Andy Tyler has been the class daredevil since middle school. Over the years, he’s convinced his best friend, Jake Masterson, to perform some dangerous-looking stunts with him. But the dare they attempt on the night of their college graduation goes sideways. The firecrackers explode too soon and both of them end up with badly burned palms.
But hey, nothing gets the “terrible two-o” down for long, and they recuperate in style at Andy’s family cottage in Cape Cod. As the weeks go by, both Andy and Jake grow frustrated over the inability to use their hands for all sorts of daily activities—including getting off. So Andy begins a new series of dares that don’t just cross the friendship line, they obliterate it.
But what might be mere sexual relief to Andy is serious business to Jake, who only recently got over years of secret pining for his straight best friend. Inevitably, the burns heal, summer ends, and hearts are broken. To fix things, Andy will have to face the greatest dare of all.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“. . . two . . . three . . . four . . .” Andy’s count was infuriatingly slow. The lit firecrackers we held sparked and sizzled. A mix of exhilaration and dread made goose bumps break out all over my body.
We stood next to a swimming pool at a private party in Brooklyn. It was the night of our college graduation, and maybe that made everyone crazier than usual. Andy was definitely in peak crazy zone tonight. He and I stood facing one other, a brown-wrapped firecracker the size and shape of a hotdog lying across each of our four palms. The base of my spine tingled and my heart pumped ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum, like the strokes on a drum on a slave ship in some old movie.
God, I never felt more alive than when Andy and I were performing a stunt!
This particular trick had started with Andy showing up by the pool, holding aloft four candle bombs. “Where’s my man Jake?” he’d called out.
I’d been in position near the pool, pretending to listen to a group conversation. At Andy’s prompt, I stepped forward. “What are you doing, bro?”
He brandished the firecrackers. “You and me, Jakey. We light these puppies and hold on to them for the count of ten. You in?”
The crowd reaction washed over us in an electric rush. There were hoots of encouragement from the guys, and some girls lost their shit, especially Andy’s girlfriend, Amber. God, it was great. Andy was a show-off, and I was always willing to get swept along in his wild wake. His eyes stayed locked on me, but I knew he was soaking in every mote of the attention as everyone at the party gathered around the pool to see what would happen.
Andy drew attention naturally. He was so damn good-looking and charismatic with his bleached-blond hair, huge blue eyes, and wide smile. When he wasn’t being all serious, when he was playful and wild and free and reckless like he was tonight, no one could resist him.
Certainly not me. Never me. Though I pretended otherwise.
“It’s too dangerous,” I said with a pfft of dismissal. “You’ve lost your mind.”
“Only the good die young, man. Come on.”
“No way.” I shook my head, my voice firm. “We’ll blow our hands off. You’re crazy.”
“I dare ya, Jake Masterson. I. Dare. You.” He continued to hold out the firecrackers.
“Stop it!” Amber insisted. “Andy, please.”
There were hoots in the crowd. More people came out of the house to watch.
With a dramatic roll of my eyes, and a loud grumble about death wishes and how dangerous it was, I slowly reached out and took two of the firecrackers, acting all reluctant. Andy loved to fuck with people’s heads, and he said I was the best wingman ever. I certainly did my best to help freak people out.
He held up the two brown-wrapped candle bombs he still had left. “Right, then! Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, or however you define your innies and outties, I give you . . . the last great dare of NYU class of 2017!”
There were smatterings of applause and more rumbles of worry and fear. Yeah. We had them hooked.
“We’ll need four volunteers with lighters or matches.” I held out my open hands, rolling each firecracker so it was positioned partially off the side of my palm, wick facing out.
He did the same as four guys came up, lighters in hand. Andy eyed my palms to make sure I’d positioned the firecrackers just so.
“Drop them, you guys! I swear to God!” That was Amber. Her voice sounded both tearful and angry. “This isn’t funny!”
“No shit. Dudes! You’re going to get yourselves killed!” some random guy called out.
But Andy’s blue eyes had danced with life, brighter than the lit fuses, the way they only did when he was putting himself, and usually me too, in imminent danger, when he was willfully breaking every damn rule. His eyes had stayed locked on mine while a naughty grin beamed on his face. That grin said: You and me, Jakey. You and me.
“. . . seven . . . eight . . .”
