Chapter One



“SO, BRYCE, are you excited about this weekend?” Jerry, Bryce’s boss, asked with a knowing grin that turned into a warm laugh. Jerry owned the small consulting firm where Bryce worked, and was a close friend. Bryce often thought his friends were as excited about the upcoming event as he was.

Bryce could hardly sit still. “Yes. I’m all set. The caterers are ready. The florist has been contacted four times and they finally understand what I want.” Bryce looked up from his computer screen, temporarily giving up on trying to debug the program he was working on. It wasn’t going to happen until he could concentrate, and he couldn’t do that as long as he was thinking about Percy and his wedding. “Will you and John still help decorate the hall Saturday morning?” Bryce asked, and he saw Jerry roll his eyes.

“You’ve asked us eight times. Just relax. Everything will be just fine. You and Percy have done a great job organizing everything,” John, Jerry’s stunning Native American partner, said from the desk next to his. Thankfully they weren’t on a particular deadline, or Jerry would crack the proverbial whip and get them all back to work. “Even the weather seems to be cooperating. The television said that it was supposed to be seventy-five and sunny on Saturday. The flowers are all blooming right now, so it should be a perfect day for an outdoor ceremony.”

“Yeah,” Bryce said with a grin. “It’s going to be perfect.” Everyone had told him he was crazy for planning an outdoor wedding in May. The weather was too changeable and uncertain, but Bryce had insisted, and he’d been prepared to order a tent if necessary, but the gardens they were using should be perfect. He had compromised and agreed to hold the reception inside, but it was important to him to hold the ceremony outside. His parents had held their wedding outside, as had his grandparents, so he very much wanted to carry on the tradition.

“You and Percy deserve it,” Jerry said before his head disappeared behind his monitor and the clicking of the keyboard replaced the sound of his voice. John did the same, and Bryce forced his mind away from his wedding and onto the program.

“Got you, ya bugger,” Bryce murmured as he spotted the error and corrected it, then ran the program to make sure it worked properly. Jerry was a stickler for details, so Bryce went through the specifications in detail, checking off each requirement before flagging the program as completed and moving on to the next one.

The work slowly consumed Bryce’s thoughts and attention the way it always did. Code and numbers—they spoke to him. When Jerry had hired both John and him three years earlier, Bryce had been fresh out of college and very green. Jerry had taken them both under his wing, and now he could see the improvement and felt complete confidence in his work. Bryce worked straight on until lunch, and then they all broke and went inside.

Jerry had converted an old workshop into an office, which worked great for all of them. Jerry had been talking lately about hiring another associate, but there wasn’t room, and Bryce was beginning to wonder where he was planning to seat them. At lunch, they went into Jerry’s house and ate at his kitchen table. Bryce had asked him once why they didn’t eat at their desks. “We all need a break and a change of scenery,” Jerry had said, so this had become their routine. “I’m going to close the office tomorrow,” Jerry told them once they’d sat at the table. “It’ll give you an extra day for last-minute preparations, and I have a feeling that none of us will be up to working, anyway.”

“You don’t have to, Jerry,” Bryce said.

“Think of it as an additional wedding present. The kids are home from school, too, some sort of in-service day, so they’ll be able to help. Mato and Ichante are going to love helping their Uncle Bryce.”

He couldn’t stop smiling whenever he heard that. John and Jerry had adopted John’s niece Ichante and his nephew Mato. Those two were incredibly special kids, and Bryce loved that they called both Percy and him uncle. It made them feel like part of the family. “Thanks. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get all the last-minute stuff done without working until midnight.”

“Don’t worry—we’re all here for you,” John said, and Bryce saw Jerry nod his agreement. “When does Percy get home?”

Bryce humphed softly. “I have to pick him up at six.” Bryce took a bite of his sandwich and then set it back on the plate. “I can’t believe he had to go to New York the week before our wedding.”

“It was training for work, you know that,” Jerry soothed.

“I know, and he couldn’t help it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Bryce groused lightly before returning to his lunch, running over all the things he had yet to get done. The list seemed to grow longer every day, and Bryce had no idea how he was going to get everything done.

“Stop worrying. Everything will be great. You’ve got everything under control, so relax and enjoy it,” John said, patting Bryce’s hand lightly. “If you don’t take it easy, the entire day will fly by and you won’t even remember it. So what if the flowers aren’t perfect and the chairs aren’t in the exact position you want? You’re sharing your love with Percy, and that’s what’s important.” Bryce agreed with him, but the nerves didn’t settle and that damned list kept running through his head.

They finished lunch and Bryce went back to work, the coding the one thing that seemed to soothe him. Late in the afternoon, Mato and Ichante got home from school, and they hurried into the office to say hello. They hugged Jerry and John before giving Bryce hugs too. Then they told John about their day. Or that’s what Bryce thought they were doing, since they were speaking the Lakota language. John felt it important that both children have as close a link to their heritage as they could. Bryce had seen everything John and Jerry had gone through to get Mato and Ichante out of the state childcare system, and it was amazing how normal and well-adjusted the kids were now, considering how hurt and scared they’d been when John first brought them home.

