The telephone rang at the same time Michael’s fingers wrapped around the doorknob. He quickly snatched his hand back and softly chuckled, “Stop being so jumpy,” he muttered to himself, then pushed the door open. A pile of messages sat on his desk. They were sorted into two stacks. He scanned the high priority messages before setting the other ones to the side. They could wait, or could be passed off to someone else in his department.
With the piles divided, the telephone suddenly rang again. He glared at the phone as it kept ringing. “So much for telling the receptionist that I wasn’t to be disturbed under any circumstances.” He rolled his eyes at the intrusion, yet continued to work.
When it started ringing a third time, he snatched the phone from the receiver. “Michael Waters.” His words were clipped, but still held an air of professionalism.
“Mr. Waters, this is Lana Dawson in the Human Resources Department.” She hesitated, but when Michael didn’t respond to her introduction, she continued talking. “I’m glad that I caught you, Mr. Waters. I need you to stop by my office before you leave today to sign some papers.”
“Is there something wrong?” Michael’s tone was defensive.
“No sir,” Lana quickly added, “We just need to make sure all of the paperwork is in order to process your request for leave. By the way, are you going to be doing any work from home while you’re gone?”
Michael winced as he rubbed his temples. “I haven’t really thought about my plans beyond the next day or two.” The hospital had called and scheduled three more doctor appointments for Asher for later in the week, but at the moment he was unsure how many times a week Asher would be required to go for physical therapy.
“Can you give me twenty minutes?” He asked.
There was a metallic jingling from the other end of the phone. Michael smiled when he heard the older woman’s earring tapping the receiver. “Twenty minutes would be perfect. That gives me enough time to review your case and make sure I have all the correct papers ready for when you get here.”
Thanking her, Michael’s lips held a brief smile. The woman was sweet. She was a kind elderly woman that most of the company looked to as a grandmotherly sort of figure. He turned his attention back to the messages on his desk. Michael called the most urgent messages first. Within fifteen minutes, he had either left voice mails or arranged for an alternative form of contact with his more important clients.
With work finished, Michael tidied up his desk before heading down to the Human Resources Department.
Ms. Dawson jumped when Michael stepped through the slightly ajar office door without knocking.
“I’m sorry.” Michael took a step back and quickly apologized to the older woman. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” He said as a red flush crept along the collar of his dress shirt.
Waving him in with her chubby hand, Lana smiled. “Don’t worry Mr. Waters. It’s silly of me to get so skittish. Some evenings when I’m down here alone, I get scared of my own shadow.”
The elderly woman’s confession had Michael grinning from ear to ear.
“Well now, Mr. Waters, let’s get this over with so we can both get back to what we really want to be doing right now.”
“Doing what?” Michael asked as he sat down.
The elderly lady smiled, showing her deep dimples in her tanned cheeks. “I don’t know about you, but I would rather be playing a game of Angry Birds instead of doing all of this boring ol’ paperwork,” Ms. Dawson finished with a playful wink.
Her blunt attitude had Michael relaxing in the leather chair across from her desk. “I guess you’re right; there is somewhere else I’d rather be.”
“Good,” Lana said as she pulled her glasses from the silver chain around her neck and slipped them onto her round face. “Let’s get this ball rolling, then, shall we?”
Lana flipped through a large stack of papers, pulling out a package that was bound with a black file clip. “First of all, you’ll have to have your partner’s doctor complete these forms for the FMLA leave to be retroactive to the date of his injury, which is…” She continued talking while searching through the pile of papers on her desk. “…I believe the injury occurred last Monday--”
“Sunday,” Michael softly mumbled, his voice barely a whisper. Lana looked up as the color drained from Michael’s face.
“Is something wrong, dear?” She asked.
“H-h-how did you k-k-know?” Michael’s words broke as he jumped out of his chair.
“I don’t know what they told you, but I’m not gay!” Michael growled as he paced around the small office. “He’s my friend, that’s all, we’re just friends!”
Lana removed her glasses and let them hang around her neck. The elderly lady quickly crossed the room and closed the door. “Michael, lower your voice.” Her tone was stern.
