“D, WE’RE going to be late!” Alexander Walsh yelled to his fiancé, who was standing in their walk-in closet fumbling with his tie in front of the full-length mirror. Alexander nervously looked down at the gold Rolex wrapped around his wrist. “We have exactly forty-seven minutes to pick up my parents and get to the church, or we’re going to be late for our own wedding rehearsal.”
“Zander, please stop rushing me,” Darren Jordan anxiously pleaded as he stepped into the doorway. He had one arm in the jacket of his black Armani suit and the other reaching back for the opposite sleeve. He slipped his jacket up onto his shoulders and attempted to again adjust his gold silk tie. “I used to tie a perfect knot every morning, but today I can’t get this damn thing right; please help me.”
Zander stood with his hands folded across his chest and stared at the man he was lucky enough to be marrying at six o’clock the next evening. No matter how many times Zander had told him, Darren had no idea just how good-looking he actually was, or the effect he had on Zander’s fluttering heart, not to mention other parts of his anatomy.
“Wow!” Zander raked an appreciative gaze up and down his future husband. “You look like you just stepped right off of the cover of our old magazine.”
Darren and Zander had started Gentlemen’s Style magazine right out of college, and three months ago to the day, they’d sold the magazine to an independent New York publishing house for an ungodly amount of money. When the sale was finally complete, they’d agreed to wait until after the wedding to decide what they wanted to do next, so they were pretty much men of leisure.
“Zander, please stop teasing me. I’m nervous enough as it is. Just get over here and help me with this damn tie,” Darren begged with a slight grin on his handsome face.
Zander stepped up and barely had time to reach for the knot of Darren’s tie when Darren intercepted both of his hands and gently brought them to his chest. Darren stepped up on his tiptoes and covered Zander’s lips with his own. Not a hungry, desperate kiss like they sometimes shared when they were in the heat of passion, but a slow, warm, tender kiss, saying everything that needed to be said.
Zander’s body started to tingle and blood quickly rushed to his groin. His smile was sly as he looked into Darren’s eyes. “Keep that up and we will be late,” he said with a wink. “Very late.”
Darren pulled away from the kiss and smiled. “Very funny! Now step back. It’s my turn to get a look at you.”
“Okay,” Zander said as he ruffled the top of Darren’s hair like he did ten times a day.
“Hey, watch the hair,” Darren protested. “I’m going to a rehearsal dinner, remember.”
Zander smiled and posed for a second then even threw in a little spin to give him the full effect. It was Darren’s turn to whistle this time. Zander was wearing black wool slacks, a black turtleneck, and a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, perfectly tailored for his tall, slender, but muscular body. “You look incredible,” Darren whispered. “I can’t believe how lucky I am to be walking down the aisle with you on my arm tomorrow night.”
Zander placed a quick kiss on Darren’s full lips. “Ditto,” he exclaimed. “Now, we better get going or we won’t know what to do tomorrow night, and that would make my mother very unhappy.”
“And we certainly don’t want to disappoint Patty,” Darren said. “She’s been looking forward to your wedding since the day you were born.”
“I’m not sure this is the wedding she had in mind,” he said, chuckling, “but you know they’ve done pretty well with all of this, especially my dad.”
“They love you, Zander, and all they really want is for you to be happy.”
“I know,” he agreed. “And I love them too.”
Darren stared into his eyes and then dropped his head. Zander placed his finger under Darren’s chin and lifted his head until they were again eye to eye. “I’m sorry your parents can’t be there tomorrow,” he whispered.
“Can’t and won’t are two different things,” Darren corrected as a tear slid down his cheek. “It was their choice and there’s really nothing I can do about it.” He suddenly straightened up and smiled. “But… I’m not going to let them spoil this for us. Tomorrow is going to be the happiest day of my life, with or without them there.”
Zander nodded and kissed away his tears.
“Now, Mr. Walsh,” Darren said. “Get me to the church on time.”
ZANDER drove their Range Rover up to the gate of his parents’ estate and punched in the four-digit security code. The massive black wrought iron gate started to slowly open, and Zander began the half-mile drive up the road leading to the main house.
“You know, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this,” Darren said.
“What, the gate opening and closing?” Zander chuckled.
“No, silly.” Darren smiled. “Living this lifestyle and everything that goes along with being a senator’s son-in-law.”
“I know what you mean,” Zander admitted. “I felt the same way when my parents brought me here for the first time. Even after we moved in, every time I drove down this road I still felt like I was driving up someone else’s driveway.”
Darren smiled as he watched the tall trees and well-manicured lawns slowly pass by.
“But I’ll bet being the son of Senator John W. Walsh and Mrs. Patricia Simcox Walsh, Esquire has had its privileges.”
“Oh yeah,” Zander replied. “But I often wonder what it would have been like growing up in a nonpolitical family. You know, a little ranch house in Michigan with a dad who was a blue-collar worker and a stay-at-home mom who cooked dinner for us every night.”
