By Tim Mead
Some time between supper and bedtime on Thursday Ben noticed he wasn't feeling well. At work he'd been busy, unaware that anything might be wrong, but that evening his body began to ache, and he felt as if he might have a fever. His supper wasn't sitting too well either. He tried to keep working on the Captiva novel, but finally decided he needed to quit.
At 10:00 he took some Tylenol and went to bed. He had a restless night, alternately sweating and shivering with cold. Mr.Tibbs was so annoyed with his flopping around in the bed that he left the room. When, finally, morning came, Ben felt worse rather than better Unable to think of food, he got up and fixed himself a cup of tea. He took more Tylenol. At 8:30 he called the office and told Sharon's secretary he had the flu and wouldn't be in. She said she'd pass on the message and hoped he'd be better soon.
He realized he'd have to call Toby and Bruce and rescind their invitation to supper that evening, but he didn't know when they got up, so he decided he'd better wait a while. He climbed back into bed and fell asleep.
When he woke up about 10:00 AM he called the house across the street and got the answering machine. He left a message apologizing, saying he had come down with the flu and that he'd call them to reschedule when he was feeling better. Then he collapsed back into bed. He thought he should have a shower, but he didn't think he had the strength. He'd felt dizzy on his way from the phone back to the bed.
At noon he called his doctor's office and left a message describing his symptoms. While he was up he drank some orange juice. He stayed in bed the rest of the day, getting up only to wobble into the bathroom to relieve himself. He knew he should drink lots of fluids with his fever, but the penalty for that was having to get up every couple of hours.
He was awakened about 2:30 by his doctor's nurse saying she'd phoned in a prescription for an antibiotic to his drugstore. She told him to be sure to take all the medication, even if he began to feel better. And to call back the next week if he didn't. He thanked her, used the john, and once more collapsed into bed.
This time, however, he couldn't sleep. All he could do was lie there and feel miserable. His head was pounding, his body ached, and he was burning up -- except when he was under the bedcovers shaking with cold. He worried that he should have told Sharon's assistant what to do about some pending business on his desk, but there was no point in calling this late on a Friday afternoon. He'd just take care of it on Monday.
Mr. Tibbs, who'd been avoiding him most of the day as if he feared he'd get Ben's malady, jumped on the bed and made it clear that he was hungry. Since Ben hadn't paid any attention to Tibbs' food and water bowls all day, he realized he'd better see to the cat's needs.
"Sorry, Tibbs, you'll just have to put up with me for a few days."
Mr. Tibbs looked up from his food bowl long enough to comment. "Yeow."
Not feeling any better but tired of the bed, Ben pulled an old bathrobe over his naked body. Then because his feet were cold, he went to the bedroom, found a pair of wool socks, and put them on. Returning to the living room, he sat in the recliner Trent had hated. He'd just put his head back when the phone rang.
"Ben, it's Toby. How are you doing?"
"Oh, I'm okay, Toby. Thanks for calling. But you don't need to – "
"You don't sound okay. You sound terrible. Is your front door unlocked?"
"I don't think so."
"Can you unlock it? I'm coming over."
"Really, Toby, you – "
There was a click and the line went dead. Ben got up and went to unlock the door. He wasn't back to his chair when Toby came in carrying a plastic food container.
Obviously concerned by Ben's appearance, Toby exclaimed, "God, Ben, you look awful!"
"Which is exactly how I feel. But you shouldn't be here. You might get this crud."
"I'll take my chances. Now, how long's it been since you've taken a fever reducer?"
"I had a couple of Tylenol this morning."
"Well, let's get you some more. Where are they?"
"In the master bath, but you don't want to go in there." Ben was thinking of the state of his towels.
"Don't be silly. Where's your bedroom?"
Ben pointed, and Toby left.
When he got back, he went into the kitchen, opened a cabinet or two until he found glasses, and came back with more orange juice and the bottle of Tylenol. He made Ben take two.
