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The Roaring Silence

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It was 1968 when my best friend leaned over from the passenger seat and kissed me. It lasted only a few seconds but in those moments, I felt like I had come home after a long journey. And at the same time, it left me feeling like I was standing on a precipice, the rock giving way under my feet.

He drew back almost immediately, looked at my face as if he was searching for something. I felt the urge to tell him it was alright. But it wasn't. The two opposing feelings battled in my mind – and the one that was increasingly overwhelming was that of feeling the ground crumble under me.

I saw him press his lips together in a thin line, then lean back and turn his face to the window. The atmosphere in the car had changed completely from one second to the next, from one of elated victory to one of discomfort.

I wanted to say something. Anything. But the words would not come. How do you tell your friend what he knows himself? That this could only lead back to what he had been running away from all his life?

This could pull us both under water and leave us struggling for air that was out of reach.

I chewed my lip as I started the car, a tinge of despair gnawing at me while he kept on staring at the city and then the grasslands, trees and gentle hills going by.

 

When we arrived at his place, I stopped the car still not knowing what to do. My anxiety had grown during the last hour. I knew that if I let him get out of the car without a word, without having resolved ... this ... I would lose him. I needed to assure myself that we would be alright.

I was out of the car and on his side before he could move, opening the door for him. That earned me at least a glance after him having evaded any attempt at eye contact since I started the car.

He hesitated only a second before picking himself up, getting out of the car and walking briskly to the entrance. Without a word I followed him down the stairs, the noise of a crying infant in one of the apartments above almost inaudible over the static in my ears. I still had not found the words to talk to him. And this felt like crossroads.

 

I closed the front door behind me and followed him half-way to the corner that served as kitchen. He leaned heavily on the sink for a second. The light through the milky window panes high up on the ceiling made him look ashen.

He took a deep breath. "Gordie ... man, I'm so sorry..."

Something in my chest clenched at the look he shot me when he finally glanced up. "I'm sorry I did that."

All I could do was fight against the lump in my throat to get any words out. "Chris ..."

"I know." A dejected smile crossed his face. "It's just ..." He passed a hand over his eyes before gripping the edge of the counter again. "You've been the only thing in my life that's been so constantly ... good.” He let that word linger heavily in the air. “And for a moment I must have confused this ... gratitude with something else."

I felt like I couldn’t breathe, a flood of memories was rolling through my mind like a tidal wave. Of a steady hand pulling me to my feet when a bully had knocked me down as a kid, of warm arms holding me when I had finally cried over Denny and when my father had died. Of the furious wish to be taller and stronger when I looked at his empty seat in the classroom, knowing what had caused his absence. The wish to be able to do something, anything, when I watched him slink back into class and to his seat, covered in bruises and steeling himself against the other, more subtle sort of abuse that awaited him at a school where he would always be regarded as one of those good-for-nothing Chambers kids. And his trademark half-smile he shot me, despite everything, as if only he and I were privy to a secret. Which in a way, we always had been, at least since that summer when we were 12.

And the most recent memory, of that suddenly serious look in his eyes, tinged with astonishment, of him leaning closer, of his lips against mine ... the gentlest touch as if he had been afraid I might bolt any second.

Which I had not. Even though I had had seconds of warning of what was coming. It had been wonderful. And fatally wrong at the same time. Can you dig that?

He took two glasses from the cupboard and filled them with tap water.

Then he turned to me and offered one with an outstretched arm and an open and unguarded look of sadness in his eyes that weighed so heavy it almost made me rock back on my heels.

I closed the space and took the glass, noticing my hand was shaking slightly. I looked at it with a distanced curiosity.

I cleared my throat, not trusting my voice. This time it was me who didn't meet his eyes. "Is this a peace-offering or a goodbye?"

"Gee, no! It's not a goodbye. At least I don't want it to be." I heard the pause in his voice, the silent raising of his inner defenses he had perfected over the years. "Do you?"

