THE GIFT FROM HELL: A NEW BEGINNING
This story was “born” on 14 Sep 2009. While this was the 45th anniversary of the premier of Voyage it also would have been my mother’s 84th birthday. I lost her when she was only 67 and every year on her birthday I honor her by spending the day listening to her favorite singer, Jim Reeves. Anyone who is a fan of Jim’s knows that he can, in his singing, make you feel all the emotions of a song. Somehow, in the collision of the sadness of many of those songs, missing my mom, and Voyage, this story pop into my head and I had to get it down before it disappeared. It was another 6 months before I felt brave enough to submit it to SubPen. It wasn’t until a just a few weeks after her birthday in 2010 that I came to believe this story was a gift from my mother; preparing me that day when circumstances finally required me to reveal a secret she had entrusted to me when I was 17, and had kept all those years.
Lee Crane stood next to the freshly dug grave thinking absently that it really is a lovely day for a funeral. The sun is shining very brightly yet the temperature is pleasant. A very slight breeze is rustling the leaves of the trees just enough to remind everyone that the world is alive. The fact that he had just formed those thoughts jerked him back to reality. The world wasn't alive; at least it wasn’t for him. He heard a slight sniffle from behind him and knew it was Chip's oldest, Maggie, just fourteen. Chip put his arm around her and drew her closer. She’d been especially close to both her Uncle Lee and Aunt Beth and had insisted she was old enough to attend the funeral. Is anyone really ever old enough to go through this? questioned Lee to himself. He and Beth were close to all five of Chip and Anne's children. There is that word. WERE. Past tense. Not ARE. Never again we are...
In an act of self-preservation, in order to keep functioning, Lee's mind drifted away from the ceremony again as he wondered what it would have been like if he and Beth had been able to have children. Beth couldn't and with her hectic schedule as a top notch corporate lawyer and his running The Institute, they never had much time to notice their nest was empty. His love for Beth was so complete he didn't feel a need for anything more. But he was feeling the emptiness today. Not that he could handle the grief of a young child on top of his own at this point. It was just that life now seemed so final, so... ended. For the first time in his life he felt old. Children force you to look to the future. No children, no future. A dead end, that's what he was. He was acutely aware he had a lot fewer years ahead of him than he had behind him. He wondered how he was going to survive loosing two people so close to him in little more than a year. He felt so useless, wasted, used up, empty.
Lee glanced over at Admiral Nelson's grave and wished fervently that Nelson could have been here to help him get through this. When the doctors had told Beth time was getting very short she had insisted on discussing her burial wishes. She and The Admiral, always Dearest Harri to her, were very fond of each other. Since Beth had no family of her own she embraced the ‘Institute’ family surrounding her husband, especially the father/son relationship between Nelson and Lee. Beth wanted to be buried near her Harri. The lawyer in her took over and she'd made all the arrangements. Lee knew she was trying to spare him as much pain as possible. He could barely speak with her about it so Beth confided in Chip and Anne. In the past few days he was just going through the motions. He signed where they said to sign and went where they said to go.
God, would this service never end?
It was then that Lee noticed the young man standing near Nelson's grave but facing the funeral party. He looked familiar. It took a few moments before his slow neural pathways linked and the connection was made. He thought the young man had been one of the pallbearers at Nelson's funeral. When he finally retired from The Institute, Nelson had taken a teaching position at a military prep school. To keep myself active and young by being around the young, he had claimed. If he was going to teach, Annapolis wanted him back, but Nelson said he wanted to influence the minds of even younger students.
Cadets from the school formed the honor guard and pallbearers at his funeral. Lee had been impressed with their bearing and professionalism. Despite the fact that all the cadets were grim that day Lee noticed, or felt, that one young man seemed to be suffering more than the others. While never breaking military decorum and protocol, Lee sensed a kindred sorrow, even at a distance. He wanted to speak to the cadet that day but there were so many people demanding his attention; Nelson’s Navy comrades, scientists, former students, politicians, and, of course, just about all of NIMR. Even a few heads of state or their representatives were there. There was Nelson’s younger sister, Edith, to worry about, as well. Originally, Nelson had always talked about a burial at sea. Then a few years ago he had changed his mind, but he still had wanted a simple funeral with a simple gravesite. Well, you got half that day as your grave is no more extravagant than the others in this section, Lee reflected. But with the number of people there, the boy got lost in the shuffle and forgotten. By the time Lee thought about him again the cadets were back at school and he was busy back at work. Not much later Beth took ill and the boy was totally forgotten. Here the boy was again at Beth's funeral; at least, he thought it was the same boy. He seemed a bit taller than Lee remembered and in a civilian suit instead of a uniform. But why? Was it just coincidence? Did he just happen to be visiting Nelson's grave on the day of Beth's funeral? He hoped the boy would stay around long enough for him to find out.
