’Til Death Do Us Part
Prologue: Unsettling News
Nash rubbed his hands over his face and raked them through his spikey blond highlighted hair. “Seriously, Sam,” he said as he plopped down on the sofa. “How can you stay so calm, with the wedding only three weeks away?”
“Isn’t that the wedding planner’s job? To do all the worrying for us?” But Sam knew better. Harley, their wedding planner, was also Nash’s best friend. Although abundantly competent, Harley was high strung and tended to run every little status detail by Nash.
“He’s great, but no, worrying still falls under the grooms’ jurisdiction.” Nash’s grass green eyes twinkled as he heaved an exaggerated sigh and placed the back of his hand against his forehead in a teasing display of faux-dramatics. “I guess I’ll just have to agonize enough for both of us.”
“No…” Sam grinned and leaned over to kiss Nash’s furrowed brow, then his nose, then finally his lips before coming up for air to add, “Nobody needs to worry. Or you can let my mother do it for us if you think someone must.”
“Your mother is a peach. I adore your mother. Can I adopt her?”
“She’s already unofficially adopted you.”
“I think she’d love anybody who makes you happy.”
Sam groaned softly. Of course she would. Nash had made his life enjoyable again, and his whole family loved Nash for it. Nash had heard the stories. “I put them through hell. Dark times. I’m so glad I met you.”
The oven timer went off and Sam got up to check on the roasting chicken pieces. “It’s ready,” he hollered from the kitchen after pulling the pan out of the oven. “Will you pour the wine, hon?”
“Just a sec. Someone’s at the door. Damn, I hope Harley hasn’t come up with something new to stress me out.”
Sam opened a cabinet, pulled out two dinner plates, and began dishing up the roasted meat and vegetables. When he turned around, Nash was standing in the doorway with his eyebrows drawn tightly together.
“Sam,” he hissed. “There are two military policemen at the door asking for you. What the fuck is going on?”
“MPs? I have no idea. They didn’t say?”
“No, they want to talk to you. They’re setting up a laptop computer out there.”
Sam’s eyes widened. Why on earth would military police need to talk to him? Even if some piece of that fucking, fucking airplane had washed up at this late date, he doubted family would be pointedly notified, let alone paid a personal visit. No, it couldn’t have anything to do with that old tragedy.
“I guess there’s only one way to find out.” He straightened his shoulders and walked to the living room. Hopefully he wasn’t about to be arrested for something he couldn’t even understand.
“I’m Sam Greene, how can I help you gentlemen?”
The two visitors glanced at each other, then the thinner man with the sharp nose and clear blue eyes clarified, “Samuel Miller-Greene?”
“Well, yes, technically. I never changed it back after my husband died. I use the full name for signing documents. I just tend to shorten it these days for casual use.”
The men shared another glance and seemed satisfied with that reply, giving each other barely perceptible nods. The man with the round face and warm brown eyes spoke. “I’m Major Johnson and this is Sergeant Rosings.” Sam nodded and they all shook hands. “May we all sit at your table here, Dr. Miller-Greene? We have some images to show you, and I think you’ll find this news rather unsettling.”
Sam felt the blood drain from his face. Unsettling. That sounded like it might be a softer way of saying awful. He took a deep breath and asked, “May my fiancé join us? I get the feeling I’m going to want the moral support.”
Major Johnson’s lips twitched a bit at the question, but he quickly recovered his composure and replied, “Of course.”
Nash moved to Sam’s side, introduced himself, and they all sat down.
Major Johnson cleared his throat, took a quick look at Nash, then returned his focus to Sam. “Dr. Miller-Greene, a discovery was made this morning during a drone training exercise in the Pacific.”
Fucking hell. A “discovery” in the fucking Pacific Ocean. Apparently a grisly discovery rather than a simple chunk of fuselage to warrant a personal visit like this. Sam stiffened and felt Nash’s hand slip into his.
Major Johnson continued. “Some people were spotted on a remote and insignificant island. They were determined through initial surveillance to be stranded there. When the drone descended to make itself known, the individuals communicated with it by writing in the sand. They identified themselves as survivors of the TransOceanic Flight 3012 plane crash and wrote out their names.”
Sam sat rigidly and held his breath as Major Johnson paused. Survivors? Could it really be possible? These men wouldn’t be here making a personal visit to inform him, would they, unless…?
“Dr. Miller-Greene, we’d appreciate it if you would give a positive identification of the man who indicated he was your husband, Henry.”
Time seemed to stop as Sam stared into the man’s eyes, trying to comprehend what he’d been told. Nash’s hand crushed his.
“Henry’s alive?” His voice broke with just those two words, and that’s all he was able to manage.
Chapter 1: Irony and Dignity Day Zero
“Call me when you land, okay, Henry?”
“It’ll be something like six-forty tomorrow morning, your time,” I replied. The summer class Sam would be teaching started tomorrow, but he still wouldn’t need to get up that early.
“Humor me. Please?”
I’d been infected with the travel bug years ago when I’d taken my first research trip as a graduate student. If there was an antidote, I didn’t want to take it. Now that I was married, I admitted that the weeks-long separation from my husband put a damper on my spirits for work-related travels, but it wasn’t strong enough to make me want to stop. It was just a few weeks, after all.
“I love you, you know.” I stared into his captivating blue jean-colored eyes and smiled, squeezing his arm in a manner I hoped was comforting. “Yes, I’ll call. I know you’ll worry if I don’t.”
Sam blushed and grinned sheepishly. “I know it’s dumb, but I appreciate it. Thank you.”
I looked over my shoulder at the security queue. “The line’s growing. I’d better jump in.” Turning back toward Sam, I added, “Thank you for coming in and helping me with the luggage.”
“It’ll be six weeks before I see you again. Of course I came in.”
“We’ll Skype tomorrow. Compare notes on Fiji’s weather with the rain we’re expecting here in Seattle.”
I got the laugh I was trying for out of Sam. “I know. It won’t be the same, though.” Then he sighed. “Well, I hope you can get some decent sleep on the plane. Thirteen hour flights are no fun.”
I nodded in agreement, then stretched up to kiss my husband goodbye. I knew Sam wasn’t big on overzealous public displays of affection. Hell, neither was I, but I needed one last taste before leaving him for so long. It was an airport goodbye kiss, not a make-out session, so fuck anyone who was still bigoted enough to be “offended” by the sight of me giving my husband a farewell kiss. Much as I looked forward to this research trip, since I was heading back to the South Pacific—as opposed to Greenland, where I’d spent time two summers ago—I was not looking forward to the long separation from Sam any more than he was.
My younger, pre-Sam self would’ve fake-gagged at the sight of the two of us simpering and continuing to make eye contact as I threaded my way through security, but clearly I wasn’t that man anymore, since I didn’t give a damn right now what anybody thought. But eventually, with a final wave, blown kiss, and glimpse of Sam’s beautiful grin, I headed to my departure gate.
I thought of Sam again as I settled into the aisle seat directly behind the exit row over the right wing. He’d insisted that I get a seat as near as possible to one of the emergency exits. I always indulged his phobia even though I felt it was pointless.
I nodded at the businessman across the aisle from me as he settled into his seat and pulled a tablet out of his small carry-on bag. He dipped his head in return and gave me a friendly but rhetorical “How’s it going?” before turning to the screen in his hands.
I wondered what was bringing a man in a suit to Fiji, not that the idea was unheard of. Hell, I was heading there for work, myself, but I just didn’t need to wear a suit. More than likely he was getting off in Los Angeles, anyway. But he didn’t seem interested in real conversation, so I didn’t ask.
I closed my eyes and caught an early nap for the shorter Los Angeles leg of the flight. I dreamed of Sam and how, once we’d exhausted ourselves last night, I’d spent what had seemed like hours caressing his torso, carding my fingers through the flattened sandy blond hairs covering the gorgeous muscles of his chest, and following the trail up and down his taut abs, until finally his larger hand had stilled mine, and we’d fallen asleep.
