A few mornings later, Jared retrieved the mail, yawning. He frowned as he saw letters addressed to him from both the Taylor law firm and the homeowner’s insurance company. He was so caught up in the adrenaline rush of anxiety gripping him that he almost ignored the other letter in the box. Then he saw the seal of the State of California. Recognizing something important he grabbed it, too, and headed inside.
Since he already knew what both M. Taylor and the insurance company were going to say – “Give us money, you fucking hippie scumbag” – he looked at the other letter first… and got the shock of his life. Addressed to Dustin G. Davis, it was from the State of California’s Department of Corrections. Jared stared at the letter in disbelief, then glanced out the window where he knew Dust and Ash ran around the property. Which was just funny, because Ash wasn’t into fitness, and Jared knew damn well that he was only doing it to look at Dustin in those stupid, gay, little running shorts he wore.
Jared could only think of two reasons that Dustin would get mail from California’s DOC, and since he knew damn well the boy wasn’t a law or criminal justice major looking for a job with them after graduation, Jared had a bad, bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. Stuffing the envelope in his pocket, he opened the two letters from his arch nemeses and read them, his guts twisting as his eyes flicked over the typed script.
The screen door banged open ten minutes later. Jared hastily stuffed the letters from the attorney and the insurance company back into their envelopes as Ash and Dust strode into the kitchen, flushed from their early morning run around the lake. As much as he was weirded out by it in the beginning, Jared could admit now that he was getting used to seeing his best friend touch and kiss another guy, a fellow band member at that.
“Morning, Jared.” Dustin’s smile was brilliant enough to light up the farmhouse kitchen as he headed for the stove and counter. Breakfast ingredients were already out and Dustin immediately went to wash his hands so that he could begin cooking.
“Hey man,” Jared said, “you guys, uh, have a good run?”
“Yeah,” Dust said. Ash scowled and disappeared down the hallway.
“What’s wrong with him?” Jared asked.
“He lost a bet.”
Jared raised an eyebrow as he lit a cigarette. Dustin took the full ashtray from the kitchen table and slid a clean, empty one into its place.
“Do I want to know what it was?”
Dustin’s grin was absolutely filthy. His light brown eyes, which gleamed like amber in the bright morning light, locked onto Jared’s face. “Nope. You sure don’t.”
Jared gave a laughing snort and shook his head. “You’re so good for him, Dust.”
Dustin’s face turned serious and his eyes softened. “Thanks, Jared. Thanks for that, man.” He turned back to his food preparation. Dust rolled biscuit dough onto the flour-covered counter and shook his hair back out of his eyes. “It really means a lot to hear you say that.”
Jared got up and walked over to where Dustin cut biscuits out and laid them on a greased baking sheet. Jared held the piece of unopened mail in one hand and his coffee cup in the other.
“I only speak the truth, Dust. I’m not blind. I see how you two are together, how Ash is with you. You’re good for him. S’about time he got his shit together and settled down.” Jared set his coffee cup down and stood behind Dustin so he didn’t get flour on his clothes. “Hey, you got something from the State of California Department of Corrections today.”
With excruciating slowness, he turned and met Jared’s eyes. Dustin was terrified of what he would see there, but all he found was quiet understanding and a mild curiosity. For that he was so incredibly grateful he wanted to weep.
“Uh, yeah. My hands are kind of… Maybe you could tuck that in my shorts?”
“No offense, Dust, but my hands aren’t going anywhere near your ass.”
Dustin couldn’t help it; the laughter exploded from him like a bomb detonating. “Uh huh, now you show your true colors!”
“It ain’t that, drummerboy,” Jared said, smiling as he took a step back. “It’s just that with my luck, as soon as I’d go to slip that letter in your shorts, Ash would walk in here and see me doing it. Next thing I know he’d be using my body to drag the bottom of Lake Tarun.”
Dustin started laughing and couldn’t stop. He went to the sink and washed all the flour off his hands then took the letter from Jared, still chuckling. But Jared didn’t let go of it. Dustin’s chuckles abruptly died. He met Jared’s eyes over the piece of mail, and Jared held Dust’s gaze, all humor gone from his face.