I inched my hands higher, prepared to toss the firecrackers into the pool the second he got to—
“. . . nine . . .”
That’s when the world exploded.
* * * * * * *
I could blame that infamous firecracker dare on the two beers I’d had at the party, but that would be a lie. The truth was, I’d been itching for trouble before we’d even arrived.
I had to pick up Amber, so Jake took the train with a few other students to the party. The graduation bash was being hosted by some guy whose parents were out of town. It sounded like a nice change from the usual frat parties, a chance to get off campus, and there was supposed to be a pool. So everyone we knew said they were going. When I got to the house, I started walking around with Amber holding on to a back loop of my jeans. I was looking for a) beer and b) Jake.
I found the beer keg first. I poured a glass for Amber and me, and drank mine fast. Refilled my glass. Amber started to talk to some girl she knew, and I went looking for Jake. I finally spotted him talking to a brunette off in a corner of the living room. She was his type—bookish but cute, petite, part Asian, and wearing librarian glasses. She laughed at something he said, totally focused on him. And why wouldn’t she be? Jake had clearly made an effort for the party. He had on a purple, long-sleeve, button-down shirt that made his pale skin and dark hair look paler and darker than usual. The shirt was fitted, and his jeans too. He wasn’t a huge guy, but he had a great face and big brown eyes. He looked good. He also seemed to like the girl he was chatting up. Only someone who knew him well, the way I did, would see he was nervous talking to her. His throat had light-pink blotches, and he licked his lips more often than usual.
Watching them, I felt a rush of jealousy. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. It was ridiculous, and I knew it. It wasn’t that I was jealous about the girl. Whatever. No, but this was our last night out together before Jake left for California. The “terrible two-o,” as Jake jokingly called us, was breaking up. He’d landed a real job with a software company and I, I was headed to Harvard Law. Jake insisted we’d still be in touch and all that, but it wouldn’t be the same. Jake was going off to his adult life, and I’d be on the other side of the country. For tonight, at least, I wanted to spend time with my best friend. I wanted Jake’s attention on me.
Instead of interrupting him, I headed outside to poke around, get the lay of the land. That reckless itch was building inside me, pushing me to act. I needed something, something dangerous, something exciting. I just didn’t know what it was going to be. I contemplated the pool for a moment, but there were too many people already in it, and I couldn’t come up with any brilliant stunt to do in a pool.
The garage door was open and the lights were on. There was an extra keg in there, waiting to be summoned. I looked around on the shelves, bypassing tools and cans of oil, various balls and sporting gear. That’s when I found the box of firecrackers.
* * * * * * *
“It’ll be awesome!” I put my hand on Jake’s arm. I kept my voice low and looked around to make sure we were alone in the garage. “I just tested one. I counted to fifteen before it went off. I’ll make the dare for ten and we’ll have five seconds to spare. We’ll stand by the pool and toss them in the minute I reach the count.”
Jake crossed his arms and looked at me with that mix of I-want-to-but-I-don’t on his face. “What if it goes off early? We could get seriously fucked up.”
“Won’t happen. And even if it does, we’ll be fine. Watch.” I placed the firecracker across my open palm so that the wick and a good inch of the cardboard tube was hanging off the side.
“A firecracker is an explosion. When it goes off, it’s going to expand and it’ll use the path of least resistance. With our hands open, all the energy would go up into the air. Whoosh.” I mimicked the explosion with the outspread fingers of my other hand. “Our palms would barely be scratched. Now this—” I closed my fist around the firecracker and gripped it tight in a fist. “This would be stupid. The energy of the explosion would have nowhere to go, so it’d rip up skin and bones, but like this . . .” I went back to the open palm. “It’s harmless. Trust me. But, fuck, it’ll look dangerous, won’t it? People will lose their shit.” I grinned at him.
I could tell I’d hooked Jake. He might deny it, but he got off on our stunts as much as I did. He pursed his lips as if trying not to smile, then he did anyway, unable to contain it. “You’re the best bullshitter I ever met. Like, if bullshitting were an Olympic sport, you’d be Michael Phelps. You know that, right?”
I felt a glow of pleasure at his words. “It’s called showmanship, my friend. So wanna do it? This is the last time. Our last dare. We’ll go out legends.”
He snorted. “Hopefully the ‘going out’ part will be figurative and not literal.”
