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A Smile That Explodes (The Smile Series, Part 1)
"I'm surprised it's been so quiet," she stated. "Not that I'm complaining."
Elliot signed off on his last piece of paperwork and filed the stack into its labeled manila folder. It was the end of the shift, and he began to absentmindedly arrange the things on his desk: pens, blank forms, the framed photo of Kath and the kids at the beach on vacation. Glancing at the photo brought on a wave of nostalgia. After spending the afternoon in the ocean, they all walked the boardwalk into the evening, eating funnel cake and playing the wheels. It brought him back to the smells and sounds of that night, until he realized it was really the last time when they were all together and happy. That summer in Seaside Heights seemed so recent, but Dickie was only seven then.
"Did you hear what I said, Elliot?" Olivia asked.
Her question brought him out of his reverie. "I...what? No, sorry Liv, I was...I didn't hear you."
She looked at him knowingly, but didn't bring it up. "I was wondering if you wanted to get a drink, y'know, to celebrate."
He blinked. "Celebrate?"
"St. Patrick's Day." She cupped her chin in her hand, studying him. "Thought you might want a drink."
He slid the photo back into its place on his desk and looked up at her. "Thanks Liv, but I think I'm just gonna head home."
He ran his hand through his hair and sighed. "Yeah. I'm not really in the mood."
He got up and walked to his locker, retrieving his keys. Thankful she didn't press the matter, he put on his coat and knit cap. "Have a good weekend."
"You too, Elliot. See you Monday."
* * *
He took a circuitous route on his way back to the house in Queens, not really wanting to go home, but unsure of what he felt like doing. St. Patrick's Day was always a giant production in the Stabler household, especially between he and Dickie. The men were in charge of the decorations -- much to the girls' chagrin every year -- and he and Dickie would put up as many garish leprechauns and plastic shamrocks as possible. Each year they tried to outdo themselves; one year the leprechauns all held miniature Irish flags.
He missed the last two holidays, though, and although he knew they celebrated three years ago, all he could recall about that particular St. Patrick's Day was the 18-year-old from Jersey they found beaten and raped outside Flaherty's on East 22nd St.
About four blocks from the house he passed a small corner bar, The Green Mile. Like many of the hometown hangouts in Queens, this one was generally populated with locals. It tended to be dark, quiet, and the perfect place to get rid of some of the memories chasing him tonight.
Doubling back, he found a curbside spot and headed into the bar. It was decorated in Guinness banners and cardboard shamrocks for the holiday, but the mood was fairly serene for such an important drinking holiday. It suited him perfectly. He didn't feel like elbowing his way through raucous, drunken 20-somethings just to get a beer.
There were a few patrons sitting at tables who were taking advantage of the $7.95 corned beef and cabbage special, but most sat perched on stools at the bar.
Years of framed photos covered the walls, showing the owner's family and relatives, along with the requisite plaques of Yankees and Giants superstars. Old beer signs remained tacked to the yellowing wallpaper that was hanging in strips in certain areas. It gave the place a working-class, beaten-down air, and he immediately felt comfortable.
Keeping with the occasion, he ordered a black and tan with Guinness and Harp from the burly, gray-haired bartender. The hole-in-the-wall atmosphere was highlighted by the overall tiny size of the place, so much so that he had to squeeze his way around people just to give his drink order. Looking for a place to sit, he noticed an open stool toward the curve of the bar near the back.
He sat as the bartender placed the napkin down and the glass on top of it. "Thanks."
The two bar televisions were tuned to ESPN, and he glanced up to catch the score of whoever it was this year that was leading the NCAA during March Madness. Try as he might, sometimes simply keeping track of news, current events, or even sports was difficult. And usually his mind was too full of the day's horrors to concentrate on a game or newspaper headlines. That was definitely a problem lately. He lived inside his own head too much.
In trying to negotiate the stool while keeping his eye on the TV at the same time, he accidentally bumped into another guy at the bar, sloshing the man's drink out of his glass and onto his expensive-looking suit.
"Oh, shit, sorry about that, man."
The blonde man straightened his glasses and brushed a strand of his long hair from his eyes. "It's okay..."
"No, let me get you another drink," Elliot insisted, motioning for the bartender. He grabbed a couple of bar napkins and set them down in front of the man. "Sorry about the suit. I'll pay for it."