"Have you talked with your doctor?"
Ben, whose head was spinning, said weakly, "Yeah."
"Have you had anything to eat today?"
"Don't you know you're supposed to feed a fever?"
"Well – "
"I've brought you some soup. What did the doctor say?"
"I didn't actually talk with him. I left a message and his nurse called back. They've phoned in a prescription to Bostwick's Pharmacy over by the campus."
"Yeah, I know that place. I'll put the soup over very low heat and go get the scrip."
"I'm not sure I can manage the soup, but I'd really appreciate your getting that prescription. It's an antibiotic of some kind. Wait a sec and I'll get you some money."
Toby looked embarrassed. "I wouldn't mind paying for it, but I'm low on cash until I can get to an ATM."
Ben got up and went into the bedroom. He brought back a handful of bills and gave them to the great looking young Hawaiian. "I hope that'll be enough."
Toby went back to the kitchen, where Ben heard him opening and closing things again. He breezed through the living room saying only "Sit down. Rest. I'll be back in a few minutes."
A half an hour later he was back, apologizing because there had been a line at the pickup counter at the drug store. He put some bills and some coins on the end table, went to the kitchen, came back with a glass of water and handed Ben a capsule. "It says to keep taking these until they're all gone, even if you're feeling better."
"Yeah," Ben mumbled, "that's what the nurse said." He obediently swallowed the capsule, thinking that Toby was acting very motherly. And he found himself rather liking it.
After disappearing into the kitchen, Toby returned in a few minutes with a bowl of steaming hot chicken soup, a spoon, even a paper napkin, all of which he put on the coffee table, being sure there was a magazine under the soup bowl.
"Would you like me to feed you?"
"Uh, no, thanks. I think I can manage." He took a tentative sip. "This is good! Did you make it?"
Toby smiled. "Yep. It's my mother's recipe. I keep some in the freezer for times when Bruce and I want something warm and nourishing and don't have time to cook."
Mr. Tibbs entered the room, spotted Toby, and climbed into his lap, where he proceeded to make himself at home.
Ben ate slowly, finishing about half the bowl while Toby watched. Then he put the spoon down and said, "It's great, but that's all I can manage right now."
"Okay. I'll put the rest in your fridge and you can have it tomorrow."
"Toby, it's bad enough I asked you and Bruce for supper and had to renege. I don't want to spoil your Friday night. You guys need to relax at the end of a busy week."
Smiling again, Toby said, "Bruce is reading, and I've got nothing going on."
"Reading? Isn't that sort of a busman's holiday for him?"
Toby gave Ben a big grin. "I'll tell you his nasty secret, but you mustn't let on you know."
"Are you sure you should tell me?"
"Oh, yeah. He'll be embarrassed, is all. You see, Bruce the English TA and future Ph.D. has a taste for trashy romances. He knows they're all written to formula for simple-minded housewives with nothing better to do. But he's hooked on them. He says it's fascinating to see how the writers do variations on a few basic themes."
A sudden coughing fit interrupted what Toby was saying.
"Ben, you okay?"
"Yeah, just got a tickle in my throat. Sorry."
"Well, you obviously don't feel like making conversation, so I'll be going. Let's see, tomorrow's Saturday. Can I have a spare key to your place?"
"Because after my run I'm going to come and check on you, see that you get some breakfast. If you're still asleep I'll leave and come back later."
"You don't have to do that."
"Maybe not, but I'm going to. Now, you rest. I hope you feel better soon. I left my number on the pad beside the phone in the kitchen. If you have a phone in the bedroom, maybe you'd better take it in there."
"In case you need us in the night."
"Toby, why are you being so nice to me? You hardly know me."
Again the smile. "I like you, Ben. Even if I didn't, you're all alone. Right now you obviously need help. You probably won't need us tonight, but I'll bet there's nobody else in town you'd call if you had an emergency, is there?"