Yeah, he was totally caving. I gave him puppy-dog eyes to seal the deal. I was manipulating him a little, but Jake knew me well enough to be on to me. And the sucky thing was, it actually was the last time. The last time for the Andy and Jake Show, for the “two guys who’ll do anything.” I knew it, and I hated it. Despite my excitement over the stunt, a nasty pang twisted in my gut.
“One last dare, Jake. You up for it?” I pushed, more to assuage the pang than because I really doubted he’d agree. I held out my fist.
He nodded slowly and bumped my hand. “Let’s do this, then. The last show.”
“The last show,” I agreed.
In the end, it turned out the information I’d quickly read on a blog about firework explosions wasn’t entirely accurate.
That night at the hospital was a living hell. The nurses woke me up constantly. I’d hit my head pretty good on the concrete lip of the pool after the firecrackers exploded, and I had the goose egg to prove it. They kept waking me every few hours on concussion watch. I wanted to sob, Just let me fucking sleep.
Besides the irritating pupil-check brigade, my hands hurt like a son of a bitch. They were both wrapped wrist to fingertip in bulky bandages like a prize fighter. It was kind of a cool look—Andy would probably like it. If not for, you know, the burns. It felt like the bandages were lined with ground glass or maybe razor blades. Even twitching a finger caused a sensation like my skin was being ripped off. And, of course, twitching was exactly what I did every time the nurses asked me about the pain.
I was on some good drugs, and if I could keep my hands perfectly motionless, the pain faded away. But they were hands. I would unconsciously go to move them—to pull up the sheet, scratch my nose, or reach for the glass by my bed—and I’d be in agony again. The actual pain level had to be bad if it hurt that much despite the drugs. On top of that, the reality of what had happened was slowly sinking in.
This wasn’t like any of the other stunts Andy and I had pulled over the years. I’d never gotten hurt before, at least not seriously. In fact, I’d gotten way more cuts and bruises playing one-on-one basketball or touch football with Andy than I had on our dares. But this . . . this was going to be a serious problem. I didn’t know how serious until I talked to the doctor. The nurses promised me he’d be by first thing in the morning.
Dr. Benji came in just before 8 a.m. He looked like he was playing dress-up in his lab coat. It had a jaunty belt at the waist and was a blinding shade of pure white that was matched only by the brilliance of his teeth. He was Asian, had straight black hair past his shoulders, probably weighted ninety pounds soaking wet, and appeared to be about my age. Seriously. If I’d been a bar bouncer, there was no way I’d be fooled by his fake ID. As a physician, he wasn’t exactly confidence inspiring.
“Hey there! I’m Dr. Benji!” He grinned. Then he pouted his lips. “You boys are lucky to not have lost some fingers.” He waggled his own fingers at me.
“It wasn’t supposed to actually be dangerous,” I muttered.
Dr. Benji stared at me, a little frown between his eyes. “Holding on to a lit firecracker is not dangerous? How do you figure that, buddy?”
“Uh, well, they were in our open palms.” I went to demonstrate by moving my hands and winced at the pain, giving up instantly. I gritted my teeth as the sharp daggers subsided. “The . . . the explosion was supposed to go upward and . . .”
I trailed off, seeing the wide-eyed disbelief on Dr. Benji’s face. He was studying me like I was a total and complete idiot. He had a point.
“Never mind,” I said.
He glanced at my chart, flipped a page. “Okay! So. Second- and third-degree burns on pretty much the underside of your entire hand. Both hands. Um-hmm. Um-hmm.” He looked up, his eyes bright and cheerful. “Yup. Pretty bad. Hope you don’t have any exciting plans for the summer, Mr. Masterson.”
I regarded my two mummy-wrapped hands, feeling the first wafts of panic. “But . . . how long do I need to wear these?”
“Six to eight weeks, buster. You need to use your hands as little as possible. The less you use, the quicker you heal. Got it? So I hope you have a patient girlfriend.” He tittered.
My mind immediately went into the gutter.
It must have shown on my face, because Dr. Benji’s mouth dropped open and his cheeks pinkened. “For feeding you! And helping you dress. Things like, um, that.” His eyes went wide with embarrassment and he stared back down at my chart. “Okay! So, you are very lucky. You narrowly escaped the need for skin grafting. Or, you know, losing your entire hand at the wrist. But still. The damage is serious. The top layers of your skin were fried. Kind of like sausages on a grill.”
