There are a few Phoenix Rising spoilers, so be forewarned.
About once a year, I am reminded that I have neighbors. More than once if the roads are dangerous due to inclement weather and people resort to appealing to the mercy of their neighbors for food, matches, or even a little entertainment. I’ve taken to staying at the hospital when the weather is going to be bad; Not only does one avoid these little inconveniences, but I never know when they’re going to need me.
I have trouble sleeping. Not because of guilt or “demons,” or any nonsense like that, but habit. I wake at eight AM like clockwork, even when I fall into bed at seven. I work overnights, so I don’t know exactly why this is. If I got to bed after eight, I can steal a few hours’ light sleep. Also if I let the dog into bed, it’s easier to stay asleep. Or people, but those encounters are few and far-between (I’m shocked I am saying that). In fact, it’s always been easy to sleep when someone is with me.
I wake up at ten-thirty with my arm wrapped around the dog. I went to bed alone around six and I don’t remember him jumping up with me. I try semi-successfully to go back to sleep. I don’t have to work tonight; I have two days off. After about half an hour, I’m awake, debating whether I should go to the ranch while I’m off. I should. It’s been a few weeks since I last went.
I throw on some pajama pants and decide not to decide until after breakfast and coffee–especially coffee. I set it to brew espresso and pop some bread in the toaster. I’m about to let Smiley Beast out the back door, but he plants his ass at the front door, staring at it expectantly, as if that were the routine. He woofs–he never really barks–and someone knocks.
“You’re turning out to be useful,” I say.
Before I open the door, I look down at my bare chest. I hope they like what they see, because I’m not about to run upstairs to put on a shirt. I regret that decision–only mildly–when I open the door. Mrs. O’Keefe, my eastern neighbor (house-wise, not ethnicity-wise) stands on my porch. Her eyes are wet, her lips parted in distress. She looks slightly taken-aback and blushes at the sight of me.
“Doc–Doctor Adams…” she pauses to swallow and sniffle.
“Is something wrong? The kids?” She has two young children. Being “the doctor next door,” I’ve seen them often for small scrapes or a bout of strep. I once had to pull her daughter from the river running beyond our back yards, which endeared them to me somewhat.
“The kids are OK–they’re at school, but…” She sniffles again. “The cops just called. They say Rick’s been in a serious accident. I need to go to–to…”
I nod. “Do you need me to drive you? How can I help?”
“Are you working today?”
“No, not for two days.”
“Could the kids come here after school?”
That’s a bit more of a commitment than I anticipated. I’m more willing to drive to St. Joseph’s and perform surgery on her husband. But, of course, I agree. I supervise kids at the ranch all the time. And, as far as I know, these two are not damaged.
I smile at her, and she breaks. She covers her mouth with a hand and turns away to conceal her sobbing. I’m groaning inside as I step out onto the porch and pull her into a hug.
“Don’t be scared.” The words well up into my throat: I’m sure he’s fine. Everything’s going to be alright, but I’m not about to lie to her like that. The patient that kept me so late into the morning had been an MVA: a college kid pinned to the seat by the steering wheel. He was lucky the steering column didn’t impale him. On second thought, he wasn’t; He suffered until the moment he was anesthetized and died several hours later, while I was removing one of his lungs.
I’m certainly not about to tell her that, either.
She falls still and turns to me a bit, which reminds me I am a half-naked man, living alone (dog excepted). I step back, trying not to look like I’m retreating. She knows I’m gay, I’m sure of it. Just in case she didn’t catch it that time I got sloppy with a date at the neighborhood potluck, I put a bit more of a lilt into my voice.
“Be strong,” I say. “Your kids will be safe here. Go, be with your husband, but take care of yourself as well.” I pause. I don’t want her to accept, but… “Would you like some coffee before you go?” My espresso maker only makes one cup at a time.
She shakes her head. I smile. We confirm the phone numbers we have for each other are correct. When she turns to leave, her expression is almost haunted.
