Author’s Note: For rachel_wilder on the occasion of her birthday.
Jason gets the call right after Thanksgiving. It’s his Dad, and Jason knows his phone voice well enough to immediately sense that something is wrong.
“What is it?” he asks, his throat tight with a breath he doesn’t dare exhale.
“Tim,” comes the soft reply. And then, “I’m so sorry son.”
Jason’s mind races through all of the usual suspects. With Tim, there was always a laundry list of inevitable happenings—knocking some girl up, falling asleep drunk behind the wheel, getting into yet another fight that this time went too far. But for all the imagining of the wrong ways Tim’s life could end up, Jason never thought of this one.
“Prison?” he asks again. He knows without hearing the answer that this isn’t overnight in a jail cell. ‘Prison’ is the term reserved for serious crime.
Mitch replays the events leading up to Tim’s incarceration. Jason squints his eyes as if doing so will block out the weight of the words. It doesn’t work, and when Erin finds him in the front room 20 minutes later, he’s still sitting there holding his phone, even though Mitch has long said good bye.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asks, her voice soft as the feather-light touches along the back of his neck.
“No,” Jason replies. And no, there really isn’t.
Flying back to Dillon is no easy task for Jason. He has a job now, a new life with a girlfriend and a baby. He has responsibilities, something Tim has never known much about.
Jason doesn’t mean to be angry at his best friend, but he can’t help it. The rage is white hot and sits in his belly all day while he goes about his daily life. He changes Noah’s diaper and thinks, ‘Idiot, he should be changing Stevie, not rotting in jail.’ He pulls a beer from the fridge after a work-out and thinks, ‘Idiot, he should be fucking off doing nothing, not rotting in jail.’
His life has become inexplicably intertwined with Tim’s. Every action Jay takes means an equal and opposite reaction from Tim. Jason is free; Tim is imprisoned. Jason loves; Tim languishes. Jason aches to see his friend; Tim wonders if Jay’s forgotten about him altogether.
He pushes through Christmas and in the pristine white of a Connecticut winter, Jason feels the rage subside into something resembling want. He can’t put his finger on it, but he knows he has to go home. He’s been angry for too long; punishing Tim by abandoning him in his time of need. He buys a ticket and tells Erin he’ll only be gone a day or two. He calls his Dad and kisses Noah goodbye. Then he goes to see his friend.
The lack of snow surprises Jason when they exit the airport. You would think that 18 years of growing up in Dillon would have ingrained the lack of a distinguishable winter season into him, but one cold wet winter in the Northeast was all it took to scrub the Texas sun out of his soul. He wonders if removing himself from Tim’s soul was as easy.
Jason has written letters and e-mails. Billy swore he delivered whatever Jason sent, but there was never a word of reply back from Tim. Billy apologized, like it was his fault Tim was a stubborn mule, but Jason got where Billy was coming from. He felt responsible for everything that had happened. Hell—in Jason’s eyes Billy was responsible, and there was no way Tim should be bearing the brunt of this alone. But that was Tim and Billy, complicated and difficult, all wrapped up in one dysfunctional package.
He tries to think that Tim would never forget him, or push him away so easily, but when he looks up to see Tim crossing the prison yard dressed in pristine white coveralls, Jason shivers. The man before him looks like a ghost of the old Tim. It walks like Tim, and it looks like Tim…so it must be, Jason sing-songs the little rhyme about a duck in his head; but it’s a comfort only to himself. This is not Tim. The hair is the same, and the arms, always muscular, have only taken on more definition. But the eyes, once lively—with passion or anger, and sometimes both—are dull and shadowed. He sits down at the small table and stares straight ahead.
“Six,” he says softly.
And Jason knows that Timmy is still in there somewhere.
They get one more visit squeezed in before Jason has to head back to the airport. It’s awkward, they talk about everything and nothing, skipping around the subject of Tim like a game of monkey in the middle. When Jason finally releases the brakes on his chair to leave, Tim turns to catch his gaze.
“Thanks,” he says, his head nodding once in time to his offering.
“Of course,” Jason gushes, like there was another option besides coming. The guilt of making Tim wait almost three months before visiting is still heavy on his heart, and he can’t believe he was petty enough to attempt payback after all this time.
“Do you get down here much?” Tim asks.
“Sometimes,” Jason replies. “Maybe more in the fall…” his voice trails off. It’s too hard for either of them to think of the long months stretching out between now and the new fall season.
Tim nods though, and turns his head back to stare straight off in the distance. “You don’t have to come again.”
“No, but I want to. I’ll bring Noah and Erin sometime; he’s gotten so big.”
Tim stands and the guard heads over to lead him back inside. “Don’t,” Tim says.
Jason wonders if he’s talking to the guard or him.
“See you on the flipside, Six.”
And Jason knows Tim meant him.
Jason vows that he will ignore Tim’s demands and go to see him as much as possible. But life gets busy with work and Noah, and in the spring he and Erin decide to plan a small summer wedding. Just close family, at her parent’s place in Connecticut. The guilt of not having Tim there to stand by him as he states his vows is gut-wrenching, but his father stands in for the best man Jason always swore he’d have, and the day passes just fine without Tim’s presence. Just like every other day.
Jason doesn’t make it back to Dillon until a road trip sends him through Nashville that fall and a request comes in to add an extra stop in Dillon to try and sway Coach Taylor into a new job. Jason surprises his parents and spends a weekend stuffing his face with home-cooked meals while courting Coach with his best sports agent charm.