Ben hadn't thought of it, but without Trent, there wasn't anyone he could think of.
He sighed. "As you said, I shouldn't have to bother you tonight. Let me get you a key. No harm in your having that anyway. Somebody should have one in case something happens to me at work so they could get in and take care of Tibbs."
Toby stroked the cat for a minute or so and then set him on the floor. "Rest well, my friend. See you in the morning."
"Thanks, Toby. I should be okay by tomorrow."
"Don't forget to take the antibiotic when the bottle says to."
Toby saw himself out, and Mr. Tibbs climbed onto Ben's lap. He yawned and then closed his eyes.
"Looks like I'm second best when Toby's around," he said, stroking the cat's sable fur.
As good as his word, Toby showed up the next morning to check on Ben. In fact, he stopped back in that evening and again after his run on Sunday morning.
The antibiotic had given Ben diarrhea, so he was forcing fluids to keep from becoming dehydrated. His temperature, though not back to normal, was lower, so he wasn't having chills. He still felt shaky, however, and very weak when Toby popped in that Sunday morning. Toby had been giving him ginger ale since he couldn't tolerate the orange juice because of the diarrhea. "Let's try some tea and dry toast this morning."
"You'd make someone a great mother. Or wife," Ben said, grinning at Toby.
"You'd better believe it," Toby replied, smiling back.
He disappeared into the kitchen and a few minutes later said "Can you come to the kitchen? Want some help? Or should I bring this to you?"
Ben went to the kitchen. He was able to eat the toast and drink the tea Toby had fixed.
"Now, I'll be back at noon. Are you taking your Imodium?"
"Yes, and it's helped."
"Well, you take it easy. See you later. Call if you need me."
"Toby, you've been great! But you've got your own life. I imagine you have studying to do. Or things you want to do with Bruce. Don't worry about me. I'm better than I was."
Toby grinned. "There are things I'd like to do with Bruce, but he won't let me. And, yeah, I've got studying to do today. But I'll be back at noon."
"Let me just heat up some of that chicken soup at noon. That way you won't have to come back."
"Okay, if you promise to give a shout if you need me. I'll be at home all day."
Ben was lucky. Some strains of flu leave their victims laid up for a week or more. By Sunday afternoon, however, Ben was beginning to feel better. Though he still felt a bit shaky, he had the diarrhea under control, and he didn't have to take Tylenol for fever or body aches any more.
The phone rang. It was Sharon, his boss. "Ben, how are you feeling?"
"I think I'll live. I might even be able to come back to work tomorrow."
"Don't even think of it! Nobody gets over the flu that quickly. You came down with this Thursday night, didn't you?"
"What are your symptoms at this point?"
"Well, doc, the fever has broken and I don't ache all over. I've got, uh, Montezuma's Revenge from the antibiotic, but it's under control with an OTC product."
Sharon chuckled. "Yeah, antibiotics do that to a lot of us. And what would we do without good old Imodium?"
"So mainly I'm still just pretty weak. But honestly I could come in tomorrow. It's not as if you have me toting barges and lifting bales."
"No, Ben. I mean it. Stay home. Rest. Oh, but there is one thing, if you're up to it."
"And that would be?"
"We have to advertise my position. I've written up the announcement, and, of course, I can approve it before it goes out. Under the circumstances, however, I'd like you to take a look at it first."
"Covering your ass, boss lady?"
She laughed. "Let's just say a second opinion couldn't hurt. If it's okay with you, I'll email it to you in the morning. If you feel up to it, give it a look and send me any comments, okay?"
"Glad to, Sharon. And thanks for your concern. Or were you just calling because you had a job for me?" It was his turn to chuckle.
"You know better than that! Now, rest, take care of yourself. Don't come in Tuesday unless you're really feeling a lot better. Got that?"
"Cut that out!"
"You're hopeless," she said, sounding both amused and exasperated. "Goodbye, Ben."