I return to cold toast, but the espresso is the perfect temperature for sipping. I stare at the toast for a moment, then pick up the phone and dial Nick. He doesn’t answer. Not a surprise. I text him: Do me a fav & check ER for OKeefe. Status report?”
I chew on the cold toast, staring at the phone. When the screen goes dark, I turn to Smiley Beast. He’s staring at the toast.
“What do kids like to do these days, anyway?”
He whines and inches forward, smiling up at me. I pop the last bite in my mouth and brush the crumbs on him. He licks them off his nose gratefully.
I love dogs.
Nick is a pediatrician. How that happened is beyond me, because when he decided that path, I had never even seen him around a kid before. In order to give a status update, he would have to go all the way to the ground floor and bribe a nurse. Bribing a nurse is the easy part; Finding time to go down to the ER (and avoid getting reeled in to help out) would be the challenge.
It does not surprise me that it is a quarter ’til three when Nick replies:
I shove the phone back into my pocket as the school bus pulls up.
“Dr. Todd!” Kaylee hits me with a hug.
Ricky doesn’t share her enthusiasm. He trudges down the bus steps. I can’t tell if he’s upset about the car accident or he’s just hit the age of being perpetually taciturn.
“Did your mother call you?”
He looks away when he nods. I look him over. He’s got to be thirteen now, carrying a little extra weight. That will shed as he grows, I’m sure. I remember what I was like at his age–but I don’t want to. I put an arm out and pat his shoulder. I steer them toward my house. Smiley Beast is sitting next to the mail box. He refuses to leave the yard.
“Puppy!” Kaylee shrieks. “Is he yours?”
“Yes. Go say hello.”
She runs and throws herself around his neck. I pull Ricky short.
“What exactly did your mother tell you?”
He shrugs. I ape his shrug, showing him how useless a response it is.
“She said Dad was in an accident and she doesn’t know how bad it is.”
I nod and we start to walk again.
“Do you know anything?”
“I know what your mother told me.” It’s not exactly a lie.
“Is he going to be OK?”
“I’m not his doctor, Ricky. I have no idea.” 100% truth.
Kaylee stumbles in the driveway, hitting her knees hard. She looks like she is about to cry, but Smiley Beast begins to lick her face in earnest. She giggles instead. I smile. That has got to be the most reassuring sound in the world. I bend as I pass and lift her into my arms.
“Dr. Todd, when is Mommy coming back?”
“I don’t know yet, sweetheart.” Calling her that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Sugar? Honey? Sunshine? Sunshine. She wraps her arms around my neck as I carry her inside. I experience this more often than most childless men, but the children in post-op are so rarely in the condition to be carried, and the situation so rare, that it’s a heart-warming feeling.
Ricky follows close behind. He has put his hand out, and Smiley Beast is cantering to get under it. He must be perpetually taciturn…
I deposit Kaylee on a stool at the breakfast bar. She spins the barstool. I make a mental note to buy stationary stools before having kids, then shake my head. What am I thinking?
“Hungry?” I ask. “Snacks?”
Ricky shakes his head. He leans down from the stool and devotes his attention to pulling Smiley Beast’s face into a wider smile. I smirk. I waste literally hours doing the same thing.
Kaylee puts her front hands together like paws and sticks out her crooked front teeth. I raise an eyebrow.
“I’m a rabbit!”
This hits me harder than I would have thought. It makes my heart ache. I force myself to smile. “I can see that. Would you like some pellets?”
Her face falls. She doesn’t know the word, and fortunately doesn’t catch on that I am offering to feed her shit. Which I guess is good. She perks back up and says, “Carrots!”
I reach into the fridge and plop the ten-pound bag of carrots onto the counter. Her eyes shoot wide.
“Do you have any baby carrots?” she asks. “Mommy gives us little baggies.”
“I don’t have any little baggies, but I can peel and cut these.”
