“Cheetos and orange Fanta? Really? One wasn't orange enough for you or what?” I asked Sash as I put my wallet into my back pocket.
“Hey, did I critique your choice of snacks? No, I did not,” he giggled and pushed me. “Hurry up,we have gifts to wrap.”
“We could have wrapped those presents already, but someone wanted to spend days in bed,” I said, sticking my tongue out.
Sash put a hand on his hip. “I didn't hear you complaining when I suggested it.”
“I was taught never to speak with my mouth full,” I said in a prim and proper voice.
“Get out of here, goof!” He laughed and I headed out the door of his house. I whistled to myself as I went, happy with life in general. We'd truly made the most of two days alone with nothing but downtime and he was right, I certainly hadn't complained. Who could with him in bed with you? Not me, that's for sure.
But, it was Christmas Eve and we hadn't wrapped our presents. Between hanging out with our friends and squeezing in some private time, it had just been crazy busy. So when Sash's dads went to New York City for a private getaway – really just old people sex – but we let them call it a getaway because we'd have the house to ourselves for two days. We had house sex. Well, except for the old folks room. I mean, there's kinky and then there's just plain weird.
I drove over to the gas station by the highway since they were a twenty four hour convenience location. It was cold, but not as cold as it had been. Fat flakes were just starting to fall and I was thankful it had warmed up enough to snow. I went into the store and poked around looking for the stuff Sash wanted. I knew he'd have wrapped practically everything by the time I got back, this was just a ploy to get me out of his way. When I returned we'd cuddle on the couch and watch something Christmasy and eat junk food.
I had my arms full with chips and Cheetos as well as drinks and was a little surprised to find a line. There was a heavyset couple at the register and the kid behind the counter was stressing about something to do with her register. There was another lady behind them and then a family. The father was holding one child's hand while the mother took another to the bathroom. A tween son had earphones in and was idly shaking some drink he wanted. I guessed they were heading home for the holiday.
The clerk was getting frustrated and my arms were getting tired of hanging onto this stuff. My phone buzzed and I struggled to get to it without dropping things, since I didn't have a third hand to help me. There was a gasp from in front of me and the man with the little boy backed into me and I dropped my jar of salsa.
“Hey dude, watch out,” I said, but my eyes were drawn away from him as he frantically reached forward to grab his zombie like tween.
“Come on, open it!” This came from a guy in a hoodie. He was glancing randomly at those of us in line and menacing the clerk with a rather long knife. The father had picked up his younger child but hadn't snagged the other kids attention as he slipped on my salsa. I dropped my stuff and stepped up to the boy and pushed him back towards his dad. He must have been off balance because he reached for my coat and pinwheeled his arms, making a lot of motion which caught the thief's attention.
“Don't move, man! Don't move!” the guy said, waving his knife at me. Jesus that thing was huge. I held my hand out.
“Okay, dude, relax. Take it easy, okay? I just wanted the kid safe. You don't want to hurt kids, right?” I said to him calmly. The clerk was frantically pushing buttons but her point of sale seemed to have locked up.
“It won't open!” she said, he voice stressed and sweat standing out on her face.
The lady who was second in line burst toward the door suddenly. She caught the thief by surprise and was gone while he was still screaming at her to 'get her ass back here'. The tween tried to run as well, and I grabbed the collar of his coat and spared him an evisceration as I yanked him away from the knife sweeping through the air.
“Easy, kid!” I said, throwing him back behind me and, presumably, into the clutches of his father, or so I hoped.
“Everyone stay where you are!” the thief snarled and then glanced at the clerk. “Open it!”
“I can't!” she was sobbing now and banging on the register. The thief menaced her, brandishing the knife, and she backed away from the counter.
“Open it, bitch! Hurry up!” he yelled.
“Hey, maybe I can-” but that was as far as I got. Lightning quick he'd turned and, although I tried to jump back, I felt the prick of the blade. Then I slipped on the stupid salsa and fell forward. I felt the cold metal push into me and moments later my vision swam as my eyes watered with the pain. There was screaming and running, something fell and then I was on the floor, holding my stomach.
Oh, man. Sash is going to kill me.
It was too bright to see anything. Moving my hands to shield my eyes seemed to have no effect, nor did closing my eyes. I tried to turn my head away but I seemed, somehow, disconnected from my body. I felt no motion from my efforts and, I realized, I could not find my hands. Rather than panic I felt a confusion, a fuzziness that I couldn't explain.
“Stop it, you moron.”
The voice made me realize I hadn't been hearing anything, and more that I was unable to respond.
“Give it a second, will you? How about you exercise some of that patience you're always going on about?”
The voice sounded like a sneer, but it carried with it some fear and tenderness. I tried to examine how I knew this, or how I felt I knew this, but was distressed to discover there was no rational thought behind it. I simply knew. The voice was silent and I wished it would speak again to break the endless nothing I seemed to be in – excepting the light.
“Relax, I'm still here. Moron.”
The voice was achingly familiar, yet I was unable to place it. It was male, scratchy and immature. It sounded as if it were on the verge of breaking, like that of an adolescent. It was also endearing and, perhaps, hopeful. The light began to dwindle, and I became more self aware – I had substance. I thought of moving my hand and there was my arm, rising before me. Experimentally I took a breath and felt my chest fill and empty.
“Wow,” I said. “I thought I was dead.”
“You kind of are.”
I looked around, my sense of direction feeling compromised as I looked for the voice. Then, there he was. A little thing, perhaps four foot seven with a proportional build. His golden blond hair was spiked up, but not freshly so. It looked as though the hair were just long enough to need far more gel to stand straight, but it also looked like the gel had been put in ages before and was losing its hold.
The face was all planes. High cheekbones protruded from under deep, dark green eyes. Some of his lazy spiked hair hung forward onto his smooth forehead and his lips twitched nervously, going from being full and lush to thin as he compressed them, perhaps waiting for me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I'm your guide,” he replied.
“Guide for what?”
“We're going to pick your dumb ass up and get you moving again.”
“What are you talking about? Move where? And stop calling me names.”
“I knew it got to you,” he grinned.
“Yeah, yeah. Make with the explaining.”
“Your body is giving up. I need to get your....spirit, I guess, involved.”