Lee sensed rather than heard that the service was over. People were hugging him, offering words of comfort. As soon as there was a break he looked over toward Nelson's grave. He was disappointed to see that the boy was gone. Turning to Chip he asked, "Did you see the young man standing by Nelson's grave watching us?"
"No, wasn't paying attention. Maybe just someone visiting another grave; got curious."
"I think he was one of the pallbearers at The Admiral's funeral. Something strangely familiar about him."
"Well, he doesn't seem to be anywhere around now. Come on, we'd better go if we're going to get to the house before everyone else starts arriving." Chip put his hand on Lee's shoulder guiding him to the car.
The Mortons were hosting the reception after the funeral. Anne’s two sisters were there with the younger children setting it up. The younger children had insisted on going to the funeral, as well, but they were appeased by the pleas of their parents to help set up the very important reception. They took to the task with the serious diligence their father had shown in his years as Executive Officer of Seaview.
It wasn't a long trip but Lee didn't remember a minute of it. In fact, he didn't remember much of the rest of the day. Nothing anyone could say would ever make him feel any better. He just wanted to get home and be alone. Yet, that was the last thing he wanted since Beth would never be there again. He wanted --- what he could not have.
Finally, enough people had left that he could also take his leave. Chip and Anne were not happy about his insistence he drive himself home, alone. The journey from Chip's to home was another blur but the car had made that trip so many times over the years it was as if it could find its way without him.
The motion sensor lights came on as he drove up and he'd left an interior light on but the house still felt dark and sad. He was dead on his feet but wasn't sure he could sleep. One thing he did know, he couldn't sleep in the bedroom. Not yet. He stripped down to his T-shirt, slacks and socks, got a beer out of the fridge, plopped onto the sofa, and turned on the TV to some mindless dribble; just needing the noise to fill in some of the emptiness. That's where fatigue finally claimed him and he fell asleep.
Two days later, Monday morning, he was back at work coping with everyone insisting he take more time. Truth be told, he needed work. It was all he had to ease the futility he felt. His mother was still living on the East Coast, unable to travel much now and he had never been able to convince her to move to Santa Barbara. Chip's was the closest he came to family nearby, and right now he only felt like a bystander looking in on them. He just didn't feel connected to anything or any one, at least not in the world of the living. He’d never given any thought to what life would be like without Beth until she’d gotten sick. Now it was all he could think about. Everywhere he turned in the house was a reminder of what he had lost. It was less painful at The Institute.
When they found out that Beth couldn't have children, it was a disappointment at first; but they so loved each other they still felt blessed instead of denied. Besides, Beth would joke, when we want to hear the pitter patter of little feet, we can borrow the Morton brood. They often did for a weekend, giving Chip and Anne a couple of days off. However, by Sunday evening they'd be exhausted and would jest they needed to get back to work on Monday morning so they could get some rest.
Lee became aware of Chip leaning on the door jam to his office, both arms and legs crossed. Looking up he asked, “Problem?"
"Not unless you count the fact that you look like hell."
"Then don't look at me," Lee said more sharply than he had intended.
Chip unwound himself and entered the office. "Lee ---"
Lee raised his hand to stop him from finishing, "I know you mean well, but I'm not in the mood."
Chip pressed on anyway, "Look, I won't even pretend to understand what you're going through." Then more softly, "We just can't stand the thought of loosing you, too."
"I'm not going anywhere," Lee replied as he leaned his head in the palm of his hands.
You already have, thought Chip. He perked up with a new idea, "Lee, why don't you spend some time on Seaview. You haven't been on her at all for months and haven't sailed with her since before Nelson died."
Lee looked up with just a spark of interest. It had been a long time, he realized. NIMR had added two more subs over the years, increasing an already heavy workload. The new subs could go faster, dive deeper, but nothing could ever take Seaview's place in his heart. The idea was tempting; it would keep him out of the house for a bit.
While Seaview had taken just as many bruises and broken bones as the crew over the last couple of decades, to Lee she was just as beautiful as the first time he'd seen her. O'Brien was her captain now and had been for several years, but he still maintained a cabin on her as The Admiral had. They tried not to push her to the limit unless necessary, instead treating her like the respected older lady she was. Maybe some time with her was just what he needed.
“Alright, I'll do it if you think you can hold down things here for a few days. She leaves tomorrow on a six day round trip to resupply Platform Nine."
"No problem. A few days away will do you good. Why don't you go home now. Pack, get some rest. You're making me tired just looking at you."
"Ok, just as soon as I finish this report."
Chip knew the report Lee was working on wasn’t due for another two weeks, so in his best Mr. Morton voice he emphasized, "NOW! Do I have to pull rank on you?"