"No, Chris, I don't want ... I mean, I would ..."

I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath. "If things were different..." I began but trailed off, the words too heavy on my tongue.

I heard the click of the glass on the counter when he put it down. "What then?"

His voice was very quiet and I felt the weight of his eyes on me.

My hand holding the glass was definitely shaking now. I stared at it rather than looking at him. "I ... I guess I just wished things were different." I finally got out.

He gently took the glass of water from my unsteady grasp to put it down. Then he took a step towards me and rested his hands lightly on my upper arms. I could feel the care he took not to make me feel trapped seep from his fingertips through the cotton of my shirt.

"Gordie?"

I finally looked up and met his eyes. I saw fear there but also something else. Something earnest and very ... resolved. "Tell me to stop."

I said nothing, just looked at him as he leaned in slowly. A deep calm settled over me. No fear. No anxiety. It felt like the inevitable pull of gravitation. I closed my eyes.

"Tell me to stop", he said once more, a whisper I felt against my lips rather than hearing it.

The first seconds were a flutter of his lips against mine. When I didn't withdraw, something switched. His thumbs made one caressing, almost soothing motion on my arms while he leaned in even closer, kissing me in earnest now, determined and coaxing.

One of his hands slid to the back of my neck and it was that touch that brought me out of my stupor. I moved my hands to clutch his sides, bunching bits of his shirt in my fists. As I felt the tentative, gentle slide of his tongue, my lips parted as if of their own accord. He made the tiniest step forward, deepening the kiss. I felt off-balance. It was as if an ocean wave had hit me and taken the legs right out from under me, leaving me breathlessly floating in the sudden, green-blue, roaring silence of the sea. Although I remained standing, in some way I lost touch with the ground that bore me.

This was going to my head. And fast. Like alcohol on an empty stomach. And it was going to other places of my body.

Suddenly the feeling of being underwater and not being able to breathe was too much. I took hold of his shoulders and pushed. Only lightly but enough to dislodge us and for me to regain my balance.

I had to take several sharp breaths while returning his searching gaze, a tiny crease between his brows.

He was starting to lean closer again and I wanted to let him. Oh I so wanted to let him. But I stood my ground and held him off by his shoulders – trying to ease the blow of rejection I saw creeping up in his eyes by leaning my forehead against his. "We shouldn’t be doing this."

Chris let his hand slide from my neck to my cheek. "I know. But it doesn’t have to be public. No one will know." He raised his head and looked at me. His eyes were almost startling from this proximity. "Whatever this is … you will still date nice girls and get serious with one, get married and have kids, alright?" He brushed a thumb over my cheekbone, while thoughts were chasing each other in my head.

"Wait! What?" I pushed him off so he almost stumbled back. "You expect me to kiss you when we’re alone together and still go chasing girls?" Anger was bubbling up inside me. "And what if I find a wife and have kids, you expect me to take weekends off to come see you?"

Chris' eyes widened in shock. "No, of course not, I ..."

"And what about you?" I cut him off, taking a step back to put more distance between us. "Are you seriously looking to date and marry a girl and then cheat on her by sneaking off for ... for this?"

It was as if all energy had left his body. He sank against the counter, putting his hands over his face.

"Oh Gordie." He almost groaned. "No, I don't plan on cheating. Or on having a wife for that matter. And as for you..." Letting his hands fall, he gave me a look laden with unhappiness. "I’m sorry, I don't know what you want. All I know is that I don't want to get you into trouble. I've done that enough over the years. I don't want you to forfeit any plans for a normal life because of me. But I also want..." He trailed off. But he looked at me and he didn’t have to say it.

Something in my chest tightened. My anger seemed to dissipate like smoke in a strong wind.

He shrugged unhappily. "I’m sorry", he repeated.