We were opposites in so many ways, and yet perfectly matched. His quiet, thoughtful personality meshed seamlessly with my outgoing speak-before-you-think persona. My smaller, lean frame fit exquisitely against his larger, bulkier, muscled physique. I loved the way the dark hairs on my arm contrasted with the light sprinkling on his when he wrapped his strong arms around me, and the gentle smile he’d wear while combing his fingers through the springy dark mat on my chest.
In L.A., the businessman did not get off after all. We nodded again to each other when we saw we were each staying on board, but he turned back to his tablet, apparently making the point he wasn’t interested in generating small talk with strangers.
No problem. I stood to let an older couple into my row, then turned my attention to people watching and concocting stories about why they were on this flight to Fiji.
I decided the businessman was a tropical produce importer and was meeting with suppliers on the islands. I imagined that the older couple who’d sat next to me was enjoying an anniversary trip to their original honeymoon spot. I could have asked them, but, like the businessman, I didn’t want to open the door to a conversation that might end up being more than I bargained for.
I pretended the two women in front of me, who were clearly traveling with each other since they had their heads together giggling, were celebrating their respective divorce settlements with the dream vacation their ex-husbands never took with them. Then I admonished myself for creating such a mean-spirited history and changed it to fancying them as a lesbian couple on their own honeymoon.
The young man next to the window sitting by the “lesbian couple” seemed to be traveling alone, although he glanced around the plane a few times like he was searching for certain people, so I concluded he was traveling with others who’d bought their tickets separately. His story, I originally decided, was that he was a rich kid traveling on a whim with his trust-fund buddies. He just didn’t give off that vibe, though, so I changed it to being a college kid on an athletic scholarship, still traveling with his buddies, but using money he’d saved over the years from part-time jobs, and maybe some birthday and graduation gift cash.
That was as far as I got before the flight attendants called our attention to the standard safety procedures, and the plane taxied to the runway. I thought of Sam again as the plane took off. Take-off and landing were the worst parts of flying for him. He’d sit rigidly in his seat, clutching the arm rests with his eyes closed. He’d done that on our way to the Solomon Islands on our first trip together back when we were merely colleagues. By the return flight, he’d gripped my hand instead.
I recognized that take-off and landing really were the most dangerous parts of the flying experience. I didn’t have Sam’s phobia, though, so I was relaxed as the plane took off, as well as for the next couple hours as I flipped through the in-flight magazines stashed in the pocket on the back of the seat in front of me. I didn’t even have any trouble eventually falling asleep.
I liked to think of myself as a realistic optimist, or perhaps, more accurately, an optimistic realist. I recognized we were bound by the rules of nature, that facts and statistics were what they were whether I liked them or not, and life wasn’t necessarily fair. At times it could be exceedingly unfair, sometimes in my favor and sometimes against. I knew this from personal experience. So the realist in me said that flying was safer than driving. I’d certainly heard that statement enough times. I was pretty sure I’d even been guilty of using it on Sam.
I jerked awake when loud booms and clanking noises reverberated from somewhere behind me, and were echoed by a couple more bursts from the front. My ears popped painfully as the plane decompressed and the air rushed out. I froze in terror as it occurred to me that at least in a car you had some control over your own destiny, whereas in a plane you were likely totally fucked when something catastrophic happened.
That feeling was confirmed as the plane careened into a very steep, rattling, angled dive toward the ocean, far below. The oxygen masks dropped, and I instinctively reached up and fumblingly put mine on.
A brief strangled sob-like noise escaped me before I was able to choke it back. My fists clenched, and I fought to suppress the nausea churning in my gut.
I did my best to remain calm, and by that I meant retain some semblance of dignity in my final moments of life by not totally freaking out. That was no easy feat when surrounded by hundreds of screaming people as we all accelerated toward certain death.
The “life flashing before your eyes” thing we’ve all heard about was real. At least it was for me, although “flashing before my tightly closed eyelids” was probably a more accurate description. Moments from throughout my life raced through my mind, but I forced my thoughts to focus on Sam. I wanted to be thinking of him as I died.
I thought of the first time I’d told him I loved him. I sent a renewal of that love out to him and wished him happiness. I thought of a promise we’d once made to each other and hoped Sam would remember it, too, then my mind zipped back to the pathetic marriage proposal I’d made and apologized to him in my mind, because he deserved so much better.
I was hoping the end would be quick and painless, when awareness that the plane was leveling out broke through the trance. My first thought was “damn,” because I figured we were doomed regardless, but the quick and painless prospect was looking less likely if we hit at a shallower angle. I briefly regretted my reflexive grab for the oxygen mask, figuring that passed out might be a better way to go into the crash than fully conscious, but that regret was short-lived because having the opportunity to say my mental goodbyes to Sam was worth whatever I would face.
Hope surged through me as the pilot somehow managed to bring the plane back to a fully horizontal position. The plane rattled and shook alarmingly, so unless we were near land we were still probably screwed, but the realist in me was overpowered by the optimist for now.
The screams lessoned, then stopped, although several babies still howled. I held my hands together against my belly to stop their shaking. Whiny moans of various pitches and volumes still arose from all directions, punctuated occasionally by hysterical shouts to shut up. As grating as all of these reactions were—making an already stressful situation even more so—I wasn’t going to judge anyone’s natural response in such extraordinary circumstances.
No instructions came over the speaker system, but the flight attendants yelled from their seats, basically telling us to remain in our seats with our seatbelts fastened, and to put on—but not inflate yet—the inflatable life vests that were under the seats in front of us.
I did that, then noticed the older couple next to me doing the same. They’d managed to get their oxygen masks on. How pathetic was I, not even thinking of them after securing my own mask? Too late now. They were no longer necessary and were being removed so the vests could go on.
I reached out to touch the old lady’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
They appeared calm and accepting of whatever their fate was going to be. They nodded, and the old woman said, “Yes, we’re fine.”
Then the old man stretched his arm across to pat me on the leg. “We’re okay, sonny. Don’t you worry about us. We’ve had a good and long run, and if this is it, then at least we’ll get our wish to go together.”
I glanced at my wedding ring. As much as I wanted a mental connection with Sam right now, I was glad he wasn’t actually with me. If I survived another fifty years I’d likely be in agreement with that sentiment.
“You, on the other hand,” continued the old man, “have got most of your life still to come.” He nodded toward the exit in the row ahead of us. “Don’t you dare throw away your chance, if you get one, by delaying to try to help us. I don’t want that on my dying conscience.”
“Nor do I,” said the woman. “Please just take care of yourself.”
My eyes widened. “I don’t…”
“No sonny, you listen. We refuse to get between any of these young people around us and that exit. We wouldn’t last two minutes in the water if that’s where we end up anyway, so it wouldn’t make any sense.” He lifted his hand off my knee and pointed at my face. “Promise me right now that you won’t hold back to help us. I want your word on that.”
I hated the thought of not helping people who might need assistance, but I also understood their argument, which went back to my earlier concern about dying with dignity. The woman dipped her head in agreement with her husband’s words. They had the right to make that choice for themselves. I gulped, then nodded.
“Say it,” he insisted.
I took a deep breath before answering. “Okay. I promise.”
“Good man,” he said, then relaxed into his seat and took his wife’s hand in his. I saw him give her hand a squeeze as they both closed their eyes.
I closed my eyes again, too, and tried to shut out the noise, and regulate my breathing. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen. There wasn’t anything I could do to change it, so I went back to thinking of Sam in an attempt to remain composed. I figured my odds of survival were no longer as completely non-existent as they’d been minutes ago, but they were still stacked against me, and dammit, I was going to die with dignity.
