I was awakened from sleep by someone lightly touching my shoulder. My eyes fluttered and then opened. Before us stood Star and my mother. Star managed to awaken Nicky and lift him to his feet.
“Come on, Sleepy Head,” laughed Star. “You two have been knocked out for over three hours.”
I lazily rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “Any news about Joey?”
“A nurse came out and said that his condition was still stable,” she informed me. “So right now, I guess no news is good news.”
“I suppose,” I replied apprehensively.
“Come on.” She grabbed my hand and started to lead me away. “We’re finally getting to go home. The police got a court order and had the media removed from outside our homes. They said it had something to do with obstructing the flow of traffic.”
“Good,” I replied happily. “I’m exhausted.” I hurried to join Nicky and my mother who were standing at the elevator. Nicky’s eyes were closed, and he looked like he was ready to fall down. I walked over and put my arm around his waist to steady him. He looked sleepily at me and smiled.
“Hey, Uncle Gene.” I tightened my grip around his waist. “We get to go home.” I nodded as the elevator doors opened. I had to carry him inside.
On the way home we discussed what would be best for Nicky. Star insisted that he should stay with her and Ticker. Mom argued that he should stay at her home where he had his own bedroom, my former room.
“Besides,” she remarked. “Tina is there now, and he won’t be alone in the house with me.”
“Tina?” I asked. I had almost forgotten that she was flying back.
“She arrived about two hours ago,” mother replied. “She was going to come to the hospital, but I told her that we would be returning home shortly.”
My mother finally won the argument. I think Star and Ticker wanted to go home and spend time with their own children. I’m sure they wanted a chance to explain things to Jeffrey and JoEllen. It would be more difficult if Nicky were present.
Tina was pacing around the living room when we finally entered the house. Since Nicky had fallen asleep in the back seat of the car, I had carried him in my arms into the house. Tina seemed surprised when she saw me holding Nicky.
“Is the boy all right?” She asked as she approached us. She looked down at the sleeping figure in my arms.
“The boy has a name,” I answered defensively. “His name is Nicky.” I turned and carried him up to the bedroom. He didn’t resist as I removed his clothing and dressed him in a pair of pajamas I found in a dresser drawer. After kissing him on his forehead, I turned out the light and headed downstairs.
My mother and Tina were in the family room. Tina was at the bar making them a drink. “What would you like, Gene?” she asked. “The usual? Bourbon on the rocks?”
“Just a coke,” I responded as I plopped down in a chair.
“What?” She spun and asked incredulously. “You don’t want a drink?”
I hissed, “I said I just wanted a coke. Anything wrong with that?”
Her face reddened and she replied softly, “No, Dear.” I looked over at my mother. She was worriedly watching our exchange.
We sat for about twenty minutes and filled Tina in on what had happened since she left. Since she and Joey were close, she began to cry several times. My mother sat beside her and comforted her. She motioned for me to come over and comfort Tina, but I ignored her.
It was after one in the morning when Tina and I finally climbed the stairs to the guest bedroom. I was hoping to slip into bed and get a good night’s sleep; however, Tina quickly changed my plans.
“I’m so glad that Joey is doing better,” she stated as she prepared for bed. “I know you’ll be happy to be able to return home in a few days. Mr. Jefferson called yesterday, and he’s looking forward to you returning to work soon. I told him I’d have you call him as soon as we got back.”
I turned and faced her defiantly. “I’m not going back.” She stiffened and then smiled meekly.
“Of course, Dear,” she said dismissively. “I understand. You’ll need a few more days.”
“You don’t understand, Tina,” I replied forcefully. “I’m not going home. Joey and Nicky need me here.”
Her eyes narrowed as she studied my defiant attitude. “What do you mean they need you here? I need you back home.”
I walked over and yanked the pillow off the bed. “I don’t want to discuss this now. I’m too tired and I may say some things I don’t mean to. We’ll talk about this later.” I turned and headed for the door.
Before closing it, I heard her cry, “Gene, wait!”
“Joey?” Someone was shaking my shoulder gently. I mumbled something incoherently, but I wasn’t sure what I’d said.
“Doctor!” the voice in the distance said excitedly. “He’s coming around.”
I was trying to understand what was going on. I had a sensation of my body being poked and prodded, but I couldn’t respond. I squinted when a bright light hit my eyes.
“Excellent!” I heard a male voice respond. Then someone took my hand and asked loudly, “Dr. Carpenter, can you hear me? If you can, squeeze my hand.”
With great effort I managed to move my hand. “Excellent!” The voice sounded enthusiastic. I could feel my legs being lifted and I winced when I felt a needle penetrate my foot. Again, I heard the voice exclaim, “Excellent!”
I could hear muted talking, and then the room became silent. I’m not sure how long it remained that way. The next thing I can recall is being startled by someone gripping my left hand.
“Hey, Joey.” It was Star’s voice! I felt her lips on my forehead. I then felt her hand brushing against my cheek.
