Matt and Mike lay quietly in one another's arms after making love repeatedly. They were now happily at rest in the master bedroom of their condo at Snowmass, and if human contentment produces an aura, they and their bed were aglow.
Love, exhilaration, joy, gratitude, peace, along with total physical fulfillment-- these were the sensations that flooded Matt's being as he awakened during the early morning hours in Colorado on that second day after their wedding. He stretched languorously, and his eyes lingered on Mike's face, covered with a stubble Matt always found very sexy. He loved the man lying asleep beside him so completely that he knew he would never, by choice, want to leave his side again. Smiling to himself, he admired the wedding band not long ago placed on his left hand by his partner, and rotated it around and around on his ring finger.
Declaring themselves before God and man in front of St. Stephen's altar had been so right for them. It had been an unforgettable milestone that fused their public words and private feelings for each other into a firm intention to live in joyful commitment together for the remainder of their time on the earth. Making those vows while surrounded by their children and their extended family--the core of their world--and then being fêted by their friends at a huge reception back at the condo was a very special bonus.
They had been astonished and gratified at the presence and support of their friends and classmates in far larger numbers than they had ever expected. As controversial as gay marriage might be in some quarters, it was clear from the sheer numbers of those gathered for the ceremony and the party afterward that these two men were loved and admired by many. A magnificent buffet had been laid out in the dining room, and in the mammoth living room a dance floor had been installed over the carpeting. A live and versatile band played everything from the latest hits to golden oldies to entice people to dance. While the evening was yet young, everyone gathered in the living room to be served a glass of champaign and listen to Jeff deliver a hilarious toast to the newlyweds that cleverly mocked their swimming-wrestling prowess and athletic rivalry. Only Jeff the big jock could have pulled it off so well. Stan laughed until he almost peed his pants.
In the wee hours of the morning after the reception was finally over, they gently undressed one another and climbed into bed.
"I know who I am because of you," Mike had whispered softly to Matt. And it was true. For both of them at that moment, completion of self in their love for the other trivialized everything else in their lives.
Matt had come to realize over time that although his and Mike's relationship was deeply passionate and robustly physical, it also encompassed a kind and gentle dimension. It was remarkably free of any hidden anger. For whatever reason, Matt had concluded, they had no unresolved issues from their childhood or their youth that fanned resentments to sabotage the total intimacy they both reveled in. They certainly fought and disagreed on occasion, and would again, but their fights were never stoked by "old news" in their respective psychological makeup. And at this point in their lives, they trusted one another completely. They were true soul mates.
Once they had arrived on Sunday in Aspen by way of a connecting flight from Denver, they had shopped the town for skis, ski poles, boots, gloves and ski clothes because all their ski paraphernalia was stored away neatly back in Pennsylvania. Buying all new stuff had been pricey, but worth it from several standpoints, including the improved safety of the newest ski bindings on the market.
By that afternoon they had made their way the few miles up the road from Aspen proper to Snowmass, put their luggage in the condo, and were out on the slopes. They were both excited to be there together. The chairlift rides up the mountain had been a good opportunity to make out, which they did without being too obvious about it by pretending to huddle together against the wind. Matt's lips tasted like Chapstick, Mike noted, but that didn't stop him from thoroughly enjoying the action. He would take Matt's lips any way he could get them.
At the top, Mike had carefully studied the degree of difficulty of the various runs from a map before they started down the mountain. He chose only the easier runs so as to minimize the likelihood that Matt would get into difficult terrain and fall and hurt his chest. Both expert skiers, they were eager to see if they still had their skills. Matt had wanted nothing more than to just let himself go and throw himself into the black diamond expert runs, but he knew that Mike would have had a conniption if he had taken the chance. And Mike was right, of course--Matt had to admit he still tired easily. So they had rested from time to time between some challenging skiing on the more moderate hills. It had been a fine day to be on the slopes, sun and clouds fighting each other for dominance, in the upper twenties at the bottom of the mountain, in the single digits at the top, with fresh powder floating down at intervals as they carved their way down the mountainside through the newly fallen snow in the ethereal silence.
After they had made several top to bottom runs, Matt finally admitted he was getting tired and had had enough. He urged Mike to get on the lift and make an additional run alone so he could ski all out without having to worry about him. But Mike wouldn't go without him, so they took their skis off and made their way back to the condo. Once inside, they dropped their jackets on a handy bench by the door, removed their ski boots, and stood in the hall enjoying a deep kiss that made both of them half hard. When they eventually unclenched and went into the living room, Mike went over to the fireplace.
"Your ass looks hot in those ski pants," Matt observed as Mike walked away and bent over to add logs to the hot coals.
"Let me clarify that for you," Mike retorted. "My butt looks hot, period. It has nothing to do with the ski pants. And it just keeps getting hotter looking. Being around you makes it hotter, I think. Heh."
"Yeah. My butt knows it has to keep improving. It knows that at the first sign of any flab, this relationship will be in big trouble."
"It is your most important part. Well, maybe not the most important part..."
Mike came back and put his arms around his partner. "You're such a perv!"
"I know. Doncha love it? It's one of my finer qualities. Maybe my best."
"Hang on to your good qualities. They're hard to come by for lawyers. Which reminds me of a story..."
"I've created a monster," Matt protested. "Since your joke gene got activated, it's gotten way outta control."
"Shutup," Mike instructed, smiling and tightening his embrace so Matt couldn't get away.
"Two alligators are sitting on the edge of a swamp. The
small one turns to the big one and says, 'I don't
understand how you can be so much bigger than I am.
We're the same age, we were the same size as kids...
I just don't get it.'
"'Well,' says the big alligator, 'what have you been
"'Lawyers, same as you,' replies the small alligator.
"'Hmm. Well, where do you catch 'em?'
"'Down at that law firm on the edge of the swamp.'
"'Same here. Hmm. How do you catch 'em?'
"'Well, I crawl under a BMW and wait for someone to
unlock the door. Then I jump out, bite 'em, shake the
shit out of 'em, and eat 'em!'
"'Ah!' says the big alligator, 'I think I see your
problem. See, by the time you get done shakin' the shit
out of a lawyer, there's nothin' left but lips and a
Matt laughed his big, deep laugh, and pulled Mike to him more tightly.
