The One Fixed Point in a Changing World

By J.H. Watson
(~ 2,000 words)

 

John Watson stood alone on the edge of a tor gazing across the bleak, isolated sweep of Dartmoor. Dark clouds roiled overhead as a chill wind nipped his ears. The binoculars dangling from their strap weighed heavily upon John’s neck and occasionally thumped against his chest like a hanged man on a gibbet. John glanced briefly at the map in his hand and then again at the panorama before him, trying to orient himself in this empty land.

“What’s that?”

John looked up to see his best friend and partner, Sherlock Holmes, standing atop a rocky prominence soaring above. Sherlock stood in a typical Sherlock pose, stylish black tweed coat flaring about him, making him look taller, hipper, cooler than other people without looking like an obvious plea for attention. His arm jutted straight out commandingly pointed toward the distance. There was no one but John around to see this dapper act of dominance. It both exasperated and pleased John.

One the one hand, Sherlock’s attempt to place himself in a literal ascendency above, putting John in the subordinate position, was annoying. On the other hand, the fact that Sherlock felt the need to put on this civilized equivalent of beating his chest, even without other spectators, showed he recognized John as another alpha male Sherlock wanted to impress.

John smile ever so slightly to himself at his analysis. All those Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder therapy sessions had not been entirely wasted.

John peered through his binoculars, consult the map, and replied, “It’s Moriarty. That’s an ancient name for the devil.”

Suddenly John was aware that he was not holding binoculars but a black mobile phone. From it came Sherlock’s voice, in a sepulcher whisper, saying, “Good-bye, John.”

John looked up as Sherlock spread his arms and took a step forward into the air. John yelled, “Sherlock!” and took his own step — into the Grimpen Mire. He struggled to pull himself out of clinging morass. He felt the cold, clammy, deadly grip of the bog as he struggled in the sucking muck, never taking his eyes off his friend plunging towards the black rocks below.

John stretched himself out across the ground, grasped a spindly thorn bush and heaved with all his strength. There was a stab of pain as he dislocated his left shoulder, but he was free from the mire. He stood up, and as he stood cradling his damaged arm against his body for support, he discovered he was no longer in civvies, but in his combat gear and there was blood spreading across his chest.

John took three steps towards his falling friend and as Sherlock hit the solid black ground, John heard a click beneath his boot and froze. A glance down confirmed that he’d stepped on a land mine. A slight reduction in pressure would detonate it, blowing him into a red rain that would soon be absorbed by the surrounding peat.

He looked at Sherlock lying on his back, still, pale eyes open to the sky, the haze of death already spreading across the corneas. John looked down once more, then at his friend where blood flowed from Sherlock’s head and streamed down the rocks, red on black, like a macabre parody of the black coat’s red button hole.

John sighed.

And lifted his boot —

He bolted awake, momentarily disoriented, his breath shallow and fast, matching the beating of his heart. A sheen of evaporating sweat cooled his face. John took several deep gulps of air, letting them out through his nose, but making a small mewing noise. Then he recognized where he was and lay back in his bed, draping his arm across his face to block the light, or possibly the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.

Despite the fact that there was no one else there, John still felt ashamed at the tears. He’d thought he was past the tears.

After a few moments, his breathing returned mostly to normal and he sat up on the edge of the bed. He looked around the small, plainly furnished room. The lights of London filtered in past the thin, cheap curtains casting a dim glow that allowed John to see his meagre possessions as if they were one of Whistler’s studies in grey and black. John sat there, listening to what passed for silence in London, particularly that part that he could barely afford to inhabit these days. Sirens cried in the night.

Eventually, his tears stopped and dried to a salty crust on John’s cheeks. He stood up with the stiff suddenness of a barely controlled marionette and then shuffled like an old man to the bathroom. He emptied his bladder, washed his face, stared at the face in the mirror for perhaps a minute, then shuffled back into the other room where he sat in his only chair at the table.

He sat in the dark and stared at nothing. When the new nightmares had begun, John would stay up watching TV, with the volume barely audible, so that he wouldn’t have to think. But the week before the flat had been robbed, probably by one his neighbor’s who swore they saw and heard nothing. Along with his TV, the thieves had taken his lamp, his microwave, his tea kettle, and the unopened bottle of single-malt whiskey Harriet had given him after he’d announced he’d given up the booze. He’d had his laptop, wallet and checkbook with him at the time. The thieves missed his service revolver tucked away inside a shoe box on his closet shelf.

Possibly they didn’t look inside because there was a skull sitting on top of the box.

So John Watson sat very straight and upright in a plain wooden chair in the dark trying very, very hard not to think about anything. Most of all he tried not to think about how very tired he was.

#

The surge of fear shot through Sherlock Holmes like a jolt of electricity. It felt like falling, always like falling, in a dream with that sudden awakening just before you hit. Sherlock jerked forward, then fell back.  The fear wrapped around him and squeezed like a giant boa constrictor, paralyzing him. His chest felt tight, he stopped breathing.