My head was spinning. Now it was me who had to lean on the counter to steady myself. I rediscovered my abandoned glass of water and emptied it in a couple of gulps. When I put it down, I shook my head. “No, I am sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. Truth is ...” I took a deep breath. “I don't know what I want. Wife, kids ...” I threw him a pointed glance and pressed my hands flat on the counter. "Until today, you were not part of this sort of consideration. I never thought this was an option."

"Neither did I", Chris admitted quietly.

"Then why did you kiss me?" It was out before I could stop it.

"Jesus, I don't know. I had been wanting to, but I was scared. Maybe it was the relief of seeing my dad leave. And it amazed me that you took it all so lightly ... the hearing, his insults." He sighed. "Maybe I was sick of being called all sorts of things by people, by my brothers and dad … and still never getting what I want …" His head tilted ever so lightly to the side as he looked at me. His gaze saying clearly what he did not voice.

After a long pause, he asked: "Why didn't you tell me to stop?"

I swallowed around my constricting throat. He kept looking at me, raising an eyebrow expectantly.

"I ... I don't know."

"I gave you ample warning the second time, yet you didn't back out." It was clearly a remark, not a question.

"I know. I'll have to think about it, okay?" I needed to digest this - but clear thoughts seemed to elude me in his presence. "I'll call you in a couple of days, okay?" I said, half-turning for the door.

"So … is this goodbye?" he asked, once more, the defeat evident on his face.

"Just for now, yeah … I think it's best.”

The crease between his brows deepened. "Are you sure you can drive? You're shaking."

He was right, I realized. It had been a long day and the emotional upheaval had left me raw and exhausted. Still, I needed to get out and clear my head. The almost three hours’ drive back to Orono seemed daunting but necessary.

"I'll be fine”, I shot back over my shoulder while making for the door.

“Gordie?” he called after me.

I stopped in the open door and looked back at him. He stood, lost, in the middle of his dingy flat, the ashen light at his back. “This doesn’t have to change anything. I’m not asking for anything, you dig me?”

“Bullshit”, I said before I could stop myself. And then I left.

I drove like I was in a trance. Just outside of Portland, I pulled over and stopped the car. Pressing my hands to my face for a moment, I was shocked to find it wet. I took a deep breath and started screaming, balling my hands into fists and hitting the wheel and every bit of the inside of the car I could reach.

Chapter Text

I didn’t call him the next week or the two weeks after. The first day I walked to class after what had happened, I felt as if I must look different. That something about my appearance must have changed and people might guess from just looking at me what was going on. It made me feel haunted, like people might start throwing stones and bottles at me any second.

I started doing some discreet research into the legal and social status of homosexual men in Maine. Which – on top of what I already knew from merely having listened to and observed the people around me all my life – didn’t make me feel better. If one was relatively independent in choosing where to live and work, one could probably move to a thinly populated area and hope to live in relative quiet. As a lawyer, Chris wouldn’t have that option. He would have to stay close to where the clients and the courts were, in the cities … pretty much under the public’s eye.

I had meant what I had said to Chris, I didn’t want to live two lives, having a wife and kids on one side and a secret relationship with him on the other. Though that seemed to be what most men in this sort of situation did, judging from an article I found in a magazine’s special edition on the civil rights movement of the African-American community, featuring also pieces on the demands of women and homosexuals for equality and anti-discrimination laws.

The law declared relations between men as “detestable” and “abominable”. An “act against nature”. There were reports of arrests. There were stories I had heard over the years and more I came across now of “men like that” getting harassed and beaten, of not getting a decent place to rent, of not getting a job...

It took me several days to overcome the nausea. Some days, I could barely get out of bed, staring endlessly at shadows moving on my wall, my heart aching. When one or two of my friends asked what was wrong, I mumbled something about headaches. Which wasn’t entirely a lie.

I wrote and rewrote two short stories for my creative writing class and even considered submitting them to our campus magazine. Sorrow makes for a willing muse, I guess.

I didn’t want to lose him. But I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone and call him.