"Have mercy, I have created a monster," he said. "So, monster-boy, how 'bout a shower? These almost-lawyer lips wanna kiss your hot little ass. I can check for flab while I'm down there. You know, the bite test."
Mike laughed and kissed his partner, giving Matt some tongue. "I have a better idea," he said when they came up for air. "The building people serviced and filled the hot tub. Let's soak awhile. Then we gotta call home and talk to the kids, or they'll be mad. And I miss 'em like crazy."
"Me, too. Once again you're out and out brilliant, bro! That's the bottom line!" Matt said. They went off toward the hot tub, which was out on a balcony designed so that it was protected from the view of neighbors. Matt started feeling up Mike's ass as they walked. "Just a preliminary check-up on the flab question," he said as Mike swiveled his hips and tried to swat Matt's hand away, to no avail.
"Help me, I married Satan," Mike said laughingly as he squirmed around trying to get away.
They started losing articles of clothing along the way to their destination, and by the time they reached the hot tub, they were both beautifully, gloriously naked and erect. Removing the vinyl cover and activating the tub's circulation, they sank gratefully up to their necks into the steaming water as their hands began roaming and touching all the right places on one another's body. There were no wrong places.
* * *
Stan Rosinski sat on the big leather couch in the deep silence of Matt's and Mike's den back in Chicago on the Monday night after Thanksgiving. He hummed to himself as he worked through the latest exercise in preparation for his accounting class the next day. Linda was back in her little apartment watching television, Mary was in her bedroom, and the little boys were tucked into their beds.
"Piece 'o cake. You're brilliant!" Stan told himself aloud with satisfaction as he finished up his assignment, the accounts in balance. He closed his books, threw down his pencil, and pushed back into the couch to relax, swinging his feet up onto the coffee table as everybody who sat on the couch usually did.
The newlyweds had called the previous night from Colorado to talk to the boys and him and Linda and Mary Bradford. Everything was fine in Chicago, although the little guys clearly missed their two dads already and were a little cranky about their absence. They had seemed somewhat mollified after they heard Matt's and Mike's voices on the phone, though.
The previous Saturday's wedding had affected Stan more than he had expected. He didn't consider himself a romantic, but he had been moved by the ceremony, and particularly by the vows Matt and Mike had made to one another. He had found himself praying hard during the nuptial mass for the two men who had become closer friends to him than he had ever thought he would have in his life. More like his brothers, really. The love and care and respect that the two Bromans had shown him and Linda since they had all lived together was fully reciprocated, and the impact of the service had been such that he and Linda had been motivated to set the date for their own marriage--the first Saturday of the coming February--provided that the pastor in Linda's home parish could accommodate them.
Stan caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and looked toward the hall door. Kyle, dressed in his little Spider Man PJ's, poked his head into the doorway to see who was in the den. He was clutching his "blankie," a tattered remnant of his first baby blanket and constant bedtime companion that by now was much the worse for wear.
"Kyle," Stan said softly, "commere, little dude."
The little boy came into the den, went to the couch, and climbed into Stan's lap without hesitation. Stan kissed the top of Kyle's head as he snuggled up to the man.
"I thought you were in bed," Stan said, craning his neck to look into the boy's face.
"I was. But I woke up," Kyle said, rubbing sleepy eyes.
"Uh huh," Stan said. "Are Matthew and Michael sleeping?"
"Do you want me to read you another story?"
Kyle turned his head and looked up at Stan trustingly. "Yes, please."
"Gimme a smooch, then," Stan demanded.
The little guy puckered up and kissed Stan primly on the lips.
"You're such a good boy, Kyle," Stan said. "Good looking, too!"
Kyle pushed his face into Stan's chest, giggling sleepily.
"All right, what would you like to hear?" Stan leaned forward and began rummaging through the kids books and comic books which were in disarray on the coffee table.
"Spider Man!" Kyle said with finality.
Stan picked up a Spider Man comic book. "He's your favorite now, huh?"
"OK." And Stan began reading the comic book, pointing out the pictures as he went along. Ten minutes later, Kyle was fast asleep, breathing softly.
Stan dropped the comic book back on the coffee table, and sat there unmoving, cradling Kyle in his arms. Contemplating the beautiful child sleeping in his lap, he wondered how different his own life would have been if he had ever received the love and care as a child which was lavished on the three little Broman boys day in and day out.
Matt and Mike, along with Linda and Mary, had really taught Stan how to give and receive love, he knew that without question. Love and human kindness had never been in his repertory until it had been modeled for him by these very special people who had come his way. Better late than never, he thought to himself. The anger and pain that had once been the center of his being were rarely a presence in him now, and seldom remembered.
He put his nose in Kyle's blond hair, savoring the clean smell, and just sat there holding him against his chest, thinking about having his own children some day with Linda. Thanks to their experience in helping parent Matthew, Michael and Kyle, he and Linda wouldn't take on raising their own family without knowing the challenges. Or the rewards. He was grateful for that.
He was still sitting there a half hour later when Linda came into the room, smiling when she saw Stan holding Kyle in his arms.
"Somebody couldn't sleep, I see," she said quietly, easing down beside her fiancé on the couch.
"Yeah. You know, Lin, I'd kill anybody who ever hurt one of these little guys. Without a second thought."
"You'd have to stand in line. But I don't think we're gonna have to worry about that," Linda said.
"I hope not. I do sometimes, though."
"Are you ready to put him back to bed?"
"Yeah," Stan said a little reluctantly, moving forward on the couch until he could get his legs under himself and stand up with the boy in his arms. "Bring his 'blankie,' hon."
"I have it."
The young couple walked down the hall to the boys' room together, and gently put Kyle into his bed with 'blankie' and covered him. Stan kissed the little guy and then the other two boys, and he and Linda stepped back into the hall. He put his arms around her and held her tightly.
"I love you, Lin," Stan said. "I couldn't make it without you. I can't wait 'til we're married."
"Me, too, sweetheart. I don't know how I got lucky enough to find you."
