6:24pm, by the bleary view of his phone's too bright screen. So not too long, apparently. Though, he figured long enough for a concussion... again. Was it bad that he had reached the point of familiarity with the symptoms?
His resting surface jounced beneath him – blurring the screen further and forcing a wince at the increased stabbing sear twisting through the exact center of his forehead, cheek, jaw, and left shoulder. Oh, hey, he had bars! Sweet!
So the first couple of attempts his finger missed the screen – leaving a semi-transparent red smear across the glass. Attempt tres landed on a certain name with alarming accuracy – why the HELL hadn't he deleted her number?? Equally fast hang-up wasn't fast enough as he heard the shrill squawk from the other end just before he managed to disconnect the ill-fated call... followed by a blazing fast redial on her part which – no matter how dire his surroundings nor how frightening the patch of cooling wet around his dented skull – he waited it out as the, no doubt, profanity-laced voicemail was left. At least the hiccup allowed his vision to clear a smudge and, finally, on like, the eleventieth try, he made fingertip contact with the sweet, sweet name he'd so urgently been trying for.
Only one ring before...
“You have reached Burton Guster's phone. If this is a fiiine, lonely lady lookin’ for love – please stick around for my personal number at the end of this recording. If you're calling for Psych, please leave your name, number, and a brief description of your problem and I'll get back to you in a jiffy-” Shawn mouthed the word “jiffy” with a sickened curl to his lip, “If this is Shawn? Dude, I know you're the one who ate all my chocolate Teddy Grahams! The next time I see you I'm sticking my foot so far up your ass you're gonna taste recycled polyester for a week...!”
Shawn pondered whether the threat was literal or figurative through the rest of the extended recording – grateful to still have a bars when he finally heard the beep.
“You are gonna kick MY ass? Okay, dude, take a breath! Those cookies may have been in a locked drawer but there was a box of paperclips, like, right there on top of the desk which you and I both know clearly constitutes an open invitation. Besides, there's still half a box of Grahams behind the 'Superman Four, Quest for Peace' DVD on the third shelf down, next to the TV, at the Psych office so quit bellyaching you big baby! On a related note, I'm probably going to need you to put on your Superman cape and come get me. As soon as I figure out where I am... Good news? I'm almost done with my Christmas shopping. Bad news? It's possible I might be kidnapped. I dunno – things are kinda hazy between going to the store and getting thrown in a trunk. Oh! Did I mention I was locked in a trunk again...?”~*~*~
Twenty minutes and thirty seven seconds before 5pm...
dun dun dun...
dun dun duuun...
...more or less. He wasn't actually certain about the numbers but it sounded pretty impressive in his head. Actually, it sounded kinda “Gus” in his head. Gus had a thing for precise times. Shawn thought it went beyond the average level of nerd and encroached into spazz territory. Why was he thinking about this at all, though? Right... because he still hadn't picked up a gift for his best buddy in the entire world and it was fast approaching closing time for the area businesses. Of all the freaking times to decide store clerks deserved to spend the holiday with their own families! As if making double time wasn't worth more than a pair of crappy socks wrapped in elf print paper. Speaking of which, he hoped his dad appreciated the effort he'd gone into getting those moisture-wicking wool socks “guaranteed to stop odors in their tracks”. Truly, they were a gift for everyone in the old man's circle.
Parking was a challenge in front of the tiny GameStop – even for his bike. Nestling in the narrow space between a dented Suburban and lime green SUV, Shawn hung his helmet on his handlebars and stuffed his gloves in his jacket pockets while hopping on the sidewalk. Actual bells on the door made their metallic clamor as he started inside – only to get shoved back out again by a clutch of 18-somethings hugging large boxes on the way to their battered Civic. Lip curling down, Shawn rubbed the shoulder that had been bashed by one of the hooligans and made a second, successful, attempt. Great, not only was Gus snidely correcting his mental speech, but now Pops was peppering his brain matter with his archaic, old man, terminology.
Eleven point three seconds after entering the store, the doors slammed open again under the rocketing form of Shawn's ramming shoulder – which, of course, hurt in the most bitchful way – which in no way undermined the glorious spinning leap from the sidewalk as he vaulted on one leg – arms spread to avoid the startled couple he nearly mowed down with his charge.