Ricky slides off the stool as I pull out the cutting board. He takes a few steps toward the living room, gazing at my ninety-inch TV.
“Can I watch TV?”
I point back at the stool. “Your mother said homework first.” Now, that’s a lie.
“I don’t have any homework.”
“Lies.” I give him a penetrating glare, knife in hand. He sits and pulls his bookbag into his lap.
“That also reminds me…” I pull out my phone to text Mrs. O’Keefe. A text from Nick is waiting for me. There aren’t any words, just an arrow followed by a series of dashes:
I ignore it and text Mrs. O’Keefe:
Your children are safe.
I follow it with a picture of Kaylee with carrots hanging out of her mouth and Ricky over his homework.
Her kids are the last thing she should worry about right now.
I dig a pile of blankets and a couple of pillows out of my linen closet.
“Have you heard from my mom?” Ricky comes up behind me.
“So… we’re staying here all night?”
“Looks like it.” I shovel half the burden into his arms. A shadow crosses his face. He grabs my sleeve as I pass and leans close.
“If you touch my sister, I will kill you.”
He is very intimidating, clutching a pillow to his chest. I purse my lips to prevent barking a laugh. “I’m gay.”
He looks taken aback. “Oh.” He settles back on his heels. “Then… if you touch me, I’ll kill you.”
“That’s fair.” I continue down the stairs as if he had not said anything.
Kaylee is rolling on the floor, trying to teach Smiley Beast to roll over. I laugh at them as I spread a blanket over the love seat and toss a pillow at the head. I tuck the bottom blanket around the cushions with hospital corners.
Ricky tosses his blankets on the couch, kicks off his shoes, and jumps on. I pick the pillow off the floor and throw it on his face.
Kaylee dances over and jumps onto the love seat. She bounces a couple of times, falls on her butt, and pulls the top blanket to her chest.
“Can Smiley Beast sleep with me?”
“Oh, no,” I say. “Smiley Beast sleeps with me.”
“Tuck me in!”
I purse my lips and glance at Ricky. He rolls over, facing the couch. I tuck the blanket around her. She grabs my arm and pulls me down.
“Sing me a lullaby.”
“Oh, swee… Sunshine… I can’t sing.”
“Dad can’t sing, either,” Ricky grunts into the back of the couch.
Well, I can’t argue with that. I sink down next to her, racking my brain. “Uhh…” I know a wide range of classic rock that may be appropriate for a child, but a familiar refrain tugs at the back of my mind. As soon as I place it, I close my eyes. There’s a lump in my throat. I push the song away, but it continues to intrude my thoughts.
“Hush…” I have to swallow the lump in my throat before I can continue:
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep, you little… sweetie
When you wake, you’ll have
All the pretty little horses
Dapples and greys
Pintos and bays
All the pretty little horses
Kaylee yawns and curls against me. “Pretty song…” she murmurs. “I don’t know this song.”
“My mother used to sing it to me.”
To prevent any questions, I begin to sing again. She is asleep by the time I finish. I extract myself without waking her. I peer down at Ricky’s face. He’s staring straight ahead with wet eyes. I don’t imagine he needs a lullaby. I ruffle his hair and go into the kitchen. The light on my phone is glowing–a text.
I grab two glasses and a bottle of Scotch. I open the front door without a sound and step onto the porch with Smiley Beast on my heels.
Mrs. O’Keefe is leaning against her car, arms wrapped around herself, wearing a thousand-mile stare. I sit on the top step. She pulls her jacket close around her and sits next to me.
She shakes her head. “I’m going back to the hospital. I need to…” She clears her throat. “I need to make arrangements.”
I pour myself a glass. She turns to the door, which I left ajar enough for Smiley Beast to slip in.
“How are they?”
“Perfect.” I smile. “They’re smart, healthy, not too loud. You did a wonderful job.”
She smiles. “I wasn’t alone.” Her face falls. I can see her throat working as she chokes back tears.