They kissed deeply, still entwined, stopping only when Breakers came up and nudged Stan's leg, reminding him that he still needed his evening walk. Stan laughed, and the young couple and the dog walked together to the foyer, where Linda continued on to her apartment after a last kiss for the night from her beau. Stan leashed an enthusiastic Breakers and summoned the elevator. He walked the dog on the front lawn for a few minutes, and then they went back upstairs. He hung up the leash and turned out the lights in the condo one by one as he headed back toward Matt's and Mike's bedroom, where he was sleeping to be near the little boys until the newlyweds returned from Colorado.
Life is really, really good, he thought to himself as he brushed his teeth, stripped off his clothes, and hit the bed. Breakers jumped up on the bed and settled in at his feet. All was quiet.
* * *
Mary Bradford sat in her bedroom that same evening quietly contemplating her life since Matt's trial and exoneration in Hartford. The return of her breast cancer just before the trial and the experimental treatment she had subsequently received for it in Chicago had depleted her strength, although her body's reaction to the chemo was nowhere near as severe as the first round of treatments five years before had been. Tired as she sometimes was, she was constantly energized just by living in Matt's and Mike's unconventional household, where almost everything was vibrant and positive even in the face of difficult challenges. She truly loved everybody she lived with. Matt and Mike both treated her like their mother, and Stan and Linda doted on her. The fact that her three grandchildren were thriving gave her much joy, and she was thrilled to have been alive to witness their early growing-up years. Unfortunately, what with people moving around so much anymore, not many grandparents had that privilege these days in the United States.
Mary felt that she had tied up the loose ends in her life since she had moved to Chicago, made amends where she could and should, and that she was ready to let go and move to her next state of being when and if she was required to do so. She was not afraid to die.
Her divorce from Bill Bradford had become final, and she was quite comfortable, financially speaking, for whatever time she had left. She had decided that although she would leave her son Jamie a substantial amount of money, the bulk of her estate would go into a trust for her grandchildren to be administered by Matt and Mike. There would also be a generous bequest to Stan Rosinski and Linda Kosco that they never would have expected.
The next day, Dr. Ann Roncalli's office called for Mary to come in for a review of her condition at the conclusion of her treatments. Matt and Mike were still on their honeymoon, but Linda had some time and volunteered to drive her to her appointment. The test results from Mary's chemo were obviously in, and Linda didn't want her to hear the news alone. Linda parked in the garage at the medical center and took Mary's hand and held it before they got out of the car.
"You know there's no way this won't be good news, don't you?" Linda asked.
"Linda, I hope so. But I'm ready to hear the verdict, whatever it is."
"Well, get ready for a pleasant surprise," Linda said, smiling. "I have a good feeling about this."
"Thank you, dear. Thank you for everything you've done for me. You and Stan have been wonderful to me, and to the kids, and I appreciate it."
Linda gave Mary's hand a squeeze, kissed her cheek, and they went upstairs to Dr. Roncalli's office.
They checked in, and before long the receptionist told them to go back to the doctor's office. The matronly physician rose from her desk and came to greet them warmly when they came in. Linda tried to read the doctor's face to see what the news might be, but couldn't.
"How are you feeling, Mary?" Ann Roncalli asked.
"Very well, thank you," Mary said. "I think I've mentioned to you before that this chemo was nowhere near as hard on me as the first round was five years ago. I'm really pleased, and I'm feeling fine. My energy is coming back."
"Good. I asked you to come in today to share the results of our drug trial with you. This was a blind trial, and I've now learned that you were in the experimental group of participants, not the control group. I'm happy to be able to tell you that there isn't a trace of cancer in your body now, at least not that we can detect. The combination of drugs we gave you performed far better than we had ever thought possible. There will be the usual five year follow-up period before we can say conclusively, but you appear to be in excellent health and cancer-free. We're going to be bragging on you for years, Mary. Every evidence suggests that you're one of our success stories, and I wanted to share that with you as soon as possible."
"Oh, my," Mary said softly, turning to Linda. "You were right." A single tear ran slowly down her cheek.
Linda leaned over and kissed her, weeping herself.
"Thank you, Doctor," Mary said. "Your work saved my life, and I suspect it will save the lives of many people. I've very grateful that you accepted me into your program."
"Well, Mike Broman is a very persuasive young man!" Dr. Roncalli said with a smile. "He beat the drums pretty hard on your behalf."
"That's just one more thing I owe him and his partner," Mary said. "Doctor, I'll never forget what you've done for me. Bless you."
"This is the way things are supposed to turn out," Dr. Roncalli said, standing and coming around her desk. "Thank you for your patience and cooperation throughout the trial. You've been a wonderful patient. I'll see you in six months for your first post-trial checkup."
The two older women hugged one another, and Linda and Mary left the office with big smiles on their faces.
"What would you like to do to celebrate?" Linda asked on the way back to the car.
"First, an ice cream sundae for both of us, hot fudge, my treat. Second, I want to call Matt and Mike and their mom and dad, and share the news. Then I want to fix a nice dinner for you and Stan and the boys tonight. It's about time I started pulling my own weight, don't you think?"
"You amaze me. You've always pulled your own weight. I'm not sure you know how much we all care about you, Mary. Anything we've done for you has been out of love. There aren't any debts here."
"You're a wonderful person, Linda. Stan is one lucky man. I'll tell you something. I think the prayers and love in our family did as much as any chemicals could do to give me another chance to live. I mean it. And you and Stan are a big part of the equation, don't ever doubt that!" Mary said.
They did stop on the way home and had those diet-busting ice cream sundaes.
When Mary called Matt and Mike that night with the good news about her condition, they were ecstatic. And when they hung up the phone, that cool-minded, objective scientist, Mike, sat down and cried. Matt held him and kissed his tears away, himself feeling that the huge weight of concern for Mary's health he had been carrying around for so long had been lifted from his shoulders. He silently offered a prayer of thanksgiving. When Mary called the elder Bromans, they were relieved, excited and happy about the news.
Matt and Mike flew back into Chicago on Thursday morning in time to drop off their luggage quickly at home and then visit their respective campuses to pick up their mail and assignments so they could start playing catch-up on their school work. When the little boys arrived home from St. Stephen's school that early afternoon and found out from Linda that their dads were back in town, they dragged folding chairs out of the den into the foyer to wait for them to get back from school. Matt and Mike drove into the condo garage at practically the same time and met at the elevator. When they stepped through the elevator doors on the penthouse floor, there the three little boys were, sitting on their chairs. There was pandemonium as the boys and Breakers gave the newlyweds a boisterous welcome home.
