The day before someone’s life shatters into a million pieces is just an ordinary day, like every other day before it. Bills have to be paid, dishes have to be washed, and the bed has to be made. Everything feels normal, blissfully unaware of what’s barreling down the road, coming right at you. That very moment when life changes, you suddenly realize that nothing will ever be the same again!
Walking slowly through the hallways of Johnson & Ashcroft on Monday morning, Michael’s usually clean shaven face was darkened with a day’s worth of black stubble. His designer suit and tie were rumpled and his short dark hair wasn’t gelled into his normally perfect style.
Michael ran on autopilot. A pile of messages on his desk was marked urgent. He returned calls, solved various problems and made appropriate changes to his current presentation project without showing any emotion. He nodded his head at the appropriate time, he said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when a response was required, but his stone-cold face never changed.
Having finished his second cup of coffee, Michael headed to the break-room for a third. A small group of co-workers congregated around the water cooler in the main corridor. Michael stopped for a second and listened to their friendly accounts of their weekend activities. One woman talked about her beach trip while another guy gave away spoilers to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
“Jesus Christ, Waters,” someone in the crowd shouted, “You look like shit. God damn, Michael, you should really lay off the fucking booze.”
Michael’s red eyes looked up. Leon stood in the back of the crowd. The guy was a weasel. When his beady eyes connected with Michael’s, a menacing grin slithered across the man’s narrow face.
“I guess now that they closed down Chapel Chase, you’ll have to quit drinking--”
“What do you mean? They didn’t close Chapel Chase!” Michael barked, interrupting Leon.
The smirk that passed over Leon’s face was conniving. The man was purposefully trying to rattle Michael, as he continued without any regards for Michael’s feelings. “Yeah, they shut that place down right after their faggot bartender got shot yesterday.”
“What?” Michael screamed. All the color drained from his face. He dropped his coffee cup to the floor. It smashed, splattering hot liquid across the carpet. Stumbling backwards while gasping to catch his breath, Michael’s whole body shook.
“Hey, Mike weren’t you friends with that guy?” Leon faked sympathy to hide his true agenda, until it came rushing to the surface. “Dude, I’m sorry to hear about your butt buddy.”
Michael turned on his heels and ran down the hallway. Frantic shouts rose behind him as several of his co-workers berated Leon for his callous attitude towards Michael as well as expressing concern for Michael’s injured friend.
The front of Chapel Chase was roped off with yellow police tape. An officer stood guard at the doorway while a flurry of activity went on inside. Michael raced up the sidewalk to the blockade in front of the building.
“I need to speak to someone in charge,” Michael choked out between desperate gasps for air.
The officer’s eyes narrowed on him. “Do you have information about the shooting that occurred here yesterday?” He asked.
“No,” Michael said shaking his head, trying to catch his breath, “But I need to know what happened here!”
“Listen here,” the man’s voice grew cold and stern, “If you don’t have any information that will help us with the investigation then you have to get out of here and stop wasting our time.”
“But you don’t understand,” Michael franticly shouted. “Asher Burkhart is a close friend of mine. I have to know what happened to him.” His last words were caught in a sob. “I have to know…”
The officer glanced over Michael’s disheveled appearance, his hair was a mess, his clothes were rumpled, and his face was marred with grief. Michael was devastated. Unshed tears laced his dark, sad eyes.
“Please,” Michael’s voice quivered.
The officer gave a heavy sight. Dropping his voice to a whisper, low enough for only Michael to hear, the man told him, “Your friend was taken to St. Francis hospital.”
“Did he, oh god, is he still alive?” Michael cried.
“He was in critical condition when they transported him to the hospital. The last thing I heard was that your friend was heading into emergency surgery, but I don’t know anything beyond that.” The officer said with a frowned.
Michael let out a breath of relief. He quickly thanked the man before turning and chasing down a passing cab to take him to the hospital.
Asher hovered between asleep and awake as the melody of beeping machines strummed a steady rhythm around him. Several sensors were secured to his torso with small sticky pads and a clip on his finger flashed in sync with the blips on the monitor beside his bed. A pharmaceutical fog blurred his eyes and mind. The tube delivering pure oxygen to his nose didn’t help either, the buzz made his head spin, almost making him forget about his pain.
