The sound of Hank’s voice coaxed him awake, and this time he felt way better, physically at least.
“What’s your name?”
Chase stretched before opening his eyes. Hank was close, his voice almost a whisper in the dimly lit room, with the only light coming from the hallway. “Ah… Chase… my name is Chase.”
“Where are you?”
“At my dad’s condo… in his bedroom. I’m fine, Hank.”
“Humor me. What year is it?”
“Um, no. Well, a little behind my eyes, I guess.”
“Lift your arm a bit.”
Chase obeyed, wishing he still had the right to touch him… to kiss him. He settled for drinking in his shadowy features as he slid the thermometer into place. No one in this world was as handsome as Hank, something the man never seemed to be aware of.
“Phew… you really are ripe.”
“I know. Sorry. Do you think I could—”
“No, no shower yet.”
“Is Cindy coming over?”
“Not tonight. We decided I would stay till morning. I called Allan and told him you had a fever and wouldn’t be in tomorrow.”
“Oh damn, Allan… thanks. Did you leave a message?”
“No, he picked up… probably because I used your phone.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks again. What about your work?”
“Taken care of. Keep your arm against your ribs.”
Seconds later, the thermometer beeped. “One hundred point three. Good. The Tylenol’s working. I’ll wake you in about three hours and you can take a couple more then. Here, drink this. It’s half orange juice, half water, so it should be easier on your stomach.”
Chase took the glass gratefully. “My dad had orange juice?”
“The frozen kind you have to mix, yeah. When’s he back?”
“Ah… not for a month at least, I think. His ticket is open-ended, but he said he’d be gone for about three months.”
“Right, I remember his last visit before he left. That gives you lots of time.”
“To find a place.”
Chase, robbed of breath, nodded before looking down.
“All right. I’ll take that”—he reached for the empty glass—“so, anything else?”
He cleared his throat before answering. “I have to pee, but I can manage.”
“All right. Get up, and I’ll stick close.”
Chase staggered immediately, still reeling from Hank’s loaded comment, but the man was quick to steady him, keeping a grip on his arm until they reached the master bathroom. Just a weak, short stream came out, and it was a sickly neon yellow. “I thought there’d be more.”
“You’re dehydrated, so it’s to be expected. I’ll get you another glass of water. Try to drink it, okay… and Chase?”
“Yeah?” He turned to face the man.
“You’re not going to do this again, are you?”
“Do what? Oh... you mean fall back into a depression, like when mom stopped… talking?”
“Uh, yeah. I know that was a difficult time—it still affects me too when I think of Christine—but you need to take care of yourself, for your sake and everyone else’s. You can’t hide away in bed and try to shut the world out. Remember what it was like?”
“How could I forget?” he answered with an edge he instantly regretted. "Look, you don’t need to worry. I’ll figure out how to deal with everything. Can I just say one thing, though?”
“Sure.” The answer didn’t match the reluctant expression on his face.
Chase faltered under the steely gaze. “Ah, I won’t hide away again, but I love you, Hank, and I don’t see myself getting past this anytime soon. There might be some bad days, but I don’t want you to feel responsible for me. I’m not going to try to take advantage of you.”
Long seconds passed as the man stared at him. Chase didn’t look away. “All right. Back under the covers, and I’ll go get your water. Do you want juice in it?”
“Yes, please. That was good.” He tried to sound upbeat, but that was the first time his ‘I love you’ hadn’t been returned.
The next time he woke, no one was asking him questions. The room was dark, the condo eerily silent, and Chase felt terribly alone, even though he knew Hank wouldn’t leave without telling him. Sitting farther up on the bed, a familiar wave of anxiety rose up and battered at him.
Damn, now was not the time to have a panic attack. Breathing deeply, he focused on his chest rising and falling, telling himself the fear would leave if he stopped thinking about it. Repeating one two-syllable word, ‘pleasure,’ over and over in his head like a chant, slowly did the trick—his heart eventually calmed, and he came back to himself.
It was a method his doctor had taught him, and it was always a big deal when he conquered such powerful anxiety. During his worst times, he would be in that state for hours—pacing, sweating, and thinking he was dying. This time he had conquered one all by himself, but as satisfying as it was to win the battle, there was little of the elation he usually felt when he came out the other side. At least he was now able to think.
Replaying their conversations, he got stuck on the fact he had to find a place of his own. For much of the almost three years he’d lived with Hank, when he wasn’t keeping his mother company, his boyfriend had never complained about his moods, not once. When the visits became a deathwatch, Chase could barely function, but Hank had stuck to his side, keeping him going through the darkest of days. He didn’t deserve that kind of devotion, but he’d had it. And now it was gone. He’d managed to lose the man he loved, a man who was better than perfect, in one stupid evening.
