Shoes. Jacket. Keys. Wallet and Phone. Sunglasses. Work Badge to bypass the witches at the receptionist desk. Lock the Door. Get in the Car. Drive the car. Go FAST.
Steph. It was Steph. Almost as bad as Jer. But thank gawd it wasn’t.
The closest hospital to the stadium was about 15 minutes away from my apartment. I careened through back roads, my emergency flashers going and I shamelessly ran red lights if I saw it was safe enough.
The first text in a week and it was an SOS. It was so petty of me to run away. I saw that now. What if it HAD been Jer? How much more of an ass would I feel right now for not being there, for not seeing something might be wrong? Gawd I was so incredibly selfish.
I screeched around a corner, setting a couple of dogs off. Their ski jacket humans put their arms up in a “WHAT THE FUCK?” gesture.
“Sorry!” I yelled uselessly.
I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. I ignored it. I was half focusing on the road and half trying to crank my brain into giving me answers to a problem. Did Steph have any pre-existing conditions that I didn’t know about? Was he hung over today? Did he have a blood clot? Did he have an arrhythmia? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know because I wasn’t there. I hadn’t BEEN there. I couldn’t ask the question I needed to.
Left. Right. Light. Wait; now go. Almost there. I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. It pulled in just before me.
I squealed into the emergency parking lot of the hospital and slammed the car into park. I shoved all my junk into my over-sized jacket and kicked open the door, scanning the lot for familiar cars. Jer wasn’t there? Or did he ride with the van? I disentangled my phone from my pocket and checked messages.
Alma. Alma. Gale. Jer!
-Going to the hospital with Steph-
So he WAS here. I pressed the call button and hurried out of the biting cold into the warmth of the lobby, snowflakes instantly turning to liquid on my hot skin. I waited breathlessly by the door. Jer wasn’t picking up. Dammit! My heart beat was choking me, anxious about damn near everything. My eyes swept over all the faces waiting in the lobby. Not there.When they started to blur I pressed the heels of my hands hard against my sockets and took a deep breath. It’ll be okay. Jer’s here. It’ll be fine. Steph’s in good hands.
I waited in line at the receptions area, shifting from foot to foot. I rapidly responded to the texts blowing up my phone.
Alma: “WTF Jac?! CALL ME YOU ASSHOLE!”
Alma: “OMG!!! STEPH! UPDATE ME!”
Gale: “Just saw the TV honey. Give Steph and Jerry our prayers and love.”
“Can I help you ma’am?”
I swallowed a few times, swiping at the tears in my eyes and leaned down to the clear plastic window at the bored nurse.
“Yes, a man was just admitted into the ER. His name is Stephen and I need to see him right away—”
My head whipped around at the sound of my name. And then there he was. The face I’d loved for years tense with worry and no trace of his easy smile. But it was a face more familiar than my own. The beauty mark next to his left eye. The creases around his eyes from laughing. Cinnamon brown irises that revealed everything he was feeling, but only to me. Just now they were a storm of emotions and I couldn’t keep up.
A balloon rapidly blew up inside my stomach and floated up through my chest and stopped at my throat, trying to inch its way up and out. It was the same reaction I had when he told me he loved me. Was this PTSD? Panic attack?
No. This didn’t feel bad. It felt wonderful. Jer was here and he was okay.
I didn’t feel my feet hit the floor as I rushed to him. I teleported into his arms and tried to fuse him into my anatomy, burying my face into his chest. His arms went mechanically behind me in a return gesture. I clung like an adult monkey to his torso and squeezed until he grunted. My brain fought over what to say first but I still couldn’t speak. Not about what happened anyway. I was here for a reason.
“They’re doing a CT scan now,” Jer murmured in my ear. “I didn’t see what happened. I was in the locker room when he went down.”
I latched my arms behind him and was silent for a moment. I knew he was beating himself up for not being there.
“Did he tell you anything on the ride?” I managed to squeak out.
“He couldn’t really speak around the oxygen mask. I don’t know anything except he was stabilizing on the ride here.”
