ONE YEAR AGO

 

ASHTON WILLIAMS parked under one of the apple-shaped streetlights on Main Street and got out of his old gray Taurus. He leaned back down to grab his hated cane and then closed the car door. Standing still, he turned to the right and left, looking up and down the street. It hadn’t changed much at all. The place still had the same small-town feel it always had. Ash remembered bounding up the steps of the library when he was in high school so he could see if they had a copy of the latest movie or a video game he’d wanted. Books, not so much, but games and videos—he’d been all about those.

He took a step around the car, heading away from traffic and onto the sidewalk. The drugstore was just down the block, and damn it all, he wasn’t so crippled that half a block was too far to walk. Maybe he should have waited until he’d had more therapy and the doctors decided if he should have surgery on his knee. Ash had been making progress and everyone said he needed to be patient. Ash stopped, pushing those memories from his mind. That wasn’t why he was here, and those thoughts did nothing but bring him back to the brink of the gaping hole of despair he’d been thrown into for months. He needed to put that behind him, at least during the day. Nights were another matter, but during the day, he was determined to look forward to what he’d had and could have once again.

Ash’s heart beat a little faster as he walked closer to the store where Brighton worked. He was so properly named; at least Ash had always thought so. One look from his stunning blue eyes could push away the heaviest clouds. Even recalling them in his mind’s eye allowed him to get through months of confinement in rooms and holes where he could barely move, stomach empty, throat parched, wishing he could die but knowing Brighton was out there, waiting for him. Ash had stored the sunshine in those eyes in his mind, holding them precious, letting those eyes framed by flowing blond curls carry him through hell and out the other side. The photograph he’d had was long gone. It had fallen apart months ago. Ash had worn it out, but he carried the image with him where no one could get to it.

He’d called the telephone number he had for Brighton three times, each with the same response that the number was no longer in service, and when he checked the internet, it pointed him to the number he already had. That only added to his need to get here and see if he could find Brighton in case something had happened to him.

He moved on, getting closer now. Ash knew Brighton’s schedule at work, at least the one he’d been working before he’d left. Ash hadn’t wanted to leave, but he’d had no choice, and saying goodbye to Brighton had been the hardest, most heartbreaking thing he’d ever had to do. It was supposed to be his last assignment, two weeks and then he’d be able to use up his remaining leave and he’d be done, free, out… and his life would be his own once again. And now it was, at least what was left of it. He’d been discharged, sure enough, but he was left a shell of a man, and not just his injured body. His insides were hollow, and Ash wasn’t even sure who he was any longer. All he knew was that he needed to get back to Brighton, so as soon as he’d been released and his debriefings were completed, he’d taken off, against the doctor’s wishes. Everything inside him pulled him to Brighton.

Now he was back in his hometown, where he and Brighton had first met in middle school, though it was years later that they’d reconnected and something had clicked between them. Ash still couldn’t believe it had been at a church social his aunt—Petunia to everyone else, but Aunt Petey to him—and only remaining family member had asked him to attend. He’d expected an evening of old ladies and helping Aunt Petey with whatever she needed.

Ash raised his eyes to the sky, letting the heat from the sun warm his face and dry the tears that threatened. He’d already been to see her in the nursing home and was determined to get her the hell out of there.

“One thing at a time,” he whispered to himself. That was another symptom of his incarceration at the hands of the enemy: he talked to himself all the time. It was a way to feel less lonely and had become a habit. He needed to let go of it because it tended to freak other people out. He lifted his gaze as he continued his slow steps toward his goal.

The door to the drugstore opened and a man stepped out. Ash knew him instantly—the height, or lack of it, slight build, floppy curls. Brighton needed a haircut, but he was still the man Ash had thought of and dreamed about every single time he’d closed his eyes for the last nine months. His body ached all over, and Ash felt Brighton’s pull as strongly as the gravity of the sun.

Ash took a few steps, for a few seconds forgetting the cane and his aching leg. They didn’t matter. All that did was how close he was and removing the last bit of distance that had spanned months and thousands of miles. Brighton turned away without looking, heading farther from him. He wasn’t walking fast, but Ash was even slower, regardless of how much he pushed. Somehow Ash managed to pick up his pace, needing to get closer. The man he carried in his heart so deep, who had gotten him through hell and allowed him to come back, was just ahead, so close he could see him.