“Giving up? As in dying? Oh, Sash will kill me if I do that!” I said and brought my hand up to my forehead.
“Come on, let's bring you up to speed.” The boy held out his hand and as soon as I touched it, we were in a small hospital room. It was a double room and someone was breathing on a ventilator. The TV on the wall droned as he slept. I felt a tug on my arm and I followed my guide over to the second bed...where I lay. I was overcome with dizziness seeing myself outside of...myself. It wasn't like a photo, it was far more upsetting.
“I told you to wait on that,” another voice said. I turned and looked at the doorway to the room and saw...Charlie? He walked toward me with a gentle smile and embraced me.
“It's good to see you, Alec.”
“Charlie,” I said numbly as I hugged him back. “What's going on? Am I...”
“No, not yet,” he said pulling back and shaking his head. “But you're somewhere in between, right now.”
“Charlie...you look good, man,” I said, smiling at him.
“Thank you,” he grinned. “You don't look so good though, Alec.”
“What do you mean?”
Charlie looked down at my stomach and I followed his gaze and was disturbed to see a growing red patch on my hospital clothes. I moved my hand, and then it was gone and my clothes were more my normal style of a tee shirt and jeans. I glanced up at Charlie in question.
“This has to go just right, so I'm going to leave you with Micah, for now. But I promise I'll see you again, okay?”
“Yeah. Hey,” I said quietly. “We miss you, you know?”
He seemed to...glow...a little and smiled back. “I know, but it's always nice to hear.”
I felt a pull on my hand and turned to the other boy – Micah – and by the time I looked back to where Charlie had been, he was gone.
“What the hell is going on?”
“It takes a lot for us both to be here. Can you just focus, please?” Micah said impatiently.
“Focus on what?” I asked.
“How about the fact that you're dying?” he demanded.
“Oh. Okay.” I turned again to see myself lying in the hospital bed. It was just like any other scene you've likely seen on TV or in real life if you've even been so unlucky. There was an IV and a clear tube that branched into my nose to feed me air, I guess. It looked like someone had put that embarrassing dress on me and I hoped no one had perved on me when they did it.
“Really? You're dying and all you can wonder is if someone looked at your ass when you weren't paying attention?”
I frowned at him. “It's an ego thing. I like to keep a count on how many compliments it gets.”
“Jesus!” Micah said, throwing his arms in the air. “It's true, you always were a pain in the ass!”
“Hey, can you cut me some slack? I'm dying here, I guess.”
“Fine,” he said with an eyeroll. “So at least you got that part down. Question is, what are you going to do about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on,” he said and dragged me out of the room and down a hall. I wasn't so much stepping as gliding and then we were in some kind of waiting area – and there were all these lights. All sorts of colors and I was mesmerized for a moment. They seemed to be around bodies who moved slowly, some were mixing with other colors because the people involved were embracing or one was comforting the other.
“What's all this?" I asked in wonder.
“You're seeing their auras,” Micah explained. “Auras are electromagnetic fields that surround us. There are seven layers and as you see colors shift on an individual, your actually seeing one of the other layers.”
“Lots of red in here,” I said.
“Yeah. They're worried.”
“Mostly. Some folks here don't know you, so the worry you see is for their own loved ones. Here, let me filter them out.”
My sight shifted, but not by all that much. The red still permeated much of the room, fluctuating with other colors – a bright pink prominent and a deep emerald green as well. It was a lot of color to take in.
“There wasn't that many things you filtered out,” I said.
“Well, most of these people are here for you,” he replied. “That red is worry for you, as I said.”
“What about the other colors?" I asked curiously.
“The emerald green is someone who is a love-centered person. The light yellow is someone who is hopeful. Lavender is a dreamer. I can go on, but the important part here is that they are all here for you.”
“What's the pink?”
“Wow.” I said, my voice and my spirit filled with wonder. “All this is for me?”
“Sure. You're surrounded by it all the time. These people all love you. They aren't the only ones. I see names floating, folks that couldn't be here, but who are thinking of you out of worry for their friends. You have people that don't even know you who are worried for you.”
“Seriously? But, why me? I'm just a guy.”
“No, moron, you're not,” he said sullenly.
“Hey, what's with all the names?” I demanded. “If I'm so great, why do you like to burst my bubble here, huh?”
“Because you're too dumb to know what you really have!” he fumed. “You wander around and stuff your nose into things and look at what you did! Look at all the people worried about you!”
It was then that I noticed Micah had developed a red envelope around him and I was kind of shocked. After all, he's been calling me names almost from the get-go here. Just as soon as it developed it winked out and Micah was frowning deeply at me.
“Come on, moron, one of them is falling asleep.”
“What does that matter?”
“You're going to have to talk to some of them, you need their energy to save yourself.”
“What? Don't we have doctors for that?” I asked.
“They're human, too. Sometimes we need a little help.” We stood in silence and watched the shifting lights. I refrained from asking about the other colors I saw, I somehow felt that Micah was watching for something in particular.
“Okay, that one there. See how the colors are starting to swirl together? That one is falling asleep. Get ready.”
“For what?” I asked, but there was a sudden lurch in my vision, a shift and then I was in my room at home and there was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” I said, and I wondered why I didn't just open the door. It swung open and Lucien was there, my parents misty and hazy behind him.
“Alec!” he cried out and flew at me, a ball of love and energy. I mean, I could feel it as he hit me. It was like being wrapped in an blanket of love and warmth, with cold cables I identified as worry, regret and live wires of relief.
“Hey buddy,” I said, wrapping him to me. I felt him wiggle in my arms, and then he was a foot away from me and slamming into me again, in a repeat of what he'd just done, except now he was crying.
“Alec I was so worried,” he said and then he was a foot away again, slamming into me.
“You have to put some will into this,” Micah said to me. “You're in his head and he's not in much control. He's an open conduit, so you have to stand up a bit for yourself to bring him some form of control.”
“Uh, okay,” I said uncertainly. This time when Lucien crashed into me I held him tightly, wrapping him close and telling him how much I loved him. Nope, he was still a foot away and rushing me again. With a thought I sidestepped him and dumped him on my bed.
“You ass!” he yelled and I grinned, hauling him up and embracing him. He sniffed, burying his face into my chest and told me again how much he loved me and how afraid he was.