Remounting his bike was slightly (very slightly) less rushed. He'd made the mistake, no more than six times, of cowboying to the smooth leather seat only to suffer the immediate repercussions of such rash decisions. With regard to his more tender elements, he swung a leg over the side and crammed on his helmet before kicking back the stand and revving the bike to a roar.
His Christmas curse, it seemed, was holding strong. Not as bad as discovering a dead body and having Gus's parents arrested for murder – nor as emotionally draining as that little snafu of a secret recording that led to Pops taking a page from “It's a Wonderful Life” and wishing him dead... Okay, not dead, per se, though certainly out of sight out of his mind. Not even as unjustly unjust as Gus shoving their lifetime of carefully-cultivated friendship into an itty bitty box and burying it behind the shed under six feet of packed soil and and leftover kitty litter from their three-legged feline, Teeny Turner who'd mysteriously gone missing one summer in ‘87, only to turn up at the start of the school year dragging along 6 kittens that suspiciously resembled the neighbor's Siamese panther mix, Dugan, all over Shawn's single night of meaningless debauchery with Joy. The point being, it was Christmas Eve and, instead of kicking back with mulled wine and his dad's prize-winning beef roast, he was chasing down thieving scoundrels with a taste for his best pal's Christmas gift in their hot, greedy hands!
The petulant anger rant in his brain ramped up to new levels of belligerence at the red light and thick cross traffic – his quarry on the other side of Main and revving uphill – away – and very soon out of sight unless this damn light...
Inches from losing his headlight skirting around one slow moving Honda, Shawn opened up the throttle and shot after the last known location of the evil-doers.
Blind corner after blind corner – each one slowing him further with the hopes of a heroic gift rescue dwindling to coal-like lumps in the center of his belly. Maybe Gus would like one of the three coupons in his wallet for a free waffle fries with the purchase of any fish sandwich at The Deep Dive Diner.
In those 30 seconds, dwelling on deep-fried cod and the center of emptiness in his dinner-deprived belly, Shawn nearly rear-ended the car sitting at a dead stop in the middle of the road.
Good news? It was the guys he'd been chasing.
Bad news? The driver was getting out. Also, he had brought along a hammer. Okay, so Gus could have all three of the coupons... Shifting in reverse froze mid-motion at the hard tap in the middle of his back. Long fingers reached over his shoulder and clawed beneath his chin; ripping away his helmet and dragging a rough fingernail up his cheek, leaving a red sting along with his angry shout of pain.
“Dude, seriously?” Angled look over his shoulder to see the meathead looming at his back – brass knuckles cocked shoulder height.
“Nighty night!” The fist swung.
Thankfully, he was completely unconscious by the time his skull cracked against the pavement.~*~*~
“...Good news? I'm almost done with my Christmas shopping. Bad news? It's possible I might be kidnapped. I dunno – things are kinda hazy between going to the store and getting thrown in a trunk. Oh! Did I mention I was locked in a trunk again...?”
Gus blinked – attention, mostly occupied by the vat of his father's famous Caribbean spiced rum meatballs, snapped back to the phone at that little tidbit. “What!?”~*~*~
Shawn felt, all things considered, that he was an expert on the most comfortable trunks for kidnappings and/or body stashings. That first car, back in his underage training days, had seemed enormous. Granted, he'd also been only about 4 feet tall at the time so most things had seemed enormous to him. Space, it turned out, was key. As a kid, there'd been no problem rolling on his back and kicking out the tail light. It hadn't even required that much force. Like popping out a rotten tooth. The second time, the space had been smaller. He'd also been hampered by duct-taped wrists, ankles, and, oh, that actively-bleeding bullet hole in his left shoulder. Still and all, he'd managed his escape with minimal fuss. The fact that he'd been recaptured later was neither here nor there and certainly didn't count so far as his actual escape went. It had been two against one - who was very injured and sleep-deprived and wobbly from thirst, hunger, and blood loss. Had he been able to first restore himself at a churro stand, no doubt the circumstances would have gone a lot differently.
It had been an unfair disadvantage... was what he was saying.
THIS trunk, though... So, not terrible if one needed a place to store something like, stolen loot, for example. This thought came in conjunction with a large, well-constructed box, flipping across the small space to collide with the back of his head as the car made a violent yank to the left.
“OW!” It was kind of his captors to forgo wrist-taping so he could cradle the fresh, bleeding, injury just behind his right ear. Never mind the equally fresh, bleeding, injury to his face. Nothing like the taste of one's own blood to stir the appetite. Or gag reflex. He'd heard it both ways.