In a few seconds that seemed to last for hours, Sherlock was able to breath, reduce the rigidity of his limbs, but fear still embraced him. Slowly his cerebral cortex took back control from the amygdala in his limbic system, and Sherlock’s breathing returned to normal and the fear released its grip.

The anxiety attacks were always the same. Sherlock hated them. He hated the feeling of fear, the loss of self-control. The attacks always came just as he was about to drift off into sleep. Sometimes three, four attacks a night. Sherlock knew from bitter experience that it would be at least another ninety minutes to three hours before he had any hope of falling asleep again, assuming he didn’t suffer another attack then.

He sat up, turned on the bedside light, flipped on his computer, and recorded the attack in the journal he was keeping. Some day, if all went according to plan, Sherlock would shock his friend John Watson by revealing these records of his work and life, volumes and volumes of records, all in meticulous and scientific detail. Even his brother Mycroft had never seen them all.

Sherlock duly noted the date, the time, the environmental conditions, and a brief abstract of the psychological, neurological and physical responses including his pulse. He pulled out the blood pressure monitor he’d stolen from a nearby hospital, took his stats, and recorded them as well. Noting his dry mouth, Sherlock pause to take a sip from the glass of water he’d started keeping by his bedside shortly after the anxiety attacks had begun, roughly ten weeks before. When he’d nearly been spotted on the street by John Watson.

The attacks had gotten worse recently. Sherlock suspected the underlying psychological trigger was exacerbated by his idleness. He was having to wait before he could move his plan forward — and he hated waiting. But the trap was set, the bait dangling, and any movement on his part would risk giving away his presence and scaring away his prey. Despite what many people believed, Sherlock could be patient when it was necessary.

So Sherlock waited, trying to occupy his racing mind with whatever small problems, little divertissements, he could find. He’d put paid to John Watson’s drinking risk and seen to it that Mrs. Hudson did not lose 221 Baker Street to an unscrupulous Lothario. Even Molly Hooper was actually having a social life, of sorts, thanks to Sherlock’s fake online personas.

But it wasn’t enough to keep Sherlock’s mind sufficiently occupied — and so it turned inward upon itself.

Sherlock opened the drawer of the bedside table. He stared at the pack of cigarettes and lighter nestled neatly in the corner. He reached in and took out a book instead.

Reading helped sooth his mind. Not as much as playing the violin, but it was far too late for playing, and besides, he’d dare not risk being caught playing in his present identity. Sherlock glanced at the title and a small smile appeared at the corner of his lips. John Watson would be shocked to find Sherlock reading The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy by Donald Robertson. John considered him ignorant of philosophy.

But Sherlock had been doing a great many things recently more surprising to his friends than reading about stoic philosophy and behavioural psychology. If all went according to plan, Sherlock might even cook dinner for his best friend some day.

The philosophy had come from a conversation while Sherlock gate-crashed a conference about recent neurological research on applied psychology. Gathering information under stolen identity about his current target, Sherlock found himself in a conversation on the measurable damage done to the prefrontal cortex by sleep deprivation. He’d nearly given himself away when the cognitive therapist seated next to him said out of the blue, “You should really do something about your nocturnal anxiety attacks. While they might fade away with your grief, the damage to your cortex may be irreparable by then.” This had led to an deeper conversation, from which Sherlock came away with a list of recommended reading and a sample pack of zolpidem.

The zolpidem, like the cigarettes, remained unopened. The books were being systematically devoured.

The small travel alarm clock reported the passing of many minutes before Sherlock yawned. His eyes burned, dry and itchy, but his body was relaxed. Philosophy held no appeal, but the neurological research that correlated with the intuitive psychology of the Greek and Roman Stoics was interesting enough — under Sherlock’s present circumstances.

The ancient Stoics would have appreciated Sherlock’s present circumstances. While no one would ever have labeled him an optimist, Sherlock had always held complete faith in his ability to solve any problem and control any situation in which he found himself.

Until Moriarty.

It had been a close thing. Moriarty had nearly beaten Sherlock. Moriarty probably would have if he hadn’t been so obsessed, so overconfident, so sure that he was the more ruthless. But Moriarty had made a tiny mistake that cost Moriarty his life even as it cost Sherlock his reputation and identity. But Sherlock had lived. And so had his friends Mrs. Hudson, Greg Lestrade— and John Watson.

They had lived because Sherlock, like the Stoics, had anticipated the worst possible outcome. Sherlock thought of what the Stoic philosopher Epictetus once wrote. Whenever you grow attached to something, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away… Remind yourself that you love a mortal, something not your own; it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever, but like a fig, or a bunch of grapes, at a fixed season of the year.

If Sherlock was successful in his current work, he would be with his bunch of friends once again — at a later season of this year.

Perhaps, if he hadn’t become a detective, he would have been a philosopher. Sherlock flirted with the idea for a few moments, imagining his life expounding on the idiotic blindness of those around him, before tossing it aside and chuckling to himself. He did that already. Or rather he had. And if all went according to plan… He stopped himself. He was going around in pointless circles.

But the waiting was… annoying.

Sherlock lay in the dark and wondered what John Watson was dreaming.

### The End ###

 

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