He’s never understood the concept of counting invisible sheep as a method of falling asleep.
When he was very small, Adam did not rest, not like other children. At 2 in the morning when other kids would be safe and warm in dreams, Adam would be wide awake, a bright little spark looking for stimulation and attention in any which way he could get it. When most parents prided themselves on the fact their little ones finally slept through the night, Adam’s parents had to content themselves with tiny snippets of rest here and there, broken patterns of sleep that their boy did not grow out of despite the Health Visitor’s promises. His mother said benevolently that he was a spoiled only-child and needed a sibling to share their time and energy with. His father, on the other hand, said it was because he was an intelligent, inquisitive little boy who couldn’t bear to miss anything.
Both of them, exhausted beyond belief, begged their tiny son to close his eyes, to count sheep and drift off. Adam would cry because he didn’t understand the concept.
When he was diagnosed at five years old, early for an Aspie, the futility of his parents’ words was laid flat and bare on the table in the specialist’s office.
“It’s a developmental disorder. Aspies tend to find it difficult to think in abstract, especially at this young age” his doctor had stated. “You’d have been better off asking him to count the bricks in his wall. At least he could’ve done that.”
Eventually, they taught him to count the stars outside of his window, something visible and tangible for their own bright star. That’s where his love of the universe was born, right there in a single bed when his parents were desperate for quiet and his mind was desperate to learn how to switch itself off.
It was the moon and her children that lulled little Adam when his mother and father could not.
It was a long, long time before Adam was able to adapt his rigid night-time ritual to include Nigel.
He’s had the same routine since he was five, when the specialists laid out tips and tricks for his parents which would make the midnight hour an easier experience for all of them. Predictability is key for Aspies, they said, and as long as Adam knows what is coming then his mind will be calm and his sleep will be calmer.
At 9.30, an hour which progressed as he progressed, he enjoys a dim-lit bath with drops of lavender and mildly scented cucumber shower gel. He has purchased the same brand since for as long as he can remember because it’s just the right consistency to be pleasing to him. He’s always steered clear of bubbles, the texture too unnatural against his skin. The manufacturer changed the recipe a while back as a cost cutting exercise and Adam came so close to a meltdown that his father had to hold his arms at his sides and count with him, just the way he did when Adam was a child, because it was the only way of centering him emotionally.
They were both thankful when the manufacturer learned the error of their ways and went back to their original design.
The water is always a set temperature, not to hot, not too cold, because one of his sensitivities has always been heat and cold. To many it may seem particular and contrary. To Adam, it’s a comfort; a thing which helps to keep him on his feet.
Since ‘The incident’ in which he was shot, an occurrence which warrants Capital Letters, Adam has grown to accept Nigel’s help when it comes to this integral part of his pattern. For a long while after he left hospital he was incapable of getting in and out of the tub alone, that healing wound often causing him pain that only Vicodin could suppress and weakness that only Nigel’s strong hands could set aside. Nigel would sit behind him, a rigid presence to hold him upwards, and Adam learned to appreciate the help as something other than a glitch in his independence.
Nigel knows every little inch of his body, every little touch which elicits pleasure and every little stroke that is perhaps too much for him. He knows when Adam requires forceful touch, when gentle is not enough for him, knows equally when Adam requires something soft and tender when his body is just too sensitive for anything more. Now, it’s hard to imagine a time when Nigel wasn’t there to wash away the suds in his hair; to stroke a hand across the warmth of his body as it breaks itself into relaxation. Sometimes, Adam will lean back, will count the scars on Nigel’s hands and arms, and it will render him quiet. He knows that Nigel’s body is a map of a violent life but he promises he’s moving past that, now.
Nigel calls the scars ‘life markers’ but Adam doesn’t quite understand what that means, to which Nigel smiles that wolf smile of his and tells him that he’s glad.
