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Spring, In Its Own Time

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Somewhere, about ten miles south of where Joel's sleeping, ice cracks.

He wakes with a start, breathing hard.

*

"Did you hear that last night?" He asked Marilyn, stirring his coffee too fast. "It was like a freight train. Terrible. As if the wind howling weren't enough to stop me from getting a decent night's sleep in this godforsaken place."

Marilyn looked at him, without blinking, and then continued knitting.

"What, you think I don't know noise? Trust me, I know noise. You try living in an apartment building with five Shih Tzus and an aspiring opera singer and then you talk to me about noise."

When he gestured with his cup to emphasize his point, it spilled over and burned his hand. He dropped the mug, swearing.

"Son of a – I'm going to lose a hand to these dangerously defective cups one day, and then what am I supposed to do, operate with one hand?" He grabbed a fistful of napkins and was dabbing ineffectually at the growing stain on his shirt. "And how is a man supposed to function without a full night's sleep? I can tell you right now, Marilyn, my prefrontal cortex is probably working triple time just to keep me upright, and there's just no telling how long I could go on like this."

Marilyn kept knitting.

"I'll be in my office," he said, storming out, leaving steaming footprints of coffee in his wake. He slammed the door behind him.

She looked after him.

"Wrong time of year," she said, quietly, and the ice shifted.

*

He dreams, soundlessly, of stretched white plains and the stark sun shining sharp into his eyes.

In his sleep, he reaches for Maggie. He wakes to an empty bed, an empty curled fist.

*

"Heard you're having a hard time sleeping, Dr. Fleischman," Ed said, plopping down next to him at the bar.

Joel shot him a glare through bleary, bloodshot eyes. "Gee, you think?"

"Warm milk didn't do the trick, huh?"

"No," Joel said slowly, explaining in his you're-an-imbecile-but-I'm-too-nice-to-say-anything voice, "warm milk did not work. Neither did a short-acting nonbenzodiazepine hypnotic."

Ed nodded. He ordered a glass of milk and a sandwich; Joel let his head flop back down onto the bartop.

"Been hearing things?" Ed asked around a bite of tuna.

Joel sat up instantly. "You, too? Oh, thank God, Ed, I knew it wasn't just me, I don't understand why Maggie refuses to hold a town meeting, it's positively inhumane how loud it is, how anyone can stand it is just beyond me—"

"Nope." Ed beamed. "Been sleeping great."

"What do you mean no? Then how did you know I was hearing things?"

Ed polished off the last of his milk, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "On account of you're out of season."

"Out of season? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

He pointed at Joel's forehead. "You're still stuck in winter." He pointed back at himself. "The rest of us are in summer."

Joel blinked, laughing. "This is great. Just great. I'm so tired that you're almost making sense."

Ed grinned brightly, patting him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Dr. Fleischman, it can't hold on forever. Sooner or later it'll break."

Joel nodded indulgently. "Sure, Ed. Thanks for the tip. I'll stick with the zaleplon just in case, though."

He smiled a little at Ed's departing form, a slivered fissure of melting.

*

He lies on his back, not sure – possibly beyond caring – if his eyes are opened or closed. He hears a thousand voices on a silent wind.

And it's like the first time he went ice skating as a kid, propelling forward in reckless motion, unable to tell the difference from flying.

*

"Let's look at it a different way." Chris reached into his glass and pulled out an ice cube, holding it between his fingers in front of Joel's face. "What does winter symbolize? The big freeze, right? It's all about that pure, lifeless season, that hibernation, mother nature's time to let her winds howl and her fields go barren. Everything's just holding its breath until spring comes." He rubbed the cube, tilting his head as he watched the water drip down to his wrist, mouth slightly parted in an awestruck expression. "Ain't it amazing?"

Joel squinted at the root-beer tinted ice. "Amazing that you have any circulation left in those fingers."

"Of course, you look at it another way, and it's all about that paper-thin illusion of safety in the storm." Chris cupped the ice cube in the center of his palm, closing his fingers around it. "What do we warm-blooded mammals do when it gets too cold for our keisters? We find us the nearest cave, bundle up good, and hole up 'till it's over. What else is there to do? Can't survive when the going gets tough, so may as well go to sleep."

He fixed his gaze on Joel. "Think about it, Joel. The materialist-dominated Western culture is deep in metaphorical R.E.M. Global temperatures rising a few degrees? Hey, no problem, roll over and hit the snooze. Depression on the rise? Pile on another blanket, face deeper into the pillow of collective-unconscious denial. We're sleep-walking through, trying to tell ourselves we're just caught up in some nightmare, waiting to wake up. Now, Emerson, there was a guy who knew what was up. 'Most persons do not see the sun,' he said, and think about that, Joel, really think about it – when was the last time you saw the sun?" Chris went on before Joel had a chance to reply. "And, man, that's where you are. You've been here in Cicely, right, all these years, but you ain't really been here, you've been trying to do everything but be here, and it's finally catching up with you. Can only hit the snooze button so many times, you see what I'm saying?"