“So it will take a while for what itsy bitsy layer of healthy skin you have left to heal and grow new layers. You know? And for the damaged layers to peel off.” He was back to his cheerful tone. “So. No using your hands, right? You damage that last bit of good skin, you may yet end up with surgery and skin grafts. Let’s avoid that, whaddya say?” He winked.
Now it was my turn to stare. “When you say ‘no using your hands,’ do you mean I won’t be able to type?”
Dr. Benji laughed with genuine amusement. “Heavens no! Definitely no typing. That’s the last thing you should do. That would pull all kinds of skin and tendons.” He mocked typing in the air with delicate fingers. “Plus, it would hurt like a bear. No, you want to keep your hands as immobile as possible until your new skin is completely healed.”
“Oh shit.” I wanted to cover my face with my hands, but just starting to bring them up reminded me of the inadvisability of that idea. And that made me realize how hard this was going to be. Every other minute I was going to start to do something only to realize I couldn’t do it. And that was just ordinary day-to-day stuff. That didn’t even touch on my job, which I was supposed to be starting in two weeks.
For a moment I imagined myself showing up for work with my hands bandaged like this. Hey, here I am, reporting for duty! One small thing, though—I can’t type, hope that’s okay. Or hold a pen. Or open my desk drawers. Or even, you know, get inside the damn building, because I can’t grasp the door handle. Other than that, I’m raring to go!
I closed my eyes and groaned. Dread and a sense of shame at having been very, very foolish prickled my neck and tightened my belly. I was so, so screwed. I was so getting Andy back for this.
Only the moment I thought it, I realized something that hadn’t occurred to me: Andy had been holding firecrackers too.
My eyes flew open. “Shit. My friend Andy. Is he okay? He didn’t lose any fingers, did he?” I couldn’t even imagine that. Andy was so physical. The entire world was like one huge game to him. If he didn’t have a ball of some sort in his hands, it was a stick or a dart or a bat. He had beautiful hands, crazy dexterous. Not that I thought a lot about my best friend’s hands.
Okay, I did. I thought a lot about my best friend’s hands.
Dr. Benji relieved my fears. “He’s in the same boat you are, pretty much.” He winked at me again. “Which means the two of you will need someone else to paddle.” He laughed, ho ho ho, at his own joke.
This guy was a real comedian.
“So he didn’t require skin grafts either?”
“Not so far. And he won’t if he’s careful and follows doctor’s orders, just like you.” He gave me a warning glare that was as harmless as the bark of a Chihuahua. “Look at the bright side, though! Turns out you don’t have a concussion and you won’t have much scarring in the end. Cool, right?” He raised his hand up for a high five, and then, as if remembering I wasn’t supposed to move my hand, grimaced and dropped it again. “So, uh, yeah. See ya, sport. Okay? Hey, watch out for the lime Jell-O!”
He walked out, laughing. Jesus Christ. Fucking modern healthcare.
I lay in the hospital bed trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do now. I needed to call my sister, Sierra, and confess how royally I’d screwed up. She was two years older than me, and had helped me get a job as a programmer at the company where she worked, Neverware. And then what? I was supposed to move to California on Saturday. Could I even travel like this? No way could I move boxes or drive my car. Hell, I couldn’t even get my dick out of my pants to take a piss.
Holy crap. How was I going to eat?
It struck me that I was helpless as a baby. And that was for at least six weeks, maybe as long as eight. What was the point of going to California if I couldn’t work? A programmer needed to type. That was pretty much a minimum skill set right there. I couldn’t stay on campus, our place was already rented out to someone else. And wherever I landed, I’d need someone to take care of me.
My summer was ruined. And maybe more than that too.
On the bright side, I could ask the nurse to bring me a couple of servings of that lime Jell-O. Maybe I’d get lucky and that shit would kill me.
* * * * * * *
The first thing I saw when I woke up in the hospital was my dad. He was sitting in a chair drawn up close to my bed, watching me with a blank face.