“Your business is your own, Dustin, but I love Ash like a brother. You hurt him, and I will fuck you up. We clear?”
Dustin bit his lip and counted to ten. Jared meant well; he wasn’t trying to be an asshole. Jared’s true, honest friendship, along with his incredible loyalty to Ash, motivated his words and behavior. But Ash getting hurt was not how things were going to end. No, when it all came tumbling down – and eventually it would – Dustin knew his heart would be the one lying mangled and bloody on the floor.
“It’s an acknowledgement of my change of address for the summer, Jared. I… I have to notify them when I move. So I did. I follow the rules. I do what I’m supposed to do. You want the whole story some night, I’ll tell you… right as soon as you tell me all about what you’ve got going on around the northeastern corner of the Farm.” Dustin took a step closer to Jared, his eyes narrowing. “Because you’re the one putting me in jeopardy if you’re doing what I’m pretty damn sure you’re doing. Not the other way around.”
Well fuck, Jared thought. He only intended to look out for Ash’s best interests, because Dustin couldn’t be getting letters from the Department of Corrections for any good reason. He let go of the piece of mail and Dustin shoved it under the waistband of those damn skimpy running shorts. Jared could tell the muscled blond drummer was pissed. Fuckety-fuck-fuck, Jared thought.
“What the fuck is going on in here?” Ash’s voice was full of righteous jealousy.
Oh even better. Jared rolled his eyes. He stepped back out of Dustin’s face and retrieved his coffee. Dustin went to Ash and slipped his arms around his chest.
“Nothing, baby. Just a misunderstanding. We’re cool.” Dustin shot Jared a look that clearly said, Agree with me, asshole.
“Yeah, Ash. It’s all good. I’m just hungry.”
Ash pulled Dustin in against his chest and kissed him, leaning in to nuzzle his ear. “You sure? I don’t ever need to walk into a room and see you that close to another guy, Dust.”
“Jealousy is not a becoming personality quirk,” Dustin said, one hand on Ash’s ass.
“Can’t help it,” Ash said, nuzzling into Dustin’s neck again. “You make me crazy. Never used to be this way, you know. I used to know how to share really well. Don’t want to share you at all.”
“So, uh, what’re you two doing today?” Jared asked, returning to the table and retrieving his smoldering cigarette.
Ash released Dustin so that he could finish up the biscuits and get started on the gravy. Ash plopped down in a chair opposite Jared.
“We’re gonna go visit Steve.” Ash smiled as a cup of coffee appeared in front of him, and he reached out, catching the edge of Dust’s shorts and yanking him back to wrap an arm around his waist. “Damn you’re good to me. Thank you, babe.”
Dustin laughed, ruffling Ash’s hair and getting flour in it. “You wanna let go of me so I can finish breakfast? Biscuits in the oven…”
Ash got in one more quick grope and let go, laughing as Dust smacked him and left a white handprint on his shoulder. He turned his attention back to Jared, who was frowning at him.
“What?” Ash asked.
Jared looked at Ash warily. “You’re seriously gonna visit Steve?”
“Yeah. He’s supposed to be out of ICU now, right?”
“He is,” Jared said. “You haven’t been in to see him at all, have you?”
Ash bristled. “I’ve been a little busy making sure the band could fulfill the summer’s contracts. You know, word of his accident traveled pretty fucking fast. I’ve had every Bride-zilla in Washington County on my cell phone in the last week.”
Jared held both of his hands up. “Ash, chill, man. I’m not criticizing. I’m just saying… you haven’t been in to see him, and so you haven’t been around to… Well… He’s real depressed. The chances of him keeping that arm aren’t good. He had to go through alcohol detox, and that was real hard. You know, Steve didn’t even think he had a problem, then he’s going through DTs and shit in the hospital. He’s got legal troubles, things are tough for the Teagues right now…”
Jared shook his head and met Ash’s eyes. “All I’m saying is that Steve could really use his friends. He knows how bad he fucked up. Just being in the hospital and having to put up with so much fucking pain all the damn time is punishment enough.”