“Well, as you already know,” Darren said, “it’s not that far from where I came from, and look where it got me—disowned and cast aside for being in love with an incredible man.”
Zander reached over and again ruffled the hair on Darren’s head. “We’re both products of our raising, but I think we turned out pretty well, don’t you?”
“You make an excellent point, my soon-to-be husband,” Darren agreed as he placed his hand on top of Zander’s.
The road finally ended at a large circular driveway surrounding a huge stone fountain. Zander pulled up behind a sparkling silver Jaguar XJ parked in front of an impressive stucco mansion. Before he could put the SUV in park, the huge double doors opened and his mother elegantly stepped out onto the landing in a beaded emerald-green full-length halter-topped gown that screamed Vera Wang, who just happened to be one of her closest friends. Right on her heels, his father stepped out wearing an expertly tailored navy-blue suit with a handsome blue-and-silver necktie. He slipped his hand into hers, and they both waved.
John Walsh stepped up to the car, and Darren hit the button and rolled down his window. “It’s about time you lovebirds got here,” his dad joked. “What do you say we take the Jag? That way if you boys want a drink or two, you won’t have to worry about driving.”
Darren looked at Zander, and they both nodded their heads. “Okay by us.”
“Good, then let’s get a move on. I have a son getting married tomorrow.”
Zander looked at his father and smiled, and John smiled back. He dropped his car keys in the console as he and Darren stepped out of the car and headed for the landing. His mom disappeared into the house, and thirty seconds later she reappeared and stood in the open doorway. “How do I look?” she asked, throwing her faux white fox stole over her shoulder and allowing the fur to trail behind her. Zander and Darren stood in front of her and whistled. “You look really hot,” Darren teased.
She smiled broadly as she effortlessly stepped down onto the landing. “I knew there was a reason I loved you, sweetheart,” she teased back.
“Oh, what’s that?” he said.
“Your honesty,” she replied with a million-dollar smile.
She switched her rhinestone-studded clutch from one hand to the other and offered her free hand to her son.
“Escort your youthful fiftysomething mother to her waiting chariot,” she instructed.
“Fiftysomething!” Zander asked incredulously. “Oh my God, D, the wedding’s off. If she’s fiftysomething, then I’m only fifteen years old.”
His mom swatted him on the chest with her handbag. “Oh very funny. I had no idea you’d become a comedian. And after all the money we spent on your Ivy League education.”
“We need to get a move on,” his father yelled from the car.
“We’re coming, dear,” his mom replied.
“Oh, and Zander, thank you for getting a haircut.”
“Do you like it?” he asked as he preened a little, turning his head from side to side.
“You look very handsome. You boys are going to make the most handsome grooms ever.”
Zander took her hand, opened the car door, and helped her inside. He closed the door behind her, ran around to the other side of the car, and hopped into the backseat. He pushed over as close to Darren as he could without getting into his lap.
“St. James Cathedral, driver,” Zander said in a haughty tone. “And make it snappy.”
“Yes, sir,” his dad replied, and they all chuckled.
OF COURSE the marriage wouldn’t be legal, but John and Patty had called in some serious favors and promised hefty offerings in the Sunday collections plate from now until the year 2099 to get the Catholic Church to allow the wedding of their homosexual son to take place in St. James Cathedral. And even after all of the donations and promises, the church still wouldn’t allow a priest to marry them, so they opted for a nondenominational minister to perform the ceremony.
The church rehearsal went off without a hitch, and everyone left knowing their roles for the next evening. The after-rehearsal dinner was at the Broadmoor Country Club and was a mix of Darren and Zander’s friends and a virtual who’s who in the political and legal world. Zander and Darren smiled diligently and shook hands and kissed cheeks until they were both exhausted. Just after the band played the last song and the lights came up ever so slightly, the guests started making their way to the front door.
John, Patty, Zander, and Darren stood in the foyer again, smiling and thanking everyone for coming. There was a break in the procession, and Patty turned to Zander and Darren with a very proud look on her face.
“You boys did a great job tonight, and I’m so proud of you both.”
“Thanks,” Darren whispered and bowed his head.
She quickly squeezed both of their hands and asked, “How’s my lipstick?”
Zander took a quick look. “You could probably use a touch-up.”
Zander and Darren silently watched as Patty’s slender hands with beautifully manicured fingernails reached into her purse and pulled out her lipstick. She applied first to the bottom lip then to the top and blotted both lips together. When she was finished, she turned to Darren. “Good?” she asked.
“You look beautiful,” he said. “I only wish….” His voice trailed off.
Patty threw her arms around Darren’s neck and said, “I know, sweetie. I’m sure they’re struggling with this right now and feeling just about as bad as you do, but I have no doubt they love you very much. And so do John and I. You’re like a second son to us, and we love you even more for making Zander so happy.” A small tear slid down Patty’s face, and she again reached into her purse and retrieved a tissue. She gently blotted the tear away and said, “Now look what you’ve done to my makeup.”
