Disclaimer: The Sentinel is a Pet Fly production. No copyright infringement intended.

Author's Notes: I recommend both Linda Barnes' Carlotta Carlyle mysteries, and Anne McCaffrey's Ship Who... books. For Ceci.

Small World



Online friendships begin easily enough. A mailing list. A private reply to a question onlist grows into a regular exchange, a chance meeting in an unrelated chatroom, the occasional instant message...

Amy had to laugh whenever she heard the so-called experts on the news refer to the dehumanizing and isolating effect of modern technology, specifically the internet. She could remember spending five years talking to nobody but her parents and the medical personnel involved with her care. It was still hard to meet people, they saw the chair more easily than they saw her, and it was hard for her to get past the pity in their eyes.

On the net, she didn't have to volunteer any personal information at all. So she didn't. And now there were thousands of people in several different countries that she corresponded with regularly... and a few locals. But she never mentioned that she lived in Cascade, WA... trying to duck a suggested meeting was too awkward.

She was online, reading some fanfic for a favorite canceled TV series, when the IM window opened. She smiled, seeing who it was from, and clicked to accept.

BJS: Heya Helva. How's it going?
Helva: Pretty ok. You?
BJS: Same old, same old.
BJS: So what did you think of the new Angie Ferris CD?
Helva: ick. Too much technopop. I like her old stuff better.
BJS: ;-) You sound like Jim about Santana's latest.

Amy wasn't really sure who "Jim" was. BJ seemed to be male, and lived with Jim here in town, but they weren't 'together', BJ had mentioned dating women too often. Or else they had a really open relationship. But since BJ talked about Rainier University, she figured they were college kids sharing an apartment just out of the dorms.

That was part of the fun, trying to piece together portraits of people from the tiny clues they revealed, even knowing that she was probably as far off as anything others assumed about her.

Helva: <g> Tell Jim he has good taste.
BJS: I will. He's working late. And I'm home bored, nothing on TV, nothing to read, surfing the net...
Helva: Didn't like any of the suggestions lately on the booklist?
BJS: Nah. Too much horror and romance. I'm a lite-or-cozy mystery and sci-fi kinda guy, remember?
Helva: You read Linda Barnes?
BJS: Don't think so.
Helva: Linda Barnes. A Trouble of Fools. Redheaded gal ex-cop private eye/cabdriver in Boston. Love interests: ex-partner Detective or white sheep of mob family. Kooky artist sidekick. Kinda Spenserish but trendy.
BJS: I'll look for it, thanks.

Amy yawned.

Helva: Signing off now. Long day.
BJS: Good night.
Helva: Night.

Amy shut down her computer, then wheeled herself into her bedroom. Brawny, her Helping Paws dog following. He'd been named Brownie by the trainers, probably trying to soften the pit bull's undeserved public image. She'd bent the name to a reference to her favorite science fiction books easily enough, and it fit. After all, she was the brains of the operation, and he provided the brawn.

She went through the whole rigmarole of getting ready for bed with the ease of long practice. Tomorrow was her day volunteering at the hospital gift shop and she wanted an early night.

She had her chair parked at the counter. It had been a usual day, doctors and nurses, techs and staff stopping by. A candleholder bought as a belated birthday present, gum for a recent nonsmoker, cough drops and candy. Visitors. A man with a foolish grin who bought the largest bouquet in the cooler and a teddy bear in a pink and white pinafore. A girl with long blonde hair who bought a Reader's Digest and a Crunch bar. She made change, small talk, gossiped with a couple of the staff members.

Half an hour before closing, two men came in. One was tall, well built, with short cropped brown hair and blue eyes, dressed casually in a light gray tee and charcoal Dockers. The other was younger, slightly shorter and more slender, with shoulder length curly brown hair and blue eyes, wearing jeans and a loud plaid flannel shirt open over a black T-shirt. They went directly to the newsstand.

Both of them a treat for the dedicated people-watcher of the female persuasion. Brothers, she decided. Same coloring and an ease in each other's company. It was quiet, and the men were speaking normally, so it wasn't really eavesdropping to listen in on their conversation.

"So Rafe's going to be okay, though, isn't he?" the younger man was asking.

"Yeah. It was just a scratch, but with that clout to the head he took, and the way he was fussing about the hole and his jacket and the dry-cleaning, the docs want to keep an eye on him."

"Oh. Well, he was right. You can't mend suede."

The taller man just shook his head, chuckling. "Let's just grab these magazines and head for the station. We've got a lot of paperwork to finish up. Sports Illustrated for Brown and GQ for Rafe?"

"Yeah, that's fine."

"Hey, Rafe's only in for the night, neither of them will have time to read a book."

"No, this is for me. A Trouble of Fools. Helva recommended it."

Amy's head snapped up, and she actually turned her chair to get a better look. BJ?

"Helva? Swedish exchange student?'" The taller man smirked knowingly. If that was BJ, then by the process of elimination he had to be...

"Jim! No, one of my online penpals. The name is from the book, The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey. I was chatting with her last night and she said this was a good mystery series. You might like it. A redheaded female ex-cop who gets a PI license and drives a cab part-time."

"Mmm. I'll wait for the movie."

"You would. C'mon."

And before Amy could collect herself, he was there. BJ. She rang up the purchases, managed to handle it without staring overtly.

And to her shock, he noticed the chair. Just noticed it. Didn't give her the 'poor pitiful you' look afterward. No pity.

She asked around the hospital a little. Jim was James Ellison. And BJS, Blair Sandburg, a college student writing a paper on the police department. Both rather infamous for their ER visits.

And she thought, for a long time, about the way she used her screenname to hide behind. About the screenname she'd picked, and the book behind it. The science fiction novels where handicapped people became the cyborged brains of starships, living out their lives in a life support tube called a shell. Thought about Blair, and how he had looked at her, and not the wheelchair she was in. Noticing it, the way he'd notice the color of her eyes or if she was wearing earrings. Accepting it as part of her. And how much she looked forward to his emailed letters, or chatting live with him.

BJS: Bored, bored, bored, and hungry, Jim's out of town, everybody else has gone for lunch already... and I hate eating alone.

Amy took a deep breath, looked over at Brawny and muttered, "Here goes everything." Brawny wagged his tail encouragingly.

Helva: I'm in Cascade... and I could eat. <g> We could meet for coffee at the Stables and Royale megastore cafe on State Street. Talk books and music?

She might be in a wheelchair. She didn't have to be in a shell.

~ End ~

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Page last updated 8/15/03.