Authors: Kade Boehme,Allison Cassatta
“What’s up?” he asked lamely.
Riley looked confused at the question but answered anyway. “Um. Sitting here?”
Hunter laughed because Riley’s tone conveyed he wasn’t being a smartass. Hunter realized
was probably a dumb question, though. What could he be up to? Getting meds, maybe, or perhaps eating again?
“Yeah. Silly question, I s’pose.” He was really trying. He found he didn’t want Riley to leave. He was intrigued by Riley, and not just because he was cute.
cute. Even with his scars and the way one of his fingers was a little crooked from having obviously been broken and not set correctly. He was just a good-looking guy. But when he wasn’t being scrappy, when he spoke in his deep, quiet voice, Hunter was lulled into a weird place of not feeling completely adrift in this sea of sterile whites, blinded by the fluorescent suns.
“You feeling okay? I heard you get up a couple times.”
Hunter was embarrassed. He’d hoped he hadn’t awakened his roommate while he was unmanned before the porcelain goddess. Twice.
Riley raised a disbelieving brow. “DT’s?” At Hunter’s grunted response Riley smiled. “They suck. I’ve met a couple guys who’ve gone through ’em here. What’s your DOC?”
Hunter narrowed his eyes at Riley. He’d been talking about his
drug of choice
all morning and wasn’t in the mood. “You’re awful nosy this morning for someone who clams up whenever I ask a question.”
Riley looked away from Hunter, smile dropping from his face. Damn but Hunter hated to see that shy smile disappear. He really was tired of talking about himself, though. Of course, that could be why Riley didn’t want to talk about his issues, either. Hunter decided to change the subject. Anything not to scare Riley off right now. Just… not right now.
“So what were you talking about last night? With the whole Disneyland thing?”
“World, land, whatever. What did you mean?”
There Riley went, clamming up again like he’d been doing all along. His focus shifted from Hunter to the door and back again. He took a breath, then exhaled. “Can I trust you?”
Hunter frowned. How did you answer that? He didn’t know Riley’s story. He didn’t know Riley from Adam. He knew he might like the guy. If they’d been in any other place he’d have hit on him, and if that failed would have at least tried to befriend him. He thought. Maybe? But how could he promise to be trustworthy when he didn’t know what trust meant to Riley? He felt special that Riley had asked. He didn’t seem like he spent much time with the other guys when he and Hunter weren’t in their room. Hell, he didn’t think he even saw Riley speak to anyone, other than a couple of the orderlies and the one old guy Riley had played cards with during breakfast who twitched a lot.
“I guess. I mean, who am I gonna tell anything, right?” He put on the faintest version of the smile he usually used with his friends to get what he wanted. And he wanted Riley’s trust. Or at least to know what he could do not to die of boredom in this place.
Riley didn’t seem to like that response. “You guess?” he asked, expression wary.
Hunter rethought the answer. Riley was not just another guy whose pants he was trying to get into at a party or another friend who he needed help from. Riley was different. Maybe crazy, but at least he was genuine. It’d been a long while since Hunter had met a genuine person.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course you can trust me.”
“Okay, because it’s something Andy told me about, and—”
“Whoa. Who’s Andy?”
And why is this the first I’ve heard about him? Wait. Why do I care?
“No, it’s okay. He was the first friend I made here.”
And do you really want to know the answer to that?
“Was” could mean many things in a place like this.
“Yeah, um…,” Riley croaked, voice awkwardly cracking. He turned rigid again—a sign that the topic of
was uncomfortable for him. Though Hunter hated seeing him tense, curiosity was being a bitch right now. He might watch Riley squirm all damn night just to find out more about Andy.
“He was my first friend here,” Riley said. “He made it better.” His jaw rippled when he lowered his head, and he went right back to rubbing his forearm, as if Hunter were reading the lines of his scars or something. “He died about six months after I got here.”
Hunter ached for Riley. The pain emanating from him was palpable. The emotion of loss that resided deep in Hunter’s heart started knocking on the door he struggled hard to keep closed. He held his breath, waiting for any other emotion to win, anything but more of that deep, aching void that was despair and missing someone who’d become vital to your existence.
“What did he tell you about?” The words struggled their way out of Hunter’s mouth, fighting past the pounding of his heart in his throat. But he had to get through this, had to keep talking.
“It’s a secret place away from this bullshit.” Riley nodded toward the door, meaning he was talking about everything happening outside their shared room. “There’s an entire wing of this place that’s been closed off from everyone. Somewhere we can go without people watching us all the time.”
A secret place? Didn’t that sound promising. Until he thought…, “Wait. Secret place in a mental hospital? Isn’t that how horror movies always start?”
Riley smiled, more to himself than at Hunter, and it was twisted in a way Hunter couldn’t decipher. “When your whole life is a horror movie, what’s a little adventure?”
makes me feel better….”
Riley shrugged. “If you don’t want, you don’t have to go. It’s cool, though. I just need a break from this… place.”
He still wasn’t convinced, but after more days than he could remember now, he’d been picked over, prodded, given blood, vomited, and had a catheter. A
. Administered by a fucking
nurse he didn’t know—but he never remembered anyone, thanks to being drunk. A break sounded nice.
And it’s not like he was housed with sociopaths and killers. His doctor had told him he was housed with other suicide cases, long-term guys with clinical but nonviolent issues, and other mild cases. While he wondered which of those Riley fit into, he didn’t fear for his safety going somewhere with his roommate.
“Okay.” He looked back to Riley, who was studying him, amused this time. “Okay,” he said more confidently. “I’m game.” He tried to sit up, but his stomach roiled from the mixture of detox, pills, and the sharp pain that shot through his ribs. “Um, if we could just wait until I don’t feel like garbage.” He grunted as he fell back down onto his pillow.