Ash stared at Jared. “What do you think I’m going to do, Jared? Go in there and rip him a new asshole for being a drunk? I’m not some punk-ass bastard who’s only out for the bottom line. If I was I would’ve canned Steve three years ago.”
The heady aroma of sweet sausage and gravy filled the kitchen as Dustin turned up the gas, his housemates glaring at each other across the table. He pulled fresh biscuits from the oven and slid the next two trays in before going to the refrigerator and pulling out the bowl of fruit salad, which he weighed with his hands, frowning.
“Jesus, Jared! You hit this in the middle of the night again?” Dust complained.
Jared turned a guilty face to Dustin. “Uh… if I tell you it was the fruit fairy would you believe me?”
“Not a chance!”
“I’d apologize, Dust, but you’re the one who made me put the Doritos back on the shelf. When the munchies hit, I hafta feed ‘em something.”
Dustin rolled his eyes and started hauling whole fruit out of the fridge. “I swear I spend as much time cutting up fruit as I do playing drums.”
Ash got up and slipped behind his boy. “We can just buy fruit salad from the deli, you know,” he said, reaching around Dustin to steal a strawberry.
“It wouldn’t be as good, and it’s twice as expensive,” Dust said.
Ash watched as Dustin cored and cut up a strawberry with meticulous care and precision. He cut up three, and all three ended up sliced the exact same way. Ash slid his arms around Dust’s waist.
“I think you might be slightly anal retentive about your fruit salad,” Ash said.
Dust paused and turned to look at Ash. “I cannot begin to count how many things are wrong with you calling me anal retentive, Ashley.”
Jared choked on his coffee and swore, grabbing a napkin and mopping up his chin. Dust and Ash ignored him.
“Mmm, you know, when we get back from the hospital, I think I’d like to experiment with this bowl of fruit,” Ash said, stealing a grape and grinding against Dustin’s hip.
Dustin laughed. “Not today,” he said. “But I’ll remember you said that. Back up. I have to get the biscuits before they burn. And besides, you lost the bet, remember?”
Ash pouted. Jared saw it and his jaw dropped open. He managed to cover his reaction before the two boyfriends saw him. Jared had never seen Ash Redvers pout at anybody over anything. The cocky son of a bitch was a pathological user when it came to sex and his sex partners. Or at least… he had been before Dustin Davis came along.
“Yeah… I remember,” Ash mumbled.
“Oh, stop whining,” Dust said, removing the fresh biscuits. “You know as well as I do that you’ll love every minute of it. You’ll probably beg me for more.”
“Probably,” Ash whispered.
And just like that, Jared suddenly knew how things went behind closed doors for this couple. He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Ash was not the alpha in the relationship. For all of Ash’s jealousy and his overbearing possessiveness these past two weeks, he was not the dominant partner, and the more he thought about it, the more the idea of that didn’t really surprise Jared all that much. Weird.
They ate breakfast, talking about the next few weddings they had to play. Jared and Ash told Dustin about the Redvers family reunion, one of the two non-wedding events the Boys of Summer played every year. The other was the “Best Damn Band in the Land” competition held at the end of the summer. While the Boys had never won it, they’d competed so many years in a row that they had a really loyal fan base and following.
Jared lingered over another cup of coffee then stood. The whole situation with Dustin and his letter made him antsy. Jared was eclectic enough to consider it an ill omen. Very suddenly, he wanted all his drugs gone, exchanged for cash, which he desperately needed anyway. He resolved to try to deal out the last of his stash and then take care of the attorney/insurance situation. The latest set of letters hadn’t been nice. He wasn’t entirely sure if they could actually do what they threatened to do, but he sure as shit didn’t want to wait to find out.
“Well hey guys, I got shit I need to do, so when you see Steve, tell him I said hey, and not to party too hard with the nurses,” Jared said, standing up.
“You forgetting something?” Ash asked, his eyebrow raised.
Jared sighed. Goddamn but Ash had it bad. “Thanks for breakfast, Dust. It was great.”
“No problem, Jared. See you at practice later.”
