He heard the loud report of the gun firing straight ahead of him. A heartbeat later, he felt the impact, and in a blinding, white-hot explosion, his world end.
The incident had taken place over two months ago. Two months he had lain in a coma, unresponsive, closer to death than to life. And, every single day since that awful time, Detective David Starsky had visited his fallen partner. Every single day the dark-haired cop had been filled with the wrenching dread that he could lose his best friend forever and yet, he stubbornly clung to the hope that this was the day when Hutch would wake up.
Starsky had been told by the experts that there was nothing more they could do for his partner, so Detective Ken Hutchinson had been moved to a long-term care sanitarium, where he could be monitored and cared for by professionals used to dealing with comatose people.
The two had made legal guardians of the other, so that if situations like this ever arose, they could be handled without any fuss. Starsky had reluctantly agreed to the move.
It broke the brunet’s heart to think of his vibrant, full-of-life partner the way he now existed. Hutch was a tough cop but a gentle soul by nature. He was one of the good guys and didn't deserve what had happened to him. But, as a cop, the curly-haired man had all too often seen that it was the innocent that suffered the most. It wasn't that Hutch was innocent, of course. As a cop, he saw the seamier side of life and still willingly put his life on the line every day of his life, on duty and off. But it burned Starsky to know that there were so many sllimeballs walking around out there, wreaking havoc on other undeserving souls, while people like Hutch were one heartbeat away from being taken from this world.
The doctors had told Starsky that Hutch was lucky to be alive. The bullet had entered the left side of his brain and lodged there. It had taken a delicate, five hour surgery to remove it while keeping further damage to a minimum.
There had been so many explanations afterward. Major areas of the brain that would have resulted in instant death had been avoided. The fact the bullet hadn't crossed the midline of the brain into the right side had also meant that a certain death had been averted. They explained that the brain was a remarkable structure that could often make one part of itself take over the function of another injured part. Redundancy was the term Hutch's doctor had used on more than one occasion. It only remained to be seen how damaged Hutch's brain was and how well it could heal itself, if at all.
On the other side of the coin, the same doctors had refused to give out false hope. Kenneth Hutchinson could make a full recovery, or remain in a coma the rest of his life, or he could die tomorrow. Or possibly, the blond detective could wake up but not be the same man he had once been. That last prospect frightened Starsky more than anything.
For several weeks, Hutch had been hooked up to monitors, IV tubes, a ventilator, wires going to various other machines, all the usual life-saving and life-maintaining machinery at the disposal of mid 1970's medicine.
The blond was young and physically healthy, and gradually the machines and tubes had been able to be removed. Only a feeding tube, inserted directly into Hutch's stomach and a catheter remained, the only essential items needed to sustain the comatose man. At that point, it had been decided it would be best to move him to a long-term care facility.
Starsky was glad that Hutch was no longer hooked up to all those devices he so hated, but the thought occurred to him that the medical staff was unable to help his partner, so they were throwing him away to be dealt with by others. It was irrational thinking he knew. They had saved Hutch's life, and for that he was eternally grateful.
Starsky soon saw that the people here at the new facility were good to Hutch. They bathed him, washed his hair, shaved him, turned him frequently to minimize bed sores, massaged his muscles and flexed his limbs to help delay them from atrophying. Everyone was friendly, and it was obvious that they cared, but after three months, nothing had changed.
Each day, Starsky would walk into Hutch's room, sit by his bed, take his hand and talk to him. Mostly, he told the blond about his day at the precinct and what was happening on the streets and with their friends. He would even read articles about some of the offbeat subjects the brunet was always bending his partner’s ear about. He'd have given anything to hear one of the caustic remarks Hutch had often made in return.
As time went on, Starsky began to wonder what good it was all doing. Hutch couldn't hear him, didn't even know he was there. But, he knew that as painful as it was to see Hutch in his current condition, it would be far worse not to see him at all. In the end, though, the brunet felt that his best friend was slipping away a little at a time. And each day, Starsky felt another small piece of his own life being torn away.
On a Monday morning in late April, almost five months after the shooting, Starsky woke up, sat up in bed to stretch and was suddenly horrified when he realized he had not visited Hutch since the previous Thursday. He had met a new girl he was beginning to really like, and the two had planned to spend the weekend at a place her brother owned on the beach south of Bay City.
He had picked her up after work on the previous Friday, and they had driven down, had a great weekend and came back reluctantly, since both had to go to work this morning.
Starsky was mortified to realize he hadn't even thought of Hutch the whole time he was away. He felt like crying, as a strong sensation of betrayal washed over him. "Oh God, buddy, I'm so sorry."
On the drive to visit Hutch that afternoon after work, which he left early, he was filled with remorse. How many more times would he forget? Would his visits start to dwindle, seeing Hutch once a week, then once a month, then...? As painful as the thought may be, was he truly prepared to sacrifice his whole life to be at Hutch's side while his friend languished unaware in a coma?
The doctor had told him that Hutch could remain like this for years. Would Hutch want Starsky to continue the way he was? He could almost hear the blond's voice in his head saying: "Don't forget me, buddy, but let me go, and go on with your life." Yet, could he force himself to do that? Would Hutch do that if their positions were reversed? The painful questions bombarded him from all sides.
When Starsky pulled up into one of the parking spaces outside the red brick building, he switched off the engine but made no move to get out of the car.
How could he face Hutch without feeling like moving on would be a form of abandonment? Another irrational thought, but one that prickled at his mind nonetheless.
With slow measured steps, the brunet made his way to Hutch's room. Taking a deep breath, he entered and, as always, sat next to his best friend and held his hand.
"What happens now, partner? I know what I want to happen. I want to see you open those baby blues and recognize me. I want to hear you call me 'Starsk'. I want you to tell me you're coming back to me, back to us. I want you to let me know that Me and Thee are as solid as ever and eager to hit the streets again - together. But, most of all, Hutch, I want you to still be you."
Taking another deep breath, Starsky squeezed Hutch's hand in both of his. "Please, Blondie, give me a sign that you can hear me. Please." There was a pleading and a longing in the request that would have brought tears to the eyes of anyone who heard them.
But, the hand that Starsky held remained limp and unresponsive. "Please, wake up, Hutch," he begged again. "I miss you, buddy. I need you."
When he looked at Hutch's eyes, he saw that they were open, but as the doctor had told him before, it was only an involuntary action that was common among coma patients but meant nothing. His heart sank, as it always did, whenever the unfocused eyes closed.
Then, Hutch's eyes opened again - and blinked.