We stood there in the lobby wrapped around one another for a long time. Tears leaked out of my eyes and slipped down my cheeks. Tears for what Jer must be feeling and for my own sorry self. I wanted to say I was sorry for putting him through hell. I wanted to explain why I did it more than anything but I didn’t even KNOW that. I wanted to open my mouth and tell him it had been the most horrible week of my life, including pledge week for my sorority and that bad case of food poisoning I got when he tried to cook me rancid scallops.
I could only cling with all my strength. Slowly, he returned the pressure with his arms and laid his chin on my head.
“Goddammit Jer. You asshole,” I cursed softly.
When Jer knocked on the door to alert the nurse on the other side to open it, I was firmly gripping his other hand. He took me to a curtained stall where I saw a pile of Steph’s clothes were on the corner of the bed, neatly folded, his prized sunglasses setting on top and his yellow sneakers waiting down below.
“Do you have any suspicions?” I asked.
I looked up at the tall man and my eyes instantly went to his beauty mark. It always seemed like a bull’s eye for my lips. I would drag his face down to mine and kiss it before he left me for the day. He told me jokingly once he was going to get lip prints tattooed there since I was leaving my lip stick marks there all the time anyway. It was “Jac’s Mark”.
He looked down at me and my pulse leapt, throwing off my breathing rhythm. He probably heard the catch in my voice. Warm Tiger’s eye brown. Red brown honesty tinged with distrust and hurt.
“When we were going to the locker room after warm ups he was going on and on about a weird thing that happened at the bar. I was only half-listening but I did catch that he felt like he’d been running a marathon as soon as he stepped inside.”
“Had he been?” I wondered. This was Steph at after all. If someone dared him he would jog to the next city and back for a beer.
“I don’t know. I was distracted. I didn’t ask.”
I bit my lip and looked away. Passive-aggressive anger. I deserved it. I knew I did but it still hurt. I didn’t say anything else for a while. I stood there like a human statue, gripping Jer’s hand and refusing to let go even when he twitched to signal me to.
“You’re impossible,” Jer said.
Yes, I know, I thought.
He took his phone out and started to speak into it. Probably a mass text to let everyone one we were still waiting. I should have done the same but I didn’t reach for my phone. There was pressuring building inside me and I was focused on it. I felt it bubbling up like a geyser about to blow. What was going to come out? I didn’t even have a clue. There was a week’s worth of big things and little things I wanted to tell Jer about and I wanted to scream at him for being an idiot and ruining things. I wanted to hug him again and tell him it would be alright, that I was there even if it wasn’t.
“You’re in love with me?”
I felt Jer’s gaze shift to my face. It was flaming hot like a sunburn. Why the fuck did I have to start this NOW? Jesus Jac, you ridiculous moron–
“Yes, I am.”
I inhaled slowly and I felt hot warmth behind my eyes again. He squeezed my hand to try to turn my head around to look at him directly but I couldn’t. Not yet.
“It was time.”
He had all the answers ready. That wasn’t fair. I still had none. There was more tense silence. I could hear my heart beat in my ears and I tried more deep breaths to calm it. What next? What could I say next that was true and honest?
“Jac, nothing has changed for me.”
My word vomit hit the brakes. Goose flesh rose off my skin with the effort to hold it back.
“Nothing has changed for me by admitting this to you. I’ve felt the same way for years and I’ll continue to do so for a long time. If we remain friends, I’ll still love you. If you decide you’re okay with this, I’ll love you harder and better than anyone ever has or could again. But I’m here with you, no matter what. You are my life, Jac and I will give you all the time you need to figure it out.”
“You would stay,” I asked, “Even if we can’t be more? Isn’t that kind of masochistic?”
“I’m a glutton for punishment. You’re worth it. I’m not going anywhere until you’re done with me.”
God fucking dammit. Everything rested on me now. The ball was in my court entirely and he waited patiently for an answer. He stared down at me, not asking for anything more than I was willing to give. Who DOES that? Who WAITS for someone for years, sitting on a massive secret like this and pretending everything is normal for MY sake because he knew I would flip out? He said it knowing he might lose me.
