THE SCREAMING started before he could fully open his eyes—wild yelps and shrieks like demons clawing their way out of hell itself. The loud bang still echoed inside his skull, and the clatter of metal on metal rang in his ears. He needed to act, to react, to stop them, but he couldn’t move or they were all dead.
Blood gushed down his face and obscured his vision—something, somebody hit him on the head? No. That wasn’t it. He hit it on the way down. On the way down…. Oh. I’ve been shot. He was dizzy, confused, but still in danger. They were all in danger. Nothing went according to plan and their only hope was to escape.
He could just make out someone to his left, and there was too much going on around him for him to know if it was friend or enemy, but he didn’t dare move in case whoever was lurking in the shadow hadn’t seen him yet. Not until there was a chance of attacking effectively.
“Josh! Behind—” But a shriek and the sickening crunch of bone cut off the voice.
“Ana!” He could buy his people some time to get out of there if he could distract the men going after them. “Ana! Talk to me! Tell me you’re okay!” She was only twenty-three. Too young to die. The louder Josh was, the faster they would leave his people alone to come after him instead. With herculean effort, he managed to stand up. He knew from everything he’d ever been taught that it was only the adrenaline making his body cooperate now.
Another sickening bang, closer this time. He tried to run, to guide the attack to him so his people had a chance, but he fell to the ground again. The shrieks and whoops got closer too. They knew where he was. They had found him. He was going down, but he was going down saving his team. He tried to stand up, but a sharp pain in his side when he tried to move made him fall again. He slipped in something as he attempted to stand one last time. It was blood. His blood. And it was everywhere. Oh. I’ve been shot. The noises got louder and louder in his ears. It was chaos and cacophony and pain and mocking laughter, and Josh was sure they would be the last things he would ever hear.
“DADDY! PAPA! It’s a good morning parade!”
Josh Tucker awakened with a jolt, the dream temporarily forgotten.
Josh let his head flop back onto the bed and covered his grin with a pillow while his kids marched through the door with pots and pans and wooden spoons. There was a gentle nudge at Josh’s side.
“Well, you’ve done it now, growling in your sleep. Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to be stealthy?”
Josh threw the pillow at his husband, Sergio. “Stealthy? In my sleep? I’d like to see you try that.”
The kids jumped on the bed, discarding their makeshift instruments in favor of throwing themselves on their parents.
“Let’s go, daddy! Get up!” Little Peter, all of five but with the strength of ten elephants when he really wanted something, pulled on Josh while three-year-old Analesa played airplane with her belly balanced on Sergio’s feet until Sergio glanced over at the clock and “crashed” the plane at the foot of the bed to Analesa’s delight.
“All right, all right, you little monsters! Go watch TV or something! Daddy and I need to get dressed so we can make breakfast and head to Grandma’s,” said Sergio with a laugh.
Josh rubbed his eyes and braced for more chaos as the kids picked the pots and pans back up and continued their parade all the way to the living room, until he heard the sounds of some innocuous and slightly more annoying cartoon coming from the TV.
“Up until midnight last night after you fed them ice cream, and now they’re up at the crack of dawn?” Josh had so few chances to stay in bed past seven these days.
Sergio threw him a look that shut him up quickly. “And they’re still kids, darling. Every kid has one natural instinct that is far more powerful than all the others. And that is the instinct to ruin as much of their parents’ sleep as they can. Now, come on. I reckon we have about twenty minutes before they start complaining, and if we shower together, we can knock it down to around seven minutes, leaving us thirteen minutes to….” Sergio raised an eyebrow and lifted his soft and worn-in shirt over his head.
If Josh knew nothing else in the whole world, he knew to never question the calculations of an insurance adjustor. He didn’t need to be told twice when Sergio gave him that look.
He lay back on the bed and watched in awe as Sergio deftly climbed on top of him, slicking Josh up before guiding him inside. Sergio was deadly silent from years of practice—Peter was the lightest sleeper they’d ever known—as he thrust his hips against Josh’s, riding him until they had both come, Sergio’s long dark hair plastered against his caramel skin, a beautiful contrast to Josh’s own pale skin, freckled from growing up in the harsh Mojave Desert sun.
Still panting slightly after what seemed like a fantastic orgasm, Sergio collapsed on his chest while Josh stroked his slightly sweaty back and planted light kisses on him. It went on for a few minutes until Sergio sighed and rolled off to head to the shower.
Josh noted with some amusement that it had indeed been thirteen minutes.
SERGIO LIKED his showers lava hot, and the mirrors had already started to fog by the time Josh made it off the bed and into the bathroom. Sergio had everything down to a science, something Josh admired him for but couldn’t seem to duplicate. Josh was a bit more relaxed about things, but he supposed it was what made them work.
