Skip - Part 43


Skip - Part 43

I went out for a long walk. Tonight was about as magical as it could get without my Skip. I sat on a swing in the park and wept softly at the beauty of Mark and me, and of Mark and Megan. That people truly did love so comfortably and so sincerely was a testament to humanity. We were not all bad after all. I watched stars shoot across the sky occasionally. The crickets and frogs were not as wonderful as Celine, but wonderful enough.

It was after midnight by the time I came home. They would not be worried about me, and would be asleep long ago. I climbed into bed and smiled until I slept. There were no more tears, of any kind, tonight.

"Good night my love. I miss you so much, but I love you so much more."

I fell into a somewhat restless sleep. He called out to me.


When I woke up, I felt so anxious. The feeling had not left me for two days since Skip's latest surgery. He needed that surgery because of me, not because of a bus. I even felt the anxiety at work. Mike had noticed it on Friday afternoon.

"You're like the twins, bro. Too much energy and nowhere to spend it."

"It's gonna be bad news if I go off. My skin feels like it's crawling half the time. The other half of the time, I feel numb."

"Come and see me if you need anything."

I looked at the clock. It was just before 4:00 a.m. on Saturday. I lay still, listening, to see if hearing Skip call me was my imagination. I did not hear anything for another few minutes. I started to doze off again.


I opened my eyes to see who was there. No one. Not even the creepy shadow I kept seeing out of the corner of my eye. I would need to discuss timing with my bud, though I cannot imagine he woke me on purpose this time. Maybe I could 'hear' him only when I was in limbo between wake and sleep. I did not hear Skip's actual voice, nor had I in the past. It was a thought across time, distinctly Skip's.

I got out of bed and made it up, by habit. I put the sheet and blanket flat. I folded the comforter down a bit, and set the four pillows at an angle. Mom would be proud. This is the perfect description of nervous energy that Mike had mentioned.

I put on my ankle socks, a green Adidas shirt, khaki shorts, and then my Nikes. I slipped downstairs quietly. I grabbed an orange because my tummy growled. I left a note for Mark and Megan, confessing my sin of theft, asking for forgiveness. I am fairly sure that they would not withhold dessert at dinner time. Honesty pays. I told them that I was going to the Center. I felt an innate sense to do more than just confess fruit theft. They would know where I was without saying so, but I figured I would give them a leg up. I do not think anyone has an IQ over 75 until rich dark Columbian roast coffee hits the brain.

Alrighty then.

Morning fog made me drive slowly. Every traffic light that I had to stop at only made me think of Skip's accident. I had been cautious for a long time, like Skip, pulling through the intersection only when I knew no one was going to t-bone me. Tim and Thomas were almost at the end of their duty for the night, a little over an hour from now.

"Morning Aaron. Figured we'd see you here early," said Tim. "Skip should be waking up this morning?"

"Morning guys. I sorta think he's awake already. I got one of his psychic blasts a half hour ago."

"Oooh, I like when that happens," said Thomas.

Thomas is 24; Tim is 25. Both are newly married, in Master's level in college, and burning candles at both ends, typical of college students. They have been best buddies since middle school.

"As long as it happens only to you," said Tim. "I think it would kinda freak me out."

"Kinda freaks me out, too, trust me. One of these days, I'll get used to that. Or not."

"Skip is in Post-Op ICU. Dottie came out a while ago to tell us, in case you did what you are doing now."

"Hmmm, I guess I'm predictable at least."

"Nah. You love him, so where else would you be?"

"Is there anyone here who doesn't think we're cool for being in love?"

"No. These people here are the best, Aaron," said Thomas. "Even us. We don't often get to know many patients, but word came to us early on to take good care of you. It came from the Mrs."

'The Mrs.' is the administrator. She was given that term of endearment by a patient several years ago. She loved it and it stuck. I do not usually like being singled out, but 1000 miles away from home made me accept it easily enough.

"Thanks guys. Nice to hear. See you."

I went through the tunnel to Piedmont Hospital. The air still felt oppressively heavy to me, like the last time when Skip had the aneurysm. It was not, of course, in reality. The tunnel was large, cool, and well lit. If I were claustrophobic, I could understand this feeling.

I arrived at the nurses' station in ICU. Skip's room was directly across. Dorothy, a lovely soul who I really thought of as God in disguise, got up and came over to hug me. Nurses are usually angels, but she's beyond angelhood. She planted a beautiful kiss on my forehead.

"Good morning, Aaron. Your bud is going to be so happy to see you. Did he wake you again?"

"Yeah. I knew he'd be awake today anyway. He's probably missing my fine body."

"Go on in then," she said, a sly smile on her face. "Stay as long as you like."


"Sure, if that's what you need. You look anxious, love."

"I am. I hate being away from him, but also can't shake a thought. Whatever. Bless you Dottie. May I lie next to him?"

"Hmmm. Give me a moment. Go on in. I'm sure he knows you're here by now."

I did not know what Dottie was cooking up. Obviously something.

I stood at the doorway for a moment. He was still lying on his tummy. I was nervous, and not like a teenager-first-date nervous. Scared-out-of-my mind nervous. What had I done to my lover? The oppressive feeling had followed me all the way through the tunnel.

His eyes followed me from the door to his side. He smiled at me. I knelt down in front of him. I kissed the sweetest lips known to mankind (or a select slice of mankind).

"Hello my love. What can I do for you?"

He wiggled his eyebrows. I kissed him again, longer.

"Three more days without you, bro. I hate it."

The creepy shadow crossed the outer corner of my eye again. I shuddered.

"Yes," said Dottie, "but you'll love this."

She wheeled in another bed. I helped her roll it beside Skip.