I mentally reviewed my life with Sam and renewed my sad attempts at telepathy, sending out apologies for things I regretted and would likely never be able to correct or tell him in person. I sent out more declarations of love, and I thought again about how Sam had been looking over my shoulder when I’d made my seat selection and had pointed out the seat I now found myself sitting in. It occurred to me that it was possible in these unique circumstances that his phobia would actually save my life.
Probably not. Most likely the impact when we ditched would kill us all, but I couldn’t help myself from picturing the possibility.
I wondered what time it was and how near or far we were to land. How long had we been rattling our way across the ocean at this lower elevation? I didn’t wear a watch because I always had my mobile phone with me and could look at it for the time. Except that mobile phone was in my carry-on pack in the overhead, so maybe “always” wasn’t quite the correct word after all.
I opened my eyes and dared to look out the window. It was raining. Lightning flashed and I saw how close we were to the water. “Scary close” was the answer to that question. I still had no idea how near we were to land, but figured the odds of a water landing—or ditch—were much greater. The way the plane rattled and shook, it had to be incredibly crippled.
Were we still on the original flight path? We’d definitely been angling to the right during that steep dive, and I didn’t know if the pilot had been able to adjust his course after pulling out of it.
My sense of time was screwed up so I also had no idea how long we’d been traveling in this new direction. Was the radio working? The overhead speakers weren’t. There’d been bangs from the front as well as the back. I was by no means an expert, but that seemed to me to indicate foul play, and radios might very well have been a target to add mystery to the plane’s demise.
I didn’t get the opportunity to dwell on this because the plane dropped low enough that it began skimming the water. Whatever was going to happen, was happening right now. The flight attendants yelled out for us to brace for impact.
I closed my eyes and put my head down and protected it with my arms. The next moments were incredibly jarring. I bounced around in my seat to the extent that my seatbelt allowed. The screams renewed. My teeth clenched so I wouldn’t contribute. Stuff—luggage from the failing overhead bins and who knew what else—flew around, hitting people. I was hit several times.
The sudden stop was just as jarring as the bouncing landing had been. It was also loud, with a horrible groaning and screeching noise coming from the front of the plane, followed quickly by rising water coming from that same direction.
I didn’t remember removing my seatbelt, but I found myself standing in the aisle surrounded by a crush of bodies pushing toward the exit on the right, because the plane was listing to the left as well as to the front. The man I’d imagined to be a vacationing college student was thankfully quite efficient at opening the emergency door. After stepping out, he reached back over and over to pull people out.
I watched as people tried to make their way up the wing, but slipped and fell off prematurely. Hopefully my no-skid boat shoes would help me make it to the end of the wing if I made it out. No, when I made it out. Despite the quickly rising water, it had become a very real possibility with only three people still ahead of me.
The opinions of the geniuses at MythBusters notwithstanding (considering their experiment was with a fairly small boat), I knew there were a number of forces and influences coming into play when a large object such as a ship or commercial airliner sank, causing a violent turbulent mixing in the water. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that. Not to mention that anything floatable that might come up with force, or parts that might fall off, could cause me serious injury. So I considered making it to the end of the wing before jumping off to be important to my potential survival.
Water covered my feet and was rising fast. It was almost up to the bottom of the door outside on the wing. Once it breached that door it would be essentially over for anybody still inside the plane except at the tail section exit doors. My entire body vibrated, and my teeth chattered despite the warm night air. Hurry, people, hurry!
A man and a woman were ahead of me, the man was in the process of exiting. To my left, a screaming baby moved toward me from the waterlogged front section, mosh-pit style. As I stepped into place behind the woman currently exiting, the baby was thrust into my arms.
I was the end of the road for the baby. There was no one for me to pass it on to. Ironic, considering that one of the mental apologies I’d just made to Sam was regarding my resistance to his recent hints that he’d like to adopt kids.
I held the baby—I think he qualified as an older baby as opposed to a toddler, but it was probably a close call—against my chest, and he wrapped his arms tightly around my neck while he continued wailing in my ear. As we pushed out the exit door, water started to come over the lower lip. The “college kid” grabbed my arm with a strong grip and hauled us through.
“Hurry!” he yelled.
I did. I cleared out of the doorway as fast as I could because I knew only one, maybe two more would make it through after me. I didn’t want to think about what was going on behind me as I worked my way up the wing. That part was a little slower going since I was holding that baby, which affected my balance. The angle of the wing was also rising, but was still doable. It was going to be almost like leaping off a standard high-dive if I made it to the end.
My slower pace up the wing allowed the “college kid” to catch up to me. Apparently no one else was going to make it out that door, so he was free to abandon his duties as an exit-row passenger. I had to commend him for hanging in there to help haul people out. I’m certain it sped up the process and saved at least a couple lives, maybe my own.
The “lesbians” had stuck around, too, forming a short chain to pull people partway up the wing as they exited, until a man had slipped, and the three of them had fallen together into the water below.
The “college kid” now hauled the “businessman” who’d been sitting across from me—evidently the final passenger out that exit—along by the arm. With those slick-soled business shoes, he’d never have made it up the wing otherwise. He had trouble with his feet sliding even with the younger man’s help. I shifted the baby to my right side and held him tighter with that arm. The kid had a hell of a grip around my neck with his fists tangled in the hair at the back of my head. There was no way he was letting go or falling off me, so I felt like I could spare my left arm to grab the businessman’s other arm. Between the three of us we were pretty stable as we climbed to the end of the wing. A flash of lightening lit the sky as we approached the top, and I spied a small island in the distance at the ten o’clock position when facing straight out from the wing.
“Running leap,” I yelled. “We want to get out and away.”
They apparently agreed since they both sped up. As we leapt off the end of the wing, I retrieved my hand from the businessman’s arm to protect the kid’s head by holding it against me. I also did my best to lean so my body, not the baby’s, would take the force of the landing in the water. I held his face against my neck as we went under and hoped he’d know enough not to breathe.
We came up sputtering, and the baby was finally shocked into silence. He didn’t appear to have actually sucked in any water while we were under, and he took deep gasping breaths.
I continued to hold the kid with both arms, moving him higher up on my body so both our heads would be at the same level out of the water. I kicked backward toward the other two men. They each grabbed one of my arms and continued to hold each other so we formed a little circle. Between the noises of the airplane sinking, the storm, and the waves, communication was difficult.
“Did you see the island?” the “businessman” shouted.
“Yes,” I hollered back, and the “college kid” pointed toward where it had been. I got a sense of which direction the current was flowing and hollered again to explain. “We need to swim that way, across the current.” I cocked my head to the right of where the island was located.
“But it’s that way,” the “college kid” yelled, thrusting his index finger directly toward the island again.
“We have to factor in the current,” I shouted back. “It’ll take us past the island if we don’t. We won’t have enough energy left to make progress against the current once it does.”
“He’s right,” yelled the “businessman.” He turned to me. “Are you sure about the direction of the current?”
“Yes! I spend a lot of time in the ocean with my work.”
He nodded, satisfied with my answer. The “college kid” did, too, although he seemed less convinced.
The “businessman” pulled the cord on his life vest and it inflated with force. The “college kid” did the same. I looked at them and knew I’d never be able to hold onto the baby with any kind of secure grip if I inflated my own. Those things were incredibly bulky, bulging way out in front of them.
My jeans weighed me down, and I decided I should take them off to improve my chances of making it to that island. The time spent shedding the weight and drag would be worth it even though the current would pull us while doing so. The other two also saw the wisdom of kicking off shoes and heavy pants without it having to be said. The “businessman” had apparently removed his jacket on the plane since I didn’t see it underneath his life vest. I was only able to lean back and get myself unbuttoned and unzipped one-handed, and needed their help pulling them down my legs.
The sounds behind me changed, and when I dared to turn for another look at the plane, I saw it was almost gone. Anyone who was going to escape was already in the water, and I didn’t see nearly as many as I expected. No one else was close to us and those we saw were now down-current from our location. We would jeopardize our chances if we swam in their direction, so we limited ourselves to shouting.