Riley laughed quietly.
A spasm of pain shot through his ribs again. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“What’s wrong? You need a nurse?” Riley’s voice was closer, but Hunter couldn’t ascertain where he was because he was lost in a fog of bone-weary tiredness and pain.
“No. No, I’m fine, Riley.”
He heard some shuffling, the
of the door. He hated that Riley had gone, but he figured Riley was trying to give him some—
“Is it your ribs?”
And suddenly a warm hand was under his shirt, rubbing his abused ribs. Nimble if uneven fingers kneaded and stroked his skin. The ache wasn’t gone, but it was eased, if only a bit. His skin raised in goose pimples, moving around with every sweet touch. He let out a sigh and relaxed into his pillows, trying his damnedest not to cry. It’d been so long since he’d been touched in kindness, and this from a complete stranger.
He wanted to hug his roommate but didn’t imagine Riley was the type. Until the bed dipped gently and Riley lay beside him, still stroking his skin, calming him and making his aching body capitulate. He could sleep like this. Forever.
“This okay?” Riley’s breath was on Hunter’s ear. Emotion swelled in his throat, so all he could do was nod. Riley’s breathing huffed, the whisper of a laugh as he continued to lull Hunter into sleep.
“Thank you, Hunter. For helping me.”
Hunter drifted off, warm and feeling safe, smiling.
contented snores were an incredible sound. They meant Hunter had found enough peace to finally sleep. That was important around here. Andy had taught Riley that, and exactly the same way. He’d made himself forget all about it. Until now. Because Andy had turned into one of
—those people who never hang around, despite how badly Riley needed him.
Riley didn’t want to leave that bed, not for a second. He liked this less-alone feeling, this sense of being wanted and welcomed. But he knew morning checks would come shortly after sunrise, and the last thing anyone needed to see was the two of them snuggled up in one bed. So, reluctantly, Riley removed his arms from Hunter’s body, covered him with the blankets, and returned to his own bed.
And that had been the shortest night of Riley’s long life.
He settled into his bed, mussed the sheets to make it look like he’d been there all night, and curled around his pillow. But he wouldn’t use those last few hours of predawn to catch some z’s. Not even close. He was too worried about Hunter and the state of things going on in that body over there to pretend like sleeping was an option.
Every time Hunter shivered, Riley saw it and wanted to warm him. Every time he whimpered, Riley wanted to hold him. It was strange and unsettling, being in the role of nurturer, because Riley had never been that guy before. Now, with Hunter, he thought he could.
He rolled back on his bed, keeping his head turned to the side so as not to miss a single moment, and he waited for his internal clock to sound its alarms. In nineteen months, his body had acclimated to the schedule his scrub-covered friends had forced on him. In a matter of minutes, they would come by and flip on the lights, announce themselves, and announce breakfast.
Breakfast was a special kind of horror. Usually powdered eggs and burned bacon or stale cereal and watery juice. No coffee. They didn’t give the nutcases the hard stuff. Better to keep the crazies sedate. Riley would’ve gladly skipped the fresh hell of breakfast any day, but then he’d be antisocial and uncooperative. Maybe even earn himself a longer stay.
The doorknob jiggled and the hinges squeaked. A soft voice called out, “Checks,” and Riley immediately sat up on his bed.
The whimper from Hunter’s side of the room stole his attention. The covers bunched and tugged, then twisted as Hunter flopped over. He faced Riley now. The lights overhead reflected in the beads of sweat dotting his skin. His face looked paler than it had been last night, eyes darker. Damn, Riley wanted to be in that bed with him.
“You okay over there?” the man in the doorway asked in Hunter’s general direction. Not like he really cared. When Hunter grunted, the man returned an “A’ight, then” and ducked out of their room. They were alone again, not for long, but alone.
Chewing the inside of his cheek, Riley turned and let his legs dangle over the mattress. He locked his hands in the sheets to keep himself anchored where he belonged. The door was still open, meaning anyone could accidentally see them if Riley did make the ballsy move to return to that bed.
“I slept,” Hunter said, voice gravelly but lilting, as though he couldn’t believe he’d actually managed a full night of shut-eye. Riley wondered when he’d last had a full eight.
“That’s good. Right?”
“Yeah.” Hunter finally sat up, dragging his hand over his ear-length blond hair. It was moist, just like his forehead. “Did you—”
“Stay with you all night?”
Heat filled Riley’s face. He suddenly felt incredibly stupid for assuming. He didn’t answer the question for fear of giving his embarrassment away. He worried his voice might crack awkwardly, that it might quiver in all the wrong places.
“Did you… stay with me all night?”
The stare Hunter pinned him with would’ve knocked him on his ass had Riley not been sitting down already. It wasn’t a look of anger. Not the narrowing of eyes or the dilating of pupils. It was hard to explain, but what Riley saw was softness, hope.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “’Til it got close to time for—” Riley nodded at the door. “Didn’t know how you’d feel about them finding us in the same bed.”
“I, um….” Hunter blinked, eyes shining, and turned his face away. “Thanks. I probably wouldn’t have slept at all without you…. You know.”
His looking away nagged at Riley, nagged him to get off his ass and check on his roommate, just to make sure everything was okay. And yet Riley didn’t budge. “You um… looked like you needed… someone.”
Hunter’s gaze slowly came back to meet Riley’s, and he gave a small nod. “That was really nice of you. It really helped. A lot.”
Truthfully, it sorta helped Riley too. Habit and fear kept him away from people, as a rule, anyway. Not with Hunter. He couldn’t keep distance with Hunter. Being close to the guy felt as natural as breathing. Riley blamed that on kindred souls, on two people who just needed someone to care. He assumed Hunter didn’t have anyone like that. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been dumped in a place like Hartfield.