“You’re not alone now,” I say. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you’re not.”
Covering her face, she falls against my shoulder. “I can’t do this,” she sobs. “It’s… just… too… much…”
I put my arm around her and rub her back. I am fully dressed this time, and she does not recoil. She drops her hands and sniffles.
“Have you ever lost anyone?”
My throat stops working for a moment. “I have lost… everyone.”
“What do you mean?”
I take a deep breath and a gulp of Scotch. “My kid sister–she was three. My mother, my father… The first man I ever fell in love with…” I’m tempted to include the only woman I ever loved, but I resist. “You don’t… get over it. You don’t work your way through it. You choke on it, every time you ever think of them. It’s like… an allergic reaction.”
“So… What do you do?”
“I don’t talk about them. I don’t think about them.”
“Can we talk about them now?”
She wants to focus on my pain instead. I see this all the time when I lose a patient. I unscrew the bottle and take a long draught.
“My sister was three when she died. AIDS. My dad had it, too. He died a few years later, just after my mom.”
“Did she have AIDS, too?”
“No, she had a heart attack. My mom and dad, they were never together.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“And the man?”
His face floats into my mind, as clear as if he stood before us. “Faust.” I love the feel of his name in my mouth. I find myself saying it too often at the most inopportune moments. “Captain Faustinelli. He was so…” I shake my head. “Phew!” I take another draught.
“How did he die?”
“KIA. Shot in the chest, probably nicked the superior vena cava. I couldn’t…” I shake my head again. “I couldn’t save him. I should have known that.”
“You were there?”
“He was my CO.”
“You didn’t get in trouble?”
“Sure I did. I was discharged. I didn’t–uh… We didn’t have a chance to really do anything, though. I think I regret that the most.”
“He didn’t know how you felt?”
“Oh, he knew. It was all over my face. I’m surprised no one else saw it. If they did, they didn’t dare… From the moment I first laid eyes on him, he had me wrapped around those fingers…” I purse my lips. I could feel the pulse throb in my cock. I clear my throat and change the subject. “I tell you what, I don’t want the kids to be on the list of things you have to worry about right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have enough on your plate. Don’t tell them just yet.”
She stares at me as if I had just committed treason.
“Tell them, you don’t know what’s going to happen–which is true. It’s not a lie.”
“But… how am I going to pull that off? It could be on the news… a friend could call them…”
“Do you know I have a ranch?”
“A ranch–a horse ranch, about three hours from here. Just on the other side of the mountains. Cell phone signal sucks ass out there, but it’s beautiful, and I even have a pony small enough for Kaylee to ride.”
She gapes at me.
“It will buy you enough time to make arrangements and get your affairs in order. The kids will be safe and will have a good time. I can bring them to the hospital when we come back. They will be none the wiser.”
Closer her mouth, she stares at the ground. She nods.
“I have just one more suggestion.”
“Don’t go back to the hospital tonight. You can take the kids home or join them on the couch, but there’s really nothing you can do after-hours, and you need sleep. You look exhausted.”
She puts her hand on my arm and rubs it as if I were the one who needed comforting. She nods again.
“OK,” she sighs. “Paperwork can wait until morning.”
Like a typical child, Kaylee loves horses. Also like a typical child, the moment I lifted her onto Lola’s back, the poor girl froze up. She stayed behind at the stables, and Ginny volunteered to teacher her how to groom, while Ricky and I rode out.
All morning, I had felt like he wanted to ask me something, but resisted. I wonder if he knows about his dad–or if he had overheard his mother on the porch.
We are alone. I have a hundred fifteen acres, and we’re about a mile from the ranch.
“How old were you when you knew you were gay?”
The question is not at all what I expected. I get a funny kind of smile. “I… was…” I racked my brain for an identifiable event. “The first time I remember being attracted to a man, I was fifteen.”
Oh? Is he disappointed?
“Isn’t that a little late?”