At night I had dreams about him though. Mostly of him drowning again, a dream I had not had in a while and that now seemed to have returned with a vengeance. Sometimes – more often than I care to admit – I dreamed of the kiss. Of his hands on me and of losing myself in the sensations. From both dreams I woke bathed in sweat, yet with utterly different feelings coursing through my body.

After a month had come and gone, I found him standing on my doorstep. I stared at him for ten whole seconds before my brain processed his haggard look. He hadn’t shaved for a few days.

I wordlessly opened the door a little wider to let him in. Robert, the aspiring journalist I shared the two bedroom flat with, was gone for a couple of days, so I led the way to the kitchen and started clearing the small table of the books and notes I had abandoned there.

“Please, sit. You want anything? Coffee? Water?” It felt like I was playing host to a complete stranger but my heart was thumping hard against my ribcage.

Chris had remained in the doorway, watching me rummage. “Gordie, cut the crap.”

I stopped in my tracks. He walked over to me and took the books from my hands, putting them back on the kitchen table. Before I could protest, he maneuvered me into one of the chairs and took the seat opposite.

“Listen to me. You are my best friend. Words cannot begin to describe what your friendship means to me even if I was a writer like you and brilliant with words. And I won’t lose it. Not even if it breaks my fucking heart.” The last words were forceful and he punctuated them with a shake of his head. “Please forgive me for overstepping that line. I wish I could take it back.”

I stared at my hands on the table in front of me, my mind struggling to process what he had said. I had had dozens of conversations with him in my head over the last few weeks. Yet, reality has the unfortunate habit of turning out completely different from how it played out in your mind.

“I don’t want that.” My voice sounded steadier than I felt. I heard him take a breath like he was about to say something but I went on: “I don’t want your heart to break.” I couldn’t bring myself to say that, in particular, I did not want to be the one to break it. And that mine would break, too. “And I don’t want you to take it back. But … I don’t want to see you go under.”

I raised my eyes to his, seeing the confused look there. Words suddenly felt frustratingly inadequate to express what I wanted to say. I struggled on. “You have worked so hard to get out of Castle Rock. To make a life beyond anything people expected from you. You worked for getting the opportunities nobody would offer you voluntarily. You’re studying law, for God’s sake, Chris. Law! How many opportunities do you think you’ll get if anyone finds out you’re …” I trailed off. For years we had so easily used the word ‘fag’ as an insult. We had been raised to view it as an insult, and being one as something shameful. Just thinking of it turned my stomach.

“Don’t you think I know that?” Chris asked. “Although I was more concerned for you than myself. You’ve taken enough shit because of me and I don’t want to make your life difficult. Which is why I made that unfortunate comment you took so hard.”

“The one about me marrying and having kids?”

“That’s the one.” Chris shuffled his feet. “For a moment, I had that foolish hope that we could have both. A normal life in society, and … this,” he waved his hand between me and himself. “But I see now that that was naïve of me. And I don’t want to lose you over my mistake.”

I nodded slowly. Something inside me did not agree at all, but I was unable to voice it. All words seemed to die in my throat before they could make their way all the way up and out of my mouth.

“So are we good?” he asked.

The lump in my throat made my voice crack. “Yeah. We’re good.”

“Gimme some skin.” He held out his hand, giving me his trade-mark half-smile. Though it did not quite reach his eyes.

I gave him some skin. Feeling oddly bereft, as if I had just signed away something invaluable.

---

It took me some time to find my way back to acting more or less normal around him. But there was no more radio silence. I drove to Portland to see him or he came to Orono from time to time and we fell back into a seemingly relaxed companionship. Sometimes I caught myself watching him when he was studying and I was supposed to be reading. His brow slightly furrowed in concentration while he took notes, his fingers resting on one of the books strewn about him. And time and again, I had dreams about him. The ones that started with the kiss and developed into something else. But in those dreams, he now always turned to smoke and was carried off by the wind like he had never even been there. When I woke up from one of those, I felt utterly alone.