"I'm the oldest friend you've got. In some universe somewhere that has got to equate to me out ranking you."
"Chip," Lee whispered softly, "you and Anne are the only friends I've got left."
It made Chip's heart sink to see how isolated Lee had become if he thought that. But, all he said was "Out then, before you stir my wrath."
Lee closed the file, turned off the computer, locked his desk, grabbed his service coat, headed for the door, and said, "Aye, sir! Right away, sir!"
Chip grinned as he watched Lee retreat down the hall. It was good to know he hadn't lost the 'Mister Morton XO touch'. He left to personally inform O'Brien of the plan. Chip knew O'Brien had become almost as good as he was at reading Lee. It was only a six day cruise but he wanted O'Brien to keep him posted.
Lee let his assistants know where he would be and made his way out of the building. He knew Chip was right, as he normally was when it pertained to his welfare. Plus, he had to admit things usually went badly when he ignored Chip's apprehension about something. His car was turning out of the gate only a few minutes later, the way home so familiar he wasn't paying attention. That is, until he caught a glimpse of a car parked across from the gate. Lee thought he saw the young man from the funeral sitting in it, watching him as he drove past. By the time he had been able to turn his car around and check, the man and the car were nowhere to be seen. Not sure he had really seen what he thought he’d seen he sighed, Chip is right, I need some rest.
The following evening Lee sat in the nose of Seaview, simply staring out into the semi darkness. He closed his eyes for a moment absorbing the sounds and even the scent of the men and Seaview. He was in the arms of the other woman that he had truly loved and he had to admit, it felt good. As he sat there unwinding one muscle and nerve at a time he realized just how utterly tired he really was. It was still early when he got up, let O'Brien know he was turning in and climbed the spiral steps to his cabin. O'Brien voiced a silent prayer that Lee could get a peaceful night’s rest. As Seaview's gentle motion rocked Lee into a deep sleep, O'Brien's prayer was answered.
Lee spent the six days roaming through the boat and reminiscing with those still left from ‘his’ crew. Everyone on the boat was well aware of the man’s sorrow and tried to remind him of better times without being too obvious about it. The old crew regaled those who had not served with ‘Captain Crane’ the adventures of Seaview during her prime years. Sparks, now in charge of all NIMR communications, was on board for this trip, testing new equipment. As Seaview’s radio operator, Sparks was always privy to communication coming in and going out of Seaview. In his little alcove just off the Control Room, he had an ear to what was going on there as well. As such he’d had more knowledge of events than he ever let on. This became apparent now as he added his take on many of the events that the crew experienced through Seaview’s adventurous life. Of course, there were those things that went beyond Top Secret to Seaview Secret. If they were spoken about at all it was only with the crew who actually witnessed the event.
Since the Seaview could still be called to active duty in time of need, the regular crew all had to retain their reserve status. However, Sharkey had been promoted to Chief of Public Affairs at NIMR, one of Nelson's last official acts as head of The Institute. Lee had his doubts at first but he turned out to be a natural. The public ate up the chief's jargon whenever a little humor was desirable, but he could also be very serious and sincere when needed. Short story, the public both loved and trusted him. Kowolski and Patterson were now both chiefs with Kowolski as Chief of the Boat. However, after so many years together as best friends and crew mates, it was sometimes difficult to determine who was actually in charge as they functioned so well as a team. Stu Riley surprised everyone when he went back to school to become a teacher. However, several other members of ‘Crane’s’ crew were still with her, which made Seaview an excellent instrument for training new hires before assignment to one of the newer subs. There was nothing like a few months of Seaview duty to indoctrinate a new crew member into NIMR attitudes and traditions. Old as she was, many of them were reluctant to leave her once their training was completed. She just had a way of instilling that much loyalty.
As a passenger instead of the Captain, Lee had more freedom to blur those lines between command and crew. Not that they hadn't been blurred already from so long ago. One big difference between Seaview and a regular Navy vessel was the infrequent transfer and rotation of crew from boat to boat. While this may have slowed what most active Navy personnel would have considered career advancement, the Seaview crew did not feel that way. The reward was a unique relationship with the boat and fellow crewmembers few regular Navy ever experienced. Lee certainly felt this way with Kowolski and Patterson, and the feelings were returned. How many times had he saved their lives and they, his? How many times had they all and Seaview saved the world? Trust. That's what he felt with this crew, at least with his life if not his deepest feelings. He did have to admit, however, that he sorely missed having Sharkey, Chip, Nelson, Riley, and yes, even Doc Jamieson on board.
The six days passed quickly and were completely uneventful. Lee pondered that. Seaview seemed to have a lot more uneventful missions once he gave up the command of Seaview. Had he been the danger-magnet, not Seaview? With the number of men he had lost over the years that train of thought pained him so he pushed it out of his mind.