Ash opened his mouth to call out as Brighton stopped at the door to the coffee shop, holding it open as someone emerged. Another man, someone Ash didn’t recognize, fell into step with Brighton, heading to the corner. They waited for the light, and Ash moved forward while they stopped. He was so damn close.

“Brighton,” Ash called, but the sound went nowhere. His throat was so dry, the cry came out as a whisper. He wet his mouth and swallowed multiple times, unable to take his gaze away. Ash’s heart raced, his blood pounding a staccato beat in his ears. This was it. He was close, and all he could think about was how he was going to get to taste Brighton’s sweet lips and feel his smooth, hot skin under his hands, and have someone to hold and see him through the nights when the inevitable nightmares came.

Ash stopped walking as Brighton leaned into the other man’s touch. It was then that Ash saw the other man’s hand rested on the small of Brighton’s back, protectively, lovingly, the way Ash had always done. The light changed, and they crossed the street together. Ash told himself that they could just be friends and got his feet moving once again. Brighton was within sight and so close.

But then Ash stopped dead in his tracks, unable to move, as the man walking with Brighton leaned closer, his face disappearing behind Brighton’s head. Ash knew he’d kissed him. He couldn’t move. Suddenly his feet were so heavy, he couldn’t lift them. He leaned entirely on his cane, hoping it didn’t buckle under his weight, because if it did, he was going down. Ash didn’t give a fuck. The physical pain would be preferable to the ache that settled where his heart had been, growing more and more acute until each breath became a stabbing pain. He’d seen movies, plenty of them, and he always thought that expression actors used when their heart had broken was fake. Well, it wasn’t. He knew, because when he turned, the mask of pain reflected in the plate glass window was that exact expression. Combined with it was a sharp tearing he knew was his heart shattering into a million little pieces before scattering to the breeze.

He lifted his gaze to where Brighton had been but didn’t see him. They were gone, most likely into the diner across the street. Ash thought about going over himself, but he knew what he would find and couldn’t take it. The thought of Brighton, the person he loved, the man who’d sworn he’d wait for him, his soul mate and the reason Ash had survived that hellhole for months…. Ash couldn’t even bring himself to say the words.

That same gaping maw of blackness that had dogged him through months of interrogation opened in front of him again. More than once he’d thought of throwing himself into it and bringing the pain to an end. But he hadn’t. He’d been stronger than that, and he still was, dammit. Ash turned around and lifted his gaze to where his car was parked. He hadn’t really gone that far, thank God. At least he could make it back and then, in the semiprivacy of his own vehicle, he could fall apart.

A few minutes later, Ash fumbled to open the car door and threw the cane inside, the metal rod banging against the far window before falling onto the floor of the back seat. He managed to get inside and close the door, then leaned forward, resting his head on the steering wheel.

In the few minutes he’d been gone, the car had turned into an oven, and when Ash closed his eyes, he was right back in that little hole in the ground where the air didn’t move and the sun beating on the dark-painted metal threatened to roast him alive. Ash gasped as he came back to himself and reality. He started the car and turned the air-conditioning on full blast. He needed cold, and he got plenty of it. Within minutes he was chilled and maybe shivering as frigid air flooded into the car. Ash ignored it as he put the car into gear. He pulled out of the parking space and drove through town without stopping. He didn’t know where he was going to go. One thing was for sure: there was no way he could stay here. Brighton was with someone else, and running into him was only going to break Ash’s heart and send him into a spin of despair that even now he wasn’t sure he could recover from.

Ash saw the signs pointing to 15 and made the turn toward the freeway. That was his ticket out and away. He had to make a stop first, but he could do that. Then… well, maybe it was best if he went back to the hospital. He was a man of his word, unlike some people.

Fuck it all to hell if his lower lip didn’t quiver just a little. Ash pounded the steering wheel with his hand. He hated that he was so fucking weak. He’d promised the doctors that there was something he had to do and that he’d come back. At the time Ash had meant it, even if in the back of his head he’d hoped that would be after a happy reunion with Brighton and….

Ash shook his head to clear away those thoughts and ended up swerving from one side of the road to the next. No, he needed to get it together long enough to see his aunt one more time and then drive back to the hospital. That was what he needed to do.

With his decision made, he got ready to turn his back on the one person he’d honestly expected would always be there for him.