“You still look beautiful,” Darren said with a genuine smile. “And thank you, Patty. You have no idea how much that means to me.”
She squeezed him one last time. “Now let’s get these guests out of here so we can go home and I can get out of this corset.”
Darren looked at Patty with a questioning look.
She smiled and put her hands on her hips. “What? You think a woman my age looks this good naturally?”
Darren chuckled. “I love you.”
More guests started making their way to the door, so they smoothed the fronts of their outfits and plastered on another smile.
Eventually, with Patty, Zander, and Darren waving from the porte-cochère, John walked the last guests to their car, and they all watched the red taillights as they disappeared out of the parking lot. John returned and the four of them sat on the steps and took a deep breath while they waited for the valet to bring the Jag around.
“I think that was a huge success,” Darren exclaimed.
Zander wrapped an arm around Darren and pulled him close. “And I think you’re right, my handsome man.” He placed a kiss on his cheek.
The valet arrived as John helped Patty to her feet. She was now a good six inches shorter since she’d taken off her spiked Manolo Blahnik shoes. She flung her fur over one shoulder and her shoes over the other, and whined to her husband, “Home, my good man.”
“Can I drive, Dad?” Zander asked.
He noticed the look of confusion on his father’s face and smiled at him. “Remember when I first got my driver’s license and I persuaded you to let me play chauffeur and drive you around in the stretch limousine?”
A small smile crept onto John’s lips. “Sure, I remember. Security gave me hell for that one.”
“What?” Patty smacked John on the arm with her purse. “You let my sixteen-year-old only child drive a state-appointed limousine? You think security gave you hell. You’re just lucky I didn’t know anything about it. I would have shown you hell.”
John shrugged trying for innocent, but it didn’t work, and they all started laughing. His dad then turned serious. “How much have you had to drink?”
“Yeah,” his mom inquired, sending him that knowing look that always had him confessing his misdeeds when he was younger.
“I only had one glass of wine with dinner, and that was hours ago. Besides, it would be fun if Darren and I chauffeured you and Mom home this one last time.”
Patty and John looked at each other and shook their heads. “Okay, if you insist.”
“I insist,” Zander teased.
Zander tipped the valet and got behind the wheel while Darren opened the car door for Patty and John to slide in. During the drive home, they recapped the night by talking about the food and the guests, and how good it was to see so and so, and didn’t so and so look great, and wasn’t so and so’s speech just the funniest thing you’d ever heard.
Zander pulled up to the large gate for the second time in one night, and to his surprise it was already open. “Dad, why is the gate open?” he asked.
“Oh hell,” he mused. “The damn thing must be broken again. The repairman was just here a couple of days ago.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll have my secretary call him Monday morning,” Patty replied unworriedly. “It’s the weekend, so I don’t think any contracts will be put out on our lives until at least then.”
“Comforting thought,” his dad deadpanned.
They all chuckled as the Jag slowly proceeded up the road. Zander entered the circular drive, passed by his SUV, and stopped in front of the entrance of the house. Darren jumped out and again opened the car door for Patty and John, and they stepped out.
“You guys go into the house, and I’ll bring the car around and put it in the garage. See you inside in a few.” Darren walked around the car and stuck his head in the window and kissed Zander deeply on the lips. “I love you!”
“I love you more.”
“I’ll put some coffee on,” his mom called back as they walked toward the front door.
“And I’ll get the brandy,” his dad added.
Darren ran around the car and joined Patty and John as they walked into the house.
Zander watched his family disappear into the house and thought about how lucky he was. He smiled as he put the car in drive and drove around to the garage. He pressed the button on the console above the rearview mirror and faintly heard the ca-chunk ca-chunk of the heavy motorized garage door as it lifted, exposing a pristine wood-paneled garage. He carefully pulled in next to his mother’s Mercedes and put the car in park. He pressed the button again, and the doors slowly started to close behind him. He opened the car door and put one foot out and was startled by the unnerving sound of a very loud pop. What the hell? He could only liken the noise to the sound of a car backfiring or a muffled gunshot, and panic started to creep along his nerves. The short hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up as he threw his other foot out of the car, and he heard a second pop. This time the blood drained out of his face and his heart sank. He bolted for the interior door leading to the butler’s pantry, but halfway there, he heard a third pop. He put his hand on the door, turned the knob, and franticly pushed the door open. He half expected to see Darren and his parents yell “surprise” with champagne bottles or fireworks or something, but he knew in his heart what he’d just heard.
Gunshots, oh my God, please don’t let this be happening. He saw no one as he slowly walked through the butler’s pantry and down the hall to the kitchen. He rounded the corner and heard one last pop, much louder this time. His feet suddenly wouldn’t move. He felt a red-hot searing sensation in his head, and everything went black as he felt himself falling to the floor.