I slowly loosened my death grip on him and ran two shaky hands through my disheveled hair. Dammit, I thought. DAMMIT! I reached out, finally turning my face fully toward his and I dragged his head down to mine. My lips did not touch the beauty mark this time. They landed with irritation and desperation right on top of his and I heard his sharp intake of breath.
“I have had the most horrible week of my life,” I murmured to him, my lips brushing his while I spoke. “I hate you for putting me through it and I demand compensation.”
“And what is the price for one week of horribleness?”
His hands slid around my back and I saw his mustache elongate, parallel to his lips. He was laughing at me.
His eyes jumped to mine. Naturally, they were already tearing up. Why break the trend?
“I don’t have answers for you Jerry. Not good ones anyway. But I know that being away from you felt like I was going through the nine circles of Hell and I absolutely hated it.”
I paused, hearing my words and deciding I agreed with them. It wasn’t just emotion talking. It was me. I continued.
“You said you’re willing to give me time to figure it out. I’m going to hold you to that. It might be a long time though.”
“I know. You’re pretty thick in the head when it comes to this kind of thing.”
I pursed my lips at him and he finally gave me his crooked lazy grin. A tiny bit of pressure eased in my chest. There he is. At last.
“Shaddup! That’s the compensation I demand. Give me time.”
“So it’s not a no?”
The hope in his voice sent a fresh wave of goose-flesh down my body.
“It’s not a no.”
“Then I demand compensation as well.”
I raised my eyebrows at him, daring him to be ridiculous. He didn’t say another word. He rushed in and covered my mouth with his in a passionate, rough kiss. He punished me with tenderness and pressure, sliding his hands up to my face to keep me immobile while he nibbled my bottom lip and rolled the tip of his tongue across it to ease the dull ache. He demanded entrance into my mouth and I gave it, too surprised and lost to think about what this meant.
He gave me a week’s worth of frustration and sorrow when he crushed my mouth to his. There was an apology within his kiss when he brushed me so softly it felt like butterfly wings. And there was promise when he drew me close and lined his body up with mine, warming me down to my toes with pleasure.
My lips felt tingly and bruised when he finally pulled away. I tried to focus disoriented eyes on him and frowned when I saw his smirk.
“That was my compensation. And maybe a little persuasion. A taste of what you could have.”
I turned away from him, face burning again, eyes bulging. My hand came up to cup my mouth holding the feeling of his promise against them. My other hand reached back toward him and he took it. We stayed like that until the curtain was drawn open and a harried looking doctor walked in holding a clip board. He looked at us and blinked. I wasn’t sure what he saw but he managed to keep his composure.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“The patient said I should relay everything to you so you can alert his family.”
I took a step back so I was shoulder to shoulder with Jer, giving him strength as his best friend to hear whatever news came. We held tight.
“It turns out that the patient has been diagnosed with WPW, or Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.”
I looked up at Jer, who nodded. He knew what it was. He also looked relieved which allowed me to finally take a deep breath.
“He doesn’t require surgery then?”
“No, not yet. We’ll try medication and Vagal Maneuvers first and work up from there.”
“I can work on it with him. Thank you Doctor. Is he free to be discharged?”
“It’ll take a bit of paper work on my end but he can go home today, yes. Make sure he rests.”
The doctor exited the curtained stall and I immediately shifted around to hug Jer.
“Relief!” I said, sighing.
“In more than one way.”
I blushed and smiled into his chest.
“There’s one more thing though,” Jer said and I felt my shoulders sag. I waited for the other shoe to drop.
“Steph said when I talked to you again you owe him a box of coconut macaroons.”
I burst out laughing.
“He can have all the macaroons he wants! Idiot man. He might get a poisoned one though for what he put us through.”
“Maybe lace it with a laxative. It’s what he deserves after all.”
I laughed until my abs ached. This was Us. This was how life was supposed to be. Side by side with our lives stretched out before us. Who knew that it took something more than words to make me figure out it was what I wanted all along?