“I want to know who’s spreading lies about me, telling the entire office that I’m a faggot--”
“Michael!” Lana crossed her arms over her chest and stared down a man twice her size and a fraction of her age. “I will not have you using such language.”
“I’m not gay,” Michael said through clenched teeth.
“Be that as it may, I care very deeply for several of my family members and friends who are, and I will not tolerate you using such ugly words.” Her words hung in the still air for several minutes.
Michael ran his fingers through his hair as he took several long calming breaths. “I’m sorry, Ms. Dawson, I didn’t mean to react like that.”
She guided Michael back to his chair. Instead of returning to her seat behind the desk, she settled into the chair beside him. Her eyes were stern, yet kind. “Michael, the FMLA rules are very clear--”
“FM what?” Michael blurted out.
“The Family Medical Leave Act. I was told that your partner had been seriously injured--”
“But who told you that?” He demanded.
The woman covered his trembling hands with her own plump fingers. “One of the ladies in the Accounting Department came by my office after witnessing--”
“Let me guess, after witnessing my fight with Leon at the water cooler? Christ, gossip around here spreads faster than gonorrhea!” Michael clenched his hand into a fist, but Lana kept her hold on him. “I don’t know what they told you, but Leon is a lying fucking weasel. That bastard would say anything and spread the worst kind of rumors if he thought it would benefit him in some way.”
“Michael, darling,” Ms. Dawson’s eyes narrowed in on him as she squeezed his hand until it hurt. “I’m not here to judge you. Your personal relationship is nobody’s business but your own; however, before you say something that you may regret, I think you should know that my sister is getting married this fall to her partner of over twenty years. They had a simple ceremony years ago, but now, with the new laws going into effect for same sex marriage, they are finally making it official. I’m going to be the maid of honor all over again.”
Glancing down at her curvy hips, Lana rolled her blue eyes and giggled. “I don’t think I’ll be able to fit into the same dress I wore all those years ago, but that’s not the point. What is important is the love that we share for those around us, the people that make our life complete.”
Lana patted his hand as she explained, “When I was hired here at Johnson & Ashcroft, I spent years fighting William Ashcroft over his narrow-minded homophobic views. He believed that same sex couples didn’t deserve equal family benefits, the same as traditional couples have. Mr. Ashcroft might still have his old school values, but I’ve worked hard to ensure that every employee here at J & A has the same rights regardless of who they share their life with.”
Michael nodded his head as she talked. When the room fell silent, he looked up to find her watching him. “I’m really happy for your family. Your sister is very lucky to have you, but it’s too early to let anyone know about Asher. I’ve only known him a short period of time and I don’t even know where this is going. I can’t fill out forms and have it become part of my permanent employee record here at Johnson & Ashcroft, I’m sorry, but I just can’t.” He finished on a long drawn out sigh.
Lana squeezed Michael’s arm. “What about this idea?” She asked, as she got up from the chair and crossed back to her desk. She tapped away at her computer for a second before finishing, “You have thirty-eight days of vacation time accumulated. We can file a request to use vacation time for the remaining days you need off to help your …” She cleared her throat, “Your ‘friend’ to recover and I will apply the days you have already missed as sick days, of which you still have seventeen remaining.”
Michael slowly nodded his head. “And nothing will be documented about our relationship?”
“Not by me,” Lana gave Michael a reassuring wink.
The summer sun danced on the dark water in the distance. Michael sat on a wooden bench on the edge of the river’s steep bank. His fingers absently twisted a loose thread from one of his shirt buttons as he watched the murky water rolling along. His gaze was distant and he appeared to be lost in his own thoughts.
The park was nearly empty for a weekday. Most of the joggers had gotten their daily workouts in early before the temperatures peaked in the summer heat. Very few braved the heat, but they mainly stuck close to the thick trees shading the far side of the park. Without the laughter of children, the park lacked its usual carefree charm. The sweltering temperatures forced the nannies and stay at home moms to march their little tikes back home for an early lunches and midday naps away from the harsh noonday sun.