One Sunday morning, after I had left him to his studying the night before and went to sleep, I found him passed out on his ramshackle sofa, bathed in the dirty grey morning light. His hand was still clutching the last book he had worked on before his eyes had fallen shut. His fingers had marked the page when he had closed it and had remained there during his sleep.

It brought back a memory of him next to me in my bed in Castle Rock, one night after his old man had given him another hiding and he had needed a safe place to stay. His hand had been tangled in a bit of blanket, just inches away from me. As if he had needed an anchor, had unconsciously reached over and not quite gotten hold of me. Strangely fascinated, I had watched him in his sleep as I watched him now.

Back then it had made me feel at peace, seeing the tiny crease of worries between his eyebrows eased away. Now, looking at him left me with anything but peace.

The memory of the kiss was a constant presence in my mind, like a song being played on repeat on a radio you cannot switch off. Or like a scar on an exposed bit of skin that you cannot help but look at all the time. On its edges was the longing - the kind you might have for the home of your childhood you know to have long been demolished and replaced with an office building. The worst thing was: it seemed that I had been the one who tore it down. But in the center of the scar was the descire. That unbearable ache that had taken root in every fiber of my being ever since that day.

It suddenly felt like the air in the room was pressing into my skin and I had to turn away. I left the flat, telling myself I wanted to get the Sunday newspaper. It was early and a little too cold to be out without a jacket, but I didn’t want to turn back, even though I felt the hairs on my arms rise against the cold. Most shops were closed but I headed for one nearby I knew to be open Sundays.

When I was about to pay for the paper, my eyes fell on a stack of Pez. Cherry-flavor. I picked one up and threw it in without a second thought.

I popped one into my mouth and let the taste unfold while walking down the street, making a wide circle back to the flat. It was a welcome distraction, bringing back memories of easier times - of the clubhouse and playing cards, listening to the boss hits on WLAM.

I missed Vern and Teddy. The Vern and Teddy of that summer, before we had drifted apart. Vern was gone, resting on Castle Rock cemetery. Sometimes, I imagined him in heaven, lying on the grass in the sun, sucking on some cherry-flavored Pez with his jar of pennies beside him.

Teddy was still around, still living in Castle Rock and as far as I had heard still trying to get into the army to fight in Vietnam. But even though he was still around, he could as well have been in Vietnam. The boy of that summer of 1959 was gone and had been replaced by a man crippled by his disappointments like his ears had been disfigured by his old man's bout of madness. I was pretty sure I wasn’t a welcome sight to him, remembering the bitter twist of Teddy's mouth the last time we had spoken. ‘You got out of here, Lucky Chambers and Smart-Ass Lachance.’ His words still rung in my ears.

I had thrown myself so fully into saving Chris, I had let my other friends drown. And Teddy resented me for it. Probably Vern had, too, before he died. And if I was being honest with myself, I had avoided all those years to take a step back and look at my reasons for doing what I did for Chris. For choosing him. Yes, there had been the potential I could see in him and the sharp mind. There had been pity and admiration for his situation and how he handled it. But when I added up all of that, it still fell short. There was something missing in the equation and at least now, I understood full well what accounted for it. I was just too chicken to admit it. In front of my mind's eye, I could almost picture Chris folding his arms with a disgusted look on his face, hissing "Pussy!"

I couldn't very well disagree. But I wasn't just scared for me. I was afraid for him.

When I returned to the flat, Chris was awake and had made coffee, hovering over one of his law books at the kitchen table. He briefly looked up and smiled. The crease between his eyebrows was back.

No, it filled me with anything but peace to look at him. It hurt.

Chapter Text

For my 21st birthday, Chris gave me a typewriter.

He was standing on my doorstep, grinning like a fool, holding a second hand IBM Selectric - and I was speechless. I don't know how he managed to scrape together the money. It made me feel bad, knowing he barely got by on student loans and two jobs. But he was brimming with pure joy. It radiated off him in waves as I had rarely seen before.