"I hope you were gentle when you kicked the other patient off this one."

"Oh love, you know I'm the gentlest soul on earth, besides you and Skip."

"Us after you. At worst, you after Skip."

"Don't argue with an old lady."

"Old lady my ass."

"I'll take you down young man!"

"And like it!"

"Well hmmm. I have no answer for that," she said with wondrous eyes and a large smile.

She patted the bed. I kicked off my sneakers and got up on it.

Skip was just loving our banter. I was never seriously disrespectful to anyone. I could make most anyone laugh, even a nurse taking care of my boy in a critical care unit in Atlanta, Georgia.

"And now, bro, where were we?"

He wiggled his eyebrows.

"Are you sure?"


"Ah. Shoulda known."

I kissed him for a few minutes. You-know-who was standing in the doorway watching us. I did not have to turn my head to know this. I imagined that she was beaming widely. My type of healing was better than hers. Four out of five dentists agreed. Your results may vary.

He scowled at me briefly when I stopped kissing him.

"Sorry love. A bit of a headache. Post-chemo. Your blast woke me a little early."




"You didn't wake me?"

He gave me eyes. Not me, love. Too early.

"Hmmm. Sorry for accusing you, love. Wishful thinking that you want me."

Understood, and then Affirmative

"Love me?"




I looked over at Dottie, near the doorway. She nodded that it was normal. Seventeen hours of surgery was not a walk in the park. He would feel like a filleted fish.

"Anything besides pain?"


"Awww, love. I wish I could take it away from you."


"I would if I could. Or half of it so we could share. I don't know what to say, love."

He closed his eyes. His right hand was down at his side, palm up. I put my hand in his and snuggled closer. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep. Dottie came over and kissed my cheek.

"Rest, love. I'm right here when you need me."

I woke up briefly when I felt someone climb onto the bed and lay behind me. He put his arms around me and held me just so. I turned my head just a bit, but not enough to see him. Only one man would be here at 5:00 in the morning for us.

"Hi Mark," I whispered.

"Morning love. Go back to sleep."

He put his chin on my shoulder. My last thought was that this was the second time he had called me 'love' instead of 'bro'. I was both, but more of one lately than the other. A smile that no one would understand was on my face. I felt myself scowl shortly afterward. Never mind someone not understanding me. I did not understand me.

My stomach growled. I opened my eyes. Skip was still sleeping. I looked at my watch. 8:00 a.m. I think it is still morning.

"Come bro, I'll buy us some breakfast."

I kissed Skip's forehead. He stirred briefly but did not wake up. Mark got up off the bed. I rolled over and got up as well. We put on our sneakers. Well, he put on mine, which of course made me put on his. I think he did it on purpose because he has a rep as a joker. He told Dottie we were going to eat.

"I have my pager," said Mark. He wrote down his number. "Thank you for being so good to our boys, Dottie. After we eat, we'll be at the pool level at Shepherd."

"And you as well, Mark. It's nice what you do for Aaron. Skip will be just fine."

"No doubt," he said, winking at her as we left.

"See you tonight Dottie?" I asked.

"I'm not going anywhere, love. I'll be here when you come back."

Like Ellie back in Boston and Natalie in New Haven, I thought to myself. Dedicated people working double shifts without complaint. Therapists being here at the crack of dawn to hold on to us, way above and beyond their job requirements. None of those three hospitals was short on staff either; just long on love.

Mark and I walked south a few blocks to our favorite diner. Deb, Cal, and Megan were there. That did not surprise me. They sat at a table for eight, drinking coffee. Deb and Cal were across the table from each other. Mark sat across from Megan. I went around and sat beside her.

Mike, Amanda, and Little Dudes came in not five minutes later. Amanda sat beside me, Mike across the table from her. Dylan climbed up in my lap and rubbed noses. David, in Amanda's lap, reached over and kissed my cheek. They were so animated and so brilliant. At two, I was dumb as a tree stump, until somewhere in my mid-20's.

I do not know what the rich people were doing today, but this really is how 'the other half' lives. They can keep their money and cars. I had the hearts of many, 24/7. Our moments were precious and would have to survive a year at a time in Skip's and my absence.

"Good thing my tummy growled," I said, "or you folks would be here without us."

"All things for a reason, even tummy growls," said Mike.

"And Aaron was where?" asked Amanda, looking at Mark.

"Right where he should be," said Mark. "It probably shocks you all. I was taken aback. Not."

"Awww, so sweet," said Deb. "And you, partner, no less so."

"Nah. Well, yeah," said Mark. "But you know how it is."

Our waitress came and smiled happily at our gathering. She had seen us here in various combinations over the past few months. She brought me a tall glass of milk, for which she would charge me for a small, or not at all if she could get away with it. She also had Sippy cuts of apple juice for the twins. Dylan put his up to my mouth and I pretended to drink. He laughed and drank from the cup.

"OJ all around for the rest of you?" asked Marty, short for Martha.

The folks nodded. None of us needed menus so Marty took our orders, came back with the OJs, and then went to take care of the next table.

"I'll be right back," I said, standing.

I pretended to go to the men's room but I met Marty in the kitchen's alcove instead. I gave her my Visa card. Then I did go to the men's room. She gave my card back to me on the way out.

"What did you just do?" asked Amanda, eyebrow raised.

"Well, if you must know, I had to pee like a race horse."

"Not what I mean wise guy."

I raised my glass of milk to the table.

"Cheers to friends and loved ones, and to my beautiful Skip."

It was not hard to figure out what I had done. But no one could turn down such a toast as that.

"Cheers to our beautiful Skip, and to us," they said together.

"So how is our beautiful Skip this morning?" asked Cal.