A hard yank in the opposite direction sent both himself and the box slamming into the... wall? Bulkhead? Inner chamber of the not-quite-spacious-enough trunk interior.
Okay, he really needed to swallow his tiny amount of pride and call for some Lassitarian-flavored backup considering his best pal was probably elbows-deep in the dinner he'd spent the entire last two weeks salivating about. A dinner, incidentally, that Shawn was supposed to also be elbows-deep in at the moment. Also, also, it would probably only be at the third refill that Gus would start to show any true concern at his buddy's late arrival. Unless, of course, he'd taken the time to scrub savory sweet rum sauce from his fingers and check his voicemail.
Vision even blurrier than before, Shawn squinted his way through his contacts list. A moment of debate – Jules or Lassie – before going with the former. Both would feel compelled to lecture (not without just cause, of course). However, Juliet would save it for after his rescue whereas Lassie was more apt to rake him over the coals mid-danger AND post-danger. Shawn was all about minimizing lectures.
Which was why Pops wasn't even in the running for a call.
In any event, he'd just tapped Juliet's name – hearing her lovely, yet harried, voice pick up on the other end, “Hey, Shawn – sorry, I'm kinda in the middle of something. Can I call you back?” when he heard something else – just outside his enclosure. Sirens.
Grinning, Shawn made himself as comfortable as his could on the thin, patchy carpet.
“Jules! Sweetie! I have a feeling I know exactly what you're doing right now! Also? You are going to laugh, so hard, when you hear where I am...”~*~*~
She wasn't laughing. Not even remotely. Instead, her hand clenched on the phone, still held to her ear while her boyfriend began an involved monologue about the fries at In-N-Out Burger – praising their length while griping about the “boneless” flavor – whatever that was supposed to mean. Not that Juliet didn't agree; their fries were notoriously awful.
“You have GOT to be kidding me!”
Lassiter flicked his attention – only for a fraction of a moment – away from the vehicle in front of them to give her a look of blended excitement and aggravation. A not uncommon look for him, most of the time, to be completely honest. Smooth highway became ill-tended dirt when their quarry chose to break for it down a narrow side road lined with too-close trees. Back wheels kicked rooster tails as they careened after the perps, throwing Juliet against the side window – a muted yelp through her phone speaker letting her know Shawn hadn't appreciated that violent turn either.
The words were there – just beginning to slide off the tip of her tongue. Whether they'd have made much difference, had they been spoken, she'd spend quite a lot time pondering in the following weeks. She obsessed that way. The funny thing, though, was in those weeks she'd have a harder time remembering exactly what she'd been planning to say. A warning. Some sort of warning.
The headlights of the racing car suddenly shot towards the sky – high beams reflecting paper-white silhouettes of the clustered trees. The confusing wrongness poured fragments of thought – was there a hill she hadn't noticed? Was another car coming at them – a tall car? A semi? Even the ludicrous, certainly Shawn-inspired silliness, 'aliens?' skidded past like a nervous giggle. All that in barely three seconds – heart roaring to freeway speeds at the reality. A sharp corner lost in the night – going to fast to see – they'd lurched over the embankment, missing a tree by inches, and gone airborne upon hitting the ditch on the other side.
“Oh my God!”
Blasphemy overlapping as Carlton slammed the brakes to the floor-mat – sedan skidding across gravel still kicking billowed dust by the previous vehicle.
No way to follow save by foot – the two of them ripped out of their seatbelts and left doors hanging in their wake. Nothing ahead but black woods and, most bizarre, dead silence.
Carlton, gun in hand, took two steps forward – eyes scanning left and right.
“Where the hell did it go!?”
Juliet jogged towards the embankment – seeing, upon approach, just how steep it was. Skidding and sliding to the bottom of the ditch, she and her partner shoved their way through broken grass and torn up earth. The climb back up the other side was even worse – forcing them to holster their weapons in favor of handholds – puffing their way to the top.
Trying to catch her breath, Juliet was mute at what they found on the other side.
Twenty feet away, just beyond a narrow strip of weed-choked shoreline, the car was sinking, nose-first, into a pond.
Not one for stunned silence Lassiter spat out something unrepeatable and elaborately descriptive. Already running forward mid-curse, Lassiter freed his radio for a fast call before ditching it on the bank along with his jacket and weapon. Juliet was on his heels – sloshing towards the passenger side door already a foot below the water.