Jared slid his cheap sunglasses on and banged out the door into the sunshine. The leaves on the trees curled upwards in a quest for moisture, but they had nothing but one scorching hot day after another. They could use some rain, he thought, trudging to his car. Fields could use it and so could his crop. As he pulled a joint from his glove box, he considered texting Lindy. He was pretty sure she worked at a law firm as a paralegal, or maybe she said legal secretary? He couldn’t remember. Fuck. He needed advice, and he couldn’t afford to pay for it.
He liked Lindy. She was hot as hell in bed and amazing to look at, which meant that after their night together, Jared hadn’t called her. He knew damn well what a woman like Lindy wanted, and it wasn’t a guy who was pushing thirty with no job save for playing the guitar. Not to mention that little issue he had with chemical substances of dubious legality.
Lindy hadn’t taken issue with his pot smoking, though. She came back to the Farm after her sister’s wedding and they stayed up most of the night talking, fucking, snacking, fucking, talking… By dawn he’d been damn near in love with her. He had his little speech all ready, the one he gave to his bed-warmers, but at 7:00AM Lindy took him into her talented mouth and gave him a blowjob that made him see stars. At 7:15 she was in the bathroom cleaning up, and at 7:30 she leaned over him, kissed him, and told him to thank the other guys for making her sister’s wedding so goddamned special.
Jared tried his best to make something come out of his mouth other than, “Uhhh…” but his brain wouldn’t function. She was so spectacularly beautiful in that dress, all the makeup scrubbed from her face, her eyes bright and her skin rosy from all her orgasms. She leaned down and gave him one last, lingering kiss, then she was gone, and Jared only found out later that at sometime during the night they traded phone numbers.
Which was a good thing, because he wanted to see her again. At the same time, it was a bad thing, because he was bad news and he couldn’t give a woman like Lindy what she needed or deserved. But Jared reminded himself, as he finished the joint and put the roach out in his ashtray in the Bug, that if he texted her asking about legal stuff, that he would simply be asking for professional advice, and that would be okay, wouldn’t it?
Jared thought about it for exactly thirty more seconds before pulling his phone out and bringing up her deets. He tapped out a message, erased it, wrote a different one, erased it, and did that for the next twenty minutes. Finally, he settled on this:
Hey Grrl, missing u. Need help w legal stuff. U do that, right? Will pay n trade. Know what u like. Call me. J.
Jared sent the message, then spent five minutes coaxing his ancient vehicle to life. In a swirl of hot dust and gravel, he pulled out of the Farm.
Dust was extremely apprehensive about this visit to Steve. Ash didn’t seem to understand that just because Steve didn’t have a right to be angry with him, it didn’t mean that Steve wouldn’t or couldn’t choose to be angry anyway. Several times as they were getting ready to leave - in the shower, as Dustin did his hair, when they were dressing - Dustin questioned if he just shouldn’t stay home, maybe wait until after Ash saw Steve once without him. Ash wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted Dust with him, end of story.
So here they were, walking into the Cannonston Memorial Hospital. Dust reached for Ash’s hand and saw that Ash’s hands were both firmly stuck in his pockets. He frowned. Ash never balked at showing him affection in public, and he was the one who insisted Dust accompany him to the hospital. Maybe he was just nervous about seeing Steve.
“You okay, Ashley?” Dust asked.
“Yeah,” Ash said, but he sounded preoccupied.
They rode in silence up to the fourth floor. As the doors opened and they stepped out, Ash exhaled, pulling his hands from his pockets. He strode down the hallway, his eyes glued to the numbered plaques by the doors. Dustin trailed behind him, taking in his hunched shoulders and the rigid line of his back. Ash was tense. For all his talk, he wasn’t looking forward to this visit.
When they found Steve’s room, Ash came to an abrupt halt. He put his back to the spotless white wall and looked helplessly at Dustin.
“What?” Dust asked, standing in front of him.
“I just know this is going to be bad,” Ash said, his voice low. “Don’t let me do anything stupid, Dust. Please? Steve knows how to push my buttons better than anybody in the band. Please don’t let anything he says come between us.”