Most people would expect taking a bullet to the chest, two broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and an emergency chest tube would be the most painful experience of their life, yet for Asher, reliving the shocked look on Michael’s face hurt him more than his broken body.
Thick white bandages were taped to Asher’s chest, the downy hair still caked with dried blood. The surgical dressing extended over his right nipple and stopped just before his right shoulder. His right arm hung limply at his side. A clear tube filled with blood protruded from his ribcage, just below his armpit, before disappearing into one of the many beeping machines beside the bed.
The uncomfortable smell of disinfectant and low temperatures kept Asher’s flesh peppered with goosebumps. Absently raising his left hand, he stretched the plastic tubing pumping fluids and medication into his arm. Asher’s fingers traced along the barrier of tape and gauze protecting his injuries before dropping down to the bed linens covering his lower body.
Michael Waters stepped into the room.
Asher tried to sigh, but the sound that escaped his battered chest was a rattled wheeze. It wasn’t the first time the handsome man had appeared at his bedside over the last few hours. It was always the same drug-induced hallucination. Tall, gorgeous, sexy, and smart Michael, he was the man of Asher’s dreams…and he was also the man that Asher would never have. Asher didn’t blame Michael. How ironic that the guy had taken a chance and put himself out on a limb only to find Asher with another man.
“Why do you keep tormenting me like this?” Asher asked the dark figure that he was sure would disappear again at any moment. Instead of vanishing like the apparition always did every other time before, this time the figure stepped closer to Asher’s hospital bed.
“Ash?” Michael’s hoarse whisper hung in the sterile air. The beeping monitor’s tempo increased as Asher’s heart rate suddenly doubled. Michael reached out and traced his warm fingers along the back of Asher’s cold hand. The clip on Asher’s finger flashed when his pulse started racing out of control.
Michael moved closer and stopped. “What happened to you?” He asked as he leaned forward and cradled Asher’s swollen face in the palms of his hands. He ran the pad of his thumb over Asher’s pale lips that continued to tremble. “I’m here,” Michael said again and again as tears clung to his dark lashes before streaking a path down Michael’s red cheeks. He slowly leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Asher’s pale lips.
Asher’s entire body shook. The touch was soft and gentle bringing a quiet gasp from Asher as it continued for several sweet seconds, intensifying the lightheaded feeling flooding Asher’s body.
“Mom?” Asher mumbled against Michael’s warm mouth.
The single word stopped Michael’s lips. He pulled away and searched Asher’s eyes for signs of recognition. “No, Ash, it’s me…Michael,” His voice cracked with fear.
Asher rolled his eyes and chuckled which brought a wave of painful coughs. “Not you, Mikie,” He said trying to catch his breath as his eyes focused somewhere behind the man hovering at his bedside. “Mom, this is my friend, Michael Waters.”
Michael’s back snapped straight to attention, moving him away from Asher’s side, and further out of reach. He spun around on his heels, searching the hospital room. They were not alone. A slender woman with long brown hair sat in a recliner in the far corner of Asher’s room. Her silver framed glasses were perched low on her nose and the book she had been reading moments before was still open on her lap.
“Michael, this is my mother, Lilly Burkhart.” Asher spoke slowly, fighting the urge to cough.
Lilly smiled as she took off her glasses and set them and her book aside. “It’s nice to meet you, Michael.”
When she stepped forward with her hand extended, Michael quickly backed away.
“Michael,” Asher’s sharp tone caught Michael’s attention. “Don’t be rude. My mom doesn’t care if you’re gay,” He gasped between each few words, “She wouldn’t care if you were straight or even purple with green polka-dots; she only cares if you’re my friend or not--”
“Asher!” The loud feminine squeal was loud enough to echo throughout the halls of the hospital as Victoria rushed into the room with an arm full of stuffed animals. The woman ran to Asher’s side, dropping her load of assorted bunnies, bears and dogs on the bed, before giving his unshaved face several quick kisses. “You’re finally awake,” She shouted, ignoring the posted signs to keep noise to a minimum.
Asher had been in and out of consciousness since they moved him to recovery after surgery. His mother told him that most of his co-workers, including his boss, Jimmy, had been by to visit.
“Hey Vicky,” Asher forced a smile for his friend, but he noticed Michael inching towards the door.