“Shh,” I told him. “I'm right here.”
“Yeah, but what happens to me if you're gone? I need you, Alec.” His face wavered, one moment appearing to be sobbing and another looking at me plaintively. “We all do. You hold everything together.”
“Lu,” I said softly. “If I'm not there you have Robin and Kale and our folks. You're never alone.”
“No!” he screamed, shaking me and, oddly, the whole room. The room, in fact, was gone and we were at the ruins of the Sanitarium.
“Calm down, bud,” I said to him, but he was just out of reach.
“You don't get it!” he said, anger lacing his tone. “No one can be you! No one fills that place but you! Yes, I can go on, but do you have any idea how much damage losing you would do to me? To our folks?”
“Lu, I'm not going anywhere,” I said gently.
“Yes! Yes you are! You're dying right now!” he screamed, a sound so loud it had physical force and pushed me backward. Then he was on me again, his grip like a vice. “Alec I love you so much. Please, please come back to me.”
We shifted violently and I recognized the high school gym. There were all these folding chairs, a sea of them. In fact the gym seemed to stretch out impossibly long and there was a dizzying number of faces who were too blurry for me to make out. Coach Rivers was on a raised platform and speaking from a podium.
“After him, everything changed. Never the type of guy you'd identify as a football jock, he defied stereotypes. Looking like a kid who'd never make it through tryouts, he became a standout and then a team captain. He put this school on the map for football and as a community he dragged us to the next level.
“Our school mascot has been the Titans for the last six years, when we all came together under the Columbia banner. Even though the Giants are geographically closer, the name Titan was chosen because Titans are bigger than Giants. No one was more of a Titan than Alec. Yet, he did not move like a titan. He was fast and powerful, graceful even. He was like a warhorse, at the front and center of his team in a mad charge against the enemy. Once he'd been knocked down, he'd get up and lead the way again – the mark of a true leader.
“In honor of his commitment and for the gifts he gave so many of us, it is my honor to rename our school mascot the Columbia Chargers, in loving memory of Alec Kutsenko.”
Then I was standing by the podium and Lucien was looking out at the crowd, sad and confused. I looked out and could see Charlie, Sasha, Kale and Chase. They looked terrible, but my eyes were drawn to Robin, likely because Lucien's were also since he seemed to be controlling this, at least nominally. Robin had large tears rolling, but he was sitting straight and had his eyes on Lucien.
Then Lucien was speaking, his voice dissipating into the enormous space.
“My brother, Alec, saved me. He pulled me up from the wreck my life was in and gave me parents who love me, friends that have become my family. Alec taught me that blood doesn't make a family, love does. Alec loved me, but he always thought others didn't love him.
“He lived with that. He pined to feel that others did, in fact, love him. He was unable to see, hiding behind his humor. Behind his quick wits and sharp mind, he was alone.”
He fell silent, his words swallowed in the rafters. Our friends are horrified and their whispers filled my head. They all loved me, how could I not know? Lucien screams 'because you never told him!' No, not fair, Sasha told him. Then Lucien turned to me, his face a mask of misery - “Did I tell you? Oh, God, did I?”
Then he was facing the room again.
“Alec...he told me that making me part of his family taught him what he wanted to do with this life. He said it was clear he wanted to help people. It seems like those people – the ones who want to help, who believe in humanity are always dragged down by those same people. We hurt the ones we love.”
Lucien began to tell the story of my stabbing, making it seem far more heroic than it was. Like magic I could see it playing out. It was as if I were a character on TV and my friends and family were ringed around me like an audience. A man comes into the store, demands money. Had a knife. I moved in front of a family whose father had just stepped in up to protect his kids. Lucien went on, a scared narrator, afraid of getting to the end he knew was coming. “Alec's hands were out, placating. Speaking. Pleading. Bargaining. Then there was a flash of the blade as Alec tries to disarm the robber. A twist, a foot here and a loss of balance there. The white tee runs red.”
I felt the prick of the knife in my side, but not the pain. Outside the circle of onlookers an ambulance screams to a halt. Movement, like a director has yelled 'action'! Blood pools on the floor of the dirty, cracked tile of the bodega, leaking from me.
A shift and we are back in the gym. In the audience, a woman who I have a sense is Lu's mother, in her bathrobe. Her tits are hanging out and a knife is in her hand. It drips blood. The gym shakes, the crowd is uneasy. They are questioning, they are pushing, poking, prodding. Squeezing. I close my eyes, vertigo swirls behind my eyelids and I scream.
“Alec!” Lucien yells. I am suddenly in control again.
“It's okay, Lu. It's okay. I'm here. I'm here.”
I look down into Lu's crestfallen face as he whispered, “For how long, Alec? For how long?”
And then I was back in the waiting room with Micah, the sound of sobbing reverberating off the walls.
“Well, that could have been better,” Micah said. “But you got his energy, so that's good.”
“What are you talking about? I need to go back to him, he's a mess!” I protested.
“No more than he was before,” Micah said reasonably. “The important part is that you got something you needed – energy.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means that you need to fix yourself. Right now,” he said, turning me to face him. “You're bleeding internally. The doctor missed it. We can't fix it, but we need to slow it down. Some of that healing is done through the body's energy – but you're weak. You don't have enough and you need help from those people here. Lucien is an open conduit to you now – see that green tether coming from him to you?”
Turning I did see it, like a garden hose that was coming from a blob of shifting color – I couldn't see individuals – to me.
We waited as I watched in wonder at the colors and emotions, at the power that was coming to me from Lucien. Lucien's cry had wound them all up for a few minutes, but it must have been late because they settled again and another blob went to a swirl of colors. With Micah shoving me, I was transported again.
It took me a few minutes to recognize the place, but it was the park we'd gone camping with Kale and Chase a few years ago. Such a disastrous trip! I turned a few times until I saw a figure approaching me from the trees. Even when he was half awake, there was an elegance to Chase's movements, an unconscious grace that made walking look far more sophisticated than simple transportation.
His lips twitched as he smiled at me.
“Hey,” I grinned back. “Nice place you have here.”