PAIN! Enormous pain! Zander tried to open his eyes and move his head, but his body didn’t seem to be his. So much pain! He momentarily likened the pain to being hit over the head with a baseball bat again and again. Intense pain! The worst pain he’d ever experienced. Everything was so foggy. Three loud bangs, then a fourth, and everything went black again.
Zander’s arms were tightly wrapped around Darren as they danced to their favorite song, “At Last” by Etta James. He looked across the dance floor and saw his parents dancing as well. He caught his mother’s eye, and she winked and smiled at him. He kissed Darren, ruffled his hair, and spun him in a corny Arthur Murray dance move. He stopped when he heard the frightening bellowing screams of their guests.
He looked up and suddenly there were snakes everywhere. They were falling from the ceiling and quickly covering the dance floor. They were slithering in from under the doors and through the air-conditioning vents. Snakes of all shapes and sizes were attacking their guests. Big black snakes with bright white mouths gaping open and striking any- and everything within reach. Brown snakes with diamonds on their backs and rattles on their tails were crawling over the banquet tables and over the bars. Bartenders were beating them with liquor bottles. Pandemonium broke out and people were screaming and running in every direction to escape the horrific scene.
Darren suddenly howled and went limp in his arms. Darren, I have to save Darren! He scooped Darren up into his arms, and stepping on and over hundreds of snakes, ran for the front door. With every step multiple snakes were striking him. Bites on his ankles and shins were slowing him down to barely a crawl, and he was getting weaker and weaker. He saw the doors, but they were too far to reach. He knew he would never make it, and still cradling Darren close to his chest, he fell to his knees. He saw his mother and father on the floor just six feet from him, snakes now covering their entire bodies, and they weren’t moving. Panic set in as he realized he couldn’t save anyone. Everything went to black.
Zander tried to slowly open his eyes, and much to his surprise, he succeeded. But everything was blurry, and the brightness of the room hurt like hell. He did his best to try and focus, but suddenly he was slammed with a wave of pain.
Oh God, my head! The pain in his head was intense, like someone was ripping the flesh away and squeezing his bare exposed skull in a vice, turning the handle tighter and tighter. Instinctively he reached up to touch his temples, but someone gently pushed his hand back to his side. Darkness overtook him again.
ZANDER opened his eyes and looked around the room, attempting to focus on something, anything. He saw blurry outlines of people standing over his bed. Why are there strangers in my bedroom? He blinked several times to focus, but his vision was still blurred. He tried to mentally count the strangers—one, two, three. There are three strangers in my bedroom, and they are all wearing the same light blue clothing. He blinked again. No, four strangers, but one is wearing black. He did his best to focus. No, not clothing. They’re wearing scrubs, light blue hospital scrubs. Am I in a hospital?
He could hear voices at a distance calling his name.
“Alexander, can you hear me? Mr. Walsh, this is Dr. Miller. Can you hear me?”
Before he could answer, someone flashed a bright light into his right eye. They moved the light away and flashed it again, then his left.
God, that hurts. Did he say doctor? I’m in a hospital.
Again the voices. “Alexander, this is Dr. Miller, can you hear me?” They were closer and louder now, and he wanted to say his name was Zander, but his mouth wouldn’t form the words. His lips and mouth were very dry. Thirsty, I’m so thirsty. If I could just have some water, maybe I would be able to speak. He tried to form the words, but again, nothing came out. But like she’d read his mind, a portly lady, at least he thought she was a lady, in blue scrubs lifted a straw to his lips. He started to draw water through the straw, but before he could get an entire mouthful, she pulled the straw away. “Not too much, honey,” she whispered. “Just a sip, a little at a time.”
The small amount of water he was able to get through the straw tasted like heaven.
“More,” he whispered, and she once again lifted the straw to his mouth.
“Remember, honey, just a sip. Too much too fast will make you sick.”
He thought he nodded, but he wasn’t sure. He didn’t seem to be in control of any part of his body. Giving up on communication for the moment, he ran his tongue over his lips, and they felt dry and crusty, like he’d been in the desert for days without his lip balm. He took another sip of water and turned his lips inward to soak up the moisture much like he’d seen his mother do when she blotted her lipstick.
Suddenly he saw a vision, or is it a flashback? He was standing with his mother, father, and Darren. They were all dressed up, and his mother was putting on her lipstick. But where? he thought. Then he heard a loud pop that he didn’t understand. Then just as quickly, the flashback stopped.
He again looked around the small room and tried to speak.
This time he was finally able to form a few words. “Where am I?” he asked. His voice was weak and hoarse and didn’t sound like his own.
“You’re in an intensive care unit at Northwest Hospital, Alexander,” Dr. Miller said quietly.
“Zan-der,” he whispered.
Dr. Miller gave him a confused look.
“My name,” he said. “Everyone calls me Zan-der.”
