A PERSISTENT, annoying sound kept infiltrating my mind. I’d manage to shut it out successfully for a while, only to have it edge its way back in.
What is that noise? Maybe I can find it and make it stop. Ugh—that’ll require opening my eyes and my eyelids feel so heavy. I don’t think they’ve ever felt this heavy.
The beep-beep-beep got louder, or maybe I was just more aware of it. And something smelled strange. Not dirty, but not pleasant either. Like a deep, chemical smell.
What is that? Did we get a new alarm clock? We’ve never needed one. Clark’s body has the amazing ability to know what time it is even when he’s asleep, so he hasn’t ever let us sleep too late.
Maybe I can reach it and make it stop. Don’t need to open my eyes for that, just need to lift my arm. Oh, that feels heavy too. And it aches. Why does my arm ache? It’s not just my arm; my legs hurt too, both of them. And my chest feels so tight, almost like it’s burning. What in the hell is going on?
Clark. I need Clark. He’ll make it better.
I tried to call out to him, but my tongue felt thick and heavy and my mouth felt like it was full of cotton. I forced myself to concentrate every ounce of energy I had on my tongue, my mouth. I knew that if I could get just one word out, it’d all be better. He’d make it better.
My voice sounded weak and broken, completely foreign to my ears.
“Oh my God, Noah. Noah? Can you hear me? Are you awake?”
Pain and exhaustion turned into anger in the blink of an eye. That is, if I could blink my eye, which I couldn’t, because blinking requires opening and opening requires eye strength that I apparently didn’t have. Wait, I can lift twice my body weight and I just complained about the strength of my eyelids? Seriously? Anyway, the point is that wasn’t Clark’s voice. Well, the plus side of anger is adrenaline, and that gave me strength for more words.
“What did you do, Ben? Where’s Clark? What did you do to Clark?”
As my brain began to clear, I felt panic. Deep, breath-stealing, heart-pounding, sweat-inducing panic. I couldn’t move my body, couldn’t open my eyes, and my lover wasn’t there. It was the last one that really terrified me.
“If you hurt him, Ben... I swear I’ll kill you. What in the hell did you do to Clark?!”
My voice sounded stronger and the beeping noise was louder, or maybe faster, I’m not sure. With significant effort, I finally managed to pry my eyes open.
A dull, grayish shade of white. Everything. The walls, the acoustic tile ceilings, the fluorescent lights, the sheets, they were all a dingy white color.
Where in the hell am I? Television anchored to the wall, a metal tray beneath it, and a door next to that. Coarse, heavy, white sheets covered me. Oh, and don’t forget the beeping. The ever-present beeping.
“I didn’t do anything. You were in an accident, Noah. You’ve been out for weeks. I’ve been so worried. Thank goodness you’re finally awake.”
I felt his hand grasp mine and willed my eyes to focus on my brother’s face. His normally perfect hair was messy, his shirt looked wrinkled, and his eyes were wet with unshed tears. All of those things were unusual for my brother, but what I noticed most of all was that he looked older, not just a so-tired-that-his-face-looks-haggard type of older, though that was there too. But it was more than that. His movie-star face looked years older.
It had been two years since I’d last seen my brother, which would make him, what? Twenty-eight next month, just a couple of months younger than Clark. Did he really age that much in two years? Wait, did he say weeks? I blinked my eyes and made myself focus on what mattered.
“Where is Clark?”
My brother looked anxious and surprised.
“Damn it, Ben! Answer me! What’s wrong with him? Where is he? Was he in the accident? I want to see him. I need to see him. Where is Clark?”
The panic was almost blinding. I couldn’t breathe. Then everything started going black.
There’s no way Clark would leave me alone in a hospital unless he was… No.
I wouldn’t even let myself finish that thought. The beeping was closer together, incessant, almost like one long sound with no separation.
“What’s going on in here? Oh! He’s awake. I’ll page the doctor.”
A portly woman in pink scrubs pushed her way past my brother, reached above my head, and turned a dial on a machine next to me, successfully managing to stop that god-awful beeping noise. Halle-fricken-lujah.
“Mr. Forman? Can you hear me?”