His eyes never left mine, he merely tilted his head to the side and looked at me lovingly. “I love this place. I think about it from time to time and, sometimes, I daydream about it. I think it was the first time I suspected Kale loved you and the first time I admitted that there was a lot to love.”
“Why don't we sit?” he said, and just like that we had camping chairs. “You know, that was a hard thing for me to realize and it took me some time to deal with. I was glad that I did figure it out, though, considering how things played out.”
“You knew...back then? Here? I mean, now or...you knew? I didn't know.”
“Perception isn't always your strong suit, Alec. At least not consciously.”
“Hey now,” I said, “Let's keep this friendly.”
“Alec,” he chided, “How could I be anything less? My God, you've had such an impact on me, did you know that?”
“Are you talking about...?”
“No,” he said, his mouth twisting into a tight smile, “I was not.”
“I was talking about how much you changed my life. One day I was fretting about Kale and wanting to be open about our relationship and the next thing you know...you come along.”
“I don't follow.”
“Alec,” he said as he leaned forward and placed his forearms on his legs. “You gave my boyfriend the courage to be open about himself, to spread his wings.”
I opened my mouth but Chase held up a hand.
“Do not say something about 'legs', Alec.”
“I wasn't!” I protested. “I was going to say you guys were already out by the time Sash and I met you.”
“Right. But Kale's reasoning for being open was because of you. You big dummy, you gave him courage!” Chase laughed at me and continued, “Don't be so shocked. You have had an undue amount of influence over my life, mister.”
“I'm not angry, Alec. Far from it. You know, now, Kale expected me to say encouraging things and so he didn't take them quite as seriously. But when big bad Alec Kutsenko showed up and told him how great he was – well, he realized I wasn't just being nice.” He leaned a little closer to me, “Just as important, you never tried to be more than his friend. Do you know I used to worry that, had you been single, Kale would have ended up with you?”
“Oh, stop. I can't measure up to you,” I protested.
“Tell me one thing you think I do better than you,” Chase challenged.
“You're a lot like Sash,” I said immediately. “You're smart and think things through. You're calm, not panicky. Maybe something I did pushed Kale over the edge, but you've never been afraid to show him the truth about how much you love him – even when or especially when – he's being difficult.
“You love people far better than I do. I scare them away, sometimes, but folks like you are always there to make them safe.”
“Is that really what you see?” Chase asked, placing a hand over his mouth.
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I know why Kale loves you. It's why everyone loves you. It's why I love you.”
Things blurred again for a moment, one second we were seated and the next I was holding Chase as he cried into my shoulder. I rubbed my hands on his back as he shuddered against me.
“Alec,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “Please don't leave us. You'll break so many hearts I don't know that we can all survive.”
“Oh, come on, Chase,” I said softly.
“No, no!” he said forcefully as he backed up a pace and slapped my chest. “Lucien would be destroyed. Sasha...I don't even want to think about. Kale? Devastated. You take all that and add in my grief as I try to comfort everyone that is hurting around me...Alec. You can't go. Catastrophic doesn't even come close to it. I'm not just asking for everyone else, either. I'm asking for me. I want you to keep being such an influence in my life, in my family. I want you to keep being part of that family. I want you to show Linc how wonderful it is to have you in his life. Jesus, Alec, you hold us all together.”
“Did you just call me snot and baling wire?” I asked, my voice breaking.
“That and glue or whatever – no. You're pure love, Alec. That's why you hold us all together. Our center, our sun. Please, don't go.”
And like that, I was back with Micah. Two green strands ran to my abdomen, and I could feel that energy in the form of heat. I felt strong and more like myself, too.
“We're not done, yet,” Micah said. “You still need more. You have two – I suggest you take that one first, he was emerald green so he's probably got a lot to give.”
“You know, I kind of feel like a vampire, here, asking them for part of themselves,” I said with a frown. “These folks are my family and I'm taking their energy. Doesn't that hurt them?”
“No, not at all. They are like...alternators in a car. At birth we get a spark, like a car battery, and then we make our own fields from there. As long as we are alive, we keep making energy.” Micah touched my shoulder and said gently, “Alec they are giving of themselves freely that you might live. Even now it's not guaranteed. We're just trying to keep you afloat until the doctors realize something is wrong.”
“Can't we tell someone?”
“You can try, but most of them won't remember this as anything other than a weird dream if they remember it at all,” he replied with a shrug. “Even you.”
“Wait, what? I won't remember any of this?” I said, my eyes opening wide in disbelief. “All these deep, intimate moments and all the things I said and they told me, we don't get to keep any of it?”
“I didn't say that,” Micah replied contritely. “You won't remember the specific interactions, but you'll find that you'll be tightly bound to them, more than you even are now.”
“How is that possible? These people are my life!” I said emphatically. “I know they love me, God help them, but how can I possibly get closer?”
“Think of it, sort of, like parental DNA. When you're born you're a mix of their DNA and that is a product of all their ancestors DNA. Your energy will be combined with theirs – this isn't a one way trip, Alec. They are going to get some feedback if you recover, and a wallop if you die.”
“Whoa, what do you mean 'a wallop'? This could hurt them?” I said, panic creeping into my voice.
“Not in a physical sense. I think you already know your loss would linger with them. This will make that initial hit harder, but they will still recover as they normally would. Nothing permanent, Alec.”
I looked at the shifting colors uncertainly. “How come I haven't looked at my folks?” I asked.
“They are awake and not open. They are strong people and, even if you were at full strength, you'd need them to be asleep to get access to them. Let's focus on getting the love where we can find it, okay?”
“Um. Okay, I guess. You promise I'm not hurting them, though?”
“I promise. This is all freely given,” Micah said. “Um, I have to check out for a second, though. This one, well, there's a special request.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, but Micah was gone. From my other side, however, was another voice.
“He's talking about me, Alec,” Charlie said.
“Oh. Hi, Charlie. Have I told you how good it is to see you?”
“Yes, but I'll listen to it every time you want to say it,” he grinned. “I loved that trip we took in your old car, you know. The clown car ride? It was a great day.”
“Yeah, it sure was, Charlie.”
“Well, listen, I think you know where you're jumping next. I'd like you to do something for me when you're there.”
“Sure. What is it?”
“This,” Charlie said holding what looked like a glowing pink ball. It looked like he'd reached out and just scooped off a ball of love aura, if I remembered the colors right.