He'd no sooner returned the phone to its cradle than it rang again.
This time it was Toby. "You must be feeling well enough to talk to your admiring public on the phone."
"What public? That was my boss, calling to tell me not to come to work tomorrow. And that she was sending me some work to do here at home."
"Geez! She sounds like a slave driver."
"Not at all. She's pretty cool, actually. I'll be sorry to lose her."
"Lose her? What's that all about?"
"I'll explain sometime."
"Well, I got sick of grading lab reports, so I made a chicken, rice, and asparagus casserole. Do you think you're up to that?"
"Maybe. But what's Bruce going to eat?"
"I made one for him, too. I'll be over at 6:00. Don't set the table. I'll do that when I get there."
Ben decided he'd better shave and shower before Toby got there. He was surprised to find he wasn't too weak to do that. Afterward he pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt. Despite Toby's injunctions, he was setting the table when Toby rang the doorbell. He was also surprised to find that he was hungry. The casserole Toby was carrying in between pot holders smelled wonderful.
The young man turned Ben's oven to the Warm position and put the casserole in.
"Toby, I had better not have anything alcoholic since I'm on the antibiotic, but I've got some nice chardonnay in the fridge. Would you like some?"
"Sure, but I hate to drink in front of you."
"No problem. I'll have some of the ginger ale. Maybe if I put it in a wine glass, I can fool myself."
Toby chuckled and said, "You go in the living room and sit. I'll do the honors."
"You've sure learned your way around my kitchen in a hurry."
"It's not that different from our kitchen."
A moment later Toby came in with two glasses. He handed one to Ben and then sat down. Mr. Tibbs was there to jump into his lap.
"So what's this about your boss?"
"She's taking a job in Cleveland the first of the year."
"Let's see, I think you told me she's the Colby County Public Information Officer, right?"
"And what's your title?"
He grinned. "Second in command, huh?"
Ben shook his head. "Not much command involved. Some days I feel more like the second banana. But Sharon's good at what she does and great to work for. That's one of the reasons I'll miss her when she goes."
"One of the reasons?"
"Well, I have no way of knowing who my new boss will be or how easy he or she will be to work with."
Toby sat there for a minute stroking Mr. Tibbs. After taking a sip of his wine, he said, "I suppose you're applying for the position. It would make sense to move you up, wouldn't it?"
"They've practically assured me I've got the job if I want it. But I've already said no to that."
Toby looked startled. "Why, Ben?"
"Because I don't want the job."
Looking mildly exasperated, Toby said, "I'd figured that out. But why don't you want the job? Most people would jump at a promotion."
Here was a problem for Ben. How could he tell Toby he didn't need the money and didn't want the public spotlight without revealing why?
"Uh, it's like this. I've got a desk job. I don't mind it, and I think I'm good at it. Putting me in Sharon's job would be putting the Peter Principle into action. I'd be promoted to my level of incompetence. She's the point person between the County and the media. And that's just not for me. Besides, as a department head I'd have to deal with people like the head of finance, who's a witch, the Sheriff, who thinks the sun shines out of his own ass, and so on. I'd be a manager, and I don't think I'm cut out for that."
Stroking the cat with one hand and swirling his wine with the other, Toby said, "You may be selling yourself short. I'll bet you could rise to the challenge." He took a sip of wine. "But listen to me! I'm talking as if I had a right to give you advice. I'm sorry Ben. I'll mind my own business."
"Toby, I'm not offended. I'm flattered by your confidence in me." He grinned. "Maybe you just don't know me well enough."
Later, after they'd eaten a meal of salad plus Toby's surprisingly good casserole and Toby had loaded and turned on the dishwasher, they were back in the living room with mugs of coffee. This time Mr. Tibbs was stretched out on the floor between the chair where Ben was sitting and the sofa where Toby had parked himself.
"Ben, I can't stay long. I've got some work to do before tomorrow."