"Awake at 4:00 a.m., hurting, asleep with Mark and me by 5:00, still asleep at 8:00."

"Skip woke you?" asked Deb.

"I thought so, but he says no. I'm still working on that 'psychic blast' thing. If it didn't come from him, someone else knows how to be Skip-like."

"Maybe your sensitivity post-chemo," said Cal. "But Skip is needful and mostly only you can help him."

"Maybe and not even close."

"Better than I ever could," said Mark, meaning it.

I had no immediate comeback. These folks were very humble about their roles in Skip's life. We will have a conversation about that with them before we go home. They did know what they meant to Skip, but they would not take anything away from me. I do very little on my own. Amanda and Mike being with Skip on alternating Fridays was amazing in itself.

Marty and a waiter brought our breakfast on two large trays. I had French toast with fresh peach compote and a dollop of RediWhip. Marty must have done that. She knows my habits, and not too much, not too little. The twins each had a pancake and some peeled apple slices. The adults all shared a platter of Canadian bacon and sausage links. Megan and Mark shared a plate of country potatoes. Deb and Cal shared a plate of honeydew and watermelon. Amanda and Mike shared strawberries and cantaloupe. I stole a strawberry and sliced it for the twins. I stole another for me. David clapped his hands when I gave him a funny face. I still held Dylan on my lap. He fed me a small piece of his pancake, which was ripped to shreds on the plate.

We talked and laughed over the course of two hours. Our plates had been cleared away. I held Dylan in two hands around his belly. We were about to head out. Mark saw that I was getting antsy.

"Come back to the house tonight?" asked Megan.

"Sure, sometime this evening. I'll want to help Skip get to sleep."

"I know he appreciates that," said Megan.

"Even when Skip is brought back to his room, I don't think I can sleep with him."

"Probably not until the stitches come out," said Deb. "It could be up to ten days."


"With the pain he's in," Mark said, "any movement will terrorize him. I'll talk to our manager. We can probably do what Dottie did with a spare bed."

I nodded. I would not think about it yet. He was back to needing undisturbed rest. I would teach him to give Dottie a specific signal when he wanted me if I was not there. I did not know how long he would be on the respirator again. I must have been daydreaming.

"Aaron?" said Mark, rubbing my back.

"Yeah. Sorry. Just thinking about stuff."

"What's up for today?" asked Megan.

"Mark is going to give me another therapy session in the pool."

"Therapy?" asked Cal.

"Yeah. I have a variation of Muscular Dystrophy. He and Deb help me work my legs and back so I'll be able to lift Skip.


I nodded.

"Geez bro."

"I know. Can't take credit for that one though. My mom did it to me."

He gave me sad eyes.

"S'okay. Skip and I are just getting all the crap out of our systems while we're still 'young'. We can retire blissfully dumb and happy."

"Cheers to that," said Cal.

We gave and got hugs all around. I kissed the little guys goodbye. They waved to everyone in general before they left. The boys wanted to kiss Megan too. Mark shook their hands like little gentlemen. They smiled at him. They loved the couple, as much as a two-year-old knows love.

Mark and I walked back to the Center. He and I changed into swim trunks in the locker room and then he threw me into the middle of the pool. He dove in and we did four laps. Now that I was limber, he laid me on the deck and did stretches, getting between my legs and raising each leg one at a time over his shoulder, stretching my thigh muscles.

"Don't let Skip see you doing this bro," I said.

He blushed amazingly, once he realized what I meant.

"Glad to see I'm not the only one who can blush a good streak," I teased.

"At least I'm not hard this time," he said. "Like with Skip when we danced."

"What? I don't turn you on?" I said, more seriously than I thought, based on his response.

"Truthfully I have it bad for you bro," he said as he sat back, interlocking his fingers around his left shin, giving us a break. "I do love you, Aaron. Mostly I feel sorry for what you're feeling."

"I'm used to that. A policeman friend is Boston, also married, said the same. I guess I touch hearts just right. But, what am I feeling."

"More than you want to, and more than you should be. My instincts say you're not correct in those thoughts."

"Or more correct than even I believe."

"I want to hold on to you."


He moved in from behind and hugged me close to him.

"If you beat yourself up, you'll suffer," he said, about as lovingly as he could. Mark was far from a half way person himself. I did not hold the market on 'not half-way'.

"Why should Skip suffer alone?"


"I'm serious. It's a legit question."

"Yes it's legit, to a point. Mostly Skip does not suffer alone."

"Okay, I'll rephrase it. Why should Skip be the only one to suffer?"

"Again, legit only to a point. He does not. Look around the therapy gym."

"You know what I mean."

"I do. That makes it harder for me."

I shrugged.

"By the way, Skip knew you were hard. He told me. I told him you'd have to be a zombie not to get hard under that beautiful circumstance. I'm glad that you're human."

"That was almost the single greatest honor of my life. Megan was the first, from day one. But I look at you both and all I see, sometimes, is scars. I stand by what I said about them being badges of honor, but they also mean you BOTH have suffered greatly. That makes me so sad. I've seen lots of scars before, of course, but most don't affect me."

"They all do, just at different levels."

"You're shaking," he said.

"I feel antsy. When I'm away from Skip, I want to run to him. When I'm with him, I only know how much I've hurt him."

"Please stop."

"I can't."

I knew he could not argue with me and tell me I was wrong. No one knew if I had hurt Skip or not. Only I knew.

We listened to a new Coldplay CD. Coldplay had become my favorite musical group, handily beating out long-time favorites Fleetwood Mac and Chicago. Still, being number two and three was not anything bad. I was second to Billy, and happy to be so.