While the trip on Seaview cleared his mind and reenergized him a bit for work, it did nothing for him at the house. That is how he’d come to think of the place he lived; the house, not home. He coped by sleeping in the guest room, eating out, and generally staying in the house as little as possible.
Sometimes he thought he was loosing his mind as he felt someone watching him; someone in particular, the young man at the funeral. Lee got glimpses several times over the next few weeks but when he turned to get a better look, the boy was gone. He knew ghosts existed. Could that be what he was seeing? Was he really seeing the boy from Nelson’s funeral or something else? He did not know which he preferred, a ghost or loosing his mind.
Five weeks after Beth's funeral, on a bright clear Saturday morning, he decided once again he'd rather be in the office than in the house. He opened the door to leave and what he found stopped him cold. Sitting there on the bottom step was the young man from the funeral, the one he felt following him. He had on jeans, running shoes, a dark blue T-shirt, sunglasses that tapered around to the side obscuring the eyes, and a baseball hat with a Seaview patch on the front pulled low over his eyes. It was an older hat, one they'd sold in the gift shop at NIMR years ago. There was an empty water bottle sitting beside him.
Angrily Lee said, "Who are you? Why have you been following me?" Then a little more softly, "How long have you been sitting out here?"
The boy, Lee had decided he was still more boy than man at this point, looked straight ahead and answered, "To answer your last question, about an hour. Trying to work up the nerve to ring the doorbell. As for your first question, that will take a little more explanation." He held up a large manila envelope Lee hadn't seen before. "Show and tell time if you're ready for some answers."
Lee nodded and whispered, “Yes.”
The boy held up the empty water bottle, "Refill?"
"Kitchen." Lee pointed with a jerk of his head.
The boy got up, walked past Lee and headed for the kitchen. He was slightly shorter than Lee but still tall and lean.
The boy filled his bottle, placed it on the kitchen table, and then sat down putting the stuffed envelope in front of him. Lee stood on the other side. "Answers," he flatly demanded.
"Please, sit down. This might take a while.”
Lee sat. The boy took off his sunglasses, but kept his hat on. Opening the envelope and taking out papers and photos, he pushed one over to Lee. "Recognize her?"
The hair was different and so was the clothing, but she was unmistakable. A face from so long ago. "Maria," Lee whispered, as he felt his breath catching in his throat.
The boy said flatly, "She was my mother. And you — you are my father." Taking off the hat the boy looked up and Lee saw his own eyes looking back at him.
Lee's hand shook and he felt sick. Nineteen years ago he had visited hell and now the living outcome of that was staring him in the face, waiting for his next move. "Was?"
"You said ‘was’ your mother."
"She died five years ago."
It was hard for Lee to think. Too many questions colliding with too many memories. "Start at the beginning. When? Where were you born? How did you get here?" He paused to catch his breath. "What’s your name?"
The boy pulled a paper out of the pile and handed it to Lee. He could easily tell it was a birth certificate. He naturally looked at the space for father which only listed ‘unknown Crane’ and nothing else. He then looked at the space for child’s name and his eyes widened. "Benjamin Lee Crane. You're named after me? How did your mother know?"
"Ad...?" Lee couldn't get the words out.
"He not only felt responsible and guilty for what happened to you, but Mom, too. He kept tabs on her. When he found out she was pregnant he wondered if the baby was yours. He came to the island to find out and convinced her it was my right to be born in the states. She didn’t want to leave the islands but finally agreed. He pulled a few strings and she came to live in northern California where I was born. He took care of everything. She became a dance teacher in a small studio and I grew up a typical American kid. Well, almost typical."
Lee’s head was spinning. "Why didn't they tell me?"
"My mother didn't tell you to protect me. He didn't tell you to protect you."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"Well, in the beginning they didn’t know whose child I would be. Figured I would be yours biologically, but didn’t know if anything of Kruger would be in me." Lee shivered at the name. "Plus, Mom didn't want me to grow up seeing your feelings for Kruger in your eyes every time you looked at me."
"And The Admiral?"
"Basically the same thing. He didn't want to see you hurt every time you looked at me, remembering what he did. And even if you never were around me he figured just knowing I existed would keep the wound open. He couldn't stand to think of you going through that. He couldn't take seeing over and over how much he had hurt you."
“I forgave him a long time ago."
"He never really forgave himself. He was ‘The Admiral’ after all. He always thought he should have been able to find another way to defeat Kruger without hurting you. He also told me that you had such an overgrown sense of responsibility that you’d have forced yourself to be there for me, no matter what the cost to you."
"It’s amazing how he kept it all so secret. I just can’t believe he did that,” Lee said shaking his head slowly. “Did anyone else know?”
“His personal lawyer and, of course, not the whole story. And Edith.”