We all shouted and pointed. “There’s an island! We saw an island over there! You have to swim this way across the current!”
Satisfied that we’d done all we could, and seeing the others start swimming in that direction, we did the same.
“Lean back,” instructed the “college kid.” “Straighten out and kick and we’ll pull you and the kid.”
If we made it to the island, I would owe my life to these two men, because without their help I didn’t think I would make it. I was pretty sure I could have done it solo, but I was holding that baby, and despite my vague aversion to the younger generation, I would never be capable of just letting the kid sink to save myself. Apparently the two men had a similar moral compass.
They each grabbed me under an arm and pulled backward through the water with their remaining arm. We kicked for all we were worth.
I kept the baby’s head out of the water, putting us face to face. His death grip moved to my hair instead of around my neck, and I tried to remain in the most aerodynamic position I could manage.
I have no idea how long we were in the water struggling toward that island. My best guess was forever. It certainly seemed that way, but realistically it was probably between one and two hours, considering the distance.
I held the kid tightly and patted his back as I forced myself to keep kicking. “Hang in there, Buddy,” I murmured. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
I didn’t want this poor baby to drown. He hadn’t even had a chance at life yet. We’d been fortunate enough to be four of only a couple dozen people to make it off that plane. I wasn’t going to fuck up our chances by giving up because my legs were spent. I sure as hell didn’t want to die yet, and I didn’t want to put Sam through the pain of losing me so early.
The rain stopped as we got close. We’d managed to get across the current ahead of schedule, barely, and were able to ride it in to the beach. Fate was on our side for our landing because coral was not a problem on the path we rode to the island. Perhaps the high tide kept us elevated enough above it. Whatever the reason, I was thankful, because otherwise our rough landing would likely have caused injury, and even simple infections in these conditions could ultimately be fatal if we weren’t rescued quickly enough. Landing was difficult enough managing with jelly legs and a baby, without dealing with coral, as well.
My two helpers crawled up the beach, half-dragging me as I propelled myself by pushing off with my legs. We lay there gasping for a minute before our shaking from shock forced us to take action.
One doesn’t typically imagine being cold when thinking of South Pacific islands, and it usually isn’t. But in June, depending on where we were, the ocean temperature could be anywhere from the mid-to-upper-seventies, to the mid-eighties, Fahrenheit. It had felt like the warmer end of that scale when we’d first jumped into the water. The temperature of the night air on the Solomon Islands would typically drop to the low to mid-seventies at night this time of year. On the southern Cook Islands, it would be closer to the upper-sixties on average.
I wasn’t sure where the hell we were; all I knew was my teeth were chattering like we were in the Arctic rather than the tropics. I think it was the shock of our experience rather than the actual temperatures of the water and air causing it, but the result was the same either way.
“C…c…can’t keep these wet c…c…clothes on,” said the “businessman.” “It’ll k…k…kill us.” He sat up and wrestled off the life vest. Then he tried to unbutton his shirt, but eventually gave up and just tore it open and pulled it off.
The “college kid” and I pushed ourselves to do the same. “It’ll kill us” might have been a slight exaggeration, but the poor baby was shivering and whimpering. I peeled off his drenched clothing and sodden diaper, then my own shirt went the way of the “businessman’s.” Buttons were just too difficult to deal with. We took everything off and tossed it into a pile.
I rubbed the poor shivering kid and held him to my chest as we all huddled together. The little guy produced a soft noise that was a cross between a hiccup and a sob, breaking my heart, before finally succumbing. We fell into an exhausted sleep, our bodies in a collective tangle striving for elusive warmth.
Copyright 2016 Addison Albright
Oh, NOOOOOOOO!!!!! What’s going to happen next?
From This Day Forward
Christine Granger answered the door, exclaimed, “Henry!” and enveloped me in a huge mama-bear hug. Then she burst into tears. I patted her back, and as much as I appreciated the sentiment, I hoped the whole afternoon wouldn’t be a chain reaction of this behavior. But considering Christine was the wife of my old department chairman, and I’d seen her only a handful of times each year, that was probably an optimistic expectation.
Sam held Buddy—or I should say Aiden. The almost-six-year-old had decided he wanted to use his “real” name after all. Although his upbringing thus far had been decidedly primitive, he was intelligent and quickly picked up on what would be considered typical behavior back here in civilized society. Apparently, he wanted to assimilate.
With their blond heads side by side, I could almost imagine Sam to be Aiden’s biological father, but of course, neither of us was. I looked nothing like either of them, sporting dark brown hair and brown eyes. Their coloring similarities ended with their hair. Sam had eyes the color of worn denim, and Aiden’s were a warm hazel. Like me, Aiden was over-tanned, having spent the past five years stranded on a South Pacific island, while Sam had been living in Seattle, completely oblivious to our plight.
Anyway, my husband held Aiden, and flashed a smirk in my direction that was probably meant to appear sympathetic, but was closer to demonstrating his enjoyment of my discomfort.
Christine pulled back, sniffing. “Henry, I still can’t get over it. I’m so glad you’re alive.”
I smiled. “That makes two of us.”
She emitted a short tittering sputter but wasn’t otherwise sidetracked. “Bill was so torn up with guilt for sending you on that trip. And seeing Sam so miserable just ate away at him. He felt like he’d personally ruined two lives.”
Sam’s eyes widened. Apparently, he hadn’t picked up on that. No shocker there, because one of the things that made Bill a great department chairman was that he was good at keeping his personal feelings out of decisions that needed to be made—or at least good at masking them. Poor Christine must have taken the brunt of his moods.
Sam spoke up to reassure her. “Nobody ever blamed Bill. I certainly didn’t. He had no way of knowing what would happen to that plane.”
Of course Bill hadn’t known. Nobody had. Obviously, none of the passengers or crew would have gone on that ill-fated flight had they known a terrorist had planted bombs, and that all but four would perish when the pilot was forced to ditch the plane in the ocean. As one of the fortunate survivors—fortunate despite spending five years left for dead and fighting for survival on a tiny island—I wouldn’t have willfully chosen that path for my life. Although I had to admit to being a bit torn on that, since Sam and I wouldn’t be adopting Aiden now if Aiden and I, together with our fellow survivors, hadn’t gone through that ordeal.
Christine ushered us through the house and out into the surprisingly sunny—for Seattle—early summer afternoon. Immediately Bill and a number of the other Biology department professors made a beeline to where Sam, Aiden, and I stood.
I hoped my gamble with humor would help Bill release the burden of guilt Christine had mentioned. As a collateral benefit, maybe it would defuse any potential repeats of the mini-scene upstairs.
I smiled at Bill, lifted my arms to the side, palms up, as if to imply a “what the fuck?” attitude, and blustered, “‘Go to Fiji,’ he said. ‘It’ll be great there in June. The dry season will be in full swing. It’ll be like a working vacation. You deserve a nice research trip like this after that stint in Greenland.’ Seriously, Bill?”
Bill chortled. He shook his head and blinked as if trying to keep the tears glistening in his eyes from falling. “I authorized six weeks, dammit, Miller-Greene, not five years. That’s just taking advantage of my good nature. I hope you understand I had to replace your lazy ass. I doubt you even collected any data on your extended holiday.”
I cracked up and several of my former colleagues moved in to pat me on the back. “Well, to be fair, I had a decided lack of instrumentation, or even a damned pencil or paper for the records.”
“Okay, okay. I might see fit to let you take on that night class you inquired about, seeing as there was a slight travel and communications mishap. I guess I can’t put all the blame on you.”
Copyright 2016 Addison Albright
“Okay, then.” That’s what Sam had said. His leg had bounced like it always did when he was nervous. It was endearing, and one of the things that drew me to him. His grin was another. I melted a little each time he leveled it in my direction, which had made it incredibly hard to hide my attraction. That ship had now sailed. For better or for worse, Sam now knew of my interest, and had agreed to a date.