We went back to my workout for another half hour. I worked daily on the exercises that he had given me on a sheet of paper, focusing on legs and back, but also some arm strengthening. He said that MS, MD, and CMT patients lose arm strength rapidly once on the downhill slide. It was a long time away, longer away if I kept up a workout routine. Billy would help me once we got home.

Home seemed way more than 1000 miles away. It was almost unreachable to me.

We showered and dressed. He gave me a long hug before he went back to home.

"Should we hold dinner for you?"

"Yeah. I won't stay late. I just want him to know I'm here. I need to teach him a signal that he can show Dottie or other nurses for when he wants me. I'm still thinking about what will be easily understandable for them and easy to do for him."

"See if he can move his fingers. If he can, maybe wiggling can be a signal. Otherwise, maybe as bright eyes as he can manage."

"Cool. Either one would work. Thanks. What can I bring for dinner or dessert?"


"You got it."

Dottie was indeed still in ICU when I arrived. She beamed at me. The light of God, in a somewhat plump woman. She knew that, by the way. I told her. I do not hold my feelings back from anyone.

"I might just be," she said. "Anything is possible, Aaron. Anything."

She knew I would not talk about Skip behind his back, even if he were sleeping. Conversations about him mostly took place in his presence. He was awake when I walked in. He smiled brightly, again following my progression into his room.

I don't deserve those eyes and that smile, love.

"Hello my love. You look happy to see me."

He moved his head very slightly. I took that as a nod. I knelt in front of him and kissed him softly.

"Mark came up with an idea for us. I told him I wanted you to be able to tell Dottie or the other nurses when you want me."

Understood. (Closing and opening his eyes faster than if he meant Affirmative.)

I touched his hand and fingers. Dottie watched me.

"Can you feel my hand?"


"Can you move your fingers at all?"

He tried. He looked at me questioningly. I shook my head.

"No. Not yet."

Damn! One step forward and a thousand back!

"How about very bright eyes?"

He opened his eyes very wide. Dottie saw and understood.

"Excellent, love," she said. "Wide open bright eyes mean you want your Aaron."


I had already given her a list of all of the Eyes Language meanings. She and other ICU nurses thought Eyes was a beautiful language in its own right. The credit goes to Skip for having the wherewithal to come up with it. My boy was no dummy.

Smarter than you, asshole!

I kissed him again.

"That's for not being frustrated about my touch or your fingers. How do you feel about your sense of touch?"


"You'll get the feeling back."

Obviously you're not above lying to your precious lover.

Goddamn, my head hurts. I had already taken 6 aspirin since early morning.

"Do you have the one feeling that I want you to have, no matter what?"


"That I love you?"

Half an Affirmative (one eye closed and then opened).

"That you love me?"

Affirmative. Excited!

"Sweet!!. I would die if you couldn't love me anymore."


"Not suicide, bro. A broken heart would do me in."

Maybe the former.

Understood. Then he scowled at me.

I looked over at Dottie. She was standing behind me, experiencing our love for each other, far from just observing it.

"Like I told Mark a while ago, Dottie. People would call us fags and hate us for loving each other."

"Too bad for them. Idiots think they'll rule the world, but they'll fade away in time. Your quality of love is what my God intended for His people. If He did not want men to love men, He would not have given you the ability."

I had never thought of it that way. In your face gay haters! This from a devoutly Christian woman of great faith and even greater heart. It did nothing to relieve my sense that she is still God in disguise. God is a somewhat plump little woman on Earth. Go figure.

She gave me a beautiful hug. She kissed Skip lovingly on his forehead and then his cheek because she could not hug him yet.

"Hold on to our bud," she said. I'm leaving at 3:00 but I'll be back before 11:00 tonight. You go home to Mark and Megan. Jessica will be here. I'll tell her about how to understand Skip if he wants you."

"Thanks. Yeah, I'm expected for dinner. Until then, I'm going to hold my bud." I looked at Skip.


I moved the spare bed up beside him again. Dottie left us alone. I put my right arm under Skip's neck and wrapped it around to his shoulder. I put my left hand gently across the shoulders, but away from his back. He would be very tender near the incision. I leaned in and kissed him with about as much passion as I could muster. He kissed me with equal passion. His eyes went to the right side of his head, like he was looking back. He did it a couple of times.

"Your back?"



Half an affirmative.

"Hmmm," I said, thinking a moment. "You need your bandage changed?"


"I'll have Dottie show me how to change it."

I got up to go to her. I moved the bed back to the opposite wall. She went to the closet and came back with fresh bandages. She handed them to me. She got a bowl of water.

"How about a bigger bowl, Dottie? I'd like to give him a sponge bath."

She smiled and got a larger plastic pan and Ivory soap. She filled it and gave me a washcloth. We went into Skip's room together. She turned on the overhead light on the wall, above Skip.

"This isn't pretty, love. Fair warning."

She untied his gown and opened it. She gently peeled off his bandage, taking her time. I almost passed out when I saw the whole wound. I stepped back, tripped, and fell on my ass.

"Oh, Dottie."

"I know, love," she said, gently.

Look what YOU DID to him!

I sat there, not wanting to get up yet. I put my head between my knees for a moment. I took a couple of deep breaths. I looked over at Skip.

"Sorry, love. It's ... "

I had no words. None that I would share with him anyway.

Dottie waited patiently for me. I had asked to do this for him. I got back on my feet.

I took the washcloth, soaped it up good, and then squeezed it out a bit.

"Start at the top, working outward alone the length of the incision, on both sides. Try not to get the stitches too wet. They'll dry out and tighten up."

I did as she said. She smiled at me as I worked carefully. I dabbed at the inflammation instead of wiping it. The wound was mind numbing, and that is saying something considering the scars that we have between us. Dottie guided my hand softly in some places and a bit firmer in others. I took a small towel and dried his wound carefully. She put some salve on half the wound while I helped with the other half. The incision was about an inch long for each hour that he was in surgery. I had been correct when I said that he must have felt like a filleted fish. Gutted was more like it. Christ.