The bartender sauntered over and looked at Elliot. "Get him another of whatever he was drinking, and put it on me," Elliot told him.
"Thanks, but the suit is fine. I'm only drinking seltzer with lime," the man replied.
The bartender returned to the other side of the bar to fill the drink order, and Elliot sat down beside the blonde man. Grinning, he took a sip of his beer. "Glad I won't have to take out a loan to pay for the suit," he joked.
"Me too. It's the only one I have."
Another seltzer and lime was placed in front of the man, and Elliot held out his hand. "Elliot."
The blonde man returned Elliot's shake. "Tobias. Thanks for the drink."
Elliot waved his appreciation away. "Just happy you weren't drinking something bright red and fruity."
Tobias chuckled. "I don't drink at all anymore, actually. Although, after today, it kind of feels like I should."
"You could say that." He pointed to his suit. "Don't let it fool you. I'm still a fuck-up, but a fuck-up in a nice suit."
"Join the club...although I could never afford that on my salary."
"Lemme guess, cop?"
Elliot took another sip of his beer. "Is it that obvious?"
"You're wearing your badge and gun," Tobias pointed out.
Looking down, Elliot had to laugh. "And I'm not even drunk yet."
"You do that a lot?"
"What, forget to take off my badge and gun after my shift?"
"No, get drunk."
"Not really. It depends. It happens more often now that I come home to an empty house every night. Tonight it's more about forgetting."
Tobias nodded. "I know what you mean."
They sat there in silence for a few moments, their eyes returning to the game above them on the TVs.
"So, what do you do, Tobias?"
Tobias shrugged, brushing at his suit. "I had a job interview today, but the fuckers didn't want me."
"And now you're drowning your sorrows in seltzer and lime."
"Something like that."
Elliot studied the man sitting next to him. He seemed young, but his face looked lined and weathered, as if he were older than his years. His blonde hair was brushed back from his forehead, and trimmed neatly just above his collar. The round glasses he wore reflected the depressed glassiness of his eyes, making him seem both intelligent and downtrodden.
Tobias looked up then, catching Elliot's eye. He turned back to his drink abruptly.
"It takes a lot of balls to come into a bar after a bad day and just drink seltzer," Elliot noted. "I know a lot of guys who aren't as strong."
He turned this analysis on himself, wondering if the nights he chose to drink four beers instead of one could drive him to the depths of alcoholism. Those times in which he wanted to drink to forget were coming on a more frequent basis since Kathy and the kids left. The frustration he felt at not being able to express himself about the stress of the job had turned inward, manifesting itself in bouts of uncontrollable anger. Unlike his father, he chose to internalize those feelings, because he couldn't burden Kath with the shit he was exposed to every day. It was either that or release his anger, and honestly, it frightened the hell out of him. He remembered the ways his father lashed out, and he swore to himself he would never be that type of man. But now he realized it was a double-edged sword: by keeping all of it to himself, he had lost Kath anyway. And he lost his children.
"Believe me, Elliot, I'm not as strong as you'd think," Tobias finally said. "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, mostly because I was weak. The drinking was the easiest to leave behind."
Elliot looked down into his drink. "It was easy to stop losing yourself in the feeling that comes with being drunk?"
"Only after I completely fucked up my life."
Elliot turned toward him and moved closer, as he would when he was interrogating a perp. He took in the nicely coiffed blonde hair, the expensive cologne, the briefcase beside him on the floor. Leaning close to Tobias's face, he said, "I think you're shitting me."
Tobias scoffed at that, and touched Elliot's arm. He bent close to his ear, whispering as he did so. "My father bought me this suit. It is the only one I own."
He leaned back and sipped from his seltzer again with a sadness on his face that proved to Elliot he was indeed telling the truth.
Elliot regarded him, trying to sense what it was that made this man open up to him.
Tobias began curling the edge of the bar napkin with his fingers. "You're a detective, right?"
"Saw the gold shield."
Elliot looked down to his waist where he had his badge still clipped. "Noticed that, huh?"
Tobias glanced down at the shield, and then let his eyes trail up Elliot's body until his gaze returned to Elliot's face. Slowly, he took a sip of his drink. "I notice a lot of things, detective."