“The office is going to be closed tomorrow, so would you two like to help get the guest favors ready?” Bryce asked.

Ai,” they both said happily. Bryce knew that was the Lakota word for “yes.”

A short while later, the workday ended, and Bryce got ready to leave. He had errands to run, so after saying good-bye, he got in his car and drove to the tuxedo shop to pick up the clothes he and Percy would wear. Then he stopped by the printer and picked up the programs for the ceremony. After checking the time as he left the shop, Bryce placed the programs in the trunk and was about to head to the airport when his phone rang. It was Jerry.

“Can you come back to the house?”

“I need to get to the airport to pick up Percy,” Bryce explained as he unlocked the car and slid into the seat.

“You’ll have plenty of time to stop by here. It’s right on your way,” Jerry said insistently.

“Okay, I’m on my way,” Bryce said and closed the phone, setting it on the seat next to him. He and Percy had made a mix CD of all their favorite songs. They were going to put a copy at each place at dinner. Bryce slid one of the CDs into the player and drove to Jerry’s as “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song” played through the car speakers. This had been one of Percy’s choices, and it always made him smile because Percy had sung that song to him when he’d told Bryce he loved him. Percy was nearly tone-deaf, but his rendition of this song was the most beautiful one Bryce had ever heard.

Thankfully, Sioux Falls was not very large, and Bryce pulled onto Jerry’s street a few minutes later. He kept checking the dashboard clock and knew he could only spend a few minutes at Jerry’s before he had to dash out to the airport.

Bryce parked out front and raced up the door before going right inside. In the living room, he saw John and Jerry each holding one of the kids, who had obviously been crying. “What happened? Is there something wrong with the kids?” Jerry shook his head, and Bryce saw tears running down his friend’s face.

“You’re Bryce Morton?”

He turned and saw the police officer for the first time. Bryce nodded, his mouth going dry, and he instantly began to shake. Mato slid off Jerry’s lap, and Jerry guided Bryce toward a chair. Bryce sat and looked up at the officer who said, “I’m very sorry to have to tell you this, but Percival Howland was involved in an accident at Midway Airport.”

Jerry hugged him and so did Mato. “Is he okay? Do I need to get there to be with him?”

The police officer’s expression changed, becoming even graver. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Howland didn’t survive.”

Bryce shook his head. “It can’t be. Percy… my Percy is dead?” The officer nodded once. Bryce swallowed and tried to get ahold of himself. This was surreal, and suddenly he felt as though he were floating outside his body. “How did he die?”

“The investigation is still underway, but from the information we were given, a driver lost control of a loaded luggage cart and barreled into people who were walking onto the tarmac to board the commuter flight to Sioux Falls. I don’t know if it was a mechanical issue or not, but two other people were injured.”

Bryce nodded and looked down at the floor. Percy was gone. Bryce’s head throbbed and the room began to spin. He grabbed the arm of the chair, but that didn’t do any good. The room continued moving. Bryce clamped his eyes closed, and the last thing he remembered was falling forward.

He didn’t know how long he was out, but when he came to, he was on the sofa with paramedics hovering over him. At first he couldn’t figure out why they were there, but then everything came back to him. Bryce opened his mouth, but nothing came. He gasped for breath and then heard a banshee from hell scream at the top of its lungs. It took him a few seconds to realize he’d made that sound.

“Please try to calm down, sir,” one of the paramedics said, but Bryce couldn’t. Tears welled in his eyes and he opened his mouth to breathe, only to whimper. As Ichante took his hand, the last of Bryce’s control burst like Hoover Dam, and he wailed and cried. A lamentation went up from somewhere else in the room, followed by another and then another.

“What are they doing?” the paramedic asked.

“Guiding Percy’s soul to the afterlife,” Bryce heard Jerry say, and then he too joined in the howling.

Then the room became quiet except for Bryce’s tears and those of the children. Ichante curled next to him on the sofa, hugging him, and Bryce continued crying. “Should we take him in?” one of the paramedics asked, and Bryce rolled his head on the sofa cushion. He didn’t want to go anywhere, except maybe someplace where he could die like Percy. With every breath he took, his heart broke a little more. The tears continued coming, and he couldn’t stop them even when he did try.

“We’re here for you,” John said softly, but the words barely registered for Bryce. Everything from outside his head seemed muffled and distant.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the police officer said, and Bryce watched as he walked over to him. He pressed a card into Bryce’s hand. “If there’s anything we can do, please give us a call.”

Bryce mumbled something, but for the life of him he didn’t know what it was. Through watery eyes, he saw the officer leave as well as the paramedics. Then, slowly, he began sitting up. Mato and Ichante sat on either side of him. “What do I do?” His mind was barely functioning, and he was supposed to get married in two days. “Oh God,” Bryce wailed, putting his hands over his face.

Eventually the tears stopped, but the shocked and bewildered feelings continued, like his mind refused to work at all. “It’s going to be okay,” Ichante said from next to him, and Bryce smiled at the twelve-year-old, trying to make her feel better.