Dustin reached out and pried one of Ash’s hands out of his pocket, twining their fingers together. “He’s hurt and in pain. He’s dealing with a world of trouble. No matter what he says, remember… he’s swimming in a pool of shit. He’s just trying to keep his mouth above the brown line, and from what I’ve heard, he’s failing.”
Ash stared at his boyfriend and shook his head. “That is so accurate and so sad I don’t know whether to laugh in amazement or cry.”
“How about we just go in and see what happens? And you keep a leash on that temper of yours.”
Ash nodded. He kept Dustin’s hand in his as he pushed Steve’s door open and they walked in.
The first thing Ash noticed was the sheer amount of machinery around the bed. Steve was attached to more than a dozen different types of leads and wires, with tubes running everywhere. Ash couldn’t imagine being strung up like that, and knew the restriction of movement alone would drive his friend crazy. Most of the stuff was on the right side of the bed, because Steve’s left arm was a horror show.
They hadn’t casted or bandaged it because of the nature of the injuries. His left arm was open-splinted, and the pins and screws cobbling Steve’s shoulder back together protruded from his flesh in bizarre, Frankenstein’s monster fashion. A thin plastic line ran from the swollen, dark purplish flesh of his upper arm into a bag, draining what Ash knew with a sick turn of his guts was infection. More titanium pins and screws protruded from Steve’s arm and hand, the entire limb restrained in an apparatus that hissed on hydraulics as it slowly applied traction.
Steve’s body was a healing mess of bruises, his face a mélange of blue, purple and fading areas of yellow. Like Matt, Steve was a big guy, six foot three and easily two hundred fifty pounds before the accident. He looked shrunken lying in the hospital bed, as though the bulk of his weight had been melted away, peeled off him by the injuries to his arm, or perhaps the alcohol detox. His eyes were closed, his face pinched in obvious pain, and Ash wondered if Steve should even be out of intensive care. Christ, the guy was a mess.
Dust gently squeezed Ash’s hand, and warm calm filled him. Steve was alive. That’s what was important. Ash spent an hour the night before talking to Mrs. Teague, Steve and Jason’s mom, and knew Steve’s prognosis was fairly good. If he’d just pull out of the depression, commit to his own recovery, and stay away from the goddamned alcohol, there was no reason he couldn’t keep his arm. All the doctors agreed that the power of positive thinking was the body’s greatest weapon against infection, and if Steve could beat it, then the arm would eventually heal. He was young, flesh and bone would mend, and physical therapy would give him back most of its use.
In Steve’s mind, though, the arm was already gone, and so was everything else.
Mrs. Teague hadn’t said it out loud, but the message came through loud and clear to Ash. Steve wasn’t dealing well with the Boys of Summer having another drummer and playing without him. He seemed to think they should’ve canceled the entire summer, defaulted on all their contracts, and screwed up the weddings of ten couples. That was one of the big reasons Ash was here. He had to make Steve understand that hiring Dustin wasn’t personal; it was business. Ash took a deep breath.
“Hey man,” he said softly.
Steve’s eyelids fluttered, and he turned toward Ash’s voice.
“Ash?” Steve’s voice was groggy with pain medication.
“Yeah. Wake the fuck up, dude. Jared said there was a party with a bunch of hot nurses down here. I want in.” Ash tugged Dust closer as he stalked toward the bed.
Steve chuckled weakly and opened his eyes, trying to focus on his friend. “That sounds like you. I knew Jason was out of his damn mind…” Steve’s voice trailed off as he took in Ash and Dust, his eyes flicking down to their joined hands. “Motherfucker.”
Steve closed his eyes, his lips thinning out. “Changed my mind. Need to rest.”
Dustin gave Ash a warning look, but Ash ignored him. “Steve, this is Dustin. He’s the drummer Jason found to sub for you this summer. I wanted you to meet him.”
“Yeah. Well, now I have. See ya later.”
Ash sprawled comfortably in one of the wide, boxy chairs the hospital provided and reached for the remote control sitting on Steve’s push table. He looked at Dust and at the arm of the chair.