Elliot felt the heat in the other man's look. Did he mistakenly assume this dive was a regular watering hole when instead it was a gay bar? He took a moment to surreptitiously scope out the room, but he didn't get the impression the grizzled old drunks at the bar were trying to pick each other up. Or perhaps he had interpreted Tobias's interests incorrectly.
He found it interesting to note that he wasn't unsettled by Tobias's attentions, though. It felt good to just hang out and talk with another guy for a change, despite what his intentions might be. It didn't really bother him.
Elliot finished his beer and ordered another. Once again they sat in silence, letting the quiet settle comfortably between them. In a way, he yearned for this sort of easiness between others he dealt with every day. He had a good working relationship with Munch and Fin -- and of course his years spent with Olivia had formed a sort of trusting, non-verbal communication between them -- but he realized at that moment that he longed for someone to talk to. Someone other than shrinks, his fellow cops, or his partner. Just someone who could understand what he was going through, but who wasn't ready to pass judgment.
"You didn't ask what kind of detective I was," Elliot pointed out.
Tobias grinned into his second seltzer. "If you wanted to tell me, you would. I learned a long time ago not to ask stupid questions."
"Special Victims Unit. We deal with sex crimes and crimes against..."
"Against children, I know. I've dealt with similar detectives in the past."
Interest piqued, Elliot wondered if he was now talking to a fellow cop. "You used to be on the job?"
That brought an honest laugh from Tobias. "Christ, no, I was one of the people you lock up."
Elliot felt a disturbing sinking feeling reach the pit of his stomach, and he suddenly experienced that repressed rage bubble to the surface. He was talking to a child molester or rapist.
"Son of a bitch..."
"It wasn't a sex crime, Elliot," Tobias protested, holding up his hand, somehow intuitively knowing Elliot's reaction. "And I don't hurt children. I have..." Tobias paused, then swallowed. "I had three kids. I would never do anything to harm them. Unfortunately, the main reason I don't drink anymore is because I hurt someone else's child -- I was driving drunk and struck and killed a girl on her bike."
Elliot felt his anger subside somewhat, although knowing the man sitting next to him had killed a child -- with a car or with a gun or in any other way -- still disturbed him. He took a draught of his beer this time, settling his emotions before speaking again.
"Were you punished?" he asked accusingly.
Tobias closed his eyes and nodded. "I was in Oz."
The Oswald State Correctional Facility. Jesus. One of the most notorious prisons he knew of. Elliot had a feeling this man probably paid for his crime ten times over. It didn't change what he did, however.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Elliot said. "I think you deserved it if you killed a child."
"So do I, Elliot," Tobias agreed. "But I did my time and I've been sober for years."
Strangely, Elliot wasn't getting the typical drunken repeat offender vibe from this man. He knew of so many that had traveled through the system, getting wrist slap after wrist slap, until eventually they killed someone.
"And that's why you didn't get the job today. Because you were in prison."
"I could have lied. After what I went through in Oz, though, I want to live my life as honestly as possible." Tobias removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "God, I know I fucked up my life, but I thought things might get better after I got out."
"You haven't worked since then?"
He went back to twisting the napkin. "I used to be a lawyer. Now you can see how far I've fallen. It's hard to get anyone to trust me again."
"I doubt any law firm is going to hire an ex-con," Elliot said.
"No, I was disbarred. I did secretarial work inside, and I was applying for a data entry job." He laughed weakly. "Minimum wage for pressing keys eight hours a day, and I couldn't even get hired for that."
"You don't look like a secretary."
Tobias lifted an eyebrow. "You'd be surprised, detective. I have the legs for it."
Elliot snorted into his beer.
"So now you know some of my pathetic history," Tobias said. "What brought you in here tonight?"
Surprisingly, Elliot didn't feel the need to lie or attempt to cover up his reasons for the bar visit. After what he just heard, it wasn't necessary.
"I was thinking about my wife and kids," he admitted. Sipping at his beer again, Elliot let the statement hang, and Tobias didn't try to coax an explanation out of him. "She left and took them with her."
"It's because of the job, right?" Tobias asked quietly, once again placing his hand on Elliot's forearm.