I closed my eyes, forced myself to breath more slowly, then focused on the nurse.
“Of course I can hear you. Please, can you tell me where my partner is? Clark Lehman. Is he a patient here? Is he okay? I need to see him. Please.”
She looked confused, opened her mouth to answer, and then….
“Mr. Forman. It’s wonderful to see you awake. I’m Dr. Garcia.”
A dark-haired man in charcoal dress slacks, a blue button-down shirt, and a white lab coat took a penlight from his pocket and shined it in my eyes.
“Can you follow this light, Mr. Forman?”
The light moved from side to side. I humored him for about five seconds, before I went back to my question.
“Garcia. Dr. Garcia.”
“Right. Sorry about that. Listen, Dr. Garcia, I’ll be happy to follow your light or whatever, but first I need someone to tell me where my partner is. I’m really starting to freak out here, man. His name is Clark Lehman. He should be here. I know he’d be here if he could. I need to know if something happened to Clark.”
I felt the tears building up behind my eyes. He couldn’t be. Not possible. I’d know it if he was.
I swallowed and forced myself to continue.
“Is he… is Clark dead?”
Even saying the words hurt. An all-consuming, can’t-feel-anything-else, see-no-reason-to-go-on-living kind of hurt. I closed my eyes to ease the pain and fell back into the darkness.
BENJAMIN FORMAN was over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and bulging muscles. He had thick, chestnut hair that always seemed to lie on his head in a perfect style with every hair in place, big, wide-set, brown eyes that twinkled when he laughed, full red lips, a straight nose, strong jaw, and a perfect symmetry to his handsome face that any model would have envied. He was on the starting lineups of our high school basketball, baseball, and football teams. He was in student council, honors classes, and he volunteered two afternoons a week to tutor the English as a Second Language students. He was voted homecoming king, prom king, best-looking, and most likely to succeed our senior year. And, in addition to all of those other things, he was my best friend.
There I was, the new kid in town, spending lots of time with Mister You’re-too-perfect-to-be-real. This should be the part of the story where I tell you that I had a crush on Ben. And, in a real fantasy tale, I’d say that, after months or even years of angst and trauma, he admitted that he was madly, deeply in love with me. But that wasn’t the case. Ben was into girls and I had never had any feelings other than platonic friendship for the guy. He simply wasn’t my type. His brother, on the other hand, captivated me from the moment I saw him. Noah Forman was my everything from day one.
Trying to describe Noah is like trying to describe the wind during a rainstorm. You can smell it and feel it all around you, even if you can’t see it. Sometimes the wind is so palpable that you can literally taste it, without so much as opening your mouth. And, if it’s a big storm, the wind can feel wild and chaotic, like it’s coming at you from all directions. That’s Noah. Not that you can’t see him, of course. The man isn’t invisible. It’s just that his essence is so powerful you don’t need your eyes to see him. At least I never had—my reaction to him had always been visceral and all-encompassing.
I know that describing someone as wild, chaotic, and coming at you from all directions might sound like a person who bounces from thing to thing, someone without direction or commitment. But that’s not Noah, not one bit. He somehow manages to merge wild and free with dedicated and sure. And he has always been committed to me, from the very first time I met him, when I was seventeen and Noah was thirteen.
MY MOTHER and I had moved to Emile City that year to live close to my aunt and uncle, so they could take care of me if my mom died before I turned eighteen. Oh yeah, did I mention I was starting to lose my best friend that year? I haven’t switched topics; my mom was my best friend. And I was hers.
I had never known my father, which wasn’t a Greek tragedy or anything. My mom and I were super-tight. It had always been just the two of us. I didn’t think about my father much, but when I did ask about him, my mom was always very complimentary. She said that he was a nice man, serious, smart, and handsome, with blue eyes like mine. They hadn’t known each other long before she got pregnant. And by the time she’d realized I was on the way, they’d already moved on from each other. It was amicable, just like all the endings to my mother’s relationships. Nobody could ever stay angry at my mother.