Understanding now, Dr. Miller smiled. “Ooooh.” He paused. “Zander, got it,” he said. “How do you feel, Zander?”
“Like I’ve been hit by an eighteen wheeler,” he managed to squeak out.
Dr. Miller smiled slightly.
“Why am I in the hospital?” Zander asked.
Dr. Miller turned with questioning eyes to the gentleman standing near Zander’s bed.
The other man stepped up and said, “Hi, Zander. I’m Dr. Cagney. I’m your neurosurgeon.”
It was Zander’s turn to look confused. “Why do I need a neurosurgeon?”
“You were shot, Mr. Wal… I mean Zander,” Dr. Cagney said.
“Shot!” He shook his head to make sure he heard right. Then more pain!
He stopped moving his head and closed his eyes tightly to get through the stabs of intense pain. When the pain had somewhat subsided, he looked at Dr. Cagney.
“A little over two weeks ago,” Dr. Cagney said. “You’ve been in a medically induced coma for the last sixteen days.”
“Sixteen days!” Zander said. And… again the pain.
“You survived nine hours of surgery, and in order to help keep your brain from swelling and give it time to heal,” Dr. Cagney continued, “we kept you very heavily sedated.”
The doctor stepped to the foot of Zander’s bed. He lifted the sheet and cotton blanket, and ran a very sharp razor-like blade across the bottom of Zander’s foot. “Ouch,” Zander said as he attempted to pull his foot away from the doctor’s grip. The doctor did the same to the other foot, and Zander again felt a stab of pain and pulled his other foot away.
“Very good,” Dr. Cagney said. “That’s a very good sign. You have some feeling and movement in your feet, which means there probably won’t be any permanent paralysis.”
Dr. Cagney covered Zander’s feet again, and the portly woman tucked the sheet and blanket back under the mattress.
“I’m very tired,” Zander mumbled. “Do you mind if I close my eyes?” And without waiting for a response, Zander’s eyelids slowly closed.
His eyes opened again, and he saw the man in black step up to the bed before sleep overtook him, and his eyes closed again.
“MR. WALSH, I’m Special Agent Jake Elliot with the FBI. Do you remember anything about the night you were shot?” He knew it was too late because Zander was out again, but he’d given it his best shot.
“Dr. Miller,” he asked. “When will I get a chance to talk to him again?”
“It’s hard to say,” the doctor tried to explain. “He’s been through a major ordeal, and his brain needs time to heal. He will be a little more alert each time he wakes up, but it could take a week or more for him to be fully conscious.”
Agent Elliot felt defeated, but he had to know what Zander had seen or if he remembered anything about the night he was shot. Agent Elliot had been given his orders by Division Chief James Ralston to camp out bedside until he got the answers he needed, and until then, to not allow anyone but Zander’s doctors to talk to him.
AGENT ELLIOT sat in a very uncomfortable chair in the corner of the small intensive care unit. It had been three long days since Zander had last been conscious, and he was wondering how long this was going to go on. He had his orders, and of course he would follow them, but every muscle in his body felt knotted like a wet rope, and his body ached from the lack of exercise and the chair, that damn chair. He’d left the hospital only twice, each time for less than an hour, to shower and change his clothes, with a promise from the nurse to call him immediately if Zander woke up. He hadn’t had much sleep, but didn’t normally require much, and besides, he was able to nap quite a bit in that chair.
From his perch he studied Zander Walsh lying in his hospital bed. Although the man’s head was wrapped in bandages, he could see unruly strands of blond hair protruding from the white gauze. When Zander had regained consciousness, he remembered being accosted by the intense blue of his eyes. Even in this condition, he noted how strikingly handsome Zander was, and thought how nice it would be to have someone like Zander in his life.
He’d known he was gay since he was a young boy. He’d dated some in his early twenties, but his job didn’t leave much time for dating or anything else. And besides, Special Agents in the FBI, well, they weren’t the most open-minded people in the world, so when he was transferred to the Seattle Bureau five months ago, he had decided to keep his sexual preferences to himself and stay under the radar. It had been a long time since he’d been with anyone, at least since he’d been in Seattle, and if he was being honest with himself, he had to admit that he was physically attracted to Zander Walsh. Of course he knew Zander was in no condition emotionally or physically to even think about dating anyone, especially an FBI agent assigned to find his dead partner’s killer. His thoughts were interrupted when Zander’s arms and legs suddenly started moving frantically and he began to mumble incoherent words. He appeared to be having some sort of nightmare, so Jake moved to the bed to do what he could to try and comfort him. He pressed the nurses’ call button and laid a hand on Zander’s leg. Tears were now escaping from Zander’s closed eyes and running down his cheeks.
ZANDER was sixteen and driving his father around in a stretch limousine. His father was giving him instructions from the back of the limo. “Slow down just a little, now put your blinker on, okay, slowly merge into the other lane. Perfect, you’re doing great, son. You’re going to make a fine driver.” He smiled broadly at the confidence his father showed in him, but something was wrong. Why were all the cars on the wrong side of the highway? Suddenly he realized he’d merged onto the highway going in the wrong direction. Before he could pull over or turn around, he saw the chrome grill of a large delivery truck, and again, everything went black.