Shawn was the only person in her mind – the perps taking a backseat for rescue. However, she couldn't save Shawn without accessing the trunk latch – freeing the idiots who'd created this whole disaster. On the driver's side, Lassiter had produced a collapsible baton, swinging hard at the rear door window. It took five hard strikes before it finally shattered – water pouring through the opening. Already screaming for help, the two inside shoved at one another – swinging hard at the rear door window. It took five hard strikes before it finally shattered – water pouring through the opening. Already screaming for help – the two inside shoved at one another as they clawed into the back seat. With the equalization of pressure, Juliet was able to pull open the door on her side – just a trace of her brain mentally eye-rolling at the two perps still trying to cram themselves through the jagged opening Lassiter had created rather than simply opening the doors.
By this point the car had sunk even further – a sudden drop yanking the door right out of her hands and tearing three nails in the process. The two crooks, now above water and sputtering through their tears, were doing more splashing than swimming as they tried to get to shore. Lassiter was easily able to get ahead of them – a necessary move as their weapons were still on the bank.
Scraping wet hair out of her eyes, Juliet pulled in several deep breaths as she prepared to dive under the dank water.
And then she heard it.
Faint – muffled beneath the water – the tinny pounding of a fist – frantically beating the lid of the trunk.~*~*~
Anxiety had been riding in the trunk for most of the ride – fluttering somewhere near his left knee. Not too bad, all things considered. This wasn't his first carnival ride. Granted, that was probably the reason for the little tremble in his fingertips. On a related note, he could confirm, completely, that he really did not like trunks. All that aside, it wasn't until there was a violent THUD – followed by belly-dropping weightlessness, that he felt real, heart-crushing fear.
He didn't get to enjoy the landing for more than a breath – the slam back to earth throwing him hard against the roof of the trunk and killing the lights.
The next thing to wake him was wet. Everywhere wet. Panic flooding his brain with the pounding terror, “shit – that's a lot of blood!” only to to have seconds of relief that his entire body cavity emptied of fluid couldn't produce that much viscera – followed by even more panic at the realization that the car was sinking. Fast.
Her body twisting through the side door, Juliet could already feel the low burn in her chest from held breath. She'd been prepared going under. She'd been able to take several deep breaths and she knew her limits (two minutes and forty-five seconds the last time she'd tested herself at the gym). Only a minute and a half, though, and already she was aching to shoot to the surface. Fear stole oxygen just as quickly as her fight with loose seatbelts and the mess of floating boxes and empty food wrappers filling the space with blinding clutter. Right hand gripping the steering wheel, she pulled her shoulders into the front seat – feeling around for the trunk release. Somewhere... somewhere... There!~*~*~
Under threat of a bullet to the chest, Lassiter had gotten the two sobbing idiots to hug a thick and prickly pine – cuffing both wrists together before jogging back to the lake's edge – calling dispatch only to hear the sirens – immediately followed by the reflecting blue and red on the trees lining the road.
Knowing he'd need to direct them, Lassiter trembled with the white-hot urgency to charge back into the pond after his partner.
There was no sign of her. No sign of Spencer. The surface of the water was a mirror – the ripple of their movements already smoothed away.
Where the hell was she!?
The hell with this!
“Dispatch, this is Lassiter! Tell the approaching units I'm going back in!”~*~*~
Juliet yanked the release again and again – her lungs feeling like heavy bags of cement. She'd have screamed had she had the breath to spare. She yanked a fifth time – a sixth – a seventh...
Arms wrapped around her legs and she really did scream – a curtain of bubbles spilling from her lips as she was hauled back out of the car – a vise on her arm dragging her up – up to the surface – gasping in rough pants as they broke the surface.
Carlton was next to her – spitting water – lips blue. “Come on!”
They paddled to the rear of the car where only the top left edge of the trunk still poked above the surface. The trunk was still latched. The sound of pounding had stopped.
“Take this!” How in the hell her partner had managed to swim back out with a huge rock in his hands she didn't have time to ponder. Only a second to worry about the lack of leverage, Juliet gaped when Lassiter dove beneath her – his shoulders rising beneath her to lift her up at least a foot.
She could now hear the officers calling from the shore, but the only thing that mattered was the two men depending upon her strength to save them both.