The first thing Matt and Mike did after being greeted by the kids was to walk down the hall to Mary's room, accompanied by the boys, who were sticking to them like glue. She was sitting at her writing desk, and stood up with a smile when the contingent came in. Without a word, the Matt and Mike simultaneously gave her a long hug.
"I can't even put into words how grateful I am you're all right," Matt finally said quietly.
"I'm so happy," Mike added, "and you're amazing. We hafta do something to celebrate, Mary. What would you like to do?"
"I'd like to do something nice for the whole family, so I'm starting small by fixing dinner tonight." She paused and looked at them. "You're healers, every one of you, I hope you know that. I'm living proof of it." Taking each of their faces in her hands, she kissed all five of them, big and little, as they stood around her.
The kids physically wouldn't let go of Matt and Mike for the first hour they were home, afraid somehow that if they let them out of their sight, their dads would disappear again.
By suppertime, though, things were back to normal. Mary had fixed
a huge bowl of spaghetti and meatballs with plates of hot French bread
and bowls each of
melted butter and olive oil for dipping, along with a big bowl of salad. Mike and Matt put the boys on their booster seats with their "messy food" bibs on, and everyone held hands around the table. Mike offered the thanksgiving.
"Father, behold this your family, gathered in Your Name to offer thanks for what we are about to receive, and most especially what we have already received. You have visited us with the gift of healing for Your servant Mary, and our gratitude for Your love and power truly knows no bounds. We thank You for preserving her life to this family; of which she is the heart. Lord, You heal us, You love us, You preserve us, You bless us. We thank you for Your compassion and for the food You have provided in this meal, through our Savior Jesus Christ."
The adults enjoyed several glasses of red table wine with the spaghetti, and it was a gala meal, indeed. The three boys looked as if they had bathed in the spaghetti sauce by the time they were finished, but the bibs had done their job.
That night after Matt and Mike had given the kids their bath, read to them, heard their prayers and tucked them in bed, they went back to the den and sat with Linda and Stan, who demanded all the details about the skiing in Aspen. They filled them in.
"Next time, you two are coming with us," Mike promised the young couple.
"I'm an inner-city boy, dude. I've never skied in my life," Stan said.
"Me, either," Linda admitted.
"That's what they have ski instructors for," Matt said. "You'll love it!"
They listened to music and talked some more until bedtime.
"Uh, I need to tell you guys something," Stan said as they all stood to go to bed. He hesitated.
"Yeah?" Matt said. "Lay it on us."
"Well, I just wanted to tell you both what a beautiful wedding you had. I felt really good about it..." He hesitated again, and cleared his throat. "Linda and I just love you both so much, and you deserve all the good things that come your way. That's all."
"Well, Stan the man, you guys are our brother and sister, and the feeling's mutual!" Matt said. "I know you don't like this, but..."
Matt and Mike grabbed him, and each planted a kiss on his cheek, followed by kisses for Linda.
Stan reddened, but he said, "No, you're wrong about that. I can take being kissed by my brothers any old time, no sweat." He smiled.
"By the way, guys," Linda said, "we set the date for our own wedding. We're gonna try for the first Saturday in February."
"Outstanding," Mike said. "More partying! I can't wait."
"Congratulations!" Matt high-fived Stan and kissed Linda again. "Where will it be?"
"St. Casimir's, the parish I grew up in," Linda said. "More to keep my parents happy than anything else. I'd love to be married at St. Stephen's, to tell you the truth, but I don't want to start World War III with the 'rents. I hope St. Casimir's won't be all booked up. I'm going to check tomorrow."
"You know that if there's anything we can do to help, consider it done," Mike said.
"Well," Stan said, "for starters, if you you'll stand up for us, we'd appreciate it."
"We'd like nothing better," Matt said, looking at Mike and getting confirmation. "Thanks for asking us. This is so great! I only have one question," he added. "Which one of us is gonna be your best man? I'm obviously the better choice, but I don't want to put words in your mouth. Heh."
Mike looked at his partner with amusement, saying nothing.
"Flip a coin," Stan suggested.
Mike pulled out a quarter. "Call it," he told Matt.
"Wait a minute," Matt responded. "That's not one of your trick coins, is it? Lemme look at that!"
"No," Mike told him.
"Yes." Matt looked at Linda and Stan. "He can't be trusted, y'know. He's kinda the Slim Shady of the gay world."
The young couple laughed, and before Matt could object further, Mike flipped the coin, caught it, and slapped it, still covered, on the back of his other hand.
"Call it, dufus!" he said.
"This better come out right!" Matt said. "Heads."
"Heads it is," Mike said, uncovering the coin and checking it out. "You da man!"
Matt grinned at Mike. "You know I've just been yankin' your chain, doncha? You're gonna be the best man because you are the best man!" Matt said, putting his arm around his partner and giving him a gentle shake and a kiss on the cheek.
"No, you won the toss, fair and square," Mike said.
"You'll both be my best man. How 'bout that?" Stan intervened. "It's my wedding, and I can do what I want!"
Matt and Mike grinned at each other and gave Stan a thumbs-up.
"Cool," Stan said. "Now, there's one other thing I wanted to ask you. And if it isn't appropriate, don't hesitate to say so. Do you think we could have our reception here at the condo like you guys did?"
"My gosh, yes!" Mike said. "We'd love it! As a matter of fact, we'd like to give you your reception here as a wedding gift." Matt nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
"That's too much!" Linda protested. "You've already done so much for us that we can never repay you."
"Bullshit, Lin!" Matt said. "This is family, and there's no 'repay,' don't you get that?"
Linda and Stan looked at each other uncertainly.
"Well, we can talk about it some more later," Stan finally said. "Thanks for the offer. We appreciate it."
" 'K, guys," Mike said. "We'll see ya tomorrow. And thanks for taking up the slack while Matt and I were gone. We felt good knowing you were here with Mary and the boys."
