"Mike!" I hollered upon seeing my best friend streak past the door to my little emergency room cell. I coughed, my throat burning from the smoke I'd inhaled as my apartment had burned all around me just a few hours ago.
He came back, blue eyes wide in his pretty face. His much too pale face that crumbled with grief as soon as he saw me. "They said room ten," he managed as tears fell. "I was going--"
"It's okay." I reached for him. "Come here."
He stepped into my arms and hugged me tight. His chin rested on my shoulder. How odd that it was me comforting him. Well, maybe not so odd. He was the one who'd had to get a call out of the blue from a hospital nurse telling him I was here.
He pulled back, wiping at an eye, but not letting me go. "You're all right? No burns or anything?"
"I'm fine. Just a sore throat and a serious need to take a shower."
His smile was a little watery as he used his thumb to rub at something on my cheek. "You're all sooty." His smile slowly crumbled. "God, Brian," he whispered and hugged me again.
I cuddled him and smiled for being amazed that no one in this guy's family knew he was gay. Around me, he'd always flamed. If it wasn't for the fact I went in for big jocks instead, I'd have claimed him as mine minutes after meeting him. He was my best friend, as proven by the fact he'd stuck around when others hadn't while I'd taken care of my mom in the last year of her life. And now as--
"You'll stay with me," he said. He lifted his head and wiped those sapphire eyes again. "What's mine is yours."
I gave him a peck and rested my forehead on his. "Thank you."
"Do you want..." He swallowed so hard I heard his throat click. "Do you want to come home with me for the holiday?"
I leaned back and studied his face. Mike was from Little Rock and had come up here to Ohio for school and to be the gay boy he couldn't be back home. He claimed to butch up down South and fool them all, but we both knew it wouldn't hold up if we were down there together. Any little wondering from a family member would be magnified the second they saw Mike with me.
"No. I'm not up for the family thing."
His bottom lip trembled. "But it's your first without your mom."
I brushed his shaggy black bangs off his forehead and cupped his cheek. "I'll be fine. We will be," I amended and moved so he could see the little wrapped bundle on the bed behind me.
"Oreo!" he squealed and swished over to coo at my traumatized kitten. "How did you get her in here?"
"Smuggled her in the pouch of my sweatshirt." I cleared my scratchy throat. "Then hid her in the gown when they weren't looking." The whole place was just busy enough for no one to notice that the gown on the bed shifted now and then. Or they knew and were that nice? I didn't know, but I was grateful I hadn't had to ditch her somewhere while I was in here.
I blinked back tears as I watched her dip her tiny black-and-white head and close her neon green eyes so Mike could rub a fingertip on her forehead as he whispered to her. I'd managed to rescue only two things from my apartment while the flames devoured everything. Oreo was one of them. Her claws digging into my stomach had been a comfort since I'd known where she was as we escaped into the snow.
Mike moaned as he saw what sat beside Oreo on the bed. "Oh, Brian."
I nodded at him. I could live without a lot of what I'd lost to the fire, but I'd fought flames and smoke to rescue that photo album. It was now the only thing I had left from my mom. Most every page was charred and brittle, and a lot of the photos had seemed to boil in the heat. My favorite photo of her--an eight-by-ten of her on a kid's swing, smiling and laughing in the sun--was a permanent part of the album's cover now, plastic and paper merged and warped and--
I sat down on the bed as a wave of loneliness assaulted me, stealing my breath.
Mike was there in an instant. He cuddled me this time, stroking my hair as I leaned on his skinny chest and let go for just a few minutes. I'd cried so much in the past eighteen months that I shouldn't have any tears left, but they flowed down my cheeks until I smothered myself in his soft red sweater. I managed not to sob, though. Wouldn't do that.
He stopped petting my hair at the same time I managed to get it together again, then he chuckled. "You do need a shower, you filthy boy." He showed me the soot on his hand.
I snorted a laugh and wiped up my face, which probably made things worse there too.
"Can you leave now?" he asked, massaging my shoulders.
I nodded with a sigh. "Yeah. Paperwork's all done and everything since I didn't have to be admitted."
"The others in your building...?"
I dropped my head onto his chest again. "Two dead."
"God, honey," he murmured and kind of curled protectively around me.
I felt terrible for those two people and their families on many levels, but I think what got me the most was that I hadn't known them. The man had lived across from me and the woman next door, but I'd only smiled at them as we'd occasionally passed each other in the hall. It hadn't been that I was so busy or self-important that I hadn't wanted to know them. I just hadn't made the effort. I'd given up my last place when I'd moved back home, then had to sell the house to cover all the medical bills, so I'd only been in this place for a few months. Only... That was plenty of time to say hi.
"Come on then." Mike patted me before gently scooping Oreo and her hospital gown up from the bed. "Let's get out of here so you can wash up and rest and whatever."
I obeyed, kind of feeling like I was on autopilot and glad someone else would be doing the thinking for now. I carefully picked up the album, wrapped it in another gown--they could add it to the bill if they really wanted to--and followed Mike into the hall, then back out into the snow. I'd never really enjoyed winter and now appreciated it even less after standing in the wet and cold, waiting for my turn to take a trip in an ambulance. Oreo let us know she didn't like it either with one of her throaty meows.
Mike packed me into the passenger seat of his Audi and I packed Oreo back into the pouch of my sweatshirt as Mike set the album on the backseat. She seemed to appreciate the toasty, confined space as her bitty little purr vibrated against my stomach. I made sure she could breathe, then settled back as Mike drove us out of downtown toward Highland Square.
"I don't leave until tomorrow afternoon," Mike said as he drove us up a nearly deserted Market Street. I realized then that it was after midnight. "I'll help you figure stuff out in the morning. Get things moving as much as possible before places shut down for the holiday."
I closed my eyes, nodding. "Thanks."
"Everything's going to be just fine, Brian." I felt him squeeze my thigh.
Turning my head, I gave him a smile so he wouldn't worry. I didn't believe him, but that was my problem, not his. It had been too long since I knew "fine" to believe I'd get it now.