He leaned forward, and, picking up the tiny piece of ice between his two fingers, and held it up against the center of Joel's forehead. "Time to come out of the cave, brother. There's a whole world out here for you to see."

*

He hears groaning, like shifts deep in the earth, tectonic murmurings, or maybe the slow, reverberating roll of a bear's heartbeat deep in sleep.

He lies on his side, curled in, pillow wrapped around his head, small enough to fit in the smallest, darkest crevice, far away from the light and the noise and life.

*
Ruth-Anne finished ringing up his order but didn't hand him a receipt. She reached under the counter and pulled out a bottle.

"Valerian drops," she said, holding it up for him to see. "Does wonders for me when Walt's away and I can't nod off."

Joel heaved a sigh that could have rattled mountains. "God, does no one in this town have anything better to talk about than my personal business? Which, by the way, I have totally under control."

She shrugged. "Suit yourself. Just trying to help."

Joel pinched the bridge of his nose, grimacing and gesticulating with his free hand. "Oh, yeah, I'm sure, just like Ed was trying to help by prescribing milk and cookies, and Chris was trying to help me by assaulting me and nearly giving me frostbite, and, oh, who can forget Marilyn's sage and oh-so-helpful advice? 'Find a place you can sleep.' The sheer presumptuous audacity of the people in this town never ceases to amaze me – and don't even get me started on O'Connell, she had the nerve to suggest flying me to a hospital –"

"That'll be twenty-two fifty-four," she said when he'd paused to take a breath. She'd bagged the goods while he'd been talking.

"Oh." Joel deflated a bit, having lost the momentum of his tirade. "Right, thanks."

He picked up the bag and seemed ready to walk out of the store, but he hesitated, sighing a much smaller, defeated sigh. "Look, Ruth Anne, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to – I appreciate the sentiment, really I do. It's just that I've been wracking my brain for weeks – weeks – and haven't come up with a thing." He met her eyes, looking strangely and uncharacteristically vulnerable, like someone who had just woken up and didn't remember where he was yet. "I don't what I'm going to do."

Ruth Anne didn't ask what he was talking about. In all likelihood, she didn't need to.

She leaned forward, a smile softening her face, sunshine on frost. She patted him on the hand. "No use worrying about it, dear. You'll know when you're ready."

*

His bed becomes a river, cold as bloodless white. He's swimming upstream, trying to get away or to find or just to breathe, keep his head above water, it's in his eyes, he can't see, and there's still the approaching sound of an earthquake building, pursuing him, chasing him, he has to –

But then he sinks, and opens his eyes. He sees for miles in every direction. He begins to float, still going upstream, away, but now the current's going with him.

*

Over the next few weeks, Joel – against what he would consider his better judgment – starts to follow Ruth-Anne's advice. It wasn't that he precisely wanted to, or even knew how to – don't worry, yeah, sure that's easy enough for her to say, it's not like she's had to go through an agonizing month of nearly fatal insomnia – but in the end, he didn't really know what else to do.

He was tired. That became the beginning and the ending of his days: he got out of bed, tired, eyelids heavy as he drove to the office. (Not long after, he had to stop driving. He became a risk to fellow drivers.) He came home, body nearly expended, and dropped back down onto it, to lie in the dark for the rest of the night, listening or dreaming vivid, frightening dreams that didn't quench his body's thirst or give him any rest. After awhile, he couldn't help it. He was just too tired to worry.

The only time he came alive was when he was practicing, when he was bandaging or advising or picking the splinters out of a wound. Then his mind focused, the way it always did, the way it always had – that's one of the real reasons he became a doctor, even if he could never explain it to anyone, not even to Maggie. But that's where he'd always felt the most alive, the times when the world had just made sense to him in some ineffable way that he didn't bother trying to define because it would be like a fish defining the ocean.

And that's how he still knew he was alive. He still cared – cared about how his patients were doing, cared about keeping up with his journals and research and that five thousand dollars he was trying to wrangle out of Maurice for an equipments upgrade – and oddly enough, that started to seem more important than worrying about himself. He'd exhausted all his options on that end. At least he could still help others.

He was needed up in a village he promptly forgot the name of, but he packed his equipment with precise care, and as he and his guide paddled upstream, he asked questions about the villagers' health, made sure they were taking care of their water supply and all other common sources of infection. Once he was satisfied that they weren't on the verge of imminent plague, he set quietly to paddling, eyes drooping but arms keeping up the mindless motion steadily enough.

"Here we are," his guide said, jarring him out of the mindless reverie. "Manonash."

*

He stands on this soil and could sleep for a hundred years, but his eyes aren't closing. They don't need to.

No use worrying about it, she said to him, and he thinks he finally understands. On the brink of falling over the edge, he understands, soon enough that he can back away if he so chooses. He jumps instead.

Can I stay?, and even before he hears the answer, his ears are flooded with the sound of water roaring and the great, rending tears of the ice, the ferocious power of an earthquake that changes the entire landscape, cracks it wide open. The sunshine and wind are warm on his face. The season has turned.