"Do you know how to dress the wound?"

"Yes. I'll finish bathing him first. I won't take long. I'll show you when I'm done."

"Okay. May I stay?"

She wanted to watch me bathe him. Not to see that I did it right. I knew how to do it right.

"Of course."

I started with his face, moving his hair off his forehead, cleaning any exposed part that I could, and then even a bit underneath, with a slightly dryer washcloth so I would not soak his pillow. I washed around the respirator tube, both sides of his neck, and the back of his neck. I kissed it when I was done. Skip smiled.

"I know only how to be tender with you bro."

Affirmative. Nice.

I washed the rest of his back, sides, and some of his tummy, reaching over him as necessary. I tenderly kissed between his shoulders. I slipped off his boxers. Dottie had dressed him in boxers instead of boxer briefs each day, a bit roomier to get on and off without moving him much. I washed his lower back, his butt, hips, and his legs all the way around, and his feet. I kissed his lower back, both his butt cheeks, the tops of both legs, and both calves.

"I kissed you nine times. Could you feel any of them?"






"Between your shoulders?"


"Nice. Lower back?"


"Your fine ass?" I said this looking over at Dottie.

Dottie loved love, in every form. Me kissing his ass did not seem to faze her.


"Awww. Anything below that?"



No. Not soon. How about never. Does never work for you? It does for him.

Affirmative. But another scowl.

"Gotta have hope, my love. I think you felt my kisses on your upper and lower back because they're very tender from surgery."

Half an Affirmative. Maybe.

I put a fresh pair of boxers on him from his duffel bag. I dressed his wound. I folded his gown over him again and tied it at the neck and lower back.

Now you don't have to look at what you did. But you know what you did.

"Aaron. Truly wonderful. Imaginative and thoughtful."

"Hope you understood the kissing."

"Yes, love. I did."

"Still made me sad," I said, looking at her and then at Skip.


"Can't help it love. Only because I love you so much."

Wiggly eyebrows.

I kissed him. Dottie helped me move the spare bed back to him. I lay next to him again, holding him as before. We stared at each other's eyes, neither looking away. I spent the afternoon with him in my arms. We did not nap.

He looked over at the door. Time to go, Aaron. Don't make Mark and Megan worry.

"I know, love. It's hard to let you go."

Do him a favor. Walk away and keep going.

Affirmative. And a scowl.

"Do you have a headache love?"

No. He has a pain in the ass.

Negative. He gave me sad eyes.

"I can come back after dinner."


"And hold on to you until you go to sleep."


"Awww bro. It's too long to be alone."

Negative. Sleepy motions with his eyelids.

"You want to sleep?"


I thought about it for a minute, looking at him.

"Maybe. I'll think about it."


"I know I should listen to you, bro, but holding you until bedtime is what I'd rather do instead."



Negative. No but.

"Thank you, love. I don't want you waking up in the middle of the night, afraid."


"Is it enough that I love you?"

Affirmative. Twice.

More than enough.

"I don't want to leave you."

Eyes. Pleading eyes. Take care of yourself too eyes.

"Can't. Don't want to, until you're better."

Lovely thought. And a lie.

I took my cell phone out of my duffel. I called Mark's place.

Skip watched me. He was not happy about what I was doing.

"Hey Mark. Don't hold dinner. I really want to stay here. ... No, not even a little (Was I hungry). ... Sure. Some fruit would be good enough. ... Okay. Sorry bro."

He told me I did not need to be sorry. Skip was not mad, but unhappy that I would pass up dinner for him.

"Mark will come by later. I need you, love. You've spent enough time alone."

He flicked his eyes at me twice, quickly.

"I don't need time alone."

Sad eyes.

I poked my head out the door and shook my head slightly. "I'm staying."

She gave me sad eyes too.

Very noble. You got 'em fooled. Good job.

"I know you can take very good care of him. You do. But I'm nothing without him, Dottie."

Fair enough. He's nothing WITH you!

I rubbed my temples. I did not know what was going on but it was irritating as all hell.

"I understand, Aaron. Bless you for loving him so much. Headache, love?"

"Yeah. Chemo crap probably. Mark will come by later with a snack for me. I'm not hungry."

She nodded.

I got back on the spare bed and wrapped myself around Skip again. I fell asleep, holding him. He was still watching me before I finally closed my eyes. He knew something more than I did. As usual. Too bad he could not tell me.

"Love ... u," I heard, very softly.

I think I smiled. I hoped I did, so that he would see. Sleep swallowed me.

I felt a light kiss on my neck. I opened my eyes. Skip was sleeping. I looked at my watch. 7:30 SAT according to the dial. Still Saturday. I turned my head. Mark smiled down at me.

"Come to the caf with me?"

I nodded. I got out of bed. I sat in the chair and put my sneakers on. He made a grab for mine again. I pushed him away this time, laughing at his antics. He laughed back at mine. I walked across the tunnel with him and went into the cafeteria at the Center. Megan, Deb, Cal, Amanda, and Mike sat at a large round table. All had Tupperware containers in front of them. Mark went to the microwave and warmed up his food and then mine. I sat next to Amanda. Mark sat next to me. I opened my container. White meat turkey, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, a bit of whole cranberry sauce, obviously home made. Another container of salad. Dressings. A large blueberry and peach cobbler in the middle of the table.

"I don't know how I feel about taking you all away from home."

"We do this as gladly as you stay for Skip," said Cal. "If Deb were here, I'd be here."

