Warning: Contains spoilers for The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg.
Blair flipped on the light switch. One lone bulb dimly illuminated the storage room and he grabbed onto the railing as he felt his way down the steps. At the bottom he looked around, trying to locate the suitcase. The last time he remembered seeing it down here it had been sitting on the top of Jim's old footlocker from his Army days, but there was the footlocker -- they'd packed the Christmas decorations in it last year as they'd taken them down. Two white lidded boxes -- the kind that Xerox paper came in -- were stacked on top. Blair's heart lurched as he recognized the boxes.
Slowly, he walked over to them. His name, neatly written in thick black Magic Marker, with the notation 'univ. off.' below. Not in his writing. Jim must have labeled them sometime after Blair had stuffed them down here.
There should be others down here, somewhere. The backseat of the Volvo had been full that day. He turned in a slow circle, but he couldn't see any that he recognized. Just the two boxes there. Two boxes that belonged to another life.
The life of Blair Sandburg, aspiring anthropologist and hopeful PhD. candidate.
Shaking his head resolutely, he turned away and spotted the battered brown suitcase. He pulled it out and laid it flat on the floor, snapping open the clasps. The accordion folder was right on top and he took it out, closed the suitcase and returned it. Clutching the folder under his arm, he walked back up the steps.
With his hand on the doorknob, he hesitated. Finally, he placed the folder on the floor and carefully went back downstairs. The two boxes hadn't moved, of course. They still sat primly there on the footlocker, side-by-side, the edges line up in perfect precision -- the way a certain Sentinel had no doubt placed them.
Blair stood there for a long moment, then knelt on the floor. He lifted the lid off first one of the boxes, then the other.
Stuff that had been on his desk was piled in there indiscriminately; the breakable objects hastily and untidily wrapped in newspapers and some bubble paper he'd pulled out of the trash. For some reason his hands were trembling as he unwrapped the first bundle. He smiled as the paper fell away to reveal the ugly black and brown ceramic pot, still filled with pencils and pens. He'd done a workshop for pre-teens the summer after he'd finished his MA. The kids had presented this to him at the end of it. He'd never been able to figure out if one of them had made it or if they'd bought it somewhere, but it had sat on his desk from that time on.
He started to wrap it up again, then changed his mind and carefully sat it on the ground. He was always having to rummage in his desk for a pen -- he'd just take it to work with him tomorrow.
A file folder contained that last, partially-written final exam for the Intro course. Blair flipped through the pages, reading an occasional question, wondering how the students would have done if he'd ever gotten the chance to administer the test. He shook his head at his own thoughts. The students would have done just what they always had done: some would have passed without studying, some would have passed because they studied. A minority -- a small minority, the teacher always hoped -- would have failed. Their reasons and excuses would have been as varied as the students themselves, but not that much different from the reasons and excuses of the students the semester before. Or the year before that.
Blair closed the folder. He might as well throw it away -- not like it would ever be needed again -- but instead he returned it to the box.
He kept on digging, unpacking the articles and the memories they contained. Two heavy manila folders contained copies of the term papers submitted by the Cultural Anthropology class. He'd always requested the originals as well as one copy be turned in -- had done so ever since a whole semester's worth of work had been destroyed when his basement office had flooded once. He remembered leaving the originals in the Dean's office for the teacher that would finish out the semester with his classes. He'd taken the copies. Somehow, that day, it had seemed so important to keep them. He'd planned to go ahead and read and grade them just as if he was still teaching the class. Wanted to see how much they'd learned and absorbed through the semester.
He hadn't done so. Later, after it was all over, it just seemed easier to leave them packed away with everything else. It wasn't his job anymore.
It wasn't his life anymore.
The first box was empty now, the second almost so. There was only one thing left, down in the very bottom. A smaller, sturdy box, securely taped over and over again with duct tape.
Blair's heart started pounding a little faster when he saw it.
He carefully lifted it out; sat down cross-legged with it in his lap. He didn't open it. He didn't need to. He knew what was inside.
The Sentinel, by Blair Sandburg, MA.
The original hard copy. He'd deleted it from his computer hard drive, destroyed the back up disc and the two other copies. He had planned to burn this one, too, but Jim had stopped him. "You might need it some day, Chief. You might want to keep it."