“We’ll just hang out while you take a nap then. Dad said they installed digital cable on the TVs here. Like, 200 channels or something. Find any porn yet?”
“Your dad works at the hospital?” Dustin climbed up to perch on the edge of Ash’s chair with the easy grace of a skateboarder.
Steve snorted. “You let him fuck you in the ass and you don’t know what his dad does for a living. That’s fucking precious.”
Ash sat up and shot forward so fast that he nearly toppled Dust off the side of the chair. As he reached for Dust to steady him and Dust leaned in to keep from falling, they ended up in a tangle of limbs as Dust slid into Ash’s lap.
“Perfect, and now you’re planning on showing me? No thanks. I don’t even like anal sex with girls. It’s fucking dirty.”
Ash pressed his lips together, trying not to say anything. His entire body shook with suppressed rage. Dust slid his arms around him, his hand going into Ash’s hair and tugging as he put his mouth by Ash’s ear. “Mouthful of shit, remember? Let it go, Ash. Just let it go. Talk to him about the important stuff.”
Ash tried to calm down as he and Dust sorted themselves out. Steve studiously stared at the television. When he finally thought he could talk to his old friend without strangling him, Ash spoke.
“Steve, man, I didn’t come to upset you. I wanted to talk to you about the future.”
Steve’s laugh had the grating edge of broken glass to it. “The future, huh? Real fucking funny, Redvers. Get the fuck out of my room before I hit my call button and have the nurses get security up here.”
“Steve, do you want to drum for the Boys again or not? Because if you don’t, then I’m not going to waste my time.”
“It’s not about what I want, Ash! Look at my fucking arm! How the hell am I supposed to drum again?”
“The doctors say if you beat the infection, you’ll keep your arm.”
“You don’t strike me as a believer in miracles, man, and you know I ain’t no saint. This thing’s as good as gone, and those fucking doctors telling my parents what they want to hear won’t change what I know, what I feel.”
“And what’s that?” Ash asked, angrily.
“Nothing,” Steve hissed. “Not a goddamned thing. My whole fucking body hurts like hell, my shoulder’s on fire 24-7, but this arm? It might as well be on the scrap heap along with my truck, because I haven’t felt a fucking thing since I woke up here.”
Ash didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t a doctor and he had no knowledge of injuries like this. He didn’t know how to respond to Steve’s anger and fury. Ash just wanted to gather Dustin up and go, limp home and take solace in the sweet body of his new lover. He was ready to do just that when Dustin’s deep, sultry voice rang out in the quiet of the room.
“Steve, you damaged all the nerves in your arm. You won’t feel anything until they start to heal, and you should be happy about that. That’s going to hurt like hell.”
Steve turned his furious face to Dustin, and if looks could kill, Dustin would’ve disintegrated. “If I wanted to hear something out of you, I’d fuck you.”
Before Ash could barrel out of the chair and onto the bed to actually strangle Steve, Dustin laughed. “Oh sweetheart, you are so not my type! But thanks for the offer.” He sobered. “You’re laying here feeling sorry for yourself when you should be doing everything you can to heal up the infection and the worst of the injuries before the nerves start to heal. When they do, you’re going to need the support of the Boys more than ever because you’re going to want to drink to try and drown out the pain.”
“What the fuck do you know about injuries like mine?” Steve growled.
“I live with two research physicians. Besides, you’re not the first drummer to lose an arm. Rick Allen lost his left arm in 1984 taking a turn too fast in a souped up Corvette.”
“Motherfucking hell!” Steve shouted. He let out a frustrated caveman roar and threw an empty plastic pitcher across the room. “If one more asshole shoves Rick fucking Allen in my fucking face I’m going to fucking strangle myself with these fucking wires!”
Ash started to laugh. “You used to like Def Leppard, man.”
An attractive but stern-looking nurse in her mid-thirties came striding in, a notebook computer under her arm. “Is there a problem in here, Mr. Teague? Your creative language has made its way to the ears of your neighbors again.”