Zander suddenly cried out and opened his eyes. His heart was beating beyond control, and his breathing was labored. He did the best he could to calm himself down as he stared at the man in black through tear-filled eyes. He glanced around the room. Hospital. I’m in a hospital, but why? Then he remembered. I’ve been shot.
“Are you okay, Mr. Walsh?” the man in black asked. “The doctor will be here shortly.”
“Who are you?” Zander asked, this time in a much clearer voice.
“I’m Special Agent in Charge Jake Elliot with the FBI.”
“Do you remember you were shot?” Agent Elliot asked.
Zander nodded again.
“Do you remember anything at all about the night you were shot?”
Zander thought about the question. Was I really shot? Why don’t I remember anything?
Dr. Cagney entered the room along with the portly nurse Zander remembered from the last time he was awake. He looked at Zander’s chart and slipped the metal clipboard back into the slot at the foot of the bed while the nurse checked the liquids of the IV and fiddled with the other machines still attached to him.
“How long has he been awake?” the doctor asked.
“Not long,” Agent Elliot responded. “He had some sort of nightmare.”
“Hey, guys,” Zander said. “Please don’t talk about me like I’m comatose.”
“Oh yes,” Dr. Cagney said. “Very sorry. How do you feel?”
“Like shit,” Zander said. “I have a really bad headache, and I hurt all over, but I guess I’ll live. I will live, right?”
“All indications say yes. Of course you’ll have some rehabilitation to deal with, but yeah, I think you’ll make a full recovery.”
“Mr. Walsh, do you feel up to a few questions?” Agent Elliot asked.
Zander looked at Agent Elliot and nodded again. He’s pretty cute.
“So, again, do you remember anything at all about the night you were shot?”
“Mr. Elliot, is it?” Zander asked.
“No, I really don’t, Jake,” he responded, looking back and forth between the FBI agent and Dr. Cagney.
Dr. Cagney said, “Don’t be too concerned. It’s not uncommon to have short-term memory loss after going through such a trauma. It should all come back to you in time.”
“Can you tell me anything about what happened to me?” Zander asked.
Agent Elliot looked at Dr. Cagney and received a nod of approval.
“Mr. Walsh,” Jake offered.
“Please, it’s Zander.”
“Okay, Zander,” Jake conceded. “A little over a month ago, you and your parents along with your boyfriend were coming home from a party. Do you remember the party?”
Party? Boyfriend? “You mean Darren and our after-rehearsal dinner party?” The split second Darren’s name left his lips, his heart started to pound as an uneasy feeling consumed him. “Where’s Darren?” He scanned the room looking for the beloved familiar face. Darren wouldn’t leave him alone in a hospital. “I want to see Darren. Where is he?”
“Do you remember returning home from the party?” Jake asked in a neutral tone.
Why isn’t anyone answering my question? “Dammit, someone tell me where Darren is.” Desperation made his voice tight. “I need to see Darren.”
He searched the faces of Dr. Cagney and Agent Elliot, looking for any positive sign. His eyes then landed on the portly nurse, and his stomach lurched when she turned away with damp eyes. No.
“My parents? Where are my mom and dad?” They would make sure he got to see Darren.
“Zander, do you remember seeing an intruder in….”
Pain shot through his head again as images flashed through his mind. The rehearsal dinner, smiling faces of friends and family. The pain increased, becoming almost unbearable. Good-byes. Sitting next to Darren while he drove his parents home. Bringing the car around to the garage. Loud pops. No, not pops, gunshots!
He met Dr. Cagney’s gaze and pleaded, “Please, I need to see Darren and my parents now.” He mumbled to himself, “I’ll be okay. I survived.” He just needed to feel Darren’s arms around him. Darren would know how to soothe the pain.
“I’m sorry, Zander,” Jake said grimly. “You and your family interrupted a burglary in progress. They were all ki—”
“No! Don’t you say those words.” He glared at Jake. “My father is Senator John Walsh, and I demand to see him now.”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Cagney said sympathetically. “You’re the only survivor.”
Not happening. Not happening. Not happening.
His heart and soul shattered into a million tiny pieces. His world twisted and shifted into gloom and dread with the two little words: I’m sorry. Darren was gone. Mom and Dad were gone. They couldn’t be. “Please,” he whispered around the lump in his throat.
“There was nothing we could do.”
His heart thumped wildly. Tears again blurred his vision as everyone in the room looked back at him with sympathy in their eyes. Not happening. They are not dead!
“Pleeeease!” The tears spilled over and streamed down his face. “No, they can’t be dead.” Searing pain ripped through his chest as if large talons were shredding his skin. “Please get Darren. Mom! Dad!” he yelled, clutching his chest. “Darren!” He sobbed uncontrollably. “Oh my God, nooooooo!”