“Not everything. He told her I was the result of a mission that had gone very badly, she assumed an ONI mission, and that telling you would cause more harm than good. She argued with him about it occasionally but you know how head strong he could be.”
Lee nodded in agreement. “That could be one way of describing him.”
“I think he only told her because of finances.”
“While we lived modestly he was spending a lot of money on Mom and me over the years. Plus, there was quite a sizable trust fund set aside for me so it wouldn’t come up in the will. All hush, hush. Lawyer took care of all of it. Edith just needed to know where some of the money was going that would have been hers. I don’t think she ever had a problem with that part of it; just his not telling you. When Mom died she pushed him again. Then when he died she approached me about it. I, very politely, of course, convinced her that it was up to me. If I decided to do so, it would be in my own way and my own time. She said I’d inherited a strong stubborn streak from the both of you.”
Lee ran his hand over his hair, shaking his head in disbelief. “Did he see you often?"
"As much as he could; he was a busy man. My mom made sure I understood that early. But there were long weekends. Vacations in places where he usually wouldn't be recognized. We took camping trips where there wouldn't be a lot of people. Whenever we were together and there were going to be people around he wore disguises or something so as not to look or act like Admiral Harriman Nelson. He called regularly. We never called him. If we needed him we contacted his lawyer. No one in the town where I grew up knew who he really was. He always wore a disguise and the story we stuck to was that Mom was his daughter from a short lived liaison while he was in the Navy visiting the islands. I was also the product of the same kind of short lived relationship. Mom didn’t like how that made her look to other people but it was better than the truth. I was hit by a car when I was little. Mom said he almost blew his cover that time, dropping everything else to come see me in the hospital.”
Lee remained silent but nodded his head for Ben to go on.
"He really did think of me as his grandson and treated me as such. That was natural since he loved you as his son.” Ben hesitated a moment. “I hope you knew he couldn't have loved you more if you were his own flesh and blood. He said watching me grow up, he felt he knew what it would have been like watching you grow up. Said I was a lot like you, both the good and the annoying."
"Yet he kept you a secret all those years," Lee replied with a little edge in his voice.
"We all keep secrets, even from the ones we love most. He thought he was protecting you. Look, he may have been 'The Admiral' but that didn't make him perfect. He said you knew that better than anyone."
"Pretty wise stuff from an eighteen year old." Lee said a little more sarcastically than he'd intended.
Ben barely suppressed his smile as he replied, "I had a damned good teacher."
"So what did he tell you about me? You seem to know a lot about what happened."
"They both tried to be up front with me over the years about who I was and why I was, especially when I started asking questions. But how do you tell a little kid he was born because you shot your best friend so an evil ghost could take over his body. The story of Kruger started out as just one of his stories, a Halloween ghost story. He told it each year adding more detail. I was almost nine when I finally figured out the story wasn’t just a story and that it was why I was born and why I was your son. He’d told me the story all those years hoping that when the reality of the truth hit me it wouldn’t be such a shock. They wanted me to grow up as normal as possible, considering the circumstances. Better to grow up with it a little at a time so it would feel normal. Yeah, right. Normal,” Ben snickered. “Ironic, in order to protect you from the truth, I couldn't be. I won’t lie, it was a heavy burden for a kid but he told me I came from strong stuff. I never wanted to let him down so I dealt with it best I could. Most kids dream of having a little high drama in their lives; I dreamed of the opposite. Sometimes my school friends would tell me about arguments their parents would have. I always wondered what that would be like, a mom and dad arguing. Weird, I know. I guess it was like people that are in a witness protection program. Can’t be yourself and always afraid someone would find out about you.”
"Did he really think I couldn't handle it? I would have been OK. It wasn't your fault what happened. It still doesn't make sense why he didn't eventually tell me."
"The longer they didn't tell you the harder it was to tell you. You keep a secret too long and you have to keep secret the fact that you've been keeping a secret. I told you, he really did love me as his grandson. I was the result of what he and Kruger had done to you. In the end he was afraid for you to see just how much he loved the result of his betrayal, me. He was afraid you’d think he was glad he had done it.” There was a long silence before Ben continued. “I told him once that I thought shooting you was the bravest thing he’d ever done."