Need it? Not hardly. He'd kept his notes and his references: had to, for Jim's sake. Jim was still the Sentinel; Blair was still the Guide. That part hadn't changed.
But the dissertation...that was different. He knew all the information in it -- every word he'd written was ingrained somewhere in his mind or his heart. He hadn't needed to keep it.
He wanted to keep it -- to know it was somewhere. To know that it was important.
To know that his sacrifice hadn't been in vain.
Blair started laughing. He laughed and laughed until his gut ached and his breath came in spasms. Laughed until the tears came.
And then he cried. Just a little.
Finally, he stood up. His legs were cramped from sitting so long on the cold cement floor and he massaged his shins absently as he surveyed the stuff spread around on the floor. He quickly piled most of it back in the box, replaced the lid and shoved it to one side with his foot. Then, he picked up the vase and the box with his dissertation and turned to start back up the steps.
A figure moved in the shadows at the top of the steps. Blair jumped, barely managing to hang onto the vase. The heavy box dropped to the floor.
"Jim! Jeez, man, you scared the crap out of me! How long have you been standing there?" he exclaimed angrily.
Jim Ellison came down the steps. "Sorry, Chief, I didn't mean to startle you. We had a phone call from the DA in charge of the Colson case -- I was going to tell you about it, but -- I don't know...you looked like you were a million miles away."
"Not quite that far." Blair handed him the vase. "Here, make yourself useful. I'm going to take that to work tomorrow. That way I'll know where to find a pen. You'll know where to find a pen, instead of rummaging through my desk."
Jim shuddered theatrically. "Rummage through your desk, Chief? I don't think so. My HazMat training is out of date."
"Funny." Blair bent over to pick up the box. "Is there a fire in the fireplace?"
Jim's brow furrowed. "Yes," he answered slowly.
"Good. Here's some fuel for it." Blair started past Jim up the stairs but the other man caught his shoulder.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"You mean the hard copy of my diss? Yep, that's it."
"Blair, I don't think you should --"
"No, Jim, just listen. It's not important. Remember that day at the hospital, after my press conference? I said, it was just a paper."
"And I said it was your life."
"Yeah. But, you know, I was right the first time." He tapped the box. "This is just a paper. A big, long paper, sure. But just a paper." He grinned. "My life is something different."
"I wish --" Jim stopped to clear his throat. "You know I wish --"
"That there'd been another way. Yeah, I know. You've told me that in a million ways in the last couple of years. But you know what? I don't regret it. If I had it to do all over again, I'd make the same choices. Because my life is not in that box. My life is --" he waved a hand in the air --"this. Us. Partners."
Jim didn't look convinced. "Blair, you lost a lot more than just some paper. You told the world you lied."
"Yeah. I did. And I won't say that doesn't bother me sometimes, like when that slimeball attorney Richardson asked me if I was sure I wasn't 'exaggerating' the evidence against his client." Blair laughed. It hadn't been funny at the time but now, remembering the look on the "slimeball's" face when he'd made his answer, it was.
Blair looked at his friend and smiled, shaking his head. Jim didn't understand, not now. But someday, hopefully, he'd come to realize what Blair had just realized sitting on the cold cement floor with a box of memories spread around him. "Jim, man, the life I have now is not a consolation prize because I didn't get the life I really wanted. This is the life I was supposed to have, all along." He bounced up the stairs. At the top, he turned to look back down. "Hey, what did the ADA want anyway?"
Jim slowly started up the steps. "Colson wants to plead Manslaughter. No trial."
"Manslaughter! No way, man! The ADA isn't going for the idea, is he?"
"He wants to talk to you about it --"
"Talk! Oh yeah, I'll talk...and he'd better listen!" Blair slammed the door open and made tracks to the telephone.
Left alone in the storage room, Jim gently put the vase down on the bottom step and walked unerringly to the darkest corner. He knelt and pushed a board aside, revealing a small crawl space. He pulled out the only thing inside: a small, metal canister they'd called an 'ammo can' in the Army. Lifting the lid, Jim looked at the document nestled within.
The Sentinel, by Blair Sandburg
After a minute, Jim closed the can and replaced it in the hiding place. He dusted off the knees of his jeans as he walked back to the staircase and picked up the vase.
At the top of the steps, he glanced down one more time before he turned off the light.