Quietly, he began to sob. He couldn’t help it, but he didn’t want Hank to hear, and ended up putting a pillow over his face to keep the noise from escaping. Apparently, it didn’t work.
Chase could make out his outstretched arms and he leaned into them, clutching Hank close. And then he let all the pain and remorse out. Many minutes passed before he was able to gather himself. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“It’s fine.” The quaver in Hank’s voice was followed by an unmistakable sob.
“Hank? Are you all right?”
“What do you think?” He pulled back, and Chase flicked on the bedside light.
“You’re crying too,” he said, stating the obvious.
“Of course I am. Do you think you’re the only one who lost something?”
“No, I know—”
“You ripped my heart out, Chase. You ripped it out and you fucking stomped on it.”
“I know you’re angry, and you should be….”
Hank grabbed some tissues for the box on the side table and handed some to him. He blew his own nose, and then looked past Chase, his eyes fixed on the headboard. It was then he noticed how exhausted the man looked.
“I’m not angry, not like I was. I mean, what’s the point? I’m hurting—”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“Wait. Let me finish. I’m hurt, but I see the bigger picture now. I should have realized you weren’t ready. It was too soon after your mom passed. She was your best friend, and I get that.”
“Yes, she was… but so were you.” He wiped away some fresh tears. “It was no excuse for what I did, though.”
“No, it wasn’t, but….”
“Hank? Are you saying you could forgive me?”
“No… I don’t think I can. I was talking about the proposal, and I’m saying I think I understand why you said no, that’s all. The rest, though… I can’t get that picture out of my head… you kissing someone else like that. It destroyed what we had, Chase.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’ve been thinking. I thought you didn’t love me, and maybe that was unfair of me. That wasn’t why you said no, and coming to that conclusion helps… a little.”
“I said no because I was stupid.”
“No, not stupid, just realistic.Sometimes love isn’t enough. You need to live more before you’re ready to commit to someone.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know what it means. You should be free to do what you want, because you never really have been. I was your first real boyfriend.”
“First? You say that like it’s a bad thing. I don’t want to be free, and I don’t want anyone else,” Chase whined. He was immediately annoyed with himself for doing so, but he’d felt some hope and didn’t want to let go of it.
“Are you sure about that? It’s not what I saw,” Hank finished softly.
“I understand how you must feel—what it looked like, but I am sure. It’s the last thing I want.”
“Give it time, Chase. Do you want anything?” he asked, effectively dismissing the subject.
“Just leave it. I can’t even consider an ‘us.’ Look… for now, let’s try to be friends. That wouldn’t be the worst thing, would it?”
“I guess not, but….” There went the last of his hope.
“So, do you want anything? It’s time to take more Tylenol, but you feel cool.”
“I’m feeling back to normal… you don’t have to stick around anymore.”
“That wasn’t very convincing.”
“You’ve done enough, Hank, and I appreciate it, but you should go. I’m fine, and you look tired.”
“And now you’re shutting down.”
Chase went to speak, but Hank held up his hand as he stood up.
“I know I didn’t tell you what you want to hear, but that’s only because you haven’t had time to think things through the way I have. This isn’t something we can sweep under a rug, and you should know me well enough to get that.”
“I do, but can’t we try to—”
“There are some things you just can’t take back, Chase, no matter how much you might want to. Anyway, I’m staying until morning. I already told Cindy I would, and your Dad’s sofa is comfortable. Any objections?”
“No, no objections. I just thought… never mind. I’m going to get some more juice.” He went to get up but Hank had other ideas.
“I’ll get the juice and you can take your temperature before you start moving around. Do you think you’re up for a shower now?”
“God, yeah, but I don’t have any clothes here.”
“Your dad’s roughly the same size. There’s a closet full of clothes, so surely he has something you could wear. As long as you’re steady on your feet, it should make you feel better.”
Chase didn’t sleep again until near dawn. After showering, he’d entered the bedroom to find juice and crackers on the night table, as well as a power bar. Where the heck did Hank find that? Oh, right… he often had ones in his car.
The man in question was nowhere to be seen, but he’d been right about the shower being good for him. He made short work of the crackers, ate half the power bar, and took more Tylenol before climbing under the covers, not wanting to bother his tired ex again.
His brain was in high gear, and he became seriously afraid as he lay there. Was Hank right? Did he actually want his freedom? Why had he allowed that guy to kiss him? He remembered being flattered with the attention at the time, but he also remembered feeling way too tipsy on the dance floor. He was a lightweight when it came to drinking, and that was probably his biggest mistake. Still,did the kiss mean something… more than he thought? It had been exciting for the first few seconds, until he’d remembered Hank.