“Wow, you can just hand that out?” I marveled.
“Well, sort of. This is a special circumstance,” he said. “See, when I died things were a little unsettled with Robin and I. We had a few good last days, but I know the uncertainty hurt him. I just want you to give him this.”
“Why don't I do it myself? What about Lucien?”
“Yeah, read my...”
“Mind? Yes. The reason I can't do it myself is that he's healed from my loss. No,” he shook his head at me as I opened my mouth to protest. “I don't mean he's forgotten me. At the very least, Lucien continues to honor me, even though I was just there first.”
I just waited, wondering where this was going.
“You know how, when we heal, and a scar is left behind how the scar tissue is thicker than the surrounding tissue? If I were to...go to him, give him this love, it would rip open that scar. My love would cause him pain because he'd be conflicted about being with Lucien all over again. I don't want that for him.”
“Okay,” I said quietly.
“On the other hand, if you give it to him, it's just a bit of energy and that little voice that bothers him every here and there about me, it'll stop. You see,” Charlie said, looking at one of the shifting bodies of light, “Robin is a lot like Lucien – he loves completely. There really isn't room for any conflict on that and he needs to let the last whispers of me go.”
“He seems pretty dedicated to Lu,” I replied evenly. I was kind of irritated he seemed to be implying Robin was cheating somehow.
“It's not like that, Alec,” he said with a smile. “Robin is loyal, and some small part of him still feels guilt, as silly as that may sound. But giving him this will let him know, I'm okay and all his love needs to go to Lucien. It'll let him know I'm still loved, here, and some of that is from him. I'll see him again, one day, but love doesn't work the same way here as it does there. There won't be any cheating or conflict. I'll be able to love him and Lucien and they me. Please?” he asked, holding the energy out. I accepted it and then pushed me, “Off you go.”
My nose was filled with the scent of grass and, dimly, I heard people playing. On the ground in front of me, sprawled in the grass with a soccer ball nearby, was Robin. He was dressed out for gym but was focused on his ankle.
“I think about this day sometimes, you know,” Robin said without looking at me. “I keep thinking it's your fault I stepped on the ball and I'm lucky I didn't get a twisted ankle out of it.”
“I can't help it you were staring at me,” I grinned.
“As if,” he replied, smiling back. He stood, dusting himself off and faced me. “The part I remember about this, though, isn't you. Not really.”
“This is the day you met Lucien,” I said with a grin.
He nodded, “Got it in one. It was kind of slick of you to try and get him to see me as more than some superhero.”
“Who says you aren't? I saw that Robin suit,” I snickered.
“Yeah, so did Hamster and Derek, big deal,” he laughed. A blink and we were sitting on the bleachers. Indistinct blobs moved on the field, playing soccer, I guess.
“So, you and I...we never got close. At least, not directly,” Robin said, and turned his face a little towards me. “Why do you think that is?”
“Probably my fault,” I said.
“Well, that's a given,” he laughed again.
“I think it's because you don't like me,” I told him.
“What? Why would you say that?” he demanded.
“Well, I made your life pretty complicated when you and Charlie were still dating, when I was trying to help Lucien.”
“Don't you dare apologize for that!” Robin said angrily. “Charlie and I knew what was up with Lucien and we figured he'd outgrow it or find someone else who made him happy. We were never, never unhappy or angry that Lucien felt as he did or that we got him because of you. He was a gift.”
“Okay,” I said and went to my next point, “first time you ever met me you swore at me like a little punk.”
“Your piece of shit car door hit Kale's BMW!” he laughed and waved his arms.
“Fuckstick, you opened a door there, too,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, okay,” he said, nodding and grinning. “I'll give you that – hardly a reason to dislike someone forever, though.”
“Then there was how things backfired when I was busting Kale's stones about you and Lu making the beast with two backs.”
“That depends on how we do it, actually,” Robin smiled and stuck his tongue out.
“Hey, that reminds me, what's number 17?” I asked.
“Oh, no way am I telling you squat about our sex lives,” Robin laughed loudly.
“Fine,” I grumbled.
“But, yes. I was angry with you for that. You have no idea how difficult it was not to choke the life from Kale. You turned him into a sex patrolman.”
“Don't say it,” he warned. Instead of saying it I pictured Kale as a cop, and then pictured him strip teasing the uniform off. Robin hit me. “Don't!”
“That's the real reason, though, isn't it? Because I slept with your brother.”
“No,” he shook his head slowly. “Kale explained it, but I don't really understand it. For me, Lucien is it and I won't share him with anyone. But I don't hate you. I don't even dislike you. In fact, I kind of thought you didn't like me all that much.”
“You? You're great, Robin. I've always liked you. Uh, when you're not swearing at me. Mucho less hot then, as I once told Kale.”
“But...why? I mean, listen,” he held up a hand. “I had a talk with Kale recently and he told me you'd give any of us a kidney, told me to go to you if he wasn't available and you'd take care of me.”
“Yeah, of course I would, Robbie.”
“Aw, come on, Rob,” I smiled. “Lucien loves you so much and you've been so good for and to him, how could I not? Just seeing the way his face lights up when you're in the room is enough to make me love you like an extra little brother. I often think of you that way, actually,” I confessed.
“But we never...we don't talk. We don't hang out...”
“We do,” I protested. “We just do it all together. Hey, under what circumstances could I hang out with just you?”
“I don't know, but if you're willing to give me a kidney, I think you should figure out a way.”
“Robin,” I said reaching for his hand. “I'd give you my heart, not only for yourself but so you could keep loving Lucien. Your his world, man. You're the only one he needs as much as he does me, and that must mean you are ridiculously, stupidly, phenomenally special.”
“I...I'm shocked you...Alec, thank you.”
“Oh, I have something for you,” I said and with that thought my hand was filled with the bright pink ball of energy. Robins face was bathed in its light and then it darted to him, disappearing into his chest. His face glowed and a smile spread across his face.
“Oh, Alec! This gift! Oh, this is wonderful,” Robin stood and hugged me. It felt odd to hug Robin, never having done it in the real world. His scent was oddly familiar, though, but distinctly different. He was slimmer than Kale, but he fit well into my arms and I sighed deeply, feeling peace settle onto me.