At 10, when the water is starting to cool, Adam will pull on his fresh pyjamas and take himself into the bedroom. The bed is no longer single, the room no longer bare as it once was. Adam is not a large man but Nigel is, broad and wide, and though Adam misses the safety and security of his small bed, he’s grown to accept and embrace the one he shares with Nigel. Sometimes, they’ll slip between the sheets with the intention of falling into dreams after a long and difficult day. Other times, it will be with the thought of something more. It’s a change in pace that Adam embraces fully because the sensation of hips against hips and skin against skin outweighs the edgy discomfort of a broken routine.
He knows what he wants, is surprisingly NT when it comes to sex.
He knows what Nigel wants, too.
The night always ends the same, with Adam wrapped up in Nigel’s arms as he stares out of the window to count the stars that have been his friends for twenty-four years and eleven days straight.
He’s never slept better than he does with arms pulled tight around him; with his Orion’s protective spirit fierce even in the darkness of night.
When Nigel isn’t around, it sends him off kilter.
Adam cannot sleep when he is alone these days because, whilst Asterope and Electra and Alcyone are lifelong companions, they’re not a physical presence behind him. The stars cannot beat away intruders or wrap their arms around him like a shield if harm or danger were to come his way.
In times when his condition got the better of him, his mother used to wrap him in a weighted blanket and it would instantly soothe away his anxiety.
Nigel provides that function now, a steady weight to hold him down and ground him.
He’s been gone less than two days when Adam begins to unravel because he doesn’t want to bathe alone, doesn’t want to sleep alone and feels like everything is changing.
The air is tepid warm and the night is clear and bright but Adam hasn’t been warm since Nigel left him. Tonight, last night, his bath was too empty and now there’s too much space in the bed for him to fill.
It doesn’t feel safe anymore.
He doesn’t feel whole.
Crawling into bed, he tries to lie flat, as he used to sleep, but his body craves the tiny additional warmth of curling in on itself and so he lies fetal, as he did when he was small. He wakes from an exhausted doze with soft curls adhered to a feverish forehead and, when he instinctively reaches for Nigel in the breadth of his startled awakening, his hand lands upon an empty space. Only the ghost of Nigel is present in the scent on his pillow.
He doesn’t know what to do.
The only thing he knows is that he doesn’t feel right.
Curling around himself once more, arms across chest, he curses his imagination for not allowing him to pretend these arms are someone else’s.
More so, he curses Nigel’s job for taking him away.
As a child he relished solitude but he doesn’t want to be alone now, not when every time he closes his eyes he flashes back. They say it’s a manifestation of Post Traumatic Stress, an understandable response to a horrifying situation. PTSD and ASD. They wanted him in therapy.
Adam doesn’t want another label.
At 4 in the morning he cannot take it anymore. He’s tired to the point of emotional, frightened to the point of agitation and each and every noise and creak outside of his window is another assailant waiting to finish him off; another stranger biding their time until they do him harm.
He doesn’t want to end up in the hospital again. He doesn’t want to end up hurt because the doctors say that Nigel saved him and Nigel isn’t here to do the same again.
Harlan says that his independence will return and that, when he’s over the trauma of what happened to him, he’ll go back to the person he was before. Adam doesn’t think he can ever go back, not now, because he’s not the same and he never will be. Nothing will ever remove the scars from his belly. He will never be the man who was not shot and did not bleed in the snow in a supermarket parking lot.
He says the scars Adam really needs to recover from are the ones on his mind; the ones he blames Nigel for. They’d argued after The Incident, Harlan and Nigel, and Adam still doesn’t understand why his old friend would ever imagine that a world without Nigel would be a better world for Adam because, ever since he’s met him, he hasn’t been alone.
Harlan looks at him sadly whenever he says this and tells him he wishes his dad were still alive.
The blaring of a car horn sends him hurtling into the corner and the whole space of his house feels empty and threatening with only him inside of it. He tries to mirror Nigel’s bravery but he’s not Nigel, he’s Adam, and they’re two different people entirely.
