My guide is one of the strongest men I know.
If you go by what’s on the surface, you might be inclined to disagree. Blair’s on the short side and while he keeps fit, mostly by running and playing basketball, he never managed to put on much muscle bulk to speak of, even when we were regularly sleeping on hard jungle floors and trekking for hours through the rainforest carrying all we owned on our backs.
He has a waifishness about him too. He’s nearly thirty now, no longer a kid, but he still looks like one with his big, blue eyes, long hair and slim frame. He acts a lot like a kid too, wearing jeans and flannel and listening to grunge music, which I guess marks him out as being just a little behind the times. When he smiles, as he does more often these days, the years drop away; there’s an innate mischievousness in his expression that harks back to someone years younger.
Maybe part of it is that he was robbed of so many years of his youth, but has been granted a second chance at it now that the hard times are behind us. It’s certainly true that I’ve seen a different aspect of him this past year since we returned to Cascade; a more playful, less serious side. It makes me wonder what he was like before, and whether I’m finally getting a glimpse of it.
Blair once told me he tends to divide his life up into ‘before’ and ‘after’. Before he was betrayed by his cousin, before he was captured, tortured and all-but broken. I’ve only ever known the Blair who came after: hurt, vulnerable, and angry, oh-so-angry, yet full of courage and (finally) a measure of peace.
You might argue that nothing about the person he is now merits my assessment of his strength. I’d tell you that you’re dead wrong, and I’ll tell you why.
Blair is brave beyond anything you can imagine. He refused to bow under pressure that would have destroyed anyone else, putting the wellbeing of others way before his own sense of self-preservation. He endured and overcame torture and brainwashing, to emerge the other side a man who, if a little fractured in places, remains intact and whole and able to positively move on with his life, as well as be a rock for me.
Not only that, he’s a stubborn, tough little son of a bitch. He sticks to his principles, no matter what, and goes right to the wall when it matters. I don’t always agree with every stance he takes, but he’s smart and he usually comes out on the right side of the issue, so I trust his judgment. And he’ll do anything for me. I mean anything. He is more than willing to voluntarily put himself in situations that scare the hell out of him, if he thinks it’s in my best interest. He’s just that courageous.
He scares the hell out of me when he makes sacrifices on my behalf, to tell you the truth. And I’m not sure I’ve earned that level of devotion, given some of the terrible mistakes I’ve made. But he gives it to me anyway.
So, my guide is strong, and he’s resilient. No question.
But sometimes, like right now, he’s vulnerable and scared, and he needs me. He copes really well with everything that happened most of the time, but now and again it come back to bite him in the ass. “Where are you?” I ask over the phone.
“Rainier.” His voice is a little thready; he’s breathing too fast. “In my office.”
I should have known. Apart from our loft and (increasingly, now he’s made his mark) the station, the Center for Guide Research at Rainier University is his sanctuary. He’s had a ton of support from so many people there; Dan Wolf, his other co-workers, and also his old Anthropology colleagues and students. I think it is almost that more than anything that has accelerated his healing. “I’m on my way,” I say simply, not wasting too much time on conversation, understanding that he needs me sooner rather than later. “Chief?” I add. “Do the breathing exercises that Dan showed you.”
“Yeah, right,” he retorts, sounding already a little bit more himself: the argumentative little shit I know and love. “Like I hadn’t worked that out for myself, man!” He takes a moment to attempt exactly that – I can hear him because I’m staying on the line even as I sprint downstairs to where I parked the truck.
The engine starts first time. I’m holding the phone in the crook of my shoulder, and I ask, “You still with me, Chief?”
“Uh huh.” He’s putting all his effort into breathing slow and steady.
“I’m five minutes away,” I reassure him. “You’re doing great, just keep breathing, okay?” I tell him. The light ahead is just changing to red and I push on through, ignoring the honking of horns. There was no danger of a collision and this is an emergency. I’ll put on lights and sirens if I have to.
Finally I reach Rainier. I park up in front of Blair’s building and take the steps two at a time. I’m still holding the phone to my ear, and Blair’s quiet on the other end of the line. I can hear he’s over the worst, his breathing is steady now for the most part, without the panicked edge. As I turn into his corridor I warn him so my entry won’t startle him. “I’m here, Chief. Is your door locked?”
“Yeah,” Blair admits. I’m already pulling my keyring from my pocket as I reach the door. Clicking off the phone and tucking it inside my jacket, I unlock the door and walk in. I close it quietly behind me before locking it again from the inside. We don’t need any interruptions for this.
Inside, Blair’s office is dim – he’s pulled the blinds down. He’s sitting curled over with his back against the wall behind the desk, his legs bent, arms clutching them close; by the stiffness of his pose he’s probably been there a while. The face he lifts towards me has an unmistakeable expression of shame.
I’m not having that.
“Hey,” I say. I sit right down beside him and pull him into my arms. “If the first thing you say includes the word ‘sorry’, you’ll be on bathroom duty for a week.”
I’m gratified at eliciting a watery chuckle. Blair’s not panicking anymore, but his emotions are in free flow and I can feel his sudden rush of tears through my shirt as he clutches a handful of it tight. He rarely cries when in the thick of it, but he sometimes feels able to let go once I’m there to help him carry the burden.
I hold him in silence for a while, rocking him a little and resting my cheek against his hair, letting the peace of our bonded link gradually blossom between us, so that at last Blair allows me entry. I can feel his shame now (fading, at last), as well as anxiety and a sharp edge of fear. “What happened?” I ask him.
Blair sighs, pressing deeper into my hold. “I saw someone,” he admits. “I don’t know if it was him but… he reminded me of, you know. Guide World. One of the guards.”
“What’s his name?”
I asked the question carefully enough, but there’s no fooling Blair: he knows I mean business. “Stand down, sentinel,” he orders, mild amusement in his tone which isn’t echoed in our link (he’s too freaked out for that, despite a valiant effort to pretend otherwise). “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t him.”
Blair shrugs. “Fifty-fifty?”
“Not good enough.” And it wasn’t; I know it and he knows it. “Tell me his name.” I was going to track the fucker down and make sure he understood, explicitly, that he was never to go within a million miles of Rainier or my guide ever again.
Blair understands I won’t budge on this. If the situation was reversed he wouldn’t either, he won’t let me get away with even the slightest obfuscation. “I knew him as Guard Sanders,” he admits, caving earlier than I expected. He really must be spooked. “I think his first name is Mark.”
“Did he hurt you?” I ask.
“No,” Blair says. “He didn’t even see me, I don’t think. Back then?” he pauses. “Yeah, sometimes. He worked a lot with him. You know, Gavaghan.”
“Never again,” I say firmly. I mean it, and Blair knows that I do.
We sit in silence a little while longer. I can feel Blair growing steadier by the minute, and at last it’s time to move this to somewhere more comfortable. I’ve had my fill of sitting on the ground, after spending so many years living in the jungle. “Let’s go home.” I urge, and Blair indicates his agreement.
We lock up and leave, and walk together to the truck, Blair’s arm around my waist and mine around his shoulder. The days when Blair was forced to walk three paces behind are well and truly over, and it never fails to delight me to flaunt that fact. Blair flashes me a little grin as the thought transmits itself to him through our link, our emotions still wide open to each other, and I grin back, loving how in-tune we are.
I am proud of my guide, and I want everyone to know it: but most especially him.