Lee was shocked by that statement but Ben pressed on. “Look at it this way. If he hadn’t shot you, you still would have been dead along with the whole crew. Even if someone managed to find and salvage Seaview, the whole crew would have been dead. Kruger might even have destroyed Seaview or taken her for his own uses. After that incident, how many lives did Seaview and her crew save? How many times did you all save the world? Not only would I never have existed but there might not be a world at all today.” He paused wondering if anything he was saying was getting through. “He wasn’t the first in history forced to sacrifice his son for the greater good. He risked everything that day. His own life would have been meaningless to him if he hadn’t gotten you back alive. His freedom, his reputation, his self-respect, his sanity. It would all have been gone if he’d lost you. Knowing the hell you would have been in, he wouldn’t have been able to live with it.” Ben paused but he was on a roll so he pressed on with his point. “He fired at you from near point blank range, right?” Not waiting for a response, Ben continued. “Did you ever consider that he could have fired a more fatal shot? What he did bought time to save you and Seaview. He would never have given up the search to get you back, or at least free you from Kruger. Even if they had put him in prison he would have paid anything for someone to find you and free you somehow. You have to know that somewhere inside you.”
Lee couldn’t answer. He just nodded his head.
Ben paused, wondering just how much to tell Lee. "Did you know he kept a very personal journal?"
“No. Never gave it much thought. He was a pretty private man, even with me. I know he kept a personal ship’s log. Subject never came up.”
"This was a more personal journal never meant for the public record. When I was little he would tell me stories from it about you and Seaview. Now, when I was real little I believed everything he said about monsters, aliens, ghosts, and madmen. Then when I got a little older I thought he was adding most of that up just to make the stories more interesting. But that wasn’t the part of the stories that became important to me, anyway. He told me how brave you were, how hard you worked, how much you cared for Seaview and the crew. He was very proud of you. It made me proud to be your son even if you didn't know I existed. I bugged him endlessly for more information. I wanted to know everything about you. Not just what you were like, looked like, but what kind of place you lived in, what your office was like, your car. What you ate, drank, dressed like. I wanted to know everything about you. When you got married I even felt a little betrayed. Disappointed that it wasn’t my mom. When he died I inherited the journals and read them all. I found out that he had put a lot more of himself and you in them than just his stories. I grew up not knowing you as the son knows the father but as the father knows the son."
The thought that this kid might know as much about him as The Admiral had, made Lee uncomfortable, so he changed the subject. "What happened when your mother died?"
"We had moved by then, not far. I wanted to attend a military prep school, not a regular high school; a naval prep school to be exact. Mom and Granddad had taught me to stay low key so as not to be recognized, but, surprisingly, this was one of my wishes he gave in to. I was still in middle school and a day student instead of a boarding student. My mother insisted on that. I was so proud to wear that uniform!" Ben paused for a moment lost in a memory.
"Didn’t the school get suspicious when Admiral Nelson paid for a Crane to attend?"
“I wasn't the only Crane he sponsored." At the puzzled look Lee gave him, Ben went on. "I started bugging him about my wishes when I was ten years old. Gave him plenty of time to plan, and plan he did. He set up an anonymous scholarship program and had a search team run by his lawyer looking throughout the country for potential candidates. It wasn't easy looking for them instead of just announcing the criteria and letting them apply to him. All the candidates were qualified to attend in every way. He also had some of his oldest Navy friends keeping their eyes and ears open, some even contributed to the scholarship fund, not knowing what it was really about. They’ve even kept it going after he died. I'm still surprised how well it went. He started the program two years before I enrolled. There were scholarships awarded to a Crane, Morton, and/or Nelson each year. Sometimes there would be a surname from the rest of the crew, especially those that had died. None of them knew it was their name that got them on the list of candidates. It's a fairly large cadet body. We were spread around. No one really noticed the concentration in names. In addition, he had made generous donations to the school. It was all set up so that if anything about it ever was made public he could claim it was just an old admiral's whim and I was just a kid that got in because my name was Crane."
"I'm beginning to think I hardly knew the man,” Lee said, shaking his head. “Go on."
"Mom was killed in a car accident not long after I started my freshman year. It was raining; her car skidded off the road." He paused, lost in another memory. "The school couldn't very well refuse when he asked for me to be changed from a day student to a boarding student in the middle of a semester. They didn't know I was any more special than the others, just one of his scholarship cadets that had lost his only parent. My mother’s will assigned his/our lawyer as my legal guardian but in reality, he was."
"So all those times he took off and wasn't specific about where he was, he was probably with the two of you. I remember about five years ago he was gone, probably when your mother died, when he came back he was very preoccupied with something. We never knew what it was. Then he surprised us all by retiring from the day to day running of The Institute and wanted to just serve in an advisory capacity. We were floored, especially when he said he was going to go teach at some military high school,” Lee said. Running his fingers through his hair again, he continued. “It's all starting to make sense now."