There’s a note on the wall in Nigel’s rugged scrawl with a telephone number and a warning. Emergency Use Only, it says, in bright red capital letters because red means important and Adam understands the colour more than the words.
He feels it’s an emergency, this lonesome terror.
He feels this call is warranted.
He picks up the phone because his routine has fallen out of the window, so what’s one more deviation in the grand scheme of things?
What’s one more step away from his safety net?
An NT would understand that they have caught Nigel at a bad time based on the tone of his voice alone. It’s obvious he hasn’t looked at the caller when he picked up because he snaps out a “What?” before anything at all.
“That’s not how you answer the phone, Nigel. It’s impolite. The correct opening to a telephone call is ‘Hello?’”
The switch flicks and Nigel is himself again.
"Adam, I told you not to call unless it was an emergency.”
He whispers harshly, though there’s no malice in his words. Adam’s voice crackles and breaks.
“It is an emergency.”
If there was a sound of a stomach dropping from a man’s body, Nigel would be making it because Adam sounds distressed and that is something that wrenches him.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I can’t sleep.”
For someone like Adam, this may well constitute an emergency.
For someone like Nigel?
“Adam, this is a really bad time.”
“Four in the morning is a very bad time to be awake, yes, but I am and I don’t know what to do, so I called you because it’s an emergency.”
Adam wouldn’t understand if Nigel were to explain where he was, what he was doing. He would see it only for black and white ‘wrong’ and ‘criminal’ that it undoubtedly is.
His simplicity can be infuriating.
It’s also the purest thing in Nigel’s life.
“I can’t sleep, Nigel. I keep hearing noises outside. You’re not here. I had my bath alone and I got into bed alone. I can’t even see the stars because there are high level clouds.”
Every one of his rituals is out of sync. It’s no wonder he’s feeling discombobulated.
He sounds desperate.
“How am I supposed to sleep like this?”
“Adam – “
Adam has a tendency towards petulance when things do not go his way. His mother used to say he was spoiled, That, too, was nipped in the bud with his diagnosis. It’s not petulance, she was told. He’s not spoiled. He’s not selfish. This is just how his mind works.
Adam is brilliant, beautiful - but flawed.
“I keep hearing cars. I’ve made an educated guess as to why cars might be on the road at 4 in the morning and the vast majority of guesses were for bad purposes, Nigel. Drugs and gun crime and - ”
…and all of the things Hector Alvarez’s gang are known for. All of the things that threaten Adam and make him afraid.
All of the things that are wrong with the world that Nigel inhabits yet he never asked to.
“ – and my stomach hurts. I feel sick. I need you to make it better.”
“Your meds are in the kitchen, third drawer down. Take a couple with a glass of water and you’ll feel better soon, I promise.”
“I need you.”
That is the sucker punch.
“Okay. Alright. Just…give me a few minutes. I need to go somewhere less exposed.”
It doesn’t matter where Nigel is. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing.
It doesn’t matter that he’s got a man on his hands and knees with a gun in his mouth and a knife in his gut because this is more imperative. What’s more important than preserving the one beautiful thing in his life?
What’s more significant?
“Cover me,” he whispers to his associate, though Adam doesn’t hear him through the hand gagging the mouthpiece. “And, if he moves, finish the job.”
“Where are you?”
“I thought I told you not to ask?”
He’s killed people who have asked that before. He’s killed people for a lot of things, most of which Adam has done time and time again, but Adam is his Kryptonite and there’s nothing he can do about it.
“It’s important you don’t know, Adam. It’s not fucking safe.”
“I’m sorry. I just…wanted to know where you were. What you could see.”
Adam is trying to build a mental picture so that he feels like he is with him. It’s an exercise he learned throughout his ages as a way of building the abstract so, when someone told him to “imagine a place” he might well be able to do it.
“I’m sitting on a bottom stair in a warehouse.”