Breakers sat there patiently looking at them, waiting for his evening outing.
"I see it's 'Breakers Time!!'" Mike said exuberantly, throwing his arms in the air and heading toward the foyer. The dog got to his feet, wagging his tail and dancing around.
"I'm going with you," Matt said. On the way down in the elevator, Matt kissed Mike's neck, put his tongue in his ear, and played with his butt to get him horned up.
"Son, I thought I about wore you out the last couple days," Mike said with a grin. "But no-o-o. You're insatiable."
"I know it. And now you're stuck with me through all eternity. Heh."
"Oh, man. Well, there are worse fates than death by ejaculation. I think. Maybe. No, I'm sure of it!"
Their stiffies well hidden under their jackets, they were models of decorum, of course, by the time they exited the elevator, greeted the doorman and followed Breakers out the front door for his walk.
* * *
Mike was still up late studying in the den the following night when the phone rang about midnight.
"Tony! Good to hear your voice. How ya doin'?'
"Fine, Mike, but I have some bad news."
Mike groaned. "What?"
"Somebody tried to take out Chris Russo a couple of hours ago as he was in uniform patrolling on the Eisenhower Expressway. The detectives are trying to put all the information together yet. He may have pulled over someone who was wanted and would have been identified when he radioed it in, so the guy popped him. The alternate theory is it may have been skinheads getting revenge for his undercover work in busting Cliff Pietrowski and his gang at the construction site on Halsted. Anyway, I called as soon as I heard because...I want you and Matt to be vigilant until we know for sure."
"How bad is he?" Mike asked glumly.
"Bad. One shot to the head, one in the abdomen, one in the arm, one in the leg. The bones in the arm and leg are broken, but they'll heal. They don't know how serious the head wound is yet. He's still unconscious."
"Where did they take him?"
"University of Chicago Hospital."
"Have they rated his condition yet?"
"I don't know."
"I don't suppose they had a video camera in the cop car recording the stop."
"I doubt it. If had my way, every patrol car would have one, though. Those cameras are worth their weight in gold."
"Does he have family here, Tony?"
"Just an aunt, I understand. And I think I heard she's an invalid. All crippled up with arthritis."
"Fuck! Will this shit never end, Tony?"
"I wish I had an answer to that question, buddy. Anyway, I wanted you to know. Fill Matt in, will ya? And you guys start watching yourselves. If this was a planned attack on Chris, I don't want another repeat of what happened to Matt."
"I hear ya loud and clear," Mike said. "Thanks for thinking about us, Tony."
"That's OK. And on a positive note, while I've got ya on the phone, let me tell you again how much Marie and I enjoyed your wedding. It was beautiful. And the party back at your place was outstanding. Thank you for inviting us. You know we wish you every happiness."
"Thanks, Tony. Give Marie our best. And thanks again for the call about Chris. I have a friend who's a med student at the U of C, and he may be willing to track Chris' condition for us. I'll call you with anything more I find out, and I hope you'll do the same for us."
"Will do, Mike. 'Night."
Mike hung up the phone and sat there on the couch, his face in his hands, and let out a groan. He didn't want to pass this news on to Matt, but knew he had to. Before he went back to the bedroom, he went over to the small crucifix in the corner of the den, slipped a candle into the red vigil light beneath it, and lit it. He stood there for several minutes praying for their friend.
He finally forced himself to go down the hall to the bedroom. He kept the overhead light off and turned on his halogen desk lamp, pointing it away from the bed where Matt was sleeping peacefully. Moving to the bed, he lay down beside Matt and gently touched his face. Matt's eyes fluttered open and he glanced at the clock.
"Hey," Matt said sleepily. "You're comin' to bed late. Aren't cha gonna get undressed?"
"Not right now. Listen, I have some bad news."
Matt woke up fast. "What's goin' on?"
"Tony Angelo just called. Chris Russo has been shot, and it sounds like he's in pretty bad shape at U of C Hospital."
Matt's head fell back on his pillow in shock and disbelief. "I know you wouldn't joke about this. What happened?"
"They don't know yet. It could either have been someone he was giving a ticket to on the Eisenhower, or payback from the skinsheads for helping get Cliff Pietrowski and his band of merry men busted. Anyway, Tony wanted us to know about Chris, and to give us a warning to watch ourselves until they find out what's going on."
"Do you know if Chris has family here?" Matt asked.
"Not for sure. Tony thinks he has an invalid aunt, that's about it."
"Well, you know that the cops are gonna be all over this. They don't take kindly to having one of their own shot. But I think we better see what's going on at the hospital first hand, don't you?"
Matt rolled out of bed, found his clothes, and started to get dressed as Mike dialed Stan's bedroom at the far end of the condo.
"This better be good," Stan warned when he answered.
"It's not, I'm afraid," Mike said. "Tony Angelo just called to say that Chris Russo's been shot, and Matt and I are going to the hospital. Can you sleep down here again close to the kids?"
Stan was immediately wide awake. "Be right there," he said, and hung up. He came into the bedroom before Matt was finished dressing.
"Thanks, man," Mike said.
"Let me know, 'K?" Stan said as he shucked his robe, climbed into the bed in his boxers, and pulled the covers over his head. "This bed is my second home," he muttered.
"Don't get too attached," Mike said with a smile, and he and Matt took off, stopping only to look in on the boys quickly before they left.
They took Mike's Blazer, and drove south toward the hospital in silence.
When they arrived at the hospital and went to the ICU, they weren't surprised to find Tony along with a Chicago PD detective and a cluster of state cops, some in uniform, some in civvies, in the waiting room. Tony was surprised to see Matt and Mike, though. He introduced them to the detective and to Chris' fellow state police officers.
"Any change?" Matt inquired of Tony as the three of them sat down together.
"Yeah. He woke up once--a good sign. But he didn't say anything. That's not so good." Tony spread his hands helplessly.
Mike and Tony continued to talk as Matt leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and began thinking about Chris, how handsome he was and what a good guy he had turned out to be.
Mike and Matt sat talking intermittently with Tony until 1:30 a.m., when Tony finally said he had to get back to his precinct. Matt asked him if he thought the nurses would let the three of them go into Chris' cubicle and offer a prayer for him.