"Without my mother there he felt I needed him around more. He was right, of course, even though I tried never to burden him about it. If anyone at the school wondered why he took an extra interest in me, he was just looking out for a student who was an orphan. I'm surprised all the subterfuge worked, but it did. Guess it was because we'd been at it so long. But I have to say, it did help having him so close, even if I had to pretend in public he was just a favorite mentor. There was a great deal of hero worship for him from all the cadets, so mostly, I was just acting like everyone else. Plus, he was a really good teacher and took an active interest in a lot of cadets, not just the Cranes, Nelsons, and Mortons. It was good for me, too. Watching him interact with other people, especially cadets, I got to see him as a person, not just as my grandfather. The downside was my lost contact of you, since his interaction with you was severely cut back to just his visits and the phone calls he made to you. It was that way for most of the boarding students and their parents so I was a normal cadet in that way, too. Besides we were kept pretty busy. Not a whole lot of time for thinking about things lost." Ben smiled. “My attendance at the school did give me the chance to finally visit Seaview. He made arrangements each year for the top five cadets from each high school class to tour NIMR and Seaview. I worked my butt off to make sure I was one of the five. We figured with twenty cadets all dressed the same I wouldn't stand out and be recognized.”
"I wondered why my office wasn't included in the tour. He told me teens weren't interested in administrative offices. Now I see he just didn't want me running in to you."
"I got to see you from a distance one visit. Felt kinda weird."
Ben paused and his face became dark and somber. He looked down as his lower lip quivered. "Then came the stroke that killed him. I know he was an old man by then, but there was such steel in his personality, I never expected...."
"I know what you mean," Lee replied, sharing a moment of understanding.
“I was totally alone."
"Why didn't you come to me then?"
"I’d spent my entire life being taught to protect you from the truth. You think it was easy to just change that mindset? What was I supposed to say? Hi, Dad. Remember Kruger? Well, he left you a little present you didn’t know about. Me." A long pause, then, "Actually, I thought I was protecting his memory." Ben shook his head. "No, that wasn't it either. I was afraid. Afraid if you found out the truth, you'd reject me. As long as you didn't know, then I still had my fantasy. I couldn't handle rejection just after loosing him."
“You lost both your mother and him so close together," Lee said softly.
"Just as you lost him and your wife so close together."
"At the funeral, you stood out. I -- sensed that there was something a lot stronger about the way you were feeling compared with the other cadets. I wanted to talk with you after the funeral, but there were so many people there. I was a little numb and just went with the flow of them. I can't imagine what it must have been like, how hard it must have been for you. You couldn't even acknowledge what he meant to you."
"So why now? What's changed that made you tell me now?"
“He died a few months before graduation. School was all I had left. I worked hard at it to keep myself distracted. Then at graduation the other cadets had family, friends. Edith came but it wasn’t the same. She’d spent a few holidays with us but we weren’t really that close. She was officially there because they were dedicating a monument to him. My legal guardian didn’t even come. Had his own son’s graduation to attend. I felt like there was no one there for me, just ME! I was so angry! Angry at him. Angry at my mom. Angry at you. Angry at everything. I only had a few more months ‘til I graduated. Why couldn’t he have waited until after to go? It all felt like a waste, all those years, all that studying. For what?”
Lee had no answers for him as Ben stumbled for more words.
“Angry at them both for leaving me. I was angry at you for not knowing. You could have checked up on Mom, too. She was Kruger’s victim as much as you were. If you had just gone back and asked about her -- you would have learned about me.” He stopped, putting his face in his hands, trying to regain his control.
Lee didn’t know how to deal with the sudden change in Ben’s emotions and he couldn’t help the bit of responsibility he was feeling. Ben was right. He could have gone to check up on Maria. Faced his demons instead of burying them away. Looking back now, he wasn’t really sure why he hadn’t. He knew he wasn’t one to run away from pain and difficult situations. The one time he really should have done something and he hadn’t.
Uncovering his face and lowering his voice, Ben continued as he regained control. “I took off after graduation. I’d already been accepted at several colleges but I hadn’t decided. School seemed pointless anyway.“
“Where’d you go? How’d you live?”
“I had money. He left enough of that. The lawyer managed the money. I used the credit card. He paid the bills. I just traveled. Didn’t matter where. Ended up on Mom’s island. Decided to see if she had any family there. At least, find someone that remembered her. I’d wondered why in all those years we had never gone for a visit.”
“Her parents had died before I was born. She was an only child. I found some of her cousins. On an island like that people tend to be related to everyone. I stayed for almost six months. Made some good friends. Gave me time to think, sort things out. It was relaxing. I didn’t have to hide, or pretend. It was good.”
“But you decided to come back, not stay?”
“It was nice, tempting. But it wasn’t who I was, who I wanted to be. I came back to tell you about me but when I found out your wife was sick, it didn’t seem right. So I waited. Still wasn’t sure it was the right time when I showed up this morning.”
“So who did you decide you wanted to be?”