“I have to call everyone and let them know…,” Bryce said before breaking into quiet sobs. He had no idea how he was going to be able to call everyone and tell them that Percy had been killed. He couldn’t. There was no way. He’d never make it through all those calls.

“Don’t worry,” Jerry told him. “I’ll go over to your place and get your computer. John and I can make the calls. You stay where you are and don’t worry about anything.” Jerry seemed to spring into action, and he was soon gone. John and the kids sat with him, but no one said anything, which was fine with Bryce. He couldn’t deal with talking.

“Why did the police come here?” Bryce asked quietly.

“The number they had for you was wrong and they called your work and I said you were on your way,” John explained, and Bryce nodded blankly, only half hearing what was being said.

“Percy was really cool,” Ichante eventually offered. “At school last year, he came into my class and told everyone what it was like to be a guy nurse.”

“He got me a stefoscope so I could listen to my heart,” Mato said and slipped off the sofa. Bryce heard him run upstairs and then he came back down with the stethoscope around his neck. “I wanna be a nurse like Uncle Percy when I grow up.”

Bryce tugged Mato to him and began crying again as he held the boy. How could his Percy be gone? He was too kind and caring and certainly didn’t deserve to die alone out on some airport tarmac. “I’m going to miss him so much,” Bryce said. Percy had loved him deeply, Bryce knew that, and now it seemed part of the light had gone from his life. “How can I keep going without him?”

No one answered, not that Bryce expected anyone to. There was nothing anyone could do. His phone rang, and he fished it out of his pocket and handed it to John without looking at who was calling. He couldn’t bear to start the phone chain that would let everyone know that Percy was gone. Maybe if they didn’t know, then he’d be around for just a little bit longer.

“Bryce, it’s your mother,” John said as he gave him the phone. “I don’t think she knows,” he added in a whisper.

“What happened?” his mother asked.

“Percy’s dead,” was all he could say before breaking into sobs once again. John took the phone, and Bryce heard him talking briefly to his mother before hanging up.

“They’re on their way over,” John told him, and Bryce got himself under control. Jerry returned, and Bryce’s parents showed up a short while later. There were more tears and hugs, and then tears again, before everyone else sat down and began making calls. He heard Jerry, John, and his mother and dad tell people that Percy was dead. They cried, and Bryce was sure he heard every platitude people said when they didn’t know what to say. After a while, Bryce couldn’t take it any longer and blankly left the house. He wandered up and down the sidewalk, wondering what his sweet Percy could have done to deserve this. He sat on the curb, watching as the sun set.

“Come inside,” he heard his mother say from behind him, but Bryce shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do out here.”

“There’s nothing I can do at all. We were supposed to get married in two days. Percy loved me enough to put up with all my arrangements and plans.” Bryce turned as his mother sat down next to him.

“I can’t tell you I know how you feel right now, because I don’t and I never can. You’ve lost someone very dear to you, and the only way I could feel what you are right now would be if I lost your father or you.” She took his hand, and Bryce squeezed lightly. “I do know that the next few days are going to be very difficult.” Bryce nodded slowly. He had no doubt about that. “Your father and I want you to come home with us for a few days.”

Bryce shook his head. “No, Mom, I’m going to go home.” He needed to be where he could feel Percy close to him, and their small house was just the place he needed to be. They’d bought it together a year ago. “I need to.” She nodded and didn’t argue with him. Bryce leaned against her and closed his eyes, letting his mother comfort him. “I already miss him, Mom, and he’s only been dead a few hours.”

“I know, honey, I know,” his mother said and just sat next to him.

As darkness began to surround them, they walked back to the house. The chill of the evening air worked through Bryce’s clothes, but he barely noticed it. Inside, he quickly warmed, and John helped him into a chair. “We called everyone and got in touch with the caterer, florist, and photographer. They all send their condolences,” John said.

“I called the gardens and the reception hall, so I think we have that covered,” Jerry said, and Bryce nodded as blankly as he felt.

“Thank you.”

“Do you want to stay here tonight?” Jerry asked.

Bryce shook his head. “I’m going home.”

“At least let one of us take you,” Jerry said, and Bryce agreed. He said good-bye to his mother and father, who promised they’d be over to see him in the morning. After hugs and more tears, they left and Jerry drove him across town. “Do you want me to go in with you?”

Bryce stared at the dark house and shook his head. “I’ll call tomorrow,” Bryce said, closing the car door. He saw Jerry nod, but the car didn’t move. Bryce slowly walked to the front door and let himself inside. After closing the door behind him, Bryce turned on the light. Nothing was physically different, yet nothing felt the same. Bryce wandered from room to room, remembering. Eventually, unable to take anymore, Bryce ended up on the sofa, curled into a ball as he cried his eyes out.

Bryce lost all track of time, but eventually he got up off the sofa and climbed the stairs. In their room, he stood staring at the bed. Percy’s pillow lay in its place, and Bryce lifted it to his nose, inhaling his scent. Unable to actually lie down, not in their bed, anyway, Bryce carried the pillow back down the stairs. He lay on the sofa, pulled the throw over him, and hugged Percy’s pillow to his chest. Eventually he cried himself to sleep, wondering how his life was ever going to be the same.