"I doubt it," Tony said, "but let me find out." He walked to the nurses station, and a minute later he came back, shaking his head in the negative. "They're working on him," he said.
"Well, let's say our prayer out here, and then we hafta go, too," Matt said.
The three of them huddled up, but were interrupted right then by one of the young state troopers, who asked if they were going to say a prayer for Chris.
"Yes," Mike said. "You're welcome to join us."
"Thanks," the young guy said, and he turned and beckoned to the other eight or so troopers who were still on the unit.
Mike, Matt and Tony had no sooner bowed their heads and were getting focused than they were surrounded by cops, who stood around in a close circle and bowed their heads as well, their arms around one another.
"Lord Jesus," Matt prayed after a moment's silence, "You are no stranger to sorrow and pain, but in Your earthly ministry, You healed many. We come to You now to ask You to sustain and heal our brother Chris, who has been injured in the line of duty. Let Your eyes of mercy behold him, Lord, and lift him up. Guide the hands and minds of all who minister to him, that they may be inspired to offer their best gifts in helping him live and regain his strength. We ask for a sign of Your love for this Your brother, that he may be restored to us to offer his own best gifts to us his friends, and to this world. Be with him now in his hour of need, Lord, and with each of us. We ask these things in Your Blessed Name."
As the group split apart and began to scatter, all of the young troopers made a point of shaking hands with Matt and personally thanking him for his prayer. Tony left after saying goodbye to Matt and Mike, promising to call if he heard any news about Chris' condition. One young trooper, a tall, handsome blond with a buzz cut, good physique, strong features and an even stronger handshake, lingered to talk after the others had moved away.
"Uh, I don't mean to pry, but are you the two guys who got married Thanksgiving weekend?" he asked. "Chris told me about it, and I was just wondering."
"Yes," Mike said, not knowing what to expect.
"I'm Josh Harkness," he said. "Chris and I are good buddies. We went through training together. Uh, a couple days ago Chris suggested I talk to you guys privately sometime if you could give me a few minutes."
"No problem," Mike said. "Do you want to do it by phone or in person?"
"Maybe in person, if you don't mind," Harkness said.
Mike reached down and tore off a blank piece of an abandoned newspaper, scribbled the condo's telephone number on it and handed it to the young trooper.
"Give us a call and we'll have you stop by."
"Thanks," the young trooper said. "I'll call you early next week and we can set a date."
"Good," Mike said.
Matt and Mike waved goodbye to the few state troopers who were left in the waiting room, and walked out of the ICU.
"What do you think that's about?" Matt asked his partner on the way down in the elevator concerning the encounter with the young trooper.
"I could speculate, but I don't know," Mike said. "Let's see if he calls."
They located the Blazer and climbed in wearily. Matt fell asleep, head against the side window, by the time Mike started the motor.
* * *
Mike was like a dog guarding a bone in following up tenaciously on Chris Russo's condition every day. He had made a casual friend of a med student at the University of Chicago medical school the previous year when Mike and his classmates had been sent there to a special seminar, and he telephoned the man and explained his interest in keeping updated on Chris' condition. He said he would be glad to check Chris' chart daily and let Mike know how he was doing, provided Mike kept what they were doing quiet. Mike agreed.
Mike hounded Tony Angelo until he got the name and telephone number of Chris' aunt on the northwest side of Chicago. He called her, identified himself, and explained how he knew Chris. The woman told him that she was Chris' only close relative, and broke down over the telephone about Chris' being hurt. She also said that Chris always did all her shopping for her because she was housebound with advanced arthritis. That was all Mike needed to hear, and he immediately cajoled the woman into giving him a list of her grocery and other needs. He did the shopping and dropped off what he had purchased at her home, refusing any payment by saying they could "settle up later." She was a very nice lady by the name of Carole Maggliozzi, and Mike made a commitment then and there to do her weekly shopping for her until Chris was back on his feet. He didn't let on, of course, that Chris might very well die or be permanently disabled as a result of his wounds.
"What is it that Dad always says?" Matt asked that night when they were in bed and Mike was explaining to him his plans for taking care of Chris' aunt. "Oh, yeah. 'Stars in your crown.' That's it. I'm proud of you, Mike. And so lucky to have you in my life. Y'know, I can help out with the lady, too, bro. We can take turns doing the shopping for her. And in a pinch, we could certainly have a shopping service deliver her things."
"Maybe in a pinch," Mike said. "But she needs the visits as much as the groceries and stuff, I think."
Matt wasn't too surprised about his partner putting himself out that way for a stranger, given what Mike had told him down on the beach before their wedding about wanting to be "a better person." This new act of kindness just made Matt love him more and appreciate him more, if that was possible.
Chris was moved out of the ICU three days later after successful surgery to remove the bullet from his head and repair his other wounds. Mike's source at U of C Hospital told him that the trajectory of the bullet had been perfect for doing as little damage to Chris' brain as possible, and that the surgeons were guardedly optimistic about his making a complete recovery from his head wound. The wounds in the arm, leg and abdomen were not as serious, but conversely would probably take longer to heal. Although Chris had awakened several times since surgery, he had yet to speak a word since he had been attacked.
Mike had gone right from class to visit Chris shortly after he had been moved to the post-surgical wing at the U of C hospital, and was sitting beside his bed. The young cop appeared to be sleeping, breathing evenly, his handsome and usually dark complexioned face white as a sheet. Mike decided to talk to him as if he were awake and everything was normal.
"Chris, this is Mike Broman. I want you to know that Matt and I have been taking care of your Aunt Carole, getting her groceries and stuff, so don't worry about her. She's doing great. And when you're better, if it's all right with you, I'm gonna have a specialist at Northwestern re-evaluate her. I looked at some of her medications, and I'm not sure they're giving her the best stuff for her condition. With the latest medication, I think she could get some of her mobility back and have a lot less pain."
Chris' eyes drifted open and he slowly turned his head to look at Mike, giving the latter a start.
"You got her groceries for her, Mike?" he asked in a weak voice.
"Chris! You're awake! And talking! That's outstanding, man!!!" Mike was excited. He pressed Chris' call button so he could let the nurses know about the breakthrough. A nurse hurried in and fussed over her patient for a bit, talking with him to make sure he could understand what was being said and could express himself, and then left to chart the fact that he was alert, conscious and verbalizing.