Ash looked at Steve. This was the moment of truth. If Steve truly wanted to be done with the band, if he was serious about everything he said, all he had to do was say the word and this nurse would simply tell Dust and Ash to leave. Rather than do that, though, Steve looked abashed.
“Hey Beth. This is Ash, uh, Cam Redvers… from the pharmacy… his son, and a friend of his. They’re in the band I play with.”
Play, Dustin noted, not played. Good. And apparently Ash’s father did work in the hospital, in the pharmacy, which was on the first floor by the main entrance. That was very interesting.
“Keep the F-bombs under control, Mr. Teague,” Beth warned, checking the various machines around him, “or you and I are going to have problems. How’s this pain medication? You doing okay with it?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
“Good. Any shakes today?”
Steve colored and looked away. “Nah, that’s all done. I’m fine.”
“You know, if you keep telling my nurses that you’re fine, we might start believing you.” She typed some notations into her notebook and gave Dust and Ash the hairy eyeball. “Don’t get him too riled up, guys. Despite his insistence that he’s fine, he’s not. If he doesn’t clear this infection soon, they’re going to transfer him up to Pittsburgh.” She gave Steve another hard look. “And I can tell you the nurses up there will not be nearly as nice about your dirty mouth.”
Steve laughed. “Beth, baby, if you’d just agree to that marriage proposal I made the first day I was here…”
She snorted and snapped the notebook closed, disconnecting it. “You think you’re the first guy stoned on morphine to ask me to marry him? You didn’t even call me an angel first.” And with that, she strode from the room, pulling the privacy curtain around them before she left.
Ash’s eyes followed her. “Now that’s one helluva woman.”
“No shit,” Steve said, eyes gleaming. “I live for the days she’s on shift. I have these wicked fantasies of her getting all mouthy like that wearing nothing but her stethoscope.”
Ash groaned and threw Steve a look. “Thank you very much, fuckface. That image will haunt me now for the rest of the day.”
Steve looked at Dustin, then back at Ash. “You sure you want to admit something like that in the present company?”
Ash sighed. “Steve… the band had a meeting. We talked about me and Dust. I’m sure Jason told you all about it.”
“Yeah, he did. I just couldn’t believe it. Since when do you suck dick?”
Ash ran his fingers through his long black hair and shook his head, gazing up at Steve. “Since I was about thirteen. Look, is it really important? Do you really care who I get down with?”
“Yeah, Ash, I do. Fuck, man, I feel like I don’t know who you are!”
“How fair is that when we’re sitting in a hospital because of your accident, man? I wouldn’t have even met Dustin if you hadn’t pulled this little stunt.”
“You don’t think that’s tearing me up? I feel like it’s somehow my fault that you’re… that you and him… Christ. I can’t even say it.”
“That I’m dating a guy? That I’m bi? You had nothing to do with it, Steve.”
“But like you said, he wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gotten hurt.” Steve pointed at Dust dramatically with his right hand.
“I’m filling in for a summer,” Dustin said. “I’m not here to take your place. I’m just here to do a job.”
Ash didn’t like to hear that, and it panicked him a little. He reached for Dust, holding him against his body as they sat at the foot of Steve’s bed. “Looks to me like you’ve settled right in,” Steve said darkly.
“Steve, what did you expect me to do?” Ash asked. “You got hurt. The band’s got responsibilities, man. People know the Boys of Summer. They count on us to make their weddings something special.”
“I know that.” Steve’s face was pinched with pain and something else, an elusive quality Dustin couldn’t quite identify.
“Do you?” Ash asked, leaning forward, his face earnest. “Do you understand that since you got hurt, I been on the phone with people who were worried that their weddings were gonna be ruined ‘cause the Boys weren’t gonna be there?”
“What do you want me to say, Ash?”
“I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to understand that Dustin drumming for the Boys was a business decision.”
Steve’s eyes traveled over Dust and Ash wrapped around each other in the wide chair at the foot of his hospital bed. His eyes, so expressive only moments before, went flat. The hot disapproval of Steve’s dark blue gaze hit Dust and Ash’s joined hands, their entwined legs, and then Dust’s shoulder where Ash’s long black hair lay fanned across his t-shirt.