Ziggy walked in a few steps behind her. The dark circles under his eyes showed his lack of sleep. Asher glanced at his co-workers flowing into his room. “Vicky thought you needed more crap to cheer you up. I guess the flowers we brought you earlier weren’t enough so she decided to buy every stuffed animal down in the gift shop.”
“I didn’t buy all of them,” Victoria stomped her foot with a playful huff and slapped Ziggy’s arm. “He needs something to make him feel better--”
Lilly loudly cleared her throat, bringing Victoria and Ziggy’s argument to an end. “Settle down kids,” she used the authoritative voice that all mothers have, that instantly stops children in mid-squabble. “That was really thoughtful of you, Vicky, but I bet there are some other patients here that would enjoy these cuddly creatures more than Asher. Why don’t we take them down to the children’s ward and see if they could use some cheering up too?” Lilly gently coaxed Ziggy and Victoria towards the door, blocking Michael’s escape.
Victoria and Ziggy gathered the plush animals and exited ahead of Lilly into the hallway. She gave Michael a quick wink. While pulling the door closed behind her, she told them, “We’ll leave you two alone for a while.”
Asher smiled at his mother. He knew that she would keep Ziggy and Victoria occupied, so he and Michael could have some privacy and time to talk.
As soon as the door closed, they both blurted out, “I’m sorry!”
Michael shook his head as he sobbed, “No, Ash, it was all my fault. I never should have shown up at your place like I did. I don’t know what I was thinking kissing you. It never should have happened.”
Asher listened to Michael’s attempt to explain. His heart dropped in his chest making his stomach coil. “Then why the hell did you kiss me again?” Asher demanded. “I can understand it happening once, maybe you were drunk the other night and just a little curious after our fight in the park, but why did you walk in here and kiss me again?”
Michael’s bottom lip trembled. “I’m not gay,” he whispered, rubbing his hands over his face.
“Are you trying to convince me, Mike, or do you need to convince yourself?” Asher knew his words sliced deep.
“I just…” Michael didn’t finish. His words just faded away as his eyes studied the floor.
Asher clenched his jaw. He took several gasping breaths and heard the frantic beeping of the monitors around him. Commanding his body to slow down as he tried to calm his raging emotions, his heart rate eventually returned to normal. “I’m sure you were just confused--”
“I can’t stop thinking about you.” Michael suddenly announced. “I’ve watched you at the bar dozens of times before that night.” Asher knew that he was talking about the night at Chapel Chase when he refused to serve Michael any more alcohol, and then later stumbled over his passed out body on the sidewalk.
Waiting for Michael to admit how he felt, Asher held his breath and bit at his bottom lip.
“That night,” Michael drew a shaky breath, “I started having these strong feelings that I couldn’t explain.” When Michael didn’t continue, Asher gently questioned the nervous man standing in front of him.
“Is this the first time you’ve questioned your sexuality?”
Michael’s eyes flashed up and met Asher’s. “I’ve never had feelings like this for a guy before. I don’t even know what it is.”
Asher watched Michael struggle. It might be his only opportunity to find out the truth, so Asher pressed him for answers. “Why did you get so angry at the park?”
Michael shrugged his shoulders. His lower lip trembled as he spoke, “When I saw that guy checking you out, I got so jealous, but then I got scared because I was making a scene and people were staring at us…”
Red flushed Michael’s cheeks. “I didn’t know what to do. I’m sorry, Asher, I know I reacted badly.” He quietly admitted, stepping closer to the side of Asher’s bed. It was close enough for Asher to reach out and take Michael’s warm hand in his.
When Michael didn’t pull away, Asher’s pulse quickened. “That’s okay. Life doesn’t always fit into neat little boxes. Sometimes we have to hammer out the corners, customizing it until it conforms to us.”
Asher’s soft words made Michael smile. He squeezed Michael’s hand and pulled him closer to the edge of the bed until he sat down beside him. “I can’t tell you what you’re feeling inside, but I can tell you we have all the time in the world to figure this,” Asher motioned between Michael and himself, “Whatever this is, we have time to figure it out.”
Okay, you can see why I stopped where I did last week? LOL, Can you imagine me leaving you guys on that whopper of a cliff?? I didn't want you guys to hunt me down and beat me within an inch of my life, thinking that I had killed another character!
Sooooo what do you think? Let me know Thanks so much for reading, you guys are great.