“I need something from you, Robin.”
“I know,” he said into my ear. I suddenly felt shorter and found my face pressed into Robin's neck, like I'd seen Lucien do so many times before. “You have it, Alec. I don't love halfway, and I guarantee...I love you.”
Then I was back out in the waiting room, dumbfounded. A green line was connecting me to a new person, Robin. The lines disappeared in my stomach and I felt near radiant with his words and with the energy I could feel in me. This new conduit was more intense, thicker than the others and I questioned Micah about it.
“He's kind of like Lucien, he's a love-centered being. That means he either does or doesn't and he gives everything. Right now, hes giving it all to you. These are some friends you have,” Micah said in wonder.
“You have no idea, man,” I said. “They are the best family a guy could ever ask for.”
“Ready for the next one? He's already asleep,” Micah said.
“One second,” I said. I wanted to savor this, just for a moment. To delay I asked a question. “Micah, why do they have to be asleep?”
“They don't always have to be,” he admitted, “but it makes it a lot easier since you're not very strong right now. As people mature they have natural defenses, like your folks. But, being asleep opens them up to clairaudience. Plus they are unguarded when asleep and their subconscious is in control, their true emotions.”
“I knew Chase loved me, but...”
“He's a pretty powerful source of energy,” Micah agreed.
“Do their...feelings for me play into their energy?”
“Oh, yeah. It's what they make available to you. Don't get me wrong, they are all kind of close when it comes to that. Hey, whoa. That's kind of weird.”
“What?” I asked.
“This guy, the one you're going to jump to next? He's showing some clear red, see it? Like a see-through, undiluted red?”
“That's, um, sexual energy. He's not the only one showing it, either.”
“What?” I yelped.
“I wish I'd be able to remember all this shit for later,” Micah groused. “Go!”
I recognized the surroundings immediately. It was the Kirkwood's basement. My lungs filled with a scent I knew well, but that I hadn't smelled often. A warm body moved next me, breathing gently. Turning I looked across the pillow into Kale's blue eyes.
“He wakes,” Kale smiled. Then that repeated about twelve times before I could push things forward by kissing him.
He started to cry and I pulled him close, our body heat warming the other under the sheets. I ran my fingers over the hot skin of his back, took in the scent of sweat and sex in the air. I noted two indistinct shapes moving across from us and realized this must be the first time we'd all gotten together as lovers. Kale's leg wrapped over me and pulled me closer, crushing me to him.
“I'm so scared.” Kale's voice was a whisper in my ear, in my mind. It was like a plea carried by the wind.
“Why, Kale? You're safe.”
“Right now I am. You're here. Chase is here. Sash is here. I'm like a three legged stool, Alec. I have my family to prop me up, Chase and Sash and then you. If you go, I fall.” He sighed onto my skin and I felt goosebumps. “But it's not just that. You're in pain, suffering even now and it's breaking my heart. I now know exactly what my family felt like when I was in the hospital for my heart. I know, now, what it feels like to be so helpless while someone you love slips away – and to be powerless to stop it.”
I didn't know what to say. Kale's hands moved behind me, pulling me yet closer and our legs entwined, almost of their own accord.
“My heart is breaking, Alec. I'm losing my best friend – a friend so great I don't even have a label for it.”
“We're super friends,” I said with a smile.
“Stop ripping off old cartoons, Alec,” he said with a chuckle. “You always make me smile. You make me laugh when all of life seems to be bitter. If I lost you, or Chase or Sash...”
“You won't,” I said confidently.
“You can't say that,” he replied, pulling back and breaking contact. Then he was standing, pacing, and I watched him. It was hard to remember that I was here because I needed his energy to live, and yet I was mesmerized by how attractive he was. The tremble of his muscle as he stalked a trench in the floor. The sway of his penis, the flex of his behind, the swell of his chest muscles and the curve of his face.
“Kale. I need your help.”
He stopped, turning to face me. I inhaled sharply, never having been afforded the chance to just look at him like this.
“Yeah, right. What could you possibly need that I could give you?”
“I need your love, man. I need your energy to live. Not just now, either. I...” I shook my head. “So far, I talked to Lucien, Chase and Robin. I walked away feeling like they needed me, but I never asked them to give to me. I didn't remember, until Robin, to ask them to give me what I need. They did, without asking but Kale...I don't want to go. I need you to help me out.”
“I'd give you anything,” he said softly. “Take what you need, don't leave anything behind. Watching you die is killing me.”
“That was pretty powerful stuff,” Micah said. I looked around, disoriented, with Kale's scent still in my nose. The green tether of his energy was plain to see, a vibrant color, and I could feel the energy that was uniquely Kale. Good gravy, I love these guys.
“Well, one to go. It's getting to be early morning, nurses will come soon and, hopefully, one of them will pick up on your internal bleeding. Right now, you have to go.”
It was our dorm room. Sash lay in bed, the sheets down to his waist. He lay on his stomach, head tilted toward me on the pillow. He reached a hand out to me, smiling.
“Come here, love.”
“Sash,” I sighed in relief and climbed in next to him. His skin was warm and inviting and he giggled as I nuzzled into him. “This has been so...stressful.”
The room flickered and we were in his old room at home, in his bed.
His fingers entwined in my hair and he said softly, “Yes, it has. I'm so ashamed I've fallen asleep, but I'm exhausted, Alec.”
“Sash, please, don't apologize,” I begged softly. “I know what we mean to each other. I want to stay, just give me what you can and I'll do my best from there.”
“Your best?” Sash said, leaning away. “Your best? Alec Kutsenko, you have yet to discover your best!”
“Um...is that a compliment or a criticism?” I asked, uncertainly.
The room flickered and now we were on the couch in my house. The TV was a bright, hazy object and there were bodies around the floor, but they were all indistinct.
His lips twitched and I felt his fingers trace along the side of my face. “I've always avoided thinking about life without you. In fact, since we first gave ourselves to each other, I've always known it would be you and I until we were dust.”
I stared into his eyes, soft with unshed tears that was a contrast to the smile curling the ends of his mouth.
“It brings peace, you know, that kind of certainty. I can see why some people hew so closely to some belief systems for the comfort of knowing. I've known for a long time, though, that there is no me without an us.”
