The Dangling Conversation
By Jeanne DeVore
"My father is alive."
Of all the words Paul Blaisdell ever expected his foster son to say, those were not among them.
"What?" Paul couldn't help himself--he knew full well he'd heard Peter correctly, but he had to buy himself time--time to let the shock sink in.
Peter swallowed and Paul held the cup and straw for him. His foster son was pale, and Paul couldn't tell whether his pallor was due to blood loss from the bullet wound or shock from this revelation. Shock he knew which was reflected on his own face. Peter lay his head back and continued. "Remember hearing about that mysterious stranger in Chinatown? The one who rescued the old Apothecary from the burning building?"
"You're saying that's your father?"
"How can you be sure?"
"I--when he came out of the building, at the fire, I saw his arms--the tattoos of the dragon, and the tiger. The marks of a Shaolin priest. I--I found out where they'd taken him and went to the hospital yesterday. I don't know, I--I thought maybe he might have known my father. The minute I saw him-- He's older, of course, has hair now, but.... It is my father, Paul. He's alive."
Paul forced himself to smile over the pain in his heart. The return of Kwai Chang Caine to his son's life, after fifteen years, was a mixed blessing. On one hand, Peter had never forgotten, had never stopped mourning for his father. But on the other hand, Paul Blaisdell was the one he turned to when he needed a dose of "fatherly advice". It was a role Paul cherished--one he wasn't anxious to give up any time soon. Not even to Peter's real father. But he said, "That's great, kid," and hoped he sounded happier than he felt. Then he frowned. "Where's he been all this time?"
Peter tried to shrug, grimacing as the movement pulled at his wound and bandages. They'd probably spring him from the hospital later today, but in the meantime, he was better off keeping still. "I don't know. He said he was just wandering. He thought I was dead, too."
"How's that possible?"
"Remember me telling you about old Ping Hi?"
"The monk you lived with after the temple was destroyed, yeah, I remember."
"He--I don't understand it, but he--somehow he thought that if we both, if my father and I thought each other was dead... Well, he was trying to protect us from Master Dao."
"The evil man who destroyed the temple. Oh, and Paul--Master Dao is Tan."
"Yeah. How's that for ironic? The thing that brings me and my father back together is the thing that tore us apart to begin with." Peter shook his head and his words were bitter. "I still don't understand what Ping Hi thought he'd accomplish. My father said that by keeping us separated, spreading a rumor that we were dead, maybe Dao would give up. But there were lots of monks and priests who knew I was still alive--I said goodbye to them when we left the temple. And I can't believe my father didn't see anybody, either. What did it accomplish putting us through all that? Why couldn't he have told us?" Paul saw the glimmerings of tears in his foster son's eyes.
"Maybe he was going to. You said he got sick shortly afterwards and put you in the orphanage, right? Well, maybe he got sick before he had the chance to tell you."
"But it doesn't make sense--" Peter said angrily, and Paul's heart went out to him. The confusion was so clear on Peter's face it was almost palpable. Confusion, hurt, more than a little fear. His life had just been turned on its ear; nothing would ever be the same again.
"All that time--wasted," Peter continued bitterly. "All the anger, and the hurt-- And come to find out he's just been wandering the countryside, searching for the answers to the mysteries of life."
"Hey now, be fair," Paul soothed, stroking his son's--his foster son's hair. "You don't think he hurt, too, thinking you'd been killed?"
Peter sniffed and blinked back the tears, gratefully accepting Paul's soothing touch. "Yeah, 'course he did. I know he did. The look on his face when he realized it was me--" He chuckled softly at the memory. Then the smile faded. "But now what? Where do we go from here?" The worried fear was back.
"Where is he now?" Paul asked.
"I dunno. He was here awhile ago, then he left. I don't know if he went back to Chinatown to check on the Apothecary or what. He's a drifter, Paul, he's got no place to stay. I don't know where he was staying before the fire. I don't even know how to find him when I get out of here."
"I'm sure he'll be back, just take it easy," Paul soothed. "I can't imagine a father not wanting to check on his son who's in the hospital."
"Yeah, but he already did that--when he brought me in. Now that he knows I'll be all right--" Peter tried a shrug again, winding up with a lopsided gesture which still made him grimace in pain. "Anyway, he's not--he's not like everybody else. He's a Shaolin priest. They're--different."