Mark poured me a large glass of milk from a gallon jug. "Me too, if Megan were here."

"And me as well," said Mike. "We do understand you. Besides, you bringing us together like this is just right."

Amanda took my left hand. Mark took my right hand and Megan's left hand. Megan took Cal's left hand. Cal took Deb's left hand. Deb took Mike's left hand. Mike took Amanda's left hand.

"God bless us, everyone," I said before anyone else spoke.

They all smiled. "Indeed," echoed around the table.

We ate dinner together. I looked over at the entrance to the caf a couple of times, half-expecting Jessica to come in looking for me.

"He's just fine," said Amanda after the second time. "Don't worry, love."

Good one, Aaron. Six more people fooled by your 'caring' heart. Good joke.


We finished our entrée and salad. Mark poured me a second glass of milk and one for himself.

"Anyone else?" he asked.

Cal and Mike both presented their glasses. The guys were big milk drinkers. The gals all had iced tea from a large pitcher.

Before dessert, Mike and Amanda took our containers and put them in a copy paper box. Deb pulled plastic plates from another box. Cal pulled out clean silverware for dessert.

"Mike and Mark made the cobbler," Amanda said. "Cal roasted the turkey yesterday in case you would not leave here for dinner. Megan and I made the salad and the mashed potatoes this morning after we got home from breakfast. Deb made the cranberry sauce and veggies. We are ready for most any mood you're in, Aaron. You told Mike once that you don't do much on your own, which is not exactly true. But neither do we. Our friendships are across many years. As you say, life is about connections. What brought us all together more recently is you."

"To Aaron," said Deb, "for renewing us, in many ways."

We all raised our glasses. I could not top that so I did not try.

After dessert, which was by far the best cobbler I ever had, Mike handed me the leftover dessert.

"Here, share this with the ICU nurses. My manly figure doesn't need more."

"Thanks. Jessica is with Skip now. Dottie is coming back for the night shift."

Deb handed over more dessert-size plates and plastic spoons and forks. Amanda wrapped the cobbler in foil again.

"After we drop it off in ICU, we're taking you out to a movie," said Mark.

"Okay. Nice."

"No arguments?" he said, a bit surprised.

"Nope. I know you care about us, both of us. But I have to be home by midnight. I turn into a pumpkin and my bud will worry."


"Fair enough," said Amanda.

I walked in to see Skip. He was asleep. I whispered quietly into his ear. If he was awake, at all, he pretended not to be. He would not want me to pass up a night out, even if it was only a couple of hours. I kissed his forehead.

"I love you, bro. Just so you know."

I would have missed the subtle smile if I were not looking at him. I kissed him just for being so cool.

I went in the car with Deb and Cal. Deb gave up the front seat for me. We drove a bit outside of the area.

"And the twins? Who you didn't bring for dinner?" I said to Amanda.

"Overnight with Grammy and Grampy," said Amanda. "A little treat for us all."

We decided between X-Men and Mission Impossible: II. MI: II won out. Tom Cruise over a hairy Hugh Jackman. It turned out to be a good choice. Now I see why these three marriages worked so well. The gals were as into it as we almost-adult men.

I slid in beside my love at 11:55 p.m. No pumpkin tonight. I looked into his eyes as he opened them.

"Miss me?"

Affirmative. Flirty eyes.

"Awww, love, that's nice. I had a good time. I'll tell you about it in the morning."

Yeah. Too bad you're stuck here.

I leaned in and kissed him softly. A bedtime kiss was different than a morning kiss, different again from a lusty kiss. A bedtime kiss had to be soft and a bit teasing, so he would want another in the morning. When we first met, he would always kiss me first so I would not be awkward. But now it was up to me to take the lead, unless he gave me wiggly eyebrows. I could not rub my nose against his. I would make up for that once he slept on his back.

His infection hazard passed on day seven, one week after surgery. He was moved back to Shepherd on that Wednesday afternoon. Kelly called me at work to let me know where to find him at 4:00.

I stood outside of his room. The black creepy shadow was nearby. It was driving me nuts. What was I seeing? He could not see me yet. I stood there looking at him. I had wanted to walk right into his room and bend down to kiss him so sweetly. But I could not.

Course not. You fucked him and fucked him even harder!

I finally walked into his room with a single white rose in a stoneware vase of water.

He was on his back, at a slight angle. This is the first time in seven days that I did not find him on his stomach. I took the rose out of the vase for a moment, putting it gently near his nose. He took a deep sniff.

Take a good look you asshole! See what you did to the man you supposedly love. You call that love?

"Nice. How many ... ways are ... there ... for you to t-tell ... me you ... love me?"

Wow, his speech came hard. I guess I should not be surprised. He had lost more than he gained in the surgery, at least for now.

He's fighting for breath. You're supposedly a paramedic.

"An infinite number. I will prove it every day."



"I wonder if I can get you out of bed."


His word was as good as any. I did not need to go ask Kelly, Deb, or Mark. I put my right arm under his shoulders instead of lower on his back, and my left arm under the bend of his knee. I lifted him and held him for a minute, and then set him down in his wheelchair. Kelly had put him in a t-shirt and shorts this morning. I put ankle socks on him so his feet would be warm, and put his lap blanket over him. I put his arms up on the armrests, his fingers on the wider part.

"Before we go downstairs," I said, kneeling beside him. "I'm so sorry, love. Sooo sorry. I'm convinced I hurt you now."

Honesty at its best. Liar liar pants on fire.



Definitely yes.


"How much can you feel?"

More than you can, if you had a heart. But nothing at all because you took it all away from him.

"You with ... my heart ... It's ... good en ... enough."

"Not even close."

See how much he loves you?

"I don't ... care ab-about ... my arms. I never ... cared mu ... much about ... my legs."