“It is, actually, but I came from… well, here. I grew up on this ranch; I was very isolated. I didn’t see anyone I could really consider attractive until I moved to the city. I was fifteen. He was a friend of my fathers, a Black man.”
“You like Black men?”
“I like all sorts of men.”
He falls quiet.
“Why do you ask?” I already know the answer. “Do you think you might be gay?”
“Oh, no, not me.” He’s a bit too quick to answer. “But I have this friend, Eddie. Some of the kids at school make fun of him. They call him gay.”
“I don’t know. He’s only eleven. Isn’t eleven too young?”
I shrug. “I know several men and women who say they always knew. They never needed a… a moment of realization. Then again, there are fully-grown adults who have their moments, or begin to consider it.”
He chews on this in silence. We come to the crest of a hill. There is a small herd of deer about a quarter of a mile below us. I pull my horse to a stop and hold out my hand. Ricky stops as well.
“Have you ever had deer meat?”
He shakes his head. My rifle is strapped to my saddle, in case we encounter a starving cat or rabid coyote. I promised I would keep them safe, even against those highly-unlikely scenarios.
I dismount and pull the rifle free. Ricky dismounts a little too heavily. I’m afraid he is going to spook the deer, but they continue to graze lazily. I beckon Ricky away from the horses and lie on my belly. He does as well.
“Have you ever been hunting?”
He shakes his head.
“Have you ever fired a gun?”
He shakes his head again. I bite my lip, debating between edible deer meat and a memorable experience.
I pass him the rifle.
“Don’t touch the trigger until you are absolutely ready to fire.” I walk him briefly through grip and aim and where to shoot the deer for a quick drop and unspoiled meat. He’s not going to hit one, but he looks excited.
“Now, line it up and begin to squeeze the trigger. Slowly–you should be surprised when it fires.”
He’s holding his breath. I open my mouth to tell him to breathe, but I’m interrupted by the gun firing. The herd scatters.
“I hit it!”
Sure enough, there is a single buck, unmoving on the ground.
“Holy shit, Ricky. That was perfect!”
We walk the horses back, the buck hanging across my saddle. I allow Ricky to carry the unloaded rifle over his shoulder. We are silent, but buzzing with excitement. The conversation does not come back up until I am cleaning the deer. I am covered in blood.
“What’s it like, being with a guy?”
I swallow hard before I reply. “Not much different from being with a girl.”
“You’ve been with girls, too?”
“Yes, long ago.”
He looks over his shoulder, toward where Ginny and Kaylee are scrubbing down our horses. We can hear them talking and laughing, but we can’t see them. “Was it with Ginny?”
I snort. “No, it wasn’t Ginny.”
He falls silent again, then in a hushed voice, “Are you big?”
My face burns. There’s nothing in my mouth, but I choke nonetheless. I shrug.
“Can I see it?”
“No.” I pause to look at him. He is so, so young. I realize what he’s going through; I should have seen it sooner.
“I’m almost fourteen,” he says as if he can read my mind.
“Almost fourteen is still far too young to… to be considering such things. Fifteen was far too young…” I had never thought of it that way before, not until lookin at this boy. “It would be wrong–”
“What if I wanted it?”
I lean over the dead buck and bite my lip. I almost draw blood. “You don’t know what it is you’re asking.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for one, it hurts, especially the first few times. Especially at your age.”
He tilts his head. “You were doing it at my age?”
I close my eyes. I can’t believe I let that slip. I lower my hand into a puddle of blood and watch it run up the grooves of my skin. My throat is tight. “I didn’t want it… I was younger than you, half your age, even. I never wanted it.”
His face reddens. “But… I trust you.”
“Don’t trust me,” I say quickly, shaking my head. “Just don’t. It doesn’t matter… trust doesn’t matter, or if you think you want it, if I do what you want, it would be no different from what was done… to me. I would never be able to live with that.”