I closed my eyes again, inwardly groaning. Oh God, what had I done to deserve this hell? My hands were both bandaged and hurting. Worse, Jake was hurt too. I wasn’t even sure how badly he’d been hurt, because we’d been driven to the hospital in separate cars. The nurse in the ER told me he hadn’t lost any digits and was “doing as well as could be expected,” but I was still worried. Now on top of all that I had to deal with my father. Talk about a seriously crappy day.
“I know you’re awake, Andrew. So you might as well stop pretending.”
I opened my eyes. Looking at my dad was like looking into a mirror that aged me twenty-five years. His face had a few lines and his blond hair was gray at the temples, but mostly he seemed old because of the serious set of his . . . everything. He wore glasses and dress pants, a shirt, and a tie, even now. What was it, like, 8 a.m.? He and my mom had been at my graduation the day before, but drove home after the ceremony. It was a four-hour drive from our house near Boston to NYU, so, yeah, he couldn’t have been happy to have to turn around and drive right back. I could add exhaustion to the list of his reasons to be pissed at me. Wonderful.
“What on earth were you thinking?” he asked.
I swallowed, but my throat felt like I’d been snacking on a bucket of sand. “Coffee?” I croaked.
“Coffee,” he muttered with a huff, as though I’d asked for a hit of meth. He grabbed a glass with a sippy straw from the nightstand and held it up for me. I struggled upright a little on my elbows and drank. It was warm water that tasted vaguely of chemicals. It was disgusting, but at least it soothed my throat.
“Well, Andrew,” my dad began as he put the glass back, “you’ve ruined your summer, if not your entire future. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.”
I bit back a sarcastic reply. There was no escaping this ordeal of a conversation, so I had to grit my teeth and bear it. And, to be honest, I deserved it. I had miscalculated. Hugely. I should never have rushed a stunt like that. I should have tested those firecrackers way more thoroughly. Damn it. I’d hurt myself, but more importantly, I’d hurt Jake. And that was unacceptable. This convo with my dad was just the cherry on top of the shit pile.
“My future is not going to be ruined if I don’t get to work at Kosen & Kosen this summer,” I said calmly, trying to keep the conversation from escalating.
“It was on your five-year plan,” Dad pointed out.
“I know that. But I’m just starting Harvard Law in the fall. It’s not like I won’t have other opportunities for internships.”
He frowned. “Letting down a prestigious agency at the last minute is the perfect way to ruin your reputation before you even get started. And there’ll be a suspicious gap on your résumé.”
God, my résumé. The holy fucking grail. It wasn’t as if other twenty-two-year-old future lawyers didn’t have a single summer in their lives when they didn’t work. I was sure there had to be others who were backpacking in Europe, or sailing around the Bahamas—or lying around recovering from burns.
“I’m injured, Dad.” I sounded more irritated than I should have. “I have a good excuse for bailing on my internship. And it’s not like I was going to be that valuable at Kosen & Kosen anyway. It was just a clerk job.”
My mom had gotten me that internship—not at her law firm, that would be too nepotistic, but at a firm she worked with frequently. I’d gotten the impression it was more a favor to her than a critical need for my help on their part.
My dad’s frown didn’t shift one iota. “Obviously, you’ll have to say you were injured, but we need to come up with a story about how it happened. You certainly can’t tell them you were doing something idiotic on a dare. No one wants a lawyer who has no ability to foresee the most obvious consequences.”
I gritted my teeth harder.
My dad’s voice softened, became more worried than angry. “What were you thinking, Andrew? I’d really like to understand. The nurse said you were both holding lit firecrackers? Were you drunk? High? Was it Jake’s idea? I thought you were finally done with all that nonsense.”
There was so much wrong with that statement. A spark of anger flared in my chest. I hated it when my dad talked smack about Jake. And yes, I did sometimes get drunk. But I was way more responsible than most guys my age. My dad didn’t have to act like I was a loser. Not when I’d busted my ass doing what he wanted for so many years. Hell, I’d just graduated at the top of my class at NYU.
“It was my idea, not Jake’s,” I said in a low, tight voice. “It was a stunt that went wrong, that’s all. Yes, it was stupid, but I can’t change it now.”
“A stunt! You and your interest in David Blaine and all that magic nonsense. It’s enough of a waste of time that you watch it on video or read about it. But to try to do it? Don’t you realize these things are dangerous? What is the point?”
I was surprised he even knew I was into David Blaine. So he actually paid attention to the shows I watched or books I read? The thought was worrying.