"I understand. The life of the TA, both teacher and student, can't be easy."
"Hey, it's grueling sometimes, but I'm not complaining. What I was starting to say is that I've got to go, and I don't want to wear you out. You need to rest. But there's a question I've been meaning to ask."
"I'm fine. What's your question?"
"Well, it's none of my business, really."
"Ask. If I don't want to answer it, I won't."
"It's about your former partner."
Ben tensed up. "What about him?"
"I think you told me once that he was unfaithful to you?"
"Did I tell you that?"
"Yeah, how else would I know it?"
"Okay. I guess I'd just forgotten."
"So that's right?"
Ben took a deep breath. "Yeah. I got off work early one afternoon and came home. I walked in on Trent and a CSU jock banging away."
"And that ended the relationship?"
"Damn right! How would you feel?"
"Hurt. Mad. Like I could never trust him again, I suppose."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Toby obviously wasn't through yet, so Ben waited.
"Do you ever hear from, uh, Trent?"
"Oh, so you're on good terms now?"
"No, after two years the son of a bitch still emails me, sends me cards, and things. He keeps saying he's sorry and wants me to tell him I've forgiven him."
"Is he suggesting you get back together?"
"He gave up doing that about a year ago. Now it's just his repeated apologies."
"Ben, it sounds to me as if anybody that persistent must really be sorry. Have you thought about forgiving him?"
Toby nudged Mr. Tibbs with his foot. The cat rolled over onto his back, legs splayed apart, to get his belly rubbed. Toby leaned down, picked up the cat, and pulled him onto his lap, where he rubbed his belly. "Man, listen to that motor run! Tibbsy, you really like that, don't you guy?"
Ben thought for a moment how he might like it if Toby were to rub his stomach. Quickly putting that thought aside, he said, "You've got something else to say about Trent?"
"I've got no right to say anything."
"Toby, we've been through that. Talk to me."
"Well, it's just that, uh, I don't think anybody would keep sending you stuff saying how sorry he is if he didn't mean it. After all, what's he got to gain? Are you gonna make him grovel forever? I mean, we all do things we're sorry for. Sometimes the only thing we can do is make a sincere apology, and it seems to me that Trent's done that."
"Do you know Trent or something?"
Ben was sorry he'd asked that when he saw the hurt in Toby's eyes.
"No, of course not. And I've gone too far. It's time for me to leave." He set Mr. Tibbs on the floor and stood.
"No, man, forget I asked that. I know you don't have an ax to grind here."
"Well, it's still time for me to go. I hope you won't hold it against me that I asked."
"Believe me, I don't. I'm sorry for what I said." Ben was acutely embarrassed. "Look, guy, you've been a good friend. I don't know what I would have done this weekend without you. I owe you bigtime. And the last thing I want to do is make you think I don't appreciate your friendship."
Toby's smile caused long-forgotten feelings inside Ben.
"Finally! I've been trying to become your friend for some time now. I'd hate to think I'd done anything to create any kind of barriers to that." He went to the coat closet and pulled out his jacket. "I put plastic wrap over the casserole dish so you can have the leftovers tomorrow for lunch or supper. I'll talk to you some time tomorrow and see how you're doing."
Ben offered his hand. "Thanks, Tobe. I really appreciate all you've done."
Again the smile. "Tobe, huh? I like that!"
At the door, Toby turned and said, "I'm gonna risk something here. I hope you'll think about forgiving Trent. It won't hurt you. It will make his life easier, and it might make you feel a lot better, too. You don't wanna live the rest of your life carrying a grudge."
With that he waved and walked out, closing the door behind him.
Tibbs rubbed against Ben's leg and said, "Yeow."
Ben looked down at him and said, "Slut!"
If you'd like to write me about this story, please do c/o email@example.com. Be sure to put the name of the story in the subject line so I'llknow it isn't spam. Thanks. --Tim