“Right,” Steve said. “Business.”
Ash took a deep breath. “Steve, I love you like you were my own brother. But since you’ve joined the Boys, I’ve spent a lot of my time fixing your mistakes and cleaning up after your messes.” He held up his hand to stave off Steve’s objections. “Give me a minute to finish. I know the other guys make mistakes, too, and I’m okay with a certain amount of clean-up. I accept it as part of running the band. What I don’t accept is your alcoholism.”
Steve frowned. “But that’s gone! It’s over!”
Ash stared at him, incredulous. “And why do you think that?”
“I didn’t have a choice, Ash. I detoxed in intensive care. Didn’t Jared or Jason tell you?”
Ash sighed and didn’t bother trying to hide his irritation. He held his head in his hands, allowing Dust to pet his hair. Steve watched them with a disgusted look.
“Steve… just because your body isn’t soaked in alcohol anymore doesn’t mean your problem is gone. It just means you’re not physically addicted to the shit. Haven’t the doctors told you that you can’t ever drink again? That as soon as you pick up another beer or another bottle of liquor that you’re going to start the whole thing all over again? Fuck, man!”
It was obvious by the annoyed and closed down look on Steve’s face that he had heard the statements before, heard them and ignored them. If Steve couldn’t admit that he had a problem, and that he needed to get help, then this was all moot. It was all for not, because Steve would just wind up right back here. Or the next time, he’d kill himself.
“You can’t ever drink again, dude,” Ash said, quietly. “You’re going to die if you do.”
“It just got away from me, Ash,” Steve said, his eyes clear and his face earnest. “I’m not really an alcoholic. Hell, I’m not old enough to be an alcoholic! Christ! I’ve never even had a blackout!”
“Did they have to give you medication to help with the detox?” Dust asked, softly.
Steve glared at him.
“How many days did it last? Four? Five? Did you feel like your body was turning inside out? My uncle’s an alcoholic; he’s been through detox four times. He says midnight of the second day is always the worst, that that’s when you start praying for somebody to come kill you. What did you pray for, Steve?”
“Shut your nasty, faggot mouth,” Steve growled.
“Don’t talk to him like that. I’m sick of it,” Ash said, standing up. “Dust saved your ass coming down here to drum for you, and you’re such a clueless asshole you can’t even admit that you have a problem. Can’t even try to help yourself. You’re laying here like a lump, wasting away feeling sorry for yourself. How pathetic!”
“That’s right, sticking up for your faggot boyfriend. He suck you off before you came down here, Ash? I bet he does it before practice, too.” Steve’s eyes were wild and moist, darting around frantically. “Why wouldn’t you want him in the band instead of me? All I ever did was play the fucking drums. He plays and sucks dick – how could I compete?”
Ash pulled Dustin roughly to his feet. “We’re done here.” He turned them to face Steve. “You get your arm healed, your ass into rehab, and there’s a place in the Boys for you. Otherwise, we’re done. Don’t bother coming back.”
Ash turned to go and took all of two steps before Steve shouted. “Ash!”
Ash whirled around, his chest heaving. “Unless you’re going to admit to being an alcoholic, or as gay as I am, we have nothing more to say to each other!”
Steve recoiled, his head pushing into his pillow.
“That’s what I thought,” Ash said.
Ash grabbed the edge of the privacy curtain and tore it aside… to reveal his parents, standing side by side with Mr. and Mrs. Teague.
For a long moment they all just stood there silently, the air heavy with tension. Ash took in the haggard expression on Mr. Teague’s face and the drawn, tear-stained face of Mrs. Teague before he even looked at his own parents, whom he’d been avoiding because of the whole Dustin situation. His mother looked curiously from Ash to Dustin and back, taking in their joined hands as she apprised the young man her son was very obviously involved with, but his dad…
The look on his father’s face was so filled with disgust, so completely and thoroughly consumed with disdain that Ash couldn’t stand it. That look, coming from his father, was a steel shaft through his heart, piercing and almost crippling in its intensity. Ash dropped Dust’s hand, looked at the floor, and shook his head.