“Kale and Chase,” I said, but Sash cut me off.
Again, the space flickered and now we were in the Kirkwood's basement. Chase was fuzzy, out of focus under Sash, who moved his hips. I felt a solid warmth under me and knew the body was Kale, and yet my eyes were stuck to Sasha's face.
“They are beautiful, wonderful people who are just a breath away from you in my heart, Alec. But, even combined, they can never replace you. If you go...I'm lost.” He pushed his fingers past my face and into my hair. “I don't want to wither slowly on the vine, Alec. I don't want our beloved friends and our found family to watch that either. If you go, love...I'm going with you.”
A flicker, and back to the dorm. “Sash!” I said, sitting up in bed. “Don't say shit like that! Not ever!”
“We don't lie to each other, Alec. I'm not telling you this to scare you, by the way. I just want you to know. Your best?” he grinned. “Your best will have to be good enough for the both of us – and it will be, one way or another.”
“Sash, you're scaring me,” I said, my voice barely registering in my own ears, but he seemed to have heard me just fine.
The walls were gone again and now we were skinny dipping – the Kirkwoods back yard, last summer I recalled. Sash rose up before me, skin wet and hair pushed back. His eyes were focused on me and I could feel their intent, their love. My own eyes pricked with tears, such was the depth of the emotion.
“Alec, our love may be evergreen, but our time here is not. We haven't married yet, but you know the song in my heart belongs to you. I can't do this without you. Come to me, and I'll give you what you need. Take it all, don't spare a thought for anything but living. Know I'm waiting for you – we all are – and we need you, Smart Alec.”
The walls blurred, shifting from one memory to another – the many times we'd made love, the places we'd gone with our friends, the joy of the new life Kale and Chase had brought into our lives in Linc. The clown car day, the joy of Lucien's adoption. Birthdays, holidays, they all ran together in a swirl, only defining themselves for the briefest moments.
“Sasha,” I said as he pulled me close and then he was kissing me, his body pressed to mine and then...we were one. There was no Sasha and no Alec, there just...was.
“We've only begun, Alec. Come back to me, love.”
He was gone. I was in the waiting room, and the green conduits were gone.
“Jesus, that was kind of hot,” Micah said. “Charlie said to say thank you again, by the way.”
I felt both drained and rejuvenated – punchy would be the word my dad would use. I felt as though I were tottering on my feet, only remaining standing by sheer luck.
“Am I going to be okay?” I asked.
“I think so. They just wheeled you out of the room and it woke everyone up – that's why the energy is interrupted,” Micah explained. “You're going to fade out soon, too, if things are going well.”
“What do you mean?”
Micah gave me a weird smile, one that almost made it look like he was pitying me. I mean, he was smiling, but his forehead was wrinkled like he was frowning, too. “You are such a moron.”
“You know, is it weird it almost sounds like you say that like it's a good thing?” I said. I yawned, suddenly feeling tired.
“It is,” he replied. “It's a shame neither of us will remember this, but you should know – if you live – you're going to save me.”
“Whoa, what?” I said. Well, I tried to, but my yawning was becoming more regular than breathing.
Micah looked up at me, and suddenly he was a scared kid in shabby clothes, looking like he hadn't eaten in days and had been living rough. His eyes looked at me with hope and fear. “I'll be your first case, before you become a social worker. I'll be okay because you won't let me be any other way. All those people that love you? One day, you're going to turn all that love on me. You're going to be my dad, Alec.”
“Say what, now?”
“Time to go,” Micah said and actually wavered in front of my eyes, like a mirage. “And Dad? Take good care of Pop for me. I'm going to need you both more than anything.”
I opened my eyes to a dimly lit room. I felt lethargic and my stomach was sore. Faces began to fill my vision – my parents, Sasha, Kale and Chase, Lucien and Robin. I had to look side to side to take them all in, but they were crowded around me.
“Am I dead?” I asked.
“Alec,” Sasha said, one hand over his mouth and tears standing in his eyes. “Why would you ask such a thing?”
“I'm surrounded by angels,” I said softly. They all started to cry. What the hell was that all about?
I must have dozed, but when I woke again I felt a warm hand in mine and turned to find Sash asleep, his forehead on the bed. I squeezed his hand and he stirred, looking at me with sleep deprived eyes and a smile spread across his face.
“Hello, love,” he said. “You had me worried.”
“You know I could never leave you,” I said quietly, my voice scratchy.
“I was worried you were thinking about it,” he said, wiping his eyes. “Oh, God. I don't even know how I have any water in my body to cry with.”
“I'm sorry,” I said.
“Oh, Alec,” he choked out. “I wish I could scold you or tell you to be more careful, but you know what we all decided?”
“You can't stop Alec from doing Alec-like things,” he said with a chuckle.
“Is that a good thing?” I frowned.
“Yes, love. It's what makes you, well, you.” He stood and leaned over to hold me and I brought up my non-IV hand to keep him close. We stayed in silence for a few minutes, just taking comfort in the other. Somehow I felt like this had done something to make us even closer, and I hadn't thought that possible. No matter what he said, I knew Sash was my better half – my better three-quarters – and yet, somehow, he seemed more intimate, more known to me that at any other time.
“Alec,” Sash said as he slowly pulled away. “Who's Micah?”
“Micah?” I said, frowning in thought. “I don't know anyone named Micah, even though it seems like I should. Why do you ask?”
“You've been saying his name in your sleep.”
“Weird. I kind of feel all kinds of weird, though,” I said, truthfully.
“What do you mean? Should I get the doctor?”
“No, no. Just...” I wiggled and tried to sit up a bit. “I have this strange feeling like...it's hard to describe. I guess I'm feeling like I just woke up and there are these little bits of a dream leftover in my head. If I try to think about them or try to figure out what they are, they just slip away from me. It's maddening.”
“Dreams are like that,” he said, his thumb rubbing the back of my hand.
“Yeah, but these don't feel like normal dreams. They feel...more important. Like,” I licked my lips and coughed a little. Sash grabbed a small cup with a straw and told me to sip, just enough to wet my mouth.