Wobbling as she heaved back, Juliet slammed the sharpest edge of the stone against the trunk latch.
A large bubble of water welled out as the latch finally released.
Diving from Lassiter's shoulders – letting him kick back up – Juliet heaved the lid open as high as she could.
More hands were there then, as rescue personnel came in from the side. Their united efforts felt around the trunk interior until they found a sleeve – and then a shoulder – dragging free the loose form.
Juliet's teeth chattered as they paddled and splashed and staggered back to the embankment – Shawn dragged along at the center of the group.
She hugged herself as her feet dug into hard dirt. She took little notice of whoever put a blanket across her shoulders. She only saw Shawn, laid out on the dirt, while someone she didn't know forced air into his lungs, counted out the seconds, and then breathed again.
Lassiter moved next to her. The first warmth she felt was from the arm he laid across her shoulders.
The next burst of warmth came when Shawn lurched – vomiting water, before falling back against the earth with ragged gasps.
Securing a neck brace and moving him to a backboard, the paramedics carried Shawn back across the bank – through the ditch – and up the other side to the ambulance.
Five other officers dealt with the two perps while Lassiter gathered up the gear they'd left on the shore – handing Juliet her phone and weapon while they followed after the EMTs.
Only when they were actually in motion – adrenaline seeping out through her fingertips – did anything else occur to her.
“Oh my God... I have to call Gus!”~*~*~
He was floating again.
His throat was a raw tunnel – competing with the raw dryness of his nose.
Three days... maybe four.
Someone was holding his hand.
He didn't hear weeping so it probably wasn't Gus. He didn't hear an irritated lecture so it probably wasn't his dad. Lassiter did not hold hands.
“Hey, Jules.” Voice skipping like a bad record – chalky articulation was soothed when fingers brushed his forehead.
“How are you feeling, today?” His blinking cleared most of the smear from his vision – Juliet's eyebrow rumple pulling up the corner of his lips.
“I am awesome. Ready for the next Ironman competition. You can be Pepper and Gus can be Rhodey.”
Her rumple became a smirk as she leaned in to kiss his forehead. “And what about Carlton?”
Shawn phapped his lips. “Duh – who better to Hulk it up?”
Giggling, Juliet kissed him again. “You know, I actually think he wouldn't mind that.”~*~*~
6 days, give or take 24 minutes, before he'd finally been allowed to go home. Cracked jaw, broken molar, moderate concussion, plus an array of bruises and contusions. At least he wasn't on crutches.
Additionally, he had, in fact, gotten 5 lectures. One from Juliet, one from Gus, one from Lassiter, and two from his dad.
Considering he'd spent Christmas in the ICU, it had been just a tad much. Especially considering this had all started due to his nigh-superhero compulsion to rescue Gus's gift from rapscallions, he felt a little gratitude was due.
“I'm sorry, buddy. It wasn't what I'd planned to get you.”
Wrapping scattered at his feet, Gus held the small game device in his hands – mouth slack and eyes filled with a suspicious shimmer.
“Shawn... this... this is... Oh my God!”
The vintage Gameboy had seen better days. White casing scratched and sporting a long crack down one side – amazingly it still worked. It had cost the remainder of their take for the last job along with a significant amount of haggling on his part.
Okay, actually, he'd walked up to the pawn shop owner and slapped five large on the counter before asking “How much?” Apparently, he'd had exactly the right amount.
“Shawn... this is incredible!” That eye shine was getting a little drippy.
“So you're saying you don't hate it?”
Arms wrapped him in a bear hug – squashing barely-healed lungs and making his head throb from the pressure. And, yet...
“Merry Christmas, buddy.” Clutching back – maybe a little tighter than usual, Shawn grinned over Gus's shoulder. His eyes also a bit suspiciously shiny.
“Merry Christmas, Shawn.”
Maybe it wasn't such a terrible Christmas after all. He hadn't died, and Juliet had promised to make up their own Christmas celebration with him later that week. His dad, between lectures, had baked him a pineapple pie. Even Lassiter had stopped by the hospital to imply, in his own irritated and grinchy way, that he was filled with holiday love and gratitude that Shawn had survived. All in all, it could have been worse.
Maybe... just maybe... Christmas was more than gifts and feasts... maybe, just maybe... Christmas was about something more...
Yeah, right. It was ALL about presents and feasts!
And definitely still cursed.
Just to be clear.