I was twelve the last time I saw Jimmy Cross. The sky was an achingly clear cerulean blue, a typical December day on the Texas Gulf Coast, and I waved goodbye as he flew away. I pretended he was waving back, but he was too far away by then, and the sleek metal tube in which he rode didn’t have much in the way of windows anyway. I held to that illusion with tight fists, and over the years I embellished the memory, polishing it like a gemstone to the point where I even saw him smile as he waved.
It’s funny what we can make ourselves believe sometimes.
The man sitting across from me now isn’t Jimmy. At least, not the Jimmy I knew. So much changes in forty-plus years. For starters, this Jimmy smokes. That summer before he left for good, we attempted to smoke one of my daddy’s Camels that I lifted from his pocket. We ran to the field behind Jimmy’s house, confident the tall grass and weeds would hide us from the ever-present gaze of our parents. Even before my daddy caught us, we swore never to try that again. It took us ten minutes to catch our breath after that first puff.
“Got a light?” Jimmy held the cigarette across the table–it was, indeed, a Camel unfiltered–and the manacles around his wrists clanked tonelessly. “C’mon, Chris,” he smiled warmly, his eyes twinkling, “cut a guy some slack.” He waved the dry paper tube in the air like a wand, and said, “You gotta light, or not?”
I pointed to the NO SMOKING sign over his shoulder, not even bothering to ask where he got it. The guard behind me at the door snorted once.
Jimmy flicked the cigarette onto the table in mild disgust and settled back in his seat, dropping his hands to his lap. Jimmy was always the “cool one,” and even now, in the most uncomfortable straight-back chairs in the known world, he managed a calmly aloof near-relaxation. James Dean couldn’t have pulled it off any better.
I pressed the red button on the digital micro-recorder, set it on the table, and said, “For the record, what is your full name?”
Jimmy sniffed, raising one eyebrow in my direction. I wasn’t fooled. Minutes ago he was checking every inch of the room with calm detachment. He was buying time as he planned his escape. It didn’t help that we both knew he would probably succeed.
“For the record,” he drawled, leaning toward the recorder, “my full given name is James Steven Cross.” He sat back again as he finished.
“Can you explain your presence at a secure government facility last night?”
“Can you?” He all but sneered.
“I’m not the one in irons,” I said, tilting my head toward his shackles. “Please answer the question.”
He shrugged and said, “I came to see you, Chris.”
“Me,” I said without inflection. I had his statement from the initial interrogation in front of me, but it didn’t hurt to have him repeat it for the sake of consistency.
“We have to go back, Chris.” He leaned forward, elbows on the table, and the guard stiffened. “Chill out, Captain America,” he said to the guard. “Don’t get all twitchy.” Sergeant Dietrich pinned Jimmy to the chair with a steely gaze, but did not relax his stance.
“Back?” I said, guiding the conversation back on track.
“To where it all began. Where things got all screwed up.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Chris,” he began, a wan smile on his lips as he shook his head, “it was never supposed to be me. You have to know that, right?”
I didn’t know what he meant, but I knew with certainty where it all began. Right before my twelfth birthday in the summer of ’72.