"Damn!" Mike said when she left. "What a relief to hear you talk, Chris! The surgeons weren't sure how much damage that bullet to the head had done. They were optimistic that there wouldn't be permanent impairment, but you never know. If it's all right with you, I'm gonna call Tony Angelo at home--he won't be at his precinct until later. He'll want to hear the good news right away, and the Chicago PD are gonna want to get a detective up here to talk with you about who shot you."
"Yeah, do it. I have pretty good recall about what happened."
Mike used Chris' phone and called Tony, who was very happy to hear the news about the improvement in Chris' condition. He said he'd notify the detective division right away, and they'd get a guy up there. Mike sat down again, and gave Chris a smile.
"Chris, I know you haven't had time to give any thought to where you're gonna stay when you get out of here," Mike said, "but Matt and I want to give you the option of staying with us 'til you're better. You won't be able to stay alone, and we have plenty of room. You're not gonna be very mobile for awhile, and between Matt and me and Stan and Linda and Mary, I think we can give you good care. Linda's almost an RN. Anyway, just think about it, OK?"
"You'd do that for me?" Chris looked surprised.
"Well, yeah. You're our friend. We owe ya bigtime for getting the goods on that asshole Pietrowski and his bunch, whether you think so or not. We'd take good care of you, I promise you that."
Chris cracked a little smile. "Y'know, Mike, if someone had told me a few months ago that I'd be friends with a gay couple and even remotely think about accepting an invitation to live with them for any reason whatsoever, I'd have said he was fucking nuts."
"I didn't mean that to be offensive, Mike. I appreciate the offer. And I'll give it some serious thought."
" 'K," Mike said. "Listen, dude, I'm gonna get out of here and let you get some rest. Matt'll probably stop up to see ya later. He's been pretty worried about you."
"All right, Mike. And listen, thanks for taking care of my Aunt Carole. That's really above and beyond!"
"That's OK. Call her, by the way. She's been really upset. Do you have her number?"
"I remember it. Can you put the phone beside me on the bed? I can't reach it."
"Yep. Here ya go." Mike put the phone near Chris' good arm, and giving him a big smile, took off.
Matt was home when Mike arrived, and was excited to hear that Chris was awake and talking.
"I didn't have time to run this by you before, but I gave Chris the option of staying with us while he's recovering," Mike told his partner. "I think between all of us here, we can give him what he needs. It's probably a choice for him between coming here or going to a convalescent home, because he doesn't have any relatives other than his aunt, and she sure can't handle it. It hope that's OK with you."
"Of course it's OK. I would have been disappointed if you hadn't made the offer."
Mike took Matt's face in his hands and kissed him. "Lord, I love you, babe! So much it hurts sometimes."
"Me, too, sweetboy! But listen, we need to talk to Stan and Lin and Mary about this," Matt suggested. "We've kinda volunteered them for some extra duty."
"You're right. I'll see if Mary is in her room," Mike said. "Are Stan and Lin here?"
"Yeah. They're with the kids up in the pool. I'll go up."
They gave each other a dap, and Matt headed upstairs to the pool deck. As he got to the top of the stairs, he heard the kids' happy voices and the sound of a beach ball flying around the pool.
"DAD!!!" Michael yelled when Matt approached the pool. "You need to get in the water! Common in!" The three boys gravitated over to the side of the pool and looked up at Matt.
"Maybe a little later, boys," Matt said. "I need to talk to Stan and Linda right now. Guys, do you have a minute?"
Stan heaved himself up on the deck and then pulled Linda up beside him. Matt couldn't help noticing how good they both looked in their swim suits. Stan was not only running, but had started a lifting program as well under Matt's tutelage. And Linda had started running a couple times a week herself.
" 'Sup, dude?" Stan asked.
"Chris Russo woke up while Mike was visiting him this afternoon, and started talking. It's looking good for his recovery, thank God. Mike and I are thinking about bringing him here to convalesce if we can get you guys to help us with him. He's gonna be pretty helpless for awhile, and he lives alone. Does that sound all right to you?"
"Absolutely," Linda said without hesitation. "If we all pitch in, it won't be a problem. It's a good idea, Matt."
"I agree," Stan said, grinning. "Bring the boy on! We'll heal him up in no time!"
"I appreciate this," Matt said. "Chris said he'd think it over, so if you guys call him at the hospital, tell him we'd all enjoy having him here, 'K?"
Stan and Matt high fived, and Matt turned to leave.
"DAD!!!" Matthew shouted.
"Cool your jets!" Matt instructed the boys. "I'll go put my suit on."
"Yaaah!!!" the three boys yelled. "Hurry up, Dad!"
Matt went downstairs just as Mike came into the foyer from Mary's room.
"It's a go!" Mike told him. "She's all for it. How about Stan and Linda?"
"That's a big 'Yep!' And I think they're gonna call Chris and just reinforce the fact we'd all like to have him here."
"Cool!" Mike said. "This should work out well, then."
"Without a doubt! Listen, the boys want us to come up and swim with 'em. I know we're behind in our studying, but can you spare a few minutes to go up with me?"
"Yeah. 'Cause I get to see ya naked when you put your suit on." Mike squinted his eyes lasciviously and licked his lips.
Mike fingered and stroked Matt's butt all the way back to their bedroom as he simultaneously leaned over and kissed his neck repeatedly. It was an act of will, once they were naked and both hard, not to jump into bed instead of putting their swimming trunks on and going up to the pool. The spirit was willing and the flesh weak, but they managed it somehow anyway for the sake of the kids.
* * *
Two weeks later in the early afternoon, an ambulance delivered a still pasty-looking Chris Russo to Matt's and Mike's condo. The three boys watched wide-eyed as the ambulance team transferred Chris from their gurney to a hospital bed which had been installed in the bedroom between the den and the kids' room. There was a standard hospital bedside table next to the bed. The young cop's injured leg and arm were each in a cast, and his midsection was still bandaged.