Asher stopped a few feet beside Michael and watched the man. His dark eyes were hooded. The cute dimples that marked each side of his smile were barely visible. The plump lower lip of Michael’s lush mouth was drawn tight and his jaw flexed and released again and again. It couldn’t be a good sign.
“Is this seat taken?” Asher asked, after waiting several minutes for Michael to invite him to join him.
Michael’s eyes suddenly snapped from the river to Asher, hovering a few feet away. “I’m sorry,” he quickly apologized with a weak, forced smile. “What did you say?”
They had agreed to meet at the park, since it was walking distance from both Michael’s office and Asher’s doctor appointments. A time hadn’t been determined, but it looked like Michael had been waiting a while.
“I wanted to know if it was okay to join you,” Asher said, pointing to Michael’s jacket and briefcase occupying the bench beside Michael. When Asher stepped closer, he noticed a six pack of beer on Michael’s far side. Three of the tall, amber colored bottles were missing from the cardboard box.
Asher was glad that they had the park mostly to themselves. There wasn’t anyone close enough to hear their conversation or to observe Michael drinking in a public park in broad daylight.
Michael slowly nodded his head, moved the rest of his belongings to the ground, and shifted his body closer to the armrest on the far side of the bench. Asher sat down, yet he didn’t make any move to close the space between them. If Michael needed space between them, Asher would respect that.
“I’m guessing that it didn’t go well?” Asher asked.
Michael scoffed. His fingers twisted the string on his shirt until the button popped off. “Something like that.”
Asher waited for Michael to explain, but when he didn’t, decided to try a direct approach. “What’s wrong, Mikie, did they turn down your request for time off?”
Turning the button over and over in his palm, Michael tucked the shiny piece of plastic into his pocket then returned his gaze to the river. “No, just forget about it. It’s nothing.”
“Nothing?” Asher mocked Michael as he rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t look like nothing. In fact you look like you’re ready to rip someone’s head off.”
“How would you know?” Michael challenged with alcohol fresh on his breath.
“Considering that I’m the guy who threw you out of Chapel Chase the night of your big promotion? I sure as hell remember that look in your eyes, the same one you have right now, as if you’re contemplating inflicting bodily harm on someone.”
Michael’s dark head tossed back as he dryly chuckled. “I was so pissed at you that night. I was also thrilled that you remembered my name.”
“Me? You’re the one that always called me, dude.”
Lowering his voice, a sexy smile curled Michael’s lips. “Say it,” He demanded.
“Who could forget Michael ‘The Shark’ Waters?” Asher teased, dropping his voice to match Michael’s.
“Talk like this is going to get us in trouble.” The smile slowly disappeared from Michael’s face as he turned his attention back to the water. He grabbed a bottle from the pack and downed the contents in one long swig.
“Mikie, I don’t understand.”
Michael’s chest expanded to twice its size. The first long deep breaths were hypnotic, as Asher watched Michael fill his lungs with air. He rubbed his fingers across his weary face before blurting out, “How can you not care about what people think about you? Don’t you care that they know that you’re gay, that they know what you’re doing behind closed doors--”
“First off, nobody knows what happens behind my bedroom door except me, and if somebody does know that I’m gay, big fucking deal. That’s their problem, not mine. Besides, I’ve watched enough straight porn in my life that I’ve got a rather good idea what they’re doing in their own fucking bedroom, too,” Asher growled.
Michael’s hands trembled. His stare was fixed on the murky river.
“Did somebody say something to you at work?” Asher demanded.
The seconds ticked by. Michael’s lip quivered as tears laced his dark eyes. “Leon was running his mouth.”
“Look, Michael, I’m not going to tell you that living life as an openly gay man isn’t hard. It is! Growing up was difficult at times, but nothing was going to stop me from being who I am. I know that you’re having a tough time dealing with these new feelings you’re having, so maybe it would be better for you if we spent some time apart--”
“You want me to leave?” Michael’s head snapped up and his eyes were pleading as the tears rimmed his eyes.
“No!” He shouted.