Sergio was halfway done as Josh stepped in the shower, but there was time for some lazy post sex groping and kissing before Sergio, eager to get breakfast on the table, smacked him on the rear to get him going.
“What are you wearing today?” Josh knew Sergio would speed Josh along by laying out his clothes on the bed. It would be annoying if they both didn’t know they would be late getting out of the house otherwise. Josh wasn’t the picture of punctuality like Sergio and that was okay, too.
“Hmmm… how about my black jeans, my dark blue plaid, and my black boots?”
Sergio looked confused for a moment. “Okaaaay. You don’t actually own any of those items, but I’ll do my best.” He kissed Josh and left the bathroom.
It was then that Josh realized what he had just said. Sergio was right. He didn’t have anything like that in his closet, but saying it made him almost wish he did. Weird.
Body clean and stomach growling, Josh turned off the water and walked to the mirror, wondering if there was time for a shave before they had to leave. He wiped a circle of fog off the mirror and contemplated his stubble and how much he could reasonably get away with, but something in the corner of his reflection made him jump.
Josh turned around quickly, adrenaline at the ready, but there was nothing there. He blinked, thinking it was a trick of the light and the fog, but that didn’t stop him from scanning the room three more times anyway. Josh’s left hand tightened instinctively, like there should be something in it, but they didn’t own guns or any other kind of weapon. Hell, if someone were in the bathroom with him Josh’s only defense would be a triple blade razor. However, there was nothing out of the ordinary in there with him, and he heard nothing over his own pounding heart.
Josh warily shrugged it off and grabbed for his razor and shaving cream. On the third stroke of the blade he saw it again: There was something in the reflection. A flash of gold and blue. Something. Someone.
Josh reeled back, turned around, and scanned the room again, and still there was no one there. Looking back to the mirror, Josh could only see himself in its reflection.
He stared at the mirror until Sergio called him to breakfast. For the third time.
Josh evened out his shave, got dressed in the striped button down and khakis Sergio laid out for him, and went downstairs for breakfast.
And told no one.
THE REST of the morning was dedicated to packing up the kids and all their requirements for a long road trip. It was four hours back to his hometown, so it was difficult with little ones to get back as often as they should, but Josh and his siblings tried to meet up once every three months or so for a big, old-fashioned family dinner at their mother’s house back in Twentynine Palms.
Josh’s mom was alone now since his youngest sister had started college. Their dad died when Josh was a teenager—committed suicide after the voices told him to—and Eloise Tucker was no shrinking violet in the face of adversity. And she never had a problem saying that to anyone who would listen. She played the role of mother and father and still had food on the table every night in their perfectly spotless house. If the Tucker children ever heard their mother crying in her room at night, they never let on to themselves, much less anyone else.
Josh tried to shake the weird experience in the bathroom, the dream, chalk it up to long nights made even longer with the addition of two kids to their brood. He ran through explanations in his head. There was nothing in the mirror. That bad dream he’d had that morning was just that—a bad dream. He was just tired and overworked. At thirty, he was not the young man he used to be. He had a husband and two kids to provide for. He was certainly not turning into his father.
By the fourth time they had to search the house for Analesa’s favorite toy, Josh had forgotten about his weird experiences.
They stopped for food halfway there because kids who are young and hungry don’t make for good companions on a long car ride. Josh pulled into the parking lot of their favorite roadside burger place. It was one of the few left in California that was willing to bend the rules to make them rare, and the fries were to die for. Sergio took the kids to the hillside next door while Josh ordered. They could run up and down it until they collapsed from exhaustion—or till the food came, which always happened first, no matter how backed up the joint was.
Even on a busy day like this one the food was more than worth it. The midday news was on the tiny TV set mounted near the registers, but it was a horrible story about a cop in critical condition who got shot during a drug bust gone wrong, so Josh decided to distract himself from the wait with dirty fantasies of getting Sergio naked again as soon as possible.
After ten minutes or so, it was finally his turn to order. Josh handed two twenties to the brown-haired man at the register and started to walk away to fill up their drink cups.
“Josh! Come on, man! Come back!” There was panic in the voice.
Josh whirled around and nearly dropped everything in his hands. “What did you say?”
The blonde girl at the counter—girl? There was definitely a guy here before, right?—looked frightened and cleared her throat. Josh hadn’t meant to sound that angry.
“I—I said ‘Sir, come back.’ You… you forgot your change.” She was holding a five and some change in her outstretched hand. Josh stared at her for a moment but ultimately walked back to the counter and warily took the money.
“Thanks. I—uh… sorry.” He spared a glance around, and there was no sign of the brown-haired guy he swore he saw before.
As he filled up the cups with soda and lemonade, Josh repeated to himself over and over that he was definitely not crazy. He said it over and over until his heart rate slowed down and he could breathe normally again.