The thing itself showed signs of use but was still in excellent condition. He wanted me to try it right away, and after ripping a page from a notebook in lack of a plain sheet of paper, I typed:

C h r i s t o p h e r  C h a m b e r s ,  y o u  a r e  b r i l l i a n t .

“Thank you!” I said, getting up and pulling him into a hug.

“You’ll have no excuse now not to write down your stories and submit them”, he said, folding his arms tightly around me. For a moment, I closed my eyes and relished the warmth before breaking the contact and taking a step away. I had missed this closeness we had given up ever since the kiss, carefully keeping a reasonable bit of distance between us. None of us ever said anything about it. It was too obvious an act of self-preservation.

“Actually, I have written down quite a few stories by hand, you know?” I said teasingly, reluctant to let go of this rare moment of ease between us. Of course he knew, he had read most of my stories over the years.

“Yeah, and no wonder you never dared submit them in your scribbly handwriting”, he shot right back.

“Well then, beware, all lit and poetry magazines, here I come!” I waved my fist in the air.

The grin was still tugging at the corners of his mouth but his voice was serious. “You’re gonna be a famous writer one day, Gordie. And I’ll tell everyone you wrote your first bestseller on the typewriter I gave you for your birthday.”

We smiled at each other for a long moment, before the worries invaded my mind again and I had to busy myself making coffee to blink away the burning in my eyes.

---

We went out that night with my flat mate Robert and some campus friends of mine. And I’m not proud to say I got pretty drunk. But that is what I blame for what happened. I was just lining up a shot at the pool table when I heard someone yelling and looked up. A broad, sturdy looking bloke in a leather jacket was up in Chris’ face.

I only caught bits of what he was saying “… problem … bloody college …”

I tensed. Chris’ response was too quiet to overhear. He was raising his hands in a calming gesture.

The guy got louder. “… ya tellin me? Huh?” He thumped Chris’ shoulder. “Huh? … didn’t push … ya fag …” He thumped Chris’ shoulder more forcefully, making him stumble back a step. The bloke’s voice now easily carried over the surrounding noise. “Ya faggot piece of college shit!”

White hot anger shot through my veins. I dropped the queue and was halfway around the pool table when the guy pulled back his hand, rolling it into a first. I saw it rush forward the same moment I crashed into him, sending us both tumbling to the floor.

Of the rest, I don’t remember much except pressure, pain, a heavy weight on top of me and something hard connecting with the side of my face. And then an explosion of pain and bright lights as something even harder connected with my head. And Chris, screaming, before everything fell quiet and dark around me.

When I blinked against a fuzzy, yellow spot of light, it took me a moment to make sense of it. The bar’s shoddy ceiling lamp came into focus reluctantly. Then I managed to make out a face that was hovering over me. It was Robert.

“Gordon? Can you hear me?”

I nodded and regretted it instantly. My head was a ball of pain, twice the size it usually was. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

“Stay down okay? Chris is calling an ambulance.”

I wouldn’t have tried sitting up anyway. There was commotion and loud voices close by. The faces of others from our group came into view. Nancy brushing hair back from my face in a soothing manner that reminded me of my mom, before proclaiming she was going to get something to wipe up the mess.

I closed my eyes against the buzz and the throbbing pain that was reverberating through my skull. With my hands, I felt wetness on the floor and wondered for a second if it was blood. But blood smells metallic and all I could smell was the stench of beer. So I decided against it being blood.

“Gordie, don’t go to sleep, open your eyes! Now!” Chris’ voice was urgent, so I forced my eyelids to open, looking up into his and Rob’s faces wearing equally unhappy expressions.

“There you are. Now stay with us! The ambulance should be here any minute.”

It still felt like an eternity before they came to pick me up. When my friends got up to get out of the medics’ way, I briefly got hold of Chris’s sleeve, pleading with a look that he stay with me. But it was Rob who joined me in the ambulance.