"I want to apply to the Naval Academy. It’s what I've wanted for as long as I can remember. It was always discouraged because there was too much possibility of someone finding out who I am. You have to admit I look enough like you, and with practically the same name, even though it has father unknown on my birth certificate. Well, he didn't want to chance it. Since you still had ties to the Navy, even though it was only in a reserve status, it could've affected that part of your career. Plus, there's the extensive background check for the security clearance I would need in order to serve.” He rushed all of this out, hardly taking a breath, then more slowly. "I thought it would be better if I told you first.”
"Well, I'm retired Navy now and secure enough in my position at The Institute. I don't have to worry about any of that, do I?"
"I guess not."
"Is that the only reason you told me?"
"Yes…. No, I guess it isn't. I figure everyone is gone that it could hurt, 'cept you and me. I don't want to constantly be afraid to be who I really am. I'm a man now. If you don't want me around, I can take it."
Lee had to chuckle. Amazing how grown and indestructible eighteen year olds think they are.
"He left me enough money to attend school anywhere I wanted. I thought I’d enroll in a school near here for next semester. Just to be close. Maybe I was wrong for thinking that, but I really wanted to be close by. Whether you knew about me or not, you're my father. But it might not be OK by you."
Lee still wasn’t sure how he felt about that word ‘father’ but he finally got up the nerve to ask the one question most pressing in his mind. "So is there anything of...."
"Yes. Have you inherited anything from Kruger?"
"You mean controlling objects with my mind? Moving through walls? Forcing people to my will? No." Then grinning, "But I did learn German VERY quickly!"
Lee had to chuckle at that, then more softly, "What about your mother? Except for a very brief few seconds I only got to see her through Kruger's mind. By the time I was awake enough to be aware of anyone around me, she’d already gone back to the islands."
"I think I learned adaptability and sacrifice from her. She gave up the life she knew to give me the chance to be born and raised here. And forgiveness. Up until the cemetery she said Kruger was charming and kind. There was an instant attraction. It wasn’t until later when Granddad opened up and told her more about what Kruger had forced him to do, that she realized he had probably used his will to seduce her the way he’d used it on him to shoot you. That made her angry for a while; the thought that she’d been forced and it hadn’t been her free will, after all. Eventually she dealt with it by deciding Kruger was a sad, tortured soul and she forgave him. She told me if going through that whole ordeal was what it took to have me then it was all worth it. In the end I think she decided she did have some free will in the whole affair. She didn’t think he had the same powers when he was in your….. She said you were a pretty good looking guy and she was a sucker for a uniform. Anyway, that helped her cope.” Then he said with a grin. “Oh, yeah. Dancing."
"Dancing? What do you mean?"
"Let's just say if they redid Dirty Dancing I could easily play the part." There was a certain Lee Crane twinkle in Ben's eyes as he said this.
With mock horror Lee said, "But you're only eighteen! No son of mine will engage in such behavior until he is at least twenty one!"
With that Ben saw on Lee's face a sudden realization and a flood of different emotions; wonder, pride, curiosity and just a slight tinge of fear that the whole world had just changed. The same look Lee saw on Chip's face with the birth of Maggie. For just as no one can truly be prepared for the moment a loved one dies, neither can they be anymore prepared for that very first glimpse of their own fatherhood. While he was eighteen years old to the rest of the world, Benjamin Lee Crane had just been born to Lee Benjamin Crane. In near disbelief, almost as if saying it out loud would make it untrue, he whispered, "I have a son." Then just a little louder, "I - HAVE - A - SON." Then grinning ear to ear, "I'm a father!"
They spent the rest of the day into the late night talking like two old friends catching up on missing years, looking at the stack of childhood pictures Ben had brought, and swapping stories about Nelson. Fortunately, Lee’s twice a week housekeeper kept his freezer stocked with her own leftovers just in case he decided to eat in. They hardly noticed what they were eating as the conversation flowed on easily through the evening. Finally exhausted, Lee remembered how he'd first found Ben and asked "How did you get here this morning? I didn't see a vehicle."
"Parked the car down the road where you couldn’t see it. In case I chickened out. You caught me before I did."
"It’s late. Please stay. It'd be nice to have breakfast together. Any place you need to be tomorrow?”
"No, not really. Breakfast together would be super."
Lee was pleased he'd talked Ben into staying the night. He wasn't ready to give him back to the world. He needed Ben to be there when he woke up, just to prove it wasn't a dream.
Once he got his own stuff out, Lee got Ben settled in the guest room, loaning him a pair of pajamas, baggy on him but suitable. Then he had a decision to make, couch or his own bed. He decided he didn't want Ben to find him on the couch in the morning. Lee walked into his bedroom and stared at the bed. For the first time in weeks that actually felt like months, the bed invited and he accepted. As he drifted off to sleep Lee pondered the twist of fate. By trying to steal Lee's life, Kruger had actually given it back to him nineteen years later. A gift from hell. It meant he had a future after all.