He looks heartbroken. Emotional overload. Fuck, I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have avoided the topic altogether. He’s trying to swallow, but he can’t. Forgetting my hand is covered in blood, I wipe my face. When I feel the wetness, I recoil.
Ricky laughs. My face is burning, but after a moment, I laugh too.
What else can you do?
The drive back to Colorado Springs is quiet. Kaylee sleeps most of the way. Ricky stares out the window at the mountains passing by. After a few half-hearted attempts to engage him in normal preteen conversation, I abandon the effort. We can see the roof of St. Joseph’s when Kaylee’s voice surprises me.
“Yes, sweet pea?”
“Is Daddy in Heaven?”
I take a deep breath and hold it. Ricky’s eyes grow wide.
“Why do you ask that?”
“Because he told me he was last night.”
“You saw your father last night?” My throat is tight. I glance at Ricky and he looks as confused as I must. “When?”
“Right after you sang me a lullaby. You got up and went outside. Daddy laid down next to me. He told me he was in Heaven, and I don’t have to be scared of anything.”
Ricky squeezes his eyes shut. His shoulders begin to shake. He pulls his collar up to hide his face in his shirt. He had known all along; I could tell by the concern in his eyes as he stared at Kaylee over dinner. He must have heard me talking to their mother on the porch.
I’m shocked he is able to hold it together as well as he is; I was a hot mess when my parents died.
“Well, Sunshine…” I don’t know what the fuck else to say. “If that’s what he told you, it must be true.”
I don’t believe in Heaven.
One year later, Ricky O’Keefe appears at my door. As I predicted, he lost the extra weight as he shot up five or six inches. I let him in, and he follows me to the kitchen. I’m trying my hand at making sushi. I haven’t been able to get the rice sticky enough, so I have just been popping bites of raw fish.
“I think I’m gay.”
“I recall having a similar conversation with you last year.” I heap a sloppy roll onto a plate and place it on the bar. He picks it up and inspects it. I slide him a set of chopsticks. He makes a few clumsy attempts at holding them before I take his hands and show him how.
“I’m not sure,” he continues. “But I’ve been thinking about–you know–about guys. But girls, too. Is that weird?”
“Not at all.”
“How will I know?”
I shrug. “You don’t have to. It’s not actually all that important.”
“What do you mean?”
I wave my hand. I’m not even sure how to describe it. “Go with how you feel. If you have a crush on a boy, date the boy. If that doesn’t work out, and you start to like a girl, date the girl. No one says you have to be exclusive.” I pop a piece of sashimi in my mouth, and realize I misspoke. “To one gender,” I correct myself. “No one says you have to be exclusive to a gender. When you’re not exclusive to the person you’re dating, that tends to cause problems.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I shake my head. Donning a tone of analytical superiority, I say, “I have crippling commitment issues due to a paralyzing fear of loss.” At least, that’s what Nick says when he’s had too much to drink.
“Because of what happened when you were a kid?”
I suddenly don’t have an appetite anymore. “I’d appreciate it if you’d never bring that up again.”
I slide him the plate I was working from. He picks at a few choice pieces, more for practice than hunger.
“You said last year… that… you wouldn’t mess with me because I looked so young…”
My face burns. I glare at him. This is the last conversation I want. Ever.
“Is it different now?” He is taller. He is going to be handsome. But he’s still so young. His eyes are still innocent. I shake my head.
“What about when I’m eighteen?”
“Ask me when you’re eighteen,” I say a little too quickly. I sound dismissive.
Ricky’s face twitches. I can tell he has to force his smile. “I’ll be back, then.”
He slides off the stool, and I walk him back to the door. As I reach for the handle, he grabs my shirtfront and yanks me down, jamming his mouth against mine. Appalled, I try to pull away. Something clicks in my mind. He has the opportunity to develop normally, an opportunity I never had. I don’t want him to shun that, or fear it. I indulge him calmly as I pry his hands loose. When I straighten up, he stares at me, wide-eyed. His hands are shaking.
I pull the door open and point out.