For hours he went back and forth, and in the process, found something that made sense. Each time he thought about that night, and Hank’s proposal in particular, he also thought about his mother, and a familiar feeling came over him. He’d never examined it before, just accepting it as sadness, and missing her.
But, it eventually became clear he equated Hank’s proposal with his mother—she loved weddings. A light bulb went on, and he grasped at the answers he’d been searching for. The fact was, he was carrying a sizable amount of guilt over living and being happy, when his mother had spent years in painful hell, right up to those final weeks when the constant but necessary morphine robbed her of all remnants of her dignity. The mother he knew was so suddenly gone, and hers had become the milky, unseeing eyes of a stranger.
His father, her devoted husband, had to leave the continent as a way of dealing with the pain of losing his wife. What fucking right did Chase have to be happy? He was hit with the depth of sorrow still present as he revisited those final years, and now he understood the reason his stomach had sickened and dropped when Hank had knelt before him.
It had been six months since she passed, and that whole time he’d refused to talk about her, with his family, or with Hank. It was illuminating, and he realized something else: his mother would have kicked his ass for feeling this way.
Sitting up in the darkness, he pushed away the always-lurking misery, and examined his thoughts one by one. He began to have an inkling of why he’d acted out the way he did with that stranger—he began to understand a lot of things—and having a possible answer calmed his mind, at least enough to let him slip back into sleep as he slid back down onto the mattress. This time it was a restful one.
Just before his conscious brain turned off, it occurred to him he couldn’t even recall the features of the guy in the bar, not even his eye color.That realization brought his first smile since he’d seen Hank’s horrified face through the partially open doorway of the bathroom stall. Hank was wrong. He harbored no hidden desire for ‘freedom.’
He stretched, the body aches no longer present. It felt good, and he opened his eyes to filtered sunlight. “Hey,” he said to the disheveled man standing over him.
“It’s been four hours. Do I need to ask you the questions?”
“Chase Leeman, at my dad’s condo, twenty nineteen, and I’m fine,” he responded with a smile. “You look beat.”
“I am, a little. I checked your thermometer reading when you were showering last night, and it was normal.”
“I feel fine, Hank. Way better. Hungry, though.” He sat up, the olive green tee shirt reminding him he was wearing his dad’s clothes.
“That’s a good sign.”
“I can’t thank you enough for what you did.”
“It wasn’t a big deal.” He looked away, and Chase sensed an uneasiness in the man.
“Yes, it was. I was sinking back into depression, and we both know it.”
Hank nodded, and then sighed. “If it happens again you have to call someone… and call Dr. Chorney.”
“I will, I promise. I already decided I was going to, but I’m not worried about getting that bad again. I did a lot of thinking, and I can see stuff I couldn’t before. Maybe I… ah… can I buy you breakfast? I’d like to talk to you about it.”
“We already talked.”
“Yeah, but now I understand more about why I did what I did.”
“Good… good for you, but it won’t change anything for me. Look, you’re back to normal, and I have to go.”
“Oh… okay… why, though. You don’t have to go to work, do you?”
“I… I might go in at noon.”
“I see.” Chase did see, and it didn’t ring true.
“You should pick up some of your clothes today… and your other stuff. No rush, though. And you should call Cindy. She called an hour ago, still worried, but I told her you were sleeping peacefully.”
Chase fought a wave of disappointment. It doesn’t change anything for me. He rallied for Hanks sake, pretending it wasn’t a kick to his gut. “I’ll call her. Can I have a hug before you go? I don’t reek anymore.”
Hank smiled, sort of. “I guess… sure.”
Chase squeezed the man once he had him in his arms, but there was no return squeeze. It became awkward fast. “Thanks again,” he said as Hank pulled away and stood up.
“Just, for God’s sake, take care of yourself, Chase, and don’t forget to—”
“Call Cindy… I know.”
Hank left, and Chase’s bruised heart sank. He struggled against the urge to bury himself under the covers. He’d show Hank he wasn’t the mess he’d been for the last couple of years. Yeah, he’d show him. Chase caught himself, realizing it was easier said than done without the man at his side. Groaning in frustration, he felt that little bit of positivity drain away, but he rallied as he thought about what Hank had just done for him. It had to mean something that he stayed the night to keep check on him, didn’t it?
One step at a time. Okay, first, he should call work and apologize to Allan. And then breakfast. No... before food, he needed to book an appointment with Dr. Chorney.