His words had come at the end of a conversation we’d had at breakfast yesterday morning after we’d cleared up a misunderstanding regarding my intentions when I’d previously asked him out. Well, I suppose technically I’d asked him back to my room for a drink, so I couldn’t actually fault him for not understanding that I truly wanted to date him, not just have a fling while we were here in Honiara collecting research data.
“I’m sorry, Henry,” Sam said now as we approached Mambo Juice’s entry. “I wasn’t thinking straight, obviously.”
Perspiration dripped down my face. My pits felt more than a little damp, and sweat matted my chest hairs. The shower I’d taken right before we’d left the Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel, where we were staying a few days before heading to the smaller islands in the chain, had been a complete waste of time. But even if I’d known Sam would suggest we walk a mile to the Mambo Juice, I probably would have bathed anyway. I wanted to impress the man, after all.
“I’m fine,” I replied. And truthfully I was; other than feeling, shall we say, somewhat less than fresh, the trek and the heat didn’t bother me. We’d both been out in it all day for most of a week, and would be spending at least five more weeks in the islands before heading back to Seattle. This wasn’t the first research trip either of us had taken to a tropical location, and we were both in good health and in the prime of our lives.
Sam looked miserable, biting his lower lip. His body seemed tense, and his brows drawn together. Not unduly physically uncomfortable, but like he was mentally kicking himself in the ass for having suggested we walk.
“Seriously, it’s not a big deal. If I can’t handle one little mile, then I’m a pretty sad case with no business attempting field work.”
He cocked his head to the side and stared curiously at me as I attempted a reassuring smile. His stance relaxed.
“You’re—” He cut off whatever he’d planned to say. His eyes widened and I got the distinct impression he’d been thinking aloud, and hadn’t meant to say anything.
“You’re what?” Because, really, it was better to find out now, before we fucked up our professional relationship beyond any hope of repair by, well…fucking…if there was something about me that bothered him. We’d been colleagues in the university’s biology department in Seattle for ten months, so we knew each other fairly well. I hoped to hell he wasn’t having second thoughts about dating me.
“You’re…you’re actually trying to impress me, just as much as I’m trying to do the same with you.”
I laughed and pressed a palm to my heart. I was so damned relieved to hear those words. “You’re damned right I am!”
His Henry-melting grin appeared, and I was lost.
Copyright 2016 Addison Albright
Copyright 2017 Addison Albright – 2nd edition
To Love and To Cherish
Chapter 1: Elevators and Couch Surfing
The elderly man shifted in the wheelchair, and Nash Marino tucked in the loose blanket around his patient.
“There, that’s better,” Nash said. “I don’t want you to get chilled.”
Nash glanced up as the elevator stopped, then blinked and stiffened when a familiar figure from his recent past stepped in. Not that he had anything against Truman Greene—he’d always enjoyed the company of this man and his entire family. In fact, he missed them. A lot.
It wasn’t Truman’s fault things had gone so wrong between his son and Nash. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. That was one of the things that pissed off Nash the most about the whole situation. He couldn’t reasonably be angry at anyone involved, not without looking like a jackass. He was definitely more than a little peeved at fate, however.
Nash cleared his throat. “Hello, Mr. Greene. I hope your family’s well.”
Truman’s head jerked up as his attention was drawn from the phone he’d been studying. “Nash! How are you, son? Yes, yes, I’m here visiting a friend. The family’s all healthy. And for Pete’s sake, I’m still Truman to you. None of this Mr. Greene nonsense!”
Nash couldn’t help but return Truman’s welcoming smile. The genuine warmth in the man’s voice cheered him. “I’m doing okay.” It wasn’t entirely a lie. He’d certainly been a mess four months ago when it had all gone down. The pain of his broken engagement still hurt when he was feeling lonely, but it wasn’t crippling him emotionally anymore.
“Sam’s stayed in touch, hasn’t he?”
“Yeah, he did.”
Nash stopped himself from elaborating. It was a painful subject that he didn’t want to rehash with his ex-fiancé’s father. Nash had realized he was never going to be able to move on with Sam contacting him every other day to check up on him. He’d let it go on as long as it had only because Sam had seemed to need the reassurance, and he loved and cared about Sam, regardless of the way things had ended. Nash could honestly say that he wished his former fiancé happiness.
“The breakup was hard on Sam, too, you know.”
Nash clenched his jaw and took a deep breath. Sure, but there wasn’t really any comparison, was there? Of course it had been hard on Sam, he didn’t deny that, but he somehow doubted Sam had spent weeks crying into his pillow. And Nash’s former fiancé sure as hell hadn’t spent his nights alone on a friend’s hard, lumpy couch. No, Sam was sleeping on the pillow-top mattress they’d once shared, and he was lying next to his husband, Henry. But, Nash wasn’t going to unleash that rant on Sam’s father.
“I do. It wasn’t his fault. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. Didn’t make it easier, though.”
The elevator stopped at the lobby. Truman stepped toward the exit, then turned back to Nash. “Is it okay if I give you a call sometime? If you don’t have plans for the upcoming holidays, we’d like to include you in ours.”
“Sure, call anytime,” Nash replied. He’d never refuse a call from any of the Greenes, although he had no intention of intruding on their holiday celebrations. He had his friends, so it wasn’t like he’d be alone if he didn’t have enough time off to visit his own family.
A shiver ran up his spine at the very thought of the awkwardness of sitting around the Thanksgiving table with the Greenes as they made the rounds of what they were thankful for this year. His own answer was a big fat “nothing,” but he’d probably say something cliché about being thankful for his good health. Or he could go the passive-aggressive route and state how thankful he was for Harley’s lumpy couch. Yeah, better to avoid that scene altogether.
The elevator doors closed, and his patient, Bernard Meacham, with all the discretion of someone who was beyond caring what people thought, cackled. “Sounds like there’s a good story behind that conversation.”
The elevator continued toward the basement. There wasn’t a soul working in the hospital who didn’t know all about his relationship drama. Considering the media shit-storm that had surrounded the event, most people in the country were aware of the story, even if they wouldn’t recognize him on the street or even remember his name as a mere bit player in the larger drama. So what the hell, he might as well give the man something to hoot about.
“I was engaged to his son, who turned out to be the husband of one of those TransOceanic survivors rescued back in June.”
Mr. Meacham chortled. “Hoo boy, that must’ve been a rough week for you! I think everybody I know was rooting for that Henry fellow over you.”
Sadly, he was well aware that the bulk of the public sentiment had been for Henry. That had probably been a subconscious factor in Nash’s decision to bow out of the relationship before Sam had said the inevitable words. In hindsight, he knew there was no way Sam would have chosen him over his long-lost husband. Nash had simply been unable to accept that fact at the time without a fight.
The doors opened. Nash pushed the wheelchair out of the elevator and turned left to roll down the long hallway toward radiology.
“Water under the bridge, Mr. Meacham. Water under the bridge.”
“It’s Bernie, I keep tellin’ ya. Call me Bernie.”
“Sorry, Bernie. I’ll remember.” Apparently, Bernie had issues with his memory as well as with his knee, since this was only their second encounter, and the man hadn’t mentioned that when Nash had introduced himself earlier. To be fair, Nash did have a similar build and coloring as Bernie’s previous nurse until the old man had been inexplicably switched over to Nash’s care a few hours ago.
“And my name is Nash,” he reintroduced himself, since it appeared a refresher might be useful. “I’ll be your daytime nurse for the rest of today and the next two days if you’re here that long.”
Bernie squinted at him. “Oh, I see it now. You’re not the same fella, are you?”
Nash bobbed his head. “Right. A different nurse took care of you yesterday and earlier today.”
Bernie hooted. “I should’ve known you weren’t the same guy. You both have blond hair and green eyes, but that other fella mentioned a wife, and you’re one of them funny boys, like my grandson.”