She’d thought about telling him he was going to be a father, but he’d already left town by then, off to greener pastures, and he’d always said he wasn’t interested in having kids or getting married. So she figured there was no reason to upset his life. She was 40 years old, had a good job as an art curator, and she’d always wanted a baby. So she’d decided to keep me. In her mind, I was her responsibility, not his.
She’d never stopped me from looking him up, never made me feel like I’d be betraying her or anything. I just hadn’t been interested. I thought maybe someday I’d do it so I could see what he looked like, let him know that he had a kid out there in the world. But that day hadn’t come when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. By the time the doctors discovered it, there wasn’t much anyone could do for her other than hold her hand through aggressive chemotherapy and hope that she’d be one of the few people who survived the disease.
My mom was tiny, barely five feet tall and maybe eighty-five pounds. Having inherited my father’s height, along with his eyes, I was already taller and broader than her at the age of sixteen. The day she told me about her diagnosis, we sat together on the purple faux-suede couch of our little beach house and I held her in my arms while we cried. When we ran out of tears and tissues, she said that we’d have to move. She wanted to be somewhere I could stay if the worst happened and she didn’t make it.
That was my mom, always a straight shooter. She didn’t sugarcoat anything or treat me like a kid. We both knew her chances of survival were slim and she wasn’t going to insult my intelligence by pretending otherwise. I loved and appreciated that about her, even though a part of me wanted to bury my head in the sand and pretend that she wasn’t sick, wasn’t dying, and wasn’t going to leave me all alone in the world.
So that day on the couch, my mom gave me the option of finding my father or going with her to live close to her sister in Emile City. Because seeing my father held no real interest for me, I chose the latter, not knowing that I would truly find my home there. And I’m not talking about my aunt and uncle’s house. I’m talking about Noah.
I STARTED school halfway through the year, but caught up fast. Schoolwork wasn’t particularly difficult for me, and I did well socially. I joined the baseball team as soon as the season started, knowing that it’d be a good way to make friends. I wasn’t a great athlete, but I wasn’t terrible either. Basically, I did well enough to get on the team and not embarrass myself.
Ben Forman was the best player on the team. He probably would have been captain, except the coaches saved that privilege for a senior. So Ben and I played baseball together, and because we were both juniors, we had a few classes together. Then one day at lunch, Ben called me over to sit with him and some other guys, which became my lunchtime routine. And that’s how he became the next breadcrumb on the trail that led me home, led me to Noah.
It all started like an average Friday. I had no idea that my life was about to change. Hell, change is an understatement—my life was going to look up; it was going to explode; it was going to start.
Ben had invited a few of us from the team to sleep over at his house after the game that night. I’d heard from the other guys that Ben had stopped having people over to his house a couple of years prior, so they were pretty excited about the invite. I’d almost turned him down because I’d been worried about leaving my mom, but she’d insisted.
“A night away from here will do you some good, honey. Don’t worry about missing any excitement, I’ll count the number of times I throw up during the night and fill you in when you get back tomorrow.”
The fact that she could even make jokes, while her body was falling apart right before our eyes was a testament to my mother’s strength and good nature.
“Are you sure? You know I don’t mind being here if you need me.”
We were living in a small, two-bedroom apartment that was walking distance from my aunt and uncle’s place. I had my own room, but I’d been sleeping with my mom since we’d gotten there. That way, I could get her whatever she needed during the night, and help her walk to the bathroom when she got nauseous, which was almost constantly.
She pushed herself up with her shaky hands, lifting up from her bed, and patted my cheek.
“Of course I need you, sweet boy. You’re my whole world. But I have all of my medicine here, the home health nurse will be by at five o’clock, and I’ll probably be sleeping most of the time anyway. I’ll be fine.”
I gave her a gentle hug. She was all skin and bones, so I was constantly worried I’d break her if I squeezed too tight.
“I’m sorry that I can’t come see your games, honey. You know I wish I could.”
I kissed her forehead and held back the tears. Her skin felt so cold and clammy.
“It’s no big deal. I’m sure I’ll just be warming the bench the whole game.”
Okay, that wasn’t true. I wasn’t a great player, but I was good enough for starting rotation. And it’s not like I was in the habit of lying to my mom, but I didn’t want her to feel bad about missing my games. I knew she’d be there if she could.