The man had warned him when he went off his meds that it was too soon. Chase hadn’t listened at the time, but he would now. There was too much at stake, and he’d done enough damage already. Hank would be pleased with him.
It felt good to have a purpose, and he headed for his father’s closet. There, he found some newish jeans and a thin, long sleeved pullover. Geez, what was his dad’s fixation with olive green. Maybe he’d take him shopping when he arrived back in the country. They needed to come together as a family again—it’s what his mother would want—and what he needed.
Ten minutes later he was showered and dressed. He was going commando because he just couldn’t bring himself to don a pair of his father’s underwear.
Allan was receptive when he called and opened up to him about what had happened, and he sounded genuinely concerned, telling Chase to take an extra day if needed. He and the new interns could cover for him… nothing was urgent.
Next, he called his psychiatrist’s office, and was pleased to hear they could fit him in that very afternoon.
“I know… I know I’ve been a jerk.”
“I did not call you a jerk!”
Chase sighed… loudly. Cindy had called before he had a chance to do it first, and they’d been talking for enough time he was regretting picking up. “I know you didn’t. I’m saying it, and I’m saying you don’t have to worry about me.”
“You always say that,” she said angrily.
“You’re right, I do.”
“So why should I believe you? You cheated on the greatest guy in the world for Pete’s sake!”
“I did not cheat!”
“Making out with some stranger in a sleazy bathroom isn’t cheating? Tell that to Hank.”
“It wasn’t sleazy… okay, yes, I did that. And yes, that is cheating, and I’ve been beating myself up for it ever since, but….” Damn, this was frustrating.
“You won’t understand, because I barely do and I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Try, Chase. Just bloody well talk to me.” At least she didn’t yell this time.
“Okay,” he said, following up with another loud sigh. “I know I didn’t want that guy—I wasn’t even attracted to him—just the… distraction. I’m pretty sure that… I think I was sabotaging myself in some weird way. That’s what I’ve figured out, anyway, and I know it probably doesn’t make sense to—”
“Because of Mom.”
“I said ‘because of Mom.’ You don’t think you should be happy because it doesn’t seem fair, right?”
“Exactly, it doesn’t seem fair. How did you know?”
“It’s hard for me too, Chase.”
“You feel like that… do that too?”
“Sometimes… I did. Nobody deserves to go through that much pain, and no one as strong as Mom should lose every bit of their strength the way she did. What we have, it’s called survivor’s guilt.”
“Survivor’s… how do you know this stuff?”
“Therapy. I’m still going, but I don’t want Dad to know, okay?”
“Sure. But why not?”
“Because he needs to worry about himself, not us. We lost our mom, but he lost his other half. If I’d said anything to him, he might not have gone on his trip.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure he would have even heard you. So why didn’t you tell me this sooner? It might have helped me.”
“Don’t be so hard on Dad.”
“I’m not. But you have to admit he checked out on us a long time ago.”
“For good reason, Chase.”
“Yeah, I understand why. It’s just... anyway, so why didn’t you tell me about the survivor’s guilt thing?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because of the depression you went through. Or maybe because you don’t open up to me. I ask you questions and you say you’re fine, or it’s no big deal, or things are great. I had to find out from Hank what you did.”
“Because I was ashamed. I still am.”
“I understand, and I’m not trying to give you a hard time. So, what are you going to do? Hank says you’re over.”
“I don’t know if there’s anything I can do. I hurt him, Cind, but I can’t bear to lose him. Who else would have stuck with me like he did? He couldn’t do enough, and I love him so much.”
“And Mom loved him.”
“Yeah, Mom loved him. Before she became… when she could still talk, if I showed up alone she’d ask me where he was, even on the really bad days. He was her son too.” Chase’s emotions rose up, causing tears, and neither sibling spoke for a minute.
“So, have you figured out where you go from here?”
“No frigging idea,” he answered ruefully. “But, I am going to see Dr. Chorney this afternoon. I need to. I used to give him a hard time, but I trust him to steer me the right way.”
“It’s nice to hear you talk like this, Chase.”
“Opening up, talking about Mom again, and taking control of your life.”
He scoffed. “Is that what I’m doing? I feel like I’m going on a wing and a prayer, but I know I can’t hide away. It’s way easy to fall back into that habit, and even harder to get out of it. I couldn’t have done it without Hank, but now I’m on my own.”
“I’m not him, but you got me, little brother, so don’t shut me out, okay?”
“I’ll try, Cindy.”
Thanks for reading. What do you think of Chase's... and Hank's... journey so far? Can you relate? Share your thoughts by commenting, if this story moves you in some way. Cheers!