---

Much later in my hospital bed, listening to the snoring of the other guy in my room after lights out, I wondered what had happened. And not just the details of me ending up in this hospital room...

Rob had tried to fill the blanks for me while nurses and doctors tested my reflexes, stitched my wounds, bandaged my hands that I had managed to cut on shards of glass, and checked my skull for fractures. Apparently I had miscalculated when attacking the guy. His companion had made short work of me, crashing a half-full bottle of beer over my head before my friends could grab him and pry him off me.

I wondered where Chris was and felt fear rising like bile in my throat while the medical staff worked on me. He had always been such a constant presence during hard times that now, imagining in my post-drunken sorrow that I might have ruined everything and driven him off for good, I felt utterly alone. I barely slept that night.

---

The other guy was discharged in the morning and a nurse came and went to change the linens. A doctor paid me a brief visit to tell me my head showed no signs of serious injury, but I had a concussion and should not exert myself for a couple of days. The nurse told me to collect my things and sign the discharge papers at the front desk.

I had just changed into my street clothes when there was a knock on the door.

Chris came in, wearing an expression of worry and unhappiness. My ribcage seemed to clamp down on my heart and lungs, making me feel like there was not enough air in the room to breathe. The frustration, anger and fear, it all caught up with me.

"How are you feeling?" He asked quietly, closing the door behind him.

My head, throbbing as it was, started shaking as if of its own accord. I took big steps towards him and shoved him. Shoved him so hard he almost lost his balance. I advanced on him, tried to punch him but he batted away my fist. My second and third punch ended up the same way. Stars started dancing in front of my eyes.

"Gordie, stop!"

I swung at him again, but his hand closed around my arm and held me off. His fingers were digging into my skin. Darkness crept in from the edges of my vision.

I tried to shake him off, tried to jerk my arm free. That was when I lost my balance and my legs folded in on themselves. I would have gone down if he had not made a quick step forward and caught me against him. A flickering blackness filled my field of vision and there was a hammering in my head and in my ears. I was aware of his arms around me, guiding me slowly to the floor, cradling me in a half-sitting position while I leaned against him.

"Deep breaths. Come on, man, don't scare me like that", he whispered close to my ear.

I tried, but my chest still felt uncomfortably tight. But all the anger slowly started seeping out of my body and left me feeling empty and sick and feeling the pain of last night's fight in every bone and muscle of my body.

"Gordie? Should I call the nurse?"

I managed to shake my head against his shoulder.

He slid a hand slowly up and down my arm. My vision and breathing gradually went back to normal. The pounding in my head faded to a background swell and ebb of discomfort.

Sitting on the linoleum floor in a hospital room that reeked of 409 cleaner, cradled by my best friend, I wondered how the hell I had ended up in this mess. When had this become so unbearable?

"You wanna tell me what's wrong?" he asked softly.

"Nothing's wrong." My throat constricted around the lie and angrily, I felt my eyes burning.

He huffed. "Bullshit."

He reached carefully for the bandage around my head as if to make sure it had not come lose. He checked the bandages on my hands as well before his fingertips ghosted briefly over my cheek.

"Should I get you home?"

I nodded slowly.

He shifted, grabbed me under my arms and pulled me up. Having gotten me onto my feet, he kept his hold on me, obviously not trusting I would stay upright. His eyes searched my face. I could practically see the questions moving through his head like storm clouds. But he didn't voice them right then.

I signed the papers at the nurses’ desk and – as I must have looked as miserable as I felt – received a reminder I should get some rest. Chris had brought my Buick to pick me up. Without a word I slid into the passenger seat.

Back at the flat, Robert greeted me with concern, asking how I was doing. I assured him I’d be fine but needed to catch up on sleep. After drinking some water, I left the two talking in the kitchen to lay down on my bed.

Staring at the ceiling, a great emptiness filled me like a balloon pressing at the back of my eyes. I wished for rest without dreams.