notice just how bad he looks. It's not just the scabs, but the waxy yellowness of his skin and a kind of brittleness around his jaw and eye sockets. It makes Warrick think of dead women, the ones who, when Dr. Robbins X-rays them, turn out to have a bunch of old fractures. The ones who were trapped in hell and couldn't get out.

There's bound to be science behind it--prolonged stress wears the body down--but what it looks like is just plain hopelessness. A permanent hangover of old fear.

Earlier, when he called, Nick said I'm bored off my ass, buddy. Come on over, we'll hang out. Like this was just a normal afternoon. Like there's ever going to be such a thing as a normal afternoon again.

What kind of fucked-up world is it when even a guy who's been buried alive in a little box can't just say I'm scared to be alone in the house?

The game ends (the Dodgers win), and Warrick watches a Science Channel program about codes that does a lousy job of explaining quantum cryptography. He heats up some of Nick's mom's lasagna in the microwave and eats it, and decides that Nick's mom doesn't normally cook much. He calls Grissom and asks for the night off, and Grissom says yes even though they're already short-handed. He calls Tina to break their dinner date. Then he watches Nick sleep, all curled tight with his head at a funny angle. Poor guy's going to be sore when he wakes up.

Once, just before he calls Grissom, Warrick puts his hand an inch from Nick's mouth and leaves it there for three or four breaths. Just to feel the exhalations, just to warm his fingers on that sure sign of life.

The TV gets boring after a while, but Warrick doesn't turn it off. He figures Nick probably likes hearing the voices while he sleeps. There are a couple of old Sports Illustrated issues on the coffee table, so Warrick tries to read one.

There's no good reason not to leave, except that he just doesn't want to. He's been staying away, because Nick's parents deserved time with their son. But he's had to fight himself to do it.

Before long, Warrick puts the magazine down again. He can't concentrate these days. It's been a problem at work, too. Everybody else is almost back to normal, but Warrick's stuck. Nick almost died, and there's something about it that's too big to get past easily.

For a little while, Warrick thinks about what he'd be doing right now if Nick had died. But he can't picture anything, even going to the funeral or crying or getting drunk. It's just a blank.

Halfway through the eleven o'clock news, Nick screams. But quietly; it's a muffled sound, breathless. A dying scream.

Eyes open, he's awake now or close to it, but he's locked in a rigid semi-fetal ball, muscles so tense that he's shaking. Muttering something that it takes Warrick a second to understand. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck -"

"Nicky, you're okay."

No change to the panic on Nick's face. "Can't move."

Sleep paralysis, volunteers the part of Warrick's mind that's thinking, that's not frozen with fear and the vast goddamn awfulness of what Nick's gone through. Voluntary movement shuts down during REM sleep. It's the body's self-defense, keeps us from acting out our nightmares. Probably not so good if your nightmares take place in a box.

"Yeah, you can," Warrick says, but Nick's not hearing him, so he grabs Nick's arm and moves it for him, tugging against the force of contracted muscles. "See?"

Nick doesn't breathe for a second, and then his whole body jerks and loosens. "Fuck. I was - I thought -"

"It's okay." Stupid words. Words aren't how the body knows safety. Gently, trying not to tear the scabs, Warrick rubs Nick's arm. Nick's hand closes over his wrist, hard, the way he did in the ambulance. Like a death grip, Warrick thinks. A life grip.

After a while, Nick says, "Sorry, man."

"It's okay." A vocabulary of 61,000 words, at least according to one of those "test your intelligence" internet quizzes, and this is the best Warrick can do.

Nick laughs, sort of. "Hell it is." He turns his head like he's looking out the window, but it's dark outside. Nothing he could be seeing but his own reflection in the glass. "You watched me. While I was in the box."

Warrick nods, but Nick's still got his eyes turned away. "Yeah. I . . . I didn't want to leave you alone in there."

"You saw me. Not just you. Grissom, Catherine. Greg, for God's sake. You all saw me -"

"Nicky -"

" - freaking out. Praying and crying. And the gun, you saw me that close to blowing my head off."

No use saying anything. Warrick leans in and puts one hand on Nick's shoulder. Maybe that helps Nick, maybe it doesn't, but it makes Warrick feel better.

Nick shifts, rests his head on the back of the couch, which means his chin's just touching Warrick's hand. His eyes are closed, and he's panting in little gasps, like a worn-out dog.

"You lived," Warrick says. "If it had been me . . . I don't know. I don't know if I'm that brave. You did good, baby."

"Did I live? Cause I feel like I died. Like I lost myself and came back as somebody else."

Maybe, Warrick thinks, that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Ever since he saw that first second of webcam footage, since he knew Nick might really die, he hasn't recognized himself either. This guy who's holding Nick's hand and rubbing his shoulder, who's thinking about sliding in close and letting Nick rest against him . . . this guy didn't exist a week ago. "You're alive," he says, and he feels Nick relax a little, like he wasn't sure until Warrick told him.

Some time goes by as Nick's breathing evens out. "Warrick," he says eventually, "did you just call me 'baby' a minute ago?" Something like amusement in his voice, and something else, too, quiet and strange.

"Um . . . yeah."

In the pause, Warrick remembers the Semtex under the box, and how if he'd reached out for Nick right then like he wanted to, they'd have been blown to bits.

"Oh," Nick says, and his hand shifts in Warrick's. A brush of fingers, then a hold, as strong as before.

"Nicky. What . . . what would happen if I kissed you?"

Nicks opens his eyes, but Warrick can't tell if he's surprised or not. "I don't know." Which is, Warrick thinks, the only honest answer anybody can make to a question like that. And after a little while Nick adds, softly, "Let's see."