Strong arms held him as he thrashed and fought to escape. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch his breath as sobs continued to rack him, filling the room with cries more like those of a wounded animal than a man. He couldn’t endure this pain. Instinct demanded escape. Lost in his anguish, he didn’t feel the needle sliding into his flesh. His head spun and his vision dimmed. He stilled, lids growing heavy, forcing his eyes closed. “Darren,” Zander sighed and gave himself over to the peace the blackness offered.
ZANDER opened his eyes and scanned the small glass-enclosed room. He had no idea how long he’d been asleep, but the blinds were all closed with the exception of the one facing the nurses’ station, and the small area was now empty and dim, illuminated only by the lights from the monitors connected to him. He closed his eyes and listened as the heart monitor went blip-bleep blip-bleep in the quiet of the darkened room. He was startled when he felt a band tighten around his bicep, tighter and tighter until he thought his arm would explode. Then as quickly as the assault had started, the band began to slowly deflate, pulsing with every beat of his heart. Calm down, you big baby; it’s just the blood pressure machine.
At that moment, his consciousness chose to remember the unbelievable events leading up to the death of his family. Again the devastation overtook him. He felt immense pain, but not physical pain this time. The loss and emptiness threatened every fiber of his being, and he was finding it hard to breathe. It felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest. He thought at any moment he might suffocate. For a second, he welcomed suffocation as an escape from the horror.
He would live the rest of his life alone. Not just alone in this intensive care unit, but alone. His parents had married and conceived him in their early forties, and his grandparents on both sides had died some years back. He had an uncle on his mother’s side living abroad, but he really didn’t know the man or his family. Desperation threatened to destroy him as the reality of what was left of his life once again set in.
He began to sob uncontrollably. My God, they were all… killed. Whyyy? I can’t live without Darren. Why was I spared? With each sob his breathing became harsher, shallower, until it became impossible to draw in a single breath. His entire body flushed and started to shake as his vision blurred. After long moments where the pain ruled, the weight of the reality threatening to crush him, a deeper instinct to survive took over. His lungs instinctively forced him to inhale one breath after another until he was finally able to fill his lungs with the stale hospital air. The tears began to subside, and a sense of calm began to surround him. His breathing slowly returned to normal, his vision cleared, and his body stilled. With the new sense of calm came emptiness. He felt nothing, just empty and alone, so empty the universe itself or all it encompassed couldn’t fill the hole in his heart.
God, I want this to be over. I have nothing to live for. Oh God, Darren’s gone. Mom and Dad are gone. I don’t want to be here without them. God, please take me. Take me now!
The room slowly began to flicker with light, blinding streams at first, then the streams morphed into long rays of warm, soft, gentle light. Thousands of rays of welcoming illumination filled the room. Zander looked at the door and tried to compose himself, thinking someone must be coming in, but the door remained closed. The light kept getting brighter and brighter, but Zander couldn’t see where it was coming from.
Did I just die? Is this the light everyone talks about? Oh, thank you, God.
Zander held out his hands toward the light, as if to say, “I’m here,” but the radiance started swirling around in the small hospital room, faster and faster, and then a burst of the brightest light Zander had ever seen exploded in front of him.
Suddenly Darren appeared at the foot of his bed. He was still dressed in his beautifully tailored black Armani suit, and the light surrounding him cast an exquisite haloed glow. He looked absolutely gorgeous; like the most beautiful angel Zander had ever seen. His smile was so warm and knowing, Zander couldn’t help but smile through the tears escaping his eyes and running down his cheeks. Darren laid his left hand on Zander’s leg, and Zander saw Darren was wearing the platinum-trimmed gold wedding band they had designed together, the rings they were to exchange at their wedding.
Zander said, “I’m ready,” but Darren only continued to gaze upon him with his beautiful smile. Then Zander saw two other swirls of light and another burst, and his parents stepped up behind Darren and placed their hands on his shoulders. They, too, were dressed as they had been at the party, and like Darren, they were surrounded by the most beautiful light.
He held his hands out again. “Please take me with you,” he pleaded. “I can’t live here without you. Darren, I beg you, please take me with you.”
Darren said, “It’s not your time, love.”
“Please don’t leave me,” was all Zander could say, over and over.
His mother spoke next. “There’s more here for you to do, Alexander,” she said. “When it’s your time, we’ll be here for you.”
Zander continued to sob, but it was becoming more and more difficult for him to breathe. “Pleaseeeee,” he begged, “don’t leave me again.”
He felt his mother’s gentle touch on his arm. “We will always be with you, Zander. We love you more than anything. You are our son now and always.”
“Zander, I am so proud of the man you’ve become,” his father said. “But you have much work to do here. We’ll be watching over you. As your mother said, you will never be alone.”