“Thanks.” I fell silent, contemplating. “I feel – this will sound all kinds of stupid – but I feel like something really important happened to me. Like...well, you know how you always lie to me and say we're complimentary halves and not just accepting you're the better one of us?”
“Alec,” he said, his tone laced with warning.
“When I get little bits of this...dream, I see all of us. Not as a group but more like, one on one. I feel like that part of me that is always afraid they're going to change their minds and not like me if I'm not funny enough or whatever...I feel like I lost – no, like I traded away a little bit of that and got something from them in exchange.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I...I don't know, really. I just feel like I appreciate what I have a little more. I feel like I belong, way more than I did before. I don't know why I still felt so insecure about some stuff – maybe I always will. But right now? I don't feel any of that.”
“That's a positive thing. We were all here for you, you know. Poor Lucien was a wreck. Well,” he said, running his hand over his face, “we all were, really.”
“Who was here?”
“Your folks, of course. Lucien, Robin, Chase and Kale. Others wanted to be, but it was Christmas and you've been here a few days. Everyone stopped by – Austin and Derek, Sean and Jamie and Judge and Mrs. Kirkwood. Zap and Travis were here. There were a lot of people who care about you that you scared, Alec.”
“Wow. I feel kind of good about all those people, Sash.”
“You should. There wasn't a life in that room you hadn't touched in some way.”
“Where are Chase and Kale? Are they here?”
“They went to shower and change, they'll be back any minute,” Sash replied. “Why?”
I frowned a little. “What about Robbie and Lu?”
“Lucien went downstairs to get sandwiches for us and Robin was out in the hall on his phone, updating Hamster and Derek – and since when do you call him Robbie?”
Brushing that aside I said, “Can you get him?”
“Sure,” Sasha said uncertainly. He poked his head out in the hallway and I heard him say Robin's name. Moments later Sash held the door for Robin, who smiled at me.
“Hey, Smart Alec. How you feeling?”
I held a hand out to him and he took it, and then I pulled him to me. It was an awkward hug, me one armed and him probably thinking my meds were off.
He pulled away, looking confused. “What was that for?”
“I have a nagging feeling I should tell you I love you,” I said. In a sudden rush I was seized by another emotion, something from my dreams perhaps, and I said. “We need to hang out some, get to know each other better.”
Robin looked over his shoulder at Sash, who shrugged. “It's Alec doing Alec-like things, isn't it?” Robin asked.
“Pretty much,” Sasha chuckled.
Lucien entered the room, and tossed his handful of sandwiches on the table before he was to me and hugging me. This was far more natural a hug, being that Lucien was far more of a participant.
“You scared me,” Lucien said as he pulled back.
“I'll make it a point to avoid pointy bits of metal in the future,” I promised. As with Robin, I was seized by a sudden, clear emotion and said, “You know I love you, right?”
“Yeah, of course. I love you, too. I should probably tell you more often...”
“Trust me, I know.” I stared at his face, and he nodded slowly.
“Still. It never hurts to tell you again, right?”
“Yeah, never hurts.”
The door opened again and Chase and Kale entered, looking like the GQ cover boy at least one of them was.
“I was wondering when you'd stop snoring,” Kale said with a tired smile. Once more I was slammed with an emotion when he embraced me, but this was harder to understand. I looked up at his face, dark circles prominent on his pale skin and realized how stressed he must have been.
“Leafy,” I said, but anything clever I might have said about how tired he looked or the circles under his eyes seemed to melt away.
“Yeah?” he asked.
What to say? His face told me how afraid he'd been, how scared and how much he loved me. There had been a lot of that, though, so I said, “Can I have your autograph? I've never met anyone famous, before.”
His mouth curled into a smile and he snorted out a laugh. “You're such a dick, Kutsenko.”
“I know. Chase, give me a hug before I say anything else sentimental.” As he tried to be gentle with his hug I was seized, suddenly by an idea.
“Guys we should all go camping again,” I stated.
“What?” Chase asked, pulling away with a look of surprise. “After the last trip?”
“No! No, no, no. I'm still trying to recover from the last one!” Kale said firmly.
“It wasn't that bad!” I laughed. “We made some great memories!”
“Yeah,” Kale said, sarcastically. “We had hot dogs on sticks as our whole diet. Our tent was right next to the bathrooms. Someone tore a hole in the roof of our tent during a storm and my car – and I really, really liked that car! - got destroyed by a deer. I'm not falling for another one of your harebrained...don't give me that look, Alec. I'm not falling for it this time.”
“You love my ideas, Kale.”
“I do not!”
“You always have fun!”
“That camping trip was miserable!” he said, but he was starting to laugh.
“Well, let's pool things together and get a cabin,” I said, deliberately not looking at Kale. “Something with a kitchen so we won't have to worry about anyone leaving the gas can behind.”
“Hey!” Chase laughed.
“We can take Lu's bus so that no deer get injured,” I said, looking at Kale.
“Screw you, Alec,” he grimaced, a step closer to relenting.
I glanced at Sash who raised an eyebrow, daring me. “Uh, maybe with private rooms.”
“Why in the world do you want to do that?” Chase asked.
I glanced around at them, trying to make the mishmash of emotions make sense. “I want us all to be together – all of us, the whole found family. I want Linc to experience the chaos of life with all of us.”
“More like the chaos of life with Linc,” Kale laughed.
“Guys, really,” I said seriously. “We've come so far, but this is really just the beginning, isn't it? So? This summer?”
They glanced around at each other.
“Really? I almost died, can't I have this? Where is the sympathy vote?” I demanded.
“All of us?” Robin asked, doubtfully.
“Yes. You and I? This summer? I'm going to know everything about you.”
“Hey!” Lucien said.
“Okay, not everything,” I amended. “But guys, whoever our family is this summer, we go. Right?”
“Okay,” Sash said. “One condition.”
Everyone looked at him in question.
“Alec doesn't pick the cabin.”
“The cabin will have it's own bathroom,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Yeah, but I know you. You have to let us arrange all this.”
“Fine. I don't care as long as we're all together.”
“Alec, what's come over you?” Chase asked. “I mean, we're all usually together anyway, why this big push?”
“I...I just need you guys, that's all. I'm not me when we're all apart.”
“Sounds good to me,” Lu said, hugging Robin from the side. “I can't wait!”