“Sometimes there isn’t ‘a point,’” I said calmly. “Sometimes you do things because they’re funny. Or exciting. Or they seem like a good idea at the time. I already admitted the firecracker idea was dumb. It was a mistake, and I should have been better than that. What else do you want me to say?” I started to clench my fists, as I often did when talking to my dad. Agony shot through both hands, making me writhe on the bed.
Fucking hell. Don’t move your hands. Idiot.
“Should I ring for the nurse?” my dad asked worriedly. He reached out and brushed the hair out of my eyes. Crap. Just when I wanted to shut him out, he had to be nice.
“No, I’m fine.” I gasped through the pain. I already felt loopy from the drugs they’d given me overnight. I just needed to . . . not move. I lay there, staring at the ceiling and panting.
“Mom?” I asked to change the subject.
“She was going to come back with me, but I told her not to. The doctor who called us said it wasn’t critical, and your mother had a full slate of meetings this morning. But she sends her love. I need to text her and let her know how you’re doing.”
“Okay.” I let my breath out slowly as the pain began to fade—thank fuck.
“Well,” my dad said grudgingly. “From what I understand there’ll be no permanent damage. I hate to say it, but maybe this injury will turn out to be a good thing. Maybe this is what you needed to finally wise up and stop with this daredevil business. It’s time to grow up, Andrew. Your entire future is on the line now.”
He was right. My future was on the line. But then, when had it ever not been? It seemed like it had been absolutely critical that I do everything right since I started earning a report card in first grade.
As the pain left my hands, I relaxed on the bed, feeling miserable. All I’d wanted was . . . what? To do one more spectacular dare with my best friend? To somehow hold on to Jake?
To somehow hold on to Jake.
The nurse had given me the impression Jake’s injuries were much like mine. So maybe he wouldn’t be leaving for California. The thought made me feel considerably less miserable.
“The doctor says you can’t do much of anything all summer. I suppose we’ll have to hire you a nurse. Your mother and I can’t just take off work to wait on you day and night.”
“No. I know that. Will the insurance cover a nurse?”
“Of course it will! Physical therapy too. Unlike most people’s insurance. Good insurance can save you millions, you know.” My dad sounded pleased with himself. He took insurance seriously. He was a financial planner, and believe me, it wasn’t just a day job for him. Sometimes I wondered if he’d ever thought about anything else in his life.
He rambled on about the importance of health insurance for a while. “We could afford a much better hospital, but they’re going to release you tomorrow morning anyway, so there’s no point in having you transferred.”
“No,” I said quickly. “I’m fine here.” I’d rather be where Jake was than in the most luxurious hotel in the world. “So, Dad . . . about this summer.”
My dad finally left, and all I wanted to do was see Jake. The hospital we’d been sent to was in a huge old building in Brooklyn. My father turned up his nose at the place, but it honestly wasn’t that bad. My private room on the second floor was decent except that Jake wasn’t in it. I had to charm the nurses ruthlessly before one told me that Jake was up on the tenth floor. She wouldn’t agree to take me up there, though. Said she was too busy and “maybe later.”
Right. Like I was going to wait. I’d try texting or calling him, but with my bandaged mitts, I couldn’t use my phone. And, anyway, I had to see for myself, in person, that he was okay. I got the nurse to put the IV on a rolling stand for me so I could go to the bathroom and sit up in the chair. After that, it was easy enough to sneak out of my room. I managed to operate the elevator buttons with my elbow. And there I was wandering around the hospital with a rolling IV stand I was steering with my forearm, my two hands taped up like Muhammad Ali, wearing nothing but a hospital gown, socks with that nonslip stuff on the bottom, and, thankfully, my underwear. Well, I’d done stupider things, that was for sure.
Unfortunately, the pain meds were stronger than I’d accounted for. Loopty-loop, man. It was fun to feel semi-stoned, but not helpful. I finally found room 1023. The door of the room was open, and I peeked in. It was a small room, dingy, with two beds. One bed was mostly hidden by a drawn curtain. Jake was in the bed closest to the door, and he was awake. The head of his bed was raised so he was almost in a sitting position. His cell phone was on his lap on top of the sheets, bracketed by his two bandaged hands. They looked an awful lot like mine. They lay limp on his thighs as he stared down at his phone morosely. There might even have been a hint of moisture in his eyes. He looked miserable, and my heart did a sick little throb. Oh Jake. Bro. Guilt gnawed at me.