"But I do."

Shoulda thought about that before you fucked him.

"I need-ed you ... to make ... love."

"It wasn't worth it if I took everything away from you."

Wow. Aaron's best. Not even a lie this time.

"You gave ... me more ... then you ... " Blink. "ever could ... take away."

"Your speech."


"Your arms. Your head movements. Your shoulders."

Guilt. Guilt. Guilt! Bring it on, Aaron. You need to pay!



A blinding pain hit my head. My spine turned chill.

"Dammit! Be pissed at me, will you?!! I fucked up."

Oh yeah. Did you ever. Fucked up. Fucked him until it hurt so good!

"No," he said softly, with his heart and his full-on beautiful eyes.

"What about your cock?"

No more nookie for Aaron.

"What about ... my cock?"

"Can you get hard?"

No more nookie for Aaron!

"Don't kn-know."


"Aaron. Look ... at me. Right now."

I did not.

"I can't."

Run you prick. Leave him sitting there. He's hungry, but run away. Run!

I threw the vase at the window, cracking it and breaking the vase. I left him in his wheelchair and ran out of his room. I ran down the hallway, past staff and a patient. I pushed the elevator button. I pounded on the stainless steel doors hard until they finally opened. Two startled people got out. I rushed in and pushed the lobby button and the door close button repeatedly.

My descent was not from the fourth floor to the lobby but into Hell itself. I should burn for what I did to him, all in the name of a fuck!

Now you're talking! Burn baby burn!

I ran across the lobby and out the front door. I heard Thomas or Tim yell my name. I ran down Peachtree Road, toward Atlanta. I could not run fast, but I could run far.

Can't do much of either. Thank Mom for giving you her bad genes.

I stopped for a minute, bending over, holding my head in both hands, trying to block out the nonsense.

Can't. I'm not real, except to you.

I ran. Madness drove me on. Guilt. Hurt. Rage. Fear. Self-loathing especially.

Yes yes yes!

I found myself in a quiet residential neighborhood. I was drenched in sweat as I collapsed to the ground, under a tree. My legs could do no more. The cold early October air bit at my oxygen hungry lungs. I crawled down an alley and behind someone's garage. I flashed to what Will did when he was thrown out of his house. He went to an alley. I also pictured Sam hiding in the basement at school. I hid too. Except Billy would not find me. No one would find me. The creepy shadow moved across the pavement, just outside of my field of vision.

"Aaron?" came into my head, across time.

Shut it down. Shut it down. "No bud. I'm not here anymore. Call Billy or your dad."

I played with the ring on my finger. The ring that Billy had given me for Christmas almost two years ago. More than two? I reached under my t-shirt, my BC t-shirt, and touched Skip's neck chain, his commitment.

I forgot about Billy. Another one you hurt. You didn't break him though. Just ripped his heart out.

Hours later, in the darkness, my stomach growled.

Sure. You want to eat. But you left Skip alone and hungry in his wheelchair. Bastard.

I looked at my watch. The time startled me, if it was correct. 2:25 a.m. Ten hours away from Skip, but not far enough. I stole his life from him, taking the last hope he had.


"Please, Skip. I can't."

I took my cell phone out of my pocket and opened it. I was still in silent mode. There was a message in my voicemail. I deleted it as it started to play. My phone rang. My thumb slipped and hit the call button because the ringing startled me. I heard a voice. If it was Skip's voice, I would put a knife through my heart here and now and end my pathetic existence. I did not have ringtones. What a silly way to spend money. I looked at the number. It was familiar, belonging to any one of three couples. It was not the switchboard number at Shepherd. I put the phone to my mouth and ear.

"He doesn't need me. I'm going home."

I said it quietly, with no emotion.

"Maybe he doesn't need you, love," said Mark. "But he wants you."

"He can do better. His body is dead because I wanted a fuck. If I'd left him alone. Let me make love to me only. But I just had to fuck him."

"He took a risk. You did too."

"It wasn't worth it."

My voice was flat. It was not mine. I talked only because I stepped out of my body, where there was no emotion. I looked down at myself, holding the phone, crying, hugging my legs tight to my chest, sooo cold.

"Love is worth any risk, any time, in any amount."

"You brought him back to life and I took it away again."

"We can give him life all over again. It's what we do after surgery anyway."

"It'll be so hard. He could be here months more."

"Are you a doctor? A surgeon? Are you inside Skip's body?"

"No. I'm a shit."

"On the very bottom of the list of things you are. Actually, one step past the very bottom of the list of things you are."

"No. Top of the list. Bright ... " my voice broke. "Bright and flashing so the world can see."

"I can't see it."

"You're not the world."

"I'm part of yours."

"Doesn't that just suck!"

"No. It does not suck. I love you Aaron."

His voice broke too.

"I love you sooo much."

"Don't. People who love me get hurt."

"Billy is 100% fine again. He had to find you, but he did."

"He found me and then I hurt him again. Dislocated shoulder. Broken ankle. The sound of Skip's scream in his head."

"The first two are healed. You saw that in August."

"The last one ... "

" ... will take time to work out."

"I should have stayed lost to him. We moved. That was the first time I hurt Skip. After ... after already hurting Billy. Then I hurt them all over again, even worse than a bus."

"You did not hurt Billy. Someone with hate hurt Billy. You helped by stepping back a bit, so Skip could help him. How great was it when Billy knew you that day?"

"But ... "

"We do not know if you hurt Skip."

I drew in a long breath through my teeth.

"Sooo cold, Mark. Sooo tired of trying and failing every time."

"Try one more time."


"Can and will."

"You put too much faith in me."

"You taught me that I could."

I lay down on my side and curled up into the fetal position, tight as I could against the cold.