Another hand gripped my right hand. “It’s me, Joey.” At first I didn’t recognize the voice. “It’s me, Gene.” I felt his lips on my forehead. “We’re here with you, Joey. You’re not alone.” I squeezed his hand tightly and tried to force my eyes open. I saw a beam of light and winced. When I tried again, I could make out fuzzy faces before me.
“I think he’s trying to wake up,” Star said excitedly. “Joey, can you hear me?”
“Star,” I muttered. My mouth felt dry. It was as if it contained cotton. My eyelids fluttered, and bursts of light came rushing in.
“Don’t talk.” It was Gene’s voice once again. “Everything will be all right.”
I tried to sit up, but I was immediately struck with immense pain. I gasped for air and began coughing. I was aware of a figure entering the room and placing a needle in my arm. Seconds later, I was sleeping peacefully.
The waiting room burst into applause when Star and I explained what had happened in Joey’s room minutes earlier. It appeared he was beginning to wake up from his ordeal. We were encouraged by his attempt to speak to us.
Nicky started crying and had to be led away by my mother and Ticker. I watched carefully as they comforted him in a corner. People all around us began to hug one another. A girl I had never met before walked up and threw her arms around me. “Thank you, Mr. Albright,” she whispered in my ear.
I walked over and stood beside Nicky. When he realized it was me, he turned and gave me a tight hug. “You kept your promise, Uncle Gene!” I pulled him into my chest. When I looked over his head, I saw Tina sitting on a sofa intently watching us. Our eyes met briefly before she shook her head and looked away.
I knelt down before Nicky and took his hands. “He still has a long way to go, Nicky.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “But we’ll both be there to help him through this, okay?” He nodded his head, and then he leaned in and hugged me once again.
Suddenly, there was commotion coming from the door across the room. I stood and saw a tall boy enter. Many of the people in the room rushed over and began talking to him.
Ticker shouted, “Holy Shit!”
“Who is it?” I asked as Ticker started to head toward the boy.
“It’s Douglas Campbell,” he informed me. “He’s the boy who was shot in Joey’s office.”
I watched as people hugged him. Most of them had tears in their eyes. It was obvious he was moved by the attention he was getting. Ticker walked up and pulled him into a hug. The boy winced, and Ticker apologized for being so careless. I later learned that he had been shot in the shoulder.
Ticker led the boy over and introduced him. “Douglas,” he said, “This is Gene Albright, Dr. Carpenter’s brother-in-law.”
A startled look appeared on his face. He turned to Ticker and said, “I thought Doc was never mar..” He suddenly looked back at me and shook my hand. “Oh, I see.”
“Are you feeling better?” I asked.
“Yes, Sir,” he replied. “The medication has taken away much of the pain. It doesn’t hurt unless a certain literature teacher gives me a bear hug.” I looked at Ticker’s red face. Douglas hit him playfully on the arm.
Two boys who were holding hands walked up and stood beside Douglas. “This is Travis Armstrong,” introduced Ticker, “and his partner, Jason Thompson.” They made such a cute couple, I couldn’t help but smile.
Douglas nudged Travis in the side. “He’s Doc’s brother-in-law.”
Jason responded, “I thought Dr. Carpenter was an only child, and he was never married.”
“I think Doc didn’t tell us the whole story of his life,” laughed Douglas.
Everyone started laughing when Travis scratched his head and said, “I’m stuck on stupid. I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll fill you in later,” laughed Jason. He kissed Travis on the cheek. “It was nice meeting you, Gene.” They turned and walked across the room still holding hands. I watched as they talked to others. No one seemed to pay any attention to their affectionate behavior.
Douglas turned to me and asked, “I was told that you saw Doc earlier today. How is he doing?”
“He seems to be doing much better,” I replied. “He was able to say a few words today. His doctor seems optimistic.”
He looked over to where Travis and Jason were standing talking to other students. “You know he’s a hero. He tried to fight the coach off of me, and he stepped in front of Travis and took the bullet that was meant for him. We’d probably all be dead if he hadn’t stopped Coach Arnold.”
“He only did what he felt he had to do,” I said with emotion. “That’s the kind of person he is.”
“He’ll always be a hero to me,” responded Douglas. “I’m alive today because of him.” He turned and walked away. Soon several people, including Travis and Jason, were gathered around him.
I looked on with admiration. If only students had accepted gay students so readily when I was in high school. My life may not have been as tragic as it was if I could have come out and been accepted by my classmates.
It had to be done. Tina had been watching me intently all day. Being an attorney, I’m sure she had thoroughly analyzed the situation at the hospital and come to a final verdict. The way I felt about Joey was obvious, even my own mother said it was. My protective nature concerning Nicky was also suspect. I knew sooner or later she’d figure it out, if she hadn’t already.
Unfortunately, I decided that discussing it in a public place would be best. I thought we could discuss my feelings for Joey without creating an argument. I was wrong.
I took her to the Empire Steak House, one of the classiest restaurants in town. I had reserved a private table in the back so we could talk without others listening to our conversation. When we arrived, a bottle of champagne was already at the table.
“You look lovely tonight, Tina,” I remarked as I pulled back her chair.
“I was surprised by your invitation to dinner,” she replied. “It’s been ages since we ate out like this.”