"He's still a father," Paul reminded him.
"Yeah, maybe," Peter conceded. Then he looked up at his foster father. "Paul, I-- I didn't expect this--"
Paul couldn't help but chuckle. Talk about understatement! "No, I should say not. But it's a wonderful thing, Peter."
"But I-- You... we...." Peter struggled to find the words--any words--to give voice to what he was feeling. But they weren't there--there were no words to describe his confusion. His free hand flailed and his eyes brimmed with tears.
"Hey now, shh, take it easy," Paul soothed, stroking the younger man's neck and shoulder, comforting touches to calm him down.
"But I thought you'd be upset," Peter blurted.
"Why would I be upset?"
"Because of what we--" Again words failed him.
"Peter, kid, I'm not upset. I'm thrilled that you've found your father after all this time. Not to say there aren't going to be adjustments that will have to be made, but--" He stroked his foster son's hair. "But we both know I've never pretended to be your father. I couldn't. He always held a special place in your heart, a place I couldn't enter. So I didn't try. I just did the best I could and left it at that. If you've found him again, then no one's happier about it than I am. Because maybe now you can let go of some of that--hurt inside of you. Besides," he ruffled Peter's hair playfully, "maybe he'll have better luck keeping a rein on you than I've had."
That made Peter smile and he sniffed away his tears. "I doubt it. He seemed pretty surprised I was a cop."
"Well, then maybe between the two of us...."
"Oh great, you're gonna double-team me now?"
"Whatever works, kid." Paul chuckled.
Peter smiled, too and Paul could feel him relax a little. He looked into Paul's face, seeming to search out some specific emotion there. Paul couldn't tell what he was looking for, nor whether he found it. But Peter said, "I-I love you, you know--no matter what."
Paul returned the smile, along with a squeeze of his foster son's hand. "I love you, too, son. And I always will. No matter what."
They were still smiling at each other when a sound behind them made Paul turn around.
"I am sorry, I did not realize you had company," the man in the doorway said. "I will come back later."
"No! Stay-- Dad--" Peter stretched his good arm out, reaching toward his father. "There's someone I want you to meet."
Caine nodded and approached the bed--and Paul. Paul remembered seeing the man outside the brownstone during the fire, but hadn't noticed too much about him at the time. He was tall and lanky (now I know where Peter gets his long legs, he thought), with straight longish graying hair. He was dressed in neutral colors, with a cloth jacket and a satchel over his shoulder. Sandals were on his feet, a felt hat in his hand. He looked like a drifter--a vagabond. Paul had to admit that if he'd encountered the man on the street, he'd be more apt to look the other way rather than risk getting hit up for spare change. And yet here he was. Peter's father. Kwai Chang Caine.
Peter was continuing. "Dad, I want you to meet Paul Blaisdell, my captain. He's also m-my--my--" Peter stammered, as if unable to say the words within his father's hearing. Paul's heart went out to him.
"Your foster father," Caine completed for his son, nodding. "I am Caine." He bowed.
Paul forced his best smile. "Pleased to meet you," he extended his hand, "I've heard so much about you."
"The honor is mine," the priest took Paul's hand in a strong clasp. "I owe you a great debt," the other man continued.
"How so?" Paul frowned.
"For looking so well after my son," the priest replied simply.
Paul smiled. "Well, I'd like to tell you it was no trouble, but--"
"But I know my son," Caine replied, and Paul could hear the amusement in his voice, see the twinkle in his eye. "I know that Peter can be more than any one person can handle--both man and boy. I was fortunate to have the resources of the Temple to rely on."
"And I've got the police force," Paul added. The two men shared a smile. Caine was not your ordinary drifter, that much was clear. He had a quiet, understated way about him that somehow carried the impact of several more powerful men. Paul surmised that Kwai Chang Caine was not a man to be trifled with.
And yet at this moment, the look on his face was pure, unabashed love as he gazed at his son in the bed. It was a look his son returned, though leavened with more than a little awe and fear. Paul remembered Peter's telling him once about a dream he used to have at the orphanage, in which he'd dreamed the destruction of the temple, and woke up to find that everything was whole and well again. And how much it hurt to wake for real to find that that was a dream also. Peter looked like he was afraid that this, too, was only a dream. And tomorrow he'd wake up to find his father still as dead as he'd ever believed.