"I loved him and broke him, and then broke him again."

"You loved him. A bus broke him. Maybe you broke him again."

"Don't you know how unbearable that is to me?!!"


"Multiply that by his broken heart."

"As painfully unbearable as it can be."

"I'm done hurting him."

"Yes, you are. Open your eyes, love."

I did.

Mark stood there, in front of me, talking to me through his phone.

"I love you, Aaron," he said, hanging up his phone and then mine.

He sat behind me, wrapping a blanket around me, putting a baseball cap on my bald head. He hugged me tighter and with more compassion than I deserved.

"On top of that, *he* loves you sooo much more." He pointed ahead.

Cal and Mike wheeled Skip into the alley.

"No," I said, shaking my head.

"Yes. Today. Tomorrow. In ... infinite ... rep-repeating ... cycles."

"I want to go home."

"Okay. Shepherd? Mine? Cal's? Mike's?"


"Home is where Skip is. Said you. Skip can go to any one of those four places, but only with you."

I looked up at Skip. Then at Cal. He did not look like he hated me. I looked at Mike. He did not look like he hated me either. I looked at Mark. He leaned down and kissed me so passionately that I almost believed he meant it.

"They don't ... hate you. Mark does ... mean it."

He looked up at Mike and Cal.

"Put me ... down ... with Aaron. Pl ... please?"

Mike lifted Skip out of his wheelchair. Mark helped lay Skip in front of me. He straightened out my legs. They shaped and molded Skip to fit every contour of my body. Mark took my arms and put them around Skip. He took Skip's arms and put them around me, and then held them there. He wrapped the blanket tightly around us.

"Then this ... is home," said Skip. Mike helped Skip move his head so he could kiss my forehead and then my cheek.


Is it?

Mark, Mike, and Cal walked away.



"You did ... not hu-hurt me. You could ... not. Did And-rew hurt ... you?"

"No. It's different."

"No. It's ... not."

"Seven of your vertebrae were in your spinal cord. I pushed them in deeper."


"How do you know?"

"How ... do you?"

"Instinct. Like your instinct."

"Okay. I'll bite. What ... if you did?"

"It's as bad as killing you outright."



"Nope. Kiss me here."

"Where's here?"

"Use your ... imagination."

I waited.

He waited longer.

I kissed his forehead.

"Kiss me here."

I kissed his lips. He had me. He reeled me in once more, and dragged me out of the cold depths of the Sea of Self-Pity and Self-Loathing."

"Kiss me ... there."

"I ... "

"Kiss me ... there and ... mean it."

"How can I?"

"Kiss me ... there and ... mean it."

I pulled the blanket away from us. I lifted his t-shirt and I kissed his heart, three times. And I meant it.

"I love you. Sooo much. If ... those are ... just words ... "

"They're not. They never were. Every word goes into my heart and plants itself like a seed. Every time you tell me that, I become a better man. Until I ... "

"You did ... NOT ... break ... me."

"Someone will have to prove it to me."

"Give us ... time. Give us ... the chance."

I shrugged.

"I hate ... when you do ... that. You don't ... trust my w-words."

"Maybe not. Or not every time."

"Believe my ... w-words. Every time."

"I need help, love. I ... I guess I need counseling."


"Then you'll have it, love," said Mark, kneeling down to kiss me again. "Anything you want."

"A shower. Food. A warm bed. And you all to forgive me."

"Done. Done. Done. And no."

Forgiveness was not easily given. I had not earned it. Self-Loathing was right. I ran away from Skip when he told me he was hungry.

"I'll pay for the window in Skip's room."

"Okay," said Mark.

"And a new white rose," I whispered into Mark's ear.

"Already done. Times three."

Mike and Cal took Skip back to his wheelchair. They loaded him back into the Center's SUV. Mark carried me back to the van. He kissed me on my lips, softly and sweetly. "I love you" is not just words with Mark either. I could not walk. I had stressed my legs.

"How far are we from the Center?"

"3 1/2 miles."

"Holy crap."

"This is why fear should never take over your mind," said Cal. "By the way, don't ask me to forgive you."

"Me either," said Mike.


"Nor me," said Mark. "There is nothing to forgive."

"There's a lot to forgive. There's a voice in my head."

"We'll make it better."

I thought for a moment.

"Okay. How did you find me?"

"Technology and ten hours worth of heart," is all Mark said.

I nodded. A cell phone. Another cell phone. A tower or three. Tracing mechanisms maybe. Stuff well above my head. And likely Skip, in his own way.

"I'm sorry ... "

"Sshhhh. Go hold your bud's hand."

I crawled into the SUV. Cal helped me get into the seat beside Skip. He handed me an orange, already peeled.

"Where to?" Mark asked.

"Your pl-place," said Skip.

"You got it, love."

"My Aaron."

I could barely look at him.

"I can't ... lift your head. Do it ... for me."

I did. I looked into his eyes.

"Nothing is ... forever."

"Except you and me."

"Mean that. Put your ... heart into ev-every word."

"Not today. Maybe not tomorrow."

"I know."

"I fucked up."

"You're troubled."

"Half insane, love."

"Then there's ... hope."

The window in Skip's room cost me $1700. I gave the check to The Mrs. in person. She did not scold me.

It was a small price to pay for losing my faith and my mind.

"Thank you, Aaron. This is a nice gesture."

"No. An obligation. Even if it wasn't the real me who broke the window."

"You'll be fine soon. Andrew and Claire are waiting for you."

The challenges of our life were too heavy. Not for Skip. He could accept his fate ... and had done so long before I did.

But for me. I was broken, yet again, for a while. I had a tumor. It caused the 'self-loathing' discussions in my head.

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