Chris had wrestled long and hard with the decision about whether to take the Bromans up on their offer to recuperate at the condo. But calls from Stan and Linda and Mary Bradford and even Tony Angelo had finally pushed him to see it their way. He knew he would have dreaded staying in a convalescent facility, and the truth was he really wanted to stay with this strange and wonderful family. Having been raised as an only child in a one-parent family after his dad had been killed in Vietnam, it was bound to be a brand new experience for him. His mother had died before he finished college, and he had had only his Aunt Carole to call family since then. Besides, he had come to care a lot for these people. His feelings for them had snuck up on him, he realized.
Mary went in to see him right away after the ambulance crew had finished their work and gone.
"Chris, welcome," she said with a big smile, and went over and caressed his forehead gently and made sure he was well situated in bed. "We're so glad to have you here."
"Thank you, Mrs. Bradford. It's kind of you to take me in like this."
"I'm 'Mary,' Chris. Call me 'Mary.'"
"Yes, ma'm, I mean, Mary. Thank you."
"You remember the boys, don't you? Say hello to Chris, boys."
The three little guys approached the bed of their new guest a little warily, and after each of them had greeted him, stared at him with big eyes.
"This is Matthew, this is Kyle, and this is Michael," Mary said, pointing to each of them in turn "I know you met them before. You probably can't tell them apart right now, but you'll be able to in a few days."
"Hi, guys," Chris said with a wan smile. "How ya doin'?" The boys seemed a little bigger even in the short time since he had seen them, but they were as cute as ever.
"Good," Matthew said. "What happened to you?"
"Well," Chris said, "I'm a police officer, and I got hurt on the job." He didn't know how much Matt and Mike wanted the boys to know about the shooting.
"Are you going to live with us now?" Michael asked.
"Yes," Chris said. "Until I heal up. Is that OK with you guys?"
The three boys nodded solemnly.
"Chris," Mary said, "I was a practical nurse in my younger days, and Linda is just about to be registered, so I don't want you to be shy about your needs, all right? It's going to be awhile before you can get out of bed to go to the bathroom or wash yourself. Now, may I do anything to make you more comfortable?"
"I don't think so right now, Mary, thanks."
"All right. I'm putting your meds in the top drawer of your table," she said. "Your pain pills are closest to you. I'm going to get a pitcher of water and a glass and put them on the table near your good arm. They're unbreakable, so don't worry about dropping them. There's room on the table for the phone, too. Just hit '9' to get an outside line. Here's a list of all the extensions in the condo--just hit 'intercom' and the number you want. If you can't rouse anyone, push 'intercom' and dial ' * ' and talk. All the phones in the place will be on speaker. I guarantee you'll get somebody then. And here's the remote for the TV and the stereo."
"Wow! All the comforts of home, and then some. Thank you very much."
"That's all right. Well, we'll let you get some rest now, Chris."
"Are Matt and Mike here?"
"No. They're still at school. They're playing catch-up on their school work because they took time off for their honeymoon. Linda should be home in about an hour, and Stan shortly after that. So, call me if you need me."
"Thanks again, Mary."
Mary shooed the kids out of the room, and Chris put his head down on his pillow. The trip from the hospital to the condo had taken more out of him than he thought. Soon he drifted off. He didn't even hear Mary re-enter the room later with a pitcher of ice water and a glass, and leave them on his bedside table.
He woke up about two hours later just as Stan strolled into the room.
"Hey, Chris. Good to see ya, man! How ya feelin'?"
"Hi, Stan. I've been better. How are you?"
"Good. Glad you're here. Do you need anything?"
"Yeah, actually. I need to tap a kidney. Is there something around here I can pee in?"
Stan reached down at the side of the bed, and handed Chris the proper utensil.
"God, being helpless like this is fucking humiliating!" Chris said as he stuffed the urinal under the sheet and his gown and tried to make sure his penis was in it before he let go.
"I know. But it could be any one of us lying there in your spot, so don't sweat it, dude. We're gonna take good care of ya."
Chris' face reddened as the sound of his urine filling the metal implement became audible. When he finished, he hesitated to just hand the thing to Stan.
"Give it to me," Stan said. "I'll dump it and wash it out."
"Get over it!" Stan instructed as he took the urinal and went into the bathroom. Linda arrived just as he emerged from Chris' bathroom, basin in hand.
"Hey, guys," she said. "Welcome, Chris. How are you feeling?"
"Well...a little embarrassed about having everybody do such personal things for me. Maybe coming here wasn't the best idea."
"Why not? Somebody, somewhere, would be doing exactly what we're gonna do for ya. What's the difference?" she asked.
"It just feels different to ask friends for help with...stuff." Chris blushed.
"Who better, sweetie? You're not gonna have a modest bone left in your body by the time we get through with you," Linda laughed.
"I know it's stupid," Chris admitted, "but I've never been sick before and had to have anyone take care of my, uh, needs. Be patient with me."
"'Patience' is my middle name, Chris," Linda said. She opened the second drawer in his bedside table and took out a digital thermometer and a pad of paper and a pen. Writing down the date and time, she replaced a sterile plastic piece on the nub of the thermometer, stuck it in Chris' ear and pulled the trigger. She removed it and wrote down his temperature on the pad.
"How is it?" Chris asked.
"A little above normal. That's not surprising. Nothing to worry about. You're doing remarkably well for what you've been through, tough guy," Linda said with a smile.
Just then Matt knocked on the door and looked in with a grin. "Any limit on visitors?" he asked.
"Hey, Matt," Chris said. "Come on in."
"How ya doin', buddy?"
"I'm...'adjusting,' I guess you'd say. But I'm really wondering whether this isn't gonna be a bigger burden on you guys than you thought."
Matt's face grew solemn. "Listen, Chris, let's get something straight right now. Our family here has been blessed in this life more than you know. The least we can do is pass on some of those blessings to others. You have a need right now, and every one of us is glad you're here. Relax and roll with it. We aren't gonna have you lyin' in your own crap in some nursing home where they don't give a flying fuck about you!"
Chris stared at Matt, and for the first time since his mother had died, his emotions took control, and he wept.
The saga continues. Hope you enjoy it. Special thanks to Scott (wright28) for his help in proofing and editing this chapter. And by the way, it's "biker heaven" out there in the real world! firstname.lastname@example.org .