Funny boys? Well, Bernie’s tone was cheerful, and he’d certainly been called worse, so Nash grinned. “Well, I try to maintain a good sense of humor.”
Bernie slapped his knee—the good one—and cackled louder. “That you do. My grandson needs to get one of those. Maybe he will now that he’s finally figured out he’s one of you funny boys. He’s the one supposed to be so smart, but I had it figured out way back when he was a teenager.”
Nash pushed the button outside the entrance to the radiology department and the doors swung open. He wheeled in Bernie and introduced him to a waiting tech.
“They’re going to take good care of you in here, Bernie. I’ll check in on you when they bring you back up, to see if there’s anything you need.”
Back at the elevators, a tall man with pale skin and short, dark brown hair approached from the direction of the cafeteria, stuffing a wrapped sandwich into his pocket. Nash nodded in greeting, then averted his eyes back to the indicator lights over the doors. There was no sense maintaining eye contact, let alone attempting a conversation with Dr. Myles Burlingham. While the orthopedic surgeon wasn’t outright rude—Nash had never had any complaints working with Dr. B in the past—he’d never been particularly sociable. Whether the man’s demeanor was merely a professional persona, or the sign of a surly personality, Nash had no idea. According to the hospital rumor mill, he was currently in the middle of a messy divorce. Apparently there were allegations of infidelity, although it wasn’t clear on whose part. Nash didn’t feel like inviting trouble, so he didn’t attempt any polite chitchat.
The doors opened, and the men entered. Nash pushed 12 for the surgical floor and glanced at Dr. Burlingham, who just nodded and stepped back. Great. It was well past the time when the physician would typically be making rounds, so it would seem that the accident victim Nash had been assigned—due to be delivered shortly from post-op—might be Dr. Burlingham’s patient.
“So the patient with the open tibia fracture I’m expecting is yours, then?” Nash asked.
“He’s been assigned to you?”
Dr. Burlingham regarded him for a moment before presenting a slow blink. “Great.”
The borderline sarcastic tone put the cherry on top of his already shitty day. It pissed off Nash enough to forget his strategy of avoiding the doctor’s attitude.
“I assure you I’m a very competent nurse. Your patient is in good hands.” Nash valued his job so he kept his words civil, but his clipped tone betrayed his true feelings.
He had a master’s degree, for Christ’s sake. He was one of the better-educated nurses in the hospital, had years of experience, and no reprimands on his record. Seriously, what was Dr. Burlingham trying to imply?
Dr. Burlingham took a deep breath, as if trying to maintain his composure. “I’m not suggesting otherwise.” His words were terse, as well.
Then what the hell had Dr. Burlingham meant by that tone of voice? Nash’s face heated, and he pursed his lips. No, he wouldn’t say what he was thinking. The doctor had uttered only that single word, after all. Perhaps Nash had misinterpreted the attitude he’d ascribed to it. It would be best to keep his mouth shut and avoid all possibility of putting his foot into it.
The elevator doors opened at the lobby. A number of other people joined them, mostly visitors, but another nurse stepped on, her eyebrows raising slightly, apparently sensing the tension in the elevator.
On the twelfth floor, the charge nurse greeted them as they approached the nurses’ station. “Nash, Dr. Burlingham, good. Your new patient is on his way up now. We’ve got 1218 set up already.”
“Thank you.” Dr. Burlingham gestured with his head for Nash to follow and walked swiftly to the designated room. He ushered Nash inside, then closed the door behind them. Nash tensed and waited silently for the man to unleash his criticism.
“I want to apologize,” Dr. Burlingham said.
Nash felt his lower jaw drop in surprise and quickly closed his mouth again.
“I left you with the impression that I was displeased with your past performance. I want to reiterate that that is not the case and, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, if I was given a choice of nurses for my more critically injured patients, I would choose you every time. I shouldn’t have taken my bad mood out on you.”
Nash was momentarily speechless. That had to be one of the sincerest apologies he’d ever received. Not even remotely comparable to one of those phony apologies of the “I’m sorry if what I said/did offended you” variety.
Nash nodded and felt the tension drain from his shoulders. “Apology accepted. Th…thank you.”
There wasn’t time to reply further, because the door opened, and a post-op nurse wheeled a patient-occupied bed into the room. Nash took over, out of habit checking the side rails, and got busy situating his new patient while listening intently as Dr. Burlingham reviewed, in great detail, his instructions for the patient’s care.
* * * *
“There’s no rush, Nash. Seriously.” Harley’s brows knit together in concern. “Oliver and I agree that you can stay as long as you need.”
“I appreciate it, but I know it’s an intrusion. Four months is long enough.”
“We really don’t mind, do we, Oliver?” Harley cast a meaningful glance toward his boyfriend.
Oliver sat up straighter and quickly replied, “Our couch is your couch. No problems here, man.”
Nash pasted on a smile and hoped it appeared sincere. “And a comfy couch it is.”
Harley winced. “Aw, no it isn’t. Sorry we don’t have anything better. I don’t blame you for wanting a real bed again, but ‘roommate wanted’ ads? Please, don’t.”
“Well, if you’re sure…” Nash didn’t really want to take the gamble of rooming with a total stranger, but neither did he want to overstay his welcome—and after four months, surely he was beyond that limit. He supposed if the situation were reversed, he wouldn’t want to see Harley reduced to that, either.
He knew damned well that his presence put a strain on Harley and Oliver’s relationship. They did a decent job covering it, but how could it not?
Oliver apparently still felt the effects of Harley’s earlier glance and replied, “We’re sure. Heck, it’s not like you aren’t paying your way or anything. I don’t mind having a little extra while you’re hanging with us.”
“Okay. Well, I’ve put the word out among my friends at the hospital, and they’re all asking around for me, too. If anyone even three degrees of separation away from one of the hospital employees needs a roommate, it’ll get back to me.”
Oliver stood and began clearing the table, so Nash jumped up to help. He didn’t need his best friend’s boyfriend to have any reason beyond simply yearning for their privacy back to want Nash gone. “I’ve got it. You cooked, I’ll clean it up.”
Oliver didn’t need any further prompting to plop back into his chair. He quirked an eyebrow inquiringly. “Are you still looking for a job outside of the hospital, or did you move that to a back burner until your life settles down?”
Nash collected the dirty dishes. “No back burner. Private practice office positions are snapped up quickly. God, I’m getting too old for this ‘on-call’ shit.”
“Calm down, sweetie, you’re only thirty-four. There’s nary a gray hair on that lovely blond head of yours.” Harley combed his fingers through his own darker, short-cropped hair. “Meanwhile, I added at least a couple dozen more dealing with your wedding shenanigans this past spring.”
Nash grimaced. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your help and support.” That was the understatement of the year. Harley had been there within the hour when Nash and Sam had first learned of Henry’s survival and imminent return. Nash had desperately needed a shoulder to cry on. Sam had provided his, of course, but poor Sam had been a big pathetic mess of mixed emotions himself.
“Don’t sweat it. That’s what best friend slash wedding planners are for, right?”
Oliver said, “I still can’t get over that shit. What a crazy situation. You guys were a great match, too.”
“Yeah, I’m over it, though.” Nash scraped the remains on the dinner plates into the garbage disposal and sighed. “Ran into my former future-father-in-law at the hospital, today.”
“Truman?” Harley prompted.
“Yeah, visiting a friend, apparently. Invited me to join them over the holidays if I want.” Nash shook his head. “I may be over Sam, but I’m pretty sure I don’t need to be exposed to him playing super-dad to Buddy—or Aiden, or whatever the hell they’re calling the kid these days—with Henry smiling away at his elbow.”
Oliver returned Harley’s earlier meaningful glance. Uh-oh.
Harley cleared his throat. “Um, actually, we’re going to be driving down to Eugene over Thanksgiving this year to spend it with Oliver’s family. You gonna get enough time off to fly home to see yours?”
“Shit. No, I’m working early the next morning. Not worth it. I’ll go home for a few days close to Christmas, though.”