“Hey,” I said, walking all the way into the room. I didn’t have any trouble mustering a contrite expression. Hell, even my stomach was contrite. It was doing its damnedest to hide behind my spine.
Jake glanced up at me sharply. When he saw it was me, he frowned, making me feel even worse. I knew Jake’s expressions like I knew the back of my hand—or had known the back of my hand; it might be scarred after this. Jake should look ready to punch me, but instead he appeared worried. About me. That was the kind of friend Jake was.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I shrugged, taking care not to move my hands where they hung at my side. “Doctor says I’ll heal, but I’m gonna be fucked up for a while. You? You have to have surgery or anything like that? Anything permanent? The nurses wouldn’t give me the details.” The cruel bastards.
He grimaced and looked down at his bandages. “All fingers accounted for and no surgery. At least, not unless I get infected or try to move around too much before it heals.”
That was basically what the doctor had told me too. Jake’s words should have been reassuring, but they weren’t. Even the thought that Jake could have been hurt that badly, that one of my stunts could have disfigured him for life, freaked me the fuck out. I felt woozy and had to sit down. There was a visitor chair against the wall. I hooked my foot around one leg and dragged it closer to his bed, then collapsed into the thing, taking care not to upset my wheeling IV rack.
“Wow. Andy. I’ve never seen you turn the color of cottage cheese before. You gonna faint?”
I shook my head, but I was in no state to joke about it. Dots of black swam in my vision, and somehow I’d disturbed my hands despite not using them. They hurt like a bitch. “It’s the drugs,” I managed, closing my eyes.
I sank back in the chair, waiting for the dizziness and pain to pass. I felt a little better just being in the same room as Jake. He wasn’t dead, and he didn’t hate me. Or, at least, he was still talking to me. Maybe the hate would come later. I wouldn’t blame him.
When I opened my eyes, though, Jake was looking at the wall, his face miserable again.
“You okay?” I asked. Stupid question.
He sniffed and shrugged, then laughed bitterly. “Fuck. I can’t even rub my nose.”
He sighed. “The nurse helped me call Sierra just now. She’s gonna talk to HR at Neverware for me. Hopefully they’ll delay my start date. And not, you know, fire me before I even start working there.”
“God, Jake. I’m so sorry.”
He said nothing, just stared at the wall. Now I knew why he looked so miserable. And my own sense of guilt multiplied like extras in a zombie movie. I swallowed. “What did Sierra say exactly?”
He gave me a dark look. “That I’m a fucking idiot. Which, you know, fair point.”
“She always did have a knack for stating the obvious,” I teased. He didn’t smile.
He worried his lip and stared at the wall some more, like maybe he was trying to conjure up a portal to a happier, simpler world. He was totally in Serious Jake mode.
Jake was the funniest guy I knew, but scratch that witty facade and you’d find a bone-deep worrier. He’d always taken things seriously, even back when we’d met in seventh grade. In high school he’d studied for tests and never ditched school. I’d done those things too—because if I hadn’t, I’d have had to deal with my old man. But school was easy for me, and I’d always managed to do the bare minimum to make the dean’s list and keep my folks happy. Jake’s focus had intensified once we got to college. We’d roomed together for four years at NYU, so I could attest to his grueling study habits. Dear God, the Saturday nights when I’d had to drag Jake out of the room by the scruff of his neck.
Shortly after Jake and I met, Jake’s dad left them. He’d been having an affair with some lady in his office, and she got pregnant, so he decided to divorce Jake’s mom and move in with this other woman, marry her, and raise the kid. Basically leaving family number one to start family number two.
I still remembered the night Jake’s mom dropped him off late at our place because shit was hitting the fan at their house. Lying in my bed in the dark, Jake choked out his biggest fear. Without his dad, he was the head of the family now. He would have to work—get a job that made good money so he could support himself and, if needed, take care of his mom and sister. No one would be there to be his safety net, to pay for things like college, to cover his bills if he couldn’t find work. He was completely alone.