“It has, hasn’t it?” I said as I sat down. I looked across the table. Tina was stunning. She had on a black evening gown with a sapphire necklace I had given her on our tenth anniversary. Several men had admired her as we walked to the table, and a couple of women looked at her with envy.
I poured her a glass of champagne, and we clinked our glasses together in a toast. A handsome young man named Peter approached the table and told us he’d be our waiter for the evening. He handed us a menu and asked if we’d like a hors d’oeuvre.
“We’ll start off with a shrimp cocktail,” I replied after scanning the menu.
“Good choice, Sir,” Peter responded graciously. “The shrimp are excellent.” He turned quickly and left.
Tina looked across the table and smiled. “What’s the reason for all this? I feel like we did when we were dating in college. You were such a gentleman, and we were so much in love.” She reached across the table and took my hand. I immediately pulled it away. She looked up and stared into my face. She studied me for a minute before speaking.
“You’re not in love with me, are you Gene?” I dropped my head. What could I say?
“Have you ever been in love with me?” I looked up and saw tears in her eyes. Again, words couldn’t come from my mouth.
“Answer me!” she said loudly. “Have you ever loved me?”
I quickly looked around the restaurant. A couple a few feet away had stopped eating and looked over.
“Shhh,” I said as I attempted to quiet her. “People are starting to stare.” She looked over at the couple and squinted her eyes threatening. They quickly looked away.
“I don’t care if people hear me,” she said louder. “Do..You..Love..Me?” Her voice was low and intimidating as she stressed the words.
Tears started to form in my eyes. It was the moment of truth. I’d been living a lie, and now I had to face reality. I looked into her tear-stained face.
She picked up the glass of champagne and tossed it in my face. “You bastard!” she shouted. “I’ve been waiting patiently on you all these years! For what? For you to tell me you don’t love me!”
I looked around the restaurant. The room was quiet, and everyone was listening to our conversation. Peter walked up, but when Tina turned and gave him an intimidating look, he walked away. She then turned back to me.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” I put my head in my hands. She stood, looked down at me and shouted, “Isn’t it? You’re in love with Joey!”
I looked up at her, unable to speak. There was nothing to say. She could look in my face and see the truth. My mother told me it was obvious. She stepped over before me and slapped my face. Several people let out a gasp.
“Bastard!” she shouted once again. She then turned and walked down the aisle with her head held high. Everyone in the restaurant was staring at me.
Peter ran up to the table and asked, “Is everything all right, Sir?” Another gentleman who I presumed was the manager of the restaurant stepped up beside him.
“Yes, Peter,” I replied. “Everything is all right.” I then handed him a hundred dollar bill. “I think that will take care of everything. Whatever is left over, you keep for yourself.”
“Thank you, Sir,” he replied excitedly. “Thank you very much.” I then stood up, threw my shoulders back and walked down the aisle with all eyes staring at me.
Deep inside, I felt miserable for the way I had deceived Tina. The hurt look on her face when I told her I didn’t love her will be etched forever in my memory. It was never my intention to hurt her. However, I also felt a strange sense of relief. Pandora’s Box had been opened and the truth was finally revealed.
Now, the only person who didn’t know was Joey.
When I exited the restaurant, I saw a bar across the street. A sign was flashing in the window, Lazy Betty’s. I crossed the street and entered the bar. I was surprised to find that it was a gay bar. The music was loud, and a number of men were dancing on the dance floor located in the center of the bar.
“What will it be?” The bartender asked as I sat down. He seductively ran his eyes over my body. “New in town? I’ve never seen you in here before.”
“I grew up here,” I replied, “but I moved away a few years ago.”
“What brought you back?” he asked.
“My father died,” I replied.
“Sorry,” he apologized. Why I don’t know. He didn’t know me or my father. “So, what will it be?”
“A coke,” I responded. He stepped back and looked at me.
“Just a coke?” He leaned on the bar and faced me. “How can I seduce you if you’re only drinking a coke?”
“Never mind,” I said angrily as I pushed myself away from the bar.
“Hey, Buddy!” he shouted as I walked out the door. “I was just kidding.”
As I exited the bar, I realized that I had no transportation. I looked down the street where I had parked the car and it was gone. Tina took it when she left.
I sighed and started walking down the sidewalk. I had about a three mile walk to my mother’s house. I was in no hurry because I knew Tina would be there. By now I’m sure she had told my mother about me. I would love to have seen the look on her face when she realized that my mother already knew.
I had walked about six blocks when I came to a bridge. I stood in the middle and looked down at the rushing water below. For some reason the bridge seemed familiar. I could recall Allen telling me about it once when I took him for a ride just months before he died. He said he met Joey here, but he didn’t go into detail.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to me. Could this be my bridge? Could it be my bridge to yesterday? I looked back to where I had been walking. I could see the street lights burning brightly. The truth had been finally been revealed. The lie I had been living with Tina was over.
I turned and looked the opposite way. It was more dimly lit; but looking ahead I could see a tall building illuminated with lights. It was Lee General Hospital. I turned and looked back one last time, and then I started walking from the bridge. I was crossing my bridge to tomorrow.