Harley screwed up his face, but had no reply. He was clearly torn. Oliver’s eyes widened, broadcasting alarm. It was justifiable concern, because Nash could practically see the wheels turning in Harley’s head, trying to find a solution that would take care of both his boyfriend’s and his best friend’s needs.
Nash didn’t want Harley to even consider changing their plans for the holiday. He was a big boy, dammit, and he’d imposed on them enough. More than enough. Frankly, he didn’t know how Oliver kept his cool.
“Don’t worry about me, guys, really. One way or another I won’t be alone. I can always switch shifts with one of the others who has kids at home. It’s not like the holiday means that much to me if I don’t have enough time off to travel anyway.”
Fuck, his life had gotten dreary. All he’d ever wanted was a man to share a mutual life and love, and provide companionship. Monogamy was a must, regular sex was a reasonable expectation, and children were a want. Was that really too much to ask?
He’d loved Sam, there was no doubt about that. But he was over it after only four months. Meanwhile, Sam had taken years and a couple rounds of therapy to get over his loss when he’d thought Henry had died. Maybe Nash simply wasn’t capable of that depth of true love. Maybe it was time to reevaluate what he was looking for in a relationship.
Chapter 2: Reevaluating
“You’re a regular slave driver, Blondie,” Bernie grumbled as he grasped Nash’s arm with a surprisingly strong grip.
“Nash,” he corrected patiently—trying to strike the right balance between firm and assuring—as he slowly lowered the man into the reclining chair.
“I remember which one you are.”
“And walking down the hallway and back was good for your knee. You’ve recovered enough from the surgery to be able to handle it.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know,” Bernie replied. “So it won’t stiffen up.”
“You don’t want to be stuck in that wheelchair, do you?”
Nash gave Bernie a wink. “Besides, if you think I’m bad, wait until the physical therapists get ahold of you.”
“Crimony. My grandson already warned me that was coming up.” Bernie shook his head, apparently thinking of his looming stint in the rehab facility. Then the frown turned to a smile. “I told you about my grandson, Emmitt, didn’t I?”
Hell, yeah, Bernie’d mentioned him a time or twelve. Nash nodded. “Will he be coming to visit you today?”
“Saw him this morning, but he’ll be back again later.”
“Sorry, I must have missed him.”
Bernie chortled. “Ha! And people say I’m the one with a leaky memory. You were right here in the room with us.”
Nash raised an eyebrow but didn’t reply. Had Bernie confused Nash with another nurse again?
“I live with him, you know. He’s the best grandson a man could ever ask for.”
“Never an unkind word from him. I don’t care that he’s one of you gay boys. I told him so.” Bernie cackled. “I think he was worried I’d hate him when he told me, but I told him I’d figured it out when he was in high school. He didn’t believe that part, though.”
Nash gently raised the footrest on the recliner. “You need to keep this elevated.”
He shook out a blanket and draped it over Bernie’s legs and placed the call button within easy reach. For Bernie’s sake, Nash hoped the much-adored grandson would indeed be back for another visit today.
* * * *
“Christ, Nash, where do you put it all?” Angela exclaimed. “I’d kill for your metabolism.”
She patted her abdomen, which belied the implication of her comment. Sure it wasn’t totally flat, but for a forty-something mother of three, she was in great shape. She rocked her Ghana cornrows, and her dark eyes shimmered with the cheekiness that was sure to be mirrored by her words.
Nash looked at the tray he’d placed on the cafeteria table and shrugged. Chicken noodle soup, spinach walnut salad with chicken, and a French dip sandwich. It wasn’t thatmuch. “Dinner at Harley’s alternates between hamburgers and canned-sauce pasta, so I try to get my nutrition here.”
“Any luck on the roommate search?”
Nash waited while the speaker on the adjacent wall blared, paging a physician. The cafeteria was busy, so he was already speaking louder than he’d like to be heard above the general buzz of conversation.
“Nothing. You’ve put the word out to everyone in pediatrics?”
“Of course. One of the girls is looking for a roommate, but she’s out in the ’burbs. You said you wanted to stay in the heart of Seattle, right?”
“Yeah, I’d rather.” He’d commuted from Sammamish while living with Sam, but he didn’t want to do that for any reason other than living with a boyfriend. Rural living had its upsides—it was peaceful and scenic—but he preferred living somewhere with a “walkability index” greater than zero. No amount of Douglas Firs or Western Red Cedars to gaze at made up for the traffic congestion when he had to make the drive during rush hour.
“But you’re trying to get a job in someone’s private practice, right? What if that office is in the ’burbs? Do you want to live in the city regardless, or is it the drive you’re trying to avoid?”
“Shit. I hadn’t even thought of that.” Nash sighed and stabbed at his salad. “Drive-avoidance is the goal, but I’d prefer in the city for both. I’m so sick of that lumpy couch I could scream. It could be months before I get one of those jobs.”
“You don’t want to wait that long to get off Harley’s couch?”
Nash shook his head. “I’d do just about anything to move on with my life right now. Besides, I’ve imposed on them too long already. Be honest, has Oliver bitched to you about me staying there?”
Angela waved her index finger back and forth. “I am so not getting in the middle of this. I will simply say, trust your instincts.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Nash sighed.
“Have you thought about home health care instead of private practice? A lot of the nurses here do a bit of that on the side.”
“Yeah, on the side for a reason. Shitty benefits keep it from being an appealing full-time job. Otherwise I wouldn’t mind. Usually it’s dealing with old people, and that’s fine with me. I kind of like listening to their stories.”
She gave him a side-eye squint as if he was nuts for that last remark, but really, why wouldn’t anybody enjoy that? Old folks had lived the history younger people had only read about, and they had decades of experience to back up their words of wisdom. Of course, some of them had decades of prejudices built up that they liked to share, but it was easy enough to tune out the rotten apples.
“Yeah, too bad,” Angela replied. “Some of those situations are live-in, so it would kill two birds with one stone.”
“I guess. Shit, my life is so screwed up now.”
Angela snatched a walnut from his salad. He tried to whack the errant hand with his fork, but missed.
She smirked. “Too slow. You know you’re being a big ol’ whiney baby, right? I’m offering you my shoulder to cry on only because it’s so out of character. I’d be done with you if this was your regular attitude.”
Nash’s shoulders slumped. “I know. Sorry.”
“Shut up. I just offered you Mama Angela’s shoulder, so get it all out, honey. Tell me, are you talking about your love life being screwed up, or everything in general?”
“Everything, but it definitely includes my love life. Or I should say, ‘lack thereof.’” He dropped the offending fork and moved on to his soup. “I was thinking about this last night. I’m not cut out for true love. I give up on it.”
“What? No! I know you don’t want to end up alone. Seriously, don’t give up. You’ll find the right man.”
“I didn’t say I give up on finding a partner. I’m giving up on finding love. Give me a stable, committed relationship with a well-suited companion and regular sex, and I’ll be a happy camper.”
Angela rolled her eyes. “Men. You deserve each other,” she scoffed.
“I’m being realistic. I’m thirty-four and so beyond ready to settle down. I need to face facts.”
Angela reached for his salad. “You done with this?”
He nudged the bowl. “Go ahead.”
She smiled, pulling the bowl close. “So tell me about these so-called facts.”
“Okay, fine. Fact one, I’m tired of the fast pace of hospital work. I want something calmer.”
“Understandable, seeing as you’re so old and decrepit.”
He ignored the sarcasm. “Fact two, Harley’s couch is killing me. Decrepit is a real possibility if I don’t get off it, and soon.”
“Fair point, I suppose.”
He pointed his spoon at her smirk. “And fact three, I’m over Sam in only four months, which isn’t anywhere close to what it took him to get over his husband. I thought he was the love of my life, but it was wishful thinking. I wanted love so badly, only I hadn’t figured out I’m just not capable of it.”