“I don’t want to make this more difficult for you than it already is.”
“Living without you would do exactly that. I hate the idea of having to choose between you and the rest of the world,” Michael whispered.
Asher reached out and gently squeezed Michael’s arm from a distance. “Then don’t think about it right now.”
Michael nodded his dark head.
They sat there in silence watching the murky river water flow past. The water level was lower than normal due to the lack of rain, and the small ferry boats churned the sediment on the bottom of the river each time they passed by.
When Michael opened a new bottle, Asher slipped it from his hand. “What the hell?” Michael objected, yet it didn’t stop Asher from scooping up the box with the remaining bottles and carrying it all to the nearest trashcan.
“I wasn’t done,” Michael growled.
“Yes you are.” Asher corrected.
Michael continued to glare at Asher. When Asher sat back down, he turned to face Michael and his tone suddenly softened. “Mike, I really like you, but this drowning yourself has got to stop.” Asher nervously tapped his fingertips on his thigh as he told Michael, “You think drinking will dull the pain, but it won’t.”
Asher hesitated, but when Michael didn’t deny it, he finally asked the question that has been on his mind since they met, “What happened to make you want to shut everyone out? I know that something destroyed your world and I swear to you, I'm not going to judge you. I only want to help."
The shock that crossed Michael’s face was confirmation. Asher had hit the nail on the head. Michael’s lip quivered as his eyes grew rounder.
When Michael didn’t speak, Asher tried again. “Call it an occupational hazard of being a bartender, but I’ve heard enough stories about pain and anguish to know when someone has deep scars buried in their past.”
Michael closed his eyes. His large body trembled as he took a raged breath.
“My father was killed when I was thirteen years old,” Michael whispered.
Asher gasped at the revelation, yet he didn’t interrupt Michael, who eyes filled with tears. The man that Asher was falling in love with looked so vulnerable and helpless. Michael sat there on the bench, lost in thought.
“We moved around a lot when I was a kid, since Dad was in the military. Most of my childhood was spend alone. Just when I started to make new friends it was time to pack up and move again. I was so angry at him for making us move all the time. Since I was always the new kid, I learned to play the role of the hard-ass military brat. I got good at it after always having to prove myself to the other kids. Before long, I couldn’t lose at anything and I never backed down. That was me, Mr. Competitive. I always had to be the best at everything.”
Asher quietly listened to Michael explain the painful memories of childhood.
“When I was twelve, Mom got pregnant. Everyone was so excited. Dad decided that he was going to retire and put down roots. After all those years, we were finally going to be able to call somewhere home. It was all I ever wanted, I was going to finally belong.” Michael sighed and rubbed his palms over his swollen red eyes. “But it didn’t last long. Six months after the twins were born, Dad was killed in a car accident coming home from work one night.”
“I’m so sorry, Mikie,” Asher murmured. Michael had told him very little about his family life before now. He knew the man was a loner, but never expected his pain to go so deep.
Michael slowly smiled at him, “My dad used to call me Mikie. After he died, I wouldn’t let anyone use his nickname, but I like to hear you say it.”
Asher wanted to pull Michael into his arms and erase the pain from his sad eyes, yet he sat there, still, barely able to breathe as he waited for Michael to finish.
“With Dad gone, we had to move again. This time we moved so Mom could be closer to my grandparents. Mom needed me now more than ever. It was up to me to be the man of the house. I worked even harder at school, then would come home and do all of my chores before helping Mom raise the twins. I was so angry at my dad. All I wanted was a place to call home and not be the outsider anymore and right after we settled in, he died.” Michael’s voice was barely a whisper.
“You can’t blame yourself, Michael. It was an accident.”
Michael nodded his head. “Everyone depended on me. They needed me. I had to just keep going and going, pushing myself harder and drowning all the pain, after years of burying those painful memories, I finally went numb.”
Asher reached out and laced his fingers through Michael’s. When he didn’t jerk his hand away, Asher reassured him with a soft smile, “I can’t take away your past, but believe me when I tell you, that you don’t have to face your future alone.”
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