I’d tried to tell him it wouldn’t be that way, that his dad would still be around, and his mom too. But Jake had utter conviction that he was completely responsible for himself, if not immediately, then right after high school. His parents didn’t have a whole lot of money anyway—not like my family did. Their house was modest. His mom was a dental technician and his dad an accountant for some tiny tax place in the mall. I’d always had everything I needed or wanted, and I figured I always would. So anything I could say to Jake sounded like platitudes. And we didn’t really talk about that kind of thing much anyway—emotions. Emotions sucked, and we mostly pretended we didn’t have them.
Jake worried, that was all. He’d studied hard to get honors in computer science so he could get a good job immediately. I knew how much the Neverware job meant to him.
I tried to reassure him. “They really liked you at the interview, you said. Plus Sierra works there. They won’t drop you because you got hurt. That would be totally shitty. It’s only a two-month delay.”
“Yeah,” Jake agreed with a sigh. “Sierra thought they’d probably just have me start the first of September since a bunch of people in the department are on vacation in August anyway. I hope they’re cool with that. She says as long as I’m there in time for her wedding on September twenty-third, she won’t kill me.”
I swallowed a lump. “I really am sorry, Jake.” I wished I could take it all back, that last stupid dare at the party. But life didn’t work that way.
He looked at me. He must have been able to see how bad I felt, because his face softened. “Hey, I didn’t have to agree to it. I thought it would work too.”
“I thought it made sense.”
“It totally made sense. Maybe the firecrackers were defective.”
I bit my lip, feeling sheepish. “I noticed Spanish on the fireworks box. If they were from Mexico, they might have had stronger powder than American fireworks. Hell, they were probably illegal.”
Jake blinked at me. “A fine time to bring that up, Sherlock.”
I grimaced. “We did freak a lot of people out though?”
“Oh yeah. We were definitely memorable,” Jake deadpanned with wide eyes. “We’ll probably make YouTube’s Darwin Awards.”
We stared at each other. Despite how genuinely bad I felt for screwing up Jake’s summer, and for both of us being injured, I couldn’t help but see how ridiculous the whole situation was, how ridiculous we were. So when Jake’s lips quirked up, my own laughter was right there. We started laughing and couldn’t stop.
Jake held up his hands as if he wanted to cover his mouth, like he usually did when he laughed. But, of course, he couldn’t, and I couldn’t wipe my eyes, so we just sat there howling and holding out our mummy hands, and that made us both laugh harder.
“Oh God, that was the . . . the s-stupidest thing . . . we’ve ever done!” Jake choked out, barely understandable between gales of laughter.
“Nah. The quarry coulda been way worse,” I managed.
Gradually our laughter died off. I could see it had cheered Jake up, but it didn’t take long for his brown eyes to once again fill with worry. I had an urge to sit on his bed and give him a hug or at least pat his shoulder. Which was so not going to happen, even if I had my hands.
“What about your internship?” Jake asked, as if he’d just remembered it.
“Not happening.” I shrugged.
“Sorry. That sucks for you too.”
“Yeah. To tell you the truth, my dad’s more upset about it than I am.”
Jake snorted. “God, the spreadsheets that man’s going to have to tweak.”
I laughed. He knew my dad well. We both sat there for a while. My hands lay on my lap like dead fish.
“The next eight weeks are gonna be hell.” Jake sighed. “My mom has to work. She can’t be babysitting me twenty-four seven, even if I could stand living at home, which I can’t. Sierra’s in California, and you’re as bad off as I am. There is no one else. You have Amber, but—”
“I don’t have Amber. She broke up with me over text last night. Said if I wanted to kill myself, I could do it without her.” I waggled my eyebrows at him.
His face struggled for a moment. And finally he managed to scrape up the fakest sympathetic expression ever. “I’m sorry?”
I laughed out loud. “Wow. You deserve an Emmy for that right there.” I mimicked a simpering voice. “I’m . . . sorreee?” turning up the end comically.
He rolled his eyes but grinned. “Yeah. Not really sorry. I tried though. I get bro points for that. But I am sorry it was over a stunt. And I know your dad liked her.”
“He did. But it’s not like she was the love of my life.”
Two longtime friends unexpectedly become lovers in a tender and amusing romantic take on the parable about heaven, hell, and long-handled spoons. . .Fans of queer erotic romance will surely enjoy these two young men discovering each other in the space they’ve carved out beyond the day-to-day.