Zander looked back and forth between his mother and father. “What work, Dad? Mom, tell me what do I have to do?” he begged. “Please just tell me.”
“You will know when it’s time. Just focus on getting well.”
“I don’t want to get well,” Zander screamed. “I want to die. I want to go with you. Don’t leave me here alone!”
Zander looked again at Darren. “Darren, I love you so much. Please don’t make me live without you.”
“I love you too, Zander, and although we never made it to the altar, this belongs to you.” Darren slipped the matching wedding band on the ring finger of Zander’s left hand.
“I would give anything to still be here with you, but it’s not our time. I will wait and when the time comes, we will see each other again. But until that time, you will live and love again and lead a happy and fulfilling life. Just remember, I will always love you.”
Their energy started to fade as his family took a step away from the bed.
“Don’t worry about us,” Darren whispered as he reached out and touched Zander’s leg one last time. “We’re at peace and where we’re meant to be.”
“Darren, noooo, please don’t go, not yet,” he sobbed. “I love you. Don’t leave me. I love you.”
His mother and father began to gently back away from his bed. As they effortlessly faded away to nothing, their warm smiles left a comforting feeling in Zander’s broken heart, somehow reassuring him he was going to be okay. Zander turned to Darren, who was gazing at him with such love and concern there was no need for words. As he, too, backed away from the bed, his eyes said everything that needed saying. In one last flash he was gone, and suddenly the room was again dark, and Zander’s ears were flooded with the sound of the monitor telling him his heart was still beating. He reached out and touched his leg where Darren had just moments ago rested his hand. The blanket was still indented with Darren’s handprint, and Zander allowed his hand to linger in the same spot, somehow holding on to their last connection. He was overcome with a feeling of comfort and well-being. I’m okay. I’m alone and I’ll never stop missing them, but in time, I’m gonna be okay!
He again started to silently sob, but this time, his tears of grief were mixed with tears of relief. When the last tears escaped from his eyes, he wiped them away with the backs of his hands. Had he cried for the loss of his parents and Darren or for himself? He wasn’t sure, but he knew in his heart he was through crying. Exhaustion overtook him and he closed his eyes, knowing this time when he awoke, he was going to be okay.
THE next time Zander opened his eyes, the head of the bed had been raised, and he was in a slightly elevated position. The room was filled with light, not artificial hospital light but real sunlight. Someone had opened the curtains, and sunshine was streaming into the room. Zander cherished the warmth on his face, and although he was tired, weak, and weary, he felt better, even if he wasn’t sure why. He still had a moderate headache, but he could manage the physical pain. It was the emotional pain that scared the hell out of him. It didn’t take but a minute or two to remember his dream… or was it a dream?
Darren, Mom, and Dad! Could they have really been here? He knew it was silly, but the dream had all seemed so real. Logic took over, and he realized he must have been hallucinating; it had to have been the pain medication. I’m sure I imagined them. Disappointed at the realization that he’d been dreaming, but more at peace than he’d been since that dreadful night, he closed his eyes and ran his tongue over his lips.
Thirsty, I’m so thirsty. He opened his eyes and found the nurse call button on the side of his bed. In less than a minute, the portly nurse was opening the door.
“How’s my patient today?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” Zander choked out. “But a little thirsty.”
“Let me see what I can do about that. I’m Emma, by the way.”
“Zander Walsh,” he replied very quietly.
Emma picked up the pitcher from his bedside table and poured a glass of water. She offered him the cup, placing the straw against his lips.
He lifted his hands and placed them around the cup as he took a small sip. The cool liquid soothed his dry mouth.
Emma looked closely at his left hand. “Did you get married on my day off?” she asked.
Zander gave her a confused look. “What?” he questioned.
“I put the IV needle in that hand myself, and believe me, honey, I would have noticed a beautiful ring like that,” Emma stated with a chuckle.
Zander looked at the platinum-trimmed gold wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand. The exact wedding band he and Darren had designed for their wedding, and the same band Darren was wearing in his dream. “Or was it a dream?” he mumbled.
“What, baby?” Emma asked.
“Oh, um, nothing,” Zander replied. How could that be? The rings were locked in the safe at home, awaiting the wedding.
Emma must have noticed the look of surprise on his face, and then watched his expression turn to amazement and joy. Zander smiled broadly as he stared at the band on his finger.
“Sure is pretty,” Emma confessed as she put the cup of water back on the bedside table. “You get some rest now, baby, but if you need anything, just press the call button and I’ll be here quicker than you can say sponge bath.” She giggled and walked toward the door. “Quicker than you can say sponge bath,” she said again, shaking her head. “Where do I come up with these lines?”
No sooner had the door closed behind her when Zander said, “Yes!” I didn’t imagine it! They were really here! He continued staring at the ring, all the while turning the band with his right thumb and forefinger, around and around, basking in the comfort of a simple gold wedding ring. He looked up at the ceiling and winked. Thank you, D!