“Is it warm?”
“There’s no carpet so it feels cold. There’s a window up ahead and a steel door.”
Nigel doesn’t mention the blood on the floor, the smashed glass, the severed fingers of a man who left this Earth screaming for his mother because he dared cross Nigel on one of his bigger deals.
“Where are you, Adam?”
“Bedroom floor, next to the dresser. One of your socks is under the wood, Nigel. A red one. It’s meant to be in the wash basket.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll pick it up when I get home, I promise.”
There is silence, a still quiet that isn’t natural. Nigel hears Adam’s breathing, the deep sigh that he emits, and he understands just how tired and stressed he is. He doesn’t like to leave him, not after what happened, but this trip was something that none of them could avoid.
He won’t be leaving again.
“Get into bed, Adam. Pull the covers up tight. Do you have your weighted blanket?”
“No. It’s in the closet.”
“Then, get it.”
If Nigel cannot be there to ground him, he’ll make sure that something is.
Nigel has been on the phone for nine minutes and sixteen seconds. In that time, he has argued away three gunshots and a number of screams, played them down as something wholly innocent so that he does not unnerve Adam more.
Never before has he cared enough to do that. Never before has he wished that there truly was an innocent explanation for the mayhem he is a part of.
It’s cold in this warehouse, so cold. His hands are wet with another man’s blood and his spirit is heavy with the thought that he made his own bed and now he has to lie in it.
He’d rather make a bed with Adam and lie in that.
“Can you see the stars?” the younger man asks. His voice is growing more quiet, now, tiredness setting in and relaxation taking precedence over the anxiety. Nigel smiles, appreciative of how he can diffuse Adam as effectively as he can diffuse a grenade, as well as he can disarm a bomb that could threaten them all.
“Yes. Yes, I can see the stars.”
He can’t, but he can imagine them and, if Adam cannot do the same, he will do it for him.
“How many? Which ones?”
“I can see the Archer. The warrior.”
Nigel’s star, Adam thinks.
“Orion. Its brightest stars are Rigal and Betelgeuse. In Latin America, it’s known as The Three Marys.”
“It’s a little cloudy but I think I can just make out his belt.”
“Can you see his bow?”
“Nah. Just his belt.”
He’s wearing a belt of his own and in it, there’s a gun and a knife and a whole load of bullets. He’s ashamed of its weight against his body as he speaks with Adam, wishes above all things that he could dispose of the thing for good.
One day, perhaps.
Someday, they’ll have their own little place in the middle of a field, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, away from the noise and air pollution. They’ll live alone, a couple of dogs for company, maybe a few horses. He’ll set up Adam with a workshop of his own where he can build toys to his heart’s content and he’ll never have to leave him alone again. He might buy a vineyard, make money the elegant way.
He just needs to make enough to get by but he thanks his lucky stars he’s being given an alternative at all.
“When will you be home?”
“Tomorrow, Adam, I promise. I just need to get this done, otherwise it’ll be hanging over my head.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
It’s all he needs, just to know.
Just to feel safe.
"I’m so tired," Adam whispers, so different to the screaming Nigel is used to.
“Close your eyes, Adam. I’ll talk you to sleep.”
Nigel’s voice is a physical presence, his words a soothing balminess where he was only cold before. Adam can taste the warmth in them, can hear the care that seeps deep into every syllable. He places a hand against his chest and he counts the beats and, within minutes, he finds himself fading.
He feels safe.
In the morning when he wakes, Nigel is there just as promised. He got an early flight, sneaked in as quietly as he could so as not to disturb Adam.
His lips are pressed against Adam’s forehead, arms wrapped around him so tight they almost bruise him. He needs the pressure, the reassuring presence.
The blanket is cast aside, a poor substitute thrust down on the floor, and Nigel’s naked body has taken its place, an anchor in a passing storm. Something to hold onto.
It grounds Adam.
It centers him