She tapped his spoon with her fork, then pointed it at his nose. “You are one of the most caring nurses I’ve ever met, and in this field that’s saying a lot. Trust me when I say you are capable of finding true love.”
“I love companionship and regular sex. Apparently, that’s all there is to it. Listen, I didn’t feel this way at first—I truly was crushed, and I thought it was all because I’d lost Sam—but if I’m honest with myself now, I think it’s the loss of the way of life that being in a relationship offers, rather than the loss of Sam in particular, that’s still bothering me.”
“So you’re looking for a sugar-daddy?”
“What? Seriously, where did you get that? Hell no, I don’t give a shit about money as long as I have enough to be comfortable, and I can do that on my own, thank you. Not that Sam’s sweet house hurt his appeal, but it was purely a bonus.”
“So you’re looking for a live-in friends-with-benefits relationship?”
“Add ‘monogamous’ and ‘commitment’ to that and yeah, basically. I was so ready to be married. I’m thirty-four and back to square one. It’s depressing.”
Angela grimaced and raised her bottled water toward him as if in a toast. “Here’s hoping you get past this mood you’re in before you have a chance to do anything stupid.”
“No worries. Potential lovers aren’t exactly beating a path to my door.”
She snickered. “Harley and Oliver’s door.”
“Touché. But it’s just as well. I hate dating. Isn’t it the worst? All that awkward getting-to-know-each-other shit. And honestly? I’ve always known within five minutes whether or not a relationship would work for me. I don’t know why I bothered to go through the motions with some of them.”
“Fuck dating. Let first impressions rule. I could’ve saved myself a world of hurt and heartache if I’d done that over the years. I don’t know why I stuck it out with some of my shitty boyfriends either. Wishful thinking, I guess. But you’re right, I knew practically instantly that my husband was going to be the love of my life. So yeah, don’t bother dating…simply ask him to marry you five minutes into the conversation. I’m sure it won’t scare him off or anything.” She accompanied that final instruction with a cocked eyebrow and one of her trademark smirks, as if the scornful tone she’d used wasn’t enough to keep the sarcasm from going over his head. Subtlety wasn’t Angela’s strong suit.
“Sage advice.” He raised a spoonful of soup in salute, then brought it toward his mouth.
Someone bumped his chair from behind. Nash rocked forward, and soup spilled down his chin.
Angela stifled a snicker, and a male voice he recognized said, “Sorry about that.”
Nash snatched up his napkin to wipe his face, and turned. “No problem, Dr. Burlingham.”
Although it was, of course. He felt like a fool with chicken noodle dripping down his neck. Dr. Burlingham stood there looking at him with an odd intensity. Probably thinking Nash had a screw loose or was some kind of man-whore if he’d overheard much of Nash’s rant. Whatever, it was none of the man’s business, and Nash would hopefully not be working at this hospital—where the doctor’s opinion would affect him—for much longer anyway.
After gazing at him for an uncomfortably long couple of seconds, Dr. Burlingham turned back to Dr. Gilbert Wilson, a friendly and outgoing pediatrician whose close friendship with Dr. Burlingham had long stymied the hospital grapevine. Dr. Wilson gaped at Dr. Burlingham with his own less-squinty version of Angela’s earlier side-eye. Except Dr. Wilson’s version was accompanied by a comical upturn to one side of his mouth, indicating his enjoyment of the scene—rather than concern for his friend’s mental health, as Angela’s countenance had implied.
As soon as the two doctors walked around the corner, Angela burst into a fit of the chuckles that would have been better suited to the set of Dumb and Dumber.
“Hardee-har-har,” was the best he could come up with in reply. Nash grabbed her napkin and crammed it down the front of his uniform to mop up the rest of the soup drippage.
“Did you see the look on his face?” Angela managed to gasp between giggles.
“Which one? The repugnance on Dr. Burlingham’s or the glee on Dr. Wilson’s?”
The guffaws coming from across the table intensified and drew some curious glances as well as several censorious glares. “Seriously, Angela, you’re going to give yourself a hernia. It wasn’t that funny.”
He nudged her bottle toward her and she took the hint, a couple deep breaths, and a slug of water. “Wasn’t repugnance,” she wheezed.
“What are you talking about?”
“The look on Dr. Burlingham’s face. It wasn’t repugnance. Closer to yearning.”
“Don’t even.” Nash froze. “Right now your position on the hospital grapevine is scaring the shit out of me. Don’t. Even.”
She held up a hand. “I wouldn’t. Calm down, sweetie. I’m stating facts, is all.”
“There’s nothing remotely factual about that statement, so don’t start with me. And so help me, don’t even hint at joking about something that stupid on the pediatrics floor where Dr. Wilson might get wind of it.”
She pointed a finger—or rather the finger—at him and bit out, “I’m not a fucking idiot.”
No, she wasn’t. Nash eased back in his seat. And she was a good friend. He sighed. “Sorry. I know you wouldn’t. Just put it down to the stress, okay?”
She gave his hand a squeeze and the tightness that had appeared in her shoulders visibly relaxed as well. “I’m sorry, too, sweetie. I shouldn’t tease you right now. I promise I would never start or feed any rumors about you, stupid or otherwise, but there truly was something in his look. I just want you to have a heads-up on that.”
Nash closed his eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath. It was doubtful, and so not a complication that would be appreciated right now in his life.
* * * *
Nash lay on his back with a forearm thrown over his eyes, listening as the occasional car drove by on the street below. He breathed evenly, the stress of the day finally melting away. He was drifting off when a noise pulled him back to reality and his eyes shot open.
The rhythmic squeak of bedsprings coming from the bedroom was “the drop that spilled his glass,” which, Nash ruefully considered, was not to be confused with his “cup runneth over.” Perhaps it would be clearer to think of it as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Regardless, he couldn’t take it anymore.
Nash reached blindly for his phone and earbuds that should have been on the side table. All he managed to find was Oliver’s cactus plant. Goddammit.
He lay on his side on the lumpy couch, jammed a pillow over his exposed ear, and hummed “Puff the Magic Dragon,” because—damn it—the song had become a persistent earworm ever since he’d walked Bernie Meacham up and down the hallway while the man softly sang the catchy little tune. Or at least he’d sung it during the brief interludes when he wasn’t going on and on about the flawlessness of his apparently angelic grandson.
Nash had probably overstayed his welcome with Harley and Oliver two months ago. He was caught up feeling sorry for himself, wallowing in a self-pity party, and hadn’t stopped to think about his best friend, and how this imposition was affecting the man’s relationship with his boyfriend. They were obviously trying to be quiet, and had waited, probably thinking he’d finally be asleep. They’d been making special accommodations for him long enough.
Perhaps he should forego the roommate search and consider getting a place of his own. If it was going to be in the city, near the hospital, it would have to be a small studio. Or possibly he could get something a little larger, and add a roommate later to split the expenses. The central districts were out—too pricey. Maybe he could find something nice yet reasonable in Freemont or Northgate.
As an experienced nurse, he made decent money, but he didn’t want most of his earnings going to rent. He wanted some fun money, plus he knew he couldn’t count on anyone helping him out in retirement, so he liked to put aside as much as possible to invest for his future.
He didn’t want to live by himself, though. Some alone-time was fine—welcomed, even—but he was social by nature, and the thought of being home alone every evening was depressing. Of course, he didn’t have to stay home, but going out generally meant spending money, and he had a strict cap on his entertainment budget.
Poorly stifled moans pushed past the humming barrier. Fucking kiddie dragon anyway…probably couldn’t even breathe fire like a proper dragon should. Fuck Puff. Fuck Bernie Meacham and his damned earworm-inducing tune. Fuck Dr. Burlingham and his scowls. Fuck Dr. Wilson for laughing at him. And fuck Sam for not loving him enough. Maybe not fuck Henry—all that poor bastard had done was not die, and who could blame him for that?
Copyright 2016 Addison Albright