His plan is to drive up to the prison to visit Tim before his flight leaves, but that morning he stops back at East Dillon to find Coach and runs smack into Billy Riggins.
“Don’t bother,” Billy says when Jason suggests a visit.
His immediate reaction is to ignore what Billy says and follow his gut, but there’s a look in Billy’s eyes that says he’s seen the dark side of Tim. And he’s chosen to respect Tim’s wishes.
“Look, his parole hearing is coming up. The best thing you can do is be there, or write a letter or something. I’ll get all the details from his lawyer.”
Jason nods. He can do that, if that’s what Tim really needs, Jason will do that for him.
“Thanks,” Billy says as Jason finally turns to leave. “You know, for not giving up on him.”
But as Jason wheels away, that’s exactly what it feels like he’s done.
True to Riggins’ form, Billy neglects to tell Jason when the parole hearing is. The information comes in an e-mail from Coach Taylor the day after the hearing, hidden down at the bottom between his signing off and the East Dillon template signature.
Missed you at the hearing yesterday. Thought you would have had some good words to say for Tim. Went well though, nothing to do but wait.
Jason slams his hands down on his desk. Dammit anyway. Whatever guilt he has over being 3000 miles away from Texas is only magnified by his own ignorance at missing one of the most important days in his friend’s life. He calls Billy to blast him for not telling Jay in advance, but Billy is so friggin’ sad when he answers the phone that it’s hard for Jason to stay mad at him. He has to chalk it up to one more mark in the ‘Stupid Life of Billy Riggins’ column, but Jason manages to get a promise out of him that he’ll call the moment he hears Tim is to be released.
He contacts Coach to find out the same, and even swallows his pride and calls Buddy Garrity to get the same vow. Buddy may be a lot of things, but being a Panther through and through is one thing that will never change. In the end, it’s the call from Buddy that gives Jason just enough notice to get on a plane to Dillon before Tim actually walks through the doors of the prison.
Billy wanted to be there, but Jason, with Mindy’s help, wins out. Jason is parked at the gate when it swings open to spit Tim out onto the sidewalk. It’s just like in the movies, only missing the dramatic music. Tim looks lost, squinting up into the sun for a moment. All of his possessions are in a bag tucked underneath his arm, and he looks for all the world like the little 9 year-old showing up on Jason’s doorstep for a sleepover. No belongings except a change of underwear and a toothbrush, but free from his house and ready for a night of escape with Jay.
Jay honks the horn and holds up a hand through the open passenger window for Tim to see. Tim moves slowly towards the truck, stopping with his hand on the door handle as if he’s not sure the apparition of Jay is real.
“I had to borrow the truck from Herc, so you better not take all day,” Jason kids him. He doesn’t have an equipped vehicle he can drive in Dillon anymore, but Herc was still a reliable friend when Jason really needed it.
There’s a small smile on Tim’s face as he climbs inside and Jason pulls out without speaking and heads back to Dillon. There are a couple of words of small talk, but Tim seems lost in the scenery streaking by at 65 miles an hour, so Jason is content to let him have his peace. It’s the least he can do for him at this point.
When they reach the exit for Dillon, Jason asks where to first. But Tim instructs him to keep driving south. They pass the next two exists that would take them to other, equally familiar, parts of town. Finally Tim gestures at the exit ramp leading to the outskirts of the town. To farmlands and pastures, places Jason can’t imagine Tim has a purpose for heading towards. But he drives in silence, following Tim’s gestures and grunts as directions to get to their nameless destination.
Finally Tim says, “Right here.”
Jason pulls up next to a gated field. Beyond the truck windows are acres of grass-covered hills and clusters of trees. It’s fenced as far as Jason can tell, but for what reason he has no idea. It doesn’t look inhabited, and he can’t figure why Tim would ever want to come here first.
Tim climbs out of the truck and heads around back to grab Jason’s chair. Jason follows his silent lead and gets out of the truck, but has to rely on Tim to push him across the uneven ground toward the gate.
“What is this place?” Jason asks when Tim finally gets the gate opened and both of them through to the other side.
“Texas Forever,” Tim says softly.
Jason’s breath catches in his throat. He’s back to the night before that fateful game. Back to lounging by the fire with Lyla reclined in his lap, Tim tossing back beer after beer and waxing poetic about their hypothetical future once Jason made it big in the NFL. It was supposed to be Jay’s money that paid for the parcel of land. He was supposed to fund the venture while Tim took care of the property. Tim was supposed to be the…what was the word he had used?
“You were going to be the caretaker,” Jason says finally when his memory pops the word into his mouth unannounced.
Tim squats down next to Jason’s chair, picking up a handful of dirt and letting it run out through his fingers. He looks up at Jay, his face highlighted by the warm rays of the setting sun.
“I’m not much good for taking care of anything,” he says.
Jason looks out over the expanse, thinking of the dream Tim had for them. Of him and Lyla and likely Tim and some nameless girl here on this land together. It was a mixed up, twisted fantasy, but one that kept Tim going through the darkest patches of his life. And who was Jason to ever take that away from him?
Jason doesn’t know exactly how it’ll work, but he knows who the most important people in his life are. His wife, his son, his parents, and back to the very basics—Tim. Their lives have been inexplicably intertwined since the day they first met at football tryouts back in Pee Wee. Jason would no sooner forsake Tim now than he would his own son.
“It’s okay, Timmy,” Jason says, placing a hand atop Tim’s shoulder beside him. “I can be the caretaker now.”