Paul blinked himself back to the present. "Kid, I've got to get going," he said.
Peter looked stricken. "So soon?"
"No rest for the wicked," Paul smiled. "And I've got to tell your mo-- tell Annie about all this."
"Oh my God--she'll freak." Peter seemed not to have thought about his foster mother's reaction heretofore. "What will you tell her?"
"I'll think of something. Unless you want to tell her yourself."
"No, you can," Peter answered, seemingly relieved. "I--I wouldn't know what to say."
"Your wife?" Caine asked.
"Um-hmm," Paul nodded. "Peter's foster mother."
"I, um-- I c-call her Mom, sometimes," Peter stammered, as if expecting his father to be angry.
Instead, the priest just smiled. "That is good. All boys need a mother. Even the ones who are all grown up."
Peter smiled at that and Paul couldn't help a chuckle, thinking about Peter's reaction whenever he was with Annie--it was as if that past thirteen years never happened, and he was fifteen again, learning about mother-love for the first time in his life. Peter was unabashedly devoted to Annie and tended to turn into a puppy at her feet.
"You know she'll want to talk to you," Paul told his foster son. "It was all I could do to convince her that you'd be out of here before she'd have a chance to come down. She'll want to see for herself that you're still in one piece--not to mention grilling you about the rest of it."
"I know. I'll talk to her. Once I'm out of here."
"How 'bout, when you get sprung, give me a call. I'll have someone drive you out to the house. She'll get in her mothering and the third-degree all at the same time. What do you say?"
Peter looked from Paul to his father and then back again, when it was clear his father wasn't going to comment. "Yeah, OK," he nodded, "that'd be fine."
"Good. I'll let her know you're coming."
"I don't want to stay overnight, though."
"You get to fight that one out with her," Paul told him.
"Aw, come on, Paul--"
"I'm sorry, Peter, but what she says, goes. I learned a long time ago it's better not to argue with Annie when she makes up her mind about something."
Caine, meanwhile, was watching the exchange interestedly, a small smile on his face. "Was he always this stubborn?" Paul asked.
"Yes," the priest nodded. "But it sounds like--your wife--has him well under control."
Paul laughed and Peter had the good grace to look affronted.
"I'll see you later, kid," Paul reached down and squeezed his foster son's shoulder. "Take care."
Peter just nodded. Paul turned to Caine. "Caine--I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of you."
"Yes," Caine bowed, then took the proffered hand again in a handshake.
Paul smiled at Peter and winked at him, hoping to ease the look of apprehension he saw there. It was as if Peter was afraid to be left alone with his father. Well, perhaps not afraid. Maybe just nervous. Fifteen years was a long time--a lot had changed. Peter wasn't a twelve-year-old boy any longer. And Caine--Paul could sense a certain haunted feeling to the priest. The past fifteen years had been difficult for both of them. He turned to leave.
"Captain--" Caine's voice called him back.
"Thank you," the priest bowed. And just for a moment, Paul Blaisdell understood many things in that thanks. It was the thanks of a father who has just been reunited with his son--a thanks that his son was well and alive. A thanks that he'd been taken care of by loving parents. A thanks that that care continued to this day. And a thanks that Paul knew when to make an exit--leaving a father time alone to get to know his son. Paul simply nodded to the other man, then left the room, glancing back at the last minute to see Caine holding his son's hand securely--the first hint of nervousness and uncertainty from the priest. Maybe the man was human after all.
Paul took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as he walked down the corridor. What a hell of an afternoon. Finding that Peter's cover was blown, learning that he'd been shot, and then Peter's bombshell-- He hunched and straightened his shoulders, dispelling the tension there. Then he found the nearest phone booth. He was grateful it was the old-fashioned type, with a bench and a door that closed. Paul closed the door and settled himself in the booth, dialing his number.
"Babe? It's Paul. I'm at the hospital. No, he's fine, they'll be letting him out later today and he's gonna come out to the house. But I've got some news. Are you sitting down?"
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