Elliot nodded blankly into his beer, acutely aware of the other man's hand on his arm. It felt odd that it didn't offend him; in fact, he even welcomed it. Why had it been such a long time since someone offered him a gentle touch simply out of compassion? He was always expected to be the strong one, the family man, the take-no-shit cop. Even Liv rarely touched him -- the times he could remember feeling her hand on him generally meant he was losing control. Hers was a grounding brush of his shoulder, always intended to pull him back from the brink. This...the touch of a stranger somehow meant more to him because it was done purely because he needed it.
"It's a lot of things, Tobias," Elliot admitted, not looking up from his beer. "It feels like..." He turned to him now, their eyes meeting, and for some reason it was like Tobias knew what he was going to say. "It feels like my life has been going wrong for a really long time."
Tobias held Elliot's stare. "Listen...let me drive you home."
He looked down at Tobias's hand, still on his arm, and wondered why the hell his emotions were so stormy and confused. Usually the beer made him forget. Tonight it made the memories cascade over him.
"I only had two beers."
"You're sober enough, but you're in no condition to drive."
Elliot grinned darkly, getting it. "There aren't any bridges between here and home I can drive off of."
"Good to hear, but I insist," Tobias said, digging for his wallet. He leafed through a few bills and threw a ten onto the bar.
Elliot did the same, coming up with a twenty and placing it under his beer glass. "It's only a few blocks. I can walk."
Tobias picked up his briefcase from the floor and tucked it under his arm. Placing his hand on Elliot's shoulder, he leaned in next to his ear. "Don't worry, Elliot. I haven't killed anyone in a while."
Elliot sat back and scowled, until Tobias broke into a wide grin.
Elliot shook his head and chuckled. It felt good to laugh.
* * *
The car pulled up in front of the house, and Tobias killed the engine. Ducking his head, he peered up through the windshield. "Nice."
Elliot shrugged, finally unclipping his badge from his belt and tossing it into the inside of his coat. "It's empty," he sighed. He looked up at the dark house, and then faced Tobias. "Well," he said, extending his hand, "good to meet you, Tobias."
Tobias returned the gesture, only now he put his other hand on Elliot's shoulder. "Elliot, I know you may not believe me, but it's going to get better. Hope is a powerful thing -- I clung to it when I was locked up inside that hellhole -- and it can change the way a man looks at the world. Nothing is dismal or depressing when you can hold onto the idea that life is never stagnant. It's always changing, but it will change for you if you make the conscious effort. I can see your desire to make things better, only you have to face your fears instead of drowning them in beer night after night." Tobias tightened his grip on Elliot's shoulder. "Just don't give up hope."
Elliot looked away, up at his dark house devoid of his family, at what was left of the life he used to have. It was the cold realization brought on by a stranger's touch that made him think that he really did need to try and get a handle on what was happening to him. Between Kathy and the kids, the job, and his own fucked-up psyche, something had to give.
He began to well up, and he was thankful for the relative darkness of the car. He sniffed slightly, and then felt Tobias's hand gently brush his cheek. "Take care of yourself, Elliot."
Elliot closed his eyes, sensing when Tobias slid back into his seat. Opening the car door, he huddled into his coat against the biting March wind. Another St. Patrick's Day come and gone, but he had a feeling he would remember this one a little more clearly than the others.
He walked up the steps of his porch, hearing the car start behind him. He turned around and waved to Tobias, who rolled down his window.
"I didn't..." Elliot hesitated, feeling awkward. "You didn't mention your last name. Mine's Stabler."
"It's Beecher, Elliot Stabler," Tobias replied with a grin.
"Beecher," he repeated to himself. "Tobias?"
"Are you, uh...do you live around here?"
Tobias shook his head. "But I like The Green Mile. You meet a lot of nice people there. I'm sure I'll be back, the bartender has a way with seltzer and lime."
Elliot scratched the stubble on his cheek where Tobias had laid his hand. "Your life changed a lot in prison."
"Yeah, it did."
"Tobias..." Elliot paused, unable to look away from the other man's eyes. "In the car just now...were you going to..."
Tobias only smiled. "You're the cop, Detective Stabler. What do you think?"
Elliot could only stare in response.
Laughing, Tobias revved the engine. "See you around, Elliot. Next time you can have a seltzer and lime on me." Then he rolled up the window and took off.
Elliot retreated up his front stairs, his head spinning, and not from alcohol. Yes, he had a feeling he would definitely remember this St. Patrick's Day for years to come.
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